BNZ Literary Awards 2013
BNZ Literary Awards 2013
Katherine Mansfield Award Winner
Reverse Living
Catherine Chidgey
The pills I am taking will not let me sleep, yet for months I have not felt fully awake. The house contracts
around me each night as I sit on the couch, the walls making soft little ticks like an offbeat clock. Things
become smaller.
In daylight this place is too big; the empty rooms leach into the distance, uncomfortable silences
waiting to be filled. I never use the upstairs living with glimpse of river; I never use the his portion of the
spacious his ‘n’ hers wardrobe; I will never use the nursery. There is a lot to dust.
At night I chat to friends I have made all over the world. My computer keeps my lap warm, its
screen lighting my face as if I am in the sun. I have several pages open at once so I can move from site
to site, making up thoughts as fast as I can type. There are the haemophiliacs, who recount details of
baseball games and soccer matches they have watched from the sidelines. There are the people who
can hold their breath for longer than a minute. There are the reptile enthusiasts, who post pictures of
themselves curled on their waterbeds with their whip-tailed lizards and their crested geckos, and
Halloween shots of their carpet pythons dressed as ghosts and cowboys.
Scaly Paul: How do u get the bandannas 2 stay on? They have no shoulders?
Chameleon: LOL!
Dragon Lady: Philippa doesn’t mind duct tape, but you have to remove it slowly – not like ripping
off a band-aid.
There are the teapot collectors – they’re a cosy lot. We talk about aesthetic appeal versus
functionality, and about the fact that many Susie Coopers don’t pour well – but then, who would actually
use a Susie Cooper! (One man did – Earl Grey, from upstate New York – and when he was rinsing it he
knocked it on a tap. NOOOOOOOOO! I typed, and OMG!!!!! and   . He had the spout glued back
on by a professional and the join was almost invisible, but he always knew it was there.) Then there are
the teenage Christians who are abstinent by choice – they go hiking a lot. There are the lactose
intolerants, the recreational Viagra users, the car-crash survivors, the people with a phobia of buttons.
Sometimes I don’t post at all; I just lurk. It soothes me to read about the lives of these strangers, about
their habits and rituals, their quirks, their miracles. It makes the night pass.
And aren’t these the things you remember? The oddities, the wonders? Don’t the stories at the
end of the bulletin stay with you longer than the earthquakes and the scandals, the straight-faced
headlines? I remember last year we watched an item about a boy who swallowed a paring knife – you
could see it on the x-ray, a lancewood leaf against his ribs, blackly pointing at his heart. The girl who
reads the news gave a big white smile when she said he cheated death, and then the girl who reads the
weather advised us to pack the brolly the next day because the north was going to be hogging the rain.
She was wearing green eye-makeup that did her no favours, and a wide belt that cut her in two; she
looked like the islands looming behind her. Michael glanced up from the sudoku and said that they can’t
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BNZ Literary Awards 2013
Katherine Mansfield Award Winner
really see the maps, the weather presenters, they just have to point in mid-air and hope they have it
right. At the end of the hour they showed the knife-eating boy again, sitting up in bed and contemplating
a mouthful of raspberry jelly that shimmered on the spoon like a vital organ.
Yes, the world is fat with curiosities and marvels. Tumours disappear; fish fall from the sky; the
crippled wheel themselves to Mexico and leave the clinic on foot. People find the face of Christ in their
margarine and their root vegetables; they lie down on beds of nails; they balance cement mixers on their
heads. People have their dead turned into diamonds.
My mother rings me most days, and most days I don’t answer. I listen to her voice speaking to the
machine as if it is her daughter.
‘Hello Livvy, it’s Mum. Are you up and about? There’s a huge frost here today. Your father’s
relieved he put the cover on his giant onion. Talk to you soon.’
*
I remember that the accident happened around the time we were preparing to travel to Vegas. So much
was going on in our lives that it is difficult to recall the exact sequence of events, but I do know that we
were about to go to America, and that I was washing and airing the baby clothes Michael’s sister had
given us. We were planning ahead.
I’d wanted to go to a late movie and we were rushing to make it – we’d built a fair way out of the
city, and with Michael there never seemed to be enough time. It was an autumn evening and the fog had
rubbed away the lamp-posts so that the streetlights hung in mid-air, faint planets marking our way. I
didn’t see the figure on the side of the road until the last minute, and even then it was only a few frames:
a dark form stumbling along the hard shoulder, bent forward as if in pain.
