Cecily Niumeitolu is a PhD candidate researching Beckett’s archives at present. She has had three excursions in Philament, her writing has appeared in Voiceworks, Eclectica, Australian Reader, and she received the Henry Lawson Prize for Prose.
The Red Bucket
Hatching, in a red bucket, all the silence.
At the front of a California bungalow the bucket sat. The bucket was plastic and red. Accounting for the lawn, the lawn is concrete, beaten from within, its decay is visible in the cracks, symptomatic of its weakening aggregates. Beaten from without, fifty years fade white to grey. This could only be aggravated by the position of the house at the bottom of a slope. There is scant irrigation, due to the concrete, due to the brick, so debris has nowhere to go but stain.
The old man built the concrete lawn when his hands were young and tough with muscle. Steel reinforcement, gravel, cement, water. What beauty in the process, a form invisible until the mixing, stirring, pouring, folding the cream, letting it set, slapping his kids over the head when they tried to jump into it, meddle about with their curious paws. He paved a paradise. In the afternoon he would sit with his wife on the front porch and they would watch their children play in his paradise, his concrete paradise. The woman, the wife, approved. She was also Greek. They became an item, the man requested this item sending letters, many letters, to relatives back in Athens, she was a distant cousin, she came by boat and he collected her at the wharf. They went to church for union.
Then the babies came, four, including the loss. The man had his back to the pram getting the boys out of the station wagon. Gravity rode the pram down the slope of road. The car had nowhere to go but forward. The woman, the wife, lost her drive. When he touched her she saw her daughter’s hands.
His boys rarely visited. He didn’t hold it against them. He had constant arthritic trouble in the back, upper, middle, lower. Pain was full-time, scant time between finding ways to position one’s behind and opening cans of dolmades to think of such lapses.
Should have had another daughter. Sons would leave you. So would a wife. It was his own cross. He woke up, and his wife had turned stone. He prodded hard, prodded her right in the middle of the back. Said her name. He loved to watch her pendulous breasts when she had her way with a broom. She made dinner every night at six so they could sit and stare into space in quiet abandon.
The mattress keeps her body’s inlay, a white cave sleeping beside him. Now it was as if he had constantly forgotten something — he would return to a room only to leave again knowing. At times he was too reckless with her. He knew that. Her heart had grown stone of him and then in time, it weakened, then out of habit a kind of garden. Perhaps, now, a paradise in his absence.
The lawn’s entrance swells with succulents, some jutting, some hanging, some snapping atop two white necks of cement cast Corinthian columns. Medusas guarding their yard of stone. The woman tended the succulents as a way to travel to Athens. Now, ten years on there are skeleton weeds that revel in the cracked lawn. The old man cannot bend to tend the concrete. He can give a hand job to her medusas. Their heads at pelvic level. He often forgets, scares him, this. As if she were a different life, husband.
Six months, and the man does not know how the red bucket got there. It was there one day, had been there. It sat on his lawn, plastic and red.
He thinks of the red bucket.
It can take the man five minutes to walk ten metres but with a third leg, a cane donned Constantin, mobility is less vulgar. He tries to think where he went wrong. They are Greek kids, he should live with them, they should visit, that is how it should be. Then his spine delivers a hit to his parietal lobe, and he is back again, back in the present. It was as if it was another life, father.
When it is still dark and the birds crook in song, so the walk begins to morning prayer three blocks south. And then he walks homeward, slow and hooked with the Greek newspaper in one hand, Constantin in the other. In the afternoon he will unfold his homeland, flipping in the Morris chair that forever sentinels the porch, overlooking the concrete lawn. The bucket sat, plastic and red.
There is less certainty, he feels.
It was a member of the Greek congregation that notified the eldest son, telling him the silence was warning. The son found his old man in a room packed as if someone was moving house, wearing a stiff grin that said no and meant yes on the far end of a lumpy double bed. He had starved himself over a period of two or so weeks, the doc said to the son it was will power to cast one’s life that way.
The bedroom remained a high pitch dart of screams, it was, to the son’s great annoyance, mozzies suckling to make room for their young. Nobody understood why the bucket was beside the bed, and the sons could not say what the significance of the red bucket was. It just sat beside the bed, plastic and red.
Cameron Morse taught and studied in China. Diagnosed with Glioblastoma in 2014, he is currently a third-year MFA candidate at the University of Missouri—Kansas City and lives with his wife Lili and newborn son Theodore in Blue Springs, Missouri. His poems have been or will be published in New Letters, Bridge Eight, South Dakota Review, I-70 Review and TYPO. His first collection, Fall Risk, is forthcoming in 2018 from Glass Lyre Press.
Crossing into the main hospital, I remember
the bruise of my past life, thunderheads
of scar tissue in the crook of my arm, vials
of blood drawn weekly while I ate Temodar.
I remember the red river of platelets, lymphocytes,
and white blood cells that sprang
from my weariest vein. After two years,
I’m returning to Centerpoint Medical Center
as another man, a man accompanying his wife
on the hospital tour that will give them triage,
labor rooms, and the mother-baby unit
where she will rest after giving birth to their firstborn
in October—a man with no bracelet around his wrist,
no name, no date of birth, no questions asked.
a temporary suspension
of breathing, occurring in some newborns
in the early morning
dark where I walk. When it sounds
as if the whole world is holding its breath, waiting
for a squirrel to pick itself up
and walk away from its body and brains
dashed along the curb, prostrate,
I-70 murmuring like a lamasery
beyond the rooftops, a road tossing
in its rocky bed, all the contrivances of man.
Beside the squirrel, oak leaves choke
the storm drain. No one is coming
to clean up the mess.
Rebecca Vedavathy is a research scholar studying Francophone Literature in EFLU, Hyderabad. She began writing as a child but only discovered its appreciation when she read a Francophone Literature class many years later. She won the Prakriti Poetry Contest, 2016. She longlisted in English Poetry for the Toto Funds the Arts Awards, 2017 and 2018. She is currently a Shastri Indo-Canadian Research Fellow interning at the University of Quebec, Montreal.
Some days I stand in my choicest place:
with a leaf
and let the tree eat me.
Words hang like apples sewn to a tree –
the head of a poet – what was his name?
Didn’t the goddess tell you, it’s not safe to let
thoughts form words on your lips?
They aren’t red like hers – betel leaves don’t work.
Words draw shorelines on a passport –
the Syrian baby flattened on a sandy beach.
Didn’t the griot tell you, children here
don’t build sandcastles, anymore?
Lessons on geography and gore.
Words lay battered, dead against graffiti walls –
Dalit child and Muslim man.
Didn’t the bishop tell you, baby cows are
called Mein calves now?
No, cow urine isn’t red – enough said.
Words explode on the lazy newspaper –
shrapnel and body on boulevard – Paris.
Didn’t the ambassadors tell you, you’ll
pay for open borders?
They probably forgot – Gotham city in rot.
This poem has broken ribs and a lost ear.
