Social Distancing

by Michael Freundt, a short story.

‘Don’t come near me!’ she screamed.


He struck her hard. With a fist to the face. She fell against the side board with a thud. The sound of breaking glass. Her mother’s set of champagne flutes. The ones with the gold trim. She staggered back instinctively as if she was to blame. She thought of her mother. So this is what she meant. She took another blow to the side of the head and fell to her left. She saw flashes of light and then dark, then bright again. She used a small door knob of the side-board to haul herself back to her feet; back into his range. Why did I do that? He hit her again. Harder this time. The door was still open a bit. She fell against it and heard a rib crack. Knives rattled together like rocks in a can. It took her a moment to focus. She knew she didn’t have much time. She yanked open a drawer. She reached inside.

‘What are you doing?’ he said.

She reached further in among the knives.

‘You wouldn’t dare.’

She pulled out a gun, turned and pointed it at him. That made him stop.

‘What’s the fuck!’

‘Stay away from me,’ she said. Her voice cracked.

‘What’s that!?’

‘What’s it …?” More words were hard to say. She swallowed, blinked, and wet her lips. Her left eye throbbed. ‘What’s it look like?’ She could feel her heart bumping in her chest. She wanted to run.

‘Where did you get that?’

‘Does it matter? Get away from me!’

He took a step back. She felt the taste of rare control.

‘What are you doing with a gun in the house?’

She thought this was funny. ‘Well, considering…’

‘Whose is it?’

‘Mine.’

‘Fuck!’

‘I can use it!’

‘You don’t know a fuckin’ thing abou…’

‘Try me,’ she said mildly. She could see he was unsure and she tasted that feeling again. She straightened her back. She winced and wondered if she could really go through with it.

‘Give it here,’ he said like a Dad.

‘No,’ she said like a child.

He looked at her.

She held his gaze. She swallowed.

‘Is it loaded?’ he asked.

‘ … I don’t know.’

He stepped towards her.

‘Maybe.’ The sound and feel of that word surprised her. She felt she had the upper hand. It occurred to her that he wasn’t in control as much as she had always believed he was. She had given in to him on so many occasions. Even the choice of this side-board; it was too high she had always thought. Why did I do that? It wasn’t just the gun, it was him. He faded a bit. But if the gun wasn‘t loaded everything would change. There was only one way to find out.

He stopped. ‘You kept it there? In the cutlery drawer?

‘You never open the cutlery drawer.’

She could see his anger rising again.

‘What the fuck is my wife doing with a gun in the house, for fuck sake!?’

‘Just as well, ay?’

‘You fuckin’ bitch,’ and he moved.

She lowered the gun and fired.

The sound was weak. Surprising. It didn’t fill the room. It hurt her ribs. She thought for a moment she hadn’t done it right. But yes, it was loaded.

He screamed and dropped to the floor holding his knee. Blood oozed between his fingers. His howls filled the room.

She thought of pigs.

‘You fuckin’ shot me!’

Yes, I did. Yes. That’s what I just did. She repositioned her fingers around the thing. It was warm now. Still pointing it at him. It was her only help. Her life-line.

His screams became moans.

‘Get back from me. Get back.’ She took a step forward from the sideboard but standing on her own felt uneasy. ‘Get back!’

He managed to sidle his arse on the floor and retreated from her.

She took a step back to lean against the sideboard. She reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out her phone. Her breathing was shallow and quick. She felt a little dizzy. With flickering glances at the man writhing and groaning on the floor she dialled a short number.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘The police. Yes. An ambulance. Yes. I’ve just shot my husband. What? No. He’s fine. There’s a bit of blood.’ She told them her full name and address and put her phone on the side board. She tried to control her breathing slow it down, breath deeper.

‘You’ll go to jail for this,’ he managed to say.

‘Probably.’

‘Why the fuck did you go and shoot me!?’

‘I didn’t kill you,’ and she raised the gun, pointing at his head. ‘I could’ve.’ And then with an intent and attitude she had never used before. ‘Can you feel it?’

‘What?’

She waved the gun slightly to the left and fired into an armchair. The sound was week and tinny again. Like it was before. Maybe that’s how it is. Maybe that’s what a gun sounds like. She waved the gun back to his head. ‘Feel it now?’ She could see that he could and it felt good to her. ‘Now you know what it feels like.’

‘You’re fuckin’ crazy!’

She gave a little harrumph and said quietly. ‘Now I know what it feels like.’ She smiled.

‘You were havin’ it off with that sparky bloke.’

‘What? No.’

‘Susie Driscoll told me.’

‘She saw me fucking the electrician? No. She saw me talking to Jim in the car park.’

‘Oh, it’s Jim now, is it?’

‘Yes. That’s his name. Jim. He offered to load my boot for me. I said thanks but it’s OK. He told me about his little boy’s questions about the virus. They were apposite and cute.’

He gave a grunt. ‘You were flirting.’

‘I smiled at him, yes.’

‘What else?’

‘Nothing.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Not my fault.’

‘Well this is your fuckin’ fault. You shot your husband in his own living room. In the knee! For Christ’s sake. I’m a fuckin’ rugby player!’

‘There’s no more runball until the end of next month; and that’s even in doubt.’

‘Stop calling it that. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘You need to see a doctor.’

‘You’re the one gushing blood all over the floor.’

‘A psychiatrist. You need to see … Did you plan this? So you could be with Jimmy boy?’

‘You’re such an idiot. Why would I plan a punch to my head? Three punches to the head. Ha? How would I plan such a thing?’

‘You’ve had a gun there all this time. Loaded.’

‘Mum gave it to me.’

‘She’s always hated me.’

‘She doesn‘t hate you. Just like she doesn’t hate Dad, despite what he did to her.’

‘If she’s anything like you, I don’t blame him.’

‘You’ve never blamed him.’

‘Can you get me some pain killers?’

‘No.’ Her right arm was aching. She let it drop a little.

He moved towards her and she pointed it at him again with added intension and used her left arm to help her hold it out.

‘Getting tired?’

‘Yeah. I can use my left hand,’ and she took her right hand away and shook it. ‘But I’m a little shaky with my left, I might miss your other knee and hit something else.’

‘ … let’s just think this through. What about the boys?’

‘You’ll have to look after them.’

‘I’ll be in hospital.’

‘For a few hours maybe. You’ll be home before the boys get back. You can hop from room to room. You don’t need legs to cook, do the washing, do the ironing.’

‘I don’t know how to cook.’

‘Turn on the gas. Put water in a pot. Add beans. Wait.’

He dismissed her sarcasm with a ‘Phut … What if I’m not back?’

’You’ll have to call someone. Your sister.’ She looks at her watch on her right wrist and moves the gun back to her right.

‘The police aren’t coming.’

‘They’ll be here.’

‘You’ll going to jail.’

‘Oh, did you hear on the news this morning? The jail’s overcrowded making social distancing impractical so they’re moving low security prisoners into hotel rooms, and anyone on remand will be placed in isolation in a hotel room too. I’ll be in The Intercontinental for two weeks courtesy of the government, ordering room service, and watching my own Netflix choices.’

‘If the police were coming they’d be here by now.’

‘They’ll be here soon.’

‘I could press charges.’

‘So could I.’

‘For what?’

She used her left hand to touch her left eye and cheek. She could feel its heat and her vision through that eye was now blurry. It must look like spilt blueberry trifle. She curled her fingers in to point at her face.

‘What’s that compared to a gunshot wound?’ he said.

‘I was protecting myself.’

‘A little lop-sided don’t you think?’

‘No. What more were you capable of?’

‘Oh please. I was upset.’

‘I was bashed because you were upset.’

‘I thought you were screwing the electrician.’

‘I wish now I was.’

He pointed at her. ‘That’s evidence against you. When I’m asked to give evidence in court I’ll say you wanted to screw the electrician. You told me so. I wasn’t wrong, you see?’

‘It was a sentence of conditional wish fulfilment, not admission of an action but a desire that something could happen but didn’t, knowing what I know now.’

He sighs. ‘Spare me.’ And then, ‘I’ve got to get attention to this knee.’

‘They’re on their way.’

They looked at each other, each daring not to look away. Being alert. Everything in the past was a blur. It was like their lives had appeared out of nowhere. They began from this moment. How did they get to this? This moment of no past and no idea of the future. Time seemed stretched. How long since either had spoken?

He moved onto his other hip. She watched him closely, gun ready. He used his left hand to get his phone out of his pocket. ‘I’m going to make my own call. Call an ambulance. To report a shooting.’ He held his phone up. ‘Here you are in our family home with a gun pointed at your wounded husband.’

She shot the phone out of his hand. The sound disappeared as quickly as it had erupted.

‘Jesus!’ Blood appeared on his fingers. ‘Fuckin’ hell!’

