JZ Ting is an Asian-Australian geek, lawyer, and writer. She has lived on four continents but stays for Sydney’s beaches where she pretends to be a mermaid. Her fiction has appeared in Pencilled In literary magazine and been performed at Subbed In events, and she tweets online @ting_jz.
Grandma dies in the best way possible: peacefully, in her garden chair, under sunny Sydney skies. She fell asleep, the nurses say, first to my father who arrives from work, then my mother, then me. She fell asleep and didn’t wake up. The best way to go.
They don’t tell us that she was alone, but we know anyway. She was alone each time we visited, a tiny, white-haired Malaysian-Chinese lady with broken English surrounded by white-haired, white Australians who drink English with their breakfast teas. The landscapes are English too, all roses and neatly trimmed hedges politely perplexed by the papaya my father planted, a poor substitute for the majestic rambutans Grandma left behind. The retirement village website trumpeted gardening as a resident perk. It didn’t mention multicultural staff.
She died in her sleep, my parents say, reaching across oceans to aunts and uncles, cousins and classmates, Grandma’s friends from church. They spin the message into Mandarin and Foochow like silver into gold I cannot touch, though my parents spill enough of it in fights. The coins I scavenged were never enough to spend with Grandma, so instead I bartered: smiles, school marks, my stomach for the fruits and soups she prepared just for me. A few hours every month to pay off my guilt. The funeral will be in Sydney. We hope you can make it, but understand if it’s too far.
Planes converge while Grandma waits in a local morgue. To me her loss is soft and nebulous, an abstraction I try to map out in Sydney streets. They send me home where arguments are silenced, bankrupted by my father’s grief, while my mother rations out affection in rice and steaming bak kuh teh. She tells me how when her grandfather died, the entire family ate fresh durians beside his open coffin which took pride of place in the living room for the village to pay respects. That night, I dream of Grandma’s ghost lost alone in the dark.
Thank you for coming, we say to people filing past. It’s sad but not unexpected, and she was cared for to the end.
Grandma lies beneath a bouquet of banksias and winter skies. The small congregation sings in English and Mandarin as photos flash, and only now do I begin to know her: family portraits, a bride to the grandfather I never met, a church group sweating in the tropic heat. There’s a photo of her posing with my father, startlingly young, in a tiny Malaysian airport, and another holding infant me. One black-and-white picture of a tall young woman in a floral qipao, her smile proud and bright, hands full of furry rambutans plucked from her trees.
Did she know? When she gave her son a one-way ticket and suitcase of books, did she realise what she was sacrificing? Would it have been kinder for my father to leave her in her village, alone but at home, with family reunions once a year? What is it like to migrate when you’re so old, and die in a foreign land?
I don’t know. I couldn’t afford to ask.
Grandma dies and we say farewell. I hold my father’s shaking hand telling myself that Sydney’s earth is as dark as Malaysia’s earth, that the one sun shines on both, and rain falls all the same. Yet the wind that blows between us is cold, scented with eucalypts fresh as a wound, and sour like regret.
Jordon Ros Conway is a Tasmanian writer born in Dublin, Tallaght in 1980. After emigrating to Australia in 1988 he lived in Logan City, Queensland. Jordon left home at 14 hitchhiking the east coast of Australia and living on the streets of Melbourne for a period. After travelling across south-east Asia and Europe in 1999 he settled in Tasmania where he currently resides. In 2017 he completed a fine arts degree at the University of Tasmania majoring in Printmaking. Jordon has worked periodically in the waste management, demolition, construction and scrap metal industries on and off for over 20 years and is currently in his third year of construction landscaping. Jordon has a passion for social justice and collectively runs an annual music festival to raise funds for various charities. He is particularly passionate about the rights of new migrants and justice for first nations peoples. Jordon’s current writing explores the experience of destructive masculinity through the fictional biography of socially and emotionally ill-equipped men and boys.
An April Day in March
At 30 years old, in an inclement month of 1981, the now old man purchased a small suburban block of land and began building a two-story house of brick and reinforced concrete. The construction was planned and executed in an intuitive and flawed order, the labour of an impatient and impractical mind.
By the eighth year of construction, it became clear that extensive repairs were needed, and each year following the idea settled deeper that there may be no end to the renovating and repairing of his flawed handiwork. No matter how well he tried to time it, plan it, visualize the exploded view, the reverse engineering necessary to not be lightless, stove-less or without heat and water, it was regularly so. Now in his later life, it became necessary to scale back continuous maintenance and except the fate and limited comforts of his imperfect labours.
The house had become the total of everything he’d achieved in his life. His self-worth waned and pitched with the structure and his back bent like an overburdened rafter as he wound down after a lifetime of struggling with insubstantial endeavours.
From habit, he moved through the house and garden cataloguing the things that needed attention, the flaws and degraded underpinnings. To divert his attention from this irredeemable list and to gain a degree of self-assurance he’d seek out small successes. He’d enjoy switching on the lights over the kitchen countertop to study its polished surface. With his coarse hands gently brushing over it he’d decide that a small triumph was made and the fine grain he devotedly drew out in the wood impressed him and filled him with pride. The cement sheet and wood dust had gone. On the surface of his palm was the grey dust of his skin and the tiny dark fibres of his clothes.
Letting go of needing to maintain the house didn’t come naturally but with practice, over time, what he began to feel wasn’t complete indifference or acceptance but short reprieves. He couldn’t entirely allow that part of the wall he neglected to score properly abandon his mind completely. The inadequately keyed mortar allowed the render to fall away in chunks. But It didn’t occupy him quiet so much or fill him with self-loathing as it once did. The absence of a damp course, a thin inexpensive strip of thin plastic that would have stopped the rising damp, didn’t shame and depress him as much. He could somewhat live with the linoleum curling at its edges around the laundry sink and he drew less from that well of anxiety bore from a lifetime of living up to a standard exceeding his ability.
With this new-found capacity he was lately surprised by the moments he found himself moving back and forth across the unevenly polished wood floor lost in daydreaming and remembering and he found himself sleeping more regularly and restfully. His fingers curled up in his lap formed a grip as though around a brick as he dozed or watched the T.V turned low slumped in his worn leather Morris chair. His firebox rumbling and clicking, expanding and contracting in the cool night air. Often, he’d shuffle off to bed just before dawn.
On one such morning, he stopped at his bedroom window and watched a light rain drift across an erratic sunrise. A young boy caught his eye in the neighbouring back yard. The yard has for years been cluttered and overgrown, an eyesore. Long ago landscaped with dreary slate, crushed limestone and Grey Basalt rock. Pine retaining walls twisted by the weight of poor drainage. Spruces haphazard growth among thick clumps of yellowish agapanthus. The gravel walkway had gone to Titch and Arum lilies. There’d been digs on several occasions over a week before, scrapping back the earth with an excavator and making piles, but it had been quiet since then. The machines engine hood had been left open exposing its vulnerable blue grease coloured core to the weather.
The boy dragged a heavy plastic box across the yard to a long-dry cement pond in the corner near the old man’s fence a few meters from where he stood watching. The pond was bordered with a Basalt wall a half meter high. The boy seemed to be working on his own and after crossing the yard again, and spending some time unravelling a tangled extension cord, he opened the box and pulled out a heavy, grey Jackhammer.
The old man himself worked for many years in construction and landscaping and remembered the bittersweet experience of working alone. The freedom to run his own day, to make and fix his mistakes without scrutiny. But that was all tempered by wanting others to see his invisible efforts. A cut made through an impeding rock to expose its mass deep in the ground, then smashed apart with a Jackhammer and reburied was an effort concealed in the earth forever. A broken pipe he’d dug out repaired and buried again was delicate Invisible labour interred unless he told a co-worker about it. But the old man saw a contradiction in his efforts to not care what his co-workers thought while attempting to prove himself to them. To mention his hidden efforts, to diminish self-effacement, would expose to them his secret desire for approval.
As the old man watched the boy, he remembered unfurling tangled power cables every cold morning of winter and teasing out the knots in the stiffened rubber. Moving tediously back and forth through ankle-deep mud, mixing cement with sodden road base day after day. He remembered as those weeks and years progressed reaching lower and deeper to find the strength to keep going until he felt as hollowed and immovable as a tree stump. Every paycheck was sunk into debts and house repairs preventing any opportunity to step away. And all the small failures at work inhibited his labours at home, keeping him firmly rooted on-site as though ceaselessly stuck in that numbing slush of mud, even in his dreams at night. Some weeks he prayed for injury and a long convalescence. He never saw things progressing and every task was equally tedious right up till the last effort of a long and difficult project. At the completion of a project, his co-workers invariably agree it felt like “it would never end”, but to him, there was never an end and each week, month or year was equally spiritually wasted. With the pressures of work the progress he made on the house, drawn-out over weekends and late evenings was also too slow to perceive any triumph. It seemed to grow imperceptibly like a dark cloud appearing in a clear sky.
He watched the boy pissing against a tree and he wondered if he felt he was being observed. The old man was always painfully shy around other men and felt constantly observed. He’d held in his piss all day if he had too. He’d nudge himself into bushes or jump a fence into a neighbouring yard to find trees or shrubs to conceal himself. His co-workers never went to these lengths, they watched curiously his efforts to cover himself. He understood that being devoid of this nervousness was a great privilege.
He’s watched now, with a touch of envy, the boy pissing against a tree in the far corner of the yard not troubling to conceal himself.
In his kitchen, the cornices, which hid the uneven cut of cement sheet edges, had long, dark hairline cracks where they no longer met the wall. Sometimes those cracks occupied his mind all day. He’d follow them around the well-lit house at night, into every corner where they met. To clear his mind of these fixations he’d carry them down to the end of the street. He’d take them where the street lights end. Where the trees are gold and reach into the pitch-dark bushland. Where the cold galvanized handrails reminded him of the clicking of boot studs where he’d jump the fence and run along the bitumen around the soccer pitch, slipping on the hard-black surface. Where he’d sit on a cold thickly painted wood bench resting and breathing heavily. He’d be reminded of his boot mud drying to dust on the slate entranceway his father laid in a rental house they couldn’t keep. Limping from his painfully blistered feet, the pain of growing out of boots his parents couldn’t afford to replace. The agony of ingrown toenails and groin strain when he quietly wept on his bedroom floor three days a week after training. After home games he’d kicked a ball against the clubhouse wall under a street light, alternating left to right to strengthen his legs evenly. His father drank in the clubhouse and spoke to the other boys’ fathers more than he ever spoke to him. He drove an XC Falcon four-door sedan. One-night driving home he was drunk and quietly furious. The powerful engine reared the front end gradually up as they increased their speed along a long straight stretch of road. A tan Labrador appeared in the headlights on an unsealed shoulder and his father swerved to hit it in a silent rage, the wheels losing traction on the gravel. The dog barrelled under the wheels hitting the firewall under their feet as they mounted the road again. His father’s anger was always internal and silent until it found its expression in violence. It was always a guessing game as to why he was bitter, but its effects were often terrifying. The old man recalled this with some of the same fear, even now after so many years. With memories like these he felt his shallow foundations, his self-worth seemingly always vulnerable to the mysterious unspoken standards his father held him to. In some part of his mind, that dog is still laying on that road slowly dying.
He mimicked his father as a child at school, turning morose and scowling at people for no reason. He wouldn’t talk and sat alone at lunch hoping someone would notice and try to talk to him so he could ignore them. Through mimicry, his father’s sadness and anger were refined in him. He carried it into adulthood until the sudden realization that nothing was tempered by it. The world didn’t stop for a second no matter how much he willed it to. And no amount of sadness or anger prevented any tedious, back-breaking task from needing to be done.
