Laboured breathing, pain.
A life of energy, vigour, comes to a close.
And, too, her soft and gentle love.
A family gathers to say goodbye;
hesitation, guilt struggles with sadness, fear.
A blur of tears, screams and pierced hearts.
“So, cash or card?” – the body still warm.
“You have to continuously make yourself better.”
“Every time you leave the house, you have to look perfect. You have to be the best possible you that you can put forward every day, or else you’re just going to go to the bottom of the pile. You’re not getting any younger you know, your days are ticking. You have to work on having the best body you can, the best hair, the best, most fashionable clothes.”
“That sounds like a lot of work.”
“It is a lot of work. But you have to. You know what it’s like. The gay scene is brutal, absolutely brutal. Especially in Sydney. If you can’t handle it, then just give up now.”
“Can’t I just be myself?”
He laughed. “That’s not good enough. Look me in the eye, and tell me what you want. What you really want. You want the hottest, richest, most amazing boyfriend you can possibly get, don’t you? Then you have to be the hottest richest most amazing person you can possibly be. 10’s don’t go out with 3’s honey, sorry. That’s just how the world works.”
“But like you keep telling me, attraction is all subjective. People like different things, people like potatoes, rice, fat, skinny, whatever. I don’t know.”
“You just ask yourself what you think is the best you, and you go for that, because most likely that is a good choice. Right now, you’re like a fisherman, and your net sucks. It’s tiny and it’s full of holes. Go patch it up, make it bigger, and when you chuck it out of your boat it will spread further and catch more fish, and you’re the one who’ll be able to make the choice of the best fish, and reject all the slimy bitches.”
“You sound like a psycho right now.”
“Maybe I am a psycho, maybe I am a bit of a crazy bitch. But guess what? Being a crazy bitch is better than being a loser bitch.”
I looked at him.
“So what do I do?”
“Should I stop eating?”
“Maybe. Maybe you should start bulking up. What are you into?” I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “I know you’re not into rice, that’s clear enough from all your stories.” I rolled my eyes. “You’re into muscle daddies aren’t you?”
“The thing is, muscle daddies are usually into other muscle guys. They’re not really into twinks, especially not Asian twinks. You have to bulk up. If you slim down into some little twinky slut all you’ll attract are rice-queens, and you do not want to fuck a rice queen. I will judge you for the rest of your life and deny that I ever knew you. Rice queens are gross, fat and old.”
I considered it for a moment.
“All this sounds so ridiculous.”
“But you’re still listening.” I shrugged. “You know why? Because you know I’m right. I’ve been through all of this before and I know how the game works. You’re new to this, you’re fresh meat. You’re still really innocent, and you don’t know that every single guy out there is a piranha that’s waiting to bite your cock off. That’s why you’ve been having all these guys play you non-stop. That’s why you’ve been getting hurt. You need to believe me and listen to me. You have to learn to be a bitch. I see mega-bitch potential in you. I really do.”
“I refuse to turn into a jaded scene queen, I’m sorry.”
“I actually see you on the path there. I’m trying to save you here. Bitch does not equal jaded. Bitch equals power.”
“So how does it work then? Does a twink grow up into a daddy?”
He shook his head, in disgust, “No, no way.”
“Then how does it work? Can you have a teenage daddy? That’s just weird! Isn’t the whole part of being a daddy being old?”
“No, a daddy is born a daddy. Even when they’re teenagers. You can just see it in them. They have daddy potential. A twink just grows up into a guy. A daddy is always a daddy.”
“So are you into daddies or twinks?”
“I’m into men not boys.”
I burst out laughing.
The youth wiped the sweat off his brow and grumbled to himself about the heat. He pulled off his pants and fanned his lean, well-muscled legs with one of the thin books that were scattered over the glass table. The papers riffled about aimlessly. It wasn’t getting any cooler but he didn’t care.
It was too fucking hot.
He took the pen out of his mouth and tried to write a few lines, a sentence, a single word even, anything that would resemble even a semblance of effort on his part. He scratched his sweaty black hair and moaned.
“Ah. Fuck it.”
He tossed the pen to his side onto the bed and pulled off his thin white cotton shirt and all his other items of clothing until he was left in nothing but his small tight briefs. He contemplated removing those too, grabbing his crotch briefly, but the thought disturbed him slightly.
Maybe someone was watching.
The blanket he used every other night was too thick for this sticky evening so he lumped it into a ball and threw it into the corner of his room. It hit the dull grey walls with an unsatisfying thud.
He lay on his cold bed hoping to go to sleep, only to get up a few minutes later, and laying back down again, again, and again. The thin sheets were warming up too quickly and his sweat was beginning to make everything uncomfortably sticky.
