Kyle Carey – The Art of Forgetting

Refreshing in its simplicity, straightforwardness and sense of unhurried calm, Kyle Carey’s The Art of Forgetting acts like a balm for our 24/7, shortened attention span times. Devoid of folktronica frills and 21st-century studio frippery, it’s like something from a bygone time, when singers could just sing and instruments could just be themselves and bands knew the difference between playing too much and just enough. Carey’s voice is front and centre throughout, a voice that is pure and clean, tremulous when it needs to be but never weak, strong and from the gut when called for, playful and plaintive, joyous and sorrowful, always emotional and a thing of beauty.

While nominally ‘folk’ music, Carey and her band keep complacency at bay throughout The Art of Forgetting by delivering a synthesis of Celtic, Americana and Appalachian musical forms, which makes for what she describes as unique ‘Gaelic Americana.’ And although this sometimes results in a bit of genre hopping – opening track ‘The Art or Forgetting’ conjures a sea-shanty vibe, ‘Siubhail a Ruin’ has an almost-cabaret/jazz feel, ‘Tell Me Love’ is like a heartbreaking piece of mountain music, ‘Sios Dhan an Abhainn’ is a Gaelic-language cover of the Americana traditional ‘As I Went Down to the River to Pray’ that combines Americana and Celtic influences with the kind-of mournful horns befitting a New Orleans funeral procession – Carey’s dedication to acoustic instrumentation and the band’s relaxed, unhurried playing create a though-line and sense of wholeness that is truly mesmerising.

If you’re like me and your idea of folk music has been tainted by the monotonous mumblings of bearded and bespectacled folkies, or by the droning ramblings of earnest singer-songwriters, or the cry-into-your-beer despondency delivered by lovers of murder ballads and protest songs, then you need to open your heart and embrace Kyle Carey’s The Art of Forgetting. I did, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 11/4/2018)

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Fossil Aerosol Mining Project – The Unlistening Place

Like an itch you can’t scratch or that word on the tip of your tongue or those builders renovating the house next door, Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s ‘The Unlistening Place’ just won’t let you be.

A self-described “cryptic ensemble from the American Midwest,” Fossil Aerosol Mining Project have been active since the 1980s, releasing unsettling works that combine eclectic found sounds, obscure tape loops, tortuously-manipulated samples, murky electronics, treated snippets from film and television, abrasive synthetic squalls and decaying audio frequencies.

The end result? Collage-style soundscapes that, at first, seem like little more than random aural juxtapositions and experimental noise-works. However, a closer and deeper listen reveals patterns, orbits and spirals within each record’s assumed arbitrary nature, with each piece/track referencing those that came before it, so that by the time each record has reached its conclusion it has revealed itself to be a kind-of holistic whole.

And so it is with ‘The Unlistening Place’: to view or approach each piece/track in isolation is to do a disservice to the album in its entirety. A fitting analogy here is to image ‘The Unlistening Place’ as a building – you wouldn’t look at a brick or sheet of plaster or floorboard as an encapsulation of a whole house, and nor should the individual pieces/tracks of ‘The Unlistening Place’ be heard as a representation of the album as a whole. Instead, you need to simply sit and absorb it from beginning to end, letting it flow through you and wash over you. Only then does its brilliance become apparent.

The music within ‘The Unlistening Place’ definitely isn’t for everyone, even those with a bent for the unusual, experimental or flat-out bizarre (if you can even call Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s work music – sound art is a much more appropriate descriptor). However, if you’re after something that will take you on a strange and unnerving journey, then look no further.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 17/5/2018)

The Ten Best Works Of Australian Apocalyptic Fiction

Ancient and remote, Australia and its indigenous people remained isolated from the rest of the world for more than sixty thousand years, until the country was settled by white Europeans in the eighteenth century. All tragedies aside, from this rich blend of circumstances – a hostile and unique natural environment, an ancient culture that had existed in isolation long enough to evolve customs and concepts that seemed utterly alien to others, and European forms of storytelling, expression and perception – a sub-genre of science fiction eventually arose: Australian apocalyptic fiction.

Perhaps this sub-genre is so interesting because Australia already seems a fitting place for the end of the world – it’s the hottest and driest continent on Earth, is mostly empty of people, hosts an incredible range of dangerous animals, and frequently falls victim to a variety of natural disasters. Or perhaps it’s because of that particular ‘no worries’ attitude so common to Australians. In the end, it matters little why it’s such an individual niche – what really matters are the stories themselves.

And so here’s what I believe are the ten best works of Australian apocalyptic fiction.

The Mad Max Series (1979-1985; 2015)

The pinnacle of Australian apocalyptic fiction, each one its own kind of masterpiece thanks to director George Miller’s gleeful eye and kinetic style, the Mad Max series has influenced countless other apocalyptic fictions both at home and aboard. And yet it has rarely been bettered, and remains one of the most financially and critically successful Australian film franchises in history, if not the most successful.

Mad Max (1979) showed us the end of days, with the world teetering on the edge of collapse; The Road Warrior (1981), Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and Fury Road (2015) showed us the world after this collapse, with society reduced to a kind-of punk savagery in which “the gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice, and in this maelstrom of decay ordinary men were battered and smashed.”

Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

A book that will return hope to your heart and make you cry, Things We Didn’t See Coming is an antidote to the bleak darkness that pervades so much apocalyptic fiction. But even so, Amsterdam still treats his apocalyptic environments and scenarios with great seriousness, infusing them with a sense of inevitability that is truly terrifying.

A small-scale post-apocalyptic story-cycle focussed on its unnamed narrator’s life, Things We Didn’t See Coming gives us a glimpse of a world wracked by cascading natural disasters presumably caused by climate change. I say ‘glimpse’ because said narrator is usually too busy surviving this world to bother detailing it. The story of someone who refuses to give up hope – who will always stop to help others if they can – Amsterdam’s incredible debut makes us think that a spark of light might still exist after all else is dark.

Underground by Andrew McGahan

Part alternate history, part political thriller and part dystopian/apocalyptic nightmare, Underground is darkly humorous, politically astute and “Australian” in a way that international audiences might best associate with Crocodile Dundee (1986). A first person narrative, told in a no-bullshit and undeniably Australian voice by a stereotypical ‘Okker,’ it engages with all manner of Australian clichés, from outback deserts to a love of drinking to dangerous animals to a laid-back attitude.

But Underground is no joke: it’s a deadly satire on the War on Terror and our post 9/11 world, in which Australia’s capital has been destroyed by Al-Qaeda, plunging the country into a dictatorship. As funny as it is frightening, it’s as relevant today as it was upon publication, serving as a warning about the dangers of authoritarianism, propaganda, xenophobia and intolerance.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute, and On the Beach (1959)

Both Shute’s novel and director Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation are perfect pacifistic works of the 1950s: sombre and serious and devoid of any Cold War hysteria, they take a realistic look at the folly of nuclear war between superpowers and the subsequent consequences for the rest of the world. Although there are some differences between versions – Shute’s detail on the day-to-day lives of his characters is more exacting; Kramer’s masterful black-and-white cinematography lends the film the timeless quality of a morality play – this is one of those rare occurrences in which the book and the film are as good as each other.

Set in Melbourne (one of Australia’s most southerly cities), both versions take their time in examining the emotional, personal and societal effects of waiting for certain death – the aforementioned global nuclear war has created a continent-spanning cloud of radioactive smoke, which is slowly drifting south and killing everything it touches. And yet despite this grim scenario, both Shute and Kramer somehow manage to find moments of hope in the human heart.

The Waterboys by Peter Docker

A hybrid of post-apocalyptic fiction, magic realism, historical fiction and indigenous peoples literature, The Waterboys is one of the few works of postcolonial post-apocalyptic fiction in existence. Set in a drought-stricken future Australia controlled in part by a racist, corrupt and dictatorial mega-corporation, it weaves together Indigenous Australian and non-Indigenous Australian conceptualisations of time, history and our connection to the environment, and offers up fresh solutions to the damage we’ve wrought on the natural world.

But don’t be fooled if all this makes it sound a bit heavy – despite these heavy and serious themes, The Waterboys is fast-paced and extremely engaging, with true-to-life characters that live in shades of grey, inhabiting a world that is all too real, and is told in a unique and undeniably Australian voice.

The Last Wave (1977)

Examining the cultural divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and the apocalyptic consequences of a non-Indigenous Australian denial of an Indigenous Australian concept of people, spirit and land being intertwined, The Last Wave is a hallucinatory fever dream, a lurid police procedural and a clear-eyed look at race politics in modern Australian society. Telling the story of a non-Indigenous Australian lawyer defending five Indigenous Australians against charges of ritualized murder, and the connections between his apocalyptic premonitions and said murder, director Peter Weir’s startling and criminally underrated film is unsettling and ambiguous, and ripe for rediscovery.

