A Loaf of Bread

A Loaf of Bread

‘I’ll have the one with the sesame seeds,’ I say pointing to the shelves of loaves, lined up like newborns in a maternity ward. The shop is cozy, a cubby-house of crispy sourdough, dark rye and milky coffee.

Amir takes a sheet of translucent tissue paper and picks up a loaf using it as a kind of glove. He is darkly Mediterranean, boyish, Turkish maybe. Amir? Could he be Israeli? He does not hide that he likes me, always overly keen to serve me, to ask me how I am. He has no idea how old I am. Today I’m sure my age shows.

I had maybe three hours sleep last night, woken by the retching sounds that came from the toilet as Jamie spewed up Thai food every hour or so. I had stumbled towards the gagging, then stood there helplessly. It is not easy to mother a nineteen-year old. When she was still mine, I’d have held her hair out of her face, clucked words of comfort, patted her back. She had looked up at me in between retches, ‘Can you please not watch me?’ I’d skulked back to bed. Sleepless for the rest of the night.

Amir puts the loaf in a brown paper bag.

‘Do you need a bag?’ he smiles.

‘No, no plastic, the paper bag is fine.’ I beam back at him and he winks at me. This slight interaction with a man of Middle-Eastern appearance who is in his early thirties is one of those small guilt-free pleasures like finding a $2 coin in the pocket of your jeans, or someone exiting their parking spot just as you pull up.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

I hold the bread against my body, a swaddle of sustenance. It is deliciously warm and the wind on this spring morning is having an autumn memory. The Rabbi’s wife walks by, pushing a pram with one of her innumerable grandchildren, flanked by two pre-schoolers, one with payot and yarmulke, the other with long plaits. We exchange niceties. She motions to the bread I’m holding and asks if the bread at the new shop is any good. I tell her it’s the best, defaulting into unnecessary superlatives as if overcompensating for my failure to ever show my face in her husband’s synagogue. The best? I wince at myself. Am I twelve or what?

She wishes me a Shana Tova. I do the same.

Down on the beach, I cuddle the bread on my baby-holding hip. I always wondered about that – how naturally it felt to hold a child on the left when I am right handed. I remember once reading that Nature designs it that way so women can multi-task, hold the baby while leaving their dominant hand free. It has been nearly fourteen years since that hip was gainfully employed, yet it still remembers. That soft spot. That ache.

I take the long scenic walk home, not rushing as I might have back when having a sick child at home stripped me down to the purpose of my presence, the very bones of my being. When there was nowhere else I could possibly be, no place I was needed more than sitting vigil, making soup, tending the temperature.

I gaze out at the ocean and sigh, before turning back.

I have done my motherly duty. I have brought her bread. From the best shop. When she surfaces from the fever and wretchedness of this bug, there it will be. The fresh bread with the sesame seeds Amir took off the shelf this morning, wink and all. When there is colour back in her cheeks, I will slice it, toast it, boil the kettle and bring her Vegemite toast and weak black tea with honey on a tray in bed. Shrugged from her life as a neurotic nuisance, banished from all tenderness, I can still be her mother.

I bring this warm loaf to my heart. I hug it and sniff it, and close my eyes into its goodness. I carry it enfolded in my embrace all the way home.

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Buoy

Buoy

1

It is four years to the day.

The pillow next to mine whispers this in my ear just before I open my eyes to the careless daylight. I wonder if it is a deficiency – perhaps a leak sprung in me after he died – that in all the time that has passed since we lay together in our… this bed, I haven’t dreamed about him. Not even once.

The pillow is restless for an explanation, as if baffled afresh by his persistent absence. The linen creeps up between my thighs with the easy familiarity of a lover’s hand. I rest my palm on his pillowcase which in all this time I have still not washed. If something of him still lingers there, I can’t bring myself to flush it out with Dynamo’s ultra-penetrating wash. I am certain this is why it still talks to me.

I have never taken his suicide as ingratitude. He always said he knew he’d die young. But the epicurean in me riles at the needless violence of it. Would a dignified overdose have been too much to ask? Blowing your brilliant brains out just five days short of your twenty-eighth birthday was gratuitous, burlesque. Why involve cleaners? Despite all the intimacies we trafficked in this bed, he never once let slip that the course he was charting through the jungle of his silences involved ammunition. He lived as a pacifist. Died as a terrorist. I was duped. Even stupid. To be that close, and not to know.

When you share a bed, you share a world. Those were his words, not mine.

Four years down the line, sex has become a vague intangible notion, like marriage and motherhood, limp affectations other people assume, unoriginal and unfortunate. My dreams, though, are pornographic. There I am hunted by wild men on Harleys, woolly with beard and storm. I am caressed noiselessly by bespectacled librarians with French manicures behind the Politics section. My breasts are groped, suckled on by passing strangers. Old men in beige trousers. Pregnant women verdant with limbs. Young boys twitching with testosterone.

As soon as my head touches my pillow, I become everyone’s whore. The hull of the mattress cradles my bones. The bed springs push up beneath me with memories that pester my skin, ripples of the gasps and shudders we let loose under these covers.

In this bed he had touched me alive. My body sang Gregorian chants. My womb shimmied in my belly, my nipples quoted Shakespeare. My hips grew wings. I fed him my flesh. I thought it would keep him from starving.

But in all those years he’d slept side by side next to me, I hadn’t dreamed at all. My friend Trixie had warned me, ‘be careful – he’s stealing your dreams.’

Rob was a thief – not of the petty kind. But I knew that going in. I had no-one but myself to blame.

After he died, I stopped eating meat.

2

The body needs protein. It is not a whim. It is a practical insistence much like oxygen and water. I am committed to oblige. This is an unspoken understanding between me and my tissues. Without meat, protein becomes a daily pilgrimage and beans offer a degree of deliverance.

Not every deli stocks tofu. Celebrities crooning of the benefits of green tea and the Kabbalah have curbed its status as a culinary idiosyncrasy, but still, tofu isn’t a fling. For one thing, you have to know where to look. And for another, it is entirely anodyne, and surrenders to the flavours of its immersion – soy, sesame, garlic, chili, ginger – without resistance, all too eager to please. Some days I eat it bland. It takes me back to my dreamless state, when Rob seasoned me.

Today, when I arrive at the fridges at the back of the supermarket where they stock ‘slow-moving’ produce, I cannot get to the tofu. There is somewhat of a boy in my way in washed out denims and a white t-shirt, with a lock of black hair wilted over his eyes. He is examining the different types of tofu with the same look of bewildered exile as a father holds his newborn.

‘Excuse me…’ I say, reaching into the fridge and removing Silken Soy.

‘Ummmm,’ he ventures.

I stop and address him with my gaze. It is not clear he is speaking to me.

‘Is …. Is… is this the…. best tofu… ?’ He holds up Greenacres.

‘It depends.’

He looks at me expectantly. I realize he wants me to go on.

‘It depends what you like.’

He nods. ‘I.. uh… don’t know what I like…’

He speaks to the tofu, not to me.

I am encouraged by his ingenuousness to continue. ‘I like this one because it’s mild and silky. But if you prefer it a bit stronger and firmer, then I think the Greenacres is better …’

‘And how do you … eat it?’

‘With my mouth, generally.’

He cannot decide whether I am joking. He wants to smile but all that hesitation gets in the way, and his courtesy weighs him down.

‘Sorry, I…I mean … how do you prepare it? Isn’t it tasteless?’

‘Are you new to tofu?’

He shifts his weight, in an effort to get easy in his body. He comes to some kind of lumbar compromise. I believe he is looking at me through his fringe.

‘I’ve just moved out of home, and I’m cooking for myself for the first time, so… I guess you could say I am new to tofu..’ he gives a small laugh, as if that phrase is enchanting. ‘But I’ve been a vegetarian since I was thirteen.’

‘Why did you give up meat?’ I ask.

He shrugs.

I squeeze the Silken Soy in my hand.

‘I.. uh.. once saw a sheep get knocked over by a car…’ His right fist coils tightly, anemoned in recall.

I release my squeeze on the Silken Soy. ‘You need fresh asparagus,’ I say. ‘You steam the asparagus. Then you toss olive oil and balsamic vinegar over them ..’

He smiles hesitantly. ‘Balzamic?’ he asks.

‘Balsamic,’ I say. ‘You’ve heard of it?’

‘Vinegar?’

‘It’s a dark aged vinegar that’s been reduced and thickened over time in oak or chestnut barrels.’

‘Okay.’

‘Then you dice the tofu and make it into a salad … with some toasted sesame and sunflower seeds….’

