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Metropolis BY CRYSTAL GAIL SHANGKUAN KOO

This is how you talk about a city you love. You talk about it as if it's the only place in the world where this story can happen.
A friend of mine fell in love with someone when she went for a bite at a malatang one winter night. There was no snow; there is very little snowfall during Beijing winters. The film below the skies turns from yellow to gray, then the winds from Mongolia come and we would say, it's so cold already there might as well be snow. Some days there are, and those are the days when photographers go out to make postcards of fresh powder collecting over the shoulders of the stone lion finials perched on the gables of the Forbidden City.
But those are postcards. There are times you feel cheated when you glance at them and wonder at your inability to recall a greater feeling of grandeur when you had bought them in front of the pagoda. The event, like infinity, had been too big to be grasped and had only given way to frustration, a voice insisting with the strongest conviction and the vaguest meaning that there should have been something more.
I had flown to China with a postcard in my hand. My grandmother didn't want me to. Why should I go back to the place she had taken so many pains to run away from sixty years ago to get to Manila? The Philippines was glamorous then, before it melted in its own torpor. Europe and America creolized in Asia, Què hora es? A las ocho y media, sir, good morning, how d'ye do, how d'ye do? because the sun never sets in the Western empire. Before I left for the airport, my grandmother told me to be careful in the mud alleys.
The postcard I had was a picture of a language university in Beijing that specialized in teaching Mandarin to foreigners. Once in the Philippines, when I was eleven, I had to recite the week's lesson from memory to the teacher in Mandarin class. This was the way we learned the language carved on steles in a tiny family shrine somewhere across the ocean. I had spent the night before reading out loud from my little exercise book and hoping school would be canceled the next morning. It was monsoon season and the floods rose from the gutters blocked with garbage and the beggars' children played naked in the waters. But the storm left at dawn, and memory is unreliable, selective, compressed. The next day I finally received on my palm the two red stripes that I had been avoiding during the entirety of my young life in school.

Eight years later I was sent to Beijing with my parents' blessings, and a friend of mine fell in love one winter night when she went to the malatang.

*

Now malatang kept you warm. That's why my friend had gone to one. I'm not going to tell you what each syllable means; I'm not here to teach you Chinese. I'm here to tell you what Beijing was like beyond the language classes. Malatang was a street-vendor's boiler filled with skewers of meats, innards, seaweed, tofu, and mushrooms that floated in a dark oily soup of chili and cayenne pepper. Malatang was choosing pig intestines and whisking the oil off towards the pavement before burning your tongue. Malatang was huddling together with strangers who looked like you and reading advertisements pasted on electric poles. Malatang was sucking the bitter north wind to cool the spice in your mouth and keeping your eyes from tearing, while the vendor counted the wooden skewers that you had speared into your broken half of a Styrofoam rice box.
Malatang kept you warm and kept off hunger till you reached home.
My friend looked like me and studied in the same building as I did, but she was from Canada and never got stripes for not being able to speak Mandarin. She met a Korean student at a malatang. Love at first skewer just outside the campus gates, where the red-cheeked lady selling small bottles of fermented milk on her bike would look enviously at the little fish-cake stall across from her. Chocolate fish-cakes were pastries shaped like fish with hot chocolate inside, sold for one yuan each. No one bought fermented milk. The man who sold fish-cakes was called 'Uncle;' business was doing so well that for one week Uncle's stall disappeared because he was hiding from the police for making too much money without a license. He reappeared just in time for the winter frost.
The Koreans are invading the Beijing suburbs, but the city is still the stronghold of the Europeans. I have a map of what old Beijing was like in 1936, drawn just before World War Two. The Legation Quarter used to be on Chang An Road; now Chang An Road is lined with malls enclosing the Forbidden City. The foreign embassies have been moved to Jianguomen, in the Chaoyang district, European Union flags flapping over the wire fences. Europe is extraordinarily chic in Beijing nowadays; the city is making up for lost time. I have seen the diplomats' children in Chaoyang, with their white skin, brown hair, big blue eyes; pudgy eleven-year-olds speaking Mandarin over the counter at the coffeehouse. They never got stripes either, I would suppose. The cafè where I saw them had French movie posters on the walls and it was next to a little stationery shop that sold notebooks with old paint advertisements from Copenhagen printed on the cover.

I went to the Philippine embassy once, for fun. The building looked tiny and abandoned and there was no flag on the pole. The Chinese guard saw me looking behind the gate and chased me away from where I had stood. I hadn't brought my passport with me. If I had he would have opened the gate for me and I would have danced past him.

