More like this

On Wednesday, I take carer’s leave so I can pick up Cal.

Beneath the West Gate Bridge, the lake is glimmering with pink from the algae. It’s a few weeks out from Christmas and some schools have already let their students loose for the summer. A station wagon crammed full of suitcases pulls up alongside me; inside, two girls in the back seat are pressing their faces up against the windows, trying to see the water.

I haven’t seen Cal in months. Not since the sight of Elena’s pregnancy test shocked us into unprecedented joy. Faced with that blue line, we cried—not the kind of crying that brings release, but the kind that sends shudders and convulsions down the spine. We had waited for so long.

I wrote to Cal, pretending to myself that I was our mother. We are well. Elena is going to have a baby. I hoped the letter was reason enough not to visit.

That’s great, Izzy, he wrote back.

He called a few times after that, though never had much to say. I didn’t want to tell him about my new job, about Elena’s ultrasounds, about our scramble to finish the renovations. He didn’t ask. Mostly, he wanted me to check his stuff was still in the storage unit. When I rang his old boss to see if he would do it for me, he said, ‘Ah, love, get him to call me direct next time.’

‘I don’t think you’re on his list,’ I said.

Today, the sky is thickened with clouds like someone spilt ashes into porridge. I never like driving across the bridge. The lanes seem too narrow, the barriers too high, looming overhead like memento mori. Elena avoids the bridge at all costs. She is superstitious and sometimes she sees ghosts. A few years ago, when she was in bed, her grandmother visited to say there was something bad hiding in the fridge. The next day, when I threw up my omelette, Elena was triumphant. I wondered if the visitations would become a regular pattern, but Elena never saw her again. The eggs were the only thing disturbing Ines.

I drive through parkland, dense suburbia, then more parkland. When I finally arrive, they send me through the security gate I remember from last time. The gatehouse is studiously clean. Cal is sitting with his ankles crossed and his hands consigned to his lap, holding his release paperwork. He nods at me. We don’t talk as I sign a bunch of forms, or as we walk back towards my car.

‘New,’ he observes.

‘The Honda was on its last legs.’

He struggles with the seatbelt, pulling it down so hard it locks itself in place. Frustrated, he tugs at it.

‘Relax,’ I snap at him, and the atmosphere changes. The prospect that things will be different now has dissipated, dispersed into the air.

Cal and I look alike. We always have. As babies we were identical, aside from the oversized bow that I wore until my hair was long enough to say girl. When we were thirteen our faces sprouted spores of acne, like mushrooms after rain. Mine cleared up with a daily doxycycline; his, two rounds of Accutane. His lips peeled away for months.

When Cal called a few weeks ago to ask if he could stay with me until he found somewhere else to live, my stomach tensed like a snake was coiled inside it. I told him I would have to speak to Elena, then hung up. She held my hand and we talked until my voice sounded normal again, then I called him back to tell him he could stay with us for a fortnight. ‘After that, we’ll probably need our space back,’ I said. ‘For when the baby comes.’

I wondered if he might say he’d arrange to stay with his old boss instead, or a mate. But he said, ‘Cool. I’m really grateful, Iz.’

The drive home is morose, silent. Cal says nothing as I turn into my street, to a house that must look very different to him now that Elena and I have dug the front garden into a new shape and painted the windowsills blue. As soon as I switch off the engine, the front door flies open and Elena comes out, pretending she was on the point of taking out the bins. ‘Welcome back,’ she says, her voice bright and pitchy.

‘Cheers,’ Cal says.

Already, she can’t make eye contact. I know that since I left her this morning, she will have been doing her dance of sitting, and pacing, and turning lights on and turning lights off. She says, ‘I just realised we’re out of milk.’

‘The IGA’s open,’ I tell her, fumbling with my keys. My hands feel clammy.

‘Do we need anything else? Bread?’

‘Peanut butter,’ I remember suddenly. Cal eats a lot of peanut butter. He perks up hearing this, his ears standing to attention like a rabbit’s.

‘See you soon,’ she says, and takes off almost at a run, like stomach is propelling her away.