‘I’ve got three left. Just stay where you are. And wait. And while I’ve got the floor you can tell me about you and Susan Driscoll.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

‘We’ve been locked down here for three weeks. Jigsaw puzzles. YouTube. Rugby’s Best Tries. Bananas in Fucking Pyjamas. We haven’t been out of each other’s sight. Now that the boys are back at school you thought it would be good time to bring it up. Reinforce yourself. Mm? How could Susie, not Susan but Susie Driscoll, you said, Susie! How could she speak to you about … You’ve been calling her on the loo. Haven’t you?’

‘I know what you’re doing,’ he said but she could see he was rattled. He wouldn’t look at her. He sucked the blood from his fingers.

‘So do I. I know exactly what I’m doing.’ She tried hard for her face to reflect what she wanted to believe. 

‘Let’s be sensible here. What are we going to tell the police?’

‘The truth.’

‘And they’ll believe you?’

‘I shot you. Deliberately. In the leg – not in the head or the chest – in the leg, to stop you hitting me again. What’s not to believe?’

‘It’s the end of our family.’

‘Probably, yes.’

‘Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you shot me.’

‘Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you hit me.’

‘I’ve hit you before.’

‘I didn’t have a gun then.’

‘We got over it.’

‘Did we? You may have.’

‘Sometimes men hit women.’

‘Oh Yes. It’s a psychological attribute. I forgot. Like a dick.’

‘And we have reasons.’

‘So did I. And my reason is stronger than your reason.’

‘Really?’

‘I was defending my life. You were defending your masculinity.’

This had never occurred to her before. She’s never been in this situation before. But now it all seemed so clear.

‘You won’t be able to see the boys.’

This knocked her. ‘… I’ll have visiting rights.’

‘Only if I let them.’

‘What are you going to tell them?’

‘That you shot me! Twice!’

‘And when they ask why, Why Daddy? Why did Mummy shoot you? What will you say?’

‘That you don’t love me anymore, that you were in love with Sparky Jim and wanted me out of the way so you can be with him.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘You won’t have the opportunity to say so.’

‘So our two sons have become rewards in a game.’

‘What does that mean?’ He could see she was wavering. ‘That’s what you always do, rub my lack of a degree in my face. Sprout some literary jargon that means shit when you come down to it. I speak plainly. The boys are mine.’ He could see water in her eyes and saw his chance. ‘Look. We’ve got time to agree on a story. I won’t press charges and you won’t press charges. I’ll have a few hours in hospital and maybe you’ll have to give a statement or something. We’ve been cooped up here at home for three weeks. We got on each other’s nerves. A … a …. a little game developed without the kids around, you know, what you read about, some kind of kinky game thing. You know. And if we support each other we can go on as before. We just have to agree. Agree and stick to it.’

‘Same as before.’

‘Yes. Same as before. The four of us. Together with the boys. Otherwise you’re on your own. And you’ll never see your kids again.’

The two adults stared at each other. They heard cars outside coming to a stop. Footsteps on the path, then nothing on the grass, then louder on the porch. Then an urgent knocking on the front door.

‘Open up! Police!’

‘Coming!’ she called out.

‘Sweetheart…?’

She broke her gaze from her husband, walked to the front door, opened it, turned the gun around and handed it to a gloved police officer. ‘He’s in there.’

Several officers walked past all wearing masks and gloves. One of them, a female officer, took her by the arm. Para-medics dressed all in white plastic like attendants in a nuclear power plant followed with equipment and a stretcher.

About twenty minutes later as he was being wheeled to the ambulance and she was being led to the police car she turned to him and … she thought of telling him about the lasagne in the freezer but said, ‘Jamie doesn’t like tomatoes in his sandwiches and Russ won’t eat overripe bananas.’

-oOo-

Monday in Piss Street

a short story

I live in a shit-hole. Lying here ain’t good. My bed stinks. I fart loudly and crawl through the thug of it and go to the kitchen. I can hear me mum snoring from here. It’s a small place. Yeah, course it is. Cockroaches nyere-nyere me as they scatter away. They feel safe, I reckon. At home. I open the fridge. There’s lots of space in our fridge. Green muck too. Fuck! The milk’s off. I drink from the sink tap. Tastes like Draino. What day is it? Shit! I’ve got to go to the dole office. There’s this fat fag creep there who looks at me like I’m a Macca’s burger with fries on the side, like that chick in that ad on TV. Hope I get the swami girl. She’s got Milo skin and eyes like mud cake. I shower, feel like a dump, take one. The Dettol soap is a nail clipping but it still strips every bit if moisture out of my skin. Me mum believes in squeaky clean. That and smack. Yeah, I know.

I can hear Scotty scratchin’ at the back door. I let him in and find a rusty can of four-bean mix in the cupboard, behind the tea bags she steals from the motel down on Cowper Road. A job she’s got, three days a week. It used to be two days but she gave the manager a blowjob and got three. That’s what I reckon. I open the can with a bread knife and Scotty and I share it. I go into me mum’s room and scratch around in her side drawer and – bingo! – find a twenty-dollar bill. Fuckin’ awesome. She’s dead to the world. I cover her up properly after starin’ a bit.

On the floor I find a belt to use as a lead for Scotty. We go to the shitty local con store; mum keeps telling me I need to think about the future. I’ve got to get some dog food. The chink sits behind mesh wire the thickness of pencils. I slide two cans of Chow, a Snickers bar, and a half litre of milk at him. He doesn’t look at me. I was 5 cents short on a packet of bbq chips once and he wouldn’t let me have them. I broke his nose, the slanty-eyed prick! Now there’s this fuckin’ pencil mesh everywhere. He gives me $1.50 change and I feel like punching him again. He knows it too. Fuckin’ reffos. Robbing us blind! Scotty craps on the footpath. I don’t have a placky bag with me, never do, so I shove it into the gutter and get dogshit on my stubs. Bloody hell! I find a patch of grass inside a car tyre, push it aside, and try to wipe me toes clean with it; fuckin’ jeez, I must look like a spazo dancing or somethin’. Scotty barks. Shut up ya dick! I see a couple of white haired geros up ahead. They stop talking and cross the street. “What are ya lookin’ at, ya coupla cunts! You’ll be dead before me. I’m just walkin’ me dog! Sa free country!” They scurry on a bit, as fast as their skinny little bandy legs can carry them. Ha! Makes me want to vommi. The pricks!

Charlie finishes serving a chick with her skirt up her crack. “Morning, Bo. What can I do for you”. He looks at me. I look at him. He knows what I’m goin’ to say. “Me mum’s still sleepin’ it off and there’s no food in the joint. I gotta go to the dole office. Can I have a burger?” “What about your mum?” he says. “Yeah,” I say. “Can ya make it two?” He looks at me like his shit don’t stink but he bailed me out once so mum says I can’t give him no lip. I gotta swallow it. Feels like nails. He goes to make the burgers. I stand and wait. I look out through the big window onto the street and see that pansy from the pub on the corner; the pub where they do prissy shows watched by chicks in merks and blokes with haircuts. I looked through the window one night at a couple of guys in frocks telling jokes about god and the prime minister. The crowd was lapin’ it up. Some sort of code, I reckon, like commi shit or somethin’.  The sissy-boy’s with his dicky little benji-dog. He bends down and picks the stupid mut up as good ol’ Scotty yaps fit to split and goes for his ankles. Rip him to sheds, Scotty! Little Scotty won’t leave him alone and his fluffy mut yaps in his arms. I’d laugh if I had the energy. Charlie gives me the burgers and I say “Thanks” like me mum said I had to. Scotty keeps barkin’ and jumpin and the sissy-boy…”Hey!” The cunt’s tryin to kick my dog. “Hey! Shit face! What the fuck do ya think ya doin’?” I run right up to him and stand right up to the prick with my chest in his face. He looks like he’s goin’ to shit himself. “You tryin to kick my dog? Hey!? Hey!? Ya fuckin’ cunt! Kick my dog and I’ll smash ya fuckin’ face in!” The fag tries to speak, “Well I’m not going to push a dog away with my hands, am I?” “What’s that supposed to mean,” I scream at him. “You tryin to be some kind of smart arse? Hey!? Hey!? Are ya!? Hey!?” and the cunt turns and walks away. “I’m askin’ ya a question, dum-fuck. What’s a poofta like you tryin’ to kick me dog? Hey!? Fuckin’ nancy-boy, take-it-up-the-arse, shit-pusher! Go on, answer me fuck-face. Poofta!” I yell and it feels real good. He’s shakin’ and can hardly walk straight. And then he stops and turns his lilly-white pansy-boy-face, white as froth, and says to me somethin’ like if I wanna insult im or somethin’ I’ll have to find somethin’ diff’rent than what’s true. What?! “What did you say!?” I scream. I don’t know what he’s tryin’ to say. “What the fuck!” I yell spit on his nose. “Ha!” I scream but the feel-good stuff’s oozin’ away and I hate it, but he’s still shakin’ huggin’ his stupid dog. I can taste his fear and it tastes good, salty-sweet. I’m runnin’ out of words. He walks away. “Ya fuckin’ cunt!!” I scream. My face is burnin’ and the heat in my body and lumps in my throat choke me, and I so fuckin’ hate it – “I fuckin’ hate it!” I scream at the sky; when smartarse pricks throw words at ya that don’t make sense. “Aaah!!” And I hear a few doors open and close. “What the fuck are you lookin’ at” I bellow at whoever can hear. But, I scared him shitless didn’t I? Yeah, the prick. Scotty is pullin’ on my belt, with his tail down and pullin’ away from me. “Come here! Ya my fuckin’ dog! Mine! Come here, ya prick.” And I can’t yell anymore and I walk away draggin’ Scotty like a pyjama bag I saw a kid with once on TV.

