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Short Story Prize

Unspooling | Neilma Sidney Prize, first place

This is what your shirt felt like under your hand while you lay on the hospital bed. The shirt was dark blue, cheap cotton from Target that you no longer wear. You worked five fingers into your breastbone, touching something solid. Here are the two words the nice doctor gave, out of all the words, that made you cry the most: one was cervix, the other was dilate. Those words wanted to sink you. But you remained on the surface, floating near the pair of medical students who stood, suddenly silent, somewhere at the end of the bed. The probe was slick and cold inside you.

Afterwards, you saw a woman smoking outside the front of the hospital, a tight white singlet stretched across her belly. Seven? Eight months?

There was your breathless rage. There was your boyfriend, Joe, at your elbow, guiding you past.

This is how it felt, to hear there was no longer a heartbeat.

 

*

This is the letter the government department has sent Joe, advising him that he could be deported. Here is the number of days until he might go: 28. A number as small and square and bureaucratic as the postage stamp on the envelope. Here is the lawyer’s website. This is the figure the lawyer quoted to help save him and it’s astronomical, eye-watering, but also doable. Essential.

This is the title of the visa Joe must apply for: Remaining Relative (subclass 835). Don’t blame yourself – you didn’t know. He came to this country young. He went to school here – a place in Sydney (nicer than where you went, as though that makes a difference). A photograph shows him among two dozen other beefy, gleaming lads in red jumpers. In the front row of the photo is the classmate who shortened his name to Joe. A name easier to pronounce than the one he was given, a name that stuck.

You met the classmate and his wife when the four of you shared plates of Spanish food by the river, the calamares fritos and patatas bravas. Joe loves this couple. There was an eagerness to please them that you didn’t entirely like, but he seemed to glow, so you played your part to win them over. Nobody at tapas knew about that word, visa. Under the restaurant table you and Joe were palm-to-palm, electric-stroking, a squall of joy at your throat. You didn’t touch the sangria, and what a waste that turned out to be.

Here are the terms of the payment plan. The email from the lawyer seems generous and methodical, merely pointing out, not embarrassed (like you would be) to be quoting individual payment instalments as though they were the total sum. Don’t blame him. All this time Joe was wrapped in this invisible problem. Quickly, you decide not to make it about you, about the betrayal you feel. Because it’s all there in his letter from the government and nothing in the letter mentions you.

He gives you such a look when you suggest maybe his home country isn’t such a bad place to live. Like he could return. You suggest following him there for good. And you are so sorry for knowing nothing at all worth knowing about a country other than your own. He says flatly, ‘Trust me.’

Don’t recall it too often, do not dwell. But you knew the baby for such a short while. Something switched on in the dark, then switched off.

 

*

Remember your impatience, never grown out of? Something he noticed the first weekend you stayed at his place when all the avocadoes on his kitchen bench refused to ripen. Months later, the sum of all the food you could stomach was avocado on toast, salt-and-peppered and gobbled flat on your back on the couch. He came home from the markets and unpacked the brown paper bag, laughing and piling them into your hands.

Don’t name it. Don’t wonder about its sex. Don’t send out for a handmade silver oval pendant half the size of a postage stamp to wear around your neck. Don’t feel bad that you sprinted up a hill, in the cold, in the dark. Don’t google anything. Don’t seek out that TV show you mainlined those few days to take your mind off what was happening. (Never again, even though, truth be told, it was a terrific show.) Don’t look at the pale, soft things you bought to put in a bassinet. Don’t forget your good posture. Don’t forget your exercises. Keep it up.

Keep everything up.

Knife open the carton on your doorstep, pull the merlot or shiraz or whatever the fuck it is from its cardboard womb (don’t say womb) and upend it into that big globe of a glass, that one, there. Joe says, ‘Here, I’ll hold it still.’

This was the dish he cooked the first night you stayed over. I should make you something from home, but I’m bad at it, he said, laughing, newly showered after work.

This is the difference between him and your ex. Between him and all the men you’ve dated. Here and here and here and that mountain up to the sky, so vast. As different as a bear and a fish. A moth and a gull. Also small things: he uses reflexive pronouns correctly and buys the good mandarins. He traces your inner thigh with his close-cut nails. He says folks. He says love. He breathes you in.

Don’t forget that whole blazing life he had before you met him. (Doing his biology homework, clashing his head and shoulders into scrums, shipping himself off to Port Hedland for three years, visiting his sister in hospital and shifting his car from street to street so that he wouldn’t get towed. Each time he returned to the psychiatric ward the nurse at the front desk asked if he was carrying any aluminium cans. Some patients sliced them into pieces that were sharp, his sister said.)

This is the name of the minister. Here is his doughy, dull-eyed face. A threat like this feels like being shot, feels like being emptied. Empty, emptier, emptiest. Here is the minister’s website with its slideshow of photos (energised in parliament, aglow at a school awards night, hard-hatted at a roadside. Other pictures not shown: fingering a name on a database, approving a digital signature, folding the paper, licking a stamp).