Land of the Golden Clouds by Archie Weller

A grandly epic post-apocalyptic road novel a la Stephen King’s The Stand, Land of the Golden Clouds is a strange book (and face value aside, nothing like King’s tome). Dreamy, fantastical and often playful, it is set thousands of years in the future, after our world has fallen to myriad disasters and a new one has risen and replaced it.

In this new world, Australia has returned to its wild roots. Nomadic tribes of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds roam the country’s dry interior, fecund jungles, thick bush and rough coasts, all trying to survive on a land that seems to intentionally resemble its pre-settlement self. Through chance, a wide variety of people from different tribes band together and are thrust into adventure. Somewhat old fashioned in its structure, it’s nonetheless a true oddity that is always intriguing and frequently entertaining.

 Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em (1988)

A VHS curio, director Ray Boseley’s surreal and edgy comedy concerns a group of over-the-top, 1980s-style misfits, drop-outs and punks who throw the party to end all parties after the fallout from a global nuclear war begins to slowly but surely kill everyone in the world. It’s an exemplary product of its time: a punk-styled, low budget, DIY trash-masterpiece that brings a frequently absurd Antipodean perspective to the kind of ‘no-future’ pessimism permeating the youth culture of Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America. Sometimes sublime and sometimes ridiculous, it’s a glorious mess that’s as fascinating as it is funny.

Nightsiders by Sue Isle

A small-scale post-apocalyptic story-cycle in the vein of Things We Didn’t See Coming, Nightsiders contains the same emphasis on the importance of hope and is even more optimistic that Amsterdam’s work, telling the story of a new community that has risen in the ruins of a city on Australia’s isolated West Coast, which has been mostly abandoned after being devastated by climate change and war.

However, rather than focussing on the horror that eventuated in this ruin and destruction, or on a sense of communal grief caused by the loss of the old world, Isle instead depicts a people who have adjusted to their situation, and even begun to thrive. An all-too-infrequent gambit amongst writers of apocalyptic fiction, this results in a story that will soften all but the most hardened hearts.

The Rover (2014)

A grim film, beautifully shot and deliberately paced, David Michod’s second feature tells a small story, eschewing the hysteria of spectacle to focus instead on the lives of ordinary people in a world that’s falling down around them. To sum it up: a drifter, living in his car and incessantly moving from place to place, has his car stolen; capturing one of the thieves, he sets off in pursuit. And that’s pretty much it.

In many ways, The Rover can arguably be seen as a companion piece to the first entry in the Mad Max series, or even as existing within the same universe. In both, the world hasn’t ended yet, but the end is in sight – society is fraying, madness is in the air and survival is becoming increasingly uncertain. But unlike Mad Max, The Rover makes the scale even smaller: Guy Pearce’s Eric is no Max Rockatansky; he’s not a cop driven mad by vengeance and primed for the wasteland, but an ordinary man trying to stay alive in an unforgiving world and hold onto his few remaining possessions.

(Originally published on Speculative Fiction Australia, 24/6/2018)

 Too Much Gun

From the heat rays of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to the phasers of Star Trek; from the blasters of Star Wars to the Lawgiver of the Judge Dredd comics; from the smart guns and pulse rifles of Aliens (1986) to the Needler of Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Rat; the gun in one of its many forms has always been a part of science fiction. It can act as the initiator of conflict (after all, conflict is at the heart of every story) or as a means of resolving conflict. It can possess symbolic value, for example: a character’s casual proficiency in its use can symbolise the depths to which this character will stoop or the brute nature underlying their personality, while a character’s lack of proficiency in its use can symbolise this character’s innocence or the peaceful undercurrents permeating their personality. It can help establish a story’s sense of futurism, by featuring technological advances or improvements beyond those currently possible. And it can simply be a part of a story’s milieu—guns are a part of the world we live in, whether we like it or not, just like bananas and oil rigs and pelicans and the many other things that make up the tapestry that we call life. Any writer must at least consider this fact, especially if they want the world they are creating to be as realistic as possible—the absence of the gun in a story can be almost as telling as an over-reliance upon it.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we encountered this absence a little more often? Aside from the odd examples—Moon, the television show Humans, Interstellar, Arrival—nowadays the gun too-often becomes the only way of initiating and resolving conflict and so possesses few if any other narrative qualities, at least in terms of science fiction films and television. Rather than acting as a small part of a writer’s fictional world, possessing symbolic or futuristic value, or being merely one possibility among many in the search for a way to initiate and resolve conflict, the gun seems to be an end unto itself.

However, science fiction through the ages is replete with stories in which the gun isn’t the primary focus, and is instead merely an aspect of each story’s narrative mise-en-scene, if you will; and stories in which the gun chiefly exists for its symbolic value, both good and bad; and stories in which its sole purpose is to help bed-down the story’s futuristic setting; and stories in which it is entirely absent. Think of Doctor Who (2005-2017) and 2001: A Space Opera (1968), Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), Dark Star (1974) and The Quiet Earth (1985). The focus of each, however convoluted or murky, is an exploration of the philosophical, ethical and humanist implications that are an integral part of science fiction’s framework. If the presence of the gun makes sense in terms of these explorations, then it is included; the gun is not, however, the ‘driver’ of the story, and nor is it the beginning and end of conflict. A consequence of this is that other avenues must be found to both initiate and resolve conflict, opening up a plethora of alternative character-based actions, choices and decisions.

These alternatives then lead us to that which is at least partly responsible for science fiction’s contemporary reliance on the gun: Drama. After all, if a story’s chief concern is an exploration of science fiction’s philosophical, ethical and humanist implications, more than likely these explorations will be focused through well-rounded, contextually realistic characters, and suddenly we find ourselves with a piece of science fiction that has more in common with a genre that many would consider its antithesis. Drama has always been seen as underpinning good literature, while action has to varying degrees been seen as more heavily influencing those genres that might be considered ‘lightweight’ or ‘disposal.’

Do we see science fiction as more closely related to action than drama because that’s what we’ve come to expect? Is it because it’s easier to sell science fiction that way? Or is it that the squeaky wheel that is the blockbuster garners so much attention, marketed as it is to as wide an audience as possible and thus catering to the lowest common denominator? To adapt the old show-business saying: Action is easy, drama is hard. While such an adaptation may seem facile there is some truth to it, especially in the over-saturated media marketplaces of today. It simply takes most writers longer to craft dramatic sequences that it does to craft those based on action, as dramatic sequences tend to require more attention to detail and a finer touch. In contrast, an action sequence can paper over any flaws in its detail orientation and adherence to logic simply through the ‘wow factor’ of gunfights and gunfire, or explosions and flames, or fist fights and car chases, and so on.

The downside of this is that the good ideas in science fiction oriented around the gun often tend to be overshadowed by this over reliance. When the gun is the focus, what tends to fall by the wayside are deep explorations of the philosophical, ethical and humanist implications brought to life by the science fiction idea at the story’s core, and so the piece of science fiction in question tends to become just another example of gun-based action that fails to realise its potential. And this is a terrible shame, especially when compared to the emotional heights and depth of feeling that tend to infuse those few pieces of contemporary science fiction film and television that eschew a focus on the gun and instead concentrate on the drama.

Take the BBC television series Humans (2015-2016) as an example. To briefly summarise its science fiction idea: in the not-too-distant future, androids have become as ubiquitous as mobile phones, fulfilling myriad functions and occupations once undertaken by people; introduced into this set-up are a small group of androids who have gained consciousness and are to all intents and purposes psychologically and emotionally human.

It’s the kind of idea that has powered untold thousands of stories. What differentiates Humans is the particular direction in which it focuses this idea. There isn’t a violent confrontation between the ‘bad’ sentient androids and the ‘good’ and their human allies, or a war between the two factions, or an enslavement and extermination of the humans by the androids or vice versa, or a police-led assassination of the androids, or any of the hundred other sentient robot clichés that can be found in the annals of science fiction. It should go without saying that these directions are all action-based, in which the set-up is merely a platform for the gun—in directions like these, the gun can easily become the focus of the story rather than merely a part of it. But instead, Humans takes the dramatic approach, giving us lengthy explorations of an incredible array of philosophical, ethical and humanist implications borne of its central idea, all filtered through well-rounded and contextually realistic characters. The fine line between owning a machine and having a slave, thanks to said machine’s near-human appearance; what it is that actually makes us conscious and human, if it can be explained at all; the existence of ‘sex-bots,’ in relation to both humans and the robots themselves; the socioeconomic impact of using androids rather than humans in a wide variety of jobs and occupations; the divide between genuine (human) companionship and artificial (android) companionship; the age-old argument over nature vs. nurture; the temptation offered to unscrupulous individuals inherent in high-tech and interconnected devices present in the vast majority of homes and workplaces—Humans explores all of these conundrums and more, in great and explicit depth.

