by Andy Kissane
Puncher & Wattmann, 2014
Reviewed by ANNA KERDIJIK NICHOLSON
Radiance is Andy Kissane’s fourth collection of poetry. In my view this collection is a subtle change from, but consistent with, his previous books of poetry (1).
Kissane may be setting out his thesis in the poem ‘Summer’, in which he writes:
Poets are always searching for how things might fit together,
the tongue and groove illusion, the Fibonacci sequence
that can be found in both nature and the sonnet…(61)
The Fibonacci sequence is the mathematical term given to number sequences which progress like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. You add the penultimate number to the ultimate number to get the next number. It’s applied for computer algorithms and graphs. The sequence can also be seen in biological settings, such as branching in trees, the arrangement of leaves on a stem, an uncurling fern and the arrangement of a pine cone. (2)
It seems apt that Kissane refers to the Fibonacci sequence in his work. The sequencing, the attention to lineation and homogeneous stanza lengths, and the appreciation for the organic qualities of the natural world: all these things are present in this beguiling, deceptively off-hand, careful poetry.
In ‘The Bluetongue as an Answer to the Anxiety of Reputation’, Kissane writes:
When I take the poets on a tour of the garden,
Liz comes out from under a log, a life model
unveiling for a portrait. She’s happy enough to bask
in the warm afternoon sun and soak up the attention.
Why fret about where you are in the scheme of things?
Instead, cultivate the blissful solitude of a bluetongue,
grow fat and warm on the exposed rocks
that nature bequeaths you and occasionally open one eye
to gaze at the theatrical manoeuvrings of those
whose blood is thick and cold with unfulfilled ambition.
From ‘The Bluetongue as an Answer to the Anxiety of Reputation’ (36)
The documentary method brings its readers news from the world. In the book’s first poem, ‘Flight’, the poet gives a tantalising prescription: ‘take the afternoon off and head out past Kurnell/to Cape Solander. There, on the white sandstone cliffs/above the vast flood, look for humpbacks’. You are not above the sea or the ocean, you are above ‘the vast flood’ to witness ‘the corrugated whiteness of [the humpback’s] wobbly ascension,/the dark certainty and blazing glitter of its fall’. And in doing this, even though ‘you cannot name the endangered species/growing in this headland heath’, ‘you can close/your eyes, you decide to do this simple thing,/…/ aware now of this immense, unknown life/going on around you, within you, as the buffeting,/lunging wind picks you up and gives you wings.’
As Kissane writes, these are poems made as a result of ‘A radical attention to the world’(3).
The particular Kissane quality that results from his radical attention to the world is the manner in which he shows us what he has sensed. It is conversational, deeply versed in the Australian vernacular and delivered with a light touch. The reader is never far from a gritty humour and follows the long lines and chatty everyday-ness until they are deeply, unwittingly, in the numinous, the spiritual and the wondrous. The wings the wind gives to the whale-watcher at Cape Solander appear and reappear in many guises, as ‘two tiny bumps forming/near your shoulder blades, the beginning of wings, perhaps,’(4) and ‘when I first loved you and we soared over the harbour, our wings stretched out in effortless, astonishing flight’(5).
To give context to the ‘radical attention to the world’ quote:
… A radical attention to the world
leaves much that cannot be understood, let alone described
no matter the facility with language or craft.(6)
Kissane makes a terrific fist of both. These are elegant meditations, perhaps prayers, which have a touch of magic realism—by which I mean, and probably inaccurately, a little of the sub- and un-conscious—which move us organically toward an understanding. Kissane achieves this with detailed, nuanced description:
The mist seems to lift a little and I notice a woman
wearing an ankle-length dress and a wide-brimmed hat
walking beside me on the strand. I realise that I’m out
perambulating with Virginia Woolf who is talking to me.
“What are you doing in my Cornwall diary?” she asks.
“Well, at least you’re not one of my characters.
I’m sick of the way they think they understand themselves
better than I do. But if we’re going to spend any more time together,
you’ll have to stop that infernal overwriting. What did you do,
swallow a Latin thesaurus? Perambulating? Really, it’s too much.”
I nod at Virginia while dodging an incoming wave
that’s about to soak my Converse runners, but she’s already
striding up onto the headland where she says
we might catch the purple shadow of the pilchards
as it slides across the face of the sea like a blush.
From ‘Three Visions of Virginia Woolf’ (36)
The result, as this quote intends to demonstrate, is a poetry which is revelatory, humorous and intelligent.
The persona of these poems is a man in maturity, ensconced in suburbia, driving, cooking, parenting, arguing, writing; his social conscience is not jaded, he is able to understand what it is to love the women in his life, he’s not scared of being compassionate, not scared by long-dead writers (such as Virginia Woolf) communing with him, and he is attentive to the madness, the incomprehensibility and the deliciousness of what takes place inside and outside one’s head:
…people of hard muscle and freckled skin,
friends I’ve lost contact with, writers whose work I love,
all of them clamouring for fish soup and conversation,
as we suddenly stumble on what we really think
here on the balcony within the visible and vanishing air.
from ‘Prelude: Angophora Submerged in Fog’ (24)
Kissane understands and accepts his place in the world: ‘I perform a role/crucial for adolescent wellbeing: efficient driving.’ But his place in the world is also as witness and curator. He stays at the Canterbury Ice Rink, watches as his daughter goes off in her electric blue jacket to practices her Lutz:
I can see her as she concentrates on the long backward
glide, digs her toe pick down hard into the ice, lifts
and spins into the air, striving with her whole body
to land this difficult jump for the first time
from ‘Trip to the Ice Rink’ (61)
In his curatorial role, he selects material from his ‘radical attention to the world’ and he selects the quantity and manner in which it is presented. Kissane excels at using what he calls ‘the grit and gyprock of words’ (60). He fashions the poems into elegant patterns on the page and is fond of three-line stanzas. All this apparent ease of expression, rather like his daughter at the rink, is practised and wrought. He has divided the book into four sections and each section has within it a narrative of meaning, with the poems carefully sequenced to develop the thought. Within the poems, the flowing lines have careful line endings, the words at both end and beginning of the lines selected to bear the slight emphasis of their position in the line and there is plenty of enjambment to lead you (often literally) down the garden path, past the joke to ‘suddenly stumble on what we really think’, and to radiance. This poise, this hard work in selecting and arranging, brings a subtlety and structure to this mature poetry. It makes for a very elegant book.
The final part of the collection, The Sea of Tranquillity, is a long riff on the metaphor of Kissane being married to the Moon, which he personifies effectively.
‘Like an umbraphile, I drove a pale green Corolla
up the Hume Highway from Melbourne to Sydney
with my belongings in the boot and a rolled-up futon
crammed into the back seat. Arriving at a friend’s house
in Croydon Park, The Moon opened the front door.
I saw shadow bands, a single intense diamond
and a fluttering corona pulsing around her outline.
When she stepped forward, I realised she’d been blocking
the light in the dim hallway. She smiled and her top lip
glowed with these red spots, but when I blinked
they were gone. She wasn’t even wearing lipstick.
I was launched into blissful orbit, stranded in the trackless
heavens, unsure of the right angle of attack,
how to come down to earth without burning up.’
From ‘Total Eclipse’ (67)
The Sea of Tranquillity brings together the components of Kissane’s very particular style which are at work in this collection: his magic realism; his ability to describe love and adoration, warts and all; his humour; his long narrative line and his unveiling of radiance/Radiance. The collection as a whole is slender, elegant and well-constructed.
