Type
Fiction

Red and blue flames

It was the first collective meeting of the year and all the fresh faces were turned upwards at Robin. She always opened meetings. It was a little ritual she and Bobo had decided on at some unmarked moment in the past, that she would speak first, and he would nod and wave daintily at the new and returning members when indicated. He smiled with his lips closed, worrying the back of his front teeth with his tongue. The circle of faces like shiny coins. Sitting directly across from Robin, Bobo noted his familiar, subdued shock at her radiance. He had never got used to the way she shone when presented an opportunity to lead a troupe. The way the nervous gaggle basked in her warmth. Her posture was never like this, so erect. Bobo started minutely when she swiveled in her chair and beamed, the spotlight turned on him.

They started things off the way they always did at the first meeting of the year, with a go-around: name, pronoun, and one thing that you are passionate about. The task, ostensibly an icebreaker, worked as a kind of litmus test for new recruits. What someone says when asked what they’re passionate about in a fresh and prickly group goes a long way in determining what the next six months of organising together is going to be like. Or so Robin theorised. The go-around yielded a suitable crop of passions. There was ‘connecting through food’ and ‘deconstructing gender’; ‘DIY culture’ and ‘skateboarding’. And then there was Jane Snowfield.

Jane was a rake in blue jeans. Somewhere in her fifties, she was a really serious person, in a way that nobody could match. A deep well of quiet experience. When the go-around arrived at Jane, she leaned back lazily in her chair and said, in her perpetual and un-ironic Patty and Selma voice, ‘One Job, One Wage.’

She peeked out from under the brim of her denim cap and winked at Robin. It was the first time any of them heard her speak. There was a ripple through the circle, a shiver of wariness in the air. Nothing particular, just a tremor that made Bobo tingle at the base of his spine.

After the meeting, Bobo was stacking chairs and doing some performative shuffling of papers while he waited for Robin. She was checking in with some returning collective members who had broken up over the summer and were now engaging a process of ‘negotiating sharing space’ across the swamp of their interconnected social worlds. Bobo slid a stack of printed Community Agreements into a folder and felt a ripple of relief that he was less approachable, less radiant than Robin. It was not to be, of course. Some of the other new members, who had spilled out of university queer societies and recently disbanded food co-ops and trundled automatically over to this collective, had narrowed their eyes at Jane Snowfield during the meeting.

‘She doesn’t know what a pronoun is,’ two of them complained to Bobo, approaching him just as Robin finished with the exes. Privately, Bobo was of the opinion that it was the fact that Jane Snowfield was the only collective member aged over thirty-five that was the greatest cause for concern for these two. But he was Grievance Officer for the month of January, so he nodded with the practised empathy his therapist had been helping him cultivate and agreed to talk to her.

‘What the fuck do they want me to say to her?’ he asked Robin, over a Food Not Bombs dinner, sitting with their backs against a tree in the park. ‘She definitely knows what a pronoun is. She said her pronoun is she. What’s the problem? What about that other new person who said their pronoun was a-romantic slash pansexual? Maybe I should talk to them instead.’

Robin shrugged. ‘Maybe they just don’t like old commie dykes.’

Bobo spooned lentils into his mouth and stared without focus at a dog digging a hole. Robin’s hand was on his leg, long-fingered and secret.

 

Because it was summer, meetings were held monthly instead of fortnightly, so Bobo spent January scurrying about, surreptitiously propagating respect for Jane Snowfield. By the time the February meeting rolled around, opinions within the collective had shifted. It was now common knowledge that in the eighties Jane Snowfield started a famed pay-what-you-can taxi service for sex workers, which grew from free lifts for working friends in her busted-up Corolla to an outreach project where in addition to regular driving to and from jobs she would drive a group of workers around in a minibus, dropping them off to hand out condoms, fit packs, and flyers for the SWOP phone line. Bobo casually slipped this historical information into any conversation he happened to be having.

‘Typical masc, taking money from sex workers,’ snorted one new collective member, fresh from the Cultural Studies department, who was a particularly tough nut to crack. A scowl beneath bleached tufts and a little cyclist’s hat. Okay, Bobo thought.

