I was afraid. I heard myself speak. I was speaking and listening, I was doing it fine, but the whole experience was unpleasant. I did not want to sound like that (coarse, vulgar, even my throat felt as though it was full of sand); I wanted to say something different, to lead us towards at least a single pure thought, or to be led there by this woman. Instead, we were circling around, repeating ourselves. 

‘He was so manipulative, and it took me almost ten years to realise. It was an abusive relationship! Not physically, but emotionally – hard to pin down.’

‘He was manipulative, he was abusive,’ I echoed. I did not know this man, but yes, perhaps I did know.

‘He was manipulative, he was abusive, he… he made me feel… he ruined me for years, he made me feel – nothing but a vast emptiness. He made a rat out of me, he… I tried to ignore it, I hate to put blame on people; but one morning I woke up as though pinned to my bed by a cold iron on my chest, and I thought, every morning I wake up like this. And I just cannot believe that I let a man change me.’

‘Let’s go, let’s get out of here,’ I stood up and banged the empty beer glass against the wooden bench. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I lifted my arm like a captain and cut through a cloud of smoke that was perched above us. She lifted her big sad eyes, rose in steady motion as though lifted by a rope, and followed, her body limp and servile. As we squeezed through the groups standing by the bar, I saw men’s heads lift and many beady glistening eyes fix on us, like frogs watching out for flies. ‘Let’s go, let’s go,’ I mumbled. 

Once we were out of there, Daisy covered her face with her hands and started rapidly talking in a monotone stream. The sky had a dirty shade of red at the bottom where it met the brick buildings, the air wasn’t fresh, yet it was still better to be outside than inside. Through Daisy’s hands I was catching sharp little fragments: ‘I never should’ve said anything, please don’t tell anyone, especially the sex stuff, he was a beautiful man, you know I didn’t mean any of it, you understand what love does to you.’ I put my arms around her shoulders and led us down the street, and in that moment I thought her stupid and weak, but I longed to love her and I knew that if I judged her I would make my own life unbearable for myself. A cab pulled by and we got in to be taken to the beach, and Daisy continued hiding her face in her hands. I spent whole minutes inspecting what I could glimpse of my face in the driver’s mirror. No matter how long I spent hoping to see my own face, I never could. We were both so absorbed in the course of our evening neither of us took note of who the driver was, but that’s what we paid for, a choice to discard even the most basic human decency. 

We got to the beach. ‘Let’s swim,’ I said. Daisy didn’t want to swim, it was a cold night and we didn’t have our swimmers on, but I was unstoppable. Normally I hate swimming in the ocean, everything about it scares me deeply; but after a few drinks I dive in fearlessly, with abandon and hope. I took all my clothes off and plunged myself in, frolicking in the waves like an awkward fat salmon. Later on, I’d be proud of this. Daisy freed her face from her hands and sat on the shore, silently fingering the sand and doing her best not to weep. The cold water sobered me up, reminding me of my laughable situation. ‘Daisy! Daisy!’ I cried.


I didn’t see her the next day. She wasn’t really a friend. We saw each other maybe once a year, whenever she had trouble with men. She could never figure it out, she was often lonely. I was lonely too, but I’d been lonely for a long time. On the weekend she called me again, which was unusual, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ Nothing. ‘Nothing comes out of nothing, nothing adds up to a long nothing, doesn’t it,’ she said thoughtfully, and she also mentioned feeling stupid about the other night, talking and talking like that. I told her there was no need, I don’t judge her, though I said that mainly to appease her as of course I did judge her, as all sane persons judge each other daily, meticulously and without regret. She suggested we do something civilised, like watch a movie. Okay! 

That evening at my house I put on an old noir film for her, it was called Laura, and in it a male detective investigating a murder of a beautiful, talented young woman, spends a day and night at her lavish apartment, smelling her clothes, reading her diaries and letters, and staring at her portrait, and he rapidly falls in love with her. The detective is hard and blank, and the absent woman is soft and blank, and the love that grows out of this blank collision is very strange, but entirely enviable. The apartment in the film is full of exceptional objects that fill the frame: little decorative bottles, a mosaic cigarette case, ancient vases, an attractive clock, lamps, curtains and paintings, and many more big and little things. ‘Life is not like this,’ suddenly said Daisy. ‘Days and hours stretch out and you wait for someone to love you, but where are you all that time? Ah men, all these men.’ I looked at her. She laughed. She was delicate and giraffe-like, with a long pale neck and waves of chestnut hair. Her lips were always an unnatural dark pink, as though she had just eaten a handful of raspberries, and her eyes were big like soup bowls, bowls that scooped up memories and feelings and stewed them. She had a strange voice, it had so many shades to it that it was impossible to remember; you couldn’t bring up her voice in your head. I admired her beauty and I wanted something like that. I didn’t think that I was beautiful, though it is hard to make that kind of judgement about oneself. She fell asleep on the left side of my bed, and as I was falling asleep on the right side, I imagined that her legs were my legs, that her lashes were my lashes, her ears my ears. In the morning she complimented me on the tastefulness of my apartment, and my humble approach to materialism; I would think about this comment in the years to come with much pleasure. 


