Saturday, 25 February 2012

Bitch

John is naked on the couch. His legs are splayed about the coffee table, gently fondling through the pages of an out of date Reader’s Digest. The nightly news carries on conversation. The newsreader is a beautiful mother with fading blonde hair and a red cardigan that masks her cleavage. She looks at John’s legs, gut, face and penis and then tells him she will be right back. I stand behind the couch and listen to him peel his sweaty skin from the leather.
            “Fucking ads,” he says.
            “What do you mean? They might tell you something important.”
            “When have they ever done that?”
            I am not in the mood to argue. It is a hot December evening and the ceiling fan is pushing around clouds of sweat.
            “Do you want to do something?” I ask.
            “Ok. Come here.”
            I sit down on the couch next to him. He slips his arm around my neck and I can feel our sweat congeal. I slide my hand along his thigh until it is saturated. Then I rub the sweat across his chest and guts. I watch his erection unfurl, but his eyes remain glazed with the reflection of the blond mother in the red cardigan.
            “I think we need milk,” I say finally. I don’t know if it’s true.
            “We should be fine without it.”
            “Do you actually want to achieve anything useful tonight?”
            He peels himself from the leather and pushes his lips then his body into my own. My fingers feel sticky in the grease of his thick Greek hair. His fingers ripple across the back of my t-shirt.
            “I’m going to get milk,” I tell him.
            “Alright; the keys are in the front door.”
            “I’m going to walk.”
            “Ok then.”
            He kisses me once more and I pull myself off him. My clothes are moist and smell of BO. I leave him as I found him; his eyes drawn the bright colours which faintly ripple across his skin. His erection has subsided into nothingness.

It is his parents’ holiday house in Sorrento where we are staying. It remains theirs until the divorce settlement is finalised. The house has a nice hi-definition flat screen, a display model kitchenette, heated towel racks and a ‘man’s’ shed filled with jumbled boat parts. His parents at least agree that their son may utilise the house as an outsider third party as long as he restacks the condiments and washes the sheets. So we are living in a mausoleum to dearly departed love. The loneliness of the place makes me think of my dad. I think of all the women that my father brings home. I do talk politely to the women. I tell them all about me; about how I am a nineteen year old journalism student and I’m feeling fine this morning. They tip the contents of the coffee cup into their broad smiles. A smile is the perfect contour for coffee. It makes our meetings go by smoothly as each tells me about their lives:
            “I’m a teller at the Bendigo Bank headquarters on Elizabeth Street. No, I haven’t ever needed to set off the screens. You need to understand that there is a lot more to the bank than just a means of robbery.”
            “I’m a school teacher. I look after ten year-olds at Northcote Primary. I love it. It’s like having 25 children of my own and I love them and want the best for all of them. Well, maybe not all of them. Some of them are little shits. It hurts me to see them and know what they could grow up to become and how I was partially responsible for it. You know, ADD wackjobs and kids who come to school with their nostrils stuffed full of passive smoke from their parent’s special roll-your-owns; poor souls. There aren’t enough aids for all the children so already they are being taught to fend for themselves. I just don’t know what more I can do but make sure I take the pill and try not to get too attached.”
            “I met your father at a nightclub in St. Kilda last night. He bought me drinks and put on this really sweet charm. He told me about his daughter and how much he loves her. I told him my biggest regret was not coming across some children of my own. We danced to John Farnham and he held me close, secure. I saw all of the trust and loyalty of his soul. I saw it through his eyes in his mind. I felt safe and superior in his arms, in his bed. Do you have decaff?”
            My father knows the truth of life: that throughout all our lives we are getting old. When Mum died, we mourned dutifully. He bought a new mattress and the house fell into a new but regular rhythm. I returned to classes and he returned to the law firm. I finished school with prizes for academic achievement, public speaking, debating and was dux of politics. I met John in through Johnny Walker’s amber spyglass. By the end of the night the bottle was empty and I could see him a lot clearer. He was articulate, opinionated and atheist. Fuck Gadaphi,” he told me. “And the Tea Party and fuck the liberals and Goths and the radio shock jocks whispering into people’s ears.” We kissed between shots of Bailey’s; milky, almost natal, kisses. One day he told me he loved me. I loved him too.

Evening. Sorrento reeks from the halitosis of the sea breeze. I walk along the footpath with the click of my thongs stalking every step. When the footpath is swallowed by the scrub and saltbush I walk along the asphalt. The road is a crumpled, frayed ribbon which has been run over too many times. A row of holiday shacks stare over my head. They are beautiful odes to an ocean which cannot be seen but whispers sweet nothings into their ears. Each house cranes its weatherboard neck above the salt bush and their balconies scan the horizon. Their decks and windows are filled with beach themed trinkets. Portholes and steering wheels, and small boats sailing on wooden stocks. Beach boxes dripping with strips of the red sunset and the blue sea and the yellow sun. Sorrento is a beautiful whore with tranquil lilac skin and a raging libido of parrying white water. Rich men, with bulging wallets, drive themselves from Melbourne to see her, fuck her, grind their bodies into the fine white sand, pay her and don’t care that other men line up to fuck her too because she is beautiful and she loves them too.
The supermarket is only a ten minute walk away, but I take my time and poke around the darkened streets. It is early December, before school holidays. Each street I walk along is dark and empty. Empty spotlights descend from the stars and every so often there is blooms of light squeezed through squares of glass. I am walking through a fable; existing only in memories where coffees are sweeter or darker or frothier, and it never rains because the TVs turn on and nobody wants to look at Sorrento when it rains. On blackened decks, ashtrays fill with pollen spores. Curtains are drawn indefinitely, waiting to slide open and reveal the plasma screens and paintings keeping sentry over empty corridors, bunk beds draped in the capes of last season’s beach-towel heroes, farmers’ market impulses, hats and shirts and vacuums and irons and ovens and cookbooks and serviettes and condiments and board games and table tennis tables and paddling pools and bike pumps and cutlery and bowls and frypans and scissors and nail files and notepads on the shagpile stage. Doormats proclaim “welcome” to every leaf or bird shit to cross their surface. In the darkness around me I can hear the tribal yelps and roars of corroborees. I can hear a man’s mid-strength chuckle and barbecues exhaling a long slow breath into the dusk. I can hear VBs ejaculate and Yellowglen corks fire like embers into the gloom. It is the apocalypse tonight. Some have fled the town while others wait here to die in a pile of electric lights and bonfires, and I am the only person who moves through the streets, because I need milk or a walk or an escape. It is odd that when I die tonight that all other acquaintances and strangers will die with me. Then suddenly my handful of achievements: VCE awards, netball trophies, possessions and orgasms, will mean nothing to nobody. No one will mourn me or run their tongue over my epitaph or toss petals or tears onto my coffin. I will die on this street in Sorrento, a part of Sorrento; an hour and a half’s drive or eight buttons from home.
I walk down the centre of the asphalt as if it is a tightrope and with a lazy step I may fall into the aggregate darkness. I swing my arms and drop my toes in front of each other. No cars can pass me, but no cars come.