He stood up and jumped around and started shouting nonsensical things to the little yellow duck toy on his glass desk, softly at first, and then louder and louder until he couldn’t hear himself anymore and he began to wonder whether he was actually making any noise.
He had to go to the toilet and relieve his bowels but he thought it was not worth the effort. Besides, where would he even shit in this small chamber? He tried to recall where he usually did, but he couldn’t seem to remember.
The heat began to reach oppressing levels. He fanned himself helplessly with his open palm for a few seconds, and then closed his fingers together, in the vain hope of catching more air.
He gave up a few seconds later.
He could think of nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, and so he finally gave in to his baser desires and took off his underpants. So there he was, completely naked, in this sad and strange excuse for a living space. He felt extremely vulnerable, and a little vulgar, but also quite aroused.
Someone was definitely watching.
His clothes were in a heap on the floor. He knew they must smell foul. His clothes hadn’t been washed in what felt like months, so he threw them into the wire bin. For some reason, he didn’t think he needed them anymore.
He felt a tremendous urge to empty his bowels, and so instead he emptied his room of everything he didn’t need, trying to organise and compartmentalise everything, as he so often did in better times. There was nothing much besides a table, an uncomfortable bed and a wire bin, several books, a pen or two, and of course, the little duck toy. Regardless, organising everything was strangely comforting.
As he calmed down a little, he neatly folded his blanket into a pile and placed his pillow on top of it. He pulled the thin bedsheet off the hard bed and folded that too, just as neatly, and placed that on top of the pillow. He changed his mind and slid it in between the pillow and the blanket pile.
It worked better that way.
Then he pushed the table into the corner, placed the fabric-pile under it and slid the wire rubbish bin into the remaining space under the table, rearranging everything so it appeared balanced. He threw all the small items into the bin, neatly, except of course the rubber duck. He held that in his armpit. It threatened to slide out and escape (he was quite sweaty) but he clenched tightly.
He then turned the bed on its narrower edge and leaned it against adjacent the table, as close together as he could put everything. He picked up his clothes and put them all on again. Then he took them all off. He used his underpants to wipe the sweat off his whole body and then threw everything into the bin, not caring so much about neatness anymore. He really didn’t like those clothes.
There was now a decently sized space on one side of the room, about half the space of the room, had it been vacant. The emptiness pleased him, despite the depressingly grey walls and lack of any windows. He had stopped caring about the lack of natural light quite a long time ago. He didn’t really know where that annoyingly dull grey light came from; it just was.
He walked around the space for a while, enjoying its strange emptiness, then planted his bare buttocks on the cold floor. He quite enjoyed the coolness and so he lay flat, first on his belly and then decided on his back. He closed his eyes.
This was acceptable.
I have been working on this short story for a very long time. I am hoping sharing this small tidbit here will force me to finish it!
The dripping blood was always blue. An interesting pale blue. Not that printer-ink cyan-blue, not even that simple blue of a summer day’s-
“Haemocyanin! That’s what makes it blue! It doesn’t have iron in it. It’s copper. Copper makes it blue.”
He wondered why he remembered that very specific detail out of all the other very specific details from that whirlwind of a day.
The rows and rows of prehistoric creatures were clamped tightly onto conveyor belts, moving with a slow constant hum as their blue blood dripped out of those thick 8mm gauge needles he’d previously forced through their shells.
“Just behind the first carapace joint. Yes, right where the head joint meets the body. Yes I know it kind of all looks the same at the beginning, we’ve all been there. Oh come on, you’re going to have to try harder than that. Push, boy, push! I thought I hired a man not a woman! Yes of course they can feel it. No don’t be ridiculous we don’t have time to worry about that. Ah there we go, yes. Nice. Don’t worry they’ll survive. I’ve punctured one old hag at least 50 times. I’m sure of it, I cut off one of her legs just to be sure. They always come back. They like it more than we do.”
He laughed to himself.
33 percent – that was the magic number. The maximum volume of blood they said we could extract from each animal before it could no longer recover.
“But I think somebody just made that number up. We always take more.” He winked.
He was always winking.
He stood on the pier, the cold air dancing off his lips in thin wispy curls. The night was dark, cold and constant, but the lights that flashed along the pier penetrated the darkness with warm tungstic crackling.
The tip of the cigarette glowed softly, and the ashes lengthened, teasing him at the wastefulness of the whole affair. He placed it on his lips, and pulled, inhaling deeply, quickly, perhaps too quickly, and he felt the tickling at the back of his throat that he knew would be soon followed by his coughs.
He suppressed them.
