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Cherry Bomb (Cassandra Atherton)

30 May

I wished it were a phantom pregnancy.  I prayed I was really Christine and had been impregnated by the Angel of Music.  Or the ghost of Gaston Leroux.  Not you.  Never you.  Never Dale Fiddich.  Not Mr Dale Fiddich of Ascot Vale.  No letters after your name.  Just the school roll at your fingertips.  I scrolled through the results thinking that ‘yahoo’ must be a sick joke in this context.  A sorry smorgasbord of choices.  ‘It won’t be long now,’ I told myself, ‘not too much longer.’  I scrolled more furiously.  Titles blurred.  Blue font filled the screen.  I felt the buzz in my veins.  Life blood.  Blue veins.  Blue like the computer screen.  And the Wedgwood my mother had locked away in the crystal cabinet.  Just in case.  Fear of the two ‘S’s: smashing or selling.  But I had never wanted to break china.  Only men’s hearts.  And I couldn’t be bothered stealing either.  China and hearts weren’t worth all that much in the end.  They couldn’t smother or suffocate or crush so I had no use for them.  I clicked on the third website.

Sheryl Lynn Massip placed her six-month-old son behind the tyre of her car and ran him over, repeatedly crushing his head.

Josephine Mesa beat her two year old son with a toilet plunger then buried her battered baby in a trash bin.

I didn’t have to read the screen, I knew it off by heart.  But seeing it in print made it real.  Made it possible.  Made the blood rush to my head.  Made the plane ticket under my pillow my last chance.  Last week I had been given a Barbie suitcase on wheels.  Small enough for hand luggage.  Pink enough to be mine.  You told me that New York would make it dirty.  Your orange case was filthy from all the travelling.  But I wasn’t going to New York.  Not this time.  No little apartment in Brooklyn.   No Empire Diner or Tom’s Restaurant.  No celebration eggs sunny side up.  No eggs at all.  Ever again.

If only they had photos on the website.  Photos of the dead babies.  Photos of the mothers’ relief.  The mothers’ first uninterrupted night of sleep since the baby’s birth.  No conscience.  No Macbeth to murder sleep or somnambulist Lady Mac to wring her hands.  Just joy.  Joy at the silence.  At having your life back.  At being in control again.  And having bubble baths and a social life and young friends who have never contemplated being stitched up after giving birth.   My best friend’s dad fainted during a video of a woman giving birth in a Health and Human Relations class when I was in primary school.  He had five daughters.  We thought it was funny.  He didn’t faint during the video of the abortion.   I closed the lid of the computer.  I knew when I opened it again that Sheryl and Josephine would still be there.  Waiting for me.  Inviting me to join them.  Special club.  Perhaps there would be an addition.  I decided to refresh the screen when I returned.  Just in case I was already there.  For my murderous thoughts.  And vanity.  I wanted a caramel macchiato.  For all of us.  Bitter but syrupy.  If the barrista asked me if I wanted extra caramel on the top I would tell her ‘only if you criss-cross it across the top.  Like ballerina’s ribbons’.  I wondered fleetingly if anybody had ever strangled a baby with a pointe shoe ribbon.  Starbucks.  I remember what it was like.  Before I knew.  Before the plane ticket.  Before the search for filicide.

I didn’t know I was carrying your baby then,  I just wanted more tenderness.  But you were always scared.  Too scared to touch me or bring me daffodils until I asked.  You wanted the schoolgirl and I just wanted to play house.  But I only had six more months to be a schoolgirl and a lifetime to be a wife.  Meeting lonely men in Starbucks was the saddest thing I have ever done.  Up until now.   If they have sex with me then the onus is no longer on you.  It could be any of their babies.  It wouldn’t necessarily be yours then and that would make it easier.  For when the time comes.

He sees me and I can feel him smiling into the back of my head.   I continue writing.  It’s his lucky afternoon.  He sits down and he tells me about his daughter and his passion for swimming.  Solitary sport.  Too much time to think in a place too much like the womb.  I’m afraid of drowning even though I am a good swimmer.  I represented my school in backstroke at the interschool sports.  At Oak Park.  I got caught on the ropes.  Perilous zig zag.  I peek at the clock on my mobile phone and hope he doesn’t see me looking.  If he had a knitted hat with a pom-pom on the top and a set of mittens he could be straight out of an American Christmas movie filled with snowmen and turkeys.

I know he is the one I have arranged to meet because he looks out of place here.  Argyle scarf.  Hair too long and shaggy.  Not as good looking as Darcy in Bridget Jones but just as dated and daggy.  He might even have looked better in a reindeer jumper than Colin Firth.  If he has a daughter he could easily be the father of my baby after we have sex.  Except of course that I am already pregnant.  But that is just a minor detail.  Insignificant in the scheme of things.  He is nervous and tries to look into my eyes but I can’t give him that.  I can only give him my body.  Once.

‘How old are you?’ he asks before we leave Starbucks.

‘Old enough.  Does it matter?’ I smile at him.

‘Well, I guess not.  Are you older than my daughter?’ he presses, taking my elbow like my old-fashioned grandfather.

‘How old is she?’ I reply.

‘Fifteen,’ he continues.

‘Absolutely.’ Absolutely leaves no doubt.  I will absolutely have sex with him.  Dale is absolutely the father of my unborn baby.

‘But not by much?’ he pushes.

I wanted to scream Freud and Oedipus.  I wanted to fiddle with the salt shaker but there are no salt shakers on the tables at Starbucks. I always feel better when I feel up a salt shaker.  I don’t mind the glass ones but my preference is for the cold, metallic, phallic ones.

‘Look, are you up for this or not?’ I snap, already knowing what his answer will be.

