First place, Nakata Brophy Prize: Sweet anticipation


I try not to think too much as I step out of my car and taste rain in the air. Sweet, dewy freshness against my lips. The January atmosphere is hot, harsh, but the Category 4 up north has sent its tails down our way. Thick grey clouds and angry short periods of rain, with just a sprinkle of wind.

I haul my shopping bags out of the boot and slam it shut. When I was little, Dad used to yell out Boot! each time he closed it. Reckoned he was still recovering from some PTSD when he broke some fingers under a slammed boot. His anxiety is a second voice in my head now. Check the weather, prep with bottles of water, gas stoves, two-minute noodles, tin meat, tables in hallways and mattresses overhead, sticky tape on windows.

I close my eyes, take a breath, and then start up the stairs blocked in by red brick up to my fourth-floor unit. The humidity hangs thick here, and I only get a short fresh reprieve from the wind that blows through the tiny window on each floor. Seeping in to sweep a few thin leaves into the stairwell and a layer of dust and leaves.

I check my phone even though it takes me a good minute to find it deep in my bag, awkwardly juggling the Coles shopping. The plastic bags are so overworked they dig into my skin. They will leave red welts. There are no messages on my phone to make me feel better—that absence leaves something deeper in my heart. God, I hate this.

I’m puffing hard when I get to my door, like usual, and inside I let the bags drop to the floor because my hands are turning numb, palms deeply red.

Briony is on the couch, watching an episode of Vampire Diaries on Netflix. We started re-watching it together last weekend, but she got too excited and kept going without me. Now, I can’t be bothered to sit through tension that I haven’t invested in as much as her.

‘Hey, Ava,’ she says, waving. Her fingers are delicately balancing a corn chip like it’s a ciggie.

‘Can I watch the news?’ I ask her. I leave the groceries in the kitchen and dash to the lounge, reaching for the remote before Bri answers. I see her face twist up, confused like.

‘News?’

‘Just to check how it’s going?’

Briony doesn’t say anything, and I feel her trying to remember what it is I wanna check in on. I told her last night I was worried about the cyclone hitting my family and our home. I showed her an ABC article this morning that cited the high category and the incoming destruction, showing pictures from Yasi in 2011 and Larry in 2006. I didn’t need pictures, though, because I have my memories. But Bri doesn’t say anything, she waits for the news to flick on. Her mind is full of things and people and I’m just her roommate, not her friend. That’s how she introduces me to her family, boyfriends, and her real friends. I am ‘just her roommate’.

I get a text from Jamie as I lower myself on to the couch and listen to the anchors wrap-up a segment about a new mine opening. About new job opportunities.

Watching the news … looks pretty shit. You okay?

They’ll be fine, I text back because I don’t wanna make my anxiety a real thing to be known and carried by Jamie or myself for that matter. I add a smiley face and a love heart, so he doesn’t interpret my words as passive aggressive.

I need to put the milk and butter away, but my legs won’t move. I have sunk into the couch, stuck and not really willing to change it. I want to sink further so that I can’t see or hear or feel what is going on.

The weather theme music plays, and the sombre faces of the anchors appear.

‘Cyclone Charlie is already making its presence known in Far North Queensland. Kylie Markers is on the Esplanade in Cairns now.’

The TV cuts to the Esplanade, but not as I remember it from childhood. It’s not the tourist-laden, green-grassed area, with boardwalks, and the lagoon that I would never get in (apparently someone poos in it at least once every weekend), and the muddy shore where every kid lies about spotting crocodiles. There’re no families picnicking and not even any partygoers, drunk from Friday night drinks. The world is, instead, angry. Fiercely angry, and Bri and I both lean back at the sight.

The reporter shouts into the microphone, gesturing to the palms behind her that are bending to the wind’s will. The sky is endlessly grey, and we can’t see the individual droplets of rain, but I can tell the reporter is wet, she keeps wiping at her eyes despite the gammin umbrella she holds in a death grip. Briony gives a sympathetic hiss through her teeth, her Invisalign, as the reporter’s hair whips across her face, muffling her voice for a second. ‘God, that kinda sucks,’ she says, before flipping out her phone.

My hand itches to call Mum, but I don’t wanna get her answering message again. Her upbeat, humour-filled voice, ‘Not here, but call me again. I’d love to chat but will probably forget to call you back!’ She does forget to call people back. Not me though. Never me.

I watch the news crew do their duty and show the shops that have been boarded up, sandbags left outside their doors. I watch the shots of Woolies and Coles as the frantic people try to get supplies that may have to last them days if power cuts off, if water stops running. If rooftops fly overhead.

My stomach shudders but I pretend I’m fine as Bri laughs at a TikTok on her phone.

