Content warning: allusions to assault and suicide related references.
‘Are you able to sit up now?’ The voice on the other end of the phone is calm and easy like music.
The ground against her back, Leila has her eyes on the sky. Not long ago it was watercolour blue, milky and pale and full of cotton-ball clouds; now blue is draining from it and the air is cooler. Her fingertips feel icy. She reaches an arm towards her backpack, still there on the dry leaves.
‘Leila,’ the voice says, ‘are you with me?’
The warmth of her exhalation drifts from her mouth and meets the chilled air beyond in a slight haze. ‘I need to take some more.’ She fumbles one-handed with the backpack zipper, finds one of the blister packs and then lays herself flat on the ground again, arms stretched out. She is a butterfly, unfettered. Here, her arms are her own. No-one to pin them down. The ground is a bed, a safe one. It’s her place today. The shrubs encircling her and the trees above are a cubby house, her own private patch of the parkland. With no walls, no doors, she can leave whenever she wants and here no-one could stop her.
‘Can you tell me what you’re taking, Leila?’
‘To sleep, so I can sleep.’ Leila’s mouth is chalky and dry. Water would be good but there are only the dregs of warm Coke left in the can. Leila reaches for it, rolling onto her side, her woollen jumper catching debris—twigs, earth, dried leaves—with each movement.
‘Leila, can we just press pause on you doing that right now? Can we wait a bit more before you decide to take the meds?’
Her thoughts are ocean currents pulling in one direction and then changing. ‘It’s okay,’ she says, ‘because I have them all here in my bag.’ She brings the pills to her mouth and gulps a little Coke, flat and sugary. ‘I didn’t forget them so it’s all good.’ She can hear her own cadence slacken, molasses-thick. While slower now, Leila’s voice still catches, she hears it stumble over the phlegm at the back of her throat, hears it hook on the nicotine gravel.
Fireplace smoke laces the air and, from beyond her shrubby pocket, the thrum of distant traffic reaches her, has grown louder. It must have been hours before when there was the trill of the primary school siren, streets away. Cities drown out the noise within—but they’re usually not as close to water, not like home. Definitely not here in the suburbs, water’s not close here.
Back north, at the bay, if you were away from the house, things were calm. The swollen oily blue of the ocean gulping at the groyne, crabs scrutinising you from rocky nooks. If you listened hard enough, if you were quiet and there on your own for long enough, you could even hear crab claws muttering along the grey salty granite as they came out in the open again. At the bay you could sit on the smoothest rock, worn soft by water, by fishermen’s feet. You could sit there and dangle your legs in and it was the sweetest place in the world. There, you could drink a Coke, you could smoke a pilfered durry and nothing could touch you.
On the ground here, now, Leila can smell the dampening earth, the day’s musty warmth evaporating from it as the sun skulks away. Her cheeks feel hot and cold at the same time and her eyes are gritty. But if she closes them, it’s his face she sees, so she’ll keep them open as long as she can. The voice is still there.
‘You made the call today, Leila, and I’m glad you did. I know there’s the meds, but then there’s part of you that picked up the phone today, that part that wanted support …’
Leila raises herself up on one elbow and rummages in the front pocket of her backpack for the rest of the pills. Sitting cross-legged now, she presses out capsules from each of the packs. Different colours like lollies: pink, like Redskins; white, like Minties; green, like Pop Rocks. It would be fun if they exploded in her mouth like those little Pop Rock nuggets—fleeting moments of fun. But, without anything left to wash the capsules down, she feels their bulk, solid and unmoving, their sourness. They are less fun than their colours. She swallows and the little bulges lodge in her throat. She swallows again, then speaks. ‘It’s going to be okay.’
She wants to tell the voice on the phone how the nights bear down. How sleep is an elusive thing because the dreams are less dreamy and more memory. If she could be brave she’d tell this voice how thoughts re-form into menacing shapes in the dark, the kind that lock doors and say keep quiet. Each time Leila gets close to sleep, rests a head against slumber’s shoulder, allows drowsy eyes to almost close, letting them off duty, sleep leaves the room like vapour. Lots of nights, Leila leaves the confines of her bedroom, heads out the front door, past the other flats all piled atop each other, past the flickering tellies and walks the streets, hitching a ride here and there. She gives roads or suburbs that she might live in to unknown drivers, directing these men who occasionally lay a hand on her thigh, who look at her with sideways glances and drive her to homes that look safe and homely where she pauses at front doors that she won’t open and then nods as they drive off. And then she walks some more.
If she felt she could speak more right now, Leila would tell the voice on the phone how sometimes she walks along the freeway, hours and hours, one pedestrian overpass to the next. She is an ant upon those sallow-lit walkways, hovering above lanes and cars. Doesn’t care who is there, doesn’t care what could happen. Doesn’t matter. Hangs a torso over a railing and watches cars that peter out with the hours that pass until you’re lucky if you count one a minute.
Sometimes there’s someone else there. Some faceless guy in the same uniform: jeans, hoodie and backpack. Someone with a joint or a smoke, with few words and lots of pauses, watching out too. Occasionally there’s another girl and then philosophical conversation drips from the tongue loosely and, for a moment, you’re bonded, before parting into streetlight and shadow, neither having revealed much at all.
