The farmer’s journey

Owen’s gaze brushed over the horizon. The 5:30 lights of the town had already dismissed the stars and were now winking him reminders that the day ahead, like many before that year, would be hard. The dogs would be alright for a day on their own. He might call Tony later and ask him to drop by the gates just to be sure, but they would be back tonight anyway. Tomorrow at the latest.

Connie was to be put on the plane and sent to Sydney again (apparently that’s where all the best doctors were) and this time he had to go and leave the farm to run itself. It hadn’t come suddenly, Owen would have preferred something he could have reacted to, taken immediate control over. No, the trouble had accrued in portions. His wife could still ride up the hill on the motorbike, shoot a struck sheep in the head and drag in back down over her back. She screamed at cloudless skies and kicked iron when it wouldn’t bend to her will. Her cancer, however loud it might deride and chastise her, tried but it could not drown out the daily rhythm of the past fifteen years. But the headaches and tiredness which arrested her in the evenings had become worse and her way of moving contracted and stiff, as if planks of wood had been stapled to the backs of her legs and arms.

He jingled the keys in his pockets to announce once again that he was ready to leave. Might lock the house this time, he thought. Connie was upstairs. Her coughs echoed down the stairs, around the corner, past the picture family frames on the wall and out the door. “Everything alright up there, darling? We’ve got to get a move on if we want to catch that plane.”

“Give me a bloody minute,” came the answer. Owen smiled and went out to start the truck.

Upstairs lives a writer

David Slipper was never there, and then he was. I hadn’t expected him to appear, but when he did, it seemed to make perfect sense.

I met him in the first week of May, when it had just turned warm. I was on my way home after school, struggling with three books and trying to keep distance between me and the Boczek brothers, who had once again followed me from the bus stop. The Boczek brothers were flat-nosed and had fat arms and I despised them. I never knew why they picked on me: they didn’t know my secret and I had never done or said anything to cross them. I suspect their motives would have confused them just as much had they themselves had the intelligence to question them. But bullies never reflect on who or what they are until Sweet Justice sees them working as bottle collectors, or in Aldi for the rest of their lives.

As usual, the brothers started on me as soon as I turned the corner into my street. They sniggered and jeered that I was a trespasser in “their area” and, as punishment, planned to tear up my books and “wipe their asses with them”.  I ran, but even with my long legs didn’t get very far. They caught up with me and one of them shoved me forwards. The books slid out of my arms and skated over the footpath.

“Hey, freckle head, you dropped your books!” the older one bayed.

“What are they anyway? Books about dresses?” said the other.

Arms outstretched I scrambled after the books, ready to scoop them up and flee, when my foot caught the edge of something and I fell to my hands and knees. I remained there for a few seconds; the concrete only centimetres away from my face and hoping that the brothers would get bored and move on. I felt a wave of tears froth up inside of me but I breathed it back in to my stomach.

And then David was there.

“Get lost before I beat your heads in, you little dickheads!”

The brothers’ faces sagged. David stamped once on the ground and they sprinted in the other direction.

Sweet Justice.

David gathered up my books and helped me to my feet.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You alright?”

“Yes.”

“Sure?”

“It doesn’t bother me.”

“Well, I just moved into that building there, so you just tell me if they pull that sort of nonsense again.”

“Okay.”

“Where do you live?”

“I live there too, on the second floor. With Mother.”

“That makes us neighbours! I’m David.”

He smiled and we shook hands. David’s grip was strong but he didn’t crush me. His arms were long and tanned and were covered with blonde hairs. He had a broad face with dimples on each cheek and two silver earrings hanging from his left earlobe.

“What are you reading?”

“Just history books. I wanted to take them back to the bookshop.”

“I can help you if it’s not too far away.”

My eyes bulged. “No, it’s on this road. Just down there. Another Country.” I made sure to stick out my tongue to make the ‘th’ sound.

“That’s the name of my favourite play.”

It was pleasant to walk with David. He was still carrying my books. I walked beside him matching his slow pace and I didn’t feel awkward at all with empty hands.

“Are you from Germany?” I asked him.

“Nope. You have to guess where I’m from.”

“I don’t know. America?”

“Not even close. I’ll give you a hint.” He pulled his arms towards his chest and started jumping on the spot.

I shook my head.

“That was supposed to be a kangaroo. Not a very good one, I admit. I’m from Australia, near the beach, you know?”

I knew that Australia was far away but it didn’t mean anything else to me.

“I had to get out for a while,” David continued. “So I thought Berlin would be the perfect spot to hang out. I’ve been here about a month or two now. My father has a friend who knows the owner of the apartment I’m in and I get to stay there for free. But don’t tell anyone about it, okay?”

“Do they speak German in Australia?”

“Not a bit. We have our own version of English. But I learnt German at school. Man, you’re lucky you don’t have to learn it, it’s not the easiest language in the world. Fortunately for me I don’t really need it much. The creative writing course I’m doing is all in English.”

“I think you speak German fine,” I said.

As we spoke David laughed a lot and thumped me softly on the arm every time he made joke; this made me feel glad.

“I want to be a writer too,” I told him.

“You know, I’m happy to hear that,” he said “There are lots of writers out there and like me, most of them aren’t very good. But I bet you’re going to be great.”

It was incredible. In the space of ten minutes I’d come from being pushed to the ground by the Boczek brothers to being saved by a stranger, who was a writer and from a faraway place. It was an impossible scenario: one that could only have been meant to happen. I had to get closer to him.

I told Mother about my encounter with David and it turned out that she had already seen him. It was the day the final patches of snow had melted, and he’d come trampling down the street under the weight of two backpacks “like a monkey carrying its babies”.

“He looked like a backpacker.”

“Yes,” I said nodding. “But he is really clever. And his German is fine too. He always uses ‘das’ for everything but he doesn’t have an American or English accent or anything.”

“Oh good, I find those people appalling to listen to.”

“He’s from Australia.”

“Is that so?”

“Do you know where that is?”

“Yes.”

“He wants to be a writer too.”

Mother rolled her eyes. She hated talking about reading and writing and bookshops.

In the days that followed I was feeling positive. The Boczek brothers no longer bothered me, which helped, and I was looking forward to seeing David again. I ended up going up to his floor every day, sometimes three or four times, just to see if he was there. The first time I tapped on his door, only twice and quietly, because I didn’t want to disturb him if he was sleeping or reading. But I soon lost my courage and reduced my efforts to loitering in the staircase waiting for the chance that he might come by. On one occasion, it was in the morning before school, I tip-toed up the stairs and put my ear to his door. I thought I heard voices and kitchen sounds, but couldn’t tell for sure if they were coming from his flat. When Mrs Koch from the top floor came down and nearly caught me in the act, (I told her I was collecting a parcel) I decided it was too risky and moved my operation outside.

It would have appeared a little strange just to sit out front: it was hot and there were no seats or trees, and besides, the essential factor in my plan was that our meeting be one of coincidence. So I rolled Mother’s scooter out of the courtyard and into the street. She had wanted to take it to a garage for a service. I protested saying that we could save money if I did it myself.

“You? Fixing motorbikes? This I have to see!” she said laughing.

I cleaned the body and polished the various parts, careful not to get too much grease on my hands. I knew nothing about machines and loathed motor racing of any kind, but I was able to take my time and observe the comings and goings into our house without looking suspicious. After three days David finally turned up. I saw him exit the building and coast towards me. He was wearing oversized sunglasses with gold-coloured arms. He hadn’t shaved and was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Game over’’. I instantly wanted one.

“Hey, Sebastian” he said. “Having fun?”

“Hi,” I said wiping my hands against my shirt. “Not really.”

“Did you leave that battery in over winter?” A question I hadn’t expected.

“Yes.”

“It’s probably dead.”

I looked around helplessly at the tools lying on the ground.

“Let’s take a look,” he said crouching down. He fiddled with the wires for a few minutes checked some other pieces, the names of which he didn’t know in German and I didn’t know at all. I stared at him as he worked. His t-shirt had come up revealing the skin of his lower back and bottom. I desperately wanted to say something intelligent.

“How far away is Australia? I mean, I’ve never met anyone from Australia before. Isn’t it on the other side of the planet?”

“That’s right.” He laughed and I noticed that his teeth looked unnaturally white against his skin. “I think if you started digging right here, you might make it all the way down to Sydney.”

“Really?” I asked, astonished.

“Maybe. Anyway, you probably wouldn’t want to. It’s faster to take a plane.”

David said that my battery was indeed dead, which was a relief since Mother would have gone crazy if I hadn’t discovered this vital piece of information after three days of tinkering. He wrote down the battery number on a piece of paper for me and we put away the tools.

“I’d kill for a coffee,” he said. “Shall we go to that Turkish place around the corner? My shout.”

At the cafe we ordered a cola for me and an espresso and two croissants for David. When we sat down he leaned towards me and raised his tiny cup.

“Prost,” he said and drank the coffee in one gulp. With a mouthful of croissant he asked: “Are you and your Mother from Berlin?”

“No, we’re from Dresden. We only came to Berlin a few years ago.”

“Oh, I see. Well, Berlin is a nice place. I haven’t seen much outside of the city yet. But I might take a tour of the country later if I can afford it. I might have to sell off a kidney or two first.” I found this marvellously funny and laughed so hard that cola nearly came out my nose.

David lit a cigarette and then offered me one. I took it and put it unsteadily in my mouth. The butt tasted bitter. David lit it and I sucked hard with my cheeks, trying not to inhale the smoke.

“So, who do you read?” he asked.

“I like everything. Schleiermacher, Tieck even modern stuff like Charlotte Link and Elias Canetti. They are fine writers.”

“Hmmm… never heard of any of them. I’m reading John Steinbeck and Patrick White at the moment. Have you ever heard of Tim Winton? Another Australian author. No? Well, him too. I can lend you all these if you like.”

“Oh, yes please! Do you read in German?” I was on the edge of my chair.

“Not as much as I should. But you can read in English right?’

“A little.” I didn’t want David to ask me if I actually spoke the language so I went to the bathroom. I didn’t need to go so I just washed my hands and checked for facial spots.

When I returned, I was surprised to see that my Mother was there. She was sitting in my chair and laughing. Thank God I’d put the cigarette out.

“What are you doing here?” I asked her.

“I was just on my way back from the hairdresser,” she said.

David grinned and raised an eyebrow as if to show me he was as surprised to see her as I was.

“David,” Mother said placing her hand on David’s. “Why don’t you come over for dinner soon? I want to learn more about Australia and I’m sure that David would love to talk to you about writing and books.”

“I’d love to,” David said.

“Come on, Sebastian,” Mother said. I shrugged and followed her out the door and we walked home in silence.

“When were going to tell me that you’d started smoking?” she asked when we got in the door.

“I haven’t.”

“Oh please.”

“David gave me some of his, that’s all. I just wanted to try it. I didn’t like it anyway. And besides, what do you care? You smoke all the time!”

“I was just asking, Sebastian. David should know better. I’ll talk with him.”

