Authors: Julie Koh
The three-year-old is sucking on a lollipop.
He's the size of a fully-grown man. His hair is shaved up the sides, culminating in a topknot tied with a big red bow. He's dressed in his best yellow silk robes, which have been embroidered with elaborate green dragons and red tractors.
The three-year-old wants to be at the head of the birthday procession. The other gods aren't so sure. After all, it isn't his birthday, it's someone else's. The gods mutter among themselves in their strange, high-pitched language.
Finally, they give in.
The drumming starts. Gongs sound. Cymbals clash. Whistles thrill the air.
The three-year-old cracks his whip and takes the lead. He skips forth, arms pumping, leading the parade of birthday floats with their blinking lights down the dark, muggy streets of Klang.
Fat gods and thin gods, tall gods and short. Each walks behind a neon float, followed by an entourage.
Along comes the God of Lost Things. His float is a ute piled high with bric-a-brac. Abandoned children sit among the junk, smiling and clapping, their feet hanging off the back of the vehicle. They laugh and point at the Goddess of Old Maids, who charges ahead in a white veil and dress, looking as if she has come straight from the altar.
Wandering after her is the Immortal Priestess of Mild, Moderate and Gross Injustices. She seems lost, wearing a blindfold and carrying a set of digital scales she can't read.
The monkey god flips forward and back, light as air.
The tiger god lopes along, growling. Now and then he claws at the scratching post installed at the back of his float.
âThere,' says Ben. He points to a float at the rear of the procession. âThat's the one I'm here to see. They call him the Economist.'
The Economist is a serious-looking guy with a boring haircut. Like Ben, he's wearing a suit.
âHe seems ordinary,' I say.
Ben shakes his head. âYou're pretty but so naÃ¯ve. If the most powerful god in the world knocked on your door and sat down at your kitchen table, you wouldn't even realise.'
I fold my arms and stare at my bare feet. Ben never lets me into this car unless I take off my sandals. This car is his beloved. It's a souped-up white BMW with black rims and doors that open vertically.
We're parked on the side of the street, watching the parade. Ben has driven us here straight after work, rap songs about bitches and hoes blaring from the car's audio system. He's adjusted the bass so it's as loud as possible â it thumps right through the chest.
The whole way over here, Ben kept boasting about the latest multi-million-dollar deal he's closed at the bank, and how, going forward, he's going to upgrade to a new matt-black BMW. He'll upgrade once he marries me, he decides out loud.
He says he deserves it.
I curl up against the car window and watch the parade more closely. I want to find something that can distract me from Ben's voice, which is now lecturing me about the fact that marriage is a beautiful invention, created so that a man and a woman can pool financial resources and buy property together.
A small dog, white with light brown patches, darts through the crowd. Captivated, I watch its tiny zigzag until it disappears from view.
The Economist's entourage is much longer than all the other entourages put together. It goes on for blocks. His float is a stretch limousine with a screen mounted on top, displaying a slideshow populated with ever-shifting graphs that track share prices and interest rates rising and falling in real time.
An old man is at the front of the entourage begging the Economist for a forecast.
âHe's a finance minister,' Ben explains.
The Economist walks along with his eyes rolled into the back of his head. An assistant hurries after him with a parasol, as if shielding the Economist from some unknown danger.
Through a megaphone, the Economist speaks of the endless good works of the Invisible Hand, the all-knowing power of the Market.
He takes a sword from another assistant and draws the blade across his tongue. He lets the blood drip onto the tip of a paintbrush, then uses it to write a forecast for the minister on yellow paper.
Once it's done, he turns to his entourage. He sticks out his tongue.
The cut has healed. Everyone gasps.
At the very end of the procession is a sweaty, potbellied man in a brown patchwork coat. The coat hangs loose at the neckline, leaving one nipple exposed. The man clutches a fan in one hand and a gourd-shaped bottle in the other. He stumbles along, barefoot and giggling, his eyes half-closed.
âLook at that drunk shit,' says Ben. âProbably homeless.'
The drunk turns to look at us, as if he has heard. He cocks his head and smiles. Pendulums of saliva stretch from his mouth. Swaying, he takes a red carnation from inside his coat and beckons us with it.
Ben sniggers. âBe still my beating heart.'
I look at Ben, then at the drunk.
I unlock the car door.
âWhat are you doing?' says Ben.
The heat of the night envelops me. My feet swing out and touch the bitumen.
âAre you nuts? What about your shoes?'
I hurry over to the drunk. He takes a swig from his gourd then sprays the mouthful of liquid into the air. A fine mist descends.
He proffers the gourd to me. I decline, smiling.
