Category Archives: THE BOOK OF LIBERTY

And in surrender, ecstasy.

She can see – and so can he. There is no chance for denial now. Her heart is breaking at the sight of it. As though he has waited for her to yield to her love.

From his shattered place on the ground he has now been raised by her tender attentions. Smiling out of his haze as her delicate but direct hands go about their routine of care. As she allows her long black hair to fall over him.

Now he is a child – looking up in awe at the floating vision of grace before him. In his weary, aching repose she is the angel come to visit him. And the sweetness has him weeping.

Then she washes his tears with her own – and together they make a sea of euphoria, despair and acceptance.

She is kneeling at the altar of his finality, holding his bony, shivering hands in hers. With a strength that barely registers, he clings onto her. Channelling adoration through his arthritic fingers.

For a minute or two the beauty of it is so intense – like an overdose – that neither can breathe; and they are suspended in the exquisite space where everything is nothing and all is forgiven.

She lays her head upon his knees and he runs his fingers through her hair. Now he loves her utterly. Feels like he could melt away.

This is how she comes to understand the aspect of love that we might best call divine. By allowing him to love her without fear or temperance.

In her surrender, his also.

And in surrender, ecstasy.

Healing.

Returning.

A Shadow Cast By Light

She wants to know. To know about the girl. He laughs quietly, almost to himself. Smiles a bent, wistful smile. The one I pretended to be? he asks her playfully. Or the one I remember?

The one who made you write that way, Aurelia Zhou tells him, listening to his sputtering heart. The inexorably ticking clock of his life.

She lifts her stethoscope from his rickety chest – with its white wiry sprouts and liver spots – and looks into his yellowy eyes. To see that he is gazing at her like a thousand miles. With the enormity of all his years; and a mad tenderness as huge as the beautiful red continent they both cling to the edges of.

For a second or two he is not breathing. Stilled in his chair. Back in the presence of the girl who changed everything.

He rarely speaks of her these days. Does not like to. Not because it is painful – rather, that he has used up all his words for her.

Can I ask why? he says.

She thinks for a beat about lying – covering up her true intentions – but then yields to the simple truth of the matter. She is hoping that something in his story will be of use to her. Will help to quell this thing inside her.

If not quell – release.

Permit.

Erasmus sees in Aurelia something of himself. An orphan of sorts. A seeker outside the facile domain of names and titles. Someone in search of more than mere answers.

He draws in a drunkard’s breath of her freshly washed, long black hair. Consumes her uniformed loveliness. Imagines the soft space between her breasts and the slender ecstasy of her wrists.

Then it shall be my honour, he sighs with unabashed delight.

She smiles back at him with her eyes – the smallest crinkle at their corners. Even though he is three quarts blind he detects this intimate flicker. Whatever else has faded from view – beauty is as bright as ever.

He wants to say something ridiculous. Poetic. But doesn’t. It is enough that she is here with him. That she obviously cares. That she has come to smooth his path.

I have to tell you, though, he warns her. It’s going to take me a damn sight longer than twenty minutes.

 

 

About Erasmus William Lyle, Aurelia Zhou remains conflicted. She understands the boundaries of her profession – the necessary disconnect that makes medicine do-able. And anyway, she has crossed similar lines before and suffered because of it. This is why she is a nurse now – not an actor. Because rules were not observed. Crazy chances considered.

She sits shaking at her glass topped Ikea dinner table, thinking she should call and cancel. Convincing herself it would be for the best. Perhaps she does not really need to go where the old man will surely lead her.

Then she sees the book, still propped open on the black, stylishly uncomfortable lounge where she had been feverishly scouring it the night before. Try as she might she cannot extinguish the hope that a kind of liberty awaits her in those much analysed paragraphs. A freedom from the box that her family and her culture have housed her in.

Slowly she drinks her tea, inhaling its soft fragrance like meditation. Hoping for a Tao like clarity amidst the rattling clamour.

Because it scares her that she is so scared.

She never used to be.

Until disappointment.

She thinks of her mother – stranded in the old certainties she left behind in Hong Kong. Still not quite found in a country she adopted for the failed promise of a man. Clinging to Cantonese and bitterness.

When Aurelia looks in the mirror nowadays, this is the face she sees.

Then she remembers Erasmus. Old, ugly, immobile. A man without scope for dreams and hope. And yet he smiles – and his heart still fearlessly kicks down its walls for love. She has never known anything remotely like it.

This is what Aurelia Zhou wants to see in the bathroom mirror. Love in the face of everything else. Light at the door of darkness.

Now the tea is tasting that much sweeter. Now she looks outside and notices how gloriously blue the sky is. How the supple air is tinged with warmth. And how uncoiled she suddenly feels. As though she were in alignment.

A knot unties. Blood flows more freely.

She has decided.

 

 

Four minutes and eighteen seconds later her phone beeps twice.

She sees the telltale light. The envelope icon.

You have one new message.

Now her heart is banging like hope and terror combined.

Her trembling index finger.

The name of a boy.

Aurelia Zhou does not believe in coincidence – and so now she feels abruptly courageous.

She checks the time, grabs the book, makes sure she has everything she needs in her bag and leaves her expensive, elevated cell for the short walk to the main gate of the city’s biggest and most beautiful park.

Where she will meet an old man and talk about love.

 

 

By the wrought iron, nineteenth century gates she waits. Lovers parade in the spring sun. The birds up above sing their hearts out. Flowers bloom. All seems well in the world.

Aurelia checks the time on her phone and is tempted to read her new message once more. She taps on his name and the words appear. The emoticon. The xx. She closes her eyes – cannot help but smile.

