Mandy Ord is a Melbourne based illustrator and cartoonist with a long history of self publishing. Her book When One Person Dies The Whole World Is Over published by Brow Books was longlisted for The Stella Prize in 2020 and shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year Award in 2021. Her first illustrated children’s book Chalk Boy, published by Allen & Unwin and written by Margaret Wild, was shortlisted for Picture Book of the Year in 2019 by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. She teaches and presents lectures in schools, universities and at literature and arts festivals.

The light fixture in the middle of the ceiling was now surrounded by a greyish, speckled halo. I was sure it wasn’t there when I went to sleep.

            My eyes followed a trail of dots to the corner of the bedroom ceiling. There, a thin black layer had formed, like a delicate carpet, so that you could no longer see where the wall met the ceiling.

            I’d been woken, again, by Marin’s coughing. I considered rolling him onto his side as I had done throughout the night, to stop the phlegm pooling at the back of his chest. But the sun had risen already and my alarm would go off soon.

            I went to the kitchen, turned on the kettle and piled extra coffee into the plunger. I took my usual cup from the cupboard, the one that Marin had told me to throw out because it was cracked.

            ‘Bacteria gathers in the cracks,’ he’d said. ‘It could make you sick.’

            Now, looking into the cup that I’d stubbornly continued to use every day, I saw that the crack had turned black, and the dark powder had gathered at the bottom of the mug. I considered just washing it out and using it as usual. Instead, I flipped open the lid of the bin with my foot and threw it in. When it hit the bottom it cracked loudly into three parts.

            Marin walked in as I was pouring the coffee into another, inferior mug, whose thin edge absorbed the heat too quickly.

            ‘Morning,’ I said.


            I filled another cup and handed it to him.

            ‘It’s gotten worse,’ he said.

            ‘The cough?’

            ‘No, the mould. But yes, the cough too.’

            ‘Maybe you should take the day off, go to the doctor.’

            ‘I can’t. I’ve taken too many sick days already. Besides, they’ll just give me antibiotics and they make me feel like shit.’

            Marin had trained as a nurse in Iran, but his qualifications weren’t recognised here. So he had taken a job as a janitor at a hospital, hoping the proximity might help him find his way back into his real profession.

            ‘It’s gotten underneath the mattress. Look.’ He held out the scrunched under sheet, its elastic edges grey along one side.

            ‘Did you call Renaldo yesterday?’

            ‘No. There’s no point, he doesn’t answer.’

            ‘Well try him again. They have to do something.’

            I pictured Renaldo, our real estate agent who always wore an oversized suit and, even though he had a full beard, somehow still looked like a child, giving his assurances over the phone while he waited for an open-house inspection to finish so he could move on to the next.

            ‘I’ve written about five emails since we last spoke and all I get is an auto reply,’ Marin said.

            I smeared two slices of thin toast with butter and raspberry jam and offered one to Marin.

            ‘No thanks. I’m not hungry.’

            ‘You should eat something.’

            He waved the toast away with his hand.

            ‘If I leave now I can stop in at the real estate office before work,’ I said.

            ‘Come help me flip the mattress on its side before you go. We should air it out.’

            I followed Marin into the bedroom. Light was flooding through the windows now, creeping over the dark floorboards and maroon rug. This was the reason we’d settled on this place—its north-facing windows.

            We got on either end of the mattress and flipped it on its side against the wall, so that the sun fell on its underside. One whole edge of the mattress was covered in the greyish mould, as if the sea had been lapping at its sides and left watermarks in its wake.

I cupped my hands around my face to look through the glass. Most of the furniture was still there. A few folders lay discarded on the cheap white desks and a chair whose backrest had snapped at the base sat beside the reception booth, where the golden desk bell was still in its place.

            A ‘For Lease’ sign sat inside the window, just underneath the painted title of the agency. I called the number on the sign. It rang out each time.

I pulled my shawl tighter around my shoulders. The shawl now lived on the back of my chair at work, where I perpetually underestimated how cold it would be. The temperature had to be kept low to protect the artworks from damage. My job was to ensure that they remained in pristine condition and to restore those that were not.

            In front of me sat a Joy Hester ink drawing, in which two figures, ‘lovers’, embraced. Their eyes were weirdly big and their mouths—drawn beneath an empty space where a nose would normally be—were stretched into wide, docile smiles.

            The frame was twenty years old now and needed replacing. I turned the piece over and opened the back of the frame. I lifted the paper out slowly and put it on the table. I ran one gloved finger across the paper, alongside the male figure, whose darkened face looked over the shoulder of the woman. I liked to feel the texture of the paper, even through the thin latex of the glove. It felt like a secret, illicit privilege to touch it, to feel its tiny bumps and recesses in the few minutes that the artwork spent outside its glass covering.

            A small rush of heat ran through my body and into my hands. The inside of the gloves suddenly felt slippery.

            I took another pair of gloves out of the box beside me and slipped the ones I was wearing off my hands. Underneath them, my fingers were covered with a greyish film of sweat, which gathered into black, webbed lines in the wrinkles of my palms.

