Sunday, 5 August 2012

Another short story

Letting Go:

When the russet curtain of autumn falls upon Melbourne’s inner suburbs people carefully separate themselves. They grow idle as the rain and wind, like two old hags over the cauldron, stir ancient follies. The people of Melbourne sit indoors as the shadows lengthen. Stretch out the minutes into threads of remorse and expectation. Hands scratch at shoulders; at the two pink stubs growing upon old scars.

Every autumn John’s mind undergoes metamorphosis. Every autumn he huddles before the open fire, reflecting, sleeping, reflecting some more, until he discovers himself anew, like an immortal butterfly forced to continually retreat to the pupae stage and begin again.
In autumn he remembers old fairy tales and accepts that he is in the forest, in descent, knowing when he moves deep enough to sip from the stillness he will return. He has some understanding of the way he and the seasons remain in sympathy which each other. Every autumn he withdraws from the world. He seeks solace in his own company, his own drifting thoughts. Thoughts as hazy as the autumn light that invigorates him on the odd occasions when he does venture forth. Last autumn his father died. This particular autumn he ponders Jane.

All spring and summer they had wandered the inner parks of Melbourne talking out their fears, their dreams, their desires. In the dry heat of summer, in the cooling nights of spring, they had heaved and thrust and stabbed and pushed their way through barriers, through pleasures, through familiarity with the act from bodies gone before, to discover new thresholds. The rest of his life had hung, suspended, while he devoured time with Jane.

Towards the end of summer, as the nights began to hint at rain and the mornings almost excited tears upon the lawn, as the crickets rubbed more urgently and empty nests tumbled from trees, he felt a growing unease, a reluctance to engage in so much talk. Her need to dissemble began to irritate him. Her body no longer inspired him. Her broken nails angered him. The fire was dimming, hurriedly. He was familiar with the feeling. To allow new romances to blossom his mind managed to trick him into forgetting how fiercely he burnt. He never considered, in the initial budding stages, how quickly his fuel ran out or how the ashes coagulated to strangle him. It was only towards the end that he would slap his forehead, shake his head and stare at his reflection, judging the fool with the contrite brown eyes staring back at him.

In the frozen autumn landscape, in a small backyard in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, sad, falling leaves disturb the stillness, as do the birds who dance on the wet lawns and fling themselves madly from high branches - such is the glory of flight! Little Billy Pole plays in the damp, brown sand. With an old, scratched, red spade and dented yellow bucket, he constructs tilted sand castles. He hums snippets of nursery rhymes as he works. He is unaware of the way his tongue protrudes from his mouth to display his concentration. Jane, his mother, stands at the kitchen sink watching her son play in the sandpit. A forgotten dish, lost in the exploding soap bubbles, slips free from her wrinkled hands. Its fragmentation upon colliding with the floor matches the shards of her heart. Behind her an old refrigerator stands in a shadowy corner humming its own autumn tune. Jane’s eyes, like faded leaves, fall inwards. She hears again the conversation that finally set them apart.

“What’s happening John?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.” She felt herself tensing through the horrible pause while he thought through the implications. He was sliding back, had been for a few days, into the John she first met, into someone who weighed each word carefully, fearful of saying something that might disturb the air. For a time he had forgotten this habit and she had loved his gaiety, his abandon. Now he was slinking back like a lizard retreating under a piece of corrugated tin.

“Yes I do.”

“Do you desire me?” Just a small flicker of his eyes before he looked away. “Do you love me?” His cheeks reddened. His fingers wriggled like worms trapped by hungry beaks.  “Do you feel anything?”

His eyes rose up to meet hers and she saw the answer before the words finally came. “I don’t know what I feel.”

“But it has changed?”



“I’m sorry...”

“Shut-up John.”


“Go away. Just go away. Fuck! I am so sick of little boys.  Just piss off  John. Leave me alone.” He just stood there, staring. She hated him then. “Go away John. Go grow up.”

Like sodden washing dripping upon the ground, those final words drip upon her psyche. Words saturated with the final throes of relationships with other men. Especially, of course, Billy’s father, lost to them these many years. Regretfully, the next memory  rises up while her hands grip the sink until her knuckles whiten. She remembers visiting John about a week later. She hadn’t heard from him since she had asked him to leave. She remembers walking up the driveway to his house and knocking on the scratched yellowy door. Will, his house mate, opened the door and his eyes let her know how shocked he was to see her. She almost turned away then. Wished now she had. Instead she said hello and Will had let her in and told her that John was in the bath. She walked down the long, cool hallway, her eyes lowered to study the faded red floral carpet, until she came to the bathroom. She stopped and tapped gently at the bathroom door that was slightly ajar.

“Who is it?” Came John’s voice.

“Me.” Then she stuck her head in and looked at John soaking in the bath.

She cannot remember what they said  in the room as she knelt beside the bath and watched the steam rise up from around his body - almost as if he were decomposing. She does remember her hand slipping beneath the water and the look on his face as she masturbated him until he came.

