2nd place in the Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2022.
Part 1. Mullumbimby
“Nothing. Nothing is left.” Gordon surveyed the emptiness over my shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah, I can see that, Gordon.” The room was empty except for the two of us. My room. There were lines on the floor and walls where the other furniture had been. The mop water was still drying. The windows were opened. My school bag was by the door, bulged down the bottom with clothes, saggy up the top with cables. The fan went round and round on the lowest setting, tempting in the air and sending it out again, stealing the fresh morning out of the sky. We felt ourselves retreating away from the room. It felt less and less like mine every moment. It just felt like my dad’s house. My dad’s spare room.
Gordon spoke up when I couldn’t. His voice was slow and measured, like golden syrup, which is so difficult to get off a spoon into a mixing bowl.
“Where did everything go? Why is there nothing?” He never usually asks questions.
“Well, we don’t live here anymore, Gordon. Mum and Dad have split. Us and mum, we’re moving out, closer to school and shops and the big libraries.” Gordon spoke again, his voice like deep, calming thunder.
“Libraries? Do they have my everything?”
“No, Gordon. I have all the books. We just can’t carry you with you holding all of them. You’re the heaviest as it is. The moving guys said they’d have to wait for the third guy to get here before moving you.”
“Move?” He’s upset. I can feel his sorrow. I look over at him. The shelves are empty, all packed away and halfway to the new place. I can never remember the street name. But I left the three drawers across the middle. Full of letters from old-ex-girlfriends, birthday cards, restaurant napkin poems. They won’t bother the removalists, but they mean as much to Gordon as they do to me.
Dad knocks. His pale eyes come in first, floating around the doorframe on spindly nerves, followed by the rest of his body, stretched out and full of wool like a Dali woman. His mouth comes last.
“How [are] we [going]?” He says, skipping every other word in the sentence.
“[Do] [you] want [any] help?” He’s saving all his words for the job interviews. I see them at the back of his throat when he speaks.
“No, thanks. I’m just waiting for the guys to take the bookcase.” Dad doesn’t know Gordon’s name, and I can’t bring myself to explain it. It makes me feel like I made it up.
He closes the door, the mouth retreating, then the womanly body, and the eyes, well…the eyes stay. They say all the words the mouth is taxing. They say too many. They’re exhausted.
Gordon sinks deeper into the floorboards, sighing.
“Where is the everything? Where is the library?” The rumbling voice. I sit down against the wall opposite him. It’s hot. The new house will have air conditioning. I try to tell him again.
“I told you Gordon, all the books…” But my words fail me as I watch him. Sleek, strong English oak. Grooves and corners carved into the sides, graceful, masculine. He doesn’t mean the books. He means me.
He doesn’t speak.
“Gordon…I…I don’t know.” He doesn’t say anything.
“I’m just…trying to figure it out, okay? It’ll fall back into place. I’m all still here, I’m in one piece, aren’t I?”
Gordon doesn’t say anything.
“Gordon. Don’t ignore me.”
Silent, and so proud. He wants the books back, but I don’t have them. Not yet.
“Just a little longer, Gordon. I promise.”
He doesn’t say anything. Just waits. I’ll take a leaf out of his book.
We wait. Birds outside the window. The wind blowing. The river, distant and wet.
Another knock. A man shambles in, kind faced. Miles away from our sorrow.
“Just this one here?” He gestures.
I look at Gordon. He’s still waiting.
“Yeah, just him.”
He sticks his head out my window.
“Paul! Uh-huh, bring Jake in here.”
They load Gordon into the truck.
He’s still waiting.
Part 2. Lismore
I draw the curtains over the French doors, and the light from my study comes in like smoke. Mel got us a briefcase record player as a house-warming present, and it lies open on my cabinet, Billie Holiday going round and round and round, her face frozen in a sad smile upside down, right side up. My bed is made, the covers pulled back for me to get in, but I have one thing left to do. I left this box for last, a sweet reward. Everything inside wrapped up like gifts, better because they already fit. How wonderful to unwrap gift after gift and feel that you are becoming whole again. I take the box cutter and make my first incision. Savouring every movement, I curl my fingers around the cardboard and fold back each side like I’m diffusing a bomb. I peel away a layer of butcher’s paper to reveal, ah!
Books. Not just any books. The others have been put away, no. These are my books. The ones that whisper to me, the ones that live half in this world and half in mine. They are wrapped up, swaddled like infants. I run my hands over the very top layer of them, and behind me I hear a voice, like a breaking wave, like applause from outside the theatre. My bookcase is weeping.
Last to leave, first to arrive. When we opened the back of the moving truck Gordon was there, waiting. He lives now in the northwest corner, beside the record player. He’s been waiting all day.