1. Facing the Moon (Five Islands Press, 1993); Every Night They Dance (Five Islands Press, 2000); Out to Lunch (Puncher & Wattmann, 2009)
3. From ‘Summer’, p61
4. From ‘Beloved’, p31
ANNA KERDIJIK NICHOLSON‘s second book, Possession, received the 2010 Victorian Premier’s Prize and Wesley Michel Wright Prize. In 2011 it was shortlisted for the ACT Judith Wright Prize and the NSW Kenneth Slessor Prize for poetry. She trained as a lawyer, lives in Sydney and is on the board of the national poetry organisation, Australian Poetry.
Mark O’Flynn has published four collections of poetry, most recently Untested Cures, (2011). His poetry and short fiction have appeared in many Australian journals as well as overseas. His novels include Grassdogs (2006), and The Forgotten World, (Harper Collins, 2013). He has also published the comic memoir False Start. He has also written for the theatre, including the popular play Eleanor and Eve. He lives in the Blue Mountains. A collection of short fiction, White Light, was published by Spineless Wonders Publishing, 2013.
Jerry Stand Up
Remember that you have chance and possibility
Jeanette looks up from her screen to give me a funny kind of look.
‘Jerry. Jerry Burgoyne. Have you seen him?’
‘I thought I saw him earlier,’ she says.
Jeanette’s heavy-handed eye shadow resembles the lingering bruise of a couple of black eyes, like over-fried eggs. Her ear rings are Christmas decorations, even though it is July.
‘I haven’t seen him,’ I say.
‘Maybe that was yesterday,’ she says, unsure.
Jeanette’s cubicle is decorated with photos of her pets: a tortoise-shell cat and two dogs. The dogs, a Dachshund and a Doberman, have ribbons tied about their ears to make them look like cartoon characters of dogs, perhaps at a rodeo. They look rather sad and humiliated about it. There are no photos of her children. I do not know if she has any. She turns back to the figures she is poking into the keyboard with bright pink nails.
I take my piece of paper to the next booth where Ken McKendry is doing something similar. His booth, comprised of purple office partitions, is decorated with pictures of his family whom he never talks about. Ken keeps pretty much to himself, for better or worse. In the cubicle sound is muffled, like being in a church made of fibre glass or builders insulation. It makes you want to whisper. His personalised coffee mug stands on the desk, at the moment filled with pencil shavings like the fins of tropical goldfish.
‘Have you seen Jerry?’ I ask, shaking my leaf of foolscap. All it needs is a signature and my work here is done.
‘Not since this morning.’
‘Are you sure it was this morning? I haven’t seen him all day.’
‘Er, no,’ says Ken. ‘Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him at all.’
I glance at the spreadsheet on his computer, but it doesn’t mean much to me.
‘How’s the family Ken?’
‘Fine, thanks Geoff.’
His return to his typing I take as my cue to leave. His fingers, minus the pink, sound like a stampede of miniature horses over the tundra, or perhaps birds in the ceiling.
I take my document and move down the corridor. No one has seen Jerry. Some people think they have but they can’t be sure.
‘Maybe he’s gone for coffee,’ suggests Trudy, in stores, but I find this idea preposterous.
‘Maybe he’s in the dunny with the runs,’ offers Dale, the office clown, from HR.
The security guy doesn’t know who I’m talking about.
‘Maybe he didn’t come in today,’ says Mrs. Hyland, our supervisor, who is preoccupied with getting her accounts ready for an audit. ‘Maybe he has another unexpected funeral?’
There’s some sort of snide tone in her voice, which I don’t respond to. Her face looks red and thwarted, like a wrinkled balloon with half the air leaked out of it.
‘Jerry was very rude to me the other day, which I didn’t appreciate, and you can tell him that from me when you find him.’
I refrain from pursuing this issue. Would the Jerry I know do such a thing? It’s the first I’ve heard of it.
I go to the toilets and thrust my head in the door.
My voice echoes, as in an empty railway station. There is an intense silence, as if someone has taken a sudden breath and is holding it.
‘He’s not here,’ a voice comes from the end stall.
‘Is that you Jerry?’
‘No. It’s Mike.’
‘Sorry. Are you all right?’
‘Of course,’ he says rather indignantly. ‘Why wouldn’t I be all right?’
I leave, wondering what if Jerry is in the Ladies? What if he’s injured somewhere, waiting for the cleaner to find him?
The lady in the cafeteria, Mavis I think her name is, hasn’t seen Jerry either. Maybe he has stepped out for a breath of fresh air? Or is eating his sandwiches in the gardens across the road. I rack my brains to think where Jerry might have got to. I ring his mother. Jerry still lives at home, (or rather has moved back home again after a disastrous dalliance with Sonia from the pay office).
Mrs. Burgoyne says she did see him off this morning bright and early.
‘He looked so smart,’ she says, ‘wearing his nice new suit.’
She expects him home at six. It’s Thursday. She’s cooking rissoles. Jerry is forty three and he is still eating rissoles cooked by his mother. That will certainly show Sonia where she went wrong. I ask if she would mind if I come round to see Jerry this afternoon – evening really, as I have to stay at the office until five. There is something important I need to ask him.
She says, ‘That would be fine dear.’
After work I stop by the pub – The Cricketers Balls – where Jerry and I sometimes meet for a drink, also to disparage the gossip and office politics that somehow surrounds us and infects the culture of the working day. The pub is decorated with deep plum-coloured drapes that absorb the light and muffle the convivial chit chat of two or more friends after work. He isn’t there. The barman hasn’t seen him and, in fact, there is no one here I know apart from Sonia, over in a corner who gives me a glare, and I quickly take my leave
I drive to Jerry’s house in Glenferrie, but he still hasn’t returned. Mrs. Burgoyne lets me in. Her hair is tightly curled like a piece of brain coral. She thinks for a moment that maybe Jerry has gone to bed, he’s been feeling peaky.
‘Let’s look, shall we?’
When we open the door it is pitch dark in the musky room. She turns on the light but the bed is empty. She crosses the minefield of the floor, and opens the curtains, however even with the extra light spilling in the bed is still empty.
‘Is he happy at his work Mrs. Burgoyne?’ I ask. ‘Apparently he was rude to Mrs. Burgoyne.’
‘Do you know Geoff, I don’t know the answer to that. He used to be up bright as a sparrow, singing in the shower. But he hasn’t been doing that so much lately.’
‘What would he sing?’
‘Oh, songs… Come to think of it he hasn’t been running so much either. He used to go for a jog after work every day. He’s terribly fit. And then he bought himself a new suit. I thought it was to impress that Sonia. She’s a piece of work. But I was wrong about that.’
‘Perhaps that’s where he is now? Running.’ I suggest trying to fill the awkward, unexplained absence that occupies Jerry’s room. The air is stale. Private air. She tries to pull the door closed. I notice on his bedside table a book I cannot read the name of, I think it might be Chinese, and a little knotted piece of string. To an unfamiliar eye such as Mrs. Burgoyne’s it might look like nothing more than a sex toy, a garrotte for Jerry’s penis for instance; but I know it is for him to practice his affirmations, a ritual he has enjoyed for many years. I have seen him at it in his office cubicle muttering under his breath:
‘Every day in every way I am getting better and better.
Every day in every way I am getting better and better.’
However I have no time to explain this to Mrs. Burgoyne. She asks if I would like to stay and eat some rissoles but, tempting as this is, I have to get home to my own tea on the other side of the city, a far cry from rissoles let me tell you.
I ask if she can get Jerry to ring me when he gets home. He has my number.
He doesn’t call.
The next morning I phone Mrs. Burgoyne who informs me that Jerry is still asleep. He must have been late in. He’s a grown man, she can’t dictate what time he comes home.
‘Oh no,’ she corrects herself, ‘I think he’s in the shower.’
