Category Archives: Short stories

Moving (short story)

I thought I’d post one of my short stories today. This is an old one, written in 2009 just before I moved into my house. It’s one of those stories that contains a bundle of truths about your life, but also a bundle of things that never happened. I guess your aim as a writer is to make all of it feel true. Happily this one won a placing in a competition a few years back. It could probably be improved and reworked again, and I could try submitting it to another competition in future. Maybe when I’ve finished working on my novella…

Hope you enjoy : )

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Moving

There’s something heavy about packing your life up for removal, as though it shows that’s all it really is – bits and pieces stuffed into cardboard boxes and Coles green bags. You realise how much you’ve gathered over the years, and you see exactly what you do have and what you don’t.

It’s just as heavy to trawl through the pieces and decide which ones you’re ready to throw away, which ones you need to hang on to. It’s not a mindless process. And there’s always that box.

I remember I was in an op shop once; I can’t walk past them without going in, maybe because you never know what you’re going to find. I love the promise of chance, that lottery of goods – some damaged, some with cracks, some in such perfect condition that you wonder if they’ve ever been used, or if they’ve stayed locked away for special occasions that never came. And you might find something you’ve subconsciously been looking for, something you never knew you needed. 

That day, in that op shop, I was scouring through someone’s old bits and pieces when a woman came in with a box and dumped it on the counter. ‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘That’s the last of her.’ Then she burst into tears and ran out.

The lady behind the counter quietly picked up the box and disappeared through the curtained doorway behind her. She must have seen my face when she came back. ‘Her mother just died,’ she said. ‘She’s been in every day this week with more boxes.’ Then she pulled back the curtain to the storeroom. ‘Come in. I haven’t priced everything yet, but you’re welcome to take what you want. I’ll give you a quote.’

I ran out myself. Perhaps it was the thought that everything left of a person, a person someone loved, was sitting out the back of a crinkled op shop in boxes, waiting to be probed, fingered and priced, then put on display where it could be probed and fingered some more. Or perhaps it was the thought that I might pay fifty cents per memory of someone else’s mother. I didn’t go back into an op shop for some time.

Now, I’m dealing with my own collapse into boxes and green bags. This will be my fifth move in less than five years. I like my new house (and for the first time, it’s really mine), but already I know that I won’t fit into Prahran, itself a green bag of young couples, pregnant mothers and new families. This doesn’t matter, in the end – what matters is that I’ll finally have somewhere that belongs to me and that holds all of my belongings.

If I think about it, I suppose I’ve moved more than five times these past years. When I was ill, I was flicked between my share house, my apartment, my parents’ house, Lorne and various hospitals. It’s been a five-year period of dislocation, and I’ve learned to draw the feeling of being settled from other things – habits, customs, routines. While such things are, I think, undervalued in their ability to pay for the illusion of permanence, the idea of a fixed place in the world is something that appeals.

So I’ve spent the last two months reducing myself into bags, some of which are bursting at the seams. Perhaps those particular bags hold things from periods in my life when I myself was bursting at the seams, eager to move forward, to grow, to achieve. The other, emptier bags might be from my life now, when I seem to have fewer lipsticks and bangles, fewer things I really need, when I feel unsure of just how many things will fit into a single bag, and am not convinced that anything fits at all.

This time, packing up my life has been an interesting process. I’ve had a couple of months between the auction and the day of settlement, and every weekend I take a load of things to my parents’ house, where it lies in wait until I get my new keys. I’m doing this to avoid the need for removalists, to fulfill some unexamined desire to see the hierarchy of my belongings – and also, perhaps, so I won’t really notice I’m moving at all.

Week by week, green bags are painlessly taken away and I can pretend that my endless dislocation is coming to an end. It’s also a matter of practicality, I suppose; when I vacate my apartment and need to deal with the usual hiccups that will inevitably happen on the day, there won’t be much left to remove before I hand over the old keys.

And so far, it has been painless. Except for that box.

For my weekly deliveries to my parents’ house, I began with the things I knew I could do without for two months. The old clothes that should have been thrown out long ago (but probably never will be), the food processor I absolutely had to have, the dresses I will fit into again (perhaps in two months).

