Tincture Journal is a great quarterly digital mag, and if you're not reading it already, you should be. This week's Bloc Feature comes from Issue 7, and its author, Rebecca Howden, also has a story in the recently released Issue 8! Both (and all other) issues are jam-packed with excellent writing. I spoke to Rebecca about this story, other stories, and even more other stories.
ANNA: Faith is a beautifully drawn character. Do you think she is hopeful? What do you think she gets out of her sessions with the Professor?
REBECCA: I think she is hopeful, despite the bleakness of her life as she sees it at the moment. She's frustrated by how miserable she feels and definitely fears that maybe things won't get better, but she hasn't given up completely - there is a glimmer of hope there. And I think the Professor plays an important part in that - he's like her lighthouse. She's petulant and bratty towards him, but she trusts him, and really has a kind of reverence for him. I think the feeling of being listened to is unfamiliar to her, and that makes her wary because it's so precious.
ANNA: What do you love about writing shorts? How is it different from other kinds of fiction?
REBECCA: I love fiction that captures the subtleties of everyday moments - small interactions between characters that evoke so much more than what is said. Short fiction can be a wonderful medium for that because you're taking a magnifying glass to such a small slice of someone's life. But actually, the feedback I often get when I try to write short stories is that it feels like it's part of a longer narrative - so I think maybe my heart lies in the novella.
ANNA:What else are you working on?
REBECCA: I am working on trying to cobble together a novel at the moment, which is a challenging and scary process! I have grown very attached to Faith and have written a few short stories about her, so I'm taking those pieces and fleshing it out from there. It's still in its infancy, but I'm excited to see what kind of story I can create for her.
by Rebecca Howden
Every Thursday at half past five she goes to see the Professor. It’s cold this evening, and she shivers as she closes the iron gate behind her, clack-clacking up the path in her heels. She rings the doorbell and waits, flanked by the two olive trees that sit patiently in their terracotta pots. There’s a shuffle and he opens the door.
“Come on in, Faith,” he says, his craggy face crinkling into a smile. He’s all rugged up today, a grandpa cardigan over his shirt and tie. Paul, his real name is, but she doesn’t like using his name much.
Inside it’s still cold. It’s always cold in here, but she takes off her coat anyway. He must keep it so icy on purpose, she thinks; that would just be the sort of thing he would do. Maybe being freezing makes you long for comfort, so you open up more. Or something. She sits down on the plush, burgundy-coloured couch and hunches forwards, her hair spilling over her face. Her hair is endless, a million different shades of birchwood and ash. The kind of hair that birds could nest in, hair that you’d expect to find bits of twigs and leaves scattered throughout. Paul sits in his desk chair opposite her, waiting.
“How are you today?” he says.
She shrugs, looks out the window. Raindrops cling to the glass like pearls. All day there have been growling thunderstorms, separated by odd bursts of bright, cold sunshine. When she left work maybe forty minutes ago, the sky was a sickly apricot colour streaked with silver. Now it’s dark grey, sinking already into night. There’s no getting around it; it’s winter now for sure.
“It’s winter,” she says. “Winter makes me sad.”
“Why do you think that is?”
She shrugs again. A tree branch rakes its fingers against the glass.
“Doesn’t it make everyone sad?” she says, and he doesn’t answer.
Faith sighs impatiently and looks around at all his books and folders, messily stacked on his big wooden desk. Those chrysanthemums always sitting in a vase on the windowsill, made of paper or some kind of stiffened silk maybe. They peek up tall and proud out of the glass vessel. A few months back, when it was summer, he suggested that she find a hobby, so she took an ikebana class to keep herself occupied. She liked it well enough, as much as one can like playing with flowers, fussing over the heights and colours as if it matters. She’d made him an arrangement of poppies and lilies, to say thank you or something.
“Well,” she says, looking up at him at last. He has old-man glasses, the kind with rims you can hardly see. She told him once that everyone’s wearing big thick frames these days, and he seemed to find that amusing. She guesses he’s about her dad’s age. Maybe younger, but who can tell? The silvery flecks in his beard catch the light, and she thinks, whiskers. “I hope winter finishes soon, anyway.”
