We arrive at night. On the way, traffic clogs the M4 and we move slowly up and over the range. Fog swarms across the road, retreating into wet gullies. Isla falls asleep, dribbling.
‘Thank fuck,’ mutters Jay as he turns the engine off. ‘Two hours, my ass.’ He unfurls long legs. I pull Isla from her booster seat, cheeks hot, arms stuffed into her red corduroy jacket like a fat rag doll. The others are inside, with every light on.
‘Nick’s lefty Leb mates.’ That’s who Jay said were coming. ‘About ten of em.’ Jay started using the word ‘Leb’ after reading an essay by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. ‘This guy’s bloody brilliant,’ he told me, reading whole paragraphs aloud. I was also trying to read but gave up.
Mick and his friends head up here for a weekend every autumn, to this same sprawling house, owned by a corporate lawyer. Last time, Jay told me, Nick got drunk, and also stoned; he raved on rubbishing the Fat Pizza guys. I stayed home with Isla. She woke every night in those first few years, twisting and fretting. Jay shook his head laughing at Nick, who was our housemate at the time. It was always me Isla called out for. I would sit by her bed, patting her harder and harder.
I carry Isla into the blazing bright house, my sneakers crunching loudly across the gravel. Jay shakes hands, thumps backs, kisses cheeks, squeezes Nick. Isla’s getting too heavy to carry. ‘Bedtime,’ I whisper, stroking her hair.
I fall asleep pressed to her, shifting later into the double bed. I can hear Jay joking, Nick’s soft retorts, a hoarse woman’s voice. They head outside to light a fire.
Jay snores beside me, smelling of whisky and smoke. I snooze, I think. Later we fuck without fully waking. I yelp and he jams his hand in my mouth. It’s been weeks; I come first. The moon bores through the cold pane, lighting up shivering paddocks, splashing milky light on this face. He comes. The whites of his eyes gleam.
Nick is first up. He has a heavy illustrated encyclopedia spread out on the wooden table. I stand at the doorway for a moment watching him, unsure what to say.
‘Old school,’ I tease, approaching slowly, pecking the top of his head. Jay downloaded an edible mushroom identification app before we left.
‘Nicky!’ Isla scrambles on to his lap.
Nick pores over wide pages, his soft black belly hair curling out the top of a holey tee shirt. ‘This is what we’re looking for today, Isla.’ She studies them intently: fungi float on the page, their soft velvet undersides carefully drawn. ‘Slippery jacks and saffron milk caps.’ The pages turn. Puffy mushrooms and frilly ones, specimens the pink blood of organs, some with a golden sheen. ‘Those ones are not to eat, okay.’ He points. They belong in a fairy tale—squat, red and rubbery with white specks.
‘What’s been happening?’ Nick finally looks straight at me. What’s been happening? Oh, like, intractable, sometimes dull, sometimes sharp, persistent, mysterious pain in my lower back. Search terms: cancer back pain / back pain—what could it be? / back pain red flags. Oh, and also, I’ve become obsessed with Chrissie’s blog. Diagnosed with a rare terminal tumor after the birth of her third child. Weeding her only consolation, weeping as she tugs at plant roots. That’s what’s been happening.
‘Not much,’ I shrug. ‘We miss having you around. How’s your new place?’
‘Too early to call.’ He pauses, smiling, ‘Reckon the new housemates might be hippies.’
‘You’re a hippy!’
‘Whatever.’ Nick turns back to the fungi. ‘I’m definitely enjoying getting to know a new part of Sydney. Great Polish delis.’
Nick’s friends begin appearing—some of them members of the Fanon reading group that used to meet occasionally at our place, other mates I don’t recognise. ‘We’re a bit late this year, but I think we’ll get some,’ Nick is saying, as eggs are cracked.
Jay misunderstood the Ahmad essay, I’m sure of it.
Sara’s morning hair is frizzy. She wraps her arms around me warmly. ‘Good to see you again. And you, Isla!’
Jay thinks that fear of cancer is the prevailing cultural phobia of our toxic present—something else he read. He’s the last up.
‘Sleep in,’ I say, as a statement of fact, suddenly smelling the sex on me.
Another statement of fact might be, I spent 300 bucks on an MRI yesterday. Just to know. ‘Have you ever been shot?’ the technician asked, working her way through the form. ‘Ever had metal in your eye?’
My doctor had sighed. ‘You know how expensive this is? I think you should give the physio more time.’ But she’d already pressed print on the referral.
The physio wears purple and smiles beatifically. Head turned sideways, I scoured the spines of her books: she has a thing about the age of European witchcraft. Women, magic and power, I read.
The MRI clanged and shook, shuddered and thumped. Jay would have seen the joke in it, a Netflix recreation of Soviet Union science or something. I walked back out into the empty waiting room dizzy and alone.
Jay yawns. ‘I need a coffee.’ He grabs Isla, pulling her from Nick and into his arms, ‘And some food!’ He begins nibbling her until she is laughing and shouting. He’s spitting her out, ‘Pah, this tastes gross, too sweet.’
