Small Press Spotlight

Big River

Libbie Chellew


 

My wife Leah had made an appointment with the doctor. She had a lump.

 

I was leaning on the kitchen bench. I watched her tighten the loose handle of our frying pan with a screwdriver.

 

You want me to come? I said. We knew I had to work, but I said it anyway. It wasn’t as if we could both have a day off. We didn’t know anything yet.

 

It’s fine, she said. She turned the frying pan over and lit the stove.

 

Right, I said and picked up my can of beer. I went over to the couch to watch the news.

 

After a while I got up and went back to the bench. We didn’t say anything. We had already said in the bathroom that morning that there was no point worrying about it yet. I guess I could have said something. But there was no point getting worked up about it now. We’d just look silly later. I felt bad for her. I could tell she was thinking about it. She put the empty tin of tomatoes in the bin without rinsing it. She never did that.

 

I couldn’t say it will all be fine if we didn’t really know. And I felt very aware of that fact. We didn’t know. So there was nothing to say yet. She was just thirty. Surely, that’s too young. It must just be a cyst.

 

After she’d poured herself a glass of red wine from the cask, and poured a little into the pan, my mother called. I could hear her talking in my wife’s ear.

 

But it’s a new car, Leah said. And then she said, Wow, that’s no good. My wife looked at me and pointed at her arm. I kept looking at her. After getting off the phone she explained what my mother had said.

 

She heard a snapping noise in her arm when she was putting the car into first gear.

 

What? How’d she do that, I said.

 

Putting the car into first gear, she said. Her left eyebrow rose a little more than the other. It has always been hard, always been hard, to put it into first gear, my wife said in my mother’s voice. This was the first time Leah had said more than two sentences to me since our conversation in the bathroom. I picked up the masher and put it down again.

 

She needs money, I said. My wife nodded.

 

How bad is it, I asked. She shrugged. She said it didn’t matter how bad. Your mum’s not coping. She shook her head and stirred the mince. I got her some more wine.

 

We’ll go up on the weekend and see her then instead of going to Big River, I said.

 

The weekend. We’ll know by then, she said. Then she coughed to clear her throat and started mashing potatoes. I watched her. She turned and opened the fridge.

 

She leant on one leg and grabbed the margarine. I noticed the way she used her left hand to put her hair behind her right ear.

 

We don’t have to have Dave and Kaz over tonight, I said.

 

Mark, she said, I’m fine, I’ve already cooked. She waved her hand out and a drop of mashed potatoes hit the tiles. She didn’t notice.

 

We usually had Dave and Karen over on a Friday. Dave was the best man at my wedding. He’d met Karen shortly after that. Karen and my wife got along fine. The four of us usually sat around drinking and talking on a Friday. Dave and I did most of the talking. Dave was a stories man, full of things to say. Karen was quiet. Leah thought Dave was an idiot, but she didn’t usually let on.

 

After the four of us had eaten, we went to sit on the lounge. I subtly turned the television on, to try to avoid conversation. It wasn’t usually like this, but I’d never seen Leah like this and I didn’t know how to make her relax. We started watching this movie. I was sitting next to Leah and put my hand on her thigh. A short while later she slowly moved my hand back into my own lap.

 

The movie was about a married couple and neither realises the other is an assassin until they need to assassinate each other. I couldn’t concentrate. Dave said he liked the movie. Karen didn’t say anything. I noticed Dave’s hand wasn’t on Karen’s leg. Karen was balled up in the corner of the couch, her hands balled up in the sleeves of her navy fleece. She was as far away from Dave as she could get, which made me feel better. I looked at Leah and she half smiled but she didn’t hold my eyes for long. The female assassin started punching her husband on the television. It seemed to be mixed with sexual tension. They were both strong and they’d discarded their guns. They were going at it. I automatically went to put my hand on Leah but realised and took it off. I picked up her glass instead and stood up. I offered everyone a drink. Dave laughed.

 

This is a crock of shit, he said.

 

I stood there and we all watched a little more.

 

One punch and she would be on the floor, he said. Done.

 

I went over to the kitchen and refilled the glasses. I came back and Leah had reached across between the two couches, and put her hand on Karen’s arm.

 

Dave laughed again and said bang when the wife got hit in the face.

 

Dave and Karen left before the movie was over. Maybe they knew something was up. If they did, they didn’t ask. I walked Dave and Karen out to the letterbox, which was pretty much half way to their place. They lived just up the court. Their house was exactly the same as ours. The only difference was the colour of the facades. Ours was grey stone with brick. They had a rendered cream frontage with brick. All the houses in the estate were like this, although I’ve only been in Dave and Karen’s. There’s something eerie about walking into someone else’s house when it is the same as your own. You know where everything is. Except the little stuff I guess. Karen did their kitchen differently.

