By Jay CarmichaelFictionScribe Publications

Ironbark

He shouldn’t have a life he never asked for and be expected to love men. With their problems never spoken outward. And childhood trauma and family issues. Men wanting to be held or hold.

Markus Bello’s life has stalled. Living in a small country town, mourning the death of his best friend, Grayson, Markus is isolated and adrift. As time passes, and life continues around him, Markus must try to face his grief, and come to terms with what is left.

Stylistically assured and quietly compelling, Ironbark is an elliptical and beautifully evoked contemporary coming-of-age story. Through his protagonist, Markus, newcomer Jay Carmichael depicts the conflict and confusion of life as a gay man in rural Australia, and explores how place can shape personal identity by both offering and restricting potential. A moving portrait of grief and loss, Ironbark is also a devastating account of the toll exacted by our society’s expectations of what it means to be a man.

Portrait of Jay Carmichael

Jay Carmichael

Jay Carmichael is a writer and editor. His first novel, Ironbark, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2016. His writing has been published by beyondblue and appeared widely in print and online, including in OverlandThe GuardianSBS, and The Telling Tree project. Jay lives and works in Melbourne.

Judges’ report

A taut, finely crafted portrait of a young man paralysed by grief in a small town that is itself paralysed by a lack of progress. Markus Bello spends his days looking for purpose in the wake of his best friend Grayson's death. Markus lives with his parents in a home where tension hovers, where visitors come by with little to say, where the Leader newspaper charts the lack of progress on a once-promising piece of local infrastructure. 

Jay Carmichael writes with empathy and a light touch that belies how tightly wound this novel really is. Markus's yearning for his best friend is both private and glaringly explicit, and Carmichael contrasts the way the shocking death of a young person mutates and breeds a singular type of grief in a best friend. Carmichael writes distinctively of a small town with inhabitants who are just getting by and who have forged a frayed community that is both unique and universal.

Extract

Two weeks after 

Markus is shoeless. He burnt his pairs on a bonfire held beside the house about two weeks ago. Shoes make no difference. He looks through the lace draped across the inside of his bedroom window. It’s lunchtime. He’s naked and yet to shower. He yawns and scratches his balls, akin to stretching out your muscles after a slept-like-a-log night. The sun fails to break open the thin film of clouds. Since that storm, the rain withholds itself and everything is preserved, overcast. Inanimate things breathe, and some mornings he’s been stunned by this apparent breathing. Everything around him is living, and he’s stagnant because of the knot in his belly.

One of the flat northern plains is covered by knee-high grey-green grass. Murky violet sways between its tufts.

There’re no persons or animals, and there are no fences or houses or trees. This Plain takes a day’s travel from one side to the other, and if you make the journey to its edge, you’ll find the Hills, which bear on their backs eucalypts (various) and grevillea (family Proteaceae). From the middle of the Plain this hilly edge is unseeable, because at its centre is the Plain’s only imperfection.

The grass grows to the imperfection’s edge and no further. At this edge, the ground falls down sharp cliffs to form the Depression: a gaping, deep gash in the otherwise perfect surface. The Depression, bound by these unscaleable cliffs, is a smaller area set one hundred and fifty metres below the level of the Plain. Here there are farms and fences, properties and people, sheep runs and dairies, furrows for wheat and rye and barley and canola and maize and corn, orchards and vegetables. Wind dances in the grassy paddocks and screeching sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) frequent the area. In the centre of the Depression is the township of Narioka (aka Noaks).

A hundred people live in Narioka, with a further hundred producers living on the farms and properties spreading outward to the cliffs. This is enough to make do. Other than this binding rock-face, there’s an ephemeral lake on the outskirts of town with a tributary creek, also empty, cutting through town. The Lake has a natural ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon) bushland around its edges. They say you’re lucky to see either lake or creek fill in your lifetime.

Thirteen days after the destructive thunderstorm, the Narioka Leader is folded over a dining table chair. Markus Bello looks at its front page, which has a story on the progress of the railway to the city. It says they have surveyed the valuable space — ‘valuable’ because there’s only so much land they can acquire from the Depression without affecting the producers. The final paragraph mentions that the recent storm, and the record-breaking rain it dumped, may cause delays. This same rain, even though it’s winter, will not have broken the drought.

The master bedroom door opens behind him. A warm hand touches his shoulder. Elba: his to-be stepmother. She keeps walking, her fingers sliding across his shoulder blades until there’s no more of him for her to touch. They coexist. She re-boils the kettle. She prepares a tea and when she sits across from him, he smells chamomile. She’s sitting side-on, and this pose allows her to rest her left elbow on top of the chair, hand under chin. She gazes out the glass sliding door behind the table and runs her fingers through her long hair. Outside, her to-be husband, and Markus’s father, tends to pumpkins in one of his veggie patches. Elba asks Markus when the overcast will clear. He watches her pick up her tea with both hands and blow across the peachy surface. He scans the Leader for the weather report. She puts the teacup down. He stops at a random page of the paper and points to a random illustration. He needs hope as much as she does.

He says, as Cat jumps up onto the table, There’s a story about the weather. Cat sits for a bit, sanctioning Elba’s strokes under its chin and behind its ears. It stands and stretches and walks to Markus, where it rolls down over the paper. Elba resumes her initial pose. Each of the previous thirteen days has felt like a late-arvo soapie; a little bold, a little beautiful.

