tomorrow, after the war

The fireworks have stopped for now but their ghosts remain; massive smoke-spiders hanging in the night, the size of buildings, long coiling contrail legs, a procession marching languorously past blinking window-lights and neon letters. The air smells sharp. We’d all been out on the balcony to watch the golden sparks race each other up, doing giddy corkscrews around each other before exploding into a brilliant shower of sparks.

Ellie winds an arm around my waist and leans into me. “Oi”, she says. Her tongue is bright blue. “This is nice, isn’t it?”

“You drunk?”

“Bit, yeah.”

“It’s nice, though.”

She squints down at me. “It is nice, yeah.” There’s a table out on the balcony with one too-short leg that rattles whenever any of us bump into it and right now the green glass top is littered with bottle caps. Vance Joy wafts through the screen door.

“I like this song”, Kevin says. I jump a little at his voice. He’d been peering at the Westpac building for a while and I’d almost forgotten he was out here with us.

Ellie sniggers. “Nice, Kev, but you’re in the wrong crowd if you expect us to think you’re all sensitive off that bit of information.”

“I’m serious”, Kevin says, “I’m not trying to be gender roles. I like the melody, y’know?”, and he sounds so earnest it cracks me up. I like the melody too. The air here is still and thick and it makes me want to close my eyes, but instead I nudge the curtain aside and peek in. The song is playing on Tim’s shitty FM radio, which is on the coffee table, surrounded by a dozen empty bottles of pales and vodka cruisers. Nobody had bothered to turn it off after the Hottest 100. Becca is sitting cross-legged on the floor, holding a skewer.

“Hey”, she says, waving it around in an 8. “I was hungry.”

“Huh?”

“Marshmallows.” She gestures at a scented candle between a crowd of empty plastic shot-glasses. “Coffee scented”, she clarifies. “Not gross.”

Ellie steps inside, too. “Where the fuck is Rae?”

“They’re downstairs. They’re getting candy.”

“Finish those marshmallows”, Ellie tells her, and she turns to me and she has a glint in her eyes. “Get your boots on, Ash. We’re going places.”

Tim and Rachel are sitting outside the K-Food with bags of gummi snakes. Tim greets us by sucking on one lewdly while batting his eyelids at us, of course, and Ellie smacks him on the head, of course.

“What’s the plan?”, Tim asks us. “Just wandering”, Ellie says.

So we walk up Rundle Mall and I watch how the lights gleam in the rain-slicks, and how the signboards and billboards spill their own light on the ground in pools, and how the rain-slicks and the light-slicks cut into each other, shimmering crests of bluish-white fanning out over the wet, and how the light from the screens carves shadows into our faces, carves dark into the hollows around our eyes like empty sockets, makes Ellie’s nose look even straighter somehow.

There’s a shaggy-haired guy in a two-sizes-too-big flannel shirt playing a guitar by the Balls. He’s the saddest busker in the world, surely, in a strangely funny way; he looks like he’s here to sing songs he’d written about about the girl in his year 10 English class who’d never noticed him. Tim smirks, tosses a note into his guitar case, and requests Wonderwall.

“You’re such a wanker”, Ellie says. “He didn’t do shit to you.”

“I was just having a laugh”, Tim says. He actually looks repentant, and this surprises me for a second before I realise I don’t really know any of these people except for Ellie, not really, and I’m suddenly very self-conscious, very aware that there are stories behind all these people of which I’m completely unaware.

“You play whatever you want”, Ellie tells the poor kid, and if that wasn’t enough pressure, Rachel adds: “Play whatever inspires you!”. So we walk towards the glowing red and purple tiles stacked high against the still-smoky sky on Pulteney, the world’s most avant-garde permanent Christmas tree perched atop a Hungry Jack’s, played out by the world’s most panic-stricken busker telling us that today would be the day they’d throw it back to us.

The Zambreros we’re at is playing Hospice. I find this funny every time, because it’s such depressing background music. We’re sitting outside, and the wall is full of silver fillings, aluminium foil from burrito wrappers stuffed into gaps in the rust-red bricks to make this strange dental mosaic by which we sit, eating nachos.

Kevin sidles up to me. “So how do you know Ellie?”, he asks.

“Uni. She’s in my class.”

“You’ve been to things before?”

“Yeah”, I say. “I haven’t seen you, though.”

“Yeah, I’m-”, he stops. “I used to date Ellie’s best friend and they still invite me to big things, but, yeah.”

“I guess, yeah.”

“Ellie’s not my biggest fan”, Kevin says. “I ditched her best friend for something important once, and- I don’t think Ellie ever forgave me for it. I don’t think Ellie liked me to begin with. Like, I took her to the French film festival in the city for her birthday and, you know, she wanted to go, but Ellie thought I was a wanker and I was dragging her along. We knew different sides, you know, she wanted to go. I mean, I was a dick sometimes, yeah. But I made up for it, plenty, I think, since. I don’t know, I’ve made my peace. But she, you know. Yeah.”

