With reluctant relief I finally made it home. Another night gone without seeing the Grey Nurse. Just more hours of wandering, and a morning frittered away sitting astride my brother’s tomb. Jason appearing from nowhere; Henryk riding into the sunset searching for another damsel to rescue, as if, after seeing me safe, I left neither mark nor memory for him. Only the kiss of my hand tied me to the ground.
“Would you like a coffee?” Bradley’s voice greeted me almost before I’d stepped over the threshold. “Don’t worry, it’s decaf.”
“Thanks,” I called back, surprised at finding my housemate still at home. “But shouldn’t you be at work?” I added as I made my way to my bedroom. Surely Bradley had somewhere constructive to be. He wasn’t the type to happily let the minutes flow by sitting at a graveyard.
Dropping my bag on the floor, I followed the aroma of coffee into the kitchen.
“What’s all this?” I asked. Bradley stood in front of a new coffee machine; Kayl lounged on the bench nearby, his feet tapping at a cupboard door.
“Ah, Kayl and Louise bought it this morning,” said Bradley as he fussed around the machine. “We’re just trying to work out how to use it.”
Kayl waved a languid hand in greeting. “Bradley’s trying to work out how to use it,” he drawled. He’s just given it a good wash, “and now we’re ready to play. Hopefully he’s put the thing together properly.”
As if on cue Louise entered the kitchen, head tilted as she fixed an earring in place “Have you got it working yet?” she asked. “I probably won’t have time for a cup before I go. Oh, hello Stephie.”
Restraining a shudder, I waved a greeting. “Are you off somewhere?” I asked, not sure if she’d left for her course and come back, or was yet to go.
“Oh, just a brunch with some girlfriends. Kayl here is sulking ’cause I won’t take him.” She blew a kiss in his direction then began on the other earring.
“Here we go,” interrupted Bradley, “just pop the pod in here, and voila!”
I leant against the kitchen door and watched Bradley work the coffee machine. He’d even draped a tea towel over his shoulder in true barista style. My stomach might protest, but I need take only a few sips. It was a Stephanie from a different lifetime who’d drunk instant coffee by the truckload.
“Besides,” said Louise as she walked over to Kayl and patted his leg, “you’re far too tired to come out. You should head home and get some sleep.”
“A cup of coffee, and I will.” Kayl smiled his lazy, I-always-get-what-I-want smile at her.
“The great thing about this machine,” continued Bradley as if we hung on his every word, “is there’s nothing to clean. Apart from just giving the milk frother a quick rinse. Plus no noise! Won’t need to worry about waking you, little Stephie.” With a press of a button the frother spun silently.
“I’ll walk you to the car,” Kayl said, sliding off the bench. He’d seen my face, and was astute enough to realise how much I hated Bradley’s epitaph. Too many people attached it without realising it didn’t belong to me. Putting an arm around Louise’s shoulders, Kayl steered her out the door. “I’ll just be a minute,” he called.
“Your coffee will be waiting,” Bradley answered as he took some cups from the cupboard. He took his time perusing the collection of coffee pods, before finally choosing one a light cerise in colour. He popped it in the machine and, with the press of a button, dark liquid began flowing into the cup. “Decaf,” Bradley continued, wiping up some splattered milk and interrupting my thoughts with the same deft movement. “As I promised. So you can go straight to bed. I was expecting you back a while ago.”
“Oh, I just needed a bit of exercise. Nothing like a walk along the cliff tops to blow away the cobwebs.”
After shooting a questioning glance my way, Bradley then spent another minute fussing over another pod, this one a deep purple in colour. I noticed his clipboard waiting on the table. As I shifted my weight from one tired foot to the other I decided this was the best way to describe my housemate: clipboardy. “I thought you’d be at work by now,” I said.
“Oh, I’d booked an ADO for today a month ago.” Slotting the pod into the machine, Bradley then filled my cup with the now-perfect-temperature milk as the next cup filled with coffee. “You were up around the graveyard?” he asked as he sprinkled chocolate on top of the foam.