Sitting on a bench one night at the end of his street he looked back down the road towards the gently sloping gardens of newly built estates and remembered a family trip to the botanical gardens. His parents fought, and his mother walked away down a hill and sat under a tree. He and his father circled her as they walked the path around the gardens. He asked his father to let him go to her. But his father kept them walking as tears welled in both their eyes and they both watched her peripherally, motionless and staring at the ground. They passed the duck pond which had been drained for repairs, and he felt empathy for the ducks left wandering without the comfort of water. They passed a group of boys from his school and they saw his father crying. One ran up behind him, tugged his shirt and fled. His father’s hand shaped as though around a brick against his chest hooked his son’s shirt collar and he pulled hard and down. His father seemed to awaken after a moment and looked at him as though he were a stranger. Taking his wrist, his father led him down the hill to his mother and they all sat mutely listening to each other breathing. Under a wet tree waiting in silent rage and sadness, he switched off like a TV. He knew it wouldn’t be ok until he could close his bedroom door behind him. He had to endure the long silent walk to the car, the mute drive home, he had to stop pining for comfort that seemed impossibly far away. A longing that stretches time too painful proportions. It was here that he learnt the malleable contingent distance of the passage to a sanctuary of his own. And he’d prayed for the patience to endure the expanse between him and an unobserved refuge that breathes in his presence, a place that holds its breath till he returned.
He remembers that same feeling of exhalation on recently visiting his childhood home. A cul-de-sac not far off a newly built motorway. He turned the car towards the field he played in as a child as the long pastel-tinged shadows of late evening triggered the memory of tangled bushes you could build tunnels and caves in and the exhaustion of constant movement. He parked before the long thin path leading to the field and felt unable to leave the car. A smell of burnt plastic and exhaust in the air as he wound down the window and the car quietly idled. A discarded crumbling asbestos stucco sheet was leaning against the alleyway wall. A brown leather purse discoloured by the weather discarded under Dicot weeds, everything seemed like it had been there since he was a child, on pause, ageing again in his presence. Like the street had begun to breathe again exhaling the dust of him. He felt his heart sink as he stared at the cement archway to the field. A patch of dirt where the grass died back, where kids had ignored the walkway and taken a short cut to the open field, leaving indentations of boots and the tough grey roots of titch grass exposed. These marked the shortest route to immunity. Where he could be hidden from the street and those apertures into the lives of his parents. He thought about how even old sanctuaries hold their allure as he turned the car around and drove back towards the motorway.
The boy slams the chisel into the Jack-hammers chuck unaware of the need to release the locking pin. The hammer awkwardly slipped from his hands as he reaches for another chisel from the box, a threaded chisel this time. As the jackhammer silently fell between the rocks in the wall of the pond the old man felt glad the boy was alone and not subject to the scrutiny of his co-workers. The boy threw down the chisel and left the Jackhammer leaning against the rocks, purposefully striding out of view towards the house and returning with a sledgehammer.
The old man examined the seams of his double-glazed windows through the sheer curtain, he pinched the roughly patterned lace and pulled it aside to run his eyes along the edge of the window frame inspecting the rubber. He touches his hand to his face, running it down his cheek, across his chin feeling the uneven surface and the deep hollows of his eyes. With these hands, as an interface with the world permanently thick and dry, everything is course and peeling even the surface of glass. He had long ago felt the smoothness of skin but not with these hands. Burying his face in his lover’s loose dressing gown, his cheeks and lips on the soft skin of her chest. He remembers how she craned her neck to look down at him and stroked his hair as though comforting a child, kissing his forehead as he wrapped his arms around her waist his fingers gripped as though around a brick. A soft, green light enveloped him as he closed his eyes and thought how unjust it is for these memories to be so clear. His hands described a permanent decay in their swollen joints and peeling callouses. So much injurious weight saddled by these fingers between now and the memory of her. But as the things they’ve built had begun to ruin, he’d built monuments in his mind to intangible things. Now undistracted by his labours he’d turned to experiences long forgotten and was tortured by the memory of things hopelessly unreachable.
He slipped into his boots and despite the deteriorating weather, left the house on the pretence of weeding along the fence line. The job didn’t especially need to be done but he couldn’t resist telling the boy how to use the jackhammer. He just needed a reason to be outside near the fence. He approached the fence and began pulling weeds making small piles every few meters. After a few minutes, he stuck his head over the fence and watched the boy as he struck the rock wall with the sledgehammer sending shards across the yard. “You’re going to break a window doing that, strike the mortar,” said the old man to the boy. His hard, nasal inflection expressed a menacing pitch. As much as he was aware and ashamed by it the old man was unable to prevent himself from sounding superior. It was obvious that when he spoke in a condescending tone, in that thicker drawl reserved for other labouring men, that he wanted to show, but not to share something with the boy.
The boy stopped immediately. he looked anxiously along the fence line before his face sunk in the knowledge he was being watched and now felt obligated to engage in conversation. “You’re not using the Jack Hammer?…… Why not?” the man asked attempting, unsuccessfully, to diel down his condescending tone. The boy looked down to the prostrate hammer among the rocks, about to speak but instead silently gestured towards it. He recognized he’s not being paid to talk to this guy and felt no reason to be polite. He gripped the sledgehammer again and struck the rock. “Wow,” the old man bellowed mockingly as shards of rock hit the fence and slashed through clumps of Freesia’s skirting the pond wall. “You should be able to get through that no worries with the Jack Hammer”, ‘I’ll show you, hang on there,” he said as he began moving towards his side gate.
Out on the road, the street was lined on both sides by large 4wd utes and trailers. It seemed every house on the street was busy with construction a symptom of the recent boom in house prices. He continued moving over the neighbour’s lawn taking a shortcut across a thinly mulched garden bed and around a slightly leaning faux sandstone letterbox.
In the neighbour’s driveway, the compacted gravel had been scrapped back to re-expose the clay beneath. The rain had pooled in wheel ruts and boot-prints. He reaches the driveway gates and released the latch, the drop bolt had dug a semi-circular cavity deep into the mud making it unnecessary to lift it, he pushed the gate and stepped into the yard. A row of uprooted acacia trees lay on the ground waiting to be mulched. An upright wood-chipper, looking new and practically unused, stood just beyond the gates. A 24-litre air compressor tilted into clay dragged across the yard as far as it could reach without sinking and tipping over into the mud. Scraps of timber we’re piled with empty cement bags, coffee cups, bent star pickets, concrete, mangled Rio bar and chicken wire in a freshly dug hole filling slowly with grey-brown water. The six-ton excavator stood motionlessly bowed at the rim of the hole. It seemed inexplicable how different the yard looked than from his window. The ground had been heaved up chaotically, earth, rock and plants rolled together in messy piles. The clouds had condensed to make the day prematurely dark and added to the scene of desolation and although he could see the boy on the other side of the yard he felt interminably alone. The haunting feeling of being subject to an insentient world came back to him, a place where there’s no use in begging against an unassailable force. A place where your dread is as useless as the squirming of a worm cut by the teeth of a giant excavator, the ground engaging tip of a huge pitiless machine.
The boy knew the man was coming towards him but didn’t look up. He scowled down at the earth. He was excavating around the rock wall with a short-handled flat shovel. “You should be using a spade,” the man said to the boy as he mounted the incline to the pond and watched the boy bending the blade of the shovel to its limits. He noticed the boy had uncovered a sinew of reinforcing bar which ran the length of the rock wall encased in concrete. The man reached for the extension cord and the cable of the jackhammer. Suddenly he heard the sound of a motor starting and a dog began barking over the neighbouring fence. Looking over towards the house he could make out the movements of a figure crouched by a petrol-powered Gurney adjusting the throttle and choke. The stammering motor smoothed out as the man turned to watch the old man take up the jackhammer. It occurred to him now that there were other men who were working on a garden area along the left-hand side of the house which he couldn’t see from his window. A feeling of cold dread washed over him as he approached the rock wall with the jackhammer. The boy leaned his shovel on the fence and after a short pause to look at the old man, he walked towards the house to join the others. He had been wrong about the boy being alone. The boy knew he was watched but had shown no interpretable care whether he was or not. The boy was gifted with that privilege he had envied all his life. The longest stretch of earth yawned before the old man, a volcanic plane of shifting rock and ash of enormous weight. He could feel the men gather together at the end of a low veranda that stretched around the back of the house. Its timbers half trimmed and nailed down, a clean almost dry platform for them to observe him. He couldn’t hear the men over the gurney but in his periphery, he knew they were talking to each other, discussing the situation and smiling as he pressed the tip of the jackhammer into a divot in the mortar and pressed the trigger detonating the hammer into brutal thrashing noise and movement.
Quickly he understood, after the hammer made light work of the mortar and hit solid reinforced concrete underneath, that he’d made another terrible mistake. As his hand gripped around the handle of the hammer and pivoted the heavy machine hopelessly back and forth to find a weakness between the concrete and the rock, a cold sweat of terror began to bead on his upper lip. How had he misinterpreted the situation so completely? The concrete was far too hard for the Jackhammer to be effective and it’d need to be cut into sections with a demolition saw if there was any hope of removing it. His embarrassment at his arrogance made him determined to make an impact on the wall with the Jackhammer, but deep down he knew it was hopeless. His hands gripped tighter around the handle and his thumb joints began to ache under the strain and vibration. He wished he’d stopped to grab gloves, safety glasses, and earmuffs but it was hopeless now as they watched him skip comically across the surface of the concrete with the hammer showering his face with dust and debris. Sweat began to drip down his face and thighs as he attempted to control the direction of the hammer tip. The men stood smiling and shaking their heads gathering closer together to hear each other over the sound of the Gurney motor. The dust began to settle on his face and hands, mixing with his sweat, forming a clay-like layer on his exposed skin. His hands battling the barely restrained vibrations gripped so tight around the handle they felt as though they were fusing to the aluminium frame. The shuddering tore up his arms and through his shoulders and into his head distorting the form of his body hunched over in stiffening agony. His foundations exposed in delicate ruins. The yard seemed to be expanding and he felt as though he was sinking and leaning into the softening ground, his joints hardening as he was weighted downward. He felt his body giving way like a badly built platform for an enormous weight of time. These men watched attentively his final futile posture upwards against gravity as he slated into the mud, first in small parts than larger exposing his unsupported core. He Tilted heavily, as though an overburdened crane without outriggers, stretching out and reaching beyond the limits of his arms. Impatiently finished he decreased in his flawed outer limits while increasing the bore inside. Carving away at the pitted surface of the hammer cylinder in a dizzying circular motion. The stroke of the gurney’s piston worn loose till it noiselessly moved along the polished surface and oil pushes through the gaps in the rings. The pump over-heated and seized no longer able to fight the pressure building in the hose. A dark substance burned in his chest as one rough painful cough of blue smoke dissolved in the air as he blinked through a sheet of rain towards the square-faced profile in the window. The man inspecting the seams on his windows was holding the sheer lace curtain with a clawed hand as though gripping a brick against his chest.
Winding down the Gurney motor shuddered and shifted its weight on the wet surface, clicking as it cooled and completely stopped. Cycling down and ringing in his mind like a tiny bell. Subtle green shadows moved imperceptibly slow across the sky as the hammer dropped awkwardly between the rocks. The clouds continued their formless fusion as the rain continued to gently fall and wash the dust into the topsoil. The delicate labour sinking deeper out of view. As the soft green light enveloped him completely, he thought he heard the heavy footfall of the men approaching from across the yard.