Tim’s feeding Becca nachos. She has some sour cream on her nose and she’s laughing. Ellie looks amused. I’m drunk enough to be fascinated by the food, the burst of colours, the peppery flecks of black on the grainy orange chips, how fucking good it was, because it was doing that overload of flavours thing food does when you’re just the right amount of drunk. It’s gotten unseasonably cold, biting at my nose and my fingertips, but I feel great.

“I’m glad I’m not the only one here who feels like a bit of an outsider”, I tell Kevin.

“Nah”, he says. “I don’t think you are, that much.”

“I still feel it a little bit”, I say, “so I’m glad, ok?”, at which point Rachel joins us.

“So so so”, she says, looking meaningfully across the table. “I came here to give those guys some space.”

“Ah”, I say.

“I’m calling it now, that’s gonna happen.”

“Tim and Becca?”

“Before we all go to bed. I’m calling it.”

“Well, every great party has character arcs”, Kevin says. “A before and an after. That’s the difference between a good party and a great party.”

The bus vibrates like crazy whenever it stops, and it stops at every single light on our way. It’s the last bus out to the east and it’s one of those shit buses you get when it’s really late, with beat-up red vinyl seat covers worn thin by collective head-sweat and ass-sweat and the seats at the back face each other so you have to worry about your feet getting all up in someone else’s, unless you’re with a group of people, because then Ellie can have her feet up on my lap, and Becca on Tim’s. It’s lit with a watery, uneven white, the kind of light that should be illuminating roaches and concrete, not people, from the kind of lights you expect to be filled with the bodies of those thin, long-winged bugs that crawl inside them to die. It makes us look wan, fading. Across me, Ellie rests her head against the rattling window and her reflection, resting its head against hers, looks like a ghost.

Ellie had told us there was this house out east of the city with a giant lot out back. She was cool with the people who lived there, she’d said. So we file off the bus and follow her through empty streets, leaves crushing wetly under our feet, past a lawn with Christmas lights still up, until we get to a house with a whiteboard out front which says “PLEASE GO TO BACK”.

“This is it”, Ellie says, and we go to back. It is a giant lot, as promised, easily big enough for a dozen cars. Ellie is greeted at the door by a guy with Nike socks and a bun. We find out that this is Chris, and that the tent set up right by the back door is specifically for smoking in climate-controlled, well-ventilated comfort. We all cough up some cash for some of Chris’ booze and lay out picnic mats over the lot to keep this party, as planned, going.

I’m nursing a red solo cup of vodka lemonade when Tim approaches me. “Hey. Ashleigh. You can be impartial, yeah? If I ask you a thing?”

“Depends.”

He blows out a perfect ring and stabs it with a finger, then passes me his joint. “You want?”

“Was that your question?”

“No”, Tim says. “It’s about Becca. You’ve seen us, yeah. You think that could happen?”

He looks over at the pot tent, where Becca was talking to Chris with a kerosene lamp, a bong, and an armful of blankets they’d pulled out of Chris’ car. From where we sit they are flickering ash-grey silhouettes that flare up and down as the lamp first fills the tent with gently billowing light, then sinks its flames back into itself, leaving a gaping blackness where the glowing red was, a blackness that rises out of the lot like an iceberg.

“I don’t see why not.”

“She’s kinda posh, though? She went to private school. She lives in the Eastern suburbs-”

“And?”

“She went to Nairobi in Year 11 she said. A school thing. I don’t even know where Nairobi fucking is! I mean, I picked up from conversation that it’s some African country, but I don’t know anything about it. I won’t be able to, you know. Provide fucking like, conversation about, like foreign, governments.”

“Don’t worry about it”, I tell him. “Dude. Don’t get yourself down. She seems like she likes you. Be kind to yourself. Dude. Be fucking kind to yourself.”

“Hey, you feeling good?”, Tim asks, out of the blue.

“I’m feeling great”, I say. “I am. I’m serious, okay. Go for her. Go get her. Hey. Don’t let fear hold you back from achieving your goals.”

Tim puts a hand on my shoulder. “That’s good advice, Ash. I’ll go do that- but first I’m-” he plucks the joint out of my fingers- “going to take this- have some water, okay? Do that. Ash. Okay”, he looks directly at me, “I’m off now. Back to Becca. Will you be good?”

“I’m great.”

“Good. Have some water. I’m off now.” And off he goes.

“Oi”, Ellie yells at me from the roof at 3am. “Come over here. How drunk are you?”

“Somewhat.”

“Enough to be uncoordinated?”

“I’m always uncoordinated.”

She laughs. “I was going to say just get on the bin and pop on up here but that’s… probably not very safe. There’s a ladder there.”

When I stumble onto the roof she’s sitting back against the chimney, holding up a bottle of Yellowglen pink. We’re far enough out of the city that we can see the stars. Constellations rise up from behind the trees and sweep over us and behind us, sparse, glacial drops of light hanging over us, floating in space.

“I’m actually a little bit afraid of heights”, I tell Ellie as I sit down next to her.