John sits before a fire at night. He is not thinking logically. Autumn is not a time for that. It is a time of small, barbed wings. Everything alights and departs oh so softly, leaving behind tiny trickles of blood filled with remorse - he is haunted by her face and feet. He is able to recall the taste of her toes. It is a time of memories. Of long, bittersweet walks through glimpses of childhood - the glimpses lingering with allure but the full picture can never be recaptured nor re-experienced. He remembers his father’s many voices, always loud, and his mother’s gentle, warm hands, always touching (like wings) his red cheeks. It is a time of old haunts. Old, stupid acts, distant regrets, past sins, resurface to constrict his chest. His father’s recent death still aches and he often sits rubbing his chest. Sometimes he feels as if his heart lies trapped beneath the weight of too many damp leaves.

It is a time for treading carefully. Each action must be weighed seriously lest the mire suck him down (as it had almost managed to do on a couple of occasions in the past - which recalls the night he sat, drunken, in a chair with newspaper spread around him, a can of petrol beside him, twiddling a box of matches around and around in his hands, his eyes staring off into the blackness). Late at night autumn can become a dangerous pool. Its still surface bringing the mind to reflect upon things forever past (“goodbye dad”) and things the child in him still yearns to experience.

Sometimes, when the light is right, a mellowing comes upon him, slowly, as if brought by the soft autumn clouds that drift lazily across the sky. A slow, reptilian smile slips across his face, his teeth gleam white. He experiences a deep sense of peace. At such moments autumn is a pearl glowing (softly, softly) with the possibilities lying dormant within. Like veins in the skin, he sees the possible tracks he could choose, the links back and forth. The life-force gleaming like thick, oxygenated blood.

He tries not to think about Jane (though her face keeps re-appearing and her voice itches in the background). He is uneasy about his decision but refuses to give it the light of day. Autumn is not a time for cold, hard facts to be studied assiduously. Rather, it is an expanse to be viewed peripherally. Senses spread out and in, like tentacles, and everything is open to inspection and isn’t - not consciously.

A weed spreads through Jane’s garden. Its noxious thoughts slowly poison all bright connections with her past. She is cut off, rendered horribly numb to those who flutter around her. Her mother visits often but is unable to elicit a response. Certainly not a bite. Billy senses the dilemma and seeks more than usual but receives no more than a grunt or forgetful pat. Friends call hesitantly unsure of a welcome and she doesn’t even notice their attention or lack. She is lost in the garden as the weed grows thicker and thicker, its poison  bringing damage to everything.

During the ensuing weeks the leaves fall and fall until, like a carpet, they cover all and under their disguise the wetness melts all hard edges into a soft acceptance. At some point she suddenly laughs at something her mother says and Billy knows she is back. He runs across the room and hugs her legs. She cries and lifts him up and quietly says “sorry”. Billy buries his head into her auburn hair and kisses her neck. She looks across the kitchen at her mother sitting at the table drinking coffee and sees the relief on her face. Jane spends that afternoon playing with Billy in the park.

Tiny veins in brittle leaves turn cold. Forget the magic they once achieved. Dead leaves swaying in the breeze remind John that all high hopes weary, quickly fade to rust, slip free from the finest handgrasps and briefly, forlornly, dance. He watches crisp leaves perform their final arabesques heedless of his eyes watching in tears or his heart, beating irregularly, pained by the prescience apparent in such fragile gifts. His mind rakes together faded dreams. He allows his hands to rummage and  he listens to the rustle of the leaves as he touches one of death’s myriad forms.

In the final autumn days a stillness settles upon Jane. Her thoughts, like ancient waves, roll over her. In these days she thinks about nothing and solves problems that at other times may have haunted her. She feels a golden thread stretching behind and ahead and realises the glory in a single leaf’s journey but as the last autumn leaf falls from the tree in her backyard she senses something inside falling  also.

Sitting in a park in the final press of autumn John watches the leaves as they scatter before small feet and thinks how rehearsed their movements are, as if their yellows and reds are coded with the actions of past legs. He discovers that sadness possesses velvet wings. Wings so black the stars become lost. Wings so vast everything is touched. Falling re-arrangements cover his mind. He fears he has missed an important opportunity but does not wish to consider the implication. Luckily the re-arrangements force a mulching, a quiet decay. Everything is wet and crawling with his memories of  yesterdays. He feels himself move into equivalence with the leaves as they scatter before the wind. Wonders how many cycles he most move through before he gains a sense of progression, of movement upwards rather than of repeat performances.

Towards the end of winter Jane’s thoughts achieve a certain clarity. John’s face shifts into the background and her own identity reasserts itself. Again she makes her vow that she does not need anyone else. That her son is enough for now. She knows the worst has passed and soon she will move out into her circle of friends and acquaintances.

Her mother asks her one day “Why do you do it?”

Jane replies “It takes a plunge to grow wings. A scream to find your voice.”

In spring John and Jane separately prepare themselves. They flex their fresh wings and set forth to test them. John accepts a new job in Prahran and moves to the other side of town. He goes out a few times. Meets new people. Goes home with a couple of women. Jane goes out also. Accepts the digs she receives when she allows her mother to mind Billy while she goes out. Enjoys a few drinks. Relaxes again.

In mid-spring John and Jane accidentally meet at a hotel.

“Hello” says John before taking a sip of beer.

“How are you?” Asks Jane.

“Fine. Just fine.”

“So am I.”

“That’s good.”

They stand apart from each other, their eyes not meeting, and say very little until they both feel they can smile hurriedly and retreat. Jane watches John slink away and her only thought is that he didn’t even ask how Billy was.

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