My life was women.

My life was women. From a very young age, with very few exceptions – the main one being my excellent father – women were all I knew of the world. It was my mum, my three older sisters, an endless supply of aunts, my grandmothers – both grandfathers having passed away before I was born, and even a great-grandmother. Dad worked a lot and Mum stayed home with the girls. I never had a brother. We did have a male dog but his balls were unceremoniously chopped off one day, so.

I didn’t know that being a girl was considered second-rate, even in the 80’s and 90’s in Australia. That being a girl was considered alright, but. That my parents would get looks of pity every time they had yet another girl.

Are you going to try for a boy then?

Will you just keep going until you get one?

As though my sisters and I were unsatisfactory toys pulled out of an arcade claw game, and they had been aiming for something better.

I didn’t see any of this. It passed me happily by.

Me reading
My first babysitters were female – my grandma Aud or my great Aunt Lola. We’d eat ham and pickle sandwiches and drink lemonade from glasses with orange flowers stamped on them. The bubbles would pop softly in the heat. We would watch Mornings with Kerri-Anne – I had no idea what it had taken for her to succeed in an industry where even the queen of daytime TV herself didn’t get paid the same amount as men doing the same job.

My mother went back to work once I was old enough to go to day-care, then I went on to primary school. My teachers were mostly female – a male anomaly in year 6 but my school Principal was a woman. I was friends with boys; I didn’t view them as some strange ‘other’. I only knew that to me it was more fun making mud pies, skateboarding and hitting each other with our school bags than it was to act like a lady. My oldest sister bit all the heads off any dolls that made it into the house; the bottom of her closet a strange cemetery of tiny plastic limbs and synthetic hair. She also taught me how to write my name and how to spell before I was 6. My second oldest sister would teach me Maths and the importance of standing up for others, and my third oldest sister would make me go with her down storm drains and up trees from dawn till dusk, when we would return home covered in ant bites and dirt. We read books, and if we were ever bored, Mum made us write a story for her. I have a whole folder of my stories, carefully kept for all these years – my favourite is one about a group of spiders who hid in some people’s shoes, then bit them and turned into those people. No unicorns and princesses here; not for me.

Anna & Me

We went to Mass once a week and I would ask why there were no women priests.

Because women can’t be priests. My eyes widened. But it was probably just a one-off, right?

Lunchtimes at primary school were filled with playing Zoombinis on the computers in the library or games of handball on the quadrangle. My friend Joey came up to me once when I was just about to serve and pulled me aside, his face serious.

I think you’re ready to play with the boys.

What?

You’re good enough. You should play with us instead.

When I did play with them and beat them all I was told to go back with the girls where I belonged. Same as when I was the only girl in a swimming race in year 2. I beat them all in the 25 metre freestyle. Dad had come to watch and I’d never been more proud. There were a few crying boys, upset at being beaten by a girl, but I didn’t feel bad. I was just better than they were.

At the age of 12, I was told I needed to start shaving my legs.

Why?

Because you have to start acting like a lady.

But I’m not a lady, I’m 12.

When I did take that step I was praised by the girls around me and I felt better about myself. Felt like I fit in. That boys would see me as a girl rather than their friend, and that was what I wanted, right?

My high school was all girls. My sisters had all been there before me, done that; they were school captain, vice captain, prefect, dux of subjects – the list goes on. They are now a teacher, a doctor and a medical student. They are fierce, they’re the smartest people I know. They’re my stars.

4 Girls

My mother duxed her school. She told me once that her father was completely shocked that she won scholarships to attend university.

Why would you want to go to uni? You’re just going to get married soon.

Because I want to, Dad. I want to learn about the world and get a job and contribute. 

My grandmothers hadn’t finished school. I was gobsmacked when I learned that.

Why not? I asked.

Most women didn’t, was the answer.

But why?

Because we knew all we’d need to know by then. A woman’s place is in the home. You don’t need a fancy degree to know how to cook and sew and clean and raise children.

People ask me why I haven’t changed my last name since I’ve been married. This always puzzles me. Why would I? It’s not my name. I have no connection to it. It’s my husband’s name. He’s welcome to keep it.

But what about when you have kids?

Well, IF I have kids, that decision will be between my husband and me. If they end up with his last name, they might ask me why my name is different to theirs, and if they do I’ll tell them. Because my name is mine. Because being a woman doesn’t mean you have to accept things the way they’ve always been. If you want to change your name, that’s great. If you don’t want to, that’s great too.

My life now is women. It’s nurses on the ward, but usually not doctors. It’s hospital administration, to a certain level; it’s my manager, but not her manager. Why not? Oh I don’t know, lack of ambition, family commitments, too emotional, you know. They hold themselves back really, don’t they?

I read articles about a girl being raped in Croatia by three Australian men who pay her just over $30000 in a rape settlement. They have their one year sentence reduced to five years good behaviour. They buy their freedom, then make jokes on their instagram about joining the mile-high club with the flight attendant on their way back home. I read about Brock Turner, and other college campus rapists who get let off easily, and see how vilified their victims become.

