Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Last Asbestos Town 
Isaac - Chapter 11

At first, Isaac positively enjoyed the quiet, being on his own and able to wander around the hall naked. If he closed his eyes, the world was red and hazy. He only had enough Kelp to keep him going for two more nights, so he turned his rollies into little thin reeds of joy.
   Eventually, on the last night of May’s absence, he plucked up the courage to call on Cheryl, painting his face with the remaining herb paste. He could feel its sticky essence, reminding him of smells of Farmbridge’s one and only Chinese restaurant.
   He felt buoyed, hardly surprising, he was thirty-three years old, had a roof over his head, maintained some form of relationship with his father, a new job at the trout farm, loved May, yet wanted more of her emotions.  Often, he expected too much of her, a girl really, not yet a woman, but this was the happiest he had ever been. He’d hoped soon, around the corner sometime, they would have a child.
   He ceased his nostalgic thoughts and opened one of Cheryl’s books. It was her journal. At the back were her instructions on how to call back the dead. In the middle pages, he couldn’t help notice the family they had lost, three in the year 2020 and only marked with a dried sprig of lavender.


Sarah Jane                     Scott Dylan              Rowena Ann
B. June 20,                       B. Nov, 4                B. Oct, 15
1986                                   2014                         2012


   Isaac held the notebook close to his eyes. The writing underneath the dates had blurred as if someone had tried to rub out the details of the three family members. Crosses were drawn under each person and he just made out that Sarah was an aunt and Scott and Rowena were cousins.  There were further notes about the funeral. Three coffins, one large pine and two small white laminates decorated in daffodils and butterflies.
    Isaac could feel the presence of death as he turned the next page. Several photographs revealed three headstones, three dug graves and a gathering of mourners. The headstones were shiny and thick, marbly but not white, and names and dates were chiselled in black lettering. He hadn’t thought of it before, but he had omitted to visit the local graveyard. There would be something there he could learn more about Cheryl.
    Another five pages in, he looked on more crosses, drawings of white lilies, the margins edged in ivy wreaths. This section was dedicated to Cheryl’s mother, Millie. A pain shot through his hands, and to relieve the sharp stabbing, he began twisting his fingers. He thought it was tension in his joints so he cracked his knuckles on every finger. He had been studying the book for more than ten minutes when he heard a faint electric hum, not quite silence and not quite sound. Then he felt a sudden drop in temperature. The hairs on his arms stood up. His skin prickled. There were frequent shadows that danced in the room, the hum getting louder as voices yammering at him. It didn’t sound human more like a buzz of insects, or a distorted TV sound. He was disappointed at first; no one spoke to him, but then he sensed a faint scent of breath and skin.
   A skeletal hand thrust up and grabbed his arm and dragged him from the stage. He landed with a thud on his bottom. He rubbed his head. He had grazed the back of his neck against the timber, and now he caught sight of the trickle of blood on his hand. In moments he was at the juncture of feeling sore and the failing light outside. He started to laugh. ‘You’re fucked up,’ he told himself.
  The hall seemed smaller than before, shrunken by the enormity of his paintings of Cheryl beside him. They loomed close to his head, until finally a mute presence came into focus and looked down on him. It appeared to be a fragile skull, with deep set eyes, yet parts were cracked and open like the first bites of an Easter egg.
    As Isaac clutched the journal, several fingers removed it from his hand. Inside the hall, a growing dark, so that she curled and crackled like a sheet of paper in the wind, but he could feel her wit and warmth envelop him.
    Isaac Lyons, Isaac Lyons, her voice repeated. You’d better get started.
   ‘Cheryl,’ he said, trying to focus on her image. ‘Who did this to you?’
   He was close to the stage trying to grab back the journal but it was impossible to move. It didn’t matter.  Other pages opened up, again on the McDonalds.

