This story was shortlisted for the Margaret River Press Short Story Award in 2017 and published in their collection, ‘Joiner Bay and other stories’.
ALL THE PLACES YOU HAVE BEEN
Clare and her daughter are waiting in line to see the rotting body of a corpse flower. All her daughter is interested in is the promise of an ice cream once they filter through the glasshouse, slowly push through the humidity and the stench of something dying, and see the already dead flower.
Clare pushes against the feeling of nausea and panic and tries to look at her daughter the way the other mums do. She looks at Olive’s small fingers and the way her legs seem stiff when she walks, a baby giraffe still learning, she looks at her hair and the way it is too shiny, like plastic, to be real.
They are still in the line when the sun turns on them; Clare feels her skin shrinking as it burns. Olive is still in the shade, too small for the sun to reach yet. Clare pulls her hand out of Olive’s and pulls her ponytail off her shoulders, wanting the skin on both of her shoulders to match in pinkness. Hopefully they will be inside the hot house by the time the sun reaches Olive; Clare didn’t bring any sunscreen.
The people in the queue are getting restless as the sun moves lower on their shoulders. Clare feels a drop of sweat roll down from her armpit and onto the waistband of her underpants. Olive stands patiently, watching the magpies peck at the grass, and Clare watches the woman in front of her, an older woman whose skin hangs loose and cool around her. The woman seems to wear her skin like she is happy. Clare feels the prickle of her own skin; doubt licks her arms and releases a ripple of goose bumps. She wonders whether she should be here and then she remembers that her questions always get her into trouble.
The most damaging of the questions was the one she had asked so long ago, why is he looking at me like that? The next one was even more complicated and she still wasn’t certain that she had made the right choice. She had had to bury that question though, deep into the shadow of her growing belly so that her body could not feel it burning her anymore. She had been surprised to find herself giving birth, that she had decided to keep it after all.
When she eventually told the father, he was pleased, happy even, and insisted on flying out right away. She had looked at Olive after getting off the phone with him and imagined that Olive had already picked sides and it wasn’t hers.
With her skin seizing around her as they wait for the chance to see the dying flower, Clare knows she’s not here for Olive; she doesn’t care that Olive might hate the flower, might cry at the smell, she knows that she is just here for herself.
The line starts moving slowly and Olive takes uncertain steps, pulling down on Clare’s arm. It seems strange but necessary that she is waiting with her daughter to see a flower die as soon as it blooms. She needs to be reminded of how fast everything can still change.
She was waiting in line at the pub. It was a Sunday afternoon and the inside of the pub was dark and smelt like stale beer but people still drank fast. Clare was thinking of her drinks order, Sav for Stel, pint for her and Mim, when she smelt something like pine needles and the heady smell of a forest floor. She turned around and the man behind her smiled. She smiled and smelt the faraway smell of pine forests. She turned back to the bar. She got to the front of the queue. He was still behind her, she could smell him and the smell clawed at her skin, made her homesick.
It was a smell that was so far away from London. London smelt like pollution, rain on dirty roads and curry; it smelt like a city that crushed all the delicate smells into dirt.
Clare remembered the days when she would drive out to the Dandenong ranges and run through the bush. Her lungs would haul the clean air in as fast as she could make them. The bush would be dripping with rain, ferns flicking dots of water at her cheeks and every footstep released the smell of pine needles and thick, moist soil.
She picked up the glasses, turned and he almost fell into the three drinks held precariously in her fingers. His face was close to hers, his hair smelt like the forest. Stel and Mim would laugh when she told them that for a moment she thought he was the forest come to take her away.
Stel and Mim looked up at her as she placed the drinks in front of them on the table.
‘What’s that look on your face for then?’
Mim asked, never one to miss something as fleeting as an expression of possibility.
‘Nothing,’ Clare said, the look still clearly drawn all over her face.
‘Come on,’ Stel said, her red lips pressed onto the rim of her wine glass.
‘You guys will laugh.’
‘Yeah, we probably will.’
‘Just tell us anyway,’ Stel pushed her glasses further up her nose as if this was the cue for Clare to start talking.
‘There was a guy at the bar, he smelt like the forest.’
They laughed and Clare shook her head, she shouldn’t have said anything. They would never let her hear the end of it.
