Fiction | Espalier

Quite informally, as if trying on new clothes in front of a friend, you tell me you love me. I was not expecting to hear these words on the phone, especially after you’ve driven for days across the flat expanse of our country. Western Australia to Queensland is some girth to cover in fifty-six hours. I figured you must be glad to have made it all the way, like a shadow pulled from darkness descending. Any faster and I’d have asked: Were you running from something?

But I don’t ask such questions, knowing your past as well as I can without knowing any specific facts. The fly trapped between the glass and the flyscreen. Does it believe that fresh air is freedom enough, beyond reach of hand or web? Of course, I might be in love too. Religious leaders have demanded more, given less in return. You are there in fragments, giving me pieces I didn’t earn. I think you want to love me, want to replace all your broken parts with my own, which you consider beautiful, not stopping to inspect them closely. This feels different to love that arises spontaneously, haphazardly—without any element of pre-meditation. I want to inspect your motives but I come up against a surface, an exterior that is impermeable. If I ask about your past, your eyes slide far away. You know this game from somewhere else: sometimes it’s safer not to speak. I fill in the gaps, explain away every disappointment, every incongruity. If you only smile at me—boyish, wry—I come apart. The past is nothing, for a little while. The fly is free for a second of flight, then there is the glass. Again, the coolness of it. Again, the breath of air at its back.


You return from the mines. We’ve been talking on the phone for weeks now, anticipating our first encounter face-to-face. I expect to be disappointed, like every other time I’ve worn this dress, layers of black lace ending at my thigh. This time I wear a bikini underneath. I watch for the arrival of your car and I know it’s yours before I see your face: a black Silverado, wheels as wide as steel barrels. When I walk towards your car, you smile and avert your gaze, as if you haven’t done this in a long time. Your eyes remind me of the ocean, a shade of blue that pulls away.

You drive us to the coast and we remove our clothes until we’re almost naked before each other. We enter the water as if we do this all the time, strangers who know each other’s flesh, the secret spaces where we fold away our hurt and our longing.

Lifeguards glance at us as we walk beyond the flags to a quiet spot, leave our towels on the shore. All my make-up is washed off with the first wave, my hair a knot of salt and sea. I haven’t eaten in hours and I’m nearly sucked out by a rip-tide. Whitewash curls around me as I surface briefly, and you are there, somehow sure-footed. You grab my upper arm and drag me in, sheer force of will. I wipe black smudges of mascara off with my towel as we sit shoulder-to-shoulder. I want to reach out and hold your hand. Or, more precisely, I want you to reach out for me again, to steady me on the sand. Waves arc inside my stomach as if I’ve left a shadow-self in the sea. When I talk of how my husband died, you nod and study the sand. Later, I think: I could have died. The waves, they were too high, and you told me we’d be fine there, that you swam at this spot all the time. I take deep breaths, still feeling my way upwards through the air, remembering the force of the water, how it demanded to be let in. My voice sounds very far away.


You return to work for weeks at a time and this becomes our dance. I talk to you every night on video calls. I start to need you, though I can’t say it yet. Our conversations lack words but seem full of feeling. I don’t know who I miss when you fail to call: you, or the one I loved before. Every absence seems tied by rope, hand-over-hand, to that first loss.

‘How are you doing out there?’

‘It’s pissing down. They’ve got me doing the fitter’s job. Wet as a shag all day. You look nice. It’s good to see your face.’

I brush hair back off my forehead and rest my cheek against my palm. It’s late at night and I’m in pyjamas. I’ve dusted black eyeshadow along the line of my eyelashes, contoured my lips in nude, so that you might imagine I’ll look like this in the morning, if we wake together.

‘What are your plans for when you’re back in town?’ I ask, to say something, anything.

‘Oh, I dunno. Seeing you. Catching the new King Kong. Gotta check in with my lawyer as well.’

‘How is that going?’

