david

Author: Dominica Ryan

Mum shoved the phone in front of David’s face, blocking his view of the last cornflake as it floated on shallow milk.

David clenched his teeth in annoyance. It was bad enough Mum had yanked the bedcovers off him, depriving him of discovering whether the alien princess would run him through with her photon-sword.

Mum always woke him ridiculously early. Today she’d pulled him out of bed at 10.59am. Now she wouldn’t let him finish his cereal in peace.

‘Kyla messaged,’ Mum said. ‘She wants to meet you. She’s suggesting coffee Saturday morning at Subway on St. George’s Road, Thornbury.’ The old refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen struggled to reluctant life. ‘I think you should say yes.’

‘I can’t,’ David said, not wondering or caring who this Kyla might be. ‘I have an early shift at the car wash.’ He banged the spoon off the side of his favourite bowl, knocking out another ceramic chip.

Mum’s thin shoulders dropped. ‘You could meet her after. For a drink. Take her someplace nice on Brunswick Street. Or maybe into the city.’

David thought fast: ‘Sanjay might need me to do extra shifts if some of the other guys don’t show up.’

Mum drew the phone screen close to her face, scrolled for a few seconds, bit down on her lip. ‘I just have a good feeling about Kyla. She seems nice. Genuine. It would be great to see you with a lovely girl, David. Someone who loves you for all your qualities.’

David knew that if he looked at his Mum, he’d notice new lines on her forehead, cheeks sunken further than last time, the grey reaching across the top of her head which would meet in the middle soon.

‘Rent’s due next week,’ she conceded. ‘We could do with the cash you make Saturday.’

‘What happened to the extra I made last week?’ he asked. ‘You said that covered us.’

Mum’s narrow lips blew out air. ‘Oh, you know how it is. One thing led to another and…’ her voice trailed off, leaving David’s query hanging. David lifted the bowl to his face, slurping down the milk and the solitary limp cornflake. He knew all his mum’s expressions. Some of them made his pasty skin crawl – like “one thing led to another”. Hearing that particular phrase triggered an avalanche of questions which, over the years, his mum had always outpaced, ducked or skirted like a skier in a slalom. She rolled out ready-made, empty phrases, appearing to answer his questions while leaving them unanswered. Questions like: why did David’s father leave when he was five years old? Why did she jump every time she heard a door slam? Why did they move every few years? David thought it utterly preposterous that “one thing would lead to another” would ever apply to him. His life wasn’t that neat. It should be, but it wasn’t.

Then, one thing did lead to another. It all happened at internet speed, just as he was moving the bowl from his lips to the table. Kyla sent a message meant for one of her friends to David’s phone. It mentioned a dream, which his mum now read.
‘Strange dream Kyla has had about an alien,’ Mum mused aloud as she read the message.

David grabbed the phone. Stared. Thought deeply. It must be a sign. An alien dream. Aliens with photon-swords. Kyla could be the one he’d been waiting for. Someone who would understand. Someone he could talk to. Finally.
‘OK,’ David said.

Mum smiled.

*

The dark faux-wood table in Subway that Saturday morning was wet. David massaged his

coffee cup, dumbstruck.

Kyla was talking.

‘I knew from your very first message that you were honest.’ She pulled at the faded blue and white scarf around her short neck, tightening then loosening it, shifting her rounded frame on the chair. She leaned across the table, still damp from the cloth used by the waiter who cleared the table. A coffee machine hissed in the background, while a young mum called out to a grubby-faced toddler to stay away from the front door. Kyla’s brown, deep-set eyes drank David in. ‘I memorised all your messages.’

‘I memorised all the dialogue in the movie Star Trek: Nemesis,’ said David.

Her right hand landed gently on his left forearm. ‘Some of your messages made me cry,  like, when you wrote that being in groups of people is hard for you.’

‘It is.’
‘How the things you want to say always come out the wrong way.’
‘Mum tells me that constantly.’
‘How people judge you,’ Kyla said, ‘but if they took the time to get to know you

they’d see you were a nice person.’

‘Mum says that too.’

‘You seem very close to your Mum, David.’
He nodded. ‘I live with her. In Preston. But we’ve lived all over the country.’

