ELLE FIC­TION

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS BY TALIN ROSE HAD­LOW

Joan by Talin Rose Had­low.

The re­flec­tion on the wa­ter rip­ples be­neath the wind, blur­ring the clouds and the pot plants sur­round­ing the pool. Joan stands on the edge of the pool, toes curl­ing like claws over the lip of the sand­wash coloured tiles. Like the clouds and the pot plants, her re­flec­tion in the pool flick­ers, dis­tort­ing her naked fig­ure. A fig­ure she no longer recog­nises. Joan’s tra­di­tion­ally flat stom­ach now has a lit­tle fatty layer un­der her belly but­ton. Her ass and thighs have grown heav­ier, too, even though Joan didn’t think it pos­si­ble as they were al­ready a rea­son­able size. Her thighs rub to­gether now when she runs, caus­ing a red rash to break out on her tanned legs. She has her dad to thank for those thighs. And the bum. Both used to be strong but now they are flab. Her duck bum was al­ways a tro­phy body part.

She sighs as she stud­ies her rip­pling re­flec­tion in the pool. She’ll get her body back again even­tu­ally. She thought it would be back by now, but not quite. The shape of her waist has re­turned, de­spite the resid­ual roll of fat on her belly, but her jeans are still that lit­tle bit too tight, and she hasn’t even at­tempted to try on her leather pen­cil skirt again.

That’s the price to pay for be­ing happy and in­dulging in life. Trav­el­ling for months, undis­turbed by the chaos and stresses of rou­tine and ev­ery­day life. No fam­ily drama to roll her eyes at, no ex-boyfriends to tear her down, no bore­dom or lack of en­thu­si­asm for ac­tiv­i­ties. The jolly fat girl. Like Santa. She tries to imag­ine a thin, fit Santa. No. It just wouldn’t work. The only phys­i­cally pos­i­tive as­pect of this weight gain for Joan is the boobs. Nor­mally a happy hand­ful, they now sit full and heavy in her bra, perk­ing up de­pend­ing on which Elle Macpher­son she wears. The boys don’t seem to mind the ex­tra junk in the trunk ei­ther. It’s also the case that hap­pi­ness ra­di­ates pos­i­tive vibes. Big smiles and an open ex­pres­sion are sexy and invit­ing. She pulls more lads now than when she was skinny and de­pressed. Sad­ness ra­di­ates neg­a­tive vibes and no-one wants to be with the neg­a­tive girl. Even if she is fit and thin.

The sun beats down on Joan’s bare shoul­ders, warm­ing her neck and turn­ing her chest pink. She stretches her arms above her head, caus­ing all of her body to move up a few cen­time­tres. Arms that used to be toned, that used to pull her body weight, now flab like un­cooked chicken wings. Chang­ing into a dive po­si­tion, she un­curls her toes from the edge and launches from the tiles, slid­ing into the wa­ter. Loose leaves and bits of bark float around the pool, lay­er­ing the sur­face as Joan swims un­der­neath, hold­ing her breath as she tries to swim from one end of the pool to the other. This is not as easy as it used to be. When she was younger, Joan could push four laps un­der­wa­ter. Swim­ming with her arms by her side, her hands near her hips and work­ing through the wa­ter, with her legs frog-kick­ing be­hind her. She would bounce off the tiled walls, cruis­ing from one end to the other. She wouldn’t even be puffed by the end of it. She would spring through the wa­ter with a big smile on her freck­led face and laugh when she dis­cov­ered that she had beaten all the boys.

Joan makes it one lap hold­ing her breath un­der­wa­ter. She emerges pink-faced and breath­ing deeply, as if air never tasted so good. The rip­ples from her dive have pushed the de­bris from the pre­vi­ous night’s storm fur­ther to­wards the edges of the pool. It floats into the fil­ter, clog­ging the grate with a black-brown muck of wa­ter­logged bark and bro­ken leaves.

