Sam took off his jacket, slung it over the back of the chair and sat down at the empty table. Apart from extra names on the honour board, the lifesaving club hadn’t changed—same fading photos, same surfboards mounted on the wall and hanging from ceiling trusses. Other wedding guests drifted up from the beach, headed to the bar, milled outside on the balcony; silhouettes in fading dusk light. Sam wondered if he should go out there, try to find someone from the old days, but instead he sat alone and counted chairs at the table. Six.
Kellie hadn’t told him who she’d sat him with this time. At her last wedding, it had been three couples they no longer saw. That was eight years ago at a big reception place in Melbourne. Funny how she’d come back here, he thought.
A ceiling fan flick, flick, flicked hot air. Everyone was sweating under a blast of late summer heat. Sam loosened his tie, undid the top button of his shirt. Overdressed for a beach wedding, anyway, he thought, dragging the tie off, stuffing it in his jacket pocket. He battled with his cufflinks, rolled up his sleeves, poured a glass of water from a jug on the table.
‘Sam my man. How’s it goin’?’
‘Got you a pot.’ He placed two beers on the table, pulled up a chair and took a long swig. The cold amber liquid slid into his mouth in one long stream, leaving specks of foam on his red beard and moustache. He slammed down the empty pot. ‘God, Sam, how long’s it been?’ His blue eyes glinted through weathered squint lines. He leaned forward and rubbed a rough, freckled hand over Sam’s head. ‘Not much hair left, mate.’
‘Just a shave and shine these days, Hutto,’ Sam laughed. The stubble on his face made it sexy, he hoped. Sexier than Hutto’s dreadies, hanging in sun- bleached clumps down his back. Sam sipped his water. ‘Still playing footy, Hutto?’
‘Yeah. Veterans.’ Hutto laughed.
‘And how’s er . . . how’s your wife?’
‘Angie?’ He looked around ‘Yeah, good mate. She’s around here somewhere, with the kids.’
Guests straggled in from the balcony looking for their seats. A woman carrying a cocktail, complete with paper umbrella, stopped next to Sam. He kept his eyes on her face, aware of her pale shoulders, the thin straps of her grass-green dress, her cleavage, the soft curve of her breasts. She peered at place tags on the table.
‘Hi, I’m Cassie.’
‘I’m Sam. And this is Hut . . . er, this is Damien.’
‘Hey, Cassie. What’s that you’re drinkin’?’
Hutto and Sam stared. Cassie sat down. ‘Mocktail.’
‘Mocktail?!’ Hutto said.
Cassie opened her green eyes wide and spoke loudly and slowly: ‘Non- alcoholic?’ She stared Hutto down, sucked her straw with ruby lips, smoothed her dark hair.
Her nails were short, dark red and shiny—like lollies, Sam thought. Lollies his Mum had bought him once in a shop at Sovereign Hill.
Hutto stood, absently picked up the pot he’d bought for Sam, swallowed a mouthful. ‘Better find Ang.’ He loped away, taking the beer with him.
Sam shifted in his chair. Cassie’s perfume was spicy, citrusy. It filled his head and his chest and gave the place an exotic glow it had never had before.
‘You a friend of Ryan’s?’ she asked
‘No. Kellie—old school mates.’
‘I’m Ryan’s cousin. So, you live here?’
‘No. Not for years. You?’
‘I wish—big house, ocean views, helicopter to get to work.’
Candles flickered in the middle of tables. Waiters collected dinner plates. Hutto’s kids had stuffed themselves with chicken nuggets and chips, and spilt tomato sauce over the table cloth. Angie was mopping up with a serviette. The kids were itching to charge off. ‘After the speeches, after the cake,’ Angie repeated. She anchored them to their seats with stuff she dragged from a large leather bag: headphones and tablet for the boy; colouring book and pencils for the girl.
On the bridal table, Kellie beamed at Ryan. Pretty in her strapless gown, Sam thought. ‘Oyster, not white,’ she’d said in her last text. He caught her eye, smiled, waved. She laughed, waved back, put her arm around Ryan, did a thumbs up. Guests chattered, laughed; animated waxworks, trapped inside, melting in the heat. Weddings, Sam thought, hard to make them personal, fun, affordable. Even harder to make your marriage last. Hecouldn’t.
Hutto’s daughter, green pencil poised in her little hand, stared at Cassie. Cassie twirled a cocktail umbrella in each hand. ‘Want these?’
Hutto’s daughter smiled, nodded.
‘Say thank you,’ Angie said.
‘You gotta try this red,’ Hutto said. ‘Local winery.’ He stood, leaned across the table in front of Sam, about to pour a glass for Cassie.
