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The term was over. The screaming kids, the sadistic teachers, the corruption, the glaring lack of principle. The examination period had been an ordeal, an eye-opening, cringe-inducing, downer. I stared out from my basic concrete hut adjacent to the school grounds and watched a flock of swallows swirl and dive and soar amongst the parched trees and dirt of the school yard. At least something found joy in this place.

I stood up and drifted down the main drive of the school, heading towards the entrance and the highway that led to the nearest dusty town. I gave silent thanks for today’s peace and quiet – no students, few teachers. A blessing. No one left to piss me off, no one left to make an enemy of. The term had left me ragged. I was frayed around the edges and I feared I had frayed the nerves of more than a few colleagues. Maybe I should really take this Buddhism stuff seriously, I thought – shave my head and eyebrows, throw on a robe, and find myself a nice secluded cave to sit in. Spend some time contemplating my navel. Anything for a bit of peace. The way I saw it, this damn world just kept rubbing me the wrong way. Too abrasive – me or the world, one or the other. I’d be better off just keeping my distance. Yeah, an isolated cave.

“Ah!” It was an involuntary shriek. Instantly pissed (again), I slammed my hand down on the shiny black bonnet of the oversized car that had just skidded to a halt inches from me. “The fuck you think you’re…? Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no…”

“Sorry about that.” He chuckled as he got out of the car. “Imagine that. Last time we met you were battered and bruised. And another few inches…”

“What? Is that a joke?”

“How’s it going, Lilly?” He was serious then, suddenly wanting to have a deep and meaningful. As if that was gonna happen.

I stared at him, arms folded. “What do you want from me now, Wit?”

“I want you to stay there while I park. How about that? Can you manage that?”

Where was I going to go? I waited. He was back in a minute or two.

“Let’s walk, Lill.”

“Hang on. What the hell are you doing here? I mean, how did you even know where I was?” I was incredulous, a thousand questions bobbling around my head.

The cheeky grin was delivered like a gift. Arsehole. He pointed towards a distant hill. “We’ll head out this way.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’?”

“Why do you want to take me over there? So you can pull my pants down and have some fun again?”

He stopped, sheepishly looking at the ground. “I’m sorry, Lilly.”

“Yeah, well you’re always fucking sorry. Easy to say that, eh? Use me and then say sorry…”

“No, I mean I’m sorry you weren’t able to handle that situation with a little more, what, composure? Awareness?”

“You bastard. So it’s my fault?” We were walking now, too agitated to stand still any longer. We’d left the school grounds and begun winding our way through fields left fallow.

“Two responsible adults, Lilly. I don’t believe there was any trickery involved, no coercion; I didn’t force myself onto you. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I did check with you each step of the way, no?”

I didn’t want to hear this. “You took advantage of me…”

“How? Two consenting adults? Or would you prefer to be treated as a mindless adolescent who can’t take care of herself?” He took a step to the side and looked at me. “Look, we had a wonderful experience, okay? Why turn it into something dark and deceitful?”

“Damn it, Wit. I was tired, I was still recovering from the accident, and you…”

“What? I comforted you? I helped you feel better?”

“I wasn’t ready to go there.” The tears. I sure wasn’t ready for that. Just goes to show. I hated myself in that moment, my weaknesses, my inability to control my own fucking life, my own fucking emotions. I let Wit hold me, my own arms left dangling by my sides.

I looked up, still blubbering. “I thought I had things under control, and then…”

“And then you let yourself go. It’s not a sin, Lilly.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be like that.” The tears were flowing freely now.

“Hey, come on, Lilly, too many eyes are on us. Better straighten up.”

I looked up, swung around searching for the onlookers. I saw no one, but I heard the culprits.

Moo

“See? They’re staring. Telling us to get it together and move along. Nature’s police officers.”

“Sorry, cows.” We did move on. “I’d love a cave.”

“A cow?”

“Nuh. A cave.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing…”

* * *

Slowly, slowly, I pulled myself together. The silence, the space, the stillness, it may even have been better than a cave. The walk, the company even, was calming. I’d been thrown off balance more than I cared to admit. Eventually an old, weather-beaten house came into view, a small shack really, made of greying planks of wood far older than I.

“Okay, now just stay here for a moment, alright?”

“But…”

“Old friends. They live here. I always drop by when I’m around.”

“And you often wander by I guess.”

He snickered, pleased to see me coming back to life. “Nah. Once or twice a year.”

I found a shaded space and flopped down, happy to be on my own for a moment. A gentle breeze took the sting from the humid country air as I made myself comfortable on a thick patch of grass. I looked up. The sky was a brilliant blue, just a few wispy clouds drifting by. I allowed my mind to float away on the clouds, carrying me away to a simpler world, away from so many things I didn’t quite understand, so many things I couldn’t quite accept. I drifted away to a more clear-cut world where people were who they said they were, where things really were what they seemed. Damn it, why did I always find myself dumped in places where things were fucked up? Life wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t I catch a break? My mind plummeted back to the school. And to think Wit had somehow conspired to get me into this messed up education system!

I saw him then, handing over a brown paper envelope to the grizzled inhabitant of the house. They were standing in the dusty front yard, half hidden amongst a straggly collection of banana trees and papaya trees. There were elaborate bows and thank yous as Wit waied and walked away with a few final words over his shoulder. My mind seized up.

“Jesus, Wit. Another stuffed envelope? Who you paying off this time?”

“Always thinking the worst, eh, Lilly?” He sat down next to me. “The world’s always against you, right?”

“No! I didn’t say that.”

“But you think it.”

“No, I don’t.” I looked up at the sky again, a few more clouds had gathered. “It’s just that I seem to end up with people…”

“…who aren’t the way you want them to be.”

“Well yeah. Because they’re idiots, selfish fuckheads, and…”

“And you’re the only pure being with wholesome motives. An island of purity in a sea of filth and…”

“It’s not like that.”

“They’ll all mercenaries except for…”

“No! I mean… I don’t know.” Wit stared at me, his grin barely hidden. He let the silence linger, let the stink of my ignorance hang in the air for a while. “Okay, it’s not everyone, but you gotta admit – I do seem to get stuck with some pretty shitty people, right? I mean, shitty people doing shitty things. You can’t deny that.”

“Well, I can.” He shot me a look. He was provoking me, I was sure of it. But I was game.

“So you reckon I’ve actually been around a bunch of pure angels, eh?”

“Didn’t say that.”

“No? Then what the hell did you say?”

He stretched his legs out in front of him and leant back on his elbows. “Why do you expect to live in a fantasy land?”

“I don’t!”

“You expect beautiful loving people behaving just the way you want them to. You expect the world to bend itself into just the shape you’re comfortable with.”

“Hey, I just expect people to be decent.”

“Lots of decent people about, Lilly.”

“Oh, come on…”

“LOTS of decent people,” he said. “It’s just that you get blinded by the bad ones.”

“But it’s the whole system here that sucks, a system full of arseholes.”

“Up to a point, maybe. But look, if you always focus on the negative, you’re gonna end up bitter and twisted; you’ll be this ugly, sour old woman who doesn’t trust anything or anyone.”

“Great. Just ignore it all then. Who’s talking about fantasy land now?”

“Don’t ignore it. Acknowledge it. But honestly, Lill, acknowledge the good as well. Please don’t let the bad blind you to all the good stuff – the people really trying to do something worthwhile.”

“Oh, bloody hell.” I shook my head in annoyance. “Fact is, there’s not much of this ‘good stuff’ around here, mister. And besides, what the hell am I doing at this cesspit of a school anyway? Did you…?”

“Khun Adisak, the principal, speaking of good stuff. I assume you know him?”

“’Course I know him.” We were walking again now, my legs needed to move, needed to shake off the growing discomfort. “He’s a…”

“An old friend of mine. We did a little deal,” he went on.

“Oh, here we go.”

“That’s right. We collaborated in the hope that some good might come of it.” He glared at me. I refused to let him catch my eye. “He graciously allowed an unqualified, inexperienced foreigner to teach at his school, despite the risk to himself and his students.”

“Christ.” A thought struck me. “But I left you. In that shitty hotel room. How the hell did you know where I was going?”

“Come on, Lilly. A couple of calls to the bus station, got in touch with the pick-up driver. Pretty simple.”

“Christ,” I repeated. But I didn’t get it. “So what was in it for you? Just to know where you could find me?”

“You were looking for something, right? A chance to contribute, to be part of something, to play a role.”

“Yeah but I wasn’t looking for a shit situation where it was impossible to do anything.”

The idiot chuckled at that.

“There’s nothing funny about this, Wit. The kids here are getting screwed.”

“Lilly, I know what goes on. The point is you don’t seem to know what goes on. Or you didn’t until very recently. Welcome to the world, Lill!” He peeled a branch off a tree, complete with a bunch of leaves, and proceeded to slap my shoulder with it. “So you’ve been slapped in the face with one of life’s lessons. Hallelujah, let the education begin.” Another slap on the arm with the leaves. “I keep telling you, Lilly, you can either run away from the world and ignore everything or you can try to take it on. Take the second option and it’s gonna be a tough road ahead, granted. But in the long run you might just be able to make a small difference. Take the first option and you’ll never stop running.”

“Here we go again. More bullshit psychobabble. So what – if I don’t set out to change the world I become this pathetic waste of space?”

“Didn’t say that. None of us really change the world.” Another slap with the leaves.

“So what’s the point? Why not just admit defeat and move on?”

“Okay, my hard-edged little friend. First of all, where do you move on to? You still think you’re gonna find this perfect idyllic place?” Slap. “Dummy. It doesn’t exist.” Slap. “Second, just because you mightn’t be able to change the world doesn’t mean you have to admit defeat.”

“Ah, yes, so it’s the old bang-your-head-against-the-brick-wall kind of strategy.” I nodded sagely before snatching the damn bush from Wit’s hands and offering a little pay-back.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, Lilly. My God, your world is so black and white! Look, here’s what I’d love you to do. Stay at the school, keep working here for the next semester at least. See what you can do. See how you might make an impact in some small way. I’ll make sure your salary’s paid. Is it enough, by the way?”

“Huh? What? No… Seriously?”

“You think the school has the budget to pay your salary?” He looked at me with disdain. Damn. So much I hadn’t considered. And then the obvious struck me.

“Okay then, Wit. You say I ought to find out where I can make a difference. Well I already know.”

“Go on then. Hit me.” I did. With the leaves. “Not with that. Give it here. Next thing I know you’re going to be trying to flog me to death.”

“Here’s the problem at the school: to do well in the exams, the kids’ families have to pay money to this bullshit building fund. If they don’t…”

“Yep. Got it. And you want me to top up the building fund so their parents won’t have to.”

“Um, well, yeah. Why not?”

“Simple as that, eh? I’d love to believe you. Trouble is, there’d always be something. Money for computers. Money to improve the grounds. New furniture. Something.”

“It’s a small country school. They don’t need too much.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

My head was down. I kicked a chunk of dirt on the side of the trail. “Ow!” Turned out to be a rock.

“Look, even if giving more money to the school would help, I wouldn’t do it, and you know why?”

“Nope, but I reckon you’re gonna tell me.”

“Because that would be me doing something. The question is, what can you do to make a difference? Can you do something other than throw money at the problem?”

“Bloody hell, Wit. I’ve done what I can. I tried. I struck out. I made a fool of myself trying to get things happening here. I don’t think these people even want to change things.”

“You struck out. And what was your attempt at –?”

“A new style of teaching. Change it all around. Turn it on its head. All the damn repetition, the rote learning. Got rid of it. Tried to introduce games, activities, little adventures and stuff.”

“Overnight.”

“What? Not overnight. During the English classes.”

“No, dummy. I mean you tried to change all that in one go? All at once?”

I shrugged.

“And it wasn’t the huge, revolutionary success you had expected it to be.”

I shrugged again.

“Change is hard.”

“Change is impossible when people don’t even want change anything. They’ve all given up. It’s like they’re just gonna stick their heads in the sand forever.”

Wit let out a long sigh. He tipped his head back, eyes on the sky. “So after less than one term, you’ve figured it all out then, have you? It’s all sorted. A closed book. Time to move on.”

“I threw myself into this, Wit. I mean, I really committed, I gave it my best.”

“I know that. But you’ve just started. End of round one. You know we were saying before that you were about to start a new chapter of your life? Well, you’ve barely written the first page.” He picked up the pace now as the school’s lights came into view. The dark had crept up on us. “As I said, Lill, you can either slam the book shut or keep the pages turning.” He stopped, smile gone, lighthearted banter a thing of the past. “You had your first lesson. What did you learn?” Wit stopped, reached out, took me by the wrists. “Write the next page, Lilly. Do it. See what you can be done here.”

“It’s impossible.”

“You identified limitations. Great. You’re less ignorant than before. Use that.”

“All I know is that it can’t be done.”

“Great!”

“Not great. It can’t be done. Nothing can be done.”

“Thought you said ‘it’ can’t be done.”

“Yeah.”

“So change the ‘it’. You keep asking the wrong question.”

“And what’s the right question?”

“What can be done? Given the situation, the people, their background, their needs. What can be done?”

“I just told you that –”

We were moving again. We had taken a turn, moved along another dirt track. The last of the light was going, the moon behind us.

“Hey, where’s this going, Wit?”

“I don’t know.”

“So why are we…?” My words ran out.

“Why are we taking it? Is that your question? We’re taking it because it moves us forward. And if we don’t take it, we’ll never know where it might have led.”

I stood still. I didn’t want to take another step; I couldn’t bear to be where I was.

“It’s the only way. Just takes a little leap of faith – and yes, a whole heap of patience.”

I watched him walk off. “I’ve tried. I’ve already done my best.” He was way ahead of me now. “I’ve failed,” I said to no one, slapping at the mosquitoes that had suddenly attacked. “I’ve failed.”

He circled back, hands in pockets, moved behind me.

“Shitty trail. Overgrown. Kind of rocky too. Better take it slow.”

I sighed, took a step. I was moving again, in the dark now.

It felt better than not moving at all.

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Seized

I see her; she doesn’t see me. She would have rushed right by if I had not struggled over to her, lunged with my right hand, seized her wrist as she was almost past.

I hear her gasp. The shock, the surprise. Understandable.

Her mind was elsewhere. Of course it was. I could see it in her eyes, fixed as they were on a point only she could see. But it is her, it is. I knew from her stride, if nothing else. That long loping gait, despite the heels, despite the tight fitting woollen skirt, the black tights beneath, despite the heavy gabardine jacket flowing out from her. I am used to seeing such clothing, flaunted by the beautiful ones as they rush past, off to their secret worlds, to their places of ostensible importance. She is like them, far too much like them.

She is harried, that much is true. It is sad to see. I always hoped for better, although I never expected it. Not with the way she had begun to change, even way back then. She made her choice, took her path.

But it is still her, still unmistakeably her.

Her glance tells a story, the usual story. Of horror, repulsion, disgust. Attention rapidly shifting from me back to her own far more significant life. Oh yes, I catch the instant – from repugnance to dismissal, her mind already far ahead. I catch it all in a second. She is busy, too busy for this gauche interruption, eager only to race onward towards some self-imposed goal.

“Julia.”

I mean it as a whisper, as a purr. It comes out as a croak. More used to keeping my own council that accosting passersby.

The gasp, the double take. Oh, I understood. Pulled from her reverie, yanked back to the moment. The sudden crush of ugly, unvarnished now, this empty barren moment. It breaks my heart.

“You don’t remember.”

Her blank stare, the shift from the future to the bitter now, the glance onward, wishing she were already there. No, I think, this is not the way it should be. A little reverence for what was, please!

“It’s Raymond.” I nod. “Yes, that Raymond. The only one.” Hubris, perhaps, but this is Julia. Julia!

“Raymond… Right, well look, I’m sorry, I’m late for –”

“1996, 97. Northwestern University. You were different then,” I say, studiously avoiding any tone of judgement. No accusatory look from me, not on your life.

A dawning recognition.

“Yes, you remember. The humanities. Or human-ites, as we used to call them. Humanity, not as in compassion, love, empathy, but as in the human condition, as in society and culture, the general mess generations have made of the human condition, hiding their hatred, their tribalism, their insecurities behind the shield of culture, ensuring a cloak of invisibility for the individual, granted a pass from the need for that other type of humanity. ‘It’s not me,’ they say, ‘it’s just the culture.’”

I chuckle. Like the old university days again. It never leaves. Or at least it never left me. The passion, the academic curiosity, the idealism. It feels good to let it out. Damn it, I needed the release.

