Scott-Patrick Mitchell (SPM) is a non-binary West Australian poet, writer and spoken word artist. SPM’s work appears in Contemporary Australian Poetry, The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, Solid Air, Stories of Perth and Going Postal. In 2015, SPM performed THE 24 HOUR PERFORMANCE POEM… which was exactly as it sounds. A mentor to many emerging West Australian poets and recipient of a 2019 KSP Writers Centre First Draft Fellowship, SPM is the coordinator for WA Poets Inc’s Emerging Poets Program.
Us Boys Made of Smoke
When we first kiss, I taste tobacco on your lips: rum-soaked ash, calling. For an ex-smoker, this kiss is dangerous. You are dangerous. But the sandpaper stubble of your chin smooths out the edges of my concerns. I sink into your tongue, lick the inside of my mouth. You turn my breath to smoke.
– Do you want a cigarette?
You ask this question after two months of dating. Two months of nicotine craving. These cravings are just as bad as the ones I have for you, for your kiss, for your nakedness heaving into my skin, into me.
– Yeah… ok. But you’re gonna have to roll it…
In time I learn your perfection of rolling a cigarette with hands too small to hold the volume of my lungs. My rollies are crooked, jagging yellow stains across the interior of the middle and index fingers. They are too tight at the tip, too loose at the base. The butts keep sticking to my lips. They aren’t as smooth as yours.
Like our cigarettes, we too are opposites. You: lithe slender man made of smoke, hair a caramel curl cupping collarbones, eyes so blue I am convinced you have stolen them from a work of art, or some long dead god. Me: scrappy, short, shoulders too broad, black stubble chin matching the buzz cut blackening my crown, eyes dark like a forest of hazel trees, squinting out the sun.
In bed, we are opposites again. My hands are confident. They turn your body into rollie papers succumbing to spit. Your hands have a nervous shake, as if desperate to light up, fumbling with how to keep a match aflame. My body is a flammable material so unfamiliar to you that it takes three months for you to learn how exactly to make me burn. I discover your trigger points in a matter of days, reduce you to sizzle. Then, embers.
Balance comes when you finally take the time to teach me how to roll a cigarette properly. In exchange, I show you the points on my body that ignite under tongue. We learn how to cup our physicality into the other. We are not spoons: we are the whole damn cutlery drawer. How we knife, fork, ladle love. Two cooks, our bed a broth. Smoking after sex.
– What do you mean you don’t know how to cook? you say, surprised at how barren my fridge is.
– I… just never learnt.
– So what do you eat?
– Take out. Cereal. Toast.
You try to teach me recipes you know, but all I learn is that meals are just a precursor to having another cigarette.
– You smoke too much, you say.
I just cough.
Somewhere, in the tendrils between us, an image settles into our lungs: black, sticky, uncomfortable. I want to jab a cigarette into our conversations, burn the skin of our speech, say you brought these back to me. But instead, I just exhale another plume into the room. The furniture is beginning to stink.
Outside of this house, smoking is more illicit, unacceptable. The bars in our town have gotten rid of designated smoking areas, so we smoke out on the street. We smoke in places less safe, more dangerous. Out the front of the bar on James Street is where it happens.
-Ya got a smoke?
The guy asking? He is trouble. Mr I’m-so-sketchy. Mr I-haven’t-had-a-decent-night-sleep-in-a-fortnight kinda trouble. His friend is all hollow cheekbones, rat-tail eyes skittering the sidewalk, looking for cigarette butts, opportunity.
These are the type of boys who would return home, hands blackened with ash, clothes stung with arson, only to tell their mother that no, they have no idea who started the bushfire over at the next farm.
You hand them your pouch of tobacco.
– Yeah thanks…!
The guys laugh. They begin to walk away, your pouch of tobacco in hand, their grins sinister, mocking. The f word is hurled from both their mouths – Molotov cocktails hitting piled sticks – jeered and jeered again at us. Scrappy flames flick up my skin. Anger kindles inside me.
– Oi, give it back! I yell, stomping toward them.
– Or what?! The one holding your pouch snarls, squaring up. What ya gonna do, you fucking faggot!?!
More slurs burn up from their throats – pooftas, cocksuckers, AIDS junkies – and are hurled at us. I allow myself to combust. You see, the rage is always there. Part of you learns to live a moment away from being lit up. These bigots just open the door, allow the fireball to come through, glorious. Consumptive.
I reach for your tobacco pouch. Their ashen hands push me back. I mimic their movement, push the ringleader, hard, then his mate, harder. The fire in their faces is furious. I don’t see their fists swing toward me. But I feel them. I hear them. Blood fills my mouth as my nose cracks. I spit the fluid out, not realising I’m spraying these thugs with my blood. They almost wail, beseech. More fists come.
I take them. Do not buckle.
You don’t come to pull me away. You don’t even shout out in protest. You just shrink inside yourself. Something extinguishes inside of me.
Encroaching sirens scare them off. They scuttle, scurry, run. Like rats. Like vermin.
This is when I buckle, slump to my knees. I can feel all eight punches. You rush toward me, but the blood covering my face, my clothes, it halts you, as though you’ve been conditioned to fear the very thing that makes us pump. Not even your hand reaches out to calm me.
I begin to sob.
The police arrive a minute later. You kneel beside me, put an arm around my shoulder. There is no comfort in this.
In the days that follow, I learn that bruises heal but a broken nose is for life. Especially if you’re on welfare. I flinch under your touch. You don’t meet my gaze. I jump when you enter the room. My anger, undiminished, makes me pull inside myself for warmth. One night, drunk, I extinguish a cigarette on myself while you watch.
– What the…!? You exclaim, panicking, slapping my hand away from doing myself harm.
I just grin. I want you to hit me, again.
In the days that follow, I purposefully antagonise you. You make excuses to stay away, stay at yours, stay on the other end of chat and telephone. You take longer and longer to respond. Our love turns to smoke.
I throw out my cigarettes, my ashtrays, all the paraphernalia of flame you helped me bring back into my life. The burn mark turns to scar. My broken nose becomes familiar. Everything we have created together is unlearned.
The cops never catch those two thugs.
Jane O’Sullivan (@sightlined) is a writer based in Sydney. Her nonfiction has been published in Vault, Art Collector, Art Guide and Ocula. Her short fiction has appeared in Island and was recently highly commended in the Newcastle Short Story Award.””Cat Money” is Highly Commended in the 2018 Wollongong Writers Festival Short Story Prize.
The toddler was still banging on about cat money. “Look,” he demanded, his singsong vowels stretching the word all out of shape. He was up on his toes, clinging to the seat of the kitchen stool, peering right into the cat’s face. “Looklooklooklook.”
And so she looked, just in time to see a paw shoot out and her boy go stiff. Then was a second of shock and then the wailing started, a great klaxon of need. The sound left no room to think about anything else, though she wasn’t too worried, not at first. The cat had a way of firing warning shots, little taps without her claws. But then she saw the blood. “Oh,” she said, in that useless way, with too much shock and not nearly enough comfort. And again. “Oh, honey.”
Then she, too, managed to break the seal of her shock. She dropped the wooden spoon in the pot and knelt, pulling Chester’s body into her chest. He was still rigid with it, the anger and the hurt and the sting of it, but she was stronger. She pulled him in and murmured in his ear, and finally he gave, falling into her like a hot, wet bundle just pulled from the washing machine. She held him tight while the tears rolled down his face and onto her arms.
Slowly, he coughed it out. “Keely…scratch…me.” She nodded, waiting. She was learning to wait. He couldn’t, so she had to. He wasn’t yet big enough to let it sit, to let it all pool until there was enough of it to gather up into a story. It came out as it bubbled up in him. “Keely…me…mummy,” he wailed. She kissed his hair and let him heave it out. She listened to the broken rhythm of his body, the coughs and sobs and hiccups pushing him out of time. “Deep breaths,” she soothed. “Deep breaths.”
But he couldn’t. Of course, he couldn’t. She could only give him her beat to follow, and so she did, rocking and stroking and breathing slow and deep. And she waited, her mind drifting between the sounds of her son and the glub of the oats on the stove.
The cat had come first. They always do.
When they had first come home from the hospital, Ivan had placed the bassinet down on the living room floor with cautious ceremony: There! Home! Straight away, Keely had padded up to investigate. She sniffed it slowly. It was a rented bassinet, and probably came with the smells of countless other people. She worked her way around it and then something had happened—Chester had snuffled in his sleep, or perhaps thrown an arm up—and the cat had flung herself backwards into the air then fled under the couch.
The recrimination lasted for weeks.
Or at least, it had felt like that, when she was up feeding Chester in the middle of the night—all those long, dark hours piling up—and Keely had come to sit on the arm of the couch to watch with reproachful eyes. “What have I done?” she asked the cat one night, her voice breaking under the weight of her exhaustion. What could Keely know about motherhood? She’d been desexed back at the shelter. She’d never seen a kitten. But even then, she seemed to know the answer well enough.
Slowly, Chester’s crying shifted from impulse to habit. She could hear it as she stroked his hair. It was in the suck, she decided. It was in the ragged pull of each new breath into his body. She could tell. He was finding his rhythm again.
The room took on the sepia smell of scalded milk.
She suspected Chester was enjoying his crying now, and the cuddle. He didn’t want to move. She bit her lip. Did she have the heart for it? She did. She stood up, the great mass of him still held to her chest, and tried to set him on his feet. “Let me have a look,” she said.
She took his hand in hers and gently lifted it from his cheek. His face was blotchy and slick and there, travelling along his cheek were two red lines, the blood already hardening into beads. It wasn’t deep. It would be a lesson, wouldn’t it?