Markus walks into the bathroom and turns the heat lamp on high. Soon its strength pricks into the back of his neck. He assesses his shoulder in the mirror. A large bruise the colour of bile wraps itself over his pectoral muscle and collarbone, down his right arm, and stops above the wrist.

His phone rings beside him. No Caller ID.

For thirteen days — those bloody thirteen days — he’s been flicking through his past to find a point of reference. He hadn’t yet caught on anything, until now, until this: Georges’s phone call. He sees Georges and Grayson in the same place. They appear to him as markers of faith amongst a crowd of hundreds of others from around Narioka. These others surround them, but to Markus, they fall far short.

On the other end of the phone, Georges clears his throat. He could be at a café, for there’s the tink of metal on china and the hush of traffic. Georges has put a bookmark in between the pages containing Narioka and the pages of his success as an emerging artist. Which is, in part, why Markus agrees to meet Georges at the pub in Noaks later that afternoon; the conversation is over before he can take any of it back. He spends most of the arvo lag looking into the pantry. He doesn’t want to eat, necessarily, but a hunger of a different kind is growing in his stomach and can’t be satiated with chips or bikkies: Markus wants to redeem a part of his past, and it’s Georges who’s to be consumed to satisfy this unsteady need. Or so he hopes.

With half a pot warming in his rough hands, Markus waits for Georges. The bar bench is sticky on his forearms. Sweat forms in the space where his bare feet touch the barstool. The fire in here’s too hot. There’s no one else except the bartender. Markus avoids eye contact.

The bartender says something about being a brute. Yer can’t trust what the paper says.

Markus looks up at him. Molten lava bulges in his throat; his face may begin to melt. He says nothing, which doesn’t matter because Georges comes in. Markus turns to greet him.

Georges is straight from the turn of the century: distressed jeans, tight, knees torn out, thighs threadbare, the cuffs hanging down the backs of his dusty Volleys, which are scuffed. Markus stops himself from checking to see if there’s a hole in the denim showing off the undies Georges may be wearing. Faux-silk boxers, Marvel-patterned, perhaps? No. Though there’s pattern here: a patchwork of red, grey, and black intersecting in the flannelette long-sleeve, buttons undone, hanging over Georges’s slim frame. Underneath, a white singlet.

Nice, says Markus. He’d forgotten that Georges’s gaze is almost ceremonious: eyes like the blue light coming through stained glass and shining into a phial of holy water.

Georges is looking at Markus’s feet. Least I’m fully dressed, he says. Where are your shoes at?

Markus fills his mouth with beer.

If you tried to get round like that in the city, says Georges, you’d get a syringe in the bottom of your foot. A laugh. A smile. The gap since the last time they spoke closes, a tiny bit.

They sit beside each other, exchanging little. How’s the city? says Markus.

Busy. Georges puffs out his chest.

Still living with your mum down there? Georges nods.

Must be different to ol’ Noaks here.

Sure is, says Georges. He sucks in a draught of his own. Most of the boys at high school used to call Georges dirty sanchez. Markus had had to Google what it means: after anal, you pull out and wipe your bare dick across your partner’s lip, forming a faecal moustache. At the time, the unknown meaning of dirty sanchez, the implication of ‘dirty’, had been enough for Georges to be undesired, to be tainted.

Markus wants to say sorry. Doesn’t. It’s been too long, he says.

Georges’s fingers swirl in the condensation on the side of his pot. Things get in the way.

But with phones and stuff — two people shouldn’t stop talking. Markus coughs, brings his chin to his chest, and then sips his beer to clear his throat. Georges pats him once, hard, on the shoulder, his healing, bruised shoulder. It doesn’t hurt as much as bring Markus comfort, for some bizarre reason.

C’mon, Georges says as he gets off his stool. Enough of that. He’s at the jukebox, and in minutes a Kanye and Jay-Z song plays. ‘Otis’. Markus spills his beer as he turns on his stool to face Georges.

They’re not going to talk about what’s brought Georges back to Narioka, which is why if he were drunker, Markus’d smash the glass pot on his own face to cover what he begins to notice. It’s an urge towards Georges, as if to pick him up. To take them both away from here. Narioka. Or even to crawl up Georges’s body and pitch a tent inside his heart. He watches Georges dancing as if he knows how to dance. Dirty sanchez. 

At the end of the song, Georges skols and says, Time for me to go. Early start back to the city.

Markus says, You got a place to stay? Kinda.

What’s that mean? Well, I—

Nah, Markus swats the answer away with his hands. He says, Come to mine. Ren won’t mind. And before Georges can answer, Markus is up and out the door.

Outside the pub, Markus shivers. The night is silent and silky-black. The streetlight orange and hazy in the fog. When Markus breathes out, a white plume coils from his lips. The scene spins, repeats, back and forth. Fark it’s nippy, he says.

Georges laughs as if trying to puff away dust that’s rested on the tip of his nose. Markus bites his tongue because Grayson used to do that. Georges’s voice, whatever he’s saying — maybe something about the cold — stops Markus from speaking, from acting.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist