More like this

The eyebrows are first to go. Liv notices them from across the table as Polly scoops a metal spoon of yoghurt into her mouth. She eats slowly, humming to herself, yoghurt moussed around her lips, a snowflake of it clotted on a strand of red hair that has fallen from her damp ponytail. Joey is under the table. Liv can feel her son’s warm, wet breath on her shins as he zooms a plastic truck over her feet and up her calf, down again. She smiles at Polly when her daughter notices her staring, stands up and finishes her own breakfast over the sink. She calls Joey over and helps him feed carrot tops and wilted silver beet to his turtle, checks on the succulents. The children shriek as they pack vegemite-and-lettuce sandwiches into their lunchboxes, race to tie their shoes and be first out the door.

After walking Polly and Joey to school, Liv decides to wind down to the river before heading home. She has a late start at work and once she reaches the park she sits on a bench and watches a bootcamp of women doing burpees and lunges on the grass, their yoga mats in a shrine-like circle, worshiping the speakers at the centre that boom out synth-heavy dance music. Their babies are sleeping in prams, toddlers wobbling in the grass, but the women have the concentration of soldiers, focused and militant. Liv feels tired just watching them: their skin glistening, their frowns. During a water break, one of the women notices her and does a double take, lifts her hand to wave. Liv knows she must look strange, just sitting there staring like a predator. If she were a man they would have already called the police. She wishes she’d bought a book or a coffee, had her phone to scroll on. Liv tries but she cannot place the woman; she is terrible with faces. Maybe she is a school mum, or a client from the dental clinic. Liv smiles and waves back. She gets up from the bench and walks home.

It’s not until she’s in the shower that she realises she is sunburnt. Her arms and chest are the blush of rare lamb and her scalp stings as she turns the water to cold and washes her hair, rinses quickly. As she pulls back the shower curtain she notices the hair coiled in the drain, wet and clumped like a decomposing marsupial. She scoops up the hair, which is greasy with soap. Not dark like her own but reddish, medusa long. She squeezes it into a gluggy ball and throws it into the toilet bowl. It’s not until she flushes that she imagines it clogging in the depth of the pipes, thinks about the cost of calling a plumber.


It’s Dr Nguyen who brings up the poisonings. Scraping plaque from the man’s teeth, she asks Liv if she’s been following it on the news. ‘It’s like something from a movie, isn’t it?’ she says, as Liv suctions saliva from the man’s mouth. His teeth are cheddar yellow and his lips wobble as he strains to keep them apart. ‘It hardly seems real.’

Liv hadn’t been following it on the news and as Angela tells her about the skeletal man in the hospital bed and the nerve agent, the snow globe of his vast skull, she feels metal against her teeth, eugenol burning her nostrils. She knows better than to go quiet. Angela has the senses of a pack animal, will be concerned if she thinks something is off. Liv tells the man to open up wider. She wipes spit from his chin.

Liv brings it up with Sean the following Wednesday after the children have been put to bed. He flew in that day from Perth, is knackered and slow, but they are happy to see each other, to touch each other. They are both on their second beer. Ambulance Australia is on the television. The volume is low as they watch an elderly woman being tended to by the paramedics after having a fall while taking out the bins. She and her husband are both in their nineties. The woman must have lain in the prickles for hours, the hot sun baking her like a rotisserie chicken.

‘I’ve booked a doctor’s appointment,’ Liv says.

‘They don’t seem any different,’ Sean replies. ‘I didn’t even notice.’

He’d been gone two weeks. Liv doesn’t like phone calls and messages through brief happy updates when he’s away. He FaceTimes only with the children.

‘You weren’t looking,’ she says. ‘There’s something wrong.’

‘They seem healthy,’ he says. ‘They’re beautiful.’

‘I know they’re beautiful.’

They watch the woman being carted away in the ambulance. Her husband stands by the hills hoist, clutches his wheelie-walker as his wife vanishes. Liv wonders if the production crew helped the man back inside once they stopped filming, if they’d positioned him towards the light to get the final, tragic shot.


On Friday, they pull the children from school. The doctor sends them for blood tests but doesn’t seem concerned, which makes Liv furious, and then embarrassed for being that type of person. After they drop the children back at school, she and Sean have an argument in the car in the garage.

‘You’re being paranoid,’ he says. He unbuckles his seatbelt and opens the door.

‘I can tell there’s something wrong.’

‘They’re fine, Liv. They’re perfect. You’ll see.’ He hesitates before turning back to her. ‘Did you hear from Sacha when I was gone? Is that what’s brought all this on?’

Liv shakes her head and Sean watches her for a moment longer. He smiles and Liv smiles back. The car smells like lemon and rubber, and Liv would like to put the keys back in the ignition and keep driving. She opens her mouth to suggest this, but Sean’s hand is on the door handle, his right foot on the concrete. He is out the door and the door is closed.


