Jason stares at the address scribbled on the back on an old envelope. Waza’s home. Some bloody place he moved into a couple of years back apparently. Fancy running in to him like that. After all these years. He wasn’t sure his mate had wanted to stop at first. He seemed to be in a rush. But good old Waz – once he saw it was really Jason, well of course he came back, shook his hand, even threw out a dinner invitation. They had grown up together after all, those endless summer holidays, home alone, parents at work. Good times. Waza always had been good for a laugh.
So here he is, a chance to make up for lost time. If he could just find this bugger of an address. It’s already been an hour. A train, then a bus, then a walk. He would have appreciated a lift. Maybe Waz just assumed he had a car. So he takes another left and trudges on, chin tucked into his jacket, protecting himself from the wind. The streets are broad around here, lined by big old eucalypts, the front yards all swamped by one kind of monster tree or another. Maples, elm, gums – all kinds of things, all of them doing a job of hiding what buildings there are. It’s all becoming a bit disorientating.
And then when he finally comes across the address. He has to check the number on the letter box about five times to be sure. He expected an apartment or a terrace house, maybe some kind of run-down shack. Not this. It takes him a few minutes to even get into the yard, a huge wall of cypress blocking his way. Behind that is the lawn, all sorts of native plants scattered around, concrete garden ornaments stationed beside tree trunks, a birdbath for of water, a little pond or something over by the golden wattle. It takes him an age to make his way along the winding paving stones to the enormous mahogany front door.
He shifts the six-pack from one arm to the other. His hands are clammy despite the chilly early evening air. He licks his lips, swallows.
‘What the hell,’ he reprimands himself. ‘This is Waza! Big Waz! Chief dimwit himself.’ That’s what Waz’s dad always called him. Jason used to think that was a riot. Chief Dimwit. And didn’t his old mate just earn that name again and again.
He rings the doorbell, hears a standard ding dong far inside the house, and feels a little better, memories of one dumb-arse episode after another running through his mind.
‘Jason. Hi there. Sorry, I’m in the middle of – oops!’
One hand on the door, a cookbook cradled in his arm, a garlic crusher with a wad of garlic poking out the end of it in his other hand, additional cloves in his palm. The cookbook goes first, sliding from him, pages aflutter. A mad flailing of the arms, juggling the flying garlic crusher, garlic pieces, big and small, spraying from him.
Jason roars. That’s better. That’s more like it! He slaps his mate on the back as he bends over to retrieve his things, a large glob of garlic now wedged between hardwood floor and skirting board. ‘There we go. Still Mr. Butterfingers I see. Good stuff.’
Warren moves silently back into the house, through to the kitchen. Jason is right behind him. He has a beer open by the time Warren has dumped the crushed and sullied garlic into the bin.
‘Hey, you want one?’
‘I’m all right for now, Jason. But thanks.’ He points to his glass of wine. ‘Would you like a wine? Cabernet Sauvignon. New Zealand. Not bad. It’s light but it still has a bit of body.’
‘What, you’re a connoisseur now, are you? Is that the word – connoisseur?’
Warren laughs lightly. ‘Yeah. But no, I’m far from being a connoisseur. I guess I’ve just come to know what I like. We usually have a glass with dinner. Maybe this. Or a chardonnay if we’re having seafood.’
‘Seafood? Don’t tell me you still get out fishing. Still do a spot myself when I can. Bream, flathead. Still nothing better than cooking up your catch.’ He looks across at his old friend. He doesn’t appear to be listening. No surprise there. Always was off with the fairies, his head lost in some idle musing about anything from the life of cats to scuba diving, probably at the same time.
‘I’m just thinking about this recipe. It’s a Middle Eastern thing,’ he says, looking at his cookbook. ‘Chicken and chickpea stew with couscous.’
‘Yeah? Sounds like some foreign stuff.’
‘Ha. Yeah, well given that it’s Middle Eastern…’
‘That’s Arab. What are you doing cooking that? Chicken I get, but chick… What are they?’
‘Yeah. Anyway, I thought you’d probably just do a frozen pizza or something. Just for old times’ sake.’
‘Why frozen pizza?’
‘Don’t you remember? All those times when you tried to put something fancy together and it all went pear-shaped? Thank God for those –’
‘I think that only happened the once, Jason.’
Jason doesn’t wait for the correction. He is on the move, wandered around the open living area adjacent to the kitchen. It’s spacious, the polished wooden floorboards creating a mild echo as he walks. Huge picture windows lead out onto suburbia, the bay just visible in the distance.
‘Listen,’ says Warren. ‘This stew. I wanted to serve it with broccoli. You know, something with a bit of a crunch for contrast. I thought I had some but…’ With his hand resting on the door of the fridge, he taps his foot, thinking.
‘Oh, here we go!’ Smile a mile wide, Jason leaps at the opening. ‘It’s like when you tried to make those sausage sandwiches when we were going on that fishing trip, eh? Turned out you had sausages and no bread! So we just ate the sausages all day. Oh yeah – and you didn’t even have tomato sauce. Wasn’t too bad either, if I remember.’ He grabs another beer from his six-pack, takes a long drink. ‘I still like the odd sausage, bread or not. See what you did to me?’