I speak to my sisters of other colours, creeds, abilities – they face things I have never had to experience, thousands of tiny aggressions, again and again and again, and are told they must be twice as good to get half as much.

I see online vitriol sent to feminist pages. I see stomach-churning messages that guys send to my friends if they turn them down for a date. I get yelled at when I walk to the shops. I get into taxis and listen to the driver go on and on about how young women these days don’t act like ladies and they disgust him.

I’m 20, listening to my best friend tell me about a guy who keeps turning up to her place of work, asking her to join in a threesome, all the while insisting his attention is a compliment, while her male manager laughs it off. I’m 18, sitting at a bus stop, and a drunk man sits next to me, and I’m torn between wanting to move to keep myself safe but not wanting to seem rude. Then he turns to me, and starts saying disgusting things. Things that involve what he wants to do to me, how much I’d like it and I can’t move. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, and my face is heating up and my heart is a drum telling me to get out of there and I’m sick and feeling dirty and as though it’s my fault, then my feet can finally move and I start to get up and he pins me down and I start to scream and out of nowhere a security guard is there. I am crying and I run across the bridge, calling my mother to come and get me and the pain and anger in her voice when she hears what happened to me is palpable, and I am scared and sad and feel so wrong inside, like I’m polluted.

What can we do about these things? We’re just girls. And society tells us that it’s okay to be a girl, but.

We can be there for each other. We can be each other’s strongest allies. When we have daughters or meet people with daughters, we don’t smile sadly at them. We beam and congratulate them on their little bundle. And then, you wrap that little bundle up in our hope for their future. We will raise our daughters to believe in themselves. That they are never, ever, to think that they are worth less or worthless because they are a girl. That they are powerful and fierce and that they never, ever have to just shut up and take it, or smile, sweetheart, or that they have to get back in the kitchen. That they don’t have to laugh if they don’t think a joke is funny. That they are funny, despite what people say about female comedians. That they are wise. That they can be pilots or doctors or lawyers or nurses or teachers or firefighters or astronauts or mothers or soldiers or philosophers. You can even tell them what my parents told me. That if you want to be a writer, you should be a writer.

That you are important.

That you can change the world.

That anyone who says or thinks otherwise can suck it.

 

 

At the Movies with Anna & Stephanie

ImageMy big sister was born on a Wednesday; the kind of Wednesday that meant she’d be full of woe the rest of her life. We had that poem on a square biscuit tin and we’d always pay Anna out about it, ourselves being fair of face, workin’ hard for a livin’, bonny, blithe, good and gay and all that jazz. Anna responded the way she always did; that is to say, she didn’t really respond. She was a weird kid.

But I wanted to be exactly like her. When Anna decided she hated having her picture taken for anything, I suddenly hated having my picture taken (even though I capital L-, bold, underlined, italicised –o-v-e-d it, but Anna was my tastemaker, my barometer of acceptable and cool. So when we go to the movies, and I laugh at something I think is funny, I look around to see if she’s laughing too. Only, she never is. There might be a flick of a smile and then it’s gone, Anna’s face a silent, severe, respectful mask.

One time a large group of us went to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and there was a crowd of rude teenagers being themselves: chatting, yelling out, throwing popcorn at each other. There were so many ‘tuts’ and ‘tsks’ it was like being surrounded by geckos, but no one said anything. No one but Anna. People don’t often ignore Anna when she speaks; she does so with such conviction it will make anyone think twice. She’ll turn it on her family too, when we’re at the movies together, laughing our assortment of laughs, and there will be Anna at the end of the row, serious and watchful, and she’ll lean towards us, a fierce ‘sh’ at her lips, and mum will dramatically act abashed and dad will smile and I’ll roll my eyes; Em will be too busy asking if the movie is a true story or not and Claire won’t even hear because she’s laughing her head off at the screen.

‘Well’, Anna says reasonably afterwards when we all give her shit for it, ‘people pay to see the movie. We need to respect that.’

Have I mentioned she’s an actress?

Once, just Anna and I went to see the last Lord of the Rings together, the last real trilogy, before someone in Hollywood decided that the 3rd film in any trilogy needed to be split into 2 films. Bye bye trilogy, hello quin…tilogy? tology? tuplet?

I remember crying when Frodo is hanging off the ledge in Mount Doom as the world explodes around them, and he gets that look in his eyes that says he’s just so tired, the ring is gone and won’t it all just be so much easier to let go? I was smooshed into my seat, hunched to protect myself, whispering ‘don’t you dare’.

I couldn’t look at Anna. I was too afraid she’d think I was ridiculous, that this moment would be taken from me, that my tears would be downgraded somehow by the lack of her own.

As the credits rolled and ‘On the Horizon’ began playing right after Sam closes his front door, Anna at that moment turned to me.

Her face was streaming wet, her eyes red, and more tears fell as she spoke.

‘That movie,’ she choked, ‘shat all over the other two.’

