Through The Clock's Workings

You can download a story I wrote for this anthology in pdf.

I wanted to ask you

It was like we were slowly just depositing little tiny bits of feelings in to each other, like we were both garbage bins that the other walked past on the way to work. Maybe they were even facing each other on opposite sides of the road. And every day, one little bus ticket was put in there. But eventually, if somehow you could separate all the bus tickets that you had put inside the bin and put them in a pile, you’d see that after a few months, the pile would be fairly large. And I thought that maybe you’d look at it and be proud and happy, but I think you saw it in me, and you weren’t proud, you were scared. So you just walked away, took a new route to work, put your bus tickets in another bin, or maybe just on the side of the road. I wanted to ask you, What do I do with it? All of this feeling that you have left inside of me, what do I do with it? Where does it go? What happens to it when it is finished?

Unravelled

Dear Mrs Livingstone,

I am writing to you to express my deepest and most sincere apologies in regards to your son, Liam, whom I was very close to and spent a lot of time with. Obviously not as close to him as you were, or anywhere near as much time as you spent with him, but enough, you know, to feel like we had some sort of connection and that I could judge him to be a wonderful person. And by that I don’t mean that I’m judgmental and that I meant to weight up his personality traits to see if he was worth of my time and effort – I mean it in the most natural, human way, in the completely non-offensive and sensitive way. Point is, he was lovely, and we got on well.

I’m sure you’re very upset. The loss of a child is debilitating and, well, terrible, I’d imagine, not having children of my own. I can’t pretend to understand what you’re going through as a mother. I do feel, though, that it is only fair of me to explain to you the events of last night, so you have some idea of how we ended up like this.

You see, I had invited Liam over to my house as he had mentioned previously that he wasn’t feeling brilliant, emotionally. As you know, he’s been having trouble at work, with the re-organisation of his level and the promotion of some of his co-workers. I really don’t understand much about that, because I’m not in an office job, but suffice to say, he was feeling down, and I invited him over for a few drinks and some light-hearted conversation. He came with a bottle of wine and we ate Thai food. We enjoyed the wine and the noodles and had wonderful conversation.

After eating, we got up and moved into the living room with the couches. Upon sitting down, Liam noticed a stray thread from his jumper – just off the sleeve. Well, perhaps that is not quite accurate: I noticed Liam playing with a stray thread from the sleeve of his jumper, which he said (with a laugh) had been “Rebelliously trying to run off with his clothing for most of the day.” Of course I was unsure at the time, but in retrospect I swear I saw a glimmer of some kind of melancholy in his eye, or some kind of wisdom. At that moment, however, it seemed nothing more than a momentary pause, and I disregarded it.

It’s difficult to say exactly what happened next. He kissed me, there was a changing of couch positions, another kiss. You probably don’t need to know this, I know. I’m sorry – anyway, the point is, Liam got up to get himself a drink, and I noticed, after he had gone to the next room, that there was a thread caught on the couch and leading after him into the kitchen, as if it were a perfect record of his movements, or perhaps a lure. A thin, coloured, baited line, - waiting for me to follow it to its ultimate end. I sighed and followed him into the kitchen, where I found him leaning against a bench with his drink, with one and a half jumper sleeves. I pointed to his left arm. Liam shrugged nonchalantly – it was nothing. He was leaning back against the kitchen-top, sipping from his glass, with his exposed elbow leant on the granite. He seemed to stare off into the near distance a little, as if he weren’t entirely focussed on his immediate surroundings. He seemed vague and disinterested, really, but in a whimsical, endearing way.

I grinned. He looked silly with one and a half arms so I grabbed the thread, close to him, and ran back into the living room. You see, I had figured that if the jumper was already so far gone, it wouldn’t matter me playing with the rest of it.

Imagining the garment unravelling fast with my every step, I tugged the string and skipped into the hallway, which I bounced down and on into the bathroom, wrapping the never-ending thread around everything fixed I could find: doorknobs, lights, chairs, tables. I could hear Liam’s laughs echoing through the house. I was giggling too, and perhaps a little tipsy, and in under five minutes, I was back in the living room, breathing heavily. I called to Liam then, and realised that the kitchen was eerily silent. I felt more than a little drunk by this stage.

Assuming that he’d decided to turn our game into hide-and-seek, and vaguely worried that he might spring up behind me to get revenge for me unravelling his jumper, I tiptoed towards the kitchen door, without entering. As I stood behind the half-open door, absent-mindedly pulling on the string, I called out Liam’s name, wondering where he could have gone (to the bathroom perhaps? It crossed my mind). Deciding it was safe, I ventured into the kitchen quietly, to find it empty, but for some coloured threads draped over the handles of the drawers and leading out the other door of the kitchen which also leads onto the hallway.

Following the thread, like a child following a trail of Easter eggs, like a sniffer dog after a scent, I let the thread trickle through my fingers without grabbing a hold of it or collecting it. For an hour, Mrs Livingstone, I traced this string around my house, out my front door and delicately down my front steps, the driveway and down the road, one block, two blocks (birds whistling, cars passing) and into the park (almost run over for not concentrating or stopping at roadsides), around trees, across the oval, under another tree and around a beautiful willow tree, where the moonlight illuminated the string which was, I noticed, no longer the same colour as Liam’s jumper (red).

I was very confused. In my hands I held the string and Liam was nowhere to be found – I was alone in the park, late at night – but let me assure you, Mrs Livingstone, my neighbourhood is incredibly safe. There has not been one incident here as long as I’ve known. I was entirely fine, and not really very worried about myself – only about Liam. Of course, I resumed following the string, which (unsurprisingly) led back to my house, in the front door again (I had left it unlocked) and back to the lounge. And there, Mrs Livingstone, you must believe me, though I hardly believe it myself – there the string ended, not in a scissor-chopped fray, but in a small rounded nub, like a bellybutton.  I held the ending delicately, and called for Liam again, no response.

I was tired and confused. For hours I searched the house, you must understand, and found nothing except for the mess of threads. Not knowing what to do, and partly panicking, I decided to gather them up. Starting with the nub, I carefully wound the threads around my arm and shoulder like an electrical cord, retracing my steps around the house, back out to the park (it was cold then) and returning to the house, the hall, the bathroom, the kitchen – where it became more familiar, a record of my own silly expedition. Finally, as the sun rose closer to the underside of the horizon, staining the sky mildly pink like a blue sheet washed with reds, I reached the fraying loose end that we began with. I was wearing the giant, heavy loop of thread, so large now that I stooped to carry it to the lounge, where I reverentially laid it down like a wreath, or a sleeping child. And there, I collapsed.

I woke up hours later, some time in the afternoon. In the daylight I noticed that the loops of thread were of many different colours and shades of pinks, browns, blacks, yellows, purples, blues, whites and reds.

It is unfair of me to expect you to accept this letter easily or in good spirits, but I can only swear that every word I write is in honesty and sympathy. I would not deceive you, and have no reason to. I feel guilty, responsible, for this, as if I should have somehow realised what was happening. I miss Liam, and I have little idea what to do from here.

I am sorry for unravelling your son, Mrs Livingstone, and I’m giving you the thread in the hope that you, if anyone, can maybe find some way of re-threading him. I am no weaver of threads.

Best of luck, sympathies, regrets, and apologies.

Recurring dream

I have this recurring dream that you come to me and you are crying, as if everything in the world has pressed down on you and around you like a squeezing hand so hard that you are leaking tears. You look at me with big, shining eyes and your wet face is salty like you have just been thrown out of the ocean. I ask you what is the matter, naturally, and you can do nothing but choke your voice down and shake your head, little fountains spilling out in to the air as your face moves.

I sigh and stroke your hair. What can I do? Your shoulders shake up and down in bursts and spurts, and I struggle to hold myself back from pressing you to the ground to stop your shivers.

I can see a little of myself in the bathroom mirror.

Ways I have learnt about loss

The first and last time

In my memory, it is all teal and off-white, ugly paintings and the smell of disinfectant. It was a stupidly sunny day, and I had come to visit her, because she was dying. We all knew it, so it was only decent to come and see her, before we couldn’t anymore. Seeing my grandmother had always been a chore, at least according to my mother.

At her apartment, which was about a block away from the unit she used to live in, I was always a child, eating biscuits or chewy fruit-shaped lollies, sometimes sitting down for cake that she had made. I’d brush the light green velvet coloured couches with my fingers, drawing lines as I touched the material in different directions. I’d listen to stories about things my parents didn’t want to hear, explore drawers in desks secretly while they talked. When I was younger, I remember playing in the park that we could always see out of the window, sliding down the hills on pieces of cardboard boxes, getting grass stains on my jeans.

When she looked at me, the oxygen no longer reaching her brain, and asked me, anyone, to call the police, delirious and confused, I was aware that I did not know her at all. I was older now but suddenly a child again, with my mother and her sister, my aunt, three of us standing around the hospital bed, after deciding to turn off life support. I was part of the decision, but I was a stranger to death, and I was my mother’s daughter; the daughter of her daughter. I was scared of this woman who I had never seen before, her hair no longer permed, parts stuck sweaty to her wrinkled forehead, no makeup, not offering me a cup of tea or a biscuit, dressed only in a badly fitted hospital gown.

When she died, the rest of everything was harder to commit to memory. Her funeral is a cartoon, a film re-enactment in my mind. I see myself watching my father shovel a bit of dirt on to the top of a coffin. The headstone wasn’t ready yet; we walked away from a bare grave. I don’t think I cried. It was the last time the whole family had been together and the first time I’d ever seen someone die.

The hardest thing

I’d never broken up with anyone before, never in any serious way. I had been talking to strangers about it for more than a week, finding anyone at any university table and asking them to listen. Telling them about how awful he was, how unhappy I was, how things were falling apart, while they politely sipped take-away coffees and listened for entertainment’s sake. “I’m going to break up with him,” I’d proclaim, more to myself than to them, as if saying it made it impossible to back down from.

It was my birthday and we had to go to a party around the corner from his apartment. When I went in to his bedroom full of the words I was going to say, he had already put all my books and things in a pile, like he somehow knew. It was the saddest pile of books I’d ever seen. I cried when I told him that we couldn’t keep hurting each other, that I loved him and wanted to be his friend, but that I couldn’t be his lover. We went to the party and his father told me how happy he was that I was in his son’s life, that I had made things better for them both. I was so ashamed. I talked to people I didn’t know about nothing, and outside the city lights were shining on the water of the harbour in no particular way, in the same way they had been shining when we met, across the bay.

Afterwards, he left me messages. On my phone, email. He left me a letter on my doorstep with the birthday present he couldn’t give me in person. I stood on the doorstep and waited, walked up the driveway and looked up and down the street, looking desperately for his car, his back disappearing around a corner. I held the gifts he’d bought for me a few days before, not knowing that I’d do what I did, but they were foreign objects, things I could not love. I couldn’t read the book but I read his letter and cried for hours. I don’t know what I did with it – it’s been a few years but I’m still too afraid to look for it.

You keep re-living the beautiful things: the walk we took in the golf course, through the park, when the aeroplanes were flying low and breaking the sound barrier, when I lay down on the grass. I can’t remember the other things now, I suppose they fade away. I remember thinking that no-one would ever love me as much as he did. I read all of his letters over and over again until I felt I could never write another word. His handwriting was spidery and tiny - I wanted to hide away in the curves of his alphabet and stay there until everything was okay again.

