Straw

The door locked behind her with a heavy thud and the scrape of metal on metal as the bolt slid home. Behind her, the laughter of the guards. In front of her, a room full of straw. The late afternoon light beamed honey through high barred windows, illuminating the stacks so that the straw glowed gold; ironic, thought Alexia, considering her father’s boast. ‘My daughter can spin straw into gold’; the last in a series of escalating bets he’d made over weeks of needling and prodding from the king as his cup was continuously filled and his pride was continuously nibbled at. She didn’t blame him; he was weak and eager to please. She blamed the king. He toyed with people for sport. When he was a prince, he had enjoyed pulling the wings off flies.

She paced around the room, corner to corner, wall to wall. There was a spinning wheel just under the window. In the morning, the king would come in surrounded by his guards and courtiers. He would express mock surprise that the straw was still straw, and then mock disappointment that he was forced to kill her. A king must keep his word. Her father would live, broken by grief, which was the whole point. Or, if a miracle happened, and the king arrived in the morning to a room full of gold, he would marry her. She would live. Her father would live. She would do anything for that. Alexia began to weep. She knew there was no third option; reprieve.

A small voice spoke from inside the straw.

‘Why do you weep?’

Alexia started.

‘Who are you?’

He was a short person with an elfin face, skinny limbs, and tousled hair. The look of a malnourished child, but the bearing of an adult.

‘You don’t need to know my name. I am here, ready to do your bidding. What can I do for you?’

‘Nothing. Unless you know how to turn straw into gold.’

She would prefer to spend her last night on earth alone, not making conversation.

‘I can do that. I only ask for something in exchange.’

‘No you can’t. Nobody can.’

‘I have magic. I am magic. If you are desperate enough, I can do anything. I only ask for something in exchange.’

‘I bet you can’t.’

‘I can!’

He was a little flushed now. So this was why the king did what he did. There was a perverse joy in it. She should be ashamed of herself.

‘You don’t look strong enough. I bet you can’t turn even one straw into gold.’

He looked mutinous, as if he wanted to hit her, or cry.

‘Why don’t you believe me?’

‘I’m sorry. I’ve just lost my faith. It doesn’t seem like my day for miracles.’

He seemed mollified at that. He picked up a piece of straw, one light little piece of dried grass that had long ago lost its memories of the meadow, and he whispered to it, in a quiet susurrating language like the wind in the trees. It turned to gold.

Alexia stared at him, open mouthed.

‘I only ask for something in exchange.’

‘…’

‘You could marry the king.’

‘…’

‘You could live.’

‘How did you do that?’

But he had the upper hand again. His skinny legs were straight, his little chest high, his eyes piercing and fierce.

‘I ask for something in exchange.’

‘What do you ask for?’

‘In exchange for a room full of gold and marriage to the king, your first-born child.’

‘And in exchange for helping me escape?’

He hadn’t thought of that. What miller’s daughter would choose escape over marrying a king? His eyegaze flickered a little. He pinched his chin.

‘I’m not sure that would be worth my while.’

‘Please.’

‘You don’t even want a little gold?’

‘Not really.’

‘What if I turned one of those bars to gold to fund your escape?’

‘It would be too heavy.’

He paced around the room, muttering for a while. Alexia wondered how bad marriage to the king could be. She was not so naïve that she preferred death. Perhaps she would be forced to take the deal. Many women lost their first child. They survived. The man came back and faced her.

‘I can melt the bars and the locks but the escape would be up to you. In exchange, I require your father.’

‘His life?’

‘No, just his labour. For seven years. It is more than fair.’

It was more than fair. She agreed.

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Sharp

She was the queen of snark and her tongue was as sharp as obsidian. When she cut you with her words, no matter that your self-esteem was sliced and garnished and arranged like so much sashimi on a plate, she nevertheless left no scar, just a sense of awe, and sometimes, an admiring snort of involuntary laughter from the victim, who felt that history had been made and that they had been a part of it. She should have been a lawyer, people said, or a journalist, or a political cartoonist, but she did not care for any of those things. She was happy with her knitting and her wit.

It was the fire that changed everything. A long, damp, spring of cooling breezes, sweet blossom and the hum of bees grew overnight into an oppressive, scorching summer, overlooked by a malevolent sun, loud with heat. Fires sparked in forgotten places. Glass bottles discarded in the bush caught and launched the sun’s rays at dry bark and twigs. White smoke hung sinister in the air, shrinking the horizon to the distance of the next paddock, the nearest hill. For long weeks, flames had circled their town, advancing with frightening speed on hot windy days, beaten back by firefighters, hushed by rain but never – quite – vanquished. The smell permeated everything. Every substance every instinct every pore. It owned them so completely that when the ash started to rain down, they almost missed its significance, so familiar did it feel, so natural to them. She cut the grass and filled the gutters and then, as the wall of flames drew so close she could hear its voice, she fled down the dirt track after her neighbors and hoped and prayed that there would be something to come back to.

There was not. She returned to a landscape of charcoal and black dust, where the stink of death overwhelmed the lingering scent of smoldering peat, and the skeleton of her home stood, rickety and bent, just long enough to see her one last time before it collapsed, exhausted, into itself and became another pyre of black sticks among many, many, black pyres. Her mother’s glassware had melted into teardrops on the ground. Her iron kettle was twisted. Her pictures were gone.

