Poem: A Stroll in Strange Times

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Predawn,

the gentle hour.

A walk in stillness

through misted streets,

breath frozen on the air.

 

Funnelled by streetlight

down shadowed alleys,

under rustling canopies,

a full thermos

and a clear mind.

 

Descend wooden steps,

alive with fear;

a stream

trickles

from somewhere in the darkness.

 

The inevitability of daybreak.

Dappled light

hits the path.

Navigate puddles and snaking trails,

a fox watching from afar.

 

Emerge at a clearing,

a sumptuous vista.

The sunlight,

a kiss of vitality

on an icy morn.

 

Noticing small things:

the timbre of distant barking,

seasons evidenced in

leaves crunching underfoot,

industry peeking through a forested skyline.

 

Joggers abound,

new routines birthed by circumstance.

Weimaraners and collies

frolic in soggy fields;

their owners, together but apart.

Poem: I Haven’t Been Home in Awhile

snowfall

 

I haven’t been home in awhile.

The walls are painted black and

the dog doesn’t recognise me.

The creaking floorboards portend disaster.

Did they always?

 

I fumble in darkness

through rooms once mapped to mind,

recalling our last embrace:

self-conscious and

cobwebbed in bitterness.

 

Snow is falling,

the warmth a passing

memory, but the mark on the stove remains

from the time I tried (and failed)

to ignite your world.

 

Spiders crawl the walls.

A fly in limbo, I am

battered by circumstance,

a breath trapped in the breast,

flung from haloed innocence.

 

A feeling:

the house doesn’t want me here,

but it’s where I belong.

Maybe I’ll stay awhile.

Maybe I’m already gone.

Poem: ‘The Balustrade’

The world goes into stasis,

a riposte

to an unassailable loss.

 

A panicked populace grapples

with a future that lays

beneath a foreboding sky.

 

The streets are quiet.

The national flag

flutters defiantly in the breeze.

 

My brain is

a city that never sleeps

and all my friends are words,

this week.

 

I tend to the cabbages in my head

as day again becomes night,

and wait against the balustrade,

a pigeon poised for flight.

Poem: ‘Inertia’

Raindrops on a window pane at night

Photo by Alex_L on DepositPhotos.

Flowers wilt and

bloom again,

a child gestates

inside my friend.

But this sickness is the furniture.

 

From cosmic rivers

sunlight pours,

a lost cause.

This grief is

big for her age.

 

Ponder footprints

through a periscope,

a misplaced hope;

numbed

in the amber of now.

 

Every eye contact

an alternate reality,

a terrifying fantasy.

I dither about on a

comet hurtling towards devastation.

 

An infinite labyrinth

choked

with one-way exits.

Every choice

murders another.

 

Malaise, white hot,

in sets the rot;

these apathetic canyons

buffeted

by a raging nothing.

 

She is an anchor,

a lighthouse,

a tether to this world.

Yet at every crossroad

I take defeat lying down.

 

An ageing wastrel,

grown misshapen,

wading in the quagmire.

Thirty years peering

into the great maw.

Vignette: ‘Fist Bump for Germany’

A sentimental vignette that I wrote in 2014.


 

Fist Bump for Germany

 

‘I won’t tell you again,’ snaps Mr Kipfer. ‘Leave your dressing alone.

‘But girls like scars,’ says Wilhem, caressing his chin. ‘Hope I get some. Scars, I mean.’

They turn the corner in silence. The corridor outside the headmistress’s office is lined with plastic chairs. One of them is occupied.

The boys exchange a look. Max gapes at Wilhem’s butterfly-bandaged chin; Wilhem notes the nasty cut on Max’s lip.

‘Wait here,’ says Mr Kipfer. ‘Ms Nadia will call you in soon. Don’t kill each other.’ He raises a finger to punctuate his point then walks away.

When Kipfer is at a safe distance, Max finds his courage. ‘Don’t kill each other,’ he parrots.

A tiny laugh escapes Wilhem. He forces a frown.

Max grounds his chewing gum into a flat bar and tests its resistance against his tongue. ‘I told the nurse you started it.’

