For the past few months, every night had been a carbon copy of the last. She had her routine completely perfected and running like clockwork. At eleven, she would ritualistically place the mug of warm water down on the bedside table, next to the little gold jewellery box which took pride of place under her night lamp. Carefully she would pry free a single tablet from the blister pack and add it to the growing pile in the gold case.
She would check that the bedroom door was locked at least three times and then peer into the jewellery case momentarily before closing the lid. Seventy six tablets sat in that case now, like little white pebbles neatly piled around a makeshift grave. She admired them in their case like a young child would with their prized toy collection.
Finally, she would set her alarm for the next morning, turn off her nightlight, and clamber into bed. She rested her weary head on the downy pillow, as she stared up at the peeling white paint on the ceiling for a few minutes. She would close her eyes and take one big, long, inhale. It was followed by a slow intentional exhale, and then she would repeat.
She visualised the secret vault hidden deep inside her mind. It had locked within it her collection of memories, her life experiences that she had stashed away from the rest of the world. It always smelt damp in there, and she could almost hear the dripping of a leaky pipe echoing somewhere in the distance. She clasped her fingers tightly around the handle of the vault door and pushed it open with a heavy creaking sound. The shelves were lined with little gold cases, glittering in the dimly lit room, daring to be opened.
Each night she would walk around the vault, her hand gently brushing past the cases until it finally came to rest on a single gold box. Upon opening, a memory would replay before her like a dream, and just as quickly as it had appeared, it would suddenly drift away, forgotten forever as most dreams are. She watched the box dissolve before her, a trail of gold dust floating away gently and slowly out of view, like a lost balloon catching a soft breeze. The following night, her eyes would always linger at the space where there had been a gold box the night before.
Rain droplets slowly trickled down the window, coalescing into bigger drops, creating more momentum and speed until they quickly slid away from view. There was no wind and the trees stood stoic while the rain showered down. I sat by the bay window, arms wrapped around my legs and curled up into a tight ball. My face pressed up against the glass, and I could feel the chill from outside. Little fog clouds formed on the window. I watched the birds outside on the grass, foraging in the rain. They were pretty little birds with red chests, and I could just hear their melodic chirps from inside the house. I imagined what it would be like to be a little red chested bird, to be free. I would spread my little wings, furiously flapping them as I soared into the sky, away from here.
It was not an uncommon event at home, my parents were always fighting. Strained voices to hide frustrations, doors slamming in anger, and that tension filled silence before a complete meltdown. They thought that I would not notice the yelling, that I would not understand their words. They thought that I would not notice through half closed doors mother crouching down on the floor, sweeping up the shards of another broken vase.
Today was different though, because after the usual arguing, father rushed out the door with a hurriedly packed suitcase. He had a bitter scowl on his face, like a wounded animal forced to retreat after losing a battle. The rain drenched his hair, and I could see the dark strands clinging to his face and over his eyes like tangled seaweed. He threw his suitcase in the car and never once looked back. His sudden actions had frightened the birds, and they all fluttered away in a hurry, just like father’s car which sped off, leaving behind only puffs of black smoke and the smell of burnt petrol.
The brown powdery dust was caked on my hands and even though I tried to wipe them clean on my clothes, I seemed to be spreading the residue and making a mess. Mother looked over at me and exclaimed,
“Moths are not for squashing! Don’t you know they are spirits of people past? You just killed a person!”
After looking wide eyed at mother’s face for a second, I burst into tears. The thought of killing a person and smearing its remains all over myself was just too much for my six year old feelings to comprehend. Before I could stop myself, banshee wails and deep sobs took over as I slumped on the floor. It took mother many minutes of reassurance to convince me to wash my hands and change clothes.
Standing on the plastic steps, reaching over the bathroom sink, I scrubbed and scrubbed my hands. Soap bubbles formed mounds around the sink drain. Staring down at my own little fingers, it was bewildering that no matter how much I rubbed my hands together, that stubborn powdery residue would not leave me.
The heavens opened up that day, and I couldn’t help thinking to myself- even the world is crying. The rain was pelting down in massive white sheets from the sky. The downpour made the most deafening beating sound as the water struck all the tree leaves before crashing down to the ground. Puddles formed quickly, creating a muddy slosh that covered everyone’s shoes. The water made everything seem to glisten with the wet shine of a newly washed and waxed car.
