More like this

Your alarm goes off, and before the old you can hit snooze the new you has sat up and hit the stop button hard to chase any soft thoughts away. If you sleep in, if you don’t go for a run now, you’ll set yourself back and you won’t be any good all day. Do this first good thing now and the rest will be easy. Baby steps can run a marathon.

You flick the lamp on, lace your running shoes up and make your single bed, tucking everything in tight. Soft beds breed soft men. The bed’s out from the wall—must have been those dreams making you toss and turn again. You knee the bed flush into the corner and sniff your pillow. You strip the sweaty cover off and chuck it in the laundry on your way out.

The streetlights pop off as you jog down the street. Ahead of you, a thin slice of horizon brightens, and the black sky around it silvers, bruises, then bursts into orange flames.

Closer to town, you pass the big flash houses emerging in the dawning light. You wonder for the fifteenth time what nice things they’ve got locked up inside. And for the fifteenth time you punch the thought down, leaving it for dead on the side of the road. This is easier to do each time. You pick up the pace, light-footed.

Nobody’s at the park except for a few fishermen on the jetty. You do your circuit, focusing on your arms today: push-ups, pull-ups, burpees. Your muscles are growing powerful and hard; soon you’ll be able to lift your own weight.

When you’re finished your heart is pelting and every pulse point vibrates, and you feel so good that no bad thoughts can get anywhere near you. This is the time you feel safest outside, so you sit and enjoy it while it lasts. The river’s skin glimmers in the early sun. The shedding bark on the eucalypts reveals satin-smooth wood glowing opal in the light. One of the fishermen catches a bream. He scales it quickly, divesting it of its armour. Hopefully they’re still biting later when you come back down with Dad.

You’d like to stay here for longer but Terry’s coming at nine. You run back home with tunnel vision, ignoring the flash houses, burgeoning light brightening behind you, chasing the shadow shortening in front of you.


As you approach your house, a bit of the old shame claws around inside you. The dirty paint is peeling, long flakes clinging to the cheap wood. But, look, at least the place is tidy these days without all the shit in the yard for everyone to see. Everything’s packed up under the house now being eaten by mould and mice.

Maybe you can see if someone’s got some spare paint lying around for you to spruce it up a bit for the old man. He’d like that. When you feel stronger you should put the feelers out. You know from last time that things can go wrong if you start getting big ideas too soon. Wait and see how you go for a few more weeks.

Inside the house the mustiness hits you in the face. It’s an old person smell, which doesn’t make any sense because your dad is only forty-four. But, then again, that’s nearly old age for a blackfella.

Or maybe it isn’t anything to do with age—maybe it’s the closeness to death, the mustiness of dying. Might be the smell of cancer eating through your old man’s lungs and excreting the waste, or maybe it’s the residue from radiation burning through the cancer.

You go check on him. He’s still asleep, wheezing in and panting out. He looks so different. So fragile. You open up some windows to clear his burnt-out breath atomising through the house.


Under the hot shower you scrub your fingers through your scalp and run sudsy hands over ink-stained skin. There’s no cohesion to your canvas as none of this work was planned or designed. The whole thing was ad hoc—expanded on visit by visit, stint by stint, changed in small increments to what it is now. Most of them are blackwork—amateur renderings of hard-arse imagery—except for the oldest one, which is just shy of twelve years old: a bright-red heart tattooed over your chest with RIP MUM inked inside. The heart’s black outline has grown fuzzy. Ink bleeds across the lines.

You should ring your sister and see if she’ll bring the kids up soon. You’d like to see them more, but you’re not allowed over at her house these days. You know she does love you, but that didn’t stop you hocking her shit the last time you were out.

You missed them all inside—missed her warm hand on your shoulder, supportive, as the jarjums gurgled away in your lap, or played with your hair and traced your tatts, crawling all over you as though you were a statue. Well, you are in a way. You gotta be. Gotta be hard and still, otherwise everyone will think you’re up to no good.

You wipe the steam off the mirror and check yourself out from every angle. Not bad at all. You don’t look like a walking skeleton anymore but you’re still as hard as you were inside. Best to stay this way so as not to become soft.

You’ve got a good day ahead of you today. You like to have your days planned out. If you control the input, you can predict the output. Makes it easier to stay on track.


Your old man’s awake, sitting up in bed. ‘Morning, Dad.’ You hand him his brekky and put his tea down on the bedside table.

‘Morning, mate.’ He takes the plate. ‘This looks healthy, aye?’

‘You are what you eat, aye.’

‘True. You been out already?’ His words wheeze out softly. You can’t remember what his voice used to sound like, only that it was hard and loud.

‘Yep, just down the park and back today. Bit sore from yesterday still.’

‘Jeez, you’re keen! Good on ya, I reckon, but don’t push yourself too hard, aye? Don’t wanna injure yourself.’

‘Nah, I’ll be right. If I don’t train every morning, I’ll start losing it again.’

