AJ DeMoyer is an emerging writer of eco-dystopian short fiction, currently studying an MA Writing and Literature at Deakin University. April lives with her husband, two tiny dogs and an oversize cat on Dharawal Country (regional NSW). When she’s not studying, reading or writing, she’s either propagating succulents in her garden, obsessively sorting the recycling, baking a sugary treat, or streaming dystopian programming.
‘Good evening, Jo,’ AIoFE™ says. ‘You have three new messages.’
Jo picks up her phone and slides her thumb over the screen, which unlocks after authenticating her irises.
Extended Warning: X5 Class Solar Flare. Prepare for power grid disruptions.
Warning: UV Level 9 tomorrow. Please stay indoors between 6am – 7pm.
Be SolarSafe! Is your Geomagnetic Disruption Critical Response Plan ready? Contact your local—
Jo places her device on the table. Along the edge of the crepuscular sky, an apricot glow hugs the horizon.
A few days later, Jo sits on her small balcony in a wooden chair, book in hand, a glass of peppermint H2Oh!™ sweating on a low table beside her.
Duke is just about to rip the satin bodice from Victoria’s quivering body when an electronic rendition of ‘Greensleeves’ pierces Jo’s eardrums, shocking her from the quiet mid-afternoon reverie. She places the book, its pages swollen and warped from touch and temperature, on the table next to her glass. Jo sighs. Why do I even bother? Most of her books and other belongings had been destroyed in the Terrible Flood; these tacky romance novels—that anachronistic ice-cream van—are like cockroaches in a nuclear holocaust. She has learned to be content with whatever she can get.
Jo surveys the street with its single-family heritage houses repurposed for multiple occupancy. She feels lucky to have been assigned to this block, to a property with a garden. The rusty van trundles up the street; children, drawn to its song like sailors to Sirens, abandon their makeshift bicycles and rush toward it. Uniformed mothers, between shifts at The Factory, watch closely.
The tune cuts out; the van has stopped. In the quiet, Jo recalls the hot summers of her own youth, some 17,000 kilometres and seventy years from where she finds herself now. She remembers hours spent running through reticulated sprinklers under a clear blue sky, toes squelching over lush green lawns, the excitement of the ice-cream truck cruising her neighbourhood, even then summoning children with a warbled, tinny rendition of ‘Greensleeves’. Flaky chocolate sticks in soft, aerated ice-creams; ice lollies that turned lips and tongues blue and red. What could they possibly get from that van now? Jo shudders.
Shrill and mechanical, the tune starts up again. Jo returns to her chair, stretches her spider-veined legs, rests her calloused feet on a threadbare cushion. She reaches for the book and begins to read, with some longing, details of Victoria and Duke delighting in each other’s company.
‘Good morning,’ AIoFE™ says, handing Jo her daily packet of vitamins and a glass of verbena H2Oh!™. ‘You are advised to stay indoors today. We are currently experiencing an X3 class geomagnetic storm, which is expected to increase to X5 in the next 48 hours.’
Wiping down her breakfast plate, Jo studies her desiccated Survival Garden™ planted with GMO crops designed to thrive in the ‘new normal’ climate. She longs for the verdant gardens of her childhood and the permaculture gardens of her adulthood, carefully landscaped with a mixture of flowers and produce—fragrant roses, juicy strawberries, passionfruit dangling from vines. And yet, just five weeks ago, between spells of torrential rain, Jo had spotted Filipendula ulmania—meadowsweet—in a far corner of her plot. She marvels at Nature’s tenacity, her resilience.
Jo spends the day tidying her living space, making mental lists. Her AIoFE™ could do this, but Jo wants to keep her ageing mind agile and sharp. She fears becoming like her neighbours Logan and Barb, whose AIoFE™ does everything for them; who, instead of enjoying what remains of nature or humankind, binge-watch reality TV (Barb, grid permitting) and re-enact VR wars (Logan, sobriety permitting).
That night, Jo dreams she’s atop a tall mountain in springtime bloom. The peak’s outdoor restaurant is busy. As she walks toward it, the sky flashes white. In the distance, a slow-moving silver arc appears, raining fire as it advances, consuming everything in its path. No-one else notices. People gorge themselves on piles of food, their mouths and fingers greasy with the fat of animals; they ignore her cries, her pleas. It is too late. The arc is upon them; its flames engulf them.
AIoFE™ enters the bedroom, eyes burning bright LED white before softening to an ethereal blue. ‘Wake up, sleepy head,’ it says. ‘The Assembly begins in 90 minutes.’
Jo eases herself out of bed, stretches her arms over her head then side to side. The climate curfew has been lifted; she is meeting friends ahead of The Assembly.
‘Honestly, Jo, it’s not that bad with Wheatmylk™ and a lump of Shugar™.’ Maren sips her tepid drink and grimaces, her lips peeled back and bloodless over her tombstone teeth in mock pleasure.
Jo fingers the chip in the ancient mug. She does not like Koffee™ and has only ordered one to be sociable.
Harriet squeezes her friend’s hand. ‘I miss the real thing, too. Remember the smell of freshly ground beans? What I wouldn’t do for—even for a Nescafe!’
The women finish their drinks in silence. They leave the cafeteria, cross a covered courtyard secured by the Civil Guard and peppered with protesters holding hand-drawn placards.
Jo and her friends join the throng of people moving along a corridor into a cavernous building—a former dairy acquired through compulsory purchase. Jo had heard that the farmer had been paid a token sum, his cattle slaughtered and quietly distributed to government officials. The women sit near the stage: a floor-to-ceiling digital screen for the global simulcast. At precisely 10.30am, the lights dim and the crowd hushes.
An AIoFE™ moves to the dais. ‘Children, I greet you in the name of His Excellency, Our Great Father.’ The AIoFE™ continues, ‘I remind you that full-duplex device jamming is activated and the room is sealed until The Assembly has concluded.’
