Brisbane is a stone and glass monolith, spiralling out into a collection of old Queenslanders and low, seventies-built, brick bunkers with warped metal balconies. The city is a yawning maw, an unfamiliar predator waiting to swallow August whole.
The sun is slinking its way over the uneven skyline by the time she pulls into the rental house’s driveway. August stares through her windshield up at the white panelled townhouse with its large, dark oak door. It’s tucked at the back of a sleepy suburb a few blocks back from a major road. The street is a collection of green lawns and weeping jacaranda trees dripping purple flowers onto the hoods of cars.
Inside it is achingly empty, filled only by the squeak of her boots on the floor, the dry sound of her fingertips skimming the walls. August opens all the doors and forces the windows wide to let in air but somehow the house still smells dusty and stale.
She fights with the jammed lock on the back door for a few minutes before giving in, dropping to the floor in the centre of the would-be living room, hands and head resting between her knees. The Brisbane humidity has descended on her like a second skin, lingering and heavy. It sits on in her lungs and over top of her head. Sweat running down from her hairline to the concave space between her shoulder blades.
August looses a long breath, the unfamiliar space leaving her prickly and unsettled. She tries to imagine herself cooking in the kitchen or lingering in a corner during a house party, but the house still feels like a white box, unfamiliar and unwelcoming without the lived-in clutter. It’s just her and the few lingering pieces of past tenants: a milk crate on the small landing at the back steps and a few scattered pasta shells in the kitchen cabinets.
She tries to picture Beau, happy and day-drunk at a concert. Her brazen haired little brother sweaty from the muggy heat and the closeness of other bodies. Maybe he is kissing someone lazily in a corner or shooting straight tequila off a sticky bar. Maybe he is damp with salt water, sunburnt shoulders layered in a thin sheen of aloe vera and sunscreen.
A panic builds like pressure in her chest the longer she lingers, a strangling worry. The weight of overthinking bearing down, stomach rolling. August presses one of her own cool palms to her forehead, focusing on the swaying jacaranda through the kitchen window.
That first night she spends long hours awake listening to the staccato beat of the traffic on the walls, the gentle half hum of the next-door neighbours playing music on their back deck, the occasional cacophony of laughter. It makes her feel less alone, the house less stagnant. But sleep is still slippery. The air is heavy and warm and the light in her room is an odd, unnatural shade. The ceiling fan only serving to move the air in the room around rather than providing her any real relief from the oppressive heat.
August tosses, one way and then the other, on the unfamiliar mattress. Pressing her forehead to the cold wall she takes a long slow breath and lets the weight of the leaving settle over her, acknowledges the ache of missing home behind her rib cage. In the quiet almost-morning of her half-unpacked bedroom, August lets herself cry.
August keeps tries to keep herself busy after that first day.
She works through her boxes methodically, trying to find homes for her plants, pruning a scraped leaf off her ficus. She puts her expensive art history textbooks on her windowsill, stroking the silky texture of their covers, the glossy inside pages with the pads of her fingertips. Buys furniture for her bedroom and uses up an evening and a cheap bottle of wine building it all. Tries to find places for everything she owns, puts it all up and takes it all down again.
August cleans the settled dust off all the surfaces and makes a simmer pot to sit on the stove to fill the house with a smell other than closed-up-must. She re-washes all of her clothes and irons the wrinkles out of her good shirts. She spends long hours reading in the back grass on one of her beach towels, in just her bra and jeans, in that short time she can almost pretend it’s a holiday.
She takes herself to get a haircut and while the lady is combing through the damp ends of her hair, she asks August where she is from.
‘Out west. Is it that obvious?’ August chokes out, embarrassed, staring at the scuffs on the toes of her boots.
‘No. Well—’ The hairdresser pauses, August watches a few strands of hair drift past her cheek. ‘It’s the ute, mostly. But your accent as well.’ She turns August’s head, then imitates her own apparent drawl to her. August doesn’t say anything else.
For the first time that afternoon she thinks about going home.
On her final night alone in the house, August drives to the Mount Coot-Tha lookout in her pyjamas. She shuffles through the cassettes Beau left in the ute’s glovebox and puts one in while she drives, the car speakers tinny and quiet.
The lights of the city are violent at first, growing to winking and distant the further she drives. August winds the windows down and lets the cool air run over her sweat slicked skin, lace its way through her open palm hanging out the window.
From this high up, the city is nothing but a sprawl of blinking lights and shadows surrounded by an angelic glow. August’s not the only uni student here. She can spot them, clumped in small groups, a few lingering alone like her. She sits alone on a small patch of night damp grass, the air around her is quiet and thin. No one seems to speak above a whisper, as if trying to maintain the simultaneous illusion of quiet away from the city below.
August tucks her knees up to her chin, wrapping her arms around her shins and pressing herself into a hug. In the moment she feels childlike again, small, and distantly sad. The feeling creeps up on her, the dry cough of a cry threatening in the back of her throat. August forces it away. Still, the city yawns.
Grace Harvey is a third-year creative writing student and Meanjin (Brisbane) based fiction writer. Their work can be found at ScratchThat, Glass Magazine, Baby Teeth Journal, and most places online at @graceharveywrites.
Glass Fiction Week is an annual celebration of QUT students writing fiction. As part of Glass Fiction Week 2022, we sat down with Grace Harvey, author of Liminal, for a discussion about their writing practice. Read the Q&A with Grace here, and submit your details here if you would like a (free!) hardcopy of Glass: The Fiction Edition, which includes all five stories published during the week.