“There will still be a little bit to go, I think,” he says, but he smiles kindly.
He’d kept her flowers in that same place on the windowsill for a week or two, until they shrivelled and died, the wrinkly skin of their petals hanging sullenly from the blackened stems. She tried not to feel hurt when he threw them out, but it still grates at her a bit now. “Well, nothing lasts forever, right Faith?” she remembers him saying with a rueful smile. Who gave him the fake chrysanthemums, she wonders?
“How is your joint pain today?” he asks.
“It’s fine,” she says, though as she says it she feels her wrists and fingers aching. He’s scribbling something down on a notepad, so she looks down at her shoes. They’re stupid, garnet-coloured things that cost too much and hurt like hell. She never normally wears heels in real life, but on Tuesday Jill took her aside at work and gently suggested she might want to try dressing a bit more like the other girls. “I’m not trying to be mean,” she said. “It’s just that, if you want to move up in this place, well…” Faith got it. She wondered if the directors had asked Jill to say something to her. It was no secret that they only hired pretty girls, but she thought just getting the job was enough. She thought her pencil skirts and cardigans were OK. She stretches her legs out in front of her, lets the shoes slip off her stockinged feet.
“Do you like my new shoes?” she asks, looking down at where they lie, brilliant red against the creamy carpet.
“They’re nice,” Paul says.
“Yeah, well.” She leans back on the couch, smiles wryly. “A girl at work told me I should try to look prettier.”
He nods, watching her face carefully. Her eyes are very small and very dark, always squinting, cat-like.
“How did that make you feel?” he asks.
“It felt like that game where you threw things at me.”
Early on in their sessions, she’d told him that whenever she walks down the street or gets on a tram she is filled with this feeling that everyone is looking at her. So he’d made her do this terrible exercise, where she wrote down on big strips of paper each of the things she felt people were thinking: she’s weird, she’s fat, she’s ugly, she’s stupid, she’s boring. When she was done he scrunched all the pieces of paper up into balls and told her to try to walk across the room. One after another, he tossed the paper balls at her, faster and faster. It was supposed to show how hard it is to get on with things when these thoughts are pelting at her all at once. Well, she knew that already. “How useful is that feeling?” he was always asking her. “What’s the value of saying that to yourself?”
She stares at the damask curtains, tracing the dark pattern in her mind. He talks, and he goes through the usual questions. How is her appetite this week, has she been sleeping OK, is she managing to get things done at work. She listens and answers. And his voice washes over her, and she hears the heavy second hand of the clock schlepping in its circle, clock, clock, clock.
The tram is crowded and slow in the wet. Umbrellas drip water all over the floor, which is streaked with shuffling footprints. She sits by the window, bunched up between businessmen and backpackers, all their various briefcases and sports bags and backpacks pushing her into the wall. Her hands are shaking again, she notices, a familiar tremor that might mean Parkinson’s or maybe just nerves, matching the pace of her hummingbird heartbeat. She watches her sombre face in the darkness of the window. Her wide, bright mouth, her tiny cat-eyes. The reflection flickers in and out. Now I’m here, now I’m not, she thinks.
When she gets home, her housemates Dave and Claire are in the kitchen making spaghetti. Everything’s always a team activity with them, Faith thinks. They probably brush their teeth together. She kicks off her shoes and drops her handbag and coat on the floor, knowing how much it drives Claire insane.
“How was work today, hun?” Claire asks.
“Great,” Faith says, opening the fridge and pulling out a half-empty bottle of cheap pinot grigio. “I resized fifty million images, played with a few hundred layouts, and I spilled my coffee all over my desk.”
“Doesn’t sound too good,” Dave says cheerily.
Faith pours the wine into a glass and sits down at the bench next to where Dave is chopping zucchini. She runs her fingertips around the rim of the glass, staring intently at the wavering colour.
“I’m unhappy,” she says slowly.
“You’re never happy though,” Claire says, not even looking up from the stove. You’re never happy, just like that, all matter-of-fact. Like, you never take out the rubbish. Faith pushes her stool back loudly and stands up, feeling venomous.
“Enjoy your dinner,” she says coldly. “I’m going to my room.”
“Should we expect any gentleman visitors tonight?” Dave asks.