For long months she moved slowly. She lived in the land of the dead. People took her in. There was food. She had the clothes she stood up in and the photos she’d packed in her car. She didn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. Everyone was so kind. They gave her clothes, and blankets in garish colours crocheted from cheap acrylic wool. There was brave talk of rebuilding, of government grants and compensation. She was placed in temporary accommodation. She got back to her knitting. Everyone appreciated how nice she had become. They said so to each other, often, but between the clean blue lines of their supportive conversation was the invisible ink of regret. There was already plenty of sweetness in the world. What it lacked was salt.

Summer let down its guard and fell into the arms of autumn. Winter kept a steady pace behind. The temporary stayed temporary. The grants never came. She lived on in borrowed clothes. She knitted herself a jumper for the cold, and then a hat, and then a scarf, and still nothing changed but the rain. In spring, the people stirred themselves, and she stirred with them. A mini-bus took them back to their old neighbourhood, where the camera crews were waiting. She saw the green shoots of cutting grass nibbled low by wallabies, sprays of leaves bursting lively out of dead trunks. Where her lawn used to be, the ash was contained now by a fine furze of groundcover, creeping hesitantly, unsure of its welcome. Her house was crumbled into its own outline, an architectural drawing of itself. She could never afford to have it rebuilt. They had been forgotten. The promised help would never come.

A flurry of noise, a stirring of excitement. The camera crews stood alert, the shining car with the black windows swung into view. She watched as the prime minister alighted, surrounded by his tribe. He was smaller than she’d expected. He made his way around her neighbours, shaking hands, shaking his head. The smarmy little turd was trying to look sympathetic, she thought. Here he came towards her. He was looking her in the eye now. Cameras were poised. His minders were staring at her patronizingly. She was a photo opportunity. He moved in for a hug. He laid his clammy hands on her. She went OFF.

She was the queen of snark and nobody could lay a finger on her crown. She let forth such a torrent of invective that he was blown backwards, face a peeled red as if he was suffering from chemical burns already, and she had only just begun. It took her one diamond hard sentence to remind him of the help he owed them, and two more to dissect his character completely and find him thoroughly and comprehensively wanting. He backed away towards the car but she had no need to follow him. Her voice was lodged in his ear like a leech and it was going nowhere until it had sucked him dry. On and on she railed, as the cameras gazed at her, bewitched. His presumption, the failings of his government, the state of the country, his rape of the environment, his parsimony, his obsequiousness in the face of God  matched only by the contempt with which he treated God’s people. Rage rushed through her, picking up words as it went, like a flooding river snatching up rocks. She hurled them, she aimed them, she piled them about him until he was walled in on every side and the only escape left to him was apology, and a firm promise of funding. She was back.

She sits most evenings on her new veranda now, knitting and holding forth. Nobody escapes her wit and nobody wants to. It is a thing of beauty, fearsome and rare. Sharp as obsidian, clear as melted glass.

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The Traveller

His horse was skittish, pricking its ears back, glancing around, and dancing sideways at the sight of a branch on the path.

‘Steady on, fellow, steady on Jack’, he murmured soothingly.

‘Nearly home’

They were not nearly home. They were miles away, and at this rate, would still be riding in the dark. Louisa would have barricaded herself in by then. The convict servants would be locked in their quarters, away from the house. The children would be in bed asleep. Even John, the faithful servant who had not put a foot wrong since he earned his freedom, would be relegated to the back cottage and the doors of the main house would be bolted and latched. They should be galloping to cover the distance, but he didn’t want to exhaust his mount. Once they were out in the open maybe he’d try a brisk trot. Apart from anything else, it might calm the horse.

Thomas glanced around him. What was wrong? They were emerging from the bush now and the road ahead was straight and quiet, skirting the edge of farmland surrounded by open hills. The last few trees were widely spaced. The afternoon sun was gentle on the eye. Natives were not common in these parts. He stroked Jack’s neck.

There was a shout. Thomas looked up, alert. It came again.

‘Hello!’

Strange. The horse whickered.

‘Is anybody there?’

So, an Englishman at least. The voice appeared to have come from the nearest hill. Thomas squinted and rubbed his forehead with his handkerchief. His eyes were not what they used to be. Finally, his gaze rested on a small figure waving vigorously. Thomas stayed on his horse, on the road where he could see in all directions. The man made his way briskly down towards him, waving like a windmill.

‘Hello! Hello! Thank God I saw you! Thought I was the last person on earth.’

Thomas looked quizzically at the stranger. He was talking as he ran, still waving his arms about as if he didn’t know what to do with them. As he drew closer, it became clear that he was wearing some kind of costume. He had no jacket but had a woollen undergarment on his top. His trousers were of a thick blue fabric, threadbare at the knees, and his shoes were a creamy white as if they had been cut from canvas sails. Thomas had never seen such garb. His own clothes were fashionable and well made, sent by his sister from London, with the exception of his shirt, that was stitched lovingly by his wife. The horse, Jack, backed up anxiously as the man approached.

‘Good day to you sir. My name is Thomas Kempton. Can I be of assistance?’

‘Well hello, I’m Ben, Ben Saunders.’

He was panting for breath. A little portly. His hair was remarkably short and even, as if it had been trimmed with shears like a hedge. There was a bag attached to his back with straps.

‘Where are we?’

‘You have just joined the main road. We are around three hours’ riding from Kempton Town.’

Thomas squinted again at the sun.

‘If you are on foot, you will not reach there before dark. Where are you coming from?’

Ben Saunders gave out a groan.

‘Good question. What year are we in?’

‘1822, sir. Late Summer. I ask again, where are you from? Are you newly arrived?’

Ben Saunders sat down on the grass.

‘Get off your horse and I’ll tell you about it.’

