Runner-up: Civilisation at last

Darling Street, one last time. Over the crow-black tarmac, under the linden branches where cicadas abandon their clinging husks, beyond the footpath and the unfenced lawn – leveled now, you notice, humps, divots, desert patches all effaced – is the house you came all this way, all these ways, round the world, back through time, on a bus, down Darling Street to see.

Here it is, someone’s home, a new someone in a new house built right where the quiet waste and mystification and, go on, say it – tragedy of childhood took place. All swept away now; no sign of your once-home, of your young self, of Mum, of Dad, no sign at all of whatever it was you all hoped for, once-upon-a-time.

And all because Dad was an idiot; really, totally, actually an idiot. You waited your whole childhood for him to be secretly brilliant, even secretly okay, but no dice. Fool. Clown. Everything you don’t want to be in life you learnt by watching him.

Dad worked pathologically on that stupid house. Not lawn-mowing, or painting it every ten years – obsessively putting up fiddly bits of wood tricked up out in his shed, detaily Victorian tatt; painting the hallway with complicated patterns; redoing the cornices – again – in heavy, fancy plaster moldings. Always, years and years, while you were growing up, avoiding you and Mum or, worse, dragging you over to look at the results of some Eureka moment, a moment weeks of stupid work had realised. Remember? He’d say things like, ‘Culture is the blastoderm’ – blastoderm! – ‘… of Civilisation; and Culture begins in individual houses, among specific people; it is the fruit of some few particular domestic milieus …’ That’s how he talked. You’d try to seem impressed, interested, appreciative. But truly, after the first fifteen years the thrill is gone.

Then Dad got sick. ‘Sick’ is almost a euphemism, because when he bought the house he replaced the cladding at the back with weatherboards. And the broken-up cladding was asbestos; he put it on a waste pile, where it sat for months, then he burned it – yes, he burned the asbestos; it’s almost funny – and covered the burnt place in dirt. Grass grew on the mound. You played there with your kitten Kimba when you were six. And Kimba got run over on Christmas morning – it’s a bad Country and Western song – but at least he hasn’t spent twenty years worrying whether he’ll get asbestosis, like Dad did, and die piecemeal and painfully over three horrible years while his wife and son looked on in helpless horror.

And after, trying and failing to comfort Mum, the inadequacy of your young words and worldview and experience all smooshed in upon you as you confronted, for the first time, a soul torn by abject grief; grief wilder than it seemed to you the man deserved; so you silently wondered who she really grieved for – surely not Him; her lost other lives, perhaps, that other Dad-man or men she might have loved; someone – something – unimaginable. And all you wanted was to be through the door, out the window, away from this sobbing, sobbing bundle of unknowables that you loved but could not help or comprehend …

And the punchline. Dad trained as a lawyer. But he hated law, so he became a part-time proofreader instead; in other words, poor. And dying was expensive. So was burial. So the house you lived in was woefully underinsured – the house he’d ignored you all those years to work on. When the bad wiring he’d installed in the kitchen got wet because the roof he’d built himself leaked, the weatherboards caught fire – in the rain, no less – and you two just had time to run into the storm-lashed yard, where the neighbourhood watched the house being ripped apart and eaten by a giant roaring crackling stinking ravenous yellow-orange beast.

That smell. The stench of a burning house is unforgiveable.

‘Woefully underinsured’ means a hundred thousand sub-par, by the way. In 1995 dollars. When you hear ‘Dad was an idiot’, just nod.

Mum sold the block for what she could get – this was before the Melbourne property boom – and moved in with her much older, frankly difficult sister, who never liked dad and never missed a chance to remind her of it. And what did you do? Took your small portion of the land-value and, like many a bright young thing before , thought ‘Fuck this for a lark, I’m outta here.’ The previous few years had made three things very clear:

– Marriages and mortgages are for boneheads

– Houses are what Mowgli called them in The Jungle Book: man-traps

– Ignoring the world and the teeming billions who live upon it, in favor of the private life, is a sin against human intelligence. Idiot comes from the Greek word for a private person, don’cha know …

Girded by these certainties, off you went – out the door, through the window …

Money being an issue, you hitched up through central Australia to the top end, relying on happenstance thereafter. Along the way you lost your virginity, to an American lesbian, strangely, who liked you despite your XY chromosomes; perhaps because you were so much more boy than man, a certain role-reversal was still possible. Was it – Jeanne? Jenny? She hadn’t slept with a man since she was 14. You had the impression it had been against her will.

It was quite late at night, at the swimming pool of the Alice Springs Hostel, she finally knocked you on your back and pushed you through the keyhole of a door marked ‘Experience’ – and twice again next day. The day after that you parted ways, sensibly, no pain, no acrimony, which set the pattern for a long time after. So thank you, nice American lesbian girl whose name we can’t quite recall, thank you. You were wiser than most people. Men, you taught us, need more lesbian in their game.