‘Is he singing?’ I ask.
‘I can’t hear dear. The radio’s on, and I’m a little deaf.’
At the office I visit Jeanette in her cubicle. The air smells of Spring Mist.
‘Have you seen Jerry?’
She gives me a funny look. Her two brown eyes like an astonished owl’s. Christmas in her ears.
‘Not since the last time you asked.’
‘I need him to sign this report.’
‘Sorry, I haven’t seen him.’
The cat and the two dogs look at her from the cubicle wall, framed by the unlikely stage props of a wagon wheel, a hay bale. Am I the only person who cares that Jerry has vanished? Ken McKendry hasn’t seen Jerry either. Someone told me a long time ago, maybe it was Jerry, that in the photo of his family on the wall one of the children had passed away and that is the reason he doesn’t like to talk about them. Well that’s probably a pretty valid reason, I told Jerry, if it was Jerry.
‘How’s the family, Ken?’ I hear myself asking.
Trudy in stores hasn’t seen Jerry.
Dale in HR hasn’t seen him either.
Nor has the security guy.
It’s like he’s just turning the corner in the street ahead of me, disappearing from the tangent of my eye. It’s like he has vanished into the ether
Mrs. Hyland, who is getting her accounts ready for an audit, can’t remember if she’s seen Jerry or not. She puts down her pen. Her red face looks like a – like a – I can’t remember what it is it looks like.
‘What’s on the piece of paper Geoff?’ she asks.
‘What piece of paper?’
‘That piece of paper you’re carrying around.’
‘I need Jerry’s signature. In order to finalise this report.’
‘What’s on it? Show me.’
‘It’s all right.’
‘I don’t want to bother you.’
Reluctantly I hand it over. I can sense the others have been talking behind my back again.
‘Geoff, there’s nothing on it.’
‘It must still be on the printer.’
‘Why do you need Jerry so badly?’
‘I need him to sign it. To finalise things. He’s missing. Aren’t you concerned?’
‘Well Geoff,’ she looks at me strangely over the top of her glasses, ‘yes I am concerned. You keep looking for him, and when I finish here I’ll come and help you. We’ll get to the bottom of this once and for all.’
I back out the door. She doesn’t know where Jerry is. She hasn’t got a clue. She says:
‘You just keep looking.’
I don’t know which way to turn.
Ben Walter is a Tasmanian writer whose fiction has appeared in Overland, Island, Griffith Review and The Lifted Brow. His debut poetry manuscript, Lurching, was shortlisted in the 2013 Tasmanian Literary Prizes.
Winding the Land
I had felt a skin of regret at being compelled by party policy and the tidal whims of my constituency to vote against the private member’s bill tabled by David Beveridge, stemming as it did from the now-infamous arguments attributed to my former son-in-law, Ian Davey. Ian’s motives in marrying Sally had always been cloudy to me, forced as I was to acknowledge her lack of charm or beauty, but until the revelations I’d always felt a margin of gratefulness to him, tempered by concerns for his dynastic ambitions.
While Ian never sought the endorsement of the Tasmanian people, nor made inroads into my own convictions, Beveridge, the youngest member for Denison, so came under his sway as to table the bill that was to founder so spectacularly. I have searched my memories of dinner parties and summer barbecues, and I can’t recall facilitating the introduction; what’s important is that they crossed paths, and Beveridge was in the mood to make a difference.
The essence of Davey’s arguments centred on the economic and social benefits that had flowed from the Tasmanian innovation of daylight saving. Allowing for an extra hour of evening sunlight had minimised electricity usage and widening the evenings, bringing a little of the Mediterranean to our idiosyncratic local summers. Could this revolution, which had gone on to fiddle global clock faces, be applied to space as it had been to time?
How was the land to be moved? So scoffed a Braddon sinecure from my own side. Did Beveridge propose to up the ante on continental drift? Did he imagine the land would up and beg, roll over like a dachshund? Davey was quick to explain through his elected mouthpiece that just as daylight saving had not altered the movement of the Earth around the Sun or the planet’s rotation on its axis – merely our conventions relating to it – the same could be attempted with respect to our experience of space. Was the entire population of the state to be moved to the east, the west, the south or the north over the first weekend in October, the first weekend in April? Would this lead to seaboard populations sleeping in dinghies and those nestled in the mountain valleys breakfasting on the peaks of the Wellington Range? Yes, Beveridge intoned triumphantly in parliament, that’s exactly what he was proposing – he was delighted that the honourable members had understood.
Ian was insistent, that far from attempting to dry the southern winds or cool sweaty shoulders through the brief, unexpected heat of summer days – this was popular whimsy, incidental to his goals – he was advancing the proposal as a spur to the development and innovation. Imagine, he would say, a whole second layer of infrastructure. Consider the policy revolutions for zoning and land ownership, the redistribution of wealth, energy flexibility, housing design and material efficiencies. Think of the growth of the construction industry, of the community blending and growth in social capital, of the tourism branding. Who wouldn’t want to spend and invest in the new, overwritten Tasmania?
“Just think,” he would insist, “an entirely fresh start, but one that would co-exist with all that belongs to us today. It would be a model for us. An exemplar. If anyone can sway opinion on this, you can. Support David’s bill.”
The relationship we shared rendered any help I could have offered implicitly nepotistic; it certainly wouldn’t have done me any favours in the party room. Beveridge’s own side were unwilling to support the bill; it was obvious to insiders that he had fought and lost a series of unbalanced debates. When it came to the vote the proposal was predictably defeated. Beveridge resigned his membership of the party and was bundled out of parliament at the next election; the people of Tasmania taking its revenge on the wrong sort of independent.
But it was only when the national papers picked up the story that the matter took the turn that it did. Naturally, the analysis was as critical of the policy framework as the local tabloids, but their aptitude for digging led to the scandal that was to bring the family apart, and for which I am willing to share little responsibility. It had nothing to do with Beveridge, who had relocated to Melbourne to work in light consulting; it was my son-in-law who became the object of the nation’s ghoulish fascination.
It wasn’t that he had decided to embody his principles, moving five kilometres to the east at the beginning of every October, pacing out the exact distance and making a nuisance and object lesson of himself. Sleeping on the roof of an unfortunate retiree’s house, developing his status as an idiotic cause célèbre. Features on the more idle current affair shows, updates buried in the inner rings of newspapers. Nor did he radicalise an allied cause, swivelling day and night and altering the clocks by twelve hours. I was expecting something like this, a strident spectacle swiftly forgotten, a depressed, insomniac tendency justified after the fact by adaptations of his theory.
He simply seemed to disappear. Surprise gave way to genuine concern when we also lost contact with Sally; after several weeks with no response to our phone calls, no answer to our knocking at their West Hobart home, I made a call to an acquaintance in the force who uncovered the scandal just as the major newspapers began to pick up the story.
What really caught the national interest was the tattoos, tattoos that voluntarily or otherwise had been inflicted on Sally’s body. The maps overlying graphs, plans engraved against diagrams, casinos in Cremorne and brick flats jutting from the Organ Pipes. And images of Ian and Sally’s own possessions, their wedding gifts, displaced into forests and other people’s homes, crudely drawn and redrawn, carved with needles and ball-point pens, layers and layers repeated. When they finally found her, emblazoned in blue and white like dense china, she was unable to stop quivering at the thought of further redirection and displacement. What had steered Ian’s ideas in this gruesome direction? Why had he decided to map and remap his wife, my daughter?
The images left a wake of speculation and fascinated outrage; even now I am burdened by memories that set me searching of fresh appalled responses, the casting of blame and the passing of moods to the friend across the road, the stranger in Buenos Aires. I stay awake well into the night, the outline of my wife waiting at the study door, mopping myself in the outrage and confusion of others, as Sally sleeps quietly in the spare room. She has finally settled calmly in our home, quite content remaining where she is.