A slow, unsure smile crept across Kyla’s face. She straightened up in her chair,

released his forearm. ‘I dated my last boyfriend for 15 months. He stayed over at my place a lot. If we went out, went to the footy, I always paid. He said child support was killing him. When he stayed over, he got up with me in the morning, had breakfast, we’d get ready, leave for work together.’ She traced a figure eight on the still-wet table with her index finger. ‘I found out he didn’t have a job. Or a kid. He was living with his folks in Essendon.’ She paused. ‘I’m not used to guys being honest about themselves.’ A blush spread across her cheeks, a deepening pink stain. ‘People should be honest with each other. They should be radical about it. Do you know what I mean?’

‘No,’ David said.
Kyla shot him a quizzical glance, then a joyous smile burst across her face.
‘See, that’s what I’m talking about. You practice radical honesty David. That’s why I

suggested we meet.’

David smiled back at her.

‘I want people in my life who tell me the truth no matter how uncomfortable that makes me. I’ll do the same in return.’ Kyla cleared her throat. ‘So, ask me anything David. Anything at all.’

A flutter of excitement awakened like a caged bird in David’s chest. ‘Tell me about the alien.’

Kyla furrowed her brow.

‘The alien you mentioned in the message that you sent to me. The message you meant to send to someone else.’

‘Why do you want to know about that?’ she asked.
‘I dream about aliens every night.’
‘Well, you’re really into sci-fi movies, so I guess that’s to be expected.’
‘Mum said not to ask you. She said you’d find me talking about aliens weird. But you

said people should be honest with each other.’

‘For sure.’

David reached across the narrow table, placing his hand on hers. He lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘Kyla, what if your dream about the alien wasn’t a dream. What if the dream is the reality and all this,’ with his forehead David indicated the café, the universe, everything. ‘What if this world is the made up one, the fiction?’

 

Their coffee date ended at 10.39am, leaving David 21 minutes to walk to the carwash for his 11am shift. He messaged Kyla six times, telling her secrets of the universe he hadn’t had the time to share earlier. In the first hour of his shift, Sanjay, his boss, yelled at him twice for messaging when he was supposed to be wiping vehicles. ‘You’re holding up the line. I catch you checking your phone again, you’re out of here, mate.’

‘Sorry,’ David pushed the phone into the front pocket of his damp jeans. ‘I was checking if I got a message.’

‘From your girlfriend?’ Sanjay’s scrawny arm made sudsy circles on the driver’s door of a black sedan.

‘She’s not my girlfriend.’
‘You getting married when she gets out of the insane asylum?’ Sanjay grinned.

‘She’s not in an asylum. She works in Myer. In the homewares section. In

Northland.’
Sanjay shook excess soap from the oversized sponge. ‘Just do what I’m paying you

for.’
When David arrived home after his double shift, Mum was asleep on the broken

couch, exhausted from vacuuming kilometres of grey-carpeted offices in the city. Still no reply from Kyla, despite sending her a total of forty-six messages since their date.

David sloped off to his room to re-watch a couple of old Star Trek movies, falling asleep on the bed covers with his clothes on.

The following morning, Mum was perched on the end of his single bed. As David slowly woke and stretched, she was tapping furiously on his phone.

‘Is there a message from Kyla?’ he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
‘Forget about her, David,’ her tiny fingers danced nimbly across the screen.

‘Why?’ He pushed himself up to sitting. ‘Kyla said listening to me telling her about

aliens was really something.’
‘Well, one thing led to another and now I know she’s not right for you.’
‘Did she message?’
‘I deleted it.’
‘What did Kyla say?’
‘It’s not important.’
‘Mum!’
‘Oh, I don’t remember David. Something about not being that interested in alien life

forms. Something about your messages yesterday triggering anxiety.’

‘What…’

‘You don’t want to go out with a girl with an anxiety issue David! You don’t know what she’d do.’ Mum thrust the phone towards him. Smiled. ‘But look, a girl called Sophie sent you a love heart just now. Her profile says she only watches sci-fi. Her friends think she’s a bit weird and she says she’s OK with that.’

David dropped his face into his hands.

‘Sophie has kind eyes,’ Mum said, putting her hand on David’s thigh. ‘She seems nice. Genuine. I have a really good feeling about her.’

Header image by Daniela Reape, courtesy of Pixabay

federal jobs plan another blow to full-time students

Author: Sam Roberts

On Thursday, the Morrison Government’s Job-Ready Graduate Package passed the senate with the support of One Nation and Centre Alliance. This new university funding model provides places for an additional 30,000 students by cutting government funding in many key disciplines, including for ‘job-ready’ degrees such as engineering. Centre Alliance’s price for supporting this bill – triple the funding for universities in their home state of South Australia, and over $250 million in pork-barrelling infrastructure spending – paints a stark picture of the harm of this legislation on the rest of the country.