The supermarket is abandoned by the darkness. Inside, rows of butter yellow lights direct me through the emptying shelves selling sales and bargains. I have always been daunted by supermarkets, where I am forced to appraise the temptation of taste by words and colours laboured over and stamped proudly to a product’s skin. The Dairy Milks are 2-for-1 and the Smiths are half price but who gives a fuck because the world is about to end and money won’t mean a thing. I choose the biggest, proudest, most arrogant milk carton from the pageant. It is premium, high calcium, low fat and the colour of perfect teeth. There is no one in the store except for me and the cashier. He is a greasy young dropout in a black Woolies button up, flattened and creased by the strokes of his mother’s iron. I watch him through the pasta sauce as he tries each key on the manager’s ring to unlock the cigarette pantry. By the time he has finally stolen his first drag of a Winnie Blue I am standing in the middle of the empty car park. Around me are empty white lines, like chalk outlines, and scattered shopping trolleys parked at awkward angles. I snap the neck on the carton and take a swig. I feel sick suckling at the cow’s premium low-GI teat, like I’m barbaric; bestial. I close the milk and make for the Liquorland next door.

One Friday, after lectures, John took me home with him. I was his, with my fingers locked up between his own. He walked me down escalators and through the crowded subway station. On the train to Sandringham, I tangled my ankle around his thigh so we could not let go. He smiled into my lips and latched his arm around my shoulder. I wedged my head beneath his neck and lost the smell of his deodorant in the labyrinth of my lungs.
“Are you thinking about me?” I asked him as the train rocked into North Brighton.
“Are you worried that I might not be?”
“No, I just want to know what you’re thinking.”
“I was. And I was thinking about my print journalism essay, and hockey tomorrow night and how long it takes to get home.”
“I don’t mind the journey.”
“I’d love to live closer, though.”
“Like right near the city?”
“Yes. I reckon that would be great.”
Then I told him about the house we would share; a run-down, fucked-up 1860s terrace house on Elgin Street in Carlton, painted sky blue with a blood red door for good luck. The house is as long as an intestinal tract and opens out to a patio garden of geraniums and milk crates. My Dad’s old barbie stares at itself in the windows into the living room. We find couches on the nature-strip and fuck the smell of cigarettes out of their dusty cushions. The house sings a chorus of flaking timber floor joists and drowns out the static on the TV we stole from his father’s attic. The bookcases are crammed with Thomson and Woolf and Hemingway and pre-rolled joints and empty Bulmer’s bottles sprouting daisies. In the front room we lie marooned on a queen double above the splinters and read Kafka until the electricity bill conks out and we write elegies onto each other’s lips then fill the house with song.
He smiled. I could feel the muscles of his jaw pull up then drop. He clamped his fingers onto my knee.
“So you’ve seen this house.”
“Yes,” I lied. “It’ll be tricky but I think I can set it up and get the place fairly cheap.”
He didn’t say anything but I knew he was inside the house. I nuzzled my head deeper into his shoulder and absorbed the squeak of worn mattress springs.

The man behind the counter has worked hard on cultivating his gut so that now he can display it proudly, pressed against his sweaty Bintang t-shirt. I place the Smirnoff on the bar-mat and smile. Around me, pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs are aligned in rows like a missile armoury.
“I’m going to need to see some ID,” he greets me.
I flip him my driver’s license and try to mimic its smile. It is a smile of relief and joy, of pure passion. I am unsure if I can fully replicate it. He is bobbing back and forth behind the counter like a hand puppet. It is pissing me off.
“Busy night?” I taunt him.
“Is this license legit?”
“Yes. I slaved hard over a wheel for 120 hours to get this license to drink.”
A big wide smile weaves through his stubble.
“Are you having a party?” he asks.
“No. Am I allowed to buy my drink?”
He scoffs loudly. He hands me back my licence and opens the cash register.
“What sort of night do you have planned with a carton of milk and a bottle of vodka?”
“I stole the milk,” I tell him; “from the Woollies next door; while the cashier was pinching cigarettes. I don’t even want the milk.”
His fat face smiles at me with its fat mouth.
“But you still drank about half of it.”
“No. I tipped it out.” I realise we are both correct. He gives me my change while I fondle the licence freely between my fingers.
“So are you going to tell anyone?” I ask him.
“Tell who? Tell them what?”
“I took milk without paying for it.”
“So what? You’re just an arrogant kid with a cutsie smile and a couple of tits who one day will know better. You didn’t steal from me and there are bigger crimes going on out there right now.”
“Does that justify what I have done?”
“No.”
I lean my belly into the counter and lower my cleavage into his eyes and mouth. “And how do you know I haven’t stolen from you?”
“Please kindly fuck off before I call the police.”
“And report me for what crime?”
“Listen,” he says. “I work here all fucking night injecting depressants into some of the drunkest wackjobs on the peninsula. You are an arrogant middle-class barnacle from Melbourne who has no more worth than to smile, fuck your rich boyfriend and still suck on mummy’s tits. I will have no trouble getting you out of this store if needs be.”
My eyes are fixed in his gut and a smile sweetly, like my licence photo. Then I am standing in the car park again with a vodka bottle wedged into my armpit and a milk bottle between my fingers. I take another swig.

We got off the train at Sandringham and I followed John home. At the front door I unchained our arms and fumbled around his pants until I found the key. He filled the slot with metal and twisted it into the door’s guts.
“Wait,” I tell him. “We should do this properly.”
“What?”
I placed my palms on his shoulders and draped my fingers down his back. I pressed his fly into mine so I could feel its metamorphosis. It is incapable of lies.
“Thank you,” I told him. “I had a wonderful night.” I kissed him and he smiled.
“Me too. But it doesn’t need to be over yet. Can I invite you inside for a drink?”
I watched how the dusting of pimples across his cheeks was swallowed by the creases of his grin. I fiddled with his thick black fringe until it was perfect; an indescribable perfection.
“I don’t know. What have you got?”
“More than you could ever make up. Come and see.”
“Ok,” I said, and he pulled the key from its socket. He opened the door and gestured me in ahead with the fencing of his arms. He pulled me through a hallway lined with acrylic windows and through a library of anonymous spines into a small lounge stuffed with art deco, leather couches and a stain glass liquor cabinet. I pushed myself deep into the folds of the couch until I was a part of the couch, sitting, waiting. His wobbling, bobbing arse fiddled with the cabinet’s doors until they finally creaked open with a whiff of varnish and dust.
“Oh shit,” he said.
He stood back. Bottles of sherry and port rolled out of the doors and threw-up all over the carpet. Bailey’s and cognac lids kicked helplessly on their backs. Dark rings stained into the timber showed where other bottles once stood.
“Wow,” I said. “Who went on the bender recently?”
“Shit,” he said again then dashed from the room. I found him standing in the kitchen. The draws of the sideboard had been upended onto the cork with their papers and knickknacks leaking out from beneath them like a frying egg. Upstairs, the plasma screen lay helplessly on its stomach, leaking colours and dramas through the carpet. The master bedroom was a swirl of bed sheets and t-shirts and trousers and dresses and blush and rouse so the room was awash with colour. The jewellery cabinet had dented the far wall where someone had thrown it.
“Why would he do this” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” said John slowly. “I don’t know what would make him do this. Dad was always so confident he’d get a good outcome. Something must have changed somewhere.” He ran his finger across the dent in the wall and started to cry. I held on tight around his shoulders.