‘The forest, that’s new.’ Mim said, her long black hair almost dipping into her pint glass as she threw her head forward with laughter.
‘I like it, it’s romantic.’ Stel said, her eyes darting around the pub searching for a man who looked like he could smell like the forest.
‘It was just unexpected, that’s all,’ Clare slurped the froth off the top of her pint.
Stel and Mim were eager for Clare to find someone, to bury her life deep into someone else as they had done but Clare had always resisted settling down. She had stopped talking about men she was interested in with her friends because usually they talked the relationship to death before it had even started. Clare would feel she had already lived a whole life with the person before the second date and she always saw how it ended, with her bored and running away.
She focussed instead on retreading the memories from their younger days when they worked in pubs, had no money and lived like white-hot flames, volatile and fast.
Clare watched the expressions rapidly change on people’s faces around her, anxious, bored, exhausted, no-one was happy to be at the start of their journey.
The queue was long, wriggling, and bloated where families huddled together as they all waited to board.
Her stomach was already floating away with nerves, anxious to know what she would find at the other end. Would they see each other and feel happy or would they look at each other through the sides of their eyes and wonder what had brought them to this station in France after one night together?
They had held hands sitting on stools in the pub. They had held hands all the way home through the rain to her house, they had held hands like they wanted to experience everything together, like they could see the world the same way, from the same brain, if they held on to each other. It had felt like they wanted to see everything as much as they could through their one existence. She felt like that feeling had no ending; from that night it would just go on forever.
The romance of that night had crushed them both like they were petals; it had bruised them with the speed of it.
At the pub Stel and Mim had talked Clare into going back over to the man with the forest beard and asking him how it was that his beard smelt so good.
He whispered that he liked to go into forests and rub his beard against the trees, she had laughed and he had caught her eyes in his.
He had seemed flattered that she had laughed at his terrible joke and she slid easily onto the wooden stool next to him asking him how someone from deep in the forest came to be in a pub in London, he had pointed to the man in a suit across the other pub.
‘He’s the lucky groom to be.’
She laughed and asked,
‘Where are you from? You have a very confusing accent.’
‘I live in France but was born here. You have a very Australian accent.’
‘They’re harder to hide than British accents.’
It was his turn to laugh and her turn to blush at the way his eyes broke into hers.
For the next few hours they sat side by side at the bar, his arms crossed on the bar top and his body leaning over them, her drink held back in her lap. Their friends would pop in and out of conversation but the flickering of her stomach made her want to know if what she was feeling was the same as him. She reached up to put her glass on the bar and he took the glass from her and then took her hand. She felt the sweat suddenly sting in her palms but he wouldn’t let go and they sat hand in hand as the pub started to empty. Stel and Mim kissed her on the cheek goodbye in a blur of lipstick and smiles.
Outside on a street wet with rain he took her hand again and wrapped it around his back, pulling her into his body and she didn’t have time to swallow her nerves before he was kissing her, her hands reached up to his chin, the softness of his beard surprised her.
Now, in the queue at the station she wondered if it was real, if that had been a true feeling.
She looked at the faces close to her, lingered on their expressions, tried to learn from what they were telling her. People were trying to look like they were being patient but the darting of their eyes betrayed them. People were watching for the train as if it would bring a cure for their loneliness. Clare waited for the train with a look on her face like she had no idea what was coming for her.
The place that bulk billed was always packed and Clare had turned up early, not to beat the queue so much, more to know for sure so that she didn’t have to feel this dread any longer, it was making her sick.
The day outside was already oppressive in that way that a summer in Melbourne sometimes was, heavy heat pressing on the city for days with nowhere for it to go.
She had flown home with nausea nipping at her the whole way and she wasn’t sure whether she felt terrible because of how she had skipped out the door and left him behind or if she was actually just terrified of coming back to her hometown.
She had slipped out before he could talk her out of it. She had wondered if what was happening between them was imaginary, if her brain had filled in the gaps of what she wanted and when she looked at it front on it actually wasn’t real.
Clare had gone to the pub before she left to talk it over with Stel and Mim. Stel said to stick with it and Mim just told her to fuck him off if he wasn’t what she wanted. The angel and the devil were always there for her, looking out for her in different ways.
She hadn’t known she was pregnant then and she was drinking beer like she wanted a hangover that would hurt her. Then both Stel and Mim started looking at her like she needed taking care of and Clare knew that something in her wasn’t right.
