Sit down in front of a blank page and write, you idiot.
I hear it first in my own voice, and then my partner’s. I’m a sentimentalist for keeping things in present tense, my partner, like howdy, like he’s still alive and breathing and sitting right there on the edge of the desk, kicking his feet at me. He used to read everything I wrote, even the horridly-forced paragraphs I used to handwrite out for university. He’d agree with me, most of the time, that they belonged in the garbage. But any moment he read something of mine and exclaimed with some excited optimism that I could be a big-time author, someone raking in the dollars, my heart animated – otherwise, I was just a flatbed monster with no sense of direction, and I suppose now I am, again, with him deep under the fucking ground.
Is there much need for another male author out there in the world? Maybe not, but a homosexual one, itching to expose their experiences with not being normal, and maybe with some deep-seeded homophobia, well, maybe there’s cause for fight in me left.
But there’s still just the empty page and I, practicing the steps together, one, two, three, barely managing to learn those basics. I write 500 words, thinking I’ve made progress, somehow, even if I delete half the amount tomorrow morning. A purge. Purging part of myself with it, too, reminding myself I can’t think about him so much – because good lord apparently now I’m grieving for too long, wearing black for too long, dyeing my hair too often, thinking up unhappy endings after I slept off the previous day. That’s just the thing. Every night’s rest is smooth sailing again, well, the sort of smooth sailing I’ve become well adjusted to over the past four years. It isn’t as if Ewen lies beside me in the otherwise half-empty queen bed, reminding me of everything I struggle through without someone to soothe me. He ignores me entirely when the sun sets.
‘Go back to what you were working on, it was getting interesting,’ he nags at me, poking my ear. I can sense him, strangely, sussing out the rest of my body – finding other places to poke and prod, to get my attention. Sitting behind the empty document, there’s the first 5500 words or so of the first chapter of a novel, something I’ve been workshopping on-and-off-again for a few months now. I could be continuing it, flying off the seat of my pants with it (of course), but there’s so much of Ewen in it now. The words leak off the screen and taste like him in the air, taste like his charm and his idolisation of…something. It started to crumble, the more I wrote. Words keep distracting me – he keeps distracting me, blowing now on the bog-and-steam surface of his tea.
Ewen takes a sip, sighing comfortably. ‘Or write a silly novel then, where everyone offs themselves because the world is cruel, and you miss me.’
‘You would love that,’ I say, without thinking. ‘More lost souls to drift into the river.’
Like many other people within the queer community, I grew up being entirely fascinated with Greek mythology. Ewen belongs swimming the river Styx, and I want that for him. And yet he stays.
He strayed, the morning of the funeral.
I hadn’t seen him until I sat down on the back step, writing a few lines of poetry in the notes app on my phone. There’s a reassurance, to me, when I lose a loved one, in whatever way it snakes and shives me. A breakup, and I’m writing poetry. A coffin and a grave, and the tears stain my cheeks as I suddenly write down a verse. There’s no rhyme to it, clunky rhythm sometimes – most of the time, before the edits – but there is repetition, in expecting it every time.
Ewen was leaning against the siding of the place we’d shared together. He was wearing the sort of hat that made him look like a paperboy from Newsies.
‘I’ll be the tragic backstory you need,’ he whispered, and our eyes met as if it were the first time. I had the topography of his face mapped in the back of my eyelids, and yet, he seemed entirely new to me. He was handsome as ever, and handsome for a first glance. I tried to ignore him.
Anytime I want to write, Ewen haunts me. He scolds me for every extra comma in a sentence, and I ignore him – some of the greats, they love the humble comma, they cherish a beautiful semi-colon; there’s a subtle cruelty in submitting to a life with minimal commas. I practice using commas more affectively, without limiting how many I use, because there is no set-in-stone anything. Ewen perches on the end of the desk, chewing on half a ham and cheese toastie. He has bed hair; he wears a robe so limply that one of the shoulders is slipping down his arm, revealing his freckled shoulder.
‘You don’t write enough action for your characters,’ he says, crunching down on the crust. ‘All they ever do is have panic attacks and take ten minutes to lock the front door.’ He knows, still, how to refocus me. The example he’s plucking startles me, something from years and years ago, but it was the last time I properly plotted out writing an entire novel. Main character gets so lost in their house, someone complains it is stunting the character by keeping them frozen in these positions – and yet the entire novel would have been about being frozen stiff, being swept under by the thrill of your dreams and your imagination, without a clear conscience. I try to delete out half the paranoia, and I start tearing my own hair out.
I become a swimmer, gliding through the water with the grace of a golden retriever. One arm rises out, breaking the surface, and the kick of my lanky legs propels me forward. There’s a woman in the lane beside me, slowing herself down, out of breath. But then, how would I know that? I need to focus on my own breathing, my own swimming, my own endless lap after lap, back and forth.
Ewen is lying down on the carpeted floor of my bedroom when I come home. Our bedroom, but the sap is drawn out from that tree. I almost kick him in his side, my head buried in my phone. I’m writing out an elongated message to someone, almost stumble right into the darkness when I start to think they won’t be able to hear the grief just yearning to escape back out of my lungs. To fester in public again.
‘Do you find yourself writing fictions even just to communicate?’ When he was alive, Ewen couldn’t ever quite figure out what he wanted to do with himself. He tried what felt like a million and one courses at university, although realistically it was probably only three or four. He complained about the job he worked, but didn’t quit, because he liked the pay from it. Ewen glances up at me, winking. He could always properly melt the sickening black spots in my heart – as much as he manifested a few of them too, especially when I heard that he was dead. I wanted to be a cold, uncaring inkblot splatted against a grey wall. Ewen started another university course, or he stuck around with the lousy job. Whatever I am.
I kneel down at first, then lower myself until I am lying beside him, our arms brushing up against each other’s. I don’t look at him – I don’t look anywhere, just close my eyes and narrow in on the darkness I’m growing so fond of. ‘How long have you been dead for?’ I try not to remember the funeral, the splattering trauma of it. Pieces of Ewen pelted at my head. The eulogy would never have been for my hands, for my eyes. Not something I could have parted from him with, although it would have been spectacularly written. People could have applauded for it, and that would have been the disgusting thing. People say, they say, oh how I love what you’ve written, I’ve found myself so connected to it. Some of them will never even know, or care, that Ewen fed me the other half of the toasted sandwich as I wrote it. How he made me a better person, and a far better writer.
‘It’s been 85 years…’ he says, tipping his head back, laughing his ass off.
Author: Keeley Young is a fourth-year creative writing student with his head constantly in the clouds. He is interested in writing everything from fantasy fiction to queer literature to hopefully-engaging pieces about human emotion
Artist: Sarah McLachlan is a third year Bachelor of Creative Writing student who likes to draw in her spare time. She wishes to combine both her art and writing skills to create a webcomic of her own one day, but she’s also open to illustrating for books and book covers. Sarah is also a major The Legend of Zelda fan and can be found drawing a lot of elves. You can find her at @hideriame02 on Instagram.
Editors: Willow Ward and Grace Harvey