Expectations

When our cat Tripod got cancer on her nose, we all knew eventually that it was the beginning of the end. She was called Tripod because she had three legs. She had no tail, as well, but that was part of her breed. The little sore underneath her nose eventually grew to cover a fair part of her face. I don’t remember ever feeling disgusted by it, just disappointed that we were so powerless against this sore that was going to take our little friend away.

She wanted to keep sitting on our laps as her body slowly shut down over the months. We’d have to keep a tattered yellow towel under her, and towards the end, in her bed. Eventually she staggered, unable to walk. She was so quiet and tiny underneath the table, a little black creature silhouetted against a suburban patterned carpet. A little shadow. We put her down. I couldn’t watch it happen, and when I saw her limp body, tiny and black, smaller than ever before, she wasn’t my cat anymore.

Problems

In high school, we were all upset but Naomi’s problems were rougher, more dangerous. Naomi’s problems had corners and edges while ours were still amorphous shapes that we quietly stepped around, pushed in to the back of our minds and replaced with study notes.

We shared a locker. We shared a lot more than a locker, too. We’d been very close ever since we met in Year Seven, thrown together by circumstance in a new school, two awkward girls with bad clothes and legs and arms we didn’t know what to do with. She’d go in and out of my life, finding a new best friend for a few months, then coming back. We’d skip maths and sit on milk crates in an alleyway with coffee and cigarettes. So when she started to cut her arms and legs up, I wondered vaguely where she had thought that idea up. We all kind of hated her for it for a while. How dare she do such a thing, demand our attention so obviously.

Soon enough it was old news and no-one was angry anymore. Most people wrote her off, turned it in to a sick joke. I was worried then, and upset. I’d look at her arms, criss-crossed like nothing I’d ever seen before, scar upon scar upon scar, red raw and bleeding. Then it began on her ankles, half covered in navy-blue school socks.

She became more and more distant. I knew that I couldn’t force her to stop, as much as every part of me wanted to. I knew that I had to let her fix this, that as much as I loved her, her body was her body and I had no rights over it. Every time I looked at her skin I’d feel something drop inside me, this feeling that I had failed her so badly as a friend. I conceded to let her know that I cared about her and that I had put some bandages, bandaids and disinfectant in our locker for her. Every day I’d open the locker and see my little medical stash, unused, pathetic in the empty space that I could no longer even keep books in. It was like it was haunted. I’m not sure if either of us really used it after that.

Eventually she just wasn’t doing it anymore. I don’t really remember a moment where she stopped. There were other parts of her, deeper, darker parts, that I never knew about, that she still won’t talk about very much. With her it always seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. Her arms are still scarred, but the scars are like texture now, and slowly seem to be fading away, just little bumps under my fingertips.

Back Seat Driving

The days are heavy. Sleep comes easily, drowning me each night, exhausted without reason. I do not dream – but for you, I labour over dreams, constructing them like epic novels, struggling to find the perfect scenes. Sleep comes easily, but my dream work is drawn out and tiresome. Sleep itself suffocates me, and I wake up an insomniac’s double.

*

You lock eyes with yourself in the mirror while your hands absently knot your tie in their mechanical way, the way they have tied it so many times. Standing next to you and behind I watch as your eyes glance ever so briefly at my face.

“You look like shit. With so much work you have to do, you’re just wasting time by going out.” It hardly matters what I say – you ignore me on principle. Tonight’s different to other nights though, and you and I both know it. I can see the tiny sweat beads, like diamonds, just below your hairline, waiting patiently for their time to travel over the landscape of your pores down towards your eyebrows – but not yet. They stay buoyant on your brow. For now, you are calm, floating – calm enough to tie your tie smoothly, beautifully, as if it were a work of art: over, under, over, under, over, through and pull.

“You should stay home,” I say with a sigh, knowing it’s my last futile attempt as you turn away from the mirror and silently walk to the bathroom. With a sense of defiance you splash a tiny spit of cologne on your neck and comb your hair. And in a moment you, we, are out: wallet, phone, shoes, jacket, car keys and all.

In the morning light our car door slams echo around the street. As you pull out, we don’t speak and I don’t mind, I guess, staring in half-consciousness through fog-clouds. You won’t turn the radio on so the silence fills up the car, like carbon monoxide fills up cars of businessmen committing suicide; like a leather upholstered fish tank. Today you are a careful driver, full of nerves; your gaze stays locked on the road as mine on the mist, gazing comatose out the passenger window.

We approach a tunnel. There are a lot of tunnels around here. They say this one goes under the river, but I’ve never understood how that works. They seem to gradually descend and apparently, in the middle, the passage is completely submerged. At any moment, I expect a flood to pour through a weak spot, pressing and pressing until suddenly the pressure is too much and the rounded ceiling collapses in, opening onto invincible steel and glass machines its fury.

Minutes pass, catastrophic minutes in white froth and bent metal. And the suddenly, things are still, as the water envelops what is left of the tunnel and a surge of air bubbles rush to the surface. On all sides, the interior lights at the bottom of the walls still survive, lighting the marine scene mysteriously orange as shoals of silver fishes and lone eels gradually approach the sunken traffic. Those whose windows have not cracked yet wait patiently for their sudden and violent exit, like goldfish waiting to exit their plastic bags.

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” you say. “It’s a fucking stupid idea.”

In the tunnel we are slowed down, as if the air has thickened with smog. What seems like hundreds, a crowd of cars move close to each other, packed tightly in. I blink, watching for a moment as a shark swims between four wheel drives and convertibles, its streamlined fin poking over tops of rooves two lanes over. Faster than cars, it’s gone as soon as it came, weaving between shining, glimmering bonnets.

As we move ever slightly forward giant trucks, like slow motion dinosaurs, loom ahead. Dwarfing the tiny cars, they move like whales on a migration, their giant tops almost brushing the tunnel roof. Their mechanisms groan and echo in the confined space. The orange lights in the tunnel reflect off hundreds of windscreens and as we move to a stop, a sea of flashing red stop blinker eyes fade into a slow humming haze. I let my eyes fall out of focus, watching the blurred shapes and colours gradually darken. I don’t know where we are going.

*

You say I am your dreams – are you then, mine? I dream only of control, The shadow of a figure drapes behind it, each step guided by the figure’s foot, attached as if by puppeteer’s strings. And then imperceptibly, the image is reversed. The shadow now pulls the figure, elongating at each step as if to tug slightly at the heels.

For a sply second I see myself behind the wheel.

*

When I awake, we are just exiting a tunnel. Our clock is broken, and I have no idea how much time has passed, but I am sure this is a different tunnel because the sky outside is grey from a different angle. The day has all but passed me by, escaping my wakefulness and disappearing into darkness, and I glance back through the rear windscreen to watch a frothy wave recede back in to the black hole.

Soon we are driving on the freeway, and it is definitely night-time. I lean over and find a water bottle in the back seat, and I drunk some, thirsty after the carbon monoxide sleep, my face patterned by dynamic headlight patterns that flash through the car. It’s slightly warm – you have some as well, and then we both wind down the windows, even though the air is colder than expected. I breathe it deep, and remember how you used toh old your breath through tunnels as a child.

“So?” you ask, incredulously. The road here goes straight on for kilometres, market out only by an endless stream of streetlights majestically towering over the snaking roadway and the ever disappearing tails of lone cars in the distance ahead. “Just let me drive, for once.” I lean further out and let the wind blow my hair around my face.

We pass through a village where tiny houses are recognisable only by the glowing or flickering lights from their front windows. Through some you can see television sets and their eerie projection of reflected light onto walls. There are more streetlights and I can see now that you look exhausted, your eyes pulling your face downwards, so I suggest pulling over.

“You think you’re a god?” I ask, throwing the water bottle between my hands. “You think you can make it? That’ll work well when we’re a flickering TV news statistic.”

You only murmur to yourself something about the time. I glance at the clock.

“Oh Mighty One, divine for us the time.”

*

It take an hour and two other anonymous townships until you finally stop the car. I am freezing, the wind has picked up and finally, it seems, you are no longer invincible.

Mortal but power mad, we are walking down the street like kings. Trees, cars, streetlights all bow down to us and we stride over asphalt sidewalks like royalty. At least, you do. Your tight grip on the box of chocolates clutched in your claw-like hand betrays your nervous denial.

“Work to do. Should go home.” I say blankly, lagging a couple of steps behind you. Too proud to admit I’m right, you fly forward with the horsepower of ego to prove just how much yo uare willing to ignore me, and I can tell that you are in the mood to do something irrational.

“She lives down there,” I say, quietly, stopping at the corner. Six angry power steps later, you stop and turn, now on the other side of the road, practically leaving a wake behind you of sweat and stomach born butterflies. I’m not dressed for visiting and you’re trying to lose me, which is fair enough, because I only came out with you to try and convince you to go back, a pleading toddler attached to your leg.

You, dashing, sleek, slim and sweating, straighten your tie obsessive-compulsively and jog up to the front stairs to rap on the door like a detective. I wait at the gate, leaning nonchalantly. What the fuck are you doing? Why have we come here again? I watch you embrace her, your vulgar hands slipping around her back, snaking around her neck. I decide to go back to the car.

*

At daybreak I wander back to find you speaking to her in the next room outside. The café is small and smells like your grandmother’s kitchen. Maybe that is why you took us here. I know that’s a lie. Your coffee is bitter and the waitress smiles at you. She looks pretty in the morning light, like all the others, incarnations of your fantasises and nothing less than bass note wet porn star dreams to you. She looks like a girl we went to school with, but I suspect that she sees in you the sweat soaked pinstripe peepshow in your mind.

“She knows you,” I suggest. You slam down your coffee cup.

*

WE don’t go through the tunnel on the way home. You must have found a different way, I guess, but then, I know you better.

“Sometimes, when there is so much traffic, the longer way takes a shorter time,” you explain, patronisingly. We pass over a wide river and I wonder how many cars lie underneath us, underneath the water, each travelling to its own destination.

You decide to listen to some music in the car, so you put on Revolver. We have the same discussion every time; you believe George wrote the best music, and I say John and Paul did. We speak as if we have authority, each knowing more than the other, claiming knowledge of musicians we weren’t alive to hear. Eventually you turn away from me, again locked to the road. I am saying, quietly,

“Listen to me,” but you are far away. I raise my voice, “For God’s sake listen to me,” but you are a shark, weaving down the highway ahead of the car, and I am a fish in a steel and glass fishbowl, in a plastic pet shop bag, and I am screaming, listen to me, listen you bastard here I am. Here I always am, always by your side, always on your road trips, watching your infidelities, listening to your moans, keeping track of your drug habit, your money spent, your racist assumptions, your embarrassing childhood, your unwanted recollections, your awkward lingering silences, your every waking moment of truth. You think you’re a fucking God? You think you’re infallible? The only reason you’re not jumping off cliff tops is me, me! I’m your only rationality and all you repay me with is silence and a cold shoulder, well fuck you man, fuck you and your God-complex. Listen to me, for once in your life – I’m your conscience, your fucking conscience, I’m trying to drown you and you’ve taken the wrong fucking way home.

Unremarkable

It could have been any party, really, but it was this one and we were going to go to it, not for any reason in particular but because it was a Saturday and there was a party. And we were going. With beer. It doesn’t really matter who we are, we’re just some people going to a party, any party really, we weren’t together for any reason, just that we were all going to the same party.

It was any night, too. Just some night and some purple-black blanket of a sky with smoky clouds wafting across it. No stars. We weren’t looking at it anyway, too busy with our half-drunk banter as we wandered through suburbia with our beer. Anonymous families cast flickering shadows from the buzzing television screens that we caught glimpses of as we sauntered past their front windows on our way to this house, wherever it was – not far, at least.

