The Red Devil

Randy has always been charming. It’s the reason he has his job. You can’t be Dean of a department at his age unless you have an extraordinary intellect or a family member on the board. Randy has neither. It is his uncanny ability to detect talent in others that has allowed him to rise swiftly through the ranks at Stanford. Eveline isn’t stupid, she has always known she wasn’t the only young scientist he romanced as a means to an end.

She’s standing right behind him now, close enough to smell the acidic notes in his aftershave. He jovially pats the arm of the elderly man beside him, some old boy from the philanthropy board no doubt. He turns to her, casual in the red half-light. ‘Eveline’, his lips stretch over his teeth. In the half light, his forehead is strangely elongated – like a sharks, she wonders how she never realised it before.

‘How wonderful of you to make it.’ He takes his time with the words.

Eveline feels the rage inside her swell, words try to claw out of her throat. Before she can form a sentence, Randy cuts her off. He turns back to the well dressed elderly man beside him. 

‘Jacob, allow me to introduce Dr. Eveline Gilly – our resident Dosidicus Gigas expert.’ 

He bobs his head submissively towards the older man, clearly he must be someone worth grovelling to. 

‘Eveline, meet the honorable Jacob Jenkins, Chair of the Board.’

A strangled sound escapes her lips. She wavers between her rage and the social dance that is University hierarchy. Jacob Jenkins’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes, he does not extend his hand.

 ‘Charmed,’ he says in a flat voice, as he looks her up and down. 

His eyes narrow at her rumpled lab coat and unbrushed hair. Eveline refuses to obey an overwhelming urge to flatten her fringe. Jacob Jenkins turns his back on her before she can reply.

‘You were saying?’ his face is trained on Randy, he lightly touches the younger man’s sleeve.

When Randy speaks his voice is suffused with self-importance. 

‘It’s the largest one of its size ever recorded. Had I known I would make such a significant discovery, I would have spoken with the board earlier.’ 

Eveline reaches into her pocket and hopes desperately for a pen, anything – a sharp pencil will do. She closes her eyes and pictures her hand driving down hard on the back of Randy’s neck, the lead puncturing his skin in a swift jab. The hand in her lab coat pocket clenches and unclenches. The violence of the thought makes her dizzy.

‘Now, if you’ll excuse me.’ 

Randy extracts himself from Jenkins and squares his shoulders.

‘Welcome. Dr. Randolph Behmer, Marine Biologist, Dean of the Department of Biology.’

There is a smattering of applause as Randy steps up to the lectern. An attendant hushes the crowd and silence ripples through the room. Randy’s chin juts forward, his pale forehead more pronounced than ever. He clears his throat and adopts a benign smile. Eveline’s jaw is clenched so tight it begins to give her a dull headache. She doesn’t blink as he pushes the greying cowlick out of his eyes. 

‘Dosidicus Gigas’ he pauses for dramatic effect. 

‘Also known as the Giant Humboldt Squid, or in Spanish, Diablo Rojo.’ 

Eveline grimaces at the words. His Spanish sounds just as forced as when he ordered for her at that Taqueria a month back. She had found it endearing then. What a little idiot she had been, so thrilled that the handsome Dean was interested in her research. She remembers the exact moment she chose to overlook his forced syllables, staring hard into her wine glass at the red flecks of sediment swirling at the bottom. He had ordered for them both in a garbled mix of english and spanish. He used the moment to flirt with the waitress, as though it was some kind of elaborate mating dance. Eveline still wasn’t sure who it had been meant to woo. What a fool she had been, ignoring the feeling that it was not the first time he had taken a student from the University to his favourite ‘authentico’ restaurant. 

On the stage, Randy raises one hand and brings it down with a dramatic swish. Somewhere behind him, an assistant triggers a mechanism and the enormous curtain is pulled away to reveal the murky depths of Eveline’s specially designed tank. One million gallons of saltwater swirls in the darkness. It’s a cheap trick, worthy of a kid’s magic show, but even after all the hours she’s spent staring through the thick glass, Eveline can’t begrudge the crowd their hissed intake of breath.
‘May I present the world’s largest predatory squid.’ 

The crowd hangs on his every word.

 ‘The largest ever to be captured by scientists.’ 

She is beautiful. An enormous shimmering conoid floating in the darkness. Her eye stares out at the crowd— vaguely human in the reflected red glow. Her long tentacles are phosphorescent, sanguine for now, but Eveline knows all too well how powerful they are. Built to rip a man limb from limb. Eveline named her Lilith as they stared eye to eye on the trawler deck. What she would do to go back to that moment. The rain falling in thick droplets on the deck, the rime of the ocean on her skin, hair whipping around her face as she battled the wind. As they transferred Lilith to her transport tank, a tentacle flung free – in a graceful arch. The giant suckers had wrapped around Eveline’s upper arm, each sucker ringed with a row of sharp teeth that tore at her skin. As long as she lives Eveline will remember the sweetness of that moment. The pain blossomed alongside the feeling of completeness she felt. As the specially designed lid was quickly laid over Lilith’s tank, Eveline had sunk to her knees on the deck. How many years had she waited for this? As she nursed her bloody arm, the ligaments in her left shoulder torn but still attached, she knew she would gladly have given a limb if that’s what it took to have found Lillith. Even months later, when despite all the doctors predictions her shoulder had healed quickly, the angry red welts were still raised on her skin. She wouldn’t have changed a thing about that meeting. She wasn’t left with a scar, but a memory of a violent kiss. Standing behind Jacob Jenkins, watching Lilith float above the heads of the philanthropic society, Eveline breathes through her rage and mentally traces the scar down her arm, at least no one can take that away from her.

She had spent the best part of four years tracking Lilith’s shoal as they travelled up and down the Humboldt current from Mexico to Washington. She had tagged the squid a year earlier, diving off the coast, back when Lilith was just another fast developing female. From the comfort of her lab, Eveline watched the shoal navigate the currents of the California coast on maps that marked their speed at upwards of thirty miles per hour. She discovered that the shoal did not just travel cross current, but that they rose closer to the surface from dusk to dawn. Privately she liked to think it was because they appreciated the changes in the light during sunset and sunrise. After all, changing skin colour is how squid communicate.
Even as a child Eveline had dreamt of lights hanging in the darkness. Thousands of glowing squid dancing in the murky depths, hunting, fighting and making love. Studying Lilith was the culmination of a lifelong obsession, not just a PHD, and now Randy was claiming it all for himself. Looking up at the tank from below the stage, Eveline realises her fists are clenched tightly and her breath is coming fast. She orders herself to breathe deeply, to let the rage subside, there’s nothing she can do but dig her nails into her palms.

For most of his speech, Randy smoothly parrots her research as though he’s reading from a Wikipedia page. The audience shuffles about, trying to get a better look at Lilith. For all the eyes, Lilth stays almost still, quietly suspended in her tank as Randy speaks louder, trying to draw the audience’s attention back to himself.

‘This squid only thinks about two things. One is eating and the other is reproducing. Even though she has a big brain, I don’t think she spends a lot of time philosophising.’

He chortles at his own joke and looks directly at Eveline. She recalls the crossed out line in her dissertation, the one Randy had said wasn’t “academic” enough: ‘Cephalopod intelligence is controversial in scientific circles but as this research shows the Humboldt Squid exhibits highly curious and intelligent behaviour’. That piece of shit. 

