Tag: Extras

Extras: ‘The Caretaker’ with Sally Christie

Extras: ‘The Caretaker’ with Sally Christie

Every issue we take a closer look at a story or author – providing you with something extra. Extra insight. Extra content.  For Issue 10 we zoom in on Sally Christie’s story ‘The Caretaker’. All of our editorial team agreed that Sally’s story achieves something that makes it difficult to forget. We asked her to elaborate (spoiler-free) on some of the characteristics that make her story the spine-tingler it is.

About Sally Christie: Sally is a graduate of the Advanced Fiction Writing course at The Creative Hub. She has written an as yet unpublished novel and some short stories.  She has also written for online blogs.  She is crossing off countries on her travelling bucket list.  She can be found living in Auckland for now, gathering steam for the next adventure.

 

 

Headland: Your caretaker, Alicia, is a bit of a voyeur. She seems most comfortable controlling her surroundings, and those of others, and participating from a distance. Can you tell us a bit more about her? How did she end up on the outside looking in?

Sally: Alicia definitely is more comfortable from a distance. She’s retreated from the society that bullied and belittled her. She feels she doesn’t fit in. She wants to protect herself from hurt. But it’s impossible to live a pain free life. Part of life is to deal with pain and inconvenient intrusion. The point of difference for Alicia is that she’s a curious creature, so this is her compromise. I’ll be in the background, watching, living through people rather than with them. But that comes at a price. Loneliness. Isolation. Distorted thinking.

 

Headland: “But what you can’t have you can live through others”. There seems to be a kind of longing in Alicia, she almost wants to be Millie. Is she a little bit in love with Millie too do you think? Or at least in love with the idea of being Millie?

Sally: Alicia thinks because she’s not perfect she cannot have a nice life like Millie’s. So why bother? She sees people are jealous of Millie, and that makes her protective. Underneath the perfect princess persona, Millie is just as lonely as Alicia, and Alicia notices that too. She wants Millie to have the perfect life. Yet when the perfect life threatens to unravel, so does Alicia. She can’t handle reality. She is obsessed with keeping the illusion alive I think.

 

Headland: We see the guests at the bach, and Adam and Millie, through Alicia’s eyes. It is fascinating to see a relationship play out from a third party’s limited perspective. Even more so with an unreliable narrator. Did you set out to create one? How is Alicia like other unreliable narrators in literature?

Sally: I didn’t think about Alicia being an unreliable narrator because she certainly doesn’t think she is. This is her truth, the world how she sees it. I find it easy to absorb yourself into a character that way, because you aren’t presenting fact. You’re presenting cognitive dissonance. I do love how unreliable narrators see the world so differently. It’s fascinating looking at what, how, and why people think what they do. Especially if they are odd like Alicia. You can really dig into them, find out what makes them tick, what happened to make them that way. On some level, we are all unreliable. In Alicia’s case, she takes it a step further.

 

HeadlandYou build great tension in your story, and the hairs on the back of the neck seem to gradually stand up until you aren’t entirely sure how you feel about the situation as it progresses. Is this your first time writing a story like this? How did you layer unease in your story?

Sally: I wanted to build it in, step by step with a slow sense of unease, a creepy sense that something’s not quite right here. So thank you for saying that. It’s hard to know if you get the balance right. If it’s too subtle or not. That’s where my writing group and other peers are great. They let you know what’s working. You have a story about a disintegrating marriage, people getting older, their dreams and hopes fading into ordinariness and dishonesty, and then you have a weird woman watching it unfold. I think most of my stories have deeply flawed or quirky characters. I seem drawn to imperfection in people. In that sense, it’s not my first time writing a story about those sorts of people, but it is my first time writing a thriller.

 

 

Headland: When you finish the story (and manage to breathe again) you think about the whole story in an entirely different way, especially the beginning, and how Alicia ends up living alone in the bush at the lake in the first place. Are we as readers mistaken here or are there hidden clues? Without giving anything away, can you tell us about the foreshadowing in your story?

Sally: Alicia couldn’t wait to return to the bush again, to be ‘enclosed once more in her branches’. She hated being ‘pushed out into that life beyond the deck.’ She did what she had to do to survive. Keep your head down, take a job, pay the bills, keep to yourself, bide your time. She doesn’t feel comfortable out there in the world. To some extent, she endured life until she could disappear again. When her parents died, she saw a chance to do that. She’s not materialistic, happy to live in a shed. But she fears disillusionment and to some extent, people. She doesn’t like being seen – although in the end she wanted Millie to see her. To know she was there. She got drawn into Millie’s story, obsessed by it, because she hadn’t led a life of her own. She’d rather take care of other’s lives, by any means necessary.

 

HeadlandIs there anything else you’d like to share about your story?

Sally: Yes. The owls tell us a lot about Alicia. They are also my favourite birds. If Alicia can’t live happily after, she wants everyone else to. It was great to slip into her mind, figure her out. She can’t handle life on life’s terms, that’s for sure. What else is she capable of? Who knows …

Intrigued? Read Sally’s story in Issue 10, available now.

