Winner of the 2015 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize
Bloc Features is a weekly digest of the best writing from around the world featured in literary journals, debuts from emerging writers or from our very own workshop. This month, we're stoked to share with you a chapter from the Seizure Viva La Novella winning Formaldehyde by Jane Rawson.
‘Original, intelligent and compelling – a rare combination. Formaldehyde pulls off a complex narrative with frequent time and point-of-view shifts without ever losing the reader. The clever structure never gets in the way of the writing, which is sharply observed, assured and witty. The most original novel I’ve read for some time.’ – Graeme Simsion
‘Skipping across different times and genres, Formaldehydeis a wonderfully strange and inventive story of love, loss and severed limbs.’ – Ryan O’Neill
Plucking the quail off the bones, sucking the smell of you off my fingers. Slumped here alone in your ridiculous under-used hot tub, drinking champagne, feeling the bubbles through my veins, on my skin – my head hurts. It’s hot in here.
My gut hurts from wanting you. Triangles on my cheeks are numb. Thinking about you I feel myself get hot, but like it’s someone else feeling it. Like intravenous valium. I think about biting down on the softness of your top lip, that first time, like I had a right to be so rash with your perfect skin. Drunk then, like now, forgetting protocol. I’d imagined it so many times I just flat-out forgot to be polite.
The smell of you now just the same as it was then. And you, even prettier – heartbreakingly implausibly fucking beautiful – even prettier close up than you were on the airbrushed posters hung above the bed of every horny teenage boy in the country.
From that very first time, I couldn’t imagine even thinking about caring about Derek. I’d loved him, my husband: I had. But there just wasn’t space in my brain any more: each living breath was all about you, every neuron firing just for the thinking of you. Who would have thought it possible that a full-grown human being could actually, in real life, have both their last clear thought of the day and their very first thought on waking be about exactly the same thing: you. But there you have it.
Licking the taste of you off my fingers, the taste of you off my lips. Dreaming the smell of you.
Last night in my dream we were lying in your bed, your naked torso lined with the scars of a babyhood in hospitals. Scars winding spirals around your belly; a spiral staircase and I’m walking down into your navel. I asked you if your mother was scared those days, when you were a tiny scrap of flesh in a plastic box, all tubes and wires; if her brain fuzzed with the white noise of terror every minute you breathed like a machine; if you’d ever bothered to ask her. But when you answered your voice was a giant hum in the cavern of your belly and I didn’t know the language.
Listening to you now on the stereo I’m a little more awake than then, but grasping even less of what you’re saying to me.
So are you coming home tonight?
‘Hey honey, I’m home.’
The sound of you in the suite’s kitchen, glass on glass and the tumbling ice from your frost-free fridge.
‘I’m in here.’ I want you here right now. ‘Come to bed.’
‘Yup, just a sec. Just grabbing a drink.’
And here’s you, you in the doorframe, you all dressed in black. Satiny black shirt with the buttons just one hole off, but who cares, I can see the curve of your gorgeous breast where the shirt doesn’t quite close right. Look at your fucking glorious curves and the curls of your hair, your much-dreamed-about belly button peeking out above the waistband of your suede hipsters. Look how smooth your brown stomach is; just look for a second, will you? This would be easier if you could be just a tiny bit less perfect.
You sit on the edge of the bed and set your drink down.
‘How are you my handsome woman?’ You slide your little hand under the sheets and give my nipple a squeeze.
‘Ouch. Be a bit careful, would you?’
‘Who’s a grumpy squirrel?’ You retrieve your hand and use it instead to have a drink. ‘What’s up, baby?’
‘I just missed you.’
‘A gal’s gotta work, honey, you know that.’
‘Well, when did your show finish?’ I try to keep the whine out of my voice, but it’s there, it’s there. You’re trying to turn alternative but your record company has wrung a last few stadium sets out of you and we both know the teen fans who fill stadiums have to be home at a reasonable hour.
‘Stop trying to see what time it is.’ You have another drink. ‘My show finished at eleven, which you know perfectly well, and it’s now 2 am which means I’ve been out without you for four hours.’ You give me your best paparazzi smile. ‘You could’ve come you know.’
‘I’m an embarrassment.’
‘What? Who said that?’ You push my fringe out of my face and run your thumb across the skin beside my eye.
‘Are you trying to uncrease my wrinkles?’ I try to sound like I’m joking but it’s obvious that I’m not.
‘Oh, Amy. What is it now? Is it Dion again?’
‘It isn’t Dion. I can’t come to your shows, I’m too old. You can’t be seen with me. What about your fans?’ We both know it’s my genitals that are the issue, not my age.
‘I can’t be seen with my hand up your skirt, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be seen with you.’ And you run your hand up my thigh, my belly, between my legs. ‘I want to be seen with you,’ you whisper, your other hand ringing my ankle, fingers trapping my butterfly tattoo.
I don’t understand why I feel so angry with you.
‘I’m getting another drink,’ you say, draining the last third of the one in your hand. ‘Shall I get one for you?’
I shake my head, but then I regret it and follow you into the kitchen.
‘I just wish you’d come home sooner,’ I say before I’ve even thought about why. ‘What do you see in those guys? Why are you even out with those guys?’ I’m keeping my voice low, even. This time maybe we can just talk about it and you’ll see what I mean and instead of going out every night you’ll come home and curl up beside me and I’ll read you a bedtime story and we’ll fall asleep in each other’s arms.
