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The Clothesline

FICTION - trigger warning domestic violence and dark themes

My eyes flicker open and as my body awakens, I am instantly aware of the deep ache in my side, in that soft vulnerable space between my ribs and hip.

I bite my lip as I ease my body over to the side of the bed, moving slowly and carefully so as not to wake him, but his arm snakes across my torso and pulls me backwards, an unwilling little spoon in a controlling embrace.

He nuzzles his face into the nape of my neck and murmurs a morning greeting into my tangled bed hair. My eyes squeeze shut, unwilling to face his morning breath and empty platitudes.

He’s watching the late news, the untidy pile of empty beers haphazardly strewn across the coffee table. He lashes out in protest to the latest Government updates that this lockdown will continue - the army is now enforcing residents to remain within the perimeters of their homes.

His foot connects with the coffee table leg and the beer bottles jostle together and one topples, spilling its dregs onto the wooden surface.

I quickly lurch to right it, but it is too late; the drips form an accusing and expanding pool, and his face twists in rage.

The blow is not unexpected. His boot connects with my side as I am attempting to gather the bottles, and although my knees buckle and the wind rushes from my lungs I do not fall. I do not spill anything.

The morning is without incident. He is irate but not angry and his yelling and insults are mostly aimed at the news coverage of the virus. In the kitchen the small television airs a different channel to the large screen in the lounge room and he paces back and forward between the two rooms like a caged animal, cursing world leaders and medical experts.

His mood has steadily darkened since the lock down decision was made. His job disappeared overnight, and he is relying on the welfare payments rushed through parliament six weeks ago when this pandemic first gripped the nation. His drinking now starts in the morning, and recently a painfully thin boy with sunken cheeks and black dead eyes has been appearing at our door every few days, delivering pills, powders and pot. The boy accepts canned food, soft drinks and out of date bags of pasta as payment.

My days have shrunk to these few rooms, and my clothesline chats with Fairy next door. I had no job to lose, few friends to miss and a family that he had successfully distanced over the years.

The first time he begged me to forgive him. He’s crying noisily and ugly, not noticing the tears and snot that mingle as he pleads with me not to go. He was sorry. He was drunk. He didn’t mean it and he loved me so much. My sister is appalled at his appearance at our parents’ house and angrily yells at him to leave. She tries to shove him away from me, but I stop her. I listen to him explain and promise to change. Then I go with him to the beach for a sunset walk and when he offers his hand, I take it.

I leave him muttering into the phone to someone who shares his wild conspiracy theories around the sickness and lift a damp load of sheets from the washing machine into the plastic basket at my feet. Favouring my injured side, I carry it through the kitchen and out the back door, across the straggling lawn to the bottom of the deep yard, where the clothesline waited.

Dropping the basket on the ground I wound the clothesline up and up, until it was at its full height. I pause, one eye on the back door of the house in case he came out, then wound it back down and started spreading the sheets across the wire lines.

It wasn’t long before Fairy appeared, having seen my clothesline signal from her own kitchen window.

I’ve never asked her age because although she’s lived beside us since we came here four years ago, it’s only recently that we’ve been meeting like this. I suppose she’s around 60 but that might be because her waist length hair is completed grey; she moves with the agility of a younger person, but that could be because of her love of tai chi.

I had spotted her through the splintery paling of the wooden barrier that divides our yard many times, her small hands raised as she gracefully repeated the gentle martial art movements. Until then Fairy was only someone I had nodded to on the way in or out of the house, but now I dared to think of her as a friend, but only in that very deep part of myself that was still private.

Fairy introduced herself one late afternoon when the outbreak was filling hospitals and morgues and the world seemed too surreal to be real. She was a cook and told me about working in pubs and cafes and shearing sheds and, for a time, at a gold mine in the middle of nowhere.