How did other people know where these lines were? There were hundreds of them, every day, every kind you could imagine. Some she stepped over, like cracks in the pavement. Others she walked straight into, their spider-silk sticking to her face and catching in her hair like threads of quiet punishment. Oh, what have I done? Did I do it right?
The cat regarded her from the stool, her paws neatly folded back underneath her body and the fur fluffed out over the sides of her collar—that sign of feline disgruntlement. Keely had no time for such questions. What did cats care about consensus?
She gently prised the boy from her legs, just sniffling now, and went to turn off the stove. Because that was what she’d done, wasn’t it? She’d interrupted everything: the porridge, her sleep, her thoughts. Things that she didn’t realise could be broken now lay in pieces around her, and every day was a scramble to gather what she could. Anything she made of herself was an assembly of small moments. It’s possible she’d never been quite whole, but there had been a bulk to her once, a sense of solidity. Now the only thing that seemed to hold was her love.
Chester hung off her legs as she served up the porridge and poured on the milk. It would be too hot for him. She stirred, and the steam rose. On the other side of the kitchen island, Keely tucked her nose down and closed her eyes. Calm settled.
When they’d first got her, they’d let her come and go as she pleased. They’d leave the balcony door open a few inches so she could go sun herself on the rain-blackened square of concrete outside, or even jump down onto the letterbox below and then to cat freedom. And then, when they had to go to work, they locked it, leaving Keely on whichever side she happened to find herself.
Then their neighbour had been robbed. He’d fronted up in his boxer shorts and grabbed a knife from the kitchen sink. He’d ended up in hospital. The burglar, of course, had never been caught. Now their front door had a proper brick of a deadlock, and the sliding door to the balcony had a sawn-off length of broomstick wedged in its track.
Even then, she’d opened it to let Keely out. It seemed important that Keely go be a cat, to prowl and bury her business and eat Indian Mynas. Most nights they locked her in and she circled instead into a comfortable kind of resignation on their doona.
But some evenings she didn’t come back and Keely spent the whole night outside. Chester was still little then. She didn’t have the energy to care. But one night Keely had been attacked and had slid in the next morning dragging a bloody paw and a string of vet bills behind her. It could’ve been any of the dogs. There were enough of them. The block was full of trophy breeds with fat muscled jaws and heavy barks. That was the thing about finding an apartment in Sydney that still accepted pets. It was like stumbling on a rotting carcass in paddock; eventually the smell of it brought out the predators.
Of course, they could have lied to the real estate agents about the cat. Everyone else did. They could have lied and found themselves an apartment where the carpet wasn’t stained, and the lot out front still had grass. But Ivan had a thing about honesty. And work. He was always working so hard. It had seemed sweet to begin with. Now she barely saw him.
Keely’s blood never really came out of the carpet, even though she tried two different kinds of cleaning foam. She’d bought a square of acrylic carpet from the discount shop and put it over the mark by the sliding door. It sat there, a constant reminder of their dwindling bond money, and Keely had become an indoor cat.
Chester took his time with the porridge. She reheated her tea in the microwave and watched him as he spooned it in, his elbows high and wild. When he’d had enough, he stood and picked up his bowl. Leftover milk slopped over the rim and splattered to the floor. He saw it and his little face turned serious. He carried it over to her with such sweet concentration. “Finished,” he said, reaching it out to her. She felt him watching her face and she gave him a grin. “Good job,” she said. “Now you can go and play.” He bounced with the praise, then he swung his little body around and walked straight past the dozing cat on the stool. He stepped over the metal strip that marked the end of the kitchen lino and the start of the living room carpet and she saw him pause to let out a slow, meditative fart. She watched his head roll sideways with the thoughtful pleasure of it, then she went back to the sink. She wiped out the milk-slime and put his bowl on the rack, and turned back to see him settled in the corner, squatting in front of the massive, three-storey toy garage her mother-in-law had bought him. It was a grand gift and an ostentatious gesture: a way of saying move out and buy a proper house. Yes, she understood Ivan’s mother well enough, but it wasn’t that simple.
Over his shoulder, she could see a plastic doll wedged firmly in the middle level of the garage. The sequence of sound effects—the vrooms and crashes and oh no’s—told her how Chester was trying to clear the blockage. She watched his back, then she sighed and gathered up what time she could and turned it into a basket of folded washing and a half a scrubbed toilet.
It was a lot. She’d done well. Her thoughts even had time to float back together and coalesce into something. She sieved the pieces from the morning flowing around her and drifted and worked. It felt good, or as good as it ever could with a bottle of Toilet Duck.
She scrubbed, her hair swinging across her face, until she noticed him standing in the bathroom doorway, watching her. “Cat money,” he said.
She knelt back on her heels, resting the brush on the bowl, and looked at him properly then. “What, honey?”
“Cat money, mummy.” And he held out the little metal disc on Keely’s collar, the leather strap dangling down with a tinkle of the bell.
“Honey, that’s Keely’s,” she said. They weren’t the right words, but they were the only ones she could find. Her hands felt sweaty in the pink gloves.
“Cat money,” he said again.
“Yes,” she said cautiously. They’d had this conversation before. She’d explained it wasn’t real money. She didn’t want to go through it again. Then she felt the line pass under her, the crack of a lie that would no doubt need to be papered over later. “But that’s Keely’s money,” she said. “Where’s Keely, honey?”
He looked at her slowly, then his face crumpled in one of its quicksilver grins. The twin red lines on his face bent and then settled into their curve on his cheek. “My money,” he said. “My money, mummy.”
She cursed herself then. She must have vagued out. She should have been listening. She waited, as though there was still some chance he could explain what was happening. But Chester said nothing. He held the cat’s collar close to his chest and stared at the little brass name plate. Keely, it said, and then gave her mobile number in neat, Italianate numbers. She knew exactly because she was the one who’d had it engraved. What did he even think he could buy with it? Or did he just think it was enough that it was treasure?
Then she remembered Keely. Her unease started to piece itself together. How had he gotten it off her? She peeled the gloves off and stood up, squeezing past her quiet, happy son and into the hall. She felt it immediately: the chill of the spring day reaching out to wind a finger through the curls at the base of her neck. The door was open.
She saw the broomstick lying on the floor.
Oh, she thought. Her same old useless mantra. Oh, oh, oh.
No. She hadn’t realised he could be so clever, or so quick. She saw it then. She saw how he’d lifted the broomstick from its dusty track, flicked the lock and pulled the door open. He’d let the fresh air lure the cat down—the smell of freedom. And then he’d pinned her down.
The two halves of her brain detached then, uncoupling like train carriages in that heinous cartoon Chester liked to watch. They shunted off in different directions—one towards her son and the words she would have to marshal to talk to him about responsibility and pets and not opening that door, okay; the other towards the balcony and its rusted railing. It clattered into the steel and hung there, teetering over the three-metre drop to the letterbox and the dirt and the scrappy little hibiscus bush.
Keely wasn’t there.
She was gone.
She looked up then, into the suburban street she thought she knew so well. It seemed somehow more complicated now. That single straight line broke off into a thousand sudden branches and driveways and dark hollows. No. There was no telling where the cat had gone.
Chester joined her on the balcony then, wrapping his little hands around the powdery, red fretwork. Was it strong enough to hold him? She didn’t know, so her hand found his shoulder and gently eased him back. She looked out into the street and listened to the dogs bark, calling out their dominance over the neighbourhood. It was almost time for his nap.
She would come back. Of course. Of course, she would. But the thought wouldn’t settle.
She didn’t want to wait.
She wheeled Chester around and guided him back inside, sliding the door shut and kicking the broomstick back into place. She led him past his bedroom, down to the shoe rack in the hall, and sat him on the floor. She found his shoes, and her own, and the keys. Then she set him back on his feet and reached for his hand again.
She held onto it, warm and wriggling in hers, and she took him with her to look.
Tanya Vavilova is an emerging writer preoccupied with liminal spaces and outsider perspectives—by life on the margins. She was recently shortlisted for Overland‘s Neilma Sidney, Overland‘s Fair Australia, Alan Marshall and Katharine Susannah Prichard awards, and commended for the Newcastle, Lane Cove, Stuart Hadow and Feast Festival prizes. ‘Artichoke Hearts’ is the winner of the Wollongong Writers Festival Short Story Prize in 2018. Her debut collection of essays We are Speaking in Code is forthcoming from Brio in 2020.
Felix gets off at her usual stop, taps off and takes the stairs two at a time. The sky is the same indigo as her jeans, clouds looking ready to burst.
She crosses the road where the IGA logo glows red and white. The building looks freshly painted, the glass doors Windexed to a perfect sheen.
A woman exits the bottle shop clutching a brown paper bag. Her gaze lingers on Felix. And then she collects herself and strides down the street, a man in a cap following her at a distance of two feet.
Felix takes this all in, before walking through the glass doors of the supermarket.
She heads straight for the canned and pickled goods—the marinated peppers, the jars of olives, artichokes in oil—except they’re gone. Moved someplace else. She picks up a packet of spaghetti from the shelf, puts it down.
It takes three loops to locate the canned goods in aisle 6.
As Felix presents the jar of artichokes to the cashier, the woman smiles at her, but doesn’t say anything.
‘Thank you,’ Felix says.
The woman says nothing.
Snatching the jar, Felix strides through the glass doors.
It’s about to rain. The sky crackles like bacon on a pan. Felix has been a vegetarian for twelve years.
Across the road, the park is small and grim. Felix walks past the empty swings, past the monkey bars, choosing a bench under the fig tree. This is what happens, she thinks, when you tell a customer to lump it: you end up on a park bench in the middle of the day.
No one else is about, even the birds have gone someplace else.
She unscrews the lid of the jar. Her artichokes come all the way from Italy. She’s never been overseas, it doesn’t matter.
