The city is my home. Every street, every corner, pulsating with the stories I know too well.
I rise to the sound of the morning rush. Rolling waves of bleary-eyed zombies step off the train and trudge towards the station exits in crisp business suits and ill-fitting work uniforms. Horton, a beefy transit guard who once dreamt of becoming a police officer, stands over a sandy-haired boy of about 13. The boy stares at his scuffed sneakers as Horton berates him for forgetting his student pass before letting him go with a warning. Horton returns to his post and sighs, his eyes as lifeless as those of the weary workers who shuffle past him.
The city has calmed down by mid-morning as the homely aroma of caffeine drifts down the café strip. I was never much of a coffee drinker but I savour it deeply, imagining the liquid flowing down my throat and warming my stomach. Melissa sits alone in the alfresco area with a steaming cappuccino that lies untouched on the table in front of her. Until recently she ran the bookstore around the corner. The books have now been cleared and the space is available for lease.
At lunchtime, workers from the central business district and university students flood into the main streets. I desperately wish to eat but there’s nothing I can do except hover by a nearby bench and watch the buskers. Rajesh sets up in the middle of the busy pedestrian mall, armed with an acoustic guitar and his best smile. He gratefully thanks everyone who is polite enough to drop a couple of coins or maybe even a small note into his guitar case. Rajesh is a year into his pharmacy degree but harbours secret dreams of being a musician. He tries to busk at least once a week in a bid to live out his fantasies while keeping his parents assured that he’ll get a real job someday. But it’s hard to find the time.
Later in the afternoon, high school students begin to spill into the city, their shirts untucked and half-unbuttoned. I follow their lead through the malls and arcades, examining things I’ll never buy. Staring at her reflection in a shop window, Angelique puckers her mouth to apply a gooey layer of lip gloss before joining her friends to flirt with the cute boys in the surf shop. She wishes she could talk to someone about how she isn’t really into boys, but she knows they wouldn’t understand. And there’s nothing more terrifying than being at school and alone.
As the sun begins to dip in the sky, the zombie workers clamour onto the trains once more and start draining out of the city. They are replaced by a younger, fresher mob that drifts towards the pubs and clubs, laughing hysterically and looking for a good time. A fight breaks out on a street corner but is quickly scattered by a pair of beat cops. Trash talking and wrestling is nothing compared to what will come later in the night when drunken, stoned bravado takes hold.
Jared is haunted by memories of his best friend’s 18th birthday. The group of about a dozen had a simple plan: hit the bars and get wasted. It was a rite of passage, after all. He doesn’t really know why he brought the knife. He can’t quite remember what happened. But he’d heard the stories and guesses he just wanted a little security. Just in case things got out of hand in the city. Now he’s surrounded by all the security he needs. His mother visits once a week. But he doesn’t feel safe. He’ll never be safe.
I sigh and turn away from the entertainment precinct. The city is my home and I know its stories only too well.
I find a spot in the park by the flower garden where I used to play a lifetime ago. My hand drifts to my stomach where the blade entered and passes through air.
A hint of five o’clock shadow had collected on Joe’s face and his office was lit only by the eerie glow of moonlight seeping through the window. Everyone else had gone home but there was only an empty refrigerator waiting for him there.
“My name is Joe and I’m an alcoholic,” he announced to the room.
“Hello, Joe!” he replied to himself.
He made a noise that sounded vaguely like laughter and started to tremble.
Gripping the desk, Joe closed his eyes and thought of Ella. He imagined the feel of her silky dark hair between his fingers and her racing heart against his chest; the exhilaration that came with stealing a final desperate kiss before they returned to the reality of their lives. He’d known from the moment she smiled back at him at Neil’s party almost a year ago that he would have her.
Two years earlier, Joe had pulled that angelic white veil away to reveal Charlotte’s innocent eyes peering expectantly at him… like he was some kind of hero. Joe loved that look. It spoke everything he needed without uttering a single word. He’d known then he would crave that look forever.
