We always knew the locals hated us. They stayed in the corner of the pub, all wearing tight black jeans, ripplesoled boots and flannel shirts despite the heat. We stole the occasional glance at them, too scared to let our gaze linger, but they never turned our way; their refusal to give us any form of recognition both powerful and disturbing.
We were private-school boys and girls on holiday, drunk on sickly sweet mixers, trying to pretend we were older than we were as we lit St Moritz cigarettes and called out to each other, our voices shrill as we ordered another G and T or Pimm’s with lemonade, drinking until we could drink no more, one of us stumbling towards the toilets, nauseated and pale, a sheen of sweat across the skin.
At night it was cold, desert cold beneath a close black sky, stars like frost shimmering above. You could smell the sea at the end of the street, salty, and the pine resin, antiseptic sharp in the swirl of mist that hovered above the town.
When the pub closed, we went down to the beach, running along the cracked pavements, some of us still clutching glasses in our hand, the glow of our cigarettes cutting through the dark. It was the end of school and we wanted only to drink and smoke and, if we were lucky, to have sex with a boy from one of the better schools, one whose father worked in banking or stockbroking and would set him up in a well-paid job after he finished his economics degree.
Alastair Hanson was slightly older, his hair white against his tan, his eyes like cut ice beneath black lashes as he leant forward to light your cigarette. He wore the uniform of all the others, the moleskin jeans, the striped cotton shirt, but he wore it with insouciance (a word we didn’t know then) — panache, some of us said when we were drunk; style, when we were sober — and we all wished we could be with him.
My best friend, Lara, told me his shirts came from Paris, ordered by his French mother from her favourite shop. He had an earring, too, unheard of then. And he drove a powder-blue MG, with his girlfriend, Tiffany Smythe, always next to him, her mouth sulky, her elbow on the door, her gaze distant and bored, as they parked high above Horseshoe Bay to check the surf.
She would have been home that night. She was so sure in her ability to hold on to Alastair that there was no need for her to come to the pub. She could stay in the family beach house, sprawled on the couch with her group of friends, drinking something more sophisticated, Canadian Club whiskey or champagne, while below the sea pounded against the pink limestone, wearing it away and away and away.
Alastair usually stayed with her. But he had come to town to buy her cigarettes, and I was drunk enough to amuse him with my impersonation of the local fish-and chip shop owner, my accent broad, each sentence rising at the end as I mimed slapping a piece of flake onto newspaper, ash from my cigarette spilling on top, and then — to my shame — limping painfully over to the cash register to ring up the sale.
I was louder than I should have been, spurred on by my success in not only keeping his attention but also getting him to buy me a drink. And when the girl behind the bar didn’t come immediately, I called out to her in my fish-and-chip voice.
She just glared at us, her eyes narrowed, her lips tight.
‘You can leave,’ she said to me.
I turned, thinking the culprit was behind me.
‘Aw, come on,’ everyone complained, enjoying the game now, and drumming their fists on the sticky bar counter, the racket rising while she remained impervious.
‘You’ve got till I count to five.’
There was something in the timbre of her voice, a sharp edge that was enough to still the crowd, but only for an instant. Johnny Liddell was on the stool, kneeling precariously, hands clasped in front of him and begging for mercy, while behind him the others hooted and whistled.
‘How could a beauty like you be so cruel,’ he told her, and stood, wobbling as he unbuttoned his fly, promising her a bit of heaven like she’d never known before.
The stool crashed to the ground as the tallest of the local boys rose. I don’t even remember what he looked like, or what he said, but I know we were scared and excited and too drunk to assess whether we were in any real danger. Someone shouted fight fight and we spilt onto the street, the night air like a brisk slap, seagulls wheeling overhead, ghostly white in the darkness.
It was Johnny they wanted. As he ran up the main street, brawls began to break out: the sickening thud of a punch, the shatter of a glass, a scream. Alastair grabbed me by the arm, and I followed him to his car, with no time to even realise that I was getting into that powderblue MG, alone next to him, and we sped up the road, past the group of locals who were fast gaining on Johnny, the roar of the engine thrilling.
‘Get in,’ Alastair yelled, pulling over to let Johnny leap into the back seat behind us.
‘Fuck me,’ Johnny shouted, and then, to the group of locals who had almost caught him, ‘Fuck you.’
And lurching forward, we took off towards the beach, all of us screaming, voices raised to the sky and the ocean and the wind and one another.
I remember nothing else.
I heard about Alastair’s death purely by chance. It was Lara’s younger sister, Jane, who told me, awkward as she asked whether I’d come back for the funeral, her two boys pulling at her skirt, one whining that he wanted to go home, the other rifling the chocolate bars placed low beneath the counter.
I hadn’t. But then I had lost touch with everyone when I left to live in London.
