I thought I had gotten away, moved far enough from the site of my misdeeds that they would no longer find me. But it doesn’t work like that. People find me, they seek me out. Is it a look I have? The vacant stare, the distant gaze I often wear? There is a lifetime of love and loss etched across my face. It pulls people to me, people looking for love, people deep in love. They come to me with their damaged dreams fraying at the edges.
The desperate are foolish, the foolish so often desperate.
Mr. Ned Saville was like so many of them, determined to breach my defences. Until then I had kept moving, further and further from where she was, where she had been. I had found work with the Department of Motor Transport. Roadworks had become my thing, rural areas, days spent working on barren stretches of road, barely even a car passing. A team of five and one of them had to pull me aside. His voice was low, his confessions interrupted by that mirthless laugh of his, the hand wiping his face again and again, dirt, grime, sweat and tears all smudged across it.
Jesus, I thought, I can’t deal with this. Not now, not again.
I knew before he started. He just wanted a word, he said. Well, he’d want more than just a word. He’d want to talk, to express his incoherent thoughts, his mad tangle of emotions. Women, love, relationships. It could be the beginning, or the end, or a troubled patch. Lying, cheating, miscommunication. It’s all the same. He’d want a steady ear to listen, nods of confirmation, a pat on the shoulder, a calm voice to tell him it would all work out. And then he’d wait for more – words to make his own confounding existence feel a little less forlorn. He’d require words of hard-earned wisdom that I was ill-equipped to give.
If only he knew.
Cornered, I’d end up giving him what he asked for. It would kill me and I’d do it just the same. Because I always had.
Words have always come to my defence. They have always been my weapons, the things that I have drawn upon to keep me from going under. Even before I met her; way before I lost her. The words, the stories. They have been my saviour and my curse. A lifeboat keeping me afloat, leading me to places I should never have dreamt of going.
* * *
Like in ’92. Albie Bernstein’s arm around my neck, his muscles bulging, putting the squeeze on. Through gritted teeth and crushed windpipe, I squeaked for my survival. We were kids. Albie and his loneliness, his need for friends, for someone he could talk to. Albie and his urge to hurt. A less than noble response to a family where anger was the common currency, where violence won the day. A father full of hate, bitter at the world, taking solace in the torture of a family. A mother’s love knocked out of her, replaced by cigarettes and alcohol, and cynicism spat out in giant globs. And here he was, Albie, becoming the very thing he hated. I offered friendship (as insincere as it was), a voice, an ear, words of hope and promise.
“Fuck ’em. Parents are all the same. They’re all mad as hell, taking their craziness out on us. Let’s get away. You and me. Go fishing, catch crawfish in the dam. I’ll give you my slingshot, we’ll shoot some pigeons. Then we’ll cook ’em up and eat ’em!”
The headlock loosened, I stood my ground. We never talked beyond that, never went fishing, never shot nor ate a bird. But we stayed together, comforted by silence, by the words already spoken. The dreams I’d woven did their thing, keeping the boy on an even keel.
And so I knew the power of words, of dreams, the intoxicating pull of another better world imagined into being. I should have been aware, should have recognised the danger held within those words and dreams. But I was young, so much still to learn, so much still to lose.
* * *
There were others, back in the day. Theo, George, even that Reggie Bacchus from down the end of the street near where the stream used to cross the road. When it rained a swamp would form, all jet black water, glistening with silver glows that looked unnatural, that were unnatural. Reggie, he too used words, but indiscriminate words designed to skewer. We were in the same class. English literature. How ironic was that? Wuthering Heights. A love story. I made the mistake of answering questions, pontificating on the tortured path of love. Reggie scoffed; he sneered his way through lessons, his animosity building, all of it aimed my way.
Reggie was lost. He was bored, out of his depth on a topic that he had claimed as his own. A man of experience, he would proudly state, a man (a boy) who had loved. He was chivalrous, he was gracious. The women (the girls) tittered at his jokes, swooned at his winks and smiles.