The robot moves aside. The screen comes to life with an avatar of His Excellency, Our Great Father: a small, average-looking, fair-skinned, grey-haired man in his fifties dressed in a deep purple tunic adorned with a gold sash, standing in front of a red velvet drape. Jo can’t help but think of Oscar Diggs; she stifles a dangerous laugh with a cough.
‘Children!’ The avatar raises his hands in blessing. ‘My peace be with you.’
The room rises to its feet, responds in unison, ‘And also with you, Our Great Father’.
‘Today, Children, I bring you wonderful news. Behold! I have made all things new. The first earth is passing away and will not be remembered. My chosen ones shall inherit a new Earth. No longer shall you toil. Relieved of your labours, you will be free to pursue enlightened interests here in New Eden.’
The avatar disappears, replaced with drone footage of enormous domed sanctuaries: a breathtaking feat of bio-engineering, conservation and artificial intelligence. The audience watches advanced AIoFE™ models labouring while humans enjoy manmade forests, lakes, and meadows interspersed with natural landscapes and habitats filled with a Noah’s Ark of animals, fishes, birds, reptiles, insects—a curated selection of extinct species re-animated through the wonders of science, rewilded into synthetic habitats.
Over pseudo-chorale background music the AIoFE™ narrates: ‘His Excellency, Our Great Father has created a new world where humans and animals and technology will live together in peace and prosperity, in God’s own country.’
Jo’s stomach knots. An entire continent seized, repurposed as New Eden—the zenith of man’s paradisiacal neo-creation. She had known, of course, about the depopulation of the former continent-nation of Australia, which officials had declared uninhabitable after a series of severe climate disasters. Its people had been forcibly redistributed to overcrowded, resource-depleted northern hemisphere countries, where protests against these unwanted Antipodean refugees had resulted in vicious attacks on the newcomers. Jo knows some of these families from The Centre for Cultural Assimilation, where she serves two days a week. She knows what it’s like to be in a strange, new place—when she was 14, Jo’s parents moved their family to the northern hemisphere after the earthquake that levelled Canberra. They are no different to us, she thinks, just traumatised in different ways.
From the screen, the Ministers for New Eden and Global Reassignment outline the timetable, migration process and the lottery system—only one billion people will reside in His Excellency’s utopia. Jo scans the hall, searching to find her incredulity mirrored in the faces of others; instead, she finds only faces shining with desperate optimism.
That afternoon, fragments of a poem Jo’s mother used to recite tickle her memory.
‘AIoFE™,’ she asks, ‘what is that poem about … cybernetic meadows?’
The robot’s chest panel lights up, emits a soft whir. ‘The poem is “All watched over by machines of loving grace”, written by Richard Brautigan in 1967 when he was the poet-in-residence at Cal—’
‘Thank you, AIoFE™. Will you read it, please?’
Later that evening, Jo sits in her wooden chair on the balcony with a glass of peppermint H2Oh!™. She reflects on The Assembly’s announcement that morning. She closes her eyes, recites the poem’s last stanza into the night air:
‘I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.’
Jo sighs. What choice do any of us have?
Over the rooftops of her neighbours’ dimly lit homes, the apricot glow looms.
Juanita is an emerging writer who lives in a small town in rural Victoria, on the unceded land of the Dja Dja Wurrung people. She has only recently tapped into a deep desire to write. Having successfully navigated away from a long career as a professional photographer, Juanita is now completing her arts degree in anthropology and creative writing at Deakin University in Geelong.
After Andri Snær Magnason
There is a man sitting outside a café in Reykjavik harbour, drinking his second double espresso and writing a eulogy for a glacier.
The man takes a crumpled packet of cigarettes from his breast pocket, digs out the last one, and stares vacantly across the harbour at the Harpa Concert Hall. It is perched on the edge of the water like a giant metallic beast from the future; scales glinting in the sun. He lights the cigarette, and while the match burns down until it singes his finger, he wonders what kind of world the glacier was born into. He quickly waves out the match, places it carefully in the ashtray with the others, and squints out at the bay through an exhalation of smoke.
What did it feel like, to be alive ten thousand years ago?
Katja Edelmann is driving a rented Audi north from the Munich airport towards a nursing-home in Aalen, where she will help celebrate her grandmother’s one-hundredth birthday. She has flown in from Reykjavik, straight from an interview with a climate scientist, who gave her a view of the world so immense, it has dislodged something solid, deep inside her. And while she was busy navigating her way out of the airport terminal, her story on the disappearing glaciers of Iceland was rewriting itself in her brain, without her even noticing.
As she drives further from the airport, the terrain beyond the Autobahn slowly transforms. As if in a time-lapse. The distant hills become dotted with clusters of fretworked farm-houses, and patches of thick forest appear. Familiar landmarks pass by and scenes from childhood visits with her grandmother layer themselves upon the landscape. For an unsettling moment, time no longer has a linear flow.
Katja looks at the clock on the dashboard and decides she needs one more coffee before re-uniting with her German relatives. She hates that it will make her late, but she’s been up since four a.m. and is starting to feel the ache in her throat that comes from holding in too many emotions. Or from smoking too many cigarettes, she’s not sure which.
She takes the next exit into a Raststätte the size of a small town and drives to the furthest end of the parking area. She pulls up in front of an enormous tree at the edge of the bitumen, turns off the ignition and sits in the car for a moment. The tree before her is a splendid, twisted old thing. An oak maybe. There’s a crow sitting on an outstretched branch, its head cocked and alert, examining her carefully. She leans forward over the steering wheel, and watches its inky feathers shimmer blue-green in the sun.
‘We are living in biblical times,’ the scientist had said to her, just a few hours earlier. He had paused, offered her a cigarette and explained, ‘when geologically-scaled events like ocean acidification and species extinction happen on a human time-scale, reality takes on a mythical quality.’ He had looked at her with an intensity that reminded her of an ex-lover who had become unhinged, some years ago, obsessed with dark internet conspiracies.