We saw each other two more times. The first time was when we went to the symphony and I fell asleep for ten minutes in the middle section of the performance, a fairly standard and boring rendering of some Schubert hits. ‘Drinks! Drinks!’ we were both excited about drinks at the intermission. Again, she talked of the legacy of her abusive relationship and we tried to solve it together, but we ended exactly at the point where we started, the previous time. These discussions are not about solutions, they are never solution-oriented; such discussions are in themselves poetic structures, with sinuous passageways that sometimes connect to lower and higher planes and sometimes turn back onto themselves, and in these discussions a participant must give in to the rhythms and the tones, therefore repeating certain statements over and over again (he was abusive, he was manipulative). The statements don’t mean anything. The discussions are pretzels, and one must console oneself with the pretzel’s soft curves.

The second time I saw her was at a party. We went there because Daisy knew that there would be several young men attending. I was in an irritable mood and hardly opened my mouth. Daisy lit up, because the truth is, she absolutely adored the company and attention of men. When there were men around, she liked looking at the men as she talked, and for a long time I didn’t like going out with her if I knew there’d be men present, I wanted to be with her on my own, until I came to expect it and started to enjoy looking at her, looking at the men. She made sure to tell her stories quickly, looking the men in the eyes, and they listened and smiled. She drank, she talked, she looked the men in the eyes, she returned many of the men’s smiles. ‘Goodbye,’ I squeezed her elbow, ‘have a nice night.’ ‘Goodbye darling.’ Daisy couldn’t hide her secret pleasure at being left alone amongst the men. 


I thought about Daisy a lot, but not always with pleasure; I thought about her diligently, earnestly. I valued her immensely, but I didn’t trust her. I wanted to love her completely, but it’s hard to love someone you can’t trust. Maybe she was just being careful.

The last time I heard from her was when she called me some time later: ‘It’s going well,’ she said. ‘Before, I didn’t even know it was possible, it existed, such niceness. But it does! It does! I had cold feet at first, and he was so upset, that sweet man, but now… Now, things are going swimmingly. We both have our lives, you know. Very independent. That’s because I can really trust him. I could even have another lover, or let him have a lover – it’s that kind of relationship, we just trust each other. But we’ll see. How are you?’ I looked out the window of my room. The front garden was a sinister boxed space with weeds and grasses taking over the little designated area of soil. In those weeds and grasses there were snails, worms, slugs, caterpillars, bugs, I don’t know. I had many days stretch out in front of me, the days would soon fill with words, exposing the contours of passing time, and I would keep trying to remember my own face. ‘I’m pretty good,’ I said.


‘An Old Friend’ was first published in Series 3 Number 9 (June 2023) of HEAT, the Australian literary journal  renowned for its dedication to literary quality, and its commitment to publishing innovative and imaginative poetry, fiction, essays and the hybrid forms. The story is republished here as part of our participation in the New Voice programme, which is run by the Chinese literary journal, One-Way Street, and supported by Pro Helvetia Shanghai / Swiss Arts Council.

Alena Lodkina

Alena Lodkina is a Russian-born Australian filmmaker. She directed and co-wrote her first feature film Strange Colours (2017), which debuted at Venice Film Festival. Petrol (2022), her second feature film as writer and director, premiered at Locarno Film Festival and later screened at the 52nd edition of New Directors/New Films presented by the Museum of Modern Art and Film at Lincoln Centre in New York. She has made fiction and documentary short films, and has written about film.

About An Old Friend: I wrote this story some years ago, in my late twenties, trying to make sense of my life and certain friendships that would be important at one time and then suddenly evaporate. Writing stories was also a way to try out ideas while I developed material as a filmmaker, and I think these ideas made their way into my second feature film, Petrol. I still like to think of passing friendships, and the ambiguous charge of fascination with another person and everyday ephemera that marks the passage of time.