‘That sounds … wow …’

‘It’s …very wholesome…’ I say.

‘You know a lot about tofu.’

‘The balsamic’s in Aisle 4, in case you were wondering…’

I am standing paying at the checkout when he bounds up to me.

I stare down at my sandals which need some superglue to fix where the under sole is loose with the indulgence of grief’s neglect. I suddenly feel a little wretched in my tracksuit and ponytail. I haven’t been looked at in so long.

I am aware of his eyes on me, but it isn’t the kind of looking that makes you edgy. It is very soft. As if he is opening and closing all around me, the way flowers do for the sun.

‘Ummm…’ he starts.

I look up at him.

He panics for a second. He fidgets with his right hand on the counter. But he proceeds. There is courage there.

‘Would you … be interested….’

‘Thirty-nine, sixty’ the checkout lady says to me. I hand her a fifty.

‘… um… in initiating a…. virgin to the whole tofu experience… like … would you show me… how to prepare it…’

I inhale. I don’t know men anymore. Rob took that with him too. He clutches the counter. He is bracing for disappointment.

‘Can I just see your eyes…’ I ask.

He lifts his fringe impishly. They are dark and green and delicate. But they don’t flinch in the looking when the hair is out of the way.

I glance at the checkout lady. She looks at me and shrugs. ‘Yeah, why not? He looks like a harmless kid…’

‘I’m twenty-two,’ he says earnestly. ‘I’m not a kid anymore.’

3

His name is Finn (short for Finnegan, but that sounds weak, like ‘whiskers on a chin –igan’ which couldn’t even withstand the wind) and he is an architecture student. Seven years younger than me. Chinese year of the dragon. Perhaps it is the tofu, perhaps it is the Chardonnay, that gives him courage. That night in my kitchen, over a huge salad of asparagus and tofu, I let him talk.

An only child. Mum worshipped him, and thought he was the ‘greatest thing since sliced bread.’ Funny phrase that, he notices, what’s so special about sliced bread or is it meant ironically?

‘Dad left when I was three, so it was just mum and me until I was six. Then she met George. He was an architect which in mum’s eyes was like being a brain surgeon. Things have a way of getting exaggerated, by contrast – my real dad never finished school. The first present George ever bought me was a Lego set. He figured the best way to get to my mum was to make out like I was the special one, the one he was interested in.’

People are like buildings,’ he always said. ‘‘There’s always a doorway, always a way in,’ He was big on doorways. He had this way of filling up space. Charisma, my mother called it. It made me feel stunted. He’d always get a table in a fully booked restaurant, or the window seat in flights. People were always offering him their holiday homes. My mother got rid of everything she owned, even things she and my dad got for their wedding, when George moved in. It’s amazing what a statement like, ‘what does your stuff say about you?’ can do to a person who was perfectly at ease in herself for thirty-five years before it was uttered.’

‘He read me books on Frank Lloyd Wright and Andrea Palladio at bedtime.’

‘He let me sit up front. He liked to drive fast. I was in the car when he did a hit and run on a sheep.’

‘Dragons are supposed to leave a legacy.’

‘George left when I was thirteen. ‘

‘My mother’s back plays up in the winter. I think she’s lonely.’

Four hours pass. Finn asks for the bathroom.

‘Second on the left after the bedroom.’

My eyes follow him down the hall. At my bedroom door, he slows down and turns to look into my room. I wonder what his architect eyes discern in the mess of linen, and whether he reads the unraveled history of my flesh there. The thought of date rape passes through my mind like a stray cat, but it does not stay. I feel indicted by my own torturous conditioning. He’s just a boy.

When he returns, he has moved his fringe away from his eyes. It looks like he has applied some water to keep it in place behind his ear.

‘Can we… can we take a walk..?’

‘A walk?’

‘Along the beachfront?’

He recognizes my distrust of shadows.

‘If you don’t want to, it’s okay…’

I haven’t walked on the beach after dark since the night before Rob died, his wiry arm around my shoulders, holding me firm, with promises of the earth and gravity.

I have replayed that night over and over in my head. I think I nattered on about children someday. He had just kept still, misleading me into a labyrinth of complacency with his quiet. He pointed out Orion. I thought it was an observation. Now I see it was a forwarding address. A destination.

I grab my coat and a hip flask.

‘Let’s go,’ I say.

We walk in an uncontested silence. The seagulls are haggling on the sand. We take turns sipping from the flask. I am dreamless. I don’t know how these things go anymore. Does he try to take my hand? And what then?

But he doesn’t. He keeps his hands deep in his pockets after returning the flask to me. He doesn’t mind sand in his shoes. I take mine off.

We walk all the way to the end of the beach and back. I get my feet wet. He watches me, but he makes no move to join me.

I look for Orion. I can’t make it out. I was never good at joining the dots.

‘What are you looking for?’ he asks me.

‘Anything,’ I say.

He does not press me. My obscurity suffices. I can’t make out whether this is communication or dislocation.

Suddenly, I start to laugh. He watches me laughing.

I laugh ridiculously.

Finn doesn’t push his way into my laugh. And then after a while, my laugh disintegrates and becomes part of the tender night and perhaps Rob is here and perhaps he is not but for now, endlessly in this moment, I feel unstolen from.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

4

He calls me the next day. As if tofu requires a thank you.

The following day he invites me to walk on the pier where the boats nod to one another.

The next to sit in a cathedral to watch the afternoon light bleed through the stained glass windows.

Then a museum, where the conceptual manifests spatially.

I let him dream for me.

He escorts me through artifacts, sculptures, landscapes.

He loves to talk, mostly about composition. I give myself over to this new language, with an abstracted fascination. I watch his mouth move in curlicues of description, the way the ear swoons at the sounds of words in French or Spanish, unrecognizable, but irresistible nonetheless.

In bookshops, we steal ideas from the Architecture and Travel books, enormous photographic books open on our knees as Finn talks in spirals. Could one design a four dimensional building? Why don’t windows frame existing landscapes? Crop circles must be evidence of a divine architecture. I agree mindlessly, question nothing. I learn names of new things. Baroque. Neoclassical. Bauhaus.

He leaves an urgent message on my answering machine about a rainbow he can see from his desk. I teach him how to cook a Moroccan vegetarian curry. We experiment with different curry pastes. We drink cranberry juice with vodka. We lose the vodka, add chili. He watches movies with subtitles with me.

We are amazed each in our own way – he, at how I eat spaghetti one strand at a time; at the design of my furrowed brow before I sneeze; at my irrational disdain for eggplant. I, at the fact that in three months of accumulated intimacies, Finn does not attempt to hold my hand, sneak a kiss or reach for my breasts. I have lost my co-ordinates. In my dreams it is Finn who roams my body. I wake beached in a parched bed, scrawny with hunger.

I start to crave meat again.

I am unsure in my skin, which insists, with depleting adamancy, that he is not gay. Perhaps I am incapable of producing an erection in a heterosexual male who isn’t actually contemplating suicide and therefore does not have the luxury of time on his hands. Trixie tells me to ditch him. ‘You’re wasting your time.’

But I don’t have anywhere else to be.

5

It is now almost four months to the day since we met at the tofu fridge. In a bookshop, I am paging through Life in Tibet.

The strong face of a Tibetan nomad wrapped in a dazzlingly woven blanket smiles from the page, gloriously beckoning. Around his neck he wears a chain of irregular beads and charms. It is a fully told story in one face. I close my eyes. I try to remember Rob’s face and which parts were keeping secrets. I want to ask the Tibetan nomad if the stars at night change with the seasons. And how to keep warm when the snow comes. I wonder how Tibetans speak things of emotional bearing. Or if the language of beads does all the work. Perhaps covering someone with your blanket is a declaration of undying devotion, and words a surfeit of inconsequence.

When I open my eyes Finn is standing next to me. He looks at the photograph I am holding open.

‘Are you crying?’ he asks.

‘Not really,’ I say, wiping my eyes.

‘A hamburger?’ He is incredulous.

‘I’ll go insane if I don’t have one,’ I say. ‘But I don’t expect you….’

‘What?’

‘To hang around.’

‘Why wouldn’t I?’

‘The dead sheep? Remember?’

‘All that blood,’ he says.

‘Exactly…’

I am not choosing. But my body is taking charge now.

‘Can I … watch?’

He watches me eat my double hamburger with pineapple and bacon and cheese. The sauce drips down my chin. Finn swallows. He reaches out his hand to my face. He stops before he touches me.

‘It’s okay, I’ve got it,’ I say, dabbing it with a serviette.