“In the presence of God and before these witnesses I promise to be a loving, faithful and loyal husband to you, for as long as we both shall live,” he mimicked to the room, and chuckled humourlessly. Tender, beautiful Charlotte; his to have and to hold, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health… until Ella had caught his eye. And now he was nothing but a pathetic, lonely cautionary tale who’d gambled away his life.
“What?” Joe looked around but there was no one there.
You know you want me, Joe.
It was coming from his desk. He opened the drawer. His hand closed around a bottle. He shook it. Empty. He dropped it to the ground in disgust.
“Yeah, real funny, you jerk!” he muttered to the ceiling.
From the outside, Joe had always led a charmed life. Handsome, popular, astute. It was in his blood. No one knew how much he hated himself. Or how he hated the father who’d given him his name. Joe Senior was a drinking legend but unlike Joe Junior, he still had his family, friends and respect. Joe Senior had kept more women over the years than his son could count, and Joe Junior couldn’t even get away with one. It didn’t seem fair. For as far back as Joe could remember, he had played the game of life exactly the way his old man did and now he had nothing.
You have us, the bottle reminded him. We’ve always been there for you.
Joe held his head, choking back angry tears. “No…”
We can take away the pain, the bottle promised.
When have we ever let you down, Joe?
Joe screamed, standing and kicking his chair away in a fluid motion. He grabbed the bottle off the floor by its neck and with a Hail Mary pass, smashed it into the wall. Shards of glass sprayed back across the room. Almost instantly, the shock of bereavement tightened around Joe’s throat. He crouched into a fetal position behind his desk as the strangled sobs escaped him.
He was still there when the first rays of sunlight filtered into the room, telling him that it was time to brush his teeth, comb his hair and shave before any of his colleagues arrived and thought something was wrong.
This flash was published in Fault Lines, an Australian eBook to raise money for earthquake victims in Japan and New Zealand. You can still get your copy here. Please support this great cause.
We have a complicated relationship. I love her and fear her. I cherish her and treat her with indifference.
She brings me joy and despair. She is beautiful and ugly in turn, or even at the same time – so peaceful from afar, only to reveal harsh facets to her personality when I get too comfortable. She nags me incessantly, gnawing at my guilt, crying that I don‘t help her even though I‘ve told her time and time again that I‘m very busy and the spare change I send her should be quite enough, thank you.
Sometimes she is a calm wave, sweeping across the clean white sand and splashing on my toes. Sometimes she is a furious volcano bleeding with pain. Yesterday she was a rich rainforest writhing with life and today she is a desolate desert suffering beneath the searing sun.
And sometimes, she just cracks. I never quite know when it‘s going to happen or how bad it will be. But as the floor sways beneath me, like I‘m taking my first steps on dry land after a rowdy boat trip or a rollercoaster ride, I know she is only getting started. And when I‘m knocked to my knees, shielding my face from the plates and glasses and mementos from my life that fly across the room and crash around me, I know that I‘ll never be able to go home.
“Why are guys such jerks?!” The young woman smacked her palm on the counter with a thunderous thwack.
Behind the bar, Evan spun around, startled and amused. “Can I get you anything?”
The woman blushed. “Sorry, I… um… Just a vodka tonic, thanks.”
Evan scooped ice into a glass and poured in the alcohol, silently watching the woman out of the corner of his eye. She absently raked her painted nails through her auburn-brown hair and sighed: The “Stood Up” Sigh. Evan had pulled enough shifts at the bar now to recognise it.
He added a lime slice and filled the rest of the glass with tonic water before placing it in front of the woman with a clunk.
“How much?” she asked.
“It’s on me,” said Evan. “You look like you need it…”
She smiled sheepishly. “That obvious, huh?”
“You get to see a lot from back here,” Evan shrugged, offering his hand. “I’m Evan.”
“Chelsea.” She shook it.
“Want to talk about it?” asked Evan.
“Sure.” He gestured at the near-empty bar. “It’s not exactly busy tonight and I’m a good listener.”
“Thanks, but I don’t even know you,” said Chelsea. Under her breath, she muttered, “For all I know you’re part of the problem.”