Noth­ing is as easy as it was when she was younger. Adult dra­mas and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties have in­vaded her life, caus­ing her fun to feel like guilt. The psy­chic had told her she has too much fun. As if an adult can­not pos­si­bly en­joy life as much as Joan does. The psy­chic had grabbed Joan’s left wrist, stroked it lightly with her thumb as if wip­ing away a layer of dust, gazed at the wrin­kles on her wrist and then thrown her head back and burst into laugh­ter. “Girl, you have far too much fun. How do you have so much fun? Far too much fun and you never get caught. How do you do this?”

Joan takes another deep breath, drops un­der­wa­ter and kicks off from the wall. The tiles are slip­pery with muck. Arms by her side, hands by her hips, legs frog-kick­ing, she goes for two.

Noth­ing has changed since she’s been away. The house is the same, smells the same, of Mamma’s cook­ing and clean­ing prod­ucts. She can sin­gle out her brother’s smell, crisp and light. If there had to be a colour for his smell, she’d choose blue. Light blue, like the sky on a re­ally hot day, when it turns al­most pas­tel and no clouds float by to dis­turb the sun’s glare, full of life’s pure en­ergy and heat. Like when a ring forms per­fectly around the sun as if cel­e­brat­ing how brightly it shines. Joan’s dad had told her that it’s called a halo. He ex­plained that it’s formed by thin clouds, al­most in­vis­i­ble, that carry tiny ice crys­tals that bend the sun’s rays. This break in the light re­flects to the shape of your eye, there­fore form­ing a ring around the sun.

Ev­ery­one be­haves the same, too, since Joan’s ar­rived home. She has no idea how her fam­ily, or any­one, sit in front of the TV for hours af­ter din­ner, watch­ing a new se­ries or the news. Don’t they know there’s a bar down the road? There are prob­a­bly fun peo­ple to meet, crazy peo­ple to talk to and some­one who will al­ways want to hear your sto­ries. Don’t they want to go ven­tur­ing out to see what they can find?

Joan breaks the sur­face af­ter two suc­cess­ful laps un­der­wa­ter. It was harder than she sus­pected. She lolls the back of her head against the dry sand-coloured tiles, holds onto them and lets her body float to the sur­face. Joan’s al­ways been good at float­ing. Do fat peo­ple float eas­ier than skinny peo­ple? More buoy­ancy maybe? It hasn’t changed her float­ing skills ei­ther way. Salt wa­ter is the key to easy float­ing. Joan dis­cov­ered just how salty the ocean can be while sail­ing the Aegean Sea in Greece. She had never ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing like it. The salt creeps into ev­ery cut and sore you have, burn­ing your eyes and parch­ing your lips. But the sting­ing pain is noth­ing com­pared to the beauty and seren­ity of the ocean. Joan could float for­ever in the Aegean. No sharks, no jel­ly­fish, no crocs. Just you and the end­less clear blue ocean, hold­ing you up like a child in its par­ent’s arms. Her pink chest heaves as she breathes, caus­ing the wa­ter to lap at her bare breasts. Her stom­ach breaks the sur­face as she moves the air to breathe from her stom­ach like you’re sup­posed to. She could go for three.

She kicks off the wall, arms by her side, hands by her hips, push­ing back wa­ter, legs kick­ing. In the quiet she won­ders how many laps her brother did. Yes­ter­day, be­fore the storm, when he woke up at the hospi­tal, Joan’s younger brother said he was swim­ming laps un­der­wa­ter be­fore he blacked out. Joan’s dad said it’s called shal­low wa­ter black­out, also known as SWB. If you take hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing breaths be­fore hold­ing your breath un­der­wa­ter, it low­ers the level of car­bon diox­ide in your body, which in­creases the amount of time you can hold your breath, which in­creases the like­li­hood of pass­ing out. From there, you have ap­prox­i­mately two-and-a-half min­utes be­fore you die or suf­fer brain damage. If your lungs let in wa­ter you can drown. If you stay sub­merged but your lungs stay closed, you can suf­fo­cate. Fit­ness level is ir­rel­e­vant.