I show Cal to the room where the boxes of newspaper clippings and garage-sale paperbacks are piled up in the corners. Against the wall, the shitty foldout bed from the op shop is set up. He recognises the faded blue sheets and the towels: they came from Dad’s place.

‘I miss him,’ he tells me.

‘Me too,’ I say, though I know Cal misses him in a different way. No one loves you in the way a parent does. He used to spend all his weekends with Dad, eating dinner in front of Deal or No Deal or watching the footy or playing Go Fish.

The silence between us settles into awkwardness. I wonder whether he wants to be alone, whether he’s feeling as uncomfortable as I am. He sits down on the foldout, which I take as my cue to leave, but then he stands up again.

‘Can I use your phone?’ he asks.

‘Sure,’ I say without thinking. Then I pause. ‘Are you— ’

‘I’m just calling the boss,’ he clarifies.

He dials and for a moment, I think about listening outside the door. Instead I sort through the mail and put away the dishes. I can hear the heartbeat of the washing machine in the next room. When Elena comes back from the supermarket, Cal is in the backyard having one of my cigarettes and I am checking my browser history. Elena’s mother, who cried when Elena first told her she was marrying me, has a newly acquired Facebook account and sends us both a cat photo several times a day. ‘Just ignore her,’ Elena told me. ‘Everyone in the family does.’

‘Did you get onto him?’ I ask Cal as he pulls the sliding door open again and comes back inside.

‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘He said I can start work again tonight.’

I glance at Elena. This is a better outcome than either of us could have hoped for.

‘Lunch?’ Elena offers. Her voice has lost its tremor. ‘Izzy made shepherd’s pie last night, we’re having leftovers.’

‘Nah, thanks,’ he says. ‘Gonna go for a walk for a bit.’

‘Would you take the envelopes by the door with you?’ I ask. ‘There’s a post box round the corner, in front of the library.’

He borrows a backpack. Elena tells him to take a banana: ‘They’ll go bad before I can eat them all; Izzy doesn’t like them.’ He doesn’t like them either, but he takes one anyway. As the front door clips shut with a click, the breath in Elena’s chest comes whooshing out, and she says it:

‘He’s your brother. At the end of the day, he’s still your brother.’

‘That’s the problem.’

She hugs me, hard. Then she dons an oven mitt and pulls the shepherd’s pie out, the day-old potato starting to crust, turning brown round the edges. She won’t use the microwave anymore.

‘Is he allowed access to the internet?’ she asks me suddenly.

‘Only on approved devices,’ I say. ‘So they can monitor what he does. Who he contacts.’

For a moment, it seems we are both pausing on the brink of saying something more. I think of the library’s computers, the ones where you don’t need a card or any kind of ID if you’re using them for fifteen minutes or less. I consider letting the utterance fall out, that the library is a place that will track internet usage, surely. But I don’t, because I can’t be entirely sure. Instead I say: ‘If it helps, I think he’ll be gone by the weekend. He’ll find someone to move in with.’

‘I know, I know, it’s terrible. I hate how much it upsets me. You can’t help it. I just hate it.’

‘I hate him,’ I tell her, quietly, but she knows in the way I mean. I hate him only because he’s my brother. I hate him because I don’t have any other choice.


For the last five months, I haven’t been able to picture his face well. Whenever I did, it was always him as a child, or an adolescent. The time he had appendicitis and no one believed him. In choir robes, his brow furrowing over the lyrics. The lady in the supermarket who gushed over him: ‘You have such a handsome son,’ she told our mother, and he beamed because it was so rare that anyone said anything nice about him.

In high school his nickname was Creepy Cal. Sometimes it was Cal the Creep. There was this girl in our grade, Jodi: long legs, all eyes and lips, what teachers and parents tactfully called ‘an early developer’. Boys squirted her with their water bottles to see her dress turn see-through. She lost her virginity at the Year Ten formal; by Monday morning her name was scrawled all over the walls of the girls’ toilets, with the date and time, 1.04 am, next to it. She got called all the usual names: bike, doorknob, Bunnings toolkit—with Jodes, everything gets a screw. Then one day in the middle of a chem class, she screamed, with the fury of years of harassment: ‘Cal! Stop looking at my tits!