‘Thank you Mr Saunders, but I prefer to stay mounted.’

‘Please yourself’ (what a strange turn of phrase he had, hardly English at all but more like some foreigner having half learned manners)

‘I was trying to go back to 2028, for a holiday. It’s too hot at home and the power supply’s not great and I just thought, you know, go back and reminisce a bit. Find somewhere cool and green. The app. takes you back as far as 2020 but you’d be stupid to go there so I figured, 2028. Give covid a wide berth, miss the protests, visit your gran. Did you say 1828? Eighteen twenty eight?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well I stuffed that up then, didn’t I?’

Thomas did not know what to say. There was a new lunatic asylum in New Norfolk but the man could never have travelled this far. Perhaps he had heat stroke, or delirium.

‘Do you need food or water, Mr Saunders?’

‘No thanks, all good, brought a couple of cokes actually. I should probably get back though before my battery dies. Have you seen the new apple watch?’

Ben laughed uproariously at this as if he had made a joke. Definitely a lunatic, possibly dangerous, thought Thomas.

‘You really don’t get out much, do you? Tell you what mate, since you’ve been so helpful, I’ll leave my gear behind for you. Here. See ya later, have a good one.’

And he swung the bag off his back and passed it to Thomas, slapped Jack heartily, and walked off up the hill. Jack wheeled round, a full circle, and dashed ahead in a determined canter. Thomas, without the heart to reign him in, let him pick up speed. At the next bend, he looked back. There was a quick flash from the top of Mr Saunders’ hill, like the reflection of sunlight on a looking glass, and then nothing more.

They reached home that evening just as the moon rose, large and red, over the tree tops. Jack clattered into the courtyard huffing and heaving, and Thomas dismounted stiffly, calling for John to help with the horse. It was not until he had washed and dined and unpacked his other saddlebags that he showed the strange man’s gift to Louisa. Unwilling to frighten her with tales of lunatics, he pretended to have purchased it in Hobart Town, for a song. It was full of wonders; two bottles made of a strange, malleable, substance like flexible glass, filled with a fizzing dark liquid, a small hard bar of oats, perhaps for a horse, a stack of fine paper held together with glue at one edge, a delicately turned stick of wood inset with graphite, and finally a garment knitted from cotton thread with stitches so even that Louisa swore it had been made by fairies.

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Baby

Sam hated the new baby. Truth was, Sam hated everyone these days. Since Dad had left and Mum had married The Loser and Sam had changed schools and Em had stopped speaking to him, nothing was good anymore. He slouched around mostly trying to avoid people. It worked OK at school, where he sat in the back corner of each classroom and kept his earbuds in at breaktimes, but he was not so lucky at his mum’s place. The baby was too loud. Also, he was supposed to look after it. Which he hated.

On this particular Saturday, his mum and The Loser had arranged to go on a date. Guess who was left at home with the baby. Like, sure, he would help out, but wasn’t he supposed to be the one dating? But no, he was trapped alone in a house in the suburbs with not so much as a bus stop outside and a burping, coughing, puking baby for company. Like some kind of horror film. Obviously, as soon as the front door closed, the baby started to cry. 

Sam picked her up and gave her a hard look. She scrunched up her face and let out a howl. Her mouth was bigger than you’d think.

‘Shut up, kid’

She just got louder. Sam kind of understood how she felt. He let out a bit of a howl himself. The baby stopped mid-cry and looked at him, stunned. Sam howled louder. She whimpered. She stuck out her arms, jerkily, like she wasn’t sure how to work them. Sam remembered the first time he’d tried to drive a manual car and had bunny hopped 3 metres before stalling.

‘You think it sucks to be a baby? Try being a semi-adult in this godforsaken place.’

The baby looked at him doubtfully. She seemed to be concentrating hard.

‘Yeah, don’t bother trying to understand. You can learn to talk but nobody listens to you anyway.’

He laughed sarcastically.

‘Our mum is an expert in the history of words. No, literally, she actually writes books on the topic. Instead of, you know, talking to her kids. Like, how do you feel about moving schools? Or, would it be weird if I dumped you and had a completely new family? Or, how come that girl you liked doesn’t come round any more? Nup, SOOOO much better to think about where the word ‘disgruntled’ comes from. Oh, and she’s also an expert at picking up idiots like your dad. No offence. Mine’s an idiot too. I wouldn’t live with him if he begged me.’

So he was lying to a baby now. Should he feel bad? Probably. Did he? No. She seemed to like the sound of his voice.

‘It’s not mutual, kid.’

Whatever. He should probably take her for a walk. The pram always put her to sleep.

Sure enough, 25 minutes later, Sam was pacing along the concrete pavement past neat gardens and clean driveways with a pram full of sleeping baby. Suddenly, from nowhere, a girl stepped out into his path. He stopped, and removed one of his earbuds. She had long, wavy, dark brown hair. Her skin was the colour of caramel. He could see her belly under a white crop top. Her eyes were chocolate.

‘Hi?’

‘Hey, cute baby! Is it yours?’

‘No! Of course not. I mean, kinda. She’s my sister.’

The girl leaned over and peered deep into the pram. Her legs were long and tanned, like she’d spent a summer at the beach.

‘She’s adorable! You must love her!’

‘Sure.’

The girl flashed him a massive smile.

‘I’m Georgia, by the way.’

‘I’m Sam. And this is baby Gemma’

‘Hi Sam, hi baby Gemma. Are you new around here? Because – welcome to Boringsville. I can show you the sights if you like. It will take about 2 minutes. Can I hold Gemma when she wakes up?’