Toes splashed lightly in the cold water, and he closed his eyes as he exhaled, letting the smoke leave his body in no direction in particular.
It had been a long time since he’d come here.
The Vietnamese girl with a tired face boarded the train at Campsie station and asked herself:
“Is this train real?”
Her eyes were dull and glazed over and her head tilted slightly to one side. She was missing a sock and the little brown one she was wearing poked through the front of her left leather sandal like a soft curious mouse. Her hair was oddly neat, deep black strands of calm atop an unkempt mind. She was wearing a strange white hat, as though someone had spooned a dollop of double-cream on top of her head.
She went up the stairs and she saw a woman sitting by herself, so she walked over, sat next to her and placed her hand on her lap.
The Greek woman was sitting alone with a freezer bag of carrot sticks in her lap. She wasn’t eating them, just fiddling with them through the plastic. She knew she was just bringing them along to assuage the guilt she had about these unplanned fortnightly éclair trips of hers. La Renaissance Pâtisserie at Circular Quay. Even memories of an adulterous husband couldn’t keep her away.
He used to take her there when they were still together. She was the one who took them there first, showed him the cafe, and wanted him to be amazed with its wondrous cakes and pastries. He wasn’t as excited about it as she was, but that could be said about a lot of things.
The girl was so small and quiet that the woman didn’t notice she was next to her until she sat down and put her hand on her thigh. The woman flinched and the carrots dropped to the floor.
The Greek woman didn’t know what to do, so she tried her hardest with her hands, frilly flower-print dress and sheer force of will to keep to herself, in the hope that the girl would go away. She was feeling very uncomfortable with having a stranger’s hand on her thigh so she slowly shifted her weight onto her knees, and then her onto her feet, and lifted herself up in that ungainly way overweight people move their bodies.
Then a hand shot out and grabbed her wrist, strongly.
The Greek woman looked at her in shock, and was herself shocked by the girl’s face. Suddenly smiling vaguely, her eyes drifting away every few seconds, the girl had the appearance of a person not quite sure what she was looking at.
She tried to pull her wrist away, but the strength of the girl was startling.
The Greek woman looked around and clutched at her dress nervously, looking around to see if anyone else was around to witness the scene. She had become deeply accustomed to blame, but never quite so publicly.
She looked at the girl warily, waiting for her to do something, anything. She sat back down on the seat, still watching the girl. When she seemed unresponsive for a few minutes the Greek woman hoped everything had naturally resolved itself and pretended that she was alone again.
“Why are you ignoring me?” The girl’s voice startled her again.
“Why are you ignoring me?” she repeated, looking at nothing in particular.
“But you weren’t saying anything.”
“I have some friends at Erskineville.”
The Greek woman didn’t know how to react.
“They’re really friendly. Every time I visit we always have fun.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” she said, awkwardly.
“Actually, they’re my only friends now. I used to have a lot of other friends, but,” she looked around nervously, “slowly they…they all turned into spies.”
“Oh- oh really?”
“Yes, spies for them. They are always watching me. They used to my real friends, then slowly one by one they’d visit me at night and with their eyes all red and they’d sit at the bottom of my bed and scream at me to give them all my money. If I didn’t have any money they would scratch me.”
The Greek woman was starting to become very alarmed. She noticed red, raw scratch marks on the girl’s arms.
“Are you ok?”
“No really, do you need any help?” she asked, her voice trembling slightly.
She smiled, “Today was the last day they could ever get me. I’m never going back. I’m safe now.” She thought she heard a note of triumph.
“That’s great, I guess,” she said shakily, unconvinced. “Where are you staying now?”
“Oh I told you, with my friends at Erskineville. They’ll keep me safe.”
The train shook slightly as it passed by Marrickville Station; the older timber railway sleepers were not as stable as the newer concrete type.
The Greek woman stole a glance every now and again at the girl, who had retreated back into her own world. The orange rays of the setting sun were in their eyes, and although she had to hold up her hand to shield her face, the girl looked straight into the sun. The orange glow washed over her skin and deepened every one of the slight creases on her face into a wrinkle, making her seem like an old tired woman.
She looked exhausted.
The Greek woman suddenly found herself feeling quite sorry for the girl-
“I’m okay, really,” she said, apparently reading her mind. “Don’t worry about me. The world is full of friends, and all of them are waiting.”
The train slowly rode the tracks into Erskineville Station, and the girl looked out of the window and smiled. She stood up after the train had already stopped and took her time walking out, almost getting caught in the closing doors.
The Greek woman watched her walk away on the platform and then up the stairs, to a separate life she knew she would have no part in. Every step the girl took away from her, she felt a strange urgent need grow and grow, telling her to shout out and grab her, to try and cling on to the first real relationship she had felt in a long time, however brief. As the train left the platform, a brief sadness touched her heart as she realised she would probably never meet the girl again.