Where shall I find it?
Beirut or Paris?
I don’t want to stand here anymore.
The autumn leaves are mulched with blood.
Veins slit, roots flung. Run.
Left I scream.
The nation hears, pretends these are bad
words hiding in a pencil box –
learnt to be forgotten.
This poem has breath. It shall remember.
It shall eat the mud, the blood
democracy feeds us
into red autumn’s green sister.
how to preserve childhood
red monkey insides
part-time job: museum
fulltime job: friend
friend because monkey was not alive. he was a he though. i didn’t name him. he was red. velvet. not like cupcakes. i am sure he didn’t taste like cupcakes. that’s because i tasted him. he tasted like fine red threads. touching tongue. tickling. he was as dirty as my feet. my feet went places those days. without chappals. climbed mountains of construction sand. dragged monkey’s curly tail. a cursive ‘g’ with me. fed him sand. ate some. licked deworming syrup from measuring cups. bit around his black button eyes. an attempt to make them look like mine. he still didn’t look like me. no one with three stitches for a nose looks like a little girl. that was the thing. he was a boy. i burrowed my fingers in his torn armpit. he didn’t mind. like i said he was my friend. i told him my secret. pineapples are just big apples, i declared. that’s why they have longer spellings. right? he heard me.
one day before convent school taught me “it is raining”. “rain was coming”. and when it came it came down with hail stones. no one was watching. i picked them up. one by one. silver sharp edges. taste of melting. white glass. tongue curled in cold. upside down camel hump. we didn’t have a fridge. i marched to monkey. stuffed his armpit. he had an armpit full of hail stones. i forgot about. later when i looked for the hail stones. monkey was a soggy mess: a museum.
a year later, we bought a fridge. it came with a fridge box. bubble wrap. a cover. that year i played a fridge for fancy dress. the box was my body. i had lines and all. i licked ice from the freezer. it tasted like fridge. i never saw hail stones again.
monkey appreciated that.
Luke Best is from Toowoomba on the Darling Downs where he was born in 1982. He is married with three children. He has been published in Overland and his manuscript Percussion was Highly Commended in the 2017 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize.
The Hoarder’s Rest
It’s been years, though here I am,
shivering on the porch,
tricking the lock.
My skin is sewn to my clothes
and clouds loom in protest.
I’ve come to thieve your manuscript
As I enter a stink
charges the door.
Here in the house we built,
the collectibles: bottles, cans,
empty smoke packs. The lino
peaks through where it can.
So much shit
The bruise of ink on walls—
a thousand daily rags
shed their news.
Down the hall to the study
I can almost hear
the canter of your pen, feel
the thick presence of thought.
Still the tidiest room.
The desk shoulders the weight
of your words.
On my way out, a trip wire or twine;
something in the rubble to let you know
I’d snooped here.
At the Dumping Ground
Wind angers the bough
that is trying only to shed debris
and keep its leaves.
What a place in which
to write. The stench
frees all other senses.
We write and the gales
we bed down,
tuck each other in
by the recyclables⎯
the poems we forged;
dead weights the wind
will not carry.
Rose Lucas is a Melbourne poet. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (University of WA Publishing), won the Mary Gilmore Award in 2014; her second collection was Unexpected Clearing (UWAP, 2016). She is currently working on her next collection At the Point of Seeing. She is a Senior Lecturer in the Graduate Research Centre at Victoria University.
Van Dyck, c. 1619
In their best Flemish clothes –
lace ruffs and jewelry, brocaded fabric –
this young couple gaze
intense and hopeful
out of the canvas;
they lean toward me as though
were as fast as the shuttering
of a lens;
their bonneted child,
dandled on her mother’s knee,
looks behind and up –
she has no need to look my way;
Her parents are vibrant with
youth and prosperity,
their connection to each other,
their pride in the child;
like every family –
holy in their ordinariness –
they hold the unfolding generations
in their richly upholstered arms:
Look! we have made this future –
it belongs to us.
Only consider –
(and here the benefit of hindsight)
their willingness to pause,
to sit while a painter
takes their likenesses
in pigment and brushstroke,
within the rushes of time –
Look carefully –
hold fast to the slipperiness of this moment –
it will not always
be like this.
Heaving out from the harbour,
its narrow lean of wooden houses,
salt-weathered in a cloudy light –
a ferry clanks and judders
picking its way past little boats,
their tangle of nets
and out into the slap and wash of darkening water:
stink of diesel and fish swim
in freshets of air,
rubbing cheeks into ruddiness;
until the hump of island
sails into view –
its possibilities of destination,
palette of smudged greys and greens
flickering through the glass;
the angular spine of the Cuillins
a loamy sky,
writhing in channels of wind;
while, deep in boggy fields,
restless in peat –
These tannin-soaked fields,
this permeable membrane,
this elongated moment when a boat might
clip and ride,
a shoreline in sight.
Rafeif Ismail’s current work aims to explore the themes of home, belonging and Australian identity in the 21st century. A third culture youth of the Sudanese diaspora, her goal is to create works that blend the traditional elements of the arts of her home country with elements of classic and contemporary western arts. She is committed to writing diverse characters and stories in all mediums, is currently working on her first novel and hopes to also one day write for screen. She can be found exploring twitter @rafeifismail
Almitra Amongst Ghosts
Houah Maktoub, your grandmother always used to say, it is written. She firmly believed that everything that will ever happen had already happened, that distance and time were no obstacle. You used to sit by her side, in the shade of a veranda overlooking a courtyard, in that house surrounded by tall walls painted white, with its metal gate that was green with age, always open. You listened, your fingers sliding across the imperceptible thorns of the okra you handed her which she expertly cut for that night’s dinner as she told stories she had grown up learning, in the village on the island between two Niles. Stories of family, friends and legends, she had weaved them together like a dark Sahrazad. It is where you first heard of Mohamad, the village boy who lived on the edge of the savanna, who cried, tiger! tiger! tiger in the grassland! Until no one believed him, and his whole village was massacred as a result. And of Fatima, who sang so sweetly that a ghoul stopped the Nile for her, so that she may retrieve her lost gold. Of the spirits in the rivers, those on land and ancestors who whisper in dreams, reaching out from some other world with warning and advice; years later, you will learn that quantum entanglement posits that two more objects may exist in reference to each other regardless of space time, and think on how much physics sounds like her folklore and faith. At your grandmother’s side you learned of a world three parts unseen and believed in it. Now those days seem hazy and distant, and there is a space in you, that twinges like phantom limb, as though you lost something you did not know you had, somewhere along the invisible borders between what you thought was home and here.
