Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Pretty Red Dress

I reread the last seconds of our conversation: when she sits opposite me in chairs made of rust and varnish across an old school desk flecking aqua paint with the grazing of each plate or coaster across its surface; when she stands up and I stand up and we are together but so far apart; when she fishes her purse from her satchel and spins her heel on the fractured floorboards and I sit down and watch her walk away in her pretty red dress which we bought together last month from a pokey boutique on Degraves Street and breathes softly floating away from her creamy thighs until I can no longer see her amongst the tables and I look down at my hurried blue scrawl drying across the page, bouncing up and down on the parallel lines.
This looks perfect.
So what are you ordering?
I was thinking just a cappuccino. I’ve heard they are good here.
No, I’ve got it.
C’mon Annie. Its my shout.
I always get a little self conscious when I reread my words. ‘So’ when inquiring of her preference is too forthcoming and easily miscontextualised. I intended a casual and helpful flick of the conversation towards getting drinks but I can also interpret a misplaced aggravated forcefulness pressuring her to order. Then suddenly I am the disagreeable arsehole of the story, bickering over who should pay for no discernable reason. I did not intend that at all.
            The cluttered coffee shop sings a lively babble of Saturday afternoon conversations backed by an acoustic guitar. Young couples sit on knock off chairs, lift their coffees and chat jovially through their smiles. Some tap their fingers on their partner’s wrist or feed the other carrot cake from the far end of the fork. I think they look like us, as much as its possible. Annie and I are three months into some metamorphic relationship which is at different stages of development around us. I thumb back through the dog eared pages of our dinner dates and coffee dates and casual afternoons sprawled across couches and vacations into fantasy and drunken scribbles, and sweaty tender moments ejaculated in blue ink. Then I find the line where we begin.
Hi. I’m Tom.
I note the neatness of my calligraphy, the perfect curves of my vowels and the gentle strokes of ink against the line.
Pleased to meet you.
I recall the dim floodlights and tower heaters illuminating council bins full of ice and crownies, reclining on a plastic lounge suite on a ceramic carpet. She sat close, her perfume, the bare skin of her crossed legs, in the semi light to read my scrawl. I despised looking at the page because I was not looking instead at her. But I needed to explain myself in the well worn way.
I’m mute. I do know Auslan but I prefer to write in my Spirax. This is the sound of my voice.
            I held the words up to our eyes, to our smiles. My mouth can be expressive without words. I can smell the vodka in her smile.
            I have been mute for ten years now so I am used to it. I apologise in advance for the handwriting, I tend to slur my words.
            It is.
            So are you at Uni still?
            Psychology? That’s fascinating. How are you finding it?
            Can I get you another drink?
            No worries. Cheers!
            We talk as friends and drinks and mosquitos move across the pages and my pen swings out further and further into a drunken swirl. I read through to the end at the beginning.
            You are very beautiful.
            Could I have your number? Don’t expect me to call it though. .
            Then she prints the number herself across the page. I admire her handwriting so much, how she can flick the pen to tickle the page or create tones and moods that transcend the simple meaning of a collection of letters.
            I’m so glad to have met you. That night under my bed lamp I met her again and again with each letter casting assumptions through my tipsy giddy mind. I have met her again now.

            She returns to the desk with two mugs and aligns them gently on established coffee stains in the timber.
            Thank you so much. I am buying the next one and I wont forget.
            “So what’s this all about?” She is smiling sweetly. We are school kids exchanging notes between desks behind the teacher’s back. The scene is too perfect, too idyllic. I suddenly feel so obvious. I don’t want to do it this way.
            What do you mean?
            “You said we needed to talk, so here we are.”
            Yes. My pen hangs over the page. I am not sure how to phrase it.
            How are you?
            “Fine. Bit stressed about essays and work but nothing untoward.
            Aren’t you happy?  
            “I suppose I am.”
            “Tom; is everything alright?”
