Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for August is Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day (Text Publishing), winner of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. The 14 stories in this collection explore universal themes of love, loss, family and identity, while at the same time asking crucial questions about the possibility of human connection in a globalised world. The following extract is from the story ‘Fracture’.
Below his face was one word: FUCKWIT. It was Anzac Day and Deepak wondered if the timing was deliberate – the naming and shaming of an antihero, or something along those lines – but he didn’t think the perpetrator was capable of such sophistication. The poster was amateurish. The photo had been downloaded from the hospital website and then blown up to ten times its size. Fortunately he was at the hospital early that day – the registrar had called at seven am about a girl who had fractured her arm. When Deepak saw the poster near the main entrance, he immediately tore it down, but he felt dirty – as if he had something to hide – when he buried it in an infectious waste bin.
Public holidays were always busy and Anzac Day was no different. A fractured femur, a supracondylar, two dislocated shoulders, in addition to the usual rubbish from the ward. By ten o’clock that night, as Deepak collapsed into Simone’s bed, the poster was a million miles from his mind. He only thought of it the next morning when he woke up, naked and sticky from sex.
‘Do you know who it was?’ Simone asked when he told her the story.
He shook his head.
‘But do you have your suspicions?’
Deepak thought of the hundreds of patients he’d operated on over the years. Some were disgruntled, of course – you could never please everyone – but nobody stood out to him.
Some patients were disgruntled, of course – you could never please everyone – but nobody stood out to him.
‘Fuck,’ Simone said, twisting her blond hair into a knot on top of her head. ‘I’d have a short list of twenty.’ She stood up and walked to the bathroom. Through the hiss of the shower, she shouted an inventory of all the patients who’d made complaints about her over the years. But it was little comfort to Deepak. Simone was one of the top orthopaedic surgeons in Australia. Last year she’d won a prestigious women’s leadership award. Simone could easily rebuff such an attack. Deepak, on the other hand, was a junior consultant. He had failed his oral exams three times – when he was stressed he had a stutter.
Deepak picked a strand of Simone’s hair off the pillow and draped it over his palm. He’d never been with a blond before. Growing up, he’d joked about it with his friends at high school – other brown-skinned boys who confused screwing a blond with screwing white imperialism – but they were fourteen at the time and none of them had done anything with a girl other than pashing. He wound the hair around his finger, watched his fingertip swell with blood. Here was the hair spun of gold he had read about, as a child, in fairytales. If he said this to Simone, she would baulk at his sentimentality, tell him it was all ammonia-based chemicals. Even so, Deepak couldn’t quite believe he shared his bed with this woman. She had grown up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, spending holidays surfing at Anglesea or snowboarding at Mount Hotham. Deepak had spent summers with his best friend, Prakash, stealing porn magazines from the local milk bar.
Simone emerged from the shower, pink and smooth and sleek. She towelled off in front of him. ‘Don’t worry about the poster,’ she said.
‘Just some nut case.’ Her perfect breasts jiggled and bounced. ‘It’ll blow over.’
Here was the hair spun of gold he had read about, as a child, in fairytales.
Once she left, Deepak got dressed. He’d promised his parents he would visit them. The air outside was crisp, and he put on the beanie and the scarf he kept in his car. He left Simone’s warehouse apartment in Fitzroy and drove to his parents’ house in Sunshine. Deepak’s mother loved telling her family in London she lived in a place called Sunshine. Never mind that it was an old industrial district, or that the nearest beach was fifteen kilometres away. In twenty years her English relatives had never paid a visit.
Deepak’s father was out the front of the house, pruning the rosebushes. He covered his ears with his hands as his son parked in the driveway. ‘I could hear your car all the way from the freeway,’ he said when Deepak got out of the Porsche.
His father shook his head and turned back to his rosebushes.
Deepak went inside. He let the smell of roasting spices and the ‘meadows and rain’ air freshener his mother had been buying for years waft over him. His mum was standing at the kitchen bench reading New Idea before a backdrop of bubbling pots and pans.
‘Did you know that Norah Jones is half-Indian?’ his mother said, putting down the magazine and turning her attention back to the stove. ‘She was born Geetali Norah Shankar.’
Deepak laughed. ‘I’d change my name too if I was called Shankar.’ He lifted the lid of one of the pans. His mum slapped his hand.
‘Shankar is a very common Indian name.’
‘Yeah, I know. But it sounds the same as chancre, which is a genital sore caused by syphilis.’
His mother shook her head. ‘When did you get so dirty?’
Deepak opened the fridge. He took out the orange juice and drank it straight from the carton.
‘They divorced, of course.’
‘Norah Jones’ parents.’
Deepak threw the empty juice carton into the box his mother used for recycling. ‘Who the hell is Norah Jones?’
‘A singer.’ She turned away from her cauldrons and looked at Deepak. ‘Mixed marriages never work. Too many cultural barriers.’
His parents didn’t know about Simone. Once, his mother had asked him about the pretty blond on his Facebook page, but she seemed satisfied when Deepak said she was a work colleague.
Once, his mother had asked him about the pretty blond on his Facebook page, but she seemed satisfied when Deepak said she was a work colleague.
Secrecy was convenient for Simone, too. People will talk, she said if Deepak grabbed her bottom when no one was looking. I’m your boss. But Deepak wondered if it wasn’t more than that. Simone’s father was a member of the Melbourne Club and the owner of a racehorse called Pink Diamond. When Simone showed Deepak pictures of her family and friends at the Melbourne Cup, he couldn’t spot a brown face among them.
For years Deepak’s parents had been setting him up on blind dates with successful Indian women. Deepak played along, because sometimes it was quite fun and deep down he really did want to please them. Lately, though – presumably because of the advancing age of the women he was being set up with – the meetings felt less like bonding sessions about crazy Indian parents and more like interrogation. Nowadays the women had sharp nails and pursed lips. They knew what they wanted in a man, and they were determined to find out, over a three-hour degustation, if Deepak had it.
Simone was fascinated by these introductions and spent hours grilling him about the details. While Deepak knew he should be grateful to have such an open-minded girlfriend, in truth, he was disappointed. Just once, as he described an encounter with one of these prospective partners, he wished he would see a hint of jealousy in Simone’s eyes. But he never did. They were always cold, blue, bemused.
Australia Day is available now at Readings.