Coming Apart

‘Seven, eight, nine,’ he mouthed silently. From the first time he laid his hand to it, he had been counting himself off. ‘Forty-one. Forty-two.’ It wasn’t a race. It wasn’t a competition. It wasn’t even obsessive compulsive; it was just what he did – like having a storyline that accompanied the act.

Read More

Sugar Ant

The air quakes in the heat.An ant crawls across Lisa’s arm and Madeleine licks it up. It’s on her tongue, still moving, and then she swallows it, mostly because she remembers swallowing an ant when she was little, and wonders if the sweetness was real. Lisa is fucked on the sun and murmurs don’t before closing her eyes again.

Flashers_Thumbnail_45.jpg

At the shops that morning they’d had a fight about the health benefits of sourdough. Madeleine had stopped looking Lisa in the eye halfway down aisle three, where the air was plump with raisin wafts and yeast. She always looked away when they fought, and Lisa couldn’t handle it the way she used to.

Look at me Mad, you have to look at me or I’ll just go, I’ll just walk out, she’d said through tightened teeth.

Madeleine couldn’t look, never could once the air got tight. But she’d grabbed Lisa’s hand and chewed her lip and then they had kissed, because Lisa was just a little more in love with Madeleine than she should have been.

The ant isn’t sweet. It tastes like blood and grey-lead pencil and she can almost feel its ballooned body slide down her throat. Madeleine is lying on her belly with her elbows bent and her head held up in her hands. She looks around the park, for something. Beside her Lisa dozes, her nose quietly whistling.

Feathers

9781406345407.jpg

He looked up from the paper, groaning slightly as he stretched various muscles and straightened his back. Enough strain for his eyes for today. He dropped the pencil, ran his hand through his hair. His eyes darted as usual to the wall, to the setting sunlight glinting off the framed feathers. Christ, he was getting old.

Others assumed birds were his passion. He let them think so – drawing had been his way of looking for something, illustrating birds had been something to fall into so he could build his own nest. But he had still searched.

Old men, old men, old memories. He shook his head. The feathers always seemed new though. Straight from his head the day he had met him marching for the right to be, to display – it had been so easy to see his peacock in the crowd.

That indeed was what he was. What he had been. Raucous, all noise and fury, but signifying oh so much, at the protest marches and rallies, his voice hoarse then after as they ducked into dark corners together.

God, they had been young. His kisses like pecks, his touches like clawing, leaving marks as if to claim him.  As if he had ‘talons’ of his own. And possessive too, posturing and crowing at anyone else if he thought they came too near him.

So he had drawn him, while asleep, while protesting, while debating something at the top of his voice with another. He had drawn him naked, clothed, angry, blissful. But never, never as a peacock.

It was assumed, now, that there had been others. He let them think so. They thought so because where there should be pictures of him, instead were now drawings and drawings of peacocks. And, in pride of place, plucked from a mask, were feathers that even after debauchery, death and decades of sunlight, had yet to fade.

9781406345407
9781406345407

Tailgate Fume

Flashers_Thumbnail_43.jpg

Tailgating, my dad said it’s called. He used to do it in the old days, back before cars and trucks became obsolete. He and his friends would hang on and let the wake carry them, high on exhaust fumes, whooping and hollering like loons.

There are no cars any more, but we still like speed. A single second wrung out of the system can put you ahead of your friends in a race around the world. Squeezed through wires as long, rippling sparks, we’ve learned to ride electromagnetic wakes in ways the techs never imagined.

We whoop and holler too.

Dad told me about a kid who died while tailgating. The truck he was hanging onto unexpectedly stopped, but the kid kept going. He cracked his skull wide open and brains went all over the road. Everything that was him, rearranged and scattered.

Dad said, I wonder what happened to his ghost. Did it stay with the truck for the rest of eternity, haunting the place he died, twisting and turning behind it like an invisible flag? A tailgate fume?

It’ll never happen to me, I said.

