Lydia Schofield 2015-19
Steph stares at the ground and whispers, “I’m sorry.”
And with two tiny words, everything is over. A year of hoping and wishing and smiles, collapsed in an instant. My eyes grow hot, like I’m going to start crying. Steph steps off the bus and is enveloped in the cold, the door sliding shut before I can say anything. I sit alone, breathing small, shallow breaths, trying not to cry or hyperventilate. Praying that no one else on this stupid bus can see how far from okay I am. There’s a voice behind me, whispering my name.
“Lola,” it hisses. “Lola! LOLA WOULD YOU LISTEN TO ME PLEASE?”
It’s not whispering anymore, it’s screaming. I turn around. There’s a girl perched on the seat behind me. She has dark hair cut to just under her ears, bulky black glasses and a blazing glare. She pushes a strand of hair behind her ear and raises an eyebrow at me.
“Hello Lola,” she says.
Cogs turn in my brain and something clicks. Something that should have clicked as soon as I heard her voice. The delay feels like seeing your reflection in the mirror and saying hello, expecting the reflection to reply. She looks like me, but not in the way my sister does. No. She looks like an exact replica of me.
She’s a reflection that’s replying.
I bite my lip, unsure, nervous. She scrunches up her nose. “You really shouldn’t do that,” she says.
I try to speak up, but I can’t. ‘How do you defend yourself against yourself?’ I think, frowning. ‘How is this even happening?’ I sit frozen, completely taken aback. She’s acting all defiant and cocky, as if she’s trying to prove a point.
The bus jolts into my stop and I still haven’t said a word. I pull my gaze away from the girl, forcing myself off the bus. I walk about twenty metres down the footpath before I let myself check if she’s still there.
I stop suddenly. She trips and slams into my backpack. She rights herself and stands, confident, despite her fall. “So…” she grins slyly. “What happened?”
‘I was rejected,’ I think. ‘That’s what happened.’
The reflection girl perks up. “Ah, yes,” she says. “You got rejected by that girl, didn’t you?”
“How’d you know that?” I ask, my voice showing more hurt than I want it to. I don’t want her to know about what happened with Steph. I don’t want anyone to know.
“Don’t stress,” she says coolly. “No one heard anything.”
“But how did you know?” I say, too quickly, too defensively. She raises an eyebrow.
“Calm down,” she smirks. “I know because I was there.” She pauses, giving me time to understand. “Do you really not get it? I’m you!” she says after I stay silent. She sounds annoyed now, more like a grenade about to go off than a person.
I start walking again, trying to put distance between myself and the grenade girl.
“You running from me?” she screams.
“Yep.” I walk faster.
A deep, guttural scream erupts behind me. I turn around to see her running towards me, angry and ready to fight. I drop my schoolbag beside me, bracing myself. She stops right in front of me, eyes blazing. She steps back and I relax, thinking she won’t attack. I’m wrong. She lunges, clawing at my head, screeching. I try to push her away, but she kicks me hard and I fly backwards. I flail, trying to pull her down with me, but she dodges my grasp.
I hit the concrete hard, all the air knocked out of me. She walks over to where I’m lying, looking down at me. I try to scramble to my feet, but she places her foot on my chest, pushing her weight into me. The heel of her boot wedges sharply between my ribs. I can’t breathe. She bends down and whispers, “You are pathetic, Lola.”
I shake my head. ‘No I’m not!’ My mind screams.
She sneers. “Steph would’ve told you herself! If she thought you were mature or capable enough for her, she wouldn’t have rejected you, would she?”
The pain in my chest subsides for a second as an emotional hurt replaces it. I stare at the girl, shocked. I don’t want to believe her. I want to tell myself she’s wrong. But everyone says I should trust myself more…
“That’s right,” she says. “Trust yourself. Trust me. I am you. Trust what I say. I say that you’re pathetic and a waste of Steph’s time. Forget about her. God knows she’s already forgotten about you.” She pauses. “I just hope you won’t beat yourself up about it…my mistake, you already have!” She grins and hits me hard across the face. My glasses smash into my nose and the world spins until everything is dark. All I can hear are her words replaying themselves over and over in my mind.