And then I look up at her. Mouth hanging open, a look in her eyes. Not the same look, not a look I even recognize in my Julia. Concern? Horror mixed with alarm?

“Humanity indeed,” I say unbidden, flustered now, uncertain. I clear my throat, aware of the torrent of words with which I have flooded her. “My apologies,” I say with a small bow. “Listen to me, eh? I do go on. Always did.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, but…”

“We were young…”

“Oh, Julia. That is no defence. Never dismiss the actions of the young; never belittle the youthful mind. That is where worlds are made. It is there that unrivalled potential lies. The young see what’s possible – beyond what’s possible.”

She shuffles, shifts her weight, one high-heeled shoe and then the other. She pulls her hand from my grasp, uses it to pull her jacket more tightly around her. She looks cold, as if she is unused to the elements.

“Well,” she says, looking around me, looking through me, “you can only dream for so long.”

“One year and seven months.”

“What?”

“The length of your dreaming. Perhaps less. Certainly less. Yes, you had lost the sparkle in those final months, given up the ghost. Philosophy, sociology – you had shut them out. Only languages sustained you. Parles-tu Français?

A smile. Or a grimace. “I do, Raymond. I work for the UN these days. I spend a lot of time in Brussels.”

“You’ve done well for a drop-out.” It hurts me to say it. Yes, she had dropped out, but I know. I knew the moment I saw her clothes, her long strides, her head held high, her gaze fixed on the horizon. I knew.

“Actually, I went back to –”

“Of course. Sorbonne?”

“Paris Sciences Et Lettres.”

“Oh. And from there?” I don’t want to know, can’t bear to know. But like watching the aftermath of a train wreck, one finds it hard to turn away.

“Private sector. HR mainly. Multinationals. Did some interpreting. Ended up at the UN. I’m here doing some consulting. Look, I really have to get moving. I…”

“But what have you done?” There is an edge to my voice. It betrays me. “I’m sorry,” I add as quickly as I can. “Excuse the tone, Julia. How have you come along?”

“Excuse me?”

“How are you?”

“Look, Raymond…”

“How are you? It’s been so long…”

“Everything is fine. I’m respected. I have my staff…” She looks at me, weighing it up, considering. Decision made, I see the hardness enter her eyes. I can feel her growing, straightening, getting taller. Head held high, she quickly pushes a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m working with the World Intellectual Property Organization. We promote the protection of  intellectual property. That’s what I do – I administer treaties,” she says, starting to run out of steam, “concerning the protection of intellectual property rights. That sort of thing. Not that you care…”

“Oh, Julia. Seek not the favour of the multitude but seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them. Do you remember?”

“Emmanuel Kant.”

“It used to be yours. Your motto.”

“Yeah, well I don’t have that luxury anymore, Raymond. International treaties mean consensus building.”

“Do you remember – we used to sit on that bench under the sycamores. Even when it was getting cold.”

“You never used to feel the cold.” She smiles. A fleeting thing, her mind presumably taken back. And then she looks me over, really looks me over, and takes an involuntary half-step back.

“No, I’m pretty much impervious to the cold,” I say. “Would it be melodramatic to say that has kept me alive?”

Her mouth is open, she is shaking her head slightly. I’m losing her, she’s slipping away.

“Back then, we had each other,” I say. “To sustain us. That’s what we said. With each other we had the strength to stay the course, to stay true. We were solid enough to –”

“To stand firm against the changing tide.”

“Yes. Never give up the good fight!”

“And how has that worked out?” Her face is hard. One hand has gone to her hip. It’s not a question; it’s an accusation. I let it go.

“We fight our battles, Raymond,” she says, her voice low and firm. “But you can’t take on the whole world.”

“No?”

“No. Not unless you’re prepared for the world to beat you up,” she says, eyes scanning me from top to bottom.

I take a step back, almost wish she would leave. I’m hurt by her words, battered by them, momentarily exposed to a feeling I thought I had submerged forever.

“I have stood firm. I have stayed true. My life is lived on my terms and that is enough.”

“Oh, Raymond.”

There’s pity there. It kills me. Anything but that. I weaken, feel something melting, feel myself sinking.

“One does what one has to to survive,” I say, all too aware of the fragility of my words. I take a breath, regain control. “I would think you would be well aware of that, no?” I take a step, spread my legs a little, feeling the toes of my left foot push up against the end of my boot. I stuff a hand deep into my pocket, feel the clammy grime of my leg. None of it matters. The steal has returned. I’m strengthened, rearmed. “I have seen things, Julia, learned things. I have followed a path. It is not for me to say where that should lead.”

“But…”

“It’s too late now.”

Once again she pushes her long, shiny black hair behind an ear, tilts her head. She is no longer recoiling, no longer mentally pushing past, discarding me. She has stopped, settled, allowing herself to be here, despite it all.

“Raymond, you had the mind. Not me. You saw things, you had principles. The system – you saw how it worked, understood it better than anyone.”

It’s the past tense that kills. Even I use it these days. What I was…

“You know, we were great together back then. We could have done anything. But you always wanted…” I hesitate. “You always wanted to be part of it. The whole corrupt system – you fell for it.”

She opens her mouth, eyes sparkling. Here it comes. The defence. The finger will be pointed, the voice raised. But it doesn’t happen. “I needed a partner. Someone to hold my hand. You couldn’t see that. Raymond, I needed your hand in mine. But you were too busy picking a fight with the world.”

There is sadness in her voice. I hate her for it. I feel it invade me, quickly shut off that valve, close it down, block it off. Used to that now, I shrug, give nothing more away. “I have lived a life.”

That stops her. She looks at me, then looks ahead, checks her watch. She sighs. It’s almost imperceptible, but I catch it, watch her as she decides. Two quick steps past, a hesitation. She turns to her left, hand simultaneously delving into the slim leather bag that hangs from her shoulder. She doesn’t look, simply digs her hand into the bag, takes two more steps across the sidewalk to the boarded up shop front. She bends down. There is a small yellow children’s bucket there (no spade.) Her hand opens, bills flutter down. In a flash she had straightened.

“Please, Raymond. Just…”

She cannot finish. There is nothing to say. The end is written. She knows it just as I do.

I shuffle back to my wall, hand involuntarily going back into the pocket of my trousers, through the pocket, through the pulled-apart stitching. I scratch at my balls. The rash is playing up again. I don’t mind. So I scratch. Gives me something to do. My knee is always stiff and sore these days. I hobble, lurch to the left then straighten, lurch then straighten. I have the devil’s own time getting down onto my piece of cardboard.

Roughly pulling the bucket to me, I peer in. The groan is audible. I don’t know why. It doesn’t matter anymore. It never did, or at least that’s the story I tell myself.

Using the wall behind me, I edge myself back up, wobble, steady myself. With hand on the boarded up shop front for balance, I swing my good leg, kick the bucket away. Its contents spill onto the icy pavement. The wind has picked up. The notes are briefly airborne, fluttering, tumbling across the ice.

Looking away, I run a hand over my face, feel the bags under my eyes. My beard is itchy, as it so often is. I scratch at it, hard, dirty fingernails, scrapping against the skin beneath. They tell me the beard is grey now, uncut for years. It hides me. Hides my efforts, my failures. It hides the scars.

There’s an underpass a half mile ahead where the trains hurtle over. Sometimes people loiter there and smoke. Sometimes I find butts, half cigarettes. It’s worth a look.

 

 

The Last to Know

 

She waits, her feet slightly twisted on the cool white tiles. They’ve told her to keep her slippers on but she fears they’ll get wet. That’s what she told the nurses anyway. She wonders why she has to disobey them. She never was like this. She assumes it’s age, the yearning for the control she can feel slipping away. Or maybe she was just feeling ornery, a petulant child wanting to kick up a fuss.

The water takes an age to warm up, her hand stretched out intermittently to check the temperature. She never could abide cold water, not since that very first time when she had come to understand its power, its danger. Her first summer camp down the coast, the beach going on for miles. Thin arms and legs pale in her one-piece, goose bumps up and down. The first days of summer, the sun was out but the spring chill was right there behind it. Her girlfriends’ screams and yelps filled her ears as she tiptoed to the edge of the water, white froth snaking around their feet. The icy water snapping at their toes, the girls backtracking fast, kicking up sand as they went.

They dared each other. “On the count of three,” said Ellie, the class leader. “Ready? Ready? You can’t chicken out, okay?”

Together they chanted: “One, two, three! Last one in’s a rotten egg!”

The charge, young feet kicking up sand, splashing across the shallows, stumbling into the churning surf. Her first time at the beach, in the sea, in waves, cold and daunting. Gasping for air, she swum wildly, following in her friends’ wake.

It came on her like a shot, muscles tensing and tightening, exploding with pain. Paralysed by cramp, she was transformed. The carefree, liberated woman gone, giving way to her true self: the timid, fearful adolescent she knew she would always be. Emptied of all the earlier bluster, this was what was left: panic and dependence.

She screamed manically, each shout interrupted by another mouthful of sea, another tug from the ocean below. The arms, coming from everywhere, latching onto her, pulling, pushing, dragging her to shore. Surrounded by teachers, her girlfriends peering from behind them, she shrunk, a diminished girl still so utterly dependent on those more competent than her.

Macy shakes free of the memory. Kicking off her slippers, she totters into the shower stall, impatient, annoyed, feeling the tepid, lukewarm water rush over her. She is in then out. Wet now, she waits for the shower to warm up properly, water running down her soft and sagging torso. She feels it dripping from her legs, from between her legs. She wipes it with the palm of her hand and is transported once again.

Another shower, long ago, she’s panicked, barely holding it together, right on the edge of hysteria. A cry of fear escapes her, hushed at first, then louder, more urgent. She is desperate for help, yet too embarrassed to want to see another soul ever again. What’s wrong with her? Why her? Visions of hospitals and operations, of imposing metal equipment and white walled surgeries; doctors and nurses peering at her, their grave faces reflecting her own.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Macy.”

Her mother is there, an apparition appearing from nowhere. Gratitude floods through her.

“What on earth? Here.” She reaches across and turns off the shower then hands her daughter a towel. But Macy is too overwhelmed to take it. She has sunk to the ground, knees pulled up under her chin, arms wrapped around them, refusing to see the horror between her legs.

“Oh Macy. Well, you’re a woman now.” Her mother’s voice is matter-of-fact, bordering on impatient. “Guess you’re all grown up.” She sighs, crouches unsteadily beside her daughter, taking her hand. “The boys’ll be knocking down the door before we know it.”

Still staring at the shower stall, the rush of water cooling the air around her, Macy recalls a song:

The middle sister gets her period blood

The flood of love, the flood of love.

Well, she never felt it. The next day she was still a child, still desperate for her mother’s love. The hand-holding in the shower, a rare compassionate touch, it hadn’t lasted. How could it when the wine glass sat unfinished in the hall? Her mother’s love was always directed to the nearest chardonnay. The flood of love… Barely a trickle. And certainly no knocks on the door.

No, the knocks never came. For that she was almost glad. You can hide a drunken mother as long as she stays at home.

So it was Macy who went knocking.

She glances up at the steady stream of water, sticks her hand back under it. The temperature barely registers. She hops under it regardless, tired of the wait, impatient now.

An older boy, he wasn’t the handsome man of her dreams. Shorter than her, gaunt, close set eyes that seemed to look anywhere but at her. He was a loner. It was what had drawn them together, although she was fully aware that only one of them was that way by choice. He ran, alone. Miles and miles around the track. She would wait for him, watch him jog lap after lap, an occasional hand raised in acknowledgment making her day. The silent vigil led to more: meals at the university cafeteria, energy drinks at the local cafe. He even invited her to his races: the Bluefields 10k, the Meadows Half-Marathon, the Great North Run. She would travel the state with him, his silent cheer squad. They talked little. She told herself that was fine, that he was the taciturn sort. But she never knew, never got a sense of what he was thinking. So his pronouncement came as a shock.

“Going soon.”

“What?” That fear, that child-like fear of loss. She had thought she might have out-run it, but there it was beside her. “Going where?”

“Away.”

She stood, moved towards him at the edge of the track, handing him a towel.

“Nothing happening here. I quit my job.”

He had worked at the sawmill having dropped out of university after a single semester.

“Why’d you quit?”

“Couldn’t hack it. Not for me.”

She looked at him, this boy of aromas, of sawdust, sweat, and suntan lotion. What was for him, she wondered?

“Gotta get out of here.”

“Why? Where you going?”

“Think I’ll try Indonesia. Bali, you know.”

Macy’s mouth hung open. She hadn’t ever imagined.

“You coming?”

“What?”

“Why not? Let’s do it. Leave it all.”

“But… Now? How can I?”

But she could, she did. A dead-end typist job was no more a restraint than a drunken mother and a disengaged father. Hell, she spent half her time trying to avoid the two of them as it was.

Bali. It hit her hard. A cacophony of sounds bowled her over – hawkers with their bells and shouts, motorcycles roaring past her, music from a thousand shops and stalls. The sights and smells did her in completely, the smoke from sate on the grill, woks spitting, the scent of a thousand clove cigarettes, the crush of people all sharing the non-existent sidewalk. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t seem to focus. Her head spun, her throat tightened. She felt like crying, her six year old self let loose again. She held on – what else could she do? – squeezing her boyfriend’s hand until it turned an ugly shade of blue. He led, up and down the streets, to cafes, bars, the beach, then side roads lined with coconut trees, tight little lanes with lush gardens obscuring delicate little houses.

Slowly her shoulders dropped, her grip loosened, her eyes began to focus. The sights toned down just enough for her to see them clearly, the smells a touch less pungent, the noise a little more subdued. She felt the thought break through, wrapping itself around her: “I’m coping. I’ve done it. I can make it in a new world after all.”

Macy grew taller, broader, filling up more space, more solid on the ground. “After everything,” she thought, “this is what it feels like to be a woman, an adult taking charge.”

A little smile escaped her. She threw her shoulders back, her head held high, her eyes set straight ahead. “Ted,” she said, “I’m going for a walk. No, that’s okay. You stay here. Yeah, I’ll be fine. No worries. I know what I’m doing.”

She inched along the roadside, that narrow strip of gravel between wooden shops and asphalt. The tinny whine of Western pop songs invaded her from a row of cheap cassette tape shops, a soundtrack for a parade of dashing local lads. Tanned bodies, slim hips, brilliant shining eyes and smiles, a certain swagger as they sauntered down the road, cigarette in hand or mouth. Another smile, a gentle arm gracefully laid on hers. Then a shoulder almost pulled from its socket, her arm flying out, her grip on her bag loosening, giving way.

“Hey!”

She ran, blinded by sweat and tears, by countless staring people, by colours and sounds and beautiful Balinese youths, none of them with her bag. She had walked for hours after that, too timid to report the crime, too scared to tell her man. He wasn’t the violent sort, but he wasn’t known for patience or understanding either.

Macy rubs her hands hard across her face, washing away the soapy water, remembering the soot and dirt and grime and sweat of that Balinese debacle. A little girl again, she had called her dad collect. He got her home, saved his little girl with barely a word. Just that slow shake of the head at the airport reminding her of her place in the world. Life as a protected, clueless daughter seemed assured.

The knock on the bathroom door brings her back. “You right there, Macy?”

“Oh, yes. Won’t be long.” They check up on her, barely give her a minute alone. Lord knows she had to just about throw a fit to be allowed to shower without someone in the bathroom with her.

Rededicated to the business of washing, she soaps and scrubs her sagging breasts, her soft flabby stomach. She feels the scar, runs her finger along its length. It’s all but hidden now, a faint physical reminder that she too became a mother, a wife too although that was never going to last. About as close as you can get to an arranged marriage, she thinks to herself. They had met through friends of friends, two thirty-somethings still at home, parents at their wits’ end. Macy had known the score. Pass this one up and you might never be forgiven – that was the message. Take him or else, nothing better is coming along. Evidently he was told the same.

Two uncertain, doubtful people trying to make it work the only way they knew. Raelene was born before the end of their first year together. Geoffrey was gone by the start of the second.

“She’s sleeping,” he had said on that fateful day.

“Thank God.”

“It’s quiet.”

“It is.” A smile, a thought. “Come on then, Geoffrey. While we’ve got a bit of time.” She took his hand, led him from the baby’s room.

Once in the hallway, Geoffrey pulled away.

“What is it?”

“Not now.”

“Then when? She’ll sleep for a few hours now at least.”

“No…”

“But…”

“No.”

An involuntary step back, her hand slipping from his.

