The Footstep Thief

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Chapter 18

Even as I left the old hospital the heat of the day blindsided me. Despite buckling under its intensity I resolutely kept walking, for now I’d left the sanctuary of the building the fear of seeing Dom grabbed me as I tried to catch my breath in the heat. Now he knew my name, and knew I was here, and I needed infinite distance between us.

I walked in a world grown loud and discordant. Voices screeched in my ear as I crossed the campus; the scream of birds cut through the sky. Music jangled from too many open doors, and raucous laughter echoed around me. The bright colours of the day burnt my eyes.

Time blurred and I stood by my car, a bag of takeaway in my hand. It seemed a day since I’d bought it. After fussing around in my bag for my keys I managed to drop them before unlocking the car. Another minute of fumbling and I successfully opened the door. I plopped onto the front seat and simply sat. Sounds shattered through the closed window, and I wiped the sweat from my face. My hands shook, and it took a few tries to turn the keys in the ignition. I just let the engine run, hoping the air conditioner would cool me down.

Looking at my hands, I despaired of getting home. A chirpy voice on the radio informed me it was twenty past ten. Not yet ten thirty, in a morning which had stretched to embrace eternity. An eternity where living had once happened to everyone else - until this week, when the Fates had compressed my life into a black hole, so even time slowed and I could not escape its gravitational embrace.

If I could just drive away I’d be home soon, then asleep, forgetting for at least a few hours. Maybe even until nightfall. Then, just maybe, I might begin to fathom the mysteries. In any decent movie everything happens after nightfall.

Although my little car sat idling in the shade, I could feel the heat radiating from the road. Another car pulled up behind me, flicking on an indicator as it waited for my spot, forcing me to make up my mind. My hands tight on the wheel, I successfully navigated onto the road, and even turned the right way at the set of lights. After a few minutes I relaxed my grip enough to flick through the radio stations. Each one annoyed me. Jason had always changed whatever station I was listening to without asking. I never said anything. After all, Mum and Dad had never listened to my music, either at home or when we drove somewhere. Compromise was a part of any relationship. Only now did I see how such a one-way system drained me like a vampire, until I stood shadowless and voiceless.

Negotiating a roundabout without bumping into the concrete, I managed to change gears without the car stuttering. I wiped more sweat from my face. Strange, how of all the things to recall from our time together, these were the ones forever springing to mind. Things which grew to exasperate me so much, things which left me so lonely while Jason and I were still together. Things I didn’t know how to change, for by then the status quo was lined with cement. I rarely reminisced about those times which brought happiness. Not even the more tender moments. Just an atmosphere which was so wrong, which I accepted without seeing.

I suddenly felt hungry. All I’d had to eat this morning was Rose’s muffin, and endless tea and coffee. Glancing at the bag on the seat beside me, I thought for a moment about pulling over. Most mornings I came home to bury Bradley’s incredibly healthy offering either in the bottom of the outside garbage bin or in the garden. The neighbours must think me decidedly weird. A wonder, really, they hadn’t yet called the police. I toyed with the idea of going to Jim’s, but I was too tired. Besides, I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Henryk, or sitting in the courtyard amongst the turtles, hoping he would but wouldn’t show up. Somehow, in the neutrality of the old hospital, bumping into him had been okay; seeing him anywhere else would prove beyond awkward.

Besides, Jason had found me at Jim’s. Why couldn’t Dom, especially as he and Gillian now talked of this and that.

Instead, I pulled over as I reached the bay. I hadn’t meant to drive this way. I couldn’t remember driving this way, but here I was. The water glistened under the sun, and a few swans drifted elegantly by, gathering together near one of the houseboats. I hadn’t noticed swans here before; I didn’t know they swam in salt water. I reached for my snack, unwrapping the foil from the top of my falafel. A perfect choice. Hot, filling, mostly healthy. I felt decidedly better as some tomato juice dribbled down my chin.

Pyruvate, amber, a vial of saltpeter The words just flicked on in my brain. I knew the list by heart. Opal, nambulite, granite, tigers eye, stenaster, azurite, limonite, limestone, fluorite. Ulexite, diaspore, glass, epidote, dolerite.

I dabbed at my chin. It still made no sense. I needed sleep. Only one more shift to go. For a week. And then what?