He doesn’t argue.

You munch away on your brekky together, slurping your cuppas. You measure your dad’s pills out into his wide, crinkly palm. He gulps them down with the rest of his tea like his life depends on them.


The house phone rings. It’s Terry.

‘Listen, mate, I’m sorry. I know I’m supposed to be there soon, but I have to push our visit back a bit. Something’s come up. You know how it is.’

‘Yeah, no worries. What time you reckon?’ you ask.

‘Maybe lunchtime, give or take an hour. See how we go.’

Your heart sinks. ‘No worries, see ya then.’

You breathe out slow as you hang up the phone. You’ll have to rearrange everything, push some stuff back. You go into your dad’s room.

‘That Terry?’ he asks.

‘Yep. Said he’ll be by later on. We’ll have to go fishing this arvo instead. Or we could go now, if ya want?’

‘Look, mate, I’d love to, but it takes me a while to get going of a morning.’ Dad looks out the window. ‘You know how it is.’

You nod and leave the room.

Well, now you’ve got a few hours to kill before Terry gets here. You like the idea of going for a walk but you don’t trust yourself yet. You’ll need to do something to stop yourself chewing on old grudges all day, grinding them to dust between your teeth.

You go through your dad’s old work stuff under the house and find a pair of scrapers, and after coming back around the front you start chipping away at the paint. Flake by flake it peels and fragments float onto the grass, the house shedding skin like a snake. The panels underneath breathe out relief at their unmasking. Soon you are sweating, water from inside you becoming clouds. The sun swims into the sky, higher and higher as you work your way around the house, sweat dripping down and cleansing you from the inside out.

Dad sits on the balcony carving his new didge, bringing serpentine shapes out of the wood. He doesn’t carve much these days. Growing up, there were always lots of his pieces around the house. Not counting the ones you hocked for your own habit; he’s had to sell most of them off to help pay for his treatment.

He tried to teach you a few times over the years, but you never had the patience for it. Or for him. Maybe you should ask him to teach you again so the tradition stays alive.

You make some sandwiches and bring them out, and you eat lunch together, admiring each other’s work. He goes to take the plates inside but reaches for the car keys he left out on the table instead. He pockets them without looking at you, then gathers up the plates. You both get back to work.


Later, Dad calls out from the verandah. ‘That was Terry on the phone. He said he’ll be by later. More like three.’

Your muscles tense. ‘So you wanna go fishing now?’

‘Nah, no point now, the tide’s out.’

Your mouth tingles. ‘How bout this arvo? With Terry?’

‘Nah, it’ll be too late for me. We’ll just go tomorrow, eh.’

Anger spikes in your brain like a pickaxe. ‘Yep. No worries.’ You go back to flaying the house, trying not to think about anything. Where thoughts go, energy flows.

Dad sits on the verandah playing his new didge, but he can’t hold a song for very long these days. He stops. The only sound is you hacking the paint off. You can feel his eyes on you. You might as well still be locked up.

‘You want me to show you a better way?’

‘Nah, I’m nearly done.’

He keeps watching. No wonder your sister moved out soon as Mum died.

‘You gonna clean all these paint chips up or what?’

‘Yeah, when I’m finished.’

A panel of wood splits and a splinter penetrates your finger. Blood stains the cheap timber.

‘Be careful with the house, eh, it’s all I’ve got left.’

Your tongue bursts. You bite it.

When the sun sinks behind the house you go inside for a cold shower, leaving the paint chips all over the lawn.


Terry knocks on the door. As you let him in he shakes your hand.

‘Sorry about the bum steer before, mate. One of my other clients has been running amok. Not like you, aye? You good?’

‘Yeah, went for a good run this morning,’ you say. ‘And been prepping the house to paint it.’

‘I thought the place looked different! That’s the way, mate. Your old man around? Might have a yarn with him first if that’s okay.’

‘No worries, he’s in the lounge room. I’ll go make us a cuppa.’

‘Cheers, mate. Just the usual for me.’

You hear the old men greet each other Goori way: budda this and budda that. You flick the kettle on, measure out two heaped teaspoons of International Roast for yourself. Tea for Dad and Terry.

Your mug is chipped and stained, with Aboriginal serpent designs on it. It was a present from your sister when you started TAFE, but you didn’t finish and you ripped her off not long after. You should ring her soon.

You try and listen to what your dad is saying to Terry, but the water in the kettle rolls over and over itself and whistles out. The switch flicks off and you hear them laugh.

You fill the mugs and the water darkens and spins. When you bang the kettle down it squeals and lets out a heavy breath. Steam uncurls from the spitting spout; you hold your face over it and inhale the hot vapours into your lungs.

Now they’re talking in low murmurs.

You measure out two heaped teaspoons of raw sugar for yourself. None for Dad, one for Terry. You sprinkle and stir, dribbling milk into yours and Terry’s—none for Dad—and the cuppas lighten and cloud. Then, shoulders back, you carry the three mugs into the lounge room for your meeting.