 

*

Yesterday, you drove to the beach and took photos together. Time is slipping by: less than three weeks now. How silly you’ll feel – how delicious it would be to feel silly – if this all amounts to nothing, these serious photos posed by the tall pines next to the sand. He checked his phone for messages. The lawyer’s office said they would ring for a chat when a court date had been settled (the clerk wouldn’t text that sort of thing).

When you got home from the beach, Joe sat at the dining table with a pencil and a sheet of A4 and scored lines down the page and then quick, heavy lines across. A grid. A calendar. He didn’t share it with you but let you watch while he circled and shaded in boxes. These were the extra shifts he’d lined up with his boss to make that second payment. By then you’d peeled off your bathers and changed into his shirt and nothing else. He brushed the paper and the graphite streaked the back of his hand. He reached for you. He undid some buttons, saying, ‘You’re trying to be cute, I can tell.’

Your friend on the other side of the country has travelled the world far more than you. She points this out. She sends you a text message: Don’t be surprised if this is actually out of your control. You must prepare yourself for the worst, she says.

And this is not even the worst. You know it. So many people have it much, much worse. This is what you’re supposed to say – that it is good and right to Have Some Perspective. But this pair of things, coming one then two, leaves you feeling bruised.

Here is the future you’d planned.

 

*

The two of you walk past protesters outside parliament on the way to the lawyer’s office, 17 days before the letter’s end date. A man stands on the footpath calling for the dismantling of the police state. He is threatening to set things – nothing specific – alight. You’re surprised how well dressed he is, how close to your own age. But is this OK, to be surprised? At least he’s better than that other man, around 80 years old in belted shorts and long white socks, who shields his chest with a photograph of a salmon-blushing foetus in utero and letters marked out in gaffer-tape that say, This is not a potato.

The lawyer understands your anguish. All your days now are numbered. Yes, they will ring you with a court date. He gets it. He’s done this a hundred times, a thousand times and, please, have sympathy for him. Please pay him, too. It looks like a lot of money, but this is probably just what lawyers cost, even if you were to lose and Joe be forced to leave.

And don’t ask questions about that. Like, who pays for the aeroplane ticket? Will he be shackled to the seat in front? Does he get fed? Will someone drape a blanket across his lap? Which country does he belong to in the placeless, starry, limbo-hours?

Remember how good your penmanship was as a girl, when you’d decide which of your friends might like to receive a letter? Your mother would pluck her address book from her handbag and read addresses aloud while you adored your pretty letters and numbers, your 4-6-5-0. When those who replied sent their replies to your letterbox, you doubled over with excitement. ‘Don’t burst,’ your mother said.

Waiting was the hardest part.

You could write to him, you could call.

You could break it all off.

You could visit, you could move. Book a ticket, text your friend a message to say that it isn’t brave to migrate there, not really. Pretend you’re more in love than you are. Pretend you’re less in love. No promises to yourself. No longer is there durability in anything, but the lawyer seems good and maybe you’ll have a win this time.

Joe holds your hand stepping down from the kerb outside the office. You touch your belly. That kickback again. Dreadful again. There’s nothing there. Find your pocket. Pocket your hand.

 

*

At home, later, you sit on the edge of the bath. He works his fingers into the back of your neck while you flex one foot against the vanity. You notice a mint green face washer, a new cake of soap, threads of orphaned hair near the drain in the floor. In the hours after your surgery you submerged only your feet in the bath water (no swimming, no sex, no big life decisions) and wondered at the neighbours in the flat next door. You could hear them taking apart their balcony doors, scraping the lead paint away. You imagined sex with Joe again, never thinking back then that the next time might be in his home country. On a beach, in a bare and tiny flat, beside a river. On your tiptoes, the way you like, hips tilted up. Your body strong and fit, recovered once more.

Print it off, tattoo it, write it in sharpie on every limb: You don’t get everything you want. You would have told it to your baby. That parenting book about grit, that one about resilience, the one about teaching kindness and compassion. Would it have helped Joe to read a book about going unnoticed? To fly under a radar, so far below, that he emitted no signal that reached Canberra? Don’t ask if he’s done anything wrong. The government’s radar is broad, tentacular, with no heartbeat. Don’t unspool the thread of your life together, here in this country, before you’ve had it, or ever will. 28 days. 18 days. Now 17. Don’t pretend you’ll be able to rein that in.

When his phone rings, his hand is in your hair. You look up. He keeps his five fingers on your scalp. The pressure is good. He studies the screen. He smiles at you.

‘Here we go,’ he says.

 

Image: Mohammad Abdullah

 

 

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is a writer from Brisbane. Her debut short-story collection, Trick of the Light, published by UQP, was released in late February.

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