The day had been dismal and Billie had not gone out. She tried to console herself. It was Sunday after all and she needed to rest. The dark corners of her self-imposed idleness did nothing to conceal the low buzz of traffic just beyond the door. Already the sofa was unsittable, parked as it was under the east-facing window, whose outdoor awnings, lowered permanently in summer, shut out the glare, but not the heat. She felt both sick and sensuous, all at once, felt she ought to call someone but secretly suspected nobody wanted to hear it.

She paced from kitchen to bedroom, recalling the flimsy truth of the factoid her younger friend’s boyfriend had casually shared at yesterday’s picnic, when they’d found themselves not part of any particular conversation beside the warming watermelon, the voices of their peers swirling like bees drawn to more promising flowers.

‘Did you know that most people have only about a three-minute active listening span?’ he’d offered. ‘Beyond that, you’re considered a bore.’

Billie had assessed this remark rapidly, noting many things at once about this Travis of Joleen’s, not least the way his eyes were roving between the various groups, and that he had not trimmed his beard in a long while. She recalled her earlier impressions of him, of how he liked to be in charge of most conversations, how he proffered remarks but didn’t stick to any long enough to elicit any real conversation, how she didn’t know him well at all. How in the car, on the way over, she’d tried to share a book she’d been reading, from the back seat, when Joleen had asked about it, and Travis, twisting around in the passenger seat, had glanced at the cover and laughed. At the picnic, Billie had come to realise that Travis was radiating the sulks because he wasn’t used to feeling left out—these were Joleen’s friends, not his, after all.

What had she said in reply? It hardly mattered. The picnic had been hot and the watermelon mushy. She’d left early. The others were going on afterwards to a gig in which Travis of the beard and the button-up shoes was a DJ and she couldn’t have cared less about any of it. What a lot of energy they all put in.

It took the whole of Sunday morning for the debris of yesterday to dissipate inside her. She could lipread chatter, but not place herself easily in it, and of late, her friends seemed to pass through the wall that had descended between them without noticing. She felt sometimes as if a limb had been amputated and perhaps, by their reckoning, by now, she should have moved on. Not one of them, apart from Travis and his random remark, had spoken to her directly, not one. It had dawned on her that no one was really listening anyway, that though she had laboured to follow one lipread phrase to the next, they were all talking at once, and laughing, and flirting, with distinct tête-a-têtes ballooning here and there, and though she had tried hard not to lipread conversations she was not part of, there it was like a screen on replay, all those scant but cosy confidences: open intimacies that excluded her covertly without even realising, before she looked away. They were all talking to themselves. What was the point of reading so clearly when it was like being inside a book that disdained her? Billie used to be able to dispel such feelings with a swift, high order energy she counted on, working harder than everyone around her to navigate the hearing world. Frankly, she had grown tired of it, and these days, the misery of such unconscious exclusion felt harder and harder to shake.

The hot, sticky heat caught at the back of her throat. She decided to run a cool bath, and put some music on for atmosphere, though why she did this, she could not say. She was housesitting this weekend for Ange, who was in the ecstatic early days of a new love affair and had taken off to the sea in a campervan, leaving Pumpkin the Persian cat behind. Billie had a soft spot for Pumpkin, though she knew he was indulged in every way, and was unlikely to ever learn manners in this lifetime. In fact, he had just nipped her elbow while attempting to walk the edge of the bathtub, sniffing the lavender bath bomb, despite his pretence of distaste, which had ended up costing him a loss of balance, and his back legs had skittered into the bathwater onto Billie’s thighs. She felt the panicked prick of his claws as he leapt from her leg onto the bathmat, and she laughed when he turned his back to her, trying unsuccessfully to hide his soaked hind quarters. Pumpkin ignored her with the dignity of one absorbed in leisurely grooming, for whom nothing untoward had happened, and she laughed harder—he really was a scream—before being stopped by hiccoughs.

By the time Billie was wrapped in a kimono, vacillating between a book or some two- minute noodles, she realised, with a sudden gut-wrenching certainty, that she was going nowhere. The backwash of the grey sludge she had kept at bay for at least the last week, swept her up and over. Loneliness feels like it’s actually going to kill you, she told herself, before hastily reaching for a baking bowl to retch in, and then it does. Panting in her friend’s kitchen, Billie let the tears come, and they hurt as they always did, tearing at the sides of her ribs, the pit of her stomach a hole. She let the tears ride her like a river until her face felt puffy and raw, and then just as suddenly, they stopped.