After breakfast, we drive through Oberon and higher still. Our convoy of four cars grips a narrow road that takes us up and into gloomy, still forests. The sun tracks low across clear airy blue.
We stop, fanning out through the quiet stands of pines. We find patches of slippery jacks in damp depressions, filling ice-cream containers and some old baskets Nick has op-shopped. Sara is taking photos; Isla follows her, chattering. They stop to inspect pixie houses, examining them for secret doors, making up names for tiny folk who live inside. Isla takes a turn with the camera. She slips on wet logs, and Sara’s hand steadies her. I’m following, sort of. Watching them, falling behind, picking up the odd slimy-capped mushroom, their honeycomb undersides bubbling like installation foam.
Chrissie hangs on, is what I read the other night. Twelve months after a grim prognosis. Not long to go, I sensed. I think about her children as I walk, hearing Isla’s bell of a voice some distance away. I want another one. Jay isn’t ready.
The doctor and physio both asked me when did this begin? ‘About a year ago,’ I told one of them. ‘About a month ago,’ I told the other. I wasn’t lying, at least I didn’t mean to. I just don’t know. What is it that’s woken up in me? How long has it been curled up sleeping there?
At the physio’s, I imagine this: we stand on a dam bank. Jay fondles smooth rocks. Then he skips them across the surface, with just the slightest flick of water. Me? I wade in. There’s a spot where I can feel the warm layer of surface water mix with the cool depths. Translucent yabbies move through the mud. ‘Roll over onto your back,’ the physio says briskly. She slides a pillow under my head so swiftly it’s, well, a kind of magic.
‘Do you remember Chrissie?’ I asked Jay the other night, as I got up to head for bed, stretching.
‘Only vaguely.’ He looked up at me, tired, pausing his scrolling of the earnest foragers’ mushroom app reviews. His eyes stay on me for a long time. I thought he might point out that I never really warmed to Chrissie, finding her too … just too nice. ‘But I did hear, babe.’ He paused. ‘So sad.’
If we moved to the country, I could run through these forests. We often talk about moving to the country. Jay searches for properties and sends them to me. Subject line: dream house! In Tasmania, over summer, we saw luminous orange fungi in wet forests, sprouting all along the furry slayed trees, glowing like lava lamps. Inedible, I guess. ‘Could we ever live here, really?’ we kept asking each other, passing sagging farmhouses. ‘You’d be bored,’ one of us would point out. ‘Oh, and you wouldn’t?’ the other would reply. ‘Too cold,’ we’d conclude.
Jay appears beside me, slips a hand into mine, squeezing my gloves. ‘How you doin?’ he asks gently. ‘Where’s Isla?’
‘Isla?!’ I’m startled. ‘She’s here somewhere.’ But it’s quiet, all around. No birds, distant trucks.
Jay frowns, ‘Lou? What do you mean?’ He doesn’t wait for an answer. ‘Isla!’ he calls out, cheery at first and then more sharply.
Nick’s friends start turning, backtracking: all tramping towards me in this awful silent state forest. I’m stumbling along now, trying to keep up with Jay, who is headed for the high ridgeline.
‘Jesus, what the fuck, Louise,’ he hisses. ‘Where did you last see her.’
‘She’s with Sara,’ I blurt out, seeing Sara stride towards us.
Jay stops and Sara takes charge. ‘Take a deep breath, people,’ she says firmly. ‘She can’t be far. I was with her a few minutes ago. I told her I was taking a piss and she ran up the hill after you both.’
Jay glares at Sara.
‘Hey! I’ve been the one keeping an eye on her.’
‘What—until you weren’t?’
‘Jay, fuck off.’
‘Pssht, habibti.’ Nick catches up and looks sternly at Sara. Give this strung out white guy a break, that look says.
Sara raises an eyebrow, almost nods. Then, calmly, ‘I was behind a tree and I saw Isla head up the hill. She’s close by.’ Sara turns, walks purposefully into the pines.
We radiate outwards, as if holding threads spooling from this rocky spot, below the ridge. Jay heads straight up. Nick is scrambling. I move towards a dense copse just below.
I see the flash of red first. I find her. I find her. She sits glum and lonely in a grove: it could be an illustration. Anthony Browne, perhaps.
‘Jay!’ I call, after I’ve reached her, and he tumbles back down towards us. I yell out, ‘Nick!’
Jay squats, kneels forward to grip Isla by both shoulders, ‘We were calling out… Why didn’t you answer…?’ Jay is kissing her now, nuzzling her jacket, reaching one arm out to me.
‘Jay—I,’ I wasted 300 bucks on something really stupid, I want to say. And I broke the no Doctor Google rule.
‘You are NOT dying of cancer, Louise,’ Jay whispers, straight into my ear, his voice hot wind in a tunnel. ‘You’re not dying, okay! You’re just not.’
I hold them, clutch at Isla. Hush them both. ‘I’m here, baby.’
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