Zoe Karpin lives in Sydney’s inner west with her partner and dog and also works as a Learning and support teacher at a south west multicultural Sydney High School. She has had short stories published in journals such as Going Down Swinging, Gathering Force, Hecate & Femzine recently and online journals such as Dotlit and Sūdō journal recently.
After the Bushfire
Jack’s house burnt down in the year with the terrible bushfires and the driest spell since records began in this part of southern NSW. He would often travel from there to see Sophie in Sydney, expelling carbon and burning rubber on the way. When the bushfires began he was stuck in Sydney. He built the house with his brother and father. He had lived there with some other woman. The woman had left a long time ago. She told him she couldn’t cope with her loneliness, the use of glyphosate in all the gardens and the plastic waste; water bottles, bags and bottle tops, which not only rattled along the gutters of the town’s centre, but along the bush trails edged with wattles and eucalypts out where they lived. She had miscarried twice, one had to be birthed in hospital and it was born dead with a tail. Thank goodness it didn’t live then.
It was not too soon in their relationship for Sophie to tell him. ‘But we will have lots of happy children.’
He looked at her with a half-smile.
Doesn’t he believe her?
When he can, he drives back to his home that is now a block to be cleared. This time he will do it alone. There is not very much left of the house anyway, a skip full.
He will tell her, ‘last time I breathed in the scent of hope but now the smell is of nothing but shovelfuls of charred, crippled tree skeletons dangling torn roots, bricks and glass.’
On his return to the city she sees there are deep cuts in the webbing of his right thumb and index finger. He has bound them together with band aids.
‘You should have stitches,’ she gently takes the plasters off and reapplies fresh ones so he can still move these vital digits. He doesn’t even wince.
In her third storey brick flat in bed at night, with the cool air conditioner turned on so it will run through their torrid dreams, she strolls her hands down the long caterpillar shaped spinal column of his body – although the spinal column is hard not soft. The vertebras one after the other are like joined together shells. His ligaments hold these shells together; stabilising his spine, and protecting the internal discs. There are three ligaments but she can’t see them only feel their rope length and breadth as she massages his back in the after light. He hasn’t asked for this massage but she gives it to him anyway.
His ligaments have not been torn nor worn away with the weight of what he has carried for all these years; black handled axes, red bricks, tawny wood, glass, wooden furniture, ghosts of children, other people’s children, chickens, dogs, herbs and vegetables and even her today. He is like many men. His yellow ligaments are rubber, bouncing the weights he has carried as easily as a leather ball. Then there are his discs, shock absorbers, hard on the outside and soft in the core as she has learnt. The discs have never bulged or slipped. However, his spine can get too stiff and he aches before sleeping.
Her palms have five flesh coloured sailing boat extensions each and they travel his body.
But will it become her task every night now to tack the shells apart with her transporting hands?
‘You must talk about the pain,’ she tells him.
‘What pain?’ he says.
However, it’s only after the massage he can make noiseless love to her.
In the morning, he takes her to his no-longer house. They are engulfed in a special smell, a stench, rolling along the freeways, running through the bush. It is the odour of endangered dead native animals. She has never felt like crying because of a fetidness before. However, this time is not like other times and she catches sight through the smudged car’s window pane of one brown, grey kangaroo by itself in the bush; a thin, straggly kangaroo. She hasn’t seen a kangaroo alone in the bush before. Its back is curved like a singular fluted pearl shell on a wide expanse of beach-like peat. Finally, at his no-longer house there is the garage he never mentioned, somehow left clinging to its purpose. The Roll-A-Door was up during the fire and it is curiously undamaged. However, all his fine tools he carefully kept on a crumbling bench of withered steel are now reduced to ornamental shadows of their former, solid metal utility. She sees how he clasps these old broken implements in large strong fists, holds them for a while and says, ‘I’ve done a lot with these.’
Her black eyes blur and the tools he clutches merge into his hands. She says, ‘No doubt.’
She can’t see any self-pity in his gaze nor does he look at her in a way that suggests he wants it.
They move on to the rest of the burnt emptiness. Yet, there are still the concrete steps out the back that don’t go into the no-longer house.
She knows what he means about this particular smell. It is of smoke and burning; the charcoal soil is steeped in the brew. She is young enough though not to be daunted by any of this.
However, in the once tree filled backyard, a little bird, a young sooty myna bird flies down to land and block their pathway. The myna with its small specially flight built back and head with the yellow patch behind its eye, shakes itself at them – as if to say, ‘what have you done to my world?’
Then Jack weeps.
Peter Gilkes is a writer, artist and previously an operations and business manager based in Kuala Lumpur. He recently returned to Australia after working in SE Asia for nine years. He has had articles published with the Sydney Morning Herald and is now compiling a book of images and memories of travel from the last 30 years.
The Man with Shaking Hands
June 1980. Baluchistan. Pakistan.
My bus to the Iranian border slowed down and the driver steered off the highway and parked beneath the canopies of some welcome trees.
It was 11am, a roadside shop cum restaurant for drink and food and ablutions in the Kharan desert of Baluchistan. The scenery was arid. Flat sand plains in 35+ Celsius heat. The hills on the distant horizon were blocks of gold, ethereal in the hazy light, almost imagined.
The coach I travelled on was a landscape itself, a brilliant glistening beetle. Pakistani buses are crazy, colourful creations so distinct from the drab brick cities. The metal frame was adorned with lights and painted colour. There were blooming flowers and strutting peacocks bannered across the front cabin. Between and around the windows were swirling tendrils in rose and green. Lower down the bus fuselage were patterns of gold circles bordered by bright silver squares. Even the tyres were rimmed in fluorescent blues and orange. For the show of night, strings of coloured globes criss- crossed the roof and sides. Inside the cabin, above and around the driver’s windscreen were strips of multi-coloured mirror embroidery and little threads of swaying beads and sepia pictures of the Kaaba. The vehicle was an amulet on wheels, a talisman.
We stepped down from the bus to be met by the silence of the desert. The passengers soon filled the quiet as they entered the restaurant with their chatter in Urdu and Farsi and the seating fuss of the scrapping of wooden benches and chairs across cement, the kitchen clatter of pots and dishes, the wails of tired infants and the sudden scratchy sound of background radio music, now that customers were here.
This was an old route for travel. Thousands of travellers had come before, even Alexander the Great had travelled through Baluchistan. Alexander had entered India via the Khyber Pass but after many campaigns he led his tired armies on an epic journey back towards their Macedonian home via southern Baluchistan around 324 BCE – hear the smack of leather against flesh, the whinnying of horses, the grunting of camels, the shout of foreign tongues.
There were a few armed soldiers on the hill above the roadside halt, guarding the desolate desert highway. There had been a special carriage on my immediate train travel before the bus, an open roofless carriage set in the middle of the train with high armoured sides with firing slits and soldiers on watch for attack.