‘No thanks,’ she said, placing a straight hand over her glass.
‘It’s good stuff.’
She stared him down, reached for the water.
‘Sam?’ Hutto raised the bottle.
Sam tried to conjure the peppery, berry flavours of shiraz, the way it warmed your mouth and your insides and left you wanting more. It’d been too long. All he got was the aftertaste of steak and mustard jus. ‘No thanks, Hutto,’ he smiled. ‘Driving.’
Hutto shrugged, leaned back to pour himself another glass, overbalanced and fell into his seat. He dropped the bottle, bottom-side down, onto the table. It bounced, toppled, sprayed shiraz over Sam’s shirt and fell into his lap.
‘Sorry mate.’ Hutto sprang up, grabbed a dirty serviette, wiped at Sam’s shirt, adding tomato sauce to the mix.
‘It’s okay, Hutto. I’ll sort it.’ He batted Hutto’s hand away and headed to the bathroom.
Sam looked in the mirror, surveyed the damage. He turned the tap on full bore, soaked a wad of paper towel, and dabbed. The stains bled across his shirt and down his pants. What a mess.
‘Needs salt water.’
Cassie appeared in the mirror, leaning against the wall, chunky black sandals dangling from one hand. She placed them on the floor, reached into her dress, right where her breasts met, and pulled out her lipstick. She darkened her top lip first, then the bottom and pressed them together. She put her head to one side, admired the effect and slipped the lipstick back inside her dress. ‘Salt water, Sam.’
Outside the air was hot, still, heavy. The ocean rushed and slapped below. ‘Last one in’s a rotten egg.’ Cassie said.
Sam paused. Something his Dad used to say. An old joke. ‘What doesthe old dog do when it catches a semi-trailer?’. Sam took off, chasing Cassie down a sandy path, through a tunnel of prickly, aromatic Tea Tree, engulfed in a rush of salt air, seaweed, and bursts of Cassie’s perfume. A bass beat throbbed from the lifesaving club. They’d missed the speeches, cake, bridal dance. Sam stumbled, recovered, lost sight of Cassie. He ran down steep wooden steps, leapt onto the final landing and spotted her: a shadow bounding across the beach, hair and dress flying. He raced down the last steps, trudged through sand. The driftwood arch Kellie and Ryan had stood under was still there, ribbons and flowers wilting in the heat. Cassie dropped her sandals, twirled around, arms out, kicking up sprays of sand. Sam sat on a rock, fumbled with his laces, took off his shoes, stuffed his socks inside.
Cassie reached out. ‘Shall we?’
Sam took her hands—soft, fine, strong hands. She hauled him up. A glaze of water covered the hard sand, cooling their feet as they walked to the shore.
Cassie waded in, the hem of her dress growing darker as water lapped her knees. She turned. ‘Come on.’
He couldn’t. ‘I’ve left my jacket, wallet, and keys at the club. I should go get them. Go to the motel, get changed, get back to the reception.’
‘We’ll get them later. Come on.’ She held out her hand.
The sea chilled Sam’s feet. His pants clung to his calves. He and Cassie waded on. Waves thudded and splashed into them. They shrieked, laughed. Out beyond the shallow breakers, they turned, looked back at the dunes.
‘Full moon.’ Cassie said.
High above the dunes, there was the moon—round and yellow, hanging in an indigo sky bursting with stars and a swirl of Milky Way. Shadows of scrub fringed the beach. And there, in the ripples of wet sand leading down to the shore, the full moon gleamed again.
‘Beautiful,’ Sam said.
Sam drank it in—the moon, the shimmer of moon on wet sand, the cool water, Cassie’s perfume, her soft hand.
Cassie let go, fell backwards, floated, arms out, eyes closed. Her hair and dress streamed, her skin translucent in the moonlight. ‘Salt water,’ she sang.
Sam held out his arms, plunged backwards, gasped at the cold. He laughed. His shirt billowed. They lay together, lifted, buoyed by gentle waves. His body tingled as stain after stain dissolved.
Four Vodka Night
Two houses across, there is a window. She can see the man and woman, framed within it.
His hair is clipped smooth, manicured like the grass in his garden. His desk is neat, and the walls of his room are creamy-white. He is sitting, working. Back straight, shoulders moving beneath his shirt, paper and pen, not a laptop. The woman hands him a cup, and it is steaming, yes, definitely steaming. She is waif-like; soft colours, shining hair. Her hand, soothing, rests on his shoulder. He reaches up to stroke her arm. Yellow light bleeds into the dark.
The watcher withdraws her gaze. Back through the clean window, across the lush garden beds, perfect lawns and stoic South Yarra fences, back to the small timber square of the landing at the top of her fire escape. None of her business. She huddles with her knees to her chest, leaning against the hard wood of her back door.