June Glasgow is an Australian poet and writer of short stories. She is also the co-editor of a sporadically circulated zine, Bir & June (see http://www.birandjune.com for her unprinted works). In her spare time, she paints and enjoys studying animal behaviours. She is currently residing in Adelaide with her cat.
A Tail’s Length
He sees her in her bed.
She sleeps with her legs parted slightly, her belly voluptuous and full, her nipples placed daintily round and stiff as flower pods on the icing of a cupcake.
Fat pigeons fly in flocks next door, cooing, grooming, shitting on the tiles.
His head is held high as he peers over the bed. He stands behind the door half ajar, careful not to wake her. If he could touch her, he would.
In his head, he often wonders what she would look like fur-less. Or if her fur takes on a different color. Black gives her lips a mystic sheen, which he desires in the female sex. He thinks of the soft underside of her arms when he humps the fleece blankets at night. He humps it until the image of her, an antique Egyptian Queen, tall, agile, majestically black, fades into cold clouds on a clear autumn evening.
But here she is, open, sweet, so unlike her when she is awake. He wants to be just slightly closer so he could catch the scent off her tail that dangles off the edge of the bed. He tries to place his paws as lightly as feathers as he treads the floor of wood.
When she is awake, she never allows him so close. She knows even eunuchs can rape. The dark alleys in the Eastern suburbs where she strayed as a kitten taught her that. Gender is a disadvantage.
So she disassociates herself from others, lives the life of a celibate god, and dreams of a paradise of birds. A door shaped as a sesame seed will open unto such a world. Only in death could she experience true solitude, in which no gender, no sex will disturb the spiritual, the intellect, allowing full and thorough meditation and understanding of the self and the universe that surrounds. Sleep, to her, is as close as it gets. She is only nine but she feels that she has seen too much.
And he, one of the many that come into her life, leer salivating at her in a distance, stands in the doorway like a fool. Seven years younger and almost reaching his prime, he does not know her philosophy of life. He dwells rather simply between his leopard print, proud and a little reserved. He is never comfortable with how high-pitched his voice is when he doesn’t consciously lower the tone. He sees her, yet he does not see her fully. A part of what he sees is a mirror of himself.
He knows if he gets any closer, he will try to rape her again. But a part of him does not know yet, so he slouches his back, lowers his tail, crouches on his fore and back paws, spinning towards her light-headedly.
If he is too close, he will risk losing an eye, or a corner of his ear. Another grey, long-haired female who was much bigger than him and more experienced than his had taught him that last summer in a herb garden. Now, he still has not learned.
Driven by the same dreams: her whiskers, her strong tail that throws her scent of musk upon his wet nose, her gait ever so seductive even though she tries so deliberately hard to be as disinteresting and unattractive as possible, he still comes prowling in her siesta. She is targeted whenever her guards are down. But her guards are never down.
The sun that blinds him is a bonus to him. Fat pigeons cheer. He seizes her in dreams and gives her what he thinks is his love, while she plucks out something sticky— an eyeball of his.
Navid Sabet is a writer of fiction, poetry, and essays. He teaches creative writing at the University of Canberra, where he is also undertaking a PhD in cultural studies.
I remember the really bad day. It was Monday and I hate Mondays and Mum asked me why I hate Mondays but I don’t know why. Dad prays on Mondays but he’s meant to pray every day I think that’s what Mum says but he doesn’t pray every day since we moved here. He doesn’t let me pray with him anymore because he says people don’t understand what praying is here and before I started school he said I could choose any name to call myself and I said I already have a name but he said I need a new one. He got me a dog from the RSPCA well he got it for my sister her name is Afareen but at school they call her Annie because that’s the name she called herself when Dad asked her and me to choose a new name. Dad doesn’t like dogs but he said Australian kids like to play with animals and we should also play with animals.
At recess Lucy said her dad’s country hated my dad’s country because they lost at soccer but I didn’t get it because her dad’s country and my dad’s country are the same things. I don’t know what she’s talking about but I think she doesn’t like me and that makes me really sad. I don’t know what soccer is but I won’t ask because I don’t think she likes me and she will think I am stupid and I think she is really pretty she has yellow hair and freckles and really shiny eyes. Sometimes I think if I had yellow hair and freckles then she would like me more. I like freckles I think they are pretty and cool they are like stars and I think Lucy should show her freckles at show and tell time. My hands get all sweaty before show and tell when I don’t have anything to show and tell or even when I do have something to show and tell they still get sweaty. If I had something cool to show and tell something cool like freckles then Lucy could not hate me so much and think I’m stupid but sometimes I think I’m stupid too. Sometimes I think I’m stupid because Mum says things to me in Persian like on the really bad day and she told me the dog died but she said it in Persian and I didn’t know what she was saying.
Dad got the dog from the RSCPA for Afareen but Afareen doesn’t like dogs because the dog bit her on the leg and now she’s scared of dogs so then the dog was mine after that. I think if I didn’t have a dog at all then the really bad day wouldn’t be really bad because if I didn’t have him then he couldn’t go away but then I get sad because I love him but when I think about him I get really really sad. Mum said dogs live for many years but my dog was only less than three years but it got sick I know that because Mum told me on the really bad day. He had big black eyes and they were shiny and I could see my face in them because they were so shiny. They were as shiny as a photo and then I remember on the really bad day in a second or less than a second they weren’t shiny anymore and they were like a poster that isn’t shiny like a photo. I couldn’t see myself in them when they were like a poster. When they were shiny like a photo I could see myself in them I was looking at someone through a window at night and then they closed up the curtains and then they were not shiny and they were really dry like a poster and I couldn’t see myself anymore because they were too dry. I don’t like that word.
Recess was over and we were on the floor and I was in the corner and there was a stapler on the floor in the corner and I picked it up and played with it behind my back even though I knew that Mrs. Drew would be angry if I was playing with the stapler when show and tell is on. I knew she would be angry and say go and see the principal but I wouldn’t care because then I wouldn’t have to do show and tell when I didn’t have anything to show and tell. She would be more angry because we’re not allowed to use the stapler even if it’s not show and tell time and even if we are doing arts and crafts. It’s a big kid stapler and most of the time it’s not on the floor it’s on her desk. Jeremy is doing show and tell and that means I’m next because he sits next to where I sit and he’s showing his Pokémon. My hands are really sweaty and the stapler is slipping around in my hands and I want to go home and ask Dad what soccer is and also ask him if his country is different to Lucy’s Dad’s country and if they are different then I want to ask him to stop beating Lucy’s Dad’s country in the soccer and then maybe she won’t hate me anymore. She’s really pretty I think the prettiest person I’ve ever seen except Mum and I think I want to marry her. She showed a doll and a necklace for show and tell. The doll was pretty it was like her but it was really small and plastic and the necklace was pretty too she got it from her grandpa.
