Converge

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This is the beginning. In the ocean-blue dawn we begin with the moment before the eyes adjust after blinking; the moment after the eyelids shut and open and light meets the retinas again.

Quiet except for the tick of the still-cooling engine, both inside the car and out.

Clears throat. Clears throat again and so he turns sleepily to look.

– What?

– I'm getting someone's Wi-Fi. I'm—

Blinks.

– Thought you were about to say something.

– No. No, had fish last night. One bone, that's it. Right at the end.

Touches his throat, swallows hard.

– Fucken. Got stuck. Feels like it's still there.

Looks up from his phone.

– You know it was invented here?

– What?

– Australian.

– Wi-Fi?

No response. Attention has slipped, shifted, is outside now, across the road. So he looks too. Puts the phone in the glovebox; it's him.

– That him?

– That’s him.

– You sure?

– It's him. That’s him.

A rising; everything shifts. See him, sum him up in a moment of seeing. Slim, loose in his strides, sloppy. Unknowing. Know how this will go.

The shop lights up, the Allfoods sign blinks on like something from another era. He pulls the door across, open.

An exchange of glances, a gripping of tools: sledgehammer, knife. Fish knife. Slap of their car doors behind them. Shuffle across the road, converge on the shop.

This is the word for it, converge.

Preach

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Our cat was run over by a red Nissan Skyline on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning the rotten nasty fucker had clawed itself up out of the patch of dirt behind the shed. He walked into the kitchen caked in dirt and blood and making a noise like an un-tuned radio. My mother knocked her tea into my lap and screamed.

‘Jesus Christ, Mum!’

My sister took it as her latest sign from God. She bathed the screeching demon and applied herself more rigorously to practising her street-preaching in the bathroom mirror after school.

‘And though Lazarus rose, had he not fallen? Was Lazarus not welcoming of his second death and second judgment?’

If the cat’s resurrection was a sign of anything it was of my poor grave-digging abilities and I was offended.

‘Don’t forget to turn off my straightener, Virgin Mary.’

Maryanne had taken to wearing floral dresses that were too big and too long for her, with boots worthy of stamping on sinners. I caught her searching through my makeup for blush. She wanted to look flushed with the gravitas of the Lord while she stage-whispered about Heaven and Hell at the bus stop.

I had been waiting for her to grow out of the Youth-Group phase and move steadily on to casual sluttery and gothic romance novels. For her birthday she asked for a Bible small enough to fit in her purse, so she could bang on about coveting thy neighbour’s wife at a moment’s notice, but asked that it be second-hand, and not too flashy. I went to Gould’s and found a pocket Bible, dropped it in the gutter and kicked it the rest of the way home so it would look humble enough for her liking. Elated, after blowing out the candles but refusing to eat any cake, she hugged me.

‘Soon you’ll see the light too, Jess, but you won’t blow it out.’

‘Profound.’ I took my cake to the living room to watch Law & Order. ‘Hurry up or you’ll miss the jogger finding the body.’

When it was my birthday she bought me a brand new King James and squealed about having saved up all her pocket money for it. Mum got angry when I threw it at her head and demanded to know where my Cosmo subscription was. She had promised me it before that stupid cat had gone and defied mortality.

‘Those women are examples of modern impropriety!’

‘You don’t even know what that means!’

Mum had to calm her down in the laundry where the covetous neighbours and their wives were less likely to hear her howling. I slammed my bedroom door behind me, startling scrappy little Lazarus himself.

‘This is all your fault, you dumb shit.’

 The cat yawned and stretched. I could hear Maryanne through the walls, wailing about Rachael and Leah. I scratched the demon behind the ears.

‘The next time I bury you, you better stay in the ground.’

The Lost Hat

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Of all the things that get lost, the lost hat is the most memorable. Seawater all over the world is not the same seawater. You sit here shirtless. You could compose an entire corpse of a novel by writing only what comes to mind. One presumes one is not young. The back aches after a certain year. (Try to remember this is written for the second person.)  

In the murderous hills of the place in Italy where Baci chocolates are produced you spotted an actor, of some retort, and a band of Italians climbing the mountain singing The Internationale. At the top of the mountain in the middle of the square there was a gypsy girl and her gypsy baby. The actor used to play a spy in a television series. You thought when you saw him, ‘That’s him'. Immediately you questioned his motives for being in the same mountainous region as you. You were bored and had made plans to leave the following day. The actor looked as if he had settled in for a few months, even years. You thought, ‘He is having an affair. Perhaps with his wife'. You ducked into the little store and bought a green hat. You had one last dinner to get through before descending the mountain for good. You arrived at that quasi-theoretical position one reaches on the food in Italy only if you were foreign and had consumed much of it in restaurants in recent weeks. You wondered if the striking workers came up the mountain every day. It was just after their collective siesta. Their collective spirits were perky. You had not had a siesta. You are resistant to the cultural norms of others, unless they involve alcohol. You went back to the convent dorm and took a late nap. When you woke you didn’t know where you were. This had happened once before. In your own bed in your own mother’s house. It felt like a lesser déjà vu. You took Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde with you to the restaurant so that you would not be unarmed against the solicitations of the waiters and could bonk them over the hand with the book. When the gypsy family came in, begging and stealing, you wanted the waiters to dismiss them at once, but they tolerated them to the point where you had to dip into your purse. Naturally you did not order the tiramisu. You thought of the long night ahead at the convent. You did not always sleep in a straightforward fashion. Sometimes insomnia fell upon you, or built up inside you like an insurmountable wall. But you had not yet memorised all the insomniac prayers and poems. What if you ran out of pages of Oscar Wilde? The night passed. The next day, as planned, you boarded the train for Rome. You knew that you would visit the Vatican in the coming days. You dreaded the feeling of feeling overwhelmed by a lack of appropriate feeling. ‘Just make it up,’ you told yourself lavishly.

