I finished my drive under the placid stare of bovines. Large brown eyes rose from the grass, and tongues the colour of the morning sky slid over black noses. I wondered how it felt to lick a nose of black velvet. More cows ambled over to join the fray, udders swaying nonchalantly with every large step.
With a final twist of a reverse park, I turned off the engine and took a deep breath. I just hoped I’d found the right place. The cows looked on as I got out of the car and tucked some wayward strands of hair back into my ponytail. Crumbled skirts, ponytails, freckles and hips; no fiery Kathryn Hepburn rising to the challenge, nor Maureen O’Hara. A smear of lip-gloss might help, or perhaps some glasses, like those Ingrid Bergman wore in that movie about psychoanalysis, with Gregory Peck as an impossibly urbane yet sincere psychiatrist. Spellbound, that was it. Gazing at the vomitus of buildings scattered around me, I didn’t like my chances of finding a Gregory Peck here.
Although I’d been here twice before to visit Dave, I still managed to get myself completely lost. The buildings wore a vague difference to those of my memory, and as I chose a path at random about I postulated about something having been knocked down, or maybe built. I walked through a rose garden, the bushes a cascade of colour against the sunburnt grass. To one side, but still bordered by roses, stood an old white and green band-stand. Now a coffee shop, it must’ve graced that lawn for over a century yet I couldn’t remember ever seeing it before. All around me people sat gossiping or studying, lying in the sun, reading a novel, planning their life or simply enjoying it. All unblemished, all happy. And why not, I thought, (putting a decisive firmness into my step although I’d no idea where I was going), on such a glorious afternoon? Just because I walked behind a wall of rime was no reason I couldn’t at least watch other people’s happiness.
Some clouds drifted over the sun, and a cool breeze played around me until the clouds drifted away and the full heat of the sunshine fell again. From the shade of some distant trees came the song of magpies, while sparrows hopped about on the grass, looking for crumbs.
I tried smoothing some creases from my skirt as I walked. This was the part I have always hated. The new start, changing places, learning new faces. Having to sell myself to all these strangers. Like Pudge – our labrador – deep down I just wanted to please everyone. Given half a chance, I’d probably wag my tail. Reaching the top of any social click lay well beyond my ken, but a part of me so desperately wanted to belong somewhere, all the while knowing that where-ever I worked no one really cared who I was. I’d never be Ilsa Lund, the most beautiful woman to arrive in Casablanca. By the time someone finally remembered my name, I’d have left to start again somewhere new, and another unknown would take my place as I was forgotten. As I knew myself already forgotten at my old job. I’d made a career out of being infinitely replaceable.
It’d been easy enough on the drive down to pretend I wanted this, to be in a place where no one knew me, or anything about me. To be somewhere untouched by all that had happened, for although Dave had worked here before he died, the evil had happened somewhere else. As the world lazed around me and bees, heavy with an elegant sufficiency of nectar, droned in drunken bliss, I could even make-believe how being here had nothing to do with finding out about Dave.
The first building I entered opened onto a labyrinth. Vast, empty corridors linked together other buildings which had been tacked on as afterthoughts with the passing years. It didn’t take me long to get hopelessly lost. For some reason the ground floor was Level Three, and the fifteen minutes it took to work this out proved fatal. Every doorway had an exit sign, leading to another exit sign, without actually leading to an exit. Most of the stairwells only went up or down one flight, and even these were hard to find. The place had obviously been designed by someone who never worked here, around the sole principle of stopping anyone getting anywhere.
Eventually, I found myself in Administration. Only it proved the wrong Administration, so I continued my pilgrimage ever deeper through the bowels of the building. With each level the corridors grew grubbier, and a faint reek, ripening like mouldy cheese, grew stronger.
Finally I came to what I prayed to be the right door. No one looked up as I entered. No one avoided my gaze; my existence simply didn’t interest them. By this alone, I knew I’d discovered my El Dorado. Desks separated by shoulder-high partitions stretched across the room; I had no idea where to begin. Trying to smile, I approached the nearest human face, but before I could stammer a few words I’d been waved onto the next partition, where a hand pointed me on to yet another desk.
Obviously the throne of the hierarchy, this table ran the length of the room’s only double window. Two men had claimed an end each as their territory, and sat surrounded by piles of papers and spreadsheets. A fortress of filing cabinets clustered around them. From experience I knew no method lay in the mayhem sprawling across the desk. I doubted the two men looked at one another all day.
