John Donne may have stated that no man is an island, but I’m sure that many women have felt like islands: lonely specks on the horizon, being lashed by rough seas. Gazing out across an empty ocean, waiting to be rescued. Ladies, if we could just see far enough, we would see that each island is just a stone’s throw from another. We are a sprawling archipelago of single women.
John Donne was right, though. No man is an island. Not the single men, anyway – they are driftwood. Floating in the seas, free but equally alone. Sometimes they wash up on an island, at the feet of a stranded female. Tired of the monotony of her empty beach, and of always drinking her coconut juice alone, the woman may be tempted to grab onto whatever piece of wood floats by. But we must be resolved. We must busy ourselves about the island, cooking fish over an open fire and even talking to volleyballs, because it’s better than settling for an eternity of drifting in the cold ocean, clinging uncertainly to a slippery bit of driftwood.
Sit on the beach, light your signal fire, and wait for your ship to come. Ladies, your ship is coming. And even if it passes you by, at least you’ll still be on your very own island, standing on solid ground. It may be lonely sometimes, but it’s yours.
He pushed the cup around the counter.
‘Of course I like my life,’
he told the tabletop.
His grave eyes narrowed,
imploring me to stop.
He never smiled with all his face.
Opened up his law-books
and recited every word.
I put to him a question,
my zeal yet undeterred.
‘Don’t we all want something better?’
‘On this flawed bit of earth,
in this bit of human mire,
isn’t everything we do
motivated by desire?
‘A higher realm, a holier place…
‘Some medieval men
saw the universe in spheres
that ground out divine sounds
too perfect for our ears.
‘No one said that heaven was here.’
He shrugged and shook his head.
I knew my point was lost.
Deep dissatisfaction comes
from a chasm never crossed.
He never thought that heaven was here.
I can feel sleep creeping upon me,
threatening with oblivion.
My mind fights it like an ageing despot
refusing to retire, to become irrelevant,
convinced that the world will
fall to pieces in its absence.
I lean back in the passenger’s seat
and my mind whirrs on, unchecked.
Clouds sail on an urgent wind,
in the middle space between
the human scale and the infinite.
A shadow leaps onto a wall,
and for a moment all the lines are clear.
Then it is snatched away, and there is
only the blur of concrete.
We drive until it is dark,
until the street lights wink on.
The river’s black water betrays
the fluorescent inverted world.
Ruby, sapphire strata
stretch down to the depths,
spearing away from the land.
The overhead lights stripe
the dashboard yellow, flicking along
with metronome precision.
At the sound of street rushing
past beneath my feet,
my eyes close and I doze
like a fussing baby held close
by a tired mother.
Between slow, lengthening blinks,
I peer at the scenes swinging past.
A couple weaves its way
towards the city centre,
pinky fingers linked between them.
They have the languid gait of lovers.
Seagulls are wheeling in the air,
rising like a pale cloud
behind the darkness.
A man runs a hand through his hair,
standing with feet apart at the bus stop.
Glancing to my right,
I watch the capable hands
guiding the steering wheel.
Then, just the right song
crosses the radio.
The world eases by outside,
confident in itself.
Reassured by the constant motion,
my mind gives up control, slows,
and finally drifts into oblivion.
The TV starts to blur as my brain fizzes
with the bleak thoughts of a quiet Saturday night.
Tipped sideways on the couch with a downturn mouth,
I wish I’d gone out.
Over the soft sounds of Star Wars,
the Chinese New Year roars from my housemate’s room.
Deep in my personal gloom, I swallow the bitter taste
of acrimony. Because he’s really alright,
and he sat up all night with us on our New Year’s Eve.
I quickly shovel biscuits into my face
to stifle the growth of protests in my throat,
and reflect that Empire really is the best.
The woman crossed one thigh over the other.
One red pump sat on the floor
while the other rested in the air.
Slowly, she slid her naked heel
out of the hard, sleek shoe
and slid it back in.
The man reached behind his head
and grabbed the fabric,
pulling off his jumper.
For one moment his shirt lifted too
the soft skin beneath.
After all the photos had been filed
and the passport carefully stowed away
and the last bag unpacked
and the last shirt washed and folded,
she stood in her bedroom and looked around.
On instinct, she picked up her keys
and turned to go home,
half a second before she remembered
that she was already there.
But sitting on the edge of her bed
with the sheets she’d picked out
and her books on the shelf
and her pictures on the wall,
she’d never felt more homesick in her life.
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She chequered the cards on the fold-out table
and spread them wide before me.
Choose five, she said, watching close.
I wondered what I was choosing.
Eyes on my face, she told me my fate.
Shuffle, shuffle. New job, new home.
Travel. Puzzles. Shuffle. Shuffle.
I nodded along; nothing was wrong.
I see a new man is dealt in your hand.
A lover, a saint. A hospital stay.
A car crash, a hero, a Taurus, a Leo.
A puzzle. A puzzle. A shuffle. A shuffle.
Happy! She said. And I twitched my head.
You will be happy, she piously said,
no doubt a line for every person she read,
but still I wondered.
Before we were together
I never realised
how many cars on the road
look just like yours.
We climbed out of the 4WD
and I was thinking about my shoes
or my hair frizzing in the humid heat.
I don’t remember the drive there.
I was eighteen.
The locals gathered shyly, hovering
in the shade of their dirt houses.
I felt awkward, morbid
with First World guilt.
The adults hung back,
speaking only to my father.
The men crushed each other’s hands
in Ghanaian grips, smiling fraternally.
Their teeth flashed white,
the colour of money.
But the kids.
The kids clustered forwards,
with their dark dark skin,
and their milky pale palms
creeping cautiously into mine
to examine my white white fingers.
The smallest boy stood in front of me,
looked me square in the eye
Gaping, rotting gaps greeted me;
a dentist’s nightmare.
Staring at the stalagmites
in the cavern of his mouth,
I wanted to cry. I wanted to hide.
But he was still standing there,
So I reached down to pat his head –
those coarse, tightly-wound curls –
as if in gentle benediction.
Then: TAG! I yelled and sprinted away.
The word meant nothing to him;
he’d never seen American movies
with plump children playing chasey,
but he knew what it meant
when I giggled and ran away.
Together we ran around the huts,
and the other kids joined in our play.
We chased each other under those trees
where cynicism is a luxury
and the flesh of the cocoa bean pod
is the sweetest treat.
I was eighteen.
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