“I can’t. I mean…” A deep breath, an averting of the eyes. “I mean, it’s not me.”

“But little Raelene…”

“I know. I tried. But I can’t live a lie. I know that now.”

He was gone by the morning, taking with him any hope she had of ever staying afloat.

Macy lets her forehead come to rest on the hard white tiles beside her. She no longer feels the steaming water pounding on her shoulders. The shower stall engulfs her, squeezing in on her. She fights the familiar panic, her heart rate already through the roof. Those days, wild with fear, so completely unprepared, doubting every little thing. Who was she to be left with a young life on her hands? She had barely learnt to take care of herself, let alone a little one still new to the world. A deluge of tears following over the years – both her own and her daughter’s. So ill-equipped to play mother. She would stare at her child, anticipating drama, anticipating diseases, accidents, horrid wrong decisions that might just leave a child scarred for life. Paralysed by fear, dazed and overwhelmed, she would watch the other mothers at the mall, unsuccessfully trying to copy their calm and deliberate ways. Where were the shaky hands, the sweaty palms, the crazy beating heart and wild eyes she saw when looking in the mirror? Who were these superwomen so different from herself?

Macy feels the water now as it attacks the back of her neck, feels her tight muscles soften just a touch. During those early years of Raelene’s life her mother’s presence would do the same. A real life stress reliever allowing Macy to slip back into adolescence, useless, dependent, hopelessly reliant. Her mum had somehow pulled back from the brink, keeping the wine at a distance at least until after dark. Silently, she had been there, taking over, leading the way.

Until she wasn’t there anymore.

Cancer, of course. She had said it over and over after Raelene’s birth: I might cut down on the booze but a woman needs a vice, otherwise what’s the point? It was a quick decline, cigarettes by her side until the end, gone before Macy had time to grow into her new role. She never did, not as far as she could see. She was destined to remain unformed, a child in a world of capable others.

“Macy, love?”

“Okay. Won’t be long.” She realizes the soap is still held tightly in her hand. Has she washed? She isn’t sure, can’t quite remember.

“Macy?”

“Okay, okay. Almost done.”

“She’s here,” says Jackie, her Fijian nurse, or aid, or whatever she’s called this week. Oh yes, she’s her PSW – her personal support worker. Too much support in her opinion. “Macy? You hear me? She’s here.”

“She’s… Oh yes. Okay then.” Her daughter, Raelene. It must be Tuesday. No wonder they bundled her into the shower so early in the day. Still a child, she thinks; still being told what to do after all these years.

Macy emerges from the shower, towels herself with shaky hands.

“Take your time, love,” says Jackie from just outside the door. “She’s gone for a coffee. No need to rush.”

But she does. Of course she does. Macy knows what her daughter will think, what she has always thought: her hopeless incapable mum. All these years and she still can’t manage her life. And she’s right. Everything takes longer now. She does her best, always goes as fast as she can. But she can’t keep up. Never really could. But now she just falls further and further behind.

“Come on, Macy. Calm down now. I’ve laid out some nice clothes for you. How about those blue slacks with the yellow blouse. Rae bought that for you, didn’t she? Last Christmas. You remember, don’t you?”

“Oh yes,” she says, doing her best to get dressed with Jackie’s help. “Last Christmas, yes, of course.” These sorts of memories are vague, subsumed under all the failures in her life.

“Hi, Mum.” She’s there, bustling in the way she does. A hug, things thrown on the bed – bags, her purse, a book.

“Sorry,” struggles Macy. “I was showering. I lost track…”

“No problem, Mum.”

“Not so steady on my feet these days. A bit slow getting things done, especially in the shower. Don’t want to slip at my age.” She talks like this with Raelene. Her conversation an apology. “I try to stay focused. One thing at a time. That’s what you said, wasn’t it, Jackie? My mind wanders unfortunately. I get a bit sidetracked sometimes.”

She looks up at the sound. Raelene chuckling to herself. A deep throaty gurgle that seems to run through her entire oversized body. “That’ll be the day.” She moves to her mother, encases her with her thick arms, engulfs her in a body twice the size of her own.

Macy smiles, content in this cacoon, although unsure of exactly what this daughter of hers is so tickled by.

“Mum, you’re the most focused person I know. And the most organized. I can’t imagine you ever getting sidetracked.”

“But –”

“Don’t you remember – all those school years? Every other kid used to worry about stuff –would their parents remember to sign the release form for the school excursion? Would they get their costume sewn up in time for the school play? Would their mums contribute cakes or cookies or something for the fete? Would someone drive them to the sleep-over? And then there was me – never a worry. Because you were on to it, you had it all together, always.”

“No, dear. I never did. I was just so scared, so afraid of being left behind.”

“They envied you.”

Macy takes a step back, confused, befuddled. “Who?”

“My friends. Their mums too. You scared them. On your own but twice as competent as the best of them.”

Macy sits on the edge of the bed, head spinning. “Me?”

“Yes! You were the one they envied. You were the one who got things done. That’s the way it always was.”

Jackie returns, catches Raelene’s remarks. “You take after your mum, Rae. I’ve always thought that. A force of nature.” She puts her hands on her hips, looks from mother to daughter. “The two of you. Pieces of work, I tell you.”

Stuck on the edge of the bed, Macy blinks, once, twice, and wonders. Life. I grew up, she thinks, I guess I did. Well fancy that. She feels a tear trickle down her cheek, doesn’t care. She’s made it; somehow, she’s made it. And she never even knew.

 

 

Do Not Leave Unattended

Slept like a log. Long trip with the tour group yesterday. We took the coach from Singapore up here to Penang. What a bore. Hours on the road, stuck in my seat, only Mrs. Cheryl Chen beside me for company. She’s alone too. And will remain so as far as I am concerned. I now know more than I care to know about the real estate market, thanks very much. Not my thing. But each to their own. There are thirty-two of us on the trip. I’m counting on a few of them being a bit more interesting than Mrs. Chen. I mean, you never know. Lots of singles take these tours nowadays.

Anyway, before I left they told me I was supposed to mingle, make friends, broaden my horizons and all that. My wife passed some years back. She had told me the same. Harold, she said, after I’m gone, you get out there. Don’t you dare mope around this place forever. So I do as she says. Always did. It’s just that people are difficult. Or at least difficult for me. I’m more interested in nature. Things that don’t talk back, things that don’t have issues.

Still, I try. Morning. The hotel’s breakfast buffet. I’ve already learned about Bev Watson’s Basset Hounds back in Devon. I am now aware of George Falcon’s passion for model trains. Did you know that the hard part is getting them to run slowly? Life turned on its head if you ask me. Millie Woostencraft made my acquaintance. She is here with her sister. They take a trip together every year – then spend the other eleven months patching up their differences. Ben Jarmin told me that. Don’t know where he fits in. He pulled me aside near the bread station. Don’t mention the cards, he said, eyes darting in Millie’s direction. The cards? What – bridge? Gin rummy? Bloody tarot cards? But he had wandered off to find the marmalade.

I make my own escape not long after, back to my room to prepare. Penang Hill today, so they tell me. Cable car up, long walk down. Don’t be fooled, they said, it’s tough going. But I’m prepared. Always am. I check my lightweight utility vest laid out on the bed, go through the pockets. Pen and notebook, smart phone, mints, compass – they’re all there. I’ve got my Canon around my neck, a 56 pixel EOS 5Ds, but other pockets contain the spare AA batteries, a spare memory card, wet wipes, lens cleaner. There’s a hook for my sunglasses and my floppy hat is on my head. I put on my boots and head out, ready.

People are milling around the front of the hotel, the bus idling beside us. Little groups, cliques, are already forming. You can see it – closed circles. They might just as well be holding up ‘no vacancy’ signs. I look around, sidle up to Ben Jarmin, wondering whether I should return to the subject of cards. He is with another man, dressed in shorts with a red baseball cap. He’s introduced as Greg Kazantidis.

‘Four seasons in one day,’ says Ben. ‘That’s what they say about this Penang Hill.’

‘How’s that?’ I ask, but Greg waves away my question.

‘Nah, four seasons in the tropics? Only three here.’

‘Right. Hot, hotter and hottest, right?’ I say, offering a light guffaw to indicate my inclusive, self-depreciating humour.

Greg looks at me. ‘No. Actually it’s hot, cool, and rainy.’

‘I see.’

‘Listen, you’ve got an interesting chin,’ says Ben, changing the subject.

It throws me. I reach up, feel it, run my fingers along the dimple there.

‘Ought to sketch you sometime. Unusual bone structure,’ he goes on. ‘What are you – Greek?’

Greg snorts, fold his arms, rolls his eyes. I figure I’m not allowed in that club either.

I look for an escape. The Woostencraft sisters are deep in whispered conversation, George Falcon, the model train man, is checking out the tyres on the waiting bus, others avoid eye contact. I nip back into the hotel lobby, to the lift, back to my room. Kazantidis’ smarty-pants comment has got me thinking. I throw open my suitcase, hunt around, pull out my poncho, still in its packet. Perfect for showers. Light, easy to carry, covers the upper body as well as the backpack and camera. I throw it into the backpack and head out again, an eye on the time. I’m a bit late, but there’s always one.

* * *

There’s movement beside the bus. Our tour guides, Ms. Eunice and Mr. Lionel, are deep in thought next to its front door. Their heads are buried in a clipboard, sheets of paper being flipped over methodically.

‘What’s up?’ I say to the person next to me. I guess she’s late middle age, her auburn hair left long, too long. It frames her face, highlights the worry lines on her forehead and in the corners of her mouth, brings out her freckles.

‘AWOL,’ she says.

‘What?’

‘Some arsehole’s gone missing.’

‘Yeah? Who?’

She swings around half a step, peers at me from over her glasses. They aren’t worry lines, I notice. They are something more ferocious.

‘I mean, do they know who’s disappeared?’

With all the patience of a saint she explains that no, they do not know. That, in fact, is the crux of the current problem.

‘So how do they know someone’s missing?’

The pained look intensifies. ‘They did a frickin’ head count earlier.’

‘Maybe they should do another one.’

She whips her glasses off from the edge of her nose, throws her head around the way women do, her long hair flying out and then back perfectly into place. ‘Little bloody late for that now,’ she says. ‘Mr. Horwitz thinks some jerk-off might still be at the buffet. So she’s gone to have a look. And those two pain-in-the-butt sisters. Know them?’

‘I have made their –’

‘Eunel and Linice sent them up to knock on doors.’

Who sent them?’

With just the hint of a smile she leans in close. The proximity takes me by surprise. I sway backwards. ‘Our fearless leaders up there.’ She’s pointing to Lionel and Eunice, still deep in consultation with each other.

‘Well, shit,’ she says. ‘Looks like we’re stuck here. Might as well go freshen up.’ Another toss of the head, hair billowing as she and moves off towards the hotel lobby. Only now do I notice the short skirt inadequately covering vein-encrusted legs.

I peel my eyes away. Ben Jarmin is still there, khaki shorts and hiking boots, big floppy hat to match. Greg smart-arse Kazantidis and his red cap are right there next to him. Bev Watson from Devon is there, staring into her smart phone, possibly admiring pictures of her Bassett Hounds. What about George Falcon? He’s no longer examining the coach’s tyres. I can’t spot him. I move over towards Bev. The Hounds disappear.

‘Where’s George Falcon?’

‘George who?’

‘Falcon. Short man, liver spots, thin grey hair.’

‘I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.’

‘Well, he’s not around.’

‘Don’t worry, dear…’

‘But he was here…’

She looks back at me, the way you might look at a Bassett Hound still not quite house-trained.

‘Maybe I should report it,’ I say. ‘To Eunice and Lionel.’

‘Perhaps you should if you’re that worried.’

‘I’m not worried.’

But I do, I march up to the front of the bus and give my news.

‘George who?’ says Lionel.

‘Falcon. Short guy, liver spots. Thin grey hair.’

They check their clipboard. I wonder if they have descriptions of each of us written there.

‘He’s not here?’

‘No. He was. But now he’s gone.’

‘Where?’

‘Well obviously…’ I catch myself. ‘He’s into trains. Maybe buses and coaches too. I saw him studying the wheels on the bus.’

They look at me.

‘What?’ I say.

‘He studies wheels?’

‘I don’t know. He likes them I guess. And trains.’

‘No trains here.’

‘No.’

‘Plenty of buses though,’ says Lionel.

‘Buses lah!’ intones Eunice. ‘Please. Can you check the buses? The wheels…’ We look around simultaneously. There are buses leading out from the hotel, others parked across the four lane highway in front of us. ‘Maybe he is inspecting.’

I shrug, prepare to make my way across the street.

‘Wait first.’

Eunice and Lionel share a word, take another look at their clipboards.

‘Hello? Hello? One, two, three,’ says Eunice at the top of her voice, clapping along with the count, ‘look at me, look at me. One, two, three, look at me.’

We do. Incredibly we do. I look at my fellow travellers, some with eyes rolling, most with the wide-eyed devotion saved especially for those tasked with leading the way in a foreign land.

‘Everything is fine,’ she begins. The group erupts, pressure released, the crowd instantly drifting forward towards the door of the bus. ‘But first… Please! Waiting please.’ She looks to Lionel.

‘One more count. Let’s have fun with it!’ Lionel, all chubby cheeks, white button down shirt stretched tightly across his sagging breasts, his trousers a little too tight for comfort or for decency, raises his arms. He swings them in unison, left then right, hips swaying in the opposite direction.

We stare at each other, unsure of what we should do. The woman with the long auburn hair and the not-so-worried lines is back. She raises her arms, lets out a little whoop, others stare tentatively.

‘We’ll count now, count now,’ chants Lionel. ‘We can do it, we can do it. Are you ready, are you ready!?’

We’re ready apparently. We’re ready apparently.

‘One,’ we say, still tentative, unsure.

‘One at a time,’ says Lionel, arms still waving, hips still swaying.

‘One at a time,’ we say.

‘No, no.’ He’s still speaking in time with his hips. ‘Take turns, we’ll count it out.’

‘One,’ drones a diminutive woman in an olive green cardigan despite the heat. ‘Two,’ says the tall cadaver-like man with the ramrod straight back. They’re out of time now, throwing Lionel into confusion, his arms and hips struggling to maintain the rhythm. The counting continues, (I’m the fifth to chime in). We run out at twenty-six. Clearly this is trouble. Lionel and Eunice’s whispering and furrowed brows make that clear.

‘We’re shrinking,’ I say, still standing near them.

‘Shrinking?’

‘Well, I mean…’

They look past me, well aware of what it means.

‘So are we going to go find them?’ I ask.

‘Who?’ says Lionel.

‘The ones you’ve lost.’

He bristles. ‘Mr….’

‘Hoffman. Harold Hoffman.’ I hold out my hand. He doesn’t take it. I assume it’s because he’s holding the clipboard in one hand and his pen in the other.

‘Mr. Hoffman, I did not lose –’

‘Yeah, I know.’ I try a smile. ‘But still. Are we going to look for them?’

‘They’ll be here.’

The woman with the auburn hair has appeared beside me. I notice she’s taller than me. With head held high and nose in the air, she seems even taller than she is. ‘The bastards will wander back at some stage of the day I reckon. Tell you one God damn thing right now though – I have no intention of spending the day standing here beside this shitbag of a bus.’

Lionel and Eunice share a glance. A decision is made. Eunice looks up, stands on her toes, neck stretched. ‘One, two, three,’ she starts. The ‘look at me’ part dwindles away. She has their attention, all folded arms and shuffling feet. ‘It appears that we have, I mean, a few people are, well, temporarily absent.’

Murmurs from the crowd. They’re getting restless. Eunice wipes a bead of sweat from her brow.

‘I understand your concerns. But Penang Hill is actually beautiful later in the day. The clouds will come in, it cools down a little…’

I sense a closing in, steps towards our guides, impatience in the air. You don’t want to procrastinate amidst a group of seniors. Their time is precious, what little of it remains.

‘Right. There will be a thirty minute delay.’ She’s forceful now, fighting for her professional life. ‘Listen up. Please break up into twos or threes. We’ll search – in the hotel, around the area, the streets behind us, the stores along here. We’ll find them then meet back here.’ She nods, convincing someone, perhaps herself, of the wisdom of the idea. ‘Thirty minutes. Where will we meet?’ She cups a hand behind her ear, waiting for the response. There is nothing.

‘Where will we meet?’ she repeats.

‘Hey, love.’ It’s Kazantidis. ‘I think you’re supposed to tell us that.’

She glares. ‘I did.’

‘Well, tell us again. For the slow learners.’