For some reason the teacher sent them both to detention, but Jodi regained her dignity that day. Suddenly she was a hero, a badass, someone not to be fucked with. Meanwhile Cal couldn’t walk up the stairs without being accused of perving up the girls’ skirts from the floor below until the day he graduated. I never actually saw him do this, but I was rarely looking for him. Ours was a big school; there were students in our year who didn’t know we were related. Our surname isn’t uncommon. Every speech night, there were twitches of surprise at seeing us together with our parents.

Mum didn’t know anything about Jodi. But she knew he wasn’t happy. ‘What’s wrong?’ she begged me. ‘Why doesn’t he have any friends?’

I told her that he liked being on his own.

And there it is. The terrible, terrible thing. When a phone call comes through telling you that your brother’s been arrested, most people would think: Surely this is a mistake. But I didn’t. I hung up the phone and Elena said, ‘What is it?’ and I replied, ‘Cal’s done something.’


I couldn’t say it. ‘Something awful.’

Elena takes a nap after lunch. I hang the washing on the line. Cal comes back and asks me if I can request an Uber to drive him to St Kilda.

‘What for?’

‘Been talking to a bloke about a flat,’ he says. He holds up a piece of paper with an address.

‘Do you want me to drive you?’ I ask.

‘Oh, if you want.’

His mood has lifted. He doesn’t want to be living here either, but I am all he has now.


While I was doing my second semester at university, I moved out of home and into a share house with Lana, the girlfriend I’d met at my first Pride. I pretended it was because I hadn’t come out to my parents and wasn’t ready to, but that was only half the story. The truth was that Cal was repeating Year 12, and it was likely he might not pass. I was feeling fettered.

In the share house, we covered the fridge with rainbow stickers and stuck all our Pride pins on a corkboard. Shivangi, our housemate, was an artist who hung canvas sheets from the walls and painted them with giant, human-sized wings.

We had no heating, but we made it through the winter with cheap red wine for warmth and the embrace of Lana’s flannel sheets. Lana had a father she’d never met and a mother who didn’t want much to do with her now that she was eighteen. She told me she envied my home life, my loving parents, what she saw as my white-picket-fence childhood.

When Mum visited, she assumed Lana and Shivangi were a couple and didn’t comment on our house’s lavish, exuberant queerness. She looked tired. Her skin had that roughened, parched look that I only got when I had a hangover.

‘Cal’s having a tough time,’ she said.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘He went to the GP, but they said he was fine.’

I was quiet. ‘Should I come home?’

‘Of course not,’ she said. ‘Look how happy you are here. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about you.’

Lana and I broke up a year later; she and Shivangi wanted to move to Berlin, and I had a passing suspicion they’d been sleeping together for a while. Rather than go back home, I found a new share house in St Kilda. To my surprise, one of the girls living in the building next door was Jodi.

Isobel!’ she yelled after me one day as I was walking to the tram stop on Acland Street. I almost didn’t recognise her: she had dyed her hair and cut it short like Joan of Arc.

She was in good spirits. She told me she was studying to be a paramedic.

‘Wasn’t high school the worst?’ she said as we got on the tram. ‘I feel bad for your brother, having to do an extra year of it.’

I was startled. It was the first time she’d acknowledged his existence since they’d been in detention together. She went on talking.

‘I didn’t mean to ruin his life, you know. It was those fucking guys, Richie and all that, they drove me crazy. If I saw them again, I’d punch them. I’m still mad they got away with it.’

‘Jodi, you didn’t ruin his life.’

‘Well, I know. But, still, I feel bad. He just seemed like such a sad sack.’

I had forgotten this about Jodi: her brusque, almost childlike directness. She kept talking to me all the way into the city, and when she got off, she called out to me, ‘We should hang out soon!’ We never did, but I was happier for having seen her.


I haven’t been back to St Kilda much since I lived there. Today the streets are awash with the hipsters I’d expect to see in Fitzroy, crowded onto tables and barstools, sinking frothy pints and eating zucchini chips, their faces turned upwards like seals to catch the sun. Cal wants to visit an address on Alma Road. He asks me if I want to come and look with him.

‘Do you know much about this guy?’ I ask, wondering how desperate he might be for a flatmate.

