Love in Words

I thought I had gotten away, moved far enough from the site of my misdeeds that they would no longer find me. But it doesn’t work like that. People find me, they seek me out. Is it a look I have? The vacant stare, the distant gaze I often wear? There is a lifetime of love and loss etched across my face. It pulls people to me, people looking for love, people deep in love. They come to me with their damaged dreams fraying at the edges.

The desperate are foolish, the foolish so often desperate.

Mr. Ned Saville was like so many of them, determined to breach my defences. Until then I had kept moving, further and further from where she was, where she had been. I had found work with the Department of Motor Transport. Roadworks had become my thing, rural areas, days spent working on barren stretches of road, barely even a car passing. A team of five and one of them had to pull me aside. His voice was low, his confessions interrupted by that mirthless laugh of his, the hand wiping his face again and again, dirt, grime, sweat and tears all smudged across it.

Jesus, I thought, I can’t deal with this. Not now, not again.

I knew before he started. He just wanted a word, he said. Well, he’d want more than just a word. He’d want to talk, to express his incoherent thoughts, his mad tangle of emotions. Women, love, relationships. It could be the beginning, or the end, or a troubled patch. Lying, cheating, miscommunication. It’s all the same. He’d want a steady ear to listen, nods of confirmation, a pat on the shoulder, a calm voice to tell him it would all work out. And then he’d wait for more – words to make his own confounding existence feel a little less forlorn. He’d require words of hard-earned wisdom that I was ill-equipped to give.

If only he knew.

Cornered, I’d end up giving him what he asked for. It would kill me and I’d do it just the same. Because I always had.

Words have always come to my defence. They have always been my weapons, the things that I have drawn upon to keep me from going under. Even before I met her; way before I lost her. The words, the stories. They have been my saviour and my curse. A lifeboat keeping me afloat, leading me to places I should never have dreamt of going.

* * *

Like in ’92. Albie Bernstein’s arm around my neck, his muscles bulging, putting the squeeze on. Through gritted teeth and crushed windpipe, I squeaked for my survival. We were kids. Albie and his loneliness, his need for friends, for someone he could talk to. Albie and his urge to hurt. A less than noble response to a family where anger was the common currency, where violence won the day. A father full of hate, bitter at the world, taking solace in the torture of a family. A mother’s love knocked out of her, replaced by cigarettes and alcohol, and cynicism spat out in giant globs. And here he was, Albie, becoming the very thing he hated. I offered friendship (as insincere as it was), a voice, an ear, words of hope and promise.

“Fuck ’em. Parents are all the same. They’re all mad as hell, taking their craziness out on us. Let’s get away. You and me. Go fishing, catch crawfish in the dam. I’ll give you my slingshot, we’ll shoot some pigeons. Then we’ll cook ’em up and eat ’em!”

The headlock loosened, I stood my ground. We never talked beyond that, never went fishing, never shot nor ate a bird. But we stayed together, comforted by silence, by the words already spoken. The dreams I’d woven did their thing, keeping the boy on an even keel.

And so I knew the power of words, of dreams, the intoxicating pull of another better world imagined into being. I should have been aware, should have recognised the danger held within those words and dreams. But I was young, so much still to learn, so much still to lose.

* * *

There were others, back in the day. Theo, George, even that Reggie Bacchus from down the end of the street near where the stream used to cross the road. When it rained a swamp would form, all jet black water, glistening with silver glows that looked unnatural, that were unnatural. Reggie, he too used words, but indiscriminate words designed to skewer. We were in the same class. English literature. How ironic was that? Wuthering Heights. A love story. I made the mistake of answering questions, pontificating on the tortured path of love. Reggie scoffed; he sneered his way through lessons, his animosity building, all of it aimed my way.

Reggie was lost. He was bored, out of his depth on a topic that he had claimed as his own. A man of experience, he would proudly state, a man (a boy) who had loved. He was chivalrous, he was gracious. The women (the girls) tittered at his jokes, swooned at his winks and smiles.

And me? Well, all this was before. She was still to enter my life. I spoke with the confidence that only those who don’t truly know can muster. The arrogance of ignorance.

Reggie, despite his own inarticulate nature, had read me well enough. A loveless horsefly, he called me. A single celled organism devoid of a heart. I understood.

I used the only weapons that I had: a string of barbed remarks, an arsenal of words that left him too confused to mount a challenge.

“I would explain love so you’d understand it, Reggie, but I’ve left my crayons at home.”

“You think you’re here to drink from the fountain of knowledge. I know you. You only gargle.”

That was my way – cheap putdowns, even cheaper laughs. I thought I was clever, that I had it all worked out. I was young, we all were. I was emboldened, words again, my shield, my sword.

* * *

She came to me. And life began. (At last!)

I had been living alone, a big city job, tie and shirt-sleeves. I charted new products, put together sales strategies, handled product placement, and a thousand other things. I thought it was important, the stuff of which lives were made. Head held high, I was striding forward as if the world was mine.

It was hers. Hers all along.

But I didn’t know.

I had seen her in the office, gliding across the floor, dark hair flowing, giving orders, flashing her smile. How did it happen? I can barely recall. There were flowers. There was talk of work, of branching out, the two of us going out on our own. There were weekends away, to deserted beaches, pine-covered mountain sides, mossy river banks where we watched the fish jump and dreamed a future into being.

I dreamed a future into being. My words and I. A cabin, a lake, kids. The two of us, me adding a second floor, her with her potter’s wheel. Snowy winters by the fire, summers in the fields, living off the land. She would be all I needed, her and the kids, loving me, loving what I was, what I made, what I built for her, for all of us. We would leave the world of offices and dividers, of deadlines and in-boxes, of paperwork and clients. We would simplify, just like we had by the stream on that moss-covered bank.

I was still dreaming a year later, still weaving pretty stories in my mind. Long after she had moved on to greener pastures, leaving me to my mossy, slimy bank.

* * *

I stayed at first. As the dark clouds gathered, as they burst open, as the soaking rain fell. I moped around the office, sleepwalked through the days, spent nights alone in bed wondering what had happened, wondering how one lives without a life, without a dream to follow.

Until invited out after work. Invited? Compelled to attend, told that it was a compulsory after-work gathering. Darius was there, the new boy. The fool. The ignorant man-child. He has my sympathy still. He wanted to talk. He had misread my stillness for depth, my damp eyes for a love of life and its mysteries. He didn’t see the sodden wreck before him.

Darius was a chump. A deluded man, unaware of his own failings. He was a trusting sod who believed in love in all its forms. And the price to pay for all this love? He knew it wasn’t cheap, but what was? So he’d take his girl out, buy her things. Expensive meals, designer bags, jewellery, dresses, phones. A place to stay as well. He explained it with ease: an apartment, ground floor, across town from his own place but near her aging parents. (I should have told him: true love does not reside across town.)

But I didn’t tell him. I talked of love, its beauty, something worth pursuing. I raved about fingertips stroking a dozing face, about the comfort of a quiet smile at the end of the day, the soothing presence of a loving partner beside you late at night. I talked of moments shared and dreams nurtured and protected. Yeah, I waxed lyrical, a man who had been there, almost had it.

He bought it of course.

“Maybe we can get together some time,” he said. “You know, the four of us.”

I didn’t have the heart to disabuse him of the idea. A smile, a nod, and a swallow of guilt before patting him on the arm and heading home.

I knew I had to leave. Before Darius found out the truth, about his so-called love, about my so-called love. I knew I had to leave before others fell into my web, before I drowned in my own bitter, boiling juices.

* * *

Outdoor work. It wasn’t me, wasn’t what I was designed for. Too slight of build, too thin-skinned for the rough and tumble of a workers’ world. I didn’t relate with backslaps, I didn’t wrestle, didn’t drink and push and shove and joke. It was wrong for me, better suited to a different kind of man.

I did it anyway. I would lose my damaged, rotten self, maybe find a new one.

But I was wrong about those building sites and roadworks. The winds of change were blowing through. There was talk. Real talk. Not talk at full volume but considered ruminations on life and love and friendship. I’d wanted head down, bum up. I’d wanted to be left alone, to shovel shit, to dig trenches, to lay bricks, and pour concrete. I thought it was the great escape. But men confound you, bucking expectations.

Hecky Barnett, a large man, hands the size of T-bone steaks. Shaven head, leathery skin, eyebrows left untamed. He was a man of sighs, of slow shakes of the head that hinted at a story I preferred not to hear. The sudden stops while shifting sand, the shovel coming to a halt, Hecky’s meaty arm resting on it, letting it take his weight as he wiped his face with a grimy handkerchief.

“She’s at it again.”

I’d listen, desperate to move on, get back to mixing the cement, sand and water, dig in the shovel turn it over, again and again, add the gravel, thankful for the noise, the scrape of the shovel as it dug in again.

But in his understated way, he wouldn’t let it lie. Hecky Barnett would want to talk of love.

“She says it doesn’t mean nothing. Says nothing even happened. Just talking, a few drinks. Old friends from high school, that’s the way she puts it. As if that explains everything, as if it makes it all alright.”

I keep my counsel, implore him in my mind to let it go. I will say nothing, offer nothing. I will not betray this man, nor my own fractured memories. I will keep them hidden, buried in my poetry. A secret for late at night, alone, with lamp shape pulled down, with the gin bottle there for company.

“I lost it,” he said. “Yelled at her. Called every name under the sun. Made it clear: one more time and…”

Lunch. I should have stepped away, walked, gotten myself lost in the bush. But tired, I took the easy route. A bench, a sandwich. I let Hecky sidle up to me.

“She does it to hurt me. I know it. It’s like a game. I get angry at her, then she goes out and does it again, just to spite me. Or maybe it’s a habit, a frickin’ addiction. There are people like that, right? Fact is, it’s killing me. She doesn’t even care.”

What could I do? He wanted it so badly, wanted my words to make it better, to give him the strength he needed to believe. So I fed him the dream, the whole damn lot of it. I talked of better days ahead, of changes blowing through.

Easy. So easy to give a man unwarranted hope, to convince him to allow delusion to rule one’s life. Mistakes passed on. One man’s debacle becomes another’s.

I asked him what he wanted.

“Oh, man. I want love, don’t I? I want us to get outta here. Move into the woods. I’ll build a house, keep it warm. You know, we’ll get off the grid, grow stuff, hunt. That’s it. Nights by the fire. Keep it simple. But her damn eyes keep wandering. She don’t know what she wants.”

“She will,” I said, letting the ambiguity spread like molten lava. “Listen to me, Hecky,” I began, dumping the remains of my BLT into its paper bag on my lap. “The future belongs to those who dream, those who believe in their damn dreams. You got that?”

He nodded, silent, eyes clamped on to me.

“You hang on to the beauty of your dream. You keep it alive and you stay with it – and she will too,” I blabbed.

The man looked down, running his boot along the dusty gravel beneath our feet. “Yeah but… See, but what if, you know…”

I felt my jaw clench, my guts tighten. A cement truck rumbled past us. We held our tongues, held our breath, closed our eyes, let the cloud of dust wash over us. You bastard, I thought. You want to give up on love? Then leave me out of it, leave me alone to wallow in my own delusions and misdeeds.

We should both have just picked up our shovels and gotten back to work. But no, I sat there like a fool. I waited.

“Those dreams, man. I know it would make her happy. If she could just see things the way I see ’em, you know? I can almost fucking taste that life, man, like I can almost reach out and grab it.”

I grabbed him, me, my small hands on the frayed collar of his plaid shirt. “Then for the love of God do it. Smell those damn pine nettles underfoot, the fresh cut wood, the food on the damn cooker. Feel the chill wind on your cheeks, feel her damn kiss. Keep the dream alive and go and fucking claim it. Fight for it, man.” I was sweating, swamped by another time, private urges swirling, leaving me taut. I pushed him away, spat into the dust. “Shape your life, God damn it. Grab it by the throat and shape it. Make her see who you are, what you’re made of.”

He moved off, head nodding, eyes glazed. I had left my mark again. A scorched earth policy coming from nowhere. Another life upended. He would suffer. That I knew. But no more than I had.

The thought offered no comfort. None whatsoever.

* * *

I couldn’t stay. It’s never wise to remain in the midst of destruction. So I packed up my things again, threw it all into my backpack: the shirts, the jeans, the woollen hat, my shaving gear. And my notebooks where I hide her. I was still too brittle to bring her out in to the light, still too desperate to leave her behind.

Roadworks. Far from towns, far from lovers and their hopeless dreams. Where steaming asphalt scents the air, where piles of gravel scar the hands and break the back. You’d think it would crowd out all sentimental thoughts of love. But no, you can’t outrun it, can’t blot it out. And you can’t outrun those who fall under its spell.

Which leads us back to Ned Saville. He should have been in movies. His thick head of raven-black hair, the cheekbones, the pointed chin and crow’s feet that add so much character to his face. His is a face made for romance. And here he is wanting to talk, to save his life from becoming a tragedy.

Oh God, I think. I can’t, I can’t. Not again. Don’t make me dig it up again, relive those times, my own failings, that fleeting happiness, the delusional grasping for more than I deserved. I can’t be love’s agent.

But Ned, he isn’t like the rest, I’ll give him that. He fancies himself an observer of human life.

“What’s she like then?” he asks.

I stare at him, shaken.

“Ah, come on, mate. Anyone can see it. Let me guess: she’s hard work but oh so worth it. Drives you mad, don’t she? But you wouldn’t have it any other way.”

I stare again, my mouth dry. I try to swallow, can’t.

“Listen, I get it, okay? That’s what we do, we chase it. We don’t give up just because it’s tough. We keep going because we know she brings our world to life. I’m right, aren’t I?”

Batting away the memories, I cover my face with my hands. A big semi rumbles past, shaking the ground. I feel the dusty dry air scrape across my arms and face. But still I don’t speak. There is nothing to say.

“Hey, you and me, we’re in the same boat, right? Difference is, you’re ahead of the game. But me, well…”

Let her go, man. Forget about her. Pour the asphalt, cover up those stupid fantasies, then go get drunk. Drink yourself back to reality, to a world where one monochrome day is as good as the next, and know that if you keep on going there’ll be plenty more empty days ahead, just like the last. So there.

But I don’t speak, not those words at least. Because she’s there, still hidden, in between every cell of my body, in the marrow of my bones. She’s there.

“Come on, Ned,” I say. “Grab your shovel. We’re moving. I point to the ancient council truck belching exhaust, idling by the side of the road.

There’s panic in his eyes. He looks from the truck back to me, shoots out a hand, clutches my arm. “Wait. Look, I know you’re not from these parts. You’re not like us.”

Caught off-guard, I laugh. I take my time lighting up a cigarette and stick it between my lips, smoke drifting into my eyes. I squint, look back at the man. “I’m like you, Ned. Just another useless guy.”

“You’re not. You got ways, you got thoughts and stuff. I mean…”

For an instant I wonder where he’s going. We’re sitting under a sycamore, leaning against the scaly red-brown bark of its trunk, the shade a welcome relief from the heat of the road. There is a string of ants in front of us, thousands of them. They’ve carved a narrow trench along the dusty soil between the roots.

“Listen, me and my girl… Ah, jeez, you should see her. She’s got this smile, see. And these eyes. The clearest blue eyes you ever seen. We’d go out, see, go walking, maybe to the park or down to the dam behind her folks’ place. And she’d see something. I dunno, I flower, or a frog, or a leaf catching the afternoon light. And her face would just light up. You never seen nothing like it. Like a kid ’cept she ain’t no kid. Ah, jeez…”

It’s gibberish, but I get it. I wish I didn’t. I don’t want to hear more but know I will. Here we go again. All for love.

“She loves life, see. The little things – going for a drive, going into town, meeting people, a simple meal. Being around her? Felt like the star of a movie. Crazy thing to say, I know. But yeah. I had these dreams, see. Always knew there was more for us. Thought we could make a team, start a business, really make a go of it.”

I whack the heel of my boot into the hard soil. A puff of dust billows up.

“Wanted to give her more. A house and stuff, nice things, like neither of us had growing up. Thought we should dig in for a few years, work hard, invest. Move up in the world, you know? She deserved it. Thought we both did.” He is rocking slightly, legs bent, arms wrapped around his knees. “Anyway, we fought. She couldn’t see it, didn’t understand. She couldn’t see that we needed bigger dreams…”

He runs out of steam. I take a second to collect myself. I am deflated, a football with a puncture, flaccid, good for nothing. But he’ll want words, the same again.

“Mate,” he says.

“Ned, you hold onto your dreams,” I begin, not even thinking of what I’m saying.

“What? No. No, I don’t need you to…”

“Look, Ned…”

“No. Listen. You got the words. I know you do. Here.” He drags his canvas knapsack closer to him. He reaches in and pulls out a leather-bound notebook, a ballpoint pen, hands them to me.


“I need her, okay? I screwed up. We can make a life together, I’m sure of it. It’s just…”

“You want me to…?”

“It’d mean the world…”

* * *

That night, in my rented room above the chemist, I sit on my bed, Ned’s notebook beside me, backpack on the floor. The single wardrobe is open, my few shirts hanging there, my jeans and workpants beneath. Boots by the door, waiting for me. I sit there for hours, the room getting darker, the blood red curtains illuminated by the streetlight outside my window. Trucks rattle by, to and from the coast, their heavy loads weighing them down. I hear the wheeze of the air breaks as they come to a stop at the lights, the low growl as they set off again.

I open the book, pick up the pen. I start slowly, wondering. Before long I pick up speed, the words flowing, pouring out of me, my hand barely moving fast enough to keep up. When I’m done, I lay the book aside and stand, look at the closet, the clothes, the boots. I bend down and retrieve my backpack, open it. I let it swing by side. It’s empty except for my own notebooks, my own bitter memories and faded dreams hidden in its depths. I swing the bag, toss it gently into the bottom of the closet and fall back on my bed.

I am asleep in seconds.


“You wrote this?” he says, after the second time through. It’s early. We’re at the depot, sitting on the bench outside the prefab office. I have a cigarette between my fingers.

“Mmm,” I say.

“Holy shit,” he says. “You wrote it?”

I take a drag on my smoke.

