Camilla by Kirstin Whalen

 

We got fish and chips on the beach and Camilla was there because she didn’t want me to be the only one having fish and chips with the boy she cheated on her boyfriend with.

Freddy.

That was the boy’s name.

Every night she would come home and lie on the fish-scale mess of our floor, wave her arms around like she was making mold angels, and cry. Because she did something so wrong and couldn’t forgive herself. Because she wasn’t sorry. It’s like that, when you’re north with lust. She wanted to hold his hand. I wanted to hold his hand, too, but I knew that in the queue for his hand I was further towards the back.

Except she was a terrible artist.

And he shouldn’t have forgiven that.

She hung her paintings around her bedroom and when you hang bad paintings like medals pinned to a puffed chest, you shouldn’t be forgiven.

It was dark at the beach and I took off my shoes and walked into the water. So cold it burned. I was wearing a jacket, boisterous at my shoulders and my hair had arranged itself into the crimp it finds when I sleep in the damp of a winter night. I wasn’t beautiful but I almost was. I walked in the cut of the sea; maybe I was special.

Sometimes I confuse the memory with walking the beaches of Goa, eyes tweaked on Ritalin or whatever else that thin Dutch boy offered me to snort, with rum like a snicker in my gut. To the left were the clubs, flickering with the last dashes of raving lights beating out the seventies, and to the right was the ocean, high tide. Sometimes when the memories merge I can remember walking the fluid sands of the beach, dragging Freddy and Camilla, and the other man there. Stephan. Behind me.

That night back at the Brunswick warehouse, in the loft where we squatted, drinking Old Fashioneds because we spent all the money we had on maraschinos, Stephan told me he thought he was probably gay. We didn’t really squat, but the cupboards were nests of mice (some frozen in death into a diorama of desperation, claws outstretched) and we fed irregular amounts of cash to a man downstairs who didn’t speak English, and slept on a stack of mattresses. There were eleven of them, piled to the warehouse ceiling. He climbed a thin ladder to the top. Very Grimm. The place was filled with discarded furniture and outdated TVs, and sometimes I thought about burning the whole thing to the ground. I didn’t, though. I feared the static crack of an electrical fire. Like something you might write a song about whoa-oh, I lost a friend in the snaffle of electric fire, whoa-oh, lit the match and watched the flames climb higher, whoa-oh, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry.

When a woman was abducted in our neighbourhood, the police spent three days searching for her body in the slump of our downstairs, the mattress man confused and worried about his furniture. They found a torn pair of knickers in the trash. For some time afterwards they were sure they would find her. They gave up quickly but couldn’t be seen to, there were too many flowers laid at the staid brick church down the road, so they kept searching.

The shame of it all is that I cannot recall whether those knickers were mine or not. Might have been. That is the way with memory, especially when you are young and wild. It is so fluid.

She was found, though, that woman, an hour and a half from the city, raped and blue with death, buried in a shallow grave.

Whoa-oh, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry.

Stephan was drunk that night, when he opened his sexuality to me like a door. I know that. Now, when people rant about him on Facebook, calling him a misogynist and an enemy, it sort of burns in me. This knowing. A truth he couldn’t face without whiskey and a limp mosaic of shells sticky on his calf muscle: he doesn’t hate anyone more than he hates himself.

I’ve kissed men, he said, and it wasn’t a secret or anything, it was public, but I pretend I have no shame and will do anything for a laugh. But it wasn’t really funny and I think I should tell my girlfriend but I can’t, you know? Sorry, he said, I don’t even really know you. I know I should leave, actually. Camilla is mad I even came. She’s fuck-me-eyesing Freddy. She’s probably mad at you too, if you didn’t already know.

She looked at me and I did know, I knew from the dark gleam of her.  

But that night back at the warehouse, Camilla finally got to hold Freddy’s hand. Tuck it into hers and look at him like she was important, and sad. Maybe that’s what fuck-me-eyes are, eyes that make you feel like you’re exceptional and open like a wound.

