Geoffrey was floating, high and joyous amidst the whirring fans and rafters of the pub, slowly revolving in his private heaven. The outstretched limbs holding him aloft were his teammates’, raised in adulation; below him, they flocked like the faithful at a fête. The boys were brawny and virile, yelling and slapping each other’s backs and holding on to the girlfriends coddled amongst them with muscular intent. The noise was a raucous evensong.
Amidst a roar of adulation he was gently lowered, like a priest from a palanquin. A wall of exultant faces greeted him with raised glasses and flushed cheeks.
“Drink! Drink!” A beer was thrust into his hand and the chant began.
“One two three – scull!” Heads bent to the heavens and chugged glasses, and glasses were slammed on to laminated tables, rattling the empties and shaking liquor from the refills. A huge lug of a man stepped out of the mob and clapped an enormous palm on Geoffrey’s shoulder, making him cough and spill his beer.
“This is Dash!” announced the big man to the horde. “The fastest bloke on the field! A minute to go and – wham! – he was over the line, and we’re in the final!”
A roar burst from the crowd and a new chant rose.
“Dash the man!” More glasses, more beaming smiles from ruddy faces in polo tops and pretty girls with their hair pinned back. They looked at him expectantly, like devotees attending an oracle.
Geoffrey grinned sheepishly at them. The pub music battered his ears and echoed amidst the general din of the bar. He felt embarrassed by the adulation. He raised his glass.
“Drink up everybody,” he said. The mob roared and drank and responded “Onya Dash!”, and then returned to their own loud conversations. Relieved to no longer be the centre of attention, Geoffrey turned to the man who had made the announcement. His name was Simon but his nickname was Slabs. Built like an outhouse, he had a close cropped shock of white hair, chin like a brick and a chest as big as a tank.
“Thanks, Slabs,” said Geoffrey.
Slabs grabbed Geoffrey’s shoulders with his fists and looked him straight in the eye; Geoffrey’s shoulders were diminutive in Slabs’ massive paws.
“You were the man today, Dash. I’m just a pile driver in the front row, but your pace won the day.”
Geoffrey stared back at him, smiling nervously – he always smiled nervously when Slabs was throwing his weight around – but this time a sudden pall darkened his mind. It was a sickly feeling, a stone in the pit of his stomach. He grimaced and wondered if he had eaten something. Or had drunk too much on an empty stomach. Still in Slabs’ grasp, he glanced at the heaving humanity that crowded the bar, the tanned arms and chiselled thighs, and thought no, this is about him. An aura of vulnerability and apprehension cloaked the muscular heft of his teammate. Despite his bulk, Slabs was profoundly susceptible, but to what he couldn’t say.
He felt himself shaking and heard Slab’s voice in the tumult saying, “Earth to the Dashcam, you with us?”
Geoffrey blinked and looked at the large block of face in front of him. “Yeah, I’m good,” he said. “Drunk a bit. It’s pretty amazing, hey?”
Slabs grinned and slapped Geoffrey’s shoulders.
“You need some totty, mate.” He turned and called into the mob of revellers. “Hey Sienna, bring out Dash’s reward!”
A woman in denim shorts and simple t-shirt emerged from the melee and shouted above the din,
“Hi Geoff, this is Lucy!”
She stepped aside like a theatre impresario and waved her arms to introduce a woman behind her. A magnificent and carefully arrayed cleavage appeared, followed by a flame of red hair which encased a broad smile and sparkling hazel eyes. Geoffrey was immediately captivated.
He dragged his eyes upwards to meet the smiling face of the woman called Lucy, a woman in her late twenties that Geoffrey had not seen in the bar or at football before.
“It’s okay to stare!” Sienna shouted. “I told Luce she was more likely to snare a man if she showed off her assets!”
“Si!” said Lucy and pushed Sienna’s arm. Geoffrey liked the sound of her voice.