‘Well, she pretty much got paid in coffees and sandwiches,’ he said, ‘and when she did get more money, she donated it all to the legal fees of her friends who got charged for working on the street. So, yeah.’

There was a whisper going around that quiet, humble Jane Snowfield had single-handedly taken down a dirty cop and been acquitted of the slew of trumped-up charges chucked on her, representing herself in court. The story went that she’d then retired to a quiet life in her commission flat, handing the taxi business over to a former worker to run, and spent the next thirty years working as a glassy in a local drag bar and teaching the kids from the flats how to compost. Bobo wasn’t sure where the rumour about the cop came from, but he didn’t correct anyone.

‘You’re a little sneak,’ Robin laughed.

Bobo didn’t care. ‘What’s the point of having people like Jane around if nobody respects them?’

After the February collective meeting, Robin invited Jane to get dinner with them, but she declined. She had to go to work.

 

Little Graham, who was new, came over to help Robin plan the lifts to check out potential campsites. Graham’s cheeks were too big for his face, his arms too short for his jacket. The appliqued flames on his sleeves were peeling off at the tips. They sat side by side at the kitchen table, Little Graham watching placidly as Robin typed and deleted names, dates and times in an Excel spreadsheet without any apparent procedural reasoning, and this was where they were when Bobo turned up with his arms full of eggplants and fettucine. Robin and Graham were bathed in the light of the laptop screen, the tips of their noses shining blue like frostbitten children.

‘Oh, er, hi,’ Bobo said.

Even if in the dwindling light the blotchy flush that rose over his face went unnoticed, he tripped on Graham’s backpack and dropped his dinner bundle. Fucksake, Bobo.

It was unclear as to why Robin had elected herself to the site-scouting sub-committee, as well as all of the others, even though she didn’t have a driver’s licence or a car, and was more of a symbolic leader than a logistics kind of gal. She always took on too many roles and ended up flustered, tossing her hands in the air. Bobo was the same, maybe worse, because he was less charismatic. He would periodically exclaim, ‘We’re trying to organise a week-long political camp here!’

This sort of outburst made him unpopular. Robin at least had her serene charm. Bobo just pressed his fingers to his temples and scowled, muttering convoluted non-apologies about how his T shot was late. Nobody wants to collectively organise with a grump.

In the park, in the backyard, on the front porch after meetings, Robin laid her hand on his leg, put her arm around his shoulders. ‘Get over yourself, honey,’ she said blithely, spooning noodles into her mouth. ‘There’s plenty more ways to get even with the world. Try being nice sometimes, you might find you like it.’

 

Fortnightly meetings gave way to weekly meetings, as was regular practice the closer they drew to the date of camp. The reports coming back from sub-committees left a lot to be desired, in Bobo’s opinion, particularly the sub-committee responsible for choosing the location.

Robin would snap at him for snapping at everyone else. ‘Maybe it’s natural that being told to shut up for many years makes someone addicted to the sound of their own uninterrupted voice,’ she said in her bedroom after the meeting, ‘but you need to stay in your lane.’

Bobo sprung up from his supine position and pivoted to the edge of the bed, groping around trying to find his pants. Robin averted her eyes snootily and leaned back on a stack of pillows. Then they started arguing for real. It was easy for them, this. It was the work of years. They revved each other up so rapidly and with such ease that it had become a flowing, cyclical process in their relationship, like grinding against each other on the dance floor or finding a rhythm when washing and drying dishes. They took turns being cool with folded arms and raising their voices, high and desperate, cracking intermittently, pieces of them falling out.

Robin said, ‘If you keep alienating everyone with your shitty moods all you’re going to be left with is a void.’

Bobo was feeling mean. He curled his lip into a sneer and leaned his head back, trying to achieve the effect of looking down on her, despite their height difference. It made him look unbalanced. He folded his arms across his chest.  

‘You’re the void. You suck everything good and meaningful out of this world.’

She didn’t miss a beat. ‘Well, at least I’m not boring.’