She looks at them both with dark, treacherous eyes.
“No,” she says.
Upstairs in her room, she lies on her bed and puts her hands over her face. God, she hates them sometimes. She takes her hands away and stares up at the light fitting dangling bright above her head. The room seems to shift a little. The thought of standing up and looking at her clothes, trying to find something to wear to work tomorrow that might be girlish and glamorous enough for Jill makes her feel weak. She closes her eyes and looks at the blotchy flower patterns the light makes on the back of her eyelids.
It’s funny that the Professor didn’t ask her about Alex tonight, she thinks. He was probably waiting for her to bring him up, but she didn’t feel like saying his name. There’s nothing to say anyway, it’s been weeks now since she heard from him. It’s all a variation on a theme. He comes and goes without warning. Stops answering her calls, stops replying to her messages. He’s gone from the face of the earth, then days or weeks or months later he’s back, knocking on her door late at night.
She thinks about the last time she saw him. They walked home together down rainy Carlisle Street. The wind whipped her hair all around her face and she smiled at him through the dirty blonde tangles. She was wearing her glasses, but the rain was leaving tiny spots on them, so she took them off and then he was just a blur of pale skin and dark clothes, draping his arm across her shoulders. By the time they got to her house, their clothes and hair and skin were dripping. They took off their scarves and jackets and she went to pour him a glass of wine, but he put his hands on her hips and kissed her instead, and he pushed her so they fell onto the couch in a mess of damp limbs.
Well, it’s Alex’s birthday today. Faith’s was last week, but in winter the days all become one. The mornings are dark, the evenings are dark, and in between there’s only grey, so it’s hard to keep any concept of time. She forgets where she is, what day it is. It’s that feeling of walking into a room and wondering what you came there for. She’ll find herself on a tram and have no memory of getting on it. She’ll find a cup of coffee in her hand and wonder if she bought it from that barista she thinks is cute and if she even paid. She’s never quite sure if she’s spoken out loud. Alex let her birthday slip past without a word.
“Hey, hun?” Claire’s voice at the door. Faith sits up in bed, but Claire walks in before she can even respond.
“Here, have you eaten?” she says, handing Faith a bowl of spaghetti and a tea towel. She places Faith’s handbag down on the overflowing desk and hangs her coat over the back of the chair. Faith can see the red heels peeking out from inside the handbag.
Claire sits down next to her on the bed.
“I hope you weren’t offended by what Dave said before,” she says. “He didn’t mean anything by it. You know we don’t judge you.”
“It’s fine,” she says.
Claire looks around the tiny room. The floor is a swamp of clothes, pouring out from the open doors of the wardrobe. The shelves spit out books and picture frames and bottles of lotions and potions. A turquoise bra hangs over the floor-standing lamp.
“What you need is to meet a nice boy,” she says. “We should set you up with one of Dave’s friends. Maybe Tim—remember Tim?”
“Please, Claire, don’t,” she says. “I don’t need a nice boy.”
“Well, you need to stop hanging around with Alex McGregor, and whoever else makes you so grouchy.”
“I’m fine,” Faith says. She places the bowl of spaghetti on the bedside table and lies back on the bed, covering her face with her arm. “Listen, I really have a headache. Can we talk later?”
Claire leaves, and Faith rolls on her side to stare at the wall. Her knees and ankles ache. When she focuses on the feeling it moves to her elbows, then her wrists, then back to her ankles. What would Alex be doing right now, she wonders, and then, what would the Professor be doing? She massages her left wrist with her right hand. Sometimes, the Professor told her once, people who fear abandonment become attached to people who fear engulfment. Yeah, well. She wonders what he’d say about the way she pushed Claire away just now. She imagines his pale blue eyes, his salt-and-pepper hair. What would he say about any of it, if he could really see inside the catacombs of her head.
The next Thursday she arrives at the Professor’s house early. She waits by the olive trees, stamping her feet in the cold like a pony. Her long, unruly hair has been chopped into a bob, curling in a thick mop by her chin.
“You cut your hair,” Paul says as she settles down onto the couch, her coat bunched up beside her. She just looks at down at her legs in their shiny black opaques. She’s settled into a uniform now—black dress, black stockings, the red shoes. She doesn’t have to think about it anymore.