I return to my computer.  Hand on my stomach.  Throw my sodden panties in the wash.  I pick up Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born.  I pin up a poster of Brooke Shields and her children.  I fantasise about leaving my child with Gwen Harwood in the park.

Late at night.  I don’t rely on the moonlight.  I have an electric lamp.  I switch on my computer.  There is another one.

Asuka Lee electrocuted her baby in a bathtub and then buried her in the basement beneath her old toys and clothes.

It wouldn’t be long.

ONE DAY IN ENGLISH – an extract from Bite Your Tongue by Francesca Rendle-Short

17 Nov

One day in English things did go haywire.

The teachers must have known exactly who Glory was the day she arrived. News would have travelled fast around the staffroom like the puff of cigarettes. Miss Keynote might have even announced something: I’m going to have to say something. Just watch. After all, her English syllabus was under threat. Give her to me and I’ll tell her what’s what. In any case, one afternoon after lunch, she swept into the English classroom all puff, hot and red in the face: ‘Stand up, girl.’

Glory and Lisa sat in the back row, as they always did. Their uniforms were a mess. They had been fighting each other through lunch, play fighting in the quadrangle in the sun. They had tried to be the first to rub orange quarters through the other’s hair, to see how far they could go before getting caught.

‘Stand up, girl. Do you hear me?’

There was something different about the way Miss Keynote spoke this afternoon, how her body swivelled into the room. You could almost feel the heat she was giving off. This mattered more than anything: it was about Miss Keynote herself, her sense of self and identity. Her voice shook too, as she nailed the words in place.

The air prickled with heat and Glory’s skin pricked with the sweat of her body. Everyone guessed, without it being said, which girl Miss Keynote was referring to. This was the confrontation Glory had been waiting for. But for some reason and unpremeditated at that, she let the words hang in suspension. Glory insisted, in her own silent way, that Miss Keynote reveal herself more, with more.

She did.

‘There are some parents in this school,’ Miss Keynote elaborated, ‘who think they know best how to educate young people, who are adept at the theory and practice of modern teaching, who dare to want to take our place.’ She said the word dare as she would strike a high C if singing an aria. All throat. A lifted soft palette. Quintessential control.

‘Your mother, Glory. I’m talking about your mother. She says the sort of education we are giving our pupils is defilement, do you hear?’ Miss Keynote pointed a stick of yellow chalk in Glory’s direction. She was casting out evil spirits with this move. ‘Now stand up girl when I say,’ her voice wobbled on this command, betraying something else: did Glory detect nervousness?

‘Your interfering mother thinks she knows best.’ Snap. The chalk broke in two, fell and bounced on the wooden floor between her legs like something rude. ‘She dares to interfere in Our Literature. She says it is sex-saturated. You’ve only got to read the letters to the papers—‘Mother Disgusted with School Books’, ‘Immoral Books Third-Rate Gutter Trash’, ‘Be Wary of Homosexuals’.’ Miss Keynote must have learned the lines by heart. ‘Your mother says you are not allowed to read the book Improving on the Blank Page. Dr Joy Solider says you are not allowed to meet the wicked Holden Caulfield under any circumstance. She says that these books—books on our very own reading list, do you hear?—are pornographic.’ Miss Keynote was flying now all around the room, full throttle.

When the girls heard the words sex, homosexual and pornographic, they started to snigger. Miss Keynote made a mocking face like a clown.

‘And she’s saying these things in public, on radio, for everyone to hear!’

With a flourish, she tugged at her hair and to the surprise of everyone, yanked off the black curly wig she was wearing to reveal grey wisp pulled back neatly in a maroon velvet bow.

‘What do you have to say for yourself girl? Stand up when I tell you!’

None of the girls knew Miss Keynote wore a wig. Until then they’d always seen her with it on, had always thought this teacher had luscious black hair, the sort you put into hot rollers each night. Not this smooth, straight greyness. Everyone gasped. They’d never seen her like this, in the flesh so to speak, in such a theatrical act. There was something almost obscene about it, Miss Keynote disrobing in public and mouthing those rude words at the same time. They shouldn’t be watching this sort of thing but they loved it. Their very own peepshow. It was exhilarating.

That was when Miss Keynote started to laugh. But it was a very different laughter to the sort Glory was used to. It was an us-and-her laughter kept for special occasions and the girls wanted to join in.

Poor Glory wet her pants. She was all sweat behind the knees too where the elastic garters squeezed her folds of skin. She tried standing tall—thinking, hoping and wishing this would pass quickly.

Glory couldn’t look anywhere except stare straight ahead. She was paralysed, stunned. Holden Caulfield? She didn’t really know who he was yet; she thought the reference was to some kind of car. Pornographic? That didn’t sound good.

Suddenly, Glory astonished herself. Instead of being submissive and compliant, waiting for the next command, Glory banged down the lid of her desk. It thudded into the commotion of laughter and exclamation, wood smashed against wood. MotherJoy would have been proud—wouldn’t she?—if it were true the things Miss Keynote was saying. It was like an explosion.

Everyone in the class held their breath. What would Miss Keynote say next? She stood, mid gesture, unsure how to proceed. She tipped her head as if thinking up a plan, smoothed down the line of hair on one side of her face, the maroon velvet ribbon the only extravagance. She had flawless skin, faintly red heart-shaped lips.

If this were a duel, it should be Miss Keynote’s turn to respond. But before the teacher said anything Glory pulled words from deep inside her throat and out across her tongue through nearly clenched teeth.

‘Children don’t go to school to learn to think,’ she blurted out. ‘They go to school to learn to spell, do maths.’

