I’d returned home from the city in the early hours of the morning, trying to creep in quietly. Feeling a little spaced-out, I put the television on. Some early morning news program from America was decrying the sky falling in relation to the stock market. The brightness too much, I switched it back off again, then must have drifted off. I woke up with a jolt, the smile on my face evaporating. I’d been dreaming happy dreams, with Mitchell in them. Rolling onto my side, I pulled my phone off the charger, then got out of bed and ambled out to the kitchen, ringing Geoff for his birthday on the way. I placed the phone against my ear and waited, listening to the rings.
“Happy birthday,” I told Geoff, when he answered the call.
“Thank you, Nina,” he replied, although there was no light in his voice. “You’re coming into town tonight, aren’t you?”
“How are you going with uni?”
“Well, I’ve still got a few more weeks to go. Then, I’ve got a prac in the Blue Mountains, so that’ll be a lot of early mornings to get the train.”
“Yeah, it will be,” Geoff agreed.
I noticed that Mum was hovering.
“Can I talk to Geoff after you?” she requested, whispering.
I nodded my head.
“It’d be good to actually get into a classroom,” I mused. “At least, I hope it will be.”
“Well, I’ll see you tonight,” Geoff mentioned. “Hopefully the weather will be alright.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Actually, Mum wants to wish you happy birthday, I’ll put her on.”
I passed the phone over to Mum.
“Hello, Geoff, happy birthday.”
I wandered away, heart heavy. Mum could return my phone when she was finished. I thought of fetching some breakfast, but didn’t feel that heavy. Once she’d finished on the phone with Geoff, Mum wandered into the doorway of my bedroom, reaching out to place my phone on the end of my bed.
“We need to ring back that company about the solar panels,” Mum noted.
I could have gone over to my phone, but I didn’t, because I didn’t want to be distracted.
“What time are we leaving tonight?”
“Are you doing anything else today?”
“No, I was just thinking of cleaning the bathroom.”
“Fantastic, I have uni work to do.”
Mum gave me something of a cheeky smile.
“Sure thing,” she remarked, but I knew there wasn’t any malice in her statement.
Mum left the room, and I got to work, doing the readings. I could hear my phone vibrate on my bed. For a moment I thought that it was a phone call due to the frequency, so I turned around my chair and reached for it. Rather than being a call, the vibration was just a series of messages in the support group chat. With that settled, I pressed play on my lecture. For a moment I thought that I could put my headphones in, but I couldn’t have been bothered. Mum and Dad wouldn’t have minded hearing about the overview to teaching practice. I scribbled down notes on a writing pad, as the slides flicked over. My mind wandered, though, thinking about what Geoff was doing. Most likely, he’d be at home, with his parents. He would have made a great brother.
Noel O’Brien (29.05.22): Thank you for the trivia night on Friday night!
I put down my phone again, but it tolled once more shortly after.
Noel O’Brien (29.05.22): Does anyone know how much we raised?
I didn’t know, so I flicked my phone onto silent, trying in earnest to concentrate. While I studied, the phone buzzed. I figured that the messages would stop eventually. The tension was rising in my body, and I really needed to focus on my studies, but all I managed to feel was paralysed, like I couldn’t concentrate. While my eyes were absorbing the slides, the content wasn’t sinking in. I turned my phone off silent. I’d long abandoned paying attention to my lecture. I scrolled through Instagram for a little while. Eventually, I glanced up at the time, too much of it passing. I thought about putting on a little bit of music to play in the background while I did my assignment. Sometimes you just need a beat to thrash out the words to, so I attempted that for a bit. I felt like I had an elastic band around my head. Taking a breath, I decided to stop trying. I stood up from my desk and closed my laptop, heading into the bathroom. Closing the door behind me, I had a shower. I soaked in the warm water until I felt a little dizzy. That served as the impetus to switch off the water, absorbing the chill before stepping out of the shower. I wrapped myself in a towel, to walk from the bathroom to my bedroom. The towel a little too small, it was always a bit of a dash, now that I was too old for my nudity in the household to be endearing. Reaching my bedroom, I shut the door. My heart was beating faster, at the knowledge I’d be seeing Geoff soon. I wanted to wear something beautiful, but I’d need to keep warm. The chill over my whole body made me fear those efforts would be in vain, nonetheless. I clothed myself in my long lilac dress. Covering my arms with my denim jacket, I hoped that would be enough. I departed my bedroom for the bathroom, where I retrieved my makeup from the top drawer. I smoothed foundation over my cheeks, until my little blemishes were covered. Tossing that container back into the drawer, I fetched a tube of lipstick. Once I smudged some over my lips, I pressed them together to even out the coverage. I spritzed myself with a little bit of perfume. Taking a little step back, I gave a small smile to my reflection. Mum appeared in the doorway to the bathroom.