            “S**t. Are you still pissed off about me and Conrad the other night? It was a mistake and I have apologised so many times that if you can’t forgive me now it is your problem.” Her hands are curled tight around the coffee cup. She projects her words down into her reflection.”
            That isn’t fair.
            “Really? And I haven’t forgiven you for your mistakes?” She lunges across the desk and pulls my Spirax into her arms. I don’t know what to do, I feel so powerless. I swing my hands towards my body, trying to call the pages home. Annie pins the book to the desk and flicks through the past until her lips curl around a moment. She reads my words aloud. I have a beautiful voice.
            I am so so so sorry.
            I don’t know how it happened. I’ve just been so stressed lately and I haven’t slept and I completely forgot.
            Of course I will make it up to you.
            It confronts me to hear my words used with emphasis, tone, diction, tempo, rhythm. They are not meant to be heard like this. She can manipulate each spoken syllable into a weapon.
            “Lets look again,” she says. She runs her eyes through memories until she stops somewhere on the way to now.
            I didn’t mean it, really.
            You look really funny right now.
            I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I love you.
             I love you.
            I love you.
She stops reading. Then she reads it again.
            “I can’t believe you thought gesturing that would be funny.”
“What are you trying to do? Do you think I’ll find this funny? Endearing?
I didn’t mean it, really.
“You’re an idiot.”
            You look really funny right now.
“Bugger this. I’m going home.”
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I love you.
Then why don’t you show it some time.”
I love you.
“Stop it.”
I love you.
            She looks up.
            “No wonder you feel so strident. It reads like I forgave you.”
            I pull the book back across the table and flick through to the present.
You did.
            “And so you can’t let this go now?”
            “I don’t understand,” she starts. “This isn’t it. There is something more.”
            “Tom,” she says and tugs my hands into the centre of the desk. “This is the longest relationship I have ever been in and I am so happy. Its been three months and I am still so happy. I thought you were happy to. You told me you loved me. What is going on?”
            I am silent. She pulls the book back into her hands and reads again.
            I know I am not as expressive through my mouth as others, but could I kiss you now?
            I love you! I love love love love love love… The pen stroke falls away from the page.
            Come here.
            Come closer.
            I slam my hand firmly over the page. Between my fingers I can read a jumble of moments.
That feels…
            Thank You…
            I can feel my throat begin to choke and squeeze tears into my eyes. I can’t believe I have questioned our relationship like this. I am thinking that maybe I am happy. She is silent, looking at me through the mists that hang over my eyes. She is waiting for me. I feel lost within the silence, as if I am trapped in some unending moment where I look dumbfounded at her beauty and regret that I still love her. I ground myself, jabbing my pen deep into the page.
            I forgive you.
            Of course I forgive you.
            You look so beautiful right now.
            With each new line I stain with ink I am self conscious that I am conversing with myself and that there are no gaps between each line.
            “So what is all this about Tom?”
            Her words come from the page; I cannot look up into her face for feeling guilty. I try to lose the question in the babble of other couple’s chatter but it remains printed in my mind in the silence of ink. I fumble back and forth through the past instead.
            “What are you looking for?” She asks. “What are you hoping to find?”
            I remain blank.
            “These aren’t memories,” she says. “They are lies. They are words and nothing more. You are ignoring me. You do it on those pages and you are doing it now.”
            I read the page open in front of me.
            Stop laughing at me.
            You’re an idiot.
            C’mon, let’s go.
            I can’t remember what we are doing. I can’t remember how I feel. I can remember cluttered bars and parties with her friends or my friends and shouting silent diatribes at awful movies through the darkness and leaning into breasts, her arms, on the corner of her bed. I can’t place these lines. I can’t decide if three anonymous lines count as a memory or if they are worth remembering at all.
            What were we doing here? I scribble in the margin.
            “I don’t remember.”
            Does that concern you?