I merely nodded.
“He’s home now, Stephie,” Bradley said, beginning on the third cup of coffee. The pod he used for a light one was a light brown. Kayl and Louise had really gone to town in their choices. “He doesn’t need you any more. There is a point, Stephie, where mourning becomes self-indulgent. As Jesus said...”
“My name’s Stephanie,” I snapped. “Not Stephie.” Why was everyone an expert on my feelings? “Besides, it’s how we treat the dead that raises us above the dirt. How we treat those without a voice – that’s the example Jesus set. Or St Francis, the Buddha, the teachings of the Dalai Lama, the Kobo Daishi, take your pick. That’s how the future will judge our generation. How we should judge ourselves.”
Bradley said nothing, looking as shocked as I felt. Everyone knew I never answered anyone back. Then, with the air of a mother tolerating an errant teenager, Bradley simply popped the coffees on the table and nodded for me to join him.
“Life is never simple, Stephanie,” he began patronizingly. Waves of superiority lapped over me as he sat down and sipped his coffee.
“I know,” I answered, pulling up a chair opposite him. “That’s the whole problem with Ockham’s Razor, don’t you think? Deductive reasoning reducing everything to one cause, versus the experience which tells us life is more than the sum of its parts.”
“Uh-huh,” came the noncommittal reply. “We won’t wait for Kayl.”
“Actually, it’s more like a priori versus a posteriori,” I continued. The scent of blood had whetted my appetite. “You know, asking questions instead of always having the answer ready. Kierkegaard has a lot to answer for, making us accept responsibility not for how we find the world, but how we choose to respond to it.”
Bradley said nothing, but simply picked up his clipboard and smiled. “Good coffee, isn’t it?” he said after a moment. “We have a prayer group this evening,” he continued in the same blameless tone. “Just a short one, only for an hour. We’ll be quiet so as not to disturb you, but you’re more than welcome to join us if you’re awake. We could pray for Dave together, and help put your doubts to rest.”
When I simply shook my head and said nothing, Bradley rose, and popped his cup in the sink. “I hope you sleep well,” he said with calm arrogance as he walked out the door.
“Did you see him smile as he left?” Kayl said as he sat down beside me.
“Shit, Kayl, you gave me a fright.”
“Language, darling, language. Just sow a seed of doubt. Bradley often says that. That’s how souls are won.”
I said nothing, but took a mouthful of my coffee. It was pathetically weak.
“Mind you,” Kayl continued, “since I have no idea who Kierkegaard is I suspect Bradley’s never heard of him. Or is it a her? Coming from you, he’ll suspect it to be the work of the Jesuits.”
“Was,” I said, “not is. Kierkegaard’s been dead a while.” I sat gazing through the lounge room, out the window and over the small patch front lawn. So many shades of green outside, each luminescent. The leaves on a golden willow shimmered resplendently against the black bark. The air seemed light, and clean. Even the flowers were a riot of colour, spilling onto the footpaths from behind wooden fences, clustering around telegraph poles. “The father of existentialism,” I finally offered. “So, you heard all that?”
“Right from when you corrected your name. Bradley saw me, you know, standing in the doorway,”
“Is that right?” I said. I don’t think I’d ever breathed an atmosphere so asinine. A world with children starving to death, and Bradley worried about my soul.
“Existentialism and the Jesuits – well you know, they’re both the Devil’s work.” Taking his cup, Kayl stood up. “I’ll go pacify him,” he said. “Well, pacify is not the right word. Stop him gloating.” He paused in the doorway “Good on you, by the way,” he said. With a nod, he left.
After a moment I also rose and, coffee in hand, headed out the kitchen door into the new herb garden. Bradley had been busy. (Bradley and Louise, I added, Bradley and Louise. Why did I always forget Louise, even when I’d just seen her?) Clusters of parsley and basil had been planted a few days ago in raised beds with wooden boarders. Now some Thai basil had been added, along with some small tomatoes, thyme and a rosemary bush. The garden beds lay drenched in the morning sun, and I gladly soaked up the warmth.