“Don’t beat yourself up about it…”
I am Raven. I was born to the fearsome lord of our valley fourteen years ago. But then he tried to marry me off to a neighbouring tribe leader. So now I’m running away. Many fathers do this to their daughters but none shall do it to me. I am Raven and, like the birds, I will migrate. I will live with my grandmother in the woods. She is a sorcerer and she will teach me her ways. She will do this or she will pay for her resistance. I am a woman now and I shall take chances that real women must take. I collect my warmest robes from the chest beneath my bed. I would never be able to drag the whole thing with me. Not in this snow. No one in the village, no matter how brave or fearsome, would venture out in snow like this. Not even my father would go out in weather like this morning’s. And my father will certainly not be able to stop me today. He began his travels yesterday and he will not be back until tomorrow. He has gone to fetch the man I am to marry. The thought of this new husband makes me feel sick. At the bottom of the chest I find the old red cloak that my father brought back for me from a particularly victorious plunder. I don the cloak and, surprisingly, it still fits quite loosely. The cloak’s warmth envelops me instantly. Stuffing the robes into a sack, I glance over at my weakling of a younger brother. My father wants him to be chief and lord of the valley one day. And now, thanks to me, he will be. I am giving the weak waste of space a gift that he might never understand. I hope that one day, he may thank me for it. Once downstairs, I grab all the weapons I can, making sure to only select weapons that I know how to use and that my father will not miss. I fill the sheath and position it and one of the bows onto my back and load some wine, bread and meat into my sack. I slot the knives into my belt and hold the larger bow at the ready as I trudge into the snow, the heavy sack slung over my shoulder. My boots are as strong as my spirit and I do not feel the cold. I feel only my own strength as I push on through the rough patches of terrain. Out of nowhere I hear a formless sound. A howling. A wolf. I have shot a wolf before. It tried to attack my brother when he was sick a few years ago. It only took one arrow for the beast to be downed. I pull an arrow from my sheath and slot it in the bow. I am ready. No one can touch me. I have been walking since well before dawn and none shall stop me now. I hear a twig snap followed by a growling sound. The sound sends a chill down my spine and I try not to shiver. I drop the sack at my feet and draw the bow back, aiming toward the strange growling. I release the arrow just as a hooded man leaps from a hollow tree and catches the arrow in his paw-like hand. He has a wolf skin for a cloak. The fur around his head has dried blood stuck around the edges. I can smell rotten meat even from here. His face is strewn with cuts and bruises that move in strange ways as he snarls at me. This is not a wolf. This is not a man. This is an imitation. An imitation that I can slaughter. I am a woman now, after all. And real women can handle situations like these. I ready another arrow and release it, aiming at the beast’s heart. The arrow lodges itself in the centre of the beast’s chest. I hear a thump as the limp body hits the snow covered ground. The red of his blood spoils the innocence of the white, pure snow. The stain in the snow fades from dark scarlet to crimson to almost pink. It almost looks beautiful. I hear something like a footstep behind me and spin round to see another wolf-cloaked man, standing only a few paces from me. In one fluent movement, I pull a knife from my belt and thrust it into the second imitation’s chest. He howls in pain and drops into the snow. Two bodies. Two blood stains in the snow. I smile to myself proudly. “I knew you were strong, Raven,” I say to myself as I clean my knife in the snow, sling the sack back over my shoulder and walk off in the direction of my grandmother’s house.
Found Poem 1
No matter how wide you stretch your fingers,
Your hands will always be too small to catch all the pain
You want to heal.
My hands are covered in bruises,
Purple and yellow medals from my efforts.
I used to walk with my arms outstretched,
Grasping at sadness and sorrow.
I thought I was like Midas,
Like my touch could turn gloom to glow
And tears to a spark in a smiling eye.
I thought I could help
Maybe I was wrong.
Now, I walk with my hands hidden,
Tucked in pockets or arms crossed,
Shielding myself from the pain I could have changed.
I stand in a downpour of tears,
My hands in my pockets,
My socks soaked through the holes in my boots,
I’m up to my knees in disappointment.
This is not good enough.
Listen to the downpour,
Let the rain soak for face
Take your hands from your pockets open your palms wide.
They will get battered,
You will get bruised,
But sometimes you have endure and keeping shining,
Hoping and knowing that eventually,
Your light will reach where it is meant to,
You will finally catch all the pain you need to
And your Midas touch will be just enough.
Found Poem 2
Two thousand and seventeen years.
What happened during all that time?
Blossoming like flowers and wilting with time,
Empires rose and fell.
People dropped like flies.
Gained confidence, gained height
And there we were,
On the silver, beaming moon.
We are still struggling to cure the common cold
We are fighting with our old
We still don’t understand
Our marvellously complex brains
But we built trains
And we built languages,
Dialects and pidgins and signs with our hands
So we could help to build our vast lands.
Linguists, are still debating what a word is.
Even after two thousand and seventeen years of all this
We still have far to go.
So much to learn, so much to know…
Are you ready?
Normally, I would never do something like this. It’s vandalism. It’s defacing school property. It’s wrong and I know it. But surely there’s some kind of exception for activism. Maybe. Probably not. Maybe I’ll do it anyway. Maybe I’m that kind of person now that I’m fire-belly angry. The bathroom door is already covered in so many scribblings, no one would notice if I added to it. And I’m not going to add something obscene like the writing that’s already here. I have to make my mind up soon or Ms George will send someone to look for me. I've been in here for ages. Normally, when the slurs and the homophobic jokes get too much I only spend a few minutes in the bathroom, deep breathing and composing myself. But today is different. Today, I have absolutely no desire to go back into that classroom. I don't actually think Ms George would care if I stayed in here for the rest of the period. One less student to teach. And I don’t think she’d listen to me about the kids at the back of the class, because the insults aren’t directed at me. Picking on gay people is different to picking on the gay kid. Teachers don’t have as much motivation to help unless there’s a specific target.
I turn back to the wall. I'm going to do it. I take the pen out of my pocket and find a tiny blank spot on the plaster. I write 'Happy Pride Month' in letters that don't look too much like my regular handwriting. Writing on a wall is harder than it seems and it takes a lot of effort to make the letters readable. I leave the bathroom a little lighter, which I guess is strange considering all I’ve done is write one little phrase. But it feels so much bigger than those three little words. I sit through the rest of the lesson, trying to ignore the words coming from the back of the room. I hope someone in another class is hearing the same things. I hope they'll see what I wrote and feel a little bit better. I hope they’ll leave a reply. Maybe this could be a start. Maybe this could lead to something.
I feel like I'm floating a little all day. Is that weird? That the tiniest bit of graffiti, breaking a minor rule, gets me this excited? Probably. But as my mum would say, "As long as you’re happy and not getting arrested, who cares?" I doubt you can be arrested for bathroom graffiti. If you could, we'd have way more students with criminal records.