He remembers the sound of his father’s shoes echoing across the courts, a persistent measured approach which he couldn’t quite tell the distance of. He let his ball roll away off the bitumen and into the dirt. And when he turned to face him there was no one there and he felt abandoned. He dreaded the long silent drive home but equally feared being left there alone. He ran towards the sound of the car starting and idling in the car park.
Maryam Azam is a Pakistani-Australian writer and teacher who lives and works in Western Sydney. She graduated with Honours in Creative Writing from Western Sydney University and holds a diploma in the Islamic Sciences. She is a recipient of the WestWords Emerging Writers’ Fellowship and has presented at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Her debut poetry collection The Hijab Files (Giramondo, 2018) was shortlisted for the Anne Elder Award and the Mary Gilmore Award.
The Ways I Cover
In summer I answer the door wearing a hoodie
because I’d rather look like a cold weirdo
than an NESB housewife
I bring Vegemite scrolls to the staff morning tea
and say I don’t eat chicken when I mean
I don’t eat machine-slaughtered chicken.
I wear beanies & berets in winter
and a scarf around my neck instead
I don’t even look Muslim
I shake men’s hands.
I say I’m not hungry rather than ask if the food’s halal.
I go to the beach with my hair tied up
and tucked into a baseball cap
and even swim in it
we’re all worried about skin cancer right
I say hey instead of salam when
I answer the phone on the train.
I skip dhuhr prayer rather than be caught
with my foot in the sink at work.
I breathe in the guilt.
Simeon Kronenberg has published poetry, reviews, interviews and essays in Australian poetry journals and anthologies, including Best Australian Poems, 2017. In 2014 he won the Second Bite Poetry Prize and in 2015 was short-listed for the Newcastle Poetry Prize. Distance, his first poetry collection was published in 2018 by Pitt Street Poetry.
I stood barefoot
on cool boards
in the hot kitchen.
fly paper hung
from a dusty bulb
yellow and thick
She looked out
stared into glare.
All was quiet
but for the relentless
hum of blow flies
and the low mutter
of a wireless
in the next room
as he listened
to afternoon news.
An upturned grey mouth
green faded eyes
face and eye-lids
dry as dust on snake skin.
in a long brown house
next to a woodpile
stacked by a son
Mostly, she sat
at a table
a wireless tuned
all day to the races
as she scratched
at the forms
Though she broke
a hip or two: Heard the cracks.
a snare across the floor
as she shuffled
Dominic Carew is a lawyer and writer from Sydney. His short stories have won or been shortlisted for several awards, including the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His first collection of short fiction, No Neat Endings, will be released through MidnightSun in February 2020.
One spring when I was thirteen, my best mate’s family moved in around the corner. We lived in Manly, with the beach close at hand. My parents had recently landscaped the backyard, put in a new deck and paved part of the lawn. The centre-piece of all this, without question, was Dad’s brand new eight-grill Weber. With the hedges trimmed so neat and the bougainvillea flowering, the Johnsons seemed happy coming over.
“You should open a shop,” Ed’s mum said one time. “The place looks that nice.”
“Mum,” Ed said, rolling his eyes. “What kind of shop?”
“An outdoor one. A BBQ shop. Go and play with Mike, Ed.”
“Have a look at this Weber,” was all Dad said, in Mr Johnson’s direction. “You can wood-fire pizzas with it.” But Mr Johnson said nothing. He just stared at Dad from across the lawn, his eyes narrow and his head held back. I didn’t realise until a few weeks later, when we hosted another barbie, that this gaze had confrontation in it. Militant, was the word I would have used, had I known what it meant when I was thirteen.
Ed and I had been mates since year one. We played soccer together and went to St Pauls High up the road. We looked pretty similar, blonde and gangly and sunburnt half the time, though the biggest thing we had in common was our dads. They weren’t the same people but they had the same hang-ups. Time and distance were two of them. Money was another.
Ed’s Dad was a financial accountant. He worked in the city at an investment manager with its logo on a Sydney-Hobart yacht each year. He was forty-eight. Mine was a surgeon. “Bones and joints,” he’d say when asked what kind. “Things that go crack and pop.” Then he’d laugh at himself until Mum, arms folded, would shake her head at him to stop. He had, for as long I could remember, always laughed at his own jokes.
“Better than never laughing at all,” Ed said to me one time when we discussed it.
“Rick? He’s got a sense of humour, doesn’t he?”
“I’ve never seen him laugh.”
“I haven’t. Once he tried to laugh, when he got promoted, but he couldn’t.”
I looked at Ed. “I never noticed.”
“Hey,” he said, “let’s stop talking about our dads.”
This year, like last, we didn’t make the semis. Soccer was over until March, which meant we’d have to find new ways to spend our Saturday arvos. As thirteen year olds, hanging out in my backyard while our dads stood over the barbie, competing about whose steaks were a better cut and who got the best deal on a kilo of sausages, was not on our agenda.
“You boys’d wanna stick around,” Dad said as we made our way to the back gate. “These are gonna be delish.”
“We’ll be back later,” I said, though he wouldn’t have heard me. He’d bent forward already to scrape last weekend’s char from the grill. We could hear the sound of that scraper, like rapid-fire, half a block away.
We went to Copenhagen one day, the ice cream joint on the corso. It was cheaper than the place at the wharf. Not as good. Fewer options. But on our pocket money, we really should’ve been getting paddle pops from Coles. With hands around our single scoops to protect against gulls, we walked to the beach and sat on the steps there. It was quiet. The surf was flat and for a moment, despite the crowds of stumbling toddlers, all seemed still.
“This ice cream’s shit,” Ed said.
I agreed with my friend. I would’ve said so too, but was chewing a piece of honeycomb that must’ve been really old. It tasted bitter.
“Know what I saw the other day,” Ed said, staring at his cone sadly, as if it were a person, a father say, who’d let him down. “Dad reuse oil from brekky on dinner that night.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Dad does that too.”
“It’s not the tightness,” Ed said, shaking his head at his ice cream, which was melting down his hand, “it’s that he makes so much money and doesn’t spend it.”
This, I happened to know, was true. The Johnson’s had lived in Dee Why since Ed was born. A cheap suburb by Northern Beaches’ standards, and one Mr Johnson had always refused to leave. Despite his huge income, he’d had no intention of selling what he referred to as “a perfectly adequate home.” Then Ed’s grandad died, leaving them a house in Manly. They moved in as soon as probate cleared. I knew all this cos my parents discussed it one night after the Johnson’s left our place. Something in their tone of voice was mocking. Like they were a little bit better than that.
“Dad spends it,” I said, swallowing the honeycomb at last, “But only on the house. On that stupid barbie.”
“It’s a good barbie but,” Ed said, gazing into the distance. “Fwor, see that bloke on the body board? He just kooked it.”
Ed and I had started surfing a year earlier and were still both hopeless. It didn’t bother me so much; I’d have preferred to have been good but wasn’t out to change my fate. By thirteen, I’d developed what I see now as a philosophical system, able to resign myself in the face of my inadequacies. Over the years, it’s been a useful tool. It still is today, probably more than ever, as a father, with two sons of my own.
Ed, though, had a different view. He took his failed attempts to stand up on a board as a personal affront. As if the other surfers, the world, God himself, had all conspired to sleight him.
One arvo, we ate shit for an hour on a shore-break, gave up trying and headed home up the beach. “Fuck this,” Ed kept saying, his leg rope rattling against the hard waxed surface of his board.
“Oi Johnson,” someone yelled from behind us; a girl’s voice, high and teasing. “You looked good out there!”
We turned around and saw it was Emily Miles. She stood on the sand in a pink rashie, her blonde hair wet and knotted, her tanned, freckly face glowing like a dimmer version of the sun. She was in our class at school. Year Seven like us, and already sponsored by Quicksilver.
“I just can’t seem to stick it,” Ed said as we walked up to her.
She put her hand on his shoulder. “Shoreys are the worst to learn on mate. Wait till it’s high tide.”
“Yeah,” Ed said, looking at his feet. He’d gone red and was trying to hide it, I knew. He liked Emily. He hadn’t told me this yet, but I could tell he was keen to pash her.
There was a silence. You could hear those shore-breaks thudding into the sand.
“Well,” she said, “here comes Rach, see you’se.”
We watched her run with her board under her arm to Rachel Sullivan, a Year Nine girl on the junior pro circuit. They were both infinitely better than us. As they jogged up the beach towards Queensie, giggling and nearly stumbling over themselves, I couldn’t help but think they were laughing at our expense.
A few weeks later, I was in Coles with Dad, helping him prepare for the barbie. He had a shopping list that ran across three pages, all in landscape, tabulated, with a space in the far right column to record the prices.
“I know it seems pedantic,” he said to me, “but once you’re in the habit, it’s no trouble at all.”
I didn’t really listen to him explain why he did it. Something to do with keeping them honest; who ‘they’ were, I didn’t know. The fifteen year old check-out chicks?
“Ooh, ooh, ice cream special. Neapolitan Mike, three o’clock.”
“Hang on,” I said, “don’t we have some at home?”
“Yes mate. But this is the best price I’ve seen for it. Get three tubs. Then meet me in the meat aisle.”
I got the tubs and carried them, stacked and cold against my chest, across the store. This would make six tubs in total. I wasn’t even sure we had space in the freezer. I knew we had the barbie this Sat, but even so, based on my rough estimation, there’d be enough Neapolitan for the guests to have five bowls each. In the end, I resolved not to question it, the memory of a two-for-one baked bean deal, and the drama that came with it when Dad tried to buy fifty tins, too fresh in my mind for comfort.
When I got to the meat aisle with the tubs, Dad was on his knees with his head and most of his torso inside a fridge.
“Mike,” he said – his voice sounded tinny, and echoed like he was in a cave – “take these as I hand them to you,” and he passed me tray after tray of grey, icy, priced-slashed steaks.
As I unloaded the trolley at the check-out, Dad stood behind me, scribbling into his table. The sound of his pen, the urgent scrawl of it, made me clench my fists.
“Beautiful,” he said, after we’d packed the boot. “That took six minutes less than planned. Mike? Hold onto your seat, mate. Bunnings is still open,” and he laughed full pelt for the next ten seconds.
On Saturday, Ed and I helped my parents set up for the barbie. The Johnson’s were invited, as well as the Crawley’s and the Mitchell’s from Mum’s church group and a few other adults I’d not met before that Ed’s dad knew from work. We carried two long tables down from the deck and placed them on the grass, end-to-end. Mum had collected an array of different flowers from around the neighbourhood. Not exactly legal, but this didn’t seem to matter. She had us arrange them in terracotta vases along the table. “Put the wisteria and the birds of paradise together at the ends. No Mike, the wisteria? And the birds of paradise?”
Once we’d finished that, Ed and I pleaded our case to be let off for an hour. We wanted to surf. Ed’s sister, Melanie, was around, helping with the salads, so we got our wish. As we left, I noticed Dad and Mr Johnson standing near the barbie, staring intently at their watches and twisting the dials, like they were synchronising time.
There wasn’t any swell. We sat offshore straddling our boards and talked about girls. Ed said he didn’t want a girlfriend. And I said that was bullshit and he should just ask Emily out. He said if I was so sure why didn’t I ask Beth Simpson out, cos he knew I liked her and hung around her locker every arvo to watch her pack her books. “But her locker’s next to mine,” I said, “where else would I be at final bell?”
“Don’t deny what you know is the truth,” he said, frowning. He held the frown for a moment, then we both cracked up. It was what his dad said whenever they argued. Ed liked to mimic it, though never in front of Mr Johnson.