Comfort

Flashers_Thumbnail_42.jpg

You pissed yourself. Really? Is this really where you want this to go? Well, keep going then. Warm up your legs; you’ll regret it in a few hours, you know. They’ll be rank and cold and they’ll freeze when you get out of the sleeping bag. But that’s what you were aiming for, wasn’t it? Make yourself more disgusting. Fine.

No, you’re not in the ballet – that was just a dream. It was a videotape you used to watch when you were a kid, a documentary about Meryl Tankard, and there was that sleep scene, remember? She was choreographing a sleep dance, and she had all the dancers lie on the ground in sleep poses, then mimic each other’s poses, then do all the poses one after the other. You used to watch that documentary over and over. That’s what you’re thinking of, right?

You can sleep-pose along with the best of them.

Wrap up tight. Tuck in your knees, flip the sleeping bag under. Hood up, head down, pull the strings. What more do you want? You’re a man in a sleeping bag in a ditch by a road. You could have been a ballet dancer. You’re here instead. It’s almost the same.

Bury your head with leaves. That’s the way. More insulation, maybe rain cover, maybe snow cover – but don’t hope for that.

You’re not George Orwell. He wrote a book about it. That’s what made him George Orwell.

You can feel romantic about the whole thing if you want to. It won’t last. You’ll remember you’re an idiot. George Orwell did. Wait, did he? Well, if he didn’t, he should have. You’re better than him, remember that: you’ve done nothing important and said nothing about it. It’s more honest. You’re a man in a piss-filled sleeping bag on the side of a road and it’s your own fault, your own choice even, and that’s all there is to it and what does it matter anyway?

All right. All right. It matters. It’s all very romantic and it’s all very tragic too. You’re all alone, lying in the ditch beside a small road in the Lithuanian countryside on a late autumn evening. It’s freezing cold, but the snow hasn’t started yet. The sky is black and looks about to burst. You’re lying, half-freezing, your knees tucked up and your arms tight against your chest, your head covered with dead leaves. Your limbs, always thin, are brittle now. You could pass for trash, a few garbage bags, a rolled-up carpet. Soon it will be dark: no one will drive by here until morning.

How to Grieve Believably

Flashers_Thumbnail_41.jpg

The doctor said his heart was defective. I didn’t know hearts could defect. Wikipedia said it was a death wish. The doctor called it a genetic recurrence. Someone sent a fruit dish. I chose the least ripe looking peach, some kind of exercise in self-denial.

My father – strong-willed, hard-bodied – excused himself to the men’s room. There were teeth marks on his arm where he bit down to hide the noise.

The nurse said, ‘Preparations.’

He was led into an unlit room. A voice over the loud speaker said, ‘Lunch will be served late. Spam and devilled eggs on bread.’

Camera flashes went off like gunfire. I asked the nurse what was going on. ‘We’re freezing his expression,’ she said, ‘so you can remember what his disappointment looks like.’ I asked her if that was really necessary.

She said, ‘Necessary? Nothing in life is necessary.’

He had the gift of the gab, my dad. ‘Make them laugh,’ he said, ‘then make them cry.’ Advice to live or die by. After he died, I spent most of my time crying.

The funeral was at a football stadium. Hired mourners handed out gift bags full of knick-knacks to forget him by. Key chains and commemorative tattoos that washed off in the shower. I turned up in a Rolls Royce, trained my eyes behind the watching mob: chin lifted, looking wistfully into the middle distance.

Onlookers decided on a single sound bite. They said, ‘There’s nothing you could’ve done.’ I was confused. What did they think I wanted to do?

You can see the eulogy on YouTube. I stand, shakily, like I’m under the weight of some great pain. The truth is I couldn’t feel my legs. I ate three codeine with breakfast – fake eggs and bacon pancakes: his daily staple.

First I made up a tale about the hot nurse, how she’d undressed him on his first night in. He said, ‘I could get used to this!’ Everyone was in stitches.

The rest was plaigarised from The Sopranos. I said, ‘This isn’t painful. Getting shot is painful. Getting stabbed in the ribs is painful. This isn’t painful. It’s empty. Dead.’ The crowd clapped in teary-eyed agreement.