*

NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKER WANTED. My friend had found a company searching for someone to teach English to their representatives, but they turned her down, saying she looked too much like a local. This is a story in Beijing. It is not likely that it would have turned out another way. It is likely that an Italian with a working facility in English would have been hired, but my friend did not look Italian.
He spoke little English and she spoke no Korean, so they used the language they were only beginning to grasp. In the brokenness of the Mandarin they spoke, they found the distance that they would need for their own defense later. All of us who knew transience understood that what happened in Beijing stayed there.
I met my language partners every Friday in the school library, two local girls who wanted to practice their English with me, but they frequently slipped back to Mandarin because there were too many interesting questions to be asked. How can you be Chinese? How can you be Filipino? How can you speak English? You speak Filipino too, right? How do you say, 'How do you do?'
I taught them to say kumusta, simplest thing in the world, contraction of como esta, consonants crunchy and hard, vowels wide and open. Back in the Philippines, some people would be so surprised with my speaking Filipino that they would forget to stop speaking English with me. Would you have to marry a Chinese too? You speak a little Chinese too, right? How do you say, 'How do you do?'
A French friend in Beijing, whom my language partners had first accosted, had referred Miao Ban and Xin Feng to me. Xin Feng spoke English with the recklessness and confidence of someone who wanted to learn. Miao Ban was made of inquisitiveness and less eloquence, looking for Xin Feng for the frequent translation.

What do foreigners think of us? Why does the government forbid Chinese people from entering your churches?
I did not quite look at their eyes. Perhaps if I had greater proficiency in their language, I would not have sounded so simplistic.
We foreigners look at the Chinese with the awareness that we come from a different world, I said.
How?
We think there are certain problems in the kind of government that cause a great deal of difference.
But certainly other countries, your countries, have your own problems as well!
This was Miao Ban. She knew where this would lead to if we pursued it.
It's different, I said vaguely, my vocabulary failing me. We shouldn't be talking about it here.
Oh, it's fine! Xin Feng. We know about those things that shouldn't be talked about.
I raised my head to see if anyone else was listening. There was a local Chinese boy two chairs down, buried in his book.
How is it different?
I found myself talking about the 'free world' as if months before I would not have laughed at myself for using those two words with such idealism in the Philippines. But when a language fails you, you use wide blanket statements and say to yourself, This conversation isn't so important anyway. Every minute I looked up to see if the middle-aged lady who had come and was standing nearby could hear us.
Xin Feng and Miao Ban brought me out for dinner. Across the restaurant was a frozen lake, fenceless, unwatched. I had never stood on iced water before. It was too dark to see how the ice was, but it seemed thick enough, and I stamped on it, the cold escaping into the soles of my shoes. Figures of twos or threes whispered and laughed softly around me, but the lake was quiet and the world was calm.

*

My friend's story does not have a happy ending. Very few of the international romances begun in Beijing by foreigners extend beyond the airport. This is a fact. There is a clear, identifiable glance that passes between lovers when a friend asks one of them for any plans to stay longer. It is silent, urgent. It is a source of anxiety because it is a perfunctory question frequently asked. BEIJINGERS ARE FRIENDS TO ALL THE WORLD / Beijing shi shijie de peng you says the blue billboard on the way to Sanlitun. The translation into English is slightly inaccurate. Beijing is the world's friend. Good for Beijing. For the last few years, the world had suddenly been just as eager to become Beijing's friend.

*

Sanlitun is in Chaoyang. Listen to Sanlitun crackling with neon life, Chaoyang laughing across its new skyscrapers and the cranes building more - a vibrant young man who has discovered that life is only beginning and that foreign women find him handsome in a suit. Ten years ago Chaoyang had been the poor man's district, waterlogged in its farmlands.
Sanlitun Bar Street is luminous after dusk, the sounds of entertainment eviscerating. My friend goes there with him every Saturday. The waiters stand outside the street, chanting the English they knew. Hello! Hello! Beer! When they see a white face they thrust themselves in front of it and go for the arm.
Both of them stumbled out of a bar into the fresh air, their steps uncertain from the alcohol.
'I am thinking of moving apartments soon,' he said as they slipped into a little alley that led to the labyrinth of old Beijing, the hutong. The brick of the dusty courtyard homes filtered the thunder from the bars. There are very few lights in a hutong at night.
'You have found one that you like more?' she asked.
'The Uncle in the fish-cake stall says he knows the landlord of an apartment that is cheaper and closer to the school.'
In the dimness of the light my friend bumped into a row of bicycles. The metal rang and the bicycles began to crash one after the other. A little yellow light went on in one of the scratched windows and someone began to curse. Laughing, both of them ran out of the alley and back to Bar Street.
'Would you like to share my new apartment with me?' he shouted as they returned to the blinding light of the traffic.
'Yes, I would like that very much!'
It would have been romantic if they had looked at the stars. But stars are rarely seen in the haze of Beijing.

*

I've gone walking in a hutong during lunch hour in spring. Pots of rice and cabbage boiled outside sheds made of iron sheets. The aroma of garlic and meat coming from the makeshift vents smelled of a home. Many of the crumbling brick walls washed in dirty white were marked with the word chai. Chai means to demolish.

Once I had stood before the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City, hat in my hands, waiting for the realization to engulf me. It had only been in Beijing that I learned to say 'ancestors' without feeling too self-aware. But the tourists jostled around me, stepped on my foot, faces glowering in irritation at the sight of the crowd shoving each other to see the Imperial Throne, and the realization never came. The tourists in Beijing are the Chinese from Hong Kong or Taiwan or the other provinces in the mainland. They call my province Overseas.
I went to parks often to escape the crowds. One of them had a small pavilion midway the hill, the small inlaid paintings of willows and lakes on the ceiling restored. When I reached the pavilion, a few lights were turned on softly and old fifties music was being played and people were dancing. They were middle-aged, people who could have afforded to take dancing lessons. The music crackled through a radio somewhere. Some wore cocktail dresses; others office clothes. Swing, tango, waltz. They shook their arms and legs to help their blood circulate after every set as people walked around to change partners, their faces drenched in perspiration. Then the music would start and they would laugh and take each other's arms and twirl over the floor, these old people, lost in the sepia-colored music I was hearing. Spring was turning to summer. I sat on a nearby bench, feeling the air turn humid, and a dragonfly landed on my shoulder.

*

My friend and her boyfriend went traveling to Tianjin the weekend after they moved to their new apartment. Tianjin is Beijing's neighboring harbor city, two hours away by bus.
There my friend saw the saddest opera singer in the world. Up on a pavilion the middle-aged lady was dressed in her gaudy finery, a green lace tunic over a white gown with sleeves to the floor. Her face was powdered with the rouge of Beijing opera and she wore a headpiece of braids. The pavilion was in the middle of the souvenir bazaar that had been built for the tourists. People were looking at maps, calling lost friends on mobile phones, and had crowded there, drawn by the human tendency towards collectivity. She sang to the tourists in Tianjin, her eyes far away, one hand on her heart, the other arm up in supplication. She looked exhausted. The people below the stage came and went. The boyfriend took a Polaroid of the opera singer and the heads of the tourists, and my friend had written on the back in English: The meaning of indifference.

*

The indifference is almost symbolic. In Beijing, a pregnant woman dressed in raggedy overalls kneels on the sidewalk, her stomach bulging, her eyes caught in an empty stare at the asphalt. A rusty pan sits between her spread knees and she seems to be on the verge of giving birth.
Now you want to know how many people stop to put change into her pan to see if it matches with what my friend had written on the back of the Polaroid.
I had stood there on the sidewalk, all senses stirred by the lovely sorrow of it all. If only I could have taken a photograph. But I had driven past worse scenes of poverty in the Philippines where I had learned I didn't want my money spent on drugs or drunk husbands. When I walked past her, I looked at the pan. A few cents.
I once read in a magazine in Beijing about a man aboard a train who had been accosted by an old woman when the train stopped at a station. Through his window she tried to sell him cold bottles of mineral water, but he didn't want to buy any because he knew she would slink away without giving back his change. As she coaxed him noisily through the window, he grew more and more revolted by her presence until he resigned himself and pulled a note out to buy himself some silence. As she handed him a bottle, the train began to roll. The old woman had his change in one hand and she tried to run after his open window, her arm outstretched. Your change, your change! He was entranced by the sight. In her haste the old woman tripped and fell, and when she raised her head he saw a trickle of blood on her forehead.
I saw more pregnant women kneeling on the streets on different days. To redeem myself I finally gave a few notes to a bent old lady who cried her thanks to me while I turned and walked away.
Once, an old man in tatters and his sick wife stopped me on the way back to the university. His accent was missing the Beijing growl. He said they had come to the city because his wife needed to go through a surgical operation for her stomach. The wife was moaning to herself and her husband was close to tears. They were hungry and needed some money for a subway ticket to the hospital.

I told them to wait. I went to a small restaurant nearby and bought them two meals and bottled tea. Both of them were crying. I gave them some money for the trip, and as the old man took the coins he whispered to his wife in a dialect before thanking me and turning away.
A week later I heard someone saying that he had just given an old couple from the provinces some money for a subway trip to the hospital because the wife needed surgery.
It's very hard to talk about indifference without a photograph.

*

The months passed quickly. We overcame our brokenness in the language. We couldn't rely on blanket statements anymore to cover us with indifference.

