This afternoon, I stomped through the pathways of the university, carrying my open pencil case and the posters for Mitchell on top of my folder. People moved around me, busily scurrying about, wrapped up in their day-to-day existence. They appeared to me like blurry human shapes with undefined edges, like they were blending into the background of bricks and overgrown gardens. I accidentally lurched forward as I turned the corner, causing my pencil case and the posters to slide onto the concrete ground. Caught up in the moment, I took a further step forward before I realised that it was all now on the ground. I listened to crunching of the plastic beneath my feet. Breathing sharply, I crouched down, placing my folder down beside me. I dragged my stationery items back into the pencil case, then zipped it shut. I shoved the posters into my folder, crunching them up beside the assignment sheet for the essay I hadn’t yet touched. There was one pen left on the ground – a green fine-tip felt-tip pen. I scooped my folder up under my left arm, then picked up the pen. The emerald-coloured ink leaked into my flesh. Feeling my face starting to burn with threatening tears, I stood. I trudged off swiftly across the concrete, pulled by a sort of magnetic-like force that I wasn’t consciously understanding. I veered to the left and stepped up into the building. I opened the door with my fingertips. I stepped into the administration block of the university. The world around me seemed to be spinning, like I could witness the Earth rotating rapidly on its axis. Looking to the left, my gaze was caught by a shiny gold nameplate on a door. The black letters emblazoned on it appeared to have multiple layers, but I could still read the word – counsellor. I moved myself towards the wooden door, which was slightly ajar. When I walked into it, the door pushed open. I stepped into the room, presumably the counsellor’s office, and noticed a young woman sitting behind the desk. She stared absent-mindedly into the distance. The counsellor appeared as if she was simultaneously pondering a great number of things.
“My first assignment is due tomorrow and I haven’t started it, I need to redye my hair and I just dropped my pen and stomped on it and now I have green ink all over my hands,” I blurted out expectedly, “and my perfect brother is missing and I feel so exposed, like I’m broken and crushed.”
I held up the remnant plastic pieces of my green felt-tip pen.
“A bit like my pen,” I mused in a quiet voice, staring at it.
The counsellor, now sporting a bewildered expression, placed her plastic lunch container down on her desk. She was younger than I had expected, only looking to be a few years older than me. The counsellor’s blonde hair was scooped up into a bun attached high on the back of her skull. A light grey scarf was loosely draped around her neck. The counsellor chewed frantically before eventually speaking.
“You can use my sink, if you’d like, to wash your hands,” she offered.
The counsellor’s tone of voice was kind and caring. An immense sense of calmness washed over me like a gentle wave. It was not something that I had experience in recent hours.
“Yes,” I gushed, my eyes starting to flood with tears. “That’d be really great, thanks.”
Nodding, the counsellor stood and walked out from behind her desk.
“What’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking?” she queried, gesturing towards a wooden door in the back wall of the office.
“Nina,” I murmured, “Nina del Reyan.”
“I’m Rose Milligan,” she introduced herself. “You can just call me Rose, that’s fine.”
Rose was much more friendly than I’d expected her to be. She was not authoritative or consistently psychoanalytical, rather she was simply caring, practical and kind.
“Thank you, Rose,” I whispered, my voice sounding as tired as I felt. “Do you mind if I put this down?”
“Of course,” Rose murmured with a nod. “Put it down.”
I shuffled forward and dumped my folder and pencil case onto the chair tucked into the other side of the desk. I held up my hands covered in patches of emerald ink, one of them still clutching some of the pieces of my broken pen.
“Come on,” Rose urged with a giggle, cracking a smile. “Let’s get you cleaned up."
She gestured towards the door to the other room, then stepped towards it. Rose pushed the door open with her fingertips. The room on the other side was dark. Rose twisted her hand around the door frame and switched on the light. In the sink, I washed the pen ink off my fingers and looked at myself in the mirror. My appearance caught me off-guard.
“Oh my goodness, I need to dye my hair,” I noted, running the strands through my fingers. “Mitchell would normally do that.”
