Loathing

After ten years even a strong marriage can become strained. That was no excuse. I found myself interstate on business, staying in that part of town where women can be bought on street corners. She seemed a little lost among the hard-bitten, the brazen and the desperate.

She told me where to drive. By the time we got there her words were slurring, she was having trouble focusing. It’s nothing, she said. I let myself believe her.

Later I offered to drive her to hospital. She didn’t want to go. I took her instead to a flat at the back of a rundown block, opened the door with her key, laid her on the couch and left. I told myself I didn’t want to get mixed up. Besides, I’d offered. Hadn’t I?

Next morning the radio reported an attack. A young victim. A man being sought. I had no courage for admissions. I could have helped. I could have told police what I knew. But I flew home instead.

Before I could knock, my wife had the front door open. She was clasping Rebeccah tight to her. ‘What have you done, Leigh?’ she said. ‘What have you done?’

Helpin

There was nothing Col liked more than a good situation. Something he could throw himself into. Make a difference. Like this mum here. She’s got a kid screamin in the back and she’s totally boxed in by 4×4’s parked close either side. Col props his bike on its stand and wanders across, waving in the woman’s direction. He walks to the back corner and indicates how much space she has to work with, which isn’t much. He brings his hands together as she edges back. Just before she touches the big car’s bull bar he whistles. Holds his palm out like a traffic cop.

As he walks to the front corner he makes a face at the littly. It turns the kid’s screams to gigglin. All in a day’s work. He repeats the hand gestures first at the front then again at the rear. Almost done. He flashes a thumb’s up and positions himself again for the final maneuver. You’re right. Slowly now. Keep it comin. Keep it comin. You’re good.

Metal and plastic splinter. The passenger mirror shears clean off. Col smiles toothlessly as he recovers his bike. Bloody genius. Nothin’s as sweet as a good situation.

What you wish for

Dad and Liz, which is what I call Mum ‘coz she hates ‘Mum’, like it makes her sound old, as if she isn’t, but that’s her problem, are having another big fight downstairs. Liz is on about money again. About why other women in our street have got this and that and why they go places on holidays. ‘Actual places,’ she says, ‘on planes,’ like that ‘ll hurt him big time which is what she wants. But he just goes, ‘Planes. Really?’ Then there’s a crash and another plate hits the wall. And I sneak into their room which is where I’ve always gone when they’re like this and I start going through their drawers. I don’t know why but it makes me feel better looking at grown up things to remind me they’re more grown up than me and so far they haven’t actually messed me up too bad. And even Mum seems like someone soft you could like when you’re looking at her creams and her frilly things and I can block out the racket they’re making.

After I look through Mum’s stuff for anything new, but it’s just the usual goo for skin and corns, which is hard bits on your feet, and bras and pills to stop babies and stuff like that I go round Dad’s side of the bed and there’s a big envelope on his table and it’s been opened and I think wouldn’t it be good if it said, Dear Mr Harrison, you got that divorce you wanted and you can take Ryan but he’ll have to see his mum on weekends, something like that ‘coz that would be the best thing I reckon. But I know about letters and I know it’s not right so I don’t touch it and I look through his drawers instead and there’s the ciggies he’s not supposed to smoke and a whole lot of loose change and old watches and rubbers to stop babies and downstairs in the kitchen there’s another crash and shouting and my eyes keep going back to the envelope and it gets so as I have to look what’s there ‘coz it might be something like that about starting new just Dad and me so I pull the paper out and it’s addressed to him and it’s from some laboratory and I think maybe he’s sick. Maybe he’s real sick. And it’s hard to read ‘coz I don’t know all the words but half-way I realise it’s about me which it calls ‘the child in question’ and it’s saying something about why he’s not really my dad.

Downstairs goes quiet. There’s footsteps coming up. Usually that’s when I’d run out, fast.

Real cars

There was a time, Don remembered, when V8s ruled the highways. Proper cars. Valiants and Falcons. Chargers. Now the streets were clogged to a standstill with putt-putts. That’s what he called them. And what good had they done. Bugger all for all he could tell. The summers were hotter than Hades. Winter was cold but dry. The whole city drank recycled piss for God’s sake. And if a fella like him wanted to, if he hadn’t had his licence taken from him years ago, he couldn’t drive a decent car.

Lenny arrived. The kid was a disappointment. He worked for the government for a start, some sort of scientist. It was Lenny and that Clara who’d put him in this place.

Against my will, Don grumbled as Lenny straightened the photos on his dresser. What sort of family…

You been taking your pills? said Lenny.

Those pills ‘ll kill me, said Don.

You wanna live like this? said Lenny.

Whadda you think. You tell me.

Take the pills Dad, said Lenny. They’ll either kill you or make you feel better. You can’t lose.

Bugger you, said Don. He knew the score. He’d been at the home longer than anyone. He’d watched the others arrive like him, defeated. He’d seen them come over all smiles for a while. He’d watched them getting taken out.

Happy, happy, happy, die, he said.

You’re making it up, Dad, said Lenny.

Am I? said Don. And you with your government job. Don’t talk to me about making things up.

He closed his eyes. His head filled with the scream of a big donk hauling steel from nought to a hundred in the time it took to smell rubber burning on tarmac. All the good things were gone now. Outside the last of the dying pine trees was being taken out. They’d planted cactuses.

Insurance

 

gaol3

Labourers are a dime a dozen. Lonnie knows he’ll have work in good times but only his wits when jobs are scarce, which is trouble. Lonnie knows. He knows about walls like these. Their familiar shape. He knows about exercise yards.

