Nathaniel gazes bleary-eyed at the burgeoning blossoms on the ornamental plum outside his house. Buds like small bombs about to burst in balls of pink flame. Two weeks and they’ll be done. A whole year before they come out again. Fifty weeks waiting for just two weeks of show.
His eyes sweep over the unkempt lawn, the climbing roses with their knee-high weeds entwined around their arching stems. A cracked pot plant. A dilapidated garden arch from Bunnings. And the small rusty scooter that he hasn’t touched since.
Above is a steel and smokegrey sky, the colour of the frigate his sailor father used to serve on. HMAS Adelaide. A cruise in the Indian Ocean. More rain up there too. Warragamba spilling again. Never known so much. Water, water everywhere. Lifejackets in a tempest. Lookouts can barely make out the Adelaide’s bow.
He spoons his almost dry cereal into his mouth. Should’ve bought milk last night. Might take the car to buy some now. Parking always a nightmare on Saturday mornings. But unmilked coffee tastes like horsepiss. Never tasted horsepiss but it probably tastes like black coffee. Don’t want to speak to that moron at the newsagent. Never lets me pass without a word. Not really friendly. Just pretends to be. Nosey as Pinocchio.
Shuffling listlessly across the untidy kitchen he removes the shrilling kettle from its holder and pours boiling water into his cat mug over two spoonfuls of instant coffee and one of sugar, and mixes clockwise, counts to fifteen then does it anti-clockwise counting back to zero. He always does that since.
He retrieves yesterday’s plastic milk bottle from the recycling container and upends it. Squeezes it like a bellows. A dribble of foamy milk greys the black liquid. He pours hot water into the milk bottle, swishes it around and pours a few more drops of whitened dregs.
He packs the red and white scarf in his backpack. Spare underpants. Socks as well. Wonders whether it’s wise to bring the wool-lined coat. Nice feeling that, arms snug. But hot on the bus. Can’t be that cold. Don’t want to lug that thing around. What if she?
Which novel to take? If she sees? What will she think? Kind of lied about literature. History’s more my thing. Stretched the truth. Like a job interview. List your achievements, no I’d prefer tell you my failures, far more interesting and the half an hour will pass much quicker. He packs both Anna Karenina and The Da Vinci Code in his black backpack.
He rinses a metal bowl and fills it with fresh water. His wavering reflection on the silver surface. Rather that than look at a real mirror. Imperfections more real in a dish of water.
A grey-white cat meows and rubs its arched body against his denim jeans.
‘I’ll just be a minute, Virgil. I’ll get your favourite cat food for crying out loud.’
Nathaniel empties a sachet of cat food into another dish. ‘There you go. Don’t eat it all at once. Hopefully I won’t be back until tomorrow. Stay out of trouble alright?’
For the umpteenth time he looks at the message she’s sent on the app: ‘Circular Quay – 5pm. Pale blue sweater. Ineluctable modality of the visible. peace-emoji.’
After he locks the door behind him he looks once more at the ornamental plum. One of the buds has opened, the brightest pink he’s ever known. Must be all that rain. It won’t be long before I’ll be raking brown rain-sodden petals from the path.
There’s a movement behind the tree. A raven is perched on the paling fence. There’s a ruffle of deep black raven feathers as it hops to the branch and shuffles along it. The raven perches there, black as coal. Black, like a lone trireme on the stormswept Mediterranean flying out of the west with its hostage in the hold. A lustcrazed Paris foaming at the mouth urging his well muscled oarsman on through the night. Oh, Helen, Helen, come, come with me. Oh Helen, stay, stay with me. You will be my queen.
The raven opens its beak.
At the bus stop a bitter wind bites.
Where on earth did this come from? A cold front from Antarctica according to the weather app. Serves me right for not bringing the damn coat. Should’ve checked the weather app before I left. Too busy checking that other app. Our worlds ruled by apps.
He takes the scarf out of his backpack and loops it around his neck. Tucks it in at the throat.