The first few carloads were easy, but there came a time when I needed to think a little harder about what I was packing. And it soon became apparent that I was no longer choosing things based on whether I could do without them, but on whether I could be without them. The photograph of my school friends that I sometimes take out when nostalgia strikes, the pile of novels on my bedside table that I promised myself I’d start reading last year, the recipe books I haven’t opened for a while but, well, I just like the look of them on the bookshelf.

This selection process has been quite tormenting. And there’s that box.

That box. It’s a small, silver jewelry box, given to me last year. It’s heavy, looks expensive, and winks like a mirror in the light.  Scratched on its surface are the words – Tutto é possible. Anything is possible

‘This is for us,’ he said when he gave it to me, showing how well he knew me – my love of Italy, my need to hang on to those words, how I’ve always kept everything in boxes.

Soon after, I told him he didn’t fit into my life, didn’t belong. I needed to remove him. I said I’d never been sure about us, because I’d met him during my illness and I didn’t trust my selection process then.

He spoke of the random circumstances of our meeting, of the few opportunities the universe will ever give us, of our duty to follow the hands of chance and be life’s passengers sometimes. I said that wasn’t enough. He told me to let go, although he didn’t say it so nicely.

We met in our doctor’s waiting room. We’d both changed our appointments at the last minute and our doctor was running late. When he came in, all the seats were full of impatient patients, but the woman beside me told the receptionist she’d waited too long and left. He sat down.

Destiny is something I’ve always tried not to think about – if you believe, this shows you can’t hold responsibility and decision. If you don’t, it shows you can’t stop holding.

I let go of him. But I kept the box.

It’s the sort of box you put on display and people say nice things about, but for the last year it’s been hidden beneath the I’ll-never-wear-but-won’t-throw-out-for-some-reason clothes in my bottom drawer. Where it belongs, perhaps.

I’m annoyed with myself that I’ve kept it. The same way you’re annoyed if you have a sex dream about someone who’s treated you badly or whom you don’t particularly like. You wake up, burning, feeling like you’ve given them something, something that’s yours, something you can’t do without.

And I do. I feel like I’ve given him something. Because I’ve kept the box. Not only that, I keep giving him something because the box didn’t go to my parents’ house in any of the early bags. I’ve kept it here, ‘till now, when there’s little left to remove and my apartment feels barer than it ever has, even when there was nothing in it.

I haven’t put the box into the last green bag. I’ve kept it hidden, like I’m trying to convince myself it’s not there, that it’s been thrown out or shipped off with the things I can do without, that I haven’t given him something.

I move in three days. All that’s left is my mattress, those bedside-table books (ridiculously), some clothes and toiletries. Even the fridge was carted off this morning to be hidden in the back shed of my new house (don’t tell the vendor), until I finally get the new keys and relinquish the old.

I can live without a fridge for three days, but I can’t live without that damn box.

Or maybe it’s not the box I can’t live without, but what’s inside it. A telephone number, scrawled on a torn envelope. The number I deleted from my mobile in a fit of rage, to send him a never-to-be-received message through the universe that I never wanted to speak to him again, and to stop any late-night dialing when things got dark. The number I wrote down before deleting, in case it became something I needed. The number I’ve wanted to call so many times but never have; the number that hums in my sleep.

I’ve spent hours staring at that number, when night falls and my mind hangs on to spooling pictures of happiness, bickering, despair. I’ve even had it keyed into my phone, ready to hit the green button, ready to tell him that my life is nothing but green bags without him, or something just as dusty and stale.

I’ve never called it. I’m holding the box now – shimmering, blinking, warming. I breathe and put it down, letting my hand fall away. Why is it that empty rooms always smell like dust, like old op shops, even when you’ve scrubbed? I stare at the box. Maybe I’ll lift the lid, take out the envelope scrap and call the number that’s held me at night for so long. I’ll call him and tell him the truth – he beat the fridge.

I’ll tell him I couldn’t bear to send him off with all the things I don’t desperately need, and that he doesn’t fit into any of the green bags because he’s inside them all. I’ll say I didn’t feel I could stuff him into one of those bags because, one day, they’ll be all that’s left of me in some op shop. And he doesn’t belong there.

