Nico arrived at the Victoria University pool, high on the hill overlooking the parched slope of Footscray Park, the Maribyrnong syrup slow in the late afternoon. He donned his budgie smugglers and hacked through the first ten laps before he fell into a rhythm. It felt good to have a body, to throw it through time and space, purposeful, porpoise-like. He didn’t think about his novel, nor his Job Seeker’s Diary; real-time testaments to his failure to achieve. His shoulders burned, his lungs swelled like bellows, his ass twanged with every kick. It, his body, was a constant source of displeasure: so callow and spindly; the body of a yes-man, an apparatchik, and a standup comedian. But the more Nico hated it, the more he worked to improve it – laps and crunches and thrusts and burpees – a vicious, if productive cycle. He wanted a brutal, disposable body, denuded of hair in the crotch and crevices. He wanted an ass that could eat the whole world. In the meantime he would be satisfied with a measly six pack.
The cramps set in halfway through lap 93. He wallowed through the last few metres and crawled onto the lip of the pool where he lay gasping, a limbless invertebrate thing. An aquarobics class in the lane beside him, doughy bodies undulating beneath the surface of the water. Nico lay on the tiles and watched the faces bobbing up and down. His eye was drawn to one in particular: a woman with a sharp, angular face, wearing a red bathing cap and a clip on her nose, swiping her hands in the air, as if warding off a swarm of swooping bats. She must have been 60, maybe older, but there was something about her face that seemed maddeningly familiar; something about the wide, insectan eyes which seemed to be all pupil; the lips drawn in a grim hyphen. Nico knew her from somewhere, he was sure of it, but he didn’t for the life of him know where.
Nico’s phone was dying. A message from Ruth saying she’d be late home from work, to not worry about her for dinner, which he managed to acknowledge with a thumb’s up before the screen went black. His hair dried in the five minutes it took him to cross Ballarat Road and wend his way through the backstreets to their house on Stirling Street, a white weatherboard with a red tin roof, high-ceilinged rooms with peeling wallpaper, gaps between the joists housing fat, black spiders and other scuttling things.
Nico stood at the front door, his body red and limp, padding his pockets for his key. It did not appear to be in his shorts nor the crevices of his fuggy gym bag. The back door was locked, the kitchen window closed. Could he stand on the recycling bin, worm his way through the bathroom window? He couldn’t, his head was far too fat.
He performed the infernal calculations. Four hours until Ruth returned, $6 in his wallet, his bank card in the house, sitting on his hideous writing desk. He dumped his bag and walked to the library on Paisley Street, the only place he could conceivably spend time but not money.
For the next few hours he stayed pretzled on a red sofa, mainlining Australian canon: he started on Garner and Harrower, White, Stead, Scott and Wright. He read the swelter of the interior, both desert and drawing room. He read dispossession and desperation. Finally he opened The Widowers by Brenda Shales, a book he’d adored since he’d first come across it in his early twenties. From the opening paragraph Nico felt the familiar noose of Shale’s prose tightening around his neck.
It was just getting dark when I arrived in the town. A wide, main street with a roundabout and a cenotaph in the middle. Squat, redbrick buildings, a post office and a few pubs, all done up in that fussy, colonial style. I wanted to disappear and the town seemed as good a place as any to do it. It had the air of barely being there, of time having passed it by, if it had passed it at all. Over the next few weeks the women began to disappear as well, one and then another. Eventually I was the only one left; it was just me and the widowers.
The novel described an unnamed woman’s encounters with a series of men whose wives had disappeared into thin air. The cause of the disappearances wasn’t explained or commented upon by the characters in the novel. The women were there and then they weren’t, like the rain. The men came to the narrator’s homestead on the edge of town, where they proceeded to confess their most intimate secrets, a series of monologues in broad Australian brogue.
Nico read on and on, from cover to cover, the novel a shard of black glass slitting his side, a bristling field of feeling in which he felt himself subsumed, consumed, dizzy with envy and admiration.
—We’re closing in five minutes.
A librarian was standing beside him, a tall woman wearing a wrist guard. Nico didn’t have his card, but the librarian took his details down and scanned The Widowers through.
—That book gives me the willies, she said, picking it up. Don’t get me wrong, it’s brilliant, but don’t you find it a bit cruel? I felt like the writer was laughing at me, like she was spitting in my face.
Nico wasn’t listening. He was looking down at the back of the book; the notorious author photo of Brenda Shales peered impassively down at the lens, the toe of her boot creeping into the bottom of the frame, as if she was preparing to literally crush the reader beneath her feet.
It was the woman from the pool.