To offset the heaviness of this drama, Humans’ creators deftly integrate into their explorations and examinations, a strong sense of action and tension. While this is unarguably a narrative necessity, what makes Humans stand out is the fine balance between inquiry and action that its creators achieve, and the role served by the latter. Instead of merely being action for the sake of action, its creators’ integration of these disparate aspects gives a greater impact to the action that does occur, helping to diminish the sense of desensitisation inherent in so much other science fiction. When enough time is given to establish well-rounded characters, who become the lenses through which their creators focus their philosophical, ethical and humanist explorations, actions that directly affect these characters affect us as well. We care about what happens to them, even though we know that it is only a fiction, and thus these actions have consequences. In a nutshell, this is the difference between characters dying and killing. In science fiction focused on the gun, the emphasis is too often on the killing, which is typically gratuitous, meaningless and devoid of consequence. In a show like Humans, however, the emphasis changes to the dying, forcing us to both confront this eternal fact of life and examine any violent actions behind it. This is no more apparent than in the single appearance of a gun in Humans’ second season, whereby a newly-awakened synthetic who has been rescued by a band of sympathisers is shot dead by a tracker. This death has great meaning to both the characters affected and to us, the viewer—it isn’t glossed over or taken in stride, but a tragedy inflicted upon an innocent; while the gun itself isn’t portrayed as something whizz-bang exciting, but rather a deadly tool that can changes lives forever.

While it presumably would have been easy for the writers of Humans to have taken the road of the gun, we should be relieved that they didn’t. Its presence in the series makes narrative sense, but it is far from the ‘driver’ of the story, and nor is it the beginning and end of conflict. Instead, it is just one part of its world and treated with all the seriousness it deserves, and for it to be any other way would have resulted in a very different story. And by successfully integrating dramatic and action-based storytelling styles, Humans is a perfect demonstration of how creators of science fiction film and television can figuratively have their cake and eat it too. Dramatic space, for want of a better world, gives us the time and space to thoroughly invest in, speculate on and mull over the questions a story asks; action-based space moves the story forward and stops it from merely being a polemic; and when balanced delicately this combination can be truly enlightening. In other words, philosophical, ethical and humanist explorations and the gun can simultaneously exist in a story without one overshadowing the other, provided that these two elements relate to each other and inform each other.

(Originally published in Aurealis #101, June 2017)

She Has No Toys

It was just another night here in the camp – fires were burning in rubbish bins, the flames holding back some of the darkness and adding more heat to the already hot air; people sat in the streets and crowded the footpaths, killing time and waiting for the dry day to drain away; the lucky ones who had been allocated actual houses huddled inside behind locked doors. Do-gooders wandered through the throngs, doling out food and water and patronising advice; gangs roved and threatened; guards blackmailed and coerced; gunshots and screams occasionally rang out.

Like I said, it was just another night here in the camp.

Your old man and I were sitting right here where we’re sitting now, at the same wonky table, in the same rickety chairs. You were swaddled despite the heat, wrapped in a torn sheet and lying in a cardboard box. You were bloody quiet, just like you are now. It’s funny how some things don’t change.

We’d been talking shit for a while, something that we did most nights. We talked about life before the camp, about who we’d been and what we’d done. We never talked about your mum, though. She disappeared before I met your old man, and I didn’t want to pry.
After a while, he’d starting talking about you, airing his worries about the life you’d have to live.

I was used to this change of direction; hell, I worried about you as well. As it always did, this worry-talk eventually shifted to his work out in the graveyard, and his hope that someday he’d find enough scrap to get you out of this shithole.

“You sure you don’t want to come along?” your old man asked me at some point, something that he ended up asking every time. “One more trip and, with a bit of luck, I’ll find enough to bribe a guard and get transferred. It’d be an easier job with the two of us, and if it all works out I can tell them that you’re her big brother.”

He gestured at you, a tiny nod of his head. You smiled blankly and gurgled and then let out a little laugh.

“Nah, it’s alright,” I said. “I’ve got better things to…”

A gunshot, somewhere close, drowned me out. Your old man and I flinched, but you didn’t make a sound. Another gunshot rang out, and then another. Your old man and I flinched again; this time, you screwed up your face and started crying. Your old man got to his feet and scooped you up and gave you a cuddle. You eventually calmed down, and so he put you back in your box and tucked you in tight. You reached out, your tiny hands clutching at the air, and he passed you that crude figurine he’d carved from a lump of wood.

I reckon that’s what changed my mind – you deserved a better life than what the camp could offer, but if you couldn’t have that you at least deserved an actual toy.

“Alright, I’m in.”

We sat there for a moment, staring at each other without saying a word.

“Well, I guess we’d better haul arse,” your old man finally said. “It’s a fair way to the depot, and even further to the graveyard.”

“What about her?” I asked, gesturing at you.

You were chewing on the wooden figurine and drooling and cooing contentedly, and I smiled wide.

“She’ll be right – I’ve got an arrangement with the old bird next door, she babysits in

exchange for a bit of salvage.”
“Fair enough.”

***

Your old man kissed you on the forehead and then hollered at the woman next door, and then we took off, winding through the junkyard maze of the camp, through the sprawl of crumbling buildings, patched tents and corrugated-iron shacks. We didn’t stop to talk to anyone. You know what it’s like – you don’t know who’s a banger or a snitch or a crazy, and anyone could be desperate enough to knock you down for the shirt on your back or the shoes on your feet.

We walked for an hour or so, sometimes making small talk and sometimes trudging along in silence. He mostly talked about you, airing more of his worries and then telling me about your latest ‘first’- that day you’d taken your first steps, a clumsy shuffle that he swore was the cutest thing he’d ever seen.

The moon slowly arced through the sky, a great shining sphere more pure than anything here on God’s grey earth.

Eventually, the lights of the depot appeared in the distance.

“Here we go,” your old man said.

We kept on and the lights of the depot steadily grew brighter. Before too long, the washed-out blur of them resolved into a high steel fence and a towering set of gates, beyond which lay a bare expanse of ground that ended at a row of squat brick buildings. A concrete guardhouse sat on the camp side of the gates, and a mob of fellow reffos had already started gathering. As we drew closer, I saw guards patting them down before opening the gates and waving them through.

A few of the reffos were turned away. I had no idea why; I guess the guards just didn’t like the look of them. Most of those denied entry simply started walking back to the camp without complaint, but some put up a fuss.

I saw a guard pistol-whip an old man who refused to step out of line and head back. I saw another guard push and shove a young blackfella, goading him and egging him on until he took a swing and was inevitably beaten down. I saw another guard wrestle a young woman to the ground, and then saw a couple of other guards give her a bit of a kicking before dragging her into the guardhouse.

I tensed up.

“Take it easy,” your old man said, “there’s nothing you can do. If you step in, you’ll just end up like those poor bastards.”

“But…”

“There are no buts. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”

The guards sickened me, but I got over it. Our lives make us hard…

We walked on and joined the queue. Your old man said ‘g’day’ to a couple of the reffos ahead of us; they shook hands and shot the shit a bit and I figured that he must have regularly worked with them.

“This is Billy,” he said to them, waving at me. “We go back a while, he’s a good bloke.”

They introduced themselves, and then it was their turn to be frisked.

“They’re a good bunch,” your old man said. “Follow my lead, and if we get separated follow theirs.”

“No worries.”

The guards waved your old man’s mates through the gates, and then it was our turn to be frisked. I tried to keep my face blank; I didn’t want my anger to shine through, didn’t want to give the guards an excuse to send me back. Your old man, though, he cracked jokes and asked after them and acted as if they were just like the rest of us.

When we were through the gates, he turned to me and smiled.

“You’ve gotta play the game,” he said. “You play it well enough, and maybe they’ll do you some favours. For a price, of course – nothing comes for free nowadays.”

I just nodded, and we joined the other reffos that filled that bare patch of earth inside the gates. Your old man talked to his mates and we snacked on ration bars and filled our water bottles while more reffos shuffled in. Your old man’s mates all asked how you were, and your old man told them about your first steps, smiling wide the whole time.
After a while, our mob become a sizeable crowd. I looked back at the camp and saw that the queue had disappeared. The guards manning the gate swung it shut; at the same time, a different group of guards opened the heavy doors sealing one of the squat brick buildings facing us.

An engine roar echoed around us. The stink of diesel fumes filled the air. An old bus inched out of the building and then sat there idling. A guard hopped out and faced us.

“All aboard.”

***

When we were settled, one of the guards took the wheel and revved the accelerator and then steered us away from the camp. With the windows covered by metal grills, I couldn’t really see which direction we took or where we were headed.

“What’s next?” I asked your old man.

“Well, they’ll give you the spiel,” he said, pointing at a couple of guards watching us with barely-disguised contempt. “And we’ll hit the graveyard a couple of hours after that.”

“What are we supposed to do while we’re waiting?”

He looked at me as if I’d asked how long a piece of string was; he looked at me as if I was as dumb as a box of bricks.

“Sorry,” I said.

“No worries.”

And then he lay his head back and shut his eyes. Within a minute, he was either asleep or doing a pretty good job of looking that way. I smiled to myself, and that’s when one of the guards started giving us the spiel.

“This is for you newbies, so listen up. When we get to the graveyard, you’ll be split into teams and ferried to the hulks, one team to a hulk. Your job is to go from room and room collecting anything useful.”