Glory amazed herself with this utterance. She turned pink. What made her dare challenge this particular teacher, like this? Was it with the same spirit that drove her to stand up for Jesus? There was no going back. It was that quiet, you could hear the ladies in the tuckshop faraway cleaning up. Then Miss Keynote spluttered in response: ‘Where on earth did you get that idea?’

All Glory kept thinking for the rest of the day was that perhaps, for this one crazy, heart-choking moment, she had rescued her mother. She knew how to resuscitate a body, didn’t she? She was a Bronze Medallion, owned a cute metal badge with her name engraved on the back. It was an act of allegiance, surely, not madness. A composition—an intervention—of love.

Extract courtesy of Spinifex Press.

The Book of Rachael (Leslie Cannold)

29 May

When I was five years old, our ewe gave birth to a lamb. He was white and had eyes as black as olives. Shona and I named him Timba. Two weeks later my eldest brother Joshua held him down, and Papa slit his throat.

 

The place was Galilee, the fertile northern province of the land of Israel, and spring was in the air. It blew in from the deserts to the east to dry the mud beneath our sandals, and gave life to the sudden profusion of wildflowers blanketing the rolling hills. In the valleys, geometric plains stretched as far as the eye could see. Soon the grain harvest would begin and Israelites of all but the highest stations would swarm—babes strapped to their backs, sickles held high—across the fields. They would reap and gather the browning sheaves of barley, oats and wheat until the last shard of sunlight fl ed from the sky, then fall to their knees to offer praise to God.

 

In the hilltop village of Nazareth, grapes ripened on the vine and in the groves nearby, visible from the roof of our house, figs, apricots and almonds swelled like expectant women on the boughs of ancient trees. In the months that followed, we high- lands people would join the ingathering, filling woven baskets with fruit, nuts and olives before the rains of winter fell again.

 

It was a time of promise: of warmth and plenty after the hungry wet. A time of temporary truce as the Galilean resistance fighters, dug into a hill shaped like a camel’s hump in the nearby town of Gamla, crawled from their caves. Tired, hungry, in need of a woman’s love as well as a bath, the rebels slouched towards their homes in the upper and lower reaches of Galilee. They would linger there for weeks, joining the work of the harvest; later, they would travel with the other men of the village, their kin and clansmen, to Jerusalem as God commanded they do for the Passover Feast. The Roman legionnaires, relieved at the break in the Jewish rebellion, withdrew too—to Caesarea, their Mediterranean capital in our occupied land. There they would promenade on the boardwalk of the majestic harbour, recline in the healing waters of the bathhouses and cheer on the champions who raced, wrestled or fought to the death in the newly built Forum.

 

It was a time of prayer and purification, as my mama sanctified her soul by baking tiny loaves of bread and lighting candles to cleanse the hearth of leavening for the coming Passover. A time when Papa hurried to complete orders at the woodshop before the pilgrimage to Jerusalem intervened. It was a time when my eldest brother Joshua still took me on his knee and told stories of Jewish trials and triumph. Tales of the strongman Samson, who lost his strength when his woman betrayed him by cutting his hair; of the prophet Daniel whose faith in God saved him from the lion’s den. And the wondrous tale of my papa’s ancestor King David, the shepherd boy who killed the giant Goliath with a single stone from his slingshot. I liked that one the best.

 

It was a time, for a child, when the texture of life in the small farming village of Nazareth was still filled with the wonder of surprise: the piquancy of food after fasting, the throb of the new-moon drum in my breast, the dance of the oil lamp’s light against our whitewashed walls as we lay down to sleep on Sabbath eve.

 

It was a time, so many years ago now, when I learned in no uncertain terms what it meant to be a girl.

 

*

 

‘Quick, Shona, hurry! The mother ewe! It is time!’ I shook my elder sister awake. It was late at night. Moonlight streamed through the uncovered window of our mud-brick house, its back end snuggled into the hillside like a sleeping cat, its tall face overlooking the square. Dutifully, my sister made haste to rise, then paused.

 

‘Rachael,’ she began, ‘you mustn’t. You know what Mama said.’

 

I knew. My eyes darted to my mother but she, Papa and all five of my brothers were asleep on their mats. Buried beneath several threadbare blankets, my mother’s short, slight figure looked like a corpse. I returned my gaze to my sister and shrugged, eyes wide with innocence. Helpfully, from below in the stables, the ewe bawled again, her pitch making clear that the matter was urgent.

 

‘Come on,’ I ordered my sister. She stood and, with a resigned sigh, submitted her hand to my outstretched one.

 

With one last backward glance at my mother, I began picking my way through the sleeping bodies, leading my sister down the run of stone steps that led to the lower floor of our house. There, in the low-roofed, straw-scattered space we called the oorvah, the animals were stabled. Beside the ewe were a cow, two goats and a handful of chickens. Alarmed at the ewe’s bleating, the cockerel clucked and strutted while the hens flapped about the room. The cud-chewing creatures turned to us, doe-eyed and panting. As I strode across the floor, towing Shona behind me, they shifted and murmured, then parted like the sea to let us pass.

 

The sheep’s liquid eyes were dark and wild. Her grey sides heaved. When she saw us, she tried to rise despite her bulk and desperate condition, but the tethers held her fast.

 

‘Oh!’ Shona was dismayed by the ewe’s suffering. She sank to the labouring one’s side, smoothing her white nightdress beneath her knee, and placed her ear against the ewe’s belly, listening. Then she beckoned me towards her and pulled me on to her lap.

 

We waited. The cow lowed and shifted, dancing candlelight across the room. The cockerel, rebuffed by each of the hens, withdrew sulking to his perch. The sheep bucked and thrashed, her ears twitching as my sister whispered words of comfort. But no matter how many times Shona looked, the folds between the ewe’s legs remained sealed.

