Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is an original member of SWEATSHOP Writers’ Collective. His essays and fiction have appeared in Sydney Review of Books, Overland, Meanjin, and Griffith Review. In 2018 Stephen received the NSW WRiters’ Fellowship from Create NSW to commence work on his debut manuscript ‘Vietnamatta’, to be published by Brow Books.
The Central express train rattles and sighs as it pulls up to Hornsby Station. I take a deep breath and hold it. Slide open the yellow door speckled with grime. Step on, look at the toilets. Neither of the doors are open but I’m not taking a chance. They’re sloshing with piss from Central Coast bogans. Turn, open the spring-loaded door, and step into the passenger’s section, which is carpeted with vinyl seats. It’s packed. I let go of my breath. The dampness of human bodies mixes with Lean Cuisine chicken, cheese, and pasta and burrows into the back of my throat. I gag. I should turn back. Stand between the carriages, where the air is fresh and the ground is shaky. No. It takes 30 seconds to get used to a bad smell. In a minute, it’ll be like I’m lounging in my White godfather’s TV room. Though last I heard, he’s living in a shipping container with his golliwog collection.
Upstairs, the seats are filled with people wearing red-and-white jerseys. Oh, it’s Friday. They’re headed to the footy. There’s a seat in the middle of the carriage. On the aisle side is a bag of Chicken Crimpy Shapes. I take the window seat, stepping over the glittery bits crushed into the carpet. It’s pretty dark outside. I can’t see much save for the streaks of rain outside and the line of steam creeping up on my reflection inside.
Behind me, someone with the nasally honk of Aussie Home Loans guy talks loudly. Instead of saying, ‘At Aussie, we’ll save you,’ he says, ‘The freckled moll’s place, ahh, it looks like housing, but, ahh, it’s not, so, ooh, she acts like she’s, ah, better than everyone.’
I grin at my reflection. I love this. The dumb-ass conversations on this train, which runs from Newcastle to Sydney, can’t be found anywhere else. The bogans, like Aussie Home Loans, are the loudest and crudest. One Wednesday arvo, a blonde lady in Mariah Carey bejewelled sunnies sat in the nigel seat yelling on the phone. She stood up and waved her free hand as she yelled, ‘Jayden, Jayden, Jayden. You fucked me, you fucked me reaaaaal bad. Real bad. Why’d you tell the court I was waving the knife around? Don’t ya remember how I was chopping tomatoes? I was chopping the tomatoes, and you said something. You said something, and I looked up. And I looked up and pointed the knife at you. And I pointed the knife at you and I pointed it away. Remember that? I was not waaaving the knife, I was pointing it.’
It took me everything to not laugh out loud then. I didn’t want her to point a knife at me.
Now Aussie is complaining about how the University of Newcastle pays him five dollars an hour to clean, but at least he makes 100 a week. My bad. He’s genuinely poor. I feel gross for laughing at him now.
His mate who has the deep, controlled drawl of Fitzy says, ‘Oi, but yeah…but nah…you take home…200 a fortnight, ay?’
That’s the same thing. We can’t all be Asians when it comes to maths, though. Shit. I’m doing it again. It’s not probbo if I’m laughing with them, but Fitzy seems dead serious.
He continues, ‘I’m so stoned, brah…Oi but, but…you know what they call my house? Cheech and Chong…come to Wyong.’
Aussie honks laughing. Guess I’m not with them after all. I’ve never seen Cheech and Chong, but I know it’s a stoner comedy. Toby McGuirk, the only other metalhead in high school, once told me he smoked dog shit. Was that like crack, or acid, or what? ‘I mean it’th thit. From a dog,’ he said. I’d seen him play Frisbee with dried cow dung before. I nodded. I guess it was only a matter of time.
‘I’m jutht kidding, man,’ he said. ‘It’th from Cheech and Chong. You thould thmoke with uth thome day. It’th a clathic.’
The train pulls up to Epping, black asphalt, grey metal ceiling jutting off the wall. Platform’s full of chinks and curries: black pantsuits, Herschel backpacks, puffer jackets and wire trolleys. Train’s about to get super crowded. I hope no-one sits next to me. But if they do, they’d better not be one of those dickheads that spread so much our knees are touching and the warmth of their leg makes me want to puke and retract mine but I also don’t want to seem weak so I just keep it there. That’s the worst.
The windows steam up completely as a procession of Asians fills the aisle. A burly Chinese guy with bulging, still eyes like a goldfish, plods forward. His white polo is splotched with pink. Rubber and blood floods my nostrils. Raw meat. An abattoir worker, maybe. If this was 2000 years ago, he’d be the town butcher. That’s what he was made for.
He’s hunched. Looks straight ahead as he gets closer to me. He’ll sit near the bogans. They’ll think he’s just gotten back from slaughtering strays in the neighbourhood. Nope. He grabs the handle on the seat in front of mine, swings his body around, and plops himself on top of the pack of Chicken Crimpy. It crunches. Did he even notice that? I scoot away. Our upper arms are touching. I’m pressed up against the window. Can’t be helped.
We’re moving. Conversations hum but the bogans have fallen quiet. Then Aussie says, ‘There’s, ah, so much Chinese, ay?’
Oh no. I hope this isn’t heading where I think it’s heading. Aussie’s in housing commission. Aussie makes five an hour cleaning up after uni shits like me. Aussie’s got nothing to look forward to but smoking up and watching the footy. They’re just not used to the city.
‘Yeah…but…what’s wrong with being…Chinese?’ says Fitzy.
‘Ah, everything!’ Aussie shouts. They piss themselves laughing.
Dickwad. I was rooting for you. I thought these idiots might be not-racist, but I’m the dumbarse for believing in them.
‘Hey, ah…sweet and sao-wah POK,’ says Aussie, in the voice of the City Wok guy on South Park.
Fitzy laughs, ‘Oi, but listen to this…Sweet and sao-wah POK.’
Cortisone floods my shoulders, stiffens my neck. I turn my head a little, not enough for the Butcher to catch me, and glance around. As far as I can tell, us Asians outnumber the Aussies by three to one. Maybe even more. We’ve got the numbers. But people are just talking to each other or looking right ahead. No-one’s turned around to check the bogans. Maybe it’s because most of us are old, or don’t speak English, or don’t care. Maybe we’re scared to break the silence.
Air conditioner whirs. Rain drums on the train’s tin top. I wipe the steamed window with my right shoulder. Outside is black.
‘Sweet and sao-wah POK,’ Fitzy says.
I breathe in deep, chest swelling. Fuck it. I stand up. Shoulder drags against Butcher’s. Out the corner of my eye, I see him watching me, his mouth ajar. My wrists pound. I turn around, gaze sweeping the suits, students, and oldies before locking onto Aussie. He’s a fat fuck with acne scars on his bright pink Wiffle ball face. St George Illawarra frayed at the bent bill. He stares at me, his grey eyes boring into mine. Fitzy props himself on an elbow, twists around to look at me. He’s got a buzzcut and Golden Arches hairline, face long like a mountain goat. ‘You hillbilly cunts better shut the fuck up,’ I shout.
Aussie’s thin lips draw back. Yellow teeth rest on his bottom lip. Hands rise to the sides of his face. They pull back the skin next to his eyes. His head wobbles from side to side as he says in the South Park accent, ‘Aw! Sutt da fuk ap!’
I’ve got nothing. I flip them off and sit back down. Carriage falls silent. My head’s throbbing. I couldn’t have done any better. You engage with idiots, you’re the idiot. Whatever, man. I can feel the Butcher staring at me. Maybe he’ll move away. He doesn’t. Just keeps staring.
‘Ahh, yaw mudda!’ sings Aussie.
A deep male voice pipes up. ‘Youse better stop it. This train’s full of them, youse know that? And one of them’s just gotten offended. I’ve been listening to youse go on since Gosford, and I’m sick of it. It’s not funny. I’m a cop on holiday, don’t make me do my job. It’s not funny. Don’t make me start up again. Don’t encourage him.’
In a small voice, Aussie says, ‘I, ah, won’t.’
The rest of the train ride is silent, save for Fitzy squeaking every now and then, trying to get Aussie to laugh.
At Strathfield, red brick, green poles, and black asphalt, the train starts to slow. Holiday Pig gets up and heads towards the bogans. He’s got a tiny face and a huge head like William H. Macy. Aussie honks, ‘I’m ah, sorry,’ to Holiday Pig. Pig replies, ‘You’re right, mate.’
I go in the direction I came. Hold my breath by the toilets in the mezzanine.
As the train comes to a stop, someone taps on my shoulder. I turn around. It’s the Butcher. Eyes shine, fat lip hangs, sounds like he’s trying to swallow air as he says, ‘You speak Chinese?’
I shake my head and say, ‘斩你做猪肉碎、喂畀狗.’
Room for a Stranger
by Melanie Cheng
Two strangers from completely different backgrounds with seemingly little in common thrown together, it’s a common enough set up for a novel. But in Room for A Stranger, Melanie Cheng uses that premise exceptionally well to create an undeniably pleasurable read, rich in texture and feeling.
Room For A Stranger is Cheng’s debut novel, following up from her acclaimed short story collection Australia Day, the 2018 winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
The novel opens with Meg, an elderly woman, feeling vulnerable after an encounter with an intruder in her backyard. She is convinced now that ‘every black pane of glass concealed a lurking predator’ (4). With only her African grey parrot, Atticus, for company, she is drawn to a homeshare program to regain some feeling of control. So Andy, an international student from Hong Kong, moves into her suburban home.
With both ill at ease, it is almost immediately obvious that it won’t be a smooth melding of lives. Cheng deftly paints the story of how they connect and the cross-cultural and cross-generational challenges to that process. Communication, food and hygiene are just some of the points of difference that make it harder for the pair to understand each other.
The juxtaposition of chapters focusing on each protagonist’s perspective allows their different world views to be contrasted and compared. Meg faces the challenges of ageing, both physical and mental, while at the same time exploring what it means to date in later life. Andy is weighed down by the dual pressures of wanting to succeed in his studies and live up to his family’s expectations, while also hoping to gain the attention of female classmate, Kiko.
The most minute details of suburban Melbourne life give the setting extra depth, with Andy’s first observations of his new neighbourhood centring around ‘the smell of damp leaves, burnt toast and decomposing vegetables.’ (11) Through Meg’s eyes, the reader sees too how the suburb has evolved within her lifespan:
‘The suburb had changed so much since she and Jillian were kids, back when they could buy sixpence-worth of their favourite lollies- freckles and snakes- from the milk bar. Now the main street boasted an organic food store, a nail salon and a pilates studio with a terrible name : Keeping Karm. Every week Anne declared how much the suburb had evolved – as if rather than a postcode, it was some kind of living, breathing organism.’ (26)
A great attention to detail and astute observations breathe an extra level of complexity into the novel. Smell in particular plays a big role, from Andy wondering what Kiko might smell like ‘something citrusy, he imagined, something like freshly peeled mandarins’ (35) to the scent of oil, ginger and spring onions coming from the fast food restaurant where Andy meets Kanbei, who will sit Andy’s exam for the sum of $3000. At one stage, Andy, speaking to Meg, even spells it out for the reader, telling her that the part of the brain responsible for smell ‘connects directly to the memory centre.’ (94)
Cheng doesn’t shy away from racism, portraying clearly the kind of insidious everyday discrimination that is instantly recognisable for how true it rings to Australian life. An incident on a tram where a man shouts anti-Asian slurs is one such moment but ‘after three stops people were chatting again as if nothing happened. Only the Chinese students remained shaken- theirs heads hanging, their shoulders collapsed, their chests caving inwards.’ (81) As a counterpoint to the overt racism of this incident is in the overly jocular but ultimately patronising nature of comments by Patrick, Meg’s paramour, who talks to Andy about how he sees Hong Kong as having ‘done well’ and that it was ‘in large part because of the British.’ (114) Assumptions made by Meg’s friends about her new house guest also serve to highlight racial stereotypes as Anne guesses that Andy is ‘studious, I bet… They always are.’ (30)
Food plays a large role in the book, highlighting key differences in characters’ lives and experience and also acting as a touchstone for cultural backgrounds. From the pineapple upside-down cake Meg makes for Andy’s birthday to Patrick’s recount of scones at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong with rose-petal jam to Andy taking Meg for dinner in Chinatown, mentions of food usually convey something about one or more characters’ experiences and world view.
Cheng deals with complex issues with aplomb, including navigating mental health carefully. The reader learns of Andy’s mother’s own postnatal depression before gradually getting a picture of Andy’s own anxieties and the ‘exhaustion of being himself. ‘ (155). Early in the novel, Andy has a moment of being jealous of the blanket over Atticus’ cage, wishing ‘someone would smother the endless chatter of his brain with a big black sheet.’ (23). Even the appearance during a tram trip of ‘a man with leaves in his hair talking loudly to an invisible companion.’ (153), draws attention to nuances in mental state, highlighting the complexities of the very concept of mental wellbeing.
Disability too is explored, through Meg’s recollections of late sister Helen, a paraplegic since an accident as a child. Tied up in these memories is Meg’s grief which for years after Helen’s death came in ‘paroxysms of sorrow that would arrive without warning, like a strike to the head from an unseen stalker.’ (68). Through such memories of grief, a funeral of a friend and even Meg’s own ageing process, the ideas of death and loss permeate the novel. They are tied up with the very concept of what illness means, as Meg tries to ignore warning signs while Andy struggles with his own decline in health.
Room For A Stranger is a novel which deftly paints a picture of the modern Australia known by so many; a miasmas of culture and world views. It’s a page turner of a book, an engrossing, easy read, but one with many layers of flavour and depth. With its accessible style, it’s not hard to imagine it becoming a common book club pick within coming years, and hopefully one that helps readers consider a wider range of perspectives and how two people can come at a situation with very different takes depending on their personal life experiences and backgrounds.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.
Nadine Schofield is an emerging writer living in Wollongong. She is a high school English teacher helping young women find the magic of words and the power of their own story. Nadine is completing a Master of Writing at Swinburne University.
‘As I begin to write now a feeling of peacefulness comes over me as if I need not for inexplicable half-hidden reasons refrain from writing any longer… it is often not possible to write about events until they are over or sufficiently of the past, … secrets, if they are revealed completely, become mere facts, something extra to real life.’
—Elizabeth Jolley, The Vera Wright Trilogy
* * *
I was thirty-eight. We had been married for two months. And then we were going to be parents.
What to Expect When You Are Expecting (Murkoff) became our manual, our source of wisdom. In his radio voice, Colin would read aloud from the couch the weekly update of what was happening inside my body. A strange food motif runs through the week-by-week descriptions:
- Poppy seed
- Orange seed
- Large raspberry
- Medium green olive
- A prune
- A large fresh plum
Then the fruit was replaced with a heartbeat; the ‘lub-dub’, a ‘fetal symphony’ (Murkoff 181).
* * *
The Women’s Ultrasound and Imaging Clinic is behind a working construction site; a single level red-brick building with long corridors of brown carpet illuminated by exit signs at regular intervals. The smell of concrete dust is cut through with disinfectant. We find the right door to the right waiting room and, after repeating names and dates and numbers, we are called into the imaging room by a young nurse. The room is a cave, illuminated by two computer monitors and a dimmed light over the bed. The nurse is friendly, and the directions come quickly.
‘Everything off from the waist down. Up on the bed and I’ll put this over you.’ She is holding up a sheet of paper. I am embarrassed to be pulling my pants down in front of my husband and a stranger.
The purpose of the ultrasound is to date and confirm the viability of the pregnancy via a transvaginal examination. The nurse sheathes the transducer with a condom and cold gel and asks me to spread my legs. Colin and I watch the shadowy, swirling mass appearing on the monitor until the nurse ends the guessing game and we hear the baby’s heartbeat: a fast, rhythmic sound like a wobble board.
‘155 beats per minute, but that’s normal,’ she informs us before withdrawing the probe.
* * *
What did we hear? What is a heartbeat? Any medical textbook defines the human heart as an electrical system; the heartbeat is the sound of ‘atria and ventricles at work pumping blood’ (Clinic). In these terms, the human heart becomes a switch, a light that can be turned on and off. The Oxford Dictionary defines the heart as evidence of ‘one’s inmost being; the soul, the spirit’; ‘the seat of love and affection’ (“Heart”, 879).
We made a heartbeat.
We take each other’s hand and with the sun in our eyes we walk back to the car, our large white envelope in hand. We haven’t expected a photo, not so soon, and we sit in the car looking at our shadowy mass with three straight arrows pointing at it, so we know where to look. Is this going on the fridge?
‘We made a heartbeat,’ I whisper as I turn to face Colin. And there he is, a father. He has become a photograph, caught shirtless with our child curled into the wiry, grey hairs of his chest, head lowered, and eyes half closed.
* * *
At the worst moment, What to Expect When You Are Expecting becomes our doctor. There is a chapter on miscarriage. ‘Signs and symptoms can include cramping or pain, heavy vaginal bleeding, similar to a period’ (Murkoff 534). In Emergency I cannot speak. I go to the bathroom several times to check that we need to be in Emergency. Parents come with vomiting children, bruised children and bleeding children. Colin and I sit in silence.
I answer the questions of a trainee nurse about my pain and when it started and how many hours and my periods and how many pads and then Colin is asked to wait outside.
‘How many sexual partners have you had?’; ‘So, is there any chance you have AIDS?’ I don’t understand. It has been three hours. I become desperate and demanding: ‘We want to know if our baby is alive.’ An older female nurse with a bright pink stethoscope arrives with a doppler machine on a trolley.
‘Not always accurate these machines. Come back in the morning. Go to the Pre-natal unit upstairs.’ There is no comfort in the nurse’s voice, and she leaves the room quickly to attend to the next patient.
In the Pre-Natal unit the light is electric white. Everyone and everything is overexposed: the white floor tiles, the white dispensers of hand sanitiser near the white door to the white toilet. Chairs are fixed in rows facing each other. On three of these chairs are the shapes of other women waiting. I don’t look at these women and am momentarily distracted as nurses pass through the brutal light—flashes of uniform blue moving down the corridor. My eyes flick to a notice board of neatly spaced posters on breastfeeding.
Colin is beside me. His face is grey. I grip his wrist and rub at the smooth, hairless skin just to stay present. I can smell my own body: tinny, salty.
‘Should I call the Real Estate? I don’t have to explain, just give them the keys.’ Colin’s voice is soft and gentle. We are selling our apartment and it will be open for inspection at ten.
Colin meets the agent at the front of the hospital. What about the bathroom? We didn’t make the bed.
The doctor in the Pre-natal unit offers us statistics as comfort. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage (Hintz-Zambrano). We will discover we are not alone when we start talking about it with friends, the doctor tells us. How will we go about broaching this topic? We have three options and we take the first, ‘Expectant Management’, which involves letting the body expel the ‘baby’ naturally (“Treating miscarriage”).
In the third-floor apartment we are about to sell, I sit on the toilet with our ‘recognisable embryo’ on a piece of toilet paper in my hand.
I don’t know what to do.
Our baby goes in the bin.
* * *
There is a frangipani tree in the front garden of our new Miner’s cottage home. Our neighbours have a frangipani tree too, and there is an old, large one at the front gate of the college where I teach. Staff enjoy morning tea before the holidays in its shade; pink flowers bruised and browning on the ground. The first summer in our house the neighbours’ frangipani tree buds and blossoms. Ours doesn’t. We string Christmas lights among the waxy leaves and in the late spring of the following year my aging mother snaps off a branch declaring it ‘dead’. The frangipani tree becomes a portent. When the tree flowers we will have a family. This is pathetic.
On the last day of the school year, all the staff sit around a cross marked out on the floor with tealights. The Dean begins something of a homily about the Journey of the Magi: three Oriental Astrologers who place faith in a baby above science and reason. At the end of the day, I drive home past the Anglican Church: ‘Be filled with Hope this Christmas.’
* * *
Colin and I attend our second appointment with a fertility specialist. The IVF website claims such specialists are ‘dedicated to giving you the best possible chance of having a baby using the most advanced science’ (Australia). We have been undertaking the routine procedures associated with ovulation tracking for three months. In the waiting room, I stare at the Anne Geddes photograph of a baby curled asleep on top of a pumpkin, and another, in black and white, of age-spotted hands cradling a baby’s head. On the coffee table are home decorating magazines and a small wooden nativity scene.
T.S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ is in my head. The poem has new meaning:
‘A hard time we had of it…
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly…
… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?…
This Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death’ (Eliot 95).
* * *
The fertility doctor is a cowboy. Reclining in his chair with shoes off, it’s clear that he does not remember us. I am weighed and then there are the anecdotes and jokes about penises.
‘He had an erection, so I knew the spine was broken’; ‘No good being Errol Flynn unless you find a woman who can accommodate.’
I feel hot and irritated but I sit and smile because Colin and I need him. He talks about what he has done and what he is going to do; we need to keep going with another three months of tracking and then, if necessary, we will begin IVF. He asks us questions about tubal flushing and spermatocytes, and we look like children who missed out on sex education. Colin thanks him on our way out.
‘Don’t thank me until I get you pregnant,’ he replies with a grin.
On the first day of my menstrual cycle I call the doctor’s room. The receptionist takes a credit card payment and issues paperwork for an internal scan and blood tests. I am to take pre-natal supplements, an iron supplement and consume one cup of cream per day to gain five kilograms.
Then there are latex gloves. Condoms. Cold gel. Modesty blanket. Follicles counted. The pathologist, a woman close to retirement with frizzy hair, talks and talks about her grandson’s dyslexia. One day there is another pathologist, angular, no fuss. I arrive too late for the courier. Don’t I know what I’m doing?
We host Colin’s goddaughter, Emily. She is on holiday from Scotland during her university break. Emily watches me beneath her thick eyebrows and dark hair, seemingly unexcited by suggestions to eat out or visit the lighthouse. She mentions Ryan Gosling, so we drive into town to see La La Land, which she has promised to see with her mother. The fertility nurse sends a text message during the credits:
My dear you are surging
big time!! Lots of
hormones, LH 43 and
oestrogen 1689 so
ovulating this 24 hours
or so. Intercourse
tonight and tomorrow to
make the most of it!
Blood test next Thursday for
The directive acts like a contraceptive. I worry and hide the nurse’s message from Colin, foolishly hoping that wearing the right lingerie and dimming the lights will be enough to get us in the mood. Sex is no longer love, or even pleasure, but the pressure to time intercourse and conceive. This proves to be too much for us and I accuse Colin of not loving me enough; he is hurt and stops talking for the rest of the night.
