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Speaking freely of the dead

11 Mar


The death of The Australian’s controversial  cartoonist Bill Leak yesterday provoked a storm of polarised emotion on Twitter, as colleagues expressed their shock and sorrow, and representatives of groups Leak humiliated and ridiculed in his work refused to abide by the rules of what was referred to as “common decency and good manners.”

These rules apparently require one to be silent if there’s nothing nice one can say, especially at a time of death and bereavement. The irony was lost on no one in the latter groups, and practically everyone in the former: Leak himself blatantly despised common decency and good manners, and earned his living giving those niceties the finger in the name of free speech.

In his later work, the cartoonist lampooned LGBTQI people, Muslims, the Safe Schools program, Indigenous people,the Human Rights Commission and its head Gillian Triggs. Because of these cartoons, he is lauded by admirers as an outstanding proponent of free speech.

Action was brought against him under the now infamous Section 18C, on the grounds of offence he caused to Aboriginals with a particularly patronising and sneeringly vitriolic cartoon. The case was eventually dropped.

A life has many stages, and those who knew Leak in earlier days, as well as those whose political ideologies he supported, are naturally grieving his unexpected death. Yet as so often happens in death, little acknowledgement is made of the dark side of the deceased, provoking outrage in those who’ve suffered the racism and marginalisation so evident in his later work, and who, equally naturally, feel no loss at his passing.

The efforts by the former to silence the latter were something to behold. Here’s one example, from former PM Tony Abbott’s sister, Christine:

I’ll leave you to deconstruct that example of conservative hyperbole in which criticism is conflated with assassination and beheadings. Clearly Ms Foster does not advocate unfettered free speech by Mr Leak’s critics, while staunchly defending her right and his to express whatever opinions they like in whatever manner they choose.

Of course the accusation that you are not observing “common decency and good manners” is an accusation intended to shame, as is the call for you to “respect” the dead, implying that you don’t have the class to know how to behave in such a situation and someone who does has to tell you.

This latter is a demand I’ve never entirely understood: why am I required to “respect” someone simply because they’ve died?

The reactions to Leak’s death on Twitter yesterday were a microcosmic example of class and privilege setting its sights against anyone who refutes the worship of its idols, using the same tools of contempt, ridicule, shaming and humiliation to achieve silencing as were employed by the idol in his later years.

It seems obvious to me that anyone has the right to speak freely of their relationship with and opinion of a dead man or woman. I can see no reason why those who admired Leak should castigate those who did not for failing to engage in hypocrisy. The idea that death eradicates the hurt and damage any individual might have inflicted on others in their lifetime is ludicrous, as is the demand that we feel sympathy purely on the basis of death. The evil that men [sic] do lives after them.

Common decency is a fluid concept, determined by what suits the ruling classes rather than the commons at any particular moment. Good manners are things I tried to teach my dog.

Respect, I would argue, is sharing space with views different from our own, and not shaming or silencing others because of that difference. It is, in my opinion, perfectly fine for those who do not view Bill Leak with fondness to say so. It is domineering and deceitful for his supporters to fail to acknowledge the legitimacy of those opposing views.

Free speech is for everyone, not just the privileged establishment, and it is everyone’s right to point out when (and which) emperor has no clothes.

Funny how so many simply do not get that.



Heaven on a Saturday night: Part Two!

11 Jun

And now by popular demand, Chapter Two of our weekly serial, Heaven on a Saturday night: an Entertainment! 

(Chapter One can be found in the Heaven on  Saturday Night category)

The Weekend

Leo Carstairs’ was the last house on Riley’s Point. It overlooked the Pacific, and the wide mouth of Riley’s River. Originally a stone cottage built for the captain of a whaling ship, Leo had renovated, adding another story, and a study for his wife, Lusina, on the ground floor.  Lusina had wanted the garden left as close to natural as possible, except for a terraced plot outside her study window she had planted with a selection of sub-tropical species. This garden required a good deal of protection from the salt and wind, however tending it was her relaxation. The garden was private, usually accessed from the glass doors of her study. Natural bush land made up the rest of the property, with the exception of two old monkey puzzle trees the whaler had planted close to what were now the sitting room windows. Wallabies grazed the grassed area round the house at dawn and dusk. A private gravel road ran from the end of the Riley’s Point village up the hill to the Carstairs’ house.

Through the front windows of the house you could see several tall and irregular rock formations, like the broken brown teeth of old and neglected men. The sea churned threateningly around these rocks at high tide. Today, the ocean heaved like a sleek animal turning itself in the sunlight. A trawler crossed the bar, on its way home from a day’s fishing, its nets spread out like a cormorant drying its wings. The river was calm beyond the bar, and several people pottered about in tinnies between the tear-shaped islands that dotted the river’s reach. It was a winter Friday. A cold, starry evening, the forecast promised, with light coastal showers easing by morning.

The township straggled out along the estuary as if someone had taken a handful of buildings and thrown them down randomly by the river where they had settled and opened for business. A bitumen road between the shops and the water was shared with emus. The shopping centre consisted of a bakery, a small supermarket, a hard-ware store, a dress and accessories boutique whose doors were flanked by large potted palms, a post office; a cluttered gift shop that also sold CDs and rented DVDs, and a café and milk bar whose ceiling was hung with fishing nets, and whose counters and tables were decorated with nautilus shells from a faraway place. The café had tables on the pavement with calico umbrellas, and a tin bowl filled with water for customers’ dogs.

Most of the Riley’s Point residents lived in weatherboard and fibro houses in the streets behind the shops. Further up river, just before the old wooden bridge, there was a small marina with a fish and chip shop, and a sagging jetty with a hut from which bait and ice were sold to anglers and the occasional yachtie. Riley’s Point had not yet been discovered, though it was only a matter of time till the sewage came on and building regulations changed. In the meantime it was populated by those who’d earned their living fishing for several generations, a few artistic incomers like the Carstairs, a handful of retirees like Ruby and Mel, and the business people who ran the shops, the one motel, and the caravan park on the opposite side of the river. The Riley’s Point children traveled on the school bus to Orchid Creek in the hinterland. Orchid Creek may once have been the picturesque site its name suggested, but now it was a large regional township that serviced the satellite communities.

In his studio loft, with its bank of windows overlooking the ocean, Leo Carstairs applied the final touches to his illustration of the Great Troll for his friend Anthony’s latest children’s book. Greig’s Pier Gynt played softly on the stereo, helping him to find the Nordic mood he needed to do the job justice. He didn’t hear the door to his workroom open, and the bare feet of the poet softly advance across the paint-spattered floorboards, but he sensed a familiar presence close to the back of his neck. Her perfume, as she rested her hands on his shoulders, proved stronger than the odour of paint. It was, appropriately, Poeme by Lancôme. He had a good nose for perfume. He could identify most of the middle to upper range. For himself he chose Pour L’Homme by Givenchy.

‘Pour L’ homme,’ Lusina would tease him if he complained about his life. ‘Poor, poor l’ homme.’

Leo carefully lowered his paintbrush into its water jar then swivelled around on his stool. He was still graceful in his middle age, Lusina noted, even just swinging around on a stool.

‘Hi, you,’ he said, and looked up into his wife’s eyes.

After sixteen years of marriage Leo still found her eyes remarkable. The blue green of Antarctic glaciers shot through with white light, was how he thought of them. His own eyes were navy blue and his cheeks ruddy, and he was tall. At the age of forty-three he was developing a middle-aged paunch, and his mane of sandy hair was greying faster than he would have liked. There was a dark brown mole on his left cheekbone that Lusina worried about from time to time, but the only inconvenience it had caused him so far in his life was during his morning shave. He had to work his razor round the mole like a lawn mower round a rock garden, frequently leaving behind bits of whisker that he couldn’t risk removing. He worried that he really should have the mole cut out, but never did. It was a distinguishing feature and one should hang onto one’s distinguishing features.

‘What’s up, then? Stuck for line?’ he asked his wife.

She wore a white shirt with a beige cashmere cardigan, and jeans.  A gold watch was her only jewellery, apart from her diamond wedding band. She’d applied a pale gloss to her lips. She looked fabulous, he thought.

‘Nothing’s up’ Lusina said.

Leo loved his wife’s voice. It had a tender lilt, and was reassuring. She hardly ever raised it. Her preferred method of showing disappointment, disapproval and anger was an excessively cool politeness. A withdrawal of herself that was, he thought, devastating while it lasted. During these withdrawals she behaved as if he was an acquaintance of long-standing to whom certain civilities must necessarily be extended, but there was no acknowledgement of their passionate history, or on-going connection. A deliberate denial of their life together, a wounding severing of their marital intimacy. Worse than any tantrum could be, in his opinion. Then she’d relent, and Leo would be crazy with relief.

Leo had grown up with four older sisters who were always engaged in combat over him. From early in his life he’d been aware of both his dependence, and his power to get his sisters competing for his smiles and infant attentions. He’d often feared he’d be smothered, and he suffered nightmares in which he was surrounded by naked women urging him to suckle at their enormous, milky breasts. With Lusina, though, and this was part of her attraction for him, he felt he had to work at keeping her attention. Lusina would never smother. Except when they were in bed, she was far too remote.

Lusina hated raised voices and emotional scenes. Sometimes Leo’s expressiveness was too reminiscent of her life with her mother, she thought. In those days, anything you said brought trouble down on your young head. In those days, whatever you felt was best kept to yourself.

She took his face between her hands. ‘Absolutely nothing’s up,’ she told him. ‘Everything’s fine. I’ve got lines aplenty’

She kissed his nose and bestowed on him her generous smile. She was famous for her smile. On the receiving end of that smile, you felt immediately transformed into someone very special. It helped Leo balance out the unsettling effects of the puzzled air she assumed sometimes when she looked him, as if she wasn’t sure who he was or what he was doing in her house. Leo found this occasional attitude disconcerting: his wife apparently took herself to another world entirely at these times, a world in which he seemed to have no existence at all. Vague-outs, Megan called these intermittent emotional and mental absences. Mum’s vague-outs. She got away with them, Leo thought, largely because of that gorgeous, all-embracing smile.

‘What are you working on?’ she asked him.

‘Anthony’s reclamation of the Great Troll – you know the one who lived under the bridge with a band of troll brigands and extorted a gold coin from anyone who wanted to cross it? Until he was made aware of how shameful his occupation was by a beautiful princess who persuaded him to reform. I’ve given the princess your eyes. And your hair but I’ve made hers straight.’

Lusina’s hair was also remarkable, retaining the white blonde of babyhood in tight curls that she cut herself in varying lengths, ending at her shoulders. Back lit, as she was at that moment by the late afternoon sun shining through the large studio windows, she looked like a celestial vision, a wandering angel who’d happened by to make Leo’s day. He put his arms round her and pulled her close. There was nothing as good as this when it was good, he thought. Nothing. Lusina let him hold her for a moment then she pulled away.

‘Anthony should write something original instead of revisiting old fairy stories all the time,’ she said. ‘Children like to read about the real world as well.’

She tugged her hair and gazed at Leo as if she was thinking of asking him a serious question.

‘What?’ He felt slightly alarmed.

She made him wait a few moments.


Then she stopped gazing and abruptly adopted her practical, motherly persona.

‘I have to pick up Will in a minute, he’s playing at Adam’s and I said I’d be there before dark. Do you want anything?’

‘Nope.  I don’t think so. Is Megan home tonight?’

‘Yes, and Lillian’s sleeping over.’

