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Phoebe knew the peas had to go. There was nothing for it. There was only so much room in the freezer drawer.
It’s just a bag of peas, she told herself. I can order more online. So why was she crying? Not crying, weeping, as she slid the novel into the freezer where the peas had been. It fitted well, its green cover in a freezer bag replacing the pea packet and reassuring anyone at a glance that Phoebe Nix was a sensible girl who did not forget to eat her vegetables although, at closer inspection, she had strange ideas about books.
Now her face rested on the wooden kitchen bench. The view along its surface was like something from an ad campaign: Here is the kitchen before the perfect cleaning product. Now, magically, here it is beyond. But the beyond was yet to happen.
She gazed into the glassy reflections of a solitary wine glass that still held a puddle of last night’s red something. Had she really consumed two bottles of wine alone? It seemed she had. The cutting board still held the remnants of last night’s dinner. Cheese, crackers and the Vegemite jar still open, its yellow lid upturned.
She’d bought all the ingredients for a lasagne a few days back. A group of her friends had begun cooking for one another during lockdown, and over the past weeks Phoebe had been the recipient of lamb and barley soup, a chicken casserole, and a plain cake left on her doorstep. But she hadn’t cooked for herself in a week or more, unless you thought of toasties as cooking.
Phoebe knew she had let things slip but there was no one to see. No one to judge. She hadn’t showered in days. She was still in her pyjamas at 3 pm.
Once she’d stopped crying, she’d stack the dishwasher and wipe down the benches. Surfaces. Surfaces were essential for a tidy mind. Maybe she’d even strip the bed. But it was harder to stop crying than she imagined. She was sick of things not feeling right. Not in the world. Not in her life. Not in her heart.
Her book launch had been cancelled and she looked like a wreck. Her normally gamine cut had grown long over her ears and forehead. Worse still, the artful textured crop her hairdresser achieved every six weeks or so had thickened and sprouted so she looked permanently electrocuted. Still, if she spent the next few months wearing beanies, no one would notice. What with the beanie, dark glasses and the face mask, no one would recognise her at all. Which had not been the idea. She was meant to become famous in 2020. She’d prepared. She’d lost weight. She’d gotten all her social media platforms up and running. She’d even done an online meditation course to manage the stress. And then a bloody virus came along and ruined everything.
They’re just peas, she told herself, resting her forehead on the cold green and white packet. It’s just a novel. There will still be readers next year. Millions of them the world over keen to read the debut novel of Phoebe Nix, the world’s newest crime fiction star. Or there won’t, said the other voice.
Phoebe had always hated those two voices. The good, kind, reassuring voice that came like a benevolent mother on one shoulder. And the mean, doubting, fearful voice that perched on the other. It had whispered to her when she woke at midday, ‘See what you’ve become?’
‘What?’ she had asked the wine dark sea of her mind.
‘Nothing,’ it replied.
Last week someone on Twitter had declared that not everyone heard voices in their heads. Some people heard nothing. No voices. No critics. Just silence. There’d been a long thread of people posting comments, most of them in shock that the zen states they tried so hard to achieve were already status quo for certain people. Right now, not thinking would be a whole lot better than falling apart over her lost 2020.
It wasn’t just peas, she knew. The book had become, over time, a love letter to Matthew. It even starred a brilliant but weary doctor in a hollow marriage and a clever young female detective. The story was meant to persuade him that she was the one. She had wanted him to understand that she knew things about life, even if she was younger, even if they came from completely different worlds. She’d wanted him to see her in the spotlight, radiant in interviews, speaking at festivals, her face on the front of the arts section. But instead, she was like peas. Tossed aside, de-prioritised. The last five years of work had been put on hold, frozen until bloody Covid-19 was dead and buried.
Maybe, she thought, most people never fulfilled their destiny.