‘Just costing me my retirement. I’ve done everything they’ve asked. I’m still seeing the counsellor and that’s not required anymore … What are you wearing under that top?’

The problem is, we’ve become intimate with each other’s private spaces too quickly. Certain steps were bypassed, like getting to know each other in the same room with distance, with observation. You’ve seen me on my bed so many nights and now we can’t backtrack to discussions of values, of our backgrounds. Other times, all we have is small talk, blank spaces to be filled. Why can’t you see your kids? I’m always on the cusp of asking this, always finding the words caught in my throat. One day they’ll tumble out at the wrong moment, a mouthful of water I couldn’t swallow.


I drop Quinn off with my mother and get ready to see you. Bagels for you from the farmer’s market sit on the hallway table. I don’t even know if you like bagels. I wait at home to hear you’re on your way over. The longer I wait, the more annoyed I feel that I asked my mum to babysit. I want to drive back to her house, carry Quinn away in my arms to fill the excess of time I’m wading through. If you call, I’ll be ice, all my feelings diverted to my son.

You text.

Sorry, I’m not feeling great. My nanna died last night.

I wait to reply. I think you’re lying. It sounds like something you’d say to your boss at a job you didn’t care about.

How many times over has your nanna died? After a few minutes, I try to call. Maybe I’ll know whether to believe you if I can hear your voice. You don’t answer. You text me a selfie from your bed. Your eyes are red, but you’re smiling, half-apologetic, half-wry. I opt for compassion despite the selfie:

Would you like me to come by with coffee or food? I just need your address.

For a long time, I hear nothing. I call my mum and ask her to bring Quinn home. The smell of rice bubbling on the stove fills my apartment. My phone lights up and I wipe garlic from my fingers to grab it.

‘Hey, sorry about today.’ You sound flat, heavy with fatigue.

‘It’s okay. I understand. Sorry to hear about your grandmother. Was she the one who lived with you and your brothers?’

‘Nah, it was the other one. I’m still not feeling great. We can do something though. There’s a movie starting in an hour.’

‘Oh, I can’t now. Quinn wanted to come home. I guess it wasn’t meant to be … Tonight wasn’t, I mean.’

Now I’m certain you’re lying. I look at profiles of your family members on Facebook that night. No mention of a death anywhere. I check obituaries too, though I’m not sure of your grandmother’s full name or if she lived in Tin Can Bay, where you grew up. I let it slide away. I picture meeting your family one day, finding out that this grandmother died fifteen years ago, brushing it off as if that lie were the only one, so early on.


You start to come over almost every night, after Quinn is asleep. You never mention your grandmother again. Maybe someone who is genuinely grieving would act differently. We have both been hurt and I can see how much you want to fall in love.

Watching a violent film, Russell Crowe looming across my television screen, you stroke my neck, wrapping your arm around my waist gently, pulling me against you. Without words, it’s as if you’ve drawn my broken parts back together, glaciers called north. I’m reminded of something from long ago that I didn’t think I’d feel again. I can’t tell who I’m falling for: you, or the other person in the shadows.

As we lie together half-watching the movie, the image of Quinn asleep, his face now cherubic as he was in babyhood, sits heavily in my mind. I can’t follow the dialogue, Russell Crowe’s character losing his mind in violent leaps. The question of your past rises towards my tongue. Once, you offered to send me the legal documents explaining what happened with your ex-wife. You speak of your kids in fractured statements, blaming their mother, talking of legal expenses. It’s as if my hand brushes against a raw wound every time I ask about them. I gave you my email address to send me the documents; suddenly your laptop was broken. I want to cut you off but you’re here, inside my home, my life. When you evade my questions, you hold me in such a way that I think, surely I know the real you, the man who makes me feel safe after years alone, years on the outside of normal family life.

Your hand caresses the soft part of my belly below my navel, then moves lower, insistent. Russell has gone up in flames by now, an effigy to his rage. I soften against your hard parts, and the words I want to speak become a fog, dispersing into the warm air, the amber of the salt-lamp.