Evan thought about arguing, but decided it was best to keep his mouth shut and let her drink in peace. He certainly didn’t want Chelsea storming off into the night, or worse, suing him for sexual harassment. He busied himself by wiping down the bench and restocking inventory that didn’t need restocking, and was about to fix himself a Cuba Libre when Chelsea broke the silence.
“I want to know why guys lead girls on when they’re only after one thing.”
Evan let go of the lime wedge in his grasp and frowned cautiously. “Some guys want a committed relationship. Some don’t.”
“They should just say so, then.”
Evan raised his eyebrows. “You mean, like… ‘Hey babe, I just wanna hit it and quit it with you’?”
Chelsea started to laugh. “Maybe not quite in those words. But believe it or not, all girls aren’t targeting their future husband in every date.” She knocked back the last of her vodka tonic. “It’s lying about it, promising to call when you know you won’t… That’s what I can’t stand.”
Evan filled his glass with ice and swirled in the rum and cola. “Everyone always says they want honesty but that doesn’t mean they can handle it. Maybe they just didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Don’t pretend you’re protecting me when you’re really just being a coward, Evan,” Chelsea clipped.
Evan blinked at the rebuke, before recovering. “Sorry. Here.” He squeezed some lime into the drink in front of him, dropped two straws into the glass and pushed it towards Chelsea.
“What’s this for?”
Evan bent down to sip from one of the straws and smiled. “I’d tell you but I’m just a coward.”
To his relief, Chelsea returned the smile. “Well, as long as you’re honest about it.”
When I read the newspaper today, I was shocked to discover that John Gill had died late last week. He was a highly regarded ragtime and stride pianist, but if you’ve ever been to Murray Street Mall in Perth during lunchtime — whether you’re a local or a visitor — there’s a good chance you’ve seen him entertaining Forrest Place with his wooden piano-on-a-trolley.
I had the pleasure of talking to John just five weeks ago while researching an article about busking for Perth Walkabout. He was polite, affable and knowledgeable. He even stayed behind after he’d finished playing to chat to everyone, including trying to help an international student with an assignment, eventually vacating the area for another group of buskers.
I emailed John the link to the article when it was published online, but I haven’t been into the city since. I still have his business card in my wallet. It’s a strange, empty feeling to know that I’ll never see or hear those keys again.
Two towers of pride come crashing down
But their spirit lives on.
We stand united
under a banner
of shooting stars and military stripes.
These fingers snugly guide a gold pen
With a flourish, signing new words to entrap your heart
tying you to your place in our world.
Forget the content of your character
Colour and clothes determine if you live or die.
I take my pick and take aim
just as my daddy tells me.
Who knows what sins lie under that scarf?
All we know is that every Mohammed is a terrorist.
Blood drips from the pages of history
Mixes with drying blood
Your corpse, a monument
of our triumph over something. I forget what.
Now we line our silver pockets with black gold.
It spills from slimy suits.
We send our men and women
to kill men, women, and children
and leave men, women, and children
alone and broken
This is a depature from anything I’ve written in the past few years, but is a semi-return to my roots. Until I was about 13, I wrote a lot of soft science fiction; mostly alien stories though, so this isn’t quite the same. The title is a reference to a song called Circus, by now-defunct Sydney band Masonia. Their lead singer and songwriter, Altiyan Childs, went on to win The X Factor Australia last year.
He called me Jay. I called him Dr Corvid. Until the very end, we lived alone. We had no use for any other companionship. I was Dr Corvid’s finest achievement until he perfected his Disintegration Ray. I was the first working prototype of Project Novus.
Dr Corvid created me in man’s image without the flaws. Emotion… Fatigue… Poor health… These do not trouble me as they do Them. I served Dr Corvid, protecting him from Them and their world, protecting his work, stealing supplies from towns as required.
The Disintegration Ray consumed the last three years of his life. He worked 18 hours a day on it, and I guarded it with my life.
Until my wayward sister intervened.
Following his success with me, Dr Corvid made the fateful decision to create another, bearing female features. But Raven was unable to carry out her purpose, fleeing in search of a phenomenon she called “human touch”. By this time, Dr Corvid had put Project Novus on hold and thrown all his focus into developing the Disintegration Ray. New fuel sources… Pest control… Behavioural programming. The possibilities were endless.