Leo and Maxie are at our lunch spot when I get there and I must be smiling more than I think because Leo looks up at me and says, "Why're you so chipper? Did Ms George have spinach in her teeth again?"
"Something like that," I say as I sit next to him on the wooden bench. And I'm not sure why, but I don't want to tell Leo and Maxie about the graffiti. Partly because Leo will make some stupid joke about it. And partly because Maxie will be super surprised that I’ve broken an actual school rule. But mostly I don’t want to tell them because it seems too private. Like a secret between me and whoever else writes on that wall. Leo starts telling a story about something that happened in his cooking class and I nod along, my mouth too full of sandwich to say anything. I watch and listen quietly as his long arms flail around excitedly as he tells me about an icing sugar incident. He grips his dark curly hair in annoyance as he tells me about how the fire alarm went off again because someone forgot to set an oven timer. His eyes light up when Maxie laughs at his jokes. Watching Leo tell stories is like watching a stand-up comedian who only talks about cooking and basketball.
I finish eating and sit with my feet on the bench and my head on my knees. I zone out a little as Maxie and Leo start talking about one of their teachers and it takes me a second to realise that I’m staring at a girl across the courtyard. She has this Nutella coloured hair in longs braids and strong legs in tight jeans and the kind of thick eyeliner that makes her stare intense even from fifteen metres away. An intense stare that is aimed at me. I blush and look away quickly, angling my body toward Leo and Maxie to make it seem like that’s where all my energy is going. I steal another glance at her and she smiles at me before turning back to her friends.
“Hey, Maxie,” I say as soon as there’s a gap in conversation.
“Yeah?” she says.
“Do you know who that girl is?” I point to the staring girl.
“Umm.” She clicks her tongue pushes strands of raven blue hair out of her face as she squints at the girl. “Hazel? Yes! I think her name’s Hazel.”
“Is she new?” I ask.
“Nope,” Maxie says. “You probably just don’t know her because she’s not in the band.”
“We know people who aren’t in the band!” Leo says. “We know you, don’t we?”
“I don’t count!” Maxie laughs. “I was in the band when you met me!”
“Yeah, but you only played percussion.”
I steal another glance at the girl as Maxie and Leo start arguing about whether band kids are the least social kind of kids at our school. Hazel is saying something quickly and with a lot of hand movements. Her friends burst out laughing and she looks over at me. I blush again and look away. Maxie catches a glimpse of my red face and grins.
“Oh my god!” Maxie says, her eyes wide and excited, her hands flapping with energy. “You like her, don’t you Nell?”
“What?” I say. “No I don’t.”
“Of course you don’t,” Maxie smiles, sitting back, cocking her head to the side. “How stupid of me to think such a thing. You’re just very, very warm?”
“Shut up,” I say into legs, cheeks still burning.
The next day, I'm at school too early because mum is worried about the traffic. This happens far too often. As soon as there's more than a five percent chance of rain on the forecast, mum gets all worked up about how bad the traffic will be. So she's insisted on dropping me off twenty minutes before school starts and I'm one of the only students here. Again. Maxie won't be here until after class has already started and I can't see Leo anywhere yet, so I decide to check on the graffiti. Because I'm acting super nonchalant about the whole thing and I’m definitely not freaking out at the possibility that someone might have actually replied to my message. And I’m definitely not scared that one of the homophobic kids has read it and replied with their stupid comments. Nope. Not at all. I try to ignore my bubbling nerves as I open the bathroom door. I lock the stall door behind me and lean on it. Taking a slow, deep breath, I allow myself to look.
There's a response.
Actually, there are two responses. Sort of. Someone has angrily scribbled out my whole message in blue biro, leaving dents in the wall. The same person has written, ‘NO’ in scratchy letters next to it. The second response is just little purple hearts drawn all around the message. They must have been there before the blue biro scribbler because some of the hearts have been scribbled out too.
So maybe I’m getting a little addicted to this. Maybe this graffiti is giving me strange rushes of adrenaline and courage because I take out my pen and write, "What's your problem, scribbler?" So I guess I’ve started an argument. Which is unlike me. Usually it’s Leo and Maxie who are the ones standing up to people and voicing their opinions and I just quietly let everyone else state their points. But now that I've had a reply, now that I know there are at least two people who've read and reacted to the message, I want to keep going. I want to know who these people are. Who's the scribbler? Who drew the hearts? I want them to know my opinion and I want to change things in this school.
All morning, the graffiti is all I can think about. It's eating away at my brain and my attention span. My French teacher, who is probably the nicest teacher in the entire world, notices and comes to check on me.
"Nell," she says, eyebrows furrowed into a concerned expression. "Ça va? Are you okay?"
"Oui, Mademoiselle. I'm fine."
But I can tell she doesn’t believe me because she says, “Do you need to go outside for a bit?”
I nod and leave the room. I feel a little bad for not telling Mademoiselle Katie about the graffiti, but I don’t think I’m comfortable with her knowing. I don’t want to tell her that there's someone in this school with a biro and so much disdain for queer people that they’d scribble out some harmless graffiti. And I don’t want to tell her that I graffitied school property. I don't think she'd be too impressed by that. And I'm certainly not going to tell her that I'm hoping that the girl who drew the purple hearts is queer and cute and willing to talk to me outside the bathroom wall. And I don't tell her how comforting that would be, to know that Maxie and I aren't the only two queer girls in the whole school.
When I reach the bathroom, the end stall is empty and there’s a new reply from the Scribbler that reads, "You shouldn't be proud of something that isn't natural.”