Though its population is small, Baluchistan is the largest province of Pakistan. Relations with the government in the capital Islamabad have always been bad. The Baluch are a proud tribal people with many grievances against the Pakistan government. Sudden violent flare ups of resentment have always been likely in this region.
I entered the roadside world, thinking of some tea or drink and wondering what food I could eat and let’s be careful not to get sick. As I looked around, and as I was looked at in turn, I saw a man who looked different from the rest, sitting just outside the main dining space.
He was perhaps 30 years old, gaunt and tall. I couldn’t place his culture, perhaps Mediterranean, seemingly not a Pakistani and probably not Iranian.
He wore a black business suit that was creased and stained. His skin was taunt across his cheekbones and his lined forehead glinted sweat yet he had a handsome well-rounded face except for some acne scars across the cheeks. He had a long narrow nose and milky green brown eyes that glowed and he was clean shaven with a thin black moustache carefully shaped to the edges of his dry pale lips. His black hair was a thick lustrous clump that he kept tussling and fidgeting with. He could have been a musician, a classical violinist I thought, or some thin gangster type but there was a dignity to him that spoke of responsibility and something earnest.
His white shirt needed a good wash but it was still a business shirt and his laced black shoes still had some patches of shine. I spotted him first because he stood out amongst the other people who were wearing local clothes in pale tones of brown and green and crème. Shalwar Kameez – long loose cotton shirts down to the knees and baggy trousers of the same colour – coupled with shawls and sandals. There were some other travellers in jeans and t shirts but most of the forty or so men and women and children at the roadside halt wore the practical, traditional dress.
His suit caught my eye, as he sat on a bench on the other side of the tea shop, keeping away from the bustle of my fellow bus passengers, resting in the half shadow beneath a tarpaulin stretched from the corrugated iron tea shop roof.
I took the wooden bench seat near him and watched him light his cigarette.
His two hands tried to move toward each other to light the cigarette. The matchbox in his right-hand palm gripped tight by his long thin forefinger and his thumb. The match held in his left hand like a needle or a wand.
His pale lips held the cigarette in place, pucking, as it slipped and slid in the waiting, a thin black line of moustache twitching up and down.
The hand holding the matchbox tried so hard to hold the cardboard box still, and his eyes watched the process so intently, but the box and the match would not meet.
The match and the box were held in hands that shook so much that after two minutes of trying to strike the match against the flint side of the box there was no success. He could not control his wildly shaking hands.
He seemed as surprised and perplexed as I was. His hands would simply not do his bidding, they shook desperately like the panicking wings of some trapped bird, refusing his will. He turned his eyes up at me and I leaned down taking the box and the match from his fingers and with one strike I lit the match and cupped the flame and he leant down and sucked in the fire and inhaled the magic smoke of the crackling tobacco.
I asked, “Why are you like this?”.
He stared at me, regarding me for a long time, a piercing regard, and then he began to explain in carefully pronounced English.
“We were in a car accident in Paris, near the Champs Elysees. One month ago. A big truck was out of control. It came across the traffic and hit our car. I was driving. My baby daughter was in the backseat, she was crushed and killed. My wife was decapitated. I was hardly injured”. He spoke so softly. He was so completely and utterly exhausted. He could have been talking to the whole planet.
I bought him a cooled bottle of Coca Cola, fished up from a dank well by a young boy, a clanging bucket of clinking bottles dripping wet brown water, and after the flipped rusty bottle top, the stain of rusty grime around the rim. I wiped the rim and he drank.
The cool sweet fizz and the blue tobacco smoke were a breakfast for travellers.
He sat beside a large battered silver metal trunk and he told me all he owned was inside, but each country’s customs inspectors took a little of what they fancied and it had become lighter and easier to lift, but it weighed heavier on his mind – I later thought to myself that perhaps soon all he would have left after the thieving would be an empty trunk and people would think he only carried it to put things in, not comprehending his loss.
He had a Portuguese passport. He’d worked in the Paris embassy. He had travelled across Europe and had come through Greece and Turkey and Iran to Pakistan. He was now heading to India. “I am going to Goa. I was born in Goa.I want to open a restaurant”. I lit another cigarette for him and smoked one too. He seemed a bit calmer and we talked some more.
But I was travelling in the other direction. My bus going west to the Iranian border blasted its air horn and I said goodbye and left him and went across the highway with the other passengers and we climbed back aboard and I took my place on the roof. I waved back to him and he waved and we were both gone – but he stayed restless in my memory – that awful image of his shaking hands.
Yumna Kassab is a writer from Western Sydney. She studied medical science and neuroscience at university. Her first book of short stories, The House of Youssef, has been listed for prizes including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Queensland Literary Award and The Stella Prize. Her writing can be found online at Kill Your Darlings, Sydney Review of Books, Peril Magazine, Meanjin, The Sydney Morning Herald and now Mascara Literary Review.
Woman // Her Words
Alexis, 37, 1994
You can bring the horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You try to help people: you give them things, you teach them, and what do you get for your efforts? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
In the 70s, they gave them houses, they gave them jobs, food, they sent them to schools but you take the man out of the jungle but you damn right can’t take the jungle out of the man.
Those homes, drive 20kms that way and you’ll see what’s left of them. They took off the windows first. Then they started building fires in their homes. If they were hungry, they’d loot the general store and bugger the handouts we gave them.
Karmila, 22, 2007
Australia says no? That’s funny. There he is beating the crap out of you and you’ll tell him: hold a minute while I call this number. As if you’d ever do that. That’s well and good for people like them but you know who survives in the end? The one who keeps her head down and her trap shut.
Brigid, 41, 1988
We went for two weeks. We thought two or three days for the wedding to set our nails, get our hair done, and then they’d go off on their honeymoon, and we would be free, but by the time you factor in the jetlag and the little one being sick, we had a couple of days to ourselves, and the next thing you know, we’re packing our bags and heading home. Still it’s a lot more civilised than this circus of monkeys.
Ebony, 20, 2011
A woman walks into a bar, alone. People are going to talk to her. If you don’t want that, don’t go to bars.
Josephine, 52, 2008
You’re pretty adventurous for a Muslim girl. How do your parents feel about you going on these trips by yourself?
Marlene, 29, 2005
Everyone knows he hits her. It’s so obvious. How many times can you walk into a wall or a door? So far I’ve heard it’s a door, the wall, she tripped down the stairs, her hair got stuck in the drier, it’s from kickboxing. I don’t see why she doesn’t just pack up and leave. It’s that simple. Get your things together and go. You don’t need him. It’s not only that. You get tired of the stories. I don’t want anymore of it. Stop spinning your lies. We all see through them.
Amal, 41, 2018
I only listen to female musicians. I’ve had enough of men singing about hoes and bros.