            “No. I may not remember what happened but whatever happened here contributed in some way to how I feel now and there is no need to remember.” She holds my hand holding the page and tips me into the present again.
            Your coffee is going cold.
            “That is fine.”
            Now the coffee is tangible in my memory. I have some setting, some anchor to base this memory on to reminisce. I look back at what I have written and wonder what the hell is going on.
            Thank you so much. I am buying the next one and I wont forget.
            What do you mean?
            How are you?
            Aren’t you happy?  
            That isn’t fair.
You did.
            I forgive you.
            Of course I forgive you.
            You look so beautiful right now.
            I try and recall each second of the immediate past and find gaps. This is a fabrication of my life; a monologue and not a dialogue. Its not true.
            I have torn pages out. When we fight. When I feel Embarrassed. I am not sure I will keep this page.
            She nods and smiles a small crinkle across her cheeks. She takes my hands in hers and then unfurls my fingers from the pages.  She drags the book back through the splinters and paint flecks until it is in front of her. She takes the coffee shop and the babble of noise and the guitar and the lukewarm, drinks and the mug rings and the aqua paint flakes between her fingers and rips them from the book. My page pulls from the binder with a long and anguished scream. She opens the desk and places the book inside. Then we are sitting on either side of a single sheet of page.
            “Tell me what you want to say and we never need to mention it again.” She pulls the pen from my closed fist.
            Tell me.
She holds out to me and the shadow of her arm falls across the ghostly white page and the worn desktop.
I am messed up right now. The pen rests on the full stop it swells and swells with juicy ink. I watch it engulf the lines and the w.
I love you and I don’t.
“Is there someone else?
No. There is no one else. I feel the need to clarify this with a full sentence. She takes the pen back into her hand.
Are you homosexual?
I look at the word, there on the page in front of me. On my page. Ink on page. It suddenly didn’t matter that the page was severed from the book. The ink was diffusing through the paper and printing a coffee coloured graffiti on the worn school desk. She has placed the pen on the page and is looking at me. I can do nothing but stare at the word.
“No one will read this but you and me,” she says.
Maybe. It is written in front of me. Now nothing else seems to matter.
I am gay. I am a homo. I am a queer. I am a faggot.
I watch my mind leak into the paper and lie, exposing itself like a slut, on the faint blue line. She puts her hand on mine and takes the pen.
How long have you known?
I still don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sorry.
But you still love me.
Maybe you don’t feel this way. Maybe you’re just scared of commitment in our relationship?
No. I don’t think so.
“Consider it,” she says. She strokes her hand across the words on the page and feels each one. Then she looses it within her clenched fist.
“You love me,” she says and fills her mouth with the page. Then she pulls me across the desk by my shirt and kisses me. She leverages my lips open with her tongue and my own tongue slides into her mouth. It curls over the creases, folds, letters and I pull away. She closes her mouth and swallows my confession with a sip of latte.
“I’ll call you later,” she says and giggles; our joke. She stands up into the babble of noise with a smile and I follow her to my feet. She drops her purse into her satchel and swings the satchel onto her shoulder and her heel on the floorboards. I watch her pretty red dress weave between tables of happy chattering couples until I can see her no longer and I sit back down at the desk. I sit there for a long time, staring at the flaking aqua paint on the desktop and the disrupted coffee cups. When the cups have been collected and the couples begin to move on, I open the desk and retrieve my book. I open it to the back and look at my stains on the page.
This looks perfect.
I take the pen in my fingers and look across at the empty chair. Then I reread the last seconds of our conversation as they emerge from my pen.
            What would you like to order?
I was thinking just a cappuccino. I’ve heard they are good here.
No, I’ve got it.
C’mon Annie. Its my shout.
            Thank you so much. I am buying the next one and I wont forget.
            I pause; then put the pen down.