‘We meet here. Right here. And when? When do we meet?’

‘Oh, for the love of God!’ says the woman with the auburn hair. ‘In thirty minutes, for fuck’s sake.’ She has taken me by the arm, all business. ‘Come on, Harry.’

‘Harold.’

‘Come on, Harry. You look handy. I love a God damn man who comes prepared.’

‘Prepared?’

‘All those pockets. Who knows what’s hidden there?’ She turns to me. I think she winks at me. ‘Surprises await.’

I’m rattled. ‘I’ve got a compass…’

She laughs, head thrown back. I can see her tonsils.

‘A compass. So you know your way around.’ She winks again, walks off, pulling me behind her.

I shuffle along, doing my best to keep up. She has a guidebook in her hand, a thick, heavy thing. She waves it ahead. ‘We’ll check out the shops down there. Damn jerk-offs. Half the God damn people here are only on the tour for the sonovabitch shopping.’

‘Yeah, right. Bloody bugger,’ I say. ‘Crappy shit!’ I don’t know why I say this. ‘Sorry.’

‘What?’

‘Nothing. Lead the way, um…’

‘El.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Name’s El. Jesus.’

I digest this, studiously avoiding any Jesus jokes. ‘El… Ellen? Ellie? Elderberry?’

She glares. ‘Elliot.’

‘But.’

‘It’s Elliot.’

We’re half way down the street when we hear the shout from behind us. It’s Bev Watson power walking her way towards us, fold-up umbrella waving wildly. We wait. She catches up, grabs my arm, the other one. ‘Dear me. Didn’t you two set off at a fast clip!’ Her steel grey hair is short, sprouting upwards like a tub of ripe alfalfa sprouts. How does she get it to stay like that? Glue?

‘This is El,’ I say. ‘El, Bev.’

They stare each other down. Not a word. I look around. We are alone, the rest of the group gone. ‘So. The hunt. Start in here?’ It’s a large gift store. We walk in.

‘Bloody hell. Christ almighty,’ says El for no reason I can discern. There are packaged biscuits lining an aisle, dried fruit lining another. A young family is discussing the relative merits of oatmeal cookies and flaky pastries.

I walk up and down the aisles, then do so again, just because. Finally, I step outside, hoping to escape my companions but they are right there beside me.

‘You have a good look around?’ says Bev.

‘I guess.’

‘A wonder you can even make it down the aisles and remain decent.’ Bev directs this at El, or more specifically, her skirt.

‘Oh, I manage. Anyway, where are those Bassett Hounds of yours when we need them, eh?’ El does not say this kindly.

‘My Hounds would, in fact, find them in a second. They would pick up their scent in no time,’ growls Bev.

‘Find who?’ I ask.

‘Our missing –’

‘Yeah, but who are they?’

‘The ones that weren’t there at the roll call.’

‘Yeah, I know. But which roll call?’

‘Both of them,’ says El.

‘Or either,’ adds Bev.

‘But we still don’t know who was actually…’ I lose steam with both women staring at me.

‘The fucking dickwads who went AWOL. I don’t know their God damn names!’

‘Anyway,’ I start, forcing a smile, trying to keep it light, ‘if we don’t know who’s missing, I guess that means those Bassett Hounds would have a bit of trouble…’ I chuckle. It is not reciprocated.

‘Christ,’ says El. ‘Fucking bloody hell,’ she adds in order to emphasise the point. ‘If those Bassett Hounds of yours were here we wouldn’t have made it this far. Don’t they have those stumpy little legs? Like a big fat lump of, of, whatever, with those bent little stumps for legs. They stagger along like they’re half dead I imagine.’

‘At least they don’t feel the need to show off their fanny when they walk.’

‘You fucking little…’ And then I am bent over, an elbow or a foot or a fist or something has connected with my solar plexus, catching me off-guard, stealing the wind from me. I gasp, feel a knee brush my head, see the flash of arm and guidebook from the corner of my eye, hear the solid dull thud of impact. There’s pressure on my head, scrapes, pushes, casting me aside. I’m on my knees by the time I hear the metallic thwack of the umbrella making contact.

‘Fucking bloody fucker!’

I push up, cop a whack across the face, something connects with my eye, it stings, waters. I blink, but my vision is misty. The screams and profanity haven’t stopped, the strikes haven’t even slowed. I push up again, arms held out. ‘Eh! Eh!’

I try to sound manly, in control, the voice of authority. I catch an arm, yank. I see auburn hair spray out, heading downwards.

‘Sorry.’

Then my arm goes dead, the spine of a book crashing down on it. One arm useless, I lunge with the other shoulder, make contact with another flailing body, feel soft flesh yield, see a flash of silvery hair. I land on top of her, arm on her heaving chest.

‘Well then. This is nice.’

I think she means it. Still blinking, I look up at her. She is smiling. I feel a hand on my rump. Worried about what that could mean, I leap to my feet, stagger back, feel another body behind me, entangling me like some out-of-water octopus. I twist around, peel a hand from close to my nether regions, another from my chest.

I find myself backed up against a brick wall, my heart pounding, my vision still blurred. ‘Shit,’ I say. This time I mean it.

* * *

The three of us take stock. Bev looks at her umbrella, spokes at all angles, the blue tartan pattern in shreds. She pats at her hair, but it is unnecessary. The sprouts haven’t moved. It is the only thing still in place. Her blouse is askew, a dirty brown streak across its side. She pulls it up onto her shoulder, straightens a bra strap. El is doing the same, brushing herself down, working on her rumpled linen top. Then she moves to her skirt, pulling it a little lower, covering what she can. There are scrapes and scratches on her legs, a broken strap on her sandal.

‘Fuck it,’ she says bending over to retrieve a button that has gone missing from her blouse. She coughs, spits a reddish glob onto the sidewalk. I wonder once again whether Elliot isn’t indeed an appropriate name. ‘Sonovabitch.’

We drift off, all thoughts of finding errant tourists gone. I let the two of them move out of my sight then check my own damage. One of them must have grabbed my camera strap. The camera is lying beside me. My utility jacket is a mess. I’m surrounded by torn pockets and shrapnel – a shattered tub of mints, a crushed ballpoint, a mangled notepad. My sunglasses stare up at me, the lens at odd angles. My compass sits there on the sidewalk, glass cover shattered. It is pointing south. I don’t disagree.

I wander along the street for a while, legs shaky. A quiet coffee shop, just what I need. I settle down with a sweet milky tea, letting my nerves settle. I pull out my handkerchief and dab at my eye. It is still sore, still weeping. My ribs ache, there are scratches and scrapes everywhere. I surreptitiously dip my hanky into the glass of water on the table and dab at my eye, then do the same for the scratches on my elbows and chin, scraping out the grit and dirt.

By the time I make it back to the bus I know it is late. There are stares, lots of them. Too many. Lionel and Eunice are there. Lionel allows his clipboard to fall slowly to his side. He clicks his ballpoint pen, a statement of sorts, then pokes it forcefully into his top pocket.

‘So that’s it then,’ he says. ‘Thirty-two with two opting out.’

‘What?’

The tour guides look at me, my eye, my ragged vest. I can see them about to comment. They stop themselves, avert their eyes.

‘Okay. Let’s go.’ The words are spoken with a distinct lack of vigour.

‘We’re all here? Fantastic! So who found our lost sheep then?’ I say, trying to recover my joie de vivre.

They file past me into the bus. Cheryl Chen shakes her head, the Woostencraft sisters click their tongues and whisper, George Falcon, he of the trains and coach tyres, lays a hand on my shoulder and titters. Greg Kazantidis stops in front of me, just long enough to shake his head and whisper, ‘You are a dick, you know that, right?’

‘What?’

But he’s gone, onto the bus.

Ben Jarmin is there in front of me. ‘There’s always one, isn’t there?’

I nod, offer a chuckle. It seems appropriate. ‘Guess so.’

‘Always one who just doesn’t quite get it.’ He holds out a heavy piece of paper. He has somehow found some string, tied it onto the top two edges of the paper, making a bib of sorts. ‘For you. Might want to keep it on.’

I grab it, wondering as Ben slides past me onto the bus. I scoot along behind him, following. ‘Hey, Ben.’

‘No please.’ It is Eunice. She’s wearing that smile. The one that says, ‘I’m sorry but I’m the boss.’

‘What?’ I utter, not for the first time today.

‘You are sitting here, please.’ She points to the front seat, right next to the stairs, right beside Eunice and Lionel’s reserved chairs.

‘Why?’

‘Please.’

I plonk myself down, huff a little, annoyed, and then look at Ben’s gift. It is a drawing. With a caption. It looks like me, right down to the dimpled chin. The man who searched for himself, it says. And then in bold, DO NOT LEAVE UNATTENDED.

Breaking Bricks

The smash, the crash, the dust drifting up from the ground. Mesmerized, we stood there, waiting for Craig to launch another missile. The brick was tossed straight down, smashing into other broken bricks piled up in the front yard. Another puff of dust, another piece of rubble added to the mess.

“I’ve got an idea.” Craig, a year older than the rest of us, held us in thrall. His voice had dropped to a lower pitch, full of excitement, laced with menace. I glanced across at him. The malevolent grin, the narrowed eyes, I’d seen it before. Here we go, I thought. The momentary hollowing out of my stomach, the fear, the delicious thrill of what was sure to come.

“More bricks,” he said. “We need more bricks!”

“Bloody hell, Craig.”

“Oh, get over it, Bruno. Bricks!” He swung around, catching the eye of Lou and Scott, the other members of the gang, the four of us, all partners in crime. Yes, he had us. Every gang needs its leader and Craig was ours.

“Look. You know what we gotta do.” He pointed down below. We were standing on what would soon become a balcony. For now it was a little less than that – a long, rough concrete ledge, jutting out over the mess of a front yard. Scott pointed to a jumble of building supplies far below – the detritus of a house half built. The crates, the pallets, the off-cuts of timber, the cement bags, the sand pile and the gravel.

“What, Craig? The sand?”

“The sand? Don’t be an idiot,” said Craig, hands on hips. “Unless you wanna jump. Go on. I’ll give you a push. But you better give us your phone number first.”

“Whadya mean?”

“Your phone number. So we can call your mum.”

“My mum?”

“Yeah. So she can come and scrape you off the ground and take you to hospital after you jump.”

Lou turned away, his rose red cheeks saying more than he was comfortable with.

“Over there, guys.” Craig turned his attention back to the building site. “See there? Next to the gravel.”

“What, the bottles?”

“Yeah. Who’s got the best aim?” Craig was the dark soul of the group. He held the key to the destructive streak in all of us. We were in. No backing out.

Craig hurled his brick, catching us by surprise. It slammed into the side of the bottle, sending it spinning across the yard and into the pallet of roof tiles.

“Alright!” Lou was off, racing through the first floor rooms in search of ammunition. We weren’t far behind, scrambling around the house, through the doorless doorways, across the dusty concrete floor, gathering bricks strewn across the rooms. Armed with our missiles we let loose, one after another. The bottles proved elusive; the tiles though, well that was another matter. The satisfying smash of brick on tile, the sound of things breaking, the edgy thrill of damage being done.

“Hey!” An adult’s voice, deep and angry.

“Quick! Let’s go.”

Hearts beating fast, panic pushing towards the surface, we were moving, desperate to get out of sight. The sense of danger hit us hard, sending our thirteen year-old imaginations spinning to parts unknown. We followed Craig, steaming through the half-built house, down the scaffolding to the ground floor. We followed him into the corner room, the darkest place in the house, all musty smells and pipes and drains.

“Shh,” he said, finger to mouth.

It was Lou who giggled, then Scott who followed.

“Think he’s coming?” I asked.

We listened, hearing nothing.

“Right. We make a run for it. Meet you at the Reserve. Stay out of sight.”

Action. We were commandoes behind enemy lines. We sprinted from the building site, over the neighbour’s garden, down the side of the house, across the backyard, over the fence, across the next yard and the next one too. Another wooden fence, over that, then stop. Damn! A dog, a big one too. And it’s barking like there’s no tomorrow. Back over the fence, up to the street, sprinting now, burning lungs, giggles, whoops of laughter as we savour freedom, another great escape.

All that summer that half-built house was the centre of our worlds. We returned again and again, drawn like bees to a honeypot. It was the one place that lit up our imaginations like no other. It had been nothing but foundations at first. Metal rods, brick and concrete outlines, a rough, impenetrable pattern etched into the earth. Then the concrete, the beginnings of a floor. Walls of brick, rooms slowly taking shape, their functions still unclear. Each new development made for fresh discoveries, our imaginations set alight in ever more exciting ways: the dungeon, the love nest, the panic room. And still the house grew. An upper floor, more scaffolding, a roof. We were monkey warriors taking possession of a kingdom. Door frames and window frames: openings to our souls, our secret warrior selves. One day we’d battle each other, planks of wood, metals rods our sabres; the next we were a united army fighting the good fight, vanquishing evil, protecting what was rightfully ours, broken bricks our weapons of choice.

The changes kept on coming, bigger changes, grown-up changes. Doors and windows, tiled roof, ceilings, and polished wooden floors. I’d visit alone, let myself in, hang my proverbial hat and stroll through my castle. It was my home, my sanctuary, my secret life. The thrill of being there alone, a covert existence in a place that would soon belong to others. But for now, I made it mine, made it home, for hours at a time.

The march of time continued as summer gave way to the chill of autumn. I walked to the house, head down, hands in pockets, kicking stones. Looking up I gasped. The car in the drive, a new green carpet of grass across the yard, with plants and shrubs all neatly planted in rows. The doors, the windows, all securely locked, curtains obscuring the view inside. Locked out of our land of play, our own alternative reality. It was another’s reality now, the ghostly shapes behind the curtains bore silent witness to that.

But still I came.

I saw the kids, the new inhabitants, met them, got to know them. Arund Singh was just a little guy, younger than me, although his dad was something else. The dark features, the sunken eyes, the thick and hairy forearms. I couldn’t take my eyes off that thin brass bracelet always clasped around his wrist. I entered once, a birthday. New and foreign smells embraced me just inside the door. No more sawdust, no more scent of fresh cut timber. Exotic smells, sandalwood and jasmine too, and others I had no name for. Mountains of food on oversized furniture. Armchairs, sofas, embroidered with gold. Persian rugs, exotic colours, ancient designs obscuring the pristine wooden floor.

It was another world, one I’d never imagined even through all my flights of fancy. Those new discoveries left me giddy; left me breathless with the power of the unexpected. Life’s changes can so easily overwhelm a boy’s imagination. My head spun, overcome yet undeniably addicted. The possibilities of life! The unpredictable flow of what might just lie ahead. I knew it then and would not forget: one could reinvent, discover, remake one’s life just as often as required.

* * *

Years passed, life took its twists and turns, its detours and its fast lanes. Foreign lands, work and travel, life in other cultures. Connecting, learning, moving, changing, always something new. An eternal whirl of ups and downs as life took me for a ride. I didn’t see it coming. It caught me unawares: a malady that affects us all. Still, I thought I was immune, thought I was above it. But isn’t that the story of us all?

Rebecca was her name and of course I don’t resent her. Those decisions, I made them all for her, for us; I did it out of love. Many others I’d loved before her, loved their eyes, their hair, their smiles. Loved their jokes, their warmth, their passion. But they had always been apart. Something to enjoy, an experience to indulge in. Rebecca broke the mould. She never was an experience to tap into; she was from the start the very experience itself. I’d found my lifebuoy, my ballast, a reason to stay afloat.

She wanted kids. Permanence, she said. Time to build something more secure. She talked of a solid base, firm foundations, a buffer against the fickleness of life. I went along, believing. I understood the need, the imperative, to provide safe harbour for those who mattered most.

Foreign lands, distant cultures, customs and beliefs. Those things pale, they said. Security is what it’s all about, and that security is only found at home. I took their advice, did as I was told. I put down roots, established a house, a home, convinced by one and all of the need to settle down.

I climbed the rough concrete stairs, from the dusty downstairs to the floor above, no handrail yet, still nothing to hold on to. To my left the main bedroom. The bed would go there, against the wall beside the door. We would sit up in bed and look toward the sliding glass doors and the little balcony beyond. It was still nothing more than a rough ledge just then, no barriers or doors of any kind. But it existed sure enough, I saw it all, no imagination required. Rebecca and I had spent weeks then months; we’d mapped the whole thing out. We’d considered the needs of a growing family, rooms for in-laws, space for all their cars. We’d factored in the movement of the sun, how to catch the light but not the heat. We’d thought of bathrooms, kitchen, foyer, even designed a little office.

