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.

The Australian Women’s Movement and White Privilege

We need to talk about the Australian women’s movement and white privilege.

[As published on Medium]

Let me first clarify that I am a white woman and regardless of my upbringing, personal struggles or history, I am unequivocally white in a society that accepts white as the norm. I am passionate about equality and because of this, I get into a lot of conversations about feminism, equal rights and racism in Australia.

I recently got into a discussion with another white woman; Stacy*, and a woman of colour; Kiara*, about how it feels when people ask ‘where do you come from?’

Kiara was explaining that, as someone who is frequently asked the question, she doesn’t mind having a conversation about ‘where she comes from’ because it gives her the opportunity to have an open discussion about a topic that is often painful and misrepresented by the media. Mid-way through speaking she was interrupted by Stacy who vehemently stated that Kiara shouldn’t be okay with having her nationality questioned. Her point, which she made by speaking over Kiara, was that it shouldn’t be a minority’s responsibility to accommodate white privilege.

Interrupting someone mid-conversation is just plain rude, but there was another layer to this. Not only was Kiara being interrupted, but she was being told by someone else what her personal response and experience should be. Wasn’t this white privilege in action?

How often have I, as a well-meaning white woman championing equal rights, spoken on behalf of someone else when I know very little about their lived experience?

I am used to seeing men interrupt women, speak over women, dismiss women and speak on their behalf. These are the reasons many of us speak out about women’s rights and equality in a modern setting. I hadn’t realised was that there was a deeper level to this power inequality that directly affects women who are not white.

Acclaimed author and Wiradjuri woman Dr Anita Heiss captured it perfectly when she tweeted: “White people telling us what’s not racist is like men telling women what’s not sexist.”

I’ve noticed a tendency within the women’s movement to speak on behalf of other women. Yes, there are particular issues that affect us all, but as white Australians we don’t understand the half of what it means to be a person of colour in Australia and that needs to be acknowledged in the dialogue.

Dr. Robin Di Angelo is an American professor who speaks and writes about racism and white privilege. She says, ‘in the line of work that I do, it’s a breakthrough to get white people to acknowledge that our race privileges us in this society’. She says that by pigeon-holing racists as bad people we also validate the concept that if you aren’t racist you are a good person. She describes this as the Good/Bad Binary and we see it in the media all the time.

If you are racist you are; ignorant, prejudiced, bigoted and mean spirited.

If you aren’t racist you are; educated, progressive, open minded and well intentioned.

Di Angelo says, ‘this is the construct that keeps racism today in place and makes it almost impossible to talk to white people about racism. The defensiveness we have comes from this binary, what we hear [when someone calls us racist] is “you just said I was a bad person”. This binary sets it up to be mutually exclusive, you cannot be a good person and be complicit with racism.’

This is where white privilege becomes difficult to talk about as a white person. Having grown up in a society that accepts me and my relationship with race, I am not always aware when I am being insensitive or when my ‘well-meaning’ intentions are actually a form of prejudice. I am not alone.

In the quest to push for change and shared respect in the women’s movement we need to be aware of ‘white-washing’ what it means to be a woman in today’s Australia. An Australia that is still hostile to non-white and non-Christian migrants, still refers to refugees as ‘illegal immigrants’ and generally dismisses the rights and concerns of indigenous Australians.

As a white person growing up in a society where ‘white is regular’ and any other race is ‘other’ we need to be aware that we navigate the world from a privileged perspective.

This doesn’t mean that white Australian’s are all healthier or being paid more, but it does mean that as women we are not penalised because of our race and our gender.

In the last two years the discourse about domestic violence has bought much needed focus and funding to the issue and yet Indigenous women are still facing additional barriers to reporting incidents to police. Indigenous women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

We live in a country where skin coloured underwear and foundation are primarily beige, yet according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics over 20% of our population identify as non Caucasian. Interestingly, the 2017 census has identified the average Australian as a 38-year-old white woman.

Recently, I attended a dinner party where I was in the minority. It made me acutely aware of how infrequently this has happened to me in Australia, even in my social circle. In this setting my understanding and experience of Australian life was vastly different to the women around me. Things I considered universal such as; navigating our medical system, applying for jobs or finding appropriate contraceptive methods.

