When he steps outside and pulls off the mask, it feels like removing a second face, the one he keeps from the ones who wouldn't understand and those who would, and who'd then impose a sentence, both custodial and grammatically correct, a long list of words caged with black metaphor, his absence felt keenly on the street and at home, where he tries to keep his wife and children at a safe remove, in a dangerous state of mind, and so out there on the grass, outside the backyard extension with its blacked-out windows and cement floor, its boring façade and heavy industry interior, he lights a cigarette and watches bees filling their pockets with gold as a few old galahs shoot the breeze on a low wire, and as he smokes he watches a cold front stacking its holding towers with dark grey rain, then he exhales, slowly, the smoke like steam from a scene in a grainy film about New York in winter, but this is the central coast, single parentville, loser's paradise, beachcomber's comedown from addiction or corporate failure, hideaway for horoscope adherents and pale insiders who'd rather drink bong water than front up to a job with a boss whose voice is like crunching numbers at some upper register, some wanker with a name tag clipped to his air of authority, who likes to say 'get a life or get behind me, salesman', but all this passes, as it must and as it always does, in thoughts torn from their stems in the hours he can spare, it passes like reflections in dirty water, like serious thought glimpsed from inside the goggles on a mask, which he lifts and, having arranged and adjusted the straps, slips over his face, then turns and opens a door that emits a sliver of blue light, then he vanishes, a smell like an offering burnt in a fire fed with batteries and bleach easing out into the air, and then it's quiet, and soon a woman will come and put her ear to the walls and perhaps she'll hear the tick of her own pulse winding down as the storm breaks and the rain falls like window glass in a B-grade movie about failed revenge and love gone bad, and then clouds like escarpments come adrift, go over, and move out to sea, thunder riding shotgun over lightning forked and bright as an angiogram on a screen of sky the size of a dream of a new life somewhere else, somewhere far from suburban streets and freaks who raise standards hammered from satin sheets stained with years of scuttlings on waterbeds, she knows that's all there is, here and there, in kitchens and lounge rooms bruised with the light of domestic surrender, and when the streetlights flicker on like bad neon down the length of a long corridor in a movie she'd once tried to watch, over the shoulder of a boy with blue balls and breath like bait, she goes to the door and knocks, four times, two fast, two slow, and when it opens, Ash hands her a bag, clip-sealed and light as a purse of feathers, and she steps away as the door closes, closing her off for another few hours, which she'll spend on the floor, in the bath, the television on, a radio scratching away in the kitchen, and in bedside light at the end of the house, a woman lap dances onto a teenager's laptop, where ideas of intimacy are made from an absence of human body hair, breast implants like beached jellyfish and erections that never fail, it's a ritual that goes on each night, and they don't know how to stop, or settle down, here, where they were hurt into being together by being on the run from those who wanted them gone and from themselves, and when she closes the bathroom door and opens the bag and breaks a greening of ice away with her thumbnail, and turns it to powder on the window ledge using the pestle-end of a shaving brush, she knuckles the gleam and then sniffs it away, then stands, a long way off from herself, and reels like a home movie, down to the side of the bath tub, to craze the warm air with her breathing, oh yes, oh fuck it's good, Ash, you genius, she sighs and gets ready to return, one child in tears, another on the phone, rap like sweet abuse coming through the wall of a son who quotes the Hilltop Hoods in response to any question, she leans on her elbows until she can stand to stand, then she clears her nose but her head can wait, and when she goes outside to watch the sky, Ash comes and puts his arm around her waist, then he's gone, slipping away, a chemical afterglow in his wake, then the sound of the shower, the bathroom light a panel of dirty yellow on what's left of the old terrace that looms over them, and then Ash comes out, his hair combed, his skin pink with heat and leaking cologne, This batch, he says, cupping his hand around a thumbed flame, Is so good, he stops to draw fire to the smoke, It's agony, he says, lovingly, and she understands, she slides closer, and hip to hip they watch the moon come out of the side of a cloud, Like a caesarean, she says, which makes Ash laugh, then cough, and as she lights a cigarette, a flying fox crash-lands into a ficus fig, I hate them fucking things, she says, around her smoke, the moon free now, pulling away, erasing a last line of gold from the edge of the cloud, its head all thunder and bother, the sky opening out at the edges, and they sit there like they used to, back when they didn't have to watch each other's backs, before time was something you did, before absence was normal, and the night goes on, the kids settle down, doing what they do, and everyone has a secret, and in the dark Ash tells her he's in trouble, It's nothing, he says, and she can hear in his voice that 'nothing' means a world of trouble, a threat of being broken down or worse, a 1% outlaw intervention perhaps, or a cut-down baseball bat in the face in a pub beer garden, Jesus Ash, she says, pulling away to look at him in that long-sided glare of hers, the one she keeps