Like Eliot’s Magi, the death of our old ways is cracking my heart. Celebrating New Year’s Eve seems too pointless. We stay home and cook steaks on the barbeque, but the limes stay in the fruit bowl. We can’t be bothered making mojitos, our ritual since we were married.
Ariel Levy, in 2013 her travel piece for The New Yorker, ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’, evokes the wretchedness of losing a child while based in Ulaanbaatar. She likens motherhood to ‘black magic’ and her loss leaves her with a ‘dark hurt’ that is primal. The final image of the writer is of a ‘wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone’ (Levy). Levy’s 2017 memoir The Rules Do Not Apply further explores the writer’s disorientation after her miscarriage. Her sense of guilt is palpable as she questions whether she had asked too much of life and been punished for her pride.
I am about to turn forty. There will be a big cake in the teacher’s staff room that won’t get eaten; next to it a sign, ‘Happy Birthday Nadine’. Colin and I have cancelled the IVF appointment. We are putting faith in the life force, since speaking of God has always been abstract and non-committal. It is the heartbeat that haunts me most. What have we lost? What makes the thought of being childless so difficult to accept? It is a schizophrenic headspace. There are websites, blogs and counselling services. There is Colin’s optimism in the face of statistics on IVF success rates for couples our age; a very low 6%. In a Four Corners program, ‘The Baby Business’, a childless woman who has undergone fertility treatment claims that IVF specialists do little more than ‘sell hope’ (Dingle). An article in The Conversation suggests that 80% of women forty-five years and over who bear a child have healthy pregnancies, and success rates with IVF increase with the use of a donor egg (Wilkinson). there are women in the public sphere and part of my micro-world who have given birth after forty.
* * *
Our Sunday lunch is not much. Salad.
‘Here is that article by Annabel that I was telling you about.’ Colin passes the iPad to me.
Annabel Crabb has written a commentary piece for The Sydney Morning Herald: ‘A Womb with a View Today’. The article is ‘a salute to the womb’ both as a source of life and a political space. Crabb refers to a public interview with Gladys Berejiklian, the Premier of NSW, that highlights how the role of female politicians is scrutinised and then trivialised dependent upon whether they have children. But it is Crabb’s ‘salute’ to the female body’s power to create life that defeats me: ‘This thing is the Thermomix of the human body. It can make everything from spleens to eyelashes; imagine that! Mine has made three entire human beings…’ I find her use of analogy simplistic and inaccurate; that it needs tempering with a complex discourse around motherhood.
Crabb is right to celebrate the power of the female body to produce life; it is one capacity that women will always have despite the other inequities we fight as a result of gender, and while celebrated journalists and social commentators like Crabb are quick to defend women who choose not to have a child, it is dangerous to perpetuate a myth around choice that does not include the reality of no choice, the frequency of miscarriage or failed IVF. It is tempting to run with Crabb’s analogy here and point out that a woman’s Thermomix might go on the blink. If your womb is not a magical machine capable of making human beings, if you are barren, then your place within the womanhood becomes tenuous.
Medical sociologists like Arthur Greil point to qualitative and quantitative research to suggest that infertility is a condition shaped by sociocultural context and not simply a medical condition that may or may not have psychological consequences. According to Greil, the perceptions of an infertile couple and those around them are understood to be ‘the product of social definitions’; couples attending appointments with specialists do not define themselves as ‘infertile’ but rather as individuals who wish to fulfil the social role of parenting. This is at odds with the medicalisation of infertility.
If the desired state of parenthood is a social construct, then filling this role ensures belonging to a group or community. The shared experience of parenting with peers allows participation in dialogue around common life experiences and bonding between adults who come together for family activities.
My filing cabinet in the teachers’ staffroom has been decorated with children’s drawings. Jane, a friend and fellow English teacher, has left them there after a visit from her daughter Molly. Jane has long, raven black hair and belly dances on the weekend. We talk about TV dramas and our frustrations as teachers, but not our private lives.
Last week Jane arrived with a paddle pop stick decorated with silver glitter and a pink feather pinned to her blouse: a gift from Molly for the World’s Best Mum. The other women in the staffroom quickly gathered to swap Mother’s Day stories, and Leah, the stylish Art teacher, produced a bag of toddler dresses for Jane.
Leah is hosting a birthday party for her son on the weekend and in a bubbly voice reminds everyone to arrive at ten on Sunday for the clown. I haven’t been invited. If there is no moral shame around being childless, there is still a silence.
* * *
I had called Mum from the waiting room outside the Pre-Natal Unit at the hospital: ‘We were going to have a baby and now we’re not.’
I do not remember the hugs we received as we entered the door of her unit, only that my mother made us toast with too much butter. There was strawberry jam if we wanted it. These were the practical needs of the day.
‘I thought you were. You just looked a bit plumper in the face.’ My mother enjoyed her toast and tea. ‘Oh well. It just wasn’t meant to be.’
The conversation was ended. There was nothing we could do but get on.
I have returned to my mother’s doorstep many times since the miscarriage and our subsequent failed attempts to start a family. She is not the source of comfort I often want and need but rather a woman of her generation: stoic and determined to make the most of what she has. She quickly imparts wise directives on ‘cheering up’ and then diverts my attention with updates on the pot plants in her courtyard.
Helen Garner, in Everywhere I Look, writes about her relationship with her mother, also a person of resilience who survived the hardships of World War II and the extraction of all her teeth at once. Garner’s respect and deep affection for her mother is evident in the chapter ‘Dreams of Her real Self’; at one moment the narration is broken with a single line, ‘Oh, if only she would walk in here now’ (Garner 100). Is the longing to be a mother in part a desire to be the source of comfort, or wisdom, or a role model of resilience, for another?
As I watch my mother feed parrots on the back doorstep and plan her week around cooking a corned beef, I feel a pain behind my eyes and a clamp around my throat. If only I could lay my head on her breast and feel peace. At home, the coffee table is littered with maps of Dublin City and Lonely Planet editions of road trips in Europe. On another table, in another room, is a referral to a new fertility specialist.
Statistics and medicine aside, there is a bigger moral quandary here. Not necessarily religious but a theological concern with the purpose of life. What can be the purpose of our lives? How to accept that we might not take a place in the line of ‘women bearing / women’, as in Gwen Harwood’s poem (“Mother Who Gave Me Life”, 170)—or parents bearing children? Acceptance and comfort do not come from academic research into the treatment of infertility or the social construct of parenthood.
I find myself reading blog posts of motherless women—websites dedicated to ‘Aunt’s Day’—but it is an article written by Lawrence Rifkin for the Scientific American that has stayed with me. Rifkin argues that the purpose of life cannot be reduced to the ‘making of babies’; that to do so is ‘an affront to human dignity’. The purpose of each life is to experience joy, relationships, and accomplishments. If we can add to the meaning of the life of another or improve the planet in some way, then all the better. It is difficult to disagree with Rifkin’s final statement: ‘human meanings are worthwhile regardless of long-term, universal, final consequences, because they are meaningful now.’ Here is comfort, a validation.
Holding onto hope in the life force or seeking out another fertility specialist is no longer necessary if the purpose of our lives is simply to live—even if that does mean getting on with an ache in my heart. This is where philosophy serves its purpose; when the twists and turns of life become inexplicable, the emotions too big, and we don’t understand.
Greil, Arthur et al. “The Social Construction of Infertility.” Sociology Compass, vol. 5, issue 8, 2011, pp. 736-746. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2011.00397.x
Greil, Arthur et al. “The experience of infertility: A review of recent literature.” Sociology of Health & Illness, vol. 32, issue 1, 2010, pp. 140-162. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9566.2009.01213.x
IVF Australia. “Fertility treatments.” IVF Australia, https://www.ivf.com.au/treatments
Cleveland Clinic. “The heart’s electrical system.” Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17064-heart-beat
Crabb, A. “A Womb with a View Today.” The Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax, 28 January 2017, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/a-womb-with-a-view-today-20170127-gu037h.htm.
Dingle, Sarah. “The Baby Business.” Four Corners, ABC, 30 May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2016/05/30/4469652.htm
Eliot, TS. The Penguin Poets – T. S. Eliot: A selection by the author, Harmondsworth: Pengun, 1951.
Garner, Helen. Everywhere I Look, Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2016.
Harwood, Gwen. “Mother Who Gave Me Life.” Gwen Harwood: Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 2001, pp. 170-71.“Heart”. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Hintz-Zambrano, Katie. “Miscarriage Stories: 10 Women Share Their Loss.” MOTHER, 31 August 2015, http://www.mothermag.com/miscarriage-stories/
“Treating Miscarriage.” The Royal Women’s Hospital, https://www.thewomens.org.au/health-information/pregnancy-and-birth/pregnancy-problems/early-pregnancy-problems/treating-miscarriage/
Levy, Ariel. “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” The New Yorker, 18 November 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/11/18/thanksgiving-in-mongolia
Levy. Ariel. The Rules Do Not Apply. London: Fleet, 2017.
Murkoff, Heidi. What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Sydney: HarperCollins, 2009.
Rifkin, Lawrence. “Is the Meaning of Life to Make Babies?” The Scientific American, 24 March 2013, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/is-the-meaning-of-your-life-to-make-babies/
Wilkinson, Dominic. “Four Myths about IVF in Older Women.” The Conversation, 20 October 2016, https://theconversation.com/four-myths-about-ivf-in-older-women-67394
Ed. Alison Whittaker
Reviewed by HARRY GODDARD
Alison Whittaker begins her foreword to the 2019 UTS Writers’ Anthology with an image of infinite threads converging ‘through some tiny waterways and floodplains and mudflats’ (p.vii). She traces these pathways through the soles of our shoes as they melt onto a road, up through our tongues as ice disintegrates from body heat, and onto a train as we are carried deeper into the country of writing. As readers, we can escape to somewhere less sweltering.
‘Breath defies us to appreciate the scale of it all,’ (p.viii), Whittaker says, trying to encapsulate our relationship with the ecological systems that we have abandoned – the ones that are fast abandoning us. The 33rd UTS Writers’ Anthology was developed in early 2019, during one of the hottest summers in Australian history.
In Infinite Threads, climate anxiety is linked with a desperate, profound hope, the courage to imagine something better, and the strength to argue on behalf of these possibilities. These are the rivulets that make up this collection: 29 works of fiction, essay, poetry and playwriting from current UTS students and the student-led team that collated and edited them.
Helen Meany’s ‘The Stars, Millie’, begins in the dark: ‘Proper dark. Safe Dark. The sort of dark you could hide in forever’ (p.1). A single mother, with her kid asleep in the back seat, cleans animal corpses from the side of the Hume Highway. Distinctly Australian Gothic, the rotting creatures reek of guilt, questioning the isolation she’s built for herself and her child. The story hints at past abuse when the protagonist mentions the woman who worked the job before her: ‘Her ex had tracked her down, somehow, so she just dropped everything and left.’ (p.3). But she focuses on the next day of school, and latches onto moments of security. She cleans snot off her daughter’s nose without waking her.
