Fiction

The Body

Aurealis #147

My short story ‘The Body’ was just published in Australian science fiction/fantasy magazine Aurealis. Buy a copy here.

EXCERPT: Max hates every part of the Body except the legs. When he looks down, purple toes poke above the horizon of his stretched T-shirt. The toenails are jagged, some blackened, like shards of rock pushed into putty. It’s been ages since he could reach down to clip them. But between his swollen ankles and his ugly knees is an area that looks almost normal. His calves and shins haven’t packed on kilos like the rest of him. It’s as if wax has been poured over his head, settling on the face, neck, arms and torso, while only a trickle has flowed down to reach his lower limbs.

For years these legs have carried the bulk above without a twinge of complaint.

Now, waking up from a dream, Max feels a sensation like ants crawling across his left calf, but it’s trumped by the more urgent desire to pee. He rolls onto his side and grips the bedside table. The Body hauls itself up and his feet find the slippers by the side of the bed, burrowing inside. He shuffles past the stacks of sci-fi novels on the floor, around the washing basket filled with dirty clothes, over the power cords feeding his VR console, and through the cluttered corridor to the toilet. Only after the Body has relieved itself does he acknowledge the tickling is still there. Max retraces his steps, lowers himself back into bed and turns on the bedside light. Lying flat with his left leg out to the side, he twists his head to take a look, but can’t see past the white hills of his hips. Maybe a mosquito bite? He hopes it’s not a bed sore. Fatigue dulls the pain and he feels the Body slowly drift off to sleep.

***

Maybe he carried dodgy genes, whispered instructions to keep eating and storing energy, or maybe the boys in town were right and he was just a lazy shit. Other kids would strip down and jump off the big pier in summer, or wake up early in winter and crack the frosty grass with their footy boots, but he’d stay in bed most weekends, immersed in worlds far away. Books were a refuge from the taunts. He tried to join them one Saturday morning, rocking up in new cricket whites for the C-grade comp at the reserve oval, the one near the roundabout. He was tremendously tall and the cricket bat was like a toy in his hands. The boys snickered but let him play, even putting him third in the batting order, which should have been a warning sign. Once at the crease the onslaught began, his own teammates howling with laughter from the boundary line. The opposition had a great time, bowling bouncers at such a big, soft target. The Body absorbed each red-leather punch and Max learned to distance himself from this ugly thing that carried around his Mind.

Now thirty-four, Max thinks of the Body mainly as a means of transportation. Sometimes he is the Driver, steering it towards a destination, careful to make sure each foot is stable before transferring weight to that leg. Sometimes he is the Passenger, watching the Body’s fingers reach down and scoop up a pile of hot potato chips and then deliver them to the waiting mouth. At these times his thoughts are calm, riding the Body’s sensations, a gentle rocking that he could interrupt but prefers to let continue. None of these actions are him, none of them are Max, the person. It is just the Body, feeding and drinking and sleeping and shitting and wanking, while Max watches from an increasing distance.

He has been detached from the Body for years, but this itching on his calf has pulled him back, reconnected him with his flesh. Sitting on the couch in the doctor’s waiting room, he reaches down to scratch through the material of his pants. One side of his left calf has bloomed into an angry rash. He still can’t see the sore, but he can feel something there.

Buy the full story in Aurealis #147 here

Creaking

Overland Literary Journal

I don’t make the doors. I just fix them.

People always think there’s a special trick to it, some training I’ve done. When they ask, I smile but don’t give too much away. Part of the job is being mysterious. Clients expect it. You’ve got a door doing weird shit, you don’t call a repairman expecting him to be normal.

But truth is, there’s nothing special about me or my tools. I just wait until the clients are out of the room, pretending like I need the time alone to do something spooky. Then I get out my tiny old-fashioned oiling can with the long metal nozzle. (It has to have a long metal nozzle.) I hop up on my stepladder, lube the hinges, stop the creaking. That’s it really. Door works normal after that.

People got their theories. Wormholes, rips in the fabric of space-time. They talk about doorways as portals. I don’t go for that fancy thinking. I reckon it’s just a case of poor maintenance. You don’t maintain your doors, they’re not gonna take you where they should, are they? No wonder these blokes are stepping through to the wrong place. What did they think was going to happen? But it’s the kind of common sense that ain’t so common anymore so I keep my mouth shut.

Ask Bernard

Aurealis #144

My short story ‘Ask Bernard’ was published in issue #144 of Aurealis, Australia’s longest-running speculative fiction magazine. Get a copy here >>

EXCERPT: Alternative: I should have used my special power to become a Great Man, a world leader, rather than just the undisputed quiz champion of the Anglosphere. Emotion associated with wishing one had made different choices? Six letters, begins with R.

My fellow patients will never understand this, of course. Frank there does little more than drool: long pendulums of it swing from his lips to the carpet. And he’s the second youngest, after me. The rest are simply too bewildered with old age to listen.

Only on the page can I maintain my credibility. The nurses say my speech is now punctuated with long lapses. But in my memoirs the pauses are edited out and I am once again myself. Correction: once again the man I was.