When they open up again it is to the sight of the taxi. To the old man’s crumbling antique grin through the open passenger side window.

There is a huffing shuffle of activity as Erasmus strains to lift himself up and then down again into the chair that the driver has dutifully extracted from the trunk. By the end of it he is sweating – red with distress – and Aurelia feels a small shot of guilt. She could have picked him up herself but …

Damn those rules.

Yet Erasmus is too happy to notice. This is the first date he’s been on in years. It was worth getting up early and wrenching himself through the long winded bathroom routine for this. Worth the now painful battering beneath his ribs.

The sight of her is enough to undo all the tethers. Leave him floating.

He believes that she is the most beautiful woman he has known since … since her. Aurelia’s lithe, petite figure, her classical Asian features and her immaculate dress have bowled him over. Whatever treasures he has left, he will yield them up for the pleasures of her nearness. And if he should die in the swoon of her perfect splendour he will go to meet his maker grinning from ear to ear. It is that simple.

As she wheels him along the winding, uneven pathways – beneath the lush canopies and past the formal flower beds – he listens to her breathing and senses her happiness. He pretends not to hear her so that she will lean in closer – and when she does his blood fires up with the timeless, buzzing thrill of sex. Her body is so firm and real and close to him. He can feel its heat. Smell her skin.

To complete his fantasy, her hair rains down upon him. Such a feather touch. Makes him shiver.

He cranes his head back – and she is smiling down at him. No longer his nurse.

It occurs to him to think that she might be playing him but he is far too far gone to care about any of that nonsense. Erasmus has long since ceased to fret about being right or wrong – because neither will matter in the end.

 

 

They eventually settle on a patch of grass near the kiosk. He sends her off to get coffee and while she is gone he lurches out of his confinement and sinks as carefully as he can to the ground. Which he gladly presses his face into.

Gordy has been showing him the simple joys of smelling the earth – and he draws it into himself as hungrily as he would a cloud of marijuana.

By the time Aurelia returns, Erasmus is already lying on his back.

A child once more. Looking up at the sky in wonder.

For a second Aurelia is frightened, blasted with a reflex terror. Momentarily rigid. But then she sees his buckled smile. Notices him laughing. With a gasp of relief she sets down the coffee and cakes and stretches herself out on the turf next to him. Their fingertips brush – the faintest of touch – and both are filled with the electrics of release. Of exoneration. Recognition.

I never used to do this kind of thing, he tells her. Until she came along.

 
 

Now that he has opened up about her, he feels the downhill rush of remembrance. The momentum of memory tumbling out of him. Connections form. Tears well saltily, stinging weary eyes. It is a story he has told so many times, in such detail, that he is surprised to find that his feeling for it – for her – is still so fresh. As though it were springtime in his heart and she was still the most brilliant bloom in the garden.

But then again, she always was the one. The one who made him feel.

Anna Carmela, he sighs.

He cannot recall the last time he spoke her name aloud.

Anna Carmela, he whispers even lower – just for the joy of wrapping his tongue around it.

She was a dancer. I was a block of wood.

 

 

Aurelia Zhou wonders what it would be like to have a man speak of her in such terms. To be loved that way.

Although she is revelling in the lyrical quality of his recollection, partly she is saddened by the realisation that the most romantic things she has ever heard are coming from the thin and cracked lips of a nearly blind geriatric. A man on the edge of time.

It is not simply that no man ever thought to say such things to her but that she herself has never even imagined them – let alone felt them. But then, she forgets all that and allows herself to be seduced by his effortlessly effective language; and she is lost inside his rambling, disjointed story and only inspiration remains.

A single word. Reunion.

Something rescued from history. Like the old man’s love. A flame plucked from fiction. Fed fresh oxygen.

She sees how moved he is – hears the quavers and catches – feels the way that compassion has filled in the enormous vacuums of time and unknowing.

Next to her, he is murmuring distantly, pulling threads together. There was a certain point – quite early on it was – when I knew absolutely for sure that I was not in control. That she had set something in motion that I could not switch off with my cleverness. And somehow, by some instinct I didn’t even know that I had, I just knew that I shouldn’t even try. That I should just give up. Let whatever it was do whatever it wanted to do; and I would just accept the outcome.

But you were strong, she says. You always knew you were going to be okay.

Erasmus laughs, gives a slight shake of his head. That was the thing. I didn’t. I was forced to abandon that particular comfort and accept the very real possibility that I might not.

Aurelia is fascinated. Were you scared?

Terrified, he confesses. I could see myself being slowly dis-assembled. I knew I was in a destructive spiral. Not sleeping. Barely eating. Unable to think of anything of but her. It was ridiculous. But somehow I just knew it was a fire I had to walk through – not around. That it wasn’t a problem that needed to be solved, or an illness that needed to be cured. It was more like waking up. Like the moment when the first shoot pokes its head out of the ground and feels the sunlight. Like a whole new world. Scary … but unbelievably beautiful.

Is that why you wrote about it? Aurelia wonders.

Actually it was only when I started writing about it that I realised just how incredible it all was.

Erasmus looks over at his young friend and sees the next question in her eyes. The moment I started writing that book, he replies, I knew that I’d somehow stumbled across something entirely magical. My writing was … changed. Like it wasn’t even mine. And I realised that if I just surrendered to the voice that seemed to be whispering all these words in my ear – and I just typed out what it said – that it would all be true. Not word of a lie. And that I would be liberated by that truth.