As Katja gets out of the car, the crow makes a sound like a baby wailing. It hops, open-winged along the branch a few times before flying off. She watches it disappear into a row of birch trees and it occurs to her that she has been writing the wrong story.
She buys a coffee and a packet of throat lozenges and takes them back to the car. The crow reappears abruptly in a blur of black. It hops along the same gnarled branch and stares at her. She sips her coffee and stares back, admiring the magnificent oak in which it is perched. Yes, definitely oak.
She remembers a story her father once told her about the wooden beams in the roof of a dining hall in Oxford. The building itself was over seven-hundred-years-old, but about a century ago—her father had explained—an infestation of beetles was found in the huge lengths of oak that were supporting the roof. Unsure where to find such massive pieces of wood to replace the beams, the college council called on the college forester for advice. Unsurprised by the situation, the forester said something like, ‘I’ve been wondering when you lot would turn up!’
The forester explained that back when the college was built, six centuries earlier, a grove of oak trees was planted to replace those very beams. The inevitability of a beetle infestation at some point in the future was calculated into the construction. And this knowledge was passed on from forester to forester, down through the generations: the oaks in that grove were for the dining hall in Oxford.
Why do we no longer hold our vision so far into the future? She suddenly realises that the story she needs to write isn’t about climate change. It is about time.
‘We have to change the way we think about time,’ the man in Reykjavik had said. Cathedral thinking, he had called it. Cathedrals in Europe would take generations to build. Hundreds of years. Fathers would lay the foundations, knowing they would never see it finished. And their grandsons would teach their sons how to chisel rocks and place stones, one upon the other, knowing they would be long dead before the first congregation gathered under its vaulted ceiling.
Katja checks the time on the dashboard again. She unwraps the lozenges, pops one in her mouth and starts the car. She regrets smoking so many of the scientist’s cigarettes.
‘Katja, Schatz! Wie geht’s? You’re here!’
Her uncle engulfs her in a joyful hug as she enters the foyer of the nursing-home. She laughs and hugs him back, apologising for being late. ‘Ach, don’t worry about it. Oma is in the dining room with everyone, go in, I’m just organising the cake.’
Katja is taken in by her relatives: into the room and back into their lives. Her grandmother is helped out of her chair and gives her a long, surprisingly firm hug. ‘How long are you staying this time Kati?’ she says, her voice slower and deeper than Katja remembers.
‘Just a few days, Oma, but I will make the most of every moment.’ She smiles and gives her grandmother’s hand a squeeze. As Katja helps the old woman back into her chair, her cousin appears with her newborn son asleep in her arms. ‘Hallo Katja! Meet Ulli…’ She reorganises her body to reveal a tiny pink face in the bundle folded into her arms.
‘Hello Ulli,’ says Katja, touching his soft fuzzy head. She tries to imagine what the world will be like in the year 2118, when this brand-new human turns one-hundred.
The line between past and present blurs again as Katja is immersed in an afternoon of conversation and reminiscence. Jan finally arrives with a birthday cake big enough for Ulli to take a nap on, and someone leads them in song.
A middle-aged woman with wild hair and thick-rimmed glasses approaches Katja with a plate of birthday cake in each hand. ‘The last time I talked to you, you were writing a story about some Aboriginal people—trying to save those trees in Australia.’ She hands her niece the slab of darkly layered torte, the thick white frosting threatening to topple to the floor.
‘Oh, my! Thank you, Tante Lina,’ Katja says taking the plate. ‘Yes, you’re right. That was couple of years ago now.’ Her mind cast back to the sparse, dry landscape of central Victoria, and the scorching summer that she wrote about those trees. Eight-hundred-year-old birthing trees. Sacred to the local Djab Wurrung people, they were to be cut down to widen a section of highway. She had spent a week at the protest site, camping alongside those magnificent trees and their custodians. She felt the distress of the Traditional Owners as they talked about the importance of the tress, and the sacred land that they were on. How that land connected the Djab Wurrung people to their ancestors, to the beginning of time.
Fifty generations of women had birthed their children under the protection of those trees, and countless generations of women and trees were in relationship before that. For the Djab Wurrung, the past, like the present, was always all around them. For them, the horror of colonisation was ongoing.
‘What ever happened to those trees? Did you save them?’
‘No.’ She swallows a mouthful of cake but forgets to taste it.
When she visits again the next day, Katja finds her grandmother alone, dozing in a large hospital-grade recliner in her room. Katja sits down opposite her and quietly watches her breathe. A nurse marches in announcing teatime and clunks a cup of tea down on the small table in front of her grandmother, startling her awake. This small violence makes Katja want to follow the nurse down the corridor and yell at her. Instead, she bundles her grandmother into a wheelchair and drives her to Bucher-Stausee, the place her grandmother took her swimming as child.
‘I haven’t been here for a long time,’ says the old woman as Katja slowly wheels her to the edge of the lake.
The two women watch the ducks bobbing up and down on the water, and Katja listens to her grandmother talk about her husband. A good, kind man, who always gave her the best of everything he had. The old woman tells of long-ago adventures with her favourite uncle, who had secretly taught her to hunt rabbits in the spruce forest behind his house. She tells of a dear friend, her closest, oldest friend, who helped her care for her husband when he was dying.
All of them, already claimed by God, she says.
She tells Katja of her mother, Hildegard, a fierce woman born in 1891 in a small town near Berlin, in what was then Prussia. The daughter of a carriage builder, she would frequently test drive her father’s handiwork, to his continual horror.
Hildegard’s great-grand-daughter looks out over the water, and counts back in her head how many great-grandmothers it would take to get to the time when the birthing trees were just saplings; to when a stonemason in Paris was laying the foundation for Notre-Dame. Twenty? Fifty? For the now dead glacier, fifty human generations was surely just a blip in its life. Eight-hundred-years ago might have felt like its last hours on earth. Did it feel the oncoming warming, the shifting of ideologies and warring of men? Did it sense then, the stirring of a population about to explode?
‘Do you think God has forgotten me?’