I looked at the houseboats as I ate. With the swans gliding around them, they looked so decidedly peaceful. Not a lot of people came this way, for the car park was really for those wanting to get to their boats moored in the bay. Some might walk past en route over the hill to either the beach, or around to the other side of the bay, but otherwise this was pretty much a hidden spot. A few yachts tossed a little at their moorings, and the twang of their riggings drifted across the water. I wondered which of the three houseboats was the one for rent. I could see myself living here, at least for awhile. While I sorted out what I was going to do with work. I knew I couldn’t stay. It was bad enough with Gillian now lurking wherever I went, but I couldn’t work in a place where Dom held such sway – and all too soon, Jason would also be ensconced here. Would anything happen if I just resigned? Tomorrow, after finishing work, I’d check and see if I’d done enough time. Bugger it, I’d resign anyway, but I knew I’d still check. I had enough saved up not to have to work for a while. I could hide on this houseboat, (where no one would ever think to look for me), and pass my days staring over the water while working out what Dave had meant. What the photocopies meant. I’d give that guy back his research and forget all about the blood being stolen and the months of research someone had destroyed. Such pettiness had driven me from medicine. There must be some mindless work somewhere where I could hide. Maybe Jim could teach me how to cook.

After finishing my falafel I felt stronger. I needed sleep, but that really could wait. After tonight I had all of next week to sleep. And possibly a lot longer - if I came to work tonight and slept instead of doing my chores, well, I might just get sacked, and remove the decision from my hands.

Instead of starting up the car, I pulled Dave’s folder from my bag. What with Dave’s box of stones and all the photocopying I’d done, my bag had grown decidedly heavy. Opening the folder I flicked through the sheets, but I’d jumbled everything together in my haste to leave this morning. I needed space, with a stapler and lots of paper clips and possibly some plastic sleeves; in short, I needed to get home and sort these things out. Then I could start reading. Maybe I should buy a packet of multicoloured paperclips on the way, and colour-coded stick on tabs.

If life were truly one of my movies, I’d already be at home, seeking enlightenment. But time in life is linear, filled with great swathes of little things, such as driving, unpacking groceries, and washing underwear. It wasn’t now but instead a while before I sat by my desk, laying everything out. Already my energy was ebbing. I put together each article (making do with plain paper clips), then paired it with its mate in Dave’s collection. Not all had partners, for some articles I hadn’t found in the library. Nor was all of Dave’s collection published articles; some were drafts, others were just research notes. A lot of research notes, actually, and not in his field. How on earth had he gathered such a collection? It must’ve taken ages.

At least, being Friday, I had the place to myself. Louise was off doing whatever it was Louise did; Bradley was at work. I glanced at the clock. The old-fashioned hands pointed to after midday. I really should get to bed, but the strong brew I’d concocted with my flatmates’ coffee machine still sang through my veins. I had a little while of wakefulness before me.

My stapling and pinning finished, I then arranged my collection in chronological order, deciding on publication date as my guide. Those unpublished I put to one side, in the hope of finding a revised draft or maybe something published, even if just a letter or a reference. After all, Dave had collected them all for a reason.

Then, highlighter in hand, I began at the beginning. Picking up the first pair of articles, I read first Dave’s copy then the published one. Then, paragraph by paragraph I compared the two, highlighting any differences. They were quite subtle; a word here, a rephrasing there, the axes of one graph altered. Why would the editors would bother? The results hadn’t changed; it simply made the thing more pleasing to the eye. Maybe the graph fitted better on the page. Yet with another look I noticed how with altering the y axis while leaving the x unchanged, the size of the variational swings diminished, while some vanished. So, if like most, the reader quickly scanned the opening statement, lost interest somewhere around the methodology and skipped to the conclusion, by scanning the graph they’d reach entirely the wrong conclusion.

All tiredness vanished. I rummaged around Dave’s boxes until I unearthed a few text-books and a scientific dictionary, then began making meticulous notes on all the differences between the two articles. Then, using Dave’s texts as reference, I listed, after each alteration, the consequence, however trivial. I also went carefully through the methodology and the statistical analysis – a pet hate of mine, as even in the best journals there is often a flaw, and in others the work can be remarkably shoddy. After finding the errors and redoing a few calculations, I put my notes, along with the articles, into a plastic sleeve, and began on the next set of articles. Strangely, this one involved a drug trial. How did Dave ever get hold of this?