Joan isn’t sure how long he was in the wa­ter be­fore she pulled him out. She called the am­bu­lance straight away, just as you’re sup­posed to, then she started CPR. CPR was taught in school. Joan fol­lowed the steps and eas­ily re­mem­bered what DRABC stood for. D: dan­ger. He was alone with no pos­ing threat around, but some­thing was ly­ing at the bot­tom of the pool. R: re­sponse. None. His lips were slightly blue and his body limp. A: air­way. Clear. She stuck her fin­gers in his mouth and felt around; she peered in and saw noth­ing. B: breath­ing. Neg­a­tive. C: cir­cu­la­tion. She felt for a pulse on his wrist. She had al­ways strug­gled at school to lo­cate a pulse on the wrist, and she couldn’t do it then ei­ther. She moved to his neck and felt the pulse there, al­though light. She pro­ceeded to per­form CPR. His chest was still quite child­like. He hadn’t filled out yet like some of the other boys his age. He didn’t have any chest hair ei­ther, Joan no­ticed, as she pumped her clamped hands onto his chest, be­tween the nip­ples, recit­ing “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. The nurs­ery rhyme pro­vided the per­fect tim­ing and 30-pump count rate if you sang it to the sec­ond verse. Three bags full of wool. At school she had been warned to sing it un­der her breath or in her head, so that it didn’t seem dis­turb­ing or dis­re­spect­ful to on­look­ers. Next to her back­yard pool, it wasn’t some­thing she had to worry about, though she still kept her voice low.

Her brother’s head was tilted back in the right po­si­tion so his air­ways were clear and open. His hair was plas­tered to his fore­head and fell fun­nily to the side. He’d hate it look­ing like that, she thought. She’d have to fix it later and re­mind him to book a hair­cut. As she started whis­per­ing the nurs­ery rhyme to her­self for the sec­ond time af­ter forc­ing more air into his lungs, Joan’s brother came to. He coughed and splut­tered like they do in the movies. Joan put him into the re­cov­ery po­si­tion so he could cough up the wa­ter from his lungs com­fort­ably. Joan’s hands shook as she felt his cold skin and let her tears fall freely, mix­ing in with the pool wa­ter still drip­ping from her face. She brushed back his hair from his face and fetched him a towel.

The am­bu­lance ar­rived and rushed him away. Joan’s par­ents were con­tacted and were at the hospi­tal with him, leav­ing Joan alone at the house, star­ing at the 20kg bench-press weight sit­ting at the bot­tom of the pool. Joan’s dress was still wet from div­ing in to re­trieve her brother’s body. Her re­flec­tion in the pool showed how the dress clung to her body and bunched up around her thighs.

She con­tem­plated chang­ing into her bathers be­fore go­ing in again, but that would be point­less. Joan stood at the edge of the pool, fo­cus­ing on the cir­cu­lar weight, right be­neath where her head was re­flected, and dived in. The air bub­bled out from her dress as it flared out slightly around her, mak­ing her feel like a mermaid. Ev­ery­thing weighs less in wa­ter; how­ever, the bench-press weight was still heavy – heavy enough to pin you down onto the green tiles. It must have slipped off him af­ter he passed out or his hands let it go. Joan dragged it from the wa­ter, dried it off and car­ried it back to its right­ful place among the other bench-press weights in her brother’s room. So much weight.

Joan breaks the sur­face at three-and-a-half laps. She al­lows her­self to float and stares at the blue sky. She won’t try for four. She stares at the halo that cir­cles the sun and pic­tures the tiny ice crys­tals, try­ing their hard­est to bend and re­flect the light. Her par­ents stayed at the hospi­tal overnight and told Joan to come and visit her brother to­day af­ter he had some rest. She didn’t tell them about the 20kg bench-press weight.

JOAN II

Joan wakes with the sun. 6am, she rises with the birds, shak­ing off the dreams from the night. She rinses her face with cold wa­ter, wash­ing away the layer of sweat. Wa­ter splashes onto the bench­top next to the sink. Joan looks at her re­flec­tion in the mir­ror. Droplets run down her face as she licks them off her lips. Her freck­les have come out since be­ing in the sun. They scat­ter across her nose and cheeks, her fore­head is vic­tim of a few as is her chest. There seem to be more ev­ery day, creep­ing onto her shoul­ders and ap­pear­ing on her knees. She re­mem­bers the sun burn­ing her face when she was lit­tle, her nose glowed red and soon be­gan to peel. As her dead skin fell away, it took the freck­les with it. Hold­ing the flakes of her face up to the light, she could make out the specks.

