Sian Campbell: Heart Necklace

Last week, my partner and I were walking to a gig in our neighbourhood when all of a sudden my partner started running. There was an older man down, in the middle of a side street off a busy main road. There were three or four of us and then there was a small crowd. Someone said they’d seen him get hit by a car. Others said they’d seen him trip and fall of his own accord. I called an ambulance and we as a group tried to ascertain the details. Had someone asked him his name? Could he tell us how old he was, what day it was? Was there someone we could call? Was he on any medication? Heart medication, he said. He was 75. And even though everyone else seemed to be able to understand intrinsically what was going on – that on this particular Friday night this man had had too much to drink and had simply fallen over and was older and couldn’t get up – I heard heart medication and fall and unintentionally processed the events much differently. This man’s heart had been beating way too fast, and it had given out and he had staggered to the ground.

I knew that this is what must have happened to this man because it’s what happened to me. Where’s the ambulance? Someone said angrily and it sounded like six years ago and I wanted to say, it won’t come, it won’t come for so long you’ll think it’s not coming at all, and I remembered a pile of stranger’s coats on my body and leaned down and asked the man if he was cold. Of course he wasn’t. It was practically summer in Melbourne and he was drunk and the ambulance was minutes away and I was the only one who couldn’t understand these things. When the ambulance arrived, they asked him whether he’d had anything to drink. A few, he said and all of sudden my chest was tight and there was a rock inside my throat and I grabbed my partner and we left immediately before I started to cry.

I’ve read of the need that new mothers feel to tell their birth stories, as a way of unpacking what had happened to them, this big, momentous, unexplainable, full-bodied event. For a very long time after my ablation in 2010 and my open heart surgery in 2011 I felt this need also. I talked way too much about what had happened to me. I slid it into conversations awkwardly, desperate for people to understand that someone had held my heart inside of their hands and that I wasn’t really the same anymore. I became deeply interested in the heart itself: what it looked like, how heavy it might be. I wasn’t a very good patient – I didn’t ask many questions, and I still to this day don’t understand the proper anatomy of a heart and the various ways mine had failed. When doctors ask me now what the problem had been, I say, there was a hole, well, two holes actually, and also there were extra pathways wrapped around, and I don’t use any of the words I should use and they try not to show their frustration. When it comes up in conversation organically now and people ask how it had all been fixed I tell them that one day they went in through my groin and burned my heart with lasers while I was awake, and on another day they snapped the bones in my chest like chicken bones and pulled my heart out and stitched it up and put it back in, and I don’t use any of the words I should use and they try not to look afraid or grossed out.

The first Christmas my boyfriend and I were together, he gave me a silver anatomical heart on a chain. Oh, my mother said, he knows you so well. (My parents were the only ones not bored by this unshakeable interest in the heart and the limitations of my body. After all, my mother had grown my heart all by herself, inside of her own body. When my cardiologist had said, birth defect, they must have heard blame.)

The trauma of what happened to me was immense. My body went into such shock it induced a period that my mother had to deal with because I couldn’t go to the toilet properly by myself. I had a physio to help me learn to walk again. I had to pull myself out of bed with a rope. I watched my own blood and piss swirl outside of my body. I vomited violently for longer than a person feels capable of vomiting, suffering from a reaction to the morphine I was releasing into my own body through a handheld button. My stomach was thick with blue bruises from the daily injections, then black when they ran out of space. Last year at home in Brisbane I blew into the breathing apparatus they give you to measure and regain your lung capacity and looked at the plastic level rising to the top, remembering when it couldn’t even hit the bottom mark.

But this trauma is a trauma I’ve written about before. The trauma I haven’t written about is the trauma of being left behind, of being unloved and left out and of not knowing my place in the world. Of my brother and sister not visiting me in the hospital and of the boy I loved for years and who I had thought loved me back in his own way not even texting. Everything was falling apart, not just my body. My friends didn’t really like me and I didn’t like my friends. I had an idea of what my life was meant to look like at 23 and it didn’t look like crying myself to sleep at night in a ward filled with old people or watching Masterchef with my parents, loving with my whole patched up heart people who couldn’t love me with the same ferocity, or a passion for learning and for creating and for loving that I couldn’t see reflected back in almost any of the people who made up my community.

