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Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Sympathetic Interlocutor

A Sympathetic Interlocutor


D.A. Cairns

Decorated was the word that first came to mind when he noticed her cheeks. Breaking eye contact only very briefly because he wanted to hold her gaze as long as possible, the strange patterns on her cheeks caught his attention. They might have been scars, burn scars or, had they been located somewhere else on her body, the kind of scars left after a surgical attempt to remove tattoos. The thought intrigued him for a moment and suspended the moment of greeting in time.

Suddenly aware of her soft hand inside his, he let go and stepped back gesturing for her to take a seat. When he had settled himself opposite her, he saw that she was watching him and he instinctively stiffened. Her eyes were huge, round and dark chocolate. Adorned with lid liner and shadow, her lashes were spruced and unnaturally thick, and she would have elicited a comment in his mind about her being overdone had she been someone else. Had they been somewhere else. Everything seemed different. He felt different. She shifted her weight slightly and tilted her head to the right, apparently waiting for him to speak.

Embarrassed, he cleared his throat and summoned sufficient strength to concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing. But even as he spoke, those funny marks on her cheeks wrestled for his attention. They could have been freckles, although they were lightly coloured in contrast to her olive complexion, but not single freckles gathered together in clumps. More like thousands of them packed into adjacent rooms for all night dance parties. This thought amused him, and his accidental smile was returned warmly and sincerely. This woman was breathtaking. Not classically beautiful because of her cheeks and the way her thick black hair was held away from her face in a clumsy ponytail -she looked like she had spent all her preparation time on her face and not left enough to do her hair properly. She was indisputably stunning nevertheless.

‘Why are you here?’ he asked her. ‘Why have you come here today?’

‘Well,’ she began slowly, finally looking away and thus releasing him from the spell she was casting over him. ‘I think I need to improve my reading and writing.”
A perfectly constructed sentence delivered in a languid Middle Eastern accent. Improve, he thought, how could you improve on perfection?
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Is not being able to read and write as well as you would like to stopping you from doing something you want to do. Like further study, for example?’

She thought for a moment, averting her eyes and thus giving him the chance to study her more closely. From her full lips dressed in red, over her chin and down her slender neck, his eyes stopped when they reached a golden angel sitting astride her cleavage. The line of the thin chain which suspended the angel matched the low vee cut of her white dress.

‘I would like to go back to work now that my children are older.’

He loved the way information was revealed slowly during these interviews, morsel by juicy morsel, peeling away the layers of protection, the walls people built around their personal lives. Those walls invariably crashed to the floor as the interview progressed. Whether verbally, in their speech or their writing, or non verbally in their body language, they communicated their lives to him, their hearts and minds and he was an avid reader.

‘How old are your children?’

‘I have three. Thirteen, eleven, and nine. All girls.’

It was impossible not to stare as the enchantment grew, filling the room like fog. He had thought she was probably aged in her early thirties. It was hard to tell sometimes, especially with women who were able to hide their age so much more efficiently than men. However with children that age she was more likely to be in her late thirties, even early fortes though that was scarcely believable. Desperately curious to confirm his suspicions that she was older than she looked, he selected a piece of paper from the pile on the desk which filled the space between them and placed it in front of her.

‘Please fill in this form.’

Date of birth was the fourth question so he watched eagerly as she wrote, his eyes glancing occasionally past her hands with jewelled fingers, to her breasts which seemed to have risen higher, threatening to spill out of her dress. Maybe it was the way she was sitting, leaning forward with her arms pressed tight into her sides.

She wrote 11/9/64. He wanted to tell her how surprised he was that she was forty three and how beautiful she looked but he couldn’t. How could one compliment a woman without her thinking that you were a pervert at worst, or a sleaze at best? The words would always be construed as flattery with intent, no matter how politely you phrased them. How could one be sure in himself that the words were merely a genuine compliment and not expressions of desire, or worse: lust? How could he be sure? There was a place, an inside world where he could be alone with his thoughts and feelings, where he could sift through memories and adjust them as necessary and use them however he wished. A place to fantasize and twist reality to feed his insatiable lust.  It was a place of both refuge and repression. A haven and a hell.