Week Twenty-Five Prompt: Intersection, “Closer”.

Closer

“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.” – Albert Einstein

“At this stage, it remains unclear how many people have been injured, as the chaos surrounding the nightclub fire continues. First reports indicate an electrical short ignited the acoustical backing which surrounded the stage area…”
*
The morning has been chaos, I’ve been down in Emergency helping transfer the stable patients to theatre or a ward. The hospital is on bypass now, we’re not taking any more admissions. The burns unit is full and every bed up here contains someone in pain. Alexa asks me to do a dressing on a patient for her; rattling off a quick handover: She’s come to us from Emergency overnight, she’s fairly stable, extubated already, the main problems for her are pain management and infection control. Alexa touches my shoulder, “It’s a mix of first, second and third degree – her face, right arm, bilateral legs, abdo – face and arm are the worst. Just those dressings for now. Thanks.” I nod and enter the room, wheeling my dressing trolley in with me. The TV is blaring, another newscast about the fire fills the room. I mute it, and suddenly all I can hear is the ticking clock and the soft put-put-put of the pump pushing fluids into the patient’s one good arm. 

I cross to the sink, scrubbing my hands for the thirtieth time that day. My skin feels raw as I grab a towel and pat them dry, snapping gloves on after opening the dressing pack. What I can see of the woman is covered in bandages; swollen eyes and mouth are all I can see of her face. Puffy fingers peek out from one bandaged arm; the other arm uncovered, relatively unscathed. Good. One good arm. That is good. That will help. She begins whimpering as I slowly and carefully drip sterile saline onto the old dressings on her arm. 

“I know it hurts, I know. Try to take slow breaths.  We have to soften the bandages first before changing them.” 

Clotted blood and haemoserous stains turn wet, shiny from the saline. The dressing relaxes, no longer dried out papier mache, and I slowly, carefully, peel it back. 

Stop. Just stop. Get that look off your face. This is your job. Breathe through your mouth and suck it up. Breathe. Just breathe. This is a person. She is still a person. 

I bite my tongue. Stop. Her arm, what used to be an arm; what might, some day, again be an arm, stirs, reaches out, searching. Just stop. It brushes against mine; hot and angry. I watch it for a moment, see the red, oozing, raw skin against my own. My first impulse is to draw back, shake it off, some disgusting, rotting, inhuman thing touching me. She pulls her arm back, leaving a smear of clear fluid on my skin. I stare at the mark she left, anchoring me to this moment. Get that look off your face. The smell smacks into me, sinking into my nose, my skin, my clothes. This is your job. I close my eyes and suddenly, I am two years old again. I am staring out at the driveway of my childhood home. It is 45 degrees outside – mum and dad keep talking about it, “heat wave”, “we really should get air conditioning”. The driveway is paved dark stone and the heat is visible, rising in hazy waves to meet the hot blue sky. I am wearing latticed white stockings, no shoes, and a dress. It is 45 degrees outside. The door is propped open to let some air in. I step outside. 

Breathe through your mouth and suck it up. I think of the effort it must have taken this woman to touch me, how much pain it would cause that arm to brush against mine. Her eyes are wet; she is blinking as though she can’t see clearly. I look around for a tissue and grab one from her bedside table, holding it to her eyes. The tissue soaks up the salt water and I watch her mouth. She seems like she might be trying to talk, but I can’t understand her.

I reach to take off the dressings covering her face. They peel off, one by one, the smell rising up in cloying tendrils, getting worse with each unraveling layer. I gasp. I can’t help it when I see her face. What used to be her face. What might, someday, again be her face. But not today. Today it is half gone, blackened and shiny and swollen and oozing and it's never struck me before that without hair, eyebrows, a nose or cheeks a person doesn’t look like a person any more. Breathe. Just Breathe. The breaths remind me to focus on what she has been through. What she will go through. I see it all now, spinning out before me on some kind of timeline; I see debridements and amputations and skin grafts and excisions. I see how completely her life has changed even though she doesn’t know it yet. I see that right now all she needs is for me to be calm. In control. I take a deep breath. This is a person. I wipe a smile onto my face. 

“You’re going to be okay,” I lie through my teeth. I am two years old again. I am screaming and screaming and screaming as my stockings melt into my feet. I cannot move. I can only scream. 

“I’m just going to change these dressings okay? It will be over soon.” Panicked footsteps, and my dad is almost there. I know it’s my dad, even through my tears I can see he is dad-shaped and crying and trying to get to me faster. Closer now. Closer.
Almost there. 

“Almost there, I promise. I just have to clean this first.” He’s there, scooping me up, crying and yelling and so mad at me but gentle and I am so tiny in his arms and then I am in the car, feet in an orange bucket. There is ice and water in the bucket and I cannot stop screaming. My sister is holding me, shushing me, telling me it will be alright. ‘You’re at the hospital now, they will take care of you. This is where people come when they’re hurt because people know what to do here. They look after you
here.’

She is still a person. 