I walked through all the rooms. I didn’t see the rough brick walls or the splattered mortar here and there. I never noticed the bits of two-by-four lying on the rough and dusty concrete floor. I didn’t even register the pile of sand or the empty cement bags tossed haphazardly into a corner. I saw only that crucial finished product, everything in its place. Polished floors, painted walls, furniture – the whole thing scrubbed clean and made defiantly liveable. Comfort and security created through bricks and mortar.

I trudged out onto the front balcony, stood at the edge, looked down at the mess below. Emptiness had found its place inside and around me. An ending; the beginning of the rest of my days. I picked up a brick and threw it hard. It landed on the sand pile. It barely made a sound.

* * *

I left Rebecca to rhapsodize about each room, its function and its fittings. Colour schemes and fabrics, carpets and wallpaper – choices made, just waiting now to bring it all to life. The house was full, no room for surprises. She had the answers, had it planned from top to bottom. A parting kiss then out the door, too burdened by finality to spend another moment.

“It’s just the beginning!” she said.

Yes, I thought. The beginning of the end.

I didn’t think; I drove. I was there before I knew it, there before I knew the reason why. I got out of the car and looked, amazed, unsure if I had even come to the right place. The street, I checked the name; the house number, I checked that too. It left me off-balance, unsure of what to think. Across the road was a weatherboard cottage harking back to an earlier age, the sole survivor of its era.

I knocked. The woman was as old as the house, threadbare dressing gown, fluffy yellow slippers, and varicose veins dancing in between. Her hair was thinning, the rollers kept it curled, a bottle kept it auburn.

“I grew up a few streets away,” I began, “thirty years back or more.”

“I know who you are.” The eyes had narrowed, rancour crossed her face. Then like the passing of the years, it was gone. “You and those other boys. Got up to some mischief, you did.”

I didn’t care to reminisce, to return to a life long since left behind. But questions remained. Those days had formed me, shaped me, sent me down a path.

“The house,” I said, “across there, straight across the road.”

She shook her head and frowned. “Yes,” she said, “Oh yes, of course I know.” A plaintive tone, one full of sadness and regret.

“Trouble? Was there trouble?”

She took a breath, moved past me, and walked towards the wrought iron gate. She pointed with her chin. “I watched the old place go up, watched it day by day. Oh, don’t think I didn’t notice. You silly boys and all your games. Full of mischief, breaking this and that. I was on the verge a few times, I tell you that. Nearly picked up the phone and made that call. But…” She trailed off, letting the thought alone.

“But the Singh family – you knew them?”

“Course I did. Geeta and Aravind. Lovely couple, well mannered kids. But gee they pushed those boys. Guess it paid off. At least, that’s what they say.”

“How do you mean?”

“Law, medicine. The youngest one, Arund, a big shot businessman now, so they tell me. All moved out years ago, moved to their own places. The eldest moved to the States.”

“But the parents…”

“Stayed on at first. Just the two of them. But I knew that wouldn’t last.”

I waited, anxious not to break the spell.

“They sold out. I know that much. Up and left. They were still young really, still in good health. Geeta said they wanted to do it while they still could.”

“Do what?”

“Move on. Said they’d get a flat, something small, easy to maintain. They talked about having a base. They planned to travel. I don’t know why. Something about India, lost family, new friends. And then there was the son in the States, and relatives all over the world, it seemed to me. Geeta said it was time to go. She used to talk about lightening the load.”

“Lightening the load.”

“That’s what she said. Never really understood. A load of crazy dreams they had. The kids moved out and something changed. They never talked much sense after that.” The lady sighed, and leant a little more heavily on the gate. A cat made its way to her legs, an old gray mottled thing, with a touch of arthritis. She pushed it tenderly with her foot, unwilling or unable to bend down and say hello.

“And now this is what we’ve got.” She raised an arm and pointed straight across the street, then let her arm fall back down in a show of resignation. “They say it’ll be a six-storey condominium. We never used to have such things, not in our neighbourhood. Things used to be simple, on a smaller scale…”

I drifted off, no longer taken by her words, already seized by what she had told me. Back in the car a new lightness took hold. I drove back to the house, the weight lifted. I was renewed, changed in ways unexpected.

I picked my way through the debris of the front yard, crunched through the edge of the gravel pile, around the pallets of intact bricks, and into the house. Rebecca was there still, architect’s plans in hand, measuring, checking, seeing how it would be.

“You okay?” she asked, uncertain. “This is it, you know. It’s ours. I want you to be happy here.”

“I will be now. I will be, I know. This is the place, I get it now – a necessary pit stop.”

“Pit stop?”

“Why not?”

I kissed away her confusion, scrambled up the half-made stairs. On the would-be balcony I found a broken brick. I wound up and threw it hard, heard the thundering crash as it slammed against the mound of tiles.

“This’ll do,” I said, Rebecca by my side. “This’ll do for now, just until it’s time.”

Juniper Leaves

“Juniper leaves.”

Oh, here we go. He does that. Out of the blue. I’m supposed to know what he’s on about. “Juniper leaves, does she? And where does she go then?”

He looks at me, faint disdain on his face.

“What?” I say. I know his game but hell, I never could follow the rules.

“I’m not talking about a person, Miriam.”

“Oh. Right. No, of course you’re not.” I tug on my ear, look about the room, wishing there was more to rest my eyes on. I come back to him. Him. My husband. Leon Ariston. This bag of skin and bones with the white sheet seemingly floating over him. “So who are you talking about?”

“Not a who; a what.”

“Oh, right.”

“So you say.”

I wait. Our conversations are like this. We ease into them, let them find their own way.

He tries to pull himself a little higher on the bed, fails. I lean in towards him, an instinctive reaction. But the fire in his eyes stops me. My hands fall back to my sides.

“It’s actually a misnomer, you know.”

“Really. I didn’t know that.” There’s a hint of sarcasm in my voice. He spots it of course. He used to love that about me. Perhaps he still does. The spunk, he calls it. Love that spunk, Miriam. Or pluck. Can’t get enough of that pluck of yours, he’d say through that deep rich laugh of his.

“Juniper leaves, as I was saying, are not really leaves at all. A coniferous plant. Thus, they are needles. That’s the more correct name. More appropriate anyway. Hard and sharp. Can be prickly to handle especially when young. Remind you of anyone?”

I sigh, my legs suddenly heavy, my body sagging. I sit on the edge of the bed, gently, careful not to disturb, not to touch. I have nothing to say. I’ve been here before, we both have, doing this dance, skipping close but not too close.

“I had my dreams, you know.” He spits the words, barely loud enough for me to hear. “Aspirations. Professional stardom. Nothing was going to get in my way. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? I can say that now.”

“That’s no kind of secret.”

“No, but the secret was that I knew.”

“Knew what?”

“I knew I didn’t quite have it. Competent enough, of course. But I saw what others saw, managed only what countless others could do just as well. That was the secret. That’s why I kept my eyes open, always on the lookout for the extraordinary.”

I stare at him, search his face. “So there was nothing fortuitous about it. You searched him out.”

“I did. Ahmed Malouf. Oh, of course we were friends. But I had to nurture that, to make sure I was there in front of him, able to make myself palatable to him. And necessary.”

“Why are we doing this again, Leon?” I squeeze my eyes shut, annoyed with him now, annoyed with us.

“Miriam, we must. If not now then when?”

I sigh, turn away.

“Miriam, we must.”

I look at him at last, take up the challenge. “So that’s where it all started. It all goes back to your stupid insecurity, doesn’t it. That and your obsession with that incestuous little scientific community.”

“Yes. I suppose so.” There is no resistance. Too much time has passed for that. But still it rankles.

I can’t help myself. “All that nonsense back then – it almost killed the family dead. Before it even got going. And for years after. We all knew it. We all felt your damn obsessions, the resentment you felt after you came back for good. All that anger, the bitterness. You think James and Lance didn’t notice your moods?”

“I wanted more for them. I wanted them to have a chance at…”

“At what?”

He closes his mouth, licks his lips. “We love any way we can,” he says, more to himself than me”

“Love?”

“I know, I know. Such a fool. But…”

I bend towards him, kiss him on the cheek. I understand, always have. More than he will ever know.

He sighs, a hint of a smile crosses his face as I sit up and peer at him. We stay that way a moment. A moment. These are our moments. Amongst the carnage, the wreckage, we find them, always have.

His arm moves slightly under the sheet, breaking the spell. It’s his sign. He’s thirsty. He won’t ask. I take the glass from the bedside table, hold the straw for him.

“Anyway,” he says after a couple of sips, “did you ever wonder? All those years I was away?”

“It was Ahmed. All for the sake of Ahmed. That’s what you used to tell me.”

“Ahmed.” He broods on that a moment. “Yes. Yes, it was. At least at first. That man – my Lord! Exceptional. Driven, with a laser-like focus that none of us could match.” He trails off, gone, back to those times. I see it in his eyes. He has been doing this more and more as his body has started to disintegrate.

“He made palynology his specialty,” he says, eyes still misty, unfocused. “I told him it was a mistake. Too unglamorous. It wasn’t going to lead to any significant discoveries. I tried to redirect him. Others were convinced I was teaching him. I didn’t teach him.” He spits out the word. “No. He taught all of us, he shone a light on the future of the field. Pollen grains, spores. He said that was where the potential was. He was able to use all that new technology to make these things sing. That was his expression. Pollen that sings, that tells its glorious story, regales us with tales of past environments, with the evolution of the land we walk on.” A single, sharp laugh escapes him. “Oh, that man. He could talk. Romanticising the layers of the very earth.”

I look at him but he’s not there. The glory years. I’ve heard these stories too many times. I’ve heard of them in so many forms that I barely know fact from fiction.

“When he decided to specialise in carbon isotope signalling I thought he was mad. There was nothing there! There was no research, no interest. I was convinced it was a dead-end. That’s what everyone told him. But I kept my council, told him it was possible, said everything he wanted to hear.”

He taps his hand on the mattress, the sheet covering it billowing. I hold the glass, give him some more water.

“That’s why he took me with him when he went abroad, you know. That’s the real reason.” A quick glance in my direction. “So now you know. I was never a believer. Not then at least. But he thought… I allowed him to believe….”

“You held your tongue.”

“That overcoat of his. The stains, the dirt around the hem, the pockets bulging with God-knows what. Remember it? He wore it everywhere. He didn’t care. Shopping for clothes? It would have taken time, precious time.”

“You rode on those coattails.”

“Ha! More of that spunk of yours.” He laughs. I hear his chest rattling. “But yes,” he says, taking a breath. “Yes, I suppose I did.”

“You left me.”

“You could have come! Vienna, the university. You could have continued your studies there.”

“I was half way through my thesis. My advisors were here. Everything was here. My family, colleagues — ”

“Okay, okay.” He waves away my protests.

“Anyway, he led you. You were the one under his spell, not me.”

“I had to go. You know that. It was a miracle that I had even been offered something beside him. He had them in thrall. He saw things. And they loved him. Of course they did. Especially Emilie. She was older, five years older, already established. She was a true scientist. She wasn’t interested in fame or in seeing her name in lights. She wanted to uncover, to learn, to contribute to our knowledge of the past.”

“Back then, at the start, they were…?”

“She doted on him. No task was too small, nothing was too much trouble. And they were inseparable. He was obsessed with isotopic separation at the time and their facilities were extraordinary. She would help prepare the vacuum lines for carbonates, organic carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in silicates, sulphur in sulphides. There was so much to do. She made it possible. They got through so much together.”

“And you were there loving every minute of it.”

“Damn it, woman, I was his mentor. The voice of reason. I gave him perspective.”

“You sound like you were his grandfather.”

“I was older. He respected me.”

“You were peers. If that.” I hiss the words and wonder why. Annoyance, anger has crept up on me, as it so often does when we excavate our past. “You were gone for so long,” I say.

“It was essential. It was the making of me. Or it was supposed to be.”

I soften. I could have joined him, taken a leave of absence, been there beside him. I think this but cannot say it. He was vulnerable, hopelessly dependant. I sugar-coat the best I can. “You knew he wouldn’t remain a team player for ever. People like that – they don’t need others. They won’t be held back.”

I see him wince. I know the words hurt him still. But this is the ground we know. It’s a familiar tolerable pain, like dripping molten wax from a candle onto one’s chest.

He sighs. “No, no, no. It wasn’t like that.”

I wait. We both know where he’s heading.

“Juniper leaves. Whole trees.”

“Prickly to handle.”

“What? Oh. Yes. That’s right. Mmm. Right there outside the windows, from the lab to the office next door, a long row of them blocking what little light there was on those winter afternoons. That’s where she used to work, where she had her small table, her chair, her pile of notebooks, the typewriter as well.” He blinks rapidly, squeezes his eyes shut, then opens them again. “So much was handwritten back then, countless notebooks lying around. Everything was typed up later. Emilie was a marvel. She kept us – him – up to date. She recorded everything meticulously. Until, poof!” He raises his arm, jerks it upward, sending ripples along the sheet as his arm falls back to earth. “We were always smoking. We all were back then. Later he blamed Emilie. That was the start of it really.”

He turns his head towards the far wall. There is a tear in his eye.

“It was a cigarette. We were all quite sure of that. We’d leave them burning in the ashtray, forget about them as we lost ourselves in each experiment. But it was later. I’d gone to the canteen for a meal. Ahmed was completing his work with the mass spectrometer. Emilie, well, I never really knew. The office next door? Typing up her notes? I heard all the commotion, the shouts, the running along the corridor. Even from the basement you could smell it. By the time I got back up to the second floor, to the lab, the whole place had gone up.” He lets out a low whistle. “So much was lost. So much. So many months of research, so much equipment.”

I’m silent. I know the story. Of course I do. He had come home soon after. Used up two weeks of his precious leave. He’d told me the story, visceral and raw. But he couldn’t stay away. Unfinished business, he said. He had to clean up the mess. No, that wasn’t it. He had to steady the ship, that was his expression.

“It was never the same after that.”

“I know, dear. I know. But you had to try. Of course you did.”

“Idiot!”

The force of his word throws me backwards. I’m on my feet, staring down at him.

“Not you, my rose.”

“Him.”

“Him. And me. I wanted it, still wanted it all. Still believed… If only I could…”

I hold my breath, waiting.

“He blamed her, Ahmed did. He was distraught, beside himself with frustration. She was the obvious target. She was lackadaisical, careless, a blight on the scientific community, unable to follow basic protocol, derelict in her duties. And that’s before he got nasty. Sabotage, he called it. Undermining his greatness. Another jealous science whore. Wild crazy accusations.

“By the time he turned on me I was ready for it. Or thought I was. It didn’t make it any easier though. Gold digger, journeyman with delusions of mediocrity. Yeah, he liked that one. Delusions of mediocrity. Emilie would correct him. It’s ‘delusions of grandeur,’ she’d say. Couldn’t help it. She was like that. English was never her language but she was a stickler for correctness. He’d scoffed at that. ‘He doesn’t have delusions of grandeur. He’s not quite that deluded. He aspires to mediocrity, always has.’ Then he’d turned to me. ‘Well you just keep on striving for that, Mr. Nobody. But you can do it without hitching a ride on my back. I’ve carried you far enough.’

“I don’t even know if he meant it. Maybe it was just the rage, the anger of the moment. But that was Ahmed. Once it was said…” He raises a hand, lets it slip over the edge of the bed. I look at it, the veins, the spots, the bones somehow held together under that translucent skin.

“Ah, Christ, Miriam.”

I gather up his hand. I know what’s coming. Just as I know he needs to say it. I hold his hand in both of mine, letting it rest on my fingers.

“We were both hurt, both damaged. Then that day, early January. We’d all spent Christmas alone, wondering where we were heading. That first day back, we arrived early, before Ahmed. I don’t think that had ever happened before. It concerned us, scared us. We were in the office reviewing notes when he eventually came in. We hoped that we could all… Anyway, there he was. He was gaunt, his eyes sunken, his hair matted, that old coat dirtier than ever. The energy, the electricity, it wasn’t there anymore. Instead there was a chill. I remember, he looked at the two of us. Then, really quietly: ‘Emilie, perhaps you can find a piece of paper and a pen. Think you can manage that?’ She nodded, scurrying off to find the stationary. Then when she returned he walked out the door, stopping just long enough to tell us to follow. He stopped across the hall, in front of a rarely used lab. We waited, wondering. ‘Yes, this will do. A sign, Emilie. We’ll call it the science crèche. Just for the two of you.’ That was it. Typically sloppy put-down but it did its job.