The interview proceeded normally; she answered questions, did the tasks, the reading, the writing and the mathematics while he filled in forms, ticked boxes, interpreted and analysed both her and her work, made her laugh, made her blush, made himself blush with his boldness, noticed the delicate chain around her ankle and her painted toenails, and averted his eyes when she needed to adjust her clothing to recover what was being gradually, conspiratorially revealed. All the while he wondered whether the chemistry he felt between them was real or imagined, and whether the way she tilted her head and played with her hair was flirtatious or merely absent minded. He even went so far as to suggest they could go on talking for the rest of the day, and she had agreed, and although the exchange was light hearted he felt the words expressed genuine sentiment. He really did enjoy her company. This admission was followed by a fist of guilt jabbing him in the ribs a few times. He was married and so was she.

‘The interview is finished now. You can go and have a nice cup of coffee. Thanks for your time and good luck,’ he said, slowly standing up.

She smiled as he took her soft hand in his and he wished her well a second time.

They stood behind the door in the small interview room savouring a ridiculously long good-bye. The truth was he did not want her to go and she was in no hurry to leave. In the pregnant silence, he began to feel dizzy and was still holding her hand when he opened his mouth to speak. Nothing but air escaped his nervously dry lips, and soon he felt as though he was drowning, like he had fallen into the deep, deep pools of her eyes and they had magically stolen his ability to swim. Seconds passed recklessly into what felt like long minutes as they stood there. Still, no words were spoken and the door to the outside world remained firmly shut.

Finally he released her hand, more from the carelessness of drowsy enchantment than deliberate action, and she looked away. The moment was over. The spell, shattered.

‘Goodbye,’ she said quietly as she opened the door. ‘Thank you.’

He swallowed and managed a very faint, ‘You’re welcome. Good luck.’

Then she left the room and walked away down the corridor. Away from him, away from the mysterious connection they had just undoubtedly shared. He smiled. She was now a new resident in his inside world. A traveller who had landed on his planet and not been allowed to leave, despite wanting to. A fellow prisoner, though not consciously aware of the fact, or even vaguely impacted by the reality of her incarceration.

‘Liliane,’ he breathed wistfully. ‘Goodbye Liliane.’

He sat down, and when he had completed the paperwork and written in his comments and recommendations, he collected all her papers and placed them neatly together inside a red manila folder. He closed the folder and read her name one last time.  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

New story: Racing the Train

Racing the Train


Bob Carlton

It was 3:15 am when I got to the main highway. Running ghostly in the night, a freight train sped down the tracks that ran parallel to the road on the other side. I took a right and was soon keeping pace with the train, both of us southbound doing fifty. At this point I realized that in four and a half miles I would have to take a left and then wait at the crossing for the train to pass. No telling how long it was, or whether or not it would be stopped at the crossing, inching back and forth as cars coupled and uncoupled in some freight yard I couldn't even see. I might end up sitting there for quite a while. Then I noticed the engines were only a few car lengths ahead of me. If both of us hit that intersection at the same time, that could be a long wait indeed. Only one way around that.

Almost as soon as I decided to race the train I hit a red light. It changed quickly, and I was faced with a decision: drive at a leisurely pace and face an inevitable albeit shorter wait at the crossing, or try and get ahead of it and risk not only a longer delay if I don't get there in time, but also the very real possibility of getting pulled over for speeding on this deserted highway in the middle of the night. I floored it.

Just as I was catching back up to the locomotives, the highway took a slight curve westward, while the train continued in a straight line to the southeast. During daylight hours, the highway's alteration in course was almost imperceptible, and one could debate whether it was really the road itself which swung away from the tracks to such a degree, or if the tracks themselves did not veer off at a rather sharp angle at this point. I don't suppose it really matters. The fact was that the train was on a more direct course to our future point of intersection. As our paths diverged, the train shot off behind a line of trees in the distance. I was soon alone on the road, with no sense of either progress or regression. Until I turned left in two miles, when the railroad crossing would be one block away and directly in front of me, I could not gauge my position in relation to my opponent.

When I finally made that turn, no train was in sight. As I crossed the tracks I looked left and saw a headlight, though I could not really judge the distance. I was pleased with myself, though not nearly as much as I was three seconds later, when I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the flashing red lights and descending barrier arms announcing imminent arrival. I grinned widely, filled with a solitary and satisfying sense of triumph. It had been that close.

Two minutes later I pulled into the parking lot, right on time for a job I hate.