Maybe their entire argument was full of busted logic – they were frustrated, overworked, just mean, whatever. Maybe they both had their own ideas about what it all meant. They called it a mutual decision to give each other some space and decided to there was no need to mention it to anyone else in the collective. Bobo took himself off on the bus to his hometown and had a lonely sleepover on the beach, the wind blowing clouds of sand into his face until he zipped his sleeping bag over his head. Eventually he gave in, rolled up his soggy bed and sat huddled under the barbeque shelter, waiting for the sun to rise so he could walk to his mum’s house for breakfast and deny this particular private defeat.

Robin went to work, met with her myriad sub-committees, texted her friends. She dropped by the bar where Jane Snowfield worked one afternoon before opening. She sat at the edge of a booth, swinging her legs, watching Jane break down cardboard boxes and shove them into a bigger cardboard box. Jane was talking about her problems a few years ago with gut bacteria.

‘I had absolutely no gut bacteria,’ she said. Eyes like a little baby’s, staring straight into Robin’s. Big eyes, wet and bright. She straightened up, wiping her forehead with a tea towel hanging from a loop in her jeans. ‘I did the Candida diet for a whole year, and I stopped smoking pot,’ she said, ‘because, you know, all I used to do was smoke pot and work. Anyway, it worked.’ She gestured to her stomach, then tapped a finger on her forehead. ‘Sorting out your gut bacteria can cure depression.’

Robin nodded, her elbow propped up on the table, her chin resting in her hand. Jane dragged the box full of other boxes across the floor of the empty bar. She hunched over it, her body bending elastically, and kicked one leg back behind her to push open the door. She hopped backwards, dragging the box out after her. Robin got up and went over to hold the door open. She leaned against it. Jane stood there, hands on her hips.

‘How the hell am I going to get all this in that bin?’ she said, pointing to the full wheelie bin. She grinned at Robin, sparkly, soggy eyes in her rumpled face.

 

On the bus back from the coast, Bobo used the free wifi to do a bit of life admin on his phone. He replied to all his emails, then, while taking stock of obligatory follow-backs, he got a DM from Robin on Instagram. A picture of muscular blonde lady with her arm around a bull terrier, both wearing leather jackets and aviator sunglasses. The caption read, ‘Dress like you’re going to meet your worst enemy today.’ Bobo felt suddenly tired, anciently so, the lasagna his mum had fed him for lunch sitting in his guts, his digestive processes grinding to a halt. He didn’t really get it. Was he supposed to be the bull terrier? Who was the worst enemy? Was Robin apologising for their fight, or trying to be encouraging? Maybe just flirting. He sent back the dancing twins emoji.

That night, Robin came over to drop off the box of zines for the reading tent.

‘Oh, yeah, it was nice,’ Bobo said when she asked how his trip was. ‘I got up early and watched the sunrise. Really grounding.’

Bobo rummaged in his bag until he found the make-up case his mum had given him to give to Robin. She was always doing things like this, giving Robin girly presents that had to travel through his hands to get to her. It was a bizarre trading game she played, transmogrifying her daughter feelings to fit onto Robin with a kind of confused logic that was part charitable, part desperate to connect. Nobody tells regional mums how to respond to t4t love stories. Nobody tells any of us, actually.

Robin took the gift and looked up. ‘Remember that year when you wanted to make all those patches that read “No Goddess No Mistresses”?’

Bobo did. With the precise, prickling shame that he associated with recalling many attempts he’d made to participate in the discourse. He’d planned to make patches for his stall maybe two or three years ago; he made up the screen and everything. Robin had said it would be better if he didn’t.

‘I get the sentiment,’ she’d said, holding up a hand to cut off his sputtering explanations, ‘and I know the story, from The Dinner Party. But when you say it, you just sound like a misogynist.’

Bobo had discarded the screen, left it leaning against the wall at the studio, and eventually it got buried under all the other screens.

 

They went to check out another potential campsite. Jane Snowfield was supposed to drive them. She was the obvious choice, as she had a four-wheel drive and a bunch of camping gear and that kind of capable butch energy that makes kids from the city feel like they can finally relax. But she had to work.

‘She’s addicted to work,’ Robin said, shaking her head and handing Bobo a shopping bag full of toilet paper and sweet potato chips.