“No! Don’t! I mean, I won’t do it again.” I was still angry at her for interrupting my time with David in the bakery just as it had started to go so well. We were already on the subject of reading and writing and I was probably going to invite him over to read some of my stories eventually. I didn’t see why she had to bring it up, especially since she’d never taken any interest in it before.

“David is studying literature at Humbolt.”

“Uh huh.”

“Did he tell you?”

“Maybe, or you told me. I can’t remember.”

“I should also like to study something like that one day,” I said. “Don’t you think it would be good? David says he’ll lend me some books. I can’t wait to find out what types of books they read in Australia.”

“Books about Kangaroos, I expect.”

“I want to study writing too,” I said and felt my face flush.

Mother threw her keys onto the table. “We’ve already been through this a million times! How do you intend to support yourself? Money doesn’t fall out of the sky. ”

“I’ll ask Father.”

“Well, good luck with that, my boy. He’s probably already spent everything he has on that whore.”

“On Aunty Dörte, you mean.”

Mother pursed her lips and glared at me. I could see her mouth filling up with words but she swallowed whatever she wanted to say and went into her bedroom.

The next day at school I told my friends and teachers at school about David and they all were very impressed that I had met an Australian author and that he was going to help me with my writing. On the way home I even promised the guys at the bookshop that I would invite David in to give a reading or recommend areas of acquisition. They agreed it would be a good idea. It was stupid of me to embellish, but it was gratifying to have a foreign friend, particularly one who was studying at a university. That I actually knew someone who was smart and from another country and who talked to me as an equal was a grand thing indeed; especially for a fifteen year-old.

“David is coming to dinner tonight,” Mother said as I came home.

“What? When?”

“At seven. I’m cooking soup.”

“How do you know? I mean, did you see him?”

“I ran into him this morning. He mentioned he had the day off today so… I said it would mean a lot to you if he came around.”

“Mother!”

“What? I’m right aren’t I?”

It was already five-thirty so I immediately showered and began tidying the house. My bedroom was in its usual state: littered with books and magazines and unwashed clothes, and Mother had left her ashtray under the tap again, leaving a black pool in the sink. While I worked Mother sat on the sofa plucking her eyebrows.

“Just leave that, Sebastian,” she said every so often. “Everything is ready.”

Just after seven the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it!” I ran out of the kitchen.

Mother adjusted her hair, put the tweezers under the sofa cushion and did one of her practice smiles as I opened the door. David had a buttoned-up black jacket and white jeans on, which made him look like the handsome cop from Miami Vice; not the other one. He removed his shoes and took a quick glance around. I felt relieved that I had started to clean early. Mother lept from the sofa holding out her hand.

“David! Nice to see you again.”

“Good evening, Mrs Dietermann,” David said showing his straight teeth.

“Oh, please call me Helena. Would you like something to drink?”

“Yes, a beer would be good, thanks. Here, Sebastian. I brought over some books for you. The play I told you about is in there.”

We all sat on the sofa. Mother had a glass of vodka with ice, David was drinking a beer and I sat between them with a cola.

“Tell me about Australia,” Mother said. “Are the animals really so dangerous? Every time we hear about it it seems that someone or other has been attacked by a shark or crocodile.” Mother laughed and placed her hand on my shoulder as if confirming that I too shared this belief.

“It depends where you live. I’m from Sydney, which is the biggest city-”

“That’s on the east coast, isn’t it?” I already knew the answer.

“Exactly. In the cities there are not so many nasties as in the outback. Although, I was surfing once or twice when they let off the shark alarm.”

“How frightening!” Mother declared and appeared so anxious she had to put down her vodka.

Over dinner the conversation continued much in the same way: David recounted anecdotes about his homeland, Mother whooped with pleasure and, in between, I interjected with previously researched facts, all of which David politely confirmed.

I made sure to memorise everything about what he liked and disliked.

Did he like cars?

No.

What was his favourite country in Europe?

Italy.

Did he like German food?

Yes.

Mother unwittingly did me a favour and asked if he had a girlfriend. I pretended to be absorbed in my food but secretly rejoiced at the answer.

Auf keinen Fall.” No way.

After a several drinks, Mother and David started talking more loudly.

“Oh Sebastian, don’t you think David looks like Steve McQueen?”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

She ignored me and went on talking. “When we came to Berlin we had nothing, didn’t we, Sebastian? The wall had just come down and after my trainwreck of a marriage I just wanted something new. New experiences, new people and a new life, especially after living with all those dull people in Dresden. Have you been there? Those people don’t know the meaning of the word fun. I mean, we Germans may have a bad reputation, but I know how to have fun, believe me, David!” Mother roared. I put my head in my hands and wished for Sweet Justice to see that she spilled her vodka or choked on her bread; anything to stop her tattling on like a fool. But David didn’t seem to mind. He was obviously too polite.

After Dinner I showed David my bedroom and my piles of books, which I’d stacked neatly on the floor grouped by genre, then author.

“Wow! You really have an impressive collection! It’s going to take me forever to read all of these.”

“You can borrow them whenever you like. This pile is science fiction, which I don’t really like anymore, this one is history, there are some fine German history books there and that pile has the ones I couldn’t sort.”

“Great. I’ll have a good look at them next time I’m around.”

“Sorry about Mother,” I said. “I guess she’s excited because we don’t get many visitors.”

“Not at all. I think she’s very nice. She can cook a mean asparagus soup.”

Mother came in holding a cigarette.

“Sebastian, you have school in the morning,” she said. “Off to bed.”

“But-”

“Come now. You can talk to David tomorrow, can’t he David?”

“Sure thing. I have to go anyway. Lots to do tomorrow. Sleep tight, kiddo and enjoy those books,” he said and left the room. Mother looked around my room and just nodded. She was obviously pleased at how well I’d clean it.

I locked the door and pulled out David’s copy of the play, Another Country. It looked new. There were no torn or folded pages and nothing was written on the inside. I began translating it line by line with my poor English skills and pocket dictionary, and it didn’t take long for me to work out the overall setting and the characters. It was the story of an English spy who was a student at an upper class boys school. However it was the theme that made me sit up on my bed. I had never before read any book in which the hero was gay. Moreover, in one of the first scenes two boys were caught by a teacher making love! The details of what they were actually doing weren’t there, but I knew well enough. I looked around to check if my door and curtains were closed and read the page again. The revelation made my mind whirl with exhilaration. Was this the answer to why David had insisted that, out of all the material he could have given me, I have this play? I felt a new energy and read on making sure to absorb every word and write down themes and questions I thought David would find interesting. I couldn’t wait to see him again. I read as much as I could and then lay in bed, tired but fulfilled like never before. It was clear to me that David also had a secret and I wondered if he wanted to talk about it. It didn’t matter. I would be there for him regardless. I would reveal my secret to him and tell him that I understood.

That night he was in my dreams. I dreamt I was passing the bookshop and he was walking on the other side of the street wearing a black hat, which I thought looked good on him. He was speaking to a boy with frizzy, blond hair. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I was angry and wanted to run over and punch the other boy. I hesitated, unable to cross the street. I watched them talking and laughing . And then suddenly the boy disappeared and I was in his place. David asked me what I thought about Australian literature. “I think it is mature and sophisticated,” I replied. Then he held my chin and kissed me. Not like a kiss one would give a friend or aunt, but a real kiss that lasted for minutes. Our open mouths moved like the way fish breathe out of water. I woke up, masturbated and then drifted off again into an easy sleep.

The next morning, I got up early. I went into the kitchen, drank straight from the tap and looked around for something to eat. We’d eaten all the bread the night before. I opened the refrigerator and was staring at the emtpy shelves, when I heard a series of whispers and then hushing. I stopped and listened. More hushing. I went back into the living room and this time noticed the black bra and white t-shirt which were draped over the arm of the sofa. The t-shirt was reversed but I could still recognise the words inside, printed in capital letters on the front, like the flashing warnings of a neon sign: “Game over”.

Mother’s bedroom door was ajar. Peering through I saw that the bed was still made, but the pillows were on the floor. I moved soundlessly towards the door to get a better view. I couldn’t see Mother’s face, but I saw her legs and painted toenails. Her feet were splayed and were pointing at each corner of the room. She let out a horrible moan that made me flinch. David was on top of her facing the wall. A tattoo of a barbed wire just below his neck writhed over his shoulders; with each slap of his stroke, Mother’s legs stretched further out towards the outer edges of her bedroom. I swallowed hard and retreated back into the living room.

There was silence.

“Sebastian? Is that you?” I heard Mother call.

I didn’t move.

“Hello?”

I stood in the middle of the room not daring to move or breath. I picked up David’s t-shirt and for a reason I cannot explain, put it on. I waited for something to happen: the door to open, thunder to boom or even a song to start playing. I waited and I waited, shaking my head. I can still feel the same stillness of that room today when I think back. When I wait for Sweet Justice to come.

The Earwax Harpy

Everyone knows that we hear sounds with our ears.

But our ears can’t hear everything that is going on all the time.

Even when we are sitting at home there are hundreds of things making noises. Things like the refrigerator in the kitchen, the wind coming through the window and that annoying, buzzing mosquito.

A rooster crowing into a boy's ear

Even right now, you are making more noises than you think!

Because there is so much commotion going on around us, some sounds don’t make it all the way through our ears to our brains.

This is especially true when we are listening to music or to our little brother or sister screaming.

We are concentrating so hard, we wouldn’t even notice the neighbour’s rooster crowing. And he is very loud.

These sounds we don’t pay attention to become stuck in our ears before we can really hear them.

Sounds turn into earwax

And after a while they turn into earwax. Ewww!

Most of us think that earwax is disgusting and pretty useless.

But not Earwax Harpies.

An Earwax Harpy is a magical creature, rather like Bellybutton Banshees or Nosehair Pixies.

The Earwax Harpy

Earwax Harpies however, have propellers which are also hands, that enable them to fly like helicopters in any direction.

They love to fly around and snatch things like food, car keys and the remote control for the television.

But most of all, Earwax Harpies love to snatch earwax!

Earwax Harpies make no noise at all. You could try all day and night to hear the sound of their propeller hands, which spin faster than a super-fast yo-yo. But you would never hear a thing.

They are so quiet, they can easily swoop into our bedrooms at night while we are sleeping and snatch our earwax with tiny shovels.

Earwax Harpies come in the middle of the night to steal your earwax

But what do they do with all that earwax?

Harpies can make nearly anything but with they are particularly good at making candles. Can you guess what these candles are made of?

That’s right! Earwax!

When an earwax candle burns it replays all of the sounds that were caught in our ears.

The Harpies mix and mould earwax to create candles that play beautiful music, buzz like light bulbs, whistle like boiling kettles and make many more wonderful sounds.

The Earwax Harpy's cave

Now just imagine if Earwax Harpies weren’t there to snatch your earwax.

You wouldn’t be able to hear all the important things like Mum telling you to clean your room.

Or Dad telling you about what it was like when he was a boy.