The day before you plan to drive to Queensland, you turn up at my place with your belongings. You don’t ask to stay; you assume it will be okay. I say nothing, knowing you have no place to go for the night. You’re there again in my home, already.

‘I’ll be back in two weeks with the rest of the stuff I left in Queensland last time,’ you announce, cradling your third beer. I lie with my head against your chest, so I don’t have to make eye contact with you. I can hear your heartbeat, a slow march despite the action movie playing like background music.

‘And then?’

‘I’ll come back to you. I’m over every night I’m in town anyway.’ Everything inside me is taut. I’m the tightrope, caught between speaking and seeking the safety of silence. Your hands move to my neck again and I know by now what you want.

The thing I can never get away from is your eyes, the pull of them. Sucked under, I forget words. I think only of how to breathe. Tonight, I keep my gaze away from you, the bulk of you at my back. The thick, sick-sweet smell of rum and coke wraps around me.

The image of the morning is in my mind: your car driving away. You’re inside me again. I lie very still, barely responding, grateful not to kiss. You don’t seem to notice, or maybe this is how you like it. Every time your hands tighten on my neck, I think of your ex-wife, your insistence she was lying to the police.

In the morning, I make you coffee, willing you to leave. When your car turns the corner at the end of the street, I breathe deeply, my heart hammering out its sheltered joy to be free.


For weeks, I think you’ll reappear unannounced. Every banging at the door carries me straight to you, your silhouette. But it’s always just the breeze or some neighbour’s door. The raw geography of a gale, the way it scatters life as wantonly as the shaping of continents, as hurriedly as the heartbeat quickening in hope, or in fear: every startling force of nature might be you. We said goodbye too many times. It lost its meaning, didn’t hurt the way it should, that final time. When you call to say you love me, I’m already very far away, a balloon untethered from a sandbag.


‘I can’t always be thinking I’ll hurt you. It’s like you need constant reassurance.’ I reach out to turn down the volume of the video call, so Quinn won’t hear your words. Your eyes change colour with the sky. Sometimes I think I know what to expect. The next day, I find you different, not the person I held close in memory. Today, your eyes are bright as the blue of summer, sharp as the sky when it has collected all its heat, balled up every burning angle of the brilliant and exacting sun.

‘That’s not what I need.’ Before you, I’m voiceless, my tongue a log in floodwater.

‘You still haven’t told me what you were doing earlier. I called you three times. Now you’re asking me what I want from life. I’m the one trying to call you. Isn’t it obvious?’

I look away. You want to know where I was, and I want to know where we stand, so far apart. When you tried to call, I was on a date with another man. I talked to him for hours, barely touching. I want to see him again. I want him to call me.

‘Come out to see me. Pick a weekend. Bring Quinn. Let’s book it now.’

We’ve played this game at least five times and every flight I pick is too expensive or scheduled too far in the future.

Neither of us say: We won’t make it that far. But I know it. A lie is caught in my throat. I can’t catch the thread to see where it begins—who owns it—when you turn my questions into accusations. Maybe that’s what they are: words that loop around the empty space between us like a knot.

‘I wasn’t looking for something long distance. I didn’t expect things to become so serious with someone far away,’ I say quietly. I’m thinking of grief, the weight of longing for a person I will never reach, bent double around a memory like a hook.

‘I’ve set up everything here thinking you’ll come. I’m only asking for one weekend, so you can see it and decide. I love you. I want to have a life with you.’

‘Why couldn’t you have told me this in person before you left? When did you know you loved me? Only when you were halfway to Port Augusta?’

‘That doesn’t matter. I knew it. I’m shy about those things. Couldn’t you see the way I felt? I’m telling you now: I love you.’ Your cheeks flush.