The Collector

11 mattresses

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She suggests they go to her father’s house. He hopes he has been able to impress her so far, with his close connection to a disabled sister, his weekly trips to the dog hospital to give them one last good walk. But he cannot hide his hardened mouth against the father. In the year they have been together he has only met the father once. It was a trip to his house in February, when the air in Victoria grows dull and wide and will not dance with the heat. The father lives on a farm that no longer produces, and calls himself a collector.

8 car engines

Now they are driving back there. He feels sick, and she tells him she feels sick too. When he asks where she feels sick she shakes her curled head and slides her hand between his legs, even though they are driving and she worries more than him about the road. Halfway there in a town called Birchip (he asks her to stop near the Big Mallee Bull so he can place his forehead against its cool painted stone) they stop to get something to feed the sickness, but just end up with congealing coffees sitting between them. He wants to ask her if the house will be full of stuff like last time. Whether they will have to stand on top of rubbish and pretend they are sitting on a comfortable couch. He is not very good at pretending. Every time he decides he will ask her he is given a small waft of her sweat. It is coming out of her in trickles that have dampened the creases of her blouse. Then he remembers that this is her father, and that he is just the pretend couch in the room until they leave.

2000 dried up Biros

Her father doesn’t answer the door. They knock and knock and she yells Bruce through the keyhole and Bruce through the windows and Bruce against the door. It’s hard to see inside because of the photocopiers and lamps and wheelie bins and drawing boards piled up like kindling waiting for a match. She tells him that she didn’t get an answer when she rang her father last, or the time before. She is already crying, heaving, as she walks with him over to the shed that is split open with sewing machines and half-renovated dollhouses. They open the sagging door and she says Bruce again, this time a statement, for no human could fit in there amongst all the things. He is thinking of something to say when she starts running fast towards the tractor that waits lonely in the field. He stands limp, doesn’t know what to say. In the distance he can still see her, crushing the wild wheat as she wanes.

Janine

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Once, this girl at my café, Janine, came in looking flushed and said, ‘Well, I’ve found out the reason why I’ve been feeling so shit. I’m pregnant.’

‘Oh, fuck,’ I said. ‘Wow. Fuck.’

‘No it’s fine,’ she replied, nodding, ‘I’m taking it as a good thing. I’m happy about it.’

She stood there nodding, biting her lip, until I said, ‘Shit, I’m sorry. I’m being a dick. Congratulations!’ Then Janine burst out crying.

I told her at least she’d finally be able to quit smoking.

Janine blew her nose and said, ‘Oh. Yes. Good point. Thank you.’ Then she took her pouch of tobacco and her lighter from her handbag and gave them to me. After I asked a couple of times whether she was OK, I went outside for my break and rolled a cigarette. I blew these big, fat blue-grey smoke-rings and got that under-the-covers feeling when I thought about how I would never, ever have to worry about what Janine was going through.

Then Janine came outside and sat down. She didn’t say anything and I didn’t say anything. The pouch was open on the table, the sun giving the clumps of tobacco a red-brown sheen. In a measured, reverent way, Janine reached forward and took out some tobacco and held it in her hand. She looked down at it. Two thick clumps. I watched her chest rise and fall for a moment. And then she reached forward, grabbed a paper, and rolled the cigarette with speed and precision. She put it to her lips.

‘No filter?’ I said

‘Well, if this is going to be my last cigarette for nine months,’ Janine said, I really want to taste it.’

‘Makes sense.’ I held out the lighter for her. She looked at the flame for a second, and then cupped her hands around it, bowing her head slightly so the cigarette could meet it.

Janine took her time with the cigarette, held the smoke down deep, and breathed it out slowly. She was a beautiful smoker. She looked away from me, into the sun, and either didn’t notice or didn’t care that I was watching her. When she stubbed the very last of it out I saw that her hands had stopped shaking.

I got up to go back to work, reaching for the pouch.

‘Can you leave it?’ Janine said, not looking at me.

I tried to think of something to say. Even in my silence, Janine wouldn’t look at me.

I couldn’t think of anything, so I said, ‘Sure.’

Janine sat there for most of the morning, smoking her cigarettes. I covered for her as best I could, and took her a coffee or a tea every couple of hours. She didn’t say anything to me when I brought her the drinks, and after a while I noticed she’d gone back to using filters. We didn’t speak about it after that.