‘Okay. I’ve a bit more to do then I might go out for a walk. Love you.’

‘Love you, too. Bye.’

Lusina closed the door gently behind her. Left alone, Leo’s gaze gravitated to his mobile phone where it sat on the table under the window. A struggle then ensued between his desire and his conscience. It was a tiresomely familiar and ultimately pointless struggle. Desire always won out. Why did he bother trying to resist when he always knew the outcome, he wondered? A matter of form, he decided. Some vestige of guilt, or lip-service to honour. But it wasn’t exactly desire that drove him now. Rather, a clean-up operation was required. He trundled his stool across the room and picked up his phone. He pressed the number into the keypad. After two rings, Bethany answered.

‘Hi, you,’ he said.

When Leo first fell in love with Lusina he spray-painted the convent wall across the road from her front window in her house in the city. In bright green paint he wrote:

I love you.  Be my Bride.

Leo was taking a degree in English Literature. He hadn’t yet fully discovered his talent for drawing. He was extremely fond of language and fussy about punctuation so he remembered, even in his extremity, to spray paint the full stops. As he did this, he kept glancing about him in case the nuns appeared. His heart crashed alarmingly in his breast. Fleetingly he recalled his family history: what weak-hearted lot they’d proved to be, and would he follow in their footsteps?

When he got home to his flat in Bondi he sat down on the couch to smoke a joint and think things through. He thought about how he felt delight in every cell when he was with Lusina. How her touch seemed to soothe every hurt he’d ever had. How time away from her dragged by, like it did when he was five and waiting to go to the beach while his parents took forever to get ready, and squabbled about which road they should take. Leo didn’t know what had happened to him. He never let himself get involved. Lusina was the only woman, and he told her this, that he had ever feared might leave him, apart from his mother, of course. He’d always done the leaving, and plenty of it. Suddenly he found himself defacing convent walls, and longing for marriage.

‘I’m done for,’ he thought, not entirely unhappily.

Lusina had mixed feelings about his extravagant gesture. It was flattering, even thrilling. At the same time his handiwork was always in her face. It had a constant presence that she sometimes found a little wearing. Not altogether unlike Leo. After recently ending a suffocating relationship, Lusina was struggling to find a balance between independence and love. This coloured her outlook.

Sexually they couldn’t get enough of each other. One day their friend Marina came to visit while they were still in bed. Marina sat at their feet, she told Lusina later, so she could soak up some of that sexual charge, those smells, that primordial energy.

‘I wanted to get in there with you,’ she confided.

‘Why didn’t you then?’ asked Lusina, who Leo often said was as generous as she was beautiful.

Leo’s place in Bondi was cosy. His bedroom was lined with wooden shelves that held an eclectic collection of books. There was a lamp with a red shade beside his bed. There was a sunroom off the bedroom, with pot plants and rice paper shades at the windows

His kitchen had pinewood cupboards. He cooked in ceramic pots and a black-bottomed wok. There was a long couch in his living room where sometimes they made love, or lay together listening to music. When Lusina first fell in love with Leo she imagined that his face beamed down upon her from the heavens, enveloping her in an adoring and unconditional gaze. When they fought, she saw that same face and sky, but implacable and black with anger. After many years she understood both images to be exaggerated.

It was Marina who’d introduced them. She’d shown Leo some poetry Lusina had written.

‘He’s crazy about your work,’ Marina confided. ‘He wants to meet you. He’s asked me to set it up. He’s asked me three times already. He said he’s seen you a few times around campus and wondered who you were.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ Lusina whispered, because they were in the café where Leo also hung out and everybody knew him. ‘He knows who I am because you pointed me out so why doesn’t he say anything to me himself?’

‘I told him you’d just broken up with someone and you weren’t ready. But you are now, aren’t you?’ Marina lowered her head and leaned in across the table. ‘He’s a wonderful lover,’ she whispered.

Lusina took a moment to process that. She lit a cigarette. Everybody smoked then. Marina rolled her own. Finally Lusina said:

‘But you’re gay.’

‘Mostly I’m gay,’ Marina told her,’ but now and again I feel like a penis. But I don’t invest any emotion in penises, all my emotional investment is in women.’

‘So you slept with him?’

‘Yeah, for about a week. Then he thought I was getting involved, which I wasn’t but anyway he got cold feet and we stopped. Pity,’ she reflected, then blew out a curl of blue smoke, ‘ I liked having his shoes under my bed. But never mind that’s ages ago, the point is he’s mad for you. He never gets mad for women they always get mad for him.’

‘So what should I do?’

This like a high school girl begging help from her best girlfriend. A girl poised, trembling, on the edge of the kind of desire that can really mess with your life.

‘Ask him out,’ Marina whispered. ‘Go for it. What’s to lose? Oh look, here he comes.’

‘You set this up, Marina.  You knew he’d be here.’

It was right up Marina’s alley, setting up these kinds of situations. She loved sticking her nose in other people’s affairs.

Leo strode into the café, his shoulder-length sandy hair flowing out behind him, his canvas bag slung over his shoulder. He wore a white shirt and blue jeans.  Lusina was suddenly breathless. She felt a hot flush move up her body and settle in her cheekbones. For a brief moment she took a good look at the situation from somewhere outside of it, with a detachment she wasn’t to recover again for years. But it was too late. Marina smirked. She had black hair in a pixie cut and when pleased with herself she grinned and poked out her tongue.

‘Maybe I did set it up,’ she conceded. ‘But only because he asked me to. Go with it, Lou. See where it leads.’

‘Well,’ said Leo as he arrived at their table and sat down. ‘Look at you. Look at her, Marina!’

She walks in beauty, like the night

   Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

  And all that’s best of dark and bright

  Meets in her aspect and her eyes….’

He recited this in his rich, deep voice, his eyes fixed on her as if they were entirely alone. Marina winked at Lusina.

‘Told you,’ she mouthed.

Their love proved tempestuous, as is often the case when there is great sexual passion. He swam in her oceans. He floated on her glassy surfaces, he plunged through her currents and rips and cold streams and warm, pacific waters. He rocked in her, and licked the salt from the corners of her eyes. He shouted and bullied when she thwarted his will. He feared he’d be drowned or dismembered by the storms. He tried to channel her into a harbour of his choosing where she’d be contained, and where he could safely observe her changing colours.

Now and then, with icy, dirtied waves, she’d land him on the rocky shore and pound him hard for good measure. They fought, split up and reunited at regular intervals. Finally, they got married.

Nobody understood that move. Lusina told her friend, with a shrug that disavowed responsibility:

‘I don’t know why we did it. It just felt like the only thing left to do.’

At their wedding breakfast Leo said, ‘If you can do the time don’t do the crime,’ and everybody laughed. Lusina didn’t like that much. They fought on their wedding night and he wouldn’t make love to her. This was a grievance she held for years until one day at the dentist she read a magazine article. It wasn’t unusual, she read, for a marriage to remain unconsummated for a day or two. Stress, anticlimax and alcohol all contributed. Nobody should be blamed. So she let that grievance go.

Domesticity did not always suit them. One of the requirements of passion is that it must be thwarted from time to time to keep it lively. Unrestricted access provoked disagreements, and Lusina’s cold withdrawals. Leo tried hard, but he was unable to give up his flirtatious ways. The night before his wedding, he’d understood that from now on he’d be expected to sleep with no one other than his wife, for the rest of his life. This understanding almost caused him to flee the country. But he stayed. For some years he was faithful. Lusina never knew for sure when or even if this pattern of faithfulness changed. Leo was extremely discreet. Leo always covered his arse.

Lusina decided to drive the short distance from their house at the end of the Point to pick up Will. She thought she ought to walk, for all kinds of reasons personal and political, but she felt too tired. Leo had never taken her work seriously, she thought for the millionth time, even though she’d published two books of poetry, which was a considerable accomplishment, given how uninterested people generally were in poetry. She wondered if he’d ever actually read any of the poems.

After sixteen years of marriage and two children she still did not entirely trust Leo, she reflected, and she didn’t know why. She turned on the radio, tuned to ABC FM, in time to hear the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh, the one she always experienced as ominous and sorrowful.

In retrospect, she admitted to herself yet again, each time as if she’d never considered it before, she’d always felt this way about Leo. She’d long had a sense that he was probably capable of doing absolutely anything he decided he wanted to do, simply because he wanted to do it. Regardless of the effect he might have on anyone else. Without even telling anyone else, if he didn’t feel like it. Leo needed secrets, even stupid little ones, like not telling her that he’d seen some movie by himself until she suggested they go together. Or that he liked listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (when, she wondered, and where? They didn’t have any Nick Cave), or some other apparently insignificant piece of information that he withheld about his preferences, and where he went without her. He had tastes and appetites that were unknown to her, something one wouldn’t expect in a marriage. Would one? She had no reference point, her own parents’ relationship having been far too bizarre. There were times when Lusina felt like a refugee in the ordinary world, as if she struggled every day to learn its customs, language and requirements.

She drove along the river road past Hannah and Simon Dougherty’s enviable native garden, and the large yellow and white weatherboard house where Melanie Rose and Ruby Richards lived with their dog. The women were digging a trench inside their back gate, and looked to be covered in mud. Ruby wore her faded yellow hat with the red flower on the front. This hat, Mel once told Lusina, actually belonged to Mel’s second husband’s sister, who lived in Boca Raton, Florida. One evening, caught short with an attack of stomach flu while taking after-dinner coffee in Death by Chocolate at Bondi Beach with Mel and her visiting sister-in-law, Ruby had chucked up her supper into this hat. This was the reason Melanie had never reclaimed it, or returned it to her sister-in-law, she said. And now the second marriage was over, and all opportunity to return the hat was probably gone forever.

Their black and white dog, Bruce, stood watching his humans, just out of reach of the flying shovels of dirt. He’d not done anything particularly awful, had he? Lusina wondered about her husband. Not that she knew about, not that had seriously affected their lives together. So what was this growing unease?

Leo, she decided, was a little like a spy, clandestine, conducting one life out in the open and the other under wraps, though quite what that other life consisted of she could not (dare not?) say.

He was an accomplished lover, she reflected, and she ought to be grateful for that. Indeed, she was, and she’d enjoyed their lovemaking for many years. Lately, though, she’d been wondering how it would feel to be loved by someone with a little less skill. Someone less absorbed in his technique and more willing to lose himself in her.  Someone willing to risk an error they could then joyfully work out together. With Leo, she had the sense that he was making to love to Woman, rather than to the individual woman who was his wife. And he was always in control. Leo never lost himself in her. Leo always knew exactly how long to do something, and exactly where to do it. Not that there was anything wrong with that, she hastened to tell herself. It was a guarantee of her sexual satisfaction. There was a lack of a sense of we in their lovemaking, though. In their entire marriage, if it came to that, let’s be honest while we’re at it, she thought.

Stop it, she ordered herself. Stop this mean, petty carping. Of course he made love to her, it was just that he seemed so intent on what reactions he could bring about. As if it was really about him and his prowess and talent, and what he could achieve with it. But if there was a sense of we lacking in the relationship, then that had to be as much her fault as his. Didn’t it?