Extras: Jack’s List

Extras: Jack’s List

Each issue, we bring you an extra, something that gives you insight in to one of the stories. For Issue 9 Headlander Allan Drew chose Daniel T’s story ‘Sanctuary’ featuring Jack, a young music producer, navigating his industry and life Auckland, producing “beats and tracks for people”. Jack also loves classical music and jazz, and is a skilled pianist which adds something special to this story:

I like the feeling. Muscle memory. Nostalgia. Remembering how Chopin’s études feel on my fingers. I wonder what’s in the playing that captures me. What’s in the stave that makes it all worth it? There’s so much promise here. Can it counter what I see in Michael’s tripe? This feels like the beginning of something good. My teachers taught me about the promise and the marvel of an overture. This is mine.

Here Daniel’s character Jack talks about what he’s been listening to, and how he connects with the music.

___

Neutral Milk Hotel – Naomi

Quintessential indie hipster tune. Play it for the first or last five minutes of any film about a geek or anything geeky and it totally fits. For some reason, whenever I hear this, I think about the books I read in my late teens. Bertrand Russell essays and the like.

Ekali & aywy – Contempt

Slick ambient tones and crisp clicks and hi-hats. I don’t mess around with music samples, I sort of have a rule about that sort of thing, but this Let Me Love You chop is sweet.

What So Not – Gemini EP

The tracks Gemini and Oddity are dangerous, man. These guys recorded a car revving, a jug of water being filled, and what I think was a putter sinking a ball. Dope sound design.

I used to only go into a booth to record sounds I didn’t have. Marbles clacking, paper rustling, the spraying sound from a cologne bottle, the sawing sound of a knife cutting a can. Now I’m in there on upright pianos or taking mics to record a grand piano in a hall.

Eminem – My 1st Single

The dude had diarrhoea noises in a song, man. It’s a throwaway track that he did for fun when he was probably high as hell. I heard this when I was young and getting into music and I wished I could make music without caring. And then I started to. Make music, I mean.

Chick Corea – Spain

A friend of mine is really into Chick and that old Return to Forever sound. Most times I see him with his sax he plays the riff from this song and takes me back to school uniforms and performance practice.

George Benson – Affirmation

My old man had this on wax and he played it to death so the version burned into my brain is a grainy one. The melody translates well to brass for those that don’t know. It’s the kind of track that transforms a place.

Sonny Rollins – St Thomas

I nearly broke my own code and sampled this song. Then I had dinner at a McDonald’s with a saxophonist. St Thomas has the same transformative property that Affirmation has. I’ve never been to the States, so this’ll sound stupid, but this song can make Queen Street feel like Frenchmen Street.

Miguel – …goingtohell

When we weren’t working in the studio this track was one that Link’s crew would play. The cover of the album this song is from inspired the art for Link’s mixtape. The influence is clear in the music video for Sharks.

Tyler, The Creator – Sandwitches

Tyler knows his mixes suck but he doesn’t care. He has bars. Back at school, when I wasn’t practising piano, I’d be with the boys and Tyler’s lyrics became a kind of chant. I’d play the chords and the boys would shout the words.

Cos I ain’t got no home meal to come to

So if you do I’m throwing fingers up screaming ‘fuck you!’

It’s a tricky thing making songs when you’re angry, because every subsequent song is like calming down. The tracks I made in my own come down periods were the ones that got me work with Gen and The Shells.

Kanye West – Spaceship

College Dropout touched a lot of people and this song stands out to me. Maybe because it’s a rap song in six-eight time. Probably because I used to work at a clothing store and I hated my boss.

ScHoolboy Q – Fuck L.A.

Probably one of the roughest voices in hip-hop and he’s representing gangsta rap. Link’s a massive fan and he wanted to show it with the ‘H’ in his mixtape title.

Future – Shit

This is the stencil Link drew himself with. It flows like fast deep breaths.

When you listen to a lot of trap type beats right in a row you start to notice how a lot of the sounds are compressed. The loud bits don’t change but the quiet bits are boosted. Which only means there aren’t sounds to go looking for in the back corners of the track.

Chief Keef – I Don’t Like

A popular banger. The running hi-hat gets the crowd going. People don’t want depth, don’t want volume from a hi-hat, so we compress it to hell. A hi-hat is clenched teeth. It’s the whirring of the anvil that’s about to bury Wile E. Coyote.

Flume – Skin LP

I think Harley’s a saxophonist. I know he’s classically trained. This whole album is amazing but the production in tracks like Lose It and Take a Chance really stood out to me. He engineered the best kicks and hi-hats, and the way those kicks cut through the synth is incredible. The dude sidechains reality with those kicks, man, it’s like a ship hitting waves when that drum bumps and the synth dips.

Albums like this are why I’m still making modern music with VSTs and sample packs. I’d be a straight Luddite if Flume and his ilk weren’t cooking.

Yuna – Unrequited Love

Since I’ve started making ‘my own’ music, I’ve had to put myself in the position of being the biter. The sampler. The copier. I played this song for Gen, my partner, and she felt like this was the perfect middle point of where our tastes met.

The percussion has a delay, the bass ebbs like fluid, and Yuna harmonises with herself. It’s a good style to model yourself after.

Marina and the Diamonds – Numb

Gen might not have Marina’s range but she tries. We sometimes lie down on the floor of the studio listening to tunes like this.

Beautiful work with the strings in this piece, though I would like to know if the pizzicato is real or a VST. Not that it matters. I mean, it matters to me, but that doesn’t really matter.