“But I just know he’s seeing someone!” Louise was shouting right outside my door. One minute I’d been immersed in a dream where Dom had enough grey cells to manipulate an acid-base dissociation equation, the next I was shattered awake by Louise’s hysterical tones. “She must know who it is!” she continued. “She sees more of him than I do!”

Bright daylight still filtered through my curtains and onto my bed. I’d fallen asleep somewhere around two. I remembered powering through a journal article; then I could barely make it to my bed before crashing into a darkness swaying with dreams.

I turned my wrist but stopped myself before looking at an absent watch. Instead I rolled over to check my clock. Four-fourteen. If the girl could just shut up I might get back to sleep. Another solid hour could make all the difference to how I managed tonight. One more night, then I could sleep as long as I wanted. I closed my eyes, listening for the sound of waves slopping against the wooden floor of a houseboat. I’d rung up about the houseboat somewhere in between my frenzied analysis of the articles. I’d need a cup of tea, just something hot in my hand, and as I waited for the kettle to boil a phone call had been so easy. Sometime tomorrow I could go see it. What a peaceful way that would be to sleep.

“Louise, she’s asleep, you can’t barge in.” Bradley sounded almost plaintive. I wondered what face he was wearing.

For once his words proved totally ineffective, for Louise had already barged into my room.

“Who is she?” Louise demanded, slamming the door on her brother.

“What?” I said, wearily raising myself to rest on my elbows. “What are you on about?”

She barged over to my bed. “Kayl. Who’s he sleeping with?”

I stared up at her for a few seconds. My eyes felt gritty. “You woke me up to ask about your boyfriend’s infidelities?” I thought I sounded remarkably polite. “Shouldn’t you ask him?”

With that Louise dissolved into a sobbing mess on the end of my bed. It had never occurred to me Louise would ever cry.

I didn’t know what to say. Still half asleep, part of me – well, most of me – just wanted her out of my room. Yet only last night Tina had looked after me when I’d barged in unannounced on her and her father, and burst into tears myself.

I looked over at my desk, but couldn’t see Dave’s folder. Of course: I’d slid it under my pillow as I tumbled into forgetfulness. So now I’d woken into some spy movie. Maybe Humphrey Bogart would be the next to burst through the door, complete with fedora and a trench coat with a crisply turned collar, and start talking at us all through clenched teeth.

“I’m so embarrassed,” Louise managed between sobs. “I just know he’s seeing someone. I even looked through your room because I was convinced it was you.”

“You went through my things?” I said, shocked. At least that explained Dave’s boxes being moved.

“I know,” Louise answered, wiping at her eyes. “Silly of me, really. Actually, it was Gillian’s idea. She was over and I told her everything, and she thought we might find something in here. I even pretended I was looking for a pair of stocking to borrow, just to make it alright. And when I asked Kayl he said he liked you far too much to ever sleep with you.”

“Did he? Did he indeed?”

“But I just know there’s someone, and you see so much of him at work, you must have some idea of who she is.”

I stared at Louise in some confusion. Within the space of a few breaths she’d brought her sobs under control while scattering invidious remarks like largess. If I just closed my eyes to think about it, just closed them for a minute, maybe she’d vanish.

“You went through my room,” I repeated. “You and Gillian. Without asking.”

“Oh,” came the dismissive half snort, “I only borrowed a pair of stockings. I’ll get a new pair. It’s not like they were expensive ones.”

“And if Kayl is seeing someone, just what did you expect to find in my room? A smoking gun? And now you woke me up, when I have to work tonight.”

“Well, this is rather important. I love him,” she tried to wail.

I rubbed my eyes, desperately trying to remember Tina’s compassion. No wonder the saints weep. When I’d seen Kayl wearing Bradley’s name badge, I hadn’t expected to get caught in the crossfire. I suspected Bradley stood listening outside the door, too afraid to come in. Truth seemed an optional extra in this house. Perhaps it was the exhaustion, but I actually felt sorry for Louise – up until when she said she was in love. She’d say whatever was expected to not only get her own way, but to justify the destruction in the process. The world where she and her brother dwelt was so pathetically small, with no moral compass despite all their fabrications to anyone watching. For Louise, she was the loadstar; what I felt, or needed, proved of no consequence when it ran contrary to her wants.

I didn’t bother to try and hide my yawn. “I don’t know of any girl he’s seeing.”

“You’re just saying that to get rid of me! I have to know. I’m leaving tomorrow for The Women’s Christian Conference, and I need to sort it out. I mean, I can forgive Kayl anything, but I can’t forgive him for the way he’s making me feel. I can’t forgive him that.”

I looked straight at her dry eyes. “Louise, ask me all you want, but I’m not going to tell you any differently. You can believe me, or not. But I think, at this point, Jesus would walk out of the room and let the atheist sleep.”

Louise looked as if I’d slapped her. I wished I had. I could just the see the red outline of my fingers on her cheek, the welts slowly rising against her perfectly powdered cheek.

Dressed in pure hatred, Louise rose to her feet. “Of course,” she said. “You must get your sleep. Anything you have to do is far more important than my life.” With a dramatic flair beyond ridiculous she twirled and stalked from the room.

I collapsed back into my bed and closed my eyes. When I first met Louise I’d felt I’d failed a job interview. Now I’d obviously flunked a girl-in-crisis let’s-become-soul-mates-scene. With luck, I might never see her again.

Yet I felt untouched by the whole scene. Even Louise’s repeated insults and hypocrisy didn’t upset me. What if I’d wandered through her room helping myself to few things? Compared to the intrigues at the Uni, this conniving Christian world Bradley and Louise had woven seemed so petty.

Only Gillian had been in my room. Did she wasn’t my life that badly? I doubt she found anything to inspire her.

Pyruvate, amber, a vial of saltpeter. The words began flowing again. Opal, nambulite, granite, tigers eye, the fossil stenaster, azurite, limonite, fluorite. Ulexite, diaspore, glass, epidote, dolerite.

May as well start at the beginning, I thought. Pyruvate, Dave’s first gem.

I opened my bloodshot eyes, despite the ache. It was his first jem, not gem. Jem with a J. Then amber. A. A vial of salt peter. VS. I pulled the folder from under my pillow, and picked up a pen from my bedside table. JAVS. Then opal. O. Nambulite. N. JAVSON – or Jason, if the vial became straight saltpeter. Jason.

Next: granite, tigers eye, the fossil stenaster. G, TE or T or E, then S, or maybe FS or just F. Nothing. Azurite – A, limestone – L, then fluorite, ulexite, dispore, glass, epidote, dolerite.

GT, GE, GES, GEFS – none of that made any sense. ALF, ALFUD, SALF? UDG? GED?

No, it was just a coincidence those first ones spelt out Jason. But I’ve never liked coincidences.

FUDGED – the word shouted from amongst the jumble. Jason – fudged. I scrambled out of bed and found my Filofax. Dave’s list was still inside.

Pyruvate, amber, a vial of saltpeter (so medieval, don’t you think?), an opal, nambulite, granite (think of it as an igneous rock), tigers eye, my fossil stenaster, azurite, limonite, limestone, fluorite (have you noticed its fluresence?), ulexite, diaspore, glass, epidote, dolerite

Limestone. I’d forgotten limestone. Jason – something – all fudged.

Granite; but Dave calls it an igneous rock. I? IR? IRTEFS? IRTS? No – igneous, tiger, stenaster – its. Even my brother couldn’t do an apostrophe with stones.

Jason – it’s all fudged.

So that’s what Dave had discovered: results had been changed. But why? I had all the evidence – well, all the evidence Dave had found. If I just worked out the answer – that is, the consequences of the fudging – I could work back to the question: why? But it couldn’t answer the more important question - why did he kill himself over it? That still made no sense. Was my brother so unhappy, that this proved the final straw? And he couldn’t tell me, because of how he thought I still felt about Jason? Well, how I still felt about Jason.

Slipping the folder back under my pillow, I closed my eyes. Now I knew the answer, it seemed obvious. It actually explained a lot. Only, somehow Dom fitted into the equation. He just had to.

Before sleep could claim me again, I got out of bed and locked my door.

Fading sunlight caressed the end of my bed as my alarm went off. With daylight saving yet to end, for a few weeks yet sunshine would linger of an evening, fading into darkness only as I headed off to work.

Outside some Indian Myna birds quarrelled amongst each other, squawking and squabbling over a scrap of nothing. The fighting sounded just below my window. Their childish bickering annoyed me, not just because I was tired and the sound irritated me, but because I’ve always preferred the sound of native birds. The soulful wassail of a black cockatoo always takes me home. At the first sound I look up to see a lumbering mass in the sky, for all the world as if it shouldn’t be there.