I sit under the concrete steps that go up to the freeway and try to stop the drummin’ in my ears. I eat my burger. It helps. Scotty looks at me like he doesn’t know nothin’. I give him a piece of bun. He eats it. I still feel hot but it’s goin’ away. I walk up the stairs to the freeway, and along the footpath to the park and let Scotty off the lead. He doesn’t know what to do. “Run, ya prick,” I say. I walk over to a tree and lean against it listenin’ to that drummin’ again. It’s getting fainter I think. A poxy bloke in a suit comes up to me and says, “Hey, pretty boy! Want to make a bit of money?” “Fuck off,” I say but it sounds weak. It comes out like I’ve got a cold, or somethin’. “What do you say to twenty bucks for a blowjob?” he says with just a slit on his shiny face, like we’ve done this before. “Fuck off,” I say again. More like a whisper this time. But I think about the money and how I can get the bus to the dole office, and maybe, some food for tonight. I gotta think of the future, like me mum says. “Fifty,” I say. “No blow, just a hand.” “OK, twenty though,” he says. “Fifty or nothin’” I say and make it like I don’t care.

His little dick is hot is my hand but it doesn’t take long, thank kryst, and no way did I let the faggot touch me. No way. He messed his expensive shirt which made me smile which gave him the wrong idea. I wiped my hands on the grass and took off with my bus money. Needle-dick loser. I took Scotty home. Me mum was still dead to the world. I put her burger in the fridge. I took the bus to the dole office.

I sat on the bus next to a chick with really big knockers, a green t-shirt and cut-off jeans. I said, “G’day.” She looked up from her phone. Nothin’. What is it with chicks who won’t even say g’day. Stuck-up bitch. I gotta get myself a phone. Yeah. The fat creep isn’t on duty today. Yeah, but the swami girl is. I wait and let some nuf-nufs go before me so I can get swami-girl. I sit at her desk. She’s really pretty and has a purple scarf-thing over her black hair.

“Hi, Bo. How you been going?”

“OK.”

“Just, OK?”

“Yeah.” I hand her my form.

“You’ve been to see all this people; all these jobs?”

“Yeah, course.”

“If I rang some of these people, they’d remember you?”

“S’pose not.” I ain’t stupid.  “They see heaps of fuckers.”

“How’s your mum?”

“OK.”

“Still working her two days a week?”

“She’s not working. Hasn’t worked in months”

“I thought she was at the motel two days a week.”

“Nah, when it came to pay day the prick wouldn’t pay her. Sack’d her.” Can’t tell swami-girl the truth, mum said.

“I see.” She goes down the list of interviews I’ve done, well, done some of ‘em. She looks at me like she likes me. I like her too. She’s wearin’ lots of flowing clothes so I can’t get the jist of her body, but I bet it’s alright. I start imaginin’ her black swami bush between her legs and I get a hard-on. I wanna touch her. I look at her hands and she’s wearin’ a few rings. She’s not supposed to wear stuff like that at work. Ya can get smashed fingers from some prick who’d cut your hand off as soon as look at ya. They’d fetch a bit, I reckon. She looks at me. I look at her. The kind of too-long look you see sometimes in movies. I reckon she likes me for a fact. “Nice rings,” I say. She looks at her rings and takes them off. Fuck! Why she do that for? “I was just lookin’.” “Sure,” she says but you can see she’s scared a bit. Stupid bitch! She looks at me again and there’s somethin’ she wants to say.

“It’s fuckin’ OK, alright?” I say.

“Is it Bo?”

“Ye-ah!?” What’s she getting’ at?

“You’ve got to think about the future, Bo.”

“Yeah well I am! Me mum says that shit all the time. I wanna get a phone.” I think about that loser in the park. I gotta get a phone. She’s lookin’ at me. Now, I don’t know if she likes me or not. This is what I don’t get. Chicks look at ya and ya know what they want, and then they look at ya again and it’s different. Or they look at ya and ya know what they want, so you do it, and then they scream at ya, call you names, and piss you right off.

But she signs my form and I say, “Thanks.”

“Say Hi to your mum,” she says. “Next!” she yells.

I go into the city to make me feel normal. When you’re in the city ya can be anyone walkin’ around. I look at them and they look at me and see what I see, just pricks walkin’ around being normal. I breath normal. I break the fifty at Maccas but know I have to get some food for tonight. I like this feeing, this doing stuff for me mum. I walk past a posh supermarket and think, I can go in here, and so I walk in. I look at security and he looks at me. Shit! There’s so much light, so much stuff. I look at all the packets on the shelves and don’t know half of them. There’s a whole room full vegetables. It’s like a farm or somethin’. Don’t know half of them either. What are ya supposed to do with ‘em? I look for the can section and pick up two cans of spaghetti. Me mum loves spaghetti on toast. I see all the bread on a huge table. What is all this shit? Bread’s bread. I take one that looks like real bread, a square one, and the skinny guy at the check-out looks at me as if I’ve forgotten somethin. “What are ya lookin’ at?” I say. He looks away and then back at me and says, “Nothing at all, mate. Nothing at all.” And it’s like I hear the words he’s sayin’ but it’s not what he’s sayin’ and I can feel my ears burnin’ and that thumpin’ again. “How ya goin’?” It’s the security guy with a weak little smile on his puss. And more words but it’s not what he’s sayin’. What the fuck is he sayin’? And I want to scream so fuckin’ loud and punch his fuckin’ prissy face, cut his cock off, and shove it up his arse, but there’s so much fuckin’ light in here. I can feel it like sunshine and I say “Fine, thanks,” and it comes out like it isn’t me and I suddenly don’t know where I am. This skinny guy is handin’ me some money. “Here’s your change.” I look at it. I take it. “Don’t forget your stuff.” What? I take the bag and head for the street. I can feel security followin’ me. What did I do? What did I say? The world’s a mess and I have to side-step a man with a broom. “Fuck off!” I yell at him.

I get home and walk inside. Nothin’ but stink. And mess. No sound. I put the grocery bag on the table. It takes me five goes to find the toaster. I want to do this for me mum. I plug it in. I’m gonna make me mum some spaghetti on toast.  I can’t find a pot so I use a fryin’ pan. It’s got stuff stuck to it but there’s no washing stuff so, fuck it. I ring-pull the spaghetti and tip the sloppy stuff in the pan. I turn on the gas. I put two slices of bread in the toaster and push the level. Bang! There’s a flash, sparks, and I nearly shit myself. Fuck! Is that supposed to happen? I push the lever again. Nothin’. Again. Nothin’. Again. Nothin’. My jaw aches. Again. Nothin’! I yank the toaster from its socket and throw it into the lounge room. It hits the floor and a shower of crumbs flies up like a bomb’s gone off. I have to keep doin’ somethin’ or I’ll explode. A cup of tea. I’ll make me mum a cup of tea. Yeah. I search through the cupboards. Nothing but shit and stuff. Stuff and shit. Where’s the fuckin’ tea bags? I smell smoke or somethin’ and I turn to see the spaghetti burning in the pan. I grab it and throw the whole fuckin’ lot in the sink with all the other shit. I stand there with my mouth shut tight, tryin’ to steady my breathing. The thump-thump-thumping is deafening. I want to scream but me mum’s still asleep.

And then I remember. And the thought is like sunshine, like a birthday present. It could be happiness, even. The thumping stops and I suddenly want to laugh. The burger! I’ve got a burger in the fridge. Me mum’s burger. It’s there. Just there in the fridge. Me mum was right. I thought about the future, I’ve got this burger and now everything’s OK. This new feeling is strange, but kryst, it feels good. I’ll take her a nice burger. I get it out, un-wrap it, and find a clean plate, well sort of. I put the burger on the plate and take it into me mum. She’s still asleep. I get a little closer and I reach down to wake her like I always do. There’s vomit on her check and I can smell a different stink. What is that? I touch her shoulder and it’s like touching the toaster. Is this dead? I stand there. Me mum’s dead. I hear myself saying it. Me mum’s dead. I don’t know what to do. It’s like she’s been turned off, or something. What am I supposed to do? Dunno. I eat her burger.