Back in my apartment, I am heavy with flesh.

Finn paces carnivorously, his hands deep in his pockets. And then, it is sudden and he is close, so close I can smell the briny trepidation in his breath. He unsheathes his hands and summons mine.

He leads me down the hallway to my bedroom door. He surveys the treacherous estuary of the bed. He drops onto the mattress and reels me in to sit beside him. In his hand, he holds mine like a pansy shell, catastrophically breakable despite faultless care. We are at the edge of something.

I wish I had an amulet to give him to spare him the torture of verbalization.

‘I want to….’ he says, ‘…. to…’

The trembling in his body moves first into my fingers, my palm, my wrist, and up my radius as he labours to cross the rickety bridge of things unspoken.

In the shallows, he gasps for breath with heaving gills.

‘…I’ve never…’

‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘I haven’t in … a lifetime of four years … ‘

I lower my lips to his hand. He closes his eyes and sighs. I move my mouth to his lips and draw in his exhalation.

Beneath my fingers on his chest, his heart drum-rolls. I lead him to the water, and lay him down.

‘I … can’t….’

‘Float,’ I say.

He opens his mouth.

‘You can float.’

Finn clasps his hand on top of mine, a double shield on his heart.

‘I… I…… George…’ he begins. I offer my ears like tightly-laced fishnets, to catch his slippery words which dart out of his mouth, a spew of trussed and mangled innocence, of everything that should have been de-hooked and thrown back to grow into adulthood.

When I strip off my clothes, I do so as a recuperative reconnaissance. The bed opens up for us, a harbour. My breasts welcome him like lighthouses, my limbs enfold him like seaweed. I steer him through the rocks, whispering what I am going to do before I do it. I ask him if it is okay, and wait for his nod. I touch him in all his places, first with my fingers and then with my mouth, that have been snatched from him before he had a chance to discover what felt good and right.

He trembles like sea grass, as his body fights off the memories and they sink, like shipwrecks, deep into the ocean of the bed.

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A Simple Exchange of Niceties

A Simple Exchange of Niceties

Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.

– Wallace Stevens

The first available appointment was for next week only. That was in nine days time. Enough time for hands, brains, eyelids and knee joints to form according to the charts. I took a walk. I needed to sit on a bench somewhere under a tree, have a smoke. I know you’re not supposed to smoke when you’re pregnant, but fuck it, I didn’t ask to be, and in nine days time, it was all going to be scraped out of me anyway, which is a lot worse damage than a cigarette was going to do.

There is only one bench I like to sit on in the park. It’s that one just to the left of the big duck pond. It’s got generous slats, not those awkward stingy ones that protrude into your back and don’t let you forget you’re sitting on public property. I once saw seven black swans there, gliding together, it was like a ballet. It sort of made me cry, I don’t know why. Just that perfect connection, unspoken like that. I like benches. They make you feel as if people matter, you know, ordinary people just like you, who haven’t achieved much in life, despite all your teenage dreams of Paris and art school. Benches like that don’t seem to mind that you’ve never reached your potential or managed to finish anything you’ve ever started. They just sit and wait for you, an invitation that’s never revoked: come sit.

I know it’s stupid to be possessive about things that don’t belong to you, but I like to think of that bench as my bench. Put there especially for me, and only for me. You know when you’re a little kid and everyone else runs ahead, and you feel like you’re going to be left behind? When I get to my bench and it’s empty, it’s as if I’ve been waited for. Like an older cousin who stops and holds out a warm friendly hand, not minding being last together with you.

If I arrive at my bench and there’s someone else already there, I just walk on. It’s not that I don’t like sharing. I’d give anyone the shirt off my back, or the food off my plate. That’s part of my problem. My parole officer said people take advantage of that sort of thing. Makes them think you’re easy. I don’t know. I don’t like to see people go hungry or to have to sleep in bus-shelters, which are the unfriendliest of public spaces.

I just like to be consulted first. You know, it’s a respect thing.

And if I’m already sitting there and someone comes and sits down without even a simple exchange of niceties, like, ‘Do you mind?’ ‘May I?’ ‘Do you want to be left alone?’, well, I think that’s just plain rude.

Once when that old lady shuffled up to my bench, I got all panicky. She reminded me of my Nan who’s been dead for more than ten years, but who had a soft spot for me, always pressed some cash into my hand, and whispered ‘go buy yourself something nice.’

The old lady smiled and sat down beside me, and fiddled with her plastic bag, which had gotten stuck, on her wrist, twisted around and around. It took her a good few minutes to work out which way it was twisted and how to untwist it and remove it. I tried not to care what it was she had in her plastic bag, but I couldn’t help seeing she had a pair of shoes in them. A pair of bright red little girls’ shoes.

And that was it. She snatched my peace from me.

‘It’s a cloudy day,’ she said. I didn’t know whether she was directing it at me, or just like, at the water.

I nodded. When I’m sitting on my bench, I’m generally not in the mood for a small-talk and chit-chat.

I got up soon after that and left her there, with her little red shoes in her plastic bag.

Today of all days, I needed to be alone on my bench. I rounded the corner and saw the bench – unoccupied!

I quickened my pace, though there was no-one else in sight, just to claim it. I lay down on it, taking up the entire bench with my body. I reached into my pocket and took out a cigarette. ‘Smoking may be dangerous in pregnancy.’ I laughed out loud, it was a fucking cigarette that got me into this mess in the first place.

When Damien had approached me at the pool table, and leaned in against me, he said, ‘Got a cigarette on that cute bod of yours?’

Not a great opening line, but I liked the confidence and he cut a fine figure in a pair of Levi’s.

He fucked me from every direction and on every surface in my apartment. I still have bruises in places I can’t see without contorting myself into a Yogic position from which I couldn’t disentangle myself without professional help.

We hadn’t spoken much, so I couldn’t have known he didn’t want kids. Not with a trashy whore like me – his words. As if a kid was on my agenda. I guess I never thought before how those two pink lines kind of make an equal sign to the end of a relationship. ‘Better to know someone thinks you’re a trashy whore sooner rather than later,’ Barbie said. She’s my best friend and I swear the greatest hairdresser which is why I always look good even on a waitress’s salary. She gets me right. I heard her. Better to know. Even if you had feelings for that person. Those feelings get the message not to hang around like a spare wheel, not after trashy and whore have been hurled at you like a double fist in the guts. When just two nights before, he held his strong hands behind your hair and licked you from your throat to your bellybutton in a way that made you think, you know, that maybe he loved you.

‘Do you mind?’

I looked up.

Did it look like I didn’t mind? I was lying down, relaxing on my bench, one hand on my belly, the other holding my cigarette, and she asks me, ‘Do I mind…’ Clue-less, as Barbie would say rolling her eyes.

I swung my legs down and sat up. It made me a bit dizzy.

‘You shouldn’t smoke,’ she said, sitting down.

‘Well thanks for your concern,’ I said. ‘Not like it’s any of your business…’

‘You’re right, it’s none of my business,’ she said. She opened her bag and took out a bottle of mineral water and took a big glug out of it. What is it with people and bottled water? Like there’s something trashy about tap-water.

She was married, or at least she wore what looked like a wedding band on her finger.

She took a book out of her bag and rested it on her knees while she looked out at the lake. ‘When fertility fails’ it was called.

She flicked it open and started to read. She seemed to be very concerned with its contents.

She caught me looking at the title.

‘We’ve just been told we can’t have kids,’ she said to me.

I shrugged. ‘It’s none of my business,’ I said.

‘Right,’ she said.

I sat there next to her inhaling my cigarette. She read eight full pages, actually sixteen, she turned the page eight times. Hell, she could read fast.

I thought maybe I felt something move inside me, but that couldn’t be the case. I was only eight weeks pregnant. They only start to move around 18 or 19 weeks, that’s what that book I paged through at the clinic this morning said. Not that I was interested or anything. It’s just that they make you read these things before you can consent to a termination.

As we sat there, a duck swam past.

‘I don’t want to be an old duck, swimming all on my own…’ she said.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

‘There are worse things than being on your own…’ I said.

‘Like what?’ she asked.

‘Like being with someone who doesn’t love you…’

‘Children always love their parents…’ she said.

‘No they don’t,’ I said.

‘Yes, they do…’

‘They don’t. Believe me. And parents don’t always love their kids….’

‘Yes they do,’ she said.

‘You haven’t met my mother,’ I said flicking off ash which had dropped on my shirt.

