cover credits: www.connortomas.com
What’s all this, then? In the lead-up to this literary annual, we called out for members of the Adelaide University community to submit short stories. “Mark them with the specks of university life,” we suggested. Honestly, we had no idea what to expect. Can you craft engaging short stories dealing with life on the modern campus? From the perspective of the short story writer-cum-student, what stands out as worth writing about? In these particular stories, we enter share houses and bedrooms, crash house parties and protests, penetrate the minds of obsessives and criminals, and watch as lovers come and lovers go. There’s magic everywhere. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why we need fiction at all. Making up stories, engaging in textual make-believe – it all seems a little childish, right? And yet, as the short stories included in this annual demonstrate, fiction has a habit of getting closer to our lived experience than even the driest, most obsessively fact-checked non-fiction ever could. We need both, of course, but sometimes you’ve gotta lie to tell the truth. You’ll notice we’ve paired illustrations and photographs with each of the stories. We told visual artists not to produce works specifically for individual stories, but to send us images they felt had a kind of literary quality: atmospheric, emotive, and open to interpretation. The images we’ve selected, we feel, tell their own stories. We hope you enjoy Hearsay as much as we’ve enjoyed putting the whole thing together.
xo, Connor (and Myriam and Mateo)
firstname.lastname@example.org / (08) 8303 5404 Whilst free speech gives the author of ‘Makers without Buyers’ (78.5) the right to express such a view about culture, I would like to make it known that despite the fact that On Dit is meant to represent the student body, the views expressed in this article are by no means representative of the views of the general student body. It is one thing in itself to suggest that a certain minority of people are solely responsible for ‘creating culture’, as if it is an elite pursuit honourable above all others and not achievable by the lay person, but another to outwardly refer to those who pursue other goals, have other dreams, or do not have the opportunities of ‘young yuppies’, as uncultured, underachieving, social leeches. Until those who are lucky enough to have the opportunity to achieve their creative dreams walk in the shoes of those who struggle to get by day to day, or contribute to society in by helping those less fortunate bogans, underachievers, from the (oh heavens no) northern, southern or western suburbs, criticising them for not helping to create a better, more cultured society seems comically ironic. I couldn’t help but giggle. Sincerely, Alexandra Christopher As an Adelaide alum I’d just like to tell you that coming across On Dit this week (after many years of painful separation) came as an entirely pleasant surprise. I particularly enjoyed Connor O’Brien’s ‘Makers Without Buyers’ (78.5). After many years of futile hand-wringing and navel-gazing, the idea that the people who live in Adelaide simply have a responsibility to shape up is a deliciously politically-incorrect kick in the pants. In his ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’, Richard Florida makes the point that a strong creative class is key to the economic development of all post-industrial cities. You might want to check it out (if you haven’t already). Regards, Jeremy Morris (To view more correspondence, visit www.ondit.com.au/letters).
Judging We approached novelist Stefan Laszczuk and editor Ryan Paine to judge our favourite fiction submissions. The judges’ favourite short story (written by a University of Adelaide student) wins a $250 book voucher, courtesey of UniBooks. For judges’ comments, flick to page 66.
Ryan Paine is an editor at Wakefield Press, and former editor of Voiceworks, Australia’s pre-eminent (read: only) journal of youth literature. He blogs about youth literature at Socratic Ignorance is Bliss (www.ryan-paine.com).
Stefan Laszczuk completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide. His second novel, I Dream of Magda, won the Vogel Literary Award in 2007. He currently lives in Melbourne and is a singer in a band.
Judges’ introduction Props to old people and everything, but so much literature produced by adults, for adults, is characterised by a weird sort of fogginess. I put this down to the fact they have to sound like they know what they’re talking about because … well, because adults are supposed to know
what they’re talking about, and when they realise they don’t know what they’re talking about at all, the lesser adult authors deal with this by jacking up the profound-sounding words and the awkwardly constructed sentences. They talk about the same old shit, in language that makes it seem like they’re talking about something new and incredibly meaningful. They beguile their adult readers into reciting passages aloud at their book clubs and saying, ‘Mmm, yes, I see …’ Old people have to maintain this pretension, lest young people run up to them, steal their crown, and wear it to the pub, getting it all scuffed and smudged with garlic sauce. The best young writers, on the other hand, are confronting their ignorance through writing, so inevitably their stories are explorations of new ideas. Ignorance dissipates pretension, and what we are left with is a distillation of the pure, heartfelt, curious sense of adventure that is consistently absent from so much adult literature. These young writers have not yet been hypnotised by an engorged need for creative rhetoric: they’re not trying to dupe you into feeling something about something you don’t understand. They tell it how it is. They write about love (awkward, unrequited, shared, illicit), dreams (made, lost, abandoned), obsession, hatred (even murder), ambition and torment. And they don’t fuck around. Older writers are great – they’re who we learn from – but young writers are who we can draw inspiration from. They’re writing about the present, but they are the future – these stories are the buds of ideas that will blossom in time. Stefan and I have chosen two ‘winning stories’, and one ‘runner up’: ‘Mutual Friends’ and ‘The Four Seasons’, then ‘House Party’. There is no such thing as a ‘winning story’. These just happen to be the ones we most enjoyed. You will feel differently – such is the beauty of literature, and the diversity of this collection.
Contents Stories Mutual Friends (Joel Philp) .................................... 9 The Four Seasons (Kiara Emily Bacon) ........................... 17 House Party (Margaret Lloyd) ................................................. 25 Thomas and Susanna (Ben Revi) .................................... 27 Fallen (Jessica Clements) ..................................... 33 Painting Life (Rebecca McEwen) ................................... 41 Penelope (Athena Taylor) ....................................................... 51 The Winning Hand (Dylan Woolcock) .......................... 57
Images Luke Byrne ............................................................................. 8 Yoda Navarrete ............................................................ 18 Véra Ada ................................................................ 24 Emily-Jane Robinson .................................................... 28 Hugh Langlands-Bell .............................................................. 32 Riley O’Keeffe .............................................................. 40 Steph Lyall ............................................................ 50 Jonathan W .................................................................. 56 Edited by Connor O’Brien, Myriam Robin, and Mateo Szlapek-Sewillo. May 2010. Set in Interstate, Andrade Pro, and Sabon.
On Dit (of which Hearsay is a special issue) is an Adelaide University Union publication. The opinions expressed within are not necessarily those of the editors, the University of Adelaide, or the Adelaide University Union.
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Mutual Friends Photograph
Amy – she’s across the room. She looks like a rabbit. She’s on the couch, with one hand for her wine and the other at a coffee table of crackers. Her blue eyes and button nose remind me of a little munching rabbit. She laughs, hunching her shoulders in her pretty blue dress. We’ve both ended up at this party, the party of a mutual friend. We haven’t spoken. She walked in with a convoy of boys. I wasn’t expecting that. —— I kissed her at a rave. She took me to her house – this twisting ex-farmhouse, renovations like the rings of a tree, planted in the middle of a grove. It was beautiful. She danced around the black-chrome kitchen appliances. Her parents had flown to Madrid to watch a soccer match. We were alone. I stumbled up her stairs in the blue light. To her messy room, all singlets and socks. We slept together, prickled by hairpins, and I ran my hands up her sides to her armpits, kissing her ears. She didn’t make me wear condoms; she didn’t care. It was the best feeling in the world: like I was worth the risk, or something. She was full of nerves but stretching her limbs out without a care. Afterwards, she got up to use the bathroom. Like a spy I flicked
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through her old math books and stray slips of paper, finding postcards and medical forms, looking for insights from the scribbles of her school days. I wanted to know more, but I found nothing; the books were neat and focused and boring. From the start she was a mystery. She’d spend the mornings sitting on her floor in a dressing gown, legs crossed, drying her hair. I watched her every move, amazed. She’d light candles before bed and we’d wake up in the morning with our noses full of soot. She’d brush her teeth every time she left her room, sometimes twelve times a day. She kept a trunk full of boys’ clothes she’d liked and bought, all waist size 30. She was the strangest girl. I couldn’t keep up. I had no idea what I was doing. Soon enough we were screwing it up. During the day, in the heat, we’d sit in my swollen room, baiting each other with little remarks, mentioning the habits of old lovers. It erupted in this fight and she said to me, ‘You know, you’re not even doing a real degree. Journalism. What is that?’ I shot back: ‘Pharmacy. What is that? Stickering bottles everyday, doing some super-specialised boring job just so you can go buy more boys’ clothes.’ We stopped talking. We crossed paths at uni without a word. It was never this huge, epic, forever-into-the-sunset thing. It was a fling. We never said it would go anywhere. But still, it hurt when it didn’t. —— Now we’re here. She leans across a boy at this shit party. She touches his shoulder as she chats away. It’s Brad Baker. Fuck. Everyone knows him. He’s their president. Prime produce. This city is full of human sponges, with their pastel shirts and their 20/20 vision. They spend all day sipping on their CBD mocha-frappuccino-lattes. They’re all going places. They’ve all got shit hair too. Knowledge is supposed to be this equalising force, but it’s not. It collects at your forehead and grows into this ugly pompous phallic tumor. You get me? I was her little foray to the left, her dip in darker waters. I bet she’s not even miserable. I bet she’s taken out her nipple piercing. I never stood
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a chance. —— I slump against the wall, pushing my knuckles to the bottom of my pockets. I’m leaving. I’m going to find Mathew. I head through the lounge. Amy watches, fiddling with her hair. I don’t offer a look back. I slam against the rickety screen door. I head out into the hot night. I leave the glowing house for a bus stop up the road, but the door slams again and I turn back. ‘Sammy,’ Amy calls. She springs over, bouncing off knots of dying grass. ‘You smoking? Where are you going?’ she asks, close to me, her face a familiar snowball of freckles. ‘I’m heading into the city,’ I sneer. ‘I’m meeting Mathew after work.’ She pauses. It’s dangerous to see her again. There’s something about her poking collarbones, the way her neck stretches up to her ears, the way she walks like a boy; it’s so strange and potent. ‘On your own?’ she asks. ‘… Yeah.’ ‘Stay,’ she says. ‘Stay here with me. We’ll catch the night bus back.’ I smile. I don’t know what she’s doing. The sadder a girl gets the nicer she is. Boys do the opposite: I’ve lost all my social skills to the hole in my heart. The wind picks up. She pushes back the spindly strands of her hair that rebel after a winter of straightening abroad. There’s a pressure in the warm air. It’s like an energy the clouds have trapped against the earth. The news said the weather change was coming in tonight. Brad heads out through the screen door. I look back toward him; I catch an expression she doesn’t. The happy-go-lucky boy that’s always throwing me the kind of smiles you’d throw a girl you want – he looks sad. Here’s my problem with Brad Baker: there’s nothing wrong with him. His greasy friends are all wankers, but he’s not. He’s the best of both worlds – considerate and charming and by all accounts a good person – and this is impossible, something’s gotta be fake. ‘Nah, I can’t. I’m gonna go find Mathew,’ I tell her. She can’t sustain her flirty frown; her face falls blank. She’s taken
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unarmed. ‘…Okay,’ she says. I’m searching for some little gesture to offer her, maybe a scruff of her hair, but I can’t think of anything. So I smile and leave her there to Brad. —— I catch a bus full of pretty boys and girls. It’s a Saturday night. I reach the city. Mathew is in the kitchen, sitting on the silver bench top in his apron and a big dirty pair of fisherman’s pants. He’s grinding down almonds. He looks like a cook. He’s got his earphones in, avoiding the sound of the huge humming fans. I flick the lights. ‘Hey man!’ he says. ‘Hey dude.’ ‘What are you doing here? What was the party like?’ I break open a box of dates and start scratching away at the sticky clump, filling my pockets. ‘Okay. Nothing amazing. Amy was there. With Brad Baker.’ ‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘I know. I mean… I spoke to her. We didn’t say anything.’ Mathew tosses his apron up over the trays of cooked granola, down onto one of the shelves. He switches off the ovens. ‘Don’t worry about her. Brad Baker can go suck a fuck.’ ‘I’m not,’ I reply. ‘What do you wanna do tonight? You wanna drink on the roof?’ Mathew smiles. ‘Yep.’ We go out through the swing doors into the adjacent restaurant. It’s empty. The cereal business we work for rents the kitchen from a fancy Italian joint, and all through the day the smells of their garlic and our hot malt intermingle, confusing the patrons and chefs. So instead we cook at night. And Mathew and I tax them in their house wines. ‘Red,’ I suggest. ‘You feel like red?’ ‘Yeah,’ he adds. He fills his litre Sprite bottle with dashes of five reds and then rips off a packet of chips hanging from behind the bar: ‘Bacon malt?… Weird.’ We never get caught. This is how we manage all our food and clothes.