“Right,” The nurse smiles down at me, I smile down at the woman; calm, in control. “Let’s get you fixed up.” I relax in the nurse’s arms. I trust her. The woman grips my hand suddenly, tight against mine, and her breaths come easier. She trusts me. 

**NB** 45 degrees Celsius is 113 degrees Fahrenheit. 

This has been an intersection with the very lovely , who put up with my nitpicking like a real trooper. Now go read hers, it's awesome!

Many thanks to  for 'whipping' (har har, see what I did there?) this into shape. 

Like it? Vote for it here, and don't forget to give kizzy a vote too!

Week Twenty-Two Prompt: Bridge

Gremlins

We ride bikes over bridges. There are hundreds here, spread all over Osaka like some gigantic game of pick-up-sticks. We ride bikes because Alex isn’t allowed to drive or even get in a car for the next year. They ride bikes to work, riding straight on to the ferry then off again, then onto the train and off again, and I can't keep up. Alex and her friends laugh between themselves, calling out to one another, “The artist will not risk any harm, accidental or otherwise, to his or her body, while contracted to the company.” I don’t get the joke, the awkward younger sister playing catch-up tag-along with Alex and her friends. She explains over her shoulder. 

“We’re not allowed, but when we’re drunk we take taxis, and one night Chantelle wouldn’t stop repeating our contract, over and over, and I guess-” she sees my face falling. It’s not that funny.

“You had to be there,” Alex finishes lamely and I nod, uncertain. 

I’ve come here to help Alex, but she doesn’t want help. She wants to ignore it and I’m on ice around her, trying not to slip. So I nod and we ride, and there’s nothing between us but the wind in our hair and the whistling hum of bike wheels over bridges.

*

“Suit work is hard,” Alex tells me. 

“Suit work?” I’m distracted by the night parade spinning past, screaming at me that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Normally, for my family, it would be, but since that phone call, the one that changed everything, Alex has been ignoring us. So now I’m here, watching the night parade and Alex is beside me because she has the day off and wants to talk about suit work which she's never done but her friends have.  Suit work, when you have to dress up as Shrek or Bugs Bunny and spend hours standing around, every movement bigger than life, your face melting under the heat and the claustrophobic giant head over yours. Real important stuff.

Not as important as the answering machine telling you your sister needs to begin treatment for a cancer no one knew she had. Not as important as the scrambled panic to dial the buttons to call Alex to give her the news. She was only home for a week, and went to the doctor for a check up and then flew back to Japan to be an entertainer for another year, forgetting to wait around for the results, assuming she was fine. I hear the click that means she has hung up on me, and that click tells me she needs me. 

So I pack my bags, and while I’m packing I remember something from our childhood, something Alex was never seen without, something that lies forgotten in a closet somewhere. I pull him out, a bit dusty but still grinning. Gizmo, the Gremlin. We went on the Gremlin ride at Movieworld when we were little, screaming and clutching each other. Alex made me go on another seven times. Dad bought Alex the Gizmo toy and she dragged him with her everywhere she went; school, parties, bed. I hold him close now and breathe him in; he smells of childhood and is so tied up with Alex as a little girl that I start to cry. 

But now I’m here and I’m not crying but she doesn’t want to talk about it. She wants to talk about how hard suit work is, because she can’t admit to herself that she’s very, very sick. 

*

I lie on the floor of her tiny studio apartment; the one they give the entertainers who work for the company. Free from rent and space, the bathroom is in the kitchen and I’m on a mattress three feet from the front door, next to the toilet closet. Alex is on her bed and I’m dozing off when I hear her gasp. She sits up and I swear I can hear her heart pounding, or maybe it’s mine but I’m up on the bed next to her. She is struggling to breathe and I take her pulse. Her heart is racing and she looks at me with something like fear in her eyes. I reach into my suitcase and rifle through. My hand catches on an ear and I pull Gizmo out. Her tears fall like hailstones and her gulps are loud in my ears as we cling to each other on her tiny bed. 

“We’ll get through this. We have to.”

She holds me tighter and I know what she’s saying; that she’s not ready yet, that she’s glad I’m here, that she doesn’t want to leave but she will come home soon. That she can’t believe her younger sister is taking care of her. That she wants to say thank you, but can’t find the words. 

I find them for her, and I whisper to her in the dark. Words of encouragement sink into the night around us, wrapping her up in my hope for her future. You will be okay, you will get better, you will fight this and you will survive. Slowly, her breaths come easier. 

*

We wake, wrapped around each other, necks stiff and knees creaking. My eyes are puffy and I blink them open. I must have cried at some point and I feel like a wet rag wrung out, left to dry in a heap on the bathroom floor. Alex is next to me, eyes still shut, hands curled around Gizmo, so much younger than her 26 years. The street noises far below drift up to us like smoke signals. Start your day, get moving. 

She stirs, then clears her throat.

“Wait here.”