When she moved in, these stairs weren’t even here. The door opened to nothingness, or would have, if the landlord hadn’t bolted and padlocked it. Top floor 1930s flat, one entrance, three flights of stairs. No discount on the rent, sorry. Rear Stairs Finished As Soon As Possible. It took five months.
The watcher lifts a glass to her lips. Vodka, tonic, lots of lemon. There are four of these each night now, before bed. She is wrapped in her new quilt. It is a white, king- sized, goosedown confection, totally impractical, but to hell with it, she thought. She only bought it this afternoon, and now it is already marked with the brown dust of the landing. She’ll need to wash it in the bathtub.
The man is alone now. He stands and stretches, arms overhead, and then looks down at the desk, hands on hips.
Yes,she thinks. Things are often better from a distance.
What is he doing at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night, in his fully restored two storey Edwardian home? A report for work? Tax paperwork? Divorce papers? Poetry? His expression is impossible to read at this distance. He seems neither happy, nor troubled, but he is intent. He must get this right.
He turns and walks beyond the frame of the window. Good. Take a break. It will look different when you return.She drinks. Leans against her door. Looks up.
The darkening sky flickers with silent beasts. The great bats, flying in their hundreds to feed on fruit trees by the riverside, in parks, in gardens. She hadn’t even known they were there, gliding over her every night, until the fire escape was finished and the bolt could finally be drawn back. It was the first thing she saw on that first night. They were one vodka nights, then.
Against the sky, the wings are sharp-edged, and remind her of black and white films from her childhood. Nosferatu. Vincent Price. White necks. Blood.She imagines that she is the only person alive watching them. She is a phantom, sitting in the dark, undetected, unseen.
Unneeded. Unthought of.
Somewhere behind the noise of truck air brakes and traffic, a dog is barking. Rapid fire, canine shouting. Not close; maybe in the next street, or in Fawkner Park. She pictures an hysterical spaniel, pulling at the leash, desperate to smell and piss on the whole world. This is the life of the urban hound, confined and alone while the sun shines, and then tethered by the neck for the night time walk. Everything interesting just out of reach, just beyond the collar and chain.
The window still gleams with warm light. The woman reappears. She approaches the desk, leans over the papers. She remains like this for several minutes. Then he is there, behind her. One arm folded across his body, the other bent at the elbow, hand cradling his own chin.
He needs her.
The woman turns, leans against the desk, looks at him. Now she speaks – see, her lips are moving – and he is nodding. Her hands grip the edge of the desk; firm, balanced.
The watcher sees now that he is taller and older than she first thought. He steps forward and kisses the woman, holds her for a moment. Not divorce papers, then. But still, who’s to say the waif is the wife?
The bats are still flying. The dog has stopped barking. The traffic rumbles on and on.
The watcher stands, swathed in the quilt, and pivots awkwardly to open the door. In the kitchen, an untouched vegetable curry is sweating on the stovetop. She opens the freezer. Two bottles. Her fingers stick to the glass. A long splash over ice, a little tonic, fresh lemon wedges.
She needs the toilet now. She walks through the living room, where Christmas lillies waft perfume from a vase, and a new white sofa sits beneath framed prints on the wall. Tamara deLempicka. The watcher bought those pictures to match the flat. Thirties art deco. She nailed hooks into the walls herself to mount them. When the landlord came to take off the deadbolt, he stared hard, but said nothing. Admiring the art, or calculating the deduction from her bond? Now the dour faces of deLempicka’s nudes stare at her, and she does not look back. She abandons the quilt on the sofa.
The bathroom is freezing. She sits on the toilet, and looks at her feet. The floor tiles are cracked and old, curving around the base of the pastel yellow handbasin, which is Authentic, and Of The Period. She flushes, washes her hands and sees herself in the mirror. The same as ever, and changed in every way. She wipes down the vanity before leaving.
The light is on in her bedroom. A light in every room – her first action when she returns home each day. The bed looks undressed without its quilt, without bodies in it. The clock tells her it is 11.28 pm.
Sleep abandoned her long ago. It’s funny/not funny how so many things you think are yours forever – things that you think belong to you, things that feel easy, and permanent – can be so easily lost. She picks up the quilt and vodka number two on her way back outside. One of the bottles comes too.
The bats have gone, and the man is alone again. He does not move for an age, apart from the hands, flicking pages, marking with his pen. She imagines it to be a fountain pen, with gold trimmings and polished wood. There’s probably a pen stand somewhere. She likes that he is writing, that he is true to the craft of what he is doing. That he thinks better with a pen in his hands, with ink on paper.