Little Graham borrowed his housemate’s Ford Festiva. Bobo insisted on coming too, even though he wasn’t on the site-scouting sub-committee. Robin lounged with her feet on the dashboard, engaging Little Graham in rapturous, cyclical conversation oscillating between Lizzo’s classical flute training and the torrid social history of several now historical squats in the inner west. Bobo sat in the backseat, writing emails on his phone, sighing loudly when 4G dropped out or when the music was too loud. With all the callousness of someone seething with jealously, he tapped line after patronising line into the little box on the screen. With each sigh and grunt from Bobo, Robin gave her head a little shake, like she was dislodging water from her ears. She smiled at the hills through the dirty windscreen, the late afternoon sun smearing the road with brown and orange streaks.

 

The ground was uneven and covered with thick leaf matter. Bobo put his arms awkwardly around the camp table, with the folding legs that didn’t fold anymore, bent his knees, and carried it to the spot under a tree. It leaned hazardously on the slope. The bark was peeling, long pieces flaking off along the trunk, pulling away from new, pink skin. Robin tied a ragged tarpaulin between this tree and another, creating a lopsided canopy. The sun was on its way down. Little Graham was painstakingly building a fire, placing each twig perfectly where he wanted it. Three urban people flailing towards outdoor competence.

Bobo hauled food and sleeping gear out of the car, tossed the mattress on the flattest piece of ground he could find and stood up. His hands were on his hips, his headtorch mounted on his forehead like a dull gem. He made a point of not looking at Little Graham, crouched next to the fire, the sleeves of his baggy jacket knocking the twigs askew. The torch wasn’t switched on yet, but the implication was clear: the sun will set, so light the fucking fire.

 

Bobo woke at dawn and extracted his body slowly from the camp bed so he wouldn’t wake Robin. She was sleeping with a huge smile on her face. He watched her as he pulled his legs, one at a time, from under the blanket. She always slept like that, on her back, lying perfectly still, arms crossed over her chest. Like a vampire.

Little Graham was pretending to be asleep, lying on the ground close by, wrapped in a blanket. Bobo didn’t clock it, but Graham’s eyelids were not closed, he had made them into tiny slits and was watching Bobo pick himself out of the makeshift bed and creep away, shimmering as he disappeared between the knobbly grey and pink tree trunks.

 

When Bobo got home, he remembered he’d been meaning to delete his old tumblr, the Bart Simpson x Jimbo Jones fanfic archive he started with his ex-best friend. He cringed to think of it being uncovered and attributed to him now. He was flipping through his 2013 diary, trying to find where he wrote the password, when he found a note to self from the 13th of November:

 

a cross between murder on the orient express and a cum shot style video game. singular movement w one objective, no real winning? but with a mod that is a hidden message in the cum – the clue to break the whole case open!!

 

He piffed the whole book into the bin. Redacted, deleted, fuck off Bobo! He hated things that reminded him of himself. Fruit with way too many seeds, missing the bus, running out of phone credit. Stains on your job interview clothes. Stains on your good tracksuit. When it’s too late but you can’t let go. Sunflowers grown from seeds that blow over in high winds, stems snapped like long, thin necks, their faces drooping, dangling towards the ground. Fruitflies in the kitchen. Crumbs in the bed.

 

‘People are proud to be in the collective with us,’ Robin said, placing candles in the corners of the room. Her hair was in a braid. Bobo was packing away the hair oil and comb into their little blue box, his back to her. Robin dragged the crate full of supplies into the centre of the room, scraping the floor. She never winced at any sound. She didn’t give a shit.

‘You have to be responsible in situations like this,’ she told him. ‘Don’t take advantage.’

 

Destruction of the home mimics destruction of the self. Robin routinely left the tap running and went out for coffee. Robin more than once draped a towel over the heater, turned it on, and left for work. Still, they clung to this network, where everyone had a task. Little Graham, drawn out in conversation by Robin, who could make anyone tell her anything without them even noticing, described how he had always loved limpets, because they reminded him of people who put blinkers on, who pretend that nothing is happening. Reminded him of his aunties, the unruffled women who raised him. Robin had begun to think of Little Graham as that beautiful new person in her life with flames on their jacket.