There was a motorcade to the wake, a nightclub called Incendiary. People needed to see me keeping it together. Luckily, I do a fantastic rendition of a well-adjusted man. Dad always talked about timing. The trick is to keep your lips poised between a grimace and a grin, ready to hang a sentence off the slimmest thread.

I got progressively more shit-faced while staying deceptively statesmanlike, patting shoulders and saying, ‘It is what it is,’ until my face went red and the sentiments bled together. The general consensus was that I was holding up well.

I got a guy thrown out so I could grope his wife – my dad’s old secretary – in a booth beside the dance floor. Her name was Sue. She had the quick smile of someone highly strung. We got a cab. She said, ‘I feel sick. Your dad …’ I told her it’s what he would’ve wanted, the first thing that was halfway true.

She stopped midway through. ‘Is something wrong?’

‘No,’ I said, grinning, ‘why’s that?’

She put her finger on it. ‘It’s like you’re grimacing or something.’

My Blue Rock Pool

Flashers_Thumbnail_40.jpg

After we got our fishing gear from the laundry, me and Dad walked down the pebbly track behind our house to the beach.

Out on the oyster lease people were casting lines into the channel and I could hear them laughing from the shore. Soldier crabs marched along to the left of us and as soon as they saw Dad with the nipper pump they burrowed into the sand.

The clouds were gone by the time Dad got enough nippers for bait. As we walked along the beach he teased me about not helping him, but I didn’t take much notice. I was too busy thinking about my blue rock pool. I wanted to see if there was any fish in it this week. I wanted to see if that other boy was hanging around it too.

‘More flamin’ holiday makers,’ Dad said as we got to the boat ramp. There were cars and trailers everywhere so we kept going. When we got to our fishing spot I could see the boy from last week hanging around again. He was kneeling beside my pool and throwing stuff in it. I started to get real angry.

‘You can always share it you know,’ Dad said.

‘With the flamin’ holiday makers?’ I growled and threw my bag on the rocks.

‘Yeah, with the flamin’ holiday makers,’ Dad replied. ‘They’re not all bad you know. Besides, you might find a good mate. He looks about your age.’

He looked smaller than me, but he was too far away to tell for sure.

‘Go on,’ Dad said. Giving me a poke. ‘Make a friend today. There’s only two weeks of the holidays left.’

Grabbing my bag I started out over the rocks. I looked up every now and then to see if the boy was watching me and by the time I got to the pool he was standing up. He was holding a plastic bag with a knife and handline in it.

‘There’s a big one on the bottom,’ he said.

I shaded my eyes.

‘Yeah, it looks like a groper.’

‘I thought so too,’ he replied. But I could tell he wasn’t sure.

‘Where you from?’ I asked.

‘I’m from Canberra. Where are you from?’

‘From The Mish. Just along the beach there.’

‘Oh,’ he replied. ‘So you’re Aboriginal?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘So what?’

‘Nothing,’ he said and looked down again. ‘I just thought you might be able to teach me how to fish, that’s all.’

I looked at him again. His T-shirt was old like mine but he had no shoes on. A Blue Ring octopus could bite him.

‘I suppose I could teach ya,’ I said. And I gave him a little smile.

‘Thanks,’ he said, smiling too. ‘You’re not bad, I guess.’

I laughed. ‘You’re not too bad either,’ I said, ‘for a holiday maker.’

And when he laughed I knew that he could share my pool.

Burning Imprint

Flashers_Thumbnail_39.jpg

I could still feel the burning imprint of his hand across my eleven-year-old cheek. ‘What did you do wrong?’ my sister asked after I ran up the stairs and into her room, where she had her nose stuck in a book as always.

Down in the garage I heard Dad’s motorbike roar into life, the creaking of the garage door-springs as he pulled it down and pushed it shut, and a fading buzz of relief as he rode away without me sitting behind him, riding pillion but holding him tightly with my hands inside his warm leatherjacket pockets, my head snug inside my helmet.

‘I didn’t do anything,’ I said.

‘Get out of my room then – I’m reading!’