Last week, she was sitting on her bed, writing in her journal. The sun had gleamed red and gone out, and the room was lit by her bedside lamp and two diminishing candles. She had stopped in the middle of a thought, and looked towards her balcony doors, where her own image was held in the glass, smeared like smoke.
Her reflection, and the darkness outside, surprised her, and she thought that she might draw the curtains. And then she saw, across the street on a balcony of their own, two shapes. They stood outside their unlit room, cut-out shadows side-by-side, motionless. She looked at them, suddenly aware of her own shape, her own light. Being seen. Being watched. All three of them now, still.
She lifted her hand the tiniest amount, and waved. After a long moment of – and she felt this – decision, the larger shape waved back. She turned back to her journal, and when she lifted her head again, they were gone. She drew her curtains then, and every night after.
She sees her journal, and all the wondering contained within it, lying on the floor by the bed. What good comes of this? she wonders. What good does thinking do, in the end?
The man is still working. He’ll keep going now until it is finished. She understands this. Vodka number three comes and goes. Then four. The bottles are not yet empty, and it is only one o’clock. There are hours to go yet. Hours and hours.
She’ll stay with him long after the soft-coloured woman has gone to bed, and all the other lights in all the other houses are extinguished, and the dogs have gone home to their kennels and dreams. She’ll stay here while the bats return to roost in the Botanical Gardens, where she will walk tomorrow, to look up at their dog-like faces and smell the muskiness of their dark bodies.
She will sit and watch tonight, through the deepening black, listening to the traffic and the silence. And beyond her door, the lights will burn until they are outshone by the arriving sun, and her bed will lie naked without her.
She watches, unseen.
I had been drifting through the hawker streets when I felt my phone buzz. My shoes were sinking into the cracks of the pavement. The city of Guangzhou was sticky-heavy hot.
You have a new message in your ImmiAccount inbox.
I fumbled, fingers wet and useless. The hawkers shouted around me, each voice drowning out another, all of it melting into a distant rumble. A scooter darted onto the sidewalk and passed me, covering me in fumes. Finally, I got the log-in to work, verification code and all. Coughing, I clicked the message.
Dear Ms Lau…Subclass 820 Partnership Visa…Notification of application results…application approved.
As I replay this in my mind now, I realise that I have forgotten how I felt in that moment. My mother was always fond of the idiom ‘taller than the Canton Tower’.It probably felt like champagne in my heart, fireworks in my mind. I don’t know. I just remember that I called Lucas immediately. He didn’t pick up. He was probably working then.
But later that night, before he even called back, Lucas sent me an email. Plane tickets attached. Qantas. His majesty awaits his queen xx,he wrote. That was how I remembered falling asleep that night: staring at those tickets on my phone, that burnt red header, that glossy, milky outline of a kangaroo.
When I left, my mother told me that distance was relative. They were a continent away, but they were also only nine hours away. They were a continent away, but they were also only eleven digits away. They were a continent away.
Space was also relative. For example, even the empty streets of Guangzhou could feel crowded on bubbling summer nights. Zhenhai Tower always seemed to roar and claw with life, even if I knew that it only held century-old dust. Lucas’ house was the opposite. It was far bigger than any granite flat I had lived in (“It’s considered small here, love.”), but it felt empty. It was hard to explain. Our bedroom was well-stocked but junky: swathing mattress, white-and yellowing wardrobes, chairs that still bore earthy stains on their legs. Perhaps the lighting was just unkind. Whenever Lucas was not there, jumping around the place, it felt quietly dim, painting uneven streaks across the walls.
The adjustment period was difficult. Lucas had gone from seeing me three times a year to seeing me three times a day. My husband was assertive and did not like being shackled. I knew that: he had only found me in Guangzhou by getting lost in its tangled-string backstreets. In Melbourne, he was out almost every night, drinking and smoking, with friends, with strangers. Initially, I accompanied him. But the conversations flowed too fast and violently for me to follow, and I vomited trying to keep up with their drinking. Lucas had to take me home early. I never asked to come out again; he never offered.
There were nights where he did not come home until morning (or the morning after), and I woke up to the stink of whiskey and grease. But there were also days where he woke up overflowing with affection. Once, he skipped work to drive me down to Brighton Beach. He brought roses and a picnic mat (“Ever had fairy bread before?”). We watched the sunset whilst holding each other, watched as the sea, clouds and sky melded into an empty darkness.
Looking back, I realise that he treated our relationship as long-distance: loving gestures, but always interluded with long, silent absences.