‘Did you see that?’ I said, and by the time the words were out of my mouth there was nothing in
the rear-vision mirror but mist.
‘What?’ said Michael.
‘That person staggering along the road.’
‘I didn’t see anything.’
‘Maybe we should go back – offer to help.’
‘They’ll be fine. Probably had a few too many.’
We were the only ones in the cinema, and Michael spoke in his normal voice during the movie. It
made me uneasy somehow.
‘Why are you whispering?’ he said at one point. ‘There’s nobody else here, silly.’
It was past two a.m. by the time we were driving home. We were almost there, about to turn off
the main road, when a man in a fluorescent vest waved us down and told us there had been an incident,
and we’d have to take a detour. His walkie-talkie spoke from his hand: ‘Just south of the township. Lying
in the middle of the highway…hit by a car. The homicide unit’s there now.’
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BNZ Literary Awards 2013
Katherine Mansfield Award Winner
As we made our way along the unlit back road I saw the police tent glowing in the distance and
the torches flashing. It made me think of a holiday scene: the children up past their bedtime, playing
breathless games of spotlight, the adults in the tent sleeping on and on.
I remember that the next day I checked the newspaper and the internet, but there was no
mention of an accident. There was nothing the following day, either, and there were no tyre marks on the
road, no spray-painted lines in the form of a person, no crumbs of glass. And then we went to America,
and I had other things to think about; other deaths.
*
I had my mask on when I first met Michael. My flatmate, whose name I can no longer recall, brought him
round for cheese on toast after a late tutorial – he made friends easily, which meant our parties were
always well attended, even though I felt like a stranger at them.
‘What’s that stuff meant to do?’ Michael asked, pointing at my face.
‘Reduce pore size. Draw out impurities. Soften and smooth.’ I was trying not to move my mouth
too much but already I could feel myself cracking.
‘Does it work?’
‘Come to the party tomorrow and find out.’ I never said such things; it wasn’t me.
My flatmate sniggered. ‘You’re in there, mate.’
We married after graduation, before we went overseas.
‘Overseas?’ said my mother. ‘Why would you want to go there? What about your career
prospects?’
‘I have a MA in classics,’ I said. ‘I don’t think a year or two away will alter my prospects.’
‘A year or two!’
‘You can’t have a gappy CV,’ said my father. ‘People don’t like gaps. You have to think about
these things.’
‘Employers will see it as a plus,’ I said. ‘I’ve broadened my horizons. Shown initiative.’
‘Your father and I’ve never been away from the farm and we’ve shown plenty of initiative over the
years,’ said my mother. ‘Remember that crutching machine Dad made?’
‘You won’t settle when you come back,’ he said.
‘He’s right,’ my mother said. ‘Linda Snell spent a year in Perth and she’s never settled. Now she’s
a lesbian.’
I sighed. ‘It’s just what you do these days.’
‘Become a lesbian?’
You can see why I needed to get away.
We never did get our wedding pictures; we were gone for years. I emailed the photographer after the
first 12 months, from Florence, and he said it was no problem to wait until we came home, and we
should just go to his website and select our shots, and he was glad to hear we were still together,
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BNZ Literary Awards 2013
Katherine Mansfield Award Winner
because he had wondered. Florence! he went on. He had spent time there as a young man; he could
still recall the smell of the paper in the paper houses. He meant shops that sold paper, not actual houses
made of paper, he said, although the patterns were so beautiful that he wouldn’t have minded living in a
paper house: peacocks and pomegranates and angels, and feathery hand-marbled swirls. I emailed him
a year after that, from Aix-en-Provence, and said that I was sorry but we still hadn’t selected our
pictures, and that we were still not coming back. Cézanne! he said. We had to visit his studio in Aix; it
had the most wonderful windows going right to the ceiling, and one of them was big enough to push an
enormous canvas through so Cézanne could paint in the garden.
When we did return home we were too busy establishing ourselves to contact him – too busy
trying to settle – and every time we thought of the photos we just looked at each other and said, ‘But it’s
been years. What will he think? You do it.’