And just think how sorry you’d be when you couldn’t hear your teacher giving you homework!

So don’t worry if you notice that things have gone missing, especially your earwax.

An Earwax Harpy probably just snatched it and took it back to the harpy caves to make something amazing.

An earwax harpy flying

The doppelgänger’s advice

And then blackness.

Simon found himself in a dream. He didn’t know how he’d arrived there or that he’d even fallen asleep. His last impression of the real world was just a pair of worn blue sneakers walking away from him, their black laces whipping at the cobblestone road. Now he was walking up the stairs in what he thought was his apartment building, but there was no graffiti on the walls and no apartment doors at the landings. Through the door frames he could see directly into each apartment, each of which was dark and empty.

He reached what he judged to be the third floor and stood outside his own apartment. He felt the urge to cry out. Even if he didn’t much care for her, perhaps Mrs Stefano, his neighbour and the house’s unofficial source of inside information, would be there to tell him what was going on.

Clump!

Something heavy moved and Simon heard the echo of shuffling footsteps. He peered upwards through the gap in the staircase but saw no-one. Something told him to turn back, that climbing the stairs had been a mistake. He looked back down the stairs he’d already climbed and was about to retreat when he heard someone clear their throat directly behind him.

“There’s nothing up there,” the voice said.

Simon felt a light thrum in his chest. It was him! “What did you say?”

“I said there’s nothing at the end of these stairs. I already looked so I really wouldn’t bother exerting yourself.” The man’s hands were in his pockets and, although he was smiling, he had a tired, phlegmatic expression, like he was waiting for an answer that he already knew. He was much leaner than Simon, not from any malnourishment or sickness, but rather molded in that sleek symmetry of a swimmer. There was no doubt however: every line, every angle of his frame, even the arrangement of his teeth revealed to Simon that was standing face to face with his doppelgänger.

Simon stepped in closer to study the man’s face. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m not sure to be honest. I wondered if perhaps you might be able to fill me in since it’s your dream we’re standing in.”

“You… you were there at the accident, weren’t you? I saw you. You came and you looked over me. I felt you touch my face.”

“Don’t worry, it wasn’t the hand of fucking God or anything. Nothing of the sort. You just looked so… so pathetic there in the street under that garbage truck, blood seeping from your arm as if you were caught in a still frame of some modern dance step. And I know you can’t dance.”

“Am I dead?” Simon inspected his arm and the back of his hands for blood and scratches.

“Do you feel deceased?”

“How should I know? I’ve not been dead before.”

The doppelgänger rolled his eyes and walked over to the open apartment and seemed to inspect the floorboards.

“So you and I, we’re the same person though, aren’t we?  But you’re from the future or another dimension or something similarly transcendental.”

“I don’t know. Nothing has changed for me. It’s not as if I’ve travelled through time. I mean, I’m just here. I live my life, write my books, I have money and I’m having quite a a splendid time of it, if I must say. I do admit though you look awfully like me, only more… lifeless.”

“Splendid? I don’t talk like that.”

“Well, I just said it, didn’t I? So I do talk like that. Anyway, there’s really nothing wrong with the word. I am, if you’d like to know, of the conviction that people should use it more often. Optimism can be misguided, but -”

“Wait a minute. You said books. I’ve only written one and am not even close to finishing the next. In fact I don’t even think I’m going to manage it.”

“Oh yes, the ‘Tongan prince project’,” Simon’s double said, like he was referring to a bad odour. ‘That particular experiment never got off the ground, did it? Not a bad idea though, and there were some novel angles and, yes, some fines lines of poetry in there, but was never going to be a seller. Stick to what you know for a while before experimenting with lofty abstractions.”

“Ross thought it was a good idea.”

“Hiring Ross as an agent was probably the best and worst thing you’ve ever done. Best because he picked you up when you were a nobody. Worst because he’s a grade A arsehole. Get rid of him.”

“We’ll obviously. It seems as if you’ve decided that for me and already shown him the door.”

“Has he said to you yet, that your ‘meter is out of reach for most poetry readers’?”

“No, not yet.”

“Don’t let him. Lose him.”

“If I ever wake up from thi-”

“When appraising poetry, counting syllables is about as useful as totalling the number the brush strokes in a painting.”

“Yes, thanks. I may have already said that.”

“Oh fuck off. Are you going to accuse me now of plagiarism?”

Simon looked down at the doppelgänger’s black laces. Unlike during their encounter at the scene of the accident, they were tied in a neat bow. “Ok, if you are me. Prove it. Tell me how I met Carla.”

The doppelgänger sighed. “Dear Carla. Carla, the lovely, caramel-skinned Sicilian who holds your hand like it were a fragile parchment. Who knew far better than I the courage it takes to love a-”

“Oh please. Really?”

“Look, I could tell you that I met her in that ratty bookshop run by that walking pork knuckle of a woman, but it’d be far more interesting to say that immediately before I asked her out, I was very much nearly standing in a pool of my own urine.” The doppelgänger raised an eyebrow.

“A bit exaggerated don’t you think? I was scared but I didn’t bloody piss myself!”

“It wasn’t exactly a triumphant moment of ours. A bumbling tool with one week of Italian under his belt, asking out a girl like that?”

“Your Italian seemed fine at the accident.” Simon said and then hesitated. “She left me you know.”

“Yes.”

“What should I do?”

“Let me mull over it. I can’t remember what I was thinking at the time.”

“This is too weird.”

The doppelgänger shook his head and then rolled up the left sleeve of his t-shirt. On his shoulder was a pink, fleshy scar shaped like the head of an arrow. “Tell me about it,” he said.

Simon looked at his own shoulder and winced. Blood was trickling out from a gash and spreading through the fabric of his shirt. He reeled and stepped back against the wall clutching his injured arm. Shit, shit, shit was all he could think to say. He didn’t want to go back. There were too many questions and he had to learn the rest of the story: what he had to do to become a better writer, to win Carla back and, most importantly, why his doppelgänger had appeared in the first place. But from somewhere beneath the third floor a low hum chimed ringing throughout the stairwell like church bells sounding under water and began pulling him back down into the depths.

“Looks like it’s time to wake up,” the doppelgänger shouted from above as David sank deeper. “By the way, your phone is ringing. Don’t you want to answer it?”

And then brightness.

An outback family

Tuesday morning was warm and dry. From an unsealed road, a minibus waited for a semi-trailer to pass and then pulled out onto the dusty highway that led into town. Neil Taylor, or ‘Baked Bean’ as he was known in town due to his bonfire of red, tussled hair, did that same thing every day at eight in the morning, listening to the same radio station and whistling the same melody, which wasn’t really a melody at all, but a series of twitters – his anthem for the road.

The highway was smooth and flat like most of the country and stretched out towards the horizon like a strip of iron. Neil squinted behind his dark sunglasses, whistling to the pitch of the screaming bus. As he approached the Styles property, with its lone gum tree looming over the road, he slowed down and indicated. He turned around under the shade of the giant gumtree pulled up in front of the  plastic drum letter box in front of the iron gate. Adele was not there.

Neil made four trips a day in his blue minibus: two out of town and two back in. Sometimes Adele was Neil’s only inbound commuter on Tuesday mornings and for a woman of eighty-eight, she was the sharpest and most devilish person Neil had ever encountered (and he’d been to the city more than a few times). Adele would recount tales of her voyages abroad, eating exotic foods with even more exotic people, choreographing each event with dancing hands and wild eyes. On Tuesdays she would do her grocery shopping and, despite living on the property alone with her grandson, she bought food and drink in quantities that would have nourished a larger family; on some occasions her purchases would fill the back two rows of the bus.

Neil waited for ten minutes, but could see no sign of Adele so he set off back down the highway. He had other pickups in town to make.

The bus scuttled through the dust into town and pulled up in front of the post office, which also served as the bank, the newsagent and the petrol station for the town’s population of 600. Leslie opened the door, her eyes squinting in the white light. With a half-smile she held offered Neil a can of lemonade.

“Del didn’t come in today – didn’t even ring to let me know like usual.”

“Haven’t you heard, Bean?”

“Heard what, Les?”

“Del passed on yesterday about two o’clock in the afternoon, in her sleep.”

“Christ!”

“Yeah, bit of a shock.”

“How’s Kevin?”

“I haven’t seen him, but you know Kevin, quiet as a mouse. But he must be shaken up, the poor thing.”

“Yeah.”

“Here, drink this.”

“Thanks, Les. Did they say what-“

“Old age I suppose. Although you’d never know it. “

“So, did Kevin just find her … like that?”

“Apparently.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, she lived a good life. Been around for ever.” Neil took a long gulp of the lemonade then breathed out hard. “How’d you find out?”

“From George – Kevin brought her in to the clinic last night. George said he wanted to bury her straight away,” Leslie said.

“What? Where?”

“In the cemetery of course. George said Kevin was a bit pushy – can’t see why. Said it had to be yesterday.”

“Why’s that?”

“I dunno, but George said ‘no’ and told Kevin to come back sometime today.”

“Yeah well, probably for the best; let him calm down a bit. See ya, Les.”

“Bye, Neil.”

The next morning Neil didn’t whistle and drove in silence. He was thinking of ‘ol’ Del’. Del was one of those people who could talk about anything – she would understand you in a second and then talk  it right back at you. Sometimes she’d tattle on about events in the world, days before they happened (Neil thought she got most of her news from her many overseas friends) and other times she’d just talk about the weather forecast, which pretty much remained the same all year and was fairly predictable even for Neil: warm and dry. But she also had her ‘Del-centricities’ as Leslie liked to call them. No-one ever knew who ate all the food she bought from town each week, but there were plenty of speculations – Tom, the publican, believed she and Kevin were harbouring illegal immigrants there, although he could never explain how they came 1500kms inland on leaky boats; Meg, who, as the ranger, had been closer to the Styles property than most, said that once she saw a great aluminium shed, higher than any silo and bigger than any aerodrome hanger she ever seen, with a tiny door. Perhaps there were people living in there? Neil thought it was not anything overly bizarre, but was it was enough to get other people talking and their malnourished imaginations salivating.

It was hard to have lost a member of the community, even a moderate recluse like Del. She hardly left her property except for once a week and rarely participated in town social events. But out in the tiny desert town, whether she liked it or not, her fate was tied to the 600 odd souls around her and although she had died, she would still linger in their minds like a bump in that brown, flat land.

In the distance Neil saw the curling arch of the gumtree, holding its branches high and dignified. He accelerated and meant to resist the temptation to stare down the gravel road, behind the trees and towards the Styles property where, until yesterday, no compulsion to stare had ever teased his mind. And he was doing well until he saw, coming in the opposite direction, a row of metallic black shimmering against the hot tar; long dark cars with black tinted windows moving slowly, one by one under the gumtree and past the iron gate. Neil abandoned his resolve and pulled the bus over to the side of the highway, just down from the gate and stared at the grim procession.