That night Liv reads Polly a story. Once she falls asleep Liv touches her fingers to the glands under her daughter’s jaw. She lifts her pyjama top and inhales the skin there. She smells bitter. Liv can smell the faint rot of her insides, something swelling towards infection. When she runs her fingers through Polly’s hair, the red strands come away easily. It is laced over the pillows. The longer she looks at Polly’s face, the more unfamiliar it becomes. By the time she switches off the lamp to reveal the stickers glowing like spatters of radium on the ceiling, it is not a face she recognises.

While Sean sleeps beside her, Liv reads about contaminated water in Flint and Bougainville, the cancer cluster at the ABC studios in Toowong. The blue light from the phone screen strains her eyes. She can hear Joey get out of bed, his feet scurrying along the hall. He is afraid of the dark but brave. The light from the bathroom shines into the bedroom and she hears the tinkle of urine hitting the toilet bowl. He doesn’t flush or wash his hands, races quickly back to bed without turning off the light. Liv is comforted by the yellow wavering into the room and gets a second wind. She Googles ‘Novichok’ and reads a long article on the Guardian. It wasn’t like she imagined. She’d pictured something protracted and insidious, but the man had fallen ill within hours, fell into a coma soon after. She thought Angela had said the man had died, but he is recovering slowly, surrounded by his wife and children, police guarding the door.

When Sacha first became ill, Liv scrubbed the walls clean, had water filters installed in the kitchen, sure it was mould, or lead, or something more sinister lurking in the foundations of the house. He lost his hair almost overnight and none of the doctors could figure out what it was. Then there was the sallow skin, the bleeding from the gums. Sacha said he felt fine, but it was clear that something was wrong. Liv did what she could to keep him safe: pulled him from the soccer team, got him onto a clean, organic diet. No junk food. No screens. Soon, he only wanted to stay with his father on the other side of the river, would have to be bribed from the car every time Niko dropped him back home on Sunday afternoon. Each Friday, Liv packed him a lunchbox of food approved by the naturopath. Sacha always brought it back at the end of the weekend—soggy and starting to turn—and would gloat about the take-aways Niko let him eat. Once, Niko took Sacha abseiling at the cliffs and came home with a sprained wrist, bruised and swollen. It was Niko who forgot the doctor appointments Liv scheduled months in advance, the vitamins Sacha needed to take. She was the only one trying to keep him safe.


Sean does the school run the following morning. He returns with coffees and pastries and the two of them sit at the kitchen table to go over the budget. Though they are getting back on track, they drink their coffee guiltily and decide on lentil curry for dinner. The debt is nearly paid off and they are expecting a large tax return. They will use some of the money to go on holiday; nowhere special, just a week up the coast, but Joey’s never seen the ocean. The rest will go towards braces for Polly, the germination of a house deposit. Sean will only have to be at the mines a few years more.

The next day, Liv runs into the woman from the park again, this time at a wine bar down the street from the clinic. She and Angela are still in their uniforms. They sit at the bar and Angela drinks a gin martini while Liv sips a flat beer the colour and texture of peat. The woman enters while Angela is ordering a second round and flirting with the baby-faced bartender, aggressive tattoos etched up his left arm. Liv watches her scan the room and wave at a ruddy, oiled man leaning against a high table towards the entrance to the beer garden.

They catch eyes when the woman turns to the bar. ‘Olivia,’ she says. Liv is scared the woman is going to hug her, but she keeps her distance, her eye contact impeccable.

Liv smiles and leans back on her stool. ‘This is my colleague, Angela.’

‘Hi, Angela,’ she says. ‘I’m Rebecca.’

Her hair is in a high, tight bun, kitten heels, lipstick the colour of clay. She smells expensive and competent.

‘How’ve you been?’ Rebecca asks.

‘Good. Fine. The same.’

‘I’m just back at work after mat leave.’

‘That’s great,’ Liv says. ‘Congratulations.’

When Rebecca takes her drinks to her table, Angela gives Liv a look but does not ask. They toast the end of the working week. Angela tells her about one of her ratbag twins who has started licking the doorknob before he enters a room, even in public, especially in public. She asks Liv if it’s okay to be embarrassed by your own child. Once they finish their third drink, Liv lets Angela settle the tab. They leave the bar and Liv does not look back.

She is tipsy when she arrives home. Sean and the children are in front of the television. She squeezes in beside Joey and without a word he snuggles into her. She can smell it on him instantly. She touches her hand to his hair, just to see. She can feel the strands coming away with each rake of her fingers. She is repulsed by the sensation, by the feeling of his spongey scalp.

The movie ends and Sean gets up and switches on the lights. They blind her. She blinks until they don’t. Sean takes the bowl into the kitchen, greasy and peppered with hard corn kernels, and whistles as he starts on the dishes. Her children stare up at her and she is breathless. Their faces blur and contort. Their patchy eyebrows are the colour of goldfish. As they scramble over her, talk over each other, they become genderless and she cannot tell them apart, cannot tell which is which. She cannot see herself in their faces, in their bodies. She doesn’t want to be near them.