It was a familiar walk – the city doesn’t excite us anymore. You become so complacent about the place where you live. It’s just some place. Who cares about the dew on the leaves and the sounds of someone playing the violin and the way the trees shake their dew off when the trains go past. It’s a road and it was taking us to a party, and that’s all that we noticed.

It wasn’t long before we were there, at this place, whoever we were, wherever it was. We’d had half the beer just on the walk but it didn’t matter, there was enough alcohol at this party without our contributions. Whatever music was playing as pretty good, nothing we hadn’t heard before but if it wasn’t on we’d have noticed. To be honest, it was a good party.

The girls were dancing in that way that girls dance where you realise that you’ve been watching them with a drink in your hand that haven’t been drinking for a few minutes and you check yourself and try to walk away but your legs won’t work anymore. When their hips are drawing circles in the air that probably make the most beautiful patterns in all the world.

Down the side alley of this place some of these kids were dropping acid and punching cones, nothing new. They didn’t care but from where I was they looked amazing, all crumpled up in heaps against a dirty fallapart brick wall, bits and pieces of light spitting and flashing on them from cars going by and a flickering streetlight. All in this cloud of smoke, puffing out of their pursed-up pouts like ink in to water.

“Hey, you,” a girl yelled at me. I looked over at her and she walked up to me like a car crash. “Do you want to play strip spin the bottle with us?” I’d been looking at her all night but it was only at this moment that I started to see her, and her features somehow resolved themselves like a television coming in to focus finding the right station. I didn’t know who “us” were but they were probably no-one I knew anyway. If you know what I mean. I mumbled a yes of some kind and found myself following her in to a bedroom, an empty Vodka bottle posed at the ready in the middle of the floor with about ten people lounging around it. They looked like a pride of lions.

It wasn’t just any party now. I could slowly feel everything feeling slightly more particular. I watched as moments passed by and became meaningful somehow in immediate retrospect. Perhaps they were becoming meaningful as I experienced them, as if they process of being inside of a moment were imbuing it with meaning. Who knows. I looked down to notice the slightly moving bottle aiming at me, and raised my eyes to meet the waiting gazes of the pride.

I kissed someone, took off my shoes. She kissed someone else, took off her cardigan. He kissed someone else, took off his shirt. She kissed someone else, wait, no, she kissed me, took off her stockings. Around and around. Outside, an unremarkable sky looked in through the windows with much curiosity.

We were drunk; time was going by at unusual rates. Fast and then slow, unevenly, however it fancied. We were undressing each other with cheering and laughing as stockings rolled around ankles and bra straps fell off rounded shoulders. Perhaps time was undressing us itself with long curled fingers. Who knew. Drunkenly, things were unremarkable again, a generic blur punctuated by more and more skin. And then only skin and a couple of dashes of lace. And then skin.

I was looking at her, or trying to. The girl who had brought me in. In a hazy blur she seemed to be watching me, and it seemed to me that the rest of the night was watching her. It’s funny how being nude makes everyone seem alike. All the other people, blank-faced and generic, lounged around her like animals, big pink and brown creatures.

The bottle spun to face her, as if of its own accord. She was already nude, and waves of laughter rippled away from her. She hadn’t stopped looking at me yet and neither was I able to look away. Our eyes were locked and we knew it – so when she started to take off her skin around her neck I could do nothing but keep returning her stare.

A few generic stars peered in through cracks in the roof and wondered how things had suddenly become so particular.

Reaching over her left shoulder with her right hand she peeled her skin downwards across her breasts and torso, slowly and without expression in her face. The skin came off smoothly, like the skin of a fruit. Smooth and red on the underside, it was occurring to me what was happening but all I could do was observe, detachedly, unable to grasp the sense of reality that the experience demanded. As it fell limply off her body, the skin’s underside showed itself to be a delicate red colour, wet and alive. Underneath the beautiful red muscles and sinews glistened in the dim light.

I was at once disgusted and intrigued – it was clear that this was a normal thing for her, in a way. Her actions seemed somewhat rehearsed. Girls always have these party tricks that they pull out, and this was hers. Of course I couldn’t believe what was happening – neither can you – but for all my disbelief I could do nothing but continue to look at her as she looked at me. Slowly but surely, she pulled the skin further down her body.

Around us, the others were talking amongst themselves, running their hands over each other’s backs and legs. For a moment we were savages, and she some savage goddess. Still sitting on the ground, she had pulled her skin down to the level of her hips and it lay around her like a skirt, soft and folded and impossible.

We could not stop looking at each other. I had never seen a girl anything like her ever before in my life. It was just any party on any street on any night under an unremarkable sky, and this girl had taken off her skin and looked in to my eyes. I could feel the sweat trickling down my naked back. She was sitting in front of me as a collection of anatomical parts, somehow still breathing, living, watching me.

Of course this was unusual but anything would have been unusual on such a normal night. We watched each other for a while still and eventually, the group began to depart, wandering off in to bedrooms or to the music. They began to dress themselves again, slowly searching for their underwear, socks and clothes, more drinks and places to collapse upon. The more clothing they put on, the harder it was to hold her gaze, and the more I started to feel the air on my skin reminding me of the benefits of clothes. And yet her eyes seemed to remind me that I couldn’t possibly be feeling the elements in the way that she was, more naked than any of us had ever been in our whole lives.

As I reached for my underwear and pants, she began to roll her skin up around over her hip bones, quicker than she took it off, her delicate fingers smoothing it out against herself like wrapping paper. For a moment, I looked away, busy pulling up my fly, and when I looked back she was doing up her bra. She slipped on her t-shirt and flipped her long her out of the back of it. She smiled at me as she pulled up her jeans and walked barefoot in to the back yard.

After that it was just another night, full of kind of pretty girls and boys with cups full of anything they wanted. With her skin on, she looked just like everybody else, and after another drink I could barely remember her face. It’s funny how with skin and clothes everybody looks kind of the same. We walked home and I ambled behind with a sick feeling in my stomach. I counted the streetlights. Sixty three. I didn’t even think about the corners I turned.

Smoke

Our grandfather’s father smoked himself to death. Each morning he’d wake up, plod towards the bathroom, splash his face with water and his chest with cologne. He’d keep his packet of cigarettes in the cabinet, and before he shaved, before the rays of sunlight hit the brass edges of the mirror in such a way that it illuminated his face like some shining angelic light, he would light a cigarette.

Our grandfather’s mother would be awake first, and would say the same thing every morning, her voice full of weight: no smoking in this house. The birds in the lemon tree outside looked at each other and shook their heads. The returning sound of bare feet padding down the pinstripe-wallpapered hallway preceded grandfather’s father’s otherwise silent march with cigarette still lit, an obstinate parade with an ever-lengthening thin grey banner of smoke wafting behind him.

We were never sure, but it was hypothesised that grandfather’s father smoked not because he was addicted, but because he was told that he was. In the very striking of the match against the red bumps of the matchbox, there was a sense of perversity. The camera zooms in close, closer, so close that the screen is filled with indistinct colours, impossibly close. Two atoms should bump each other, but they don’t, atoms being what they are. The crackling sound of a match striking a matchbox is the sound of two atoms unable to touch, no matter how close they get.

So with each breath in, now standing out on the back porch wearing the morning sun like a smoker’s jacket, grandfather’s father let the tobacco fill up every part of his lungs, imagining each cell being invaded in a silent (but for the echo of atomic howls) rebellion against his lover. Contrary to popular belief, not all suicides are attention-seeking acts. In fact, not all suicides are acts at all – many of them are lifelong endeavours. That is not to say that people are destined to kill themselves, or that suicide is something inherent to personalities of those unlucky ones chosen by fate to bring the asp to their milky white necks. But the fact is, Cleopatra would have objected to the idea that she was being perverse as much as if we had said she was just that type of girl. To rationalise or justify suicide is to imply that it means nothing. Is death meaningless? Two schoolgirls have an awkward silence in their philosophical late night sleepover conversation. Cleopatra stares the asp in the eye. Lights, curtain down. Grandfather’s father blew smoke rings that did the shimmy-shake before leaving and not saying goodbye.

Some suicidals are, of course, totally bonkers. Some, however, kill themselves not for love, specifically, but rather out of love. Perhaps it could be said that love kills them. Grandfather’s father, stubbing out his cigarette, would have believed the latter for its romantic value but not let the desire to contradict orders go unnoticed, either. He squashed out the butt on the stone step, flicked it in to the flowerbed and buried it with his toes. The plants sighed and shrugged their shoulders. He held his breath for a moment and exhaled the last cloud over their leaves. He felt old.

In France, age is a matter of having years, rather than being them. Time is possessed and accumulated, like empty matchboxes. Time is piled up; measured out with coffee spoons, so to speak. Consequently, every statement of age is bragging. I have twenty years.  I have lived them all. And I have arranged them in a delicate balancing castle. Sometimes they need dusting.

With all of their years, our great grandparents’ house was getting quite full. Calling out that breakfast was ready was an effort, what with all the years blocking the way of the words, but our grandmother’s mother still managed, and knew that her voice would bring back a cloud of smoke with a man inside. The kettle whistled as if to echo her words, and the morning sun from the bathroom had quietly slipped in and made itself at home.

The second part of this story begins with a change in the weather. It was overnight that the rain began, and after a week it still had not stopped. It soaked the ground until it was soft like skin in a long, hot bath. Our great grandfather stood on the porch in the grey morning in his cloud of smoke.

Our great grandmother was sickly. The rains had given her a cold, and she though she couldn’t smell the tobacco she could feel it deep inside her chest, like an instinct. With bleary eyes and a pink nose, she stormed out in a whirl of floral nightgown and simply picked the stub from great grandfather’s mouth and threw it in to the rain.

In the air there lingered a guilty haze. They looked at each other, we imagine, for a long while, without saying a word. Only the drips of the broken guttering and the lone calls of a deranged magpie interrupted their staring. Then great grandfather turned and walked inside the house, letting the screen door bounce behind him.

She could never have expected his reaction.

The next morning, great grandfather went out in the old rusted Holden and came back with boxes – many, many brown boxes. He put them all in the small room next to the lounge that had been empty for years since our mother moved out. Soon the room was half full, and our great grandfather went out again and came back with more. He only grunted his hellos to avoid any awkward questions, and in his wifebeater and dusty brown shorts, hair pomaded back and stubble on his cheeks, he continued his labours.

Eventually he appeared to be done. No one was sure what it was he had finished doing, but there was a sense of completion when he closed the door of the spare room and the sound of footsteps pressing up and down the hallway finally ceased. Great grandmother sighed a motherly sigh of relief and swept up the dust off the floor along with great grandfather’s smug footprints.

It wasn’t long before the wisps of smoke curled around the bottom of the door and up through the air like tendrils to tickle the hairs of great grandmother’s nostrils. Little fingers of smoke beckoned her to follow, and soon enough she was banging her heart out on the door of the room. You stop it, she screamed. You stop that filthy puffing in our house! Her voice was high and cracking and the coffee in her hand was shivering, dripping down her elbow. The smoke tendrils curled out ominously, as if the room itself were full of death. Trying the handle, great grandmother found herself locked out and with a bellow we never heard again, she ordered it to be opened. There was no sound from inside the room.

From outside, the room was equally impenetrable. The window was blocked off by a stack of boxes. A few stray curls of smoke escaped through the cracks in the glass, only to be instantly swallowed up by the rain. The birds in the trees eyed off this phenomenon with great interest.