*

'Have you decided which computer to buy?'
'Sort of. One of my Korean friend's classmates has a desktop she wants to sell before leaving Beijing. I'm going to take a look at it sometime this week at her house.'
'Her?'
'You can relax, she knows I have a girlfriend.'
'I'm not even going to dignify that with a response.'
'By the way, I've been thinking, I'm probably going to transfer schools next month.'
'Oh? Why's that?'
'Too expensive here. And there's a cheaper one nearby, the one across the bakery. You know that?'
'Oh, that. Yeah, I do. It's pretty small.'
'Yeah, but it's not bad. You're going to be looking for work when you get back to Vancouver, right?'
'Yeah. When you finish your bachelor's then go bum around in China for a while, you know it's time to get a job.'
'If I'm lucky, I can get a good job next semester and earn enough to visit you before I go back to Seoul with the proficiency certificate.'
'That's too tempting. Don't get my hopes up.'
'It can happen.'
'Well, what about after Seoul?'
'What?'
'I don't know. Everyone's just been asking.'
'Well, what if I ask you what happens after Vancouver?'
'Were you thinking of asking me that?'
'We still have two months left. I wasn't planning to ask you today.'
'We have to decide on something. I'm going to have to buy the plane ticket soon.'
'Do you think you can, maybe, just stay for another semester?'
'You know I can't do that. At some point, you're going back to Seoul.'

'I don't know when I'm going back to Seoul. I can keep on studying. I can tell my parents I still need to study more. Even if I pass the Chinese test and get a certificate, I can still keep on studying, get a job here -'
'That's stupid. You can't do that.'
'If you just tell me you can stay here -'
'You know my parents want me back home. You're Korean! You'd have a good idea what Chinese parents are like. They're not that different.'
'Hey, I know you better. It wouldn't be just family pressure. You'd at least try to fight for it if you really cared. '
'Okay. Okay. You know what? It's like this. I don't even know if it's going to be worth the effort.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean...I mean, I can't just drop everything and stay here forever. I had a life somewhere else too.'
'But you're always saying how Vancouver is too slow and how nothing happens, that there's not enough there for you and Beijing is -'
'I know, I know, but I was already in the middle of something there. If I decide to stay here, I'll have to start new for real, and...and this was...I was only supposed to be here for a year. Everything has been great, everything good and bad, but I've just never thought that...that...do you see?'
'Look, I'm just...I don't know.'
'You know you're not going to stay in Beijing forever either, and...and I just don't see the point.'
'So what do we do? We just visit each other?'
'I don't know, all right? I don't know.'
'All right, there's still two months anyway.'
'All right.'
'Are you done with your plate?'
'Yeah. Thanks. Hey...come here. I'm sorry. You know we'd have to go home sooner or later.'

*

Beijing was a little detour to keep off the hunger till we reached home. That is why we write stories of it so we won't forget. That is why my friend's story cannot have a happy ending.
If I had found a home in Beijing, where I am disguised by my skin, where I am a nameless unit in a sea of faces, where I am finally part of the majority until I speak and the accent reveals everything, I would have forgotten all my wonder.

Only a foreigner writes a Beijing story like this.

*

The city is covered with sand. The Gobi Desert is next to Beijing and it inches closer towards the capital every year, threatening to choke it in a matter of years. When spring fades into the summer, clouds of sand move in and the sky turns into the color of unwashed fur. Waves of grit collect, and driven by the wind, they move languidly across the cityscape like gigantic phantoms, slamming into the first building that comes into their way and enveloping the horizon in an explosion of gray. The winds are tempests, and umbrellas are blown inside out across the streets. The sand is blinding and fills every orifice of your face to be spat out afterwards.
My friend had been watching the sandstorm from her apartment when I arrived. As I shook the sand from my hair and tried to mend the bent spokes in my umbrella, she said, 'He went out to buy some milk.'
I went to the toilet and washed my face. When I came out she gave me a Polaroid with the picture of a Beijing opera singer. 'A photo we took when we went to Tianjin. I know you like that sort of thing.'
'Thanks.' I read what she had written on the back. 'So how are you guys doing?'
'We're fine. You want anything to drink?'
'Thanks, but I have to go back to the dormitory soon, I still have a few things to do.' I unzipped my bag and brought out the DVDs and the books I had borrowed from her. 'These really kept me company during the nights, by the way.'
'You're welcome. So what's waiting for you after Beijing?'
'Looking for work in the Philippines, I suppose. Or maybe I'll go to Hong Kong and teach English there. Something.' I finished stacking the boxes on top of the television. She was looking at the sandstorm again. 'Are you sure you're all right?'
She shrugged. 'I think he's going to call it quits before I leave.'
I leaned against the wall and looked out the window with her. The storm was growing more ferocious. 'I've always thought that he always seemed to be the martyr type. Maybe he just doesn't want to lead you on with false hopes.'