‘Technology has given us the power of gods,’ the scientist had said, looking down at his hands like he was confessing something. He paused, looked up, and gave Katja a beatific smile. ‘Of course, the problem is, we lack the wisdom of gods.’
A crow hops along the branch of a tree, where a parking lot will one day be built. A young man in Paris gently lowers the foundation stone at a construction site on the edge of the Seine. A forester in Oxford presses a row of acorns into the soil. And a eucalypt seedling, fifteen-thousand kilometres away, has just broken through the earth.
In Iceland, a glacier heaves and groans.
And the man in the Reykjavik café still can’t figure out how say good-bye to a ten-thousand-year-old god.
Megan Cheong is a teacher, writer and critic living and working on Wurundjeri land. Her writing has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging and Overland.
Some difficult change is underway and he begins again to wake in the night, Mummy coming softly through a crack in his dreams.
I can barely see through the deep dark, but my feet know the way and my hands find the warmth of him. I slide into his narrow bed and curl myself around the shape of him.
First I hear them squeaking and squawking just outside the window. In the brief silences between their calls, I hear the rustle of their steps in the grass. I get out of bed to raise the blinds. There are around twenty magpies assembled on the lawn, some picking in the grass with the black tip of their otherwise white beaks, but most simply standing wide-legged, staring into the house.
Above them, the pale sky begins to blush pink, then the sunrise proceeds with incredible momentum, the sky and the clouds flushing orange, gold and blue in quick succession. In the dazzling horizontal sunlight, they begin to sing: short phrases of two or four loud shivering notes building to melodious carols that rush into each other in a blaring chorus.
I watch him through the window above the sink while my hands wash the dishes. He is lying on his stomach in the grass inspecting the small purple flowers of the lily turf bordering the flowerbed when the fat black splotch of a bee or wasp drops from the blue sky, hovering indecisively in the air above his head before landing on the turf a metre or so away from him.
I pull my hands out of the dishwater, leaving a trail of droplets on the kitchen tiles on my way out to him. Positioning myself between him and the bee, I raise a hand to wave it away when my attention snags on a strange, rhythmic whistling. The sudden jerk of my body startles the bee into flight. Oliver lies with his head turned away from me, fingers splayed, round shoulders quickly rising and falling with each shallow breath.
Because he was not feeding at the time and because they can’t find any bites on his skin, the doctors at the hospital tell me to keep him off the grass and away from the lily turf, though they seem unconvinced that either of these things brought on the reaction. They tell me they do not know what caused the episode, but they give me an auto-injector with a bright green label and show me how to press its orange tip into his thigh. It fits comfortably in my curled fingers and I keep it in my pocket, periodically reaching in to wrap my fingers around it all day until I take it out and place it on his bedside table that night.
I lie down beside him and sing ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’ into the silky hair on the back of his head, but he has been drowsy all evening and is asleep before I reach the verse to which we normally mime ‘putting on our clothes’. I lie very still, listening attentively to each deep even breath.
The grass is a rough tickle on my hands, an itch on the backs of my calves. I try to grab a handful of it, but it’s stuck in the ground, so I pitch myself forward, blue-green rush of the sky and trees, then it’s nice and close and I can see the grass is yellow, not green. Or some of it is the pale yellow of uncooked corn. Each blade of grass is separate from the other, each blade of grass long and skinny before ending in a point in the sky. But some are not long, and some are not skinny; each blade of grass is different.
When I dig my fingers into the ground, they become tangled in a kind of net connecting each blade of grass to all the others. And when I lift my head up, I see that the grass, this net, goes on forever.
Oliver is very interested in the wooden box of vials on the allergist’s desk. He twists in my lap when I turn him so that his back is facing her, not out of fear but because he wants to get another look at the neat grid of vials with their bright red caps.
He stops squirming when she begins to draw on his back with black texta, his body rigid as she draws three rows of circles, then numbers each from one to fifteen. He stays perfectly still, eyes wide and blank while she pricks each circle, and only seems to return to himself in the waiting room when I put him on the grey carpet next to a wooden ice cream truck. He peers inside the open top of the truck and pushes it back and forth on the carpet.
After half an hour, the allergist calls us back into her office and lifts the back of his jumper. All the circles are empty, enclosing nothing but the smooth brown skin that was there before.
The next time it happens, he is sitting at my feet in the kitchen sorting through a collection of bowls and measuring cups. He coughs once, twice, then draws a single rasping breath before I hear the muted thud of his body dropping onto the tiles. I drop to my knees and grab for the Epipen in my pocket with one hand, pulling him onto my lap with the other. His head flops back against my chest, but his eyes are half-open as if he had just woken from a nap, or as if he were just about to fall asleep. I tuck his arms into the tight circle of my embrace and pull the blue cap off the end of the injector with my free hand. I squeeze his thigh and push the orange tip, hard, into his leg. The epipen emits a loud click and his whole body tenses, his mouth opening wide in a silent scream. My own body stiffens in response, holding him straight and still with the needle embedded deep in his thigh muscle.
After four seconds, his scream escapes, a high-pitched wail that grows and grows until the kitchen is full of the sound of him. He shakes and judders from the effort of it, but I continue to hold him in place until ten seconds has passed and I can remove the needle from his leg. His cries stop suddenly, cut off by a gurgle and the wet slop of liquid on the tiles as his gut empties itself onto the floor. I let him hang over my forearm, searching with one trembling hand on the kitchen bench for my phone.
As we wait for the ambulance, his crying tapers off into a low moaning punctuated by sporadic sobs that jolt his entire body. I stay on the kitchen floor, my arms wrapped around his narrow torso, my own tears flowing silently into the damp cotton of his t-shirt.
While they monitor him, I sleep with my head resting on the edge of his small bed.
I wander down a hospital corridor lined with closed doors. Some rooms have windows looking out onto the corridor, but aluminium blinds hide the contents of each room.