“By the time he had gone back to the lab we were already getting into our jackets, pulling on our hats and scarves. Heads down, we walked out of the building in a daze. Then just kept going, out into the university grounds, down past the juniper, right across campus to the birch trees down by the frozen pond. The white of the snow, the pale birch, the black marks across their trunks, almost like signposts.” He pauses, groans slightly as he shifts on the bed, every movement now an effort. “Signposts… Ha. Leading us nowhere. Hell, we were both going round in circles, fearful, lost. We had no direction without Ahmed. So we held on to what we had, to the only other person who understood. We –”

“Stop it.” I squeeze his hand. Only his weak pulling away stops me, brings me back.

“Miriam, it was years ago. We both understood that it –”

“Stop,” I say in a whisper. “All those years. You’d come home, spend a week or two, maybe a month at Christmas. All those days locked away, just the two of us, late nights, late mornings, nothing to do but explore each other, hungry. And all that time – you think I didn’t know? You think I couldn’t spot a guilty lover when I saw one?”

“But you never –”

“What was there to say?” I look away, from the black emptiness of the flat screen TV to my fingers. I’m picking at my cuticles again. Pick, pick, pick, my thumb has a life of its own, I think, able to channel my emotions without my knowing.

He sees it too. “Miriam,” he says and sighs. “So many secrets.”

I hesitate, wondering, weighing up. My thumb is still out of control. “No, Leon. Not secrets. Just things we didn’t say, things we didn’t have to mention. Besides, life was taking over.”

He looks up, not quite comprehending.

“How long was it? How long was it that you were over there, with him, with her?”

“Five years, almost six. Six long winters with…”

“I know, I know. With the snow and the juniper and the birch trees. And her…”

Again he tries to pull himself up a little higher on the bed. This time he succeeds. “But you never said anything. You never asked me –”

“Don’t do it, Leon. Don’t do it.” I’m desperate, unsettled by where this is going. I stiffen.

“Oh, Miriam. Don’t they say it’s clearest just before the sun sets?”

“Don’t. Please. No more riddles. Let it rest. Please.”

He considers, brings a trembling hand to his mouth, runs his fingers across his dry lips. “Emilie and I, well, we still had our work, new work, we helped each other…”

“Helped each?” I scoff, despite myself. I know better, but still I feel the prick.

“Yes, Miriam, we… Well, there was more than just –”

“I know, I know, I know,” I say, not wanting to know a damn thing.

He whispers: “There was more.”

“Leon Junior.” The name is out before I can stop myself.

“Ugh.” I can’t tell if it’s a grunt of pain or shock.

“I had to know. I had to understand.”

“But you never… How could you know?”

Again I look away. Again that thumb goes to work. The skin beside the opposing thumb is raw, red and ugly. I ignore his question. “Besides, there were corners of my own life that –”

“Don’t. Please.”

I can barely hear him.

“Yes. Leon. Dark corners. You think it was just you with your hidden life? You think you were the only one for whom life went on? Is that what –?”

“I knew.”

My eyes spring up searching for his. He is calm, looking directly at me.

“I knew,” he repeats. “What could I say? I deserved nothing less. But still I hated it. Back there in Vienna, I’d curse you even as I watched Emilie sleep beside me.”

I take a moment, hesitate. “You don’t know, Leon. There is so much more.”

“There is nothing.”

“No.”

“Miriam. Help me, please. One last time, help me up.”

I reach under his arms, ready to pull him higher up the bed.

“No. Get me up. My clothes.” He points towards the tiny closet. His clothes are there, his pale blue long-sleeved shirt, his corduroy trousers, the dark brown jacket. And the navy blue tie he wore when he was admitted, that horrid tie, a reminder of that time, the university crest a long-lasting taunt.

“There’s not need…”

“Please Miriam. They’ll be here soon.”

“Who?”

“The boys.” He stops, his bony fingers latched around my shoulder, steadying himself. “How did it go? Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky.”

I groan, squeeze my eyes shut. “Please don’t quote your foolish poetry now. Not now.”

“Tagore. Not a favourite, but still.”

“What is this, Leon? What are you doing?”

“The boys. I just told you. They’ll be here any minute.”

Confused, uncertain, I help him up, trying to understand. I help him into his clothes, the shirt and pants, the jacket. He reaches for the tie. I shake my head. “No.”

“But…”

“No, Leon. Let it go.”

He lets his head drop, but I can see the hint of a smile. I’m unnerved, off balance. The secret. I thought I’d buried it. But I can feel it deep inside me, stirring.

“Yes,” he says, allowing himself to perch on the edge of the bed. “Yes. Those clouds.”

I look at him, His words sting me, bring tears to my eyes. I try to brush them off. “All this talk of storm clouds. You silly old –”

“No, not storm clouds.” He looks up at me. “Clouds.” And then: “The boys.”

“The boys,” I begin. The tears come at last. I shake my head. It’s all I can manage.

His hand is there, waiting for mine. Reluctantly, I let him take it, feeling dirty, sullied.

“Oh, Miriam. All that time I left you alone here. I was… Well, I wasn’t here for you.”

“The boys,” I begin again. I’m determined now. “I know that when you came back, we tried. Again and again. But that month after you’d leave, I’d hope, day upon day, I’d hope. But each time…”

He waits, perfectly still, barely breathing.

“That second year. Juno…”

“Yes. Another Juniper.”

“I was lonely, in need of… Anyway, he wanted me, wanted to help.”

“Help? Ha!”

“He knew we’d been trying, knew of my frustration. He suggested, offered…” With the back of my hand I wipe tears from my face. “James and Lance. They don’t know… I never wanted them to think…”

“I’ve always known.”

“What?”

“Miriam, I’m a scientist. I’m paid to observe.”

“So…” I wipe my hands on my slacks, look around. I’m missing something. “But if you knew…”

“There is nothing more to do but say goodbye. They’ll be here any minute. Let those clouds add colour to my sunset.”

I’m struck dumb, emptiness hollows out my stomach.

“We met too young, Miriam. Neither of us was ready. But we knew the time would come, that we would grow into each other.” He chuckles. His smile, cracked lips and all, is kind. His eyes shine. “It took us quite a while, didn’t it? But fifty years. It has to mean something. Perhaps nothing meant anything, until… Well, we must have meant something.”

I smile, hold him. “No more riddles, dear.”

“Mmm. Lives are never as expected. But to know when to take one’s leave…”

He leans back onto the bed just as the door swings open. There is commotion. Our two boys – men now – and their wives, their kids, they bustle into the room, all trying to stay quiet, but their energy is electric. It charges the room. Too many young lives, too much life. The world is upturned. Like it was back then.

I turn back to my love. He’s laying flat upon the bedsheet.

“You’re right, my love. It’s time.”

To the family beside me I smile through my tears. “What a beautiful sunset.”

“But Mum…”

I turn back to him, close his eyes with my fingers, and slip silently from the room.

 

 

 

 

Black Coffee

“Black coffee, please.”

“Huh?”

“Iced coffee. Black.”

She stares, then looks around, hoping for a miracle.

He closes his eyes, thinks. “Oh. Um, oliang.”

The young lady, complete with dirty, once-red apron and candy-pink T-shirt, offers the tiniest of smiles, pacified, relieved. She twists theatrically on her heels and saunters back towards the drink station.

Pleased with himself, he relaxes on the hard metal stool, rests his hands on his knees, and raises his chin just a little. His first word of Thai. Success.

The drink, served in a pink plastic mug, is sloshed across his table, coming to a halt in front of him, leaving a long brown tail in its wake. Shifting his eyes to the young waitress, he thanks her with a smile. But she’s gone, already laughing with a friend standing by the counter.

He takes a sip. “Ah, Christ.” A hit of overwhelming sweetness catches him unawares. He pushes the concoction away and turns his attention to the restaurant. Or the café. Whatever it is, it’s his first, the first he’s found, just around the corner from his hotel. Basic. Cream coloured walls, white rectangles where posters must once have been, a floor of unadorned cement.

He taps the rickety metal leg of the table with his shoe, sending more coffee sloshing onto the tabletop. Absentmindedly, he runs his hand along the edge of the table, feeling the worn plastic table covering against his palm.

Then he looks at his hand.

“Ah, yuck.”

Behind him, on the next table, he sees the dispenser. Toothpicks in front, napkins behind, tiny, bright pink things, each little more than the size of a finger. He grabs a handful, wipes his hand, the pile of tissue disintegrating between his fingers.

Okay, he tells himself. That’s it. Too much fussing. You don’t want to look like you’re just off the plane. He pulls out the book he started on that very flight. Yes, he’ll read. Cool, calm, and educated, even if it is just a cheap detective thing.

 

Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down beside the body, the torn corduroy jacket and lacerations to the face suggesting that he had not gone down without…

 

Holy shit. Look at those girls! Three of them, parading through the café, all with those tight black skirts and even tighter blouses. One in particular, her raven-black hair pulled back from her face, tied back haphazardly, held in place with a pencil. He watches her sit, all restrained grace, her eyes downcast, her back straight, her bosom straining through her blouse. He has prepared himself for this, done his homework. He’s ready.

But no. He tears his eyes away. No need to go at it like a bull at a gate.

 

Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down beside the body, the torn corduroy jacket and lacerations to the face suggesting

 

‘Excuse me.’ Yes, he knows the word in Thai. That will get him in. Then, ‘Are you thirsty?’ The perfect follow-up, and the only one he knows. He’ll buy them a drink, a coffee, a whatever.

“Ah, shit!” He reels back as if slapped. Should have known. The waitress, that same young girl, arrives with a tray of drinks, large mugs of some bright pink milky concoction. What is it with this colour? he wonders.

 

Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down beside the body, the torn corduroy jacket and

 

Look at her giggling, straw in her mouth, perfect teeth, eyes dancing. They’d communicate silently, through the eyes. He can picture it perfectly. They’d both recognize the urgency. She’d nod towards the unisex toilet at the back of the café. They’d glide towards it together, pushing their way in through the flimsy metal door. Once through she’d turn, slamming his body hard against the door, her mouth on his, her body leaning into him.

 

Inspector Grogan took a breath and knelt down…

 

He tosses the stupid book onto the table, letting it sink into the milky puddles, sick to death of the impotent inspector. Retrieving his coffee he holds the straw to his mouth.

A sudden shuffle at the students’ table. He swings his head.

“Ah, crap!”

His head goes one way, the straw another, the glass somewhere else again, leaving a long brown stain down his fresh white T-shirt. And just to top it off. They’re not. Are they? The three of them, standing together, hands held and released, quick hugs. But no. She’s sitting back down, watching her friends depart.

From behind his restored black coffee he sees her dig into her shoulder bag. She pulls out a book, a textbook. “Beginner English” it says on the cover.

Right. I’ll do it now. I’ll offer assistance, two young people, students, helping each other out. No, Wait. Let her get settled first. Let her get immersed, until she’s desperate for help. Then he’ll be the saviour.

He considers grabbing his own book, looks at the paperback now warped as it soaks up the liquid on the table, gives up on the idea. But look. She’s pulled up her head, there’s a frown on her pretty face. She’s at a loss, he can feel it.

He tenses, ready. This is the moment.

“Noooo!” Eyes to the ceiling as he groans. He slaps his forehead, curses. “Idiot, idiot.”

Draining the last of her pink syrup she rises to her feet, throws the bag over her shoulder and, with head held high, waltzes from the café, seeing nothing and nobody.

He slumps, arms spread across the table, oblivious to the sticky rivulets running across it. He stays that way, only slowly straightening, murky liquid running down his forearms. Taking his time, he pushes himself to his feet, snatching the little umbrella he had placed on the stool beside him. With a final glance at the table in front of him, he notices the book, but makes no effort to retrieve it.

Moving towards the exit, his eyes are drawn to the now empty table across the café. He lingers, takes a final look at nothing, and allows himself a single, unhurried chuckle. And then he’s gone, the rhythmic beating of his thigh with the small black umbrella marking his departure. Thwack, thwack, thwack.

 

* * * * *

 

He stares at the menu written on the wall behind the counter. Without his glasses he can barely make out a word. He squints, moves a step closer.

The woman at the counter, young but with a weather-worn countenance, adjusts her cap before smoothing out her matching brown apron, logo prominently displayed. She’s waiting.

He hesitates, uncertain. “Coffee. Black,” he finally says.

“Size?” Her voice is a monotone. He’s boring her, wasting her time.

“Oh. Um, I don’t know. Average. Medium.”

He pays, waits, before being sent to the end of the counter. He does as he’s told, staring at the satchels of sugar stacked high, beige with that logo in dark brown this time. And the napkins, mountains of them, large square piles, the same beige, the same brown logo front and centre.

He has his coffee now. With cane in one hand, coffee in the other he looks for a place to sit, spying a table towards the back of the café. It’s right in front of that silly imitation limestone wall, flanked by beige on either side. He blanches, pulling his eyes away from the décor. It’s all so disillusioning to him; not Thai, not anything, just achingly inoffensive.

Then he sits, easing his long stiff frame into an armchair. He exhales, relaxes, appreciating the cool of the air-conditioning. He leans back, shuffles a little, rests his forearms along the polished wooden armrests. He raises his eyebrows. Hmm. Not bad at all. It’s not often his poor old lower back gets the support it needs.

“Damn comfortable, this.”

He pulls out his e-book reader, his nod to the modern age. He’d read, enrich his mind for a change. Yes, he’d get his head out of other people’s business for once. There’s a newspaper on the table beside him. And women’s magazines beside it. He’s tempted. But no. That article from the New Yorker. The one about neoliberalism. He ought to read that. Shit, he thinks, scoffing at his own ignorance, shouldn’t he at least know what it is?

 

The market has become the organizing principle for social, political, and economic…

 

“Whoa,” he says beneath his breath. Now that’s an entrance. Two of them, professional types, sashaying into the coffee shop as if they own the place. Look at that – brilliant silk dresses, they’re shimmering, all lustrous burgundy and emerald green. One of the women stands out. She strides across the café floor, hips swaying, the greens and golds of her dress dancing around her curves. But it’s the enigmatic smile that does it for him. So calm, assured, at ease in her own delightful skin.

She’s no business of yours, he tells himself.

 

The market has become the organizing principle for social

 

But that soft, smooth skin. And that laugh. As if a wave of goodness has washed over her friend, unabashed warmth. So evidently successful and still so unaffected.

He casually dumps the Kindle onto the marble tabletop, rests an arm over the armrest, twisting his body slightly, so as not to have to crane his neck. This is it, he thinks. Perfect. It’s made for me. I’ll waltz over there. “Mudmee silk, correct?” That’ll get their attention. “Hand woven, no doubt. Yes, look at that.” He’ll reach out, run his fingers along the hem of her dress. “You can feel it, the character, the uniqueness of the weaving.” And looking into her eyes, he’ll whisper: “So elegant in its simplicity.”

Captivated, eyes wide, their surprise will give way to admiration. They’ll see him not as some aging retiree but as the fashionable sophisticate that he is.

Fucking hell. Already? They’re on their feet. They wai each other, say their farewells, speaking in hushed tones. But hang on. They separate. She’s alone at the table. And look at her – the way she settles herself, legs crossed, arranging her skirt just so. How does she do it? So casual yet held together so perfectly.

He’ll invite her to dinner, that’s what he’ll do. French, something long and lingering. Then she’ll lead him back to her penthouse apartment, views along the Chao Phrya. And there, in front of the enormous picture window, with all sounds of the city locked out, he’ll take her, leading her to the floor, the exotic Persian carpet, Mukmee silk long since discarded.

“Huh? What? No!” He barks at the waitress with the dull, hooded eyes. “Leave it. Please. I’m not finished,” he says, although he is, or might be. He isn’t sure.

He pulls the coffee mug closer, the Kindle too. Now, neoliberalism. But all he sees is that screen shot, a hundred fountain pens, nibs aligned.

“Do it,” he hisses to himself. He braces himself, feet pressed hard against the floorboards, hands gripping the armrests. Then hesitates. What’s that? Her iPhone? Crap. She pecks at the speed of light, thumbs ablaze. She’ll be done any second. Except she isn’t. She types and types.

But finally, the typing slows, then stops. And before he knows it, it’s gone, back into the depths of her bag. He steals himself, takes a breath. But she beats him to it. A quick look at her watch and she’s sliding around the table, hair thrown back, chin held high, eyes set on the door. And just like that she’s gone.

