A Novella by Chis Roughsedge
Within the first few months of his sixty third year and with careful deliberation, David retired, took up drinking in earnest, tried to go on a holiday to Italy and stole a hand gun from an old lady. He’d sent a blind CC email to all of his customers stating his intention to retire. One or two indicated their regret and wished him well. Most didn’t find it necessary to reply.
He’d always liked a drink, but in moderation—his mind had to be clear for the finance industry, but as that was no longer a priority, he found himself giving the bottle more than a serious nudge. Italy was just something that popped into his head one evening, for want of a specific thought to take up residence there. The gun issue was a different matter and required a great deal of frontal lobe activity, particularly those neural regions dealing with daring and subterfuge.
Sandra, his adult daughter, when informed of her father’s departure from gainful employment, became concerned. She hadn’t been properly apprised of its imminence, not to mention its implications. The implications of any event, was always at the forefront of her mind. This could be said about a great many people, of course. In Sandra’s eyes, David could do no wrong but she did wonder what precisely his agenda was going forward. Eventually she concluded that he was so remarkable a person, a solution would magically appear. Despite her worries, Sandra was also a person who indulged in whimsy. She had had that drug problem in her youth after all.
When David’s son Glen was told of his decision to retire, awoken at two am at his home in Malmö, Sweden, he said…a bad line…don’t understand much what you’re saying, but I don’t like… sound of any part…it….
Then there was David’s wife, Audrey, who asked him what he would do with himself. He replied with insincere cheerfulness by saying he had a number of irons in the fire. He didn’t, unless you count a vague notion of trekking through the Grampians. He knew where they were but that was all.
This is how it all came to a head: One evening, David and Audrey were sitting on their recliners in the living room. David had the newspaper laid out on his lap; glasses perched on his forehead and peering into a tumbler of whisky. Audrey reached for the remote.
‘Why don’t we travel? I’d like to go to Italy,’ he said, before taking a satisfying sip of his Dewars, no ice. The Grampians had been summarily dismantled and disappeared from the horizon as though they were a fiction invented to hide the true nature of the landscape. Nevertheless, David was feeling expansive and rather clever for being so spontaneous. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to go to Italy. The newspaper he was reading had a picture of the Coliseum, accompanied by an article about its poor state of repair, much of which, David hadn’t bothered to read.
‘Oh…I haven’t thought about that at all,’ Audrey said, her index finger hovering over the remotes’ green button.
‘We could see the Coliseum before they start turning it into something else. How does that sound?
‘Not very motivational, I have to say.’ Audrey peered at him as though there had been added a previously unnoticed anatomical structure to his face.
David looked back to the article, doing something with his forehead to cause his glasses to plop down onto his nose. ‘Did you know the Christians dismantled part of it so they could use the stone to build the papal basilica of St. Peter?’
‘You know what, I have thought about it—I don’t think I want to go to Italy,’ she said. She put down the remote and turned to him.
David had always been quite taken with Audrey’s appearance. She was attractive, even now that she was in her late fifties. As now, he never knew quite what to do with her beauty—it had the effect of overwhelming him, making him feel like he should be more attentive, obliged to cultivate it in some way. There were occasions when he knew he had ridiculous notions, but this wasn’t one of them. The previous year, while waiting to see his doctor he read the following in a magazine—Men love Shakira’s hair, Miranda Kerr’s nose, Jennifer Aniston’s forehead, the Duchess of Cambridge’s eyebrows. He felt certain Audrey possessed all of these attributes, even though he was not sure who any of the individuals mentioned were.
‘Why on earth not?’ He said, although he wasn’t particularly surprised. There had been other occasions not exactly adding up to connubial bliss.
‘Well if you must know David, I might be made into a murderer if I go off travelling with you.’
‘I see.’ He turned away from her, staring at the television screen as if answers or even some questions might be found within its opaque expanse. He thought he should be steaming with offended injury, but as it happened, only felt exhausted by the turn of conversation. He swallowed the rest of his whiskey with the hope it would reflate him.
‘Please don’t feel obliged to hold anything back on my account,’ he said, but sensed he had left his reply too long for the irony to land.
‘Don’t you think it might be nicer for you if you went without me?’ she said.
‘I’m going out,’ he said.
He put his coat on at the door and found himself staring at the back of his hand. He thought if he waited, the uncertainty of his injury might be deflected by his wife’s request for him to re-join her and discuss their marital issues. He felt foolish, mortified even, though this moment standing at the door, was completely private. For a while now, he’d been trying to understand what was happening between he and Audrey. He’d certainly not provided enough time to this important relationship and now, it seemed, he was left without one. If he had given it much thought at all during all of the years, he would have concluded he was banking his emotional involvement until he might draw on the account at a more propitious time. He was a financial adviser, so prudence was of some significance to him.
He returned home drunk. Audrey had gone to bed and he slept in the guest bedroom. Before doing so, he slumped with elaborate remorse at the door of their room, and watched her sleep. Her arm was out across his pillow and her left breast was partially exposed. A glimpse of areola caused a stirring in him, quickly resulting in desire. He wanted to have sex with her but their disconnected lives had left the relationship moribund, the intimacy he sought was compromised by their years adrift.
From that day forward, a gloom seemed to fall over the house. He realised that Audrey had been for some time, largely indifferent to him. She encouraged him to use the guest bedroom on a permanent basis. He didn’t enjoy this arrangement but for want of a plausible alternative, he fell too easily into the routine of it.
He was beginning to realize that Audrey might have been feeling this way about him for years and he hadn’t taken the time to notice. Of course in retrospect, he also realized how appalling it was. He was saddened by the errors of judgement he had made in regard to this important relationship. Their early affection had waned, converted to barely an ease with each other’s company, as though they had forgotten how to do it in their desire to cultivate their careers. Had Audrey and he fallen too easily into this pattern of neglect or had he been less than able to recognise what their relationship needed. Where precisely, did the blame lay? Audrey was not an easy person to start with but just because she was complex, a trait he had previously admired, did not let him off the hook.
A week went by since the conversation about travelling, ‘Audrey, do you think we should talk—about what has happened to us?’
‘No, it’s too late. What is there to say?’ Then she said something anyway. ‘You are only questioning the situation now because you appear to have awoken from a long sleep. I believe your retirement appears to be at fault here. You could have worked until you fell off the twig and been none the wiser. That sounds harsh I suppose, but just because you felt you’d had enough doesn’t necessarily mean that you had indeed had enough—only that its what you felt at the time. I think you would have recovered from your moment of disaffection.’
She paused and David had the ridiculous notion that if he closed his eyes tight enough he might not hear whatever else she had to say. Ridiculous notions seemed to have invaded him since unfilled time began stretching through the days and nights like an ever expanding elastic band. There was the sense that at some point the tension might be released and the subsequent outcome unpredictable. Although he knew in his bones he’d been right to retire, a grain of truth resided in his wife’s assessment.
‘You’ve finally acknowledged something’s wrong, and now you expect me to give you answers. I don’t see why I should, I’m not your parent,’ she said. She was becoming irritated; Antique Roadshow was on.
David began to ruminate in a way he’d not thought himself capable of in these days and nights of alcoholic malaise. Current events and memories slid like quicksilver into a pastiche, only vaguely coherent. A memory came to him sitting in a very trendy restaurant-bar in Oxford, UK, similar to what he’d seen in New York only two years before. Perhaps it was a chain. The extreme-moderne establishment had been split into two, one a dining area and the other for drinking all manner of cocktails. He noticed on the drinks menu an entire section given over to the needs of vegan drinkers.
The dining section was cramped but the overloud music he’d encountered in the bar seemed muted. Nevertheless it was full of people, so the pumped-up rap was replaced with the noise of conversation and cutlery on china. It always seemed extraordinary to David that people had so much to talk about, particularly the British, who loved nothing more than a good chat.
He had to wait thirty minutes just to get a table and was about to leave when a sparkling but officious young woman, in a dress that had only the most distant association with knees, told him his table was ready. By then he’d consumed two large whiskeys and was no longer hungry. Though he had stuck with the Dewars neat, the drinks were bizarre, one having what looked like an entire kale plant sticking out of it. The young woman receiving it, possibly thinking she was getting a healthy rendition of a cocktail, looked frightened of it. The waiter was trying to explain it but even he looked unconvinced and ready to urgently replace it with something that looked less like a triffid.
What struck with the most force about this experience was the scenario taking place diagonally across from him. A mother and two preteen children were having lunch. He had a first class view of the proceedings and realized quickly that he could do so without any significant interruption because it became evident the mother was blind. She had that distant stare of the sightless and a guide dog at her feet. This family, nevertheless, was complete and intimate in a way David had never encountered. Though the children were distracted and jumpy as all children are at that age, they also displayed the most loving care for their disabled mother, who smiled, laughed and conversed with her children in a way that clearly delighted them.
The woman listened to the children with her eyes wide and the beatific, slightly wrong smile the blind sometimes produce, as much a grimace as a smile. At one point the girl child caught him watching them and offered him such a smile, perfectly mimicking her mother. The affection they had for each other was so overwhelming for David, he found himself at the point of tears and left before his food had arrived. That evening he barely slept and when he did he was drawn into a world seen only through the eyes of children.
He brought bottles of whiskey home and drank in the guest bedroom, and when Audrey was out, in the bedroom they previously shared. This made him feel masochistically morbid but he persisted. The more he drank, the better he felt. He considered his hangovers mild.
His friend, Frank Lemon, a seasoned drinker—your capacity for the drink surprises me mate, I’ve been shit-faced with the criminal classes, and mate, those fuckers know how to drink. In fact drinking is what they do best because, from the regularity with which they engage my services, they’re shit at crime. They met often at a bar in the city favoured by the legal fraternity. Although an observer would be forgiven for doubting the fact, Frank was a lawyer, a very good one. They had met many years before when one of David’s clients tried to sue him by wrongly accusing him of misusing his money. The taxation department was after the client, a plain case of fraud the he wanted to pass onto David. Frank ferreted out the missing millions in an off-sure account and instead of David ending up in jail, the client did. David was conflicted. Disapproval always filled him with self-doubt and embarrassment, even if it was falsely attributed as this event was. Nevertheless he felt indebted to his lawyer and they struck up a friendship of sorts, David helping Frank with some well-timed investments along the way.
‘You are a lot more fun these days, Dave. You even occasionally make me laugh, you morbid old fart. What happened? Tell me the secret so I can tell my ex-wife she can return.’
Frank was often drunk and didn’t make any more sense, now that David was a drunk as well. Frank hated his wife but missed the many things she provided that benefited him. He never concealed this fact.
‘Tell me Frank, did you love your wife?’ David said.
‘No—not really. I miss some things.’ He seemed pensive for a moment. ‘As you know I’m not exactly mister charm, but she insisted on loving me—until she didn’t, of course. Women are almost entirely a mystery to me.’
David took a good swig of his drink. ‘I’m not sure Audrey ever did love me.’ He fell silent momentarily. ‘That’s wrong, I’m pretty sure she did once. I remember our honeymoon, she was affectionate—she seemed to love me then.’
David drained his glass and signalled to the barman for a top-up. For some reason the barman had taken to disliking him and was always slow to respond with more drinks.
‘For fucks sake Dave, that was forty years ago—long time between drinks mate.’
For a moment David thought Frank was referring to their current momentary dry-spell the barman was studiously facilitating.
‘Yeah, I suppose it is.’ There must have been moments of connubial happiness since—surely?
‘You’re lucky with Audrey, Dave—beauty and brains in the one delectable package.’ Frank was elsewhere in his thoughts, not particularly addressing his friends concerns, but more his own. It seemed to David, Frank had become unusually distracted, of late.
‘She’s a lovely woman,’ David had become both wistful and maudlin. The evening would not end well. Frank had a supercilious smirk on his face. That sort of leering remark was not an isolated one and David always found them vaguely repugnant, but gave Frank a pass because he needed someone to drink with.
‘Hey, me china plate, how about a bloody top-up, we’re not a couple of pickled eggs sitting over here.’ The unpleasant barman was forced to acknowledge them with Frank’s loud remark and snatching up the Dewar’s, brought it to them with all the charm of a python.
David thought he did love Audrey but wondered whether he’d misunderstood the nature of their relationship. He didn’t seem able to conflate the years of emotional distance with extent of its influence on their relationship. He kept asking himself the wrong questions and then was surprised when they didn’t add up into neat columns. His spreadsheets had become muddled by erroneous entries.
He started to think about other conversations they had had. Ones he had put out of his mind for fear of them spreading into the miscellaneous column. In bookkeeping, he’d always hated these straying items, these loose ends. Once, around six months before, they had been reading in bed. He had asked Audrey to turn out the light so he could go to sleep, which seemed to be the cue for a critical analysis of their relationship.
Her voice was even and pedagogic; she was a high school principal, so this was not unanticipated. At first he was surprised and then miffed followed by being offended and then returning to surprise. They were in the second major stage of mutual discovery. A reprisal of surprise, one could say. It was all very confusing and hard for him to get grip on the thing; after all he’d never felt required to make an assessment of their relationship before.
‘When I want to read, you want to sleep; when you are cold, I am too hot; I suffer from dry mouth, and you slobber like a child on your pillow at night.’ She paused, his eyes cast down to his lap, he was a quarter way through the silliest book he’d ever read—some twaddle by somebody called Dan Brown—had to be a pseudonym. He felt her eyes on him.
‘I see,’ he said, anticipating that worse was to come.
‘When I want to listen to Dvorak, you want David Bowie on; when I suggest we ring the children, you say leave them be,’ there was another long pause, he felt her slide down, as if to sleep, but she kept the light on, probably believing some sort of response might be forthcoming. David had an urge to respond, though he also felt he was on uncertain ground.
‘So, we are different. Of course we are; we are two different people.’
‘That is so logical as to be ridiculous. I am not one of your put options or whatever you call them. Neither are we desperate animals surviving on the edge of existence.’ He could feel her adjusting herself in the bed. ‘Look, it’s more than that; over the years our similarities have receded, and our differences have hardened into an unforgiving thing. It’s quite a deficit in you that you haven’t noticed this. You don’t realise it has become the nucleus of our relationship.’
He did try to concentrate on what she had said, he was capable of and wanted to formulate a reasonable reply but the wine he had drunk with dinner had made him drowsy. Nevertheless, he gave it his best effort.
‘You’re right. I have taken my eye off the ball,’ he said. He failed to recognize it was, in fact, game, set and match.
‘You know when you try to push two magnets together. That’s us, David, our magnetic fields are repelling.’ she said. Before she was promoted to head teacher and then principal she had been a science teacher.
‘I suppose I should have foreseen this eventuality—considering.’
‘Yes, you might have, though anticipation is generally more rewarding than eventuality.’
Before putting her book on the bedside table and turning out the light, she momentarily held his gaze with what seemed to David like a deep and weary sorrow.
Not long after his fifty ninth birthday, David had a stint in hospital with pneumonia. He was a sufferer of post-nasal drip and hay fever, two ailments that are best not suffered simultaneously. That same winter had been fierce and had taken its toll on his respiratory system. He was on a drip for six days. Nearing the end of this drama, his doctor looked less than pleased with his progress. There were murmurings out of earshot with nurses and Audrey. On several occasions Audrey had looked at him strangely, her eyebrows lifted in a way that somehow suggested past tense. They put him on Endone and one night he had an experience of delirium so acute he felt himself doing a bit of ad-hoc levitation and was under the impression he’d turned into a ghost.
‘I’m not here,’ he had said to the nurse who came to check his vitals. She put the cuff on his arm for a reading but behaved as if she hadn’t heard him. ‘I’m not here,’ he said again but concluded nobody was listening. The same night he heard himself reciting Ozymandias, the once forgotten words of Shelley’s sonnet from his school days—My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! The despot’s arrogant words had been ignored by time, for here he lay dismantled and forgotten in the desert sands.
On David’s return home Frank Lemon organised a dinner party. This was before Frank’s divorce and subsequent career in drinking. While his wife Sybil cleared away the dishes Frank droned on about his firm of over-priced lawyers. The level of internal politicking sounded horrendous. This did not save the diners from Frank’s continual whining on the subject. Even from David’s point of view, it was unbelievably dreary and David had a remarkable capacity for attentive and uninterrupted listening, which Audrey called herculean, except when it came to David listening to her. You’re not listening—was an oft-heard phrase in the Fielden household, not just from Audrey, Sandra and Glen had occasion to remark on his auditory absence.