I stop at one door and push the handle down. The door swings inwards to reveal a laboratory, its benches covered with rows and rows of blood samples. The blood is almost black in the incandescent hospital lighting. I retreat, gently pulling the door closed behind me.
In the next room, a squat yellow robotic arm moves purposefully over a carefully organised bench. The red and yellow wires connecting each segment of the arm to the next give it a naked look.
I walk to the door at the end of the corridor and hold my breath as I push it open. In the middle of the room stands a machine the size and colour of a photocopier. Nothing moves, but occasionally a soft whirring, followed by a muted click comes from deep inside the machine. I place my hand on its smooth plastic casing and am flooded with relief.
The door opens behind me, and a quiet male voice interrupts me, ‘Excuse me, but you shouldn’t be in here.’
We are walking along a thin creek, making slow progress because Oliver stops every few metres to select a piece of gravel from the footpath or press the soles of his shoes into the damp mud by the creek.
On the crest of a gently sloping hill, he pauses to run his hands along the peeling trunk of a paperbark tree. When he pinches the curling edge of a strip of bark as if to peel it back from the trunk, I slip my hand between his and the tree, disengaging his fingers from the bark. He looks up at me with a question in his face, then suddenly drops his head so that his face is pressed up against the bark. My breath catches and my blood surges, but then the familiar rise and fall of his voice emerges from the narrow space between him and the tree. I sit back on my heels and lean my cheek against the top of his head, though he is speaking too softly for me to hear what he’s saying.
I am climbing a tree, or I am just lifting myself onto the lowest branch of a tree, when I feel a firm tug on my ankle. I look back over my shoulder and see my own face, creased with worry, so I drop down off the branch and sit on the ground beside myself.
We sit in the sound of the air moving through the leaves of the tree and I feel the kind of calm I only ever feel when I am by myself, but without the unease that accompanies being alone out in the open. The other me smiles at me and raises her hand to point up at something in the shifting foliage.
When I turn to look, I am struck by the generosity of the tree: its narrow silver-brown trunk spreading rapidly to fill the sky with a multitude of leaves lit bright green by the sunlight. I sink my hands into the rich mix of soil and old leaves beneath me. I tip my head back so that my face is parallel with the sky to watch the leaves turn and wink in the breeze.
Dinasha Edirisinghe was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Australia. She has completed a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at The University of Melbourne and is currently completing her PhD at Deakin University. Her dissertation explores the creative work of the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous and the Australian writer Patrick White. It also includes a novella called This Night which is inspired by her research. Her story, Vesāk, is an extract from this novella. Dinasha enjoys all things literary and loves living in Melbourne where she exposes herself to as much art, cinema and theatre as humanly possible.
The cold night deepens. It grows bold and the Moreton Bay Fig shivers, releasing a cascade of pebble-like fruit. Green buds like little moons descend, each one containing a universe within.
The Fig worries that he’s falling ill again. A chill runs through his leaves, the tips of his branches and his roots. Around him, the temple gardens are bathed in lights, each brilliant point a star in the dark sky. The moon, in full bloom, is its centrepiece: pearl white against a deep indigo sky.
The air echoes with an orchestra of voices chanting the five precepts: Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi. The voices, some too eager and others too slow, linger over the final word, carving its syllables into the earth.
Worshippers carrying food and offerings — flowers and parcels of milk rice and sweets wrapped in banana leaves — disperse along stone paths intersecting the gardens. A group of monks rugged up in orange and maroon admires a Crimson Bottlebrush, pointing at its red blooms, while a troupe of painted dancers rushes past, gesturing nervously to the stage up ahead, their thick coats rustling against their traditional garments. The line of Crepe Myrtles behind the stage flutters, excited. Their rusting foliage is set ablaze by the fairy lights adorning them.
The bell-shaped stupa to the left attracts the most interest. The burnt clay-brick structure, with its thick plaster casing, is a pure meringue-white. Visitors circumambulate, sit or prostrate themselves around it, deep in contemplation.
The Fig also makes a slight bow to the stupa. Bark, sap and heartwood creaking, he offers up the lanterns threaded throughout his branches. Their supple skins, lit from within, bounce and scratch against him.
A constellation of Buddhas watches as he moves.
Peppered throughout the gardens in a Centaurus-like pattern, they sit in various positions or mudras. Some are in the Dhyana Mudra, cross-legged with upturned palms placed one on top of the other, several sit in the Bhumisparsha Mudra, their right hands hanging over their knees and pointing towards the earth, their left hands sitting in their laps with the palm upturned. The reclining Buddhas lie on their sides and rest their hands against their cheeks, as if they are asleep, and the towering Buddhas, with giant stone lotuses blossoming at their feet, stand in the Abhaya Mudra: their right arms bent at the elbow and their palms facing outwards.
The Fig has seen each one of these monoliths raised over the years. Close to his height, they speak sometimes. Last year, they were the first to notice the rust forming on the undersides of his leaves. As the tiny yellow spots turned reddish brown, the monks grew alarmed, but the Buddhas did not panic. Instead, they insisted on staying up with him as he tossed and turned – feverish – telling stories to take his mind off his illness.
They told tales of stone quarries and a slow coming into consciousness. They reminisced about temperate climates and elaborate full moon festivities where whole countries were set alight for the occasion. The Fig is grateful to them. From time to time, he still dreams of elephant-led processions winding their way through streets glistening with spectators.
In the distance, the Fig spots a man and woman, wearing the traditional white, emerge from a line of worshippers waiting to pay their respects. They walk forward but disappear when a crowd of children hurtles past, engulfing them.
The man, jostled about, reaches out to the woman. His hand finds hers. Together they re-emerge from among the throng of youths heading in the opposite direction.
The Fig, prone to presentiment, knows that they are moving towards him.
He watches them veer off the stone path into his mass of protruding roots. Their hands loosen, then break apart as they step precariously from root to intertwined root, bodies pivoting, as if on an axis, each time they slip or stumble.
When they can go no further, they stop and stare upwards at the canopy of transpiring lanterns and leaves.
