This is how the day starts. How he will remember it after everything that happens that day and the days and weeks after: he is at the kitchen bench with a cup of coffee. She is at the stove stewing fruit. The dog is sleeping in a square of sunlight on the wooden floor.
It’s the man and the woman’s anniversary, fifteen years, and they are going to Mooney Beach. It’s their first time camping – other years there had been eco resorts down the South Coast and log cabins in the mountains, but this year she’d wanted to really get away. They hadn’t done anything big for a few years now, last year had been a quick dash to the bottle shop and the year before they hadn’t mentioned it – when December came around they weren’t in the kind of state worth celebrating. But things were different this year.
He looks down the hallway at the pre-packed duffel bags slouching by the door, the foldout chairs, the gas cooker she had loaned from a friend. In the kitchen, an esky sits with its mouth open by the fridge. His alarm had gone off at seven, as planned, but she was already up, dressed in her loose car clothes, hair wet and combed, making preparations. She hands him a plate with two pieces of toast on it and then returns to her simmering fruit on the stove, humming tunelessly, tending to it with great care. She had noticed the brown-spotted apples in the fruit bowl this morning, and could not bear to think of them slowly rotting while they were at Mooney Beach.
When the fruit is soft and golden she heaps two big tablespoons onto her high-fibre oat bran flakes and moistens it with a little almond milk. Dairy doesn’t agree with her these days, just a cup makes her blow up like she is having twins, and she’d read studies about the harmful side effects of soy milk for women’s bodies. She’d cut out gluten in June too and she could already feel the changes to her body. Her stomach flatter, her skin brighter. A friend from Pilates had made it her New Years’ resolution to quit sugar and what had started off as a curiosity, a challenge, now seemed second nature. She couldn’t believe the stuff they put in pre-packaged foods, or that she’d never before thought to look. She hardly got headaches at all anymore. The salt thing wasn’t planned but once she stripped everything else back she couldn’t stop noticing it. He said he couldn’t taste it, if anything it tasted good, he said, but she couldn’t enjoy the food at cafes and restaurants any more, it left her mouth dry for days. She started cooking at home more and signed up to an organic co-op so that now, every Saturday morning, a selection of farm-grown vegetables was delivered to their doorstep. She could trace the exact farm where their peaches or snap peas came from.
More than once he had pleaded with her to go to a doctor or a nutritionist. He texted her recommendations, left business cards on the kitchen counter. He wanted to see tests, certifiable evidence of gluten intolerance and allergic reactions. But she’d seen doctors. They had taken tests, examined her, monitored her those early months of the year, and still they had not known her body. They had not known what it would do. So why would this be any different? She felt her body’s changes, its strengths and weaknesses and needs. She knew what she was doing was for the best.
From across the kitchen bench she watches him eat his toast. Chewing slowly. Eating around the tough wholemeal crusts, picking out the soy and lindseed bits. When she gets up to wash her bowl she sees his hand slip under the table and, moments later, the dog returning to its spot in the sun.
The dog’s eyes are closed but he is not asleep. He hears the woman moving about, the sounds of running water, he smells her cooking in the kitchen. He feels the vibrations of man’s heavy footsteps down the hall, the scrape of the chair as he takes a seat at the counter. Today is a big day for the man and the woman. He knows when to keep quiet and when to speak. A few more moments and then the toast will pop and then he will start the day.
As the toast pops the dog lifts its head. Within seconds the creature is at his feet, tail tap tap tapping on the wooden floor. Good morning.Give me your crusts when you’re done, the dog says, and the man nods. Their little arrangement. Neither of them likes the little birdseed bits in the new bread that she buys, but this is something they have learned to let slide.
It had started with the allergies. Things that she had eaten regularly, unquestioningly all their lives, started making her uncomfortable. Things didn’t sit right. There were scenes at friends houses: chips and salsa at Mick and Shelly’s one evening which left her pale and silent. A bucket of popcorn which made it impossible for them to sit through the new Woody Allen film.
Over the next few months the allergies began to take form, settle into their lives. They were researched and given names, compounds, active ingredients. Gluten, soy, sugar, dairy, things they’d never even thought about began to work themselves into conversations at the dinner table or down the aisles of the grocery store. Soon they weren’t even going to that grocery store, but another one, much further out of town, where you were supposed to be grateful for the bumps on your apples and dirt on your lettuce.
Sensing him watching her, as she scoops the last of the brown pool of milk and bran from the bottom of her bowl, she looks up at the man and smiles.