Saturday, 26 November 2011


            Angus and Rose Squatter sit at their kitchen table. The table is theirs; she bought it with her first pay-slip after wiping dinner plates in a sheep's trough. Every night she watched her reflection in the soupy water, working steadily through each course on the bistro’s menu. Each plate, she thought; told a narrative; a story in blots of thick lamb gravy, fiercely torn chicken scraps, broccoli heads sprayed across the patterns of small white scars carved subconsciously into the ceramic. In each portrait she read the stories of business meetings, of breakups, reunions of forgotten friendships, and lonely dates shared with paperback napkins. After each story was read, she drowned their evening beneath her reflection and read another. It was years of removing the unwanted excess of other people’s meals that bought her that wooden dinner table.
            But he contributed too. How could the table be afforded without the money and care he put into operating his household? From his work notes, sprawled across its timber, he bought the food to give the table purpose. His pen tickled the table surface. "When I am successful," he scrawled, "I will buy a different table."
            They sit opposite each other, Rose and Angus, allowing themselves the space to spread wide their bowls and coasters. In between they face each other and the other’s meal. The grains of timber run horizontally between them. Sometimes Rose worries that there is a tangible distance between them; that it is written in the face of the table; in each contortion of her arm towards the condiments. She is conscious to replace the semi depleted salt shaker exactly as before. She wonders if he notices. She sees him perform the same ritual too.
            And then they engage in the mutual pastime of eating. They scrape each mouthful from their plates and lift it (carefully as they dare) to the point where the cargo can no longer be guided by the eye. Then routine, practice, the complex mathematics and geometry of the subconscious, moves it into the waiting mouth. Maybe, thought Rose, I can only get this right, this whole eating business, by watching him, and he watching me? What a challenge - an experience - it must be to eat alone.
            At his end of the table, Angus Squatter leans back into his chair. His shoulders rest between the wooden slats. The chairs are theirs, but one among the identical set is his. He bought the set from his first pay-slip as a ghost-writer for ambiguously gifted sportspersons. When he etches his shoulders into the chair's wooden spine, he recollects the modern tragedies of those lonely love letters wretched from convulsions of gin; each tale clinging tenderly to the moral that one's fate can be altered by a single blade of grass. Angus purchased the chairs deep in cynicism when his shoulders ached from arching over unsatisfying epitaphs. At his most depressed, he allowed smoke to filter through his mind and embraced the manufactured reality of each page. Now he writes columns for the Financial Review.
While they face each other across the table-top, every mouthful is contrasted and compared, judged and critiqued. They eat different meals - he, veal; her, chicken - with differing drinks - he, pinot noir; her, sauvignon blanc - in different orders at naturally different rates. Yet their consumption is such so that at the meal’s conclusion they orgasm as one, across the table, and drop their cutlery in contentment. They are in love.
            They stack their plates together and the dishwasher wipes each anecdote clean.
            On this tepid evening; they eat their supper and converse subconsciously in the comments and retorts of each knife gash against the ceramic, in the inflections and of each sip from their goblets, and in the humdrum mutterings of their shoes beneath the timber. Through the open window, the galahs scream in love, or pain (she has no idea which, except that their emotion is beautiful). The galahs could be swerving and diving overhead, or aligned haphazardly along the branches of the Stringybark. Cars shout indignantly over each other on some nearby road (It feels odd to Rose that there could be so many places people might want to be). The air hangs in the small room with the odour of cooling pie and the fermentation of dusk.
            "I have poisoned your supper."
            Angus Squatter stares at his wife, aiming, as best he can, for her eyes. He allows the sentence to drift through the summer with a relaxed self-confidence he did not intend but finds himself proud of.
            "Did you really?"
            "Yes," he says. "I sifted it into the stewing apple between the caster sugar and the grated nutmeg. I stirred it through until it diffused into the sweating, melting apple flesh and the room took up its aroma and the apples freckled nutmeg in the electric sun until the bubbling juices thickened into a sun-stained caramel; hidden within the ingredients, but always within, only to be released through a logical but naturally unlikely series of coincidences."