I had finally found work. I was a bookkeeper for a local accountant. Mr Chow was from Hong Kong, an hour’s reach from my birthplace. He was sour-faced and niggly, but I was paid reasonably. Daytime was spent pouring over badly- scanned invoices and thick bundles of tax returns. My desk soon became a white, papery cocoon. And somewhere buried deep in the cocoon, thickly nestled inside a drawer, inside an elastic-wrapped manila folder, were my commerce degrees. No more useful here than a misprinted receipt.
My parents messaged me, asking if they could visit. They had never been overseas before. They also asked whether I was pregnant yet. I replied that we were both too busy working. I ignored the second question.
For a while, I had felt (believed?) that Lucas and I were finally easing into married life. We had an unspoken arrangement. He was free to explore the streets as he pleased (so long as he was faithful), like a little schoolboy hunting for adventure. Gambling, bars, clubs, drugs, alleyways – whatever. But the moment he stepped home, he was my dutiful husband. We watched TV together, ate dinners, laughed and loved. Until he would leave me again. In effect, my part of Australia only extended as far as our front garden, and the four grey brick walls. His Australia was everything outside of that.
But then came the trigger. It was, I suppose, the classic trigger. Lucas lost his job. He worked as a salesman, and there had been a company restructure. Now he spent more time chained at home. A foreign land. Citizenship to the outside world revoked. He sat at the kitchen applying for work. He drank a lot. He slammed the table a lot. Or perhaps he always drank and slammed tables this much, but I just never got to see it.
Lucas no longer maintained the façade of being a perfect, gentle husband inside the house. After all, he could no longer escape outside to release his passion and anger. He started shouting at me, but what was that good for? So he quickly stopped and just continued to drink and slam tables.
He soon found a job again. But we were fractured. Lucas and I continued to sleep on the same bed, but the space between our bodies may as well have been as wide as the ocean from Brighton Beach.
My life has always been ruled by numbers. See, e.g.:
5: number of jobs my parents currently work.
5,108: Ms Wong’s tax return. My last case.
7,538: the distance between Melbourne and Guangzhou.
68,600: the difference between an average salary in Australia and China.
820: the subclass of a temporary partner visa.
801: the subclass of a permanent partner visa.
730: the number of days I must remain in a relationship with Lucas to obtain that permanent visa.
There was violence. Perhaps the reason why I cannot remember how I felt when I obtained the visa is because it is swallowed whole by the violence. Three things stuck with me. Firstly, he had brought home two cases of Tsingtao beer that day. I wasn’t sure if it was an odd nostalgia for the Chinese shores or because they were simply cheap; I did not ask. Secondly, after the violence happened, he did not apologise. Nor did he tell me it would never happen again. Lucas was not a liar at least.Wewere stuck with each other in the house, cramped and choking, so there was no point. Thirdly, I lost my Australia after the violence. Lucas had claimed the house for himself. He told me that if I stayed around and kept quiet, he wouldn’t tell the Department anything and you’ll get your free pass into Australia, which is all you ever wanted anyway, bitch.I stared at him. What Australia did I have left to enter?
Ninety-four. Distance was relative, my mother had said. It was so much smaller than all the other important numbers. Barely three months. Ninety-four. Try and forgive him. I loved him once. Last it. Endure it. Ninety-four. If he wants to drink, let him drink. If he wants to fuck around, let him fuck around. I can drink too. I can fuck around too. And if he wants to hit me again –
Above me hovers the Canton Tower. A rainbow-hued needle, tall enough to prick the sky. It overlooks the Pearl River Delta, where cities are flattened into water ripples under the tower’s obsidian eyes. Its mighty frame faces inwards, away from the Pacific, from Australia. My mother had lied. You could never be as tall as the Canton Tower.
I did not last the countdown. Soon after the violence, I left the house and flew back home. The plane that took me home was not red-and-kangaroo, but some Asian airline; non-descript. Guangzhou is three hours behind Melbourne. But in my timeline, it seems closer to two years.
Lucas is still trying to contact me. He says the substances will stop. He says the violence will stop. The divorce will soon be underway.
Now I am back here. The city hustles and bustles, sprawling from one blurred horizon to another. Taxi drivers honk through crowds, billboards splatter everywhere like watercolour fireworks. There is even an advertisement for Tsingtao. Smog bleeds grey across all the building roofs. But right now, standing here, I feel like infinity.
Stop the timer. It’s on zero anyway.
Olga moved like a frenetic spider as she peeled black fabric from her bony frame. With arthritic fingers, she managed to unfasten the hook and eye of her bra. Tossed the baggy garment onto the beige coloured carpet. She inspected her reflection closely in the silver surface of the mirror. A gaunt goblin-like face stared back. She let out a frightened wheeze. There was no denying it. There on her back was a protruding lump. A tiny mountain pocking up from the wasteland of her body.
She dialled the clinic immediately.