“Why did you do it?” he asks. She shrugs.
“I felt like it,” she says, rubbing at her elbows. “It’s what girls do. I thought you had a daughter and a wife or something.” Probably girlfriends as well, she thinks meanly. Not that she can really picture him being anything other than the perfect, doting husband and father. Still, who can tell with guys.
“I only wondered because cutting hair can be pretty symbolic,” he says, putting down his notepad and pen. He leans forward. “You know that, I’m sure.”
She rolls her eyes and stands up, pacing by the window. It’s the same rumply, charcoal sky that’s been there forever now. Is it the same sky?
“Well, let’s see. It’s not the 1920s,” she says. “And I’m not a rape victim. So, what else? It was just getting in my way. There was so much of it.” Like it could choke her somehow. Like it could suddenly grow into immeasurable lengths and get tangled around her while she slept, and they’d find her days later wrapped in a cocoon of brown and gold.
“How do you feel now, with it out of your way?”
“Well, don’t you think I look pretty?” she says, turning to look him in the eye. He glances away.
“I’m more interested in what you think,” he says. “Is it important to you that I think you’re pretty?”
She keeps wandering around the small room, running her finger along the spines of books on the shelves. In the corner is a miniature wooden table and chair, strewn with coloured blocks and trinkets for his child patients. She tries to picture him talking to a little kid, crouched down to listen, his clumsy old-man hands trying to help out with a puzzle of some sort. They must do drawings here, some kind of art therapy. There are textas and paper that he’s never asked her to use.
“Do you like working with kids?” she asks. He follows her gaze.
“Sure,” he says. “Do you like kids?”
“Mm,” she says. “I guess. My sister and I used to babysit for the little girl across the road.”
He waits from his desk chair while she keeps pacing the room. Finally she flops back down on the couch. He clears his throat.
“Faith,” he says. “How has this week been for you? Have you been more anxious than usual?”
She thinks back over the week, trying to peel apart the days. All she sees is a blur of colour, streaks of red and peach racing through an endless cloud of grey. Has it been a week? She got up, she went to work, she went to sleep. But remember—she got her hair cut. Saturday it must have been. She remembers the hairdresser’s laugh, the way the mirror reflected back her odd, pale face, the look of her wheat-coloured hair piling up on the floor.
“You texted me quite a number of times,” he says gently.
“Only a couple of times.” Yes, she remembers texting him once or twice. Well, maybe it was a few more times, she’s not sure. She just remembers a tightness in her chest, a clanging in her head that made her scramble for her phone, and the calm that came—for a moment—when he texted back a few kind words.
Her mind flits, moth-like. She looks up at the framed prints hanging on his wall. One of them’s a Monet, one of the garden paintings, with the waterlilies and the Japanese bridge. Agapanthus, or whatever. She supposes it’s meant to be calming, those soft, blurry colours. A small smile finds itself on her lips.
“What is it?” he asks.
“I’m just remembering something annoying Alex said once,” she says. “I have these posters on my wall in my bedroom. Like prints that I bought from the gallery, in the gift shop. And I said something once like, ‘Well, these prints are as far as my efforts at decorating go.’ And he kind of scoffed and said, ‘That’s not decorating. You’ve got government advertising on your walls.’ Because they’ve got a little logo saying National Gallery of Victoria at the bottom in the corner.”
“Can you believe that?” she says, looking at Paul with bright eyes. She laughs. “I mean, I like art, and he somehow makes that a bad thing.”
Paul stands up and paces over to the bookshelf. He looks down at her intently, with the same look he often has when she talks about boys. Like a stern uncle, dark with a kind of impatience, or maybe it’s pity. Either you’re incredibly unlucky, he told her once, or you’re choosing the wrong men. He clears his throat, but doesn’t say anything.
“What?” Faith says. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking…” he says, his silvery eyebrows furrowing. He takes off his glasses and looks at her directly.
“Why do you think it is that you keep spending time with someone who always seems to criticise you?” he asks.