One time last term I had a sore finger because Mum said the skin was too dry and it peeled off and it hurt but I thought I could bring it for show and tell because I never have anything to show and tell but I thought I could show my hurt dry skin. But when I got in front of the class to show and tell I saw my skin was all better and Luke said that I was lying and he said I never had any hurt dry skin and I cried in front of the whole class. That’s the only time I had dry skin like that and I still hate that word and I still hate Mondays. That word makes me thirsty and I always think about that word when I’m in bed and I have to get up and walk to the bathroom and get water from the tap that’s in there. The water tastes different from the tap in the bathroom than from the kitchen and I think that water is good for dogs because he liked that water better than his water from the bowl. His water from the bowl had biscuits in it and maybe that’s why he didn’t like it but then why did he put the biscuits in there all the time? His bowl was yellow and a bit green and it said XYLO on it but you don’t say it like that you say it like ZILO because X is a funny letter. It’s funny too because XYLO isn’t his real name his real name is XYLOPHONE but we called him XYLO because it’s shorter than XYLOPHONE and XYLOPHONE isn’t a name for a dog it’s a thing and dogs aren’t things dogs are dogs that’s why we don’t eat them. But we eat chickens and cows does that mean they are things? Dad eats bacon on his sandwich even though he’s not supposed to because it’s dirty but he says it’s good for him but I hate it and so does Mum but I don’t hate it because it’s dirty I hate it because I love pigs and I don’t think we should hurt them because pigs are not things. XYLO isn’t a thing he is a dog but I called him XYLOPHONE when I was only three and I didn’t know that dogs and things are different things. When we were finding a name for XYLO Mum says that we were looking at a book for names but it was just a normal book with words and pictures and no names and Mum said I pointed to XYLOPHONE in the book but then she said XYLOPHONE is a thing and we need a name for the dog and not a thing but then I cried and so she said yes. Now I know what things are I know that things are things like shoes and toys and keys. Dad bought me a keyring when he went back to Iran but I didn’t have any keys to put on the keyring and I lost it and I missed it for a while. Keyrings are things too and I hate Mondays and I don’t have anything for show and tell and I miss XYLO.
Jeremy is nearly finished his show and tell and that means I’m next because Jeremy sits next to me and now my hands are really sweating all over and the stapler is slippery in my hands because of the sweat. I closed the stapler on my finger and it hurt so much more than when I fell off my bike but I didn’t move because then I knew I’d be in so much trouble even though I didn’t care because I had nothing to show and tell but then I saw my finger and it was bleeding right next to the fingernail and there was a staple inside my finger and it was bleeding down into my hand. Mrs. Drew said my name and she said it was my turn and my heart was beating really fast and there was lots of blood on my finger and on my hand lots of blood and lots of sweat. I went up to the front to do my show and tell and Mrs. Drew looked at my finger and all the blood and all the sweat and she fell over onto the floor.
On Tuesday I was late to school because Mum said she wanted me to sleep in and that I would go in to school late even though she had to go to work. I missed assembly but I don’t care that I missed it because assembly is boring and the school hall is really cold in the morning. Mum dropped me off out the front because she was in a hurry but she said that I could call her from the office if my finger hurt too much but I said it was okay. The staple came out on the way home and Mum put some cold stuff on my finger that made it hurt more and then less after a little while. Then she put a bandage around it and kissed it because she does that when I hurt myself. Dad told me that Lucy’s dad went for the Australian team who isn’t the best team and he said that Lucy’s Dad needs to know that they’re not the best team but I’m not going to say that to Lucy. I walked past the office lady on my way to the classroom but she didn’t see me because I’m really short. When I got to the classroom the door was open and I could hear everyone being really loud and I knew Mrs. Drew was going to say quiet down everyone or something like that but she didn’t say anything. When I got to the classroom everyone was doing arts and crafts and I saw that Mrs. Drew wasn’t even there which is funny because she’s always in the classroom even at recess I think maybe she sleeps there too but that’s funny because there’s no toilet there. Luke saw me he was playing lego and he ran over to me and he wanted to see my finger and I showed him my finger and my bandage and he said WOW and put his arm on my shoulder like he was my friend. I sat down at my desk and then something fell over my shoulder onto the desk and I saw that it was a card and it was pink and it said I HOPE YOUR FINGER GETS BETTER SOON and then it said FROM LUCY. At recess Lucy asked me to play soccer because she wants to make a really good team and she thinks I might be really good at soccer because I’m Iranian. I told her that I didn’t know how to play soccer but she said it’s okay we can play any game I like. She told me that Lucy isn’t her real name and her real name is Lacramioara and it’s from Romania and she asked me if I could call her that instead of Lucy and I said yes.
Luke Johnson lectures in Creative Writing and Literary Theory at the University of Technology, Sydney, and the University of Wollongong. His stories have appeared in numerous journals, and in 2014 he was shortlisted for the Josephine Ulrick Prize. He has a PhD in Lacanian Psychoanalytic Theory and Creative Writing from UTS.
A Small Dead Thing
Each morning Raymond’s father passes Raymond in his car on his way through to work. Often he slows down to call to the boy to hurry along now or to remember to look both ways. There is only one road between the house and the school anyway and of course Raymond knows all about looking both ways and not dawdling: he is seven years old now.
This morning when Raymond’s father leaves for work he drives from the house right past the front gates of the school without passing Raymond. When he reaches his work he calls the house to tell Raymond’s mother that he did not pass the boy on the way.
‘You did not pass him?’ Raymond’s mother says.
‘I’m sure it does not mean anything,’ Raymond’s father says, altering the tone in his voice.
‘God, what does it mean you did not pass him then, Harold?’ Raymond’s mother is not taken in by adjusted voice tones.
‘At most it means you should give the school a call to make certain he’s there. Of course he’s there. That’s all it means.’
‘God,’ Raymond’s mother says. ‘God, Harold.’
‘Look, Gloria, I can’t talk. It’s hell in here. Just ring me back if he hasn’t arrived at the school. Okay? I’m sure it does not mean anything. Most likely it means he took a shortcut through the creek again. I’m sure that’s all it means. I can’t talk. It’s busy as hell. Just ring me back, okay?’
Raymond’s father hangs up the phone and leaves Raymond’s mother standing alone in the kitchen with the handpiece rested on the top of her shoulder and her stomach feeling like it is full of coals.
It is no big thing, Raymond’s mother assures herself, putting the phone back on the receiver at her end. Raymond only left twenty-five minutes ago. Twenty-five minutes ago Raymond was standing right here in this very kitchen and surely that counts for something. Harold has it: he has wandered down through the creek again. You remember the last time he wandered down through the creek and came upon the carcass of that dead Rottweiler and it was more than an hour and a half before anyone found him. That has to count for something. Remember how you worried that day? And for what? Boys and their curiosities. That has to count for something and that makes two things that count for something.
Raymond’s mother decides that she will wait before calling the school. She tells herself that if she calls in a fluster she will only increase her chances of hearing bad news. She sits at the kitchen table instead and puts her fingernail in one of the chip marks Raymond made with a hammer and nail when he was three years old and the table was brand new. Raymond is seven years old now and she is sure that must count for something also. Three is enough to stop counting, she tells herself. Sitting at the table, she picks at the chip mark until a little piece of grey laminex breaks away and cuts open the skin beneath her fingernail. The piece stays embedded beneath her fingernail and the blood drips out through the tiny gap and down the print-side of her finger and she blots it on the table like a child making finger drawings. She decides then that she will call the school. The blood is a good distraction for her to call the school and not bring bad luck upon the situation and she recognises this much.
Raymond’s mother has the school’s phone number stored in the phone’s speed dial. It is stored under Ray’s School. It is such a little piece of paper to have to write on, she thinks. She thinks like this because neither her nor Raymond’s father ever call Raymond Ray. Their neighbour Mr Langford calls Raymond Ray and the policeman who found him playing with that dead Rottweiler that other time called him Ray but they are the only two people Raymond’s mother has ever heard calling him Ray. She feels angry at herself for writing it Ray when she would not have said it Ray. In future you should write it like you would say it, she scolds herself. Ray-mond. The fingerprints on the table look to her like paw prints, as if a cat has come in through the window and shot across its surface. She remembers a story about birds coming in through a window once and it frightens her.