My other favourite is a complete opposite. In a gully not more than thirty minutes walk away from our house Dave and I found the Bellbird Basilica; we’d sit under the trees and listen as these tiny birds called all around us. At unexpected times I hear them as I hung out the washing, or walked to my car. As we approached their forest basilica the scouts would angrily chatter, trying to scare us away, but after Dave and I had sat still awhile they’d fill the air one more with their lucid bells. Such tiny things, they were hard to spot, and impossible to photograph. It was years before I noticed their yellow feet.

The summer sun had bathed me in sweat. I rubbed my eyes and yawned. I’d had not nearly enough sleep to last the night, but there was nothing I could do to rectify the problem now. Only one more night. After all that had happened this week, one night would be a breeze.

Getting out of bed, I quietly gathered a few necessities. After crossing the room on tip-toe, I softly unlocked the door and opened it a few inches. The house felt suspiciously quiet. No prayer groups, no bible study, no muted rock hymns. If I listened closely, I could just hear the sound of music. I couldn’t decipher the tune.

I hurried the few steps down the hall to the bathroom. It was empty, with no one playing around with the washing machine. Locking the door, I hid under the shower. Waves of cool water broke over me, and I could feel my brain wake as my body temperature dropped. Even under the cascading water the house felt peaceful; all feeling of Louise’s angst had vanished. With luck, so had she, although I had a sickening feeling she lay in wait, ready to forgive me.

I took my time in the shower, finding relief in the pounding of the water on my shoulders and back. Why couldn’t I be like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, gracefully plunging into madness while her world fills with lies? Even as the deceits became too much and she could barely hold herself together in public, she managed to look so beautiful – especially that white dress with the fitted bodice and perfect ruffle, with the jewellery to match. When Bergman finally saw the truth, she found release in five minutes of hysteria spent tormenting her husband, then all was alright; her gaslighting husband stared at her with mad eyes while true love awaited her at the bottom of the stairs.

But that was not how I felt. Just calm. An ocean of chaos lapped around me, with at least a dozen great whites circling, but for the moment I just didn’t care. As long as I stood still under the shower, I was fine; a simple step either way, and turmoil would tumble over me. I just had to hold my self still. One more night. Just get through tonight, somehow; then I could go to pieces, with Ingrid Bergman as my model. And after that? Well, I needed to find some answers. Unlike Ingrid, I’d have no roving police officer conveniently around to fit everything neatly into place for me.

For so much had happened since I drove to work in the rain on Monday. Once it started things just kept happening, so that I couldn’t begin to get a handle on it all for I didn’t know where to start myself, not when more and more kept happening until I could no longer see the beginning. Instead, I just let the water kept flow over me, washing away all the impurities which clung to me each day as I came home.

Jason – it’s all fudged.

Now I knew, it was obvious. Even that first performance before the cameras with Dave’s boots visible in the background was simply that – a performance, at the cost of other someone else’s career. A tweek here, a touch of plagiarism there, and he’d shimmied up the staircase to become the undisputed expert standing at the top, graciously greeting all supplicants. I saw it so easily now, but proving it would be hard.

I poured some shampoo into my hand and started on my hair. Why did I need to prove anything? What would that achieve, apart from failed vengeance? It wasn’t like I was out to dethrone the man. His meteoric rise and success was beyond my thoughts and judgments. Just knowing was enough- but I had to know the complete picture. At the moment, there were still too many holes.

Had it been enough for Dave? Is that why he... once he knew, once he had the answer. Once he understood why his work was stolen. Was it no longer enough then?

But it was Dom who’d taken Dave’s work. Well, Dom had published it. I still can’t believe Dom had the nous to steal it. I needed to read the article again, to try and work out why Dom had even bothered. To see what he’d gained from it all.

I lifted my face to the water to wash shampoo from my eyes. Only it wasn’t the shower water tumbling down my cheeks. Keening like a black cockatoo, I crouched on the floor of the shower and let the water pummelled my back.