If there is one moment in my life that I can pinpoint as the time when everything changed it would have been that moment. 2011 was the year I became a person, and some of that was a physical evolution but most of it wasn’t. The week before my heart surgery I flew to Melbourne for the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I had attended the National Young Writer’s Festival the October before and it had changed me as a person. I had learned there that the people I was searching for existed, and I chased those people to Melbourne. There was nothing spectacularly life-changing about that festival except that it was there that I learned that it was possible to exist in the world the way that I wanted to, and after the surgery, when I had healed, I became someone who could say yes to the right things and no to the wrong ones and more than that, someone who could do that with intention and clarity. Instead of staying safely inside with people whose size and shape I recognised, I let myself go out into the world and listen when people told me I was welcome there.

I started 2011 at a party filled with people who lacked the capacity to understand me, tired out of my brain from working too much at a burger restaurant and being verbally abused and physically intimidated by a man who had had too much rum. I ended it dancing in matching tiaras with someone who has shown me time and time again in the past six years that the immense love I feel for her is returned, someone I have the pleasure of sharing a stage with tonight. I remember that New Years Eve, knowing that new friends who I continue to be inspired by and grateful for were scattered around Brisbane’s Powerhouse in every direction, wholly feeling the power of knowing and of living inside of one’s community. It’s a power I still get to regularly enjoy and it’s one I don’t think I will ever take for granted.

I don’t wear the necklace much anymore, mostly because it gives me an allergic reaction. But more than the hives that break out on my neck, I don’t feel as much of a need or desire to wear it. I’m not obsessed with the fragility of my body, either physical or mental, anymore. I trust that my body will continue to carry me as long as it is able and that the love I put out into the world will find a way to return back to me.

Even though I don’t wear the necklace much anymore, I still feel something solid when I catch a glimpse of it on my dresser or in a drawer. Just like new mothers become mothers and forget the moment when they became split into two things at once, so too have I forgotten what it’s like to be that broken and desperate.

Earlier this month my partner and I were in Hobart for a wedding. We spent a day at MoNA, and I stood in front of a row of porcelain anatomical hearts. Instead of being interested in the fragility of the medium, instead I was interested in the beauty of something from my own experience I find so intimate and centric to my own identity being shared so publicly as art. The heart has ceased to define me in a way that has limitations; instead now its power is what it can send outwards.

 

Sian Campbell is a freelance writer, Co-Director of the National Young Writers' Festival, and Editor in Chief of Scum Mag. Find her work in Spook, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging and Junkee.

Sam Vincent: JH

When we were kids, my sisters and I weren’t allowed to watch TV during dinner. The risk of seeing John Howard was too much for my parents to bear.

In the months after he became Prime Minister, Mum and Dad wore their opposition proudly: chortling of his imminent demise and slapping a “Don’t Blame Me I voted Labor” sticker on our dusty family van. But as the Howard months turned into the Howard years, their mood turned first to frustration – Dad would refer to Howard no longer as “the miserable little man” but as “the little shit” or “the little dickhead” – and eventually to enforced censorship. Should Howard slip through their low-fi parental block, unexpectedly cropping up on The 7:30 Report (G’day there Kerry) he could expect a missile launched his way before promptly being switched off. My Mum was throwing shoes at John Howard long before it became fashionable on Q&A.

But I for one relished what televised glimpses of John Howard I could manage: those bushy eyebrows, suddenly plucked to make him electorally palatable; the chunky bulletproof vest under his shirt after the Port Arthur massacre; the loud shirts at APEC summits; the louder Wallabies tracksuit on his morning powerwalk. He was a strange sort of fashion icon.

My favourite item in Howard’s wardrobe was his Akubra. Reserved for visits to marginal, rural electorates, it was always accompanied by a Drizabone – irrespective of the forecast – and a pair of RM Williams boots.

What I found most intriguing about the hat was its pristine condition. Flat brimmed, symmetrical and impermeable, it was so different to the hats my farmer father wore in the paddocks of my youth – tatty, smelly, rags of things, luridly stained bright pink with serrated tussock poison and full of holes to facilitate skin cancer growth.

Years later, two weeks before I turned 30, I got a phone call from my Mum. Dad was in an ambulance. He’d had an accident, and the thumb on his favoured hand was broken in several places.

Farming families often need a crisis to start a conversation about succession, and this was ours. In time my Dad’s thumb made a (near) full recovery, but since that phone call I’ve spent one day a week working on the farm.

In honour of this new direction in career, and largely in jest, a friend gave me an Akubra for my 30th birthday. It was, I realised when I took it out of its box and studied it – flat brimmed, symmetrical and impermeable – Howard’s hat.