Lusina stopped at the town’s one pedestrian crossing for a troop of teenagers who ran out into the road from the milk bar, on their way to the beach. Their school uniforms hanging off them every which way, they screeched and clutched at one another in a frenzy of adolescent emotion. Lusina thought she saw Megan among them, but in the fading light she couldn’t be sure. She hoped not. She’d imagined a daughter whose interests, cultivated by herself and Leo, would elevate her beyond the usual teenage obsession with boys, make-up and bitchiness, but Megan was utterly resistant to her parents’ influence. She ran with a pack, painted her fingernails the colour of ageing meat, had a rose tattoo on her burgeoning breast, and was ‘in love’ with some spotty boy who wrote excruciating poetry, preferably on shop walls and the sides of other people’s houses. She was an ‘emo,’ she told her startled parents. She believed in emotion and its expression.

‘Some emos are into cutting,’ she told them as they stared at her. Only one of her heavily made up eyes was visible behind the fall of dyed black hair with cerise highlights.

‘Cutting,’ Leo echoed. ‘Cutting what? And for God’s sake get your hair out of your eyes, will you? You look like a bloody Cyclops.’

‘Themselves, Dad,’ Megan informed him with a patronising sigh. ‘Their arms and legs and stuff. With razor blades and stuff. Self-harm. You know.’

‘No, I bloody well don’t know!’ Leo had roared.

His tone had outraged Megan, who apparently believed only in the expression of her own emotions and those of her friends. She’d stalked contemptuously from the room and had refused to discuss the subject again.

Leo suspected her of smoking when they were out of the house, and probably not just tobacco. When confronted, Megan denied it.

Lusina worried that there might be a connection between her own repressed emotional confusion, her carefully constructed facade of calm that belied her inner chaos, and her daughter’s attraction to the proudly angst-ridden emo cult. In other words, that too, was her fault and the fault of her own ruined childhood. Generational damage. She’d read about that. Would there be catastrophic substance abuse in their family’s future? Oh please, dear God, don’t let there be drugs.

It was more likely her own stuff, this unease about Leo, she decided as she drove on. She was projecting again. Not seeing Leo, but imposing a character from her past on him.

‘Your problem is,’ he was fond of reminding her during their disagreements, ‘that you’ve never learned to trust anybody, because of your cocked-up childhood with your drink-crazed mother and her psychopathic husband. You see slights where there are none to be seen. You imagine danger when I try to get close to you.’

It was true that she didn’t always know whether an action or intention was abusive, suspect, or normal. Nuances frequently escaped her understanding, and indeed, frightened her. She was often left confused, like someone a bit slow on the uptake who finds herself unable to keep up in a group of quick-witted people.

‘All very understandable,’ Leo assured her, ‘given your history.’

Oddly, she did not feel appreciative of Leo’s understanding. She felt patronized, and unreasonably angry with him. Her mother had turned up dead drunk to their wedding, it was true, but she’d died quite soon afterwards, and Leo had never met the husband, who’d killed himself when Lusina was sixteen. Leo knew only the bare bones of her history so what right did he have to comment about it? Most of it she couldn’t even remember herself, though lately, much to her discomfort, that had begun to change.

The older she got, Lusina thought as the Allegretto came to its conclusion, the less capable she became of maintaining the distance between her present and her past, the distance that had so far allowed her to live at all, in any real sense of the word.

She’d now pulled up outside Adam’s house without any awareness of how she’d got there. That was scary. Eleven-year-old Will was swinging on Adam’s rickety gate and chewing a large wad of gum. He blew a bubble at her in welcome.

‘Where’s Adam? Where’s his mother?’

‘They had to go out. His dad’s inside on the phone. You’re late, Mumma. You’re always late. Where were you?  Did you forget me again? Is Megan home?’

‘Soon. With Lillian.’

‘Ah,’ sighed Will softly. ‘Lillian.’

He was in love with the dark-haired Lillian, and suffered terribly, as one can only suffer in the throes of the first unrequited love. He knew that Lillian and Megan considered him a dork. The girls were fifteen. They had breasts, and snuck cigarettes when they were made to baby-sit him. He never told on them. He kept everything he knew about Lillian and Megan secret, and lulled himself to sleep with his knowledge, elaborated by his florid imagination, every night.

‘Did you have a good day at school?’ his mother asked him.

He couldn’t be bothered getting into that with her. He just wanted to think about Lillian.

‘Yeah,’ he said, and turned away to look at the lights coming on in the houses along Riverside Drive. Lillian lived in one of those houses. He knew which one because he’d followed her home one time when she’d spent the afternoon at their place. He’d been extremely careful, knowing the ridicule and indignation he’d face if Lillian caught him and told Megan.

Grateful for the silence, Lusina didn’t attempt further conversation with her son. She was tired. Oh, God, she was so terribly tired.


In his penthouse apartment in Elizabeth Bay, with its extensive views of Sydney Harbour from the bed and sitting room windows, Anthony Freelander stretched himself along the length of his cream Italian leather couch and sorted through his day’s output. By an extraordinary stroke of serendipity, he’d decided several years ago to render into English ancient Scandinavian fairytales, at precisely the moment when an upsurge of interest in trolls, gnomes and various Northern Hemisphere elementals guaranteed him undreamed of popularity. Together with Leo Carstairs, they produced a series of spectacular children’s books. Three of their productions had now been made into ridiculously successful films. They were rich. They were also becoming more than a little bored with their subject matter, and looking around for new challenges.

Freelander was himself not unlike a troll: short, with an untrimmed grey beard and wild hair, he wore corduroy trousers held up by red or blue braces, checked flannelette shirts, and brown leather walking boots tied with purple laces. He had a gruff, gravelly voice and was almost entirely bereft of physical grace. He was also remarkable mean with his money, as his ex-wife Monika complained to Lusina every time they met for coffee when Lusina was in the city. The marriage had produced no children, thankfully, Monika confided. Anthony was an ill-tempered bastard, she said, and it continued to be an unfailing source of mystery to her as to how he ever managed to know or care enough about children to enable him to write such wildly successful books for them. He had, Monika told Lusina one evening when they’d had whisky, not coffee, peculiar sexual interests that she could not bring herself to describe. Lusina was grateful for Monika’s uncharacteristic reluctance. Who wants to know these things about people one has to regularly encounter? Later, she’d tried to tell Leo what Monika had said.

‘For God’s sake!’ Leo had yelled. ‘I don’t bloody want to know these things! What’s wrong with you, Lusina? I don’t think about Anthony’s sex life and neither should you. In fact, I forbid it!’

Forbid it, she’d thought. Forbid it? She’d said nothing, only looked at him till he looked away first, scratching at his head as he often did when he was upset. Then he’d gone out, for a walk, he’d said, and the next morning when she went downstairs she’d found him asleep on the couch in his clothes. Who ever really knows another person, she’d wondered, thinking at the time of Anthony.

In Elizabeth Bay, Anthony laid his latest printouts on his stomach and closed his eyes.  His agent had rung him earlier in the day, asking if he and Leo would be interested in putting together a children’s book about death.

‘Death?’ Anthony had asked in alarm, ‘Did you say death, or the deaf?’

‘Death, darling,’ she’d repeated. ‘There’s an absolute dearth of anything good about death for children. What do you think? Are you up for it?’

‘Am I up for death?’ he’d echoed. He scrabbled wildly through his beard with his free hand. And then had felt an urgent need to go to the bathroom. ‘Lizzie, I can’t talk at the moment, I’m in the middle of something. Can I get back to you?’

‘Course you can, darling, but don’t leave it too long. You’re getting first refusal. Talk to Leo about it. See you later, my dove. Bye.’

‘My dove,’ Anthony had thought in exasperation as he ran to the bathroom, his anal sphincter threatening a sudden collapse.  ‘She’s not bloody Cornish, she’s from bloody Brisbane. My dove, my heart, my bird, indeed! Christ, what did I eat for dinner last night? Is there something wrong with me?’

Another of Anthony’s less endearing characteristics, Monika had confided to Lusina, was his obsession with his bowels. He could sink into a daylong funk, she revealed, if they hadn’t performed as he expected in the mornings. And God help everybody if they seemed a bit awry either way for any reason: he became simply incapable of thinking about anything else, obsessed with every intestinal rumble and grind. Lusina hadn’t bothered transmitting this information to Leo. He probably knew anyway, she’d thought, they spent enough time together.

Now Anthony reflected again on Lizzie’s proposal. Death? How the hell did one write for children about death? Or adults, for that matter. Who wanted to think about such a morbid topic, anyway, certainly not him. Now and again he suffered pain down his left arm and across his shoulder and up into his jaw. He did not want to think about this pain. He was not going to think about this pain. Lizzie was going to have to get somebody else to do the death thing. But he’d have to mention it to Leo, because if he didn’t and Lizzie did, Leo would get on his high horse again about his, Anthony’s, predilection for making decisions without proper consultation.

Fuck it, Anthony thought. Carstairs was a brilliant illustrator but he could be a difficult prick. And a womanizer. Anthony was not averse to the occasional dalliance with a desirable woman, but unlike Carstairs, he knew how to do without when necessary. Anyway, it wasn’t so much the sex Anthony was interested in, he reflected. It was more having an audience when he wanted to talk about his ideas, and someone to take care of his domestics. Domestics brought him undone. Shopping for his meals since Monika left him brought on a panic attack. Instead of washing, he went out and bought new underwear. He had no idea how women did it. Organising households, children, laundry. He looked primarily for comfort from his women, and someone who would manage the things that when left to him, made him feel his world was out of his control. Though if he scored on both the domestics and sex, he considered himself to be a very fortunate man.

Carstairs, though, he was another story, Anthony thought truculently. It was all about sex and mastery with that bastard, and always had been. The women he went through at uni! Jesus.

Anthony had no idea why Monika had left him. He truly believed he had given her everything a woman could ever want yet she walked out without any explanation and hadn’t offered one since. What about Leo’s wife, though! Those eyes, that hair, that long slim body draped in loose silks and cottons and pale linens, hidden from the eyes of men who only wanted to admire her! Once, when he and Leo won an award for best children’s book and had to attend the posh presentation dinner, Anthony had spent much of the evening covertly observing Lusina in her strapless aquamarine gown, a gown that fitted her tightly above the waist, then flared into sea green taffeta that imperiously swept the floor as she danced with Leo. What a couple they made! Her white blonde hair was longer than usual at that time, and she’d left it loose so that it hung down her bare back in an mass of corkscrew curls that a man just wanted to grab hold of, the better to pull her in close to him, the better to pull back her head so as to kiss her white throat. Her breasts, he’d noted, were full and seemed to want to surge out of her gown into some lucky bastard’s waiting hands. She’s got white skin and assassin’s eyes, Anthony often hummed when he thought about Lusina. He knew she took care to keep out of the sun.

In his research on Scandinavian and European mythological creatures, he’d once come upon accounts of the Melusine, half-woman, half-sea serpent sometimes known as a mermaid. Lusina never used her full name, which was in fact Melusina. He knew that because he’d had to sign some legal document to do with the distribution of royalties between Leo and himself, in the event of the death of one or the other of them. Melusina Rosamund Carstairs. Half- woman, half-sea serpent, in her foaming sea-green frock. Well. Who would have thought her drunken old hag of a mother would have come up with a name like that?

This unexpected knowledge of her secret name had forever after inflamed Anthony’s fantasies. Anthony wanted Lusina, very badly. And he’d never have her because a) she clearly didn’t want him, and b) Leo would kill him. Kill him stone dead in a very unpleasant and prolonged procedure that would undoubtedly involve cutting off his balls and sticking them down his throat. But he could dream. A man was permitted his dreams.

