Between Breath and a Word
Bill Collopy was born and educated in Melbourne, Australia, where he
works as a social policy researcher, vainly searching for more time in his day. Bill has
numerous stories to his credit in Australian short fiction anthologies and literary periodicals,
and on-line magazines such as Eclectica and Pixel Papers. He is married, with two
children, receding hair and not enough bookshelves..
Why shouldn't I be
angry? A man and I were close. Then he went. Like wishes spoken in a well, the touch has flown.
He said he wouldn't tell his wife about me. But I made him no promises.
I could write. I could email people we know, putting names
to our naked details. What does he suppose I'm going to do; roll back on cold debris and hope
for a sleep and a forgetting? I can do neither: only howl without opening my mouth, as if I
have no tongue, just rage. The green mornings have shrivelled to afternoon. I thought that I
had found someone to fill my emptiness but he was only marking time.
* * *
Huddled at a deal
table with no lamp I write longhand,
stalling in mid-downstroke. It's bitter cold. My sock heels drum to aid circulation: the skin
a frosted hull, which might as well be ice. This kerosene burner emits barely enough heat to
justify igniting it, the stink not quite neutralising garlic and onion odours; from my inedible
dinner, unfinished, ill conceived. Our walls form a fibro-cement colander for Antarctic draught,
our uninsulated house shivering behind a cyclone wire fence.
Student fools, we grabbed this place in summer, just after
re-enrolling. Through February and March we were content. Then at Easter the temperature tide
turned. May cooled and darkened. And then June set in. Our chests have gone bronchial, rattling
with bacteria; a rising sap that congests the nose and the will. Winter wraps its claws around
my throat. When we took over her lease, Bill's sister did warn us. Oh, but we knew better.
Surely it was just a short ride to lectures? Then our luck deteriorated. A month into first
semester my bike got stolen. Bill's car died. Jodie lost her job at McDonald's when she turned
nineteen. Out in the street her car freezes and rusts, awaiting a reconditioned engine that
she can't afford. We catch the bus or we walk.
Damn Victor's cold heart.
While he sits in some centrally heated faculty office in
Canberra, I remain here, thermally challenged. I shiver in the lee of a glacial lounge where
textbooks accuse me of neglect. They are right. I've continued to huddle in verse: an urge
that usually arrives when I'm supposed to be engaged in analytical thinking, either revising
case notes or plough through obiter dicta. Verse is more satisfying, if bittersweet.
One time I did agree to show some of my poems to Bill. He
was polite about it, if a little patronising. At least he gave me the courtesy of a
reaction--more than I can drag out of Dave.
I would have more luck attempting to shout in
space. Dave is my Tin Man, of shaved head, muscle T-shirts and specious candour. His great
claim to authenticity is that he does not lie. I don't bother to cross-examine Dave on this
but I could tell him that there are many ways of lying. I have experience there, as both
perpetrator and victim. It's hardly surprising that people do not warm to Dave.
|"I used to
think that my poems sprang from a need to articulate thought, or a desire for conversation.
Yet perhaps there's another reason: substitute for prayer."
Only a few days ago he demonstrated steel-skinned
sensitivity as we witnessed Bill's tabby oozing out a litter onto our laundry floor.
"They'll get kittled," Dave announced, while we were cooing
over the kittens and snapping photos. "Or they'll catch infection from rats. Better off
Names will never hurt Dave. Yet Bill was sufficiently riled
to resort to sarcasm.
"It's a terrible shame about the revolution, Dave. Capital
won. Didn't you hear? It was in all the papers."
Sneering from ear to ear, my man was patient for payback.
It came two days later. Beer-fed from an afternoon of lecture avoidance, Dave arrived at
dinnertime to breathe down my front and mutter a need for intimacy. Then he discovered two
visiting old schoolmates of Bill in our lounge, intent on playing cards. One of them laughed
at something and Dave took the opportunity to pounce.
"What's up, Willy boy? More born-to-rule humour, is it? I
better tug my forelock..."
Apologising to his guests, Bill explained that my boyfriend
planned to smash the state by boring everyone first. Dave retaliated with seamless drivel.
