by Van Badham.
It’s an honour to be asked to blog for Southerly, but it’s a dangerous temptation, too. The instruction for these weeks has been “blog whatever you like, as long as it’s literary.”
It’s like being told “eat whatever you like, as long as it’s chocolate.”
We’re suggestible creatures, writers. The most flattering image I can conjure for our kind is that we exist as walking, score-sheets, notating sounds heard in the world onto the lines of our paper until melodies form, harmonies thicken, and our wandering cumulates into sung songs – sometimes, if we’re lucky, whole symphonies. For the great few, an opera.
The more jaded metaphor is that we’re emotional parasites, the hostile, aggressive cells of a disease that attaches to the gaps and silences that exist between people, injecting our words into them like a toxin that – if we’re successful – re-sequences humanity’s invisible parts with our own unique genetic code. If you’ve ever grasped for a line of poetry to express a feeling, grabbed at Anna Karenina or Brideshead Revisited to explain your sins to yourself, or cried alone in a crowded theatre, yes, you have suffered the taint our vocational bacteria strives with lifelong effort to deliver.
So someone says to me “blog whatever you like”, and this eager little virus sics on to the opportunity with spikes and hooks. I am fascinated by the character of Australian cities, I’m a feminist and I love the genre of ghost stories; Southerly has allowed me space to infect it and this toxic jet streams all of my present literary interests. Should you wish to pre-consider the following more prettily, know that the notes of this music were overheard from Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, Oliver Onions’ “The Beckoning Fair One” and the extraordinary architecture of Melbourne’s crack-in-the-wall bars and shadows. I wrote this under the eight intersecting beams of the reading room in the State Library of Victoria. Whether its a conduit of music or of plague, I leave to you to decide
An autumn moon shone hard and cold above the city of Melbourne, but Kiki could not see it. Under the lanterns of this outdoor laneway bar, a soft twilight had given way to shadow; it was dark, and the exposed skin of her arms and cheeks felt a budding chill. Kiki needed another drink – but instead she stared at the screen of her phone and a colourless conversation in letters blue and white.
6:15pm. Tim: Really sorry! Still caught up at work!
6:45pm. Tim: Still at work! Sorry! Crazy!
6:46pm. Kiki: How you going? Any movement?
7:07pm. Tim: It’s crazy here. Shouldn’t be too much longer.
7:29pm. Tim: Hey, I’m a bit embarrassed to do this – but it’s been a big day and the boys are insisting I join them for a drink near here. If you’re still keen to meet up, maybe I could call you later?
Kiki’s fingers were stiff, but her thumb found the keys of the phone screen. No need, honey, she wrote, I’m long gone.
She wasn’t, of course. She was precisely where she’d been since the end of her last longterm relationship; almost forty, single, disappointed, and listless with a dark anxiety it would always be this way.
She was also, tonight, still at the table in the garden of Chuckle Park, the crack-in-the-wall garden bar in Little Collins Street where she’d suggested she and Tim meet for their date, and where she’d been sitting by herself for ninety minutes. It was seven-thirty now. Kiki hadn’t had any dinner, she was hungry, yet she resisted the effort to remove her cardigan from her handbag and so she could not even get her arms warm. She could will no strength to stand up and walk herself to food or home.
It took more than a minute, but coldness obliged Kiki to shove her hands into the spent tissues and crumpled receipts of her handbag and extricate her cardigan. The gesture of covering up her most flattering green dress with the bulk of black and practical woollen sleeves registered with Kiki as the symbolic end of her evening.
Tim was one more nice-enough face in a parade of nice-enough faces that six months of internet dating had delivered with ever-decreasing expectations. He had a boring job in a health insurance office, but his profile said that he was a drummer in a band and he liked to play boardgames. Kiki herself didn’t play boardgames, but when Tim asked for her number, she let herself connote games with caravan holidays, breezy summers and playful children – and decided she might like to meet him. When he called and suggested a date, she imagined him appearing with a box of Snakes and Ladders tucked under his elbow, and offered Chuckle Park with a twilight-picnic notion of its hanging lanterns, fresh beer and fake grass.
Now, of course, her phantom summer holiday had vanished, and happy feelings for yet another Melbourne bar lay damaged from Kiki’s ruinous optimism about internet dating. Tonight, she’d already slurped down a Diet Coke on her own, and dragged out sips on a single beer for an hour; now, she was going to order a wine. Over only the few steps it took to the bar service area, Kiki’s mind flashed with a showreel of other dating disappointments. There was the tall, bearded disappointment who let her pay for his dinner at Mamasita’s on her birthday. The short, bearded disappointment who’d casually mentioned over fish tacos at Fonda he’d been with five other people that week. The pretty, Eurasian disappointment who’d wined her at Chin-Chin and then told her he wasn’t ready for a relationship when he dropped her home, in his car, without a kiss.
