Pink Fog

original

 

I boarded the train. Although I shed my work uniform the hospital smell was still imprinted on me. The twelve-hour shift passed like some hazy nightmare. My matronly shoes – which promised comfort – started to pinch as I got off at Northcote. I dreaded my dinners with Evelyn, but even after all the years, I couldn’t say no to her. A part of me still thought there was something to resuscitate, some common thread keeping us together.

We met at a gentrified pizzeria, where the flour was organic, the pizzas were undersized and the prices were steep. Evelyn was early and she met me with a huge hug, smiling as if she’d had a lobotomy or fallen in love with some charismatic cult leader. Knowing Evelyn, it wouldn’t surprise me if she had. She looked fabulous, wearing her willowing bohemian dress, her hair like an alluring siren.

‘Ciao, daaaarling!’ Evelyn kissed my cheeks. ‘How’s the house hunting, Frankie?’

‘Oh, it’s horrendous, half-a-million dollars for something the size of a prison cell,’ I joked and grabbed the menu. ‘Prisoners at least get free gym membership and meals.’

‘That’s an awful thing to say, we have a terrible justice system,’ she pouted.

‘Yeah because every thug is out on bail.’

‘Frankie! You are so bad!’ she playfully slapped my hand. She was still full of the fervour and naïveté which I had outgrown. Evelyn lived in a pink fog of delusion and good intentions. Sometimes I envied her innocence.

‘What’s new with you?’ I asked and waited to hear a deluge of adventures.

‘Still studying, but I got to take a break and visit Nicaragua to volunteer,’ she took a sip of her mojito. ‘It was just so powerful, so humbling, makes you realize how lucky we are – besides, which employer wouldn’t hire someone who decides to uproot their life and do something radical?’

‘I mainly saw photos of you getting plastered drunk with other aid workers. Perhaps you should finish your degree before you talk about employers. You’ve dragged a four-year degree into seven.’
‘Don’t be such a prude. I’ll finish it, eventually. It’s a bummer I can’t get more government allowance, some rubbish about my parents being doctors and earning too much!’

I didn’t know whether to laugh or slap her. She ordered a pizza which was three times as expensive as the one from my local and didn’t bat an eyelash. Hers was a charmed life. While I worked in a kitchen through university, paid rent and studied at dawn, Evelyn snorted cocaine at nightclubs and holidayed in Ibiza. Naturally, it all worked out for her.

‘Can’t believe you’ll be in the northern suburbs, man, you’ll miss this,’ she looked around and spread her arms like an earth goddess.

‘If I want to rent forever and fight some hippie housemate over kale, I could continue living here. Look around, these people are so spoilt and entitled, they can’t even be bothered to pick up their food,’ I pointed to the line of Uber drivers loitering near the kitchen, waiting to pick up orders.

‘Drivers earn a wage from people’s laziness, that’s the world we are living in.’

‘That’s kind of cool, isn’t it? Ten dollars don’t mean much to one person, but a lot to another.’

Evelyn ran her fingers through her hair and stared into space. She meant well, but she was testing my patience.

Her parents sheltered her from the world and all its ills, wrapped her in cottonwool and filled her pockets with money. I remembered the first time we met at university. I found her crying outside the library because she couldn’t decipher the campus map. I was drawn to her, she reminded me of a stray kitten. I was living alone for the first time and her sobbing revealed all that I had bottled inside me. I led her to her room and she hugged me. From that day on she clung to me like a child. She was my shadow; until she learnt to stand on her own two feet. Then we saw less and less of each other.
‘Can’t believe you are married! It’s crazy that we live in a world where marriage is still the norm. You’d think we would’ve evolved past it. I’d only marry if the detention centres close, or if Harvey buys the pear-shaped diamond ring from Tiffany.’

‘You are a real riot girl,’ I rolled my eyes. Evelyn fished for coins from her hemp wallet. I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t have enough money for her dinner.

‘Oh man, being a student sucks. I’m in poverty,’ she sulked. I didn’t say anything, I pulled out my wallet and paid the bill.

I walked her to her car. We walked past dreadlocked men drumming for coins on the kerbside. Evelyn’s eyes twinkled and she started to dance. People stared.

‘Don’t you just love exotic men?’ she laughed. ‘Melbourne is just so multicultural, I love it.’

‘Evelyn, you hadn’t met a Middle Eastern person until you started university. You didn’t believe me when I told you Niger was a country, you thought I was being racist. You constantly called Macedonia macadamia.’

‘You just have a snarky comment for everything,’ she waved goodbye to the kerbside drummers, not even thinking to spare some coins.

She had parked in a No Standing zone and a ticket was stuck to her dashboard. I couldn’t help but smirk.

‘Look at you Evelyn, an eco-warrior driving such a petrol guzzler.’

‘Present for my 25th birthday and for breaking up with Amir,’ she shrugged.

‘Do you have any plans for tomorrow?’ I suppressed a yawn, dreading returning to the hospital for another mind-numbing shift.

‘It’s just so hot this week. I was planning to go to a rally against racism, but I think I’ll hit the beach. Harvey’s parents own a beach house, you know.’

‘Have fun, don’t forget your fine,’ I handed her the slip and watched her speed away.

***

Months later I received an invitation in the mail. The cream envelope was covered in graceful calligraphy.

Evelyn Haze and Harvey Garret would like to invite you to their marriage ceremony in Bali. Instead of a present please donate to a charity preserving Bali’s cultural heritage.      