Placing the phone down for a moment, on hands and knees, Leila yanks a beanie from her bag and pulls it on. She wants her jacket too but that’s back at the flat. There is a light breeze picking up and the trees above are swaying. They are unified bodies in a crowd grooving to an unknown tune. You can just hear the rustling leaves all the way up if you listen. The sky is pink now; the variations in tone are things you can’t dream up—the corals and oranges and apricots and violets. All fluorescent, all bleeding into each other, all the colours peeking through the greenery about her. Leila wriggles her toes and she knows they’re still here, that she is still here. The voice is still on the line, distant. She’s not sure of what it’s been saying. Leila sits on her calves, presses the phone closer to her ear and listens.
‘I know,’ Leila says.
‘I’m still here,’ the voice repeats, ‘and I’m staying put but I need you to help me now.’
If you wade into the water up to your thighs or your shoulders or your neck, your feet are right there on the bottom, but it’s still scarier than going in off the rocks. You can think you’re anchored with your feet touching the sand, that you’re safe but there’s always more jellyfish by the shore. Not out by the rocks though, not off the groyne, not if you put your legs in there, if you gently ease yourself off into the deeper water, not if you lie on your back and float like you were taught in swimming lessons. There’s no jellyfish there even if you dream them up or try to make yourself scared like you did when you were smaller in the local pool, telling yourself there were sharks in the water but there weren’t and you knew it, but got scared anyway. That fear doesn’t happen at the groyne.
If you lie flat on the water and if you don’t resist, magic happens. With your ears beneath the surface, you can only hear the movement below you, the swirls and churns of something bigger having its say, rearranging itself all around you but holding you up still. Each breath in and you rise and each breath out you fall but never sink. On land things are different. You can’t rise up when you’re pressed down. On land a body can force and a hand can hit hard, but not a wave. A wave crashes but it doesn’t smash. On land there’s no going underwater to get away.
‘Temazepam, Lamotrigine, Clozapine, Mirtazapine,’ her voice is saying in its spiky drawl and yet they sound like poetry, these melodic names.
‘Okay. Do you have more, Leila?’
Leila rummages in her bag but her hand feels numb, heavy, like it’s not her own.
Time has flown from one side of the park to the other and there is only a little light. It’s like in a movie where one moment the people can be in one place and the next, the characters are in another place, another time even. The parkland feels different now it’s colder and dimmer. There is the shuffle of feet a bit away, distant voices and the smell of pot drifts to Leila’s cubby like a familiar fuzzy blanket. She sits, head curled forward, eyes working to focus, and searches for cigarettes in her bag but she knows she’s dreaming. Bats fly overhead, westward to roost at Yarra Bend.
‘Can you give me a location, Leila? I can stay with you here but I need to know a location.’
Sometimes, when the swell is bigger, the waves look like they have been stretched tight before they break. The blooming surface of the water seems held in by some invisible coating and then it releases. At the end of a day, after dinner and telly, when houses are stiller than usual, when the loosening of a zipper is almost as loud as the heavy guttural breath that comes with it, it is the groyne that Leila thinks of. At the groyne there’s no walls, just rocks and water, and you could drown if you wanted to, but thinking of the water you can stay afloat too. At night, houses are still things but what happens at night isn’t always still and still there is the water, still there, still moving but just not close.
Leila is still. Still here, in the park. She tries to conjure up images of the water but they are too hazy. She reaches for one of the discarded blister packs with just a few capsules left. Wrapping her hand around the pack, she can feel its tough edges pushing against her skin. She brings the plastic to her mouth and runs an edge along her lips. The voice again.
‘Leila, can you tell me where you are right now? I need to be clear: you do need to give me a street name.’
Leila presses down on the pack, pops out the last of the capsules from the foil and holds them there in a scrunched palm.
Sometimes, for small intervals, she wishes herself back there. Sand between feet, briny air, surfboards and windcheaters and thongs. When you take a bus from there to here, in the going away you are gone. When you’re in transit it’s like an exhalation, it’s all emptied from you, the lot of it. Yet, in the arriving somewhere else you are someplace again. And places have a way of merging: memories tack places together with ragged stitching, tough as fishing line, that feels hard to unpick. When you cross a border, it feels like a line, a marker of something important. People have photographs taken by signs, I was here, the snapshots say, I made it to this landmark. She has a blown-out photograph taken by a tourist in khaki pants who carefully took Leila’s telephone, held it up in front of a sunscreen-licked face and captured her there smiling, squinting against the sun.
When the sun is in your eyes you don’t see anything else. Just light. There’s nothing but you and the heat and the glow, nothing before and nothing after and it feels golden. It doesn’t take long, though, before you’re alone, with just four walls, without distraction, city traffic passing by and a part-time job slapped between stretches of silence where the past’s language, with its familiar drawl, comes whispering.
Leila places the phone in front of her, folds her arms into a pillow and presses her head down. She breathes the dirt, cleaner than sheets. Breathes the earth that holds her head, her hips, her torso and knees and toes. She turns her crown to the side, seeing the ground stretch out sideways towards the shrubs and leaves the colour of peach and fawn and green and tangerine. She can hear the voice, the light breath on the other end of the phone, and her own too. She can feel her lungs fill, pressing against the ground, can feel herself rise and fall, rise and fall, her body moving up and down, not swimming, not sinking.
She answers the voice.
And there’s nothing to do but see the sun sink into the ground and watch the land that just keeps her afloat.
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