And me? Well, all this was before. She was still to enter my life. I spoke with the confidence that only those who don’t truly know can muster. The arrogance of ignorance.
Reggie, despite his own inarticulate nature, had read me well enough. A loveless horsefly, he called me. A single celled organism devoid of a heart. I understood.
I used the only weapons that I had: a string of barbed remarks, an arsenal of words that left him too confused to mount a challenge.
“I would explain love so you’d understand it, Reggie, but I’ve left my crayons at home.”
“You think you’re here to drink from the fountain of knowledge. I know you. You only gargle.”
That was my way – cheap putdowns, even cheaper laughs. I thought I was clever, that I had it all worked out. I was young, we all were. I was emboldened, words again, my shield, my sword.
* * *
She came to me. And life began. (At last!)
I had been living alone, a big city job, tie and shirt-sleeves. I charted new products, put together sales strategies, handled product placement, and a thousand other things. I thought it was important, the stuff of which lives were made. Head held high, I was striding forward as if the world was mine.
It was hers. Hers all along.
But I didn’t know.
I had seen her in the office, gliding across the floor, dark hair flowing, giving orders, flashing her smile. How did it happen? I can barely recall. There were flowers. There was talk of work, of branching out, the two of us going out on our own. There were weekends away, to deserted beaches, pine-covered mountain sides, mossy river banks where we watched the fish jump and dreamed a future into being.
I dreamed a future into being. My words and I. A cabin, a lake, kids. The two of us, me adding a second floor, her with her potter’s wheel. Snowy winters by the fire, summers in the fields, living off the land. She would be all I needed, her and the kids, loving me, loving what I was, what I made, what I built for her, for all of us. We would leave the world of offices and dividers, of deadlines and in-boxes, of paperwork and clients. We would simplify, just like we had by the stream on that moss-covered bank.
I was still dreaming a year later, still weaving pretty stories in my mind. Long after she had moved on to greener pastures, leaving me to my mossy, slimy bank.
* * *
I stayed at first. As the dark clouds gathered, as they burst open, as the soaking rain fell. I moped around the office, sleepwalked through the days, spent nights alone in bed wondering what had happened, wondering how one lives without a life, without a dream to follow.
Until invited out after work. Invited? Compelled to attend, told that it was a compulsory after-work gathering. Darius was there, the new boy. The fool. The ignorant man-child. He has my sympathy still. He wanted to talk. He had misread my stillness for depth, my damp eyes for a love of life and its mysteries. He didn’t see the sodden wreck before him.
Darius was a chump. A deluded man, unaware of his own failings. He was a trusting sod who believed in love in all its forms. And the price to pay for all this love? He knew it wasn’t cheap, but what was? So he’d take his girl out, buy her things. Expensive meals, designer bags, jewellery, dresses, phones. A place to stay as well. He explained it with ease: an apartment, ground floor, across town from his own place but near her aging parents. (I should have told him: true love does not reside across town.)
But I didn’t tell him. I talked of love, its beauty, something worth pursuing. I raved about fingertips stroking a dozing face, about the comfort of a quiet smile at the end of the day, the soothing presence of a loving partner beside you late at night. I talked of moments shared and dreams nurtured and protected. Yeah, I waxed lyrical, a man who had been there, almost had it.
He bought it of course.
“Maybe we can get together some time,” he said. “You know, the four of us.”
I didn’t have the heart to disabuse him of the idea. A smile, a nod, and a swallow of guilt before patting him on the arm and heading home.
I knew I had to leave. Before Darius found out the truth, about his so-called love, about my so-called love. I knew I had to leave before others fell into my web, before I drowned in my own bitter, boiling juices.
* * *
Outdoor work. It wasn’t me, wasn’t what I was designed for. Too slight of build, too thin-skinned for the rough and tumble of a workers’ world. I didn’t relate with backslaps, I didn’t wrestle, didn’t drink and push and shove and joke. It was wrong for me, better suited to a different kind of man.