I fall into line behind him. He walks with his feet turned out, taking steps in complicated patterns as if following the rules of some private dance.
Ben starts the car and begins to trail us, bringing up the rear of the procession.
The Economist continues to preach through the megaphone. To demonstrate a point, he calls the three-year-old over and snatches the lollipop from the child's mouth.
He snaps his fingers. The lollipop shoots into the air and multiplies. Thousands of lollipops rain down over the crowd. People crawl over each other to get at the sweets. They scratch and slap. They tear out each other's hair.
In the stampede, a woman screams.
âOh! The dog! The poor little dog!'
The back of the procession halts.
The drunk pushes through the crowd and stumbles in the direction of the woman's voice. I follow.
Arriving at the spot, we discover the little brown and white dog lying sprawled on the ground. There isn't any blood but its body has been completely crushed, trampled by the crowd.
âWho owns this animal?' asks the Economist of the crowd. He points at the limp, broken body.
The dog looks up at me, its eyes full of shock.
The drunk crouches over the dog and wipes its tears away. He strokes its matted hair. He comforts it with gentle, unintelligible words. He plants a kiss on its head, picks it up, tucks it under one arm, and proceeds past the Economist's float.
The brawl resumes.
Having returned to the head of the procession, the three-year-old takes a sudden turn into a wire-fenced parking lot.
Although he has lost his lollipop, he has somehow gained a replacement dummy.
Sucking happily on his new acquisition, he skips across the vacant lot towards the back fence, accelerating.
As he nears the fence, he steps up into the air.
The procession follows, moving along an invisible plane that extends over the fence and above the palm trees.
The drunk does the same.
Ben's voice calls out. It booms. He seems to have wangled a megaphone from someone in the parade.
âLex, are you getting a lift back, or what?'
The drunk looks down at me and grins.
âBirthday,' he trills. âMine. Come to party?'
The dog yaps and wags its tail.
I step forward and up.
Above the trees, I look back at the Economist's float. The driver revs the engine. The float speeds full tilt towards the fence.
It crashes through.
The crowd heaves around it, still fighting.
I spot Ben hanging out the window of his car, peering up at me. The car is stuck behind the float, unable to move â a white speck in the raging crush.
I'll never have to sit in that souped-up piece of junk again.
I wave to my shoes and send them a farewell kiss.
I swing my arms. The drums roll.
Stepping up above the city, we march on.
The Sister Company
Orla had been doing well in the session up until the point where the young Thai masseuse who called herself Rabbit asked her to sit up and cross her legs.
Orla did as she was told. Rabbit squatted behind her and began digging her elbow into the back of Orla's shoulder. Orla held the towel over her breasts with one hand, and bowed her head. That's when she began to cry. The tears dripped right into her lap.
Rabbit stopped. âI make you hurt?'
âIt's not you,' said Orla. âJust another bad day.'
âI go on?' said Rabbit.
Orla wiped the tears from her eyes, nodding. She concentrated on the sound of the bamboo flute filtering through the room. Rabbit pushed her knees against Orla's back and placed her hands on either side of Orla's jaw. She stretched Orla's head up and back, making her spine arch. She finished by clapping her hands all over Orla's back.
âDone,' she said.
She slipped out and slid the door closed.
Orla felt dizzy as she got off the table. Her body smelled like massage oil and Tiger Balm. The room didn't have a mirror but Orla knew her hair was all messed up. She pulled out the elastic and tried to flatten the stray strands as best she could. She also knew there'd be an embarrassing towel imprint on her chin and cheeks but there was nothing she could do about that.
Out in the waiting room, Rabbit had made a cup of green tea for her to drink.
Underneath the cup was a business card.
âFor you,' said Rabbit.
The card was thick and white, bearing capital letters embossed in blue.
THE SISTER COMPANY
, it said.
LIFE COACHING & COMPANIONSHIP FOR THE MELANCHOLIC.
Below the capital letters was a phone number.
In the days following the massage, Orla had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. It didn't help that the sky had been dark for three weeks of summer thunderstorms, with no end in sight.
She still managed to get to work on time each day. It was standing room only on the train. She swayed with the rest of the passengers, one hand gripping the nearest pole, and the other thrust into her trouser pocket, fingertips pressing against the corners of the business card that Rabbit had given her.
She wondered how she had become so lonely. Boring, bawling Orla â the one everyone left behind.
By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, Orla still hadn't called the Sister Company. During the morning commute, she slipped her hand into her pocket and noticed the corners of the card were bent and soft. She'd have to make the call soon, before the whole card disintegrated.