He counted ten cars in total but he guessed that many more had entered before. They were moving slowly over the crunching gravel, precisely, as if to avoid puncturing a tyre or damaging the paintwork. They were apparently not aware that a blue minibus with an overweight bus driver were parked just down the road, spying on them: that, or they didn’t care.

Neil then saw a white four-wheel drive flash towards them, dust clouds boiling behind its wheels. It was Kevin. Kevin turned into the drive way, tooted the horn and slid to a halt. He jumped out leaving the door open, and commenced waving his arms and shouting at the cars, some of which continued to ooze through the gate. Neil couldn’t understand what he was saying.

Kevin danced between each car, his arms stretched out above his head. A car at the rear sped up past the others and stopped just behind him. From the rear door, a tall man dressed in a blue suit stepped out. He was wearing silver glasses and holding something that reflected the sun into Neil’s eyes. The man didn’t speak but raised the bright light to Kevin’s forehead with an outstretched hand. Kevin stumbled back and covered his face.

Neil had seen enough. He smacked his foot down on the accelerator. The front wheels screeched and the bus’s engine roared forward pressing him into his seat. Both Kevin and the man in blue were running behind Kevin’s four wheel drive well before Neil reached the driveway, but Neil, bracing himself for the impact, kept his course and rammed into the side of the black sedan with a crash, sending it sliding across the gravel and crunching into the colossal trunk of the gum tree.

Neil shook his head. He could see white bark and the mirror-black roof of the car, now wedged between the minibus and a the giant tree trunk. He felt a pain where the steering wheel had struck his stomach, but nothing was broken. Regaining the sense of urgency, he leapt out of his seat and off the bus. The party of black cars had stopped and more rear doors were opening from which more tall men in blue suits were coming. He thought for a moment about the black car which now embraced the trunk, its engine gently humming, and wondered if there were anybody was injured. But the scene of execution flashed in his mind and he scrambled over to Kevin who was cowering behind the real wheel of his truck

“Kevin! Are you alright, Kevin? I though that lunatic was going to shoot you!”

Kevin’s arms were wrapped around the tyre and his shoulders were trembling. His normally brown, weathered face was white as chalk, the hairs on his arms were upright and through his wet lips he was speaking in whispers.

“Kevin! It’s me, Neil! What’s going on?”

“Don’t let them take Grandma again… don’t let them do it!”

“Kevin, I’m sorry, mate. I just heard yesterday about Del.”

“Don’t let them take her!”

“I thought she was with George,” Neil said, but Kevin had turned his head to the ground and began shaking. “Kevin! Are you alright?”

“’Kevin is just fine, aren’t you, Kevin?” The man in blue strode out from behind the car and looked down at Kevin with no expression. He removed his glasses and put them in the top pocket of his jacket. Neil rubbed the back of his hand over his eyes and bent down to look at Kevin, who was rocking and shaking his head. There was no mistake: there were less wrinkles of course, and his hair was shorter, but the distinctive jaw and level nose were clearly identifiable: the man in blue looked exactly like Kevin, so much so that they could have been the same person. In his hand, Kevin’s twin held the metallic instrument like a weapon, which Neil thought looked rather like a shot gun but thinner, however there was no hole in the end. He seemed to be waiting for Kevin to do something.

“What the hell is going on here? Are you one of Kevin’s relatives?” Neil asked.

“My friend, we all are.”

Neil followed the man’s gaze towards the gate where more than a dozen other men stood, stolid and silent. Each one was wearing the same blue suit and behind the silver lens’s of their glasses were the same eyes, the same faces, as the terrified man at Neil’s feet.

“You see,” the man said. “We are Kevin and Kevin is us. We are the same.”

“Why were you going to shoot him then?”

“You think this is a gun?”

“It looks like one.”

“It can kill yes, but it has other uses.”

“Where are you all from? And why do you all look the same?”

The man didn’t answer.

“Kevin,” Neil said. “What’s going on?”

Kevin remained silent, his knees were trembling.

“Tell him, Kevin,” the man in blue said. “Tell him how you deserted us. Tell him how, even in the deep, in the desert, in the night, you can never escape yourself.” The man smiled and nodded at one of the other blue suits. Some of them were inspecting the crashed car, checking its tyres and windows; another two were pulling a limp body from the rear seat. They laid it on the ground. It was a woman.

“Oh my God, I’ve killed her. Oh my God.” Neil felt sick in his stomach. “I thought you were… I thought… Kevin-”

“Neil,” Kevin said, still on the ground, his voice barely audible. “Neil… it’s not your fault. Neil. Don’t look at her.. don’t look at her.”

But Neil, tamed by his unbearable guilt, shuffled over to examine the corpse. She wore a long skirt of blue with a high collar that went up to her pale ears. The men were pointing their shiny instruments at her grey skin, prodding her abdomen and chest. There was no blood on the car or on her dress and Neil felt relieved when she saw her chest suddenly rise and fall and her hands move to her sides and then to her temples.

The men in blue stood in a circle and resisted Neil’s attempts to assist as the woman crawled to her feet.

“I’m alright,” she said and then over the wall of blue suits, she looked to Neil, her head bent back upon her thin neck. “Who’s this one?”

“Adele!” Neil cried and fell to his knees.

The fruit stall

Marjory brushed away the morning flies that were circling around the crate of apples, her chequered apron swishing against the cold concrete floor, keeping a cotton beat to her low hum, soft and petered, like the light which came in from the car park entrance. She was the first of a few stall owners who had arrived before sunrise. Brian, the book seller was there and Owen, from the hardware stall, both unfolding their tables, thumping and chinking their wares, talking among themselves and tuning in their radios.

Marjory sold fruit under a small shopping centre near the sea. Her and her husband Jim owned twelve acres of land an hour west of the coast in the highlands and her gardens were plentiful in the summers, with gnarled lemons, passionfruit like tennis balls and glowing sweetcorn, all of which she neatly laid out on the table with an elegant slant. There was never enough passionfruit to last the entire day, the customers who came in before seven always selected the biggest and ripest. Every Saturday, Melvin, a restaurateur from across the road, wandered in and chose some eggplants for his vegetarian bake. “The best in the east”, Melvin would say each time, making Marjory blush. A fisherman, who spoke little, and whose name Marjory never remembered bought bananas before setting out to catch the fruits of the sea. All these people kept Marjory in her garden bent over crooked, her fingernails black with soil and at her stall – erect and proud at the Saturday markets until two-thirty in the afternoon.

Her space was just inside the car park where the roof was low and the alleys were narrow. She had always been at the entrance because she had always been one of the first to arrive. People always remembered that they needed fruit and vegetables at the end of their visit to the markets she reasoned, or not having found a home-made gift or a discount decoration for their homes, they justified their outing with a bunch of carrots or a fluffy lettuce. The space to the right of her was forever changing tenancy. For a few months it had been Roy, who sold woollen carpets, blankets and boots, then for a good while after it was Eileen, peddling her home-made cakes, biscuits, jams. Eileen often swapped a chocolate dessert for two kilos of potatoes or a large pumpkin.

Marjory ripped off a piece of bread and chewed, surveying her table with its clumps of colours, smelling its sweet, earthy aromas. She looked in her tin money box to make sure she had enough change to last the morning. Inside were mostly coins, a few small notes, some orange seeds and a fine, brown silt. She shook the box, looking for the gold coins, but there were none.

Outside, the sun was beginning to creep up the road, now animated with morning walkers, dogs on leads and the odd car. A pale, blue Volvo station wagon, pulled into the car park entrance, as it idled, the engine rattled and choked, spitting out black clouds of exhaust smoke which wafted into car park. Marjory spread a tea cloth over her produce but it hardly covered everything and her grapes caught a blast of the dark clouds.

The Volvo went forward and then reversed into the car park so that the car boot was just in front of Marjory’s table. The engine hummed at a higher pitch for a few seconds and then shut down with a rattle. A thin woman with a patchwork jacket and a shaggy mass of yellow hair popped out of the car. “Hello, I’m Sue,” she said.

Marjory raised her eyebrows.

“I’m in number three for a few weeks,” Sue said as she opened the rear door and began pulling boxes out of the car. “Got all these boxes to unpack. Yes, there’s a table. Did I bring my chair? Hey, those apples look good there! Save me a couple for lunch.”

“Whatcha sellin’?”

“Fruit-eze.”

“Frooties?”

“No, Fruit-eze. It’s powdered vitamin supplements. They’re imported from the States where they’re all the rage, has the diet circuit doing cartwheels. There’s one for everyone, mums, athletes, teens, elderly people and it comes in all sorts of flavours: banana, cherry, apple, rockmelon you name it; there’s even kiwi fruit. Would you believe it? Kiwi fruit! And it’s made from real fruit. I’ve already sold a heap down in Melbourne but I think it’s going to be a hit here too. Now that one was banana, oh yes, kiwi fruit, here it is – see the little picture of the running kiwi fruit? I think it’s so cute.”

Marjory screwed her face and put her hands against her wide hips. She stared as Sue struggled with a long table. Marjory had never had any problem erecting her table – Jim had made it especially for her from pine wood and metal hinges, which, thanks to Jim’s constant vigilance, assembled and collapsed silently with fresh grease every week. Sue’s tables on the other hand looked as if someone had attached four pool cues to a door.

Sue dropped the table and it hit the concrete floor with a sharp clap. “You’d think I’d be used to it by now,” she said and continued to work, singing successive choruses of ‘tsk tsks’ and exasperated sighs. She draped a white cloth over the table and arranged small glossy signs at each corner. The signs had the words ‘FRUIT-EZE’ printed across the top, above a cartoon image of an running man carrying a fruit basket. Sue stacked tins of Fruit-eze and arranged pastel coloured leaflets in front of them. “That looks just wonderful then,” she said and began singing ‘What a wonderful world’ in a growling Louis Armstrong voice.

As Sue trumpeted beside her, Marjory restacked the bananas and made sure that all the pieces of ripped cardboard had the correct prices and were sitting nicely on top of their respective piles of produce. Then she recalibrated her set of scales and weighed a couple of avocados she guessed to be about a kilo. The arrow bobbed up and down and then rested at nine hundred and seventy eight grams. Satisfied that everything was ready, Marjory sat on the edge of her picnic chair, rubbing her hands on her apron, waiting.

By six-thirty the market was yawning as stalls began to multiply and interested buyers drifted in from the street. Melvin, the restaurateur, came in looking tired and blurry-eyed. He bought four eggplants and a sweet potato and then left, mumbling something about Irish people and wine. He didn’t compliment Marjory’s eggplants. Marjory checked the others to see if they had blemishes or were too small. The fisherman didn’t come for his bananas but three tourists ambled in and bought two each. Marjory had not taken many bananas with her to the markets because, for the third time in two years, the trees on her farm were infested with fruit flies. Marjory didn’t like to use spray on the trees, but there had been no alternative. It was a pity, she thought, because bananas were always the best sellers.

A women of about forty walked through and paused at Sue’s table. She picked up a leaflet.