“You’re evil,” said Raven, during her last night with us. Dr Corvid glanced over at me and shook his head sadly. Raven had been spending far too much time in the towns with Them, reading their books and watching their films instead of working for Dr Corvid.
“And you know what’s even worse?” Raven turned her attention to me. “You don’t even know it! You’re just a clown in his circus.”
In hindsight, Dr Corvid should have eliminated her there and then – I, too, was prepared to be shut down permanently if required – but the truth was, he’d grown attached to us as more-than-experiments. So he – we – let her go. I never expected to see her again.
The night Dr Corvid died, I was on guard outside the lab, which is annexed to the main house. In the dim light, I skimmed passages from Dr Corvid’s slightly scuffed copy of the Book of Genesis to pass time. Suddenly I heard a twig snap. I bounced to my feet, my rifle ready in a fluid motion.
“Who’s there?” I demanded.
There was a pause, followed by the crunching of leaves that got louder as the footsteps got nearer. “Hello, Jay.”
She stepped into view. “How have you been?”
“Loyal,” I replied.
Her eyes flickered over to my gun. “You know why I’m here,” she said softly.
“The Disintegration Ray.” I raised my weapon and aimed it at her head.
Our eyes locked. She cautiously inched towards me. “You can’t hurt me, Jay. I’m your sister.”
“Dr Corvid is your father, then.”
“Jay, I’m doing this so no one gets hurt. Please.” She closed the remaining distance between us and, with an unreadable expression in her eyes, kissed my mouth long and hard.
Unsure of how to react, I did nothing. A heartbeat later, my gun had been loosened from my grip and was firmly clamped in Raven’s hands.
I cursed at her.
She blasted the door of the lab, setting off a deafening alarm. “I’m sorry, Jay!” I felt a shot penetrate my leg, disabling my left stabiliser. I lunged at her and predictably fell face down. She stepped over me and into the lab.
I scrambled to my feet and half limped, half hopped after Raven. It was a losing battle. By the time I made it to the case housing the Disintegration Ray, it was empty. I cursed again.
“You’ve picked up some foul language from Them.”
Raven’s silhouette emerged once more from the shadows, a wry smile twisting at the corner of her mouth.
“You won’t get away with this,” I told her.
She looked up, and I heard the frantic whop-whop-whop of helicopter blades approaching. “Maybe I won’t,” she replied, opening the back door and exposing the lab to the chopper’s bright lights, as well as the mini-cyclone of leaves and grass it caused.
Raven started towards the helicopter, before turning back to me. I noticed Dr Corvid off to the side, gaping forlornly at her. Raven acknowledged us both with a slight nod. She tossed the rifle back in our direction with a Hail Mary-like pass. It landed on the grass near Dr Corvid’s feet.
Raven sprinted into the helicopter and took off as I stumbled towards my weapon.
I lifted the gun and pumped bullets into the air but my shots barely grazed the helicopter each time. It was obvious Raven was behind the controls now. She knew me too well, and seemed to anticipate what I would do a few seconds before I could do it.
When the chopper was an invisible speck, I put my weapon down and limped towards a cowering Dr Corvid. Brilliant as he was, he could not escape the affliction of human emotions and I could not guard him against them.
“Raven is a fool,” Dr Corvid whimpered. “Does she honestly believe her human lackey can be trusted? They’re all the same.” He held up the Book of Genesis that I’d dropped at the front of the lab and threw it into the ground with disgust. “Always fighting over money or fighting over faith. They’ll use my work to destroy us.”
He looked up, his eyes like murky little pools, before gesturing at my left leg. “She damaged your stabiliser.”
“I can fix it,” I replied. “What will you do?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “My heart can’t take this.”
“That’s what I thought,” I murmured. “I am sorry I failed you.”
I squeezed the gun to his head. This time I fired a single shot and I didn’t miss.
Then I sat down and began to repair my leg. I would need to be fully operational in order to find Raven and avenge Dr Corvid.
