If tears eroded my face
revealing the damage within,
would it still be beautiful?
If tears eroded my face
revealing the damage within,
would it still be beautiful?
It’s 2:17 AM in Canmore, Alberta. I’ve been tossing and turning in bed for hours trying to fall asleep and I finally gave up and put Oh Wonder‘s self-titled debut album on my iPod Classic in the hopes that it would calm me down. ‘White Blood’ comes on (the 7th song in this shuffle) and this image resurfaced in my mind. A girl, slow-dancing in the middle of a house party to whatever music is playing in her earphones. Her love interest finds her through the crowd, takes an earbud and places it in his own ear and they slow dance together amongst the throng of people dancing to a much wilder beat. It’s an image I had tried to write into a romance story 9 years ago. It’s been almost as long since I’ve thought of it and its return has taken me completely by surprise.
Earlier tonight, my mother and I were watching an old classic, When Harry Met Sally, on TV. In my head I’m making excuses for myself. “It’s a chick flick but I like the writing.” “That relationship isn’t supposed to be real life but it’s so interesting to watch unfold.” The idea that some love interest might come and find me on the dance floor listening to my own music is depressingly unrealistic. As much as I want to block out the shitty techno crap, earbuds are not going to cut it at a house party. Love interests can’t be relied upon to show up.
And I’d never dance alone.
Who is the love of your life? You expect some wonderful person to sweep into your life; before you know it you’d find yourself completely upside down without them. It should be yourself. You should be able to choose yourself.
Golden grill of sadness, mid-life wasted youth
Always ends up like this, always gonna lose
Dazzle me, dazzle me, dazzle me with gold…
I know she’s home
leaning on somebody loving life
all in my mind the anvil and the weight on my back
Ben Howard, ‘Small Things’
The Hordern Pavillion was not her favourite venue but the look on her face told me she was pleased at the turn out for this gig. Ben Howard had cancelled his original date and pushed back the performance two months, much to the disappointment of his fans. The venue’s website had said his set wouldn’t begin until 9:15 PM but when she walked into the general admission at 9:06 PM, he was already on stage, playing a song from the newest album: one she did not recognise. To be completely honest, she was here for ‘Black Flies’ and the rest was all very pleasant background noise.
The crowd was thick and milling, filled mostly with hipster men clasping plastic cups of beer and leaning their shaggy heads over hippy-styled girlfriends in chunky heels and superfluous hats. The room, a big hall with tiered seating on three sides and an expansive standing area all geared towards the stage. There was Ben, backlit and frontlit and all kinds of lit really, crooning away to his guitar, surrounded by more musical instruments than musicians to play them. The band was sizeable enough: a drummer at the back, keyboardist and various percussion instruments downstage right, bass player upstage right, lead guitarist upstage left and a woman alternating between cello, guitar and obscure oversized harmonica-pipe thing downstage left.
Making her way through the crowd, she was grateful for the decision to wear shoes with a hidden wedge heel. However, she was able to see little more than the lighting rig and dozens of smart phones jutting up from the crowd. Ten years ago, people at live music gigs would have had considerably less sore arms, I suppose.
Alessa made herself comfortable in the front row of a section of seats that were completely unoccupied. She had been sitting there enjoying the last five songs when a lanky young man with thick-framed glasses and a patchy beard plopped into the seat beside her, legs splayed out front and arms stretched lazily across each chair back. Alessa surveyed his shoes: beaten up black Vans. They were in no better condition than the shredded hems of his tight-fitting jeans with a tear in one knee.
“You couldn’t have sat somewhere else? Anywhere else?” she snapped, gesturing at the empty seats around them.
It was as if he moved in slow motion, removing his glasses and angling his head to look down his long nose at her. Even his voice was slow. “Sugar, you just looked so utterly lonely.”
Alessa couldn’t help it. She burst out laughing. “Sugar? Surely, you have better lines than that?” There was something about how he said it that showed he’d never used a line before.
He made a face and replaced his glasses, making no effort to respect the personal space bubble. “I saved the best for you? Honestly, walking over here and sitting down was the hardest thing I’ve had to do all day.”
Alessa fixed him with a look, quirked eyebrow and pursed lips.
“All week. All month even.”
She sighed. “You need more stimulating things in your life,” she said, patting his leg sympathetically.
He shot her a sidelong glance. “I’m sure you’ll take care of that for me.”
Alessa laughed. “Oh, alright then, what’s your name?”
“Jason,” he replied with an easy albeit slightly crooked smile.
Blond hair flashed as she ran into the bedroom. The door banged against the frame. When he tried to edge inside, just to finish the conversation, she threw something at him. It shattered against the door where his head had been only moments before.
“Christina!” he yelled. “Are you trying to kill me?”
Another object smashed as it hit the door.
Brad pounded on the door. “Christina, let me in!”
There was no reply, only the sound of drawers opening and closing and the occasional sniff. Moments later he heard something scraping against the wooden floor until it stopped on the other side of the door.
That was it for Brad. He’d had it.