“You motherfuckin’ bastard.”

“It’s what you wanted.”

“It’s, it’s…” He wipes his brow. It’s glistening despite the shadowy chill of the early morning. “I thought. But… It’s fucking beautiful, man. It’s just…”

“I know.” I’ve let her go, let her memory loose. She’ll stay there at the bottom of my closet now. Untouched, troubling me no more.

“It’s like, it’s…phew… But, I mean, what I really wanted was, um… Well,” he shakes his head slowly. “Well, not this. I mean, this, this…” He slams the book shut, rubs the cover with the coarse palm of his hand. We are silent for a moment. He offers one more rattled laugh, shakes his head again, wipes his forehead with the back of his hand.

I smoke my cigarette, waiting.

“Well, um.”

The foreman is calling, waving us over. The truck is belching smoke, workman hopping aboard, waiting.

“There’s  a bus,” I say. I know these are the words he needs to hear.

“To where?”

“Does it matter?”

He looks at his feet, his scuffed dust-covered work boots.

“Be seeing you.” I stand, toss my cigarette onto the gravel, stomp on it with my boot. I stuff my hands into my pockets, hunch my shoulders. Eyes down, I walk towards the truck, to the shovels, the asphalt, to the waiting men.

I’ll stay awhile, I think. Yeah, I’ll stay.




Let Me Tell You

“Cracked a rib,” he says, while lowering his plate to the table, losing a couple of peas along the way.

“You what?”

“Cracked a rib. I can feel it. Hurts like the Dickens. Right here.” Still standing, he feels his side, pushing gingerly against the cotton and polyester of his short-sleeved shirt. He finds the spot, pushes it with a bent couple of fingers. A harder poke, a cough.

“Jeez, mate. Doesn’t sound too good.”

“Doesn’t feel too good,” he replies, pulling out his chair, slipping indelicately onto it, taking half the table cloth along with him.

“So go on then, Jake. Tell me. What you been getting up to then to crack a rib?”

“There was this woman, see.”

“A bit of rough and tumble, eh, Jake?” The remark comes from the next table. Cackles follow it, low and rough.

Jake lets them have their moment. He takes the opportunity to reach forward, take hold of his beer glass. The smallest sip, just enough to wet his lips. “Yeah, that’s right,” he says, having managed to replace the glass on the table, a small amount of pale ale trickling down over his fingers. “That’s right. A woman.”

“And what did she do to you, Jake, you old bugger?” It’s Mack who asks, sitting across from him, knife and fork in hand, his eyes full of warmth, his voice kind and curious.

“She didn’t do nothing to me, did she! She was in a spot of trouble. Needed help. Yeah,” he says, nodding confidently, “like that.”

“And you helped her.”

“Didn’t want to at first. You know how it is.”

“How is it, Jake?”

“People are funny like that, aren’t they. No trust. You see it their faces. See it all the time. They look at you then they take a step back, hesitate. Their hands go up like.” Jake raises his own hands as if in defence. Liver spots speckle the backs of them. His forearms are long and sinewy, a deep brown.

Mack nods sagely. He’s working on his meal, the lunch special at the club. Pork cutlet today. Knife and fork held tightly, he’s dissecting the cutlet into ever smaller pieces. “Yeah, I get you. Just because we’re a bit –”

“Yeah, yeah. Because of that,” Jake nods again, eyelids drooping.


“Well, she was on the ground. Yeah, flat on her back. A lady. All dressed up nice. A looker, I reckon. But kind of dazed she was. Like she didn’t know which way was up. Even so, I could tell she weren’t used to our kind.”

“Our kind? You mean you weren’t used to her kind!” It’s Bill Varney from the next table again.

“Listen, I been around the block a few times, let me tell you. So this woman, this lady. On her back, coat all askew, eyes rolling around in her head. So I bend down. ‘What’s going on here then, love?’ That’s what I say. And she points, points around the corner. Says something about her bag.”

“Her bag.”

“Yeah. Her purse. All that. So I set off. Run around in the direction she pointed.”

“You? You ran off?”

“Course I did. What’s so funny ’bout that?”

“But –”

“Hey, nothing wrong with these legs.”

“Been years since I seen you move faster than a slow waddle, old mate.”

“I save myself, don’t I. Keep my energies till I need ’em. Besides, soon as I get around the corner I seen him.”

“You seen him. Who’d you see then?”

“Big fella. One of those Islander fellas I reckon. Real big. Muscles, tight singlet, tattoos all over him. Yeah, one of them. I seen the bag too.”

“From the lady? The bag from the lady?”

“Yeah, from the lady. Small cream coloured thing. Leather, I s’pose. Had a gold clasp.”

“Not his then.”

“Nah. Not his. But I could see he was a tough ol’ nut. A real bruiser. He didn’t even try to run. Just stared me down like he meant business.”

“A tough guy. One of them.”

“Yeah, yeah. One of them,” Jake says enthusiastically, using his forearm to rub a spot of spittle from his chin.

“So what’d you do? Tough guy like that. Gotta watch yourself.”

“Got that right. I knew I needed something. Just to even up the odds.”

“Sure thing. Even up the odds.”

“What, you needed a handbag too, eh, Jake?” Damned Bill Varney again. Always the smartarse. “Handbags at ten paces,” he spits, a desiccated pea shooting from his mouth to the adjoining table, Jake and Mack’s table, coming to rest on the side of the salt shaker. A titter of laughter follows from his mates.

“Ah, forget the handbag. I seen this bin. Big one. Like a dumpster. Yeah, that’s it. A dumpster.

“And you dove in!”

“No, I didn’t dive in!”

“Ah, shut up, Bill,” Mack says in his understated way. “Just give it a rest, okay?”

“Anyway, I knew I needed something. Then I saw this bit of pipe lying right beside it.”

“A pipe.”

“Yeah, like from a signpost. Yeah, something like that. Solid damn thing. Once I had that I was ready. I told myself, I did. Let’s get this done, I says to myself.”

“Ready to right some wrongs, eh?”

“Damned straight.”

“So you went after him?”

“I called him out. Gave him a chance. Knew I had him cornered, see. The street – it was a dead end. Nowhere to go. So I had a word with him.”

“A word.”

“Yeah, man to man like. Told him it ain’t no good stealing from ladies. But he wasn’t having it. Said I oughta be careful sticking my nose into other people’s business.”

“Not nice of him.”

“Told him it was my business.”

“Course you did.”

Mack, still slicing his pork cutlet, slows before putting down his knife. With his fork he jabs a tiny morsel. He chews slowly, methodically, offering the meat his full attention. Jake too turns to his food, spooning a glob of mashed potato into his mouth. Lips smacking together, he masticates carefully, doing the best he can.

“Anyway,” Jake continues, a small dollop of mashed potato caught in the side of his mouth, “no more chit chat after that. I told him straight out I wanted the bag returned. Took a few steps towards him.”

“With your weapon.”

“Yeah, with my weapon.”

“Make or break time, old mate. Putting the pressure on.”

“You got that right. He felt it too.”

“How’s that?”

“Seen him sweating. Got all twitchy too, licking his lips, eyes darting this way and that.”

“Wild man.”

“Ready to pounce, let me tell you. ‘The bag. Hand it over.’ That’s what I said to him. Banged my pipe against the ground a few times for good measure.”

“Making your point.”

“Yeah. My point. And then it was on. Like a couple of old alley cats.” Jake laughs quietly, his eyes momentarily losing focus.

“What happened? He come at you or what? He have a weapon?”

“A weapon. Yeah, yeah, that’s it. A weapon. A knife. A bloody big one. Not one of those kitchen knives. A hunting knife.”

“Kinda like a sword.”

Jake’s eyes light up. “Yeah, yeah, like a sword.” A pea clings to the end of his fork as he waves it in Mack’s direction. Then it drops. “What? Nah, not like a bloody sword, you dickhead.”

“Nah, course not. Just fooling with you, mate. A knife. A hunting knife.”

“Yeah. Like I said.”

“Dangerous. Could do some damage.”

“Had to act quick. Get the upper hand. Took a step to the side. Had my pipe in the air and then wham!” Jake swung his arm, swishing his fork through the air, a single pea launched across the dining room.

“Wham!” echoes Mack.

“Brought it down smack bang on his wrist. Heard the crack, I did. Ugly damn sound.”

“Nasty.” Mack has another tiny pork cube ready to go, wobbling aloft on the end of his fork. “You had him then though.”

“He dropped the knife quick smart.”

“I bet he did.”

“But blow me down if he didn’t keep coming. Like a damn bull he was.”

“Like a bull in a China shop.” Bloody Bill Varney again.

“Yeah, like a… Nah, not like that, you dimwit. Like a raging bull.”

“Yeah, out of control, right, Jake?”

“And that’s when he did it.”

“Did what?”

“Got me. Got me a good one. He was on me, punches coming from all directions. Had to call on all my training, all my experience.”

“What’s that? Only training you get these days is bending your bloody elbow.” Varney picks up his own beer, shows them all what he’s on about. A few guffaws follow. For politeness sake.

“I was ducking and weaving like the old days. He caught me with a beauty in the ribs though.”

“It’d take more than that to stop ol’ Jake McCready though. Am I right?”

Jake hesitates. Potato still caking the side of his mouth, he looks across the table at his old mate before feeling with his tongue for the errant mash.

“Couple of quick jabs, right cross. Took a hard right uppercut to finish him off.”

“No need for the pipe then.”


“The pipe.”

“The… Oh, nah, got two good fists, don’t I? Know how to use ’em too.”

“Just like the old days. You always did have a wicked right.”

Jake laughs. He’s smiling now, eyes shining. With renewed energy he grabs his beer, wets his lips again. Taking hold of his knife and fork he looks at his pork cutlet, the mash, the peas, the cauliflower puree as if seeing it all for the first time. Deliberately, he goes for the puree, delivering a little into his mouth. His jaws set to work.

“And the purse. The bag, Jake. You get that back?”


“The looker. Her bag.”

“What looker?” he asks, eyes still focused on his plate.

“After you laid out the big fella.”

“Oh. Right. Yeah, well took it right back to her, didn’t I.”

“Bet she was glad.”

“Ah, mate. You wouldn’t credit it. She was all over me. Thought she was gonna smother me.”

“Wait till Beryl hears about this then!”

“Shut up, Bill!” they say in unison.

“She wanted to give me a reward.”


“Yeah, well, course I didn’t want a bar of it. Just happy to help.”

“Just doing what a man’s gotta do. Ain’t that right, Jake?”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

They are silent. Their attention shifts to their food. Mack jabs at another tiny pork piece, still neglecting his veg. He chases the thing around the side of his plate, the morsel refusing to be spiked. Jake concentrates on his veg, using his knife and fork to squish a few peas onto his fork.

“How about another beer then?” Mack, giving up on the pork bits, pushes himself to his feet. “My shout.”

It was the way they did things. Mack would return with two more beers, but these would be that new stuff they had on tap. 0% alcohol. Neither of them would mention it but they would leave the real stuff alone, move onto its replacement without word.

Jake, finally working on the pork, watches Mack as he makes his way back to the table, bumping chairs as he does so, imitation beer slopping over the fingers of each hand. He’s surprised he hasn’t noticed it sooner. The Band-aid, the swabbing underneath, clinging to his left hand just above the thumb.

“What’s that from?” Jake asks.

Mack is silent for a moment, bending over, concentrating on the two beers, placing them precariously on the edge of the table. He exhales deeply, happy to have completed the mission. Digging a hand into the pocket of his slacks he pulls out a handkerchief, unfurls it, wipes his hands. Still standing, he stuffs it back into his pocket, pushing at it, tucking it in, two fingers stuffing it deeper and deeper until only the white tip is visible against the tan of his slacks. Only then does he hold up his left hand, turning it, taking in the bandaging as if it were newly landed on his hand. He shakes his head. If Jake had been watching he would have seen a slight smile pass across his face.

“Don’t tell me bloody Maureen got you in for more tests.”

“Tests be buggered. I was down by the bay this morning. Near the rocks down the end. You know it?”

“Course I know it. Took a bit of a fall, did you? Slippery as buggery down there.”

“Fall my arse. Thing was, there was this lady, see, out in the water. Way out.”

“Ah, Jeez. Dangerous out there.”

“It is, Jake. It is. You know, I thought she was just waving at first but –”

“But she wasn’t.”

“No, mate, she wasn’t. Not waving at all. In some kind of distress. Knew that right off the bat.”

“Bloody hell.” Jake reaches for his beer, his fresh beer from the edge of the table. He wets his lips, sets the glass down beside his plate and then leans back in his seat, hand resting comfortably on his belly. “So go on then. What happened?”

“Well, let me tell you…”









Chicken and Chickpeas

Jason stares at the address scribbled on the back on an old envelope. Waza’s home. Some bloody place he moved into a couple of years back apparently. Fancy running in to him like that. After all these years. He wasn’t sure his mate had wanted to stop at first. He seemed to be in a rush. But good old Waz – once he saw it was really Jason, well of course he came back, shook his hand, even threw out a dinner invitation. They had grown up together after all, those endless summer holidays, home alone, parents at work. Good times. Waza always had been good for a laugh.

So here he is, a chance to make up for lost time. If he could just find this bugger of an address. It’s already been an hour. A train, then a bus, then a walk. He would have appreciated a lift. Maybe Waz just assumed he had a car. So he takes another left and trudges on, chin tucked into his jacket, protecting himself from the wind. The streets are broad around here, lined by big old eucalypts, the front yards all swamped by one kind of monster tree or another. Maples, elm, gums – all kinds of things, all of them doing a job of hiding what buildings there are. It’s all becoming a bit disorientating.

And then when he finally comes across the address. He has to check the number on the letter box about five times to be sure. He expected an apartment or a terrace house, maybe some kind of run-down shack. Not this. It takes him a few minutes to even get into the yard, a huge wall of cypress blocking his way. Behind that is the lawn, all sorts of native plants scattered around, concrete garden ornaments stationed beside tree trunks, a birdbath for of water, a little pond or something over by the golden wattle. It takes him an age to make his way along the winding paving stones to the enormous mahogany front door.

He shifts the six-pack from one arm to the other. His hands are clammy despite the chilly early evening air. He licks his lips, swallows.

‘What the hell,’ he reprimands himself. ‘This is Waza! Big Waz! Chief dimwit himself.’ That’s what Waz’s dad always called him. Jason used to think that was a riot. Chief Dimwit. And didn’t his old mate just earn that name again and again.

He rings the doorbell, hears a standard ding dong far inside the house, and feels a little better, memories of one dumb-arse episode after another running through his mind.

‘Jason. Hi there. Sorry, I’m in the middle of – oops!’

One hand on the door, a cookbook cradled in his arm, a garlic crusher with a wad of garlic poking out the end of it in his other hand, additional cloves in his palm. The cookbook goes first, sliding from him, pages aflutter. A mad flailing of the arms, juggling the flying garlic crusher, garlic pieces, big and small, spraying from him.

Jason roars. That’s better. That’s more like it! He slaps his mate on the back as he bends over to retrieve his things, a large glob of garlic now wedged between hardwood floor and skirting board. ‘There we go. Still Mr. Butterfingers I see. Good stuff.’

Warren moves silently back into the house, through to the kitchen. Jason is right behind him. He has a beer open by the time Warren has dumped the crushed and sullied garlic into the bin.

‘Hey, you want one?’

‘I’m all right for now, Jason. But thanks.’ He points to his glass of wine. ‘Would you like a wine? Cabernet Sauvignon. New Zealand. Not bad. It’s light but it still has a bit of body.’

‘What, you’re a connoisseur now, are you? Is that the word – connoisseur?’

Warren laughs lightly. ‘Yeah. But no, I’m far from being a connoisseur. I guess I’ve just come to know what I like. We usually have a glass with dinner. Maybe this. Or a chardonnay if we’re having seafood.’

‘Seafood? Don’t tell me you still get out fishing. Still do a spot myself when I can. Bream, flathead. Still nothing better than cooking up your catch.’ He looks across at his old friend. He doesn’t appear to be listening. No surprise there. Always was off with the fairies, his head lost in some idle musing about anything from the life of cats to scuba diving, probably at the same time.

‘I’m just thinking about this recipe. It’s a Middle Eastern thing,’ he says, looking at his cookbook. ‘Chicken and chickpea stew with couscous.’

‘Yeah? Sounds like some foreign stuff.’

‘Ha. Yeah, well given that it’s Middle Eastern…’

‘That’s Arab. What are you doing cooking that? Chicken I get, but chick… What are they?’


‘Yeah. Anyway, I thought you’d probably just do a frozen pizza or something. Just for old times’ sake.’

‘Why frozen pizza?’

‘Don’t you remember? All those times when you tried to put something fancy together and it all went pear-shaped? Thank God for those –’

‘I think that only happened the once, Jason.’

Jason doesn’t wait for the correction. He is on the move, wandered around the open living area adjacent to the kitchen. It’s spacious, the polished wooden floorboards creating a mild echo as he walks. Huge picture windows lead out onto suburbia, the bay just visible in the distance.

‘Listen,’ says Warren. ‘This stew. I wanted to serve it with broccoli. You know, something with a bit of a crunch for contrast. I thought I had some but…’ With his hand resting on the door of the fridge, he taps his foot, thinking.

‘Oh, here we go!’ Smile a mile wide, Jason leaps at the opening. ‘It’s like when you tried to make those sausage sandwiches when we were going on that fishing trip, eh? Turned out you had sausages and no bread! So we just ate the sausages all day. Oh yeah – and you didn’t even have tomato sauce. Wasn’t too bad either, if I remember.’ He grabs another beer from his six-pack, takes a long drink. ‘I still like the odd sausage, bread or not. See what you did to me?’

‘Well, maybe we can get you on to something else tonight then.’ He moves towards the workbench, picks up his phone. ‘Look, I might just call Linda. You mind?’

‘Who the hell’s Linda?’

Warren stops in his tracks. ‘Didn’t I mention it? I thought I did. She’s my wife, Jason. You think I live here alone?’