For a moment, she looks at him and sees the softness in his eyes, the kindness in his grandpa face. And she stands up and wraps her arms around him, burying her face in his scratchy jumper. It’s probably against the rules, she’s sure of that, but she’s here now, and she breathes heavily into his arm, clutching to him tight. His body remains rigid, unresponsive. He doesn’t hug her back, but he doesn’t push her away.
She meets Claire in her lunch break at a café near work. A sticky blackness is seeping into her head again, and she orders a double espresso to try to jolt herself out of it. Claire’s not so bad, really. Faith just wishes she’d stop looking at her like something that needed fixing.
“You’re fading away to nothing,” Claire is saying. She has a cappuccino in front of her and slicks a dollop of froth off her spoon, a dainty pink flick of tongue. “We should order something to eat.”
“I’ve got a sandwich back at the office,” Faith says.
Claire looks at her like doesn’t believe her, but she knows better than to push it.
“So, I was thinking we should go to a movie or something this weekend, just do something fun,” Claire says. “Unless you’re busy, with Alex or whatever.”
Faith suddenly feels bad about all the mean things she usually thinks about Claire, the little ember of irritation that smoulders inside whenever she speaks.
“I don’t care about Alex anymore.”
They both sip their coffee and let the lie hang there in the air.
“I have a date tonight,” she says.
“Someone nice?” Claire asks, all arched eyebrows.
“I don’t know. He’s a web developer. He might be nice.”
She watches as a paper coffee cup skips along the street in the wind.
“Sometimes I just get filled with this feeling. This terrifying urgency to get out away from myself,” she says. “Like I can feel myself inside my body and it’s not a part of me, and I need to get out. And then I panic and I feel like my brain could just explode and my skull would be in pieces.” Like being in a Munch painting, she thinks, where the landscape loops and wobbles, and the colours are all sallow, and there’s nothing but a terrible aloneness.
Claire is watching her face closely.
“What does your therapist say about this?” she asks.
“Nothing,” Faith says. “It doesn’t matter.”
Instead of going straight back to work, she dilly-dallies. The city street is strewn with winter leaves, sticking to the pavement and people’s shoes. In her head, she’s talking to the Professor about love.
“It’s just a sickness I have,” she says.
“Being infatuated can feel like a drug,” he acknowledges. “It can be like an addiction.”
“So it’s not my fault, then,” she says. “It’s just chemicals in my brain.”
A susurrous wind makes the trees shiver, makes her dress billow against her legs. She slows her pace, lingers by the window of a lingerie shop. This walking around has made her tired. A thin layer of sweat coats her skin, even in this cold; she looks like she’s made from wet clay. In the window pane, her ghost is imposed over wisps of scarlet.
“Do you think you’re looking for validation?” the Professor says in her head. “Do you need to be attractive to be lovable?”
“I didn’t have a bad childhood,” she says.
She closes her eyes and sees his avuncular smile. When she opens them she feels that funny kind of time-lapse in her brain, synapses failing. These silky slips of burgundy inside the shop window, this gloomy street—for a second she’s seen this scene before.
She does have a date tonight, with a web developer who’s been doing some contract work at her office. Luke, his name is. She tipsily charmed him over Friday night drinks last week and now he’s suggested they hang out at his place, drink some wine, listen to music. Obviously she knows what that means—she’s not an idiot—but she’s fine with it, why the hell not. He’s not the long-haired, starving artist sort she usually likes, but he’s cute, this guy. He has shiny white teeth and big, muscly arms. He reminds her of a bear.
“It’s not about whether the music was good or not,” she’s saying as he pours her a third glass of white. By now, her wine-warmed blood is feeling vital in her veins. Her eyes are marbles and she’s gesturing with her hands a lot. “It’s about what it represents. Like the feeling that it captured. Like, I wasn’t even part of it at the time but I still know exactly what it felt like then, and ten years later when I was old enough to feel it too, that album still fit it perfectly.”
She’s being obnoxious, saying pretentious things, hearing the words before they’ve formed properly in her head. She keeps expecting him to say something to belittle her, but he just smiles in a way that she’s starting to find quite devastating. A cute guy with a real job who isn’t a drug addict—it’s exotic to her. She shifts a little closer to him on the couch, just slightly.
“You smell nice,” she says, suddenly. “All cedary.”
