When Simon vomited the grief of his father’s death into a plastic bag on the rooftop of a Melbourne hostel, I couldn’t help but consider what a poignant narrative climax it would make. I was standing in fog freckled with security-light orange, hiccupping Smirnoff bile when he moved to the low wall by the edge. Ben ran after him; we were terrified he’d fall or throw himself over. He was trembling and wet-dog snivelling, but he hadn’t been stuck in his end-of-the-world grief all night. Not like he was then.
It was 2008 and we were twenty. Far too young, really, for that kind of grief. The weekend escape had been concocted just days before, the kind of flyaway ‘why not’ you can get away with between university semesters when there’s nothing but long nights in friends’ backyards to fill the space of days. We’d started late in the afternoon with a bottle of vodka and pink and orange slushies from the 7Eleven. We played brain freeze and a game of Presidents and Assholes with Mexican girls who were in town to see the Pope for World Youth Day. It hadn’t been a remarkable evening except that he’d been smiling through most of it. Sitting in the hostel corridor floor, his knees didn’t seem to jut so much from his too-big pants and he had that goofy look like he used to have, back when we’d welt our fingertips from too much Guitar Hero and fall asleep at 4am amongst soda cans and melted M&Ms. So instead of worrying about him, as I had for days, weeks, months, really, I’d been mentally composing a gothic piece set in the Old Gaol just over the road. Flood lights cast shadows on brick beyond the windows and I watched for spectral faces behind the bars — I’d had strange shivers in a cell the day before, one renowned for its paranormal visitations, and there was a story in it, I knew.
When we said goodnight to the Mexicans, I should have expected the hug that began with a moon-smile and ended in his fingers clenching tight to my back, that silent quiver in his bones. That he’d slip through my arms to a bundle on the floor. And that my own heart would break, again, because I couldn’t heal his.
We came up to the roof and he pushed his fingers firmly against me: ‘Fuck off.’
But Ben and I crept up anyway, pressed our ears against the door. We listened to the thud of fold-up chairs, benches scattering against the concrete. The gravelled roar of his yell. That’s when we rushed. We found him standing still, his beanpole silhouette striking against the broad grey of the gaol.
‘I’m gonna be sick.’
Ben ran with a plastic bag pulled from his pockets. The heave of vomit was spectacular. That’s when he stumbled to the low wall by the edge. When I thought he might jump.
The ghosts next door disappeared.
He looked up at us and a shift came over him. Something in his eyes. He peered over the edge, looking down at the wet street: a cat curling around a lamppost, the short white apartment building opposite. He rocked back on his heels and grinned. Then he threw it. The wobbling bag, strangely graceful in its own way, sailed across the street and landed on slanted tiles above a porthole window. The liquid threatened the plastic, then after a tense moment, rested.
A strange stillness passed.
‘Fucking hell,’ said Ben. ‘That was beautiful.’
Simon gripped us, tipped his head back and, throaty with catharsis, he laughed.
It was difficult not to see the narrative potential.
Art by Rhianna Carr
Words by Lauren Butterworth
Lauren Butterworth is a writer, academic and editor with creative work published in a variety of outlets including Meanjin, Verity La, Wet Ink, Midnight Echo and more. She is co-director of The Hearth, a readings event that aims to platform exciting local voices in a space that nurtures creativity, conversation and ideas. She is also a host and producer of the podcast Deviant Women which tells the stories of women who dare to break the rules and subvert the system. During the day, she teaches at Flinders University and is editor at MidnightSun Publishing.