Tying flies by James Claffey
The narrow metal box with hooks, twine and feathers lives in the dark space under the stairs. He brings it out in the springtime, readying for the freshwater season, the bamboo rods with cork handles dusted and polished, the reel oiled and ready to cast. His thick fingers know the way around tying a fly. A river surgeon, he lays out his instruments: bodkins, hackle guards and pliers, hair stackers, and vise. The cluster of feathers on the table, ringed about a silver hook, its slanted barb sharp and true. He plucks the feathers and winds thread to simulate an insect’s torso. Those nights at the table, his glasses smeared with thumbprints, I kneel on the chair, pewlike. His mutterings and twitching eyelid seem to me the stuff of legend; all part of the magical arts he practices in the fluorescent glare. In the background Mammy wipes the counters, her apron tied tight, her cigarette flares red as she breathes. Now and then she reminds him, don’t mark the bloody table with your tools. He replies through the hook in his teeth, and tells her to attend to her duties and he’ll attend to his. I push my knees harder into the chair’s cushioned surface and witness her thump and blister around the kitchen, her anger, the crackle of the poorly anchored light bulb.
a woman like Syria by John Allison / painting by Annette Alexander
she wears her country like a scar
if you look closely you can see the war is still going on
her hair blazes with exploding cluster bombs
the side of her neck has been mapped by chemical agents
the city of Aleppo falls about her ears
and refugees spilled from boats are drowning in her eyes
a little child — not hers — shelters in the folds of her dress
with huge eyes plunging towards tomorrow
she stoops to gather up the child who from now on is hers
bears him in a worldwide web embrace
when she steps ashore she is alone
the whole world is watching only the Queen and Ukraine
or else flying away somewhere
everything in the West is hurrying towards itself again
when she steps ashore it is dawn
when she steps ashore she has become everyone
The Potts Point Letters by Catherine McNamara
Mum had a boyfriend. A lover really. Boyfriend doesn’t seem like the right word. I’ve been going through her things – you know that desk with the rolled wood top? Nothing in the drawers, but you remember that sewing chest next to it with the silly legs, with the upholstered cushion lid, the one she put a ton of books on? Well, the books were Australiana and went over to Cathy’s and while I was doing her unpaid bills Alistair got inside and found this biscuit tin full of buttons. The little bugger got hold of it and spilled a hundred buttons on the floor.
Then of course the tin popped apart and Alistair plucks out two envelopes that were hidden in the bottom. Interesting, no? An address in Rose Bay, a posh street near the harbour. Each envelope bearing a five-cent stamp with the Queen – you remember the fuchsia ones we used to collect? And then I find Mum’s handwriting on onion paper. You remember the pale blue pad she used to keep on the desk that no one could touch? And her crisp cursive that looked as though she’d just left secretarial school?
A small sample: My dear Joseph, I did not know that desire could take this shape, this fury. I tremble – still – to think of your face in the act of love.
A bit embarrassing, hey? I’m not sure you’d even like to know but you and Mum were close before you left, so I thought you might. I found a stash of envelopes in the sewing basket lining, and inside the satin pillow, even under the panel at the bottom. There are dozens. I think there’s probably more but I know the two in the biscuit tin are the first because they are slightly wavering, a little formal. The paper’s been smoothed out many times. As you can see his name is Joseph. Do you remember a Joseph? I have no recollection of a Joseph.
There are no letters from Joseph back to Mum.
At first I thought of photocopying them all and just sending a big envelope over to you in Berlin, but I’m still making my way through and God knows what I might find. In any case I’ll wait till you give me the okay before sending. I’ve got them in a folder by my bed to read through at night, except it feels a little sordid reading about our mother’s secret sex life with Ben snoring beside me. Some of it makes me feel queasy – I never knew Mum could write or, much less, feel these things – and I have to step outside of myself to give them a good read. I’m telling you, you’ll be surprised. Perhaps that’s where you got your artistic knack from. We never even guessed about the old girl, did we? Glad she had some fun with Dad being such a dry soul and the hell she had to go through with him at the end.
Hope Dieter’s show is going well. Ben has put his back out again. I’ll keep you posted.
Sorry to hear that Dieter sprained his wrist. I didn’t realise the show was so physical. Ben’s back is much better, thanks. But no more gym for a while. He’s not the young hulk he conjures up in the mirror any more. Alistair has started drawing a Japanese cartoon character called Sagat, with a patch over one eye and asymmetrical fighting poses. My kitchen walls are massacred.