And so a year was passed, if what they say is true. The banging on the door eventually stopped, and (as old people do) great grandmother gave up, first slumped to the floor like a sheet falling off the line, then washing the clothes, and then wading through her day much like, if not exactly like before. Whatever great grandfather was doing, she thought, was nothing to do with her anymore, and not her responsibility, as long as he cleaned up after himself and kept the screen door shut. She was over her sickness now, by the way. The camera shows us a montage of daily skills in lonely beige clothes and flat shoes. Curled up over the kettle with droplets from the steam running off her chin. Emotional piano music. Fade out.

Eventually, great grandma noticed that the birds had packed up and moved away from the window. She could never figure out why. All of a sudden her stereo avian soundtrack cut out the left side. Instead they sat at the kitchen window, silently peering in, as if watching the television over her shoulder as she washed her dishes.

Whether it was coincidence or fate that caused the heart attack, no-one knows, but the loud crash from the locked room and the jolt of pain in the left arm happened in harmony and on cue, perfectly orchestrated and heard by only the birds, who, after a short pause and a nod resumed their withheld song as if they had been waiting for this moment after all.

When our parents found great grandma on the floor, it wasn’t long before they found great grandpa on the chair facing the window. The door was unlocked, and as our mother opened it she felt herself almost blown away by the mushroom cloud of stale smoke that rushed into the house. Of course, not even the old trees outside were surprised that when our great grand parents were gone, the smoke clouds and the years still filled up the house more than we have ever managed to do, even with all of the stuff we put on shelves and in corners and in piles on the bench tops, over tables and under rugs, hanging from doorframes and stuck to walls; things we keep to pretend that the years and the cigarettes are barely building up at all.

Ways I go home

My mother calls me and asks me if I’d like to take care of their house when she and my father take a vacation in the colourful part of spring. It would be a great help, she says, and the birds do need to be fed. I can’t trust just anyone, she says.

 

My apartment is tired and lonely and I am keen to be tired and lonely in my childhood house, so arrangements are made. There is nothing much in my place that needs keeping or that I cannot take with me, and the view from my window over the drabbest part of the suburb is more and more like a picture I can’t take down. So I go.

 

As the potted flowers in my apartment begin to bloom, my mother and father disappear in an aeroplane and I pack myself in to a suitcase, appear on their doorstep and let myself inside. It has never really mattered where they go to – an island, a city, the third world, the moon.

 

All I ever cared was that they were away: memories of opening this door to a secret party come back as I turn the handle and step on to the tiles of the hall, barely faded over the ten years since I moved out. Spectres of fourteen-year-olds holding alcopops and joints rush and push past me and in to the house, piercings and band shirts with greasy long hair and shining foreheads. I put down my suitcase, which is quite small, vintage and quaint, and I can hear the birds in the aviary far down in the back room already excited by the subtle sounds of the lock closing behind me.

 

I’ve never really felt comfortable around my parents’ aviary. They installed it many years after I had left and gradually filled it with birds, mainly finches and lorikeets and other small bursts of colour and sound. They’ve always been eccentric, my parents, but the birds became an obsession. The cage is ostentatious, gigantic, overbearing, and takes up the entire back room, I have been told proudly by my father over the cracking phone lines many years ago.

 

I walk down the hallway, through the airy dining room and kitchen and out to the aviary, which is in a kind of sunroom. Or at least, it is a room that is often filled with sun, as it is now, brighter than the rest of the house and casting intricate shadows from the bars of the giant cage on to the concrete floor, illuminating the flourishes and rufflings of feathers.

 

It’s warm in the sun, and standing by the cage is like bathing in light and noise. I light up a cigarette and blow silent smoke in to the cage. It is lit up in lines, like a big film-noir cloud.

 

I grab a handful of birdseed from the cream-coloured bucket, letting the grains run between my fingers. The sunflower seeds are shiny and the oil makes them smooth, rushing from my hands like liquid. I stand there for a while listening to the sound it makes, which reminds me of rice being poured from cups in to pots of boiling water. A thing my mother used to do.

 

Holding a bunch of seeds, I feel awkward. I’m not sure what happens next, so I overdramatically fling it towards the giant aviary, scattering seeds all over the place like confetti at a wedding. The movement of my arm is silly, like a little girl throwing a ball, not knowing where her limbs should go or what they should do. The birds, for a moment, go quiet, perhaps with shock, and then start their chatter and song again. I can’t help but feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. The light has started to fade so I go back to the kitchen, eat briefly and go to work.

 

The neighbours do not recognise me. That is, the neighbours of my parents – they do not see in me the child I used to be, which feels unfair to me because they haven’t changed at all, still walking the same dogs or dogs which replaced the dogs they used to have which look exactly the same as the old dogs. I walk outside to put out the garbage and it seems like no-one notices me at all. I feel like I’m twelve again, except there’s no pocket money this time and all my spare change is spent on coffee, not red frogs and trading cards.

 

That night I wander through the house like a ghost. As the sun goes down the birds stop their chatter and I realise I have forgotten where the light switches are, so I fumble along walls until I reach rooms that feel like the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom. Eventually the house is lit, its emptiness suddenly illuminated like a lonely high school dance hall. For the first time in many years, I open the door to my old bedroom, now a study. Somewhere along the line my bed was transformed in to a bookcase, and my wardrobe in to a bureau, like magic. Still, I can feel an old familiarity, which makes me smile. I turn off the light and realise that the only bed is my parents’ bed.

 

Back at my apartment, the jonquils that I bought to freshen things up (myself more than the room) seem to be doing OK. They’ve got enough to talk about between them to not have grown bored yet.

 

I sleep on the couch. In the morning, a chorus of birdsong rouses me just after the sun floods the room with encouragement and for a moment before my eyes open, before I feel the floral fabric of the couch against my cheek, before I am aware of the pink tint of my lit-up eyelids, I think I am still in my bed and then I remember. I uncomfortably walk to the aviary, having difficulty keeping my eyes open in the whiteyellowness. This morning the birds mock me, jeering and screeching as if I were dressed in a giant bird suit, trying to be one of them. I throw some food in and walk quickly out to the garden with barely a look over my shoulder.

 

Over the next few days the house begins to interest me in how it differs from my own and I find myself spending more and more time in the garden, which I had not even realised I had missed. The feeling of the damp grass underneath my feet becomes more and more familiar. For a while, before I can sit at a table for four in the breakfast room on my own, I wake earlier than I need to so I can catch the morning on the cool lawn. I bathe in it, sometimes in just my underwear, doing my morning tasks outside, like drinking tea balanced on the soft grass, or cutting my nails.

 

It’s only after a few weeks that I no longer feel entirely like a stranger in the house. Perhaps the repetition of me putting a key in a lock every day is enough to create a sense of home. I walk in to the bathroom to find my own toothbrush alongside those of my mother and father, my own mess of underwear on the floor. Ever so slowly, my clothes migrate from the suitcase in to the wardrobe, sidling up alongside suit jackets and dresses in plastic covers.  The drain of the shower is furry with my hair, and the dust in the corners I know is made up of my skin more than anything else.

 

Apartment interlude: the flowers I left to their own devices wilt, shed tears and disintegrate, in fast forward as if sighing. An exhalation and a small collapse. Despite the theory about skin, dust layers everything like snow, and the pile of mail in its sliding path from the door-mailbox spews across the hallway like a pack of cards.

 

On a warm night, I slide open the wardrobe to choose a shirt to wear out. The hotel around the corner offers some quiet places to sit and have a glass of wine while reading the paper, which is really all I’ve ever needed in life, and it requires a shirt. Absent-mindedly, I grab one out and put it on, only to struggle with the buttons more than ever before. As I fumble appallingly with them, the birds suddenly begin their chorus of screams and I turn to face myself in the mirror, realising with a start that the shirt is in fact my mother’s. For a moment I look at myself, amused that I fit the same size as her, but I twitch and am quickly put off by the strange contouring of the seams and begin to unbutton it. Laying it on the bed, I pause for a moment, glimpsing my body in the full length mirror. After a second, I reach for one of my shirts, grab my father’s blazer and wander out in to the twilight.

 

For many nights after this I find myself thumbing through shirts that lingeringly smell like my childhood, trying them on, taking them off again, and sometimes wearing them out. It’s not too long before I am sitting on the couch, reading the gardening magazine which arrives at the doorstep each fortnight when I reach absent-mindedly across the coffee table and put on a pair of magnifying reading glasses that are not mine.

 

I become gradually aware of the fact that my parents have been away for a long time. I stand in front of the refrigerator and stare at the tiny post-it note that details the phone numbers of the first three hotels they were at, which I am almost certain they have moved on from by now. I notice the shapes of the letters, the same ones that used to appear in lunchboxes, on birthday cards, and later on politely mailed invitations. My father’s handwriting. For a moment I feel a sense of loneliness overcome me, the house feels more enormous that I ever have noticed and I want nothing more than to hide myself under the curve of the h and shelter beneath the roof of m, safe and hidden from the rest of the world.

 

I finger the hem of the paisley women’s shirt I’m wearing and back at my apartment, the power has been disconnected and the lightbulbs hang uselessly like dead fruit from trees.

 

*

 

Tonight I am at the hotel. I am wearing the magnifying glasses to read a book I found on a bookshelf in the living room, in a deep red booth towards the back of the pub. After a while, I venture to the bar to refill my glass of whatever, and she catches my eye. She looks young, not physically, but in the way she holds herself, her fidgety hands and darting eyes. Her haircut is fresh and awkward, a blonde bob with bangs, and I can’t help but find myself drawn to her. It has been a while since I have met anyone, or really spoken to anyone outside of work, so I offer to buy her a drink, or rather, clumsily buy it for her after she’s ordered it. Don’t worry about it, I assure her, and she follows me back to my booth, scratching her neck with her short fingernails and chatting about her life.

 

I focus on looking at her face, raising my eyebrows in interest and keeping my own eyes wide open as I listen to her speak. I angle my body towards her and brush my knee against hers. She is strangely comfortable; comforting perhaps. We drink a few more rounds of whatever and I realise that I have accidentally left my booking the booth as we wander home.

 

As we undress she wanders around the house, touching things lightly, brushing her fingertips over surfaces. She jumps on the bed and before she is fully naked, holds her breasts in her hands and slumps on her knees, feet splayed out to the sides, white briefs and wide eyes. Before I take off my father’s pants and my mother’s glasses I glimpse myself in a mirror again and I realise that my parents are not coming home.

 

*

 

In the morning, before I open my eyes, I listen to the echoes of the aviary travelling through the house. The complexity of hundreds of bird-voices in polyphony teases at my hangover. The sounds become louder and I am sure that somehow the aviary has been opened and that the birds are in fact flying through the house. I imagine that the bedroom is filled with finches, circling around the high ceilings, ruffling the curtains with the beats of their wings, flashes of colour and Hitchcockian madness, slowly gathering in groups on the picture rails, the dresser, the top of the wardrobe, ruffling themselves, chattering, deafening me, throwing tiny feathers to the ground, scratching marks in paintwork. I open my eyes and the room is empty but for her, on the other side of the bed, our feet and legs intertwined at the bottom of the bed. She sleeps on my mother’s side.

Meanwhile, here’s what John Marsden thinks:

The physical, literal return to the house of childhood and adolescence has an abstract significance for the narrator, whose identity thereby evolves, as identities do, in that abstract sense at least, for us all. The pace of the story is beautifully judged and the dreamy mood created by the subtle, slow-moving language gives a great sense of the time-span inevitably involved in such a transformation.”

Through The Clock's Workings

You can download a story I wrote for this anthology in pdf.