The theme of abuse recurs in Christine Afoa’s ‘Halfling’, a story about a young woman coming to terms with her life in Sydney while processing a disconnection from her Samoan heritage. We are taken into a moment of violence, this time from the perspective of a daughter: ‘Mum’s bedroom door slams shut and I hear her voice, dulled by his shouting. Like
vinegar on oil’ (p.35).The two stories are linked: motherhood and its apprentice, daughterhood, stand against abuse as generational stages of survival.
Many stories focus on motherhood in its most physically intimate stages, right down to the sensations and transformations of pregnancy. In Verity Borthwick’s ‘Chrysalis’, motherhood becomes a metonym for hope. The story charts a week-by-week account of a mother’s pregnancy as she witnesses the inverse process of a friend fighting cancer – of dying, while life begins. For the tiniest moment three lives are held in a balance: ‘Much later, when we visit her in the hospital and she is in too much pain to hold him, I lay him on the bed beside her.’ (pp.212-213).
Hope is challenged by uncertainty in Cameron Stewart’s ‘Deep Valley, Twinkling Lights’. In a couple’s bedroom, late at night, a void grows between two people who are trying to conceive. There is a deep-seated fear within the relationship, a niggling doubt at the back of their minds, compounded by the constant presence of paralysing backache: ‘Any wrong movement delivers jolting pain, and Lucia has to hold on grimly until something unclamps to release her from the agony.’ (p.176). Perhaps it’s just ‘cold-feet’, but Stewart plants the seeds of doubt and leaves the reader speculating.
Our fears for the future – the manifestation of our interlinked hopes and anxieties – forms the core of Infinite Threads’ sensed reality. Will we ever be good enough? In Benjamin Lee’s ‘Breaking Point’, within the claustrophobic din of a plastics factory, a young woman operates the same machine where her mother worked herself to death. ‘There are still some instructions on it in her handwriting, basic operations, warnings.’ (p.245).These shadows of connection are the only things guiding her – hands moving in the same patterns, bodies giving in to the same pressures while a ruthless production schedule looms overhead.
Motherhood reflects our connection with nature; our bodies are changing, our rivers are drying. Sydney Khoo’s poem ‘Bak Kut Teh’, perhaps recalling the spare rib soup of a childhood past, renders this relationship into intensely personal expression. Khoo’s writing is confidently expressed, animalistic and vulnerable. It contains the same echoes of loneliness as ‘Breaking Point’, with roots reaching backwards into time:
“You are a sapling
As your mother was once
She planted you on the same earth
In a different time
This rain will taste different
In your new veins”
Veins, extending through ourselves and into the lives of others, into the knowledge of the past and burden of the future, are a perfect representation of the stories contained in this anthology. Khoo encapsulates this in their poetry, which was an absolute pleasure to read.
The world our children will inherit has been put into question; our disconnection with ecology makes it difficult to justify bringing ‘new life’ into this world. In Catherine Mah’s ‘The Towers’, childhood innocence is set against an uncaring, irradiated backdrop. Mah’s writing depicts a flicker of imagination lost against a barren, unfeeling setting – a quiet, unseen tragedy.
Zerene Joy Catacutan’s ‘Gayuma’, set in Intramuros, Manila, is a similar examination of loss, in which a humble, personal tragedy – the loss of a daughter – is overshadowed by the looming dread of World War II. As war erupts, a family’s trauma is forgotten. Both ‘Gayuma’ and ‘The Towers’ end with despair – not with exaggerated, drawn out darkness, but blunt, chilling understatement.
Judi Morison’s ‘Coast Line Dreaming’, takes a different path, arguing for resilience over despair. On the South Coast of New South Wales, a sister returns to her hometown – skipping uni classes she can’t afford to miss – after her brother is caught driving under the influence of ice. In Morison’s story, isolation doesn’t come from a fear or misunderstanding of the land, but from a sense of disconnection within it. ‘Not sure who my mob is, bruz. You know how it is’ (p.15). But this loneliness is countered by the warmth of community, a spark of hope, a connection and a possible romance. The characters in Infinite Threads find strength in small things.
A sense of resilience is shared in Lachlan Parry’s ‘Unwritten, Undelivered, Unopened’ – a series of epistolary pieces which discuss our bodies and the control placed upon them by external factors. A mother writes to her long-distant child, refusing to acknowledge their gender identity; a survivor writes to their sexual abuser, refusing to forget; and a teenager writes to his biological father – he’s dating an older man and everyone says it’s because of a missing ‘father figure’. The pieces can be brutal and manipulative in the way that people can be when they are close to you: ‘I miss my baby boy. I miss the little man who would win every soccer game.’ (p.63) But they end in defiance, with a moving declaration of resistance and pride.
Erica Wheadon’s ‘The Gospel of Kai’, is set against a call towards a supposed utopia, where those who fit into the patriarchal designations of society can expect to survive, if only to be subjugated. A telling allegory that echoes current, online trends of renouncing or mocking feminism. The story takes a firm stand, sets itself down in tribute to women who live on the outside of mainstream gender roles.
Chloe Michele’s ‘Ways to Exist in Fields out of Reach’ is an insightful personal essay that investigates the expectations of Sydney’s class culture while taking us through the song titles of a Violent Femmes tape. Michele illustrates how it feels to step beyond what is expected of you, to exist in a third space beyond what you know and where you came from. It is a portrait of the gratitude and guilt attached to our parents, and a scathing critique of Sydney’s insidious, segregated cultures.
An amazing aspect of these stories, and a testament to the skill of their writers, is how they give us room to examine ourselves in the spaces outside of a relentless neoliberal society. We can witness the interactions of locally famous weirdos, their rituals, their overarching reliance on gambling and beer. We see sexism, addiction, and strangely enough, a desire for community. This is exemplified in Susie Newton’s ‘Robertson Inn’, which brings us to a pub where lonely people gather away from family and work. From the point of view of someone working behind the bar, cleaning the ashtrays and turning on the TVs in the TAB, we can observe the underlying insecurities of Australian culture.
By examining these physical locations we can begin to process our losses. Luka Skandle’s ‘Gumbramorra Pond’ alternates between a history of Sydney’s colonial heritage and a contemporary experience of a friend dying from cancer. ‘It changed the course of our lives, the pathways of our friendships, the ways we look back and forward to what must come’ (p.49.) Skandle’s perfectly balanced writing examines the trajectory of human lives, how the spaces around us hold our tragedies and our potential.
Similarly, Jane Sharman’s ‘Darryl of the Sea’, a biographical piece, portrays a man dealing with his loss in a peculiar way: living out of the back of his van after relinquishing various properties to a series of ex-wives. He has found a life by the sea, surfing and doing odd jobs around the Northern Beaches. The piece is a reassuring image of a kind, gentle figure. Someone we can relate to, laugh with. As Darryl says, ‘We create the world we live in,’ (p.220), so perhaps we should lighten up.
It is curious to think that these stories share so many similarities. There was no specific call out to fit a particular theme, and the student editors did not assemble Infinite Threads to fit a rubric. Instead, each piece was chosen based on their individual strengths.
But these shared meanings are more than coincidental. The stories are underpinned by central questions about our world’s insecurities: motherhood, and the self-doubt and fragile hope that it represents; abuse and domestic violence, how families – women across generations – help each other survive.
Whittaker ends her foreword with an image of ‘a stranger on the train with you to somewhere with a cool breeze’ (p.ix). We are connected to this stranger, to each other, through our melting shoes, through the rivulets within the soil, and into the ocean of our collected doubts.
HARRY GODDARD is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in Speculative Australian Gothic (SPAG) short fiction. He has written for Going Down Swinging, Seizure Online, and previous editions of the UTS Writers’ Anthology. .
Crow College: New and Selected Poems
Reviewed by ROSE LUCAS
This year, Giramondo has released a new selection of the poems of Emma Lew. An notable poet in the Australian poetry scene for over twenty years now, this edition includes poems from Lew’s two previous collections, The Wild Reply (1997) and Anything the Landlord Touches (2003). Both these collections made an impact: The Wild Reply won the Mary Gilmore award and The Age Poetry Book of the Year in 1998; Anything the Landlord Touches was the Victorian Premier’s Prize winner as well as the Judith Wright Calanthe Prize for poetry in 2003. To be able to revisit some of the key poems from these collections is both to keep them alive within the fabric of Australian letters and to introduce them to new readers. These previously published poems are supplemented by a treasure trove of new poems – some of which were also published in Vagabond’s Rare Object Series, Luminous Alias (2013) – which demonstrate both continuities and new directions in the work of this influential poet.
As Bella Li notes in the Introduction, Lew’s poetry, in all its moods and stylistic manifestations, takes us to places of strangeness; her poems tend to be inflected with uncertainty, refusal of resolution, the hauntings of people, places, feelings and ideas which are only traces, wisps of possibility. This means that a reading of Lew’s poetry can be a vertiginous experience, a journey of moments of beauty but also profound discomfort. Lew’s work foregrounds poetry’s ability to evoke and to suggest – rather than to pin down – and in so doing, to take the reader on unexpected paths of sensation. In the poem ‘Holes and Stars, for example, we are taken into a space where an interior world, finely attenuated, intersects only tangentially with the chimera of an external world:
I just got my memory back.
Few loons and I would live
in a corner at the airport,
not for the sequence
but the agony we had to be,
running off with the money
and faking our own deaths.
Will technology make me remote?
I don’t know where I am,
I never know what’s going to happen.
Alongside the speaking voice in the poem, the reader is led to inhabit this knife-edge of perception, this dizzying perspective of a self on the brink of dissociation from itself, yet still able to prise open windows of insight.
Lew makes use of mythic tropes – again, not specifying, but evoking. A poem such as ‘The Wild Reply’ provides a different and unsettling use of the image and associations of fire, for example, with its capacity to devour as well as illumine and maybe even provide a segue from the prosaic to the extraordinary, even the explosive:
I must not touch fire
Myth fire, adder’s fire
Sensual and deaf
The deep, swift fire
The smelting and the forging
I have flame and lack nothing
Beast in my footsteps
Light up, burn
This array of poems also shows Lew’s technical range. Her work utilises a range of stanza formations and groupings to pull the reader through different rhythms and patterns of meaning, different clusters of emphasis and image. As well as in the examples above, this extends to the prose poem form, as in a poem such as ‘Bounty,’ where uncertainties of love are expressed in a claustrophobia of line and seasickness:
These precious months have been like the withered rose. I say to myself that I am now suffering. Absence binds us, and in the fallow badinage of a ship’s deck, my former calm and piety are returning. O my darling, the rigging swarms. Help me out of this blind life. The shouts of gulls, the groping reefs…
‘Anything the Landlord Touches’ makes use of the form of the pantoum, where lines are repeated and varied, as one four-line stanza blends into the next – almost a signature style for Lew’s work. The circularity of this form, with its seasickness of echo and variation, the rise and ebb of different and same, both provides a kind of ballast in the wash of feeling and imagery as well as echoing the tenuousness, the almost-ghostliness of what is present, subsides, returns – only to slip away again:
I break things because I am afraid and I spend my time repairing
It’s almost the expression of love
I found these beautiful machines abandoned here
Sometimes there is nothing to inherit
It’s almost the expression of love
To hunt, to seduce, to deal with a stone
Sometimes there is nothing to inherit
Footprints on the path that leads to the house
The ‘New Poems’ continue the style and mood of the earlier collection, while perhaps becoming somewhat bleaker in tone. The ambience created by these poems remains at an edge of external threat and a fear of an internal collapse of meaning. Although the ‘speaker’ of the poems is not usually identified, a form of dramatic monologue often takes us – glancingly – into someone’s life, someone’s particular story. In ‘A Crushing Spring,’ for instance, the poem provides an unsettling movement from attempts at objective perspective to interior confusion and suffering:
People pity me for marrying a blind man,
but I possess a small oval face.