‘Sure. She’s really snuggly.’

Sam still hated the baby, obviously. He technically hated everyone, but for the first time in a long while he might make an exception.

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Tale

I woke up slowly, lying quiet for a while before opening my eyes. I tended towards homesickness in the mornings. It was the combination of the ozone smell and the rushing of wind in the leaves that made me imagine I was back there, near the sea. On bad days I would keep my eyes closed and convince myself, but this wasn’t a bad day, just a slow one. The atmosphere was thicker here. There was something almost viscous about it, making every movement strong and deliberate. It made you feel like you’d been lazy back on earth. Eyes still shut I smelled the ozone, and then the spice-laden scent of the steaming soil far below, the height of my hammock protecting me from the creeping damp. The ladder had long since disintegrated; I had no need for it. I pushed out an arm to touch the trunk beside me. It was still, as you would expect from something so huge, but if I stayed my hand for a while and listened carefully I could just feel the roar miles above in the distant tree top where leaves whipped ferociously back and forth, first in one direction and then, nine hours later, in the other. I had once climbed for a day to see above the trees, only to turn back defeated a mile from the top, at risk of being thrown off like a leaf. I had been bitterly disappointed; there is something about the close range of the forest that makes you long to stretch your eyes towards a distant view, no matter the risk.

With my eyes still closed, I could hear the squeaking and barking of the tree kangaroos looking for their breakfast. There were young with them, their little tails still straight. The elders had been trying to teach them to curl their tail tips around branches for stability but the juniors were too set on bouncing from one branch to the other. I and the kangaroos were friendly in a way. Sometimes we grazed together. There was a kind of reciprocity in our dealings; small trades, mutual understandings, sharing of the ripest fruits fruit and the plumpest insects and the fleshy leaves of vines.

Early on, settlers had tried to grow human food and it should have worked, it really should have, but there was something wrong; some deficiency in the soil; something lacking from the water; some spirit (they said later, when hunger segued into madness), that repelled us. Their attempts at explanation, looking back on them, were cringeworthy. They blamed the soil, they blamed the natives, they accused the authorities of eugenics, they refused the supplements because they were rumoured to be poisoned. So we scraped by, and then we stopped scraping by, and a whole colony died, and then those who came later learned to eat what was there. I came later. I liked my own company.

I stretched. Arms extended, toes pointed, back arched, yawn wide, tail flexing.

Wait.

Tail flexing?

My eyes were open now. I writhed around, hammock swinging wildly. There was a tail hanging down below me. No, not hanging; moving. Swinging counter to my every lurch, as if it had an instinct for stability all of its own. I must be dreaming. Pinch yourself. Still a tail. Breathe. Still a tail. Swear and shout. Furry ears pricked up all up and down the great tree. There was a frightened scuffling, the explosion of a flock of birds taking flight. Still a tail.

You can’t panic while suspended in a rope construction a storey above ground. Panting, I pulled myself instead onto a branch. The tail threatened to unbalance me until I lifted it without thinking, and placed it precisely down on the wood behind. It pushed, muscular, into the slippery bark, and gripped like the rubber sole of a shoe. I panicked for a full moment while it held me safe, leaning casually. I had heard the legends, but I hadn’t believed them. Of course I hadn’t. I must be hallucinating. It was a nonsense. I had been driven mad by some poison the flowers exuded in the night. Perhaps, even now, I was on back on earth? The tail sat there patiently while I sobbed with fright. I collapsed eventually and held it in my lap, stroking the tip for comfort. It was very soft.

So I had gone native after all.

It was a long time before I looked up. Furry faces surrounded me, gazing quietly at my grief with bright black eyes. Even the young were still. A grandmother was the first to approach. Loping gently along the branch towards me she held out her paws, four red fingers and one opposable thumb on each. Like a human, I thought, not for the first time. I took her hand.

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Hollyhocks

Sue brought a small, battered, tea cannister out onto the veranda and squinted at the sky. In the hours since her husband Greg had left for the shearing, she had not seen another living soul. The outdoors called to her. She had the strange feeling that it was trying too hard. All this blue, all this dazzle, all this desperate outpouring of the last of the sunlight from the honeyed stores of summer. Just let it go, she wanted to say. Breathe out. Grow old. There is no shame in a season ending. I don’t know who you’re trying to impress, but don’t mind me. The house exhaled comfortably at her back. It was a plain old place. A roof of corrugated iron. Dark wooden floor-boards with cracks of light between. A kitchen with pretty lino and low benches built for a shorter woman. A chilly bathroom off the back veranda. A hook in the fireplace for hanging a kettle over the flames.

It was 1980, a fresh new decade. Shorts were short. Hair was big. The recession was 7 long years in the future. She and Greg were newly married. With the optimism of youth they had bought a couple of bracken-edged paddocks and a small swathe of bush stretching from a breezy hilltop to a bright green gully, and at the edge of the property, this old house. The nearest neighbours were 20 minutes’ walk away. Greg was working every second God gave him. To be honest, it was a little quiet.

Sue sat on a narrow wooden bench and prized off the dented cannister lid with a butter knife. She’d found the cannister tucked up at the very top of the pantry, along with a rusted cake tin and a jar of sugared violets, brown and crumbled into sweet dust, and she always put it straight back there afterwards, like returning a book to the library. It was her secret. A sudden bang made her heart flutter. A flock of black cockatoos rose indignant from the pine tree. In the paddock, five wallabies lifted their heads and pricked their ears nervously. Their fur was so soft, their eyes so inquisitive. Not like the pugnacious kangaroos with their muscles and their lounging. It had been a gun shot from over the neighbour’s way, but there were no more; must have been a one-off pot shot. The cockatoos sank back onto their perches, the wallabies relaxed. Sue pulled out a bundle of papers from the tin.