“Don’t deny, young man,” he went on, swinging his arms and splashing up water, “what you know in your guts is true.”
After showering and getting into a clean polo shirt and a pair of pressed shorts, I sat at the table in the yard next to Ed. It was sunset. A peach-coloured sky spread overhead, streaked with golden clouds. The Crawleys, the Mitchells, Mum, Melanie, Mrs Johnson and three other adults were seated, pulling bread apart and buttering it thickly, or pouring hefty splashes of wine or picking grapes from the heaps along the table.
Dad and Mr Johnson stood at the barbie which, by now, was covered in cooked meat. They each held tongs. And a European beer – Dad had bought three cases on special a month earlier. Every now and then he’d take a sip, then say something over his shoulder to the table, laughing.
“The salads look divine,” Mrs Crawley said to Mum, piling her plate with a healthy serve.
“I just think those kinds of short-term fixes are nonsense,” Ed’s mum was saying to a man opposite her, “you can’t expect to tax rich people and promote a healthy economy.”
“Agree entirely,” the man said. He held the stem of his wine glass between his thumb and finger like he was pinching it.
“Who wants rare?” Dad yelled.
“Bloody for me,” Mr Mitchell said.
“And me,” said his wife, throwing back a full flute of sparkling wine. “Would you look at the sky?”
My steak was perfectly cooked, the marinade Dad used so thoroughly soaked-in, you couldn’t even tell it was old. I chomped away. As did Ed and Melanie and everyone else. The sun had slipped behind Dobroyd, leaving Manly in shadow. Up above, fruit bats commenced patrol, their angled wings spread wide, like little stealth bombers.
“Good steak,” Ed said, his mouth full.
“Potato salad’s awesome,” his sister chipped in.
I nodded, my own mouth full, and turned my head in Dad’s direction; he was sitting with Rick at the end of the table. They were entrenched in their own conversation, to the exclusion of the rest of us. I couldn’t make out the words, but the way they moved their hands, their heads wobbling in my periphery, suggested a topic of some severity. Then, as if the last ten minutes had been building to it, Mr Johnson threw down his serviette and yelled in a frantic, high-pitched voice, “Incorrect!”
It was like a car had just smashed into the house. Knives and forks clinked onto plates; all went silent.
“That is incorrect,” Rick said, his voice even higher now, and still very loud, “and you bloody well know it.”
“Rickard,” Mrs Johnson hissed from halfway down the table. But he didn’t seem to hear her.
“It’s not incorrect,” Dad said, squaring back into his seat and pulling a piece of gristle from his mouth. “It’s bang on accurate.”
Now at this moment, we witnessed an event rarely beheld so that, when it happened, no one quite comprehended it. Mr Johnson gripped the edge of the table with both hands and he, well, laughed.
“Rickard?” his wife said.
“Har har har,” her husband went, his mouth contorting into some kind of smile.
“It’s four hundred metres or under, and I’m not kidding you,” Dad said.
“You’ve measured it, have you?” said Rick, whatever imitation of mirth he’d offered, no longer on show.
“Not per se. But I make the walk enough to know, within five metres, how far we live form the sand.”
“If it’s four hundred, I’m the next prime minister.”
“Well,” Dad said, “I hope you’ll have us over to Kirribilli House.”
“What on earth are you two talking about?” said Mum; she had her wine glass up, away from her face, like she was showing it off.
Neither man spoke for a moment. Rick stared at Dad through narrow eyes.
“Why won’t you take my word for it?” Dad said. “We’ve lived here five years. I think I’d know.”
But Rick just kept staring.
At the time, and for a long while after, I thought Dad’s a reasonable question. We had lived there five years. Dad walked to the beach at least once a week. He could guess pretty well about distance. What’s more, Rick was sitting on his lawn, at his table, eating his half-priced steaks. The least he could do was pretend to agree. Over the years though, I have, if not come around, at least come to appreciate Rick’s position. I’m in finance myself now, a controller in a hedge fund, and I’ve learned over the course of my career about men like Rick. Put simply, they can’t help it. Accuracy’s a type of vice. They thrive on and, at times suffer for, it. Of course, in this case, pride was at play too. The Johnsons lived a K from the beach, maybe more. If we lived within four hundred metres, what did that make them, the house that they’d inherited?
“Listen,” Dad said, getting up from his chair, “if you’re so bent on this, let’s go and measure it.”
“Brian, for goodness sake!”
“You’re on,” said Rick, standing up as well, but far too quickly, with rigid shifts in his limbs, so his chair went toppling over.
Dad disappeared inside the house while Rick remained standing at the table, looking around at everyone with pursed lips, his eyes focused, as if we were a corporate board he had to convince of something.
“This won’t take a moment,” he said. While his tone was polite, there was not, as far as I could tell, apology in it.
“Got it!” Dad yelled from up on the deck, waving a cricket ball-sized GPS in his hand. “Let’s go.”
At school on Monday, Ed and I avoided each other. When we talked about it later, we both agreed this had nothing to do with our friendship, which, as it turned out, would remain intact for the rest of high school. It was more out of a sense of duty. A mutual interest in keeping our families away from each other, at least until the heat came off. Tread lightly for a day or two while the ceasefire took hold. That kind of thing. When on Tuesday we met at recess, the first thing Ed said from across the quad, before I’d even reached him, was, “I don’t wanna talk about Dad.”
No beef from me. I didn’t want to go there either. We walked over to the table by the bubblers and sat down to eat.
“He’s taken it pretty bad,” Ed said, ignoring his veto of moments ago.
I nodded solemnly. “Well he shouldn’t. One more metre and he’d have been right.”
“He was convinced, convinced, the GPS was wrong.”
“He made that pretty clear,” I said, nibbling on a shape.
There was a silence. Then he said, “How’s Brian’s nose?”
“It’ll be alright,” I said, though by alright I meant the fracture would eventually resolve into a permanent kink.
As we ruminated over this, a little embarrassed, tacitly committed to delicate words, a voice sung out from behind us.
“Oi Johnson,” it said.
We turned around.
“Heard your old boy bashed Mike’s dad on Sat.”
It was Emily again. She was smiling her white Aussie smile. Beth Simpson, to my horror, stood beside her, blowing a bubble with grape chewing gum.
“Rach was down at the beach. Saw the whole thing.”
“They were mucking around,” I said, not sure who should feel more ashamed, me or Ed.
“Not what Rach said.”
“Yeah, well, they were,” I said, feeling my cheeks go hot from Beth’s stare. And from trying to lie.
When they left the house, at a jogger’s pace, we looked at each other around the table then jumped up together and followed suit. The kids, the adults, everyone. Dad and Rick charged ahead, their eyes glued to the GPS. As we trailed them, I noticed how different they looked from behind. Dad, tall and broad-shouldered with a thick wall of silver-specked hair at the back of his head. Rick, short and wiry, his arms moving quickly at his sides. When they got to the sand at North Steyne, they stopped and peered down at the machine. Dad raised a fist to the sky, a great smooth violet arc, scratched here and there with etchings of cirrus.
“Told ya,” Dad yelled, so we all could hear – we’d held back on the promenade. He laughed. First to us, then in Rick’s face. The punch, when it came, was so swift, I had to ask Ed if it actually happened.
“Maybe they should go easy for a while,” Emily said. “Or only hang out when grown-ups are round.”
“That’s a good one,” I said and I kind of meant it.
The girls stood still for a bit, then walked over and sat down opposite us.
“My dad bashed someone once,” Emily said after a pause; she rested her arms on the table.
This got Ed’s attention. “Really?”
“Yep,” she said, leaning forward. “Some bloke tried to sell him a car. Said it’d done fifty thousand,” – she looked at Beth, then back to us – “turned out it was fifty thousand… and four hundred metres.”
We watched them walk across the quad a second later, laughing and pushing each other.
As soon as my boys were old enough to walk, I had them in the water. It’s part of growing up in beachside Sydney. By eight, they could both surf. This delighted me, though Dad, seventy by now, thought it chagrined.
“You could never surf. But your kids can. Are you saying that doesn’t annoy ya?”
“It doesn’t,” I said. I meant it.
What annoys me is when they leave for school with their shirts hanging out. I can’t stand it when their shoes are scuffed, their hair’s messy or when they don’t wash their hands. I try to be generous with them. More generous than Dad was with me. And I think I do a good job of that. I make a point of not caring about distance, time, prices, even though I’m paid to count. But when they look like slobs, leave their plates lying around, even for a minute, I let them know I’m not happy. I’ve learned that every father has his own nuanced hang-up, and neatness is mine. I’m not naïve enough to think my kids don’t dislike me for it. But I’m also not about to change. As I’ve said, you resign yourself in the face of your inadequacies. Ed still hasn’t accepted this, and in that respect I guess he’s just like his dad. But look. That’s another story.
Maree Spratt is an educator by day, writer by night, and reader at all hours. In 2016 she was shortlisted for Seizure‘s Viva La Novella V, and has since expanded that piece into a novel. In 2018 she completed the Hardcopy Professional Development Program for Australian Writers. She writes to celebrate people.
The Ice Cream Girl
It’s Friday afternoon and I’m the last student left on the school grounds. All week it’s been 40 degrees, and the courtyard outside the staffroom feels like the inside of an oven. I’m sitting at an old desk Miss Waters has pushed up against the glass outer wall for me, just next to the locked door, so I’m easy to see but still not invading her exclusive, air-conditioned space. She looks pretty comfy sitting inside on the brown sofa, working her way through a stack of exam papers as she drinks cold water from a coffee mug.
Hardened balls of chewing gum cling to the wood beneath my desk like molluscs attached to the bottom of a ship. It’s gross, but sometimes I run my fingers over them, and in this heat they feel dewy. I can feel my butt sticking to my plastic seat, and I’m scared that when I finally stand up there will be a circle of sweat on my skirt. I can see it now: when I walk home later down Kelly Avenue, the grade 12 boys will already be sitting in their camper chairs on Jack Wood’s lawn, each of them onto their third or fourth tinny, and when they see me they’ll cat call and ask me why I’m wet.
Frustrated, I use my pencil to shade out the picture of a penis that someone has drawn on the desk, covering it in a shining layer of lead. From time to time I look up and stare longingly at the water cooler in the staffroom corner, watching the bubbles that float cheerfully to the surface whenever Miss gets up to pour herself another cup. They have a fridge in there, too. Back in grade eight, when I was a major try-hard, I used to collect ten rewards stamps a week and claim a free ice-block from the freezer every Friday. I’d usually go for a Cola flavoured Zooper Dooper, although one week I collected twenty stamps and Mr Moreton let me have a rainbow Billabong. The sight of that fridge makes my throat tighten. In primary school, our teacher read us a super depressing story called ‘The Little Match Girl’ in the last week of school. Right now, as I stare longingly through the glass, I reckon they could write an Australian version of that story about me.
I do my best to keep adding lines to the piece of A4 paper Miss Waters thrust at me when I arrived outside the staffroom for this, my after school detention. Miss hates me because she thinks I don’t respect her. She thinks I don’t respect her because I talk all through her lessons. What she doesn’t understand is that I talk because I can’t concentrate on what she’s got to say anyway. The staffroom has air-conditioning, sure, but this is Malooburah High: not some fancy school in the city. The majority of classrooms have this thing called an AirBreeze, and although it’s not great at cooling down the room, it’s excellent at creating what my Mum would call ‘an infernal racket.’ It’s a hungry, box-shaped monster affixed to the ceiling that noisily sucks hot air out of the room like it’s slurping a milkshake through a straw. I think everyone knows that it doesn’t really work, but at the start of every lesson we badger the teacher to use it, raising valid arguments about our human rights, until eventually – no doubt because the heat is driving them crazy too – they give up and turn it on. At that point the lesson may as well be over. I’m not going to sit and try to lip read in a noisy room that still reeks of BO, no matter how often Miss Waters wants to shriek my name and her catchphrase – show some respect! – over the asthmatic wheeze of the AirBreeze and the hum of twenty-seven other kids ignoring her too.