She sends them to the bathroom to brush their teeth, slips outside with her phone. She stands under the liquidambar and calls Sacha on FaceTime. It rings out, as it always does. She tries his mobile but it goes straight to voicemail, the boy-man pitch of his voice, his strange accent, speaking a language she cannot understand. She doesn’t leave a message and sits down on the driveway. The cement is cool and grainy under her palms. She thinks about calling Niko, asking him to make sure Sacha returns her call, but he’ll tell her the same thing he’s always told her: ‘Oh-livia, you cannot force people to do the things they do not want to do.’

Rebecca. It was the outfit: the slickness, the sleekness. At the park, with her active wear and sweaty hair she was unrecognisable, but all done up, Liv remembered. Rebecca was one of the lawyers who worked for the International Social Service. She was intelligent and frightening and ruthless, but it hadn’t been enough.

She was eight months pregnant with Polly when Sacha flew to Moscow with his father for the Christmas holidays. They both thought it would be for the best for Sacha to spend some time away when the baby arrived. It never occurred to her that Niko wouldn’t bring him back. Liv used to correct people, school mums mostly. I have three children, she’d tell them; the eldest, Sacha, lives with his father. Overseas, she’d tell them, and their faces would grimace into pity, which she accepted because she pitied herself also, though she knows that is not a good or productive feeling to hold on to.

Of course, she and Sean tried; they went deep into debt trying. The lawyers, the endless applications. Rebecca did her best, but the Hague Convention is not in force between the two countries and Liv had given permission for Sacha to leave. Plus, he was happy and settled with his father, with his grandparents, his aunts and uncles and cousins he’d never met but fell into swift infatuation with. Niko had enrolled him into an international school and he was topping maths and science, was learning to play the guitar. How could it be that their bond was so tenuous? How could it be that once she was out of sight, she was out of mind? Once, in an argument over the phone, Niko told her that Sacha didn’t want to come back because he thought she was crazy. At the time, she thought Niko was saying that to hurt her, but every time she spoke to Sacha his wariness grew, and before long it was as though she was talking to a stranger. She could hear the suspicion in her son’s voice, the contempt. Her own voice sounded increasingly winey and desperate.

It wasn’t until she fell pregnant with Joey that Liv knew it was time to accept they wouldn’t get Sacha back. Sacha was the barrier preventing her from bonding with Polly, and she didn’t want the same to happen with Joey. She struggled when Joey was born too, felt the absence of Sacha even more. Neither child looked like her. Neither looked like Sacha.

Liv opens the browser on her phone and clicks through to Sacha’s YouTube channel. He doesn’t have more than a few dozen views on any video. The most recent was published yesterday, and she is entranced by the rabbit fuzz on the top of his lip, his pale blue eyes. He talks quickly and without breath, like he is tumbling towards enlightenment. He talks with his hands. He is a serious boy and not quick to smile, but when he does it is radiant.

She watches the video again, and then scrolls through her phone. She is surprised to find Rebecca’s number still saved in her contacts. Back when Liv and Sean told Rebecca that they were putting a pause on the process, she said to stay in touch, to keep her in the loop. To let her know if they ever needed anything. Liv presses dial but hangs up after the first ring and is nauseous from the adrenaline. The porch light switches on and she can see her fingers rattling. When she turns around Sean is standing in the doorway, the children at either side of him.


A few days later, Liv bundles the children into the car while it’s still dark and they drive Sean to the airport. It’s light by the time they get home. Liv helps Joey feed the turtle.

She mixes Nesquik and makes pancakes with lemon and sugar for breakfast. A special breakfast she thinks; a good memory for them to hold on to. As the children eat, she can see their white scalps through their hair. They talk to each other in a strange babble, like baby talk, and she cannot understand what they are saying. She is sure they are doing it to exclude her. She is sure they are talking about her and all the ways she is going to bring them pain.

As the children dress, she checks the bank account. The tax return has come through. Close to $4000. Enough for a flight, a cheap hotel, a visa application. She knows she’s not crazy. She knows she was right about Sacha being sick, just like how she is right about Polly and Joey. She transfers the money from the joint account, calls Angela’s receptionist and tells her she won’t be in that afternoon. She finds a thick folder of paperwork, her passport, her phrasebook. It was a gift from Niko on their third date. He took her to a fancy restaurant that looked out at the city across the river, the casino in lights. They ordered small plates and shared them: scallops, ceviche. The book is still crisp and clean; she told him she’d learn but never did.

Liv arrives at the doctor before eight; stands in the carpark for fifteen minutes before the receptionist lets them into the waiting room. Polly and Joey play together quietly, using their indoor voices without needing to be reminded. As they tussle their hair falls away, forests the sturdy white chairs, the shiny, eggshell floor. The receptionist ignores them, types on the desktop, her long nails clicking against the keys. A doctor strides in and disappears down a hall.

Unable to sit still, Liv tells the receptionist she is ducking out to make a phone call. Polly and Joey watch her as she heads to the door, but she does not reassure them, she does not tell them goodbye or to be good. She gets in the car and drives for a few minutes, circles the block before pulling up in a quiet, leafy street and cutting the engine. She takes out the book from her handbag, practices under her breath using the phonetic pronunciation noted in italics. She is aware of her tongue in her mouth, its fatness. She pictures herself fluent in the freezing cold.

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