 

I wriggled with impatience. Laying a hand on my sister’s arm I spoke solemnly. ‘We must hasten her trial before she loses heart.’

 

Despite her unease, my sister smiled. My words, their cadence, were unmistakably my mother’s; but when she replied it was with Mama’s words too. ‘It is not in our power to save her, Rachael. If she is deserving, God will deliver her. If she is not, He will cast her aside.’ She stroked the sheep’s side and gave a sigh at the weight of her helplessness. ‘There is nothing to do but wait and pray.’

 

Wait. Pray. Even on their own, these words vexed my spirit. Taken together, they made me feel like I’d been chewing sand. I stood and stamped my five-year-old foot on the stable floor. ‘I hate waiting! I hate praying!’ I declared. ‘Why can we not do something?’

 

My beautiful sister Shona. Heart like a split melon, back ready to bend, robes wafting the cinnamon-scent of her skin. Though six years my senior she was a follower by nature, not a leader. She had never sought to thwart me, but admired my wit and spirit. Her willing submission throughout my short life had encouraged me to trust my instincts; to step forward and assume command.

 

Now she turned her gaze to me. Her eyes were velvet brown and wide, fringed by lashes thick as fur. ‘What would you have us do, Rachael?’

 

And, somehow, I knew precisely what to do to save the lamb’s life.

 

‘Sit there Shona, by the ewe’s head,’ I commanded, and assumed my own place at the sheep’s hindquarters. ‘Now hold her head still, as still as you can.’

 

I pushed up the sleeves of my nightdress and took a deep breath. Then I plunged my hand deep into the sheep’s birth canal. Paying no heed to the blood and spongy membranes, I took a few moments to explore the terrain. I could feel bone and sinew, flank and cartilage but, it seemed to me, all in the wrong places. At the end of the passage, where there ought to have been a head, two cloven hoofs and a damp fetlock were wedged instead. The lamb was stuck.

 

Crying out to Shona to comfort the ewe—Talk to her! Sing!—I sought to ease the newborn’s way. Scrabbling for purchase on the straw, I wrestled with the tiny body, rolling shoulder and arm this way and that to obtain leverage. I pushed and slid and tugged and eased while the ewe bucked and mewled, and Shona, hanging on to the poor creature’s neck, did her best to hold her until at last the errant limbs gave way. Working quickly, I pushed them into position and reached for the lamb’s head, tugging it into place. I gripped the tiny muzzle, braced myself and dragged it towards the light.

 

The ewe’s shriek would have been heard in Jerusalem. But with it came a torrent of blood and water and, finally, the pleasing bump and weight of a sodden lamb, still tethered to a pulsing membrane.

 

Shona was jubilant and threw her arms to the heavens. But this was no time for praise. The newborn had yet to draw breath; it was still and sallow. Lifeless.

 

Without thinking I bent to the lamb and sucked the muck from its nose, spitting it to the ground like a curse. I laid my head on its flank to listen. Grabbing a tiny leaf-shaped ear in my fist, I shouted into it, then cupped my lips around the muzzle and offered several of my breaths. When this failed to draw a response, I placed both hands on the body and rocked it, gently at first and then harder. Nothing. I looked at Shona helplessly, at a loss about what to do next. My usual wellspring of ideas and plans was exhausted. My sister gripped my hand and squeezed it and we both turned back to the lamb, hearts pounding, breath trapped in our throats. We waited.

 

Finally, the lamb’s tail twitched. It sneezed—once, twice—then began flipping like a fish to escape its caul.

 

My sister and I rejoiced. ‘You did it, Rachael!’ Shona exalted, throwing her arms around me. She kissed each of my cheeks over and over while repeating her words of praise. ‘You did it! You did it! You did it!’

 

But the ewe could not be saved. Her body leaked blood in waves that would not stop, soaking the straw and the hem of our nightdresses. Horrified, I looked at Shona, then myself. We were covered in it.

 

‘Oh no!’ Shona cried, throwing herself on the animal’s neck. ‘Don’t die! Don’t die!’

 

But she did die. Touching her tongue to Shona’s nose, she twitched her tail and was gone. Shona threw herself into my arms and wept. The lamb, heedless of the sacrifice that had blessed it with life, shook free of its caul with a satisfi ed bleat. It flicked its ears and began the work of standing.

 

He was perfect. Frankincense-white, unblemished, male: everything the Law said a Passover lamb must be. Mama would be so pleased. He bawled and teetered towards me, exploring the blood and brine on my outstretched fingers, his suckling causing something wonderful, terrible, to bloom in my breast.

 

‘We shall call him Timba,’ I proclaimed and Shona, her face streaked with blood and tears, nodded and said, ‘Yes.’

 

*

 

–> Verity La is grateful to Text Publishing for permission to publish this excerpt from Leslie Cannold’s novel The Book of Rachael.

 

Three Dead Fish (Eric Dando)

30 Apr

james is having difficulty finding a mate for his rare tropical fish. he sold most of the male fish months ago to buy alcohol and pizza and sculpture supplies. and although he did keep three males for breeding, they all died mysteriously. three dead fish. unexplained.

and now it is mating season and he is in a fix. the pet store that purchased his males has a breeding program of their own and dislikes competition. the nearest available male is in dubbo.

james can’t get it together to put in his dole form, how is he going to get a fish to dubbo? he feels frustrated and useless, mopes around his aquarium with a sour face.

‘I have to go five hundred miles to get my fish fucked.’ he says. ‘fuck that, i’ll fuck it myself.’