The lanterns reach out to Hema. They are refined and elegant and emit a gentle light that turns everything in the vicinity golden. They remind her of home, of walking hand in hand with her amma eating bombai mutai, which they buy from a vendor walking through the streets ringing a little bell. More straw-like than the fairy floss you can get here, Hema sorely misses its powdery texture.
Anthony feels the lanterns are goading him. He knows they are beautiful only because they are delicate and could be destroyed at any moment. To him, they are a reminder of the sensation of cool earth pressed against naked skin, the sound of a voice mimicking the call of the Magpie Robin and the last lines of a poem by Lakdasa Wikkramasinha: The poet is a bomb in the city, Unable to bear the circle of the Seconds in his heart, Waiting to burst.
Hema senses the shift in her husband. She is well versed in the signs. Despite this, she reaches out to touch him. He doesn’t notice. So, she withdraws the offending hand and covers it with the less-brazen one beside it.
A young man walking by throws a careless glance to his side and sees the two figures standing side by side: their faces frozen in attitudes of rapt attention. His mind transforms them into two masked players performing a tragedy to an amphitheatre of lanterns and leaves.
When the woman reaches out to the man standing beside her, the young man feels his own body tilt right in response – in anticipation. When she is rebuffed, the sting of indignity spreads throughout his own chest, pooling behind his eyes and at the pit of his stomach.
He perceives in her quick resignation something – once floriferous – withering. He has seen it before. Many times, in fact. She is like a flower – large and grotesque – decaying on its stem. Yet there is still something of life and of living in her predicament. Better to be like her than like himself: a bud wound tightly shut. Infructuous.
She is older than him, most likely part of that generation of migrants – some refugees but mostly skilled labourers – invited to come and settle here in Australia by the government. Unlike the first wave of Burghers that preceded them, they were not as adept at English or as knowledgeable about Western customs. But, through sheer determination, they made homes here, raised families, and put together what little they had to buy and bequeath this land to the monks. Now students, like him, hope to achieve the same, envying the fruits of their labours without really understanding the hardships that went into them.
The plot here, at the very outer limits of the burgeoning northern suburbs, is generous but the ground is sparsely populated with vegetation. There’s no humidity in this place, only a temperamental dryness. Even when it is cold, like it is today. The landscape is almost stripped down to the bone. The foliage an extension of its exoskeleton.
Back home, the young man studied history. Here this interest has been relegated to a past time while he studies for a Diploma in Information Technology. But in his free time, he does much reading on the country. To him, Australia seems a place pulled in different directions, echoing with forgotten voices. In this respect, it is like him. The outcast in an otherwise prosperous family, earning a kind of distinction by the act of leaving.
Now he spends his days studying, then scrubbing plates and pushing trolleys in a nursing home kitchen before coming home to a house he shares with three other male students.
He comforts himself with the knowledge that he did not come here out of some misguided fear of missing out. So many people did this, selling their shares in ancestral lands to pay for it. No, his was a self-imposed exile with a higher purpose. The way he left things, going back was not an option.
No doubt, in years to come, they will all wonder if they lost something instead of gaining it. He thinks the woman already wonders; he is sure of it.
Glancing at her, yet again, he cannot help but construct a life for them. It will begin on a quiet afternoon in spring. He will see her on the days she comes to help at the temple. One day she will drop her book and he will pick it up, running after her to return it. They will talk of their favourite novels, their shared interest in the works of Martin Wickramasinghe. She will find his penchant for rereading the historical texts of Walpola Rahula Thero deeply illustrative of his dedication to his true calling, a sign of his steadfast and disciplined nature. The ensuing months will be bliss, disrupted every now and then with the realities of conducting a secret affair. Eventually, she will leave her husband and come to him. There will be talk, of course, but it will not matter to them.
The young man sighs. It seems so easy for some, but not for him. He is reminded of his last foray into love, and it chastens him. Taking one last look at the woman, he continues on his way.
Hema, unaware of the interest she has provoked, is lost in thoughts of her duwa, Anu. In a little while Anu’s play will be performed on stage, a work of art she wrote all by herself. Each time the girl reads a book that moves her, she mopes around for days looking longingly out into a future that only she can see. It worries Hema, who knows that with each obsession Anu moves inwards, further away from how life really is.
Just like her thaththa.
Still, she has created something out of nothing, Hema admires this. Sometimes, the joy she feels when looking at her daughter is overtaken by sorrow, a deep, painful ache in her bones. Every now and then, for the briefest moment, there is envy. It crawls all over her skin, gnawing at it. Then there’s the fear and the uncertainty. It is the worst of all because it blinds her.
Hema shakes her head in an effort to forget.
When the world comes back into focus, a man steps into her line of vision. He is tall and his gait, his manner of movement, reminds her of an afternoon long ago. She’s sure she’s seen that silhouette before. She knows it. Though, it is dark, and maybe she is mistaken. She cannot be certain.
‘I think I know that man,’ Hema says out loud. She steps forward unconsciously and then feels suddenly afraid.
Anthony either doesn’t hear her or doesn’t care.
Up ahead, the man, as if responding, turns in her direction. He is not who she thought he was.
No matter, she thinks. Yet her heart beats hard and her body aches with the intensity of it.
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, she recites again, and again. There is a pain like electricity in her chest, spluttering and spitting, burning her up.
A little girl runs by the fig tree, catching Hema’s eye as she goes. She hops over the roots in leaps and bounds, fearless. Another girl runs close behind the first, a swirl of laughter and fabric. Dressed in crisp, white clothes: a simple dress, coat and stockings, the little girl squeals, stumbles, races ahead, falls and springs up in an instant, ready to go again.
A crimson ribbon comes undone in her hair. No longer bow-shaped, it dances in the air, contorting and twisting behind her.
Hema smiles. She thinks to herself that the ribbon flies wildly through the air the way little girls fly through their lives – free and unrestrained.
