Lips

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1.

 

She sprang off the bed and kissed him hard on the lips. It felt a bit like spring, rare winter sunlight spilling in through the bedroom’s twin skylights, and she was happy. Don’t kiss me back, she said, not because they had not brushed their teeth yet – though they hadn’t – but because she liked it better that way, her exploration, not his reciprocation. They stopped, and he smiled at her. She had forgotten what it looked like, that flashing, dagger-like thing, in the month they had been apart. He wondered if she had been with anyone else. She didn’t particularly mind either way. Let’s do something, he said.

 

2.

 

They rode their bikes to a bric-a-brac shop he liked. There was a sideboard there she wanted, though she laughed at the thought of getting into his ‘clown car’ as she insisted on calling it, laughed at the thought of him in it, those long legs of his bundled up around his ears like something out of a Quentin Blake illustration. What about this? He’d picked up a print, weird-looking in that detectable but indefinable way she liked, kitsch but somehow a little violent. It was green-hued, full of sheep and a sort of denaturalised nature, all of it in some way ambiently religious. Do you hate it? She asked, surprised at her deference. They didn’t live together. She wondered if they ever would. He shrugged, and handed it to her. She turned it over, felt over the badly applied sealing tape. There was an inscription across the thin wood, in pencil and smeared by time. He hadn’t seen it of course, he didn’t see anything. She could make out one word: love.

 

3.

 

They ate yum cha, barely talking. He had missed this, this boredom, this sliding of ego into something like mindlessness. They were sitting in the window of the restaurant where it was warm. They used to joke-talk about the weather, but he wasn’t sure if they did that anymore.

 

4.

 

She had to go to work. She slid the weird print out of her bag and onto the bed. Other things spilled out too – a bottle of antibiotics, some lip balm, a packet of tampons. A strange urge came over her to smear them all around the bed. He was standing awkwardly by the door. Aren’t you going to kiss me before I go? She said. A little bit of him wanted to, a little bit of him wanted to fuck her, a little bit of him wanted her to just go away. She was splayed across the bed now, propped up on one elbow, her eyes narrowed in the glary light. Her lips moved a little.

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Jelly

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She was eating jelly because all of her teeth were broken, because Aunty Dora had broken them, because she couldn’t eat anything that wasn’t soft, even though she had hated to eat the jelly, that gelatinous mass of clumps she hadn’t been able to break down properly (hadn’t been able to boil water, only had cold water), those tiny granulated bits of animal fat or whatever jelly was, hospital food that’s what it was, food fit for children and invalids, lurid clownish brain-like wobbles you needed a spoon for (who had spoons? Who had cutlery?) or could just suck up, purse your lips and hoover slipperily down, green and red and purple and orange (hers was orange, a crumpled box of Aeroplane Jelly from the 2000s, a box Aunty Dora had in fact given her, given her why she could not now remember as her gums bled into and into the jelly, and out onto and onto the table where her teeth lied about like the white keys/black keys – rotten rotten teeth – of an emptied out piano), orange like the old sun, the sun before the fires, the sun whose bearable warmth she could barely recall, hot now it was like iron sheeting pressed against the skin, burning day and night, the air red as blood and filled with vengeance, the jelly sliding down just barely (she was back to the jelly, hoovering up the orangeness), sliding uneasily down and down into her stomach, her fat pregnanted belly, down and down into her unfull bowel, down and down into memory where she was five, eight, ten, spooning great globs of the stuff – red and green as well as orange! – down and down still further, her teeth intact and bared to the world with a child’s joy, a joy no longer possible, a joy before the always red sun, and she felt her teeth again, felt them again, and toast and cheddar cheese and fruit, hard and acid, grinding down under molars and canines and incisors, slicing and crushing and sluicing through her brain, before that man, before Aunty Dora, before, before, before.

Stone

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To put faces on stones, as children do, is to attempt to bring the dead to life.

 

To be stony-faced is to render a living thing, the human body, death-like.