The detention is supposed to be about the fact I never bring my laptop to school, but she’s added a dig about me talking in class to the sentence that she wants me to copy out. She wrote it on the first line in blue ballpoint, with x100 circled in the top left hand corner of the page. This simply confirms that she hates me. I asked around at lunch to see who else has had an after-school with Waters, and pretty much everyone said that she only ever makes you write out sixty lines, max.
‘I must bring my laptop to class every lesson, and I must respectfully listen to my teacher when she is talking,’ I write for, if I’ve been counting correctly, the forty-third time.
What Miss Waters doesn’t realise is that in the last year, since the second round of lay-offs happened at Maloobarah Mine, things around my house have been going missing. My father was the first, and arguably the most notable, disappearance. He told us he’d gotten a new job as a FIFO – but instead of just flying out, he fucked off. Not long after that I noticed that Mum was no longer wearing her pearl earrings, and when I checked the bathroom they weren’t in her jewellery box either. The rug disappeared from the living room floor. The TV went missing, and the only explanation we got was that we should be doing our assignments instead of watching it anyway. But then my laptop vanished too, and I had nothing to do said assignments on. All that we’ve gained in the face of all this loss is a growing pile of empty wine bottles in the cardboard box underneath the sink. When I walk them to the recycling bin on a Friday night and lift the lid, I always grit my teeth before I drop them because I feel sure they will shatter. In actual fact they never do– but the thump they make when they hit the bottom always, to me, feels violent.
It would have been far too complicated to explain this set of circumstances to Miss Waters when she asked where my laptop was, so I settled with a safer excuse: I forgot to bring it. It’s still charging up at home on my desk. I used that same excuse for weeks, even after my desk had disappeared too. Eventually I swallowed my pride and put my name on the list at the library to borrow a school-issued device, though not before I’d earned this detention with Waters. Every school laptop has a numeric code written in yellow permanent marker on the back of the screen, in big, bright numerals so they don’t get lost or stolen. Mine is number 8-2-3, but it may as well say P-O-V. It takes about twenty minutes to load at the start of every lesson. Another reason why I talk in class.
My punishment for neglecting to bring technology to school is to sit and write with what I could have used instead: a pencil. I wonder if this is an example of an ironic situation. I’d know for certain if I’d listened to that lesson on ‘comic devices,’ in which Miss went through 57 Power Point slides on what it means to be funny without cracking a smile once – not even when the class erupted in laughter at the moment she realised that Dallas was stuck. Incredibly, he’d managed to crawl all the way to the other side of the room without her noticing and squeeze the first half of his body through the window in a botched effort to escape. I really hope that he got more than sixty lines.
The pencil she’s given me to write my lines with this afternoon is covered in bite marks. The rubber is missing and someone has crushed the thin metal casing that used to hold it with their teeth. Kids can be real feral sometimes. I get hungry, sure, especially lately – but I’m never going to start gnawing on my stationary. When I cross the T on teacher for the 52nd time, the lead breaks. Typical. I stand up and press my face against the glass. Waters looks like the star of some furniture commercial, relaxing on the sofa with a plumped-up pillow beside her, her perfect hair framing the sides of her face as she calmly writes feedback on another exam paper. I tap on the glass –I guess a bit aggressively. She looks up at me, although I feel like she’s looking through me. She puts her marking aside and walks over to the sliding door, wrenching the handle down to unlock it. She puts her head out but keeps her feet in. it’s enough for me to catch a gust of the air-conditioning.
‘I need a better pencil,’ I tell her.
‘Now. Could you say that in a politer way?’ she asks. I hate the way she speaks. It doesn’t matter what she says, what I hear is always the same: you’re an idiot.
‘I can’t address this problem for you until you ask me to do so in a politer, more respectful way. So what are you going to say to me instead?’
I know exactly what she wants me to say, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to say it. If I bat my eyelids and chime ‘may I have another pencil please, Miss Waters?’ I reckon I might vomit in my mouth. Which would be saying something, because I haven’t eaten anything yet today. There’s a withered brown leaf at me feet. I grind it into the concrete with the tip of my shoe.
‘The pencil you gave me is fucked,’ I say. ‘Reckon you could fix me up with one that actually works?’
I’m definitely not the first student at Maloobarah High to talk to a teacher like this. It’s a style of communicating with authority that I’ve only adopted in the last year or so, though. I look into her eyes defiantly. She stares back. A thin film of tears starts to cloud my vision. For a moment, I think I can see the same intensity of emotion in her eyes, too. Then she turns her back on me, takes her pencil case off the coffee table and withdraws a better, sharpened pencil. I sit back down at my desk, my skirt practically squelching, and drag the feet of my chair against the concrete as I move forward in the hope that the sound makes her flinch.
She doesn’t react.
‘I’m going to choose to ignore the fact that you swore,’ she says, placing the pencil on my desk without looking at me. ‘This one is brand new. When I hear from you again, I want it to be because you’ve finished all your lines.’
She slides the door closed and returns to her place on the sofa. I’m glad that I didn’t cry. A slow rage simmers in my chest as I pick up the new pencil and write for the fifty-third time that I should bring my laptop to school and respect my teacher. I think I’ve actually managed to upset her. She’s picked up her exam papers again but her pen remains poised over the top one, and her eyes are staring into the page instead of darting over it. She’s also forgotten to relock the door.
I remember feeling overcome with anger when our primary teacher read us that story called ‘The Little Match Girl.’ She lies outside the window of some rich family in the freezing cold, staring in longingly at their Christmas turkey and their fireplace, until she suffers hypothermia and dies. A few sooks in the class cried when they realised she was dead, but more than anything, I felt anger.
“Why didn’t anyone help her?” I asked my teacher.
“I think that’s the question the author wants you to ask,” she replied, without actually answering it for me.
“Why didn’t she break into the house?” I asked.
I remember my teacher laughing at that. “I guess because she was a good girl.”
Back then I saw myself as a good girl too, but I still thought that if I were in her situation, I would have tossed a rock through the window. Right now I’m fairly sure that I’m not going to die of heat exhaustion, so my situation is not as desperate as hers, but I still feel almost as pathetic. I’m thirsty. I’m hungry. My head feels light. The lines seem to blur and shift as I write. I’m not going to throw a rock through the glass, but I decide that if the chance arises, I will do something to help myself. I’m not going to let Waters, of all people, make me feel this small.
I’m finishing off my eighty-sixth line when the opportunity presents itself. She puts her glasses down on the coffee table, stands up and smooths the edges of her dark grey pencil skirt. She turns on her heel without acknowledging me and walks down the short hallway, disappearing into the toilet for female teachers. I know I have to act right away. If I’m lucky she’s gone to do a shit, but Waters strikes me as the uptight sort of bitch who would only ever want to crap at home. She’s had so much to drink from the cooler that I reckon she definitely needs to piss, and although I should factor in time for her to wash her hands and primp her hair in the mirror, that still only gives me three or four minutes at the most. I stand, slide the door open properly, and walk in. The cold air envelopes me instantly. It feels as good as jumping into the town swimming pool on the first day of the holidays. I walk swiftly but softly across the carpet to the water cooler, collect a plastic cup and fill it up to the brim. I skull it. Much like the air-con, it feels glorious. I crush the cup with my hand and toss it in the wastepaper bin. Then I make my way to the fridge. The plan is to grab a Billabong and hide it in my backpack. Finish my lines quickly and then eat it on the way home, even if it is half-melted. My hand is on the freezer when I’m suddenly distracted. There is a photograph pinned to the bulletin board nearby that commands all of my attention.
There is a photograph of me on the wall.
I know that time is running out, but this is too weird to ignore. It’s sitting there beside four other school portraits, lined up in a row like a series of mug shots from an old-school Western movie. And based on the other photos, I am in the company of outlaws. There’s Ethan, who deals drugs in the toilets. Sarah, who threw a chair at Mr Oberton last year. Tia, who I haven’t actually seen at school since week one, but who I did see drinking with some older guy down by the creek on Saturday. Roger, who is suspended for smoking behind the industrial bins. And then, right next to Roger, there’s me. Of all people, me. I walk over and run my finger down the laminated edge of my photo. It’s the first time I’ve seen my school portrait this year – Mum hasn’t bought one since year two– and although I look kind of pale, and the small community of pimples that lives on my forehead is very visible, overall I reckon I don’t look half bad. The deep blue background they make you pose in front of actually brings out my eyes. There’s a heading above the mugshots: YEAR 10 STUDENTS AT RISK, it says. I don’t get it. This is supposed to be an English staffroom, but that is surely not a complete sentence.
At risk of what?
What do they think I’m at risk of?
Is it something they think I’m going to do, or something that will happen to me?
Is it so bad they can’t bring themselves to say it?
I hear the unmistakable gurgle of a toilet flushing, and I know I should hurry back outside, but it might already be too late now, and the anger is surging in my chest again. If you ask me my picture belongs to me, so I remove it from the bulletin board and stuff it in my pocket, the thumb tack still in place. The ice-creams I know I have no claim to, but I’m angry, and I want one. I can hear the tap running in the toilet as Ms Waters washes her hands. I throw the freezer door open and my eyes fall on a packet of Zooper Doopers, a few loose Billabongs, and – praise God – a box of Magnums. I grab the Magnums and make a run for it. I don’t even bother to close the freezer door. There also isn’t time to pack the box into my backpack, which is slouched against the leg of the desk. As I scoop it up off the floor and toss it over my shoulder her new pencil falls and lands on the concrete. I wouldn’t be surprised if the lead breaks.
When Miss exits the bathroom I’ve already blitzed half-way across the courtyard with the box of Magnums held tightly against my chest. She doesn’t bother to chase after me. Over the sound of my own laboured breathing I hear her shout something about phoning my parents. Well, I think, good luck to her. Mum doesn’t answer the phone when she’s drunk, and Dad – I’d actually love it if she managed to get in touch with Dad. He doesn’t pick up when I call.
Jane Downing has had poetry and prose published around Australia and overseas, including in Griffith Review, The Big Issue, Southerly, Island, Overland, Westerly, Canberra Times, Cordite, and Best Australian Poems (2004 & 2015). A collection of her poetry, ‘When Figs Fly,’ was published by Close-Up Books in 2019. She can be found at janedowning.wordpress.com
Spitting Out the Bones
The interior of the restaurant in the small town south of Bordeaux was warmly lit. Ainslee had not met Rees and Pru Hardwick outside of their son’s storytelling but she instantly recognised the couple being shown to a table inside. The progress of the two across the restaurant was framed by first one and then the next broad window. Ainslee paused on the cobbled street to watch them and Finbar turned to urge her to hurry.
She should have known there’d be problems when Finbar told her they’d have to dress for dinner.
‘Really? I was planning to go naked,’ she’d joked.