Joan hasn’t slept easy since find­ing her brother’s body, un­con­scious and limp in the wa­ter. First hailed as a hero by fam­ily, friends, her town, now she is ques­tioned, her mo­tives sup­pos­edly un­known. There were ru­mours whirling around the town like a tor­nado, catch­ing ev­ery­one in the chaos and throw­ing out new the­o­ries with the de­bris. The fam­ily was blamed, bad par­ent­ing, neg­a­tive house­hold. Her brother un­der spec­u­la­tion, un­able to de­fend him­self. The worst the­ory was that Joan was an ac­com­plice. That she had tried to help end her brother’s life. There was no hid­ing from it. Peo­ple con­stantly search­ing for truth in a story they can’t un­der­stand. A story that Joan strug­gles to un­der­stand her­self.

The morn­ing is the per­fect time to run in sum­mer, be­fore the bru­tal heat sets in for the day and the body sweats with­out even mov­ing. Be­fore too many peo­ple are awake and crowd the streets. No-one is around to gawk at her or point. No whis­pers or glances from strangers and friends as she passes. Run­ning at that time is like stand­ing in the eye of the tor­nado, calm, quiet and safe, with may­hem swirling around her. When she’s run­ning, lost in her own mind, she is un­touch­able.

Joan ties up her laces, mak­ing sure they don’t touch her an­kles as she runs. It ir­ri­tates her, mak­ing her feel like a bug is crawl­ing up her leg and she needs to swat it away. The sun has risen a lit­tle higher and the birds wel­come it. Light flashes through the gumtrees, cre­at­ing shad­ows on the dirt roads as their branches hang re­laxed. There’s a slight breeze danc­ing about the air, which tastes per­fectly like sum­mer. A mix­ture of gravel and dirt cov­ers the road, the heat dry­ing it out, mak­ing it into a dusty whirl­wind when the wind picks up. The dust is dragged in with Joan’s breath and coats her throat. The scratchy feel­ing of dirt up her nose will stay there un­til she im­merses her­self in the ocean. It will sweep away all the dirt and dust, leav­ing her clean with only sea salt lay­er­ing her skin. Joan dodges the pot­holes as she runs, which are more like craters in the ground. Minia­ture swim­ming pools if it ever rained. The coun­cil is con­stantly re­grad­ing the road, fill­ing in the craters and smooth­ing the gravel. How­ever, it’s never long un­til the cor­ru­ga­tion reap­pears, like rip­ples reach­ing over the road af­ter a crater im­pacts. Joan breathes deeply in through her nose and out through her mouth, con­trolled but des­per­ate for more air. Her three-quar­ter Skins cling to her legs and pro­tect her thighs from hit­ting, al­though this is be­com­ing less of a prob­lem or a pri­or­ity now. Joan feels the stress and pres­sure from her fam­ily and the town is slowly chip­ping away at her ex­tra bag­gage, de­vel­op­ing back to the body she once had. Noth­ing like some at­tempted sui­cide to get back into shape, whether she wanted to or not.

She fol­lows the back roads to the beach un­til she has to re­join the main road of the surf beach. Cars fly along this road – even though it’s sup­posed to be 60km/h, surfers push it to 80km/h. Out-of-town­ers slow it down to about 40km/h to take in the sights of the shrubs and brief glimpses of the sea. They’re just as bad as the speed­ers. A line of cars and bike rid­ers will tail­gate them un­til they speed up or pull over. Joan pounds along the bi­tu­men, fol­low­ing closely to the white line and into the grass when she can. Her breath­ing, the crash­ing waves and her run­ners hit­ting the road syn­chro­nised into a com­fort­able rhythm. She drifts away like the ocean tide with her thoughts, never ques­tion­ing where she will go, know­ing she is pow­er­less against the cur­rent.