I did it anyway. I would lose my damaged, rotten self, maybe find a new one.
But I was wrong about those building sites and roadworks. The winds of change were blowing through. There was talk. Real talk. Not talk at full volume but considered ruminations on life and love and friendship. I’d wanted head down, bum up. I’d wanted to be left alone, to shovel shit, to dig trenches, to lay bricks, and pour concrete. I thought it was the great escape. But men confound you, bucking expectations.
Hecky Barnett, a large man, hands the size of T-bone steaks. Shaven head, leathery skin, eyebrows left untamed. He was a man of sighs, of slow shakes of the head that hinted at a story I preferred not to hear. The sudden stops while shifting sand, the shovel coming to a halt, Hecky’s meaty arm resting on it, letting it take his weight as he wiped his face with a grimy handkerchief.
“She’s at it again.”
I’d listen, desperate to move on, get back to mixing the cement, sand and water, dig in the shovel turn it over, again and again, add the gravel, thankful for the noise, the scrape of the shovel as it dug in again.
But in his understated way, he wouldn’t let it lie. Hecky Barnett would want to talk of love.
“She says it doesn’t mean nothing. Says nothing even happened. Just talking, a few drinks. Old friends from high school, that’s the way she puts it. As if that explains everything, as if it makes it all alright.”
I keep my counsel, implore him in my mind to let it go. I will say nothing, offer nothing. I will not betray this man, nor my own fractured memories. I will keep them hidden, buried in my poetry. A secret for late at night, alone, with lamp shape pulled down, with the gin bottle there for company.
“I lost it,” he said. “Yelled at her. Called every name under the sun. Made it clear: one more time and…”
Lunch. I should have stepped away, walked, gotten myself lost in the bush. But tired, I took the easy route. A bench, a sandwich. I let Hecky sidle up to me.
“She does it to hurt me. I know it. It’s like a game. I get angry at her, then she goes out and does it again, just to spite me. Or maybe it’s a habit, a frickin’ addiction. There are people like that, right? Fact is, it’s killing me. She doesn’t even care.”
What could I do? He wanted it so badly, wanted my words to make it better, to give him the strength he needed to believe. So I fed him the dream, the whole damn lot of it. I talked of better days ahead, of changes blowing through.
Easy. So easy to give a man unwarranted hope, to convince him to allow delusion to rule one’s life. Mistakes passed on. One man’s debacle becomes another’s.
I asked him what he wanted.
“Oh, man. I want love, don’t I? I want us to get outta here. Move into the woods. I’ll build a house, keep it warm. You know, we’ll get off the grid, grow stuff, hunt. That’s it. Nights by the fire. Keep it simple. But her damn eyes keep wandering. She don’t know what she wants.”
“She will,” I said, letting the ambiguity spread like molten lava. “Listen to me, Hecky,” I began, dumping the remains of my BLT into its paper bag on my lap. “The future belongs to those who dream, those who believe in their damn dreams. You got that?”
He nodded, silent, eyes clamped on to me.
“You hang on to the beauty of your dream. You keep it alive and you stay with it – and she will too,” I blabbed.
The man looked down, running his boot along the dusty gravel beneath our feet. “Yeah but… See, but what if, you know…”
I felt my jaw clench, my guts tighten. A cement truck rumbled past us. We held our tongues, held our breath, closed our eyes, let the cloud of dust wash over us. You bastard, I thought. You want to give up on love? Then leave me out of it, leave me alone to wallow in my own delusions and misdeeds.
We should both have just picked up our shovels and gotten back to work. But no, I sat there like a fool. I waited.
“Those dreams, man. I know it would make her happy. If she could just see things the way I see ’em, you know? I can almost fucking taste that life, man, like I can almost reach out and grab it.”