Zizou, 65, 1992
The purity of the bloodline must be preserved. Our traditions, we have had them for thousands of years and just because we’re living in this country doesn’t mean we let go of what our people believe. These are our ways. They are your ways. Don’t you ever forget that.
Samah, 32, 2016
I knew the moment I saw him he was gay. He was wearing jewellery. I wanted to say to her: can’t you see it? It’s so obvious. I wonder if he’ll tell her or if it will drag on for months.
Francesca, 37, year unknown
I got sick of him calling me sweetie and honey. He’s my manager. It’s so unprofessional. And he’s only two years older than me. That makes it worse. So on Saturday, I sent him an email. Would you mind – I put this in the email – not calling me sweetie or honey in the interest of maintaining a professional relationship? I haven’t heard from him yet.
Saaeda, 72, 1999
She should be a teacher. Or a nurse. Those are good jobs for a girl. No engineering or being a mechanic. What man wants to come home to a wife with dirty fingernails?
Hala, 46, 2006
They brought up my carbon footprint again. What about the impact of your travelling on the environment? Don’t you care about the environment? So I said to them: what about the carbon footprint of you having kids? That shut them up.
Najwa, 5, 1987
There was a woman in the bank. She had a moustache. Mum said she’s not a man.
Marina, 40, 2001
I feel I have two woman trapped beneath my ribs. The first one – she wants to live an ordinary life – go to work, come home, cook, clean, sport on the weekend but the other one says that’s not good enough, you need to do more, you need to be living a super exciting life. Most days I have no clue what’s exciting anymore. You know what excites me, what turns me on? Staying at home with a cup of tea and a book.
Sam, 63, 2017
Every year, I like to go away somewhere new. I go away overseas…a week to myself…a new country. It keeps my mind fresh. It stops me from being bogged down in my routine.
Kathy, 59, 1990
I’m still wondering what I want to be when I grow up.
Marjane, 37, 2016
I wish she’d stop playing the victim. You’ve got it tough? So do the rest of us. The difference between us and you is we don’t sit around complaining about it. We get on with it.
Salam, 49, 2013
Lots of mums bring in their kids pretty young. They don’t want to but they have to. This is an expensive city to live in and they have bills, a mortgage, they have older kids in sport and so on but given the choice they’d want to be spending the time with their kids. We have a few newborns at the moment. I feel sorry for them. I get to hold a woman’s baby while she’s off working to make ends meet. You see it in their faces. It’s guilt, pure and simple. They know they’re missing out on time with their baby. I remember the first time I told a mum her daughter had taken her first steps that morning and I thought she would be excited, that this was good news, but it made her feel terrible that she’d missed out on her kid’s first step. Now I say nothing. I let them believe they said their first word at home, that when that little one takes a step in the living room, that is their first step.
Angeline, 28, 2003
We all assume that people are telling us the truth. We act as if there aren’t a million ways people lie. It might be the detail left out, it might be the choice to remain silent for a whole bunch of reasons. When you get a version of events, you think it’s the complete version. Nine times out of ten it’s not.
Shereen, 32, 2018
I am tired of living in the suburbs where nothing ever happens. These places are made for work and there’s nowhere to play. Each weekend, I go east to seek out new people and experiences because it’s so dead here. I mean literally nothing happens.
Zena, 21, 1994
You say a sentence, you dismiss an entire person’s life.
Zeroic, 35, 2018
My mind is not for sale.
Leila, 22, 2000
If something is destined for you, then it is destined for you. You don’t fight it, you don’t argue with it. In life, you have to surrender. Not everything is in our control.
Konsta, 42, 2017
You wouldn’t believe what she did. She called me up to ask if she could have a slice of cake. I thought she was joking because who would eat someone else’s birthday cake? She laughed as she ate my cake. She actually had the nerve to go ahead and eat it without me.
Brodie, 24, 2019
The crime is so much worse on paper.
Pearl, 73, 2004
Our lives were made out to be lesser than theirs. It took me years to see that.
Nicole, 45, 2004
Modern feminism has lost its way. Once upon a time, women protested with “Take Back the Night.” It took me ages to understand what that even meant. Take it back where? What does it mean to Take Back the Night? And you realise that there are black spots in every city. You simply don’t go there if you know what’s good for you. Maybe it’s like that for men too. I don’t know but as a woman it’s drummed into you where you can and can’t go. You are taught to fear while men, it seems, are the captains of their destiny and go where they please. And you have to ask how do we go from that – protesting we should have the safety in dark places – to a politician advising a woman to not walk in the local park at night because that’s asking for it. We have to remember a victim should never be blamed for the crime. The onus is on the criminal, for society to act and say clearly this is not acceptable. I blame feminism. Somewhere along the way, we gave up. Maybe we just grew tired of our demands not being heard. There are times in life you accept your lot, you throw up your hands and you accept your place in the machine.
Mimi, 9, 1989
Mummy went crazy. They took her away. Daddy cooked our breakfast. I tie my hair and my friends plait it.
Cass, 32, 2006
Whatever you do, don’t cross the river.
Ursula, 35, 2001
You could say she had enough. It’s easy to reach breaking point. Every single day, there’s so much crammed in, so much to do, there’s bound to be something left undone. So she packed her bags and left just like that, no warning. Her daughter says she took one suitcase, the neighbours say she walked off with her handbag and sneakers in a Kmart bag. She caught the 11:09 train. She hasn’t called, she doesn’t answer anyone’s call but she’s kept the same number. You can call it. It’s not disconnected or anything. Her daughter wanted to declare her missing but the police say they knocked on her door, made sure it was her, asked some questions and then closed the case. The police had these words to say to anyone who asked. “She’s a woman best left alone.” Her daughter says: are the police saying that or were those her exact words? Either way, does it matter?
Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real people, living or otherwise, including their speech, is purely coincidental. The writer refuses any responsibility for words or whole sentences misheard. Years and names have been changed to protect the identity of the speaker.
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.
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.’
Kavita Nandan recently moved to Sydney and teaches creative writing and literature at Macquarie University. Her first novel Home after Dark was published in 2014. She is the editor of Stolen Worlds: Fijiindian Fragments. Her short stories have been published in Transnational Literature, The Island Review and Landfall.
Photo: by Michael Kosmider
The Family Circle
Arjun steps onto the cool marble floor of the Se Cathedral. Away from the hot stickiness of the street front, he can breathe. They have cleared four tourist attractions so far, and this is to be the last for the day. A giant chandelier spills like a waterfall from the ceiling. Brass candelabras rise like stalagmites from the low altar, and above it, in a panel of the gold screen, Saint Catherine awaits martyrdom. Sublime paintings of biblical scenes suddenly turn feral on a ragged wall, throwing up his suspicion that God is more absent than present in these holy structures. A loud clatter echoes behind Arjun and he turns. His aunts sit in the pews with their digits darting into bags of salty cashew nuts and one of them, probably Aunt May, has let fall the gaudy plaster model of the Se Cathedral with a digital clock face embedded in the remaining bell tower. Bloody aunty fingers! Perspiring nephews and nieces in their ‘I love Goa’ flea market T-shirts trot in twos down the aisle. Uncles fling themselves this way and that way as if part of a dance routine, in their attempts to capture every angle of the architectural wonder. How they gushed all over the centuries-old Portuguese church like a tidal wave. Surely, only his family possessed this special talent of diminishing grandeur so completely.