When the phone picks up at the school it is not the regular secretary but a woman calling herself Mrs Stokes. Raymond’s mother knows the regular secretary quite well and always calls her Mrs Lamb. Raymond’s mother calls all of her seniors by their polite titles. She cannot help it. Mr Langford is only seven years her senior and she calls him by his polite title, while Raymond’s father calls him Teddy. Raymond’s mother has never heard of this Mrs Stokes before.
‘May I speak with Mrs Lamb please?’ she asks.
‘I’m sorry,’ Mrs Stokes says, ‘Margaret no longer works Mondays. I’m her replacement for Mondays and Thursdays. I’m sure I can help you all the same. Is it to do with the new canteen roster?’
‘I am Raymond’s mother,’ Raymond’s mother says. She feels herself starting to cry then and she quickly hangs up the phone and puts her finger in her mouth and bites down hard until she can taste the blood coming out through the tiny cut beneath her fingernail. The piece of laminex stays lodged in there and when she pushes her tongue against the area to taste the blood more strongly, she feels the sharp edge of the laminex and makes the tip of her tongue stiff and pushes against it thinking that it will either pierce through the tip of her tongue or be pushed far enough down into her finger that nothing will be able to touch it anymore anyway. Neither happens and finally she takes her finger out of her mouth and is surprised to see that there is not any blood on it. The piece of laminex looks clean, like a shard of fibreglass, and she easily picks it away by pinching it between the thumbnail and index fingernail on her opposite hand. When she has pulled it away the finger starts to bleed again. The blood is thin and bright.
She calls Raymond’s father back at work then. She knows it is not good luck to be calling around like this and in this state with her finger bleeding like this. She thinks that any hope of putting herself out of this state seems distant and calls him anyway. She thinks if she squats herself down on the ground the balance will make up for something lost. ‘What is lost?’ she asks herself aloud. She is trying pragmatism. ‘What is lost, Gloria?’ She asks with her name and everything. Waiting for Raymond’s father to pick up she wonders why she let him convince her that it was okay for Raymond to walk by himself to school when he is only seven years old—even if there is only one road to cross. She wonders why she let herself get convinced so easily over such an important matter and why she always calls Mr Langford Mr Langford except for when Raymond’s father is around calling him Teddy and then she starts calling him Teddy too and she wonders why she lets herself get convinced like that. She thinks of a crow unbuttoning a school shirt with its black and lacquered beak. She puts her other hand on the top of her head and thinks murder is a horrible collective noun.
After nine rings Raymond’s father answers the phone at work and Raymond’s mother tells him what has just happened. She tells him about this Mrs Stokes woman whom she has never even met and she tells him about the way she started to cry and the cut on her finger and she can hear her own voice and knows the way it must sound and she says, ‘Why did I let you convince me that it would be alright for him to walk by himself when he is only seven, for God’s sake, Harold?’
Raymond’s father listens to her and assures her that it is probably not at all like she is making out and that it is probably all quite okay. He tells her that she should call the school again and speak to this Mrs Stokes properly this time. He says ‘damn carburettor’ right in the middle of explaining all of this to her and when she asks him what damn carburettor is supposed to mean for God’s sake, he says, ‘Hang on a minute, Gloria. I need somebody to get this damn carburettor over to Clarke’s in the next twenty minutes.’ She asks him if he is talking to her and he says, ‘Listen, it’s hell, Gloria.’ He says, ‘I’m sure this Mrs Stokes is a shipshape woman. You should give her a call and then give me a call back when you know something for certain. Alright?’ Shipshape is the expression Raymond’s father used the time Raymond was lost in the creek for an hour and half playing with that dead Rottweiler. Shipshape police constable: find him in no time, Gloria, you’ll see. Everything will be shipshape. Slap.
After speaking to Raymond’s father this second time Raymond’s mother puts on her cardigan and shoes and goes out of the house. She does not put socks on her feet and her shoes are the kind a person pulls on and off without bothering to untie the laces. As she walks along the footpath toward the school she keeps the cardigan pulled closed across her front with one hand, so as to hide her nightshirt. She starts to cry again and walks faster and there are lots of cars driving along the road.
At the vacant block Raymond’s mother stops. She looks to the back of the block where the corrugated iron fence has been kicked in and one of the panels is missing altogether. It is the entranceway to the creek. The vacant block is full of rubbish. Most of it has been set fire to. There was a house on the block once and it was set fire to by a lightning strike. Midway between Raymond’s mother and the entranceway to the creek is the skeleton of a burnt mattress. The black springs make it look like something used for trapping animals. Staring past the mattress Raymond’s mother can only picture that dead Rottweiler now, dumped with its insides coming through the side of its belly, dumped in the creek because dumping fees at the local tip were too high, or because the person who was driving the car felt too guilty to try and find the owner so it might be put to rest beneath a favourite tree or ruined flowerbed. It was Raymond who found the Rottweiler and then the police constable who found Raymond.
The day Raymond found the Rottweiler was the same day Raymond’s father hit Raymond’s mother with his closed hand. He hit her when she would not stop crying and then everything was fine and the shipshape police constable found Raymond just like Raymond’s father said he would and everything was fine. Raymond’s mother smiled and the constable smiled too standing at the door and Raymond still had the dog’s blood on his hands and on the knees of his trousers and everything was fine that day. Even the bruise that joined the corner of her mouth to her ear was fine once Raymond had been found and returned home by the shipshape police constable who said nothing just smiled.
Raymond’s mother puts her right leg through the gap in the fence first and then steps through with the rest of her body. She keeps the cardigan pulled closed in front even as she is stepping through and the wind makes the bent piece of iron move up and down along the remaining section of fence. It is loud and grating and Raymond’s mother brings her head through last and thinks of a dog waiting on the other side, ready to latch onto the side of her face like a scrap-metal guard dog.
From the entranceway Raymond’s mother can see along the creek all the way to the school now. There is no dog. The oval at the bottom end of the school backs directly onto the creek and Raymond’s mother can see all the way to the oval and the oval is empty. At first she does not see Mr Langford, since he is hidden behind the rise in the creek bank. And when he comes out from behind the rise he is no more than thirty metres away from her and he sees her standing abreast of the slope and he waves to her. She does not wave and she watches him until he is standing right in front of her.
‘Hello, Gloria,’ he says.
She does not say anything to him. Her eyes are red still and her cheeks are tight where the wind dried her tears before they could reach halfway to her lips even. She looks at Mr Langford and at his hands and she keeps her cardigan pulled modestly across her front.
‘Another dead dog,’ Mr Langford says to her, shaking his head. Mr Langford is seven years older than her and he has very white hair and a small round head. His hair is very white and his cheeks are red and his mouth is small even for his head. He bends down and wipes his hands on the grass and when he bends he keeps his back straight and his hands only just reach the ground either side of his feet. ‘Do you remember the day Ray found the Wainwrights’?’ he says, motioning to his own hands. ‘Bad street for dogs. Busy. Always busy,’ he says, shaking his head side to side. His knees are bent.
‘The policeman,’ Raymond’s mother says back to him.
Mr Langford looks up at her and she starts to cry again and when she tries to step backwards through the hole in the fence he takes hold of her wrist and her cardigan falls open and she begins to cry really.
‘Gloria,’ he says. ‘We’re only talking now.’
In the distance a group of children come running onto the bottom oval like creatures coming in through an open window. One of them kicks a football and it sails over the fence and into the creek. Mr Langford let’s go of Raymond’s mother’s wrist and disappears through the hole in the fence himself. Raymond’s mother sits down very low to the ground and wishes Raymond’s father were there to hit some sense into her with his shipshape hand.
