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Writing a novel lends itself to the exploration of grief, the way that sadness surges and recedes. A novel allows for immersion. It allows readers to be swallowed, to disappear into the narrative.  >

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What Remains the Same

Michele Freeman

Frozen oranges and split lips, in Michele Freeman’s short story What Remains the Same

She’s cradling frozen oranges. He’s plucking them from her, one at a time, and cracking them open on the concrete below. His face is freckled under dull ginger hair. Hers is round with a knob of a chin.

Gathering up the split pieces of orange, they sit, legs out flat in front, sizzling skin on concrete, nothing but swimmers on. The garden, a narrow strip at the edge of the lawn, droops in the heat, and the dog is immobilised in a dug-out ditch of sand under the swing set.

A screen door clangs open and their siblings emerge, topless in the bare heat.

Going to the shops.

Comin

No yer not.

Mum! We wanna go to the shops too.

Stay together.

She shoots her older brother a satisfied look, grins.

Mounting bikes they pedal uphill and collect the other kids from the street. They ride the back way. A long flat road, parallel to the main street of town.

Red-brick apartment blocks on one side, old fibro houses on the other. Junk yard lawns, wheelless cars on jacks, car doors resting on ailing wooden fences and mailboxes teetering in unmown grass.

Up at the back of the old fruit shop they spy crates of rotting fruit under the garage awning. Grinning, they stash it into their pockets and scavenged boxes and bags.

Riding home they anticipate the food fight silently agreed upon. Dumping bikes on the front lawn, they roar inside in search of old clothes, cracking open the quiet of the house with their screams and movement. Out on the vacant block of land next door, they separate into teams. Half the neighbourhood is there now.

They pull old nylon stockings down over their heads to protect their faces from the splattering fruit. The long, loose legs of pantyhose bop on the back of their heads as they run. Child-sized robbers with splitting grins and broken pieces of coloured fruit dripping from their faces.

Nightfall is the only thing that forces them back inside. Sitting at the dinner table his old man hears about the food fight and he cops one, right across the head. Hard.

That’s for fucking wasting food.

It stings, but he tries to shrug it off, flashing her a grin from under his ginger mop.

The next morning they wake up early and sneak out. There is a heat already creeping into the day and the dew on sharp and shorn grass blades doesn’t last long.

It’s just the two of them in the park. She’s got her roller skates even though she is in the middle of a grass oval. The skates catch and clank as she walks. They don’t even see them coming. Six of them, one of them huge. They go for Shaun, always go for Shaun. She searches desperately, but knows there’s no-one around.

Panicking, she watches them fling him around the circle they have formed, ripping his shirt off, laying punches in.

Then the big one hikes him up in the air, holds him above the steel stake in the ground that marks out the cricket pitch and threatens to spear him. They others are taunting, laughing. Ripping her skates off, she lobs one at the big guy’s head, startling him with the near miss. She’s holding the other one up in her hand and hears herself yell,

Let ’im go or I’ll smash your fuckin’ face in with it.

Laughing at her, they put Shaun back down. She grabs his hand and they bolt. Only stopping once the round the old toilet block at the end of the park. Tears and snot streak through the dirt on his face.

Don’t tell no-one.



The next time they see his old man he looks like shit, parched cracked lips, pin prick irises lost in the dirty white of his eyes, his hands shaking so bad he can barely light his fag. He’s got the guilts. Rounds ’em all up and tells them to get in the car, leads a little convoy out of town.

They have to cross miles and miles of flat plains full of stark heat to get to the waterhole. It’s the kind of day where the black tar from the asphalt bubbles up under your feet and there’s no wind, just a dead heavy heat.

When they get there his old man just crawls up into the brittle, hot bush with an esky full of booze. They don’t see him again till the end of the day, when he’s put an end to those shakes. Tells ’em to get back in the bloody car. She’s stuck up front, in the middle of the old three-seater, Shaun on one side, his old man behind the wheel on the other.

The stench of alcohol and the slurred speech fill her with unease, but she quickly steels herself. Stares sideways at Shaun, and says nothing.

On the long drive back home they sit in silence as brown farmland slips past the windows in the fading light of the day. An old single-lane road, not much traffic. It’s a surprise to see another car approaching.

She knows his old man is wasted and has to force herself to look over at him. Her stomach dips as she finds him slouched over the wheel with hooded eyes, leaning so far forward it’s like the wheel’s holding him up.

He’s checking the speedo by moving his whole face down to it, getting right up close to the numbers so he can make them out through his watery vision. Does it again as the other car is right upon them.

Her breath catches and she grips the seat in place of daring to speak, as they drift out in front of the other car. The sharp blare of their horn shoots him up straight in his seat, he hooks the car away. They skid off into the dirt shoulder as he slams on the brakes.

Finally she lets out her breath, looks over and sees Shaun trying not to cry. A sob escapes and his old man just leans across her, shoots his fist out into the side of Shaun’s head,

Stop yer fuckin’ blubberin



A long time later, when they are both teenagers, he smashes a glass into someone’s face. Earns a reputation. Next time he’s out he gets jumped by a whole group of them. They beat him to the ground. This time, unlike back in the park all those years ago, there is nothing she can do. Nothing she wants to do. But eventually, she pushes through them, huddles her body over his and takes the final blows of their boots in her sides.

Enough. He’s had enough.

Pulls him, bloodied and broken, up onto the gutter.



Soon after that she starts spending time in the library. A place she used to find stuffy and stifling, but that has now become somewhere to cheat the even duller monotony of the hot empty streets outside.

He comes looking for her. Swaggers heavily through the front doors, erupting the gentle quiet. What ya fuckin’ doin’ in here? Been lookin’ everywhere.