Nico bought a slice of pizza at the bougie place on Nicholson Street Mall. He took his change and found his key in the pocket of his wallet, gave a ghastly, pneumatic laugh. The front door had expanded in the heat, but with some very heavy petting he managed to force it open. He found Ruth watering the rose bushes by the sagging back fence, cigarette in hand, her hair knotted in a baroque Dutch braid. Watching her, Nico felt tender and doomed, as if he were looking back on this scene of kitchen sink realism from some depleted point in the future. Nico leant in to kiss the nape of her neck, but as soon as his lips made contact Ruth gave a yelp of fright and spun around, the hose’s stream hitting him full in the face.
—You really shouldn’t sneak up on me like that when I’m listening to my murder podcast, she said. Now do you want to do the honours?
Ruth brandished her phone and Nico vogued before the rose bush as she snapped photo after photo. Their landlord, Luong, believed the flowers gave the backyard a certain old-world charm, that they somehow distracted the viewer’s eye from the tract of concrete that stretched from fence to fence. He asked them to send him evidence that the roses were surviving the heatwave. He was a good landlord as far as landlords went – a punctual fixer of leaking ceilings, a reluctant raiser of rent – so they obliged him, though they had fun with the brief, deadpanning suggestively as if for fashion mag spreads or ransom photos.
—My tender button, Ruth said, looking down at her phone. My sodden, tender button.
They drank at the iron table beneath the lemon tree puckered with wasps’ bain and ran through the depression digest: Siberia was on fire, as was the Amazon; Tim Winton had written a novel about alt-right surfers. The crises rolled together, a constant circadian hum. They talked about the way that disaster had been folded into the everyday, how it no longer seemed to leave a mark, especially in art. There were endless novels about climate scientists and victims of state violence; artists were first responders writing triage narratives, the most pressing problem told in the most pressing way. Novels were victim impact statements read in quavering voices, or they were dystopian visions of what was to come. This world, only hotter, drier, more authoritarian.
Finally, Nico told her:
—I think I saw Brenda Shales at the pool today. As in: the authoress of The Widowers, the book that launched a thousand hit pieces. I couldn’t be sure of course, but she certainly looked like the artist as an old woman.
—I’d always assumed that she’d died the ignominious death of the formerly famous female artist. Depressed and destitute. Pining for past glories.
—Well I can assure you that she looked very much alive.
Nico recounted the incident at the pool, Brenda Shales exercising in time to Kylie Minogue’s ‘The Locomotion’, a title which now struck Nico as vaguely Modernist, and which could have easily fit in Shale’s body of work.
They used Wikipedia to refresh their memories about the scandal that the book had caused, the lawsuit from a jilted lover, irate reviews in which Shales was called every name under the sun; most memorably, ‘the belle dame sans merci of the Antipodes’, the woman without mercy who had written a novel of ‘seditious, mendacious trash’. Of course it was the most hateful voices that screamed the loudest, but even the more sanguine members of the literary world didn’t quite know what to do with The Widowers; though the prose was simple enough to parse, the meaning behind it wasn’t. What was The Widowers saying about men and women? About Australia and its bloody history? Was it saying anything at all? It was reviled by some and reified by others. It was a text which hated men, women, both, either, neither. It was a parable about Indigenous dispossession, it was a simple gothic novel and it wasn’t a novel at all. It was a song, a hatchet, a sheaf of paper unfit to line a rubbish bin.
Shales never said a word about the book, even when it won an obscure but obscenely remunerative Swiss prize. The journalists who tried to contact her found that her number had been disconnected; the Carlton tenement where she’d been living had been abandoned overnight. Most people thought it was a publicity stunt, Shales was disappearing like one of the women in her book, as if The Widowers needed more publicity. Over the next few years there were rumours that she’d moved interstate, overseas, to the Western Deserts. There was a documentary on the ABC called ‘What in the World Happened to Brenda Shales?’ But eventually people forgot about her, moved onto other things.
—I wonder what she’s been doing all this time, Nico said.
—Probably the same thing as the rest of us, Ruth yawned. Surviving.
On the roof, two possums were squawking, the thump of small bodies on tin.
—I think that’s our cue, Ruth said, draining her wine. I’ve heard quite enough male violence for one night.
Ruth set her feet and leant forward, and Nico climbed on her back, hooked his arms under her shoulders. She carried him slowly back towards the house, her vertebrae crackling beneath his belly. Back in winter Ruth was pulling ten-hour writing days, finishing the manuscript for her debut book of essays. She was Melbourne-famous, but had not-unrealistic plans for world domination. She wrote in bed propped on a nest of pillows, while he wrestled with his stillborn novel in the airless front room.
