LEANING FORWARD, the burnt orange glow of a low fire making a face with a small smile. Eyes saying, Rest here for a while, I’d like that. Soft light on a flag print covering the chest – a large red disc like a target.
It’s all right, he said. Really, I’m not gunna bite.
Thanks, I said, slowly sitting down on the log, a sting in the air around me. Maintaining balance, not wanting to look like some old street soak, a wasted prat from the suburbs. The thought slipped through my head that there in the dark the two of us could have been anywhere.
Good night? he asked as if we’d known each other for years.
The Shrine’s back room jammed with the usual crowd, most playing pool or watching pool being played. I imagined having a video camera and filming the scene and then speeding it up to show them how much they’d look like battery hens. There were guys in Hawaiian shirts and that was a worry.
Crash lined up a shot. Scored. Said, Fucking you beauty! Then stepped up to where me and Bins were leaning against the wall, our schooners resting on a shallow shelf. Bins took the stick and proceeded to finish off the table. Flipping his hand lightly onto my chest, Crash said, So Squigs, why the look of a horse?
What? I replied, more coldly than I would have liked.
The long face, Crash said, chuckling to himself. You look like you’re half-dead.
What are you talking about?
Mr Glumface here has gone all broody on us, Crash tossed over to where Bins was setting up a new game.
Ah shut up, I said.
No shit, Crasho. Bins, not looking up, a cigarette jammed in the corner of his mouth.
Come on, you guys. I’ve been at work all day. Just having trouble relaxing, if that’s all right with you.
Must be time for some shooters then, said Crash. My shout.
Three rounds of Siberians later – our standard cocktail of straight vodka – and I was well on my way to becoming legless: a brain turning in on itself, balance rooted to buggery. I looked at my watch. It was close to midnight. I said, We going out after this?
You wanna go up to Mercury, don’t you? said Crash.
Don’t wanna hang around here all night watching you guys play pool all night.
Going to hang around here for a bit, said Bins. Then don’t know what.
What about you, Crasho? I asked.
Prodding the fire with a long stick as if the coals were falling asleep, he didn’t wait for an answer. I went out last night, he said. Got home at six. OK night. Woke up at five this arvo. Not long before you came by actually.
I said, You been awake since then?
Nah. Been napping here and there. Wanna smoke?
No. Don’t smoke.
A choof, I mean.
Now you’re interested, huh?
Images flooded my head. Mum and Dad in a deep sleep, dreaming of the BBQ and pergola they hoped to score a loan extension for. Crash holding out his hand with its two tiny white tablets.
Yeah, why not, I said.
We threw back three more Sibbies each before Crash shouted in my ear his usual complaint about inflated club prices. Remaining by the bar, watching the dance floor as if it was the ocean.
So, work’s busy, eh? Crash said as the DJ began easing in a new set of beats. You sure you haven’t fallen for that Kirsty chick?
When out with Bins, I thought Crash to be quite an unbearable bastard, sometimes almost vile with the things he’d say. Both Crash and Bins had scored what they considered to be transitional jobs with a building contractor and had picked up habits that were a bit ordinary. But if by himself and had been on the piss, Crash let the thinking side of his brain have a go. Also he didn’t mind Mercury at all, unlike Bins who’d refuse to tag along, saying over and again that the drag shows reminded him of one of his aunts. Me and Crash would argue that there were plenty of decent perve opportunities and it wasn’t as full-on as Pinkies, but no, Bins would never have it.
Come on, I said. She is my boss, you know.
No, Crash. Nothing happening. What about you?
Dunno what’s going on.
Crash looked away.
I waited for a moment before saying, I dropped into the Embassy this afternoon.
What the fuck for?
I just walked past and the old guy said hello. We had a bit of a yarn, that’s all.
You really are a hero, Squigs.
No one does things like that any more.
Whatever. Come on, let’s get groovin’, Crash said and began muscling through the crowd.
We went at it for hours – when I looked at my watch in the toilets it was almost four. I walked back onto the dance floor with the intention of calling it a night: we’d had our booze, a bit of a deep convo, done the groovin’ thing. I found Crash with a bunch of guys decked out in tight short-sleaved shirts and flared jeans or commando pants. Typical Mercury lot, I thought. I leant into Crash, mentioned the time.