Bob Carlton lives and works in Leander, Texas.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Wombat Juice

Wombat Juice was written in 2005, and published twice: 2009 in Delivered, and again in 2012 in Glassfire. Presented here for your enjoyment.

Wombat Juice
D.A. Cairns

            ‘I can’t tell you what’s in it. It’s a secret recipe,’ said Hartley Gregg to an appreciative and curious customer. ‘Why do you think people come here? The exotic and mysterious food we make, that’s why.’
            The customer slowly shook his head, disappointed but understanding, and returned his attention to the Chef’s special of the day, Boomerang Stew.
            ‘Enjoy,’ said Hartley smiling and bowing slightly before moving away to pander to his other customers.
            All his competitors used digital waitresses to take orders and automatons to deliver the meals to the tables because it was the most cost effective method, but Hartley liked to give people a choice. So from the three dimensional interactive menu displayed above the table at eye level, they could chose a real waitperson to come and serve them or just place their order electronically. Despite these necessary concessions to the modern restaurant business, Hartley ran an old fashioned establishment where the people who served contributed as much to the ambience of the restaurant as those who were served.  He liked to get around to the tables himself too whenever possible, to talk to people and make sure they were enjoying their dining experience at Sanctuary.
            At the bar, Hartley ordered a Wombat Juice for table three and smiled as he watched the barman prepare it. When he finished he placed the glass in Hartley’s hand and said, ‘First one, eh Boss?’
            ‘How do you think it will go down?’
            ‘We’ll soon find out.’
            As part of his drive and determination to be on the cutting edge of Australian cuisine, Hartley was always experimenting with new recipes. His father from whom he inherited the business would not have approved at all of all his son’s innovation. He was a traditionalist. A straight up and down, meat and three vegetables, football loving, beer swilling Aussie bloke who reckoned he knew what people wanted and that’s exactly what he gave them. That attitude might have worked in his father’s time but now the competition was so fierce that to be successful one had to have an edge. Hartley’s was food that one could not find anywhere else.
            When the Red Centre opened up to major development, including the construction and establishment of three entirely self contained satellite cities surrounding Alice Springs, many entrepreneurs were excited by the possibilities offered by a twenty first century gold rush. Hartley Gregg was one of these, but he came to his fortune via an unexpected route.
            Long a fan of kangaroo meat, especially barbecued steaks, Hartley had an idea that perhaps some of Australia’s other native animals would also make exotic and sumptuous fare. The problem was, all but the kangaroo, which was considered a pest throughout most of the nation particularly to farmers, were protected by conservation laws. They could not be captured or hurt let alone killed and eaten by hungry or curious humans.
            In the southernmost of these new satellite cities, the imaginatively titled Sandtown, was a native wildlife sanctuary maintained by private sponsorships and grants. Befriending the chief zoologist there, Hartley learned of the development of a new drug designed to improve the breeding success of endangered native species. The engineers of this pill, had in mind the repopulation of large sections of Australia with native animals. Hartley, however saw another use for a possible excess production of native animals.
            ‘What do you think of that?’ said Hartley as he placed the tall glass of Wombat Juice on the table in front of a wide businessman who sat straining at the seams of his dark suit.
            ‘It looks like fruit juice.’
            ‘What did you expect? A frothy brown liquid with hair in it?’
            An equally rotund lady sitting opposite the man snorted her disapproval. ‘Mr Gregg, please, I’m trying to eat.’
            The fat man dismissed his partner with a wave of his fat hand and laughed heartily. ‘You kill me Hartley,’ he said.
                ‘Go on and try it.’
