It is Christmas: this year, exactly, or a few days before. The day outside has slinked into night, a pleasant blackness enveloping my childhood home and allowing our plastic Christmas tree – adored currently with some fifty-something tacky ornaments – to light up in exquisitely bright reds, yellows, blues, greens and pinks.
“We’ll have to put it up on the kiddy table so that Eleanor won’t get at it,” Mum had puffed with me as we’d assembled the beast of a tree some hours early, referring to my youngest niece, a surprisingly sassy and curious young girl just shy of one year old who neither of us want to be crushed by a fake Christmas adornment as big (and heavy) as an adult male.
“Okay,” I reply, lifting up my side as much as I can.
The big night. We pause with baited breath as the children enter the room, curious as to the rainbow-bright lights, and hope that Eleanor doesn’t fancy swinging on a low-reaching branch.
“Look!” Mum says, obvious merriment in her voice. She’s pointing to a nearby pot-plant. There, on the ground, sits Eleanor, her back to the tree and its outrageously cheery display as she reaches into the plant’s pot and pulls out a polished and dull grey rock, turning it to and fro in her tiny hands. Abruptly, she raises the rock above her head, tiny hands and tinier fingers shaking as she suspends the rock in mid-air, as if to crush an invisible tiny assailant beneath her. The moment is oddly tense, suspended in slow motion and expectation.
And then Eleanor, a tiny smile adorning her tiny face, lowers the polished rock down to the linoleum ground and leaves it there, patting it carefully as she does.
It is Christmas: this year, exactly, or a few days before. The day outside has slinked into night, a pleasant blackness enveloping the apartment block I live in and cutting out the natural light that dapples itself over the man-made grassy knolls of our communal back-yard, spilling onto our downstairs neighbours as they finish the day by supping on cheese and wine. As the sun sets, metres of Christmas lights – the cheap kind that I’ve bought from the nearby Coles supermarket; my attempt at a Christmas without the tree – spring to life, spilling their rainbow colours out onto the paved white and wooden surfaces of the apartment as they do so.
“You need anything from the shops, mate?” my housemate Oliver asks from the doorway.
“No thanks!” I reply. A click of a lock, the unseen twist of the door, and he’s gone, and I am alone. The big night. Merry Christmas to me. I flick the television onto some shitty Christmas special, pouring a glass of wine as I do, and sit down on the couch.
And then: an alarm for god knows what, shooting through the atmosphere of the lounge room with an alien insistence so persistent that I nearly throw it across the room in my violent attempts to retrieve it from my pocket. The room is oddly tense as my right hand holds it above my head, caught in desperation and hoping it won’t slip, clutching with madness and insistence.
And as Jim Carrey as the Grinch does something typically stupid on the television in front of me, I lower it to the couch, a tiny smile adorning my face.
And I am electric as the sun sets on the rooftop bar section of Kensington’s Doncaster pub – crappy all round but cheap alcohol, cheap food and terribly close to school – pumped up by my unquenchable exuberance, pleased as punch to be making my first trip overseas in a day and a half and pleased as punch to have my friends around me; to see their faces one last time before my adventure begins.
You’ll be okay, part of me whispers to the smaller part of me that’s already mourning the distance yet to happen; you’ll see them all again in a month.
And too soon the night itself is over, and I think how lucky I am to have found a group of people who I can genuinely feel at ease with; and how rare that is for me.
After we hug goodbye, my friend Jonathan smiles at me: “Take heaps of photos. Post it all over Facebook. Make us all jealous.”
His addendum, some four months later, after we’ve hugged and it’s established I’m definitely still alive: “I didn’t mean in THAT WAY.”
And I am electric as the sun sets around us, my good friend Anastasia and I, heading back from our late night lecture at Melbourne University.
“Oh, Amanda,” Ana sighs, and I clutch my hand to my heart in faux pain.
“She’s so good,” I gesticulate, still clutching my chest with one hand and shaking my hand to the heavens as if praising God for delivering the best lecturer he possibly could to us. “I want to be her friend!”