‘Dion? Nam? Because they’re my friends, Amy.’ You knock back another drink. ‘They’re my friends and they’re not too uptight to come out with me and have a good time. I can’t come home after the show and go to bed, Jesus, Amy! I have people I have to spend time with and anyway, I’m too wired. Why can’t you get it?’
Friends? They’re your accessories. You want to show people your Christian country-pop past is behind you. You want everyone talking about which one of these gorgeous guys you’re with – is it the guitarist from that emo-metal band? Is it the star of last year’s art-house sensation? Is it both of them? At once?
‘Fucking Dion, you know he tried to grope me last time he was here,’ I mutter and I don’t know if that’s even true, maybe it was me groping him. It’s all pretty blurry now. It was all pretty blurry then.
‘That’s not how I remember it,’ you say, and you’re pouring another.
‘Slow down!’ I tell you. ‘We have to be in the studio by 10.’
‘Fuck, Amy, can you just go back on the pill? I can’t handle your moods any more!’
‘It’s not my fucking moods, Faith!’ I yell at you. ‘It’s your fucking friends and you never wanting to be seen with me. You’re ashamed of me!’
‘Well I am right now,’ you say, and you take your drink and walk out the door.
I want to go home. No, not that home. The home I have with you, the home I’m homesick for – the future imaginary home. I want to be sitting there, in a big, green armchair, the arms worn down. The chair sits in a rectangle of sunshine; the owner of the house (who is, perhaps, me) has slid the window open to let the warm breeze blow in. I’m sitting in the chair, sitting in the sunshine. My hair is in braids. I’m wearing a gingham dress. It’s a frock really; a gingham frock. It’s stretched over my tummy, which is distended because I’m pregnant. There’s a baby inside me, and I’m sitting in the sunshine, on my chair, looking out the window at the rows of grain, not in our yard where we’d have to look after them, but next door, where they’re not our problem but they are our view. Our garden is green and has apple trees. There’s a cat sleeping under one of them. Sometimes there are miniature cows, three foot tall at the shoulder, caramel-brown, but today they’re somewhere else.
And there’s you, curled on the floor at my feet, with your head resting on my belly and your hand on my knee, and you’re almost asleep. I’m stroking your beautiful hair, and you love me. You love me.
I can’t have this argument again. Today I can’t cry to break your heart, cry to make you quiet, cry to make it stop. Today I don’t want to wait for you to go to sleep, wake up tomorrow and tell me sorry (and know that what you mean is, ‘Please don’t quit. I need you behind the desk miraculously transforming me from angelic songbird to underground poet’).
So today, tonight, I go to your bedroom and put on my clothes, I put on my shoes while you take the elevator down to the street, stomp around to the corner where you’ll smoke a cigarette and turn around and come right back because you’ve thought of something else you need to tell me, because you want to remind me yet again that no one calls you Faith any more, it’s Audrey, and can I please get with the program. But by the time you’re back I’ll have my bag and I’ll walk out the door past you and I won’t listen to what you’re saying and I’ll ignore the feeling, the one that goes, ‘God, I love you so much, god, I’m so sorry, I love you, I love you, I love you, please hold me, please love me again, please love me’ and I’ll walk out the door and hail a cab and get in it and I’ll go away and I won’t come back.
Only it doesn’t quite happen like that. This time you walk around the corner to smoke, and you don’t come back. And this time I can’t find my keys. And without the keys I can’t lock the door behind me, and if I leave the door open someone will steal your guitars and they’re worth about a hundred thousand dollars and if someone stole them you’d be broken-hearted (much more so than you’ll be to lose me).
It won’t take you more than a week to get over me, no more than a month to forget I was ever here: god, you were always going to be gone as soon as we wrapped this album. Your friends don’t like me, your fans don’t even know I exist. But we had something:
I don’t know what it was, but it was something. I can’t let you just forget.
So I shut myself in the bathroom with a sizeable kitchen knife and my notebook and one of my two pens, and I write you a note. Then I call an ambulance and hack my arm off below the elbow, taking care to tie-off first – I don’t want to die or anything overly dramatic. And the ambulance takes me away and takes care of the whole problem with the front door, which is exactly what you’d hope for from the emergency services.
I’m leaving my arm here to remind you. Remember how this was?
The way your feet moved. The bits of hair that stood up, the ones that lay flat. Your incisors like a dog’s when you grinned, your eyes wide and surprised at joy. The softness in the palm of your hand.
I’m leaving my arm here for you. Suspend it in formaldehyde; suspend it in alcohol.
Hold my hand. You’re safe here – hold my hand.
Formaldehyde is also part of our 'Bright Young Things' book club this month. We will be live in conversation with Jane on Tuesday, 29th of September at 7pm and we'd love you to chip in with some questions.
Jane Rawson grew up in Canberra before dawdling on the streets of San Francisco, Prague and Phnom Penh. These days she lives in Melbourne’s west. Formerly editor of the environment and energy section of The Conversation, she now writes for an organisation promoting technology for social justice. She likes cats, quiet, minimal capitalisation, and finding out that everything is going to be OK.