‘Wanna go Valley?’ she asks without looking up.

 

We get ready to the sound of my Spotify playlist, and Bri mixes drinks in the cups we bought together from Kmart. Expensive vodka and cheap lemonade, she meticulously pours the vodka so it’s three fingers width and dashes the lemonade as if she’s salt bae, except it spills, and our kitchen tiles are sticky before we’ve even chosen our shoes. I gloss my lips and dab liquid glitter across my eyelids. It’s a pink that flushes my dark skin, that sticks to my fingers and, because I’m lazy, catches on my black dress.

I look like water—saltwater, maybe. Sinewy. Muscled and loose, brackish and beautiful at the same time. It’s the gymnastics training of my younger days mixed with the foggy effects of alcohol. But I let the drink take away my worries, let it cloud my vision so much that I smile for Bri’s phone when she makes a story for Insta, and I take a puff of her vape when we wait outside for the Uber that I’ve ordered because I wasn’t sure how to ask her to split.

I won’t buy any drinks out and I’ll make sure to walk for as long as I can before ordering my Uber home. It’s amazing how many ways I can save money when drunk.

Dark clouds threaten with tiny sprinkles as we get out of the Uber. We head into RGs first because it’s free and Bri sways somewhat unrhythmically in the middle of the small dancefloor with a vodka raspberry in each hand. I’ve got a vodka soda some guy bought me at the bar with an unwanted hand on my waist, hot breath in my ear. Bri and I managed to slip away from him with the free drink the moment the poor bugger tapped his card. It tastes foul, but I heard vodka sodas lessen your hangover the next day. I gulp the liquid down quickly, closing my eyes to stop the taste from really finding its way into my consciousness. I dance next to Bri and I am not really with her. I am seeping into the dancefloor, melting into the wood, the foundations, and the earth. I have become the insects and flecks of dirt. I am not here.

Bri downs her drinks, oblivious to my absence, and then leans in to me. ‘Tactical vom time,’ she shouts.

Briony is a force. She instructs me to hold her hair back as she sticks her fingers down her throat.

Red liquid and something lumpy that looks suspiciously like corn chips escapes her. In between bouts of the violent retching, she looks at me, recounting the latest of her boyfriend. I hate him because I think he treats her bad. But the last time I told her this, she explained that I didn’t understand because I didn’t have as much world experience as her. I was too innocent, she reckoned. Real relationships hurt.

So, she tells me about the gaslighting and the missed anniversary date and the quips about her parents, about me too, that he makes, and she ignores. And my mind, or what’s left of the sober version of it, goes down the toilet with half the contents of Bri’s stomach.

‘Lochie and Jess are at Woolly Mammoth,’ she tells me when she’s done. ‘Let’s go.’ A quick mouth wash from the bathroom tap, and a spray of Impulse and she’s ready. I’m ready.

But really something in me has changed. Maybe it is the acidic smell of vomit that won’t leave my nostrils and that has turned my stomach.

We get to the club, and I follow Bri like usual, but when we spot her friends at the bar, the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach intensifies and I grab her arm.

‘What?’ she shouts up at me, not rude, but maybe a little impatient.

‘Not feeling well.’ I lean down to her. ‘Gonna go home.’

She stares at me for a moment analysing where this is coming from, analysing herself likely too. Trying to decide if she wants to put in the effort to convince me to stay, to see if I’m really alright.

She’s not a bad person, Bri, just a little lost in her own world. Some part of me expects her to come back with me now because she doesn’t usually stay out past 2 am, when the creeps appear in the plentiful. Instead, she gives me a smile and hug and asks me to leave the house key under the mat.

The moment I am outside I realise how lonely I am. That maybe Bri’s drunken company was better than none. The sky has started to liquefy again and it’s pouring in a matter of seconds.

Simultaneously, my heart sinks. Water gushes in the gutters and I worry that if I or anyone else steps in it, we will be swept away with the current.

I scroll through the news and on Facebook as I walk up Ann Street, dodging groups and randoms. I see more footage of grey skies, flying branches, signs being battered by the invisible forces. It’s like the world is throwing a tantrum, but I kinda don’t blame it.

I walk under shop front covers and run when crossing the uncovered roads. I can’t go far before there’s no way to move without getting completely drenched. There I wait for my Uber and call my mother again.

I know Mum will probably be awake, watching over everyone sheltered in the hallway. She won’t be able to sleep. I can picture her wedged in between the corner of the bathroom door and main bedroom, probably out from under the table. They’ll put the littlies under the table for safety. Mum will have her phone and, if there’s any signal, she’ll pick up for me.

It rings once. Twice.