She dips her fingers in the marinade, plucks one artichoke, chews it carefully. The marinade drips down her chin. The hearts are slippery, hard to get a purchase on. She plucks another then another and another.
The woman from the bottle shop crosses the road without looking. Her red coat and Doc Martens belong in this city. Her brown paper bag is gone. The man in the cap, too.
The woman cuts across the park, negotiates the bulging tree roots. She pushes her fringe out of her eyes.
The first drops of rain are lazy, languorous.
Felix looks up at the clouds.
And then the woman in the red coat is standing beside her.
‘Can I sit here?’ she asks.
‘If you want.’
Felix considers the jar of artichokes, then the woman’s slender fingers, microbes, disease. ‘Would you like an artichoke?’ she asks.
The stranger dips her fingers in the oil and comes up with an olive.
Felix is surprised, but says, ‘I guess they’re processed in the same factory.’
They pass the jar back and forth. Once or twice their hands brush. Felix feels a tiny jolt each time, ignores it. No one says a word.
A raindrop catches on the woman’s eyelash, refracts the light.
As the rain gets heavier, Felix pushes her hood over her head, but neither woman moves.
‘What happened to the bottle?’
‘I saw you come out of the bottle shop. You bought some wine?’
The woman shakes her head. ‘That wasn’t me.’
‘And the man, what happened to the man?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
The woman hugs herself to keep warm.
It rains harder, the drops beating against the tin trashcan. If Felix closes her eyes, she could be back home in Geraldton. Instead, she’s here, in this shallow, mean city. Jobless, friendless, restless.
The rain puddles in their laps.
‘You should have the last one,’ the woman says.
‘Have it,’ the woman insists, a hand on Felix’s knee. ‘It’s yours.’
The last heart is sweet and juicy.
And then the woman in the red coat is gathering up her things. ‘Thanks for the artichokes,’ she says. ‘I better be going, but maybe see you tomorrow.’
Felix considers those words. She holds the empty jar and watches the woman disappear into the trees. She thinks of running a hot shower. Turning the heater on. Wrapping herself in blankets. She tucks the jar in her satchel and stands up.
On her way home, she passes the fruit shop and the pub with the go-go dancers. A woman in a yellow raincoat pushes open the door, looks at the sky.
When Felix reaches her block of flats, she sees someone has left the entrance open.
She takes two flights up, patting her pockets for the keys. The stubborn door opens with a groan, lets out a gust of stale air.
Felix strips off her wet clothes, and turns the rusty taps in the shower. Wishes she had a bath.
Her jeans sprawl on the tiles like another pair of legs.
She adds her empty artichoke jar to the stash under the sink. They look nice there, like old friends. The saved marinade is the real treat—for a special occasion.
Felix stands under the showerhead and watches the tiny room fill up with steam.
The next day, Felix wakes refreshed. Wonders if she’s made a new friend.
It’s another chilly, drizzly day. Coat and scarf weather. Gloves and beanie.
She buys another jar of artichokes from the smiling but silent cashier. Hopes for a magic olive, like a four-leaf clover. For luck, good fortune.
When she arrives at the park, the woman in the red coat is already there.
‘Hey,’ the woman says, patting the bench.
‘Hey. I’m Felix by the way.’
Felix sits down, puts the jar of artichokes between them. The park is theirs again. No one else is about.
‘Thanks,’ Hannah says, reaching for the jar. ‘I bought some chips. You eat chips?’
They have a feast.
A grey butcherbird watches them from the fig tree.
Felix wonders if the woman is jobless, but it doesn’t seem right to ask. And then she notices the manicured nails: turquoise.
The only sound is the light rain and the crunch of chips. They are crinkle-cut, chicken. Felix vaguely wonders if she should be eating them—are they vegetarian?—but it doesn’t matter, not really, because she has a friend.
When she looks up, Hannah is studying her profile.
‘You have a nice nose,’ she says.
Felix is shy.
‘I wish a had a nice nose like yours.’
Hannah squeezes her knee.
‘What I wouldn’t give for a nose like that.’
They watch the butcherbird impale a lizard on a stick.
‘That’s nature for you,’ Felix says before plucking another artichoke.
‘Shame there’s no olive today.’
‘Yeah, I was hoping—
A man zig-zags across the park.
It’s the man in the cap.
Felix’s insides spin like a washing machine.
‘Hannah,’ the man booms. ‘Are you coming home?’ He opens a broad, black umbrella, holds it out.
‘Yeah,’ she says, then to Felix, quietly: ‘Another time.’
Felix hopes she means the same time tomorrow. ‘See you,’ she calls, but they are already gone.
The butcherbird looks down from her branch.
The next day Felix waits in the park, but Hannah doesn’t show up.
The day after, Felix stays in bed reading comics.
On Thursday, the stars align, and Hannah and Felix sit under the dome of the kids’ slippery slide. The rain batters the hard red and yellow plastic.
‘I missed you the other day,’ Hannah says.
Their legs are touching in the cramped space. Pink bubble gum is stuck to the sole of Hannah’s Doc Marten.
They pass the jar of artichokes back and forth.
‘They come from Italy,’ one of them says.
‘Like tomatoes and pasta.’
Hannah touches Felix’s face.
‘You’ve got a little fleck of artichoke there,’ she says, gently brushing it off.
Felix turns pink.
Hannah’s nails are gold today, like the artichokes.
‘There you go, all gone.’
The artichokes are salty, acidic. Texture like paper. They could be eating raffia.
‘$2.99 a jar,’ Felix says, aloud.
Two myna birds play on the swings, like kids.
‘I like your red coat.’
Hannah grins. ‘Ta. It’s a Lisa Ho original, from Vinnies.’
Felix touches the fabric, catches her reflection in the round, metallic buttons.
‘It’s gorgeous,’ she says.
Hannah’s lips are lilac, chapped. She smiles.
The wind changes direction, the rain coming sideways.
Water slaps their cheeks.
They keep eating.
Eventually, Hannah says, ‘Dave will be wondering where I am.’
And then she slides feet-first through the blue tunnel, waves and is gone.
They meet up the following day, too. Felix brings artichokes, Hannah a bottle of Sprite. They talk a little, laugh, the fizzy drink makes them burp. And they make a plan.
On the seventh day, Felix drags a shopping buggy to the park. It rattles like a gift.
Hannah waves her over to the fig tree. They share red wine in a silver bladder.
Later they bump along the road with the buggy. And then they’re standing in front of a peeling door.
Felix follows her friend up the stairs.
Their gumboots quack on the lino.
‘Dave’s out,’ Hannah says.
She jiggles the deadbolt. ‘So this is me,’ she says, gesturing to the combined kitchen-dining-living.
‘Yeah, it’s alright.’
Both women are shivering from the cold and wet. They’d sat in the park for hours, until some kids with sticks came along.
Hannah thinks for a moment, says, ‘should I run us a bath then?’
Felix looks at her shoes. ‘Go on, then.’
‘There are some towels in that closet.’ Hannah points behind her.
The closet is mint green, double doors.
‘It’s lovely,’ Felix says.
As Hannah’s getting the bath ready, Felix wanders in with the towels. ‘Wish I had a bath.’
‘This afternoon, you do.’ Hannah glances behind her. ‘You want to get the buggy?’
Felix wheels it from the front room, down the tiny passage between kitchen and bathroom. She takes the empty jars out lovingly one by one, and lines them up around the bathtub.
‘So why do you save the marinade from the artichokes?’ Hannah asks.
‘I just always have.’
The room starts to fill up with steam.
Felix has been waiting for this moment a long, long time.
The two women kneel in front of the tub and unscrew one jar at a time, pouring the marinade in. Flecks of garlic, chilli, green float in the steaming water.
A petal of artichoke escapes from a jar.
They strip their clothes off, and Hannah tests the water with a toe. ‘Nice and hot,’ she declares, before stepping over the lip.
Felix hugs her chest, slipping in opposite.
‘You’re shy, huh?’ Hannah says. She is taller than Felix and her apricot-breasts sit above the watermark.
Hannah lights a coconut candle, resting it on the edge of the tub. The flame dances and spits. The room smells like a spa and a pickling factory.
‘Is marinade flammable?’ Hannah says.
They laugh at that. How funny if their skin caught fire, then the room caught fire then the flat then the block then the street.
Hannah throws her head back and washes it in the marinade. Her forearms are covered in tiny scars.
‘Come here,’ she says. ‘Let me wash your hair.’
Felix turns clumsily around in the bath. Her back to Hannah, she looks out the window that faces the grey street.
The rain spits at the leaded glass.
As Hanna massages her scalp, Felix feels herself loosen, sink further into the water. Both women smell of vinegar.
Afterwards, Felix half-leans out of the tub, picks something off the floor.
‘Shall we crack one open?’ she asks, holding up a fresh jar.
They chew the artichokes, saying little. Felix rinses her arm in the water. And then their knees bump in the tub, and they giggle. A little water spills over the lip.
Hannah drops a rubber duck in the water, and they watch it navigate the sludge. Felix remembers being bathed with her baby sister, the two of them squealing and splashing, driving their mother wild.
Hannah tops up the hot water. They eat some more artichokes.
Felix works up the courage to ask about Dave.
‘He’s my soulmate,’ Hannah says.
The yellow duck nods in agreement.
Felix remembers the first day they met. ‘Why did you lie about coming out of the bottle shop with Dave?’ she asks.
‘I didn’t want him to get in the way’—she cups the water in her hands, letting it cascade—‘of all of this.’
Felix does not ask any more questions.
They chew quietly, passing the jar between them. And then Hannah dips her hand in the jar, and ‘—an olive!’
‘You found the four-leaf clover!’
They hold it up to the flickering globe, marvel at this message from the gods. This green olive in a jar of artichokes.