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The city spills everything. Mathew’s apartment is filled with crates of chick peas and coconut milk; his cupboards with Milo tins and SPC Fruit containers housing breakfast cereal and rice and sugar. We wait around until the cafes in the city give away their lingering sandwiches. We sneak into the uni’s graduation lunches, spitting congratulations to the proud parents, mouths full of free baguette. We share everything. Thanks to red wine, even our shits are the same colour. —— We leave the restaurant. We lock up the kitchen and shoo a fat little cat poking out from the recess of a roller door. We climb the bins, soaked in the hot air from the air conditioners. Up through the tunnel between the close buildings in the alleyway. Roof climbing. We balance our way across the blue tiles specked with black moss. We climb up onto a makeshift ladder – light and aluminum, wedged into the twisted tin – bridging our way to the roof of an old Comfort Inn Hotel. We sit, hidden, on the ledge of a drop to an unused swimming pool on the roof. ‘There’s been people here,’ Mathew says. He points to the newly smashed bottles. I find my glasses in my backpack. I keep them exclusively for when I wanna see something beautiful. I slip them over my nose and the world grows detail. There are a hundred thousand shards of glass scattered around the edges of the pool, paused still like little obedient soldiers, each with a corner that glistens to the city lights. Tiny plants and olive bushes thrive off the mud and pigeon crap trapped in the pool. This is our spot. We’ve got a view stretching half the dormant innercity suburbs. We wait here. We wait for nothing. Mathew grits the torn white tiles with the soles of his shoes. ‘You know I went to visit my mum today,’ he tells me. ‘Yeah?’ ‘I got home and there was, like, ten messages on my phone. Apparently she just flipped out in her pottery class. Her old marriage counselor happened to turn up there and she just broke down when she saw him. She started yelling and hitting him, telling him he’d failed. ’
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‘Shit. Is she okay?’ ‘Yeah,’ he replies. ‘I just sat there with her at home all day. Dad even came over. They didn’t say much. She wouldn’t say anything. He took me out to this restaurant afterwards and ordered this two-hundred-dollar, ritzy, bullshit meal to make me feel better. Then when he was eating he just started crying over how beautiful the food was. Crying. In the middle of a fucking restaurant.’ ‘Fuck.’ I pass him the Sprite bottle and he swigs. ‘…You’d think they’d’ve worked it out by now,’ he says, puffing air towards his hair. I look down to my lap. I think back to once when Amy said to me, ‘You know, sometimes I hate men.’ The way she said it – tersely, to an ad on TV – I think she really meant it. ‘Don’t blame them for not working it out,’ I tell Mathew. ‘There’s something about boys and girls that you can’t work out. There’s a gap. We’ll always be different.’ —— Rain starts to fall around us, fresh and cold in the muggy air. Mathew slips a tea cosy over his head as a beanie. He looks like an idiot. We climb down and walk to his apartment. We follow the bus route out of the city, each stop like a little beacon of light along the bruised highway. We reach his place. Mathew flicks open his laptop and crawls across his bed to water his one plant – a succulent that hangs by the window. —— The roof purrs. The windows shake with the wind. I curl up like a slater in my temporary bed on the floor, tipsy, exhausted, my throat dry. Amy is probably somewhere across the city with that Brad bastard. I miss her. I miss that first night, when she hummed an adlib tune in the bathroom while I looked through all her books, over all her postcards and over a medical form for some trip she was going on. That medical form did say something. It said she had some sickness. It was some random thing I’d never heard of, something starting with the word secondary. Secondary amoneria or something.
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‘Hey man.’ I probe, ‘Do you know what secondary amoneria is?’ ‘Amenorrhea?’ Mathew replies. A moth sways around his screen, trapped to the lure of a light devoid of any heat. ‘Isn’t that when a woman stops getting her period? She can’t have kids.’ ‘…What?’ ‘Yeah. She can’t have kids... Why?’ he asks. ‘Um. I just read it on some form of my mum’s,’ I lie. ‘Oh. Don’t worry man. That must be menopause. That’s normal. Women get that when they’re older,’ he reassures. ‘… Okay.’ Amy was doing all those things – having sex without a condom and collecting boys’ clothes – all with that in the back of her mind. I was worrying about how much better off she was than me, and she was worrying about that. I don’t know what would be wrong with her to stop her getting her period. It could be hormones. Maybe that’s why her arms were so hairy. Maybe that’s why she always hunched her shoulders and sat like a boy. Don’t get me wrong – her body was delicate and streamlined and ever so feminine. But when she wore jackets she put her hands in her pockets and shuffled along just like a boy. ‘I don’t even think girls like sex,’ Mathew says. ‘They say they want to sleep with you. But then when you get there they just stay stiff and still.’ ‘I dunno,’ I say, cold-limbed, burrowing my toes into my quilts. I’m not really listening. I squish the thin mattress up against the side of his bed to form a pillow. Mathew taps at his keyboard, his ceiling soaked in blue LCD light. He’s surfing YouTube probably. I try to sleep. I hear two pats against the floor. Mathew waddles in his old undies towards the en-suite. He heads into the light, white-legged with jutting hipbones. He starts the shower. He stands in the doorway, his hands resting on his head, swaying in thought, or drunkenness. —— He slips his underwear down to his feet. I snap my eyes shut. I just saw my best friend naked. That was weird. Has he forgotten I’m lying here? I peek open my eyes again. The door to the bathroom is open. I find him shower-
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ing, in full view, illuminated by the hot light. He sniffs and tilts his head back into the running water, his eyelashes coupling together. He reaches for the shower gel, eyes closed in the flow. Why the fuck is he showering with the door open? I close my eyes. I pretend to be asleep. I stay still. We’ve shared toothbrushes and beds and done a million things that weren’t manly. We spent weekends sleeping in sheds, comparing underarm hair when we first started to sprout it. Is he trying to show me he’s gay? He’s so stumpy, so much heavier in his legs than I expected. With his egg-shaped belly, his broad bottom and his little swirl of chest hair, his body is nothing like mine. Girls’ bodies look more familiar than his. My mobile starts ringing. It flails on something solid. Fuck. This isn’t a fair test. It’s buzzing away and he can surely hear it. I stumble up to find it and glance over at Mathew. He’s looking at me. ‘Fuck. Sorry,’ I say, feigning shock, darting down towards my phone. He jumps out of the shower and speeds across to the door. Without a word he slams it shut. I hear him sit down on the bathroom floor, against the door. Then nothing. Silence. Embarrassment. He sits there, his silhouette creeping from under the door. ‘Sorry Mathew,’ I say to the closed door. I look down at my ringing phone – it’s Amy calling. I have no choice. I can’t answer now. I push the phone down into my bed sheets to muffle it away. I pull off the crappy quilts, my back against Mathew’s bed. He won’t reply. We’re stuck here, like this.
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The Four Seasons Illustration
Summer squatted over my city. I sat sticky-thighed on my pleather couch watching Ellen Degeneres in my underwear. I forgot what day it was, what time it was. I covered my windows with all the blankets I wasn’t using and lost my phone charger. I remember one day realising that I hadn’t talked aloud in a fortnight. The only day that stands out is the day I first noticed Vivaldi. I peered through my kitchen window and he was stealing sleep in my hammock, breathing like a fugitive, his mud eyes half open. It was about the time my mother stopped calling, about the time my boyfriend dropped off a box of my stuff, about the time I realised you don’t have to microwave frozen peas to turn them into a meal. Vivaldi seeped into my life like a red wine stain, his independent bohemia made me drunk and vicariously vagrant. He didn’t have anything going on and neither did I, so I asked him if he wanted to move in. He had no family or bags, and he preferred to sleep outside. My grass died and I got a wattle-scented tan. I worked nights at a parking lot in town; the same shifts I had during term time, and Vivaldi and I would lay together in the sun outside until I had to go to work. Quite often I would come home in the early hours of the morning to find that Vivaldi had already left for the day, if he had been home at all. If I had given it any thought I suppose I would have been jealous, but then I had never been a jealous person. We weren’t lovers. Around lunch he would nose home and
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we would start our routine again. I warned him that once university started, we couldn’t be like this, the outside world would come in. He ignored the fact. His mud eyes glazing over, thinking of his last meal or fight or fuck. Or not thinking anything at all. His utter aversion for any form of dependence or intimacy scared me, a reminder of my hologram part in his life. Laying awake I contemplated how easily he could walk out. Our spines bumped together. —— Butterscotch sun having morning tea on the foot of my bed, my jelly bean toes curling with yawns scratched on our faces. Love trapped in the sheets, escaping with the skin-warmed skin. The soft downy hair on the back of his neck that tickled me as I kissed him. Bumpy ankle flirting to the sound of garbage trucks. ‘I love you, you know.‘ ‘I know.‘ It started quietly enough, and ended just as gently. One set of keys in the bowl. —— Autumn brought wind and burnt the edges of my street into an incongruous gold. The muted trajectory of my studies looked less promising with every passing year, but I stayed because it was better than working full time and it kept my parents pacified. Vivaldi hated everything about it. I would stretch out on the dining room floor, laying a table cloth where a table would have been if we had one, and create a fortress of academia. He would resentfully watch me as I studied half-heartedly until I finally gave in and gave up, rolling over to accommodate the space of him. Whenever uni friends came over, he would pointedly leave the room, disappearing for the rest of the night. Sometimes I wouldn’t see him for days afterwards and I would have no choice but to window watch until he came back to me. ‘Have you quit yet?’ ‘Why would I quit?’ ‘You’re very vulnerable there. God knows who could just waltz in.’ ‘There are security cameras everywhere. Plus an emergency button. If I press that, the cops are there in five minutes. Less.’