As he says it, a wave passes through him and tears flow down his arid cheeks and he has the feeling of a golden light shining from inside him and he is in a state of ecstasy and connection. His lips tremble and he looks to the sky – to the great nothing that sits inside everything – and Anna Carmela is beside him once more and his love for her flows like a never ending river.

And now at last Aurelia understands. Or believes she does.

 

 

Time and space have collapsed for him today. She is in his bloodstream again. Dancing for him once more. Her eyes alight as she pirouettes in his loungeroom. Sighs in his arms. Her hunger like his. Their feeding deep and quiet.

While Aurelia wheels him through the park he talks in snatches – sometimes at her prompting, others as if reminded by a scent or a subtle shift in the air.

I suppose we were only really ‘together’ for about six months, he recounts. Then there was this long tail. Like a stretched out ending. I tried to be her friend; but in the end I couldn’t stand it.

So it was you who broke it off? Aurelia enquires.

I grew tired of pretending.

This intrigues Aurelia. As a Cantonese woman she has been schooled in the values of harmony and in the obscuring of personal feelings that this much vaunted cultural cohesion requires. She has always pretended. Indeed she feels that it is her natural state.

But Erasmus does not have her Asian reserve. His book will open at any page. He has nothing to lose. Or gain.

As soon as I knew for sure that she would never allow herself to be loved – by me or anyone really – and that I would always have to censor how I felt, I could no longer find the will to overlook all the obviously awful things about her. The way she lied. Disappeared for days on end. Her so-called ‘episodes’. The promises I was always stupid enough to fall for. So I put it all the line.

Listening to him describe it, Aurelia feels that she does yet possess the strength to risk what he had – to write an all or nothing letter and be prepared to accept the resulting severance.

About two weeks later she moved away and I never saw her again, he says as evenly as he can. She never wrote. Never phoned. And then, y’know, weeks became months became years.

And then you wrote a book about her.

And she never knew.

Erasmus and Aurelia both privately reflect that this was a sad outcome for Anna Carmela. For if she could know she would never again doubt that someone once loved her beyond all measure. That for a time she was the queen of everything. The most lovely. And that hers was a shadow cast by light.

Do you ever wonder what happened to her?

Almost every day, he whispers.

But you never tried to find her?

He looks over his shoulder at his young companion and says, with all the kindness he can muster, You do know you can never go backwards, don’t you?

In her head she agrees entirely – but in her heart she holds onto the fact of the text message. Of the boy’s return. Is this backwards? she thinks to herself. Or the beginning?

 

 

When he has talked himself dry, Erasmus manoeuvres his arthritic frame into yet another cab. His misty eyes devour Aurelia for a few moments more. His fingers hold onto hers as they say goodbye. He feels the vibrant heat of her young body – its health and sexual promise. Its life force.

As the car creaks away and she recedes – waving at him – he crashes.

Not just her. Anna Carmela.

Years. Distance. Longing. Never, ever knowing.

Love still burning bright. A fire in a room where no one goes.

His heart cracks open – as though the hot blade of a knife had been surgically inserted. Even after all this time he still aches. Bleeds so readily.

He leans back into his seat, opens the window and lets the warm and scented spring air flow over him, as the motor purrs and the radio plays and the ghost of a beautiful girl lingers at his side.

And he thinks to himself: If I have built a temple out of wisdom, how effortlessly you break down its doors. How thoroughly you smash its useless idols with your faintest touch.

Then he allows himself the small pleasure of laughing at his own sentimental folly and asks the driver to take a detour. He wants to drive past the block of Art Deco apartments in which he and her were once neighbours. He wants to see the window where her light once shone.

While the driver obliges and the fare mounts in steady, incremental clicks, Erasmus wonders why. But the answer is obvious. Because Aurelia Zhou will stand to gain – and in the final chapter of his life, he is ready to give anything and everything to be within touching distance of such splendour. For he is a man – however broken – and she is a woman; and he has come to believe that there is nothing more profound than the savage gravity that slams them together and breaks them apart.

 

 

Aurelia walks home alone – but not before she reads his message again.

As soon as she is comfortably settled, she replies. The button pressed. The next phase begun.

She realises that she is shaking uncontrollably. Nervous. Exhilarated.

But at least she has a plan now. Much clearer after today.

She feels sure he will agree. He likes crazy things. That’s what drew her to him. He wasn’t afraid. And she remembers too how beautifully he kissed. The thought of which makes her tremble even more.

Then she imagines a fire like the one in the old man’s heart – and her whole body fills with warmth.

No Ordinary Morning

Cool grey light through a tall sash window. Sound of a busy street below. The chirping bustle of Frank and Alysa getting ready for another day at the shop. Just a plain ol’ morning. Like so many before and since. An otherwise unremarkable day.

Except …

The weight of history. The vacuum to follow.

By your side – yet soon to be distant.

Still a little heavy – with sleep, with comedown – we blink at one another, seeking recognition. I trace my finger down the line of your jaw; you run your fingers through my bed messy hair. In the quiet we kiss. Slow and deep. Until our blood begins to thunder and you are on top of me. Inside of me. Your penis. Your urgency. My opening up. The flood that drowns us both.

The sweat soaked, breathless aftermath.

As we lay there – not wanting to break the trance. Not even with words. Let alone with a thought.

For a second I think I can hear your heart beating. That fragile, primal pulse counting out the measure of your life. The on and the off. The sound and the silence. Together and alone.

And deep in my chest, the same drummer drumming. The same river flowing. The wonderful circle of everything.

And of course, my yearning.