At first, Arjun had ignored the summons to the reunion. But as he sat outside under a cloudless Sydney sky eating carbonara pasta in a café he liked, the email with its subject heading, ‘Reunion is the go in Goa’, revisited him. A red-tipped tailed shark of a Qantas plane, slipped away in the distance. The sky’s spectacular clarity unnerved him and a feeling of loneliness reawakened in his heart. It had been a decade since he had gone back to the country of his birth. Then, whether vision or visitation, he swore he saw his long dead grandmother, gesturing North-West with her fleshless finger from heaven. Arjun booked his flight from Sydney to Goa.
The family commandeer six standard rooms at an inexpensive beach resort. The aunties, who had promised their mother before she died that they would remain a close-knit family despite the geographical challenges, organised for the clan to meet, every ten years, in a different part of India. On this occasion, May, Maggie, June and Preeti bubbled with moral superiority at the absence of the two elder sisters who lived in the UK and Australia. At least, they consoled themselves with exaggerated sighs, their strange children, with their Indian faces but foreign accents and values had come from overseas.
Jetlagged, Arjun, and his cousin Arti and her husband who have come from London, go to bed early. The domestic travellers settle in industriously, putting clothes away in cupboards, storing cooked food and snacks brought from home in the mini fridges, scolding the children for turning the ceiling fan on and off, pressing the buttons of the TV remote control at random, juggling ornaments and stabbing at the fruit pyramid gleefully.
The next morning, Maggie, dressed in a floral-patterned kaftan, is jubilant that consensus has been achieved: all 16 of them are visiting the Spice Plantation. A keen cook, she savours the aroma of vanilla, then cinnamon, then cardamom. Andrew, her son, excavates his nose with a grubby finger and retracting it says, “Look ma, spice!”
Arjun grins to himself. Obnoxious kid. Then a glimpse of a scarf the colour of kingfisher blue. He remembers that afternoon in Uncle Joseph’s and Aunt May’s bedroom – the first and only time Lara and he were together – how carefully she had placed her scarf on the side-table as if it was a fledgling bird. His cousin Lara darts through the spice trees chasing after her own child.
The guide leads them though the leafy green plantation, stopping often to point out the different spices and tropical trees. He hands out bananas and star fruit to the kids to soften their boredom.
Like the others, Arjun tries what’s on offer but he is not satisfied. He remembers this gnawing sense of want, of wanting more, from his year spent staying with his Aunties in his twenties. For a moment, he thinks back to those nights he smoked hash on his Uncle’s and Aunt’s terrace and how he’d stare up at the night sky, smeared with stars, seeing a portal warbling between a familiar and an unknown world. Always, Lara, there, by his side. Squeezing his hand. Back then, they’d thought fuck parents, fuck the establishment . . . fuck making money when the family already had enough to see them through to kingdom come. Now, he can’t get to that state of being high with a pre-party Ecstasy tab or hit of LSD.
One of the twins’ stuffs a handful of black pepper into his mouth and yells for a straight five minutes. The little potbelly of the other twin is convulsing with shrieking laughter as Aunt May skips and hops and scolds.
After the plantation excursion, the family return to the hotel restaurant for an early dinner. Light-hearted banter between family members soon turns personal and vicious.
Maggie, his mother’s sister reaches for two of the extra-large Goan chapatis, and looking first at May, then at the chapati pile again, says “The twins have grown fat, May, but poor little Bunty . . . is he not getting enough food? Look at him. Thin as a bhindee.”
May like a snake provoked, bites immediately, “Andrew has become very naughty, don’t you think? And his sister seems a little behind at school. I hope she doesn’t have to repeat class four.”
“Arjun, are you losing your hair?” Asks Uncle Harry as he runs his hand through his own, then repeats the gesture. “Pity your parents couldn’t make it. They always seem to be going to some overseas conference. Intellectuals eh?”
The bastard, Arjun thinks. He wouldn’t have minded so much about the hair comment if Lara, still cold as hell towards him, wasn’t in earshot.
Uncle Rai slurring and slurping his third glass of Feni begins his worn-out tirade: “It was Maggie’s butter chicken that finally killed the old bird. She knew Mummy’s doctor had expressly forbidden rich foods.” Maggie’s fingers are greasy and flakes of chapati are all over her lap, but Arjun can see her left ankle beginning to shake and he wants to stride across the room and slap his uncle for being such a patriarchal jerk.
Uncle Rai can’t stop himself: “So Maggie, I suppose it’s all decided now that the kids are going to private schools?”
“Rai! It was in our mother’s will that we get the house. We did spend a lot of time with her after you and June moved to Chennai.”
“Maggie!” June says heatedly, “You know we moved to be closer to Rai’s family after his father had the triple bypass.”
Aunt Preeti, who had been listening silently to the conversation up to this point, explodes like corn kernels hitting hot oil, one after the other. “YOU. ARE. ALL. OBSESSED. DID. ANY. OF. YOU. CARE. WHEN. MY. HUSBAND. WAS. DYING!”
Aunt May, red faced and perspiring replies, “Preeti, you never did see the value of money.”
“That’s why we all pay for her now!” shouts Uncle Joseph from the opposite end of the table.
“What an ass,” Arti mutters under her breath to her husband. Mark hurriedly hides the sucked curried prawns on his plate under the serviette, conscious that he might have taken too many.
Why do they bother? Arjun thinks. It’s as if the weeks of goodwill it took to work out the logistics for every family member coming from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore and as far away as Sydney and London, and meeting in one spot – Goa – had only pushed their divisive emotions underground temporarily. They toured the churches, the beaches, the plantations, the markets together, but seemed only vaguely interested in the attractions themselves, and only too willing to argue at every turn. A gap of ten years was a reasonable time to expect quarrels to be forgiven if not forgotten, but neither seemed to be the case. The family’s differences were returning like resurrection plants.
Maybe his cynicism came from his lack of innocence. Since nobody had committed murder within the family yet, he was probably the biggest deviant here. Though sleeping with his first cousin had felt. . . inevitable. . . for both of them.
Knowing that the year was almost up and he would be returning to Australia to start an MBA had made him daring and insanely horny. Lara had been willing, flirty and in unison they had drunk several whiskey gulps from Uncle Joseph’s liquor stash kept in his cupboard that he thought no one knew about. Three days later, he had left.
