This is a short story written for the Melbourne Library Service’s Young Writer’s Award. It draws inspiration from the works of Joe Dunthorne and Alex Turner. My favourite kinds of works are intertextual, and are auteurist in nature, revealing great truths about the personality and media consumed by their creators.
People wax lyrical about summer like it’s the only season that counts. I believe that says a lot about a person – the climate they feel they truly exist in. And I guess the fact that I’m a winter being says a lot about the person who I choose to be. I’m always hiding, even when I’m alone. With all these sweaters and coats and boots and beanies, you will never really know what the outline of my body looks like. It’s always defined by something else.
I’m gliding along an aisle of undefining covers in the bookstore below the train station. Every so often, the metal husks passing above will gently rattle the shop. I’m surprised that nothing ever topples over. Maybe a poster will slide off a wall, or the overhead lamps will swing precariously, but so far, every book has remained in its rightful place. I guess it’s the same kind of magic that keeps people in an orderly queue in a coffee shop, or ensures that the right song plays at the right time on the radio when you’re in the right mood. It’s too late for me to believe in religion, but I do believe in a collective consciousness, a silent force that ensures that everything happens and feels the way we all think it’s supposed to.
I’ve been meandering aimlessly for far too long, because a woman who I presume works there, based on her thick spectacles and mischievous Wiccan necklace, approaches me non-threateningly.
“Excuse me daaarling”, she purrs, with just the right amount of a’s to remind me of Mara. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“I’m good thank you.” Obviously not, considering this silent revelation.
“Well if you need anything, anything at all, I’ll be by the record player.”
She shoots me a wink and floats gently along the literature breeze.
The time tells me that I have four minutes, so I grab the closest book and head towards the olive-coloured Crosley playing ‘A Summer Song’ by Chad & Jeremy. The irony makes me chuckle internally, a deep trembling, like vibrations in a haunted cave.
“Taking Control of Your Life”
The cover depicts the top half of a man in a suit and tie raising his arms triumphantly. I picture the man not wearing any pants, actually raising his arms to reach for the half-batter half-pancake stuck to the ceiling. Lacking confidence in everything in life, even the magnitude of his own strength when making breakfast for one. This is not a man in control. I decide to purchase the book anyway.
Barely making the train, I slide through the shutting doors with just enough urgency to contemplate the dread of missing it. It’s really not that bad, trains pass through Sunset Station in my direction every ten minutes. But that’s one of my senseless phobias, my fear of standing on platforms. That’s why I time my boarding so that I’m there only when the train has arrived and the doors have opened. Have you ever stood there, behind the safety lines, contemplating the tracks? There’s that one intrusive thought that urges you to jump. I wonder how the cold steel of the rails would feel across my cheek?
Mara would always play this trick on me whenever we missed the train to the beach. Standing there, waiting for the next one, thinking about all things I’d say to her while the sun sank into the ocean before us, she would sneak up behind me and clutch my shoulders, jolting me forward and pulling me back. She’d shriek with laughter as I shook with fear, and one time I even swore loud enough to get us chased away by one of the station’s security guards. Whooping and hollering like cats on a fence, six feet beneath the moon, we ran back to her dad’s apartment where she taught me how to roll the perfect cigarette.
“Chapter One: Love Yourself Unconditionally
So you’ve lost control of your life? Where did it go? Have you checked behind the couch? Maybe you left it in the shower. You do spend a considerable amount of time there.
Tricked once again! It’s in none of those places. Your life is in your hands. Right where you left it.”
I contemplate vomiting on the train, but my mind wisely starts to ponder other methods of expressing my rising anxiety. Another one of my senseless phobias – the fear of arriving at my destination. A drunk androgynous girl at a party, whose name I’ve long forgotten, told me that we are journeymen with no arrival in mind.
“As soon as we think it’s coming to an end, it starts up all over again.” She whispered, spraying flecks of vodka-diluted saliva into my ear.
Across the seat from me, an old man snores. We pass through a tunnel and the carriage is illuminated by the buzzing glow of the train’s acrid yellow lights. The windows are glossed in pitch black darkness and I think I see my reflection somewhere on the other side. A few seats down, I catch the sight of a boy a little younger than me watching his sleeping female companion. His head moves as he admires her reflection, in the left mirror, then the right mirror, then back at her through the flesh. This trilogy of angles. Angel after angle. And in another time I might have bitterly spoilt this moment he would have remembered for the rest of his life, a polaroid pinned on the cracked walls of his aged mind. But now I just watch him. I’m sad, lonely and longing.