That Other Eveline

  • a short story

That Other Eveline pic

I went into that place to pass some time but I really know that I went into that place to see if a man will look at me in that kind of way. You know the way I mean. I know I’m pretty and people keep saying it so I know but when I look in the mirror I see someone completely different. That doesn’t bother me because I’ve heard my own voice out of a recording machine and I didn’t sound like me either but people say that’s you Eveline so I know it’s me at the same time that I don’t know, but I do, that it’s my voice, my reflection. That’s how I’ve learnt to distrust what I see and hear. It isn’t rocket science. Anyway in I go and I’m aware that my hips are doing this kind of sway-y sexy thing that I don’t remember telling them to do but they are doing it alright and so I add a smile and a shoulder thing to boot. Then as I’m easing my arse onto a bar-stool like I’m turning over a plump apple cheek in a pan of frothy butter I think where did I learn to do this, but I’m not doing it for somebody! No. It’s just me walking and sitting. Yeah, right. I’m doing it for everybody, you stupid dipstick. Yet I’m just sitting here minding my own business but I’m aware that there are a lot of eyes on me, heads full of eyes, but I’m not doing anything, I’m not saying anything, I’m not given anyone the look. I say this to myself and at the same time I know it’s the truth; I also know it’s a lie but nobody knows that because nobody’s a mindreader; but then again it’s that other Eveline I have to mind. That voice of hers so soft and butter-wouldn’t-melt that I usually slip and thoughts and words like all-sorts fall out. 

I usually order a G&T because that’s what I like to drink but tonight I order a margarita. I like them too but they’re too expensive for me but at the same time as I’m saying to myself let’s have a margarita that other voice is also saying to myself you just hope some nice man will pay for it come the adding up time. 

And speaking of nice, it isn’t long before I can feel a dislocation in the air all around and I’m aware there’s a man sitting next to me. I don’t look up in case they see something that isn’t there but I can feel him folding his arms on the bar and resting his head with his eyes to the side looking at me like a boy does when he wants something he’s not allowed, something from his mum. He says something and so I have to look and I have to smile, it’s what I’ve been taught, and I know then, as clear as I know I’m sitting on it; I know what’s going to happen this night. He has a nice face, what I can see of it. He looks like a nice man. 

Now there’s a phrase, a nice man. I truly believe that they exist but something happens to nice men when they think that your look says something you don’t want it to say, when you know damn well they’re right but there’s that no-mindreader evidence again and so I sit there and sip my drink with my arms held in tight so my tits bulge like water wings. I’m just sitting having a drink. 

He asks me about my work and I tell him I’m a lab assistant in a research station, which is true. He says I don’t look like a lab assistant and I say of course I don’t, I’m not wearing my lab coat. Nice doesn’t necessarily mean smart.

You can tell by the look in their eyes, they’re looking at your face as if that’s the cause of it all, but it’s not really it’s what’s under my clothes and between my legs that they’re thinking about. What are they thinking about exactly? Are they picturing it in their mind’s eye? Funny isn’t it: it’s not what they see but what they can’t see that sends the blood racing into the dead-end making them touch their crotch or are they egging it on? So it’s all up to what they think is there. Then I suppose one vagina is very much like another, yeah, but it’s always the baubles and the arrangement of the icing on top that marks the difference between a cake and a tart. 

Like him his room is nice. Comfortable. Warm light, lots of books with a neatly made bed through an innocent-looking doorway. He offers me a drink. I agree to a G&T this time. Perhaps it will settle that feeling in the pit of my stomach, like a flapping fish gasping for air, like a hunger, like an ache. Of course, he puts on some soft music. I want to laugh, he’s seen too many set-up videos and I think how did I get here like a helicopter dropping rations to starving refugees. I was somewhere else and now I’m here. The other one tells me to relax, enjoy it. It’s nice. Nice.

We don’t make it to the neatly made bed. I wonder sometimes which voice is really me. It’s confusing. I sometimes hear myself saying stuff that I’d swear was coming from someone else. I didn’t say anything when he said he was only thinking of me. He refused a condom and so turned me over. What could I say to a nice man’s consideration? At least the pain stopped that fish flapping in my guts.

I don’t know how I got to the hospital and thought of the helicopter again but that’s when I met Rhonda. She told me she was a police officer. I said she didn’t look like a police officer. She said she was off duty and held my hand and tried to get me to remember what happened. I didn’t want to tell her because well because I wasn’t sure which voice to use or more accurately which voice would come out. She asked a lot of questions but I wasn’t very helpful. I didn’t know his name the other one said I couldn’t remember I never asked. I didn’t know where he took me although I did remember the time, two minutes to two. She asked if I meant 1:58 and I said yes, but her question made the other one laugh and I lost Rhonda for a moment. She didn’t ask any more questions. While they were stitching me up I remembered that it wasn’t the time it was the room number 222. Did I remember it because it was the time as well? I don’t know. Eveline thought it didn’t matter but I thought it might be helpful.

When Rhonda showed me into the interview room there was another woman there. She was called Valerie and was very adamant that I didn’t call her Val. I admire that. I decided to tell my mum never to call me Veeny it was Eveline or nothing. The other one snorted with disbelief but more like contempt. She was right of course.

Rhonda and Valerie talked a lot as if I wasn’t there which I found comforting and annoying at the same time. It was then that the other one got the better of me or really, I let my guard down a bit. I said that I really wanted some company that night and that…

Rhonda cut me off, almost shouted. She said Eveline! Eveline! and I thought for a moment that she knew which one of me was speaking. Eveline! Stop! I could see that Valerie agreed with her. Rhonda leaned forward and took my hand as if she was going to tell me something that would change my life. It did.

She said in a voice like a new mum that I wasn’t to think like that. I wasn’t to talk like that. I said quietly as if I really had spilt the milk that I thought I was supposed to tell the truth. Rhonda leaned back and she and Valerie shared a look that said shouted is she ready to be told? We have no choice came back the look. Rhonda shifted in her chair and a loud noise filled the room like drilling teeth.

She said look Eveline and I knew this was going to be good. She said that women had to be very careful about which truth in which context. Valerie shook her head the tiniest bit and interrupted as if she felt a translation was needed and told me that what was true was only true to those who believed it to be true. I asked if what she said meant that there was more than one truth. Yes, she said. Many said Rhonda. I could understand this since really there were two fish flopping in my guts but since I never really trust what I hear or see I knew I had to adopt just one truth. I had come to my senses and push the other one back a bit and so I told them that I was just sitting at the bar minding my own business and I met a man who seemed nice and I went to his room because he seemed good. It seemed like a date. But then he had anally raped me when I insisted he wear a condom and he refused. Wasn’t that considerate? interrupted the other one. Don’t say that said Valerie and I knew I had to be stronger.

The fish flopped but only a little bit. I had never been in a courtroom before. It was nothing like on TV. It looked like a church meeting room. The man was there looking like a little boy and the other one felt sorry for him but I was stronger today and I pushed her pushed her right down and refused to listen. The man didn’t speak but a tall thin woman spoke for him. She described my clothes and made them seem like nothing, holding in nothing and they were exactly the clothes that I wore but she described them as the clothes the other Eveline was wearing. Everything she said was true but it was the other Eveline’s truth. I knew that. Rhonda knew that. Valerie knew that and the tall thin woman must have known that too but she was stronger. She made me realise I too had to be stronger. I had to choose the one truth that was the only truth that would help me.

When I spoke, I did exactly what Valerie and Rhonda had told me to say. How to say it. What to think about when I said it. How to look when I said it. I chose. I told the truth.

The tall thin woman and the man talked together for a long time and the judge got a bit angry. The man then spoke and I knew that he had not seen me. He had not talked to me. He had not raped me. He had raped Eveline but not me; and I knew that he was really a nice man but he had seen the wrong one and I felt a little sorry for him but I know now that this is wrong of me to think this.

There are still two flopping fish in my stomach but one is much bigger than the other and I know now that this is right. My name is Eveline and I know what it true.

Memory

A short story.memory pic

1.

Police officers Jill Malby, with Dan Obeid driving, are patrolling in their car late at night.

“If you think you shouldn’t say something,” says Malby, “something sexist or racist, then you’re not sexist or racist.”

“Yes, but you think it, therefore you must be.”

“No. Society teaches us adults to override inappropriate learned responses from our childhood. This is what functioning adults do.”

“Bullshit! If a shock jock or politician starts mouthing sexist shit your so-called functioning adults will instantly jump on the band wagon, line up on talk-back radio or vote for the bastard.”

Before Malby can defend herself, area command comes on line and directs them to the southern approach to the Bridge. Someone has reported a body.

As they turn on to the Bridge they see a man standing bent next to, what looks like, a person lying on the walkway.

As the car pulls over, Obeid says, “I’ll stake-out the bollards, you talk to the guy.”

Both officers get out of the car, Obeid gets four orange bollards from the boot and places them around the police car with all lights still on and flashing. He completely ignores the noisy traffic zooming past. Malby gets out her ID and approaches the standing man. He’s wearing a crumpled suit but no tie.

“Excuse me sir, Officer Jill Malby,” she says proffering her badge. “Please step back, sir.” She crouches beside the body on the walkway, scrounges inside the clothing feeling for a neck; pauses, turns to Obeid and shakes her head. Obeid immediately gets out his phone and calls an ambulance as Malby stands up.

The standing man looks at her intently. “Do you know me?” he says.

“No, sir. I don’t.”

The man just stares at her.

