A King Without a Kingdom
Everything in the world had value.
I’d learned that at a young age, watching my father while he taught me what each chip was worth in a game of cards. I later understood it to mean that nothing was valuable by itself, it was only what it meant to others that determined its value.
How much it was wanted.
My father had been a gambler and my mother had been too young to know any better. They’d married long enough to regret the decision and, by the time they finally separated, I’d regretted it too.
A series of poor decisions and even poorer luck had left me on the streets soon after.
I lived in Melbourne my entire life, but I’d never felt part of it. In the day I would wander the streets and the steady stream of people would part before me as if I were a rock in a river. I couldn’t blame them.
In the beginning it had been difficult. Very difficult. It took only a few nights to find where others without a home gathered, but it took many more before I felt like I belonged there, and that was a cold comfort.
One day I bought a packet of flower seeds from the convenience store, steadfastly ignoring the strange looks from others in the line and resisting the urge to buy a bottle of liquor. I knew that I smelled of the damp ground I slept on, and the memory of clean clothes was so distant that I couldn’t recall it.
I clutched the seeds in my palm, hidden, and planted them in the barren stretch of earth near where I slept.
It wasn’t very useful, as far as plants went. It would have been smarter to plant a little mint or a patch of strawberries, but hunger, real hunger, the gnawing pit that demanded attention and grew louder and louder, hadn’t been a real concern past the first few weeks.
At the start I hadn’t known how to scavenge for food, or where there’d be volunteers, handing out warm bowls of soup and wrapped sandwiches. At first I had been wary of the quality but I’d never really been able to afford being a picky eater, and hunger seasoned food in a way that nothing else did. Food wasn’t as much of a concern, now.
So I planted snowdrops, which were nothing but beautiful and bright.
In time I grew to recognise the regulars. We’d trade stories and cigarettes between stained fingers over a cold meal in the park. We were all kind to each other, when we could be, and treasured those small kindnesses in a way that only people who had never been shown much kindness could.
There was Hamid, who changed the story of how he became homeless as frequently as the weather, but always had a kind word to spare. Sharon sat on the corner of Bourke Street, with bleached hair and a constellation’s worth of track marks scattered across the expanse of her skin, and would offer the new girls advice when they’d first appear. Shane, face hidden behind a beard and who moved often, was always trailed by a dog better fed than him.
And then there was Steve, who shared his food with me when I might have otherwise gone hungry.
Steve had been without a home half of his life and looked the part. It made it easier for him to collect money, but I don’t think it made it any easier for him to accept it.
He won the lottery two years after I’d met him. Had bought a ticket every day from the nearby news agency with the money he’d scraped together in the afternoon. At night he would scratch away at the ticket in his hand, brows furrowed and eyes focused.
It’d become a ritual, of sorts.
The last time a passerby had caught him doing it her lips had been pressed into a frown under the weight of her judgement. She was lucky, to not understand. I never spoke to him about his private hope. Couldn’t bring myself to.
All of us carried that same hope, in some way.
He’d come to me after winning and given me a tattered scarf he’d carried with him as long as I’d known him, pressing it into my hands with a wide smile. He’d always been
self-conscious about his smiles; half of his teeth decaying, rotted, and the other half already gone, but he still smiled. I admired that.
“Things are going to change for me now.” Steve clapped a hand on my shoulder, voice uncharacteristically soft. “Stay safe, you hear?”
But I’d known better.
Six months later there was a cluster of delicate white flowers near my makeshift bed and Steve was back.
When I spotted him he casually shrugged his shoulders, giving me a rueful smile, teeth still half missing and bruises littering the right side of his face. I handed him back his scarf, a little more tattered, and turned my eyes to the side to avoid having to look at his.
“Winter’s coming, and it’ll be a cold one,” I said.
He ran his fingers down the familiar length of the scarf, before slipping it around his neck. “You’re not going to ask?”
“Does it matter?”
He barked a laugh. “Nah. I guess it doesn’t.”
The next day I caught him waiting in line at the news agency. He waved at me cheerfully through the glass. I waved back.
That night I planted poppies, scarlet and vibrant.