Jason shrugs, taking another look around the room. Cushions arranged on the sofa, a row of novels on the bookshelf, potted plants and flowers spread about. Nothing special there. But then it occurs to him. There is nothing else, no junk, no mess, no pile of clothes in the corner, nothing on the dining table other than a vase of flowers and placemats. Jason brushes aside the discoveries. ‘So anyway, you reckon we just have to have broccoli, eh? Seriously, Waz, broccoli?’

Warren doesn’t acknowledge him. He has his phone in his hand, his back turned.

‘Broccoli,’ Jason mutters. ‘Since when…?’ With the back of his hand he wipes a thin film of sweat from his forehead. He is moving again, finding it hard to keep still, hard to settle. Another tour around the large room, then he moves down the hall, down a few stairs to another section of the house. There are rooms running off a long corridor. He opens a door randomly, telling himself he’s looking for the toilet. But what he finds grips him. There is a single bed. Posters on the wall, movies and bands he doesn’t know. A giant teddy bear sits on the bed, on the candy pink and white comforter. A desk in the corner is submerged under a pile of books, some framed photos, a laptop, a lamp. There is a guitar in the corner, a dresser stacked with cosmetics and creams and jars. He backs out, ashen. His mind is reeling. This isn’t right. Waza?

He finds the toilet, sits without lowering his pants. Even here. Everything in its place. There is a hanging pot over the bath, full of vines and flowers. He can’t tell if they are real. The mat underfoot is a thick plush off-white. The sink is marble, he’s pretty sure of that, with an array of toothbrushes, combs and brushes beside it. Everything is ordered, everything gleams, as if it has just been polished.

Numb, he forces himself up. He turns on the tap, runs water over his hands, notices the silvery oval-shaped soap dispenser to his right, an unused miniature cake of soap in the shape of a lotus to his left. ‘What the fuck is this?’ he says under his breath. He lets the water run, ignoring the soaps. Turning off the tap he snatches a hand towel, gives his hands a quick wipe, and dumps the towel in the sink. Only then does it click. Only then does it all make sense. He straightens himself, rests his hands on the edge of the basin. ‘Oh, Waz. You poor old bastard.’ Staring at his reflection in the spotless mirror, he shakes his head slowly, allowing his lip to curl up ever so slightly.

Wandering back towards the kitchen, Jason stops at the doorway, watching. Back bent, stirring fluently, his friend is lost in his cooking, just like he always used to be. A smile crosses Jason’s face. The old game. A single lunge and he has snatched the wooden spoon, running around to the other side of the workbench.


‘Come and get it!’

Warren reaches for it, but it’s gone, into Jason’s other hand. Warren scoots around the bench, arm out, smile still on his face, but eyes set. ‘Come on, Jason. Quick. I’ve got to keep stirring otherwise…’

‘Come and get me.’

Hand held out, Warren takes another step forward, but his nemesis is gone again, slipping the spoon behind his back as he moves away.

‘Jason, seriously. Can I have it?’

Silence. All movement has ceased, all oxygen sucked from the room. They stare at each other. Jason tosses the wooden spoon back onto the bench. Both men look at it for a moment before Warren slowly, silently gathers it and gets back to work.

‘Must be tough,’ says Jason.

Warren, moving faster now, adds the chicken to the large cast-iron skillet on the stove. He stirs the adjacent saucepan, adjusts the heat.

‘Really. Must be tough. Ball and chain and all that. You know, I get it now. The fun days are gone, eh?’

‘What on earth are you –?’

‘Hi there, boys. Special broccoli delivery.’ She hands it over, steps in closer to her husband for a kiss.

‘Jason, this is my –’

‘Yeah. I can see that.’

Linda reaches across, takes this visitor, shorter than her, larger around the middle, soft and dark, and hugs him lightly, a quick kiss on the cheek. Stepping back she has her hands on her hips. ‘I’ve heard about you. You two made quite a team back in the day, I hear.’

‘Yeah, well those were the good old days,’ he says pointedly. ‘Back then Chief Dimwit here actually used to know how to have fun.’

‘And what about you? Deputy Dimwit – wasn’t that what they called you? I bet you found your way into some fun too.’

Just for a moment a flicker of something runs through him. He feels it, is taken by surprise, doesn’t know if he likes it. ‘Yeah, well, thank God one of us still has time to wring a bit of fun out of life.’

A barely perceptible nod of the head from Linda. He waits, expecting, ready to engage. But there’s nothing.

‘Anyway,’ continues Jason, ‘cut him a bit of slack and you’d still have the same old Waz, I reckon.’



‘Waz? Is that what you used to call him?’

‘Yeah, well whatever. Thing is, I bet he hasn’t really changed. You might have forced him into, um…’ He waves his hand around taking in everything. ‘But underneath, I bet he’s still the same old space cadet.’

The couple share a look, eyes connecting, volumes spoken.

‘All right. Dinner is served. Or it will be if I can get a bit of help.’

Jason looks at the two of them. He starts to move towards the kitchen bench, thinks better of it. ‘So, Waz tells me you gotta have some plonk with the food. What did you call it? Sabernet Caberno or something?’

A light chuckle as they carry plates to the table.

‘There’s a corkscrew over there if you wouldn’t mind, Jason.’

He does the business, uncorks and pours.

Seated, they each sip their wine. Jason grimaces then finishes the glass. He hates this stuff, but pours another glass anyway. Then sets about the food, shovelling the chicken and whatever-they-are onto his plate.

‘Don’t forget the broccoli, Jake!’

‘I wouldn’t dare, Mum. Good for the eyesight or something,’ he says.

They eat in silence for a moment.

‘Christ, Waz, this is actually, um…’

‘Good, isn’t it?”

‘Better than good.’

‘Yeah, well I suppose I’ve learnt a few things over the years. About cooking anyway.’

‘Guess you have. I’ll give you that. But still, besides the cooking…’ He stops, the thought short-circuited. He desperately wants to make a point but…

‘Don’t worry, Jason. He’s still the same old, um, Waz, I’m sure.’ She reaches over, pats her husband’s arm.

Jason squeezes the stem of the wine glass, takes another gulp, then shoves more chicken and chickpeas into his mouth, chewing quickly, the muscles in his jaw working overtime.

‘You know he still can’t wash dishes to save himself. He tries, but he doesn’t realize that half clean means half dirty. Did he have that problem in your day?’

‘My day?’ he says through a mouthful of chickpea mash. ‘Jesus.’ He drains his wine, reaches for the bottle. ‘Anyone?’ he says.

‘Sure, I’ll have a –’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’ The rim of the wine bottle has nudged her glass, the glass has toppled, the remaining wine washing over her, across her white blouse, onto her jeans.

She is on her feet, they all are, Jason a little more slowly than the others. ‘That’s okay,’ she says. ‘No worries. An accident. It’ll wash out. If I soak it… Anyway, I’ll just…’ She leaves, still talking, still brushing herself down with a napkin.

‘Not her fault, you know,’ says Warren.


‘It’s wrong to blame her.’

‘I’m not… But let’s face it. You used to be –’

‘And how about you, Jason?’ His voice is firm now, a little louder than it has been all night. ‘I’m figuring you haven’t changed much.’


‘Ha. To be honest, I didn’t mean it like –’

‘Anyway, I’ve changed. Changed jobs about a hundred times. Carpenter, car salesman, worked on a sheep property, was at a bakery for while, had a go on the docks. Changed homes often enough too. All up and down the coast, interstate, here and there. Changed women a few times too.’ He gives a wry shake of the head. ‘Or more to the point they just keep changing on me. They don’t hang around.’

‘Fancy that.’

‘Yeah, well…’

‘What’s the saying? Change is mandatory, growth is optional?’

Jason looks up, can’t quite read his old mate’s expression. ‘Whatever you say, Waz. Since when do you come out with psychobabble bullshit anyway? See? That’s the problem with you. Trying to be what you’re not. Leopard can’t change its spots, right? Just a damn shame you have to let yourself get, you know, what with the wife and kiddy and all.’

‘That’s better.’ She has a towel in her hands. She’s been drying her hair. An oversized T-shirt and a pair of tights cover her. ‘I had a quick shower. So, did you guys solve the problems of the world while I was gone?’

Jason looks from Linda to her husband. Warren is leaning back in his chair, his thick darkly tanned arms folded across his solid chest. His wine is barely touched.

‘See?’ says Jason. ‘You used to drink us under the table.’

‘Oh, he can still put it away, don’t worry about that.’

‘I work now, Jake. You know? A career.’

‘There you go…’

Warren sighs, a long low expulsion of air. ‘Speaking of work, it is getting on…’

‘Yeah. Better get moving.’

‘I’ll give you a run to the station. Let me get my keys.’

They stand, move towards the front door. Jason looks at the pictures on the hall wall, abstracts, blues and greys. Smudges and streaks. He opens his mouth, closes it. Linda too hasn’t spoken. Her arms are folded, the towel discarded.

‘Linda, you seen my keys?’

‘I thought they were on the dresser.’

‘Nope. I don’t know where…’

‘Try the coffee tables, over beside the sofa.’

He goes to take a look. Linda checks along the kitchen bench, by the sink, along the bookcase.

‘Hey, look, no problem guys. The bus stop’s not far. I remember the way. Nice night for a walk anyway.’

‘You sure you don’t mind?’

‘Mind? Why would I mind?’ His voice is light, chirpier than it’s been all night.

They say their farewells, promises to keep in touch. The door shuts behind him and he struggles through the yard, stumbling over the paving stones, out through the wall of cypress. A smile had spread across his face, then a chuckle. The chuckle catches, he laughs, a low stream of cackles running through him as he skips down the street.

‘Old Waz. Can’t even find his own car keys. What a guy. Hasn’t changed a bit.’


The Next Page

The term was over. The screaming kids, the sadistic teachers, the corruption, the glaring lack of principle. The examination period had been an ordeal, an eye-opening, cringe-inducing, downer. I stared out from my basic concrete hut adjacent to the school grounds and watched a flock of swallows swirl and dive and soar amongst the parched trees and dirt of the school yard. At least something found joy in this place.

I stood up and drifted down the main drive of the school, heading towards the entrance and the highway that led to the nearest dusty town. I gave silent thanks for today’s peace and quiet – no students, few teachers. A blessing. No one left to piss me off, no one left to make an enemy of. The term had left me ragged. I was frayed around the edges and I feared I had frayed the nerves of more than a few colleagues. Maybe I should really take this Buddhism stuff seriously, I thought – shave my head and eyebrows, throw on a robe, and find myself a nice secluded cave to sit in. Spend some time contemplating my navel. Anything for a bit of peace. The way I saw it, this damn world just kept rubbing me the wrong way. Too abrasive – me or the world, one or the other. I’d be better off just keeping my distance. Yeah, an isolated cave.

“Ah!” It was an involuntary shriek. Instantly pissed (again), I slammed my hand down on the shiny black bonnet of the oversized car that had just skidded to a halt inches from me. “The fuck you think you’re…? Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no…”

“Sorry about that.” He chuckled as he got out of the car. “Imagine that. Last time we met you were battered and bruised. And another few inches…”

“What? Is that a joke?”

“How’s it going, Lilly?” He was serious then, suddenly wanting to have a deep and meaningful. As if that was gonna happen.

I stared at him, arms folded. “What do you want from me now, Wit?”

“I want you to stay there while I park. How about that? Can you manage that?”

Where was I going to go? I waited. He was back in a minute or two.

“Let’s walk, Lill.”

“Hang on. What the hell are you doing here? I mean, how did you even know where I was?” I was incredulous, a thousand questions bobbling around my head.

The cheeky grin was delivered like a gift. Arsehole. He pointed towards a distant hill. “We’ll head out this way.”


“What do you mean ‘why’?”

“Why do you want to take me over there? So you can pull my pants down and have some fun again?”

He stopped, sheepishly looking at the ground. “I’m sorry, Lilly.”

“Yeah, well you’re always fucking sorry. Easy to say that, eh? Use me and then say sorry…”

“No, I mean I’m sorry you weren’t able to handle that situation with a little more, what, composure? Awareness?”

“You bastard. So it’s my fault?” We were walking now, too agitated to stand still any longer. We’d left the school grounds and begun winding our way through fields left fallow.

“Two responsible adults, Lilly. I don’t believe there was any trickery involved, no coercion; I didn’t force myself onto you. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I did check with you each step of the way, no?”

I didn’t want to hear this. “You took advantage of me…”

“How? Two consenting adults? Or would you prefer to be treated as a mindless adolescent who can’t take care of herself?” He took a step to the side and looked at me. “Look, we had a wonderful experience, okay? Why turn it into something dark and deceitful?”

“Damn it, Wit. I was tired, I was still recovering from the accident, and you…”

“What? I comforted you? I helped you feel better?”

“I wasn’t ready to go there.” The tears. I sure wasn’t ready for that. Just goes to show. I hated myself in that moment, my weaknesses, my inability to control my own fucking life, my own fucking emotions. I let Wit hold me, my own arms left dangling by my sides.

I looked up, still blubbering. “I thought I had things under control, and then…”

“And then you let yourself go. It’s not a sin, Lilly.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be like that.” The tears were flowing freely now.

“Hey, come on, Lilly, too many eyes are on us. Better straighten up.”

I looked up, swung around searching for the onlookers. I saw no one, but I heard the culprits.


“See? They’re staring. Telling us to get it together and move along. Nature’s police officers.”

“Sorry, cows.” We did move on. “I’d love a cave.”

“A cow?”

“Nuh. A cave.”



* * *

Slowly, slowly, I pulled myself together. The silence, the space, the stillness, it may even have been better than a cave. The walk, the company even, was calming. I’d been thrown off balance more than I cared to admit. Eventually an old, weather-beaten house came into view, a small shack really, made of greying planks of wood far older than I.

“Okay, now just stay here for a moment, alright?”


“Old friends. They live here. I always drop by when I’m around.”

“And you often wander by I guess.”

He snickered, pleased to see me coming back to life. “Nah. Once or twice a year.”

I found a shaded space and flopped down, happy to be on my own for a moment. A gentle breeze took the sting from the humid country air as I made myself comfortable on a thick patch of grass. I looked up. The sky was a brilliant blue, just a few wispy clouds drifting by. I allowed my mind to float away on the clouds, carrying me away to a simpler world, away from so many things I didn’t quite understand, so many things I couldn’t quite accept. I drifted away to a more clear-cut world where people were who they said they were, where things really were what they seemed. Damn it, why did I always find myself dumped in places where things were fucked up? Life wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t I catch a break? My mind plummeted back to the school. And to think Wit had somehow conspired to get me into this messed up education system!

I saw him then, handing over a brown paper envelope to the grizzled inhabitant of the house. They were standing in the dusty front yard, half hidden amongst a straggly collection of banana trees and papaya trees. There were elaborate bows and thank yous as Wit waied and walked away with a few final words over his shoulder. My mind seized up.

“Jesus, Wit. Another stuffed envelope? Who you paying off this time?”

“Always thinking the worst, eh, Lilly?” He sat down next to me. “The world’s always against you, right?”

“No! I didn’t say that.”

“But you think it.”

“No, I don’t.” I looked up at the sky again, a few more clouds had gathered. “It’s just that I seem to end up with people…”

“…who aren’t the way you want them to be.”

“Well yeah. Because they’re idiots, selfish fuckheads, and…”

“And you’re the only pure being with wholesome motives. An island of purity in a sea of filth and…”

“It’s not like that.”

“They’ll all mercenaries except for…”

“No! I mean… I don’t know.” Wit stared at me, his grin barely hidden. He let the silence linger, let the stink of my ignorance hang in the air for a while. “Okay, it’s not everyone, but you gotta admit – I do seem to get stuck with some pretty shitty people, right? I mean, shitty people doing shitty things. You can’t deny that.”

“Well, I can.” He shot me a look. He was provoking me, I was sure of it. But I was game.

“So you reckon I’ve actually been around a bunch of pure angels, eh?”

“Didn’t say that.”

“No? Then what the hell did you say?”

He stretched his legs out in front of him and leant back on his elbows. “Why do you expect to live in a fantasy land?”

“I don’t!”

“You expect beautiful loving people behaving just the way you want them to. You expect the world to bend itself into just the shape you’re comfortable with.”

“Hey, I just expect people to be decent.”

“Lots of decent people about, Lilly.”

“Oh, come on…”

“LOTS of decent people,” he said. “It’s just that you get blinded by the bad ones.”

“But it’s the whole system here that sucks, a system full of arseholes.”

“Up to a point, maybe. But look, if you always focus on the negative, you’re gonna end up bitter and twisted; you’ll be this ugly, sour old woman who doesn’t trust anything or anyone.”

“Great. Just ignore it all then. Who’s talking about fantasy land now?”

“Don’t ignore it. Acknowledge it. But honestly, Lill, acknowledge the good as well. Please don’t let the bad blind you to all the good stuff – the people really trying to do something worthwhile.”

“Oh, bloody hell.” I shook my head in annoyance. “Fact is, there’s not much of this ‘good stuff’ around here, mister. And besides, what the hell am I doing at this cesspit of a school anyway? Did you…?”

“Khun Adisak, the principal, speaking of good stuff. I assume you know him?”

“’Course I know him.” We were walking again now, my legs needed to move, needed to shake off the growing discomfort. “He’s a…”

“An old friend of mine. We did a little deal,” he went on.

“Oh, here we go.”

“That’s right. We collaborated in the hope that some good might come of it.” He glared at me. I refused to let him catch my eye. “He graciously allowed an unqualified, inexperienced foreigner to teach at his school, despite the risk to himself and his students.”

“Christ.” A thought struck me. “But I left you. In that shitty hotel room. How the hell did you know where I was going?”

“Come on, Lilly. A couple of calls to the bus station, got in touch with the pick-up driver. Pretty simple.”

“Christ,” I repeated. But I didn’t get it. “So what was in it for you? Just to know where you could find me?”

“You were looking for something, right? A chance to contribute, to be part of something, to play a role.”

“Yeah but I wasn’t looking for a shit situation where it was impossible to do anything.”

The idiot chuckled at that.

“There’s nothing funny about this, Wit. The kids here are getting screwed.”