 

To be stoned is to be suspended halfway between life and death. Stuporous.

 

To be stoned is to be pelted with rocks until you are dead.

 

To be a human is to be made up of elements, mostly water. To be a rock is to be a collection of minerals. Like humans, rocks are subject to a cycle of destruction. They form. They break down.

 

To be a rock band is not at all the same as being a band of rock.

 

To a human, a stone is hard. They are not to be thrown at other humans, except those who carry machine guns. To a stone, there is no such thing as a human.

 

To a reader of the Bible, a stone and a stone (large and small) should not be carried. There are no more stones. Only kilograms.

 

To those who live in glass houses: don’t throw stones (who lives in a glass house? Do you?)

 

To the Greeks, Medusa was a monstrous human female with snakes for hair. To look at her was to turn to stone. (If you take your love from me/I’ll turn to stone, turn to stone/If your love I couldn’t call my own/I’ll turn to stone, turn to stone.)

 

To me you are perfect a rock. Love me like a rock (she rocks me like the rock of ages).

 

To Erasmus Burger, a PhD Student in geology at the University of Pretoria, the opposite of a stone would be an artificial and organic liquid. Because synthetic insulin is made from genetically modified bacteria, Erasmus would go with that.

 

To be a rock is to risk thermal shock. T h e      r   m                      al   s     ho         c           k            is             when   a         t                                       herm           al gradient ca                       uses diffe                   rent par ts of                 an ob           ject t o  e                                   xp a nd by d                         ifferent a                 m      ounts.

Crumb

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Photo by Alison Marras on Unsplash

 

Crumb [kruhm]. Noun. 1. A small particle of bread, cake etc., that has broken off.

 

He, the writer, worried all the time, about everything, but today he was worrying about his age. He had been to the theatre the night before, a weekday, and got much drunker than he’d intended (being amateur theatre, the beers were only six dollars). He had gone because he was curious about the show, a jukebox musical based on the songbook of one of his favourite bands. The professional version had been slated to come to the small city in which he lived, then been cancelled without explanation after he had bought tickets for the New Year’s Eve show (he was refunded in full). He had also gone because there was someone in the cast he knew from years ago, a singer with a golden voice and a broken brain. All her life she had been in and out of institutions, sometimes bedridden for months on end undergoing ECT, which seemed to do the trick for a while. She was perfect for the role, a hammy villain, a Wicked Witch of the West for the digital age. He had lost her number, if he had ever had it, and she wasn’t on social media. He would just have to go and hope he could catch her in the foyer afterwards and tell her what a great job she’d done (he knew she’d do a great job). As it happened, after the show he ran into the ex-boyfriend of his first serious girlfriend who was, in the way of small cities, now with the singer. Feeling old, he waited with the ex-boyfriend, making slightly dissociated small talk while the cast emerged in dribs and drabs into the foyer. He was fascinated and, in a way, uplifted by them, by their imperfect bodies and voices, the kind you would never see or hear on a professional stage. He had so much admiration for them, these mums and dads and students and who knew what else, sacrificing their nights, giving up huge chunks of their busy lives to make a show for no reason at all except the love of it. Amateur. Didn’t the word itself mean lover? The singer emerged, half her face still daubed in silvery science fiction makeup. She burst out laughing when she saw him. He wondered if she was in one of her manic phases, or if it was just residual energy from the performance. How long had it been since they had seen each other? Six years? Eight? Ten? It felt like a lifetime ago. Eventually she stopped laughing but her eyes kept returning to his hair, greyer and thinner than when they had last spoken in the flesh. They swore at each other and called each other obscene names – an old game of theirs, they liked to quote The Exorcist – and she pointed out a man in the crowded foyer, dark-haired and tall, taller than him, six foot three, four. At first he thought he was a friend of hers, but then it clicked – the man was her son. The last time the writer had seen him he had come up to his waist. Now he worked in chemicals. Thinking back on the night before, the writer remembered standing on the pavement with the singer, being introduced by her to a stagehand (actors he could understand doing it for the love it, but stagehands?). After a while the stagehand, who was very young, had moved away, and the singer asked him if he was happy. She was happy, and wanted to know if he was too. ‘No,’ he had said quickly, too quickly, and tried to light another cigarette. His matches – old and thin, of the kind you used to see in fishbowls in hotel lobbies – kept breaking, just crumbling to pieces in his hands.