–> “this unpublished fragment was deleted from snail by my editor at the time. it was probably a wise decision.” Eric Yoshiaki Dando

The Mudda (Alan Gould)

5 Feb

Poets are born, they say, not made. By the time of my own birth I was an over-cooked baby, having dallied in the interior of The Mudda for week after overcast week beyond the normal term.  After such dalliance, little wonder I hanker to recover Arcadia. I am Boon, and begin by imagining the Mudda in the place where I was born long years before Australia and my friendship with Henry Luck.

The Mudda is what I called her and these two blunt syllables with their definite article established for me a proper distance. How else to share the world with the person who had carried me inside herself?

As my embryonic presence swelled her usually neat, Flemish frame, this grew ungainly as a washtub, and needed to be hauled, ah, upstairs, uphill, upfront and ups-a-daisy, onto double-decker buses and into the Pa’s small black car, this Mudda, my Mudda, being throughout these indignities Boon-buoyant, Boon-weary with the burden of me.

Did she complain? I believe not. If she sat at table, I was a round under her grey smock like a great cheese remembered from the plenty of pre-war Holland. If she returned from wet Woolwich High Street where she had stood half an hour in the queue for a ration of sausages or liver, she felt my presence as a grapnel on her every fibre. Her patience, her resilience, were entering my character, as were some of the qualities of her Brabanter forbears, my clean complexion and open forehead, my good-natured nose and my eyes a little too trusting of the world, perhaps.

And if I pushed out my fist or my foot, how do I evoke the strangeness of her sensations? Here, did she but sense it, was a live butterfly fluttering against the interior of a balloon, here was the gear-stick of a small black car pushed back and forth against her inner fabric?

Nou, we zullen zien wat er gaat gebeuren,’ she growled, first in her own language to mask her impatience with the pregnancy, then in English, to show politeness to her host country’s maternity nurse, ‘We must see what comes, of course.’

If the Mudda’s patience was sometimes tested, I appeared at ease with the situation. Through those weeks of the British winter and early spring I hunched in the placental tree-house, stem-fed by her magnificent system. Into my future flowed those exact proteins and vitamins she could extract from the spam, the herring, the dried egg of that tin-food era, the orange juice, rose hip syrup and extra allowance of milk allowed for this pregnancy by her green ration card. While the Pa – unlikely career soldier – beavered among his memos at the British War Office, I spent the day, either rocked asleep by the Mudda’s internal rhythms, or dreamily pushing that exploratory gear-stick against her womb wall.

Do embryos dream? Did my own lifelong attachment to reverie begin in the tree house with some part-aural, part-maternal-fantasy? Is this where the protozoa of poems originate?  For the muse is said to be a mother-figure.

Beglub-beglub pumped the Mudda’s heart. Gloink, her intestinal plumbing eased itself. Purrr, slid her blood along its Flemish conduits.

Is it possible my proto-intellect was actually wired to the maternal dreaming during her final weeks of pregnancy in the Woolwich army quarter? From some trace-memory I possess, here is Mrs Boon dozing during the February afternoons, tiaras of raindrops agleam under the telegraph wires, while the scenes behind her eyelids show the imminent Boon, a spiked coronet on my round head that must surely tear her as I leave her. Then, in this phantasmagoria of a woman-with-child in a monarchic nation not her own, she watches as I grow away from her wounded body, recede to some altitude above her head like a gargoyle leering from the façade of one of those decorous, overbearing English cathedrals that her Englishman husband had shown her during his intervals of post-war army leave.

Week to week, cell on cell, morula, blastocyst, trophoblast, from fertilized ovum to gargoyle I grew. Ears, limbs, testicles popped from me like mushrooms. Blood went beading along my arteries and capillaries; insulin was secreted; teeth aligned themselves below the gums in preparation for their future troublemaking. I gained the full human kit, with the apparent exception of the will to move on from that original tree-house welfare state. So complacent was my attitude to being born, it was decided three weeks after my term I would need medical help to be induced into the world. Poeta nascitur, non fit.

(An excerpt from the manuscript of the novel, The Poets’ Stairwell, by Alan Gould)

A moment of falling – two excerpts from Reunion, a novel by Andrea Goldsmith

10 Dec

Jack has been hopelessly in love with Ava since they met at university at the age of 18. He is now in his mid-forties. Until the meeting in the excerpt below, he had not seen Ava for fifteen years – although he had thought and dreamed of her on a daily basis. As well, with Jack in the Asia-Pacific region and Ava in Oxford, the two of them have maintained contact through weekly letters.

The meeting occurs at Ava’s home in Melbourne. Ava and her husband Harry have returned home after 25 years in Oxford. Also at the gathering are two other old friends from university: celebrity philosopher, Conrad Lyall, and molecular biologist Helen Rankin, who, together with Ava, co-hosted the fondue lunch way back in 1980s Oxford to which Harry turned up uninvited – and never really left.

There comes a time in a life of intense and enduring emotion that it secretes a sort of chloroform. To break the pattern is to wake up under the anaesthetic and it is terrifying. Jack’s love was under threat as he sat in Harry and Ava’s home watching their perfect duet. She passed food, he poured wine; she went for another bottle, he uncorked it; he called her ‘Davey’, she called him ‘Oak’. And all those fond nudges and casual caresses as they went about their hostly duties. And a shorthand communication of gestures and eye movements, and words used so sparingly they might be grains of caviar.

What about me? Jack was thinking. What about me? as he watched the two of them so easy together.

Sex was partly to blame. Never had he been able to imagine Ava and Harry in bed together – not simply because he didn’t want to put Harry where he himself had so briefly been, rather he could not imagine the pale and flaccid Harry Guerin pumping his seed into anyone. Yet within weeks of the fondue brunch, Helen had reported that Harry was an overnight fixture at the flat.