Back before I knew her well I used to buy her ice cream when she looked at me like that.

She looked at him like she was miserable but I saw in the silence of him that he didn’t want to buy her ice cream. I think he might have fucked her: another morning I saw him standing on the balcony – a thin strip of corrugated iron stretched across some bars of the body of the chamber below – drinking bad coffee and sniffing subtly. Trying to confirm that the stink of urine wasn’t him, but instead the piece of AstroTurf we laid down like grass for the dogs to piss on.

He had a scarf wrapped around his neck, striped the colours of Gryffindor. Russet, gold. The light was like milk and his breath was steam. He said kind things. That’s all I really remember. That morning, he was kind.

 

Sometimes I ask myself what deep hurt Camilla must have been facing. What made her so mean? Because she was mean: she made me feel teased and pubescent. She would close doors and talk about me. She would have sex and groan at what I only assume was a rather pointed volume. She asked mutual friends to choose: me, or her. And she made me believe they would choose her every time. I was twenty-three; she was twenty-eight. But it felt like the very worst days of the high-school yard. And because that was a bad time for me – chubby, mono-browed and bookish – it hurt just as much as I think she planned it to.

Perhaps it’s just her way. Some people are born blunt and are never really loved or sharpened. Those that like her, most of them artists, say there is something mysterious about her nature. She’s fatter than me, but so many men have fallen at her tiny breasts, her shuffling-flesh hips. I try to be empowered and empowering but I hate her for it. That allure. The way she holds hands I’d like to hold. Her voice is slow and deep and heavily accented. She smells like men’s deodorant. Most of the time she wears a baggy jumper to her knees, and she has been deported back to India, a place she never wanted me to love.

I see her photos on Facebook of very dusty sunsets, no faces. Camilla’s ex-boyfriend, Tim, the one she cheated on, packed her up for the extradition. He said sorry when he should have said goodbye.

He’s a thin man with limbs that look braided.

He uses the word cunt a lot.

No one ever questions him.

 

A few weeks ago Freddy knocked out his front teeth in a motorcycle accident in Kuala Lumpur. He was driving too fast. There was oil. An intersection. A chicken blushed across the road in a smear of feathers.

These days he’s in love. She’s a nice girl, I’ve heard. She wears thin fabric, patterned and tied at the waist, draped over solid cotton shifts with thin straps.

She’s never asked him to save her.

He’s the kind of man you’d write legends for, so, through that gap in his front teeth, you can look way down into his throat and see an ocean so cold it’ll cut you. There’s something in it you’ve got to swim for. When he speaks it sounds like he’s gargling.

I live in another country now, too. One of the dogs moved with me and has wide open spaces to piss in, the whole of New Zealand actually, piss-poor country that it is. But he still lifts his leg on a discarded piece of AstroTurf, blustered to the back porch in the tug of a tropical storm.

Camilla left the warehouse one morning when I was walking the dog at the park. She took her things and some of mine, and another girl I called a friend, and moved into an apartment a kilometer up the road.

I imagine it. Camilla riding the tram with her mattress taking up the aisle, supported by a comical tilt of her head. Heavy bags packed with thick jumpers straining at the crook of her elbow.

I don’t imagine her laughing. And I should, because it looks like an adventure. But I don’t.

I remember that we sat at the end of the jetty that night, when it was too dark to see. The rest of us hung our toes into the bite of the water. Camilla, though, would not take off her winter boots.

What if a shark comes? asked Stephan.

Well that is just the price, Freddy replied.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Camilla by Kirstin Whalen

  1. This is a beautiful story. Honestly my favorite of all of them. But I don’t understand why it was chosen for the shortlist. It doesn’t even seem like it was submitted for this prompt. Is the image of dead mice supposed to answer the entire taxidermy prompt? Not even the antennae is here. Was this a mistake of the staff or?

    1. Sometimes when a story is really good and only addresses the themes in an oblique way we put it on the short list. Judges are advised accordingly.

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