It was almost annoying how she gave nothing away, no secret looks in his direction or holding his gaze a little longer than necessary. She was behaving as if nothing had ever happened between them and seemed completely engrossed in the child. Since when did Lara have a child? He regretted now that he never hit send on that email he wrote to her. On all those emails he wrote her. What kind of an insensitive bastard was he? He had only thought of his own embarrassment.
Lara yanks back the pallu of her sari from Max who is gripping it with both hands and using it to slide around the room. Then she cuddles the boy and gives him a piece of papaya.
He needs her to look at him. He remembers the diffused, sexiness of her eyes like she was either tipsy or in a state of desire that she used to have. He feels guilty for wanting her, again. Christ. He’s nearly thirty-five, surely . . . He thinks of Michelle back home redecorating their small Sydney apartment so they might sell it and buy a house, start a family.
Lara grips the knife she is using to cut up the papaya and turns to him, transforming into Kali, the goddess of death, with human heads around her neck and arms of men in a girdle around her waist.
He knows then that he’s terribly wrong: of course she remembers and hasn’t even come close to forgiving him. Max is sticking out his orange-Fanta tongue at him.
The family spend the next day at the beach. They encircle three tables joined together in a beach shack. They are practically hijacking the place with their sheer numbers. But then he remembers this isn’t Darlinghurst. The waiters gossip amongst themselves in Konkani. His uncles consume bottles of local Kingfisher beer, except for Uncle Rai who is silently reading a philosophical tract at the table and avoiding everyone’s eyes, especially Maggie’s, after the insults of yesterday.
Boney M and Michael Jackson interspersed with Indian movie hits spin around the room, escape outside, tumble and disappear into radiant waves.
His aunts are chatting with each other and laughing as if they have forgotten the angry things that were said to each other the day before. Aunt Preeti, however, is sitting apart, on a deck chair. She wears her hair in a stylish knot under her European-styled hat and the leg of her salwar billows in the wind. A young man prances on a jet ski in gold speedos near the seashore. Arjun sees that his aunt is older and sadder but still beautiful like her daughter Lara.
The men, having eaten and drunk too much at lunch, lie like overcooked lobsters in deck chairs on the beach and the women fret about the kids drowning and what to prepare for the next meal. They pass the usual comments about the tourists being too fat, too skinny and too liberal. When a topless woman walks past them, Aunt May does not have enough hands to cover all three sets of eyes of her unruly boys. When she realises that the woman in the white triangle barely covering her private parts is her niece, Arti, her hands drop, enabling her sons to get an eyeful.
The next morning, Arjun wakes up before the others to go sightseeing on his own. Walking around the seventeenth century church, he looks at the revered statues of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Peter and Saint Paul and remains unmoved. The broken body of Jesus on the Cross, however, strikes a chord. All those years of going to church and reading the bible to please his grandmother, what did they amount to? He feels regret at all the wasted Sunday mornings at bible study, but not a lot, too much time has passed.
He finds Sonya, Aunt June’s and Uncle Rai’s grandchild, sitting on a pew, head bent deep in concentration. Perhaps like him, she had wanted some time alone. Sonya is sketching something on a large notebook. He sits silently behind her, taking a peek over her shoulder, which is newly branded with a thick white stripe from yesterday’s swim. She is drawing a caricature of Jesus on the Cross. Her Jesus looks a lot like Uncle Harry, the family’s only politician and self-proclaimed martyr. He wishes he’d been that savvy at her age.
At the Bom Basilica, he stops several times to take photographs for Michelle. Photos were the only thing she asked for apart from some Goan silk, ‘preferably in marigold yellow, beaded along the edges and large enough to cover a Queen sized bed.’
“Arjun,” she had asked while she was chipping away at the tiles in the splashback, “is the real reason you don’t want me to come that you are ashamed of me?”
Why does she walk like a giraffe? Arree, her clothes are so drab. She should close her mouth when she smiles – her teeth are too big, don’t you think? How could he explain to her that his family would find fault in everything he loved about her. So instead he offered no explanation at all and reiterated that of course he wasn’t ashamed of her. When he discovers extra pairs of underwear and sunscreen in his suitcase, he knows that this is Michelle’s way of forgiving him.
He notices Mark, Arti’s husband, up ahead talking to a dark and pretty Goanese girl. It is the waitress who served them yesterday at the beach shack. He sees Mark touch the girl’s arm and he strides forward, not willing to wait for something more to happen as it does so easily in this hot and fleshy city, when he hears a sudden braking followed by a series of skids, a loud bang and waves of screaming.
As he turns around, the crowd rushes past him leaving him isolated on a square of concrete, dwarfed in front of the great church with the heat piercing his brain like a bullet.
He can hear Mark’s voice, dream-like, as he runs past in the same direction: “Shit man, are you coming?” The crowd is forming a circle on the road up ahead.
Arjun is standing by Mark now who looks unsure of himself. He grabs Mark’s arm to steady him, but when it looks like Mark is about to spew, he shoves him away.
A person lies under a vehicle with his knees facing upwards. It almost seems as if he is repairing the bus. But why would he be doing that in the middle of the road? And holding up all this traffic? Now that he looks more closely the legs are remarkably still. He starts to notice, even though he doesn’t want to, other things like the paleness of the legs, the tattoo of a tribal lion covering a large area of thigh and one bright red flip flop still clinging to a foot.
The bus driver is sitting in his seat, his eyes darting everywhere and sweat running down his face like monsoonal rain. Soon they are surrounded by noises and activity: ambulance sirens blaring, cars screeching to a halt, doors being slammed, and policemen running about dispersing the unheeding crowd. The commotion dies down and some people within the circle leave, satisfied that they are abreast of the latest in Goa. They are easily replaced by others whose curiosity is yet to be satiated.
“Some poor foreigner,” Mark says in a hopelessly Scottish accent.
Arjun looks down at his shaking hands and legs. As he raises his head again he sees familiar faces interspersed in the crowd. Maggie is standing next to Rai and June next to Harry as if they have swapped husbands. Joseph picks up Preeti’s hat that has fallen on the road and gives it to her. May’s three boys are holding hands and Lara is covering her child’s eyes with the pallu of her sari and waving. It seems as if the whole family are there, looking through the multitudes and smiling tenderly at him.
As the ambulance workers are piling the foreigner onto the stretcher as they might a dead body, the bloodied and broken corpse sits up. The crowd gasps collectively, cheers collectively.
Arjun trembles as the ring of people holds fast, then breaks, and breaks again.