            "And you watched it boil?"
            "No. I prepared the roast chicken."
            "But you inhaled the aroma? The twisting clouds of caramel? The threat of death? Were you enticed by its sweet perfume? Was the serpent himself powerless to resist the caramelizing odour of his forbidden apple as he lingered long among Eden's brambles? Does its residue now linger within your lungs and settle a gentle sediment of self affliction?... Or possibly self-doubt?"
            "I did indeed waltz amongst the silhouettes of seething aromas. But you do not understand your affliction like I do. I am the architect of your demise and can help you through this. Remember Rose, this is only a phase and you will soon pass through to some new truth or unquestionable lie."
            "How do I die?"
            "Why would you want to know that?"
            "I feel you owe me this decency to entice my fears."
            “I have already done you a great courtesy. Not many know when they are going to die."
            "Do you consider this a privilege?"
            "It is really just an occurrence. I did not intend to mention it, but excitement slid the words from my subconcious to weigh down my jaw. I surprised myself really."
            "You do not own my death. I could take this knife to my wrist, sever my arteries and empty your sweetened caramel into my saucer. If I choose then I will know when and how I die."
            "So how will it be?"
            Rose places the breadknife delicately between her fingers. Then she retrieves her fork and resumes her meal. 
            "It really is the most exquisite pie," she says.
            "I prepared extra."
            "That is very generous of you." 
            "Yes, but I'm afraid it doesn't keep very well."
            "No matter." She reaches her knife deep within the pie's flesh and splits open its chest. She can feel her face redden: she presumes it is red - a royal crimson which sprouts from her eyes and unfurls down her cheeks - but it could be any hue, any colour at all. She hopes he sees it. She hopes he is looking. She hopes it is red.
            "I have poisoned your wine," she says.
            She hears his goblet clunk perfectly into the loop of spill upon its coaster.
            "Did you really?"
            "Am I really in the position to bother with lies?"
            "And yet I don't believe you," he says.
            "Then pass me your goblet and I will drink from it."
            "But you are to die regardless."
            "And yet I don't believe you,” she says. 
            "You don't drink red wine."
            "I know."
            He clasps each finger around the spine of the glass as he has in each meal before. Then he lifts it gently, using his other arm to position the coaster below. He stretches the assembly away from his authority, across each grain in the timber, and places it at his arm's full reach in the centre of the table. He then retracts to his chair.
            "So do you care to die by your poison or mine?" he asks.
            Rose Squatter reaches one arm (it was to be her right, but became her left with one last-second impulse). She watches her hand reach long over each notch in the timber until she too can wrap her fingers around the warm and clammy neck of the glass. She lifts her grasp up its throat until she feels the weight of the glass rest on the brim of her hand and the coaster fall away. Then she retracts her arm over each grain in the timber until the glass is in front of her; his glass: clutter in the wide expanse between her supper and her sauvignon blanc; a gift from him: his prized article and companion, the elixir of his rudimentary routine evening. And it is in front of her. She notices that a crimson stain has dribbled unevenly from the glass's rim and has run down its crystal chin. It is a lipstick engrained onto the glass from the endless celebration of identical nights, taking years of labour to form. She becomes suddenly aware that she can swipe the half-full goblet through the air and stain the shag pile red in only an instant.
            Instead, she takes the glass in her hand and stares towards him (but does not see him). She lifts the glass to the edge of perception and from there she relies on all twelve years of routine and emulation. When the crimson stain rests between her lips in a passionless kiss, she tips the glass into her dry mouth. In the darkness she can see the swill of red and backwash.
            "How does it taste?"
            "You get used to that."
            "Would you like it back?" 
            "Yes. Thank you."
            She places the glass on the coaster and he returns it to his lips. They finish their meals simultaneously, rise from their chairs and place their dishes into the dishwasher. Through the open kitchen window the galahs continue to call.