Daniel Young is a Sydney-based software developer, reader, writer and editor who was born and raised in Brisbane. He has had short fiction published in Issue Two of Hello Mr. Magazine and flash fiction in Seizure and Cuttings Journal. He is struggling to write a novel while remotely studying an MA (Writing) through Swinburne University. He is the founder and editor of Tincture Journal.
The Jazz Band
The jazz band walked onto the stage, quiet and unassuming, dressed in jeans and plain black t-shirts, and began to shift things around without looking at the audience. The shuffling and scraping of their chairs, the tuning of their instruments, the precise placement of their glasses of water and bottles of beer; it may have been part of the performance—they were known for including such things at the beginning of their albums—so the crowd began to hush, their conversations dispersing into the auditorium, hanging wastefully in the air before being forgotten, lost for all time.
When Billy suggested the jazz band, Alex baulked at the idea but went along with it just the same. After exchanging messages and flirting online for what seemed like an eternity, they finally decided it was time to meet. Billy was attractive: a cute Aussie guy in his mid-twenties with a stable job. He didn’t have a gym-built body, but Alex didn’t care about that and he tried more than once to arrange a date. He’d been nearly ready to give up, coming to the conclusion that Billy was either intractable, disinterested or already taken. A few times he’d met guys online only to later find out they already had a boyfriend; it seemed to come with the territory, although Billy didn’t seem the type to play around. He had a quiet understated sincerity that Alex liked. When Billy suggested an improvised jazz concert, Alex wasn’t going to say no, although he did wonder exactly what he’d agreed to.
For what felt like a few minutes already, the drummer had been scraping something metallic across the top of one of his drums. Alex had never been to anything like this back in Singapore. He closed his eyes and ignored the percussionist’s noises, wishing they’d just gone for a drink instead.
Alex’s mother had phoned last night, berating him for not buying a new phone card, for not calling home more often. She wanted to know everything, and each tidbit of news was relayed in a shouting voice to his dad before the conversation could continue. They both wanted to visit him in spring, but he told her that Australia was too boring, especially Brisbane; he would go home instead. Somehow he didn’t seem ready to share his Aussie life with them. He’d begun to make this town his own, although he did miss home sometimes. He thought about the hawker food stalls back home and started dreaming of claypot chicken rice with delicious lap cheong sausage; a hardened rice crust formed on the base of the claypot, and he savoured the change in texture as he reached the end of the dish. The thick wet humidity of the Singaporean air embraced him tightly as his head tilted forwards, waking him up. He glanced at Billy, hoping his daydream had gone unnoticed. Imperceptibly, the percussionist’s scrapings had been joined by the pianist’s hypnotic light touch; his fingers danced across a wide range of keys and the gentle tapping somehow resulted in a deep and complex reverberation that gradually magnified as it spread throughout the performance space.
The double bass joined in, striking just three notes slowly in a short melody, repeating it again and again. Alex began to dream about his mother’s famous Nonya Laksa.
Billy drew his attention from the stage and looked at Alex, sitting there, eyes closed. Absorbing the music to its full effect, or falling asleep? It didn’t matter. He’d agreed on the date because he hated coming to these things alone, but he had no expectation that Alex would enjoy it. The double bass player was plucking at the thick strings more fiercely now; each bass-laden thwap was a punch in Billy’s side. One of them fractured his rib, recalling that day, three years ago now. The others landed in a dull thud that he knew would emerge in the morning as a beautiful deep-purple bruise. He somehow enjoyed reliving the past, letting the music beat him senseless. It replaced all traces of the present.
The drummer was still scraping something across the top of his drums, tracing it in a slow circular motion. A set of house keys? Billy realised with a start that Qiang still had a spare key to his apartment. He hadn’t bothered to change the locks after Qiang left Australia. The scraping continued, now joined by the occasional sharp tapping of hi-hat cymbals. Tap-tap-tap, an insistent woodpecker keen to crack open his skull and burrow into his brain. He tried to keep each of the band’s instruments distinct in his head, tracking the almost imperceptible ways they were changing over time, wondering how the music had somehow made its way from Point A to Point B. The initially disparate parts had merged to become a single swirling mess.
The doctor had been friendly today. A GP in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, just across the road from where he was sitting now. The clinic, being in a so-called “gay area”, administered lots of sexual health check-ups, and the staff were good at asking the necessary questions without getting too nosy or raising an eyebrow.
“I see it’s your first time here. Is there anything else I can help you with today?” The doctor was tall and handsome, but not Billy’s type.
“Oh, no thanks. My normal GP is close to home but I came here because it’s close to work. Just the tests today.”
The doctor smiled, not skipping a beat. “No worries, just a few questions first. When were you last tested?”
Billy answered. Yes, it had been a while. And yes, he was sexually active. Though not so much lately. No, he had no real reason to be worried, but… you know how it is. He didn’t add that he rarely met new people these days because he couldn’t trust anybody and preferred to stay home alone and drink. Last night he’d received a message online from an anonymous person, advising him to get tested. It could be a prank—the person’s dating profile didn’t even have a photo—but it was scary stuff nonetheless. Enough to convince Billy that it was time to be tested again. No need to tell all that to the doctor.
As the blood left his veins and filled the nurse’s syringe, he sat there and blinked, wondering what his future might hold and whether or not he even cared. The nurse taped a cotton bud gently over his arm and he left the clinic. The results would come and could not be changed. His boss was out of town so he extended his lunch break and walked along Brisbane’s murky brown riverfront, trying to get as far from the office as possible. The sun beat down, even on this winter day, and people jogged past with confident strides. He thought of his small high-rise apartment in the leafy green inner west, clinging as it was to its own bend in the river, looking across to the towering heights of Highgate Hill. He could go home—nobody at work would care—and he could spend the afternoon with a bottle of Shiraz, some music and maybe a warm bath. But he was meeting Alex tonight for the jazz concert and the theatre was close to his office; if he went home, he’d never find the motivation to go out again. He thought about cancelling as he walked back to the office. It wouldn’t be hard to find some excuse.
“A Scotch and dry and a Corona with lime thanks,” said Alex, smiling at the bartender and admiring his rounded butt as he turned to fetch a clean glass. Alex didn’t drink often, but Billy wanted one and it might help the rest of the concert pass by more quickly. The first half had been interesting in a way and it surprised him that traditional instruments could be used to create such sounds, but it had felt like it might never end. When he wasn’t nodding off, Alex tried to make a connection between the musicians’ actions and what he was hearing, but the link seemed so tenuous that he wondered if the whole thing was just a pre-recorded charade. No, it couldn’t be that—he just didn’t understand this stuff. At least Billy was something different; something he hadn’t yet experienced since coming to Brisbane to study business and hospitality management. He represented something other than the usual late nights out in tiny gay bars, with the same people every week dancing the night away. Nights that would often end with him waking up next a stranger in a cloud of awkwardness and sour morning breath. It never felt good afterwards, but it was a change from life back home.
The bartender returned with the drinks and Alex paid, resolving to just try and enjoy the second half of the show. Maybe they could grab a quick bite to eat later on.
“Thanks,” said Billy as Alex passed him the Scotch. “What did you think so far?”
“It was… interesting. Different,” replied Alex.
Billy rolled his eyes but still smiled that cheeky little boy smile that had attracted Alex so much in the first place.
“What music do you like? Kylie? Gaga? The usual shit?” he asked.
“That stuff’s all OK, but I prefer Chinese pop stars. Do you know Faye Wong?”
“Hah! I’m not a huge fan, but I saw her in Chungking Express. She’s kind of old now, right? It’s all about K-Pop these days. But I loved that movie. You know, I randomly saw it on the world movie channel about five years ago and I think I’ve been a rice queen ever since…”
“So you only like Asian guys? Here in Brisbane it’s mostly just the really old white guys chasing me. Lots of young people put ‘no Asians’ in their dating profile.”