It takes Eveline a few moments to register the flash of change in Lilth’s skin tone. 

Humboldt Squid pulsate red and white when they hunt, even hobby fishermen off the coast know this. She wonders if it was Randy’s insult that influenced Lilith’s light talk. In the short time Lilith has been in her tank, she and Eveline have begun to connect using light signals. Eveline hasn’t told anyone about it yet, it is too early to know for certain and there have been too many variables to catalogue it as an experiment. Eveline knows that her desire to communicate with Lilith comes from a deeper place than her love for science. It’s a dark aquatic need, bordering on spiritual, and for someone who has spent every waking hour worshipping science it feels like a sacrilegious act. Did it really just happen? Perhaps it was just a reflection. Eveline’s mind races, her heightened emotions churning. 

All through the nightmare that was last week, when she realised that Randy had stolen her papers, locked her out of her own hard drives and that the worst really was happening. On the same day he dumped her, he presented her life’s work to the board as his own. Lilith floated in the tank, watching. Had she been listening? That excruciating final confrontation, when Randy sauntered into the lab to recommend she reconsider her position within the team, as her role was now redundant. Now that Lillith was in her tank, he could assign someone else to study the squid. She was shocked by how calculated he had been but more ashamed that she had fallen for it. She had slept naked in his bed, goddammit. It made her skin crawl. Who would possibly believe that the research was hers? This time, the light pulse is unmistakable. Lillith is signalling her aggression. Squid are cold creatures, lethal when underwater. If one was to slip into the tank… no – it is unthinkable. Eveline designed the tank herself. A design that allows Lilith enough space to simulate the experience of a hunt when feeding.  

Eveline looks up at Randy on the stage, handsome as ever, he thanks the crowd for what he knows will be generous donations to his research on the ‘red devil’. Eveline allows herself a small smile, but she does not clap along with the others. Tomorrow he will walk into the lab to gloat. He’s a creature of habit. She knows it will be early morning when he comes.  Eveline is the only one who feeds Lilith, the only one who knows how to unlock the complicated mechanisms at the top of the tank. They haven’t replaced her yet. She closes her eyes and pictures how fast Lilith’s hunting tentacles are. She is so strong, strong enough to rend a man limb from limb.

Short Story: Ikram’s

‘A perfect California day’ the announcer says over the radio as we drive to the hospital. Outside, the sun is lemonade -yellow. Katie has her dark glasses on and growls about how hungry she is. ‘Fuck not eating for twelve hours’ she says. Later, she sits grumpily on the hospital bed. “I’d kill for a shwarma’ she says and I promise her she won’t have to. She looks so sweet. Her long brown hair is still rumpled and damp from the shower. I kiss her mouth, on both corners, where her frown line is and it makes her smile.
We’re not nervous, this surgery is going to fix everything. All the weakness she’s been feeling; we joke that she’ll probably start putting on weight as soon as she’s discharged.

I help her get undressed and once the gown is over her head, she shows off the hole in the back. ‘Easy access’ she grins. I ease her back onto the bed and she grimaces as her sheets meet her bare skin. ‘It’s cold’ she says and fidgets with her wristband. Her wrists look tiny, like a child’s. I wish I could ignore the sharpness of her bones when she moves. That morning, I promised her we’d go straight to Ikram’s after the surgery. It’s the best shawarma in Long Beach. The place I took her on our first date.
‘Just think about that, I’ll buy you a whole one’, not that I’ve ever seen her finish a full wrap, even before she’d gotten sick. The shwarma are huge. Fluffy bread wrapped around steaming, succulent meat. They’re bigger than my head (and Katie’s always telling me how big my head is). She smiles when I kiss her pale forehead and waves as she’s wheeled away. I stay where she can see me and wave, big comical waves like a cartoon person. As the nurse rounds the corner with the bed, Katie cranes her neck, ‘see you soon Guppy’ she says, wiggling her fingers above the stiff hospital sheet until she disappears behind a swinging door.

I’m sitting in a red plastic seat in the waiting area when a nurse comes to get me. I stretch my arms over my head and smile at her, but straight away my heart starts going. It’s too early for the surgery to be over. The look on her face sets my stomach lurching. ‘Are you Mr. Carradon? Who admitted Katie Freedman?’ I nod, the nurse is holding a clipboard. She asks me to follow her and I do.

The doctor is an attractive woman, it registers somewhere in my brain. She’s still in her scrubs, but she has a doctors coat over the top. She waits until I sit down before she speaks. ‘I’m very sorry Mr. Carradon, but there has been a complication during surgery. Katie, your partner, has passed away’. Her voice is kind as she keeps talking but everything after that is just white noise.
‘Wife’. I interrupt her. ‘She’s my wife’. The doctor stops talking and looks at me, her eyes narrow slightly as though she is making an assessment. ‘Technically she’s my girlfriend but we call each other husband and wife’. My voice is very loud in the small room. It is not a doctors office. The walls are pale yellow. There is a painting of Van Gough’s Starry Night on the wall. There are tissues on the table.

She speaks slowly and leans forward to put her hand on my arm, her blonde hair has streaks of grey in it. She isn’t wearing gloves, which means between seeing Katie and speaking to me she had time to take them off. I wonder how many minutes passed between that moment and this one. She’s speaking slowly, as if to a stupid person. Katie’s internal organs were weak. The stress of the surgery on her body had been too much. She mentions that the doctors hadn’t been aware of just how much damage there had been to Katie’s liver. ‘Her internal organs were shutting down even before she arrived.’ She asks if Katie struggled with addiction. ‘Yes’, I say, ‘but not for long.’ She knew I wasn’t okay with it. We couldn’t be more than friends when she was on stuff. The words keep coming ‘she’s been clean for years now’. Katie hated that I couldn’t be with her when she was high, it’s why she always got clean again. There’s a look on the doctors face, it passes like a shadow. That’s the ‘another junkie’ look.

An addict, a junkie.

I tell the doctor I didn’t enable it. She nods but her eyes are sad. Katie kicked the habit for good a year ago, joined the church. The way the doctor talks, the addiction is a recent thing. ‘No, no.’ I tell her again, just to be sure. ‘She’s not like that. She promised me.’ Katie doesn’t do that stuff anymore. The doctor asks if Katie had been taking anything else recently. Something she might not have mentioned to her other doctors, something that wasn’t on her record.

I mention some pills she’d been prescribed for pain. The doctor looks at me with her eyebrows raised and writes in her notepad, I feel the familiar discomfort about the little white pills Katie had started using in the last year. If she didn’t get them from a doctor, where had they come from? ‘She’s Mormon now’ I tell the doctor, but I don’t know why.

They let me see her, but Katie is gone. A pale body with dark hair lies on the hospital bed. There’s a sheet up to her chin but her hand hangs over the bed. My hands shake as I reach out to touch it. Afterwards, I vomit in a bin next to a door in another room. My arms are red with marks, I can’t stop pinching myself. It can’t be true. A nurse asks me to contact Katie’s next of kin. I say dumbly, ‘that’s me’. She talks to me about insurance and calls my brother, passing me the phone. My voice sounds strange, even to me. ‘Meet me at Ikram’s place’, it’s the only thing I can say. I hear Dave’s voice as I pass back the receiver to the nurse. He wants me to stay where I am, he wants to come to the hospital, but there is nothing left to do. The nurse asks if I need a priest, but for all Katie’s talks about the church, I can’t think of what Mormon’s do when someone dies. We haven’t eaten for hours. Katie wanted shawarma.