His face had told her all she needed to know about the seriousness of his meaning. She’d already been made to understand how incredibly generous his parents were being to include her in the invitation to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. In the south of France. When her parents celebrated twenty-five years of marriage, they did it in the backyard surrounded by family, friends and barbeque fumes, not on the other side of the world. So Ainslee did count herself very lucky indeed to be in Europe. She and Finbar were tacking a few weeks of travel on the back of the trip, a smattering of capitals and fine art. She knew showing enthusiasm wasn’t cool so she’d kept it under wraps like a Christo coastline. She was pleased with herself about that comparison: her first taste of the effects of French sophistication.
Predictably, because when men dress for dinner the instructions are black and white, Finbar and his father were mirror images of each other in well-fitted suits and discreet black ties buttoning up starched shirts. The older Hardwick, seen through the restaurant window, was carrying his age well, with some help from a supporting cummerbund. Less predictably, Ainslee found her boyfriend’s mother a shock. Pru Hardwick was wearing the same shade of grey – called charcoal with poetic license on the label – as the dress Ainslee was wearing under her coat. The same fitted Mad Man style dress. Damn the advice of women’s fashion magazines.
‘It’s not the exact same,’ Finbar laughed. But there were enough similarities for him to have noticed when she handed in her coat at the vestiaire. ‘You’re going to fit right in,’ he added sarcastically.
She’d piled her hair up, equating this with adult elegance. Finbar moved towards the tables and Ainslee pulled out an elastic tie, two combs and five pins and played cheap Santa, depositing the hairdressing aids at the foot of a potted pine tree. She shook her hair free. It’d look like a bird’s nest, which had all the advantages of not being a bit like his mother’s style.
She also prepared a smile which was wilting by the time they too had gained the specially booked table in the far corner of the restaurant. The carpet was so thick she felt herself sinking with every step. The depth if the carpet pile muted all sounds. The ensemble on the back wall played pianissimo, the maître d’ glided ahead of them as if on wheels.
And then the rush was on them. The older Hardwicks were up and Finbar was embraced and bear-hugged and he turned to pull her into the circle and there was all the awkwardness of an introduction when all parties know they’ve been talked about, but do not know to what extent, and by which details.
Ainslee knew about the money, the generations of successive accumulation through business interests, whatever that meant; the advent of paid parking lots had been spoken of, as someone had to be on the side being paid. She knew about Rees Hardwick’s private school, the name of which she’d vaguely recognised, of the class he was in with a former Attorney General. She knew he paid a fortune for hair plugs and had a line of PAs who were invariably swipe-rights, and that he barracked for Richmond, or at least one of the clubs with an animal as its mascot. She knew Pru Hardwick was a keen gardener and had three employed at peak times on their block and had a Daphne of particular temperamentality which was the bane of her life.
As she offered her hand to shake, she wondered what the parents had heard about her. Mr Hardwick looked her directly in the eye, implying he knew things even Finbar didn’t know to divulge. Or maybe that was her projected fear. No one mentioned her spot-the-difference charcoal grey dress. Politeness maybe, or because by then Rees Hardwick was in full flood with his own concerns.
Champagne was opened by a waiter at her side in the traditional way, the air escaping around the released cork with the sigh of a contented woman.
‘Son, a good trip?’ the father asked after he’d detailed his own.
‘Did I tell you Ainslee is vegan?’ Finbar said as a reply.
All eyes turned on her. So that’s something you couldn’t have told them earlier? When discussing a big silver anniversary dinner in the south of France? Thank you very much. Ainslee reached for her champagne.
Pru Hardwick spoke for the first time, with some of Ainslee’s feeling of ire in her voice. ‘No Finbar, you didn’t tell us.’
‘They can rustle up something our dinner eats,’ Rees Hardwick said loudly, waving his hand in the direction of the discreet wait-staff.
Ainslee didn’t look at Finbar. She gulped down too much champagne in one go then realised she should have waited for a toast, then didn’t care and downed the rest of the glass.
‘Thank you for answering one question for me,’ his father congratulated Finbar once the dietary requirement was conveyed with exaggerated eye-rolling. ‘That old one about whether vegans fuck meat eaters. Sleeping with the enemy.’
Mrs Hardwick slapped her husband’s arm. ‘Behave,’ she hissed.
Ainslee realised this was not the first bottle of champagne for the night. She pretended not to notice the atmosphere and reminded herself of the dangers of first impressions. Finbar wouldn’t have got a look in, with that name for starters, and the plum accent. They were probably sweet gracious people when they weren’t celebrating. In the south of France. Her own mum was indiscretion’s first cousin when she had a few Moscato in, and hadn’t Ainslee and her friends made the same jokes about the products of other animals and blow jobs? Besides, the champagne flute was miraculously full again and they had a train to Barcelona booked for the next afternoon and they had food to concentrate on in the meantime.
‘I am sorry you’ll miss this unique experience,’ Pru assured her with great sincerity. Ainslee looked for traces of Finbar in her dragged and plucked and redrawn features. No, there was nothing off the distaff side. She wondered if the Botox was an anniversary present. The lips smiled. ‘Is this a health thing?’ the woman asked. ‘I’ve heard it is an excellent diet for keeping weight down.’
Ainslee eyed Pru across the rim of her glass, wondering where her cheekbones were under the layers of makeup. Ainslee could have been polite. ‘Yes, it is a health thing,’ she answered. But she wasn’t. Polite. ‘I don’t eat animals – for their health and wellbeing.’
‘Well at least this one has spirit,’ the older male Hardwick boomed.
Ainslee blushed. She felt a stab of complicity, because she agreed with him entirely. Finbar’s last girlfriend had been a mouse: posh like him, quiet like him. Then she registered the preface to his father’s observation. At least. She suddenly wondered, belatedly, was she Finbar’s bit of rough?
Finbar’s shoe touched hers under the table. Maybe she’d passed a test with this faint whiff of approval from his father. She slipped off her right shoe and rubbed her foot up his calf. He kept his eyes on his father and she gasped silently to herself: I really am in France, the land of Proust and Colette, of castles and cathedrals, of cafes and Existentialists. And cabbages and kings. All the things she’d fantasized about when she was bickering with her sister in the shared bedroom of the family’s ex-govie house, their mother’s sewing machine going like the clappers in the nook beside the kitchen. And now she was here.
She glazed away from the conversation as she took in more of her immediate surroundings. She figured Rees Hardwick was deliberately describing the killing of animals in detail for her benefit and she was pretty sure she didn’t owe him her ears. The restaurant was full, each table like the candle-lit interior of a Dutch painting. She noted how young she and Finbar were amongst this crowd.
Before she could take in details, she couldn’t help tuning back in on the word ‘illegal,’ which Finbar’s mother echoed for effect, clearly having had twenty-five years of practise being her husband’s cheer squad.
‘This is a very special night,’ Mr Hardwick murmured more softly than any of his previous announcements. He touched the side of his nose, an international gesture of collusion. ‘I’ve paid an arm and a leg.’
Which was a lot less than the birds were paying. Ainslee put the echoes of his lecture together: the little songbirds that were soon to be served were illegally caught in nets as they migrated to Africa. Ainslee was no longer surprised by the techniques of animal farming, but that was the easy bit to hear and she was listening now. There was a hush all around them, all stray sounds absorbed by the carpet and their intense concentration.
‘The ortolan feeds at night and it’s an easy matter to trick the birds into thinking they live in perpetual nighttime. They’re kept in dark boxes, nothing barbaric like the Romans who stabbed their eyes out. There they gorge 24/7. Right little porkers, gobbling down the grain until they’re obese.’
The word was an insult on his tongue.
Ainslee kept up a protective commentary inside her head. Oh the French, oh là là, she told herself. Don’t be shocked, she told herself. It’s another culture. She’d get a salad for sure, they’d try to sneak in a blue cheese dressing but she’d be gracious while not eating it. Instagram reassured her constantly, when in Rome – you could do whatever you wanted these days.
‘Ingenious these people,’ Rees Hardwick approved.
Her host was clearly enjoying himself. Ainslee imagined boyhood dinners with only-child Finbar hanging on every word. The poor little bugger. She rubbed her foot higher up his calf, contemplated resting it on his lap, but realised for all his father’s self-absorption, he had an eagle eye.
‘They’ve figured out the best way to kill our ortolan dinner. Drown the birds in Armagnac. Death and marinate in one go.’
Ainslee blanched just as the restaurant’s volume was turned up high. Clapping started near the door to the kitchens and rose in a wave across the tables. The smell and the sizzle arrived at once. A trolley for each table, manoeuvred by a chef in a double-breasted white jacket and a high white hat. Upon each the obese little birds rested on a bed of flames. No more than a mouthful of flesh and bones taking the central role in the performance art of flambé.
Blue flames lay as foundation for the mesmerizing shots of red and orange. Ainslee tore her eyes from the blubbery songbirds in the midst of the fire, from their staring eyes, and she watched the Hardwick family continue to watch them cook in brandies and oils. Was it greed in their eyes? Was she reading too much between the lines, pivoting on the hard word ‘illegal’ and the soft word ‘songbird’? Finbar was almost certainly hungry from jetlag and journeys. Hunger and greed are related, though not twins. She wanted to see only hunger.
But she wasn’t to see much more.
She had a friend who grew up in a cult. She still heard Wendy’s astonishment when she realised anew that the rituals she’d taken for granted as a child could make her new friends laugh.
Ainslee laughed as the group on the next table each placed a large white serviette over their heads. Then their chef condescended to explain how this operation served to contain the aromas and flavours of the ortolan and thus optimised the dining experience. He bowed before he pushed his empty trolley back to the kitchens.
Pru Hardwick was giggling rather than laughing. ‘They say the serviette protects you from God’s eyes,’ she added. Then she went under.
Her husband made a great display about placing and straightening his God proof fence.
Ainslee caught Finbar’s eye. The omnipotence of God was the great mystery here. If only she’d known a thin layer of starched linen could arrest His gaze. She said all this in lover’s morse code, a wide-eyed goggle followed quickly by three blinks.
Sighs and groans emanated from under the tent city of gourmands around them. Ainslee followed Finbar’s look downwards to the dead songbird on his plate. It was a bloated yellowy blimp with stunted wing nubs and blank eyes.
‘Beak and all?’ he whispered.
The crunching around them answered yes. They’d watched her neighbour’s cat eat a mouse together. Even it had left the head.
‘You’re not…’ Ainslee gasped.
But he was. He shrugged. ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do.’ His face disappeared and his disembodied hands passed the ortolan unto the maw that lay beneath.
There was no-one left for Ainslee to roll her eyes at. If they could only see themselves. Her dad would cack himself. She could hear him in the rough voice she’d become embarrassed by once she got to university. Bunch of cultured twats, he called people like this. Looking like dicks under starched serve-you-rights.
Finbar gurgled beside her. The bird was to be eaten in just one mouthful. She imagined his tongue reaching the skull of the bird. She knew the weight of it in her own mouth: heavy and firm. The bone would shatter under the weight, collapse into creamy brain. The ribs would splinter around the organs, the nutty heart bursting, the punctured lungs released gulps of Armagnac. One mouthful, to be eaten in one go. A crowd masticating alone, shielded from God’s eyes. Chewing and sucking. Not one of them would notice if she got up and left. She could take her pretentious mistake of a dress and her spurt of ‘spirit’ and her retreating footsteps would be muted by the carpet and eclipsed by the introspective sensual pleasures the patrons had paid a fortune for.
A tintinnabulation of bell-like noises sounded around the restaurant as she pushed her chair back. Tiny chimes as the larger indigestible bones landed on pure white plates.
She was simultaneously inside Finbar’s mouth being sucked and gnawed and outside on the cobbles again looking in on the velvet curtains and brass lamps and depth of history and saturation of high culture. She might condemn but she saw that she was the one who didn’t fit the world. For the length of a bird’s song she was a class traitor and longed for such an incontrovertible sense of belonging.