“This is Olga Michaelidis. It is an emergency! There is a large lump on my back!”
The doctor arrived that afternoon. He peered closely at Olga’s back. Touched his hand over its worn surface. Moles and wrinkles and a time-weathered landscape, but nothing unusual.
“Mrs Michaelidis, there is no lump on your back” Doctor Vellios said finally. “But there it is!” said Olga, craning her neck and gesturing with her oval head. “Mrs Michaelidis that is your shoulder blade. A normal part of your back.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am certain. I cannot stop everything for these emergencies that turn out to be nothing. You are in perfect physical health, but I am happy to write a referral to the psychologist. I know a Greek- speaking gentleman who is very good. He can help you control your nevra. Your nerves.”
“I’m not crazy,” Olga said as she buttoned her blouse.
“I do not think you’re crazy. If you would like a referral, call the clinic.” The doctor picked up his battered briefcase and saw himself to the door.
Over the years, several doctors had diagnosed Olga. Always the same affliction: hypochondria.She experienced pains or imagined things that were not really there. The doctors said only a psychologist could cure her. But there was something there. Something that no x-ray machine could detect. A youthful hand, smooth and soft, that gently gripped around her heart. But Olga was an old woman now. She felt asphyxiated by this youthful hand.
She lay on the chesterfield couch and quickly drifted into one of her dream-tunnels. Haunted memories reflected on the glass walls. Just turned seventeen, she was still a young girl back in her village. A soft mountain breeze caught in her curls. And there was a young man in her idle imaginings. A sun-bronzed man with brown eyes that sparkled like gold jewels in the sunset light. His name was Dimitri and he had asked Olga to marry him and move to Australia. An earthquake had torn through their village a year prior. There was nothing left for them and no time to waste. They asked the village priest to marry them so they could travel the seas and start a new life.
They married in the village church. A sturdy stone structure that had been spared by the earthquake. Surrounded by the century old smoke-blackened walls, they stood side by side. Peering out at them were the surreal faces of the Byzantine saints who witnessed the crowns of twisted red hypercium placed on their heads. The crowns were bound together with a white ribbon they could not sever. They did not exchange vows. There was no need. The ceremony was not a legal contract or even a promise. But a union. The joining of souls and flesh by God.
They boarded the Patrisas husband and wife. There had been no time to consummate the marriage so they made love in their tiny cabin. Olga felt the sharp sting of it at first, but then grew to marvel at the sight of her husband enjoying himself as he rocked gently back and forth. In the dark, Olga did not notice the bloodstained white sheet and drifted into a content sleep. Dimitri too was content, but he felt a scuttling inside him. A trapped insect he needed to release. He dressed, kissed his sleeping wife on the forehead and ascended onto the deck.
Dimitri was an explorer passing a border without a map. He had made this decision alone and his wife, as a dutiful woman, had followed. The responsibility of it left a tingling feeling in the pit of his stomach that could only be quelled by drinking large quantities of the mature red wine he had brought with him for the journey. He clasped the cold railings with one hand and peered at the black waves slapping the pearl-white hull. A mesmerising contrast. His eyes seeped salt-water tears. He set his wine-flask down on the wooden deck and lent over the railing. He touched the white paint with the warm palm of his hand. He whispered things. Knew that if he could hold the surface of the ship long enough, his whispers would penetrate the metal and become stories held captive in the boat’s bones. Then, when the ship made its return, his goodwill would be transported back to the Patritha.The Fatherland.
He savoured the sensation of the salt spray on his face. In the village, the priest would hold a crying red baby. Surrounded by the auburn glow of candlelight, he would submerge the wailing infant in holy water, tonsure the child and then rub the soft flesh with deep green olive oil. The baby would emerge from the silver basin clean and fresh as the day of its birth. In the Godly glow of moonshine, Dimitri lent further over the hull and allowed the salt-water to cleanse him. A kind of baptism in the Red Sea, somewhere south of the River Jordan.
The next morning when Olga scanned her room, she noticed the top bunk was empty. Perhaps Dimitri had gone for an early walk up on the deck. A day later, it seemed he had simply vanished. The gossip spread fast. He committed suicide. He fell off. He was attacked and eaten by the Mavri –the black fisherman.
The gossip had haunted her dreams for fifty years. Olga woke with a start and rubbed her eyes. Perhaps the doctor was right. Perhaps she really was crazy.
A week later, Olga found herself face to face with a psychologist. A tall man with a white beard and a gentle face.
“Kali Mera.My name is Peter,” said the psychologist gently. “I want you to know, I’m not crazy,” said Olga, urgently.
Peter chuckled, deep and low. But he did not mock her. The sound of his chuckle was warm and flowing like hot milk. It settled her.
