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Thuy Linh Nguyen
Published in The Diamond & the Thief – October 09
Thuy Linh Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian writer with a postgraduate Diploma in Professional Writing from Deakin University. 'Painted in a strong, subtle way', her stories and poems have found homes in journals such as Verandah, Harvest, and Peril. Thuy Linh also interns at The Lifted Brow , the Melbourne/Brisbane biannual attack journal, and keeps a blog, detailing her literary adventures.

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The Beast
By Thuy Linh Nguyen

She left Ben, Melbourne, all that was broken for her home town, old Wangaratta. Mum and Dad had long gone, rebooted elsewhere; their green weatherboard sliced up like cake and scraped along the Great Alpine Highway. Still, she came back, hankering after that warm feel of familiarity, pre-Ben. Was happy until she signed the lease, picked up the keys to the new flat, and remembered how much she hated the place.

The flat sat near the hospital—banal, bleached-bricked with a patch of grass for garden. One of the neighbours was a drug dealer. Cars drove up to his place at odd hours; sometimes there were coppers; and on recycling days, she found brown methadone bottles lining the bottom of her bin. She abandoned the communal clothes line after an underwear-pinching incident, putting up with the musty damp of sheets on a clothes horse instead.

The shops on the main strip had changed hands several times. The town was slowly getting sterilised by chain stores. People talked of rain or the new Big W. The latter she could not stand, its slabs of grey and the unfamiliar faces reminding her of all that had changed.

Over the months, she lost her dislike of corporations and sought comfort in Cheeseburgers. There was no McDonald’s in town; the Hume Highway had the nearest pair—golden arches on either side heralding Ned Kelly land.

She’d order the ‘same old, same old’, carry the paper bag back to the car and lock the doors. Somehow, she’d avoid reading the nutrition table glossed with grease and red relish, the smell of plastic cheese clinging to her clothes.

Tonight, with her French Fries fanned over a servietted lap, she noticed something other than trucks. At the back of the restaurant: a Beast was rummaging through bins. He was maybe seven feet of hunched-over shaggy pelt and claws, and was experiencing trouble prying the wrapper off a discarded Big Mac.

She didn’t know why she wound down the window or why she offered to peel the burger. He could have ripped her arm off. He could have given her rabies. Toward her car he shambled, hesitated, silently watched her perform the delicate operation, tongue quivering from the corner of his mouth. Close up, she noticed his teeth, long and gleaming like knives. But his eyes seemed human; they wore a wary look of surprise. He could talk too, she found out later, chewing his words as he chewed on his burger.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked, but he didn’t say. He looked around at the trucks and at the bins once he finished the burger. She said, ‘I’ll buy you another one.’

Inside: soft rock ballads, a breathy male voice, beeps reminding staff to take out the fries. The sounds of hosing down. Fridge doors stomping shut. A kid tailed his mate round the kitchen, telling him how Cherish wouldn’t put out. Tourists walked in, wanting toilets, while Ronald McDonald sat cross-legged on the counter, begging for money like a Zen monk.

‘Can I please have one…make that three…Big Macs?’

The manager stared but did not deviate from his script.

Back in the car, she offered the Beast the Big Macs and a ride into town. She felt for the emergency cigarette secreted behind the sun visor while he made up his mind. Her hand dropped into her lap, empty.

‘You live round here?’ she asked when he finally got in.

He was silent for a road sign, maybe two. ‘No.’

The circumstances she teased out of him. He had been ranging up and down the east coast, avoiding towns, though he’d ghetto round the edges if he had cravings for human food. A kid from the graveyard shift used to feed him leftover beef patties. But the Beast had been waiting in the car park for the last two nights and the boy was a no show. Maybe he’d moved on.

She imagined he had. Back when she was seventeen, she couldn’t wait to get out of Wangaratta. The town was a skinny pair of jeans: pinching in parts, highlighting her most unflattering bits. ‘Where are you staying?’

‘In the hills.’ He pointed to the shadow behind Glenrowan. Eying the fur matted with eucalyptus flakes, she said, ‘I’ve got a couch you might fit on…’ and wondered what the drug dealer would think.

‘I dunno.’

‘I need to go to Safeway first, then I’ll drive you over.’

‘Does it have Toobs?’

She shook her head, not knowing what Toobs were or whether he meant her place or Safeway, and he shrugged, an odd gesture for a shaggy pelted man. Because that was what she was beginning to think of him as. A man. Genetic mutations came into mind. And the movie X-Men.