Work was a tiny office in a building on York Street in the CBD. The company Orla worked for shared the first floor with a small-time wills and estates law firm. It was quiet in the office when Orla arrived â all the other content writers were already hooked up at their desks, their eyes closed.
Orla hooked in to her own set of neurobuds, closed her eyes, and started working again on the simulation on her task list.
She sat there developing a new scene, visualising a naked woman having an erotic moment on a horse. She added details to the visualisation: full breasts, hardening nipples, a red heart locket around the woman's neck. She made the horse bare its teeth.
Then her focus wavered and she began thinking about buying an ice-cream on her lunch break. A soft serve cone suddenly materialised in the woman's hand. In the woman's other hand appeared a business card with blue capital letters.
, thought Orla, and deleted the two details.
She rewound the draft in her mind and began working the angles. She started the visualisation again from the point of view of the woman. And then from the point of view of the horse. For every sim, there was always at least one weirdo who wrote in asking to experience the POV of the incidental fauna.
âHow's the story going?' The face of Orla's boss flashed up on the interface to her right.
âAll right,' said Orla.
âHow many hours has it taken?'
âTwenty so far. I'm up to chapter six.'
âWell, the budget's thirty-five. So don't get bogged down. No political intrigue, please. I know how you get. We're producing erotica, not
âThe client's looking for an eighty per cent job. They're not paying for perfection. We need to send it to sound design by end of Boxing Day.'
âAnyway, remember the
sim you wrote the other month?'
Orla nodded but couldn't remember. Maybe it was the one about the sea monster with six penises.
âIt outsold expectations by ten thousand. When you focus, Orla, you seem to have a finger on what the ladies want.'
âOh,' said Orla. âGreat.'
It didn't feel great. Nothing felt great anymore. Orla couldn't even remember the last time she really laughed.
âWe're having after-work drinks with that client, first Wednesday after New Year,' said her boss. âA bit of a celebration. Put it in your calendar. And, you know, try and wear some make-up for it. Spruce yourself up a bit.'
âCan't believe Christmas is tomorrow. The year flew by. What are you getting up to?'
âLunch,' said Orla. âMaybe.'
âSorry I didn't get around to organising a Christmas party. Working mother, juggling balls, trying to have it all, et cetera.'
âNot a problem.'
Orla's boss flicked off screen.
Orla locked her workstation and left.
As she made her way to Town Hall Station, a stream of people pushed past her. They were dressed in suspenders and fedoras and fishnets and feather headpieces and long strings of pearls. They piled into white minibuses that were parked in a chain up the street, ready to be driven off to their themed Christmas party.
Orla watched them flirt and giggle. They all wished they were in the Roaring Twenties, she thought, but instead they were living lives in which their bosses dictated to them what to wear on the one day a year assigned for workplace shenanigans.
Orla pulled the business card out of her pocket. She called the number.
âCan I have your earliest available appointment?'
The closest branch of the Sister Company was in a narrow building on George Street, next to Wynyard Station. According to the building directory, it was the only office on the second floor. Orla shook the rain off her umbrella and took the lift.
The office was small, with bright red furniture and grey carpet. A small peace lily in a white ceramic pot sat on one side of the reception desk.
A middle-aged woman behind the desk looked up from some filing.
âI'm here for a twelve o'clock appointment?' said Orla.
The receptionist blinked. She ran one red nail over the pencilled entries in a one-day-to-a-page diary. There was something slightly mechanical about the way she moved, a waxy shine to her face.
âI'm Rhonda. Merry Christmas.'
âI was surprised you're open on Christmas Day.'
âThe wellbeing of our clients is more important to us than public holidays. So, it seems you're here to do a pre-session with us.'
âPlease,' said Rhonda. âCome this way.'
Orla followed the receptionist down a corridor. The office extended further back than she thought it would. She looked at the back of Rhonda's wig-like hair, watched the stiff swing of her arm, and noticed the little lag in her feet as she walked. It finally dawned on her.
âYes?' Rhonda turned.
âThis is the first time I've met an android in real life.'
âNot as scary as you thought, right?'
âIt's kind of cool.'
Rhonda smiled. There was lipstick on her teeth but Orla decided not to mention it. Orla thought Rhonda's smile looked fake. Maybe that was just an unavoidable consequence of having a fake mouth.
âAs the controlling company of your employer,' said Rhonda, âthe Parent Company has a mental health scheme in place by which it will fully subsidise you for six initial sessions with the Sister Company.'
âWow. That really helps.'
âI don't know why your boss didn't put you on the scheme directly.'
âI don't talk about my private life at work.'