hearsay literary annual ‘A lot can happen in five minutes.’ ‘That’s really optimistic.’ ‘All I’m saying is that if you moved back home you could - ‘ ‘You know the reasons I left home. Pretty much the same reasons you
left.’ ‘Got yourself a boyfriend yet?’ —— Once I brought a boy home. A Nice Boy. A boy my dad would like. Vivaldi stayed in the hammock that night and made such a god awful noise that the Nice Boy left, awkward, his underwear tucked into his pocket. I shelled myself into my doona and silently lined Nice Boy up with the others. Lewis (sixteen times in three weeks, three times in one night, then he moved to Sydney), Charlie (that wasn’t my choice), Henry (he left skid marks in my toilet), Tom (13 months, 2 weeks, four days. Not enough), and now Nice Boy (a half at best, not his fault. Definitely not his fault). I went outside shivery naked and stared at him, not saying a word. He met my gaze, then slinked past me to get inside, brushing against me as he did so. He led me back into the bedroom and I didn’t invite another boy home. May was my birthday, I was twenty-three. I went to my mother’s and got told I looked pale; I went to my father’s and got told I looked thin. I came home to Vivaldi. “I don’t want any surprises, Vivaldi. I hate surprises. No cake, I hate cake too, even more than surprises. A present is okay if you’ve already got something, but seriously, you should know me better by now.” Before we went to bed he pissed all over my CD rack and when I woke up, he was gone. —— A parody of suburban tension. A stray fart at breakfast would set the tone of the day. They think that children don’t notice that dad’s pillow lives in the living room now. Tip-toed conversations that tinged the days grey and white until finally dad’s pillow disappeared from the house altogether. —— Winter bit into my hands like snow. I asked everywhere if they had seen him leave. Seen him shadow skulking around the edges before disappear-
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ing completely. I had no anchor for him, no base. No number or family. It became painfully apparent how little I knew him. It was embarrassing. Like a grandmother who spells her grandson‘s name wrong in his birthday card. Mum came round and cleaned my kitchen while I was at uni. She left a weeks’ worth of casserole in the fridge. I finished assignments on time. I bought a new coat. I got a job in the deli section of Woolworths . I cleaned my room. I thought of getting a dog. But dog’s run away too. —— ‘Tom? Hey, it’s me.’ ‘Oh. Hi.’ ‘I found a couple of your text books on top of the wardrobe.’ ‘Shit yeah! Damn I’ve already bought new copies. I thought I’d left them at uni somewhere.’ ‘Yeah well. I have them.’ ‘Ok.’ ‘Do you want them? I can drop them over if you like?’ ‘Well I’ve already got new copies, so…’ ‘You could sell them?’ ‘Nah.’ ‘Ok. So. You don’t want them.’ ‘No. Thanks though. For checking.’ ‘It’s fine.’ ‘So how have you been?’ ‘Yeah. Good. You?’ ‘Great, yeah.’ The skin around my thumbnail started bleeding. I popped it in my mouth, sucking it like a menthol, until I realised how weird it would have sounded over the phone. ‘Do you remember that weekend that Hayley and Dave came over and we - ‘ ‘Wait a second Chelsea… yeah, babe?… nah, I’ll make the sauce tonight, they’re not coming ‘til at least seven… no-one… sorry about that Chels. I hate when people do that. Sorry. What were you saying?’ I was asking if you remembered the weekend Hayley and Dave came
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over and we watched Mel Brooks movies all night and we ate too much and drank more and when Hayley and Dave fell asleep on the couch we made love in the kitchen, trying to be quiet but secretly not caring how loud we were. I was asking if you remembered me getting the imprint of a cashew nut on my shoulder and you turning it into a hickey. We had left over wine and pasta for breakfast and you said we’d name our daughter Fettuccini, Chini for short. I quite like Chini. I was asking if you remembered the day we ran into Liz at the chip shop, the way she didn’t know who I was but the way she knew you so well. The argument we had in the car afterwards. The way I tore my fingernail and it blood-smeared on your jacket. Do you still have that jacket? The way I threw whatever I could reach into boxes and shoved them in your car, locking you out, blocking you out, scrubbing at the stain of you. Realising you were going to drive off with some of my stuff and putting on a Van Morrison CD to drown out the sound of you knocking on the door, then starting the car and leaving with my stuff in your boot. ‘Nothing.’ —— The woman that guarded the deli offered to put a sign up in the window, but I didn’t have a picture of him. Not even one. I felt like Pluto, suddenly being told I didn’t belong to the sun anymore. —— I did miss her sometimes. Sometimes. When the rain was too heavy and people kept pushing me off doorways. She wasn’t home, but home is over-rated anyway. I didn’t hear a heart beat for the whole of July. I became meaner. But finally my luck ran out. I made a bad decision, he was bigger than me. I couldn’t sleep alone. I couldn‘t walk right. I missed him. I needed her. —— He showed up on my doorstep on the morning of the last day of winter. He’d been in a fight he couldn’t win. And he came to me. There’s a song called ‘Chelsea Dagger’ by a band called the Fratellis.
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The song was made to sing drunkenly in the back of taxis or in the best booth at some sticky pub. Tom used to call me Dagger after a night out. ‘Dagger, come to bed.’ It was only when I listened to the song sober that I realised it was about a prostitute. I waited. No matter what kind of surgery it is, they all smell the same. Hospitals, dentists. Even vets. I crumbled when I saw him. His ear was bleeding, one eye was completely closed. I was sure his right leg was broken. I held him as we waited on the cold plastic chairs and felt his heart bump against my arm. He needed me now. And he always would. He was broken and vulnerable. A chunk out of his ear, blind in one eye, two cracked ribs and a broken leg that would bend my darling‘s walk into frustrating semi-circles for the rest of his life. I don’t think it was another tomcat, but a car. Maybe a sadistic urban terrorist with too much time and rage. I was plied with drugs for him and took him home. I set up a bed next to the heater and for once he didn’t protest. He let me trace the lines around his jaw, his white chest, his back. I lay down with him and reacquainted myself with the body I knew so well. The white sock on his left foot. The kink in his tail. His defiantly nondescript coat. And now his new scars. But I have all the time in the world to get to know them. The act of leaving is something that sprains the muscle in your body that measures time. When something leaves, the very core of routine and comfort is chucked into the ceiling fan, leaving scraps of household traditions on the walls. The order you have showers, the way you stack cups, who has to put their car in the drive way first… you end up not showering, not doing dishes, not going anywhere. Avoid thinking. Helium days get caught in updrafts and carry you off to bed for days on end. The act of leaving gives you a very small wound too, right at the nape of your neck. At the moment of return, if that return ever comes, the wound glows and brings new days. Days that run over me like rain on dusty windows, leaving a bright, beautiful path in the filth. The days that shine gently. Days that remind us that the dust can so easily be polished into white light. Spring was perfect.
House Party Photograph
I felt heady-drunk, after starting to drink on the way to my friend’s house and continuing on the gifted spirits there. I reeled into the backyard, stumbled slightly on the doormat, and looked around for someone I knew. Several people looked at me and then looked away, not knowing me. My fingers clenched around my mug. Both the china and my fingers were cold. I made my way over to the corner of the yard, where my friends were sitting. I relaxed cross-legged next to Maddie, and waved at everyone. Those who knew me well spoke hello back, and those who were less familiar with me waved in return. Everybody’s voice disappears when they first meet a mute. Gradually the conversation turned away, and Maddie and I were left in our own small void, the volume of the group turned down to our ears. “You should dump Sam, and go out with me,” Maddie said, curling into my side. You can’t just exchange one person for another, I tried to say, but I
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only shook my head. My throat made noises that I don’t think she heard. Sometimes I can hear my breath, different to other people’s. Just breath, like wind, that blows without striking the vocal chords. Her heavy-lidded eyes looked around the general area of my face. I could see her focusing on my mouth, for a little bit, but then her eyes swam away and she ducked her head into the crook of my neck. Would it be good? How bad would Sam feel? Would everyone else’s judgement of our strange interactions be harsh and important? Maybe Sam feels like an open relationship now. Maybe we can both have Maddie. My imagination ran riot with visions of sleeping in bed with them both, with Maddie, with waking up in the middle of the night writhing and touching each other. In my mind and in front of my face I could see her heavy-lidded eyes, the fogged look that her face gets when she’s off tap or drinking. I imagined that her face in the privacy of my bedroom would be the same. I played with Maddie’s fringe and stroked her head. She was so tiny and soft, but I felt okay being tall around her. I felt soft, too. She fitted snugly against my side, a tiny pocket of flower-scentedness accentuated by pointed elbows and shoulders. Her hands fell on my knee, and I noticed her grasp made up of thin wrists and surprisingly short fingers. Hours of house party passed, and when Sam came to pick me up I was starting to feel slightly ill. Sam helped me up and we walked to the front door, through a crowd of ambitious dancers. Maddie found us at the door, and I placed my hand on Sam’s shoulder to say that I needed a second. “Oh, you’re leaving?” She pleaded with me to stay, but I shook my head again. I hugged her but even in that closeness I held myself back. Unable to say I love you, and unable to show it. Unable to say in any fashion, I don’t know what I want from you. She said goodbye and went to kiss me, which was normal. My lips stayed closed, and I felt her mouth press against mine and her tongue dart out, rough and tiny like a cat’s. We hugged and I turned around, after patting her arms uncertainly, and walked out the door. The screen clattered shut behind me.