The future for higher education funding under this model is dire, and worse still are the fee hikes for students studying degrees deemed less job ready by the Liberal Party and their bureaucratic central planning.

This bill alone is a terrible blow for low SES students, Indigenous students, and students who simply wish to study the degree of their dreams. But following the release of the Federal Budget last Tuesday, it is clear that we will soon face an even greater threat to the accessibility of our university system.

Enter the JobMaker Hiring Credit. This $4Bn measure is aimed at getting 16-35 year olds back to work, and off their JobSeeker payments. Under this measure, employers will receive up to $10,400 over 12 months for hiring an eligible young person. The catch is, only welfare recipients not studying full-time will be eligible. So while this program may help 450,000 young people find work, employers will be heavily disincentivised from hiring anybody not covered by the subsidy – including more than 250,000 students receiving income support payments. An employer would now have to forego the thousands of dollars they would receive hiring a JobSeeker recipient, in order to hire a full-time student.

The vast majority of students receiving income support, in fact, are currently covered by AusStudy, ABStudy, and Youth Allowance (Students). Years of neglect by successive governments has seen the rates of these payments stagnate. To cover the cost of living, most recipients are forced to supplement their income through work.

With student income support set well below the poverty line, hundreds of thousands of students now face a choice between attending university in poverty, or abandoning their dream of full-time study altogether. Following the Morrison recession, the perverse consequences of JobMaker, which will make it virtually impossible for students to enter full-time study and gain new employment, expose the fundamental flaw of our student welfare system.

Without a serious overhaul of existing student welfare payments, Australia is headed for a return to a university system built purely for the rich.

A system where only kids whose families can afford to support them through years of study have access to the full university experience, and the many opportunities it affords. A system where those who aren’t as fortunate are at best forced into 6 or more years of part time study, and at worst locked out of university altogether.

We can build a fairer and more accessible higher education system for the future.  A future where full-time study is viewed with the same level of dignity as full-time work. But for this future to become a reality for all, study, like work, should be fairly remunerated, not with welfare payments, but with a full living wage.

Sam Roberts is the current National Secretary of the National Union of Students, and the former President (2018-2019) of the Swinburne Student Union.

Header image courtesy of ABC News

a sensation of him

Author: Rory Sorenson

*

Teach me your secret so I can see

the way you listen to your world.

Can I give you something broken?

Would you fix it

or remake it

or just let me be?

*

We spoke once in a dream you had

I forgot what you said when I asked you to

give me a truth.

I kissed the question

to your hand,

and held its echo to my ear.

*

You should know

I think

A part of you

will always be inside me.

(Or maybe me in you).

*

Describe your favourite sound to me.

And why it looks that way.

I found a story for you to whisper,

or roar,

or both.

Just keep it hidden in your lungs.

*

Because salvation found me early,

—being baptised by your tongue—

you must carry my misdeeds from now.

But you will be my burden

when I am

fluent in speaking you.

*

I’ll let you close enough

to love me if you promise that

it’s only pretend.

And you can leave

now please.

*

Take my feet

into your hands,

and press me to the ground.

When it storms, I

smell you in the rain.

(Have you ever tasted lightning?)

It reminds me of your scent

when we first met for the last time.

*

I’d missed you for eternity

when I heard you hiding moments

in tomorrow.

You sing in your sleep

sometimes

when you think no one can hear your breath.

*

Let me act like

this is our final night together.

I’ll return.

Promise.

Just give me something for my journey,

so I can hold on to my home—

Your calloused hand.

Before I go,

I’ll leave you with

the map your eyes traced

on my skin.

You could find your way to me.

Or not.

*

When I’ve waited forever to feel you

Beautiful Man,

what’s a few more moments apart?

*

Featured image courtesy of Mona Khaleghi via Unsplash

a love like you and me

Author: Daniela Abriola

I really shouldn’t have let my best friend set me up on a blind date.

They never work out well. Not even in movies. If it can’t even work for fictional characters, why would it work for me?

I don’t mind that I’m single, but my friends do. Just because they all have someone, doesn’t mean I need someone.