Unsure which to address, I spoke to the ether somewhere between the two faces. “Excuse me,” I offered, “I’m Stephanie, Stephanie Allen.”
A flabby man peered over his bifocals. “Ah, Miss Allen, Allen, Allen,” he said, his gaze drifting from me to the piles of paper around him. “Yes, Allen,” he repeated, picking up a sheet. “The new researcher I believe. I have a folder somewhere. You’re the day person, aren’t you?”
The man at the other end of the table finally looked up from his writing. He was younger than his counterpart, and his flesh tighter, but his body equally as large. He’d squeezed his frame into a dapper outfit, one better suited to a build tall and sparse. “No, Derek, Miss Allen is working the nights. Here’s her folder,” he added, sliding it over to the older man. He winked at me before returning to his forms. “Derek never has any idea of what’s going on. That’s why he’s in charge.”
Ignoring the comment, Derek looked at me a moment over his bifocals. “I know she’s on nights,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word as he turned his glare to the far end of the desk, “but there are the occasional days.” He lifted his bulky frame from the chair and began ruffling his way through a filing cabinet. (Derek who, I wondered.) With an audible wheeze, he pulled out a large envelope from one drawer and a set of keys from another, slowly turned, and put both on the table before taking his time sitting down. The chair groaned.
“Here you go,” Derek said. “Roster. So check it carefully. Plus a map to get around, details of the job and so forth. You start the day – well, night – after tomorrow. Form in there for security; go down and organize your ID before you start. Level 2B – just follow the signs, can’t miss it.”
Pulling a map from the folder, Derek circled a spot on it before sliding the whole lot towards me. “That’s your unit. Here’s the key. Free for the first three weeks. After that, rent’s deducted from your pay. Form to fill in if you find your own place, otherwise pay roll will keep deducting. All the forms should be in here. Payroll office is on level 3C in the Trust Building. Hours are on the form. Or else put it in the internal mail. Any problems, give one of us a call.” He stretched a sweat-stained arm across the desk and put another circle on the map. “That’s the lab. Someone will show you the ropes. Oh, wait a tick, I forgot you have to sign for those keys now. New security measure.”
Derek rose and rifled through another filing cabinet while the other man sat signing forms after a pretence of reading them. I stared out the window. Although I’d wound steadily underground since entering the building – well, actually, I’d entered by the R. H. Swan Building, but somehow crossed over into this one, so sweetly named Building F – the window behind Derek looked over a field of cows and horses. From where I stood I could even see my car, but I knew there’d be no quick exit nearby. A long walk back to my belongings lay before me, covered with so many footsteps. Especially should I first prove brave enough to sally forth and hunt for Security, and possibly Payroll.
Security consumed an hour of my life, and Payroll another forty minutes, after which I began the quest for a place to stay. At the back of my mind simmered the thought of finding somewhere of my own, but until I was settled the university flat would make do.
I finally tracked down my new abode. Amongst three brown blocks of apartments a dozen stories high, mine was on the fourth floor Block A. The day was fading, and shadows stretched long fingers all about me. I paused outside the door to catch my breath. The carpet in the stairwell may once have been a light brownish-orange, possibly with pink, or even rose-coloured flowers; in the sepia light of the hall I couldn’t be sure. A frosted window lit each turn of the stairs, painting the landings with the air of a fifties French film. Having never been to Paris – indeed, having never been on a plane – I made a note to pretend I was in La Ville-Lumière each morning as I came home, no matter how work had gone, even if it meant buying a croissant after work. Much like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, although the rumour ran she hated the pastry she barely ate in that opening scene. If only I could develop the same dislikes, I might reduce myself to her size.
All fantasies of Paris vanished on opening the door. The place proved an amalgamation of every accommodation I’d ever suffered since leaving home. The front door opened straight onto the lounge room, where the mandatory brown couch sagged over a dun coloured carpet. I just knew the kitchen would have burnt-orange tiles. Like fingernails dancing down a chalkboard, the carpet squeaked against my shoes. I pulled back a faded paisley curtain, allowing a little more light to fall into the room. As I wandered through my new abode, it slowly dawned on me that in a few weeks I’d be billed for staying in a flat consisting of five rooms: a damp bathroom, a low-ceilinged bedroom, a combined lounge-dining room complete with vinyl chairs which opened onto a kitchen, plus a closet comprising a toilet. The laundry, I assumed, must be communal. Somewhere in the block of apartments someone sat scribbling out a roster for the washing machine; I could almost hear the scratch of their pen. The walls would prove thin, with a nearby unit housing a complete Dire Straits collection. Or Enya.
