Katrina Finlayson is an independent researcher and a creative writer, who lives on Kaurna country and writes mostly creative nonfiction. She holds a creative writing doctorate from Flinders University, and her PhD research used the psychoanalytical theory of the Uncanny as a launch point to explore ideas about the anxiety of being a stranger and its use in creative writing. Katrina’s personal and critical essays have been published in Meanjin, TEXT, and Axon: Creative Explorations. Her writing explores ideas about strangeness, place and displacement, home and travel, and the nature and significance of memory.

Brain Clock Face Scan

An easy task. 
(You, doctor of words, fat completed thesis on post-apocalyptic fiction, theory of endings.) 
A young doctor, crisp shirt and sedate tie, sits facing you in a small, fluoro-lit cancer centre emergency room. He hands you pen and paper. Asks you to draw a clock face.

The clock drawing test. A simple name; so significant. There are other common cognitive dysfunction screening tests. Count backwards from one hundred in sevens. Your name. The current year. The prime minister of Australia.

You draw a lopsided circle. 
(Slurred speech this morning. Wild and confused, about the sunlight in our bedroom, my concern, my request for crisp sentences. I drove you, cautiously, urgently, to the hospital.)

You write numbers around the circle’s edge. Everything is orderly from one to six. But then the others all try to squeeze into one quarter together. Eleven wanders away, twelve acts bewildered, and I swallow panic. I glance up but the doctor’s face is hard to read. Tangle my fingers; suppress an urge to correct your drawing. I desperately want you to get it right.
(We fell in love to a soundtrack of drunk poetry and draft essays read aloud at 2a.m. More recently, it’s been New York Times crosswords in a chemo day treatment centre: think about 23-down, my love, instead of the multiple attempts to guide a needle into tired veins. Who even are we without clever words?)

You frown as you draw clock hands. Two lines fight each other over which is the bigger one. Arrows point in odd directions. 

(You alone don’t yet seem to realise it’s all gone wrong.)

And now you notice something isn’t right. You look from clock to doctor, eyes wide. Turn to see my face. 

(I hide my fear.) 

But the doctor assures us it is (hopefully) temporary. You are speaking clearly again, seem to be making sense. Vitals within your usual range. 
We can go home (rest and monitor).

Two days later, a machine scans your brain. The report says nothing unusual can be seen. It was a glitch; maybe a build-up of chemotherapy drugs, maybe a toxic effect of the lymphoma. (Nobody really knows.) What’s important is that the clockwork mechanisms of your brain are once again moving. 

A snapshot image of one second of your mind. 
Symmetrical. Beautiful. (Terrifying.) 

Shape of lungs, coral, clouds, a Rorschach inkblot, a Mandelbrot set. 

The violent violet dawn of your life. Your atomic amber sunset. 
Tick. Tock.


Someone’s letting off fireworks in the dry scrub at the end of our street. Kids, maybe. Sound carries further in the still, warm night air and the sharp popping cracks sound close, easy to locate, but really, they could be anywhere. It’s thick scrub, hillside carved by steep bike trails, rust coloured dirt now stained black by shadows, pale streaks where moonlight slides through stringy treetops.

The day’s noise and drama have faded into a soft pile of sleeping child beside me on the couch. Body surrendered completely; one arm flung high, and one plump foot pressed against my bare leg. Maybe there are dreams beneath those heavy eyelids. This golden head is a room with no doors. I wonder whether that deep mind dreamed inside the roundness of my body, or if dreams began later. My body knows how much it has given to this child in three years, but I recently read somewhere that, from as early as two weeks, foetal cells can move across the placenta to the mother. The cells embed in organ tissue, finding new homes in the mother’s body. They become like the cells around them and can even repair damage. Scientists have found a person’s DNA in their mother’s brain, decades later. Maybe this child’s brain is part of my brain, fresh electric thoughts sparking colour in my dreams.

Many years ago, when we’d just moved in, I called the cops about the fireworks. Sounds dangerous, they agreed. I don’t know if anything came of it. I never called again. Once, smoking a midnight joint on my back deck, I saw a helicopter with search lights circle low above the scrub, but there are always more kids and more fireworks. Tonight, I hear the echoes of danger through an open Saturday night lounge room window at the front of the house, as my laptop glow falls softly across the smooth, sleeping face. It’s not even eleven and I’m reading the same sentence over and again as the words swim. I’ll carry the small child to bed soon. Our family has changed in big ways since those back deck late nights: one life created and one life lost. The big old rundown house breathes emptiness around the shape of our two bodies. At dawn, the rooftop crows will comment on my nostalgia again, but tonight is all about dreams and fireworks.

Ghost Ship
We don’t know much about the old white and blue hotel, just that it’s favoured by sea captains. An uncanny vertigo filled my body the minute we landed at the island airport, and I exhale as we drive the rental car into the small carpark. I’m unbalanced and nauseous.

On the side of the building, this poem, in typewriter-style letters:

Three flag-swept days
Ships monstrous and transitory
Heroes I could not captain

Up wooden stairs, a narrow hallway leads us to our own sea captain cabin. I open a whining wooden sash window to let in salt air from the harbour at the bottom of the street.

Our travels here are our own kind of Odyssey. Looking back, I think we knew this could be our last holiday together, that the shadow following was getting closer. We ran towards the raw comfort of art.

After many Warhols and Ai Wei Wei works at a big waterfall-fronted gallery in Melbourne, we have come here, to sea-cradled Hobart, to visit a rich evil villain’s lair, riding windswept at the bow of a boat across black water, to a museum of sex and death.

Deep underground in ominous caverns, we visit an Egyptian tomb artwork in a tiny room, and vertigo almost pushes me into inky water surrounding a stone slab path. I crawl, hands and knees, back to the door, and our laughter silences fear.

The next day, we drive to the top of a mountain. Icy wind and rain arrive with us. We peer out from anoraks at fog creeping across mossy rocks and walking trails. City and sea lost somewhere far below. Driving cautiously back down the narrow winding road, we listen to the Velvet Underground sing about a perfect day.

On the last night, we visit a sea-themed restaurant. We share a foul-tasting cocktail from an oversized tankard shaped like a parrot. I look above your head to a painting of a shipwreck.

Nostalgia is dangerous when you’re adrift in rough seas. Now I’m a lone sea captain, tied to the mast of a ghost ship as luminescent green mists swirl around me. My ears are plugged with wax against siren song, but I still feel creaking timbers and the sway and crash of enormous waves. Salt water in my blood. The wind and stars carry old sailor names. White knuckles hold tight to bright spots of memory. It’s been three years since I last saw land.