Life doesn’t have to be like a Taylor Swift song, dancing with your soulmate in the kitchen with nothing but the light from a refrigerator. It isn’t my kind of life. I’m fine on my own.

But no one can shield themselves from Ava. When she sets her mind to something, she doesn’t stop till she gets what she wants.

‘Rhys,’ she said. ‘I just want you to be happy.’

I wish I could believe her. I’m sure, deep down, she does want that for me. But I know that she’s tired of organising couples’ events and having me tag along. Sure, she tells me she doesn’t mind, but her constant murmurs of ‘oh, Rhys, I guess you can come too,’ tell me otherwise.

So here I am, sitting at a table in a small restaurant downtown that’s way too classy to be something I can afford. The number of forks place across the table is enough to make me feel inferior to everyone here. Why would I I let my date pick this restaurant for me?

I don’t know what this mystery girl looks like at all. Ava was so excited that I had (reluctantly) agreed to go on a date with her ‘super-hot friend from yoga class’, that she forgot to mentionany actual details. Apparently, she is ‘just my type’, but I’m 21-years-old, and I’ve been single for all of them. I don’t even know what my type is. Ava was persistent, however.

‘You’ll like her, trust me.’

Something about that phrase made me not want to trust her. But I promised.

There’s no sign of this ‘super-hot yoga friend’, and it’s fine. I’m fine. I got here early anyway.  But as the minutes tick by, the more restless I get.  I feel the endless need to fidget– if my hands were occupied then my anxiety would be gone, or at the very least, I could ignore it for a while. Well, that’s what I tell myself when I accidentally knock the pepper shaker all over the table. I wipe my hands on my jeans, trying to rid myself of the pepper grounds covering my skin. I wonder if maybe I am overdressed, but as I watch a couple walk into the restaurant, I realise that maybe I’m not dressed up enough. Either way, it’s too late to change my clothes now.

A slim figure moves from the corner of my vision and sits down on the chair in front of me. Her eyes are captivating. They’re  bright shade of emerald green. Jewels that seem so incomparable they make my heart skip a beat.

‘Hey,’ she says. ‘I’m Ashley.’

My phone screen lights up, alerting me that I’ve received a text. I check my phone discreetly.

From: Ava

How’s the date going?????????

Instinctively, I run my thumb across the silver ring on my middle finger, and I don’t stop until the cool metal band begins to settle me. Ava is desperate for this date to work. How can I tell her that Ashley is, despite first impressions, the most boring person I’ve ever met?

She spends the first ten minutes telling me about this ‘amazing’ juice cleanse she’s on. I don’t understand why she picked a restaurant for our date if she wasn’t going to eat anything, but I know better than to say anything.

In the next twenty minutes, she lectures me about the meat industry, telling me that I ‘really should go vegan’. There are a few choice words thrown in there – at one point she calls me a murderer for eating meat. Ashley spends so much time talking that I don’t get the chance to tell her I am, in fact, already vegan.

I can’t tell Ava that the date is worse than being on the Titanic. I’d rather be Jack, clinging on to that door for dear life, than have to listen to this girl tell me that ‘she doesn’t hate gay people’ she just wishes they ‘wouldn’t do it in front of her’. This would crush Ava. I mean, she is more invested in my love life than I am.

Ashley smiles. ‘This has been really fun.’

I try to keep a straight face. Fun for who?. This is the exact opposite of fun for me. But I don’t tell her that. Instead, I smile and nod my head.

‘Yeah.’

‘I’m just going to the bathroom,’ she says. I’m sure she also mentions something about freshly squeezed juice ‘going right through’ her, but at this point I’m too tired to care.

I must be more tired than I thought, because before I know it, she’s sitting across from me.

My first thought is, wow, that was fast. But when I see that it’s the waiter who seated me at my table, I stare at him questioningly.

‘I’m on my break right now. I thought you could use some saving,’ he says.

There’s no one else sitting at the table – it has to be me he’s talking to. But his words still catch me off guard.

‘Me?’

He pauses for a moment. ‘Yes, you.

‘Oh, I- uh, um,’ I stutter.

Yep, good one Rhys. That’s exactly how normal people speak.

‘It looked that bad?’ I ask. It sure felt bad.

‘I’ve seen many bad dates in my life, and that looked like one of them.’