The old man wakes up with a jolt of electricity. He actually looks as if he’s been struck by lightning. His hair is almost transparent grey and seemingly rises into the air in thin wisps as if unbound by gravity. Making guttural noises as he clears his throat, as all old men do, he reaches into the small recess beneath his seat and pulls out an ancient looking briefcase that looks like it belongs in an immigration museum.
“Awfully cold for a day at the beach, don’t you think?”
It takes me a moment to realise that his question was gently lobbed in my direction.
“What makes you think I’m heading there?”
“Isn’t that what you young artistic kids do these days? Live contradictory lives?”
From his briefcase, he takes out half of a sandwich that has been cut diagonally, not once making eye contact as he continues speaking.
“You say things and think the opposite. Wear sweaters in the summer. Love the people you can’t stand. I wouldn’t put it past you. Go to the beach on a day as drizzly and miserable as this, and just stand there, looking at the sea. Maybe smoke a pipe that you haven’t even lit properly.”
“Those are some horribly specific generalisations, old man.” I keep my voice subdued. I’m more amused than offended.
And so is he. He laughs at this and continues.
“I know from experience. We’re all young artistic punks at some point in our lives. And that’s what I used to do, you know? Back when I thought I was going to be more than I’ve ever been.”
I’m tempted to reveal that his prediction was accurate, but my youthful pride coats my mouth in cement. Why did she have to choose the beach? I guess it’s symbolic of the past. Mara always made her decisions based on what they meant thematically. The old man’s sandwich contains peanut butter and jam.
“Chapter Seven: Make Peace With Your Flaws
Even Jesus had a bad haircut, but he was the son of God and he sure showed those pesky Romans.
Every human being lives trapped in their own self-made prisons. Their own minds, the wardens. Their meaningless flaws, the prison guards, roaming the concrete halls, swinging their batons, driven by the underserved power rendered meaningless in reality.
Accept who you are. Take on this burden and wear it like a coat of armour. Be the knight who fights for freedom on the battlefield.
I myself have come to terms with my constant use of overbearing metaphors, similes and other literary devices. They are my throwing stars and I am a silent but deadly ninja assassin.”
There are four more stops before I arrive at Goldenview Beach railway station. The old man and I are now companions bound by the emptiness of the carriage. The book I purchased was a huge mistake.
Lover boy and his sleeping beauty disembarked at the previous stop. I watched as he apprehensively shook her slumped shoulder, afraid that she was made of porcelain and would shatter at his touch. But she did not. Her eyes gently bloomed open, sparking a chain reaction that found her smiling contently and closing her fingers against lover boy’s own sweaty digits.
“You’d think I’d be nostalgic, wouldn’t you?” he ponders as he stares out the window. “About love and all that malarkey.”
“The thought may have run through my mind. Lonely widows visiting cemeteries. Leaving flowers on top of graves and all that bullwinkle.”
“If that was the case, I’d be spending my days travelling from cemetery to cemetery, leaving flowers on more graves than fingers on two hands.”
“You’re telling me you were quite the casanova?”
“Not in the slightest. That’s what you don’t realise until you get to my age. Love isn’t the rose of a compass that guides resolutely. Love is a powerful magnet moving along beneath a table, dragging the junk and scrap until it all falls off the edge.”
Three more stops. The tips of my fingers become amphibious. They soak in sweat and cling to my nape as I scratch my body’s anxiety zones.
The old man asks me a question but I’m too busy thinking about that one night with Mara a month before we broke up.
“Do you love me?” she asked, predetermining the answer.
“More than anything” I replied, fulfilling expectations.
She rolled me one of her perfect cigarettes, licking her cherry red upper lip and sliding it wetly against the rolling paper’s sticky adhesive. That was her unique flourish. She would leave a single lipstick smear trailing down the side. Every drag would taste like her kiss. I guess that’s why I picked up the habit.
“You have a certain grace that others can’t see,” she told me. “You dance to music that no one can hear and laugh at jokes that no one finds funny.”
At the time, I believed her. I fell for the portrait she painted. I became the flawed boy she wanted me to be. Some romantic idealisation of the dangerous teen whirlwind she read about on blogs and studied in old Nouvelle Vague films.