“On your own tonight?” asked the boy behind the bar at Chuckle Park, his face piebald with light and shadow.
Kiki bristled – but then relented at a glimpse of her young barman’s smile. “I’m not very lucky,” she said.
“I reckon he’s not very lucky – or very smart,” said the boy, wiping a beer glass. “What’ll it be?”
“Oh, a chardonnay as big as my head?”
The boy smiled. “I’ll give you a barman’s gift on one condition – “
Her eyebrow raised. “Is that a euphemism?”
“One free drink – just so you remember that you’re luckier than think,” he said. “But if you continue drinking alone and I decide you’ve had enough, you’re gonna have to let me put you in a cab.”
“I’m just walking distance from here,” said Kiki.
“Then don’t make me walk you home,” said the boy, pouring golden wine into a glass. “Melbourne’s in one of her dark moods tonight. She’s got the bleaks. Did you see the glow around moon? They call it a ‘winter halo’ and tonight it’s as sharp as a blade. One time there was a crazy moon like this, I blinked and the city snatched something.”
Kiki tilted her head. “What does a city snatch?”
“Always, the lonely,” said the boy, meeting Kiki’s eyes. He pushed the full glass towards her. She saw how smooth and young his jaw was.
The boy’s eyes levelled hers. “I’ll keep an eye on you,” he whispered, as a half-shadow customer appeared at Kiki’s side. His gaze flicked past her. “What’ll it be?” he said to someone else – so she turned back to the garden.
Kiki, blank, was halfway back to her table when she realised that her original seat had been taken. A couple now held hands and giggled over the table that she’d pre-warmed on her own. Kiki glowered. Glancing around the little garden, its clumps of stools and tables, she saw that every seating place was claimed. She frowned at her full glass of wine.
“You can sit here, if you like,” came a man’s voice – a quiet man’s voice, like a bass drum struck in a deep well.
Under the low light of Chuckle Park’s orange lanterns, Kiki strained her eyes to discern him – her ears hadn’t caught the origin of the sound.
“I’m here,” she heard – before her eyes caught on the face of an unshaven man, pocketing his phone from the surface of an empty table. He waved a pale hand at the seat in front of him. “Please. I’m not expecting anyone.”
Something in Kiki caused her hands to clench, her breath to cool in her throat, her not to move. The dark-eyed man smiled, as if to reassure her momentary reluctance. He repeated the gesture with his hand.
Kiki stepped towards the table. She was so cautious as she sat down, her fist did not relax its grip of her wineglass. A flash of teeth; a warm, broad smile.
She guessed he was maybe thirty-five; his hair was black and cropped short, his black eyebrows thick. He wore a dark, woollen double-breasted jacket. Something his eyes gave them a glisten, like ripples disturbing the surface of a pond. “I’m Felix,” he said.
“Which is short for…?”
“Short for ‘Kiki’.” Now, she took a gulp of wine, savouring the taste of fruit and ethanol against her tongue – although her eyes remained on Felix.
Another flash, Felix’s small, straight teeth. He had strong cheekbones, she saw. He was handsome. “You shouldn’t be by yourself tonight, Kiki.”
“Something about a winter moon tonight and Melbourne in a bleak mood?”
“Ah, I think my attempt here was to flirt with you, Madam,” said Felix. Did he blush as he added: “I can discuss the moon, if you’d prefer.”
“I’ve ceased believing in the moon,” Kiki said. She made a demonstrative stare at the black space above the orange lanterns, but it was to hide a smile. “If I can’t see you, you’re not there.”
“What if you can see me but I’m not here?” Felix asked.
Kiki’s gaze returned to Felix; to his black hair, his thick brows. His eyes. She decided she very much wanted him to flirt with her. “Where are you, Felix?” she said.
Felix placed his hands palm-down on the table, inhaled, and closed his eyes. “I’m in your apartment, dear Kiki,” he said. Smiling.
An increasing thrum in her heart. “You have no way of knowing I live in an apartment.”
“A woman in the city, on her own in a bar, after dark on a night with a chill. You could be local and there are no houses here.”
“I could just be an alcoholic.”
Felix’s eyes opened with a sudden flicker at hers – they seemed to be staring through hers, at a horizon somewhere past the back of her skull. “No, there’s more tea in your flat than there’s booze,” he said. The way he spoke was almost like purring. “And soft furnishings. You’re most fond of quilts. Cushions – there’s a pile of them on the couch. And low lamps. But no cat.”