We travel in the carriage with the ordinary passengers.
Switzerland, so the water is very clean.
I behave like an angel when he stumbles in the garden.
The summerhouse is on fire.
Do you see how it is, how I am bound here?
I feel so perfectly sure the final blow has been struck.
Similarly, without explicitly naming, ‘Freight’ suggests the Nazi movement of people like inanimate cargo, ‘Relocated to the east/in autumn, but is that so important?’ (p. 97). The technique allows us to inhabit a kind of protracted present experience with the speaker in the poem, a view from the train – before it has a name, a history, a moral judgement: ‘The forest runs along the border…And/the moon is in the heavens,/fighting to get free when held.’
Once again the pantoum form is used in a number of poems to evoke a cycling which has a number of effects: it stitches a kind of structure into what might otherwise be an emotional maelstrom, while also enacting a process of repetition and return which haunts and disrupts. In ‘Poem’ (p.100) for example, while the opening and final line might suggest some kind of containment or border around the problem– ‘Adultery fucks a family up as much as poverty’ – the recurrent lines signal pain’s ongoing disruptions:’That’s a lot of hatred from a mother,’ ‘It was like an acid eating into me, ‘Can’t stop love from doing its damage,’. Or in ‘Avalanches’ (p. 114), the line ‘I travelled like a curse’ is played across a dreary and icy landscape of violence and threat, again embodying a fearful overlapping in internal and external malaise.
While individual poems can evoke a luminosity of image or feeling, Lew’s is in general not an easy poetic. It is however a courageous one, one willing to explore beyond more straightforward limits of inside and outside, what makes meaning and how meaning might collapse in strings of dissociated feeling and observation, forcing us to consider the ways in which we might ‘travel like a curse’ across the terrain of our lives as well as the ways in which the articulation of our experiences and the building of the poetic line might also construct the possibility of connection.
ROSE LUCAS is a Melbourne poet and academic at Victoria University. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (UWAP 2013) won the Mary Gilmore award; her second collection, Unexpected Clearing was also published by UWAP in 2016. She is currently completing her third collection, This Shuttered Eye.
JZ Ting is an Asian-Australian geek, lawyer, and writer. She has lived on four continents but stays for Sydney’s beaches where she pretends to be a mermaid. Her fiction has appeared in Pencilled In literary magazine and been performed at Subbed In events, and she tweets online @ting_jz.
Grandma dies in the best way possible: peacefully, in her garden chair, under sunny Sydney skies. She fell asleep, the nurses say, first to my father who arrives from work, then my mother, then me. She fell asleep and didn’t wake up. The best way to go.
They don’t tell us that she was alone, but we know anyway. She was alone each time we visited, a tiny, white-haired Malaysian-Chinese lady with broken English surrounded by white-haired, white Australians who drink English with their breakfast teas. The landscapes are English too, all roses and neatly trimmed hedges politely perplexed by the papaya my father planted, a poor substitute for the majestic rambutans Grandma left behind. The retirement village website trumpeted gardening as a resident perk. It didn’t mention multicultural staff.
She died in her sleep, my parents say, reaching across oceans to aunts and uncles, cousins and classmates, Grandma’s friends from church. They spin the message into Mandarin and Foochow like silver into gold I cannot touch, though my parents spill enough of it in fights. The coins I scavenged were never enough to spend with Grandma, so instead I bartered: smiles, school marks, my stomach for the fruits and soups she prepared just for me. A few hours every month to pay off my guilt. The funeral will be in Sydney. We hope you can make it, but understand if it’s too far.
Planes converge while Grandma waits in a local morgue. To me her loss is soft and nebulous, an abstraction I try to map out in Sydney streets. They send me home where arguments are silenced, bankrupted by my father’s grief, while my mother rations out affection in rice and steaming bak kuh teh. She tells me how when her grandfather died, the entire family ate fresh durians beside his open coffin which took pride of place in the living room for the village to pay respects. That night, I dream of Grandma’s ghost lost alone in the dark.
Thank you for coming, we say to people filing past. It’s sad but not unexpected, and she was cared for to the end.
Grandma lies beneath a bouquet of banksias and winter skies. The small congregation sings in English and Mandarin as photos flash, and only now do I begin to know her: family portraits, a bride to the grandfather I never met, a church group sweating in the tropic heat. There’s a photo of her posing with my father, startlingly young, in a tiny Malaysian airport, and another holding infant me. One black-and-white picture of a tall young woman in a floral qipao, her smile proud and bright, hands full of furry rambutans plucked from her trees.
Did she know? When she gave her son a one-way ticket and suitcase of books, did she realise what she was sacrificing? Would it have been kinder for my father to leave her in her village, alone but at home, with family reunions once a year? What is it like to migrate when you’re so old, and die in a foreign land?
I don’t know. I couldn’t afford to ask.
Grandma dies and we say farewell. I hold my father’s shaking hand telling myself that Sydney’s earth is as dark as Malaysia’s earth, that the one sun shines on both, and rain falls all the same. Yet the wind that blows between us is cold, scented with eucalypts fresh as a wound, and sour like regret.
Jordon Conway is an Irish/Australian writer who lives on the east coast of Tasmania. He is a professional landscaper with a background in fabrication, construction and waste management. He has a BFA from the University of Tasmania. His stories draw from his experiences growing up in suburban Brisbane and concern the conditions of working-class life in Australia.
An April Day in March
At 30 years old, in an inclement month of 1981, the now old man purchased a small suburban block of land and began building a two-story house of brick and reinforced concrete. The construction was planned and executed in an intuitive and flawed order, the labour of an impatient and impractical mind.
By the eighth year of construction, it became clear that extensive repairs were needed, and each year following the idea settled deeper that there may be no end to the renovating and repairing of his flawed handiwork. No matter how well he tried to time it, plan it, visualize the exploded view, the reverse engineering necessary to not be lightless, stove-less or without heat and water, it was regularly so. Now in his later life, it became necessary to scale back continuous maintenance and except the fate and limited comforts of his imperfect labours.
The house had become the total of everything he’d achieved in his life. His self-worth waned and pitched with the structure and his back bent like an overburdened rafter as he wound down after a lifetime of struggling with insubstantial endeavours.
From habit, he moved through the house and garden cataloguing the things that needed attention, the flaws and degraded underpinnings. To divert his attention from this irredeemable list and to gain a degree of self-assurance he’d seek out small successes. He’d enjoy switching on the lights over the kitchen countertop to study its polished surface. With his coarse hands gently brushing over it he’d decide that a small triumph was made and the fine grain he devotedly drew out in the wood impressed him and filled him with pride. The cement sheet and wood dust had gone. On the surface of his palm was the grey dust of his skin and the tiny dark fibres of his clothes.
Letting go of needing to maintain the house didn’t come naturally but with practice, over time, what he began to feel wasn’t complete indifference or acceptance but short reprieves. He couldn’t entirely allow that part of the wall he neglected to score properly abandon his mind completely. The inadequately keyed mortar allowed the render to fall away in chunks. But It didn’t occupy him quiet so much or fill him with self-loathing as it once did. The absence of a damp course, a thin inexpensive strip of thin plastic that would have stopped the rising damp, didn’t shame and depress him as much. He could somewhat live with the linoleum curling at its edges around the laundry sink and he drew less from that well of anxiety bore from a lifetime of living up to a standard exceeding his ability.
With this new-found capacity he was lately surprised by the moments he found himself moving back and forth across the unevenly polished wood floor lost in daydreaming and remembering and he found himself sleeping more regularly and restfully. His fingers curled up in his lap formed a grip as though around a brick as he dozed or watched the T.V turned low slumped in his worn leather Morris chair. His firebox rumbling and clicking, expanding and contracting in the cool night air. Often, he’d shuffle off to bed just before dawn.
On one such morning, he stopped at his bedroom window and watched a light rain drift across an erratic sunrise. A young boy caught his eye in the neighbouring back yard. The yard has for years been cluttered and overgrown, an eyesore. Long ago landscaped with dreary slate, crushed limestone and Grey Basalt rock. Pine retaining walls twisted by the weight of poor drainage. Spruces haphazard growth among thick clumps of yellowish agapanthus. The gravel walkway had gone to Titch and Arum lilies. There’d been digs on several occasions over a week before, scrapping back the earth with an excavator and making piles, but it had been quiet since then. The machines engine hood had been left open exposing its vulnerable blue grease coloured core to the weather.
The boy dragged a heavy plastic box across the yard to a long-dry cement pond in the corner near the old man’s fence a few meters from where he stood watching. The pond was bordered with a Basalt wall a half meter high. The boy seemed to be working on his own and after crossing the yard again, and spending some time unravelling a tangled extension cord, he opened the box and pulled out a heavy, grey Jackhammer.
The old man himself worked for many years in construction and landscaping and remembered the bittersweet experience of working alone. The freedom to run his own day, to make and fix his mistakes without scrutiny. But that was all tempered by wanting others to see his invisible efforts. A cut made through an impeding rock to expose its mass deep in the ground, then smashed apart with a Jackhammer and reburied was an effort concealed in the earth forever. A broken pipe he’d dug out repaired and buried again was delicate Invisible labour interred unless he told a co-worker about it. But the old man saw a contradiction in his efforts to not care what his co-workers thought while attempting to prove himself to them. To mention his hidden efforts, to diminish self-effacement, would expose to them his secret desire for approval.
As the old man watched the boy, he remembered unfurling tangled power cables every cold morning of winter and teasing out the knots in the stiffened rubber. Moving tediously back and forth through ankle-deep mud, mixing cement with sodden road base day after day. He remembered as those weeks and years progressed reaching lower and deeper to find the strength to keep going until he felt as hollowed and immovable as a tree stump. Every paycheck was sunk into debts and house repairs preventing any opportunity to step away. And all the small failures at work inhibited his labours at home, keeping him firmly rooted on-site as though ceaselessly stuck in that numbing slush of mud, even in his dreams at night. Some weeks he prayed for injury and a long convalescence. He never saw things progressing and every task was equally tedious right up till the last effort of a long and difficult project. At the completion of a project, his co-workers invariably agree it felt like “it would never end”, but to him, there was never an end and each week, month or year was equally spiritually wasted. With the pressures of work the progress he made on the house, drawn-out over weekends and late evenings was also too slow to perceive any triumph. It seemed to grow imperceptibly like a dark cloud appearing in a clear sky.
He watched the boy pissing against a tree and he wondered if he felt he was being observed. The old man was always painfully shy around other men and felt constantly observed. He’d held in his piss all day if he had too. He’d nudge himself into bushes or jump a fence into a neighbouring yard to find trees or shrubs to conceal himself. His co-workers never went to these lengths, they watched curiously his efforts to cover himself. He understood that being devoid of this nervousness was a great privilege.
He’s watched now, with a touch of envy, the boy pissing against a tree in the far corner of the yard not troubling to conceal himself.