Eventually I pulled myself from the shelter of the shower and went to my room. The myna birds had ceased their bickering. The branches of a tree tapped across my window, and the light had changed from one of sunshine to one of clouds. Rain threatened; it’d been a week for sudden squalls. I quickly dressed into my old jeans and faded cardigan, then began packing my bag for work. I was tempted to pack everything and just leave, but in the morning I’d still have no place to go. But soon. If not the houseboat I’d find somewhere else. Soon. Maybe the university flat, where first I met Bradley – when he’d simply appeared in the doorway of my would-be apartment without knocking, and all this began – maybe it’d be free. If I got desperate.

A soft knock sounded on the door as I pulled Dave’s folder from under my pillow. I slid it back under cover as I turned towards the door – no one entered. I actually had to walk over and open the door; a first, I think, for this house.

“Bradley!” I don’t know why I was surprised. This was, after all, his place.

“I thought I heard you up and about,” Bradley said. “Dinner’s just about ready if you want some before you head off.”

“Dinner?” Perhaps I had entered a fugue state.

“Well, since I was cooking anyway, it was just as easy to make enough for two.” After a subtle pause he added, “Louise left for her conference a little while ago. She won’t be back until the end of next week.”

“So, you’re telling me it’s safe to come out?”

Bradley unveiled his surprised-tinged-with-condescension look. “I wouldn’t quite phrase it like that, but well, yes,” he said. “Oh, I can hear something dinging in the kitchen. Five minutes?” and he was gone.

Keeping to Bradley’s time and not my own, I emerged to a faultlessly set table. Bradley was just serving, and soon the two of us began eating without him offering to say grace.

“It’s kind of you to cook for me,” I offered, unable to bear the holy silence. “I hadn’t even thought about dinner.”

“You never do,” Bradley said. “I can barely keep track of when you’re working. The place seems incredibly disorganised.”

“Oh, don’t worry about keeping tabs on me,” I answered. “The roster varies from week to week. Sometimes it’s five days – nights, that is – sometimes I have to work for seven, and occasionally there’s a day off in the middle. I can barely keep track myself. With that sort of timetable, worrying about dinner is usually beyond me.”

As I spoke I tried not to think about Bradley keeping tabs on me. Everyone, it seemed, knew where I was or where I was going. And when my room was empty.

We kept eating in silence, with only Bradley’s music for company. I suspected the meal was the closest Bradley could come to an apology for not stopping Louise, with an added bribe to stop me telling his sister what I knew about Kayl. Not that I could, with her away. Maybe Bradley had already told her and she’d stormed off in a huff; I’m sure she’d said something about leaving tomorrow just as she stormed into my room. Besides, had Bradley told her what I expected to be true, I doubted she’d have left the house so quietly.

“Oh, by the way, have you heard anything about the house?”

“The house? What house?” How did Bradley know about the houseboat?

“Your aunt’s place.”

“Oh, that. Sorry, I’d no idea what you were talking about for a moment there. Well, someone from the real estate rang a few days ago. A few people have been going through. He seems to think some of them were serious, not just busybodies.”

“It’ll be good to sell it,” Bradley said with authourity. “A bit of financial independence. You should think about buying somewhere yourself.”

In my paranoid state I took this as a message to find somewhere else to live. Perhaps Kayl would move in and help with the mortgage.

“As an investment,” Bradley continued. “You could stay here, rent out the place and negative gear it,” he said, launching into a world of financial logic which held absolutely no interest for me.

As Bradley droned on I looked at the flowers on the table. I recognised the label. I’d been myself a few weeks ago, buying some flowers for Dave. All the other offerings on his tombstone had left me feeling ashamed with my previous offerings. This florist just looked so quaint from the outside I had to try it.

I’d been in a corner when Gillian breezed in. Her words flooded the room as soon as she opened the door. “I need something that will last at least a week,” she announced to the shop assistant who was on the phone. The same shop assistant who’d ignored me.

Flustered, the young assistant quickly hung up and followed Gillian as she flounced around the small shop. “May I ask what they’re...”

“A grave,” came the dramatic reply. From my corner spot I could see her weave her hands through the air as she talked. I think she did it to show her long, angular fingers to advantage. She’d always been proud of her hands.

“We do many different arrangements for funerals...”

“Not a funeral, a grave.”

“May I ask who it’s for...” the assistant offered timidly.

“My fiancé.”

As Gillian had all the attention she needed, I sidled behind a stack of blooms towards the open door. As I made it outside unscathed, bouquets were still being suggested, turned down, and rearranged. It could be a while before Gillian was content.