“Can I have your name please?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Excuse me?”

The man just stares at her.

“Do you have any ID on you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Would you mind checking your pockets, please?”

As Malby taps away on her tablet the man pats himself down. He feels something, stops, looks surprised, and takes a wallet out of his coat’s inside breast pocket. He stares at it as if he’s never seen it before and hands it quickly to Malby, as if he knows nothing about it. She opens it and shows the man a driver’s licence with photo ID behind clear plastic. “Is that me?” he asks.

She checks the photo and his face and says, “It looks like you. Is your name Timothy John Reichmann?”

“I suppose so,” he says with a frown.

Malby stares at the worried looking man and says, “Sir, how are you feeling at the moment?”

He thinks about the question, his brow deepens, and then he says, “Lonely.”

Malby indicates the body lying at their feet. “Do you know this man?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’m responsible.”

“What do you know, sir?”

The man just stares at her.  “I don’t remember.”

Malby rephrases her question, “What’s the last thing you do remember?”

The man thinks and then says, “Not being able to turn on the television.”

2.

Chief Inspector Sasha Lim, over-worked and undermined, sits at her desk turning her mobile phone over and over in her right hand. She stares into the nearest distance in a pose that dares anyone from the busy corridor outside her office to disturb her. Her mobile rings. It startles her. She drops it. The back-panel comes away and the ringing stops.

“Shit!” she says softly. She checks that no one is looking. She picks up the pieces, re-assembles them and turns the phone back on. She sees “Missed Call” and reads the name of her partner, Sal. She says, “Shit” again. She calls him back.

After two rings, he answers but doesn’t say anything.

“Sorry, I dropped the phone,” she says.

“I was hoping you would call me,” he says calmly.

“I would’ve if I had anything more to say; except I’m so so sorry.”

“Yes. You said that before, too.”

“I know. I don’t have an explanation.”

“Keep thinking about it. Something’s bound to occur to you.” He hangs up. What distresses her most is his sarcastic tone; as if he thinks she’s deliberately keeping something from him. Why would she do such a thing? What must he think of her?

Earlier that day, getting ready for her ninth night shift in a row, as she was in the bathroom her mobile rang and Sal answered it. When she emerged minutes later he was standing there leaning against the kitchen bench. It looked like he had been waiting for her. He was still holding her mobile phone.

The look on his face made her say, “What?”

“You just got a call.”

“Who was it?”

“A man named Samuel Moxey.”

“I don’t know any Samuel Moxey.”

“He knows you.”

“What did he want?”

“He was returning your call.”

“Impossible. Wrong number.”

“He referred to you as Sasha.”

“Samuel Moxey.” She shook her head. “No. Not for me.”

He stared at her disbelievingly.

She was getting annoyed now. “What?!”

“He said he has a buyer for the apartment.”

“I don’t know any Samuel Moxey. It was a wrong number.”

“He said he was returning your call. He said he had a buyer……” He shouted now.  “Have you put the apartment on the market? First I’ve heard of it.”

“First I’ve heard of it,” she shouted back.

The argument raged without any new revelations. Sasha Lim swore she knew no Samuel Moxey; that she had not put their home on the market; that it was a wrong number; that Moxey’s client’s name was Sasha was just a coincidence. Sal obviously did not believe her. His rage and sense of hurt shocked her. He seemed to be accusing her of disloyalty, no, stronger, he seemed to think she was being a traitor, undermining him, owning an agenda that did not include him. She felt as if her feet would not support her or that the floor was giving way beneath her. With his prolonged fervour and anger she found herself saying that she did not do any of the things he was accusing her of and then as some sort of attempt to placate him, heard herself say, “I don’t remember.” It gave his accusations credence. It made her sound guilty. No. No. The argument was unresolved and left her shaken and unsure of anything her senses were telling her. Did she speak to a man called Samuel Moxey? Did she put the apartment on the market? Sal believed she did. Did she? And just forgot? It was as if she had stepped into another reality, a hideous new reality where she was sure of nothing. She went to work.

3.

This scenario plays over again in her mind as she sits at her desk. How could he doubt her so much? How could he think she was lying? She loves him? He was behaving as if he didn’t love, as if he didn’t ….. He was behaving like a stranger. What has she done?! She is aware of a shadow in her doorway. She looks up. It’s an officer, Roméo, from the front desk. Roméo, isn’t it? is that his name?

“Ye-s?” she says as the word stumbles in her throat and comes out harshly, impatiently.

“Interview room 3,” is all he says as he hands her a single sheet of paper: a report of some kind. And he is gone like a scared rabbit.

She turns to one of the monitors on her desk, clicks it open, chooses ‘Interview Room 3’ from the pop-up menu and scans the report in her hand as the screen slowly comes to life. The screen shows Officer Jill Malby sitting across a table from the man in a very small and dreary room. Malby is looking straight at Sasha, at the camera up in the corner of the ceiling; confident now that the camera is on – there’s a little red light – she turns to face the man. Sasha watches and listens. What is she watching? What is she listening to? What is this?

Malby states her name, the date and the time; then his name, Timothy John Reichmann, and his address.

“Mr. Reichmann, did you call the emergency line earlier this evening?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know the man you were found standing over on the Bridge?”

“I don’t think so. It’s possible. I don’t know.”

“This wallet,” she says as she opens a plastic bag and takes out a wallet and displays its contents onto the table, “and these credit cards, receipts, and business, membership cards, all with Timothy Reichmann. Is that you?”

“I assume it must be. I don’t remember.”

Sasha Lim, with the report in her hand, hurries from her office, down corridors to Interview Room 3. She knocks and enters. She excuses and introduces herself as she takes a chair by a wall and sits next to Malby at the table, making it clear she is taking over.

“Mr. Reichmann,” she begins, “you were found standing over a dead man on the walkway of the southern approach to the Bridge this evening at about 11.30. Do you remember how you got there?”

“No.”

“Excuse me, Ma’am, Mr. Reichmann told me that the last thing he remembers is not being able to turn on the television.”

“Did I say that?” asks the man earnestly.

“Yes sir,” confirms Malby.

“Mr. Reichmann,” says Sacha, “do you want a lawyer?”

“Do I need a lawyer? I want to cooperate. I’m as curious as you are.”

“You remember nothing of tonight before Officers Roméo and…” she consults the report in front of her, “…Obeid were called to you on the Bridge?”

“Excuse me, Ma’am,” says Malby politely, “it was me that was with Officer Obeid tonight.”

“Yes. And your point?”

“I’m Officer Jill Malby.”

“Yes. Of course!” says Sacha as she checks the report again. “Of course,” and she looks at Malby as if the girl is deliberately being perverse. “So, Mr. Reichmann you remember nothing of tonight before you were picked up on the Bridge.”

“I don’t remember.”

Sasha remembers those where her own words to Sal her partner, her stranger, earlier this evening in their apartment that wasn’t, or was, for sale. Is it? “But you remember something about an apartment?”

“I beg your pardon?”

Sasha repeats her question, “You remember something about a television?”

“No. I don’t know about that.”

“What’s the last thing you remember now?”

“Waking up.”

“Where did you wake up?”

“There. On the Bridge. Standing with a man lying at my feet.”

“Did you know that man?”

“No.”

“A stranger?”

“Yes.”

Sacha is aware of a wave of anxiety surging up from her loins and threatening to engulf her. She feels an affinity with this man, this man who does or does not remember who he is, is found with a dead stranger. She asks, “What do you feel right at this moment, Mr. Reichmann?”

Malby looks with surprise at her superior.

He says, “I feel as if something black is about to happen to me, that I’m going to be overcome by something sinister and un-named. I can feel neurons in my brain missing each other, searching endlessly, frustratingly for a connection but finding nothing. Nothing. It’s just blank. Nothing.”

Malby pushes a plastic card towards Sasha. She looks at it. It is a membership card for the Australian and New Zealand Association of Neurologists. Sasha turns the card around and pushes it slowly towards the man who may, or may not be, Mr. Reichmann.

“Oh dear,” he says.

“What does that say to you?”

“It says a little bit of joy to me that what I’m feeling has something to do with my past, my reality, with who I am, and what’s happening to me, but also… also …I don’t know … it’s as if …if …” and there appears a catch in his voice as emotion shudders him a little and his eyes glisten as tears threaten to overflow “…also a little bit of dread that .. that …  if I knew who I am and what I do, my work, my life, and what I’ve forgotten, I would know exactly what is happening to me; I would know the dread is real and what is happening to me is a new reality and one that I would understand and therefore fear. Maybe I’m a neurologist who’s losing his mind. I don’t want that new reality, I … I … want the old reality … and …”

And Malby hears a sob escape the man’s lips but is then aware that the sob, followed quickly by another, does not come from the man, but from Chief Inspector Sasha Lim. She looks at her superior who is sitting rigid with a curved back in her chair, head down, trying desperately to hold on, to hold on to something.

“Ma’am? Are you alright?” asks Malby not sure what to do next. Malby hears something and leans closer.

“Room 4,” she finally discerns her superior saying through clenched teeth.