Frederic Chopin – Etude No.9 in F minor, Op.10

I might’ve given myself a bit too much credit when I tried to learn Scherzo. Shorter songs are more my speed. Those marathon pieces are difficult when you don’t have a skinny, sixty-year-old man, wearing a forest green sweater and brogues, telling you what to do.

 

I wasn’t planning on this list being a trip but I guess it turned into one. From country flannel jackets, to ‘where-ya-at’ bandanas, to plain coloured thousand dollar shirts, back to ‘where-ya-at’ bandanas, and then turbans and liquid pen hearts on cheeks.

Anyway, that’s me. That’s what’s in my head.

__

About Daniel: He is 22 years old and, having grown up in Auckland, the city often tends to be the setting if not the focus of his writing.

Read his story and more in Issue 9 of Headland.

Extras: Interview with Caoimhe McKeogh

Welcome back to ‘Extras’ where we bring you insights into our current issue. In our inaugural segment, Allan Drew, our regular curator, shared his story ‘Sociology’, a follow up to his story ‘Anthropology’ which featured in Issue 6. Next up was an excellent interview with Issue 7 author Zoe Meager.

Caoimhe McKeogh’s story ‘The Saturday Shift’ appears in Issue 8Caoimhe is 22 years old. She studies English Literature at Wellington’s Victoria University and works in disability community support. Her previous publications include Headland and Landfall literary journals, and she was the recipient of Headland’s 2015 Frontier Prize. We talked to her about her story, what she’s working on, Issue 8 and how her work in disability support informs her writing.

***

Headland: We loved your story, The Saturday Shift for so many reasons. You bring unsentimental warmth and a depth of reality (especially to your dialogue) that is really special. Can you tell us where your inspiration for this story came from?

Caoimhe: Aw, thank you! I absolutely love “unsentimental warmth” – that’s definitely something I’m aiming for, but I had never thought to phrase it that way. To be honest, the bare bones of this story was basically a diary entry – I had this crazy summer where I was doing two full-time creative writing papers at once at the IIML and also working full-time at a disability care facility. I had to bring in a story for workshopping and had no ideas (or time to think of any) so just wrote down everything that had happened that day at work. Since then, it’s been through a lot of editing – it is definitely now fiction, and the characters aren’t me or my colleague or real clients anymore, but the inspiration was just a day in my life.

 

This photo was taken by one of the girls I used to support – it is me modeling the commode chair, which is used to shower people who use wheelchairs, and is mentioned in ‘The Saturday Shift’.

 

Headland: What is your favourite quotation from your story?

Caoimhe: Ooh that’s tricky! And it feels strange to answer, it’s like complimenting myself. Maybe when Jono tells Bethany, “You can be Superman like how I’m Batman!” but Bethany reaches out sideways instead and shouts, “Bird!” Finding a way to build characters who have little to no language can be difficult, but I think Bethany turned out to be rather endearing, and this line shows that she’s a bit sassy too.

An outing with a boy I supported for years (who had very groovy socks) to feed and sing to the ducks.

Headland:  In Lemon (awarded the inaugural 2015 Frontier Prize for best story by a previously unpublished author), your main character is a young child with special needs. You seem to know your subject material and characters well. Given that The Saturday Shift also features some characters with disabilities and the care facility is the setting for your story, are these stories part of a thematic series or larger project? (We hope so.) Can you elaborate on that?

Caoimhe: Yeah, you got me! I’ve planned a novel-length project of interlinking short stories around the disability community, and have slowly been writing them up – Lemon is the first chapter and The Saturday Shift is the third – between them is a story called Lucy that was published in the most recent Landfallit features Lucy from Lemon and Darcy from The Saturday Shift. Later in the book, Adam who was in the background a bit in The Saturday Shift becomes a very important character. I have a terrible habit of filling my life with not-writing-the-book things, though – I did an Honours degree in English Literature in 2016, and wrote nothing but essays all year long. I will try to get back to it – it’s lovely to hear that someone already likes the idea!

My favourite post-it note! This is in Pegasus Books in Wellington. Obviously, it’s just about the section of the bookshop, but I love the idea of writers’ lives starting somewhere specific…

Headland: When we read The Saturday Shift we talked about how well it fitted into the theme we’d inadvertently stumbled upon, on Labour Weekend coincidentally: work. Do you consider this a ‘work story’? Why/why not?

Caoimhe: Oh, definitely, yes. I’ve been working in the disability sector for close to ten years now – I started doing after-school support work when I was fourteen – so to me ‘work’ is often along the lines of what is described in this story. The Saturday Shift is also about the relationship between co-workers, which was a theme that I noticed in the other ‘work stories’ in Issue 8 of Headland too. The place and people and actions of ‘work’ are such a big part of our day-to-day life, and it’s very interesting to hear about other people’s versions of that – I’m fascinated by stories from my friends who work in hospitality, or retail, or labouring … one person’s normal can be incredibly strange and scary to another person, or really intriguing. I loved reading Frank Beyer’s Smashing the Machines in this issue of Headland, because he was describing the day-to-day life of a postie, which is a job I’ve always been fascinated by!

This is a boy I still care for, covering himself in kowhai flowers. My favourite part of my job is when something totally unexpected but beautiful happens, and this was an example of that!

 

This is me in a care facility very similar to the imaginary one where ‘The Saturday Shift’ is set. (On this particular day, I had been locked out of my house overnight and had to turn up to work in my boyfriend’s clothes.)