Life Sentence

She saw her life as a long sentence broken up by commas in just the right places, like after her first day of school, the day her dog died, her first kiss, graduating high school, dropping out of uni, the first time she cried in front of a stranger; each clause seemed to carry on to the next without stopping, though sometimes there would be an exclamation mark like when she saw the bus crash into the building (!) or when her parents split up (!) and somehow in between all of that the fully-capitalised, colossal HIM slipped into her life like an outrageous interrobang, but before she knew it there was an ellipsis in the middle that felt so empty … and then she was wrenched apart and left with a kind of heart-brokenness that was ! and ? at the same time – but not together – so she took up painting with watercolours, won a local art show, gave up talking to her father, saw her first shooting star; she discovered that an ellipsis didn’t have to mean empty forgotten space but could be packed with wonder until she was ready to reach a full stop.

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On Men

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One night at the Chook ‘n’ Snag Cambo ended up in the loo next to Razor.  Cambo hadn’t meant to. He got up without thinking and wandered down the hallway, over the threadbare carpet by the pokies.

‘Hey Cambo,’ said Razor, holding the door to the men’s open. ‘You followin’ me or somethin’?’

Cambo looked up with a start, saw it was Razor.

‘Yeah,’ said Cambo, making a face. ‘I’m followin’ ya.’

They were the only two blokes at the urinal – one of those wide troughs that stink of men and soaking mothballs. Razor unzipped, rolled his shoulders back, stared at the wall. A stream gushed and drilled into the metal sheet. Cambo was sure he could feel blasts of air eddying about down there; the kind that billow at the bottom of big waterfalls. He groaned in great relief, did Razor; shut his eyes and smiled.

‘Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.’

By this stage Cambo had been eyeing the wall for several seconds, arms akimbo, member out, waiting. He’d drunk four schooners in short order, on an empty stomach to boot. He was dying for a piss and yet … nothing. Had he lost his effing nerve?

Razor knew what was happening. And Cambo knew that Razor knew. The only thing for it was to shut up, stare straight ahead and wait for Razor to finish. The seconds felt like hours.  Cambo’s face crimsoned. Shit!

‘I tell ya what,’ Razor said, shaking out the final drops. ‘That was glorious.’

Cambo turned away a touch, hid himself from view.

‘Sometimes,’ said Razor, ‘it’s the little things in life.’

‘Mmm,’ said Cambo, burning. A trickle? Not a single trickle?

‘Be with ya in a tick, Raze’.

Razor didn’t move an inch, just kept on standing there.

‘Meet ya out front in a tic, mate.’

The smell of Razor’s piss rose, soured the air, made Cambo’s eyes water.

‘Get us a beer, Raze. Golden Ale?’

Razor sucked his teeth, shook his head. ‘Member that time you told Jill Finch I couldn’t, ah, you know?’

‘Huh?’

‘She let it slip to all her friends.  Elle Kay, the biggest mouth in town, Jane Spencer, Curly Wurly.’

‘Curly?’

‘Finch couldn’t believe her eyes the night I finally did-a. She said to me, she said: who knew?  Ha! Who knew? I tell ya mate. That was some rumour.’

Cambo didn’t know whether to zip and run or go on with the farce.

‘It’s gunna be one helluva story though,’ said Razor, making to leave.

Cambo looked over his shoulder.

‘What is?’ he said, to a closing door. ‘Oi Raze, what’s gonna be?’

 

EGGS

‘Well Bukowski lived off eggs,’ he says.

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They’re in Woolworths. He’s piling the trolley with cartons of eggs.

‘Yeah, that and yeast. All the fat bastard ever did was drink.’ She pulls a bag of pasta off the shelf and throws it in.

‘Hey, no carbs. No carbohydrates. Put it back.’

‘Whatever.’ She rolls her eyes and pushes the bag back onto the shelf. ‘Egg-head.’

‘Bukowski never cooked,’ he says. They’re in the canned goods aisle. ‘Eggs, cans of tuna, beer. These are the things a writer needs,’ he says. ‘Cooking? Who has time for cooking?’

‘He wins a prize and now he thinks he’s the next Bukowski,’ she says to the bottle of tomato sauce she’s holding in front of her face.

He keeps talking as if he hasn’t heard her. ‘I mean, carbohydrates. What the hell even is a carbohydrate?’ He scratches at his knee and feels the tough little hairs. ‘Whoever needed carbohydrates?’

‘So what, you’re gonna start drinking now, is that it?’

‘Maybe I will. Why do you care? You drink. Why shouldn’t I drink?’

He remembers when they were fucking on the bed, her legs up over his shoulders. He sees the roundness of her egg-white breasts. The panting, the sweat, the rattling of the bed against the wall. He remembers when he had her from behind, her perfectly shaped arse. Sweat like dew on a pair of eggshells. Now that, he thinks, that right there.