In his kitchen, the cornices, which hid the uneven cut of cement sheet edges, had long, dark hairline cracks where they no longer met the wall. Sometimes those cracks occupied his mind all day. He’d follow them around the well-lit house at night, into every corner where they met. To clear his mind of these fixations he’d carry them down to the end of the street. He’d take them where the street lights end. Where the trees are gold and reach into the pitch-dark bushland. Where the cold galvanized handrails reminded him of the clicking of boot studs where he’d jump the fence and run along the bitumen around the soccer pitch, slipping on the hard-black surface. Where he’d sit on a cold thickly painted wood bench resting and breathing heavily. He’d be reminded of his boot mud drying to dust on the slate entranceway his father laid in a rental house they couldn’t keep. Limping from his painfully blistered feet, the pain of growing out of boots his parents couldn’t afford to replace. The agony of ingrown toenails and groin strain when he quietly wept on his bedroom floor three days a week after training. After home games he’d kicked a ball against the clubhouse wall under a street light, alternating left to right to strengthen his legs evenly. His father drank in the clubhouse and spoke to the other boys’ fathers more than he ever spoke to him. He drove an XC Falcon four-door sedan. One-night driving home he was drunk and quietly furious. The powerful engine reared the front end gradually up as they increased their speed along a long straight stretch of road. A tan Labrador appeared in the headlights on an unsealed shoulder and his father swerved to hit it in a silent rage, the wheels losing traction on the gravel. The dog barrelled under the wheels hitting the firewall under their feet as they mounted the road again. His father’s anger was always internal and silent until it found its expression in violence. It was always a guessing game as to why he was bitter, but its effects were often terrifying. The old man recalled this with some of the same fear, even now after so many years. With memories like these he felt his shallow foundations, his self-worth seemingly always vulnerable to the mysterious unspoken standards his father held him to. In some part of his mind, that dog is still laying on that road slowly dying.
He mimicked his father as a child at school, turning morose and scowling at people for no reason. He wouldn’t talk and sat alone at lunch hoping someone would notice and try to talk to him so he could ignore them. Through mimicry, his father’s sadness and anger were refined in him. He carried it into adulthood until the sudden realization that nothing was tempered by it. The world didn’t stop for a second no matter how much he willed it to. And no amount of sadness or anger prevented any tedious, back-breaking task from needing to be done.
Sitting on a bench one night at the end of his street he looked back down the road towards the gently sloping gardens of newly built estates and remembered a family trip to the botanical gardens. His parents fought, and his mother walked away down a hill and sat under a tree. He and his father circled her as they walked the path around the gardens. He asked his father to let him go to her. But his father kept them walking as tears welled in both their eyes and they both watched her peripherally, motionless and staring at the ground. They passed the duck pond which had been drained for repairs, and he felt empathy for the ducks left wandering without the comfort of water. They passed a group of boys from his school and they saw his father crying. One ran up behind him, tugged his shirt and fled. His father’s hand shaped as though around a brick against his chest hooked his son’s shirt collar and he pulled hard and down. His father seemed to awaken after a moment and looked at him as though he were a stranger. Taking his wrist, his father led him down the hill to his mother and they all sat mutely listening to each other breathing. Under a wet tree waiting in silent rage and sadness, he switched off like a TV. He knew it wouldn’t be ok until he could close his bedroom door behind him. He had to endure the long silent walk to the car, the mute drive home, he had to stop pining for comfort that seemed impossibly far away. A longing that stretches time too painful proportions. It was here that he learnt the malleable contingent distance of the passage to a sanctuary of his own. And he’d prayed for the patience to endure the expanse between him and an unobserved refuge that breathes in his presence, a place that holds its breath till he returned.
He remembers that same feeling of exhalation on recently visiting his childhood home. A cul-de-sac not far off a newly built motorway. He turned the car towards the field he played in as a child as the long pastel-tinged shadows of late evening triggered the memory of tangled bushes you could build tunnels and caves in and the exhaustion of constant movement. He parked before the long thin path leading to the field and felt unable to leave the car. A smell of burnt plastic and exhaust in the air as he wound down the window and the car quietly idled. A discarded crumbling asbestos stucco sheet was leaning against the alleyway wall. A brown leather purse discoloured by the weather discarded under Dicot weeds, everything seemed like it had been there since he was a child, on pause, ageing again in his presence. Like the street had begun to breathe again exhaling the dust of him. He felt his heart sink as he stared at the cement archway to the field. A patch of dirt where the grass died back, where kids had ignored the walkway and taken a short cut to the open field, leaving indentations of boots and the tough grey roots of titch grass exposed. These marked the shortest route to immunity. Where he could be hidden from the street and those apertures into the lives of his parents. He thought about how even old sanctuaries hold their allure as he turned the car around and drove back towards the motorway.
The boy slams the chisel into the Jack-hammers chuck unaware of the need to release the locking pin. The hammer awkwardly slipped from his hands as he reaches for another chisel from the box, a threaded chisel this time. As the jackhammer silently fell between the rocks in the wall of the pond the old man felt glad the boy was alone and not subject to the scrutiny of his co-workers. The boy threw down the chisel and left the Jackhammer leaning against the rocks, purposefully striding out of view towards the house and returning with a sledgehammer.
The old man examined the seams of his double-glazed windows through the sheer curtain, he pinched the roughly patterned lace and pulled it aside to run his eyes along the edge of the window frame inspecting the rubber. He touches his hand to his face, running it down his cheek, across his chin feeling the uneven surface and the deep hollows of his eyes. With these hands, as an interface with the world permanently thick and dry, everything is course and peeling even the surface of glass. He had long ago felt the smoothness of skin but not with these hands. Burying his face in his lover’s loose dressing gown, his cheeks and lips on the soft skin of her chest. He remembers how she craned her neck to look down at him and stroked his hair as though comforting a child, kissing his forehead as he wrapped his arms around her waist his fingers gripped as though around a brick. A soft, green light enveloped him as he closed his eyes and thought how unjust it is for these memories to be so clear. His hands described a permanent decay in their swollen joints and peeling callouses. So much injurious weight saddled by these fingers between now and the memory of her. But as the things they’ve built had begun to ruin, he’d built monuments in his mind to intangible things. Now undistracted by his labours he’d turned to experiences long forgotten and was tortured by the memory of things hopelessly unreachable.
He slipped into his boots and despite the deteriorating weather, left the house on the pretence of weeding along the fence line. The job didn’t especially need to be done but he couldn’t resist telling the boy how to use the jackhammer. He just needed a reason to be outside near the fence. He approached the fence and began pulling weeds making small piles every few meters. After a few minutes, he stuck his head over the fence and watched the boy as he struck the rock wall with the sledgehammer sending shards across the yard. “You’re going to break a window doing that, strike the mortar,” said the old man to the boy. His hard, nasal inflection expressed a menacing pitch. As much as he was aware and ashamed by it the old man was unable to prevent himself from sounding superior. It was obvious that when he spoke in a condescending tone, in that thicker drawl reserved for other labouring men, that he wanted to show, but not to share something with the boy.
The boy stopped immediately. he looked anxiously along the fence line before his face sunk in the knowledge he was being watched and now felt obligated to engage in conversation. “You’re not using the Jack Hammer?…… Why not?” the man asked attempting, unsuccessfully, to diel down his condescending tone. The boy looked down to the prostrate hammer among the rocks, about to speak but instead silently gestured towards it. He recognized he’s not being paid to talk to this guy and felt no reason to be polite. He gripped the sledgehammer again and struck the rock. “Wow,” the old man bellowed mockingly as shards of rock hit the fence and slashed through clumps of Freesia’s skirting the pond wall. “You should be able to get through that no worries with the Jack Hammer”, ‘I’ll show you, hang on there,” he said as he began moving towards his side gate.
Out on the road, the street was lined on both sides by large 4wd utes and trailers. It seemed every house on the street was busy with construction a symptom of the recent boom in house prices. He continued moving over the neighbour’s lawn taking a shortcut across a thinly mulched garden bed and around a slightly leaning faux sandstone letterbox.
In the neighbour’s driveway, the compacted gravel had been scrapped back to re-expose the clay beneath. The rain had pooled in wheel ruts and boot-prints. He reaches the driveway gates and released the latch, the drop bolt had dug a semi-circular cavity deep into the mud making it unnecessary to lift it, he pushed the gate and stepped into the yard. A row of uprooted acacia trees lay on the ground waiting to be mulched. An upright wood-chipper, looking new and practically unused, stood just beyond the gates. A 24-litre air compressor tilted into clay dragged across the yard as far as it could reach without sinking and tipping over into the mud. Scraps of timber we’re piled with empty cement bags, coffee cups, bent star pickets, concrete, mangled Rio bar and chicken wire in a freshly dug hole filling slowly with grey-brown water. The six-ton excavator stood motionlessly bowed at the rim of the hole. It seemed inexplicable how different the yard looked than from his window. The ground had been heaved up chaotically, earth, rock and plants rolled together in messy piles. The clouds had condensed to make the day prematurely dark and added to the scene of desolation and although he could see the boy on the other side of the yard he felt interminably alone. The haunting feeling of being subject to an insentient world came back to him, a place where there’s no use in begging against an unassailable force. A place where your dread is as useless as the squirming of a worm cut by the teeth of a giant excavator, the ground engaging tip of a huge pitiless machine.
The boy knew the man was coming towards him but didn’t look up. He scowled down at the earth. He was excavating around the rock wall with a short-handled flat shovel. “You should be using a spade,” the man said to the boy as he mounted the incline to the pond and watched the boy bending the blade of the shovel to its limits. He noticed the boy had uncovered a sinew of reinforcing bar which ran the length of the rock wall encased in concrete. The man reached for the extension cord and the cable of the jackhammer. Suddenly he heard the sound of a motor starting and a dog began barking over the neighbouring fence. Looking over towards the house he could make out the movements of a figure crouched by a petrol-powered Gurney adjusting the throttle and choke. The stammering motor smoothed out as the man turned to watch the old man take up the jackhammer. It occurred to him now that there were other men who were working on a garden area along the left-hand side of the house which he couldn’t see from his window. A feeling of cold dread washed over him as he approached the rock wall with the jackhammer. The boy leaned his shovel on the fence and after a short pause to look at the old man, he walked towards the house to join the others. He had been wrong about the boy being alone. The boy knew he was watched but had shown no interpretable care whether he was or not. The boy was gifted with that privilege he had envied all his life. The longest stretch of earth yawned before the old man, a volcanic plane of shifting rock and ash of enormous weight. He could feel the men gather together at the end of a low veranda that stretched around the back of the house. Its timbers half trimmed and nailed down, a clean almost dry platform for them to observe him. He couldn’t hear the men over the gurney but in his periphery, he knew they were talking to each other, discussing the situation and smiling as he pressed the tip of the jackhammer into a divot in the mortar and pressed the trigger detonating the hammer into brutal thrashing noise and movement.