First, here was Daphne’s beautiful copperplate, neat as a pin. ‘I woke this morning to find the hollyhocks blown over by the wind …’ Daphne had planted a garden around the edges of the house, inside the safety of the wooden fence. She was responsible for the orange blossom, the crooked plum tree, and, Sue hoped, perhaps some daffodils in Spring. Of her 6 pages, 5 were about the garden and the rest about the weather. ‘I regret planting the ivy’ ‘Do remember to water the front garden beds well; it has been such a dry Winter’. Sue folded them again. The garden was in a state of disrepair, but Daphne’s work was still visible in the layout of the vegetable patch, the straggling hedge, the path to the water tank that was paved with stones.

Next, Kate’s scraps of paper, found by Daphne under the house when it was re-stumped (there was a note). Sue imagined they had been posted by one of Kate’s 7 children into the cracks between the floor-boards. Half a recipe for fruit cake. A shopping list. The children’s birthdates. The final page of a letter signed ‘your dear friend, Kate’ The letter had been crumpled, and the phrase ‘dear friend’ crossed out.

Finally, a single page from a diary. ‘I am writing in fear of my life for the natives have been camped outside for two days now.’ The rest of the page was blank.

Sue smoothed the papers and folded them back into the tin. She intended to add her own contribution to it one day, but when? Her life was still unformed. Perhaps she should achieve something first, like a garden, or children, or some other kind of life carved out of the wilderness. She had no idea what. She sat and looked at the sky. All the blue, all the dazzle. One season holding on, waiting for the next.

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Metamorph

When Olivia woke up and found she had metamorphosed into a giant cockroach, her first feeling was one of relief. Now, finally and unequivocally, she would not be able to go to work. She lay there on her back waving her new limbs in the air.

Olivia’s bed was in the spare room. When they had first moved in together as a throuple, she, Max, and Charlie had planned to sleep together every night. She remembered the shopping trip, full of bravado as they tried first one and then another emperor sized mattress in front of the sales staff. It had occurred to her at the time that the whole thing was a bit performative, but back then she’d found it charming. Charlie’s brittle energy stepping up to the world like it was a dare, Max’s easy grace as he lay in the middle, arms outstretched, Olivia, unfurling her soul like a bright spinnaker in their company as she bounced suggestively to test the springs. She had looked sidelong at her two loves as she dealt with the payment, trying not to laugh. They were family now, a joyous, creative, out-of-the-mould group of beings who had found each other outside the narrow confines of society. They could do what they liked.

But that was three years ago. Now Max and Charlie stayed up late every night and slept until noon in the communal bed while Olivia went to work. She needed her sleep before the early shift. It just made sense. Max was between jobs, smoking weed and gaming to prepare for his creative rebirth. Charlie’s anxiety had rendered her unemployable since she resigned from the tax office. That had been a bad day. Max had sided with Charlie’s decision on the grounds of supporting her mental health. Olivia, wrong-footed and furious, had argued until Charlie cried, and then had gone out and run stormily along the nearest bush track fighting down her rising panic at the prospect of financially supporting three adults on her meagre nursing home carer’s wage. They patched it over eventually and had a long and respectful conference session. Olivia accepted that Max did more of the emotional work. Charlie appreciated that Olivia brought home the bacon, so to speak. They all acknowledged their privileges. Olivia signed up for extra shifts. They slept together for the rest of the weekend.

Oliva gazed up at the ceiling. Birds were chirping in the tree outside. Traffic noise intensified on the highway. All those commuters. All those busses and cars and uniforms and workers and here she was, lying on her back for the longest time she could remember. Cherie would have to do a double shift. Prathiba would probably come in early. Olivia’s phone started to buzz. Work. She lay there, watching it vibrate itself across the bedside table and drop to the floor. She could feel the vibrations in her body, like the sympathetic hum of a finely tuned instrument. Somebody stirred next door. She stretched out her six legs one by one, and experimentally pressed three feet (feet?) against the wall. They stuck, firmly. She pulled herself onto her side. The wall was like a floor to her now. She scurried quickly up it, without thinking, and stopped just under the ceiling. Her clothes on the floor below looked odd. Shock would set in soon. Or maybe cockroaches didn’t feel shock. There was a knock on her bedroom door. Charlie.

‘Are you still home, Liv?’

She must have heard the phone. Olivia tried to speak but the best she could come up with was a kind of a hissing. The bedroom door opened cautiously. Charlie stood there in her oversized T shirt, short hair sticking up in spikes. She always looked softer somehow without her contact lenses in; unfinished. She rubbed her eyes. Looked up. Screamed. Olivia ran to her. Charlie, her face a mask of horror, slammed the door.  

Olivia was locked in. She ran around the walls and the floor. The window was closed. She couldn’t open the door. She was thirsty now, and anxious. Charlie’s screams had stopped, soothed by Max’s deep voice. She pressed close to the wall trying to hear what he was saying. He was getting up. They were coming in. Some instinct told Olivia to stay close to the door. They were approaching. She skittered up the wall and waited above the door frame.

Max’s head below her.

‘See? Nothing there. It was a bad dream.’

She waited. Open the door further. Open it open it open it. Max flung it wide. Charlie approached nervously. Now! Olivia threw herself around the top of the door frame, grasping desperately for the wall on the other side. The angle was wrong. Her front legs gripped but the others waved in space. She fell, bouncing off Max’s shoulder, and landing awkwardly on the floor.

