The blade of light passes over, silently cutting. Watchful.
As the train shudders away from the platform, Jwairiya leaps from the carriage onto solid ground. Ladders jump down her stockings like spiralling nucleotides. She remembers a little alien rocking in the ultrascan. Inhabiting its own universe inside her before its evacuation. She imagines herself opening up, releasing its negative light into the world. She feels like a vessel.
Where is the qibla? The stars have become invisible. You’re so far away, there’s no direction to pray in. Back in Asmara the crowded horizon offered up handfuls of stars and arrows pointing home, hell that way, heaven the other. But here there is no distinction. She only hopes that the disorientation will pass. Dizzy, she makes the points realign. She recalls how in science encyclopaedias, the dusty stars of nebulae are actually nurseries of gaseous giants, crowding around the lactescent disc of the Milky Way.
Jwairiya remembers her first taste of a Galaxy bar – one of many new tastes. It was overwhelmingly sweet, slippery and cloying. She looks down into the gutter by the steps where rainbows ooze from an oil slick into the whispering stormwater pipe (it must be raining somewhere). She leans back against the brick wall and adjusts her coat, her breathing stertorous and distant.
“Excuse me,” a voice scratches her windpipe.
A group of strangers clad in fishnet and leather reel out from the passing crowd. “How are you doing love, ok?” asks one, a tall goth girl with myriad piercings.
“I’m sick,” Jwairiya’s voice arrives entangled in loops.
Georgie’s kohled eyes grow wide as she touches Jwairiya’s hand. “What kind of sick?”
As if a sensor is turned on, Jwairia shives with the consciousness of a stranger’s eyes pressing in like a suit of chainmail. Found.
“Let’s get you to a hospital,” the girl whips out a brick Nokia phone, the screen flecked with jewels of rain, while her friends hang back and toke invisible scorch marks in the air. As she embarks on autopilot, curtains of fear strafe Georgie’s pre-made plans. You can never separate yourself from it. Sometimes her housemates wake to find her shouting into an invisible phone, asleep, unpacking problems and packing them back up again. Her subconscious resolves what her clients cannot.
“N-n-no,” Jwairia struggles to say. “Don’t tell the police.”
The girl grabs her wrist. “Let’s sit down,” she says authoritatively. “I’m Georgie.” she adds, distracted. Georgie’s thoughts jerk backwards and the find the deep grooves of memory, short-circuited by cognitive behavioural techniques.
That time at the party when everyone else was out except Georgie, she had to deal her number was up but couldn’t touch his wrist, didn’t want to feel the fresh wounds and hurt so instead call triple zero with fingers like they were skidding on ice. These ridiculous cryptic numbers. Why can’t there just be a giant ear in in the sky waiting to save him? Save me. Listen to me. Pick up the phone. There’s a guitar lying next to him, devoid of electricity, his guitar, our guitar. He taught me to play the guitar. Pick up the phone. Pick up. Pick up pick up pick up before it’s too late. 000. Ambulance.
Georgie’s a drug and alcohol counsellor, but can already taste the gin at the party where she’s playing as surrogate drummer. Cocoons of bitterness, always the second choice, unfold into butterflies of abandon as the band link cables and kiss each other’s wine-stained lips. Their songs cover feminism, anarchism, vandalism – a prism of “isms” refracting amplifier feedback.
During gigs the electric currents spit at her fingers from the shot wiring of the guitar. It’s an old instrument which she christened after her first love, who taught her how to play. She’s now got a score of wrinkles on her forehead (only in her late twenties) and a ship tattoo on her clavicle with St Elmo’s Fire burning at the mast.
“What’s your name?” Georgie asks the woman.
She gives no reply. The trapdoor of her throat is suddenly breached, and she bends forward lethargically to puke. It’s full of pellets. Shit, Georgie thinks. She feels panic stealing up around her jaw and twiddles her frenulum ring.
“What did you take?” she asks the woman, who shakes her head. The gears shift as frustration usurps fear in Georgie’s mouth, letting the old language creep in. “Come on. What did you take? If you don’t want me callin’ the ambos, coz I know you don’t want the cops comin’ after ya – tell me.”
She forces her gaze into the foreigner’s eyes like a train through a tunnel. There’s no language to express. The x-ray scan may still be radiating into the margins of a filing cabinet, but the baby was orally uncodified. Jwairiya unfolds a packet of empty blisters and passes it to Georgie.
She almost laughs, cruelly. “You know that that’s the worst way to go, don’t you? Your internal organs will start to break down after three days of cramps,” Georgie says. “What’s your name?”
The woman closes her eyes. “Jwairiya,” she whispers.
“Ok, is it ok if I call you Jay? Jay, let’s go to the hospital. Jay.”
The shortened, simplified repetition of her name is comforting. She wants to vomit again. She wants to feel clean and empty. As they get up from the bench, Georgie explains to the rest of the group leaving towards the bridge, the goths’ black tutus wafting above stubbled knees.
The taxi driver doesn’t ask questions. He noses through the traffic with veiled frustration, chewing gum, jabbing the meter reader before they reach the curb. In the emergency room it smells like Play-Doh and somebody is holding flowers, like a medieval doctor trying to ward off disease. They remind Jwairiya of childhood games. Her neighbours in Asmara would show her how to make fairy rings in the garden. They would pluck flowers from the beds and lay the petals on the cracked asphalt in a circle. Then the kids would ask their parents if they could play in the street, waiting for the fairies to leave an offering. Sooner or later a treat would appear in the centre of the circle: a dish of apricots, a wheel of figs, a candy bar. Jwairiya soon cottoned on that the treats were sourced from their kitchen, when she found one day a packet of dates, her mother’s favourite fruit. She reasoned that fairies must be well-meaning thieves. They gave magic, but stole things from the real world.
He also played games. He stole things from her.
But Jwairiya feels a little less ghostly as her stomach is pumped. The metal in Georgie’s face glints in the harsh fluorescent light, and as she focuses on Georgie’s bolted ears, she thinks about the unnerved pain of vessels passing through your body. She refuses a blood test. Georgie shares a packet of Red Rock Deli crisps from the vending machine and after forms are signed, they’re told to go home.
They leave the hospital together. As the cloud fleece tears away to reveal the stars, the points emerge, shuffled like a pack of cards. Georgie’s share house is under the flight path and its surfaces twinkle with candles. Jwairiya wonders if she too is in mourning.
While she sleeps, Jwairiya dreams her wrists are coiling with light. Her waist is dissolving. Her ligaments unravel like old rubber bands. In her womb an unmoored raft of cells overlaps, like disco lights or glitter soaring through a bottlenecked freeway, sprinkled with light from a distant sun. Its pulse has swished over her again, like a curtain call.