            He lifted the glass slowly to his lips and sniffed at it as though it were fine wine then sipped and swallowed some. A look of bewildered satisfaction came over his fat face and he smiled and said, ‘Damn that’s a peculiar flavor.’ He lifted the glass to eye level and stared at its contents. ‘I’ve never tasted anything like it.’
            ‘Do you like it?’
            ‘I do, Hartley, I do,’ said the man. Pointing his glass at his partner, he added, ‘Better get another one over here for my lady.’
            Hartley nodded, smiling then turned and walked away.
            Success! Winning the approval of the fat man, whom he had hoped would be the first to sample his new creation, was a coup for Hartley. The man was not simply another valued regular customer, he was the Chief Magistrate for the satellite cities. His opinion counted and those he favored, were truly favored. His patronage had helped Hartley establish The Sanctuary Restaurant in the first place, and thereafter forge for himself the reputation of being the finest restauranter in the country.
            Winking to the barman as he passed on his way to the kitchen, Hartley congratulated himself. The initial results of the trials of the new breeding drug were very positive and so, ignoring possoms and koalas due to their cute and cuddly factor, he started to talk up the likelihood of a plague of hairy-nosed wombats. Although the wonder breeding drug eventually failed on all species, Hartley wanted to do something with wombats. So before the results of the trial of the breeding drug were announced, he fabricated a story and released it through his media contacts.
The spin was that for some completely bemusing reason the breeding program had been hyper productive with wombats and now the tubby native beasts, verging  extinction at the beginning of the twenty first century, were proliferating like rabbits. The problem was how to use the surplus of wombats. Zoos all over the world wanted them, intending to populate their own nations with these distinctive Australian citizens, and there was significant interest in them for scientific testing and research but still there were too many. Having to cull a creature once so close to extinction was a bizarre twist of fate.
            What about serving them up on the dinner tables of The Sanctuary’s patrons. Hartley cleverly ruled that out on the grounds that it was theoretically good but highly problematic. Wombat meat was tough, foul smelling and very high in fat. Good for pet food maybe, but not for people. These facts avoided the reality of not having any wombats. Still the idea persisted that some product may be attained and marketed, as being made from wombats.
            Wombat Juice was his brainchild and now its inevitable popularity would ensure he stayed on top, and that was exactly where Hartley Gregg wanted to be.
            The next night everyone demanded Wombat Juice. Hartley was stuck behind the bar helping to prepare the hottest new drink on the menu when a film crew arrived at Sanctuary wanting to do a story for the evening news. Hartley quickly ordered his security automatons to refuse them entry.
Despite the obvious success of word of mouth, Hartley did want to get the word out about Wombat Juice to as many people in as short a time as possible, so he consented to an interview with a journalist he knew personally. She and her photographer were instructed to remain seated at the table during the interview and asked to keep it brief.
Passing table four on his way back to the bar, Hartley took another order for Wombat Juice which he delivered to the overworked barman.
‘Boss, I need a hand here.’
‘Right,’ said Hartley graciously, ‘I’ll do this one myself, no problem.’  To the empty drink shaker he added sliced mango and pineapple, then a teaspoon of salt, and a cup of fresh strawberries followed by one shot of white rum and another of vodka.
‘Don’t forget the Wombat, Boss.’
Hartley smiled at his cheeky barman as he reached under the bar for a bottle of thick brown liquid labeled Wombat. He popped the lid and poured it in. ‘Milo milk and Vegemite. Ridgey didge, my friend,’ he said as he switched on the blender and watched his secret concoction evolve before his eyes. ‘Truly Australian product.’
‘How long do you reckon it will take someone to figure it out?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Hartley, ‘but we’ll make a packet of money and have some fun while we’re waiting, won’t we?’
‘Yeah. Hey what about all the real wombats?’
Hartley smiled. ‘So you believed the story about the hairy-nosed wombat population explosion did you?’
The barman shook his head and laughed. ‘You got me there Boss. You got me there.’