Trying to remain desperately hopeful, I went back to the galley kitchen with its wall of burnt orange tiles and opened a cupboard at random. Inside slept three battered pots and a few plates, a tumbler and two wine glasses. I picked up the tumbler and turned it over, suspecting that, like many back home, it’d started out life as a vegemite jar. Beside it sat a mug proudly emblazoned Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, with Geoff painstakingly stencilled onto the base. I’d never thought of anyone working at the Bureau as human enough to put their name on something and bring it with them; only now the mug had been left behind, maybe when they left to compile statistics halfway across another state.
At least the burnt-orange tiles above the stove were clean, and, when I turned on the tap, the water ran clear. No hint of that rust which had tormented me and stained my clothes in another place. The stove consisted of two hot plates, and the oven door shut – an improvement on my last flat. I pressed a few buttons on the microwave but nothing happened; with luck this would be due to the mysteries of the programming, rather than the machine actually being broken. It always took me a while to decipher the workings of new microwaves.
Still, the layout of the place came straight from Marlene Dietrich’s crumbling kitchenette in Witness for the Prosecution, before Tyronne Power swept her away to England and a murder trial. At least Marlene had a war to blame. I thought about about donning a black beret, plucking my eyebrows into extinction and replacing them with pencilled arches, then putting marcel waves through my hair. I could wander the corridors of work with a cigarette holder in one hand, radiating sophistication and cool detachment. I suspected, however, my face would prove too fat for a beret, and I’d no idea how to do marcel waves.
Weary from my drive, I took myself to the adjoining lounge room and plonked down in an armchair. My butt might be hovering a few inches from the floor, but at least the chair felt homely. Perhaps I’d be okay here after all. Appearances, as Dad had always said, are apt to be misleading. It simply took me until quite a while after his death to realise he’d been referring to Jason; I’d never known Dad to be wary of anyone before. In contrast, Mum had sided with my ex-boyfriend from the start and continued to do so until she died. Drooling over his fashionable shirts and embracing smile, she’d never been able to see beyond the perfection.
Taking a slow survey of the room, I decided this armchair had been the last of the original furniture to come with the place. The other pieces had the air of having been scavenged from roadside clearances, giving the flat an odd, nothing-quite-matches look. Still, even the longest of stayers came expecting to leave shortly, never interested in leaving roots. After all, wasn’t I thinking the same, the plans for my escape brewing before I’d even opened the door? I could feel the flat readying itself for a new occupant, not willing to waste time in learning my ways. I would soon be gone, with no trace to make my passing, unless I left an engraved cup in the kitchen.
At least I don’t have to share a bathroom, I suddenly thought. One blessing to remember. Plus there’s a TV in the corner. And even a DVD, for all my movies. I watched a cockroach crawl over the rabbit-eared antenna.
“Excuse me. Stephanie, isn’t it?”
A stranger materialized in my doorway. He now smiled down at me as he watched my struggles to rise from the chair.
“Not the most fetching of places, is it?” he continued. He took a few steps and held out a large, enthusiastic hand. “I’m Bradley.”
My own hand wilted in his sincere shake. “Stephanie,” I replied and immediately felt foolish, for he’d just called me by my name. “Stephanie Allen,” I quickly added, trying to sound confident. It was hard to be anything but at a loss, with Bradley looking so incredibly, well, clean. I could find no other word. Plus his clothes were crisp. Perhaps he was in charge of the laundry roster, but still I wondered how either feat could be achieved in this place.
“You’ve just arrived, haven’t you?” Bradley continued, a largish clipboard clasped to his side. “I saw you come in, and thought I’d pop over to say hello.”
“Oh, right. Which unit’s yours?” This could be the guy with the Dire Straights collection. Or maybe James Brown.
Bradley looked around and flashed a perfect smile. He had a lot of very white teeth. More that most people, it seemed. “Heavens, I’m not staying here. I have a place in town. Local boy done good, yadda yadda yadda. My sister and I recently bought a house not twenty minutes away. ‘Developer’s dream’, was the term, I believe. Look, I’ve only got a few minutes, but we’re looking for someone to help with the mortgage. It’s not much, but it’s a far sight better than here. Which,” he added as he waved his hand towards the kitchen, “isn’t hard.”