I’m heading out soon because there’s (another) inspection today and I don’t want to be here when the droves arrive. Before each inspection, the agent warns me (again) that I’m not to leave anything lying around – jewelry, watches – because they tend to go missing.

I look at the box. Silver, terrible, wonderful.

There’s a built-in shelf beside the front door, about hip height. My agent said hoards of people are coming through today, because it’s the last inspection before I vacate.

I pick up my handbag and check my keys are inside, wondering briefly how many more times I’ll use these keys before handing them back, never to see them again. They’ve been good to me, these keys. They’ve let me into a period of my life when, although the green bags haven’t been bursting at the seams, they’ve been gently, weightlessly full. These keys have taken me, day by day, away from my illness, and they’ve unlocked the door to a place where I’ve waited for, and felt, impending settlement.

But it’s time for new keys.

I walk to the door. I’m holding the box, knuckles white. Quietly I place it on the shelf by the door, where it shines against the dusty stillness. I open the door, close it behind me. That lottery of chance.

Soon, I’ll be ready to move.

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The Snake

My snake won’t eat.

I’ve always kept snakes as pets. There’s something wonderful about their smoothness, their cool skin. The way they sleep for days on end; the way they glide over the backyard through cracking palm fronds and dust.

But Belle won’t eat.

I didn’t notice, at first. Snakes don’t eat very often. Some pythons go for years without a meal, readying themselves to eat animals as big as kangaroos. Belle is a carpet python. Once a month I’ll feed her – rats, mice, hamsters – and watch as she dislocates her jaw and sucks the creature in. Her body takes weeks to break down an animal, the carcass thickening her silhouette as it treads through its chain-metal tomb.

Snakes have a place in nature. Unlike cats and dogs and rabbits, which aren’t made for our country and unsettle our lands. And snakes make great pets. I take Belle out of her tank each day and hold her, feeling her coil around my body – draped like a shawl. Sometimes I let her rest on the bed beside me, where she knots herself on the pillow and we watch each other, peaceful. But lately Belle has been stretching herself out on the bed – long and thin and flat like an empty fire hose. She lies still. Sometimes she lifts her head and swings it slowly, like one of those metal detectors the tourists use on the beach.

I’m worried.

So today I’m driving her to the vet, to tell him that Belle hasn’t eaten for months. She’s getting longer and thinner and flatter by the day. He’ll ask me why I haven’t been to see him earlier, and how long it’s been since Belle has eaten, and I won’t know.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

I decided last night to come into town. I sat outside, lost in sultry, dripping isolation. Cicadas screeched like broken violins and moths suicided at the porch light. I realised I hadn’t left here for months. Usually I make the two-hour drive once a week into town, where there’s a shopping mall, the doctor and the vet. It’s also where the nearest beach is, the tourist beach, fringing the earth in slits of yellow. When I went to bed I dreamed of Belle. And Max. Maybe Belle has stopped eating to force me to leave our land – to see another person. Or maybe she’s just had enough.

Solitude has become an easy venom.

I may as well say it: the last time Belle ate was just before Max left. Four months, he’s been gone, and nine days. I still don’t know why he left and it’s this, I think, that stings most. All he said was, ‘I’m leaving, Emme. Soon. Maybe we’ll talk more tonight.’ His profile yawned and he was gone.

He never came back.

This house is so empty. I should move, perhaps, but I won’t. It’s the perfect house for these parts – it keeps cool through the summer and dry in the wet season. The veranda smells like rotting wood; the air is thick with fruit and heat. When the storms come, rain drapes the windows in rippling curtains and the roof pounds like a thousand drums.

I haven’t moved his things. His socks are in my drawer, his razor by the sink, his beer in the fridge. I still smell him sometimes. He smelled sweet, like sap. I used to wonder why, but once I caught him sneaking through the sugar canes on our neighbour’s land, so maybe he used it as a short cut home. Home from wherever it was that he went. I was scared when I found him – there are so many snakes around here, not all of them friendly. ‘Don’t walk through the canes, you’ll get bitten!’ I said. He shrugged as he flashed me his bachelor smile.