Love Story

Boy and girl.
The boy’s name is David. I once knew a David who lived in the bottom of my street in an old California bungalow sailing over the lawn. At the Christmas party, He said he owned a pet shop three suburbs over to the left because he always wanted to work at the zoo, but there was no money in caring for animals that people can lust over but never love. His face was made of plastic and his smile was wedged into a hole in the plastic. He swung is plastic champagne flute wildly in front of him as if to fend me off as we spoke. When he laughed, which was a lot, each little laugh burst from his stomach like a belch. We talked for a while. I told him about my senior manager’s position at the supermarket and how I spent my evenings drinking port and writing fables and that one day I will be published. He topped up his flute and slowly filled with bubbles until he floated away through the gap between sentences. Later that evening I heard him tell Mrs. Colchester from three doors over that he managed a charter bus company. Then he laughed and laughed. I like the name ‘David,’ but I feel that the boy will be tarred by my impression of the only other David I knew. I know this is completely unfair.
The girl is Phoebe. Phoebe is my half sister. She is ten and lives in the corners of my mother’s house. When I visit her she hugs me in her arms and drools her big sloppy smile into my cheek. She likes horses and fairies and ignorance and one day she will never grow up. My mother works on business trips to Asia and Europe and America so she can afford the top floor of her house. Malcolm looks after Phoebe. None of us mention the other women dressed in tits and pubes and speaking little clichés that smell like cider, because my mother tells us she is happy and time feels as though it is standing still. The Phoebe living in my ink is twenty three. I think she is happy.
David meets Phoebe behind the counter. She is marooned between the reefs of women’s clothes on the second floor of the department store. There are racks of identical dresses in every size to fit every character. She wears the black skirt I saw in a junk mail catalogue and a blue creased shirt with a name badge. She is beautiful.
David’s ankle is bandaged. I’m not sure why. He fell while running or he tripped over a staircase or he got out of bed the wrong way. It doesn’t really matter, but he winces with every step. He doubts every step. He hopes there is something worthwhile he is walking towards. He is determined that there will be.
Phoebe speaks first.
“How may I help you?” or “would you like a hand?” or “You alright there, darling?” But which one? She is sweet and beautiful and perfect.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” he says.
But what do they say next? They will fall in love. But how? What do I know of love? I met Margaret when she dressed up in her black skirt and blouse just for me, to impress me, sitting behind her résumé, smiling sweetly. I invited her back for a second date. One day she will love me too.
But this is perfect love. It is inevitable.
“You’re beautiful,” he says.
“How may I help you?” she says.
But love isn’t simple. Love is a series of tragedies where lovers find solace in lovers so that they do not feel so alone. Love is as messy as real life.
“I am looking for a skirt,” says David.
“That’s lovely,” says Phoebe. “Who is it for?”
“My fiancé,” says David.
I don’t think David is a bad man for leaving his fiancé for Phoebe. He is in love with Phoebe, so he no longer loves his fiancé. It would be cruel of him to marry the woman he does not love. Nor is Phoebe a bad woman for loving David.
Phoebe leads him around the racks until they come to a row of black skirts.
“These are my favourites,” she says.
But how do they fall in love? I know that they love each other. I know they will marry and have three children and a dog and a big house with a second floor and they will love each other until they die.
So I tell them.
“She loves you,” I say to David. “She thinks that your thick eyebrows and cleft chin are cute and masculine. She is charmed by your voice, soft and gentle against her skin. She can see through your eyes into your mind and finds passion and compassion and some flawed perfection that speaks to her and soothes her and leaves her feeling as though there is no other reason to live.”
“He loves you too,” I say to Phoebe. “He thinks you are beautiful.”
The couple turn to me, standing between the racks of dresses in every size.
“Who are you?” They ask.
“I don’t know,” I say. 
Then the roof falls in and the walls crumple and the floor scrunches into creases and folds and together they are crushed to death.