The doleful cry of a black cockatoo fell from the sky, and I shivered. I suddenly felt sick just thinking about all that happened this morning, even before confronting Bradley. My hand trembled as I tipped my coffee around the tomatoes. As I turned to leave my legs buckled and I sat quickly on the edge of the garden bed. I stared into my cup but had no need to look at the dregs to tell my future. What was I but a fool with an empty theory tied together with meaningless words – and now I’d have to apologise to Bradley. Or at least feel guilty for the rest of the day. I had about thirty seconds before I’d become a sobbing mess. Bradley and Kayl were still in the house; I had no idea how I was going to make it to my room without dissolving, hiding my head under the pillow to hide the sound. I couldn’t let them see me, especially Bradley. By not understanding me, by asking no questions and ignoring all I’d said and so letting me rant, he’d been the one who’d drawn blood – plus now he would pray for me. Forever spinning managing webs around other people, he’d now begun weaving an aura of control around me. Strangely, Kayl planned to intercede on my behalf - a job which surely belonged to the saints.
I didn’t lie awake in my bed, staring at the ceiling. Nor did I toss and turn, dreaming of darkness. The sound of the footsteps in the house never reached me, never hearing in every quiet footfall an indulgent desire to let others sleep. The dance of the washing machine, loaded with every item of clothing from the combined wardrobes of Louise and Bradley, left me alone. I didn’t even dream of wandering the streets of Paris, sitting down to a meal in a chic bistro only to be served slop at a staff cafeteria. I simply passed out, exhausted, before any emotion could touch me. The tears which fell merely overflowed from all that was bottled up inside. They meant nothing, and made no difference.
The demons lay in wait, however, pouncing as soon as I woke. While the sun journeyed across the sky I remained oblivious to the world; next, I lay awake with no memory of opening my eyes. Soft rays of sunset played against the wall of my room.
I turned and rested on one side then the other, fluffed my pillow, rolled over again, pulled my doona around me, tried to get settled. Even the curtains sounded half asleep as they flapped in the breeze. The last of the day’s heat fell into my room. From somewhere came the hint of a pipe, the scent drifting towards me on the breeze.
Rolling onto my back I lay staring at the ceiling. So busy with my exams I never heard the suicidal thoughts of my brother. How could I keep on in my job after that? The real reason I’d come here was for oblivion, yet I’d failed even as a fugitive. Henryk had discovered that inadequacy with no effort. I turned and gave my pillow some more firm fluffs with my fist. With each pounding of the pillow rose the image of Jason – why did he keep reappearing here, a holy apparition caught on repeat? Did he expect a shrine in his honour? This morning I’d dug the void between us even larger, half hoping for Henryk to ride in and fill it, but instead that knight had stayed on his steed and vanished into the sunset, the pennants on his lance fluttering in the breeze, his composed gaze already searching the horizon for another dragon to slay. Whose favour, I wondered, did he wear on his sleeve?
Even lying there I could tell both Louise and Bradley had left. The house simply felt empty, despite Bradley’s talk of a prayer meeting. Yawning, I checked the clock. Not quite six. Having no need of a flowing nightdress (complete with impractical zipper) such as Grace Kelly donned in Dial M for Murder, I pulled on a t-shirt and trackie pants and made my way through the quiet house to the bathroom-cum-laundry. Fortunately nothing spun in the drier, so I could turn on the bath in relative peace. I added a dash of something to make lots of bubbles, then another dash for even more bubbles, before wandering back to my bedroom. The bath would take a while to fill. Despite the heat still lingering in the day, I needed a long soak.
Back in my room, I pulled open the bottom drawer in the cupboard, and took out an old jumper of Dave’s. I carefully unfolded it; inside slept an exquisite china cup. A true demitasse, ivory with age, its rim still kissed by a circle of summer gold. Once belonging to my great-grandmother, for all of my memories it’d sat unpaired in Mum’s display cabinet, always too good for just anyone (and therefore no-one) to use. Much like me, it sat waiting for that special occasion. Since my parents died I’d cradled it through every move, still waiting for the right moment to use it.