In the shower. You washing my hair. Running your warm, silky hands all over me. Your cock hard against my back. Your breath in my ear. My glad surrender. All other considerations melted down to pleasure. To oblivion.

Only when the hot rain stops and the cooler damp of the day prickles the skin do we truly wake up. To find ourselves naked and on the verge of shivers.

With empty hours to fill until …

On the beach we brace ourselves against the steely ocean air as we look out at the horizon and ponder what lies beyond it. Over the edge of the earth. Past midnight.

We hold hands. Stroll. Looking like lovers.
Yet still we cannot find that much to say. Perhaps it has all been said.

Out of the blue, you observe, “I think your beach is much nicer,” and I agree.

“In fact, I think your whole world is much nicer,” but about this I cannot be so sure.

“What makes you say that?” I wonder.

You smile at the sea, then turn to look at me. “I bet you have people who really love you; rather than just say they do.”

“Well, I really love you, Bret.”

“I know,” you say – your voice just about to crack.

I watch – knowing there is no immediate remedy, at least not within my power – as you squeeze your eyes tight and a single pearldrop emerges briefly, before you wipe it away with your index finger and take a deep, centring breath.

I wait, hoping you might say the words I have been longing for. I see your lips part, as though to form them. Your bottom lip trembles. There is an elastic pause.

But you choke back the idea – exhale a sigh of consolidation – and I know that I will never ever hear you say them.

Making beautiful circles

Indy has her first boyfriend. I met him last night. At Mike’s house. He is eighteen. He has a car. And a winning smile. She looks at him with doe eyes. I hope she makes a better fist of it than I did.

Because I see in her today all of the tremors of my own faltering, all racked up and ready to go. The incessant contest of obstinate gravity and an ingrained desire to fly. Of a need to believe versus the good sense to know better.

For years I fought it. Thought I’d won.

Then you.

Now that I can see my own daughter starting out on that very same path – pretty boy in tow – I can sense that she possesses the same absurdly out of place optimism that drove me to all of my disasters. The thing that just won’t die. The last give out.

Hope.

Even now I struggle on its hook – urged by raw, thrashing instinct to resist the inevitable. No matter what.

Perhaps that’s the nub of life: carrying on the struggle against death.
The folly of it is wonderful – as is the sight of my daughter’s besotted smile and the memory I cherish of yours.

Speaking of madness.

I can picture it – that knowing grin of yours – the one that always made me smile in return -.and I can almost smell you. As though faint whispers of you still surrounded me – clung to my stubborn, pointless longing.

Yet this is not what vexes me. It is the thought that comes next that shakes me. Am I poised – right now – on the precipice of sexual redundancy? Is this where love becomes memory? Ardour a ghost?

I had not previously given such questions serious consideration. Until last night. That’s when I saw it before my eyes. The generations. The crown jewels now ceded Indy. She is the great prize now. I have placed in the leftovers pile. I have become my mother. It is history that beckons me now.

A faded memorial haze of outer suburban boys. The horny sons of migrants. Grown up sunburnt and salty. Their eyes all over me. But I was too good for them. Didn’t want to be like Mum. Breeding young.

And then a slew of city boys. The even hornier princes of power and privilege. Grown up rebellious, righteous and almost certainly rotten. Putting their hot ideas inside me. Except I wasn’t quite good enough for them. Not to love. Just to fuck.

A walking vagina. Source of power – and of weakness.

Indy, I’m sensing, will find this out very soon.

Back when I was her age I was still a million miles from sex. Frightened off by the primordial leering of my brothers’ friends – and rightly cautioned by the sight of so many baby bumps on so many high school bellies – I retreated into a kind of cloistral wariness. It seemed that the world of desire was a world of people gone mad. Of boys being vile. Of girls being vicious.

But sooner or later I too was bound to fall.

He was home for the summer from University – and even though I had known him since my brothers first befriended him years earlier – he was different this time. Or I was. Either way, I imagined him like I thought of no other. I spoke to him in my daydreams and there he loved me back. There I felt the silky press of his soft mouth.

Whereas in reality I simply pined dumbly in his handsome shadow until the summer fizzled out and he went back to Uni – but at least I knew what I was pining for.

And I started to see it everywhere – and gut deep, hormonal cravings came to bed with me every night. Where boys filled my thoughts and a little finger learnt a thing or two about feeding a plain girl’s hunger. It seemed that I did not require a man after all – let alone a boy or three.

It wasn’t until I crashed into the fenced off world of the tertiary study – a world where no one knew me – where Grace could just as easy be Liberty – that I let it all happen. Surrendered to the hot gravity of it. Gave my various permissions. Allowed those hands to wander.

And then, before long, I had learned to use it as a lure – a honey trap – and it soon became my principal weapon in the war I was fighting against how bad I thought things were for girls.

I had something than men wanted more than their own sound judgement. More than the rules they made up. Or the fear of scandal. I think I was more excited by the power of it than anything else.

A strange thing happened earlier. The new boyfriend offered to drive me home from Mike’s. I sat in the back while Indy played at being queen up front. She was all bubbles and bust for him, and yet she subtly bossed him around, made it his job to include me in the conversation. She was far too cool for Mum now.

But I was too far gone for insult. I was already back riding in the rambunctious, square jawed car of the very first man I ever loved.

My dad.

And it was that particular time. On our way back from me getting the scholarship. Him so proud of me. His smile like I’d never seen it before. That was when I knew for sure that I was loved. It was beautiful. It made me want to stand up straighter. I was as good as anyone.

It was the last time I was ever alone with him.

