Elizabeth saw it first, a solitary bud growing in a circle of soil set in a square of lawn. The previous owners must have planted before they left. It was in nascent bloom when Glen picked it the next day and placed it in the tarnished silver vase he found at the back of a cupboard.

The sunlight bloom hovered for a day above the blackened silver then its stem slumped in defeat. While it was in the garden, Elizabeth felt the whisper of spring. In the vase, in the house, in their gloomy hallway, winter triumphed.

Narcissus Jonquila

Last Rites (or Lab Rat)

The man in the white coat raised a needle. I hope I’ve been helpful, I thought, as it slipped into my furry rump.

by Ben Brooker (C)

Ben_BrookerBen is a writer, editor, critic, essayist, bookseller, and playwright. His work has been featured by Overland, New Matilda, New Internationalist, Australian Book Review, RealTime, The Lifted Brow, and Daily Review. Ben is a co-facilitator of Adelaide’s Quart Short literary reading salons and in 2016 was an inaugural Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellow.

Twitter: @BenMBrooker


An Enigmatic Bias

Three things fascinated Gladys when she was a child. Black marks on a page, the myths her mother told her and the night sky, the glassy points of light that glittered implacably above her. Gladys always knew a mantic message lay hidden in the patterns cast by those lights.

Every month, Gladys, now well into her seventies, meets Simone and Felicity at a local café.  They order coffee and cake and, because they are regulars, the staff leave them alone to visit a world lost centuries ago, a world they access through crisply uttered, archaic phrases and codes. ‘Do we need to consider the Sun on the Midheaven receiving the square from the Moon?’ says copper-haired Felicity, ex-teacher and a maven at spotting liabilities in a chart.

Simone, steady and moderate,  suggests the Moon’s aspect to Mercury is the nub of the chart and the Mercury, which rules the fourth, fifth and seventh houses, is restrained by Saturn. ‘That’s difficult for Mercury,’ she says, ‘it hates any constraints.’

‘I’m interested in this Venus, high in the chart,’ says Gladys, ‘it’s so… ‘Peregrine?’ interrupts Felicity. ‘And besieged,’ adds Gladys, who reminds her friends Venus has a moral propensity for getting herself into questionable situations. They all laugh. They are professional astrologers, not hobbyists and certainly not uneducated charlatans. They studied astrology together. They passed their exams. They have read (though they prefer to say ‘delineate’) dozens, perhaps hundreds of astrology charts. and sometimes even they are unsettled by their accuracy. Today they delineate a chart Gladys cast. She wants to know how long her new neighbour will remain in the flat next door.

‘I am not an astrological evangelist,’ Gladys is fond of telling people, ‘nor am I an apologist,’ but since the new neighbour chanced, three weeks ago, upon Gladys, Simone, and Felicity in the café, she’s become a nuisance. Finding herself not invited to join Gladys and her friends, and seeing the charts scattered across the café table, the neighbour decided she had uncovered a dangerous coven and was determined to dissuade Gladys of her beliefs.

‘Do you believe,’ Gladys had said to the neighbour, when she visited last week and accused Gladys of sorcery, ‘in the phone when you answer it?’ The neighbour frowned. ‘Exactly,’ said Gladys, ‘Neither I or my friends credit or judge astrology; we merely answer its call.’

‘That’s ridiculous,’ countered the neighbour, who wore an orange and pink kaftan and had tied a purple scarf around her bright yellow hair. ‘Oh,’ said Gladys, ‘we ‘re immune to ridicule. We are aware of the suspicion. None of us claims to be psychic and we do no one any harm.’

‘Why, you’d have been excommunicated or burnt at the stake only a century or two ago,’ said the neighbour. Sometimes, sighed Gladys, other people’s reaction to her passion perplexed her. What, she wondered, are people are afraid of, and why they could celebrate their eccentricity but condemn hers?

Living in her seventh decade made Gladys brave: ‘You have no right to tell me what I should, or shouldn’t do,’ she said. ‘In fact,’ she started to ease the neighbour towards the front door, ‘I harbour a deep unconcern for what people think,  and my Friday afternoons with my friends are too much fun to miss. Good evening,’ she said to the neighbour, and she shut the door.

