Nora loosened her undies past her calves until they slipped to her ankles. She kicked them to the side of the ceramic pot. She placed one foot either side of the sempervivum arachnoideum and hitched up her skirt. It took some adjusting to get the pressure just right so that the pee didn’t list sideways and splash her thighs. Droplets clung to the cobweb filaments of the succulent. The nested leaves of the rosette guided the flow inexorably centreward. Nora watched the clouds in the sky.
The night before that, Heidi said: ‘I don’t think you should be around the kids anymore.’
Aaron had finally stopped crying and was either asleep or pretending. Megan was practising her violin with her bedroom door closed.
Nora was holding the broken halves of the punch bowl that Dave had swept off the counter when he’d discovered what she’d done. Heidi, ballerina-like on the coffee table, strained to reach the last dangling knot of the half-collapsed Happy 9th Birthday! foil banner.
‘You don’t want me around your kids anymore,’ Nora repeated flatly. Heidi finally succeeded in pulling the string, and the banner flopped to the floor. ‘That’s going to be hard, because I live here. Unless you want me to move out.’
Heidi folded the banner, making sure that the segments were even and aligned, as if the accomplishment of this task was more important than re-boxing the uneaten birthday cake, or clearing the unclaimed goody bags lined up on the hall table, or looking Nora in the eye.
‘Did you hear me, Heidi? I live here. How can I not be around the kids if I live here? Is Dave making you say this? Does Dave want me to move out? Is it Dave?’
Heidi said nothing. The only sound in the house was Megan squeaking at the top of an F-sharp minor scale.
An hour before that, while the kids played musical chairs and Heidi and Dave fetched the birthday cake from the kitchen, Nora said, ‘Hey guys! Who wants to hear the saddest song in the world?’
The night before that, Heidi and Nora packed the goody bags with snake lollies, Freddo Frogs, brittle Red Dot knick-knacks. ‘Why isn’t Dave helping us?’ Nora asked.
Heidi sighed. ‘Please don’t.’
‘No, really. Shouldn’t you be asking these questions? How do you know the excision procedure really worked?’
Heidi sighed again. She snatched up her goody bag and dropped it with the finished ones.
‘At the very least, it’s good data, right?’
‘Don’t talk to me about data,’ Heidi snapped. She rubbed her eyes. ‘And promise me you’ll stop experimenting on people outside the lab. Please. It’s enough.’
The day before that, Nora looked on through the one-way glass into the testing chamber. The volunteers from the army reserves sat crumpled around the table, sobbing, while the song played for the fourth time. She was startled by an epiphany.
‘We’ve only been testing it on adults,’ she whispered.
The day before that, Dave brought home the sempervivum arachnoideum. He’d even tied a bow around the ceramic pot.
Nora sat with Megan and Aaron in the living room while Dave and Heidi talked in the courtyard. ‘Does this mean Dad can come to my birthday party?’ Aaron asked.
‘Maybe, kid,’ Nora said. ‘We’ll have to see what your mum says.’
Megan frowned. ‘Why did he bring her a cactus?’
‘Well, you’re probably too young to remember. But your mum loves succulents. She used to have heaps of them, right there in the courtyard. They’re tough plants; they don’t need much water. But, when your mum had that residency in Canada, your dad still managed to kill every single one of them.’
‘Dad killed them?’ Megan asked. ‘On purpose?’
Nora winced. ‘No. Forget I said that.’
‘Come on, Aunt Nora,’ Megan said. Eleven years old, and she’d already cultivated quite a good bitch, please look.
‘Well. Promise you won’t tell your mum I said this.’
‘She’ll accuse me of treating you like mini adults instead of children.’
‘I promise,’ Megan said, and nudged her brother.
‘Promise,’ Aaron echoed.
‘Well, I think your dad resented being left at home while your mum went away for a month. This was after Qantas folded, before your dad started up at Virgin. Even though money was tight, the opportunity to take up the residency was just too good for your mum to pass up. So, off she went, and your dad stayed to look after you lot. This was tricky for him. It’s not that he couldn’t do stuff – the laundry, making your school lunches, all that – but, I don’t know, he just acted like it was all beneath him. Your mum would call him every day to chat, and he was still but-but-but-ing as if she wasn’t oceans away. “But Megan likes it better when you make her sandwiches.” “But Aaron says that I didn’t wash his jumper the right way.” So, yeah – I reckon he let the succulents die on purpose. Retaliation.’