But maybe she would.
She would have loved to buy her an éclair.
She walked up the station steps, taking two at a time (every second step was booby-trapped, of course) until she got to the top, where she did a little jump onto the concourse. She walked towards the farthest platform, Platform One, but as she walked down this set of steps she didn’t skip any; the traps don’t work on the way down.
The colours of the beautiful mural greeted her and invited her in, as they always did, and she began to laugh in the welcoming glow. Smiling faces leapt out from their colourful houses in the walls and colourful painted children began to peel away from the stone and dance around her, and she danced with them, laughing more and more. She reached out to try and touch them, but she knew she never would, and she didn’t care.
She was with her friends now.
The people on the platform stared at her uneasily, but even they could not deny that her joy was real.
The last time I wrote on a typewriter I was living in Bedok Reservoir with our now dead grandfather Arwa Datuk Aman. Our uncle, Uncle Hamdan, who, despite his two adult children, had not yet left home, was the owner of this typewriter, and the funny stories we wrote as young children drained his ink – to his silent displeasure.
In hindsight, I think he enjoyed our company.
The flat at Bedok Reservoir I remember was often full of faces showing other forms of silent displeasure. Mak Long, perpetually upset with Abah, still could not help but ask for his advice on whether it was safe or not to eat mushrooms with some mould on them (“tell her a mushroom is already a fungus”), a grandfather annoyed that his grandson could not read out a phone number in Malay, and eventually a funeral procession of flowers over his silent body.
In the end, Hamdan sold the flat without asking for anyone’s permission.
The silence filled the house in the end.
The Malay word for funeral is “pengebumian” – from the root word “bumi”, meaning “earth”. Thus, a ritual or ceremony to return one to the Earth.
This small piece of writing was initially written in 2017 for a post on The Wayfarer’s Compass. I am reproducing it here to build up the blog as a writing portfolio. Not my traditional style of writing I suppose, but it does reflect the state of my mind once upon a time. Reading it puts me in a particular pensive mood, so naturally I tend to avoid doing so.
Whenever I tell people of my time in Damascus before the war, I inevitably end up talking about the chaos. The mad bustling mess of colours, sounds and flavours, a sensory assault for those of us used to suburban sterility.
Life would flow all around me, through me, and often rudely shoved me out of its way. I learnt as best I could to navigate through it, learnt the ways of the people, the ways of the city, but still I found the disorder and confusion so grating.
But there was peace too.
I lived for 6 months in Damascus, in Rukn ad-Din (where else!) – The “Corner of the Faith”, a little maze of streets centred around Abu Nour Mosque, where people from all around the world came to study Islam – and I truly mean all around the world. I met people from Russia, Daghestan, China, Mongolia, India, Turkey, Thailand, and other places I’d never heard of before. I hardly spoke any English my entire time there. We spoke to each other in Classical Arabic, a strange linguistic bubble with a liturgical language as the lingua franca, and we often liked to think we were speaking as people did in the time of the Prophet. The Arabs looked on and laughed at our Shakespearean formality.
Rukn ad-Din lay at the foot of Jabal Qasioun, a mountain standing overlooking Damascus. There are many legends about the mountain: that it was where Adam first lived, that it was the site where Qabil killed Habil, that is was where the 40 Abdal gather every night to pray tahajjud over the city to safeguard it. It was said that throughout history many a Damascene leader had ascended its stony steps and prayed for rain, for it was here that prayers would always be accepted.
I made many prayers on that mountain once upon a time.
To get to the top of the mountain, you had to pay a man with a ute to drive you up to a certain height, where the roads ended, and then walk the rest of the way. There were always a few drivers around, and their trucks were decorated with fake floral garlands and swathes of heavily patterned red-and-black fabric straight out of a British orientalist’s Bedouin tent fantasy – the kitschier the better.
I rode up by myself regularly, to the bemusement of the Syrian drivers, who either chuckled at my oddly-accented shami Arabic, pelting me with their curiosity or ignored me altogether. Even in the colder months I would walk up to the top with just my heavily worn leather sandals on my dusty feet, bought from Souk al-Hamiddiyya like a proper tourist, and ground into fraying threads like a proper seeker.
When I sat upon that mountain and looked upon the city, I looked upon the world, and felt some of its spiritual magic enter my heart.
I couldn’t find her this morning.
Walking to the train, I saw: a dark patch of gingery fluff bursting out of the blood-stained road.
She was always moving.
I covered her with a soft white cloth and carried her home.
Later, when no-one was watching, I cried.