He throws his body back, allows his arms to hang limply over the sides of the chair. His head drops back and he’s still. In time he straightens up enough to stare at the door, still closing ever so slowly behind her. He shakes his head and lets out a single, solitary chuckle.

With steady hands he packs his Kindle into his bag. He checks his coffee mug, peering into its depths, surprised to find that it’s not empty at all. He pushes it away, uninterested.

A glance at his own watch. 4:30. Right. If he leaves now he might still be able to do that casserole. Those monster eggplants, the zucchinis and the sweet potato he’d trudged across the city to find. He could pick up some chicken but no, she likes her veggie fare. Yeah, get it into the oven soon and it’ll be done by the time she’s back. And the movie. She’d made him promise. That new Scarlett Johansson thing. Well, he could go along with that – a little eye candy on the big screen.

Soundlessly he gets to his feet and collects his cane. He makes his exit, slow, rhythmic steps, tapping his cane gently against his leg as he goes. Thwack, thwack, thwack.

 

 

 

Miles to Go

Flat on his back he lets his body go, feels it sink more deeply into the mattress. He’s not sleeping, nowhere near it. Eyes open, he sees the ceiling, a dull soft off-white in the glow from the bedside lamp. He notices the gentle shimmer of the shadow, an arc across the ceiling, the ruffled edges of the lampshade doing their own dance in the gentle breeze. The window is open, distant sounds, the indistinct hum of traffic at the crossing below, the whine of a motorcycle, distorted sounds of drum and bass from another apartment.

He turns his head slowly, admiring the beautiful slim line of her back, the curve of her hips, the angle of her shoulders as she lights another cigarette. He rolls on his side, better to watch her. She rewards him with her own movements, leaning back against the bed head, her bare breasts bronze under the warm glow of the lamp. He slides a hand across, rests it on the flat of her stomach. She doesn’t flinch, doesn’t move. Then his hand recedes, moving to his own stomach as he falls back onto his back, eyes catching those fluttering shadows again.

‘You’re worried.’

‘Not worried. Just thinking.’

‘Same thing.’

He sighs, keeps staring at the shadows. ‘She’s getting worse.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘I can’t talk to her. I just don’t know what to say anymore.’ He thinks a moment. ‘Maybe there’s nothing left to say.’ He runs a hand along his stomach, up to his chest, back again. ‘You know Jamie…’

‘Ah, let’s see. Your daughter. Bad boyfriend. Too young – was that him or her?’

‘Both.’

‘Both. You think they’re having sex. Such a sin.’

He blots out the irony, has no room for it. ‘I don’t think they’re having sex. I mean, I have no way of knowing. Mona thinks they’re having sex. She says she can tell.’ He rolls his eyes. ‘That’s all I hear from her these days. She says I’ve got to sort it out. Pull him aside. Sit them down. Talk to the boy’s parents, give them a lecture on the birds and the bees.’

‘Who? The boy’s parents?’

He glanced at her, annoyed. Her smile disarms him. His expression softens in return. ‘She wants me to make it all go away, I suppose.’

‘Buy them some condoms.’

He lets the remark hang there. ‘Great. Thanks for that.’

‘So what do you say to her anyway?’

He pulls himself up the bed, twists an arm behind his back, pulls up a pillow, leans back.

‘What do you say, Nev?’

‘That’s just it. What can I say? I listen. And listen. And she goes on.’

‘And then?’

‘I… I don’t know. She wears me away, chips pieces off me. By the end of the night, I’m so worn down…’

Another motorcycle roars past three floors down. They hear it take off from the lights, change gears. It’s a small bike, the engine screaming. He is happy for the distraction.

‘She wants me to quit,’ he says, eyes focused on the fluttering curtain by the window.

‘Quit what?’

‘My job.’

‘The software developers? I thought you liked it there.’

‘Freelance,’ he says. ‘Mona thinks that would be the best thing for our future.’

Deana takes a final drag of her cigarette before stubbing it out in the ashtray.

‘She says I’m not going anywhere with the job I’ve got now. There’s no way to get ahead. She thinks I’ll still be doing the same stuff in ten years, for the same pay, unless I make it happen on my own. I’ve got enough contacts. She keeps telling me that they would stick with me, help me out. Work from home, that’s her idea. I’d see more of the kids.’

‘More of her too.’

‘I could work my own hours, although the idea would be to work really hard for a few years, get a reputation and then ease off.’

‘So what do you think?’ She says this as she swings her legs off the bed. She grabs her silk gown from the chair, throws it on in one languid motion and saunters to the kitchen. She’s back in a moment, two wine glasses and an open bottle. She pours, hands him a glass. He takes it, places it on the table beside the bed. Allowing the robe to slip off her shoulders onto the floor, she slides back into bed.

Deana sips her wine, lights another cigarette. Nev doesn’t seem to notice.

‘When I go to work I’m part of a team. I’m appreciated. I’m not the greatest developer. But I’m okay. I enjoy it. I enjoy them. When we collaborate, talk through problems, brainstorm the way forward, I feel part of something. It keeps me connected. I look at the other people there, their lives, how they live, and I get perspective. I get an idea of how I’m doing.’

‘And how are you doing?’

‘What? Oh…’ He throws an arm up, then lets it fall heavily on the rumpled bedsheet. ‘Thing is, people talk…’

‘What? About you?’

‘No.’ He shakes away the idea. ‘Not that. They talk, really talk.’

‘To each other?’

‘There’s that, sometimes. But they talk to their partners. They discuss things, they listen to each other, decide things together. I hear it. “Oh, Jean wants to do this, but I said it probably wasn’t the right time, but she reminded me that…”’ He trails off. ‘Anyway. They talk. As I say.’

There is silence. Deana takes another drag, leans her head back and lets out a steady stream of smoke. Nev, arm back resting on his stomach, watches the smoke mingle with the shadows, changing hues, from light to dark.

She talks…’

‘Who?’

‘Your wife, Mona.’

‘Ha. Yeah,’ he says in a quiet voice. ‘She talks. She talks and talks. Tells me things. Things I should do, what I can be, how I can be. She talks to this person in front of her.’

‘That’s you.’

‘Is it? She’s telling me things that don’t fit. She’s talking to someone who’s not there.’

‘But you are there.’

‘Someone’s there.’

You’re supposed to be there.’

‘I thought I was. I mean, that was the idea. Then one day I realized that I… I don’t know. I misplaced myself.’ He sits up, pulls his knees up under his chin, wraps his arms around them. ‘See, when you’re young…’ He starts again. ‘Young or old, I guess. Any age. Anyway, you meet a girl, you want to make an impression. You talk, you do things. You try to read her, find out what she wants, what makes her smile, what makes her eyes grow wide, what pulls her in. You set out to make her happy.’ He’s looking straight ahead now, across the room. There is a small stone bas-relief on top of the chest of drawers, images of creatures, reptiles, he thinks, two legs, large claws, a tail. And wings. ‘There are things you don’t mention, not at first. All the skeletons in the cupboard, all the baggage. All that stuff that weighs you down, you try to avoid it at first, just until… Well, just until.’ He pulls his knees a little closer to his chest. ‘I saw my brother die, Dee. He was nineteen. Luke… He thought he could do anything. He was smooth, this laconic guy who’d throw his arm around anyone, just to make them feel good, feel included. And then he’d tell you all his plans. He was going to travel, but not just to the usual places. He said it had to be bigger than that, more significant. His was going to start in Israel, on a kibbutz, and then jump over to the Occupied Territories, to Palestine, and spend time in Gaza. That was him. He had his mind absolutely fixed on it.’

Another cigarette smoulders untouched in the ashtray. ‘But…’

‘But…’ He sighs. ‘I don’t know. He fell in with a bad crowd. That’s the official version. He kept telling me that he needed to get going, to kickstart his life. He got a job. Some sort of office work. Oh, if you could have seen him… The nine to five grind was never for him. Life was passing him by, that’s how he felt. Making minimum wage, saving next to nothing. He didn’t have the patience. So he got into drugs. I don’t blame him. I don’t blame his friends. Life isn’t right for everyone.’

‘Shit.’

Nev shrugs. ‘Yeah. He ODed. Heroin. I found him, needle still in his arm. Blue. Tried everything, but I knew.’ The bas-relief is moving, or it appears that way. The dragon or wyvern or whatever it is, is flexing its muscles, preening. ‘The family kept it quiet. Anyway, I somehow never told Mona. Like everyone else, she thinks he died of natural causes. Shit, natural causes… What does that even mean?’

Deana lets that sink in, then turns sharply to the man beside her. ‘That’s terrible, Nev. At least what happened to your brother is terrible. But what does that have to do with your wife? It’s different.’

‘It’s me. It’s part of me. She doesn’t know how I feel. These things form you, they mould you. She wants to buy a house, did I tell you? She wants to stop renting, to get a mortgage and move to the suburbs where there’s more space for the kids.’

‘So?’

‘I can’t. I just can’t. That would be the death of me. Like Luke. He needed more, needed to spread his wings.’

‘But that was him.’

‘I know that. But I feel it. I think about it every day. It enters my dreams, fills my daydreams.’

‘What does?’

‘Travel. No, more than travel. Joining in. Being around people. Being a part of something.’ He kicks his foot, just for the hell of it, lets it drop back onto the bed. ‘I don’t know, maybe I could volunteer somewhere.’

‘Jesus,’ she says under her breath. ‘What, you want to save the starving children now?’

He waves the comment away. ‘I want to get my hands dirty. Build stuff. Maybe build houses for people.’

‘Where the hell did that come from?’

He looks at her, raises and eyebrow, then allows his eyes to settle on the restless wyvern on the dresser once more. ‘Building, putting things together. Do you know Mona thinks I’ve got to be badgered into fixing things? A door knob, a leaky tap. She doesn’t even realize that I love all that. I love building, working on things.’

‘You don’t tell her this stuff?’

He’s quiet. ‘She fell in love with an artist.’

Deana almost chokes on her wine. She licks her lips and stares at the man beside her, frown spread across her face.

‘I used to quote from the classics. Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost. I’d write poetry for her. Do charcoal sketches of her.’

‘I never knew…’

These woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

‘You wrote that?’

‘Robert Frost.’ He sits up a little straighter, suddenly still. ‘Wish I’d listened to myself.’ He watches the wyvern quivering on the dresser. ‘But it was all about winning her over. She studied art history and English literature so I figured…’ He picks up his wine, puts it down again untouched. ‘So now she wants to buy, to commit to the suburbs with a thirty year mortgage. And the thought of it…’ He exhales, half sigh, half groan. ‘The future isn’t mine. But I’m locked inside, can’t find my way out.’

‘And so all the while she –’

‘Has no idea.’ Nev turns to her, reaches out, takes hold of her arms. ‘I sold her something. She bought it. And now…’ Letting go of her, he pushes himself from the bed, stomps across the bedroom, then turns to her again, looking at her, looking through her. ‘And you know the funny thing? I still love her.’

‘Ha!’

‘She knows my moods. She feels when I’m down, when I’m frustrated, anxious. She feels when I’ve had a bad day, or a good day. But she doesn’t know what to do about it. She still thinks I’m a loner, that I’m happiest with the family. Hell, I made myself into that as soon as I realized that family was the only thing that mattered to her. I stopped seeing friends, stopped going out with mates…’

‘You didn’t give up everything.’

He stops, hands hanging loosely by his side, the slight beginnings of a gut protruding. ‘No,’ he says quietly. He goes to her, sits beside her on her side of the bed, takes her in his arms, feels her head against his shoulder. He kisses her long black hair. ‘You’re an angel, Dee.’ Letting her go, he moves around the bed, takes his wine glass and has a sip, screws up his face. He replaces it, then wanders to the window, stares out at the wet road below, the odd car sending out a spray of water as it cuts through the intersection.

‘I see my life. The past is so far behind me, but it’s still there, still chasing me. The future is right before my eyes. And it scares me. I’m trapped in the back seat of a car, speeding down the highway. I just can’t grab hold of the steering wheel, can’t reach it.’ He turns to her; she’s rubbing her arms with her hands as if she’s cold, despite the humid evening air. ‘You know what her friends say about me? They say I’m considerate, well meaning. They say I’m devoted, the epitome of a settled family man.’

‘Is that what Mona says?’

He doesn’t hear. ‘My life is a performance, Dee. I’m an actor in a play. I want to rewrite my lines but… Does everyone feel like that?’

‘I write my own lines,’ she says to her near-empty wine glass. ‘That’s not going to change.’

Nev stares at her for a moment then turns again to the window. A shake of the head and he hustles out the door, returning a moment later with a beer. ‘So,’ he says. ‘I know what you’re going to say.’

‘I wasn’t going to say anything, Nev. I’m perfectly happy just watching you walk around the apartment, parading your wares for me.’

He looks down at himself, suddenly conscious of his body. ‘But with Mona. I know what you’re going to say.’

‘And what’s that?’

‘That I should talk to her. Tell her about my past, tell her about my brother, how my father used to discipline us, how –’

‘How you father what?’

He waves away her question. ‘Tell her everything. Tell her about the drugs, the rehab, the –’

‘Hang on! The –’

‘Yeah Another time, Dee. Anyway, I should tell her what I want, what I need, what I feel – everything. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?’

It’s Deana’s turn to stand. She moves across the room to him, pulls him to her, wraps his arms around her waist, leans into him. ‘No, darling.’

“‘No” what?’

‘No. No, I don’t think you should tell her anything. It’s best left alone now.’

‘But I can’t get close.’

‘You said it yourself. She knows you as someone else. Show her something different and…’

He opens his mouth to speak, to protest. He searches her face, looking for something, an answer, a road sign to his future. But the moment is gone, her mouth covers his, their eyes close, their bodies come together. Deana directs them to the bed. He feels her warmth, allows her to envelop him, feels his own moment of introspection passing, other needs arising.

She comes up for air, sees his eyes still closed, smiles, and gives the smallest nod of approval.

 

* * * * *

 

He walks from his car, backpack over one shoulder. The sun is setting, the street swathed in a soft orange light, the shadows of buildings stalking forward, eager to obliterate it. It’s the usual time, usual day. A coincidence. But everything is different. Even the traffic is not as it usually is. Cars are sparse, the road all but empty. What traffic there is moves at a snail’s pace as if sedated by the hot summer evening air.

Passing the newsagent, he nods at the proprietor moving his advertising boards inside, preparing to close.

‘How’s it going?’ says the man.

‘Closing early?’

‘Christmas Eve. Figured I might get home to the family, you know?’

A chill runs through him, his throat tightens. There is nothing to say, nothing he can say. He stumbles on, pushes through the front door of the building, up the dimly lit staircase, one floor then another. A single knock on the door.

‘Nev!’

He takes a step forward, allows his backpack to slip from his shoulder, falling to the ground just beyond the threshold.

‘I wondered…’ She pulls him in, pulls him to her. She wraps him in her arms, stills him, hears his laboured breathing.

‘I…She…’

Deana moves back, gives him space, waits from him to get it out.

He shakes his head. ‘Said she couldn’t take it.’

‘Take what?’

‘Me. Said I’d lost my soul.’ His eyes focus briefly, widening, blinking. ‘My soul! That’s what she said. I used to have passion, I used to get excited. She said she remembered when I used to wear my heart on my sleeve.’

‘And…?’

‘And now I’m just a shell.’

‘So did you talk to her? Did you tell her about…?’

Nev is shaking his head, again and again, relentlessly. ‘How could I? Like you said – imagine what she’d think? All these years… The deceit, the years of pretending, then all of a sudden…’

Deana leans into him, arms around him, cheek on his shoulder. She squeezes her eyes shut, just for a moment. A final ray of soft orange light colours the room. She suppresses a smile but can’t help her eyes from dancing. ‘You see?’ she says, her voice a whisper. ‘You see? I was right!’

‘Right? Right!? She left me, Dee. Kicked me out. Said she’d had enough of living with a cardboard cut-out.’

‘Yes. Yes, I know. But Nev, don’t you see? It’s for the best. You always said there was no time to start. Well now there is.’

‘I started years ago, Dee. I just lost control of the wheel.’

She holds him more tightly still, smiles to herself. ‘That’s okay, darling. I’ll do the driving now. It’s my turn at the wheel.’

As if awoken from a slumber, he lurches back, looks down at this woman, her long black hair flowing freely, silk robe rippling against her curves, eyes fixed on his. ‘God!’ He swings around, stumbles to the door.

‘There’s nothing out there, Nev. You’ll disappear, never see yourself again. You know you can’t live a daydream.’