“How did you know I was here?” The intensity of Bradley’s facial expressions unnerved me, leaving me stumbling over my words. Each one he wore seemed so sincere. On turning from inspecting the kitchen his face was plastered with quiet seriousness.
“Oh, very few things are kept secret up here. Derek gave me a buzz after you left him. He knew I was on the look out for a flat mate. Besides, I wanted to catch up you before you’d made yourself at home here.”
“At home, here?”
Bradley smiled, pulled a card from his clipboard, then switched on an intent expression. “Your look of quiet despair tells me that you’ll fit in with us just fine. Listen, I have to get back, but here’s my number, and the address – why not come round later this afternoon and have a look at the house before making up your mind? It’s not hard to find. Six-ish, maybe? I’m afraid Louise and I – that’s my sister, by the way – well, we’ve both got Bible Study at seven,” he said, “otherwise I’d ask you to dinner.” A few more polite comments on both sides, a flash of teeth on Bradley’s side, and he was gone.
Walking over to the door, I watched Bradley trot first along the shabby corridor and then down the stairs. His butt was as neat as his clothes. I closed my eyes and prayed to my father’s non-existent god for strength. Christ, I thought, a choice between cockroaches or Bible Study; but then, even Jesus had to put up with lepers and Pharisees.
After Bradley left I walked over to the saggy couch and once more sat with my bum hovering a few inches from the floor. I liked this time of day. Late afternoon, not yet dusk. Soon the birds would fill their favourite trees, chatting away to each other about their day, before settling down to sleep.
Perhaps I snoozed for a few moments, but the shadows seemed much the same when I opened my eyes. The front door was still open. I struggled from the couch and, walking over to the window, peered outside. Not that I expected to see Bradley waiting there, but I wanted to unpack my car without anyone’s scrutiny.
It took only a few trips up and down the stairs before I was sitting on the bed, surrounded by my things. I knew in my heart I couldn’t stay in this soulless flat; yet somehow, taking a few things from the car gave me the power of choice. Or, more importantly, the illusion of the power of choice, for as my gaze spread to the faded curtains, I knew I had none. To stay here was but to slide into oblivion.
At least I could have a shower and wash away some of this dreariness. My bags rested on the floor, along with every belief I’d dragged all the way from childhood. Some I’d thrown out along the way, but the remainder sat stark in their stupidity – such as the belief everything would sort itself out. (After all, how often had Dad talked of St Peter’s role at the Pearly Gates? The Final Arbitrator dealing out everyone’s just desserts, with only the chosen few receiving their just rewards.) Consequently, I’d gone through life almost innocent in the belief someone noticed everything that happened, whether at school, at Uni, or at work. That someone (like Jason, who everyone, including myself, thought I’d marry) kept a tally, saw the proverbial big picture and actually cared. That somewhere it all made sense. That life came as a plan, ready to piece together like furniture from Ikea – without the few bits left over.
Despite everything, during the long drive I’d managed to maintain a spark of enthusiasm. Where had it gone? I glanced at my watch, my faithful watch I hadn’t taken off since Jason gave it to me, and shivered. Once I’d enjoyed all this. I’d chosen it, after all. No one had put a gun to my head. I really had to stop being so cynical. This time. Surely the whole point of running away was to try and start again?
I’d passed the graveyard as I drove into town. Every country town has one. This cemetery rested on a headland, shielded from the ocean by a row of scrubby gums. It belonged to an older town, a place which vanished as the new town grew. The air about me was still, but some trees on the cliff bowed and twisted in the sea breeze. The call of gulls fell from the sky. Looking up, I saw a few birds wheeling against some rain clouds not touched by the sea breeze. Perhaps there’d be a storm tonight.
I made myself comfortable on Dave’s grave, staring out to where the water and the sky stretched to an endless horizon. Despite the protest of loving relatives I rarely saw, I’d insisted on burying Dave here and not back home beside our parents. I’d unbent enough to have the funeral in the church where Dad had served so long as acolyte; but I’d buried Dave here, far away from them all. Mum always spoke in words of fairy floss which coated, if not a crueller, at least a belittling meaning which swam at the heart of all she said. By the end, even Dad had acquired the habit, and though in his vagueness his jabs fell far from the mark, they proved all the more hurtful for having been thrown at all. I knew my placid sibling would have no chance lying beside them. I couldn’t bear the thought of their righteous words swimming through the earth and drowning him.
Here, at least, had been where Dave had worked, before the end. Where he’d seemed almost happy. Like that time before he’d lost his words. Once upon a time my brother could talk of anything and make it interesting.
“Did you know one microgram of botulism kills one thousand kilograms of guinea pigs?” Dave had once handed me the question along with a cocktail at a boring party, as if both went naturally together. Perhaps he’d already had a few himself, for after a few sips he burst into a dissertation with such a gushing enthusiasm I couldn’t help but listen, and soon half the room was entranced by this skinny and goofy lad. That had been back in my first year at uni. Dave had talked of so many things way back then, but with each passing year time’s brush kept adding thick dollops of grey to my brother. Like a Jackson Pollack painting the layers became thicker and thicker, until eventually Dave began to resemble everyone around him. Too late he learnt how only a chosen few are allowed to flourish – a few such as Jason, whose name filled the corridors with a brightness fatal to any daring to fly too near.
Many a time I’d sat in a vast hall and watched both Dave and Jason present at meetings. They started out together, but as Jason rose swiftly to giddying heights my brother remained in half-empty side rooms and poster halls, always having to pay his own way. With the same enthusiasm but a contrasting tone to his friend, Jason steered his meetings down a different path, a Billy Graham at a religious revival. Where others (frequently) disagreed with Dave, his complete lack of ego embraced people into a discussion which flowed across the room and back as everyone had their say. Jason, in contrast, parted his audience into a Red Sea of believers on one side, and firmly entrenched sceptics who sat with folded arms on the other. Barrenness lay between, with a promised land waiting for the selected few at the end.
And so it continued, until Dave ended in this out-of-the-way place, away from everyone. Now he had dreams eternal, sleeping in an old graveyard where headstones had succumbed to moss, and rabbits danced by moonbeams.
Invisible waves gnawed endlessly on the rocks below me. Above, clouds drifted across the impossibly blue heavens, as yet untouched by the colours of late afternoon. The songs from a dozen currawongs swam through the air, their music tumbling into my thoughts.
Beneath the sound of the waves came the whisperings of the voiceless dead. I was used to such whisperings; they helped me feel as if I belonged.
“So, you’re going over to Bradley’s?” Dave asked. He now sat beside me. A cluster of scrubby gums, their tops shivering in the sea breeze, cast long shadows towards us.
“Well, I daresay it’ll be better than the uni place,” I answered. Warmed by the afternoon sunshine, I didn’t like to recall that dreary bedroom and dim lounge room. “I must be getting old,” I added. Dave never seemed to mind – or even notice – the giant pauses in our talks. “Those shared flats and Uni accommodation used to be okay, once. When I first moved out of home.”
“Everywhere’s good when you first move out,” Dave answered. “A week in that flat and you’ll be slitting your wrists.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” I said slowly. “Just, well, saggy. Even the microwave, when I had a closer look at it. Besides, with me on nights, it’s not like I’ll get in Bradley’s way. Or his sister’s. What was her name?”
“Louise,” Dave offered.
“Louise, thanks,” I said. “Only…” I paused, not sure what to say.
“Well, I know I just met the guy, but he seems so, well, nice. It creeps me out a little. So nice, and I just don’t like him.”
Dave laughed. “Well, that puts me in my place.”
Despite the summer sun, the stone beneath us was cold. Well, beneath me; I doubted Dave felt the cold although I’d never asked. An advantage of being incorporeal. There were even flowers on his grave, some with bright cards attached, as if Dave was still interested in reading. It annoyed me how people just couldn’t leave either of us alone. So many kept asking me what I needed for closure, to move on, to leave the past behind and turn to the next chapter. So I could go forward, now Dave had passed over. That was part of the reason I’d moved here, to a place where I knew no one: in the past twelve months I’d heard every catch-phrase and loathed them all, each one muttered by people who I knew felt nothing but the enjoyment of asking.
A floral arrangement rested near Dave’s headstone, a card from Jason sitting in the centre – his signature had always been bold and instantly recognisable. He signed just his first name; like Madonna, Jason had no need for embellishments. Surprised as I was to see flowers from him, I could easily picture him moving the other bouquets to show his to advantage – unfairly, I knew, as Jason’s lecture tours and radio slots and book-signing and all the other paraphernalia kept him too busy to drive here and arrange flowers. A minion would’ve been volunteered. Probably Gillian, who knew every detail of everyone’s lives, even when she looked right through me back when the two of us were at boarding school; Gillian, who’d organised herself into being Dave’s girlfriend while slavishly following Jason’s every move; Gillian, who I knew still blamed me for the fact she was never called to give evidence at Dave’s inquest.
Her card sat amongst the others. It wasn’t hard to miss: a picture of a charcoal nude. Viewed from behind, the lady had her head turned to one side, her hands raised as if to do her hair. Gillian had always had a thing with naked woman. Every year she’d send Jason a similar card for his birthday, even back when he and I were still an item. The cards were classical, or arty, or intellectual, bought from an art gallery or museum or somewhere which donated profits to charity, and always bore an image of a naked woman. At first the nudes had been Rubenesque in size, but as Gillian whittled away at her past the size of the women had shrunk to match her fading weight.
Still, I wondered about her coming all this way, for a thing no one would see. After all, she didn’t know I’d be here. I hadn’t spoken to her for over six months. Was it really just to bring Jason’s flowers for him? She’d have made a great medieval princeling – or underling, striving to control the princeling.
I turned back to my brother. “Do you like being here,” I asked. “I mean, I didn’t know where to bury you. Back home just didn’t seem right. And you’d been happy up here, once.”
“Yes, it was a good place for, a while. Still is; it’s just the people who mucked it up.” Dave said nothing for a few moments. “That’s why you came, isn’t it? To find out who helped him.”
I nodded; no point in denying it. Besides, how do you lie to someone who’s dead? Aren’t they meant to know everything? “For the life of me I just can’t work it out,” I said. “How he did it. And why. I mean, why did he bother?” There was no need for names between us. I didn’t add, (but surely Dave knew), how desperately I needed to know why my brother had done what he did. Why he couldn’t go on. Why did he bother taking some things from here back to the old house just a day or so beforehand? Was that a message in itself? Most of all, why couldn’t Dave have told me before, instead of leaving that phone call promising to call the next day. If only I’d answered. Would he have gone ahead? What didn’t I know?
Leaning across my brother, I picked up Gillian’s card and opened it. Inside she’d penned the inevitable haiku, this one with an obtuse reference to falling rain. Since having a poem placed in a competition back in Year Nine, she’d remained quite the belletrist. Haiku readily leaked from the bilge water of her thoughts. Jason always told her he thought the poems deep, but readily laughed with everyone else when Gillian wasn’t around.
“I’m going to wake up in hell on day, without a doubt.” Words burst unasked from me. “There’ll be all these imps straight from a medieval fresco sticking sharp things into me and prodding and poking me. Then they’ll knock off at day’s end, have a drink and a good night’s sleep, before starting again in the morn.”
“Oh, you’re not that bad,” Dave answered. “Besides, it’s a shocking haiku.”
“That’s not what I meant, but thankyou. It’s just, well, I mean, I sit here bitching about the girl for no reason. Just because I don’t like her doesn’t mean Gillian’s evil. It’s not like she was once my best friend and now turned against me. We were never really friends to begin with. Not like that guy in Ben Hur who disappeared to Rome and came back an evil mastermind.”
“You always liked that movie, didn’t you?”
“It’s a good movie,” I answered a little defensively.
“Never really got it,” my brother said. “It just seemed vaguely homoerotic. Mind you, I don’t get these haikus either. And they’re not even erotic.”
“Not much to get,” I said. “Most people think because they’re only seventeen syllables, you can dash off some rubbish and call it deep. That’s the whole point, I think. Almost as bad as twittering.” My fingers ran across some moss nibbling at the edge of the tomb. I left it there, happy Dave’s eternal sleep meant wallowing in a past way older than any I’d ever known.
“I’m not very nice, am I,” I muttered. It wasn’t a question. “The way I’m turning out. Just another bitter woman, with thoughts of sandpaper.” Just like our mother, but without the fluff and bubble she used for hiding the steel-wool as she scraped everything raw.
Some fake flowers on a nearby plot caught my eye. They were the same burnt out red as Mum’s occasional nail polish. The colour of a long-dead passion.
“Do you remember how Mum used to paint her nails?” I asked. “Bottles that were always half dry, and she’d have to pour in some polish remover before she could get any out. She’d always managed to pour into too much and have to tip some out, all the while whining about the waste and the children starving in Africa. Then she’d smudge at least one nail.” Mum never wore nail polish for anything other than important Church dinners; our parents, clinging to their cult of poverty and beliefs as they lay in separate beds, did nothing for just fun. Even the occasional holidays had a purpose.
“No one will ever notice,” Dave said, mimicking her lilt. I smothered my laugh with my hand. Graveyards were not places for laughing.
“And that white face mask she used to put on,” my brother continued, “with her hair in curlers. I always wanted to take a before and after shot. Just to see if there was any difference.”
“You know,” I said, pausing to wipe a tear from the corner of my eye, “all things told, they did their best.”
“I know,” answered Dave. “That’s the hard bit. And I think they really did love us.”
We sat quietly for a few minutes, listening to the wind playing with the treetops. The faint sound of the waves came to us. I preferred listening to these things than to thinking about the shrew I’d become. Or remembering how Dave had left me alone, with no chance to follow. That’d just be copying him. Even to call it blackness gave that void inside me too much sound and colour.
As I sat moping a boisterous laugh, a real laugh, cut through our silence. A laugh which shouldn’t be heard in a graveyard. Looking over the headstones I spotted a dapper gentleman – I knew no other term – leaning on a cane, laughing. A joyous laugh which stripped all misery from the air.
“What on earth is happening over there?” Dave asked. “That’s a sound I haven’t heard in a while.”
“Sweet Mother Mary,” I said, relishing the blasphemy as it rolled around my tongue. “You won’t believe this. There’s this old guy, complete with cane and straw hat. And some guy is setting up a few chairs. Oh, a stout woman in tweed has just rocked up, carrying a picnic basket. She looks like Aunty Janet.” Even as I watched, a cork flew over effaced angels and withered stones, and glasses passed around. After raising a toast, the group began eating. I could make out nibbly things and cold chicken and what could’ve been slices of quiche. The taste, the colours, the smell; the vivid hues of a lush life, not caring should anyone see, in a graveyard.
Pretending to brush some hair from my eyes, I snuck another look at the happy mourners. A tall young lad, whose blond hair was cut so short it was nigh invisible, was serving up delicious-looking cakes. Catching my eye, he shrugged his shoulders and grinned, and my face drowned under a blush.
“I’ve got to go,” I said, dismissing my brother. Rising to my feet, I placed a handful of jonquils amongst the other flowers on his grave and quickly left. As I hurried to my car, I wondered how Dave would feel should I sit and eat on top of him; as it was, I worried that my babbling drove him crazy. I spent a lot of time these days thinking about how best to treat my dead brother, who came to talk to me most days. For the most part, Dave simply kept up a running commentary about the things around me, as if he’d become a Greek Chorus and I stood unaware in the centre stage of an unfolding tragedy.
Only, my tragedy would be to lose him again. For all my pretence, I didn’t talk to my departed brother to make-believe he was still alive. Talking to him was my way of also being dead.
Fleeing the graveyard’s laughter and smiles, I scurried away under paperbarks and a few scribbly gums, never noticing how the path now led downhill, towards the beach. Not until the scrub opened onto a car park where my car definitely was not did I notice my mistake. Where I’d parked, atop the hill, had been empty; now I found myself surrounded by cars, a few combis scattered amongst the collection. Some surfers stood stripping off their wetsuits while a few others, yet to take the plunge, surveyed the waves, climbing the fence for a better view. I couldn’t see a way to reach my car without going back through the graveyard and past the happy mourners, who’d instantly realise my mistake. People who laughed with the dead would have no trouble finding hours of amusement in my tribulations.
I left the cul-de-sac of a car park to find a quiet street decorated with lazy shops. As I stood wavering like Grace Kelly on the train station as the clock ticked ever closer to High Noon, a delicious smell made the decision.
Beside me was a cafe, and I was suddenly ravenous. I’d missed lunch somewhere in my drive. For once free of the embarrassment of being on my own I pushed open the door and walked inside. For a moment I felt I’d entered another land. From the outside the place looked quite non-descript, yet it tripled in size as soon as I entered. Unfortunately time didn’t stand still, but everything swirled around me while I stood, watching. The tables had colourful, mismatched chairs, mostly filled with surfers refuelling their bodies. At others people sat reading newspapers, or playing with their laptops. To one side a wealth of cakes and dainty morsels filled a glass counter, while the main display was a wealth of breads and meats and pates and cheeses and things I was at a loss to name. Jars and cans and dark bottles filled the wooden bookcases which ran the length of one wall; behind the cashier some empty shelves held only crumbs, remnants of the day’s bread. Through all this wove the aroma of freshly ground coffee. The place smelt, quite simply, delicious.