Thomas and Susanna Photograph
Her only experience of living with boys was a rustic sharehouse in the southern suburbs, with punch marks in the walls and soy sauce layered like pavlova on the frying pans, so when they moved in together she was genuinely surprised to find him cleaning up after himself. Yet after a while, his insistence on alphabetising the bookshelf, on dusting the tops of the records, on keeping magazines at right angles, had made her feel nothing like the comfortable, reassured woman she thought she might be. She grew to miss disorder, destruction, panic. She was terrorised by his geometric perfection. So every now and then she bent the bars. She introduced herself to strangers, took cigarettes from passers-by and always got the next round. She stood at the front and sang along. She stayed when everyone left. She took dares. She climbed the office roof and watched the city below, a grid of silent streets rotating about a central axis, and found the not only her home, but her whole world had been dominated by right angles. She laughed at the cars as they indicated to turn. She never indicated. She introduced herself to Thomas, because she wanted to know his name. He was sitting by the bar, sitting slightly askew, perhaps thirty-five
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degrees from the group he’d walked in with. He was facing the wall. He wasn’t talking to anyone. He asked her name. She said her name was Susie, which is strictly true, although until that moment she had always preferred Susanna. She asked herself whether she’d live to regret that, and decided that was an interesting question to ask. He asked her what she was doing talking to strange men at bars, and she asked what he was doing talking to strange women who wanted to know his name. She kept the conversation going until he had nearly finished his drink — until there was, say, less than a quarter left in the bottom of the glass. Without asking, she bought him another. It took her a while — maybe seventeen minutes — to wrestle out of Thomas that he was a poet. At first he had said that he worked in administration for a timber company, but everyone works in administration, even actors have to keep diaries, and that wasn’t an answer at all. He kept telling her, six or even seven times, that his job was administering timber, and after the sixth or seventh time he even began to chuckle at descriptions of ‘handling his wood’. Then he understood what she was actually asking him, and he realised he was a poet. She asked him to recite lines. He said he couldn’t. They were meant to be read in silence, not aloud. She figured he was genuine — she could be, say, more than two-thirds sure of that. So she asked where he kept his notebooks. Thomas told her he kept them at home. Of course, she said, but where might that actually be? He said he lived a twelve or thirteen minute walk that way, and pointed around sixty-two degrees from where he was facing. She asked him to lead the way. They left the bar and turned right, then ducked through the car park, up the spiral staircase, then down the curved decline. He wanted to avoid the main roads. They walked diagonally across the children’s park, and entered through the side door. He shared his house with his sister and his sister’s friend. Books were flowing from the bookshelf, mugs littered the floor. The cushions of the couch looked helpless, victims of some strange attack, with knife marks torn through their backs, stuffing piling out on to the stained floorboards. Three wine bottles were stacked beside each other, the first around sixty-two per
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cent full, the second forty-six, the third only around eighteen. Through an arched doorway, she could see into the kitchen where, high upon a bench, she could see a single pot, dressed in stains of dried tomato. Thomas beckoned her – Susie, or whoever she might be – forward. His bedroom was small, with a big unmade bed against a wall, and an old, small television perched above a chest of overstuffed drawers. She could see a pile of his underwear. Next to the television was a small desk and a big computer; underneath, a series of folders, and a stack – ordered, without being rigid – of notebooks. He pointed in their direction. He turned on a lamp, which lit the room in a warm, dark orange. She could see the colour of the walls. They were painted dark blue, and were covered in photos. Prints, some of the night, others of the sky, others of traffic, others of people. Next to the television was a print of Thomas. In this photo he was smiling; a certain, successful, even slightly mischievous smile. She stared at Photo Thomas for a full ninety-three seconds, then turned her head fifty-six degrees to meet the gaze of Real Thomas. Real Thomas was vacant, unsure, frightened. He wasn’t frowning as such, but he wasn’t smiling; his lips were curved just before their edges, and his cheeks were crunched at the side of his nose. His eyes were tired, but he still stared with wild fascination; this she could see by the slightly crooked furrow of his brows. She looked deliberately at Real Thomas, and crooked her head to gesture him toward his photographic self. When she saw his head had moved accordingly, she glared at him again, with questioning intent. He met her glare and moved his head twenty degrees to the left, until his gaze fixed upon a central point behind her. She turned and suddenly saw his answer: a girl with brown flowing hair, long fluid limbs, a floral print dress, shiny boots and a deep, frantic look of awe, as though she’d just lost something she could never get returned. Susie or Susanna searched for details. The photos were hers; other than that in which she appeared, which Thomas had proudly taken the night their Photo World had ended. She had just informed him of the end. He had taken back her camera, a gift he had given her months earlier, and with it captured that one last moment. She had wrenched the camera from his clamped hands, and had ripped from its abdomen this one last roll of film. She had thrown it into his chest, where
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it had stayed, as he had stayed, watching as she had begun to run. Susie or Susanna asked Thomas what direction she had followed, and much to Susie or Susanna’s surprise, Thomas simply said, ‘north’. Thomas found a notebook. It was clearly not the most recent notebook, nor had it been filed in any particular order. He handed it to Susie, or Susanna, without a word. She took Thomas’ notebook, and then she took his hand. She looked at him for just long enough – maybe more than a minute, but probably less than two – for his brows to straighten. She held his hand long enough for the cheek muscles to relax their grip around his nose, and for his brows to unleash their hold over his eyes. He didn’t quite smile this time, but raised his top lip in silent acknowledgement. She thought he might try to say something. She picked up the notebook, offered a brief word of thanks, and found her way through the front door. He remained on the floor of his bedroom, and though she couldn’t see him, she imagined Thomas turning his head, slowly, delicately, to watch her as she left. She didn’t go back to the bar, but instead went straight home, knowing that even at this early hour he would probably be in bed. She threw Thomas’ notebook upon a living room table. It hit face up, and its cover flew open. She left it there, for its unread words to float around the dimly lit room, filling its corners and covering its planes at all sorts of velocities and vectors and angles. She went to bed, and glanced at his solid sleeping frame. She was restless but she was waiting until morning.
Amelia wasnâ€™t surprised when the office manager informed her they would be closing early that day. Nobody knew exactly what time or day the migration would occur. Everybody sat in a semi-anxious state for the entire month of November, waiting for the announcement to blare through their car radios and light the screens of mobile phones and computers throughout the city. Each year, she asked Jay to keep the day a surprise for her, but she usually found out anyway. Jay always became depressed and agitated the day before the flights and runs around the apartment with the windows drawn, acting like a bird with a broken wing. Amelia could hear the screaming commentary of the rugby final on TV by the time she was at the bottom of the stairwell. She tossed the plastic bags containing Jayâ€™s clean shirts over her shoulder and fumbled around in her purse with her free hand, trying to find her key. At first she mended the shirts herself, but once she started working part time as well as trying to fin-
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ish her degree at the university, she found it was getting a bit excessive to be mending three a week. Besides, she found a fairly cheap dry-cleaning place that didn’t ask too many questions about the way the shirts ripped along the seams, where they had grated against the bony part of his wings. ‘You’re home early,’ he yelled over the TV. He was slumped over the couch with his feet stretched out on the coffee table. It was barely noon but already there were a small collection of empty bottles sitting on top of the glass. ‘Yeah, they closed early. You been up long?’ ‘Nah, not really.’ She disappeared into the hallway to get changed, shutting the hall door behind her to blunt some of the noise from the TV. ‘Have you had anything to eat?’ she asked, coming back out into the kitchen. Dishes were still piled at the sink, but she noticed the dishwasher was slightly ajar, and even though she couldn’t remember if she left it that way when she left that morning, she considered it a major triumph. ‘What?’ he screamed. ‘You had breakfast or anything?’ ‘Nah not hungry.’ Amelia sighed and went to the window, pushing it open to see if she could hear anything yet, but only the usual city noise tumbled through. —— Last year she’d convinced Jay to sit out with her on the balcony to watch the pack flying overhead, their wings had beat so heavily it sounded like a storm rolling in. She and Jay had a fight that morning and she almost missed it altogether, hiding in the bathroom for an hour. He hated it when she cried, but when she came out that day he agreed to watch with her, even though as usual, he seemed totally uninterested about the event. ‘It’s not natural,’ he’d told her once, upon finding the small-framed feather she’d kept from when she was a young girl. ‘Your fascination with them, it’s so… typical.’ Amelia kept her mouth shut, not wanting to get into another argument about how his lack of interest seemed just as unnatural to her, considering what was growing from his back.
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Jay had told her - once and only once - that he’d fallen during migration, that he’d been dropped mid-flight for no apparent reason when he was too young to even remember. As there had been no records of his fall, she’d always accepted his version of the story. Even though she couldn’t help but be drawn to him at first because of what she knew, most of the time he acted not unlike her other past boyfriends. She often wondered that if Jay had the chance he’d leave her too, leaping from the window of their sixth-floor apartment without warning. —— Outside, Amelia could finally hear the helicopters approaching the city, following the flock. She asked Jay to change the channel but he ignored her so she returned to the kitchen where light was beginning to stream through the windows and onto the kitchen bench, bouncing glare off the polished top. As she stood listening to the propellers beating like the racing heart of an unborn child, she wondered whether Jay really had been dropped by accident, or whether he’d simply been miscarried, like an ill foetus slipping from a healthy womb. —— The rugby finally came to an end and Jay peeled himself off the couch. ‘I’m done if you wanna watch now.’ Amelia quickly changed the channel, becoming immediately engrossed in watching the shaky camera following the tangle of blackened feet and feathery wings that were beginning to pass familiar landmarks in the city centre. She asked Jay when they first started going out why they passed through the middle of the city when they could go around and avoid all the chaos. ‘How the hell should I know?’ he’d said. Amelia jumped suddenly as she heard a loud crash coming from down the hall. Even Jay looked unsettled as she got up and hurried towards the door. ‘No, let me,’ he said, pulling her out of the way. They walked in silence to the bedroom. ‘What is it?’ she whispered.