No, Lizzie was definitely going to have to find somebody else to do the death thing, he decided, doing up his trousers, and anyway, why should children be made to think about such things? The only children Anthony really knew were Megan and Will, and he was Will’s godfather. He was quite fond of them, though his inclination to view them as small adults inevitably resulted in disappointment when they failed to live up to his expectations. Nevertheless, he’d look out for them if he ever had to, he thought sentimentally, and he always gave them generous cheques at Christmas and birthdays. Not that they’d ever be short of a quid.

Only the elfin Will had inherited his mother’s colouring. Unfortunately Megan was rather plain, in Anthony’s opinion. Not to mention a little stout, probably due to the junk food he knew she binged on behind Lusina’s back. He’d come across her more than once stuffing her face with a bunch of grubby, black-garbed friends, in the milk bar when he’d been visiting Riley’s Point. And at the fish and chip shop. What was he doing in these places, one might ask? Well, since Monika left and he’d had to fend for himself he’d quickly developed a junk food habit. Food was comfort, the stodgier it was, the more comfort it offered. Was that what Megan was after as well? He must talk to her about these things one day, he decided. Perhaps the girl had problems. Perhaps he could help her out. It couldn’t be easy, being the plain daughter of a beautiful mermaid, and she didn’t do a thing to help herself, wearing that thick black eyeliner and what looked like flour on her cheeks.

Anthony hauled himself up from his couch and went to the kitchen for a drink. He had, he realised as he poured himself a Scotch, on-going fantasies of rescuing the two Carstairs women, but from what he didn’t know. There was something about them both that made a man want to help them out. As for Will well, what a fey one he was turning out to be. A changeling child if ever there was one with his great green eyes and his mother’s white hair. He looked as if he’d been nursed from birth on fairies’ milk. Ah, well, Uncle Anthony would be there when he was needed. He drank down his Scotch and crossed to the phone to call Lizzie. There was no reply. He’d better call Carstairs before she did and fill him in, or he’d never hear the end of it. Christ.

‘I’ve got about half an hour,’ Leo told Bethany on the phone, ‘before everybody gets home. They’re all expecting me for an early dinner. But I could nip down to the beachfront for a coffee with you if I hurry up. Can you get there?’

‘Okay,’ agreed Bethany.

She was disappointed. She’d hoped for more, but you took what you could get in her situation. She was in the Riley’s Point library, only minutes away from where he’d suggested they meet.

‘I’ll wait for you in the café,’ she told him.

Every time she heard Leo’s mellifluous tones, Bethany felt their resonances deep in her belly. Leo’s voice was his first weapon of choice in his romantic arsenal. It was a richly mined secondary sexual characteristic, his first being his undisguised love of and desire for women. When Leo felt like it, he was capable of making a woman believe that she was the only woman in the world he had ever, or would ever, be interested in. The problem was that he had increasingly begun to act this way towards women he wasn’t remotely interested in, thus emitting ambiguous signals that served only to make him unreadable, and therefore even more dangerously attractive.

Leo finished the call and stood up. He had to end this thing with Bethany, the sexual part at least. It was always a mistake to let a friendship become sexual, he knew that.  He’d done it anyway, out of an unforeseen intersection of deep if temporary need on his part when he’d felt neglected by Lusina, and intense, long-standing desire on Bethany’s.

The sexual thing lasted about three weeks as far as he was concerned, before he started to wonder what the hell he was doing. The gates of love they budged an inch, I can’t say much has happened since… he sang to himself. He began to suggest meetings such as the one this evening, where there was no possibility of sex. This was most uncharacteristic of him, Leo thought. What kind of careless fool finds himself entangled with a mistress he desires less than he desires his own wife? And if that wasn’t bad enough, he feared Bethany was becoming increasingly dependent on him, and trying to insinuate herself further and further into his life.

Bethany had a puritanical streak, he reflected as he pulled on his socks, one could imagine her in some community like the Amish where her desires were kept strictly in check, yet were apparent to any man who had the sensitivity to look deeply. There was a challenge in women like that, Leo believed. The challenge being to soothe their fears about their sexuality, set their desires loose, and reveal to them how gratifying sex could be. But when that was done and they were at last complete one sent them off into the world to find their husbands, one’s work finished. The liberation of desire was his gift, Leo decided, not its long-term maintenance. Except with Lusina, whom he’d never stopped desiring. He’d want her till the day he died. Though increasingly, he worried, she seemed not to want him.

Bethany had that scrubbed, fresh-faced, pink-cheeked look of a woman who’d sworn off all adornment, he thought as he washed the paint off his hands. Her clothes, uninteresting but always clean, looked as if she bought them in the op shop, slightly worn, frequently shapeless and a little out of date. She could be a whole lot more attractive than she allowed herself to be, in his opinion, and that was part of his job, wasn’t it, unveiling her repressed beauty?

She was scared to death of her husband finding out about them, she’d recently confided. Acting on some instinctual perception, Leo had asked:

‘He hits you, doesn’t he?’

Bethany didn’t reply. It wasn’t that simple, she thought. He had hit her once or twice, just a slap, she amended silently, not wanting to exaggerate the situation. She couldn’t bear to be thought of as one of those women who claimed to be victims of domestic violence. She’d never understood how they could endure the humiliation of publicly confessing such private matters, and then having everybody pity them.

No, it wasn’t that he hit her. What he’d done, on numerous occasions, was take her forearm in both his hands and twist her skin back and forth in opposing directions till her arm felt as if it was on fire, and she begged him to stop. Or he pinched the skin of her cheeks in a cruel parody of paternal affection, slowly increasing the pressure until she cried out, and beseeched him, stop, please Roland stop, it was hurting her so much.

‘No,’ she answered finally. ‘He doesn’t hit me. He has difficulties, Leo, you have to understand that. He can’t mix with people and he’s completely alone except for me. And I’m not as smart as him, I can’t keep up with his mind and that makes him frustrated. I know I irritate him, I don’t mean to but I do.  But I’m his only connection to the world, Leo.’

At another time, she’d explained more.

‘Roland’s got a heart condition,’ she confided, as she and Leo held hands after sex. She had never felt so satisfied, she thought. Every part of her lost in love. ‘If he finds out about us it will kill him.’

Leo silently reflected that from what he’d heard, the man didn’t deserve that much consideration. He kept that thought to himself, however. Bethany might misunderstand, and take it to mean that Leo wanted Roland to know. Which he most certainly did not. If Roland suddenly died, or threw Bethany out, Leo’s position would become extremely complicated. How had this got so difficult, he wondered. And how was he going to extricate himself without unthinkable repercussions?

Bethany had recently told him that his own marriage was a ‘destructive relationship,’ and that Lusina was selfish and didn’t care enough about him.

‘You deserve better,’ she said, and stroked his hair. He was lying with his head in her lap at the time, one eye on the football playing soundlessly on her television. He liked it that she watched the football with him. Lusina always left him to watch it alone. It wasn’t as much fun if there was no one to share it with. Bethany understood that.

‘You need someone who’ll take care of you, Leo. Lusina is too self-absorbed, she always was.’

Leo found these observations somewhat seductive: they spoke to his own aggrieved suspicions of increasing spousal neglect. He had not seen the irony inherent in him accepting relationship advice from Bethany.

What he wanted, he decided now as he ran a comb through his hair, noting the number of strands that remained between the comb’s black plastic teeth, was to remain friends with Bethany so he could continue to have her support against Lusina when he needed it, and to end their sexual relationship, at least for the time being. Bottom line, he simply did not desire her enough. He had desired her quite a lot, when he was feeling low and she came on so strong, but it was going nowhere and he couldn’t keep it up. Literally, he was beginning to fear.

He’d explain it all to Bethany, he thought, as he tied his shoelaces and ran down the stairs. She’d always been a sensible woman. Leo, Bethany, Lusina and Anthony had known one another at university. Leo and Bethany had met infrequently for coffee over the years when they lived in the city, though he’d never told Lusina about their meetings. There were many things he didn’t tell Lusina, small, insignificant things as well as things that would cause trouble. Why should she know his every move? Lusina hardly ever saw Bethany, he thought as he closed the front door and loped down the hill to the beachfront.  They’d never been friends and Bethany wasn’t in the Carstairs social circle. And she’d only recently moved to Orchid Creek.

‘She was so determined to have you,’ Bethany had told him, their first time in bed at her small fibro cottage in the bush, a few kilometers beyond the town. Through her bedroom window, he could see the distant, restful hills, indigo in the afternoon light. He was already feeling anxious to get home. He had a drawing in progress, and he suddenly badly wanted to see Lusina.

‘I knew I didn’t have a chance,’ Beth went on, ‘she was so colourful and I was just the drab, brown little bird. You couldn’t see anybody but her.’

Leo had agreed with this assessment. It was comforting to find someone else who shared his occasionally resentful perspective on the young Lusina, which was that she’d made him love her, against his better judgment. Dazzled him, and led him by the prick.

‘No man could have resisted her,’ Bethany had told him. ‘It was hardly your fault.’

Leo had taken Bethany in his arms.

‘You’re right,’ he’d said. ‘And now here we are, after all this time.’

It had sounded phony to him, Leo thought as he approached the riverfront café, even that early in the piece.

Bethany walked out of the cluttered gift shop, where she’d just bought Leonard Cohen’s latest as a gift for Leo. She frequently bought him gifts, usually books or CDs, or she cut out bits of poetry from the Saturday papers, poems with lines like I am smitten with you, and This is our country, my heart. Most recently she’d given him a Stendhal quote that read: Even a very small degree of hope is enough to cause the birth of love. This last one Leo found most disturbing. He stuffed her offerings into a drawer in his workroom where he felt fairly confident Lusina would never venture. She was too self-absorbed to go through his desk, Leo had told Bethany in bed, with, Bethany feared, a tinge of disappointment.

Bethany crossed the street to the café, and saw ahead of her the gaggle of teenagers Lusina had observed earlier. Megan was amongst them, Bethany noted. Bethany hated Megan, if only because Leo adored her. She felt a peculiar pain when she thought of Leo being with other people, especially his family. She was left out, as mistresses were always left out.  She knew he still slept with Lusina, even though they’d never discussed it. She’d watched them, through the windows of their house. They never pulled the curtains because nobody lived near them. Their physical connection was painfully evident. But Leo and Bethany shared their secret, she reassured herself, the secret that nobody else had any idea about, least of all the brilliant bloody Lusina. It was their private world. Lusina would never be admitted.

Though Leo seemed to have been avoiding her lately, Bethany worried, as she hurried towards the café, or at least avoiding intimacy with her. The last slanted glow of afternoon light touched the water. Across the river, purple shadows darkened the hillside. Leo hadn’t asked her on the phone what she was doing at the Point, instead of working at home in Orchid Creek where he’d have expected her to be on a weekday. In fact, she was spending more and more of her time just hanging around the Point in the hope that she’d run into Leo. If that didn’t work out, she’d trail the unsuspecting Lusina round the village, or watch Megan eating rubbish with her weird friends. Lusina had noticed her once or twice, and had looked puzzled, as if she couldn’t quite remember who Bethany was. Bethany hated her for this as well.

I ought to be worrying about the negative effect all this is having on my work, she thought.  She was a freelance journalist, and she couldn’t afford to slip under the radar.