The nurse says that I should wait for my brother to get there. I leave anyway. Weaving through traffic is the only thing that feels normal, from Newport to Long Beach, it’s a long way in traffic – longer from the hospital. Forty-five minutes bumper to bumper is worth it for Ikram’s, Katie and I always joke, and it’s true. They have pickled beets and yellow peppers.
You can help yourself and heap as many as you like into small plastic cups. Katie says the hummus is orgasmic. My favourite part of the meal is watching her lick it from her fingers. I drive without turning my head, if I just keep driving I can feel her in the seat beside me. Bouncing up and down, tossing her head in the breeze from the open window. There’s salt on the breeze, onshore. My mouth feels furry, I run my tongue over my teeth and still taste sick.  I grip the driving wheel so hard my knuckles are white. My vision swims. I waver on the edge of the abyss and remember to breathe out. Back into my body again, I clench the wheel.

I pull into the parking lot and am greeted by the familiar green sign. Ikram’s. I was here the week after 9/11 when there was a motorcycle cop standing outside the front door. He wasn’t doing anything, just standing there. Watching who went in and went out. One of the women working there whispered at me when she handed me my wrap ‘but we’re Christian’ her voice went up at the end, like she was asking a question. I nodded and lowered my eyes. Today there is no cop, and the smell of cooked meat and onion fills the air as soon as I push the door open.
I order two wraps with beef and extra tahini. As I fill the little plastic cups with pickled beets and peppers, I juggle the wraps and the small containers. Pickle juice drips onto the floor. I wait for one of the women behind the counter to recognise me. No one does. I imagine one of them asking me where my wife is. Ask me, I want to shout. My hands shake and I spill more juice on the floor. I slide into one of the red booths at the back. My hands still shaking. Three seats away a family is eating. They’re in the booth Katie usually chooses. I stare at them and wonder if I can ask them to move. A small boy with eyes so dark they look like deep pools munches pita bread with his mouth open. I decide against it.

I hold the warm bread in my hand and close my eyes, it’s so soft. I smell the fatty meat and the onions and I can see Katie’s smile behind my eyelids. I hold it there, elbows on the table. I look like I’m praying but what I’m doing is feeling the warmth from the food and wishing it would warm me. I am freezing. And I don’t want to eat. It was Katie who was hungry. I rest my head on the table and Dave finds me like that, the bread cold in my hands. He slides into the seat next to me, not opposite as he would have usually. I can’t speak and he understands. He takes the wrap out of my hands and puts it on the plastic tray.  Tahini and meat juice has run down my arms and stained my sleeves. Dave and I know the language of grief. We lost our older brother two years ago, I comforted him as he raged drunkenly in the garage. Back then, I wondered if I could ever feel as sad as Dave did, but my anger at Len’s death came eventually too. Then it had been a creeping sadness, a fog. Like he did at Len’s funeral, Dave wraps his arms around my shoulders and my head finds his shoulder. I feel the familiar emptiness. I didn’t think it could be, but his time it’s worse. This time I am carved from wood. He speaks and I feel the tears come. ‘I’m so sorry’ he says, his voice is muffled.

As soon as I can speak, I tell him to eat. The wraps are cold but I don’t want Katie to be hungry when she gets to heaven. I don’t tell Dave that. We don’t believe in those things. Even when she became a Mormon, the three of us would smoke cigarettes in the garage and laugh about God being the only way to fix a junkie. Junkie – she hated that word. She described the feeling once, when we were together in bed. The memory of our bodies so close makes me reel with the sharp pain of it. She said wanting a hit was like a terrible hunger. A bottomless need for the high. Even talking about it made you crave it. I wonder if I’m ever going to be able to stop wanting Katie. I know I won’t. Not ever. The pain is deep and darkness flutter at the corners of my vision. It sits between my guts, settling there like a cat as I force the food down. Bite after bite. Dave’s face is wet as he eats. Katie meant something to him too. We eat in silence, our tears mixing with the hummus, the pickled beets and the lurid yellow peppers. We eat and eat until there is nothing left between us.

Short Story: Dane’s Mum

Stan, the guy in the flat above, has been creeping on Dane’s mum. He knows this because he found the notes ripped pieces crumpled in their rubbish bin. They’d been there, on-top of that night’s cold leftovers. They made him feel sick to his stomach. Torn pieces of exercise book paper, the writing scratched and long. Angry notes, written in red pen.

You are mine. Slut. I’m watching you.

He pieces together the ripped shreds on the cramped desk in his room. And when he gets up the guts, asks his mum about them. She tries to keep her voice steady, but the hand that holds her ciggie gives her away. She says she didn’t want to worry him but she caught Stan poking notes through their wire security door one morning a week ago. The ones in the bin are new. Stan lives above them. He is a large man, balding, with big meaty hands. He hangs around the front of the building. Sometimes, he tries to speak to Dane. Is his mum seeing anyone? Does Dane ever see his cousins? Dane knows that the notes are because Stan knows how alone they are. There is no other man in the picture.

‘We should go to the police’ he says, because that’s what you do on T.V when someone is threatening you. He is sure the police will know what to do. His mum looks at him then, really looks at him. She hasn’t had her hair done for a while, so it’s different colours of red-brown. Her eye make up is smudgy, like she’s been rubbing her eyes. She flicks some ash into the old crystal ash tray next to the couch. She puts two fingers to the space between her eyebrows, like she does sometimes when she has a headache. ‘The police don’t listen to people like us, hon.’ The conversation is over.

He is proud of their flat. It’s more homey than his friend’s places and his mum used to love finding things to brighten it up. These days she drapes scarves over bits of junk so that it looks cleaner. He can see the pool and the skate park from his window. He skates before and after school, swooping in and out of the concrete bowl. Grazing his knees through his jeans and skinning his arms. Every landed trick is a small miracle. His mum hated it at first. She didn’t want him hanging out at the skatepark. ‘You’ll break your arms’ she’d say, shaking her head and lighting another ciggie. They couldn’t afford to lose his arms, but it wasn’t really about that. His mum was scared he’d start making trouble with the older boys.

But Dane wasn’t interested going anywhere but the skate park. She’d walked past the park one afternoon and seen him drop into the bowl. He’d whooped as he dropped, for the sheer joy of it and when he popped up at the other end, saw her watching with her hands folded over her chest. But she was smiling. After that, he didn’t have to share Jake’s skateboard. She saved for a secondhand one and had given it to him at Christmas. Over the summer she watched him skate from one of the park benches with a cup of tea.

His mum is nervous at the best of times; she doesn’t like big groups of people. ‘You know I don’t like crowds, love’ she’d say when he’d ask if they could go to Moomba or the Melbourne Show. Eventually, he just stopped asking. Since the notes, she doesn’t like to leave the house. It means that it’s Dane’s job to do the shopping. The plastic bags cut into his hands as he walks from the supermarket, past the skate park, past the pool, past the high-rise and back again. He wonders if she would feel better if they lived across the road in the high-rise – maybe having more people around would help. She’d be friends with some of the women there and someone else would definitely have told Stan to fuck off by now. There are people scarier than Stan in the high-rise.