“Good morning!” Sue tanned face and yellow hair burst forward like an exploding sun flower. “If you’ve ever tried to diet and failed miserably, I know I have, or just looking to complete a balanced diet without the calories then I really recommend that you have a look at Fruit-eze.”

The woman smiled and nodded for Sue to continue. Marjory tried to appear disinterested and looked out onto the street. She coughed and edged closer Sue’s table, one hand over her mouth, the other on her hips.

“It’s got all the goodness of real fruit and all the flavour, I might add. Do you like fruit? Good. Well you’ll love Fruit-eze. It’s got twice the vitamins of real fruit and lasts up to three years in the pantry. You can take it anywhere too! No more rotten apples! If you just want a moderate intake of nutrients, try the rockmelon variety – it’s one of my favourites, not too sweet…”

Sue rummaged around in one of the boxes from which she produced an orange and white tin. She held it up high like a trophy. “For just thirty dollars, I’ll throw in a banana starter kit too.”

“No, thanks,” the woman said and left.

Marjory wiped down her apron and smiled. It was getting warm and the whirring engines of ice cream trucks on the footpath outside indicated that the day’s markets had awoken. The plant sellers had erected a temporary jungle at the mouth of the car park and the fresh smell of herbs began to swim around the market floor, joining the scented pool of donuts and saw dust.

Sue was wiping down a gigantic stainless steel milkshake maker with twin blenders. She smiled at Marjory.

“You make it like a milkshake,” she said. “You just have to add water and maybe some ice and then you stir it up! Some people even put ice cream in it! I mean, you go on a diet for a reason don’t you? It’s the athletes who can afford to do that I think, but I’ve heard that some mothers keep drinking Fruit-eze after pregnancy – they’re addicted to it! Are there any power points near here?”

“You got power up there – cuts off at two o’clock. And the taps are round back near the newsagent’s,” Marjory said and moved around some eggplants that had fallen on their sides.

“Thanks! Do you want any? Can you keep an eye on my stuff while I’m gone?”

Marjory waited until Sue had walked some way and then shuffled over to look at the multi-coloured tins. She picked up one called ‘Bouncing Berry’. “Flavour agent D89, non-crystallising solution, beta-Gluconates, Gum-Arabic…” Marjory turned her up nose. She didn’t know a lot about the new trends in health; she’d seen infomercials about intestinal cleansing diets and machines that helped you lose weight while watching television, but could never understand why people chose to eat things, the origins of which they knew little. She lifted the plastic lid and sniffed.

“Excuse me.”

Marjory fumbled and dropped the tin. It hit the concrete with a clang and exploded in a cloud of blue powder.

“Oh, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to startle you,” said the man. He looked about sixty and wore a blue track suit. An Alsatian puppy was running in circles around his ankles tied to the end of a red leash.

“Oh no, you-“

“I was hoping to try out some of this stuff; a friend of mine said it was quite good.”

“Well, I,- ”

“The banana I think, yes, that was it. The banana. I think I’d like to try that one.”

The dog yapped at the man’s feet. “Settle down, Ginger,” he said.

“I’ll just clean up.” Marjory bent over and picked up the empty tin. With her tea cloth, she began sweeping up the dry powder. Clouds of grey dust rose from the ground with every pass.

“You don’t mind if I take a look at some of these do you?”

“Uh, no,” Marjory said from under the table. The man went to each variety and read the contents, um-ming and ah-ing. From under the table, Marjory could see the Alsatian pup, nosing at the man’s black leather shoes: they had polished gold insignias. Marjory was the first to admit that, with her knitted striped jumper and rotten joggers, her sense of fashion was questionable, but she had rarely seen anyone wearing a blue cotton track suit with designer shoes. She got to her feet and put the re-filled tin of Bouncing Berry back on the shelf.

“Um, never mind about the banana,” the man said, putting back a tin of Cherry Chaser. “I might come back later. Will you be here?”

“Yes, but-“

“Goodbye!” And with that he darted out of the car park dragging Ginger behind him.

Marjory looked up and saw Sue’s yellow hair bouncing up the alley; she quickly went back to her stall and began rearranging potatoes.

“Thanks for that,” she said. “Anyone come by?”

“No, no.”

“Oh well, early days yet! I met the nicest man – Brian his name was – he was selling books. He gave me this vegetarian cookbook to read for the day. What great people you’ve got around here. Nothing like back home in the city. A girl could fall in love with a relaxed place like this but it’s a pity I’ve got to go north tomorrow.”

The day wore on and the sun crept its way into the car park. Groups of children walked passed the entrance carrying surfboards and smoking cigarettes. Marjory had not sold much that morning and was irritated when she looked down at her tired-looking tomatoes and browning bananas and then at Sue, who was chattering at the passing crowds with her permanent smile and high-pitched voice. And they came and they bought. From the corner of her eye, Marjory could see Sue’s money belt getting thicker while her tin box laid barely untouched beneath her chair.

“What about you sell me some of those great looking apples?” Sue asked Marjory around noon. “They are just crying out to be eaten. How much? A dollar? Great!”

Sue took the apples away and washed them in a bucket of water. As she crunched on her first apple, a siren wailed. Outside, people’s heads turned towards the road but Sue and Marjory couldn’t see what was going on. “Can you see? What is it?” Sue said just as a police car swerved in from the road and screeched to a halt at the entrance. Two burly constables trooped out from the rear doors. The front passenger door flew open knocking over one of the plant seller’s ferns and out stepped another. This one pointed at Marjory – it was the man she had seen in the blue track suit. Marjory’s heart raced and she stepped back, knocking her chair to the ground.

“That’s her,” he said. “She’s the one whose been selling stolen goods. The vehicle matches the description.”

“So we’ve finally got you, eh?” said the Senior Constable. “To be honest you look a little different to the description. Just goes to show that anyone’s capable of hijacking a truck and ripping off the driver. And I see you’ve made quite a little business out of it.”

“I… I… I just sell fruit,” Marjory blinked. “It was her. It was her! Look there she goes!” Sue had run off down the alley, bumping into market-goers, squealing “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”. She crashed over a plastic bin filled with empty cans and napkins hitting the floor hands-first. Someone tried to help her but she thrust them back. As she did, a burst of yellow flashed into the air like a fire. Sue’s shaggy wig had flipped over her head and landed in a crumpled heap on the concrete, was now covered with a mixture of cordial, juice and soup from the fallen bin. The police gave chase, but Sue, now brown and scruffy, leapt through a hole in the throng of shoppers and disappeared into the hum of the day’s market. Marjory watched the police run off and then looked down at Sue’s wig. Its sandy curls were straightening out in the dregs of the morning’s market as it edged slowly towards the iron bars and into the drain hole.

The nominee

I hopped out of the car into the evening heat and kicked out the pain in my knee. It was still humid and I could feel beads of sweat rolling down my back beneath my cotton shirt and singlet as I walked up the path to the club.

John Best, the caretaker, was at the front of the building, in his gumboots and hosing down the concrete footpath leading up to the entrance. I avoided him and walked on the grass, over the garden and through the automatic doors into a cool wall of beer and tobacco smoke.

“Hot enough for you, Gus?” said Clive, the doorman.

“Hardly, can’t fry an egg on the roof of a car yet.”

“Geez, I didn’t think you’d let anyone touch the holden, let alone have a barbie on it. We’ll have to get her out for the sausage sizzle in January.”

“Not bloody likely.” I took off my hat and coat and put them on the front desk. To the left I noticed a black and white photo hanging crooked on the wall. It was a picture of the 1973 Snooker Team. I was in the middle of seven other men, leaning on boot of a white Kingswood, smoking a cigarette and holding a cue over my shoulder. We all had neat haircuts and dark faces, and not one of us was smiling except for Jackie Spagnolo, the Italian banana farmer. We had just won the regional finals and were half cut from the celebrations. A sign behind us read: ‘Berkley River Ex-Services Club, Visitors and their Guests Welcome’.

“Who took these photos down from the snooker room?”

“It was the Board’s idea – something about making a first impression on the guests, sense of history or whatever. I don’t think many people got to appreciate them where they were anyway.”

“Well they belong in the snooker room don’t they? Wouldn’t be any history if it wasn’t for that room, eh?”

“Hey, don’t blame me, Gus. Talk to the Board.” Clive went into the cloak room.

“Ha! The Board? What a pack they are,” I said.

I walked into the bar and ordered a beer. A few heads popped out from behind form guides and nodded as I walked through the gaming lounge into the maze of poker machines. Three members of staff, each wearing a green and red tuxedo, were gathered around one poker machine and bickering with one of the oldies. “I thought it was a one,” she said.

As I approached the red wood arch of the snooker room, the clattering melodies and coins died away and I heard the soft clicking of snooker balls. I stopped and before turning the corner into where the tables were, fixed my badge to my shirt: ‘Gus Simmons, Snooker Comm. President’.

Apart from the bright lights hovering over the tables, the snooker room was a dark chamber of faded green wall paper and wooden trimmings. Tarnished shields and thin ribbons lined the walls next to a rack of twenty or more cues of various lengths. On the far wall there were dark green rectangles, shadows of where the committee’s photographs had hung, and a blackboard. Vern Bailey had just finished writing ‘Snooker Committee meeting 7pm’ in sloping block letters and was dusting off his hands. I put down my beer and cue case and went to where he and Neville Harris were playing.

“Seven o’clock? Jumping the gun a bit aren’t you, Vern?”

“We thought we’d start the meeting earlier than usual,” Vern said. “I hope you don’t mind. Me and Neville were just finishing off this frame.”

“What if I do mind? I thought I was the bloody President. Can’t start a meeting without the damn President, can you?”

“Mate, we wouldn’t have done a thing without you,” Neville said and potted a red.

“There’s a lot to get through,” Vern said. “The ladies’ night is coming up and there’ll be a few membership applications to get through.” Vern coughed his trademark cough and lit a cigarette. “And then there’s the election for next year.”

“Well, I suppose so. Maybe we could also talk about the tournament photos. Who the bloody hell took them down?”

“I had to do it. Board said so. Didn’t you know?”

“No. I thought they at least would’ve asked the President.”

“Well they didn’t really ask so much as say.”

“We’ll just have to get them back up there then. That’ll be the first thing I’ll do.”

“Mate, you’re not the next President yet!”

“Maybe not but I’ve still got a couple of hours up my sleeve and besides, who else is gonna do the job? You? What do you think about that, Neville?”

“How’s your game Gus?” Neville asked.

“No too bad, not too bad. Been hitting straight some days, off some others.”

“We’ll have to have that game you promised some day.”

“Think you’re up to it son?”

“Maybe.”

“Neville’s been teaching me a lesson tonight haven’t you mate?” said Vern. “I’d watch out if I were you Gus, might even give you a run for you money, won’t you Neville?”

“Like hell he will,” I said. “Neville can’t even piss straight. Where’s your rhythm, your composure?”

“I’m working on it, Gus,” said Neville laughing. “But we can’t’ all play like Eddie Charlton.”