Wilhem turns his head. ‘What?’

‘She asked who started it. I think she just likes knowing everyone’s business.’

Wilhem smirks. ‘Probably they all say the other kid started it.’

Max laughs. ‘Yeah, probably.’

A comfortable silence follows. But Wilhem can’t enjoy it – it’s still bugging him.

‘Why’d you hit me?’

Max chews faster. His mouth makes wet, smacking sounds. ‘I don’t know. Cause you’re…’ He drops his gaze to the floor. ‘Cause you’re a Nazi, I guess.’

‘I’m not a Nazi,’ says Wilhem, his voice level.

‘Yeah, you are.’ Max’s words soar out with no regard for the reluctance of their speaker. ‘My pa says all Nazis are scum.’

Wilhem laughs. ‘Do you even know what a Nazi is?’

‘Yeah!’ Max declares. ‘Course I do!’ But his cheeks are hot and his voice has betrayed him. He mashes his wad of gum into the underside of the chair.

‘I’m from Germany,’ Wilhem explains, ‘but I’m not a Nazi. They’re different.’

Max shrugs, looks defiantly to the ceiling. After a moment of silence, he roots around in his pocket and pulls out a crushed carton of cigarettes. He presents it to Wilhem. ‘Want one? I swiped them from my mum.’

Wilhem looks at the door to Ms Nadia’s office. Then he looks down at Max’s hands, studying the distinct gold Benson & Hedges foil. He reaches for a cigarette.

They hear movement from behind the door.

Max thrusts the carton back into his pocket. The boys sit up straight and focus ahead.

Ms Nadia emerges from her office. She looks the two boys over. Her mouth sags with permanent disapproval.

‘Right,’ she says, gesturing to Max. ‘We’ll start with you.’

Max climbs to his feet and looks dejectedly ahead, as if bound for the gallows. On approach to the office, he discretely holds out a clenched fist and presents it to Wilhem.

Wilhem stares in confusion. Then the corners of his mouth curl into a smile. He raises his fist and returns the gesture.

Short Story: ‘Bloodsport’

One of my older pieces, ‘Bloodsport’, has found a home in ReadFinReadFin is the final journal to come out of Melbourne Polytechnic’s Writing and Publishing degree, from which I graduated in 2014.

I wrote this piece a few years ago but still vividly remember agonising over the sword fighting choreography. I sought out feedback about it and even watched a few shogun samurai movies on YouTube for reference. It was a fun exercise.

ReadFin received a limited print run, but a digital copy can be found here. Note that the editor has incorrectly credited me as ‘Tim O’Connell’, which is pretty disappointing. I’d hoped they would bring more care and attention to their final issue, but what can you do?

Issuu doesn’t like web browsers very much, so I’m also reproducing the story in text here. I hope you enjoy it.


 

Bloodsport

 

I’m at the meeting point: a narrow cliff-edge. Waves crash onto rocks that jut from the ocean like jagged teeth. Countless samurais have died here coveting clan honour. A wrong step preludes a 300-foot drop. I hear a squawk that seems to echo my name. A lone opportunistic gull rides an updraft, a late-afternoon snack its only concern.

Sensing a presence, I turn. Miguel appears across the way, bathed in the light of the setting sun.

‘Fifteen minutes I’ve waited.’

‘Impatience,’ Miguel says, ‘is the folly of youth.’

I smirk. ‘Is that what this is? A lesson in patience?’

Miguel advances until we stand a sword-length apart at the cliff’s edge. Death, like the gull, is opportunistic, and could wing its way from any direction.

Miguel warns that my insolence will cost me. Unperturbed, I grin, disarming him with false confidence. I’m less experienced, but Miguel’s victory is anything but assured.

White-knuckled, we draw our swords. Our robes ripple in the wind. Miguel adopts our clan’s traditional stance; I fall into my variation of it.

Right legs leading, we lock eyes, each daring the other to strike first.

Miguel takes a quarter-step back. His weight shifts to his back foot. I follow his cue, my heel digging into the soft earth. My flesh is goose-pimpled, my muscles taut. Miguel, expressionless, wholly inhabits this moment.