It’s late. The house is empty. He’s standing at the window in the kitchen, looking out over the yard. The grass is invisible in the dark. He’s so hungry he’s practically shaking. The money’s run dry. The publishers turned away. She’s gone. The pronounced shape of her silence is scalding.

His last two eggs are boiling in the pot. The cupboards are empty. Maybe I could rob a McDonalds, he thinks. Maybe I could do that. But then he remembers he doesn’t have a car. No wife to act as getaway driver. He puts the golf clubs away.

The eggs are rattling around in the pot. The sound is tremendous. The cupboards are rattling, he thinks. The rats will be scared away. And all that steam. He’s lost in it.

Two eggs. Two eggs are all that remain.

Book Review

Somewhat after the Kafka phrase: ‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.’

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On the sentence level, the novel is correct, immaculate, hard to put down. But it lacks a certain... I mean, through all the clever meta-isms, and the way he spells coördinate, where’s the story?

I want to like it, to like him: he seems nice. But when I get in my little reading window, crammed in on the train, I don't want to be thinking, Oh wit! Oh writing!

I want to be taken, transported, staggered. I want the immersive world, full of horror. Take me to the concentration camp to watch the bony bodies. I want to feel like one of them, to mainline gratitude for this normalcy.

Enough of your flaff-flaff! Give me the story. Look at the people on the train, crammed in, on their way to work. Read about the people on the train, crammed in, on their way to — oh.

Much is lost to posturing, but in the middle there are some archival photographs.

Grevillea

Sparkling tinsel, along with Till’s collection of holiday tea towels – printed with maps of places she’d been to, with a man who wasn’t you – ruffle along the homemade clothesline.

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You’d been proud stringing that twine between candlebarks, just weeks after you moved to the area called, almost comically, Christmas Hills. ‘Heath the handy-man,’ you’d quipped, but Till had only briefly looked up with those pool-blue eyes. She’d spent hours in silence the first few days – bunch-legged on the Kmart banana lounge with her hair the colour of custard powder, her book stained with Lipton. But this was before you were three. After Luke came along, Till took to walking him nightly – up and down the grevillea-lined ridge, his peach-soft head smelling like her and just a little of Sorbolene cream.

Luke and Honey lie in front of the telly while the anchorwoman – lavender-lipped – eagerly keeps track of the soaring heat. The word ‘catastrophic’ appears on the flickering news ticker, alongside a story about rising sugar levels in supermarket bread. Recently home from IGA, you remember the cordial you’d meant to buy for Till: Pine-lime Peach Paradise, always on sale. But this is moments before you look out the dusty window, to a blur of wallaby thumping through scrub – faster than you’ve ever seen one move. Later, but not much, you hear the sound of a lone car horn, along with the screeching of fleeing rosellas, leaving nests of green-feathered chick and silver wattle behind.

But it’s noon now and you lean up against the cluttered mantelpiece, sweat pearling across your skin. Honey whimpers. You try to remember if Till’ll take her Saturday night gin with tonic instead ­– her uncut hair sticking, just slightly, to the back of that moon-white neck. There’s the smell of burning toast, then the smoke alarm’s trill. ‘Just me,’ Till calls through redwood kitchen doors, and you realise it’s the first thing she’s said to you all day.

A north-westerly blows as you add some sheets to the line, making them bloom back onto you – cocoons of white linen, just brief relief from oven-like heat. You watch the chooks, clustered around thin strips of shaded driveway gravel. They’re Christmas beetle-black and open-beaked. They’re shimmering.

Box and Cross

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I'm crying because I can't find Edward. He is in that box, but a box with a cross on top is not Edward; I simply cannot equate this box and cross with Edward.

Edward is a man with his arm around me tight, guiding me around the garden to eat berries. ‘Here,’ he says, ‘this one tastes good: a raspberry.’ And around the garden we go for an hour or so with his arm firmly around me until the cancer tires him. Inside, we sit on matching leather chairs while he rubs his belly and together we watch television.

Edward is a cheeky teenager who hides Americans during the war while people are murdered for doing the same on the next farm. I don't know this Edward, but every day I pass by the framed letter on my wall from Dwight Eisenhower that says this is who Edward is.

Edward is a man who says, ‘I can still Cossack dance!’ and down he goes on his haunches. Edward is also a man who rides a Sunbeam motorcycle with his fiancée on the back. I don’t know this Edward, but his wife blushes as her voice trails off.

Edward is a man holding me tight, hoping I will be good to his son.

Yesterday the watermelon on the mantle looked delicious. Edward would’ve liked it if we sat around the table and ate his watermelon and thought of how he loved fruit: fresh, juicy, sweet, good, honest, clean, dripping, nature, water, earth, sun.

Lydia took the melon down carefully from the mantle and walked out the door carrying it like gold. The round skin spattered with green and orange reflected her wistful face. I watched at the window. She dug in the soft dirt in the garden using her hands as scoops. Then gently, she set the melon in the hole and covered it with dirt. She also knew how much Edward would love that melon and she couldn't bear that thought.