He flashes me a smile, and oh. I realise that he’s gorgeous. He’s tall, with the softest brown eyes I’ve ever seen, and his hair is dark brown, with a sheen like parquetry flooring. That comparison isn’t entirely fair, actually. Parquetry flooring doesn’t move like this guy’s hair does, brushing softly around his face as he speaks. I’m trying not to stare, but honestly. He’s the most handsome guy I’ve ever seen.

‘Oh,’ I say. Oh? That’s the best you could come up with? Idiot.

He’s so hot, and my hands are sweating like never before.

It’s not a big deal. It’s fine.

Except it is. It’s a disaster, actually. Or possibly an epic shit-storm of a disaster, because how am I meant to tell Ava that I am more attracted to the waiter who had to explain what the different forks at my table were for, than I am her friend.

I haven’t considered that I might be gay, but I definitely couldn’t deny that sitting across from me is the hottest person I’ve ever seen. The more I think about it, the more the word gay makes sense to me.

‘Leon,’ he says, and I jump a little. I forgot that he’s still sitting in front of me. But he is, with his hand extended out for me to shake. 

I wonder if shaking hands is something that people still do, but then Leon laughs, and I realise I’ve said this out loud.

Shit.  

‘I’m Rhys,’ I awkwardly mumble.

‘You’re an interesting guy, Rhys,’ Leon smiles again.

Usually, I’d be a little offended by that. But the way he says it…it’s nothing less than endearing. Then he quickly looks me up and down. ‘And very good looking.’

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is inappropriate. This is his place of work, and my date will come back from the bathroom any minute now. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t feel my legs anymore, and my brain is not thinking in coherent sentences. He’s flirting with me, and I know for a fact that I’m grinning from ear to ear.

Maybe Leon senses that I’m having a hard time responding, because he doesn’t wait for me to make a complete fool of myself.

‘Well, Rhys,’ he says, stopping mid speech as his eyes travel to the bathrooms across the restaurant. Great. Ashley is walking back to the table.

In a matter of seconds, Leon pulls his notepad out from his apron and scrawls something down. ‘If your date is as bad as I think it is, you should call me. Hopefully, I can show you a better date than she did.’

Leon hands me the piece of paper with his number on it, and for the first time, I understand what all those Taylor Swift songs were about.

Featured image courtesy of Markus Spiske via Unsplash.

letters from emily

Author: Eli Thomas

“I wish I could play the ukulele…”

There was no explanation, no greeting. The letter, which had been tucked away in a box of childhood toys in a blank, unmarked envelope, didn’t start with a “hello, my name is…”. Nor did it need to.  I recognised the handwriting instantly.

            “…Or the guitar, but it feels too big in my lap and the strings are hard to push down. The ukulele is smaller and looks easier with less strings. I want to sit on my bed with sunlight coming through a gap in the curtain. It has to be nice, warm sunlight. I’ve seen videos of people doing it. The sun will hit half of my face as I play, and maybe I’ll even improvise some lyrics in a really soothing voice. I’ll be like a cool singer who can make anyone feel alright, maybe even myself. And I would wish to remain in that moment forever.”

Well, you can play the ukulele now, and still chase that aesthetic you were after. It is not as easy as you imagined, though. You have to keep adjusting the curtains, because the sun is not hitting your face right. Sometimes you spend all day waiting for light from the setting sun to fill the room, only to miss it and have to wait to try again. Other times it is simply too bright and hurts your eyes. It is definitely not as easy as you imagined, but you still find yourself trying. This was the reason you tried to learn the instrument. You wanted to recreate this moment for yourself. Sometimes you get it perfect and it feels amazing, even if you can’t sing as well as you hoped for. And sometimes, just sometimes, you do get to convince yourself that everything’s alright.

You still wish those good moments could last longer. That hasn’t changed.

            “I wish I could wear the cool clothes all the boys wear. I hate the dresses Mum gets for me. The guys have all the coolest jackets. I want to wear them, but I don’t want it to be “dress up.” I think Mum and Dad would get mad if I tried to wear Jude’s clothes outside.”

Oh, they did get mad. One day, you got so fed up with the girl’s school uniform, you put on Jude’s even though it was too big. You had the sleeves rolled right up and a belt trying its best to keep the pants up that kept tripping me. Mum and Dad didn’t let you leave the house like that, but now no one’s here to force you into a dress ever again! You get to wear all the cool boy clothes. Your closet is full of button-ups with unique patterns and jackets that make you feel like a badass. I’m sure you’d love it.