‘How can your mother not love you,’ she said. ‘You’re her daughter…’

‘I think she would have exchanged me for a week’s holiday at a three star resort… not that anyone was offering… but if they had….’

‘You’re wrong,’ she said shaking her head.

‘Have it your way,’ I said. I swear people who drink mineral water obviously know something I don’t.

And then, and I didn’t see this coming, or else I would have gotten up and left the bench much sooner, she started to cry.

‘Please don’t cry…’ I said.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I just wanted children so much….’

‘What for? Kids are bad news, they’re a lot of trouble.’

She shook her head, ‘They give meaning to your life…. ‘

‘Think of how much money you’ll save…’

‘We’ve spent our entire life savings on four IVF treatments…’ she kind of snickered. ‘And, you know what, I’d sell every single thing I own, just to be a mother…everything, every heirloom, diamond ring, Persian carpet… all of it… it’s all worthless…’

I thought about what I could do if I owned diamond rings and Persian carpets. Paris here I come….

She seemed pretty sincere about it.

‘It wasn’t meant to be,’ I found myself saying, which really wasn’t me speaking. It was like my Nan just popped out of my mouth.

‘Yes…you’re right,’ she said turning to look at me. ‘It wasn’t meant to be…’ The tears carried on streaming down her face. She closed her book and put it in her bag.

‘I guess I have to get back to work,’ she said. ‘Thank you for listening… I’m so sorry to burden you with my problems,’ she laughed. ‘You must think I’m crazy…’

I shrugged. ‘Hell, sister, I’ve got no certificate in sanity, not so far as I know…’

She got up.

‘Do you come here often?’ she asked.

I didn’t know what to say. I did come there often. But not to talk to strangers.

‘Maybe I’ll see you again…’ she said. ‘ This is my favourite bench in the park.. I always think it’s been put here specially for me, isn’t that silly?’

Look, I’ve never done anything with my life. The shoplifting thing just kind of happened, which led to the three months inside.

Bit of an eye-opener. My mother wouldn’t even put up the $500 bail for me. I guess I understand her point. I’m bad news. I hang around in pubs after work. I’m not going to amount to anything. It’s not like I’m going to find a decent bloke and get married. Barbie says I’m like Ruby Tuesday in that Rolling Stones’ Song. I can’t be chained – unless it’s for sexual purposes, now and then, if you know what I mean.

So I had this thought that it might be a nice gesture. She seemed so bloody keen on kids. So since I’m already pregnant and all that, maybe I’ll just have it, and give it to her. She’d be really appreciative, I can tell. And that way, I can get to go and visit the kid now and then without the hassle of having to bring it up myself. It was the first time I ever thought about co-incidence and fate and all that stuff, you know, where pieces all just fit together.

The next time I came to my bench, I had just come from the ‘half-way’ scan. ‘It’s a little girl,’ the doctor said, which I already knew. She liked the same kind of music as me, really got frenetic when I turned up James Blunt on those little headphones I attached to my stomach. At least she’d have good taste in music.

As I looked at the shadows on that fuzzy screen, I didn’t feel like such a trashy whore anymore.

Though I waited at my bench for an hour, the lady with the book on fertility didn’t come. I wondered what she might call her little girl.

‘Summer,’ I said out loud. ‘That’s a good name for a little girl…’ I thought I might suggest that to her when I handed the baby over. Kind of like a ‘use it, don’t use it, but that’s what I think…’

The time after that, I really needed to sit down and it was a huge relief to put my feet up and feel the sun warming them. I was retaining water in my legs and it was getting harder to fill my shifts at the restaurant without my back hurting. Also it was getting hotter and my belly was as smooth and ripe as watermelon.

Even Barbie revised her opinion about pregnancy being ‘grotesque,’ and I didn’t feel fat, the way I thought I’d feel. And when I told my mother I was pregnant, I guess I didn’t foresee that she’d start crying on the phone. Like from happiness.

‘I’m not keeping it, Ma,’ I told her.

‘Don’t you DARE give my grand-daughter away,’ she said.

I never thought of it like that. It gave me a lump in my throat to think that my mother thought there was anything about me worth keeping.

She went and knitted a pink cardigan with rose-buds on it. I kept it. To give to the lady along with the baby, and the name suggestion, when the time came to hand her over.

And my mother started sending money in the post each month.

I was never tempted, not even once to spend it on myself.

By the time Summer came, it wasn’t so much that I’d changed my mind. But since she was ‘distressed,’ and nearly choked on her umbilical chord that was wrapped around her little neck, and given that my mother was at my side, holding my hand, and crying, I thought I’d just make sure she was alright for a while. When she fell asleep on my chest with her little hand curled under my chin, mum said to me, ‘I remember you lying on my chest like that too and wishing it would never end.’

That’s how come I ended up with her lying on the hospital bed with me, with my head in her lap, while she stroked my hair, whispering ‘beautiful girl’ which was either meant for the baby or for me but it didn’t matter.

I did go back to the bench, with Summer, to look for that lady with the book and the mineral water and the Persian rugs and heirlooms.

I guess if she’d been there, I might have had my one and only chance to give her the baby, and who knows, maybe I would have.

But my bench was empty.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Artist-in-Reticence

A month ago, I found out that I was going to be a literary artist-in-residence. I was shocked and delighted, but also uncomfortably pleased with myself for managing to secure such an opportunity. I felt honoured. And excited. Yet an underlying sense of hubris was...

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It is early evening after dinner, and I stare into the kitchen sink. I gently draw patterns with the bubbles that remain from the washing up. I herd them into the centre of the sink and I turn the tap on and let the water trickle slowly, washing some of the bubbles...

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You are my terrible twin.We were knotted together even as I slipped,womb-blinded, from the darkness into light,the cord severed. We will always be as Janus was,selves torn between the ancient facethat looks forward from the doorwayand the young one that looks...

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I was born in South Africa in 1949. My father was Charles, a doer man from a Calvinistic family who spent days and nights drinking in the pub, coming home drunk and then beating my mother, me and my sister. My humanitarian mother, Isabella, was rebellious and an...

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I was a week away from my due date. I was enormous and uncomfortable as I stood barefoot on the deserted beach. I had survived the past year. Barely. Grief and sadness swirled in me like aurora borealis. Birth demands hope. You have to be an optimist to bring new life...

Why Talent is Overrated in Writing

What stops many people from writing is the belief that they have no talent. This is what I think about talent: Talent isn’t enough: talent guarantees zilch. It's not a ticket to a publishing deal let alone a bestseller. It’s not even a boarding pass. It may get you to...

Meeting Dylan

Meeting Dylan

To begin at the beginning.

No – let’s go back, back to before then.

It is an apricot day in the big whirly world, spring-sprung and parchment-pink. Dylan fills the doorway of his china-tiny writing room, buffalo-tired, refusing to budge to the write or the left, because the effort needed to activate motion in the huge steaming hulk of his frame is too much, too much to ask of a poet on an apple-dappled morning when the fags and potted-Scotch Bell’s ‘n Walker breathe (tell-tale talkers of last night’s lurid hours with who-knows-whose-whore or wife) still dulls the medulla-dogged dourness of our Dylan.

Now me. Standing blunted before him. Virginal in my poetry. The gigolo of juxtapositions, the seducer of sounds – Dylan, ‘Mr Thomas’ to him, drunkardly-dirty, hung over in the small doorway, is now looking at me.

His ugliness strikes me as hilarious, for a moment, like the sober regrets of the morning after. Unprepared I came for the confrontation with the physical form through which the beauty of all things is magically wrought into webs of wordy wonder. I am stunned by the size of his nose, which, if it had not been for this thing, might have left a gap for Nature to try again – this time, more lovingly. But he is unaware of my observations, and I am grateful, for I have not come here to find fault.

Now I am conscious of my mirror-studied assemblage, the mascara-ed lilt of my lashes, the dusky damasked shimmer highlighting reticent cheekbones. I feel heat bellowing from my bust. I should have worn pants, I think. I crush the iron-pressed fringe of my skirt. This is no way to meet Dylan after all this time.

‘When the October wind blows…’ I thought would be his first words, when those piggy eyes fall to the crabbed hand that clutches my skirt tight. I had hoped for such a beginning so that I might memorize, not fictionalize.

Dylan: ‘Yes?’

I reserve my wishes, in case they are numbered by the parsimony of genies, but I hope that wasn’t irritation in his voice.

Me: ’Remember, Mr Thomas? I’m the girl who wrote to you about writing…. You said I could….’

Dylan (interrupting): ‘Oh yes.’