Bethany was, she’d told Leo a few days after they’d first become lovers, sort of apart from her husband of ten years.  The illicit couple was in Bethany’s car, parked at a deserted beach a couple of kilometres down the coast from the Point. It was early evening and already dark. Leo had ridden down from his house on his bike. They’d had furtive sex in the car. The windows were fogged, and outside the high tide was pounding the beach. They were holding hands. Leo was wondering how he could look at his watch without seeming rude. They’d met in the car because he didn’t have time that night to drive to Bethany’s place and back. He couldn’t come up with an excuse Lusina would believe. Or so he told Bethany. He’d needed a bike ride to clear his thoughts, was how he’d explained his sudden departure to his wife. Lusina had looked at him for a long time before advising him to be careful on the road, and not to ride in the dark without his lights.

‘Roland decided to become a recluse, and moved himself permanently to our place up the coast,’ Bethany told him. ‘I’m only allowed to visit him at weekends, and I’m not allowed to ring him up to except in emergencies.’

Leo had glanced at her. Her voice was strained, and she enunciated her words with exaggerated care, through thinned lips.

‘Six years ago,’ she’d revealed, holding his hand so tightly he almost yelled, ‘Roland told me he didn’t want sex anymore, and that he wanted to live a celibate life. It was awful, I felt just discarded. I haven’t had sex for six years, till you. I’m still young, Leo, I still have desires, I don’t want to live like a nun.’ She exhaled loudly.

Leo worked his hand free from her grasp and put his arm around her. Their clothes were still awry from sex. He could see her breasts.

‘You mean he didn’t even talk to you about it?’ he asked, incredulous that a man these days could get away with something like that. Or would want to, was more a point of wonderment. Leo’s physical desires occupied a significant place in his daily life. The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world, he’d once quoted to Bethany before their affair began. She’d read that as an invitation, understandably, given her circumstances.

‘No,’ Bethany stated flatly. ‘He didn’t talk to me about it. He just told me that was what he wanted. He said we could stay married as long as I don’t sleep with anyone else. So you see, he musn’t know about us. He’ll leave me, if he doesn’t have another heart attack.’

She laid her head on Leo’s shoulder. Leo heard raindrops begin their drumming on the car roof. Shit, he thought. I’ve got to ride home on my bike. And I have to go soon before Lusina starts wondering where I am. What’s the bloody time? Bethany lifted her face to him. He kissed her nose.

Unfathomable, he’d concluded, stroking her hair. Spray was seeping into the car, her hair was damp and tasted salty, Leo was beginning to feel chilly. Unbelievable that Bethany had agreed to Roland’s demands. What right did the man have to make such unilateral decisions? He was married to her, for God’s sake.

‘You must have been so lonely,’ he told Bethany, and nuzzled her breasts to comfort her. Her nipples were the pale pink of a woman whose body had not been altered by childbearing. Poor woman, no wonder she sometimes looked like a dried out old twig, he’d thought. No juice in her life. No sexual joy. He felt himself becoming aroused again.

‘Why don’t you leave him, start a new life with someone who wants to be with you?’

He stroked her nipple. It hardened under his attentions.

Bethany had lifted his head from her breast, and stroked his cheek.

‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ she’d whispered, ‘I’ve been waiting for you for years, Leo. Don’t you know I’ve always loved you? Always wanted you?’

Leo had then felt very uncomfortable, and his erection had suddenly wilted.  She meant waiting for him to talk to her on this deep level, and then to help her out of her misery with sympathy and encouragement, and sexual attention, he’d decided. That’s what she meant. They were both married, for God’s sake, and she wanted to stay with Roland, she’d said that more than once.  Leo was definitely transitional, a catalyst. They were just two old friends comforting one another. That was the deal. So he’d thought at the time.

Leo arrived at the café and saw Bethany was already seated at an outside table. Behind her, the river was lit in patches by the streetlights, and a half moon rose in the winter sky. Bethany looked up and smiled at him. Okay, he thought, smiling back. I’ll remind her of the deal. No problem. She’s not the type to make a fuss. Everything will be all right. He pulled out his chair and sat down.

‘Hi, you,’ he said.

Heaven on a Saturday night: an entertainment.

2 Jun

Yeah, we’re drinking and we’re dancin’
but there’s nothing really happening
and the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night…
Closing Time. Leonard Cohen

In the resort town of Cancún on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Melanie Rose once saved the life of her only grandson, Phoenix. It happened like this.

The family were gathered together under the thatched roof of a large palapa that was positioned between the turquoise lagoon and the swimming pool of the apartment complex where Phoenix lived with his mother and father, and his older sister, Sophie-Louise.  Melanie was visiting from Australia, in time for her grandson’s second birthday party. Also visiting were the grandparents from Canada, and Phoenix’s uncle and aunt who’d flown in from Las Vegas.

It was one of those momentos peligrosos, when everyone thought somebody else was watching the children. Phoenix, wearing only his damp nappies, lowered his bottom onto the edge of the swimming pool and dangled his infant feet in the water. Melanie, who had been gazing into the crystalline depths of the lagoon looking for alligators and had her back turned, felt a sudden twinge of alarm. She swung around in time to see four-and-a-half year-old Sophie-Louise gently rock her little brother by his shoulders until she found the tipping point that would cause him to roll off the familiar blue-tiled edges of his life, and into that foreign element, the clear blue water.

Melanie yelled. At a speed no one could calculate, she shoved the adults out of her way and sent a table crowded with icy bottles of Corona, slices of lemon wedged in their long necks, crashing to the concrete floor of the palapa.

‘What the fuck…’ exclaimed the uncle from Vegas.

Melanie reached the pool and flung herself into it. Phoenix was by now slowly descending to the bottom for the third time.

She grabbed the baby’s nappy. Then she grabbed his slippery, passive body. She pulled him up to the surface where for a long moment he lay collapsed on her shoulder, gasping intermittently like a dying blowfish.  Everyone ran yelling to the edge of the pool, features distorted with fear. The baby blinked, and looked at his stricken relatives. He let out a shocking yowl and spewed up a great deal of chlorinated water that cascaded down his grandmother’s back. The uncle from Vegas took the screaming baby from Melanie and gave him to his mother. Then he helped Mel out of the pool.

‘Thank God you saw what was happening!’ the Canadian grandmother cried. ‘Thank God you were watching!’

The uncle’s glamorous wife, formerly a Rockette with New York’s Radio City Music Hall and now pregnant with their first child, set about berating Phoenix’s father, and telling anyone who’d listen that no way, no frickin’ way, would she ever let any of her children anywhere near a swimming pool unless she had them by the hand at all frickin’ times.  Holy crap, she finished up, and blew a cracking great bubble with her gum. Phoenix’s father gave her the finger behind her back, as he hurried his wife and their bellowing child back to their apartment. Sophie-Louise, who understandably didn’t want to accompany them, found herself scooped up under her father’s arm and carried off regardless.

It was very hot in the Caribbean at that time of the year, but Mel felt chilled to her bones. She went up to the apartment and had a long hot shower. Then she sat on the edge of her bed and cried into her hands. Sophie-Louise was taking an extended time out in a corner of the sitting room. No one was allowed to speak to her. She sat with her face to the wall, and sucked hard on the two middle fingers of her right hand. Now and then she took the fingers out of her mouth so she could give full voice to a series of wild sobs. Phoenix’s mother and father had him in the bath, playing with his ducks, apparently almost over his ordeal. In a sterling effort to keep the party going, the Canadian grandparents were barbequing the arachera on the grill near the lagoon. The uncle from Vegas, who was a principal dancer in a show at the Bellagio Hotel on the Las Vegas Boulevarde, walked round the palapa saying, ‘Fuck,’ over and over again, while running both hands through his blond-streaked hair. He looked a lot like Brad Pitt.

The party, really, was over.

Next morning, a fragile Melanie sat on the edge of the wooden dock, and watched a Mexican soldier from the barracks next door swim in the emerald lagoon, as he did every day for twenty minutes. Two alligators lurking beneath the dock ignored him. Who in possession of their senses would do such a reckless thing, she marvelled. When the soldier got out, the alligators cruised over to the mangroves. A hurricane the previous October had left the mangroves bereft of foliage, as if they had been napalmed. In the midst of great storm surges the lagoon had broken its banks, spilling the alligators out into the downtown streets. Melanie wondered if the aftermath of that trauma might account for their present lack of interest in human prey.

Cancún was a cultural shock for Mel. Every morning she swam in the Caribbean. The sea surface was like blue-green translucent glass. Patches of indigo bloomed over its deeps. She lay in the shallows on bone white sand, while tiny striped fish nibbled at her feet.  In the distance she saw lavish cruise ships bound for the island of Cozumel. Some afternoons when the children were sleeping, Mel rode the buses into the downtown where people without financial resources lived in tarpaper shacks, and starved dogs loafed in the middle of unpaved streets. In the Zona Hoteleria, where she was staying with her family, the dogs wore leather leads and their coats shone. High wrought iron gates protected the apartment compound. The shopping malls were temples, offering up every imaginable treasure. There were pyramid-shaped hotels, an indifferent reference to the ancient Mayan culture of the Yucatán peninsula. These hotels had infinity pools, and white-coated Mexican attendants who probably lived in the downtown brought food and drink to where their guests lay sprawled on four-poster beds with sheer curtains.

Downtown bus rides were always interesting. For six pesos she could ride several miles down the coast through the ramshackle suburbs to the ferry terminal for Isla Mujeres and back again to Wal-Mart. She always sat next to a window (downtown buses had no air-conditioning) and lost herself in that delicious state that is reminiscent of being a child in a pram, when you are taken everywhere and have no responsibility at all for watching where you’re going. The temporary absence of this responsibility was particularly enjoyable in Cancun where you were likely to fall into holes full of all kinds of unpleasant substances whenever you walked down the street.

Not many gringos take downtown buses in Cancun, Mel discovered. It’s dangerous, they think. It’s full of Mexicans. This conflation of ordinary Mexicans with danger seemed to be American conventional wisdom around the Caribbean coast. Rather like the Australian conflation of refugees with terrorists, Mel thought.

When Mel got home after her first trip and told them where’d she’d been, her son, who was watching CNN and drinking a beer while children swung shrieking from his arms and legs, was upset.

‘Take taxis, please, Mum,’ he groaned, and ran his free hand through his short blond hair as the children latched onto his ankles. He was wearing his glasses and they made him look serious. Her heart expanded at the sight of him all over with children. To see your child at play with his own children. One could die happy after that.

‘You have to Be Careful in the downtown, Mum. Gringos get in trouble down there and you can’t count on the police. Don’t do anything stupid.’

There’s an interesting turnaround,Mel thought. He’s telling me not to do anything stupid? When did he become so conservative, this boy who used to think he’d had a good day if he and his mates managed to aggravate the bus driver till they were finally thrown off the 380 while all the grown-ups cheered?

At the lagoon, Mel was suddenly overwhelmed by a powerful yearning for her home on the temperate south east Australian seaboard. The landscape there took a different dramatic turn, she felt, and one that was not quite as emotionally demanding. She gazed at the tropical morning sky, already trembling with humidity, and breathed deeply. She let the previous day’s trauma play itself out again in her mind. She needed a bit of time to herself, she decided. Let everyone else take care of things for a while and hopefully, nobody would drown while she wasn’t there.

Her yearning for home gradually mellowed into a low-grade nostalgia that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, she reflected. She had always found the perverse satisfactions that sometimes accompany yearning, interesting. In the dusky Caribbean evenings, Mel often heard a woman in one of the upstairs apartments play Andrea Bocelli singing Spanish love songs that were filled with yearning. The woman, Alexandria, turned out to be the star of a long-running Mexican soap opera. She had an Argentine boyfriend with long black hair that he wore in a ponytail.  He had an outrageously flirtatious manner. He kissed the hand of Melanie Rose when they encountered one another in the garden, and told her how beautiful she looked, even when she was bedraggled from the pool, and hung about with squirming grandchildren. Mel appreciated the attention, though she recognised it as an Argentine social convention that meant nothing.