I wanted to ask you

It was like we were slowly just depositing little tiny bits of feelings in to each other, like we were both garbage bins that the other walked past on the way to work. Maybe they were even facing each other on opposite sides of the road. And every day, one little bus ticket was put in there. But eventually, if somehow you could separate all the bus tickets that you had put inside the bin and put them in a pile, you’d see that after a few months, the pile would be fairly large. And I thought that maybe you’d look at it and be proud and happy, but I think you saw it in me, and you weren’t proud, you were scared. So you just walked away, took a new route to work, put your bus tickets in another bin, or maybe just on the side of the road. I wanted to ask you, What do I do with it? All of this feeling that you have left inside of me, what do I do with it? Where does it go? What happens to it when it is finished?

Unravelled

Dear Mrs Livingstone,

I am writing to you to express my deepest and most sincere apologies in regards to your son, Liam, whom I was very close to and spent a lot of time with. Obviously not as close to him as you were, or anywhere near as much time as you spent with him, but enough, you know, to feel like we had some sort of connection and that I could judge him to be a wonderful person. And by that I don’t mean that I’m judgmental and that I meant to weight up his personality traits to see if he was worth of my time and effort – I mean it in the most natural, human way, in the completely non-offensive and sensitive way. Point is, he was lovely, and we got on well.

I’m sure you’re very upset. The loss of a child is debilitating and, well, terrible, I’d imagine, not having children of my own. I can’t pretend to understand what you’re going through as a mother. I do feel, though, that it is only fair of me to explain to you the events of last night, so you have some idea of how we ended up like this.

You see, I had invited Liam over to my house as he had mentioned previously that he wasn’t feeling brilliant, emotionally. As you know, he’s been having trouble at work, with the re-organisation of his level and the promotion of some of his co-workers. I really don’t understand much about that, because I’m not in an office job, but suffice to say, he was feeling down, and I invited him over for a few drinks and some light-hearted conversation. He came with a bottle of wine and we ate Thai food. We enjoyed the wine and the noodles and had wonderful conversation.

After eating, we got up and moved into the living room with the couches. Upon sitting down, Liam noticed a stray thread from his jumper – just off the sleeve. Well, perhaps that is not quite accurate: I noticed Liam playing with a stray thread from the sleeve of his jumper, which he said (with a laugh) had been “Rebelliously trying to run off with his clothing for most of the day.” Of course I was unsure at the time, but in retrospect I swear I saw a glimmer of some kind of melancholy in his eye, or some kind of wisdom. At that moment, however, it seemed nothing more than a momentary pause, and I disregarded it.

It’s difficult to say exactly what happened next. He kissed me, there was a changing of couch positions, another kiss. You probably don’t need to know this, I know. I’m sorry – anyway, the point is, Liam got up to get himself a drink, and I noticed, after he had gone to the next room, that there was a thread caught on the couch and leading after him into the kitchen, as if it were a perfect record of his movements, or perhaps a lure. A thin, coloured, baited line, - waiting for me to follow it to its ultimate end. I sighed and followed him into the kitchen, where I found him leaning against a bench with his drink, with one and a half jumper sleeves. I pointed to his left arm. Liam shrugged nonchalantly – it was nothing. He was leaning back against the kitchen-top, sipping from his glass, with his exposed elbow leant on the granite. He seemed to stare off into the near distance a little, as if he weren’t entirely focussed on his immediate surroundings. He seemed vague and disinterested, really, but in a whimsical, endearing way.

I grinned. He looked silly with one and a half arms so I grabbed the thread, close to him, and ran back into the living room. You see, I had figured that if the jumper was already so far gone, it wouldn’t matter me playing with the rest of it.

Imagining the garment unravelling fast with my every step, I tugged the string and skipped into the hallway, which I bounced down and on into the bathroom, wrapping the never-ending thread around everything fixed I could find: doorknobs, lights, chairs, tables. I could hear Liam’s laughs echoing through the house. I was giggling too, and perhaps a little tipsy, and in under five minutes, I was back in the living room, breathing heavily. I called to Liam then, and realised that the kitchen was eerily silent. I felt more than a little drunk by this stage.

Assuming that he’d decided to turn our game into hide-and-seek, and vaguely worried that he might spring up behind me to get revenge for me unravelling his jumper, I tiptoed towards the kitchen door, without entering. As I stood behind the half-open door, absent-mindedly pulling on the string, I called out Liam’s name, wondering where he could have gone (to the bathroom perhaps? It crossed my mind). Deciding it was safe, I ventured into the kitchen quietly, to find it empty, but for some coloured threads draped over the handles of the drawers and leading out the other door of the kitchen which also leads onto the hallway.

Following the thread, like a child following a trail of Easter eggs, like a sniffer dog after a scent, I let the thread trickle through my fingers without grabbing a hold of it or collecting it. For an hour, Mrs Livingstone, I traced this string around my house, out my front door and delicately down my front steps, the driveway and down the road, one block, two blocks (birds whistling, cars passing) and into the park (almost run over for not concentrating or stopping at roadsides), around trees, across the oval, under another tree and around a beautiful willow tree, where the moonlight illuminated the string which was, I noticed, no longer the same colour as Liam’s jumper (red).

I was very confused. In my hands I held the string and Liam was nowhere to be found – I was alone in the park, late at night – but let me assure you, Mrs Livingstone, my neighbourhood is incredibly safe. There has not been one incident here as long as I’ve known. I was entirely fine, and not really very worried about myself – only about Liam. Of course, I resumed following the string, which (unsurprisingly) led back to my house, in the front door again (I had left it unlocked) and back to the lounge. And there, Mrs Livingstone, you must believe me, though I hardly believe it myself – there the string ended, not in a scissor-chopped fray, but in a small rounded nub, like a bellybutton.  I held the ending delicately, and called for Liam again, no response.

I was tired and confused. For hours I searched the house, you must understand, and found nothing except for the mess of threads. Not knowing what to do, and partly panicking, I decided to gather them up. Starting with the nub, I carefully wound the threads around my arm and shoulder like an electrical cord, retracing my steps around the house, back out to the park (it was cold then) and returning to the house, the hall, the bathroom, the kitchen – where it became more familiar, a record of my own silly expedition. Finally, as the sun rose closer to the underside of the horizon, staining the sky mildly pink like a blue sheet washed with reds, I reached the fraying loose end that we began with. I was wearing the giant, heavy loop of thread, so large now that I stooped to carry it to the lounge, where I reverentially laid it down like a wreath, or a sleeping child. And there, I collapsed.

I woke up hours later, some time in the afternoon. In the daylight I noticed that the loops of thread were of many different colours and shades of pinks, browns, blacks, yellows, purples, blues, whites and reds.

It is unfair of me to expect you to accept this letter easily or in good spirits, but I can only swear that every word I write is in honesty and sympathy. I would not deceive you, and have no reason to. I feel guilty, responsible, for this, as if I should have somehow realised what was happening. I miss Liam, and I have little idea what to do from here.

I am sorry for unravelling your son, Mrs Livingstone, and I’m giving you the thread in the hope that you, if anyone, can maybe find some way of re-threading him. I am no weaver of threads.

Best of luck, sympathies, regrets, and apologies.

Recurring dream

I have this recurring dream that you come to me and you are crying, as if everything in the world has pressed down on you and around you like a squeezing hand so hard that you are leaking tears. You look at me with big, shining eyes and your wet face is salty like you have just been thrown out of the ocean. I ask you what is the matter, naturally, and you can do nothing but choke your voice down and shake your head, little fountains spilling out in to the air as your face moves.

I sigh and stroke your hair. What can I do? Your shoulders shake up and down in bursts and spurts, and I struggle to hold myself back from pressing you to the ground to stop your shivers.

I can see a little of myself in the bathroom mirror.

Ways I have learnt about loss

The first and last time

In my memory, it is all teal and off-white, ugly paintings and the smell of disinfectant. It was a stupidly sunny day, and I had come to visit her, because she was dying. We all knew it, so it was only decent to come and see her, before we couldn’t anymore. Seeing my grandmother had always been a chore, at least according to my mother.

At her apartment, which was about a block away from the unit she used to live in, I was always a child, eating biscuits or chewy fruit-shaped lollies, sometimes sitting down for cake that she had made. I’d brush the light green velvet coloured couches with my fingers, drawing lines as I touched the material in different directions. I’d listen to stories about things my parents didn’t want to hear, explore drawers in desks secretly while they talked. When I was younger, I remember playing in the park that we could always see out of the window, sliding down the hills on pieces of cardboard boxes, getting grass stains on my jeans.

When she looked at me, the oxygen no longer reaching her brain, and asked me, anyone, to call the police, delirious and confused, I was aware that I did not know her at all. I was older now but suddenly a child again, with my mother and her sister, my aunt, three of us standing around the hospital bed, after deciding to turn off life support. I was part of the decision, but I was a stranger to death, and I was my mother’s daughter; the daughter of her daughter. I was scared of this woman who I had never seen before, her hair no longer permed, parts stuck sweaty to her wrinkled forehead, no makeup, not offering me a cup of tea or a biscuit, dressed only in a badly fitted hospital gown.

When she died, the rest of everything was harder to commit to memory. Her funeral is a cartoon, a film re-enactment in my mind. I see myself watching my father shovel a bit of dirt on to the top of a coffin. The headstone wasn’t ready yet; we walked away from a bare grave. I don’t think I cried. It was the last time the whole family had been together and the first time I’d ever seen someone die.

The hardest thing

I’d never broken up with anyone before, never in any serious way. I had been talking to strangers about it for more than a week, finding anyone at any university table and asking them to listen. Telling them about how awful he was, how unhappy I was, how things were falling apart, while they politely sipped take-away coffees and listened for entertainment’s sake. “I’m going to break up with him,” I’d proclaim, more to myself than to them, as if saying it made it impossible to back down from.

It was my birthday and we had to go to a party around the corner from his apartment. When I went in to his bedroom full of the words I was going to say, he had already put all my books and things in a pile, like he somehow knew. It was the saddest pile of books I’d ever seen. I cried when I told him that we couldn’t keep hurting each other, that I loved him and wanted to be his friend, but that I couldn’t be his lover. We went to the party and his father told me how happy he was that I was in his son’s life, that I had made things better for them both. I was so ashamed. I talked to people I didn’t know about nothing, and outside the city lights were shining on the water of the harbour in no particular way, in the same way they had been shining when we met, across the bay.

Afterwards, he left me messages. On my phone, email. He left me a letter on my doorstep with the birthday present he couldn’t give me in person. I stood on the doorstep and waited, walked up the driveway and looked up and down the street, looking desperately for his car, his back disappearing around a corner. I held the gifts he’d bought for me a few days before, not knowing that I’d do what I did, but they were foreign objects, things I could not love. I couldn’t read the book but I read his letter and cried for hours. I don’t know what I did with it – it’s been a few years but I’m still too afraid to look for it.

You keep re-living the beautiful things: the walk we took in the golf course, through the park, when the aeroplanes were flying low and breaking the sound barrier, when I lay down on the grass. I can’t remember the other things now, I suppose they fade away. I remember thinking that no-one would ever love me as much as he did. I read all of his letters over and over again until I felt I could never write another word. His handwriting was spidery and tiny - I wanted to hide away in the curves of his alphabet and stay there until everything was okay again.

Expectations

When our cat Tripod got cancer on her nose, we all knew eventually that it was the beginning of the end. She was called Tripod because she had three legs. She had no tail, as well, but that was part of her breed. The little sore underneath her nose eventually grew to cover a fair part of her face. I don’t remember ever feeling disgusted by it, just disappointed that we were so powerless against this sore that was going to take our little friend away.