Jack had been incredulous. ‘Surely not for sex.’

‘The walls are thin, Jack, paper thin. And believe me, they’re not discussing Shakespeare.’

Jack refused to accept that aspect of their relationship lasted very long, and when in her letters Ava clearly referred to her bedroom as clearly a separate space from Harry’s, Jack found the proof he needed to relegate Harry to a marital twilight zone, a sexual no-man’s land. But when he eliminated sex from the marriage, he tossed out all other intimacy as well.

There was no avoiding it now.

He tried to screen Harry out, to focus only on Ava, but she was strange to him. He did not doubt the truth of his Ava, the Ava of his thoughts and imaginings, nor did he doubt the reality of the woman who sat so close he could reach out and touch her. It was more that the two realities were fundamentally different, like the United States is different from Nigeria. As he tried to scramble out of his confusion, he found himself wondering how it might be to live without this love. He felt the possibility like a man losing his footing high above an abyss, a moment of doubt, a moment of falling, a mere flicker and then it was gone.  (Reunion, p. 20-21)

***

Conrad Lyall is a celebrity philosopher, who has lived in the U.S. for the past twenty years. He is an attractive man, a serial-marrier who has also had numerous affairs. He comes across as very assured, a successful man who is at ease with himself. In the excerpt below, the reader learns of a different side to Conrad – Connie – as he tries to steady himself before a lecture to his home-town crowd.

Conrad Lyall was churning in the wings of the auditorium. He was accustomed to nerves before a lecture, the extra adrenalin charged up his performance and he had learned to capitalise on it, but tonight he was more jittery than usual. Melbourne might be located well off the world stage but home always demands more of you. There was family out there, his mother in particular, his ever-supportive mother who from the moment of his birth had set out to make something of her son. Even now, an old woman in her eighties, she would remind him he had been named after the great Joseph Conrad – more a reflection of her own youthful desires to be a novelist, Connie had long believed, than anything she might have observed in her infant son. His sweet, hungry mother who had channelled all her passions into her only child, so that in the patchy night hours when work and mothering were finished, it was a sour whine which dribbled from her pen. She had always been burdened with more aspiration than talent when it concerned her own ambitions, but in the case of her son she had long been convinced he had lived up to his name.

His mother was in the audience, together with old friends and acquaintances. Over drinks he had mingled with former colleagues – they’d certainly be watching his performance tonight – as well as two former students who had done rather well for themselves. There were snipers out there too, Connie knew exactly who they were, academics who had been quick to target him as all charm and artifice twenty years ago and had used the time since to practise their punches. Connie had long been aware that reputation was considerably less sturdy than he would like, but with his career now well-established surely it would take more than a lecture to a home crowd and a few bitter philosophers to topple the cumulative effects of twenty years’ work.

And Sara was out there too. He peered around the wings. Sara, ‘it rhymes with tiara’, was in the fifth row on the aisle and already on friendly terms with her neighbour. All glossy brown skin in her skimpy black dress, he definitely wanted to impress her.

It was a part of Australian folklore that expatriates only returned home when they were on the wane in the wider more important world. But his star had never been brighter. He had been attracting huge crowds both here and in the States; even the Europeans now acknowledged him. Such suspicion attached to popularity, yet in his own case there was no reason for popularity to condemn him as lightweight. If there was a problem, and he was unsure whether there was, it lay with the well-known collegiate capacity for envy. For the fact remained that while he might be tired and unduly anxious, and yes, he was very popular, irrespective of what some of his dryer colleagues might think, popularity did not rule out a serious and significant contribution. Dickens had been popular, Russell too, and Einstein had been a celebrity. Not to mention the de Bottons and Shamas of his own age – although he harboured the same doubts about them as he did about himself. (Reunion, p. 66-67)

Maps to Jakarta (Ruby J Murray)

1 Sep

Living Without a Map

I’ve always been proud of my sense of direction.  I like that it only takes me once to walk a street and know it.  And that every time I walk it afterwards, I no longer need to feel north or south, and I can walk it that little bit deeper.  I can walk it differently.  Backwards.  Moonwalk it.  From the side.  I can sit in its gutters for a while, and just watch it.

Maps have always played a part in my life: I love their shapes and lines and the shifting world they try to hold down.  I love the sense they give, of possibility, of secrets and lies.  One of the first things I always do when I get to a new city is look for a map.  I need to touch the city on the page. But after that first orientation they are purely aesthetic: maps have belonged on my walls, not in my pocket.  I could always orientate myself. And because of that, I loved to be lost, and I relished the process of losing myself.

Hubris.

There are no maps to Jakarta.  No, that’s not entirely true.  There are many maps to Jakarta.  They can be a bit hard to track down, but they’re around.  It took me a week and a half to find my first maps, on the sixth floor of Sukarno’s once decadent department store Sarinah on Jalan Thamrin.  When it was built, it was a monument to modernity and style and Indonesia. Sukarno named it after the servant girl he loved in his home as a young boy, and it represented the possibility of change and a new, proud world.  These days it’s a shadow hunched down the road from the pristine, towering global glamour of the Plaza Indonesia, a giddy palace inhabited by the sparkling giants of Hermes, Chanel and Vuitton.

I couldn’t look at the maps I bought in Sarinah before I paid for them: they were sandwiched tight in crisp plastic wrap.  There is a mania for plastic in this town.  Everything you buy will be wrapped and bagged and rewrapped, new baby things swaddled in plastic against dirt and use.

I took my pristine maps back to my office and sliced them out and spread them proudly across the desk only to find that they all cut the city in half.  That none of them showed bus routes.  That the marking and naming of streets is a matter of taste for the mapmakers of this place, and that scale is a choice we all have to make when it comes to representing the city.