‘Nah, not really,’ says Cal.

The building turns out to be an old high-rise, with shuddering elevators and brownstone steps straight out of The Brady Bunch. The bloke he is meeting is older than I expected, possibly in his sixties. It’s not entirely clear whether he rents the apartment or owns it. His furniture is sparse and mismatched, like the common areas in a student house: battered brown leather couch, two coffee tables, that narrow bookcase from IKEA that everyone has when they first move out of home. There is no soap in the bathroom or the kitchen, only bottles of dishwashing liquid. I look for family photos; there are none. The available room is furnished with a single bed and mattress.

I ask the man, whose name is Douglas, what he does. He says he’s mostly retired, but used to have his own business. Now he volunteers for the RSL and does the occasional plumbing work. ‘Got to keep my hand in,’ he says. ‘What do you do?’

‘Security,’ Cal says. ‘Night work.’

‘And you?’

‘I’m a copywriter.’

‘This is my sister, Izzy,’ Cal clarifies. ‘I’m the one moving in.’

‘Ah, bossy older sister, huh?’ He winks at me. ‘I have one of those.’

I want to ask him if he has children, or grandchildren. It doesn’t seem likely. Cal asks if the bed frame and mattress in the room is for sale.

‘Yeah, mate, all yours, no worries.’ If Douglas is surprised that a thirty-three-year-old man has no furniture of his own, he doesn’t let on.

We say our goodbyes and head back down in the elevator. I say to Cal, ‘He seems nice. What do you think?’

‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘He seems all right.’

As we drive back up Punt Road, all is silent in the car. I feel a little like a social worker. Food, water, lodgings, transport: these, I have decided, are my responsibilities. I will pretend this base tier of needs is the only one he has, the only one I have ever acknowledged he has. I don’t know who his friends are, if he has them, or if any of them stayed in contact with him while he was inside. I know there’s a group of guys he goes to the casino with sometimes because it’s the only place you can get a beer at seven-thirty in the morning.

After her cancer came back, Mum asked us to bring her the family photo albums. Dad was staying in an Airbnb across the road, and I didn’t think he was up to the task, so I went by myself to the vacant house where Cal and I had grown up. The albums were in a cupboard next to boxes upon boxes filled with the ephemera of our childhoods: grade reports, preschool drawings, collages, old textbooks, a copy of The Great Gatsby thick with annotations and Post-it notes, birthday cards, the series of cheap scrapbooks I used as diaries.

In those diaries, I found all my most selfish, unmasked teenage emotions: the disgust I felt at the thought of having sex (with men, the diaries didn’t say); the torrent of abuse with which I described my face, my body, my skin, my soul; the myriad of entries that concerned Jodi, directly or indirectly—these fascinated me especially, for how could I have forgotten about my crush on her? And then entry after entry on Cal. How I couldn’t believe he was my brother, how he was an embarrassment, a waste of space. How I couldn’t bear to be seen with him. How I wished he would die.

Reading them, my blood turned cold like water. I wondered if my parents had ever looked inside.

After Mum died, Dad followed not long after. Elderly men often struggle to live without their partners. In the months following his funeral, the distance between Cal and me seemed to grow. Elena had started IVF and both of us were consumed by it: the worry of the expense, the toll it took on her body, the fear that it wouldn’t work, that we weren’t meant to have a child. I called Cal whenever I remembered, which wasn’t often.


That night, when we go to bed, Elena and I kiss and hold onto each other more tightly than usual. She strokes my hair while I rest my hand on her stomach, waiting to hear it flutter. We don’t know if we’re having a boy or a girl. Elena took it for granted that we would wait for our baby to decide, but I selfishly wish we could find out now.

‘If you don’t want Cal here, I’ll kick him out,’ I tell her.

‘I don’t want him here,’ she says, ‘but you shouldn’t kick him out.’

‘Why not? Why do I always have to be looking after him?’

‘Because maybe next time it won’t be a cop. Maybe next time it’ll be worse.’

She is crying and I am too. Neither of us really know if Angie was the first.