Elleke Boehmer was born in Durban and lives in Oxford. She is the author of five novels including Screens against the Sky (1990), Bloodlines (2000), Nile Baby (2008), and The Shouting in the Dark (2015). Screens against the Sky was short-listed for the David Higham Prize, and Bloodlines for the Sanlam Prize. The Shouting in the Dark was long-listed for the Sunday Times prize (South Africa). She is the author and editor of over fifteen other books, including Stories of Women (2005), Postcolonial Poetics (2018), and a widely translated biography of Nelson Mandela (2008). Indian Arrivals 1870-1915: Networks of British Empire (2015) was the winner of the biennial ESSE 2015-16 Prize. South, North is her second collection of short stories, following Sharmilla, and other Portraits (2010). The Australian edition of The Shouting in the Dark, together with other writing about the global south, is coming out from UWAP in early 2019.
Evelina liked to hang around airports though, till today, she had never yet left an airport on an aeroplane. She liked to sit in the arrivals halls, in the coffee place close to the exit where families waited with balloons and smiles. She liked to absorb the ambiente, she preferred the Spanish word. She was absorbing it now, though in departures not arrivals, the café alongside the security gates, drinking her coffee and smiling as she watched the families smiling. It made her happy, that she could be included in their ambiente though she wasn’t required to say a word.
Her airport hobby had started a few years ago, three or four, she couldn’t remember exactly, back in the old century, the day she said goodbye to her best friend Marta. After her marriage went bad Marta had decided to make a clean break. Evelina and Marta had sat here in the same café, Marta retouching her lipstick, peering with narrowed eyes into the clip-open lipstick case she always kept in her bag.
Evelina had watched Marta walk that day through the departure gates sobbing into a tissue but with a kind of skip of her left heel, a definite spring in her step. Watching Marta’s departing back Evelina couldn’t help noticing the spring.
These days Marta was teaching languages in Spain, near Toledo. She was earning good money and seeing someone, she wrote, a nice teacher at the secondary school. Although she worried sometimes that he was so much shorter than herself. What their future children might think.
Their other friend, Teresa, mouthy Teresa, took the same exit route a year or so later. Again Evelina came to say goodbye. Again she bought a round of hot chocolate here in the café, and again stood with her face pressed to the security glass, watching Teresa sink down the long escalator to the departure gates, Teresa waving and smiling and then as she stepped off the escalator quite briskly tucking her tissues away in the side pouch of her bag.
Teresa had aimed to join Marta in the language school in Spain but then she had got talking to people, and people had talked nicely about her, so now she was working on cruise ships in the Caribbean. Everything had changed for her and was raised up to a new level, and now, Teresa wrote in her last birthday card, it should be Evelina’s turn. Now Evelina had her chance to go away like the others. She should grab the opportunity in both hands.
By the time Teresa left, Evelina was already in the habit of coming to the airport. She came perhaps once a month, especially on quiet weekdays, in the evening, sometimes still in her tour-guide uniform. The only person who knew about her habit was Jorge himself. She liked coming even without anyone to wave off, perhaps more so. She liked having time to watch the families, the kids in their Brazil-made chanclas running and chasing each other around the chairs and tables like these two little girls about six or seven here at the table besides hers. Round the table they chased, now one way, now the other, the smaller one giggling helplessly. She liked it so much she sometimes skipped going over to stand in the departure area, though she liked it there, too, watching the travellers being hugged.
But her best bit, secretly, was her own private regreso, coming back into the city after her airport coffee. This she liked the most. Sitting at the airport and then coming home again. She liked swooping her car into the fast lane, nearly empty at this hour, and then up the steep ramp and down her own avenida. She liked that feeling of coming back into her tiny flat, up the three flights of concrete steps that the janitor washed at five every evening, and opening the door onto her two neat rooms with everything standing exactly where she had left it. Even if that was just a few hours ago and no one could possibly have been in.
How grateful this journey made her for everything that she had here in this city. Which is why she didn’t get enough of visiting the airport, that heady feeling that the trip back home gave her every time.
Her family didn’t know about this habit of enjoying the arrivals hall or they might have come along on this mild Saturday evening, to help her get away, to give her the push she needed.
Her parents lived up country now, in the campo. They had held their send-off last weekend in her flat—her parents, her older brother Enrico who was a small pets vet, a couple of cousins from her mother’s side. They had made the four-hour round trip together in Enrico’s car. They had served oozing facturas from the panadería downstairs, and black tea with lemon, plus stronger stuff for those who wanted it, and they had talked about the repairs to Enrico’s new house and when he might start converting his extra garage into a practice. One of the cousins would be coming to stay for a while in Evelina’s flat, to have a long-expected holiday in the city, they said. They had talked only about solid things. As if by not saying much about Evelina’s leaving or about Jorge, the reason for her leaving, they could all pretend it wasn’t really taking place.
On the washed concrete steps they had said goodbye and their hugs were dry and unfussy. They were immigrant people, a little Welsh, a little Irish, and a lot of Buenos Aires. They set their faces to the future, which is to say, the future that was here, now, and solid.
From the beginning Evelina’s father had refused to say Jorge’s name. He had refused at first to meet him and when he did he refused at first to shake his hand. But he had never paid any of her few boyfriends even a morsel of attention.
‘His eyes want to undress you,’ he said of the first, Luciano, all of seventeen, still at school at the time. ‘It’s disgusting, arrojalo, get rid of him.’
Evelina had, but none of the others she brought home later had fared any better. Papá said he wanted to hit them all. In another day and age, he swore, he’d have taken a sword to them, pure and simple.
So this afternoon it was Evelina’s turn to sit in the airport waiting for a plane, on her own, without her family, but this time with a ticket in her purse. It was her turn to begin a new phase, in North America, in New York, a new phase to go with the new century, a chance to explore a new life with Jorge her fiancé, her energetic, open-hearted Jorge who had gone on ahead to set things up.
Sitting in the departures coffee shop, smaller than the one downstairs, Evelina noticed for the first time the good view through the big window beside the check-in gates. Even from here she could see through the window a section of the runway and the lit-up planes criss-crossing like fireflies against the sky now darkening towards evening.
Next time she’s here, she told herself, she’ll go over to the window to take a longer look. There was a shiny rail to lean on. There were people right now leaning on it, looking out, pointing, their dark profiles stamped on the glass. But then she remembered there wouldn’t be a next time and she had to put down her coffee, her hands trembled so.
The bag of toiletries and warm clothes she had packed stood beside her. She kept her leg pressed against the bag and her handbag pressed between her feet. Their box crates had gone ahead. For the air-trip itself she hadn’t known what to pack. What do you pack when you are changing continents, setting out to make a new life in New York with your beloved, your prometido? You could pack everything, or you could pack only your most special things that you wouldn’t want to send in a crate.
When her alarm rang this morning, she couldn’t find anything special enough to take along, nothing anyway that was small enough to carry, so she packed just this compact bag and in the end put in the wind-up alarm clock itself, on top, wrapped in a hanky. Couldn’t do harm, to start a new life with a reliable alarm clock.
