Michelle Cahill


I remember the word “tuff”, a composite cement made of volcanic lava, ash, bubbles of gas, that formed the headland, coursing along the coastline. Where the sea convulses sand, shale, coal. A beacon on a razed bluff at the mouth of a river. 

Upper and lower valleys, and all of it, Awabakal country stolen for the profit of shipping, mines, wool, wineries, orchards, thoroughbred racehorses.

We have all tested positive to ᴨ9, a mutant strain of the virus. The consultant orders Cinque giorni di isolamento. Quinque diebus solitudo.

Twelve of us are standing in a half circle, the sun’s beating on my dark skin. I will meet Rachel, a survivor of domestic violence in her second marriage.

I will meet a Polish youth who bakes cupcakes iced with gold and silver beads. They will tell me the secret is all in the consistency. Using extra eggs makes the sponge creamy.

We have each been given a ward number: mine is three. Number three painted in black on a square of thin cardboard,  stuck to the bed.

For the first three hours, the sound of a sculptor folding paper into wave forms, etching lines with a ruler, and the foghorns of ships entering the port.

I am so wrong about some things because being bruised, my instinct fails. Am calling this the first wave of insight.

Took a photograph of the books I will read this week. Have posted it to my channel.

A friend, Amelia, declares she is self-liberated from the dictates of social media. I want to respond to her. I don’t want to respond to her.

Is my writing goal-orientated or do I roam from one research to the next randomly, balancing the lines shaping my story?

A René Magritte scene: a colony of clouds, that insistent raw energy of wind. The sea is something else, deep, angry, unanswerable.

The sight of sun on the white plastered wall beyond the window is blinding. Guess there is some passing rain in those clouds. The bifurcation of leaves in wind. Wind howling, white caps tenting. A chill in the bones of the room, noting the below:

  1. exposed plumbing throughout, slapped by a painter’s messy stroke 
  2. audaciously, conduits ramble, open mouthed
  3. rusty brackets, nailed to the windowsills
  4. square fistula of what used to be a chimney, roughly eviscerated

Morning star, evening star,)                   (we are foreign bodies, an open parenthesis
Sometimes I am the referent; and sometimes you are.


Thought I would be late for the ward round, rushing towards a window of recovery, my lagging, lopsided scarf, my unzipped anorak, and backpack.

Thought I saw a raven on the headland, her claw fastening a bone, her beak stripping nips of stringy flesh.

A triptych of abalone shells washed up on the beach, and it’s no coincidence. Rainbow spoons, half-filled with therapeutic sand.

Olim Periculum – Nunc Salus meaning Once Perilous, Now Safe 
Eye. Tongue. 
We are born without a language in common, we are surrounded by trip hazards.

At morning tea, we swallow our pills. I walk to the wall, stand on a crop of bricks. Beyond is the break wall. There is a freighter on the horizon, a lone fisherman.

He, the artist [Raymond), has paint on his hands, and his shirt smells of turps. His nails are chipped, he is ashamed of the calluses on his hands.

He, Raymond, invites me to catch a ferry with him. A ferry to the Port of Horror. [In Latin, horrebunt aegrum literally means horror-stricken). He tells me it will take five minutes.

The first-person pronoun signifies the present tense. The third person pronoun signifies the past.
The square brackets look angry. The curved brackets are familiar.

He, (Raymond) wants to paint en-plein air. Has he shaved this morning? Who has he shaved for?

The dove’s head is all eyes. The dove owns this.

A breast plate, vaguely pink-tinged plumes, fibrillating in the wind; the heart like a version of itself.
The dove carries no message.

You understand.

You cannot sleep so you write.
Look, the dove is gone. There is an absence of doves in the harbour.

When they tied my tongue I was exiled. That’s when I wrote about extimacy. A mani stone with the weight of a manifesto, breaking the mirror.

This is a lighthouse hospital, to candle the light.


The lighthouse signals everything unknown about dying at high tide, (about permanence).

The wardsmen tell me I am late this morning. Late for the group therapy. I say I am a late riser.

I confess I am a late bloomer.

The things you notice, casually. I am not wearing my ring. I left it on the bed. I once lost a braided silver ring after skinny dipping. Rosie gave it to me at Boston airport,  as we stood in a queue with my luggage. Before every flight my anxiety was that the plane would crash, and I would never hold the things I love. 

Was it too much fear, or too much flight that took from me the things I love?
Gone. Just like that.

I cannot hear the sculptor folding paper today.
The paper has collapsed into vertebral spirals. Like a shark’s egg.
A string threading through folds; releasing its space. Because what goes into the paper must come out. Nothing is safe.