Thankfully, a pause intervened while Frank drained his wine glass and emptied the rest of the bottle into it. Franks wife, usually a quiet sort of person, took the opportunity to remark on David’s recent recovery, saying he had been in her prayers. She was a person who devoted her spare time to Jesus and as she had a lot of that available, Jesus was much blessed by her attention.
‘Thank you, Sybil, that’s very kind of you,’ David said and shot a placating glance at Audrey, but to no avail.
‘Don’t be an idiot David, why are you thankful, you’re an atheist,’ Audrey said and laughed, along with Frank, who on more than one occasion said he admired Audrey’s sharp and irreverent tongue. You have a top bird there Dave, you lucky fucker, he once said, rather too cheekily.
‘I was being polite Audrey,’ David said.
‘You know, if there is a god, something I very much doubt, he’d be likely hiding in a church. At least he’d get some peace there, considering they are no longer frequented by mortals.’ This speech was attended by a casual smile from Audrey to Frank, who elicited a loud guffaw. Audrey could get derisive when she drank wine. Whisky made her docile, but wine was a red flag. David was embarrassed that Audrey made it clear she couldn’t have cred less about the effect this might have. Sybil descended into a gloomy silence for the rest of the evening. Later, when David drove them home, Audrey further elaborated on the issue of Sybil.
‘Sybil wants you to think she is an exceptionally decent human being and terribly spiritual. Doubtless, she takes pride in your recovery as a direct result of her devotions.’
‘Really Audrey, she was just being kind,’ David said.
‘Don’t you believe it, behind that angelic persona lies a cunning little devil.’
‘Christ, how do you work that out?’
‘Oh come on, she knows you’re not a believer. Don’t you find it even vaguely insulting? She hasn’t got the right to pray for you, at the very least to tell you so. Can’t you see?
‘Her need to announce it is for the purpose of promoting her belief at the same time as dismissing your lack of it. It’s insulting.’
‘Do you have to make it so complicated; what you said was unnecessary and hurtful Audrey.’
‘For goodness sake, you’re such a sap.
‘Did you say sap? What’s that?’
‘A sap, David. A dolt. A dupe. A dunce.’ She paused. ‘The woman’s a fool. You should have told her where to get off.’
‘It’s too harsh an assessment of her character. She’s very moral; she does good things for people. She’s paid for the education of at least two children in Tanzania and provided several donkeys and a water tank for a village.’
‘Of course she has David. Religious people believe they invented morality, that we live in an ethical universe precisely because of God’s intervention and that they are their Lord’s tool. They’re tools alright but not in the way they think. It is for this reason the Christians ventured to Africa, destroyed their communities and their indigenous myth-making and enslaved them for four hundred years. And Job well done too, they doubtless think to this day, glossing over the fact that practically all these god-fearing colonies on the continent have been divided by fanatical warlords and are currently tearing each other to pieces in the name of their preferred flavour—Jesus Christ or Allah. Amen.’
‘You watch too much television,’ David said, offended by her accuracy.
At the time David had an impression the doctor believed he was going to die when he was in hospital. Several people he knew had died too early. When his mother, who was very old, died several years before his own flirtation with death, he looked at her ashes in the plain but serviceable canister provided by the undertaker. The relationship with his mother had always been difficult. She was a remote sort of person, not given easily to any form of affection.
‘I’m not sure what you are looking for but you won’t find her there David, you do get that, don’t you,’ Audrey said. Perhaps it was her profession but edges had hardened as the years progressed. David was sure his wife had been more fanciful once, more willing to accept alternatives to her view of things. Nevertheless, she was quite sympathetic during his mother’s final illness and along with Sandra and Glen, offered support and even affection. He had become quiet and pensive as he watched the light fading from her eyes, the familiar features receding. His family rallied as best they could. Once he entered his mother’s hospital room to find her quietly singing an old song he only vaguely recognised. She had hung on for another week after that.
‘Of course. It’s just that…oh, I don’t know…it’s just grief Audrey.’ He placed the lid back on the canister and put it back on the sideboard.
‘Look David, I know you loved your mum and she was sometimes generous. When times got a bit tough for us all those years ago, she helped us with the mortgage. I have always been thankful for that. You know that Dave,’ she said. ‘She did have a habit of reminding us of her generosity though. It wasn’t entirely unconditional.’
She put her hand on his arm, and then moved it to the sideboard, waiting for a reply.
‘Yes Aud, I do know that.’
‘Do you think she could live, in her present state I mean, in the garage. It’s just…you know…the sideboard, I keep the cutlery in those drawers.’
After several weeks, Audrey found him again looking into the canister. ‘You have to get past it now David. Sandra needs you to take her to netball practice and Glen thinks you ought to see a therapist. I don’t think a nineteen year old should be thinking that about his father—I’m beginning wonder though. Do you?
‘Do I what?’ he put the lid back on the canister.
‘No, I’ll be fine.’
He had no intention of keeping the ashes forever on the sideboard, or in the garage for that matter. Another week passed before he realised what he was looking for amongst his mother’s powdery remains. One late afternoon, after Audrey had left to meet up with friends for a drink, David emptied the ashes into a hole he’d dug in the rear garden. A week passed before he realised what he was looking for amongst his mother’s powdery remains. He had no siblings and all her friends had already died, so a ceremony was unnecessary but before covering the ashes with soil, he understood something very specific about existence. No matter what happens, all human remains return to the earth from which they came. The revelation included a question he might gently pose to Sybil—what was so bad about that? Why did humanity seem to need religion to complicate this very fundamental fact?
He read somewhere that cremation ashes had a high pH. Nothing, not even weeds had grown over that spot since. The earth had found his mother wanting. But then occasionally, if he was to be honest, so did he.
David lay in bed on the night following the dinner party and thought about what had transpired. Frank Lemon was the friend you have when you are not very adept at friend-making. He was both insular and coarse, but had the annoying ability to also be exceptionally intelligent and very gifted in art of self-belief. He was the sort of high-paid lawyer who was raised on the wrong side of the tracks and carried his working class braggadocio like a badge of honour. He also had the capacity to be extremely good at winning cases. His all male colleagues, according to Frank, despised but tolerated him; he brought more criminals to the firm than anyone else and criminals often had a ready supply of cash.
His law firm partners looked the other way on a variety of issues but with Frank Lemon, it was particularly onerous. Luckily, the bags of cash outweighed their natural repugnance for Frank’s unseemliness.
‘I have the temerity to get my clients off with profitable regularity, Frank once told David. ‘The fact that I drink and dine with these proven-innocent felons is overlooked by my esteemed colleagues in much the same way the crooks overlook the consequences of their crimes.’
Sybil on the other hand was the antithesis of her husband, being timid and forgiving of her husband’s rambunctious vulgarity. It had occurred to David though, on more than one occasion, that if things were rearranged according to hindsight, their choice of life partners could be satisfactorily interchanged. He thought that if he could put aside her inclinations towards divinity, Sybil was a very agreeable sort of person.
The idea of going to Italy had wormed its way into David’s imagination. He liked the sound of Naples and it became the focus of his travel plans. In Naples they have a saying according to one site he found: you take the good with the bad. Apart from the cliché, it was an understatement, as the ‘bad’ referred to the city’s infestation of crime gangs of unprecedented nastiness. The city was described elsewhere as: barren of moral turpitude and filled with uninterrupted complacency, reeking with the scent of fear, old scores unsettled and the threat of imminent violence, lounging on every corner.’ Later in the same book: The fetid lanes of Naples rang with life so vivid, it could tear your heart out.’ This all sounded pretty good to David, who suspected he might be in need of some vivid experiences right about now.
David did further research, studying the topography in particular. He had a yearning for a bit of rambling about on foot and dusted off his good leather hiking shoes. He also provisioned himself with a very decent backpack and a collapsible umbrella that were on sale at Mountain Design. He had in mind some walking trails he’d researched—trekking up the harsh, rocky slopes of Mount Vesuvius, for instance, was solidifying at the back of his mind. There was a very good tarmac road leading most of the way up but he fancied himself using one of the little used trails on the other side of the mountain.
He imagined Vesuvius’ fumes descending about him like a shroud; consuming him in a sulphur-tinged fog. At the peak—through a light, acidic but nevertheless picturesque drizzle of rain—he would look out to the far regions of Campania, the wide bay and The Tyrrhenian Sea, Capri and Ischia and the dim outline of Sardinia to the west. He would turn and follow the line of volcanoes to the verdant hills above Caserta, and east as far as Benevento.
November would be a good time to travel, the weather being less predictable and thus, discouraging to tourists. He had enough frequent flyers for one-way business class. He hadn’t considered the possibility of coming back.
When he arrived at the airport, he checked his suitcase and made for the club bar, ordering a double Dewars, and then two more. He sipped the whiskey and pondered his current situation. He had a quite reasonable investment portfolio in blue stocks, an unhappy marriage, hypertension, an oesophageal hernia, a dodgy prostate and several questions of an existential nature that he thought he should address at some point in the near future.
Having travelled quite a bit over the years, attending finance industry conferences, he had sat at this bar several times in the past and took a long time to drink a single beer and eat nuts. The bartender pretended to recognize him.
‘A Warstein, Mister Fleiden,’ the bartender said with a winning smile. It was in the airline’s best interest to know with whom they dealt and what they drank. When David ordered Dewars and left the complimentary nuts untouched, the fussy bartender made a notation on the digital register about his customer’s current drinking preference, ‘Capricious’ he typed.
‘It’s Fielden,’ David said.
‘My surname is Fielden,’ David pointed at the screen the barman had just used. ‘Probably doesn’t matter much, but that’s my name, not Fleiden—or Capricious.’
The barman became flustered when he realised David could see what he had written. Turning the screen away, he rushed off to serve another customer.
David sighed, downed his whiskey. ‘Fuck it, I’m leaving,’ he said to no one in particular. He picked up his carry-on bag and left the airport in a taxi. He wondered what would happen to his checked suitcase, and then decided he didn’t care. This may have been the second important decision he’d made in three months. The first was to go to Italy and the second being to abandon the whole thing.
‘Take me to a hotel in the city, a decent one uptown,’ he said to the cab driver and then a memory lit up in his mind. He searched for his phone and realised he’d left it on the bar at the airport.
‘Sure, what about The Sheraton?’ the driver said.’
‘Wait—The Occidental, do you know it?’
Just then it started to rain.
‘You sure? The cabbie switched on the wipers and squinted at him through the rear vision mirror.
‘It’s not what it used to be mate.’
‘Its fine,’ David said. He knew this route. From here to the city centre the landscape would be uninterrupted industrial. He closed his eyes and wondered what he was doing. The urge to travel had left him as quickly as it had come, and for it to happen an hour before departure, for some reason, didn’t seem even remotely ridiculous. In some way this unplanned return past the non-descript rows of factories verified his decision. It wasn’t just the phoney bartender.
In the sleepy, too-warm interior of the cab with the rain starting to fall in large splotches on the windows, he ruminated on the travel industry’s commitment to providing experiences, already available in his own living room. Even the first-class cabin of an airliner or the state-room of a cruise ship was an iteration of homely comforts. It was obvious the attractions of travel were fundamentally similar to the mundanity of one’s day-to-day life. Why would a traveller bother if at the other end there was merely an echo of what he had left behind? In an, of late, unfamiliar moment of clarity, David saw the absurdity of this.
He asked the cabbie to pull into a liquor-shop and wait while he purchased two litres of Dewar’s White Label whiskey.
‘You could have got it duty free at the airport,’ the cabbie said.
‘Oh.’ The driver again glanced at David in the rear-view mirror. ‘Anyway, how was the trip? The cabbie said.
‘I didn’t like the barmen.’
By the time they reached Redfern it was late afternoon and the city’s tall buildings leapt into the sky like glassy grey demons. The rain had set into a torrent. When Macquarie Street fed into Bridge and the rain rolled down to flood the basin of the Pitt Street intersection, the sky had become an orange gash flashing above the skyscrapers and reflecting in the teeming pavement gutters.
In the eerie light, it seemed to David the city was bleeding. With a jerk, the driver pulled a hard right into a crowded triangle of short streets and stopped beside a tiny park. The cabbie was right about The Occidental. At the very least the dirty art deco exterior needed serious attention. David stood in the wide portico. Wrought iron gates were latched onto the marble stonework either side. It was how he remembered it, although now it had a jaded, grimy feel to it.
The entrance was a double door made of copper and glass with an intricate filigree design of two peacocks facing each other. On either side and below the domed roof of the portico, two sconces were fixed to the walls also with the motif of two peacocks; green glass concealed the lamps within. He pushed the door and it creaked open. The sight of the lobby immediately brought back a memory of him and Audrey standing as he was now, forty years before.
Back then, a liveried concierge ushered them up the three wide marble steps and their bags were placed on a chrome trolley. The pale blue ceiling was decorated with subtle wisps of tromp l’oeil clouds and festooned with an enormous chandelier at its centre. The chandelier was a geometric crown of golden radiating triangles joined by cut glass lights in the shape of outspread wings, hung from the ceiling by four thin square tubes. He now remembered how stunned he was by its beauty.
As they ventured further into the palatial interior, their eyes were drawn to an oriental mural adorning the wall behind the gold and black lacquered reception desk. The filigreed peacock motif appeared again, by now a bit overdone, but David noted that they did merge discretely with the golden borders of the long desk. He remembered Audrey was so distracted by the beauty of the lobby, he had to shake her shoulder before entering the elevator.
Forty years ago the lobby was bustling with staff and guests, but now there was no one in sight, as if the entire edifice had been abandoned. The desk appeared to be unmanned, the mural was faded and peeling. The marble columns, each adorned with a lampshade, were dulled from neglect. Some of the chandelier lights were cracked, appearing to be repaired with yellowed and peeling clear tape. He approached the desk and heard shuffling, followed by a loud sneeze; a flash of red appeared briefly above the desks top.
There was a bell, a packet of cigarettes, a mobile phone, an empty coke bottle and an open guest book on the reception desk. The guest book had no entries for the day but a biro lay at its centre in anticipation. He shook the bell and another flash of red appeared accompanied by a dull thud causing the marble desk to tremble.
‘Shit!’ The flash of red materialised into a head of hair and the most bizarre looking person he had set eyes on outside of a circus tent. A young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, rose from behind the counter. She appeared to be in a clown costume with make-up to match on a nevertheless pretty face and a big pair of glasses perched on her nose. Holding a paperback novel, her right index finger marking the page, the woman rubbed at her scalp amongst a mass of red curls. David wondered whether The Occidental was indeed still a hotel—had it been taken over by a troupe of circus performers, a gothic circus from the look of her clothing? The woman’s dress had short black ruffles around the neckline and sleeve-ends. Shiny black buttons were sewn down the front but there was no noticeable join. A thin black belt cinched her waist.
‘I’m so sorry,’ David said. He hoped his apology appropriately addressed both her surprise and his dismay at catching her in her auditioning clothes.
‘It’s OK, bloody stool’s too short, not sure where the tall one is,’ she said. She looked around as if she might find it somewhere in the lobby. David followed her gaze and saw a tall stool by one of the marble columns and below one of the lampshades. ‘Oh, there it is. Bloody hell—can’t see for looking.
‘I was wondering if you had a room.’ David glanced at the open guest book and felt embarrassed on her behalf by its lack of entries.
‘Why?’ She said, her head was tilted slightly, and then her eyes blinked as if she’d just woke up. ‘Sorry, that was idiotic, wasn’t it,’ her laugh was like a pre-emptory cough, as if there were more to come. Placing the book on the desk, she peered at him through her mannish looking black framed spectacles and then she reached up and removed them.
‘Oh,’ she said, looking squarely at him with a very frank expression and then she smiled. ‘You seem like a very nice man. You are, in fact. I’m completely convinced already.’
While David was wondering how she’d come to this conclusion the book she was reading abruptly closed of its own accord.
‘You’ve lost your place,’ David said.
‘It’s alright; I know where I’m up to. Now let me see,’ she pulled the guest book towards her, running her finger down the empty columns. ‘You know what sir; I do believe we might just be able to squeeze you in.’
‘Excellent,’ he smiled going along with the joke. ‘Tell me, would 701 be available,’ adding a hint of mock formality.
‘You’ve been here before?’ She answered with some degree of surprise.
‘Yes,’ he looked down at the gold band on his left hand. ‘It was a long time ago; honeymoon,’ he said.
‘Have you read Anais Nin?’ She placed a long, black-tipped finger on the paperback.