I stand in front of the hole and the box with a cross on top. Anne stands beside me not crying. Next to Anne is Bill, not crying. On the other side of me is George, not crying, and he holds up Lydia. She is not crying. I don't know why it is me standing in the middle in front of the hole – the grave, and I cry like a baby. Not because he’s in there, no, but because I can't find Edward. Like waking in blackness, holding arms out to feel, reaching for what should be there, losing my way. This is how it is when I can't find Edward.

Two months later I marry Edward’s son, but I still can't find Edward, and I can't eat berries without looking for his arms guiding me; I eat berries with a hole in front of me containing a box with a cross on top, and still, I cry like a baby.

Big Cat's Requiem

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When I was 14 my parents took my sister on a holiday to Western Australia and left me to fend for myself for a week. I wasn’t a very exciting 14-year-old. Given that I didn’t like to drink alcohol or bash people yet there wasn’t much I could get up to in Glenorchy. I spent the week hanging around the house trying on all my Adidas sportswear and jerking off. Viva la teenager.

We lived in an old weatherboard rental with a shonky addition that had a corrugated plastic roof. Every time you took a shit, muted Tasmanian sunlight filtered through the plastic and illuminated the procedure. Almost like camping out, but every day.

The house was on a busy road across the street from my grandparents’. Inevitably, one of the cats got hit by a car while my parents were away. ‘Big Cat’ had been a member of the family for some years. We inherited her from Dad’s sister, who had responsibility issues. Though she wasn’t huge, she was bigger than the other cat my aunt had, ‘Little Cat’. In Tasmania it’s all relative.

She was a neurotic tabby, skittish and aloof. High volume traffic was a new thing for her. That’s how she wound up dead in the gutter on Elwick Road. With Mum and Dad away, Grandpa was tasked with the burial. Grandpa was a gruff man who liked liquor and slurred his words. Like me, he was often seen in a brown cardigan. Unlike me, he had no lips.

It was decided that she would go in the back corner of their yard. I went to assist Grandpa, carrying along the body in a green plastic bag. Grandpa carried the pitchfork.

Grandpa was busy building a wooden horse float at the time and was reluctant to allocate minutes to any other task. When he dug the hole it was shallow. He took the bag from me, turned it upside down and dropped the cat into the ground. She landed on her back, and he began to shovel the wet dirt onto her body.

After the hole was filled I noticed Big Cat’s feet still protruded from the earth.

‘Um, Grandpa,’ I said.

He saw this too and set out to fix it by thrusting the pitchfork into the buried cat’s body. He managed to fling some soil about, but rigor mortis had set in. Big Cat’s limbs were as rigid as a frozen chicken.

‘Fucken’ thing,’ Grandpa growled, as he threw the full force of his ageing frame into thrusting the pitchfork. He continued to berate the cat as if this might encourage her involuntary submersion into the ground. I looked on, shell-shocked at the indignity of the burial. The logic circuit in Grandpa’s head that should have equated ‘dead pet’ with ‘traumatised kid’ had shorted out. I guess he was just anxious to get back to his horse float.

Peeling Back

‘But, I was there when you made the decision to start buying brown onions again.’ ‘I know.’

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‘Remember we were saying they smell nicer than red?’

‘I remember, but –’

‘And they taste better raw.’

‘I don't even eat onions raw. Please.’

‘They’re easier to peel.’

‘That's true.’

‘So why are you doing this?’

‘I need to make decisions.’

‘You can make –’

‘Alone.’

‘Oh. I’ll stop.’

‘It's not entirely your fault.’

‘So what should ­–’

‘I care too much about what you think.’

‘I care about what you think. That's perfectly normal when you're in a relationship.’

‘I know but we’re becoming this one thing. Who am I? It’s like … I feel like I’d be able to grow, or something, I –’

‘We don't have to do this right now.’

‘I need to.’

‘Okay, but how much better are brown onions in Mexican food?’

‘That is not the point.’

‘That's the whole point. We're having burritos.’

‘Red onions look nicer.’

‘They don't cook nicer.’

‘They cook fine.’

‘But brown onions caramelise so perfectly. Think about sausage sizzle sandwiches.’

‘I love sausage sizzle sandwiches.’

‘And those omelettes I made on Saturday. You said –’

‘– the onion tasted delicious!’

‘Yes!’

‘I know, and I guess I agree.’

‘Good, you know and you –’

‘But I'd already made the decision. Now I'm just –’

‘You're allowed to change your mind.’

‘I'm always compromising.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Yeah. You're so dominating, I just don't think you realise it.’

‘I'm dominating? About vegetables?’

‘You make me edgy. About everything. And yeah, vegetables too. ‘

‘You're joking, right? Why do you take things so –’

‘It might seem trivial, but it's important to me.’

‘Onions are important to you?’

‘Onion decisions are important to me.’

‘Okay let's get the red onion then.’

‘Thank you.’

‘So even though –’

‘Please.’

‘No, let me finish. Even though you acknowledge that brown is better than red in every way,’

‘Not every way.’

‘… you still want to get the red?’

‘Uh huh.’

‘I don't understand what you're doing.’

‘That's okay.’