Headland: A year on, has being the recipient of the 2015 Frontier Prize affected your writing? How so?

Caoimhe: It was definitely a real confidence boost for me. Lemon was my first submission to a journal, and I was very aware that submissions often lead to rejections – I had steeled myself for plenty of ‘no’s’ before the occasional ‘yes’ might happen. Instead, I got a lovely email from Laura and Liesl saying the piece would be published, and then a couple of months later I won the Frontier Prize. Since then, I have had quite a few ‘no’s’, but I had the confidence to keep going. I ended up with five pieces published in various journals in 2016, and also with the confidence to build on Lemon to start creating the longer work that we were discussing earlier. It also gave me an extra sentence for my ‘author bio’ in journals, which is great because I always have real trouble thinking of anything to say!

The day that the noticeboard at my work had a bit of an existential crisis.

 

A moment of peace and quiet in the IIML workshop room! A very special place to me, and the reason that both ‘Lemon’ and ‘The Saturday Shift’ came to exist.

Headland: What are you working on now?

Caoimhe: There’s the longer work around disability, and then I also have a mess of various things going on … I have two other novels started, and one of those is taking up most of my brain right now, but I’m also planning a children’s picture book, and writing quite a bit of poetry at the moment. In February I’ll be starting three more classes at the IIML – Creative Non-Fiction, Short Fiction, and Screenwriting for Television, so then I’ll be even more all over the place! Finishing things is definitely the bit of writing that I find hardest – there are so many things to try out, and the newest one is always the most exciting. Obviously, the first half of 2017 will be spent starting even more things, but perhaps my resolution for the second half of the year can be to get some stuff finished!

Silhouettes of three children I used to support, hung on the fence of the special-needs school that I worked at for two years in Hamilton.

Headland: Are there any other stories in Issue 8 that speak to you?

Caoimhe: I really enjoyed Issue 8, and the accidental-theme of ‘work’. Coincidentally, I have been off work this week following a minor surgery, and the restlessness and lack of routine that the absence of work has left for me had me thinking about work’s place in my life. I think the story that really wowed me, though, was Sandra Arnold’s When the Wind Blows. It manages to be incredibly detailed and incredibly subtle at the same time, and is so beautiful – it really stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

 ***

Thanks so much Caoimhe, for chatting to us about your stories. We loved The Saturday Shift. You can read it in Issue 8.

Introducing Extras

Extras

 Introducing Extras, bonus content through our blog to complement the works in our issues. Commentary, stories, and more curated by Headlander Allan Drew.

First up, we have ‘Sociology’ from the man himself. A sequel to his story ‘Anthropology’ which features in Issue 6.

Allan is a PhD student at Victoria University Wellington, where he studies creative writing and English literature. His short stories and poems have been published in a number of journals and magazines, and he has won or been short-listed in several writing competitions.

Sociology

 

By the time I texted her, I’d forgotten what she looked like. Amelia, I mean. That girl from the party. I could put the individual facts of her appearance together—her accurate hair, her collarbones, legs, that straight mouth—but I couldn’t assemble her in my mind.

Pete gave me her number. Asking him to get it for me was a little session of torture. We were watching cricket. “Pete?” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Can you get me Amelia’s number?”

“What?”

“Amelia’s number.”

“Who?”

“Amelia. From that party. You said you could.”

“That party last year? Symphony’s mate?”

“Yeah.”

“Fuck,” he said, and stared at the TV. So did I.

“So?” I said.

“What do you want her number for? What precisely are you going to do with it?”

“Call her.”

“Oh, really?” He was going to go on, I think, but began yelling at the cricket instead. The Sri Lankan captain was caught at second slip. It was a relief for me too, the wicket and the interruption. And then, suddenly, Pete rose from the couch, announced, “I’m going to the gym,” and left, leaving his phone on the cushion and a dead sausage on a plate.

I was alone with the TV. A Bunnings ad came on, with a narrative as follows: If you shop at Bunnings you save money therefore you can buy more stuff therefore you can get more done therefore your wife will love you more. I got caught up in it for a second—I found myself threaded into its twisted logic, tiptoeing along its haltering non sequitur. I felt a surge of panic. But I don’t have a wife, I thought.

 

A few days later Pete left a note for me, stuck to the kitchen bench with a plug of bacon grease. It said, Wade, go get her, with a phone number written on the bottom.

So I texted her. It was quite long. It said, hi amelia its wade we met at a party last year I used to know symphony who used to go out with a friend of mine, and actually I still know symphony, I am the guy who told the story about the rats, was wondering whats up and maybe we could catch up for a coffee or something but only if you’re not too busy let me know cheers wade

After I sent it, I deleted the message from my sent items to remove the agonising possibility of reading it again, and then immediately retrieved it from my trash folder and restored it to my sent items. I reread the message. Rats? Jesus. Nothing more memorable about me than the rats? Then, for fun, I panicked about my use of apostrophes.

Amelia replied about two minutes later. Her text said, Call me later. At work now.

It was a Thursday, that day when I texted her, and I was alone in the flat. First day of the second test match. Sri Lanka were mashing our faces into the dirt. It was humiliating.

Another Bunnings ad came on. Surely, surely, one day, surely one day everything that needs to be DIYed is going to have already been DIYed, and then Bunnings is going to be right in the shit. Home improvement cannot be an inexhaustible resource. What’s the long-term value proposition?