Wednesday night it had been obvious that it couldn’t go on. She and Matthew had parked in their two cars under the flowering gum which had only recently given up the last of its blooms. They’d wound down their windows to feel closer and talked to each other via their phones. All that summer she’d watched as the flowers formed, bloomed and festooned on their landmark tree. If it could speak, that tree might have said, ‘Here. Here is where they meet every Wednesday and sometimes on Sundays. Here is where they kiss. Here is where they hold hands and talk and never discuss when he is leaving his wife.’
Divorce lawyers were going to have a field day in 2021. Funeral homes, too, conducting delayed memorial services. But for now, the whole world — save for a few Brazilians, and the distant, and possibly fictional people of Turkmenistan — was in quarantine. In Turkmenistan the ruling dictator had banned the use of the word coronavirus or Covid-19. Phoebe preferred the Belarusian approach. Their leader had instructed everyone to drink more vodka.
She remembered, as a small child, squeezing herself in between her mother’s dresses in the wardrobe, so no-one could find her. It had worked for a while, until Milly discovered her and ruined it all. Milly had a way of ruining things for her. The older sister who’d always looked right, been a prefect and enrolled in medicine. Then Milly had died. Not just died. She’d been murdered, her body recovered from a stormwater drain. Their parents had divorced and Phoebe had spent many days and nights feeling like she was in that cupboard still, waiting for Milly to find her. But Milly, ghost Milly, never came. Not in dreams and not in life. Perhaps that had been for the best. But the book had come instead, years later.
It had made Phoebe stop writing turgid poetry, and cease the far too regular use of marijuana. She’d finished her degree and then discovered she hated every kind of job except working at Gravity, the bar she’d managed for the past five years as she’d written the novel. It was there she’d run into Matthew, the man who’d loved Milly, the man who might have married Milly if she hadn’t died. Instead, he’d married Zara and had a child. Then he’d started an affair with Phoebe, or she with him. It was hard to tell. One night he was the last one there as she finished up. Taking him home seemed the most sensible thing to do, and neither voice in her head had whispered a word until the next day, after he was gone.
Phoebe speared the packet of peas with a knife and poured them out into the sink. The result looked like an Instagram post. There were only so many things one person could do with a packet of peas. Nurse a bruise. Toss them through a lemony tagliatelle. Pile them beside sausages and mash. But a whole packet?
There were more than 237 peas melting in the sink. She’d given up counting them. Possibly there were exactly 600. Or 599. It was possible she was having some kind of breakdown. She was staring into a frosted green pattern of legumes grown in a time before the world went mad.
All of life before seemed like a fairy tale now. Days when she could go to movies, see friends and linger over Sunday lunches, spend evenings at gigs before Ubering home, fly away with Matthew and have a weekend in a remote Airbnb.
Because Matthew worked in the hospital, he had to be particularly careful. He couldn’t risk infecting his wife and child. He didn’t want to risk infecting Phoebe. They had separate bedrooms anyway, he and Zara, he’d said. She at one end of the house, him at the other. Since the baby was born, she’d lost interest in sex. Phoebe supposed most men having affairs said that about their wives.
Phoebe decided it was time for a toast. She’d put her book on ice, after all. An advance copy that had arrived yesterday, while thousands more brooded in the warehouse waiting for their big day. The publisher and the publicist had Zoom-called and assured her that spring next year her book would be launched. Yes, the marketing budget would be reduced and the market would be a little crowded given all the other delayed books, but its time would come. Phoebe was still their newest star and her story, well, the media was going to love it. Phoebe had felt rather sick at this. But the publicist had assured her that very few writers had such a good hook. The crime fiction writer with the murdered sister.
What they didn’t discuss was that the book industry might be dead by then, and pre-pandemic art out of date. In a year we might discover that no one had been reading anything in captivity. They’d been watching TikTok and making babies.
She heard her phone ping. Her cooking friends had started a group called Lockdown Love where they posted silly, funny, and — worst of all — inspiring messages to cheer each other up. This one was a link to an article encouraging people to toss away their old consuming selves and invent something new that would work for everyone beyond this.