Then she asked me about him. On that day my eye was an unattractive purple and yellow shade and no amount of my depleted store of concealer could conceal. On other days she noticed a split lip or a bruised shoulder and she asked me about them, without hesitation. I still find it astonishing that I tell Fairy everything. Perhaps it’s because the world has gone crazy. Perhaps it’s because that leaning fence means I can only see small slivers of her as we speak. Perhaps it’s because I feel like this will end soon.

“What are you talking to that old bag for?” His hand whips out and grabs a handful of my hair so I am forced to face him.

“What. Did. You. Fucking. Tell. Her?” His words are low, menacing and slurred from drinking, the very worst combination. “Didja tell her I’m on the dole now? Are you talking about me to that old bag?”

My hands grip the sink which is full of cooling sudsy water and I force myself not to react, willing the gathering tears back into my soul. No cringing, no pulling away and most definitely no speaking.

He yanks my hair once more, painfully, but then lets the strands go and slinks back to the lounge room.

“You ok today love?” Fairy speaks lowly and stays low on her side of the fence. She knows what awaits me if he sees us talking. I offer a small nod, just a slight dip of my forehead, as I continue to slowly hang the linen.

In fierce whispers we catch up, firstly on the virus, and the people we have watched carted out of homes in our streets, sometimes on stretchers, but more often in bags. The bags are the worst. They are bright yellow plastic tombs and I tell Fairy that I don’t think I will ever see yellow as a happy colour again.

“Oh sweetheart,” the soft voice floats over the fence. “It won’t always be this bad. It’ll come to an end eventually. The news on the tele this morning said maybe as quick as six months now.”

“The virus is only one nightmare,” I say simply.

The dinner is savoury mince. Again. Since the lock down I have cooked mince so many ways, but the monotony is draining for me and enraging for him, and I hand him his plate he curses.

His eyes are bloodshot – the boy has been back and there’s powder on a small tray balanced frighteningly on the arm of the leather armchair.

I’m not sure what happens next. More and more my mind closes off during these attacks but at the end of it I am bloodied and gasping for air. My mouth has a split that runs down both lips and I know that it will only be more painful tomorrow as the wound dries and cracks. My side has copped it again and I expect the new bruises will mingle in with the old, my very own dull rainbow. I have my hand cupped to my bleeding nose and as he clenches his raw knuckles, he looks down at me where I lie on the floor and says “go and have a shower.”

His eyes are blank, almost weary and I am proud I have not cried out.

The next day Fairy whispers fiercely to me.

“This can’t go on love. He’s going to kill you and he’ll get away with it because the country has gone to shit!’”

Emotionless I nod and hang clothes and wince then hang some more. Today I am hanging out clean blankets that I have rewashed as an excuse to see Fairy. My home, such as it is, has never been cleaner.

Fairy looks at me worriedly noticing the near empty basket.

“You’ll have to go back inside soon. Can you stay out of his way for just a bit? Maybe I can borrow a car and we might be able to get to the checkpoint and get the soldiers to help.”

She is a beautiful woman, my friend Fairy but I shake my head.

“No point,” I say, trying not to aggravate my split lips.

Fairy reaches through the narrow crack in the fence with two wrinkled fingers and I risk quickly pressing my own to hers before I turn and slowly walk back to the house.

The next day, I stand at the sink staring aimlessly into the yard, as behind me the volume of the 24-hour news channel is raised, and more bad news spews from it. He calls for a coffee and without hesitation I fill the cup with dark liquid and deliver it to him, before returning to the sink and its familiar view.

Something next door catches my eye. A broom head appears over the fence, about halfway along the yard. It disappears then pops back up again, repeating the action every few seconds. It’s so comical that I simply watch for several moments before it clicks. Fairy’s clothesline is older than mine, so it is rusted in place but perhaps she is signalling me with the broom. I walk to the laundry for a basket and, forcing myself to walk slowly and quietly, I venture outside.

Fairy is waiting for me.

“Here,” she hisses and with one brief toss lobs a small glass jar over to me. I quickly grab it from where it landed and toss it into the basket.

“What is it?” The jar contains some sort of clear liquid, but there are foamy bubbles sloshing atop the fluid, which seems viscous and slimy.