The next week Gladys, Simone and Felicity read the chart Gladys had cast for the precise time Gladys asked how long the neighbour would stay. ‘An accurate time,’ said Simone, ‘our holy grail,’ and she bent her head to the chart. ‘My, it is an interesting chart,’ she said after a long silence. The three friends spent a satisfying afternoon reading the heavens: the name of signs, aspects and houses rolled off their tongues and they discussed that capricious Venus and her venal rounds.  The patterned lights of Gladys’s childhood surrendered their secrets once more.  The heavens, she thought as she packed away her charts and kissed Simone and Felicity’s cheeks in farewell, are a circle wherein drama and intrigue are performed, a stage honoured by Shakespeare, who knew astrology.

‘Consider,’ Gladys was fond of telling her grandchildren, ‘shares the same root as the word “sidereal”. To consider, my darlings, means to consult with the stars and your old Granny can tell you the story of a moment: she can accurately extract its meaning and trust its qualities; she can mine its hopes and ride its disappointments. I also have a bloody good  laugh at fate while I’m at it.’

Her grandchildren roll their eyes and lovingly pat her shoulder. Gladys remembers the starry sky of her childhood, how she knew, even when she was a mite, that everything boils down to this: there is a fatal and enigmatic bias in the order of things.*

(C) Janet Thomas

Adapted from a quotation by Jean Baudrillard.

A Virtual Bar

I think of it as a virtual bar, only better because you can wear track pants and ugg boots, and don’t need to wash your hair. Do you know how good it feels to not have to wear makeup, not bother with taxis, not walk alone into a real bar and feel them check you out, give you a number out of ten, or smirk at you? That’s what gets me down more than the drawn out ‘friendly chats’, where I massage their egos while listening to them bleat about their latest breakup. Nope, sitting on my lounge, scrolling through photos and profiles, puts me in control. I can drop a line and see which fish are swimming in my part of the sea. It beats standing in a noisy bar,  just another item in a sleazy auction. From my couch I can look, assess and no one is hurt: Brad, for instance, is 37, looks cute, but he is a FIFO; James says he’s 25 but is probably 35; Charles’ profile is  whiney and the grammar is awful; Elliot hasn’t cropped his photograph carefully enough. A hand rests on his elbow, a hefty stone blinking from the ring finger. And then there’s Alex. His profile says he was a soccer player, a member of the under fifteens Australian squad. I think my cousin Jo’s husband played in that team. I remember her telling me he went to the UK. If Alex, who goes beyond cute straight into adorable, is who he says he is, then maybe, just maybe …

I dial Jo’s number and ten minutes later, after she tells me he is, indeed the Alex her hubby played soccer with although they haven’t seen each other in ages, I contact Alex and wait. This, I promise myself, is the last time.

He replies the next day. ‘Thanks for the contact,’ he writes, then apologises. ‘I met someone on the site three weeks ago. We have been going so great we decided last night to start dating. I’ve had no time to close my account.’ He also apologises for that oversight and wishes me well. ‘Hang in there,’ he says, ‘the right person is waiting for you.’

I decide Alex is either a liar and wants to let me down gently or is telling the truth. The next day I check his page but the account is closed. Maybe he was for real.

Despite the scrumptious Alex’s success, I also close my account. Even if online dating sites are merely virtual bars, seven rejections are seven rejections, whether they happen while you’re drinking gin slings or lying on your couch, a box of tissues and a Mars Bar waiting on the coffee table. I tell myself I’ve been single for two years, my career is going great, I’m still young (yes, 34 is young) and I need a break from whatever it is I think I’m doing: searching for Mr. Right, looking for a friend to go to the movies with or, to be honest, a ‘friend with benefits’ to help me endure the nights that, since Mark left, seem to grow longer and longer.

Two weeks later Jo contacts me. ‘Come out with us,’ she urges. ‘Not to find a man but for fun. Now you know being single is cool,’ (from the day she turned thirteen, Jo’s had three months, average, between boyfriends, but she means well), ‘you need to learn how cool it can be. It’s not a girls’ night,’ she adds, ‘it’s a gang of us to, you know, celebrate …’ I agree, but only because even I get bored with track pants and ugg boots.