Your house is like every other, with three bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room and your house is full of ghosts. You see them pass across your father’s eyes as he stares at a wall, seeing a place that is not there anymore. They follow your mother into the sunlight as she gardens, they inform the heaviness of her step, the creaking of her bones – she is trying to grow chili, aloe vera, and a lemon tree, much smaller than the one that grew in your old home, that doesn’t seem to want to flower. You see the ghosts on your way to the bus stop, where every day without fail in the space of a single step, the street becomes dusty and you can smell sandalwood in the air, it is almost as though if you walk down that road, you would see your grandmother, sitting outside that large green gate with a big wooden bowl at her feet, cutting okra. The ghosts thankfully don’t follow close behind you at school, although they linger at the edges of the classroom, in the shadows of the trees dotting your school oval. You get used to them over time, those flashes of scent, of memory and you learn how not to react the same way you learn to not hide under your bed when you hear fireworks, or jump every time a car backfires. The dreams are more difficult to control but as the years pass you form an understanding between yourself and those haunting you.
It is 2016 and your newsfeed had been full of stories from the Orlando massacre, and suddenly the world is tilting much further along its axis, and gravity seemed much stronger, every breath feels like a battle. You do not attend the vigil to commemorate the victims and survivors. You cannot bring yourself to leave your house. Adrift from your body, you feel trapped, unable to look away as the news shows people becoming hashtags, becoming tombstones. You finally understand why your mother cried that day two years ago, when you, eighteen and giddy to the point of intoxication tried to find the words to explain something you did not have the language for, when you tried to tell her about Dunya.
” Everyone feels like this way about their friends at some point!” She had screamed, when you’d both lost your tempers, yours in frustration, hers in something closer to desperation ” It does not mean you act on it”
In your stunned silence you had offered no response
“This will pass” she had said “and we’ll talk no more about it.” Ending the conversation. The distance between you grew, until now, where it feels like you are standing on opposite shores of the same river.
Now you see her words for the plea and prayer they were. There is so much that is unspoken in that ghost house of yours, the silence is often straining to bursting as it rings on every wall but like bullets, words can ricochet and fragment, so you all keep your silences. You had called Dunya earlier that day, tired of navigating minefields in your living room. She had deactivated her social media accounts earlier that week, always much more practical when it came to dealing with grief, better at avoiding it, putting up walls and daring it to come closer, you on the other hand, soak it up like injera does mullah, your comfort food, until it becomes all you can taste. Travelling to meet her is the first time you are out in the sun in days and everything is just a bit too bright, the bus crowded enough that you have to sit next to someone.
It is sometimes easy to fall into the dream of this country, to walk towards that mirage of blind equality and for a moment forget that your life has always been shaped by the actions of others, from centuries and continents ago to just now, as you walk on to a bus and strangers with frightened eyes uncomfortably avert their gaze and shift as though shielding themselves, praying you don’t come near them. As always, your embarrassment comes unbidden, rushing through you, pricking your skin like tiny okra thorns and your every moment automatically becomes an apology. You remember that so much of you is not your own. Maktoub. But not the way your grandmother believed. No, in this nation people assume they can write your story from beginning to end, and wait for you to fall into place on the stage that has been set, it is why every conversation scans like a hostage negotiation, with your humanity being the item that’s up for deliberation.
Once, when you were fourteen and Dunya was still just one of the many girls you meet in passing twice a year during an Eid barbeque and your futures were not yet this possibility. There was a boy who walked home with you every day after school. You talked in a way that you never did on campus, those conversations became the very best part of your day. He was different and made you laugh. He called you beautiful, for a black girl and you kissed him. It would not be the last time someone would pay you a provisional compliment, nor the last time you accept it. Back then, you had not yet realized, that those who view your beauty conditionally, undoubtedly felt the same towards your humanity.
With Dunya, you found a love without stipulations and it was at once both a revelation and revolution. She walks proudly in the streets with her dark hair beneath brightly colored hijabs so obviously herself and it terrifies you that she may not come back one day. As report after report makes its way onto your newsfeed of attacks on women who look like her, like you- you pray more fervently than you have in years. Even if you’re not sure who you are praying to.
It’s one of those dime a dozen, cannon-fodder days that roll on lazily through the summer, with a too hot sun and clear skies when you meet her, under a jacaranda tree in some park you’d found when exploring the city, it’s biggest attraction is that its located several suburbs away from where you both live. You have both learned to compromise. You speak English with American accents and Arabic with Australian ones. You hold hands but only in places where you cannot be seen, because gossip spreads faster than bushfires and neither of you would survive the burn. Yet in those compromises of all that you are, you still carve out spaces for yourselves. You sit for hours under the shade of that tree, and remember stories from an ocean ago, and Dunya reads out loud from her favorite book, you listen to the cadence of her voice, as she recites poetry the way she was taught to recite prayer, it is almost indistinguishable from singing.
And there is a way to describe this moment, the shade, the tree, the breeze; this brief respite from the world – in the language you were both taught as children – Al dul al wareef. There is no companionable phrase in English. That is fine, there are no words for who you both are either – in the language of your grandmother and your parents – the one you now speak with an accent now, love is described by forces of nature, monstrously destructive and divine, and in all of that, is possibly an explanation as to why in that language the words for breath and love are indistinguishable by sound. It is probably why songs only croon phrases like ‘You are the Nile’ ‘She is like the Moon’ and ‘you are the hawa coursing through my veins’.
“So speak to us of love, said Almitra” Dunya quotes in Arabic. Stories like yours don’t have happy endings, not any you have seen. But you are not only beautiful in your tragedy. One day you will write this story, and speak of love, it might be read under a different sky, it might have a happy ending. Just for now though you think, your eyes drifting shut I can keep living it.
Blindness and Rage: A Phantasmagoria
by Brian Castro
Reviewed by JOSEPH CUMMINS
Brian Castro’s eleventh work of fiction is a profoundly playful novel about life, death and authorship. Faced with a terminal diagnosis, Lucien Gracq contemplates the meaning and meaninglessness of life as a town planner. Given fifty-three days to live – this is an allusion to Georges Perec’s novel 53 Days, which he left incomplete at his death – Gracq decides to focus on finishing his epic poem, Paidia. He moves to Paris and there joins an absurdly shadowy society of misfit intellectuals. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by this?
This is not an advertisement for euthanasia. We welcome those with a terminal illness who are interested in the test of time, who think hard about sacrifice and the culture of intellectual legacies. Members will, through an act of law, erase their name and bequeath their work to a living other. It is plagiarism in reverse we practice, to provide a cleansing service before oblivion. We are Le club des fugitives. (20)
A highly literate kind of gallows humour infuses Castro’s novel in perhaps the most concentrated doses of his oeuvre. Here it is harnessed to his concerns with the erasure of the self and the attempt to retain some sort of life beyond death, lenses that Castro often equips to view these universal questions. ‘What does it mean / if not pure and present vanity / to think of your memory / as a future commodity?’ (21), Gracq asks, scornful. Subtitled ‘A novel in thirty-four cantos’, this short novel is written in mostly free verse.