I slide the first book out from among the others, it’s packed tightly. I know this one. The spine is textured, hardcover and the corners are sharp. I tear open the paper. A man with a ruff looks up at me severely, and in gold lettering:
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
Only the middle shelf can fit it. Gordon whispers with joy:
‘These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder’
The next book. Another hard cover. It feels fragile, so I unwrap it carefully.
The Decameron. Giovanni Boccaccio. 1620, reprinted 1931.
I put it away, and Gordon tells me an old story, of two lovers in an orchard, and a sage bush, under which a great poisonous toad lurks and croaks.
The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde found crumpled in a second-hand shop. No publication date, but beautiful illustrations. Gordon recites to me.
‘Would have read the legend of my passion,
Known the bitter secret of my heart,
Kissed as we have kissed,
But never parted, as we are fated now to part.’
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, 1908, reprinted 1966
Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne, publication scribbled over in crayon, by my mother.
A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket, First Editions. All 13, one after the other. Gordon hums with delight.
The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer. Middle English edition. My grandmother’s, cover taped on by me. Gordon’s voice trembles in a strange language.
‘Whan the Aprille with his shoures soote…’
The carpet becomes littered with butcher’s paper, some crumpled, some flat, some torn. The bookcase fills up. I unwrap the last book. A slim volume of Wordsworth.
‘No check, no stay, this streamlet fears,
How merrily it goes!
‘Twill murmur on a thousand years,
And flow as it now flows.’
Billie Holiday stops. I flip the record.
Part 3. Flood
I fly up from Sydney as soon as the mid-term break starts, reading the alert text over and over. We drive through the ravaged streets of Lismore. Either side of the road, the trees are painted with grime 4 meters up, a strata line of brown across the land. The traffic lights at the intersection don’t work yet, we wait our turn. A house faces backwards. Wire fences are black with waste. Mould climbs the car dealership. The cars convene, askew. A man hoses down the front of his bakery.
Outside the front of every house is a mountain. I have seen piles of rubbish before. I have seen tips and construction sites; these mountains are different. Because it is plain to see that these are precious things. Paintings, beautiful furniture, pianos, cushions not even begun to mould. The cruel thing about a flood is that even after the water drains away, the mould takes more.
At last, we arrive at our house. I can see the empty eyes of my study. I see the waterline above the windows. A shudder passes through me when I see our own pile. My mother ghosts into the house, floating right through the walls, and I walk slowly around the mountain. In it are more precious things than I can ever count. A globe belonging to my grandfather. The curtains for my French doors, pattered with ivy. Old trophies. And finally, facing west. I see him.
First to arrive, last to leave. He lies against the side of the mountain, exhausted, defeated. Shelves empty. The books were scooped away from him, so I’m told. Like handfuls of mud and rock. He swelled up with the water, like muscles expanding and tensing, the old guard putting up a final resistance. He swelled so much that the three doors across the front don’t open any more. I want to lift him up in my arms and comfort him. Any minute now, a truck will pull up and he’ll be lifted up and out of sight. It seems impossible that this old friend will leave me alone here, will disappear where I can’t follow him. With him goes the way it’s always been. The old ways of being happy. I hear his voice, broken like a crack of thunder.
“There you are.”
“I’m sorry Gordon. I couldn’t save them. Nothing…nothing is left.”
My eyes burn with tears. I reach out and touch him. I feel the grooves carved into the side of him, and I feel the brine just under the surface. He keels back a little further, weighed down with grief. I kneel beside him, and we fall back into our old sorrow. It comes again and again, passing over us and between us like the breaking of waves. How could water ever mean life again?
Gordon’s voice descends again, like an echo on the ceiling. Echoing me.
‘It will fall…into place. You are…still here. You are in…one piece.”
Like an old man he says it over and over, the echo rippling back and forth.
“It will fall…into place. You are…still here. You are in…one piece.”
He falls silent. What a lonely place the world will seem without him. I wish I could curl up beside him and stiffen like a statue, a faceless object whose life ends here. But he’s right. He’s always right. And when they take him away all I can think of is how good it feels to be alive.
“You don’t have to do that, really! I have a box set coming in the mail this week. You sure? Well…thank you. Really.”
He hands me the book with a silly grin on his face. On the walk home I give him a rundown of the plot. There’s a character in there just like him, and he makes me promise to lend it to him sometime.
Back in my little room, I look for a place to put away my new treasure. The corner of my shelf where I keep the books is slowly growing, some are replacements, some are new and unfamiliar. I run my hand down the cover of the new addition.
Nicholas Nickelby. Charles Dickens. Published 1839, Reprinted 1930. My favourite.
I slide it in between two older volumes, and like a whorl of dust stealing through a sunbeam, I hear a voice whisper.
“The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.”
This piece was an entry in the 2022 Honi Soit Writing Competition.