People gave money to distant problems in distant countries. Prided themselves on their virtue. They’d send a couple of dollars each month, and then pat themselves on the back. They worried over starving children so thin that there was more bone than flesh.
But still they couldn’t meet my eyes.
I would sit from morning till night, a metal bowl before me, and wait.
It was a little like prayer. My head would be bowed and my legs would cramp and I’d hope for the best, but expect nothing.
Monday and Saturday were the best days for it. Monday, the beginning of the week and the day for small resolutions, where people tried to be better, kinder, than what they were and Saturday for date nights, where a man hoping to get lucky might spare a few dollars for the appearance of generosity.
As the night wore on people became less generous and more dangerous. A group of men approached, their cheeks flushed, laughing amongst themselves. One drew a fistful of coins from his pocket and threw them at me, a small smirk on his face.
I wanted to ignore the glinting pieces of metal on the floor. To throw it back at him. At anyone. At the immaculately dressed men in crisp suits that walked by every day and shook
their heads silently as they passed me. At the faceless mass of people who averted their eyes when they saw me.
I wanted a lot of things.
But poverty meant you could not afford the luxury of dignity.
So instead I swallowed down the anger and the shame, letting it settle in my gut where it burned, hot and furious, and gathered the coins one by one.
Poverty wasn’t just about the money. It started there, of course, but it was what it made you.
It was an upbringing, in being shaped by the circumstances that robbed you of the ability and the opportunity to make better ones. It was being born in a pit that you couldn’t climb out from.
My father had stopped drinking for a decade before I was born and even if he’d managed to not drink another drop his entire life he’d always have been an alcoholic. My mother, rail thin and soft spoken, had a childhood defined by her round cheeks, pudgy fingers, and the cruelty of children. It had left its mark on her in the way she’d eat food hesitantly, in measured bites, always with a lingering sense of shame.
My family had never been rich. We’d never even been comfortable. But I had faint memories of my grandparent’s house, of a grandmother who had been raised with nothing and it lingered in repurposed glass jars and her insistence that expiration dates were only a suggestion – one she frequently ignored.
Back then I was still young, still had a future. Expectations. Ambition. Potential.
Now, at best, I was something to be helped, to be saved, to take pity on. At worst I was a lesson of what not to become. I wasn’t someone to others; I wasn’t a parent, a sibling, lover or a valued co-worker. I wasn’t seen. If I vanished in the dead of some night my absence would not be felt.
But my garden, small and infinitely precious, would wither and wilt.
And that was enough for me.
Last night I heard Jarrah screaming. The gubbas lock us up before it turns dark – each man isolated in his hut – Jarrah’s is close to mine. The screams came in relentless waves; in between, Jarrah cried out to the gubbas, but it was Friday night, and they were charging-up on grog in their station on the other side of the barbed wire. It would have made no difference if they hadn’t hit the piss, those whitefellas; they never help one of us. Later, in a lull, I called out softly, “What wrong, Bunji?” but Jarrah didn’t answer, and when the screams started again, I pushed fingers inside my ears and curled up on my bed and tried to sleep.
When they brought me here, and that was over twenty years ago, Jarrah caught one of the bad boys doing men’s business to me and beat him good enough that I wasn’t bothered again. Jarrah was a big strong blackfella before his sores got rotten, and his eyes went bung. He was about thirty – back then – and had been inside this lazaret fifteen years before I came.
My father ran off bush when the gunjies hunted us. But they caught my mother, my sister Yindi, and me, and put chains on us; the gunjies were scared to go near my mother because of how she looked and made a blackfella shackle her. Yindi and I weren’t sick. Those whitefellas still sent us here. They dragged us behind a ship, in a dinghy bouncing on the rough sea at the end of a long rope. The gubbas put me in here with Jarrah and sixty other blackfellas and took my mother and little tidda away to the women’s compound. That was the last time I saw them.
The whitefellas call this place Peel Island, but Jarrah told me it already had a name, Teerk Roo Ra. Many days through the years, I sat with Jarrah, looking out over the sea, watching for dugongs and turtles when they came in close to the beach. Sometimes, we would see pods of dolphins splashing and jumping. Jarrah would point out different coloured birds and get me to repeat their aboriginal names. We watched them sing and soar, and I would tell Jarrah I wished I could fly away.