As for the box crates, filling them had been like filling bags for charity, piling in stuff you never expected to see again. Even now, a few weeks on, she could barely remember the contents, Jorge’s kitchenware, yes, with the special block of knives, a needlepoint picture of snowy mountains done by his late mother as a young woman, also a few old pieces of furniture, hand-me-down stuff dry and cracked from standing long years in the sunshine in relatives’ apartments.
Old stuff for a new country—to her it didn’t make sense but Jorge insisted. It would cost the earth, he said, beginning a new home in New York from scratch.
Evelina wished Jorge was here now to give the encouragement his bright face always sparked in her, not that she ever let on. She didn’t want to raise second thoughts in his mind. She didn’t want him to know how scared she could get. With his big voice, his big muscles, his strong stride—nothing gave him a way of understanding this tremble now in her hands.
Perhaps it wasn’t wise for him to have gone ahead, she thought, though she had pressed him to go, so that he’d believe in her. It wasn’t wise, too, that she hadn’t yet let out her flat, her little home in the big city with its panadería downstairs and the outdoors gym painted in rainbow colours across the street. Would she, would they, be able to find anything so well-set-up in New York?
Right now Jorge was staying in some cheap hotel trying to find them a new home. They’d talked through every detail. He’d said he’d get in touch as soon as something worked out but he hadn’t yet called. She wished he’d called. She told herself he was waiting for her—waiting for this plane out there now on the runway, waiting for her to arrive in it, to come to New York to be with him and make a new home. She knew he would tell her everything then.
Home! Evelina looked around at the familiar purple sky beyond the window, and, closer at hand, the children in their flip-flop chanclas, two small boys this time kicking an empty drink carton back and forth, the little girls had disappeared. She looked at the shiny stickers of saints on the menu board over the coffee machine, and the two old men in crisp polo shirts talking at the exit, gesticulating just the same as they would meeting in a park in town.
Already these things were starting to look flat, two-dimensional and flat, as though they were already receding from view. Soon, within an hour or so, they would be pushed into the far distance by the whoosh of the aircraft, and then, tomorrow, by Jorge and his dreams, Jorge whom she really liked and thought she could soon, very soon, begin to love.
Jorge, she thought, and saw him sitting again in front of her with his hair tumbling over his forehead just as he had sat right there across the table at this exact coffee place those weeks ago at this exact time, give or take, the two icy red aperitivos standing untouched between them. He had bought them como una celebración, he said, to mark the start of their big adventure together.
Jorge’s pale eyes in his bronze face searching hers for some sign of reassurance, she could feel the pull in them, and she had told herself silently sitting there with her hand in his that she would see him again soon, in only a couple of months, seven or so weeks, though it felt a lot longer. And she had wished, still silently, it didn’t feel so long.
‘The planes for North America always leave around now, in the evening,’ he had told her, following her eyes watching the departure boards. ‘So that when you arrive es un nuevo día, the start of a new day.’
He had been making conversation, she could tell, thinking she knew these facts, but she hadn’t really known these things. She knew nothing. She worked in tourism but she had never yet left the country, not in her whole life, not once.
All she did know was that every day around nightfall, wherever she was, she felt a pull to go home so strong it upset her to resist it. She had felt the pull then waiting in this café with him. She felt it now.
But how could she have told him this? It would have sounded like doubt. It would have given him second thoughts. Yet all she wanted right now, today, even on this day of her departure, was to be in her flat and draw the curtains and scrunch up in a corner of her armchair with a cup of something warm. She thought of her armchair, the red one her mother had given her, the armchair that right now, unbelievably, was making its way across the sea squeezed in a crate alongside Jorge’s stuff.
‘Now promise me,’ he had urged that evening, his forehead shining like a lamp. ‘When the day arrives, just lock up the flat, and come. We’ve sent everything ahead that we need. I’ll be at the other end, remember, waiting for you. I’ll take you back to our apartamento, the one I’ll have got for us. We will start our new life. We’ll marry as soon as. I’ll begin straightaway to get our paperwork in order.’
And Evelina had waved him off, watching him descend down the long escalator, blowing kisses, till all she could see was his waving hand, and then, nothing. She had stood a while longer, in case he popped back into view. It was like him to step back, to give one last kiss, one last wave. But he hadn’t. So, when she was sure he was gone, she had slipped down to the café in arrivals and ordered herself a coffee. Her mouth had been dry from something she couldn’t place, though she knew it wasn’t sadness.
Evelina now bought a second coffee, a takeaway, and wondered about going downstairs for a while, to the arrivals hall. It was still ages before the flight. But then she sat down once more at the same table in the seating area, and pushed her used cup and saucer over to the edge, to make room. She sipped her coffee and looked around at all the familiar things, the stickers of the saints, the stainless steel bar, the children in their chanclas kicking and running. No one seemed to notice she hadn’t paid the drink-in extra. No one bothered about her sitting here at all.
Evelina checked her watch and tucked her chin deeper into her cretonne scarf. The sky beyond the viewing window was dark now and the evening cool settling in, even here in this air-conditioned space, but there was still plenty of time. Coming to the airport so early she had left plenty of time. She had shifted now from the departures coffee shop to a row of angled chairs alongside it. There was more than enough time still to go through security and buy a bottle of water and an eye-mask at the other end, as Jorge had instructed.
‘On the plane you make your own refugio, your own night capsule,’ he had said. ‘You tuck up in your seat and pull your blanket tight and close your eyes, and then, before you know it, you’ve arrived, you’re there.’
‘I know you,’ he’d also said, just before he left, swallowing his aperitivo in one gulp and glaring in that unblinking way he had when he was concentrating. ‘Don’t sit around and think or you’ll never be able to get away. Take your bag and walk straight through to the gates.’
Pressing her legs together and pulling her coat hem to her knees—her coat against the New York winter—Evelina tried now to bring his face into the very centre of her memory, to hold his image there so she could believe again in everything he had told her, in her new life in New York together with her handsome, savvy fiancé, believe in the restaurant business he would set up there, in a city full of restaurants.
But though he had sat across that table only a month or so ago the main thing she remembered was the pale eyes burning in his tanned face, that and what he said about the nuevo día.
When she arrives it will be the start of a new day.
Easier was detail from further back, the funny way his curly hair blew across his forehead when they went out cycling on Sundays, and their picnics in parks all over the city, and the food he liked to prepare, the curried eggs and spicy beef salads that were his speciality, the plastic dishes of food spread out along with his metal mate pot on her printed cloth on the grass.
She remembered their first date, at a rival steak restaurant to his, away from the centre, and the lovely loose feeling in her limbs that his energetic talk gave her, the pictures he painted of hiking in Patagonia, and seeing a mountain leopard, and then his dream of setting up a steak restaurant on 5th Avenue. These details felt like just days ago.