He glanced at the book cover. The title was The Four Chambered Heart and beneath it was a photograph of an attractive but fierce looking woman. ‘No, I’ve never heard of her. Is that a picture of her?’
‘Yes, fabulous isn’t she? You can borrow it after I have finished if you like,’ she turned and pulled a key from a set of pigeon holes fixed to the wall. ‘Wait, listen to this,’ she said, opening the book.
After a flurry of page turning she stopped. ‘Here it is—I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living—she quoted, ‘isn’t that terrific?’
‘Yes actually, it is!’
‘How long do you want to stay?’ she said with some excitement.
‘Oh. You know what, I haven’t got a clue.’
‘Fabulous. Stay as long as you like. You get a discount for an extended stay.’
The young woman accompanied him to the seventh floor and let him into 701. The room seemed smaller than he remembered it, or perhaps his life had become bigger, more complicated—certainly that. He went straight to the window. He could see the little triangle of a park. He remembered now that it contained at its centre a bronze statue of some dignitary in a frock coat, stockinged legs and buckle shoes. It was now slick with the rain.
‘So, is it as you remember, probably not changed much, maybe a paint job or two. ‘The bed would have been replaced several times I expect.’ She had followed him to the window and stood beside him, also looking down.
‘Now that I am here I only remember the window and the view of the park, the harbour beyond and now that I see it, the statue. I haven’t the faintest clue who it’s supposed to be.’
‘Pitt The Younger,’ she said.
‘Oh, I see.’
‘Still none the wiser, are you? He shook his head. ‘British Prime minister, twice over, 18th century. He’s called the Younger Pitt to distinguish him from his father who was also Prime Minister at one point. He was the youngest prime minister ever to have served—24, same age as me.
‘Goodness, that’s young alright, David said.
‘He was a bit of a flash Larry, didn’t think much of partisan politics—all for consensus and getting amongst it, rubbed the oldies up the wrong way.’
‘Well, we can’t have that, can we? David said.
‘Ha, guess not. Come on, you must remember something else.’
‘I don’t know, somehow I thought—’
‘It was the first night of your marriage,’ He turned to her and she presented him with a mischievous little smile. Her face lit up, despite the black and white makeup.
‘Nothing comes to mind,’ he said.
On reflection, however, he remembered Audrey’s awe at staying in a hotel for the first time in her life. Yes, that’s right; she jumped up and down on the bed like a small child. It seemed a bit weird, because she was normally so demure. During their honeymoon in this lovely hotel, she behaved with more abandon than he had ever seen in her before or since, as if she had realised from that day forward she would have to be an adult, so she determined to make the best of it.
As for David himself, he was somewhat confused—had he been misled or made some sort of mistake in marrying Audrey? They did have intercourse for the first time that night, again in the morning and, from his recollection, on several other occasions during their stay. He’d had a form of fumbling sex with another woman at some point before he’d met Audrey, but he recalled now, how delightful it was with his new wife.
‘Are you alright?’
David realised he’d too easily drifted off to The Occidental of forty years before. ‘Yeah – sure, I’m fine, a bit tired actually.’
‘OK, I’ll leave you to it. Apollonia,’ she thrust out her hand.
‘Polly really, I mean everyone calls me Polly or Pol.
‘Oh, right,’ he shook her hand, ‘David.’
‘That sounded like I have loads of friends but I have approximately two, and Terry’s in Venezuela. The other is Ronnie, he lives on the top floor.
‘Why is Terry in Venezuela?’
‘She was banished from the kingdom for the rest of her days.’
‘Goodness, sounds a tad harsh.’
‘Yes. Boyfriend trouble—in that he couldn’t be bothered carrying on seeing her.’
‘She closed her eyes twirled that big globe they have in Dymocks and her finger landed on Venezuela.’ She paused for a breath. ‘Look,’ she produced her mobile phone and rapidly fiddled with it before brandishing it in front of David. It was a photo of a tanned and happy looking girl embracing a thin older man in a beard and a frayed cap, a look approaching shock on his face. Two brown-skinned children could be seen in the background trying to get in on the selfie with goofy faces and victory signs. The picture was framed to incorporate the spire of an old Rococo style church and a wide plaza.
‘She seems alright now,’ David said. ‘Not so sure about that man though.’
‘Terry’s the sort of person who’s in a perpetual state of blissful rebound. She seems to jump out of one disastrous relationship into another.’
‘That doesn’t sound too good.’
‘It can’t end well—look at that guy, he already looks miserable.’
‘I have to say, he looks like he might have recently escaped from a war zone.’
‘Ha—yep, neutralized and depopulated.’
‘And that,’ David replied, giving Polly a quick smile.
‘I already know your name,’ Polly said. At first he was confused.
‘Oh…Of course, although it is a wonder you caught it amongst all the entries in the registration book,’ he said.
‘Oh my god, you made a joke. I think we are going to get on quite well David,’ She placed the key on a narrow sideboard by the door. ‘We don’t have room service, we don’t even have a kitchen hand. There’s are eggs in the kitchen out behind the reception desk, and bread. Just help yourself.’
‘Okay, good to know.’
‘Dial ‘0’ if you need anything, she pointed to the phone on the bedside table. ‘Just keep in mind the words of that old song—you can’t always get what you want.’
‘Aha, Hotel California, I suppose it is old now.’
‘Older than me?’
‘Yep. Look, thanks for your help Polly.’
‘Not a problem. By the way, there’s an elderly lady in 707 down the hall, another permanent. She’s a bit strange, but harmless. Oh, and coincidentally, a couple request this room on a regular basis although I haven’t seen them for a while. The incumbent has precedence here though, so if they want it while you’re here—too bad.’
A chair had been placed beside the window and when Polly left he sat on it. All he could see out of the window was the grey clouds scudding across the sky. There seemed to be a strong wind up there but not down in the city. Between the clouds the sky was the deep blue that was commonplace in this country but not so elsewhere.
Once several years ago he’d flown to Bangkok to meet one of his clients at an exclusive hotel that had just opened. He was struck then by how the colour of the sky was of the palest blue. He could barely remember the nature of the meeting or even what the client looked like. He did, however remember the hotel and its staff.
He was picked up at the airport by the hotel’s limousine service and driven by an extremely polite driver, who after settling him into the plush interior, told him it would be an hour’s journey and then didn’t speak again until about fifteen minutes into the journey.
‘Mr. David, how old are you?’
‘I’m fifty nine.’ In David’s country it wasn’t really polite to ask that question but in Thailand, clearly not a barrier at all. ‘Why?’
‘There, see, Mr. David.’
The driver pointed to a console where there was displayed a list of types of music. The driver was asking him his age so that an appropriate category of music could be piped to him in the back seat.
‘Oh, that’s alright, you choose for me,’ David said. He didn’t want to listen to music but also didn’t want to disappoint the driver. From then on, however, only the sound of the road could be heard, although the driver made a short call on his mobile phone, after asking if he could first. The call was to tell the hotel that David would be delivered in five minutes.
When he arrived he was met by both the concierge and another man who handed him a card and introduced himself as Natt and explained he was the hotel manager’s assistant. He was a handsome and immaculately dressed Thai man. There was something completely seamless about all of this that impressed David despite the disappointing sky. When he entered he was greeted by several young Thai women and men in extraordinarily eclectic and tasteful silk clothing. Some sort of livery was expected but this was not like anything he’d seen before. The 2iC told David they had three different outfits and could dress in these as they please depending on how they felt on any particular day.
To David all this seemed to be so unreal as to make him wonder whether he’d been transported to an alternative universe. Natt went on to tell him that much of the interior of the hotel had been designed by an incredibly famous French designer.
David had not been able to appreciate the scale of the building and the quality of its architecture, which apparently had won awards, because everything had happened in such a fluid and uninterrupted way that he had somehow found himself in the slipstream of this organisations customer service philosophy. The hotel chain, according to Natt, had leveraged the fame of the French designer to promote a unique hotel experience.
Some time later, when David was able to give the whole experience his full attention, he realised that this approach ultimately made no difference. He still felt both deflated and distanced as he always had been, by the unnaturalness of this desire for a sort of exaggeration but nonetheless a replication of normal life. There was a sameness to wherever he went and whatever he did and the more extraordinary it was, the more it remained the same. Sitting in Room 701 of The Occidental, however, he felt more at home than he’d felt in his entire life.
Sirens woke him late the following morning—police, ambulance, fire; he could never tell the difference. He shrugged—someone’s unlucky day. David’s hangover was a little more severe than he was accustomed to. He rose from the bed and looked at the bottle of whiskey on the table by the window. He had only drunk a third of the bottle and was relieved to see the other bottle was untouched and still in the plastic bag. He went to the bathroom and taking a tumbler from the vanity unit, he drank two full glasses of water. The slow bladder release was even more tedious than usual.
Don’t get old. His father was eighty two and dying with colon cancer when he croaked out these words. At the time, David thought he had almost another thirty years before he was old with the prospect ahead of gracefully forgetting all that had gone before. He’d quite admired his mother who had outlived his dad by over ten years and acquired a forgetting disease in the process, a small upside to dementia perhaps, although it was mostly horrific. Ceasing to remember all the unpleasant things one had endured in a lifetime, seemed to David somewhat of a consolation for having lived so long.
It hadn’t escaped him that perhaps his son and daughter might like to provide him with some of their grievances, before he too, descended into forgetfulness. Glen probably would be forthcoming, not much having prevented him from giving his father a serve in the past. He’d read somewhere baboons tear their fathers to shreds for domination, just some sort of primal thing that happened between men and their sons.
David’s daughter, Sandra was a different matter. She had always been reluctant to consider any criticism of her father, as though blind to his flaws. Her adulation was a minor matter of concern, more often than not alluded to by Audrey as a silly girl thing, to be gotten over in the fullness of time. But then, the only warmth radiating from her mother was the variety best characterised as one of necessity. A broken arm when Sandra was seven required one hug, two at a pinch.
Early on, Audrey self-diagnosed post-natal depression upon both birthing occasions. The fact that it persisted well into the children’s teens went unremarked, at least within his hearing. He failed to see that he might have had something say, least of all, the many occasions he might have simply indicated his sympathy for his wife.
While showering, he realised he hadn’t eaten since breakfast the previous day. Only now did he given any serious thought to the fact that he abandoned his luggage. Had it flown to Italy and was now repeating its slide around the baggage carousel in Florence with his clothes and wet-pack within? No toothbrush. This fact made him feel insecure.
The traveller must always be vigilant. David had read this on the Department of Immigration website. He found a page—Important Information for Travellers—, having navigated to it for any alerts: an outbreak of dysentery; the potential to be kidnapped by bandits; volcanic activity; Fjords surrounded by unstable glaciers. It nearly put him off the whole business. He was anxious about most things except numbers. He liked spreadsheets—particularly when they tallied, but even when they didn’t.
In any case, here he was not thirty minutes’ drive from home and no damn toothbrush. Around this time yesterday he was at the International Terminal and twelve hours later he was lying drunk and crying in the middle of the night at The Occidental—having travelled no further than twenty kilometres. Wasn’t he supposed to be easing his feet into walking boots and trudging up Mount Vesuvius?
‘I’m normal, I’m a white-bread normal person and I don’t do this sort of thing,’ he said as his eyes followed the barely warm water from the shower, flowing over his body. He considered it a bonus he could still see the tip of his penis past the burgeoning pot of his belly. ‘There you are,’ he said. He tried a few strokes, but enthusiasm for the project dwindled before it got properly started.
Polly was nowhere to be seen by the time he emerged from the lift dressed in yesterday’s clothes. He needed to get to a department store but he was starving. He recalled her pointing to a doorway in the lobby. A kitchen lay beyond with eggs in the fridge. As he approached the twin double-swung doors of the kitchen he heard what appeared to be a loud and angry conversation going on within. He stopped, listening to the disembodied voices of a man and a woman.
‘…shouldst thou stand excused; for doing worthy vengeance on thyself, which didst unworthy slaughter upon others.’
David recognised Polly’s voice but not that of the man.
‘Say that I slew them not.’
‘Why, then they are not dead. But dead they are, and devilish slave, by thee.’
‘I-did-not-kill-your-husband.’ The man yelled.
David wondered why they were talking like this—angry, to the point of insanity and resorting for some reason, to articulating their inflamed emotions in old English. Polly was accusing someone of killing her husband. It did sound as though there was an Elizabethan play in progress but he thought he’d better check in case things got out of hand. This was new for David as courage wasn’t something he thought he was in receipt of, but here it was, raising its unskilled and under-utilised head.
He pushed through the doors and was met with a wide, tiled commercial kitchen with two aisles separated by a series of cooktops, ovens and sinks all dominated by the gleam of stainless steel. He expected to be greeted by two people in the throes of murderous intent, blood having already been spilt.
Polly was seated on a metal stool. She had her back to the bench-top with a book in her hands and wearing her black-rimmed glasses. A cigarette smouldered on an ashtray beside her. Adjacent to her, a man of perhaps fifty in an apron printed with a picture of large female breasts on it, was at a gas hob with a wrought iron skillet and a spatula. No blood to speak of.
‘David,’ Polly said. She placed the book on her lap and the man looked up with a brief smile.
‘We’re getting Polly’s Shakespeare up to scratch. It’s meant to be spoken out loud for one to understand the intended meaning.’ The man said this as if he and David were old friends and it was the continuation of an infrequent series of conversations.
‘I’m an imperfect vessel for Shakespeare. My Lady Jane sounds like sandpaper being rubbed on polystyrene, whereas Ronnie’s Gloucester is perfection.’
‘To perfect the meaning of something is not the same as understanding it.’ Ronnie said.
‘Yeah right,’ she replied. ‘What-the-fuck-ever.’
Ronnie removed the skillet from the heat, grabbed 3 plates off a long shelf attached to the wall and dished out equal portions to each. ‘Here you go, tuck in. I’m Ronnie Bourke.’ The man held out his hand and David walked up to shake it. His hand was warm and firm.
‘Draw up a stool, plenty for everyone. Avail thee sir of this, the milk of human kindness.’
‘This from a bloke who wears a picture of a huge set of tits on his chest,’ Polly said. She looked quite different today, as dramatic as yesterday, just different. Her dress was a bodice hugging red contraption with a wide collar. Apart from the dresses very short length, it had the effect of making her body look like that of a child from the nineteenth century. But then her slight figure seemed to fit with the idea of it. Below, the red continued with leggings and Converse oxfords. All this red was relieved by a thin black belt and a black leather choker, though her red hair and makeup looked even more alarming than the day before. David didn’t understand makeup.
Ronnie Bourke on the other hand looked as if he’d barely survived an all-nighter with a flagon of rough red as his date. He had a handsome but pale face enhanced by dark stubble, a thin mouth and nose, and a high forehead. A fringe of greying hair flopped just above intelligent looking, but red-rimmed eyes. He wore an Hawaiian shirt under the breast apron, black boot-jeans and no shoes.
The scrambled eggs were delicious, the most delicate and creamy David had ever tasted. He listened to Ronnie and Polly and wondered how he would he ever have anything to add to a conversation with these two clever people.
‘I don’t know Pol, your diction is for shit. Perhaps we should have a reset about your ambitions.’ Ronnie said. ‘She has this thing about getting into the acting game Dave. She doesn’t get how hard it is to be noticed.’
Ronnie seemed vaguely familiar to David, perhaps because he was stereotypical in some way—the disgracefully aging hipster. He was the sort of fellow who would have looked very cool lounging on the bonnet of a vintage Porsche Roadster about twenty years ago. Like David, he was developing a bit of a jowl and fine dark hairs were beginning to appear where they had no right to be.
‘If you can tread the boards, then I don’t see why I should be excluded, you flounce about the stage like a Chihuahua in heat. I have ambitions, I’m still—’
‘Dave, do you think Polly should go into to acting.’ Ronnie interrupted Polly. Quite rudely, David thought, but Polly, seemingly unaffected, eagerly turned to look at him for a response. David suddenly realized he’d seen Ronnie in a TV cop show recently.
‘Well…I…um, I think she might have a shot. You know, with a bit of…,’ he stopped and looked at each of them in turn. Polly had a breathless, expectant look about her and Ronnie had his head down, fork poised to deliver scrambled egg to his open mouth. ‘Look, I don’t know much about this sort of thing to be honest.’
‘See, David thinks I’ve got a shot, so fuck you and your crème-fucking-fraiche scrambled eggs.’