Billy shrugged and said nothing.
“Don’t be shy, it’s fine. You’ll like me then, since I’m a potato queen,” grinned Alex, poking him in the belly in a teasing way. His belly was soft. “I love Wong Kar-Wai’s films too. To be honest, I’m more interested in film than music. I’d study that if my parents would let me…”
“The film festival starts soon, maybe we can check some stuff out? I love Korean films, and they also have a British and Irish showcase that looks interesting. And lots more.”
Alex watched as Billy drank his Scotch, finishing it with one last gulp. He seemed excited now. When they’d met before the concert he’d been shy, maybe even aloof. On the internet Billy was a tough nut to crack, but Alex was now thinking that his persistence might have been worthwhile.
A buzzer rang and Alex placed his arm in the small of Billy’s back, guiding him from the foyer back into the theatre space. The room was cool and the warmth emanating from Billy’s body seemed like a generous offering. They took their seats.
Billy didn’t know why he preferred Asian guys and the inevitable question always embarrassed him. It felt wrong to choose partners based on their race, and he wasn’t proud of it, but he also couldn’t deny his preference. It was best not to think about it too deeply. His friends had suggested he dated international students because he was afraid of commitment. They all leave Brisbane after a few years, maybe that suits you? There could be some truth in that. He was lucky that Qiang had left when he did, before the situation escalated further. He should have called the police, but had been unable to. On a logical level, Qiang’s departure was a blessing, and yet it was still in the forefront of Billy’s mind every day, both the good and the bad.
The band didn’t mess around this time. They came onto the stage and the pianist placed a metronome on the piano’s glossy black frame. It seemed to be hooked up to an amp. An electric metronome? He set it ticking and the sound filled the theatre, setting a fairly rapid pace for the music to come. And then he began, playing not music exactly, or at least not melody. No, he tapped at just one or two keys, repetitively, in time with the constant ticking, creating a fluid wall of sound. Billy relaxed, closing his eyes for a moment to savour the effect, listening carefully for the slightest change.
The metronome’s amplified ticking drew Billy’s attention to the inexorable onward march of time. It counted down the number of seconds since he had laid peacefully in Qiang’s arms; the number of days since Qiang had been inside him; the number of months since their brutal last few weeks together. The tapping of individual piano keys created a single reverberating mass and still the metronome ticked on, oblivious. Every tick brought each audience member one moment closer to their own end.
But the drummer had other ideas. He was using the full kit now and refused to keep the same beat as the metronome. The tangential rhythms became disorienting and Billy felt a rush in his arteries as his pulse quickened. The bass player began thwapping away at his strings again, but it was hard to discern the effect of his efforts on top of the now screeching cacophony of manic piano. It was the drummer who was really shaking things up, hitting his kit hard, completely freed from the restrictive bounds of the metronome’s tick. Goosebumps formed on Billy’s arms and the fine blonde hairs stood to attention like enchanted snakes. He felt tears in his eyes and, thankful for the dark theatre, let them flow without wiping them away. A crash of cymbals took over and it was no longer a beat but a wall of sound, joining the piano and bass with destructive force. Billy looked sideways and was surprised to find Alex leaning forward in his seat, simultaneously riveted and shocked by the jazz band’s climax.
The drummer broke away, regaining his individuality as a discernible beat returned, and Billy tried his best to follow it. The pace kept shifting, battling against the metronome. Occasionally the two beats would coincide and they’d seem to be keeping the same rhythm, but they would always fall out of step again. At other moments, the drummer went manic again and lost himself among the roar of the piano and bass. The incessant ticking became redundant, reminding Billy that boundaries were meaningless.
Yet as he smiled at Alex and looked back towards the stage, despite the cacophonous roar, all he could see was the thin pendulum, still swinging joyfully from side-to-side. Silenced, perhaps, but not stopped. And gradually, as each musician slowed and their sounds danced over the top of each other, Billy finally heard them again as three distinct elements. The metronome continued to tick, even after the musicians stopped, out of place and obnoxious. Finally, the pianist raised his hand and stopped the pendulum’s movement. The audience broke out in stunned applause.
They sat on the ferry, navigating their way home on the river’s lazy bends as they cut through the city and into the inner west. Alex, being slightly taller, allowed Billy’s head to rest on his shoulder. The ferry master looked at them a few times but Alex returned his gaze, feeling boldly protective of this strange Brisbane boy. The ferry master shrugged and gave up, walking outside into the bracing wind as the vessel skimmed over the black water. The window was dirty, a water-saving measure of the city council, who had decided to stop washing the ferries. Alex looked outside but saw only a scratchy dark mess, overlaid with the bright reflected interior of the ferry’s cabin.
Billy was sleeping by the time they reached their stop and a small wet patch of drool had soaked into the shoulder of Alex’s jumper. Alex smiled and tapped him gently on the head to wake him up, which he did with a confused, almost frightened look.
“We’re here. Let’s go.”
On a quiet dark street in a quiet dark suburb, watched only by the possums as they scurried over the power lines above, they kissed goodnight. In another time, they each would have asked the other to stay the night, but tonight it seemed that only silence and solitude could follow what they’d experienced.
“Thanks for taking me. It wasn’t my kind of thing, but I’m glad we met. Let’s have dinner soon.”
“OK. Goodnight Alex. See you soon.” Alex watched as Billy turned and walked away, trekking uphill to where his apartment building waited. He stood for a moment and thought about giving up his business degree to study film. Finally, hands in his pockets to ward off the cold night air, he walked in the other direction towards his own place.
In bed, happy to be alone, Billy didn’t think about Alex. He didn’t think about Qiang, or the dent in his bedroom wall where Qiang had thrown his phone that time. He didn’t think about the doctor or the blood tests. The sheets were smooth and soft against his tender, naked skin. He felt like he’d gone a few rounds in a boxing ring and shook his head to clear the fuzz, wondering if any of it was real. His ears were ringing with the silence, so he plugged his mp3 player into the speakers beside his bed and chose the “repeat album” option. The music started with the sound of chairs and equipment being arranged on-stage. This time the bass player began, striking a short wistful melody and repeating it again and again. The still and empty night, unlike so many before and after, passed by quickly, so that it wasn’t long before he awoke. The sun had risen, shimmering golden foil on the river’s surface, concealing the muddy brown reality beneath.
Cameron Lowe lives in Geelong, Victoria. His two book-length poetry collections are Porch Music (Whitmore Press, 2010) and Circle Work (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013).
Louise Nicholas is a South Australian teacher and poet. WomanSpeak, co-written with Jude Aquilina, was published by Wakefield Press in 2009, and a chapbook, Large, in 2013. Her collection, The List of Last Remaining, was short-listed for the Adelaide Festival Unpublished Manuscript award.
S. J. J. F. Rutherford is a pen name of Simon Patton’s. He lives with his partner, two cats and Sealyham the Terrier near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria, and translates Chinese poetry. He spent five months working in Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong last year, and lived near the Tai Hang Tung and Nam Shan Housing Estates.
Cafe (Tai Hang Tung Estate大坑東邨)
Ice in the tall glass cloaked with cola jostles bubbles of fizz, and
I feel this heat tell only the hard wood under my tail-bone. The
TV is mute: it addresses the room graphically, in fluent Chinese
characters, beneath perfectly made-up faces lip-reading “news”.
The kitchen, for its few orders, roars industrially out of the
wok, while — in the centre of his Imaginary Loungeroom — a
man chats through a smart hair-cut deeper into his mirror.