Then a picaresque year-and-a-half, hop-skip-and-jumping to Europe via Indonesia, India, Turkey, picking up words and work as you could, learning to read people, figuring out you quite like alcohol but that dope wasn’t friendly to you, let alone other drugs. Your ancestors were Calvinists – that’s why you’re Cal, and why dad was John Calvin MacLeish. The family aren’t religious anymore, but judgementalism and work-will are persistent traits, and drugs didn’t sit well with those. So, you’re moderate with booze, but sex, I’m afraid, you’re just wild for, aren’t you? It tears you up inside, then placates you. It stands you up bodily out of bed at night when you really ought to sleep, sends you hunting round for faces, if not exactly friendly, then hungry as you are, in aching want of what you love to give, the giving a receiving. And there are so many lovely, or mentoring, or playful people in the world … eventually you learnt that it’s what happens after that you mostly love, the dream-talk, the openness – truth; and maybe, really, it was leading you to those two people you can’t picture your life without. It led you on, and you joyfully threw off the cultural blastoderm of your parent’s domestic milieu, and became a bit of a slut, it pleases and embarrasses you to say. Good, bad, it’s your nature. When you fight your nature, winning is losing.

So many of your notions about about sex or love or sexuality – call it what you will – were picked up at school, from crass, ignorant boys. There didn’t seem to be any other kind around. The rest came from your ‘fetid imagination’, which is a fair phrase. It’s so hurried in your teenage mind, there’s so much delusion – power, perfect forms, so little humor, languor, surprise. No real tenderness. No really brave ruthlessness either, which can be the same thing. No radical acceptance of a real person, real flesh, smells, sounds. It’s tragic how stupid we bring our young up to be. Fortunately, a few still stumble onto the truth somehow – very often through the revelatory agency of sex. Or, as your Canadian friend called it, ‘the baptism of fur’.

Traveling’s good for that, of course – everyone you meet traveling carries a date-stamp. Talking about the pungently localised etiquettes of shagging in different cities and regions seems to make most people queasy, so we’ll draw a veil over that – though you could theorise about it till cockroaches die out. Still, there are other benefits to travel, like architecture. After Dad’s efforts, it was a revelation to see what smart people have built. Really grand barns, so much nobler than houses, so heroically proportioned, so honest in their sparse adornment, dedicated to purpose like a self-knowing man or woman. Hitching around Europe you slept in several barns; they’re the only buildings you ever imagined living in ongoingly.

Remember your surprise at the potency of cathedrals? Your enthusiastic conviction that there is no more perfectly expressive structure anywhere than the cathedral at Chartres? A little community of late mediaeval hominids built it, and yet, it simply beggars the tongue. It makes some love God more, which is nice; but it made you respect people more. It ended forever your suspicion you had the measure of us. Humans alchemise stone and glass into irreducible beauty, legerdemain it hundreds of feet into the air, and there it exults, robed in the moonlight and the sunrise of eight hundred years …

But nature is your true God, if you have one at all. It invents good things everywhere. Everywhere you went there were mountains, deserts, forests, rivers, prairies, pastures … and the sea; don’t get started on the sea … the thought of Mum, all the years she spent tied to Dad’s apron, hardly ever going to the sea, looking at his poxy Victoriana instead … you didn’t know whether to weep or laugh, because the sea is ‘just so fucking good!’ That’s what you whooped at Tom: ‘Honestly, don’t you agree? I’ve swum in thirteen seas, straits or oceans, and every one of them was bliss, bliss, I’m-glad-I-was-born-or-I’d-have-missed-this bliss …’And his brazen smile, that combination of hardness and boyish admiration that was his whole surface, saying ‘Sure. Why not?’ or something similar.

Your Canadian friend. You met in the supple human thickness of Goa. Then Greece, Spain, Ireland – always by chance. He’d say, ‘Jesus, not you again!’, his humor all bluffing cool. Physically you could have been cousins, even brothers; and brotherhood is one key to what you still feel. The other was that, like you, he was on the run from childhood. There was more violence in his background than yours. He ran out of a house on fire too, not the literal way you did, but maybe the worse for that. He took nothing with him, nothing at all, and unlike you, nothing was his expectation.

When you two slept in the dry leaves of that Macedonian forest, that contrast lay all night between you. Next morning, when you both stood naked under the flesh-flaying iciness of that waterfall, and after, when coward you hoped he’d somehow reach for you, there it was, his coolness, his ache for nothing. A brush of his hip and shoulder passing, nothing more … in one pulse, Tom-Tom, your entire life …

… for him, who knows what? For you, someone, somewhere, you’ll expect forever, sense forever. Lost brother. Lost lover. A longing, never ended, never answered.

You’ll meet again.

But you never told yourself you were in love with Tom, and because that one hope never died, it never broke your heart. London is where all that happened. London’s not your town – the odious class system, the coarse humor, the prosaic conversation – but you lived there awhile, because of a girl.

You never really told yourself you were in love with Lucy either; you just couldn’t pull out of her orbit. And she wasn’t really unlike other women; in fact, she was like all of them, squeezed into one sexy little skirt, pair of long boots, tight top, spotted headband … There we go again. See what it was? She was an absolute fantasy, only she was real … and for a while, she turned her klieg-light smile on you.