‘Can you ex –’

‘Fuck. Don't worry, just get the brown.’

‘Can you explain this to me?’

‘Okay. Listen: I decided red before we spoke and then – now – we’re speaking and ­­– now – we’re getting brown.’

‘Okay?’

‘It doesn’t feel good.’

‘It will.’

‘Sometimes I wish …’

‘What?’

‘Doesn't matter.’

‘Anyway, it's my dinner too. Get that netted kilo bag, ends up being cheaper.’

‘Yeah.’

‘What were you going to say? Sometimes you wish what?’

‘Sometimes I wish you’d die so I wouldn’t have to leave you.’

My Father’s Garden

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The seeds rested in the palm of my father’s left hand – with the millions of lines and wrinkles, the folds and the creases. The soil had painted those lines a darker shade of brown, and the middle of his palm now acted like a valley, shielding the tiny seeds. He picked out one of the seeds with his right hand. His nails were dirty and the skin on his fingertips looked worn.

A wind blew through the trees and he closed his palm. He turned his hand over, waiting for the wind to pass. It blew through his hair, which he had let grow long. His shirt, only half buttoned up, flapped like a flag. When the wind stopped he grabbed my arm and brought it closer to him. He opened my hand and, cradling it with his right hand, he put his left fist over my palm and let the seeds drop into it. There was still a mark circling his ring finger.

‘Here.’

He had hands that could change temper in a moment. If they ever struck you – which they used to do – they were hard hands that showed no sympathy or forgiveness. But, later, when the same hands dabbed at your moist cheek and rubbed away your tears, they were soft hands. They were tender and they were gentle hands and you always forgave them.

I held the seeds as my father picked up the shovel he had thrust into the ground earlier. He lifted the shovel and pierced the earth. The blade slid in easily but he kicked it in deeper. I opened my hand and looked at the seeds on my open palm. My hand didn’t have the wrinkles his did. My nails were longer and they didn’t have any dirt in them.

He finished digging his holes – one each for the five seeds.

‘Give them to me.’

He held open his hand and I dropped them in. He closed his fist and bent down on one knee – he groaned as he went down, bending over slowly with some effort.

I looked around the garden that he had built in such a short period of time. He had begun after mum had left. After he’d finished ‘mourning’ as he’d called it. He put away the bottles one morning and within a few months he’d built a garden. Right here in the backyard – where once there was nothing but fake grass and a lemon tree ­– he had planted tomatoes and strawberries and a radiant bush of roses.

The Insider

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When we were in our teens, my identical twin brother took up surfing. He was always the sporty one – the brave one as well – so when he started I didn’t join him but would sometimes tag along and watch.

One day, after he'd been doing it for a few years, he borrowed a friend's camera and asked if I'd come down and take photos. Because I had nothing better to do, and because I secretly admired the way he made everything look so easy, I agreed. I followed him to the break wall at the mouth of the river and, after a quick lesson on how to use the camera, I stood on the rocks and did my best to snap pictures of him as he moved across the waves. Most of the photos I took turned out blurry and poorly framed, as we found out later when we went through them in his bedroom, but there was one that was clear and bright and sharp. In it he was standing slightly crouched with the lip of the wave pitching out over his head, so that he was actually standing inside the wave. I'd heard him refer to this as a barrel and he told me he was stoked I'd got the shot. I remember sitting on the end of his bed and staring at the picture for a long time. It was like seeing myself do something I knew I could never do.

'What's it like?' I asked finally. 'I mean, standing inside a wave?'

He looked at me and shrugged. 'It's kinda like time is standing still, but at the same time it's rushing past. That sounds weird but I dunno how else to explain it. You have to experience it. It's the only way.'

Two days later, my brother had the photograph framed and put up on his wall, and it stayed there until he was twenty-one and he was killed in a car accident on the bends north of town.

Nowadays I live in the city. The beach is no longer around the corner and I've still never surfed, but living here does have its benefits. I like the anonymity. I like the thrum of traffic and the hundreds of nameless faces passing by at any one time. Sometimes when I have visitors (somebody from work or a real estate agent doing the quarterly inspection), they'll see the photograph hanging on the wall and ask if it's me. Usually I nod. When they ask what it feels like, I tell them it's kinda like time is standing still but at the same time it's rushing past. I tell them it sounds weird but I dunno how else to explain it. I keep my voice steady and act like I'm speaking from the experience of someone I could never be.

Forest

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The door was ajar and our clothes were on the floor. Her housemates were elsewhere.

On the bed she counted the sunspots on my skin, out loud, updating me with a tally, progressing toward dismay – there were nearly a hundred.

‘Have you had these checked?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘You really should.’

Caroline got off the bed, foraged the carpet for her clothes and dressed. She sat next to me and kissed my mouth. I combed her long black hair with my fingers. I got dressed too. Our conversation revolved around the idea of gourmet sandwiches. It was after noon, Saturday, and we were hungry.

I stepped into a deli and Caroline followed. We ordered our sandwiches. Music was playing from a radio above the counter. Caroline started to sing along. The man assembling our sandwiches told Caroline to shut her mouth.  

