Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Verge 2017 – Chimera

22

Glass

Lauren Burridge

HIGHEST-PLACING MONASH UNIVERSITY STUDENT IN THE MONASH UNDERGRADUATE PRIZE FOR CREATIVE WRITING

I know that man. Know his family, too. Always thought his sister would go first—she’s had skin cancer twice—but no, Cherry is being lowered into the grave after only twenty-six years out of the womb. His mother, Debbie, never saw her angel boy with his shirt off. Couldn’t see anything in the way he waved his hands when he spoke. Precious, only leaving her bereft of grandchildren and a stale room to clear out. She’ll cling to that memory so tight that it’s swollen beyond recognition, while his father turns to the book, turns to drink. I have a taste for whiskey myself.

Our little group has good intentions. Give him our prayers, send him off. Bleach his history so the older guests don’t storm out of the cemetery. Reassure his mother. Comfort her, yes, he’s in a better place. Remind his sister to keep her hat on, and did you put sunscreen on before going outside?

None of them know him like I do. Even his dad, who found him sprawled on the pavement, cherry-blood staining his skin, doesn’t know him like I always have.

He had a knack for getting on people’s nerves. It was the child in him, or the rebel, whose honesty sparked riots in every bar we went to. A bad sort of honesty, where his eyebrows arched up and pinned themselves to his hairline whenever he spoke. Something he took up from necessity.

‘Crush, or be crushed,’ he says through the lacquered wood. ‘A defence made of swords that others have thrust.’

I knew before he knew the words. A month later he dyed his hair pink on a whim and had two hours to change it back before his parents came home. He was at my door, his fingers the colour of wet candy floss.

‘Shaney, gimme your goddamn car keys. Need to get to the shops ay-sap.’ ‘Fairy hair ain’t so bad, is it?’

‘If it’s on your son, yeah, it is.’ We dyed it back on time. No harm done, except for a telltale towel we burnt as his parents rolled up into the driveway.

I wonder if they removed his piercings when they lie him in his casket. A left lobe to match mine, a knot through his tongue. Another ring only I’d seen.

‘Let them have it,’ he’d say. ‘I’m a ghost-stuffed meat-bag anyway.’ The way he saw it, the moment your fluids froze, the body and spirit separated, plunging the latter into, and I quote the witty fucker, ‘everlasting delirium’. Neither of us thought he’d get to try it so soon.

***

It’s time for his mother to give a eulogy. Clawing against gravity and grief, she pulls out a quaking piece of paper from her handbag. She talks about the day he was born. How he entered the world in stagnant water, saved by the miraculous grace of a surgeon. She touches the scar he left across her belly. She recalls his first cries.

She starts off his childhood around the time I met him. She sent him off one afternoon, sweltering, to the pool with his sister. The two come back smelling of chlorine, their hair cow-licked. Popsicles rolling onto their hands, leaving long lines like snail slime. Sticky like snail slime too. Turns out the pair forgot to bring sunscreen and spent all afternoon under the glare. Sonja, preteen by then, flaunts her tan. But Cherry, the poor kid, doesn’t have the skin for it, and from his forehead to the collar of his rashie his flesh is pricked pink. Debbie, looking at his cheeks swollen with popsicle, can’t contain herself. Laughs her hat off. Catches Cherry’s resemblance to a certain two-bulbed fruit and loses it again. The nickname sticks all through primary school, until everyone forgets it but me.

That story is the only good part of her spiel, in my opinion.

Oh, she peddles her way through his life. Then she errs on the most important part. She skips his second birth. A rebirth, no cord to sever.

His mother, bless her, didn’t know. Or refused to know. Deluded herself until her boy was still her boy.

Born again at sixteen. My house, vodka on our lips nicked from my mum’s bedside table. She’s at work. Cherry lying half-stripped on the sofa, sweat crawling across his belly. I trace circles over and over on his chest.

Three boys come to the window looking for a fight. We meet them outside. One says I hit on him. Fondled him with my eyes. He starts name calling. Things not worth repeating, really. But they work well enough to make Cherry pop his top.

Afterwards, I bend sorely to the pavement, pick up a tooth and shoot it at them through my fingers.

Cherry copped a lot. Too much to hide from his wailing mum. My boy, my brave boy—I’ll go to the school, give those bullies what they deserve— sweet boy. His dad huffed in approval, but I saw his sideways glances. Likely had his suspicions then. Lucky for Cherry, the old man couldn’t pick out the hickeys from the bruises.

We went out again that night. Patched up, wrapped up. Too hot for shirts, even past dusk. We left them hanging on my letterbox.

He told me there was no going back. It was us, in every meaning of the phrase, against them. Black and white. Zebra stripes. At some point he threw his arms around my shoulders. Puckered up, smacked my dry lips with his, then spun and ran the other way. Skipped, shimmied down the road. Flaunted his middle fingers for the neighbours.

‘Come get me, fuckers, I’m right here. I am. I am.’

That was the thickest day of our lives. In three acts: finding, fighting, flaunting. Nothing made him feel more alive.

Debbie finishes. Her husband moves to cradle her and draw her back into the crowd. A few more words sweep across the grave and it’s over.

Sonja, Cherry’s sister, rushes over to catch my sleeve. I can’t look at her. She’s got his eyes.

‘You’re coming to the reception,’ she says.

‘Of course. Wouldn’t miss it.’

‘Do you have a ride?’ She’s still holding me. Those fingers pinching my suit jacket lock me down like crocodile jaws.

‘I borrowed a friend’s car.’

‘I’ll see you there, then.’ Satisfied, she releases me. She turns and goes to her parents. The shoulder of her shawl slips, freckled skin exposed. Debbie pulls it up like she’s naked. Asks her again about sunscreen. It’s so obvious; the old woman cares more than she does.