Her brother was checked out from hospi­tal a week af­ter his near drown­ing. He wasn’t sent home, but ad­mit­ted to a men­tal-health fa­cil­ity out of town, closer to the city. On sui­cide watch. Some­where for him to work out his is­sues and talk to pro­fes­sion­als in a safe, con­trolled space. He hasn’t spo­ken much to the doc­tors. They try, in their ses­sions, but he won’t talk. He had been in there for a few weeks when the truth came out. Joan went to visit him alone. The cen­tre looks like a hospi­tal ward, or a nurs­ing home. The floors are cov­ered in that spe­cial non-slip coat­ing and all the bath­rooms have rail­ings. They force him to get dressed ev­ery day, to shower and brush his teeth. At­tempt­ing to re­turn him to his nor­mal, ev­ery­day rou­tine. They sat out­side to­gether in the gar­den, sur­rounded by per­fectly man­i­cured grass and trees, lus­cious and green. He had sat there, in his nor­mal clothes, in his nor­mal slouched way. The only dif­fer­ence is they had given him a hair­cut. About time, Joan thought. Joan con­fronted him about the weight left in the pool. About his ac­tions. About how she found him. How scared she was. She

thought he was dead. And with her en­cour­age­ment, the words, and tears, came. He said there was a heav­i­ness con­stantly push­ing him down. He needed to fight for breath, he needed to pull him­self out of bed in the morn­ing and re­sist the temp­ta­tion to hide in it as soon as he was home. He found no joy. He felt lost and alone. He looked to Joan, eyes plead­ing for an­swers to his own feel­ings. Joan lis­tened to her brother’s pain, while watch­ing the aga­pan­thus droop and move with the wind. The bell-shaped flower spurted out from the stem, reach­ing far and open­ing up, just like the flow­ers next to it. Joan knew the feel­ing of iso­la­tion and fail­ure. The em­bar­rass­ment of barely reach­ing ex­pec­ta­tion. But could it push her far enough to stop it all?

Tall shrubs cover the sand hills, hid­ing full view of the ocean and on­com­ing road. Makeshift dirt carparks dot the right side of the road. Cars al­ready oc­cupy some of the spots and surfers are scat­tered among the line-up. Sweat cov­ers Joan’s face, un­doubt­edly pink now, dab­bling into red. Sweat runs through her scalp, damp­en­ing her hair, and trick­les down her neck, con­nect­ing to the sweat on her chest, be­com­ing one. Early bike rid­ers push past her, ding­ing their bells on ap­proach. There was barely enough room for Joan on the road, she won­dered how the bike rid­ers man­aged. On the in­clines they huff and puff to­gether. Strug­gling to get enough mo­men­tum to pass Joan quickly, they sit be­side her briefly as they travel past. An awk­ward pleas­antry ex­changed be­tween biker and run­ner. Joan al­ways looks for­ward to th­ese odd mo­ments and laughs when they try that lit­tle bit harder to move for­ward. What was so un­com­fort­able about some in-sync gasp­ing for air any­way?

Glimpses of the ocean show through the thick shrubs as Joan ap­proaches the main stair­case to the surf beach. The wa­ter is calm as clean two-foot waves peel. Long­board­ers get­ting a solid ride catch it out the back, fol­low­ing it all the way into shore. Short­board­ers sulk and watch on in jeal­ousy, pump­ing their boards along when they do catch a wave. Joan gains her breath as she stands on the top land­ing of the stairs. She jogs down the wooden stairs, flaked with sand and damp from swim­mers. The smell of the ocean hits her when she is at the bot­tom. The smell of washed-up sea­weed, dry­ing in the morn­ing heat, sneaks up her nose, mix­ing with the dust. A smell she has never hated, more so wel­comed. Joan’s dad use to hang dried-up sea­weed on the side of their back door. It was how they would tell if it was go­ing to rain. He ex­plained to her that if the sea­weed re­mained dry and crisp, then the day was go­ing to be hot. But if the weed was lithe, re­turn­ing to its orig­i­nal rub­bery state, then they could ex­pect rain. Joan’s run­ners sink into the dry sand as she reaches the beach, her foot slid­ing to one side as the sand gives way un­der­neath her. Sand creeps into her shoes and works its way into her socks, mak­ing her toes feel like grit as they rub to­gether.