“Me too oh my god,” Ana replies, the two of us making our way down Swanston St towards a tiny lit-up joint with the words “RICE PAPER” emblazoned in gold on the front window. Not surprisingly, the store sells rice paper rolls and cheap, delicious Singha beer. “Shall we?”
“Of course,” I reply, holding the door open for her like a gentleman. “I can’t believe our Masters is all almost over,” I murmur almost not of my own accord, the upcoming juncture into the real Adult world something that’s been playing on my mind for weeks. Now I’ll have to actually make something of myself.
“One last semester!” Ana confirms, choosing a table to sit at.
“Another two years if I manage to make it into NIDA,” I reply, sounding far too old and, plainly, too grouchy for my age.
Ana pauses for a second, locking eyes with a nearby waitress and attempting to retrieve something from her bag. Then she smiles at me, wide and broad and encouraging. “But wouldn’t that just be amazing?”
And these are some of my wholly imagined Sliding Doors moments; stemming from the belief that, hey, if there’s a reality where I achieved something that I’d wanted for the last decade then almost died, shouldn’t there be one where stayed in Melbourne, unfulfilled, and stayed alive? Where’s the reality where I dye and change my hair in that pointedly fashion-centric and idiotic way Ms Gwyneth Paltrow did in the 1998 film? And will I still meet, in this alternate reality, all the beautiful people I’ve met this year, as the haircut-free Gwyneth still met John Hannah’s character at the end of the film?
I sit in my psychologist’s office, avoiding her eyes as I shuffle around in the uncomfortable black plastic chair pressed hard beneath me. As I shuffle, I absentmindedly attempt to tap my left foot on the ground; a unique form of homework that my physio has given me in order to strengthen and quicken my left leg’s reaction times. No matter how much I do it, my reaction times seem the goddamn same. It’s fucking frustrating. There’s a wealth of information and feeling bubbling quietly and insistently within me, preparing to burst out at any moment, and I know that when it comes – unlike in times or years previous – I’ll let it. When did this woman become my confidant; the keeper of my confused and pained mental state?
“You can say whatever you like,” she prods politely and gently for the umpteenth time. “Nothing will leave this room.”
A pause. I feel on the verge of something complex and unknowable. I stop my foot in mid-air.
“I’m angry,” I say, conversely calm but with an undercurrent of vitriol. “I did it to myself, I know, but I’m fucking angry that I was so close to something I’ve dreamt my whole life of doing and that I didn’t get to finish.”
“You will, though,” she smiles. Anna – her name is Anna. Anna and I haven’t talked about me returning to study, and apparently we haven’t needed to – unlike mine, there’s no doubt in her mind that I’ll get to return. “This is just a detour, remember?”
And yet the car can’t for the life of it get back on track. There’s nothing to do, and I am alone in this, no matter how much people understand and support and are generally lovely.
“When I left Melbourne,” I say, slowly, trying as much to figure it out for myself. “There was a lead-up. Y’know, I got to spend time with the people I loved, I got to say goodbye to each and every one, all on my own terms. But this…” I pause, the inside of my mouth suddenly dry and ugly. My lips twist into a grimace. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. I was ripped from my whole world; a sick, displaced, recovery patient. Scotland, then Germany for two months, and then straight back to Melbourne. Learning how to run, how to type and dental sessions to fix the teeth that hit the road when I did. This is your life now, like or lump it.”
“And you lumped it,” Anna says gently. “Quite admirably. But it’s okay to be angry. You don’t have to lump it all the time. People who’re constantly positive are their own kind of ill,” she smiles. “You’re here, and you want to get back, and you’re realistic. That’s more than I can say for most people.”
As I walk home, earphones stuffed in my ears, I think of how a couple of weeks ago I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere by myself, and how, despite myself, progression is obvious and freeing. I suppose, I think to myself, although there’s really nothing to like, lumping it isn’t that bad. Lumping it is how you get through; how you move forwards, how you get there, in the end.
With that, I cross the road, checking – twice, to be safe – as the strings of Aqua’s “Turn Back Time” start up in the confines of my mind.