The Singer

Cain is folded over his guitar, picking out notes that flutter around the room like birds. I sit down next to him, laptop on my knees. My additional weight on the couch seems to break Cain’s concentration. He pauses, drums his fingers against the neck of his guitar, then moves into a song.

I recognise the tune, ‘Paint it Black’, and hum along as I type out a few sentences.

‘You know this song, babe?’ Cain asks, without stopping his strumming.

‘Anyone with baby boomer parents knows this song,’ I reply.

My fingers move across the keyboard in time with Cain’s playing. Then he stops. My fingers freeze above my keyboard, waiting.

‘Sing along, babe?’ Cain plays a few bars from the opening riff, ending abruptly on a high note, a question.

‘I need to finish this assignment.’

Cain plays a few more notes. I close my laptop. I see a red door…

We continue together. I pitch my voice up an octave from Mick Jagger’s, singing falsetto like I did when I was a soprano in the school choir. My voice starts off rusty, but by the second verse, I’m warmed up.

‘Sing lower,’ Cain says. ‘Sing like you’re talking.’

I ignore him and continue in my falsetto. By now my voice is in tune and in time, but it doesn’t sound like the song. I shift down an octave, and before I reach the low note at the end of the next line, I begin to talk-sing.

‘That’s it!’ Cain increases the pace of his guitar-playing, and we’re off.

We finish the song and circle right back to the start.

‘We should check out that open mic night,’ Cain says, as he plays the opening riff.

It’s time for me to come in again, so I sing instead of replying.

I’m certain that we are good, that we’d do well at that open mic.

We could quickly get a few numbers up and running. Cain is accomplished and I can hold a tune. We’d probably be the best ones there. We’d get a standing ovation and be invited back the following week. Then the pub manager’s eyes would sparkle with a spotted opportunity, and he’d invite us to do a few paid gigs. By “paid” he’d mean a meal and two pots each. We’d start with Wednesday nights, then move to Fridays and Saturdays as the venue filled. Soon we’d be paid enough for Cain to be able to drop a couple of shifts and use the time to write our own music. I’d neglect my text books and buy sparkly dresses. We’d go to a studio and record Cain’s songs. They’d get played on the radio – community at first, then national and then commercial. We’d get a record deal and tour the country with our first album. The parent company of our record label, based in California, would pump money into the recording of our second album. Cain would quit his job and I’d quit uni. We’d move overseas. Then there’d be a shift, as there always is. Cain would be the talent, but I’d be up front, so I’d be the one who’s noticed, whose name is remembered. They wouldn’t see the beauty in the music Cain created, how he drew it from his guitar like liquid gold. Instead, they’d see me, twenty years old in my sparkly dresses. Soon I’d forget about Cain and his guitar too. We’d break up and I’d fall in with a slick crowd. I’d be tempted for forty days and forty nights, and in the end I’d succumb. My fame would reach the stars and Cain would be relegated to session musician. Kids would scream when they saw me and all sorts of speculations would be made about me in magazines, some of them lies, others not. I’d need more make-up and stylists to cover my pasty complexion and thinning frame. A marketing exec at the record company would write all the songs for my third album. He’d be the only person he trusts to deliver what he knows the market desires. Cain would announce he’s going home and there’d be a fast-forgotten moment of nostalgia as I say good-bye. I’d live between LA, New York, London and sometimes Paris. I’d have an assistant who’d writes birthday cards for my family. Sales for my fourth album would be lower than expected, then rise following my trip to rehab. I’d date an actor who hits me, but I’d keep going back to him. The press would blame me more than him. It would take longer to leave rehab the second time. On my first day out I’d get a new tattoo and call my dealer. I’d OD. My first album would be re-released, recorded with musicians from the studio, my voice auto-tuned. I wouldn’t be able to hit the same notes now that I’d become a smoker. I wouldn’t move in circles with people who think I was better when I sang with Cain. I wouldn’t have contacted my family in two years. I’d win a Grammy and OD again. I’d turn twenty-seven and they’d realise I won’t survive before I do, and start making movie plans. Cain won’t attend my funeral, but he’ll cry. It’ll only be after I’m dead that I’ll realise how much I love him.

He finishes ‘Paint it Black’. ‘We should check out that open mic night,’ he repeats.

I hug him so tight the edge of his guitar digs into my chest. It hurts, but I don’t release my grip.

‘Nah, babe,’ I say.

I open my laptop again and read over my assignment.

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The Bunyip

The bunyip lives in my toilet, and he wants to snatch me. He takes the children deep into the forest, and hides them by the billabong. They have to stay children forever, and keep the bunyip company. He’s bigger than a man, but no-one knows what he really looks like, because he’s covered in mangroves and mud. He likes cold and dark places, and needs to be near water, which is why he waits in the toilet for the children.

Every year he brings winter, and he waits for the children to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. The houses are built for summer, and they can’t keep out the cold from the ice that’s the bunyip’s breath.

The bunyip can only snatch you if you believe. He hides in the shadows waiting for you to believe. You move slow and pretend you don’t believe. You breathe deep to steady your heart beat. He’ll snatch you when you panic. I always make it back to my warm bed, but sometimes he’s right behind me, and if I run he’ll snatch me.

Once there were twins who could talk to each other without talking. The bunyip snatched one but not the other. That’s how we found out about the billabong deep in the forest. The twin whispered to her sister that they are all there: the children that disappeared without a trace, who were in the newspapers for a while then forgotten about. The children who never got to be born. The children whose parents thought they were in a coma in a hospital bed. They are all there, by the cold, muddy billabong. And they can never leave.