You can take my car if you want.
Not coming? I said.
Crash slid a hand into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out two tiny white tablets. One for you. If you’re keen.
You know me. Gotta be at work in a few hours anyway.
Crash shoved his hand back into the pocket. This time it came out with car keys hanging off a finger.
He stretched out and stuck both hands into his pockets, one carefully extracting a fairly generous joint, the other a lighter. He pushed to his feet and crossed over to me. Sitting down on the log, he said, I’m Rory.
I’m Squigs. Joel, really.
I’ll call you Joel then.
You’d be one of the few.
Rory put the joint in his mouth, lit it, took a couple of deep drags then passed the thing over.
Do you like working over the road? Rory said as I sucked in, staring at the reddening tip.
Yeah, kind of. It’s my first real job.
You do long hours.
You’ve noticed, eh? I said, handing back the joint.
Not much else to look at, I suppose, Rory said, laughing through his nose.
Watching Rory blow smoke into the air in front of him, I noticed the face. The eyes smallish and sad – they still said, Stay here a while. Clashing with the scraggly hair scraping his shoulders.
Who’s the old man you sit here with?
David. Rory handed over what was left of the joint. He’s my mother’s sister’s brother-in-law.
I tried to work through the connection but the booze, and perhaps already the dope, was cutting things up, shuffling it around. Are you from around here? I said, taking another drag.
No. Perth. I was meant to be at uni this year but it didn’t happen.
What were you going to do?
History. Maybe become a teacher one day.
Just bangin’ around then, I said, passing over the very final remains of the joint.
My older sister lives over here. Officially I live with her but I kind of like hanging out with David.
Rory took one last drag before flicking the stub into the fire.
Sitting in silence, looking down to where the lake and its secrets would be. Blurred swatches of pale yellow light along the water’s edge. I wasn’t used to seeing it like this.
My office window rested on a thick wooden sill and rose up about two metres before almost hitting the roof. Looking through the paned glass, first there was the dull bitumen of the Old Parliament House carpark, then the Aboriginal Embassy. The slogan-painted and graffitied portable. The pavement with its artwork of dots and hands and snakes. The spindly humpies as if they’d blown in and might blow out again just as easily. The huge fire and its ring of blackened grass in the middle of the manicured green, like an alien crop circle. And the campers and the vans and the trucks and utes amongst the rows of gum trees on both sides of the grass.
In the middle distance was a huge stretch of flat lawn and beyond it three rectangular reflective ponds. The National Library on one side, the High Court the other. It was here that for a month of autumn mornings the hot air balloons would assemble before dawn, ready to rise into the sky when there was enough light. By the time I was in the office I’d sit at my desk and watch them drift over the lake, over Black Mountain, over Mount Ainslie. Imagining how it’d all look from the air – the curves, the furrows, the streets and houses, the bare patches, the treed nooks. Hoping one day I’d see all of it, wondering what it’d be like to be held away from the earth by not very much, thinking that by rights I probably should have a pretty good idea.
Further away from the ponds lay the shiny surface of the lake, merely a thin strip when seen from the office but I knew it to be one of the widest stretches. It was here that as kids me and Bins and Crash sailed our little white and blue 8 footer, capsizing into the grey-green shallows of Burley Griffin, on purpose, without caring for how scary the water might be.
If I worked late I’d see the neatly defined string of lights along the water’s edge. And I’d often imagine what lay beneath the water. Shopping trolleys. Knives. Bodies maybe.
On the other side of the water was the triangulated shape of Anzac Parade running right up to the War Memorial. Behind the domed, sombre bulk of the building, looking as much a monument as the rest of the vista put together, sat Mount Ainslie. Unlike the lake, for me at least, the mountain didn’t have an air of sordid mystery. Instead it reminded me of a body lying down in the sun.
In an almost whispering voice, as if someone was listening, Rory said, It’s quite a place this, isn’t it? This big long avenue thing and all.