“Have you seen Annie and Mark Matherson lately?” said Shontay in her typically obnoxious drawl.
The women she was standing with tittered their denials.
Shontay smirked. She had them hooked now. “Well, last night I heard,” she began with a grandiose gesture to herself, “their little boy screaming of hours and hours. You know I live just next door? It was the loudest thing; I nearly called the police! But I don’t want to tell anyone how to parent their own child. My Olivia is doing just fine though.”
Shontay gestured towards the swing set where an eight-year-old girl, tall for her age with syrup coloured hair, was kicking her white sandalled feet out in front of her, trying to touch the sky. She watched Olivia whoop with delight then returned her gaze to her audience, a smug smile on her face. They however were no longer tittering with delight.
“Why didn’t you?” said the one with the short brown hair, a serious, almost appalled, expression on her face.
Shontay felt her smile slip just a little. “Why didn’t I what?”
“Why didn’t you call the police?” piped up the blond one. A few of them nodded in agreement. The brunette simply stared at her.
Shontay crossed her arms, clearly uncomfortable.
“You know that family, they let the boy stay up until all hours, give him anything he wants. Ice cream for breakfast! Have you ever heard such a thing? I thought he was just overtired.” Her expressive voice regained its theatricality with each word. “When Olivia was that age, if you didn’t put her down at 2 PM on the dot every day she was a thorn in my side until goodness knows when! I learned that one straight away. I’m sure you all had the same experience.”
As she swept her hand around the group, a few of them nodded.
Later that afternoon, Shontay was helping Olivia with a homework problem when she noticed the silence coming from next door. She went to warm up some malt milk in the kitchen and set up Olivia in the study with a glass, taking the rest over to the Mathersons’ for their unscrupulous little boy but when she knocked on the front door, she found it ajar. Thinking that was odd, Shontay called out for Annie and Mark. No reply came from within the house, although their red Hiyundai was parked in the driveway and the soft murmur of daytime television hummed through the windows of the loungeroom.
Shontay nudged the door open a crack, set the jug of malt milk drink on the hall table and started to poke around. She switched off the television set and picked up the cushions on the ground. There was an upended water glass on the carpet, which she put on one of the Monet souvenir coasters resting on the wooden coffee table.
Thinking she should soak up the spillage to prevent any mould from growing, Shontay set about to find the kitchen. The house had an eerie feel to it: it wasn’t exactly cold but there was an absence of life to it that felt the same as coldness did, as though it had been vacated for a while. In the dining room, the highchair was on its side, pees sprinkled across the ground.
Shontay passed the chair, paused over the mess and decided to move on. A small ball of panic knotted in her stomach. When she arrived at the kitchen, it was thankfully undisturbed. Shontay turned on the tap and reached for the tea towels hanging from the oven door. It was only as she was leaving that she saw the knifeblock and the handle with smallest smear of red on its pale wooden surface.
Brad finished his beer and slammed it on the counter top of the pub. After an hour or two he was hoping Christina would had cooled off enough to talk calmly with him. She was obviously being unreasonable about the whole situation. It was just a few bad deals at the insurance company, a maxed out credit card from her outrageous shopping habits…
On the fourth floor of a relatively small apartment block, the curtains twitched open just a crack. It was late at night. Danny didn’t know how late but sky was dark outside, the stars winking in the spare patches between clouds. His window looked out over the parking lot across the street and a few warehouses either side. It wasn’t much to stare at but he liked to count the number of white lines painted on the black tarmac and watch for birds or bats or rabbits.
Car headlights lit up the street and an old tan Ford slid into view. Danny pressed his ear to the glass, the faint sound of guitars and drums carried through the Ford’s open windows. When the car was parked, a women with a red Fedora got out, carrying a paper bag in one hand and a box propped on her hip.
A man strolled into view, caught sight of the woman and sped up, his hands deep in the pockets of a billowing overcoat. His footsteps echoed off the warehouse walls and the woman finally noticed him. She broke into a run towards Danny’s building and the man raced after her, the blade of a knife flashing in the orange glow of the streetlights. Danny gasped.
“Mum!” he yelled. “Mum! Mum!”
Not hearing any movement from his mother’s room, Danny pressed his hand to the glass then ran to get her.
“Danny, what? What are you doing still up?” She sat up, rubbing her eyes. Her hair stuck up and she reached to smooth it down. Danny grabbed her hand and dragged her to his room, all the while she protested, too dazed to be angry.
Danny shoved the curtains aside and pointed into the parking lot. His mother squinted seeing nothing.
“Danny, darling, go back to sleep. I don’t know what you’re worried about but everything is fine. It’ll beautiful and sunny in the morning, you’ll see. Go back to bed, sweetheart.” She ushered him under the covers, pulled the curtains closed and switched on the nightlight.
“Mum, can you stay a while?”
She smiled. “Sure, honey.” Danny moved over and she lay down beside him.
And then they heard the scream.