I wrinkled my nose at the musky candles she was burning, poked my tongue out at her and ran to the bathroom. I shut the door, stretched out over the sink and brought my cheek close to the mirror, inspecting it for damage, before sitting down cross-legged on the bathroom mat and closing my eyes. I could feel the tears hiding somewhere inside, and I willed them to come, but nothing happened. I opened my eyes again, thinking that might help, but my eyes remained stubbornly dry. On the white-tiled floor beside me sat a stray curly hair, completely unmatched from mine and my sister’s light brown or Dad’s spiky blonde. The phrase ‘short and curlies’ came to my mind like a revelation, something I’d heard at school and didn’t understand. The hair danced gently across the room as a breeze blew in underneath the bathroom door.

‘Anthony?’ my sister called from just outside the door.

‘Go away!’

‘What did you do?’

‘Go away!’

I watched the hair swirling along the floor as my sister paced outside, then put my cheek to the cold tiles, trying to peer through the small gap to see if she would leave. The tiles were like a balm to my face, simultaneously reinforcing and curing the slap’s burn. I laid there very still next to the dirty bathtub and remembered us bathing together when we were young, before the distance between us became real. Before we had a choice.

‘I told him why Mum left us,’ I said, watching my sister’s feet stop dead as my words reached her ears. ‘I told him he’s mean.’

Colonisation

Flashers_Thumbnail_381.jpg

Sharper and sharper it grew until altogether scissors threw gold and responded with climate. Baby’s bottle did hum glue it. Fire and rubber prettied the Horror Show. How are the rules of butter shoved over? On a candle wax brass plate, he said, fetching frames and fossils divine, Brits and bread-apple kisses. Drag them up by the hairs of their dreamy sticky drains, that’s the engine sweet toots. Clay acquires imaginary swearing skills, sliming like a paint ball in grain dirt. The stamp sucker aches, wants management fees and coke with reasonable resistance to exit the worm. The Horror Show limes, nose all forest clutter smallpox, a peppermint will to live and spare words, her red knees klunking – sod purple out.

Midnight Meeting

Flashers_Thumbnail_37.jpg

In the not-so-dark corner sat the crumpled youth. Frogs croaked loudly from where they'd never be found, post-rain. The streetlights looked on, completely unaffected by the bass notes fracturing wafts of smoke escaping youthful lungs in the nearby house. A blue sedan pulled up and the driver, a second youth, stepped out to inquire after the crumpled one. Standing hastily, the youth tested his thigh muscles, wondering how fast he could run in his present state. Adrenaline, he said to himself. If I need it, it's there.

Shouts of ‘four-twenty!’ could be heard through drunk, other-than-English accents. The two youths smiled to confirm distance and connection – their lives were incredibly similar but this could not be confirmed without the outside reference. When the first assured the second of his competent state the second tried to explain his own situation. He lifted his forearm where a deep gash traced wrist to elbow. Oddly the fresh-looking wound wasn't bleeding, as if he were made of Play-dough. The second youth explained some kind of falling incident. 'Jesus,’ thought the first, to whom a pusher’s involvement remained mysterious. He told the second youth that he couldn't speak so well, that he was still learning, but he hadn't seen any tall, dark-hair-in-a-knot, skinny guys inside the party, though he hadn't seen everyone and it would be perfectly reasonable to check. The second youth said not to worry and was gone.

The first wondered if he'd understood the story at all, then he imagined what could have been his accidental involvement in diverting a violent scene, in the sense that his casual denial of this tall, third guy had carried the stamp of uninterested authenticity. If this was so, he knew he would never be congratulated: and why should he be? It had all been a mistake.

Energised by the strange encounter, our first youth made for the house and the music, but heard the shouts and laughter from the garage and continued walking beside the army of Range-Rovers gleaming atop glistening tar.

Snaplock

Flashers_Thumbnail_36.jpg

‘You got a good eye, miss, you don’t mind me saying so. That’s a fine piece. The Oriole M4: classic design. Rosewood grip, clean bore. Small enough to hide in your underthings, excuse my crudeness, powerful enough to drop a horse. Anybody looks down the barrel o’ that girl, they won’t see nothin’ else ’til Judgement Day.’