“Ha! Charlton’s overrated – nothing but fancy trick shots. I’ll show you a few of my moves after the meeting.”

Neville leaned back on the table squeezing both cheeks of his rolling buttocks above the edge. “Nice job they did on the lights in here,” he said. “It’s really brightened up the place: makes the balls stand out.”

“Fella didn’t put the covers back on properly though. Look how he’s put them on – it’s all crooked. Can’t have a ladies night with the place in a shambles.”

“Gus, that was Clive’s uncle,” Vern said scratching his bald head. “He fixed them for nothing. Pretty generous if you ask me.”

“Well I didn’t, and besides, he didn’t do it for free: Gloria gave him a counter lunch at the bistro for nicks.”

Neville cracked the blue into the middle pocket.

“Speaking of the lovely Gloria I’ve already ordered a tray of nibblies, I’ll get another beer and round up the others.” Vern slapped his boney hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go, Nev.”

At seven, the others ambled in and took their regular places around the tables – there were usually eleven of us all together, but only eight had come that evening. I took my seat against the far wall under the blackboard and tapped a pen on my beer glass. “We’d better get started I think, don’t want to be here all night do we. Vern’s most kindly put a good word in Gloria’s ear and we’ll be getting some of her finest for those who’ve had a few. Ah yes, apologies from Frank who couldn’t be here this evening due to family commitments.”

“What did he tell his wife then?” said Lowey. A few people laughed and Lowey shook one of his arthritic fingers.

“Not sure, Lowey,” I said. “But since he’s not here to take minutes, how about getting a pen and paper going?” Lowey didn’t reply.

“First thing on the agenda – it’s that time again – the election of the President for this year.”

“Been another good year, Gus,” said Vern, the others murmuring in approval.

“Yes, we’ve had another decent innings, with a few successful social events, the beach barbeque and the Eucre tournament, participation at the interclub challenge-”

“Lost to that stuck up mob from Carlingford though. Cheated if you ask me,” said Colin Simons, one of the younger chaps. Colin had miscalculated a giveaway shot on the pink, and, as a result, set the opposition on a point-scoring roll which knocked us out of the first round.

“Well if you weren’t colour blind we might’ve had a chance, Col,” someone said.

“Only sees pink after a few sherries, don’t ya, Col?”

“I though pink was your favourite colour, Col?”

“Financially,” I cleared my throat. “Financially, things weren’t as bad as we’d feared: after we paid for the damage that idiot caretaker did at the Christmas party – cost us close to eight hundred dollars to get the thing refelted – we still pulled through alright, even managed to scrap together a few bob to buy a couple of extra cues for the club. The new President would be expected to build upon these successes with, of course, the support of the Committee.” I took my glasses off.  “As you all know the current President is automatically nominated for the position unless he chooses to step down. I’d like to give it another go, keep things going but, we still have to follow the formalities, so I’d like to make a call for nominations.”

As I had expected, everyone was silent. I had been the Snooker Committee President for seven years and I was confident of being relected just as I was confident that my car would have started on a winter’s morning. “Can’t have an election without more than one nominee,” I said smiling. They were all looking down at their beers. I pretended to write something down, thinking of how I would introduce my ideas for ladies’ night when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a hand rise. It was Vern.

“I nominate Neville,” Vern said.

I saw Neville look at Vern. He fidgeted with his tie and then turned his head to the floor. I flushed and felt my heart thumping in my chest.

“Ah, sorry Vern, what was that?”

“I nominate Neville.”

“Oh. Well then,” My voice faltered. I searched the pack of eyes for a hint of dissent but they were all cast down towards the floor or at their drinks; some were looking across the room. “Well Neville, thrust into the limelight are we? I hope you’ve got some original ideas for the club’s future. Do you accept the nomination?”

“Um, yeah. I accept. Thanks, Vern.”

I heard whispers of ‘good one Nev’ and ‘hear hear’ but I couldn’t tell who had said what. Neville and Vern were whispering to one another, crouched over their beers like two old beggars. The others started talking among themselves. Laughter was coming from the main bar. I heard a woman’s voice, and then more laughter. Gloria burst into in the room carrying a tray of cheeses and biscuits and a look of relief came over Vern.

“Good evening, gents, all well are we?” she boomed.

“Better now you’re here,” Vern said. “What’ve you got for us, love?”

“Just a few cheeses darling, some edam, bit of cheddar there too, and crackers. Don’t fight over them now.”

“No, but we’d fight over you, darling,” said Lowey, his false teeth clacking as he laughed.

“I’m flattered, Lowey, but don’t exert yourself on my acccount love. Enjoy!”

Gloria waddled out and everyone started crunching. I stared at Neville’s fat face. I watched him devour three crackers topped with cheese, and counted the clicks of his jaw as he chewed. Greedy pig, I thought as he washed the food down with beer.

I tapped the pen on the table. “Alright then, finished feeding your faces? Good. Right. You know the drill, one vote each. First name’s will do, there’s only two of us.”

Everyone wrote down their votes in pencil on the back of beer coasters, and put them into a battered wine cooler. I asked Vern to put the votes onto the nearest table and delegated to Lowey the responsibility of counting.
With his shaking hands, Lowey gathered the coasters into a neat pile.

“One vote for Gus,” he said and placed the coaster on the right of the table. “One vote for Neville.” Neville’s vote went over to the left. “Gus. Neville again. Another for Neville. One more for Gus.”

I shifted in my chair and felt a sharp pain in my knee like buring ice.

“Neville. And the last vote goes to, Neville Price. Five votes for Neville, three to Gus.”

“What!” I slammed my pen onto the table. “Let me check those Lowey.”

I got up, wincing as I shifted the weight to my knee, and hobbled over to count the two piles: five votes to three. My three votes sat on the table, miserable and wet with beer, one written in my tiny, scrawled print and the other in bold blue pen: I guessed it was Lowey because I saw him chewing on the end of a blue biro and the trembling handwriting looked as if someone had written it with an electric drill.

“What about Frank?” I asked. “Can’t have an election without one of the founding members present? Frank’s got to have a vote doesn’t he? It’s in the bloody rules, you should know, Lowey.”

“Even if Frank did vote for you, mate, you still wouldn’t have had enough votes. I’m sorry, mate.”

“You’ve had a good run, mate,” said Colin. “You’ve done wonders for the Snooker Club, hasn’t he fellas?”

They all nodded their heads in a pathetic chorus of agreement.

“Well, that’s it then isn’t it?” I said through my teeth. “Congratulations, Neville, I’m sure you’ll do a marvellous job.” I hated him.

I didn’t say much else for the rest of the meeting and chose not to pass on my ideas for the ladies night. I caught Vern and Neville several times talking between themselves scheming new plots. I was so furious, I didn’t even stay for a game.

The day after I couldn’t face going to the club so I did some work in the garden and cleaned out the letterbox which was filled with leaves. I thought about going for a game in the afternoon so I called Frank but he didn’t pick up the phone. I suspected that even he was part of the conspiracy. They’d planned it all along – after all I’d done for them. I’d seen the Snooker Committee through its highs and lows and it was my idea to hold free lessons on Saturdays for the youngsters, and no one had ever raised the sort of money for the club that I had.

I slept uneasily during the following nights, recounting in my head the mutiny of the previous Saturday evening; in the darkness of my bedroom I could see the staring faces of those who I thought were my friends, people I could have counted on; Vern’s grey face and drooping eyes looking at me under the lights of the snooker table. For over twenty years I had seen that face, and now, instead of a thin smile I saw a cackling laugh and crooked teeth.

When Thurday came I went to the Bistro for dinner like I always did on Thursdays, but for the first time in about ten years I didn’t bring my cue. I vowed not to set foot in the snooker room where I’d been disgraced the night before. I ordered pork and vegetables and went to eat in the far corner away from the rabble of the other customers for fear I would have to talk to someone I knew and suffer more humiliation. Gloria came over to where I was seated and began to wipe down tables.

“I heard about the other night,” she said as she went up and down the table with a cloth, her red finger nails scratching at the plastic surface. “Try not to feel bad about it, Gus.”

“I don’t,” I said and stabbed at my plate with the fork. “The pork’s tough tonight and the gravy’s runny.”

“No one’s forcing you to eat it, darling.”

“No one’s forcing you to stand there and annoy me.”

“It had to happen some day didn’t it? You can’t be President forever, you know.”

I waited for her to leave but she stopped wiping and just stood there with one hand on her hip.

“Yeah, but it didn’t have to happen that day,” I said waving my fork at her. “It didn’t have to bloody well happen that day. After all I’ve done for that committee and this club.”

Gloria sighed. “Here we go again, Gus, always feeling sorry for yourself. You can get on your high horse at those stupid meetings but you can’t bluff me, mister.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“The way you treat the other men, especially Vern and Neville. You boss them around. They’re all petrified of you. For God’s sake they’re your mates.”

“Mates? They went and stabbed in the back, those mates of mine. My father served in two world wars, you know. He helped build this goddamn club. And when Joan died, I dedicated my life to this god forsaken place and is this the thanks I receive?”

“This club isn’t everything love. Snooker isn’t everything. Where do you think you’d be without the others? Huh, Gus? It’s because of them you got over Joan, you told me so yourself.”

“I was drunk and besides, they don’t care. No one does. The Board took the bloody photos down. There’s no respect left in this place.”

“That’s not true and you know it. Things change – they move on.”

“Bah! Get me another beer will you, Gloria? And a side of brandy too if you don’t mind.”

“You’re hopeless, Gus Simmons.”

“Look, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to get angry at you but you know Vern – he’s always been been a bit pissed off because he’s never been the President. He thinks it’s my fault.”

“Maybe it is.”

“Rot! And now he’s taken Neville under his wing so he can whisper in his ear and get his own way.”

“All I’m saying is that you had better not shoot your mouth off.”

“How about those drinks, Gloria?”

Gloria dropped her dirty cloth on the table and left.

A few minutes later one of the barstaff came over with the drinks. I finished the beer and then put down the brandy in one hit which made the digesting pork in my stomach grunt with satisfaction. I wandered into the bar and ordered another round. The air seemed smokier than usual and the poker machines burped out their miserable melodies with unusal enthusiasm. I rested against the bar and began tearing up coasters. Vern came out of the toilet and walked over beside me. I had thought about turning away for a moment but decided against it; I had just as much right, if not more right to be here as he did. They couldn’t get rid of me that easily.

“Gus.”

“Vern.”

“Same again thanks, Dave,” Vern said to the bartender as he lit a cigarette. “Didn’t see you for practise yesterday, Gus.”

“Haven’t heard of passive smoking have you?”

“Still wearing the old President’s badge, eh?”

“It’s mine. It was given to me. Neville will have to get a new one made, if he could organise anything.”

“He already has I think. Colin organised it.”

“That’s bloody great. Straight in for the kill.”

“Look, if you’re still upset about the meeting, then I’m sorry mate. It’s just that Neville’s worked damn hard for the committee, and the club, and lately his game’s just come along in leaps and bounds. I thought he deserved at least a nomination.”