I clench my jaw. I don't know how to respond to that. Thankfully, the purple pen of the heart drawer has responded for me. "This isn't an organic food shop, this is life. What's 'natural' or not doesn't matter. We shouldn't have to hide from people like you." The comment makes me smile and I take my pen out to write, "Thank you person," and draw an arrow to the purple comment.
It's warmed up nicely by recess and Leo and Maxie and I sit backwards on the bench, our backs to the sun, feet in the garden, soaking up the warmth. Maxie's talking superhumanly fast and she seems to think that what she's saying is important but Leo and I can't understand any of it.
Eventually, Maxie takes a breath. "Don't you think that's just ridiculous?" she says, which is the first sentence that I've been able to decipher for about five minutes. She looks to us expectantly, her eyes bright and waiting.
"Yes," Leo says. "I've got no idea what you're talking about but, yes, it's probably ridiculous."
Maxie rolls her eyes and leans forward to look at me. “Nell! Did you hear what I said?”
“Hearing and listening are two different things,” I say because I definitely heard what she said but she didn’t make it easy to comprehend.
Maxie sighs. “Your loss,” she shrugs. “You’ll just have to live with the fact that you’ll never know.”
“What a pity,” Leo sighs, feigning disappointment. She frowns and pokes his arm. I tune out of their conversation and my gaze floats across the yard. Hazel and her friends are sitting in a doorway. Hazel’s legs are curled up under her and her hair is out and flowing down her back. She’s kind of hypnotic.
“Oi!” Leo laughs, poking my arm. “What’re you looking at?”
I bite my lip. “Nothing.”
He pokes me again. “Tell me!” he says, poking with both hands. I laugh and push his hands away.
Maxie perks up. “Is it that girl?” she asks, drumming her hands on her knees.
“No.” I say quickly, trying so hard not to blush.
“Nell,” Maxie says seriously, stopping her drum rolling hands. “You have to go talk to her.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“You’re blushing,” Leo smirks. “You want to.”
“Go!” Maxie says, gesturing wildly. I glance over at Hazel. I could. I could so easily go over there and talk to her. It’s only a few metres and a few words and then…
The bell goes and Maxie groans. “You’re not getting out of this that easily,” she warns me as we walk to our classes.
As soon as the bell goes for lunch, I head to the bathroom to check on the graffiti. I know it's kind of sad that I'm obsessing over it so much, but I can't help it. I need to know if there's a reply. I need to know who the Scribbler is and who the heart drawer is. Plus, it's just dawned on me that I could use the graffiti as evidence of 'unacceptable language and behaviour' at school. I could show a teacher. I could actually change this.
But when I get to the bathroom, there's someone in the last stall. It could be the Scribbler. It could be love hearts girl. My heart races. I could know who they are! I turn on the tap and wash my hands slowly, waiting for the stall door to open so I can see who they are. And then, once they leave, I can see if they left a message. I realise that just washing my hands looks a bit suspicious, so I splash some water onto my coat and rub at it as if I've spilt something. The stall door opens and I try to look as subtly as I can at the girl. It's Hazel. She has one hand in the pocket of her denim jacket. She smiles at me – which makes my stomach flutter – washes her hands and leaves. I race to the stall. Thank god there's no one else in here to see me being so weird. There's a message from the Scribbler - some misspelt Bible quote - and a purple message from love heart girl. The purple message says, "Let's prove this kid wrong" with a phone number written next to it. My chest tightens. This is so strange. Why is there a number? Do they want me to text them? They don't even know who I am. I take a photo of the wall and another of the phone number then rub the purple numbers with my finger. It smudges perfectly. The ink's still wet. It was Hazel.
I race out of the bathroom to where Maxie and Leo are sitting. Hazel and her friends are sitting in the doorway again. Maxie looks up at me curiously.
"Why’re you in such a rush?” she asks.
I shrug, sit down next to her and pull out my phone, typing in the number from the graffiti.
“And where’s your lunch?” Maxie asks.
“Forgot it,” I say. I turn back to my phone and type, Purple hearts? This is the red-pen-Happy-Pride-Month girl. I press send.
Across the courtyard, Hazel's phone beeps. She looks down at it, grins and types something.
My phone buzzes and Maxie frowns at me.
“What is going on?” she asks, shaking her hands in my face.
I shrug and read the text, Thank god you're not Miss-blue-biro-and-angry-letters. Who are you? Can I talk to you? I look up from my screen and Hazel's standing right in front of me. She holds out her hand.
"I love your work," she says as I shake her hand.
"Yours is pretty neat too," I say.
"We should meet up sometime," she says. "Are you free after school?"
I can feel myself blushing. "Today?"
"Yeah. I'll meet you here when the bell goes?"
"It's a date then," she grins and now she's blushing too. “See you then.”
As she walks across the yard, Maxie’s fidgety, percussionist hands are drumming on my arm.
“Nell,” she says. “You have got to tell me what’s going on.”
I grin and tell her everything. As I talk, I glance back at Hazel. She grins at me, blushes and turns back to her friends. I was right, I think. Three little words did change something.
It was warm and the wind was low, whispering through the trees as we walked down the dirt paths towards the beach. The light was blocked by the canopy and we made slow progress, concentrating on our footing in the shady undergrowth. She was quiet, barely speaking as we clambered over fallen trees and loose rocks. As soon as the sand of the beach was in sight, the smell of salt water suddenly present in the air, she picked up the pace. She took the lead, taking confident strides through the tangled ti-tree. And then we were out of the claustrophobic tangle of trees and the sun was beating down on us again, shining hot and strong. My feet slid in the sand and the sun glistened on the calm blue of the endless ocean.