The congregation does well to hold itself together within the yellow walls of Debbie’s home. Her best lace runner lies prostrate on the kitchen table. A collection of flowers line the mantelpiece. Respectful chatter ebbs neck-deep.

Cherry’s dad looks as eager to speak to me as I to him. He stays put in the swamp of work friends drinking in the hallway. Debbie has long since left the house. She spoke to Sonja some time ago before slipping out the back door through the laundry. Probably shuffling alongside the creek a block down the road, feeling stagnant with the smell of it.

Sonja splits her time between the hors d’oeuvres and extended family. I feel her eyes on my collar as she passes through the lounge to the kitchen, kitchen to the hall.

One of the uncles in the room—a silver fox—slides on over to the fireplace for a chat. He comments on the wallpaper while adjusting his tie.

‘Atrocious. What’s yer name?’

‘Shane.’ Handshake. ‘Are you—’

‘An uncle, yep. Kid had a few. You a workmate of his, Shane?’

‘Housemate, actually.’

‘Ah.’ Does a slight bow with his eyes. He’s thinking: ‘Have fun with the cleanup.’

‘So, whaddaya do?’ he asks.

‘I’m a teacher.’

‘Whaddaya teach?’

‘High school P.E.’

‘Good on you. Shaping young bodies.’

Sonja wafts past, tray heavy with glasses. The uncle catches a glimpse and excuses himself, slinking off toward the drinks.

A morning comes to mind while I stand there, waiting for the reception to be over. I couldn’t describe the weather if I wanted to; Cherry and I hadn’t moved since waking. Both of us stuffed into a single bed in case his parents came to visit. A weekend gone by since we moved in, and all we’d unpacked were the curtains. Our belongings still piled high like cardboard skyscrapers through the house.

I’m halfway back to snoring when he gets an idea. I see it twitching behind his eyes. He springs up off the mattress and starts clawing his way through our cardboard city.

‘Close yer eyes.’

Beneath the doona I hear him shuffling about. Two sharp sounds, solid points striking the floor. The clumsy steps of a newborn deer.

‘Alright, have a look.’

His head comes into view first: hair tousled the way I left it, goofy grin widening. Nude shoulders, arms folded across his chest, pinning a sheet to his body like a makeshift robe. Then a leg, protruding from the fabric, long and bony, bends into a pointed high-heeled shoe. The colour of mustard, for God’s sake.

Surprise renders it even funnier. I can barely breathe—he looks fantastic. ‘Where in hell did you get those?’

He pinches his lips tight, raises his eyebrows—the eyebrows, for Chrissake—brushes the question away, and begins to strut. Feet placed like on a tightrope, he weaves between the box towers, betraying grace with an occasional loss of balance. Follows his heels on a beeline to the door. I pause between cackles to wolf-whistle.

***

There’s an image of him pasted to the inside of my skull. For the next week it’s all I think about. I see a coffin underwater. Just like the one he’s in now, only the top is made of glass. Cherry’s skin is glass too. With his arms by his sides, the whole front of him is see-through. Beneath his ribs his cold heart throbs. More than anything it makes me want to cry.

***

‘I didn’t catch you after the funeral.’

Sonja. At the door. Her car boot ajar. There’s cardboard boxes piled along the hallway. Each one is labelled ‘memories.’

‘I was there. Didn’t leave early.’

‘It was super busy. Could you give me a hand?’ I pick up ‘music.’ Plastic casings slide within. They strike the walls with their corners, try punching their way out of the cardboard. She slips past me into the house and takes a box of Cherry’s stuff. Debbie wants to sort it herself. I’m here to help the courier.

She’s taking everything but a T-shirt I’ve hidden and a canvas print of a Banksy. Cherry said once that it was like a telescope pointed at his soul.

It hurts, but I ask her.

‘Do you think you’ll keep much of this stuff?’

She pauses, as if involuntarily. Returns quickly back to hauling boxes.

‘I don’t know. Mum has a shed out the back, so . . .’

We both know it’s full of car parts. She could at least try to fool me.

We finish loading Cherry’s stuff into the boot. I wait for Sonja to leave.

She takes a breather, leans back on her car, her elbows protruding like chicken wings. We look over to the house. Through the open front door, the hall lies empty like a flushed artery. We stay for a moment, lamenting our loss. Then she says something that damn near breaks my heart all over again.

‘I bought him those mustard heels.’

I can’t think of anything but Cherry: eyebrows arched, wrists bent over the sheet with faux delicacy. Looking better in those shoes than anyone else ever could.

My absence must show on my face. Sonja steps into my view, taking up everything.

‘I consider you family, Shane. Always have. I want to thank you for loving Samuel like he deserved.’

Then her hair is in my mouth and in my eyes. She holds me like that for a while.

She moves back, pulls her hair into place. There’s a shiny scar on the side of her nose. It’s embedded into her skin like a snowflake on sand. She is golden and freckled, with neat teeth. Her laugh lines fold neatly into a compact early-thirties face.

She holds her gaze steady on me, a pale grey pair so familiar I could sink into them.

‘Call me if you need anything,’ she says, leaving.

Our life wrapped into a neat little package. She unravels it, pulls it open by the strings. Sits back and regards its beauty.

The image of the coffin is back. Cherry’s transparent chest. I’ve been found by the only other person who saw through his glass skin. He’s here, in her, in me. He’s running down our street at sixteen, buck-naked, shouting.

Here I am. I am. I am.

Verge 2017 – Chimera

   by Bonnie Reid, Aisling Smith and Gavin Yates