I stood with mother, huddled under the large black umbrella in my hand, while the roaring sound of the rain almost drowned out the priest’s voice. In a black shift dress with a pink and blue ribbon braided in my hair, I listened to the rhythmic pounding of the raindrops around me. Intently I watched the rippling effect each raindrop left on the puddles in front of me. They created a symphony of imprints on the surface, rebounding quickly and then barely disappearing before another raindrop took its place.
Finally, I made myself look at the much too small coffin, with its delicate gold furnishings and solid wooden frame. I watched it being slowly lowered into the ground while mother held my hand tightly and quietly sobbed.
I refused to shed a single tear as the memory of Belle entered my mind. I remembered the first time I looked upon her face, holding her tiny form as she looked back at me through half squinted eyes. I cradled her, laughing lovingly. We had shared our first magical moment together. I knew then that I would love and care for this human forever.
Now I was standing here in the rain, watching a literal piece of myself being buried in to the ground. Once the service was over, the small gathering started making their way to the car park. I passed mother a handkerchief, knowing that she would be worried about her make-up running.
Thinking this short walk would be occupied by a mournful silence, I was surprised to find the family were all full of gossip. They were busy disapproving people’s outfit choices, weight gains and marriage break downs. Their voices filled with excitement and hands animatedly waved around as they nattered. I watched my muddied shoes leave imprints in the wet grass as I played with the ribbon in my hair.
The smell of moth balls and Chanel No. 5 hit my nostrils as I entered her closet. I tried to hold my breath for as long as I could, before taking small sharp inhales through my mouth. I glanced at my watch again. Frantically I opened each drawer. I resisted the urge to rifle manically, knowing she would notice if even one blouse was left askew. Mother was at the grocery store, but it wouldn’t be long until she arrived home.
It had to be here, hidden in the dark recesses of her closet. It occupied my mind so much; I could almost see what it would look like. An old, slightly tattered shoe box, sitting carefully tucked away under some clothes, waiting to be found. It would smell musty but still carry the scent of father’s sweet after shave. In it would contain five years of letters, notes, birthday and Christmas cards. I could imagine opening the cards and reading father’s scrawled writing, the notes filled with his dad jokes and funny illustrations. It happened all the time in the movies-; divorced parents, custody battles, and boxes of hidden correspondence. This was the last corner of the house that hadn’t been searched, it had to be here.
Suddenly there was a gentle thud of a car door closing. I startled and almost jammed my finger in the drawer as I shoved it shut. Turning off the light and running out of the closet, my sleeve wiped my wet cheeks as I raced back to the couch.
The sun was scorching down on the quadrangle as teens swarmed out of their classrooms and formed their usual little cliques out on the grass. Laughter and shouts filled the air. I sat, as usual on a small bench tucked away in the corner of the quadrangle, under the shade of an enormous oak tree. I nibbled on my sandwich with one hand, my latest read in the other. Crumbs fell onto my lap. The boisterous sounds of mirth and sweltering heat made it difficult to concentrate on the pages.
School had a masterful way of highlighting my inability to connect with others. I always felt I was underwater, watching everybody above me. The water weighed me down, making my movements slow and difficult, sounds were permanently muffled. An invisible barrier of water separated me from the rest of the world.
With my eyes glued to my book, I felt conscious of people’s eyes on me. Hushed whispers and stifled snickers echoed in the background. My cheeks felt flushed. My heart was pounding. When the wailing siren finally interrupted my thoughts, I let out a silent sigh of relief, as I stuffed my book back into my bag and trudged to my next class.
It felt like my ears were blocked with water after a long day of swimming, every inch of my body felt a heavy fatigue that I had never experienced before. Muddled thoughts were running through my mind. With the blaring white lights in the background, I could see the woman’s lips moving, her mouth forming words, words that were being spoken to me. It all sounded like a symphony of white noise though, and as I strained my ears to try and make out the words, I realised there was a pile of pamphlets in my hands. I looked down at the top pamphlet which had written on the front page in dainty cursive font; Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Immediately Belle’s expressionless face came into focus and it felt as though someone had flicked a switch, violently returning the memories from the last few hours.
The woman in front of me was a nurse, empathising and discussing the information in the pamphlets. She was sincerely recommending the grief support group for parents who had lost children through SIDS. An image entered my mind, sitting with these people, introducing myself, describing Belle, describing how she came to be traumatically conceived and ripped away from this world shortly after. The hairs on my arms pricked up from the goose bumps as an involuntarily shudder took over my body. Forcing a smile for the woman, I politely thanked her, and turned to mother who was sobbing behind me. We looked at each other for a sincere moment, and she gave a slight nod of the head. Without a word mother reached for her keys and we walked off hand in hand towards the car park.
Grey clouds loomed in the sky as I sat on the couch with mother. My muscles had settled into the cushions, feeling heavy and relaxed. My fingers expertly flicked from page to page as my eyes quickly scanned the magazine. It was our typical Sunday afternoon. The weekly pile of tabloids sat on the coffee table in front of us. Mother was proudly pointing out celebrity’s outfits as if she had designed the clothes herself. She always finished with- ‘that would never look that good on our bodies’.
Admiring a celebrity’s perfect form was often followed by avid pointing and sighs of disapproval at celebrities who had ‘let themselves go’. Bold captioned letters were used to induce the necessary disgust and repulsion. Mother turned her magazine around towards me until I looked up from mine, and nodded in agreement.
A nature documentary flashed in my mind. A tribe of monkeys sitting around, grooming each other and laughing wildly. This image often entered my mind when the family got together; always full of competitive gossip with their long monkey tails happily waving in the air, and cheeky grins plastered on their faces.
Later, getting out of the shower, I caught my reflection in the mirror and could read the obvious displeasure on my own face. Standing in this light, I could see all the imperfections that littered my face and body. The one eye that was smaller than the other, the lopsided smile, and the eyebrows that were too harsh for my face. Standing on the bathroom scales, an audible sigh escaped my lips. I looked down at the hips that were too big for my small upper frame, down to the cellulite riddled thighs and around to that flat, pancake like behind. I cupped the small breasts which had been hastily misplaced on my chest and looked at my reflection. A big yellow caption framed the mirror- ‘OVERWEIGHT AND OUT OF CONTROL’. Turning away, I let out another sigh as I hurriedly threw on my clothes.
Colourful streamers and balloons hung everywhere in the backyard. Cheerful beats of some pop song blared from the speakers. Everyone was swaying away on the makeshift dance floor, the boys strutting around like proud peacocks, the girls pretending not to notice. The giant pink banner that hung in the yard said- “Sweet 16th”.
Mother was rushing around making sure there was enough food, checking that guests had drinks and that everyone was having a good time. Her cheeks were flushed pink and her alert eyes scanned the yard constantly. I looked at that gaudy banner above me, and anger coursed through my veins. I didn’t want to celebrate my birthday- I decided long ago that I hated it.
None of the people here knew me, or even liked me. I could practically hear the popular girls huddled in the centre of the dance floor laughing and mocking every detail of the party. The aromas of barbequed meat and sugary sweet fairy floss wafted in the air. Adults mingled effortlessly, the teens danced awkwardly and I stood still.
The tattered white gate at the side of the house stared back at me. It used to be father’s most frequented way into the house. Instead of pulling up the driveway, walking up the front path and through the front door, he would walk to that side gate and enter the house via the back door. He’d wink at me and say it was the best way to avoid mother. It never worked though because the hinges of the gate were rusted over, creaking and creating a shrill scraping sound that gave him away. He always said he would fix it one day.
Some nights I would suddenly wake wide eyed, certain I had just heard that metallic squeaking of the side gate. I remembered a smaller version of myself jumping out of bed and eagerly waiting behind the door. I would sit cross legged on the floor all night until mother found me and put me back to bed.
Even now, with the party bustling around me, I stood still, waiting. Waiting to hear the rusted hinges straining as the gate slowly pried open to reveal father’s wild dark hair. He would flash his charming grin and twinkling eyes. His arms would be full of wrapped presents, a stack that would come tumbling down as the full force of my hug bowled him over. Our chuckled laughter would echo in the wind.
There was a distinct musty smell in the room, a veil of death lingered in the air, mixed with a deep sense of grief. Lying sprawled out across the bed, the doona covered random parts of my undressed body. The afternoon sunlight was creeping through and shining inconveniently on my face. Despite being awake, my eyes were tightly shut, thinking, as a child might, that if I could not see the world, perhaps it could not see me. I refused to move and kept entirely still, as if that would stop the world from spinning and life from continuing. I wondered how long it had been, how long this empty shell of a body had been lying in bed, muscles wasting away from bones. That beautiful red dress in the closet might actually fit now.