With it resting delicately in my palm, I made my way through the sleeping house to the kitchen. Although the place felt empty, yet still I moved quietly. I didn’t want to alert even the house to the fact I was awake. I even shut the bathroom door so the flowing water couldn’t be heard. (Although, considering the slowness with which the bath filled, flowing was not quite the right term. My half-asleep brain was, however, too fuzzy to think of one more apt. Stuttering, perhaps? Spluttering?)
Still cradling my cup, I pulled open the fridge. Sometimes the seal stuck, and it took quite a bit of effort to pull the door open. Inside, the only offerings were the remnants of some tinned spaghetti from a few days ago; any snacks Kayl had brought over had long vanished. I pulled out the plate of spaghetti and held it plate over the bin. The congealed mass fell with a thunk. I couldn’t stomach dinner. Just the thought of going into work, of immersing myself in that world full of people playing competing games around me, made my eyes sting.
“We can’t all have the luxury of your moral upbringing,” continued Jason as I shut the fridge door. His words had bored into my brain as soon as I’d opened my eyes. My so-called luxurious moral upbringing had become Jason’s common refrain as our relationship disintegrated. Only I still wasn’t quite sure what this myth entailed. My visibly religious parents had proven a poor benchmark. Failure had been a constant companion since childhood, reinforced (so gently, so constantly) by my parents and my teachers. In those eyes I had no option but to be mediocre and leave no mark in the world. Little wonder, then, I now found myself on the wrong side of Fate’s wheel, a curse of emptiness hanging heavily around my neck.
Yet even here, all alone, the whispers still reached me. That, having only scraped into university, someone more worthy deserved my place in that lecture hall on that first day of first year. Even when the guy who’d topped the HSC dropped out after three weeks (the first two weeks had passed with everyone treating him like a rock star), my fears were not assuaged. Each person who left merely cemented those who remained more firmly in their place.
By the end of the first term quite a few faces were gone. Some I never noticed, but after that first year.... Well, people only left if they failed. It was too late to even think I’d made a mistake. Too late to admit that buckling down and studying would only become increasingly pointless as the days flowed by, drowning me. Graduation merely bundled me up and delivered me to Base Camp. Once upon a time those romantic words had conjured up images of cosy restaurants and outdoor hot tubs fed by natural springs, until I came across a photo of tents half buried in frozen snow, and read of the unretrieved bodies lying further up the mountain.
(Now I’d become such a connoisseur of coffee, I did wonder about the taste of a brew at that altitude. Once atmospheric pressure drops, so does the boiling point of water – there’s little about the behaviour of gases and fluids I don’t know – and hence the temperature of the water hitting the coffee beans. And when the temperature of the water drops, so does the flavour, because of the decreased amount of dissolved oxygen and oils – or esters or whatever it is in the bean which carries the flavour. Even the aroma would be different. Perhaps I should get a coffee company to fund a little research. Publish or perish – Jason was a testimony to that law.)
From Base Camp came the hard slog to the summit of Everest. Provided the wrathful storm gods didn’t encase the glorious view with cloud and fog and snow, even the most stellar of careers allowed for only a brief glimpse from the roof of the world. Staying too long at the summit would prove fatal – as often did the final downhill trek.
At times when I was too tired to suppress them (such as now), thoughts crept out from the crevices of my mind and whispered how it was the interesting ones who’d fled.
They left behind a world peopled by beige, all other colour carefully camouflaged from sight. A world peopled by the likes of Gillian, who in my sheer exhaustion I belatedly realised dogged my footsteps not to steal and use everything I called my own, but to show the world that everything I did was of no importance. Gillian gleefully gathered up my footsteps simply to throw them away. As Jason had done to my brother. Gillian had known, Gillian must’ve known about Jason and Paula. That the two were no longer an item. After all, it was the girl’s job to know everything. With each excruciating photo she’d deliberately twisted the knife a little further. As if, with each twist, I might finally take the hint and disappear, and so make Gillian’s own life look better and brighter. Or dissolves in tears and beg for her help.