‘How’ve ya been feeling this week mate?’ asks Terry, leaning forward to get a good look at you.

‘Yeah, not bad. Just focusing on staying outta trouble,’ you say. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see your dad nodding.

‘Good to hear, mate. Your dad tells me you’ve been training and taking him fishing every day and looking after the house. That’s what we wanna hear, budda.’


Terry passes you a small plastic jar. ‘And how’s your sister and the kids?’

Your dad chimes in: ‘Wouldn’t know, they never visit.’

‘She’s on her own again so she’s busy,’ you say, knowing it’s bullshit. ‘I might ring her tomorrow.’

You go to the bathroom and piss in the jar. You haven’t done anything wrong but you’re nervous anyway. It’s just how they make you feel, no matter what you have or haven’t done.

You palm the warm container back to Terry like contraband.

‘Just going out for a smoke,’ you tell him.

‘That shit’ll kill ya, mate.’

‘Been tryna tell him,’ says Dad. ‘You don’t wanna end up like me.’ He wheezes for effect.

‘Gimme a break, you fellas, I been weaning off ‘em. And at least I’m not on the gear anymore.’

They nod. You go outside and lung your durry, but you don’t really enjoy it.


You walk Terry out to his car and he hands you a DVD—another science documentary.

‘Thought you’d like this one. I’ll grab it back off ya next week.’

‘Thanks, Uncle.’

He puts his strong hand on your shoulder. ‘I know it’s hard, mate, but keep up what you’ve been doing. You’re doing good this time.’

When he leaves, you go and pick all the paint chips up until you’ve stopped crying.


You and Dad watch Terry’s DVD while you eat dinner. You always liked science. At high school, the only teacher that gave you the time of day was your science teacher. She never smiled, but you never wagged her classes either. You liked the rules, the formulas, the logic of her lessons. Nothing messy like English, or History that made you feel shame for being Aboriginal, for not even inventing the wheel, for just copping it and not fighting back.

One day she discussed a saying with your class about the philosophy of the scientific method. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always have what you’ve always got. She said it applied to life as well. You were torched from your lunch sesh, so the discussion led your mind to interesting places.

The sentence had floated in your head and you examined it from a few different angles. At first, it seemed like a formula, or a magic spell; if you don’t try new things, things’ll stay the same—and things hadn’t been too good at home. When the bell rang for the end of class, you’d folded the sentence up and scrunched it into a crevice of your mind.

When Dad picked you up from jail a few weeks ago, looking sicker than he’d let on, the car rattled over a speed bump and dislodged the old saying from your brain. It unfurled from its hidey-hole and rippled like a banner in the wind. The words became a warning for how stagnant lives start to putrefy.

On the DVD, the grandfatherly narrator explains that every seven years a human being becomes a completely new person. Within this time, every molecule in your body is attracted back into the environment, to be replaced by a new molecule from your surroundings. You gradually become something else, by a process of osmosis, of gift and exchange with your world.

You’ve spent the last seven years in and out of jail, penned in with angry men. Most of the light you saw was artificial. White walls, sharp angles and straight lines. Bars on the windows. People with power over you barking you into quiescence. You’d spent the seven years before that becoming a piece of shit that deserved to be there. Everyone eventually gave up on you.

Your dad coughs and shifts in his seat.

The narrator reckons it takes fourteen days to unlearn a habit and fourteen to cement it with a new one. One turn of the moon. Each new day a period of adjustment, plateau, and new stress to keep ascending, to not let the process peter out on a flat line.

Progress needs to be sustainable, he says. True long-lasting change is slow, incremental; each new iteration is folded in bit by bit—assimilated and stirred, so the original material changes structurally over time—not dumped in all at once to provoke rejection. Otherwise, the new ingredients will split and separate. It’s like injecting a substance intravenously; you mix the foreign substance with a bit of the host blood first, so the system isn’t shocked, doesn’t spasm and shut down. You don’t want to hot shot your new behaviour.

Neurons that fire together, wire together, says the narrator. You’re doing the right thing: becoming a better person, hacking new pathways and abandoning the well-worn roads. As you finish your dinner, you can feel the old molecules slipping outside of yourself, being replaced by new ones.


After you get Dad into bed, you cross another day off the calendar and place a tick next to the date. Those fifteen ticks in row look good. You check your alarm is set for six o’clock, ready your shoes beside the bed and put your training clothes on so that you can get up and go before the old you gets his hooks in. Routine is ritual, a prayer to becoming.

You lie in bed and listen to a guided meditation, waiting for sleep to come. The space between who you used to be and who you want to be is so vast that you can’t see how many steps it will take. You are in the middle, the fulcrum that holds the balance. It’s a waiting game, to see which version will win.

Read more from New Australian Fiction 2020, or buy a print or ebook copy.