During the months when Elena and I were preparing our house for a baby we didn’t know would come, Cal was spending his time exchanging lengthy emails with a teenager in Queenscliff. They became friends in an online simulation game where they had both chosen to be musicians. Angie played the electric guitar and Cal was a cellist.

Cal’s interest in her grew the more he learned about her. Angie was in Year Nine and had a mean stepfather who controlled her life. She worried a lot about her grades. Her stepfather didn’t allow her to have boys over to the house. In his responses, Cal was sympathetic, almost paternal.

They corresponded for months. There wasn’t much to it, at first. He wanted to know all about her life. Who were her friends? What was her school like? Did she have a favourite subject? He offered to help her with her homework. Not knowing how to write an essay on Macbeth, he paid someone on the internet to do it for him.

The messages started to become more intense, more passionate. Angie confessed that she was a virgin, as if she were deeply ashamed of it. Her best friend at school had a boyfriend and Angie felt like she was being left behind. Cal told her that he knew what loneliness felt like, that he was missing his father and that he’d never had a girlfriend. ‘We’re perfect for each other,’ he wrote.

He wanted to know what she looked like, but she was nervous about sending him a picture. ‘I’m ugly,’ she said. ‘You’ll stop talking to me when you see me.’

‘I bet you’re beautiful,’ he wrote. She relented. They began exchanging photos regularly, but it took a little longer for her to trust him with one that showed her face.

‘Sometimes I think about us being together,’ he wrote. ‘I picture you before I go to sleep.’ He described how he would touch her if he could. Angie expressed sadness that she was growing further apart from her friends. She wasn’t sure what they would think of her relationship with Cal.

In the end, they arranged to meet at the McDonald’s in Ocean Grove, near the house of one of Angie’s friends. The night before, Angie’s mother noticed her daughter was acting strangely and went through her phone after she’d gone to bed. When Cal arrived at their meeting point, a cop was waiting for him and he was charged with possession of child abuse material and with using a carriage service to procure sex with a minor. He was sentenced to six months in jail.

A month before Cal was due to be released, my hairdresser told me about a man in Sydney who’d been jailed for raping his eleven-year-old niece. After he was reported to the police, they went through his computer and found hundreds of images of more children being abused, many of whom he had connected with online. My hairdresser said paedophiles should be locked up for life. ‘Would you want one living next door to your kids? They never get better, these little shits. They bide their time and then do it again.’ I paid her and went home to vomit my guts out.

When Elena and I decided to let him stay with us, it was a conversation of at leasts, to the point where that phrase started to sound made-up. At least it was only messages. At least we were sure, we hoped, that he’d never done anything like that before. At least they caught him in time; at least it hadn’t been a child. (‘You sure about that one?’ I said to Elena, and she said, horrified, ‘No, no! I didn’t mean that! I just meant, you know, Angie wasn’t a toddler…’) While he was awaiting trial, Elena insisted that I spend Christmas Eve with him, wherever he happened to end up. I must have looked sceptical, because she added: ‘Izzy, you’d never, never forgive yourself if he—’

But we both agreed that once our baby arrived, Cal would never come to our house again.

The truth is I don’t know what he is thinking. I have never known what he is thinking.


Outside our bedroom door, the hallway is quiet. Later, at ten o’clock, Cal will go off to work. Before jail, he’d spent the last six years in front of camera monitors, watching people pass by the driveway to a multi-level storage unit. He works alone. I’m sure he spends most of the time sleeping. One time when he mentioned how much he earned in a fortnight, Elena looked at me quizzically. ‘I think that’s below minimum wage,’ she said. ‘For a casual.’

‘How much is your hourly rate?’ I asked him. He didn’t know.

At 11pm he’ll clock on. I used to be surprised when he said he didn’t listen to podcasts. It turned out he spent a lot of those hours talking to Angie or playing computer games on his laptop.

I open the door to the bedroom where Cal is sitting on the foldout. His shoes are still on. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself.

‘I’ve got an old iPod mini that still works,’ I tell him. ‘You can take it to work tonight, if you need something to listen to.’

‘Cool,’ he says. ‘I might head in early, give you your space.’

He picks up the backpack. I watch as he walks away from me, towards the front door.

Read more from New Australian Fiction 2021or buy a print or ebook copy.