‘Oh shit, have you heard the news Dave?’ Ronnie said, without pausing at Polly’s jab.’ His mood changed, looking frightened, it didn’t seem particularly thespian to David.
‘What? No. What happened?’
‘There’s a siege in Martin Place. Some nutter walked into a café with a bag full of guns. Bombs too, the Police are in contact with him and he’s made demands.
‘Jesus,’ David said.
‘He’s going to shoot everyone in sight and blow himself and the building up,’ Polly added. ‘The crazy stuck an ISIS flag across the shop window.’
‘Christ!’ David said.
‘Or Allahu Akba, as Mohonnad Abdul is currently chanting,’ Ronnie said.
‘The bloke who’s taken the café patrons hostage—it’s what he’s calling himself. They reckon it means Servant of the Sword.
‘What are these demands?’ David said.
‘He wants the Prime Minister to debate with him on TV,’ Ronnie said.
‘In any case, like a complete twat, Ronnie thought Richard the Third might help take our minds off what is happening two blocks from here.’
‘Not the best choice in retrospect,’ Ronnie added.
‘Gosh, that’s not good.’ David said between forkfuls of scrambled eggs. He wondered if there was coffee and the possibility of toast. ‘I need to buy some clothes. Know where I might—’
‘See, Dave’s got his priorities right. No Dick the Third for him.’ Polly said.
‘Alexanders, down near the quay, corner of Albert. Alexander is a dreadful little creature and his wares are a bit pricey but he should have everything you need,’ Ronnie said. David noticed Ronnie looked at him differently, like one whose interest is piqued. ‘Left home in a hurry, Dave?’ Yes, he played a very canny detective on TV, with some special skill, David thought—mind reading or some such drivel.
‘No, my luggage is still at the airport. Could be in Italy, I’m not sure.’
‘Oh, so you’ve been overseas?’
‘No,’ David said. He realised he had both Polly and Ronnie’s undivided attention. He didn’t want to, but felt obliged to offer some sort of explanation.
‘You appear to have a complicated life my friend,’ Ronnie said.
‘Yes,’ David opted for minimalism. He could impress Audrey by telling her he knew Ronnie Bourke. He hadn’t known the actors name but Audrey knew them all.
‘Make some coffee and leave him alone,’ Polly said.
‘Look, I might go and do this shopping. Thanks for the eggs, they were great.’ He stood up and he felt their eyes on him as he left the kitchen. As David was leaving the empty hotel lobby he wondered if Polly would hear The Occidental’s reception desk bell if it was ever rung. He thought she might not, and that possibility, inexplicably made him feel sad.
When he stepped outside the hotel, he was aware of the difference in the city. There were fewer people than he would expect for a Monday but that wasn’t it. Yesterday’s drizzling rain had stopped. Wet streets glimmered under sunshine from the banked clouds. It was the quiet. He saw only one car on Pitt Street intersection and it was a police vehicle blocking the traffic from venturing further south. Several police personnel stood around a makeshift barrier. They looked nervous, scanning the neighbourhood of skyscrapers and the few pedestrians. Even David felt their eyes on him before he turned and started walking north towards the quay.
The man in the clothing store, presumably Alexander, was short but very dapper, in a bow-tie, suspenders and a thin moustache, all giving him the appearance of a magician. He suspected the man might be capable of drawing an extremely long silk scarf from his pocket and start flashing it about. Pidgeon’s could be involved.
‘I see you’ve come from the direction of Phillips Street. Have you seen or heard anything of interest?’
‘No,’ he lied, ‘I’m staying at The Occidental.’ David pointed to a display of business shirts on the wall. ‘I quite like the cream one, the shirt on the rack there. Do you have two of them?’
‘Goodness, The Occidental; is that still operating? It’s near Martin place, so you haven’t seen anything. What I mean is…’
‘Look, I barely know about it—I’ve not even heard the news.’
The little magician, though polite enough treated him with a certain degree of suspicion after that. It was as if David’s lack of immediate knowledge regarding the unfolding drama was the same as being implicated in some way. He wanted to assure the man that he was a retired financial adviser from Bondi Junction and not running an al-Qaeda cell from his attic, but he realised this would have precisely the opposite effect.
Alexander shifted his attention to the shirts. ‘I’m sorry, that’s the last of the cream. I could order in more. The light grey beside it would suit you more though; I have four in that colour.’
David still felt the man’s suspicion fall upon him, seemingly unpersuaded of his potential for dark deeds. Nevertheless, the fellow couldn’t help his authoritative presumption regarding David’s choice of shirt and David, with some experience in matters of mercantile pragmatism, concluded that light grey could indeed save the day. We mustn’t be overly concerned with events over which we have no control, he wanted to say this man. This was an oft-repeated phrase when addressing his clients concerns about the volatility of the stock market. In this climate of fear in the city, he even felt obliged to reassure himself that he was not a terrorist, and had no immediate plans to be become one.
‘Do you? Well then, light grey it is.’
David returned to the hotel laden with several bags of fresh clothes, a spare pair of shoes, a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste. He also had a takeaway flat white, now lukewarm. Polly was nowhere to be seen in the lobby; nor was anybody else. It was like entering an elaborate and private palace which was entirely at his disposal. He could dance the Macarena in there with only the dilapidated chandelier as an audience. When he let himself into his room, he downed the coffee in one gulp and had another shower in his room, finally lying on the bed in his new underwear, feeling exhausted and still hungry.
He fell asleep pondering the strange atmosphere outside of the hotel. Hours had passed when he woke with a start. Instead of rested from all the sleep he’d had, he felt drained. He couldn’t recall having dreamt for months. Instead, he’d taken to day-dreaming, his waking imagination producing an unfamiliar turbulence and resulting in unfamiliar, even strange behaviour.
When he was still at home, which seemed like an age ago now, though it was only the previous day—he had daydreamed of his travels in Italy. In the weeks leading up to his departure, the house had come to resemble a tomb. Silence reigned mostly, even at nights and weekends. David and Audrey had little to say to each other. At night, dinner would come and go, often without comment. It wasn’t for want of trying.
‘How was work today.’ he asked. He poured more wine, knowing it was an efficient lubricant for them both.
‘Uneventful.’ Audrey worked at a lamb chop without enthusiasm. She cut small pieces off the spindly bone but only ate one or two. David found it painful to watch.
‘Didn’t you say you were having trouble with one of your staff, you mentioned she was off her rocker, if I recall?’
‘Christ, that was ages ago.’ Audrey’s frustration with him these days was completely unconstrained. ‘She left, omming in some Ashram I suspect.
She often didn’t come home till late or, as on one Friday night, not at all. He’d order takeaway from the Chinese across the street or made a sandwich. David would often walk round to the usual bar to be talked at by Frank Lemon. Even he had become more frequently absent from their favourite watering hole. He didn’t mind if Frank wasn’t there. He didn’t like him much anyway.
His relationship with Frank had become tedious. His sly interest in David’s dismantling marriage was beginning to rattle him. Despite his pose as a common man, verging on the crass, Frank had a knack for using his legal skills to glean facts David should have kept to himself. Frank seemed to think he had some sort of proprietorial influence over the outcome, and also, at times, to have information about David’s marriage he didn’t think he’d disclosed. Although, he couldn’t be sure with all the extra drinking he was doing. Nevertheless, he always came away from these sessions feeling vaguely soiled.
He would drink in solitude on the evenings of Frank’s absence, returning home to a silent house and the guest bedroom. Sometimes it was comforting to sway at the door of the marital bedroom and watch Audrey sleep. She was at her most beautiful and least confronting in those moments, and it was then that he remembered so clearly, the early years of their marriage. They never returned to The Occidental after their honeymoon but those few days so long ago vividly encapsulated one daydream impossible to reclaim.
‘Enough,’ he said, getting off the bed. He’d get dressed and treat himself to a decent dinner at the Radisson Brasserie around the corner. On the carpet near the door lay a slip of paper. He picked it up and read the neat handwriting.
Dinner tonight at 6, twelfth floor, come as you are, all will be provided – Polly.
Holding Polly’s note, David looked in the wardrobe mirror. He was dressed only in the new pearly white underpants and the t-shirt still with its factory pressed creases. His reflection reminded him of his odd behaviour of late. He may not have followed through with his plans for Italy but he understood now that something weird was happening. He had been going through some sort of metamorphosis for months. Not the least was the difficulty of his marriage. He recalled the night when Audrey uttered her opinion of their relationship. What was it she had said—no, it’s too late.’
Despite the note’s insistence on informality, David decided to add a pair of pants, shirt and shoes to his ensemble. Did Polly have a room on the twelfth floor? What was the room number? The twelfth was the top floor, did the rooms have cooking facilities up there? He thought of dialling 9 for reception to garner at least the room number but then decided he’d take pot luck.
Polly’s dinner offer supplanted the Radisson plan as quickly as it had come. Probably for the best—venturing out might not be a good idea, considering the city was practically in lock-down. Had the hostages been saved, the terrorist dealt with? A TV was perched on the sideboard as if an afterthought, but he found himself unable to muster the curiosity to turn it on.
As if in response to his complacency, two siren blasts sounded in quick succession. He walked over to the window and looked out. He saw the tail-lights of emergency vehicles disappearing down Pitt Street while one of the policemen on duty re-closed the barricade and another continued to redirect traffic along Hunter.
The last of the clouds seemed to be dispersing. David did feel safe within The Occidental. He placed his left hand on the solid old wall, as if he might combine with some of its history. He had indeed left his DNA on the bed-sheets all those years ago. So there was that. Had he become part of the fabric of this place? The hotel had the effect of comforting him in a way he had not experienced since he was a child. It was an odd admission to make, but he had not felt more at home than now, within the walls of The Occidental.
He only felt a vague notion of this horrified city, the terror of the siege happening less than half kilometre away. Nothing about that unfolding menace concentrated his sympathies. Instead he was encased within, impervious to everything outside the crumbling edifice. He felt a certain variety of empathy for the old building, seeming to carry a burden of fear, of cringing within the shadows of the surrounding towers; of shivering in the cold embrace of this brash and careless city. Once The Occidental was tall and grand, even when he and Audrey had first walked across its marble threshold, with all the steel and concrete rush to the bright sky, it still had a presence impossible to ignore.
An old lady stood in the triangle of the park opposite with a small dog on a leash. The dog gave Pitt the Younger an exploratory sniff before cocking his leg to pee on him. There were a few other people on the streets. On one corner several were clustered together, talking and glancing downtown, along Castlereagh Street. Due to his position on the seventh floor and the fact that all other buildings in the neighbourhood had many more floors than The Occidental, David couldn’t see much past them. He guessed they were discussing the hostage situation.
Two men walked uphill along Hunter. He had to look twice because one of them was Frank Lemon, resplendent in his robe and carrying an armful of paperwork topped with a wig. When David thought about it, seeing him wasn’t that surprising. The Occidental sat at the apex of streets converging on the Supreme and Family Courts and a tight cluster of offices given over to legal firms, some venerable, even ancient. One of these buildings, not dissimilar in architectural grandiosity as the hotel, was completely inhabited by Queens Councils and their attendant solicitors.
The man Frank was with, though well-dressed, had the air of a latter day show-off in his tight-fitting suit and a lank mullet, from which a rat’s tail escaped down the back of his neck like a frightened skink. A well-dressed young woman in high heels rushed in the opposite direction on the other side of the street. Both men stopped and turned, staring at her. Frank spoke and his companion appeared to laugh, cupped his mouth and yelled something in the woman’s direction. She hurried, head-down, into a nearby building.
A police car cruised down Hunter Street, no other moving vehicles in sight. The two sets of traffic lights he could see were flashing red. A sign diverted traffic away from Pitt Street towards the quay. The siege was apparently still in play. Even the coincidental sighting of Frank was if nothing at all to David, the recognition of his friend leaving him as quickly as it appeared.
He got dressed and poured himself a tumbler of neat whiskey, took a good swallow and sitting on the bed, slipped on his watch. It was four thirty, an hour and a half before his dinner appointment with Polly. He was once again facing the wardrobe mirror and though he was not one for spending much time fussing about his appearance, he found himself critically appraising his reflection. Had his haircut always looked so boring? And his nose was bigger than he’d previously thought. Was it just the lighting in the room?
He turned his head this way and that, trying to catch a glimpse of his profile, which he hoped would be an improvement on the front. No, he was definitely a gargoyle. Christ, small children would run in terror. Every time he looked now, his nose had grown alarmingly. Was that a pimple developing on his forehead? He got up and walked over to the mirror for a closer look—no, it was just a small mole he’d had forever. For goodness sake! He walked away from the mirror and sat on the other side of the bed, so he wouldn’t have to further feed his paranoia. His irrationality was descending to that of a schoolboy with a serious hormonal imbalance.
He considered the bizarre young Polly. She was friendly towards him and he felt drawn to her warm and vivacious personality. He couldn’t remember ever being flirted with, although there must have been a bit of that going on with him and Audrey when they first met. For a split second he saw Polly as the young Audrey entering The Occidental for the first time. Ronnie was a far more pleasing prospect for her, being quite handsome in a dishevelled, rakish way; although, even he was of an age not commonly known to turn the heads of twenty-four year old’s. Polly was eight years younger than his daughter, so all of this was academic and utterly ridiculous. He was after all, a man who was having trouble locating his penis.
He wondered, not for the first time, whether his family was trying to contact him. His phone had been abandoned at the airport. Was that deliberate or just one of the many mistakes he seemed to be making lately. Perhaps, having been apprised of his decision to travel to Italy, they were as indifferent to his situation as he had been accustomed. As long as they knew where he was at any given time and not in danger of being anything other than his usual predictable self, there would be little reason to contact him. It was possible Sandra might send him a text—Hows tricks dad, all good?—was his last communication from her a week ago. She wouldn’t be satisfied without a response, usually—?, followed by—???, if his answer was slow in coming.
All this was starting to put him on edge and he poured himself another double whisky, taking a good mouthful. According to the label, the Dewars was the double aged variety with twelve and then six years maturation. Apparently, eighteen years in a barrel was considered a marvellous thing—the old and characterful whiskies were allowed to mingle before bottling with the resulting flavours of nut and marzipan, to name a few. Although he hadn’t a lot of experience with marzipan—he’d even eaten some—but what the hell was it exactly. Whatever its notes, he had to admit the liquor was very good. The expected warming effect, was followed by the added sensation of making his ears feel hot; a clear error of omission on the label. Nevertheless he was impressed, as always, by the extent to which the liquor was enhancing his mood.
He could hardly ignore the fact that everything about his behaviour lately carried an element of farce. He had used numbers and calculators, not to mention indices and base rates to determine the trajectory of his life and hadn’t given a lot of thought to matters of the heart, or not enough. Come to think of it, he hadn’t really given much thought to anything until he retired. Lately he had this sense that he was a blank page onto which much had yet to be written, which was ridiculous considering his age. Had he been so without agency in his life that it had passed him by with so little to show for itself? Was it too late though, perhaps that was what was happening to him, rewriting himself into the world, should he be concerned with the placement of commas or henceforward represent himself in the form of a riveting narrative told with unstructured spontaneity and decadent vulgarity. Though this daydream appealed to him, he was unable to imagine a way to pull it off. Perhaps he should ask Ronnie.
His marriage was one of confusion to him. He wasn’t sure he’d even decided to join that particular club before he’d become rather suddenly, a fully paid up member. Audrey went ahead and organised it—you wouldn’t have, so I did, she said in the taxi on the way to the registry office. She handed him a simple gold ring and told him he’d be required to insert it on a finger at some point. The ceremony was a bland affair with her painfully shy father as witness. He seemed like a nice man but collapsed looking, as if something heavy had been placed on him. Audrey’s mother had skipped town years before with a landscape gardener from Granville. There were no siblings.
The marriage registrant was young and had little experience, fudging some of the procedure to the extent that Audrey herself had had to intervene, reminding him it was a requirement for the newlyweds to sign the document as well. Then it was off to The Occidental.
He did desire Audrey and experienced emotions he assumed answered the always quite vague questions regarding love. That happy weekend at The Occidental all those years ago was also, in some way, regulated by a need for order in his life. His earnestly acquired degree in accountancy informed this need in much the same way as he might balance a ledger.
Eventually and, as it turned out, mistakenly, David came to the conclusion love had a neat circularity to it. Like a standing order. He could subtract from a fund of the stuff, and divert it for fulfilment at a future time and at regular intervals. The children, born in quick succession several years later, were supplementary deposits.