She wanted to keep sitting on our laps as her body slowly shut down over the months. We’d have to keep a tattered yellow towel under her, and towards the end, in her bed. Eventually she staggered, unable to walk. She was so quiet and tiny underneath the table, a little black creature silhouetted against a suburban patterned carpet. A little shadow. We put her down. I couldn’t watch it happen, and when I saw her limp body, tiny and black, smaller than ever before, she wasn’t my cat anymore.

Problems

In high school, we were all upset but Naomi’s problems were rougher, more dangerous. Naomi’s problems had corners and edges while ours were still amorphous shapes that we quietly stepped around, pushed in to the back of our minds and replaced with study notes.

We shared a locker. We shared a lot more than a locker, too. We’d been very close ever since we met in Year Seven, thrown together by circumstance in a new school, two awkward girls with bad clothes and legs and arms we didn’t know what to do with. She’d go in and out of my life, finding a new best friend for a few months, then coming back. We’d skip maths and sit on milk crates in an alleyway with coffee and cigarettes. So when she started to cut her arms and legs up, I wondered vaguely where she had thought that idea up. We all kind of hated her for it for a while. How dare she do such a thing, demand our attention so obviously.

Soon enough it was old news and no-one was angry anymore. Most people wrote her off, turned it in to a sick joke. I was worried then, and upset. I’d look at her arms, criss-crossed like nothing I’d ever seen before, scar upon scar upon scar, red raw and bleeding. Then it began on her ankles, half covered in navy-blue school socks.

She became more and more distant. I knew that I couldn’t force her to stop, as much as every part of me wanted to. I knew that I had to let her fix this, that as much as I loved her, her body was her body and I had no rights over it. Every time I looked at her skin I’d feel something drop inside me, this feeling that I had failed her so badly as a friend. I conceded to let her know that I cared about her and that I had put some bandages, bandaids and disinfectant in our locker for her. Every day I’d open the locker and see my little medical stash, unused, pathetic in the empty space that I could no longer even keep books in. It was like it was haunted. I’m not sure if either of us really used it after that.

Eventually she just wasn’t doing it anymore. I don’t really remember a moment where she stopped. There were other parts of her, deeper, darker parts, that I never knew about, that she still won’t talk about very much. With her it always seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. Her arms are still scarred, but the scars are like texture now, and slowly seem to be fading away, just little bumps under my fingertips.

Back Seat Driving

The days are heavy. Sleep comes easily, drowning me each night, exhausted without reason. I do not dream – but for you, I labour over dreams, constructing them like epic novels, struggling to find the perfect scenes. Sleep comes easily, but my dream work is drawn out and tiresome. Sleep itself suffocates me, and I wake up an insomniac’s double.

*

You lock eyes with yourself in the mirror while your hands absently knot your tie in their mechanical way, the way they have tied it so many times. Standing next to you and behind I watch as your eyes glance ever so briefly at my face.

“You look like shit. With so much work you have to do, you’re just wasting time by going out.” It hardly matters what I say – you ignore me on principle. Tonight’s different to other nights though, and you and I both know it. I can see the tiny sweat beads, like diamonds, just below your hairline, waiting patiently for their time to travel over the landscape of your pores down towards your eyebrows – but not yet. They stay buoyant on your brow. For now, you are calm, floating – calm enough to tie your tie smoothly, beautifully, as if it were a work of art: over, under, over, under, over, through and pull.

“You should stay home,” I say with a sigh, knowing it’s my last futile attempt as you turn away from the mirror and silently walk to the bathroom. With a sense of defiance you splash a tiny spit of cologne on your neck and comb your hair. And in a moment you, we, are out: wallet, phone, shoes, jacket, car keys and all.

In the morning light our car door slams echo around the street. As you pull out, we don’t speak and I don’t mind, I guess, staring in half-consciousness through fog-clouds. You won’t turn the radio on so the silence fills up the car, like carbon monoxide fills up cars of businessmen committing suicide; like a leather upholstered fish tank. Today you are a careful driver, full of nerves; your gaze stays locked on the road as mine on the mist, gazing comatose out the passenger window.

We approach a tunnel. There are a lot of tunnels around here. They say this one goes under the river, but I’ve never understood how that works. They seem to gradually descend and apparently, in the middle, the passage is completely submerged. At any moment, I expect a flood to pour through a weak spot, pressing and pressing until suddenly the pressure is too much and the rounded ceiling collapses in, opening onto invincible steel and glass machines its fury.

Minutes pass, catastrophic minutes in white froth and bent metal. And the suddenly, things are still, as the water envelops what is left of the tunnel and a surge of air bubbles rush to the surface. On all sides, the interior lights at the bottom of the walls still survive, lighting the marine scene mysteriously orange as shoals of silver fishes and lone eels gradually approach the sunken traffic. Those whose windows have not cracked yet wait patiently for their sudden and violent exit, like goldfish waiting to exit their plastic bags.

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” you say. “It’s a fucking stupid idea.”

In the tunnel we are slowed down, as if the air has thickened with smog. What seems like hundreds, a crowd of cars move close to each other, packed tightly in. I blink, watching for a moment as a shark swims between four wheel drives and convertibles, its streamlined fin poking over tops of rooves two lanes over. Faster than cars, it’s gone as soon as it came, weaving between shining, glimmering bonnets.

As we move ever slightly forward giant trucks, like slow motion dinosaurs, loom ahead. Dwarfing the tiny cars, they move like whales on a migration, their giant tops almost brushing the tunnel roof. Their mechanisms groan and echo in the confined space. The orange lights in the tunnel reflect off hundreds of windscreens and as we move to a stop, a sea of flashing red stop blinker eyes fade into a slow humming haze. I let my eyes fall out of focus, watching the blurred shapes and colours gradually darken. I don’t know where we are going.

*

You say I am your dreams – are you then, mine? I dream only of control, The shadow of a figure drapes behind it, each step guided by the figure’s foot, attached as if by puppeteer’s strings. And then imperceptibly, the image is reversed. The shadow now pulls the figure, elongating at each step as if to tug slightly at the heels.

For a sply second I see myself behind the wheel.

*

When I awake, we are just exiting a tunnel. Our clock is broken, and I have no idea how much time has passed, but I am sure this is a different tunnel because the sky outside is grey from a different angle. The day has all but passed me by, escaping my wakefulness and disappearing into darkness, and I glance back through the rear windscreen to watch a frothy wave recede back in to the black hole.

Soon we are driving on the freeway, and it is definitely night-time. I lean over and find a water bottle in the back seat, and I drunk some, thirsty after the carbon monoxide sleep, my face patterned by dynamic headlight patterns that flash through the car. It’s slightly warm – you have some as well, and then we both wind down the windows, even though the air is colder than expected. I breathe it deep, and remember how you used toh old your breath through tunnels as a child.

“So?” you ask, incredulously. The road here goes straight on for kilometres, market out only by an endless stream of streetlights majestically towering over the snaking roadway and the ever disappearing tails of lone cars in the distance ahead. “Just let me drive, for once.” I lean further out and let the wind blow my hair around my face.

We pass through a village where tiny houses are recognisable only by the glowing or flickering lights from their front windows. Through some you can see television sets and their eerie projection of reflected light onto walls. There are more streetlights and I can see now that you look exhausted, your eyes pulling your face downwards, so I suggest pulling over.

“You think you’re a god?” I ask, throwing the water bottle between my hands. “You think you can make it? That’ll work well when we’re a flickering TV news statistic.”

You only murmur to yourself something about the time. I glance at the clock.

“Oh Mighty One, divine for us the time.”

*

It take an hour and two other anonymous townships until you finally stop the car. I am freezing, the wind has picked up and finally, it seems, you are no longer invincible.

Mortal but power mad, we are walking down the street like kings. Trees, cars, streetlights all bow down to us and we stride over asphalt sidewalks like royalty. At least, you do. Your tight grip on the box of chocolates clutched in your claw-like hand betrays your nervous denial.

“Work to do. Should go home.” I say blankly, lagging a couple of steps behind you. Too proud to admit I’m right, you fly forward with the horsepower of ego to prove just how much yo uare willing to ignore me, and I can tell that you are in the mood to do something irrational.

“She lives down there,” I say, quietly, stopping at the corner. Six angry power steps later, you stop and turn, now on the other side of the road, practically leaving a wake behind you of sweat and stomach born butterflies. I’m not dressed for visiting and you’re trying to lose me, which is fair enough, because I only came out with you to try and convince you to go back, a pleading toddler attached to your leg.

You, dashing, sleek, slim and sweating, straighten your tie obsessive-compulsively and jog up to the front stairs to rap on the door like a detective. I wait at the gate, leaning nonchalantly. What the fuck are you doing? Why have we come here again? I watch you embrace her, your vulgar hands slipping around her back, snaking around her neck. I decide to go back to the car.

*

At daybreak I wander back to find you speaking to her in the next room outside. The café is small and smells like your grandmother’s kitchen. Maybe that is why you took us here. I know that’s a lie. Your coffee is bitter and the waitress smiles at you. She looks pretty in the morning light, like all the others, incarnations of your fantasises and nothing less than bass note wet porn star dreams to you. She looks like a girl we went to school with, but I suspect that she sees in you the sweat soaked pinstripe peepshow in your mind.

“She knows you,” I suggest. You slam down your coffee cup.

*

WE don’t go through the tunnel on the way home. You must have found a different way, I guess, but then, I know you better.

“Sometimes, when there is so much traffic, the longer way takes a shorter time,” you explain, patronisingly. We pass over a wide river and I wonder how many cars lie underneath us, underneath the water, each travelling to its own destination.

You decide to listen to some music in the car, so you put on Revolver. We have the same discussion every time; you believe George wrote the best music, and I say John and Paul did. We speak as if we have authority, each knowing more than the other, claiming knowledge of musicians we weren’t alive to hear. Eventually you turn away from me, again locked to the road. I am saying, quietly,

“Listen to me,” but you are far away. I raise my voice, “For God’s sake listen to me,” but you are a shark, weaving down the highway ahead of the car, and I am a fish in a steel and glass fishbowl, in a plastic pet shop bag, and I am screaming, listen to me, listen you bastard here I am. Here I always am, always by your side, always on your road trips, watching your infidelities, listening to your moans, keeping track of your drug habit, your money spent, your racist assumptions, your embarrassing childhood, your unwanted recollections, your awkward lingering silences, your every waking moment of truth. You think you’re a fucking God? You think you’re infallible? The only reason you’re not jumping off cliff tops is me, me! I’m your only rationality and all you repay me with is silence and a cold shoulder, well fuck you man, fuck you and your God-complex. Listen to me, for once in your life – I’m your conscience, your fucking conscience, I’m trying to drown you and you’ve taken the wrong fucking way home.

Unremarkable

It could have been any party, really, but it was this one and we were going to go to it, not for any reason in particular but because it was a Saturday and there was a party. And we were going. With beer. It doesn’t really matter who we are, we’re just some people going to a party, any party really, we weren’t together for any reason, just that we were all going to the same party.

It was any night, too. Just some night and some purple-black blanket of a sky with smoky clouds wafting across it. No stars. We weren’t looking at it anyway, too busy with our half-drunk banter as we wandered through suburbia with our beer. Anonymous families cast flickering shadows from the buzzing television screens that we caught glimpses of as we sauntered past their front windows on our way to this house, wherever it was – not far, at least.

It was a familiar walk – the city doesn’t excite us anymore. You become so complacent about the place where you live. It’s just some place. Who cares about the dew on the leaves and the sounds of someone playing the violin and the way the trees shake their dew off when the trains go past. It’s a road and it was taking us to a party, and that’s all that we noticed.