‘Well, maybe we can get you on to something else tonight then.’ He moves towards the workbench, picks up his phone. ‘Look, I might just call Linda. You mind?’
‘Who the hell’s Linda?’
Warren stops in his tracks. ‘Didn’t I mention it? I thought I did. She’s my wife, Jason. You think I live here alone?’
Jason shrugs, taking another look around the room. Cushions arranged on the sofa, a row of novels on the bookshelf, potted plants and flowers spread about. Nothing special there. But then it occurs to him. There is nothing else, no junk, no mess, no pile of clothes in the corner, nothing on the dining table other than a vase of flowers and placemats. Jason brushes aside the discoveries. ‘So anyway, you reckon we just have to have broccoli, eh? Seriously, Waz, broccoli?’
Warren doesn’t acknowledge him. He has his phone in his hand, his back turned.
‘Broccoli,’ Jason mutters. ‘Since when…?’ With the back of his hand he wipes a thin film of sweat from his forehead. He is moving again, finding it hard to keep still, hard to settle. Another tour around the large room, then he moves down the hall, down a few stairs to another section of the house. There are rooms running off a long corridor. He opens a door randomly, telling himself he’s looking for the toilet. But what he finds grips him. There is a single bed. Posters on the wall, movies and bands he doesn’t know. A giant teddy bear sits on the bed, on the candy pink and white comforter. A desk in the corner is submerged under a pile of books, some framed photos, a laptop, a lamp. There is a guitar in the corner, a dresser stacked with cosmetics and creams and jars. He backs out, ashen. His mind is reeling. This isn’t right. Waza?
He finds the toilet, sits without lowering his pants. Even here. Everything in its place. There is a hanging pot over the bath, full of vines and flowers. He can’t tell if they are real. The mat underfoot is a thick plush off-white. The sink is marble, he’s pretty sure of that, with an array of toothbrushes, combs and brushes beside it. Everything is ordered, everything gleams, as if it has just been polished.
Numb, he forces himself up. He turns on the tap, runs water over his hands, notices the silvery oval-shaped soap dispenser to his right, an unused miniature cake of soap in the shape of a lotus to his left. ‘What the fuck is this?’ he says under his breath. He lets the water run, ignoring the soaps. Turning off the tap he snatches a hand towel, gives his hands a quick wipe, and dumps the towel in the sink. Only then does it click. Only then does it all make sense. He straightens himself, rests his hands on the edge of the basin. ‘Oh, Waz. You poor old bastard.’ Staring at his reflection in the spotless mirror, he shakes his head slowly, allowing his lip to curl up ever so slightly.
Wandering back towards the kitchen, Jason stops at the doorway, watching. Back bent, stirring fluently, his friend is lost in his cooking, just like he always used to be. A smile crosses Jason’s face. The old game. A single lunge and he has snatched the wooden spoon, running around to the other side of the workbench.
‘Come and get it!’
Warren reaches for it, but it’s gone, into Jason’s other hand. Warren scoots around the bench, arm out, smile still on his face, but eyes set. ‘Come on, Jason. Quick. I’ve got to keep stirring otherwise…’
‘Come and get me.’
Hand held out, Warren takes another step forward, but his nemesis is gone again, slipping the spoon behind his back as he moves away.
‘Jason, seriously. Can I have it?’
Silence. All movement has ceased, all oxygen sucked from the room. They stare at each other. Jason tosses the wooden spoon back onto the bench. Both men look at it for a moment before Warren slowly, silently gathers it and gets back to work.
‘Must be tough,’ says Jason.
Warren, moving faster now, adds the chicken to the large cast-iron skillet on the stove. He stirs the adjacent saucepan, adjusts the heat.
‘Really. Must be tough. Ball and chain and all that. You know, I get it now. The fun days are gone, eh?’
‘What on earth are you –?’
‘Hi there, boys. Special broccoli delivery.’ She hands it over, steps in closer to her husband for a kiss.
‘Jason, this is my –’
‘Yeah. I can see that.’
Linda reaches across, takes this visitor, shorter than her, larger around the middle, soft and dark, and hugs him lightly, a quick kiss on the cheek. Stepping back she has her hands on her hips. ‘I’ve heard about you. You two made quite a team back in the day, I hear.’
‘Yeah, well those were the good old days,’ he says pointedly. ‘Back then Chief Dimwit here actually used to know how to have fun.’
‘And what about you? Deputy Dimwit – wasn’t that what they called you? I bet you found your way into some fun too.’
Just for a moment a flicker of something runs through him. He feels it, is taken by surprise, doesn’t know if he likes it. ‘Yeah, well, thank God one of us still has time to wring a bit of fun out of life.’
A barely perceptible nod of the head from Linda. He waits, expecting, ready to engage. But there’s nothing.
‘Anyway,’ continues Jason, ‘cut him a bit of slack and you’d still have the same old Waz, I reckon.’
‘Waz? Is that what you used to call him?’
‘Yeah, well whatever. Thing is, I bet he hasn’t really changed. You might have forced him into, um…’ He waves his hand around taking in everything. ‘But underneath, I bet he’s still the same old space cadet.’