Sarah Jane, brown hair, brown eyes. Cause of death: strangulation. Scott Dylan. Cause of death: a gunshot wound to the head. Rowena Ann. Cause of death, 16 bullet holes, scratches on face, arms and breasts…
   He tried to shift his eyes upwards into the swirling half-light. ‘We can’t lose our home,’ Isaac said, finally. ‘We need your help.’
   Autopsy and fingernails. The voice seemed to erupt close to his head.
   Isaac felt the hairs on his arms stiffen. He tried to read into what she’d said. ‘You want me to look at the autopsy report?’
   Dirt under the fingernails, came the voice again.
   ‘Yes, yes, I understand. That will give me a clue.’
   No problem. He could wing it. Go back to the cops, to the coroner’s office, ask for the reports. Already he had a hazy image of himself as a young sleuth, a Sherlock Holmes-type questioning the authorities and uncovering the mystery of her death.
    ‘Sure thing, I’ll do it. But what about the hall? They want to pull it down.’
    I will kill them, I will kill them all.
   ‘Oh, so May and I don’t have to worry, then?’
   Fingernails, fingernails, she repeated, until he was left alone, pondering the task of what she had imposed on him. He felt faint, his head throbbed and he needed to pee. He ran down the side to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet. He had been licking his lips, tasting that vile paste.
   He sat on the toilet and began to sob. In his mind, he caught a small thread of what had just occurred. There was a duty he had to perform and it appeared to be an impossible task to think about. Sherlock Holmes. What was he thinking? He had a vague notion that Cheryl was pointing to the killer, something about dirt under her, or someone’s fingernails. How on earth would he be able to find that kind of evidence? Or did she want it matched to other samples of dirt?
   There was no one he could share his experience with. It was 2.00am. He didn’t want to call and wake May.
   He washed the muck from his face, the water from the shower sliding over his skin. He liked the feeling and stayed for what seemed like ten minutes.  What would he tell May? The night didn’t appear to be successful and now he knew he was suffering from nervous anxiety. What did Steve give him? It certainly wasn’t pure, something was added. He knew that. He tried to cobble together his thoughts. What was it he had to do?  Oh, that’s right something about fingernails.  And, and… she would kill them, she said.
   Isaac straightened his shoulders, left the cubicle and headed towards their empty bed. He lay down, the night encircling him with its recent madness. He was fucked up. Fucking congratulations, Isaac! She did visit. That took a load off his mind.  Somehow in all this delusion he felt everything would be all right.
  He woke in the cool still morning from a bad dream. He had been in a burial ground, with a constant whirring of crickets. The area was surrounded by ghost gums and thick bush on three sides. He had sat cross-legged on the grass with a sketchbook on his lap, drawing black birds that hovered around him. The gravestones contained curse words and instead of dates, black faces screamed at him with black holes for eyes.
   He thought he would never go to an art class again.
   His mobile vibrated in his pocket and then ‘Greensleeves’ played . May’s familiar mobile tone. ‘How did it go?’
   ‘I can’t talk about it now, May. Wait until you’re home.’
   ‘Clarissa and I are going to Textile World this morning, then lunch, so I will be back around 2.00pm tomorrow. Did she show?’
   ‘Yes!’ Gotta go. We’ll have two hours to talk about it before I start work.’
   ‘Where are you off to, Isaac?’
   ‘The cemetery.’
   Isaac rummaged in his backpack for a map of Farmbridge. He knew the cemetery was on the outskirts, past the shops, but he wasn’t sure where. He threw in his mobile phone, a bottle of water and an apple. He grabbed his old BMX from down the backyard, and peddled out of town.
   The graveyard was as much as had appeared in his dream, small and shady with stones listing, many of the plots overgrown with weeds, plastic flowers faded from years of neglect. Roots from the perimeter ghost gums twined through some of the old pioneers’ graves undermining the soil and the level of the space. Isaac wondered whether he might find Cheryl’s grave or her mother’s.
   First, he wanted to find Scott and Rowena, possibly Aunt Sarah.
  Isaac was fascinated with what he saw.  On one family’s grave, each member buried side by side, was a series of artworks in rusted metal: kangaroos, emus, koalas and what looked like a badger. Perhaps it was a wombat, he couldn’t tell. Further along he read several headstones, the Dunlaps, the O’Briens, and the Davenports. There was an old timer named Happy Larry. His headstone read, ‘Happy in Life, Happy in Death’.
   Isaac walked amongst the endless beds. Many husbands and wives buried together, Arthur and Ethel, George and Jane Cooper, Theo and Enid Hawley.
   In the halls of the dead, he imagined their strange laughter coming from within, all cuddling down there, playing Gin Rummy. An old bike sat with its crossbar leaning over Clarence Augustus Boddington’s epitaph. Born 1953, died 2020. “Rode into the Sunset”.
   Isaac thought of him riding off from his long sleep into the blue day, the spokes of his wheels catching the evening sun. 
   He sat down near Mary Brennan, her plot edged in gold lettering; her husband George outliving her by ten years. He tipped the cool water from his bottle into his mouth. The ground was warm under his feet, the sky overhead circling with clouds. He would have liked to stay and draw here, but then a more pressing matter needed to be finished.  The hum of the insects in the grass and the loud crows in the trees made him feel happy. He wondered why he wanted to stay in that particular spot, but then pressed on. Further up he noticed a shabby grave with white river stones sinking like subsidence. And the next grave arrested his attention. It was a dug pit, with coiled wire wedged around its circumference.  Next to it, a safety sign stating “Under Repairs”. The headstone lay to one side, and as he stepped closer he read her name. ‘Cheryl Ann McDonald’. The sunken grave beside her belonged to her mother, Millie Gertrude McDonald.
   Isaac suppressed a shudder. They were all there, except he hadn’t found Cheryl’s aunty or cousins; nor had he really found Cheryl.


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Helen Hagemann's first literary collection, Evangelyne & other poems, was published by the Australian Poetry Centre in their New Poets Series 2009. 'of Arc & Shadow' is her second full collection published by Sunline Press. She has two e-books, The Joyous Lake & Par écrit: poetry of the feminine @​​docs/joyous_lake/


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