Kate stood close to the water, just out of reach of the small waves that crept up the beach, edging towards her boots before retreating back into the blue. I could feel sand edging into my socks as I stood beside her, looking out to the gently curved horizon. I had been nervous before, but as the silence stretched out between us, I felt myself relax. We listened to the waves crashing lazily at our feet and watched the rhythmic pulse of the water as new waves formed and broke further out to sea.
“If only we had a boat,” Kate said after a while, squinting in the light. “We could sail away.”
“Where would we go?”
“Anywhere,” she said. “Melbourne maybe.”
“To be with Harriet?”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I shouldn’t have said them. She looked at me, hurt, cheeks flushed, hurt.
“Sorry,” I whispered. “I know you miss her.”
I took a few steps back and sat in the drier sand. She hesitated before sitting down beside me, her skirts spread out on the warm sand and her hair catching the light as she completely ignored my gaze.
I felt like it was Christmas again and we were sitting in the alcove on the cliffs together. There was the same tension in the air, the same sense that we were sharing her sadness. I felt that she expected me to take some of the hurt, relieve her of some of the gloom that Harriet’s absence had caused her. I said nothing because I didn’t know what there was for me to say. As we watched the clouds and the water being whipped by the harsh wind, I felt that I was letting her down.
I had to say something. I had to try to comfort her.
“You can talk to me, you know,” I said. “It’s not the same as talking to Harriet, I know that. But it’s better than being alone.”
She smiled, just a little. Like she was trying not to laugh.
“I know,” she said. “Thank you.”
She looked at me then, looked deep into my eyes. I don’t know what she saw in them, but she cracked up laughing.
“What? What’s so funny?”
It took her a moment to calm down and when she did, red in the face, she said, “Your mother thinks you’re sweet on me. I heard her say it.”
I froze, my stomach dropping. She watched me, waiting for my reaction.
When I said nothing, she nudged me. “It’s true, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said, too quickly.
She smiled, satisfied with herself, and looked out to the waves.
“Oh well,” she sighed. “It’s because you think Harriet’s too pretty for you.”
“No, it’s not!”
She raised her eyebrows, challenging me to say more. I felt heat rising in my cheeks. I wanted to speak but the words were all stuck in my throat, scared to come forward.
“I-I didn’t say that …”
She didn’t believe me, it was written on her face in the crinkles that formed when she smiled.
“Admit it, Albert Jackson. Admit that you fancy me.”
There was a voice, a hopeful little voice, at the back of my mind that was whispering, ‘This is your chance, Albert! Tell her!’ Maybe, just maybe, I could admit to her what had been buzzing in the back of my mind since before Christmas.
“You’re smarter than me, Kate Gilbert,” I said. “You think you’re too good for me.”
She didn’t say anything, but something in her face changed. She was shocked, surprised that I was being the bold one for once.
I didn’t mean to say any more, but the words fell out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“My father says there’s nothing to stop me from asking for your hand,” I said. When she gaped at me, unable to form words, I continued, frantically filling the silence. “I’m hardworking, Kate. I would be a good match for you. Even though Mother thinks you are hot-headed and not as pretty as you are quick. Your parents would be glad to have a son-in-law like me and my father says you would make a good wife.”
She scrambled to stand up, sand flying everywhere. I stood too. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but I had a feeling I had gone too far.
“Are you asking me to marry you?” she asked, her voice strange and tight. She was breathing hard, eyes wide.
“Yes. Yes, I think I am.”
She looked as if she was about to cry. Like I’d insulted her.
“I won’t marry you, Albert,” she said, shaking her head like a metronome. “I won’t.”
My chest was suddenly too tight to breathe or speak or move. I watched helplessly as she ran back up and the hill and through the bush away from me. The tears came then, and the terrible squeezing in my chest that made it hard to get enough air. I stayed on that beach for a long while, trying my best not to be heartbroken.
Fill The Void
Can you tell I am not used to your company anymore?
Filling the gaps in conversation with whatever I can,
stumbling over snippets of ideas and pockets of chatter
trying to fill the void,
trying to stop you drifting away
Tight shoulders, neck, jaw.
Pain in the left side,
between two ribs
an intense stabbing,
concocted by an uneasy mind,
Snapping, cracking, crumbling
voice, posture, confidence.
Hands shaking, fidgets, scratches,
taptaptaps and drums on the desk.
Lip bleeds, bitten.
Eyes, deep brown and watery
try, fail to focus.
An unwelcome thing
that shares her brain
The door was wide open. Surely, that was an invitation. The For Sale sign was fading and threatening to fall into the overgrown grass. It slumped against the little decorative fence that bordered the front yard.
No one would mind if she went in. No one would notice.
The gate creaked as she opened it and swung shut quickly, hitting her leg as she went through. The path was only just visible through the weeds and greyed grass, which brushed against her knees as she walked up to the front steps. She went up and through the front door, shutting it carefully and checking it had not locked behind her.
The house was emptier than she had expected and quieter than any house she had been in. Dust caught the light in the hallway as she waited by the door. She waited, in case there was anyone home. The silence told her not to worry.
She left her bag by the front door and, free of the weight of her textbooks, she took herself on a tour through the dusty rooms. She opened every door and every closet. She found nothing but dust and a musty smell that followed her through the shell of a house. In the kitchen, she found a mousetrap under the sink with a tiny ball of fur caught inside.