‘We should split it,’ Hannah says. ‘I know, come here,’ she says, pulling Felix towards
her. ‘Let’s bite into it at the same time so the good luck can’t escape, you know?’
Felix doesn’t know. ‘Okay,’ she says, bravely.
Hannah positions the olive in Felix’s mouth then leans forward, bites down on her half, their lips and noses touching.
Felix blushes, tingles.
A diamond beetle flies in through the window. Blue-black magic.
At this signal, Hannah nods, and the women tear the olive in half with their teeth.
They are giddy with luck.
The beetle crawls along the soggy bathmat.
Felix wishes she had a whole jar of olives so they could do that again and again and again. She’s never had a friend like Hannah.
When the sky turns red and orange, they decide to get out of the tub but it’s hard to get a purchase on the slippery porcelain. They sink back into the artichoke juice, shrieking, laughing, then they try to stand again, grab onto each other’s arms, sink back, stand, sink, stand, sink, laugh, giggle and grope, until the water cools, and Felix pulls the plug.
Kathy Sharpe is a graduate of the University of Wollongong’s Master of Arts in Creative Writing. She writes about contemporary Australian life, and her stories are often set within the small, enclosed world of country towns. She has twice been awarded a Varuna residency and was shortlisted for one of Varuna’s Publishers Introduction Programs. She was selected for the Hachette QWC Writers’ Centre Manuscript Development Program (2009). She has worked in editorial roles in regional newspapers for 23 years. In 2011 she helped create and publish a collection of memories of the older residents of one humble street in North Nowra. Track By the River collectively narrates the story of a very poor, but strong community of battlers who lived along Illaroo Road on the Shoalhaven River. No dams is the winner of the 2017 Wollongong Writers’ Festival Short Story Prize.
Mary flings open her jacket to reveal the familiar yellow and black triangle.
“Look what I found,” she says. John and I stare at the letters on her T-shirt, stretched large and straining, not slapped flat as they used to be on her younger, skinnier chest.
“I hate you for still fitting into that,” I say.
“No dams,” says John, tasting the words.
Those words, encased in their pool rack triangle, on car windows, telegraph poles and pub toilets doors all over Sydney. Shouted through megaphones at city street rallies. A call to arms.
Mary takes her seat.
“Now, who do I have to sleep with to get a drink around here?”
The barman doesn’t raise an eyebrow when we order champagne, even though the Swan has just opened for the day.
“Good man,” says John. “He remembers the 1980s.”
The Swan is our old student haunt, but gone is the lingering whiff of rancid hops and the faint smell of gas. Gone too are the junkies like shadows around the pool table and the nasal drone of the television, calling the dogs, the punters sitting transfixed, their cigarette ash growing long and finally falling onto the table in front of them.
“Gentrified,” John says.
We don’t wait for Bruce. We clink our glasses together, we three. Mary, still beautiful, though I notice a tiredness around her theatre-dark eyes. John’s salt and pepper hair suits him, but his face remains tense. His eyes are small but they still manage to dominate his face. He is watchful and wary as ever, as though the world is out to trick him.
Mary puts her arm around me and draws me to her, rubbing her hand over my hair. Her perfume is smoky and spicy like the incense we used to burn in our student house. The smell of our youth is a decaying mix of incense, Champion Ruby and seagrass matting.
“Lou,” she says softly. “Where do the years go?”
We drink quickly to cover how much it still means, for us to be together.
Bruce arrives, flinging himself into a chair, puffing and panting in his grey tracksuit.
He picks up a serviette and wipes his damp face.
“Someone get me a drink, for God’s sake.”
“Did you run here?” John says. “Why didn’t you tell us, we would’ve sponsored you.”
Mary divides the last drops of champagne between our glasses with scientific precision.
“What’s with you?” Mary says. “Trying to keep up with that young girlfriend of yours?”
Once a year we meet, and each time I wonder at the electricity that still sparkles between us, like static, raising the hairs on our skin. One day a year, to let old attractions and hurts jostle for position as memories are shaken out, aired and exposed under the harsh light of being grown-ups.
“Good for you, Brucie,” says Mary. “You’re still hot, if you ask me.”
At a nearby table, a group of students are drinking coffee. One of the young girls laughs loudly, flicking back her stream of caramel coloured hair.
“Look at those twats,” says Mary.
“It was better in our day, when university was free,” John says. “You got real students, like us. Dirty, unwashed, the arse falling out of our jeans.”
“But with ideals,” says Bruce.
Mary bursts out laughing mid sip, and spits champagne across the table in a fine mist.
“Still haven’t learnt any table manners,” Bruce says.
“Here’s to ideals!” John says, raising his glass and clinking it against Mary’s. “No dams!”
“No dams!” we echo.
We drink, and like always, our time together starts to race, as we build the warm, boozy cocoon around us.
John comes back from the bar with two bottles of white wine and four glasses. He puts them on the table and as he leans over he squeezes me into a tight, cold hug.
“I wish it was still the 1980s,” I say.
“Lou, you always wanted to save the world,” Mary says.
“But you didn’t, did you Lou?” John says. “You left that up to Nigel.”
They are all laughing now. They always have to bring up Nigel.
I sound whiny as I try and defend myself. I sound twenty again.
“You all came to the protest marches, too. It wasn’t just me.”
“I only went to meet girls,” says Bruce. “Greenies got all the roots.”
“I only went for something to do,” says Mary. “Plus, I got to wear this!” She flashes her Tshirt again, tossing back her drink. Bruce is staring at her breasts and I can tell that Mary doesn’t mind.
We drink, and the morning slips away. The kitchen is closed by the time we decide we are hungry, so we have to be content with bar snacks. A waitress brings a share plate scattered with a dozen tiny morsels of vegetable and animal, drizzled with yellow olive oil and sprinkled with cracked pepper. A single lemon wedge perches apologetically to one side.
“That’ll keep us going,” says Mary, refilling glasses.
“Don’t worry, it only cost $40,” says John.
The waitress’s expression doesn’t change. She looks like a shop mannequin as she picks up the empties with her long, stick thin arms and glides off back to her position behind the bar.
“Have robots already taken over the world?” Bruce says.
“We used to look like that, Lou,” Mary says. “If we’d known we’d never be that thin again we would have worn better clothes, instead of all those rags from vinnies.”
“And all that black,” I say. “The whole city, full of young people dressed in black. As though we were in mourning.”
“We should have worn tight fitting dresses, and short skirts,” Mary goes on. “With low cut tops to show off our goods. We might have met richer men.”
John flinches and Bruce rolls his eyes.
Nigel liked thin girls. With small breasts, he said. My breasts were small, back then, and at the time I had taken this remark as a great compliment. But now, all these years later, it seemed creepy.
Mary picks at a tired piece of tempura cauliflower on the share plate.
“Look at this crap,” she says. “Seriously?”
As the sun slants in from the street, travelling across the floorboards, Mary and John are bad-mouthing people we used to know. It’s a game they play, passing cruelty back and forth between them, each time saying something slightly worse. Their words shoot back and forth, soft and light as arrows, glancing towards some invisible line that should never be crossed. Mary throws back her head and laughs and her glossy, black hair, her Princess hair, bounces around her shoulders. John smirks silently, watching her, enjoying her reaction, looking forward to what she will say next. He raises his glass and drinks, never taking his eyes from her face.
The bottles of wine are empty.
“My shout,” says Mary, heading off to the bar.
“Get something decent will you,” Bruce calls after him. “Not that camel’s piss again.”
John turns to me now.
“Remember when Nigel made you beg in the street for money for the trip to the Franklin?”
“It wasn’t begging,” I say.
Me. Standing in Martin Place, rattling a tin, trying to project my voice like Nigel had shown me.
“No dams,” I said. The words came out small and flat, lost in the rumbling of trains and the clatter of hurrying feet. No one even noticed me.
“No dams,” I said politely. With each person who walked past, I seemed to grow smaller and my voice softer, until I felt invisible.
A busker turned up and unfolded a filthy blanket, which he spread out on the ground against the wall. He sat down, cross legged and took out his guitar.
“No dams,” I called but then I couldn’t hear myself above his singing and the clinking of the coins that people were tossing into his battered guitar case. After a while, he scooped up his loot and stuffed it into his pocket. He packed up his guitar, then walked over to me. He began dancing around me, singing, “No dams, no dams, no dams, thank you mam!” People were laughing. The busker pushed a five cent coin into my tin, then walked away. I could smell his dirty clothes and his cigarette breath. But it didn’t matter how bad he smelled. He was the winner. He had won.
“Nigel,” John scoffs. “You would have walked on water for that fuckwit.”
We always do this. We let the alcohol unravel us and then we start to snipe. We dredge up humiliating memories from the past. In this way we can keep from showing, at least for now, how fiercely we still love each other.
“So Lou,” says Bruce, “Still waiting for Mr Right?”
“Leave her alone,” says Mary.
“And what about John?” says Bruce.
“We’re not all pedophiles like you,” John says. I gasp and we dissolve into laughter.
Mary tosses her hair. She says it’s going grey underneath the dye, but it doesn’t show.. I see how John and Bruce watch her, transfixed.
“Maybe we burned up all our sex appeal back then,” she says. “It was like we had to have sex with as many people as we could. We were living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud.”
“That poster was everywhere.” says Bruce. “The mushroom cloud.”
“And that one with the poem,” I say. “When the last tree has fallen, when the last fish is poisoned….”
“And no dams!” says Mary, pulling back her jacket and thrusting her boobs out to make her point.
No dams. That triangle told of a far away world, in Tasmania. Students were packing up and heading south, in search of their better selves.