Rachel tells me that the day she left her husband her son told her that he didn’t want to go home. She texted her husband to say she was driving to the shops to pick up milk. Only she didn’t turn right to the shop, she turned left heading for the nearest town.

Once, I was an exile. I wrote about extimacy in heavy words.
There was a tincture of violence in those words; like the tincture you find in ochre rock washed ashore. Scraped off. Crushed and filtered, mixed with saliva, or blood, or gum Arabic.

Tell me, I ask the sea, how to write without names. Without violence.

The sea has no sight. It cannot look me straight in the eye. Two red buoys dip afloat in the distance.

An open shrine. Seagulls at low flight skim the horizon.

No smoking or food allowed inside. Very well then. The Polish youth likes to follow rules. If you break the rules you must pay. It is not prudent to stray, to linger near the boundary between what is permissible and what is offence. Who leads us to the edge? Who is making up the rules?
Not the sea. Not today. 


A bare frangipani tree with its swollen stumps pitches in the wind.

Is my eye drawn to this? I lean towards the erosion of grammar. Should I begin with adjective or article? Is this the flummoxed nature of pain, stinging like doubt?

How many absences surge to the surface in dreams? An envelope of secrets. The sea flushes between the rocks, draining away, rinsing, small things destined for loss. Un heimlich, like a miscarriage.

A message pings:

There is a guy who’s turned up and is
sitting out on the edge of the cliff. He’s
not very stable. I’ve let the police know.
Sorry, but we’ve had to cancel lunch.
Can everyone stay in their wards and
keep the front and back doors closed.

Footsteps on the floorboards. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. The click of turn knobs. Wind like rain in the pine trees. 

No one else saw the intruder entering. I walk outside to where he has disappeared. There is a curdling scream. A sign on the gate reads: Danger. Authorized persons only permitted past this fence. The matron scolds me, ushering me inside back to ward number three.

I can hear the revs of a motorbike. An armed policeman arrives. He checks the perimeter fence; he peers over the edge where the cliff drops off dangerously. A ship is being piloted through the channel between the breakwaters.

The intruder is sitting on the edge of the undermined cliff, dangling his legs. Music drowns out the wind, the world. I watch as the policeman coaxes him back all the way to the gate. Reluctantly, he sits astride on the wall, kicking his legs up high. He pulls out his earphones. The intruder makes his point: that there are two worlds. Which one is it to be? 

From the back veranda I watch him leave with the officer. Tall, with a wide-based gait and with scruffy blond hair. His cotton t-shirt scoops up the wind. They are walking towards the jetty, beyond which is the city’s high rise, cranes and scaffolds, a coal refinery and silos, abortion clinics, and asylums.

Orange and blue sails brighten the sky.


We are infirmed.  Simply hold your contactless card against the terminal wherever you see your card logo.
Accept that after an overdose, there is damage. 

He, the artist, Raymond has painted the action of the sea in impasto strokes. He catches, at speed, the harbourside activities: tugboats nudging a bulk carrier, crosshatched rocks in the breakwater, the wavy chalk clouds, reflections of water and sky. Light, shadow, industry, leisure, transport, all contiguous.

At noon I see him climbing up the hill barefoot, a towel slung over his shoulder, his hair the colour of wet straw. Every day he swims, washing off the toxic smell of turps and oils and alcohol that seep into his skin.

His gaze steadies. With each day he is less impatient.

I walk to the docks with Rachel. Diamonds of sunlight reflect off the river. Distant smoke from a factory. Couples stroll along the breakwater. Two men stand in a still boat.

Rachel squints, trying to hide her presentiment. She frowns like the surface of the water. As we reach the end of the pier she tells me she has lost a son. 

With restless curiosity,
and the steady hand of a fisher woman casting a line, she asks, “What is your story?”

She paints a foreshore curlicued in earth pigments and the land before invasion,  before mining. Her story is wildness, a sea that cannot be tamed. How to brush without anger.

We are a mirror of the other. In words are found images; the paintings speak a story:

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I walk hearing nothing but the wind. I walk along the man-made pier, watching the rowers. A dredger spews sea water all the way out to sea, a fisherman measures his catch. The fish spasms, as one deprived.

A foreign ship has dumped its ballast of noxious chemicals. Some plants will die; weeds will dominate.

The sun is in the mirror of the sextant, almost touching the horizon.

I note sentiments tugging, pigeons nesting in the soft clay of the headland. I note the granite spine of the headland that marks the ocean, the bitou bush trembling in the spin, and the risen foam.

Empty of analysis and emotion, I walk into the wind, swell rising, the sea glittering, the man-made lighthouse on the flattened promontory. An empty page matters. The syntax like driftwood changes the shape of healing in the story.  And the wind is a presence. Now, carrying us … 

I am here, walking into the void.