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The First Six Months

Some six months after the launch of Square Pegs e-zine, I have to report on its sadly underwhelming performance. The anticipated flood of submissions has been less than a trickle, and I have resorted to publishing some of my own stories to keep the site active.

Duotrope has contacted me about my weekly publishing schedule which hasn't eventuated, and as usual I am left scratching my head as to why my endeavours do not flourish. As far as I know I am the only editor who has video submissions guidelines, and that alone should have attracted more attention. Nevertheless, I persist, as I have done for many years.

I'm reminded of God's chat with Joan Baxter in the diner scene from Evan Almighty as she struggles to cope with the what's happening to her husband, and her life. "Let me ask you something,' says God in the guise of a waiter. "If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient?"

Square Pegs is open and I am here, ready to receive and read your submissions. Publishing will be on an irregular basis depending on the quality and quantity of the stories, and my time.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A Place of Refuge

I wrote this story in 2002, and its publication in The School Magazine in 2003 remains one of the watershed moments in my writing career. It was four years after I started pursuing writing earnestly, with the ultimate goal of becoming a full time writer.

Being paid for my work was a thrill. Still is. A Place of Refuge has since been re published three times in The School Magazine (2007 & 2015) and in Complex Fairy Tales (2015).

A Place of Refuge by D.A.Cairns

‘I’m so tired of this weather,’ said Spider.

‘Me too,’ agreed Beetle. ‘I want to be out running around in the sweet, long grass feeling the sun on my back.’ She extended and beat her wings suddenly out of frustration.

‘Calm down,’ said Spider. ‘It can’t rain forever.’

‘It feels like forever already,’ said Fly, coming in to land softly beside Spider.

Watching Fly land and settle himself, Beetle tried to control a shiver of disgust. Flies are so ugly, she thought, so unpleasant, I feel like flying away. Politeness restrained her.Perhaps, she wondered, spiders find flies equally disgusting to look at and that’s why they eat them. They couldn’t possibly taste good.

‘Aren’t you going to say hell to me, Beetle?’

‘Hello,’ said Beetle in the coldest, most unfriendly voice she could muster.

‘I was just knocked down by a raindrop,’ said Fly.

‘Silly to be out trying to fly in the rain, don’t you think?’ sneered Beetle.

Spider looked at Beetle and then back at Fly, wondering how long it would be before Beetle’s rudeness caused Fly to lose his cool. They might even kill each other, thought Spider happily.

‘I had to try to get home between showers because my wife was expecting me,’ said Fly.

‘It’s been pouring rain continuously for days,’ said Beetle. ‘How could you have possibly flown in between showers?’

‘I’ve been waiting in here for days,’ said Spider. ‘Putting up with the cold and the smell and the occasional human. It could have stopped raining briefly.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Beetle to them both. Then she said directly to Fly. ‘You’ve been buzzing around inside liquor bottles again. You’re drunk!’

‘Now listen here!’ said Fly raising his voice and twitching.

‘Come on, my friends,’ said Spider. ‘As we are stuck in here until the rain stops, why don’t we try to get on. It’ll make it so much easier. I mean it’s bad enough being stuck in here without having to listen to you two argue.’

‘I just don’t like flies,’ said Beetle to Spider loud enough for Fly to hear. ‘No wonder humans are always trying to squash them or poison them.’

Spider reared up on his back four legs. ‘Who cares what humans think or what they do?’

‘That’s right, Spider,’ said Fly. ‘Who cares? We were around long before they came along and we’ll probably be here for a long time after they’ve gone.’

Beetle eyed Fly, then shuffled around to face Spider who was stretching his long hairy legs in all directions. Spiders aren’t exactly the most attractive species either, thought Beetle, but at least they have decent manners, and my, what wonderful engineers they are. Those beautiful webs!

‘It’s not true,’ Beetle said, ‘that we have been here longer than humans. Everyone knows humans came first and then we came along with all the other creatures and humans gave us our names.’

‘You are so stupid to believe that, Beetle,’ said Fly. ‘You think like a baby – I suppose you still believe in Santa Bug.’

‘I’ve had enough. I’m sorry Spider, but I am going to have to leave. It was nice chatting with you until Fly came along,’ Beetle said, staring at Fly for as long as she could stand the sight of him.

Fly buzzed right up to Beetle’s face but backed off when Spider reared up again to threaten him.

‘I’m sorry too,’ said Spider as he watched Beetle zoom up towards the gap in the toilet block between the roof and the wall. ‘Really sorry.’

Fly watched Beetle as she flew straight into a web and was helplessly entangled before she knew what had happened.

‘Excuse me,’ said Spider to Fly. ‘It’s lunchtime.’

‘Sure,’  said Fly suddenly worried about spending too much more time in this place of refuge. ‘I have to get going, anyway.’

‘What about the rain?’ called out Spider as he scurried up the wall towards Beetle who was lying still, trapped in his beautiful web.
Fly ignored the question as he buzzed upwards and headed for another gap in the toilet block wall. He could faintly hear Spider speaking over the sound of his own wings beating but he didn’t care to listen. He just wanted to get out of there alive and home to his wife and children.

Spider has spun intricate traps across all but one of the exits from the toilet block. Unfortunately, Fly chose incorrectly.

Now ensnared and still, Fly cold hear Spider talking to Beetle.

‘It’s nothing personal, Beetle.’