“Except I didn’t make it,” I say, then realise I have spoken out loud. But luckily, no one is listening to me. They talk, and laugh and tease and argue, while my mind goes back to the kitchen of the dark terrace house, that I’m sure is still standing, just outside the doors of the Swan, and around the corner. The morning I walked in and saw Nigel huddled over the table, looking at a map with a texta line drawn down to the bottom of Victoria, then a dotted line across the sea, then a solid line south to Tasmania.
“Morning,” I said. He looked up at me, annoyed. I pulled my quilted dressing gown around me, tying its belt, and suddenly felt hopelessly suburban. I lit the gas and put the kettle on the stove. I stood for a moment, watching the flame burn down the length of the bbq matchstick.
“We can only take 12, in the van,” Nigel said out of nowhere, just as I blew out the match, the smoke curling, white and pungent into a giant question mark in front of my face. Or maybe it wasn’t really a question mark, but that’s how I remember it.
“We had to prioritise,” he said, “according to personal commitment.”
I heard the scrape of him dragging his bike down the hall, the slam of the door. I stood there, my feet cold on the dirty lino, until the screeching of the kettle became unbearable.
The sun has lifted its fingers from the floor boards now and the pub is filling up with people. Mary is on her phone to her husband.
“Can you pick them up, hon?” she says. “And Holly’s got that dance thing later. I’ll get takeaway on my way home. Love you.”
“Listen to you,” says John. “The whole fucking package. The husband, the kids, the Range Rover.”
“Don’t pretend you’re any different, fuck-face,” Mary says, her voice loud and reckless. “None of us are fighting the good fight and rallying against the establishment anymore. We ARE the fucking establishment.”
Mary and I were sitting on her bed, watching TV when we heard. Bob Hawke came on, making his promise to stop the dam. The camera panned to the greenie camp, the people celebrating. I searched for Nigel in the blur of brown, dancing Dryza-Bones, bedraggled beards and wet hair, and suddenly the pain of not being part of the victory was worse than the pain of not being Nigel’s girlfriend anymore.
“Who’s got cigarettes?” says Mary. “Or are we all still pretending we don’t smoke.”
“Still pretending,” I say.
Bruce reaches into his jacket and pulls out cigarettes. He puts his hand on her elbow, to steady her, as they make their way out into the beer garden. Funny that the two who are coupled-up are the two who are flirting with each other. John and I are left in our pool of silence. He looks at me and I look at him. History passes between us. I raise my glass.
“Here’s to the unloved,” I say.
“Or the unloveable,” he says.
I see his small eyes are red with drink, and his face is clenched hard.
“But we used to…” I start.
“Don’t,” he says.
I stop talking. I reach across the table and hold his hand. It feels small and cold in mine.
Bruce and Mary are taking a long time. Their phones have been ringing and ringing on the table. When they finally come back, Mary picks up her phone, swaying as she tries to focus on the words in the message.
“Fuck,”she says. “It’s after six. I’ve got to go.”
“Share a cab?” says Bruce.
“Nuh.” She starts to gather up her things, swiping items off the table into her handbag; her phone, her purse, her sunglasses, Bruce’s cigarettes.
Bruce looks crestfallen and I know Mary has been kissing him, out there in the beer garden. Mary hasn’t changed, I think. She still wants everything. Everything and everyone.
“See you fuckers next year,” she says, and walks out. Bruce rises unsteadily from his seat. He hugs us both, awkward with John, their angles crashing together, the futile male patting of each other’s backs. He folds me into his soft, slightly sweaty chest. I don’t want to let go, but he pulls away.
Soon John and I will leave too, still holding hands as we walk down Abercrombie Street. We will walk slowly and silently under the streetlights. Gone are those kids who raced along Chalmers Street, Cleveland and Crown, devouring life, tripping and falling over and holding each other up.
We will go through the little iron gate of his terrace, and up the narrow stairs. We will lie on his bed with the balcony doors open. We will listen to the city roaring around us and the lost will come home and the unloved will be loved and we will remember how it was, back when we thought we could save the world.
Georgia Manuela Delgado is a writer currently based in Sydney with a Portuguese mother. She recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from The University of Sydney.
My Familia and Other Pigs
When I was a child, I could see ghosts. I could hear them too. “What’s your name? What did you die of?” I asked a ghost one day. A nun, in her habit. “A broken heart, child.” This nun I picked up in the convent in the next village. She would get in the car with us and come home with us sometimes on Sundays after church. She would stay with me until I fell asleep. Then she would go back to the convent, that’s always where I would find her again. There were lots of ghosts there, from the convent cemeteria. One ghost died in a fire, she would bake cakes in the convent bakery. She was particularly good at baking Pastel de Nata. She was always offering me cakes, but I could never see them. Her hands were terribly burnt. The other nuns would kiss her hands and sing her ‘O Fatima’. All the ghosts in the convent looked after each other, spoke to each other with kindness. They were so gentle they almost whispered, which is strange for the dead because they’re normally screaming. Once I saw two nuns take off their habits and braid each others hair. Women, alive or dead, will practice the economy of reciprocal care. No institution, not even the church, filled with love and the holy spirit, could instill that in men. But these women, my fantasmas, learnt in life that to survive Salazar, the war, the rape, the suffering, the heat, the beatings, the fires in the mountains, the starving of everyday life in Portugal, the only way to survive all this is other women, and love. They use suffering and turn it into love. Like how women lie in their own blood once a month and still make children from that.
As to be expected, all of the women in my family believed I saw ghosts. These women live in the realm of the dead, death never ends when you live in a dictatorship. That doesn’t mean that they gave me any special attention. Women from our village have to grow up and be strong. When you work in the hot sun and open your pores to God, she fills them in with cement and hardens you. There’s no time for sentimentality. Even romantic love starts out soft and poetic and quickly becomes a cruel and brutal torment. Love is always unforgiving, especially for women. My mãe always felt unloved and therefore unloved everyone else. I never could understand why my mãe was not like the nuns. She never sang, she never oiled her hair, she never sat in the sun and closed her eyes and daydreamed. She had children to take care of. That included her husband. My mãe had one of her teeth knocked out with a rock in our garden because it turned grey. My great aunt knocked it out for her on a long warm Portuguese night. I remember that night because she put me in my room and closed the door. She didn’t want me to see. I opened the door and peeked anyway, so she hit me really hard with the rock across the face. I was nine.
By the time I was sixteen, I had stopped seeing ghosts. My mãe worked it out of me. I could still see all things I was meant to see, but, more faintly. It lingered because my grandmother would always let me into her rituals. She was a bruxa, a witch. When she knew my grandfather was lying, we would go to the butcher together and buy cow tongue. She would cut it up and ask me to rub salt and olive into it. Then we should cook it into his arroz com polvo and he would eat it. Then my grandmother would ask him his secrets, and he would tell them. This allowed me to keep my connection, to see the things inbetween.
My grandmother would send me to Lisboa once a week, to buy fabrics for her. She sometimes made me clothes, but she made them more for other people. Even now, sometimes people in my village will ask me to come into their homes and admire their curtains or blankets because my grandmother made it. I would wait for the bus in a petticoat my grandmother made me. The bus came when it felt like it, but not everyone buys a ticket. This doesn’t happen all over Portugal, but it does in our village. There’s less and less work and more and more trouble. Nobody speaks to me on the bus, even though I sit at the front near all the old people who love to talk, because I’m scared of the older boys at the back. Today people are talking about the fires in the next village. Someone died yesterday, a little girl, trying to save a picture of the dictator Salazar. The whole family escaped but she ran back in to get the photograph, and she got trapped like a moth in a lampshade. “It’s true, my friend lives in that village. That girl is dead” an old man my grandmother knows says. I think about whether that’s true, or if its propaganda. She definitely died, but not for a picture. The bus is moving but people are standing up, reading over the newspaper. “Oh she was bonita” I hear a woman saying. I can’t see the newspaper so I have to imagine the little girl. I know she already has her ears pierced no matter how old she is. I think of my grandmother who has never had her picture taken and never will. There will be no picture of her in the paper, and not one on her gravestone either. I feel something but I don’t know how to describe that feeling yet. Years later I recall that feeling as bitterness.
On the bus, we pass the best village on the way to Lisboa. Vila Franca Xira. Some neo-realist philosophers live here. Although I have no idea what that means, I know it’s important because an older girl at school told me and her sister studies philosophy in Lisboa. Vila Franca Xira has the biggest and most beautiful bull ring I have ever seen. The entire outside is painted gold. Sometimes people from Lisboa even come here to see bullfights. People in Vila Franca Xira drink coffee at the cafes, but in my village they only drink beer or poncha. I always want to get off the bus and have coffee too, but my mãe would have some ominous punishment awaiting me if I was late. We are stuck in traffic and I’m not sure why, it’s a Tuesday morning. There is no mass on. Sometimes I can feel when something bad is going to happen, although not all the time, just when God decides. It’s because I can see the whispers, because I can see all the things in between. I can see from the bus the Guarda Nacional Republicana soldiers and I know something is wrong. The Guarda Nacional Republicana make me nervous because when they come to our village looking for traitors, they stand in the middle of the sidewalk and make women rub against them to get past. The first time they did that to me I was eleven.
The bus stops at the Guarda wearing berets, even though it’s really hot. Behind them there’s blood splattered all over the gold, like the first time I lost my tooth and dribbled some blood onto my mãe’s gold hoop earring. The blood on the ground reminds me of the first time I got my period in the dirt, but I’m less scared than I was when I got my period. The bus keeps going, and people are gossiping. I don’t remember what they said about it then, I was too anxious to pay attention. By the time I returned from Lisboa that day, the reason had hit my village. A bullfighter had slayed another bullfighter. Machismo merda. The mortician said he couldn’t ply the teeth out of their knuckles with just pliers; they had to pour oil all over their hands first and massage the teeth out. Only years and years later did it come out that they were lovers.