“That fucking idiot,’ he shouted. “He has gone and fucked things up good for himself.”
I guided his shaking shoulders into the kitchen and poured him a glass of water that mostly dribbled down his chin.
“Its good to see that he really cared,” he said finally; “That he didn’t want to make things any harder for us all.”
I watched his shoulders rocking back and forth; vulnerable. I covered them with my body.
“I’ll help you through this,” I said.
“Fuck him. He was always a rubbish father. I wanted to live with mum anyway.”
“Don’t think about that. Think about the now. Just get all those feelings out.” His body shrivelled and his eyes remained fixed on some small generic area above the countertop where everything was the same as it has ever been. I held tighter to his body so as to be part of him and not part of the setting.
“Don’t cry.”
Then there was the turn of a doorknob somewhere down the hall and the long squeal of a door. A man’s skewed reflection skittled towards us along the varnish. He was young and drunk; dressed in black from his shoes to his greasy black hair, with a bottle of Smirnoff wedged tightly into his grip. His face was unsettlingly pink, as if the outermost layers of skin have been shaved away. Suddenly John’s pushing past me and the black man is running. He clawed open the front door and skittled down the driveway, tossing earrings and necklaces clear from his pockets. But John was gaining, He slapped each foot in fury along the concrete grunting terror, anger, adrenaline; in each burst from his nostrils. The man hesitated at the nature strip, pockets empty, and was wrenched from the air by the heavy embrace of John’s arms around his belly. John pinned down his arms and legs and imprinted him deep into the unmown grass. The man bloodshot eyes grew wide. His mouth hung dumbly open, unable to lift his jaw from his chin. His head lolled back and forth as if trying to run free of its body, then the fine hairs of John’s fists embraced his cheekbone in an expression of pure passion. The man yelped helplessly. His voice was higher than I expected. John swung again and the man’s crying blood and salty tears from the drunken red spider webs splayed across his corneas. His arms and legs kicked into the grass. I watched on from the driveway, on the line where the fine aggregate pavers met the greying footpath. I didn’t say anything, just watched. I don’t know if I wanted him to stop. As the man whimpered and kicked, John pulled a kitchen knife from his belt. Suddenly I was running forward and the ochre driveway and green grass and blue sky and red blood are a smear in front of my eyes.
“John! What the fuck are you doing?”
“Please don’t,” said the man. Spittle and blood reeled from his mouth and drooled helplessly down his chin. “I’m homeless,” he whimpered. “I have nothing. I live in a sleeping bag under the railway line. I have given you everything back; see.” He pulled out his trouser pockets like two helpless pathetic wings. John squeezed a huff of emotion through the mucus in his nostrils then tossed the knife into his garden.
“Thank you. Thank you so much,” the man exhaled. “I have nothing, I shouldn’t have done this, I shouldn’t, you’re a good man and I shouldn’t have done it.” His bloodied eyes tumbled back and forth and his mouth wobbled across the peaks and folds of his cheeks. “Shit. I didn’t fucking think. I didn’t mean any harm. I didn’t–”
But John’s elbow had thudded into the man’s face that dents his cheek. With a cry, the man fell onto his stomach and filled the gutter with cognac and sherry and port and sauvignon blanc and gin and contreau. John stood back in shock until his feet were off the lawn. Then the man was suddenly alive and on his feet, staggering wildly along the nature-strip and up the empty street. I watched John watch the man disappear.
We cleaned the house together, tidied the rooms and wiped the floors. He snapped the key in the liquor cabinet lock while I crawled through the compost and grass shavings to find the carving knife. We rebuit the house except for the dent left by the jewellery box in the fibro.
“I’ll cop shit for that.”
“What will you tell them?” I asked.
“I’ll tell them I lost my cool. And then I’ll tell them I love them.”

I decide to walk home along the beach. In the annihilation of the apocalypse I feel it may be comforting to watch the endless falling of the waves. I click across the abandoned main road towards the breath of the sea. I follow the path and warning signs and the mismatch of timber and dirt clod steps until I can kick my thongs into the surf. Tiny pricks of sand light up under the stars then burn out under the long shadows off the saltbushes. I walk until I can no longer see the esplanade and Sorrento disappears behind the dunes. The beach is empty in both directions, except for me. This is where I’d prefer to die.
It’s a hot night but when I sit down the sand is cool against my legs. I kick until my waist comes up to the hight of the sand and my sweat glues a thick glaze to my skin. I am the sand, looking up at the sky and out to sea. Each wave looms up to blot out the night and then trips over itself to rest at my feet. They are performing for me. I watch dutifully; I’m not sure for how long. I feel that I am sitting atop a giant hourglass and at any moment I may fall through to the other side. I watch the falling whitewash; my throat is clogged with salty breeze and I swig endlessly at the warm milk. I can taste the curds sliding along my tongue and down my throat. The carton feels light and I can’t tell how much milk is left inside; maybe a half, a quarter. I drop it into the sand and then let my consciousness rise and crash on a pillow of white water. I am not sure I could ever get bored of the sea. Time is frozen still in the perpetual loop of the waves and as long as I keep watching then the apocalypse will never come.
Something soft and moist nuzzles into my arm. I flick around my head, full of assumptions and accusations. A bitch is sitting beside me, holding up its head aloft on my forearm. I scramble from the sand until I can feel my weight push down on my heels and I propel myself deep into the darkness. The bitch stays still with its head collapsed into the sand. It’s a German Shepard with a thick evening pelt and incisors stained in the blood of moonlight. I stumble further away kicking up a trail in the sand. Suddenly the bitch seems so much closer along the pathway I have dug. I scramble backwards until I can feel the cool water saturate my bum and the limp tassel of my t-shirt. I cannot take my eyes away from the dog sitting deep in the sand. I don’t notice the breeze falling from each wave, or the salt clogging my sinuses or the burning, noxious scent of my armpits. I just watch the bitch watch me.

I am afraid of dogs. I was five in a car park full of fluoro suits and bare skin on the foreshore at Lorne with a Rottweiler attached to my calf. I screamed at the dog, at the cars and the silent passers by and the electric blue sky. It tried to kick my leg clear but its incisors were sunk deep beneath my skin. I flailed my arms through the air and the asphalt until they were shaven and bloody. The dog’s black eyes were fixed on something in the distance, something beyond me. Some treat from a plastic bag or a car to chase or an owner to satisfy. I focused my shrieks at the dog. “Look at me,” I shouted at the dog; but the words came from my mouth as an untranslatable smear of high pitched noise as if from an animal’s tongue. Then my mother garrotted the dog and tore its teeth clear of my flesh. I screamed as I watched my leg deflate streams of blood from the two crimson puncture marks. My mother was shouting something and the dog scarpered beneath a car. She bent down and hugged me tight, compressing her skin into my own. I could see my father standing in the distance with the boogie boards still draped over his singlet and a look on his face that I could only lie about.

I am standing now. My toes have sunk small salty pools but I can imagine the slap of the sand against my heels if I decide to run. The bitch stares back at me. I compress my fingers into the milk carton with one hand and choke the slender, smooth neck of the Smirnoff with the other. I hold it as a club, simple and primitive, against my chest.
“Go away!” I shout at the dog. I don’t dare to move my arms, my legs, my neck. I am barely able to move my tongue. The dog remains still and stares back at me. The clear night lights the black of his eyes.