There are whitefellas kept here, too, locked away in a separate, larger enclosure on the other side of the island. They hate us blackfellas, blame us for their sickness, even though it was them that brought it to Australia. No blackfella was ever a leper before the whitefellas arrived, Jarrah told me.
When the boat drops off supplies each month, the gubbas in charge take the best food and grog; then divide the rest up; the whitefellas get more, we blackfellas half as much meat, butter, tapioca, and smokes. They allow us no beer. We have to gather firewood to cook with – no stoves for us – and cart in water from the stream.
Jarrahs still screaming this morning when the gubbas unlock our huts. I go over to his humpy; he’s writhing around on his bed. I touch his shoulder, “Bunji, what’s happening?” I’ve got the stones back, Birrani, he tells me, much worse this time. He’s shivering and shaking. He’s sweating, and his head feels hot. There are holes in his hut’s iron roof, and rain from last night has turned the dirt floor to mud. He’s puked up all over. I get him up and help him outside.
Jarrah bangs on the barbed wire fence. One of his hands starts to bleed; he doesn’t notice. Jarrahs lost bits off most of his fingers. He can’t see much either.
Mister Johnson comes out of the station. He’s got a loud ginger moustache, a fat gut that drops over his trousers, and red pig eyes that hide inside a puffy face. He’s a real white cunt. Once I saw him kill a man with a cricket bat. He made two of the other gubbas come and drag the dead blackfella out. They put masks on their faces and white gloves over their white hands. When he’s been drinking, Mister Johnson is as mean as a snake. Jarrah tells me I should go back to my humpy.
“Get away from that fence, you fucking black boong.”
“I’m sick bad, “Jarrah says, “It hurts bad. I need help,”
“Of course, you’re fucking sick. That’s why you’re here, you dumb abo bastard. It’s the whole fucking point.” Mister Johnson laughs and spits a gob full at the fence. He’s got a bottle of beer in his right hand.
“Different sick boss. Bad stones. I’m pissing blood. I need doctor man.”
“No fucking doctor can help you, boong,” Johnson says. “No doctors on this shithole island.”
“Please, boss. Bad stone business.”
“Now you stop that howling, or I’ll send the dogs in. I’ve got a bad fucking headache.”
Johnson throws his empty bottle at Jarrah, and it smashes against the concrete fence post. He walks back to the guard’s station, and I watch him pull the top off another beer and light up a smoke.
After Johnson has gone, I go out to Jarrah again. He’s standing by the fence, sobbing, bent over, clutching his right side. I can see a chunk of flesh stuck on the barbed wire where he caught his hand. It’s raining now, and his hand drips watery drops of blood onto the ground.
“Bunji,” I say, “let’s go back inside.” I guide Jarrah back into his hut and sit him down on his bed. His face is old and tired, wracked with pain as the colic surges again. After it passes, he looks at me, “I had a son, before, about your age, he’d be, Real smart fella.” Jarrah’s never told me this before.
“What was his name?”
“Waru,” Jarrahs brown eyes brighten a little, then another spasm hits. I put my arm around him and gently rub his back. His belly is swollen and feels hard as if to burst.
I sit with Jarrah until I’m locked away before the darkness comes.
That night I hear Jarrah screaming again. But the screams get quieter; after a while, there are none at all.
The Ladies in This House
There are four people in this family. One two three four. Four is the amount of times my sister closes her bedroom window before bed. Four soft thumps of the glass collapsing against the windowsill, every single night. Then it’s the back door (three), the front door (also three), and then her bedroom window again (another four times). Just to be sure, I guess, that no mosquitos nor monsters nor bad-intentioned men sneak through.
I listen to this routine of window shutting and door closing each night whilst I watch the cracks in the roof of my bedroom grow. Fourteen. That’s how many times windows and doors need to be closed before this house can fall back into the silence that screams from the walls. Fourteen is often the age that the monsters under the bed start to seem a little less scary than the ones in real life. Fourteen is how old I am now, with my freshly braced teeth and recently developed acne. Fourteen was the age of my sister when she started this ritual of hers, doing what she can to protect this house from the monsters outside.