“Well, I finish shortly. It’s not within the job description, but you’d like help, this doesn’t come from God’s own hand.”
Rose gestured to her own blonde hair.
“Right. Thanks, well, I’d really appreciate that.”
There was more work to be done. I didn’t have the strength for it, though. Instead, I drove home, with Rose following me, as rain started to sprinkle against the windscreen. I let her into the house and retreated to my bedroom to get changed, so that there would be no chance of my clothes getting ruined during the dyeing process. I stood in the bathroom, wearing only my black one-piece swimsuit. Rose pulled a dark purple towel from the rail. She grabbed my hair in her hands and draped it around my shoulders, underneath my locks. I held the corners of the towel to pull it against my skin. Rose grabbed the hairbrush from by the sink. Gently, she stroked it through my hair. As Rose brushed, I felt a sense of calmness begin to wash over me like the gentle tide at a beach we’d once travelled to on a holiday when I was three years old. I closed my eyes, allowing myself only to feel the soft touch on the bristles against my scalp. I imagined it was Mitchell, gently brushing my hair. I imagined that it was Mitchell, caring for me, looking after me. Of course, if it was Mitchell brushing my hair, then I would not feel the immense emptiness inside me, which needing fulfilling by the compassion of Rose, this almost stranger, dealing with my simple, everyday problems. This was not her job. This was Mitchell’s job – my older brother, a towering figure of care and love. I almost told Rose to stop, but then I opened my eyes and realised that Mitchell wasn’t there. She placed the hairbrush back beside the sink with a dull thud. Rose took the gloves from next to where it lay. She covered her hands in the light blue latex.
“The hats,” I murmured. “When Mitchell hurt his ankle a month or so back, when I went to visit him in hospital, we’d filled the gloves with water and make them into hats, sort of, to make us look like roosters. We’d laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh and then the doctors or nurses would come in and we’d stop and be serious, but luckily we were at Mitchell’s hospital, so the ones we knew let us get away with it."
I paused, then went on to explain.
“Mitchell’s a nurse, you see,” I told Rose. “I still have it, our hat. It’s on the bookshelf."
“Do you want to go and get it?” Rose offered. “Do you want to see it? Do you want to touch it and put it on your head?”
“No,” I admitted. “At least not right now. Right now, I’d like to get this over and done with."
Obliging, Rose ripped open the cardboard box. She moved behind me in relative silence, mixing the vividly bright pink dye. Rose set the bottle down on the vanity and retrieved the comb and clips, separating off my hair into four quarters. With the brush, she applied the dye to my roots, making sure that she covered each surface of every strand.
“I hope I’m doing this properly,” Rose confessed, studying the instructions eagerly on the back of the box.
“I’m sure you’re doing it just fine,” I reassured her. “You’ll be fine."
Rose said nothing and continued. After a few more minutes had passed, she stopped.
“I think that’s done,” Rose admitted. “Now we’ve got to leave it in for fifteen minutes."
I swung around on my chair to face her.
“Thank you,” I murmured sincerely. “Thank you, Rose. I really appreciate this, you looking after me like this. I know that it’s not your job to do this for me. I know that you’re not obliged to come to my house and make my roots bright pink again. Maybe it’s unprofessional or something, but thank you. I need this, I need this love and looking after and cherishing, with Mitchell not here to give it to me."
Rose smiled slightly. There was a calmness and normality in her expression which comforted me just a little bit.
“It’s no problem for me, Nina,” Rose outlined. “When you stormed into my office, you looked like someone that needed some love."
She casually shrugged her shoulders with ambivalence.
“That’s my job,” Rose explained. “I can’t fill gaps. But, it’s my job to help you understand them, and face them and help to let some of the love in."
The younger sister of missing Sydney man Mitchell del Reyan, Nina del Reyan lives on Dharug land in western Sydney. She has recently commenced a teaching degree at Macquarie University. Nina loves her family and friends and is deeply committed to finding answers and justice for the families of missing people.
Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.