 

Back in the house Leah had turned the television off, but she was still sitting on the couch. I got her another wine and sat down.

 

Leah, I said. I put an arm around her, and she let me. We sat there for a while. I thought about Big River. If we didn’t make it there this weekend, we could still go next weekend. It would be easier to talk there. We usually had lots of time with each other when we were there. Or we could get the others to come, like Dave and Leah’s brother James and his wife Kelly. Karen hated camping so she never came. We could all go for a drive. Or Leah could have a drive and that would distract her. That would be fun. Last time she had a drive she turned the wheel too far to the right on this steep rocky hill. We had two wheels off the ground and the car was leaning against a tree. Lucky the tree was there. Anyway, I didn’t think James would be able to get past us to winch us up but he did. It was a good weekend. We’d gotten really pissed that night on this slab of cheap blue drinks Dave had gotten from somewhere. He said they were from Singapore and illegal in Australia. Probably had Metho instead of Vodka for alcohol, but they tasted fine. We called them Windex as a joke.

 

Get us another Windex, I’d say. It was good fun. Leah was smashed that night and we’d gone for it in the tent when everyone was still awake. She kept giggling and then telling me to be quiet. Dave had the stereo in his car going and the doors open. We don’t think anyone heard us, and if they did, no one cared.

 

I started to think about Leah’s breasts. I wondered if she was always going to connect me touching them with the cyst because I found it. I wondered if she would ever want me to touch them again. I shouldn’t have stopped kissing her that morning. I should have waited until later. She was looking at me, smiling at me, as I leant into her.

 

I was dressed and she was in a towel. I pulled back a bit. I said that I felt something and her face dropped. It felt like every bit of spark disappeared in that moment. All I could feel was the cold of the bathroom tiles on my feet.

 

Then I started to think that the doctors wouldn’t know by the weekend. They’d have to remove the lump before they’d know what it was wouldn’t they? So that’s what I said to Leah, on the couch.

 

She sighed.

 

So things weren’t going to be okay by the weekend. I thought about things staying this bad and my eyes felt hot. I breathed out heavily. I didn’t want Leah to notice. Her eyes were closed anyway.

 

After a while we got up and went to bed. In bed, Leah looked like she was about to fall asleep but I talked anyway. I told her we could look forward to the weekend. We will lie there, in the swag, and we’ll look at the stars. We will squish in there together and forget about it for a while, babe. We can have a feast like we did on the trip I asked you to marry me. I’ll get a leg of lamb and we’ll bury it. Remember how good that was?

 

We’ll be okay, I said. Remember, we always sort things out at Big River. It all just works out. Like after your Mum, we went up there for a bit of peace and we got it.

 

You’ll feel better at Big River. We’ll open a nice bottle of wine. I kept talking. Then I said, everything is better there, right?

 

Yeah, she sighed, we’ll go to Big River.

 

That’s right, I said. I started thinking we should go away no matter how Mum’s arm was going. Leah eventually fell asleep. I couldn’t sleep, though. I got up and walked down the hallway into the lounge room. It looked like a Fantastic Furniture catalogue. Lounge Room Package number One. But it was dim. I didn’t turn any of the lights on. I just looked around. I thought about making some tea or something, but I wasn’t thirsty. I sat down at the bench. The bench top was cold. I looked opposite me, at a photo of Big River that we had blown up and framed. There was no river in the photo. The picture is of a four-wheel drive track. It goes right up the middle of the photo. Rocks and logs and the deep groove of tyre marks pattern the way up the track, lined with tall gums.

 

I had done that track a million times. It looked so good in the picture. It just keeps going up and up. I knew it was a dead end though. I stared at it for a long time. I don’t know how long. I realised I was still looking when a white light came through the window behind me and reflected right off the glass. I couldn’t see the picture anymore.

 

I turned around and the lights shone at me, right through the window. Headlights. I squinted. I was just standing there in my jocks. I had forgotten to shut the blinds. The car turned into one of the driveways on the left. I went to close the curtain but the cord was jammed.

 

I wanted to be in bed, so I went back up the hallway. I got into bed and closed my eyes and looked at the inside of my eyelids. I lay on my side and then on my front.

 

I got a bit hot. The two doonas were heavy. I lay on my side again and felt across for Leah.

 


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Wet Ink

 

First published in Wet Ink

 

This story appeared in Issue 1 of The Literarian.

 

Editors

Dominique Wilson and Phillip Edmonds

 

Mission

Wet Ink: The Magazine of New Writing publishes the best of Australian short stories, articles and poems, as well as numerous book reviews and an author interview in each issue. It's based in Adelaide and distributed internationally.

 

Libbie Chellew is a new writer from Melbourne. She recently graduated with First Class Honours in Literary Studies from Deakin University. Libbie is currently doing everything in her power not to end up working in a call centre. But things are looking bleak.