Four. That’s how many glasses of wine my mother drinks when she says she isn’t drinking. Four is most nights now, four has been most nights since my sister started her window shutting. It’s a dance they do, my sister and my mother, a dance they do that only I can see. My sister counts her windows and doors; my mother avoids counting her glasses and bottles. I can see both, I can see the windowpanes chipping from an excessive amount of shutting, I can see the empty bottles of chardonnay from an excessive amount of worrying. My mother worries about my sister and my sister worries about herself, and my father doesn’t pay enough attention to notice.
Fourteen is how old I am now, watching the ceiling above my bed grow wrinkles and frowns. Like every other night, I watch this map of veins as I listen to the symphony of this house.
Doors shutting, windows closing, bottles opening. I remind myself that I should tell my parents about the cracks, how they grow whilst I sleep. I wonder if that means something, if maybe this house is falling apart. I wonder if that did happen, if maybe then we would talk. Maybe then we would we talk about the collapsed home at our feet, but maybe we would continue to step over it blindly. Ignorance for the sake of artificial bliss. I decide that we probably wouldn’t talk about it, that this roof will close in and the walls will crumble before my parents talk about anything.
The next morning, I stay in bed instead of rising with the sun like I normally do. I don’t brush my teeth as my sister opens the bathroom window twice, nor pour milk into my cornflakes as my mum slugs into the kitchen with deep bags under her eyes. I don’t eat my breakfast self-consciously across the table from my dad, the crunching sound between my teeth somehow the loudest noise in this house. Instead I stay in bed, not to sleep but just to see, to see if anyone would notice if I did.
Staying home from school was something I revelled in as a kid. A quiet house with a ticking clock was a cheeky reminder of all the things the rest of the world was doing whilst I watched daytime TV. But today I stay in bed. The novelty of being socially isolated from the word on those sick days has worn off, replaced by the desire to remain physically isolated from my own world. This desire is only bolstered by the simple fact that no one knows I’m here.
The silence that pervades the space between the rooms of this house is less obvious in the day. When there’s only me existing in this space, the lack of verbal conversation remains more of an assumption than a defiance. A defiance is when four people manage to survive under the same cracking roof with the inability to converse.
The ladies in this house arrive home first. My sister slips silently through the front door, school bag tow. Although we attend the same school, my tendency to waffle in the corridor after the final bell means we don’t normally catch the same tram home. As I daydream at my locker, my sister would already be at the tram stop, a few steps away from the rest of the kids. For this reason, I know that she doesn’t think it weird that she didn’t see me on the tram today.
My mother’s entrance to this house is loud in the most dysfunctional sense. The slamming of the door, the dumping of the groceries, the clinking of glass wine bottles. No words need to leave her mouth for her to announce her presence home from work. She makes dinner and eats it alone. She leaves three bowls in the fridge. One two three. Three bowls for us to claim when we too eat our dinner alone.
My father arrives home much later, usually directly from some undisclosed meeting or corporate dinner or after-work drinks. If it’s a dinner, my mum will scream at him that he should’ve told her, that she wouldn’t’ve bothered slaving away for hours in the kitchen for him. And instead of saying sorry, instead of saying thank you, he tells her that she would’ve been in the kitchen anyway.
Tonight though, my father arrives home not from a dinner but from drinks. A drunken head start that brings him up to speed with the ground my mother has already covered in his absence. Eventually, after window shutting, door closing, bottle opening, bottle disposing, the house again falls silent. This house is silent, the occupants are sleeping, and I haven’t moved all day.
I contemplate my existence, contemplate the reality of my being in a world that for twenty-four hours hasn’t acknowledged my being. I could maybe live here, maybe cease all movement outside of these four walls and wait for the roof to crumble. It’s not a powerful urge of mine to stay here, to bury myself in pillows and plaster, yet it feels an easier course of survival than rolling out of bed each morning into a house that burns with silence. The fire under these floorboards was lit many years ago, fuelled by weird habits and unspoken vices, ignored for the sake of familial tolerance and civil co-inhabitancy. Even as the flames have grown louder, engulfed the space between door slamming and screaming, not a single one of us four is willing to cool the heat. This house burns with silence and will burn until it crumbles.