Using the brevity and concentration of verse, Castro thinks on life, death, the poetic body – the body that is created by poetic language – in terms of play. He is intent on wringing every last drop of poetic and philosophical potential out of this concept. We follow our poet planner Gracq as he dances with the play of death, grapples with the play of authorship, messes with the play of quotation, shimmies around the play of the imagination, and slides between play and meaning. Gracq theorises that ‘It is catachresis – the crossing over / which extends life; gives shards of signs / a shiny meaning, pure illusion, / a reality or just a game of cards’ (131). After sending drafts of his epic poem to the leader of the Fugitives, George Crepes (an anagram of Perec?), Lucien receives a playful critique:
Your Paidia is losing its serious play,
verging on frivolity. There is no crossword
or chiasmus, no game of Go.
There is no verbal Rubik’s Cube
or even rubrics cubed; no red lining,
no rules, injunctions, prescriptions.
The word I say to you is No
do not go down this tube of mining
your emotions at this late stage.
Your heart is thumping out the words;
there are so few beats left to submit. (123-4)
The beats of the heart measure both life and poetic tension and release. The examination of a poetic body – ‘your body is your life / a work in progress’ (39) – particularly the way Castro looks back and forth at poetry and the process of aging, one through the other, is perhaps the aspect of this novel that struck me as its most consistently serious statement.
Always attuned to the experience and implications of being in and out of place, one of the most entertaining aspects of Blindness and Rage is the constant and ever-more farcical shifts between the Adelaide, Paris, and a constellation of other locations, including Hong Kong and Dubbo (in western New South Wales). I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition between Adelaide and Paris – ‘For a long time, Lucien used to go to bed early / thinking fantasy oh, fantasy! / He had become too staid – / perhaps it was living in Adelaide’ (60). This allusion to the opening line of Proust’s masterpiece is quite hilariously subverted in the next line: ‘Where is my fantasy? / He shoved a DVD of Sex and the City / into the player but it did nothing / to divert the hurly-burly’ (60). Later the comedy continues as the Australian obsession with sport is mythically mocked: Gracq ‘was from the South, / some say it is a barbarous place / whose only activity is sport; / perhaps it is like Sparta’ (162).
But aside from these amusements, the sharp relief between centre and margin also produces sincere and poignant meditations on memory. Transported to the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo – and I thought Adelaide was a long way from Paris – we encounter the unique moments of pathos that for me marks Castro’s work.
…knowing how years hence you would be sorry how quaint all your promises were, how you knew well the passions of others and decided you were not the sort to treat them lightly, how you remembered the past incorrectly, conflating your own experience with that you had read, in wonderment, and ultimately, in forgetting. (180)
Skipping in an and out of the shining auras of works such as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the love letters of Kafka, and with a soundtrack of Chopin, Blindness and Rage is as virtuosic as it is opaque. Cheeky references spring up on almost every page – I noticed numerous reworkings of Proust’s famous opening line – ‘he was in search of lost emotion – / words which slowed the heart and / humoured the day and held / the night with chimeras’ (2) – but that is probably because I am most familiar with that work. Castro’s writing is nimble and at times resonant, but the relentless allusion to a wide range of writers, philosophers (and pornographers) can at times stifle ones enjoyment. Of course Castro the modernist wants us to work for it – he’s playing with expectations about meaning, difficulty and the labour (and pleasure) of reading.
While it is Castro’s first verse novel, the playfulness at the core of Blindness and Rage links it closely to much of his oeuvre. Despite his early doubts about writing and the commodification of memory – and following the hijinks of his time with the Fugitives, a love affair with his neighbour in Paris, and many half-blind alleys of mischievous reference – I feel like Gracq ends up reaching a conclusion that rings an uncannily familiar note to Castro’s masterwork Shanghai Dancing: ‘To be able to write is not to say anything / but to put small things together, / shards which once cut into memory, / made up of roots and calligraphy’ (196). While seemingly far removed from the territory covered in the ‘fictional autobiography’ Shanghai Dancing, Castro’s latest offering continues to map the space between memory, place and creativity. It may confound, but Blindness and Rage is just as rewarding.
JOSEPH CUMMINS writes about contemporary Australian literature and popular music. His first book (with Ashley Barnwell) Reckoning with the Past: Family Historiographies in Postcolonial Australian Literature, will be published in 2018.
Seabirds Crying in the Harbour Dark
by Catherine Cole
Reviewed by CAROLINE VAN DE POL
‘The Brain – is wider than the Sky -,’ wrote Emily Dickinson revealing our capacity to expand our mind beyond experience to imagination. Acclaimed American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson recently recapped this magical opening of the mind that comes with reading when she wrote an article describing what it’s like for an author trying to find the right word. I was reminded of this image again when delving into a new collection of short stories from Australian writer and academic Catherine Cole. In diverse and joyful ways Robinson and Cole remind me of what I love about reading (and writing), of what I learn from books through that open invitation to go beyond a closed door, to find my way around the darkness and relish the light that shines through even the saddest of stories.
In this impressive collection of short stories, Cole finds those exacting words to reveal glimpses of life that fill you with love and compassion and leave you yearning to know more. It’s easy to see why her story ‘LOVE’ was chosen as part of the narrative for the Yes campaign for marriage equality. Anyone who reads this, who really listens as mother and son share the moment of disclosure, who feels the lump in the throat when she says ‘Mothers do know these things’ will understand the message for affirmation on marriage equality much more than from some of the distressing ignorance and bigotry flooding the media.
Cole, in writing that is both poetic and purposeful, selective, and at times, sparse, expands our minds and encourages the reader to look more closely at the detail and the ordinary lives of ‘others’. While some characters and places are more familiar each possess their own authenticity and truth. While many, on the surface, appear lonely and even suffocated by their longing, they are also, at times, comforting in their intimacy. There’s Dorrie on the ferry to Manly dreaming of her childhood, Ruth on her daily trek to the shopping mall and pet shop, Bert on his way to Villawood with gifts for the detainees and Willem preparing for work when all around him are partying. Often Cole’s characters feel like family or friends we know well, struggling to find their place. A recurrent theme of movement towards understanding prevails as we learn more about the many connotations of ‘home’ and what having a home means.
At times the memory of childhood or first love is evoked so provocatively that you can find yourself believing you might know ‘Little Kerrie’ or, in ‘Plenty’ you might find yourself wanting to slap James for his smugness and lack of compassion. In other stories Cole gives prominence to the environment and the external stimuli take over our senses as we hear the call of the furious ocean, taste the scratchy red dirt in the hot wind and feel the cracks in the ground of the outback ‘excoriated, open to whatever memories you might want to plant’ in ‘Steers’.
The stories of this collection resonate so well because of what Robinson calls ‘that movement towards essentials’, the removal of the extraneous to explore themes around love and pleasure in ‘The Navigator’ and loss and pain in ‘Hell Comes, Hell Goes’.