But birdsongs, she realised, don’t last long even when they’re not cut short by nets and torture.
Caitlin Doyle-Markwick is an activist, writer and performer from Sydney, by way of Newcastle. Her writing has appeared in publications like Overland, Antipodes and Otoliths. Working with her theatre collective BigMuscles SadHeart, she wrote and produced her first play, JobReady, a surreal, black comedy about the welfare system, in 2017. In 2019 she was a resident playwright at the Old 505 Theatre, where her latest play, As She Lay, will premier in 2020. Caitlin is a member of Solidarity and the Refugee Action Coalition.
Tiny bubbles of oil swell and pop, and swell and pop, occasionally sending boiling droplets flying outwards like golden spittle. Little red-black dots speckle my forearms where it has got me before.
The blood smell has gone and has been replaced with the protein smell. The meat smell. I flip the patty and it hisses at me. Steam billows up and around my face.
I feel a hand on my waist. Not my waist, the bit halfway between back and bum, whatever that bit’s called. Jamie leans around me, but not so close that the steam gets him.
‘Mairana, would you mind jumping up to the counter for a while? We’re a bit short.’
‘Ah, yeah… sure’, I say, shifting to the left to let his hand drop off my body.
‘Geordie, can you…?’ he looks at Geordie and indicates, with a yellow-white latex-gloved hand, to the two hotplates. Geordie nods, moves in between the two plates. You get to be dextrous with those spatula and tongs after a while, like Geordie is.
I go out the back to swap my apron for a clean one and examine myself in the mirror. The sweat sits thick on my face. I wipe it off but it appears again straight away. My skin has broken out in pimples again. There’s a halo of frizz around my head, and my black curls spring out at all angles. I try to flatten it all with my palms, but then give up and pull it all back into a hairnet.
I step back to see myself from a distance. My shirt stretches too tightly across my boobs. I gained weight, will have to lose it so that button doesn’t pop. I pull the apron up and re-tie it.
I look through the round window into the kitchen. The door keeps out most of the sound and it’s like looking in on a silent film, one stuck on loop where the machines and the people keep doing the same movements. I cross my eyes slightly to blur my vision. Now it looks like a watercolour, where the paint hasn’t dried yet and is still sliding across the page. All smudgy silver, yellow, red. Sometimes I do this, just to soften things a bit.
Jamie’s face appears in the window, a blot of pink.
‘Coming,’ I say, refocusing my eyes. I swing the door open and walk up to the counter.
For the year I’ve worked here I’ve managed to stay mostly on cooking, where I don’t have to face the public and I can’t hear the train announcements flooding in through the front doors every other minute.
A customer waits while I navigate the ordering system. I pretend not to notice him. If I say sorry he’ll think I’ve done something wrong, so I don’t. I want to tell him, it’s this computer, the bastard-of-a-thing, but I don’t.
‘I need to jump on a train at 10:50,’ he says.
‘Just a minute.’ My uniform is sticking to the sweat on my back. ‘Okay. What can I get you?’
‘A large chicken nugget meal, please, with Fanta, not Coke.’
I notice the man’s collar is stained yellow where it meets his neck. Doesn’t he know not to wear white twice in a row?
‘Will that be all?’
‘Tap here, please.’
He pulls his card out of his breast pocket, which has a blue logo on it in a star shape, and a pen stain.
‘Thanks, Darl’’. He’s happier now his nuggets are coming.
‘Mairana, you’ll have to pick up the pace before peak hour.’ Jamie’s voice comes up from behind me. ‘We’ll be getting slammed soon.’
He walks back into his office out the back.
‘Little prick,’ Clara says, only loud enough for me to hear. She’s behind the computer next to me. Clara’s worked here for three years, Jamie for nine months.
‘Geordie reckons he’s getting promoted to regional manager soon,’ I say.
‘Scum always floats to the top,’ she replies.
‘Ha…Yeah.’ I wonder if scum would have bought us all Celebrations chocolates for Easter when he arrived, like Jamie did. Probably. A scummy ploy, maybe.
For the next two hours, the orders come non-stop. It’s just past two o’clock, the end of my shift, when they slow to a halt.
‘Where’d you say you moved to, Mairana?’ Clara asks in front of the lockers.
‘Arncliffe,’ I lie.
‘Ah yeah, that’s right. Same line as me. Leaves in five, we better be quick.’
‘I’m actually going to stay at a friend’s house nearby,’ I lie again.
‘Oh.’ She smiles and winks, ‘got it.’
Some clothes and a book fall out of my locker onto the ground.
‘You wanna squish a bit more in there?’ she says.
‘I keep meaning to clear it out but… you know.’
‘Yeah. G’night. See you tomorrow.’
‘Yep. See ya then.’ I wait for her to leave before I pull out the blanket.
I check my phone. I’ve missed the Lithgow train. Damn. The Newcastle train, second best, leaves in five minutes. I check that Clara has gone and then run across the station hall and through the gates.
I manage to go unnoticed by the noisy lads going back to the Coast, and find an almost empty carriage. The nylon seats are purple now. I like it better than the bureaucracy-green of the old seats. Purple feels softer, more like a colour someone might paint their bedroom.
I lie down on one of the three-seat chairs and pull my blanket around me as the train starts moving. A voice comes through the overhead speaker in a tired, indifferent drawl. Sometimes I feel like the surly tones of the drivers are reserved for me, as if they can see me through their cameras, curled up on seats that were made exclusively for bums, thighs and backs, not for torsos, heads, feet. Or like I’m a stranger they found lying on their porch in the morning.
‘Thank you… we hope… journey.’ I catch the driver’s last words.
I open my book to the dog-eared page. I found this book on the last train. Next door to Number Twelve-and-a-half was an empty shop. It had been empty for so long that Mumma often groaned and grunted her way through a hole in the paling fence and hung here washing in the backyard. When Roie and Dolour were little they had often peered through the black glass… But I’m too tired to keep reading. I drape a scarf over my eyes to block out the light as the train staggers out of the city.
A hand pats my shoulder gently.
‘Good morning, Mairana.’ Rohit is looking over me with his nice smile, holding his cleaning equipment, a bag in one hand and the long pincer tool in the other.
The train is still and the sky outside is turning pink.
‘Did you sleep well?’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Pretty well.’ My body feels heavy and my eyes aren’t ready to open yet. ‘Deeply, anyway.’
‘No trouble?’ he says.
‘No, no trouble.’ I rub my eyes. ‘Thanks for waking me.’
‘You are welcome. You have a good day, take care.’
‘You too. See you soon.’
He pincers a soggy newspaper and puts it in the bag before going upstairs.
A coal ship sounds its horn as it is pulled into the harbour. A deep groan that rumbles under my feet and up through the city. Another fifteen ships sit waiting in a sullen line along the horizon.
By the time I arrive at the beach the sun is up, casting a greyish light over the flat ocean.
I pile my things close to the water where I can keep an eye on them, and change into my swimmers under my towel.
I walk slowly into the water until it reaches my waist and then dive in. The water’s still cold. It’s that time in December when the ocean is still catching up to the air.
Under the cover of the water I rub my underarms and my groin clean. The grease on my skin rises to the surface and swirls around me for a moment before it drifts off. I get some sand between my fingers and rub the skin on my face until it feels smooth.
I put on my goggles, take a breath and dive down as deep as I can. I push the air out of my lungs so that I can sit like a stone on the sand.
I used to do this as a kid, only then it was in those chlorine suburban swimming pools, where the sides are curved and painted that aqua colour so the pool looks like it goes on forever. It was part of a game I would play with my friends, called ‘Stone’. I’d stay down there as long as I could, until I thought I might pass out. I got to be very good at it.
I move my fingers side to side front of my face. They look like they’re glowing. Why does everything look whiter under water? Beads of air cling to the tiny hairs all over my body. I touch my belly and feel movement under the surface. Does the salt water make your organs float? My skin feels liquid to touch, like it might just dissolve in the water.
All I can hear now is the blood pumping out of my heart, up my neck and past my ear drums, so that it sounds like the whole ocean is pulsing around me. My lungs start to feel tight after a minute. I can’t hold it long these days.
I wish humans had evolved to have bigger lungs so I could stay down here longer, in this blue blue blue where there’s no clanking or announcements or complicated orders of chicken-burger-without-the-cheese or fat-sizzle noises. What if we rewound evolution and went back to the sea? Back past the point of fish and their shark terror to the calm of being a jellyfish, floating along with the current, not even needing lungs or breath, maybe glowing, if it’s deep enough. Or a Cunjevoi, squirting a bubble of air out every so often to keep things fresh. Or seaweed, or some other part of the seabed, thinking that the sky is that silvery layer that is the top of the water and never knowing what the real sky is, never needing to know.
The edges of my vision are going dark now. I push myself back up to the surface and my lungs inflate with air again.
The first morning swimmers are arriving. A late middle aged couple, retirees probably, who go to bed early and wake up at this hour by choice.
I adjust my swimmers as I get out of the water. They’ve gone saggy around the bum and the underarms.
‘Stunning morning, isn’t it?’ says the man.
‘Lovely,’ I say.
I rinse off in the shower and buy a coffee to drink while I wait for the bathrooms to open. Not sure why the coffee shop opens first. I unwrap the burger from last night in my handbag – I’ve learned to leave the tomato and mayonnaise off so it stays dry – and sit next to the rock pools while I eat.
The tide has only just gone out and the wet, blue-grey rock in between the pools looks like damp, pockmarked skin. Just below me is a manhole-sized pool. The dark seaweed that lines the walls moves slowly to and fro, as if the pool is its own tiny sea with a current of its own. Maybe the pools are all connected underneath by tiny tunnels that all lead back to the ocean. A few fish swim around the bottom, too big to swim through any possibly-existing tunnels, waiting for the tide to return and take them back out to sea.
Seagulls start to gather around me. I shoo them away with my foot. ‘Piss off’ – like they understand me. I wonder sometimes if they feel any shame, scavenging like this. I finish the burger and fill the rest of the space with coffee.
In the bathroom I get back into my uniform. Haven’t had time to wash other clothes yet. My uniform smells like chips, but nothing worse than that.
The woman next to me on the platform looks familiar. She’s got a travel bag on wheels and too many layers of clothes on for this weather.
I remember now. I’ve seen her once, maybe twice, on the Lithgow Line. She looks tired, but a resigned kind of tired, like she doesn’t expect to be not tired any time soon. We lock eyes for a moment and I think she recognises me. She looks away and walks along the platform to the opposite end of the train.
I find an empty carriage. I don’t bother to take out my book this time, the coffee did nothing. Caffeine when you’re this tired is like trying to paint over a crack in a wall when the wall has actually been split in two. I fall asleep before the train leaves the station.
‘Nah, I didn’t even see it happen—’ I open my eyes just as the boy sees me. He whispers something to his friends and they go back up the stairs. I fall back to sleep for ten minutes.
‘Morning ladies and gentlemen. Just need to check your Opal Cards’. I pull my blanket off and try to push it out of sight. The inspector holds her hand out for my card. ‘Thank you.’ She looks me up and down before walking off.
I don’t get back to sleep. The carriage fills up at Hornsby and there’s no way to lie down.