It’s hot. As I drive I feel sweat scaling each pore of my body. Dust from the road puffs up like a sandstorm. My old Ute scorches; my hands sear on the wheel. The drive is long. The heat makes time slow down and drip like small rain on a tin roof. I think it’s my fault that Belle won’t eat – for she knows me, she senses my moods. She knows that ever since Max left, I’ve been withering like shed skin. I don’t do much with my days and the hours are dry, coarse, like the soles of my feet. And they rub.

Max always had money. I don’t know where he got it, but he always had it. We don’t have much use for money in these parts, but he would always find something to buy. Beer, weed, cigarettes. He’d buy gadgets and play with them, never telling me what they were for. He used to take things apart just to see what was inside them. He didn’t always put them back together. Things and people. I miss hearing his voice as he came home at night, ‘Time for a beer, Emme?’ It was a voice that leaked secrets, a snail’s trail – glistening. He was never around. He would vanish during the day and I never knew where he’d been or what he’d done. He seemed to dance between lives as though one wasn’t enough.

I haven’t eaten much either, these past months. We’ve always grown bananas on our land – fields of palms with colubrine fingers. I’ve been eating those and whatever Max left at the house. Not much. I think Belle has seen my sadness and has become sad too. I think she has watched me grow thinner and has mimicked me, as a child might mimic her mother. I think the vet will tell me this is my fault. Nature or nurture? he’ll say. He’ll say nurture and I’ll disagree. For we are nothing but our natures – our instincts – and Belle is shedding her instinct to survive.

I’m crying now. It’s hot and I’m crying. I want to go home. I want Belle to eat. I want Max.

I reach town, passing the swarms of tourists who infest the blistered north like a plague. They crawl around with their hats and their sunscreen, skin raw as morning. The shopping mall looms on the left, a prison for souvenirs, cushioned by dead grass and dust. From somewhere, the sound of shouting and laughter.

The vet.

I pull in at the gravelled driveway, unsettling crowds of insects. I get out. The air is like syrup and Belle is asleep. As I walk to the door I feel the wet season beckoning, the smell of growth and decay rushing into my lungs. Inside I go.

I sit in the waiting room for what feels like hours. Belle is still asleep. I’m hot. I stare at the walls, at the posters – how to care for your pet frog, how to keep the cane toads out. I see a sign on the wall about smugglers. There are plenty of smugglers around these parts, stealing our wildlife to sell to foreign zoos. Last year a snake smuggler almost died from snakebite. Someone found him collapsed in the sugar canes and called for help. Max threw back his head and laughed – ‘Serves him right.’

My turn.

The vet is waiting for me in his air-conditioned room. He looks up as I go in. Belle stirs in her box like a whisper, like the faintest shuffle of cards.

‘Emme,’ the vet says. ‘What can I… Are you all right?’

I say nothing and he eyes me. I know how I must look – thin and small and gaunt. Since Max left, I’ve been shrivelling by the day.

His voice is gentler now. ‘How’s Belle – what can I do for you?’

So I tell him.

Everything. About Belle, about Max, about me. I think the details might be important – I think he’ll tell me that Belle will get better when I do. I speak quickly, the words spooling out like twine, curling around the room, around my throat.

‘I see,’ he says. ‘And you say that Belle won’t eat, but that she’s getting longer and thinner and flatter, and that she stretches out next to you on the bed?’

‘Yes,’ I say, certain he’s going to tell me that Belle has sensed Max is gone, that she’s trying to help, trying to replace him. My hands are clamped like a jaw.

He says nothing for a moment and his eyes slink away like shadows.

I start to cry. ‘What is it? What have I done to her? Is she going to die?’ I’m screaming now, standing and screaming. I don’t think I’m screaming at the vet.

I stop. All I can hear is the whir of his fan. I’m cold now, but still I’m sweating. The vet is staring at me, his knuckles white as teeth.

He clears his throat. ‘No, Emme.’

Above us the fan whirs.

‘Belle’s preparing to eat you.’

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