CONTENT NOTE

‘Skylight’ makes mention of violence including sexual assault, drunkenness, and homophobic language.

1

In spring there are the usual phenomena: showers and the star shaped flowers, pink and white, the smell of jasmine and the rushing smell of stormwater drains, and changeable clouds appear above the bay and there are suddenly places to go again, restaurants and parties and workshops and openings, and evening begins to release its hold on the afternoons and occasionally a mist rolls in, touching the skin of the Birrarung like a sigh. The very air is libidinally charged and there is a feeling you could fuck anything, fuck it all: the flowers and the mist and the stylish strangers you meet and smoke with at other people’s parties. 

         Frances meets Horse at a party. He is not stylish but he is aggressively flirty, and actually, Frances rather likes it. He speaks to her in Portuguese, which he learned while surfing in Brazil. ‘Você é gostosa,’ he keeps saying, which means he thinks she’s hot. 

         Why was he called Horse? she wanted to know after. It turned out that Horse was reportedly called Horse because of the size of his dick. Frances laughed, but then a few nights later she saw it and understood.

         In fact she grew up next to a horse stud, next to paddocks which in spring get full of foals. It is flooding there and the receding waters reveal wet carcasses preserved for now but bound to stink of putrefaction once the sun bears down on all that desecrated meat. Apparently these are once-in-a-thousand-year floods, though who keeps the archive is hard to say. There is always a violent aspect to abundance and Frances’s parents call to report that life and death have come together as old friends, telling the old stories, sometimes predictably and sometimes aslant. 

         Frances has not been on the ground but in the air. From the plane she saw swollen rivers and the sky spread over flooded paddocks. She recalls the balcony of the little holiday unit with its view into the courtyard, where some carefree guest before them left cockle shells scattered beneath the garden tap. It had been strangely wholesome to look upon the empty pearl of those scattered shells while she smoked and read, and Horse napped on the couch inside. 

         Now she thinks,

Horse can go fuck himself. 

         She leaves him at the airport. Before the hour’s up she’s at a pub in the CBD, committing herself to a drunkenness she pursues like a grim solution. The news is playing on a big TV and although the floods have superseded the Queen in her lead-lined coffin, at midday Frances will attend a rally, organised by a Naarm resistance group, to protest the sovereignty of the King. 

         She is determined to think no more of Horse: his hang-dog expression, the smell of chemicals hanging round him like an aura, her disgust when he began to weep. His big cock, the heft of it in her hand, its blunt butting head. Frances is the only one drinking this early save for a crumpled alcoholic reading yesterday’s news. The two of them stare as mounted police lope by the grimy window atop a pair of striking thoroughbreds. 

         ‘Big protest in the city today,’ says the alcoholic. Frances gulps down beer and does not respond. ‘What do you think of it?’ 

         ‘Of what?’ asks Frances. 

         ‘This business of a republic.’

         ‘I’ll be at the rally,’ she says.

         The alcoholic drinks some of his own beer and looks thoughtful. ‘Fucken communist dyke,’ he says evenly, going back to his paper. 

         Feeling irritable, she leaves the pub. A crowd has already assembled outside the State Library and she integrates with them wordlessly, probably stinking of alcohol. People stand around holding signs and chatting, smiling freshly. She pushes deeper into the crowd and Frances pictures herself as a kind of disease.

         They march through the city’s major arteries, stopping at Flinders St Station for a smoking ceremony during which the smell of gum leaves mixes with the scent of other people’s sweaty pits and sunscreen. It is soft and damp and she feels interminably sad. Suddenly, the only thing she wants to do is sit down and sleep. There is reverent silence as a group of formidable blak women burn the union jack. Thunderous cheering shakes her from her stupor, and Frances feels she is at the heart of something big, an awesome leviathan. 

         Someone hands her a sign bearing the words ‘NOT MY MONARCHY’, which she wields proudly though she envies other people’s signs, which are funnier, like the ones which riff on Tampongate. Discomfort and exhilaration spar beneath her skin. A cloud passes over the sun and her thoughts become ordinary. She thinks,

Shit, left my charger in Horse’s bag. 

She hopes her phone will die. 

2

Three days earlier, a Thursday. 

         They were only going for the weekend but Frances suspected it would feel like an age. Horse was from Queensland and a cultural anomaly among the people she knew, sort of ignorant and naïve. Frances didn’t mind it. She was disillusioned with the political left and sick of talking about identity politics, even though some of her friends had started saying identity politics were dead. She did not tell her friends but sometimes it was refreshing to be with Horse, who did not fuck with any of it and just got down to fucking her.  

         Lately she was getting the feeling Horse wanted to say ‘I love you’ during and after sex. This imbued the act with an intense emotional charge, though she suspected his actually uttering the words would have disastrous effects. She had always felt alienated from the erotic but with Horse was realising she did not need to overthink it; provided he did not say anything stupid, she could inhabit her body in a way that was purely somatic, she could lick and suck and fuck without worrying too much about what either of them physically or emotionally discharged. 

         Now they were on a plane to the Sunny Coast. Horse seemed excited and carried her bag through the airport, and she did not have the heart to take it off him. In the air she ordered a double vodka tonic, Horse mistaking her enthusiasm for ‘plane bevs’ for excitement, and just as she had done with the bag, Frances did not try to correct him. Instead she read a little Joan Didion, a vignette in which Didion boards a plane and overhears a man to his wife say 

‘You are driving me to murder.’

         Didion is perturbed because it resembles a narrative conceit; a ‘little epiphany’ which reduces life to a convention. Didion would prefer to live the life of novels: with room for flowers, she writes, and secret desires.[1] 

         Frances thought about secret desires. She concealed Horse from her friends, afraid of their judgement, and in fact her friends’ censure was the thing which made their relationship exciting. But going on holiday, seeing his hometown and meeting his friends, this had a distinctly quotidian vibe. For a moment she looked at Horse, who was sleeping with his mouth open, and laughed softly in a way that felt deranged. 

         Frances closed her book just as Gubbi Gubbi Country loomed up, its forests and lagoons already looking tropical and hypersaturated compared to back home. It was no coincidence, she thought, that bourgeoise Didion preferred the conventions of the novel. Perhaps in Didion’s time and place there was more opportunity to situate oneself in a vast narrative, but for her generation, thought Frances, it is the little epiphanies which sustain us. 

3

ITINERARY
        a view 
         the dripping interior 
         cool wind at the summit
         strip mall
         skylight

4

The procession moves slowly, toward the steps of parliament. Frances walks idly. The knowledge she is avoiding threatens to make itself manifest and she wishes she were still drinking at the pub with the intolerant alcoholic. She contemplates ditching the rally but feels this would only prove the theory, already forming in her mind, that she is worthless. 

         She keeps walking. Somewhere between Swanston and Exhibition, protest strikes her as meaningless. Nothing changes; they are destined to march forever, to no discernible avail. There is a line of John Ashbery’s tacked above Frances’s desk: ‘Long ago was the then beginning to seem like now’.[2] Frances has the sense of time collapsing. She no longer cares why she is here.  

         They reach parliament but the energy is all wrong. Counter-protesters crawl over the steps; they look like fascists and the police are busy setting up a barrier. Their horses have become skittish, whinnying, stamping their feet, and the air shimmers with disturbance.

         Here it is, the panic. Frances wants to escape, but pushing to the edge of the procession seems impossible. She feels at once paralysed and propelled by the agitations of the crowd and becomes convinced that people will be hurt. She thinks, 

Perhaps I wouldn’t mind getting hurt.

5

The first thing they did was climb Mount Coolum. Frances did not have the right shoes but Horse insisted the view was sensational. Horse showed some pictures other people had posted and these too were so perfect they appeared disingenuous. Her suspicion persisted as Horse drove them to the prickling foot of the mountain, where everything was dripping and verdant, as if it had just rained, though the sky above was clear. It was so surreal that Frances felt compelled to take and post some pictures of her own. 

         The humidity was relentless. They climbed for a while, Horse charging ahead and Frances trailing behind like a wet dog. She began to hyperventilate, just as she would panic when her mother used to make her run behind her in training for the school’s cross-country race. Horse called out blithe encouragement and it seemed he did not understand her at all.

         But a sweet wind at the peak cooled the constellations of sweat on her skin. She could almost see it cascading down the slope, chasing waves across the ocean far below. Frances stood with hands on hips, looking over the coast, and thought,

Sensational.