Very early one morning, the boyfriend was forcibly removed from Alexandria’s apartment by a posse of federales. Melanie and her family watched from their windows, woken by his shouts and Alexandria’s screams, and the barked commands of the police as they marched him past the swimming pool and through the high iron gates of the compound.

For several days Alexandria was seen pacing the gardens with her friends, chain smoking, her hair awry, and wearing grubby tracksuit pants. Everyone thought it was drugs. He had been seen, it was rumoured, leaving a luxury yacht tied up to the dock in the middle of the night, in the company of gold-draped Colombian ruffians in Armani shirts, all of them carrying large, soft parcels.

After these events, Alexandria stopped playing Bocelli at dusk, and eventually disappeared to Mexico City, where her soapie was filmed.


In the beachside village of Riley’s Point, Victoria, Australia, where Melanie lived, she once saved the life of her old friend Hannah’s grandson. It happened like this.

It was Hannah’s birthday party. All her family and close friends were gathered in her front garden. This garden ran down to the road. On the other side of the road was the river. The road was generally quiet. The garden was unfenced.

It was one of those dangerous moments when everyone thought somebody else was looking out for the children. For some reason, Mel, who had been watching a pod of dolphins at play in the far reaches of the river, turned around in time to see George, Hannah’s two-year-old grandson, seize the day and take off down the garden and into the road, well on his way to his goal, the water.

Melanie yelled. At a speed no one could calculate, she shoved the adults out of her way and sent a table crowded with chilled bottles of Moet thudding to the grass. As she gained on the child she stopped yelling, understanding that he thought it was a game, and that he should run faster.

Mel’s greatest fear was that a car would come around the corner and take them both out. She flung herself on the laughing child, and they crashed to the bitumen together.  She grabbed George’s corduroy pants and pulled him close, then wrapped her arms around his sturdy, wriggling body, and limped them both back to the garden. The adults ran to meet them. George was pulled from Mel’s arms by his terrified mother. He immediately began to scream, and soon spewed up large quantities of cake. Hannah took Melanie into the house and they wept in each other’s arms.

‘Thank God you saw him!’ Hannah sobbed. ‘Thank God!’

George’s granddad, Simon, for whom Mel had never had a great deal of time, sat ashen-faced in a patio chair saying ‘Fuck,’ over and over again. He had no hair through which to run his hands. Simon was a retired surgeon who had once operated on the famous and wealthy. To balance out privilege, he went voluntarily to the middle-east. Here he operated by torchlight in tents, repairing children damaged by the artillery of western forces who were engaged in an ongoing struggle to embed a liberal democracy in the hearts and minds of highly resistant desert cultures. Mel thought Simon was one of those people she just couldn’t like, no matter that he did good things. It was the self-important way in which he did them, she’d decided, that discouraged her admiration.

Simon had never looked anything like Brad Pitt.

In Cancún, it was bedtime for Sophie-Louise.

‘Tell me a story, Grandma,’ she begged.

‘Okay,’ Mel agreed, ‘but just one ‘cos Momma says you have to go to sleep.’

The child and her grandmother snuggled up close. The child put the two middle fingers of her right hand into her mouth, and sucked. Mel ran her fingers through Sophie-Louise’s dark curls, and kissed the top of her head. Mel loved it that her grandchildren had her dark hair and unusual amber eyes. It was a miracle, she reflected, to live long enough to see yourself in your child’s child. These days Mel added a bit of colour to her hair, as she wasn’t yet ready to give in to grey. Her eyes were not as clear as perhaps they once had been, but they were still attractive. She worked at staying relatively slim. She used to work in Foreign Affairs and was now retired, though she kept up.

‘Once upon a time,’ she now began, ‘ there was a little girl who wanted to be an angel. She didn’t mean that she wanted to be dead and in heaven, because that’s not where she thought angels were. She thought they might be like human beings you couldn’t see, who came and sat by you when you were feeling sad and a little lonely, and even if you couldn’t see them you knew they were there, and your heart got lighter and you felt better. The little girl couldn’t really explain all this to her grandma because she was too young to have the words. So it all stayed as pictures in her mind that she thought about every night before she fell asleep.’

‘Grandma,’ Sophie-Louise interrupted, pulling her fingers out of her mouth with a loud glop. ‘Did they have big white wings and twinkly lights around their heads?’

‘No, my love,’ Mel replied. ‘They just looked like everybody else.’

‘Grandma, I don’t want to be an angel, I want to be a princess.’

‘Well, that’s okay, you can do that.’

‘Grandma, you know my little brother?’

‘I think I do,’ Mel laughed.

‘Well, actually, I know I’m lucky to have a little brother, but I didn’t really want him.’

Sophie Louise gazed at her grandmother with her large, amber eyes, and waited.

Mel considered this information in the light of the previous day’s events. Then she moved on.

‘Do you have fun with Phoenix sometimes?’ she asked.

‘Yes, if he’ll be the handsome prince. But Grandma, he just every time takes my glass slippers and wears them and puts on all my jewels and he shouldn’t do that if he’s the prince!’

‘We are getting him a Spiderman suit,’ Melanie confided, and tucked Sophie-Louise firmly into her bed.

In Riley’s Point, Mel sat watching television with her best friend and housemate, Ruby. The two had met during Mel’s first marriage when Ruby, who had broken away from her family’s artistic traditions and established herself as a flamboyant but highly successful stockbroker, was engaged by Mel’s husband to take care of his portfolio. This she had done brilliantly, if at times unnervingly. Ruby was smart enough to get out of the profession when she recognised she was done with it and could afford a comfortable retirement. After Mel’s second marriage faltered, Ruby invited her to come and stay in the Point for a while, till she found her feet again. Mel had never left.

The rich red hair of Ruby’s younger years had turned prematurely white and she’d lately taken to dying it cherry. Currently the colour had paled to pink, and was growing out. Her head looked like a wedge of coconut ice. This caused her no concern. Ruby had light blue eyes and pale skin. She was rotund, and physically strong. Her hands were large and competent, her well-muscled legs and broad feet held her firmly to the earth.

She had absolutely no sense of dressing herself up. Mel had given up trying to change this. Ruby was happy in ragged shorts and T-shirts and Blundstone boots. When she went to her voluntary work at the Riley’s Point library she wore linen pants and ironed shirts and looked well enough turned out, if conservative, Mel told her. Most of Ruby’s clothes had belonged to a dead friend. She hadn’t had to buy anything for years. That pleased her, as she deeply loathed shopping for clothes, though if you put her in a supermarket she had a keen eye for value. She was also an inveterate reader of labels. This habit infuriated Mel. She would not shop with Ruby, unless she’d been trapped into it. Mel’s idea of grocery shopping was to bolt up and down the aisles and grab everything they might some day need as quickly as possible, no matter where it came from, hurl it in the cart, fly through the checkout, and then go look at clothes.

Ruby liked to venture into uncharted bush with their large black and white dog Bruce, rescued from the pound several years ago when he was very small. She took a machete, and hacked out corridors for the wildlife, whose usual tracks had become overgrown by lantana and garden weeds. Ruby taught Bruce to spot koalas. He stood at the bottom of the tree with his head raised, his whole body aquiver, and then he pointed with his paw, like a retriever. There was no other evidence of that breed in him, though he displayed the genes of cattle dogs, border collies, great danes, staffies and possibly greyhounds. Ruby had also trained him to leave all living things alone, and while he trembled and groaned with excitement at the sight of kangaroos, wallabies, goannas and pythons, he never barked, or chased them. Ruby carried out this training quietly, her soft, intense murmur rewarded with instant obedience from the dog, her calm congratulations rewarding him when he did well. Only when he dug up her plants did she yell at him, and so unused was he to the sound of her raised voice that when it happened, he fled to find Mel and nuzzle up for comfort.

‘Don’t you dare hug that dog!’ Ruby would yell at Mel. ‘He’s dug up my best saplings!’

Mel’s own manner of being with Bruce was very different: she was extravagant with her love, hugging him, kissing his head, and allowing him to sleep on her bed. Bruce accepted both women and showed no confusion; on the rare occasions that Mel reprimanded him he fled to Ruby. Ruby had it that Mel was too quick to defend him, but he was a poor dog, Mel protested, without language, and allowances must be made for this.

‘He’s got language, all right,’ Ruby muttered darkly as she filled in yet another excavation.

There was a trying period when Bruce dug a large hole just inside the front gate every time they went out, so whoever came home first fell in it. This practice ceased one day, as inexplicably as it had begun.

Loving a dog was a joyful experience, Mel often felt, for the dog is wholly other, and a constant source of wonder and amazement because of that. Dog is responsive: his dog feelings are at the ready and vibrantly expressed, he uses his voice as best he can to communicate. His emotions are straight-forward, you know where you are with dog. Dog won’t dissemble and throw you into confusion with words that do not seem to mean what they say. A dog can be completely what he is.  She loved the dog-ness of him, she told Ruby. The dog-ness.

‘Have I ever told you how I saved the lives of two little children, at opposite sides of the world?’ Mel asked Ruby that night in a commercial break. They’d been watching The Sopranos, her favourite show. Ruby found the violence hard to take. Mel told her not to watch the violent bits but when Ruby tried this, she found she had her hand over her eyes for almost an hour.  Bruce slept soundly on his bed.

Mel muted the television and recounted the stories.

‘Oh my, I didn’t know any of that, I wasn’t at either of those parties.’

Ruby took off her glasses and cleaned them with her t-shirt.

‘And you’re not even a fireman or anybody who’d expect to have to save children,’ she observed.

They sat in silence for a while. Bruce yelped in his dreams, and tried to flee an enemy while lying on his side on his blanket.

‘The thing is,’ Mel said finally, ‘I’ve always regarded myself as a bit thoughtless in some ways. Not the kind of person who’d be watching the children while nobody else was. I wasn’t actually watching the children either time, though,’ she corrected herself. ‘Something just made me turn around at the very instant they both became imperilled.’

‘Imperilled,’ Ruby repeated slowly, running her tongue around the syllables. ‘Im-per-illed. Now there’s a fine word.’

She got up to make the hot chocolate, and let the dog out for his last pee of the night.

‘You’re a guardian angel,’ she remarked as she walked past Melanie Rose. She patted her on her head, like she did the dog.

‘Guardian angel,’ she repeated.

Melanie received an invitation to her niece’s spring wedding. This niece, extravagantly named Anna-Maria Magdalena Rosita for reasons nobody understood, wanted them all in pastels, with matching hats and gloves. It was better for the photographs, she said, if there were no primary colours. Mel dearly loved her only brother’s only child, otherwise she might have become snippy about the dress code. She’d imagined herself in something low cut and vermilion, worn with long black boots and the earrings she’d found in the markets in Mexico City. These earrings were made from beer bottle tops that contained a picture of the Virgin of Guadeloupe on the front, and read Cerveza Clara Dos Equis XX Lager Especial on the back.

Pastels did not generally suit Mel.

She searched through the envelope to see if there was a gift list. There wasn’t. The young couple, it eventuated, thought such lists were tasteless and greedy, and preferred to risk a dozen toasters that they’d have to exchange at a later date.