“Mrs Michaelidis, I do not think you are crazy. But sometimes, our thoughts become part of us. We wear them and they become stuck to us like the clothes on our back. Can you understand that?”
Peter was right, thought Olga.
“When you are having a troubling thought, I wonder if you can describe what happens to your body?”
Olga thought it a strange question. Yet she found it quite easy to answer. “I feel asphyxiated,” she said.
“I feel many things. I feel I cannot suck in enough air. My heart beats out of my chest.
Sometimes I get dizzy. I feel like I am swaying.”
“When you have these sensations, do you remember what you were thinking about before?” “Always the same. The same images…”
“Can you tell me?” Olga wanted to oblige with words. But only tears came. “Take your time.”
“I have not seen my husband Dimitri in fifty years. We were travelling to Australia by ship. We went to bed together one night and in the morning, he had disappeared. Of course, I know by now he is dead. But I never saw a body. Never buried him. Never found out what happened to him. He simply vanished without a trace. I feel like I am in a dream sometimes. Still swaying on a ship. No matter how much I try, I cannot lower the anchor and disembark. All I want to do is grieve for him.”
A large well, containing fifty years of collected tears overflowed. It was an uncontainable, uncontrollable cry. Fluid seeped from Olga’s eyes and nose. Even her forehead was covered with a thin sheen of sweat.
“Hope can be tiring. We call it ambiguous loss.With a normal bereavement, the decision to say goodbye is forced. In this case, Olga, you are the one who has to make a choice about when to say goodbye. And that can cause enormous stress.”
“It’s hope that hurts the most,” Olga spluttered.
“I can help you learn to tolerate the ambiguity. Although you may never find the answers you seek, it is okay to miss your husband. That is the part you can grieve…now let’s try some deep breathing…”
Olga relaxed into the back of the leather chair and reflected on her past life. The landscape of memory and haunted dreams was colourful. She was strong and seventeen again. A buoyant spirit, tethered to a ship by a fraying pearl-white ribbon. A tug alone could sever it.
Patterns and Pathways
There‟s been a pattern in her mind since she can remember. It fits into the folds of her brain, woven through, embedded. Like a soft lace veil it rises from behind her eyes when she first wakes and when she enters the dark room of sleep it drops gently down. Over time, she‟s come to think of it as a friend, a confidante. She tells the pattern her deepest nightmares, her wildest dreams. She recites the narrative of her day to it. She whispers to it about the things she loves, the things she fears, the things she can‟t name. In her mind, in those folds of her brain, the pattern is always rippling.
Her mum is in the kitchen trying to climb on the kitchen bench and her knee slips off the edge, over and over. Her mum is still in her pyjamas. The fleece ones with fat pink pigs on a pale blue background. They are bobbled all over, and too long, so her mum‟s feet look even tinier than they really are.
“What are you trying to get, Mum?” Maggie moves forward and touches her arm. Her mum lets out a small sigh and flinches.
“I wanted some marshmallows. I thought they were in this cupboard.
They were there last week. They were there behind the noodle packs and the coffee. I remember seeing them.” She tries to climb again and Maggie watches the skin on her knuckles whiten. Her fingers tremble. “I like the softness, the way they melt on your tongue, the floury sides.”
“I know, Mum. They taste good. But we ate them a couple of days ago, remember? We sat in bed and read The Great Gatsbyand dreamed about what parties we would throw and who we would fall in love with and we ate marshmallows with hot chocolate and you laughed because I spilled it on the doona and you said it looked like the cat had thrown up over it and I laughed because we don‟t have a cat.” She pulls her mother to her chest and smoothes her hair down the back of her head, taming the wild bounce. She wonders what patterns her mother has in her mind. Jagged and sharp. Pushing at the folds of her brain with sharp nails and cruel words.
“We should get a cat, Maggie, we should get a big fluffy ginger who does nothing but sit on the end of the bed and yowl for food. We could call it Ginger
Ninja the Whinger.” Her mum laughs but it‟s the sad laugh. The empty one. The one that tries to plug the holes in her memory.
Maggie feels her pattern swell in her head, pushing at the sides, trying to escape. Its colours wick out through her tears but she dabs them away. She takes her mother to bed and tucks her in. There‟s an empty bottleofJack Daniels on the bedside table where the lamp used to be. There are three other empty bottles and each one has a candle stuffed into the neck. Ribbons of wax decorate the necks like bizarre tribal jewellery.
“I‟m sorry, Maggie,” her mum says over and over.
“It‟s okay, Mum. Try to go to sleep.” Her shoulders are bony under the pyjamas, solid knots. Maggie tucks the sheet under her Mum‟s chin and she turns her head towards the table where the bottles stand.