‘It was completely sudden. An aneurysm.’
He had two daughters, apparently, and a Swedish wife who had helped him set up his antiques import business.
‘I can understand you didn’t stay in contact,’ she said, uncomfortable now. ‘It would have been hard.’
I didn’t say anything.
‘To be reminded.’
I could see she regretted those last words, and she stumbled awkwardly into telling me once again how well I looked, and how much she loved my dress; I was so lucky to have access to all that London fashion.
I asked her if she knew when the funeral was, and she seemed even more embarrassed. ‘It’s been.’ One of her boys began to scream, a piercing sound. ‘Just yesterday.’
‘I wish I’d known.’
She touched my arm gently, trying to ignore the sounds of her son, but as the screaming increased in intensity, she said she’d better get him home for his nap.
‘He’s impossible without it.’ She scooped him up, using one free arm to pull at the other boy as she told him it was time to leave. ‘I’m so sorry you had to hear like this.’
I could see she wished she knew what to say, despite realising there was no simple phrase capable of smoothing all that had passed.
It had been ten years since I had left this city (I always feel I am lying when I call it that — it is closer to a town), and I had only returned three times, dreading the summer days, dry and gaspingly hot; a place where you could hang a T-shirt on the line and within five minutes it would be stiff like cardboard, the air a fan-forced oven, indiscriminatingly pitiless.
My mother still lived in our house, low in the foothills, the grass always burnt to a crisp and the flowering eucalypts a lurid display of fuchsia, orange, crimson and lemon. There’d been no rain for months, and the native animals would come in from the surrounding bush to drink from the dog’s bowl, only to expire, parched, frightened and panting in what little cool they could find. My mother showed me the graves she’d dug, smooth mounds of dry earth under the scrappy shade of the ironbarks.
It was disgusting, she said. The world burning to death, and corporations worried only about increasing their profits.
In the last decade she had changed. Once a housewife who had helped out at school fundraisers and taken care of all my father’s needs with a certain sharp-tongued bitterness, she’d cut ties with all the parents of our school friends and joined a volunteer group to help refugees in detention centres. She ran free English classes from the lounge room, teaching people who’d been released into the community. With the curtains drawn against the daylight, and the slow repetition of words soothing in the heat, this was when she seemed most at ease, calm and content.
‘I trained as a teacher,’ she once told me. ‘And then I wasted years cooking meals for all of you, cleaning,keeping your father happy, worrying whether you were all happy.’ She sighed. ‘And now I have so little time.’
She disapproved of my older brother, a stockbroker who had made his fortune and lived in an expat compound in the lush hills behind Hong Kong. As for me, I knew she still worried about my life,although she did her best to keep this to herself. Over the last five years, as I had found a house to live in, friends, and enough work as a graphic designer to keep me busy, her anxiety had lessened a little. I no longer caught her watching me, brows furrowed, tension across her forehead, the lines dissolving as I met her gaze and asked her to give it a rest. ‘I’m fine,’ I would always say. When I returned from the delicatessen, green cloth bags filled with organic vegetables and spelt bread, she was on the telephone, organising a visit to the detention centre with her good friend, a nun.
I made us both lunch, and we ate in silence in the cool of the kitchen, the radio on, a quiet hum behind us.
‘This house is too big for me,’ she said.
My mother often made pronouncements like this, comments that required no answer. Her glasses were off, and her eyes were a pale wash of blue. Her skin was like tissue, and her hands were now too knotted with arthritis to wear her wedding ring.
We had spent a lot of time together right after the accident. Both my legs were broken, and I had been confined, unable to start university as I had planned, too out of place in the world to feel the disappointment I would otherwise have felt at watching all my friends move into this next phase of life.
‘Did you hear he died?’ I asked her.
The music on the radio heralded the ABC news bulletin, a tune so familiar and yet one I could never hum if I were asked to.
‘Alastair, that is.’
She put her sandwich down. ‘I thought you meant the other one,’ she said. ‘The one in the home.’
I shook my head. ‘I would have gone to his funeral if I’d known. I would’ve liked to have said goodbye.’
Her response was immediate. ‘You lost touch for good reason.’ She kept her eyes fixed on me. ‘Was it an
I told her it wasn’t. ‘He became respectable.’ And I smiled. ‘A wife, daughters, an antique business.’
I hadn’t imagined he would stay in this town, let alone find a place for himself here.
My mother reached for my hand. Her touch was cool and dry, her hold steady, but her voice was — for her — surprisingly frail. ‘I didn’t hate him, you know. I just didn’t like what you were doing to each other. It was a downward spiral of self-disgust and you can’t watch your child do that. You can’t.’ She stroked my hair back from my face. ‘You’d been through enough. You had to forgive yourselves, and you weren’t going to do that together.’