At first they gave me the Pitying Scowl, mouth only slightly turned down. The 43- year-old, so young, stuck among the fogies. But as I have refused their version of events, the nurses and doctors have rearranged their faces into the Irritated Scowl. Alternative: the Exasperated Scowl. Yes, that’s it: pursed lips and a sigh through the nose.

I’ve explained, again and again, how as a boy I discovered the ability to freeze time—an unconvincing term, but there is none better—and rummage through my mind for answers. Actually, in the beginning it was insults, as we boys competed to offend each other with the sharpest (and most juvenile) one-liners…

Cloud Brawls

Big Issue Fiction Edition 2019

This short story was first published in The Big Issue Annual Fiction Edition 2019, one of nine stories picked from 424 submissions.

 

KEN SPITS OVER the barbed wire to the other side – one more drop for the thieving bastards next door. He feels the strong south-easterly as a push in the back. It pushes him towards the fence and it pushes the rainclouds further north, drumming life into someone else’s soil.

They’d known. He spits again. They’d known exactly when this was coming.

Driving out, he’d seen their planes buzzing overhead. The gall of it. His airspace, but the clouds seeded downwind and the rain missed his own parched paddocks by a few hundred metres.

He turns and crunches across the cracked clay to his ute. He slams the door and drives fast, curses souring in his cheeks. It was no use complaining. He and Linda had passed up their chance for a permit when the price was low, gambling on nature to fill their dams. Through the window he can see the bluff, jutting into the sky like the end of a ramp. The cool change whooshes up the other side and lobs right over the top of his land. The summer storm season was nearly finished, and all they’d gotten were buckets of humidity.

Back at home he stomps his boots on the doormat but there’s no mud to dislodge, only little eddies of dust.

“Well?” says Linda, as the screen door clatters behind him. “Anything?”

“Nup. Fell on the MacArthur’s place again.” He sighs. “Might be time to give in, buy some clouds ourselves.”

He hears the rattle of a cake tin. Her head appears round the kitchen doorway, flour on one cheek.

“You sure?”

“No harm asking the price.”

“No harm,” she agrees.

A pleasant day at the zoo

Veranda 25 Deakin University
Veranda 25 Deakin University

STEVE looked up from the dinner table to see a panda standing in front of him. It was his wife, Margaret. She had synthetic fur – black for her paws and hind legs and white for her belly – up to her neck. Above that was her face, red and sweaty from wearing the costume all day. Under her arm was the panda’s head, its eyes rimmed by inky bruises, the pupils plastic but somehow alive.

Steve stared at his wife, speechless. He was surprised because she usually came home dressed as the arse-end of a hippo.

‘Cutbacks,’ she explained. ‘A hippo requires two actors to look convincing. A panda, just one. Guess the zoo went with the cheaper option.’

The woman I remember

Visible Ink

AFTER passing through throngs of poor Chinese outside the station and negotiating queues of rich Chinese in the ticket hall, you and I finally make it onto the train platform, which is crowded with both groups. Men, women and children are packed so tightly together they have become one seething mass of human flesh.

I imagine this entity as a person who is both male and female, old and young. The person is wearing a rich man’s jacket and a schoolgirl’s dress. Begrimed beggar’s fingers protrude from sleeves adorned with gold cufflinks. One of the person’s thighs is brown and cracked, desiccated like a dried-up riverbed, and the other is milky-white and youthful. The person’s skin is wrinkled under the chin and taut on the cheeks.

A train screeches into the station. We become swept up in the tide of bodies clambering for the carriage door. Somehow, we keep our heads above the surface of jostling shoulders, paddle past the flailing limbs and make it onto the train without being crushed alive.

I look at your shocked expression and know what you’re thinking. I had the same thought the first time I found myself part of a desperate mob in China. How can there be this many arms and legs in the one place? This many kicking feet, jabbing elbows and clawing hands?

As we fight our way to the dining carriage I note that you have not yet complained about the constant shoving. I broach the subject, almost apologising on China’s behalf. Rudeness is a necessity here, I explain. With so many people competing for so few resources, one needs to be pushy to survive. Politeness is a luxury enjoyed in rich and roomy nations.

A boy scampers past carrying a bowl of steaming noodles. Suddenly he slips, sending pasta tendrils snaking across the linoleum floor. From the volume of his crying, I assume he won’t be getting another bowl tonight. I know that you have a spare noodle packet and, given the circumstances, I expect you to hand it to him. Instead, your head morphs into a carnival clown’s and the carriage booms with cackling.

That was an extract from the full story, available here.

The language epidemic

Page Seventeen

‘THIS burger is scrumptious Dad.’

At the time I didn’t really know what the words meant or what the repercussions were. But Dad did. He bolted upright, dragged me to the sink, scrubbed my mouth with soap and water and then picked up the phone.

‘Boy’s sick.’

‘Words.’

‘Take look.’

‘Tomorrow?’

Dad slammed the receiver and turned to face me.

‘Shut it,’ he said.