“It’s true!” shouted Sienna, and lent into Geoffrey’s ear. “I made her put some perfume on them for later on!” She laughed and said to them both, “I’ll let you crazy cats get acquainted. Lucy! Geoff drinks an IPA. Dash! Lucy’s a champagne girl! C’mon Slabs.” She grabbed one of Slab’s tumescent biceps with both hands and, lobbing a cheeky wave in Geoffrey’s direction, they were absorbed into the mob.
Geoffrey looked at Lucy again, at both her chest and her face. He smiled nervously.
“Hi, I’m Geoff!” he shouted above the noise, and immediately thought what a stupid thing to say.
“Sorry about the intro!” said Lucy. “I’m Lucy.”
Geoffrey looked about shyly, at the crowded bar, the mute televisions on the wall, anywhere but the siren like symphony in front of him that taunted his imagination. She was holding out her hand. He shook it gently. It was smooth and soft. He studied it momentarily.
“Did Sienna really – ?” he eventually asked.
There was a lull in the music as a record changed. Lucy rolled her eyes.
“I can see it’s working!” she said.
Geoffrey covered his eyes and turned side on.
“Oh god, I’m so embarrassed!” he said.
“Don’t be,” she replied. She leant in closer so Geoffrey could hear and he caught a faint trail of her perfume. “I’ve never had the confidence before, so it’s a change. She lent me this skirt too, and the boots.” She pointed Geoffrey to a red hip hugging mini and calf high boots in olive green leather. “Do you like them?”
Like them! Jesus. I’ve never seen such treasures.
“Isn’t it meant to be eyes up?” said Geoffrey.
“Eyes on the prize tonight, sonny!” Lucy’s smile twinkled in the muddle of the pub.
“I better buy us some drinks,” said Geoffrey.
When he managed to finally extract himself from the lines at the bar, Geoffrey paused to admire his good fortune. He still felt overcome by the day – his victory on the pitch, the exuberance of the after party, and his perplexing response to Slabs – and now he faced another challenge: how to impress a very attractive woman and score a one-on-one date with her. Flirting had never been his forte. He was much better at football.
“I went for the Veuve!” he said as he handed her the glass of champagne. “Cheers!” They clinked beer bottle to glass and drank. Geoffrey looked at the people milling about the bar. He heard Lucy shout,
“Do you right two wrongs?”
“What two wrongs?” he shouted back.
“Like two thongs?” she shouted again.
Geoffrey leant in. “What did you say?”
“Let’s find a quieter spot!”
He followed the red skirt and legs in boots to the rear of the pub, where the music was less dominant, and they found a raised table beside a window. He watched as she perched herself on a stool with an easy elegance. She was framed by the window. Outside the day had a touch of the coming evening. Backlit in the window frame, Lucy was a renaissance portrait, attentive, unfathomable, alluring.
She settled down and said, “Dugongs. Do you like dugongs?”
“Oh, dugongs.” He laughed. “Sorry.”
“Yes, dugongs. Do you like them?”
Geoffrey pondered the question. Was it a riddle? Was there a correct answer? Or was it just an innocent question. He didn’t want to ask her in case she felt he was stupid, or mocking her.
“I suppose so,” he said.
“I’m off to see them in a week,” said Lucy. That wasn’t helpful. Maybe she’s talking about a band. He didn’t think he should admit to liking mainstream music, but he was never very good at obscure indy stuff.
“Where are they …” He left the question unfinished lest he expose his ignorance.
“Ningaloo Reef,” said Lucy. She leant across the table. “I’m going on a vacation observation program for a conservation group to count dugongs off the North West coast of WA.”
“Ah,” said Geoffrey, and wanted to add, your breasts are like dugongs. “I wondered where you were going with that!”
“They snuffle for sea grass in the sand beds,” she explained, “so we count them and see if their numbers have changed. They have sensitive whiskers.”
Snuffling for sea grass.
“I’ve seen them,” he said.
“You have, where?”
“Well, on Attenborough anyway,” he said.
He took a swig of his beer. She sipped her champagne. He watched her lips close about the glass. He felt like an idiot. ‘On Attenborough’, for goodness’ sake. She’s actually going to see the real things.
He asked what she did for a living.
“I work in admin and policy support in Premier and Cabinet,” she said, “so unfortunately most of what I do is confidential.”
He picked up a cardboard coaster and bent it in two. She placed one hand on the base of the champagne flute. She ran her fingers of the other hand up and down the glass, the condensation wetting her fingers.
“If you want a conversation stopper ask me what I do,” he said.
She looked up.
“Okay, what do you do?”
“I’m an accountant. An auditor to be precise.”
“Oh,” said Lucy. She took a sip of her champagne and looked towards the bar. He took a sip from his bottle. The song had changed again, and a couple nearby them was kissing. She wore a floral skirt, heels and a jacket, he jeans and checked shirt.
“Told you,” he said. He grinned. The girl in the floral skirt was looking up at her man and smiling. Lucy looked at them too.
“You like that?” she asked.
Was she referring to the couple or to auditing?
“Like -?” he said.
“Auditing” said Lucy, turning back from the couple.
“Actually,” he said, “I do. And you know why?”
“I have no idea,” she said. She looked directly at him, waiting for his answer. He glanced outside the window where she sat. Evening had now closed in, and a car passed, shedding brief light on a dusk street.
“Because kids pick their noses at funerals.”
Lucy laughed and he admired her neckline as her head lifted.
“How on earth does that work?” she said, and ran her hand through her hair. She leaned in slightly. The street lights flickered on yellow against a clinker brick wall opposite the pub. It made her hair darker in the backdrop, but her face shone in the hotel lights. Geoffrey explained.
“You know when you’re at a funeral, and everyone is very solemn and the service is meant to go like clockwork and it’s all very formal? There will always be a little kid there who has no appreciation for what’s happening, and he’ll be picking his nose and flicking it at his big sister while everyone about him is praying or crying.”
Lucy gave him an incredulous look. “And what does that have to do with auditing?”
“It’s the same. Accounts are orderly and neat. They tell a story, but it’s often only one of the many stories to be told. I look for the other stories– the accounting equivalent of the kid with his finger up his nose. There’s always something there, some little detail that can show up an error in the business I’m investigating. Most times it’s just small accounting errors, like the kid and his nose. But sometimes it’s big, and the kid behind it knows exactly what he’s doing. I’ve taken down three company directors this year.”
“Did you read about the insurance fraud about two months ago? That was me. I found the fraud, like a fart in church.”
She laughed and again he saw the neckline and the beauty of her throat and the engaging breadth of her smile.
“I went to a lecture once on the life of St Frances of Assisi. It was given by a priest with a lisp!” she said.
“Then you know exactly what I mean,” said Geoffrey.
Unusually, he felt confident to talk more.
“It’s my philosophy of life.”
“Is that too deep?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“Okay, I’m giving away secrets here. I’d never tell Slabs or Condor or any of the other guys this.”
“The big stalky full back over there, with the dark hair.” Geoffrey pointed across the pub to a lanky individual who stood a head above the mob.
“It’s like life,” he continued. “We breathe, the sun rises each day, we eat three meals. But death’s always there, unseen, or just visible. It puts us out of place. It’s the kid picking his nose at the funeral – a rude interruption to everyday living.”
Lucy drank from her champagne. She looked at him with a wry smile.
“So Death speaks with a lisp?” she said.
“And that’s your philosophy?”
“And you’re sticking to it,” she said.
He smiled beneath her wry gaze and felt exposed, and waited for her to cement his embarrassment with a cutting rebuke.
