Seize the Liar and Let the Strings Resound
On the next instance of the New South Whales making an appearance in the assignment, she hesitated, then typed out a pithy question. Because a third mention surely deserved sarcasm. She tapped it out two-fingered on her laptop. ‘Are these related to the Southern Right Whale?’
Was she undermining the student’s self-esteem by pointing out he didn’t know how to smell the name of his home state? More to the point, had she been teaching too long? It was supposed to be a heart and soul job, a vacation like being a nun. She wanted to do the right thing but increasingly felt she was losing the plot and not just of the students’ convoluted assignments. It was like an illness, this feeling stalking her.
The bus lurched to a stop and she was jostled by the outflow of passengers spelling of body odour and expensive perfumes and daily grind. She stared blankly at the swelling cityscape beyond the window. Sighed. Not her stop. Dropped her eyes back to the coldface.
The hall was deserted. She sometimes doubted students existed in three-dimensional space. The laminated A4 on the Professor’s door announced Consolation times, handily colour coded on a timetable. No one had introduced him to the vagaries of autocorrect, nor his students to the futility of expecting anything soothing when they came to consult behind that particular door.
She arrived just in time, a skerrick before the nick, in a case of hurrying up to get somewhere to sit still. The school meeting dragged, its soul-purpose, it seemed, to prepare them for hell. The diminutive sessional tutor alone did not partake of the neatly triangular sandwiches and cut fruit provided as incentive to get them there. This woman had long subsided on next-to-nothing at all.
As the clock on the far wall itched its way closer to the advertised conclusion, she found herself drowning. She woke as her chin hit her chest. ‘I meant drowsing,’ she apologised. The Head droned on, having made a slightly more complex spelling mistake: perusing agenda items took so much longer than pursuing them.
The list of mistakes in the afternoon marking grew. The baddie had another think coming. A ballerina was frilled when she won the Eisteddfod. Some boys went surging. The versus of a song were eluded to.
She pouted over the assignments conscientiously until she could take no more. She shut down all her devices and rubbed her forehead as if this would clear her head. The words lodged there swam in schools of near-twins. How hard could it be to for students to identify the correct one each time? Even the Horse Stud she passed daily on the outskirts of town had a sign up advertising SPELLING AVAILABLE. Surely the students couldn’t be reprehensive of the entire population.
‘You shouldn’t tarnish them all with the same brush,’ her partner warned that afternoon when they came to swapping stories about their workday.
She looked away to disguise her astonishment. The infection was spreading! She feared the fault was hers in bringing her work into the house. A flap distracted her. ‘We’d better get the washing in.’
They stared, as long-term partners oft do, at the next chore. Her partner made no move. Said, ‘It’s almost poetic, the sheets gloating on the breeze.’
A mere shift on the keyboard, a fall from f to g. One note in an otherwise mellifluous melody. There was no reason for it to make her feel so murderous. She ordered the pegs in the basket by colour to regain her composure. Breathe held. Breath deep.
A list of die dates popped up in her in-box. To make her life easier, explained the subject coordinator. No new marking deadlines for a fortnight: Hallelujah. She could escape student shirt stories for a while. She got back to some of her own writhing that evening. But everything she was nothing down in her notebook looked like nonsense. Her mentor would be dying in her grave. She hardly slept for the horror, the horror.
She planned to take her partner out. Made all the arrangements. There was no one reason, she’d simply come to the realisation it was beyond the cope of one individual to stem the tide of language abuse. She’d decoded she could only do what she could do.
The relief at making a decision was utter. She whistled happily as she walked home from the bus stop.
But there was a note on the kitchen bench in her partner’s handwriting: Real Estate Agent called. Says our neighbourhood is much sort after.
The words were a death bell sounding in her head. ‘I’ll sought you out,’ she thought. She didn’t hear her partner come up behind her.
‘You’re doing this on purpose. You’ve made this up, you lyre,’ she spat.
‘I’m no bird,’ her partner grinned. ‘Come on, we have to draw a line under the sand.’
She saw fifty shades of red. Her partner refused to owe up to any perfidy. The smile, the hand on her cheek: this was all a tactic. Her partner was praying on her goodwill.
She was angry but she would have to be blond not to see that the disease she’d bought home was overwhelming them both. The implications caught in her throat as her partner collapsed in front of her, unable to take another breath. Her partner was lying on the tiles, unable to speak as their actual due date was reached.
‘This was not what I planned,’ she sobbed. She was no monster. She tried to resuscitate her partner by word-of-mouth. She rang 000, delaying only to call and cancel the restaurant booking first.
The paramedic – airlifted in – pulled her away, breaking apart the scene that was something out of Love and Let Die. Something reassembling life in all its gory.
News had gone around by mouth-to-mouth. The reception area was full, the flags were half-masked when she arrived at the funeral home. She hadn’t wanted such a pubic display. But she hadn’t been able to say so. She was mute. No word had passed her lips since her partner’s last evening: this was the only way she could think of to stop the spread of the infection.
In the face of her silence, the undertaker had undertaken to have the copse of the much lived personality cared for and transported and the minister was ready to administer the last sacraments, commending her partner’s sole, and the rest of the body, to God who was in Haven. The neat fit of occupation to action pairings did nothing to reassure her that the rules of language had fallen back into place. So she loitered at the door into the funeral parlour.
The coroner had ruled heart attack. She had not contributed, at least not directly, to the death. She should not fear the next step inside.
But it was so unfair, her heart whaled. Either love or live – why couldn’t they have done both?
She gilded her loins and stepped slowly over the threshold.
Jane Downing has had prose and poetry published in journals including Griffith Review, Island, Southerly, Westerly, Overland, The Big Issue, Antipodes, Best Australian Poems 2004 and 2015 and previously in TEXT. Her two novels – The Trickster (2003) and The Lost Tribe (2005) – were published by Pandanus Books at the Australian National University. She has a Doctor of Creative Arts degree from the University of Technology, Sydney, and she has been a sessional academic for many years. She can be found at www.janedowning.wordpress.com
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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence