An Australian Short Story by Ryan O’Neill

IT IS A Tuesday morning.1

It was a plain weatherboard house, with a rose garden at the front, a vegetable garden down the side, and an orchard at the back.2 Everything about the place groaned with bad taste.3 Its solidity was late-nineteenth century, as the town’s was.4 Two parrots perched on the white and blue fence, preening themselves from their fluffy orange chests to their green tails, their wings opening and closing, their necks twisting and turning.5 The landscape of red tin roofs shimmered liquid in the heat.6 All over the district the smell of smoke, charred wood and incinerated gum leaves tinged the air and thickened with every breeze.7

Then, to the right, at the far end of the house, a jacaranda tree in shadow seemed to disintegrate and its pieces scatter as a flock of birds rose from its branches.8 For a moment he stood uncertainly in the sun, then ran back into the she-oaks.9 He was a short, thickset man of about forty-two years of age; his face was not handsome by any means, but the features and the expression of his face was something very peculiar.10 His breathing was tired and heavy, sometimes catching and whistling softly in some mysterious passage behind his chest.11

Shit, he thought, his life was a mess.12 He achieved, tangibly, nothing on his farm, if such it could be called.13 As usual he attracted women who wished to still the raging storms of his heart.14 But there was, to all appearance, but small hope of that.15 Worst of all, the unaskable question—was he happy with her?16

She might have materialised piecemeal in his mind, her black hair drawn smooth and tight to be held at her neck, the whiteness of the scalp where the strong hair was pulled back from her forehead, her full arms and the slope of her almost bare shoulders, her skin as if not much exposed to the sun and with its own flush of colour—these things came to him like unrelated aspects of different people.17

“Hullo,” she said, standing flat-footed in her cheap thongs, the breeze pressing the thin folds of the long green dress against the backs of her thighs.18 “I thought you had a story you wanted to finish.”19

“No, no, it’s all right.”20 He grinned as if he had found his true love, and perhaps he had.21

He said he must have some smell which repels publishers.22

“I don’t think so,” she murmured, and smiled, although the smile was also something of a murmur.23

“Happiness,” he said, “is notoriously difficult to describe.”24

Her husband’s gaze caught hers; he waited, challenging.25

“Yes,” she said.26

“I’ve been writing a novel,” he added.27

Suddenly she felt like crying.28 Her mind was still numb from the cold winter and what she saw as the gradual failure of her marriage.29

His eyes clouded over in revulsion.30 “You don’t even care.”31

A couple of pages, that was all, in two years.32

“I’m sorry…”33 She assumed a bleak, set expression, trying to ward off the idiotic butterfly smile that persisted in trying to alight on her mouth.34

“Curse you!” he yelled.35

It had come over him again, for no reason—the feeling of failure, of isolation that this landscape had given him.36

“You’re always saying that, for years you’ve said it.”37 He stopped suddenly and stared in front of him.38 What the landscape had to say to him under these circumstances was not precisely clear.39

She began to grumble her way across the yard and into the house.40 “One thing I do know,” she was trembling with rage, “the one thing I’m sure of is that I’ve been too good to you.”41

“Go away.42 I feel like I’m suffocating.”43

She gazed at him with a puzzled frown as if trying to divine exactly what he meant.44

“Say that again and you will put me into a passion.”45

“I’m sick of you.”46 (He didn’t remember saying any of this, later on.)47

“It’s only this,” she said suddenly, “I can’t stand this life here; it will kill me!”48

A roar of laughter was the reply.49

She was walking away; she was no longer between him and the light.50

“Dirty brute!” she said.51 “I won’t be returning.52 Goodbye.”53

Distance seemed to have a soporific effect on him.54

“Goodbye,” he called, and it was as if a tree had spoken.55

IN THE WEEKS after his wife left, each crowd was a riot, each street a midnight alley.56 He would dawdle down to the harbour, with its green smell of sea lettuce and the stone wall, scribbled with the white droppings of gulls.57 The air was full of gulls and the stench of sheep ships and harbour scum.58 He blundered past a man sharpening his fingernails on a red brick wall, a bare-faced waitress swabbing terrace tables, a busker unpacking a saxophone in a doorway.59 He took off his hat, dropped it carelessly on the ground, and proceeded to business.60