Beetle thrashed around in one last desperate attempt to free herself, but Spider was soon upon her, and Fly watched in silence knowing he was next.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Darkness of Light

The Darkness of Light

A sliver of light pierces the blinds and scars her eyelids. She feels as though she has not slept at all, although she must have drifted away into the blissful unconsciousness of slumber at some point. Sleep eludes her despite her craving for it. Even the pills which she obtains as often as she can manage with the increased scrutiny of doctors, only provide temporary relief. The alcohol she washes them down with probably does not help. This miserable cycle is all she knows, and she chose it so she cannot complain.

Not for the first time or the last, she sees James’ face. His kind smile, the happiness which radiates from every pore in his slightly tanned flesh. The smile which loves her, forgives her, and encourages her. The same smile which she has persistently tried to destroy. An oft repeated conversation wallows out from within the recesses of her memory.

‘A measure of politeness is not too much to ask for, is it?’ said James. ‘It’s not that hard to smile and say hello.’

‘I’m not a nice person,’ she replied. ‘I can’t sweet talk. If you don’t like it, that’s too bad because I can’t change. I’m bad okay? That’s it.’

James stepped close to her and placed his hands upon her shoulders.

‘Don’t say another word, or I’m going to leave right now. I have had enough.’ She shrugged out of his grasp, ignoring the hurt in his eyes and focused on her own pain, and comforted herself with the fact that she was bad and she thoroughly deserved the misery to which she now clung. It was the only solid ground in her sorry existence: her anchor.

She turned away from James and busied herself with the dishes which had piled up in the sink. She knew he had only not done them because he was respecting her wishes for peace and quiet in the mornings. Feeling his gaze on her, she said, ‘Leave me alone,‘ she said. ‘I have to clean the house. That’s what I’m here for: to serve you and to fuck you!’

She knows it isn’t true. It wasn’t true when she said it then or any of the countless other times she had said it. James is a decent man: loving, honest and caring. He has only ever tried to help her. Despite his shortcomings, and the frequent and unjustified tongue lashings she has given him, he has remained faithful and gracious. She doesn’t deserve him. He’s too good.

Flinging, the doona off her and across the bed, she rises and enters the bathroom. Every step evokes a memory, every breath a painful reminder of her hopelessness. James is already awake as usual, having risen early for his morning run. The sounds of breakfast making drift down the hall. It is normal everyday noise, but she will tell him to be quiet before she says good morning to him. Once finished showering, she dresses and ties her hair without once looking at herself in the mirror. She only ever sees disaster reflected in the glass: her figure gone, her face aging, her broken heart advertising its desolation through the windows of her tired eyes.

When she reaches the kitchen, James turns to look at her and smiles. ‘Good morning.’

‘You’re too noisy,’ she replies.

James shrugs, and approaches her. ‘Give me a cuddle beautiful.’
In his arms she feels warm. His passion for her burns her skin and eventually she has to break free, hoping she held the pose long enough to satisfy him in his delusion that they are happy and have a future. She goes to close the blinds James has opened as he always does when he wakes. He likes the light while she finds it intrusive. Knowing that no one can see inside their private world, does not stop her from believing that they can.

‘It’s nice outside,’ says James. ‘A nice sunny day, and the air is fresh. It’s a little stuffy in here.’

‘I like my privacy.’

‘You can have privacy without being in the dark all the time, and besides think of the money saved on electricity bills with the lights off instead of on during the day.’

Glaring at him, she attacks his parsimony. ‘That’s all you care about, isn’t it? Money. Money. Money.’

James appears ready to retort, probably along the lines of how she rails against him for leaving lights on and using the remote controlled garage door to enter the house, instead of using the front door.

‘You’re stingy, and I’m sick of it,’ she says. ‘I like my privacy. It doesn’t matter about the money.’

They have serious money problems because of her profligacy. She buys him things he does not need, and pushes money through poker machines as though the notes grow on trees in their backyard. She does not even like those machines, and does not understand why she wastes money on them. Neither does James, but he no longer says anything. They split their accounts some time ago, because she said she was tired of paying all his bills. She knows they are mutual bills, but she has never been able to bring herself to trust him enough to use the words ‘us’ and ‘ours’. It is a mystery why he stays. She starves him of sex, but is extremely proficient when she does consent. She makes him laugh sometimes, and she buys him nice clothes to wear, even though she knows he doesn’t need them and they can’t afford them. Even if they are struggling, it is important to her to maintain a good show of prosperity. James doesn’t seem to understand.