As Officer Jill Malby hurriedly leads a teary and even more confused Mr. Reichmann out of Interview Room 3 Chief Inspector Sasha Lim begins to shake uncontrollably and then vomits semi-digested food, coffee, and white and blue pills all over the table and onto the floor.

4.

One hour and thirty-five minutes later Officer Jill Malby, having found someone with the authority and willingness to sedate Chief Inspector Sasha Lim, hurries out to the car park to join Officer Dan Obeid as they continue their rostered patrol.

“So where were we up to?” she asks.

“What do you mean?” he says innocently.

“Our conversation.”

“Don’t remember.”

-oOo-

A new short story …

A work in progress …

I was curious about writing in the second person. The first person (“I went to ….”) and the third person (“She went to …”) are common, but the second person (“You went to …”) is not. It is hard to maintain since the narrator is either talking to the reader or to another character, and in either case eventually the narrative takes over. Elliot Perelman begins his excellent novel Seven Types of Ambiguity with the second person and it has a disquieting effect. I thought I’d give it a go.

I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered what the hell they were doing there.

I added the word anyway, “Anyway, remember that fear …” to make the tone more friendly, more intimate, more conversational.

However, if there is anything I’ve learnt from reading it’s that writers want their readers to believe that what is being written is true. Such truth, created truth: verisimilitude, is achieved with the use of detail, among other things; so let’s do this again:

I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind: the old man with the cleft-lip who lived in an old bus, spoke to no one, and ate nettles on toast – so the story went; the falling-down shop-front, boarded-up and silent since a little girl had her throat cut by a mentally deranged greengrocer all those years ago. It was in all the papers. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Anyway, remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered: who is this person? What are they doing there.

I wasn’t sure where this was going but I kept on

So, now that you have these two mingled memories you may understand how I felt when …

I needed to tie it all up and have it lead to something, someone; so I found myself writing …

 … Mum brought home a bag-lady one day and told me I had to call her Auntie Marge.

Now I have a possible title: Auntie Marge. One of my father’s sisters was called Marge, and I called her Auntie Marge. She wasn’t scary but it was the first name that sprang to mind. I hardly ever spoke to her. Maybe I was scared of her. But now I have a character that I need to flesh out a bit.

I don’t know why I thought of her as a bag-lady, she didn’t have any bags with her …

This is another ‘trick’ I’ve learnt from reading: the admission by the narrator that they don’t know something or don’t remember something. It adds verisimilitude.

… but it was the first time I had ever seen a woman with uncombed hair so I thought that’s what she was. I got a slap around the legs for using the term so I only said it once but that’s how I always thought of Auntie Marge; a bag lady.

I first of all had Kathy Bates (from Misery) in mind.

Kathy Bates Auntie Marge

 

 

I googled “scary aunt” and found this,

Scary Aunt Marge.

 

I think this is Geraldine Page. The hair is too neat, but the look is perfect. So with a mixture of these two images, but with messier hair, I had my look: Auntie Marge.

When she first looked at me she smiled down, unclasped her fingers and held out her hand and when I hesitated just for the briefest moment her face changed ever-so slightly like she suddenly knew exactly what I was thinking and I saw hatred in her pinched little eyes. I took her hand – I held my breath, I distinctly remember holding my breath – and she shook my hand and gave it a squeeze.

I thought my narrator should say something innocuous here, like “Nice to meet you” to which Auntie Marge could say, or say with a look of “Oh really?” However, my narrator is locked into only speaking when spoken to – and they were not alone, so I was left with a description of, of, her hand:

It was dry and scaly.

Now, I wanted to describe an event and an event when they were alone: something that upped the scary tone a bit. I’ve never written anything like this before.

I kept out of her way, which wasn’t difficult as I had been taught to keep out of everyone’s way. Adults didn’t like children hanging around; but one day when I was sitting at the big dining table, I had just installed a little electric engine into my lego windmill and I was trying to fix a jam-jar rubber around a little pulley so the silly thing would at least go round and round. I heard the door into the kitchen close behind me. This door was never closed, except in winter when there was a fire in the living room fire-place. This was summer and all the living-room curtains were drawn to keep out the heat so the room was gloomy but I had my desk-lamp plugged in and I was working in its light. I heard the door close and then nothing. I knew it was her. I knew she was there looking at me with her hands clasped together like she always did. I also became aware that there was no other sound in the house. My Dad was always out doing farm stuff but there were no other noises. Mum was out too. We were alone, Auntie Marge and me. In the house. Just us. And then she spoke:

“You don’t like me very much.”

That’s what she said, nothing else.

I didn’t know what to say. I had been taught to only speak when spoken to, and to never lie, of course, but this wasn’t a question. What was I meant to say? I didn’t know. Besides, I didn’t know what to say to something that was true, I didn’t like her. So I said nothing. Then she said, still just standing there, she said, “Are you sure you’re allowed to have a light on in the middle of the day?” Now, this was a question and a question deserves an answer, I knew that, and I did know Mum didn’t like lights on in the daytime but my lego town was too big for my desk in my room and it was too hot to play outside so I had to play with my lego town on the dining table in the living room and yes the curtains were drawn to keep the house cool so I had to have a light on. Again I didn’t know what to … and then she added quickly, “I could tell on you.” That’s what she said, just like fatty Raelene does when I pick my nose in class. I thought of turning off my desk lamp but then I’d be in the dark, all alone with Auntie Marge in the dark! And then she said it again  “I could tell on you,” adding “and I think I might.”

I’m not sure what happens next. Yet.

How I write.

A story starts with a jump.

When something makes me jump, a line in a book, a caption in a magazine, a phrase overheard, a tone of voice, a dream; a beginning. Short form stories are more personal than long form. I write most days but it can be on my notes page on my phone when I wake up at 3.46 am; on my iPad as I’m watching the news with a G&T at 6; on my desktop after staring at the screen for god-knows how long. Sometimes I’ll experiment. One of my current projects, a short story, I’m writing as a woman. I’ve tried this a few times but this time the woman is very unlikable, in fact she’s awful; the challenge is to make sure the reader understands that she’s awful. The reader has not to be on her side, yet is, in a way. That’s tricky, and more so as it’s in the first person. I test myself like this sometimes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

At a New Year’s Eve party a friend told me a little anecdote about his piano lessons as a boy. I now don’t remember exactly what he told me because I turned it into a story and now, in my head, that story, Prelude, has become the reality of the anecdote. It’s no longer John’s anecdote, it’s Michael’s story.

I’m writing when my partner catches me talking to myself. I’m writing when I don’t answer him because I don’t hear him because I’m wondering what Robert will say when he sees his dead mother. “What? Sorry.” is a common phrase of mine at home.

I spew it onto the screen. I try not to worry about where does this fit or what can I do with this or how do I spell …, I just let it out. I usually write chronologically, but not always.

I’m always aware that I have to trust myself, my imagination, my ideas, my abilities. It’s no good second guessing; I’d get nowhere. What comes pouring out in the white heart of creation I have to trust that it’s right, correct, apt, necessary, true. It’s later when the white-heat is down to warm, in the cool light of next morning that decisions have to be made.

I write on an online publishing platform (Tablo); while the piece is labeled ‘draft’ no-one can read it. I have four or five projects going at once; two novels, three short stories, I think. One of them is dormant until I come across a really fail-safe murder plan. Once it’s finished I ‘publish’ it on Tablo and anyone can read it. I also have the option of posting it to iBooks where it is for sale. Regularly I email my notes, from my phone or iPad, to myself and cut and paste them onto the respective Tablo page. I have an iMac and don’t have Word; Tablo has all the editing tools I need.

When I’m trying to go to sleep at night it’s important to think about only one thing, not 247 things. That’s why counting sheep works. It’s one thing. I also concentrate on one thing: what Robert might do when he sees his dead mother, or any other character or snippet. These stories, half in my head, half on my screen, over time develop their own reality and they always get to a point where it’s imperative that I write them down; I have to write them down because they are the closest thing to the truth I know. If I don’t write them down they just sit there taking up space. Getting in the way. Writing them down is like getting rid of them.

But writing them down has its own responsibilities. I must think of the reader. I must get the process right. The process: my story, my descriptions, my ideas, my images being transported accurately, truthfully from my imagination to the reader’s imagination via little dark marks on a pale background, with no loss of information.

Once it’s in the imagination of the reader, it isn’t mine any more, and it means whatever the reader thinks it means. I have no say in it once it’s there, in your head. If you read the short story linked above, what was John’s anecdote, became my story, becomes your reading experience; and if you seek me out and ask me what did I mean by something, I won’t answer. It’s not my place to answer: it’s not mine, it’s yours now. It’s now you that has to trust your abilities.

Touchy Subjects by Emma Donaghue

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Irish-Canadian writer, Emma Donoghue

In April 2008 in the Lower Austrian town of Amstetten a woman called Elizabeth Fritzl told police that she had for the past 24 years been held prisoner in an underground room under her father’s house. He had systematically raped her, she bore him seven children, and kept her from the world; even his wife didn’t know she was there.

