Miasma by Steph Conroy
It was hard to say how long she had been waiting. Outside fires had raged. Smoke haze obscured the view from her windows. But she kept vigil. Every now and then she remembered to bathe her skin and shave off the hair that grew unsightly in her armpits and between her legs, hair that marked the time. Hair that would be gone when he returned.
It was January-hot in the small house when she moved in. He had agreed to help her after she’d asked for a second time. The air-conditioner rattled loudly while they lugged boxes from his van to the house, but when he slammed a coffee table on the lounge room floor it began to sputter and wheeze before releasing a last, rasping breath.
‘I won’t be coming around if that’s not working, you know,’ he told her.
‘I’ll email the agent after New Year’s,’ she assured him. They laboured in the oppressive heat for most of the afternoon. Finally, he dragged her worn mattress over the threshold and leant it against the wall in the hallway.
‘You gonna be right with that? I’m going away for a bit. Gonna check on mum.’ Fire had torn through his mum’s farm property. A picture on his phone showed a house intact, but back paddocks that were singed; trees standing like burnt wicks in the distance.
‘I can come?’ she offered. She suspected she might love him.
‘Nah. I’ll see you next week or something.’ He plucked his sweat-sodden flannel shirt from where he’d thrown it over a dining chair and as he started the van he rolled down the window, leaning out to tell her: ‘Stay safe.’
‘I will,’ she replied, a lump rising in her chest. ‘Thanks,’ she called out.
She lingered on the front step and watched the miasma of smoke swallow him up. She felt the new house behind her like a ghost. Some part of her longed to live alone, while the other, black parts of her knew too well how the hot-mud panic in her stomach would bubble. Aloneness and loneliness; two sides of a well-worn coin.
‘It’s fine,’ she said to no one, and stepped over the threshold into the house.
She spent the first week cleaning. She tossed bi-carb soda on the floors and sprayed vinegar on top and scrubbed the froth. A rag was put to work on the cabinets and grout was scoured and cobwebs were brushed away. She rolled open the windows and the smoke seeped in. She closed them and lit candles. She diffused oil.
A week passed. No calls. The news told her there was something in the air. People were told to stay inside. Close their doors against the invisible enemy. She began stripping the paint off some old furniture she found in the shed, sanding until her hands cramped and set like claws while she slept.
She tried calling him but he didn’t pick up. Stupid woman, don’t scare him away! She went to the empty shopping centre. People darted around the vast corridors, flitting away from each other like fish. She bought a puzzle. When she got home she packed the puzzle away and unpacked a box filled with books. A pile of them sat on her bedside table where they waited expectantly. The room smelt of must and faintly, still, of smoke. A few more days passed. She opened one of the books and read a few lines before putting it back on top.
As the weeks passed, the weather grew cooler and people withdrew further inward. Her mum messaged her to ask how she was getting on. She couldn’t remember replying. One afternoon she decided to wash away the thick blanket of dirt that seemed to coat her skin. She ran a bath, and while the room grew steamy, she poured a wine. Submerging her body felt like being held. She stayed inside until the water was tepid and when she got out she put on the same fleece pyjama pants and grey beer tee-shirt she’d been wearing all week. She still felt dirty.
Days later, she wasn’t sure how many, she sat at her desk to write. No words came.
She drank more wine. The smell under her arms was sour. Spasmodically, she cried for him. She threw herself on the floorboards she’d scrubbed weeks (months?) before and she moaned like a wounded animal and then finally, when she realised no one was coming, she picked herself off the floor and put on the T.V.
She ate pasta nearly every day now. Her hair grew porous and lank and stringy. The hot glow of her cheeks was long extinguished by his absence.
She was drunk. Kneeling at the window, her eyes fixed on a speck in the distance. Her forehead creased as she attempted to recall the last time she had seen another person. She reached out a hand to take hold of the time she’d lost, to wrangle it, but it evaded her as always and the days continued to slip through her hands.
That’s what he’d said. But the vapour that was killing people and the smoke that came before it didn’t scare her as much as her inability to remember what it felt like to think in a mind not choked with dirt, in a body that wasn’t filled with mud.
As if in answer, the black clouds were breached by a deluge of rain. It ripped the seams of the clouds, coming in throbs, gentle, steady and then loud, shredding the sky.