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The balcony door had been smashed. A large hole sat at the bottom of the sliding door like a hand-made cat-flap. When they reach the other side of the bed, Amelia gasped, and said ‘oh my god,’ repeatedly before Jay silenced her with the look of shock he had strewn over his face. ‘Is it, is he ok?’ she finally asked. Jay crouched next to the small boy, trying to avoid the thick shards of glass that surrounded where he lie on the carpet. He was no bigger than a toddler. ‘I think he’s just sleeping.’ Amelia leant over to see for herself, but the boy seemed fine. Jay carefully curled his hands around the boy and lifted him, laying him down on a section of the unmade bed so they could both get a better look. Amelia continued to search his creamy skin for signs of damage but was distracted by the perfection of his glossy white wings, neatly folded in a rounded M shape behind his back. She tried to think back to the last time she saw Jay’s looking that clean. She made a comment once about the way he just stood in the shower, leaning so he wet his head and not much else. Like other things she tried to argue about with him, his cleanliness remained unresolved and over time her eyes adjusted to the subdued colour of his coat. ‘Do you think they know?’ she said looking to Jay. ‘Probably not. Most of the pack had already passed us by the time he’d fallen.’ It suddenly dawns on Amelia that sometime in the commotion, she missed seeing the flock passing by their window. ‘I don’t think I can hear the helicopters anymore either,’ she said, getting closer to the balcony. ‘Maybe no one else saw him fall.’ The boy lets out a small shriek in his sleep, stretching and readjusting himself on the bed with his knees tucked into his stomach, his arms out to the straight to the sides. Jay gestured for them to leave, carefully picking up some of the larger shards of glass on his way. They returned to the kitchen, sitting side by side at the table. ‘Maybe I should call Jill?’ offered Amelia. She didn’t really get along with Jay’s mother but she’d never heard of anyone else that had a baby fall
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into their yard during migration and she was still too shaken up to consider the coincidence. ‘No, just let me think for a minute.’ Amelia got up, moving to the kitchen and turned on the tap, squirting green liquid next to the stream of water, watching as small white bubbles rose and arranged themselves around the dishes and pans. After a moment, Jay was at her side. Silently he picked up the tea towel and began wiping the clean dishes that she piled on the side of the sink, expertly drying the insides of mug handles and around the underneath rims of dishes. Outside, thin storm clouds had begun to pull themselves back over the city in reluctant patches. ‘What do you think about keeping him?’ Jay said casually, bending over to place the last of the dishes in the cupboard. ‘What?’ ‘I don’t think we’ve got any other choice. We can’t exactly tell anyone, and it’s not like I can chase them down and give him back.’ ‘But what about—‘ she trailed off. It’s not like she hadn’t dreamt of having one with him. It’s not like she hadn’t imagined Jay’s brandy-coloured eyes on a baby, but she assumed that even if it were possible to mix their genes, Jay would never go for it. As far as she knew, he didn’t like children. He’d embarrassed her at more than one of her sister’s family dinners, making insensitive comments to their somewhat large four-year-old, and knocking her niece’s head into the doorways more than once. As if he could read her mind, Jay said, ‘It’s not like having a kid.’ Amelia looked at him. ‘That’s exactly what it’s like!’ He shook his head. ‘You don’t understand.’ He shut the cupboard doors and walked out of the kitchen. ‘I hate it when you do that,’ she said, following him. ‘Just close off like it’s you against me. You’re not as different as you think, you know.’ ‘And I hate the way you always take things personally,’ he said, turning to her, ‘I just meant… it’s hard to explain.’ She was about to open her mouth again when she noticed a tuft of feathery down sticking out the back of his collar, escaping from the tight
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singlet top he wore in an attempt to cover the evidence. Just from looking at it she could almost feel the silkiness between her fingers. ‘Okay, fine,’ she said. ‘Okay, fine what?’ ‘Let’s keep him.’ ‘Okay fine?’ ‘Yes. Is it so hard to believe I can agree with you?’ For some reason it sounded so ridiculous as it came out that she had to fight to suppress a smile that pushed at the corners of her mouth, threatening to erupt. Jay took a few steps forward, toward her. She could feel his breath hitting her forehead in even streams as his hands went up to her face. Just as their lips touched, another scream came from inside the bedroom. When they got there, they found that the boy was awake, and that he had somehow managed to walk back out onto the balcony and up onto the rail, clinging on by his feet. Every few seconds, he tilted forward and screamed, leaning backwards and flapping his wings furiously to find his balance. Jay walked slowly towards the door with Amelia following close. Even with the hole in the glass door, the usually dense city air was clear and still as it fell through. Jay was able to step out onto the balcony without disturbing the screaming child. Amelia edged him on in her mind as he leant forward and went to grab the boy off the ledge. He had barely brushed the boy’s skin as a loud cry - crossed between a woman’s scream and a fretful bird - came over the top of them. In one sudden swoop, the boy was snatched off the balcony, his little legs kicking happily as he was lifted into the air. Amelia stepped over the glass and went outside to stand next to Jay who looked defeated, watching a few lost feathers float down to on the edge of the tiled landing. She placed her hand on the smooth square of skin underneath his shirt, between his wings, and waited for something to fill the silence. ‘They came back for him,’ he said finally. They both stood in silence as they watched the small winged-boy and his carrier rise slowly into the sky and turn in direction of the sea. Their
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wings beat heavily as they rushed to catch up with the rest of the pack who had already reached the edge of the soft grey cloud that marked the beginning of the end of the city.
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Painting Life Painting
‘What are you painting?’ she asks for the hundredth time. He is shirtless under the flickering fluorescent light, his skin kissed blue by the naked bulb dangling from the ceiling. She lies on the battered sofa bed, her hair still tousled, wearing nothing but his shirt and her pride. ‘Life,’ he answers, as he answers every time. She doesn’t love him. Not in the conventional way, anyway. But she loves this. Loves the scratch of his paintbrush on the canvas, loves the scent of his paints as it mingles with the light redolence of incense and the faint musk of his sweat. Every lorry that rumbles past sets the windows quivering in alarm; rattling out a warning as if they are afraid the hustle and bustle of the outside world might storm up the stairs and burst into this sanctum of solitude. The night breeze carries up the hoots and shouts of passers-by as the moonlight dapples the sketches littered over the floor.
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It is always too hot in summer. The heat falls over the little room in a smothering blanket, choking the efforts of the beleaguered ceiling fan. His skin glistens with sweat as he moves, the muscles in his back shifting as he bends and curves, almost like a dancer. He holds a cigarette loosely in his right hand, his left occupied with his paint brush. His studio is like him. Jumbled, incomplete, littered with thoughts and memories and unsuspected places of strange beauty. On bad days he’ll take swigs from a bottle of cheap gin as he works. On worse ones his movements will be jerky and spasmodic, as though an invisible hand is tugging at strings attached to his elegant fingers and muscular arms. His pupils will be dilated until his summer-storm eyes turn black. The paintings he does on those days are full of bleeding colours and oozing darkness, barbed wire and rot. Sometimes he speaks as he paints, telling her fairy stories and horror stories and stories of people and places she’s sure are half fantasy, half reality. His words run into each other, jumbling and twisting, winding around each other like kittens in a basket until it’s all nonsensical, a cathartic rush of nouns and adjectives and adverbs. Sometimes he’s silent, the only sound the rasp of his brush or the whisper of his pencils. She knows he’s searching for something in the colours and the shapes. He’s painting life, but he’s searching for it as well. Searching for answers. Searching for utopia. He hacks his way through a thicket of lines and blotches, questing for Sleeping Beauty. A kiss on her lips will give him his answers. He never finds them. He casts his paintings aside, stacks them in corners and leaves them littering the floor along with his sketches, scattered carcases in the aftermath of this battle with the world. She watches from her battered felt island, wishing he could find what he is searching for beneath her skin or in her smile. But he can’t. So she watches. And waits. —— When the phone call comes it is a morning like every other. The congealed remains of her breakfast are sitting in the sink, the coffee pot is perking chirpily on the stove. The birds sing outside, and the distant babble of chil-
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dren trudging to school filters up through the half open window. After she hangs up the phone she turns off the coffee pot and leans for a moment on the kitchen bench, as though it can somehow lend her strength. The birds continue singing outside, the children’s voices burble on unchecked, but they sound different. Laughter seems merely a breath from hysteria. Yells of cheer turn to yells of alarm. The magpie’s cheerful song metamorphoses into a croaking rasp of grief. There are too many shrill, screaming voices. They echo in her head, chasing her thoughts in every which way, deafening her. She walks down the stairs with a sense of the surreal. She unlocks the car, keys in the code for the garage and drives out into the chaos of the morning commute. The tide of cars surges around her, honking and swerving, the pedestrians scuttling between them like venturesome crabs, but someone has muted the volume on her world. The police are polite. Kind, almost. They’ve seen all this before. She doesn’t cry. Not then, not ever. She never can quite find the tears. A female policeman with bottle-blonde hair and a chipped smile brings her tea in a Styrofoam cup. Soon after they begin tossing words around. ‘Tragic’, they say. ‘Morbid’, they call it. ‘A macabre final portrait’ trumpets one paper. They attach labels to him as well. ‘Talented up and coming artist.’ ‘Disturbed but brilliant.’ ‘Artist takes final plunge.’ That irks her. It doesn’t seem right. Who are they to stick name-tags on him now? They know nothing about him. Nothing at all. It was as if in death he becomes knowable. No longer a person, but a portrait of one, easy to file away and forget. A headline. A statistic. They write in permanent texta all over his naked torso, across the stiches in his cold, flaccid skin. They’re only interested because secretly, all of them want the same answers he did, and they want to peel back his face with their grubby, grasping fingers and see if he found them. She makes them show her the photo. It’s difficult, because they don’t want to cause a sensation. But she insists, and the policewoman who’d brought her the tea finally produces it from an evidence bag. She looks at it for a long time.
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And though she can’t take it with her, she takes the memory of it back to his studio. For she had lied when she promised the policeman to hurry straight there. She’d driven in a dream to the familiar room, and breathed in the scent of paint and sex and cigarettes one last time. The easel had been covered, a neat stack of paintings beside it. He’d tied up his life, ordered it as he could never order his world, and the floor had looked naked without its covering of half-finished sketches and scraps of faded inspiration. She’d rifled through that pile with something approaching hysteria, still with the same sense of surreal. Those hadn’t been her fingers scrambling through the stack, sending painting skittering over the floor. Those hadn’t been her gasping, choking, anguished breaths mingling with the steady click of the fan. It hadn’t been her. She wasn’t there. Just like he wasn’t there. There’d been watercolours and charcoal sketches, splashes of colour and sheets in monochrome, pictures of beauty and pictures of filth, depravity and debauchery, purity and perfection. It was all here. Everything except the answer he’d been searching for. There were pictures pulled from porn magazines, human bodies arched and contorted in ecstasies of agony, captured by his pencil. There were soft spring portraits of growth and life, tiny pink buds and fresh virgin leaves so perfect she half expected them to grow off the page. There were synthetic angels with nylon wings and studded-leather hearts. He’d tried graffiti, tried pastels, tried everything; his hands and his heart ripping through every style, every scene, in search of his truth. There was a picture of her. He must have painted it while she was sleeping. She was curled up on the couch like a child, her hair shielding her face, naked and unabashed in slumber. The moonlight barred her back and her black dress was crumpled beneath her, her fingers curled around the silk. She was almost smiling. There was something poignant in it. An odd tenderness in the way his pencil had captured the lines and contours of her body. He’d drawn her, but he’d put something of himself into it as well. Something about it told her it had been his way of bidding her farewell, drawing her bare and innocent and beautiful. She’d pulled the cover off the easel with the air of someone removing
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a shroud. The canvas had been blank but for a simple wooden photo frame. He’d written ‘LIFE’ above it in his scrawling handwriting. It waited for the photo as she’d always waited for him, silent and undemanding. She still isn’t sure how he did it. How he’d set up the camera to capture the exact moment. He’d looked like he was flying, as if the friendly wind was about to catch him and set him down gently on the ground. His eyes were open, unafraid. He didn’t look peaceful, not quite, but he looked pensive. He was beautiful. He’d always been beautiful. Beautiful for a few, final seconds before the ground reached up to shatter his bones and batter his body. Before it tore off his face and reduced the lips she’d kissed to nothing but a gash of red in a bloody mess. Before it suffocated his stormy-sky eyes in blood and grit and bitumen and snapped his artist’s fingers like pieces of brittle kindling. She won’t forgive him for making her look into the face of his death. Won’t forgive him for the papers she’d had to sign, confirming it was him, his body, his corpse. Because it wasn’t him. By the time they laid out the slab of meat under the cold, impersonal lights of the morgue he wasn’t anyone anymore. Maybe that’s why he chose her. To show her. To give her the answer he never had. She slips the photograph into place and looks into his eyes. Perhaps he has his answers, but she cannot find hers in two dimensions. —— They empty his studio, because he’s never paid rent in advance, and for a while it seems like sacrilege. He’s dead, and the burly removalists with their bulbous bodies and coarse faces have no right to tear up what’s left of his life. So she takes the paintings, and the sketches, and the easel, and the watercolours, and the crayons, the pencils, the paints and the charcoals. They sit in the middle of her lounge room looking awkward and self conscious. They know they don’t belong here. She looks at them for a long time.