A gulp of wine turned tasteless in Kiki’s mouth; she swirled her glass. “And I work in office, and spend all my money on skin cream and shoes. I’m thirty-seven and childless and I’ve turned into a marketing algorithm. No longer a person, just some pages torn from an IKEA catalogue. Are you in marketing, Felix?”
But Felix was still staring into her, and past her. “I’m in the apartment. A studio with a loft bed. The books are dusty on the shelf. Recipe books. You haven’t cooked a meal in a while – and you’ve been sleeping on your couch.”
Kiki’s shoulders slumped. “I realise this is some ice-breaking ploy to freak me out, but really, I just feel depressed.”
His eyes snapped to hers. “Why are you sleeping on the couch?”
Kiki’s cheeks burned. “I realise magicians don’t explain their tricks but you probably should, because I’m feeling embarrassed.”
“No need,” he said, his hand reaching across the table for hers.
But he snatched it back.
Kiki hoped it was only the wine and the cold that were causing water to swell in her eyes. “Doesn’t seem much point to make the bed,” she said with an acrid giggle. “Not much point to cook a meal that will only get half-eaten. I like a bowl of pho up on Swanston Street,” she said, feeling the tumble of a tear down her face. “I like having people around me.” She sniffed. Snorted. She dabbed her eyes with the cuff of her cardigan. “I was stood up tonight,” she told Felix. “And it’s happened before.”
“It could have been worse. Someone that cruel could’ve turned up.”
She turned her face away from him, staring at the shadowed wall. Another tear rolled, she dabbed it, her lungs were tight. “They don’t turn up, they do turn up and it’s worse, they tell you it’s great and it’s not, and then they disappear. Men… These men… They can’t all be cruel, can they?”
“Their armies are vast,” he said. His smile was jaded, but warm. “I think they recruit on the internet.”
Against the knot in her chest, Kiki laughed. “I hope I’m just a bit drunk. If I’m as miserable as I feel I must be unpleasant company.”
“On a cold night, everyone outside on their own becomes miserable.”
“You don’t seem so unhappy.”
And Felix smiled. “I guess I don’t feel alone.”
Once more, Kiki blushed. “You’d get some easy pickings, hitting up lonely women on a night as bleak as this.”
“I’m a quiet man. I just like having people around me,” Felix said, and, from the gentle tilt of his head, Kiki realised that he might be blushing, too.
She cleared her throat, sat up. “Seriously, what’s the trick with the room thing?”
Felix lent forward. “When a person truly believes that you’re looking at them, they start showing you things. The eyes aren’t the windows to the soul – they’re doors to rooms, and streets and gardens. Look hard enough and they’ll hold open those doors for you to walk through. And, if you want to, you can.”
“I believe you may be a psychologist, Felix.”
“I used to be an architect,” he said, with his own soft chuckle. “This perhaps explains my reliance on room metaphors.”
“And what do you do now?”
“Turn up in bars on bleak nights.”
Again, the spread of Felix’s smile, a shine in his dark eyes – a warmth, melting the knot over Kiki’s heart. “I’m glad you picked this bar,” Kiki said.
“Yes,” Felix purred.
And then: “Hey,” from someone, somewhere else.
“Hey,” Kiki heard above her ear. “Hey, you. We had a deal.”
She turned around. By her side stood the young barman. He was wearing a khaki jacket zipped to his neck. “Come on, I’ve got to turn the lights out, and I’m walking you home.”
From surprise, Kiki didn’t move. “Oh,” she said, after a second, “Oh, I’ve – ” She was about to say “met someone”, when she turned back to Felix.
And Felix wasn’t there.
The bar was dark. She was alone at her table.
She gripped the table edge from fear. “What’s going on?!”
The barman, at least, remained where he’d been standing. “Bar’s empty, show’s over, it’s time to go home. Got a jacket?”
“Where’s Felix?” Her eyes darted around the tiny, empty garden. “Felix – the guy with black hair and the coat.”
The barman shook his head. “No guy. Just you at this table.” He nodded towards Kiki’s empty wineglass. She picked it up, rolling it in her hand to feel the coldness of its glass against her skin. To know it was real.
“I was just talking to him. He was just there.”
“You dreamt him, I reckon. You were pretty still. It’s this crazy moon, snatching your mind away. Put the glass down, I’ve got to lock up.”