“Like what?” I asked, somewhat stupidly.

The guard glowered at me.

“For the sake of you newbies, I’m talking about stuff like jewellery, make up, electronic equipment that hasn’t been badly damaged, clothes, blankets, metal knick-knacks that can be melted down and recycled, cash, canned food, drugs and cigarettes and alcohol, medicine and first-aid kits – anything that looks useful or valuable and can be stuffed into a backpack. Everything else can be left for the heavy-duty crews.”

“What’s in it for us?” someone asked.

One of the guards smiled.

“Extra rations. If you’re lucky, you might get shifted out of the hovel you call a home and transferred to a real house. And if you’re real lucky, maybe a couple of days R&R in the city.”

“What if we find toys and trinkets and shit like that?” your old man asked.

I turned to him; he hadn’t opened his eyes and still looked like he was asleep.

“I’ve told you before, mate,” the guard said. “If you find something that isn’t on the list and isn’t made of metal, then you can help yourself.”

Your old man didn’t reply; I guess that he’d asked for my benefit.

“So, any more stupid questions?”

No one spoke.

“Good. Now get some shut-eye, people – it’s gonna be a long day.”

At that, your old man started snoring, the kind of rattling wheeze that couldn’t be faked. I turned away and looked out the window. Everything beyond the metal grill was just a dark blur.

We drove on. Time passed. Your old man occasionally muttered your name, twitching and dreaming. The muffled and monotonous roar of the engine lulled me into a half-sleep.

At some point, I realised that the sun had come up. I straightened in my seat and looked harder. Through the grill, the world was now a streaky smudge that twinkled and blinked.

“Bright lights, big city,” your old man said.

I looked at him. He still hadn’t opened his eyes. I looked back out the window.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“Years of experience. Just out there, folks are going about their business like nothing’s changed.”

“Huh.”

I didn’t know what else to say. Of course some part of me knew that the city existed, that it was full of people doing everyday things. But being locked up in this shithole we call home tends to make all that seem like some kind of dream.

“You ever been…”

“Nope,” he said, cutting me off. “And as far as I know, their talk of R&R is just that: talk. Unless you’ve got some skill they need, you shouldn’t even hope. There isn’t much demand for desperate bastards like us.”

“Fair enough.”

“No, it’s not fair enough. It’s just how it is.”

There was anger in his voice, something that I’d rarely heard. I decided to leave him alone, and leaned across so I could see out the windscreen.

I saw houses, shops, cars, pedestrians, footpaths, streets. I saw lampposts, letterboxes, fire hydrants, bike racks, bus stops, traffic lights. I saw people on their way to work, people out walking their dogs, people jogging and cycling, people leisurely wandering around, people driving children to school, people leaning on picket fences and talking to their neighbours. I saw garbos collecting rubbish, posties delivering mail, tradies bent over their tools, gardeners wielding their shears, couriers dropping off parcels, council workers standing around doing nothing.

I saw order and cleanliness and all the symbols of ordinary life. It was like a snapshot of a bygone time, apart from the roving packs of military troops.

As I watched, one pack of troops confronted someone who promptly turned and ran. I saw the troops shoot him down without a warning, saw them drag his unmoving body to a waiting van, saw them unceremoniously throw him in the back and then drive away.

It sickened me once again, but I got over it as always.

And then, in the sudden empty space where the van had been, I saw my first glimpse of the ocean, and of the towering hulks of half-submerged buildings.

“Welcome to the graveyard,” your old man said.

***

The waterfront was nothing like the picket-fence suburbia we’d just passed through – that beautiful ordinariness had slowly become more derelict as we drew closer to the water, until we were eventually driving through what was effectively a slum. A high steel-mesh fence ran parallel to the shore, hugging its twists and turns; gates were built into the fence at widely-spaced intervals, each one topped with barbed wire; the water beyond the fence shimmered with a dirty-silver slickness; half-submerged office buildings and apartment blocks rose from the depths, crumbling island-shrines to forgotten gods.

I’d never seen the ocean before, and felt a strange excitement – the water seemed to be drowning the whole world, vast and endless and all consuming.

The bus shuddered suddenly as the driver killed the engine. Through the windscreen, I saw that we’d pulled up alongside a guardhouse and stopped before a gate. Military troops were milling around; one of them was talking to the driver through the open door of the bus.

This troop passed a clipboard to the driver. As if this was some predefined signal, one of the guards who had accompanied us from camp stood up and turned to look at us.

“Time to get to work,” he said.

The other reffos started shuffling around and I awkwardly half-stood to shoulder my way into the queue that was already jamming the narrow aisle.

“There’s no rush,” your old man said, “the graveyard isn’t going anywhere.”

I thought about it, realised that he was right, and sat back down. A few other people were still sitting as well; most of them were your old man’s mates, a couple of them weren’t. They all looked lean and hard…

In fact, they pretty-much looked just like your old man.

“These guys aren’t friends of yours?” I asked, nodding at the reffos I hadn’t met.

“Loners and freaks, there are always some. And who can blame them? I mean, we’ve all seen some shit, but some of us have seen some real shit.”

“Fair enough.”

“No, it’s not fair enough,” your old man said once again, and I realised that maybe this little mantra was his way of coping. “It’s just how it…”

“You lot, it’s your turn,” a troop yelled at us, cutting off your old man

“Right, right,” someone said.

“We’re coming.”

“Okay.”

“Ugh, really?”

“Just stick with me.”

That last was from your old man, and he and I joined the end of the queue, walked down the aisle, and started clambering down the steps. The driver ticked us off, signing whatever bureaucratic bullshit was attached to the clipboard the troop had passed him. I looked at the guards, who I guess were headed back to camp. They scowled at me for wasting their time. I smiled back, as polite as can be, playing the game.

Your old man and I stepped outside.

“Jesus, what’s that stink?”

“You’ll get used to it,” your old man said. “In fact, I don’t even notice it anymore.”

He smiled at me, and I believed him. No one could smile that wide in the face of that rotting-fish-mouldering-linen-raw-sewerage-decaying-vegetable stench.

I gagged, and it took a bit of effort to get myself under control. Your old man laughed; there was a bit of cruelty in it. But then, I guess I was carrying on a bit.

“Yeah, thanks mate,” I said.

“No worries.”

I looked at the water. I looked at it properly, now that I could see it as a whole rather than just as a tiny part framed by a windscreen.

“Fuck me.”

I drew the phrase out, filling it with incredulity.

“Fitter words have never been spoken…” Your old man doffed an imaginary cap and saluted the graveyard. “Isn’t she a beauty?”

It was awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure, and not just because that was the first time I’d seen it. The water was flat and still, more like a lake than an ocean; it stretched to the horizon in every direction but landward, so sprawling as to be almost unbelievable. It was mottled and streaked like a clumsy-fisted oil painting, sometimes blue-grey and sometimes dark-red and sometimes lime-green. Slowly drowning office buildings and apartment blocks towered above the overwhelming stillness of it; every single one of them looked out at the water with smashed-window eyes, with collapsed-balcony eyes, with holed-wall eyes.

I heard a faint splash, what I guess was the exact moment a piece of ruin finally rotted through and fell away. A buzzing-drone followed the splash, and slowly grew louder.

I felt tiny.

***

The buzzing-drone soon became identifiable: four speedboats were coming towards us, lightweight things that easily coped with the debris-strewn waters of the graveyard and effortlessly weaved between the half-submerged buildings.

Without even addressing us newbies, one of the troops flung the gate open and started waving us through.

“Move it or lose it,” your old man said.

At that, he strode ahead. It took me a moment to realise that his demeanour had suddenly changed – he didn’t look back to see if I was keeping pace, but instead walked with the troop leading us.

I sped up.

“What’s the rush?”

“First team at the dock gets the closest building. You get the closest building, you get more time to search. You get more time to search, maybe you find more stuff.”

“But…”

“No more stupid questions.”

I expected him to smile or wink and undercut his seriousness, but he didn’t. And so I just shut my mouth.

Soon, we found ourselves at the dock, which was actually just a flimsy wooden pier that had obviously been hastily erected. The water gently lapped only a foot or so beneath it. At the far end, a speedboat had tied-off and a troop and a captain were waiting. Your old man and the troop leading us on walked faster. I did my best to keep up. Before I really knew it, we’d stopped at the far end of the pier and the troop leading us was waving us on.

That’s when I realised that I couldn’t move.

I know it sounds stupid, but I literally couldn’t take another step. If you ever see it, I reckon you’ll feel the same. It was all that water, you see – I felt like it was waiting for me, and that if I tripped or slipped and fell in, I might simply disappear.

Your old man put his hand on my shoulder.

“You alright?”

I didn’t move.

“It’s just one step.”

I didn’t move.

“For fuck’s sake…”

He didn’t give me time to respond, he just shoved me.

I flopped and tottered and almost ended up in the dirty drink, but at the last moment your old man grabbed my shoulder. I took a stumbling step, abruptly squatted-fell-crouched, and ended up on my arse at the back of the speedboat.