Maybe my mother and brothers knew – but I never saw it coming. Dad’s departure – just a few days later – was inexplicable to me. It seemed like the triumph of everything stupid over everything good.

Yet, occurring as it did, on the cusp of my late blooming sexuality, my father’s decision to leave the family and live with his new lover left an indelible stain on my virgin hunger. The smear of cruelty. The cold, arbitrariness of attraction. As though to love someone was to give up on everything else. Or at least be prepared to.

Love reminds us that we are beasts. Primal and wanting. This is why it scares us so.

In the back of her boyfriend’s car, watching them both, I wondered if either Indy or her strapling beau were even dimly aware of the high stakes game they were entering into. I rather doubt it.

Indeed, if I am honest, I did not make my own final peace with the implacable, chemical brutality of desire until New York. That was when the decades of denial finally bowed to the power. Watching over you. Praying for you to love me. Doing everything I could to make a spark take hold.

There – abruptly – and with a calm, forgiving clarity – I could see that what I wanted most of all in the world – above every other friendship and alliance – the thing that I would risk everything else for – was the undiluted and unbreakable love of a man.

This was an extraordinary conclusion for a lifelong feminist to come to. I think I nearly choked on it. But I can say it to you now – because you are far enough away and the danger of your kiss has now passed.

There is a stunning and freeing simplicity to this arrangement.

Now that I am living with her once more – back at the old house – it has become obvious and undeniable to me. My mother’s regrets became my fears – and her losses my tears. She never wanted me to be a woman because of what it had cost her. In her mind, sex was the road to ruin. To slavery.
And yet she still takes time to remind me that I never gave her a fairytale wedding. This is one of the most poignant ironies of living under her roof.

Of writing about you.

Because it is love that has finally united my mother and I.

In fact I feel that we may no longer be at war. Because we are on the same side now.

All I could think to say to Indy when she asked was “Don’t give away your soul.”

A stupid point to make. Of course she will. That is how she will work things out.

“I won’t Mum,” she said, with much less sarcasm than she might have.

“I know I’ve not exactly been a great example,” I confessed. “But maybe take it as fair warning. Love can change you completely. It can force you be who you truly are. And that can be difficult for others.”

I was still very young – long before the boat – when I first realised that certain things about me were not well received. As though little bits of me were bad – and were definitely not allowed in public. These were the things that sometimes made people mad. Or forced them to lie. Or be defensive.

Yet they were the bits that seemed the truest to me. The purest.
I realise that I am not alone in this experience.

So I did what most of us would. I covered up. Showed the bits that people liked. Kept the best bits hidden. Spoke the tongue of playing along. Passed muster.

Yet all the while another light inside me – refusing not to shine.

I know that you too have lived your life with such a fire. For I have seen it in your eyes. Felt it in the quality of your kiss. Known it in the core of your sorrow. It is the most sublime and humbling connection I have ever known. Like children being let out of their cages. Their laughter a song.

For we are not simply beings of thought. That is merely a layer imposed. A film of jetsam on a deep and pulsing sea. We are all creatures of feeling.

Only when I yielded to this fact did the long tied knots of self-punishment and loathing loose themselves enough to let my true love flourish. As though it had been untethered. Like I was up there in the
sky with you all along.

Making beautiful circles.

For your kiss, a kingdom could fall

He pretends to be impervious to her. Engaged but otherwise unaffected. Not at all in a state of deranged hunger. Yet beauty brooks no denial – nor reveres determination – and most games it wins.

Erasmus is well aware of this. Beauty has beaten him senseless many times before. Thus, he is neither alarmed nor surprised when the car door slam of her imminence sends a cloud of panicked butterflies scurrying up from a cavity in his chest and his stone wall turns at once to water.

Aurelia Zhou is therefore immediately and remarkably charmed by the instinctive, almost innocent warmth of his beaten old smile. She sees a kind of certainty in the small and precise detail of it. Whatever else may be true – she is making the light shine brighter in his misty, static world. This realisation softens her. Humbles her even. Makes her feel more like opening up. Washes away her doughty defence.

So that now they are both exposed.

And just a little afraid.

She tells him how she recognised him in his book. That she had read it in his voice.

Oh really – did I sound good as a woman? he wonders teasingly – although he really wants to know.

You sound great as a woman, she assures him. But also as a man. You reason like a man. But you feel more like a woman. And it’s obviously not just a love story.

My dear sweet girl, there is nothing ‘just’ about a love story, he reminds her.

She laughs. Unclasps her toolkit with a crisp, hospital grade snap. Extracts the stethoscope.

Hand to heart, he follows her lead – head held high. I much prefer to keep my profundities and my melodramas indistinguishable from one another, if you please.

She laughs a little more – and he can tell she wants to play. She loves the tumble and rugger of words and wild ideas. And the characters who bring them to life. For her, it is like a dance. A safe flirtation. Her favourite game. One that has already cost her.

So Aurelia allows herself a moment to compose her next line. Would it have been so bad for people to know?

With a tiny scoff of air, Erasmus shakes his head. Well, you saw what happened when they did.

She is not done with her bone though. None of which would have happened if you’d been honest upfront.

He smiles to himself – as though at some joke. I told you – I was honest.

Sure – but you did it in disguise. But why? Did the publishers force you?

I was happy to go along with it, he admits. It suited me.

The money? Or your reputation?

The question has been asked of him many times. He has answered it in almost as many ways. Of late he has settled on this: Partly I was hiding, it’s true. Fiction lets us tell the truth to an incredible degree and then simply palm it off as poetry. But partly I wanted her – the real her, that is – to feel the way I felt. To know – and thereby forgive. And also – it was a vicarious way of loving her. By being in her skin. Somehow letting her voice speak through me.