My pai was fighting the fires in Vila Franca Xira that day I saw the blood. The fires were so bad that the firefighters from our village went to help. My pai fought one of the worst fires Vila Franca Xira ever saw at a piggery. The fire surrounded the men and they had no choice but to jump into the piggery waste lagoon and go under as the fire spread over the top of the water. The pigs fried, and the smell was so close to human flesh that the firemen believed they were smelling dead bodies. The men left the piggery convinced they had been underwater with dead children. Most of the men were discharged with what we now would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but back then was called going luco. In the middle of the night, my pai would wake up to the sound of children screaming, and then he would go into our garden and look for them naked. All the old women on our street talked about my pai going luco. On my way home from school, they would say “Yeah, there she is. Such a beautiful young nina. What will happen to her now that her pai has gone and decided to be fucking luco? Eh?” My grandmother thought it was funny and would laugh at him. She would say “What are they saying when they are screaming? What words do you hear?” She said my pai did not listen properly and they will not go away until he hears them. My mãe never laughed. “You are the man of this house, and ghosts are screaming in your ears at night? Fantasmas that don’t exist? They were porcos. Always porcos.” Is this the spiritual nobility of the peasantry? My pai started drinking poncha every night, to drown the noise. But ghosts don’t ever drown, they learn to swim. The children screamed less and less, and eventually my pai went to work as a labourer. He was still known as luco but someone who had pulled it together for his family. Then one hot day he died in an accident at work, he was completely crushed by a machine. It was so fast that they say he would not have had time to suffer. The night he died was the first night my mãe slept alone since she was nineteen. They were married at seventeen but he spent two years in Angola fighting for the colony.
Years later I fell asleep on the couch in my parents home during a tedious visit filled with remembering emotions suppressed in order to survive my childhood. I never slept on the couch, it was something my father started doing when my mãe kicked him out of their bed. I woke up hearing children screaming. I couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Kay Sexton’s fiction has appeared in over 70 anthologies and literary magazines. Her recently published novel, Gatekeeper, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in addition to being shortlisted, finalist or winner of many literary competitions she has had two non-fiction books on gardening published. This is remarkable given that her sole ambition as a child was to become a librarian so she could read all the books ever written, rather than writing anything.
If I get up during the dawn chorus I can make quite a lot of noise without waking anybody. It’s even easier if I don’t go to bed, stay awake all night and head out first thing in the morning when the sky is folding back the lemon-peel edges of dawn for a fat blue day. The land birds clatter around, relishing the absence of seagulls in these first half-lit minutes.
My brain soaks up the bird sounds; it is porous with alcohol and lack of sleep. As I prepare the trays for early morning tea it takes everything in and gives nothing out, so it’s good there is a list. The list is pinned up in the still room and the tea and coffee pots are stored beneath it in the hot cupboard, which is cold at 5am. The pots are old silver, made matte by long use, but when I hold them to the pre-day light they offer back the citrus gleam of the sky.
My only job today is cups, saucers, pots, jugs and sugar bowls. As I lay up the trays, two lumps of white sugar, crisp and unreal, sit on my tongue. They melt to a slurry that slips around my teeth and slides down my throat in a rough, sweet, flavourless gulp, giving me the energy to plait my hair and shove it inside my blouse. People don’t like stray hair in their cups.
I switch on the urns and fill the bain marie with cold water. When my father comes down at six he will put oats and milk in a big bowl and slide it into the simmering bain marie. By eight it will be porridge.
Before that he’ll walk in his silent shoes to the first door, knock gently, intone ‘early morning tea’ and place the tray on the floor. We serve early morning tea from six-forty-five to seven-thirty and breakfast from eight to nine. Normally I help serve breakfast until eight-thirty, when I take off my apron and leave for school. Apart from the apron, my school clothes and my waitress garb are indistinguishable – white shirt, black skirt, flat shoes.
Today is Sunday, my day off, and I am escaping, but only if I leave before the live-out staff arrive. This reminds me to switch on the deep fat fryer and to put yesterday’s sliced white loaves out on a big flat board. Fanned out, in the heat rising from the hot cupboard, they will fry quicker and crisper than fresh bread.
I have a long walk ahead, three miles across the headland to the marina where I will ‘borrow’ a boat. It’s a more complicated trade than that, which may include cigarettes, or gossip, or if I am unlucky, being groped.
By the time I get outside, the birdsong is over; there is no sound in the lull between dawn and breakfast. The pavements are cool. By nine they will be warm, at eleven they bake and until two or three in the morning they give back their heat to the night. I kick off my shoes and let my feet relish the chill.
I need to take a strange route at first, along the side of our hotel, across the road into the cliff top gardens, down and along, angling my way parallel to the main road until I pass the next junction.
Walking the direct route would put me in danger. I might see Milly, our housekeeper, walking to work and if she tells me that one of the other girls can’t make it today I’ll have to go back with her and be a chambermaid for the morning. Or I could bump into Jeff the chef, full of bad temper and last night’s beer, falling out of the first bus of the morning and that would lead to a boozy hug and salacious comments about how much he’d like to take me out one night. My parents don’t want me to upset Jeff; breakfast chefs are not easy to find.
Or worst of all, I might find Old Bert sidling up to me, his long yellow nails spiking from spongy finger ends. His hands are always wrinkled and pink from so much time in hot water. Bert runs the washing up machines and hand-washes the pots and pans too big to fit in them. He makes me feel sick, especially when he pins me in the corner of the still room and pats me as though I am a dog. My parents don’t want me to upset him either, because he is cheap and washer-ups are not easy to find. Sometimes I think daughters must be the easiest thing to find.
The truth is, we are dying. My parents’ hotel, all hotels in our town, our whole coast. There are no longer enough tourists to pay wages, so instead of hiring staff we do the work ourselves. The odd day off school, the odd swig of booze, the occasional night out that goes wrong … prices that hotel kids are happy to pay, prices that hotel parents have no choice but to stump up for. There’s a long winter ahead in which to catch up on schoolwork, after all.
Once I’m clear of all the routes by which our staff reach the hotel, I can get back on the pavement and run. I run because I need to be at the marina before the day staff open up at eight-thirty, and because running is just about the only thing that my coordination seems to permit. I am always turning ankles, walking into doors, tipping motorbikes off their stands just by walking past them, banging into tables and bumping into walls.
My mother says I am uncoordinated. It is really because I am drunk. Nothing else seems to give me away, but drunkenness releases a spirit in me that requires a bruise for every binge. It’s a price so small that I rarely notice it although I try to hide the evidence from others.
There’s always drink in a hotel – dregs from wineglass, a quick nip from an optic before the bar opens, my Dad giving me a cherry brandy at the end of a long day, bottles hidden in guest’s wardrobes and topped up with tap water. Anyway, we all drink and nobody cares. How else do you survive a summer season? Hotel kids thrive on a bit of booze, my father says.
Each hotel I pass is preparing for the day ahead, lifting blinds, opening curtains and taking in the big blue trays of bread: white sliced; bloomer; fancy roll, and breakfast special. Slouching towards me are waitresses in gingham aprons. They all have plasters on their heels from the espadrilles they wear at night. The plasters ruche up under sensible black waitress shoes and expose espadrille blisters that will be rubbed raw by evening. Another way to get alcohol – dress like a tourist and pretend to be one. Nobody asks your age, they just take your money. Can’t turn away summer trade – what would we live on in winter?
I have the blisters too. That’s why I am running barefoot.
The sea is sixteen thousand shades of blue. It says ‘sixteen’ with each incoming wave, sibilant with power, and ‘thousand’ with every grumbled backwash, rolling grains and small pebbles back into its salty dance.
I bargain for my dinghy, oars, and anchor with the marina night manager.
‘Going far?’ He stares at my red bikini top showing through the white blouse.
I shrug, pushing forward a crumpled five pound note.
‘What do you do out there?’ He doesn’t really care.
‘I could come and join you.’ He does mean that.
I stare fixedly at his wedding ring until he gives up and hands me the padlock key that releases the little craft from its mooring.
The fiver will go in his pocket and I’ll lock up the dinghy when I return, dropping the key back in the night box, none the wiser. We all seek out hidden profit, come summertime.
The dinghy is a repo, taken to cover unpaid mooring fees and I’ve used it a dozen times this year. The oars and anchor were probably found, left behind, abandoned. It’s amazing how profligate yacht owners can be.
I row, after a fashion, out beyond the marina. My rowing is not good. Nobody has taught me and my left stroke is much stronger than my right, requiring an extra right-hand stroke to stay on course. This means I rock backwards and forwards and my loosened hair flops in my face, yet nobody laughs when I row. A year ago folk would have roared out loud; when I was fourteen and just a skinny whelp they would have pointed at me and howled until their eyes ran. But now men stare when I pass and nobody laughs at me.
In my bag I have six peaches, a packet of extra strong mints, forty Marlboro, two cigarette lighters, a bottle of cherry brandy. In my boat I have an anchor, a baler and – sitting on the thwart where I can see it as I row – Justine by Lawrence Durrell.
The list of things I don’t have is longer; no water, no flares, no life-jacket, no protective clothing, no compass, no sunglasses, no hat, no sun oil, no radio. When the night manager goes off duty nobody will know I am here.
The sixteen thousand shades of blue become slap-blue, slap-blue as I heave my baby boat through the water. Gulls caw, but they will be quiet by ten, unless a lobsterman comes back into port. Flies are travelling with me, quizzing my bag for the peach-blood they can sense inside, but they will depart in the next few minutes, zigzagging back to land. How can landlubbers not know that the best place to eat fruit is out on the water? No flying insects will bother you. And how do the flies know when they must turn for shore? These mysteries puzzle me.