“Finally…”

Your old man rolled his eyes. He took an easy step off the pier and gracefully sat down next to me. I smiled stupidly, embarrassed, ever-so-slightly ashamed of myself. He caught my eye, and then chided himself for his impatience.

“You’ll get your legs,” he said.

And then we were off in a drenching spray, the speedboat fishtailing madly one minute and then spinning in circles the next.

I saw your old man catch the captain’s eye and wink, and I knew the display was for my benefit.

That was the last thing I saw for a while – I closed my eyes as the speedboat began rocking that little bit harder. Over the din of the engine, I heard your old man talking to the troop. I didn’t catch much of what they said, just odd words and broken-phrases that occasionally drifted by:

“G’day, how’s it…”

“…usual…”

“…what it is.”

“…mate of mine…”

“…right to show your mate?”

“Yep. You just…”

“…yeah, I know that…”

The engine died abruptly; the silence seemed to actually hum. I opened my eyes.

“Bullshit.”

“I’ll say it again – fitter words have never been spoken.”

***

 

We had stopped at one of the half-submerged buildings, at a gaping hole that must have once been a balcony. In the sudden quiet, the building groaned as if protesting the water incessantly lapping against it, water that it knew would eventually consume it.

The building soared into the sky; I couldn’t see the top floor no matter how hard I craned my neck.

It was cold in its shadow.

Up close, I saw that it was pockmarked with holes; holes the size of windows and doors, the size of rockets and mortars, the size of bullets. It was slowly rotting, a film of green sludge-slime climbing its face. Splintered wood and twisted steel erupted from it like so many engineered pimples and warts. It stank, but your old man was right – it was more bearable than the waterfront.

Beyond the holes there was only gloom.

“We’ll catch you later,” the speedboat captain said to your old man.

“No worries.”

Your old man turned and looked at me.

“After you,” he said. “And don’t worry, it’s as easy as falling off a bike.”

“Great, thanks, you’re such a help.”

He laughed off my sarcasm, and so I got my head together and managed to step off the speedboat without embarrassing myself too much. It wasn’t that I wanted to impress your old man; I just wanted him to lose his smirk.

I stood on something that squished, something hidden by knee-deep dirty water.

“Gross…”

“Suck it up,” your old man said, “we’re wasting daylight.”

“Right-oh, right-oh.”

He didn’t reply; looking back, I saw that he was talking to the captain and the troop. They passed him two backpacks, and he reached into his pocket and slipped something into the captain’s palm.

I left them to their game, and walked on into what must have once been a lounge-room.
The bulky shapes of rotting furniture rose from the dreck-water like manmade rocks. Everything was covered in fuzz and slime; mould crawled over the walls like hieroglyphs describing some unknowable alien place; tiny buzzing-clicking-shrieking-chittering insects clustered in swarms no more substantial than smoke; the air was damp and dripping.

“Right, best get to it,” your old man said, catching up to me.

I cracked it, and looked at him for a moment without speaking.

“You okay?” I finally asked.

Coward that I am, I couldn’t bring myself to confront him.

“You’ve been a weird since we hit the waterfront, that’s all.”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry, just playing the game,” your old man said. “I’ll explain later, when it’s smoko time.”

Without even really thinking about it, I decided not to push him any further. It wasn’t a big thing, after all, and we did have the building to deal with.

“Thanks,” he said.

“No worries.”

And then he was all business again.

“So, here’s the plan – we start at the top-floor and work our way down, the best stuff’s always found where the rich people used to live. As well, if any pirates or looters have been by, they probably only made it up the first few floors before chucking it in.”

“Gotcha.”

He pointed at the door leading into the guts of the building.

“Once we’re inside, we keep our mouths shut until we’re nearer the top – we don’t want to attract any attention. It’ll be a long climb, eighteen floors they said. So pace yourself.”

“Okay.”

“Any questions?”

I shook my head. He was the one who’d been out to the graveyard before; he knew what he was doing, and knew how to do it safely. He passed me one of the backpacks he was carrying. He pulled out his water bottle and took a long drink. He pulled a torch from a pocket of his backpack, and then flung the pack over his shoulder.

“Let’s go.”

***

It was hard work climbing all those stairs, but somehow we managed. It took a couple of hours or so; in that gloomy stairwell there was no way of telling the time by tracking the sun. We walked in silence, the straining of our breath joining the building’s baritone moan. We rested occasionally and had a drink and something to eat and then kept on. My legs began to ache. At every single floor, your old man stopped at a silver alcove built into the wall beside the entry door, which must have once been the elevator. He would knock on both the elevator and the door, wait for a moment, and then swing the entry door open carefully and shine his torch around quickly.

The corridors of the first few floors were stripped completely, the work of looters or pirates. After that, we saw more and more abandoned stuff – bits of this and that from ordinary lives that had been left behind in the rush to evacuate. Your old man dismissed most of it with a cursory and practised glance, but every now and then we had a quick rummage.

The higher we climbed, the less rotten and mouldering this stuff became.

“A-ha,” your old man said as he swung open the door to a floor that I hoped was near the top.

To me, this particular batch of stuff looked just like any other: papers and documents, pieces of clothing, blankets, photos, mementoes and trinkets that were odd and absurd now that there were devoid of context.

But your old man’s eyes were sharper than mine.

“It’s about bloody time,” he said.

He walked into the corridor and thrust his hand into one of the piles of stuff. I had no idea what he’d seen, but it was obviously something important, something precious, maybe even priceless.

He pulled out a teddy bear.

“She’ll love this,” he said with a big goofy smile.

And that’s when I remembered why we were out there. That’s when I remembered you. I suddenly felt a bit ashamed of myself for getting caught up in the excitement, but your old man’s smile soon drove that away.

“Nice one,” I said.

I felt truly happy for you both.

“Thanks. It’s perfect, it’s just what I’ve been looking for.”

He suddenly shook his head as if he was clearing it. Keeping a firm grip on the teddy, he quickly dismissed the rest of the stuff and led us back to the stairwell. He looked at the stairs leading up to the next floor, and then he did something weird – he leaned against the stairwell wall, against the elevator door built into it, and started spinning the teddy in his hands.

His head dropped.

“You okay?”

He didn’t answer. I waited. He started crying, almost silently. I couldn’t help shining the torch at him. Somehow, he was crying and smiling at the same time.

“It’s just…” His crying became audible and he couldn’t go on. “Sorry,” he said after he’d gotten himself under control. “Sorry that you had to see that. It’s just been such a long time, and she’s had to make do for so long…”

“It’s alright, I get it. Hell, I’m happy for you, mate – I think it’s great.”

“Cheers.”

“No worries.”

The brief silence that fell was almost beautiful. And then it was broken by a sharp, electronic ‘ding.’ Without warning, the elevator door behind your old man split apart vertically. It happened fast, with a shudder and a jolt, as if some last surge of power had finally been set free. Your old man’s eyes widened.

“Shit,” he said, and then fell backward into the sudden gap.

I froze for just a second, shocked still. Somehow I knew that I’d missed the moment, but I reached forward anyway. Instead of what I’d hoped to feel – skin or hair or the rough material of your old man’s jacket – all I felt was the plush softness of the teddy, the plush softness of that teddy right there.

I’m sorry…

(Originally published in The Fifth Di… March 2018)

Xylouris White: Mother

With Mother, Xylouris White have created what might best be described as a musical representation of Greece as it exists in our collective cultural imagination. It isn’t the sound of a modern land filled with megacities, crowded beaches and tourist-filled nightclubs, but of an ancient land built on myth and legend, and filled with truths so profound and universal that they could only be delivered in fable and parable. It is the sound of a world where the line between man, god and beast becomes blurred; a world where the dawn of civilisation existed alongside Dionysian bacchanalia; a world of sand and rock, sea and mountain, wind and fire.

A collaboration between New York-based Australian drummer Jim White of Dirty Three fame, and revered Greek singer and laouto (Cretan lute) player George Xylouris, Xylouris White blow apart our expectations of the power a simple duo can muster, and of what world music can be. In fact, since the release of their debut album Goats in 2014, Xylouris White have been pushing the boundaries of their musical relationship and free-wheeling approach, sometimes reaching into the realms of free jazz, ambient and experimental while still retaining their earthy and undeniably Greek core. Xylouris’ laouto roars like thunder or caresses like rain, sometimes falling away into a mere ghost-like presence and sometimes charging over the top of everything else, driving their sound forward. His voice is sometimes a whisper, sometimes a rumble, sometimes a wail, sometimes a howl. White does what he does best: he walks a line with his drumming and percussion, achieving a perfect balance between melody and rhythm, between accompanist and leader, between control and freedom. In Xylouris, he seems to have found the perfect collaborator, the border between his drums and Xylouris’ laouto often becoming indistinct.