‘Somewhere with shade,’ Caroline said, and directed us over the grass with urgency. I looked up and saw rain clouds.

Beyond the park was a wooded area. It had a path etched in the ground that ran for about a kilometre. It was a popular track for couples and bird-watchers. I knew for certain that a yellow-faced honeyeater was in the trees. I was ready to point it out to Caroline if we were to go for a hike. I knew useless shit like that to make her cheery.

My sandwich was dry. Caroline was thirsty. I ran to a corner store, bought a cold bottle of lemonade, but when I returned to our spot on the grass, Caroline wasn’t there. I twisted open the lemonade, had a sip, walked over to the path where the “forest” started, and attempted to scan through the thin trees for Caroline. I rang her mobile, but the call went to voicemail. I shouted her name, but this aggravated a man with binoculars who was bird-watching nearby. I waved sorry to the man. Ten, fifteen minutes went by.

‘My favourite game is hide and seek,’ she said, behind me, in a matter-of-fact tone.

‘Where did you go?’

‘Guess,’ she said.

‘The bathroom?’

‘No.’

‘Poland?’

‘No.’

‘Where then?’

‘Guess,’ she was grinning.

‘The boot of a car? A hotel room?’

She stopped grinning. ‘We should head back home. I need to do some work.’

She was in her room gathering together her sheet music. Caroline was a member of an amateur choir that performed monthly at St. Paul’s church. Her housemates were still absent. I was sunk in an armchair watching some movie on my laptop. Caroline entered the living room and leaned against a chair.

‘Why did you say hotel room?’

I hit the space bar, paused the movie.

‘Sorry?’

‘Hotel room. You guessed in the boot of a car and a hotel room. The deli. I went back there,’ she said.

The way home was under construction, scaffolding everywhere. As I waded alone through the people and through the rain, I saw Caroline appear and disappear with every passer-by.

Dawn

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We wait in the pre-dawn winter darkness, lit only by the distant lights of the island and a lonely fluoro that buzzes with insect life. The ferry, silent for the moment, bobs in the inky water. Even our voices are subdued. I stand apart from the others and look not towards the ferry as they do, but towards the east, trying to capture that point when the sun will break the edge of the world. I must avoid blinking at that crucial instant.

Phil, a hopeless, toothless addict from the cleaning staff, sidles my way. He’s as unwelcome among the ranks of high-vis as gonorrhoea. He somehow always ends up next to me, fag in hand; two oddities drifting to the outer edges together. I wish I was cruel enough to cast him off as the others do.

‘Bootiful morning, eh Ian?’ he says as he scratches at his jock line. I avoid glancing at the rogue hand and maintain my observation of the horizon. Phil doesn’t seem to mind. My eyes burn and I blink. In that moment the sun comes up. I swear under my breath. Again, Phil doesn’t seem to mind.

‘Should be out in the tinny, not bustin’ our guts on that shithole island.’ Despite his sentiment he smiles fondly as he gazes out over the water. His teeth are stained and protruding; he only smiles in bad light. Perhaps he’s remembering the time spent there before the gas companies moved in, smoking grass and playing bad guitar.

I nod in the supervisor’s direction and Phil drops his smoke into the water. I sigh.

‘What?’ he says, and scratches at his jock line again. Maybe it’s a nervous habit. Maybe I make Phil nervous.  It seems everyone’s like that around me these days.

The crowd falls silent as Skipper climbs on board. A phone rings. It is a piercing alarm of a sound. Who gets a phone call this hour of the morning?

My phone call came at 2 am. I’m often awake at 2 am these days, after I stopped taking the sleeping tablets. Stopped seeing the psych. It didn’t work anyway; she’s still dead.

I watch one of the high-vis brigade fish in his pocket for his phone. I realise I’m holding my breath, but I can’t seem to let it out. My breath in the cold air is too much like smoke.

But this phone call’s different from mine. I can tell before he answers it. There’s no hesitation, no nervous glance around. Blokes start slapping him on the back. Some good news. Perhaps a baby coming.

He’s walking towards the car park before I can turn my burning eyes away.

Sharp Objects

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Beth didn't stop at the junction to look for oncoming cars, but dipped her head and pedalled harder. There was nobody around anyway.

Beyond the breeze on her ears she could hear a faint tune. She felt she knew it, vaguely, but not in this tinkling, monophonic form. As she rounded a corner she spotted a rubbish truck with the words Clean Tokyo painted on its side. Now the music made sense; it heralded the morning light. Here, garbage trucks behaved like they sold ice-cream, spreading shrill classical melodies into the waking neighbourhood.

Beth used to go to work on rubbish days full of anxiety, then sweat on the train all the way home hoping her attempt had been successful. She had visions of returning home to her bags still on the doorstep, stapled with a lurid purple note from the collectors. Rubbish not separated. Separate properly and try again. This was the height of public shame.

As she passed the green truck, she heard three familiar, repeated notes: it was Keisuke's tune. The music lulled her pedalling into a slower triple metre, and she pulled up beside one of the men who was hauling bags from the ground. She wanted to ask him about the name of the song – it was the one she had been searching for – but all she said was, ‘Waste not want not, eh?’