The pub.61 That’s when he started to drink.62

The vintners fetched wine fit to make you drunk, smooth on the tongue and rufous, rough as a dog’s rasp at some abdominal cavity which finds gentility a bore, but fairly clear of histamines, thank Christ.63 Of course, his wife never understood him, that was the trouble, such a queer, difficult kind of woman.64 He looked up at the sky.65 A hundred yards out, just beyond the line of surf, two seagulls were hovering.66 It was all part of the quivering awareness of the natural world.67 He felt confused and helpless.68 “What am I supposed to do?” he said.69 Let me, for God’s sweet sake, get drunk.70

He was red-eyed, bleared and unsteady.71 So many, many fights.72 All the time she’d worked and gone without and lived in the heat and believed in them, and close to the time he could make those things up to her she should go.73 More fine wines are produced, more savouring of the crystal goblets.74 His lips moved as if he were addressing some image held before his inner vision; then he turned and tramped on.75 How could it have turned into such a fucking disaster?76

“Jesus Christ!,” he said, covering his eyes.77

The sun was getting low now, and the shadows were lengthening.78

IT WAS EVENING, after a day hot enough to blister the ear of an elephant.79 When he got to the house the front was dark, but he could see light coming from the kitchen at the back.80 The miracle had happened.81 A voice boomed out of the blackness.82

“If you have anything to say to me, sir,” (the dusky pale of her cheeks illuminated by two spots of crimson) “you had better say it.”83

He stood very still with his face lifted towards the house, as a tradesmen waits who has rung the doorbell, received no answer, and hopes that someone will appear at last at an upper window.84

“I’d like to explain.”85


“Why are you weeping?”87

A sorrow beyond words.88

“Oh, nothing,” she paused.89 “…anyone could we could all cry like that every day if we wanted to if we didn’t stop ourselves.”90

The weight of her dress was lifted outwards and the moon was in her face.91

“You’ll admit,” said her husband, “that you tend to the dramatic.92

She laughed at this to herself.93

So he began to feel a good deal better.94

“My love for you,” he said,” is the most honourable thing about me.”95

She smiled her sideways smile.96

“Love’s fucked, anyway.”97

She caught his arm and walked him through the front door, and down the carpeted hall to their bedroom.98 They were entering Paradise.99 On occasions like this, his face was a mask of glee, grinning with self-satisfaction, as though he’d pulled off a particularly difficult conjuring trick.100 He put his hand on her knee and rested it there.101 Does she love him?102 She rests her hands on his shoulders; he puts his arms around her.103 The clasp seemed to embolden her to confidence.104 A dance, fleshed out by smouldering fantasies, a heartbeat of time so intense it is unbearable, wallowing in velvet so soft you can feel each hair brushing like silk against your skin.105 And he presses his crying mouth into her flesh.106

At last he fell back exhausted, and lay breathing heavily.107 “Are you happy now then?”108

Thanks, that was nice, she said.109 But her heart was beating pit-a-pat.110

“Just trying to keep things together,” he muttered before he nodded off.111

His breathing, a solid snore of the same pitch and volume hour after hour, night after night, was as comforting as the sea.112 He was woken in the night by a dream of intercourse, the excitement of fondling a body, the huge relief of orgasm.113 He raised himself upon his elbow noiselessly and peered into the darkness.114He stood up and walked out of the room.115 He sat in the lounge in the vague—the vain—hope that she might actually follow him.116 A universal dictionary, a rhyming dictionary, a thesaurus, an illustrated bestiary, inks of various colours and consistencies, pencils of all hardnesses, penhandles of many shapes, and pens of steel, quill and gold, were all fitted into a combination lectern and writing desk, which held also a dictaphone, an improved pantograph for writing by hand, and a stenotype machine.117 He suddenly loved the place at night, its stillness, its lights, its easy beauty.118 He lifted the peg-board from beside his chair, adjusted the wad of unruled paper, and began to write generously across it with a blue felt pen.119 Scenes, conversations, faces.120 The man buried himself in his paper.121