This would be the first celebratory occasion Melanie had attended since rescuing young George. She’d had enough of rescuing babies, she decided, and had now become self-conscious about her role at gatherings. People might expect her to be watching out for the little ones, and her very presence could cause a dangerous lapse in the other adults’ attentions.

It was with a great deal of relief, then, that she discovered a small note inside the invitation. We don’t want to offend anyone, the note read, but we have decided to keep our wedding an adults-only affair, and we ask you not to bring your children.

‘Yes!’ yelled Mel, fallen guardian angel. ‘No kids!’

At the wedding, which was held in the hinterland behind Riley’s Point, everything went according to plan. The celebrant, as expected, stumbled over the bride’s first names. There were no children, all the women obediently wore pastels, and most of them had acceded to the request for hats and gloves. Women frequently reveal their generosity of spirit at the weddings of other women. It is the bride’s day, and only a drop-kick dead jealous slag would refuse to observe her wishes. At least, that was how Ruby put it.

The reception was held on the banks of a river swollen with spring rains. Mel stood sipping champagne, gazing at the changing colours of the distant hills, as daytime turned slowly into lilac dusk. Her high heels had sunk deep into the damp paddock grass. A twinge of alarm disturbed her meditations, and caused her to turn and look back at the river. There she saw the bride’s father, a little the worse for drink, teetering dangerously on the bank. As she watched, unbelieving, he listed gently, then slowly toppled sideways into a deep pool.

Melanie yelled at the top of her voice. She dropped her champagne glass and pulled off her pastel hat. She kicked off her high-heeled shoes and raced towards the river, knocking everyone out of her way. She leapt fully clothed into the deep pool and grabbed the father of the bride in the rescue hold she’d been taught as a girl in the lifesaving classes she’d attended on Saturday mornings at the local swimming pool.

The wedding guests clambered and slid down the bank, and helped pull the two of them out of the river. The pastels and high heels suffered irreparable damage. The father of the bride was laid on his side on the grass. His terrified wife hooked strands of riverweed out of his mouth with her red-tipped fingers. After a few anxious moments he coughed, then spewed up copious amounts of all kinds of things nobody wanted to think about.

When he was recovered enough, they all trooped back to the Manor where they were staying the night, before seeing the newlyweds off on their honeymoon in the Mexican Caribbean resort of Cancún after breakfast the next day.

‘There’s no doubt about you,’ Ruby observed as she ran a bath for the shivering Mel. ‘You can spot the imperilled a mile off.’

Ruby had also scored an invite to the wedding, and looked a treat in pastels.

That night, sleeping in the Manor’s five-star bed, Melanie (sanctified now as a thrice-time saviour of the imperilled) had a dream she’d had off and on for years. In this dream a child in a blue coat sits in a small coracle. Her little hands clutch the sides of the fragile vessel.  The coracle rides a quiet sea. A friendly whale provides an escort, while up ahead, swordfish leap, sunlight flashing on their bellies as they twist and turn in that foreign element, the clear blue air.

The coracle carries the child across the seven seas to the people who love her most. There is food in her pockets. Like the owl and the pussycat in her favourite poem, she’ll sail away for a year and a day, until she finds her home.

In the dream, this doesn’t happen. She sails on until she wakes up, feeling sorrowful and lost. But Melanie knows the true purpose of her journey. With all her heart and soul, she believes that one night she will dream her triumphant arrival.  When she reaches her destination, she will find her loved ones waiting, their arms open in welcome, on the distant foreign shore. It is only a matter of time and faith, and infinite perseverance.

‘You can’t escape your fate, you know,’ Ruby told her the next morning.

Mel had just declared that she’d never attend another celebration.

‘Don’t even try to fight it,’ Ruby continued. ‘Somebody has to do it. Like the dogs.’

‘The dogs?’ asked Mel. She had no clear idea where Ruby was going with this. From experience, she knew anything was possible.

‘You know, the seven dogs with great and shining hearts whose task it is to hold up the world. Do you think they always feel like doing it? But where would we be if they got slack and packed it in?’

Ruby zipped up her overnight bag. It was time to go home. As Melanie went to check they’d left nothing in the bathroom, she heard Ruby singing:

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease
And give, for wild confusion, peace
     Oh hear us when we cry to thee
     For those in peril on the sea!

She bellowed the last line three times.

‘Shut up,’ Melanie Rose quietly advised her, in her diplomatically trained voice.

They had given the newlyweds a bright orange tajine. Later they learned from the bride that eight other guests had too. Nine orange tajines. It didn’t bear thinking about. These are indeed the bold and the beautiful days of our lives.

When they got home to the Point, they found the dog asleep in the sun, in the midst of a scattering of partly chewed bones the neighbours had thrown to him over the fence. He must be exhausted, said Ruby, trashed to the max, from his unending task of holding up the world. A responsibility, she added, picking up the bones before he buried them in her garden, that humans had thus far proved themselves entirely incapable of fulfilling.

It was from these three events that Melanie Rose acquired the reputation of being connected in some uncertain way to a benevolent power that would not let anyone, adult or child, pass away before their due time.

If I tell you I love you

15 Mar

This story was first published in M/C Journal

1.‘If I tell you I love you,’ he said, ‘then I’ll have to do something about it.’

2 .‘When you were an infant,’ I would like to say to my son, ‘I heard your cry through the open window. I sat in the autumn sun, under the peach tree in the courtyard your father and I laid, brick by brick, during the hot summer before you were born. I heard your cry coming from the yellow nursery, through the white window frames and the floating cotton curtains. When I heard that cry, milk flooded my breasts. They swelled and stung, my nipples rose up hard and sprouted fountains; the front of my pink shirt grew dark and soaked. All this, at the sound of your waking cry.’

3. I offer my breast to my lover. Astride him, I lean forward and lower a round and rosy globe into his waiting mouth. He accepts only its hard tip, while delicately fingering the breast’s curves that are swollen, not with milk this time, but with desire. ‘Suck,’ I whisper and he does, noisily like the babies used to, kneading and fondling.

4. When he said ‘I’ll have to do something about it,’ he meant leave the others who had claims on his affections and take up with me in a permanent way. That was how he understood love, as responsibility, and long term goals. I was uninterested in these matters, young and with no sense of the future. ‘Fuck me,’ I whispered and he dabbled the tips of his fingers ever so slowly, in the wet flowing out of me down there.

5. He watched me. He watched me arch and open my mouth and cry a little and he flicked his tongue against mine, all the while dabbling with the most delicious rhythm, and flicking and whispering ‘Is that good? Do you like that, does it feel nice?’ until I cried out loud, and cried tears too. All that love flooding and stinging me. Stinging and flooding me.

6. The child suckled, but with less urgency, drowsy against my breasts. Milk trickled from the corner of his mouth. I stroked his full cheeks with the tips of my fingers. Counted his toes again as I did every day through the weeks after his birth. Kissed his fair brow, ran my tongue along his soft, fat arms. Fell asleep in the autumn sun underneath the peach tree in the courtyard we’d made. Fell asleep with the milky, snuffling infant heavy in my arms, and my breasts bared to the afternoon breeze. Fell asleep and dreamed I was in heaven.

7. It wasn’t always thus.

8. For example. My mother, on a carpet of bluebells in a northern forest at midsummer in soft, dappled light made love, and subsequently found herself with child. Her first sexual encounter, a stroke of bad luck if ever there was one. Family shame ensued. A short-lived marriage. A humiliating return to her father’s house with a tiny infant. My soft, fat arms, and my ten curled toes wrapped up tight in the blanket of disgrace.

9. This was only the beginning of the repercussions of that unplanned act, that reckless moment in the bluebells. My mother’s white dress stained bluebell blue and red with her blood. My father’s reassurances that came to nothing.

10. In fairy tales it is never the mother who hovers, heavy with bad intentions, around the growing girl. In fairy tales, it is always the stepmother, as if the notion of a mother consumed by dark passions towards her daughter is too abhorrent for fairy tales to bear. But someone has to bear it.

11. Children. Love blindly, and suffer, and always look out from their being with hope.

12. Grown up, I lie in my bedroom, alone. It’s late afternoon, and staring out of my window at the darkening sky I see the wicked witch of the west with her pointed hat and her black hair and her long black garments. I watch her fly across clouds made bleeding and orange by the setting sun. It seems to me that she is snarling at me, sending out rays of malevolence towards me where I lie on my white bed. ‘I did not take your life!’ I tell her. ‘I did not take your life!’

13. When finally I sleep I dream, not of the bad fairy, but of sex. It’s a long time since I’ve been with a man. My nighttime lover is a stranger. The love we make is sweet with greed. It trembles tender and dangerous between us, with lucidity too brilliant to be contained by fairy tales. I wake at dawn in the midst of orgasm. The encounter has about it a perfection that I’ve never known in waking life.

14. I didn’t know my mother’s breasts, but I remember to this day how her hair hung smooth, like black silk, like black satin, like midnight velvet, across her shoulders, and down the length of her back. I didn’t know my mother’s breasts, but to this day I imagine them as white, as cream, as milk, as soft, as perfumed, as tender, as giving. I imagine them as rosy globes within which love might dwell, waiting for me to suckle, waiting for me to drink from them the secret lessons they contain, the lessons that will set me right in life.

15. What does it mean when you have stolen your mother’s life, I wonder, as I prepare myself for the day. Is it a crime for which one may never atone?

16. ‘If I tell you I love you,’ he said, ‘then I’ll have to do something about it.’

17. ‘Best not, then,’ I advised and turned my back on him, the better to grieve my losses and count my blessings and dream my dreams.

18. In another lifetime, I saw him in a car park. We didn’t speak. Though I wanted to, though I made those movements towards him that signal the beginnings of an encounter, he waved me back and gestured with his silver head towards a shadowed figure in the front seat of the car. I understood. I shrugged my bag more securely across my shoulders and walked on. My head held high. That night I remembered everything from years ago, with little or no regret, and with a warm delight that I had once known these things, and yet escaped with my life.

19. ‘When you were an infant,’ I would like to say to my son, ‘I took you in our bed, you slept between your father and me and in the mornings when we woke my breasts were full and aching. I offered them to you, and when you had finished, and fallen back into your infant dreams, I gave them to your father. These acts of love I count as some of the most generous I have ever performed. Your gratitude and your contentment, your small sighs, your unforgettable gaze, all these let me know the best of everything, at least for a while.’

20. The floor of my room is made of pale polished wood, and two brightly patterned oriental carpets lie across it, adding warmth and comfort. On the low table beside my bed there’s a small pile of books, a pair of reading glasses, a blue vase holding several stems of iris I bought at the Sunday markets, and a reading lamp with an engraved glass shade. I stay alone now, in another kind of love.

21. Sometimes I lie in this calm room, on my white bed, and through the window I watch the wicked witch in her long black garments that are like midnight velvet, like black satin, that flow out behind her, smooth as silk. I watch her as she flies back and forth across the darkening sky.

©Jennifer Wilson 2011

Riffing in the Lismore Pharmacy. A story by Maria Simms

30 Jan

Christmas cheer had eluded me when I walked into the tinsel festooned Lismore pharmacy. In fact I’d been feeling dispirited for some time. Isolation on a steep bush block, distance from friends, lack of city buzz, and a bad case of writer’s block had got to me. My lifelong desire to find myself at the pulse of a literary cultural life, or by this time any cultural life at all, had taken on a Quixotic quality without the romance of that eternal dreamer tilting at windmills from his wobbly horse. I was over grappling with heat and floods and weeds and reading about hugely successful writers in the weekend newspaper supplements.