I hurried down the street to my car. So now Gillian had been Dave’s fiancée. Just as she’d been head-hunted and Jason’s confidant and my mentor. The past couldn’t stay the past; she was even trying to re-write my memories.

“Well, I suppose it’s a question of whether I can sell it or have to rent it out,” I said, noticing had Bradley finally came to a stop. Not having listened to a word, I hoped he was still talking about investment properties.

“Well, your agent should be able to give some idea about that.”

I decided it was time to change topics. “I thought Louise told me she was going away tomorrow, although I was half-asleep at the time. Is everything okay?”

“Oh,” said Bradley, waving a fork airily about his head, “after I pointed out what a long drive she had ahead of her, she decided to set off a day early.”

“Right,” I said.

“Listen, I’m sorry she barged in on you like that. I did try to stop her.”

“Did she really think I’d been sleeping with Kayl, like she said?”

Bradley shot me a look, then piled more food into his mouth before he could answer. He chewed very slowly, and it was a while before he answered. “When she gets like this she doesn’t think at all,” he finally said. “It happens with all her boyfriends. She gets a little paranoid, then goes over the top. A few days and she’ll settle down. She always does.”

“Really,’ I said. “With every boyfriend?”

“Well, not all of them. And it’s not like she’s had that many. I mean, I don’t want to sound like she’s a floozy or anything.”

I almost choked on my chicken at the thought of it being Louise who was the floozy. “And did she say anything about the name badges?”

“Name badges?”

“Kayl was wearing your name badge at work.”

“Louise has no idea about that.”

I couldn’t believe his calm arrogance. “And are you going to tell her?”

“Tell her? Tell her what?”

I gave up. Bradley’s confidence was impregnable. He and his sister were so sure of themselves, nothing could be wrong. Only an outsider could be wrong – an outsider such as myself. That’s why Louise had stormed into my room, for I was yet to be saved and so could carry all their sins. And Kayl – well, I think Kayl wallowed happily in no man’s land. Saved but not saved, so Louise needed time to decide if he was one of them, and so everything was okay, or someone like me. Meanwhile, Kayl simply enjoyed himself. Their Jesus might forgive everyone, but Kayl had the most fun.

I looked at the beautiful dinner set before me. Photogenic, predictable, pathetic; Bradley’s world displayed in food. The image might be perfect, but, lacking focus, it meant nothing in the real world. The privacy of a confessional box proved irrelevant when absolution was completed years before, and salvation guaranteed. Why fear your own mortality, when a place in heaven is assured. You can do what you like, as long as you believe. Like my mother, with all her ways, Bradley simply saw no conflict. For all his shortcomings, Dad had a honourable focus to all he did, until the papal knights and the machinations of the altar society ground it to dust.

“After all,” said Bradley, “what does a name badge actually mean?” He leant over and touched my hand as he spoke, and through his fingers I felt his withered soul.

I put down my knife and fork. I, too, had once lived in a religious world, but it had now vanished. Doing what is right, because it’s the right thing to do meant nothing to these peacock believers – unless doing so means all and sundry can gossip about it and repeat it over and over in a bible study, or the deed be photographed for the Sunday papers. As long as one is seen to do good, no matter what happens elsewhere, salvation is guaranteed, along with rights to an exclusive club with Jesus as the best mate. I wondered how a perfect deity coped with such demands.

For all their singing and clapping, and churches devoid of holier-than-thou images, Bradley and Lousie were no different from my mother. Maybe I was over thinking it, but these guys, they didn’t intellectualise at all. And I was so jealous, because for once I just wanted it to be easy, but it never was. Even at school, when the world was still okay, I couldn’t feel that way. How often had I sat in a quiet church, seeking inspiration and calm, only to see someone come down and kneel at a pew, completely lost in their own contemplation. I’d been taught of the godhead in us all, yet I saw no reflection of the divine in the devout believer sitting opposite me. Even the vigorous paganism of a Heart of Darkness was beyond me, or the world of Homer, where the gods had such human failings. I found no solace anywhere. Why could I not feel that faith?

I pushed back my chair and picked up my plate. “Thanks for dinner, Bradley,” I said. “It was thoughtful of you. I’d better get going.”

“Not a problem,” Bradley answered. “The dishwasher’s empty, if you want to stack your things in there.”

“I owe you,” I called from the kitchen. “On my days off.” Which, with luck, might be amongst the last I spent in this too perfect house.

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