She remembers another all too familiar conversation, the like of which had been repeated so often, they could easily have played a recording and saved their strength.

‘Our business is our business. Our problems are our problems. That was how I was raised. That is my family. Your family is different. What goes on between us, stays between us. It’s not for your mum or your dad or your sister, or for the neighbours to enjoy thanks to your loud voice. I don’t know how many times I have told you that I like my privacy, and if you can’t respect that then get out of my life.’

James held her gaze. Confident and calm as ever, he said, ‘The neighbours can’t hear anything, and they don’t care anyway. They have their own problems.’

‘Leave me alone, James. I’m tired.’

She is tired all the time due to a lack of sleep, and the exhaustion caused by depression and anxiety, but this is also how she gets out of longer discussions with James. She is not at all interested in his logic or his common sense. Her paranoia fuels her need to reject rationality. She’s been treated so badly by the previous men in her life, that James’ genuine care for her barely registers. He rarely raises his voice or swears at her, and he has never abused her either with his mouth or his hands. It was a mistake inviting him into her life though, and she feels guilty for ruining his, on top of everything else she has done to underpin the deep vein of regret which courses through her bones. She is a lost cause and she knows it. The problem is how to make James see that, and to get him out of her life. It doesn’t help that on occasions, sometimes for a whole day or even a couple of days in a row they have a relationship which is world beating. They have experienced great joy together. The day they received a phone call from the real estate agent to tell them their application for the townhouse they really loved and wanted, had been approved. The time they went to a Big Bash League T20 cricket match and roared and cheered their way through three hours of action which led to an exciting victory for their team. Their trip to Auckland for New Year’s Eve.

However, such times of joy were illusions, masking the truth of their pitiful excuse for a relationship. She is unlovable and growing increasingly annoyed by James’ dogged determination to love her. She’s tried being direct with him, and simply swearing at him until she was blue in the face, but all that did was make him shake his head while tears rolled down his flushed cheeks. The next day he would be all smiles and sweetness again, and she would play along for a little longer. It is cruel. Very cruel, but it is James’ fault. If cannot take a hint of the magnitude of her regular vitriolic tirades, then he can only blame himself for his unhappiness.

‘On the subject of money,’ says James gingerly as though he is afraid of breaking something, or fanning to life the flames of her latent rage.

She rolls her eyes and sighs loudly. ‘Now what?’

James shakes his head. ‘Never mind.’

‘My life is bad enough already, James. All you do is take, take, take. I’ve got nothing, so don’t ask me for anything, alright?’

‘Okay. Don’t worry about it.’

‘I do worry. That’s all I do. My life is shit, and you’re not helping, okay.’

It’s not a question, so she doesn’t wait for his answer, but marches past him down the hall, and throws another familiar little quip towards him as she goes. ‘I’ll be upstairs.’

In bed, where she spends most of her time either on Facebook, or trying to sleep, she wonders why James carries on with this charade. How the hell can she cleave him out of her life? What will it take for him to finally accept the futility of pursuing this relationship? Why won’t he leave her alone? It’s bloody-minded devotion, that’s all. Not real love. He’s using her for sex and money, and so she can cook and clean for him. She makes him look good. Is a ready made ego booster. He’s probably addicted to that, and the overwhelming pulse of his masculinity derived from the multiple orgasms she fakes for him.

The next day, when she wakes up, James has already left for work. He kissed her cheek and told her he loved her before he left while she pretended to be asleep. That’s how it always goes. She readies herself for work, and checks her phone: finding a love note from James in her inbox. Kiss. Hug. Kiss. Hug. She doesn’t bother replying.

Arriving home that evening, she opens the door, and notices James’ shoes are missing from the stand in the hall. The kitchen is spotless and the counter uncluttered. Her stomach constricts. her hand trembles as she reaches for a single sheet of paper lying there. When she finishes reading the farewell note from James which he has worded with typical craftsmanship, she scrunches it up and tosses it in the bin. His final message expresses loving concern for her, and advises her to call him if she misses him, or if she wants him to come back. She misses him already, but as she closes all the blinds, blocking out the summer evening light, she knows she will not call. Then she goes upstairs and settles in the darkness.