Moving my head to get out of the direct sunlight, I caught a muffled and restrained voice. It had been a very long time, but I knew I could never mistake the hushed malice and aggressive tones of my parents arguing. It made me curious enough to slide out of bed and peek through the half closed bedroom door.
Like an eavesdropping child, I crouched in silence, feeling a pang of disappointment when I caught a glimpse of mother arguing on the phone. Father was not here.
“This is serious, your daughter needs you. Won’t you even speak to her?”
An uncomfortable lump formed in my throat and my knees went weak. With trembling hands, waterfalls started streaming down my face. I bit my lip to stop from sobbing.
“For years I have begged and begged for you to come see her. She has needed you so many times before, but this is different...”
Tip toeing back into my room, my insides screamed silently into the darkness. My body felt like bursting at the seams. I had always been under the impression that he had been kept away all these years by mother’s abrasive and protective nature. It had never occurred to me that he simply did not want or need, to see me. It never occurred to me until now, that there really was no hidden box of correspondence.
The hinge of the letterbox door creaked as I peered inside and reached for the mail. Walking back towards the house, my head down and browsing through the bundle of envelopes before me, I thought I heard another creaking sound. Looking up, I noticed our neighbour propped up in a wheelchair on the porch. Grandma Alice had lived next door for as long as I could remember. When we first moved into this house, Grandma Alice was already there.
I studied the grandma, her weathered, wrinkled face stoic as her glazed eyes stared out blankly onto the world. She was wearing a moth brown cardigan that had a distinct stale odour. Her mouth was slightly ajar, and pools of saliva hung stagnant in the corners of her mouth. Her fingers were arthritically bent, and a constant tremor had now permanently taken over her hands. Grandma Alice had been in a wheelchair for many years, but in recent times she had deteriorated rapidly, no longer able to speak apart from the occasional breathy, nonsensical mutterings.
In all the years of living next to Grandma Alice, the only visitor I had ever seen there was her carer. It was her carer who pushed her out onto the front porch to get some fresh air every Sunday. I often wondered about Grandma Alice’s life and how she came to be living in that big house where no one visited her. As I continued up the path and turned to enter the house, I felt a pang in my chest thinking about the tears I just saw glistening in Grandma Alice’s eyes.
It must have been Sunday because Mother was getting ready for church. I heard her scrambling out of the shower, blasting the hair dryer and warming up her vocal cords. The early morning sunlight was starting to shine through the sides of the curtains and give the room a warm yellow glow. Stirring slowly, I wiped the drool from the corner of my mouth and lifted my head groggily. The exhaustion of new motherhood was unrelenting, but I had thankfully managed to sleep for a few hours without Belle stirring.
I staggered across to the cot, looking at the clock on the wall and thinking about her feeding schedule. She looked so peaceful, lying on her tummy with her hands up by her side. I gently turned her over to pick her up. It felt like a speeding truck had just come hurtling straight into my stomach, completely knocking the wind out of me.
The moments that followed were a blur. My own voice was screaming for mother. Two fingers were pulsing on Belle’s tiny little unmoving chest. The bouncy rubber chest of the baby mannequin at the First Aid course sprang to mind. Sounds of sirens and urgent voices arrived. There was rushing about around me. During the ambulance ride, I stared in horror at Belle’s cold lifeless body and the blank expression on her little blue face. Somewhere in the vehicle a new born moth fluttered its wings.
My hands trembled slightly as I walked, I could feel my lower lip quivering. Before me, all I could see were endless photos hanging on the walls like a mural of death. The class outing to the war exhibition had seemed like just another formality until I entered the building and was confronted by all the vivid horror. Stopping and turning towards the wall, I forced myself to look into the eyes of the child staring back at me. His eyes were wide open but lifeless, his contorted body limp on the ground and his face was smeared with blood and grime. His body lay next to hundreds of others, piled high along the dirt road. Standing above his body were two proud grubby soldiers with grins on their faces.
The other photos were all the same, graphic depictions of self-inflicted human suffering. Looking around the room was overwhelming. Seemingly endless human destruction was on full display. A deep sinking feeling gnawed at my insides as I moved down the corridor. I was horrified but transfixed by the photographs of torture instruments and subsequent pictures of mutilated survivors staring blankly into the camera lens. The photos were captioned with detailed accounts of torture techniques and death statistics.
The exhibition was extensive, but there were not enough walls to display all the human suffering in the world. Wandering from room to room, corridor through corridor, the world started to spin. The hallways began to narrow. All I could see before me were blurs of colour, pieces of faces, and flashes of sad eyes. I realised I was hopelessly lost and could not find the exit. My legs somehow ached with the fatigue of days of running. I kept walking, hoping to find my way out but all I could see before me was death.
The iridescent lighting felt jarring, like an interrogation light shining directly into my face. Beads of sweat were forming on the surface of my palms. I quickly moved to wipe them on my shirt. My eyes darted from side to side, peering at the people around me. I felt clammy and nervous. Two people stood in front, and I turned around to count five people behind me.
A sigh escaped me as I anxiously fiddled with the paper in my hands. The line continued to progress and I could feel myself losing my nerve. I made a move to turn around and walk out, but knew I couldn’t. The last tablets were taken this morning. Empty blister packs filled the bathroom waste basket.
The pharmacy fell silent as the chemist called out for the next customer. Eyes of the people behind me were burning a hole straight into my skull, the smell of searing flesh filling my nostrils. Sheepishly, I pushed the prescriptions down on the counter and towards the young man dressed in a white pharmacist coat. He took the scripts, flicked through the wads of multiple prescriptions stapled together, looked back at me, and raised an eyebrow.
The universe fell into slow motion as I glanced behind and felt the judgemental glares of everyone on me. A couple of young women wore repulsed looks on their faces and snickered. My heart pounded, drums were beating in my ears and tears welled in the corners of my eyes.
The moment passed abruptly, and the world returned to normal speed. As instructed, I waited off to the side and stared at a particularly interesting spot on the carpet until my name was called out. Tightly gripping the brown paper bag with white knuckles, I let a wave of relief wash over me.
I have never hated this ugly beige carpet more than in this very moment. I stared at it and almost bared my teeth in anger like a rabid dog foaming at the mouth. Mother was sitting across from me on our faded brown couch saying something I couldn’t comprehend right now. My gaze moved to the positive symbol in front of me, the test seemed unreal. Its cheap white plastic looked like it came from a toy bought at a two dollar shop. I looked across at the other five pregnancy tests, each displaying their own little blue plus sign and was overwhelmed by a sense of defeat.
Deep inside there was a seed of disgust for the innocent life growing inside me. It was quickly consumed by a wave of disgust for myself. I was furious that it took me more than three months to realise something was amiss. It seemed so logical to blame stress for my recent lethargy, wild swings in appetite, nausea and lack of menstruation. However, with each passing week, as symptoms developed and my stomach started to swell, it became clear that this was something else entirely. This was some cruel joke that the universe had decided to play on me.
Beads of sweat slowly dripped down my forehead and dangerously close to my eye lids. I tried to ignore the toxic sludge of anxiety slowly bubbling up inside. It threatened to boil over and spill out onto the streets. I glanced at my watch again while increasing my pace along the pavement. I would be late for my appointment. As the second hand of my watch continued to tick along, I could feel the level of anxiety rising and sitting heavy in the back of my throat.
An offensive smell unexpectedly reached my nostrils and made me flinch. I turned to see a man with a grimy face and matted hair. He flashed a toothy smile and gave a slight nod. His garments looked as though they had been fabricated from off cuts from other clothes, stitched together like a tattered quilt. Clusters of moth holes were visible on his rags. By his side stood a young girl of six or so, her face equally as grimy, with dirt matted on her clothes and caked under her fingernails. They held hands, shuffling along aimlessly, stopping occasionally to peer into the garbage cans on the street. In his other hand, he had a half empty garbage bag containing their belongings.
It took me a minute to realise I had slowed my pace right down, and was now watching the pair meander away out of view. I stopped momentarily and looked around me, watching people going about their busy lives. It was like no one else had seen the father and daughter, they had been invisible. Suddenly remembering that I was late, I hurried down the road again.
My knuckles were white from gripping the books tightly against my chest like a shield. I could instantly feel the piercing eyes of everyone on me. Pity hung heavy in the air, suffocating every breath. The walls of the hallways seem to close in all around, forcing me into a smaller and smaller space. I knew straight away that mother had been wrong.
It had been two weeks since the incident and mother had assured me that life would have gone on and nobody would remember the assault. Clearly, the topic was still on the forefront of everybody’s minds. The media had widely publicised the attack and its proximity to university grounds. The fact that the victim’s name was released to the public had been a matter of great debate.
The commotion on social media erupted, as well as the inundation of messages of love and support, most from people I did not know, or worse, did not like me. It was hard to tell if the fake sympathy or the criticism was more hurtful. There were voices pronouncing that incidents like these justified the fact that women should not be travelling alone at night, that they should not be out drinking, and that they should most certainly be aware of the kind of attention that their attire invites.
It was difficult not to read all the messages and comments; they drew me in and swallowed me up completely. They consumed me and festered rampantly amid all the shame, pity and anger. This was why mother had insisted I got out and reclaimed my normal routine. So here I am, walking down the hall, every eye on me, every word uttered about me. It was like being a newborn giraffe, all legs and no balance or common sense. Focusing squarely on the space in front of me, I placed one foot in front of the other, carefully making my way to class.
The aroma of spices and pollution floated in the air along with the chattering of people and honking of cars. It had been a long time since I had visited this old local market. My parents had taken me many times when I was younger, father would hold my hand tightly as we weaved through the narrow alleys suffocated by the hustle and bustle. The street vendors would wave their produce in the air, customers animatedly bartered away and all the while father’s grip would hold steady.
As I brushed shoulders with the people around me, struggling to move forward through the crowd with any sense of purpose, I eventually gave up and let the momentum of the crowd nudge me along like a heavy cart. Gazing about all the commotion, a bright orange flash caught my eye. The intoxicating fragrance was the next thing to capture my senses and immediately my head snapped back to the fruit stall. The owner had in his laboured sun kissed hands the most amazing mangoes.
Instantly a childhood memory flooded me; father’s strong, large shoulders lifting me up to the branches of the mango tree. He taught me how to sniff each fruit, hunting for that sweet fragrance which indicated it was ripe. Then he would peel it carefully while I greedily waited. The memory was so vivid, so poignantly distressing that tears began welling in my eyes.
With all these strangers milling about, I suddenly felt so alone. The chaotic sounds, the mixed aromas were all but gone. I blinked, and it was empty, I was standing in the middle of the market on my own.
Indifferent expressions were glued on their faces. They sat across from me with the vast metal table stretching out between us. It was difficult to breathe, to focus and the right answers weren’t coming out. They would glance at each other whenever I was incoherent, it made me panic and falter even more. They pressed for details I did not have, for memories I couldn’t recall and all the while there was always a hint of disbelief in their tone.
Every time the police called it made me nervous. I could imagine their cold statuesque faces looking at me before I even walked in to the station. The burden to remember more, describe more, provide more weighed heavily on me.
Photos were thrown at me in an attempt to jog the memory, shoved in my face as if they were pictures of someone else’s bruises, someone else’s humiliation. I looked at the photos to appease them, but focussed solely on a spot in the background of the photo, afraid of what I would find in my own sad face.
As their questions became more specific, my answers became vaguer. Looking at each other, the policemen seemed to silently nod before turning their gaze back to me. They explained that the lack of detail, evidence and witness accounts meant the case was unlikely to be pursued further and it would be closed. They stood up from the table, collected their papers and left the room with complacent expressions on their faces, satisfied that they had done their duty to protect and serve.
Turning the key, I swung the door open. The sound of that key clicking in the lock was the most wonderful sound of the day. It signified independence, a space where I could strip it all back and breathe. The whole day was spent with bated breath, hiding behind a mask and afraid to take one wrong step. Entering that apartment always felt like taking my first breath of the day.
The first task was always to wash off the day. Dressed in my favourite home rags I walked over to the fridge, pulled the handle and peered inside. A wilted lettuce in the crisper looked back at me. Mother’s voice resonated in my mind, berating my undomesticated nature and still naked ring finger.
Turning on the TV instead, I settled on the couch and watched the news. The handsome anchor man with salt and pepper hair was narrating the headlines in an exaggerated voice. Impending war threatened as terror attacks ran rampant. Natural disasters were devastating unprepared communities. Disease, starvation and violence swept across the screen like an afternoon sea breeze. Flashes of pained faces, destroyed cities and bloody death filled the room. Without warning tears began to roll down my face. I let the negativity wash over me for a few more minutes, and when I could stand it no longer, I got up, and switched off the TV.