It’s the smokes that keep her going outside. He could ask one of the older guys at the skate park to buy them for her, but he doesn’t. He hates that she smokes, it makes their stuff stink. But sometimes you have to pick and choose. He knows it’s a good day when she gets out of the flat, even if it’s just for smokes. Lately, Stan has been banging on the floor above his mum’s bedroom late into the night. During the day he stands, smoking at the top of the stairwell, watching them coming and going from their flat. Dane wants to punch him. His mum tells him she feels safer when he’s home, it makes him nervous about going anywhere. He isn’t stupid. He is a skinny kid, small for his age and growing up at the flats means having no delusions about what battles he can win. Sometimes he thinks about what could happen to her while he’s at school and it makes him want to puke.

There are nine of them who meet at the skate park after school, all of them from the flats. They have second-hand boards and hard-won skate shoes. Dane isn’t the smallest but he’s equal skinniest with Jake. He and Jake learnt to skate around the same time. Egging each other into trying new tricks, watching the older guys land them while they fell and bled. He knows he’s good enough to be accepted now and last summer, one of the older guys even called him ‘a natural’. There’s no bigger compliment at the skate park than being a natural. That’s when he knew he was really one of them. Sometimes they come over to his place. His mum wasn’t keen on them coming over at first, but he wore her down. Eased her into it. He brought them over, one at a time. Jake first. He’d started out asking for band-aids, but it soon became pieces of toast and glasses of water. Sometimes they even sit on the couch and eat two-minute noodles, while his mum watches T.V. He knows it makes her happy to have the boys over. Dane waves them goodbye from the doorstep, sending them off loudly. ‘Say hey to your dad for me.’ Just maybe, Stan will hear and realise there are people around who can beat the shit out of him. Then everything will go back to how it was. He doesn’t tell his friends about Stan, it’s just one of those things. Everyone in the flats has a Stan.

Jake’s little sister Isabel has started asking if she can skate with them. She’s been hanging around the skate park for a while, begging to use one of their boards. Dane likes her. Jake calls her a pest. ‘Go away’ he yells at her when she asks to borrow his board. She’s a year younger and goes to their Primary School. She has a long, brown pony-tail and wears faded blue jean shorts, no matter how cold the weather is. Sometimes they smile at each other, but boys and girls don’t really hang out that much at school.

Jake’s at the shop buying lollies when Dane lets Isabel have a go of his board. She wants to know how to drop into the bowl. He shows her how to set the wheels on the lip and push down hard with your front foot. They practice the movements on the grass first. Their arms touch accidentally a few times and it makes him feel weird. Good weird. When she’s ready, he stands behind her on the lip of the bowl to give her a push. Just like the older guys taught him and Jake. One. She looks nervous. Two. She stomps her front foot down and leans back to balance. He pushes, hard. Too hard. Time slows as she pitches over the lip. Her pony-tail whips his face. He reaches out to grab the back of her shirt but she’s gone. She hits the bottom of the bowl with a sound that makes him want to spew. He’s at the top of the bowl, unable to move. ‘You okay?’ he croaks, and realises that the familiar hiss of wheels on concrete has stopped, no one else is dropping in. The older guys stand around the rim of the bowl, watching. Isabel gets up but she’s not crying. Good. Dane can’t hack it when girls cry. But as she turns back towards him, she wobbles and he can see that something is wrong with her arm. He see’s a long trickle of blood run from her elbow and drip steadily onto the ground. Her arm doesn’t look broken though. He’s seen enough broken bones at the skate-park to know. ‘It’s snapped in two.’ The guy to his left says, Dane turns to correct him and realises the guy is pointing at his board. The one his mum saved for. ‘That sucks, man’ the guys says to Dane, before he skates off. Dane wants to hit him but scrambles down into the bowl to help Isabel get out. 

Dane’s mum sees him push Isabel into the bowl. Of all the days she decides to leave the flat, it has to be this one. He’s helping Isabel when his mum comes up steaming, ‘Just let her go, Dane’ she gives him a look like he’s grown two heads. She turns to Isabel ‘There love, you’ll be right.’ They walk towards their flat. Dane doesn’t know what his mum has said but whatever it is has made Isabel cry. Her face is dirty and the nasty graze that runs from her shoulder down to her elbow. Her blood is very red. He’s never felt so wretched. Part of him want’s to get out of there but the other part, wants to stay, make sure Isabel is okay. He follows along, a couple of paces behind. At the door to their flat, his mum turns on him, her eyes steely. Isabel is already inside.

‘You.’ Her words are venom. ‘I have never been so disappointed in you’.

His mouth drops open and he’s still standing there long after the safety door has slammed shut. It hits him harder than his broken board. His mum thinks he pushed Isabel on purpose. With nothing left to do, Dane goes back to the skatepark and sits on a bench with his broken board, watching the older guys swoop in and out of the bowl. He imagines his mum holding an ice-pack to Isabel’s face. He wonders if Isabel hates him now. Or if his mum will ever let him skate again. He doesn’t know how he’ll save up enough to get a new board.

Jake finds him there, cradling the pieces of his board and sits down next to him. They don’t speak. ‘I pushed her’ Dane’s mouth is very dry but he makes himself talk. Jake would already know what happened by now. Word travels fast at the flats. Dane stares straight ahead, watching the skaters slide past. ‘She wanted to drop in and I–‘, he doesn’t know how to say it without it sounding worse than what it was, ‘but she fell’. He sneaks a slide-long look at Jake, who’s scuffing his left sneaker against the asphalt. ‘Sorry’ Dane says, lamely and then adds, because it’s only fair to,’You can punch me if you want.’

Jake looks at him, considering it. Hurting a sister was up there as one of the most punishable acts. He shakes his head, ‘Nah.’ The silence stretches between them and Dane finds that air is coming back into his lungs. ‘I think it’s probably time we got her one’ Jake says, gesturing to Dane’s pieces of board. ‘Sorry about your board’. ‘Yeh’ Dane says. He can’t think of anything else to say. Jake hands him the crumpled lolly-bag, ‘you can have the mint leaves’ he offers, they sit for a few more minutes, watching two of the older guys try and land a trick at the end of the park. ‘Better go see if Belle’s okay’. Jake slips off the seat and skates off, in the direction of Dane’s flat.

It’s almost dark when Dane puts his key in the door and lets himself in. He hopes his mum has already gone to bed, but he knows that it’s a cowardly thing to want. She’s sitting in the kitchen and he can tell from the almost full ashtray in front of her, she’s been waiting. He sits down, dragging his feet. She speaks in her deadliest voice. ‘It is never okay to hurt a woman’. It was an accident, he tries to explain, but the words won’t come. He didn’t mean to push Isabel so hard. But there’s something in the way his mum looks at him, that says ‘no excuses’. He feels sick with shame.