‘What the holy fuck?’

Olivia dashed down the corridor, feet scratching and clattering on the wooden floor, but she was too slow. Max and Charlie cornered her with the broom before she had gone two metres. Their pushing and shoving hurt her heart more than it hurt her body. Back in the spare room, bruised, battered, and hungry, she listened to the disgust in the voices of the people who loved her most in the world. Not for a moment did they wonder who she was. They knew it was her and that somehow hurt the most.

Max, smoking, sat with his back to the spare bedroom door. Charlie brought a bean bag into the hallway.

‘We have to feed her.’

‘Or we could just not.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘She’s not exactly her is she? We squash bugs, usually.’

‘Don’t be so cruel.’

‘What are we going to do now she can’t work?’

‘Get a job.’

‘Doing what?’

‘Dunno. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now’

‘No shit.’

The fragrant smoke came under the door and into Olivia’s body through the cracks in her carapace. She relaxed. Nothing mattered now. She would sleep and wait for nightfall.

That night, Charlie’s arm entered the room. She only opened the door the tiniest crack and by the time Olivia opened her eyes, it was closed again. A bowl of water was on the floor. Next to it, a plate of food. Olivia’s vision in the dark was stunning. There was nothing she couldn’t see. The spider in the corner of the room. The shine of oil on the chips on the plate. The crystals of salt. All of it. Hungry as she was, she could not help but be distracted. She approached the plates sideways, looking. A quiet voice came from the other side of the door.

‘Hey, Liv. I didn’t know what you’d like.’

She couldn’t answer. She had no voice, and besides she was eating now, and eating was all there was.

‘It’s OK, I’ll get a job.’

Olivia paused in her eating. What did she care about the job?

‘Maybe this is all a dream, hey. Maybe it will be better in the morning.’

Olivia’s side hurt where the broom had shoved her. One of her legs was stiff. Open the door. Soothe me. Let me sleep near you. I am still here. Love me for who I am. Why hasn’t Max spoken to me? Talk to me. But Charlie had already gone.

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Gift

Eva had a gift; had had it, in fact, since she was born. No, before she was born. When she was a baby in the womb, visible only in the form of an occasional footprint on the drum of her mother’s belly, she could already call the elements to her. Sigrid, her long-suffering mother, felt Eva’s powers. She knew the baby was thirsty when she looked down at her hands and saw them shrunken to the bones, all the moisture sucked down into her sloshing centre.  When Eva became frustrated, trapped within the tight confines of the womb she had outgrown, Sigrid felt the sky darken, saw the clouds draw dangerously near as she closed the shutters against the roaring of the wind. Only when the sky had been rent by lightning and the clouds shredded and whipped away did the baby grow calm again. Sigrid crossed herself. Nobody but God would believe her, and she was too tired to bother God.

Eva had a lonely childhood. She lived with her family in a small village on the foothills of a mountain where the peak was covered with snow 10 months of the year and the village was threatened by avalanche every ski season. She had no idea why she struggled to make friends with the dozen or so local children and if she asked them, they would look at her nervously and go back to their play. The teachers in the staff room and the parents in the playground, however, were quite clear on the topic. Eva was weird, strange, odd, and a little not-right. Neurodiverse, said the school psychologist. Touched, said her grandma. Blessed, said the priest, in a way that didn’t require her to attend Sunday School. That particular Sunday, the candle flames had flared up towards the great arched ceiling and the thurible had grown red hot on its swinging chain as it spewed out clouds of smoke, more like a tiny forest fire than a censer. Eva ruminated on this later, as she washed up after Sunday dinner. While she calmed herself, small waves ran across the sink, creating a current that drew the cutlery to the surface and made it swim around the soapy water like so many stainless steel sharks. She was not an angry child. It’s just that she felt things deeply. She scrubbed at some hard residue on the side of a baking dish and wished to be someone else. What use is it to be able to call wind or water or fire when all you want is a friend? No use. That’s what. She banished the last of the dampness from her soaked apron and hung it up. It would have dried anyway, in time.

It was a film that changed her life. One Saturday afternoon, her father took Eva and her younger brother to the cinema to see Disney’s new release, Frozen. It was cold and grey outside, with the first wind of winter blowing and twisting around the cobbled streets. They had been getting on Sigrid’s nerves as well as each other’s, and this was Anders’ contribution to the peace of the household. He was not a massive fan of children’s cinema, but he valued calm relations and was willing to buy popcorn and fizzy drinks and sit in the dark for two hours if that’s what it took. Eva was transfixed. A film with girls who looked like her in a country that looked like theirs, and a hopping snowman for comic relief, would have been enough, but when she realised the heroine had magic power over ice and snow, something woke inside her. Not for her, the Elsa and Anna merchandise, the cheaply made blue princess dress, the snowflake-decorated slushie cup. This was sacred. She had found her purpose. The lonely, tortured, Elsa spoke straight to Eva’s soul. With her, she strode fearless up the mountain. Together they pulled the power of the aurora down from the night sky. With a gesture of their arms, an ice castle exploded out of the ground. They were invincible. Let it go. She would not hold back anymore. Eva burst out of the cinema like a piece of popcorn from its shell. Everything would change.