In the past I have passionately discussed my opinions on women’s health care in remote Indigenous communities and yet, I’m the first to admit I haven’t actually spoken to these women, or spent time in communities living alongside them. That is white privilege. Feeling comfortable to share my opinion, however well meaning it might be, and thinking it is just as valid as the experiences of the people I am talking about.

I’m just beginning to understand what this privilege is and how it has shaped not just my reality but the daily lives of the women I thought, until recently, shared my experience as a woman in Australia.

It’s time we started learning about white privilege.

Instead of speaking on behalf of other women, we can advocate for more voices to join the conversation. We can widen our reading to include more people of colour so we can broaden our understanding of what it means to be a woman in Australia today.

We can make a conscious decision to not speak for or interrupt people (whose experiences we know nothing about) and we can remember that as Di Angelo says; ‘today I understand that I move through the world always, and most particularly as a white person with a white frame of reference.’

If you’d like to learn more, you can watch Dr. Di Angelo’s video about Deconstructing White Privilege.

*Names have been changed.

Doom Smells Like Durian

It’s not every day that you realise you really, really don’t want to die.

For me, today was that day.

After worrying that we would miss our flight from the Nepalese mountain town Pokhara to Kathmadu, due to a layer of stubborn fog. We raced to the airport only to be put through a beeping metal detector (we didn’t have to take off our bags) and ushered one by one into a curtained room with ‘Ladies’ written on a piece of A4 paper tacked to the top.

Erin (my dear friend) and I looked at each other in fear. What would happen in that curtained room? Were they going to strip search us?

Erin went in first (feed the littlest person to the lions) and I didn’t hear any screams, so when “NEXT” was belowed into my face, I nervously complied.

There were two Nepalese women in the tiny curtained space and they guestured I open my bag. As I began to unzip said luggage, I was simultaneously felt up and down by various pairs of hands. I felt like I was back in Melbourne at a hidedous club where people paw at your breasts. Moments later I emerged feeling slightly defiled and a little flattered.

It was then that we realised it was 15 minutes past our boarding time. After worriedly searching for someone to ask (and finding no one) we resigned ourselves to waiting for a man in a yellow jacket to yell a number at us. He never called our number. Instead, we realised that our last chance to fly out that day was probably with everyone else, so we headed the stampede and got on a plane. Was it ours? Who knows. We had seats and that’s what counts.

Then commenced the most horrendous flight of mine (and I’ll speak for her) Erin’s lives. First, they handed out sweets which made everyone’s breath smell like baby diarrhea. They were probably durian flavoured.

The Durian Tagline: "smells like toilet, tastes like dream"
The Durian Tagline: “smells like toilet, tastes like dream”

That was when the turbulence started.

I don’t know about you, but when I fly I try to forget that I am essentially in a shipping container with wings. This is a lot harder to do when that shipping container is being buffeted by winds that makes it seem like a tiny piece of flotsam on the high seas.

I was scared. I actually started thinking about how my parents would find out about my death. Finding my body parts strewn across the Himalaya’s… I was gripping the arm rests with both hands and my knuckles were white. Some one screamed.

It was then that I realised another life changing thing about myself. (Oh the things we learn when we travel and “find ourselves”).

I am a terrified giggler.

I laugh in the face of sheer terror. You might think this is a positive, but it’s actually really unsettling. I thought I was going to die and I was laughing so hard I could not stop. I had tears in my eyes, as the plane wobbled and jolted. I had to hold my hands over my mouth to stop bellowing at the awful hilarity. We were all going to perish.

As I tried to stop laughing and focus on the fact that we would probably survive because we were at the back of the plane. Erin uttered her first sentence since the turbulence began.

“I am not going to die with these people. They all stink”.

All hope that I would accept death without snorting through my nose vanished and I was shaking with laughter as we finally began our descent into Kathmandu airport. Where shaken and stirred we were then swindled 600 rupees for a cab (because we just wanted to get the fuck out of there).

So, we survived the nightmare flight. It actually was a nightmare including the man with the enormous head sitting opposite us (he didn’t have a medical condition so we can laugh).

And I found out some valuble things about my response to imminent doom. Ah… travel. What a way to enjoy life.