Blue

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Some things that are blue:

 

Book covers.

 

The police.

 

The sea.

 

Jazz.

 

Jeans.

 

Today.

 

Yesterday.

 

*

 

There is no blue pigment in plants. Blue is even less common in foliage than it is in flowers.

 

*

 

You have gone down on the K10 checklist. You are less depressed and anxious than you were eight months ago. Your psychologist is pleased with your progress. She asks you to draw yourself surrounded by a shield of energy. The shield traps in good thoughts and deflects bad ones. Your psychologist is a paediatric specialist, and you wonder if this is an activity she asks her child patients to do. She tells you yours is the best drawing by an adult she has ever seen. You wonder if she tells this to all of her adult patients.

 

*

 

The male satin bowerbird is particularly drawn to objects that are blue. This may be because, his plumage being blue-black, he is vain. Birds go wild for sex in blue love shacks, reads a Science Online headline.

 

*

 

You read a self-help book. You do not want to. You cannot fathom its appeal. People, you think, should just buy serotonin shots, not read self-help books. You think maybe the whole genre is a joke. You think the authors (most of whom are men) are helping themselves to their readers’ (most of whom are women) money.

 

*

 

Spotify playlist: Blue.

 

Take Me Out – Franz Ferdinand.

 

Know-How – Kings of Convenience.

 

Nightcall – Kavinsky.

 

These are not blue, you think. These are songs you would dance to.

 

*

 

There is a club you’d like to go to on the weekend. You have not been to a club in months. You have heard they will be playing Motown songs all night. You have heard that the DJ starts at 11:30pm. You are 33, and it seems to you 11:30pm is around the time the DJ ought to be finishing up so you can be home in bed before midnight.

 

*

 

Time passes, wrote Joan Didion in Blue Nights. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember. You think you remember you were happy.

Crack

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‘Put your finger in. Go on.’

Children, at the edge of an abyss. Tylon, 12, and Sandy, 14, their digitised consciousnesses crackling with anticipation. Before them a crack, an opening to the pieces of a life, floating in the void.

‘Who was it?’ Sandy wanted to know.

‘Who cares?’

Sandy stared into the fractured depth, black and gleaming and shimmery like a swimming pool full of coal. She had never touched anything here before, not since her uploading had completed. She thought about her fingers, then her hands, tried running one over the other to see what it would feel like. There was maybe something, like air passing over her skin, but that was all.

She had heard of crack-ups before, uploaded consciousnesses splintering under the strain of who knows what technological or pathological forces, but she had never seen one before. It was somehow ugly and beautiful at the same time, deeper than anything she could have imagined. You were not supposed to go near them in case there was some virus at play. This one didn’t look especially dangerous to Sandy but how could you be sure? Sometimes things would emerge out of the darkness of the crack, flashes of faces, landscapes; memories, Sandy supposed. Tylon didn’t care, was only interested in the haptic thrill of reaching in before the breach could be sutured shut.

‘What if you get stuck?’ asked Sandy. ‘What if you get pulled in?’

‘I won’t,’ said Tylon, his voice devoid of confidence.

Sandy could not but help think of the accident that had brought them both here, brother and sister drowned at sea just shy of their birthdays, which were only a month apart. If Tylon was thinking of it she could not tell. She wondered what she would say to their mum and dad if Tylon were to disappear into the crack, wondered how dimly they would take having to fork out for his re-uploading if he could not be retrieved. They would be calling soon.