Yes, there are dates on the letters. I haven’t even gotten halfway through them yet but the first two come from early on when they first moved to Sydney, just after Mum had that stillborn baby before the pair of us. There are also some long gaps. I’ve started to organise the letters into years and there are months when the correspondence quickens, then Mum seems to pull away, back to raising kids probably. I’d almost sell my own child (no – make that my husband!) to know what the lover wrote back to her. I can’t work out where they met or what he did in life. But I’m almost certain this Joseph guy was married and the wife sent Mum’s letters back when he died, which I imagine he must have by now. What a God-awful situation.
Hugs from us all,
They had a flat together where they used to meet! Downtown in Potts Point. The more I’ve been reading on, the more I start to worry that maybe one of us – I mean either you or me – might be the fruit of their rapport. Anything’s possible, right? Ben can hardly believe we have a longstanding affair within the family. He wants to write it into one of his scripts. Nick – this is a bit weird to say – there’s a lot of hard sex. If it were someone else’s mother, I might be having a good laugh. But it’s making me feel quite undone. Where on earth did this come from? I see Mum in the garden with a floppy hat and a trowel, and my head reels.
Your bruises adorn my thighs. This afternoon I felt like an animal in combat.
Are you okay with all of this? I didn’t know that Dieter was adopted. Perhaps I should stop?
I realise this must be alarming for you. Don’t think it’s easy for me either. But we’ve agreed we both want to know, right? Well. Deep breath. I made several discoveries this week – discoveries that drag my whole being to the bottom of the sea. I haven’t told Ben yet. Wanted to tell you first.
Mum writes to Joseph, two weeks after you were born: My sweet love, your son is here asleep. His limbs unfurl in the morning light and his face is yours yours yours. I want to bring him to you, place him on your chest. Show you this produce of our bodies.
Eight months after this the letters stop for a good while. She is pregnant with me. She writes briefly of feeling invaded, burdened, violated.
So it’s you Nick, not me.
Confession: before I had Alistair there was a guy at the office who used to try it on, especially when I was waddling around pregnant. Ben wasn’t very enthused by almost all aspects of pregnancy – I was bloated (everywhere) and always seemed to have this heavy fetid smell. One afternoon I gave in to the guy at work, went to his house in Mosman (his wife was interstate) and he undressed me item by item. It was pretty freaky. Then we made love on their double bed. It was really powerful and I gave myself to this guy in a way that frightened me. I even thought it dangerous for the baby, but I couldn’t tell him to stop. We spooned afterwards and it felt more meaningful than any sex I have ever had. I was bleeding the next day and my gyno told me to go easy on the lovemaking.
I’ve never told anyone this. I started to reek like an animal whenever I saw that guy, but then he left.
Does that mean I am like her?
I went to the flat where they used to meet. A couple of times she mentions the address and how she loved the inner-city neighbourhood. The flat is on the market, would you believe? It appears to have changed hands several times. An investment property, they call it, for first buyers. It’s in an art deco block off Macleay Street, liver-red brick and violet light inside. Shabby now, a damp smell. There was just me and a couple at the showing, a single bedroom looking into the branches of a plane tree which must have been much lower or not even planted back then. I tried to imagine Mum making love to another man, tried to see her purply legs folded along his legs and her belly crushed to his belly, her shoulders gathered in his arms, the air finally still and perhaps a harsh cigarette after some risky coitus interruptus.
It was a beautiful room, streaks of light. I felt.. jealous. Had I been alone, I think I would have lain down on the floor and touched myself. Is that sick? Please tell me I’m not sick. Nicolas, it’s like she was never even ours.
Alistair has done you about twenty-five drawings of Sagat fighting. Ready to have your kitchen wallpapered?
I’ve been thinking about Dad. He must’ve known. How could you not? Then I found this. We would have been eleven and ten, a pair of suburban kids with skinned knees, braces, maths homework. Speedwell bikes. This is what she wrote:
You were right, my love. Last week when I left you he was on the footpath opposite, just standing there, watching me close the front door downstairs and open the gate. I didn’t see him so much as feel eyes upon me. I walked back up Macleay Street and he called out one word, ‘Slut!’.
He drove past a short while afterwards and I got in the car. We went over the Bridge, up Military Road, waited for the school bell to ring. Not a word.