“Really,” I said and ordered another brandy. “He got more than a bloody nomination didn’t he?”

“Yeah I reckon he did. Called democracy that.”

“Go to hell.”

Vern picked up his drink and turned to leave. “Neville feels real bad over it, really he does. But he’ll make a fine President you’ll see.”

“Why did you do it, Vern?”

“Why did I do what?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Neville will make a fine President.”

“No, but you’ve always wanted to be President, haven’t you? I think you set it up to get me out and to give yourself a better chance next year.”

“What are you talking about?

“You figured I’d never give you the opportunity: your game was never up to scratch anyway. But don’t count on Neville to be your stepping stone.”

“Gus, you’ve had a few too many I think.”

“What would you know? You could never handle your drink.”

Vern looked at me with his saggy, sad eyes. “Suit yourself. Come in for a game if you like, a few of the fellas are there. Frank’s been asking for you.”

“Get stuffed,” I said. “Another brandy Dave, and one here for Mr Democracy.”

“No thanks.” Vern left and I finished the brandy in one gulp. I watched Vern as he trudged the old path through the pokies and disappeard beneath the red arch. “Let’s see whose fit to be President,” I said to myself and went after him.

Frank and Colin were playing on the main table, a couple of local youngsters were on the far table and there was Neville, by himself, leaning on the table closest to the door, beer in one hand and cue in the other.

“Look what the cat dragged in, Nev,” said someone.

“Gus,” said Neville. “Having a hit tonight?” Neville’s pot belly ballooned out from underneath a stained polo shirt on which was pinned a shiney rectangular badge. I couldn’t read what it said but I knew well enough.

“A hit? What, keen for a beating are you?”

“You’ve been promising me a match for a while now – wouldn’t want to think that you’re gutless or something.” Neville looked over his cue and nodded in the direction of the main table and then laughed over his shoulder, gloating at his success; his fat fingers, which were dusted with blue chalk, consumed his cue like folds of putty.

“Where’s your respect?” I said. “I’m not afraid of you, ya’ bloody tub of lard.”

Neville set up the table and chalked his cue. “You can break if you like.”

“Very noble of you.” I stumbled over to the public rack and picked out a cue that was half straight and still had a hard tip. Doesn’t take a brass belt to beat a dog, I thought.

I broke the balls hard into a red riot. I should have just clipped them and tried to leave the white at the end but I was too angry and drunk to care. I swore and went to reset the scoreboard. My knee felt raw with pain.

Neville potted a red and then the blue, leaving the ball at the far end behind the black.

“Good shot, Nev,” cried Vern and toasted his drink.

“Ha! Look where he’s left his ball! Knows I’m too good on attack doesn’t he? Has to snooker me.” I just managed to scrape the white away past the black, chinking it onto a nearby red and saving the foul.

“Not much else you could’ve done there.”

“Thanks Vern, any other bright remarks?”

Neville potted another red, then the brown and then doubled a red into the middle pocket setting himself up for the black.

“Don’t stuff this one up Neville,” I said. “President’s got to have his eye in, got to be able to deliver under pressure.”

Neville smashed the black ball into the back of the pocket. The ball swished through the net and hit the bottom with a thud. He shot me a smug smile as he re-chalked his cue. I felt like ramming it up one of his hairy nostrils.

“Lucky. Hey look at this, boy,” I shouted across the room. “He can sink them alright can’t he, Frankie? I think the photos made him nervous. Maybe it was his idea to take them down: didn’t want the old masters looking on and taking the piss out of his amateur play.”

More reds went down in between the green and brown and then the blue again. A few people had gathered around the able to watch. “What’s this? The President’s match?” one of them asked.

“No,” said Neville. “There’s just one of them here.”

My turn came and I played a few short shots because I was feeling rather cut. I fouled on the green and swore as I banged the cue against the table. “This damn cue is bent. Can’t play properly with a bent cue.”

Neville won the first frame. The other congratulated him and like a bunch of schoolchildren, followed him over to his chair where they smoked cigarettes. I stood by myself, watching Vern who was hovering at the fringe of the group: I caught his eye and lowered my eyebrows hoping to pierce him with the guilt of his betrayal.

“Must be the cue, eh Gussy?” Neville parted the men with a regal sweep of his sausage hands and stepped forward. A cigarette hung from his mouth like a soggy chip.

“Yeah, it hasn’t got much going for it – like a couple of people I know.”

Neville rested his cue on the table.”What’s your problem, old man?”

“I’ll tell you my problem: it’s being beaten by a nobody with shit for brains who doesn’t deserve to be a member of this club, that’s what my goddam problem is.”

“For Christ’s sake, Gus. It’s just a-”

“Don’t you start, Vern,” I hissed. “None of this would’ve happened if you hadn’t put up this imbecile for nomination.”

“I’m not an imbecile.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

“Steady on, fellas,” came a call from one of the tables.

“Now you listen here, Gus,” said Neville lifting his shoulders.

“Don’t talk to me like that, sonny, or I’ll have you.”

“And do what? What the bloody hell are you going to do? Just listen to yourself – you’re flamin’ losing it! ”

“No, you’re losing it,” I said looking directly into his beady eyes.

“You’ve got to move on, Gus, let go, or whatever. Get that bloody chip off your shoulder.”

“Piss off.”

“You’re not the President anymore, Gus, and you’re not the best snooker player.”

“This isn’t about snooker, it’s about the right person doing the job and I don’t think you’re the right person. I’m entitled to an opinion aren’t I? I was playing snooker at this club when you were still sucking on your mother’s teet you witless prick, and you’ve got the hide to just waltz in here and take over!”

“Fair go mate, you’re overreacting a-”

“You all wanted to see me out, I know what you’re all thinking.” I ripped the badge from my shirt and held it up to Neville’s face. “You want this? This is the real deal pal – you’ll never deserve to wear it.”

“Maybe I’m not the right person but more people wanted me to be President than you mate. I don’t need a badge to tell me that.”

“Don’t call me mate, son. You and Vern bullied them into it,” I bellowed.

“Grow up, Gus,” said Neville and then walked out of the room. The others looked at me, shaking their heads before they filed out after him. Only Vern remained, standing in the corner, coughing at the ground.

“So you forfeit then?” I called after him and threw my badge down at the table. It bounced and fell flat on the green expanse. Suddenly I felt overcome with fatigue and the burning of my anger fell from my head down to my knee. I limped over to a seat.

“Are you alright, Gus?” Vern said.

“What do you care?”

“I was just on my way out too, but I thought I’d give you this before I went.” Vern put a thin rectangle on the table. It was wrapped in a yellow cloth which was stained with blue chalk and cooking oil. “It’s a present from the club and the committee. A sort of, ‘thanks for your service’ gift – nothing special. Aren’t you going to open it?”

“What is it? My bloody director’s fee?” I pulled away the cloth to reveal a picture of seven solemn faces and one cheeky grin. I brushed my fingers over their heads, pausing at mine and thinking of the brand of cigarettes I used to smoke, and how much I had paid for the white Kingswood we were leaning on, and of how had given up both after Joan had died. Vern was sitting on the bonnet of the vehicle. His cheeks were a bit fuller in the photo, but he still had the same bald head. I moved my eyes to Jackie Spagnolo’s white teeth and closed eyes, which now, seemed to be the only colourful thing about that black and white scene.

I shook my head. “This…”

“The Board said it was okay. ‘After all he’s done,’ they said.”

“Vern… mate…”

“Hope you enjoy it.”

“I’m…” I was still transfixed on the photo. “I’m sorry, mate.” But Vern had already walked out.

There were several visitors playing at the tables but the room seemed empty. I rubbed my knee and got up. The pain seared my entire leg as I trundled over to the faded green wall where all the Snooker Committee photos had once hung. The original wallpaper frowned from dark green rectangles and the rusty hooks, relieved of their load, curled towards the ceiling. I slid the photo on to one of them and stood back to check the alignment.

“That’s better, mate,” said one of players behind me. “Liven the place up a bit.”

“Yeah,” I said under my breath. “Livens it up alright.” I limped over to get my badge from the main table and then hobbled out of the room and into grey smoke of the main bar.

The headstone

A shining four-wheel drive hurtled down the coastline of northern New South Wales. Past the summer chorus of cicadas it moved, past the high shoulders and lines of deep blue and down into the still heat of shallow valleys. The driver tapped his fingers on the leather steering wheel as the car soared over potholes.

“As soon as you can, don’t rush” his mother had said, offering the cautionary tale of how Aunty Beth had fallen off the end of the Earth in her mini-van. As soon as he could it would be then, all the way on a Tuesday morning with a yawn and two aspirins and the smell of salt reaching into the back of his mind.

He was committed this time. The last few years in his city apartment had passed without so much as a ripple; Martin had come to stay a few times, even his parents had learned to use email so there was contact, but it was never as close as it once was. He had left and that was it. And now he was riding the wave back to where questions and confrontations awaited him.

Hunter had grown up the son of a drunk and was thankful for the escape that adulthood had given him. His money had paid for the erasure of childhood confusions and impossible interpretations of wild language and projectiles in his parents’ living room – stories that steamed through the rafters of a small town and out into the Pacific Ocean. But he had always been a good boy they had said; him and that good looking brother of his, they’ll be right, they’d said.

“Yeah, I’ll be right,” Hunter thought as he rode the perforated ribbon into the brick universe, flanked by a reception of dishevelled wheelie bins.

He mounted the concrete gutter and edged his machine into the shade. A curtain parted and the pale face of his mother appeared for a second and then faded into the darkness.

Hunter’s mother smelled exactly like he remembered – a mixture of dough and musk. She cried and laid her small forehead on his breast. He stroked her hair and toyed with the wooden hairpin she had bought in Polynesia.

“Where’s Martin?”

“He went out, down to the beach. Down to the beach, I think. Oh, Hunter! It’s been so hard on him, my poor darling. He and your father-”

“I know, Mum,” Hunter said and pulled a mobile phone from his back pocket before sinking into the weathered, floral couch of the living room. He began sweeping the cushions with his hands, lightly, like he was touching the cover of an ancient book. Grains of sand sprinkled off the edge onto the floor and onto a pile of photo albums.

“So, Martin’s arranging the funeral?”

“Yes,” Mrs Morrisey sniffed, pulling a handkerchief from inside the cuff of her shirt. “You know, Hunter, it all happened so suddenly, the impact of that stroke took five seconds to kill your father, but it’s taking longer to get at me. I don’t know how to feel, Hunter, do you? Twenty-nine years, Hunter, nearly as old as you, your father and I. He was damned I think, a man damned. Look, I found these old photo albums….”

“And the rest of the family? Uncle Robert and Thelly? How are they all getting here?”

His mother gazed at the photos.

“Perhaps I can call Trent, a friend from work, we studied together. Studied law,” Hunter pursued. “I don’t trust that solicitor of his. You know he’s dodgy.”