âI see,' said Rhonda. âAnd we're here.'
She opened a door and ushered Orla into a dark room. In the room stood a tall black box.
âI know.' Rhonda rolled her eyes. â
looks like a coffin. We have cutting-edge tech but idiot designers. You don't have claustrophobia, do you?'
âI don't think so.'
âWhen I close this door, you'll find yourself in complete darkness. Don't be alarmed. It's meant to be like that.'
Sure enough, when Orla stepped in and the door closed behind her, she couldn't see a thing. Whether her eyes were open or shut, all there was in front of her was pitch black.
Rhonda's voice echoed around her ears.
âNow, what we're going to do is a top-down body and brain scan. I'd like you to speak about what's been bothering you that has led you to seek therapy. The booth will be monitoring your brain activity as you speak. Start when you want to start. End when you want to end. You have all day, if you like. The more detail you can put in, the more it will assist us to tailor our therapy to your needs. When you're ready to leave the booth, just push the door open and walk back up the corridor. I'll be waiting for you at reception. Are you ready?'
âYes,' said Orla.
âGreat. Keep your eyes closed throughout the process and I'll see you on the other side.'
A low buzz replaced Rhonda's voice. Orla closed her eyes. Through her eyelids she could see a beam of light slowly moving down past her face.
She started where she wanted to start, and ended where she wanted to end. She didn't know how long she was in there but it felt like an hour, maybe two. The light seemed to move in a cycle, passing her eyelids over and over again.
When she was done, Orla fumbled in the dark for a tissue and wiped her eyes. She sat quietly for a moment before feeling for the door.
Back in reception, Rhonda smiled at her.
âHow was it?'
âAll right. A bit emotional.'
Orla noticed Rhonda's nostrils flare. She was yawning through her nose, as if Orla wouldn't be able to tell.
âIt can be difficult,' said Rhonda, âbut it's a very brave first step to take.'
âWell, then, what we're going to do now is collate the results of your scan and I'll see you at the same time next week.'
âOh! That's New Year's Day.'
âAre you busy?'
âGood. It'll be a two-hour introductory session with your therapy companion. All sessions thereafter will be one hour each.'
âDo I need to sign anything?'
âIt's all taken care of.'
Orla went out into the street. She didn't feel like going back to her flat, with its one tiny room and grimy windows and cockroaches that came crawling out of nowhere.
She walked down to York Street and caught the lift up to her office.
She settled into her chair and hooked herself up. She visualised the rest of the
sim and went through to check that she'd more or less stuck to the assigned plotline. Then she printed out the list of required product placements and went through the draft again, adding an HermÃ¨s bag here, a Jeep there.
Orla was sick of it all by the time she got to the Lacoste shoes. There were still about thirty placements to go.
She unhooked herself from the desk and walked across to Town Hall. She decided to pass the rest of the day riding the train around Sydney.
The train spoke to Orla and everyone else in the carriage.
âMerry Christmas and thank you, customers, for choosing to ride with ParentRail.'
The message annoyed Orla, as it always did. She'd had no other choice.
Orla tried not to look at the ads flashing all over the floors, walls and ceilings of the carriage. It was difficult. Her eyes settled on a live-action ad showing a bunch of women with taut bodies dancing around in multicoloured underwear.
As the train passed Macdonaldtown, the carriage lights dimmed, the windows transitioned to grey, and an American celebrity hologram began moving through the carriage. The holograd started talking to the grey-haired woman next to Orla about a new cola. The holograd shimmered and held a holocan out to the woman.
âIf it has zero calories, does it really exist?' asked the woman.
âYes, indeed,' said the holograd.
âWhat's it like dating Judd W?'
âA gentlewoman doesn't kiss and tell,' winked the holograd. âBut what I will say is that this cola tastes like freedom.'
The woman ordered two cases on the spot to be delivered to her doorstep. The holograd scanned her wrist, confirmed the transaction and continued its virtual sashay through the carriage.
On New Year's Eve, Orla didn't even leave the flat. She got into her pyjamas, baked a batch of frozen chips, and turned on the NYE coverage.
Orla didn't feel like hooking in to the sim version. Having it play out in her own mind would be too much, so she watched the coverage on her old vision. She watched two blond hosts compliment each other on their tasteless fluoro dresses, dropping the names of their designers. Somehow, the women looked younger than they were last year.
âAfter a year of highs and lows, gains and losses,' said one, âyou deserve these fireworks, beautiful Sydney.'
âThere's certainly no greater place in the world to live,' said the other.
Orla flicked through the other channels â ParentGlow, ParentTen, ParentHood. The same program was being broadcast on all of them.