I said, You love it too, yeah?
Kind of a home away from home away from home, if you know what I mean.
I think so. But it’s like something out of a European painting. Some posh French garden. Maybe.
And well cared for.
With us lot fucking up one end of it.
What? I said, quickly turning as if Rory’d just admitted to enjoying heroin.
Don’t worry, he said. I’m just crappin’ on.
Although the grand vista always gave me so much to see from my office window, it was the workings of the Embassy that had me hooked. I’d wonder why the old man would not leave the fire alone for longer than a few hours. Why the man would sit by the coals in the early morning cool, in the midday heat, in the rain, in the fog. Without fail he’d be in his jeans, dirt-stained at the knee, and a tight blue tracksuit top with white racing strips. Sometimes shoes. A couple of times, driven by something deep inside me which I didn’t understand, I almost plucked up the courage to go and talk to him. One late afternoon, as I was leaving for home, I even walked a few paces beyond my car but promptly turned around when the man looked across to me from the far side of the road.
The dope cranking my blood. Beating in my ears. A racing heart; I worried about it. My head felt like a thick soup had swamped it. The air biting but it didn’t seem to matter.
Rory said, Imagine the power here.
I didn’t know what the guy was talking about.
But it ain’t magic power, Rory went on without me. It’s other people’s power. The power of old knowledge, of new politics. Every other kind of power that’s here. Law. Protest. History. We’re talking a crossroads.
I thought Rory’s mouth must have been getting dry – he was filling in the gaps between each word with a loud swallow. It made my mouth clay up also.
But we just drive across it, Rory was saying. We float across it in our balloons. Take photographs of it from the top of mountains. Buy glossy postcards of the place.
Hey, I said, as polite as he could. You’ve lost me. You really have.
Rory let out a deep breath. I just want to... don’t you ever want to be a part of something important?
Yeah I guess.
Then again, I also want to tell everything to fuck right off.
Again I pictured my parents in their white brick and blue tile house, the swimming pool and spa. The Magna and the Liberty. The lazy dog and the tabby cat. The video machine playing nothing but new releases. I thought about me and Crash and Bins, the three of us cruising through school and jumping through the uni hoops. And I decided I was – am – a part of that fat cross-section of the population that has no reason to be part of anything important or tell anything to fuck right off.
Little changed in the view for the first two months. At times there were more balloons in the morning, maybe a slight build up of clouds, but that was all.
Then it happened.
A slight frame. Longish hair, fake blond, almost orange, black roots. A teenage girl? I wondered. No. When I squinted my eyes I saw it was actually a guy, a little younger than myself, maybe twenty. He wore a red and white flannelette shirt, sleaves cut off to reveal upper arms, black t-shirt, faded blue jeans, white runners. When the shirt wasn’t on I could see the t-shirt’s Aboriginal flag. I guessed the guy was a grandson of the old man’s. I imagined a trek from the desert had been made to ponder the future.
I tried to work out what the man and the young guy talk about, wondered if their minds were full of anger and political action. Maybe the old man raved on about his life out in the bush. Maybe the old man recalled his childhood, how life was so much simpler when he was a kid all those years ago. Whatever I imagined, it always seemed so pop philosophy, so Year Twelve theorising, so full of rank platitudes.
Not much over a week later I found work had become hectic: there was a new restaurant called The Press Gangster opening in the building and I’d become trapped by the need to do weekends. On the Saturday afternoon, about five, I called it quits but wasn’t ready to go straight home, not ready to be back in the rolling suburbs.
The lake, I thought. Yeah, the lake.
Stepping down the front of The House, offering Gough a split second’s consideration, crossing over to the other side of the road, going onto the artwork paving. Giving the fire a wide berth, I tried not to look at the old man and the young guy but couldn’t help myself. The old man was growing a prickly grey beard and the young guy had buttoned up his flannie, beside him a book balancing on a log. As I kept crossing the lawn, which seemed never ending like a fake green desert, I thought about the young guy’s face. It was much lighter than the old man’s, almost the same as my own, but he had eyes that stuck in my mind. Eyes that wouldn’t give in. Jaw skin perfect and probably only needed to be shaved twice a week. I wondered if the young guy was going to university but decided it wasn’t likely.