The shortcut Brad had decided to take passed through the local reserve. There was a playground with a swing set and slides, a broad grassy field and a path bordered by rocks that divided the sand and water from everything else. The beer Brad had taken with him was nearly empty; he took the last swig and bent down to leave the bottle jammed in the rocks.
Just as he stood a tiny flash of light caught his eye. It was a knife, a long wicked think with a pale wooden handle and a dirty blade. Crude but it would do the job.
Brad picked it up and surveyed it.
No. It couldn’t be that easy. But it would solve all of his problems. Christina was an only child from a wealthy father who’d passed away only a year ago. Her mother had died in childbirth and she had no extended family to speak of. No one would miss her.
No one would suspect… Not if he did it right.
“I want my mummy.” This was the voice of a child.
“Oh sweetie, it’s ok. I don’t know where your mummy is but I’ll take care of you until we find her,” said another voice. It was high-pitched and female, nurturing.
“I’m not sure we will find her.” That was a new voice, a young woman, all husk.
“What are you saying?”
“Where do you think we are?”
“I… I can’t… I don’t know. I don’t see anything.”
“It’s because we’re dead.”
“Sh, sweetie. Give me a minute…
“If we’re dead then what is this place?!”
“Hell if I know! Man came after me with a knife and I was in a hell of a lot of pain. And then nothing.”
“Oh no. Brad, he finally did it… He killed me… My husband killed me for my money… And I was pregnant.”
“What’s dead?!” screamed the child.
Nine years ago, my grandmother stopped hearing from Stefan. My mother and I were vacationing with her other brother’s family in Shanghai at the time and my mother and Alex and his wife Louise sat me down and explained, my uncle was missing and I wasn’t to tell my cousins.
I said nothing.
Almost a full month later, my father picked me up from school and took me home to my mother’s. She was there waiting — unusual.
Then she told me he was dead.
As she broke down crying next to me, I let her hold me and I might have cried too. I was shocked and not shocked, at the same time.
Later, I watched a Dutch news report on my grandmother’s laptop about a John Doe with a mermaid tattoo. Parts of the story of my uncle’s demise were filled in. A stranger had been walking his dog through the park and found Stefan’s body three days after the incident. He’d been shot in the head by his neighbour from Thailand, a man who owed him over $100, 000 and who obviously didn’t want to pay it back.
He’s in jail now, I think.
There is a sheep farm just outside of Mudgee. The owner is a family friend. He’s also vegetarian; he leaves the carcasses of dead sheep to do the “natural” thing. When I was younger I used to collect the various skulls and bones I found while wandering around his land.
My favourite thing about the farm was Arabus, though. He was a giant white horse with that perfect slow horse gaze. I was fascinated by how he could let flies wander around his big brown eyes, waiting long minutes before blinking them away.
He dispelled many horse myths, for his favourite food was bread and occasionally apples, definitely not carrots. In a torrential downpour I would still pull on my mother’s Gore-Tex coat (more a dress on me), apples in the zippered pocket because no one likes soggy bread, and traipse down to the dam where Arabus was grazing that day.
Arabus was a part of my life even when I wasn’t visiting the farm. If I had trouble falling asleep, which was often, my mother would come into my room and kneel by my bed, stroking my skin until it tingled while she told me stories of Arabus’s adventures on the farm.
He was the great protector of the sheep.
Is that how I say your name?
I don’t know you very well. In fact,
we just met last week.
I’ve been asked to tell you these things,
things I hold quite close…
but I guess that’s ok since you’re dead and all;
Who are you gonna tell?
So I tried to check my makeup in the
surface of the duck pond just before.
The water is really murky and there’s
all kinds of junk floating on the surface.
I didn’t want to stick around too long in case
the evil duck found me.
The whole experience was odd. Here I am,
being vain, and now I’m thinking the
duck pond is like life. It’s definitely murky in there,
all sorts of things float to the surface,
whether you want them to or not
and you don’t always get what you want of something
but at least the evil duck didn’t get you (that time).
It’s really hard to find a decent vegetarian meal
in between lecturesandtutorials,
running this way and that,
but meat doesn’t nourish me. It eats me up inside.
There’s so much guilt and anguish over the industry.
(Did you really earn that?)
So I stick to my veggies and my soy
and my carbs.
Even though sometimes at night I dream I’ve
eaten something horrific. And I wonder how that
slipped by my notice.
“Mum, did you put marshmallows in that?”
Do you know, Emmanuel —
your name is quite beautiful to say —
do you know my secret pain? I
think you could, if you were a ghost.
Maybe you can read my mind. But
I will tell you,
with Mental Illness every day. In your life
you fought for freedom and I would like
to do the same. The churning questions,
self doubt, paranoia, mind-numbing emotional pain
is nothing to be ashamed of, should be talked about
and should be on your mind
how to make this easier for others.
While I’m searching through my handbag
for lip gloss, some mother lost her son to suicide.
What are our meagre losses? They are the
losses that never should have been lost in the first place!
I’m by myself.
I’m in pain.
And all I see is you. (more…)
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