In the year and half since, JH, as I call it, has come to mark my progress as an apprentice farmer. This, sweat-stained, smelly and misshapen piece of rabbit felt you see today wasn’t always so charming. After hundreds of hours of being sat on, blown off and pulled back on, JH has slowly come to fit my head – and my nascent identity as a primary producer.

The days I spend with my dad on the farm are ones of quiet, wholesome routine: straining up fences. Marking calves. Planting trees. Hanging gates. Rejuvenating creeks. There are rituals to observe: morning tea with Michael Cathcart. Lunch with Eleanor Hall. Afternoon tea with Phillip Adams. Opening the ute door for Suey the sheepdog; swearing at Suey the sheepdog when she refuses to hop in next to us. Me and Dad don’t say much to each other while we work, but I’m sure I’ll look back on these days as among the richest I’ve spent with him. There is a silent transaction underway. Skills are being taught. Knowledge, shared.

Bearing witness to it all, in sun and rain, is JH. Every time I go out to the farm to work, the first thing I do is put on my hat. I’ve come to rely on JH. Maybe a little too much.

Late last year I accompanied my parents to a cattle sale in Victoria’s Western District. Naturally, I wore JH. Among this crowd of beetroot-faced, overweight cattle prospectors, JH was among the dirtiest, biggest, hats. I looked the part – much to Dad’s chagrin. Worse than John Howard, he remarked as we got in the car to leave, now I looked like a member of the Young Nationals.

 

Sam Vincent's first book, Blood and Guts, work of narrative nonfiction about whaling in Antarctica, was longlisted for the 2015 Walkley Book Award. It is currently on the shortlist of the 2015 ACT Book of the Year award, and the 2015 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature. He is a regular contributor to the Monthly, and is currently working on a new book idea.

Ethan Andrews: Cronulla Sharks collector cards

Hanging on my bedroom wall, right next to the door, was a limited edition framed series of Cronulla Sharks collector cards. Between December 2003 and January 2016 it did not move.

The cards featured action shots of some of the Sharks key players that season. Some played for Australia, some became club legends, some have faded into complete obscurity.

For athletes with the profile of say Paul Gallen or Brett Kimmorley, becoming merchandise is a part of the job. But what about the Matt Bickerstaffs and the Pat Gibsons of the world? Even in their prime ten years ago these players were far from household names. Now these guys are mechanics, newsagents, superannuation officers. Why were they on my wall?

For three years I would spoon my girlfriend to sleep at night and make direct eye contact with one time Queensland Origin prop Danny Nutley and not once did it occur to me to take the cards down. They were a constant in my life. As far as Christmas presents go, this was pretty much heritage listing. They were there the first time I dry humped and the last time I wet the bed (events I really wish did not occur in that order).

For those who may be a little unfamiliar with the NRL, let me give you a quick recap. 2003 was a simpler time. A time before players had tattoos and wore hair gel. Before there were celebrity sugar daddies. Before the Sharks named a grandstand after a captain who slept with a teammates wife.

In this simple time, Cronulla were the simplest of teams. I don’t remember the team getting in fights or having scandals back then, and I’d even go as far to say that we were – as far as NRL players go – relatively good role models.

David Peachey was the first person I ever saw acknowledge their Aboriginal heritage. Jason Stevens vowed not to have sex before marriage. Even young Mat Rogers, long before Dancing with the Stars, used to recite a prayer before kicking goals.

Looking back I really think of the Cronulla Sharks of the early 2000s as the nice guys of rugby league. And just like a pathetically nice friend, we lacked substance. We have been around since 1967, and in our 50 years of existence have never won a grand final. A coach once famously said that “waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch light on for Harold Holt.” We are the sporting equivalent of always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

I think there’s a lot to be learned from sport and rugby league taught me a lot when I was a boy. Sometimes things don’t work out, even when they should. But that’s okay because there’s always next year. This was no comfort in 2001 when I cried hysterically after  the Sharks were knocked out of the finals. I remember actually praying to God that He never let my team never lose again. Eventually though, I began to embrace losing more and more, to the point now that as I look back on the times I played competitive sport my fondest memories are of being beaten.

 

In Year 11 my drama class studied ‘Waiting for Godot’. No one knew what the hell was going on. It was weird. Didn’t stack up against Spacejump, that’s for sure.

“Couldn’t he just make something happen?” my classmates asked our teacher

“Yeah, he could”

“So why doesn’t he?”

“It’s meant to be like this. It’s called existentialism.”

“What’s that?”