I walked past the ponds and kept moving across the next stretch of green grass before eventually hitting the lake’s rim. A simple timber wharf jutted out into the water and I sat myself on the edge. The air was already agitating and I zipped up my new black cashmere jacket. I’d bought it in Melbourne when me and the boys had flown down for a weekend of lager and football; ducking away for an hour by myself, I found the thing in a shop on Chapel Street. The boys asked if I was going through a punk phase. PR and punk, I told them, don’t mix that well, you morons. Besides, you can’t buy punk.
Sitting on the jetty, with the deadly water trying to lick my feet, I looked up to Anzac Parade, the War Memorial and Mount Ainslie behind. Lived here for a lifetime, I mumbled, and haven’t ever walked up that mound of dirt. Would the boys come up with me? Maybe. If alcohol was involved.
Turning to look behind, I saw the long, flat stretch of green and the flotsam of the Embassy at the end. A thin plume of smoke spiralled into the sky. I found my window on the facade of Old Parliament House, wondered if the Embassy crowd ever saw my face staring out. Perhaps they think I’m ogling, that I reckon they’re a bit of a circus. No, they wouldn’t give a shit about me, I decided, even if they have seen my ugly mug through the glass. Why would they bother? On top of Old Parliament House sat the flagpole of New Parliament House like a party hat.
Eventually the cold got the better of me and I began making a return to the office. I had to get home, I had no choice. That’s where I’d be able to find some left-overs to microwave, where I’d linger in the shower, where I’d get changed into something that’d get me through a night out on the piss. A night that, as always, would start at The Shrine.
I detoured around the fire but was snared on a voice. Nice day for it, said the old man.
Yeah, great, I said, stopping where I was.
Been for a walk?
Yeah. I work across the road. I felt stupid for saying that, and something came into my head about Auschwitz survivors. But I let it go as soon as I could.
Keeps me busy.
You should drop by sometime. Maybe get some of your work mates to come across too.
I should. Anyway, better run.
See ya, I said, glad I’d be able to walk away at last.
Rising to stand, Rory said, Wanna go for a walk down the lake?
Why not? I said, looking at Rory to see if I’d missed the point but getting to my feet anyway. I had to balance a little before moving any further.
You OK? Rory asked.
Come on then.
We stepped into the dark. I thought that it couldn’t be the same place I’d walked through earlier, surely not. Details lost. The space appeared smaller. Closed in a room I didn’t understand. A small depression in the grass tripped me up and I stumbled. Rory asked about family and I responded with one word answers.
Birds are in the air, I said eventually.
Yeah, sun’s almost up.
We walked until the mix of liquids and the dope began reacting for real; the grass turning into pavers which were then hurled at my face. I felt like I might chuck.
I’m going to have to rest for a bit.
You sure you’re all right? Rory said, stopping, turning to look in my face.
Sorry. That smoke was a stupid idea.
Sitting down on the grass, I pulled up my legs and placed my head between them. I swallowed hard as if something was stuck.
Have you had anything else? said Rory, sitting himself also.
Nah, just booze.
I lifted my head a little to see Rory pull up his own legs.
My brother-in-law gets stoned most nights, Rory said as if a question had been asked. I pinched a little bit from him. Had my first one only last week. Don’t really like it to be honest. Don’t wanna turn out like some drug-fucked loser listening to Cypress Hill. Told myself I’d smoke what I’d stolen then forget it. Sorry, I was using you to get rid of it.
I swallowed again and sighed loudly. I said, I’ve never been that keen either. Think I’ve always had dodgy shit. Then, almost as if I’d thrown the words up, I said, You know, I’ve pictured you and the old guy sitting by this fire, talking politics.
Or him telling me about the good old times in the desert.
How did you know?
Rory giggled before lowering back to his soft voice. He said, Most of the time David just tells me about girls. How to get them. How to keep them. How to get rid of them.
Fair enough, I suppose, I said. I was trying to work out what else to say but Rory beat me to it.