“Take them away,” she says. “Take them away, smash them. I‟ll get a lamp. I‟ll get us some more marshmallows. I‟ll get us a cat.” Tears leak from the sides of her eyes, dropping diamonds on her lashes that tipple over and run along the wrinkles at her temples. “I‟ll get them tomorrow.”
There is a track through the grass to the garbage and recycling bins. It is dusty in the summer and a quagmire in the winter. Today it‟s just hard under foot.
There‟s been no rain for weeks. The grass is as brown as the dirt under it. When she drops the bottle into the recycling bin it breaks into pieces, leaving just the rounded bottom whole. She lets the bottles fall from a height and they all smash. The coloured glass shards mingle, kaleidoscopic. She wonders if that‟s what her mum‟s mind pattern looks like. Chaotic, overlapping, glinting.
In the old lop-sided shed there are no seedlings, no tomato plants curling around stakes, no bags of blood and bone signalling that life comes from death. There are lots of bottles on the rickety shelves. Several bags of cement on the floor. Empty plastic pots, some with desiccated soil stuck to the inside. She steps inside where the air is cooler. Tucked on the bottom shelf is a bag of potting mix. In her hand it‟s flexible, warm. Her pattern expands and she imagines fresh shoots and tiny white flowers.
She sees growth.
The moon hangs silver in the air and there‟s a silence in the small hours that she finds comforting. Her phone provides the light, her pattern the guidance. She mixes and plans and cultivates, pressing and designing and digging and pulling. An hour a night. An hour a day. It takes months. Baby steps. One foot in front of the other, but always moving forward. Each morning, she looks at her handiwork and her pattern blossoms, spilling over the edges of her brain‟s grooves.
Her mum is sipping tea, mug in both hands. Her skin is yellowy, dark smudges under her eyes. Curls of her hair spring from the sides of her head. Her hands tremble but she smiles between each sip.
“That smell is so good, Maggie. What are you cooking?” “Soup, Mum. I told you.”
“Chicken soup for the soul? Men are from Mars, women are from Venus?
How to win friends and influence people? Eat, pray, love?”
Maggie stirs and laughs. There are piles of books in her mum‟s room but she doesn‟t know how often she reads any of them.
“Eat soup, pray for my salvation and love my daughter? Eat, pray, love.
“I used the first carrots and baby zucchinis.”
Her mum‟s face shines and when her mouth makes an „o‟ her wrinkles smooth out. She looks so much younger, happier. “You grew vegetables?”
“I told you before, Mum. And flowers.”
The chair‟s legs scrapes across the floor and her mum stands up. She takes Maggie‟s hand and together they walk to the back door. There‟s a sharp blue sky outside. Too bright for her mum, who shields her eyes.
“You did all this?” Her voice is like the broken shards of glass.
“I did all this,” Maggie says. I really did all this.She looks at the pots of pansies spilling colours over the edges. She looks at the trellis where she‟s tied beans and planted tomatoes that reach up to the sun. The fluffy tops of the carrots poke up from the vegie patch between the shed and the bins. White zucchini flowers stud the vines. Against the back fence, she smiles at the golden faces of the sunflowers, nodding on the breeze.
Her mum steps onto the path and looks down. “It‟s pretty,” she says. “It‟s so pretty and colourful. It‟s like a river of stones, snaking through the garden. I love it.”
“You‟ve seen it before, Mum,” Maggie says, tapping her toe on the smoothed upturned bottom piece of a green wine bottle, buried into the concrete path. “You walked on it ages ago, remember?”
Her mum shakes her head. There are fresh tears streaking her cheeks. “I can‟t remember? Why can‟t I remember?”
“It doesn‟t matter, Mum. I‟m glad you like it.” She takes her hand. “Walk with me.”
They step over the concrete, dotted with the beads of glass, a mosaic of her mum‟s habit. A soft reminder. The pathway takes them from the house to outside world through a garden flourishing with plants. Green with life. There‟s promise underfoot. There‟s hope bursting along the edges.
They walk to the gate and turn to look back. Her mum leans into her side.
“Sometimes,” she says to Maggie, “sometimes, in my mind, there‟s like a sharp feeling that hurts when it pokes through the reality. It shreds my mind. It stings. I can‟t explain it but it‟s like something lives in my head.” She laughs wildly, throws her arms up to her ears and scrabbles at her hair. “I sound mad. I am mad. I‟m the maddest thing. Poor Maggie. Poor you,” she says.
“It‟s okay,” Maggie says. And her pattern swells to fill the spaces so that the pathway and the flowers and the plants are cast in a golden sheen. “It‟s going to be okay.”