*

Alex is gone for over an hour, and I stare out the window in her apartment. I see the smoke stacks, the buildings, the cars, the bridges, stretched out over the city, people like ants from up here, crawling aimlessly. I wonder how many other people out there are sick, how many are crying, sleeping, laughing, eating. At times like this, I imagine there is a plan for us all; that we can’t all be here for nothing, that all the suffering has a point. I imagine the world is better than it is. Then I stop, because if I don’t I’ll go crazy and I do know the world also has a lot of good in it, and there’s a knock at the door and Alex’s friends are looking for her and they see that something is wrong and they wait with me. 

They stream America’s Got Talent on Alex’s laptop; one of their friends back home is going to be in it and they want to cheer them on. I’m sitting in the corner of Alex’s room, waiting for her, hugging Gizmo to my chest. One of Alex’s friends teases me about Gizmo, and another one tells me one of the judges was the voice of Gizmo in the Gremlins movies. 

Their voices mingle around me and I lose track of the conversation. They cheer for their friend, but I can’t; I don’t know this person, I don’t even really know these people, but I am grateful they are here and that they seem to care about Alex. 

She comes in and stops short at the sight of us gathered in her room. They mute the computer, and I can’t look at Alex so I stare at America’s Got Talent; watch fire twirlers glinting in the stage lights and I think for a moment I’d give anything to be one of them instead, away from this tiny room. Alex crosses over to me and snaps the laptop shut. My neck cricks as I look up at her. 

“I’ve just been to talk to the director. I’m going home,” she says to the room at large, but she’s looking right at me and suddenly I am five and I am on the Gremlin ride at Movieworld.  I am lost and scared and screaming and wanting to run from the Gremlins which have taken over and then out of nowhere I feel a hand over mine; I open my eyes and see it is her hand, and I look at her, teary-eyed and she is shrieking too. She squeezes my hand. It is her way of telling me that she’s here with me, that it’s okay to be scared, that we don’t have to face the Gremlins alone.

This has been an intersection with the ever lovely . I wanted our team name to be whipgig, but she just looked at me funny

Week Twenty Prompt: Open Topic

After-Haze

Rachael wanted to know. She couldn’t help herself. She needed to know if it had really happened. She needed to know how it had happened; not just in the vague ‘some sort of accident’ way. She was filled with a perverse desire to know exactly what had gone on in the seconds, minutes, hours before and what had happened immediately after. When exactly had his heart stopped pumping, his blood stopped running and his body stopped breathing? What he had said, how it had smelled – was he even really gone? Because it couldn’t – it just sounded stupid.

She had gone to Dan’s hospital room at some point during the night, or it might have been the day; who could tell anymore? Who even cared? She didn’t want to hold her mother in her arms or watch her dad’s resolve crumble. She didn’t want to see anyone else’s heart break. She was sick of being hugged, sick of being cried over and sick of being sick to her stomach at the thought of what might have happened to Rob. So she had left, her footsteps squeaking dimly on the shiny linoleum, the clamour of the emergency department fading slowly as she made her way up the long hallway. She thought she might have brushed up against a shoulder and mumbled an apology in the elevator but she wasn’t sure. Her ears were filled with a quiet beeping and buzzing; it might have been the machines or it might have been entirely in her head. She didn’t really know. She just knew she wanted to talk to Dan. Dan, who had been getting a lift home from the party with Rob, who wasn’t a part of their family (although he was, really); Dan, who was her sort-of boyfriend and who was alive. The door to Dan’s room had been left open and she slipped through, leaving the confusion and noise of the ward behind her. She stood for a moment, letting the quiet of the room settle like dust around her, falling silently to the carpet beneath her feet.

She had thought she needed to think, but up here in this stillness her thoughts made no sense. Up here, she felt like the only living person left in the world. Everything was hazy. The blues and whites of the room dimmed around her and she was vaguely aware of feeling cold but Rob might be gone forever and so it didn’t matter. That was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. That he could go from existing to just not all of a sudden. She squeezed her eyes shut and heard Rob’s laugh fade as a car swerved into oncoming traffic. There would have been the squealing of tyres and a panicked turning of the wheel and the sudden, sickening crunch of metal on metal and then…nothing. Rob had just…gone, as though on some kind of trip, but not the kind you could check his facebook for updates on. Her heart stopped as she realised Rob might never again update his facebook, and then she laughed, because her mum’s voice in her head was saying, “honestly Rachael, what a thing to think of at a time like this!”

She had to make sure, though, absolutely sure that there hadn’t been some terrible mistake; that she wouldn’t wake tomorrow to find that this had all been a dream. She knew it had happened, but, what if?

Her brothers were okay. Physically, they were okay, but she didn’t think she could ask them for the proof she needed. She couldn’t ask Justin, because he had made a stupid joke to lighten the mood, but it had left a bitter taste in her mouth and Rachael had turned away. She couldn’t ask Steve because he was Rob’s twin and how unfair was that and she wasn’t even sure he could hear her, anyway. She wasn’t even sure she could hear herself; and seventeen year old girls never have a problem hearing themselves.  