'We could always call each other everyday.'
'Yeah, but for how long?'
She didn't answer immediately. She sat down on the couch and looked at the ceiling. 'He won't be leading me on. I understand how difficult this all is. I mean, if it all just falls apart in the future, it won't be completely unexpected.'
'When do you think he'll tell you?'
'I don't know. Hopefully not on the day I leave because then I'll be bawling my way to the airport.' She had crossed her arms and was staring at the floor. 'What do you think I should do?'
I slung my bag on my shoulders and moved towards the couch. 'I don't know. If you think he wants to break up, there's nothing much you can do. You still have a few days left. Just make the most of it.'
'You'll have to go back to the storm, won't you?'
'Yeah, I have to start packing now. You're done with yours, right?'
'I'm halfway through. Anyway, in case I don't see you again before I leave.' She rose and hugged me. 'Write me when you get home.'
'Of course.' I hugged her back. 'And thanks for the Polaroid. That was pretty random.'
She laughed, a little more quietly than she used to. 'Just get out of here.'
'Tell me what happens afterwards, all right?' I said as I opened the door.
I went down the stairs and twisted the knob. The gate gave a metal clang and I left the building. Then I opened my umbrella and started walking into the sand.

*

My friend left Beijing three days before I did. I heard from a few friends that they did break up, but I haven't heard from her since we parted. I think a great deal of Beijing winter and the malatang. I wonder how he could stay there seeing everything that would remind him of her.
This is how you talk about something you love. You tell why. And in the end it's really all about remembering. How the sun rose above the granite and concrete. How the pigeon flew above you, the whistle around its tail feathers trilling. Sometimes I remember it so well that I can still feel the sand being crunched between my teeth.

To sit in the sun BY JOANNA LEYLAND

Don't ask me, dearie. I wouldn't know about that. As I said, I'm just a neighbour of theirs - that's right, that little white house there on the corner, the one with the fig tree next to it. And yes, I saw it all. Not that I was watching - I believe in keeping myself to myself - but a body couldn't help noticing. First all the coming and going with him being ill, then the weeping and wailing when he died - of course I went to pay my respects, that's only right - and I saw them carry the poor lamb from the village, lay him out proper and wall up the tomb. I did feel sorry for the two girls, I must say.

What? Yes, that's right, dearie. Four days later it was - just as things were getting back to normal. Some sort of preacher. The girls must have sent for him - with never a word to anyone - and up he walked, bold as anything, with a bunch of followers too. You can imagine the talk. And then to go on up to the tomb, with near enough the whole village hard on their heels. No, I didn't go - not decent, I thought, stirring people up, giving them false hopes, but I was wrong, wasn't I? The preacher did it - got them to open the tomb and called out, so they say, and that was that. Back they all came, the two girls crying and hugging their brother, half the crowd jabbering with excitement and the other half - you know, looking sideways and not really sure. I wasn't sure myself, come to that.

Afterwards? Well, when the preacher left and all the fuss had died down, I asked his sisters if they needed any help to keep an eye on him. They couldn't thank me enough. First it was just for a few hours, then they started bringing him over in the morning and taking him home at night, then they asked me if I could .... you know, have him permanent. Like I said, I'm a widow, and they ... well, dearie, let's just say I'm not too proud to accept a little something for having him.

Mind? Bless you, no, of course I don't mind. Well, you can see for yourself, dearie. He just sits there mostly. I talk to him, of course - well, a body needs some company - but if I don't ..... No, he's no trouble at all. He just likes to sit in the sun.

Someone to care for BY MARIA GOODIN

My friend Natalie can't see the point in you. She says that all you do is burp, fart, dribble, grin inanely and emit a series if unintelligible noises. Admittedly she hasn't seen you at your best, but I still think that's a little harsh.
The first time Natalie came to visit you were asleep on your back, gurgling little spit bubbles, a thin strand of drool running down your chin. Natalie just stared at you as if you were a creature from another planet. She made no secret of the fact that she wasn't impressed.
The second time she came to visit you crawled across the carpet towards her and vomited on her expensive new shoes. I tried to make light of it, explaining that it's mainly just liquid and wipes off easily, but she really did look quite appalled.
Natalie likes being a career woman, rushing between meetings in her power suit, clutching her Starbucks Coffee and her laptop. She's never wanted a husband or a baby, but if she could see you on a good day I'm sure she'd feel differently. If she could see the way you clap your hands and squeal with excitement when Scooby-Doo comes on the telly then she'd find you just as adorable as I do.
Instead she thinks you're smelly and have a strange shaped head. She looked revolted when I said you like putting your toes in your mouth, and finds it disturbing that you're always staring greedily at my breasts. It upsets her even more when you stare greedily at her breasts. I tried to explain that you're a man and that's what men do, but she wasn't having any of it.