I have this problem, a relic of the loss: I can’t cut a person off. So, I answer, digging with my tongue like licking a wound, making it sting, ‘I love you too.’

When we end the call, my throat feels tight, my breath too shallow. There’s a ringing in my left ear, acute in the way of a siren. I take off my clothes from the date and stand in the shower, turning my face into the flow of water, the only place I can’t hear the ringing. I scrub until Quinn knocks at the bathroom door. Turning off the water, I listen.

Everything is quiet again, in my head and in the house.

‘I’ll just be a minute, darling.’ Soap suds have erupted from the drain in the middle of the bathroom floor. I dry them with my towel and dress in pyjamas, exhausted, empty of all the things I remember wanting.


After the first time we had sex, you stood by my front door staring at the security alarm.

‘What’s that up there?’ you asked, inspecting a sensor on the doorframe.

‘Oh, it’s part of the security alarm. I think it would trigger the alarm if the door was forced open.’ Then I added, watching your eyes: ‘But I haven’t activated the alarm system. I asked my dad to install a deadbolt. I figured that was enough. I know all my neighbours.’ Giving away pieces of my life, so that you would tell me the things you hide away.

A few weeks later, it was the Easter long weekend, and I took Quinn to the movies. As I parked outside the cinema, I noticed a large black ute in my rear-view mirror. The ute pulled into a spot directly behind my car and I saw it was you. The first thing I did was smile and wave, as you beeped your horn to show you’d seen me. But, with the car doors still locked, my first thought was of your face staring up at the security sensor on my front door.

What you seek is seeking you; what you seek is seeking you. The Rumi quote loops through my mind until it loses meaning. Maybe I saw it on a coaster somewhere with you, or on a postcard. For days, you do not call. I watch the sky. I watch my phone. I picture myself running so fast all that remains is a blur—Quinn streaking out behind me, his hand in mine. I don’t know how far we’d need to go.

Rumi talked of silence, of love, of fear—but not this kind. It’s like the gasp when you fall into very cold water. Nobody hears what happens as the empty spaces are filled. Water rushes in. Somebody might stand on the shore and not hear a thing, if they were looking the wrong way.

Quinn asks to play outside on the driveway after school, and I say no. ‘I can’t hear you out there. I don’t know who might be passing by.’ He stops asking then. He rolls his basketball into a corner, and watches me like he is skirting the edge of some vast precipice. I wish I’d said it is too late, or too cold, or: Yes, let’s play outside together.

In the night, Quinn comes into my bedroom. He says, ‘Mummy, lovely Mummy,’ and falls asleep there next to me. I check my phone. I count the hours since you last messaged.


Your car parks outside. I know it’s you before you reach the door, which isn’t deadbolted. The security alarm remains inactive. From inside, I’m frozen in a lie. It might be the only thing we really share, much greater than our love: this urge to build a life across a gap, to carve a home around the silhouette of the past, vast and unknowable. We call it love. We think that naming a fractured thing might make it whole, might make us better than we are.

I go to the door and let you in. We kiss before any words of greeting or explanation. Together, we move to the bathroom. In front of the mirror, I want to tell you what I’ve done, to unburden myself in the face of the wind, the force of your presence. Your hands move to my neck and I bend against you, pliable as clay to accommodate discomfort. Your lips dust my ear with words soft, snaking like coils of smoke across my senses. As the glacier keeps its secrets until the moment of disintegration, I do not speak. You are in my safe places. Now, there is only silence, only the darkness of myself, the interior of the wave.


Kerry Greer

Kerry Greer is a Western Australian poet and writer. She received the Venie Holmgren Prize for Environmental Poetry in 2021. Her debut poetry collection will be published by Recent Works Press in 2023. Kerry's work has been shortlisted for the ABR Calibre Prize, the Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize and more. Her poetry will be published by Rattle in March 2023. She is a student in the low-residency MFA program at Cedar Crest College.

More by Kerry Greer ›

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