The silence has become more tolerable my way, by way of staying in bed. Fourteen is how old I am now, how old I am for one more week, then I will be fifteen. One five. Five is how many weeks it has been since I was last at school, since I last spoke to a person, blood relation or otherwise. Five is how many weeks I have watched these cracks above me grow, grow deeper and wider and longer and thicker. Grow until I can’t tell if there’s any roof left in these cracks.
Four is how many times my sister closes her window before bed tonight. She’s already closed the back door, and the front door, and her window four times before that. I listen as she opens it again, and pulls it closed. One. Between each motion of pushing and pulling, of opening and closing, I hear the clink of a bottle from down the hall, the clink of a bottle against a wine glass, two, against the recycling bin, three. Meanwhile, with each numerical jump, the cracks above me shake. It’s almost like they’re laughing, they’re laughing and they’re crying and they’re doing so together. They whisper their secrets and giggle at jokes, and they do all the things that this house has not known. Four. That’s the last pull of the window, as the glass hits the sill, as the glass hits the bottle, as the cracks hit the floor.
Plaster buries me in my bed, buries me under my doona and under this house forever. I hear the finality of my existence. I hear the fire burning and the silence screaming. I hear my family standing at my bedroom door, watching. Yet still, I hear no talking.
I almost laugh, I truly almost do, because for every night doors and windows were closed fourteen times, my sister believed she was protecting this house from the monsters outside. And maybe if we opened our mouths, maybe if we talked and maybe if we listened, we would’ve realised that the monsters were inside all along, living right beside us under this crumbled ceiling.
Good With Numbers
Counting calms me.
Counting steps; tallying calories.
Marking the calendar: the mindless tick of lockdown.
I refresh my newsfeed. Hourly; compulsively. The daily cases are rising, the graphs repeatedly recalibrated to extend their limits beyond the ripples of the first wave.
We, the mothers in our middle-class Melbourne suburb, form WhatsApp groups to commiserate and discuss home-schooling assignments. Thankfully all of us are privileged white women, with desk jobs that easily convert to work- from-home. We try to be grateful, even when our internet drops five times within the hour, and our husbands ask for lunch.
I read an article on the rise in eating disorders. Empty supermarket shelves and isolation at home are ultimately to blame.
It feels like a cheap jibe, insinuating that I won’t be able to control myself.
The author is male, ambivalent.
My dormant disorder is not fed with food or lack thereof. My willpower is an insidious creature, developed decades ago. It is routine. It is control.
In any case, my illness is a sleepy thing, long forgotten.
The graphs reach some crucial threshold, and a bureaucrat pushes the panic button with a gloved thumb. Melbourne is sealed in stage four lockdown, with an unforgiving new set of rules. My children are back at home: my son sitting uneasily in front of a screen; my three-year-old daughter jumping over all of us and joining my husband’s conference calls.
I have a moment in August. I am at Coles. Alone obviously, because we must shop alone. The dairy aisle is overly cold. There is a familiarity to it, though. A lightness, a quickness, to the dread which has suddenly appeared around me. The shoppers in the supermarket are familiar strangers. Eye contact seems to be considered just as dangerous as a hug or a handshake, all of which are forbidden. No chatting, no stopping, no silent exchange of empathy. The masks block the stray smile.
The isolation is familiar, as too the cold dread.
It is 1999; I am nineteen again. Nineteen and cold.
I am walking, walking, walking. I spend every morning on the treadmill, then another hour in the streets every evening. It is a march, a drudgery. I hate every step. If I do not do it, however, it’s worse; I feel the fat sticking to my lazy limbs, the extra pound on the scales. The crushing anxiety of failure.
I am blonde, thin, and tanned. I attract the wrong attention. I drink wine on an empty stomach, every time; end up ill and regretful, every time. I kiss boys I don’t want to kiss and can barely remember the next day.