The collector bowed.

‘It is with great honour that I pick up the rubbish.’

In a way that ice-cream delivery could never be, rubbish collection was painstaking and complicated. Lipstick went into burnables, but lipstick tubes – after all the contents were used up – went into small metals or plastics. Umbrellas less than fifty centimetres long needed to be skinned, with the synthetic material put into one bag and the metal skeleton in another marked ‘sharp object’. One lonely sock was burnable, and a pair qualified as ‘used cloth’, but only if the socks weren’t torn and the right and left sock matched.

She thought about the umbrella skeletons, tangled and prickly like sea urchins; she thought about all the lonely socks, burning together in a pile.

Russian Goats

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Anna would not have worried if Elizabeth had been curvy, like the neighbour whose fake breasts swelled over her low-cut dresses.

But Elizabeth was beautiful and slim and everything that Vladimir found attractive. She was something to be corrupted.

The goats had been in the street and innocently she’d followed them to their home.

‘That is Creole. She likes the drink. You know, alcohol,’ Vlad said, looking at Elizabeth's legs in her tennis shorts. The goat lapped at the spilt beer on the table. ‘The other one is Sasha. She is the affectionate one. Yes, she is a nice goat.’

Sasha nuzzled Anna's arm. The goats stayed close to her, knowing that they were safe there.  Anna hugged her beer.

Elizabeth laughed nervously. She glanced up and down the street. Vlad sat back in his chair, taking a sip of his beer without taking his eyes off her.

‘You live near here?’

‘Yes, just down the road. I wanted to make sure the goats got home safely. Anyway, I better go.’

Vlad jumped up. ‘Would you like a beer? Stay for a drink with us.’

‘Oh no, thank you, thank you.’

‘Stay for one drink,’ begged Vlad, but Elizabeth was already walking away, waving nervously back at them.

‘She doesn't want a beer,’ Anna said, in Russian.

‘Yeah? And how do you know what she wants?’ Vlad snarled, sinking into his chair.

Anna felt the bodies of the goats press closer and said nothing.

Spillage

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Fallow, russet hillsides and spiny chunks of flora garnish the aggro cityscape. The taxi merges without indicating, a dodge-em car at a country fair. Aunty Nathalie speaks Mauritian-Creole to the driver – the jauntiest linguistics, a bristling melody that I crave as a cure for Western ills. The entire culture adjourns in my brain, as it often does – another well-kept secret.

Nathalie’s phone shrieks. She doesn’t answer. If she does, she’ll have to find a bank and fork out money for our relatives. None of our relos want to hear about first-world problems. Or especially the term first-world. I hate it too, usually reaching for the developing world placation – unfinished, not entrenched. My undeniable Anglo heritage, my education, is at once irrelevant yet vital, shattering old conveniences and schoolyard jeers of ‘Racist!’ The first world is the problem. Nathalie is Australian. She must share her wealth. She is family.

‘Catholic guilt, Third-World-style.’ says Matilda, my sister, ignoring Nathalie’s pointed glare.

Nathalie doesn’t know if her VISA card is operational. Uncle Clement still hasn’t phoned to advise. Time zone? Exorbitant rates? Nathalie shrugs. We’ve only got enough cash to last the day. She is alien in another land, her home country, on her return thirty-five years later.

The driver’s road-raging matches his oration as we head inland. His body odour is thick, oppressive, but comforting. Human. I strain to hear his English. Apartheid South Africa. Blood spilled? His father’s blood? His blood? Johannesburg? Daughter, very sick. No…Well, yes, but it is unconnected. Cannot hold food, spilling her innards. House, two-bedroom. Stink of vomit. He take us all museums and factories. He know people.

The driver stalks us at a polite distance from the heat of the taxi downstairs, sans air-conditioning and sea breeze, ignoring our preferred arrangement – leaving with another driver. The restaurant’s ceiling fan cools our sweat. Aunty Nathalie cries into her ginger ale and knocks it over, staining the white tablecloth a healthy brown. Matilda and I ask the waitstaff for serviettes or tissues. Our request is met with fluent English and stacks of both serviettes and tissues. The driver reminds Nathalie of my mother and grandfather working multiple jobs: fisherman; seamstress; factory-hand; shop-assistant; housekeeper; teacher. Spine-warping labour. That’s the upsetting part, she recalls: feigning distance from the present, from the driver.

Nathalie flinches as her phone rings. She dabs her nose and answers. It’s Marie-Louise, our great-aunty, Papa’s little sister. Matilda and I grin at each other, just for a moment. She is one of three siblings still alive on the island. Three out of nine ain’t bad. The six in Australia found wealth but long since halted return flow.

Hotel? Does she need the address? Do we have it? Not necessary. They’ve found us. They are on their way. Nathalie is exposed already. Papa’s Australian affairs, debts of love and money, are no secret either. Family stories, even those not imparted or understood in completion, always seem to spread as swift and as fluid as spillage.