I grabbed him, me, my small hands on the frayed collar of his plaid shirt. “Then for the love of God do it. Smell those damn pine nettles underfoot, the fresh cut wood, the food on the damn cooker. Feel the chill wind on your cheeks, feel her damn kiss. Keep the dream alive and go and fucking claim it. Fight for it, man.” I was sweating, swamped by another time, private urges swirling, leaving me taut. I pushed him away, spat into the dust. “Shape your life, God damn it. Grab it by the throat and shape it. Make her see who you are, what you’re made of.”
He moved off, head nodding, eyes glazed. I had left my mark again. A scorched earth policy coming from nowhere. Another life upended. He would suffer. That I knew. But no more than I had.
The thought offered no comfort. None whatsoever.
* * *
I couldn’t stay. It’s never wise to remain in the midst of destruction. So I packed up my things again, threw it all into my backpack: the shirts, the jeans, the woollen hat, my shaving gear. And my notebooks where I hide her. I was still too brittle to bring her out in to the light, still too desperate to leave her behind.
Roadworks. Far from towns, far from lovers and their hopeless dreams. Where steaming asphalt scents the air, where piles of gravel scar the hands and break the back. You’d think it would crowd out all sentimental thoughts of love. But no, you can’t outrun it, can’t blot it out. And you can’t outrun those who fall under its spell.
Which leads us back to Ned Saville. He should have been in movies. His thick head of raven-black hair, the cheekbones, the pointed chin and crow’s feet that add so much character to his face. His is a face made for romance. And here he is wanting to talk, to save his life from becoming a tragedy.
Oh God, I think. I can’t, I can’t. Not again. Don’t make me dig it up again, relive those times, my own failings, that fleeting happiness, the delusional grasping for more than I deserved. I can’t be love’s agent.
But Ned, he isn’t like the rest, I’ll give him that. He fancies himself an observer of human life.
“What’s she like then?” he asks.
I stare at him, shaken.
“Ah, come on, mate. Anyone can see it. Let me guess: she’s hard work but oh so worth it. Drives you mad, don’t she? But you wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I stare again, my mouth dry. I try to swallow, can’t.
“Listen, I get it, okay? That’s what we do, we chase it. We don’t give up just because it’s tough. We keep going because we know she brings our world to life. I’m right, aren’t I?”
Batting away the memories, I cover my face with my hands. A big semi rumbles past, shaking the ground. I feel the dusty dry air scrape across my arms and face. But still I don’t speak. There is nothing to say.
“Hey, you and me, we’re in the same boat, right? Difference is, you’re ahead of the game. But me, well…”
Let her go, man. Forget about her. Pour the asphalt, cover up those stupid fantasies, then go get drunk. Drink yourself back to reality, to a world where one monochrome day is as good as the next, and know that if you keep on going there’ll be plenty more empty days ahead, just like the last. So there.
But I don’t speak, not those words at least. Because she’s there, still hidden, in between every cell of my body, in the marrow of my bones. She’s there.
“Come on, Ned,” I say. “Grab your shovel. We’re moving. I point to the ancient council truck belching exhaust, idling by the side of the road.
There’s panic in his eyes. He looks from the truck back to me, shoots out a hand, clutches my arm. “Wait. Look, I know you’re not from these parts. You’re not like us.”
Caught off-guard, I laugh. I take my time lighting up a cigarette and stick it between my lips, smoke drifting into my eyes. I squint, look back at the man. “I’m like you, Ned. Just another useless guy.”
“You’re not. You got ways, you got thoughts and stuff. I mean…”
For an instant I wonder where he’s going. We’re sitting under a sycamore, leaning against the scaly red-brown bark of its trunk, the shade a welcome relief from the heat of the road. There is a string of ants in front of us, thousands of them. They’ve carved a narrow trench along the dusty soil between the roots.
“Listen, me and my girl… Ah, jeez, you should see her. She’s got this smile, see. And these eyes. The clearest blue eyes you ever seen. We’d go out, see, go walking, maybe to the park or down to the dam behind her folks’ place. And she’d see something. I dunno, I flower, or a frog, or a leaf catching the afternoon light. And her face would just light up. You never seen nothing like it. Like a kid ’cept she ain’t no kid. Ah, jeez…”
It’s gibberish, but I get it. I wish I didn’t. I don’t want to hear more but know I will. Here we go again. All for love.