One night, at a local bar, a girl from school who hasn’t seen me in years asks if I have cancer. You’re so thin, you look unwell.
I’ve always disliked her but right then I hate her. I want to rip her eyes from her head.
Everyone has ownership over my body. You look great, have you lost weight? What’s your secret? Then, some kilos later, they tell me sternly, wisely, that I am too thin.
I am terrified to gain weight because they will notice that too. So I persist with this routine because I do not want their attention. My body is not for public inspection. I am not doing this for you.
I wake most mornings, wishing my mattress would engulf me, that I could disappear.
I want to be alone: perfectly, invisibly alone.
I am twenty-one. It is 2001.
I am trapped in this routine until something snaps. Christmas Day.
Everyone is eating turkey and pudding. Chocolate. Wine.
Turkey is acceptable.
Turkey swallowed down with two litres of Diet Coke is filling and low calorie. I smile; I’m happy. Until I’m not. Until I realise that it is Christmas, and I haven’t been on the treadmill yet. I’ve gorged myself on salty meat and Coke, and my belly bloats painfully, but I have no calories left for dinner.
And it’s bloody Christmas. Everyone else is eating chocolate and laughing, and I am drowning in the depths of some sort of solitary darkness. I can no longer see the surface, or anything for which to aim.
I examine my limbs, trying to find solace in the lack of flesh. They are covered in a fine layer of white hair and goosebumps. I am always cold, even though we’re in the midst of a hot-as-hell December.
The cold draws the dread. Permanent worry lines appear, like fractures in the ice.
It’s 2020 and we’re locked down together, the four of us. I pity those locked in by themselves, or at least I think I do.
Daniel Andrews does the right thing of course: the middle-class mothers, we know this. The five-kilometre limit; the nightly curfew. He does the only thing possible, keeping everyone locked in their own suburbs, their own worlds. The disenfranchised, the jobless: they disagree obviously. The Karens, we call the vocal ones, even the men, even the wealthy ones. They fight it. They organise poorly attended protests, and we hate them for it.
They are the third wave.
I hate them. I hate everything.
This routine is not one that I have chosen or imposed.
The WhatsApp mummies run the suburbs at dawn for their hour of allowed exercise. They remind me to try on my jeans to make sure they fit.
I try my jeans.
I step on my scales.
I cry when I discover that I have put on an entire stone of weight in the last two months alone.
For a while the anxiety makes me nauseous; I am on a ship unmoored in a storm.
Then I impose my own secret routine and it feels familiar. It feels secure. Five hundred calories.
No booze. No lunch.
The single hour that we are allowed to exercise, we drag the children out.
They jump, hop, scoot, whine, laugh. I march, mask strapped around my ears, braced against the Melbourne winter.
I am on a health-kick.
I feel lighter, happier. I am in control even when my seven-year-old screams profanities at my three-year-old, and my boss overhears and asks with trepidation if I need to go and deal with it.
Friends interstate start to ask about us. The news broadcasts tell them that our lockdown is one of the toughest in the world. They say all the wrong things. I react like I am grieving and then I feel ridiculous. We are healthy. We are employed. I am annoyed at myself.
My husband takes loud conference calls.
I’ve never realised before now how fond he is of corporate speak. How noisily he slurps his tea.
My children are stable on the surface, but something isn’t right. I tell my husband and he agrees.
This thing is insidious, infecting us all.
I am twenty-two when my mother makes me see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist takes my weight and wants to admit me to hospital. The thought terrifies me: I am not ill enough for that. There is something wrong with me but not that wrong.
The doctor talks to me about the drive for perfection. Everything she says is ridiculous and irrelevant.
She gives me a challenge: to eat chocolate every day. There are one hundred and five calories in a Freddo Frog so I say that I will eat one daily knowing that I will swap it out for something else equivalent to one hundred and five calories. I’ve always been good with numbers.
It’s cold in her office. I hate that. The cold draws the dread.
I usually end up crying. I hate that too. The tears choke my throat and get in the way of the words I want to say.
The doctor says that I need to express myself more often.
I’ve always been shy though; too aware that I come across as snarky or selfish when I speak my mind.