‘No, you do it.’
*
One of the abstinent Christians is calling for recipes – good, wholesome meals made from things like
lentils and dates and goat meat. She wants to publish a cookbook – What Would Jesus Stew? – and I
suggest a trip to Jerusalem to gather ideas.
God’s_GF: Isn’t that in the Middle East?! Fudge!!!
WifeInWaiting: It’s near the middle I think, or maybe a little off to one side.
All4Him: Don’t go, WIW. That’s where the terrorists come from. Plus it’s very hot.
The reptile enthusiasts are getting ready for a show in Texas; there’s some debate over whether
using scale conditioner is cheating.
The haemophiliacs are competing for Best Internal Bleed.
I have had a Facebook friend request from a 17-year-old blind cat in New York; I’ve accepted,
and now I receive a daily picture of Lammy asleep on the couch, Lammy asleep on the bed, Lammy
lying on the clean laundry, Lammy playing dead on the carpet.
My doctor is getting sick of me. She double-books appointments so that I’m allotted seven and a half
minutes at the most, but it still costs $43. One day I said to her, ‘If I only have seven and a half minutes
instead of 15, maybe I should only pay $21.50.’
She clasped her hands in front of her on the desk as if she were about to say grace. Some lunch
would have been nice.
‘Olivia,’ she said. ‘Do you feel safe?’
‘Most of the time,’ I said. ‘I don’t have a burglar alarm – should I get one? The house is prewired.’
She gave a little smile. ‘I mean, do you feel safe in your own company?’
‘Ummm…’
‘Do you ever think about harming yourself?’
‘Oh. Well I know I eat too much butter. I think about that quite a lot.’
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BNZ Literary Awards 2013
Katherine Mansfield Award Winner
She took off her glasses and rubbed the indentations on the bridge of her nose. I wondered if
they disappeared at night, so that by morning her nose was back to normal, or if they were permanent.
She replaced the glasses. ‘You don’t feel…’ she lowered her voice, although we were alone, ‘suicidal?’
‘No. I’m not sure. Not exactly…’
‘Good good,’ she said, and printed the invoice and a script for more pills, which she folded and
slid across the desk to me like a secret note.
‘Eat less butter,’ she called after me.
I don’t mind the appointments. There are boxes to be ticked, forms to be filled in; I understand
that. Usually you have to wait half an hour to see her, so I read the magazines to find out what I should
look like and where I should be living. Then I think about all the germs on the magazines from all the sick
people, and I go to the toilet and wash my hands. Above the soap dispenser is a picture of a woman with
a bruised face. The caption says This isn’t love. I help myself to the free condoms by way of
compensation for the $21.50 – I have a shoebox full of them now.
*
‘Hello Liv, it’s Mum. How are you? Jodie’s pregnant and everyone’s amazed because of her hostile
womb. Talk to you later.’
*
‘It’s an up-and-coming area,’ Fiona had said. She’d shown us a dozen sub-divisions that day, mostly out
of our price range. She leaned in close. ‘Between you and me, I wouldn’t mind betting it’ll merge with the
city soon.’
‘We quite like the rural feel,’ I said.
‘Oh, it’ll always retain that, of course – that’s a given. Yes. But it would be a very astute buy, is
what I’m saying. Very forward-thinking. You like the outdoors, don’t you. You go camping and climbing
and things. Sir Edmund Hillary was forward-thinking, and look where it got him.’
‘Remuera,’ nodded Michael.
Fiona ignored him. ‘You two remind me of him, of Sir Ed.’
Yes, we nodded, yes, we were astute forward-thinkers, just like Edmund Hillary. We could afford
the mortgage, no problem. We could knock the bastard off.
‘You’ll be surrounded by quality residences. And look at all the space – brilliant for families, plus
you’re just minutes from excellent schools. You have children, yes?’
‘Not yet,’ we said, ‘but we plan to.’
‘She already has a whole glory-box full of baby clothes,’ said Michael.
‘Just things from my sister-in-law,’ I said. ‘Hers are all at school and she wanted to make space in
the spare room.’
‘There you are, you see,’ said Fiona. ‘Forward-thinking.’
‘I want that section,’ I told Michael. ‘I want those views. We deserve those views. You could see the river
if you went to two storeys. And we’ll be needing a proper place soon.’