The couple share a look, eyes connecting, volumes spoken.
‘All right. Dinner is served. Or it will be if I can get a bit of help.’
Jason looks at the two of them. He starts to move towards the kitchen bench, thinks better of it. ‘So, Waz tells me you gotta have some plonk with the food. What did you call it? Sabernet Caberno or something?’
A light chuckle as they carry plates to the table.
‘There’s a corkscrew over there if you wouldn’t mind, Jason.’
He does the business, uncorks and pours.
Seated, they each sip their wine. Jason grimaces then finishes the glass. He hates this stuff, but pours another glass anyway. Then sets about the food, shovelling the chicken and whatever-they-are onto his plate.
‘Don’t forget the broccoli, Jake!’
‘I wouldn’t dare, Mum. Good for the eyesight or something,’ he says.
They eat in silence for a moment.
‘Christ, Waz, this is actually, um…’
‘Good, isn’t it?”
‘Better than good.’
‘Yeah, well I suppose I’ve learnt a few things over the years. About cooking anyway.’
‘Guess you have. I’ll give you that. But still, besides the cooking…’ He stops, the thought short-circuited. He desperately wants to make a point but…
‘Don’t worry, Jason. He’s still the same old, um, Waz, I’m sure.’ She reaches over, pats her husband’s arm.
Jason squeezes the stem of the wine glass, takes another gulp, then shoves more chicken and chickpeas into his mouth, chewing quickly, the muscles in his jaw working overtime.
‘You know he still can’t wash dishes to save himself. He tries, but he doesn’t realize that half clean means half dirty. Did he have that problem in your day?’
‘My day?’ he says through a mouthful of chickpea mash. ‘Jesus.’ He drains his wine, reaches for the bottle. ‘Anyone?’ he says.
‘Sure, I’ll have a –’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’ The rim of the wine bottle has nudged her glass, the glass has toppled, the remaining wine washing over her, across her white blouse, onto her jeans.
She is on her feet, they all are, Jason a little more slowly than the others. ‘That’s okay,’ she says. ‘No worries. An accident. It’ll wash out. If I soak it… Anyway, I’ll just…’ She leaves, still talking, still brushing herself down with a napkin.
‘Not her fault, you know,’ says Warren.
‘It’s wrong to blame her.’
‘I’m not… But let’s face it. You used to be –’
‘And how about you, Jason?’ His voice is firm now, a little louder than it has been all night. ‘I’m figuring you haven’t changed much.’
‘Ha. To be honest, I didn’t mean it like –’
‘Anyway, I’ve changed. Changed jobs about a hundred times. Carpenter, car salesman, worked on a sheep property, was at a bakery for while, had a go on the docks. Changed homes often enough too. All up and down the coast, interstate, here and there. Changed women a few times too.’ He gives a wry shake of the head. ‘Or more to the point they just keep changing on me. They don’t hang around.’
‘What’s the saying? Change is mandatory, growth is optional?’
Jason looks up, can’t quite read his old mate’s expression. ‘Whatever you say, Waz. Since when do you come out with psychobabble bullshit anyway? See? That’s the problem with you. Trying to be what you’re not. Leopard can’t change its spots, right? Just a damn shame you have to let yourself get, you know, what with the wife and kiddy and all.’
‘That’s better.’ She has a towel in her hands. She’s been drying her hair. An oversized T-shirt and a pair of tights cover her. ‘I had a quick shower. So, did you guys solve the problems of the world while I was gone?’
Jason looks from Linda to her husband. Warren is leaning back in his chair, his thick darkly tanned arms folded across his solid chest. His wine is barely touched.
‘See?’ says Jason. ‘You used to drink us under the table.’
‘Oh, he can still put it away, don’t worry about that.’
‘I work now, Jake. You know? A career.’
‘There you go…’
Warren sighs, a long low expulsion of air. ‘Speaking of work, it is getting on…’
‘Yeah. Better get moving.’
‘I’ll give you a run to the station. Let me get my keys.’
They stand, move towards the front door. Jason looks at the pictures on the hall wall, abstracts, blues and greys. Smudges and streaks. He opens his mouth, closes it. Linda too hasn’t spoken. Her arms are folded, the towel discarded.
‘Linda, you seen my keys?’
‘I thought they were on the dresser.’
‘Nope. I don’t know where…’
‘Try the coffee tables, over beside the sofa.’
He goes to take a look. Linda checks along the kitchen bench, by the sink, along the bookcase.
‘Hey, look, no problem guys. The bus stop’s not far. I remember the way. Nice night for a walk anyway.’
‘You sure you don’t mind?’
‘Mind? Why would I mind?’ His voice is light, chirpier than it’s been all night.
They say their farewells, promises to keep in touch. The door shuts behind him and he struggles through the yard, stumbling over the paving stones, out through the wall of cypress. A smile had spread across his face, then a chuckle. The chuckle catches, he laughs, a low stream of cackles running through him as he skips down the street.
‘Old Waz. Can’t even find his own car keys. What a guy. Hasn’t changed a bit.’