Dan had been asleep when she entered the room, curled on his side amongst the blur of white on white. For a moment she didn’t want to disturb him, but then he was stirring and stretching and sleepily blinking his eyes open. He tensed as he saw her there and shifted in the bed; a movement that seemed to say, “I’m here” and he sighed, once, and held out his arms as if to say, “I’m so sorry”.

Rachael nodded, finally, and (because Dan was alive and he owed her this at least) asked him if her brother was dead.

He was.

*

Justin’s girlfriend Lisa comes into the kitchen, arms full of books and face full of tired. She searches Dan out and finds him sitting on the counter next to the stove.

“I was up all night trying to find something that would help me to verbalise it. I went through poems and verses and articles.” She sets the books down on the table with a heavy thud. “I found some. They might help.”

Dan sees that she is trying, that she hates feeling impotent and can’t stand the idea of not being able to solve a problem. He sees that books and words have always been able to give her solace, but –

“But nothing seems to fit,” she says. “They’re not-”

“Enough,” says Dan.

“Yeah.”

They stand there in the kitchen together not saying anything, because they are both a part of this and outside of it and they don’t know what to do.

*

It’s the third night after the accident, and Rachael and Dan are sharing her single white bed. Normally this wouldn’t be allowed but normal is a place so very far away from right here that everyone just sort of turns a blind eye. A part of Rachael feels as though she is taking advantage of this situation, but she has locked that part up somewhere very small and out of the way (maybe behind her left knee), because right now she needs him.  

She is lying with her head pillowed on his chest. In the silence, she can hear his heart beating and without warning the tears come, slowly at first but then in earnest, until she is gasping and shaking in his arms. He holds her and she is curled against his chest, all arms and hands and awkward elbows pressed between their bodies. She taps the place where she can feel the beat and says, “It’s your heartbeat. You have one.”

Dan groans and pulls her closer and mumbles something into her hair; something that might be “I love you” but all that matters to Rachael is the solid press of him against her. She thinks that might be enough for her to get to sleep tonight.

*

Sometimes Rachael gets so angry she can't stop shaking. It happens at stupid things, like when people tell her to stay strong, or when the florist asks her if she minds waiting till she has finished serving someone else. An unreasonable surge of fury will course through her, scaring her a little bit because she has never been a really angry person before, but now she feels like yelling at everyone, at everything. Yelling things like, “Are you serious, you dickhead? Don't you know that my brother just died?” She doesn't think she should have to wait to talk about the flowers for the funeral; she in fact shouldn't be organising a funeral at all because Rob should be here with her instead, chatting the assistant up while winking at Rachael as she rolls her eyes at him and the whole thing is ugly; so ugly it hurts.  She can't believe she uses Rob's death as an excuse for being a bitch but she can't stop and the worst part is that she doesn't really want to.

*

Rachael has a lot of time to think, because no one is saying anything, except by accident. And so she thinks.

She thinks it's funny that she spent her entire year thinking about Dan because her world had become about him, but Dan is here and her brother isn't and isn't that ironic? She could have been spending every last second with Rob instead; maybe then she wouldn't be left with this horrible pit in her stomach that told her she wasn't a good enough sister; that she should have tried harder, been better, somehow.

She thinks that the funny thing about her brother dying is that she doesn’t die too; her body still needs to eat and pee. Rachael sees the looks on people’s faces; the understanding glances passing between friends and hates that they are thinking it is a good sign that she is showering.

Rachael wonders about these things that make up a person; these hearts, these veins, these lungs encased in skin. She has always known that skin can be touched and tasted, that it can shiver and grow and breathe, but she has learnt that it can tear and bruise and bleed; that it can be ripped from your body and that there is nothing you can do about it. She has learnt that really, it isn't that hard to die and she hates how fragile people are; hates that Rob wasn't (as it turns out) ten feet tall and bulletproof. 

Then there is Dan, Rachael thinks. Dan, who has never had a family (except for hers, when her mum insisted he stay with them rather than his dropkick parents), Dan, who knows loss better than almost anyone, but he doesn’t get it, not really. He doesn’t get the fact that there is one less person in her world; one less person who will nag her and call her names and stick up for her virtue and make her laugh and make her cry until she laughs again. One less person who she loved who loved her back.

*

It is a week before Rachael smiles. This happens on the same day that she has put on make up since it happened. It is also, incidentally, the day of the funeral and she is upstairs, leaning against her bedroom door, trying to breathe.

She hears Rob’s – no, Steve’s – voice say “Rach”, very softly. She opens the door and Steve is standing there, looking so much like his twin it hurts, the memory of Rob hanging between them like some kind of twisted double vision. Steve is smiling and holding a piece of paper. A ripple of fear runs through her and she thinks he might actually have gone mad, but then he flips the paper over to reveal a diagram scribbled in boyish scrawl. Steve is laughing, saying something about going through Rob’s things and finding a blueprint for a robot from when they were thirteen and stupid and Rachael smiles then, a real smile, and feels the bubble of something strange gurgle inside her. It’s laughter, and even though it’s not that funny, they sink to the floor together, stomachs aching from laughing so much. Gasping for air, Rachael feels like she can breathe again.