‘Aesthetically,’ she told Bobo, as he spooned dahl into her bowl after a particularly tense collective meeting, ‘there is nothing more satisfying to me than flames. Love them airbrushed on cars, tattooed on wrists, appliquéd on garments, like them blue or red, or whatever colour really.’

 

Robin put the kettle on the stove and went outside. The water evaporated and the kettle melted, the stench of burning paint bringing everyone out of their rooms, waving their hands in front of their noses. Asking each other, why did we even have a stovetop kettle? It’s a hazard. Robin was lying on a threadbare rug in the backyard, poring over an ancient roadmap, tracing careful lines and marking careful dots. Sometimes it is impossible to succeed. When you can’t find anyone to pay you even the smallest amount of money to do the simplest task. When you have big plans for the night but everything sexy is on the washing line, and it’s raining. The human brain is built to find patterns, and find patterns it will.  

 

Bobo retweeted:

‘why i didn’t follow back:

missed your follow

follow count is at a lucky number 

your youthful beauty reminds me of my decaying form 

Then he instantly felt a crushing guilt that he had broken his No More Subtweets credo. Little Graham doesn’t even have Twitter.

‘My form isn’t even decaying!’ he yelled into the mirror. He sprayed saline solution onto his earlobe and watched the scab melt wetly. Impossible to know where the crust ended, and healthy tissue began.

‘Ugh,’ he muttered. ‘Disgusting.’

 

A crash felt inevitable. As though at any moment the ground beneath their feet could be riven, the hellmouth could open, hungry and unimpeded, and swallow the entire disparate gang whole. Somehow the three of them had ended up on the fundraiser promo sub-committee together. The night they planned to put up flyers, Graham arrived at Bobo’s house early and took himself on a nervous lap of the block before entering via the side gate. Even arriving on time felt ill-advised, like a bad omen. Bobo had cooked borscht for dinner. There was something young and terrifying in the air that night, a crackle of bullshit and tests and cosmic mischief. In the bathroom, Graham splashed his face with cold water and cracked his neck. He told himself he wasn’t buying what they were selling, but he knew he was that porous.

‘You’ve got frog skin,’ he said to the mirror. ‘If they come too close, you’ll absorb them. And then we’ll never get this camp organised.’

Little Graham had been watching them both in long meetings, had found himself coveting Bobo’s ability to intervene in tangential conversations, Bobo’s grizzled appearance and three-centimetre height superiority. Little Graham had been delighting in his jaunts with Robin around Google Drive, dazzled by her fleeting authority and gift for anecdote. He grimaced at the mirror, wishing they could all just relax and flirt with each other like normal people.

When Graham walked into the backyard, Robin was standing, her bag slung over her shoulder, glaring coldly at Bobo. The fire between them dancing. Contained. Graham looked awkwardly at the ground, trying not to listen. La la la la, just keeping from sticking his fingers in his ears. Three white bowls stacked on the ground next to Robin’s foot, their sides encrusted with fuchsia dribbles.

Robin left. Bobo stood. Graham moved closer to the fire, poking it with a stick. Bobo pulled up a chunk of wood to use as a seat and swung between spouting guilty apologies and glaring sullenly into the fire, putting his boot closer and closer to the edge. Graham’s eyes were glued to this flirting foot. It made him nervous. He didn’t know any first aid. Only that you can rub a comfrey poultice on broken bones to help them knit, and that eating parsley makes a late period come. Robin’s words were hanging heavily in the air, and Bobo was slumping under their weight.

‘You’re not magical at all.’