‘I guess he bought the Tiffany ring,’ I said and threw away the invitation.

Published by Feminartsy

By the Sea

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He was perpetually seasick, while she still hungered for the sea. The sea was a majestic force, evoking fear and worship.

Despite their lifetime of differences, here they were, pale feet sunk in the sand, senses transfixed by the spuming green waves. It was their last outing together. Soon they would be separated by something bigger and stranger than the sea. Soon they would be separated by something people seldom understood or welcomed.

She held his leathery hand as his breathing grew shallow and the wind blew through his silver hair. They didn’t need to say a word; they had said it all. His body was ravaged by illness and age, hers was not much better.

How many waves had crashed against the sand? Was there a limit to such forces of nature? Did the waves ever cease to crash, did they suddenly stop like the fragile human heart?

His heart ceased to beat that night. Her heart beat in solitude, searching for its departed mate. A fortnight later, they were both reunited by a majestic force.

Published by Veronica Literary Magazine

New Short Story, published by The Regal Fox

Word by Word

 

maggiej

Seeing the dismal book choices in the prison library, if you would call it a library, I think of the old man. I can almost hear him sneering and shaking his head in disapproval.

The books are in tatters, with frayed spines and water-stained covers. They are all the same moralising tales, same censored swill meant to extinguish any desire to kill or thieve. I rummage through the pile and come across Dostoyevsky. I smirk, the old man must be here in spirit, laughing at me. The book cover is the same seasick colour as the old man’s copy in his bookshop. The same book could fetch approximately eight dollars on the outside. I once told him, he couldn’t pay me enough to sit through reading such a brick, but look at me now. Life has a way of playing these tricks on us.

The summer I was fifteen, I needed money and I hadn’t discovered petty theft yet. My father wasn’t around to take me to his worksite for a few dollars. I preferred to be out of the house and out of my stepfather’s hair, so I roamed the streets  until something purposeful caught my eye.

I could sell books. What did I know about books? Nothing. I hated school, dreaded returning the following year. My writing was appalling, an assault to the eyes as one teacher put it. Yet I wandered into the bookshop, hands in pockets and full of adolescent bravado.

The old man was reclining in his chair. The radio played his jazz tunes and he languidly smoked his pipe, immersed in a book. Despite the scorching heat, he wore a suit, his pants bore a sharp crease and his collar was white and crisp. He looked impeccable, unlike anyone in my neighbourhood. My stepfather didn’t own a suit and my father only wore his at funerals.

I can’t say what he saw in me, perhaps it was companionship or the need to mould me into someone with a purpose. He didn’t pay much, but then again the job wasn’t that difficult. For a few hours in the afternoon, I’d sort the shelves, dust, check inventory, and assist with any inquiries. The old man was there to correct me. No, that’s not how you spell the author’s last name, no that doesn’t belong on that shelf, move it. To him, books were salient things – who would have thought I’d use one of his big and fancy words? “People will disappoint you and abandon you, but books never will. You’ll never be alone if you read,” he said. I didn’t believe him at the time. I regret not finding out his story. I was curious, but I was shy and proud to ask him questions.

Business was never great, but he had enough money to live on and throw a few dollars to me. He seemed content, brewing his coffee on the stove, listening to old world music I couldn’t decipher, twirling his worry beads in his leathery hands. He talked with a lilting accent, deep and harsh. He’d open a Russian volume of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky and he’d pull a blank sheet of paper. He’d read a sentence in Russian, pause and write it out in English, his lettering neat and graceful.

“Um, there are English translations of that book,” I’d shake my head.
“I am aware, but where is the fun in that?
So you are going to translate the whole book, how can you be bothered? It will take you forever, you are not getting any younger.”
I’ll get there, step by step, word by word, page by page. Patience is a virtue, friend.”

He didn’t force books upon me. I learnt what sold and what didn’t; I learnt what was trash and what was treasure. There were times when I watched the old man and envied the joy he felt when he read. He’d retell me the story, but I’d snort and pretend not to care. When he’d leave for dinner, with a carnation habitually attached to his lapel, I’d sit in his chair, smoke some of his cigarettes and rummage through his belongings.

I never took anything from him. I just opened his favourite books, the ones which were not for sale and were kept hidden behind the counter. Taking a breath, I would power through, first a paragraph, then a page and then a chapter. There was history, philosophy, poetry, Dickens, Victor Hugo, James Joyce. When the old man returned to lock up, I’d run away from his spot and feign indifference. What I regret most is not telling him how much I appreciated the books I sneakily devoured and how much I appreciated him.

I can’t remember how my employment ended. Summer ended, I returned to school, got preoccupied by other shenanigans and pushed away the people who reached out to me.

One year, when I was in my blurry twenties, I heard the bookshop burnt down. The old man survived, but I never saw him again. I never found out where he moved to. Why didn’t I ever try to find him? Today the bookshop has been rebuilt as a Chinese takeaway shop.

In my cell, all I have is time. My hand caresses the cover of The Brothers Karamazov, I smell the dusty smell of the yellowed paper.

“You must be feeling brave, if you are about to read all of that. I haven’t touched a book since primary school,” my cellmate smirks.
Got to keep the mind sharp, I’ll get there. I’ll read step by step, word by word, page by page. Patience is a virtue, friend.”

I find myself repeating the old man’s words. Wherever he is, in that moment, I feel the old man close to me.