He thought all of this was a given. He made the mistake of thinking that these logical conclusions about this otherwise confusing notion of love might be understood and embraced by Audrey. After all—apart from the occasional lapses, such as her child-like jumping about on the honeymoon bed and one or two other brief moments—she was even more logical than he was.
Despite his qualms about venturing abroad, David decided to go for a stroll before dinner. He thought it would calm his nerves, which were frayed for several reasons, but he was far from convinced he was up to much, if anything at all. He decided that a half-way decent wine might smooth any passage he might venture down during the evening. He headed for a Liquorland he’d spied on Albert Street the day before.
The endless racks of wine served to agitate him even more. He picked up one with an actual cork in it and an elegant looking label, Les Coteaux – Côte du Rhône. Everybody was impressed with anything from France, although having been there himself he found France to be less than impressed with him.
Not wanting his prejudices to influence the purchase, he read the tasting notes—instantly appealing tones of warm southern fruit, lifted by nuances of oak, which flow into layers of supple and smooth textures, rolling forward to a sumptuous finish. He settled on a Chianti Classico. Italians, although they also gravitated to exaggeration, were on the whole, charming; except, according to David’s recent reading on the matter, members of the Cosa Nostra crime syndicate, who’d slit your throat rather than offer you a glass of wine, oaked or otherwise.
The shop assistant looked frightened when she put his bottle in a paper bag. He failed again, when asked, to provide fresh information regarding the siege. What was it with shopkeepers? Why did they think, just because he was wandering around doing a spot of shopping, he somehow would be in receipt of critical intelligence on the matter. Was he important looking in some indefinable way? For goodness sake, he wasn’t even sober.
The lift clunked to a halt on level 7 and he disembarked ready for another fortifying tumbler of the amber liquid. He looked at his watch, another 40 minutes before dinner. He was just about to insert his key to his room, when the sound of a door rapidly whooshing open drew his attention. An old woman had emerged from a room some distance down the hall and stopped to look at him. At the same time a small dog launched itself missile-like out of the room yapping wildly and galloped towards David. This was the same woman and dog he’d seen earlier in the park.
She was a thin person, wearing a dress that may have been elegant once, but had seen better days. The lop-sided white line of a petticoat could be glimpsed just below the hem, a pair of grey socks and black, frayed slippers covered her feet. Her face, though lined, was not unattractive. Considering her age, she carried herself with a straight back. She had the look of a woman who might have been something of a beauty in her day. A high forehead was topped with a full head of white, unruly hair falling to her shoulders.
‘Don’t worry, he’s a complete idiot,’ said the woman, as if these two statements made it obvious David wouldn’t be savaged. Her voice was loud and clear for such an old person. She sounded upper-class British, or had been schooled where such an accent was encouraged.
‘Oh…ah…could you…,’ David said as the dog reached him and jumped straight up, reaching as far as his chest before gravity intervened.
‘Hold them out,’ the woman said.
‘What? Hold what out?’
‘Oh, okay,’ David had the bottle in one hand but did as instructed and the little creature jumped straight into his arms, as if this was their sole purpose. The dog started licking him with great affection, making it known to David that it was experiencing an instant and unreserved adoration for him.
‘Right, now just drop him.’ The dog landed adeptly on its paws when David let him go. ‘Eustace, come here, you fool. Eustace raced off. ‘He’ll be satisfied until next he lays eyes on you, and then it will be hail fellow, well met all over again unfortunately.’
‘I see,’ David turned his key.
‘Meredith,’ she said.
‘Meredith, that’s my name. I didn’t just pronounce any old word to fill in the gaps between this terribly fascinating conversation.’
David was then surprised to hear her laugh loudly, more like a guffaw; even the dog cringed at the explosion, before crouching down on his fore-paws in front of her and emitting a single, exploratory yap of his own.
‘David,’ David said.
‘Eustace is a whippet, known for their unbridled affection, but clearly limited in grey matter.’
‘He’s a friendly fellow alright.’
‘Come here David, I want you to do something for me.’
‘Two shakes of a lambs tail and you can be on your way. I can see you have made an urgent appointment with that bottle you have in your possession, so I won’t hold you anymore than is necessary.’
Once again she laughed, although not as alarmingly as before. She disappeared into her room, leaving the door open. David, unable to think of a way to extricate himself, walked down the hall. He’d had the impression there was no-one else staying on this floor and wondered about the room cleaning—was there such a thing. The Occidental defied all the conventions of hoteliers and possibly even of the Health and Safety authority.
The handgun was the first thing David saw as he entered Meredith’s room. It was right there on the narrow hall stand, impossible to miss. He had the same stand in his room but his only had a phone on it whereas Meredith’s had no phone, just the gun, lying there as one might place an ornament, a minor flourish of design. An antique circular mirror hung above the stand.
It was a small revolver with a very short barrel, black in colour and a dark brown wooden grip. It had a round metal disk inlaid into the top of the grip, the faded characters RG14 on it. He couldn’t remember ever being that close to a real gun. He looked up at his reflection in the mirror and had an immediate desire to pick it up and pull the trigger.
‘What are you doing?’
He looked up to see Meredith and Eustace both waiting at the other end of the short hall; the gun had stopped him in his tracks.
‘Oh, ignore it if you can. I have reason to be suspicious. There are people looking for me, and it’s not for a nice chat.’
‘I see, but you’re not suspicious of me, a complete stranger?’ David was coming to the conclusion that Meredith might be mad.
‘My intuition tells me David, you may well be the least suspicious person I’m ever likely to meet.’
Regardless of his misgivings about her mental state, he couldn’t see how she would come to such a conclusion without further getting to know him. He felt vaguely insulted by this remark, or was it simply disappointment? It hadn’t occurred to him until now that he rather liked the idea of being seen as less predictable. What did Polly say on first meeting him—I think you are a very nice man. What evidence could she possibly have for that? He himself had none of his own; nobody had ever said such a thing to him.
‘It’s hard to ignore. The gun I mean,’ David said.
‘Not for me, I’d almost forgotten it was there. Look, will you please venture further within…it’s in here.’
‘What is,’ he placed the wine on the stand next to the gun and walked to the end of the hall. The room looked quite different to his own; bigger and on a corner of the building. Windows either side of the corner allowed a very good view of the quay and harbour. A ferry was presently manoeuvring into one of the wharves. The living space led through a door, where he could see a roughly made-up bed. A plug-in cook-top sat on a bench in a narrow alcove, with a bar fridge below. There was a surprisingly large quantity of old fashioned furniture and a great many paintings and drawings all but covering the walls. Some of the pictures were familiar, certainly original and looking like they needed a good dusting. Eustace jumped up onto the back of a tattered leather armchair, stared up at the paintings with intense concentration and started to growl.
‘See, that’s the problem,’ Meredith said, pointing at the wall.
David approached the sofa. ‘What…what’s the problem?’
‘Look at that painting near the ceiling.’
He looked up and noticed a gloomy old landscape painting of what looked like haystacks and a person toiling in a field. The picture was lopsided, one corner resting on the one below it.
‘So, what do you want me to do exactly?’ David asked.
‘I’m tired of this stupid dog’s objection to the painting’s current predicament. He won’t be satisfied until it’s straightened and I’m far too wobbly on my pins for such a task. It’s a Camille Corot, you know.’
‘Yes it is. You haven’t a clue about art, have you?’
‘Not much, no.’
‘Eustace has you at a disadvantage then.’ She uttered another one of her explosive laughs, but recovered quickly. ‘Corot was a neo-classist, early plein-air really—impressionists owe him a debt. It’s valuable, as are many others here. It’s interfering with the Theodore Rousseau below it.’ David, still none the wiser, looked at the Rousseau, Meredith and Eustace in turn. Eustace had finished growling and, returning David’s gaze, looked like he might be up for another spot of mid-air devotion.
‘Okay. Well, I’ll be able to reach it if I stand on the arm of the lounge chair.’
‘Yes, if you must, it’s only a180 year-old Chesterfield. I think Queen Victoria might have farted in it or something.’ More laughter.
David straightened the picture, apparently to Eustace’s satisfaction. He looked up at it, cocking his head to one side and then the other. He finally settled on the sofa with one paw over an eye and the other looking up at David, doubtless in anticipation of further miracles.
David made for the door. ‘Well I must dash.’ He was hungry and dinner with Polly on the twelfth floor beckoned.
‘Yes, don’t forget your bottle David. Is it any good?’
‘A Chianti Classico.’
‘Oh dear, don’t leave that here, I’m quite partial to a Tuscan wine. I’ll be rat-arsed within the hour.’ One more mad bout of laughter erupted.
‘Okay, I guess I’ll see you again.’ He said but she’d already disappeared out of sight, muttering to herself. He retrieved the wine from the hall table, took a quick glance back towards the living room, and pocketed the hand-gun.
Several things confused David when he exited the lift on the twelfth floor. The first was that he did not find himself in the expected hall off which the hotel rooms could be accessed. Instead he entered a sort of vestibule. A door cleverly inlaid with wood laminates in an abstract pattern stood ajar on the wall opposite the lift. Large ceramic pots, decorated with a chain of triangular shapes swirling helically around them, stood either side of the door. The one on the left had suffered a serious calamity and been poorly repaired. Globules of what looked like liquid nails oozed out of its many cracks. An old Wellington boot had been jammed into its opening along with a broken umbrella and a cricket bat. The pot on the right of the door sported the ancient and spindly branches of a long dead tree.
Beneath these ceramic sentinels were scattered many smaller pots, each one with a body part from a variety of plastic dolls cemented into and protruding from them. Some were painted in primary colours; others were their natural flesh tone, but they were all arranged on the floor in what seemed to be a pattern.
He stood wondering what he should do next. Had he somehow come to the wrong floor? Perhaps this was the thirteenth, the no-man’s land of superstitious legend, a place one must avoid at all cost. He was about to summon the lift when the door opened with a screech. Ronnie appeared in his breast apron and holding a large fish with his fingers inserted in the gills.
‘Christ, those hinges need lubricating. I assume you haven’t got a can of WD40 on you Dave.’
‘Ahh, well no, I…’ David arrested an urge to reach into his pocket to check.
‘Ha, of course you don’t. Come in, come in; this beast isn’t going to cook itself.’ He shook the fish as if trying to revive it. Pol, David’s here, make yourself useful and get him a drink.’ Ronnie shouted.
As Ronnie turned into a hall on the other side of the room, David heard a crash and looked into a dim corner to see Polly excavating herself from a huge beanbag and pulling out her ear-buds. A pile of books had spilled out in front of her, and she pushed some aside with a bare foot and walked towards him. She was dressed much more casually than he had seen her before. She wore shorts, a t-shirt and no make-up, all making her look younger, like a normal young woman home for the holidays. Something he was familiar with his own daughter.
‘David. Geez you look pretty swag. New shirt and pants I see, even swanky new loafers.’
‘Care of Alexanders.’
‘Ronnie thinks that man’s a weasel, but I reckon he’s hilarious—those fidgety little hands of his.’
‘Yes, I was expecting him to produce a top hat and rabbits.’
‘Very insightful of you. He’s a magician in his spare time, I believe.’
‘Nah, just joking, he’s actually a serial killer. Is that wine?’
‘Yes, Chianti Classico, hope that’s alright?’
‘Perfect. Ronnie and Rachel love red drinks. I’m an amber guy, beer mostly and shots are a given. I don’t turn my nose up at a decent Prosecco and about fifty-eight varieties of cocktail.’
‘Perhaps we should open it, let it breathe.’
‘Geez David, by the condition of that wrinkly paper bag, it looks like it’s been in the clutches of an alco for half the day.
‘I do feel like I’ve been carrying it for far too long.’
‘Have you read this?’ She held up the book she’d been reading when she clambered out of the beanbag. On the cover was a picture of the upper torso of a naked woman, her face partially concealed by her arm draped languidly over the top of her head. The book’s title was Outline, the author Rachel Cusk.
‘No, but I suspect I might be adding it to my library, right beside Anais Nin.’
‘Listen to this.’ As the day before at the reception desk, Polly quickly rifled through the book. It seemed every second page was dog-eared. Here it is—A sentence is born into this world neither good nor bad, and that to establish its character is a question of the subtlest possible adjustments, a process of intuition to which exaggeration and force are fatal. Is that fantastic or what?
‘It’s very good, yes. Is she—?’
‘Cusk is my hero. Bugger this acting caper; I’ve decided to be a writer, I know it’s sudden but I think I can become one. What do you think?’
She said this with such earnest passion, David could not disappoint her by stating the obvious, that she had provided no actual sentences of her own, at least to him, as evidence.
‘I feel sure that…even in the short time I’ve known you, it is entirely possible you will become a writer.’ He paused, hoping this was enough but decided to add, ‘Every trace of evidence at my disposal points to this outcome.’ He comfortably repurposed an oft-repeated phrase he used for the pretty sure bet of long term investment in blue chip stock.
The room was a dimly lit amalgam of ancient, overstuffed furniture, candelabra and various receptacles filled with odds and ends. A plethora of bean bags clad in Asian fabrics, and oriental foot stools were scattered around. A hat-stand was burdened with an eclectic array, ranging from hundred-year-old flapper helmets to modern baseball caps. Another Wellington boot snuggled up to several walking sticks and a battered old tennis racket, in a round metal container. A wooden box by a huge fireplace contained a mouldy rolled up cow hide, a fly swatter, a collection of what looked like ancient comic books, another tennis racket and a live cat. The creature peered at David with deep suspicion, its malevolence palpable.
‘You can hang your jacket on the stand there, if you like.’
‘Oh, thank you.’ David removed his jacket and felt the extra weight in the side pocket. He’d forgotten about the gun.
The floors consisted of wide scratched and pitted boards of Baltic pine burnished to a honey hue. Several paintings hung on the walls, interrupted by oriental hangings placed here and there, falling like shrouds past the dark wainscoting into the dusky corners. A pale light penetrated the room from a row of dirty windows obscured by gauzy curtains. A plinth rose beside them, displaying a sculpture comprising of welded metal and what looked like bits of an old boat.
‘The sculptor’s name was Clive Taggart. He’s now more famous dead than alive. It’s like some damn shrine. Ronnie and Rachel won’t hear a word said against him.’ Polly turned to David and scrunched her nose with a look of distaste. ‘Bloody awful, isn’t it?’
‘Polly, is Ronnie your dad?’
‘Yeah. They told me to call them by their names when I was about eight. Didn’t bother me, so that’s what it’s been since. My friends already thought we were weirdos.’
‘I see, and Rachel’s your mum?’
‘Yep, she’s kinda unhinged, but harmless. Ronnie says he’s gunna get a hitman involved if she goes too far with her crazy shit.’
‘Perhaps you could get Alexander on the case.’
‘Ha, ha. David, you’re on fire! Anyway, if we didn’t love Rachel to bits, she’d be pushing up daisies as we speak. Did you see the doll-pots in the vestibule?
‘Yes, I wondered—’
‘Rachel,’ she shrugged. ‘Some of those were mine or hers, others she found in op-shops.’
‘So, she doesn’t like dolls, I take it?’
‘She does, she just doesn’t like them in their regular condition. She encouraged me to dismantle them and pot them as well. Thing is, I just didn’t have any passion for them one way or the other.’
David could see how that would be the case with Polly, but her mother was yet another alarming prospect to add to the many he had encountered recently.
David thought the sculpture interesting and not awful as Polly said. He could see a rhythm in its strange juxtaposition of materials; the way it was put together seemed ingenious.
‘Clive lived here for years. Even when he was dangerously hung-over, he’d shamble off to his rented studio around the corner by the dock, work all day and roll in the door late, yelling for the innkeeper. He had this like, deep voice waking everyone up and scaring the shit out of the cat. I think the cat’s mentally ill because of Clive. Anyway its old as the hills now, doesn’t get around much, just stares at everyone from that box.’ David looked over at the feline, still peering at him with beastly malevolence. It did look psychotic, even for a cat.
‘Eventually the studio, an old falling down boat shed, was sold to developers. He hung on there until a bailiff and his Tongan assistant came by one morning to evict him. Clive arrived home the same night, bruised and drunk as a skunk, fell over against that tapestry and never got up again.’ Polly pointed to a dark corner where the dim light from the windows failed to reach at all.
“Nobody knew he was there until well into the next evening, when I discovered his body under the tapestry. He’d yanked it off the wall in an effort to keep himself upright. I was ten at the time and thought it was all very exciting, although he was a tad smelly by then,’ she said. ‘Did you know a dead drunk smells just like pickles.’