I will spend the day getting hard-baked drunk, sieving cherry brandy through Marlboro-furred teeth. I will listen to the sound of the deep ocean scuffing against the dinghy. I will read Justine and cry at the end because there are only four books and now I have read them all. I will smoke, cleanse my palate with mints, and sleep.
There are seven positions to enjoy in this little craft.
1. Flat on my back in the hot-as-tea seawater that is too low in the boat to bale, with one foot over the stern to trail in the seawater, easing my blisters until they swell like full moons.
2. On my belly, legs bent up, soles to the sky, with the book on the thwart to keep it dry.
3. Crossways, so that the boat wallows even in the calm, both my feet in the water, my neck cricking against the side.
4. Upright in the bow, feet paddling in hot water, toe-teasing the varnish bubbles and kicking peach stones through the bottom brine.
5. Upright in the stern, ditto.
6. Upright in the stern but facing over it, both feet in the sea; this soon stops the circulation to my legs as the wood cuts into the backs of my thighs.
7. Flat on my back in the stern with both feet in the water. This is my favourite – cool feet, warm, brine-lapped spine, gazing at the blank sky. I can sleep like this, with my book over my face and my hands folded on my belly. This is when I sleep best.
When I look to the shore I am far enough away. I let down my anchor and prepare for the next eight hours, or nine, or ten, or as long as my cigarettes last. This is my home. Far enough from the shore for the jewelled lines of the island to reflect the sun, near enough to hear the car horns and yells of boat-launchers, I am anchored to the secret of what makes this non-place the love of my hollow heart’s core.
I am offshore.
Karen Whitelaw is a Newcastle-based writer and teacher of creative writing. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Cutwater Literary Anthology
, Newcastle Short Story Award 2012, Award Winning Australian Writing
2016. Her flash fiction has been performed at Newcastle and Sydney Writers’ Festivals, and made into a visual presentation. She has completed a Master of Creative Arts at the University of Newcastle. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Caught in the Rip
The last day of summer. The westerly snorts a premonition of autumn, but by midday that will be forgotten. It’s just the type of day the bronze retirees live for; everyone else back at work – snigger, snigger – and the sea scattered with morning dazzle. At this time of year all I’ve got to do is sit in my watch tower with my feet up on the desk, keeping an eye on the odd swimmer and the board riders and resisting, and then surrendering at lunchtime to the fat salty lure of hot chips.
I glance down at the sand and there she is. I check up the beach, but no one’s with her. She puts her red beach bag under the black and white chequered flag which warns surfers away from the swimming area, and stands with her hands low on her hips, thumbs pointing forwards as if all the responsibility for this beach belongs to her, not me. She keeps glancing up at my tinted window, squinting. I lean back and stay very still.
She’s wearing one of those floaty see-through things over her bikini, and it makes me think of the time I overheard a guy say – unfortunately for him he didn’t know I was still her husband then –that even when she wears clothes she could be wearing nothing.
This is a new thing for her, coming to my beach.
After fifteen years I can read the ocean well. I know when to expect the whale migration and recognise individual dolphins who live along the shore. I can point out the submerged rocks, the treacherous rips, I know which wind will bring the blue bottles and I can smell the change of the tides.
But I can’t read Chloe.
What do you make of a woman who faces my tower square on, crosses her arms to grab the hem of her shift, and pulls it slowly up over her thighs, her hips, her belly, like a stripper?
I glue the binoculars to my eyes and aim them right over her head. There’s a board rider paddling hard for a wave. I lock onto him. Behind him the wave rises like something dark from the deep. It peaks, looms over him like the black osprey on the cliffs eyeing their prey, and pounces. But the rider is up and whooshing along the dark underbelly while the wave rolls and crashes behind him, spitting up angry mountains of spume strong enough to break a surfboard in half, or a man.
When I put down my binoculars Chloe’s cutting through the thigh-high foam near the edge, arms raised to her shoulders against the cold. Then she dives under the water and steps up on the sand bank with her face to the sun. She stands calf-deep, alone in the ocean, and slicks her streaming hair back with both hands, arching her body as if she’s in a shampoo commercial. It would be laughable if anyone else did it.
People think a sandbank collapses without warning. But it’s always gradual. A slow erosion caused by the force of water. Like the wearing away of limpet shells on the rocks, a dead seagull washed up on the shore, marriage. It can take months for the sandbank to erode under the normal tussle of the moon and tide. Or only hours under the churning force of a violent east-coast low. What usually happens is people on sandbanks get swept off their feet in a sudden surge of water coming from the deep unknown or backwashing from the shore. They’re snatched over the edge and into the channels where there’s nothing solid under their feet, just a swirling maelstrom in which they lose all control. Some of us struggle across the current and crawl back to the safety of the sand bank. I’m not sure if we could be called the lucky ones.
It’s low tide and Chloe runs across the sandbank with her legs shooting out to the sides and the spray leaps around her like an adoring dog. She dives through a breaking wave on the other side of the bank and swims out into darker water. Here the current has carved a deep trench running parallel to the shore and the only sign of danger is a slight ripple on the surface. It pulls left towards the rocks and does a dog leg out to sea. Chloe lies on her back and rides the swell. She of all people would know she’s in a rip.
Behind her the board riders wait near the first break. The waves angle across the flagged area and I’m usually lenient with the surfers if no swimmers are out the back, especially when it’s pumping. My finger hovers over the loudspeaker switch. Chloe is the only swimmer. Unless you count the two old ladies standing in the shallows with their sarongs hitched up into the legs of their one pieces.
The westerly sprays the top of the breaking waves backwards like lace veils. I watch Chloe’s head bob in the space between like a dark buoy. I check her through the binoculars. She’s smiling. A surfer slides into view and flips back off a wave. He’s only ten metres away from her. I drop the binoculars and they bounce across the desk.
I flick the switch and the loudspeaker crackles in the air.
“Board riders. . .” Something occurs to me and I switch it off.
I turn it on again.
“Swimmers. The swimmers past the inside break,” as if she’s not the only one, “come in now. There’s a strong rip out there.” I repeat the message. I flip off the switch and high-five myself.
I check Chloe through the binoculars. She’s looking right at me. And waving. And I’m having trouble understanding why she looks like she just got awarded the Bronze Medallion.
Her chest rises out of the water, and she waves with two arms like they’re windscreen washers. She sinks chin deep, and bobs up again, waving. All she has to do is catch one wave to the sandbank, for Christ’s sake.
The old ladies in the shallows start jumping up and down. Waving one arm at the tower, the other pointing at Chloe as if they’re landing aeroplanes. They sound like screeching seagulls. I stand up so they can see me more clearly through the tinted glass and make a show of lifting my binoculars. When I check on Chloe she is staring straight at me. I stare straight back.
The final collapse of our marriage came when the woman across the road stormed into our back yard. I was nailing the new weatherboards onto the extension I hoped would eventually become a nursery. She stood at the bottom of my ladder, eyes all red and soggy, her mouth stringy with saliva, yelling up at me to do something. If Chloe hadn’t been having it off with someone we knew I probably wouldn’t have found out.
I put my nail gun carefully on the fold-out shelf and climbed down, first one heavy boot, then the other. I noticed the red paint splattered on the risers from when I painted the bedroom. The blobs of putty from the leaking bathroom window. By the time I felt the ground firmly under my feet I knew I was through fixing things.
‘Hey. Someone’s … in trouble … out there.”
One of the women from the beach is bent over, clutching the door frame with one hand and the bunched ends of her sarong with the other.
‘I’m watching,’ I say, and wave my binoculars.
Out near the kiosk the seagulls squabble over chips, seduced by the smell of crisp fried potatoes and salt air.
‘Watching isn’t …going to save her.’
‘She’s not panicking. She could be waving at her friends. Or her husband.” I raise one eyebrow but the woman stays stony faced.
‘She’s waving at you.’
That knocks the breath out of me but I look right back at her. “She put herself there and she knows exactly how to get herself out. But I’m watching her.”
I turn away from the door and make the binoculars fit my eyes as tightly as a wetsuit. The woman actually growls, and I hear her sandy feet scrape back across the concrete.
Every summer people do idiotic things: swim outside the flag area, jump off the rocks into big seas, ignore the red flag. Some of them are tourists, but usually they’re just stupid. Last year we even had a guy with a body written in tatts swim right in front of the shark sign. In the shallows, would you believe? Offering them something to read while they eat. When stupid people get into trouble we usually leave them for a little while if we can. Fear is a good teacher.
But Chloe is neither a tourist nor stupid. I lean on the desk and watch her. She keeps her chin above the water and her head makes jerky movements that show she’s dog paddling like crazy. Every now and then she lifts one arm above her head but slaps it back down quickly. The current has swung her round near the rocks and she’s heading out. Even now if she swims a few strokes across the rip she can hitch a wave. She’s lived with a lifesaver for fourteen years and must know that.
Both women are on the beach going berko. Doing some arthritic version of star jumps and shouting to the board riders. Chloe’s got them fooled.
I lift the binoculars and watch close-up as a wave slaps her face and her head disappears in the whitewash. She doesn’t resurface. I sweep my binoculars in circles. Past the rock outcrop. Along the dark empty trench to the churning white water and out to sea. Automatically I start counting seconds. …4, 5, and on the way back in see her out past the rock ledge. Her head is thrown back, her eyes red and scrunched shut. Her lips are blue and gaping. And while I watch the next wave smoothly erases her.
I have nowhere left to hide. I scramble down the concrete stairs three at a time. Race across the sand. The old girls yell something I don’t catch. I slice through the first cold shock and make for the trench. The salt water stings my eyes but I don’t close them. Out past the sandbank the water resistance slackens and instead of holding me back the current snatch me up and we rush towards the open ocean – and Chloe – with a force that’s too powerful to resist.