Lucy. Lucy. She was really Lucille, named after BB. King’s guitar, appropriately – because thrilling though being near her was, it was indeed the blues she lessoned you in. It happened because you got onto that amazing trove of vintage clothes, so cheaply, in a town in Gloucestershire. A tailors and gentlemen’s outfitters, with a sign in a window … the old man had died; the son wanted everything gone. Guess that blastoderm hadn’t flowered either, or whatever blastoderms do … using all your money, you took a punt, bought the lot, and high-tailed it to Camden town, looking to flog them off to stall-holders. And, stepping from the cab, you saw a shop that literally had your name on it.

There it was, large as life, twice as unlikely – CAL – and underneath, ‘Civilisation At Last’. Turned out to be a sort of vintage-clothing Mecca, started by the hippy parents of the piercingly gorgeous girl behind the counter, a girl whose folks named her after BB King’s guitar … You sold the stuff, you asked her out, you drank, you walked beside the Thames, London still new to you … She was thrilling, smoky, cool, electric, etheric, funny, mordant, with a voice like opium cooing to your ache; she was every, best thing you’d ever known … Ecstatic, you two barely made it to her flat before coiling in carnal bliss. There was better to come. She was merciless, God bless her.

It was good while it lasted.

There’s that irreducible image: Lucy, lying on the couch at her flat in Lewisham. Springtime, window open, a pink-flowering May outside. She’s smoking, looking at you coolly where you’re sitting at her table, biblically exhausted from working days as a brickie’s mate and at bed-labours with her half the night. She’s testing you; she says nothing but it’s in her eyes. She leaves the cigarette in her lips, the smoke makes her squint little crinkles. Slowly, slowly pulls her skirt up, little crinkles, slowly pulls her knickers down, just a bit, just a little of her dark dark soft soft hair, her beautiful caramel lower belly showing; she sighs, closes her eyes, moves one leg so that that foot drops gently to the floor … she rolls over …

Jesus …

Still kills you, doesn’t it.

I can’t talk about it.

Yeah, you can.

It’s not lust. I thought I was with her. I thought she was with me.


Came home one day, usual time, thought everything was fine. She was with someone else, a girl, bad news, a sort of rock and roll, maybe heroiny, maybe violent vampire; it was clear they had something old, complicated, undead between them. They’d been fucking. Lucy just told you to go. The other girl had a dull exultation in her eyes – victory; hatred.

You had no comeback; it was her flat. You lobbed on the couch of another Aussie labourer you vaguely knew, too disjointed even to cry. Because you’d never been in love before, you really didn’t know what was happening. Your heart broke, and you got drunk, and stood there looking down at it, a crow on a rooftop watching a child die.

Twenty-two. Green as grass.

That’s when you went to Paris, that’s why you think of Paris as lonely. You rang Mum, and heard Auntie Claire was dying; could you come home? Yes, Mum, of course. Hadn’t seen her in nearly three years.

The funeral orations made it unintentionally clear – Aunt Claire had been a misery to herself and others since girlhood, but she’d come good by leaving her house to Mum and you. Which was nice for Mum. You weren’t hanging around. But she said, take a look at the new house on the old block; and said Coral Banks, an old neighbourhood girl, had been asking after you. Growing up you’d shyly fancied one another; and so, you came here …

… Darling Street. Same smell: red brick, chestnut pollen, a hint of old-fashioned Volkswagen exhaust. You sat at the bus stop opposite the new one-storey modernist box on your old block; thinking about the low-key tragedy that had played out here. There was absolutely no sign of it, other than the rather blunted young man sitting across the road just now.

You tried to think of something good about Dad – who, after all, had been unlucky. What came to mind was how, on the last night of every Winter, he’d kiss you goodnight, saying ‘See you in the Springtime, Cal.’

Across the road, a child came running to the front yard and started playing on the lawn. He seemed happy.

Soon his mother came out and joined him. She was ordinary-pretty, mid-thirties, probably. She sat on the grass beside him, with the peaceful grace of a milk-cow. You felt peaceful too; she was lovely, yet you felt no stir or pull of Eros whatsoever. It was maternal grace, self-contained, inviolate.

A man came along Darling Street pushing a stroller; the boy in it was younger than the other, and plainly his brother. The mother went to them, and the boy rose up in the stroller to hug her waist. He innocently pushed his face right up against his point of origin into this world; and she laughed. Then she looked across and saw you. A little blush, a smile at you, rolling her eyes about the child … her husband looked over too. You said to her, ‘That boy loves you.’

The father smiled and said,

‘He takes after his Dad.’

You were glad for them. It’s their home now.


Maybe there’s hope. Maybe not. He didn’t look like an idiot to you.


new MRF logo-2015The Overland Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize is supported by the Malcolm Robertson Foundation


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Toby Sime

Toby Sime grew up in Daylesford, where he now lives with his wife and children. He has been writing poetry since he was eight, and began writing stories a few years ago. He studied literature at Melbourne Uni, at Ballarat, and at Boston College. His story ‘Hooked’ appeared in Australian Love Stories (Inkerman & Blunt, 2014).

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