It wasn’t long before we were there, at this place, whoever we were, wherever it was. We’d had half the beer just on the walk but it didn’t matter, there was enough alcohol at this party without our contributions. Whatever music was playing as pretty good, nothing we hadn’t heard before but if it wasn’t on we’d have noticed. To be honest, it was a good party.

The girls were dancing in that way that girls dance where you realise that you’ve been watching them with a drink in your hand that haven’t been drinking for a few minutes and you check yourself and try to walk away but your legs won’t work anymore. When their hips are drawing circles in the air that probably make the most beautiful patterns in all the world.

Down the side alley of this place some of these kids were dropping acid and punching cones, nothing new. They didn’t care but from where I was they looked amazing, all crumpled up in heaps against a dirty fallapart brick wall, bits and pieces of light spitting and flashing on them from cars going by and a flickering streetlight. All in this cloud of smoke, puffing out of their pursed-up pouts like ink in to water.

“Hey, you,” a girl yelled at me. I looked over at her and she walked up to me like a car crash. “Do you want to play strip spin the bottle with us?” I’d been looking at her all night but it was only at this moment that I started to see her, and her features somehow resolved themselves like a television coming in to focus finding the right station. I didn’t know who “us” were but they were probably no-one I knew anyway. If you know what I mean. I mumbled a yes of some kind and found myself following her in to a bedroom, an empty Vodka bottle posed at the ready in the middle of the floor with about ten people lounging around it. They looked like a pride of lions.

It wasn’t just any party now. I could slowly feel everything feeling slightly more particular. I watched as moments passed by and became meaningful somehow in immediate retrospect. Perhaps they were becoming meaningful as I experienced them, as if they process of being inside of a moment were imbuing it with meaning. Who knows. I looked down to notice the slightly moving bottle aiming at me, and raised my eyes to meet the waiting gazes of the pride.

I kissed someone, took off my shoes. She kissed someone else, took off her cardigan. He kissed someone else, took off his shirt. She kissed someone else, wait, no, she kissed me, took off her stockings. Around and around. Outside, an unremarkable sky looked in through the windows with much curiosity.

We were drunk; time was going by at unusual rates. Fast and then slow, unevenly, however it fancied. We were undressing each other with cheering and laughing as stockings rolled around ankles and bra straps fell off rounded shoulders. Perhaps time was undressing us itself with long curled fingers. Who knew. Drunkenly, things were unremarkable again, a generic blur punctuated by more and more skin. And then only skin and a couple of dashes of lace. And then skin.

I was looking at her, or trying to. The girl who had brought me in. In a hazy blur she seemed to be watching me, and it seemed to me that the rest of the night was watching her. It’s funny how being nude makes everyone seem alike. All the other people, blank-faced and generic, lounged around her like animals, big pink and brown creatures.

The bottle spun to face her, as if of its own accord. She was already nude, and waves of laughter rippled away from her. She hadn’t stopped looking at me yet and neither was I able to look away. Our eyes were locked and we knew it – so when she started to take off her skin around her neck I could do nothing but keep returning her stare.

A few generic stars peered in through cracks in the roof and wondered how things had suddenly become so particular.

Reaching over her left shoulder with her right hand she peeled her skin downwards across her breasts and torso, slowly and without expression in her face. The skin came off smoothly, like the skin of a fruit. Smooth and red on the underside, it was occurring to me what was happening but all I could do was observe, detachedly, unable to grasp the sense of reality that the experience demanded. As it fell limply off her body, the skin’s underside showed itself to be a delicate red colour, wet and alive. Underneath the beautiful red muscles and sinews glistened in the dim light.

I was at once disgusted and intrigued – it was clear that this was a normal thing for her, in a way. Her actions seemed somewhat rehearsed. Girls always have these party tricks that they pull out, and this was hers. Of course I couldn’t believe what was happening – neither can you – but for all my disbelief I could do nothing but continue to look at her as she looked at me. Slowly but surely, she pulled the skin further down her body.

Around us, the others were talking amongst themselves, running their hands over each other’s backs and legs. For a moment we were savages, and she some savage goddess. Still sitting on the ground, she had pulled her skin down to the level of her hips and it lay around her like a skirt, soft and folded and impossible.

We could not stop looking at each other. I had never seen a girl anything like her ever before in my life. It was just any party on any street on any night under an unremarkable sky, and this girl had taken off her skin and looked in to my eyes. I could feel the sweat trickling down my naked back. She was sitting in front of me as a collection of anatomical parts, somehow still breathing, living, watching me.

Of course this was unusual but anything would have been unusual on such a normal night. We watched each other for a while still and eventually, the group began to depart, wandering off in to bedrooms or to the music. They began to dress themselves again, slowly searching for their underwear, socks and clothes, more drinks and places to collapse upon. The more clothing they put on, the harder it was to hold her gaze, and the more I started to feel the air on my skin reminding me of the benefits of clothes. And yet her eyes seemed to remind me that I couldn’t possibly be feeling the elements in the way that she was, more naked than any of us had ever been in our whole lives.

As I reached for my underwear and pants, she began to roll her skin up around over her hip bones, quicker than she took it off, her delicate fingers smoothing it out against herself like wrapping paper. For a moment, I looked away, busy pulling up my fly, and when I looked back she was doing up her bra. She slipped on her t-shirt and flipped her long her out of the back of it. She smiled at me as she pulled up her jeans and walked barefoot in to the back yard.

After that it was just another night, full of kind of pretty girls and boys with cups full of anything they wanted. With her skin on, she looked just like everybody else, and after another drink I could barely remember her face. It’s funny how with skin and clothes everybody looks kind of the same. We walked home and I ambled behind with a sick feeling in my stomach. I counted the streetlights. Sixty three. I didn’t even think about the corners I turned.

Smoke

Our grandfather’s father smoked himself to death. Each morning he’d wake up, plod towards the bathroom, splash his face with water and his chest with cologne. He’d keep his packet of cigarettes in the cabinet, and before he shaved, before the rays of sunlight hit the brass edges of the mirror in such a way that it illuminated his face like some shining angelic light, he would light a cigarette.

Our grandfather’s mother would be awake first, and would say the same thing every morning, her voice full of weight: no smoking in this house. The birds in the lemon tree outside looked at each other and shook their heads. The returning sound of bare feet padding down the pinstripe-wallpapered hallway preceded grandfather’s father’s otherwise silent march with cigarette still lit, an obstinate parade with an ever-lengthening thin grey banner of smoke wafting behind him.

We were never sure, but it was hypothesised that grandfather’s father smoked not because he was addicted, but because he was told that he was. In the very striking of the match against the red bumps of the matchbox, there was a sense of perversity. The camera zooms in close, closer, so close that the screen is filled with indistinct colours, impossibly close. Two atoms should bump each other, but they don’t, atoms being what they are. The crackling sound of a match striking a matchbox is the sound of two atoms unable to touch, no matter how close they get.

So with each breath in, now standing out on the back porch wearing the morning sun like a smoker’s jacket, grandfather’s father let the tobacco fill up every part of his lungs, imagining each cell being invaded in a silent (but for the echo of atomic howls) rebellion against his lover. Contrary to popular belief, not all suicides are attention-seeking acts. In fact, not all suicides are acts at all – many of them are lifelong endeavours. That is not to say that people are destined to kill themselves, or that suicide is something inherent to personalities of those unlucky ones chosen by fate to bring the asp to their milky white necks. But the fact is, Cleopatra would have objected to the idea that she was being perverse as much as if we had said she was just that type of girl. To rationalise or justify suicide is to imply that it means nothing. Is death meaningless? Two schoolgirls have an awkward silence in their philosophical late night sleepover conversation. Cleopatra stares the asp in the eye. Lights, curtain down. Grandfather’s father blew smoke rings that did the shimmy-shake before leaving and not saying goodbye.

Some suicidals are, of course, totally bonkers. Some, however, kill themselves not for love, specifically, but rather out of love. Perhaps it could be said that love kills them. Grandfather’s father, stubbing out his cigarette, would have believed the latter for its romantic value but not let the desire to contradict orders go unnoticed, either. He squashed out the butt on the stone step, flicked it in to the flowerbed and buried it with his toes. The plants sighed and shrugged their shoulders. He held his breath for a moment and exhaled the last cloud over their leaves. He felt old.

In France, age is a matter of having years, rather than being them. Time is possessed and accumulated, like empty matchboxes. Time is piled up; measured out with coffee spoons, so to speak. Consequently, every statement of age is bragging. I have twenty years.  I have lived them all. And I have arranged them in a delicate balancing castle. Sometimes they need dusting.

With all of their years, our great grandparents’ house was getting quite full. Calling out that breakfast was ready was an effort, what with all the years blocking the way of the words, but our grandmother’s mother still managed, and knew that her voice would bring back a cloud of smoke with a man inside. The kettle whistled as if to echo her words, and the morning sun from the bathroom had quietly slipped in and made itself at home.

The second part of this story begins with a change in the weather. It was overnight that the rain began, and after a week it still had not stopped. It soaked the ground until it was soft like skin in a long, hot bath. Our great grandfather stood on the porch in the grey morning in his cloud of smoke.

Our great grandmother was sickly. The rains had given her a cold, and she though she couldn’t smell the tobacco she could feel it deep inside her chest, like an instinct. With bleary eyes and a pink nose, she stormed out in a whirl of floral nightgown and simply picked the stub from great grandfather’s mouth and threw it in to the rain.

In the air there lingered a guilty haze. They looked at each other, we imagine, for a long while, without saying a word. Only the drips of the broken guttering and the lone calls of a deranged magpie interrupted their staring. Then great grandfather turned and walked inside the house, letting the screen door bounce behind him.

She could never have expected his reaction.

The next morning, great grandfather went out in the old rusted Holden and came back with boxes – many, many brown boxes. He put them all in the small room next to the lounge that had been empty for years since our mother moved out. Soon the room was half full, and our great grandfather went out again and came back with more. He only grunted his hellos to avoid any awkward questions, and in his wifebeater and dusty brown shorts, hair pomaded back and stubble on his cheeks, he continued his labours.

Eventually he appeared to be done. No one was sure what it was he had finished doing, but there was a sense of completion when he closed the door of the spare room and the sound of footsteps pressing up and down the hallway finally ceased. Great grandmother sighed a motherly sigh of relief and swept up the dust off the floor along with great grandfather’s smug footprints.

It wasn’t long before the wisps of smoke curled around the bottom of the door and up through the air like tendrils to tickle the hairs of great grandmother’s nostrils. Little fingers of smoke beckoned her to follow, and soon enough she was banging her heart out on the door of the room. You stop it, she screamed. You stop that filthy puffing in our house! Her voice was high and cracking and the coffee in her hand was shivering, dripping down her elbow. The smoke tendrils curled out ominously, as if the room itself were full of death. Trying the handle, great grandmother found herself locked out and with a bellow we never heard again, she ordered it to be opened. There was no sound from inside the room.

From outside, the room was equally impenetrable. The window was blocked off by a stack of boxes. A few stray curls of smoke escaped through the cracks in the glass, only to be instantly swallowed up by the rain. The birds in the trees eyed off this phenomenon with great interest.

And so a year was passed, if what they say is true. The banging on the door eventually stopped, and (as old people do) great grandmother gave up, first slumped to the floor like a sheet falling off the line, then washing the clothes, and then wading through her day much like, if not exactly like before. Whatever great grandfather was doing, she thought, was nothing to do with her anymore, and not her responsibility, as long as he cleaned up after himself and kept the screen door shut. She was over her sickness now, by the way. The camera shows us a montage of daily skills in lonely beige clothes and flat shoes. Curled up over the kettle with droplets from the steam running off her chin. Emotional piano music. Fade out.