The backyard was filled with furniture as if the house had been gutted, ripped of everything that made the shell habitable. Dining tables and beds and too many chairs. There were more chairs in the yard than could ever fit inside the house. She cleared a space in the middle of the long grass and collected all the chairs, stacking them one on top of the other in a wobbling tower. Clambering onto a chest of drawers, she carefully edged herself onto the top chair and lowered her weight onto it. She let herself relax.
There was an old oak tree in the corner of the yard. From her vantage point, she could see the tyre swing that hung from it, swaying sadly in the breeze. Below it lay a sleeping man. She froze, watching him. He was curled up with his head on a sofa cushion and a grubby blanket hugged around his shoulders. His hair was dirtied and grey and the lines under his eyes were heavy with fatigue.
She climbed down the tower of chairs and went to the front door, retrieving a notebook and returning to her perch. She watched the man and sketched him on the lined paper. She waited for him to wake up and notice her there. She hoped he might make a fuss.
The sky was growing pink when he stirred and it took him a moment to remember where he was. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. The tyre swing made contact with his head and he swore, staggering to his feet. He was halfway across the yard before he saw her sitting there on her rickety throne. He froze, his eyes wide.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Are you here to kick me out?”
The girl shook her head and mumbled something like an apology.
“Are you a thief?” he said.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
He smiled. “You don’t think so?”
She shook her head, her heart beating heavily in her chest.
He laughed. It came out crackling and rusty as if he had not laughed for a very long time, as if his voice was not sure if it remembered how to form the sound. He checked his watch.
He said, “Don’t you have a family to go to?”
“I do,” the girl said. “They won’t notice if I’m late.”
“What are you going to do then?” he said. “You can’t sit up there all night.”
She jumped down from her perch.
“Let me show you around,” he said. He put out his hand. It was grubby and leathery and the feel of his rough skin made her think of her grandfather.
They wound their way through the sea of furniture and he told her about all of it. Some of it might be worth some money, he said, but most of it was worthless. Only good for people like us, he said. She did not ask what that meant. When it grew too dark to see clearly, he turned on a lamp that sat crooked on a slanting table. It bathed the yard in a warm glow. She asked how he’d made the power work. He said it had never been turned off. He said she should be getting home soon. She would be back tomorrow, she promised. He smiled at her and she left, walking back through the house to the front door.
She walked the few blocks to her house and entered as quietly as she could. The television was on, blaring commercials. Her parents did not look up as she went past. There was dinner in the oven, cold now. She took it to her room and ate before curling up to read her books. Her parents did not say goodnight. They did not ask how her day had been. They did not check her light was off when they went to bed. She fell asleep with one of her old soft toys hugged close to her. She was too old for it, but it helped take the edge off the loneliness that came with nightfall.
She brought a book of short stories with her the next day, one her grandfather had read to her when she was little. She showed it to the old man when she reached the house that night. His smile faltered when he saw it. He said she would have to read it to him.
They pulled out one of the old beds and piled it up with sofa cushions and blankets from the chest of drawers that stood in the corner beside the oak tree. She sat cross-legged and the old man lay down, smiling as he soaked up the evening sun. She read to him until he fell asleep. His chest rose and fell calmly and she watched him for a little while. She read the rest of the story aloud, just in case he could hear her through his sleep.
He stirred when she went to leave. He asked her whether she would be back tomorrow. She asked him if this was his house.
“May as well be,” he said.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said.
He asked if she could bring the same book. He wanted to hear the end of the story. She promised she would read the end.
“It can be your house too,” he said. “For as long as you need it.”
She nodded and left, tears fogging her eyes. It was a struggle to walk back to her parents’ silent house.
The abandoned house, the old man’s house, was not as quiet as she had first thought. There was movement there. There was life in the empty hallways and in the pile of furniture in the yard. Birds swooped through the hollow rooms and mice skittered wherever they pleased.
“Do the mice bother you?” she asked him one day. It was a week after she had first come to the house and they were making a shelter out of the bunk bed frame, a chest of drawers, and a sheet of tarpaulin the old man had found. She felt like a little kid again, making cubby houses in the living room.
“A little,” he said, adjusting the tarp. “But I can’t get rid of them.”
“There are mouse traps under the sink,” she said. “And a dead mouse too.”
“I can’t get rid of them,” he said again. “They belong here just like us.”
She nodded. “I’ll throw out the mouse traps,” she said.
His eyes twinkled and he stood back from the shelter. The tarpaulin roof was taut and stable.
“You could stay here if you wanted,” he said. “I’ll make another shelter. Or we can move a mattress into the house.”
She wished she could. Would her parents mind? Would they notice? She promised to stay tomorrow night, Friday. That way, she would not have to worry about school the next day. The man was pleased with that.
She read to him until the wind grew sharp with the coolness of dusk and she had to go home. He said, “Don’t forget about tomorrow.”
She said there was no chance of her forgetting.
The next day, she walked with an energy she had not felt since she was little. From school to the house, her feet felt as if they did not touch the ground. She had brought as much food as could fit in her bag and a blanket was slung over her shoulder. As she rounded the corner, her face fell and her mood dropped.
The old man was standing on the curb, waiting for her. His eyes shone as he stood outside the gate. It was the first time she had seen him outside the yard. A shining new placard stood where the For Sale sign had slumped. Sold, it read.
“It’s scheduled for demolition,” he said. “They’ve already had pest control through.”
She dropped her bag and blanket and wrapped her arms around the man. He froze and then relaxed, squeezing her tight. They stood together for a long time, bracing themselves against the sharp, icy wind.