“Go on,” I am shouting again. “Fuck off!” It hasn’t moved except for the wind through its fur; gently caressing, stroking, patting. I don’t know what to do so I shout again.
“Fuck off!” I shout, louder this time. I wonder if there is anyone alive to hear me. “Fuck off bitch!” I realise that words are really meaningless noise when I’m so alone. Up and down the beach I see only pillows of sand and the pulsing waves performing their dance forever into the distance. I will need to escape myself. I brandish the Smirnoff ahead of me so that its butt points down the bitch’s nose. I move slowly in an arc, keeping perfect distance from where it sits, deep in the shallow well I had kicked into the sand. I edge further around, as fast as I dare. The dog’s eyes remain fixed on where I was standing, hurling white noise over the drone of the sea. I can see my arc following me in the disturbances on the sand. I drag my breath in time with the waves to calm myself down. When I reach the scrub of saltbush and brambles, thick and twisted like pubic hair, I turn my back from the bitch’s pelt, sitting quietly and staring into the cavity of each wave where the sky falls down into the white water. Then I am running, through the thick strands of branches and wiry leaves and spider webs painted onto my face and the sweet smell of moist soil and decaying earth and the grinding sand through my teeth as I trip down an embankment onto my knees and keep pushing through the fractured darkness away from the waves shouting obscenities in all directions around me until my chest is caught and held by a wire fence splitting the darkness. I push through the fence onto a shaved lawn and patio of a blackened beach shack. With my hands and knees and forehead against the cool brick wall, I vomit up my lungs and feel the thousands of invisible scratches on my naked limbs, so close together that they blur into a singular screaming ache that pulses down my limbs and along my neck to cool against the coarse brick. I smear thick sweat across the wall and rub my body up and down but I can’t feel cool or dry. I feel so alone, be that a curse or blessing. The scrub behind me is empty blackness. I close my eyes and rub myself along the concrete pavers, wiping a snail-trail of sweat and flecks of blood and mangled thoughts. Suddenly the wall has disappeared and my forehead is resting on glass. I open my eyes. Inside is a creamy laundry. A row of perfectly folded beach towels sit at odds to the name-brand highly-efficient washers and driers which neatly clutter the room. I can’t see myself in the reflection. The house has been abandoned to the winter. I lean my weight on the slender gold door handle and fall forward with the nightmare shriek of the door. Then suddenly the washer and drier are around me and I can run my fingers over the coarse towels. When I hear the click as the door closes, I can feel safe again.
            The laundry opens into a display-home kitchen with all the mod-coms set in varnished ash and neatly aligned around an island bench above a sea of cork. The power is off in the fridge but I put the milk there anyway. I read the word ‘premium’ stamped across the carton’s chest and feel instantly that I belong in this house. I sit down on each of the couches in my lounge room and watch myself in the reflection on the black TV screen. I can’t stop watching. I stare at the part in my hair and the freckles stained into my cheeks. I read and reread the brand in my shirt and how the letters curl around my breasts. I look at my knees tucked neatly beneath my skirt. I flick through my bookshelves and find Hemingway and Conrad and Kamus. I sit at the kitchen bench and read the first few pages. Each book begins much the same.
“Property of John Curran.”
“Property of Nicole Curran.”
I place each book neatly back into its slot on the shelves. In the dining room, I take a crystal wine glass from the cupboard and follow the steamed cream carpets up the stairs to the master bedroom. From the door I can see the waves brood over the balcony and under the moonlight. I pull on a bleach white dressing gown from my en-suite and kick my thongs into my empty dresser. When I am ready I wade in the shallows of the bed and pour myself a glass of Smirnoff at my bedside table. Sitting on the edge of the countertop is an old style ochre telephone. One varnished cup is the speaker and the other is the receiver, I’m not sure which. I lift up the top one and hold it to my ear and am surprised to hear the hollow whirr of a dial tone calling back to me. I replace it on its stand and the room is silent once again. The phone is beautiful. Its speaker and receiver are rich veins of Australian hardwood lipped in polished gold leaf. I lift the receiver again and listen to the dial tone fall into line with the tumble of the waves. I listen to the ringing and the waves going on for ever; then I dial. I press my fingerprints deep into the keys, as if I am punching a cuss onto a computer screen. The receiver bleats and I wait, sitting calmly on my bed, until a man’s voice comes out of the old wires.
“Hello?” says my father.
I tip myself into the bed and watch the fissures sprawl from my body along the crimson sheets as his greeting echoes about my ear.
            “Hello,” I tell the receiver cupped to my chin. I try to bury myself in the ceremonial heap of pillows against the bed head so that I cannot be found. There is a long silence before my father speaks again.
            “Who is this?” he asks.
            “I’m sorry,” I tell the speaker. “It’s Nicole Curran.”
            “I’m sorry, who?”
            “You haven’t forgotten me, have you Arthur?”
            “Um. No. No. Of course I haven’t.”
            “We had dinner four Fridays ago at the Kimchi in Camberwell.”
            “Yes. That’s right. That was a wonderful evening.”
            “Yes; and you ordered the Ramen and I ordered the Mul Naeng Myun.”
            “That’s right.” There is some foolhardy confidence in his voice.  
            “And then we went back to your place,” says Nicole.
            “Yes.” Arthur cuts the syllable sharply from the receiver.
            “And then we both had too much port on those beautiful crimson couches in your living room.”
            “Yes.”
            “And we were both laughing so much. And then you told me this fantastic joke about a lawyer. Do you remember what it was?”
            “No. Sorry. No; I don’t think I do.”
            “And then you snuck your sneaky little fingers onto my leg.”
            The receiver is silent.
            “And then you ran your palm along my thigh.”
            Nicole hears his breath build then tumble down in a cascade of white water.
            “Right up my thigh.”
            I feel each hot exhalation vent from the receiver and waft deep into her ear.
            “And then we had crumpets and maple syrup for breakfast with your lovely daughter. It was Laura, wasn’t it?”
            “Yes.”
            “You were a good fuck.”
            I listen to the silence in all the noise around me. I wait just a second.
            “Why did you never call me back?”
            I drop the speaker into the blankets and takes up the wine glass with in free hand. I sip and listen to the silences and stammers in his reply.
            “I’m so sorry,” he concludes. But I had such a wonderful night and I want to try again; to make it up to you. Are you free this Friday?”
            I reply, but the receiver is lost somewhere in the canyons of the crimson bedspread and neither of my hands are free.
            “Nicole?”
            With a gentle click, I place the speaker back onto its hook. I refill my glass and place it on the countertop. The room is filled with moonlight. It sprawls dark shadows across my dresser; my bed; my legs. I can hear the faint whisper of the breeze and the distant shrieks of doomsday parties. I can hear a bitch barking on the sand in an endless conversation with the waves. I lift the receiver again.
            “Hello?” says a man’s voice.
            “Hello John. It’s Laura.”
            “Laura? Is everything alright?
            “I’m feeling fine thankyou.”
            “Where are you? Did you get the milk?”
            “Hold on. I’m sorry; did I wake you up?”
            “No. No.”
            “Bullshit.”
            “Alright.”
            “You’re still in front of the TV?”
            “So what?”