            “I wish I had the words to describe how I feel. Everyone says I’m a tomboy, but that doesn’t feel right. Should it feel right? I think I want it to feel right, then everything would be nice and simple.”

You found your identity in this new language you discovered, with a whole community standing behind the words you now use proudly. It took a while, but you figured it out. You’re not a tomboy, a daughter, a girl. It was a terrifying realisation to make, and hard to accept that you weren’t how everyone saw you. You had always known something was off, and this wasn’t the simple solution you were hoping for. But it became the best realisation of your life. You are a son. You are a boy. You are trans, and that language turned your life around.

            “I wish on the brightest star I see each night. Sometimes I think the stars are looking over aliens and their worlds, and since God is busy listening to every single person on earth, I talk to the stars instead. You probably think that’s stupid now, I don’t know, maybe they can help me, maybe they can take me away to their world. I wonder if there’s an alien like me out there, who understands what it’s like to be me. Maybe they ask the stars for the same wish.”

For a long time, you forgot the night sky existed. You gave up when you learnt the stars weren’t going to change anything. You so badly wanted to believe in wishes, or prayers, or miracles, in magic that wouldn’t rip your heart out the next day when nothing had changed. But now you have found the power of science and hormones and surgery, and it would feel wrong to not call it the magic you always wished for.

You still believe in aliens though, and maybe they do have Gods of their own. You no longer hope to be taken away to a faraway planet. You’ve found others like me on earth. You are no longer alone here. But trust me, if the opportunity to be abducted arises, you will not turn it down.

            “I wish I was me.”

You have always been you.

            “I wish I knew who me was.”

You will figure it out. And everything will make sense.

            “I wish that I’ll be happy when I’m you.”

A signed name had been scrawled onto that letter before being violently crossed out – first with a pen and then a sharpie, when it was clear the pen couldn’t erase it enough. I smiled slightly at your persistence. At my persistence. I was so certain something was wrong, even if I couldn’t explain why. But I now know who I am.

I picked up a pen from my desk, and gently, right next to my own scratched out mess, wrote down my name.

            Ethan.

Featured image courtesy of Jacek Smoter via Unsplash.

 

COVID-19 Series: #7

Author: Tina Tsironis

2020, for lack of a better metaphor, is an onion. A ridiculously frustrating and repetitive onion, with craploads of layers. Yes – I kind of stole this metaphor from Shrek. Sue me. (Please don’t sue me). Honestly, though – the first few layers, as much as they elicit a sizeable sting, are relatively easy to handle. They consist, after all, of the things we’re sad about losing, but which bring with them a strange sense of novelty – novelty which, at least for me, continues to this day.

Who can say they’re mad about rolling out of bed one minute before a lecture or a workday is due to begin, after all? I’m sure some of you can. But many of us cannot.

It’s when we keep peeling, however, that we unearth the potent layers. They elicit the type of sting that feels more like a burn; immediate and forceful enough to pierce through our tear ducts with such force that we can’t help but remark, to nobody in particular, that we’re not actually crying because we’re sad. God no! It was the onion that made us do it!

But then those layers unravel and fall away, against all odds, and now we’re forced to reckon with the layers within. If the shittiness of this metaphor wasn’t immediately clear to you, it sure as hell should be by now – because there’s no onion-core in the world that can describe the feeling of being forced, against all odds, to reckon with your own mortality.

To her credit, the moment the threat of COVID-19 became clear to her, my friend Kushlani Premachandra confronted the pandemic head-on. She practiced social distancing, stayed home after being stood down from her job as a conference producer for an events company, and tried to throw herself into her first semester of postgrad study.

“Before lockdown, I had a semi-pattern of going to work, coming home, and then on Thursdays and Fridays doing my uni work,” Kush told me during a Zoom call.

During the first month of lockdown, when this routine disintegrated, Kush said she “just felt excited.”

“I wanted to go on leave anyway, so this was kind of an extended holiday, except I’m at home. So I [figured] can spend more time brainstorming and doing all this stuff, and study whenever I want.”

In reality, however, the separation from home and study was non-existent. “I was waking up at midday and staying in my pyjamas all day, and then I didn’t feel motivated to do any work…you just want to be a couch potato.”

By the time we sat down for our chat, Kush had been out of work for four months. With a large part of her role involving interstate travel across Australia, her eventual path back to normality seemed like a long way off. At this point, Kush believed she should be picking up more units as part of her course.

“It felt like this internalised pressure,” she said. I should be spending all my time writing…I should be picking up more units.”