The big bright numbers illuminating my phone screen told me that it was much too late at night. Waking up early tomorrow morning would be difficult. The thought of unfinished assignments and incomplete exam revision filled my mind as I cursed myself for being out this late.
Unfortunately the illusion of belonging mattered to me. The obligation to participate in social activities was sometimes necessary. So, on occasion I found myself standing in crowded bars with loud blaring music. The night would involve unwanted drinks in my hand, disingenuous laughter from my mouth and a deeply uncomfortable knot in my stomach.
I was trying to recall all the social faux pas I had committed that night when I thought I heard footsteps. Turning around quickly, I scanned the scene behind me. I was walking on the park footpath where the streetlights kept the area well lit. I couldn’t see anyone around me. The pub lights were still visible in the distance and the melodic beats and shrieks of drunken mirth could be heard nearby. Somewhere in the distance, there were sounds of sirens in the city.
A car full of youths sped down the street, revving the engine and yelling something I didn’t quite catch. Their cackles of laughter hung in the air after the car was no longer in sight. The park was a four minute walk from home so I picked up my pace and continued on. I took my phone out of my pocket again to send a message to mother. I squinted my eyes from the bright light of the screen. The air felt cold and goose bumps formed on my skin. Suddenly, a shadow moved and the world turned on its side. I heard the sickening thump of my own head as it hit the pavement and a drowsy cloak of unconsciousness took over me.
The air was heavy and thick, with the suffocating smell of sweat and after shave. My arm ached from hanging on to the handle which was just a little too high to be comfortable. Bodies were pressed up against me, I could feel that scratchy sensation of a stranger’s hair brushing up against my skin. Precariously balanced and squished, I tried to look at my watch again.
It would be another long, uncomfortable commute. My days as a personal assistant felt mundane and never-ending. With my life in tatters, Uncle’s connections were the only reason I had this job. It was offered out of pity and I accepted out of obligation.
Sometimes at family events, the relatives would talk about me in secretive whispers. Lamenting the loss of my potential now that I was damaged goods. My cousin’s children would rush about in hushed tones when they saw me and avoid eye contact, as if tragedy was contagious.
The train’s rhythmic clattering continued as more commuters crammed on at each station. The carriage squeezed tighter and tighter until I struggled for breath. A familiar deep pit twisted in my stomach, and a gurgling sensation like acid reflux burned in my throat. My skin was clammy and covered in cold sweat. I began involuntarily gasping wildly for air like a fish out of water. The people closest to me peered over with curiosity. I opened my mouth to try and form the words, but before I could, my body went limp and the world went dark.
It had been a while since I had picked up a pencil. I sat in the bay window as the spring sun warmed my skin. Gazing outside at the blossoming flowers and yellow butterflies, I imagined a scene from a Disney movie. A princess danced around singing along with all the magical animals of the forest. My pencil and sketch book sat on my lap and before long, the rhythmic sounds of pencil on paper filled my mind and shapes began to form.
Sketching absent-mindedly, I let my thoughts drift away. It had been a tumultuous year to say the least and my mind hadn’t caught up yet. I thought of the other day, sitting in a circle formation with strangers, listening to them speak of things so deeply personal and private. Stories that made me cringe, stories that made my insides shrivel up like a dried prune. Realising the loss of an infant’s life was an experience that I shared with so many others made me feel worse.
I couldn’t understand how people found solace in sharing each other’s tragedies. While I sat there listening, it felt like an extra burden of sadness and despair was being piled onto my shoulders, bearing down on me until I could no longer sit upright. The hour felt like an eternity, and by the end my muscles ached and my heart felt heavy in my chest. Ignoring other people’s attempts to speak to me, I quickly walked towards the door and the safety of my car. I felt breathless and defeated.
Looking down at the piece of paper in front of me, I realised that I had finished drawing. My eyes traced the curved lines that formed delicate fingers interwoven with another set of smaller, even more delicate fingers in an intimate gesture. The embrace demonstrated a maternal affection that was clearly evident even on paper. A single tear stain marked the corner of the page.