If Kiki had at all been dreaming, she felt that it was happening right now. She swayed to her feet and near floated towards the road outside, as the young barman clattered at doors and clashed metal chains. Her mind saw Felix’s face so clearly; her eyes saw the dull lights of a shut Little Collins Street; Felix was nowhere. When the barman said “Which way do you live?” she only managed to point at Elizabeth Street. They were at the corner before she regained her voice.
“You can head off, really. I’m only a block from here,” she managed, nodding her head towards Bourke St.
“Not a chance; you in the door, and only then will I leave you alone.”
Kiki gestured at the clumps of pedestrians on Elizabeth street. “There are people around.”
“You don’t know what kind of people,” said the barman, walking between her and road, north up Elizabeth, “not on a bleak night, under a crazy moon. And not in this part of town, where weird things happen.”
“Weird like me talking to a man who wasn’t there?” As the words came out of Kiki’s mouth, her mind saw Felix’s face. But she shivered.
“It’s not the ones who don’t exist that are the problem,” said the barman. “The bar’s popular with internet daters. You learn to pick them out after a while – there’s an awkward way people try to talk to one another. Never sure what to do with their hands. This is what I mean when I tell you you’re lucky: not so long ago, someone really drew a bad hand and met up with a nutjob – didn’t look like one, but was one. Seriously, was one. They went back to his place, wham. Dead. Knife in the heart. Turned out I was on the roster that night – cops came in and asked me to give a statement.”
Kiki’s eyes were wide. “Did you?”
The barman shook his head. “They looked so normal, I couldn’t even pick the killer out of a line up. Didn’t recognise them. That was a crazy moon night, when those two were in the bar. I promised myself, after that; I would not blink and let that kind of thing miss me again.”
“The night the city snatched something…” Kiki said this looking for the moon, but she still could not see it. She guessed it was hiding behind the clock-tower of the GPO; they were near the corner of Bourke street now. She slapped at the button for the pedestrian lights, the lights changed, and she and the barman walked west. They were silent as they crossed the road. Even when they were up on the kerb and a few steps up Bourke St it still took Kiki a few seconds to speak – her hands were trembling. “Did they get the guy?” she stammered. “I mean, are you walking me home because you think he’s still on the loose, or – ?”
“Nah – it was the guy that was got,” said the barman. “It was the chick who did the stabbing. She had some pretty major problems, but he couldn’t’ve known from the internet. I reckon he would’ve seen something not right when she was talking to him, but you ignore stuff, don’t you, when you’re lonely?”
“Ignore stuff, make stuff up, invent entire conversations… or even people.” Kiki came to a stop; they were outside her apartment, her keys were in her hand. “I was a bit vulnerable tonight – so I appreciate the oversight.”
“Don’t think I’m doing it just because you’re a chick, either,” said the barman. “Crazy moon night, I’m straight in a cab after this. I think about that murdered guy a lot. They said he was a quiet person, an architect. He was just so lonely that he picked the wrong girl. Oi, taxi!”
Kiki stood there on the footpath, her eye wide as the bottom of a glass. Her heart pumped the word architect, architect, architect through her mind with increasing speed. The barman waved to her as a cab stopped next to him on the road. She barely heard “Seeya!” as he climbed inside. Then the cab drove away.
Empty street. Bleak night. “Crazy moon”.
As if Kiki might outrun the pace of her thoughts, she bolted for her apartment lobby door. The seconds it took for her to swipe her security fob, slap at the elevator button and get inside were eternal. Sweat pumped around her face, and in the elevator she stared straight ahead of herself, panting, terrified of a single glance at the mirrors of its internal walls unless she spied in them… something as impossible as her evening. She almost cried with impatience for the lift to land, the doors to open; when they did, she darted down the empty hallway, key held in her fist like a lance, panting, threw herself at her apartment door, stabbing her key at the lock.
And then she was in. Then she was home. She slammed the door behind her. The familiar smells of her warm apartment. The cosy hall. She stumbled inside. The pace of fear ebbed in her heart, the sweat around he face grew cold. She flicked on a light and then stepped into her studio room.
Everything as she had left it. The loft bed. The table. The dust on the unopened recipe books.
… But not the couch.
She blinked. This morning, she’d left the quilts she’d slept under in disarray, overspilling the couch, touching the floor. Now, the couch was made like a bed, the cushions stacked as if to welcome her sleeping head. A curiosity even greater than fear impelled her towards the transformed piece of furniture. Her mind raced to imagine any possibility but the impossible obvious that could explain it.
Then, she saw a folded piece of paper on the pillow. It was from the notepaper by the telephone.
Her hands were shaking with such force that as she clasped the paper its rustle was the loudest sound in the room. She peeled it open. Handwriting. Three lines of text.
Thank you for letting me in.
I’d really like to see you again.