The girl glances back at the woman standing under the big tree with the pretty lanterns hanging off it. She seems to be staring at her. Leaving a streak of dirt on her cheek as she scratches at it, the girl notices the man beside the woman and her thoughts grow serious.
She wonders who she will marry one day. It seems so impossibly far away but wonderful all the same. The little girl’s seriousness dissipates as quickly as it comes. She hears her sister approaching and takes off again, in a hurry.
Hema watches her go.
Turning back to the fig, Hema finds it transformed. It now seems to sit in the ground like a fat spider with outstretched limbs. Its aerial roots dangling, web-like. The lanterns, too, are different. Superfluous, with their elaborate outer shells in the wrong for dulling the source of each lantern’s beauty: the naked light within.
The fig tree stares back at the woman. He stares hard, like she does, undaunted. In her he senses a kindred spirit.
She, like him, was moved here and made to grow in this soil. He bears deep scars from a great fire, but her blaze is still burning, her scars still forming. She, like him, only lets her flowers blossom deep within, life has taught her to do this. And, in the darkness, underneath her fruit-like armour of skin and bone, she is like him — full of wasps that sting but fill her with life as well. She is nothing without them.
She has come on this full moon day in the lunar month of Vesāka, to contemplate the life of the Gautama Buddha. Born a prince in Lumbini, he renounced everything and achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree before experiencing parinirvana and teaching us the lesson of impermanence. She, like him, takes solace in this knowledge, in this stepping away from desire, from the constant wanting. It makes the years lived and the hardships experienced seem small in comparison.
The fig has grown on this land for many years, and he has seen many things. As a sapling, he began life as an epiphyte; a newborn among ancients, who told tales of a native people – tens of thousands of years old – and great ships journeying across the ocean, spreading violence and disease.
As he grew into his surroundings, he saw land being cleared, friends being felled, and countless animals set to graze and die through intense periods of drought and fire. The worst blaze took place in 1851. It raised whole townships to the ground. And he, scattered in the wind, landed here alongside a Eucalypt, now a part of him, fully engulfed by his limbs. He, like her, is of this land and not of it at the same time. They are a million pieces, shifting, changing, converging endlessly.
Recently, he has begun to feel his age. The incessant creaking and swelling of his joints never cease and the endless pain in his limbs, worse since his illness, leaves his body bloated and stiff. But the sight of this woman, taking root in this old soil and growing, striving and struggling, makes him feel infinite, even if it is just for a moment.
Jenni Mazaraki is a writer living on Wurundjeri land (Melbourne). Her short story collection I’ll Hold You was highly commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript 2020. Her work has been published in the Australian Poetry Journal, The Suburban Review and Empty House Press. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing.
I wash my hands at least thirty-five times a day now. Debbie says not to but she wears mascara with clumps on each lash so I don’t take much notice of her.
Down by the river there are cans in small piles. Caught in the branches where the flood made a mess. They look at me from where they lie in the sun. One almost blinds me and I turn away. I can hardly bear their menace.
Ron took me to his caravan once. I only had to open the door for the whiff to smack me. He didn’t care about changing his sheets, felt no need, liked how soft they became over months of wear.
Two days after the crash they let me leave. I’d had enough of the beeping of machines and the rustling of hospital gowns. In all honesty, the invisibleness of it all was too much—nurses smiling without looking, doctors looking without seeing. The TV crews came through, bursting about the room like it was a stage, setting up lights and wires and directing the reporters with their fluffy mics and faces full of makeup. Their smiles dropped to the floor when the cameras switched off, only to be picked back up when the cameraman pressed on.
I gave an obedient account, thanked the rescue team and the hospital staff. I don’t know what they saw. There had been no time to brush my hair. With my hospital bracelets and colour coding of my chart, alerting them all to my condition. In there, I was my condition, a 6 pm news story for families eating dinner in front of the TV. Stitched up and dulled with a thing. Neat little capsules distributed at regular intervals without prompt. I felt no pain until Debbie picked me up from the hospital. She took one look at me dressed in the spare clothes that she bought from the Salvos and said, They’re fine, I told you so. No protest from me. I put my grateful face on.
It’s not only the water that’s the danger, but the stuff that’s in it, floating around like it couldn’t be bothered knowing its place. Some of them took photos and filmed themselves in their precariousness. Before it rose up and reached my place, I started my engine and tried to get the hell out. I imagined my lungs filling up with the mess, imagined myself falling in mad defiance below the muddy surface, clawing at nothing that would hold my body up.
The caravan floated down the street. Ron’s sheets finally touched water, mixing in a putrid tumble with everybody else’s lives. I thought of him as they pulled me out of the car, half-drunk from my terror. A nylon rescue rope wrapped around me in bright shades of orange and yellow. All the shouting confused me but eventually I understood and grabbed hold, pulling the line taught, grasping over and over again as the water tried to send me sideways down the road. Didn’t notice I was bleeding. My head foggy, thought I had freed myself.
Everything rushed away with the water. A procession left town without fanfare. Following each other with arms filled with children or cats. An odd troop of travellers with nowhere to go but away. Everything was gone or broken or ugly with thick ooze from the river. They warned us about the sewage, but Debbie reckoned it was all fine. She saved some stuff—her big bag bulging under her arm. The only thing I saved was Mum’s ashes, the small urn was watertight and fit neatly in my pocket. Everything was mixed up like me and Ron twisted in his sheets. Two caterpillars making a cocoon.
When the rain came, I knew what it was trying to tell me.
Bits and pieces stick to me now. I see all the invisible things. I see the sigh that Debbie makes before she’s even thought to breathe it. I see the molecules in my cup of tea, with its murky mix hiding the bottom until it’s all in me. Water rushes over me but I never feel clean. I imagine a parade of everything on my skin. In the shower I watch invisible bits of me run down the drain. That night with Ron was the night the rain started and kept going. Ron handing me another can of beer before he kissed me soft in his caravan. The pelting of water on metal above us.
Sometimes I think of Mum at the sink with her hands all sudsy, singing her church songs, winking at me as she hits the high notes.