‘Cold,’ says a man in a black puffer jacket and blue beanie. His misty breath forms a cloud the shape of the word ‘cold.’
‘From Antarctica the app says,’ Nathaniel replies.
The man nods. ‘I’d believe it. Apps these days are never wrong.’
Nathaniel forces a smile. Thrusts his hand into his pockets
A gust sprays fine raindrops over him.
A wild night. Dark night. Weather closing in. HMAS Adelaide off the coast of Colombo. Stinging rain sheeting sideways across a slanting deck. A shitscared cry from near the stern, ‘Man overboard!’
A desperate, desperate search. All night the weather. Great rolling waves. Thunder rumbling above. The Adelaide knifing through the crests throwing up great columns of spray and foam. The next day was perfectly clear. Blue skies over blue seas. Like nothing happened. And there, just there, off to starboard, a floating body.
Waiting for the bus in the cold. A line of puff-jacketed fog exhaling humans. A few children too. These bus shelters never keep the wind off. Only exist so vandals can smash the glass.
He scans the timetable. Water has blurred the numbers. Or maybe it’s just his eyes. He has to squint to read the numbers and even then can barely make them out. There’s the 418 at 09:12 or the 420X at 09:19. The express doesn’t stop at that out of the way place. Best get this first one in case the express is cancelled. Often happens on a Saturday. Don’t want to get frostbite waiting for a bus that might never come.
The bus arrives. The wind gusts. People’s scarves flap. The queue like an L.S. Lowry painting. They shuffle slowly on. The heat inside. Like a sauna. The air a heavy fug of artificial heat and human breath. He goes upstairs. Better view from there. There’s thick condensation on the glass. Through a window like a porthole on a submarine he looks. Traffic speeds by, tyres sluicing through streams of slick water.
Nathaniel checks his phone again: Circular Quay – 5pm. Pale blue sweater…
He twists to take his backpack off. Unzips it. Takes out his book and opens to the beginning. The bus lurches forward. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Nathaniel jerks awake as the bus jolts along the approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The sky is still a gloomy grey but at least the rain has stopped. Like everyone else he looks wide-eyed at the harbour. Never loses its magic. The Opera House’s slick sails down there have an eerie phosphorescence. At the point of land there where Bennelong the warrior was. The squat shape of Fort Denison in the middle of the harbour like a partially surfaced submarine. Steelgrey water. When he swivels to his right he can see the buildings of Parramatta in the distance. Burramatta, with its abundance of eels.
Two frigates are tied up at Garden Island. Woolloomooloo. And that supply ship, already near the heads.
Off Colombo a body face down still in a life jacket. Dragged onboard by the Adelaide’s rescue crew. A corpse with dead eyes. Hardaker on his name badge.
A ferry arcs toward the Quay. Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788 must have taken the same course. What would it have looked like back then? Gadigal country.
Down there near the Observatory a young Lieutenant of the Marines. Puts his eye to a telescope. Brings the endless stars into focus. Everything new up there. Other side of the world from England. Here he learns not just about nature: for in the young indigenous woman, Patyegarang, he discovers a teacher. Gazing up into southern skies. So many secrets. Taught him her native tongue she did. Language of the Eora. Did she gasp when she looked through the telescope for the first time? Probably smiled at Dawes then. Stargazers both of them. Starcrossed. Were they lovers?
A cruise ship dwarfs the dock at the Quay. Ovation of the Seas. No secrets on a cruise. Just all you can eat buffets. All you can drink. Perhaps I could stowaway on her. Do they still have stowaways? What would happen if they capture you out at sea? They can’t really turn around out on the lonely Pacific.
At Wynyard, he gets off the bus, sidesteps The Big Issue seller and continues up York Street until he reaches Barrack Street. There’s a meaning there. Macquarie built his barracks here. A giant wall extending from York to George and a long way down. Too high for anyone to peep over. Redcoats on a parapet watching people on George Street. Like CCTV cameras back then.