‘Some men think it is their right to take what they want.’ Dane doesn’t say anything, but he knows who she means when she says “some men”. ‘I know, mum’ he says. He doesn’t want to cry, but he can feel the tears in his eyes. She nodds. Satisfied that he is suitably ashamed and pushes a piece of paper over to him. The pink linoleum of the kitchen table is chipped and he stares at it for a bit before registering what the paper says. ‘I applied to the South Melbourne commission.’ Her voice sounds different, less hard. She waits for a few minutes, letting it sink in. ‘We got it Hon, we’re going to have a garden’. Dane’s stomach is doing flip-flops. Is this his punishment? But no, she must have applied months ago. It takes forever to get anything done in the commissions. He looks at the letter. It’s no flat, but a free-standing house. He looks up and his mum has tears in her eyes. Every commission kid knows how rare it is to get a house. No one in the flats would pass it up.

South Melbourne. Catching the tram to school. No more skating until dark. He feels like he’s already in fast forward, seeing them pack their things and leave. All the little familiarities he hadn’t known mattered until now, being able to spend all day at the pool until his fingers are spongey. The nights when his friends come over, sore from skating and his mum cooks up a big batch of two-minute noodles. Slurping from the bowl with chicken flavoured soup, watching T.V together, just talking crap. His friends without mums always stay the longest – after all, the high-rise is just across the street. They won’t be able to stay late when they move. They might not visit at all.

She starts to talk about moving, and the things Dane has skipped over every day come into focus; the dusty plastic plants in red and pink pots along the windowsill, the sound of skating from across the road, the heavy round table in the lounge room with the crystal ashtray, his school pictures on the fridge. He aches with the realisation that he’s getting older. That eventually he’ll move out and leave her all alone. At least in the new place, she will be far away from Stan. She laughs for the first time in months, ‘I won’t miss the thin walls; ‘I always think the neighbours can hear me on the can.’

*             * *

It’s summer again by the time they can move into the new place. The day the movers come it’s already thirty-five degrees at 8am. His mum is stressed. She hasn’t slept. The heat wave is pushing five days now. There’s more concrete than trees surrounding the flats, it radiates heat making everything feel closed off. Even at this hour he can hear splashing and screaming from the pool. Lucky. There was no way he can go for a swim with all the packing they need to do. They’ve spent days putting their stuff into boxes. When the the scarves were moved, they revealed mountains of things they didn’t need, but she wouldn’t leave behind. He’d had to sneak out bundles of junk in his backpack. Dumping it in the park bins on the way to school. The boys from the skate park know now. He didn’t tell them for ages. It wasn’t until one of their mum’s found out that he had to come clean. They understood. They’re up early in the heat, skating before the older guys get there. The best time to get the bowl to yourself. When they see the moving van, they prop their boards against the wall next to the front door and help Dane and a burly mover with a neck-beard lift their lives into the truck.

Stan watches them pack the truck. Dane can feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as he heaves boxes up and down the steps. His mum wavers on the front doorstep as their stuff trickles out the front door. She’s changed into a red dress, one that she’d bought from the Brotherhood on her birthday. She’s never worn it because she worried it was too bright. Any other day Dane would have been happy to see her wearing something colourful, but today there is something dangerous about that dress.

As they pick up the last of the boxes, she lights a smoke and glares up the stairwell. It’s a look that makes Dane’s palms itch. She is furious. For the first time in a year, Dane wonders if maybe he was the nervous one. Her eyes narrow as she watches the moving van pull out from the familiar curb. She signals to the sweating boys, ‘upstairs – now’. There are nine of them, they’d come back and forth from the skate park, taking turns to carry boxes and practice tricks on the pavement in front of the building. She leads the way, red dress like a beacon as they stomp up the stairs behind her. Dane is at her left elbow. He can see her hair is curling with sweat at the back of her neck. His heart beats in his throat. Seven. Eight. He counts the steps and looks behind him. Nine. Ten. His friends are all pretty short and skinny. Eleven. Stu carries his arm slung across his front, he’s just had his cast off. Twelve. Twelve steps to the top, where Stan always stands – staring down.

The screen door to his flat slams, he’s seen them coming. Dane can see his outline through the dark screen, a menacing shape. His mum plants herself in front of it, hands on her hips, they spread out on the tiny landing. They hear the clink of the lock being snibbed into place. Dane is quiet, his fingernails bite into his palms. One of the boys behind him digs a finger into his ribs. ‘Stan’ – his mum’s voice carries over the stairwell, the shape behind the screen shifts. ‘A real man does not threaten women.’ The air is thick with tension. ‘I went to the Housing Office. They know about you and –‘, her voice wavers – ‘– your harassment. I’ve told all the women in the area about what you did.’ There is a grunt behind the screen. She takes a deep breath. Dane can see that her hands are shaking.

‘I want you to know. You have nothing to do with us leaving. Nothing. You’re a bad man, and people should know about it.’

The shape behind the screen moves forward, kicking at the metal doorframe with a bang. Dane’s flies forward, ready to protect his mum. She puts a hand on his arm, holding him back. Her voice is steady when she speaks again. This time she’s addressing his friends, all skin and bone peering around each other to catch a glimpse. Thrilled to be a part of the showdown. ‘Boys.’ She turns to them,

‘This man get’s off on threatening women. I want you to keep your eye on him.’

She spins on her heel and walks purposefully down the stairs. Stan screams after her, his voice is higher than Dane expected,

‘You bitch!’

She turns back, the rage makes her face luminous.

‘Fuck you Stan. You piece of shit.’

He slams the door in their faces, the screen door shivers from the impact. Dane throws his clenched fists against the metal, pounding them against the door. ‘You say that again’ he yells, but there is silence from the other side. The other boys pull him back, Dane can tell they’re mad too. He looks around the landing and struggles to lift a large pot-plant, someone helps him. They raise it over the railings, forgetting to check that no one is underneath. It falls heavily down the three flights of stairs, landing with a satisfying crash in the stairwell below. To most of them, Dane’s mum is the only mother they’ve got. He can see it in their eyes, they don’t want Dane or his mum to move either. They hang their heads over the railing, looking at the dirt and shards of pot on the concrete below. Jake puts a hand on his arm, ‘It’s not too far away’ he says and Dane’s feels the tightness in his chest loosen, just a bit.

Stan does not open the door, but he starts to yell at them. Muffled profanities, it sounds like he’s throwing things around his flat. Out on the landing, it’s surprisingly quiet. The walls must be thicker than they imagined, they can barely hear him. They pound down the stairs. Twelve. Eleven. Ten. They whoop, clapping each other on the back. ‘Your mum’s a badass, Dane’. Nine. Eight. Seven. They scoop up their skateboards, kicking at the scattered dirt with scuffed shoes. Mrs. Patel from flat number one has already come outside to claim the plant. She shakes the roots free from the shattered ceramic pot. She’s growing a jungle in her lounge-room. Dane’s mum locks the door to their old flat, nodding at Mrs. Patel as she pockets the key. They walk across the road and she buys them lemonade icey-poles from the pool canteen. ‘We’re celebrating’, she tells the girl at the counter, who looks sixteen and has braces. She laughs at the look on their faces when Dane’s mum hands out the icey-poles. Stoked, they can’t think of anything better in this heat. ‘I’ll back you up any day’ Jake jokes and Dane’s mum pats his good arm. Dane’s mum sits on the bench as the boys lick melted icey-pole off their hands. They sit looking over the skate park, perched on their boards, surrounding her. Dane watches her as she looks back at their old flat and smiles.

Huntsman

Sitting on the toilet

I can see the hairs on its legs

From finger to thumb it measures

the length of my hand.

 

Abel and Kane

Our arachnid friend is unaware

its significance is biblical.