Eat up, we want to miss the weekend traffic, she says.
Maybe he had imagined it all, it had happened so gradually, so seamlessly – sometimes he opened the kitchen cupboard and thought perhaps they had always been the kind of house with brown rice and chia seeds, or that it was possible he had eaten his way through the supply of tinned spaghetti in the cupboard. But then one early Sunday morning he’d actually caught her – standing at the fridge with a plastic bag, Caesar salad dressing in hand. He’d confronted her, but she’d just shrugged, all casual, saying I just don’t like your kind of food being near mine.
Well, he’d lost it at the time, but it had been months since then. He’d adjusted to their salt-less meals, their lack of snack food. Even felt better for it, some days, not that he would tell her. He clears his plate, dips it in the murky pool of recycled washing water in the sink. She is sitting by the fridge moving fruit and vegetables from the crisper to the esky.
Anything you want to pack?
Looking around, he picks up the stick of butter from the bench and hands it to her.
You can’t take that.
Isn’t that what the esky is for?
Isn’t that why we’ve got the esky?
Yes, but it doesn’t have any ice in it yet.
He returns the butter to the fridge. I’m having a shower.
Watching the steam slowly cloud the bathroom mirror, it was not so long ago that their bodies had pressed together in that shower, that they had let the water run cold, her long hair heavy, her ass pressed against the shower screen.
Perhaps today, their anniversary day, she will let it slide. But then it comes, right after he’s soaped but before he’s had a chance to rinse off: that little knock on the door. Her code to let him know he has been in the shower too long.
This is how it is these days. He’d spent the last Christmas break installing a water-saving nozzle for the shower so that now, if he turned the shower up really high, he could stand in the centre of the sharp ring of water and not get wet. It was the same with the sprinklers. She’d wanted recycled water for the garden so that brown sewage water now seeped from connected hoses around the garden, the evening southerly blowing in the smells through the back door as they were preparing dinner. They had a rotting tower of overripe compost in the corner of the backyard and a rat problem, which only yesterday she’d added to his Weekend House list stuck to the fridge.
She’d changed too. Her long hair cut short, like it had been back when they’d met at uni. It made her face look smaller and sharper, or perhaps just clearer now that she wasn’t really wearing make-up. There were new clothes too, loose-fitting things in shades of beige and burgundy. Clothes you weren’t supposed to iron, he’d learned, clothes that were supposed to feel rough. She had new routines too, waking early, sneaking off at dawn with her little blue yoga mat. In the evenings he’d come home from work and she’d already be in her baggy bed pants with a cup of herbal tea in hand. He’d look to the dog, hopeful, but he would hang his head.
Sorry, she already took me for a walk.
From his spot in the sun, the dog watches the woman pack the esky. Soon he will go over, seeking pats or leftovers or just a moment together. They say dogs can sense things, not all dogs but the clever ones. Sense changes in the bodies of those they co-habitat. Anxiety and epilepsy attacks are well-known examples, but this was different. In a way it was unexpected too, because he had always been closer to the man. It was the man who had picked him up at the very beginning and driven him to this house with its small garden and suede lounges; who had taken him to the park in the evenings, snuck him treats under the table. But over those months he felt himself growing closer to the woman, watching her body change. He didn’t mind that she walked slowly, carefully. He felt protective of her. Or perhaps it was jealously, they say that happens in children, so perhaps the same can be said for dogs. He wanted to tell the man, and there were times he almost did, when the man caught him staring out into the garden, scratched him behind the ears and said What is it boy? But each time he held his tongue, he knew this was not his to tell. And so he sat in his corner, he padded around the house, watching them, the man and the woman, from February to December, to this day, their fifteen-year anniversary. Waiting for the man to notice. Waiting for the woman to speak.
She had said something once. It was the long weekend in October. They had been sitting at their favourite café near the train station, and she’d said to him: What do you think about having a baby? And he’d looked up at the waitress handing them their lattes, like the bloody waitress had just asked for his opinion. He got it together eventually, said: You know how I feel. Of course. Of course! We’ve been trying haven’t we? She had reached for his hand across the table, but he was already tearing open a sachet of sugar for his coffee.
Packing cars was among the things he secretly counted himself good at. There was also table tennis, tax returns, asking for the cheque and remembering names. He starts with the esky at the bottom and then the tent, the solid things, followed up folded up chairs and clothes bags. Pillows, soft matter and car snacks on the top.