“That’s okay”, she says, and she moves my head down to her chest and runs a hand over my hair. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you. And provide for you. With wine. Good wine, actually, I had to pay Chris eight bucks for this.”

“Oh? Okay, then: I’m terrified of heights.”

“Don’t push your luck!”

I turn, so I’m looking up at her. She’s drinking from a plastic flute, looking off into the distance. She sees me and lowers the flute to my lips but the angle is wrong, I guess, because I get a mouthful but some of the wine dribbles down my chin. Ellie brushes it off my neck.

“Did Tim and Becca end up hooking up?”, Ellie asks after a while.

“Yeah”, I say. “But not quite how I expected, somehow. I thought they’d be going at it, you know? But it was all tender and shit. Kinda cute, actually. I think they’re both going to sleep in the pot tent, like, cuddled up and everything.”

“I’m not surprised”, Ellie says. “Becca was asking me about Tim before and- I mean, I was worried at first, you know? That Becca was, fetishising Tim or something. I mean, the guy rich girls go out with for a while after they first move out of home because they think a burly guy with a stronger accent who, y’know, drinks shit beer, soil of the earth kind. And then drop them when the novelty wears off, cos they’re embarrassed by him around their rich girl friends. Like that.” She gulps down the rest of her wine. “I mean, I like Becca, I really do, but. But yeah, she talked to me about him and maybe they’ll be good for each other. I don’t know. I’m trying to be less cynical. And Tim can handle himself.”

“He seems like he can.”

“He’s actually a really sweet guy, you know.”

“I can believe that.”

We sit for a while in silence.

“Anyway”, Ellie says at last, “I guess it’s a good thing, you know. Tim’s moving on from shit. That’s a good thing. From Corrie.” She waves a hand towards the lot and her lip curls up. “Kevin’s moved on, clearly.”

“I think Kevin mentioned her-”

“Kevin didn’t know her. I knew her. Tim knew her too, since we were in primary, but I knew Corrie all my life. Rae knew her, even.” Somewhere in the distance someone is letting off fireworks. It sounds like bursts of gunfire, like some advancing force sweeping through the suburbs in the dead of night, closing in on us.

“You know what really fucks me up?”, Ellie says. “Burying people, you know, doing that, I don’t know why you’d do that. I don’t know why you’d do something so horrifying. Putting people into this tiny little space, putting people you love, and then you have all this dirt pressing down on you and you’re just there, in some tiny little space. And I mean, yeah, I know that you’re, you know, dead, and you can’t know, if there’s a soul it’s somewhere and unbothered by all that, but still. I think about it. About being stuck in some little space and all this dirt weighing down on you and it’s dark and it fucks me up.”

“Yeah.”

“This is about Corrie”, Ellie says. “I mean Corrie, it was a year and a half ago and she was driving home from my place in the morning, after a group thing- Kevin didn’t come- and you know. You don’t know. It makes no fucking sense, you know, who gets- at nine in the morning, I mean 2am I’d get, it’s dark, tired drivers, drunk drivers, all that, you know, but at fucking nine? Something hit her car at nine in the fucking morning. Made no fucking sense. She didn’t have bacon and egg rolls at my house because she was going to get breakfast at work. What the fuck.”

The International Space Station is shooting through the sky above us.

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be”, she says. “You didn’t know her. You didn’t lose anything. You know the fucked up thing though? I haven’t visited her grave in a year. I’m her best friend, you know, I’m supposed to, but I can’t do it, because I just think of her in that tiny little space all alone in the dark and I can’t handle that. I wonder if she’s green now, I wonder if her cheeks are hollow or if things are making homes in- I wonder, I get this picture of how she is, just two metres away from me but all alone, and I can’t. I can’t do it. If it was up to me I wouldn’t have let them do that, you know, if it’d been up to me she’d have been embalmed, like Evita Peron. So she’d be her all the time. In a glass tomb and everything, in a mausoleum all full of flowers and people there all the time. Like Evita Peron.”

I sit up and take her hand, squeeze tightly. Ellie squeezes back.

“We don’t even say her name, you know”, she says.

“That’s okay”, I say.

We wake up before everyone else the next morning, except for Kevin, who’s already at the dining table with a slice of buttered toast, reading the paper.

“Hey”, Ellie says, sitting down next to him. “Kevin. How’re you feeling?”

“Good”, Kevin says. “I didn’t drink much.”

“Good”, Ellie says. “You can drive. We’re going on a trip. You and me.”

“Okay. Where?”

“I don’t know”, Ellie says. “The sea, maybe. We’re taking any fireworks left over from last night and we’re going to set them all off and we’re going to watch the smoke in the air.”

“Why?”

“I haven’t been to Corrie’s grave in over a year”, Ellie says. “And I know you go every month, Rae told me, but I couldn’t, okay? I will, sometime, but for now I just want to set off a lot of fireworks, and I want you to tell me stories about your Corrie. I’ll tell you stories about her. Can we do that, okay?”

The rising sun is shining in slits through the blinds, lighting up the countertops like amber.

“Okay”, Kevin says. “I’ll get the car ready.”

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