Their mum was lis­ten­ing in the gar­den as Joan’s brother opened his heart. She had seen them sit­ting, qui­etly chat­ting, from the bed­room win­dow and de­cided to join them. But she didn’t join them. She hov­ered be­hind them, close enough to hear their con­ver­sa­tion. That is when life erupted. Their mum cried, frus­trated noth­ing hor­rific had hap­pened to him to jus­tify his ac­tions. He was just feel­ing down. From then on Joan’s brother re­ceived dou­ble coun­selling ses­sions and doc­tor ap­point­ments. Their mum was dis­sat­is­fied and didn’t be­lieve his truth. It wasn’t enough.

Joan re­moves her run­ners and socks, tip­ping out the sand and plac­ing the socks care­fully back into her shoes. She peels off her tights and sin­glet, fold­ing them neatly on top of the shoes. Her skin is free and breathes in the ocean air. The wind is al­ways a lit­tle cooler com­ing off the wa­ter than at home. She runs from the sand to the wa­ter, kick­ing her legs out to the side from her knees as she meets the wa­ter, like they taught her to in Nip­pers life sav­ing. Reach­ing waist-deep, she dives into a small, un­bro­ken wave. The wa­ter is clear, quiet. The wave rolls over her and moves to­wards the shore. Break­ing the sur­face she be­gins to pad­dle out fur­ther, duck­div­ing be­neath the waves like a mermaid, flick­ing her feet be­hind her and feel­ing the wa­ter stream through her open fin­gers. She swims un­til she is out past the break. The surfers are fur­ther down along the beach where the small swell is peak­ing. Long­board­ers tip­toe along their boards, older men with bel­lies hang­ing out and wet lit­tle pony­tails drip­ping down their necks. The wa­ter gives Joan goose­bumps, but she knows her body will ad­just soon, like the surfers with­out wet­ties. Joan wades the wa­ter, feel­ing it move be­tween her arms and legs, wig­gling her toes to keep them warm as the ocean bobs her lightly. Chunks of dark sea­weed sit still and flat on the bot­tom of the ocean bed like stingrays.

It re­minds Joan of float­ing in the dinghy with her dad and brother at the in­let when they were kids. Gi­ant stingrays, as big as the blow-up boat, glided un­der­neath them as Joan and her brother shrieked and hung their heads over the side to get a closer look. Their re­flec­tions stared back at them show­ing their hat strings tied un­der­neath their chins and pink zinc on their nose. The sun and wa­ter were warm and there were sand­wiches wait­ing for them back on the beach. When the stingrays had passed, their dad had picked them up, one in each arm, and threat­ened to throw them over­board so they can tow the boat back to shore. They kicked and wrig­gled and squealed louder. Even­tu­ally, their dad had braved the stingrays, sav­ing them all and de­liv­er­ing the sand­wiches. Joan had thought the stingrays were giants – she had never seen them that big be­fore, nor had she seen them since. She loved those beach days, hot and lazy in the blue beach tent, held down with bags of sand. Her mum bit­ing into the skin of an orange and peel­ing it for her as Joan sat be­tween her legs. Noth­ing had tasted so good be­fore that first orange of the day.

Wad­ing the wa­ter now, look­ing across the ocean to where the blue meets the sky, Joan won­ders if her brother can re­mem­ber those days. Couldn’t he find hap­pi­ness and joy in the nos­tal­gia of their child­hood? Wasn’t it enough to pull him back from the dark times? Let­ting out her breath, Joan be­gins to sink, blow­ing out bub­bles of air as she de­scends, un­til she hits the bot­tom. The salt stings her open eyes but not enough to close them. It’s a fa­mil­iar fee­ing, that sting. She looks around the bot­tom of the ocean, in the blurry, never-end­ing blue­ness. It’s quiet down there, peace­ful. Un­able to hold her breath any longer, she kicks off from the sand, feel­ing the rip­ples of pat­tern like the cor­ru­ga­tion on the dirt roads, and breaks the sur­face, tak­ing in a raspy breath. She blinks the salt wa­ter from her eyes and it runs down her cheeks as if she is cry­ing. She pic­tures the gi­ant stingrays glid­ing through the wa­ter, and be­gins to swim back to shore.

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