The morning yawns in a wide-mouthed gape. Dylan moves into the small room, breaking the silence of the sunlight which fills up the spaces like the liquidity of a bath freshly-plugged. In that room, the morning is already stale, and longs to be allowed out to frolic in the October air. There are rumors in the scattering of shriveled paper wastes, of a strewn-strenuous frustrated night before.

Time passes.

Dylan has already shrunk into his writing chair, without inviting me in. His fat fingers drum lightly on its arms. The rhythm of Morning Mass. I notice, though wish I hadn’t, that his fingernails are dirty.

‘Come closer now….’ I thought he’d say. But instead, from the grave of his ashtray, he lifts the still burning stub of an already-the-eighth-today cigarette and eases it in between two huge liver-spotted lips. Its mouth-piece disappears like a suppository up a rectum.

I step inside the milkwood of his window-silled cabin. From where I am, I can smell the sweat of a poet’s craft and sullen art. He coughs like an orchestra tuning up and spits out his tobaccoed phlegm into a handkerchief with his initials DT embroidered on the corner in the periwinklest-blue cotton by a loving hand. No doubt Catlain’s in better days.

The day sidles into the room, and once-blue shadows blush at my gaze, seeping into pink and scuttle around the room like a mouse pursued. He motions to the only other chair. I am grateful for its hospitality and sit quickly.

Me: ‘Mr Thomas, I….’

He looks at me pityingly.

Dylan (interrupting): ‘Please call me Dylan…’

Me (embarrassed): ‘Dylan….. I have wanted to meet you for as long as I can remember. And that is from when I was old enough to read your poems. You have been a great inspiration to me.’

My own gushing has left me feeling naked.

Dylan: ‘Would you like some tea?’

My verbal offering so carefully rehearsed shakes the foundations of this god less than the juices of Earl Grey’s leaves.

Me: ‘Yes, thank you. That would be nice.’

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

He motions to the tray on a sideboard confettied with papers. ‘Help yourself.’

Dutifully, I get up from my chair and approach the collection of dirty teacups, some with flotsam of cigarette ash scumming the rims. I feel nausea rise in me. I suppress it and pour myself some lukewarm tea from the pot. There is no milk. I spoon in some sugar. There is no teaspoon to stir with. I watch the crystals cluster at the bottom of my cup and pretend it does not matter. I have, after all, not come here to drink tea.

I return with a handful of warm china to my seat.

Me: ‘Mr….. Dylan, thank you so much for your time. I have written a play. It’s just an idea….’

I watch for his reaction. To no avail. I continue.

Me: ‘It’s a play….. for voices…’

He unravels his expression, a flasher unbuttoning, enjoying my unease. His tongue protrudes to lick his lips in collaboration.

Dylan: ‘So you think you’re a playwrite?’

I do not know the answer to that question. I nod.

Me: ‘I’d like to be…’

Dylan: ‘And what do you think I can do for you?’

He winks at me. A pig with conjunctivitis. His breathlessness unnerves me. I laugh predictably. I regret it as soon as I let it go. I long to take it back, to Jack-in-the-box it down again. Dylan does it for me.

Dylan: ‘What’s it about?’

Me: ‘It’s about you and I…. and our first meeting….’

He laughs, bemused. But he does not correct me. He does not say, ‘you and me,’ not ‘you and I.’

My gratitude betrays me in a smile that does not mean ‘Put your hand on my thigh,’ but he does anyway.

The corpulence of his yellowed fingers thumbs my flesh. Dismay rises in me. My teacup rattles in its saucer even though I am holding it tight. I want to say, ‘Take your filthy hands off me.’ I don’t say it. ‘Filthy’ has six letters, just like ‘poetry.’ And the force that moves the hand to the thigh, too moves the hand to the fountain pen. And I am dumb to mouth ‘filthy’, when ‘poetry’ fits just as well.

Dylan: ‘Our first meeting…?’ His interest is kindled by the bareness of young limbs. ‘Well, let’s see what you’ve got.’

He holds out his hand for my manuscript. I become afraid. It is too soon. What if he laughs? What if he says ‘Unless you’ve got talent – Mozart had it, Salieri didn’t, then don’t waste my time or yours. Anyway, what’s a pretty girl like you doing writing plays, when she should be out finding out about what life’s really about?’

I know not what to do. My courage fails me.

Dylan is not a patient man.

He snatches the papers from my hand. And I am all a-tremble. The terror of my poetic innocence gurgles from my guts to my groin. I shiver with expectancy.

Dylan moves to the light as if he cares.

The sunlight lingers longer than his attention. He flicks through the leaves of my document as if he were in the counting house counting out the money. He strokes his chin.

My belly turns and burns in kinks and curls. When will Dylan speak?

I notice the cat. She winks at me, and puts her paw to her lips as if to say, ‘Shhh, I won’t tell…’ She licks her furry fingertips and yawns to show me the pale peach ridges of her kitty throat.

I reach out in sympathy to stroke this discreet feline. She moves to avoid my touch.

I look at Dylan’s feet. His shoes are old. His socks are older. I wonder if he has ingrown toenails.

My mouth is agape, as if trying to catch the sounds that ought to scramble from his lips. Dylan looks up at last. The burning bush in his trousers is risen from the dead.

‘Drink your tea,’ Dylan says, ‘It will get cold.’

I sip my tea. It is just right, so I drink it all up.

‘Go back to the beginning,’ he says. ‘Make each word count.’ That is all he says.

My cup is empty and Dylan is dismissing me.

‘Unless you want something else….’ He smiles. The heaps of my papers scuttle untidily on his lap, rising with the tide. The billow of his bullying art, elevates my work.

Dylan sits lower in his chair. My papers subside to the ground, drizzling a papery silence. I shake my head. Gather my discarded efforts. As I bend down to collect them, he sneeks a peek up my raised skirt.

But I am out the door, breathless in my shame, before he has a chance to say a word, make absurd my pantiless crotch.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Spotlight on Michele Susan Brown

Happy International Women's Day. I hope you're going to make some time for yourself today - to listen in to your heart, and to reconnect with the life inside you that is only yours. Maybe do something kind for your body. Give it a compliment. A massage. A dunk in the...

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Bedrock

Bedrock

‘I’m totally claustrophobic,’ the woman in front of her giggles.

‘No you’re not,’ her husband chides, slapping her on her bottom. The gesture almost jolts Virginia to a standstill, but there are people walking behind her and James the cave tour guide in his khaki uniform has instructed, ‘keep moving.’ It is one of such playful certainty, with a shared history of anniversaries and ablutions, children in there too, no doubt, more than two, though they seem to be unaccompanied this weekend. There must be grandparents somewhere, insisting they baby sit, to give them some ‘much-needed time-out.’ It is common knowledge parents need that. Space.

Virginia can’t say if she is claustrophobic herself. She’s never been this far inside a cave before. The little spelunking she did as a child along the coast of the Western Cape was hide-and-seek with bare-footed cousins, in sea-carved rocky alcoves. Nooks and crannies they made into ‘beds’ with towels and pretended they were fugitives. Places the daylight could reach. Not this deep penetration into the guts of the earth. Not this venturing so far from sunlight and oxygen and wind. In an organized group. With a tour-guide. Where is the adventure in this?

As soon as the heavy reinforced refrigerator-like door behind them shuts tight with a suctioning clunk, she reaches behind her for Dave’s hand, but he is holding the video camera to his eye, like some ghastly robotic ophthalmic extension. He is moving slowly from side to side to make sure he gets it all. ‘Capturing,’ he calls his documenting of their exploits, which, by the way, he takes very seriously. He has a daunting archive of movie clips – of their scuba-diving, rock-climbing, kayaking, camping. It is an extreme sport of its own. He is fastidious and vigilant about downloading them as if something might get inadvertently lost if he does not attend to this transfer. He chews hours away on this assignment. Their history of weekends-away eats steadily away at his computer memory, a mountain of memories. Some nights she finds him replaying them in the den, with a triple whiskey on ice. She can’t bear to watch them. They seem desperate. Utterly pointless. Once upon a time she would have been able to muster compassion for this obsession. Now she just observes it with the kind of pity she might wring forth for an anorexic or a drug addict.

From the door, she watches. He looks up at her. ‘See you in the morning,’ she murmurs.

He waves at her. ‘Don’t wait up for me.’

He used to say, ‘sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.’

But perhaps that began to sound too childish, too hopeful.

Alone in her hollow king-size bed, she dreams of things with wings. Angels maybe. They touch her with their petal-like hands, they flutter around her like butterflies.