            “Hey John. What are you wearing?” I lower my voice and slide my body through the sheets.
            “What’s going on? Where are you?”
            “I got the milk.”
            “Good. Then where are you?”
            “I stole it; from the Woollies in town; while the cashier was pinching cigarettes.”
            “Why would you do that?”
            “You still haven’t told me what you’re wearing.”
            “Are you drunk?”
            “No. Are you still naked?”
            “Where are you?”
            I look through the windows to the sea. 
            “I am in my bedroom,” I tell him. “I have found our dream house.”
            “What bedroom?”
            “It’s on the foreshore; through the saltbush. Its got a full kitchen, nice couches, Kafka and Hemingway, a queen-double, a back door that doesn’t lock and a view of the ocean.”
            “You broke into someone’s house? Shit, Laura. What are you doing? Get out of there before someone sees you.”
            “There is no one around to see me.”
            “That shouldn’t even matter.”
            “Do you want to move in with me?” I place the receiver on the countertop and take a long drink from my wineglass.
            “Please come home.”
            “I am home. I have found home.”
            “Laura. Think about what you are doing. If you are caught you’ll get written up for trespassing. You’ll get a criminal record for the rest of your life. You might get kicked out of Uni; and everything you are working towards could fall away.”
            “But I’ve found everything. And I have milk.”
            “You haven’t found everything.”
            “I love you.”
            “I love you too.”
            “Please come home.”
            He hangs up. I can see him sitting naked in front of the TV with the phone by his side and his penis in his lap. I drop the speaker roughly back into its cradle and listen the noise around me. For a second, I admit that I do consider going back; but there is a bitch somewhere outside in the night. So instead I top up my Smirnoff and kiss its bitter taste into my lips. Ahead of me I watch the waves fall again and again and again while I wait for the world to end.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Make Believe

It never rains anymore. The creek by the campgrounds is a scar of dank pools that blacken under the summer sun. The scrub that hangs between the thick dust and the rocks has turned tawny and then died and crackles in the children’s fists. Above the creek and the thick lymphatic gums, the bluffs gnash holes in the pale evening sky. Somewhere high up in the gully, above the faint call of the boom-box and the campfire, there will be water seeping from the soil.
            “Let’s pretend we’re bushrangers,” says Caleb. He squats on a rock and holds out his arm into the creek-bed for Tim.
“It’s getting dark.”
“C’mon. It’ll be fun.” Caleb grins and his whole face pleats. “I’ll be Captain Gold.”
“Why?”
“Because I am the leader and because I am going to be rich.” He leaps onto a rock. “And who are you?”
“I’m not sure there were any Chinese bushrangers.”
“You will be the first. You are the Mad Chinaman.”
 “Ok,” he says. He takes the Captain’s hand and hauls himself out from the creek-bed. The Captain is smiling but his eyes appear frosted and distant. Tim wonders what is expected of himself and if it is anything more than doing what he is told.
“We need to find our hideout,” says the Captain; “where the traps won’t find us.”
“Are the traps looking for us?”
“Of course they are; we’re bushrangers.” The Captain turns his back and picks a path between the blackberries up the hillside.
“Where are we going?”
“Into the hills. Where no-one will dare follow us.” He turns and continues to pick a path through the scrub.
The Mad Chinaman follows each footstep, where the Captain’s heel has snapped the brambles and where the scree hold’s tightest onto the soil. Soon they are above the scrub and the ferns to where the eucalypts grow tight and twisted and a thick sweat cakes dust to the Mad Chinaman’s forehead and cheeks and lungs. His lungs shrivel and his neck tightens around his throat and dims his eyes and he lifts each foot up and up and up because he has forgotten any other action, because the Captain is ahead and he has to keep up and up and up and then his fists hit something warm and moist.
“Watch out, Chinaman.”
They are standing on a dusty pad below where the bluffs loom great shadows over the valley. Down the hillside, the Chinaman can see the tents in the clearing beside the creek and a thin wisp of smoke. They will be cooking dinner now.
“Let’s look for a cave to make our shelter,” says the Captain. He turns and climbs into the rocks. The Chinaman follows, giving the Captain space to climb and seconds for himself to regain his breath.
“We need to watch out for the black man,” says the Captain. “The blacks live all over these hills. They are ruthless. They will spear you and eat you while you’re still alive. They raid settlements at night and then burn them down.”
“And what do we do if we see him?”
“We don’t see him. He is as dark as shadows. We just know he is there. We respect him. We respect that he has power over our lives and if we respect him then he will spare us.”
“How do you know that the black man exists, since no-one has seen him?” The Chinaman is breathing hard, breathing dust. Dust cakes to his lips and his gums and his throat burns and smokes dust. He can see his words hang in the air and then be swallowed again.
“Because if you don’t believe in the black man then you show him no respect,” says the Captain. He pauses at a cave cut by the wind into the saw-blade spine of the ridge. Below them are the wrinkles of each blue-grey spur rolling to where the hills meet the dome of the horizon and the sun splits its sides like an egg yoke in a frying pan. Their territory. “This is the perfect camp,” says the Captain.
“So what do we do now?”
“We need horses. All bushrangers need horses.”
The Captain flings his head around and his eyes fall about the collage of trees tossed about on grainy pale-blue poster paper. He stops on a small meadow of onion grass.
“There,” he says.
Two chestnut horses graze the meadow, noses buried in the grass. To the Chinaman, the creatures appear both beautiful and ridiculous, their mop-head and drum torso held up by twigs. There is none of the perfect swinging stride of the rocking horse he rode as a toddler in this reality. The Captain trudges through the scrub with a length of rope coiled in his hand.
“What are you doing?” asks the Chinaman.
“I’m going to lasso the horse.”
“But we don’t know how to ride horses.”
“It’s easy. Just kick it and point its head and hold on.”
“How do you know,” the Chinaman asks but the Captain just smiles. He ties the rope with a messy knot, full of loops and dead ends but he ends up with a loop as long as his arm. The closest horse raises her neck and her big dumb eyes watch the Captain creep closer, snapping dried-out leaves and smashing through the thick straggly scrub. He sidles up next to a gum and ties the rope-tail around its trunk and with his tongue out and brow down he tosses the rope high into the pastel smear. From amongst the trees, the Chinaman sees the rope thread neatly over the horse’s neck. The horse’s head spasms up and out. She gallops forward but her neck snaps backward at the edge of the clearing and she collapses into the grass, her head held high in the air, as if tipped up by some invisible hand. The Captain scurries forward into the clearing and leaps onto the beast’s back, his hands tight around her neck. He kicks his heels under her ribs and she springs up. She throws her head about the end of the rope. The second horse is spooked. It finds a gap in the clearing and jolts down the hill, smashing through the bush. The Captain’s horse tries to follow but her head snaps up at the end of the rope. The Captain throws his forearms around her neck and digs his fingernails into the creature’s throat. She whines a long exhale like a tortured child and collapses onto her knees.
“Untie me,” the Captain shouts. The Chinamen runs forward and fumbles at the knot. It’s whipping frays and splinters under his fingernails. He can feel the coarse threads cut into his fingers and the smell holed up in the rope bite at his nostrils, but the knot falls apart. The Captain pulls at the rope around her neck and lifts the horse back to standing. He pulls its neck around and trots across the meadow.
“Easy,” he says. “I told you it would be.”
The sun has cracked open and spills across the lip of the horizon. The flies are gone and the mosquitoes are melting out of the air. The two bushrangers walk the horse back to camp. When they reach the cave, the Chinaman’s guts are grumbling like the last dregs down a plughole. The Captain laughs as he ties the horse to a gum.
“What are we going to do about food?” asks the Chinaman.
“We are bushrangers. We are going to steal it.”
“From where?”
The Captain points over the blackening bush to the pricks of bloody light at the bottom of the valley.
“We can’t steal from them!”
“Of course we can! We’re bushrangers. Bushrangers steal. We’re going to steal until we are rich.”
“Why do we need to get rich?”
The Captain stops threading hitches onto his knot. He stares the Chinaman down.
“We get rich so we can stop robbing people.”
“Why do we have to rob them to begin with?”
“Because it will make us happy.”
“How do you know?”
The Captain pushes the Chinaman in the guts. He falls backwards into the scrub. There is a sudden pain in his hand and a squirt of hot blood where his skin is torn away.
“Ow!”
“Do you want me to stop?” The Captain kicks him in the ribs and his lungs puff out through his throat. “I’ll stop when you do what you’re told.”
The Chinaman is crying. His chest heaves and tosses his head about his shoulders. He can’t think of what to say so he just says stop. Stop. Stop.
“If you don’t do this,” says the Captain, “then you are not a man.” He drops onto the Chinaman’s chest and holds his sodden face between his palms. “And if you’re not a man then you’re a woman.” He leans his eyes forward until they touch the Chinaman’s eyes, mouth to mouth. “Are you a woman, Chinaman?” His breath tastes like stale milk.
“No,” coughs the Chinaman. “No, I am a man.”
“Then get up and get on the horse.” The Captain climbs off him, pushing his shoulders deeper into the dirt. The Chinaman gets up and winces over to the horse. He tries to swing over her back but he can’t pull his leg high enough. The Captain grabs him from behind and pushes him the wrong way up the horse’s pelt until his legs even out atop. He unties the horse from the tree and jumps onto her back. Without words he kicks the horse in the guts and she trots down the steep hillside.
The bush looks different in the darkness, threatening. The dying sun threads shadows through the din that dance across the trees. The horse parts the blacked-out ground with ease and the two must only watch for branches leaping out of the emptiness. The pair does not speak. The Chinaman listens to the ground snap and crack below him, reminding him it is still there. Tiredness is eating the light from the rims of his eyes and his stomach barks at the night. He hopes it won’t attract the blacks.
They stop on the banks of the creek. The Chinaman can see where he stood when Caleb held out his arm. The Captain ties up the horse and the two lie in the dirt on the edge of the camp. In the firelight they can see the adults sitting around on logs like there is nothing wrong. The boom-box is humming along with the wisps of the flames.
“Alright, Chinaman,” comes a hoarse whisper in the dark. “Prove you are a man. Sneak into the tent and steal the food.”
“No.”
Then a weight falls on his back. He swallows his breath to stop himself screaming out in shock.
“Are you a girl?” There are hands groping his guts.
“I’ll scream.”
“You are a girl.”
“I’m not.”
“If you don’t then I’ll tell everyone how you’re afraid of the dark.”
“You wouldn’t.”
“Try me.”
“Ok, I’ll go.” It seems the only thing to do.
The Chinaman climbs onto his haunches and crawls forward like a dog until he is behind the tent. He can see the firelight playing through the fabric. There is a shout and he drops to the dirt, flinging a glob of dust up his nostrils. He waits there until he hears a laugh. Nothing has changed. He looks back but the Captain has been swallowed up by the dark. He takes a breath and lifts the zip. It screams like a banshee and he drops it straight away. He stops breathing to find silence again. Then he puts his sweaty dusty fingers around the zip again and lifts it slowly, one tooth after the other until there is a hole big enough to crawl inside on his belly. The tent smells of fermenting sweat and exposed skin. He slips forward to where he remembers the food is kept, by the window. He stretches out his fingers in the dark and feels the wrap on a bread loaf.
“Timmy?”
Suddenly he is on his feet. He rips the zip up and is running across the dirt, waiting for something hidden in the blackness to trip him up.
“What happened?” comes the Captain’s whisper.
“Someone was in there.”
The Captain grabs his wrist and pulls him into the dark.
“Where are we going?”
“Back to the hideout,” says the Captain. “We need to stay hidden until the heat dies down.”
But the ground falls out from under the Chinaman and lands on his back. The creek. His spine aches as if all of his vertebrae have rammed into his chest and he can’t breathe. Everything smells of dust.
“Come on,” says the Captain.
“No.” He gasps. “I’m sick of this game. Tell people what you want. I don’t care.”
“You can’t stop playing now,” says the darkness. “You’re a criminal now.”
“I don’t care! Go away.” But the Captain has pulled out his pistol.
“What are you doing?”
“Come with me,” says the Captain. “Or I’ll shoot.”
“I don’t care.”
“If you stop pretending then there is only death.”
The Chinaman turns back towards the tents. But the gun is light in the Captain’s hand and sweat is all over the trigger. The shot will be heard at the camp.
He drags the body into the bush where it won’t be seen. Then he unties the horse and searches for his camp in the dark.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Rotted Dragon

“I’ve got this depression thing.”
“That’s awful,” I say. “What’s depression?”
“It’s a hole,” he says. “A depression is a hole. I have a hole inside of me.”
But he looks so normal. He is wearing his favourite overalls and his bracelet and the thick black grit under his fingernails looks the same as it always did, like the mould between the bathroom tiles. He is smiling his silly little smile. I can’t imagine a hole inside of him, sucking his insides out.
“How do you know you have it?”
“I can feel it. It’s like I’m always breathing in.”
“Will you be alright?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
I don’t know what to say so I say nothing and then silently hate myself.
“Don’t fret, Kat. You will have a new brother or sister soon.”
“I don’t want a new brother or sister! I want you!”
He sighs and shrugs and I look away. I look at the musty clothes tossed across his bedroom floor and the rot painting beautiful patterns across the walls and the sea breeze beating at the windows. I can hear the waves stretch out in long lines behind the beach shacks. I can see them in the dark behind my eyes, lazy and messy and grey. My mother’s snores mess with the rhythm of the waves and my breath falls somewhere in between. Again and again and again.
“Do you think it will be a brother or a sister?” he asks.
“It might be twins again.”
“If they are twins then do you think they will be like us?”
“I hope so.” I don’t know if I really do, but I just keep talking. “We’ll know how to make them happy.”
“We’ll know how to hurt them.”
“But then we will be hurting ourselves. I don’t want to hurt myself.”
“But they are not us. They are how we were in the past.” He pauses. “Do you think we will remember how we are now?”
“Of course we will. I’m never going to forget this. Never ever.”
“Promise?”
“Promise.” He grabs my hand and squeezes it. His skin is soggy and gritty and warm. He sits on the bed and I sit beside him and place my head into the nook of his shoulder. He fiddles his fingers through my hair like I was hoping he would.
“Kathrin?”
“Yes.”
“Do you love mum.”
