We’re at the lodgings of a pub, just next to the Queen Vic Market. Christmas Eve, no Christmas trees here. Trying to get away from housemates, a night of just the two of us, nothing fancy. We’ve been arguing a lot. A simple and bare room for the simple promise of letting our words creep out from the corners, into our ears and on to the brass keyhole. You arrive late in the evening—we’ve both just finished another year of Christmas retail. Even after showering, I am sticky with the expectation of customers. You slide out of your boots and shrink down to me. Your button-down t-shirt has creased at the back, an envelope where my letters remain sealed for another occasion. Quickly we organise food—who could be bothered with a full feast after hours of selling books and words and books. Before we exchange presents—books, of course, since this is the time for the book flood—I suggest some music. I’ve heard this album at work, I tell you, it’s all these outtakes from J.J. Cale’s career. We nod in agreement that the first two tracks are bangers—but subtle, sly things that make my hands creep closer to your back, and your eyes weed into mine. I gave you a challenge, to give me a book I’d never heard of, but it was an unfair task. We give each other works by the same poet. The chance remains that next year we will duplicate. This is the creakiest bed I’ve ever fucked on—no, it’s purely industrial in its rockiness. But here we are, lights glowing outside until the business of the morning arrives.
Your mates are doing cocaine and talking about bonobos. I don’t know how we got here. It’s the last night I’ll ever see you in this country, maybe in any country. I thought we’d have a quiet night and drink and talk and maybe you’d let me be a little sad. I’d have hogged the best bit of the couch. So here we are, in someone’s house in the kind-of bush. I’m the only one who was born in this so-called country. None of us are British, but it is decided that tonight we are speaking the Queen’s English, temporarily. The taste of rum on my lips, a one-night-only show, I’m one of the boys, except they’re scared of saying cunt in front of me. I say bring on the cunt! Down the split-level stairs, there is a budgie on the kitchen counter. One of the guys is saying something about kale with a c, fumbling with putting on some music. I say, you’ve got to hear this one album no one knows about. My mind is grooving right on the coffee table, if only my legs could follow. A guitar appears out of nowhere. You’re an amassed larrikin, pieced together from the lost property of every pub you’ve been to. I feel your spirit percolate just a little as you kiss me, unexpected but consuming. My fingers fall into your long curls and I am a vagabond no longer. Time to bust out the slivovitz. You play air guitar, three renditions in a row and then we stagger home in icy air at six in the morning. It has been too many days since you’ve been gone.
I’ve got a harmonica-sliding kind of feeling to this. We’re back in the warehouse, packing hundreds of books into hundreds of parcels and sending them to hundreds of places. Paper cuts fall like confetti onto my fingers. You are at one end of the bench, a mandated one point five metres away. We’ve just swapped poetry collections: for me, a Marxist-feminist, for you, the destruction of the grungy domestic. You, tall but aslant, apologise for your silly notes that stop halfway through the book. I was thinking of writing something, you say. Often though, we are quiet, tape guns shrieking and yawping every few seconds—I could never compete. To fill the gaps, we stream a playlist, ‘This is J.J. Cale’, through speakers left by someone who hasn’t worked here in years. You keep opening the fridge to swig from your egregiously large kombucha. You like ‘Magnolia’. I like the more bluesy rock that peppers the evening: ‘Mama Don’t’, ‘I’ll Make Love To You Anytime’, ‘Devil in Disguise’. There is a little box between us for all our rubber bands, and you dramatically overshoot, leaving curled-up worms all over the bench. I catch your eye. A roll of pink and yellow wrapping paper marks the time, swapping it back and forth, until, fold by fold, there is less of the paper than there is of us. I wish I’d left marginalia for you, but it would have been a ruse. Now I respond to emails about the hundreds of books you send, and I look at a screen and realise I am the sensitive kind who reads poems in secret.
Clare Millar is a writer, editor and bookseller based in Melbourne on unceded Wurundjeri land. Her essays, poetry and reviews have appeared in Overland, Voiceworks, Kill Your Darlings and Going Down Swinging among other places. She was one of Melbourne City of Literature’s Poet Laureates in 2020.