Nora let her next breath hover painfully in her throat. Aaron turned his furrowed gaze away from her, but Megan looked sharp and thoughtful, like she was doing mental math and Nora had just given her the numbers to make things add up. ‘It’s an excision, isn’t it?’ Megan said. ‘Like with you and your sadness and that song?’
‘But then, what’s in it?’
‘I couldn’t supervise your dad’s procedure, you understand – conflict of interest – but my guess? That little beauty’ – Nora gestured to the glass doors overlooking the courtyard, where Heidi and Dave were hugging, the succulent nestled snugly in its ceramic pot on the ground between them – ‘that right there is your daddy’s fragile masculinity.’
A week before that, Heidi shouted, ‘Fuck you, Nora!’ and stormed out of the living room, her face soaked in tears.
‘I’m sorry!’ Nora called after her. ‘I’m sorry I ambushed you!’ The song was still playing on her laptop. ‘I just wanted to see how you’d react without forewarning,’ she said quietly.
The day before that, the head musicologist stepped out of the testing chamber, spectacles in hand, dabbing his eyes with his shirt cuff. His spine seemed crushed as he stood before Nora and the other scientists. He clutched a clipboard under his arm.
‘Here’s what we observed,’ the musicologist said. His hands trembled as he replaced his spectacles and lifted the clipboard.
‘The song is in F-sharp minor, 6/4 time, and advances at a tempo of approximately thirty-three dotted minim beats to the minute.
‘The instrument is indeterminate. Something like a celesta, but also like a flute. We would describe the timbre as somehow both bright and muffled.
‘The song has a contrapuntal texture and appears to be produced entirely by the one instrument.
‘We would characterise the song as adhering to a binary structure, with no repeated motifs or themes.’
The musicologist lowered the clipboard. ‘I must apologise for the elementary nature of our observations. It was very difficult. We were affected almost instantly.’
Nora liked the way the musicologist’s voice frayed a little on the ‘instantly’. She didn’t like how she couldn’t nod like the other scientists, smile with tender empathy like the other scientists. They’d turned off the sound to the observation room so that they could study the musicologists without being affected by the song themselves, but Nora wished she could have listened to it again. It was hers, after all. Her heart wanted to hear it.
The week before that, Nora snapped her laptop shut. Heidi wiped away tears with her knuckle. She rubbed her other hand over her chest in circles, as if trying to collect her scattered heartbeats. ‘Why couldn’t I stop crying?’
‘It’s the same for everyone we test. You should have seen the naval officers we had in the lab the other day. All of them – bawling.’
‘But you weren’t crying.’
‘Right. I guess because, you know. It’s my grief.’
‘So if I were to, say, transpose the song to a different key, would it still have the same effect? Or if I were to play the melody on a cello, or a piano, or a flute?’
‘No. It’s just the original song.’
‘Has anything like this happened with other excisions?’
‘No – but as far as we know, this is the first time the excision has taken the form of a song. Most people pick an object, like a medicine ball, or a wax figurine of a dolphin, or a tennis shoe.’
‘Do you think if someone brought in a blank book – say, they decided to excise their anxiety into this book – would words appear on the pages? And would reading the book, I don’t know, make the reader break out into a sweat, or give them heart palpitations?’
‘Well, my colleagues are reluctant to test it out. They don’t want to create more problems, like with the song.’
‘You’d have to create another example, surely,’ Heidi said, ‘in order to study the phenomenon properly.’
Nora grinned. ‘Now you’re thinking like a scientist.’
Heidi smiled bleakly. She reached for a tissue. ‘Well, I needed a good cry. Dave won’t stop messaging me.’
‘Why haven’t you blocked him?’
Heidi’s eyes sharpened. ‘Don’t start.’
‘Hey. This has nothing to do with my general loathing for Dave. He’s bothering you, so you should block him.’
‘He’s Megan and Aaron’s father! I can’t block him. If you had a family of your own – ’ Heidi faltered. Her cheeks turned pink with shame.
‘Don’t worry.’ Nora patted the laptop. ‘My grief’s all gone now.’