Opening track ‘Achilles’ Heel’ is a brooding affair, Xylouris’ low moan evoking a cold wind on a lonely mountain top, his gently plucked laouto and White’s rickety percussion summoning a sound more akin to that of rain and skittering stones. ‘Motorcycle Kondilies’ moves with a purpose, White’s tick-tock drumbeat combining with Xylouris’ cyclic laouto riff to create the sort of song that might be played at a gathering in a lonely forest or on an empty beach. ‘Lullaby’ might have been beamed to us from the distant past, such is the rawness of its sound and the almost-improvised approach of Xylouris and White. ‘Daphne’ is as eerie as anything I’ve ever heard, a spidery laouto riff and stop-start percussion slowly evolving into something frenetic and overwhelming, the end result being the stuff of nightmares. And these barely scratch the surface…If you’ve got even the slightest affection for world music, you need to rush out right now and get yourself a copy of Mother.XY-Mother-1500jpeg-702x336

A Burning Thing

It began with one bad morning too many: The dog whining at quarter to five, desperate to go outside; a complete inability to get back to sleep; a husband who slept through the alarm; the previous night’s dishes stacked around the sink and stacked in the sink, all shining with grease; an empty coffee jar, an empty sugar bowl, sour milk, mouldy bread, crumbs in the butter.

It was a morning where every minor annoyance is a mountain.

Audrey Frayzed made herself a cup of black coffee, using the dregs still sitting in the unwashed plunger. She stirred a teaspoon of honey through the thin pale-brown liquid and then sleepily shuffled into the lounge room, almost stepping in a fresh dogshit sitting in the middle of the rug. She cleaned it up while her coffee cooled. She opened the blinds, the cord snapping in two with an audible crack. She sipped at her cup of dreck, staring through the wonky Venetian blinds and out the dirty window, at the grey light of a winter dawn. She shivered, and turned the heater on. She half-expected it to break as well, but it didn’t.

She waited for Andy – her hibernating bear of a husband – to crawl out of bed. After a while, he called out for coffee.

“Good luck with that,” she muttered.

She sipped at her horrible coffee while Andy went through his morning routine. She boiled the kettle and made him a cup of unsweetened black tea. Truck – their staffy – woke up and ran down the hallway looking for Andy, sliding on the floorboards in his excitement.

Andy returned, with Truck at his heels.

“Thanks,” he said sarcastically as Audrey passed him his tea.

He took a sip, burning his tongue. For a moment, he looked at Audrey accusingly, as if burning himself was somehow her fault. He turned away and looked in the fridge. Audrey snorted. What did Andy think? That real food might be hiding somewhere behind the rot and filth?

Andy pulled a dusty box from the cupboard and poured a bowl of muesli that he wet-down with tap water. He took a seat at the table, opposite Audrey. He opened the laptop sitting in front of him.

Audrey sighed. Andy didn’t respond. Rolling her eyes, Audrey got to her feet and started doing the dishes. She sighed again, loudly this time, deliberately and dramatically, hoping that Andy would clue-in and thank her for cleaning the dishes she had used making dinner for them the night before. But no, he just stared at the laptop, his face blank, his eyes dull. The spoon went from the bowl to his lips mechanically, his body a machine almost entirely disconnected from his brain.

Sometimes there wasn’t even any muesli in the spoon.

Audrey dried her hands, leaving the damp tea-towel scrunched up on the kitchen bench. It was a habit that drove Andy crazy, but he was so absorbed in whatever he was reading that he didn’t notice.

Audrey started getting ready to leave for work. Andy kept reading the news.

While Audrey fluffed around gathering her things, Andy occasionally shouted out to her: Trivial non-sequitors chosen seemingly at random, echoing down the hallway, finding her in the laundry as she ironed her skirt, in the bathroom as she applied her make-up, in the bedroom as she packed her bag, in the backyard as she made sure that Truck had enough water.

“It’ll be clear and bright today, but still cold… Huh, another cabinet minister resigned last night… Looks like our train’s on time today… Wow, they’re remaking Masters of the Universe… More bloody celebrity gossip, ugh, I thought they were better than that… You should call what’s-her-name that we used to live with, there’s been an Earthquake in LA…”

When Audrey returned to the kitchen, Andy was still – still – sitting in front of the laptop. She resisted the urge to assume the role that he sometimes forced her into: A school marm cum nanny cum carer. Instead, all she said was:

“I’m leaving on time whether you’re ready or not. I can’t be late today.”

“Right oh, take it easy,” he said as if her stress was entirely her own. “I’ll get the next train, okay? The boss won’t mind.”

“Good.”

She turned away.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine.”

He didn’t bother trying to interpret her answer, he just looked back to the laptop. She rolled her eyes again, packed the last of her things, hurried out to the backyard to give Truck a pat goodbye, and then returned to the kitchen to give Andy a perfunctory kiss on the cheek.

He finally looked at her.

“Love you.”

“Love you too,” she replied, unable to help herself.

“Don’t forget that it’s date night tonight,” he shouted after her as she walked out the door.

***

Audrey’s workday was exactly like most every other: Indescribably dull. She stopped at the supermarket on the way home, got stuck in traffic, and then knocked over the bins as she pulled into the driveway. After she had hurriedly unpacked the groceries, she took Truck down to the park for a quick walk, rushed home, had a shower, changed into some nice clothes, and then left for date night.

Despite running these errands and doing these chores, she turned up about 20-minutes early to the mid-priced restaurant that Andy had chosen.

She decided to have a drink at the bar across the street while she waited. She ordered a glass of white wine, found an empty table, and texted Andy. Five minutes went by: No reply. She tried not to let that bother her. But still, every ten or fifteen seconds she glanced at her phone, as if it might have decided at that exact moment to switch to silent, somehow complicit in Andy’s impoliteness, and all that she needed to do to make it ‘fess up was catch it in the act

Audrey finished her wine. Still no reply. She ordered another glass. Still no reply. She finished that glass. Still no reply. It was now five minutes past the hour that they were supposed to meet. Audrey kept waiting. Another five minutes went by. She ordered a third glass of wine. She finished it.

Twenty-five minutes had now passed without a word from Andy.

“Typical,” Audrey muttered.

And then her phone beeped, announcing a new message.

“Hey, lover. Sorry, held up at work, crisis time. Won’t make it, home late, sorry. Love you.”

Something inside Audrey snapped. Not wanting to cry or scream or let loose her rage in front of a bar full of strangers, she knocked off her drink in a single hit and stormed out into the night. She stood there on the street, shivering. She didn’t want to go home to a cold house with no company except Truck.

Audrey got in her car and just drove, not knowing what else to do.

***

A few hours later, after she had driven blindly through the suburbs and somehow avoided being pulled over for getting behind the wheel half-drunk, Audrey found herself parked on top of a hill overlooking the city, a hill far enough from town to let the stars shine bright. She lay on the bonnet of her car, a thin blanket over her and her jacket balled up under he head, looking at the sky and trying not to think about anything.

Most of all, she was trying not to think of Andy, of his many flaws, of his irritations and annoyances.

She saw a shooting star, but she didn’t bother making a wish. Time passed. She saw another shooting star. More time passed. She saw yet another shooting star, and then another and another and another, until there were too many to count and the sky was a streaky mess of light and colour.

Audrey bathed in it. She imagined that it was seeping into her skin. And then she went home. She had work in the morning, after all.

***

Andy was already asleep when she got home, with Truck tucked up in the crook of his arm. The room stank of farts, both dog and human. Andy was snoring. Truck started snoring as well, joining Andy in a kind-of groaning choir. They both farted simultaneously.

The globe in Audrey’s lamp blew when she turned it on.

She completed her night-time ritual in the dark, and then squeezed between them Andy and Truck. She tried to think happy thoughts. She didn’t want to go to sleep angry or upset.

***

Audrey woke up before her alarm went off, feeling sicker than she ever had before. Her head was aching, her nose was running, her stomach was churning, her throat was sore. She was a mess of contradictions, as well – her heart was racing but she felt like she could sleep forever, she was too hot and too cold, and her vision was simultaneously blurry and too sharp. It was the kind of sick that makes you think paralysis or death might not be so bad.

Andy lay next to her, still asleep, wrapped around her like some kind of human-octopus hybrid. She suddenly desperately needed to free herself – his touch was too hot, and the weight of his limbs threatened to collapse her. She wriggled free, almost falling out of bed. Staggering, weak and breathless, she still somehow made it to her feet. Truck snorted, woke up, stared at her and then went back to sleep. Suddenly dizzy, Audrey let herself drop back onto the mattress.

She looked at Andy. She smiled sadly as she gently shoved him, the previous night’s disappointment and frustration put aside.

“I’m sick,” she rasped. “Wake up, I need some help.”

He kept snoring. She shoved him again, her palms clammy.

“What? What’s going on? What is it?”

He was panicked and groggy, a combination that for some reason she found adorable.

“I’m sick. Can you get me some water?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, sure. Just hang on…”

He closed his eyes. She knew he hadn’t mean to, but she yelled at him nonetheless.

“Andy!”