This was the inspiration for Donoghue’s 2011 Man-Booker long-listed novel, Room, which went on to be filmed, with a script by Donoghue, in 2015, starring Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for Best Actress.

This book is a collection of short stories, her third, and came out in 2006. She tackles the foibles of modern people in stories told by various voices, genders, and sexualities: the desperate, but hilarious, lengths a forty-something woman will go to, to beat her biological clock; a cool romance set against the rough and back-slap masculinity of football where two rookies find more than the ball during their training sessions; and a touching and romantic story about the meeting of two minds and two bodies told in two narratives that weave and tangle with each other just like their hands do in the back of a van in the middle of a dark night, lost in the back lanes of Connemara. And that’s just three of them.

There’s a thread here running through these stories: of inner thoughts shared only with the reader that gives Donoghue’s writing the personal warmth and favouritism of dramatic irony; an intimacy with the reader that draws you in and makes you part of her intent.

Donoghue not always, but mostly, instills in the reader a confidence that you are in good literary hands. This is a book that could sit comfortably in your bedside book pile so you can dip into it again and again. Some stories will become favourites.

You can get the book, in various formats, here.

 

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas: a short story collection.

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Australian writer, Christos Tsiolkas.

These stories are masterful, enlightening, moving, shocking, blasphemous, erotic, breath-taking, and scary: some of the best I’ve ever read. They are so good, they could render a yearning writer silent.

The opening, and title, story sets the bar. A group of young Australian professionals, close friends, at a deliberately over-indulgent dinner party thrown to celebrate an important new editing job in San Francisco for one of their number is destroyed by another: his ego, self-importance, and jealousy – he wanted the job – combine with a silly game to allow him to dominate the room and shatter these long-time university-born relationships forever. The story has a tricky structure: a story-telling within the story, and set-up information is economic enough not to turn you off or lead you to wonder where it’s going, but detailed enough that you understand what’s happening. Tsiolkas also tells the story from a more recent time reminiscing about a lost past, lost friendships, and lost innocence. This creates an expectation that the point is big: it is, even though on the surface it’s a bunch of mates boozing, snorting, talking, and toking at, and after, a dinner party. Thinking back on the story a day later some of the necessary plot-points seem over-stretched but at the time nothing jarred. There is nothing for the reader to do except go along with it. This, I believe, is a sign of a good writer: the reader will believe whatever is thrown at them even if, on reflection, some things are a little bumpy; but in the moment, while reading it, the reader is completely in the thrall of the writer, ready for anything. It’s what a reader – well, this reader – craves.

“The title story of Merciless Gods is stunning and should be read by everyone in the country who cares about fiction. It is worth the price of the book alone.”                   Sydney Morning Herald

Saturn Return is about dying. And grief.

When the door finally opens again, Barney rushes out sobbing and falls on me. I hold him tight. It is not as if he his crying exactly; rather, sorrow is pouring out of him, from every heaving breath, from every lacerating tear. The warm lounge room is suddenly freezing and the only heat comes from where our bodies touch. I strengthen my hold on him. I’m scared that if I let go,not only the room, not only this city, but the whole world will go cold forever.

I cried. Not bad for a story of twelve and a half pages.

Tsiolkas has never shied away from writing about sex, particularly in its extremes. His novels Loaded (1995) and Dead Europe (2005) are testament to that.   There are stories here that may curl your toes; this book may not be a good idea as a Christmas present for Gran.

A reviewer at The Guardian labeled Tsiolkas as “the master of the stain”.

The Slap (2008) was his breakout hit; publication in Europe and around the world set him up as one of Australia’s premier writers. However, he had already established a small group of fans in Australia with challenging works like, Loaded, – adapted for the screen in 1998 as Head On – Dead Europe – which some considered the best book of 2005 – and The Jesus Man (1999). The television series of The Slap (2011) in Australia and the US version (2015) consolidated his reputation and broadened his readership. His 2013 novel, Barracuda, was also adapted for television in 2016.

Read these stories. You won’t forget them.

You can get the kindle edition here.

 

 

The Obelisk by E. M. Forster: a short story collection,

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English writer Edward ‘Morgan’ Forster 1879 – 1970

A lot has been written about Forster, and especially recently about his sexuality. He was a closeted homosexual, which was far from rare for an Edwardian Englishman of his education. His novels, A Passage to India, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room with a View, among the best of them, were mostly about the love lives of strong wilful English women usually traveling away from home. His other famous works, Howards End is a more London domestic story and Maurice, his only homosexual love-story, was not published until after his death, as is the case with these stories in this collection.

Sex to Forster was something hidden, and due to the ambiguous and wide-ranging forms of human attachments, physical, emotional and psychological all amorphously gathered together in English under the banner of the single word ‘love’, Forster was able to write about the ‘love’ of young English middle-class women and be applauded for it while experiencing none of that ‘love’ himself, so great is the imagination of the novelistic mind; until, that is, at age 37 on an Egyptian beach when he lost his virginity to a wounded soldier. His last, and greatest novel, A Passage to India, came out seven years later, in 1924, at which time his novel writing stopped. Why? “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex has prevented the latter.”

Wendy Moffet, in her 2010 biography of Forster, E.M. Forster: A New Life asserts that sexual fulfilment (at last!) sapped him of his writer’s imagination and drive. This could possibly be true, given the above quote and that since his awakening on that beach near Alexandria he had several relationships with working class married men including a tram conductor and two policemen. He continued to live with his mother, however, until she died when he was 66.

This collection contains stories that are sexually charged and gently subversive. They are sometimes farcical, funny, satirical, and even, experimental. The comic, and clever, twist of the title story involves a young married couple and a pair of sailors they meet on a holiday to a famous landmark, and sets the tone of the collection. The second story, The Life to Come, is a colonial fable of religious hypocrisy and the plot turns on the many definitions and misleading consequences of the English word ‘love’ and how it is used in the Christian Bible.

Dr Wollacott, a story he told T.E. Lawrence was the ‘best thing he had done’, has been described by some as ‘weird’. It is an experimental tale of an invalid who is infirmed, more so by his amorous thoughts than any bodily ailments and dies because of them; or did the handsome young farm-hand who climbed in through the window (a particularly frequent fantasy in Forster’s work) from the park while looking for mushrooms, novelistically exist?

Arthur Snatchfold, is similar, but written more realistically, about an educated, married, and aristocratic man, Conway, who, while staying at a less-than scintillating country-house with his equally-lacking hosts, sees a milk-boy in the garden, seeks him out early next morning and has sex with him in a wood. Some money languidly changed hands.

“I didn’t do it for that.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“Naow … keep your money.”

“I’d be pleased if you would take it … please yourself.”

“Can you honestly afford it?”

“Honestly.”

“Well … people don’t always behave as nice as you, you know.”

Later, in town he hears that the later stages of their tryst were seen by the local bobby who waylaid the departing boy, arrested him, but the other unidentified man, got away. Conway knows it was himself, and is appalled and amazed that the boy chose not to give him away. “It all had seemed so trivial”, on both sides. He writes down the boy’s name, Arthur Snatchfold, in order never to forget it.

The rest of the stories are less successful; they read like first drafts that the writer lost interest in. Except, the final story, The Other Boat: it involves a ship-board romance that leads to tragedy. Its interest lies in its post-colonial flavour: the attraction of ‘the other’ and the social and emotional consequences of the day.

This volume is part of a handsomely produced series of volumes from Hesperus Press, Modern Voices, of the lesser works of an eclectic list of famous writers: Anthony Burgess, Colette, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, John-Paul Sartre, Bernard Shaw, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, among others.

The South African novelist, Damon Galgut, has fictionalised the adult life of Forster, his private passions and relationships as well as his writing of The Passage to India, in his 2014 novel, Artic Summer; my blog about it you can read here.

Dubliners by James Joyce

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 Irish writer, James Joyce (1882-1941)

The first-person narrator, a boy, walks past the house of his dying priest night after night, wondering whether he is dead yet, but this night knows it to be true.

“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.”

So begins the first story, The Sisters, in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914) but in it is a clue to the theme of the book itself. Joyce wanted to write about the people of Dublin because to him it was the “city of paralysis” and the shadow of this word permeates the whole collection. For Joyce “paralysis” meant the inability to life meaningfully. Joyce spent most of his life on the continent, far away from Dublin, so strong was his belief that the city was tainted.

Here the “paralysis” is both literal, in the case of a dying priest after his third stroke, and moral: “simony” takes aim at the Catholic church’s corrupting stranglehold on Irish society; “gnomon” is somewhat different, being more about form than content (a gnomon is a parallelogram with a section removed, as well as the shadow-casting part of a sundial). The word is a cryptic warning to the reader that these stories contain many absences, not least traditional plot, character and scene-setting. These absences are part of what Joyce referred to as the style of “scrupulous meanness” with which he wrote Dubliners, meaning the frugality he applies to language, image and emotion.