Cassie Hamer is an emerging writer from Sydney who tends to make up stories in her head while walking around the beautiful Centennial Park. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and she is currently working on a full-length manuscript. She wrote ‘By Proxy’ after a recent visit to Hobart where she was inspired by an exhibition of photos and mementoes, telling the story of women who travelled in the turbulent post-war years to the other side of the world to make a new life for themselves. Cassie remains in awe of their bravery.
It is Rosa’s last night on the MV Toscana, and she would quite like to die. The boiling sea has muddled her insides. Stomach in mouth. Heart in knees. The cabin is stifling and the vessel is in delirium, pickled by sea salt and alcohol.
Above her, from the dining hall, the piano accordion wheezes and gasps a slurred tune. Heels and toes keep syncopated time on the wooden floorboards. Below her, the bunk vibrates as the ship’s engines power and shudder through the swell.
‘Rosa! Rosa! Vieni alla fiesta. Addesso!’ Rosa, Come to the party. Now! Through the key hole slides Maria’s voice, lubricated by alcohol and hoary with cigarettes.
But Rosa does not want to go to the party. She wants to die. She wants Mama to smooth the hair on her forehead and bring her stale ciabatta and aqua minerale. She does not want to be this message in a bottle, at the mercy of tides and currents.
‘No. Sto male.’ I’m sick. Rosa rolls with the ship and her stomach heaves in time with both. Tomorrow night, he will be in her bed. Mama has said it will hurt, but she is not to cry. The blood will please him.
Her stomach reels again.
‘Va bene, Rosa.’ Ok. From the unsteady beat of Maria’s footsteps, Rosa knows she is stumbling down the hallway, lurching from side to side.
For Rosa, sleep is a butterfly beyond reach. Instead, she practices her English. Like a baby tasting new fruit, she lolls her tongue around the foreign words, tasting and testing them and swallowing the sound in her throat.
My name is Rosa. How you do? What your name is?
The words are a lullaby, talking her to sleep. In her dreams, the white caps are the ghostly fingers of souls lost at sea, pulling at the resolute little boat and trying to pull it under to join in eternal rest.
It is the stillness that wakes her. Are they still sailing? Rosa shimmies out of the bunk, past Maria’s pale and snoring face. The girl is nocturnal. For her, as for all the passengers, the voyage has been dream-like for its strange configuration of people and behaviours. On this boat, they are not themselves. There is no cooking, no cleaning, no work. They are between lives. Adrift.
Sitting on her trunk, Rosa pulls on the silk stockings she has been saving. The rest of her trousseau is stowed safely in the hold. There is Mama’s porcelain dining set, the lace tablecloth that comes out at Christmas and napkins Mama used for her wedding day. All that is new is a chemise, for later, and the stockings. Word on the boat is that one of the English ladies has nylons, but she has a cabin on the upper deck and it is only a rumour.
In the bathroom Rosa pinches her cheeks for colour. Maria has promised to loan her some rouge but there is no thought of waking her now. She adjusts the wool duster coat, the same one she wore for the photo she sent him. The one of him is in her pocket. She doesn’t need to look, for his face appears whenever she closes her eyes, pushing through the greeny-redness. She touches the picture, though. Rubs it like a talisman. The surface is even smoother than the silk lining of the pocket. She repeats the words mama said. Good hair. White teeth. Not too skinny. A good man.
Hopefully, he has not changed. She remembers him a little from childhood. Hide and seek in the olive trees with all the other kids of the village. But that was before the war, before all the men went off to fight and his family moved south to be with his aunt and cousins.
Up on deck, the morning is blue velvet. The ship leaves a caterpillar trail of smoke. A deck hand clears the streamers from last night’s party but stops when he sees her. He leans on his broom and points to the water. ‘Derwent… Derwent.’
She repeats after him. ‘Derwent.’ But perhaps her pronunciation is no good, for the young man shakes his head at her and resumes sweeping.
As the sun arcs into the sky, the ship’s occupants emerge slowly onto the deck –blinking like pipis brought to the sand’s surface. The river is wide and blue but the land is flat and unimpressively empty and disappointment ripples through the crowd.
They were expecting paradise.
With a gentle bump against the pier, the ship delivers Rosa into her new life. The dock is curiously empty. No streamers. No band. Here, they are not known. There is no family. They are new and friendless.
He is easy to spot. Dark eyes flitting across the deck before they come to rest on her. Slimmer than in the photo.
Through a scudding heartbeat, she smiles and he gives a half-hearted wave in return, his hand dropping quickly as Maria, now standing beside Rosa and smelling of musty wine, starts blowing kisses.
‘Smettila!’ Stop it, Rosa hisses.
‘What? It’s my husband.’
It is then Rosa notices the other dark-haired man running down the pier and waving his cap. The husband Maria has not seen in two years.
‘Cara, mio. Cara, mio!’ My darling, my darling, he shouts.
Tears have streaked Maria’s rouge. Her smile is tight.
Does she cry for what has been, or what is to come?
Rosa is suddenly aware of an ache in her finger where the cool breeze has settled on the silver of her wedding band. It is slightly too small but he has promised a new one for the ceremony tomorrow, before they leave Hobart for the hydro. There will be a priest and one family member, a cousin who works with him.
You do this for the children, says Mama. They will want the photo.
Her wedding dress is in the trunk, wrapped around the dinner setting. Her veil just fit inside the tureen. There is a small red wine stain on the hem where Papa was too excited. It is not every day your daughter marries, even if the groom is half a world away! But she thinks her husband will not notice the mark.
The gangplank is lowering.
‘Rosa, in bocca a lupo.’ Rosa, good luck! Into the mouth of the wolf. Maria will be staying in Hobart to live, and the hydro is two hours away. Rosa does not expect to see her again.
The pair embrace. ‘Crepi il lupo.’ And to you, Maria. May the wolf, croak.
With her bouncing stride, Maria makes the plank wobble to the point where Rosa must cling to the handrail. Her palms are greasy. Clicking heels will be the last she sees of the older girl.
For the first time in weeks, Rosa steps onto dry land and sways from the firmness. The solidity. She is not used to such steadiness and he rushes to take her hand.
‘I’ve got you,’ are the first words she hears from her husband’s mouth as she stumbles before straightening.
She drops his hand. ‘I’m sorry.’
The apology is shrugged away. ‘Is this all?’ He gestures to the small trunk in her hand.
‘No, there is another coming. The trousseau.’
The crew is starting to unload the hold and Rosa and her husband stand together in silence until her case is placed alongside all the others.
Their hotel is not far and he decides they will walk.
‘Battery Point.’ He nods over the pier to a small piece of land jutting into the river. ‘The Government.’ A brown-stone building. ‘Mount Wellington.’ He lifts his eyes skyward.
‘A mountain?’ It is nothing like the ones at home that are sharp edged and snow capped and graze the clouds. This one is squat and fat, with houses dotted into its protective foothills. An Italian nonna, with grandchildren coddled into the folds of her dress.
As they walk, she is aware of his breathing, laboured by the effort of carrying two trunks. She has never listened so closely to a person’s breath. The way it’s catching in his throat as it constricts with effort. She supposes this is what it is to really notice someone, to be married.
Their room is up a narrow set of stairs above some kind of public bar. As he fumbles with the key, she is sure he must hear her heart beating. Will he want it now, or will they at least wait until the sun has set? When the door opens and he stands aside to let her through, she can barely walk and her teeth chatter out of control.
There are two beds. Narrow, but definitely separate. The one foot gap between them may as well be an ocean and Rosa reaches for the wall to hold her up. He has not spoken since pointing out the bathroom on the landing.
‘I have a letter from your mother,’ says Rosa, and starts busying herself with the trunks that he has placed in the corner. The bed creaks as he sits frowning.
‘She is well, and your father too. Your little brother has a cough but it is nothing to worry about.’ She is babbling but cannot seem to stop. ‘The summer has been terrible. All the village is suffering. There is no water for anything. Since the war, you know. You are so lucky—‘
At that he sighs and Rosa falls silent. She concentrates on the clips and curses herself. No one is lucky. But here they are, alive.
Finally, the lid of the trunk is free and she opens it to find great creamy swathes of fabric – the wedding dress she swaddled so carefully about the plates and the tureen. She digs in her hands with archaeological purpose but instead of finding smooth porcelain, her fingers are met with hard, grainy edges that threaten to cut the skin. A vision of her trunk, being tilled about by the ocean brings a wave of seasickness that Rosa tries to swallow away.
The first plate is broken in three. The second is in four pieces. The third is shattered as well. They all are. The trunk is littered with shards. She bows her head and coughs, shamed by her tears. But silently, he kneels beside her and together they begin to arrange the pieces on the floor. They could be children doing a jigsaw puzzle but to Rosa, they are grave robbers, picking through the white bones of a skeleton.
In the trunk, there is one piece left. The tureen. To Rosa’s surprise, it is intact and she splays her hands around the cool base of the round basin and cradles it with the care of a new mother.
‘The letter is in here,’ says Rosa. ‘And my veil.’
He nods and she indicates for him to take it, which he does.
But the brush of fingertips is so unexpected, so warm, that Rosa lets go of the tureen and it falls to the ground with a great smash.
For a second, there is silence. Then, there is a howl of despair and Rosa is shocked to discover that it is hers. But what does it matter? There is nothing left now for her to lose.
At some point, she becomes aware of a hand on her shoulder. She looks at the man she does not know but is expected to love. His face is anguished. Pained. Gently, he pulls her head towards his chest and smooths her hair as she sobs into him.
‘Shhh,’ he croons. ‘We will make it right.’
And as she feels his heart, beating loud and strong, and sending blood to all corners of his body, she is inclined to believe him.