“Lilly, I know what goes on. The point is you don’t seem to know what goes on. Or you didn’t until very recently. Welcome to the world, Lill!” He peeled a branch off a tree, complete with a bunch of leaves, and proceeded to slap my shoulder with it. “So you’ve been slapped in the face with one of life’s lessons. Hallelujah, let the education begin.” Another slap on the arm with the leaves. “I keep telling you, Lilly, you can either run away from the world and ignore everything or you can try to take it on. Take the second option and it’s gonna be a tough road ahead, granted. But in the long run you might just be able to make a small difference. Take the first option and you’ll never stop running.”

“Here we go again. More bullshit psychobabble. So what – if I don’t set out to change the world I become this pathetic waste of space?”

“Didn’t say that. None of us really change the world.” Another slap with the leaves.

“So what’s the point? Why not just admit defeat and move on?”

“Okay, my hard-edged little friend. First of all, where do you move on to? You still think you’re gonna find this perfect idyllic place?” Slap. “Dummy. It doesn’t exist.” Slap. “Second, just because you mightn’t be able to change the world doesn’t mean you have to admit defeat.”

“Ah, yes, so it’s the old bang-your-head-against-the-brick-wall kind of strategy.” I nodded sagely before snatching the damn bush from Wit’s hands and offering a little pay-back.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, Lilly. My God, your world is so black and white! Look, here’s what I’d love you to do. Stay at the school, keep working here for the next semester at least. See what you can do. See how you might make an impact in some small way. I’ll make sure your salary’s paid. Is it enough, by the way?”

“Huh? What? No… Seriously?”

“You think the school has the budget to pay your salary?” He looked at me with disdain. Damn. So much I hadn’t considered. And then the obvious struck me.

“Okay then, Wit. You say I ought to find out where I can make a difference. Well I already know.”

“Go on then. Hit me.” I did. With the leaves. “Not with that. Give it here. Next thing I know you’re going to be trying to flog me to death.”

“Here’s the problem at the school: to do well in the exams, the kids’ families have to pay money to this bullshit building fund. If they don’t…”

“Yep. Got it. And you want me to top up the building fund so their parents won’t have to.”

“Um, well, yeah. Why not?”

“Simple as that, eh? I’d love to believe you. Trouble is, there’d always be something. Money for computers. Money to improve the grounds. New furniture. Something.”

“It’s a small country school. They don’t need too much.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

My head was down. I kicked a chunk of dirt on the side of the trail. “Ow!” Turned out to be a rock.

“Look, even if giving more money to the school would help, I wouldn’t do it, and you know why?”

“Nope, but I reckon you’re gonna tell me.”

“Because that would be me doing something. The question is, what can you do to make a difference? Can you do something other than throw money at the problem?”

“Bloody hell, Wit. I’ve done what I can. I tried. I struck out. I made a fool of myself trying to get things happening here. I don’t think these people even want to change things.”

“You struck out. And what was your attempt at –?”

“A new style of teaching. Change it all around. Turn it on its head. All the damn repetition, the rote learning. Got rid of it. Tried to introduce games, activities, little adventures and stuff.”


“What? Not overnight. During the English classes.”

“No, dummy. I mean you tried to change all that in one go? All at once?”

I shrugged.

“And it wasn’t the huge, revolutionary success you had expected it to be.”

I shrugged again.

“Change is hard.”

“Change is impossible when people don’t even want change anything. They’ve all given up. It’s like they’re just gonna stick their heads in the sand forever.”

Wit let out a long sigh. He tipped his head back, eyes on the sky. “So after less than one term, you’ve figured it all out then, have you? It’s all sorted. A closed book. Time to move on.”

“I threw myself into this, Wit. I mean, I really committed, I gave it my best.”

“I know that. But you’ve just started. End of round one. You know we were saying before that you were about to start a new chapter of your life? Well, you’ve barely written the first page.” He picked up the pace now as the school’s lights came into view. The dark had crept up on us. “As I said, Lill, you can either slam the book shut or keep the pages turning.” He stopped, smile gone, lighthearted banter a thing of the past. “You had your first lesson. What did you learn?” Wit stopped, reached out, took me by the wrists. “Write the next page, Lilly. Do it. See what you can be done here.”

“It’s impossible.”

“You identified limitations. Great. You’re less ignorant than before. Use that.”

“All I know is that it can’t be done.”


“Not great. It can’t be done. Nothing can be done.”

“Thought you said ‘it’ can’t be done.”


“So change the ‘it’. You keep asking the wrong question.”

“And what’s the right question?”

“What can be done? Given the situation, the people, their background, their needs. What can be done?”

“I just told you that –”

We were moving again. We had taken a turn, moved along another dirt track. The last of the light was going, the moon behind us.

“Hey, where’s this going, Wit?”

“I don’t know.”

“So why are we…?” My words ran out.

“Why are we taking it? Is that your question? We’re taking it because it moves us forward. And if we don’t take it, we’ll never know where it might have led.”

I stood still. I didn’t want to take another step; I couldn’t bear to be where I was.

“It’s the only way. Just takes a little leap of faith – and yes, a whole heap of patience.”

I watched him walk off. “I’ve tried. I’ve already done my best.” He was way ahead of me now. “I’ve failed,” I said to no one, slapping at the mosquitoes that had suddenly attacked. “I’ve failed.”

He circled back, hands in pockets, moved behind me.

“Shitty trail. Overgrown. Kind of rocky too. Better take it slow.”

I sighed, took a step. I was moving again, in the dark now.

It felt better than not moving at all.


I see her; she doesn’t see me. She would have rushed right by if I had not struggled over to her, lunged with my right hand, seized her wrist as she was almost past.

I hear her gasp. The shock, the surprise. Understandable.

Her mind was elsewhere. Of course it was. I could see it in her eyes, fixed as they were on a point only she could see. But it is her, it is. I knew from her stride, if nothing else. That long loping gait, despite the heels, despite the tight fitting woollen skirt, the black tights beneath, despite the heavy gabardine jacket flowing out from her. I am used to seeing such clothing, flaunted by the beautiful ones as they rush past, off to their secret worlds, to their places of ostensible importance. She is like them, far too much like them.

She is harried, that much is true. It is sad to see. I always hoped for better, although I never expected it. Not with the way she had begun to change, even way back then. She made her choice, took her path.

But it is still her, still unmistakeably her.

Her glance tells a story, the usual story. Of horror, repulsion, disgust. Attention rapidly shifting from me back to her own far more significant life. Oh yes, I catch the instant – from repugnance to dismissal, her mind already far ahead. I catch it all in a second. She is busy, too busy for this gauche interruption, eager only to race onward towards some self-imposed goal.


I mean it as a whisper, as a purr. It comes out as a croak. More used to keeping my own council that accosting passersby.

The gasp, the double take. Oh, I understood. Pulled from her reverie, yanked back to the moment. The sudden crush of ugly, unvarnished now, this empty barren moment. It breaks my heart.

“You don’t remember.”

Her blank stare, the shift from the future to the bitter now, the glance onward, wishing she were already there. No, I think, this is not the way it should be. A little reverence for what was, please!

“It’s Raymond.” I nod. “Yes, that Raymond. The only one.” Hubris, perhaps, but this is Julia. Julia!

“Raymond… Right, well look, I’m sorry, I’m late for –”

“1996, 97. Northwestern University. You were different then,” I say, studiously avoiding any tone of judgement. No accusatory look from me, not on your life.

A dawning recognition.

“Yes, you remember. The humanities. Or human-ites, as we used to call them. Humanity, not as in compassion, love, empathy, but as in the human condition, as in society and culture, the general mess generations have made of the human condition, hiding their hatred, their tribalism, their insecurities behind the shield of culture, ensuring a cloak of invisibility for the individual, granted a pass from the need for that other type of humanity. ‘It’s not me,’ they say, ‘it’s just the culture.’”

I chuckle. Like the old university days again. It never leaves. Or at least it never left me. The passion, the academic curiosity, the idealism. It feels good to let it out. Damn it, I needed the release.

And then I look up at her. Mouth hanging open, a look in her eyes. Not the same look, not a look I even recognize in my Julia. Concern? Horror mixed with alarm?

“Humanity indeed,” I say unbidden, flustered now, uncertain. I clear my throat, aware of the torrent of words with which I have flooded her. “My apologies,” I say with a small bow. “Listen to me, eh? I do go on. Always did.”


“Yes, but…”

“We were young…”

“Oh, Julia. That is no defence. Never dismiss the actions of the young; never belittle the youthful mind. That is where worlds are made. It is there that unrivalled potential lies. The young see what’s possible – beyond what’s possible.”

She shuffles, shifts her weight, one high-heeled shoe and then the other. She pulls her hand from my grasp, uses it to pull her jacket more tightly around her. She looks cold, as if she is unused to the elements.

“Well,” she says, looking around me, looking through me, “you can only dream for so long.”

“One year and seven months.”


“The length of your dreaming. Perhaps less. Certainly less. Yes, you had lost the sparkle in those final months, given up the ghost. Philosophy, sociology – you had shut them out. Only languages sustained you. Parles-tu Français?

A smile. Or a grimace. “I do, Raymond. I work for the UN these days. I spend a lot of time in Brussels.”

“You’ve done well for a drop-out.” It hurts me to say it. Yes, she had dropped out, but I know. I knew the moment I saw her clothes, her long strides, her head held high, her gaze fixed on the horizon. I knew.

“Actually, I went back to –”

“Of course. Sorbonne?”

“Paris Sciences Et Lettres.”

“Oh. And from there?” I don’t want to know, can’t bear to know. But like watching the aftermath of a train wreck, one finds it hard to turn away.

“Private sector. HR mainly. Multinationals. Did some interpreting. Ended up at the UN. I’m here doing some consulting. Look, I really have to get moving. I…”

“But what have you done?” There is an edge to my voice. It betrays me. “I’m sorry,” I add as quickly as I can. “Excuse the tone, Julia. How have you come along?”

“Excuse me?”

“How are you?”

“Look, Raymond…”

“How are you? It’s been so long…”

“Everything is fine. I’m respected. I have my staff…” She looks at me, weighing it up, considering. Decision made, I see the hardness enter her eyes. I can feel her growing, straightening, getting taller. Head held high, she quickly pushes a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m working with the World Intellectual Property Organization. We promote the protection of  intellectual property. That’s what I do – I administer treaties,” she says, starting to run out of steam, “concerning the protection of intellectual property rights. That sort of thing. Not that you care…”

“Oh, Julia. Seek not the favour of the multitude but seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them. Do you remember?”

“Emmanuel Kant.”

“It used to be yours. Your motto.”

“Yeah, well I don’t have that luxury anymore, Raymond. International treaties mean consensus building.”

“Do you remember – we used to sit on that bench under the sycamores. Even when it was getting cold.”

“You never used to feel the cold.” She smiles. A fleeting thing, her mind presumably taken back. And then she looks me over, really looks me over, and takes an involuntary half-step back.

“No, I’m pretty much impervious to the cold,” I say. “Would it be melodramatic to say that has kept me alive?”

Her mouth is open, she is shaking her head slightly. I’m losing her, she’s slipping away.

“Back then, we had each other,” I say. “To sustain us. That’s what we said. With each other we had the strength to stay the course, to stay true. We were solid enough to –”

“To stand firm against the changing tide.”

“Yes. Never give up the good fight!”

“And how has that worked out?” Her face is hard. One hand has gone to her hip. It’s not a question; it’s an accusation. I let it go.

“We fight our battles, Raymond,” she says, her voice low and firm. “But you can’t take on the whole world.”


“No. Not unless you’re prepared for the world to beat you up,” she says, eyes scanning me from top to bottom.

I take a step back, almost wish she would leave. I’m hurt by her words, battered by them, momentarily exposed to a feeling I thought I had submerged forever.

“I have stood firm. I have stayed true. My life is lived on my terms and that is enough.”

“Oh, Raymond.”

There’s pity there. It kills me. Anything but that. I weaken, feel something melting, feel myself sinking.

“One does what one has to to survive,” I say, all too aware of the fragility of my words. I take a breath, regain control. “I would think you would be well aware of that, no?” I take a step, spread my legs a little, feeling the toes of my left foot push up against the end of my boot. I stuff a hand deep into my pocket, feel the clammy grime of my leg. None of it matters. The steal has returned. I’m strengthened, rearmed. “I have seen things, Julia, learned things. I have followed a path. It is not for me to say where that should lead.”


“It’s too late now.”

Once again she pushes her long, shiny black hair behind an ear, tilts her head. She is no longer recoiling, no longer mentally pushing past, discarding me. She has stopped, settled, allowing herself to be here, despite it all.

“Raymond, you had the mind. Not me. You saw things, you had principles. The system – you saw how it worked, understood it better than anyone.”

It’s the past tense that kills. Even I use it these days. What I was…

“You know, we were great together back then. We could have done anything. But you always wanted…” I hesitate. “You always wanted to be part of it. The whole corrupt system – you fell for it.”

She opens her mouth, eyes sparkling. Here it comes. The defence. The finger will be pointed, the voice raised. But it doesn’t happen. “I needed a partner. Someone to hold my hand. You couldn’t see that. Raymond, I needed your hand in mine. But you were too busy picking a fight with the world.”

There is sadness in her voice. I hate her for it. I feel it invade me, quickly shut off that valve, close it down, block it off. Used to that now, I shrug, give nothing more away. “I have lived a life.”

That stops her. She looks at me, then looks ahead, checks her watch. She sighs. It’s almost imperceptible, but I catch it, watch her as she decides. Two quick steps past, a hesitation. She turns to her left, hand simultaneously delving into the slim leather bag that hangs from her shoulder. She doesn’t look, simply digs her hand into the bag, takes two more steps across the sidewalk to the boarded up shop front. She bends down. There is a small yellow children’s bucket there (no spade.) Her hand opens, bills flutter down. In a flash she had straightened.

“Please, Raymond. Just…”

She cannot finish. There is nothing to say. The end is written. She knows it just as I do.

I shuffle back to my wall, hand involuntarily going back into the pocket of my trousers, through the pocket, through the pulled-apart stitching. I scratch at my balls. The rash is playing up again. I don’t mind. So I scratch. Gives me something to do. My knee is always stiff and sore these days. I hobble, lurch to the left then straighten, lurch then straighten. I have the devil’s own time getting down onto my piece of cardboard.

Roughly pulling the bucket to me, I peer in. The groan is audible. I don’t know why. It doesn’t matter anymore. It never did, or at least that’s the story I tell myself.

Using the wall behind me, I edge myself back up, wobble, steady myself. With hand on the boarded up shop front for balance, I swing my good leg, kick the bucket away. Its contents spill onto the icy pavement. The wind has picked up. The notes are briefly airborne, fluttering, tumbling across the ice.

Looking away, I run a hand over my face, feel the bags under my eyes. My beard is itchy, as it so often is. I scratch at it, hard, dirty fingernails, scrapping against the skin beneath. They tell me the beard is grey now, uncut for years. It hides me. Hides my efforts, my failures. It hides the scars.

There’s an underpass a half mile ahead where the trains hurtle over. Sometimes people loiter there and smoke. Sometimes I find butts, half cigarettes. It’s worth a look.



The Last to Know


She waits, her feet slightly twisted on the cool white tiles. They’ve told her to keep her slippers on but she fears they’ll get wet. That’s what she told the nurses anyway. She wonders why she has to disobey them. She never was like this. She assumes it’s age, the yearning for the control she can feel slipping away. Or maybe she was just feeling ornery, a petulant child wanting to kick up a fuss.

The water takes an age to warm up, her hand stretched out intermittently to check the temperature. She never could abide cold water, not since that very first time when she had come to understand its power, its danger. Her first summer camp down the coast, the beach going on for miles. Thin arms and legs pale in her one-piece, goose bumps up and down. The first days of summer, the sun was out but the spring chill was right there behind it. Her girlfriends’ screams and yelps filled her ears as she tiptoed to the edge of the water, white froth snaking around their feet. The icy water snapping at their toes, the girls backtracking fast, kicking up sand as they went.

They dared each other. “On the count of three,” said Ellie, the class leader. “Ready? Ready? You can’t chicken out, okay?”

Together they chanted: “One, two, three! Last one in’s a rotten egg!”

The charge, young feet kicking up sand, splashing across the shallows, stumbling into the churning surf. Her first time at the beach, in the sea, in waves, cold and daunting. Gasping for air, she swum wildly, following in her friends’ wake.

It came on her like a shot, muscles tensing and tightening, exploding with pain. Paralysed by cramp, she was transformed. The carefree, liberated woman gone, giving way to her true self: the timid, fearful adolescent she knew she would always be. Emptied of all the earlier bluster, this was what was left: panic and dependence.

She screamed manically, each shout interrupted by another mouthful of sea, another tug from the ocean below. The arms, coming from everywhere, latching onto her, pulling, pushing, dragging her to shore. Surrounded by teachers, her girlfriends peering from behind them, she shrunk, a diminished girl still so utterly dependent on those more competent than her.

Macy shakes free of the memory. Kicking off her slippers, she totters into the shower stall, impatient, annoyed, feeling the tepid, lukewarm water rush over her. She is in then out. Wet now, she waits for the shower to warm up properly, water running down her soft and sagging torso. She feels it dripping from her legs, from between her legs. She wipes it with the palm of her hand and is transported once again.

Another shower, long ago, she’s panicked, barely holding it together, right on the edge of hysteria. A cry of fear escapes her, hushed at first, then louder, more urgent. She is desperate for help, yet too embarrassed to want to see another soul ever again. What’s wrong with her? Why her? Visions of hospitals and operations, of imposing metal equipment and white walled surgeries; doctors and nurses peering at her, their grave faces reflecting her own.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Macy.”

Her mother is there, an apparition appearing from nowhere. Gratitude floods through her.

“What on earth? Here.” She reaches across and turns off the shower then hands her daughter a towel. But Macy is too overwhelmed to take it. She has sunk to the ground, knees pulled up under her chin, arms wrapped around them, refusing to see the horror between her legs.

“Oh Macy. Well, you’re a woman now.” Her mother’s voice is matter-of-fact, bordering on impatient. “Guess you’re all grown up.” She sighs, crouches unsteadily beside her daughter, taking her hand. “The boys’ll be knocking down the door before we know it.”