He waited in the car while she wandered the too brightly lit aisles, randomly pulling things off shelves. White King. Doritos. Nothing essential. The supermarket reminded her of Melbourne: leaving Ben under the pretence of grabbing groceries, doing laps up and down until she found calm next to the tuna specials.

They drove back to her flat. Nobody stopped them in the driveway but curtains trembled. Lights flickered the morse codes of scouting parties and hasty retreats. The drug-dealing neighbour turned up Four Corners to full blast; she had never picked him for an Australian Broadcasting Commission type.

Her guest sat down on the couch. He shook his head at the proffered pink pillow, though he did take the matching mohair throw. She showed him what buttons to press if he wanted to turn on the central heating, then remembered his fumblings, and so set the temperature for him.

‘Good night.’ Rolling onto one side, he offered her his back.

He was still asleep when she left for work the next morning. During recess, a Year Nine punched a Year Seven and blamed his lack of mother. She stared at clocks for four periods, wishing 3.30 would come sooner.

When she came home, she found the lounge-room windows thrown open, and his nose pressed against the mesh. He kept them ajar at all hours, no matter how cold it got. Consequently, the room smelt of damp dog and clouds and eucalyptus. The draft threatened to shut down her sinuses. She grew accustomed to it, preferred it to the weather of school staff rooms: teachers happily married with kids, at first, warm with questions, then cool after finding out about the divorce.

The mohair throw he wound around him like a winding sheet and abused it as a napkin during meals. She stopped by at the St Vinnies near the overpass and sifted through its racks to find him something cashmere, acrylic, or pure wool. Found herself attracted to shirts instead. Her ex-husband, Ben, looked good in shirts; it was the first thing she had noticed about him. It was the last thing she noticed too. In the rear-view mirror: his jaws snapping, flinging obscenities into the air; his shirt: an expanding angry red.

There was too much flannel. Haiwaiian shirts languished: the artificial beach on the Ovens River, the only surf they’d seen. The business shirts were garishly hued. They had a damp, wrinkly look about them as if they’d come straight out of a dryer, and smelt collectively of gym clothes. She managed to find a white XXXL, however, with all buttons still attached. After neutering it with flower-scented Cuddlys, she left it folded on the couch.

The shirt migrated to the floor by the next day. It looked a little trampled. She picked it up and shook out the folds. ‘Don’t you like it?’

He didn’t reply.

‘It’s a nice shirt.’

‘I’m a Beast.’ The extent of his explanation.

‘Bob,’ she corrected. She liked calling him ‘Bob’ and he responded to the name like a dog that responded to anything inflicted upon it often enough.

‘I’m not wearing that,’ he said. A lengthy pause. ‘Doesn’t fit.’

Of course it did. But she didn’t want to push. Didn’t want to seem rude.

He sniffed the green bags left unpacked on the table. ‘Are there any Toobs?’

The question again. She had survived hang-ups from Ben, from the in-laws, from Year Eights who scoffed at the importance of learning history, but she dreaded that question from Bob each night. She compensated with Burger Rings, Cheeseballs, rice paper rolls, salmon roe, and apples, pickles, fetta Greek-style, tomatoed tuna, and Milo tins, while scanning the aisles in Coles and Safeway and Big W for a bag of chips that existed in theory but not in the Northeast. ‘No.’ Her shoulders tensing as he crumpled the box of Cheerios.

Days later, while trawling through another Coles, she recalled one forgotten source near home. She returned the toothpaste and the frozen peas, drove back home and visited the drug dealer, whose friends had switched her underwear in exchange for used brown bottles that smelt faintly of oranges.

The drug dealer was a balding man who lived perennially in shorts and thongs with socks. ‘What can I do you for?’ he said and coughed. His breath wafted of methylated spirits.

Ignoring the deliberated stumble, she wondered how any kind of lung infection could survive such pickling. ‘Can you get me some Toobs?’

He gawked at her for a few seconds, trying to illegalise her nomenclature. Decided it wasn’t speed or weed that she was after. ‘Sure. Come back tomorrow.’ He sounded disappointed.

When she knocked on his door the next day, he appeared in the same pair of shorts with somebody’s toddler clamped under his arm. He handed her fifty grams of carbohydrates, flavouring, additives, and air. ‘Use it wisely.’ Sparing a glance towards her lounge-room window, he then scuttled back into the dark of his flat.