*

Dan is in the yard and he looks up as he hears the back door open. Rachael is standing on the veranda, leaning over the railing watching him. Dan pulls a face at her. The ghost of a smile flits across Rachael’s face and then is gone, like a child scurrying home just as dark begins to fall.  Dan wants to grab on to that moment, the moment where he feels powerful, like how you feel when you make a baby laugh. Only thing wrong with feeling that way is the baby will tire of silly faces eventually and will be more interested in sticking its feet into its mouth, and you wind up feeling worse because you know what you are missing out on.

*

Sometimes Rachael walks into a room and stands there for a while, then walks out again because she can't remember what she is doing. She is too busy wondering.

Wondering whether he knew, whether he could see his life as though on a timeline, the ones of your own life you had to draw at school during ‘Personal Development’ lessons. Could he see where the end was marked, hazy and indistinct until those moments; those final, fleeting, forever-moments just before it happened? Did his brain click and slot the last piece of his life into place like a jigsaw puzzle? Rachael hoped not, because Rob had hated jigsaw puzzles; hated the way they always made an entirely different picture from the one you imagined.

*

Rachael walks into the kitchen to find her family (minus one) sitting around the table. Her mum beckons her over and she does something she hasn’t done since she was a little girl and climbs, rather awkwardly, into her mum’s lap, jabbing her in the stomach. Her mum doesn’t mind and Rachael closes her eyes, letting the talk of the others wash over her as she leans into her mum’s chest. She hears her mum’s heart beating a steady thump against her own and she smiles, glad the beat is so strong.

Beside her, Justin is pissing himself over a story Steve is telling about Rob making a dick of himself to impress some girl and her dad keeps interrupting them, shit-stirring them by reminding Steve exactly who it was who had run screaming up the stairs after finding out where he came from and Justin is saying in an imitation baby voice, chin wobbling, “You mean, I wasn’t delivered by a stork?” Rachael isn’t sure whether they are laughing or crying; her mum’s shoulders are shaking so hard that Rachael’s head knocks painfully against them but she doesn’t care because she feels so close to normal and she doesn't want to let that go.

*

Later, she goes up to her room and Dan is there, having snuck in the way he always does these days.  The shadow light filters through the curtains and something stirs within her. She is suddenly right here, in this moment, in a way she hasn’t been in weeks, then she is beside him, under the covers with him and their faces are too close together and they are kissing like kisses are light and they are stuck in the dark, trying to get out.

Afterwards, they lie there cramped on the single mattress and Rachael feels compelled to talk, to say something to reassure Dan that she is getting there, wherever there is.

“I’m trying,” she says to the ceiling.

He rolls toward her, slipping an arm around her waist. An “I know” is mumbled into her back and they are kissing again, and Rachael feels as though each kiss is one stitch back together after being broken open for so long.

*

Justin leaves the next day, saying something about needing to get away and spend some time with Lisa. Rachael doesn't like how lonely he looks as he heads towards his car, shoulders slumped and hands in pockets, kicking idly at the grass pooling around his ankles. 

Steve is spending more and more time at his and Rob’s shop, though it’s really just his now. He is interviewing for a new Assistant Manager and each night when he comes by the house he looks at Rachael's hopeful expression and shakes his head. "Not yet. But there's a guy coming in tomorrow I've got a good feeling about."

Her parents visit the grave everyday before work, and her mum volunteers at the hospital whenever she can.

*

The world-heart beats on, on, on. Water runs through its river-veins, the earth-skin breathes in, out, in. Days spin by and some things (but not everything) are lost in the pain-haze of the then and the now.

Until.

Rachael looks up. Dan’s blue eyes meet her brown ones.

“Hi,” (I’m still here).

She will be okay.

Week Seventeen Prompt: Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

"All I know is that every time I go to Africa, I am shaken to my core." 

Stephen Lewis

Sean finds the turtle shell on his grandparents farm outside of Harare. It is empty, sunbaked and dried out and so, so cool. He picks it up, tiny hands clasping the grooved surface, white against green, determined. He isn’t worried about the fact that it’s dirty, or that something has died in there and rotted out and that he could get an infection. He does what every other six-year-old boy would do. He straps it onto his back, cuts his mother’s tablecloth into strips, ties those strips around his forehead, ankles and wrists, and tells everyone he knows (and some he doesn’t) that he is a teenage mutant ninja turtle.

Now all he needs is a knife.

Sean makes knives in his dad’s factory; long jagged pieces of steel torn off from discarded sheet metal lying on the factory floor. Sean watches the orange sparks skitter with the dust motes in the factory air; watches his knives against the grinder, sharpened by the workers who won’t ever let him use the machine himself.