"S'matter, Billiam…? Hey, gimme break… You boys must miss
not having fags to wipe your arses..."
One of the friends told him to put a sock in it. Dave persisted.
"I'll bet 'hurts like buggery' has a different meaning for you boys…"
The friend lashed out. Sprawled on linoleum, Dave lay with
a bloodied nose. Shepherding him to bed, I cast disappointed glances at these children. As if
on the business end of a baton charge, Dave moaned. Soon in the bedroom he was pawing. After
some succour, he emoted with words like 'darling' and 'sorry'. He got his consolation. He took
it and I let him take. Beside me he slept while I counted hours until daybreak.
Veranda music flutters in, from a neighbour's wind chimes.
In college last year a girl called Laura occupied the adjoining room. In her window she
suspended a set of chimes that rang a pentatonic scale. I miss Laura, who had a laugh like
"Got myself a shit-for-brains mother," she confessed one
night, as we drained a second bottle. "Hope to God I don't turn into her."
* * *
In the warm evenings
of my first semester we would languish at her open window, pinpointing the galaxies where
giants and dwarves were said to strut. We listened to wind chimes ting-teng as if shrill wives
were swapping the faults of their husbands while enjoying elevenses: Two-teas. Tim-Tams… I
remember that every fourth ring was slightly husky, like a sob. Laura and I made loud critical
assessments of those almost-men swaggering through our quadrangle. We disparaged their haircuts
and their clothes and their callowness. By second semester Laura got into smack. She disappeared
from the college corridors. I drank alone. In the summer vacation I had a beach fling with a
boy from the caravan park who was all grown up, on the outside: but at heart he was a child
like the rest.
Returning for my second year, I answered an advert on the
accommodation notice board. The householder's name was Bill. His sister and friends had moved
out. He was taking over the lease, despite sisterly fuss about cold winters, which he
pooh-poohed. Jodie and I were the only applicants. Bill hadn't planned on a ménage à trois.
He planned to have a household of guys like his school friends, who could drink and smoke and
make noise. So if he thought sharing with two girls would turn out to be a porn flick, he was
He had a lot to learn about toilet seats and market
shopping and cleaning up rosters. We three have little in common. An engineering student,
Jodie sings in the university choir. Majoring in Linguistics, Bill spends most of his time
rehearsing for musicals and drama. I write poems to avoid Economics-Law. The occasional meals
we share are a Scrabble board of interlocking words. We make polite chat, our talk very small.
Jodie and I have a different attitude towards men. She
plays down her intelligence, exposing her flesh in inverse proportion. Yet I do share her
need for being held at night. Recently I acquired Dave. It's six weeks since Victor left.
Left me without a word.
Left me with this.
When he's not insulting people, Dave isn't so bad. He has
feathery eyelashes and wheat-coloured chest hair. The contradictions are less irksome in
private. We clutch after lovemaking, though even he wonders why I bother with him. Grabbing
my shoulder last week, Dave turned me over for explanation. I told him that he and I share
quietness, like the gap between album tracks before noise floods back: no falsehoods in that
silence. But it wasn't enough for Dave: he needed satisfaction. I gave him head. That shut him
up. He slept: I did not, hulled like a strawberry.
* * *
Tonight, in the exact
moment of lifting my pen, I heard an engine cut out. Car doors slammed on a man's rant in some
other language. Poor woman. One time she called to me at our fence, asking in cracked English
why a magistrate would be sending her a letter. As the husband smouldered--and peeked me up
and down--I corrected their misunderstandings. I explained jury service and the electoral
roll. Next day a basket of zucchini and sweetcorn graced our doorstep. Despite hair salting
at the roots, Nyana retains the lips and eye-smiles of a bride. By contrast, her husband evokes
my father: short and chest-thrusting, demanding absolute rule.
I used to think that my poems sprang from a need to
articulate thought, or a desire for conversation.
Yet perhaps there's another reason:
substitute for prayer. I have this cavity where religion used to be. No longer does that
catechism funnelled into my childhood ears make sense. Stripped of authority when my father
cleared out with some slut no older than I am now, the blight on puberty engendered more than
hate. For me that man became filth, while my mother was an object of pity, beseeching
forgiveness in prayer. Chemotherapy stripped her hair and weight. In a hospital bed she
hunkered, colours leeching.