Pete got home around 3pm. He was on fire, like he gets sometimes. He stormed in and yelled, “Worms!”

“Worms?”

“Those little segmented bastards. Mouth at one end, arse at the other, and a straight-through tube for turning mud to food.” He thrust his arm straight out and tilted his hand vertical when he said “straight-through”. He held this gesture while he pivoted and pointed towards the fridge. He opened the fridge and found a sausage. He took a bite of it, then shook the remainder at me. “They’ve got whatever sex parts you might want. It’s all on for man and beast. Take it as it comes and any which way, loose as you like for my dirty tubular purple wormy buddies.”

“Okay.”

“Worms! Holy shit!”

“All right.”

He walked back to the fridge, grabbed a beer and opened it. He came back into the lounge flipping the bottle top like a coin, shaking his head. “Those little hermaphroditic bastards. Good on them. Good on them.” He walked around the lounge for a bit, thinking about worms no doubt, then sat down beside me to look at the TV. “Oh fucking hell.”

“I know,” I said.

“Those Sri Lankan pricks.”

“I know,” I said.

Pete said, “You see I got you Amelia’s number?”

“Yep, thanks.”

“Did you call her, sausage?” Pete sometimes calls me whatever he’s eating at the time. It’s weirdly intimate.

I didn’t feel much like talking about Amelia to him. I was ruffled by the rant about worms. So I just stared at the cricket, thinking about puking because of the cricket and also because of my overly long text messages and the state of my life.

“Wade, mate?” said Pete.

“I texted her.”

“And?”

“She texted back and told me to call her later.” Pete turned to me with a serious look on his face like he was going to tell me that maybe he had terminal prostate cancer, and said, “High-five,” and put his palm towards me. Despite my terror of high-fiving, I went through with it.

“I’ve been thinking about her, Wade, and am ready to give you my opinion. Stand by.” He went to get a beer. On his way to the fridge he accidentally kicked the wheel of his bike that was leaning against the kitchen bench. He didn’t make a sound but pulled an outrageous face, like a cartoon character in silent, indescribable pain.

The sad thing was, I was nervous about what he was going to say. Instant anxiety. And even worse, he knew it. He got the beer, then walked with an exaggerated limp back to the couch, and waited, I guess to elevate the tension, I guess to stretch out my anxiety. He used a beer burp to focus my attention, like a judge uses a gavel, then said, “Therefore, be advised: she’s a honey.”

“A honey. Okay.”

“Aaaaa-ffirmative.” He saluted.

“I’m so glad,” I said, with heavy sarcasm that I didn’t feel. I was relieved, even against my desire not to care what he thought. It must have been that relief, that feeling of mateship you get when you get another guy’s approval, because before I even had a chance to stop myself I blurted, “I like her collarbones.”

This comment filled the room. No-one moved. The atmosphere grew heavy and still, the air mouldering. Then, after exhaling through his nose, Pete said to himself, “Collarbones,” and got up off the couch. “I’m going for a shower.” He stopped before he left the room though, turned and said, “Wade, you’re not a hermaphrodite are you?” and then, abruptly, “Don’t answer that!”

 

The front of our flat faced south, which is why it was always dark, and the back of the flat faced north, so that’s where the sun was and that’s where the landlords had built a small balcony. From there, Mt Eden Road ran narrow and busy through the village.

Pete took a sack of Mad Butcher sausages out of the freezer. Pete mostly ate sausages. You wouldn’t know, because he was so buff, but it’s a fact. He cooked them in bulk, straight from the freezer, and they lasted a few days, sometimes a week, depending on how many he cooked. I followed him out to the balcony where the BBQ leaned against the rail. He put forty sausages on the BBQ, in four rows of ten, and stood, prodding.

“Where are you taking her, on your date?”

I didn’t know. I was a complete amateur and needed to be euthanized for my own protection and to prevent me from breeding.

“I hadn’t thought about that,” I said.

Pete put down his tongs. He held up the palm of his hand as if it were a mirror and said, in a plain tone, “Oh my fucking God.” He then picked the tongs back up and poked at his sausages, rolling them all over a quarter-turn, revealing incomplete parallel black stripes. I had a fairly strong surge of nausea.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Straightforward. Go to the whisky tasting they have at The Forkers. That way, if she hates you she can at least get drunk, and if she likes you, the booze can loosen her up and increase your chances of giving her the worm.”

His logic was infallible. Except: “What if she likes me but I don’t like her?” At that, Pete pretended to throw his tongs at me. “That’s the spirit.”

 

It would’ve been better if I could have remembered what she looked like. But the harder I tried, the worse it got. By the time I made the call, she was nothing but a disembodied haircut.

“Hello?” she said.

“Hi, Amelia? It’s Wade.”

“Hi.”

“So, you remember me, right? From that party at”—Jesus, I couldn’t remember the guy’s name—“from that party last year?”

“Yes, of course, I remember. You shook my hand when I left.” That was right but not right. She’d shaken my hand. But now that I heard her voice, I remembered what she looked like. I saw her there, in that dress carrying her shoes to the door and saying goodbye. Shaking hands.

“Ha, yeah.”

“How’s Pete?” she asked. I had somehow forgotten that she knew him, but of course she did.

“He’s—he’s the same.”

“And how’s your study going?”