‘Let’s go,’ Sandy said. ‘Mum and dad will be here any minute.’

But Tylon was not listening. The crack had him transfixed, its inky depths a siren song. There was nothing Sandy could do to restrain him, no digital constraint she could place over his inquisitiveness. He reached in, exhaling strangely as he did so. She could tell he was still there, had not tumbled or been dragged in.

‘Well?’ said Sandy. ‘What’s it like?’

‘Ice,’ he said. ‘And fire. You should try it. You should –’

He had stopped talking abruptly. He was still there, just.

‘What? What should I do?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Tylon said. ‘It’s nothing.’ He was crying. ‘Is that what it’s like?’ he said finally. ‘For mum and dad? All that… sadness?’

‘I told you not to touch it.’

‘But I did,’ he said. ‘I touched it. I feel…’

His voice was different, fainter.

‘What? You feel what?’

‘Older,’ he said. ‘I feel so much older, Sandy.’

Circle

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I liked you to draw on me. Firm, but not hard enough to draw blood, or to leave a mark beneath the ink. I liked you to draw slowly – lines and waves, definite shapes. I liked circles especially. Closed and neat and whole. Always returning to their beginning, smoothly predictable. You had a good hand. Steady. And you always asked – if you were pressing too hard, if you had strayed too near somewhere sensitive. You never made me feel weird. When I asked you, just once, to see if I liked it, if you would press hard enough to make me bleed, you did. When I barked our safe word (I did not mean to bark, but that’s what came out) you stopped. I liked that you liked it when I decided to leave one of your circles on me – a palm-sized ring just above my right hip – and have it rendered permanent by tattoo. I liked that you understood my frustration with friends and family who could not see the point of an empty circle. I liked that you got that my tattoo was too big to contain a name or an image. That it was too big to contain anything except possibility.

*

I thought, afterwards, about placing your name or your image inside my circle but I could not, for there was no possibility of you coming back. My lovers now trace it with post-coital fingers, and ask me what has faded from inside. You would never have asked such a question. Always, with these lovers, I return to the same datum: they are not you.

Thunder

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I could barely see through the rain. A metre ahead, if that. The driver’s side window wiper had stopped working.

 

Slow down.

 

I slowed down.

 

There you go.

 

God, that noise. A tattoo of rain. Mist over the road, silent. Thunder crashing overhead.

 

Stop. You cannot see.

 

I could not see. I stopped the car. The rat-a-tat of rain for company. Anxiety subsiding. Then: headlights in the rear vision mirror and the squeal of old, long-unchanged breaks. Footsteps on gravel, the flash of a torch or phone light.

 

Lock the doors.

 

I locked the doors.

 

Start the engine. Drive away. Better to plough into a tree or sign you did not see than…

 

I did not start the engine. I did not drive away. A tap on the window, gentle. I smile, close-mouthed, through the mist. I don’t think they can see me. Another tap. Please be a woman, I think. Not for now the low voice of authority, the strong hands of the car engine enthusiast. For now – give me a high voice, quiet sense, camaraderie if you must but no bluster, anything but bluster. Make me laugh without cruelty. Remind me of the dawn to come. Or fix my wiper and fuck off.

 

Another tap. Still gentle. I wind the window down a little, make an opening the width of a cigarette packet. Breath swirls into the car’s interior. A flash of lightning illuminates a thin, friendly face, framed by a tangle of long, wet hair, dark as the night.

 

‘You alright?’

 

I nod. They nod.

 

‘Can I help?’

 

I don’t think of the wiper. I think of Lennie with her. I think about the next day, the emails I will be replying to long into the night. I think of Lennie with her. I think: help me remember where I was going.

 

What are you?

 

I wind the window down a little more.

 

Then all the way down.

 

Rain flecks the inside of the door, the sleeve of my coat.

 

Yes you can help.

 

I reach into the darkness outside the car. I hold a face, wet like clay under my fingers. My lips press against theirs’. Our tongues search and meet. Our bodies quake.

