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August, Once

There was glitter in my hair. When I moved it sparkled, fell, onto my hands, my lap. Stung.

There was glitter and silence—so loud it hurt my ears. And a smell I knew but couldn’t place. Hot. Rusty. Sour.

‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Are you okay?’

Nobody answered.

I looked down. My neck hurt and at the corner of my eye, I saw my hair. Pink, like fairy floss, full of glitter.

‘Hey,’ I said again, louder. Still, nobody answered.

There was just silence. And glitter.

So much glitter.

So bloody quiet.

Tuesday, April

‘It’s been three years,’ Donna finished in a shaky voice. ‘And I still wake up every morning wondering if today’s the day.’

Donna was new. Under the fluorescent lights of a nondescript community room in Surry Hills, above a health food co-op and across the corridor from a tax accountant, she looked beige. Her beige-blonde hair hung over her chest, ends crunchy with frizz and bleach, and she wore a beige- blue cardigan, skinny beige hands poking out the ends, fingers curled around each other in her lap, fading into her beige-brown pants.

Like all of us, Donna thought she was going to die. She had woken up one day, three years ago, convinced that the train she caught to work every day was going to derail and she’d be decapitated by a dislodged green leather seat. She was so convinced, she stayed home from work. The next day her fear of trains had passed, somewhat, but there was a strange pain in her calf that Google told her might be deep vein thrombosis. It wasn’t, of course, but it could have been. The day after that, she had a headache that could have been a brain tumour, and that fear of train derailment was back, even stronger.

And so here she was.

Geoff sat opposite me. He’d been coming for longer than I had—as long as the group had been going. When Donna said the thing about the train seat, his eyes had widened, and he’d turned to Frannie next to him and said, ‘God, I never thought of that. What a way to go.’ His voice was full of fear, but also wonder at this new toy to store in his brain box, ready to pull out when his favourite—domestic accident, the more unlikely the better—got boring.

We all had our favourites.

Frannie’s was cancer, Carlos’s vehicular. Louise had only been coming for a couple of months but it was obvious she was expecting something violent yet premeditated—a stalker or an ex-partner or her childhood enemy.

Mine was mugging gone wrong. Wrong place, wrong time type stuff, killed in a moment of panic or by accident—sexual violence of varying degrees optional, currently waning in frequency.

Some of us had more than one, a primary and a secondary. Louise’s secondary was cancer; Geoff’s was bad flu. He got his flu shot every year but that only protected you from last year’s strains, he told us, over and over.

My secondary was freak accident, not domestic: a shop awning collapsing, unsecured load flying off a truck, lighting rig coming loose from a nightclub ceiling. The kind of thing that would make the news not because it was tragic, but because it was so unexpected, the kind of thing the rest of us would watch on TV and think, Ooooh . . . good one.

The primary was the one you thought about all the time, that you’d almost accepted as inevitable. The secondary was more an uncomfortable niggle, a reason to cross the road but not to stay home.

‘My shoulder’s been sore for a couple of days,’ Frannie was saying. ‘I did help Owen move the fridge on Saturday, but I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s my lymph nodes.’

‘Ohhhh, that’s pretty advanced then. Sorry, hon.’ Donna’s eyes were damp, though it was hard to tell if she was worried for Frannie or herself.

Sometimes people came and they thought we were freaks, that we delighted and revelled in this. Some days I wondered if they were right. I looked at the beige faces, beige hands around their lukewarm cups, and I thought terrible uncharitable thoughts. But then I remembered the first time I’d felt it, walking through the park to my old house in Glebe, glitter in my hair and a horrible sound ringing in my ears. The way my heart had shifted in my chest and I’d felt it so strongly, like a friend walking next to me, arm around my shoulders—heavy and hot and smelling of rot, impossible to ignore. Not a friend at all.

I didn’t want to die. I hadn’t wanted it then and I didn’t want it now—none of us did. I just knew I would. I wasn’t as sure of anything as I was of the fact that I was going to die, that it should have happened already and it was only a matter of time.

We were all so sure.

Except we were so rarely right.

Frannie didn’t have cancer. She might develop it from the sheer number of scans she got, but so far she was clear. Carlos didn’t even have a driver’s licence. When Paulie died of a massive heart attack just before Christmas we were all shocked, much more shocked than we probably should have been. He was overweight, smoked a pack a day and his cholesterol was through the roof, but he’d been waiting for an industrial accident (he worked for a printer—in sales, but still).

And yet, we watched and we waited and we ran over our lives with a fine- tooth comb, confused and frustrated and anxious. Trying to outwit it, whatever it was, before it could kill us.

Pretend I didn’t say this, Paulie said once, only weeks before his myocardial infarction, but I reckon I’m safer for having spent all this time thinking about it. I’ve imagined sticking my hand in a trimmer so many times that when I’m near one I’m the most careful bloke in the room. The guys who are going to do it are the guys who don’t think about it, don’t see it coming.

And we all nodded and promptly pretended he hadn’t said it, because then it wouldn’t work.


This is an extract from The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey, published by Allen & Unwin. The Morbids is available now at your local independent bookseller.