“Right, right, sorry.”

He crawled out of bed. Bare-arse naked, he clomped down the hallway. Truck woke up, watched him leave, and then lay his head back down. Audrey could hear Andy peeing with the door open, but she was too sick to care about such minor grievances.

He came back with a glass of water.

“You okay?”

He sat next to her and took her hand.

“Too hot! Too hot!” she complained, shaking him off.

“You’re telling me – you’re burning up. When did this start?”

Audrey drank the glass of water before answering.

“Just now. I was fine last night.”

Andy frowned, his concern carving deep lines across his face. Audrey knew that despite his many-many-many faults, he would do what he could to look after her. For a moment, she was sad about the previous night, about all the petty annoyances that had begun forming a wall between them. And then her sickness once again consumed all of her attention as she began coughing throatily.

She held the empty glass up.

“You got it. You want a cup of tea, or some breakfast?”

The thought of food made her stomach turn and knot.

“No way.”

“Okay. Well, back to bed for you.”

“But…”

“No buts, Audrey. There’s no way you’re going to work today.”

She looked at him and smiled a wicked grin.

“Okay, bossy boots.”

He met her smile and blew her a kiss; she winked and licked her lips. Despite her sickness, she was enjoying the loving familiarity they shared – the black cloud that had been building for months had finally begun to dissipate. Her only regret was being too unwell to really appreciate it.

They were both thinking the same thought, but they didn’t share it with each other: Why can’t things always be this easy?

***

If Audrey hadn’t been so sick, she would have found amusement in the switching of their roles: Andy bustled about getting ready for work, while she stayed in bed. He crashed and banged as he made a stack of sandwiches, wrapping a couple in foil and leaving them in the fridge for her. He whistled tunelessly as he did the dishes, wanting to make her day as easy as possible. He hauled Truck outside, waited for him to pee and then hauled him back inside, talking to him the whole time.

And then Andy crunched and slopped as he ate breakfast in front of the laptop. He kept up a running commentary on his movements, as if he could distract Audrey from the discomfort of her body. Inevitably, this commentary turned to the news:

“Another cold and clear day today. You know, we could do with some rain… Wow, there was a gang-fight in the CBD yesterday… Ugh, my train’s going to be late… Hey, did you know that there was a meteor shower last night?”

He yelled this last question, so that she could hear him from the bedroom. Even though his voice was slightly muted by the distance, it still made her head hurt even more than it already did.

“It says here that some fella named Macintyre Guffing discovered it a hundred years, and astronomers and that lot have been waiting for it to come back around ever since.”

Audrey nodded listlessly, words beyond her.

“These photos look great! You should see them…”

Audrey shook her head.

“You should have been there,” she whispered, all that she could manage.

She didn’t mean for her words to sound so bitter: She really did wish that he had been there.

After a while, Andy checked on her, bringing a fresh glass of water and a cup of tea. He had showered and shaved and put on fresh clothes. He looked as tidy as his head was messy.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I’m kicking goals.”

“Right then – the lawn needs mowing if you’re feeling that good.”

“I’ll get to it after I’ve restumped the house.”

She let her head fall back, their lovingly familiar repartee exhausting her.

“Will you be okay?”

Andy was a worrier and Audrey didn’t want to exacerbate that, so she just smiled and gave him a weak thumbs-up.

“I’ll be fine.”

Her voice was so raspy that it could have stripped wood. Andy bent down and kissed her on the lips, sickness be damned.

“I’ll try and get out on time.”

“Thanks.”

***

It was almost noon when Audrey finally decided to get out of bed. She didn’t feel any better and would have happily cocooned herself all day, wrapped in the slightly musty sheets, breathing in Andy’s smell, snuggling up to the musk of their love, but she was finally hungry.

And besides, Truck was clawing at the back door desperate to be let out.

She let him out, and then shuffled into the kitchen and drank a glass of water. She sat at the kitchen table and ate one of the sandwiches that Andy had prepared earlier. She rushed to the toilet and threw up.

She washed her face and brushed her teeth. She stared out the bathroom window at the stark brightness of a late-winter day. She drank another glass of water, and managed to keep this one down. She wrapped herself in a blanket and went and sat in the sun, with Truck curled in a ball at her feet.

A gentle breeze began to blow. After a little while, Audrey started to feel a bit better.

***

A few hours after Andy got home, Audrey’s sickness started to settle back in. This time, she was overcome with sneezing and coughing fits, accompanied by a fever.

She had been feeling steadily better, sitting out in the sun, thinking idle thoughts or nothing at all. Andy had texted throughout the day, checking in hourly to see how she was feeling, sending cute messages of love, dumb jokes and trivial facts designed to make her smile. Somewhat illogically, she wished that she was well enough to enjoy the closeness that her sickness had ushered in.

She waited at the door when she heard his car pull in, that’s how pleased she was to see him.

But after they had sat together a while and caught up, after Andy had whipped together a fantastic meal from leftover bits and bobs in the cupboard, after they had eaten themselves stupid and then settled on the couch, she started feeling ill again.

“I’m going to bed,” she said fifteen minutes later, barely able to keep her eyes open.

“Sorry, lover – you poor thing. I’ll sit with you a while…”

And that’s what he did, stroking her head until she fell asleep.

***

The next week passed in much the same way: Audrey woke up sick every morning, slowly improved as the day dragged on, and then worsened again at night-fall. It became routine.

She used up all her sick-pay and took the unpaid leave she was offered. Andy fussed and fretted, doing what he could, but the routine began taking its toll: He didn’t take any time off, and every-other-night either stayed at work late or had after-work drinks with his mates. His timing was awful: Most of the nights that he was out, Audrey found herself feeling a bit better, sometimes even almost like her old self.

By the time the seventh morning rolled around, Audrey went to see a doctor. She hated doing so, but she had had enough.

Her regular doctor was unavailable, so she saw someone who was effectively a stranger. He examined her thoroughly, if coldly and efficiently – she felt a little like a machine being serviced by a mechanic. The doctor checked her glands, looked down her throat, looked in her ears, took her temperature, took her blood pressure, took her pulse.

“Well, it seems like you’ve just got a cold.”

“But it’s been hanging around so long, and no matter how much rest I get it won’t go away. It has to be something else, doctor – a cold’s never hit me like this before.”

“Hmmm…”

He ended up drawing some blood and sending it off to be tested. He tried to reassure her that it was probably nothing, and did a terrible job. He told her that he would be in touch. He shook her hand limply. He smiled blandly as he bid her goodbye.

A week and a half passed before the doctor’s office got in touch with her. Audrey was still sick. She answered her mobile with a croak, lying flat in bed wrapped in dirty sheets, almost unable to move.

“Hello?”

“Mrs. Frayzed?”

“Hi.”

“This is Doctor Winkler’s office – your results have come in.”

Hack-cough-splutter-hack was Audrey’s reply.

“Oh, you’re still sick, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s… It’s okay, I’m kind-of getting better.”

The receptionist let out a resigned sigh, as if she had heard past patients say this a thousand times and more.

“Do you think you can make it in?”

Hack-cough-splutter-hack.

“You poor thing. I tell you what – we’re not supposed to do this, but I’ll have your results couried out to you. And I’ll have the doctor write an explanation. Actually, I might get him to type it out – you know what doctors are like…”

A weak laugh, and then hack-cough-splutter-hack.

“Thanks.”

“Get some rest, Mrs. Frayzed. I hope you start feeling better soon.”

***

It turned out that Audrey had become allergic to something. Her doctor didn’t know what this something was, as it wasn’t his field, but he had written a referral for her and included it with her results. She made an appointment with the allergy specialist, and asked if there was anything she could do in the meantime. He suggested that she start a journal, and use it to keep track of when she felt sick and when she felt okay, of what she ate, of what she did and where she went and what happened around her.

“A journal, eh?” Andy asked with a hint of suspicion.

“Yep,” Audrey whispered.

It was early in the morning. She was sick, as usual.

“Will you help?”

“Sure.”

And so they got stuck into it, with Andy leading the way: They wrote a list of everything permanent in the house – the gas heater, the dog, the rising damp, the draught, the hole in the kitchen wall that exposed them to who-knows-what, the mould that seemed intent on occupying the laundry – and then started keeping track of the everyday stuff that came and went. The pin-board in the kitchen was soon covered in lists of ingredients, guesses at the deodorant or aftershave worn by visitors or door-knockers, and graphs of the weather and the wind and the pollen count.

They both wondered if her allergies might be connected to the weather: She always felt better on the dry days, when the sun and wind seemed to wash the sickness away, whereas on the wet days, when she snuggled up in bed and gave in to its embrace, she would improve a bit but still feel pretty seedy.

There wasn’t a list of the places that Audrey went. Still sick every morning and every night, her days were spent resting in the backyard if it was dry or in bed if it was wet.

***

That’s how the time passed: A monotony of days that were almost always the same, only graphed and charted and plotted, reduced to nothing but their minutiae. Andy spent his time either at work or at the pub or poring over their journal. Audrey rested and did little else, too sick to worry about the distance once again growing between them.