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BNZ Literary Awards 2013
Katherine Mansfield Award Winner
I began designing a house. I downloaded some 3D-modelling software and worked on it every
evening, shifting staircases, adding and removing windows, changing bricks from red to taupe to grey
and back to red again. I made doors disappear; I walked through walls. I made myself thirty feet tall and
looked down on my work: I could see everywhere at once, like God. I moved the Michael figure into the
kitchen and placed him in front of the sink or the oven, and I moved the figure that was meant to be me –
she had a smaller waist and bigger breasts, but I was OK with that – into the spa pool or the billiard
room.
‘Come to bed,’ Michael called.
‘Soon,’ I called back.
I studied countless floor-plans, went to show homes and open homes every Sunday – yes, it was
a form of worship. I introduced myself to potential neighbours and asked if they’d mind if I measured
their vestibules; I emailed building companies overseas and requested copies of their designs because, I
explained, my husband and I were immigrating to their beautiful country. Each night the house grew
bigger. I added vaulted ceilings, en suites, a drive-through garage. I added a home theatre, a doublesided fireplace, an elliptical staircase. The toilets became powder rooms, the pantry a walk-in scullery. I
pushed the walls out and out.
‘See,’ I said to Michael, ‘there’s even a nook for your mountain bike.’
‘I’m not sure I need a nook,’ he said.
‘Do you want to stay here forever?’ I said, jabbing my finger at the flattened carpet of our rental.
‘Of course not.’
‘It’s hopeless for children,’ I said. ‘The bedrooms are freezing, and there’s no bath. And no
garden.’
‘Then you shall have a bath,’ he said, waving his hands as if to bring one into being. ‘And warm
bedrooms, and a giant fridge that makes star-shaped ice, like the one in the magazine, and carpet that
matches your eyes, and a garden full of magnolias and lilies.’
*
It surprises me how well my parents have taken to the retirement village. ‘Don’t you think Dad misses
the farm?’ I said to Mum one day, watching him stake the tomato plant in the box-garden behind their
unit.
‘Working seven days a week? I know I don’t miss it – I’ve never looked back. We’d be lambing if
we were there now.’
That had been my favourite time of year as a child. There were always a few indifferent mothers,
and my brother and I looked after the lambs they abandoned. We tucked them into cardboard boxes in
the kitchen and fed them infant formula, competing with one another to see who could produce the
strongest baby, who could love the best. Some weren’t rescued in time, and my father would nudge the
ewes away from the little white scraps and gather them up from the paddocks; a mean harvest. He made
a note of which lamb belonged to which mother and then he skinned them out the back of the woolshed.
Even though Mum told me I didn’t want to see what he was doing, I always watched. It was a sort of
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BNZ Literary Awards 2013
Katherine Mansfield Award Winner
miracle to me, seeing how easily the skin could be stripped away, how easily you could undo a little life.
When our fostered orphans were strong enough my father clothed each one in a dead lamb’s skin,
threading their legs through holes he cut with his hunting knife. Then he matched it with the correct
mother, who nuzzled the creature as if it really were her own baby brought back from the dead: this, too,
was a miracle.
*
A girl who was in my class at school has found me on Facebook.
‘How are you doing?’ she emails. ‘Doug and I are in Auckland now! We have a nine-year-old
(Tayden) and a five-year-old (Chelcee) and the sweetest wee two-year-old (Chynah). She’s very
advanced. I like to use supermarket shopping as a learning opportunity for her – we count the number of
items we have in the trolley, and recite the colours of our produce. Even those capsicums that are two
different colours don’t catch her out! Yesterday she pointed at the eggs and clear as a bell said ‘baby
birdies’, which is a very sophisticated concept for a toddler to grasp. We think she’s probably gifted.
Doug says it must be all the red meat I ate when I was pregnant! Are you still a vegetarian? I always
laugh when I think about that time Tanya sat on you and we made you eat a saveloy LOL! I still see her
and Julz. They put on a baby shower for me and Julz organised the cutest game – she made ice cubes
with a little plastic baby frozen inside each one and put them in our drinks. The first person whose baby
came free of the ice had to shout, ‘My water broke!’ and they won an edible G-string LOL. How many do
you have?’