The distant seabird screeches, her cry puncturing the silence.

I lunge forward.

Miguel guards high; I feint and strike low. We clash violently until my blade slips down the length of his. He shunts me off balance and leads me in a quarter-circle, his position a counterweight to my heavy blow. I hang on, enduring the hideous scraping of steel.

We separate explosively. My arm is nicked. I hiss and force it from my mind. Miguel lunges, hoping to capitalise on his modest blow. He is uncannily quick, but I deflect, taking his wrist and forcing him to relent. He leaps back.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘There’s still plenty of fight in me.’

Miguel mocks me with laughter.

The reprieve is short-lived. Our swords collide a dozen more times. We circle continuously. Alternately, we dominate, losing then wresting back control, overpowering and pushing back in increments. But our reserves are low. Miguel knows this. It’s in his eyes. For all our discipline, we are but flesh constructs.

We separate, pirouetting in sync. I toss my robe, my legs shifting free. Then I thrust forward in pre-emptive strike. Miguel is waiting. He always is. He parries then ripostes my blow. Sparks fly. Our clashing blades are deafening.

‘Gyaaaaah!’ My voice scrapes in my throat.

Our swords clash repeatedly. Dusk looms. I grit my teeth, my eyes fixed on my opponent. I lust for an opening. My strength is flagging, my mind clouding. Tiny mistakes accumulate. Miguel’s focus sharpens; his cuts come too close.

I take one last stand. With a two-handed grip, I draw back, enveloped by primal fury. I drive my blade with such ferocity. Miguel defends – barely. His face whitens. I strike again, thrashing and thrashing. He can’t match my intensity. This is the virtue of youth.

Miguel panics. He evades my blows, but the near misses spur me on. Relentless parrying exhausts him. Enraged, I draw back and swing again, but miscalculate and deal a heavy blow to nothing. Miguel creates distance and I feel, overwhelmingly, that a vital opportunity is wasted.

We recover our breath over two long seconds. Then, as if of one mind, we surge forward with declarative war cries. Miguel catches my blade in his. We lock in, our poised body language belying our struggle. We each hope to unnerve the other. Muscles quake. Our composure slips. Sheens of sweat form above our brows.

Miguel swiftly sidesteps and I stagger off-kilter. My balance is again misplaced; I strike a knee into my opponent, but the move is crude and proves my undoing. It happens so fast: I lurch sideways, my feet flirting with the cliff-edge, and—

I feel it before seeing it. It’s a clean hit. Miguel has saved me from a 300-foot drop, only to finish me himself. His blade protrudes from between my shoulders. We remain like this, outside time: Miguel savouring victory, perhaps contemplating the complexities of our relationship, while I am caught in the throes of death.

Miguel is static a long while, his form effortlessly arranged for the execution of his final blow. The light is changing. Dusk is becoming night and I am where I deserve to be: skewered on my brother’s blade.

I’m fading fast, my vision waning. But all’s right: this is the natural order of things. I focus, as if to immortalise the moment, find beauty in death. But the gull’s incessant screeches return and now the sound is frenzied. With the last of my strength, I look to the source, expecting the sky to be blotted with seagulls.

Instead, I see a barmaid from a neighbouring establishment. Her stride is long, her expression unamused. She proceeds to her announcement, a cross-armed harbinger.

‘Daniel! Cody! I’ve been calling for ten minutes! Dinner’s on the table!’

I stand tall, exhaling frustration. The illusion’s ruined: she’s no barmaid. My brother Cody releases his hair from its authentic samurai bun and steps down from the wooden stage-cum-cliff edge.

‘Sorry, Mum.’

His face broadcasts disappointment. I pat between his shoulder blades, in the spot where his character slew mine, and assure him that our rehearsals have not been in vain, that our depiction of cartoon samurais Jack and Miguel are eerie in their accuracy, and that our scheduled display will be the highlight of FantasyCon.

Cody, looking serious, Miguel-esque, casts me a sidelong glance.

Flawless.