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There is a man with kind eyes and crooked teeth in my bed. He’s facing me and smiling, preparing to talk. I cough once, loudly, because talking is unnecessary at this point.

We both watched patiently as he prodded my vagina with his hangnailed finger, and we took turns sighing mid-thrust.

Afterwards, Adam squashes my memory foam pillow until it’s wedged beneath his armpit for support. He squints at my framed certificate hanging above the bookshelf. My stepdad Vincent paid for the framing in honour of all the technical skills I had to learn, because he likes to celebrate stamina and effort. My mother even made a cake.

‘Certificate IV in Embalming, awarded to Amelia Aurelia,’ Adam reads aloud.

‘I tend to focus more on the cosmetics aspect,’ I explain.

‘Right,’ he says, turning towards me. ‘Funeral make-up.’ He purses his lips, while continuing to crush my only good pillow.

I cough once, loudly, because talking is unnecessary at this point.

I kick at the bed sheet until it’s down around our ankles. The cotton has absorbed the smell of sweat and salt. Some foot odour and a slight muskiness lingers. I toss the whole thing onto the floor and lie back on the bed, uncovered but still sticky in the muggy room. The February moon must be close to full because the clouds are low and brightly backlit. I can’t help but feel that if it were a bit darker, we wouldn’t be making so much accidental eye contact. He smothers a yawn, and I force my own mouth into a yawn shape so that we can yawn together and pass some time.

Adam picks up his wineglass from the bedside table and I watch him, wondering how I would do his make-up if he passed. Accentuate his ambiguous heritage maybe. Fill in his eyebrows and sweep a bit of bronzer along each temple. His hair would look lovely brushed back, too. Some of that high shine cream could really bring out the warm brunette tones. A burgundy shirt.

I glance quickly at the side of his face.

Forest green would also suit him.

As the pause stretches out, and he shows no sign of leaving, I wonder if he has assumed he’s sleeping the night.

I get up to use the bathroom; it’s important to urinate after sex, otherwise bacteria climbs up your urethra like a staircase. As I slide the ensuite door shut behind me, I can hear Adam change position in the bed less than a metre away. I can even hear him scratch an itch. I lean over to the sink and run the tap until the sound of water is louder than anything else, and my vagina can finally relax.

I take a moment to acknowledge my naked body. Longlimbed with the slightest hint of a tan. I turn to the side to look at my face in the mirror. The freckles smattered across my nose and cheeks are best seen in morning light, when they look rose gold. Under fluorescent lighting I just seem spotty. Kind of warm on the colour scale—reddish hair. Auburn usually, but fire when the setting sun hits it. Dark eyes and a long, aquiline nose. It’s hawkish. I have been told a few times by people not related to me that my face is full of character. I flush the toilet and wash my hands slowly. I’m unsure if he will ever leave. I could initiate sex again but make it better by telling him to slow down until he’s barely moving. This slow? he might say—like they all say, incredulous. Even slower, I will tell him.

As the pause stretches out, and he shows no sign of leaving, I wonder if he has assumed he’s sleeping the night.

I shake my hands dry and slide the door open, making immediate eye contact with Adam, who raises his empty wineglass towards me.


I slip through the beaded curtain separating the bed and the kitchenette, and it clatters together in a loose tangle behind me.

‘It’s getting late,’ I say, sliding a bottle of wine behind the kettle.

‘So will you be working on someone tomorrow?’ he asks, while pulling at some leg hairs on his exposed thigh.

‘Yes. There’s a big funeral, actually.’

‘Why big?’

‘She’s young and it was suicide.’ I cross my arms and check the clock. It’s almost midnight.

‘Oh,’ Adam says. ‘Wrists or neck?’

‘Wrists,’ I say, rejoining him in bed. ‘In the bath.’

‘Shit,’ he says.

I’m used to people impulsively asking the most macabre questions, then being unsettled by the answers.

What does a body smell like? Chemicals. Sometimes like talcum powder. Sour.

What does a body feel like? Firm and cold. Clammy. Heavy.

Does it ever move? Yes. But you begin to expect the slow decompression. It helps to think of them as old balloons at times. They deflate.

Does it frighten you? No. Never. Sometimes. Rarely.

I’m used to people impulsively asking the most macabre questions, then being unsettled by the answers.

I can see Adam gearing up to keep talking, but I don’t have the patience to answer all his questions in a way that will both satiate his curiosity and maintain my professionalism, so I reach for my phone, select the first album that appears, then lie back as the opening bars start to tinkle out from the tiny speaker. Snare drum fights for space. I am twenty-eight, almost twenty-nine. The tambourine commences. I should turn this down so it doesn’t wake Mum and Vincent. Relentless rattling metal of the tambourine. Or my brother, but he should really move in with Hugh and Carmen. Tambourine outplays the snare. He’s thirty now. Trumpet interrupts them both. Time to go, Simon, you lump. Trumpet and tambourine fight. At least I live in the bungalow, not the main house. Trumpet wins. It has a separate entrance.

The main house is fundamentally suburban. Two brown leather couches and one pine bookshelf, which proudly display a large collection of Reader’s Digest. But the bungalow is different. It has a rug woven from strips of rags. It has floor cushions, most of them remnants from when Vincent had a mild interest in Buddhism and used it as his meditation zone. For one whole winter he wore kimonos and spoke softly when he remembered to. As he slowly lost interest, I equally slowly moved the contents of my bedroom into the bungalow until all my furniture surrounded his, and just like that we swapped places.

‘Is it gross?’ Adam asks.

‘It’s the opposite.’ I rub one eye and let out another wide yawn.

‘Lovely?’ He looks suspicious.


The deceased are beyond beautiful, but only because they are so emptied of worry. Everything tense or unlikable is gone. Like a shopping centre in the middle of the night, they have lost all the chaos and clatter.

‘Is it gory?’ Adam wants to know. ‘Like, when you see how they died?’

I stare steadily at his hands, which are clasped together.

‘It can be.’

I think about all the skulls I’ve had to drill back together, and all the wounds I’ve filled with plaster of Paris. On some days, I’ll unzip a bag that contains a body so broken it has become like shards of ice; like unearthed soil. There are hours in which all I do is map a whole person out. And even though he’s asking, I won’t tell him that we are both two long, fleshy sacks full of bones and electricity, and that one day the switch will be flicked. We are on, and then we are off.

I’ve told people down at the pub that life rests like a layer of chiffon over a body: one puff of wind and you’re dead.

I’ve told people down at the pub that life rests like a layer of chiffon over a body: one puff of wind and you’re dead. It’s a revelation that doesn’t sit easily with most, but I’ve learned to adjust by compartmentalising. I can separate feelings into imaginary boxes inside the mind. In one box, I put all the delicate, fractured wounds of the bodies I see all day. I fill it up with uncomfortable emotions and images. Then, in another box, I shove all the vivid warmth and liveliness of the people I see at night. I need both boxes, one balancing out the other, me ping-ponging between them.

Adam crosses his legs, letting his limp penis hang between us, somehow a part of the conversation but disengaged.

‘Do they look empty?’

He seems genuinely thrilled that we are talking.

‘Sure,’ I say. It’s not inaccurate.

‘So what made you do this for a job?’

‘It’s my family’s business, but I would have picked it anyway.’

‘You love it that much?’

‘I do.’

I squeeze his thigh, pressing each finger one by one into his leg. I push my chest forward and gaze at him, while trying to lengthen my neck and look elegant. Shakespeare once wrote that two people together is a beast with two backs, and most nights I find myself trying to combine with someone else to become this two-headed thing with flailing limbs, chomping teeth and tangled hair. This new animal. I am medicated by another body. Drunk on warm skin. Dumbly high on the damp friction between them and me.

This is an extract from New Animal by Ella Baxter (Allen & Unwin). New Animal is available now at your local independent bookseller. We have three copies to give away to lucky KYD members — simply email [email protected] with the subject line ‘New Animal’ and your postal address to enter.