“Are you ready to go?” she queried.
“Yeah,” I confirmed, following her out.
We set off from home with a hint of lights in the sky. I sat in the back, looking out the window, trying to rest. Thankfully, we took the toll roads. The trip into the harbour only took about half an hour. With gloomy clouds overhead, and a little bit of traffic, Dad dipped us into the tunnel, rather than taking the bridge. I flashbacked to the first time Mitchell drove me into town, just after he got his P plates. When the car poked back out of the city end of the tunnel, rain began to speckle the windscreen.
“Ah, dear,” Dad grumbled. “It’s raining. This will throw a bit of a spanner in the works.”
“We have umbrellas,” I pointed out. “We’ll be fine. They’ll still run the lights, won’t they?”
“Yes,” Mum confirmed.
Dad checked the rear vision mirror. I peered over my shoulder to notice Greg and Natalie’s car following after us.
“They’ll just follow if we find a carpark,” Dad mentioned.
He turned the corner and drove down a ramp into an empty carpark. Dad swerved between the posts, paying no attention to the white lines marked on the concrete floor. Eventually, he elected a parking spot and stopped the car. We climbed out. Natalie parked her own car beside ours. Mum opened the boot and retrieved our umbrellas, which we’d located from various car dealerships and places where Dad had worked. Under the umbrellas, we scurried through the city. Finally, we reached the respite of a restaurant. A waitress showed us through to a booth and urged us to order at the counter when we were ready. There were laminated menus on the table, which I instinctively reached for and had a flick through, even though I knew what I wanted already.
“Does everyone just want their usual?” Dad wanted to know.
A chorus of quiet agreement went around the table, so he stood. Dad approached the counter to order us burgers, chips and drinks, at Geoff’s request. I found myself drumming my foot against the tiled floor, underneath the table. Mum glanced at me, but she didn’t say anything. I waited a moment, and then brought myself to stop. As I care about how Mum feels, I didn’t want my agitation to bother her. Therefore, I beamed, plastering on a smile to prove my joy, which wasn’t faked. All I needed to do was look at Geoff’s beautiful face. The food came to the table and we ate, which put a dampener on the conversation. After dinner, the rain had not relented. It dribbled down the window which our booth was clustered around. With Dad going to the toilet, Greg throwing out the rubbish and Mum and Natalie paying, the birthday boy and I were left alone at the table.
“Do you mind walking around in the rain?” I asked him.
Geoff shook his head.
“I think it should be fine, Greta’s got umbrellas,” he reminded.
Our parents returned all too soon, and we headed outside. We approached a signboard, glowing with a map of the area around Circular Quay, so that we could find our way to each of the installations.
“I reckon we go this way,” Greg suggested, and we followed him.
As we started wandering around The Rocks, thankfully the rain lightened off to the point that we could put down the umbrellas. The names of female Australian architects were projected onto the exterior walls of sandstone buildings, above line drawings of their designs. I found myself mesmerised by stories which once had been hidden. After the roll of names, a short video played. The loop of buildings started again, right from the beginning, including a gorgeous church with stained glass windows, which I’d missed the first time.
Someone must have decided that they’d had enough, because the others started walking off. I followed, in close proximity to Geoff.
“Thanks for coming out tonight,” he mentioned.
At first, I thought he was talking to me and I must have blushed, but he didn’t look at me.
“Well, you do only turn twenty-three once,” I replied, anyway.
“Yes, you do,” Geoff agreed.