* * *

Hands matter to her more than she’d ever imagined. By her estimation, thalidomide had wreaked a wretched legacy on generations of people and not just because they could never play tennis or swim. A person’s entire character, like their history, their future could be told in the hands. Who were you without your hands?

She had been standing in line at international departures, boarding for Katmandu. She needed to get away. It had been only six months since she and Patrick had broken up. He had his back to her, but she could see him holding his boarding pass and passport which he was using as a bookmark in a small paperback, which later she glimpsed was Plato’s Republic. She got stuck on them. His hands. The veins, sinew, the half moons of his cuticles. Okay, she admitted it, she was a phalange junkie. If she saw nothing more on a man, the hands would be enough.

She knew things from them. She could see the life in them, ingrained with silt. They were hands at ease in mud, not that they weren’t clean. He was a scrubber. He took care of his nails. But you can’t hide a history of dirt. She found herself imagining him – this stranger in the line in front of her, nameless and faceless – putting his fingers deep inside her. She blushed at the thought of it. She was one up on Erica Jong’s zipless fuck, this was a faceless fuck. Fingers and hands. What more did one need?

Science has given us all the answers. There’s nothing mysterious about it at all. The brain releases pheromones which in turn creates a chemical reaction. This is why he turned face her. And oh god he smiled. Could he read her thoughts?! Could he smell her imagining him fucking her with the generous width of his Peter Pointer and Tommy Thumb? Could he also see her arching, pushing down hard, climaxing around his fingers? She blushed brazenly. If his brain knew what his chemicals knew, he didn’t give it away. He would be good with secrets.

‘Have you read it?’ he asked, mistaking her fixated gaze on his hands for a fascination with Plato.

‘At university, it feels like a lifetime ago.’

‘I’m still trying to work out if I understand the allegory of the cave…’ he confessed.

‘That we’re all prisoners, facing away from the light, watching shadows cast on the wall…’

‘You seem to get it.’

‘I think I had to write an essay on it in philosophy.’

‘It’s kind of depressing, don’t you think?’

‘Not if it’s true… do you think it’s true?’

‘I haven’t made up my mind yet.’

‘I think you do get it,’ she smiled, grateful to be thinking of Plato and not being finger fucked by this strange man. With his … were those freckles? Sandy hair? No ear hair. Straight perfect teeth.

He was a landscape artist.

They exchanged details.

Twenty four hours later on a noisy bed in a hotel in Katmandu, sheets peeled back, she moaned as his fingers, as if they were slaves to her own private fantasies, pushed deep into her.

* * *

‘If you just give me a moment, I’m going to put the lights on,’ James’ perky rehearsed voice comes from somewhere in the dark ahead like the voice of God in the wilderness before light was on his agenda. How many times a day must he reiterate the genealogy of these caves? Virginia wonders if awe can be faked. He sounds genuinely fascinated by his own archaeological account on endless repeat.

A series of clicks engage the light system, and suddenly they are in the bejewelled belly of the rock. Despite her sweater, Virginia shivers. If it is beautiful it is also strangely terrifying.

About 10 000 years ago, the Khoisan used the entrance of the caves as shelter. They never wandered deeper into the caves because of their superstitious nature.

Of course not, Virginia thinks. It is primal, this antipathy to delve too deep. It feels like trespassing. Some places are not meant to be made open to the public. Or unearthed. Or climbed. Dave’s been talking about Kilimanjaro. As if people don’t die of altitude sickness on its slopes. ‘Why take the chance?’ she asks.

‘You can’t live life from your bed,’ he says.

Depends on your definition of ‘life,’ she supposes.

In her bed, she’s travelled to Middle Earth, the middle East, Afghanistan, Tuscany, the Maldives, one page at a time. Books grow in piles, like untamed weeds at her bedside, half-read, waiting, re-read. She stops in at the library every Wednesday. It isn’t sensible to buy books when you read them at the speed she does. It is wasteful, and they have already wasted enough money. If you find a book you simply desperately unremittingly need to have, well then, it could be purchased. But she’s tamed the desire. Once you’ve read a book, it is that book itself, not some untouched pristine version off the shelf you want to own. Humans are territorial that way. It is the touching that makes something yours, not the price you pay for it.

Dave doesn’t read anymore. Not since Plato.

She hates even thinking of it as a failing, because criticism is neither helpful nor fair in a relationship. It is misplaced. She must find the right place for the right things.

The past doesn’t lose its integrity. Not even in the face of the painful present. Those are her therapist’s words. And she is grateful to have them to grip between her fingers, on the edge of her tippy-toes, like handholds, footholds on a sheer cliff face.

It doesn’t matter how late she reads. By the time Dave comes to bed, she is always asleep, her reading glasses skew from the droop of her neck. He used to take them off for her.

‘I’m scared to wake you,’ he says when she asks him why he no longer does.

* * *

His hand in the small of her back was warm, possessive. His other hand was clasped over her eyes.

‘Not much further to go,’ he’d said.

She had giggled, inebriated with anticipation.

‘Ok, keep them closed, no cheating,’ he said, removing his hands from her eyes. She kept them shut tight.

She heard him fumble with a key.

She tried not to pre-empt. That was a form of presumptuousness, and life is capricious and full of surprises. It was joyless to always be in the know. But she couldn’t help telling her mother on the phone, ‘I think he’s going to do it this weekend.’ He wouldn’t tell her where they were going, just that she didn’t need pyjamas. I want you naked in my bed all weekend.’

He had driven her to a private Game farm. They had taken a land rover to get to their room. Now, they were standing at a private bungalow that overlooked a watering hole. She could smell the animals watching them.

‘No peeking,’ he admonished.

‘Okay, you can open them.’

The enormous bed was draped in a soft billow of gauze, held apart by large ties.

And the bed. Oh the bed. He must have collected those rose petals all year! The bed was covered, literally covered in a carpet of them. Pinks and splashes of red, and yellows and peach.

She’d stood frozen. She only realised in that moment that she had always trailed this moment. A bed made for love, for her.

The soft flesh of a million petals was cool on her bare back.

He gathered them up in handfuls and cascaded them onto her in a shower. He blew each one off with his hot breath.

When they emerged from their post coital sleep, the bed was a mass of bruised and browning leaves, fecund and lush.

‘I want you to share my bed for the rest of my life,’ he’d said, removing a small velvet box from a drawer.

* * *

 

Your Story - How to write it so others will read it - out now

In this no-excuses book, written for aspiring writers and emerging authors, Joanne Fedler shares her original techniques, frameworks and strategies for life writing to ensure that your story connects with readers and doesn’t bore them to switch to Facebook scrolling.

For thousands of years, we believe the caves were unknown except to animals. According to legend, the caves were discovered in 1780.

These are some of the oldest limestone caves to be open to the public in the world, and of course the San people were the first to discover them.

‘Where are the bushman paintings?’ someone’s voice trails up from somewhere.

‘They’ve been damaged over time,’ James says. ‘But there used to be a whole lot of them around the entrance.’

‘What a pity,’ someone says.

‘Yes, it’s a tricky balance between preserving what’s here and opening it to the public. Please don’t touch the walls,’ James laughs, but there is authority in his voice. ‘We damage these formations inadvertently- just with our presence – the skin that comes off our bodies, the oil and acid on our skin, the dirt we carry.’

‘It is so beautiful,’ the woman ahead of her sighs.

‘Not as beautiful as you,’ her husband chaffs.

Is it beautiful? Virginia isn’t sure. Stalactites and stalagmites, the more unusual helictites, uncertain of which direction to grow, all formed over millions of years. Was that an exaggeration – millions of years? Like millions of sperm in one ejaculation? It seemed improbable. But science confirms this to be the case. Millions.

She never used to mind it on the sheets.

But that was when its value was undiscovered, latent and lost in an idyllic ignorance. Before test tubes and pipettes and injections and harvesting. Before it lost its mystery and became a solution with varying degrees of potency, acidity, concentration.

The odds are so heavily weighted in favour of life. And yet. Bed became a laboratory.

* * *

‘There are many different theories about how these caves formed – but we don’t know for sure,’ James says. ‘It is one of those mysteries Nature has chosen to keep to herself. At best, we can speculate, based on the evidence that has been left behind.’

There is movement in the Earth’s crust, which causes dykes to form. Then rainwater combines with acidic carbon dioxide from decomposing plant material and flows through the fracture zone. This in turn initiates a complex chemical reaction, resulting in various solutions which finally crystallize and evolve into the various formations we see here.

There had been seismic shifts. The cracks became crevices. Continents drifted away. They had looked at each other from afar.