 

It would have been his 40th birthday this year

All bones and dust

The remains of our bond –

space the size of a spider’s leg

Just large enough

To torture each other with this small nastiness.

 

Behind the toilet a small window is open

I could get rid of it

But its absence would be noticed

‘It’s a pet’ he says

But what he really means is – be afraid.

 

I wonder how I look through its many eyes

Taking a dump and not flushing

A small pettiness

in my brother’s house.

Short Story: Daily Commute

It’s been a hard morning, struggling to get the baby up, changed and dressed before walking to the bus stop. She needs to be carried and she is almost too big for it. It’s stinking hot too. Sweat is trickling down my back by the time we pass the corner shop and I wish I’d thought to bring myself a hat. With each step my arms ache and the heat makes it worse, my baby’s body is a loved but heavy burden. Some days, like today, I wake to her crying and I almost leave her there. My bones feel brittle and I wish I could lift the doona over my head and drown out her cries. Some days I do, for just a few minutes. The crying goes on and on. The pitch rising to knife me in the gut. If I can just wait it out for another minute, like I used to do with my old alarm clock, maybe I’ll finally get some sleep. Get rid of the grey clouds that fog my brain.

The baby chatters in her made up language as we walk. She squints upward and points a fat fist at the beating blue of the sky. The buildings on either side of us are silent, shimmering in the heat. This neighbourhood always feels like a retirement village, perfectly manicured gardens and no soul. I count the steps and make soft soothing noises back, small ‘oh really’s’ as though the two of us are in conversation already. When she was born I hated baby talk, so I spoke to her as one adult to another. When I started reading into her facial expressions I decided baby talk was easier. There is less judgment in a ‘coochie-coo’.

As we walk, I try not to think about how much longer I have to do this for. Waking up, making my way to the University across town, the hour on public transport with her in my arms. It’s a waking nightmare, capped with a three-hour lecture and the same trip back home.

I started taking the medication when I kept losing weight after she was born, but aside from keeping me awake, it’s not working. I should eat more. ‘Keep your strength up’ the nurse said. But deep down I like how the skin wraps so tightly around my bones. I gave birth barely eight months ago and already my stomach is flat and tight again. The other mother’s at the mother’s group tittered at first and by the last session they glared at me when I walked in. I didn’t go back after the last compulsory meeting, don’t need more judgmental bitches in my life. Flappy cows with their milk and their fat buoyant children.

We stand next to an old woman as we wait for the bus. There’s scrunched paddle-pop wrappers stuffed between the gaps in the bench seat. The woman holds a battered leather handbag and sits beside a small market bag on wheels. I wonder if I could get one to put the baby in. Much cheaper than a stroller. The woman catches me looking. ‘It’s market day’ she looks at the baby and tilts her head as though she’s talking to a small animal ‘and where are you off too?’ when people first stopped speaking to me and started directing their questions at the baby, it threw me. Suddenly, I was a non-entity next to this small parasitic bundle of joy. She looks at the woman with big eyes, her small fist bangs against my collarbone. The woman makes a sympathetic face. I wonder what response she expected and turn my face away to readjust her jumpsuit. I’ve found that fussing with the baby is a good way to avoid conversation.

The bus trundles around the corner, it is five minutes late and belches a dark puff of carbon dioxide as it pulls up. More pollutants to worry about. As if there isn’t enough to try and protect the next generation from. I stand unsteadily and balance her on my hip, grabbing my backpack and the baby bag. Sometimes I see families on public transport and the idea of an extra pair of hands is the sexiest thing I can imagine right now. My hair sticks to the back of my neck where it’s fallen out of its bun. I must look a wreck. At least I have an adorable accessory. Who doesn’t love a small fat child with a fluff of blonde hair?

I take a seat. Small mercies, our stop is at the start of the route and we get a seat every time. If we had to stand, there’s no way I could do this. I can’t carry her for that long. She’s cuddled to my chest, her head peeping over my shoulder. Already I can feel my t-shirt soaking where her warm body is pressed against me. The tiny window above us is cracked just enough to stir the stagnant air. The back of my legs stick to the plastic seat and I wish I had something to fan my face with.

The bus jolts with each stop and I feel her wiggling against me but she’s quiet. ‘A well behaved kid’ my mother says. Not that Marion has seen her much since she was born. Too busy with her garden, some bullshit about having to pull the bulbs up. Marion. World’s Worst Mother turned World’s Least Interested Grandmother. The rage is so old its dull. I accepted a long time ago that I’d forever feel the fool for hoping. The baby is busy looking into the faces behind us. She’s giggling, in that adorable way that children do. I want to turn to see who is playing peek-a-boo, but we’re sitting awkwardly. There’s a small pleasure in a stranger telling me what a cute child I have. Sometimes, when I wonder if it was worth it, hearing that she’s a beautiful child seems to matter. My own mother would point out that I’ve always loved attention from strangers. I know there’s some dark joke there about my baby’s father, but I let it lie.

The giggles haven’t stopped and I move her to my other shoulder so I can turn. She’s pointing a chubby finger into the face of the man seated behind us. Something about him makes me start forward, pulling her away. There’s something wrong with his mouth. The bus is quiet and my baby’s giggles turn into high, girlish laughter. It goes on and on and I realise that everyone is watching us. My eyes water, it hurts me to strain my neck and look back at him. His jaw is oversized, broken from some illness or disorder and for some inane reason my child thinks he is hysterical. She jabs her finger at his disfigured face and joyful peals shake her little body. I panic, squeezing her fat little legs with my nails. Stop that. Stop Laughing.

The shame burns into my stomach and bile rises in my throat, I can’t speak. I want to slap her, at this point crying would be preferable to the awful laughter. I pinch her harder and she starts to scream. Everyone is watching and the judgment on their faces is too much to bear. My daughter’s mirth has given them the chance to stare openly and they relish it. I hate them all with a rage I never knew I had inside me before she was born. She continues to scream, wriggling away from me. I’m hurting her. I know this and release my grip. My shirt is soaked through. Maybe its sweat or maybe the baby has wet herself. The bus jolts again and the man stands up, he reaches down to collect his bag and our eyes meet. They are bright, light blue, the same colour of the underwater when you open your eyes at the pool.

He walks slowly, straight backed, to the front of the bus and nods to the driver before hopping off. I allow myself to take a breath and then, out of the window, I see that he is still standing there. Go. Please go away. I want to tell him. Stop making it worse. He raises a hand as the bus pulls away from the curb, I burn, waiting for the rude gesture, the words that will hit my face like a brick. My baby looks out of the window at him, tears pearled on her thick lashes. She has stopped sobbing. He waves at her, his face transformed by a smile. It hits me harder than any slur. I put her down on the seat beside me as she shakes her chubby fist and I clutch at my sweaty shirt overwhelmed by wretchedness that is no one else’s but my own.

 

Short Story: After Dark

I watch the two boys dismember the marquee. Their bodies look stretched and wrong in the dark. Wrapped in layers to keep out the chill, they move awkwardly, reflective vests shimmering in the grey light – fish in a muddy river. I’ve given them responsibility for the whole row. Twenty tents. Eighty weights. Against the brightness of the floodlights and the high beams of the trucks, they drift into the dark spaces – pushed on by adrenaline, their shadows shift against the backdrop of the fairground. One of the boys, the taller one, talks loudly about a girl he’s rooting. The shorter one manoeuvres around him, unclipping extendable posts, tearing down plastic walls. He dismantles the structure with speed, he’s a worker that one.
Leaning against the wall of the stage, I watch them. I’m close enough to hear the murmur of their voices, it’s always the same shit: girls, booze and sport. They’re green these two, earning their first calluses of the season. My hands shake as I light a ciggie. It’s been a fucked up 48 hours. If only they knew. This is number nineteen – I’ve had six coffees and fuck all food. You’ve always got to be hard on them for their first few jobs. When we pulled up in the truck I gave them a talking to, ‘it’s your third shift — you’ve gotta start pulling your weight.’
I should have just stuck with the speed.
The stage rigging is cold on my back. I crush the butt into a crevice already packed with stubs and watch the two young blokes, but my mind’s not on the job. There’s something about working through the night that fucks with you, it brings the devils out. I can’t help but feel like I’m just another smudge in the darkness. Maybe tonight I rocked up for my shift and got my skull smashed in by a falling tent pole. Wouldn’t that be a waste? No kids to worry about when you’re dead. No one to pay for. An eternity stuck in yesterday’s stubble and my dirty work clothes.
In daylight, it’s easy to forget how many men it takes. The white tents, perfectly spaced apart. Each of them weighted down in case the wind picks up and ruins everyone’s day. That’s labour right there. From the lockers that you can hire for an hour’s wage so you don’t lose your car keys, the bright lights, the bars, the rides and the stages. Someone sets that shit up so the punters can enjoy it. Working through the night, sweating, swearing and disappearing when the sun rises. It’s a fairground alright – the happiest place on earth. When the sun rises over Flemington it bleaches away the guilt and the people stream in, stoked to be here. In summer it’s all blue skies and booze-soaked Festival days. Just another space to see your favourite band, munch a few pills and put your hand up someone’s skirt.

I wonder if Sam will be here this summer, maybe at one of the concerts. My only daughter and she can’t be bothered to pick up the phone when I call. At least her boyfriend is a decent guy, at sixteen she’s already got more sense than her mother. Her mother. I don’t doubt she’s been in her ear. I tell myself she’ll call me when she’s ready, but she’s my kid – that might take years. She’s mad about the dog. She brought home a bloody French bulldog without telling me. It was a statement of course. It always is with Sam. The dog was cute as hell and dumb as dog-shit. Maisey hated her. Maisey’s my girl. She’s has been with me longer than Sam’s been alive. I say it all the time, that dog has saved my life more times than I can count. I was angry all right. What kind of idiot buys a puppy when there’s a territorial Doberman in the house? Sam was furious, slammed the door so hard the window smashed. Told me she hated me. That she’d never forgive me. That it proves I love Maisey more than anyone else. I’d never tell her, but it cuts me up. She used to ride on my shoulders. My little girl. It didn’t change the fact that we can’t afford another dog. She’s her mother through and through, once she get’s her mind on something she never lets it go. Jesus Christ. But the temper? She gets that from me. I told her to suck it up and it’s true, I don’t regret taking the bulldog back. Maisey would have killed the stupid little thing.

I don’t like the idea of Sam coming to the races, it’s a bad crowd. It doesn’t matter how much money they have, they’re all the same. Women knock back glasses of sparkling, heels puncturing the grass as they lurch from one tent to the next. They wear bright dresses and ludicrous things on their heads. Feathers and lace, I just don’t get it. Give me a good arse in a pair of tight track pants any day. These women, the more they drink, the louder they screech and squawk at each other. A bloody pack of galahs my dad would have said. The men, they’re in suits. Puffed up on coke and cash, walking around like roosters. I hate the idea of one of them with my Sam. I watch them crowing into each other’s faces year after year and I say to the boys, ‘take a good look, these are the fuckwits running our country.’
I’m always arriving as their day at the track ends. They never stay long enough to see the breakdown. The bags of trash piled high against the shitty temporary fencing. The stink of the porta-loos, that’s for us to deal with. The night workers. The shit kickers. Tired old guys with wives that hate them and young guys who need cash jobs. Even the losers only need to remember the win.

The all-nighters are getting to me. The cleaner I get, the worse it is. There’s a metallic smell on the wind that tastes of dried blood and scorched railway tracks. It reminds me of being a kid. Of my old man’s mate, Jim. They’d go finishing down by the Maribyrnong on a Sunday, bringing back nothing but a bottle of scotch. Jim scared the shit out of me – he was a true storyteller, always ragged and crazy looking. It’s been 40 years and it still gives me the willies to hear his voice in my head. ‘Bad things taint the land. Evil taints the land.’
You can’t really feel it when you’re high but sober – there’s a wrongness in the air that coats your tongue. Even the bookies feel it and they worship this place and the money it brings. But they always leave before the sun goes down. It’s not the money that brings the ghosts. It’s the loss. The dirty stinking loss.
In the distance another truck reverses, the sound sets my teeth on edge. I promised. I always promise. I can feel the shakes starting up again. It’s been a few days and I’m not sure I’ll last this time. Man this place gets to me. This fucking place. If I was lucky, I’d ask for something to change but there’s no such thing as luck.
The boys are still there, they’re up to number four. It’s too much for just two of them, I’ve fucked them over and they don’t even know it. I should be out there, but I can’t lift the weights tonight. The pain is in my back like a fist. I wonder if Sam would answer if I called tonight? I could ask her how school’s going or if she’s forgiven me about the bulldog. I wish it was easy, like when she was a kid. I was a hero to her then.
I’ve already tried to explain to the boys why they should be wary of working too many nights here. Finish Uni, get a real job. They think I’m nuts. I never seem to get the words right. Maybe the younger guys don’t feel it like I do. The animal aggression of those pricks in suits bellowing after a flayed horse. The misery the people who come here are running from. It sticks to the soles of their shoes and they walk it in, rubbing it into the grass with their cigarettes and their trash. Doesn’t matter if they’re high as fucking kites dancing to shitty electro, everything they’re running from clings. I watch them through the adrenaline of lifting and tearing a festival apart, there’s something in the way they work that makes me think – it’s come for them too. Running around in a fluoro vest at 3am we all feel it. There’s a chill down here on the racecourse that doesn’t touch the heart of Melbourne.