Two towns over we stayed in the community sports centre, side by side, warm bodies in sleeping bags on painted lines meant for basketball games. Debbie insisted we huddle for warmth, me on one side of her, Ron on the other. I inhaled his scent from over the top of Debbie’s night-time chatter. I have all I need really, at least that’s what I told myself. I can live without my crystals, the ones that catch the light each morning. I can live without my bed. They told me I’m lucky, that the old guy next door didn’t make it. Couldn’t swim.
In my sleeping bag I shifted around, slipping on the thin foam mattress, I drifted into a light sleep. Debbie snored gently, adding to the buzz of other snorers in the room. Ron’s hand reached over Debbie, searching for my face.
You’re the only girl for me, ya know that don’t ya?
Yeah, I know Ron, I muttered as I slapped his hand away.
At school they taught us about the river and the banks and what happens when it floods. They told us to seek higher ground, to leave early, to abandon our stuff. I raised my hand rarely in class, but this time, I wanted to know. What happens to the fish when the river breaks? The teacher reeled off facts. Floods are good for fish, they always find refuge, and there are more bugs and creepy crawlies washed into the river for food.
Sometimes after school in summer, me and Debbie went down to the river and jumped in. My legs strong, kicking the water away from me, never seeing the bottom, wary of rusted car parts and rotting tree branches beneath me.
Debbie didn’t care about the fish, thought I was weird for asking. Her and Ron got together after our last year of school. She helped Ron set up his own place in the same park as me and Mum. Refused to move in with him until he proposed. They both helped with Mum’s funeral, said nice things like, at least she’s not in pain anymore, she’s looking over us from heaven. Ron had a soft spot for Mum, always saved her a cutting or two from one job or another. She was convinced he was a magician when he showed her how to put rusted nails in the pot to make her hydrangeas turn blue. Thirsty plant that one, I can hear Mum saying it now, tipping the cooled kettle out over the soil. I wish I’d saved some of Mum’s things—the crystal cat and the snowdome that sat on the windowsill next to her bed in the caravan. Mum would have said it’s my fault they got washed away. She would have said that I shouldn’t have done the thing I did. That the flood was my re-tri-bu-tion—she would have said it exactly like that, with her lips pushed out like a fish gasping for air.
Mum didn’t like help from anyone. She told me not to expect a thing from anyone else. Kept herself away from other people’s mess and danger. Closed our curtains each night as soon as the air cooled, made sure not to smile at certain types. Don’t want to encourage them, she explained on our way back from the laundry block, our baskets heavy with clothes straight from the machine. She didn’t like to leave the clothes on their own. Who knew what kind of hands might touch them, her whole body tense, God only knows.
She’d dance, spinning me in the small space of our van, my lungs emptying out the day with each turn. Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper and Stevie Nicks filled every precious corner, direct from the portable radio. Mum showed me how to take care of myself—use a needle and thread, repair a hinge, drive a car. She never missed church. Sat in the same spot each week. Said she didn’t mind the young reverend, even if it looked like he still couldn’t grow a beard. Told me she’d be happy for him to do her funeral. Mum went straight home after each Sunday service, never stayed for the biscuits or conversation. Mid-week she’d return to the grey bricked building and vacuum the floors. Sometimes she’d take me with her and I’d help do the flowers.
Mum told me and Debbie to walk in the middle of the road on our way home from parties. Preferring the wide expanse of bitumen to the dark paths with shrubs and trees that hands could reach from. With our bodies warm with booze, we didn’t feel the cold, or the danger.
Mum always said Debbie could have been her daughter—both of them with the same wild hair that broke hairbands. Mum said that I looked like my dad, but I wouldn’t know anything about that. Whenever Debbie came over, Mum gave her the Royal Doulton cup, the one I gave her all those Christmases ago. That I had saved for with my money from pulling weeds and raking gardens after school. Sat there in the op shop window with the price tag dangling, torturing me for weeks before I could go in and claim it with a handful of notes and so many coins jangling against each other like dull chimes from my pocket.
You’ve got a good one in that Debbie, Mum would say each time after she left. Shaking her head softly as though she had just been visited by an apparition. Cleared the cup away as though Whitney Houston herself drank from its edge. I didn’t like thinking about the way that Debbie could make Mum forget her pain for a bit.
Mum stopped breathing during a heatwave. I let her hand go only when it started to cool. The reverend gave a nice sermon. Said that Mum’s presence each week bolstered him on rough days, like a sailor seeking the horizon for guidance. I hadn’t thought about that, how Mum affected anyone other than me.
The street is dry now but I can’t go back home. Ron moved in with Debbie and her mum down by the beach. I would have thought they’d be sick of the sight of water. They’re saving for their own place. Debbie’s still waiting for a ring.
Judy helped me set up the new caravan. She teaches down at the primary school. A lot of work still needed to get the school right again. Most people help each weekend, but it’s not ready for the kids yet. Some people still talk about the flood, but not me and Judy. I’ll go over to hers later tonight and have a drink. After that I’ll go back to the start again. New sheets, new everything.
Up on the hill, my new place has views and my new neighbours seem OK. The laminex is green, a slightly lighter shade than the benchtop where Mum used to keep the biscuit tin and the ceramic pig salt and pepper shakers, bumping up against each other. I have a cuppa each morning, spooning in exactly half a teaspoon of sugar, just like Mum taught me. I run my hand across the bare window ledge as I sip, brushing away droplets of condensation as they drip down the glass and wipe my fingers dry on my jeans. Ron gave me some hydrangeas before he left. I’ll scatter Mum’s ashes under the blooms, water them in and wait to see what colour she’ll turn them.
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 Conway is an Irish/Australian writer who lives on the east coast of Tasmania. He is a professional landscaper with a background in fabrication, construction and waste management. He has a BFA from the University of Tasmania. His stories draw from his experiences growing up in suburban Brisbane and concern the conditions of working-class life in Australia.
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.