“All these writers came up with this idea. Because so many bad things were happening in the world they figured life must be meaningless, nothing matters, and God must be dead.”

There were blank faces.

“I thought this class would be more like Rocky Horror and stuff.”

I loved it. It all made sense. Sitting around, waiting for something that mightn’t even be coming. I’d had years of this already. Being a Sharks fan is waiting for Godot. My prayers went unanswered. Cronulla still lose. God must be dead.

 

 

Ethan Andrews is a stand up comedian from Singleton, NSW who has performed at the National Young Writers Festival, Sydney Fringe and Brisbane's Anywhere Festival. He also hosts the live show Madam Speaker, has appeared on ABC Radio National's Now Hear This and is the worst accounting student at the University of Newcastle.

Madeleine Laing: Key

I’m going to say straight up that I’m aware that a key was pretty much the lamest object I could use for this. It’s an overdone symbol for almost anything; it stinks of cliché. I really wanted to do something edgy like a used condom or a bloody pad or whatver. But I don’t have any stories about those things – none that I wanna tell anyway.

I want to tell this story and memory because it’s a small one, but an embarrassing one for me. The kind of embarrassment that comes over you like FUCK in the middle of the street when you’re thinking about something else. I wanted to confront it.

I’m not usually very good at confronting things – since my ex-boyfriend broke up with me almost I year ago I’ve seen him at least once a fortnight, at shows or parties, but have not said one word to him or looked him in the eye. Actually, that’s a lie, on New Year’s Eve he asked me if I had a lighter and I said I didn’t and he turned around and walked away. Closure.

Then a few months after our breakup when I took home someone who I shouldn’t have and, thanks to misunderstanding or carelessness, was put in a lot of physical pain, I just convinced myself it was a dream. Every time I thought about it I said ‘oh, don’t worry about that, that was a dream’. I said it so much the memory feels very far away, and I can see him at shows and give him a hug and ask how’s things.

So I want to tell the tiny story of the night of this key. About the dude in an interstate band that I loved and had written about, who I’d only met once last time they were in town. He wore it around his neck even though he’d moved out of that house months before. This was about six months ago, and it’s been under some papers on the floor behind my chest of drawers ever since because I couldn’t work out if it was sadder to keep it like a creepy stalker or throw it away in a kind of over the top gesture of freedom from what was actually a nice night with a nice boy.

A nice night with a nice boy that I keep replaying over and over in my head as a symbol of what a irredeemable fuckwit I am. I remember how I wrestled his phone out of his hand, thinking that my internet banking would work on it because it had ‘different internet’ to mine.  Then when it didn’t work making him buy me a drink. I remember him kissing me on a plotplant after telling me the bar that I’d suggested was ‘pretty gross’. I remember apologising over and over and him telling me to stop and I could tell I was being annoying because I know I apologise too much but then I feel worse and have to apologise for that.

 I remember us lying in bed and me seeing that he had a tattoo on his forearm and saying in the most obnoxious voice I could muster ‘oy nice tat what’s the deep significance’ and him saying ‘please don’t make fun of me’. I remember wanting to tell him he was really cute and weird and cool but instead I could only make fun of him because I don’t know how to be sincere. I remember asking him two days later before he left Brisbane if he wanted to meet up to get this key back and him not answering the question.

Small things, which, if they happened to someone else, would seem like a typical drunken night out with a fun, if misguided one night stand. I would tell them it was a ‘good story’ and ‘no big deal’. But to myself I say ‘this is why you’ve never been loved. You look good enough sometimes for someone to suffer through your shit to go to bed with you, but really you’re too stupid, too anxious, too awkward, too mean to ever make a connection. You will be alone forever, and it’s only your fault’.

But even writing this stuff now, it feels a bit less grim and a bit more silly. The story of this key. It feels more like just a key that belonged to a cute boy in a very good band that I like that I went to bed with and that’s all. It’s not as much of a symbol, a reminder of everything that’s wrong with me. So maybe later I’ll be able talk about some of those other memories, the ones that actually matter, and make them hurt less too.  

 

Madeleine Laing bookseller and non-fiction writer from Brisbane who writes about food, music, fashion, sex and art – and tries to do it without sounding like a wanker. Her memoir and non-fiction have appeared in Spook and Scum Magazines and she’s a regular contributor to Broadsheet Brisbane, Whothehell.net and The Music Brisbane. She was previously a contributor to and deputy editor for Four Thousand and runs a website about sharehouse dinners called Foob (goodfoob.com). She has no current plans to move to Melbourne.