But is life ever that easy? All Eva needed to control was herself, and now here she was trying to control the world. She spent hours on the mountain making herself ill. The sullen snow ignored her until she became furious and then there were blizzards and deep, unsafe, rumblings in the permafrost, and she was forced off the mountain and back home to melt cheese in front of the fire and try to calm her pulse rate to control the flame. The delicate ice structures in the film eluded her, as surely as friendship. And still, the skies responded in their own way. Thunder. Gales of wind. A week of rain. Eva crept into her parents’ bed one morning for comfort. The girl was yellow-skinned and red-eyed and her hair stuck out from her head in a range of messy tufts. She tucked herself in and sighed deeply. Sigrid, waking, murmured the words that had been rattling round her head for weeks:

‘It’s not what you ask, Eva, it’s who.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Stop telling the snow what to do. Ask your own self how you feel.’

‘I just want a friend.’

‘Then be a friend to yourself. And have a bath.’

And with that, Sigrid rose to make the porridge, leaving Eva in bed to consult her feelings and to find they spoke a foreign language. She had not really, until that moment, noticed.

But Eva had a gift. Had had it, in fact, since before she was born. That morning she went back up the mountain and asked a different question;

‘How do I feel?’

A breeze blew up and twisted this way and that. Clouds boiled on the horizon.

‘Confused?’

Yes, confused. The clouds calmed, the wind dropped. She had got it right. Now what?

‘Content?’

Sun shone on the upper slopes, brightening the snow until it glowed back at the sky. A scent of late Autumn grass came up from the valley. A nearby stream tinkled over golden shingle. Content. Perhaps even smug. Not many people can see their emotions in the sky.

‘Angry?’

But no, she didn’t feel angry anymore. In fact, on her way back home she may have skipped a little. The group of girls playing hopscotch on the street noticed her skipping and smiled. She smiled back, and not in a weird way. Less than a week later, they invited her to join their game.

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Seeing someone

A few months after my brother dies, I book myself in to see a counsellor. It seems like the sensible and responsible thing to do, if only to reassure everyone who suggests, with a slight sense of panic, that I See Someone. It turns out to be a mistake, though. What can I say? The counsellor is more miserable than I am.

I’m not expecting him to crack jokes, but he is relentlessly dour, his face so grave that gravity itself could not shift it. If I had any worry left, I would worry for him. He solemnly clarifies the reason for my visit and hands me a checklist to fill in before we talk, to establish just how mad I really am. From the options presented, I would say the answer is ‘not very’, which is consoling. My ghostly brother, looking over my shoulder, makes scathing comments on both the questions and my answers. Shut up Adam, I mutter – but sanely. I pass the form back for marking and distract myself by trying to make the counsellor smile. It doesn’t work, so I bring out my prepared question instead. Should I just book a cabin somewhere and spend a week by myself wallowing and get all my crying over with? I feel that perhaps there’s an amount I have to complete before it will stop, and I am currently spending most of my waking hours trying to find time for it. This seems pretty clear to me, but he avoids a definitive answer, and gravely suggests that some people find meaning in awareness raising.

He is so damn serious it’s starting to feel like a power play. Awareness of what, exactly? Depression? Suicide? The shittiness of life? They’re all comprehensively covered in the mainstream media. He pushes inexorably on, through his invisible list. Perhaps I would like to celebrate Adam’s life by doing something that he enjoyed or didn’t get the chance to achieve? An image flashes into my head of myself celebrating Adam’s life by drinking a bar dry and sampling a vast range of non-prescription drugs, some of which must surely have been invented in the months since his death. Imaginary Adam lets out a surprised and enthusiastic ‘Yeah!’ inaudible to anyone but myself. I was never that supportive of his drug taking while he was alive. I decide not to mention this to the counsellor, who has moved on to making scrap books and setting up foundations.

Eventually, inevitably, he prompts me to talk about my brother. I get the impression that he thinks this is what I’m here for. It’s a reasonable assumption, and one I may have made myself in a previous life, but now it feels grimy, like paying for sex. He has no interest in Adam at all – why would he? And (why would he) neither does he care about me. When he elicits the inevitable tears it’s like a hard little orgasm, too soon. I talk and cry anyway, until it’s time for him to look at the clock and cut me off with a neat summary of the issues (dead brother, feeling sad) and an offer of two more appointments paid for by my employer. Adam was right to be scathing. My troubled brother’s cynical ghost is warmer than this man. I feel close to him for a moment because we agree on something, then I remember that we will never agree on anything again, and I leave bereft, taking the rest of my tears with me brimming all the way back down to ground floor, and on to work, somehow sadder than I was before.

But that’s not the end of the story, because I am the lucky one. I have a friend to tell about it over cake. She laughs affectionately at me for preparing questions and gives me the advice I need, easily and without fuss – ‘If you go away and spend a week crying, you’ll just end up dehydrated as well as sad. You’re an intelligent and resourceful person. You’ll get through this.’ She shares stories of her own madness and indulges my weak jokes with a quicksilver smile like flashing sunshine through clouds. She sees me. I see her back. It occurs to me that the phrase to ‘see someone’ had somehow been mistranslated, because this kind of seeing is exactly what I need. I don’t make another counselling appointment but instead go out and eat cake with her every day that she’ll come with me, until I am sane again, and the rest of the world can bear to look.

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Something more

Akiko chewed her pencil, then her nails and then, finally, the end of her ponytail. She had never asked a boy out before. But he was perfect. Had anyone ever been so perfect? She doodled another heart in the corner of her exercise book. Akira. Akira and Akiko. Akiko and Akira. Perfect. They were made for each other. Yesterday he had smiled at her as they picked up their bikes after school. Today there had been a space next to his. It was fate. She had slid her bike in beside his and they were nestling together right now, touching. Just like she and Akira would be soon. She blushed. She would ask him today, after volleyball club.