She took another sip from her glass. She unfolded the coaster Geoffrey had bent in two and put it down on the table. Then she carefully put her champagne flute on the ridge in the middle. It tilted to one side. She lifted her eyes and said,
“It’s really novel.” She whisked up her glass as it was about to fall, and finished her champagne. He stared at her lips as they caressed the rim of the glass again, and how her hair looped back when she tilted her head.
“What?” she said when she had finished.
“I thought maybe I’d gone too far,” he said.
“No,” she said, “I think it is novel. Unusual, but authentic, in a hokey kind of way.”
“Not in a bad way.” She touched his forearm with her hand. “It’s not a PhD yet, but it shows you have a sensitive side. It shows you’re observant. Of both the big things and the little.”
“Some things just stand out,” said Geoffrey.
“Some things are put on display,” she said, and squeezed his arm. “But other things are hidden, as you say. Tell me though, do any of your teammates have real names?”
Geoffrey took a final swig from his beer bottle and chuckled.
“Ah, no,” he said. “Slabs you’ve met, because of his enormous hands, his fellow prop is Car Crash and the hooker is Scoop. There’s plenty more. Do you like rugby?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know the first thing about it. I suspect it’s something I can learn about, given the right teacher.” She flashed a smile.
“Dash!” Slab’s voice soared across the pub to where the pair sat.
“Dash because you’re fast?” asked Lucy.
“I play wing,” said Geoffrey.
“He’s a wiry little runt, but friggin’ fast, whereas I’m just a bloody big lug,” said Slabs who had arrived at their table.
He grabbed Geoffrey in a headlock and rubbed his hair with a closed ham fist. “You know he scored our winning try today, dincha Dash?” Geoffrey winced under the man’s onslaught. “With any luck he’ll score again tonight!” And Slabs roared with laughter. Geoffrey rolled his eyes and mouthed “I’m sorry” to Lucy.
She said to Slabs in a formal tone, “Well that would be lovely, Mr Slabs, I’m sure.”
Slabs released Geoffrey from the headlock and said,
“Speaking of scoring, I’m off home to the missus. Got more than a meal waiting.” He smiled a massive jug of a grin.
Looking at him, Geoffrey was struck again by the shadow that he had sensed previously. There was something in his teammate’s bearing, or the manner of his speech perhaps, or his stance – he couldn’t put his finger on it. The most he could say was it felt like a sense of accidental and premature completeness – something was going to end too soon. He had never felt anything like this before and worried about what it could mean. Maybe it was just the beer, or his excitement at meeting Lucy. Maybe it was a trick of the light. But the sensation was very strong, and he stared anxiously at the big front rower trying to discern the truth of it.
Through the clamour of the pub he heard,
“Earth to Geoffrey! Mate, what’s up? You asleep at the wheel again?” Slabs turned to Lucy and said, “He’s a bit of a dreamer sometimes, but he means well.”
Geoffrey looked at Slabs again, registering his presence. He said, flatly,
“I don’t think you should drive home.”
“I said I don’t think you should drive home now.”
His friend looked at him, not entirely sceptical.
“Dash, you old softy, what’s the matter? Had one too many?” He winked at Lucy. Geoffrey shook his head.
“I just don’t think – “
“Yeah I hear you,” said the man, and he swung his large arm around Geoffrey’s shoulders. “Geoff, I’ve only had five schooners in the five hours since we got here, and I only live three clicks away. I’ve driven this route a thousand times, on more than I’ve drunk tonight. And I’ve got every reason to get home – there’s a luscious woman waiting with a hot dinner ready – if you get my drift. I’ll be alright, mate, don’t be so glum. We won today.”
But Geoffrey was insistent. He couldn’t pinpoint why, but an awesome certitude weighed upon him, which, combined with his generally conscientious disposition, compelled him to hold his ground. “Simon, I mean it. Don’t go home now.”
There was a moment’s silence between them, as Slabs studied Geoffrey, who stood resolute but tremulous before him. Slabs said,
“What’s got into you, Dash?”
“You mustn’t try to drive home now.”