I am selfish. My sister says so. I agree. It is a selfish illness. Self- indulgent.
I don’t have cancer, after all. It’s all in my head.
Zero cases, zero deaths. Double donuts.
Iso is over. We share champagne and cake and featherlight chunks of goats’ cheese.
The cold dread shudders but doesn’t disappear.
The virus looks to be vanquished. The WhatsApp mummies post pictures of celebratory vodka-tonics and joke about rehab.
I look to my children for confirmation: are we whole again?
The Karens are quiet.
I no longer refresh my news’ feed every hour.
I ignore the swords that the media dangle over us: the threats of relapse, of economic fall-out.
I wonder what fractures have formed and what has been woken within us. The lingering, warping, echo of iso. I wonder what shape this next wave might take.
My son returns to school, my daughter to kindergarten. My husband does the groceries.
The house is still, and chilly for November. I watch the clock; I tally the calories. Alone.
Ava has been on the light rail for about two hours, possibly more; she’s not sure. A guard waved at her urgently when it terminated at Sydney Central, made her leave the carriage, so she simply stepped across the platform to another one, and has done the same again, and again. Each time the train crawls slowly, so slowly, from the city to Randwick or Kingsford and back again like a spindly dame with her walking stick. It maintains a certain grace, despite its tired gait, its rhythmic rippling. The light rail service is relatively new, yet it feels aged already. A few people, some in masks, strolled past as it inched along George Street; buses overtook it on Anzac Parade without pressing their accelerators. Or so it seemed. She watches the taciturn universe through her window; the streets are desolate, but she avoids the eyes of the few brave ones scouring the inner city.
Pulling her water bottle from her handbag she gulps a mouthful; about half of her wine is left, enough for another hour. Perhaps. She could always purchase another bottle at a grog shop at Central, hopefully. Tugging her mask down she quickly wipes her mouth with her sleeve (thank god she’s wearing her maroon hoodie) and peers surreptitiously around the wagon; luckily it’s still empty. No one has boarded for the last hour. Her belly rumbles – she’s eaten all the chips she shoved in her bag as she snuck from the house – but she’ll ignore it, for now. Ordering food at one of the few open takeaway joints is torture, especially when staff look quickly away from her puffy purple eye; it’s humiliating enough buying wine. Her sunglasses only hide so much in keen fluorescent light. And she wants to avoid police; she’s already seen two cops questioning a man leaning on a telegraph pole, no doubt asking why he was roaming the streets rather than observing the lockdown laws. If they were to question her she has no idea what excuse she’d use.
She takes a deep breath; it’s been difficult respiring through the mask’s harsh fabric. The air is stale but tinged with the vinyl tang of the newish carriage and chairs. At least it’s cool in here: the door opens again to no passengers, only humidity. She sighs, thankful for the continued isolation. But no, this isn’t isolation: it’s solitude. Isolation is the flawed term being used during lockdown against the pestilence. Isolation is a bon mot, a wisecrack – being detached from the world, from her friends and work, being stuck in the house with Sonny is confinement and seclusion. Loneliness. True isolation – solitude – has eluded her.
Her phone dings: a text from Millie. Where R U Mum??? She should reply – guilt digs its claws deep into her shoulders – she should check on her two children. But she can’t bring herself to type an answer. Millie would then tell Sonny where she is.
With some luck he’s still in bed, asleep. He’ll be suffering a hell of a hangover after guzzling a bottle of whisky last night. After sneering and roaring at her till the early hours he collapsed on the lounge; she escaped the tv room, tiptoed to the kids’ bedroom to check they were asleep, then locked herself in the laundry closet. Her folded knees ached in the cramped space. She stretches them now, rests her heels on the chair before her, then faintly touches her swollen eye; it smarts. He hadn’t hit her hard, just a light slap, but her skin has always been sensitive. And it was the first time in a long time (usually he just threatens), but still. The (bitter) icing on the (very sour) cake is the fact that she can’t kick him out, that she’s unable to move anywhere else with the kids.