6

That night they went out drinking with his friends, starting at someone’s apartment overlooking the beach. The boys drank beers and the girls, vodka sodas. Horse larked around with his mates and acted like he didn’t know her, which recalled the country boys she grew up with. One of Horse’s friends put on ‘In Da Club’ by 50 Cent and then began to feel like now. She did a few lines of MDMA in the bedroom with a girl named Sammy, whose fake tits were soft and heavy and round. Feel them, Sammy had insisted. They were resplendent.

Afterward they went to a pub/club where the vibe was pretty much the same as back at the house, except that now Frances’s vision was shuddery. Someone was talking about the Queen’s funeral; Frances wanted to roll her eyes but they were already rolling because of the MDMA. One of the boys offered her some coke, which sobered her up. It was only 8:30 but it felt like the end of the night. 

         Outside, Sammy gave her a cigarette and asked where the boys went. It doesn’t matter, said Sammy, we’re having fun without them. She crushed the menthol popper and the smell was intensely refreshing. Then Sammy told her she was sexually assaulted in the toilets here when she was seventeen. Frances has two sisters. One in three women you know is the statistic Frances always thinks of. But, at a loss for how to respond, Frances said, ‘Oh.’ 

         As Sammy talked about her assault, Frances tried to be present and listen in a way that was both impersonal and engaged, but the chemicals from the strong menthol were competing in her system and she felt like she might spew.

         In the toilets, Sammy kept trauma dumping while Frances vomited and Sammy kindly held back her hair, after which they stumbled onto the dance floor, where Frances had the irrepressible urge to dance in a lascivious way, pulling horny faces and parodying herself, the club, the people she was with. Horse reappeared and spilled a drink on her and more time lapsed and eventually they went back to their holiday unit, where they fooled around briefly before passing out. 

7

In the morning they took their hangovers to the beach. The events of last night had been clarifying: Frances knew she would dump Horse as soon as they got home. Such a hard way of saying it, like throwing something bulky from the window of a car. 

         The tide was out and she waded far from shore. There were the usual phenomena: gentle waves, bristling beach, wheeling birds, splashing, laughter, the tide’s rippling signature in ridges against her toes. Narrative convention suggested this could have been one of those epiphanic moments, but Frances did not feel particularly moved. 

         After her swim they wandered into one of those strip malls which are everywhere in Queensland. All around her things wished to be noticed: the creased Vietnamese woman beckoning her into the nail salon, the overweight Aussie dad failing to ignore his bratty kids, the coin-operated massage chairs, the homeless man in dressing gown and gold bikini dozing against a wall, the discount stores, the plastic ferns, the bottles of pills and tonics in a health food shop, the ancient dachshund in a trolley, the trickling fountain. Faded things which looked as if they’d been there since before she was born; their wisdom obscured by the jangly pop and frigid stale air. 

         A cheap smell of jasmine drifted over from a discount store as they stopped beneath an enormous, vaulted skylight, through which the sun beamed without warmth. 

         ‘Let’s go,’ she said. 

         But Horse grabbed her arm. ‘You know when we were high last night and fooling around,’ he began in a rush, ‘Well, you passed out and I didn’t realise, well, no, I did realise, but I was just getting going, so you were dead to it but I just, you know, did it anyway.’

         ‘Did what?’ asked Frances. 

         ‘You know,’ he said slowly. ‘I just kind of fucked you anyway.’ 

         She was not shocked and did not even feel particularly upset. A song from Grease was playing. Frances looked up through the skylight. 

         The sky was dull and white. 

8

Counter-protestors leap toward them and in that instant she is sober. The world is reduced to the moment: clashing bodies, shouting, heat. Amidst the fray a powerful resolve begins rippling through them; Frances feels it swelling around her, gathering momentum. She takes up the chant and marches forward, as much as it is possible to march in such a crush of people. The counter-protestors do not stop yelling but they do step back to let them pass. 

         Already, the days are getting longer. Green summer leaves have replaced the blossoms on the trees, though some towns across the state remain cut off by floods. Her phone is dead and Frances lets herself be carried as the rally surges forward. From within the collective body it is impossible to see the edges of the crowd, and fleetingly, she has the sense that they are numberless. 


[1]  Didion, Joan. ‘In the Islands’, The White Album, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2009

[2] Ashbery, John. ‘Blue Sonata’, Selected Poems, Carcanet: 2002.

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