Blue and green shapes migrated across the front wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art, although I couldn’t pick them straight away. I wanted to continue the conversation, but I didn’t know what to say. I glanced in the other direction, towards the water and the Opera House. A ferry passed between, #inspired in lights on its side. The red light dazzled against the water. Circular Quay railway station was aglow. My eyes panned from the thin strip of lights along the Cahill Expressway, to the harbour. Ferries glided through the water, towards the wharves, to pick up more passengers and revellers. We rounded to walk down towards Bennelong Point. My head started to pound, but I didn’t say anything – we were already glum enough. Spotlights shone into the palm trees planted near the wall. They looked almost tropical. I thought back to our last holiday with Mitchell. We’d borrowed my grandparents’ houseboat and taken it up to Cottage Point, during the rainy summer. We walked around amidst the bright lights and happy, smiling faces. The cold night-time breeze lapped against my cheeks, like the harbour washing into the rocks. I turned to Geoff. Whisps of blonde hair poking out from underneath his knitted beanie, I studied his expression. Freckles across his nose and cheeks like glitter, I’d grown up with that face, those lips curved downwards. I couldn’t begrudge Geoff for being a thoughtful soul.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I confirmed with a smile, internally berating myself as we glanced back towards the Harbour Bridge.
I wanted to talk about Mitchell, even if just to speak his name. To the right of Geoff’s head there was a blank space where my brother should have stood.
“Let’s take a selfie,” Mum decided, so we posed in front of the Harbour Bridge and beamed, all trying to fit our heads in the image while the lights transitioned all around us.
She checked that it was a good photo. Just before Mum was about to place her phone back into her handbag, it rang.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Oh, just someone from work,” Mum replied, switching her phone to silent and placing it in her bag.
As we approached the Opera House, rainbow arches glowed on the Harbour Bridge. The edge of the roadway was a strip of red – simple, yet bright. I think that there were native flowers projected onto the smooth, off-white sails. All of a sudden, the artwork changed, a round, dark eye staring off the surface at me. I lingered for a moment, but the others moved on towards the Botanical Gardens, so I felt compelled to follow them. A concrete wall separated us from the dark harbour. It was covered with a net of golden bulbs. I lost focus as we walked along. Somehow I managed not to trip over my own feet, even though the black, sparkling water felt inviting.
“What do you think has happened to Mitchell?”
The cover of night-time darkness seemed to provide Geoff with a liberty to speak, even though the bright lights were blinding, too.
“I like to think that he’s under the same sky, in a beautiful place, making his way back to us.”
“Yeah, me too,” Geoff agreed.
I tried to focus on the light until I couldn’t anymore; my eyes starting to hurt, so I blinked and panned my gaze around. On the other side, I spotted large letters reading ‘SYDNEYLAND’ in the Hollywood sign font. I couldn’t help but smile. Following Greg and Natalie’s lead, we climbed the hill into the Botanic Gardens. We came across these giant sunflowers on bright green stems. I paused for a moment, staring up into the sunny yellow. Perhaps this installation was inspired by a field of flowers, albeit sparse and massive. A large, glowing waratah almost seemed to swell. I think it must have been every time that the light inside pulsated. People walked past, blocking our view.
“It’s beautiful,” I mentioned, then turned to Geoff. “Don’t you think it’s beautiful?”
“Yes,” he agreed, finally grinning.
At the top of the hill, red lights shone up into glittering strings, appearing like blood rain. We reached the Conservatorium of Music building, an ornate structure which reported itself to have been built in 1915.
“Well, we probably should make tracks,” Dad declared.
“Thanks for coming in,” Natalie replied. “It’s been a lovely night.”
We walked back towards Circular Quay. All the lights seemed to be on in the city buildings. Giant disco balls were suspended in the air, catching a purple glow. We walked back to the carpark and said our goodbyes. As we drove away, I found myself looking over my shoulder. I thought of sending Geoff a text message to tell him that I hoped he’d had a good time too, but I didn’t. Instead, I said nothing as Dad drove through the returned rain. We’d already had enough of each other for the day. At the same time, I don’t believe you can have too much of another person. I could never have enough of Mitchell. In the back of the car on the way home, I played Wordle. I hoped it would prove a good vehicle to distract my racing mind. I played BIRTH as my first guess. Obviously, BIRTHDAY would have had too many letters. Right, first letter in the correct spot. I started to feel a little queasy from staring at my phone on the freeway, so I put it away for a while. The night was old and sparkling. We returned home and I showered again, then changed into my pyjamas and headed off to bed. There’s also R in the word, although not in the third spot. BRIDGE wouldn’t work; it’s too long. I opted for BREAK, which turned out to be correct.
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'.