Quickly he understood, after the hammer made light work of the mortar and hit solid reinforced concrete underneath, that he’d made another terrible mistake. As his hand gripped around the handle of the hammer and pivoted the heavy machine hopelessly back and forth to find a weakness between the concrete and the rock, a cold sweat of terror began to bead on his upper lip. How had he misinterpreted the situation so completely? The concrete was far too hard for the Jackhammer to be effective and it’d need to be cut into sections with a demolition saw if there was any hope of removing it. His embarrassment at his arrogance made him determined to make an impact on the wall with the Jackhammer, but deep down he knew it was hopeless. His hands gripped tighter around the handle and his thumb joints began to ache under the strain and vibration. He wished he’d stopped to grab gloves, safety glasses, and earmuffs but it was hopeless now as they watched him skip comically across the surface of the concrete with the hammer showering his face with dust and debris. Sweat began to drip down his face and thighs as he attempted to control the direction of the hammer tip. The men stood smiling and shaking their heads gathering closer together to hear each other over the sound of the Gurney motor. The dust began to settle on his face and hands, mixing with his sweat, forming a clay-like layer on his exposed skin. His hands battling the barely restrained vibrations gripped so tight around the handle they felt as though they were fusing to the aluminium frame. The shuddering tore up his arms and through his shoulders and into his head distorting the form of his body hunched over in stiffening agony. His foundations exposed in delicate ruins. The yard seemed to be expanding and he felt as though he was sinking and leaning into the softening ground, his joints hardening as he was weighted downward. He felt his body giving way like a badly built platform for an enormous weight of time. These men watched attentively his final futile posture upwards against gravity as he slated into the mud, first in small parts than larger exposing his unsupported core. He Tilted heavily, as though an overburdened crane without outriggers, stretching out and reaching beyond the limits of his arms. Impatiently finished he decreased in his flawed outer limits while increasing the bore inside. Carving away at the pitted surface of the hammer cylinder in a dizzying circular motion. The stroke of the gurney’s piston worn loose till it noiselessly moved along the polished surface and oil pushes through the gaps in the rings. The pump over-heated and seized no longer able to fight the pressure building in the hose. A dark substance burned in his chest as one rough painful cough of blue smoke dissolved in the air as he blinked through a sheet of rain towards the square-faced profile in the window. The man inspecting the seams on his windows was holding the sheer lace curtain with a clawed hand as though gripping a brick against his chest.
Winding down the Gurney motor shuddered and shifted its weight on the wet surface, clicking as it cooled and completely stopped. Cycling down and ringing in his mind like a tiny bell. Subtle green shadows moved imperceptibly slow across the sky as the hammer dropped awkwardly between the rocks. The clouds continued their formless fusion as the rain continued to gently fall and wash the dust into the topsoil. The delicate labour sinking deeper out of view. As the soft green light enveloped him completely, he thought he heard the heavy footfall of the men approaching from across the yard.
He remembers the sound of his father’s shoes echoing across the courts, a persistent measured approach which he couldn’t quite tell the distance of. He let his ball roll away off the bitumen and into the dirt. And when he turned to face him there was no one there and he felt abandoned. He dreaded the long silent drive home but equally feared being left there alone. He ran towards the sound of the car starting and idling in the car park.
Maryam Azam is a Pakistani-Australian writer and teacher who lives and works in Western Sydney. She graduated with Honours in Creative Writing from Western Sydney University and holds a diploma in the Islamic Sciences. She is a recipient of the WestWords Emerging Writers’ Fellowship and has presented at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Her debut poetry collection The Hijab Files (Giramondo, 2018) was shortlisted for the Anne Elder Award and the Mary Gilmore Award.
The Ways I Cover
In summer I answer the door wearing a hoodie
because I’d rather look like a cold weirdo
than an NESB housewife
I bring Vegemite scrolls to the staff morning tea
and say I don’t eat chicken when I mean
I don’t eat machine-slaughtered chicken.
I wear beanies & berets in winter
and a scarf around my neck instead
I don’t even look Muslim
I shake men’s hands.
I say I’m not hungry rather than ask if the food’s halal.
I go to the beach with my hair tied up
and tucked into a baseball cap
and even swim in it
we’re all worried about skin cancer right
I say hey instead of salam when
I answer the phone on the train.
I skip dhuhr prayer rather than be caught
with my foot in the sink at work.
I breathe in the guilt.
Simeon Kronenberg has published poetry, reviews, interviews and essays in Australian poetry journals and anthologies, including Best Australian Poems, 2017. In 2014 he won the Second Bite Poetry Prize and in 2015 was short-listed for the Newcastle Poetry Prize. Distance, his first poetry collection was published in 2018 by Pitt Street Poetry.
I stood barefoot
on cool boards
in the hot kitchen.
fly paper hung
from a dusty bulb
yellow and thick
She looked out
stared into glare.
All was quiet
but for the relentless
hum of blow flies
and the low mutter
of a wireless
in the next room
as he listened
to afternoon news.
An upturned grey mouth
green faded eyes
face and eye-lids
dry as dust on snake skin.
in a long brown house
next to a woodpile
stacked by a son
Mostly, she sat
at a table
a wireless tuned
all day to the races
as she scratched
at the forms
Though she broke
a hip or two: Heard the cracks.
a snare across the floor
as she shuffled
Dominic Carew is a lawyer and writer from Sydney. His short stories have won or been shortlisted for several awards, including the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His first collection of short fiction, No Neat Endings, will be released through MidnightSun in February 2020.
One spring when I was thirteen, my best mate’s family moved in around the corner. We lived in Manly, with the beach close at hand. My parents had recently landscaped the backyard, put in a new deck and paved part of the lawn. The centre-piece of all this, without question, was Dad’s brand new eight-grill Weber. With the hedges trimmed so neat and the bougainvillea flowering, the Johnsons seemed happy coming over.
“You should open a shop,” Ed’s mum said one time. “The place looks that nice.”
“Mum,” Ed said, rolling his eyes. “What kind of shop?”
“An outdoor one. A BBQ shop. Go and play with Mike, Ed.”
“Have a look at this Weber,” was all Dad said, in Mr Johnson’s direction. “You can wood-fire pizzas with it.” But Mr Johnson said nothing. He just stared at Dad from across the lawn, his eyes narrow and his head held back. I didn’t realise until a few weeks later, when we hosted another barbie, that this gaze had confrontation in it. Militant, was the word I would have used, had I known what it meant when I was thirteen.
Ed and I had been mates since year one. We played soccer together and went to St Pauls High up the road. We looked pretty similar, blonde and gangly and sunburnt half the time, though the biggest thing we had in common was our dads. They weren’t the same people but they had the same hang-ups. Time and distance were two of them. Money was another.
Ed’s Dad was a financial accountant. He worked in the city at an investment manager with its logo on a Sydney-Hobart yacht each year. He was forty-eight. Mine was a surgeon. “Bones and joints,” he’d say when asked what kind. “Things that go crack and pop.” Then he’d laugh at himself until Mum, arms folded, would shake her head at him to stop. He had, for as long I could remember, always laughed at his own jokes.
“Better than never laughing at all,” Ed said to me one time when we discussed it.
“Rick? He’s got a sense of humour, doesn’t he?”
“I’ve never seen him laugh.”
“I haven’t. Once he tried to laugh, when he got promoted, but he couldn’t.”
I looked at Ed. “I never noticed.”
“Hey,” he said, “let’s stop talking about our dads.”
This year, like last, we didn’t make the semis. Soccer was over until March, which meant we’d have to find new ways to spend our Saturday arvos. As thirteen year olds, hanging out in my backyard while our dads stood over the barbie, competing about whose steaks were a better cut and who got the best deal on a kilo of sausages, was not on our agenda.
“You boys’d wanna stick around,” Dad said as we made our way to the back gate. “These are gonna be delish.”
“We’ll be back later,” I said, though he wouldn’t have heard me. He’d bent forward already to scrape last weekend’s char from the grill. We could hear the sound of that scraper, like rapid-fire, half a block away.
We went to Copenhagen one day, the ice cream joint on the corso. It was cheaper than the place at the wharf. Not as good. Fewer options. But on our pocket money, we really should’ve been getting paddle pops from Coles. With hands around our single scoops to protect against gulls, we walked to the beach and sat on the steps there. It was quiet. The surf was flat and for a moment, despite the crowds of stumbling toddlers, all seemed still.
“This ice cream’s shit,” Ed said.
I agreed with my friend. I would’ve said so too, but was chewing a piece of honeycomb that must’ve been really old. It tasted bitter.
“Know what I saw the other day,” Ed said, staring at his cone sadly, as if it were a person, a father say, who’d let him down. “Dad reuse oil from brekky on dinner that night.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Dad does that too.”
“It’s not the tightness,” Ed said, shaking his head at his ice cream, which was melting down his hand, “it’s that he makes so much money and doesn’t spend it.”
This, I happened to know, was true. The Johnson’s had lived in Dee Why since Ed was born. A cheap suburb by Northern Beaches’ standards, and one Mr Johnson had always refused to leave. Despite his huge income, he’d had no intention of selling what he referred to as “a perfectly adequate home.” Then Ed’s grandad died, leaving them a house in Manly. They moved in as soon as probate cleared. I knew all this cos my parents discussed it one night after the Johnson’s left our place. Something in their tone of voice was mocking. Like they were a little bit better than that.
“Dad spends it,” I said, swallowing the honeycomb at last, “But only on the house. On that stupid barbie.”
“It’s a good barbie but,” Ed said, gazing into the distance. “Fwor, see that bloke on the body board? He just kooked it.”
Ed and I had started surfing a year earlier and were still both hopeless. It didn’t bother me so much; I’d have preferred to have been good but wasn’t out to change my fate. By thirteen, I’d developed what I see now as a philosophical system, able to resign myself in the face of my inadequacies. Over the years, it’s been a useful tool. It still is today, probably more than ever, as a father, with two sons of my own.
Ed, though, had a different view. He took his failed attempts to stand up on a board as a personal affront. As if the other surfers, the world, God himself, had all conspired to sleight him.
One arvo, we ate shit for an hour on a shore-break, gave up trying and headed home up the beach. “Fuck this,” Ed kept saying, his leg rope rattling against the hard waxed surface of his board.
“Oi Johnson,” someone yelled from behind us; a girl’s voice, high and teasing. “You looked good out there!”
We turned around and saw it was Emily Miles. She stood on the sand in a pink rashie, her blonde hair wet and knotted, her tanned, freckly face glowing like a dimmer version of the sun. She was in our class at school. Year Seven like us, and already sponsored by Quicksilver.
“I just can’t seem to stick it,” Ed said as we walked up to her.
She put her hand on his shoulder. “Shoreys are the worst to learn on mate. Wait till it’s high tide.”
“Yeah,” Ed said, looking at his feet. He’d gone red and was trying to hide it, I knew. He liked Emily. He hadn’t told me this yet, but I could tell he was keen to pash her.
There was a silence. You could hear those shore-breaks thudding into the sand.
“Well,” she said, “here comes Rach, see you’se.”
We watched her run with her board under her arm to Rachel Sullivan, a Year Nine girl on the junior pro circuit. They were both infinitely better than us. As they jogged up the beach towards Queensie, giggling and nearly stumbling over themselves, I couldn’t help but think they were laughing at our expense.
A few weeks later, I was in Coles with Dad, helping him prepare for the barbie. He had a shopping list that ran across three pages, all in landscape, tabulated, with a space in the far right column to record the prices.
“I know it seems pedantic,” he said to me, “but once you’re in the habit, it’s no trouble at all.”
I didn’t really listen to him explain why he did it. Something to do with keeping them honest; who ‘they’ were, I didn’t know. The fifteen year old check-out chicks?
“Ooh, ooh, ice cream special. Neapolitan Mike, three o’clock.”
“Hang on,” I said, “don’t we have some at home?”