She could just picture the light bursting out of the tiny gun, burning a hole through anybody who gave her trouble. She shivered. ‘I can’t see where to put the battery cartridge …’

‘No ma’am, no fussing about with finicky machinery, just a bit o’ powder, bit o’ lead and she’s ready to go.’ He lifted the gun up to eye level. She swayed, following it like a mongoose does a snake.

‘Bullets! It really fires bullets? But why?’

‘You put your finger on it yourself, ma’am, your very finger. It’s the batt–’

‘Ow!’ Her shoulder spasmed with pain.

Her husband’s hand, gripping the flesh of her upper arm. ‘There you are Annalee! Wanderin’ off on me like that, it ain’t right. The hell you lookin’ at that toy for, anyway? Get along!’

Annalee allowed herself to be dragged away.

‘Hey! Hey!’ the gunseller called after them. ‘She’s little, but she ain’t no toy!’

American Lush

Flashers_Thumbnail_35.jpg

Oh yes, you’re having a great time. You’re drunk again.  You’re lying very still in the dark in a rented apartment in downtown New York City and suffering from all sorts of decadent ills. Summer in this romantic, filthy city is oppressive and congested but you endure it oddly, madly, feverishly even. You think you’re getting used to the heat, the single roll of sweat coasting down your spine on the subway platform, the humidity heavy in the air and wet like a mouth. The sash windows are flung wide and gaping madly down onto the city and you can hear the distant, benevolent hum of air-conditioners protecting other people’s apartments from being spoiled by the heat. It’s so hot. There is no break from it, even at night, even at night there are sour breezes warm at your neck: why is it still so hot? Decadent ills. You drink so much more here. You feel like you’re drunk all the time, from the heat, sure, but also from whiskey, whiskey every evening. Smoky liquid gold on your tongue and burning bright behind your eyes. You haven’t been hung over once, though. There is something about the city and the city on whiskey that is kind to you, and the mornings are easier and the nights are spectacular, and all your friends are so happy for you, so happy you’re having so much fun and how brave you are. Yes, you must be having such a great time.

You saw a Chekhov play yesterday in a basement theatre in Soho – you sat straight-backed and cross-legged on a wooden bench while on stage the actors were draped across velvet couches drinking vodka by candlelight and crying for the old worlds. So tortured and lonely and in love, so decadent, so ill.

Watch Your Step

Flashers_Thumbnail_33.jpg

Past 1am on a Toronto summer morning, the 501 streetcar stopped at Queen and Ossington.

‘Watch your step!’ the streetcar driver bawled, exposing square buttery teeth as he watched a man step down into the street.

‘Gotta make sure folks don’t get hit,’ the driver said to those behind him. ‘They’re too excited by this weather, y’know! Not watching where they’re going.’

‘Watch your step!’ the streetcar driver yelled out, as a girl made her exit. ‘Take care, y’hear!’

A man in a suit that was long in the pant and short in the sleeve got on the streetcar at Queen and Bathurst. He exchanged a spirited ‘hello’ with the driver and sat.

‘Watch your step!’ yelled the driver.

‘Watch your step!’ the man in the suit echoed.

‘You copying me, son?’ asked the streetcar driver, as if he was talking to his very own child. ‘Well – thanking you! I could do with some help. Gotta make sure people get home safe.’

‘Sure man, I’ll give you a hand! What’s the world without people helping each other out, I say.’ The man in the suit beamed his face natty and shining.

‘Watch your step!’ they both called out, at Queen and Spadina.

‘Watch your step!’ they bellowed brightly at Moss Park.

‘Where you from my friend?’ the streetcar driver asked, near the corner of Queen and Parliament.

‘The Dominican Republic, my man.’

‘Ah, the República Dominicana! Your English is good, brother.’

‘You know us well!’ The man laughed. ‘Yeah. I learnt English at school. I’m here to get a job.’

‘Boy oh boy ­– a job? Ah, man, it’s hard to get a job here these days. Ontario’s all dried –‘

‘Yeah, I know. I just walk around in my suit each day.’

‘That suit, my brother?’