And what about revenge? she wonders – recalling his previous explanation.

Oh that, he says with arched but thinning brows. That was just a throwaway line.

As she runs through her twenty minute routine, Aurelia recalls what Adrianna has told her. How he had fallen down the stairs in the back yard and lain there all day until Gordy came home from work to find him busted and sunburnt. Together, case notes and Google tell her that the episode in the garden happened barely a month after Erasmus Lyle’s final public exposure. The idea that a celebrated and much syndicated political and cultural commentator could be the real life, old man author behind one of the best loved ‘girl’ books of the last twenty years set off waves of angst, anger and amusement. There was a brief media furore. Topic of the week. Then retirement.

Aurelia is quietly thankful she avoids news media. It meant she missed the megaphone drama of the original scandal. Now she gets to have her disappointment in private. Which she infinitely prefers.

Because she likes to see everything in terms of a grand narrative, she ponders the ways in which his twin falls and her new career have coalesced and coincided. She thinks that maybe his unmasking is a signpost for a similar process in her. To the art letting go – which she knows is a good thing – but just can’t find a way to do.

She is also aware that most of what she needs to let go of is unpleasant: cultural baggage, filial disappointment, the failure of dreams. Yet there are other things far too beautiful: the joy she feels on stage, the nerve wracking nearness of a kiss. The very idea of loving itself. These, she knows, will be much harder to give up.

In mid thought she looks directly up at him. She can see that he is withering beneath her gloved and careful touch. Autumn is in full stride. The ruthless mechanics of the human body shutting down all but the essentials. Glory and sex behind him. Ambition abandoned.

But love still burning – ever the fire.

However, for all that, she has the distinct impression that Erasmus William Lyle is completely at ease with his situation. Calm and coolly slowing. Having done with regret. Accepting.

Does it bother you that everyone thinks you’re a fraud? she asks of him as she closes her box of tricks and prepares to leave for the next appointment.

It would only bother me if you did, Miss Zhou, he answers calmly. And do you?

She looks down. Maybe I did for a few days. But I can see it all now. Man, woman – Chinese, Australian – makes no difference. Love is love. Even if it’s just an act. The reason your book is so full of love is because you are.

Her voice breaks the tiniest bit as she says it – but enough for him to notice. His eyes sparkle. She brings her hands up to a prayer. Bows ever so slightly. He knows that this formal, graceful gesture is a pledge. She will be true with him – and he can be true with her.

Well it is just a love story, after all, he sighs.

And once more, he has her laughing; smiling so broadly she can almost feel her face – her composure – beginning to crack.

Although she knows that her other patients are no less in need, she desperately wants to say something before she leaves. Him in his chair, staring through the ugly mesh of a security door he never locks.

I’d love to hear you read some of it out loud sometime, she bumbles.

He chuckles in reply. Not sure my eyes would permit that, he says wryly. But you could read me some.

This sets off a crazy idea in her head – one which her classic Asian reserve will resist but which her risk taking, emotional side will consider. Will imagine in fine detail.

Perhaps you could come round to dinner sometime, he suggests, interrupting her train of thought. My housemate is an excellent cook.

Aurelia Zhou is instinctively afraid to accept such an offer. It is unprofessional. Dangerous. People will whisper unkindly.

Thank you, Mr Lyle, she responds with poker face back on. I will think about it.

On the balcony of her elevated cubicle – with its city view and downlights, its sleek design and wi-fi – she sometimes imagines she is hovering alone above a great swirling neon torrent of skin and human activity. A world. A combined project. Something she is specifically excluded from. She sits alone in the comfort that compromise pays for – drinking the wine of her sacrifice – and wonders if there might just be another way.

Because Aurelia Zhou just can’t stop dreaming, even though she promised she would not. For although she has her sensible life now and her family are suitably proud, she spends her evenings on the narrow balcony listening to the thrum of the city and fantasising about a boy she once kissed. Thinking of all the ways she can to get back into his orbit. His embrace.

She dreams of a scene – one yet to be written – and she wonders if he will play along.

She picks up her phone. Scrolls down her list of contacts. Settles on his name. It comforts her just to see it. With unsteady fingers she begins to prod the screen. The letters emerge, the button is pressed, the message sent.

Her insides will churn with nerves until he finally responds.

And thereafter her lofty resolve will fall as rain.

Meanwhile, on his broad backed porch, Erasmus is torn apart with hunger – his old body blasted with dumb hormones and the vivid memory of a woman’s approval. He knows it is a wave that will pass but while it is in his bloodstream he is tight with the gnawing pangs of ancient desire. The failing muscles of his abdomen are clenched and each outward breath is a deep and wracking sigh. It feels every inch like need – but he understands that it is not. It is simply the waning male animal in him stretching every frazzled sinew for one last drink at the well of DNA.

For the duration of the tide he will believe that he longs for the selfish validation of her love – as though a final dose of sexual promise will send him to his grave happy in the knowledge that he is, at long last, worth the loving. That even in his ugly disrepair and mounting dysfunction a remnant smidgen of his own beauty is both visible and desirable.

It is a madness he knows well. In his late forties he wrote the book on it. In his fifties he turned to heroin and hookers to replace his awful yearning with soft golden sedation.

He used to punish himself for such lapses but he is at peace with his own imperfections now. Whatever ridiculous extremes his thoughts will leap to this evening he will play his jazz tomorrow, roll his joints and take his nap in the afternoon.