Justice are barely compatible: unwilling to commit, not returning calls. They fake a climax.
They pretend a marriage."
A final bridge connecting kin and worship broke when we
buried her. At my mother's funeral I caught phrases: 'a royal priesthood', 'a people set
apart'. While incense invaded my nostrils--sweet smoke from a steel handbag on a chain--I
could mouth neither creed nor hymn, struck dumb. Though wishing to rebut the huge
eschatological swindle of a policy allegedly maturing at death, I lacked means. How could I
bring an action against Holy Mother Church for false advertising, for tendering no sample data
or control groups? Blessed are the blind and trusting.
So I write--paper words spanning a void between beliefs.
As a girl I used to be fascinated with Limbo, a floating suburb on the outskirts of Hell, set
aside for the unbaptised. I imagined a wilderness without sky, an eternity on remand: the
ultimate anteroom where fairness played no part. One morning the parish priest visited our
Grade Five class. In my pinafore of Virgin Mary blue, pre-menarche and artless, I raised a
hand to ask why Jews and Arabs were kept out of Heaven.
"What is your name?" he asked.
That night my mother seethed, complicit in the auto da fé.
"Belief isn't about fairness, dear, it's about trusting in
the Lord's word…"
Wrong answer. Her God failed my test. Yet for years little
gussets of faith remained sewn into my pinafore--until Mum's funeral. Fairness snapped: a
broken promise. When I was eighteen, a month into first semester, I found that Law and Justice
are barely compatible: unwilling to commit, not returning calls. They fake a climax. They
pretend a marriage. So I sit here in this roach-infested dock sentenced to shiver, my breath
visible as savage surf. God of my mother has taken revenge.
* * *
Last year I sashayed
to parties, playing with the glands of men and boys--and even a girl once. I could thumb my
nose at school-age gropes and pashes. Then I met Victor, my Torts tutor: attractive, and
Touch first happened in a library queue. Always I'm to be
found waiting. We both reached for my fallen book. Victor's eyes were egg-albumen panes fixing
me, windows of a sky that promised flight. I believed in them. I believed we were twin masses
of air-current about to slam.
"You like coffee?" He asked.
In neutral ground of a cafeteria we eased, first sharing
looks then later wine-softening tongues. Stealing into my college room that night, we pulled
lapels and sheets with a self-conscious calm: no rending or panting. We touched. It was not
mating but entwining. Our breath formed pearls.
In the coming weeks we pounded and smeared that mattress
several nights a week. Often I did not want to wash, so I could smell him on me throughout the
day. Under stars he would finger a zigzag of window condensation; while I breasted the night,
arching over a courtyard I could barely see for bliss. We tongued and touched in whispers,
climbing an erotic stair. We skin-burned carpet in his office, lost in dusk, stroking the rim
of another's eyebrow: unmeasured moments down one another's ridges, smooth as angel skin. I
asked what his wife might say.
"Frightened of AIDS. She would regard lesbianism as a
I suggested that she might already have tried it. Silence is
equivocal, I said. We're alone behind the face.
"You're too honest," Victor told me.
Yes. I did not relish thieving someone's love.
But he was even less honest. He only borrowed me. Thwarted
by a Department that deemed him ineligible for tenure, Victor did not want to remain on
contract, with his wife pregnant. He had been searching interstate. I did not know. Ignorant
as a child, I helped to fill his pause: waiting for appointment, waiting for fatherhood. Even
as Victor was fucking me, he'd accepted the offer of a lectureship at ANU. He said only that
such a thing might happen, in the future.
For a whole week I heard nothing from him. He would come
around, I was sure. So I waited. When finally I asked, another tutor told me that Victor had
gone. Packed. Flown. Didn't I know? They'd given him a farewell lunch, even passed the hat
around for a gift.
As my pen scuds over pages that ought to feel the imprint
of prose, I've begun to forget his face. Maybe I also write to expunge. Doggerel rambles,
self-editing. Presently Jodie returns home to rescue me.