Clearest was the very first time of course, that startling and magical day when they had first met. There he had stood at the city event for young entrepreneurs, talking and making gestures with his big arms. She had worked through the exhibition hall looking for him, trawling up and down the aisles, and found him at last standing beside a poster that showed a steak jugoso in gleaming close-up, handing out leaflets, his fine wide face shining like a bronze mask.
Earlier, she had been at her post at the exhibition hall entrance just beyond the sliding doors and he had passed her. She was in her brown and orange tourist-board uniform checking nametags and handing out convention maps. She had given him a map and he had been the only one to say gracias, politely, looking her in the eye.
She found his stall by remembering the number on his tag. For her whole break she stood and looked at him from beside a pillar. She had never seen anyone with so open a face, so confident and shining a look, the kind of face you’d travel halfway across the world to see again.
On his way out he caught her eye for a second time and she smiled.
‘I saw your talk,’ she said.
He wrote her number on the company card she gave him and called the very next morning, just before nine.
Their first date was that Friday and they had got to know each other quickly after that. He had taken her to film festivals all over the city to see the old Argentinian films, BA a la vista, Rápido, La casa del ángel. She liked the dusty smells of the art house cinemas. She had only ever gone to big movie theatres before, with Enrico and his friends.
When Jorge proposed he had taken her back to the exhibition hall entrance, to the exact spot where she had stood and given him her number. It was a windy day and old leaflets and other rubbish bowled about their feet.
Later, he said he’d invited a saxophonist friend to come and play them background music from Rápido there on the steps but the guy hadn’t shown up. Who knows why? Jorge shrugged. Perhaps he hadn’t given him enough money for the cab.
But it hadn’t bothered her. She had her ring, she had his declaración. She assured him she preferred a proposal involving just the two people themselves.
Her father was more scornful and probably she shouldn’t have told him. It wasn’t his business. And yet she had blurted it out, there at her send-off party, the dulce de leche squeezing out of the pastry in his hand. And straightaway of course he harrumphed something about young men who thought too much about their grooming and too little about their bank balance. Which was unfair, she knew.
But she’d kept quiet, she’d said nothing in Jorge’s defence. She’d merely turned her eyes away from Papá eating his oozing factura and remembered the Chinese burns he used to give her and Enrico as children, when they were naughty.
‘See how much you want to stick to your silliness,’ he’d say, wringing their arms like a rag, twisting harder if they squeaked.
‘People go to New York and become anything they want, dancers, directors, professors, even princesses,’ Jorge had said those weeks ago over their untouched aperitivos. ‘It doesn’t matter if you come from los confines de la tierra, New York makes dreams come true.’
‘Sueños,’ he had said, cupping one hand like a scale. ‘Realidad,’ he had added, holding up the other.
She had looked hard then into his pale eyes. She saw in them excitement and hope. She saw the shape of the New York skyline. She would have liked to see something more, a little fear perhaps, so they could talk about that together. But Jorge’s eyes were the eyes of a man who would forge ahead and press on regardless of what setbacks he might meet, who would build his dreams in the streets of New York even if he didn’t have an Evelina to support him.
She jumped up now in a sudden impulse of horror, her coat falling to the ground. Jorge forging on without her, she couldn’t bear to think of it. She must go through with this now, fly away or else! Or these extremities of the earth would swallow her up. Jorge had the power to save her. Jorge would fold her in his arms and make new things possible. He had hope enough for two. Her chance lay in his hands, no, in his hands and her hands. Tomorrow morning she would be with him, pressed to his side, travelling with him on the subway into the heart of New York. But getting there depended on her, on getting herself on that flight. That was it with fretting. She could lose everything this way. Her chance lay here in her hands.
She picked up her bags and saw there was still time, un poco, a bit of time. She checked her watch against the digital clock on the departures board and made her way over to the viewing window. She wanted one last look at the familiar sky, the familiar line of hills still discernible above the distant city, the planes with their illuminated windows ascending and descending. If she put it off now, she would not see it again for years.
The tannoy announced that the flight gate was open. Evelina turned from the viewing window and saw the clear bubble of the telephone booth on the near wall. She didn’t want to see the booth but once she had seen it she couldn’t forget it. One last thing she really had to do, this is what it was telling her.
Jorge hadn’t called though he’d said he would, so now she would call him. Surprise, surprise, she would make a joke of it, laughing lightly. Sorpresa, little did you think! At the airport, where else? Just to say—this time tomorrow, our nuevo día, we’ll be on our way home, beginning our new life together.
But what if there was no home, no new apartamento? What if their papers had been refused? She’d heard nothing. She put down her bags at the booth and checked the slip in her passport, the numbers he had given her, first his friend in the steakhouse business, and then his father’s colleague’s nephew. He’d be staying with either the one or the other, whoever had space.
‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you,’ he’d said. ‘For a few days I won’t have a phone.’
But he hadn’t called. And it was weeks, not days. She didn’t doubt him but still he hadn’t called. Evelina felt suddenly empty, cavernous. She felt the great dark seas that separated them wash over her heart.
No, she thought, no, and reached suddenly for the back of the chair closest to her, the rough woollen shoulder of the gentleman sitting in it.
Somebody then took her arm and guided her to a nearby counter.
‘You look very pale,’ the attendant at the counter said. ‘Look, why not give me your bags? I can help you to your gate.’
‘Let me take a moment,’ Evelina heard herself say in a composed voice. The cold steel edge of the counter pressing into her palm gave her comfort. It was like holding onto a raft.
‘I was trying to make a call but somehow it didn’t work,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get through. Maybe I don’t have the right number.’
The last call for her flight, for the second time they were calling out her name, Evelina, Evelina, as if they were welcoming her. She was on her way, she really was. She had worked in the travel business and now she was a traveller, too. She had made it through security and passport control. Her documents were here in her left hand, slid inside her travel company’s own white plastic folder. The folder was her goodbye present from her colleagues, that and a smart purse containing a nail-care kit. Had she remembered to pack the purse? She wanted to check but as she made to bend down she caught sight of the gate number there ahead of her, silver numbers on a blue screen, and a flight attendant waving. There was no one else about, theirs was the last plane out, she was the last passenger to arrive. She was almost at the gate. Now it was just the flight bridge to go and then they’d seal the great aeroplane door behind her. She really was on her way. Tomorrow she’d be with Jorge in New York, riding the subway with him as they somehow had never done here in their own city, pressing herself to his side.
Jorge, she could see his pale eyes burning in his bronze face—his face like a mask sometimes, polished, shining. She tried to imagine him waving at her like the flight attendant was waving, waving across the great dark seas that stretched between here and New York. She made herself see the moving waters as if from high up in the dark sky, from the plane she would soon be flying in, soaring above those black waves she had so recently felt curling around her heart. From here up high, her seatbelt pressing into her lap, she could see, peering down, the stars reflected in the dark waters, and the lights of the city shimmering at their edge, and, though it was still night, the black arrow of the plane’s shadow rushing across the moving, churning sea.