 

Bobo stared at the fire, thinking about Robin. He remembered their working holiday from last summer, his final chance to make bank before top surgery. A regular summer for Robin, with her usual languid and irreverent approach to business. One night, she needed him out of the room for thirty minutes, so he snuck down to the hotel pool. It was an outdoor pool on Level Thirteen, in the middle of the three distinct buildings that made up the hotel. The outer walls of the buildings climbed into the sky above potted palms and banana lounges, gazing down on kidney bean–shaped pool, a tropical turquoise gem ringed with concrete. It was nighttime. He stood with his back against the wall for a long time. When he was sure that he was alone, he let the hotel robe drop, pulled off his t-shirt and, on a whim, his shorts too. He dived and swum the length of the pool underwater, came up for air and bobbed in the deep end. With the sides of the hotel extending up into the sky, it was like being down a deep hole, its depths glowing. He swam a bit more then got out and dressed. He wandered around the hotel until it was time to go back to the room, leaving little foot shaped puddles on the carpet, shaking droplets out of his hair. Back in the room later, he looked out the window and saw how brightly lit the pool was, and realised that anyone swimming in it would be illuminated from below, framed in iridescent blue, and that every window of every room in the hotel looked directly down into the pool. He hated forced perspective change like that.

 

Magic is what it takes to stay awake all day. Robin knew all about magic. She had carried it, lugged it with her to and from these kind of places before. She would again, and it would endure.

On the way back from location scouting, she let Bobo sit in the front. His phone was dead.

‘I don’t mind,’ Robin smiled, sun in her eyes.

She sat in the back, long legs folded, knees pressed against the passenger seat. Hemmed in by the sandy mattress and the milkcrate full of food, the rubbish bag and the backpacks, she listened to Bobo and Little Graham chatting tentatively with each other, almost shy. She could take it all in without comparing them, with only the mildest impulse to roll her eyes. Robin was behind Bobo and couldn’t see him, so she watched Little Graham, who was concentrating on the road, but kept letting his eyes slide over to Bobo. His face was open, harmless. Holding a tiny stick in his mouth. A twig. This is how she would remember them. Two people in a bed, sleeping top and tail. Small boys, grown men. Neither.

 

It was officially over. They’d been civil, if distant since the night of the borscht, but on the eve of the fundraiser Robin called and said that she’d had enough. ‘You’re beautiful, Bobo. But sometimes you act like a PE teacher, and I didn’t come here to do PE. Can you swap your door shift tomorrow night with Jane? She wants the early one.’

 

‘I’m shattered,’ Bobo said.

The fundraiser was over, and he and Little Graham were picking up ciggie butts. They were like two hens, pecking the floor, plastic bags dangling from their forearms.

‘Friendship breakups are the worst,’ he said – swoop, peck – ‘there’s less of a formal social framework to deal with it, you know?’

‘I thought you two were sleeping together,’ said Graham.

Bobo endured an afternoon of dropping rubbish in various commercial bins alone. He told Graham he didn’t mind. His clothes were fouled. Hands oddly soft. Walking home, he looked up from his phone and saw a ute drive past, Jane Snowfield in the driver’s seat and Robin dangling out the passenger side window. He remembered the bumper sticker he got Robin as a gift. Dinner is ready when the smoke alarm goes off. She didn’t think it was funny, and neither of them had a car. The things you do to torture yourself. Pick your scabs. When you draw your own conclusions. Come to your own senses. It’s a bruise. Manifesting throughout the entire body, originating in response to the daily pummeling. Not immediately noticeable but clearly there, clearly something is there.

 

When the fundraiser got busted, they were all issued fines. Fines for trespassing, vandalism; the cops even fined Robin for jay walking after she left the building. Pounced on her the moment her foot touched the asphalt. She was Jesus-like as ever. She collected all the fines, taking them from each person’s hand like a donation, serene.

‘I’ll deal with it,’ she said, solemnly.

Good, Bobo thought when he heard, good of her to respect the gravity of the situation. Not everything can be solved by nodding benevolently at your dewy-eyed acolytes and asking people ‘how that lands’ for them.

All day Robin lounged in her room, wrapping the fines around her salt lamp, and every day after that she checked on how they were going, how the paper took on the salt, swelled up and thickened, how the salt crystallised and cracked like ancient skin. She liked seeing the ink soften and bleed into the thin paper. Red and blue flames. 

Read the rest of Fiction in Lockdown, edited by Elena Gomez

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Vincent Silk is a writer living on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. His work can be found in Runway, un, Archer, Going Down Swinging, and Sydney Review of Books. Vincent's first novel Sisters of No Mercy was published by Brio in 2018.

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