The night wore on.122 Towards dawn, his eyes heavy and his mind exhausted, he would catch himself nodding in his chair, and would return to bed.123

“How is your writing?” she asked.124

“Vanity,” he cried, “all is vanity.”125

“I’m sure your novel, when you get down to it, will be excellent.”126

This became her answer to everything.127

“What is sad,” he said, “is that I’ve learned some of these things more than once.”128

“Do you have a theory about everything,” she asked tiredly.129

What he felt he kept within his breast.130 He could not help being a little selfish; it was constitutional.131 She has seen it year after year after year.132 Indeed, she was as proud of it as of his talent, of which she considered it an expression.133

“Do you love me?”134

“Of course,” she whispered back and sinking down reached up both arms to him.135

His eyes danced a little, and she noticed in them a life hitherto kept from her sight.136 Was she, with the smile no anguish could unpin, and no agony subdue, happy?137 She must make do with what is available to be offered.138

“You’re sure?”139

“Yes!140 You believe me?”141


And she lay beside him, separated by a knowledge which he did not share, of something sinister; of wounding, of unhappiness and of pain.143

She laughed.144 “Very well, I’ll tell you a story.”145

They would live—somewhere, and be—very happy.146 Tomorrow will be full of possibilities.147 She lied and lied and lied.148

And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him; and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.149

This story appeared in Issue 14 of The Lifted Brow

Ryan O’Neill is the author of The Weight of a Human Heart.