The day before that, Nora said to her therapist, ‘It’s not like I don’t get sad anymore. I still do, sometimes. But it’s so much easier to carry now. At least I can get through the day, you know? I can get out of bed. I can take a shower. I can pull on my clothes. I can make breakfast. I can eat breakfast. I can go to work.’
‘It sounds like the excision procedure was a positive step for you, Nora. I know you had your doubts. You said it felt like a betrayal.’
‘I did. But it doesn’t feel like a betrayal anymore. My pain is no longer the centre. It used to be the thing I had instead of Gwen, but now I feel like I can have a relationship with her – with the memory of her – that isn’t defined by the loss of her.’
‘That sounds like an improvement.’
‘It’s like all the stuff you and I have talked about that has never actually made sense to me – stuff that seemed kind of like bullshit, no offence – mindfulness and staying present and watching your thoughts go by like clouds – all of that can be true now.’
‘You’re present.’ The therapist smiled. ‘And how’s your living situation at the moment? Are you still staying with your sister?’
‘Yeah. I hope I can stay with her for a bit longer. I saw Dave in the waiting room at work the other day.’
‘Oh? That’s interesting.’
‘Yeah. I think he’s going to try to win Heidi back somehow.’
The therapist nodded again. ‘Perhaps this is another thing you might like to consider excising. I don’t mean that literally, of course. But I think you could try to let go of this need to protect Heidi from her decisions about Dave. Of course you can’t help but notice things you don’t like about him. But you don’t have to take action.’ The therapist let the fingers of her fist unfurl like dandelion spores. ‘They’re just thoughts in the sky.’
A week before that, Nora asked, ‘Would I be allowed on the research team?’
The head of department looked at his solicitor, who issued a tight nod.
Nora shrugged and said, ‘Sure.’
She signed her name on the dotted line.
An hour before that, Nora checked herself in for her post-excision appointment. She arrived in the consultation room to find a cluster of her colleagues at the desk. ‘What’s going on?’ she asked.
They were staring at a clear plastic envelope with a yellow stick-on label with her case number written on it. Inside the envelope was a CD-ROM.
‘There’s something strange about your excision,’ someone finally said.
The day before that, Nora lay inside the tunnel of the excision machine. It was like being inside a pristine seashell designed by Apple.
‘Are you comfortable, Nora?’
‘I suppose it might feel a little weird to you, being the one inside the machine.’
‘Yes. I suppose it does.’
‘I understand you’ve brought in a blank CD-ROM.’
‘I haven’t seen one of these in ages.’
‘It’s Gwen’s. She had stacks of them.’
The rhythmic clack of a keyboard.
‘I just didn’t know what else to bring.’
‘It’s okay, Nora. You don’t have to justify yourself. The CD will be fine.’
‘Well. There’s no need for me to go through the preamble, is there, Nora?’
‘I’ll skip ahead to the legal stuff.’
‘You confirm that you understand that this is an experimental procedure, and that the permanence and efficacy of the excision procedure are still under study.’
‘You confirm that your excision adviser has explained the risks and benefits of the procedure at a prior consultation.’
‘You understand that once the excision process is underway, you will not be able to withdraw your consent.’
‘Good. Thank you, Nora.’
The clacks of the keyboard became livelier. A vivacious hum emanated from the machine.
‘This is the part where you tell me about Gwen. How about you tell me the story of the first time you met her?’
‘It was…’ Nora struggled. ‘It was …’
‘Nora, there are tissues in the compartment to your left if you need them.’
‘Thank you.’ Nora took a tissue and blew her nose. She didn’t know what to do with the tissue after that, so she just balled it up in her fist.
‘Tell me about the first time you met Gwen.’
‘It was… at a party with Heidi’s Conservatorium friends. I didn’t know anybody. I hated Heidi for dragging me along. We played that drinking game – I Never. Someone said, “I never pissed in an enemy’s pot plant.” Everyone laughed except me. It was obvious it was engineered for just one person. Only one girl drank. It was Gwen.’
‘What a way for her to make an entrance into your life.’
‘I know. I thought: I wish I could be that fearless. I wish I could give zero fucks. I wish I could make out with that girl.’
‘I’m so sorry she’s gone.’
The machine beeped. ‘Nora, we’re ready for the excision. Shall we proceed?’
Nora closed her eyes – felt, for the last time, the void in her chest which dragged her inexorably centreward. ‘Yes.’
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