Image © Ponyrojo via Flickr
Voiceworks is a magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of emerging Australian writers under the age of 25. ‘A Town Called Blackout’ by author Anna Krien first featured in our 2003 Winter edition, and ten years later remains a tense, absorbing character-driven piece. While it only covers a small moment in these characters’ lives, the glimpse we are given as readers gives us an insight into something bigger.
Now approaching our 100th issue, we are proud to have had the opportunity to work with a large amount of impressive and innovative young writers, and, if we’re honest, still get a bit star-struck looking back over our list of alumni.
Elizabeth Flux, Voiceworks Editor
A Town Called Blackout
With a portable phone cupped on her naked shoulder, she tries to breathe like the doctors told her. Buteyko style. Her asthma wavers as he twangs the loose nylon strings on his guitar down the phone line. He says he's playing a love song he wrote for her, but she knows he's lying. Tey only just met this afternoon. She wonders who he wrote it for. She has heard stories about him, about his home in the motel on the edge of town. At school, they joke that he must have a different room each night as the place is always vacant.
He doesn't say much when he stops playing the guitar. There is just a series of long pauses.
She wanders through her mother's government subsidised unit, the line crackling like a transistor radio.
She catches glimpses of her body in the reflection of second-hand broken down appliances: her buttocks in the fridge, her calves in the washing maching and her navel in the toaster. He tells her he needs to see her and she imagines her reflection in his stormy salt streaked sheets. She fingers her mother's car keys, wriggling her pinkie in the brass 'D' for Dorothy.
'I can't drive,' she whispers.
'I'll teach you,' he whispers back.
'Put the lights on.' She takes the portable receiver with her in the car. 'Start the ignition. Pull the choke out.' He says. 'Try again.' The car backfires and slowly rattles to life. In the rear view mirror, she sees her mother's bedside light flick on. Softly she pulls out over the gravel, hitting the hum of the bitumen road. 'Keep your foot soft on the pedal.' He watches for her at his window, dragging a finger along the dust on the blinds. Their voices traffic in and out of clear patches of interaction. He tells her to put the high beams on but she's not listening anymore. This can't be her first time, he thinks.
He thinks this is my first time, she muses. The car leaping through the pieces of moonlight scattered on the road, like an albino possum leaping from branch to branch. They had met outside the pool. Him in his long sleeved shirt and trousers, and her in a bikini top and shorts. He had walked up to her and said that her top kept falling down. He was right. For the entire walk to the pool she had been tugging it up over her breasts. He said that he had seen half of each nipple, which qualifies as one whole nipple. She said have you ever seen a chocolate bud.
She looks at the portable phone, lying in the folds of her nightie. He is lying in her lap. He is breathing in her lap. There is a breeze. She winds down her window. With one rotation of the handle, the window unlocks and falls the rest of the way. The glass rattles inside the door. She had never seen him laugh before. It was more like a choke, like a car being started after a couple months' absence. The wind whips her hair back. Just to see what it is like, she turns off the car headlights and drives in the dark.
Room five. He told her. Ground floor, on the end. He waits at the window. Holding the phone to his ear, he can hear the road whipping beneath her wheels. He can hear the worn tread and the hubcaps spinning loosely. The car might not make it to the edge of town, to where he stands, in a dimly lit room with a bed and plastic covers. He opens the top drawer and see the bible untouched. The walls are chipboard and painted a pale pink, there are no prints, only a likst of rules in a frame. He holds a hand to his head, as if shielding it from the emptiness that swallows the room with its grey lips. He looks up through the window to the toasted possum dangling from its stiff curled tail like a scab on the powerlines. Its white skeleton lit up by the petrol station opposite. He waits for the bones to fall.
Her eyes are open but she sees only the black expanse of the sky sinking on the roof of her mother's car. She can hear the metal buckling in as the car leans in on her. The black is breathing. The phone in her lap is sighing. It is a straight line to the motel. Closing her eyes, she holds her arms out, encircling the steering wheel. She listens to the road flickering like an eight millimetre film underneath her. Like memories, she runs over them.
Flicking the lights bck on, she sees her reflection being faxed from the dash onto the windscreen. The moon reappears with her headlights, and the car exhales as she puts her foot down.
The car scuttles down the highway, hovering at the edges of the emergency lane. She lights a cigarette, and he smiles, the snap of the lighter over the phone giving the smoke away. 'She's got cigarettes,' he murmurs, pleased. Halfway through her slow exhale, the portable phone cuts out, the receiver now a plastic carcass in her lap. He can see her now, through the bend gaps in his blinds, she runs a red light that's only lit up for tourists and pulls in past the flashing red 'Vacancy' sign. She parks and turns off the ignition, leaving the car in drive, the handbrake off and the headlights staring into an empty motel room window. The unreceptive phone bleeps on the passenger seat, its battery charge ebbing away like the pulse of a drowned bird.
He barely has to undo the chain for her as she slips in, weraing a woollen jumper over her nightie. Her fingers emerging through worn holes in the cuffs of her sleeves clutch a lumpy backpack. He jumps at the touch of her cold fingertips, but neither of them let go, stepping on each other's toes.
'You can drive,' he whispers.
'Yes,' she replies. 'I can'.
She looks around, but only see a motel room. Disentangling herself, she opens the top drawer and sees the bible untouched. She closes the drawer satisfied. She opens the fridge and sips the 20ml containers of milk. She checks the sachets and puts the sugar in her bag. 'If you want to book a room, I can point you in the direction of the office.' She smiles and unhooks a thread from her woollen jumper, giving it to him. He tugs at it and slowly unravels her sweater until their feet are hidden beneath a blue creeper of wool. He laughs and she leans over to him.
This can't be her first time, he thinks, as he writes his name in the fog on eyelids. One of her hands strokes the back of his neck, he nails bitten and red rimmed, smudged with scrapings of black nail polish. The springs wolf-whistle as they sink down on the bed, his body imprinting the grungey mattress with the stuffing leaking out one side. Her hair flickers over him like grass stalks tickling the blue-black sky and she breathes hot steam over his skin. Frost forms on the car's windscreen outside and the headlights begin to flicker and fade.
He thinks this is my first time, she muses. Closing her eyes, he becomes the road beneath her. She runs her hand over the gravel, catching pieces of him in cuts. She draws a white line up his middle, and swerves, fishtailing down the highway. She indicates nothing. Shadows of the petrol station dance through the red brakelights of trucks as they wheeze to a stop across the road. Cat paws leave treadmarks across his chest and he barely notices her other hand clambering around in her backpack, searching for a Ventolin inhaler to stop her from blacking out before she comes.
She drives blindly. Her brakes have worn thin. She empties slowly as he winds his grey lips around her. She squeezes the inhaler into her lungs and the steering wheel spins without her. The car swings around and skids backwards. She lets go, lifting her feet up and curling her hands around her knees. She sits in the driver's seat like a child and watches the trees bend past her. This is her first time. He turns his head to the side and watches as a vertebrae falls from the powerlines.
Anna Krien is the author of Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania's Forests andQuarterly Essay 45 Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals.
Anna's work has been published in the Monthly, The Age, The Big Issue, The Best Australian Essays, The Best Australian Stories, Griffith Review, Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging,Colors, Frankie and Dazed & Confused.
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One of my favourite things about Bloc Features is the chance to revisit pieces from the past -- bits of early genius from writers we have come to know and experience broadly. Every month we'll feature a story from an Australian journal, past or present. Next week we'll showcase an excerpt from a debut novelist.
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Geoff Orton is the founder of Writers Bloc. He's also a teacher and a Boston Celtics tragic.