Oh my sweet love, my Master, my baby. Why must we live like this?
Do you remember the way she used to pour Dad’s beer? How she would serve us dinner, glassy-eyed, prim as they come?
He died by his own hand, the lover. There’s a clipping from the Herald. The last letter I can find from Mum to him is jittery, it sounds tired. It’s pretty clear the lover’s wife knows as well. Mum mentions her twice by name. She’s called Rosemary. Stinging Rosemary. There’s also another death. The lover’s son died in a road accident and it’s mentioned in the clipping. He was called Jan (odd name?). He was nineteen. One supposes the accident might have led to the suicide. In the last letter Mum is pulling back, she uses the word unbearable. They’ve been going for two decades now and she doesn’t really seem to be offering the right amount of support. It might have been when you were having problems. Do you really want me to talk about this?
To think that she had Dad’s illness just around the corner. Perhaps she saw it coming.
I burnt the letters. It wouldn’t do to have them in the family. Let sleeping dogs lie. Out of respect for Dad too. Ben’s reaction all along has been something like, I always knew there was something out of whack with your folks. The way she cleaned up after your Dad and wouldn’t put him in a home. It was guilt, Catholic guilt. Which really helps when Alistair is lifting up his face from his felt-tips to stare.
I feel bad especially as they were your makers, Mum and this Joseph. I feel that in this act of destruction I have somehow mangled your origins. But if you think about it, she was never honest enough to let you know who you really are, and it’s not going to help anybody now. Dad raised you. Dad was your father. You are right not to care. I’d be the same.
I also burnt the newspaper clipping about the lover’s death, so I promise you’ll never know his full name from me.
I’m actually sorry Nick that I ever brought this up with you. I should have read through the letters first and given it some thought. The rest of the house items have been sold off or carted away by the church. There was nothing else that spoke of this and there’s no need for us to mention it again.
How is Dieter’s sprained wrist? How is the show? Has his bandage come off yet?
Koha by Reihana Robinson
Ava and Jasmine wanted to marry you
All the girls wanted to marry you
And you were not even four years old
When you slithered into this world
You opened your eloquent eyes
And cradled silence
From your ancestors harmony impregnated all pores
Those eyes saw distances beyond the now
Observed here from afar and afar from near
A small cough like a chipmunk scattering leaves
And words flow into poems into songs
You are thrumming. Music another name
A tiger-swallowtail alights on bee balm
Vacated by hummingbirds and the knock
Knock of a plileated woodpecker high in hemlock
Tells us you are in this hemisphere, panting for cool air
It’s coming and the cold cold winter too
But autumn gifts us your embrace
Those genes are not ordinary DNA, those genes
Are pure love (made in Australia like your kuia)
Pushed out in Aotearoa now rising in Londontown
Be the leaf be the branch be the trunk be the root
Be the river be the air be the soil be the garden
Be the rising human in this world, beloved.
John Allison is a Christchurch poet with six collections published, and another in the works. His poems frequently appear in journals here and overseas. He is presently working with composer Pieta Hextall and Mahina Kauai (playing taonga pūoro) to create a choral work ‘Mountain. River. People’.
Annette Alexander was born in Dunedin, and is currently living in Melbourne. A recent exhibition in July featured numerous paintings reflecting an ancestral migration from the Middle East, articulating the experiences of dislocation, the heart left behind though the body was safe, the loss of language and culture.
James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and Australian cattle-dog, Rua. He is the winner of the Linnet’s Wings Audio Prose Competition. He received his MFA from Louisiana State University, where he was awarded the Kent Gramm Prize for Non-Fiction. His work appears in many places including The New Orleans Review, Connotation Press, A-Minor Magazine, Literary Orphans, and Gone Lawn. You can read him at www.jamesclaffey.com.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write and ended up in West Africa co-running a bar. Love Stories for Hectic People won Best Short Story Collection in the Saboteur Awards (UK). The Cartography of Others was finalist in the People’s Book Prize (UK). Catherine lives in Italy and her stories have been published widely. She is flash fiction editor for Litro Magazine.
Reihana Robinson is a writer, environmental activist and organic farmer living on the Coromandel in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Her work is published in the USA, the Pacific and Asia. Auckland University Press published a collection of her work in 2008 and her first solo volume, Aue Rona, was published by Steele Roberts in 2012. reihanarobinson.co.nz