“She loves life, see. The little things – going for a drive, going into town, meeting people, a simple meal. Being around her? Felt like the star of a movie. Crazy thing to say, I know. But yeah. I had these dreams, see. Always knew there was more for us. Thought we could make a team, start a business, really make a go of it.”
I whack the heel of my boot into the hard soil. A puff of dust billows up.
“Wanted to give her more. A house and stuff, nice things, like neither of us had growing up. Thought we should dig in for a few years, work hard, invest. Move up in the world, you know? She deserved it. Thought we both did.” He is rocking slightly, legs bent, arms wrapped around his knees. “Anyway, we fought. She couldn’t see it, didn’t understand. She couldn’t see that we needed bigger dreams…”
He runs out of steam. I take a second to collect myself. I am deflated, a football with a puncture, flaccid, good for nothing. But he’ll want words, the same again.
“Mate,” he says.
“Ned, you hold onto your dreams,” I begin, not even thinking of what I’m saying.
“What? No. No, I don’t need you to…”
“No. Listen. You got the words. I know you do. Here.” He drags his canvas knapsack closer to him. He reaches in and pulls out a leather-bound notebook, a ballpoint pen, hands them to me.
“I need her, okay? I screwed up. We can make a life together, I’m sure of it. It’s just…”
“You want me to…?”
“It’d mean the world…”
* * *
That night, in my rented room above the chemist, I sit on my bed, Ned’s notebook beside me, backpack on the floor. The single wardrobe is open, my few shirts hanging there, my jeans and workpants beneath. Boots by the door, waiting for me. I sit there for hours, the room getting darker, the blood red curtains illuminated by the streetlight outside my window. Trucks rattle by, to and from the coast, their heavy loads weighing them down. I hear the wheeze of the air breaks as they come to a stop at the lights, the low growl as they set off again.
I open the book, pick up the pen. I start slowly, wondering. Before long I pick up speed, the words flowing, pouring out of me, my hand barely moving fast enough to keep up. When I’m done, I lay the book aside and stand, look at the closet, the clothes, the boots. I bend down and retrieve my backpack, open it. I let it swing by side. It’s empty except for my own notebooks, my own bitter memories and faded dreams hidden in its depths. I swing the bag, toss it gently into the bottom of the closet and fall back on my bed.
I am asleep in seconds.
“You wrote this?” he says, after the second time through. It’s early. We’re at the depot, sitting on the bench outside the prefab office. I have a cigarette between my fingers.
“Mmm,” I say.
“Holy shit,” he says. “You wrote it?”
I take a drag on my smoke.
“You motherfuckin’ bastard.”
“It’s what you wanted.”
“It’s, it’s…” He wipes his brow. It’s glistening despite the shadowy chill of the early morning. “I thought. But… It’s fucking beautiful, man. It’s just…”
“I know.” I’ve let her go, let her memory loose. She’ll stay there at the bottom of my closet now. Untouched, troubling me no more.
“It’s like, it’s…phew… But, I mean, what I really wanted was, um… Well,” he shakes his head slowly. “Well, not this. I mean, this, this…” He slams the book shut, rubs the cover with the coarse palm of his hand. We are silent for a moment. He offers one more rattled laugh, shakes his head again, wipes his forehead with the back of his hand.
I smoke my cigarette, waiting.
The foreman is calling, waving us over. The truck is belching smoke, workman hopping aboard, waiting.
“There’s a bus,” I say. I know these are the words he needs to hear.
“Does it matter?”
He looks at his feet, his scuffed dust-covered work boots.
“Be seeing you.” I stand, toss my cigarette onto the gravel, stomp on it with my boot. I stuff my hands into my pockets, hunch my shoulders. Eyes down, I walk towards the truck, to the shovels, the asphalt, to the waiting men.
I’ll stay awhile, I think. Yeah, I’ll stay.