Freytag’s pyramid, or dramatic arc or structure, suggests that a clear beginning consisting of a proper introduction of the setting and the characters, a middle discussing the conflict that would lead to a climax, and an end that ties the story together with a denouement are indispensable to any written work of fiction.

So was the literary thinking in 1914 – and in some circles it still is today. Joyce ignored it all, which may be why it took him 6 years to get this collection published.

In the story A Little Cloud, a shy and fragile clerk, known as Little Chandler, since “he gave one the idea of being a small man” meets in a bar, after 8 years, his friend Ignatius Gallaher, who once “known under a shabby and necessitous guise had become a brilliant figure on the London Press.” Little Chandler yearns of becoming a famous writer and dreams about the rave notices he would get for his work. He is delighted to see his old friend and Gallaher shouts him several whiskeys and regales the little man with innuendo and suggestions of his racy experiences in London and Paris: no married life for him. Of course, Little Chandler is late getting home to his young wife and child and had not brought the tea and sugar she had urged him not to forget. “She was in a bad humour and gave him short answers” and decides to go out and get the tea and sugar herself. “She put the sleeping child deftly in his arms and said: ‘Here. Don’t waken him’.” Little Gallaher cradles the child and stares at a photograph of his wife wearing an expensive blouse he had bought her. The image of his wife weaves no comparison to the “rich Jewesses” with “dark Oriental eyes” of Gallaher’s salacious plans and stories. Little Chandler feels nothing but entrapment, paralysis, in his mean little cottage with debt-laden furniture and no way of writing the book that “might open the way for him.” He reads some melancholy verse by Byron while nursing the child and wonders where he can find the time to write like that; he has so much to say. The baby wakes and cries and will not stop no matter how hard he tries to sooth him. Everything is useless. He is “a prisoner of life!” He loses his temper with the child and shouts at him which scares the infant and causes him to scream and “sob piteously”. His wife arrives and rescues the babe and glares at her useless husband and he listens to the child’s sobbing grow less and less in the arms of his loving mother. The story ends with Little Chandler just standing there as “tears of remorse started to his eyes.”

The reader is left with a feeling of pity and yearning for this little man who did the right thing, that every man should do, marry, start a family, and work to keep and protect them; while his friend did the other thing: travelled, wrote and became famous and whored around in London and Paris. This is the ending that Freytag’s pyramid espouses but it is a thought, not on the page but in the mind of the reader.

This was radical for 1914, when this collection first appeared. However, is it true today that more and more writers of fiction are leaving aspects of descriptive, consequential, and circumstantial narrative out of the text and up to the reader.  This is so true that it is not the writer’s place any more to answer the question, “And what did you mean by writing that?” After a story is in print – or, for that matter any creative work that is finally in the public domain – the meaning of what the reader reads is all to do with the reader – it means what the reader thinks it means – and has nothing to do any more with the writer and what was meant by the writer in the first place.

Although Dubliners is considered one of the greatest short story collections ever written, it is Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, who is generally considered the father of the modern short story. “The revolution that Chekhov set in train – and which reverberates still today – was not to abandon plot” – or Freyberg’s Pyramid – “but to make the plot of his stories like the plot of our lives: random, mysterious, run-of-the-mill, abrupt, chaotic, fiercely cruel, meaningless”. Chekhov’s short stories had been available in English since 1903, but Joyce didn’t get Dubliners published until 1914. He claims not to have read them. Many critics think this a little implausible since Dubliners seems to owe a lot to the work of the Russian. However, Joyce finished the collection by 1907, and with Chekhov’s work having been available in English only for a few years when Joyce was working as a teacher in Europe, it is entirely possible that he did not read it. Although William Boyd, American novelist and short story writer asserts that Chekhov liberated Joyce’s imagination as much as Joyce liberated writers that followed and “that the Chekhovian point of view is to look at life in all its banality and all its tragic comedy and refuse to make a judgment”. The Joycean view seems to look at life from the inside of his characters: to chart his country’s “moral history” in Dublin; and he does this by turning the plot inwards. It’s the landscape of dreams, desires, hopes and disappointments that bind the 15 stories together into a whole, which in itself is unique, creating a form of a novel in fifteen disparate but morally interconnected chapters: the early stories are from childhood, the centre charts the middle years, and the final devastating story, The Dead, his masterpiece, culminates in a mature realisation of man’s insignificance in the universe. In fact, the first image of the first story: a boy looking up at a window behind which lies a dead man, is reflected in the last image of the last story where a man looks out of a window contemplating all the dead that have gone before him and which one day he will join. Images like bookends.

Joyce’s narrator varies from story to story: first person in the first, but usually in the third-person but not of the omniscient kind:

“…as he set himself to fan the fire again, his crouching shadow ascended the opposite wall and his face slowly reemerged into the light. It was an old man’s face, very bony and hairy.” (Ivy Day in the Committee Room). The narrator doesn’t know the face until it is seen as everyone else sees it, including the reader. It’s like the narrator and the reader see and know everything at the same time; as if you and he are watching the scene together.

It is the final story, The Dead, that marks Joyce a masterful writer and it is easy to argue that it is the best short story ever written. It is the quintessential modern story although it’s structure is almost classic. It opens with a scene featuring minor players in the story; a device used by Shakespeare in the opening scenes of many of his plays: it’s a way to introduce the scene and action before the principle players emerge, creating setting, background, and expectation. The bulk of the story is the colouring of the situation: the interconnecting relationships, the characters, the party as life’s metaphor, building tension and expectation, preparing the reader for what will happen.

Lily the house maid is “run off her feet” tending to guests as they arrive for the annual dance party given by the aging Misses Morkan, Kate and Julia, and their niece Mary-Jane, a music teacher to some of the “better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line.” All eyes and ears are attuned to the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, the old ladies’ nephew, and his wife, Gretta, but they are also worried that the local drunk, the course-featured Freddie Mullins, might make a too-soon appearance and spoil the party. All arrive as expected and the party is in full swing; shoes shuffle and skirts swish and sway to the dance music on the polished floor of the upstairs parlor under the chandelier and a piano recital is given by Mary-Jane and songs are sung by the talented tenor, Mr Bartell D’Arcy. The strata of Dublin society are represented: the proud and successful Gabriel and his unhappy wife, Gretta; the Morkans drenched in their good-natured, middle-class hospitality cocooned in their well-established morality; and the likes of Freddie Mullins who prizes a drink over employment, filial duty, and nationalistic pride.

And then there are the galoshes. Gabriel wears them and urges his wife to, but she refuses. They are a symbol of modernity, recently arrived from London and “Gabriel says everyone wears them on the continent”. They are a sign of progress but, of course, the locals don’t wear them, much to Gabriel’s disappointment, thinking that he may have been able to bring the modern world into the lives of his community and family; Aunt Julia isn’t even sure what they are; Gretta thinks they’re funny and “says the word reminds her of the Christy Minstrels”. The social boundaries are clearly drawn.

On the dance floor, Gabriel, preoccupied with his forthcoming speech and worrying that his planed quotes from Browning “would be above the heads of his listeners”, is half-jokingly harassed by his dance partner, Miss Ivors, who “has a crow to pluck” with him. She chastises him for writing book-reviews for an English newspaper; refusing to holiday in his “own land” among his “own people” and to speak his “own language” and therefore labels him a ‘West Briton”.

Gabriel is a dignified man. He is angered by Miss Ivor’s assertions regardless of her light-hearted tone; considers Dublin, like Joyce, a back-water of pseudo-happy and ignorant people; looks to England and Europe for artistic, fruitful, and intellectual sustenance; but, despite all this,  tonight he is excited by the idea of Gretta and he spending the night, without the children, in a local hotel. Their marriage has soured over the past few years into something that he sees as all too common in this society. He is hoping for, maybe even lustful, but at least an intimate night alone with his wife.

After all the singing, dancing, and a minor ruffle between the Catholics and “the other persuasion”, the goose is carved at the head of a fine, happy, and plentiful supper table. Gabriel’s speech is a great success.  The champagne flows freely. The annual party is drawing to a close and Gabriel while putting on his coat asks after his wife. He finds her standing high on the landing in the semi-darkness gazing at nothing in particular but seemingly listening to something. There is a plaintive singing voice “in the old Irish tonality” and distant chords on a piano that seemed to render his wife transfixed. This is the peak of the drama. What is happening to Gretta, what is going on in her mind, will bring down the story’s protagonist. But Joyce stretches the tension. There is the walk with others into the city, then to the hotel, then to their room, and their preparation for the night. Here, he, all expectant and eager, is willed finally to ask why she is so melancholy. Her reply, his reaction, and the devastating realisation because of it, ends the story.

What begins as a classically structured tale of Dublin life, full of Chekhovian realism bolstered by detail, humour, character, emotional connections, and social hierarchy, the epitome of life itself, ends as a modern fable, not based on action, but internal thought. And like all good writers, Joyce ends with an image: a disappointed and humbled man gazing through a window on to a darkened city as snow gently begins to fall all over Ireland.

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

-oOo-

The works of James Joyce, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake, are out of copyright and can be downloaded, via various formats, for free here.