Eventually, great grandma noticed that the birds had packed up and moved away from the window. She could never figure out why. All of a sudden her stereo avian soundtrack cut out the left side. Instead they sat at the kitchen window, silently peering in, as if watching the television over her shoulder as she washed her dishes.

Whether it was coincidence or fate that caused the heart attack, no-one knows, but the loud crash from the locked room and the jolt of pain in the left arm happened in harmony and on cue, perfectly orchestrated and heard by only the birds, who, after a short pause and a nod resumed their withheld song as if they had been waiting for this moment after all.

When our parents found great grandma on the floor, it wasn’t long before they found great grandpa on the chair facing the window. The door was unlocked, and as our mother opened it she felt herself almost blown away by the mushroom cloud of stale smoke that rushed into the house. Of course, not even the old trees outside were surprised that when our great grand parents were gone, the smoke clouds and the years still filled up the house more than we have ever managed to do, even with all of the stuff we put on shelves and in corners and in piles on the bench tops, over tables and under rugs, hanging from doorframes and stuck to walls; things we keep to pretend that the years and the cigarettes are barely building up at all.

Ways I go home

My mother calls me and asks me if I’d like to take care of their house when she and my father take a vacation in the colourful part of spring. It would be a great help, she says, and the birds do need to be fed. I can’t trust just anyone, she says.

 

My apartment is tired and lonely and I am keen to be tired and lonely in my childhood house, so arrangements are made. There is nothing much in my place that needs keeping or that I cannot take with me, and the view from my window over the drabbest part of the suburb is more and more like a picture I can’t take down. So I go.

 

As the potted flowers in my apartment begin to bloom, my mother and father disappear in an aeroplane and I pack myself in to a suitcase, appear on their doorstep and let myself inside. It has never really mattered where they go to – an island, a city, the third world, the moon.

 

All I ever cared was that they were away: memories of opening this door to a secret party come back as I turn the handle and step on to the tiles of the hall, barely faded over the ten years since I moved out. Spectres of fourteen-year-olds holding alcopops and joints rush and push past me and in to the house, piercings and band shirts with greasy long hair and shining foreheads. I put down my suitcase, which is quite small, vintage and quaint, and I can hear the birds in the aviary far down in the back room already excited by the subtle sounds of the lock closing behind me.

 

I’ve never really felt comfortable around my parents’ aviary. They installed it many years after I had left and gradually filled it with birds, mainly finches and lorikeets and other small bursts of colour and sound. They’ve always been eccentric, my parents, but the birds became an obsession. The cage is ostentatious, gigantic, overbearing, and takes up the entire back room, I have been told proudly by my father over the cracking phone lines many years ago.

 

I walk down the hallway, through the airy dining room and kitchen and out to the aviary, which is in a kind of sunroom. Or at least, it is a room that is often filled with sun, as it is now, brighter than the rest of the house and casting intricate shadows from the bars of the giant cage on to the concrete floor, illuminating the flourishes and rufflings of feathers.

 

It’s warm in the sun, and standing by the cage is like bathing in light and noise. I light up a cigarette and blow silent smoke in to the cage. It is lit up in lines, like a big film-noir cloud.

 

I grab a handful of birdseed from the cream-coloured bucket, letting the grains run between my fingers. The sunflower seeds are shiny and the oil makes them smooth, rushing from my hands like liquid. I stand there for a while listening to the sound it makes, which reminds me of rice being poured from cups in to pots of boiling water. A thing my mother used to do.

 

Holding a bunch of seeds, I feel awkward. I’m not sure what happens next, so I overdramatically fling it towards the giant aviary, scattering seeds all over the place like confetti at a wedding. The movement of my arm is silly, like a little girl throwing a ball, not knowing where her limbs should go or what they should do. The birds, for a moment, go quiet, perhaps with shock, and then start their chatter and song again. I can’t help but feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. The light has started to fade so I go back to the kitchen, eat briefly and go to work.

 

The neighbours do not recognise me. That is, the neighbours of my parents – they do not see in me the child I used to be, which feels unfair to me because they haven’t changed at all, still walking the same dogs or dogs which replaced the dogs they used to have which look exactly the same as the old dogs. I walk outside to put out the garbage and it seems like no-one notices me at all. I feel like I’m twelve again, except there’s no pocket money this time and all my spare change is spent on coffee, not red frogs and trading cards.

 

That night I wander through the house like a ghost. As the sun goes down the birds stop their chatter and I realise I have forgotten where the light switches are, so I fumble along walls until I reach rooms that feel like the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom. Eventually the house is lit, its emptiness suddenly illuminated like a lonely high school dance hall. For the first time in many years, I open the door to my old bedroom, now a study. Somewhere along the line my bed was transformed in to a bookcase, and my wardrobe in to a bureau, like magic. Still, I can feel an old familiarity, which makes me smile. I turn off the light and realise that the only bed is my parents’ bed.

 

Back at my apartment, the jonquils that I bought to freshen things up (myself more than the room) seem to be doing OK. They’ve got enough to talk about between them to not have grown bored yet.

 

I sleep on the couch. In the morning, a chorus of birdsong rouses me just after the sun floods the room with encouragement and for a moment before my eyes open, before I feel the floral fabric of the couch against my cheek, before I am aware of the pink tint of my lit-up eyelids, I think I am still in my bed and then I remember. I uncomfortably walk to the aviary, having difficulty keeping my eyes open in the whiteyellowness. This morning the birds mock me, jeering and screeching as if I were dressed in a giant bird suit, trying to be one of them. I throw some food in and walk quickly out to the garden with barely a look over my shoulder.

 

Over the next few days the house begins to interest me in how it differs from my own and I find myself spending more and more time in the garden, which I had not even realised I had missed. The feeling of the damp grass underneath my feet becomes more and more familiar. For a while, before I can sit at a table for four in the breakfast room on my own, I wake earlier than I need to so I can catch the morning on the cool lawn. I bathe in it, sometimes in just my underwear, doing my morning tasks outside, like drinking tea balanced on the soft grass, or cutting my nails.

 

It’s only after a few weeks that I no longer feel entirely like a stranger in the house. Perhaps the repetition of me putting a key in a lock every day is enough to create a sense of home. I walk in to the bathroom to find my own toothbrush alongside those of my mother and father, my own mess of underwear on the floor. Ever so slowly, my clothes migrate from the suitcase in to the wardrobe, sidling up alongside suit jackets and dresses in plastic covers.  The drain of the shower is furry with my hair, and the dust in the corners I know is made up of my skin more than anything else.

 

Apartment interlude: the flowers I left to their own devices wilt, shed tears and disintegrate, in fast forward as if sighing. An exhalation and a small collapse. Despite the theory about skin, dust layers everything like snow, and the pile of mail in its sliding path from the door-mailbox spews across the hallway like a pack of cards.

 

On a warm night, I slide open the wardrobe to choose a shirt to wear out. The hotel around the corner offers some quiet places to sit and have a glass of wine while reading the paper, which is really all I’ve ever needed in life, and it requires a shirt. Absent-mindedly, I grab one out and put it on, only to struggle with the buttons more than ever before. As I fumble appallingly with them, the birds suddenly begin their chorus of screams and I turn to face myself in the mirror, realising with a start that the shirt is in fact my mother’s. For a moment I look at myself, amused that I fit the same size as her, but I twitch and am quickly put off by the strange contouring of the seams and begin to unbutton it. Laying it on the bed, I pause for a moment, glimpsing my body in the full length mirror. After a second, I reach for one of my shirts, grab my father’s blazer and wander out in to the twilight.

 

For many nights after this I find myself thumbing through shirts that lingeringly smell like my childhood, trying them on, taking them off again, and sometimes wearing them out. It’s not too long before I am sitting on the couch, reading the gardening magazine which arrives at the doorstep each fortnight when I reach absent-mindedly across the coffee table and put on a pair of magnifying reading glasses that are not mine.

 

I become gradually aware of the fact that my parents have been away for a long time. I stand in front of the refrigerator and stare at the tiny post-it note that details the phone numbers of the first three hotels they were at, which I am almost certain they have moved on from by now. I notice the shapes of the letters, the same ones that used to appear in lunchboxes, on birthday cards, and later on politely mailed invitations. My father’s handwriting. For a moment I feel a sense of loneliness overcome me, the house feels more enormous that I ever have noticed and I want nothing more than to hide myself under the curve of the h and shelter beneath the roof of m, safe and hidden from the rest of the world.

 

I finger the hem of the paisley women’s shirt I’m wearing and back at my apartment, the power has been disconnected and the lightbulbs hang uselessly like dead fruit from trees.

 

*

 

Tonight I am at the hotel. I am wearing the magnifying glasses to read a book I found on a bookshelf in the living room, in a deep red booth towards the back of the pub. After a while, I venture to the bar to refill my glass of whatever, and she catches my eye. She looks young, not physically, but in the way she holds herself, her fidgety hands and darting eyes. Her haircut is fresh and awkward, a blonde bob with bangs, and I can’t help but find myself drawn to her. It has been a while since I have met anyone, or really spoken to anyone outside of work, so I offer to buy her a drink, or rather, clumsily buy it for her after she’s ordered it. Don’t worry about it, I assure her, and she follows me back to my booth, scratching her neck with her short fingernails and chatting about her life.

 

I focus on looking at her face, raising my eyebrows in interest and keeping my own eyes wide open as I listen to her speak. I angle my body towards her and brush my knee against hers. She is strangely comfortable; comforting perhaps. We drink a few more rounds of whatever and I realise that I have accidentally left my booking the booth as we wander home.

 

As we undress she wanders around the house, touching things lightly, brushing her fingertips over surfaces. She jumps on the bed and before she is fully naked, holds her breasts in her hands and slumps on her knees, feet splayed out to the sides, white briefs and wide eyes. Before I take off my father’s pants and my mother’s glasses I glimpse myself in a mirror again and I realise that my parents are not coming home.

 

*

 

In the morning, before I open my eyes, I listen to the echoes of the aviary travelling through the house. The complexity of hundreds of bird-voices in polyphony teases at my hangover. The sounds become louder and I am sure that somehow the aviary has been opened and that the birds are in fact flying through the house. I imagine that the bedroom is filled with finches, circling around the high ceilings, ruffling the curtains with the beats of their wings, flashes of colour and Hitchcockian madness, slowly gathering in groups on the picture rails, the dresser, the top of the wardrobe, ruffling themselves, chattering, deafening me, throwing tiny feathers to the ground, scratching marks in paintwork. I open my eyes and the room is empty but for her, on the other side of the bed, our feet and legs intertwined at the bottom of the bed. She sleeps on my mother’s side.

Meanwhile, here’s what John Marsden thinks:

The physical, literal return to the house of childhood and adolescence has an abstract significance for the narrator, whose identity thereby evolves, as identities do, in that abstract sense at least, for us all. The pace of the story is beautifully judged and the dreamy mood created by the subtle, slow-moving language gives a great sense of the time-span inevitably involved in such a transformation.”

I wanted to ask you
Unravelled
Recurring dream
Ways I have learnt about loss
Back Seat Driving
Unremarkable
Smoke
Ways I go home

About:

This is the creative writing portfolio of Amelia Schmidt.

Please feel free to contact me at:

e: amelia.jane.schmidt@gmail.com
p: 0403 858 811

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