He crosses the light rail lines on George Street. He knows the middle rail carries the current. Perfectly safe they say unless the tram’s right on it. He steps over it anyway.
Now he’s at the Cenotaph facing the sailor, a look of eternal vigilance on his face. He stands before it, imagining being on the dogwatch on stormy seas. The Adelaide on exercise.
The incline on Martin Place tugs on his leg muscles. In front of him people are gesticulating. Making a racket. A man is speaking, clearly very moved about something. His audience is too. He remembers on the news, people strolling through a Palace. Watching the cricket on a big screen TV in the lounge. People swimming in the pool. Cleaning up after they leave.
A knot of police, arms folded, look on lazily as the mob clap, chant, and clamour for change.
Colourful flags. A gold lion on a dark red background. Remember it from the cricket. Bangladesh? No – Sri Lanka. Colombo, the capital.
It was off Colombo where Quarter Master Gunner Hardaker of HMAS Adelaide drowned in the service of his country. Mourned by family and friends. Loving husband of Jill. Devoted father of Robert and Nathan.
A coffin so small. He could have laughed at how bizarre it looked. So out of place.
More flags. More people.
Blue and Gold. The mighty eels? Surely the NRL would not have scheduled Parramatta to play in the city today.
That wind chills.
People chanting. A golden-haired woman standing on a milk crate. Haranguing. Not them. Vladimir Putin. Oh, these are Ukranians. Seems so far away but here they are right in Martin Place. Brave, some of them. Most of them. Woman on the news with a belt of machine gun bullets across her shoulder is a ballet dancer. A group of young blokes holding rocket launchers are poets. Zelensky’s earnest face saying ‘don’t fuck with me.’
Walking faster now in an attempt to warm himself, heads up towards Sydney Hospital. Reverently, he rubs the snout of the brass boar. Please bring me luck, oh great porcine deity. Once again, he checks the app. Pale blue sweater. She, maybe?
He turns into Macquarie Street and walks towards Hyde Park. Small knots of Ukranians, Sri Lankans, and their friends pass by in the opposite direction.
Something in his shoe makes Nathaniel grimace. ‘Ouch,’ he says. He stops and bends down and unties the laces of his left shoe. Leaning against an iron railing he tips out a few small red pebbles. The forecourt of The Mint is full of the red pebbles. How did one get in my shoe? He went on a tour of The Mint once. Should go again. They said a bloke turned up one day with a bag of gold. Thank you, sir, they said. Pay you in cash, sir. That’s quite a haul. No questions asked. It wasn’t until later they found out it was the notorious Captain Moonlite and his gains were ill-gotten and blood besmirched. You could get away with it back then. No CCTV cameras tracking you. Hope he enjoyed the spoils. Ended up swinging on the end of a noose in Darlinghurst jail. Not a jail now. Law courts? That’s right, it’s the National Art School. Went there a few years ago. Lots of people hanged there. Wouldn’t want to go there at night. Ghosts of corpses swinging in every room. Captain Moonlite trying to bargain for his soul with gold. Gold burns in hell mate, just as easily as rotting flesh and bones.
At Hyde Park, Mario Lanza blasts from an old-style portable CD player. The sound is thin and tinny. Saccharine strings accompany a rich voice that bounces back off the verdant canopy of sprawling Moreton Bay Figs. A man standing over the giant chess game is deep in thought. Stalinesque features right down to the thick moustache and bushy eyebrows, although whitened with age. A barrel-like body. Must have been a body builder in his youth. Or a wrestler. He’s now in the same mind space, only using his brain not brawn. A small Chinese man sits cross-legged on the bench, socked feet in brown sandals, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
The big man grabs his black knight and drags it a few paces and pushes the white queen off the board. The small man’s eyes take note of the chequered squares and he picks up his rook and uses it to take the black knight.
The big man claps his hands and in a booming Eastern European voice says, ‘Checkmate, my friend.’