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The Bachelors

At first Granny would only whisper when she spoke about the bachelors. That’s why I only ever heard snatches of what she told the cards ladies, but I knew it was something exciting and delightful, like a slice of her lemon meringue pie. I was a skulking, flappy-eared child; always hovering around adults rather than playing in the garden with my cousins.

“Go outside and play, Timmy boy,” Granny would say, and reluctantly I’d trail away into the garden.

I didn’t seek out my cousins though. Instead I perched below the open sunroom window, listening to the ladies within.

Granny’s long dead brother Morris had been a bachelor, she told the cards ladies, and she loved him dearly. Morris was a private, proper man, so the fact that he never married was not up for discussion. However, one day he came home so shocked from an occurrence that he simply had to share it with Granny. A friend from the RSL had invited him around for afternoon tea. On the appointed day, Morris turned up, his Scottish Terrier in tow, eagerly anticipating a Marie biscuit and a chat. The door was opened by an elegant personage wearing a silky black negligee and immaculately applied make-up. My dignified great uncle was so shocked that he ran all the way home, his little Scottie trotting obediently after him. Morris wasn’t that kind of bachelor.

Granny’s hairdresser was also a bachelor, but of a more extroverted variety than Great Uncle Morris.

I was shy of Charles and always hid when he paid Granny a visit, usually in the pantry off the kitchen where he cut Granny’s hair.

“Why does Charles talk in that way?” I asked, once he’d left.

“In what way, Timmy boy?”

“He talks like he’s excited about everything.”

“Well, he leads a very exciting life.”

“What does he do?”

“Oh, he goes to a lot of parties and has some very artistic friends.”

The next time Charles came round to cut Granny’s hair, I ventured out of the pantry and sat at the kitchen table, pretending to read a Famous Five book, but really I was watching Charles. He was wearing pants and a shirt like Dad did, but around his neck was a floral cravat that shimmered and rustled as he flittered about Granny, snipping off wisps of her hair. His tales of parties and galleries and Europe were far more exciting than the bedtime fairy stories my parents read me. From then on, I always happened to be reading in the kitchen when Charles came round to cut Granny’s hair.

Granny went to mass twice a week and she prayed with rosary beads. One night I was round at her house sitting in front of the fire, rearranging crackling mallee roots and briquettes with a poker.

“Timmy boy,” Granny said. “Don’t you ever forget that God loves all people. It makes no difference to him whether they’re a bachelor or a married man.”

“Yes, Granny,” I replied, but I didn’t know what she was talking about.

Granny died when I was ten but I think she already knew that I would be a bachelor when I grew up.

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Ode to a Period of Economic Transition

Before I was yours I was nobody’s child. I sat in my cot and watched as people came and went. They gave me enough food to survive, but that was all.

One day you came and got me; loving me at first sight because I was beautiful and a baby, nothing more than that. You took me home to your privileged life, excited at the prospect of your gaps finally being filled. Don’t you know that you can’t fill a hole with something that’s empty? You loved me even more when you discovered that I never cried and stared at you with the biggest eyes you’d ever seen. Finally you’d achieved what you were supposed to and you drank me in, your dream child.

Six months passed before you noticed something wasn’t quite as it should be. I never cried, but likewise I never laughed or responded to your embraces.

“Smile, baby, smile!” you pleaded. “Give a big smile for Mummy!”

Motionless, I stared at you with the biggest eyes you’d ever seen.

Another six months passed with you in denial, not noticing when both children and animals at the park fled from me as I sat unsmiling and wooden in my swing. You were always popular, so the day not one of the twenty children you invited to my second birthday turned up, you knew something was wrong with me.

That’s when the testing started. Doctors tested me for every syndrome, spectrum, deficiency and disorder they could find in their diagnostic manuals. The results were inconclusive. I was plied with medications, therapies, treatments, counselling, conditioning, reinforcements and retraining. The results were inconclusive. Instead, I stared at you with the biggest eyes you’d ever seen as the list of developmental delays grew. I was almost three and not walking, I was almost four and not talking, I was almost five and not toilet trained.

“Smile, sweetie, smile!” you pleaded. “Give a big smile for Mummy!”

I ignored you, but a month later I was fluent in both your language and the language of the country where you found me. Two months later I was reading. Still I didn’t cry or smile.

“Smile, honey, smile!” You’re getting desperate.

Every night you read me a story and told me you loved me. It was easy to spot the moment you stopped meaning it. Your voice tightened and you didn’t ask me to smile anymore.

I didn’t mean to kill the kitty… I just wanted to see what it looked like when the light in her eyes turned off. It wasn’t that interesting, so I didn’t do it again.

I lived a level of existence you’d spent decades and tens of thousands trying to achieve. Fearless and attachment-free, I existed. No matter how many workshops and retreats you attended, or how many books you read, you’ll never be able to let go like I can.

One day I’ll be a CEO, or a world leader, or maybe a famous celebrity. Then again, I might just die in the gutter tomorrow. It doesn’t make much difference to me.

Like any faulty merchandise, you took my back to the place where you got me, and left me there. The other children are still afraid of me, but I’ve found that with a smile I can make them do whatever I like.

The country of my birth wasn’t perfect, but was that a reason to call her evil? Was that a reason to drop bombs on her? Was that a reason to dance with joy when she fell to her knees? You blame my degraded mother, my perverted father, but where is your responsibility in all this?

I sit on my bed and watch as people come and go. They give me enough food to survive, but that is all.

To fill your gaps, you write a book about me.

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