‘No, I haven’t had the opportunities you’ve had.’
‘Ha! My mouth to your ear—damn David, have you considered stand-up.
‘I would never have thought all this was up here. Is it the whole floor you and your family live in?’
‘Yep, my great granddad built The Occidental in the 1920’s.’
‘You own it—you own The Occidental?
‘Rachel does, my mum. She inherited it from my grandfather. He would have been running it when you came here on your honeymoon. I kind of like the idea of that.’
‘That he was in the building when the young you was. He was already about the same age as Ronnie is now. My granddad was the nicest man I ever met. He died nine years ago and there’s not a day goes by when I don’t miss him. I can’t believe how much you’re like him.’
Polly quickly turned and moved away. David resisted an urge to offer a comforting word or two.
‘Polly, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…’
‘Nah, its okay, come on.’ she started walking towards the door through which her father had disappeared.
Now there seemed to be an indefinite sort of melancholy about her, one that he felt unqualified to address. He followed her further into the large room. A chandelier, a smaller replica of the one in the foyer, hung from the ceiling at least four metres above them. An entire wall was given over to a floor to ceiling bookshelf filled to overflowing. The lower shelves were awash with piles of magazines and periodicals dating back to Gutenberg, some of which had spilled out on the floor.
They walked through a wide wood framed opening into the dining room, where brooded a vast gothic table burdened with a mountain of books. At its summit, a silver menorah, complete with half-melted candles, listed precariously. This heap of literature was pushed up to one end to allow the family to partake of meals. The menorah alarmed David. This was not only because of the speculative grasp of its bookish base, but a concern he may be called upon to engage in some arcane rituals of which he had no knowledge.
There had been an attempt at an open plan style by pulling down the wall between the dining room and kitchen. Aside from a monstrous and cobwebbed steel beam slung across to hold up the roof, not a great deal of attention had been given to finishing the project.
Ronnie was man-handling a long foil covered roasting dish into an oven. David assumed it was the fish. He rose flustered, looked at David and Polly, took a mouthful from a glass of dark red wine and leaned on the kitchen bench. ‘A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.’
‘Oh-my-god, leave it out Ronnie.’
‘I am glad of it: a knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear.’ Ronnie replied. He produced a large knife and started cutting into a potato. ‘Dear old William reserved all of his best lines for Hamlet, don’t you think.’
Polly looked up at the ceiling. ‘Yeshua, save us now, for fucks sake.’
‘Not bad, but I don’t recall it. Is it from one of the bards more obscure sonnets?’ Ronnie asked.
She offered David half a smile, shrugged and poured two glasses of a greenish looking liquid from a pitcher on the table and handed one to David. He took a sip—high alcohol content, tangy, refreshing flavour and with bits of lime and mint floating in it.
‘Ronnie and I always drink Mojitos with our Friday dinners—festive family ritual. What do you think?’
‘I like it,’ David said. ‘I’ve heard of Mojitos but never had one.’ Goodness, it’s Friday, I should be browsing the masterpieces of the Uffizi right about now.
‘We also dance the Samba after dinner,’ Polly said.
‘Do you?’ David had been on edge for some time now, but this prospect was completely alarming.
‘Nah, gotcha,’ Polly replied.
It still made him feel queasy; he hadn’t ever been one for dancing—would run a mile at the mere the suggestion of the activity. He wasn’t sure he could be trust her laughing it off as a confirmation it wasn’t going to occur. They took their Mojitos into a sitting room which appeared to be the main family area. The last of the afternoon sun lit this beautiful room and more of the old but good quality lounge chairs—a wide built-in daybed and a chunky coffee table on a Persian rug. Many brightly coloured cushions were scattered on the lounge chairs and daybed and spilling onto the floor. Magazines, opened letters, a half-eaten piece of toast and a chipped half-full cup resided on the coffee table. Nevertheless, the room had a welcoming lived in feel about it and served to calm David’s nerves.
Through a wall of windows facing north, he glimpsed views of the harbour between the skyscrapers. The city, his city, was as familiar to him as the back of his hand. It’s odd little laneways that seemed to go nowhere, even the intricacies of a now gentrified maze of arcades spilling onto the main streets, close to where the siege was now taking place. In the past he could stroll from his office to Blanche’s patisserie and the tiny Smokey’s tobacconist in the Grande Arcade for a pouch of Black Cavendish. He wondered if he should take up smoking a pipe again. It had been twenty-five years since he’d quit but still the prospect had a certain allure.
‘Apparently the view was panoramic, uninterrupted. We have old photos of the harbour and the bridge taken from these windows.’ Polly said.
The owner of the voice must have entered the room from some secret passage; surely his peripheral vision would have picked up the disturbance of air, the flash of movement, of colour. He turned to see who it was. Polly also turned but only to look curiously at David himself. An attractive, but otherwise bizarre looking woman was standing in front of a huge and disturbing abstract painting, depicting to David’s untutored mind, the artist’s impression of a psychotic break.
She wore a soft red fez, a pair of glasses clamping it to her head. Her hair beneath the fez, like Polly’s, was thick and springy although grey streaks had begun to appear. A wide black belt was pulled tight to limit the capaciousness of a pair of pink overalls. All the colours known to man seemed to have found their way onto this ensemble in wayward dribbles and impudent blobs. Her quizzical, intelligent looking dark eyes were of a pair with Polly’s. There was no mistaking the resemblance.
‘Rachel, this is David, David Rachel’ Polly said. ‘I told you he was coming for dinner. He’s from 701.’
‘I forgot.’ She started looking around, walked to the coffee table and rummaged, irritated, amongst the detritus there. An object fell on the floor and David noticed it was toast.
For god’s sake, they’re on your head,’ Polly said, picking up the toast. ‘I’m not sure how exactly, but Rachel does a lot of the maintenance on The Occidental, like really hands on.’
‘I’m actually standing right here Pol,’ Rachel said.
‘Well you’re not likely to tell David anything relevant, are you?’
‘Relevance, schmelevance, I’ll tell him what he needs to know.’ She turned her attention back to David. ‘Do you require relevant information, David; I’ve always found that the less relevant, the better. Anything remotely interesting is invariably irrelevant.’
During this debate Ronnie had entered the room, put his hands on his hips and exchanged an uneasy look with Polly, but then they both peered at David. Father and daughter were clearly curious as to what he might make of all this and this made him experience a certain responsibility to provide some general wisdom on the vexing topic.
‘I’m quite happy to live in ignorance for the time being but…I might need some rudimentary advice…at some point…but not necessarily now.’ He occasionally heard this from people who were about to open an income stream account. He was also dying for a pee.
‘Ha! There you go.’ She said this as if his muddled response was an unassailable endorsement of everything she stood for. Rachel pulled her glasses down from her forehead. ‘David I won’t shake your hand because as you see, mine are dirty,’ She held her hands up as proof. They were speckled and smeared with white paint, as was most of her, even her bare feet.
Ronnie, Polly and Rachel all seemed to have a penchant for naked feet, a characteristic seeming to David to be bohemian. He always thought feet should have the same status as genitals; best hidden. It was a necessity of bathing and swimming that one must bare ones lower extremities in public and although bathing was mandatory, swimming was something he rarely did. In this company, however, he had an unparalleled urge to throw caution to the wind and remove his shoes and socks.
Rachel looked at David from head to toe and then began to walk behind him to acquaint herself with the posterior view.
‘Rachel, can you not do this, at least go and take a shower—a long one.’ Ronnie said. ‘Dinner will be at least another thirty minutes.’
‘Well,’ Rachel said, ‘I’m just having a look at the fellow. He’s quite old isn’t he—older than all of us.’
‘Good grief Rachel; that would make him a hundred and thirty.’ Polly said.
‘Will you stop inspecting him, it’s making him uncomfortable, look at him,’ Ronnie pleaded.
‘Well that’s precisely what I’m trying to do, you idiot.’
‘For Christ sake!’ Polly murmured under her breath.
‘It’s okay, I’m pleased to meet you Rachel,’ David said, although he did pause to wonder whether pleased was quite the right word for this encounter.
‘What do you do David?’
In this context, the question seemed somewhat esoteric, as if there might be a wrong answer. He thought that if he’d answered by saying he was just polishing off his forty fifth novel or had recently retired from a full and happy life as a trapeze artist, nobody here would be the least bit surprised and go back to whatever occupation they themselves were engaged in. Which wasn’t much, by all accounts.
‘Accountant. financial adviser really. Retired, to be precise.’
‘Good grief, are you? This is wonderful news—Ronnie and I were discussing only last week what a balls-up our books are. I’m convinced the bailiff will be assessing my jewels by the end of the week. If I hadn’t sold them already, that is,’ Rachel said.
‘It’s true Dave, its serendipity; we need someone to sort things out. None of us can tell the difference between a ledger and a paint pot.’ Ronnie said, drawing both his and David’s attention inexorably to Rachel.
‘Jesus, give the guy a break,’ Polly said.
‘Just saying, we could use the chap, even you would have to agree with that, you silly girl.’
‘Could you point me to the toilet?’ David said.
The fish, a snapper as it turned out, was stuffed with ginger, lemon and dill and accompanied by steamed chat potatoes and creamy florets of tarragon infused broccoli. David was impressed with Ronnie’s culinary prowess and thought that the skill to cook something more ambitious than a boiled egg might be worth cultivating at some point. Rachel thanked David for the wine, explaining that anything red and of an alcoholic nature was readily accepted by her palette. She said something about a cast-iron palette, but didn’t leave it there.
‘Chianti Classico is royalty among the red drinks David, so well done you. You must have intuited my love for it. I think you’re the sort of fellow who might intuit many things with great skill.’ Rachel said. This announcement, to David’s mind, was itself lacking entirely of intuition. If she’d had the slightest experience of his former life, she would have adjusted this assumption to that of its opposite.
The Menorah drew David’s nervous attention from time to time, until Polly told him that it was there because half the city had suffered an electrical blackout in September. David thought it prudent to not reveal it was late March.
‘It’s a family heirloom, brought over from Russia prior to the revolution. I’ve been told that my great grandmother, who insisted on bringing it with her, didn’t believe in God.’
‘She still loved all the ritual though,’ Rachel said. ‘She boasted bless her, that she was present at the funeral of Alexander the third. She was too rich a Jew to be denied entry.’
‘Did your family own hotels in Russia,’ asked David.
‘No, gold mines. They were filthy rich but following Bloody Sunday they fled for their lives. My grandfather told us he could see what was coming. They were pretty secular, so it was their wealth and privilege that would have been their downfall if they’d stayed.’
‘I should explain to you David my wife comes from a long line of lapsed Jews, so she experiences both guilt and innocence in equal measure, which probably makes her the quintessential Jew really.’ Ronnie said.
‘And my husband is the spawn of the devil.’ Rachel said, looking with mock horror at Ronnie.
There was a pause while the diners each took second helpings of the delicious fish. Though cooled somewhat, it still carried the aroma of the ginger and dill.
‘This meal is the best I’ve had in a while, its delicious Ronnie,’ David, Rachel and Polly toasted the chef.
‘Hey, have you heard the news Dave.’
‘No, not a thing. Do you mean about the siege?’
‘It’s all over, three dead including the terrorist, Mohonnad whatsisname’ Ronnie said.
‘Ronnie, he was a common-or-garden criminal,’ Rachel said.
‘We just talked about this,’ Polly said with annoyance and glancing at David, ‘before you arrived.’
‘He was an opportunist, he just used the IS flag for his own deluded self-aggrandisement. It was entirely about him, nothing to do with this so-called great jihadist cause.
‘He was terrorizing people, making him a bloody terrorist in my book,’ Ronnie said.
‘You and the media have given him too much credit. The creep moved from state to state and pushed a different barrow in each. He was a nutcase. He tried to join the Comanchero’s biker gang for Christ sake and they wouldn’t even have him. His latest activity included an alleged rape of some poor woman in the western suburbs. He was out on bail for that one when he walked into the café with his guns.’
‘Ah hello, two innocent people died today,’ Polly said. David had the impression she was trying to get some leverage in the conversation but this remark fell short and he felt a little sorry for her that it had. He was reminded of moments with his own equally sensitive daughter.
There was a pause and the table fell into silent reverie until Polly, in an attempt to squirt lemon onto her fish, used too much violence and managed to skew a jet of it straight into Ronnie’s eye.
‘Ahhh! Holy shit Pol.’
‘Oops, sorry. That looked deliberate, but it wasn’t.’
David felt compelled to offer an opinion on the matter of the terrorist/common criminal, feeling uneasy about his lack of engagement. He thought it only polite to respond to a conversation occurring in his ambit, even if unasked. He’d always tried to redirect conversations to safer turf, even with the gloating Frank Lemon and Audrey, his perennially acerbic wife. He cleared his throat in preparation—Polly armed with her wedge of lemon, Rachel, fork mid-stab at a chat and Ronnie wiping his eye with a napkin; all riveted their attention to him.
He shot a deferential glance at the Menorah in the hope of some guidance. It looked more alarming every time. He trolled through his memory for an enlightening financial anecdote to share but found he was bereft of anything useful.
‘It’s a matter of…um…of semantics isn’t it…I mean, you could…’
‘Yes, you see David’s on the right track. As soon the word terrorist is uttered any higher cognitive function goes cactus.’
David noticed how Rachel’s wiry hair, having been released from its containing fez, wobbled in concert with her speech. And although he was pretty sure he had nothing further to add, he wondered if semantics could be enlarged to accommodate follicular activity.
Polly dropped the mangled lemon wedge on her plate. ‘Hey, you know that couple who always book the room David’s in, the Lemon’s?’
‘The what? Rachel said.
‘The Lemon’s, you know, they—’
‘Oh, I always get them mixed up with the Lime’s.’
‘We’ve never had any Lime’s staying here Rachel,’ Ronnie said.
‘Don’t we, are you sure?’ Where did you put them Pol?’
‘Eight o one—directly above David.’
‘Good, I just got around to replacing the shower head in there yesterday.’
‘They were disappointed but got over it. Frisky those two…for oldies.’ Polly added with a cheeky smirk. ‘She, Aubrey or Audrey he called her. I think she’s a real looker for her age, but I can’t work out what she sees in him—dudes a serious sleaze. Creep would have put the hard word on me for sure if she hadn’t been there.’
‘Hmph, enough of the ageist remarks young lady, you’ll be there one day,’ Ronnie said.
‘Not if I can help it, I intend living fast and dying young.’
‘We might be able to hasten the process for you Pol,’ Ronnie replied with a grin but then his expression changed.
‘Dave…are you alright?’
David left the company of the Occidentals, a surname he’d dreamed up for want of an actual one, saying he was feeling unwell. At nine pm he stood looking out the window of his room. He sipped a tumbler of whisky, which he knew to be unwise on top of the previous whiskeys he’d imbibed during the afternoon, the Mojitos and Chianti he’d had before and during dinner. After the initial shock of the Polly’s revelation in regard to Audrey and Frank, he felt the need for a period of private reflection. He was looking to solve his problems, but resolution in any of its forms seemed to be beyond his reach. He hadn’t even a clear idea as to what they were. Perhaps it came down to focus, he was all reaction but nothing ever seem to progress beyond thoughts and vague impressions. At least there was the thing now with Audrey and Frank, but even that, after the initial shock, moved into view with a degree of predictability, he found he had no opinion of it.
The sky was clear and the stars were gloriously out, but the evening had a sombre edge to it. He put this down to the sad end of the bloody siege, which still seemed so removed from reality as to be entirely made up. He saw nothing of it on TV, nor did he bother with radio reports. People had spoken to him about it, but this had the effect of making it even less plausible. If he had watched it play out on TV, as he assumed everybody else in the country had been doing, he knew that he would have been disappointed by the whole business.
David wasn’t a fool; he understood that this disengagement was a characteristic in concert with all aspects of his life and had been present for a long time. He even knew what its name was; this burden of increasing negativity and silent fears.
Nothing could illustrate this withdrawal more than those thoughts he was currently having. Why did his son Glen take up residence in his mind rather than the knowledge that his wife and best friend were in the room above him engaging in foreplay, drinking, talking happily together or simply asleep.
‘What are you doing?’
Audrey had an accusatory way of speaking. David was never sure whether this was intentional or simply a quirk of character which had not been schooled out of her. He was in Glen’s room, making his bed. It was six am on a cold June morning, fourteen years ago.
The boy became a man, achieved a degree in economics, worked his way up in banking and only the day before had fled to Sweden, apparently finance heaven. David thought he would return with a sense of renewed appreciation for the banality of everyday fiduciary practice, and that he would take over David’s carefully nurtured list of well-heeled clients. He held an admittedly dim candle out for this possibility. He also had much-postponed plans to make amends for all the times he might have been a better father, A good role model, was the current phrase.
He had every intention, for instance, to take Glen on the Bay of Fires wilderness trek on the north-east coast of Tasmania. David thought the idea had advantages, attempting an understanding of what the boy was thinking, for a start. He made plans for this manly excursion, but it had to be cancelled because Glen became ill, only to make a remarkable recovery and go out boozing with his university mates the first evening of David’s envisaged sojourn in the wilderness.
David, still sitting on the bed, looked up at Audrey.
‘I think we should wait awhile before turning it into a guestroom. Do we have guests? I can’t recall ever having one.’
‘He’s gone, he’s not coming back.’
Audrey looked at her husband as if he was an odd looking crustacean found in a long abandoned rock-pool.
‘He might, it can be cold in Sweden—most of the time, in fact.’ He sat down on the bed.
‘Rubbish. He’s starting this new job as an economist with a bank and doubtless will one day become the CEO or something—probably out of revenge.’
‘You know, they have very high taxation over there.’ David peered up at her through the watery mirk of grey morning light. ‘Revenge is the wrong word. I suppose there was this competition between us.’
‘You think? I expect he will marry a deeply blonde Swedish girl, have two blonde children and return home to show them to us approximately once.’
‘How could you possibly know all that? It’s also unkind. Glen’s not vengeful, I think.’ He stood up and faced Audrey, barely contained. She’d finally made him angry. He was used to the tone, the worm of truth that emerged from her beautiful mouth. It was the first time he’d asked himself the question, all this time lying, like a sleeping tiger, in front of him—why do you love her?
‘It’s a plausible scenario. You and Glen were in a perpetual state of competition. He’s drawing a quite detailed illustration for you, if only you had the vision to see it. He’s showing you that a life is possible without your influence.’
Sandra, rubbing the sleep from her eyes joined her mother at the door to Glen’s room.
‘Dad, what are you doing?’
‘Something ridiculous it appears, your brother has gone to be incurably surrounded by blondes.’
It was uncanny how accurate Audrey could be. Glen did marry in Sweden and they had twins, a girl and a boy. He returned with his new family for a brief visit when the children were toddlers. The only variation was that he had gravitated to board member status, rather than CEO and his wife was of Japanese heritage, so not blond. The Bay of Fires dimmed to near extinction by the time the grandchildren were in their teens. David suggested to Audrey that they pay them a visit, have a look around Scandinavia but there was a lack of commitment to the idea.
Sandra, the youngest by five years, always said she wanted to join the police force or the spy agency ASIO. So it wasn’t a good move to join radical group in her final year at university and, among their causes, latching onto gay advocacy. Naturally ASIO regarded virulent student protesters with suspicion, so any hopes in that quarter were dashed. This was followed by a cocaine addiction, rehab, more cocaine, with her eventually settling on a career as a barista.
There were many tears during the recreational drug phase of her youth and on one occasion an association with the police had occurred, but for the wrong reasons. With the contempt that only an older sibling could muster, her brother was disgusted by Sandra’s laps into drug abuse. The phrase pathetic junkie was used on more than one occasion, prompting David to pull rank one day and tell him to keep his pompous trap shut.
Several terrible rows occurred where the family home was reduced to trench warfare with everybody hiding in their rooms hoping it would all go away, especially Sandra who by now, was sliding into anorexia. It became David’s task to care for Sandra at her bleakest moments, to prevent her from injuring herself, to make sure she received adequate nutrition and arrange rehab. Not having been informed that his irregular absenteeism was a casualty of the Fielden’s embarrassing secrets, some of his clients became angry and left him.
On recovery, Sandra went into business, opening a café with her transitioning partner Penny. By all accounts it was doing very well. There were difficulties with Penny due to a missgendering issue. The couple announced that Penny was henceforward to be known as Peter but both David and Audrey had a problem remembering. David even asked Sandra, whether she would continue to be Sandra.
‘Oh Dad, don’t be silly—I’m now Sanjay.’
For a few seconds David actually believed her, but she could never keep a straight face. From an early age everything was very jolly with Sandra, even during the early stages of her drug habit—until it wasn’t. She loved her father unreasonably from Audrey’s point of view. Sandra spoke to her mother about her vision of a gender free society, mentioning the world’s sisterhood on more than on occasion, as being the catalyst for such a revolution. David found this inherent with contradiction but decided to stay clear of it. Audrey saw these burgeoning social principles, including the now confusing use of personal pronouns, mystifying. She told David, with a concern approaching fear, such issues were now being raised regularly at school staff meetings.
David did try to grapple with it. It was hard for him but he wasn’t willing to give in to an inclination for a simpler world.
Once, during a rare dinner out, they discussed it.
‘I’ve grown old and forgotten to notice,’ Audrey said. She was despondent, not unusual at this stage; she’d had one glass of wine. The third one was always the game changer. It was David’s experience these outings could lead to a much-anticipated bout of exercise between the sheets back home. Her statement, though not even a shot across the bow, had a certain ring to it, leaving him vulnerable to demasting and the tragic loss of all onboard. The trick was to keep Audrey from becoming too distracted. His mild reply, however, was of no help at all in his quest.
‘I think this world is for the young, Audrey, we have to give it to them, let them figure it out.’ It was too late; Audrey had noticed a slice of strawberry cheesecake being delivered to the adjacent table, and failed to respond. He realised then that trekking the Bay of Fires would have been a hoot with Sandra, an unmitigated disaster with Glen and impossible with Audrey.
He turned the small revolver in his hand. It was clever to make such an object so personal and ergonomic. The comforting wooden grip that fit just right in the hand, the mechanical sound as the cylinder clicks to each of the six positions at the back of the barrel. He looked down its length to see the bullets snug in their individual chambers and pulled back the stiff little hammer. There was no question, it was a beautiful object.
He had never handled a gun before, not even been close to one. Since taking it, he’d been expecting Meredith to come banging on the door, Eustace yapping, performing calisthenics beside her, demanding the return of her keepsake. He would give it back to her and apologise, explaining that he hadn’t been right in his mind at the time.
For some reason he defied his long-held disinclination and pushed the red button on the TV remote; it felt like a subversive act. A sea of flowers took up the screen. The camera panned back to take in the slope from west to east up Martin Place, people in their hundreds were placing bunches of flowers outside the café. Temporary lighting rigs had been set up in the plaza. A barricade had been placed to contain the flowers but there were so many they spilled out. Police were ushering people through in groups. The reporter, out of site, was saying this had been going on for hours and increasing rather than abating as the night wore on, the barricades ever expanding.
David clicked through the channels, every one showed similar scenes or replaying highlights of the siege as it had unfolded. He felt an ache, as though life was simply pain, as spontaneous and immaculate as the endless trail of flower-bearers. He stopped clicking when a radio station flicked on, no images except text, moving in a loop across the centre of the screen.
Leonard Cohen – Dance me to the end of love.
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
And dance me to the end of love
Yeah Dance me to the end of love
Me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
Were both of us beneath our love, were both of us above
In retrospect, considering the size and calibre, it was something of a surprise. At close range the noise emitted by Meredith’s handgun was deafening when it was fired. Everybody in The Occidental heard it, as well as people out on the street. Not all associated it with the firing of a gun. Frank Lemon knew it was a gunshot because he was a lawyer, and had, on occasion, heard such a thing.
‘It’s alright, it’s just a car backfiring,’ Audrey said. She was on the cusp of finding Frank tiresome. He’d bored her at dinner—a diatribe about the weekly partners meeting might well have given her cancer. The Radisson Brasserie was lovely as usual; her Venison and Shitake Mushroom Goulash was superb, as was the ’96 Pinot Noir. Frank knew how to spend and with his fees, so he damn well should. Nevertheless, he was starting to get on her nerves.
‘Trust me, that wasn’t a car backfiring.’
‘Okay, fine. Could you pour me another glass of wine.’
‘That was a fucking gun and it came from downstairs.’
‘Don’t be silly—,’ Audrey then noticed Frank’s expression. ‘What, somebody just fired a gun the floor below us…in the hotel?
‘I’m going to investigate.’
‘Are you going to put some clothes on first?’ Frank had gotten off the bed and pulled the curtains aside to look out the window. His bare arse wasn’t what it used to be. Nevertheless, whoever was on the street would get an eyeful of his still reasonably impressive dick. ‘Why are you looking out the window, you said it was downstairs?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said absently and started to put his pants on.
‘I’m not staying here while there’s somebody firing guns in the building.’
‘Look Audrey, just stay put. Call the police or something. You’ll be…’
‘Not happening Frank, I’m coming.’
‘Okay, okay. Somebody’ll call the plod.’
To be honest, and now was the time for him to be so, David had thought about being dead. What might it be like, he’d wondered? Now, though, it appears he was dead, with the unexpected sensation he was still in receipt of a mind—otherwise, how could he be thinking this? It was so quiet though, which was good and bad. But why was it so painful? Was he imagining pain, the last residue of worldliness? How interesting. He’d read an account by somebody who had died and been revived. The person said it was oblivion, like nothing. That sounded quite nice really but that was not the way David felt. He could neither hear nor see and imagined his fingers and toes, tried to wiggle these imaginary digits but nothing that he could discern resembled any kind of actual movement. Yes, he concluded, I’m properly dead. Well then, that’s that.
Meredith Sandhurst had her ear inside a drinking glass. Eustaces’ posture was not dissimilar, his head cocked to one side, looking up at his mistress with an expression of utter confusion. This was not too different from his customary expression, but he too could hear the gravelly tones of Leonard Cohen through David’s door.
Meredith pulled her ear out of the glass and Eustace bounded yapping down the corridor as two dishevelled looking strangers, a man and a woman emerged from the lift. The woman was slim, attractive and dressed in a robe and the man wore only trousers and a harried expression. They were momentarily startled by Eustace’s antics and then rushed down to join Meredith at the door of 701.
‘I heard a loud explosion. I believe this fellow has purloined my firearm for nefarious purposes. I thought him harmless but I’m mistaken. Young man, you must break down the door.’
Eustace hung on her every word but the couple looked at her as if she was insane.
‘I’m sixty one for fucks sake,’ Frank said.
‘There’s no need for that—I’ve called the police,’ Meredith said.
‘Well, that’s a fucking start,’ Frank looked at Audrey and rolled his eyes. ‘Who are you and what’s going on here…who…shit.’ Frank took a breath, which seemed to be a signal for Eustace to start barking at him. ‘Look, who the hell is in there?’
‘Hi name is David. He straightened my Corot, and has both my gun and a bottle of Chianti in his possession,’ Meredith replied, looking at Frank keenly, as if he was an insect she was preparing to swat.
‘What? Jesus Christ, what sort of a hotel is this? And what’s a coro when it’s at home?
‘You have to break down the door.’
‘Look, this is not a fucking movie—is there any way you can shut that fucking rodent up?’
‘You could at least try.’
‘Listen to me, I can’t break the damn door down, it’ll be fire-rated for a start, which means its built like a brick shit-house…you think I’m Hercules or something?’
‘No, far from it, but you are an extremely rude man,’ Meredith said, trying out her most arch form of indignation. ‘You could have at least put a shirt on.’
‘Oh my god, this place is fast losing its appeal, I’m going home.’ Audrey said.
‘What?’ Frank said. ‘Look, can you at least—’
Frank didn’t get to finish his appeal because the lift had arrived again, causing Eustace to bound once more along the corridor, this time appearing to defy gravity completely. Two uniformed police came out of the lift accompanied by a man in a suit who couldn’t look more like a plain-clothes officer if he tried. They were followed by Polly, Ronnie and Rachel. Eustace was mad with affection for all of them but was too exhausted to do any more body-surfing. Nine people gathered around the door of 701, every one of them tense.
‘That’s David’s room,’ Polly said, ‘its David….’ She turned to her parents, who both put their arms around her.
The Occidentals looked at the others.
‘He’s got my gun,’ Meredith said.
‘Jesus Meredith, you’ve got a gun?’ Ronnie inquired with alarm.
‘I’m Detective Sergeant Emil Roj,’ the plain clothes cop said. ‘Now, I want you all to keep the noise to a minimum, okay—everybody just calm right down.’ He paused, looking at them all. ‘So, you know the guy in this room?
‘Yes, he’s an accountant—from Bondi Junction,’ Polly said.
Audrey pushed in front of Polly. ‘What…what are you …wait…you’re saying the man in this room is an accountant and his name’s David?
‘Fuck me!’ Frank said.
‘Jesus, keep it down okay! Now, you’ve got the master key sir?’ detective Roj whispered, nodding at Ronnie, who handed it over. ‘Now I want you all to move away from the door. Go on, move down the hall—not you Casey, you idiot.’ One of the uniformed had started moving back with the others.
‘Look…you just…ahh, it doesn’t matter.’ He stopped to think. Okay, I’m not waiting for the Tactical Operations Unit. Someone grab that dog and shut it up, if you wouldn’t mind.’
Eustace jumped into Meredith’s outstretched arms and looked forlornly into her eyes. ‘I know, it’s alright sausage,’ she said. Eustace made one last half-hearted growl and settled into her arms.
‘You reckon that’s a good idea Roj? I mean…’
‘Don’t care, we’re doing it, you can blame it on me if things go pear-shaped. Look what’s the chances of another fuckwit in a caftan. It’s a domestic. Are you with me or not?’
The two uniforms nodded and drew their guns; Casey fumbled with her holster release stud.
‘Jesus Casey, get a fucking grip,’ the detective whispered angrily.
‘Yes boss, sorry—that’s it, got it.’ She drew her gun.
‘Jesus fucking wept, don’t point the thing at Benthem. Down—down at the floor. His loud and urgent whispering was making his throat sore. ‘God spare me—Benthem keep your eye on her or she’ll provide you with a new arsehole before breakfast.’
Roj inserted the key and turned it slowly. With his shoulder to the door he held up his hand, counted down with three fingers and pushed hard. There was an audible intake of breath from the onlookers in the corridor, even Eustace, or so it seemed. The second gunshot of the evening rattled the bones of the old hotel.
‘Jesus, the silly bugger’s topped himself,’ Detective Roj said. ‘Where’s the other shooter?’ He was on one knee; pistol poised and in position, arms straight, two handed grip of his Glock 22. Leonard Cohen was still singing, having moved on to You Want it Darker. Roj’s eyes fell on Casey, slumped over just near the door. She was moaning, her left leg pulled up to her chest.
‘Benthem—what the fuck?’
Benthem was across the room, near the window, also scanning the room with his gun, looking like he was close to panic. He had a better view of Casey. Blood was pumping out of her shoe.
‘Jesus, I think Casey’s shot herself in the foot boss.’
‘Looks that way.’
‘Oh my giddy aunt, what a dog’s breakfast. Has anybody called the ambos?
‘We’re gunna need two.’
‘Roger Roj.’ Benthem said.
‘Stop talking like that. It’s like fucking Hawaii Five-0, the cartoon version.’
‘Hawaii what sir?’
Detective Roj stood up with a grunt, willing his heart rate to return to something he’d survive—I’m too old for this shit. ‘Try and find out what went on here, they seem to know the guy.’ He holstered his gun and saw the remote. He didn’t mind Cohen, but not right now.
Benthem noticed the paramedics had just emerged from the lift. Polly, Rachel, Ronnie, Frank, Audrey, and Meredith still holding Eustace were peering down the corridor, every face a white mask of horror. Eustace’s face was already white, so it was hard to tell.
‘Let them through people,’ Benthem, gesturing for them to move aside. The parmedics pushed their trolley-bed down the corridor.
‘Casey, you’re gunna be alright, it’s your foot, you’ve shot it.’
‘S…sorry boss…argh…I tripped.’
‘Forget it, the ambos are here, they’re going to give you something for the pain, alright? They need to look at the guy first, alright. I think he’s gone but we have to make sure.’
‘I know,’ Casey said, ‘Shit…it hurts like a bastard.’
‘You’re doin’ okay, alright?’
He patted Casey on the shoulder and motioned the paramedics to the bed as they entered the room.
David looked oddly calm. He wasn’t grimacing; his eyes were closed as if asleep. He was seated on the floor, his back against the bed, facing the wardrobe mirror. A leg was casually pulled up, knee pointing at the ceiling; a tumbler and a half empty Dewars bottle sat beside him. If it wasn’t for the blood oozing out of his chest and his left hand still clutching the revolver in his lap, he could be the poster boy for any lonely drunk in any hotel in the city.