While enjoying the collection, I’m struck by that contradictory feeling of wanting to rush through the book and the stories, devouring each page in the way I might with a Raymond Carver or Alice Munro collection while also wanting to savour them and make my enjoyment of everyday escapism last longer. And it can be a hard to know where to begin because short stories, unlike a novel, offer the capacity to move in and out of the organisation at your pleasure. Should I read them in order, from the beginning, or dip in and out choosing on title or length?
Cole shows how to embrace and relish the short story, a sometimes-overlooked literary genre, while Seabirds Crying in the Harbour Dark would make an ideal study for teachers in how a collection of short stories can offer a sense of connectedness with its provocative themes and repeat characters, not unlike Tim Winton’s Minimum of Two.
CAROLINE VAN DE POL is the author of Back to Broady (Ventura Press/Peter Bishop Books); her first memoir. She is a writer and university lecturer in media and communication. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Wollongong and her articles and creative work have appeared in journals including Text and New Writing. Caroline has worked as a journalist and editor for newspapers and magazines including Melbourne’s Herald Sun. She has published two nonfiction health books on pregnancy and parenting. Caroline grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and she now lives in regional Victoria.
Harold Legaspi is a Sydney-based author who is currently completing the Masters of Creative Writing program at The University of Sydney. His writing has appeared in The Kalahari Review, Verity La, The University of Sydney Anthology 2016, among others. He has completed the final draft of a first novel.
Lucy just stands there in the kitchen. She’s frying bacon and eggs with a vacant look while I sit with the kids, forcing them to eat their breakfast. Lucy had slept at the opposite end of the bed last night. Now she won’t even look my way, even though I’m wearing a new shirt that bursts in the seams and shows off my pecks. So for the umpteen time, I wipe my son’s face and pour my daughter some orange juice so she could swallow the bacon. And here we were, pre-packaged and nuclear like in those ads that you saw on Netflix about breakfast cereals or free-range produce.
I don’t even know what to say to her in the mornings. I keep silent, reading the paper and turning to sports for news. Panthers flogged the Sharks 25-to-1, or so I read, not that that meant anything to her these days. She was into footy when we first got together; now I’m not so sure. The upshot is: I won some money in the footy tips at the office. I swear to God, if my team wins this year, I’ll marry her again. She won’t join us for breakfast today. She keeps flipping those damn eggs and adding strips of bacon on our plates. As I am leaving, she picks up my suit jacket and places it on my shoulders. Then she hurries me out the door and kisses me on the lips.
At the office, some clown in accounts named Larry hounds me to raise a purchase order so that my bills could get paid. He has one of those faces scrunched up real tight, which morphs into a snarl the moment he turns away. It didn’t register that he could have raised the PO himself or dealt with my secretary for the insignificant sum. He thinks he’s real clever and confronts me about my 500 percent budget overrun, right in front of the GM. So now I’m the bad guy, and Terry’s the one exercising control, with all the rest of them cost-cutting at Oden Financials.
At the lifts, Terry stands next to my secretary then asks for my pen. As we descend to the ground floor, he writes a note, which he hands to my secretary. Terry gives me my pen back then makes a quick exit as the lift door opens. My secretary reads the note beside me and bursts into a fit of laughter. When I ask him what it says, he stuffs the note in his suit pocket and downplays what he read. Next thing he’s giving me that sordid look like I’m the one with something to hide. In a flash, he scuttles away. I don’t even know what. All I know is that Terry has it in for me, bad.
Meanwhile, I have a pile of insurance claims to sift through and stamp. I roll in-and-out of meetings, file in hand, drilling the experts in investigations. They are a funny lot. A calculating breed of bored actuaries and fraud analysts. One of them, Barry, won a Fields medal for his ‘contribution’ to stochastic partial differential equations. He says it has something to do with statistical mechanics, but what, I’m not quite sure. We tend to leave Barry be. He plugs away in his other dimension, with all his mathematical modelling and in jest we nod confounded.
We lock the doors while our meetings are in progress. Having the doors locked gave the impression that our work was vital; that we couldn’t be disturbed. I’m sitting there running my fingers through my slick hair trying to get a straight answer. What if we slipped up? What if the client staged their accident? What’s the probability of depleted reserves? At what point did bacterial growth render all stock obsolete? We turn our heads to face Barry. Barry gives us a blank stare.
At lunch, I got to thinking. I pull aside Ted, my mate from sales, and talk shop for a bit. Then we talk hypotheticals about our missus. I begin to set the scene:
“It’s mayhem at this restaurant. I’m there with my wife. The kitchen, which is in the middle of the room, is in full swing. The chefs are screaming abuses at the waitstaff, and there are lashings of ginger tea. Factory-line style dining tables surrounded them, with cushions on swivel chairs. The dining space is an oval shape with clean lines and a garden landscape.”
“What are you eating?” asks Ted.
“That doesn’t matter. What matters is that a guy walks into the restaurant with his wife and he’s looking real dapper,” I say.
“Why does that matter?” asks Ted.
“There’s something not quite right about him. He’s got one of those flowers in his suit pocket, and he dresses real neat. He’s looking around the room, while his wife peels off her scarf. Next thing, the guy is taking a seat beside my wife, to her right. I’m plonked on her other side beside her, to her left, at the end of the line.”
“Wait, wait, wait…So where’s your missus?” asks Ted.
“She’s bang, smack in the middle, in between this fella and me,” I said.
“So, where’s his wife?”
“She’s ducked off to the ladies. Gone to freshen up, who knows? Just pretend she’s not there,” I said.
“So?” Ted looks at me wearing a wry grin.
“Anyway my wife, well, she’s looking real sumptuous, and she smells real clean like someone you could trust. It’s an open kitchen, and everyone’s on show. The food is being dished out in rhythmic synchronicity. Then, the guy next to my missus asks her to pass some wasabi,” I said.
“Well, it’s open plan isn’t it? You’re mingled together with strangers,” says Ted.
“The thing is, he’s right there, next to my wife and he asks her with this comforting grin that seems real inviting and friendly. My wife cackles, which turns to a smile, and she’s handing it over. She goes to fix her hair then shifts her eyes back to me discretely,” I said.
“So what do you say to her?” asks Ted.
“I have her attention again but only for a split second, because now the guy next to her is asking for soy sauce. She smiles again, showing off her perfect teeth. She has a killer smile. A smile that could solve the energy crisis coz it’s real warm. I feel their chemistry. And although I’m not the jealous type I feel rotten. Her eyes are only meant for me,” I said.
“What do you do?” asks Ted.
“Well—I lose all my appetite,” I said.
Ted eggs me on. He’s like, “Just tell her, ‘If you ever, ever do tha—.’”
I cut in, “she’ll be all like, ‘Do what? Pass the wasabi and soy?’… She’ll be saying crap like ‘Now we’re even or that I’m the one paranoid.’”
Ted rolls his eyes and says, “You, my friend, are under the thumb.”
“I almost got up to thump the guy next to her. But that’s not the sort of guy I am.”
“Did she say anything to you on your way home?” asks Ted.
“Not a word,” I said.