Still staring at the shower stall, the rush of water cooling the air around her, Macy recalls a song:

The middle sister gets her period blood

The flood of love, the flood of love.

Well, she never felt it. The next day she was still a child, still desperate for her mother’s love. The hand-holding in the shower, a rare compassionate touch, it hadn’t lasted. How could it when the wine glass sat unfinished in the hall? Her mother’s love was always directed to the nearest chardonnay. The flood of love… Barely a trickle. And certainly no knocks on the door.

No, the knocks never came. For that she was almost glad. You can hide a drunken mother as long as she stays at home.

So it was Macy who went knocking.

She glances up at the steady stream of water, sticks her hand back under it. The temperature barely registers. She hops under it regardless, tired of the wait, impatient now.

An older boy, he wasn’t the handsome man of her dreams. Shorter than her, gaunt, close set eyes that seemed to look anywhere but at her. He was a loner. It was what had drawn them together, although she was fully aware that only one of them was that way by choice. He ran, alone. Miles and miles around the track. She would wait for him, watch him jog lap after lap, an occasional hand raised in acknowledgment making her day. The silent vigil led to more: meals at the university cafeteria, energy drinks at the local cafe. He even invited her to his races: the Bluefields 10k, the Meadows Half-Marathon, the Great North Run. She would travel the state with him, his silent cheer squad. They talked little. She told herself that was fine, that he was the taciturn sort. But she never knew, never got a sense of what he was thinking. So his pronouncement came as a shock.

“Going soon.”

“What?” That fear, that child-like fear of loss. She had thought she might have out-run it, but there it was beside her. “Going where?”


She stood, moved towards him at the edge of the track, handing him a towel.

“Nothing happening here. I quit my job.”

He had worked at the sawmill having dropped out of university after a single semester.

“Why’d you quit?”

“Couldn’t hack it. Not for me.”

She looked at him, this boy of aromas, of sawdust, sweat, and suntan lotion. What was for him, she wondered?

“Gotta get out of here.”

“Why? Where you going?”

“Think I’ll try Indonesia. Bali, you know.”

Macy’s mouth hung open. She hadn’t ever imagined.

“You coming?”


“Why not? Let’s do it. Leave it all.”

“But… Now? How can I?”

But she could, she did. A dead-end typist job was no more a restraint than a drunken mother and a disengaged father. Hell, she spent half her time trying to avoid the two of them as it was.

Bali. It hit her hard. A cacophony of sounds bowled her over – hawkers with their bells and shouts, motorcycles roaring past her, music from a thousand shops and stalls. The sights and smells did her in completely, the smoke from sate on the grill, woks spitting, the scent of a thousand clove cigarettes, the crush of people all sharing the non-existent sidewalk. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t seem to focus. Her head spun, her throat tightened. She felt like crying, her six year old self let loose again. She held on – what else could she do? – squeezing her boyfriend’s hand until it turned an ugly shade of blue. He led, up and down the streets, to cafes, bars, the beach, then side roads lined with coconut trees, tight little lanes with lush gardens obscuring delicate little houses.

Slowly her shoulders dropped, her grip loosened, her eyes began to focus. The sights toned down just enough for her to see them clearly, the smells a touch less pungent, the noise a little more subdued. She felt the thought break through, wrapping itself around her: “I’m coping. I’ve done it. I can make it in a new world after all.”

Macy grew taller, broader, filling up more space, more solid on the ground. “After everything,” she thought, “this is what it feels like to be a woman, an adult taking charge.”

A little smile escaped her. She threw her shoulders back, her head held high, her eyes set straight ahead. “Ted,” she said, “I’m going for a walk. No, that’s okay. You stay here. Yeah, I’ll be fine. No worries. I know what I’m doing.”

She inched along the roadside, that narrow strip of gravel between wooden shops and asphalt. The tinny whine of Western pop songs invaded her from a row of cheap cassette tape shops, a soundtrack for a parade of dashing local lads. Tanned bodies, slim hips, brilliant shining eyes and smiles, a certain swagger as they sauntered down the road, cigarette in hand or mouth. Another smile, a gentle arm gracefully laid on hers. Then a shoulder almost pulled from its socket, her arm flying out, her grip on her bag loosening, giving way.


She ran, blinded by sweat and tears, by countless staring people, by colours and sounds and beautiful Balinese youths, none of them with her bag. She had walked for hours after that, too timid to report the crime, too scared to tell her man. He wasn’t the violent sort, but he wasn’t known for patience or understanding either.

Macy rubs her hands hard across her face, washing away the soapy water, remembering the soot and dirt and grime and sweat of that Balinese debacle. A little girl again, she had called her dad collect. He got her home, saved his little girl with barely a word. Just that slow shake of the head at the airport reminding her of her place in the world. Life as a protected, clueless daughter seemed assured.

The knock on the bathroom door brings her back. “You right there, Macy?”

“Oh, yes. Won’t be long.” They check up on her, barely give her a minute alone. Lord knows she had to just about throw a fit to be allowed to shower without someone in the bathroom with her.

Rededicated to the business of washing, she soaps and scrubs her sagging breasts, her soft flabby stomach. She feels the scar, runs her finger along its length. It’s all but hidden now, a faint physical reminder that she too became a mother, a wife too although that was never going to last. About as close as you can get to an arranged marriage, she thinks to herself. They had met through friends of friends, two thirty-somethings still at home, parents at their wits’ end. Macy had known the score. Pass this one up and you might never be forgiven – that was the message. Take him or else, nothing better is coming along. Evidently he was told the same.

Two uncertain, doubtful people trying to make it work the only way they knew. Raelene was born before the end of their first year together. Geoffrey was gone by the start of the second.

“She’s sleeping,” he had said on that fateful day.

“Thank God.”

“It’s quiet.”

“It is.” A smile, a thought. “Come on then, Geoffrey. While we’ve got a bit of time.” She took his hand, led him from the baby’s room.

Once in the hallway, Geoffrey pulled away.

“What is it?”

“Not now.”

“Then when? She’ll sleep for a few hours now at least.”




An involuntary step back, her hand slipping from his.

“I can’t. I mean…” A deep breath, an averting of the eyes. “I mean, it’s not me.”

“But little Raelene…”

“I know. I tried. But I can’t live a lie. I know that now.”

He was gone by the morning, taking with him any hope she had of ever staying afloat.

Macy lets her forehead come to rest on the hard white tiles beside her. She no longer feels the steaming water pounding on her shoulders. The shower stall engulfs her, squeezing in on her. She fights the familiar panic, her heart rate already through the roof. Those days, wild with fear, so completely unprepared, doubting every little thing. Who was she to be left with a young life on her hands? She had barely learnt to take care of herself, let alone a little one still new to the world. A deluge of tears following over the years – both her own and her daughter’s. So ill-equipped to play mother. She would stare at her child, anticipating drama, anticipating diseases, accidents, horrid wrong decisions that might just leave a child scarred for life. Paralysed by fear, dazed and overwhelmed, she would watch the other mothers at the mall, unsuccessfully trying to copy their calm and deliberate ways. Where were the shaky hands, the sweaty palms, the crazy beating heart and wild eyes she saw when looking in the mirror? Who were these superwomen so different from herself?

Macy feels the water now as it attacks the back of her neck, feels her tight muscles soften just a touch. During those early years of Raelene’s life her mother’s presence would do the same. A real life stress reliever allowing Macy to slip back into adolescence, useless, dependent, hopelessly reliant. Her mum had somehow pulled back from the brink, keeping the wine at a distance at least until after dark. Silently, she had been there, taking over, leading the way.

Until she wasn’t there anymore.

Cancer, of course. She had said it over and over after Raelene’s birth: I might cut down on the booze but a woman needs a vice, otherwise what’s the point? It was a quick decline, cigarettes by her side until the end, gone before Macy had time to grow into her new role. She never did, not as far as she could see. She was destined to remain unformed, a child in a world of capable others.

“Macy, love?”

“Okay. Won’t be long.” She realizes the soap is still held tightly in her hand. Has she washed? She isn’t sure, can’t quite remember.


“Okay, okay. Almost done.”

“She’s here,” says Jackie, her Fijian nurse, or aid, or whatever she’s called this week. Oh yes, she’s her PSW – her personal support worker. Too much support in her opinion. “Macy? You hear me? She’s here.”

“She’s… Oh yes. Okay then.” Her daughter, Raelene. It must be Tuesday. No wonder they bundled her into the shower so early in the day. Still a child, she thinks; still being told what to do after all these years.

Macy emerges from the shower, towels herself with shaky hands.

“Take your time, love,” says Jackie from just outside the door. “She’s gone for a coffee. No need to rush.”

But she does. Of course she does. Macy knows what her daughter will think, what she has always thought: her hopeless incapable mum. All these years and she still can’t manage her life. And she’s right. Everything takes longer now. She does her best, always goes as fast as she can. But she can’t keep up. Never really could. But now she just falls further and further behind.

“Come on, Macy. Calm down now. I’ve laid out some nice clothes for you. How about those blue slacks with the yellow blouse. Rae bought that for you, didn’t she? Last Christmas. You remember, don’t you?”

“Oh yes,” she says, doing her best to get dressed with Jackie’s help. “Last Christmas, yes, of course.” These sorts of memories are vague, subsumed under all the failures in her life.

“Hi, Mum.” She’s there, bustling in the way she does. A hug, things thrown on the bed – bags, her purse, a book.

“Sorry,” struggles Macy. “I was showering. I lost track…”

“No problem, Mum.”

“Not so steady on my feet these days. A bit slow getting things done, especially in the shower. Don’t want to slip at my age.” She talks like this with Raelene. Her conversation an apology. “I try to stay focused. One thing at a time. That’s what you said, wasn’t it, Jackie? My mind wanders unfortunately. I get a bit sidetracked sometimes.”

She looks up at the sound. Raelene chuckling to herself. A deep throaty gurgle that seems to run through her entire oversized body. “That’ll be the day.” She moves to her mother, encases her with her thick arms, engulfs her in a body twice the size of her own.

Macy smiles, content in this cacoon, although unsure of exactly what this daughter of hers is so tickled by.

“Mum, you’re the most focused person I know. And the most organized. I can’t imagine you ever getting sidetracked.”

“But –”

“Don’t you remember – all those school years? Every other kid used to worry about stuff –would their parents remember to sign the release form for the school excursion? Would they get their costume sewn up in time for the school play? Would their mums contribute cakes or cookies or something for the fete? Would someone drive them to the sleep-over? And then there was me – never a worry. Because you were on to it, you had it all together, always.”

“No, dear. I never did. I was just so scared, so afraid of being left behind.”

“They envied you.”

Macy takes a step back, confused, befuddled. “Who?”

“My friends. Their mums too. You scared them. On your own but twice as competent as the best of them.”

Macy sits on the edge of the bed, head spinning. “Me?”

“Yes! You were the one they envied. You were the one who got things done. That’s the way it always was.”

Jackie returns, catches Raelene’s remarks. “You take after your mum, Rae. I’ve always thought that. A force of nature.” She puts her hands on her hips, looks from mother to daughter. “The two of you. Pieces of work, I tell you.”

Stuck on the edge of the bed, Macy blinks, once, twice, and wonders. Life. I grew up, she thinks, I guess I did. Well fancy that. She feels a tear trickle down her cheek, doesn’t care. She’s made it; somehow, she’s made it. And she never even knew.



Do Not Leave Unattended

Slept like a log. Long trip with the tour group yesterday. We took the coach from Singapore up here to Penang. What a bore. Hours on the road, stuck in my seat, only Mrs. Cheryl Chen beside me for company. She’s alone too. And will remain so as far as I am concerned. I now know more than I care to know about the real estate market, thanks very much. Not my thing. But each to their own. There are thirty-two of us on the trip. I’m counting on a few of them being a bit more interesting than Mrs. Chen. I mean, you never know. Lots of singles take these tours nowadays.

Anyway, before I left they told me I was supposed to mingle, make friends, broaden my horizons and all that. My wife passed some years back. She had told me the same. Harold, she said, after I’m gone, you get out there. Don’t you dare mope around this place forever. So I do as she says. Always did. It’s just that people are difficult. Or at least difficult for me. I’m more interested in nature. Things that don’t talk back, things that don’t have issues.

Still, I try. Morning. The hotel’s breakfast buffet. I’ve already learned about Bev Watson’s Basset Hounds back in Devon. I am now aware of George Falcon’s passion for model trains. Did you know that the hard part is getting them to run slowly? Life turned on its head if you ask me. Millie Woostencraft made my acquaintance. She is here with her sister. They take a trip together every year – then spend the other eleven months patching up their differences. Ben Jarmin told me that. Don’t know where he fits in. He pulled me aside near the bread station. Don’t mention the cards, he said, eyes darting in Millie’s direction. The cards? What – bridge? Gin rummy? Bloody tarot cards? But he had wandered off to find the marmalade.

I make my own escape not long after, back to my room to prepare. Penang Hill today, so they tell me. Cable car up, long walk down. Don’t be fooled, they said, it’s tough going. But I’m prepared. Always am. I check my lightweight utility vest laid out on the bed, go through the pockets. Pen and notebook, smart phone, mints, compass – they’re all there. I’ve got my Canon around my neck, a 56 pixel EOS 5Ds, but other pockets contain the spare AA batteries, a spare memory card, wet wipes, lens cleaner. There’s a hook for my sunglasses and my floppy hat is on my head. I put on my boots and head out, ready.

People are milling around the front of the hotel, the bus idling beside us. Little groups, cliques, are already forming. You can see it – closed circles. They might just as well be holding up ‘no vacancy’ signs. I look around, sidle up to Ben Jarmin, wondering whether I should return to the subject of cards. He is with another man, dressed in shorts with a red baseball cap. He’s introduced as Greg Kazantidis.

‘Four seasons in one day,’ says Ben. ‘That’s what they say about this Penang Hill.’

‘How’s that?’ I ask, but Greg waves away my question.

‘Nah, four seasons in the tropics? Only three here.’

‘Right. Hot, hotter and hottest, right?’ I say, offering a light guffaw to indicate my inclusive, self-depreciating humour.

Greg looks at me. ‘No. Actually it’s hot, cool, and rainy.’

‘I see.’

‘Listen, you’ve got an interesting chin,’ says Ben, changing the subject.

It throws me. I reach up, feel it, run my fingers along the dimple there.

‘Ought to sketch you sometime. Unusual bone structure,’ he goes on. ‘What are you – Greek?’

Greg snorts, fold his arms, rolls his eyes. I figure I’m not allowed in that club either.

I look for an escape. The Woostencraft sisters are deep in whispered conversation, George Falcon, the model train man, is checking out the tyres on the waiting bus, others avoid eye contact. I nip back into the hotel lobby, to the lift, back to my room. Kazantidis’ smarty-pants comment has got me thinking. I throw open my suitcase, hunt around, pull out my poncho, still in its packet. Perfect for showers. Light, easy to carry, covers the upper body as well as the backpack and camera. I throw it into the backpack and head out again, an eye on the time. I’m a bit late, but there’s always one.

* * *

There’s movement beside the bus. Our tour guides, Ms. Eunice and Mr. Lionel, are deep in thought next to its front door. Their heads are buried in a clipboard, sheets of paper being flipped over methodically.

‘What’s up?’ I say to the person next to me. I guess she’s late middle age, her auburn hair left long, too long. It frames her face, highlights the worry lines on her forehead and in the corners of her mouth, brings out her freckles.

‘AWOL,’ she says.


‘Some arsehole’s gone missing.’

‘Yeah? Who?’

She swings around half a step, peers at me from over her glasses. They aren’t worry lines, I notice. They are something more ferocious.

‘I mean, do they know who’s disappeared?’

With all the patience of a saint she explains that no, they do not know. That, in fact, is the crux of the current problem.

‘So how do they know someone’s missing?’

The pained look intensifies. ‘They did a frickin’ head count earlier.’

‘Maybe they should do another one.’

She whips her glasses off from the edge of her nose, throws her head around the way women do, her long hair flying out and then back perfectly into place. ‘Little bloody late for that now,’ she says. ‘Mr. Horwitz thinks some jerk-off might still be at the buffet. So she’s gone to have a look. And those two pain-in-the-butt sisters. Know them?’

‘I have made their –’

‘Eunel and Linice sent them up to knock on doors.’

Who sent them?’

With just the hint of a smile she leans in close. The proximity takes me by surprise. I sway backwards. ‘Our fearless leaders up there.’ She’s pointing to Lionel and Eunice, still deep in consultation with each other.

‘Well, shit,’ she says. ‘Looks like we’re stuck here. Might as well go freshen up.’ Another toss of the head, hair billowing as she and moves off towards the hotel lobby. Only now do I notice the short skirt inadequately covering vein-encrusted legs.

I peel my eyes away. Ben Jarmin is still there, khaki shorts and hiking boots, big floppy hat to match. Greg smart-arse Kazantidis and his red cap are right there next to him. Bev Watson from Devon is there, staring into her smart phone, possibly admiring pictures of her Bassett Hounds. What about George Falcon? He’s no longer examining the coach’s tyres. I can’t spot him. I move over towards Bev. The Hounds disappear.

‘Where’s George Falcon?’

‘George who?’

‘Falcon. Short man, liver spots, thin grey hair.’

‘I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.’

‘Well, he’s not around.’

‘Don’t worry, dear…’

‘But he was here…’

She looks back at me, the way you might look at a Bassett Hound still not quite house-trained.

‘Maybe I should report it,’ I say. ‘To Eunice and Lionel.’

‘Perhaps you should if you’re that worried.’

‘I’m not worried.’

But I do, I march up to the front of the bus and give my news.

‘George who?’ says Lionel.

‘Falcon. Short guy, liver spots. Thin grey hair.’

They check their clipboard. I wonder if they have descriptions of each of us written there.

‘He’s not here?’

‘No. He was. But now he’s gone.’


‘Well obviously…’ I catch myself. ‘He’s into trains. Maybe buses and coaches too. I saw him studying the wheels on the bus.’

They look at me.