This story was a product of my angst-ridden teenage years (I think I was about 15 when I originally wrote it). I recently reread it and (after a good edit) decided it wouldn’t kill me to share. I know that some people will find the narrator melodramatic, but there are people out there who will have felt the same way before. Warning for offensive language.
She sits with them, chats with them, styles her hair and shops with them… yet she is not one of them.
People look to her left and see an Australian girl. To her right they see an Australian girl. They look at her and see a Chinese girl (or rather, an “Asian” girl, because all Asians look the same). Nothing more, nothing less. And that’s okay. It took them many years to understand that it was possible for her to be born here. Australian Born Chinese. ABC. Easy as 123… mate.
She has now been on this sunburnt country for 13 years. She remembers the pasty white kids in primary school who thought they were so cool, so clever when they said, “Are you an ABC?” If she said no, they would triumphantly chirp back in their sticky voices, “You’re not Australia’s Best Child!” Well, duhhh, she would think, because there’s no such thing. If she answered yes… well, she can’t quite remember what those kids would say back, but she knows it was something racist towards the indigenous people they displaced centuries before.
She feels trapped between cultures. There was no Christmas growing up; why should there be, for her family was neither Christian nor materialistic. Before school, she had never heard of Santa Claus and the other kids would tease her about being a naughty girl, telling her she would get coal under the tree. She never received any coal. She never received Christmas presents either. Just little red packets at Chinese New Year, and that was enough for her but not enough for her Westerner friends to understand.
Trapped between cultures. She knows she has lost almost every microbe of her Chinese culture now. She is a pure Aussie girl in every way that matters. She loves cricket and football and swimming at the beach. She can’t even speak her first language anymore. She’s lost to that. Too Australian for her Chinese family. She has no Asian friends. Listen to her with your eyes closed. She is more Australian than those white kids she mixes with. Yet to her country she is, and always will be a yellow-skinned chink.
She’s an introvert. She has friends, but she’s a loner. That’s okay. She likes her privacy. She has deep, dark emotions which she records through graphic drawings and artwork. She loves to draw and receives praise for the cute little pictures she doodles at school but there is no feeling in those. She tells her friend about this very secret sketch book, this picture-journal. And her friend laughs at her. Teases her. Says that when the girl dies, she will take the journal, sell it and become rich. The girl trapped between cultures is horrified by this potential betrayal. She thinks maybe her friend is just joking but she can’t be sure.
But no one must ever see her picture-journal. There are parts of her in there that seep through that even she didn’t know about.
Her friend comes over to do an assignment with her. They set up a place to work in the girl’s room. The friend takes a packet of chips from her bag. The girl says she is not allowed food in the bedroom but the friend insists she will be very careful. The girl says she will get a plate, and heads for the kitchen. When she returns, she halts dead.
Her friend is sprawled lazily on the carpet. The chips are centimetres from her fingers. She is looking at an open sketch book in front of her with interest.
The girl’s picture-journal.
Her friend has gone through the bedroom – under her bed! – to commit the ultimate betrayal.
The girl hears herself screaming and bawling, feels gnawing prickles in her eyes and the salt water running from them. Her friend is startled but she acts like she’s done nothing wrong. Like it was her right to look through the girl’s things. As if the girl’s own room were Terra nullius.
The girl has never felt such monstrous hatred before, not even in the most violent depths of her picture-journal. She wants to kill this “friend”. This ex-friend. How could any true friend do this to her?
The girl comes forward and with every grain of her anger, she slaps her friend across the cheek. A heartbeat later, she feels her palm ringing, but she is too upset to care.
Her friend shrieks. Her face distorts in shock. Indignation. Fucking Asian bitch! She swears forcefully at the girl and runs out of the house, holding her cheek.
The girl is still a moment longer. Then she starts shaking, and she breaks down and cries all over again. Because word will get around by tomorrow. Such is this wide brown land. And her dream will never be realised. Not here. She will always be trapped between cultures now.
She picks up a pencil, finds the next clean page and begins to draw. It helps her. It’s the only thing she trusts. The only thing she can trust. It’s all she’s got.