Ted thinks I give in too easily. He’s been married for fifteen years since he turned twenty-one. He has a real housewife of Sydney – always dressed to the nines; she wears a headscarf on sunny days and prances around with Chanel, her Chihuahua. Ted says marriage isn’t for everybody – especially not the gays. He’s real conservative like that, like Fred Nile. His family think he’s God’s gift. He got into the property market before the boom and made a killing. Now he drives a red Corvette. Ted’s mad. He’s always mad about something or someone, but never at me. Once Ted’s neighbour deliberately poisoned their orange tree. Ted built a fence between his neighbour so quickly they couldn’t even get a word in. Then he stuffs an invoice in their mailbox quoting some arcane piece of legislation saying they had to pay half. Because that’s the kind of guy he is.
At the water cooler, a bunch of guys are talking about some new recruit. They say she’s in IT, a real fox. The guys are saying she’d be all like “show me how to do this and show me how to do that…Where do you find this and what’s the deal with that?” Quid pro quo, Y’know. Well, that got them going. The guys are pandering to her every need. They say she’s got one of those pencil skirts that’s real tight around the waist. Her bust so firm it reminds them of rockmelons. Real jugulars. So they be all like “I’ll show you how it’s done good and proper…Why certainly miss, it’s my pleasure.” They say she’s a real man-eater. You show her this and that, and she’ll get real close so you can smell her perfume. Then she’ll purse her lips and flick her hair to reveal her slender neckline. They’re all like, I would. They’d all reach over there and grab something. Why the hell not.
On the drive home, I’m the bad guy, again. I’m on the hands-free with my folks who remind me it’s Lola’s birthday. “Why did Y’all miss church last Sunday? … Go see a doctor about that ulcer.” Yap, yap, yap. My folks, they’re trying to kill me. No, seriously, they mean to cause me pain. I look in the rear-view mirror and see a dead bird squashed on the motorway. I see its entrails, bits of red, bits of brown and bits of feather. I’ll end up like that bird if I stay on the phone too long with my folks. No really, my folks, they are going to kill me.
I look out the window and think of the kids. Little Angelica and Max on the couch, trawling through Tyrannosaurus-Rex YouTube clips. Having them loose on their playpen with Play-Doh, mingling the reds, the purples and the greens. My folks ask me about our future plans for Angelica, going back and forth in rhetoric. The cars pile up in front of me on the exit of the M4. It’s bumper-to-bumper. Everyone’s being so God damn slow. I just want to get home to play with my kids.
My mind wafts. On my dashboard, a gyrating Hawaiian girl with a grass skirt and a floral wreath stares right at me. She remains topless and grinning with all grass covering her itty bits. I bought the Hawaiian girl on our honeymoon before the kids arrived. It was just the two of us back then, on American soil, and we went berserk. Lucy and I did it like rabbits. Every night, we did it, with champagne and strawberries and saxophone music. We had Careless Whisper on repeat. The Little itty skirt had been on my dashboard ever since.
I must get out of this traffic jam. I make a bad joke to my folks about some distant cousin that has claimed genetic ancestry to our family name. What am I supposed to do, welcome him to our home all of a sudden? We might be free on the weekend in a couple of months time, but he’ll have to wait it out. Apparently, he’s a thespian of sorts; a real artist. “What’s he got that you don’t,” I hear my folks ask me. He’s got an audience, that’s what, like he’s real entertaining. He’ll come around, play pranks on my kids like he’s on show or in front of the camera. Lucy’ll be there seething like I’m the bad guy in this, and all weekend it’s going to be pranks, iced tea and cucumber sandwiches. Dad will be complaining about an itch on his belly. Mum will drill him about his methods till he turns blue.
I play with the kids after speaking with Lola, long enough to know the names of their new friends in school. I learned about Mr Shawn’s antics at school – he pulled faces, and found out the kids planted a lilly pilly in the playground. Little Max, who is almost three, darts his eyes to the fan in the hallway. He says something quirky like, “Dad…Fan…Os-cill-a-ting!” He’s so smart; some day he’ll know more than me. I just wish he wasn’t so darn hyperactive! Little Angelica, who is four and a half, got a real gold star. She turns up to class with a butt that’s nappy free. She went all the way to the toilet holding Mrs McFarlane’s hand without pooping her pants. Next, I hear a thud in the sun-room then discover my little guy with the boxes all stacked up. He’s at it again, climbing the mantlepiece to reach the lolly jar, coz he’s craving sugar in pyjamas. I find him up there, one hand elbow deep in the Gummy Bears and the other stuffing Jelly Belly beans in his mouth.
“Don’t kid yourself,” says Lucy, “It’ll only be for a little while.” She’s doing that raised eyebrow thing in front of her vanity mirror. I swear I can physically feel the power being taken away from me. She wants me to apply for paternity leave so I can babysit the kids during school holidays. She says it’s like a very “Scandinavian thing” to do, and we all know they live better. “All their dads do it. It’s their law,” she harps, “You’ll be a latte papa.” The longer I think about how little I’ve accomplished in the office, the more I freeze up. I’m running stagnant. Either my boss will chew me up and spit me out, or my wife will tear me to shreds. I reach over and pop the door shut so that the kids won’t hear. “Oh, honeeey.” I’m in my underwear, and I turn to face her, but she has her back where my manhood ought to be. She’s facing the mirror. So I lie down and caress the dooner, which by the way has a very high thread count. I nestle my head on her pillow and purr; come, come. She applies on her lotion with that smouldering look, and I picture her in the open air under the roof of the sky. She’s that twinkling star; the brightest and she burns. When I forget how I got here, she’s that light, cosmic and I see. She lies on the bed where we sleep – my favourite destination. It’s finally dark, and I’m home. The only place where I couldn’t say no.
Susan Hurley is a health economist and writer. Her research has been published in numerous international journals including The Lancet and her articles and essays have appeared in Kill Your Darlings,The Big Issue, The Australian and Great Walks. Susan is currently working on a novel that originates from a disastrous drug trial. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and labradoodle. The Death of an Impala was shortlisted for the 2017 Peter Carey Short Story Prize.
Death of An Impala
The animals were standing in a clearing under a cloudless early-morning sky, a dozen of them, more or less.
‘Impala,’ Max said. He braked and turned to face his guests. Max’s vehicle didn’t have a rear-vision mirror, or a windscreen, or a roof. There were ponchos for the guests if it rained. Max’s vehicle didn’t even have doors. Being close to the animals, with no barrier, made the safari experience more authentic. Provided the guests didn’t do something stupid, they were safe.
Max had only two guests today: Judith and Bob. They weren’t a couple. ‘Hi, I’m Judy,’ Judith had said to Bob that morning in the dining room, the sun not yet risen, the air still so cold it stung.
Yet when Max asked, ‘May I pour you coffee or tea, Judith?’ like the lodge manager insisted guides must ask guests, she hadn’t said, ‘Call me Judy.’