‘So, what was it again, that made you leave?’ Stel asked, hoping that if Clare said it one more time that she would realise what an idiot she was being and go back to the man who they all liked for his kind nature and beard that smelt like the forest.
‘I told you, it wasn’t anything he did so much as what I could see happening in the future.’
‘Fuck him before he fucks you,’ Mim said definitively.
‘But you can’t see the future, how do you know what would happen?’ Stel quickly jumped in.
Clare gulped her beer and tried.
‘There he was at the train station and he loved me already, it was on his face before I even arrived.’
‘Jesus, sounds awful,’ Mim rolled her eyes.
‘It wasn’t real. It was an imagined woman he was waiting for. He was like that before he saw me. He didn’t look at me like that when he finally saw me.’
Stel slapped her glass on the wet table, ‘he loved you! What more did you want from him?’
‘I kept having to look at the world for the two of us and that was exhausting. I wanted to be able to be separate from him.’
Clare felt exhausted talking through it again. Stel and Mim peered at her carefully.
‘Don’t worry love, we got you.’ Mim patted Clare’s hand and pushed Clare’s pint glass closer to her.
They sat in silence as their bodies sweated onto the leather of the pub booth. The heaters were up high to combat the slush of winter that tried to break into the pub every time the door opened.
They wouldn’t go back to that pub again; the three of them were flung to other sides of the world shortly after that. Clare back to Australia with a growing body inside her, Stel to her relatives in Lithuania to care for a dying grandparent and Mim to Fiji for work where they often lost contact with her as the storm season drifted over and knocked her Internet out.
Clare sat on the edge of the sand pit and waited with the rest of the parents who were arranged around the playground in some kind of ugly afternoon tableaux of tired faces and tracksuit pants. The bell rang and Clare heard the scramble of kids from inside the building. She kept her eyes on the door that Olive would tumble out of, too young to stop her body from propelling itself into the other kids as they came out the door. Olive had started going for full days at school and when she came out she was so full of stories that she would talk all the way through dinner and right up until Clare put the light out. It was these parts of parenting that made Clare feel more like a vessel and not a real human being. She had no stories to tell Olive, cleaning the house or shopping for food was not a story.
Olive’s Dad would be over again soon, taking care of Olive for a month or two, and then Clare could go and create some stories for herself. She had no plans apart from get out of town and forget the little face and the father who loved his daughter with such clarity that Clare wondered if he was made of anything but pure emotions. She felt like a serrated blade, destructive. Clare had worked out too late that her feelings about having a kid were complicated and she wasn’t allowed to take a way out. She kept her eyes on the door, imagining the kids scrambling to their bags, pushing in their schoolbooks, already gathering the stories ready to blurt at their parents.
There was a woman smoking next to Clare, occasionally the smoke would drift over and burn Clare’s nostrils open. She eventually stopped and ground the butt into the playground dirt. She sat next to Clare on the edge of the sandpit. Clare looked at the woman’s arms, clutched around her knees; they were like aged leather, stretched, tough.
‘I was listening to the radio on the way over here and I heard this story about a dead flower.’
The woman didn’t bother with an introduction, it didn’t matter who she was, they were all just anonymous parents.
‘Apparently it just blooms and then dies. Just like that. In, like, a weekend. Bizarre.’
Clare grunted with interest, her eyes scanning the faces of the kids now bursting out of the door.
‘It’s in the Gardens at the moment but it’ll be dead by Sunday.’
Clare barely heard the last sentence; she had seen Olive’s face through the blur of the other school kids running towards the playground.
Olive came running up, half a sentence already out of her mouth, she stormed through the stories so fast that Clare could only manage a brief smile in the direction of the other woman who was also now tangled in the of limbs of her child. It wasn’t until Olive was in bed that Clare had time to catch up with the story the woman had told her earlier that day.
She typed the name into her computer and the images that appeared on the screen were of a huge purple skirt, pleated around a two metre yellow stamen. Scrolling further down, the pictures were of the flaccid collapse of the flower, the rotting flesh lolling like a purple tongue, wasted. She knew that the flower was something that she wanted to see in front of her. To look at how this would have ended. To imagine the brief spectacle she could have lived, to imagine that she had never grown up.