‘What?’ I say.

‘He studies wheels?’

‘I don’t know. He likes them I guess. And trains.’

‘No trains here.’


‘Plenty of buses though,’ says Lionel.

‘Buses lah!’ intones Eunice. ‘Please. Can you check the buses? The wheels…’ We look around simultaneously. There are buses leading out from the hotel, others parked across the four lane highway in front of us. ‘Maybe he is inspecting.’

I shrug, prepare to make my way across the street.

‘Wait first.’

Eunice and Lionel share a word, take another look at their clipboards.

‘Hello? Hello? One, two, three,’ says Eunice at the top of her voice, clapping along with the count, ‘look at me, look at me. One, two, three, look at me.’

We do. Incredibly we do. I look at my fellow travellers, some with eyes rolling, most with the wide-eyed devotion saved especially for those tasked with leading the way in a foreign land.

‘Everything is fine,’ she begins. The group erupts, pressure released, the crowd instantly drifting forward towards the door of the bus. ‘But first… Please! Waiting please.’ She looks to Lionel.

‘One more count. Let’s have fun with it!’ Lionel, all chubby cheeks, white button down shirt stretched tightly across his sagging breasts, his trousers a little too tight for comfort or for decency, raises his arms. He swings them in unison, left then right, hips swaying in the opposite direction.

We stare at each other, unsure of what we should do. The woman with the long auburn hair and the not-so-worried lines is back. She raises her arms, lets out a little whoop, others stare tentatively.

‘We’ll count now, count now,’ chants Lionel. ‘We can do it, we can do it. Are you ready, are you ready!?’

We’re ready apparently. We’re ready apparently.

‘One,’ we say, still tentative, unsure.

‘One at a time,’ says Lionel, arms still waving, hips still swaying.

‘One at a time,’ we say.

‘No, no.’ He’s still speaking in time with his hips. ‘Take turns, we’ll count it out.’

‘One,’ drones a diminutive woman in an olive green cardigan despite the heat. ‘Two,’ says the tall cadaver-like man with the ramrod straight back. They’re out of time now, throwing Lionel into confusion, his arms and hips struggling to maintain the rhythm. The counting continues, (I’m the fifth to chime in). We run out at twenty-six. Clearly this is trouble. Lionel and Eunice’s whispering and furrowed brows make that clear.

‘We’re shrinking,’ I say, still standing near them.


‘Well, I mean…’

They look past me, well aware of what it means.

‘So are we going to go find them?’ I ask.

‘Who?’ says Lionel.

‘The ones you’ve lost.’

He bristles. ‘Mr….’

‘Hoffman. Harold Hoffman.’ I hold out my hand. He doesn’t take it. I assume it’s because he’s holding the clipboard in one hand and his pen in the other.

‘Mr. Hoffman, I did not lose –’

‘Yeah, I know.’ I try a smile. ‘But still. Are we going to look for them?’

‘They’ll be here.’

The woman with the auburn hair has appeared beside me. I notice she’s taller than me. With head held high and nose in the air, she seems even taller than she is. ‘The bastards will wander back at some stage of the day I reckon. Tell you one God damn thing right now though – I have no intention of spending the day standing here beside this shitbag of a bus.’

Lionel and Eunice share a glance. A decision is made. Eunice looks up, stands on her toes, neck stretched. ‘One, two, three,’ she starts. The ‘look at me’ part dwindles away. She has their attention, all folded arms and shuffling feet. ‘It appears that we have, I mean, a few people are, well, temporarily absent.’

Murmurs from the crowd. They’re getting restless. Eunice wipes a bead of sweat from her brow.

‘I understand your concerns. But Penang Hill is actually beautiful later in the day. The clouds will come in, it cools down a little…’

I sense a closing in, steps towards our guides, impatience in the air. You don’t want to procrastinate amidst a group of seniors. Their time is precious, what little of it remains.

‘Right. There will be a thirty minute delay.’ She’s forceful now, fighting for her professional life. ‘Listen up. Please break up into twos or threes. We’ll search – in the hotel, around the area, the streets behind us, the stores along here. We’ll find them then meet back here.’ She nods, convincing someone, perhaps herself, of the wisdom of the idea. ‘Thirty minutes. Where will we meet?’ She cups a hand behind her ear, waiting for the response. There is nothing.

‘Where will we meet?’ she repeats.

‘Hey, love.’ It’s Kazantidis. ‘I think you’re supposed to tell us that.’

She glares. ‘I did.’

‘Well, tell us again. For the slow learners.’

‘We meet here. Right here. And when? When do we meet?’

‘Oh, for the love of God!’ says the woman with the auburn hair. ‘In thirty minutes, for fuck’s sake.’ She has taken me by the arm, all business. ‘Come on, Harry.’


‘Come on, Harry. You look handy. I love a God damn man who comes prepared.’


‘All those pockets. Who knows what’s hidden there?’ She turns to me. I think she winks at me. ‘Surprises await.’

I’m rattled. ‘I’ve got a compass…’

She laughs, head thrown back. I can see her tonsils.

‘A compass. So you know your way around.’ She winks again, walks off, pulling me behind her.

I shuffle along, doing my best to keep up. She has a guidebook in her hand, a thick, heavy thing. She waves it ahead. ‘We’ll check out the shops down there. Damn jerk-offs. Half the God damn people here are only on the tour for the sonovabitch shopping.’

‘Yeah, right. Bloody bugger,’ I say. ‘Crappy shit!’ I don’t know why I say this. ‘Sorry.’


‘Nothing. Lead the way, um…’


‘Excuse me?’

‘Name’s El. Jesus.’

I digest this, studiously avoiding any Jesus jokes. ‘El… Ellen? Ellie? Elderberry?’

She glares. ‘Elliot.’


‘It’s Elliot.’

We’re half way down the street when we hear the shout from behind us. It’s Bev Watson power walking her way towards us, fold-up umbrella waving wildly. We wait. She catches up, grabs my arm, the other one. ‘Dear me. Didn’t you two set off at a fast clip!’ Her steel grey hair is short, sprouting upwards like a tub of ripe alfalfa sprouts. How does she get it to stay like that? Glue?

‘This is El,’ I say. ‘El, Bev.’

They stare each other down. Not a word. I look around. We are alone, the rest of the group gone. ‘So. The hunt. Start in here?’ It’s a large gift store. We walk in.

‘Bloody hell. Christ almighty,’ says El for no reason I can discern. There are packaged biscuits lining an aisle, dried fruit lining another. A young family is discussing the relative merits of oatmeal cookies and flaky pastries.

I walk up and down the aisles, then do so again, just because. Finally, I step outside, hoping to escape my companions but they are right there beside me.

‘You have a good look around?’ says Bev.

‘I guess.’

‘A wonder you can even make it down the aisles and remain decent.’ Bev directs this at El, or more specifically, her skirt.

‘Oh, I manage. Anyway, where are those Bassett Hounds of yours when we need them, eh?’ El does not say this kindly.

‘My Hounds would, in fact, find them in a second. They would pick up their scent in no time,’ growls Bev.

‘Find who?’ I ask.

‘Our missing –’

‘Yeah, but who are they?’

‘The ones that weren’t there at the roll call.’

‘Yeah, I know. But which roll call?’

‘Both of them,’ says El.

‘Or either,’ adds Bev.

‘But we still don’t know who was actually…’ I lose steam with both women staring at me.

‘The fucking dickwads who went AWOL. I don’t know their God damn names!’

‘Anyway,’ I start, forcing a smile, trying to keep it light, ‘if we don’t know who’s missing, I guess that means those Bassett Hounds would have a bit of trouble…’ I chuckle. It is not reciprocated.

‘Christ,’ says El. ‘Fucking bloody hell,’ she adds in order to emphasise the point. ‘If those Bassett Hounds of yours were here we wouldn’t have made it this far. Don’t they have those stumpy little legs? Like a big fat lump of, of, whatever, with those bent little stumps for legs. They stagger along like they’re half dead I imagine.’

‘At least they don’t feel the need to show off their fanny when they walk.’

‘You fucking little…’ And then I am bent over, an elbow or a foot or a fist or something has connected with my solar plexus, catching me off-guard, stealing the wind from me. I gasp, feel a knee brush my head, see the flash of arm and guidebook from the corner of my eye, hear the solid dull thud of impact. There’s pressure on my head, scrapes, pushes, casting me aside. I’m on my knees by the time I hear the metallic thwack of the umbrella making contact.

‘Fucking bloody fucker!’

I push up, cop a whack across the face, something connects with my eye, it stings, waters. I blink, but my vision is misty. The screams and profanity haven’t stopped, the strikes haven’t even slowed. I push up again, arms held out. ‘Eh! Eh!’

I try to sound manly, in control, the voice of authority. I catch an arm, yank. I see auburn hair spray out, heading downwards.


Then my arm goes dead, the spine of a book crashing down on it. One arm useless, I lunge with the other shoulder, make contact with another flailing body, feel soft flesh yield, see a flash of silvery hair. I land on top of her, arm on her heaving chest.

‘Well then. This is nice.’

I think she means it. Still blinking, I look up at her. She is smiling. I feel a hand on my rump. Worried about what that could mean, I leap to my feet, stagger back, feel another body behind me, entangling me like some out-of-water octopus. I twist around, peel a hand from close to my nether regions, another from my chest.

I find myself backed up against a brick wall, my heart pounding, my vision still blurred. ‘Shit,’ I say. This time I mean it.

* * *

The three of us take stock. Bev looks at her umbrella, spokes at all angles, the blue tartan pattern in shreds. She pats at her hair, but it is unnecessary. The sprouts haven’t moved. It is the only thing still in place. Her blouse is askew, a dirty brown streak across its side. She pulls it up onto her shoulder, straightens a bra strap. El is doing the same, brushing herself down, working on her rumpled linen top. Then she moves to her skirt, pulling it a little lower, covering what she can. There are scrapes and scratches on her legs, a broken strap on her sandal.

‘Fuck it,’ she says bending over to retrieve a button that has gone missing from her blouse. She coughs, spits a reddish glob onto the sidewalk. I wonder once again whether Elliot isn’t indeed an appropriate name. ‘Sonovabitch.’

We drift off, all thoughts of finding errant tourists gone. I let the two of them move out of my sight then check my own damage. One of them must have grabbed my camera strap. The camera is lying beside me. My utility jacket is a mess. I’m surrounded by torn pockets and shrapnel – a shattered tub of mints, a crushed ballpoint, a mangled notepad. My sunglasses stare up at me, the lens at odd angles. My compass sits there on the sidewalk, glass cover shattered. It is pointing south. I don’t disagree.

I wander along the street for a while, legs shaky. A quiet coffee shop, just what I need. I settle down with a sweet milky tea, letting my nerves settle. I pull out my handkerchief and dab at my eye. It is still sore, still weeping. My ribs ache, there are scratches and scrapes everywhere. I surreptitiously dip my hanky into the glass of water on the table and dab at my eye, then do the same for the scratches on my elbows and chin, scraping out the grit and dirt.

By the time I make it back to the bus I know it is late. There are stares, lots of them. Too many. Lionel and Eunice are there. Lionel allows his clipboard to fall slowly to his side. He clicks his ballpoint pen, a statement of sorts, then pokes it forcefully into his top pocket.

‘So that’s it then,’ he says. ‘Thirty-two with two opting out.’


The tour guides look at me, my eye, my ragged vest. I can see them about to comment. They stop themselves, avert their eyes.

‘Okay. Let’s go.’ The words are spoken with a distinct lack of vigour.

‘We’re all here? Fantastic! So who found our lost sheep then?’ I say, trying to recover my joie de vivre.

They file past me into the bus. Cheryl Chen shakes her head, the Woostencraft sisters click their tongues and whisper, George Falcon, he of the trains and coach tyres, lays a hand on my shoulder and titters. Greg Kazantidis stops in front of me, just long enough to shake his head and whisper, ‘You are a dick, you know that, right?’


But he’s gone, onto the bus.

Ben Jarmin is there in front of me. ‘There’s always one, isn’t there?’

I nod, offer a chuckle. It seems appropriate. ‘Guess so.’

‘Always one who just doesn’t quite get it.’ He holds out a heavy piece of paper. He has somehow found some string, tied it onto the top two edges of the paper, making a bib of sorts. ‘For you. Might want to keep it on.’

I grab it, wondering as Ben slides past me onto the bus. I scoot along behind him, following. ‘Hey, Ben.’

‘No please.’ It is Eunice. She’s wearing that smile. The one that says, ‘I’m sorry but I’m the boss.’

‘What?’ I utter, not for the first time today.

‘You are sitting here, please.’ She points to the front seat, right next to the stairs, right beside Eunice and Lionel’s reserved chairs.



I plonk myself down, huff a little, annoyed, and then look at Ben’s gift. It is a drawing. With a caption. It looks like me, right down to the dimpled chin. The man who searched for himself, it says. And then in bold, DO NOT LEAVE UNATTENDED.

Breaking Bricks

The smash, the crash, the dust drifting up from the ground. Mesmerized, we stood there, waiting for Craig to launch another missile. The brick was tossed straight down, smashing into other broken bricks piled up in the front yard. Another puff of dust, another piece of rubble added to the mess.

“I’ve got an idea.” Craig, a year older than the rest of us, held us in thrall. His voice had dropped to a lower pitch, full of excitement, laced with menace. I glanced across at him. The malevolent grin, the narrowed eyes, I’d seen it before. Here we go, I thought. The momentary hollowing out of my stomach, the fear, the delicious thrill of what was sure to come.

“More bricks,” he said. “We need more bricks!”

“Bloody hell, Craig.”

“Oh, get over it, Bruno. Bricks!” He swung around, catching the eye of Lou and Scott, the other members of the gang, the four of us, all partners in crime. Yes, he had us. Every gang needs its leader and Craig was ours.

“Look. You know what we gotta do.” He pointed down below. We were standing on what would soon become a balcony. For now it was a little less than that – a long, rough concrete ledge, jutting out over the mess of a front yard. Scott pointed to a jumble of building supplies far below – the detritus of a house half built. The crates, the pallets, the off-cuts of timber, the cement bags, the sand pile and the gravel.

“What, Craig? The sand?”

“The sand? Don’t be an idiot,” said Craig, hands on hips. “Unless you wanna jump. Go on. I’ll give you a push. But you better give us your phone number first.”

“Whadya mean?”

“Your phone number. So we can call your mum.”

“My mum?”

“Yeah. So she can come and scrape you off the ground and take you to hospital after you jump.”

Lou turned away, his rose red cheeks saying more than he was comfortable with.

“Over there, guys.” Craig turned his attention back to the building site. “See there? Next to the gravel.”

“What, the bottles?”

“Yeah. Who’s got the best aim?” Craig was the dark soul of the group. He held the key to the destructive streak in all of us. We were in. No backing out.

Craig hurled his brick, catching us by surprise. It slammed into the side of the bottle, sending it spinning across the yard and into the pallet of roof tiles.

“Alright!” Lou was off, racing through the first floor rooms in search of ammunition. We weren’t far behind, scrambling around the house, through the doorless doorways, across the dusty concrete floor, gathering bricks strewn across the rooms. Armed with our missiles we let loose, one after another. The bottles proved elusive; the tiles though, well that was another matter. The satisfying smash of brick on tile, the sound of things breaking, the edgy thrill of damage being done.

“Hey!” An adult’s voice, deep and angry.

“Quick! Let’s go.”

Hearts beating fast, panic pushing towards the surface, we were moving, desperate to get out of sight. The sense of danger hit us hard, sending our thirteen year-old imaginations spinning to parts unknown. We followed Craig, steaming through the half-built house, down the scaffolding to the ground floor. We followed him into the corner room, the darkest place in the house, all musty smells and pipes and drains.

“Shh,” he said, finger to mouth.

It was Lou who giggled, then Scott who followed.

“Think he’s coming?” I asked.

We listened, hearing nothing.

“Right. We make a run for it. Meet you at the Reserve. Stay out of sight.”

Action. We were commandoes behind enemy lines. We sprinted from the building site, over the neighbour’s garden, down the side of the house, across the backyard, over the fence, across the next yard and the next one too. Another wooden fence, over that, then stop. Damn! A dog, a big one too. And it’s barking like there’s no tomorrow. Back over the fence, up to the street, sprinting now, burning lungs, giggles, whoops of laughter as we savour freedom, another great escape.

All that summer that half-built house was the centre of our worlds. We returned again and again, drawn like bees to a honeypot. It was the one place that lit up our imaginations like no other. It had been nothing but foundations at first. Metal rods, brick and concrete outlines, a rough, impenetrable pattern etched into the earth. Then the concrete, the beginnings of a floor. Walls of brick, rooms slowly taking shape, their functions still unclear. Each new development made for fresh discoveries, our imaginations set alight in ever more exciting ways: the dungeon, the love nest, the panic room. And still the house grew. An upper floor, more scaffolding, a roof. We were monkey warriors taking possession of a kingdom. Door frames and window frames: openings to our souls, our secret warrior selves. One day we’d battle each other, planks of wood, metals rods our sabres; the next we were a united army fighting the good fight, vanquishing evil, protecting what was rightfully ours, broken bricks our weapons of choice.

The changes kept on coming, bigger changes, grown-up changes. Doors and windows, tiled roof, ceilings, and polished wooden floors. I’d visit alone, let myself in, hang my proverbial hat and stroll through my castle. It was my home, my sanctuary, my secret life. The thrill of being there alone, a covert existence in a place that would soon belong to others. But for now, I made it mine, made it home, for hours at a time.

The march of time continued as summer gave way to the chill of autumn. I walked to the house, head down, hands in pockets, kicking stones. Looking up I gasped. The car in the drive, a new green carpet of grass across the yard, with plants and shrubs all neatly planted in rows. The doors, the windows, all securely locked, curtains obscuring the view inside. Locked out of our land of play, our own alternative reality. It was another’s reality now, the ghostly shapes behind the curtains bore silent witness to that.

But still I came.