Now, Max saw Judith look away from the impala.
Boring, she thought. More antelope. She hadn’t come all this way and spent all that money just to see a bunch of Bambi look-alikes. The guide, this Max, was making a pathetic attempt to make them interesting. ‘We call impala the McDonald’s of Africa. Ya,’ he said, pointing out the ‘M’ sign that their black rear markings and tail appeared to make. Bob laughed, so she laughed too. Geez Louise, she’d come all the way to Botswana—and Botswana was even more expensive than South Africa—she’d splurged on a private game park, not to mention a lodge that the travel agent assured her was superior, and now she was laughing at an antelope’s bum.
‘Make her happy, Max,’ the manager had said that morning after the staff briefing. The singing, the dancing and the praying after the briefing were the best part of Max’s day. Blessing from kitchen department led the singing and he, Max, he led the dancing. But today, after they’d heard which guests were leaving, and after the guests who would be flown in after lunch had been assigned to guides, just when the singing was about to start after Blessing had clapped her hands and ululated for all of thirty seconds, like only Blessing could do, loud and so beautiful just like he hoped she would do at the mokgolokwane for his wedding, when he and Patience finally married, the manager had pulled him aside. ‘I need a word, Max,’ he said.
Every evening at dinner, the manager, whose name was Nathan, visited guests at their tables. ‘And how has your day been?’ he would ask.
The previous evening, Judith told Nathan she was disappointed. She hadn’t seen that much on her first game drive. She’d come all this way and it was just like the Singapore night zoo.
Nathan tried to fob her off. He asked about Singapore, a place he’d never been. He was South African, with that clipped New Zealander accent they have. The rest of the staff were Botswanan, but their English was good.
She’d done Singapore en route to Bali for her bestie Kylie’s wedding. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Judith told Nathan, ‘I adore that zoo.’ Judith knew Nathan didn’t care how her day had been, but she was eating dinner alone. She was travelling solo and this lodge didn’t do communal seating at dinner, or even lunch. The table was candle-lit so it was too dark to read. Nathan could listen up and earn his keep.
‘We did see some elephants, some giraffes, and a few zebras,’ she told him. ‘Oh, and antelope—the common ones. What are they called again?’
‘Impala,’ Nathan said.
Max had shown Judith a dazzle of zebras yesterday, not just a few. Max loved to make his guests laugh at the collective nouns for the animals: a tower of giraffes, a leap of leopards, a soar of eagles. But Judith hadn’t smiled at the dazzle of zebras, she hadn’t seen even one leopard, and the giraffes hadn’t moved. If they had Max would have told her, ‘They’re called a journey of giraffes, now that they’re walking.’
The elephants, the giraffes, the zebra and impalas had not made Judith happy. She wanted to see some action, she told Nathan. She wanted to see the animals doing something, because that’s what a safari is all about. That’s what the American woman who’d deigned to talk to her at the bar before dinner said too. Judith had dressed for dinner. She hadn’t frocked up—just back skinny pants and her off-the-shoulder crimson silk blouse with the ruffles—but she looked pretty damn good, even if she did say so herself. The American woman was still wearing her sweat-stained safari gear, and didn’t introduce herself. She told Judith she’d just arrived from Momba lodge, which was such a special place. The experience of a lifetime. She and her husband saw a leopard with a kill there. The woman whipped out her iPhone and played a video of the leopard sitting in a tree, dangling the impala carcass for its two cubs, who toyed with it like a plaything. Judith had agreed with her: the video was amazing.
Today, Max needed to do better. But all he had to work with so far were the impala. They were standing in an almost perfect circle. ‘See how the animals are all facing outwards,’ he told Judith and Bob. ‘Ya. They’ve got a three-sixty-degree view. And see how their ears are up. There’s a predator nearby. But they’ve got the area covered. Ya. These animals won’t be attacked.’
Bob was sitting behind Judith. He snapped some pictures. This was his first time on safari, he’d told her over their breakfast coffee. His camera’s lens was so big he had to attach it to a fancy tripod thingy that he’d strapped to the bar behind her head. Click, click, click. Bob must have taken more than twenty pictures already. The clicking was driving her crazy, and they were only impala, for God’s sake.
The two-way radio crackled: ‘Gee to Max.’
Gee was Max’s friend. He was also Patience’s brother, so one day, soon Max hoped because Patience was becoming impatient, Gee would be his brother-in-law. Gee was on duty at the lodge today, coordinating the vehicles out on game drive. He had promised to help Max make Judith happy. The guides worked together to track animals, calling in any clues they saw or heard. A troop of baboons screeching was a sign that a predator was hunting nearby—a lion, a leopard, or a cheetah if you were very lucky. A congregation of vultures up a tree meant that the predator had made a kill. The birds were waiting for their turn at the carcass.
Working as a team made sense because this game park was huge—twenty-one thousand hectares—so the predators that all the guests wanted to see were hard to track, even if you knew the paw prints of lions as well as the lines on the palm of your hand. But manager Nathan had made a new rule: only two vehicles at a time were permitted at high-profile sightings such as a kill. This was a superior lodge. Guests expected exclusive sightings and they wanted photos without other safari vehicles in the frame.
The new rule had not worked out well for Max. The week before Judith’s arrival he saw a lioness on the move and called it in. The lodge put the sighting out on the radio. Ralph and Ping were closer, upwind from an impala that the lioness was hunting. Their guests got to watch her disembowel the impala and feast on its innards, while Max and his guests waited the respectful hundred metres away, like manager Nathan insisted the third vehicle at a sighting must do. When Max’s turn finally came the lioness was sated and sleeping. Max did not get good tips that day.
‘Turn your radio to channel four,’ Gee had told Max this morning, ‘I’ll give you a heads up before I put any hot sightings out to the others on channel one.’
Now Gee was making good on his promise. ‘Wild dogs at Linyanti crossing, some heading east, some west,’ Gee’s voice said. ‘Prince called it in, he’s following the eastbound dogs.’
‘Copy that.’ Max put his vehicle in gear. He would go west.
Max turned to face Judith and Bob. ‘Hold on,’ he said. ‘Bob, hold on to your camera please.’ Bob looked like he’d be a good tipper, but not if his camera got broken.
Max floored the accelerator. The track was sandy and his vehicle swayed from side to side. In just a few minutes he came across three dogs, circling a mopane tree where a leopard was perched on the lowest lying branch.
‘Amazing,’ Max said. ‘This is amazing. I’ve only seen wild dogs and a leopard together once before. And I’ve been a guide ten years.’ The leopard hissed. The dogs yapped back.
Judith wasn’t a dog person. The wild dogs looked, well, like dogs actually—spotty, mangy ones—but at least this was some action. ‘Will they attack the leopard?’ she asked.
Max laughed. ‘No, wild dogs can’t climb trees.’