“Cedary—is that what it is?” he says. What a very strange girl, he must be thinking. “I don’t even know what cedar smells like.”
She shrugs, takes a sip of wine.
“Well,” she says. “I used to work in a perfume shop. It was actually kind of interesting, for a while.”
“Did you like it more than what you’re doing now?” he asks.
“I don’t really know what I like,” she says. She twirls the stem of the wineglass in her fingers, eyes fixed on the gleaming rim. “I guess I always used to kind of think I’d be an artist.”
“Well, you are,” he says. “You’re a designer.”
“Not really,” she says, making a face. “Designing catalogues isn’t really designing. You just push buttons and do what you’re told. A monkey could do it.”
“A monkey who was trained to use design software, maybe,” he says.
“Exactly,” she says, and they both smile. Her body is relaxed into the couch, and she lolls her head to the side to rest against his shoulder. He strokes a strand of her short, messy hair.
“Well, I always wanted to be a footballer,” he tells her. “But it turns out I’m better at web development.”
And they both smile, and she feels a surge of strange happiness. In this moment, she thinks, she could be a different kind of girl. She’s not that woebegone, skinny waif slumped on her therapist’s couch—she’s lissome and strong, and she’s kissing a guy who’s actually nice to her. His hand is in her hair and she can feel his heartbeat through his shirt and she thinks, yes, this is someone I could be.
Afterwards, his body is tired and entwined with hers. She feels small, encircled in his big bear-arms. The heady rush of the wine is fading, and she feels like she could be lulled to sleep. She lets her cheek rest against his chest and runs her fingertips along his warm skin. And then he rolls away from her, saying, “You be the big spoon, OK?” She dutifully curls around him, and now she’s looking at his muscular back and something bleak unfurls inside her. His breathing slows; he is falling asleep already. And she closes her eyes and she burrows into a familiar kind of misery, a hollow that welcomes her like an old friend.
She wakes from a fitful sleep to a surge of terror. The bleating red lines of the clock say 4 am. What day? Naked, she twists to look over at Luke, who’s sleeping heavily next to her. It feels like there’s a sparrow beating its wings inside her chest. The Professor, she thinks. She climbs out of the bed as quietly as she can and rummages through the dark to find her clothes, her boots. She needs to see the Professor.
Outside, the streets are cold and silent. She can’t remember the last time she was out at this time of night. The heels of her shoes clomp loudly all around her, slow and steady as she walks along. It must take almost an hour to walk to his house from here, but she’s got time. She walks and walks down the night-drenched streets.
Around the corner from Paul’s house, she sits down on a bench beneath a tree. It will be morning soon, she thinks, she can wait until then. The sky is still deeply black, but she doesn’t feel that cold, not really. She’ll wait here.
Then it’s light. She can’t remember seeing the sun come up, but it’s light now. There are people walking past in suits, clutching briefcases and takeaway coffees so it must be a decent hour. She stands up, wraps her coat tighter around her body and starts to walk.
It takes him a while to answer to the door. He opens it with a curious look on his face that becomes confusion when he sees her, all bedraggled and pale. Then he is furrowed, school principal-like.
“Faith,” he says. She shifts her feet, looking down at the concrete steps.
“Can I come in?” she says quietly.
He watches her, this lost sea urchin with messy hair, and he softens his face. He doesn’t say anything, but he opens the door wider for her, and she slips past him like a cat into the room.
Rebecca Howden is a Melbourne-based writer and editor who is currently preoccupied with themes of love, madness, femininity and beauty. Her fiction and essays have appeared in publications including The Sleepers Almanac, Kill Your Darlings, Crikey and others. Some of her work can be seen at rebeccahowden.com.au. “Transference” appeared in Issue Seven of Tincture Journal and another of Rebecca’s stories, “On the skin” can be found in Issue Eight.
One of my favourite things about Bloc Features is the chance to revisit pieces from the near and far past. Australian journals are putting out wonderful writing year-round, and there are so many gems to uncover. Every month we'll feature a story from an Australian journal, past or present.
If you've read something you think should have a second run, I'd love to hear from you! Please email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org - Anna Spargo-Ryan, Bloc Features Editor
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