This morning when she snuck from the house she left a scribbled note for Millie and Nell on Millie’s dresser, said she was going to a chemist, then messaged her sister, desperate for somewhere to stay, just for the day. Surely that wasn’t too much to ask? she thinks. Just one day without him. (And, she admits to herself, one day without the kids, as well.) But Judith had been her usual sanctimonious self, staunch in her reply. You can’t stay here with us, you could be infected. God knows where he’s been. You should never have let him back!!
No, she should never have let Sonny return to the house.
They’ve been married twelve distressingly unhappy years; not a day has passed without regret. Such a cliché – the kind, loving boyfriend who morphed into a selfish, bad- tempered husband. Drunkenness and threats, then apologies when he was sober, promises to never behave that way again. One particularly bleak week she sobbed to her sister, then finally, finally, took her advice. Gathering her few fibres of courage she locked Sonny out. It was a breezy late summer day, egg-blue, the sunlight as sharp as knives. Despite the children’s panic, her sensation of liberation had been overwhelming, terrifying, thrilling. The future looked slightly luminous for a change.
That was a few months ago; around the ides of March, she remembers grimly. All that week he’d yelled at the front door, begging her to open it. No one would have him, apparently; lockdown was in effect. Sleep in your car! she cried through the door, shamefully waving the girls away as Nell shrieked and threw toys at her. Sonny promised not to drink, to behave; the lockdown would be like a holiday. From the rickety bench in their small front yard he sent her a text: working from home would mean he’d be less stressed, they could focus on their relationship, sort their differences without anyone interfering or telling her lies; with winter coming they could watch movies in the warmth of the heater, sipping hot chocolate and playing rummy or monopoly. A real vacation! He’d left voice messages on her phone, apologising as he wept, begging her to forgive him. He would turn a new leaf, be an ideal husband.
That had lasted less than a week. She winces as she recalls one particular morning, her voice hoarse from the night before when he’d clamped his hand on her throat and punched a hole in the fibro wall near her head. She perched on Millie’s bed, holding the two girls tightly in her arms, hiding her blotched wet face, her seared neck. A butcher bird singing to itself in the soft citrine dawn had broken her heart: why did it get such freedom? Such solitude? Why could it do whatever the hell it desired?
She stands, her buttocks cramped from sitting so long. Outside boys on bikes zigzag past the train, riding shockingly down the middle of the wide road; a masked woman jogs across pulling her dog. No planes zoom above, few cars rumble past, the cafes and restaurants are shuttered; superficially the planet is quiet and calm. She could linger here, in this carriage, all night. All year. But she should, she knows, she must call her children. Sonny isn’t a bad father – whatever his mood he’ll feed them when he wakes, check they’re doing their home schooling – but in delaying her return she’s being a very bad mummy, and that’s unforgiveable.
Just half an hour more, she begs herself, half an hour of aloneness. But settling into the seat, tousling with the guilt, she glances at the luminated screen. The train is approaching her street; if she remains on board she’ll be unable to return home for hours. She grits her teeth, tosses her handbag over her shoulder and, supporting herself at the door, grips the pole, crushing her fingers into its steel. Perhaps they’ll melt through and weld her to the rail.
As the train slows a woman on the footpath pleads with a toddler. Her t-shirt is smeared and her tracksuit pants stained, her blonde hair knotted in an untidy bun. The child punches at its mother, throws itself on the ground and kicks at her. Beside her a puce-faced baby screams in a pram. The blonde waves frantically at a heavy man on the corner, but he fiercely shakes his head. ‘I’ll see you at home,’ he yells, then trudges away. ‘Daddy!’ the toddler howls, continuing to kick at the woman.
The train’s maw opens wide; again Ava is hit with the jaundiced late-season humidity. She doesn’t move, watches the blonde; then suddenly catches her eye. The woman blushes, shrugs her shoulders as if saying, ‘Kids!’, then almost squatting drags the warring toddler into her arms and clumsily propels the pram forwards with her elbow, her shoulders hunched.
Ava’s feet remain glued to the rubbery deck. The door seals. She returns to her seat, adjusts her mask, and gazes through the opposite window. Just one more day, she decides.
The sunset, tangerine and hungry, glares at her.