She had felt herself slipping.

The earth gave way beneath her.

There was nothing to hold her. She fell. If he fell too, she couldn’t tell.

From the outside, she thinks, you would never know they existed. These Gothic cathedrals of moving stone, ‘flow stone,’ hollowed out, shaped like those sandcastles you make with drippy sand with little children. What if they had never been discovered? Would they become their own koan, like the tree falling in the forest which no-one sees?

Virginia wants someone to tell this to, to share like a playful slap, but Dave is swallowed into the lens of his new digital toy.

No insect life survives in here. There are no butterflies, no ants, no ladybirds. It’s an insectless world.

‘What a pleasure,’ the woman ahead of her says.

Virginia feels a barb of spite towards her, this cosy woman with her cosy life, and her antipathy for insects. No butterflies? You might as well as well extinguish spring. Blossoms. Rose petals. The stupid cow.

‘There are obviously no cobwebs, that’s because there are no spiders … all insects need light. And as you’ll see, it gets very dark in here.’

James warns people who are afraid of the dark to close their eyes before he switches the lights off. There is nervous giggling around her. The man who still touches his wife-who-doesn’t-care-for-insects’ bottom now has his arm around her shoulders. The click is dramatic, and echoes in the cavernous spaces. Virginia keeps her eyes open. For several blind moments she cannot see her hand though she holds her palm to her eyelashes. She feels extinguished in this entombing darkness. She sighs into it. You can almost imagine the world beginning over, so thick and solid is this blackness. A place before light intervened. Strange things happen in caves. She thinks of A Passage to India. What really happened in that cave? The point was to finish the book not knowing.

For a moment, she imagines the electricity failing, and them all being trapped in this rock, never to emerge again. It is not quite a wish, but it is a thought. To die in this icy terrestrial womb, stillborn. It would be easy. Heartbreak would soak into the stalactites, sorrow into the stalagmites, flesh and bone would fossilize into the granite of this disturbed earthly cellar that doesn’t care for humans and their dirt and the destruction they wreak with their presence. A final resting place, like Romeo and Juliet, mistaken, out of sync, but unshakable in the bedrock of their love.

Could you call it grief, to mourn the unconceived? It was enough of a personal flaw to fail at conception the natural way, but to fail at IVF too?

‘I’m sorry,’ the doctor had said.

‘It’s no-one’s fault,’ Dave said back.

But he didn’t know.

The bed in the surgery had been covered with a plastic sheet. Stirrups on either side. She was told to ‘breathe.’ She had clutched the nurse’s hand as she felt the cold speculum push inside her.

‘It isn’t mine,’ Patrick had said, as if it was a jumper he’d left behind in her apartment.

And in that, he disowned, not only what was taking root in the soil of her belly, but the countless tender, funny and joyous histories they had accumulated over the three years they had shared a bed.

She was not ready to be a single mother.

When the lights come back on she tries to catch Dave’s eye but he has it firmly attached to the camera lens. Look at me, she hopes. Her thoughts echo off the cold patient walls of this frozen breathing beast. If she speaks it, something might shatter, or perhaps like a blind bat, it will just reverberate, return to her, faithful as echolocation.

Maybe it is possible to save a relationship one vacation at a time – attraction after attraction. Perhaps sites and histories can fill the hollow spaces between people. If you use up enough computer memory, it is possible to fill the cave of emptiness, shore the heartbreak you never even knew you were holding until it was discovered by too many nights in bed, and too little action in the dark of the fallopian mystery.

* * *

By the time they tunnel back from the womb of the rock, she has it formed, word by word to deflect the stalactites of blame they have been growing towards one another. ‘Me. It’s my fault. I had an abortion when I was twenty-four … I didn’t know… maybe the scar tissue …’

But two things happen. Dave turns the video camera to her. He films her for a few moments and then something makes him stop. He lifts his eye off the camera and looks at her. Directly. Then he clicks it shut and from deep within the darkness he reaches out for her with his hands. His fingers close around her wrist. Then they reach for her cold fingers, and interlock with hers.

‘No butterflies…’ he murmurs. ‘I bet you hated that…’

And it falls from her. The unsaid thing she has been hollowing out inside herself.

Then she remembers, the first of these weekends away. The doctor’s words still ringing in her ears, ‘I’m sorry.’

He had lead her into the cloying humidity of a breeding enclosure where hundreds of butterflies touched her, a winged confetti, warm, flickering, breathing.

The opposite of falling petals.

His hand, warm and alive, holds her steady as they reach the light.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Signs You Could Be a Writer

Signs You Could Be a Writer (No Matter What Your Day Job Is) ‘I’m not a writer,’ people often tell me. ‘But I’ve always wanted to write…’ You know, there was a time I also wasn't a writer. But I always knew I wanted to write. This longing then, could be, as Rilke put...

Books That Made a Difference in My Life

When I was in my early teens, my father introduced me to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, a play for voices. I became enchanted with language.

Writing about Ourselves So That Others Will Read It

  When we write about ourselves, it’s not dissimilar to writing about a fictional or imaginary character. In Hemingway’s iceberg, we see that what we need to know about a character is vast compared to what we show. This depth of knowledge helps us to...

Books Are Like Besties

I equate the experience of reading a good book to sitting alongside my bestie and listening to her share a story in a raw and relatable way. I’m there in the story with her, her words evoking a variety of uncontained visceral responses. I’ve been known to snort, laugh...

Three Voices, Three Stories, Three Survivors

“My husband hit me.”I saw the darkened bruises on the chestnut brown skin of her face, just under her right eye and asked, “Aayana, what happened?” anticipating the worst before she answered. It was the first time I had heard those words. I had watched my father...

Where Don’t You Want to Go – Go There

My friend Ilze, who is a gifted group facilitator, says, ‘You can only take others as deep as you have gone yourself.’ Writing is like facilitating – it’s leading people (your readers) into the places you’ve visited within. As writers, we’ve tacitly undertaken to our...

A Man’s Job

A Man’s Job

I am most disagreeable in the face of gender assumptions.

For example, I am perfectly at ease using tools and would never forgo an outing to Bunnings. I used to be a silversmith and find I am very happy with a pair of pliers in my hand and would wrestle any man to tighten a faucet despite his brawny advantage. I am also fabulous at changing light bulbs and am adept at filling in my own tax return. And though I don’t know how to change a tire, I can drive a manual, a people-mover and would even be so bold as to grab the steering wheel of a lorry if I had to, say rush someone to hospital in an emergency.

I get annoyed at men who get fidgety in the face of female doctors or pilots as if hormonal fluctuations could interfere with brain surgery or a perfect take-off. If pushed, I would go the whole hog and say there is nothing men can do that women can’t, even though it would be churlish to deny the biological, emotional and psychological differences between us which have nudged us into habitual roles from which it can be difficult to break free.

There is, however, a fine line between an acceptance of these jobs as ‘natural’ and the slippery slope into boorish gender stereotypes in which I am invariably left unshod with a frilly apron at the kitchen sink. Whilst I can do anything if I wish to, I do believe there are certain tasks I, as a woman, am simply and without further explanation excused from. I don’t want to get into a conversation about it and I don’t want to fight about it.

The best way to keep on the right side of this distinction, where on the one hand I feel liberated and on the other, I feel totally oppressed, is to let me decide who does what job. That way a man can never make the mistake of patronizing me.

For example, driving is not entirely a man’s job and I resent the assumption that a man should always be the one behind the wheel on long car trips. For one thing, women can (it seems to be an intact part of the brain) ask for directions without having her womanhood called into question. It is, however a man’s job to take over the driving when the woman is tired. And to feed the kids while she is driving. Whilst women are marvelous multi-taskers, we still cannot be expected to keep hand on wheel, eye on road and to shell those eggs or open up the sandwiches. It’s not for want of wanting – it’s an appendage deficit.

I am not fond of non-negotiable gender roles, but as it turns out Nature is. I do what I can to compensate, but there was no bargaining when it came to who had the babies. I know when to concede defeat. When the babies came, my husband and I struck a deal: I, given the mammary advantage, was in charge of nutrition. That left him in charge of excretion. We each took control of one end of the deal. And this has worked well, on the whole.

This simple and equitable transaction has morphed into a larger unspoken societal contract that has designated us routines in the kitchen where I do all the catering, and he does all the cleaning. I certainly would never elbow a helpful fellow away from the oven were he offering for example, to cook me up a melanzane with buffalo mozzarella. But I know this: I’d rather slave over a hot stove than have to scour a pot or clear the scum off the sink. It’s the nails, you see.