“It’s lovely in the courtyard this time of day,” offered an elderly gentleman who’d appeared at my elbow. His words broke the vacuum of silence, allowing all the noises of the place to tumble into my head.
The loudest noise of all, however, was this man’s voice. It filled the room – indeed, I’m sure it tumbled through the closed door and flowed down the street without any effort. “Are you after a coffee, or perhaps something to eat?” he continued.
“Um, ah,” I managed. The noise, the smell, the unexpectedness; suddenly, I felt as exhausted as I was hungry.
“You look tired, my dear.”
“It was a long drive,” I managed. “Since early this morning.”
“Just as I thought, you’re too tired to decide. When did you have lunch?”
He patted my arm. “Just wander outside through that door there, my dear, I’ll make you a coffee and we’ll rustle up a surprise for you.”
Before I could protest that I didn’t really do coffee and I was old enough to look after myself, he was behind the counter and working on a giant coffee machine. All this time I’d thought he’d been an over-friendly customer. He looked anywhere between late fifty and a fit eighty; I wondered why on earth such a man was working here.
Besides, he’d be so nice and concerned I couldn’t be rude, so I simply followed his directions and headed to the outer courtyard. After all, the man was right; I really was beyond making a decision. Sometime soon I had to face finding supplies, at least for tonight and tomorrow. Thankfully, my car was mostly unpacked. Then I had to go see Grant’s – no, Brett, no, that wasn’t it, his name was Bradley – go see Bradley’s house. Then, after I’d seen the house; well, I still had to decide what to do. I’d spent the past year deciding what to do.
From out in the courtyard I could hear my new friend whistling as the coffee machine gushed steam. The smell of honeysuckle embraced me. Geraniums tumbled from their pots, as well a dozen other flowers I couldn’t name. Trees lent over the enclosing wall, offering shade from the late afternoon sun. Through the legs of the tables I caught glimpses of a pond on the far side of the courtyard.
“One small latte.” With half a smile a waitress put a coffee on the table and moved onto to clear plates from another. Sugar waited in a teapot, and a collection of old spoons stood in glass.
Every part of me felt tired, partly because I’d finally done it. Well, at least I’d started. I’d come this far, after too much procrastinating. I’d no idea what lay ahead; hopefully nothing. I brought no ulterior motive with me, I expected no blazing omens. I just had to come. Then, once I’d been here – who knows. But I had to come.
The waitress reappeared and placed a plate on my table. “Jim said you needed a meze platter.”
“Oh, ah, thanks. Jim – he’s the older man behind the coffee machine?”
The waitress smiled. “He’s owned the place forever. I used to come here as a kid for milkshakes. He still helps out a few days a week. Makes a damn fine coffee.” Once more she was gone.
I picked up a dolmades from the delights before me. My upbringing hadn’t encompassed the most extravagant of tastes. My parents never wasted money taking us to restaurants – when they went with their parish friends, Dave and I were allowed to order take-away from the local Thai. (Mum forever remained dubious of anything touched by Asians.) Not since my debacle with Jason had I’d allowed myself such luxury; this past year I’d wallowed in the safety of a jaded anglo-saxon palate.
Finishing my dolmades, I sat back and let the world soak in. It felt so different to my own, somehow both decadent but normal. Without tasting my coffee, I took a packet of sugar and poured it into my cup. I’d never really understood the drinking of coffee. Real coffee, that is, made with machines and not shrivelled granules. The sugar rested on the foam a moment before tumbling to the bottom, swirling the colours of the coffee as it fell.
As some sparrows twittered in the trees behind me, I lifted my glass and took a sip. It tasted strong yet sweet. With a little practise I might begin to understand what all the fuss was about. I took another sip. Maybe coming here wasn’t such a bad thing. I’d discovered an oasis, much like the one where Ben Hur had rested on his return to Judea.
But then, in the safety of the oasis, Ben Hur had met the wise man, Balthasar, who took him to the sheik, who in turn led Ben Hur back to Messala. From this most innocent of places came the links which pulled his world apart. Yet I felt safe here. After all, my world had fallen to pieces long ago; there was nothing left to happen.