‘Good news,’ she said as she unlocked the door to her place. Bob was watching The Biggest Loser in his XXXL shirt, looking almost human. The illusion broken when he realised what she was holding. He tore the foil with his teeth, buried his face in its contents. Not a word of thanks, not even a grunt. The crushing sound of chips swiftly pulverised. After licking the orange off his nose, he sighed and curled up on the couch as if to sleep.

Her shivering aluminium blinds, triggered by the V-Line’s rumble, woke her hours before the dawn. Cursing at the honesty of her LED-faced clock, she reeled in blankets. The flat was colder than it should be.

She forced herself out of bed and investigated, found his shirt on the floor, his shape hollowed out on the couch. The windows had been left open, the draft chasing out the staleness in her little flat. A dulled buzz as central heating kicked in: the air he no longer shared now emptied of warmth.

Renovations
By Thuy Linh Nguyen

    She hates her house’s state of undress: the plaster stripped back, bare buttresses of pine blackened with age, arterial cables frayed like nerves. There are missing floorboards. The light of the morning washes up through the gaps and wakes her daily; a damp dirt smell stealing in between her sheets.

    When she bought the place, she bought it with furniture, not this shell being operated upon by men whose faces are dusted with plaster fine like cocaine. A non-smoker, she found the tobacco musk mysterious and the wrinkles on the aged ceiling endearing. The house no longer smells of the former lady’s cigarettes but of oil paint. The former lady owner she saw once, dozing on a pallet in the spare room days before settlement; she had a little dog; everything else was in boxes.

    There had been two names on the title but she has never felt the man’s presence in the house. She wonders where he has gone, whether he has been left behind decades ago in his wife’s own ambitious renovations, walled up in a bed of insulation. At night, the possums scratch the gutters and she imagines it is the former owner’s partner scratching at the walls.

    She tells Barry her thoughts. He laughs, calls her crazy, but he is never awake to hear the scratching. He falls into dreams so quickly and soundly; she is often left behind. She stops telling him about the possums but continues to fancy a man trapped inside her walls. Because she has never seen the former owner’s partner, she has no stranger’s face to use, so she borrows the face she knows best. Barry is in her mind, standing up, snoring, hands pressed against the plaster, white-tails nesting in his hair.

    On weekends, the tradies leave her and Barry alone. They go to Bunnings and Tile Mart to pick out things that will make up their new home. She examines bathroom displays and toilet seat samples, all white without a tinge of warmth. In aisle twenty-nine, a hankering for her old bathroom with its blue toilet bowl and its pink tiles overwhelms her. She used to hate the pink tiles but time has made her nostalgic and she asks if they can have a toilet bowl just like the one they used to have. Barry tells her that it’s the wrong size, hard to keep clean, and who stocks blue toilet bowls nowadays anyway. He holds her hand out of habit as he scans price tags and, without glancing at her, makes the decision.

    While Barry wheels out their purchases, the tradie standing next to her asks if she needs a hand. He has a warm smile. His clothes are flecked with paint, but his hands are clean. She says she has a husband and quickly walks away.

    Barry sleeps beside her on the mattress of their unassembled bed that night. The scratchings return in earnest: three short, sharp sounds, followed by the long howl of the wind, and then another set of short, sharp sounds. In her youth, she had been a girl guide, had learnt Morse code only to neglect it. But she still recalls the code for SOS.

    Her husband pedals under the blankets as she slips out of bed. The streetlights filter through grimy windows. Their furniture lies shrouded in floral sheets. Bent nails and the husks of moths on the floor.

    She presses her ear against the walls of each room. The scratchings are loudest above the bathtub. A lull when she slaps her palms against the tiles before the scratchings recommence, louder and more aggressive. She runs one hand along the neat rows of creamy porcelain shouldered by tiny plastic crosses, considers it a shame that she must waste such workmanship.

    The sledgehammer is propped up against the fence outside. It only takes two swings. Barry sleeps through it. Tiles crack and fall; the wall, also. Nestled behind them is a man. His suit is dirty, dusted with plaster; there are cobwebs in his hair; and the white-tail spiders—they drop onto his shoulders and scuttle under his collar when she helps him out. She doesn’t mind. His smile is warm and his hands are clean.

Published in The Diamond & the Thief – April 10