I buy the paper and sit on a bench where no one can see me from work. Around me are a few old people with their own newspapers in all different languages, sitting here pretending that they’re waiting for a train when really they’re just watching, waiting for nothing. Then there’s the intercity passengers, or customers, as we call them now, waiting with their luggage, half an hour early for the train just to be safe. Some of the older ones are well dressed, as if country trains are still a fancy thing. Pigeons walk around on their club feet picking up crumbs with their broken beaks. If only they knew how healthy the pigeons in the suburbs are, maybe they would go there. Then there are the lumps along the edges of the hall, like mushrooms growing in the cracks of the building, that are actually humans in sleeping bags.
There’s a commotion near the entry gates. I look over my newspaper with the other bench people.
‘There’s nothing we can do about it Ma’am,’ a station guard says. ‘There are some complications with the new timetable.’
‘How does a train just get cancelled? It’s just sitting there not moving.’
‘There will be another train leaving from Platform 19 in ten minutes.’
‘Why can’t you people just do your jobs properly and make the fucking trains go?’
‘I am doing my job, Ma’am.’
The backs of my eyeballs hurt. The screen leaves white rectangles in my vision when I look up at the woman in front of me.
‘Just a chicken burger please.’
The burgers fly across the screen at my fingertips. Chicken burger.
‘No, thank you.’
‘That’s six ninety-five.’
She gives me cash. I open the till and slowly count out the coins for her change. It feels as though someone is pushing on my head from all angles. I picture myself lying down to sleep on the counter between the computers.
‘If you see unattended baggage… please do not touch it… notify staff immediately.’ An announcement moves across the hall from the platforms and through the front of the shop. I don’t know if I would have heard it if I didn’t know the words off-by-heart. It’s like when a friend calls from far away and you only hear them through the ruckus because you know their voice. Except this isn’t a friend. It’s more like when you hear a song you know from a distance, and suddenly you can hear the melody clearly, because you know it.
I count the coins again and put them into the woman’s hand.
‘Sorry, I need another dollar,’ she says.
‘Oh, sorry.’ I hand it over.
‘Just a large chips please.’
A little girl looks over the counter next to her father. I can tell he’s her father by their heavy eyebrows.
‘And a Coca Cola,’ she says. Father looks down at her, then back at me.
‘And some orange juice, please,’ he says.
In the top right hand corner of the screen the fifty-nine turns to two zeroes and the thirteen before it turns to a fourteen.
I log out and walk out the back. Clara is gathering her things, moving quickly. Or maybe my mind is moving slowly. She looks up.
‘You look buggered. You alright?’
‘Yeah. Just tired. Didn’t sleep well.’
Jamie walks through the door behind me.
‘Hey guys,’ he says. He’s smiling. ‘Look, I’m really sorry about this, but we’re a bit understaffed today and I just need one of you to stay for another hour or so until Jason comes in.’
Neither of us speaks.
‘Just an hour. Really. Tops.’
‘I need to pick up my kid,’ Clara says. ‘I get charged more if I’m late.’
I rest my forehead against my locker and close my eyes. I think about lowering myself down into a deep rock pool. How I would take a deep breath and dive down to see if there were any tunnels leading out to the sea, and if I were to find one, would I swim through it? There would be every chance that the tunnel might go on for so long that I would run out of air, and not come up again. I would remain forever a part of an underwater system that maybe no one knows about, become part of the rocks, and the algae, and the sand, in all its million pieces. Or I might swim out into the open ocean. The blue blue blue ocean that goes on forever.
I lift my head up and look at Jamie.
‘I have a train to catch,’ I hear myself say. I open my locker and pull out my bag, and my blanket. ‘And she has to pick up her kid.’
Claire Albrecht is writing her PhD in Poetry at the University of Newcastle. Her poems appear in Cordite Poetry Review, Overland Literary Journal, Plumwood Mountain, The Suburban Review, the Australian Poetry Anthology and elsewhere, and she is the 2019 Emerging Writers Fellow at the State Library Victoria. Her manuscript sediment was shortlisted for the 2018 Subbed In chapbook prize, and the poem ‘mindfulness’ won the Secret Spaces prize. Her debut chapbook pinky swear launched in 2018. Claire runs the monthly Cuplet Poetry Night in Newcastle.
The hard work is starting to pay off!
my husband and I follow the 49/51 percent rule and
enjoyed the view. I panicked, kept pushing the time
back, and now I am at work 1 hour and 15 minutes early.
I don’t have time to work
using the search words ‘women in science’, I completed
40 hours of work in 4 days (you make your client
mashed potato and leave the skin on. your client
throws a microwave at you)
my commute today – variety is the spice of life.
a rather narrow way of viewing how people make
a living. try saying you ‘get to go to work’.
it’s a damn miracle
you got one job, larry. one job. some people will never know
how much thought and care I put into (go to work, or stay
in the bath and keep topping up the aspirin?) this is in
the bathroom stalls.
unfortunately with both of us doing shift work
we haven’t been able to catch up for his
biggest challenge so far? getting the printer to work.
you gotta be shitting me.
*found poem from my social media feed
by Judith Beveridge
Reviewed by CAITLIN WILSON
“I often think about
The long process that loves
The sound we make.
It swings us until
We’ve got it by heart:
The music we are”
Judith Beveridge tells us what she is. In the introduction to her collection Sun Music: New and Selected Poems, she describes herself as a lyrical poet, and discusses her belief that poetry must be a “showdown between the word and the poet” (xv).
She begins her introduction with her ‘why’. A shy child, she found comfort and company in books and her own imagination, something she credits with drawing her into poetry: “I could manipulate words to sound more confident” (xiii), she says, and that her use of “masks and voices” (xiii) allows her to open up. For someone who doesn’t “particularly like” talking about her own poetry, this introduction illustrates an ability to zoom out, adopting a self-aware bird’s eye view of her own poetic idiosyncrasies and inspirations.
Echoes of this interest in shaping and moulding abound within the collection: in “Invitation”, the speaker does this with food; “I try to steer the flavour, arrange the colours on a plate” (38).
However, her most striking confession is how her childhood shyness inspired her love of nature, a fascination which proliferates in her work and in this collection. She explains that “the natural world didn’t make demands of me to speak to it”, something which is clear in her poignant and meticulous observations of nature (xiii). Her poems are earthed and earthy, giving the impression of a poet bewitched by the simple wonder of the world. Nature as a lively yet undemanding presence operates in Beveridge’s work as both a jewel to behold and describe, valued in its own right, and as a gateway into an examination of humanity, womanhood, personhood. In kitchens and gardens, nature is sniffed and poked, something to be moved by and something which, of its own accord, moves. Beveridge paints us a nature that is elegant, blunt, and vibrant, but never uncommunicative.
The introduction prefigures a curation of some four decades of a much beloved and awarded work, as well as thirty-three new poems. Once delved into, this collection ebbs and flows, widens out and narrows in with pin-point focus on facets of a rich and richly observant creative life.
Her earlier work, sampled here from The Domesticity of Giraffes (originally published in 1987) and Accidental Grace (1996), wafts from the page in familiar spirals. These poems are soft-edged, recognisable. They could be written about moments from a hundred Australian childhoods, or the subject of a thousand lunchtime daydreams. It says something about what we ask of poetry that I need to clarify I mean this as a compliment. The poems aren’t out to skewer a broken world: they speak to it and about it with gentle care and curiosity. This work is invested in the flux between indoor and outdoor, the grey space between inertness and liveliness. Symbols weighty with meaning are juxtaposed against the everyday – in For Rilke, ‘our hearts – they’re like utensils’ (7) and in The Fall of Angels are ‘faces cracked like china plates’ (33). This early work is also ripe with soundscape, fitting for a collection collated around its namesake. Yachts (86-87) asks the reader to hear the small symphony of seaside sounds – “the call of an oriole”, “the sharp strike notes of bellringers”, “a child count the stars in the water off a rickety pier”. The way her speaker conducts the soundscape changes – “if you can hear” becomes “you’ll know”, becomes “maybe you only hear”, and “perhaps you hear”. This vacillation between certainty and uncertainty, concrete and imaginary, leave the reader suspended in a moment at once real and magical. Dichotomies abound in Beveridge’s work.
Through her title Sun Music, Beveridge rightly draws our attention to her preoccupation with poetry’s sonic and rhythmic potential, encouraging us to hear the poems she crafts. However, it is her use of another sense that charmed me most. Scents drift up from her poems – a “dark potato” and the leaves and lemon the speaker uses to try to cover its funk in “Flower of Flowers” (30) tickle something in the back of the reader’s mind, a curiously powerful invitation to enter a poem through the nose. Perfume plays a strong part through the decades, a seeming favourite motif of Beveridge’s. It makes sense: smell is hugely connected to memory, and perfume, in particular, is something man-made that gestures toward the natural. Hints of rose and sandalwood are concocted to remind us of the beauty of the earth, to allow us to wear it. Beveridge’s use of scent activates something almost primal in her reader, leaving them no choice but to live through the poem, to step into it like an herbaceous bubble.
The works taken from her 2003 collection Wolf Notes are populated with more spectres of the human than the earlier selections. These characters are at once strong and vague, often more archetypal than wholly ‘real’. The mysterious ‘she’s of “The Lake” (102) and “Woman and Child” (105), the titular Fisherman’s Son (109), “The Artist who Speaks To His Model” (116). The animals remain, in Wolf Notes (112), and the birdsongs of “Woman and Child and Whisky Grass” (107), though their existence is often filtered through a character’s sensory experience of them. Visuals, too, are sumptuously laid out. In “The Dice-Player”, dice are “an affliction of black spots” (99).
“Marco Polo’s Concubine Speaks Out” (61) and “The Courtesan” (119), written some seven years apart, illustrate Beveridge’s ability to return to characters and images and develop, deepen and darken them. The speaker of the first tells us the “wind is blowing in the chrysanthemums”. In the second, the courtesan describes how “lightning flexed its muscled whip”. Whether this marks an overall turn to the darker, harder and more visceral in Beveridge’s oeuvre depends on how you receive the images she offers, part of the beauty of her work.
The Storm and Honey selections, from 2009, shift pre-occupations from the earth to the sea. Beveridge conjures fishing metaphors and watery imagery with (perhaps verging on tiring) frequency, though her gemlike capturing of moods and moments is omnipresent. There is a sense of looking out, looking beyond in these works that feels like an exhale.
The new poems, however, begin with a look back. “I rarely come here now, once or twice since you died” begins “Revisiting The Bay” (175), an achingly nostalgic memorial poem for Dorothy Porter. They are littered with memories, with preferences and perspectives earned by a life of creative observation. There is a sadness to these poems, though she warns us of this in her introduction: “I hope there’s enough overall sense of joy and wonder to override a creep into these darker tones” (xviii). These darker moments are, indeed, visited upon but never lingered in unduly, and she looks to the future here alongside remembrances. Her natural affinities remain but seem more charged with worry now. The poems show an enhanced sympathy and affinity with animals, beyond passive but loving description. They are impassioned, and loaded with a satisfying punch of righteousness. “To My Neighbour’s Hens” (178) is explicitly animal-rights (or at least chicken rights) oriented, with its plea that the sweet hens next door need never experience “slopped wire floors” and “battery cages”. “A Panegyric for Toads” (214) is a masterclass in balancing levity with the deep and dark.
Beveridge’s poems are all about balance – conversational and musical, weighty yet light as a perfumed breeze. They give the reader the space to live with them, comfortable and churning, until a line strikes you like a sparkling melody, lingering long after the music stops.
CAITLIN WILSON is a Melbourne-based student and writer of criticism and poetry. Her poem was recently short-listed for the University of Melbourne Creative Arts poetry prize, and her criticism can be read in Farrago and The Dialog, among others.