Wine_GlassesI find Jo and eight other people in the far corner of the bar. She’s drinking soda water and clinging to hubby. Her baby bump has grown since I last saw her. She squeals when she sees me, pulls me into a hug then introduces me to Merrill and Peter, Derek and Jason, Dieter and Ros, and, my goodness, Alex, the Alex. Jo whispers to me that Alex and hubby caught up last week. Go figure, huh? Alex smiles at me but holds tight to Sarah whose smile is wider than Alex’s and, if possible,  more gorgeous than his. Standing next to her is someone with an equally stunning smile, a day old growth, and a wine glass in his hand. Sarah tells me this is her twin brother, Adam. He holds out his hand. I take it. We smile. He asks if he can buy me a wine and I think; ‘This is more fun than clicking on a profile.’

Last week, Sarah, Alex, Adam and I discussed a double wedding.  ‘Twins don’t have to do everything together, ‘Adam said, ‘and anyway, two wedding receptions are more fun than one.’ He added, as he wrapped his arms around my waist and mirrored Sarah’s smile, that his fiancé might prefer ugg boots to the three-inch heels Sarah will want to wear on her big day.

(c) Janet Thomas

The 57th Wife


The 57th wife, a buoyant, bustling compact woman with a halo of fluffy silver curls, lay under him at night, sighing softly while he pumped away at her and then sank into the folds of her soft, sweet flesh. In the morning she hummed one of the old songs while folding the batter for his pancakes and washing the sheets. He’d stand in the laundry and watch her and she’d look up at him and smile shyly, like the bride that she was.

He thought his first wife might have become like the 57th wife; slightly over-ripe, giving, cheerful. He’d walk up to the 57th as she put the breakfast dishes away and pat her round bottom and think of his first wife and wonder where she went, and what she was doing.

The next morning, he met his 58th wife. She was lovely too but not, perhaps, as cheerful.

‘Can I help you?’ he asked. She fumbled with the flour and the measuring cup, spilt the milk and hadn’t taken an egg out of the fridge. Her hands were shaking and one fat tear splashed into the flour, sending up a puffy white signal.

‘I’m alright, thank you,’ she said. She tried to smile, a smile that reminded him of someone. He wasn’t sure who. ‘It’s just that we didn’t,’ she paused, ‘I didn’t sleep well last night.’

He decided he would miss the 57th wife and her cheerful grin so he had to win her back. He’d woo her with flowers and soft words; he’d say his love for her would last, no matter where everything else went. He’d never attempted it before but found it surprisingly easy. He almost made it to the end of the long driveway when he heard her, the 57th wife, calling him. ‘Doug,’ she called, ‘Doug, come back.’ There she was, running after him, her white Blondie curls flattened against her pale, frail skull, their house her backdrop, its front door wide open and screaming. ‘Why there you are 57,’ he said, wrapping her in his arms.

‘Everything OK Mary?’ a male voice, worried, strange and familiar, from the other side of the low fence between his house and the one next door. ‘I saw him from our front window.’

‘Hi. Jim. Yes, thanks, we’re all right, aren’t we Doug?’

Doug kept his arms around the 57th wife, shielding her from the stranger. ‘Good thing the 58th wife is gone,’ he said. ‘This one,’ he jostled his 57th wife tenderly, ‘this one, she’s a, she’s a …’.

‘Sure is,’ said Jim and then, ‘Mary, please. June and I, well, you know. Here any time you need us. We … saw the lights on last night. Could hear …’

‘…Corker,’ said Doug.

‘I will. Thanks Jim. Thank you,’ said the 57th wife.

‘I love you,’ Doug said to the 57th wife.

Mary smiled a shy, bridal, smile. ‘We’ll be OK,’ she said to Jim. ‘We really will. I’m so lucky. He falls in love with me every morning, and sometimes again in the evening.’

Jim waved, turned away and walked back up his driveway to June, his second wife, who stood on their doorstep watching.

Mary steered Doug back up to the house. ‘I’m here,’ she said, ‘I’m back.’

‘Good old number 57,’ said Doug. ‘I can rely on you.’