Sean eats with the workers, small white hands mingling with their large black ones in the bowl of sadza nyama nemuriwo, rolling hot sticky gloops between his fingers, slipping them into his mouth before it gets cold. Friday laughs at him, white teeth bright and flashing as he shows Sean how he makes it. The steam warms Sean's face as he leans over the bowl, breathing it in. He has never tasted anything more delicious.

Years pass, and Sean’s parents worry about him. They worry for his safety, because a friend of theirs has just been shot trying to pick her kids up from school. They worry because one of Sean’s friends found her dad’s gun, put it to her belly and pulled the trigger. They worry because blacks and whites are dying and there’s no food or petrol left and Sean won’t be a boy much longer and pretty soon he might have to use his toy knives for survival and his parents don’t think it will be enough against all this history and hate and corruption.

It breaks their hearts, but they leave, because they are in a position to do so. 

Sean brings his Australian girlfriend to Zimbabwe when he is twenty-five. She has never been in a place where the difference between white and black is so pronounced before. 

She brings a journal. “I’m going to find out everything,” she tells Sean and he smiles. That’s how she shows she’s here for him.

She talks to everyone, as much as she can, because she wants to understand this sad and lovely place Sean comes from. This country which has fought itself broken and back again and she wants to know why.

Everything is solid here; the air, thick and overwhelming, the ground beneath her feet dirt red and rich and green, so green she can't believe it. The houses and the furniture, everything seems to be carved out of the earth, hewn from rocks and trees and there since forever.

Here, nothing comes from Ikea and there is no such thing as Tupperware. The people here draw warm, easy breaths into their hard working lungs, people who, according to Knowledge, the bus driver she talks to, can do anything. He says the people of his country could do anything given half the chance, and she can see that he is hoping with all his might for that half a chance to come along.

She speaks to a farmer who immigrated to Zambia after being thrown out of Zimbabwe, and he is bitter and broken and trying not to be. “As long as you have this white skin? Ah sut, you are just a visitor. You don’t belong.” He is speaking more to himself than to her and she is not prepared for this. She doesn’t know what to say.

Tulani tells her that although things were nicer before, they are getting okay now. He is guarded when she asks him about the election coming up (whenever Bob decides to call it) and who he thinks will win. Tulani does not have the luxury of an opinion, but he hopes things will get better for him, his family and his country.

The pilot she talks to tells her that 2002 was a bad year; the year they all nearly left. He is lean and careworn. There is something in his eyes she can’t bring herself to look at, because she doesn’t know how to define it, and she has never had that problem before.

She does not understand what has happened here, and her African adventure is not at all what she imagined it would be.

Instead, she has come to an old country, to God’s country, and she has seen sunsets and waterfalls and lions eating baboons and shanty towns and community vegetable gardens and bowls made from cut off pieces of telephone wire sewn together with copper and kids playing soccer with rolled up TM bags and this place, this hopeful hopeless place stirs her blood more deeply than anything she could possibly have imagined.

Sean finds her sitting on his grandma’s spare bed; quiet, unopened journal in her hand. She looks soft and young and fragile like this with a patchwork quilt beside her and her legs tucked up under her.

“Hey,” he smiles at her. She looks up. “What are you thinking about?”

“Oh,” she sighs. “Just,” there is a silence. He waits. “Everything I guess. This place,” she gestures vaguely.

“It makes you want to save it, you know?” She is earnest, her hands fisted at her sides. “But there's too…It's too…You can’t.”

She knows how naïve she sounds and hopes he won’t make fun of it. She feels impotent and inadequate and everything she has never felt before in her first world life. Her intentions, her words, her journal are no use here.

“No, you can’t,” Sean agrees. He slips an arm around her waist. “It’s just going to have to save itself.”

Like it? Vote for it! 

Week Sixteen Prompt: Reinventing the Wheel

An Alternate History of the Universe

It doesn’t end well, the story of you and your friend, so you rewrite it. This way, you get the ending where your heart doesn’t break; this way, you never have to write your friend’s eulogy, and the world is as it should be.

In your story, Switzerland isn't a place, and she never tries white water rafting. In your story, freak waves and capsized boats don’t exist.

You never receive a gasping-and-shaking call on a Monday morning; you never have the feeling you’ve been ripped up from the inside out. At no point do you yell at a florist for screwing up an arrangement, nor cradle her mum in your arms. There is no need for others to tell you to stay strong.

In your story, she was never dragged under the heartless river. You don’t lie awake and wondering at night, thinking about the water, or how scared she must have felt, or punish yourself for not seeing her off at the airport because you were sick. In your story, you are not numb, you don’t forget your mother’s birthday and there is no need for antidepressants. You never call her phone to hear her voicemail and you never, ever, stand at her grave and whisper ‘I miss you’, into the autumn wind.

The story you write has a different ending.

In your story, you take a trip to the coast together. The air is warm and salty; the sun drenches you both as the sand squirms between your toes. You daydream about Ryan Gosling and you fight over which flavor of Boost juice is the best. There is a sunset, and there is the drive home, and there is the promise of tomorrow.

In your story, tomorrow comes. 

Like it? Vote for it!