And then, ‘Hey, darl,’ Mum says softly. She cuts in and out, static and silence replacing her deep and calming voice. ‘Signal’s not go——’

The phone cuts off and so does my brain. I can’t move or think or feel. I look at the phone blankly. Call Failed.

My feet hurt and I won’t cry. I won’t. But when I slide into the back of the Uber, I message Jamie who’s still awake, and I cough away the burning sensation in my throat.

 

Jamie is waiting by the front door when I step out of the Uber, putting his weight on his blue umbrella. He’s red-eyed and smiling weakly, bless him. Damp hair and shirt. He came at this time of the night just for me. He wraps me in a hug and our conversation is voiceless. I want to fall asleep in his soft arms, to feel the tickle of his barely-there-beard on my head. It’s a comfort that I need tonight.

When we get inside, we freeze.

‘Shit.’

Bri and I forgot to close the kitchen window. The storm wreaks havoc against our weak flyscreen and water has made a home on our once sticky tiles. It’s soaked the cookbook Jamie got me for Christmas last year and the onions and potatoes in a bowl are glistening.

‘I’m too tired for this, Av.’ Jamie sighs, but still, he collects towels without me having to ask and dumps them on the puddles while I slip to the window.

I’m given my second wind then, and shower quickly before spraying the kitchen floor with disinfectant to remove the last sticky traces of the alcohol.

Jamie watches over me, slouching on the bench and trying not to fall asleep. I sense his worry emanating from his whole being.

‘I’m fine,’ I say as I use the towels to wipe at the last of the water gathered in the corner near the pantry. ‘But I don’t wanna sleep anymore,’ I tell him, and he nods seriously. His brow is one straight line.

It feels like a betrayal or a disservice to my family to get to sleep soundly in my bed through the night. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t pass up Bri’s suggestion to go out. I can’t rest, knowing they might be captured in weather so fierce and angry.

I put Vampire Diaries on and Jamie flops on the couch, eyes lazily opening and closing. We’ll watch the show from the beginning. Maybe it’s dramatic script can lull the emotional waves in my stomach.

When Jamie falls asleep, it’s close to three in the morning. I turn the TV down low and go into the kitchen to make food. I am wholly homesick. So, I decide to make domboys. Something that tastes like home and that can time travel me back to childhood.

The dough is thick and gluggy once I’m done mixing, and it smells intensely of flour. It doesn’t look quite as smooth as when Mum or Aka make it. But I create the pieces, about ten centimetres long and nice and thick like pork sausages and drop them into boiling water. I’m using my only good pot that my uncle from WA bought and sent to me, he said the lady at the store told him not to use olive oil in it, but he reckoned it’d be alright. Said he’d buy me another if it didn’t work out.

All that’s needed for domboys though is boiling water. The pieces of dough are cooked quickly in it. The water turns a creamy white colour.

Domboys are typically eaten with a scoop of butter and drizzle of golden syrup. I am generous with these condiments on the plate I bought with my sister in West End when she last visited. It’s an enamel with pink and blue design swirled around the centre. Looks like a lolly, she’d said as I bought one each for us.

It’s like this plate and the pot are pieces of my family. They are standing here over my shoulder.

I slide two domboys on the plate. Three of my favourite island foods revolve around flour and dough. Sugar pancakes, which are basically just sugar and flour. Fried scones, my dad’s absolute favourite, are brown on the outside, crispy sometimes, and soft and bubbly on the inside. They aren’t as dense as them scones cooked in an oven. They are lighter and usually shaped like triangles. And of course, domboys with butter and syrup.

I allow myself to check my phone once more before eating. Bri’s hasn’t messaged and it makes my stomach tighten. She’s pulled an all-nighter once before, but usually she’s in bed by 4 am at the absolute latest. She hates daylighting it, says it makes her feel gross. And there’re no messages from my family. On the BoM website, it looks like the cyclone has mostly passed over Cairns. But there are no news updates, nothing on Facebook to give my mind its rest.

I tuck the phone into the waistband of my basketball pants, and I stand over my sleeping boyfriend.

I mix the butter and golden syrup together on my plate and spear a piece of the domboy on my fork.

Run it through the buttery syrup. It is delicious. Deeply sweet. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the rain, to Jamie’s gentle snores, to the vampires falling in and out of love, and to the memories born from taste.

 

Image: Antoniounikolas1

Jasmin McGaughey

Jasmin McGaughey is a Torres Strait Islander from the Kulkalgal Nation, and African American. She completed her undergraduate degree in psychology and justice in 2016 but quickly realised her love was writing. She recently finished her Masters of Writing, Editing and Publishing through the University of Queensland. Currently, she works at black&write! as an editor intern at the State Library of Queensland. Jasmin’s passions have always been writing and reading and she is proud to be able to work and learn in this field with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writing.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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