‘Yeah, this suit right here. I just head into any place I think looks like somewhere I could work and I give them a smile.’

‘Well it’s a nice suit brother. Good luck eh.’

‘Thank you, thank you. Your wishes mean a lot.’ The man’s voice was full, like a recently picked peach. He scratched his head. ‘I guess I should ask where you’re from. Where’re you from?’

The streetcar driver laughed.

‘I probably should’ve told you that first, eh?’

The man in the suit grinned.

‘Nah, nah, it’s okay. I just want to know, now that we’re talking. I’d like to know.’

‘Well I’m from Toronah. Toronah born and bred, my man,’ said the driver.

‘Yeah, I thought you must be, what with being so friendly. Canadians are friendly.’

‘Yeah. I love this country, man,’ said the streetcar driver

‘Yeah, you know, I like it here too. ’

At 2am, the streetcar stopped at Queen and Broadview.

‘This is my stop. So I’ll say goodbye,’ said the man in the suit.

‘Peace be with you, my brother,’ said the streetcar driver. ‘You watch your step!’

‘And peace be with you,’ said the man in the suit, as he hopped down the steps of the streetcar, his jacket a billowing pinstripe cape behind him.

The Zombie Horde

Flashers_Thumbnail_32.jpg

The doors slid open and the first long-haul survivor shot out: a business type with laptop and suit bag – a gate-lounge veteran – full of grim purpose as he power-strode to the taxi rank. Then came another just like him, his stunt double perhaps, silking thousand-buck shades from an inner pocket as he emerged into the sunlight. A few other purposeful types followed, full of youth and vigour, backpacked, baseball-capped, moneyed and logoed. Then the flow stopped. There was a moment of stillness, expectant silence. The letters on the arrivals board shuffled. A cleaner in a hi-viz tabard trudged past with a wheelie bin. And then it became clear what the others had been fleeing.

The doors slid open again and a seething mass of bodies and luggage trolleys spilled forth: families, old folk, suburbanites, the morbidly obese. On they came in twos and threes, dead-eyed, mouths agape, dragging themselves bodily towards daylight. Limping and shuffling under the burden of cases and holdalls, slung cameras and duty free bags stuffed to bursting. They twisted and craned this way and that, seeking out fresh brains or, failing that, a lift home.

Drug Baggies

Flashers_Thumbnail_31.jpg

I want to rob. My parents’ house was robbed the day I was born. I have three big sisters; all of my stories are hand-me-downs. When I was little, all I wanted to write about was adult acne and how celebrities don’t have it. Except Posh Spice did, but she had rich-people treatments and then it stopped. I want to rob Victoria Beckham. I’m watching ‘Say You’ll Be There’, the second single from the Spice Girls, the only clip in which Posh’s ‘bad skin’ is kinda noticeable, if you watch it on HD, which didn’t exist when the Spice Girls did. ‘Bad skin’ as in ‘naughty skin’.

Imperfections. I guess people have heaps more intense medical issues than acne. Celebrity Death Match: Beavis versus Butthead. I want to rob MTV offices 1992. Angelina Jolie on a raft in Cambodia feeling no pain. Cis drag queen Mother Teresa bad bitch hacker riding Brad Pitt’s dick with, like, a thousand children, a double mastectomy. A Statue of Liberty. I want to rob Mother Theresa. I want to bankrupt America. I want her autograph tattooed up my arm. You’re all I ever wanted. Love u Angie J. I got felt up watching the Spice Girls movie in Year 9 by a guy who wasn’t my boyfriend, who was younger than me and that same night my cat died and since then I’ve been allergic to all animals, badly. My first boyfriend was Eminem.

The music videos for Los Del Rio’s ‘Macarena’ and the Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ are the roots, bloody roots, of all contemporary tumblr girl fashions. I want to do Wimbledon, rob Los Del Rio in the sunshine, wear a cute hat and daisy chain. We’re actually in freefall. The 1994 series of Fruitopia adverts feature original Kate Bush compositions pumped over kaleidoscopic images, psychedelic swirl nonsense poems. Explore this series of commercials as the zenith of human cultural production evolution.

Free.