“But we still need it,” she said. The man only nodded, unable to speak.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Patriarchal authority oppresses the women of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and contributes to the lack of true love presented in the play.
From Act 1 Scene 1, we can see the possessive and oppressive language and sentiments used throughout the play towards the female characters. Hermia is described as an object which Egeus and Demetrius both feel they have a “certain right” to. She is something Egeus may “estate unto Demetrius” for him to wed, without asking Hermia’s consent. This view of women as objects to be given, taken or won continues throughout the play. Even Lysander, who at first glance seems the least possessive of the men, tells Demetrius he will “yield up [his] part” of Hermia’s love while he is under the effects of the love potion. Even within this less dominating relationship, Lysander feels he has the right to give up Hermia if it suits his needs.
Though he aids Hermia to make a choice in whom she will marry, Theseus discourages her from disobeying her father at first. He warns her to “question [her] desires”, especially when debating with her father, who should “be but as a god” to her. While Theseus is one of the only men who allow Hermia to make her choice, even he doesn’t allow her to marry Lysander until Demetrius has been drugged by Puck into loving Helena. Only when a man is also disobeying Egeus will Hermia’s protest be allowed.
Another character who abuses his power to create possessive patriarchal control over women is Oberon, who becomes so unhappy with his wife daring to disagree with him that he drugs and humiliates her in order to win her back. In Oberon and Titania’s relationship, we also see why true love cannot exist within the patriarchal confines of the play, because there is a significant imbalance of power within their relationship, as with most relationships of the play. Oberon is so restricted by the patriarchy-bred feeling that he must have power over women and his relationships that he is willing to disrupt the order of the reasons and the balance of the fairy world, as well as the free will and dignity of his wife just so he can have sovereignty over her. Though no other character goes to such great lengths to show their power over female characters, many of the men do remind their partners what they are capable of. Demetrius’ message to Helena that he could “do [her] injury” when they are in the woods together and Theseus’ reminder to Hippolyta that he “wooed [her] with [his] sword” and “injured” her people are examples of this. There are always reminders of the consequences of women’s rebellion and although they are not always as obvious as Theseus’ speech to Hermia where he outlines “the worst that may befall” her, they are always present as sign of patriarchal control and authority.
Patriarchal authority and the power imbalances it brings are part of the reason true love is not shown in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but there are other factors present too. Power imbalances are certainly evident such as in Oberon and Titania’s relationship, but for the lovers, there may also be simpler reasons for their love to be untrue. In Act 4 Scene 1, Demetrius, still affected by the potion and now supposedly in love with Helena, describes his previous affections for Hermia as being as insignificant and naïve “as the remembrance of an idle gaud”. This simile, with its connotations of childhood and naivety, places some doubt on how true his affections really were. Though he is under the influence of a spell at this point, the description echoes part of Egeus’ speech in Act 1, where he claims Lysander had gained Hermia’s affection with “love trinkets”. This seems to be all Hermia and Lysander’s relationship is built on: naïve and materialistic ideas of love. Their speech towards each other is sickly sweet and superficial, with perfect rhyme but little worth. It is also possible that Hermia only likes Lysander because he is not the man chosen for her by her father.
Patriarchal authority makes true love unreachable in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as it limits the choices of women and makes them objects to be possessed and ruled by men.
My grandfather rests at the bottom of his wife’s wardrobe. His urn has sat there for nearly eight years. My grandmother’s dresses and coats brush across its top and her shoes are littered around its base. He has not been scattered yet. He has no headstone. His brain, eaten away by Alzheimer’s, was donated to research before his body was burned. His memories, the ones that are left, live in us and in that brain in the lab.
I have never seen his urn, but I know it is there, full of what was once his body. Waiting, I think, for a better resting place.
Wandering through a cemetery on a Wednesday afternoon is exactly as strange as it sounds. The place is empty and soaked in the warm gold of an early autumn sunset. I am the only person there, or at least the only living one. The others lie beneath my feet, resting, decomposing.
It is quiet but not silent. A place full of dead things refuses to be silent. The wind whispers, brushing against the back of my neck. The leaves of surrounding trees rustle. A bird swoops low over the headstones, singing as she goes. Every now and then, a car drives past and I imagine its passengers holding their collective breath as they speed by.
I am careful with my footsteps, walking in the middle of the path to avoid stepping on the graves. Once, only once, my foot crosses from path to grave and I wince.
“I’m sorry,” I say, an instinct.
A ghost, a figment of my imagination, hovers over the grass. She is old and gnarled and smiling.
“Don’t worry about stepping on my toes, dear,” she says. “I haven’t been able to feel them for years. Decades, in fact.”
As I read the headstone, the old woman melts, replaced by a five-year-old. Pig-tailed and gap-toothed, she now reflects her death age. A wave of unsteadiness washes over me.
“I’m sorry,” I say again.
“Why are you sorry? You’ve done nothing wrong.”
The ghost tilts her head and frowns at me, eyes crinkling.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“You deserved more time,” I say.
I look away, nauseous. Five is too young. Five is too young for a cat to die and it’s definitely too young for a person. When I look up, the girl is gone. She didn’t know what I meant. Would I if I were her? If I were five and dying would I think I deserved more time? At seventeen, do I really know how little I have lived?
The thought twists my stomach with strange, uncertain feelings.
I come to a large, clean grave and something about it seems wrong. The headstone is tall and polished and there is a huge slab of stone marking out the grave. Resting on it are four large bouquets of flowers. Plastic flowers.
They are what’s wrong.