Eight o’clock and they are on schedule – the dog in the back seat, her in the passenger seat, him at the wheel. Two more minutes and they would have been on the road. But then she opens the glove box and finds the bottle of whisky. A few other things too: two Mars Bars, some BBQ Beef Jerky.
Well you can’t expect me to eat your organic shit all the time.
For a moment she is quiet. He regrets it immediately. Sorry, I’ll take it back into the house.
Should we just not go?
No. Of course we should still go.
Curled up on the backseat the dog lifts its head: I still really want to go.
Then she starts to cry. He turns the car off but the radio continues to mutter. She cries silently but with her whole body, her shoulders moving up and down. The dog scratches at the back door but they ignore it.
Why do you think I’m doing this? Why do you think I’m like this?
Putting her hand on her stomach: I’m doing it for us. For the baby.
Honey, that’s great news, he looks at her slender stomach in awe. He goes to put his hand on hers, but she pushes it away.
No it’s gone. We lost it already. You didn’t even know I was pregnant.
Involuntarily, the man thinks of the leather door as the dog scratches again.. He cuts the engine, quickly walks around to the back car door and lets the dog out.
Standing on the pavement the man and his dog watch the woman drive away.
Driving past the little red brick primary school, quiet on a Saturday, she does not look twice at the children’s pedestrian crossing. She takes a left past the little Italian trattorias with their red awnings, round the back way along the park where the growers markets are setting up. She hits the main road and her phone rings. She turns it off. Turns the radio off too. And as she takes the ramp onto the highway she reaches over to the passenger seat and opens up the glove box.
Fuck him. she thinks.
And then: I’m sorry.
He sleeps alone and wakes up alone. He walks to the kitchen but it’s empty. It’s turned into a cloudy day and he finds the dog asleep on the couch. He checks the weather forecast. He makes an instant coffee and takes a long, hot shower. He listens for her little knock, but it never comes. He leaves voicemails on her phone and even thinks about calling her mother or her friend from Pilates but never does. When Monday comes around and she still isn’t back he calls in sick to work, the first time this year he has done that.
At the supermarket he fills his trolley with Wonder White bread and baked beans and brown spirits. He eats peanut butter sandwiches and reheated coffee at the kitchen bench. It goes right through him. Perhaps she was right about the additives and things.
After three nights he calls the dog in, pats the bed and says: Special treat. But the dog bows its head. I don’t think it would be right, he says, and heads back out to the couch.
Thinking of her, he pictures her at Mooney Beach. White sand and steep dunes, a small grassy clearing behind it where her tent would be. He never looked at the National Park brochures she gave him, so he can’t be sure if this is an accurate image. He thinks about her setting up the tent alone and nearly cracks. He knows she could do it, perhaps this is what upsets him the most. More than once he puts the directions into Google Maps, he even calls his brother about borrowing a car, but never follows up.
Sitting on the back veranda he watches the dog nose about the garden. He worries that he is not doing enough, not thinking enough. He has this image of her sitting on some sand somewhere, looking out over the ocean, thinking things through. Not just him or the lost baby, but everything, her whole life.
What more could I have done? he says.
But the dog cannot hear or is not listening.
Dawn arrives on the fifth morning and so does the woman. She sneaks in, letting herself in through the back door. The dog is asleep in the corner, and though he senses her, he does not move. He watches her, the quiet way she collects the empty bottles, the lidless jam jars and stale bread and drops them in the bin. The way she smoothes over the kitchen bench with a damp cloth and arranges the fresh food from her brown paper bag on the counter. A pile of brown-spotted apples in the fruit bowl. And then, one by one, she removes, peels, places them in the pot on the stove.
Slowly, as the sun rises, warming the kitchen, the house fills with the smell of her fruit, growing thicker and sweeter until soon, it summons him. Like a dream. The man’s slow heavy footsteps down the hallway. At the kitchen doorway he stops, lets out a long breath. The woman hums quietly, tunelessly. She does not look up from the stove. There is the rustle of the bread bag, and the man is moving again, closer to the woman. He stops at the toaster, and as he puts two pieces of multigrain toast down he looks over at the dog in the corner and smiles, saying: Everything is going to be okay.
The Obstructions project presents authors with creative obstacles designed to challenge their writing prowess.
Round 1 Challenges
- Shift the story to third person – free indirect style
- Present tense
- No two paragraphs in the whole story can start with the same word
- Talking dog