That night Polly stayed in her room typing on her laptop between bouts of tears and vegemite toast. The jug of Mojito sat empty along with a scrunched up cigarette pack on her bed-side table. She was going to quit but had forgotten to in the throes of creativity. She didn’t go to sleep at all after the events of the evening and she found that neither had her parents.
It was six in the morning and they sat glumly either side of the table. Rachel had taken the menorah off the pile of books and lit its seven candles. One for each of the floors up to David’s room, Polly noted, and though she’d thought all the tears had been rung out of her, a few more came. A pot of plunger coffee and cups were arranged on the table. It rained again during the night and dark clouds had formed over the city. The candles conveyed the gloom of this new and very different day.
Polly sat down next to her mother, who put her arm around her shoulders. Ronnie leaned across the table and held her hand. The rain once again began to fall in sheets against the windows.
‘The flowers will be ruined; all those flowers in Martin Place.’ Rachel said and scrunched down her paint spotted fez, as if this would better indicate her sadness.
‘I saw on the telly they’d erected a marquee over them. People are still coming with the flowers,’ Ronnie said.
‘That’s good,’ Rachel replied. ‘Perhaps we should take something around there.’
‘As long as it’s not a pot with a bunch of baby’s arms and legs sticking out of it. They might be made of rubber, but we have to draw the line somewhere,’ Ronnie said with some gravity.
‘I’m going to the hospital,’ Polly said.
Her parents exchanged glances.
‘Its grandpa isn’t it Pol? I’ve not mentioned it before now but it’s uncanny how much David is like him, I mean his personality. To be honest, he even looks a bit like him.’ Ronnie said. ‘There are other aspects but I think it’s predominantly the nose.’
‘You noticed too,’ Polly replied.
‘Hard to miss.’ Ronnie glanced at Rachel.
‘You should go, how about we send for an Uber,’ Rachel said.
Since he was this category of dead, David had become ascendant or something. Quite confusing, was all he could think of thinking. Whatever it was, it had an ineffable quality about it, pure consciousness but nothing else. There seemed to be no physicality about it at all. Nevertheless, these current sensations didn’t correspond with the promised Nirvana of nothingness. Death was meant to be a release from everything, including thought itself, but this was not dissimilar to a certain kind of confinement, a disembodied prison. He’d been thinking oblivion more appropriate as a signifier of death, but here he was actually thinking—and listening, it seemed.
Why was he hearing Polly’s voice? The intense pain he had experienced after shooting himself had been reduced to an elongated ache, mostly endurable, if he remained motionless. He’d been careful, in locating the organ, or so he thought. Though it was awkward pulling the trigger with his thumb, he believed he’d been accurate and unflinching in this endeavour. The other thing was that he had regained his hearing—unless this was some subliminal part of dying he hadn’t foreseen.
He liked listening to the sound of Polly’s voice, although the words seemed to run together, as if the sentence must continue on and on until the letters and words he had known in his life had all been said. Perhaps that was the point, the finish line was at the end of language.
‘I think we’re getting a response, his eyelids have flickered twice this time.’ The nurse gave Polly a smile while she hung the arm cuff and looked at a monitor on the nearby trolley, noticing some encouraging bumps in the graph.
‘He’s waking up?’ Polly said.
‘Looks like it, although he will be sedated for a while. He’s a lucky man. Just as well he chose the wrong side of his chest, eh. He must have been looking in the mirror or something.’ She laughed but Polly couldn’t bring herself to join in or confirm the accuracy of the remark. It had now been three days since David had been rushed into the hospital for emergency surgery. Audrey and Sandra, David’s wife and daughter, had just left, which meant Polly could continue her story for David. She thought back to the night of the incident.
Incident, that’s what the police called it and she couldn’t think of a better way to put it. She’d quite like to find some other, truer words as she was developing a keen interest in them. Event wasn’t right, because that made it sound like a rave party, although she’d been to a few and the scene in 701 had similar characteristics of a rave after the lights had been turned on. Scene perhaps—episode, accident, occurrence, predicament, dilemma, affair—no, those didn’t do it justice either. She began again to read from her increasingly scrappy sheets of paper.
‘It went straight through him but it punctured his lung. The paramedics inserted a chest tube because he had a pulse, not much, but enough. By the time he arrived at the hospital, a critical state of anaemia had set in. We had to provide blood and performed surgery immediately, persistent pneumothorax was evident.’ The surgeon looked over the top of his glasses at the group of interested parties, everyone, including the medical students, looking like they could use some sleep.
‘Fortunately, the small calibre of the bullet allowed for video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery. That tube there is to remove excess air and aberrant blood products.’
Aberrant, Polly thought—good word. It was standing room only. David was propped up with pillows on the hospital bed, a tube protruded from a cannula from his arm and another from beneath his gown. Polly, Rachel, Ronnie, Meredith, Audrey and Sandra all looked at the surgeon with a combined incomprehension. If Eustace had been allowed to come he would have been ecstatic to such a degree that more surgery might have been necessary.
The bewilderment of his audience was in direct proportion to the doctor’s explanation. Nevertheless, they all seemed satisfied, relieved even. He moved on, students in tow, their sleep deprivation presumably cauterized by the professors abundance of self-assurance.
Even after the doctor and his entourage had left, the room was crowded and Audrey felt compelled to remain discreet but Sandra, giving release to her barely contained emotions, collapsed crying on the bed with her father. It seemed inordinately dramatic to David but he stroked her back, something she always liked him to do as a child. He felt as light as air and wondered whether this was all part of the business of being dead. There seemed to be something missing, like a leg. He felt as if a part of him he’d previously thought essential as air itself, had been dislodged and was, along with the aberrant blood products, draining away.
‘How long?’ The sound of his voice was unfamiliar, as if another person had spoken.
‘It’s been a week Dad, a week since…’
‘Oh, okay—it’s okay Sandy.’ He saw Audrey’s face amongst those observing him. Good, he thought, Audrey’s here. It will be okay now.
‘No, it’s not okay. That’s not right is it?’ he said. His confusion also felt like pain. Surely he wasn’t dead if he could not only speak, but still experience pain, psychic or otherwise.
‘What’s not right,’ Sandra said.
Polly looked behind her and moved aside so that Audrey could approach the bed. She sat on the chair beside the bed and leant over with something approaching intense curiosity and concern at the same time.
This moment seemed so obviously personal that Ronnie made a sign to the others and they filed out of the room. There was pause where Sandra, still with wet cheeks, got of the bed and also left, leaving only David and Audrey behind.
‘Hello Audrey,’ David said.
‘Oh Dave, what were you thinking. If I had known—ah…it’s been no good has it, not for a long time? I’ve been the worst person a man could be with and you still don’t seem to despise me. If it’s any comfort, I never really liked Frank. I loathed him in approximately the same way that I loathed myself.’ A weak smile formed on her face; she knew it wasn’t enough.
‘I’m sorry Audrey,’ David said.
‘You’re sorry! Jesus David.’ She breathed heavily, trying to maintain control.
There were things for him to be sorry for; long moments of absence, lightyears of them. He remembered The Occidental, the delight of those first nights together and the many that followed, until they wore away, until only unreliable memories remained.
‘Is Glen coming?’ David said, he wanted to go back to sleep. The hole he’d made in his chest, yet another mistake, was just another opportunity for regret.
Audrey shook her head.
David felt some necessity to fill the silence between them and a responsibility to explain himself, or even to ask forgiveness. He began to understand in his drug muddled mind, that his suicide attempt was both unforgiveable and disappointing in equal measure and Glen’s absence a natural and deserved consequence. Now he realised he’d barely felt alive as it was. The sojourn at The Occidental, only two days as he now realized, was like a dream now. A dream by somebody else, not him, that he’d merely wandered into and out again when he turned the gun barrel to his chest.
‘Do you want Glen to come? I expect he might fly back. I mean if…’
‘Well, the occasion is not exactly a golden jubilee I suppose. He probably thinks I’ve made yet another blunder.’ His voice had become ragged.
‘Probably,’ Audrey said, shrugging, ‘at least the former. I guess he gets this congenital disregard from me. He can be quite unpleasant really, and I wonder about the children—how they’re fairing in that family. Emiko has a certain coldness about her also, as you know, so the kids would have got a double dose of whatever it is. It’s horrendous what we pass on in our genes. I’m sorry, I’m gasbagging like a lunatic.’
‘I don’t think you and I—’
‘I’m going away. I’ve resigned and I’m going to Ireland. I’ve always wanted to go back. There are cousins, as you know; it’s been an age since I saw my extended family.’
David nodded, wondering what distant shores might beckon him. Were there reparations still to be apportioned in Sweden, a bracing walk up Vesuvius and that consummate view of the Mediterranean from that treacherous peak, still an option?
When Audrey left, he slid into a deep sleep. He dreamt he was a completely different person, even his appearance seemed oddly transformed and his actions were unfamiliar but also determined and satisfying. He woke to find Occidentals and Meredith beside the bed. Sandra was on the other side, having taken the place of Audrey on the chair. He was seeing everybody more clearly now, he felt oddly refreshed. It was as though the dream had been very nourishing in some way. He was convinced now that he wasn’t dead.
Meredith placed a hand on his, a smile formed on the old lady’s thin lips.
‘My revolver has become evidence David, are you aware of that? Though, evidence of what I ask you? It was plain to see what it was damn well used for. They said if I couldn’t produce some sort of permit, it would be confiscated permanently.’
Meredith stopped talking abruptly and didn’t seem to be fully aware of her surroundings, looking around bewildered, as if she’d been beamed there from the Enterprise. Rachel put her arm around her and this appeared to calm her.
‘I’m sorry Meredith,’ David croaked, ‘for taking it, I mean…I…I’m sure they’ll return it to you.’
‘What? Oh, it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I’ve always suspected Eustace found the gun disturbing.’
‘He’s very sensitive isn’t he, sensitive and vigorous at the same time.’ David replied, managing a smile.
‘That foolish dog is too vigorous for my liking. He’s got another bee in his bonnet now, there’s a little Tom Roberts sketch he’s taken exception to. I hope to employ you for further curating at some point young man.’ David was temporarily flattered by young man before remembering Meredith was essentially off her rocker. In a good way though, it had to be acknowledged.
Sandra stood up, a smile developing.
‘I have some news; Peter and I are having a baby,’
‘But what…oh…but how…?
‘The usual way, the introduction of sperm to ovum. Do you remember my friend Brian from university? He’s providing the wrigglers.’
‘I remember him, weren’t you two, I mean didn’t you…?’ David looked at Audrey who shrugged, equally confused by their daughter’s relationships; principally, the specifics of the genders involved.
‘He’s the donor, isn’t that great. He’s a lovely, gentle boy. I mean a man; one of the good ones.’
‘Yes, he was a nice boy. We had hopes you—’ He stopped, sensing the advance of more murky water. ‘Well, gosh, we’ll be grandparents then, how marvellous.’
He felt sure it would be marvellous.
Everyone left except Polly. They all seemed to acknowledge her presence was having a positive effect on David’s recovery. He smiled, motioning for her to sit on the chair beside the bed. She’d discarded the high contrast makeup and the scary Goth clown outfit for a brown dress, a pork-pie felt hat and ankle boots. Perhaps it was a Miss Marple look she was going for. Whatever it was, there was a difference about her. It seemed to David that she may have previously misplaced something of her true nature and was now trying to recover it.
‘Is there more?’ David nodded at the creased sheets of paper scattered on the trolley.
‘So you did hear it. I wasn’t sure,’ Polly said. ‘Is it terrible? I think it might be a complete shambles.’
‘I guess I did and I seemed to have liked it. Now I’d like to know where it’s going.’ David felt deathly tired again but wanted to hear the sound of her voice. He felt he had made a true and loyal friend in Polly, something that had been largely missing from his life.
‘Well, if you remember, these people are gathered in the strange old house and Daniel is introduced to the young woman, who is really just a silly girl.’
‘Well, her name was Apple if you recall. So, here goes—’
David had dreamed again. This time peacocks were involved. At one point he found himself heroically smoking a huge cigar and there was blood where an animal had bitten his finger. He couldn’t quite work out whether this was part of Polly’s story, but very much suspected it was.
‘That’s all I have at the moment. What do you think? I know it could do with…’ Polly began, but saw that David had fallen asleep.
Since he’d been discharged from the hospital, on strict orders to lay low and keep taking his antibiotics, David found himself wandering through the house, looking through drawers, sorting through boxes, and standing at the kitchen window for long minutes without any clear idea of what he was looking for.
One afternoon he stopped at the photos hung in the hall, a holiday gallery of the growing children. Before, he had passed these photos every day but hadn’t looked closely at them for many years. Releasing one from the wall, he sat on the narrow stool beside the coatrack. Glen looked about thirteen, perhaps fourteen. Sandra was eight he remembered—so Glen was definitely fourteen.
As a portrait of his son it was stunning, beautiful in its own way. Glen looked at the camera lens as though it was an annoying challenge to his private concerns. His eyes were concealed behind aviator sunglasses and his long, unkempt hair stuck out from a baseball cap. His stance was compressed into a studied, laconic insolence, hands tucked within his tight blue jeans, dirty white high-tops pushed out as he leaned against the wall of a sun-drenched city building. Where was that? Brisbane, another family holiday combined with business. Audrey had taken the picture while he spent several days sorting out a new client’s investments. In the photo Sandra stood about a metre off, as though ordered there, but barely able to stay put. She stared at her brother with unabashed admiration.
David invited Sandra and Peter for dinner, ordering in takeaway from the Chinese across the road. They had some beers and Peter told him how well the café was doing.
‘We’re expanding, rented the vacant shop next door. We must be doing something right. I suspect Sandy being a shit-hot barista has a lot to do with it,’ Peter said. He shot a swift but delighted sideways glance at Sandra. They sat together on the other side of the table, playfully affectionate.
Although he liked coffee, David barely understood the dark art of the barista but people would go right across town for a café au lait conjured by one of these geniuses.
‘Hey Dad, we really like Polly. What an absolute sweetheart and a total hoot, Sandra said. ‘I suddenly have four books to read, annotated, so I only have to read the good bits. She’s writing like a mad thing as she put it. She’s got herself mixed up with this online writers club.’ She stopped to think. ‘Critique Square isn’t it?’ She deferred to Peter.
‘Yeah, I think so—getting first-rate feedback by all accounts.’
‘We’ve become fast friends and she’s bringing the whole family for lunch at the café next week, even that odd old lady Meredith and her funny little dog.’ Sandra took a breath to look at her father. ‘That girl’s besotted by you; she said you’re an inspiration.’
‘Oh, why ever does she think that?’ David was feigning surprise, but really he was flattered by this information.
‘Well, she does. Dad, take your admirers whichever way they come, if you ask me.’
‘So who precisely is going to be the mother,’ David said and immediately realised his faux pas. He didn’t know how to take it back, so sat turning pink.
‘Dad, I thought you would have worked that one out for yourself.’ She smiled at Peter and then bit into a garlic prawn. Peter had always seemed edgy and conflicted, often vexatious as a six foot one woman, but oddly enough as a man, seemed softer and quite comfortable with himself. Hormones had reassembled some of the high notes of his voice and his breasts, never prominent to start with, had all but vanished.
‘Sorry Peter,’ David said.
‘It’s okay, I’m good.’
‘We’re not doing invitro Dad. We don’t believe in it, so Brian and I…’
‘Ah…no need to explain, I get the picture. If you tell me more I’ll be forced to return to hospital for further treatment.’
‘Ha, ha. Geez Dad, you’ve got yourself a bit of a funny bone going on there, you dark horse.’
‘You’re the second person who’s said that recently. Listen, I want to talk to you about something.
‘Okay, now I’m worried again.’ Sandra said.
‘I want you two to move in here. I mean if you want to, I know you’re looking around for a bigger place?’
‘Why, you want to live with us? I’m not sure that’ll…’
‘It’ll be vacant and Audrey and I don’t need to sell. She’s in Ireland for who knows how long and I’m flying to Florence on Friday. I have a scheduled meeting with some long-lost luggage. I’m definitely going this time…I think. Sybil, Frank’s ex, said she’d like to be my travelling companion.’
‘But what about when you return?’
‘I’m moving to The Occidental.’
‘What? It’s a hotel.’
‘It’s much more than that.’