 

I am reminded of the dawn to come.

 

 

Filament

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You want to know what our universe looks like from Earth. You are curious. You have not been here before. You look up. We see stars, the smear of the Milky Way. You can see further, all the way to the edges of the galaxy filaments that form the boundaries between voids. I think, were we to see such things, our minds would fall over themselves. But you do a little dance, something like a tarantella, fast and light and teasing. This is what you came to see I think. Not for you our paucity of vision, our black blanket of night, its pinpricks of light. For you – supercluster complexes and galaxy walls, expanses of light and time and dark matter we’ve only known were there for the blink of an eye. You’ve always known. It’s tempting to think you put them there but you did not. You must have your own names for them, names as lovely as ours but unpronounceable by our tongues. I reel ours off for I don’t know whose benefit. The Great Attractor. The Pisces–Cetus Supercluster Complex. The Sculptor Void. Names that fall like weights, that seem to cleave the air in two. I think as well of the Zone of Avoidance, the patch of sky obscured by the Milky Way. I know you can see all the way through it, through to the Zone and beyond, wavelengths of light both visible and invisible. I don’t know where your seeing stops. Ours stops with the dust and the stars, and what we physicists call attenuation – the gradual loss of light intensity through space. Our cities obscure our vision even more, but I took you into the desert where the air is clear. It made no difference to you. You could not see the city, like a long-sighted person who can see to the back of the shop but not the newspaper in front of their eyes. The allusion was lost on you. I am lost on you. And yet here you are, dancing on our sand, compressed to a third of your usual size by our unbefitting gravity. I want to see your universe. I want to dance on your sand.

Sheath

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The sheath had once held a weapon, something like a very curved, very fine rapier, but now Freeman was using it to transport an animal. It was one of the newer hybrids so he did not know what to call it. It had four frog-like legs, but was long and thin like a large worm, and had a bird-like head from which emerged two, ever-twitching antennae. Its skin was almost human – soft, pale, lightly furry – and at the base of its stubby tail sat a small, spiky club. This last had been impossible to fit into the sheath so Freeman had simply cut it off and tossed it away in the hope that, in the manner of most of the hybrids, it would grow back once the animal had space to do so.

 

The hoped-for buyer was new to Freeman, someone from one of the outer zones with a taste for the exotic. She had been recommended to him by a mutual acquaintance, a former border guard now turned rogue. The pick up point was one of the old offshore detention centres, abandoned since the government had simply decided to mine the sea, let the refugees drown where their boats took fire. Hardly any boats came now. The world had turned, and turned, and turned against refugees, until the only place that would take them was the ocean, the black depths of which their bodies now thickly layered like new sediments.

 

It was late, and hot. Pinkish sunrays were slanting across the Bismarck Sea. Freeman’s guide was a large, ebullient Papa New Guinean named Samson who had a small boat and knew where the few remaining mines were. Shouldn’t carry that, he had told Freeman on sight of the sheath. People will think it’s a weapon. Freeman had ignored him, affecting a roguish laugh, but sure enough they were attacked as soon as they made landfall – another hybrid, this one humanoid and not for sale. It wielded a shotgun. Dark man go, it said, and Samson shrugged and rowed his boat away. What that? Freeman emptied the sheath out onto the sand, the drugged, unconscious creature collecting in a heap, a new tail club unfurling like a time-lapsed flower coming into bloom. Which hybrid? It meant Freeman or the animal – was evidently not that bright. Me, said Freeman, I’m the hybrid. He remembered, suddenly, a strange contortion of the elbow he used to perform to amuse his school friends, and he did it now, evidence enough, he hoped, of his superhumanness. The hybrid beamed, and shot Freeman’s animal clean in half, the noise reverberating around the island like thunder. Just you me now, the hybrid said, shotgun trained on Freeman’s chest. You fetch good price. Freeman risked a look behind him but Samson was gone. Fire danced on the sea.