The combination of her disintegrated routine, however, and the continued threat of COVID-19, proved to be a potent motivation-sapper. Amidst this upheaval, Kush’s uncle Sumith, a 55-year-old disability nurse, had also been diagnosed with coronavirus in March.

“I was dropping food off at my parents’ house during the week, and while I was over there my mum got a call from my aunt, and she told my mum my uncle was in hospital.”

Sumith was struck with the virus after covering a colleague’s shift at work. “He was isolating at home from the weekend, then within three days it got worse, and he was in hospital by Wednesday.”

The family had been told that if Sumith didn’t improve, he would soon die. But by the time Kush heard from her aunt again, one week later, her uncle “had not gotten better, but he hadn’t gotten worse.” At this point, Kush and her family had no choice but to settle into a strange pattern of distorted familiarity. If you’re trying to imagine what this feels like, imagine the exhaustingly mundane, subtly unsettling “new normal” we currently experience while rolling out of bed for the 50,000th time this week, and multiply that feeling by thousands. This is a waiting game that no family should have to endure – but sadly, thousands of Australian families have.

Kush, myself and another close friend communicate primarily through a messenger group chat that we bitingly, yet somewhat accurately, have entitled Hyped Up Anxiety Corner. During this early April week, Kush stayed silent about Sumith’s illness, instead treating the chat to videos of Ina Garten making huge cocktails at 9:30AM, and WA premier Mark McGowan struggling to contain his laughter during a widely shared press conference.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable dread she must have been feeling, Kush’s warmth and quirky humour remained on-brand, serving as a wonderful source of comfort for our friend and I, who were both wading through our own isolation-driven feelings of dread. But on Monday the 6th of April, roughly two hours before my workday was due to end, Kush sent the Hyped Up Anxiety Corner a series of messages that appeared to come out of nowhere:

“So

My uncle passed away

The 38th Australian death”.

Sumith had passed away the night before.

“When I got the call from my brother I just remember asking, are you sure?” Kush recalled.

With her mind laser-focused on an assignment she had coming up, at first, all she felt was shock. “I remember it was raining that day and I went and sat outside on the back steps and just got rained on, because I didn’t know what else to do,” she explained.

“It was during stay at home orders, so it’s not like we could go and see my aunt, because she still had to be isolated…the two-week period hadn’t passed for her.”

The impact of Sumith’s passing on his loved-ones and friends, of course, cannot be overstated. Every single tribute I have come across has mentioned his kind heart, friendly nature, generous spirit, or a combination of these these qualities. When Kush spoke to me for this story, she not only echoed these sentiments – she built upon them, painting a vivid picture of a joyful man with a witty nature. Much like this niece.

“Whenever he saw you, he would just envelop you in a giant bearhug,” Kush told me. “He was so lovely, he radiated joy.”

“I remember once, he picked me up with my cousins and we went to the movies and watched Spy Kids or something. Then we had a sleepover and he made sure we had snacks and stuff like that. But I just remember at the movies, 10 minutes in, all of a sudden, we just hear snoring. I look over and he’s fast asleep in his chair, and it was loud.”

“He was snoring in the fricking cinema with his head up,” Kush continued, “and my cousins and I were like “shut up!”, and then he’d wake up and say, “I’m not snoring, I’m not snoring,” and then go back to sleep and repeat the process.”

The weekend before I interviewed my friend, she finally got to visit her aunt. Kush worries about her, as she now lives alone, and is scared to venture outdoors due to the continued spread of COVID-19 – especially because, at the time of our interview, cases had steadily been rising again in Melbourne. The family cat, Benji, provides a slight semblance of normality. The British Shorthair, in fact, is dealing with Sumith’s passing in his own unique way.

“There’s a small table in the living room where my uncle’s urn is located,” Kush told me. “[Benji] never used to go to that table, and when the ashes came home, he was really confused, like ‘what’s this?’ Then I think he realised, and now he sits next to the table.”

Sumith’s grandchildren, and Kush’s nephews, aged one and four, have also been deeply affected by his loss.

“The elder one was very close to my uncle. He will go over to my aunt’s house and hug my uncle’s clothes and cry, and say, ‘I miss papa’”, Kush said. “He loved those kids so much.”