Akiko was a pretty girl, in a cute kind of way, like a mascot, or an anime. She smiled a lot and had dimples and wore short skirts and long socks and neat bows in her shiny, bouncy, hair. She was adorable. All the girls said so. They gathered around her desk at lunch time looking at the hearts and the blushes and giggling supportively. Akira was such a lucky boy! And so cute! Those cheekbones! He could be in a boy band. He and Akiko would look perfect in matching sweaters. Akiko demurred;

‘Do you think so? Really? I don’t know, I’m so ugly today!’,

which set them off into a twittering chorus of encouragement.

‘You can do it! Be brave! He loves you! Don’t give up!’

But late that afternoon, when she got to the bike racks, she nearly lost her nerve. Akira was there, leaning casually against the wall and chatting to his friends. The gentle sun shone from behind him, outlining him in gold, like a vision. She walked hesitantly over to get her bike, lifting it carefully away from his, and lingered, gazing at him with what she believed was her best possible expression. When he left his friends and came over to her, her heart raced.

‘Akira’ She stuttered.

‘I have something to ask you. Will you, really, maybe, could you, I mean, I WANT TO BE YOUR GIRLFRIEND’.

With that, she cast her eyes to the ground and clasped her hands together, waiting anxiously for his reply.

On the other side of the campus, Haru was leaving English club late. As he walked, he thumbed through his dictionary, deep in thought, trying to memorise some new words by applying them to his life. The world’s first Pokèmon theme park, Pokè Park, was due to open next Spring. It was his life’s dream to go, but he had nobody to go with him, since his best friend had moved on from Pokémon to girls. Were they really getting so old? The thought depressed him. His life was becoming … what was that word? Prosaic. Prosaic when he wanted poetic. Work when he had not yet tired of playing. Elegant when cute was what made him smile. He flipped through the pages, arriving at fulsome just as his attention was seized by a desperate cry. He glanced up to see a bike careering out of control towards him, weaving dangerously back and forth. The rider’s eyes seemed to be tight shut, her legs suck out sideways away from the pedals.

‘Watch out!’ he shouted, just too late.

Bike and rider were upon him. Literally upon him. He fell over backwards, the girl with the ponytail fell over forwards, and the bike skidded off to the side where it span twice in a circle and then collapsed exhausted on the ground. The girl was on top of him. She felt … fulsome. He struggled, quickly, to disentangle himself and get up. She stayed on the ground crying.

‘Are you hurt?’ Hiro asked, awkwardly.

She sobbed for a while before answering.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘I have a broken heart!’

‘Uh, I’m sorry to hear that?’

‘I’m Hiro.’

She looked up at him, finally.

‘Akiko.’

She was perfect. Adorable. Dimpled. Cute. He blushed. She blushed. He offered her his hand.

Let’s leave them there for a moment. I think we all know where this is heading. It’s Autumn when they meet and fall in love. They’re going to lean over the bridge to admire the river full of Autumn leaves, aren’t they? They’ll walk hand in hand through smoky streets to eat eel together after school. When Winter comes, they’ll huddle under her kotatsu to do their homework. Hiro will show Akiko his sacred folder of Pokémon cards. They’ll lounge against Akiko’s Hello Kitty soft toys and kiss. There will be snowballs and red dimpled cheeks. Their families will likely go out together on New Year’s eve to eat mochi and ring the temple bell. By spring, Hiro will be known as Wigglytuff.  Akiko will be his assistant, Chatot. Please don’t ask why.

Let’s go back to Akira. Those cheekbones deserve a second glance. Or maybe we could see him as a complete person with a personality and a soul. Whatever. Akira was not interested in going out with Akiko because they had exchanged no more than five words before her proposal, and because he had never really seen her outside the knot of girls she went around with like a tight school of fish, and also because, truth be told, he was secretly more into his classmate Hiro. So when he inadvertently broke her heart and then, in consequence, was forced to watch Hiro fall for her, he felt a degree of discomfort. He was a sensitive character, our Akira, for all that he was one of the popular crowd. He responded by looking inward, avoiding social events, spending more time with his family, and throwing himself into both study and sports. When the Pokè Park opened, he agreed to take his two small nephews along to give his older sister a break.  He was not interested in looking for girls.

The park was crowded. His nephews were beside themselves with excitement.

‘Uncle Akira! Uncle Akira! Help us download Fishing Rally!’

‘Uncle Akira! Uncle Akira! Can we go on the Rascal Railway?’

‘Can we have candyfloss?’

‘Can we get a drink?’

‘I feel sick’

And so on. By mid-afternoon, he was exhausted. With stern warnings to look after each other, he dropped them off at Pikachu’s Forest and found a bench to sit on, and a warm can of coffee from the vending machine. He had just closed his eyes to relax when a familiar voice greeted him.

‘Akira?’

‘Hiro?’

‘What are you doing here?’

‘I came with my nephews. What about you?’

‘I was supposed to come with my girlfriend but, uh, we split up.’

Akira sat up a little straighter.

‘Sorry to hear that, man. You OK?’

‘Oh, you know, these things just happen. Sometimes, life isn’t like you thought it would be, you know?’

‘Yes, I understand. Honestly, sometimes I feel my life is becoming … do you know that English word, prosaic?’

‘I do! That’s exactly how I feel. My life is becoming prosaic. When I wanted something more.’

Their eyes met, in surprise. Their eyes and, behind their eyes, for a moment, their true selves. A hum of energy. A spark of electricity, a meeting of souls. Something more.

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