She shrugs. Sees the bottle in his hand. He sees her looking. A pause long enough for her to feel a rush of regret. Then,

Know what yer fucking problem is?

Leans in, his breath hot down her ear as he tells her:

You think yer too fucking good. That’s what.

Then he turns his head and spits, right at her foot. When he walks back out the few people scattered around the room all turn to watch.

Not long after that she leaves for good.

Years later, in a crowded and noisy café, she gets a call.

The familiarity of her sister’s voice and the warm air from the onset of spring bring back a sense of stillness and the scent of mulberry trees, voices and laughter ripping through vast suburban spaces, bikes thrown at feet and landing on the soft lawn of the nature strip.

Softened with nostalgia, she hears herself say,

I’ll go see him.

Senses words caught before they leave her sister’s mouth. Then, after a beat,

Well, I wouldn’t be under any delusions.

Hangs up and walks home, past a park the size of an inner-city terrace block. Thinks of how her father always laughed that something so small and wedged in could be called a park. Winding her way through the maze of narrow streets, she passes renovated, cramped old worker’s cottages that the realos pass off as Charming and Delightful.

Hates what the inner city has become, remembers the jolt she got when a ute revved past her at a café and a bloke leaned out and shouted,

Fucking yuppies.

She couldn’t work out if he was talking to her or not.

She takes the train back. Sitting upstairs in the near-empty midday carriage, she realises it’s been more than ten years since she’s been on this line.

Hitting the outer suburbs she snatches glimpses of back yards as the train whizzes by. Long squares of yard, boundaries traced in by wooden fences; above-ground swimming pools filled with leaves; plastic toys and cars faded by the sun; work coats slung over back verandahs, shoes kicked off at the back door.

She loves seeing this back side, preferring this view to that of the manicured front. Tunes into the voices in the carriage:

Where you been?

Jail mate, been in jail for months.

Ah dun worry about it mate.

Laughs to herself at this flippant reassurance, but is intimidated by the gnarled, harsh tones, always has been.

When she gets out at her stop the surge of memories is so strong it stops her in her tracks. She is shocked by how intoxicating it is to back, in this place that is so incredibly familiar, but alien. Cuts across diagonally from the station, sees the public toilets that she instinctively avoids. Hears the repeated warning from her mother: Don’t you ever go in there. Strange men go there.

It was years before she learned it was a beat.

Passes the old public phone box, a stiff grey metal relic of bygone days. She can remember using it that time, raising the receiver to her ear, feeling a thick, wet gob of spit, looking up and seeing that older kid from school, doubled over, laughing.

There is something quiet and claustrophobic about the atmosphere. It’s eerie, like the constant tick of a clock in an otherwise silent space. She walks up through town, most of the shops, even the signage, are unchanged, save for the fading paint.

It would feel timeless if not for the ‘English Lessons’ banner hanging out the front of the church and the saris in the local park.

She passes the mall, the whole place boarded up with some old sheets of plywood, ‘Closed for business’ crudely spray-painted over them. Her old teenage cynicism bubbles to the surface as she looks at the dead commercial centre, thinking, that’s what this whole place is, closed for business.

She follows the wide, flat suburban roads out of town, unthinkingly, instinctively. She could take you down any of them and not get lost, but now she is a stranger here.

It is an odd kind of convenience that not far from their gapingly empty suburb there is a huge public hospital. As she makes her way through the car park she sees the familiar sight of people on crutches, or hooked up to drips, or stuck in wheelchairs, all clustering around the entrance in their hospital gowns, desperately smoking fags.

She is used to seeing the ill and ailing, after so many trips here, but having to find the psych ward is a first. When she reaches the heavy glass doors, she suddenly feels unsure of herself. Nervously she starts wandering the hallways, struggling to find a face she can identify in the rows and rows of rooms that all look the same. Eyes glance up hopefully at her each time she passes. Flimsy curtains are all that shield people’s private moments of illness, suffering or discomfort.

Finds his bed and stops outside the door. More than ten years since she’s seen his face, and all she can look at is that lip. Split open from his own bottom tooth, driven in with there the force of dead body weight, falling. Winces at the thought of him crashing down onto the coffee table, tender flesh tearing open.

A lump of pearly white pus has formed inside the wound and it looks like a tooth sticking out. She knows she is staring.

He gives a nervous laugh.

Not lookin’ too good, eh?

She looks away, ashamed of her own creeping embarrassment as she thinks about what the others have told her, of how his howls had woken the whole neighbourhood, and for once they were happy to see cops turn up at their door. Then the ambulance.

Knows that no matter how hard the crash into that table was, at least it was the end, that it quelled the wild and demented screaming, the pounding of his fists into his face and head, and the scratching out of his own skin.

Funny, how her hardened family weren’t scared of anything, except mental fragility. Quietly notices that none of them are here now. Knows they would never visit a place like this.

She finally looks him in the eye, feels a sharp pang right in her gut. If you saw an animal in pain like that, you’d put it down, she thinks. Hears the soft pad of a nurse approaching.

Turns out to be the social worker, a harried-looking woman with a practised smile. ‘There are things you can do. People you can see,’ she says.

Gives him a handful of brochures and pamphlets, then tells him he can go home now.

He waits for the social worker to leave, then he looks up at her, with a half smile, and shrugs. Just like when they were kids.

She almost makes the mistake of telling him she’s been seeing a therapist for years, that he can have the number. But the memory of those stinging words from long ago, You think you’re too fucking good, stops her and, knowing better, she says nothing. Instead, she leans over the bed to help him up. As they walk out together, he stops at the entrance and lights a fag. Then, without a sidewards glance, he chucks the pamphlets away.



© Michele Freeman

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