My study had stalled because I was supposed to be writing the final version of my research proposal and I wasn’t, because whenever I sat down to start writing I felt a sudden and expansive combination of sleepiness and humiliation. I was avoiding my supervisor in person and sending him emails detailing the progress I wasn’t making. “Pretty well,” I said.

“Anthropology, right?”

“Oh, yeah. No, actually. I changed my major. Sociology now.”

“What area?”

My supervisor had rejected the first three projects I’d come up with, and it looked like I was headed to do some sort of qualitative study of social factors affecting people’s emotional responses to public transport, which meant I was probably going to be asking strangers on the street what they liked about the bus. “I’m still nailing it down.”

“Uh huh.”

“But it’ll be in urban psychological sociology with a tie into public health.” I sounded, suddenly and predictably, like a wanker.

“Right,” she said.

“How’s work?” I asked, hating myself.

“Work’s work. Busy, draining. So—”

“Yeah?”

“You want to catch up for a coffee, then? That’s what you texted, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. But, no, do you know The Forkers?” Oh, shit. Shit. It was all shit now. I had forgotten, when Pete had suggested The Forkers, that I had originally asked her for coffee. Now I was pushing the Forkers plan, throwing the coffee out the window. But I had to proceed. “They have whisky tasting once a month, I thought we could check it out and sample some of what’s on offer.” It sounded pretty much like I was trying to get her drunk. Or implying she was an alcoholic.

“I don’t really like whisky.”

“Oh. You can probably drink something else.” To satisfy your alcohol addiction, Amelia, obviously.

“Right, but—”

“Oh,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

The Oh had meant, oh okay, I see it was tolerable for exactly half a second and then I ballsed it up and it doesn’t really matter but it’s all gone straight to hell and I’ll let you go.

“Wade?”

“Yeah, I’m here, sorry.”

“You said about coffee in your text?”

“Yeah,”

“Wade, will you meet me for coffee, then?”

“Yes.”

“Sunday after next?” She talked a bit more. My hands were on my forehead, and I was squeezing the phone to my ear with the point of my shoulder and my cheeks ached with whatever facial arrangement I had adopted.

“Okay, see you,” she said.

“K bye thanks see you then,” I said.

About ten minutes later I realised I hadn’t listened when she gave me the details. I had a subclinical panic attack and then made a plan. I would text after a suitable period of time and say my idiot flatmate has thrown out the piece of paper on which I had jotted down the details, and could you please remind me again where and when we were going to catch up?

I reckoned it would work, the text plan, and I drafted the message right then and there. I swapped details for deets, then swapped it back again, and saved the text to drafts. It was about quarter to nine, but I went to bed anyway. I lay awake until 4:30am, at which time the neighbour got home and puked into his shrubbery and slammed his door, so I got up.

 

It was Sunday afternoon, the Sunday before the Sunday when I was to have catch-up coffee with Amelia. I didn’t know where yet, or what time—that draft text was still unsent.

Pete and I were sitting outside on the front veranda, in the shade. Pete had a bad hangover, so I was keeping things quiet. I was thinking about my research project. I had agreed with my supervisor that by Monday I would create the formal project outline and complete the draft of my questionnaire. I’d done none of it. On Friday night Pete and I had got Chinese from the smorgasbord place down the road and watched American Idol. On Saturday I did nothing at all during the day and then at night I played video games until about 2am. Pete had gone out.

Even though I was sitting there thinking about my project, I wasn’t contemplating actually doing any work. I was thinking about how to explain my project to Amelia next week and still sound like a worthwhile human being. I hadn’t cracked that nut yet.

“I fucked up,” said Pete. His eyes were closed.

“How?”

“Symphony hates me.”

“Symphony?” He hadn’t talked about her for a long time. They’d broken up two years ago.

“I saw her last night.” His eyes were still closed, and he didn’t say anything more for maybe a minute. “I’ve been stalking her, you know?”

“What?” I said. Pete opened his eyes and looked at me and sort of half smiled.

“Not really stalking. Just thinking about her. And watching a bit.” Another pause. “And sometimes I phone her.”

“That sounds like stalking,” I said.

“I told you, I fucked up.”

“Okay.”

“I saw her last night,” he said.

“Why?” I asked. He tried to sit up straight, failed, and slouched down again, easing back into his hangover, and closed his eyes.

“I talked to her the other day, you know, to get Amelia’s number for you. I had to call her about five times before she would talk to me. So once she actually rang me back and gave me Amelia’s number, I asked if she wanted to go out on Saturday.”

“And?”

“She told me to fuck off, but after I made a cock of myself for asking so many times, she gave up, and we met for a drink. I think she pretty much just wanted to see me so she could tell me to fuck off in person. She left pretty quick. Then I met up with some of the guys and just drank.”

“So, okay.” I figured that now was a good time to ask. “Why did you and Symphony split, anyway?” I asked.

“I was too much of a man for her.”

“No, really.”

“Yes, really.”

“No, really.”

He looked at me. “What does it matter?” he said. I shrugged and he closed his eyes. “She figured she had had enough of sleeping with someone she hated.”

“Why did she hate you?”

“Why does she hate me, present tense.”

“Okay, why does she hate you?”

“Fucked if I know,” said Pete, “You’d be better asking her. Why don’t you, she liked you.”

Huh? “What do you mean?”