A noise welled up in Phoebe, an inhuman thing, a banshee wail of loss and frustration, as if it had been waiting years to erupt. I want my life back, she wanted to rage at someone. I want to buy cheap clothing online. I know it’s made in some sweatshop that tortures women and small children. I want to eat strawberries from California any month of the year.
I want to buy roses from Ecuador and I don’t care about the flight miles and the fucking carbon footprint. I was born to consume. If I don’t consume, my existential loneliness will get completely out of control and I will realise that I’m a flea in a population of eight billion fleas sucking on the host and turning it anaemic. I’ll realise I’m going to die. I’ll die and be forgotten and this bloody planet with its mountains, rivers, sunrises and sunsets will go on forever. Nothing here will miss me. In fact, it would be better off without me.
Phoebe popped the cork and watched the prosecco froth in the glass. She slid open the freezer drawer and saw that already the bag holding the book was frosting over. She tapped her drink on the edge of it.
‘Cheers, book,’ she said. ‘Cheers 2020. Cheers to nature. Rocking it, baby. Starry skies in Beijing. Deer wandering the streets of Japan. Goats in Wales staring at all the people behind glass. Humans? Well, we humans are not doing so well. A few months back Trump was going to bomb Iran just to arc things up in the Middle East before the election in November. Now he’s inciting revolution. Weinstein’s in jail and it only took 78 women to get him there. Australia was on fire for months. We almost wiped out the koalas. The platypus is on its way to extinction, too. There’s weird sea warming near New Zealand, and the kelp forests around Tasmania are dead. The Barrier Reef is bleached beyond recognition. Plans for a giant coal mine, and a copper one, too — that’s going to improve things for sure. Our oxygen cylinder, the Amazon, is in the red while the government of Brazil has taken to shooting anyone opposed to deforestation. A 16-year old is our world’s visionary and our favourite politician is a smiley, sensible woman from New Zealand. So cheers to the pangolins who sent a virus to save us. Cheers pangolins. Or bats. Or industrial farming. Whatever it was that brought 2020 to its knees. But I want my life back now. Ok? I promise to be better. I think I promise. It’s hard to tell.’
She thought of the last time she had touched Matthew. They’d gone away for a weekend, him supposedly at a conference. They’d walked a remote beach and spent hours in the outdoor bath reading to one another. Then the stay-at-home order was announced.
‘I miss you,’ he’d said. ‘I miss you already.’
In that moment, even without the nasty voice weighing in, she’d known that Matthew was not going to be the man sitting on some verandah with her when they were very old. Not the man who’d make her laugh until their false teeth fell out. But she hadn’t been brave enough to end it. It was too easy, too decadent, this relationship with no commitment and luxurious perks.
Her phone pinged again. She picked it up and read the Lockdown Love message. It said: There is evidence that trees communicate over great expanses, sending nourishment, messages and support. And they do all this grounded in place, unable to speak, reach or move around. We are like that right now, separate, unable to touch, yet deeply connected and sharing our love over these distances…
Phoebe sat on the kitchen stool and watched the clouds rolling across the sky. She let the prosecco languish. She knew that what she was contemplating was an aberration, but dark times called for drastic measures. It was a sort of sacrilege, possibly. But then so was putting a book in the freezer, she supposed.
Towards evening, she pulled a fresh lasagne from the oven. While it had baked, she’d cleaned up the kitchen and changed the sheets. Then she’d showered and put on jeans, a hoodie, socks and shoes. She hadn’t worn shoes or driven anywhere in a week, and it felt good. Within the hour, each of Phoebe’s friends had received a takeaway container labelled Lockdown Lasagne.
* * *
Twelve months later, Matthew was long gone and her face was across all the arts media. Phoebe’s friends threw her a dinner party. Lockdown Lasagne was the celebratory dish. Its secret? The addition of peas — not in the meat sauce, but in the cheesy sauce, which somehow made it a hit.
Heather Rose is the author of eight novels. Her latest novel is the bestselling political thriller Bruny. Her novel The Museum of Modern Love won the Stella Prize and the Christina Stead Prize.