How old are you?
Right now I feel like I’m fucking one hundred and fifty.
Rory leant back on his arms, stared at the sky in the same way someone views the screen from a front row cinema seat. He said, I’ll shut up for a while then.
Driving along Commonwealth Bridge, the road empty as if life had stopped and I was the last bastard to know about it, I wasn’t sure about being behind the wheel at all. Thinking, Why don’t I stop the car on the crest and take a piss over the edge?
I took in the sight of the exit to Old Parliament House coming up on my left.
Take it, I told myself. Take it. Or die.
I would have liked to have gone to the lake but didn’t think it wise to tempt fate. Looking at my feet, then out to where the War Memorial was a tiny smudge in the distance. Mount Ainslie a black shape against the almost black sky, the pinprick of a flashing red warning light on the summit.
Fuck, I said without thinking. How the hell did I get here?
I looked over. Rory threw his head back and laughed into the air.
Fuck me. Really, what am I saying?
I stopped the car out the front of the office. The portable building of the Embassy in the headlights. To my right, the red glow of the fire surrounded by a thick dark.
The face’s eyes bright and wide, a smile persistent in them.
Turned off the lights, stepped out of the car. Walked towards the portable but it didn’t seem OK to be snooping. I was going for the fire.
A face right in front of me, turning on an axis.
The coals dealing out heat. I pictured myself lying in the dirt, falling asleep, looking like someone out of a primary school history textbook, someone from way out west, way up north. Hello? I said, just above a whisper, trying to work out if anyone was around.
Falling back onto the cold, damp grass. What’s going on here? I cried out silently to myself. A hand slipping around the base of my neck, holding my head as if making sure no one was going anywhere.
A breeze of smoke stinging my eyes. A voice piped up from behind the wall of dark.
It sounded like some kind of wild animal.
I came out of a dream I now wish I could remember. Opened my eyes.
Suspended over us hung a hot air balloon, not twenty metres off the ground, suspended in the deepening blue sky. Some faces showed above the rim of the basket: one, maybe a child’s, peering over and down. Other balloons higher and away.
Rory standing about two metres away, buttoning up his jeans.
I saw behind. Old Parliament House. The Embassy. The minimised, bent over shape of David beside the fire, breaking a branch over a knee.
I sat up and looked down towards the lake. Two groups of rowers sliding across the water apparently with zero effort. Anzac Parade still there. The War Memorial also.
Mount Ainslie also.
My mouth tasted like shit, my chest as if it had become lined with nails then jumped on. I coughed loudly as I made it to my feet.
Rory said, Hello.
Hello, I replied, tucking myself in.
The ground felt hard like bitumen as the two of us walked back to the fire. My leg and arm bones ached and muscles in odd places were tense and sore. It felt as if we’d fallen out of the sky, crashing to the ground, crumpling into a heap, becoming lost in some kind of deep coma.
Back beside the fire, David looked at Rory then me. Heh, you’ve finally come over.
Yeah, how’re you goin’? I said.
Rory and me stood by the heat, both of us rubbing our hands to get warm. The smoke barely moving in front of us.
You guys right? David said, dumping another branch on the fire. Been running amok or something?
Not really, said Rory.
David yawned, said he was going to get his jacket, that the winter was coming in fast.
I waited a moment, then said, I should head off too.
Yeah right, said Rory, wrapping his flannie tight around him.
I looked across the lawn to see David step up the stairs of a caravan then disappear inside. I said, I’ll see what the office thinks about coming over to visit. Maybe a Friday.
Do that, Rory said, bending down to a crouch to get closer to the fire, not looking up.
See ya then.
Don’t have a home to go to, huh?
Crash’s car felt different. Unfamiliar, weird, odd. For the first time I could smell him, smell cigarettes and alcohol and oil.
I looked in the rear-vision mirror. Rory walking towards David’s caravan, arms crossed to keep his flannie tight against his chest. As if his ribs were broken, as if something might tumble out. But then he let go, the shirt falling to his sides. He pushed a hand into the air, waving, smiling.
I smiled back, not that Rory could see.