  1. Reconstruction of an Event by Glenda Adams (1979) 

  2. American Dreams by Peter Carey (1974) 

  3. Hunting the Wild Pineapple by Thea Astley (1979) 

  4. Gretel by Hal Porter (1963) 

  5. A Fishbone in the Throat by Isabelle Li (2009) 

  6. Salt by Pierz Newton-John (2009) 

  7. The Funerals by Brian Matthews (1989) 

  8. Little Jackie by A.G. McNeil (2009) 

  9. Under the House by Jessica Anderson (1980) 

  10. The Master and his Man by John Lang (1859) 

  11. Dust by Gavin Casey (1936) 

  12. Sonatina by Brian Castro (1994) 

  13. The Man of Callemondah by David Rowbotham (1956) 

  14. The Last Days of a Famous Mime by Peter Carey (1974) 

  15. A Dispersal by Anon (c 1850) 

  16. The Powerful Owl by Candida Baker (1994) 

  17. Party by Peter Cowan (1965) 

  18. Nails of Love, Nails of Death by James McQueen (1984) 

  19. A Man in the Laundrette by Beverley Farmer (1985) 

  20. Place of Birth by Beverley Farmer (1985) 

  21. The Punch by Laurie Steed (2010) 

  22. New York, New York by Rosemary Creswell (1986) 

  23. The Booster Shot by Peter Goldsworthy (1993) 

  24. Portrait of Electricity by Murray Bail (1975) 

  25. The List of All Answers by Peter Goldsworthy (1986) 

  26. The Milk by Jessica Anderson (1987) 

  27. The Other Side of the River by Georgia Blain (2009) 

  28. A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,J,K,L,M,N,O,P,Q,R,S,T,U,V,W,X,Y,Z by Murray Bail (1975) 

  29. Country Girl Again by Jean Bedford (1979) 

  30. Going Home by Archie Weller (1986) 

  31. Nullarbor Honeymoon by Dorothy Hewitt (1996) 

  32. Our Lady of the Beehives by Beverley Farmer (1985) 

  33. The Shipwreck Party by Liam Davison (1989) 

  34. The Weight of a Man by Amy Witting (1961) 

  35. How Muster-Master Stoneman Earned his Breakfast by Price Warung (real name William Astley) (1892) 

  36. The Weeping Fig by Judith Wright (1953) 

  37. Frederick the Great Returns to Fairfields by Elizabeth Jolley (1983) 

  38. Miss Jackson by Francis Adams (1892) 

  39. An Old-Time Episode in Tasmania by Tasma (real name Jessie Couvreur) (1891) 

  40. Down at the Dump by Patrick White (1964) 

  41. Hostages by Fay Zwicky (1983) 

  42. What Else is There? by Margaret Trist (1946) 

  43. Las Vegas for Vegans by A.S. Patric (2011) 

  44. “Well, What Do You Say to My Boy?” by Judah L. Waten (1954) 