            I looked around me, afraid someone might have noticed. But the room was empty, apart from Philip, another conservator, working on a delicate restoration at the far end of the room, his ears covered by headphones and his face close to his desk. He didn’t look up.

            My hands left grey smears where I wiped them on my beige jumper. I pulled on the next pair of gloves. Another wave of heat rushed through my body.

            I sat back down in front of the artwork and placed the drawing front down into its new frame, pressing the padded backing in to seal it off from the air, and turned it on its back.

            Underneath the glass, in the bottom left-hand corner, next to the woman’s right breast, was a smear of black.

            I pulled the catalogue of Hester images towards me, flicking through it until I found the reproduced image that lay in front me. In it, the lovers were framed by a crisp white border. No marks. No ink smudges made by the hand of the artist herself.

            The grey sweat was beginning to gather underneath my gloves again, and on my right forefinger there was a small tear. A smudge of grey liquid stretched from the tear to the base of the glove.

            I tore them off and ran to the sink. I washed my hands three times, scrubbing vigorously with the light pink soap from the dispenser, then tore sheet after sheet of hand towels from the reel to dry them. My skin stung from the rubbing. Still, the blackness seeped from under my nails.

             I pulled on another pair of gloves, then another, larger pair over the top, and opened the frame. This time I removed the paper with tweezers. My hands shook as I lay it back down on the table. The grey smudge had settled right into the thick paper, as though it had been there for seventy years.

            The faces of the couple were, to my relief, unmarked. But their expressions seemed to have changed. They no longer looked docile, but appeared to be looking out at me in horror, their wide eyes communicating not sweetness but fear. The man’s arm wasn’t embracing the woman. Instead it was gripping her shoulders, holding her tightly against him.

            I dabbed at the smudge with cleaning solution, taking deep breaths to steady my hand. But the mark would not be moved. It didn’t react to the solution in the way that ink would. Instead it seemed to disperse, spreading towards the corner of the page.

            I looked over at Phillip, who was pulling his head to either side, stretching his neck. He turned to me, without looking at my desk, and said, ‘I’m going out for a smoke. Want to join?’

            ‘Nah I’m good, thanks. Actually I think I’m gonna finish up early and head home. I’m not feeling well.’

            ‘Oh, damn. You okay?’

            ‘Yeah. Nothing serious. Marin’s been sick and I probably got whatever he’s got.’

            ‘Okay. Well rest up. See you tomorrow, or whenever.’

            ‘Yep see you then.’

I stood in the doorway of the bedroom. Marin was on a stepladder, scrubbing the corners of the ceiling with a metal scourer. The smell of bleach filled the house.

            ‘Why aren’t you at work?’ I asked.

            ‘They sent me home.’

            I pictured the clean white beds in the hospital wards almost wistfully.

            ‘Was it your sweat?’


            I filled a bucket with hot water and bleach, climbed onto the dresser, and began to scrub.

At 8 o’clock we dragged the mattress into the middle of the living room. The ceiling light glowed dimly, its glass fixture covered in a layer of the black dust. It let off a dull buzzing sound.

            Marin pulled out two plastic silver sheets from his camping box—the ones you use when someone gets hypothermia—and laid them down on the mattress, then covered the mattress with two sets of sheets. He sprayed two blankets with the bleach solution and laid them on top.

            I picked through the fruit bowl in the kitchen, throwing out the pieces that had rotted right through, and sliced up the remains of an apple and an orange. I took the bread from the box and removed the parts without mould, laying them down on a plate with the fruit and some cheese.

            I brought the plate into the living room, where Marin was sitting on the mattress, watching the television in the corner. An Iranian film from the ‘80s was playing, with badly translated yellow subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

            We ate quickly, without speaking, until the television crackled and turned dark. A moment later, the light in the ceiling went out.

I dreamed of blackness and decay, and woke just before noon. I had a foul taste on my tongue, like rotting leaves. My lips felt dry, cracked at the edges.

            I walked into the bathroom to find Marin standing in front of the mirror. Dark liquid collected in the corners of his eyes and the shells of his ears were crusted with black. I took his hand and led him back into the living room, pulling back the blankets for him to lie down.

            Light came in through the window and fell on the picture of the lovers that was propped up against the wall near the front door. The entire right-hand side of the drawing was now a mottled black, obscuring the faces so that they each looked out with only one eye.

            I drew the curtain, went to the mattress and lay down under the covers.

            As I put my arm around Marin, curling my legs in behind his, I felt a tingling sensation at the base of my back as the mould began to spread across my skin.

An ink-and-wash, black and white illustration of a filthy mattress slumped against a wall. The mattress is splattered with ink, resembling stains or mould. The mattress is sat upwards against a white wall, its shadow is shown by thick black and grey strokes against the wall. In the top left hand corner and stretching halfway down the side of the illustration is the bottom of a window. The window looks out to white nothing, and the window panel has a stroke of grey along the bottom.
Illustration ‘Mattress’ by Mandy Ord