A few tears came, but the dam walls still held strong. Instead, I turned to the coffee machine. It took but a glance to realise its operation lay far from the realm of rocket science. Which meant I could have a play, without fear of ruining someone else’s toy. I’d never made coffee, real coffee; until moving up here, I’d never even drunk it, and thought a plunger brew bordered on the extravagant. First, I warmed my cup – which Bradley had not done – by simply running water through the machine without a pod. It’s also wash away the bitter traces of the last brew. Doing so seemed more, well, artisan, something I could imagine happing in every little house and workshop hidden on the far side of the Ponte Vecchio while tourists drooled over the gold displayed in the windows on the bridge. The machine didn’t explode. Next, I chose the colour of my pod; black seemed in order. Much as I despised allowing a machine to take total control in making something for me – doing so was but the thin edge of the wedge – I had to admire the simplicity as, with the press of a switch, the coffee ran thick and strong. I crouched to eye-level and watched the dark fluid drip into my grandmother’s cup, marvelling the china didn’t shatter under the strength of the brew.
At least I’d warmed the cup using the machine. This streamlined being (a ridiculous colour of pink, the choice obviously Louise’s) hadn’t made all the decisions.
As thick and strong as the coffee, my thoughts dripped from my heavy brain. They lacked only the crema on top, that dollop the colour of burnt honey which captures both heat and aroma.
Picking up the cup, I closed my eyes but stopped before downing it in two gulps. I’d read of how this was done it Italy; should ever I go there, I would try to do the same. But now, in a sterile kitchen, standing here drinking coffee without a mess around me brought my mother too close for comfort. How often had I watched as she made a sandwich for lunch, (white bread, butter, a piece of ham, maybe a slice of tomato, two lettuce leaves at most. At any given time she knew how many eggs were in the fridge, plus how many slices of cheese, or how much tomato remained left, down to a shrunken half). Then, carrying the chopping board over to the sink, she’d stand over the sink and eat her meal; no crumbs to clear, no plate to wash.
So, in silent protest, I pulled back a chair and settled myself by the bench. I closed my eyes, then, although no expert, inhaled the aroma. Slightly heady, I next took a mouthful. I tried to savour the texture as much as the taste, before finishing the brew with two more sips. I was starting to understand what all the fuss was about.
I carefully washed the cup, dried it, then took it back to my bedroom where I reverentially placed it back in its home of Dave’s old jumper. Next, the bathroom, where my warm and bubbly bath waited.
Coffee and a hot bath. It was the closest I’d ever come to mixing my drugs.
Wrapped in my dressing gown, I stood staring into the barrenness of my cupboard. Although I’d tried to bathe myself in freshness, I still felt queasy. Nights always take their toll on the body, but this felt different. My jeans smelt of work, and the thought of pulling them over my legs yet again made me squirm. I’d worn them every night since the zipper on my other pair had broken. I just wanted something different to put on, plus I had that meeting with the Dean in the morning.
Louise, I’m sure, never had this problem. No matter how tired, she’d do her washing and, like her brother, have her outfit impeccable pressed.
In contrast, my wardrobe offered little in the way of solutions. Ingrid Bergman, surely, would find something tucked away amongst the hatboxes. Audrey always had offerings from Givenchy; even when scrubbing floors in How to Steal A Million she maintained her effortless style, complete with a huge diamond ring. Katherine Hepburn wore slacks of elegance when facing Spencer Tracy. As for Grace Kelly; the few times she wore pants, they zippered at the back, giving an impeccable fit. What would any of these women wear working eternal nights?