“Danny Davis from number 43 hasn’t got long to go. They’ll probably bag him tonight or tomorrow.” Her voice is low, and the words fall rapidly from her.

“That’s his spit. Well, saliva,” she corrects. “And it will be full of the virus.”

Our eyes meet through a crack in the fence.

“How did you get it?” I ask, feeling the panic rise in my chest. The jar is nestled in the folds of towels and still has the label attached, strawberry jam. It seems ridiculous that something so deadly is so casually contained by a jar that once held a sugary breakfast spread.

“I went and got it. Danny knows what he’s like and as he faces his maker he wanted to help.” Fairy is almost abrupt now.

“Put it in his food – today – while it’s still fresh.” Her eyes meet mine again.

“This has to end.”

The jar feels like it’s burning my hand as I gingery carry it into the kitchen. The news is still blaring but he has passed out on the couch. For a moment I pause wondering if I can go through with this, but my survival instinct kicks in and in moments I have prepared two sandwiches, a large glass of cordial and even a piece of cake, all laced with Danny’s gift.

I deliver the food to the lounge room and try not to watch as he gulps down the drink before working through the sandwiches and cake. When he finishes eating he lets out an appreciative burp, offers uncharacteristic thanks and fires up the water pipe, filling his lungs and the house with the pungent smell.

I take the plates and glass back to the kitchen and plunge them into the boiling soapy water I had scrubbed my hands in earlier.

The rest of the day passed. The boy visited earlier in the week but from the look of him won’t be around long. He is visibly sweating, and his cough is deep and hacking, the gasps rattling his whole thin and pale body. The men in suits that constantly start on television said this virus is moving faster than ever and looking at the boy I tend to believe them; he seemed fine two days ago.

He makes the boy throw the package and in return tosses him a packet of chocolate biscuits and a can of lemonade. It seems the economy is rapidly descending to the ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ premise.

He kicks the plastic bag package to me and tells me to wash it all off.

“But don’t get anything wet,” he yells over his shoulder.

“And be careful,” he adds. I am an afterthought.

For the first time in a long time fate is on my side. The boy’s supply always seemed to change without reason, and I had learned to dread the ones with powder, because his rage and mania went through the roof.

I grabbed my phone and quickly punched in the brand name emblazoned on the back of the blister packs.

Lorazepam. A muscle relaxant. I couldn’t believe my luck.

I stuffed one blister pack into my bra and took the remaining four cards of pills and ziplock bag of pot back into him.

He snapped on pill out of the pack and dry swallowed it, before reaching for the water pipe again and reclining the armchair, browsing channels idly between inhales. Believing he had no further instructions for me I turned to leave but he reached out and cruelly squeezed my breast, scoffing at the way my face displayed the pain I felt. Without a word he dropped his hand and I rushed to the kitchen, one breast burning and the other, untouched but hiding a secret.

That afternoon he fell asleep and from then on, I was in charge. I added pills to each drink and as he started to burn with a fever, I used rubber gloves and an old tee shirt as a face mask whenever I went into the lounge room. He looked at me confusedly at first but as the virus and pills combined, he was soon a puddle of a man, bathed in sweat and his own urine, as he lay in one place for the next two days.

No longer under threat I mostly sat in the kitchen, towels and plastic shower curtains forming a protective barrier around the lounge room doorways, and when his coughing became laboured and loud, I raised the volume of the small kitchen television.

On the evening of the third day the coughing and gasping stopped, and in the quiet and calm house I carry a change of clothes into the bathroom and took a long, hot shower. I wash my hair, shave my legs and use floral scented scrub on my face. I dry my hair with hot blasts from the dryer, pull on fresh clothes and walk down the back steps and out into the yard.

I find the loosest boards and wrestle them away from the fence, until I created a space large enough to slip through to the neighbouring garden. As I walk towards the house, Fairy holds open the door and welcomes me inside with love and kindness beaming across her face.

“Hello love. I’ve been waiting for you.”

Then the tears came.

Image : Felix Prado

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