And I, who usually relish in the lies of maps, in their coy deception and the fact that I have the ability to see beyond them, found myself outraged by this total disregard for convention.

I now have a whole wall of maps, a project helped along by my housemate Claire.  With the five or six maps we have we are able to patch together a vague idea of the contours of the city.

But the project of piecing together this new place goes deeper than the city maps.  There are only a handful of current maps to the public transport system, too.  The ones on the internet date back to 2007.  The up-to-date maps that once adorned the walls of bus shelters have been torn down and are now traded on the streets by desperate commuters.  At parties, it’s a mark of pride to own a current TransJakarta map, and people boast about it over their warm beers.

I need to know places through my feet.  But there is very little walking in Jakarta, even for those who know which way to face.  Sidewalks appear and disappear at random.  Roads can be crossed only by the arching metal corridors that ferry people from one brief interlude of concrete to another.  If you do have pavement, it’s often pitted and interrupted by gaping open drains.  Motorbike ojek drivers and taxis stalk white walkers down the road, hooting, disbelieving what you are trying to do, opening doors and proffering helmets and laughing.

But even with a map, I doubt I would be able to walk this city and not see the obvious parts anytime soon.  Without enough language to be polite, without enough understanding to pick up cues, I’m often adrift as I step from one patch of pavement to the next.  I can’t sing happy birthday to the man in the Police Program at work, I am never invisible in the gutter watching the street as it passes, and I can’t even understand which yes means yes and which yes means no.

On Tuesday, I drove out to the airport to greet a group of women who had been trafficked as domestic servants to Malaysia.  In the car, on the way to the shelter, one of them lay with her head in my lap and cried words I didn’t know and vomited for an hour as we wound our way through the heat and garbage and glamour of the city.

When we got out of the car, I had no idea where I was.  And it made me question whether I ever really did.  And it made me wonder if the maps we have on the inside can lie and deceive as surely as the ones that I’ve spent all these years collecting and blu-tacking to the walls.

Pressure, Updrafts, the Beginning of the Wet

The sky comes down to the 21st floor in wet season.  And Jakarta is beautiful, huddling under overpasses and smoking in the darkness, wheeling lights of the stationary warung in the purple night.  Lightning and thunder like a stage show, smacking and rolling and howling.  People laugh at each other, umbrellas bloom on the pavements in hallucinogenic rainbows of colour and bravado.  Because nothing can keep you dry, not the yards of ponchos that go flapping down the streets or the rolled up windows of the cabs.

People have been whispering about the wet season for ages, every time a storm comes over the city.  No one knows when wet season starts: the month and week shifts every year, a rumour.

Lightning hits Jakarta between one hundred and one hundred and twenty days per year.  Experts say that the high rate is due to a mixture of pollutants like aerosol, humidity, and updrafts that start the wet and the lightning.  But everyone here knows that it starts when Jakarta’s mutterings have reached a breaking point.

And Jakarta is full of mutterings right now.  The corruption commission (KPK) is under investigation, the Indonesian National Police in disarray defending their stance, the televised hearings running until three in the morning, the city a heaving mass of outrage.  Walking in the kampung last night every television was out on the street, people crouching on their haunches to watch in the shifting darkness.  Out the front of the KPK’s building tents have been set up where protestors camp out all night under a row of nooses.

I can’t work anything out.  When I asked my Indonesian friends about what’s going on late this afternoon they shook their heads.  It’s a relationship, they said.  It’s complex. You can’t start.  Outside our window the sky lowered.

Walking into the lobby of my new office building at five thirty this evening I found a milling crowd under the chandeliers, tapping feet on the edges of the indoor garden and yakking into their mobile phones.  Sitting on the edges of the fountain and looking gloomy, clutching laptop bags to their bodies and sighing.

Outside, in the time it takes to be shuttled down from the 13th floor by sparkling elevator, it had become dark.  It took me a moment to realise that it wasn’t real darkness, that it was the weight of water in the air.

I rolled up my slacks and waded across the building’s grounds to stand, already soaked, on the pavement and try to hail a taxi in the stationary traffic.  The security guards watched me from under the cover of the first security entrance, laughing.

My Friday batik welded to my skin I retreated back and stood with them for a while, looking at the lights of the cars and the waves their passage sent up over the street.  An ojek driver came and stood with me.  Macet total, he told me confidingly from inside his swaddling of plastic bags.  You can only go home by ojek.

He was right.  We didn’t so much drive back to Kuningan as wade, trailing our feet through the water that brushed against the engine, shuffling down Sudirman and then Casablanca with mouths and eyes full of stinging Jakarta clouds.

The muttering has broken.  At least until the morning, when the pressure will start to build again.

Pacific Ring of Fire

I’m sitting at my favourite table outside on the central walk-way at the Taman Rasuna apartments armed with three tins of hair-of-the-proverbial-canine.  It’s twenty minutes past six, and at the tables around me people are breaking fast and eating loudly, laughing.  An old Chinese man is swinging his arms and doing calisthenics in his underpants on the side of the pool.

Yesterday, an earthquake breaching magnitude 7 shook the city, and there was an evening of chaos.  For the last twenty-four hours I have lost faith in the ground.  All day, I’ve been watching the world of things closely, looking for ripples in my coffee cup and wondering if I’m imagining the slight reverberations I seem to see in the emptied yakult bottles lining my apartment’s benches.  No amount of beer last night could get rid of my fear and the bitter bite of adrenaline in my jaw, and the eight bottles yakult I downed today did nothing to stop my hangover.

I’ve never been so scared.