I saw the kids, the new inhabitants, met them, got to know them. Arund Singh was just a little guy, younger than me, although his dad was something else. The dark features, the sunken eyes, the thick and hairy forearms. I couldn’t take my eyes off that thin brass bracelet always clasped around his wrist. I entered once, a birthday. New and foreign smells embraced me just inside the door. No more sawdust, no more scent of fresh cut timber. Exotic smells, sandalwood and jasmine too, and others I had no name for. Mountains of food on oversized furniture. Armchairs, sofas, embroidered with gold. Persian rugs, exotic colours, ancient designs obscuring the pristine wooden floor.

It was another world, one I’d never imagined even through all my flights of fancy. Those new discoveries left me giddy; left me breathless with the power of the unexpected. Life’s changes can so easily overwhelm a boy’s imagination. My head spun, overcome yet undeniably addicted. The possibilities of life! The unpredictable flow of what might just lie ahead. I knew it then and would not forget: one could reinvent, discover, remake one’s life just as often as required.

* * *

Years passed, life took its twists and turns, its detours and its fast lanes. Foreign lands, work and travel, life in other cultures. Connecting, learning, moving, changing, always something new. An eternal whirl of ups and downs as life took me for a ride. I didn’t see it coming. It caught me unawares: a malady that affects us all. Still, I thought I was immune, thought I was above it. But isn’t that the story of us all?

Rebecca was her name and of course I don’t resent her. Those decisions, I made them all for her, for us; I did it out of love. Many others I’d loved before her, loved their eyes, their hair, their smiles. Loved their jokes, their warmth, their passion. But they had always been apart. Something to enjoy, an experience to indulge in. Rebecca broke the mould. She never was an experience to tap into; she was from the start the very experience itself. I’d found my lifebuoy, my ballast, a reason to stay afloat.

She wanted kids. Permanence, she said. Time to build something more secure. She talked of a solid base, firm foundations, a buffer against the fickleness of life. I went along, believing. I understood the need, the imperative, to provide safe harbour for those who mattered most.

Foreign lands, distant cultures, customs and beliefs. Those things pale, they said. Security is what it’s all about, and that security is only found at home. I took their advice, did as I was told. I put down roots, established a house, a home, convinced by one and all of the need to settle down.

I climbed the rough concrete stairs, from the dusty downstairs to the floor above, no handrail yet, still nothing to hold on to. To my left the main bedroom. The bed would go there, against the wall beside the door. We would sit up in bed and look toward the sliding glass doors and the little balcony beyond. It was still nothing more than a rough ledge just then, no barriers or doors of any kind. But it existed sure enough, I saw it all, no imagination required. Rebecca and I had spent weeks then months; we’d mapped the whole thing out. We’d considered the needs of a growing family, rooms for in-laws, space for all their cars. We’d factored in the movement of the sun, how to catch the light but not the heat. We’d thought of bathrooms, kitchen, foyer, even designed a little office.

I walked through all the rooms. I didn’t see the rough brick walls or the splattered mortar here and there. I never noticed the bits of two-by-four lying on the rough and dusty concrete floor. I didn’t even register the pile of sand or the empty cement bags tossed haphazardly into a corner. I saw only that crucial finished product, everything in its place. Polished floors, painted walls, furniture – the whole thing scrubbed clean and made defiantly liveable. Comfort and security created through bricks and mortar.

I trudged out onto the front balcony, stood at the edge, looked down at the mess below. Emptiness had found its place inside and around me. An ending; the beginning of the rest of my days. I picked up a brick and threw it hard. It landed on the sand pile. It barely made a sound.

* * *

I left Rebecca to rhapsodize about each room, its function and its fittings. Colour schemes and fabrics, carpets and wallpaper – choices made, just waiting now to bring it all to life. The house was full, no room for surprises. She had the answers, had it planned from top to bottom. A parting kiss then out the door, too burdened by finality to spend another moment.

“It’s just the beginning!” she said.

Yes, I thought. The beginning of the end.

I didn’t think; I drove. I was there before I knew it, there before I knew the reason why. I got out of the car and looked, amazed, unsure if I had even come to the right place. The street, I checked the name; the house number, I checked that too. It left me off-balance, unsure of what to think. Across the road was a weatherboard cottage harking back to an earlier age, the sole survivor of its era.

I knocked. The woman was as old as the house, threadbare dressing gown, fluffy yellow slippers, and varicose veins dancing in between. Her hair was thinning, the rollers kept it curled, a bottle kept it auburn.

“I grew up a few streets away,” I began, “thirty years back or more.”

“I know who you are.” The eyes had narrowed, rancour crossed her face. Then like the passing of the years, it was gone. “You and those other boys. Got up to some mischief, you did.”

I didn’t care to reminisce, to return to a life long since left behind. But questions remained. Those days had formed me, shaped me, sent me down a path.

“The house,” I said, “across there, straight across the road.”

She shook her head and frowned. “Yes,” she said, “Oh yes, of course I know.” A plaintive tone, one full of sadness and regret.

“Trouble? Was there trouble?”

She took a breath, moved past me, and walked towards the wrought iron gate. She pointed with her chin. “I watched the old place go up, watched it day by day. Oh, don’t think I didn’t notice. You silly boys and all your games. Full of mischief, breaking this and that. I was on the verge a few times, I tell you that. Nearly picked up the phone and made that call. But…” She trailed off, letting the thought alone.

“But the Singh family – you knew them?”

“Course I did. Geeta and Aravind. Lovely couple, well mannered kids. But gee they pushed those boys. Guess it paid off. At least, that’s what they say.”

“How do you mean?”

“Law, medicine. The youngest one, Arund, a big shot businessman now, so they tell me. All moved out years ago, moved to their own places. The eldest moved to the States.”

“But the parents…”

“Stayed on at first. Just the two of them. But I knew that wouldn’t last.”

I waited, anxious not to break the spell.

“They sold out. I know that much. Up and left. They were still young really, still in good health. Geeta said they wanted to do it while they still could.”

“Do what?”

“Move on. Said they’d get a flat, something small, easy to maintain. They talked about having a base. They planned to travel. I don’t know why. Something about India, lost family, new friends. And then there was the son in the States, and relatives all over the world, it seemed to me. Geeta said it was time to go. She used to talk about lightening the load.”

“Lightening the load.”

“That’s what she said. Never really understood. A load of crazy dreams they had. The kids moved out and something changed. They never talked much sense after that.” The lady sighed, and leant a little more heavily on the gate. A cat made its way to her legs, an old gray mottled thing, with a touch of arthritis. She pushed it tenderly with her foot, unwilling or unable to bend down and say hello.

“And now this is what we’ve got.” She raised an arm and pointed straight across the street, then let her arm fall back down in a show of resignation. “They say it’ll be a six-storey condominium. We never used to have such things, not in our neighbourhood. Things used to be simple, on a smaller scale…”

I drifted off, no longer taken by her words, already seized by what she had told me. Back in the car a new lightness took hold. I drove back to the house, the weight lifted. I was renewed, changed in ways unexpected.

I picked my way through the debris of the front yard, crunched through the edge of the gravel pile, around the pallets of intact bricks, and into the house. Rebecca was there still, architect’s plans in hand, measuring, checking, seeing how it would be.

“You okay?” she asked, uncertain. “This is it, you know. It’s ours. I want you to be happy here.”

“I will be now. I will be, I know. This is the place, I get it now – a necessary pit stop.”

“Pit stop?”

“Why not?”

I kissed away her confusion, scrambled up the half-made stairs. On the would-be balcony I found a broken brick. I wound up and threw it hard, heard the thundering crash as it slammed against the mound of tiles.

“This’ll do,” I said, Rebecca by my side. “This’ll do for now, just until it’s time.”

Juniper Leaves

“Juniper leaves.”

Oh, here we go. He does that. Out of the blue. I’m supposed to know what he’s on about. “Juniper leaves, does she? And where does she go then?”

He looks at me, faint disdain on his face.

“What?” I say. I know his game but hell, I never could follow the rules.

“I’m not talking about a person, Miriam.”

“Oh. Right. No, of course you’re not.” I tug on my ear, look about the room, wishing there was more to rest my eyes on. I come back to him. Him. My husband. Leon Ariston. This bag of skin and bones with the white sheet seemingly floating over him. “So who are you talking about?”

“Not a who; a what.”

“Oh, right.”

“So you say.”

I wait. Our conversations are like this. We ease into them, let them find their own way.

He tries to pull himself a little higher on the bed, fails. I lean in towards him, an instinctive reaction. But the fire in his eyes stops me. My hands fall back to my sides.

“It’s actually a misnomer, you know.”

“Really. I didn’t know that.” There’s a hint of sarcasm in my voice. He spots it of course. He used to love that about me. Perhaps he still does. The spunk, he calls it. Love that spunk, Miriam. Or pluck. Can’t get enough of that pluck of yours, he’d say through that deep rich laugh of his.

“Juniper leaves, as I was saying, are not really leaves at all. A coniferous plant. Thus, they are needles. That’s the more correct name. More appropriate anyway. Hard and sharp. Can be prickly to handle especially when young. Remind you of anyone?”

I sigh, my legs suddenly heavy, my body sagging. I sit on the edge of the bed, gently, careful not to disturb, not to touch. I have nothing to say. I’ve been here before, we both have, doing this dance, skipping close but not too close.

“I had my dreams, you know.” He spits the words, barely loud enough for me to hear. “Aspirations. Professional stardom. Nothing was going to get in my way. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? I can say that now.”

“That’s no kind of secret.”

“No, but the secret was that I knew.”

“Knew what?”

“I knew I didn’t quite have it. Competent enough, of course. But I saw what others saw, managed only what countless others could do just as well. That was the secret. That’s why I kept my eyes open, always on the lookout for the extraordinary.”

I stare at him, search his face. “So there was nothing fortuitous about it. You searched him out.”

“I did. Ahmed Malouf. Oh, of course we were friends. But I had to nurture that, to make sure I was there in front of him, able to make myself palatable to him. And necessary.”

“Why are we doing this again, Leon?” I squeeze my eyes shut, annoyed with him now, annoyed with us.

“Miriam, we must. If not now then when?”

I sigh, turn away.

“Miriam, we must.”

I look at him at last, take up the challenge. “So that’s where it all started. It all goes back to your stupid insecurity, doesn’t it. That and your obsession with that incestuous little scientific community.”

“Yes. I suppose so.” There is no resistance. Too much time has passed for that. But still it rankles.

I can’t help myself. “All that nonsense back then – it almost killed the family dead. Before it even got going. And for years after. We all knew it. We all felt your damn obsessions, the resentment you felt after you came back for good. All that anger, the bitterness. You think James and Lance didn’t notice your moods?”

“I wanted more for them. I wanted them to have a chance at…”

“At what?”

He closes his mouth, licks his lips. “We love any way we can,” he says, more to himself than me”


“I know, I know. Such a fool. But…”

I bend towards him, kiss him on the cheek. I understand, always have. More than he will ever know.

He sighs, a hint of a smile crosses his face as I sit up and peer at him. We stay that way a moment. A moment. These are our moments. Amongst the carnage, the wreckage, we find them, always have.

His arm moves slightly under the sheet, breaking the spell. It’s his sign. He’s thirsty. He won’t ask. I take the glass from the bedside table, hold the straw for him.

“Anyway,” he says after a couple of sips, “did you ever wonder? All those years I was away?”

“It was Ahmed. All for the sake of Ahmed. That’s what you used to tell me.”

“Ahmed.” He broods on that a moment. “Yes. Yes, it was. At least at first. That man – my Lord! Exceptional. Driven, with a laser-like focus that none of us could match.” He trails off, gone, back to those times. I see it in his eyes. He has been doing this more and more as his body has started to disintegrate.

“He made palynology his specialty,” he says, eyes still misty, unfocused. “I told him it was a mistake. Too unglamorous. It wasn’t going to lead to any significant discoveries. I tried to redirect him. Others were convinced I was teaching him. I didn’t teach him.” He spits out the word. “No. He taught all of us, he shone a light on the future of the field. Pollen grains, spores. He said that was where the potential was. He was able to use all that new technology to make these things sing. That was his expression. Pollen that sings, that tells its glorious story, regales us with tales of past environments, with the evolution of the land we walk on.” A single, sharp laugh escapes him. “Oh, that man. He could talk. Romanticising the layers of the very earth.”

I look at him but he’s not there. The glory years. I’ve heard these stories too many times. I’ve heard of them in so many forms that I barely know fact from fiction.

“When he decided to specialise in carbon isotope signalling I thought he was mad. There was nothing there! There was no research, no interest. I was convinced it was a dead-end. That’s what everyone told him. But I kept my council, told him it was possible, said everything he wanted to hear.”

He taps his hand on the mattress, the sheet covering it billowing. I hold the glass, give him some more water.

“That’s why he took me with him when he went abroad, you know. That’s the real reason.” A quick glance in my direction. “So now you know. I was never a believer. Not then at least. But he thought… I allowed him to believe….”

“You held your tongue.”

“That overcoat of his. The stains, the dirt around the hem, the pockets bulging with God-knows what. Remember it? He wore it everywhere. He didn’t care. Shopping for clothes? It would have taken time, precious time.”

“You rode on those coattails.”

“Ha! More of that spunk of yours.” He laughs. I hear his chest rattling. “But yes,” he says, taking a breath. “Yes, I suppose I did.”

“You left me.”

“You could have come! Vienna, the university. You could have continued your studies there.”

“I was half way through my thesis. My advisors were here. Everything was here. My family, colleagues — ”

“Okay, okay.” He waves away my protests.

“Anyway, he led you. You were the one under his spell, not me.”

“I had to go. You know that. It was a miracle that I had even been offered something beside him. He had them in thrall. He saw things. And they loved him. Of course they did. Especially Emilie. She was older, five years older, already established. She was a true scientist. She wasn’t interested in fame or in seeing her name in lights. She wanted to uncover, to learn, to contribute to our knowledge of the past.”

“Back then, at the start, they were…?”

“She doted on him. No task was too small, nothing was too much trouble. And they were inseparable. He was obsessed with isotopic separation at the time and their facilities were extraordinary. She would help prepare the vacuum lines for carbonates, organic carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in silicates, sulphur in sulphides. There was so much to do. She made it possible. They got through so much together.”

“And you were there loving every minute of it.”

“Damn it, woman, I was his mentor. The voice of reason. I gave him perspective.”

“You sound like you were his grandfather.”

“I was older. He respected me.”

“You were peers. If that.” I hiss the words and wonder why. Annoyance, anger has crept up on me, as it so often does when we excavate our past. “You were gone for so long,” I say.

“It was essential. It was the making of me. Or it was supposed to be.”

I soften. I could have joined him, taken a leave of absence, been there beside him. I think this but cannot say it. He was vulnerable, hopelessly dependant. I sugar-coat the best I can. “You knew he wouldn’t remain a team player for ever. People like that – they don’t need others. They won’t be held back.”

I see him wince. I know the words hurt him still. But this is the ground we know. It’s a familiar tolerable pain, like dripping molten wax from a candle onto one’s chest.

He sighs. “No, no, no. It wasn’t like that.”

I wait. We both know where he’s heading.

“Juniper leaves. Whole trees.”

“Prickly to handle.”

“What? Oh. Yes. That’s right. Mmm. Right there outside the windows, from the lab to the office next door, a long row of them blocking what little light there was on those winter afternoons. That’s where she used to work, where she had her small table, her chair, her pile of notebooks, the typewriter as well.” He blinks rapidly, squeezes his eyes shut, then opens them again. “So much was handwritten back then, countless notebooks lying around. Everything was typed up later. Emilie was a marvel. She kept us – him – up to date. She recorded everything meticulously. Until, poof!” He raises his arm, jerks it upward, sending ripples along the sheet as his arm falls back to earth. “We were always smoking. We all were back then. Later he blamed Emilie. That was the start of it really.”

He turns his head towards the far wall. There is a tear in his eye.

“It was a cigarette. We were all quite sure of that. We’d leave them burning in the ashtray, forget about them as we lost ourselves in each experiment. But it was later. I’d gone to the canteen for a meal. Ahmed was completing his work with the mass spectrometer. Emilie, well, I never really knew. The office next door? Typing up her notes? I heard all the commotion, the shouts, the running along the corridor. Even from the basement you could smell it. By the time I got back up to the second floor, to the lab, the whole place had gone up.” He lets out a low whistle. “So much was lost. So much. So many months of research, so much equipment.”

I’m silent. I know the story. Of course I do. He had come home soon after. Used up two weeks of his precious leave. He’d told me the story, visceral and raw. But he couldn’t stay away. Unfinished business, he said. He had to clean up the mess. No, that wasn’t it. He had to steady the ship, that was his expression.

“It was never the same after that.”

“I know, dear. I know. But you had to try. Of course you did.”


The force of his word throws me backwards. I’m on my feet, staring down at him.

“Not you, my rose.”


“Him. And me. I wanted it, still wanted it all. Still believed… If only I could…”

I hold my breath, waiting.

“He blamed her, Ahmed did. He was distraught, beside himself with frustration. She was the obvious target. She was lackadaisical, careless, a blight on the scientific community, unable to follow basic protocol, derelict in her duties. And that’s before he got nasty. Sabotage, he called it. Undermining his greatness. Another jealous science whore. Wild crazy accusations.

“By the time he turned on me I was ready for it. Or thought I was. It didn’t make it any easier though. Gold digger, journeyman with delusions of mediocrity. Yeah, he liked that one. Delusions of mediocrity. Emilie would correct him. It’s ‘delusions of grandeur,’ she’d say. Couldn’t help it. She was like that. English was never her language but she was a stickler for correctness. He’d scoffed at that. ‘He doesn’t have delusions of grandeur. He’s not quite that deluded. He aspires to mediocrity, always has.’ Then he’d turned to me. ‘Well you just keep on striving for that, Mr. Nobody. But you can do it without hitching a ride on my back. I’ve carried you far enough.’

“I don’t even know if he meant it. Maybe it was just the rage, the anger of the moment. But that was Ahmed. Once it was said…” He raises a hand, lets it slip over the edge of the bed. I look at it, the veins, the spots, the bones somehow held together under that translucent skin.

“Ah, Christ, Miriam.”

