Holding Patterns by Kyla Metcalf This morning on the horizon, the mountains falter then recover. Careful as a memory - a stagger across the sky. Double-inked. A fingerprint. Washed with light and tight in South Coast shadow: where you’re hung in stories no-one ever forgets. A cow calls from a roo-chewed paddock, then plane engines rush sky. Loud and low they circle, perhaps, scanning for sharks, lost fisherman or - more likely - they’re waiting for space to land.
For just a moment. Hold until there’s no breath left. I could hold on, hold off, hold them hard and close. Hold your bluff. Holding aces. Hold. It’s a roundabout word that pauses, then circles. Round and around it goes. There are boundaries to hold or forts or tongues, hold it together, or hold them apart. I’m holding still.
And still after all this time: my favourite things to hold are hands.
I’ve fast hands, they’re sleight and bitten, and to my surprise they can still juggle oranges. My daughter sits on the back steps, her mouth drops open and she claps her hands, ‘Again! Do it again!’ My hands smell like citrus, my hands are full of smoke. I hold them out – solid and dark against the bleached sky.
In my backyard there’s a fence, a line of lattice that sags and divides my house from hers. In the mornings the lattice makes squares of light and shade, like a chessboard across her lawn. In the afternoons, the sun shifts and the chessboard swings to mine.
When I juggle, sometimes and to my surprise, I can see my neighbour. Her shape is hidden in the chessboard shadow, then in a lattice gap she is sudden and clear. She looks small and so alone. She stops sometimes to wave at my daughter and other times to narrow her eyes at me. At the letterbox she stops - to open bills and council notices. Her hands shake and she takes a quick look to the sky. Sometimes she looks frightened. I look back to my backyard, where I sometimes sit or smoke or juggle. Though my backyard isn’t really mine. It belongs to her.
She is my landlord – I am her tenant.
The word tenant comes from the Middle English tenir that translates directly as hold. I’m her tenant. I hold – on one hand, anyway. On the other hand, I’m holding, I’m her tenet. Pick up the e drop the n, my hands smell like citrus and smoke. Tenet and tenant are close words, near divisible by a line of lattice. Tenet means doctrine, a principle or dogma that’s held by a group of people.
I hold and am held by a tenet: whose worth is weighed and marked like fruit and measured all the time.
‘Appalling!’ It sliced through the lattice like unripe apples, bitter as orange pith. ‘Those people! They think the world owes them something! It’s the little girl I feel for. Fancy not being able to provide! Well that’s bloody well done it.’ She moved behind the lattice, across the chessboard squares of shadow and light. There was a game being played I should’ve understood. She opened the back gate, phone in one hand and an envelope in the other, marched to the back door giving three-hard-knocks, dropped the envelope and marched on back. ‘It’s done!’ she said into the phone, ‘Teach her to make a chump out of me.’ With the sun sitting behind her, her shadow was cast the length of the backyard.
I sat on the back stairs holding an eviction notice handwritten on floral stationary, holding my breath. Her writing shook and looped across the page, like the cards my Nanna used to write, signing off: With Love, Be Good. The South Coast wind kicked and unwound. I looked at the line drawn between her and I – a line more imposing and less precise than the chessboard shadow of a lattice fence.
Where I saw her age; she saw my poverty.
More clearly: we both saw an absence of worth.
That night while she slept, I counted my daughter’s fingers and held the weight of her hand in mine. Her hand was warm, a river stone brief with midday sun. In the half-light of the stained glass and the moon, her hand opened and closed. It was quiet and small against mine.
This morning on the horizon, the sun is hung high and clear, an open violin string. I hang the washing because it needs to be done.
Next to the clothesline, under the old gumtree, there’s a semicircular barbeque area with a bricked-up wind-blocked fireplace. I was told back when the only fences here were to keep cattle, once-upon-a-time, when my landlord wasn’t a landlord, she didn’t pay the brickie for his work. One day, he turned up with a sledgehammer in his big hands and started swinging, leaving a pile of jagged bricks and concrete dust hung in the air. It’s been rebuilt - you can burn leaves and orange-peels in it now - but no one’s told me that part of the story.
Magpies gossip and call in the branches, as black and as white as a memory.
From behind the damp sheets, pegged tight and thin I can hear my landlord on her phone. I grip the clothesline and wait. My fists are white withholding. Her voice isn’t the voice she uses when she talks to, or about me. It’s wide and sustained, full of something I would name as love. Alright, darling she says, Nanna loves you. Signing off With Love, Be Good.
I open one hand, release it’s hold. Tenants are transient, mobile things much like the chessboard shadow of a lattice fence. And tenets are only doctrines held until, suddenly, they’re not. I open my other hand to the South Coast sky, with a space bleached bare and just as infinite. I hold my hands outstretched against the clothesline because there’s nothing to be done, but let go.