The bright lights shone straight on my face. I almost had to lift my arm to shield my eyes as I walked up the stage. Without looking, I could hear mother’s proud applause over the entire audience. The air was filled with an excited buzz from the crowd, a sense of achievement and pride draped the hall like Christmas decorations. My feet landed on each step with an unsteady heaviness and when I reached the Dean, I clumsily received the Diploma without looking into his face. He grasped my hand in an awkward handshake as we turned towards the camera for a photo.
Mother’s beaming face stood out in the crowd, her cheeks flushed and teeth exposed in a completely genuine smile. Her hands clapped loudly in the air above her head like a cheerleader. Mother wore on her face an expression that took a while to decipher. A mixture of longing and sadness hit me when I recognised the expression as pride. It looked odd on mother’s face, like an ill-fitting dress that was two sizes too small.
It was the first time mother had ever been proud of me. After all, in my hands was a shining symbol of triumph, my ability to overcome all obstacles, and show the world that I was still here. Mother had given up on me ever achieving this goal long ago. And here I was, on stage defying all odds. I had imagined this moment would be bursting with a sense of self-fulfilment and joy, but when I searched within myself, there was nothing there. It felt empty and hollow like the cheap chocolate eggs bought at Easter time. I had worked hard to unwrap the egg, break it in half, only to find nothing inside and now I stood in front of everybody, while they looked blankly into my empty shell.
I felt the quilted texture of the turquoise couch underneath me, my fingers running over the seams, looking for a loose thread to pull and unravel the entire couch. I willed the ground to crumble away under my feet and the earth to rip apart and devour me. I intentionally averted the gaze of the woman sitting on the couch across from me. She sat patiently with a clipboard and pen on her lap. A gentle expectant smile was on her face. I was ashamed that I had forgotten. Not that long ago I used to count the minutes, hours and days. That’s why it was so shocking when she reminded me that today was three years since Belle’s passing.
Many times I had sat across from this woman. Many times this turquoise couch had witnessed my pure, guttural sobbing. I remember the first thing that came out of my mouth that first time I sat on the couch. I was looking squarely into her eyes when I said-
“Its hard to be around people when you’re not like them”.
The sessions over the years had undoubtedly helped, there was no denying that. There was always something that lay deeper though, it silently lurked in the background. It had been there for as long as I can remember, slowly accumulating over the years, developing from every seemingly insignificant event and interaction in my life. I had never been able to fathom it before, but sitting on the couch now, I could feel it building up inside me. I was afraid people would be able to see it radiating from my skin and pulsing through my veins. It was in fact, a complete apathy for life.
Everything was the same, but it was somehow also different. There was the familiar feeling of her regular nightly routine. Tonight however, she did not set her alarm, and she did not check if the bedroom door was locked. The empty mug sat on the bedside table, next to the empty gold jewellery case. It had been a long time since she had seen the inner lining at the bottom of that case; it looked strange and unfamiliar to her now.
From the moment she had made the decision one hundred days ago, her resolve had never wavered. She felt relief when she finally acknowledged to herself that she had endured enough. As the edges started to blur and the cloak of sleepiness started to wrap itself around her, she thought of her mother. She thought of the drawing of the intertwined hands that she had left for her on the bedside table and hoped her mother would understand her decision. She climbed into bed for the last time, pulling the covers up to her shoulders, closing her tired eyes and inhaling deeply, ready for whichever final memories she would dream tonight. As the gentle fluttering of moth’s wings whispered in the darkness, what came to her in the end was more visionary dream than memory.
I stood at the precipice, looking at my hands and nervously waiting. I turned towards the ocean that was crashing against the rocky cliff below. The howling wind made my dark hair dance wildly around my face. I thought I heard someone call out so I turned around anxiously.
I beamed as I admired that sweet three year old’s face. Her little pearly white teeth glistened as a smile that mirrored mine flashed back at me. Dimples formed in her cheeks. They were flushed pink against her pale delicate skin. Those familiar warm eyes twinkled with delight. Belle had a pink and blue ribbon braided through her hair, and looked up at me expectantly with an outstretched hand. Clasping my daughter’s tiny hand in mine, we turned to watch the golden sun set over the horizon. A foreign feeling overwhelmed my heart and exploded in my chest as we watched the orange and pink hues of the sun’s rays set fire to the sky. It took a minute to name the feeling, but finally it came to me and my lips moved to silently mouth the word- Peace.