  45. The Ghost upon the Rail by John Lang (1859) 

  46. Fiend and Friend by Hal Porter (1962) 

  47. New Year by Joan London (1986) 

  48. Water Them Geraniums by Henry Lawson (1904) 

  49. The Parson’s Blackboy by Ernest Favenc (1893) 

  50. The Only Adam by Gerald Murnane (1985) 

  51. Uncle Patrick was a Scholar by Margaret Trist (1946) 

  52. Period Piece on the ’Fields by Lyndall Hadow (1962) 

  53. Oh I Do Love to be Beside the Seaside by J.M.S Foster (1980) 

  54. The Sleeping Doll by John Morrison (1955) 

  55. Trees Can Speak by Alan Marshall (1956) 

  56. Flinch by Ryan O’Neill (2007) 

  57. Clay by Patrick White (1964) 

  58. Thomas Awkner Floats by Tim Winton (1985) 

  59. A Vigil by Helen Garner (1992) 

  60. The Union Buries its Dead by Henry Lawson (1892) 

  61. Short-Shift Saturday by Gavin Casey (1942) 

  62. Miracle of the Waters by Zeny Giles (1989) 

  63. I Lost my Love to the Space Shuttle ‘Columbia’ by Damien Broderick (1986) 

  64. The Letter by Marjorie Robertson (1946) 

  65. Velodrome by Angelo Loukakis (1986) 

  66. The Birthday by Vance Palmer (1934) 

  67. The Dingo by Vance Palmer (1934) 

  68. The Woman from the Bend by Don Edwards (1944) 

  69. Solemn Mass by Dal Stivens (1941) 

  70. A Double Because It’s Snowing by Hal Porter (1958) 

  71. Hawkins’ Pigs by Brian James (1944) 

  72. I Told Mama Not to Come by Angelo Loukakis (1983) 

  73. Living by Peter Cowan (1944) 

  74. I Am Monarch of All I Survey by Michael Wilding (1986) 

  75. The Good Herdsman by Frank Dalby Davison (1964) 

  76. Partying on Parquet by Angelo Loukakis (1986) 

  77. The Chosen Vessel by Barbara Baynton (1902) 

  78. The Brown Paper Coffin by James McQueen (1988) 

  79. Mr and Mrs Sin Fat by Edward Dyson (1890) 

  80. Did He Pay? by Helen Garner (1981) 

  81. The Miracle by A.E. Sturges (1963) 

  82. Reunion in Gunyah Creek by Maurice Corlett (1980) 

  83. The Romance of Lively Creek by Marcus Clarke (1877) 

  84. The Empty Lunch-Tin by David Malouf (1985) 

  85. Graffito Spy by C.C. Catt (1981) 

  86. Having a Wonderful Time by Kate Grenville (1980) 

  87. Life and Death in the South Side Pavilion by Peter Carey (1975) 

  88. The Lost World: Signs of Life by Ted Colless and David Kelly (1983) 

  89. Extra Virgin by Jan Hutchinson (1988) 

  90. Working Hot by Mary Fallon (1982) 

  91. The Incomparable by Nicholas Jose (1984) 

  92. The Enemies of Time by Amy Witting (1991) 

  93. From a Bush Log Book: Going into the Heartlands with the Wrong Person at Christmas by Frank Moorhouse (1981) 

  94. The Narrow Escape of Herbie Bassett by Eleanor Dark (1959) 

  95. The Heraldry of the Body by Craig McGregor (1983) 

  96. The Midnight Supper by David Campbell (1959) 

  97. Campaign by Jean Bedford (1985) 

  98. The Cost of Things by Elizabeth Harrower (1974) 

  99. Paradise by Murray Bail (1975) 

  100. Waiting for Mr Mowbray by Paul Morgan (2008) 

  101. The Art of Convalescence by Amanda Lohrey (2009) 

  102. The Courts of the Lord by Fay Zwicky (1983) 

  103. Foxtrot by Claire Aman (2009) 

  104. Miss Pallavant by Rosa Praed (1888) 

  105. Queen of Love by Rosie Scott (1989) 

  106. An Unfinished Head by Carolyn Van Langenberg (1986) 

  107. The Premier’s Secret by Campbell McKellar (1887) 

  108. The Bodies by Michael Sala (2009) 

  109. Our Swimmer by Tim Richards (1992) 

  110. “And Women Must Weep” by Henry Handel Richardson (1934) 

  111. Breaking Up by Paddy O’Reilly (2008) 

  112. Mermaid Footwear by G.L. Osborne (2009) 

  113. The Man of Slow Feeling by Michael Wilding (1970) 

  114. The Heart-Breaking of Anstey’s Bess by Price Warung (real name William Astley) (1894) 

  115. Amateur Hour by Garry Disher (1986) 

  116. Getting to the Pig by Barry Hill (1978) 

  117. Guest of the Redshields by Christina Stead (1934) 

  118. The Sybarites by Michael Wilding (1972) 

  119. Virgins, Widows and Penitents by Gerard Windsor (1980) 

  120. Angel by Cate Kennedy (2006) 

  121. Lady Weare and the Bodhisattva by Kylie Tennant (1969) 

  122. The Night We Watched for Wallabies by Steele Rudd (1899) 

  123. Dr B. and the Students by David Brooks (1990) 

  124. Conrad’s Bear by Susan Hampton (1984) 

  125. A Knight of Teeth by Peter Mathers (1981) 

  126. An Extraordinary Thing by Ray Mathew (1961) 

  127. How I Met my Daughter by Max Barry (2007) 

  128. Libido and Life Lessons by Frank Moorhouse (1987) 

  129. The Airport, the Pizzeria, the Motel, the Rented Car and the Mysteries of Life by Frank Moorhouse (1977) 

  130. The Story of Wills’ Leap by R. Spencer Browne (1890) 

  131. The Luckiest Man in the Colony by E.W. Hornung (1892) 

  132. The Crossing by Deborah Robertson (1992) 

  133. Kaijek the Songman by Xavier Herbert (1941) 

  134. ‘Do You Love Me?’ by Peter Carey (1979) 

  135. The Rages of Mrs Torrens by Olga Masters (1982) 

  136. The Swallows Returning by Ian Kennedy Williams (1982) 

  137. Young Woman in a Wimple by Hal Porter (1963) 

  138. Reasons for Going into Gynaecology by Gerard Windsor (1984) 

  139. Ismini by Beverley Farmer (1983) 

  140. The Price by H. Drake-Brockman (1941) 

  141. Green Grow the Rushes by T.A.G. Hungerford (1976) 

  142. Running Nicely by Morris Lurie (1979) 

  143. Winter Nelis by Elizabeth Jolley (1979) 

  144. Mauve by Patrick Cullen (2009) 

  145. ‘Sojur Jim’ by J.A. Barry (1893) 

  146. The Cost of Things by Elizabeth Harrower (1967) 

  147. Summer in Sydney by Barbara Brooks (1983) 

  148. Boy Meets Girl by Hal Porter (1980) 

  149. The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson (1892)