I gather up his hand. I know what’s coming. Just as I know he needs to say it. I hold his hand in both of mine, letting it rest on my fingers.

“We were both hurt, both damaged. Then that day, early January. We’d all spent Christmas alone, wondering where we were heading. That first day back, we arrived early, before Ahmed. I don’t think that had ever happened before. It concerned us, scared us. We were in the office reviewing notes when he eventually came in. We hoped that we could all… Anyway, there he was. He was gaunt, his eyes sunken, his hair matted, that old coat dirtier than ever. The energy, the electricity, it wasn’t there anymore. Instead there was a chill. I remember, he looked at the two of us. Then, really quietly: ‘Emilie, perhaps you can find a piece of paper and a pen. Think you can manage that?’ She nodded, scurrying off to find the stationary. Then when she returned he walked out the door, stopping just long enough to tell us to follow. He stopped across the hall, in front of a rarely used lab. We waited, wondering. ‘Yes, this will do. A sign, Emilie. We’ll call it the science crèche. Just for the two of you.’ That was it. Typically sloppy put-down but it did its job.

“By the time he had gone back to the lab we were already getting into our jackets, pulling on our hats and scarves. Heads down, we walked out of the building in a daze. Then just kept going, out into the university grounds, down past the juniper, right across campus to the birch trees down by the frozen pond. The white of the snow, the pale birch, the black marks across their trunks, almost like signposts.” He pauses, groans slightly as he shifts on the bed, every movement now an effort. “Signposts… Ha. Leading us nowhere. Hell, we were both going round in circles, fearful, lost. We had no direction without Ahmed. So we held on to what we had, to the only other person who understood. We –”

“Stop it.” I squeeze his hand. Only his weak pulling away stops me, brings me back.

“Miriam, it was years ago. We both understood that it –”

“Stop,” I say in a whisper. “All those years. You’d come home, spend a week or two, maybe a month at Christmas. All those days locked away, just the two of us, late nights, late mornings, nothing to do but explore each other, hungry. And all that time – you think I didn’t know? You think I couldn’t spot a guilty lover when I saw one?”

“But you never –”

“What was there to say?” I look away, from the black emptiness of the flat screen TV to my fingers. I’m picking at my cuticles again. Pick, pick, pick, my thumb has a life of its own, I think, able to channel my emotions without my knowing.

He sees it too. “Miriam,” he says and sighs. “So many secrets.”

I hesitate, wondering, weighing up. My thumb is still out of control. “No, Leon. Not secrets. Just things we didn’t say, things we didn’t have to mention. Besides, life was taking over.”

He looks up, not quite comprehending.

“How long was it? How long was it that you were over there, with him, with her?”

“Five years, almost six. Six long winters with…”

“I know, I know. With the snow and the juniper and the birch trees. And her…”

Again he tries to pull himself up a little higher on the bed. This time he succeeds. “But you never said anything. You never asked me –”

“Don’t do it, Leon. Don’t do it.” I’m desperate, unsettled by where this is going. I stiffen.

“Oh, Miriam. Don’t they say it’s clearest just before the sun sets?”

“Don’t. Please. No more riddles. Let it rest. Please.”

He considers, brings a trembling hand to his mouth, runs his fingers across his dry lips. “Emilie and I, well, we still had our work, new work, we helped each other…”

“Helped each?” I scoff, despite myself. I know better, but still I feel the prick.

“Yes, Miriam, we… Well, there was more than just –”

“I know, I know, I know,” I say, not wanting to know a damn thing.

He whispers: “There was more.”

“Leon Junior.” The name is out before I can stop myself.

“Ugh.” I can’t tell if it’s a grunt of pain or shock.

“I had to know. I had to understand.”

“But you never… How could you know?”

Again I look away. Again that thumb goes to work. The skin beside the opposing thumb is raw, red and ugly. I ignore his question. “Besides, there were corners of my own life that –”

“Don’t. Please.”

I can barely hear him.

“Yes. Leon. Dark corners. You think it was just you with your hidden life? You think you were the only one for whom life went on? Is that what –?”

“I knew.”

My eyes spring up searching for his. He is calm, looking directly at me.

“I knew,” he repeats. “What could I say? I deserved nothing less. But still I hated it. Back there in Vienna, I’d curse you even as I watched Emilie sleep beside me.”

I take a moment, hesitate. “You don’t know, Leon. There is so much more.”

“There is nothing.”


“Miriam. Help me, please. One last time, help me up.”

I reach under his arms, ready to pull him higher up the bed.

“No. Get me up. My clothes.” He points towards the tiny closet. His clothes are there, his pale blue long-sleeved shirt, his corduroy trousers, the dark brown jacket. And the navy blue tie he wore when he was admitted, that horrid tie, a reminder of that time, the university crest a long-lasting taunt.

“There’s not need…”

“Please Miriam. They’ll be here soon.”


“The boys.” He stops, his bony fingers latched around my shoulder, steadying himself. “How did it go? Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky.”

I groan, squeeze my eyes shut. “Please don’t quote your foolish poetry now. Not now.”

“Tagore. Not a favourite, but still.”

“What is this, Leon? What are you doing?”

“The boys. I just told you. They’ll be here any minute.”

Confused, uncertain, I help him up, trying to understand. I help him into his clothes, the shirt and pants, the jacket. He reaches for the tie. I shake my head. “No.”


“No, Leon. Let it go.”

He lets his head drop, but I can see the hint of a smile. I’m unnerved, off balance. The secret. I thought I’d buried it. But I can feel it deep inside me, stirring.

“Yes,” he says, allowing himself to perch on the edge of the bed. “Yes. Those clouds.”

I look at him, His words sting me, bring tears to my eyes. I try to brush them off. “All this talk of storm clouds. You silly old –”

“No, not storm clouds.” He looks up at me. “Clouds.” And then: “The boys.”

“The boys,” I begin. The tears come at last. I shake my head. It’s all I can manage.

His hand is there, waiting for mine. Reluctantly, I let him take it, feeling dirty, sullied.

“Oh, Miriam. All that time I left you alone here. I was… Well, I wasn’t here for you.”

“The boys,” I begin again. I’m determined now. “I know that when you came back, we tried. Again and again. But that month after you’d leave, I’d hope, day upon day, I’d hope. But each time…”

He waits, perfectly still, barely breathing.

“That second year. Juno…”

“Yes. Another Juniper.”

“I was lonely, in need of… Anyway, he wanted me, wanted to help.”

“Help? Ha!”

“He knew we’d been trying, knew of my frustration. He suggested, offered…” With the back of my hand I wipe tears from my face. “James and Lance. They don’t know… I never wanted them to think…”

“I’ve always known.”


“Miriam, I’m a scientist. I’m paid to observe.”

“So…” I wipe my hands on my slacks, look around. I’m missing something. “But if you knew…”

“There is nothing more to do but say goodbye. They’ll be here any minute. Let those clouds add colour to my sunset.”

I’m struck dumb, emptiness hollows out my stomach.

“We met too young, Miriam. Neither of us was ready. But we knew the time would come, that we would grow into each other.” He chuckles. His smile, cracked lips and all, is kind. His eyes shine. “It took us quite a while, didn’t it? But fifty years. It has to mean something. Perhaps nothing meant anything, until… Well, we must have meant something.”

I smile, hold him. “No more riddles, dear.”

“Mmm. Lives are never as expected. But to know when to take one’s leave…”

He leans back onto the bed just as the door swings open. There is commotion. Our two boys – men now – and their wives, their kids, they bustle into the room, all trying to stay quiet, but their energy is electric. It charges the room. Too many young lives, too much life. The world is upturned. Like it was back then.

I turn back to my love. He’s laying flat upon the bedsheet.

“You’re right, my love. It’s time.”

To the family beside me I smile through my tears. “What a beautiful sunset.”

“But Mum…”

I turn back to him, close his eyes with my fingers, and slip silently from the room.





Black Coffee

“Black coffee, please.”


“Iced coffee. Black.”

She stares, then looks around, hoping for a miracle.

He closes his eyes, thinks. “Oh. Um, oliang.”

The young lady, complete with dirty, once-red apron and candy-pink T-shirt, offers the tiniest of smiles, pacified, relieved. She twists theatrically on her heels and saunters back towards the drink station.

Pleased with himself, he relaxes on the hard metal stool, rests his hands on his knees, and raises his chin just a little. His first word of Thai. Success.

The drink, served in a pink plastic mug, is sloshed across his table, coming to a halt in front of him, leaving a long brown tail in its wake. Shifting his eyes to the young waitress, he thanks her with a smile. But she’s gone, already laughing with a friend standing by the counter.

He takes a sip. “Ah, Christ.” A hit of overwhelming sweetness catches him unawares. He pushes the concoction away and turns his attention to the restaurant. Or the café. Whatever it is, it’s his first, the first he’s found, just around the corner from his hotel. Basic. Cream coloured walls, white rectangles where posters must once have been, a floor of unadorned cement.

He taps the rickety metal leg of the table with his shoe, sending more coffee sloshing onto the tabletop. Absentmindedly, he runs his hand along the edge of the table, feeling the worn plastic table covering against his palm.

Then he looks at his hand.

“Ah, yuck.”

Behind him, on the next table, he sees the dispenser. Toothpicks in front, napkins behind, tiny, bright pink things, each little more than the size of a finger. He grabs a handful, wipes his hand, the pile of tissue disintegrating between his fingers.

Okay, he tells himself. That’s it. Too much fussing. You don’t want to look like you’re just off the plane. He pulls out the book he started on that very flight. Yes, he’ll read. Cool, calm, and educated, even if it is just a cheap detective thing.


Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down beside the body, the torn corduroy jacket and lacerations to the face suggesting that he had not gone down without…


Holy shit. Look at those girls! Three of them, parading through the café, all with those tight black skirts and even tighter blouses. One in particular, her raven-black hair pulled back from her face, tied back haphazardly, held in place with a pencil. He watches her sit, all restrained grace, her eyes downcast, her back straight, her bosom straining through her blouse. He has prepared himself for this, done his homework. He’s ready.

But no. He tears his eyes away. No need to go at it like a bull at a gate.


Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down beside the body, the torn corduroy jacket and lacerations to the face suggesting


‘Excuse me.’ Yes, he knows the word in Thai. That will get him in. Then, ‘Are you thirsty?’ The perfect follow-up, and the only one he knows. He’ll buy them a drink, a coffee, a whatever.

“Ah, shit!” He reels back as if slapped. Should have known. The waitress, that same young girl, arrives with a tray of drinks, large mugs of some bright pink milky concoction. What is it with this colour? he wonders.


Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down beside the body, the torn corduroy jacket and


Look at her giggling, straw in her mouth, perfect teeth, eyes dancing. They’d communicate silently, through the eyes. He can picture it perfectly. They’d both recognize the urgency. She’d nod towards the unisex toilet at the back of the café. They’d glide towards it together, pushing their way in through the flimsy metal door. Once through she’d turn, slamming his body hard against the door, her mouth on his, her body leaning into him.


Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down…


He tosses the stupid book onto the table, letting it sink into the milky puddles, sick to death of the impotent inspector. Retrieving his coffee he holds the straw to his mouth.

A sudden shuffle at the students’ table. He swings his head.

“Ah, crap!”

His head goes one way, the straw another, the glass somewhere else again, leaving a long brown stain down his fresh white T-shirt. And just to top it off. They’re not. Are they? The three of them, standing together, hands held and released, quick hugs. But no. She’s sitting back down, watching her friends depart.

From behind his restored black coffee he sees her dig into her shoulder bag. She pulls out a book, a textbook. “Beginner English” it says on the cover.

Right. I’ll do it now. I’ll offer assistance, two young people, students, helping each other out. No, Wait. Let her get settled first. Let her get immersed, until she’s desperate for help. Then he’ll be the saviour.

He considers grabbing his own book, looks at the paperback now warped as it soaks up the liquid on the table, gives up on the idea. But look. She’s pulled up her head, there’s a frown on her pretty face. She’s at a loss, he can feel it.

He tenses, ready. This is the moment.

“Noooo!” Eyes to the ceiling as he groans. He slaps his forehead, curses. “Idiot, idiot.”

Draining the last of her pink syrup she rises to her feet, throws the bag over her shoulder and, with head held high, waltzes from the café, seeing nothing and nobody.

He slumps, arms spread across the table, oblivious to the sticky rivulets running across it. He stays that way, only slowly straightening, murky liquid running down his forearms. Taking his time, he pushes himself to his feet, snatching the little umbrella he had placed on the stool beside him. With a final glance at the table in front of him, he notices the book, but makes no effort to retrieve it.

Moving towards the exit, his eyes are drawn to the now empty table across the café. He lingers, takes a final look at nothing, and allows himself a single, unhurried chuckle. And then he’s gone, the rhythmic beating of his thigh with the small black umbrella marking his departure. Thwack, thwack, thwack.


* * * * *


He stares at the menu written on the wall behind the counter. Without his glasses he can barely make out a word. He squints, moves a step closer.

The woman at the counter, young but with a weather-worn countenance, adjusts her cap before smoothing out her matching brown apron, logo prominently displayed. She’s waiting.

He hesitates, uncertain. “Coffee. Black,” he finally says.

“Size?” Her voice is a monotone. He’s boring her, wasting her time.

“Oh. Um, I don’t know. Average. Medium.”

He pays, waits, before being sent to the end of the counter. He does as he’s told, staring at the satchels of sugar stacked high, beige with that logo in dark brown this time. And the napkins, mountains of them, large square piles, the same beige, the same brown logo front and centre.

He has his coffee now. With cane in one hand, coffee in the other he looks for a place to sit, spying a table towards the back of the café. It’s right in front of that silly imitation limestone wall, flanked by beige on either side. He blanches, pulling his eyes away from the décor. It’s all so disillusioning to him; not Thai, not anything, just achingly inoffensive.

Then he sits, easing his long stiff frame into an armchair. He exhales, relaxes, appreciating the cool of the air-conditioning. He leans back, shuffles a little, rests his forearms along the polished wooden armrests. He raises his eyebrows. Hmm. Not bad at all. It’s not often his poor old lower back gets the support it needs.

“Damn comfortable, this.”

He pulls out his e-book reader, his nod to the modern age. He’d read, enrich his mind for a change. Yes, he’d get his head out of other people’s business for once. There’s a newspaper on the table beside him. And women’s magazines beside it. He’s tempted. But no. That article from the New Yorker. The one about neoliberalism. He ought to read that. Shit, he thinks, scoffing at his own ignorance, shouldn’t he at least know what it is?


The market has become the organizing principle for social, political, and economic…


“Whoa,” he says beneath his breath. Now that’s an entrance. Two of them, professional types, sashaying into the coffee shop as if they own the place. Look at that – brilliant silk dresses, they’re shimmering, all lustrous burgundy and emerald green. One of the women stands out. She strides across the café floor, hips swaying, the greens and golds of her dress dancing around her curves. But it’s the enigmatic smile that does it for him. So calm, assured, at ease in her own delightful skin.

She’s no business of yours, he tells himself.


The market has become the organizing principle for social


But that soft, smooth skin. And that laugh. As if a wave of goodness has washed over her friend, unabashed warmth. So evidently successful and still so unaffected.

He casually dumps the Kindle onto the marble tabletop, rests an arm over the armrest, twisting his body slightly, so as not to have to crane his neck. This is it, he thinks. Perfect. It’s made for me. I’ll waltz over there. “Mudmee silk, correct?” That’ll get their attention. “Hand woven, no doubt. Yes, look at that.” He’ll reach out, run his fingers along the hem of her dress. “You can feel it, the character, the uniqueness of the weaving.” And looking into her eyes, he’ll whisper: “So elegant in its simplicity.”

Captivated, eyes wide, their surprise will give way to admiration. They’ll see him not as some aging retiree but as the fashionable sophisticate that he is.

Fucking hell. Already? They’re on their feet. They wai each other, say their farewells, speaking in hushed tones. But hang on. They separate. She’s alone at the table. And look at her – the way she settles herself, legs crossed, arranging her skirt just so. How does she do it? So casual yet held together so perfectly.

He’ll invite her to dinner, that’s what he’ll do. French, something long and lingering. Then she’ll lead him back to her penthouse apartment, views along the Chao Phrya. And there, in front of the enormous picture window, with all sounds of the city locked out, he’ll take her, leading her to the floor, the exotic Persian carpet, Mukmee silk long since discarded.

“Huh? What? No!” He barks at the waitress with the dull, hooded eyes. “Leave it. Please. I’m not finished,” he says, although he is, or might be. He isn’t sure.

He pulls the coffee mug closer, the Kindle too. Now, neoliberalism. But all he sees is that screen shot, a hundred fountain pens, nibs aligned.

“Do it,” he hisses to himself. He braces himself, feet pressed hard against the floorboards, hands gripping the armrests. Then hesitates. What’s that? Her iPhone? Crap. She pecks at the speed of light, thumbs ablaze. She’ll be done any second. Except she isn’t. She types and types.

But finally, the typing slows, then stops. And before he knows it, it’s gone, back into the depths of her bag. He steals himself, takes a breath. But she beats him to it. A quick look at her watch and she’s sliding around the table, hair thrown back, chin held high, eyes set on the door. And just like that she’s gone.

He throws his body back, allows his arms to hang limply over the sides of the chair. His head drops back and he’s still. In time he straightens up enough to stare at the door, still closing ever so slowly behind her. He shakes his head and lets out a single, solitary chuckle.

With steady hands he packs his Kindle into his bag. He checks his coffee mug, peering into its depths, surprised to find that it’s not empty at all. He pushes it away, uninterested.

A glance at his own watch. 4:30. Right. If he leaves now he might still be able to do that casserole. Those monster eggplants, the zucchinis and the sweet potato he’d trudged across the city to find. He could pick up some chicken but no, she likes her veggie fare. Yeah, get it into the oven soon and it’ll be done by the time she’s back. And the movie. She’d made him promise. That new Scarlett Johansson thing. Well, he could go along with that – a little eye candy on the big screen.

Soundlessly he gets to his feet and collects his cane. He makes his exit, slow, rhythmic steps, tapping his cane gently against his leg as he goes. Thwack, thwack, thwack.