And he will breathe – smile at his own absurd, wheelchair bound silliness – and give thanks for the nearness of oblivion.

There are no answers, he realises. No solutions. No defence against the wonderful, humbling spike of loveliness. Until his dying day all his hard won wisdoms will find a way to shatter in the face of beautiful girl – and he is deeply thankful for this.

A Man & A Woman

Why did you do it? she wants to know – and he senses her outrage. She is not the first, neither will she be the last; but he is well used to the idea of scandal now.

Because it was better that way, he tells her.

But it was a lie.

What makes you say that?

She is a little confused. She had thought him an unusually honest man but now she is being forced to reassess. A man who can deceive – bewitch – so publically and so beautifully is surely someone to be wary of. The finest words are foulest lies, her mother used to warn.

He watches her framing up her response, the way she struggles for the words to say how she feels. Words that won’t seem unreasonable.

I loved that book, she explains. It inspired me. It gave me courage.

Then why does it matter who wrote it? is his question.

Because a man can never know what it’s like to be a woman.

He chuckles to himself. How many times has he heard this? I never said that I did.

Still she is not convinced. I thought it was meant to be a true story. Not just fiction.

I can assure you, Miss Zhou, he tells her firmly, fixing her in his Impressionist gaze, that absolutely every word in that book is one hundred percent true. Which is why you once liked it, I presume.

She is somewhat chastened by this – embarrassed. She has opened up a little too much to him and, consequently, he can now see right through her. Instinctively she closes down. Once again her emotions – her impetuous assertions – have left her exposed. She feels alone and vulnerable again, for she does not have the force of five thousand years stacked neatly behind her. Not like the others do.

She has dared. And lost. And that is why she is alone.

And in her thoughts – the critical chorus triumphant.

Lapsing back into her enveloping cushion of Cantonese politeness, Aurelia Zhou sighs as imperceptibly as she can and continues with the procedure.
She snaps on her gloves. She smiles her smile.

Meanwhile, Erasmus Lyle takes the opportunity to offer her a strategic but not entirely heartfelt apology. Because he is not sorry. Not for any of it.

Should you ever wish to hear my version of events – please, feel free.

He allows the words to work a few beats of their caustic effect before looking up at her and smiling as warmly as his crocodile skin will allow.
With this, she understands that he has not been offended and she softly exhales her relief. To his foggy eyes this simple, demure gesture reveals a smidgen of sex – like a wave passing through her, so that now, out of the blue, he can see that she is ablaze. That there is a fire in the middle of her life – and that it is the same one that burnt him.

And made all those words pour out of him.

Desire.

In fact, she’s wanting something now. She wants to know. So why didn’t you just write it as yourself?

I did, he replies.

As a man, I mean?

Revenge.

The word, the idea, hangs in the cool morning air. He feels the urge to explain – but catches the impulse in time.

It is her turn to watch him now. She senses an ocean of stories inside him. Ones she knows he will recite when asked – but will not offer. However, she is pleased that his first thought was to tell. She thinks that perhaps the only real difference between them is that he is more disciplined.
Biting down on the tremor that is now running through her, she tells him, I never thought a man could feel that way.

He crinkles his leathery smile at her once more. You just haven’t met the right man.

How well she knows this. Soon she will be unmarried and in her thirties. Soon the lights will show her flaws. And she will just be a nurse – and she will grow old and be nursed in turn. She has used up her other dreams. They have led her to this room.

Where she takes her careful measurements and gives her best advice.
Where the old man sits in his dappled arcadia, in his incredible sea of calm, glowing with an intense compassion – like a channel of the great light. The rock through which the river flows.

She takes his blood, thickened with age, and it rises like syrup. He is in no hurry to be diagnosed, let alone prescribed. But he yields to it gladly. For the pleasure of her minty breath in his nostrils – and because beauty is the only thing left to him.

She wipes away the little red glob and as she does she notices the needle marks.

Another thing to judge me for, he whispers – and when she turns and catches his eye she realises that none of this upsets or flusters him. There is a kind of beautiful, melancholy peace about him – as though all his sorrows had stripped him back to the skin and set him free.

Aurelia Zhou is afraid of her own sadness.

The old man has turned his into a source of unimaginable joy.

She brushes a finger lightly across the two tiny mounds in the crook of his arm.

Why do you do it?

Because it’s better that way.

After she has gone, he crashes into himself. It feels like the sound of crumpling metal. Slow and low and telling.

He laughs at his own pointless yearning. He knows there is no way. But still he feels it. Something in him refuses to die. He likes this. It reminds him. For he has come to believe that those who say they have transcended desire are either liars or fools. The heart may survive the mind, but the mind shall not outlast the heart. Such infinite majesty contained within such puny vessels. Erasmus is agog at the wonder of it.

If he could sing, he would.

Aurelia Zhou, he says out loud – and all the love he has ever felt comes surging out of him. A tide futile and divine. Tears stream down like pearls made from light and he feels the impossible distance. Like he used to. When he was in the exquisite thrall of another. Learning to surrender. Everything.

Her sensible voices are urging her to shut him out. If he can deceive millions of readers, they warn, he will surely make a fool out of you.
But Aurelia has other voices. Softer. Kinder. Less sure of themselves. These are the ones that made acting possible. The ones who learned early that all distinctions melt in the end. That there is truly nothing between us.

When she has finished her rounds for the day, written her reports and signed her time sheet, she thinks about the bookshop across the road from the restaurant where she sometimes eats alone.

Drinks alone. Goes home alone.

And she wonders if he’ll be there.

Under L.