I don’t say anything, I am too surprised. To me, ‘love’ has always been associated with ‘mum,’ like a synonym. She calls me Love sometimes, like Darling or Sweetie. I am her Love.
“I don’t think I do,” he says.
“Me neither,” I say. “What does love mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mum calls us Love.”
“And we call her mum.”
“Do you love Dad?”
He laughs and drops my hair.
“How could I love someone I don’t know?”
“But he gave you life. Phyllis Johnson at school says that we are made half of mum and half of dad, so all the stuff in you that’s not from mum must be from him.”
“So then the twins will only be like us if he is their dad.” He lies on his back and strokes his fingers along the grain in the wallpaper.
“No. He can’t be their dad. If he was then he would want to meet us.” I can tell he is getting irritated but I push on anyway.
“But he doesn’t love us.”
“He’s not the dad,” he shouts. His face is scrunched up and his biting hard on his lip and suddenly there are tears in the corners of my eyes and everything goes blurry.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He holds me and pushes his chin into my chest and his neck smells of damp and burnt toast and then I am crying. He lifts my chin to his face and kisses me on the forehead. “I love you, Kathrin,” he says.
“I love you too.”
I stare at the roof until I can focus on the rot. One patch looks like a dragon with a flared tail and breathing sodden fire. I imagine myself retreating into dreams, staring at the ceiling.
“I heard the boy again last night,” he says.
“Where?”
He places his palm against the wallpaper as though listening for its pulse.
“Right there.”
I lean my ear against the wall and hear nothing but my mother’s snores.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. He was crying.”
“Do you think that’s how the roof gets damp?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. He was whispering too. He was whispering to himself and it sounded like the waves. It was slow and hostile.”
I close my eyes and imagine that I am lying between the walls and listening to the faint mutters and snores on the other side. I stretch my arms out and feel the cool plaster jut against my elbows. One. The other. So close. Maybe they are closing in and sucking out the dark. Maybe I will run out of air. I don’t know when. But everything’s wet. Everything’s close. Closer. My head starts to spin.
“We have to get him out,” he says.
“Where will he live?”
“He will live in here. He can live under my bed and come out in the night and I will feed him scraps from dinner. He can be the monster under my bed.”
“So we won’t tell mum?”
He jumps on top of me and the bedsprings scream. He rolls me onto my side and his fingers dig into my chest and then he leans into my ear and whispers.
“There are rumours going around that Jews and gypsies are hiding from the Nazis inside the attics and cellars of houses. We can’t tell anyone. Can you promise to keep a secret?”
“No. We have to tell her.”
He rolls me onto my side and pushes his fists into my collarbone. He straddles me. He leans in and presses his lips into my lips and holds me still. I kick out but I can’t reach him and my legs fall lamely back into the howling matress. I try to open my mouth to say “stop! I relent!” but he is inside me and I can’t breathe. I kick and squirm and stare at the sodden dragon on the roof until everything fills with damp and I lie still. He lifts his mouth to my ear.
“Well?” He says. “Can you keep our secret?”
“Yes,” I whisper. “I can keep a secret.”
“Good.”
I scramble onto my knees and lean against the cool wallpaper. He is tossing aside clothes and stuff until he finds a baseball bat. The snores have stopped and all I can hear is the metronomic waves, soothing me.
“Do you think maybe he is our brother?” I ask loudly.
“I don’t know,” he says. “No. He will be a Jew or a gypsy.”
“But what if he is our brother?” I ask. He is running his palm across the wallpaper, looking for that pulse. “What do you think he will look like?”
“I don’t know. We’ll ask him when we get him out.”
I shuffle across the wall.
“I think he will be thin, like a skeleton tied up with skin. And he will always be tired. But he will care for us and he will love us very much.”
“Please move aside, Kathrin. You’re blocking the spot.”
“I think mum is awake. We should do this later. When she is out.”
“She won’t be going out. She is all dopey. We have to do this now or he might be dead later.”
“Please!” I beg. “Let’s just wait a minute. I’ll tell you a story. You like my stories.”
He drops the bat to his side.
“Kat. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong. Let me tell you a story. It will only take a couple of minutes.”
His wrist goes limp. He climbs onto the bed beside me and wraps his arm around my shoulder and toys with my hair. The bat lies across his lap.
“Ok tell me your story.”
“It was in a picture book which I found in the library in town before the all the books got burnt.”
It begins with a boy. He is asleep in the dark of but it is a picture book so we can see him asleep with the blankets to his chin and his moth ajar. Then the glass of water on his bedside table falls over and spills all over him and on the next page he wakes up suddenly and he is sitting up in bed with his eyes open so wide that you can see them curl back into his forehead. Everything is perfectly dark but on the next page we see a light and the boy thinks he is dreaming. There is a dragon, only a few inches high, flapping against the window like a moth. On the next page, in the perfect dark, he sneaks up behind the dragon that is blowing its fire breath at its reflection in the glass, and he drops the cup over its head and he places the cup on the bedside table. The dragon fumes and breathes fire but it can’t break through the glass. Its tiny tale whips at the glass but it is no more powerful than a fingernail and it can’t break through. The boy thinks it is a dream so he returns to sleep but on the next page he wakes up and finds the dragon is still there, staring at him. Suddenly everything he knows is wrong and everything he doesn’t know is possible.
“And what happens in the end?”
“He can’t stand it so he lets the dragon go and on the next page he goes back to bed.”
His arms are on my shoulders, stroking back and forth until I feel them begin to tighten.
“Ben,” I try to say, “What are you doing?” but he pushes me from the bed with a scream and a grunt and I fall into a pile of scrunched up clothes with my ear to the floorboards. That is where I hear the thump of plaster and the wallpaper tearing and then the waves as if nothing has happened. Then another thump and again and again and again and again.
“I can’t see him.”
I sit up and he is pulling out hunks of plaster and tossing them on the bed. The bed is dusted in white powder and strips of wallpaper and suddenly he stops.
“Oh my God.”
I climb onto my feet but everything is spinning and I fall onto the mattress. He leans into the hole and there is a scraping and a fumbling and when he leans out there is a hand pressed firmly into his own. He drops the hand and it falls back into the hole.
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know,” he says. I lean into the hole and wait for everything to come back into focus. He is a kid, maybe eight or nine, with sooty hair and ghostly skin. He is wearing no shoes and there is grit under his nails as dark as darkness.
“He doesn’t look like us,” I say. “Maybe he looks like our father!”
“We have to cover him back up,” he says.
“Why?”
“So the Nazis don’t find him. So we don’t get locked up for hiding Jews and gypsies.”
“What if he’s our brother?”
“He’s not our brother! We don’t have a brother!” He shakes me and his knuckles are white and his eyes are yellow and I can’t help myself and I start to cry. Then his arms fold around my shoulders and he holds me close.
“Come on Kat, I’m sorry.” He kisses me on the forehead. “Remember Kat, I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Come on. I need you. We need to sneak into mum’s room and find the wallpaper.” He pulls me up and off the bed in his arms and we walk along the corridor to our mother’s room. Inside it is dark and reeks of must. The blinds are drawn and a slit of light bleeds through the fold. She is asleep again, on her back, snoring long low grumbles that shake the air and jangle my head.