Her appointment with the allergy specialist finally came. She endured a battery of tests: Scratch tests, sniff tests, exposure tests. She didn’t seem to have a problem with any of the everyday things that affected people. Mould, dog hair, cat hair, natural gas, sugar, fluoride, artificial colourings and flavourings, petrol, chemical additives, wheat and gluten, oils, fructose and sucrose, perfumes and cosmetics, preservatives, dairy – none of them triggered her allergies in the slightest.

The specialist didn’t know what else to do, and told her that he would get in touch after consulting with his colleagues.

When Andy was at home on a weeknight, after Audrey had gone to bed early as-always, he could be found poring over their journal and the charts on the pin-board, or chatting online to hypochondriacs and the allergy-inflicted around the world, looking for connections or an explanation. When he finally crawled into bed, he would often just lie there and watch Audrey while she slept, his face wracked with a combination of worry and guilt.

He spent his weekends taking care of her. He grew increasingly distant. He started spending more and more time at work.

***

One morning, Audrey woke to find Andy packing a suitcase. For a moment, fuzzy with sleep, she wondered if she was still dreaming.

“What’s going on?” she asked, her voice thick, her words slurred.

She started coughing. She sneezed. Andy hurried into the kitchen, returning with a glass of water. She drained it in a single hit. She sneezed again, a ropey length of snot working free. Andy hurried back into the kitchen, this time returning with a box of tissues.

“Are you okay?”

“Jesus, stop asking that!”

She didn’t mean to yell, but it had become unbearable.

“Of course I’m not okay, Andy. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“Alright, alright, alright – I’m sorry.”

She could tell that he was pissed at her, and was grateful that he was kind enough to hold it in

“No, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to snap, I’m just so over it.”

“I hear you… Cup of tea?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

She propped herself up while he busied himself in the kitchen.

“So, what’s going on?”

“Eh?”

“What’s with the bag?” she asked, raising her voice, straining her throat.

“Oh, right. Hang on…”

He returned to the bedroom with a cup of tea and a fresh glass of water. He sat next to her, propped on the edge of the mattress.

“I’m off to that conference today. Remember? We’ve been talking about it on-and-off for a couple of weeks.”

“Have we?”

Audrey had no memory of it. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t talked about – dulled by the monotony of sickness-recovery-sickness, she could barely remember what day it was.

“Oh, right,” she said, lying to assuage Andy’s sudden look of worry and guilt. “How long will you be away?”

“Three nights – I’ll be back around Monday lunchtime.”

“Ok. I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too.”

He looked away, not wanting her to see him cry.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine – I just feel bad about leaving you here.”

He still wouldn’t look at her.

“I’ll be okay. Please, try not to worry.”

“Thanks, lover – I’ll try.

He looked at his watch and then reluctantly stood up.

“Um, I’d better keep getting ready.”

Audrey shooed him away.

“Go on then.”

She sipped at her tea while he noisily packed the rest of his things. She was glad that this goodbye didn’t involve raised voices or a fight.

“I’ve stocked the fridge,” he yelled from the kitchen. “And there’s heaps of food here for Truck. And there’s washing in the dryer – it isn’t quite done.”

“Thanks, babe.”

“You got it.”

Audrey finished her tea. She laid her head back. She fell asleep for a while, without even realising it – the next thing she knew, Andy was standing over her, shaking her with one hand and holding his suitcase in the other.

“It’s time.”

Audrey yawned. She reached out. He bent down and hugged her tightly. He spilled fresh tears that stained her cheeks. He hugged her tighter still. The moment dragged on – she wondered if he would ever let go, and then he did.

“Love you.”

“Love you more…”

***

 

For Audrey, the rest of that day passed in much the same way as any other – she rested, sitting in the backyard with Truck curled up at her feet. She slowly started feeling a bit better. Andy called just after lunchtime; their conversation was brief but full of love, and he made plain how he happy he was to hear that she was picking up, asking question after question about how she felt, what she had been doing and what she had planned.

They finished their call as they finished every other:

“We’ll be back together soon.”

“Soon can’t come soon enough.”

A light rain began to fall in the late afternoon, and Audrey headed inside and made a nest on the couch. When she found herself finally getting hungry, she reheated a surprise meal that Andy had left in the fridge. She fed Truck, and then let him run around the backyard for a while.

She texted Andy, he texted her back, and they flirted for a while, enjoying the novelty of being apart.

When the sun went down, she settled back on the couch. She caught herself listening for Andy at the door. She told herself not to be silly. She watched TV for a couple of hours. Quickly growing bored with it, she muted the sound and put on some music instead. She began reading a book, something that she hadn’t done since before she got sick.
As she caught herself falling asleep on the couch, she realised that she was feeling better than she had in weeks. She crawled into bed. She missed Andy more than she ever had before; well enough to show him how much she really loved him, she felt a desire for him that was almost primal.

She woke up the next morning feeling almost like her old self.

It was another clear and bright day, more a false-summer than true-spring. Audrey seized it, filled with unexpected energy – she decided to clean up the house, which had become hovel-like during her months of illness. Before noon, she had opened all the windows, changed the bedding, vacuumed and mopped the floors, dusted everything that needed dusting and wiped everything that needed wiping.

After lunch, finding herself shocked by how much better she was feeling and how much energy she had, she took Truck for a walk.

Andy called as she and Truck were on their way home.

“Hey lover, how you going?”

Audrey rabbited on for ages, caught up in the excitement of actually being able to do something other than sit around and rest. She told Andy about her day, about all the cleaning she had done, about the meal she was planning on cooking that night.

The longer she talked, the more distracted and distant he sounded.

“Andy, are you okay?”

There was silence for a moment. When he replied, he sounded sad and flat.

“I just wish that I could be there.”

“Me too, babe, me too.”

Later that night, Audrey took Truck for yet another walk. After an hour or so of doing laps around the park, he was beat while she felt like she could just keep on going. When she got home, she settled on the couch and read her book, crawling into bed sometime around midnight.

She texted Andy to say ‘goodnight’ and fell asleep waiting for his reply.

***

 

The next morning, she instinctively reached for Andy as soon as she woke. She fumbled through the junk littering the bedside table, found her phone, and sent him a text full of love and good cheer.

She felt even better than she had the previous morning. She crossed her fingers.

“Better go to it,” she muttered to herself.

Without hesitation, she leapt out of bed. Truck gave her a friendly bark and then went back to sleep.

Audrey made breakfast, had a coffee, had a shower, changed into fresh clothes, made the bed around the still-sleeping Truck, tidied up the house, took out the rubbish and recycling, freshened Truck’s water and measured out his breakfast, and washed the dishes. She kept an eye on her phone the whole time, but Andy didn’t reply. She gave him a call just before nine o’clock, but he didn’t answer. She left a message telling him how much she loved him and how much she missed him, and then hung up.

A half-hour later, he still hadn’t replied.

***

Andy didn’t call back until late that night. Audrey had kept in touch with a few of his friends and family throughout the day, but no-one else heard anything from him either. By the time he contacted her, Audrey had gotten so worried that she forgot all about her anger and frustration and just unleashed her concern.

He laughed lovingly as she finally wound it up.

“You’re a sweetie.”

“I’ve missed you!”

Her excitement was palpable.

“Sorry about today,” he said.

“Don’t stress – I’ve been feeling like my old self, I might even be able to go back to work soon. But not too-soon, I think we need a couple of days of R&R first, if you know what I mean…”

Andy didn’t laugh. He didn’t encourage her innuendo. He didn’t respond at all.

“Babe, you okay?”

Silence.

“Andy?”

“I’m… I’m not coming back.”

“You what?”

“I’m not coming back, Audrey.”

“Good one, dickhead – play a joke on me now that I’m feeling better.”

“I’m serious.”

A moment of silence. Audrey was tempted to just hang up on him or throw the phone at the wall, as if killing the conversation might undo the words he had spoken. Instead, she waited to hear what he had to say next, tempting as it was to just scream at him

“I realised something, Audrey, just after you texted me last night.”

She waited, but his voice caught as if he was trying not to cry. She kept waiting and tried to hold onto her anger, even though it was killing her not to soothe him.

“I’ve had my suspicions for a while, and I’ve been keeping track,” he said after pulling himself together. “Getting out of town just confirmed them. These allergies of yours, I think that I’m part of the problem.”

“You what?”

“I think I’m the ‘thing’ that you’re allergic to.”

Audrey couldn’t speak. For a second, unable to help herself, she thought about what he had said and everything that the idea implied: All those nights when he was at work or at the pub, all those nights when she was well and he was out, all that time alone, the clean house and the freshly-made bed.

And then she banished the thought, or tried to, at least.

Andy coughed throatily and then laughed bitterly, an old habit enacted when he was trying to bring them light at the darkest of times.

“Just like people say: It’s not you, it’s me.”

(Winner of the open division of the 2018 Swancon Awards short story competition)