The big man’s eyes turn to Nathaniel. Slowly, a look of recognition passes between them. He lifts his finger.
‘You’re the Hardaker boy?’
Now Nathaniel remembers. The Russian family that used to live on their street when he was little. Ivan, we used to call him. Made jokes about his accent then. Not to his face.
‘Your father was a good man. It’s a disgrace what happened on the ship. Should never have happened. Come, play.’
Nathaniel checks his watch. Plenty of time. Walks over and drags the waist-high chess pieces into position. Then he contemplates his next move.
At the end of the game Nathaniel shakes Ivan’s hand. ‘Don’t forget to read Turgenev,’ Ivan says. He remembers that was always something he used to say but as kids they could never quite understand what he was saying. He makes a mental note to visit the book store and see if they have any Turgenev.
‘I’ll do that,’ says Nathaniel, please to be released from the bearlike grip.
He crosses the park. Passes the boarded up Archibald Fountain. Has looked like that for a few years. Doesn’t look like they’ll ever finish it. They say Covid means it’s hard to get workers but probably they just couldn’t be bothered.
A struggling sun breaks through the cloistered clouds. He enters the Cathedral. A choir practising. He listens for a minute in the half-lit church. Boys voices like angels, and as they finish, the harmonic drone of mens voices, lingering, echoing, reverberating around the vast space.
He sits on a pew.
His brother coughing, coughing, coughing. Coughin’ there near the coffin. So small. It looked ridiculous. Leesa, barely sensible.
He gets up. Crosses to the other side. Sits beside a gaggle of stone-faced sinners. When one finishes they all shift along the pew. A pew polished by the arses of sinners. That’s the purest kind of cleaning. He looks up to the stained glass windows. A splurge of colour. Up much higher, nearer the ceiling, the windows aren’t stained and they filter the light the colour of gold.
Not that gold was any help to you, Captain Moonlite. All the gold in the world would never buy your life back. Gold, gold, everywhere. Can’t take it with you pal. Did you confess? Show remorse? What exactly did you say to the priest, Captain? Did you repent before they slipped the coarse noose over your scrawny neck?
They all shift along one space.
The door opens. He stiffens, walks in and says, ‘Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.’
Jason Kappas burps bellicosely as he places the empty burger box back on the table. He gives a lettucetoothed grin to the old lady pulling a face at him. He bites into his second Big Mac and lets out a putrescent fart. Silent. Don’t want to give the old bag a heart attack. That fart was pretty rank though. I’ll just lick that blob of special sauce off my chin, thank you very much.
The old lady walks past fires him a fetid look.
Just as he finishes his second Big Mac one of the staff calls out his order number from the McCafe. He strolls eagerly to the counter and picks up a slice of New York cheesecake with foamy whipped cream on the side, and an extra large cappuccino.
He picks up The Daily Telegraph and brings it over to his table.
RUCKMAN INJURED WILL MISS BIG GAME
Injured? Fuck! That’s a disaster. He reads every word, clicking his tongue and shaking his head. Passers-by might have thought he was reading his mother’s obituary.
MAGPIES START FAVOURITES
More tales of woe. The odds have changed though. He gets out his phone and places a ten dollar bet against his own team. He stabs his fork into the cheesecake and shoves a giant piece into his mouth. Masticates like a Guernsey cow. Cold. Must have come straight out of the freezer. Washes it down with some coffee. Good combination that.
TANNOUS TO START
Now that’s better news. Plenty of ticker that bloke. Should do well alongside the indigenous lad, Lewis.
COUCH POTATO COMPETITION
On the next page is the ad for the competition for a big screen TV. Let us know in twenty-five words or less how winning the 77-inch giant screen will transform you permanently into that better type of vegetarian known as the couch potato. A grin creeps across his face. He tears out the ad and puts it into his pocket. Starts thinking about those twenty-five words. Do they really read them? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a twenty-five word winning entry ever published in a newspaper.
Not much good at writing. Better at sums.