Kush’s own semblance of normality comes from connecting with her friends, her partner Lauren, and her partner’s father, who she lives with. Though this support cannot soften the blow of losing her uncle, alongside the stability of regular life this year, it has certainly flittered sparks of comfort throughout 2020’s otherwise tough, incredibly polluted air.

Kush’s partner Lauren, who is a trauma counsellor, has been especially supportive. “She’s been giving me all the cuddles, asking if I want to be left alone, or if I want her to come and stay with me and just be quiet,” Kush explained. “She’s very intuitive. Even without her training, she’s so caring and loving.”

In an effort to deal with her grief and continued hiatus from work, my friend threw herself into her studies. She told me that when she initially found out about her uncle, she thought, “I’ve gotta push through and keep going and not say anything.”

Ultimately, and understandably, staying quiet proved impossible. “I couldn’t do it, so I had to email my tutor Jacqui [Ross],” Kush said. “She was so understanding. She responded to my email quite quickly, maybe within the hour. She was like “don’t even worry, when you’re able to, if you’re able to, you can come back to do your work.” That was great, because it was one less thing to worry about.”

Kush finished this first unit of her course and progressed to the next with the attitude that it would serve as a useful creative outlet. During our interview, she told me that study “feels like a lot sometimes, but it’s pretty motivating and exciting.”

“I’m trying to work out what to write for my next research assignment, with of everything happening with the world,” she explained. “Not just COVID, but the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s so much happening, that’s been kind of motivating and a bit inspirational, and I can use what’s happening and tie it into my fiction piece and the current climate.”

A few weeks after our interview, however, Kush let me know that she had made the decision to take a leave of absence from her studies, due to her mental health struggles. The very fact that she momentarily tried to push through her pain in order to learn and practice her craft is admirable. But ultimately, the kindness and honesty of self that Kush has exercised, by confronting her pain and grief head-on, and pausing her creative endeavours, is far more inspiring.

In fact, Kush extends this kindness to others, stressing that, “most of us have never lived through a pandemic or anything like this, so you’re allowed to be sad.”

“You might be missing a friend’s birthday, an event that might feel small,” she said. “You’ve got to be kind to yourself, but also realise that even if you’re a young, healthy person, you’ve still got to think about your neighbours and the people around you.”

Kush does not want us to forget that all the cases, and all the deaths that have now started happening again, are completely avoidable.

“My cousin [Sumith’s daughter] was supposed to have her wedding the week of my uncle’s funeral. My uncle was 55, he did not need to die. He was called into work because [a colleague] was unable to come in. He wasn’t supposed to be working. These are completely avoidable deaths. The better we all are together, contributing to the bigger picture, the easier it’ll be trying to go back to the norm.”

While returning to the norm won’t happen for a while yet, especially for us Melburnians, Kush suggested that immersing ourselves in relaxing, pressure-free hobbies can ease the blow of our continued lockdown. Her hobby of choice? Quilting.

“I have become my mother. She made me a quilt and so I decided I wanted to make one too. She gives me little tips, telling me “no, not like that,” and I’m all like ‘thanks mum’”, Kush told me, mimicking the pouty, self-deprecating tone of a child who has just been chided – the exact type of voice that I look forward to hearing in person eventually. Hopefully by the end of this year.

“I’ll chuck something on Netflix,” Kush says, “and start sewing for a couple of hours, and it feels really productive – like, look what I’ve accomplished!”

When our eventual return to normality does come, its path will be punctured with strangeness and sadness for many of us, and continued grief and anxiety for others.

Facing these feelings now, as they’re brimming above the surface, is crucial. Face them while flicking on Netflix and weaving needle through fabric, or face them while penning stories featuring shitty onion metaphors – the specifics don’t necessarily matter. Doing so won’t completely alleviate the blow that is 2020, yet it will provide us with the opportunity to take a pause.

So, before we embark on this punctured path to normality, join me in taking a pause. Shut your mouth, take a few deep breaths, and enjoy this brief moment of silence. Remind yourself of all that you’ve accomplished, simply by enduring the last nine months – strangely and sadly, sure, but hopefully with the mortality of others front of mind.

About Tina Tsironis

Tina is the 2020 editor of SWINE Magazine. If being a certified hot sauce/BoJack Horseman enthusiast was a legitimate thing, she would be it. When she’s not obsessing over intense existential cartoons and spicy condiments, Tina is a Masters of Writing student and a marketing specialist/copywriter for a software company. She currently lives in Hawthorn with her partner, and no pets . She wishes there were pets.