Judith felt her face flush. What was so funny? The branch wasn’t even that high off the ground. She hadn’t come all this way to be made to feel a fool. Curtis had done that often when they were still together, one time even embarrassing her in front of Kylie, telling Kylie that Judith was ‘just fat’ when Kylie asked if it was a baby bump she could see profiled beneath Judith’s figure-hugging dress. ‘And barren,’ Curtis had added, so quietly only Judith heard.
Four more dogs trotted up the track to join the three who were harassing the leopard. ‘A pack. A hunting pack,’ Max told Judith and Bob. The dogs were thin, hungry, but Max didn’t point that out. The dogs would need to make a kill today, but he wasn’t going to raise his guests’ expectations. ‘When you’re following a lead to a high-profile sighting, don’t get the guests excited too early. Remember how easily things can go pear-shaped,’ manager Nathan had told the guides. ‘Under-promise and then aim to over-deliver.’
One of the dogs lifted his leg and peed a dribble, marking his territory, then the pack trotted off, leaving the leopard in peace. Max got on the radio: ‘Max to Gee. A female leopard, up a tree two k west of the crossing.’ The leopard was a good sighting. Max would follow the dogs though. A kill was a much rarer, much higher-profile sighting than a leopard.
‘Copy that,’ Gee said. ‘And Max, an impala, a female, is running for the river. Dogs in pursuit. Prince is on it.’
Max knew what had happened. The impala would have been hiding in the thicket at the edge of the flood plain, standing still, trying to make herself invisible, but failing. The dogs Prince had followed had picked up the impala’s scent, and the impala, sensing the dogs’ movement as they closed in, had made a run for it. If the impala got to the river before the dogs she might manage to swim to the safety of the island. The dogs would bail at the river. They were scared of crocodiles.
Max swerved his vehicle right, into the bush. He would take a short cut. ‘Mind the branches. Please put your heads down, Judith and Bob,’ he said.
The three of them hurtled through the scrub. This guide is a maniac, Judith thought. His vehicle was flattening bushes, ripping branches off trees. Sure, he was permitted to go off-road for high-profile sightings because this was a private game reserve—he’d explained that yesterday—but didn’t these people care about the environment?
The branch of a thorn bush snagged the arm of the cream shirt she’d bought especially for the trip. Max was too busy destroying the landscape to notice her squeal, but Bob reached forward and un-snagged her. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked gently and gave her arm a little rub. She felt herself start to choke up. It was almost a year since a man had touched her, not that she was keeping count.
When Max drove out of the thicket he could see Prince’s vehicle across the flood plain near the river, parked by a clump of papyrus. He could hear the dogs yelping in the reeds, but he couldn’t see the impala.
‘What’s happening?’ Judith asked. All this hooning about had better be worth it.
‘A safari?’ Kylie had said. ‘Really? Why not go to Thailand? Sit by the pool, sip cocktails, have a holiday fling!’ But Judith had wanted to do something more unique than Thailand. A safari had sounded perfect. It was an indulgence, absolutely—it had cost a big chunk of her alarmingly small property settlement with Curtis—but she had wanted to treat herself, and also, truth be told, show Curtis she was quite capable of travelling to new places, dangerous places, without him. This lodge had a reputation for danger. Only a few years back a lion had killed a guest, a woman, and Judith had asked Nathan the night before for all the details.
‘It happened at the lodge,’ Nathan told her. ‘We were outside in the boma having a barbeque dinner, and she apparently decided to go back to her room to change her shoes.’ He shook his head, still appalled at the woman’s foolishness. ‘She should have asked for an escort,’ he said sternly. ‘It’s one of the lodge rules. We have security staff, with flashlights, to escort guests to their rooms at night.’ Were lions scared of flashlights? Judith had wondered.
Max knew the impala was down. Snippets of information about the dogs would hopefully distract Judith and Bob from the fact that they’d missed the kill. ‘Wild dogs are an endangered species,’ he said. ‘There are only about three thousand left in all of Africa.’
Max drove across the flood plain, slowly now. He parked facing Prince’s vehicle and pointed to the spot where the papyrus was shaking violently. The dogs were eating the impala. Every thirty seconds or so one of the dogs lifted its head above the rushes. The dog’s face was tomato-red from the impala’s blood. ‘It’s checking for predators,’ Max told Judith and Bob. ‘At a kill, dogs are easy prey for lions.’
‘Lions lick their prey before they eat it,’ Judith announced. Nathan had told her that the night before. The lion licked the woman who left the boma unescorted. Nathan said the woman had been wearing a short, skimpy sundress and the lion licked her leg, all the way from her foot to her torso. But lions have very rough tongues. The licking ripped off the woman’s skin.
‘The woman’s husband and a security guard went to see why she was taking so long,’ Nathan said. ‘They disturbed the lion and brought the woman back to the boma. She was still alive then, but she died within the hour.’ Nathan sighed. ‘One of the other guests that night was a doctor, but he wouldn’t touch her. Said it was a law suit waiting to happen.’
Neither Max nor Bob heard Judith mention that lions lick their prey. Max had secured a good position for the sighting. Max was happy. Bob was click-click-clicking, getting good shots. Bob was happy too.
The day was heating up and Judith felt herself becoming sweaty. She needed to take off the thermal vest underneath her safari shirt. If Curtis had been with her, and if it had been one of their good days, he would have held up his coat so that she could get undressed without Max and Bob having a perv.
‘These dogs will eat as much of the impala as they can fit into their stomachs, then they’ll run back to their den, fast, and regurgitate the kill for their pups,’ Max said. He did not hear Gee call out the sighting of lions heading in the direction of the impala kill. Gee made the call on channel one, but Max’s radio was still tuned to channel four.
The lions racing toward the kill site had been purchased from another game park, to replace the pride that was shot after one of their number killed the woman who left the boma to change her shoes. ‘A lion that’s tasted human blood must be destroyed. Otherwise it might start to hunt people,’ Nathan had told Judith. The lodge didn’t know which lion was responsible so they had to shoot the whole pride.
One of the dogs, now slicked with blood from its head to its hind legs, backed out of the rushes, dragging a piece of the impala. Judith felt her stomach churn.
The dog hauled its plunder over to Max’s vehicle. ‘Oh, the impala was pregnant’ Max said.
No shit, Sherlock, Judith thought. She could recognise a foetus when she saw one. Bile bubbled up her throat.
One by one the other dogs leapt out of the kill site, leaving the impala to the vultures. They trotted over to Max’s vehicle and began to devour the delicacy. ‘Unbelievable,’ Bob said. ‘I’m shooting video of this.’
Judith slid over to the other side of the vehicle, away from the carnage. She was going to throw up. No way was she doing that in front of Bob and Max.
The lions had reached the edge of the thicket. They could see the dogs. But Max did not see the lions. He was thinking about Patience. He had already saved half the dowry that Patience’s father was asking. Today, his tips would be good. By Christmas he would have the entire dowry if he had more good-tip days like this. Ya, that would make Patience happy.
Max did not hear Judith slip out of the vehicle.