He leaves McDonalds and stops at the newsagent. He hopes Minh is there today. Ah, yes, there she is. Nice figure. Push up bra I think. Pert breasts is what those writers would say. Underwire support. Wish I hadn’t eaten that second Big Mac. Actually the first one as well. Better tuck my shirt in. Tuck in my gut while I’m at it. Taught her son in my Maths class. Bloody clever. Nice boy. Daughter at the girls’ school. A pity about her husband. Two years ago. Just dropped dead at his work. Brain aneurism. Was dead before he hit the floor. Nasty stuff.
‘What would you like today, Jason?’ Minh says, her smile a blaze of almost perfect teeth.
‘A set for life, a dozen games in the pot of gold lottery and ten of those two-dollar scratchies.’
‘That will be forty-two dollars. Good luck. You never know, today might be your lucky day.’
She says this in such a charming way that Jason looks up at her. She has the skin of a twenty year old although she must be twice that age. A nice gold necklace on a thin chain. Sad eyes but with a flicker of something else that he can’t quite put his finger on.
He says, ‘I hope so,’ and grins stupidly. He taps his card on the card reader and it emits an unmusical sequence of beeps.
‘You going to the game today I see,’ Minh says.
‘Yes, it should be a ding dong match.’
‘Who are they playing?’
‘Magpies. Eddie Maguire’s mob.’
‘Oh yeah, that Millionaire guy.’
‘That’s the one.’
‘Um, what are you doing after?’
He is scooping the receipts for the lottery tickets into his wallet when she says this. He kind of freezes mid scoop. A strange flush comes over him.
She leans forward in her pertness and says in a whisper, ‘Why not have dinner with me tonight?’
The tingling spreads up the back of his neck like a rash.
Jason is aware of another customer becoming fidgety. ‘I..I..don’t know.’
‘Here’s my Twitter handle.’ She writes on a yellow post-it note and gives it to him. DM me later if you want to come and I’ll let you know where we’ll go.’
He leaves Westfield in a kind of a trance. Even the post-it note in his hand has taken on the aspect of sacred scripture. He studies Minh’s pert handwriting as he descends the station steps. From the platform a voice calls out to him.
‘Jayce! How you doin’ mate?’
‘Hi Kazmah. I’m pretty good. Looking forward to the game?’
‘Defo. Everything alright? Looks like you’ve seen a ghost.’
Jason shakes his head. ‘All good, mate.’
“THE TRAIN ON PLATFORM TWO WILL STOP AT KOGARAH, ROCKDALE, WOLLI CREEK THEN ALL STATIONS TO BONDI JUNCTION.”
On the train he gets out his phone and opens his DMs on Twitter. He enters Minh’s Twitter handle then types: Yes, Minh I would love to – he crosses out love and changes it to like – have dinner. Please let me know when and where to meet. His finger hovers over the send icon.
Kazmah elbows him under the ribs and says something about the injury to the ruckman and how the Magpies will now be favourites.
‘Did you see young Tannous is playing,’ Jason says. ‘Hope he’ll make the most of the opportunity.’
‘He’ll be right mate. He’s a Leb. He’ll smash it out of the park.’
They talk for a while about football. The talk brings him back to his comfort zone. He switches apps to the sports betting one and checks the latest odds. He places a bet on young Tannous kicking three or more goals on debut. When they stop talking he puts the phone away and gets out a pencil and the piece torn out of the newspaper and tries to think of those twenty-five words.
‘Come here, Homer.’
The small black dog pads back from the water’s edge. It hops up and places wet sandy paws against his owner’s shin. The owner, a woman in her late thirties, bends down and pats the dog’s curly black fur.
She giggles at the little dog’s insistent licking. Many a time the dog had licked her full on the lips when she wasn’t on guard.
Homer is shivering as she picks him up, his little heart pounding like a miniature drum machine. She gives Homer a squeeze and in response the dog thrusts out its pink tongue, licking her on the cheek.