Nico’s novel was supposed to be a container for everything he was thinking and feeling at the time, a novel with little-to-no plot, a novel about novel-making, like all the other novels being made that summer. It was to be a departure from the work he’d written all through his twenties, stories about sad people living in the suburbs, who fell apart in the usual literary ways: strained conversations in bed, strained conversations on road trips; pet deaths, car crashes, mystery illnesses. He was a style machine with no substance, a trauma tourist flexing his empathetic dexterity.
In his novel, Nico wrote about himself in the third-person, because his life often felt like it was happening to someone else. His novel would get to the bottom of things, it would be a mea culpa to explain why he felt so light and barely there. Clear thinking about muddled feelings, about the shame and frustration he felt at a cellular level, about his body and his sentences, and his paltry, milquetoast brain.
At the end of their writing day they compared notes in the communal areas of the house, conflagrations blazing across their forearms and respective lumbar regions. They dunked their wrists in ice buckets, popped painkillers, but the aches got worse and worse. One day Ruth had it bad in the small of her back. Nico hugged her from behind, she leant forward and then his feet weren’t on the ground. It became something of a habit: Ruth literally putting him on her back and holding him in the air. She said it realigned her spine in some weird way. Eventually she was able to carry him short distances, from the bed to the door, then further and longer. Eventually her book was written and his wasn’t. He was terribly proud of her, while he thought himself to be hot garbage.
He couldn’t help but make metaphors of this act of carrying, he believed it said something about the dynamic which existed between them: she worked with will and discipline while he was so ephemeral that it often felt that he would float away. He was forever dichotomising. She was non-fiction, he was fiction. Her work said true and real things about power and bodies and politics. He made up stories about made-up people. She was active, he was passive. She window he dressing. Etc. Etc.
One of Nico’s old writing teachers used to give disabilities to his characters that weren’t working. A limp, a scar, an acquired brain injury. He said that a judiciously chosen disfigurement animated flat characters, it made them stick more completely in the reader’s mind. Why was the love interest afraid of fire? Why did the narrator’s brother eat through a straw? Read on to find out.
His teacher had learnt the trick from a famous American novelist at a literary festival in Ballarat.
—We’re supposed to kill our darlings, the American novelist had said. Cut everything to the bone, savage your sentences. I don’t kill my darlings, but I maim them, in cruel and unusual ways.
He won the Pulitzer the following year.
After Nico met Ruth, he dispensed with the stories of other people’s sadness and put himself at the centre of things. But as his novel developed, he quickly realised that it was his character that wasn’t working. He was flat, 2-D; there didn’t seem enough of him to space across the page. The Nico that emerged in the novel was nothing to write home about, he should have been rolled in a carpet and thrown from a bridge; bricked off like a plague victim, for the health of the community. He tried giving himself Parkinson’s then sickle cell anaemia then a left club foot. He gave himself erectile dysfunction, bulimia, rickets. Sometimes he gave himself all of the above. He lurched across the pages stinking of vomit, flaccid, shaking uncontrollably. None of it worked, though.
Nico found it hard to imagine a book causing a sensation nowadays. Literature had become niche; it was knitting, the purview of death cultists and necrophiliacs, picking at the seams of their selfhood in their foetid little garrets. But still, maybe his novel would be different, maybe it would cut through in a way that the other books hadn’t. The Widowers was different, it was a window into the real, an object that existed outside culture, a sculpture of flesh, a glistening obsidian thing.
As Ruth carried him towards the house, Nico imagined himself as one of the widowers in Brenda Shales’s novel. He imagined confessing something, anything, to the silent woman at the red, beating centre of the novel. But predictably, he found himself drawing a blank. The problem was he was happy, Ruth had seen to that. Their life together was a bright, red ball bouncing down the stairs, an answer to a question he hadn’t known to ask. Happiness proved impossible to write about, and so he catastrophised; he imagined a self that was falling apart at the seams. Hence the Parkinson’s, hence the hundred other plot devices he’d devised to express his suppurating alienation, his dissatisfaction with the way his life had turned out. But unfortunately he loved the way his life had turned out.
Ruth carried him across the garden to the flyscreen door. She carried him through the kitchen past their signifiers of domesticity; she carried him through the living room, past the rotten, rattan couch that they filched from hard rubbish, past the ziggurats of paperbacks stacked along the corridor, all the way to the bedroom where she deposited him, finally, on their posturepedic mattress.
—You seem lighter than usual, Ruth said. Are you losing weight?
—What I can I say? Nico said. The unbearable lightness of being me.
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