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Then she burns them. Burns them because she can’t bear to send any more fragments of him out in the world. Burns them because she could put them in a box and tuck them away in an attic, but one day someone else would find them, breathe in their musty scent, let their eyes violate his mind and soul. She won’t permit a stranger such intimacy with him. So she consigns every piece of his work to the flames, and as the smoke stings her eyes she inhales the scent of it and can almost imagine it’s his cigarettes. She collects the ashes, then takes the urn containing the last of him and scatters them together over the ocean. The morning wind picks the grey dust up and bears it off into the sunrise, the sky awash with pinks and crimsons. And as she watches the last, ephemeral pieces of him scatter on the breeze, she can’t tell which parts are him, and which are his paintings. Life rolls on. She goes to work, comes home, runs on her treadmill, drinks take-away coffee from paper cups, buys shoes in lollipop pink and liquorice black. She goes out to dinner with nice, cardboard cut-out men with sharp ties and dull eyes. She makes a gingerbread house for her nieces every Christmas covered with glossy confectionaries and dripping sugar frosting. But curiosity still creeps in sometimes, like dawn light through a chink in the curtain. She wonders what he was thinking. She wonders what it was like setting up that camera, knowing that the click of the shutter would come a second before the sickening, bone-shattering thud as he hit the ground. Wonders what it felt like, to stand on the edge of the bridge, balanced on the lip of the world. Wonders whether falling was like flying, or whether it was just like falling, and whether he’d thought of himself or her or the world or nothing at all as he’d died. Wonders whether he, for a second, had thought he might drift down like an autumn leaf, sashaying and pirouetting through the smoggy air. Weightless. Like a dancer. The questions caper and flit through her imagination like capricious imps. She sits at the train station, watching life pass her by, and tries to find
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the answer in the cold faces of strangers. She realises, one crisp winter morning, as she watches the trains rumble past purposefully on their forays to nowhere, that some people find answers by obliterating the questions. She wonders if that takes great weakness, or great strength. It’s raining and she’s forgotten her umbrella again. She could hail a sunshine-yellow taxi, but she walks through the rain instead until she’s soaked to the skin and her lips are blue. She can see her distorted reflection in the slick pavement. Somehow, she finds her feet carrying her away from her apartment, splashing over side streets and ducking through traffic as she wanders, hair plastered flat, make-up blotched and contorted by the downpour. Other pedestrians shuffle past, hunched mushroom-like behind umbrellas or bundled into coats, but she walks on. Her heels slip on the stairs. She grips the handrail with white-knuckled hands, staring into the rain. It drowns out everything, thundering in her ears and running down her face, blinding her, obscuring the noise of the traffic and the people and the world. She tilts her head back and opens her mouth. For a moment, she can almost taste him on the back of her tongue, a mixture of cigarette smoke and cinnamon and gin. She looks down, but she can’t see the ground for the rain. ‘Why?’ she asks the night. ‘Why?’ she calls, louder now, knowing there is nobody here to hear her. She says it again, and again, and again until she is screaming into the rain, choking on the word, gagging, falling, slipping, stumbling as she mouths it. The pavement is harsh under her fingers. Pavement like this was the last thing he ever kissed. She still can’t cry. It’s rain on her cheeks, not grief. Grief would be hot and violent and cleansing. She’s just cold. Her knees are bloodied and her skirt is ruined. Pink tracks run down her legs, her blood carried away by the rivulets of water rushing past her feet. She hauls herself to her feet, the wrought iron handrail leaving its imprint in her palm. The rain slackens suddenly, and all at once she can see the
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city stretched out before her, glittering as evening slowly creeps through the buildings and alleys. She stands on the bridge, a dew-drenched white nymph perched atop lugubrious grey pillars, and laughs. Laughs because there are no answers, because he was never painting life, he was painting himself, over and over, tearing self-portraits from his heart. Laughs because she’ll never know what he was thinking, she’ll never know whether he was happy, never know whether flying was worth hitting the ground. Laughs because she knows, and because she never will. Laughs because she finally realises she doesn’t have to. She takes out the photograph from its pocket, nestled just above her heart. Her fingers shake. She tears it down the middle. Tears it again. Tears it until it’s in fragments. Tears it until she could never reassemble his face, even if she wanted too. Then she holds her hands up, and lets the wind bear the last of him away. The pieces scatter, borne out over the city. She wonders if those pieces of him will see, and if they’ll understand. Then she clambers back down the steps and hails a taxi. The driver scowls as she drips water all over his battered seats. But when he sees her knees the furrow in his brows deepens with concern and he asks if she’s alright. She tells him she is, then tells him again, just because she likes the way the words taste. She goes home, makes herself a cup of steaming hot chocolate, and watches as raindrops trickle down her window like tears. She watches as the city falls asleep, then watches as it wakes again. Life ticks on, keeping to the time of the old grandfather clock in her bedroom. She locks his smile in her eyes and keeps it there to warm her. Her smile loses its jagged edges. She goes to dinner with interesting men with sharp eyes who don’t wear ties. He fades, until he is a rain-soaked fantasy, a talisman of truth she keeps by her soul. A half-finished sketch folded in her jeans’ pocket. But on some nights something stirs within her, a violent, reckless longing that drives her to fling open the shutters and stand in the window,
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tasting the night air. She looks out over the world, spread beneath her feet, and wonders if this is what he saw. Dots of light and pinpricks of colour. Stars dancing in the eye of a needle. She stands on the cusp of the world and breathes his name to the wind.
The city was muggy. Hot. He could feel the beads of sweat as they traced slow, lazy patterns down his back; could taste the stale stickiness of his breath hissing between his teeth. There was a sullen, brooding mood to the streets that made him restless, anxious. The pavement glared at him accusingly. â€”â€” When he was a child he had run barefoot through his neighbourhood streets. He loved to feel the cold cement beneath his toes, like a chilled embrace. His neighbour, Mrs. Lee, kind old lady with grey hair and pastel dresses, had frowned at him when he scampered past. He would catch a chill, she said, as if a chill was something you could grab hold of with two hands and pin beneath you, struggling feebly. But he enjoyed the frostiness, welcomed it. In summer the cement was too hot to touch. So he stayed indoors
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and drew raindrops on the ceiling. —— He was walking along a busy shopping precinct. He knew this because the signs flashed at him from all directions – their neon, too-bright candy floss enticement spinning in nauseating circles across his vision. Toobright, too-bright. He wanted to spit, furiously; didn’t want to see the dribble of his own insides. Late morning, Coffee-Break time. He had been wandering for hours, since 5:42am in fact. His feet ached with the friction of his cheap, imitation leather too-tight shoes. He had told Penelope they were too small, but she had insisted he buy them anyway. A bargain, she had called them, flashing him a pearly smile of peppermint and golden curls. Penelope. That was where he should be, where he was meant to be. He wanted to make love to her – to lose himself in the sweetness of her body. But she was almost nine months pregnant now, swollen beyond all recognition, and was worried sex would traumatise the child within her. His child. —— He first met her at university, head brimming with ideas and fingertips stained with ink like indolent, shapeless tattoos. She had laughed at them, called him her struggling artist and swept away his cobwebbed mutterings like a zealous missionary. He clung to her smiles like a small child. Uni had been a time of high spirits, easy laughter and sun-streaked afternoons. His philosophy tutor had called him brilliant, shook his hand with such vigour his teeth rattled and vowed to talk to people, the right people, who could get him published. Penelope stroked his hair and told him he would be big someday. —— He felt his head swim in sudden vertigo, and put out a hand to steady himself. It fell, loosely, limply, on the shoulder of a woman hurrying past. Her high-heels ground to a stop beside him and a face, so foreign to him and yet he wanted to seize it, kiss it, looked at him curiously. “Excuse me?” clipped, polite tones. The voice of a stranger. He stared at her, fascinated by her blood red lipstick, unable to tear his eyes away. So puffy, so red. If you pricked a lip you wouldn’t see the blood that leaked out.