These plastic flowers will be here forever. Plastic does not wilt or degrade. These flowers will be here until decades of dust bury them with the body they commemorate. The body, of course, will be long gone by then, but the flowers will stay. There are plastic flowers littered through the cemetery—eternal monuments to ephemeral people.
Near the front gate of the graveyard are crumbling, cracking graves. They have broken fences and leaning headstones. A hundred and fifty years old, those monuments are breaking down like the bodies they mark. They reflect the decay they represent.
All people, all life is ephemeral, no matter how much we convince ourselves otherwise. The great, the good, and the infamous, all turn to dust eventually. But their monuments—their headstones and plastic flowers—outlive them.
I stand in a garden of reminders. Tokens of people I have never and will never meet. Pleas by their friends and families for strangers like me to remember them.
I feel a little sick.
I do not remember any of these people, these bodies. They are strangers and always will be. Headstones are stories no one knows how to read. No stone inscription can accurately describe a person’s voice, memories, love, or life. They are insufficient summaries of life.
I kneel down beside the grave adorned by the four bouquets of plastic flowers and read the headstone.
In Loving Memory of Ruby Francis Tibbitt
Died 29-8-1998, Aged 82
With only her headstone to go off, there is no way to piece together her life. From her headstone, I cannot know the sound of her voice, her laugh, or any of her stories. From her headstone, I cannot even tell how she died. All I can understand from that slab of stone is that she lived to 82 and was, apparently, loved.
The cemetery is grey with fading light as I walk up the hill, weaving through rows of stone.
There is a garden that overlooks the whole cemetery. It is full of little metal plaques for those who have been cremated. Reading each one, I learn only names, ages, and that they were loved. Among these, are several plaques with only one word engraved into them: Reserved.
There is an inevitability captured in that word and it terrifies me. It is a reminder that no one can escape Death’s hand. Everyone will end up as ash, dust or fertiliser eventually.
There is an inevitability in that word and it comforts me. It says that everyone has a place in in the ground.
I make my way back down the hill and towards the bus stop. The light is dull, but the people I pass seem brighter, crisper than they did before. Going from the quiet of the graveyard to the bustle and chatter of the living world is a strange transition. I watch every passing stranger with a kind of reverence, knowing that every single one of them will die.
When my bus arrives, I want to ask the driver about death. I want to say, “Do you realise that one day you and everyone who has ever stepped onto this bus will be dead?”
I do not say this because I do not want to be kicked off the bus. Taking my seat, I run through the possible conversation in my head.
I imagine the driver saying, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Everyone will die,” I would tell him. “Everyone who has ever lived.”
“Yes,” he would say. “And?”
“And so you should spend your time wisely,” I would tell him, panic and hope mixing in my stomach. “Because you never know how long you’ll have.”
When I talk about death, adults are quick to stop the conversation. They dismiss my interest and worry with concerned looks and vague comments. “You’ve got so long,” they say. “You don’t need to worry about any of this yet.” Those people miss the point entirely. You can never know how long you have.
When I get home, coffee and google searches are on my agenda. Opening my computer, I type my name and the word grave into the search engine and press enter.
I find three headstones in three separate cemeteries across the globe. They all bear my name. When I die, my headstone will be almost identical to them. Newer, and with different years inscribed on it, but the name will match. It will say nothing of my life.
I want more than a headstone. Recording my name and two of the hundreds of important dates in my life is not enough. I want the people who are important in my life to remember me.
That night, I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, making a mental list of ways I could die.
At eighty-three years old I could fall asleep in my chair, cat dozing on my lap. My wife could come home from her book club and find me there, peacefully resting forever.
Tomorrow I could be too wrapped up in my own thoughts to see a car coming around the corner as I cross the road. In seconds, I could transform from a teenage girl to a smudge on the bitumen.
I could get sick and spend months in and out of sterile hospital rooms, getting pumped full of drugs. I could die an early, tragic death.
Walking home from the library in the dark, I could get attacked, kidnapped, or murdered. It happens to teenage girls. It happens to women. I could become a statistic.
There could be an accident. I could sleep through the fire alarm or ignore warnings to leave. I could fall down a flight of stairs or get poisoned by a careless chef.
I am not worried about these deaths. They are possible futures that I have accepted. There is no way to prepare for them, no precautions to avoid them. Death in all its forms lurks, waiting. Memento mori: live well and wisely because death is certain and the afterlife is not.
I am not worried about my death, because once it’s done, it’s done. There is very little I can do to change how, why or when it happens. What I worry about is my life. I have more control over that. My choices can change my life and affect how I live it, but they may not change how I die.
I want to live broadly and deeply. I want to have broad knowledge and deep love and be as kind as I can. There is a lot of work ahead of me and I don’t know how much time I have to complete it. The deadline is unknown and I must live as if it is days away.
I do not want to be buried in a cemetery. I do not want to be cremated. I do not want to be left in someone’s wardrobe.
I want to be buried beneath a eucalypt sapling. As my body decays, the tree will use it for fertiliser. As the tree grows, I will fade. The tree roots will become strong and destructive in that way gumtrees are. The kind of roots that buckle footpaths and strangle drainpipes. They will curl around my body and I will be stuck, tangled in the tree's permanent embrace.
But of course, I won’t really be there. I will be gone. I will be memories, snippets of moments that appear in your mind. When you see someone stumble, I will be there and you will tell all the stories you have of my clumsiness. When you walk through my favourite places, I will be there. I'll tell you about the artwork, wildlife, or trees around you. You will see glimpses of me everywhere.
I will not live in a garden of stone. I will live on in you.