Not at first.  At first I didn’t understand what was happening, my colleagues J and S jumping from their desks and telling me in closed voices to grab things and walk slowly, walk slowly.  I just stood there with my laptop clutched to my chest saying huh? Huh?  Then the floor heaved and the papers slid off my desk.  Get your bag Ruby, get your bag, J kept on repeating, matter of fact and tight.  It’s an earthquake.  Walk slowly, Ruby.  Don’t panic.  We have to get out.  Outside.  Ruby, we have to get out of the building.  Now.  I stood for a few seconds in the doorframe, people streaming out of their offices and lurching down the hall, before it finally hit me and I began to move again.

Walk slowly.

You walk slowly in an earthquake because the world is sliding and heaving around you and any step could take you one way or the other.  You walk slowly because hundreds and hundreds of panicking people running through the twenty floors makes the building shake even more, their panic and fear moving the foundations as surely as the snapping and collision of the tectonic plates below them.

Don’t panic.

I vaguely remember my friend V hustling me down the corridor with his arms out, shepherding me into the stairwell, saying go go go in his boomy voice and then he was gone somewhere behind me in the crush.  Thirteen floors is a long way down a tiny, crammed stairwell where the doors are opening onto every level and more and more people pouring in, screaming and crying, shoulders colliding with the concrete walls as they creak and heave and shudder, when the weight of people from the floors above is increasing by the second.  Women struggling with their high heels, trying to get them off and being shoved into the well.  Someone holding onto my wrist dug their fingernails in so deep that today I have a stinging scab where their panic took the skin off.

We have to get out.

On the fourth level, I got out of the stairwell and into the car park, where a security guard was yelling for us to take the ramps.  And then I ran, still clutching my laptop to my chest as if it was going to keep the building together.  The car ramps circle in upon themselves down and down, folding in and out again through the levels to the ground.  And I was so relieved to be out of the close heat and the sobs of the stairwell and away from the stink of other people’s fear, just to be turning in the air again was enough.

Outside.

Outside I stood and watched as people came streaming out of every orifice of the building, sobbing and yelling and stony faced running.  Someone put their hand on my shoulder and shook me and it was B from the office, and suddenly both of us were laughing like maniacs.  That was my first earthquake, he said in Bahasa.  What?  I was laughing too much to understand.  He repeated himself in English, that was my first earthquake.  Me too, me too, I said, which wasn’t true, but which felt true.

And we kept laughing and laughing as other people came down and joined us, and they were looking at us like we were mad people, and we were mad people, and we were lighting all of his cigarettes even though I’m not smoking because who gives a fuck about cancer when the ground is going to kill you?  And we were still laughing when one of the people in charge of our organization came running over and said what do you think you’re doing?  Get away from the building.  What if the building comes down?  Get away.  Now.

And he took my by the arm and pulled me down to a car park further up the road where we sat and stumbled out the aftershocks, the streetlamps swaying with each other and the billboards trembling.  And all around us the soaring might of Jakarta’s business district, suddenly fragile and heavy, kept in a high blue sky by a miracle of engineering and steel.  The ground sobbing away beneath us, hysterical, and finally, finally calming.

We have to get out of the building.

Once, driving my brother Billy and his friend Piers through the bush in Northern Victoria, we had a long conversation about the worst way to die.  It’s one my brother and I have had many times since, altering its dimensions slightly but always coming to the same conclusion.  The worst way to die, we always end up agreeing, is as one of many.

The example we use when we’re talking about it is a plane crash.  Billy says he hates the idea because he is terrified of ending his life as a statistic: three hundred people die in crash over the Indian Ocean.  And we both agree that we would want to be the pilot of an empty plane as it went down: that we could have that moment of seeing the world end for us in quiet.

For the few minutes I spent in that stairwell that was all I could think of, that long-ago conversation with Billy and Piers in the dust and low grey of the Australian bush, racketing along a track towards Thurra River in the old Toyota with the sea appearing and disappearing over the dunes in front of us.  I can’t go out like this, in this disgusting well of flesh and concrete, surrounded by other people’s screaming and fear, and with no choice and no time.

The moment I was in the car park I stopped caring.  With space around me and the sun coming in across the ramp I was myself again, and the building could shake all it wanted, and come down as it pleased.  I could jump if I wanted.  I was alone, and I could taste it.

One man who had pushed women over as he tried to get out was standing alone out the front of the building as one of our security guards hustled me, giggling still, past the building and down to the open spaces.  The man was just standing there, his face appalled, not moving or screaming or shoving anymore, just ashamed and shaking, minutes after coming face to face with a part of himself he will never, ever forget.  And I felt so sorry for him, so momentarily heartbroken by his face, that I finally stopped laughing.

Earthquake.

Indonesia forms part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 40 000 plus long kilometer belt of oceanic trenches and volcanic arcs which is home to over 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes.  A shifting, busting place of colliding crustal plates.  This earthquake was a magnitude 7.3 on the Richter Scale, with 69 aftershocks.  Its epicenter was 115 kilometres from Jakarta, 30 kilometres off the West Javan coast.  Over 40 people have been reported dead along the coast so far, although numbers will rise as the missing fail to be found.  But in this wide country where counting lives is so difficult…  Towns destroyed, homes flattened.  In Jakarta, only one person died, of a heart attack from fear.  Who knows how many were injured clawing their way down staircases and out of malls.

Now.

Two months into Jakarta, watching the world for tremors and the places where it will give way.

* * *

These pieces appeared on Ruby J Murray’s blog while she was living and working in Jakarta, Indonesia.  ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ appeared in ‘Miscellaneous Voices: Australian Blog Writing No. 1’ which is now out through Miscellaneous Press.