‘None,’ I email in reply. ‘They ride up my crack.’
‘LOL,’ she says. ‘I meant kids!’
‘None living.’
Silence for a few days, then: ‘You mustn’t give up! My cousin tried for a year and ended up
having to take pills to help her ovulate. They made her very tearful, poor thing – it was really hard on her
– but now she has Aaliyah and Brooklynne, so miracles do happen!  It will be your turn soon, I just
know it!!!’
*
‘Hello Livvy, it’s Mum again. A new couple moved in today. They’re Indian but they’re very clean. You’ve
never seen so many boxes! Dad said they must be opening a dairy. Speak soon.’
*
The Viagra users are sombre at the moment; EverReadyPhil has had a heart attack.
Up_For_It: It could happen to any of us.
drlove: They still don’t know if it was the Vitamin V…
Up_For_it: Bit of a coincidence, though. You gotta wonder if it’s worth it.
drlove: 2 true, brother, 2 true.
I spend a bit of time there and then I flick across to the breath-holders (8:57, man!), the car-crash
survivors (I keep finding glass in my bed) and the button phobics (how do you feel about domes?). Each
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BNZ Literary Awards 2013
Katherine Mansfield Award Winner
night I become someone else; it is a little like dreaming. It’s easy to lose track of who I am, and
sometimes I worry that in my hazier moments – it’s the pills – I’ll ask the haemophiliacs about their
teapots, or the abstinent Christians about their erectile dysfunction. At one point I did start telling the
lactose intolerants about an ox and fig stew, but I think I managed to cover it up.
The moon spreads the garden with frost and the magnolias open their white hands above me.
Against the hedge the lilies gleam; they are birds, the ghosts of birds. The cat moves around in the
shadows, making the curtains drift, pushing books from tables, upsetting family photographs. Raising
phantoms. I can get a little jumpy on my own – I never used to be like this – and I find I can imagine all
manner of terrors. I try not to think about the baby clothes cluttering the glory-box with their smocking
and their pin-tucks, their leaping animals, their bone buttons; I can sense them moving, the brushed
cotton and the downy lambswool rising and swelling, the little pelts beginning to dance.
Nothing is going to happen, I tell myself. There are no ghosts here. But there are.
*
‘I was thinking about full-height windows in the great room,’ I said to Fiona. ‘We saw some in Cézanne’s
studio in France.’
‘Very important to keep an eye on the European trends,’ she agreed. ‘I sold a house with Italian
bathroom fittings the other week. Added ten thousand to the value of the place, just having a square
toilet. Fantastic.’
I made windows of my fingers and framed the fragrant gum trees to the south, the dark hills to the
north-west, as if planning a film about our future. My perspective was all wrong, of course.
‘We’d put the bedrooms downstairs and the main living upstairs, to take advantage of the views,’
I said. ‘Do you think that would be a problem for resale?’
‘I wouldn’t say so – not unless you’re selling to a paraplegic! Ha, ha. No, reverse living is
becoming more common these days. Who wants a view when they’re asleep?’
‘I was thinking we could have the windows on all four sides, apart from where you enter from the
vestibule. It would be almost completely glass. Like something you keep precious things in.’
Fiona clapped her hands together.
‘You’re a scream, you really are. Mike, isn’t she a scream?
Seriously, it’s a pleasure to meet someone with original ideas. I admire original people tremendously.
People who think outside the box. People who march to a different beat.’
‘But we haven’t bought the section yet,’ said Michael. ‘We can’t build the house before we have
the section, Liv. And we don’t need to shift giant paintings like the Cézannes. You can’t even draw.’
He came around, though, and when the house was finished he seemed to appreciate the fullsized workshop with built-in table-saw; as the months passed he spent more and more time there, taking
things apart and then trying to put them back together.
After he left I put up a profile on a dating site. I didn’t post a picture but the messages came anyway,
although almost none were from men my age; they wanted 25-year-olds. My suitors fell into two groups
– horny men in their sixties, and horny students. I chose the latter. Those doing physics and maths
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BNZ Literary Awards 2013
Katherine Mansfield Award Winner
degrees were over-represented, as were those doing computer science; I kept hoping for a classics
scholar, or an anthropologist, at a pinch, but I suppose they were busy boring girls their own age with
their knowledge of Aeolian dialect and their views on monogamy as a social construct. Most of the boys I
met were nursing a Mrs Robinson fantasy, which was fine by me. I would smoke cigarettes and drink
martinis if they wanted me to. I would wear black stockings and pale lipstick. I would pretend to be
someone else, put on a stranger’s skin so I would be loved.