“There,” he says. He points to the rolls lying in the far corner of the room. Between here and there are strewn clothes and books and plates smeared with scraps and odds and ends from a draw that has upended on the floor like a fried egg. He leads, picking between obstacles in his tiptoes until we reach the wallpaper. Our mother snores loudly and rolls over onto her chest. I can see the bones in her taught arms jut against her skin.
“Now all we have to do is sneak back undetected and we win!” he says. He kisses me on the forehead. “Stay strong.”
He starts back across the room. He is dainty on his toes, edging around a broken saucer then over a dusty old medicine manual but his arm flings out and catches a glass on the dresser. The glass falls onto the floorboards by his foot and splashes water across the plates and the clothes and he slides forward into a pile of clothes and his face goes white. He rams his fist between his teeth and his eyelids closed and the scram of pain comes out as a drowning whine. He runs from the room, cracking plates and crushing matchboxes and books and he disappears around the corner. My mother grunts and buries her head under her pillow. I can hear muffled yelps of pain coming through the wall. I run back across the room and back to his bedroom. He is lying with his head on the pillow and his foot up to his eyes.
“Are you alright?”
“I stepped on a needle.”
“Mum’s relaxing medication?”
“I don’t feel so good.”
He lies back and closes his eyes. The wallpaper lies unravelled across the floor. I climb onto the bed and hold him in my arms.
“My stomach aches,” he moans. “My head feels funny. I think I’m going to be sick.”
I stroke his forehead and my hand quickly becomes wet with sweat.
“It will be alright.”
“I can feel my depression throwing everything out again.”
“We have to cover up the hole.”
“I know.”
“Mum will be awake soon.”
“I know.”
I stare at the hole filled with perfect darkness. Through the wall I can hear whispers. I try to talk over the top. I try to calm him down.
“Ben, do you think the waves will ever stop?”
“I don’t know.”
“I didn’t tell you how the story ended.”
“Ok.”
One page later he is asleep with the blankets to his chin and his mouth ajar. In the dark of the night the dragon returns. It slips under the door and flies across the room, glowing softly. The boy wakes up and in his half-sleep the dragon spots its chance. It flies into his mouth and down his throat and there it stays.
“And then what happens?”
“And then the boy goes back to sleep.”

Friends and Lovers

“When my mother died I didn’t know how to feel. I sat in the funeral and was sad and everything. But then there was this little niggle telling me that I was only feeling sad because I pitied the other mourners. Their faces were grey and sagging off their chins and they all just looked so depressed and it was all so helpless. And then I had to stand up and read this poem and the priest whispered to me ‘I’m so sorry, son;’ as if he knew me and how I felt.”
            “So what did you do?”
“I read the poem. It was awful, all full of empty clich├ęs. My sister found it on the internet. But everyone stared at me with their grey dangly faces like it was the finest shit they had ever felt sorry to hear.”
“Do you miss her?”
“I miss the idea of her. It was nice to complain about my mother.”
“And if she had survived do you think you would’ve done things differently?”
“There is really no point considering it. She is dead.”
“Ok.”
“Probably not, though. No. Definitely not. We were not in love.”
“You said the ‘l’ word. Take a drink.”
“Fuck you.”
“It was your rule.”
“Fine. Let’s use the ‘f’ word in place of the ‘l’ word. We were never in fuck. I never fucked her. But then I miss her because she is not there. And you don’t feel this way about Chloe?”
“We made this rule so we wouldn’t talk about our fuckers and now that is all we are doing.”
“I know.”
“I don’t think I should answer.”
“Are you frightened of the drink?”
“I’m not in love. But I don’t want her to die.”
“So you’re fucked, aren’t you?”
“So to speak.”
“Do the doctors think she will make it?”
“Make what?”
“Will she live?”
“They say we caught it just in time. She will probably live.”
“And then what?”
“And then I go home in the dark and sit at the kitchen table and stare at my reflection in the TV screen and the moth holes in the pillows and the dust that gathers and scarpers with my breath and wish I was back at the hospital because it is not here.”
“Don’t think about it. You are on holiday. We’re on holiday. Ok. Here’s a new rule. Every time someone says ‘I’ they take a drink.”
“You know just how to make me feel better.”
“I have a pretty good idea.”
“Go on. Punish yourself.”
“Gladly. You know, if you want to get out of a relationship then all you need to do is cheat on her.”
“Ha! You ought to know.”
“No. Seriously. Have you considered it?”
“And how would I go about doing that? How does someone even pick up these days?”
“Take a drink. Take a deep breath and tell the girl at the bar that you want to get out of a difficult relationship and would she please fuck you.”
“And then she throws herself into my arms and we live happily ever after.”
“Is that what you want?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Why don’t you ask Maureen?”
“Chloe’s sister? Ha! She will impale me on my own penis.”
“What about Jennifer?”
“Ha ha! Yeah, ‘Hi Jennifer, this is the guy that broke your heart ten years ago. Just wondering if you’d be interested in hurting my wife.’”
“If you ask her if she will ruin your marriage then she might be keen.”
“New rule: No laughing.”
“Alright. I’ve heard a good one. A man walks into a bar and says ‘Who will sleep with me?’”
“I’m not laughing.”
“That’s because you have no sense of humour.”
“And what do you have to laugh at?”
“Everything. Everything is a joke. Life is a joke and the punch-line is always the same.”
“You will be happy again.”
“Just wait ‘til I have another couple of drinks.”
“Seriously.”
“Do you know how old I am now? And the scariest thing is that I look at my kids and they are only three and five and I don’t love them. I don’t feel anything for them. Nothing. I am so empty.”
“You do fuck them. Everyone feels the way you do sometimes.”
“How would you know? You don’t have kids.”
“Not yet. Chloe wants them.”
“Fuck.”
“Fuck indeed. So what do we do?”
“Why don’t you kill her?”
“Ha!”
“Drink. How dare you laugh.”
“And how will we kill her?”
“With a glass of scotch.”
“Kill her. Fuck her. Every single emotion is four letters long. It’s like a grunt. New rule: no four letter words.”
“Exactly. These words are innate. They’re primal. And we require a new synonym now.”
“Or we could follow the rules.”
“Fuck the rules.”
“Ha! Drink!”
“Drink!”
“Do you really think we can blank out our emotions? There needs to be a way to click our fingers and end up feeling different.”
“There’s not. See my wrists.”
“Shit.”
“Drink up.”
“Why did you do it?”
“I didn’t think I’d end up looking at the…”
“The scar.”
“Hey! Cheer up. I’m alright now. Go on. Get me to laugh.”
“You can cheat on Chloe with me.”
“I am already.”
“Fuck you.”
“Drink.”
“It was worth it. We are on our honeymoon right now.”
“In the bathroom?”
“I’ve had great times in my bathroom.”
“I should really go.”
“You cannot go. You’re on holiday. You cannot just get up and leave.”
“You’re right.”
“I’m really happy you’re here.”
“Drink up.”
“New one: no sentences.”
“Ok.”
“Happy?”
“Me?”
“Yes.”
“Yes.”
“Really?”
“I want a drink.”
“Drink, fucker.”
“This one’s for my mother. Mother, I love you.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
“What else will you drink for?”
“Let’s drink to death.
“New rule: Drink every time you say ‘drink.’”
“Say what, now?”
“Drink!”
“Drink!”
“Drink!”
“Drink!”