I can’t get her face out of my head. 25 years of marriage and you’d think I’d get used to the look of disappointment on her face. She’s started speaking to me again in the last week, but it feels wrong like we’re rusted over. We’re trying to remember that we fit together. She won’t tell me what Sam’s been up to, but I trust that she knows. Doesn’t matter how much she hates me, she’s a good mum. Always has been. She didn’t know about the puppy either, the fact that she’s speaking to me means I did the right thing. For a while, I thought that if I stopped working nights, things would go back to how they had been.
The boys are far enough down the line now that they won’t hear me on the phone. The wind makes the white plastic sheeting flap. My mouth is dry again, I grip the side of the stage as the shakes pass. Jim used to say ‘you’re only ever one bad choice away from a dead end’ it’s like he’s standing right beside me tonight. When you feel like you’re at the end of the world, it’s hard to give a shit. Maybe Sam would pick up if she knew. I pull out my phone and scroll to her number. I listen as it rings out and clicks over to message-bank. Her voice is clear and friendly ‘It’s Sam, you know what to do’. I cup the phone in my hand and crouch down, out of the wind. I tell her I’m proud of her. That I’m sorry about the puppy. I’m sorry about a lot of things. The tone sounds and I contemplate calling her back. I was rambling. She’ll probably think I’m on something anyway.
My fingers waver and I scroll to Work (Old Number). I’ve always had my little jokes. Press, press, ring. ‘He-lo’ Katie’s voice is groggy with sleep and I picture her pushing herself upright on the battered couch, rubbing the drool from her left cheek. ‘Hey’. We’ve known each other a long time. My tongue is heavy, we both know why I call on nights like tonight. She doesn’t judge me. Doesn’t even comment on how long it’s been since I last called.
‘One or two?’
It’s not really a question, she knows what I need, we both do.
‘Call me when you’re out the front.’ She hangs up and it’s just me, the shakes and a dial tone. I turn back to the field and watch the trucks driving in the distance, the white peaks of the pagodas are like tombstones sticking out of the grass and overhead there are no stars.

Falling in love over and over again

A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships. — Jorge Luis Borges

Like many people living in the modern era I spend at least 7 hours of my day in front of a screen, whether it’s on my computer at work, or on my phone texting friends or scrolling through social media.

In the endless ocean of content I am overwhelmed by snippets and headlines. I flit between discovering answers to my ceaseless questions, watching a funny YouTube video, finding a new recipe and stalking a mutual friend on holiday in Europe. The information is endless but I am no smarter, no wiser and no more enlightened for having engaged with it.

If our neural pathways form our behaviour, my digital habits are making me stupider. So I’ve decided to have an affair.

It’s not going to be just any affair, I’m taking on a plethora of lovers: male, female, old, gay, straight, young, trans, dead… the first pre-requisite is that they must write. I’m going to take one lover a week, romp with them in my bedsheets, stare into them lovingly on the bus and bury my nose in them as I walk.

The second pre-requisite is that their writing should challenge me. Online I am surrounded by an echo-chamber of my own making. Algorithms that have learned what headlines I’ll click and what images are more likely to end in a purchase. I’m fed content that connects with me and as a result I’m shocked when I come face to face with the truth. That the world is not constructed around my sensibilities.

I’m currently in the throes of my own first novel and as I flow through it’s peaks and troughs (I’m in a ditch at the moment if you are wondering) I’ve come to realise what an intimate thing a book is.

I love Borges’s idea that every book is a relationship, shaped by the stories that proceeded it and the ones you will read afterwards. I’m ready to step away from my endless click-bait and make the time each week to have a real relationship with a novel again and I think you should too.

The first book I ever read was Madeline, I was four years old and I sounded the words out loud, memorised from hearing my mum and dad read it to me every night.

I wept when Aslan’s golden fur was shaved off in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe and his majestic nose bound to the stone table.

The first book that broke my heart was Melinda Marchetta’s Saving Francesca, unleashing a torrent of repressed memories about my mum’s mental illness.

My love of books and of writing has come from these moments, and they were created by people I’ll never meet.

For each book that touched you, or frustrated you or challenged your ideas, there was a writer. Someone who spent hours thinking, writing and editing. Slaving over the sentences you devour and creating an endless chain of words to carry you through your life. To teach you things, to make you laugh or cry.

I want more of that please.

— — —

Have you read something fabulous recently? Want to talk about it?

As seen on Medium

To forgive and forget, or not?

What literature tells us about forgiving, forgetting and vengeance.

Forgiveness is a concept most of us are familiar with. When someone has wronged you, whether its to break your heart or your phone, the virtuous way to deal with it is to forgive and forget. Right?

Forgiveness is a psychological concept, enshrined in religion and foisted upon us as a positive characteristic by society. From the Bible to Pride and Prejudice, betrayal and forgiveness are common literary themes that demonstrate the character’s natures or act as a lesson for readers.

Iago and Othello: Tales from Shakespeare (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1901)

Literature teaches us that in order to heal, those who have suffered should forgive and those looking for absolution should be forgiven. As Miguel de Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote de la Mancha, “Let us forget and forgive injuries.”

The human race has long learned moral conduct through oral and written history and learning to forgive is no different. Psychologist Robert Enright defines forgiveness as a combination of cognition, affect, and behaviour, in which negative thoughts, feelings, and actions are replaced with more positive ones.

Through texts like the Bible, we have been taught that forgiveness is a liberator, from our shortcomings and the actions of others. The opposite of forgiveness: being vengeful, petty or small minded. The word itself can be traced from Latin origins; to give up desire or power to punish.

There’s a societal element at play here too. In collectivistic societies, it is common a for a family or group to offer forgiveness to the offender. Forgiveness serves to restore closeness and group harmony rather than confer personal benefits*.

The literary world is rife with characters who show moral fortitude through the act of forgiveness. Is the act of being wronged so universal that it straddles the binary of good and evil?

Atticus Finch, Harry Potter, Cinderella, Lolita and Elizabeth Bennet — all characters who are wronged and forgive as an act of kindness, showing their moral true nature. But more common are those who are transformed by forgiveness or the lack of it.

Shakespeare’s King Lear is a perfect example; a wrong-doer who realises and regrets his past transgressions and asks us to “Pray you now, forget and forgive.” In this instance, one must wonder if acknowledging and asking for forgiveness is the journey his character must take or if he is just a mad old man trying to make amends before he dies.

The Bible intertwines divine justice with holding an eternal grudge when God throws Adam and Eve out of Paradise. While poor Job must endure numerous disasters (his family killed, being covered in painful boils and lively-hood ruined) just to prove that man must forgive God for misfortunes inflicted upon humanity. Confusing messages to say the least.

Literature’s greatest villains also have a common penchant for holding a grudge. Think of Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, darkening rooms in her dilapidated mansion, wearing her rotting wedding dress, and using her grand daughter in revenge, all because she was left at the altar.

Or who can forget the great-grand-daddy of all evil and lover of revenge, Satan? Miller’s Paradise Lost depicts the fallen angel’s vendetta against God as true maleficence. Shakespeare’s Othello gives rise to another kind of villain, incapable of forgiveness or being forgiven, one bent on revenge through manipulation. The cunning Iago may not have committed murder, but his hands are definitely not clean.

Perhaps it’s not the act of forgiveness, but the concept of forgetting that makes a grudge a reason or full-blown vengeance. Villains are notoriously bad at moving on. Not only do they refuse to forgive transgressions but they stubbornly refuse to let them go, spending entire novels reaping their revenge.

And then there’s just plain pettiness — Homer’s The Iliad gives new meaning to letting shit go, where everyone, including the Gods, can be accused of infighting.

There is the expectation that anything but forgiveness will leave us grasping for meaning, or a sense of finality, in any number of vile situations. Literature perpetuates the expectation that forgiveness is the right way to deal with a situation. The “negative” emotions: grief, pain, and anger all have a place but by choosing to forgive and forget them, we allow ourselves (and our community) to move forward.

That being said, you could always choose to live like a villain or a wrathful god and drag out your vengeance indefinitely. Sure, people might call you petty, but who hasn’t held on to a grudge for longer than necessary?

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“Tolerance and patience should not be read as signs of weakness. They are signs of strength.” — Dalai Lama

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