“Yes mate. But this is the best price I’ve seen for it. Get three tubs. Then meet me in the meat aisle.”
I got the tubs and carried them, stacked and cold against my chest, across the store. This would make six tubs in total. I wasn’t even sure we had space in the freezer. I knew we had the barbie this Sat, but even so, based on my rough estimation, there’d be enough Neapolitan for the guests to have five bowls each. In the end, I resolved not to question it, the memory of a two-for-one baked bean deal, and the drama that came with it when Dad tried to buy fifty tins, too fresh in my mind for comfort.
When I got to the meat aisle with the tubs, Dad was on his knees with his head and most of his torso inside a fridge.
“Mike,” he said – his voice sounded tinny, and echoed like he was in a cave – “take these as I hand them to you,” and he passed me tray after tray of grey, icy, priced-slashed steaks.
As I unloaded the trolley at the check-out, Dad stood behind me, scribbling into his table. The sound of his pen, the urgent scrawl of it, made me clench my fists.
“Beautiful,” he said, after we’d packed the boot. “That took six minutes less than planned. Mike? Hold onto your seat, mate. Bunnings is still open,” and he laughed full pelt for the next ten seconds.
On Saturday, Ed and I helped my parents set up for the barbie. The Johnson’s were invited, as well as the Crawley’s and the Mitchell’s from Mum’s church group and a few other adults I’d not met before that Ed’s dad knew from work. We carried two long tables down from the deck and placed them on the grass, end-to-end. Mum had collected an array of different flowers from around the neighbourhood. Not exactly legal, but this didn’t seem to matter. She had us arrange them in terracotta vases along the table. “Put the wisteria and the birds of paradise together at the ends. No Mike, the wisteria? And the birds of paradise?”
Once we’d finished that, Ed and I pleaded our case to be let off for an hour. We wanted to surf. Ed’s sister, Melanie, was around, helping with the salads, so we got our wish. As we left, I noticed Dad and Mr Johnson standing near the barbie, staring intently at their watches and twisting the dials, like they were synchronising time.
There wasn’t any swell. We sat offshore straddling our boards and talked about girls. Ed said he didn’t want a girlfriend. And I said that was bullshit and he should just ask Emily out. He said if I was so sure why didn’t I ask Beth Simpson out, cos he knew I liked her and hung around her locker every arvo to watch her pack her books. “But her locker’s next to mine,” I said, “where else would I be at final bell?”
“Don’t deny what you know is the truth,” he said, frowning. He held the frown for a moment, then we both cracked up. It was what his dad said whenever they argued. Ed liked to mimic it, though never in front of Mr Johnson.
“Don’t deny, young man,” he went on, swinging his arms and splashing up water, “what you know in your guts is true.”
After showering and getting into a clean polo shirt and a pair of pressed shorts, I sat at the table in the yard next to Ed. It was sunset. A peach-coloured sky spread overhead, streaked with golden clouds. The Crawleys, the Mitchells, Mum, Melanie, Mrs Johnson and three other adults were seated, pulling bread apart and buttering it thickly, or pouring hefty splashes of wine or picking grapes from the heaps along the table.
Dad and Mr Johnson stood at the barbie which, by now, was covered in cooked meat. They each held tongs. And a European beer – Dad had bought three cases on special a month earlier. Every now and then he’d take a sip, then say something over his shoulder to the table, laughing.
“The salads look divine,” Mrs Crawley said to Mum, piling her plate with a healthy serve.
“I just think those kinds of short-term fixes are nonsense,” Ed’s mum was saying to a man opposite her, “you can’t expect to tax rich people and promote a healthy economy.”
“Agree entirely,” the man said. He held the stem of his wine glass between his thumb and finger like he was pinching it.
“Who wants rare?” Dad yelled.
“Bloody for me,” Mr Mitchell said.
“And me,” said his wife, throwing back a full flute of sparkling wine. “Would you look at the sky?”
My steak was perfectly cooked, the marinade Dad used so thoroughly soaked-in, you couldn’t even tell it was old. I chomped away. As did Ed and Melanie and everyone else. The sun had slipped behind Dobroyd, leaving Manly in shadow. Up above, fruit bats commenced patrol, their angled wings spread wide, like little stealth bombers.
“Good steak,” Ed said, his mouth full.
“Potato salad’s awesome,” his sister chipped in.
I nodded, my own mouth full, and turned my head in Dad’s direction; he was sitting with Rick at the end of the table. They were entrenched in their own conversation, to the exclusion of the rest of us. I couldn’t make out the words, but the way they moved their hands, their heads wobbling in my periphery, suggested a topic of some severity. Then, as if the last ten minutes had been building to it, Mr Johnson threw down his serviette and yelled in a frantic, high-pitched voice, “Incorrect!”
It was like a car had just smashed into the house. Knives and forks clinked onto plates; all went silent.
“That is incorrect,” Rick said, his voice even higher now, and still very loud, “and you bloody well know it.”
“Rickard,” Mrs Johnson hissed from halfway down the table. But he didn’t seem to hear her.
“It’s not incorrect,” Dad said, squaring back into his seat and pulling a piece of gristle from his mouth. “It’s bang on accurate.”
Now at this moment, we witnessed an event rarely beheld so that, when it happened, no one quite comprehended it. Mr Johnson gripped the edge of the table with both hands and he, well, laughed.
“Rickard?” his wife said.
“Har har har,” her husband went, his mouth contorting into some kind of smile.
“It’s four hundred metres or under, and I’m not kidding you,” Dad said.
“You’ve measured it, have you?” said Rick, whatever imitation of mirth he’d offered, no longer on show.
“Not per se. But I make the walk enough to know, within five metres, how far we live form the sand.”
“If it’s four hundred, I’m the next prime minister.”
“Well,” Dad said, “I hope you’ll have us over to Kirribilli House.”
“What on earth are you two talking about?” said Mum; she had her wine glass up, away from her face, like she was showing it off.
Neither man spoke for a moment. Rick stared at Dad through narrow eyes.
“Why won’t you take my word for it?” Dad said. “We’ve lived here five years. I think I’d know.”
But Rick just kept staring.
At the time, and for a long while after, I thought Dad’s a reasonable question. We had lived there five years. Dad walked to the beach at least once a week. He could guess pretty well about distance. What’s more, Rick was sitting on his lawn, at his table, eating his half-priced steaks. The least he could do was pretend to agree. Over the years though, I have, if not come around, at least come to appreciate Rick’s position. I’m in finance myself now, a controller in a hedge fund, and I’ve learned over the course of my career about men like Rick. Put simply, they can’t help it. Accuracy’s a type of vice. They thrive on and, at times suffer for, it. Of course, in this case, pride was at play too. The Johnsons lived a K from the beach, maybe more. If we lived within four hundred metres, what did that make them, the house that they’d inherited?
“Listen,” Dad said, getting up from his chair, “if you’re so bent on this, let’s go and measure it.”
“Brian, for goodness sake!”
“You’re on,” said Rick, standing up as well, but far too quickly, with rigid shifts in his limbs, so his chair went toppling over.
Dad disappeared inside the house while Rick remained standing at the table, looking around at everyone with pursed lips, his eyes focused, as if we were a corporate board he had to convince of something.
“This won’t take a moment,” he said. While his tone was polite, there was not, as far as I could tell, apology in it.
“Got it!” Dad yelled from up on the deck, waving a cricket ball-sized GPS in his hand. “Let’s go.”
At school on Monday, Ed and I avoided each other. When we talked about it later, we both agreed this had nothing to do with our friendship, which, as it turned out, would remain intact for the rest of high school. It was more out of a sense of duty. A mutual interest in keeping our families away from each other, at least until the heat came off. Tread lightly for a day or two while the ceasefire took hold. That kind of thing. When on Tuesday we met at recess, the first thing Ed said from across the quad, before I’d even reached him, was, “I don’t wanna talk about Dad.”
No beef from me. I didn’t want to go there either. We walked over to the table by the bubblers and sat down to eat.
“He’s taken it pretty bad,” Ed said, ignoring his veto of moments ago.
I nodded solemnly. “Well he shouldn’t. One more metre and he’d have been right.”
“He was convinced, convinced, the GPS was wrong.”
“He made that pretty clear,” I said, nibbling on a shape.
There was a silence. Then he said, “How’s Brian’s nose?”
“It’ll be alright,” I said, though by alright I meant the fracture would eventually resolve into a permanent kink.
As we ruminated over this, a little embarrassed, tacitly committed to delicate words, a voice sung out from behind us.
“Oi Johnson,” it said.
We turned around.
“Heard your old boy bashed Mike’s dad on Sat.”
It was Emily again. She was smiling her white Aussie smile. Beth Simpson, to my horror, stood beside her, blowing a bubble with grape chewing gum.
“Rach was down at the beach. Saw the whole thing.”
“They were mucking around,” I said, not sure who should feel more ashamed, me or Ed.
“Not what Rach said.”
“Yeah, well, they were,” I said, feeling my cheeks go hot from Beth’s stare. And from trying to lie.
When they left the house, at a jogger’s pace, we looked at each other around the table then jumped up together and followed suit. The kids, the adults, everyone. Dad and Rick charged ahead, their eyes glued to the GPS. As we trailed them, I noticed how different they looked from behind. Dad, tall and broad-shouldered with a thick wall of silver-specked hair at the back of his head. Rick, short and wiry, his arms moving quickly at his sides. When they got to the sand at North Steyne, they stopped and peered down at the machine. Dad raised a fist to the sky, a great smooth violet arc, scratched here and there with etchings of cirrus.
“Told ya,” Dad yelled, so we all could hear – we’d held back on the promenade. He laughed. First to us, then in Rick’s face. The punch, when it came, was so swift, I had to ask Ed if it actually happened.
“Maybe they should go easy for a while,” Emily said. “Or only hang out when grown-ups are round.”
“That’s a good one,” I said and I kind of meant it.
The girls stood still for a bit, then walked over and sat down opposite us.
“My dad bashed someone once,” Emily said after a pause; she rested her arms on the table.
This got Ed’s attention. “Really?”
“Yep,” she said, leaning forward. “Some bloke tried to sell him a car. Said it’d done fifty thousand,” – she looked at Beth, then back to us – “turned out it was fifty thousand… and four hundred metres.”
We watched them walk across the quad a second later, laughing and pushing each other.
As soon as my boys were old enough to walk, I had them in the water. It’s part of growing up in beachside Sydney. By eight, they could both surf. This delighted me, though Dad, seventy by now, thought it chagrined.
“You could never surf. But your kids can. Are you saying that doesn’t annoy ya?”
“It doesn’t,” I said. I meant it.
What annoys me is when they leave for school with their shirts hanging out. I can’t stand it when their shoes are scuffed, their hair’s messy or when they don’t wash their hands. I try to be generous with them. More generous than Dad was with me. And I think I do a good job of that. I make a point of not caring about distance, time, prices, even though I’m paid to count. But when they look like slobs, leave their plates lying around, even for a minute, I let them know I’m not happy. I’ve learned that every father has his own nuanced hang-up, and neatness is mine. I’m not naïve enough to think my kids don’t dislike me for it. But I’m also not about to change. As I’ve said, you resign yourself in the face of your inadequacies. Ed still hasn’t accepted this, and in that respect I guess he’s just like his dad. But look. That’s another story.