If I'm honest, I think you could have made a bit more of an effort when Natalie first visited our house. I know it was the morning after Spongey's stag do, but I thought you could have at least lugged yourself into the bedroom instead of lying sprawled on the sofa in a curly wig, a pair of women's shoes and a t-shirt with a photo of Spongey's bare bottom on the front. If you'd had some trousers on it might not have been so bad. Natalie and I were comfortable enough perched on the wooden chairs, but it was quite distracting to have you snoring over our conversation, and I think Natalie was a bit uncomfortable when you started mumbling and fiddling with yourself.

When Natalie left, giving me a kiss on the cheek and a look of pity before rushing off for an appointment with her personal trainer, I removed your stilettos, covered you with a blanket and wiped the drool from your chin. Later, when you woke up screaming about a pain in your head which you assumed must be a brain haemorrhage, I gently explained that you had simply consumed an excessive amount of alcohol. I then sat by your side, holding your hand and stroking your forehead in a bid to reassure you. Three days later when you had recovered, I firmly reiterated this link between lager and suffering and said I hoped you had learnt your lesson. You looked ashamed, said you wouldn't do it again and then promptly went out and got wasted.

I'd secretly hoped that things would be better the next time Natalie came to visit. I thought she might like you better if you had your trousers on and were conscious. To be fair you didn't let me down on either of those counts, but if I'm going to be picky then I wish you'd been sober and hadn't vomited on her.
I assumed that when I told you she was coming for dinner you would come home from the pub before ten o'clock, but of course you bumped into Spongey down at the Queens Head and the two of you decided to celebrate the fact that you were wearing the same socks. I understand how important these things are to you, and I do appreciate the fact that you phoned me from the pub six times with a string of terrible excuses, but could you not have come for the Chicken Chasseur I had prepared? Instead you fell through the front door three hours late, addressed Natalie as Bob, crawled towards her on all fours and then chucked up all over her feet. It wiped off just as I said it would, but I don't think that made Natalie like you any better.
Once Natalie had left - which she did at great pace - I cleared up the mess and sat you down at the kitchen table. You clutched my fingers tightly and tried to put one of them in your mouth, mistaking it for the digestive biscuit I offered you. I should have been furious, but when you grinned stupidly at me, your mouth surrounded by biscuit crumbs, my heart softened and I forgave you. At the end of the day, however badly you behave, you're mine and I still love you.

I can understand why Nathalie thinks you're an idiot, but it's easy for her to judge. She already has everything she ever desired. I never wanted the impressive job title, the sports car or the big flashy house. All I ever really wanted was to be a mother. You might not be the most sophisticated man in the world, but you have a good heart and all the other necessary parts to help me fulfil that dream.
I know exactly why having a baby is so important to me: I want someone I can take care of. I find it incredible that another flailing, helpless human being could rely on me to look after them. Babies are so utterly incapable of looking after themselves, so dependent on others for their wellbeing. From their failure to control their bodily functions to their inability to use their tiny undeveloped brains, they are so completely useless without someone to care for them. I want to be needed like that.
Natalie says I don't need a baby to fulfil my dream. She says I'm already there.
I have no idea what she means. I just don't think these career women understand.

I told you BY SUVI MAHONEN

Jake wanted his dad to be proud of him.
He knew his dad was interested in wars.
'Why?' Jake wanted to know.
'Wars shape the world,' his dad said. 'If you have a knowledge of past wars, you can better understand current politics.'
Jake didn't really know what his dad meant.
'I get it,' he said.
'Clever boy.' His dad smiled and ruffled his hair.
Jake felt six feet tall.

Jake couldn't wait to tell his dad about his new school project.
'Guess what,' he said, as soon as his dad got in the door.
His dad looked at Jake. 'What?'
'We have to do a big project at school,' Jake said. 'We have to choose a topic and then write about its history, make a story, write a poem, and do a poster. Then we have to present it all to the class.'
'Oh?' His dad was taking off his shoes in the foyer. Jake knew he should have waited till his dad was fully in the house before telling him about the project; that way he would've listened properly.
'I've already chosen my topic.'
'Oh?' His dad kept taking off his shoes.
'Guess what I chose.'
'What?'
'World War I.'
It worked. Jake's dad was looking at him properly now.
'That's a big topic,' he said. Jake could tell from the way his dad was smiling and ruffling his hair that he was impressed. 'Clever boy.'

Next day Jake was walking home from school. It was a sunny autumn day. He'd usually stamp on the piles of leaves on the footpath to hear them crunch under his shoes. But today he ignored them. He was busy planning his project.