‘Just as well I’m going to have a shower when we get home. I’m sure I smell like a wet salty dog.’
Homer looks up at her through tousled curls, and twisting from side to side tries to lick her again. The woman clips the leash to Homer’s collar and sets him down, winces as the dog shakes its wet body. They walk slowly down the sloping sands to where the waves are wending up the beach with a gentle whoosh. Agitated by the recent storms, the waves have layers of frothy white foam the consistency of the head on a pint of Guinness.
I wouldn’t mind a Guinness right now. Might cure these butterflies. She bends down and scoops a handful of the foam. Blows it. Homer barks. She scoops seafoam by the seashore.
A long way out to sea a navy ship slips slowly south.
‘Look at that, Homer. Is that a supply ship? To think, just one ship looks formidable, imagine what a thousand ships would look like.’
Homer looks up to her with his big dark eyes.
A thousand black ships cross a wine-dark sea. Menelaus, on the prow, muscles tensed, ready to spring to the shore and cave in the skulls of any man who gets in his way. The footsteps of a hundred thousand Greeks running across the wet sands on their way to Troy. The throaty roar of their voices. The din of battle, sword on sword, blood seeping into the sands.
A gust of wind blows over her. Foam flies in her face.
‘Best we get back, Homer. Baths for us both.’
At the small garden apartment she shares with a sometime actress she gives Homer a bath before taking a shower herself.
The doorbell rings.
She opens the door to her sister and her twin nieces.
‘Aunty Helen! Aunty Helen! Look, your hair is blue and yellow!’
The girls give her warm takeyourbreathaway hugs. She holds their warm bodies tightly and suddenly feels she is about to burst into tears but soon they skip past her to fuss over Homer.
‘Hi Darl. Is the blue and yellow supposed to represent something?’ says her sister.
‘I stand with Ukraine, Marie. What else can I say. Do you like it?’
‘I don’t mind. What about tonight though?’
‘Well if he doesn’t like it he can get stuffed.’
Marie laughs. Turns her gaze to where the girls are cuddling the dog. Helen follows her eyes.
‘Thanks for looking after Homer,’ Helen says.
‘That’s no problem. With the girls spoiling him, he’ll probably be a good two kilos heavier when we bring him back tomorrow.’
Then in a more serious tone, ‘Will you be alright tonight?’
‘I’ll be fine. I’ve got my mobile, my mace, my portable shriek alarm…and I’ve been practising my own shriek for good measure. Do you want to hear it?’
‘Maybe not. When does your flatmate get back?’
‘Another week at least. She’s still in LA.’
‘Place to your own then. Great. Alright, we’d better be off. I hope tonight goes alright. Who knows, it may be your lucky day,’ says Marie, giving her a warm embrace.
Helen’s two nieces walk the reluctant Homer to the car. They leave with a toot of the horn and the girls waving. Her nieces high-pitched voices reverberate in her ears as she heads back into her apartment. There’s no noise now. No Homer. She can hear creaks and whispers from the masonry and the windows. You’re 38 now. You’re not meant to be in a stony silent house.
From under her bed Helen drags a crate of empty wine bottles and beer cans and takes them outside. They clunk and clink as loud as a marching band when she upends them into the yellow recycling bin. She looks up at the windows of the neighbouring apartments imagining all the people watching her.
Back inside she hoovers the carpets. Cleans the toilets. Washes her dirty dishes and glasses. Dresses in a black jeans and boots. She checks her phone. Reads the message: at least half that if not more, thought through my eyes.
Time to go. Need some time to relax first. Reading will settle the nerves. Hep pass the time. In her bedroom she scans her bookshelf. Which one? She picks up Ulysses then puts it back down. Instead she takes out Pride and Prejudice.
‘So what will it be?’ she says to herself, popping the book in her bag, ‘Mr Wickham or Mr Darcy?’
She picks up her keys and puts them in her purse. Before stepping outside, she puts on her pale blue sweater.