Of course, were I actually in a movie, this would be the scene for revealing the true me. Either a sweet outfit, to mask the evil lurking inside, or something strong, to hint at hidden vulnerability. Maybe an umbrella doubling as a sword which I could strap to my back and so ride forth to battle my enemy. I had no idea of the outfit for a modern martyr; the flowing robes and headdresses of Quo Vadis might suit a Christian seeking God in a lion’s belly, but they would simply get caught in doorways and on furniture as I wandered about the university at night. Plus they’d be a bugger to drive in and get caught on the gear stick. Still, like the characters who wore them, the robes proved eminently recyclable when so many of those dying in Quo Vadis reappeared in Ben Hur, their outfits and make-up all but unchanged.
The memory struck so forcibly I crumpled onto the bed. Dom. He was here, and in all that had happened, I’d forgotten. Forgotten Dom and his Book Of Death.
I buried my head in my hands. How could I overlook such a thing? I felt sick. I’d buried the thought of Dom so deeply it took until now to gnaw its way out.
I just wanted this over. And for once to wear something pretty to work, something soft and feminine. With a waist and fitted bodice. And to find a job overlooking the sea. With, perhaps, the occasional touch of extravagance. It wasn’t much to ask of life, surely?
Wiping my eyes, I looked up, convinced I’d seen a flash of lightening. It was hard to be sure, for though the daylight was fading evening hadn’t yet arrived. I blinked a few more times, but saw nothing. Pulling my dressing gown tight, I decided to finish packing my bag before choosing my outfit. I lifted out Dave’s box of stones – they easily fitted into my huge work satchel, which was usually more than half empty. Now that I had the list of stone names, I could forgo the weight of these stones dragging on my shoulder each night. I scanned the list in my Filofax while checking my stores of paper. I was running low. Plus I also need to top up my pen. Opening the top drawer of my desk, I stared at the contents a moment. It just seemed different. Tidier than was my wont. After gathering up a new notebook and a few spare pens, I pulled open the draw below. It lay in its usual mess. I fished out my bottle of ink. I must be imagining things.
Undecided, I went over to the pile of boxes in the corner, where I’d stored so many of Dave’s things. I lifted down the top carton, peeped inside, then opened the one beneath. Without a doubt, they’d been switched.
The soft patter of the rain fell across the roof, washed away a few moments later by a downpour. The noise drowned my thoughts. I went back to my desk and, after refilling my pen, gently replaced Dave’s box of stones in my bag. I then turned to the cupboard, and pondered once more what to wear, and what to pack for my visit to the Dean.
The way to survive nights is with strong rituals, and I’d just broken about every pre-work one I knew. Now the structure was ruined, nothing remained to prevent the inevitable crumble into decay. A job overlooking the sea seemed a long way away.
The drive-through beckoned. I suddenly needed dinner and, with the fridge proving bereft of offerings, KFC at least gave me the illusion of choice. When working my week of nights I never chose the same drive through twice in a row, in the unlikely but humiliating chance I might be remembered by the sixteen year old manning the window. Although tonight I’d woken with plenty of time to spare, I’d left for work shortly after my bath, unable to bear sitting at home alone. Worse still was the thought Bradley or Louise might arrive home any minute. Or had Louise left on yet another work-related trip? I ate as I drove.
Outside my car, the asphalt stead. The fleeting downpour had come and gone, and despite the darkness under the summer heat a dancing vapor rose from the ground. I love driving after such squalls, especially of an afternoon, when the road is hot enough for steam to swirl around the car even as the rain falls.
With the storm now gone, I drove under a clear sky sprinkled with too many stars. It’s a wonder the heavens could hold them all. The Southern Cross, Orion’s Belt. The Dalek Star, as Dave had named one cluster.
I shook my head. I’d no memory of leaving the drive through, although my chips were nearly gone. I quickly retraced the route in my mind, the road I drive every night to work, every day back home.
I glanced at the houses around me to gather my bearings. An unknown hand opened an unknown door, spilling light onto the steaming street. Its warmth served only to make my car colder, as I changed gears and flicked on my indicator.