The vista of Christmas glitz; the press of the sick, the anxious and depressed milling about at the prescriptions-out counter and the clamour of carols billowed towards me. The service number slip I’d been holding so optimistically seemed to droop as I sidled along a row of shelves towards the prescriptions counter passing creams promising relief from everything – ingrown toe-nails to inflamed joints and herpes. I have to admit I was almost enticed by tiers of chocolate boxes offering more tangible and immediate satisfaction.

Emerging triumphant from my bout of weakness near the chocolates I turned the corner at the end of the shelves and there she was, a glorious creature from head to toe. She was sitting in one of two white, plastic chairs carefully positioned for the tired and feeble opposite the crowded counter. I made for the empty chair next to her. Dark beseeching eyes and a vulnerable smile greeted me as she wriggled further onto her chair in a show of making room for me. A vacant seat in a pharmacy crowded with exhausted Christmas shoppers? And next to an exotic trannie? I had my Christmas miracle.

She wore a slim t-shirt above tiny shorts with fashionably tatty edges. Endless golden legs were tucked neatly under the chair. There was a hint of sequinned sandals. Around her face long black (extension aided) hair was caught in a thick fall that couldn’t disguise the beginning of male-pattern balding at her thinning hairline.

We sat beside each other in silence for a minute or two.

‘I love your earrings.’ The husky voice.

The thick paste of pancake was applied well with just a hint of prickle beneath it. Eyeliner formed a kohl shoreline around limpid eyes. Lipstick, discreet not garish, framed largish white teeth.

‘Thank you.’ I felt the earrings to remember what I’d pushed into my earlobes before I’d left the house. Ah, yes. The rough stone and odd shape. ‘Turquoise and silver,’ I said. ‘I always like it. Bit Navajo don’t you think?’

‘Definitely Navajo, Mexican too,’ she replied.

And there it was. The language was banal but the sub-text was something else – like a musical riff sending a frisson through the players.

The musician, Rikky Rooksby,describes a riff as ‘a short, repeated, memorable musical phrase, often pitched low on the guitar, which focuses much of the energy and excitement of a rock song’.* In academic circles it might be called a discourse, a language that holds the key for entry to its world. A bit like the language and tacit understandings needed to penetrate the world of the British upper class, or medicine, or journalism for that matter.

She and I knew this particular language!

Ours was a riff born in the inner cities where sub-cultures have developed numerous tribal cadences. This one I knew from the Sydney theatre scene in the late 1960s where transvestites and gays flouted conventional society as they’d done for eons, certainly since Socrates, condemned by some 550 judges, shlupped on his sandals out of a court in Athens. Found guilty of corrupting Athenian youth with provocative ideas he preferred downing hemlock to being silenced.

‘They look lovely on you,’ she said referring to the earrings.

It was my turn.

‘And the aquamarine around your neck is beautiful,’ I replied, truthfully. Seeing it brought to mind, fondly, the first boyfriend, a surfing, prize-winning pastry-cook with a crazed mother. He’d given me the ring. Aquamarine.

We were firing now – the banjo scene getting underway in Deliverance.

She hooked a finger under the chain and held the stone towards me. ‘It belonged to a friend of mine who’s passed. I wear it for her.’

AIDS? I wondered. So many taken by it. There was a pause – a bit like the silence for the fallen in RSL clubs. Then I pushed on. ‘The blue does look wonderful against your skin. You have lovely skin.’

Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s the Samoan in her.’ This reference to herself in the third person may have been part of her patter, or a slip of the tongue, but I suspected it was more like a test. Would I pull away, she was asking me.

She stretched out a leg. We both contemplated the burnished gold from thigh to foot. ‘I’ve got some Samoan in me,’ she repeated.

My arm rested in my lap, next to her leg. Freckled skin, the scourge of my life.

‘I wish I had some Samoan in me,’ I said.

There was a beat while she made a decision. She took another risk.

‘Well …’ she said, slowly at first, perhaps a lead-in tease, ‘that could be taken a different way.’

This to an older, ordinary looking woman she’d never met before. I admired her daring.

‘I knooww,’ I said, claiming the innuendo I hadn’t intended or even seen. Well, reader, I was rusty. It’d been a long time. But the idea of a young Samoan lover made me laugh. It made us both laugh and I suppose that’s when our riff really hit its stride.

For me it thrummed with a song from the past – a heady mix of theatre and the social and cultural upheavals sweeping Sydney in the late 1960s and 70s.

Here, for you, the reader, I can expand on what in the Lismore pharmacy was just a sense of that past lifting its head and shaking itself off. Fragments of it play like disjointed scenes from a Fellini movie. The theatre sequence began in 1967 at an evening spent sitting on planks at what had to be one of the earliest plays staged at The Pram Factory in Melbourne. (I remember it as a halting exposé of domestic dissatisfaction – rough around the edges, dimly lit, hard to hear, but determined at the core.) Then back to Sydney to the thrill of America Hurrah at The New Theatre with police standing by to rush the actors off to the clink for writing ‘cunt’ on the stage wall and holding large nude, vagina pink I’m told, puppets. My dear friend, Carole Skinner was in it, and in another transgressive production she told me she was worried about revealing her ‘bum hole’ to the audience as, having cast off her chastity belt, she climbed, naked, up high platforms onstage! (It was the first time we’d met.)

Which brings another fragment into focus. I was enthralled by the esoteric weirdness of late night performances at Martin Sharp’s Yellow House. This is where Carole, who was to become an iconic Australian actor, played Mae West trailing pieces of A4 paper stuck together around the tiny performance space left at the centre of the room by we onlookers squashed around the walls.

‘Don’t … step on … m’thesis,’ she said, so close to me I could have nibbled her earlobe.

Before this I’d found my way to the Ensemble Theatre where they were walking the talk of ‘method’ acting and I was hooked by this revolutionary approach – as so many were before and after me.

While I studied I did bits and pieces: a minor job on Hair; sweating in a huge felt costume (hot as a sauna) in a Commedia play under a tin roof at Christmas; being onstage with vital props and occasionally an actor missing; dancing with two left feet in ABC operas; a play I’m told I was in at The Wayside Theatre in Kings Cross, but can’t remember at all. I do remember being surprised at an invitation to participate in a workshop run by the famously experimental Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski, and his troupe. No English on their side, no Polish on ours. We gawked and ducked while they emitted grunts and sudden squeals and made great leaps across the bare room and tumbled over our heads.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream swept into Sydney like a new broom. Peter Brook’s production with actors on trapezes swinging high on a white set and Hugh Keays Byrne beating his chest as Snug and roaring through the audience in his lion suit, was inspired. John Bell’s version, his first play after arriving back in Sydney from London – had a warm-voiced girl from Barbados playing the most beautiful Titiana I’ve ever seen.

Leonard Cohen brought his orchestra and shared his vision of life in bitter/sweet songs of laughter and longing with his wonderful violinist uncle stepping into the spotlight to wrench wild gypsy music from his violin. Dust motes rising like soaring spirits. And Buffy St Marie, a native American Indian blacklisted in the US by Lyndon Johnson, played her throbbing songs of resistance and compassion to a packed State Theatre. And all the while Dylan’s endless tambourine was banging out the new era.

And police were banging on open doors to terrace houses where music poured down noisy, crowded hallways and out into the night. I remember two of them coming in to drink a beer and gaze curiously at a culture they couldn’t be part of before thanking us politely and pushing off. And the sweet sad chemist/actor (I see him again now that I’m writing about a pharmacy) stretched out so often on the lounge-room floor of the Paddington terrace I shared with artists and a soon to be screenwriter/editor, playing ‘Norwegian Wood’ over and over again while people stepped across him.

(The soon to be screenwriter/editor was Galia, then soon to be, Hardy. She married Alan and together they birthed Marieke You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead Hardy! How do you describe a friend’s intelligence, talent, wit, and generosity of spirit without it sounding like a hagiography? I’m not even going to try.)

On a darker note there was the bedroom at Taylor Square painted entirely black by a gay costume-designing predecessor who must have had hopes for its power to inspire. It certainly inspired hope in a large, well-known actor I knew who fancied himself as a Marlon Brando type. Using the pretext of wanting to be shown around the house he pushed me onto the bed when we got to the top of the stairs and lay on top of me, still and stealthy in that black-walled cocoon, as if the soft pressure of his weight on me would be persuasive. Galia’s arrival saved me. I’ll never forget my joy at hearing the front door slam and her voice calling up the stairs.

And finally, enter my life’s mate, young, tall, slender, exquisite. Directing black comedies and enticing me with his talent.

‘I’ve had my eye on a little number down there by the perfumes,’ she said, low voiced, leaning towards me to indicate the section of the pharmacy she meant.

It was hard for me to pick the alluring little number out in the crowd as I craned my neck for a better view.

‘I’ve been hovering around the perfumes to get a closer look,’ she said.

‘Were you trying some of those perfumes on yourself?’ I asked.

‘Yes, I was. Can you smell them?’

We both laughed.

‘You know Rihanna? She’s …’

‘A singer. I know.’

She stopped for a moment … a classic double-take … then continued.

‘Well, she’s just put out a perfume called Reb’l Fleur. It’s gorgeous.’

‘Hhmm … I’m not really one for perfumes,’ I said, hoping not to sound negative. This wasn’t the place to mention that you could walk into any house in our family wearing perfume and everyone in it would drop dead from allergic anaphylactic shock.

‘I know just the one for you,’ she said, undeterred. ‘It’s called Giorgio. By Armani.’

‘Ah, Giorgio,’ I breathed – both ‘g’s soft – the Italian way.

‘Giorgio,’ we crooned together, loving the sound.

And our riff ended there, both of us hitting the same warm note, in the Lismore pharmacy.

The assistant called her name and she left her seat for the counter where she stood with her long legs tucked together as neatly as she could manage and her tall body scrunched over to look smaller, more feminine I suppose, as she bent down to sign her prescriptions. Would she say goodbye I wondered. But she walked off … to where? What was happening in her life? Did she live around Lismore?

A woman I’d noticed standing nearby came to sit in the vacated chair. A nice enough looking county woman. Tidy, greying hair. As a gesture towards Christmas festivity she’d donned a red top and white, calf-length, elastic waisted, nylon pull-ups. The kind we of a certain age buy at Katies to accommodate our girth and our atrophied bits, sensitive to chaffing. Thick sandals suggested painful feet.

‘Well,’ she said, voice pursed, ‘if she was any taller she’d break.’

‘Lovely skin,’ I replied.

We stared ahead.

A bronzed hand appeared around the end of the shelves and squeezed my shoulder.

‘Goodbye darling,’ she said.

I clasped my hand over hers.

‘Goodbye, darling,’ I replied.

And then she was gone – the rebel flower!


* Rooksby, Rikky. Riffs: How to create and play great guitar riffs. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. pp. 6–7

© Maria Simms

Dr Maria Simms is a published novelist and short story writer who has worked as an academic for many years. Her crime novel, The Dead House, won the New Holland Genre Fiction Award. Maria has been a general editor; lecturer in creative and academic writing; head of a large university academic study centre; and director of university continuing education programs. In an earlier incarnation she worked in theatre and graphic design. Her interests include creative and academic writing, textual and cultural theory and Australian history with an emphasis on the place of women in the narrative of Australia. She loves a good yarn and hearing about the lives of people she meets.

Maria is the managing director of WordCraft Consulting, a company specialising in academic, business and creative writing. She can be contacted at:

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