They took me back to their flats, where clothes loomed from the murky floors like drowned men;
here a limp arm, there a drifting leg. There were beer cans and pizza boxes, sagging posters and lone
socks, spotted mirrors, makeshift shelves, drawers too full to close. And there was dust, thick along the
skirting boards and the windowsills and the mantelpieces above the blocked-up fires, dust in the rotting
curtains, dust in the gutted couches. I took it in with every breath, this dust, like fine, fine ashes, and held
it inside me.
One boy still lived at home, and as we were fumbling under his Einstein duvet his mother came to
the bedroom door and shouted, ‘Do you have a girl in there, Jarrod? You better not have a girl in there!’
‘I don’t, Mum,’ he called, stroking my slumped breasts, my greying temples.
It was no way for a woman in her forties to behave. For this I am not sorry. They were beautiful,
those boys, every one of them, with their shaving cuts and their acne scars, their chewed fingernails and
their pimpled backs, their bony feet, their adam’s apples that beat like birds in their throats.
*
I found the clinic on the internet too.
‘He studied under one of the pioneers of IVF,’ I told my doctor. ‘He’s at the cutting edge of the
industry.’
‘You’ve had six tries here,’ she said. ‘Why do you think it will be different with him?’ She made
him sound like a second husband. ‘It’s up to you, of course, but the odds are against you.’
‘What about that Italian woman who had triplets in her sixties?’ I said. ‘What about Octomom?’ I
was waving my hands about, pointing to things I could not see, hoping I was getting it right.
We tried not to get ahead of ourselves, but when we arrived in Vegas we looked around and thought:
why shouldn’t it work for us? Why shouldn’t it be our turn? Why not, when there were fountains and
mermaids and rain forests in the desert?
And we did get further along than we ever had at home. It looked as if we might even have
something to freeze – a back-up plan, we told each other, or maybe a sibling. Let’s not get ahead of
ourselves, we said.
‘Could we see the storage facility?’ we asked the nurse.
‘Where the snow babies sleep?’ she said. ‘I’ll show you when you come in tomorrow.’
I had pictured rows of glass globes, each holding a flurry of babies no bigger than full-stops. In
fact the containers were steel urns, the contents as light as ashes, but when I think of them now – which
is not often – I still like to imagine snow globes, the tiny flakes eddying and swirling and dancing, and if
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Katherine Mansfield Award Winner
you hold out your hand you might be lucky enough to catch a little wisp of nothing on your palm and
recognise it as your own.
*
Michael has been in touch about selling up and Fiona has been circling, leaving passive-aggressive
flyers in the letterbox and cheery messages on the machine. I know I need to start packing. I saw our
wedding photographer at the supermarket one day but he looked right through me. I suppose I have
changed.
I think about my last conversation with Michael before he moved out.
‘Remember that accident we saw?’ I said as we lay in bed. ‘Or didn’t see.’
‘Mm,’ he said, busy with the sudoku.
‘That was a strange thing. There was never anything about it in the news.’
‘Mm,’ he said, trying to work out the pattern, trying to make it all add up.
I wonder if I should mention it again next time we speak, but I don’t know what I would say:
Would it have worked out differently if we’d turned back? Was it my fault? It happened, didn’t it? Even
though there were no pictures, no evidence, it did happen?
The lactose intolerants are excited about a new soy cheese, and some of the teapot collectors have
moved to caffeine-free blends, at least after six p.m. Everyone does without something. There are
flightless birds and scentless roses; there are cash-free transactions and unknown soldiers. There is a
seven-year-old boy whose body is already 80, his little wizened hands cupping pieces of Lego, and there
is a climber who lost both legs to the cold and scaled Everest, and he passed a dying man on the way
up who was dead by the time he came down again. I eat seedless oranges, sugar-free cakes, fat-free
yoghurt; there are paperless offices and starless nights and there is a winterless north; oh, there are
limitless absences; they fill me to the brim.
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