Sick to death of this Sunday ritual, she took the soiled dish out to the compost, rinsed it under the hose, then padded back to the bathroom, peeled off the kimono, which was now soaked in sweat, ran a fresh bath and stood to wash her hair vigorously under a warm shower, refusing to listen to the voice that told her she was nothing and no one, who cares?

Taking herself gently in hand, as her own mother never had, and calling on the child she had lost who was already helping her in heaven, Billie wrapped herself in clean towels, in moisturiser, in a glass of orange juice, before swearing softly, and heading to bed.

The sun had not yet reached the northern edge of the roofline next door but the room seemed to pulse in the false darkness. Billie wondered how she would face her classroom of seven-year-olds the next morning, wondered how she was ever going to get up and keep on living through the greyness of what had become her life. All at once she found herself hating her friends’ insouciance with a vengeance, hating that not one of them had bothered to check in. But then she felt repulsed by the unrealised scenes that flooded her, imagining her comfortless friends offering comfort where none could be had, as no one knew what this loss was like, and then, disgusted with self-pity, she despised herself for despising their trivial concerns, when not one among them could be counted on to bear with her what she had not asked for, and could not bear alone.

There was no one to call and never would be, for the very person she should be sharing this with had got scared, had not been ready, could not bear the grief of it, was now a mother of twins in a city far away and did not write and would not listen to the peculiar implosions Billie suffered on Sundays. Maybe she would never be free of any of it, who knows? How boring. And so the rage descended heavier than thirst, rage at Simone who had forgotten their anniversary, who seemed happier with someone else now, who sent insensitive pictures of her twins at Christmas, when truly, Billy wished they were dead. No, no, she did not. The horror of this new ugliness swept the half-dark and smote her with shame. As if seeing herself from above, Billie looked down on the limp body of the stranger with the soft, child-stretched belly lying on the pull-out guest bed, clenching her fists in heaving sobs, and saw with a stark detachment that this was getting her nowhere. Exhausted, Billie sat up. There was nothing to be done.

The minimalist room decked out in grey, with geometric prints in light wooden frames on the opposite wall, did nothing to neutralise what was broken and still breaking inside her. Normal people, Billie told herself, would go out and get drunk right now. Billie Moss, you are not normal, and you are going to live to see another day. The firmness of this voice was as real as any of the other madness in her head and it comforted her enough to get up and light a candle. Fill the kettle, make tea.

The candle was red. She had brought it for the dinner party Ange had hosted before the camping trip but it had not been touched. Rummaging through Angela’s minimalist kitchen, she found a transparent cup without handles whose printed prisms were stained in black and red diamonds that seemed to glow in the dark against everything else that was grey. Next, in the cupboard under the kettle, Billie located a shallow ceramic bowl as white and as textured as river sand, which she filled with water. Lastly, she placed the candle inside the glowing cup in the centre of the river bowl and carried it back to the spare room where nothing at all had happened, all weekend. Her throat felt too closed to pray. When she lay back down, registering headache and nausea against the cool grey sheets, Billie let herself rest inside the red glow in the corner. Trancelike, she heard the word Beautiful like a ripple inside her, a frail mantra held against the colossus of grey—Beautiful, Beautiful—felt its radial Auslan sign encircle her face, before exhaustion felled her like a hammer, and she slept.

 

Image: louwel nicolas

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Shari Kocher

Bio: Shari Kocher is the author of Foxstruck and Other Collisions (Puncher & Wattmann, 2021) which was Highly Commended for the NSW Premier’s Literature Awards (Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize 2022), and The Non-Sequitur of Snow (Puncher & Wattmann 2015), which was Highly Commended in the 2015 Anne Elder Awards (Australia). Recent accolades include The Blue Knot Foundation Award (2021), The Peter Steele Poetry Prize (2019), The Venie Holmgren Environmental Poetry Award (2018) and The University of Canberra Health Poetry Prize (2016). Shari holds a PhD. from Melbourne University, where she sometimes teaches, but more often than not persists as an independent thinker, writer and poet.  www.sharikocher.com

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