"This is Alan," she introduces.
"Adam," he says.
Like it makes a difference. While her latest man
searches the kitchen in vain for coffee, Jodie signals with eyebrows.
"You must have seen him around," she murmurs. "Isn't he a hunk…?"
I enquire about Matthew.
"Matt's always studying. But this one's a real specimen."
They're all alike in the dark, I say. This sets her off.
Men enjoy Jodie's giggle. They enjoy her lipstick pouts and her tight tops. Dave is no
exception. He bragged about conquests until I told him it was bourgeois. Now he says nothing.
Yet he doesn't lie.
Waving goodnight, Jodie is impatient to warm up with
Alan--or Adam. Sooner or later I'll hear creaking bedposts. By breakfast it will be
monosyllables. One of them at some point will break faith with the other. I recall a song
about love. I have many songs lodged in my tear ducts. They leak sometimes. Every boyfriend
has managed to peel another shell until there's only a husk remaining.
Of course I am angry. But these frozen fists knock on
Amid bathroom walls
mould-stippled I disrobed earlier tonight, revealing a fluorescent phantom: lime-nude skin in
a mirror spattered by toothpaste. I studied the neck muscles tensing and I pulled back my hair.
I tightened thighs to view a dimpled rear. In that light my tits veined, bulging, each aureole
seeming to turn brown--and my abdomen swelled. Moaning became echo. Smile contours blurred. I
felt two headaches in one skull.
Well after Jodie had retired with her new pal I could hear
Bill's key in the front door. In he shuffled, wafting beer, and lurched over to me.
"Dedication or insomnia…? Hey, my audition went well… Want
I followed him to the kitchen. Under those whiskers, Bill
might be considered okay looking, but for me he lacks corpuscles. Flapping through cupboards,
he asked me whether Dave was out on the tiles, said that I looked red-eyed and suggested I
give the books a rest. He took his time with mugs and spoons, a gentleman drunk--unlike Dave,
who turns feral. At last it dawned on Bill that we were out of coffee.
"Worried about something?" He asked.
Only found out this afternoon, I told him. Under the
circumstances, I was doing okay. His mouth popped like an uncertain fish.
"You're sure…? Stupid question. Sorry. You're waiting up for
Dave, which is a waste of time. You… have plans?"
Polite thickhead. Didn't he see that I have to swap a life,
that it's either-or? He hadn't yet considered the problem of house sharing. One of five boys,
Bill ought to know that babies smell worse than cats; and he can't put them out at night. No
different from other men, despite good manners, he masked an urge to offer advice.
"You can always have another," he said, "when you're older."
How to explain the dichotomy of secular damnation? I cannot
be forgiven whatever I choose. Bill doesn't see: ruled in pristine lines, while I'm blotted and
stained. He's unable to project himself to age thirty-five, leaping a chasm to lament this
child that might have turned sixteen.
Rising to put away empty mugs, he nodded in conclusion
"Dave will come through."
I said that it wasn't Dave's.
"Oh. Well, then. Mr What's-his-name. I'll keep quiet.
Mum's the word."
I told him to piss off.
Bill faltered down the hallway to bed, untroubled by
scruples, free to express peer-acceptable passion for the injustice of asylum-seekers. He won't
have to reckon on some little unborn queuing with Pan worshippers and false Popes to languish
in a Hades green room. He can devote adult energy to advocating for humanitarian causes without
wondering how much abuse may go unreformed and not represented while he breastfeeds:
sleep-bankrupted and cash-starved, risking dismissal for time off to care for a sick
pre-schooler. And he won't hide behind such a utilitarian ploy--or moral cowardice.
Of course I am angry.
Fuck that man. And fuck me…
Future lovers won't understand. I'll see a perpendicular
frown split their foreheads when I crave embrace without question, each year as a calendar
date descends like moon madness. Beneath sympathy talk, my men will wriggle for space: making
polite sounds, one eye on the clock. A vehicle heaves past, shaking my walls. After I put down
the pen I'll move closer to a feeble heater, rubbing hands to try and shake off this cold.