Gordy cannot believe his luck. The old boy has a distinct sparkle him. Ras hasn’t mentioned it specifically but Gordy knows why. He’s more curious than ever now. Who is this remarkable girl? The one he wants to live for.

Across the table, Erasmus is busy weighing up whether to call Lilith. He pictures her painted mouth – the soft plush of her bosom – the wetness she lets him touch. These are things he cannot shake. The animal things. The urges that have undone him so many times before.

The woman in the bookshop hasn’t had anyone ask her for that in years. She thought people didn’t read it anymore. It’s why it’s not in stock. Maybe not even in print.

You could try the secondhand shop down the road, she tells the customer.

The Chinese looking woman in front of her seems agitated. Obviously wants it pretty badly, she is thinking, as the customer ponders her options.

Actually, it’s an awesome book, she hears herself saying – as memories of it resurface. Maybe if you find one you could lend it to me, she adds.

The Chinese lady makes a weak attempt at being amused and then leaves with a short, quick nod.

Turn left, the bookshop lady calls out – and her rapidly departing customer duly obeys. It was always that kind of book.

Erasmus needs Gordy help him into bed.

At first Gordy was tentative about this – almost afraid – but he has learnt not to let his ingrained homophobia get in the way of his caring. Love, he has discovered, conquers fear.

The old man’s grateful eyes.

He looks like a child sometimes and Gordy is moved to the core. There are nights when he privately cries afterwards, sitting in front of his fancy computer. He misses his boys. It is an ache he carries that lives at the distance of thought.

Ras has given Gordy the greatest gift of all. He has allowed him to love without judgement. Gordy has never known such a thing.

Aurelia Zhou sits in her room – and he is open on her lap. European letters on an off-white page. A book with a dog ear and a personal message to someone she will never know written in blue ink. A birthday gift returned. No longer a must.

But now she can see it was him all along.

She thinks about the needle marks and although she is afraid, she feels that she understands. He has seen the magnificent insignificance of things. The futile glory of human endeavour. She believes that, once again, he will give her the courage to feel. He will help to free her from the burden of importance.

She closes the book. Kills the light. Folds her hands on her belly and allows herself to drift slowly into a peaceful rest. She does not think of young men – but of him. A frail, myopic, skeletal man. Pungent and wrinkled.

The scuff marked, pre-loved book lays upturned on her bed – inches from her unpainted fingers – while she sleeps deep and dreams of being on stage once more.

Erasmus smokes a joint and tries to quiet his rampant imaginings – but he is glad she knows who he is. His notoriety will allow him to revel longer in her splendour. That glorious black hair of hers. Those sculptured hands. Her shy girl smile. If her touch should linger just a little, he will know for sure – and knowing, he will be ready.

He stubs out the end and breathes in the sweet clouds.

Tonight, life is an avowedly simple beast.

The Universal Equaliser

I remember being annoyed. You wanting to photograph me with ten minutes to go. Amongst the ugly clutter of the departure lounge. “Something to remember you by,” you insisted, already adjusting your lense – framing me up.

I ground my teeth, clamping down on my fury, preventing it from becoming petulant outburst – wondering if this was the cruel part of you. The vivisector. My pain for your gain. “Why would you want to remember me like this?” I protested, stopping just short of biting your head off.

You smiled, as if was obvious, “When you open yourself up to beauty all the colours come in.”

Perhaps the circumstances and my mood were against me – but I never really understood. Until recently. Now I see those colours everywhere. Lovely and otherwise. All of them beautiful. Because beauty is the universal equaliser. The liberator of everyone. The transformer of all that we see. She is our light; and we only need glimpse her to know. For she does not ask us to pray or obey – simply to bear witness to her eternal wonder. And if we can open our eyes we can see her all around us, in both the brightness and in its terrible shadow – and with this vision we can re-cast the entire world in her image. So that even our despair will be a river of joy.

“I know it sounds stupid,” you said, “but I like to think of her as my queen.”

I laughed at the ridiculous, boyish charm of it – and you took your photo.

“You see … she’s never far away.”

Now, whenever I take the time to I examine that photo, I see how right you were. In that snap frozen, excised moment I am a woman beaming, illuminated from within, shining with mad-hearted love. The tissue box drama of the day and the accumulated exhaustion of knowing that it would arrive; these weighty strains do not show on my face. Somewhere in the gap between dread and finality you found the space for the likeness of rapture.

In truth, that is what this book is about. Sneaking away from my mother’s decay, hiding from my daughter’s disapproval, turning my menopausal heartache into diamonds. I can’t help but think you would approve. Or at least recognise the sleight of hand. And there perhaps is the central contradiction of all this fevered typing.

Trick or truth?

Is this just a brilliant, gravity defying routine you taught me – a way to explain away the sacrifice my family and friends have been forced to make? Is this the latest incarnation of the hollow enlightenment craze? Didn’t I just fancy a boy and get screwed up by it? Wasn’t I just a desperate middle aged hag whose neediness and lack of self-worth led her to pursue another impossible white knight? Are you the elusive god of my unfulfilment? Is this a temple of unending sorrow? Are these words my shameful blood still flowing? Pretty little stand-ins.

Sometimes it seems like all the striving of philosophy and all of the achievements of culture are a form of cosmetic surgery, a way to disguise ourselves from ourselves. To sweep the dead skin from the floor. To flush the shit away. To pretend we are not destined for the dust.

Then I look up from the falseness of the page and I notice the pale, crisp loveliness of the autumn sunshine and without needing to think about it I am instantly – instinctively – cleansed by its freely given glory.

And I go outside and feel it on my skin.