Slabs lowered his tone
“Geoff,” he said – they rarely called him Geoff – “you’re starting to scare me. Maybe it’s time for you to go. Maybe you’ve had a couple too many. I’d offer you a lift, but you’ve got work to do.”
Geoffrey glanced at Lucy, who stood impassively watching the two men. He feared he might lose her interest, but held his course anyway, unsure of what force drove him to continue.
“Slabs, I’m sober. It’s just that … I’m telling you, I’m asking you, don’t drive home now. I can’t explain why. It’s crazy I know, but just don’t go home now. Wait a bit.”
Slabs placed his hand reassuringly on Geoffrey’s shoulder.
“I’ll be alright, Dash. You should go too. We can talk in the morning if you want, but I’m going.” He turned to leave when Geoffrey called to another team mate, Dave, an oncology specialist in a local hospital. Dave was a lean and muscular man respected by all for his sympathetic demeanour and his uncanny ability to draw people out. He was one of the backs in the team. He was one of the few on the team who didn’t go by a nickname.
“Dave, Slabs says he wants to go home. Come and have another drink with us before he leaves.” It was a pitiful attempt to delay the inevitable and he knew Dave would pick up on it.
Dave sauntered over.
“What’s up?” he asked casually. Slabs interjected.
“Geoff’s in a spin,” he said. “It’s weird. He’s telling me not go drive home.”
“You had too many?” asked Dave. Slabs shook his head.
“Tell him, Dash,” said Slabs.
The two men turned their gaze on Geoffrey, who stood mute, overawed by what he was thinking. He turned his head and stared through some bar stools, trying desperately to discern what this sense of perplexity meant. A premonition had begun to coalesce, but it still lacked precision, and he felt like a grossly incompetent novice. There were momentary glimpses of things – a jet of steam, bright lights, a limp piece of white cloth – but when he strove to give them definition, they dissolved. Each one of them, however, was underpinned by a profound sense of dread. He screwed up his eyes, fiercely trying to understand what was going on.
“Geoffrey! Geoffrey!” Slabs was beating his arm. Geoffrey stared at him longingly.
“You’re not right mate. Go home. Lucy, you can’t take him home, can you? This is weird. You’re weirding me out, mate.”
Geoffrey felt Dave watching him, and Lucy. Dave was intent, Lucy seemed a little perturbed, but for him or herself he could not tell. Slabs said,
“Look after him, Lucy, or Dave. I’m off.”
And he was gone.
Geoffrey looked at Lucy, still seated on the stool in front of the window, and Dave, who stood close by, hands in pockets.
“You okay?” asked Lucy. He thought, well I’ve blown it now.
“I need a drink,” he said and left the two of them for the bar.
Standing at the end of the bar, beyond the rows of iced beer taps and the attention of the bar staff, he tried to analyse what had just happened.
It was a time, of that he was certain. An event, probably, and possibly a reason to avoid a course of action. Doubt sparked at that, and his mind caught it. It was like auditing, this process, spotting something that raised an eyebrow and taking care to track it down. Time was the key. Something somewhere was about to happen which involved Slabs not leaving at that moment. But he had left, and the feeling of dread remained. But why, or what it was, failed beyond the odd assortment of images he had glimpsed.
A barman asked him what he wanted. He ordered a scotch. When it came, the barman said,
“You alright, mate?”
Geoffrey forced a smile as he made payment.
“Why do you ask?”
“You look a bit peaky.”
Geoffrey stood on his toes to look at his dislocated image in the mirror behind the lines of coloured spirit bottles. It was inconclusive. He could see his face, but not what he looked like.
“Busy day,” he said. The barman tapped the edge of the bar and said,
“Well, you take care of yourself, okay?”
Geoffrey raised his glass.
His arm felt heavy as he lifted it, and he wondered whether the grimace he wore was the smile of the insane, or the savant.
He knew he wouldn’t have to wait long to find out.