He picks up his backpack, throws it over a shoulder and reaches for the doorknob. With a hand resting on the metal knob, he stops, his breath coming quickly. And then he wilts, his backpack slipping from his shoulder to the floor, his forehead coming to rest against the door.

‘I’ll make you something, darling. You can start again, be who you’ve always been with me – but more. I’ll make you into more than you ever were!’

With head still pressed hard against the door he speaks. ‘I never learnt to love.’

‘I’ll teach you.’

‘No. I can only do that on my own.’

‘Don’t be silly. How can you hope to love alone?’ She hustles towards him, arms outstretched.

He moves quickly, sparked into life. With a final act of will, he heaves open the door and pushes through it. He is gone, miles to go, to find a future that he never knew he had, a person that he never knew he was.

 

 

 

Backed up in a Bubble

Backed up in a bubble, a smoking dome, anxious hands and cigarettes. Desperate  drags, never enough, the final soldier glowing down to nothing. Lighters run through fingers, elbows bend, fingers tap. Incriminating sandpits full of butts.

I play in the sand and offer a wry smile. My life in code: full of butts and maybes. All the muffled questions, dreams so long repressed. I exhale and wonder, heavy, stale, and dulled, just where I might have got to had life not interfered.

“Nice to see a smile,” says the man with bloodshot eyes, “Off on a trip then, is it?”

A smile despite the trip, I want to tell him, but look away instead. Anxious men and women avoid my vacant look, furrowed brows and twitching hands of those with flights to catch. All sharing the same discomfort: the stress of expectation, the penance before the thrills, get through the flight and then the vacation really starts, or so the story goes.

I look back at Mr. Butt-holder. I’ll do a deal, I want to say. Give you all my trips for that one final escape.

He sees my look, reads it as an invitation. “So where you headed?” goes the question, talk and tobacco calming fraying nerves.

“Hong Kong,” I mumble quietly.

“Heard it’s wild,” he wants to tell me, “chock-full of people, all going hell for leather. A city that never…”

“Work.” A word to shut him down. Can’t help it. His single, shallow assumption, so painful in its ignorance, sends glowing embers through my heart. “It’s work, just work. Sixty-one hours. Meetings. Deals, dinners, dollars, and trade-offs.” A life that’s swallowed me whole.

“Oh,” he says, deflated.

I consider hitting him with the rest of it but don’t trust myself. Hong Kong and then Guangzhou, Shanghai, and back to Sydney. A merry-go-round for suits, silk ties at the ready, air-conditioned lounges, dimly lit bars. Handshakes, backslaps, and forced laughter, the real currency of the trip. I want to reach for my companion’s throat and yell the sullied truth into his face: overweight and overtired, I’m going nowhere faster than the rest. I take a drag of another smoke and let my head fall back against the glass wall.

“Bet you’d rather be home then,” says he of the smoking fingers, eyebrows raised in hope.

Why dash his hopes? “Yeah. Course,” I say, embarrassed by my lie.

The moment slings me forward, a week from now in Sydney. Seven days lost in hotel foyers then off to war I go.

Aging parents, Sunday lunches. A lifetime institution, rotten to the core. Roasted meat and fireworks, a ritual of hurt. I shake my head at the thought of it as I make my way to the gate. By the time I board the plane, the memories invade me, shivers rustling down my spine.

* * *

“Got the roast on,” she says, sleeves rolled up and sweating.

Mouth open to respond, Dad’s hand slaps me on the back. “How about a beer, old son?” he says with false bravado. Legs astride, fingers digging into my shoulder, trying to be my mate.

“Just go easy on him, Ron. Why offer the boy a beer?” She wipes her hands on the tea towel, throws it on the table. It’s a declaration of intent, a sign of what’s to come. “Look at the boy, why don’t you? You think he needs the extra calories?”

“Let the boy alone, Pamela. We don’t see him every day.”

“Almost every Sunday.” I say it as a prisoner, one whose fate is sealed.

“Just have a God damn beer,” he says, as he forces it into my hand.

Mum sees that as her opening, her moment to attack. “Been out of sorts for weeks, he has. Bear with a sore head is what he is.”

Accusations designed to wound. “Oh, can’t you give it a break, woman?”

“Just saying is all. The Widdowson’s house next door. He thinks they’re going to build, add a second storey.”

“I bloody well know it. Destroy the view it will.”

She checks the roast again, shakes the pot of beans. “It’s all in his mind. Hasn’t even bothered to ask old Reg. They don’t talk these days, you see.”

“Listen, I know what’s going on. I seen the builders, I have.” He’s at the table, chugging his beer, legs and arms well spread. He’s still got a point to prove. “I keep my eyes open, that’s all.”

“He snoops,” she says, “then comes to these crazy conclusions.”

He’s standing now, puffed-up chest and all. “Least I don’t believe everything I see on that damn TV.”

“Nothing wrong with watching the news.”

It’s getting out of control, as it always does. Daggers back and forth. Vicious barbs designed to wound and maim. I sit and keep my head down, the DMZ runs through me. Grenades across the kitchen, yet another skirmish. The hits and misses of a lifetime, no quarter asked nor given.

I sit, refusing to say a word. I’ve taken that route too often. With snipers either side, I’ve been bloodied once too many times. So I chew through the roast, tough and dry and lifeless. Cooked with a grizzled determination, no half measures allowed.

“These Asians,” she says, apropos of nothing. “Everything cooked in seconds. Seen it on TV. Surprised they survive. The unclean meat, the dirt, the rats. They should all be dropping like flies.”

Dad assumes the high ground. “Your mother doesn’t approve of much of anything cooked for under an hour, and nothing cooked by Asians.”

Knife and fork set carefully down, she comes back swinging. “Look who’s talking,” she says. “You almost had a fit when the Arabs moved in on the corner.”

“Live and let live,” says Dad, and I wish for once he would believe it. He waves his fork, a point to make. “They’ve got their land and we’ve got ours. Simple as that.”

I run for the door feeling dirty, shit stains down my brain. I send her a kiss, him a handshake, playing man, thinking boy, dreaming life as someone else.

* * *

The in-flight announcements bring me back to my latest reality, just as futile as the other. There’s so much of me running nowhere, hoping for a break, stuck tight in a deadly holding pattern. It’s just such a long way down. I’m off the plane, in the terminal, transfer, duty free. Two-hour stopover. Welcome to Singapore, says the sign, as if it makes a difference. I drift around in circles, finally stagger to the bubble. I sit and smoke and close my eyes, hear the call for boarding. Do as I’m told, no thought, no feeling, numb to life’s adventure.

Look up, departures, a board of yellow letters. I’m half-way there; half-way to nowhere.  Deadened, moving. To the gate, with boarding pass, passport, held loosely in my hand. Hold them out to the woman, make-up and perfume. Check my life in barcodes.

“Sir? Sir!”

“Yes,” I say. “I’m here.”

“Your destination, sir. Not here. Further down,” she says while pointing. “Just keep going. You’re half-way there.”

“Yes, yes. Half-way. So sad – I’m half-way there already.”

“No,” she says, concern peeking through the make-up, “down there, down there.”

“Yes, I know. Half-way down to nowhere.”

“To your gate, sir. Half-way there.”

I move off slowly, boarding pass fluttering to the ground. Half-way? No, not really. But on my way at last. To nowhere, to anywhere. Exit. Follow the signs. To somewhere. No departure, not for me. I’ll walk. And find my own way.

Without. Being taken. For a ride.

The Man with the Pencil-Thin Moustache

The bus, hot, steamy, airless. Stepping out, a moment’s relief, the cool evening air rushing over him, tingles running down his dampened back. He walks past the bus shelter with its flower seller and coffee machine, past the pizzeria and the second hand clothes shop. He turns right and winds his way through the narrow alley leading to the crumbling apartment buildings behind, skipping over the muddy patches of ground as the sound of traffic recedes behind him. There is a small park between buildings, cracked concrete paths, patches of browning grass, trees with a few remaining wispy leaves above, muddy brown soil below.

They are there. Again. The two of them.

He slows, unable to get his legs moving at a more appropriate pace. He looks their way as he knows he must. Her first, the straight black hair much longer now, resting on her narrow shoulders, the fringe cut straight, or almost straight at least. There she is with her hands resting in her lap, fingers linked. She wears the dark blue woollen dress he has seen her in so often. A white cardigan is wrapped around her shoulders in acknowledgement of the cooling of the days. She doesn’t move, nor does he expect her to. Her left shoulder barely touches that of the man beside her, he of the pencil-thin moustache. Back straight, head held high, he looks taller than he really is. He is solid, broad across the chest, with a bearing that suggests confidence. He knows he is imposing, a man of authority and carriage. They have never spoken, not a word. But he feels the man’s power. It is in those hard brown eyes, the set of the jaw, and the clothes. The well pressed shirt, long sleeves always, buttoned at the wrists. The waistcoat, the charcoal grey scarf slung simply around his shoulders, the dark trousers, and the polished black leather boots planted twelve inches apart, knees forming a perfect right angle.

Without quite stopping he turns his head and nods, as he always does, a gesture of acknowledgement, a recognition of the very thing he can never accept. The man nods back, a slight lifting of the chin, nothing more. As for her, he likes to think he sees the corners of her mouth turn upwards just a little. But he knows better than to go on pursuing those hollow dreams. He has made his decisions, seen life take its course.

There is a gripping pain that beats hard through his chest, an ache he has not even begun to deal with. That, despite the frequency of these encounters. He thought of it as a taunt at first. There, of all places! There, on that lone bench, beside the very path that led to his own home. Perhaps it is a taunt, a silent statement of intent at least. But he doesn’t believe that, he can’t believe that. Her presence speaks of other meanings; her eyes confirm them. It is the slightly rounded shoulders that really speak to him, saying things he never wished to hear, things that come as no surprise.

Past them now, he swings his head around, taking in one more painful glimpse: the two of them, so still, so separate, yet together day after day. He wants to believe she is still entirely alone as she was. And perhaps she is. But he also knows she will always be there, right beside the man with the pencil-thin moustache.

 

* * * * *

 

Five months before, as another man, still hollow, filled with disappointment and dismay. The graduation party, his not hers. He had wanted nothing more that to have a splash; a night to draw a line under four miserable years of university life. Four years of mismatched dates and forgettable friends, people with agendas that didn’t include him, lives that had no connection with his own. By the end of it he wanted nothing more than a memory, something to look back on with a fondness that had so far eluded him.

A crowd on the boardwalk, spilling down onto the beach. A warm summer’s night, fires burning in forty-four gallon drums, music pumped from the speakers near the trees. Just the barest slither of a moon, the sand and water beyond obscured by the darkness, an otherworldly mist drifting over. He saw her out of the corner of his eye, gyrating, arms held high, head thrown back, long dark hair tossed from side to side, swaying to the music. He turned, she turned, smiles shared between them. He held out his arms, his own body swaying. Fingers touched. Moving closer, hands came together. In synch now, two sets of hands came to rest on the other’s hips, holding, pulling, bodies momentarily pressed together. Unexpected laughter ringing through the air as one song gave way to another. She threw her hands high into the air again, letting her body go, luxuriating in her own suppleness and grace. He followed her, determined, his own hands raised, forcing his hips one way then the other. More laughter, from her this time. He smiled back, a forced grin as the motions took their toll. But it was a different sort of laughter now, he knew that in an instant. A hand to her mouth, a long slow shake of her head, a twist of her shoulders and she was his no longer, if she ever had been.

He danced on, his heavy lumbering body, making his own pirouette. He allowed his eyes to close, wiping the image, the picture of him and her, the stupidity of it all. Opening them again, he saw the sea, the endless inky blackness, the dull white froth at the water’s edge. The space, the distance. He wanted it to take him, to consume him. Except he didn’t. He had had enough of that.

Heavy steps back up along the sand, head down. Only the heat of the fires brought him back. Looking up, a flash of flame from one of the drums left him momentarily blinded. Movement came from behind it, a silhouette, small and dark, half hidden by the firelight. She was short, narrow hipped and waif-like. Her hair was short, cut roughly, ragged front and sides as if cut without a care. Arms held out from her sides, her shoulders rose and fell, left then right, her legs swinging, kicking up little plumes of sand, sending her body lurching from side to side. Stiff, jerky moves prevented her from ever flowing with the music.

He realized that he had stopped, stilled by her, trapped, enraptured.

Her eyes met his, the stare direct, unflinching. There was no grin, no laughter, no head thrown back or arms thrown high. Beyond her jerky movements there was something more, a certain steely calm that wouldn’t let him move away, wouldn’t let him move at all.

Rousing himself, he forced his legs and arms into action, swaying again, his body twisting and turning to the music, his eyes never leaving hers. Then he stopped. He just stopped, the music no longer there, the urge to move a thing of the past. He allowed himself to be pulled closer, helpless against her power. Those big almond eyes, steady, unblinking, all-seeing. And that mouth with those soft red lips. There never was a smile, not really. An open book, there to read, hiding nothing, trying to be nothing more than what she was.

“You’re not from my year, are you?”

“I’m not from here at all,” she said.

“But you’ve come along. You’re here.”

“Just something I had to do,” she said.

“And now you’re here?”

“Now I’m here?” She shrugged. “Seems like I was right to make the effort.”

Her awkward shuffling had stopped, giving way to something else. Two bodies stilled, drinking in the other. He reached for her, found her hand in his. They turned together, took the first deliberate step along the beach. Down to the cool sand at water’s edge, the gentle ripples guiding them, their faces turned inwards, eyes locked upon the other. Words were scarce, none needed, none wanted, nothing to interrupt whatever it was they had found. In silence there was peace, a place to rest, a calm port of call. The two of them, beautifully alone.

By morning she was gone, as he knew she would be. He had never dared to wish for so much as that, a necessary measure in self-preservation, the success of which was still in doubt. But for that moment he had lost himself, put himself aside. He had found something beyond the border of his self, found more than he had ever thought existed.

 

* * * * *

 

Colder now, hat on, he pulls his old grey overcoat a little tighter around him. Shoulders hunched against the gusting wind, he plunges his hands into his pockets, tucks his chin into the thick of his rough woollen scarf, and shuffles forward. He’s late this evening, the sun has set, a late winter chill descending on the grey and lifeless apartment buildings. The mud in the lane between the buildings has dried. He crunches over it, slow heavy steps, giving expression to another long and uninspired day at the university. A month has passed since he last saw her, seated there beside the man with the pencil-thin moustache. He thought he would have been relieved, spared the ignominy, the confrontation with who he was and what he’d done. Time and again he had stopped to stare at the empty bench, its four painted yellow slats, another four for the backrest, the seasons’ dirt and grime transforming yellow into dirty brown, the hard-packed earth beneath still bearing the imprint of his ripple-soled polished leather boots.

But there she is, there they are. He slows, inadvertently, his feet seemingly stuck to the cracked concrete of the walkway. He nods ever so slightly, as he always does, but there is nothing. His head is held still, his long neck exposed, bare despite the chill. A black overcoat is draped limply around him, his hands resting, lifeless, one on his thigh, the other, palm up, on the bench itself. There is darkness about him, his eyes hooded, his mouth turned down. The man swallows once, his Adam’s apple dancing briefly, the only sign of life.

His eyes are quickly drawn away. It is her he feels compelled to look at, her he feels drawn to still. The narrow face, the dark hair, the almond eyes hinting at an Asian ancestry he never did discover. The mouth is a line, red lips in the cold held lightly together, giving nothing away. And still he stares, his feet only now shuffling slowly forward. He allows his head to turn to the right, keeping them in view, watching her, waiting, wondering. It comes slowly, the merest hint of movement, a slight lowering of the eyes. She blinks, once, her eyes closing and then opening again, directing his own eyes, moving them downwards. He sees her hands. They are clasped across her belly, fingers woven lightly together. Despite the thick tartan coat, he spots it, the stretch of the woollen fabric, the bulge between her narrow hips.

He sets off more quickly, mouth open, taking in cold gasps of air. The heavy metal door of his apartment building is ahead. He leans into it, pushes through it with his shoulder. Two more paces and he is at the elevator, the cold, rough steel doors shut, inert. He stares, spots a reflection in those elevator doors, the brushed stainless steel sending back a desiccated self, fractured, broken. Seven months ago, he had found something, seen another world illuminated for a moment. Seven months ago he had seen his limitations.

He sighs, staring hard at the image there before him. One night. The world had tilted, been made different from before. Unbalanced, he moves away, taking the stairs, the long climb upwards, going nowhere. He had given it all up, as he knew he had to, to the man with the pencil-thin moustache.