He was nearly at his driveway when he heard the Miller sisters next door, laughing at him as he went past. They always laughed, or poked their heads over the fence to call him names.
'Retard.'
'Hee hee hee.'
'Boof-head.'
Jake ignored them.
'If they don't like you, that's their problem, not yours,' his mum would always say.
Jake stopped at his gate and bumped it open with his bag. The latch was broken. His dad was going to fix it; he said he would, but he'd been busy.
The letterbox was stuffed with junk mail. The house's windows were dark. Jake was going to be home alone, again.
He was used to being home alone. He'd been doing it since he was nine. That was because, three years ago, his dad had decided to go back to university. That meant his mum had had to go back to working full-time. She did a lot of evening shifts because the money was better.
Jake's dad was away a lot in the evenings, too, because he had to go to lectures.
It was worst in winter, when it got dark by five o'clock. Jake wasn't scared of the dark, only of the bogyman who lived in the dark. Jake's friend Rodney told him about the bogyman. Rodney was always telling him stories like that. Jake said he didn't really believe in the bogyman, but he was always really careful to lock the doorsójust in case.
Now he walked up the stairs onto the veranda and stuck his hand in his pocket for the key.
It wasn't there!
He checked all his other pockets and then checked them again. He shook out his school bag but he couldn't find it anywhere. He'd lost it! He checked his pockets again. And then his bag. It was definitely gone.
Disaster!

Frantically, he tried the front door, knowing it would be locked, then turned around and hurried back up the footpath to see if he could find his key. He walked up the road for two blocks, scanning the pavement.
It was no use; he could've dropped it anywhere. He turned around and went home.
What if his parents had accidentally left the back door unlocked? He raced around the side of the house and up the steps but the back door was locked, too.
He tried to slide the bathroom window open, but it was shut tight. He thought about throwing a rock through the window, but he didn't. He knew his parents couldn't afford to get it replaced.
He checked his watch. It was four o'clock; his dad'd said he'd be back by seven.
Jake wondered what he going to do with himself all afternoon.
He supposed he could always read his book.
He'd borrowed a book on World War I from the school library for his project. He had to. He'd already looked in his parents' 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He loved sticking his nose into the pages of the old books; they smelled dry and musty, like his granddad's attic. He'd found a heap of information about the American Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars, but nothing on World War I. It didn't make sense. The First World War had been much bigger. They must have left it out by accident.
He went and found his dad and told him about the mistake.
His dad laughed.
'When did the First World War begin, Jake?'
Jake knew the answer.
'1914.'
'And when were these books printed?'
Jake looked at the spine of the book he was holding. He felt a flush creeping up his neck. '1911,' he said.
His dad laughed again.

'Why are you looking in those old books, anyway?'
'For my project.' Jake felt defensive.
'What project?'
'You know!' Jake raised his voice. 'My World War I project.'

Jake sat in a block of sun on the front veranda reading his library book.
The book was really good; there were photos of the soldiers and the no man's land the men had to run across to attack the enemy. There was a chapter on the Gallipoli landings and the Anzacs and the really hard going up the cliffs.
He was reading about the liceólice eggs used to hatch in the seams of the soldiers' clothes and drive them mad; he was getting itchy just thinking about itówhen something hit him in the side of his head like a bullet. It hurt! He heard squeals of laughter from the Miller sisters on the other side of the fence as the acorn they'd chucked at him rolled away; he hated them.

It was six o'clock. Jake was in the backyard down near the shed, throwing lemons in the compost bin. If he missed the bogyman would get him. He didn't really believe it, but it raised the stakes of the game.
It was getting dark so he'd have to stop in a minute. Pretending he was Glen McGrath, he fast bowled a lemon into the compost bin. And missed.
Nothing happened. That was because the bogyman wasn't real.
Then he heard a rustling.
He looked to where the noise was coming from. He could see a shape coming out of the rhododendrons. A huge dark shape óó
It wasn't real, it wasn't real, just the workings of Jake's over-active imagination and the shadows of the trees when they moved in the wind.
The shape advanced. Red eyes glowed.
It was the bogyman!
Jake screamed. He started to back away but his foot caught on a clump of grass and he fell. Scrambling to his feet he turned and tried to run towards the porch but his legs wouldn't move like he told them to.

He felt the cold wet hands of the bogyman circle his throat and tighten. He was going to die ...

Jake woke with a start. He was drenched in sweat. The veranda was in shadow. He sat up and screamed.
The Miller sisters were standing over him, staring.
'Why are you lying on the veranda with a foot mat over you?' said Adele.
It's none of your business, Jake thought. He'd finished his book and felt like a nap but it didn't feel right to sleep with nothing over you. The foot mat had covered his chest and the book had been his pillow.
'I just am,' he said.
'Why?' Julianne asked.
'I'm locked out of the house.'
'How come?'
'I lost my key.'
The Miller sisters looked at each other and giggled; they loved it.
'Why are you here by yourself?' Julianne pestered.
Jake wanted them to go away. 'I just am.'
'Where's your mum?'
'At work.'
'Your mum has to work to support your dad,' Julianne said.
'Who says?'
'Your mum's the breadwinner,' Julianne said.
'So?'
She put her hands on her hips. 'Your mum has to work because your dad doesn't want to.'
'He does too. He's studying at university to get a PhD.'
Jake was proud that his dad was getting a PhD. His dad said that people would have to call him 'Doctor'.
'Our mum says that your dad's a professional student.'
Jake didn't really know what that meant, but he didn't think it sounded like a good thing.
'He is not.'

'Is too.'
'Is not.'
'Is too.'
'Get lost or I'll punch you one,' Jake said, standing up.
They went.

It was seven o'clock. Jake's dad would be home any minute now.
Jake huddled on the front steps with his arms around his legs. It was freezing. He was hungry. He wanted his mum to drive up and see how cold and miserable he was. He wanted her to hug him and to bring him inside and to make him a hot chocolate with plenty of whipped cream and to give him a whole biscuit out of the jar instead of the half he always had to share with her.
A car was coming; he listened to the engine.
It wasn't his dad.
Jake checked his watch. It was one minute past seven.
Any minute now.

Ages later, Jake checked his watch again. It was ten minutes past seven.
Any minute now.
He sat and waited. It was so cold his teeth were chattering.
The stars were out; that meant the ground would be covered in frost in the morning.
'Hurry up.' He said it aloud.
A car was coming up the road.
For a second he thought it was his dad, slowing down like he did over the speed hump so he wouldn't ruin the suspension, but it wasn't; it was someone else.
He sat and waited.
Any minute now.

Jake worried that his dad was mad at him.
He'd yelled at his dad last night. He didn't mean to, but he couldn't help it.
It was after tea. Jake had been cutting out pictures of soldiers from his dad's Time magazines for his poster. It was really fiddly, being careful not to snip off the soldiers' ears or noses as you cut around them with the scissors. He stacked the soldiers in a neat pile next to his folder on the carpet when he finished. His dad stepped on the pile as he walked past in his socks.

'Dad! Get off!' Jake shouted.
'What?' His dad looked around and then at the floor. 'Oh, sorry. I didn't see them.'
Jake stared at the pile of crumpled soldiers.
'What are they for?' his dad asked.
'For my project,' Jake told him.
'What project?'
Jake couldn't believe it. His dad had forgotten.
'I told you!' he yelled, 'I'm doing a project on World War One.'

His dad wasn't coming home.
It was nine o'clock and his dad must have died in a car accident. Jake remembered how he'd yelled at his dad the night before and he knew that it was his fault. He was being punished.
His chin was on his knees; his teeth were chattering frantically.
Please God, don't let my dad be dead, Jake prayed.
He was huddled on the back porch now. It was pitch dark. He could see light from the Millers' house through the rhododendrons.
A hair-raising growl came from out of the branches of the cabbage tree.
His heart stopped.
It was the bogyman.
'Please, no,' he pleaded. He backed in closer to the wall as the leaves in the cabbage tree shook wildly and a dark shape swooped down the trunk and bounded across the lawn.
It wasn't the bogyman. It was a possum. A fat one with stubby legs and a thick tail. Jake let out his breath and wiped his frozen hands on his jumper. He felt like crying; he couldn't help it. He was cold and hungry and his dad had been killed in a car accident.
Another car was coming up the road.
Jake listened. The car was slowing down over the speed hump.

He knew the sound of the engine. He couldn't run fast enough, across the porch, feeling the planks bouncing under him, down the steps, past the rhododendron bushes, nearly tripping over the hose his dad hadn't wound up properly, past the bathroom window with its torn flyscreen; straight into the yellow beam of headlights that was coming up the driveway.
Thank you God, thank you, Jake was swallowing back the sobs as he watched his dad get out of the car.
'What are you doing out here?' his dad asked him. 'Why aren't the lights on?'
Jake couldn't speak. He couldn't believe it. It was all better now. His dad was home. He took a couple of shaky breaths. 'I couldn't get in. I lost my key.'
His dad laughed. 'Why didn't you go across to the neighbours' house?' he asked. 'They would have let you in and given you something to eat.'
'Not the Millers.'
His dad laughed again.
'Where were you?' Jake asked. 'You said you'd be home by seven.'
'I went out for dinner with some of the other students,' his dad said.
Jake followed his dad up the steps. It didn't matter that he was cold and hungry; as long as his dad was alive. He bent down and picked up his library book from the front veranda.
'I read a book for my project before it got dark,' he told his dad.
'That's good,' his dad said as he unlocked the door. 'What project?'