I am not seeking asylum in the fainthearted excuses of ‘the fairer-sex.’ This is entirely a personal preference: if something smells bad, I don’t want to have to handle it. If it is maggoty, has been regurgitated, or comes out at the lower end, I claim immunity. Considering the way in which my nether regions have had to endure a certain indignity beyond all reasonable expectations at childbirth, I’ve bloody well earned it.

I also think it makes a kind of logical sense: I, as the handler of food, should never have to come in contact with excrement, barring the necessities of personal hygiene. If I were married to Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver, I would certainly be open to renegotiating these terms.

There is, of course one exception to this general rule. It is a man’s job to be in control of the barbeque at all times, even if the man in question cannot boil an egg or make a cup of tea. If it involves an outdoor cooking surface, tongs and smoke, it is not a woman’s job. My job in this instance is to be sipping on a martini and checking on the salad.

I have a friend whose husband does not barbeque. I think he has issues. He plays the ukulele.

Given the input/output demarcation (and for those of us not married to Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver), garbage is not, generally speaking, a woman’s job. Women are disposed to filling the garbage and men need to take it out when it is full. And just for the record, ‘taking the garbage out’ is a job that remains incomplete until a new fresh garbage bag has been put in its place.

That old nursery rhyme about girls being made of sugar and spice is a lie as Heather Mills has shown, and so it should never be taken literally. Neither are all men at ease with slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails – actually women make perfectly wonderful veterinarians. But when it comes to pets and dogs in particular, it is a woman’s job to feed it and take it to the vet for its’ annual check-up. But we don’t walk the dog and we most definitely do not scoop poop. Even if the woman is the one who wanted the dog in the first place.

As women, it is not our job to unblock toilets, remove the mauled bird from the cat’s mouth, bludgeon the cane toad, or clear the lawn of a month’s worth of dog’s doodles for the kid’s party. Do I really need to explain this further? Furthermore, it is a man’s job to put the toilet seat down, potty-train his son, and check out any funny noises in the house in the middle of the night.

We don’t catch things. Whether they are fish or balls or spiders. If something might pounce, draw blood or hurt on contact, we are excused from this interaction. We don’t hold things down or run after things. Things must come to us.

When things break, it is a man’s job to fix them, unless of course I am in the mood (as I’ve mentioned, I am very dexterous with a pair of pliers). I can and am able to assemble furniture from Ikea, but perhaps I’ll check on the dinner instead. If things need to be wired up, like computers, televisions and various other electronics, I find I get a small headache figuring out what goes where, so I guess, this too is a man’s job. If my email is not working or my computer is giving me the blue screen of death, I expect a man to be able to look at it and go, ‘oh that’s easy’ and to have it working in no time. It seems a natural progression from anatomy to technology than men should be able to sort out which wire goes where and what plugs into what.

But women, I concede can be our own worst enemies, reinforcing some of those ghastly stereotypes and unsettling the score about whose job is whose. For example, at the pharmacy last week, I did that female multi-tasking maneuver – whilst filling out a prescription for minor ailments, I remembered we had used our last condom just that morning. And I found, myself, quite involuntarily I might add, whispering, rather than speaking out loud and proud to the pharmacist, ‘Can you show me where the condoms are?’

‘Sure,’ he chuckled.

I followed him sheepishly, jibbering on about how I don’t really think it’s my job to buy the condoms, but while I’m here… ‘

‘At our age, darl, we’re lucky to be getting it at all,’ the pharmacist reassured me, at which I laughed, because that’s what women annoyingly do when we’re being polite but which I have to say, kind of depressed me.

Whilst I happily do all the grocery shopping, I do question whether condoms falls within the parameters of what one would commonly accept as ‘groceries.’ Just as I wouldn’t expect my husband to buy my tampons, I think condoms do qualify as ‘personal hygiene,’ items, the kind of thing you want to pick out personally and not leave to the vagaries of casual supermarket specials.

Besides, condoms are the prophylactic equivalent of those people who talk so loudly on their mobile phones so everyone within a five metre radius cannot avoid becoming a third party to the interaction. Buying condoms is a public broadcast to the cashier, the person in front of you and behind you in the queue: I have sex. Like it’s any big deal at my age. But being a woman, I am modest about such assertions. I prefer sensible little rows of coloured pills, or diaphragms which come in their own little plastic containers, bespeaking a responsible, family-planning consciousness towards sex as an act of procreation, befitting a woman with two small children who haven’t quite gotten their little heads around the whole mum-and-dad-have-sex caper.

In my case, I have, to use my doctor’s vocabulary, ‘completed my family.’ The only thing I’m likely to pick up these days from my husband is his dirty socks (which, mind you, is his job too).

‘Well, here they are,’ the pharmacist said pointing to the rows of ribbed, feather-light and ultimate pleasure.

‘What do you recommend?’ I asked. Honestly, anxiety is the laxative of conversation. Besides, this only reinforced my instincts that I should not have to find myself in a pharmacy, talking to a man in a white jacket about what sort of condoms I prefer.

When it comes to condoms, I have no preference. My preference is that my husband go for a vasectomy. His preference is that ‘it may hurt,’ ‘get infected,’ ‘someone he knows nearly lost their testicles,’ and ‘perhaps when next he goes for a hernia op…’ Since I am the one who was on the pill for eight years, endured six months of nausea in two pregnancies, got the unsightly stretch marks, the Caesarean scar, the saggy boobs from breastfeeding, I as the one who goes for annual pap-smears, consider I have borne more than my fair share of responsibility for the results of our nuptial bliss, (which by the way, still includes the laundry – that apparently is still my job). In a moment of reckless selflessness, my husband agreed to, conceded the need for, took on the burden, the mantle of The Condom.

Doesn’t taking responsibility include the inconvenience of remembering to replace them when they have all been used up? The indignity of having to ask for directions from people wearing name-tags? The decision about which will work best in the circumstances?

Look, I am a feminist. I believe in the equality of the sexes. I don’t have a problem with stay-home dads or mums who work all day. When it comes to condoms, I will endure them, the way they interrupt the flow of natural consummation, their horrible little rubbery smell, the way they can chaff at the more delicate bits, and even at the end of it all, their viscousy little air-bubble, which my husband has, on occasion, referred to as ‘a hell of a lot of child-support.’

But, and I am prepared to take the flak for this one – it is not my job to buy them.

And of course, it goes without saying that it is a man’s job to pleasure his woman with a back-rub, a hot bath or a bunch of ‘for-no-good-reason’ roses which infinitely increase his chances of actually getting to use those condoms.

First Published in Vogue, Australia, February 2009

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

A Room of One’s Own

When I was five years old, during a routine game of hide-n’-seek, I hid in the cupboard in the spare room, amongst the hanging fur coats and long sequined dresses my mother would never wear again. I was there a long time. Even when my seeker had ‘given up’ and rallied the adults to help find me, though I heard people calling my name, I kept silent, not wanting to betray the sanctuary of my hiding place.

Not Pretty Enough

I was never a pretty girl. Not for want of trying or wishing. But there it was. I longed to be someone other people refer to as ‘adorable’ but there was always too much of me for it not to sound ironic. My father put it straight very early on. ‘You will never be a model, my darling,’ he said as if it truly did not matter.

8 Reasons to Write Your Story

As an author and writing mentor, my days are spent writing stories and helping others to write theirs. But every writer I’ve ever worked with (myself included) throws themselves down this emotional garbage chute: why should I write my story? Who will care? What does it matter?

A Harvest of Hindsight: My top 10 insights about publishing for aspiring authors

My being here is actually not about me. It’s about you. My new book is about you – and your story. So I thought what would be the most helpful input I could give you, as an unpublished author at this point in your writing journey. Here are my top 10 insights or lessons that I’ve learned over the past 12 years as a published author. Things I wish I’d known. A harvest of hindsight in the hope that it will help you to get more quickly where you want to go.

A Man’s Job

There is, however, a fine line between an acceptance of these jobs as ‘natural’ and the slippery slope into boorish gender stereotypes in which I am invariably left unshod with a frilly apron at the kitchen sink. Whilst I can do anything if I wish to, I do believe there are certain tasks I, as a woman, am simply and without further explanation excused from. I don’t want to get into a conversation about it and I don’t want to fight about it.

Don’t Tell Me the Moon is Shining: A Golden Rule of Writing for Aspiring Authors

Anton Chekhov wrote, ‘Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ One of the trickier 'golden rules of great writing’ that can be difficult to understand and execute is the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. What does it mean? It's the...