Pete took in a long breath, like an inverted sigh, and raised himself off his chair. “Look, last night I told her thanks for giving me Amelia’s number to give to you, and she said she couldn’t work out why you and I were friends anyway, and why a guy like you would bother hanging around with a fuckwit like me. No, hang on, she didn’t say fuckwit. She said wanker. She said why’d you hang out with a wanker like me. So I said ‘What makes it so Wade isn’t a wanker?’ and she said you were ‘good to talk to’.”

When Pete said “good to talk to”, he made inverted commas in the air.

He continued. “Oh yeah, she also said you looked at her titties all the time.”

“What? Hang on—”

“Okay. Fair play. She didn’t say that. What happened was I said ‘Oohh so he’s sooooo good to talk to is he?’—look I was being a real prick by then— and she said ‘Yes!’ and then she like whacked me with her fist, and then I told her that Wade probably looks at your tits when you’re not watching, and she said that she wouldn’t care if you did. Or wouldn’t mind. Or something.”

“Which was it?”

“What?”

“Care, or mind?”

“What? Look, what does it matter? She has had a gutsful of me and there’s nothing left to say. Jesus I have a massive fucking hangover.” He paused for a while then said, “I’ve got to get out of this house.”

Blood surged in my temples. I ignored it. “We could hike it up the mountain?” I suggested.

“I don’t see why fucking not,” he said, so we got up and walked up Mt Eden. By the time we were at the top, Pete was sweating something shocking and I could smell last night’s alcohol on his breath and seeping from his pores and probably evaporating off the gunk in the corners of his eyes. He really stank.

 

Over the years, Pete has called me, among other things, Nana, Grandpa, Womankind, Girl, Liberal-Arts Enthusiast, Baby-Baby Doll, The Journeyman, Princess, Prince, and The Count, along with all sorts of foodstuffs, and all at different times depending on his mood. From that day when he first studied worms, he sometimes called me Hermaphrodite, which he shortened to Herm, and then re-lengthened to Herman. When I said I was going shopping for clothes for my catch-up with Amelia because all the stuff I owned looked like Mum had bought it for me, he called me Eunuch.

“Balls and clothes shopping are incompatible.”

“You buy clothes,” I pointed out.

“But I don’t go bloody shopping.”

It’s a sad business, a single male in a shopping mall searching fruitlessly for items of clothing to make him appear to be anything other than what he is. Looking for trousers that give him some sort of an arse, a shirt that gives him some sort of pecs, and shoes that imply he is better in bed than his hair might suggest. Excuse me Miss, do you have any clothes that can change your physical and metaphysical being? Do you do lay-buy?

I tried on a shirt and had decided I didn’t like it, and, just as I was just taking it off, I bled all over it. From my nose. Sometimes things happen in real life that are so outrageous or unlikely or sad or unfortunate that you don’t believe it even when it’s happening to you.

I get bloody noses. I used to get them all the time, when I was a kid. I had to have the blood vessels in my nose cauterised when I was eight years old, which means that a doctor carefully and precisely set fire to my nostrils. It worked for a while, then those nose bleeds returned. When I moved in with Pete, I was getting them maybe ten times a year. The first time he saw it he asked me how often it happened. “Once a month, on average, I’d say.” From then on he called them my nose periods. “You should get yourself some nose tampons, mate,” he’d said. And he actually made me some nose tampons out of toilet paper and cotton buds. He put them in a zip lock bag and decorated it with flowers from the overrun garden out the front. Sometimes, when he gets on to something, he just won’t leave it alone. I used those nose tampons the next time I got a bloody nose. They worked, too.

I took the shirt off and walked out to the shop assistant to show her. She had been nice to me when I was browsing, and smiled as I approached.

“Hi there. Sorry, I accidentally bled on this shirt.”

“What? Why?” she said.

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Oh my gaaarrd,” she said, taking half a step back when I showed her.

“Yeah, sorry, I’ll buy it, of course.”

She nodded and said, “But are you okay?”

“Yes, it happens sometimes.”

“Really?”

In the end, I was mostly just glad when the eftpos machine said “Accepted”. It had cost more than I had been planning to spend.

She packaged it up nicely, putting tissue paper around the still-fresh blood stain so it wouldn’t spread. I was, for all intents and purposes, an invalid who was trying to retain his dignity and she was the nurse cleaning me up after I’d soiled myself. But, in the end, it was just another shop I couldn’t go into again. No big deal. I guess, in some ways, the whole blood-on-the-shirt thing saved me the time I would otherwise have spent looking for the mythologically perfect shirt.

I took the shirt home and washed the blood out. Blood comes out okay, when you know what you’re doing. I decided to wear the same jeans I wore to the party when I met Amelia. They had a small tear at the right knee, in the place I put my foot when I cross my left leg over my right, but they actually fit me almost properly.

 

On the Thursday before the Sunday of my coffee-date with Amelia, I was sitting on the couch, watching the third test match finish. It was going to be three-zip to the tourists. I got a phone call.

My phone was in my back pocket, so I’d been sitting on it when it started ringing. I lifted that butt cheek and pulled it out and looked at the little screen. The screen said Amelia.

In about a ring-and-a-half, I worked out what was going on. Amelia was calling to say she’d made a mistake, that when I’d called her she thought I was Pete, and that she’d figured the other guy, who was actually me, would never dare to call her and ask her out, and it was only when Symphony said, no, Wade was the strangely overweight skinny guy who had arms like wrinkled sausages and who hung around with Pete, and it was Pete who was the big guy with the arms and the pecs and everything, and therefore she would have to cancel our catch-up because she wasn’t interested after all and sorry to have taken up my time.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hi, Wade?” When I heard her voice I remembered her again, what she looked like with her collarbones and her thin wrists and the smooth skin of her neck that glowed like clouds backlit by the sun.

“Yeah, hi Amelia.”

“How’s it going?”

I was miserable. “Good.”

“Hey, I’m really sorry but I have to cancel our catch-up.”

“Oh, okay.” I said. It’s equal parts horrifying and satisfying when your anxieties turn into realities.

“Not cancel, really, just postpone.”

“Oh, right.”

“I’m in Sydney. I had to come over for work. I’ll be here for at least two weeks, but not sure exactly how long. Could be longer. Maybe give it some time and call me in a month or so.” She sounded distracted, like she had turned her head away from the phone.

“Of course, yes, I mean, no worries.” I said, and began worrying. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to ask her out for a second time. I’d put more or less everything I had into that first text.

“Okay great. See you soon,” she said, and she was gone.

“Sweet.” I said, after the connection had died.

On the television the teams were walking off the field, shaking hands and patting each other on the back. I thought about all the blood I spilt, like a warrior, on that shopping trip. I wondered if maybe Amelia would stay in Sydney, permanently, and if that might not be better for everyone. She could easily find some enormous Australian lawyer with huge hands and tanned shoulders and nuts like cannonballs. They’re everywhere over there.

Pete got home maybe an hour later, and I was still on the couch. He asked me what happened.

“I see,” he said. “So. Beer?”

“Alright.” He brought me one from the fridge, and poured it into a glass. We usually only drank from glasses when we wore collared shirts.

“Sausage, sausage?”

“Alright.” And he trotted off back to the kitchen and microwaved a sausage and brought it to me on a little plate. It had sweated in the microwave and a brown oily liquid had seeped from the small tears in the casing. Pete sat down next to me and muted the TV.

“Cheers,” I said.  We sat for a while.

“You know what might help?” Pete asked.

“What?

Showgirls.”

“No.” We sat for a bit longer. Evening slid into the room.

“Want to go get drunk?” Pete asked, half-heartedly.

“Nah.”

“Me neither,” he said.

I looked out the window to what I could see of the sky above the treeline.

“Want to climb the mountain?” he asked.

“Yeah, alright.” It was quite dark by then, and the air had a chill that felt good as we walked outside. Mt Eden wasn’t really a mountain, but you know all about it when you climb it. It’s a big bloody hill. About half way up, Pete began running, so I did too. It was just a jog to start with, but then we picked up the pace until, near the top, we were sprinting. We were side by side until just before the summit, when I overtook him. We stood by the monument to catch our breath. He took longer.

I went to sit on the bench but it was damp with dew, so I stood on it instead. The crater of the volcano plunged away from my feet like a cliff. A helicopter scooted across the horizon, buzzing towards the cranes at Mechanics Bay. If I could see around corners, and over great distances, I might have been able to see across the Tasman, to Sydney, and to Amelia.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Message from Symphony, it said, underneath her Facebook profile picture. We had been Facebook friends for a while. Years. I hardly ever looked at her photos, though. Almost never.

I stared at the picture. This was the first time she’d messaged me. I tapped the screen.

—tell P to go fuck himself

My fingers felt big as I typed on the tiny keyboard. —I think he already did

—tell him I told u to tell him again

—ok

I looked up from the screen and called to Pete. “Symphony says to go fuck yourself.” I held up the screen as evidence.

Pete squinted. “But I already know.”

Symphony buzzed my phone again. —what r u doing

—standing on a park bench up mt eden

—why

I wondered, and replied with —what are you doing?

—messaging u

—why?

She ignored that one, and wrote —did u call amelia

—yes

—and

—she’s lovely

—why did u not ask me for her number ur self

—I don’t know, I wrote, although I did. How can you ask one beautiful girl for another beautiful girl’s number?

The thread ended. One crease in my brain held the idea of Amelia, and another, so recently sparked, held the image of Symphony. I was horribly in love with both of them, without any hope of resolution or reciprocation, and all of life, at that moment, was delicious. And there, right there, was my perennial problem.

“Wade, you’re terminally heterosexual,” said Pete, out of nowhere.

“Really?” It seemed kind of accurate, at that moment.

“Yes.”

“Why is heterosexuality terminal?” I asked.

“Not just hetero. All of them. Lesbian, gay, bi, queer, trans, hermaphrodite, they’re all terminal.”

“What if you’re asexual?”

“Terminal,” he said.

I wondered now, standing on that bench looking down on my friend, and with Amelia wedged in one fold of my cerebrum and Symphony in another, about Pete. I had the habit of thinking of him as my guide, but all he ever offered, or could give, and all he ever wanted, was friendship; he just wanted to know me, and for me to know him. From my prospect on that wonky seat he seemed now to look an awful lot like me, a kind of clown with ruffled hair and worn-out shoes.

I looked at the horizon. The lights from the city were blinking and flickering.

“So?” Pete said.

“What?”

“What can you see from up there?”

I took another look around. “I can see all of it,” I said.

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