I think love is a cancer that forces its way in through the lips and replaces every cell in your body. It doesn’t just infect you. It becomes you. You become it. Trying to cure yourself of this illness becomes a task as pointless as emptying the ocean into a drain. And that’s why I’m here, I think to myself. That’s why I’m on a train to the deep blue under the deep grey. To meet her. To tuck myself into my ocean bed.
“Chapter 20: My Parts Are Your Parts
By now, you may be wondering what credentials I have, that I am able to provide such life-changing advice to you all. How do I know? What do I know?
I myself was just like you, sad reader. Lonely and desperate. Willing to seek solace in the guide of a man on a bookshelf. Well, let me talk to you about my journey to the brink and my triumphant return:
In my early twenties, I spent a good few years in a Czechoslovakian prison camp. This was not during the war. Apparently it’s illegal to steal turnips from the gardens of highly respected village grandmothers.
We were fed two meals each day. The first meal was brunch. It consisted of, highly ironically, boiled turnips in a turnip broth. The prison guards would ‘clumsily’ splotch servings of the surprisingly delicious dish over half my plate, with the other half splashing into the dirt below.
“Enjoy this,” they would spit at me in what you are now reading as roughly translated Slavic tongue. “You undeserving foreign mailbox.” Very roughly translated.
Late dinner, however, was an entirely different affair. It was not the evening meal of boiled turnips in turnip stew, though, that kept me looking forward to the occasion. No, the reason why I voluntarily stayed at the camp for six and a half years, when I was only sentenced to three months, was the pale skinned beauty known as Avamaria.
Ava wore her coal black her in a thick bun decorated with wildflowers from the local village. She herself was a gorgeous wildflower growing in a pile of dirt black coal. This beauty, this darling, this angel working in a prison camp. Ava was a kitchen hand.
We had become familiar with one another within the first month of my arrival. It was not a hard decision. The only other woman who frequented the camp was the rugged all-terrain Olga. Ava herself was drawn to my golden complexion and superior dental hygiene.
In the evenings, we would walk together along the barbed fences of the prison complex. Ava, wearing one of countless gorgeous floral dresses she held in high rotation. I, wearing my prison jump suit. This particular evening was my last one there, as I was to return back to my homeland to make it in time for the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – something which truly promised to be an event of a lifetime.
“Ava, my darling. My tulip.” I whispered gently.
“My sun and stars.” She whispered back. Her eyes were black holes and I had fallen through long ago.
“My moon and sky.”
“I will miss you.”
“You won’t have to. Please, come with me. We can start a family and live until we die.”
She hesitated. It was not her eyes, but her lips that betrayed her. They wobbled like spinning plates slowing down and losing their force of motion. And she ground to a halt. And she crashed into a million pieces.
I left the camp the next morning, silhouetted against the rising sun as we trailed down the freezing river towards civilisation.
She loved me, she told me. She loved me more than she had ever loved any human. But she was in love with her world even more.
Ava was a girl from the Czechoslovakian village of Branov. She belonged to its lush hills and still water. She was born beneath the clear sky. She would die beneath its starry night. There was room for me to fit within the small plastic mould of her universe, but she could not fit in mine.
It dawned on me that I was a simple traveller. I was a journeyman with new destinations that grew with my weary heart.
It was time for me to leave the Czechoslovakian prison camp. With turnips hidden beneath my coat pocket, I said farewell to Avamaria, my once beloved who forever remained in Branov.
The sea and sky look like they blend into one, and as I stand there on the platform, I picture myself staring at a gradient blue-grey painting creased by the horizon. The golden frame of memory keep this sight forever on display in my mind. I see her there, I think I do. Waiting for me on the distant beach. She’s standing with her back to me, but I can tell it’s her. Not because she’s the only one there on this glacial winter’s day, but because she’s wearing the same outfit she wore when we broke up.
Mara, on the beach, in the clothes I once knew. A summertime girl standing alone in her kingdom.
I want to call her name. I want to plunge into her love when she turns around and I see her face, but I remember what the old man said on the train before we parted ways.
“As soon as we think it’s coming to an end, it starts up all over again.”
He takes off his scarf, and his coat and his beanie. The light from the morning sun illuminates his figure. He’s smoking a cigarette that tastes like her kiss.
And I leave her there. Mara. A girl I once loved, and continue loving in the past. It liberates me, the steady revelation that I no longer remember her face.
I do. I do. I leave her there, standing faceless on the beach until the stars come crashing into the sea. Until the end of time.