Carter, the foreman, is a hard man. Lonnie half considers a change of plan but now’s not the time. He makes a note of the stones, fires a glance either side, then draws a blade from his sleeve. He lays it at the edge of a thick line of mortar that he’s mixed soft,

Just in case, he mutters as he trowels the mix quickly across. North wall, four lines up, five blocks from the right. The job is done. Carter can wait.

Nest

gaol2

The day I scratch the mark that marks two years

a bird arrives to tug a weed that spreads

between my bars, for nesting. Lest it disappears

I offer it some tattered blanket threads.

Now threadbare, worn to nothing, five years hence

that blanket offers no warmth in the chill

but warmth comes daily when my bird descends

now to my bunk, our trust so that it will

exchange for strands such gifts as please me best.

It brings me shiny things. Some buttons bright,

some coins the guards are happy to accept,

some bottle tops that glisten in the light,

some nails, which I sharpen to a point,

some bullets from a lazy copper’s joint.

The methodical mind

There are many ways information can be acquired. It can be bought or stolen or had by intimidation. It can be discovered, either by accident or design, or, most commonly, by the fortuitous combination of both. It can come in a dream.

I have taken three years to learn, in various ways, the following things; the habits of each and every guard and each and every inmate, the design of the buildings right down to the plumbing, the best ways to hide small tools, the manufacture of rope from sheeting scraps, a technique to muffle noises in my cell, the exact timing of shift changes, and the recipe for a soft paste indistinguishable from the mortar between the stones.

Tonight I begin tunnelling. I do not fear the dogs or guns. I do not fear the deadly drops from the outer wall. I do not fear the loose lips of those whose knowledge came hardest, for they have been silenced. The only thing I fear is that I do not know what it is I might have missed.

 

The pay off

She changed the spelling of her name so it was hardly a name at all. X-oe; how the hell did anyone pronounce that. Drawing on her loyal art school friends she developed signature projects; animations, improvisations she performed at clubs and parties, spoken word rants, flash installations and endless images. Then she hit social media hard. She established a profile; X-oe, anti-art assassin, whatever that was, because it was just a bit of spin she concocted one morning in the midst of a vodka and pills hangover.

The art-suckers bought it. She traded in her old friends for a more influential bunch. Momentum built around her, a reputation that needed form, because anti-art had become more art than art and it was time to cash in. She created a single non-art work, an unlimited edition of unsigned solid cubes that could be recreated endlessly in whatever size, colour or material the non-art collector desired. Business boomed.

X-oe incorporated, skimming an executive salary while finding others to fill the orders of art fans keen to get onboard her non-art wagon. They outdid themselves on size and materials. She went viral. She went global.

The Guggenheim called. The Guggenheim! It was enough to crack even X-oe’s non-art cool. Her time had come.

Transfer it to the office, she called. She took a long breath before lifting the receiver. Yes…Speaking.

We’re acting, a severe voice replied, on behalf of the estate of…

X-oe recalled—but the memory was vague because she’d spent so many hours trolling the internet for exploitable ideas—a manifesto written by some post-dada, beatnik hack.

At first light

I wake you in the morning

when your sheets in swales lie

and in fens and glens of cotton

gathered, places long forgotten,

and your length the range untrodden

upon which, in rose red sky,

clings a cloud, the red sky warning

formed of curtain-filtered light,

as I wake you in the morning,

as you wake me in the night.

 

The Hercules train

When he reached the edge of the world Hercules looked out at the heavens with a heavy heart for this, his greatest quest, was over and it was the pursuit of it he had cherished most. The edge was like a beach, oblivion lapping onto it in wavelets. He had an urge to see what was beneath, so he lay flat on the sand. Carefully he leaned over to see. That part of him that extended beyond the world stopped being. The sensation was of weight and mass and energy reaching only to those parts of his body that stayed on the sand. Beyond these, where his head and his fingertips had been there was a blind consciousness, which Hercules told himself must be the state of his soul. He had endured many hardships in his life and the Gods had taunted him with endless trials for the body they’d made him. The sensation of nothing that could be seen or touched, excited him. Only beyond the world could he be freed of his need to be and become, instead, only the notions he held true of justice and honour. Without a thought the hero edged forward, neck then shoulders gone, then chest. He found a purchase on the sand and pushed towards where zero and infinity were indistinguishable, where now was all of time and peace as absolute as its absence. He let himself slide into it. At the last moment as the hero struck out beyond his embodiment the buckle on his sandal caught on a length of vine. But, as his physical consciousness had been all but extinguished, he had no idea, as he drifted out, of the calamity he had set in train, as first the vine, then its roots and the things it had ensnared slipped towards nothing and the world he’d honoured with his bravery began slowly dragging itself, each small part so connected, piece by piece into a void beyond.

The lover

Twin sisters shared their girlhood home in a way. One occupied the rooms in front, back to the kitchen, which was in the middle of the house. The other took everything to the rear. A schedule, pinned to the kitchen door, limited their need for further contact.

They were seen coming and going occasionally, but never together. Over time the occupants of nearby houses changed and the knowledge of the family that once lived at the house was lost. In its place a single woman, pleasant but reclusive, emerged, though no one knew her name. Beyond Luskin Rd, in the files of the country’s corporations and agencies the women disappeared as well. Surviving frugally, as their father had, taking only what they needed of the savings he had hidden in shoe boxes beneath the pantry floor, they left none of the usual evidence of their existence.

When the fire broke out – old wiring in the roof space – it spread unseen above them before bursting through old ducting into rooms at either end of the house. It converged towards the middle, the kitchen, where two charred bodies, embracing in death, were to be discovered by fire-fighters dousing the embers.

So it was that a mystery woman, an unknown lover perhaps, became the talk of the people of Luskin Rd in the days after the fire. Only the old cat, who had been with them all its years, knew the women’s real story, but it took that secret with it days later when starvation overcame it.