Photos old and blurry.

“And what about his shares?”

“Ah? Let’s not worry about that now, Hunter, ok?” Mrs Morrisey breathed out the words.

Hunter swallowed hard. He had cried when his mother called with the news of his father’s death. She had described over the phone how his father had twisted and wheezed as the stroke laid him down on the main street of his home town. Hunter had cried at work and wiped his wet eyes with a red, coarse tie in front of the entire staff. Now he felt that if he were to betray his feelings in front of his mother, this lady who was shaking, who used to shake at the sight of a dirty kitchen and publicly bemoan her weekly menthol cigarette, he would feel more ashamed than ever.

The kettle clicked. Mrs Morrisey mother scurried off into the kitchen.

  *          *          *

Andrew Morrisey’s absence moved around the house like a ghost – whenever Hunter went to fetch a beer from the rumpus room bar or when his brother smiled and the family dimples lit up his cheeks. The walls sighed and Hunter half expected his father to burst in, golf clubs over his arm, growling in alcoholic appreciation. But the house kept its secret; which suited them all. While in the town of local men and women and dogs, beers had been raised with bowed heads and the whispers metered off behind private doors.

The phone rang.

“Hello, ah, yes, Martin, is it?”

“No, Hunter.”

“Oh, Hunter. Back from Brisbane? That’s nice. Nice town Brisbane.”

“Who’s this?”

“Oh, sorry. Jack. Jack Oldfield. An old friend of Trish’s. Is your Mum in?”

“No.”

“Out is she? Down at the shops perhaps, busy downtown today. Yes, well just let her know I called – I hope she’s doing all right. I, ah, yes, well, nice talking with you.”

Hunter left the phone on the table and sat down to finish his coffee.

Martin fell through the door wearing only his wet suit and swished over the kitchen tiles. Hunched shoulders slurped down a litre of water, heaving and cracking in osmotic excitement.

“Ahhhhhh,” he licked. “Surf’s shit hot today.”

“Someone called.”

“Let me guess, Jack?”

“Yeah, who’s he?”

“Mum’s boyfriend or something.”

“Bullshit.”

“The guy’s been hanging around for ages, think he was Mum’s bridge partner or some shit.”

“Dad’s just died for fuck’s sake. How long’s this been going on?”

“I dunno. Mum doesn’t know I know. Just found out really.”

“Well, didn’t you say anything? Martin-”

“Hey, don’t blame me! What was I going to say? Can’t say anything now, she’s too upset.”

“How’d you find out?”

“Well, that’s the thing. I haven’t got any proof. He’s been over here a few times and he’s been calling, saying he’s got to talk to Mum about the bridge club, spinning some crap like that. And Mum gets all shy and takes the phone into her room, like she doesn’t want me to hear or something. I know it’s something. But he knows about you, always asking, ‘how’s your brother going?’ and ‘how’s the big businessman doing in the city?’. Sounds like an arsehole. Even though Dad was shit-faced half the time, doesn’t mean anything – Mum’s still upset and she doesn’t need guys like Oldfield hanging around for scraps.”

“I don’t want him anyway near this place while I’m here. Not before the funeral, not even at the funeral. I don’t care who he is, ok?”

“Ok, ok. Don’t lose it. But you’d better tell Mum, yeah?”

“Where is she anyway?”

“Dunno, playing cards I suppose.”

Hunter kicked away from the table. “I’m going for a drive.”

  *          *          *

It was wider back then, but creeping lawns and suburban competition had smoothed over the strip of tar that led into town. The shortcut through the backstreet had remained, as had the old A-frame house where Hunter had had his first taste of passion with Greta Simpson. A rusted Kombi out the front told him that the Simpsons had abandoned the house long ago, but he sped up past the house anyway in case the sharp eyes of old Mr Simpson were still lurking behind the balcony window. Mr Simpson had known about the party, that much was sure, and had grounded Greta for one whole month. But Hunter only suspected that he had discovered the blood on the bed, the used condom and the shame of his daughter. The flush of memory made him shift in his seat, and he pushed it away with the speed of his vehicle. And as he pressed the pedal, the road remembered and, just as it had done more than fifteen years ago, it shot him like a catapult into the main street of town.

There had been a fight in the pub the night before. The carpet was wet and covered with broken glass. A small man with a plastic cap and hardend potbelly sat on the end of the bar and crunched on a cigarette butt. With each roll of his jaw he seemed to masticate the history of the town: the drinking partners, the games and gossip.

“You know, m’boy, yer old man loved a few, that’s true, but he was a good man and a good mate,” Max said, almost gagging on the word. “Sorry to see him pass on.”

Hunter took his beer slow and waited for Max to recover.

“Yip, I’ll tell ya, he had something in yer mother too. Nice woman yer Mum. Heart of gold, what, with her charities. A woman in charity feeds the souls of a thousand men. How is she by the way? Must be hard on yers all. Bad way to go. Right on the middle of the bloody street, in front of everyone, like a sack o’ shit.”

Max raised a blood-shot eye to the ceiling, muttering to the heavens and the dry wood and cobwebs.

“She put up with a lot of shit, you know, Max. Dad coming home pissed all the time. That is if he ever came home. You should bloody well know.”

“What, yer saying it’s all my fault, are ya? I’ll tell ya this, Andy might have got on it pretty damn hard, harder than most yer might say, but he never said a bad word about none of yers. Loved yers, more than anything he did.” Max paused and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and nodded his head as if it were causing him great pain. “Yip, especially you, m’boy, despite all that shit floatin’ around. Those were his own words I tell ya, plain as that. Faithful. Never looked twice at a bird. And well, yer mother, God bless her, running about town like that, with those fuckin’ ponces-“

“What shit floating round?”

“Load of cod’s wallop. Of course yer a Morrisey! Yer Dad knew it and so do I.”

Hunter turned away.

“Sorry about that, son. I said sorry, hey? Look, yer old man’s passed away, that stuff doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Mum never cheated on Dad. What the hell would you know anyway?”

“I’ve known yer Mum and Dad for a long time, got a lot of respect for the Morrisey’s I have, the whole friggin’ lot of yers. If it wasn’t fer yer Dad, well, son, I probably wouldn’t be here.” Max replaced the chewed cigarette butt with a fresh one. “Put me up some nights, lent me a few bob here and there. Youse were pretty well off, yer know, with that council job of Andy’s. Good man considering. Yip. And, well, your Mum and I never got on much, but you know I respect her and all. I just seemed to rub her the wrong way. But God damnit, yer had a family, more than I ever had.”

Max rubbed his unshaven chin. His face, scrawny and sickly under the artificial lights, screwed up as if he were calculating a sum in his head. Hunter remembered Max’s face from when he was young, before his mother had banned him from the family home, when he and his father would curse the sky, vomit in the back garden and fill the house with the stench of uncertainty. At their apogee, the world seemed to Hunter like a rabid place and he small and defenceless. He thought of the time when Max was holding Martin above his shoulders in a drunken game of ferris wheel. They had both fallen backwards onto one of his mother’s earthenware pots, leaving Martin with a gaping hole in his calf.

“By God, you never found out, did ya? Christ, it was all over the bloody wall, yer mother and that prick. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Jack Oldfield? Drives that red cortina?”

“No.”

“I can’t bloody believe it. I’m sorry to be the one to break to yer, mate. He’s an accountant or some bloody thing. He’s a dickhead if yer ask me. Maybe it was the money. He’s got plenty of it you know, and tight – like a fish’s arse. But not with yer Mum, I should hope.”

“She didn’t say anything.”

“That’s normal, son. Why would she? An’ yer father was too ashamed to do anything, poor bloke – what, with all the talk goin’ about. It were you kids that he cared about. Yip. Might have taken it out on her, but he never left her side, never stopped providing for you, God damnit.”

“This is such utter crap, Max.”

“Yip, you knows best, mate. I’m only telling you what I hear, okay? There’s some nasty rumours goin’ around, and fer ya father’s sake, don’t you believe none of the shit those people come up with. You are who you are – son of Andy Morrisey, a local legend.”

 *          *          *

Trish Morrisey sat on the couch with her legs together, biting her lip. She blew on an empty cup of tea, half smiling.

“Who’s Jack Oldfield?” Hunter asked.

Trisha pursed her lips and leant back into the lounge.

“Mum, it’s not a secret anymore. Don’t treat me like an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot, darling. He’s a close friend. That’s all. From bridge. That’s all.”

“How close?”

“He’s just a friend, Hunter. Someone who’s helped me through the times when your father couldn’t. You remember those times?”

“That’s not what ol’ Max had to say. “

“And you’d believe that old drunk, would you? Couldn’t string a coherent thought together if one was given to him on a rosary. I can’t believe you talked to him. I told you stay away from him, what, after your brother. He played his part that Max. That’s what years on the grog does to you.”

“Mum, it’s okay, I just want to know.”

“No!” Trisha put her hand to her mouth. “Just let your father have this time,” she whispered. “This one time at his death. The cousins, your Aunty Robert, Thelly, they’re all here and want to pay their respects, can’t you just do that too?”

“And then what, it’s over?”

“What’s over?”

“You know what I mean!”

“Please… Hunter.”

“What’s wrong, are you ashamed?”

“Yes, I’m ashamed! Is that what you want me to say? I’m ashamed because I really wanted to leave. Because of your father mainly, but I was so close. So close to leaving you all. Oh!”

“But you didn’t.”

“No, I didn’t,” Trish sighed and her shoulders fell and she put her head in her hands. “Jack convinced me to stay, for your sake. For Martin’s sake.”

“So you admit having an affair with this guy?”

“I shouldn’t have to justify it to you!”

“Why did we never find out, Mum? What’s the big secret? For fuck’s sake, what is the deal with all the shit that went on? You didn’t think we could handle it, did you?”

“Your father loved you, Hunter, both of you, just as much-”

“What do you mean? Just as much as if I were his own son? “

“No, I didn’t mean-”

“Tell me!”

“Please don’t shout Hunter, sit down now, come on, just sit down please!”

Hunter reeled. His hands scraped across his scalp as he regurgitated the words he was trying to swallow. In his mind a tiny beep sounded. It grew louder and louder and filled the room. Hunter took his mobile phone from his back pocket and looked at it. He moved through the house and into the kitchen before answering. When he returned to the living room, Mrs Morissey was lying on the couch with the empty teacup resting on her stomach.

“That was Martin. The head stone’s ready to be picked up.”

“Good.”

“I’ll take my car.” Hunter stopped short of giving his mother a goodbye kiss and backed away. Mrs Morissey turned her face into the pillow.

Hunter was at the door when he heard a whimper.

“Hunter?”

“Yes?”

“What did they write on it?”

“Andrew Morrisey – loving husband and dedicated father of two sons.”

Mrs Morrisey turned to face her son and they both curled their thin lips. Hunter looked up at the clock on the wall.

“You’d better go then.”

“Yeah,” Hunter said and flexed like a spring before bouncing out the door.