for times like these, the one she's used so many times it's like raising eyebrows or a sharp intake of breath for most people, What's going on, she says, sitting back, the glare still fixed on his mouth, his eyes, Don't you fucking lie to me Ash, she says, and when she sits down, Ash stands and flicks his smoke into the dark, sparks raining off the tumbling butt, These guys, he says, and she says, There are always these guys, getting to her feet like someone just come round after an accident, like someone who'd just snorted ice from the back of their hand, Go on, she says, stepping closer, which makes him step back, So these guys came to see me, a few weeks ago, when Denny and me were down at the coast, they found out from Liz, fuck, I forgot I told her where we were going, but she said they knew Denny and looked okay, Jesus Christ, he says, like ruin, and as he talks she goes off into the dark and returns with beer, and they sit, slowly, further apart this time, and drink and smoke, and Ash talks about fear, about having to leave, about this and that and every other thing she's heard for years and can't stand to hear any more, If you go you go, she says, I can't do this any more, What's this, Ash says, as if stopping to pick something up from the street, This, she says, this life, You mean the one that's making us shitloads of cash? he's looking through her now, The one you smoke? The one you don't mind living for clothes and stereo, nice car and house? Yes, that one, she says, as the flying fox bashes around in the leaves overhead and a dog does a fine impression of itself down the road, That's right, she says, quieter now, this life has been, what's the word, it's ... Useful? he offers, No, not like that, not like something you use and throw away, its like we needed it, didn't we, or it needed us, I don't know, and this makes him turn away and consider, or block it out for the time it takes for a car to pull up in the drive, its headlights going off and withdrawing like white water up the gravel, Stay here, Ash says, or better still go inside and close the doors, it's ok, I know who it is, Who is it, she asks, but he's gone, lighting a smoke, so she goes inside and kills the lights, Mum, her son calls through his door, It's all right, Dad's talking to someone, and she moves to a lounge room window and parts the curtains till a splinter of streetlight appears, and she looks into it and through it, and they're out there, Ash and two men beside a sedan, one sitting back on the bonnet, the other standing loose with his hands in the back pockets of his jeans, the language of his body like a spring about to uncoil, and there's Ash, standing on one leg, the other up, his foot on the fence, she hears words but not their meanings, she hears the tone but not the message, she's holding her breath like crystal, she's tense and waiting, she knows this scene, she wants it to end, with Ash's name in the credits rolling away, and when the men come close, she thinks she should scream, but then they shake hands, Ash folds his arms, the men drive away, their headlights swinging out into the road, and when he comes in, he looks dazed, his eyes are wild, he's pacing the carpet, the hall, the back door opens and he's out in the yard, picking up leaves, tearing them to pieces, his voice like a grass fire, They said if I don't cook what they need they're going to rim-fire my face, that's what they said, Ash looks away then down, Who? she says, standing with him on the grass, You said it was fine, Well it was, Ash says, now it's not, they want more, they want everything, and we're fucked, and then he sits down on his heels and she joins him, Let's leave, she says, We can go away, leave the lab, I don't care, the kids can stay with Mum in Adelaide, that's safe, No where's safe, Ash says and looks around, We need to go, she says, then she turns and goes inside, the fruit bat going off in a pocket of dark leaves, figs raining down and the air getting heavy with the return of rain, lightning in the distance, Ash in the middle of the yard, smoking and pacing, the rain falling now, lightly, misting his hair, his breathing ragged, and when he goes in she's already throwing things into bags, and he doesn't try to stop her, he stands in the door of the bedroom, wiping his face, We'll be ok, he says, trying to mean it, but she doesn't look up, she's moving fast, pulling clothes from hooks, opening drawers, You'll wake the kids, Ash says, rubbing his hands together, Here, let me help, he gets down a suitcase from the cupboard and unzips it, he takes shirts and jeans, socks and underwear, fills bags, stands back, looks at her, You all right? he asks, and she nods, then she turns to face him, her face set hard like a mask in the hard light, No, I'm not all right, and neither are you, or the kids, and yes I've fucking loved the shit we do, but we can't do it anymore, and Ash looks at her the way he looks at himself in the mirror every time he tells himself it's over, every time he walks away to put space between himself and his addictions, but he returns, and the mirror sees him coming, Can you help me with this? she asks, struggling with the zip on a suitcase, and he goes to her, and kneels on the contents, and zips the case up, and stays there, breathing heavily, as rain thrashes into the roof and thunder gets under the sheeting, and after awhile they stand back, together, as if assessing damage, and when the storm passes they go into the living room, and sit in the dark, smoking and not talking, the glow from their cigarettes like strange code for the ways people try to heal.
'Ash' by Anthony Lawrence was shortlisted in the 2016 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and published in the August 2016 issue of Australian Book Review.