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She had smelt him. Her nose wrinkled in disgusted surprise and she lurched away from him, heels starting up again in a frantic rhythm of escape. He stood where she had left him, fighting down a feeling of repulsion at himself, at everyone around him. He felt grimy, like the alleyways that led off the main street into dark corners where people with shadows in their eyes played havoc with each other’s minds. He often ventured down there, preferring the company of whores and drug runners to the paltry shallowness and judgement of the Sunday crowd. Not today. —— It was raining the day she told him of the child. Late August, the tail end of winter lashing furiously against their small, angular apartment like a maddened Sea God. He stepped partially outside, shocked by the sudden iciness that bit into his bare toes and lapped at his ankles. Penelope hated the cold, stood swaddled in layers as she stared at him from inside. He digested her words and resisted the urge to swipe at a raindrop that slid idly down his nose. I’ll have to give up uni, her voice was tremulous, shrunken. She looked so small, despite the extra jacket. Too small to be a mother. We’ll need more money, with an extra mouth to feed. You’ll have to get a job. He stared out at the rain, a grey, sodden curtain of half-shadows and dancing ghosts, and thought of his philosophy tutor, brusque now and curt whenever he approached him, too busy and he hadn’t made any promises, mind you. Uni was stale, and he would be a father soon. Time to put aside those childish dreams of bare-feet and published work and be a real man, with a job and a lunch-break and an each week pay check. With a final shudder, the raindrop tumbled off the tip of his nose. He shook his head and stepped back into the womb-like warmth of the apartment. —— He was walking past a restaurant. Indian – the scent of spices accosted him, their flavours moistening his tongue: cloves… cardamom… cumin… the smells of slow-cooked meat and freshly baked bread. His mother had never used spices, had dismissed them crudely as ‘decoration’. He could still see
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her, tight perm and thin, hard mouth, glaring at him across the table as he picked at his food: mash, steamed carrots, sausages. The thought of it made bile rise in his throat, and he hurried on. The blood had dried beneath his fingernails, hard and crusty. It irritated him, like an itch he couldn’t scratch. He needed soap, a long, hot, scalding shower and fresh clothes, the comfort of a bed with crisp linen, water. Needed so many things and yet he had nothing, nothing except the change in his pocket and an irresistible urge to walk until his skin had peeled away and he was naked, purified and raw. Until the sweat of his body had washed away the guilt that crawled like lice over his flesh. —— The man had lurched at him, emerging from the darkness like a scene from a nightmare. But the cold, hard steel pressed against his throat was real, more real perhaps than the heart beating its own demented rhythm within his chest. Money, breath washed over him, damp with alcohol. But the knifehand was steady. He swallowed and felt the tip dig into his skin. He had nothing, nothing but the change in his pocket. The world started to blur around the edges as if he was stuck in a strange dream. Money, hissed again and angrier this time. He was going to die, surely. He thought of Penelope, golden and swollen. The child. His child. A sudden surge of energy. Something crashed behind them, shattering the tense stillness into a nightmarish kaleidoscope of images. Perhaps another drunk, stumbling into a trash can; perhaps a bar-fight spilled onto the street. Perhaps God, telling him he was needed after all. For a moment, the man’s attention wavered, greasy palm slipping on the knife-hilt. Just a sudden twist, acrobatic thrust of the wrist and he was in control, adrenalin pumping through him like poison. Still caught in the forward-motion of action - unstoppable, irreversible action – he felt the blade slide deep into flesh, so easily, he barely had to push; felt the warm gush of blood on his hands and stumbled forwards, pushing deeper, like a madman drunk on his own insanity. Deeper, deeper, until he himself was sinking into the flesh of this man, thick and red like poppies after rain.
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The weather was beginning to change. The heavy humidity of the air had given way to the tangy scent of rainclouds, and hostile gusts of wind snatched at his hair and whipped across his face like an angry stranger. On a bench, stained and faded, an old man threw breadcrumbs at the dappled pigeons while a young child with bouncing pigtails delighted in chasing them away again. It was the kind of back-and-forth that made him want to dive between them, stitch himself into the simple tapestry of their interactions and curl into a ball, wedged too deep to remove. But they would scatter like frightened birds beneath his touch. His feet had a purpose now. He could feel his toes stretch, pointing fiercely; they had, in truth, been pointing this way all morning. Straight, like an arrow, like a knife blade buried in flesh. He could see the gleaming doors now – automatic, sliding apart and together again like two lovers caught in an eternal dance – could see the neon sign, flickering, too-bright, too-bright but dulled by the greyness all around him, like an entry sign to Heaven or Hell. He didn’t know which. Almost there, the squeaking of his sweaty feet inside his shoes made him nervous. He was slowing now, limbs heavy with anticipation. From far away came a low growl of thunder, rolling over the sky towards him like an advancing procession of war drums. He stood, stationary, looking up at the imposing redbrick building that towered over him, trying to calm the staccato soliloquy of his heart. Without warning, he felt the splash of a raindrop on his nose. It slid idly downwards, where it quivered for a moment before falling off, shattering its perfect form on the cement below. He thought of Penelope, safe at home from the impending storm. Golden, swollen. He would be a father soon. Smiling, he took off his shoes and walked, barefoot, into the police station.
The Winning Hand Photograph
HIGH CARD I used to make the most immaculate card castles. Crouched on the carpet while Dad was glued to the cricket, I’d construct these testaments to my patience and precision. Some would rise in tiers like a Japanese pagoda. Others would be broader, less elaborate, more like some kind of bunker. I commented to Dad that I was like a batsman building his way to a century. He told me to shut up and get him another beer. The good cards were kept in the liquor cabinet. In the kitchen, third drawer down, were the old decks with a few missing or corners that were too dog-eared. Once, I made a castle using every card from that drawer. With a pocket knife I’d nicked from Dad (he’d forgotten my birthday) I trimmed the ratty edges so that the cards could align and the whole structure hold firm. It took an entire afternoon of rigorous concentration. From its solid square base the castle rose as a pyramid to a glorious pinnacle, a
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pair of aces serenely leaning together, like a cathedral spire pointing to the heavens. Dad kicked it over when Dean Jones was given out on 93, caught behind. A bad decision. The umpire was wrong. We ended up losing that match, and then the series. THREE OF A KIND As soon as I was old enough, Mum and Dad taught me to play bridge. They wanted to practice their bidding and refine their general play for the weekend’s social gatherings. Usually played by four, we played a version for three known as cut throat, as two gang up against the other. My learning curve rose rapidly. I soon knew that three no-trumps could open bidding to ask how many aces my partner had. I discovered that a quavering in Mum’s voice meant she wasn’t sure of her call and was worried about Dad’s post match analysis, his post mortem. “What did you play the bloody seven for, didn’t you know I was void in clubs?” A card slammed down on the table was false bravado and meant Dad was weak in a certain suit. I saw Mum’s sarcasm jab him right between the ribs, so well protected by a midriff of beer fed blubber. “Well, that wasn’t the best of leads was it dear?” I learned to see the pursed lips out the corner of one eye, the drunken snarl out of the other, all the while staring straight at my cards. I tried to be completely invisible and completely observant. It was a delicate balancing act. FULL HOUSE As soon as school was done with, I moved into a cream brick flat on the first floor with a mate from school. We made a pact that we’d work like dogs for half the year, then travel for the next half before starting uni. Day in and day out I’d slave away in the kitchen at the local takeaway, scrubbing, stacking, sweating and swearing. At night I’d return home to find my mate on the couch, beer in one hand, remote in the other. There were few variations on the theme. He was going nowhere, holding me back, so I kicked him out. The only positive about his lounge lizard lifestyle was when his similarly
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disinclined mates would come over for a night of cards. It was at these that I was introduced to poker. It didn’t take long to get the hang of the game, the basics being far simpler than bridge. But it was the betting and the bluffing where I truly came into my own. I could read the other blokes as if their beer addled skulls were completely transparent, and found myself winning consistently. They accused me of cheating. I took it as a compliment. STRAIGHT I’ve always considered myself discerning. I’ve never drunk beer. I can still smell Dad’s spilled stubbies soaked into the living room carpet. For me, it was only red wine. I started out with the best of the boxed stuff, like Banrock Station and Yalumba. When the money situation got better, I tried bottled wines. At the local bottle shop, the labels confused me, the descriptions seemed ridiculous. Luckily I stumbled upon a section where the wines had no labels, like home brands in the supermarket. I started drinking cleanskins. I was moving up in the world. As soon as I discovered poker online, I hooked up to broadband and became immersed for hours a day. Being completely alone I had few distractions. I bought books on strategy off eBay, downloaded charts of probabilities, watched the pros play on TV. It was very exciting when I made my first million, even if it was only play money. I announced to the table that I’d just done so, tentative to post in case I was seen as boasting. Those North Americans are encouraging sorts though: DEADMANSHAND: hey, well done!! POKERGRRL69: nice work bobby boy BLUFFA: the first million is always the hardest :) BOB: now watch me blow it! That’s me, Bob. It’s not the name my parents gave me, but I’ve got a thing for palindromes. They’re neat and tidy, self-contained and symmetrical, like Babushka dolls. My parents called me Bartholomew, a name that sounds to me like a cat vomiting, as ugly and sprawling as the suburbs I grew up in. Had they given me the name I’m now known by, my childhood might have
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been very different. We may well have been happy. Mum, Dad and Bob. Three palindromes cosily tucked under the one roof. With the flat all to myself, I became surrounded by boxes and bottles, the recycled remnants of many pizzas and numerous red wines. They lined the walls, reached for the ceiling, covered the window. Far from being a bachelor pad pigsty though, they were stacked with the utmost care and attention to detail. There were strategically placed shelves, four bottles at each corner of a pizza box, propping up those boxes above. Functional sculpture is how I liked to think of it. It all looked precarious, but I’d learnt delicacy from a childhood of card castles. Every time I lifted or placed a book or glass, even when half drunk, it was with the gentlest of touches. It’s essential to have everything - edges, corners, bottles and boxes - just so. There was one downside to my resourcefulness however, and that was one of the sources itself. The pizza boy. He sneered when I gave him a handful of gold and silver coins. Pizza boy oozed private school pretensions. He’d never had to rummage through every pocket and drawer to scrape together a feed. Pizza boy seemed to think his line of work was beneath him, that I was beneath him. Pizza boy needed to learn that he was no better or worse than anyone else. FLUSH Winning play money was all well and good, but I began to crave the thrill of serious competition. My skills were honed, my ego bolstered. I was ready. I put five hundred dollars into an online poker account and went to the real money tables. Playing tight for larger stakes and dangerously for small kept my opponents on their toes and the winnings started to roll in. Quiver behind your cards, BOB is in the house! POKERGRRL69 invited me to a private room away from the tables one night, wanting to congratulate me on a deftly played hand and to get a few tips from “the expert” (that’s what she called me!). After chatting for a while, explaining the finer points of odds calculation, the need to keep records of everyone’s bets and what hand they’d been holding, that kind of thing, I asked her if there were sixty eight other POKERGRRLs:
hearsay literary annual POKERGRRL69: BOB: POKERGRRL69:
ROFLMAO! ??? Rolling On Floor Laughing My Arse Off.... get with the program bobby boy ;-)
I blushed. Australian Shiraz epitomises good card play. Bold and brash is the name of the game, but subtlety and nuance raise the playing field to a whole new level. With a freshly opened Annie’s Lane to my right, a glass to my left, I revelled in the glory of the paradise I’d created. Buying wines over the internet was a godsend. I never had to leave the flat. The money rolled in from poker, my bills were paid online, Australia Post brought my reds and the pizza boy fed me. His pizza bar was the only one within range that accepted credit cards online, so it seemed I was stuck with the snivelling snob. A few hands of poker with BOB would have wiped that smugness off his face. POKERGRRL69 popped into my thoughts more and more often. Since our lengthy conversation, I would often go back to the play money tables just to hang out with her. My advice had proven useful. She’d become a far better player and soon moved to the real tables. She even gave me a run for my money. Much as I hate to admit it, she was the only player who took more winnings from me than she gave. PAIR I often wondered what she was like, really like. I’d imagine sitting opposite her at the table, a real table, really real, not just a real money table. She’d be batting her eyelids, and in a soft voice like a velvety Wynn’s Estate, she’d say “That was an amazing hand Bobby Boy, you’re incredible” and “Wow, I’ve got so much to learn. Teach me.” At the real tables, the real money tables, we didn’t say much. She seemed to want to focus on the game, which I completely understood. Sometimes though, we’d go to the private rooms, and the lessons would continue. I’d become quite the connoisseur. It was not until I could smell that French oak, taste that tannin grip, discern between blackcurrant and blue-
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berry, that I’d allow myself to purchase a better wine. I’d tried Shiraz from Chile and South Africa, California and the Coonawarra. I’d set in my sights to soon try the infamous Grange Hermitage, but I was holding off. It was all part of the bigger picture. Like an outstanding vintage, I was allowing myself to mature. POKERGRRL69 returned the favour and taught me the odd thing or two. When she first wrote LOL, I thought it meant Lots of Love, and wrote back xox. That mistake certainly made her laugh out loud. I told her of my passion for palindromes, so we tried to use them as much as we could. If she had to answer the door or the phone, it was brb (be right back!). If I needed to log off and go to sleep, it was gtg (got to go!).And of course, we LOLed all the time. Such a sweet and concise way to convey that which we had to say. It was like poetry, but all structure, no rhyme. My world was reaching perfection. With POKERGRRL69 at my table whispering sweet palindromes, and my elegantly fragile sculpture surrounding me, what more could I have asked? With the finest wines filling my glass and my opponents quaking in their seats, what more could a man have wanted? Sometimes, in my less sober moments, I’d bask in the glory of the monitor’s pale blue flicker. My constant companion, it softly lit the boxes, danced upon the green and yellow of the bottles. It was as though I was in a subterranean art gallery, or more like a nocturnal aquarium, the sort built for moray eels and angler fish. This aquarium however, was built for card sharks. LOL. A new player joined our favourite table. He flirted outrageously with POKERGRRL69, and was becoming increasingly suggestive. I didn’t like it. She handled it well, but I could tell she was reaching the end of her tether. ROCKPIG’s innuendo made me wince. I thought of having words. One night I fell asleep drunk at the computer. I had a dream in which I was playing a fiercely contested show down with the pizza boy. PIZZAPRATT verses BOB. He went all in with a full house, aces over jacks, only to be humiliated by my straight flush. He reached into his pockets for all his five cent pieces, throwing them at my feet and counting them aloud while I LOLed and LOLed. I enjoyed this dream. Such a victory perfectly
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complemented my recently decanted Penfolds St Henri. They were both to be lovingly savoured. Everybody at the tables knew BOB was a force to be reckoned with. They gave me respect. PIZZAPRATT needed to do the same. This dream became my fantasy, and like the pale blue flicker and the Shiraz, it nourished me. My thirst for great wine was becoming insatiable though, like my thirst for conquest. Disappointed with the more recent vintages of Grange, I forked out just over a grand and bought a bottle of the iconic ‘71. After all, my dominance at the poker tables deserved rewarding. Perched upon the most prominent cardboard shelf, it shimmered and beckoned like the Holy Grail. Soon I’d be ready. Soon I’d imbibe a wine worthy of my brilliance.
ROCKPIG: POKERGRRL69: ROCKPIG: BOB: POKERGRRL69: BOB: POKERGRRL69: BOB: POKERGRRL69:
bluff nice 2 b sitting next 2 u again... might just rest my hand on ur thigh then? best if u didn’t creep, unless you like thick hairy man legs umm... i’ll be keeping to myself then! WTF!!!! hey bobby boy HAVE U LIED TO ME!? nope. have u made assumptions? W T F !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! not here bob, talk in chatroom after the next hand
I folded immediately, couldn’t think straight. I needed an explanation, and a bloody good one. I wanted to blame the booze and hope I’d misread, misinterpreted, misunderstood. I wanted the blood rushing to my head to subside, my fists to unclench. All I got was the explanation: POKERGRRL69:
u did what u did for me because u thought i was a woman. u were patronising. u were condescending. u thought my gender rendered me an inferior player, and sure, i exploited that, u
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i was being generous with my knowledge! i was being chivalrous!
POKERGRRL69: Bitch. Bastard. Where’s that bottle?
sure, the age of chivalry ain’t dead eh? well, the age of sexism even less so. serves u rite. cheers for the ride bobby boy ;-)
all in Fuelled by Grange Hermitage and vengeance, I logged on and tried to win back my money from whoever the hell POKERGRRL69 was. I knew better than to play when roaring drunk, but I’d played half pissed day and night for so long now and I had so much to play for. After a frustrating start folding crap hands, I was dealt the king and queen of clubs. The stakes were sky high. So was my opening bet. Everyone folded except ROCKPIG. The next three cards, two kings and a queen. I let forth an almighty scream. YES! I had the best hand possible. I had the nuts. I bet large, was raised, and matched the raise. Two more cards to come. I was out of my seat, pacing and pumping my fists. A six, a nothing card. I still had the killer hand, unbeatable. The final card, an ace. I went all in. It was everything I owned. ROCKPIG did the same. He then flipped over his hand to reveal an ace and a king. The final card had given him the better full house. My manic joy turned to abject horror. I’d lost the lot. Sculling the last of the Grange from the bottle, I kicked over the pizza boxes, a God-awful cacophony of coloured glass crashing to the floor. I set upon the boxes with Dad’s pocket knife in a frenzy of slashing and cursing, then collapsed in a heap among the shreds and shards of my once magnificent sculpture. Eventually, I came to. Crouching on the carpet, I began to gather about me the remnants of the boxes and groggily started slicing jagged rect-
hearsay literary annual
angles, fifty two of them. I shuffled the blank brown deck and slowly dealt out the cards. A three person game, cut throat, two against one. BOB verses ROCKPIG verses POKERGRRL69. We all had the same hand. Only brazen bets and bluffing would determine whoâ€™d be victorious. Out of habit I reached through the wreckage for my wine, only to find myself gazing into an empty glass. Staring back was some gaunt and withered creature, with great dark rings around bloodshot eyes and crimson lips of encrusted wine: BOB:
OMG... i look like a vampire, i look like nosferatu
And then it hit me. I had one last hand to play. I dialled for pizza. royal flush The doorbell rang. PIZZAPRATT looked different. Heâ€™d had his eyebrow pierced. His hair was bleached powder-white. With lashings of gunk it stuck up in sculpted clumps, at smug and smarmy angles. PIZZAPRATT looked like the Sydney Opera House. PIZZAPRATT was far from symmetrical. It was time to deal him in. A toast! To a perfect world! To the perfect drop! This immaculate elixir supersedes anything Grange Hermitage could hope to be. This is the one, with the deepest and most luscious of lustres, like satsuma plum ripened in a rainforest. I have played the ultimate hand in a game of good old cut throat that leaves all others pale in comparison. And I have come up trumps. Yes, a mighty fine red, viscous and rich, sweeter than victory, thicker than wine. I swirl it slowly and watch it cling to the sides. I let it breathe, then inhale the fleshy warm aroma. With glass raised in one hand, pocket knife dripping in the other, I take a sip. Earthy and robust. Gutsy and intense. It is perfection, despite the slightly metallic palate and a salty after taste of PIZZAPRATT: LOL?
shared first place: ‘mutual friends’, by joel philp ‘Mutual Friends’ embarks as your everyday awkward-boy-meets-cool-girl lament, and arrives as an uncommonly cunning celebration of the multifarious nature of love. The whole story – and in particular, the ending – is characterised by the sort of restraint that Raymond Carver’s editor would have been proud of, except this story asks you to invite these boys in, instead of telling them to get their fucking vacuum cleaner off your porch. Such restraint is uncommon in young writers, suggesting the emergence of a talented and confident young writer. - Ryan (Note: ‘Mutual Friends’ won the Hearsay short story competition, but was not considered for the UniBooks prize, as the author is no longer a student of the University of Adelaide. The judges were ultimately split on the choice of first place story). shared first place / prize winner: ‘the four seasons’, by kiara bacon The writer has a clear and effective voice and is obviously in command of her material. It’s both touching and humourous, occasionally cheeky without being smart-arsed, and there are some simply terrific lines in there. I really enjoyed reading it and I found the story was both alive and engaging. - Stefan third place: ‘house party’, by margaret lloyd A little nugget of a story that evokes a whole novel’s worth of possibilities. The sexual tension in this story would shame any Harlequin writer. And the protagonist is a mute! - Ryan
Author Bios Joel Philp is getting better at writing in third-person thanks to Facebook. Kiara Emily Bacon is a third year education/arts student who spends most of her time defending her degree to her law and engineering friends and lugging several novels around. She has been writing since she was 5 and her first story was about a princess who turned into a dolphin... or a dolphin who turned into a princess. Anyway, it was good. Margaret Lloyd likes drawing, classical music, and books by Haruki Murakami. She is doing Honours and would like some more coffee. Ben Revi enjoys scotch, straight, no ice. He believes pierogi is the food of champions. He thinks you should see a French film called The Taste Of Others, and listen to a Nancy Elizabeth album called Battle And Victory. While you do that, he’s going to go back to marking essays and finishing his damn PhD thesis. After many stops and starts, Jessica Clements finally finished her Bachelor of Arts (honours) at the University of Adelaide in 2009 and is now working towards her Masters. She enjoys baking cupcakes and has at least one dream a week in which she can fly. Rebecca McEwen has been making up stories for as long as she can remember. She suspects she’ll never finish most of them, but also has an inkling that typing ‘The End’ would take some of the fun out of it. Athena Taylor is a second year student studying a double degree of Arts/Law at the University of Adelaide. She has seven brothers and sisters, and hails from the town of Port Lincoln on the Eyre Peninsula. In her spare time she likes to cook, colour in, watch footy, and dream about travelling. Her favourite season is winter. Dylan Woolcock started a combined music/arts degree some time ago, then dropped out. He finished the music part in Melbourne and is back at Adelaide Uni trying to polish off the arts degree, along with a diploma in languages.
For more info contact Greg 83038864 or Haidee 83050613
Hearsay is a literary journal profiling the work of young Adelaide short story writers. On Dit Magazine is a fortnightly Australian student...