MEG’S BROTHERS WERE lucky. They joined the army when they turned eighteen: first Liam, then Stuart. When reveille sounded, they sat up in their bunks and pulled on their boots. They washed their faces with a towel dipped in cold water, raised their arms and rolled on deodorant, then drained cups of sugary coffee in the mess hall. They weren’t required to consider existential questions; they simply had to do their jobs.
When Meg’s alarm sounded, she felt like a caterpillar, safe on the underside of a leaf. The central air kept her cool, so she slept cocooned in blankets. She sat up and lifted the window blind to look out at the night sky. It had a brown tinge: suspended dust. She’d seen the same sky two months earlier, on the night she’d arrived in Abu Dhabi.
Was Meg lucky? After all, she had a purpose too. Here she was in the horse hospital breezeway. It was 2 am and the lights were off. As she passed the horses, she whispered: ‘Sleep.’ Everyone was asleep, except for her and the horses, who always had an ear tuned to night noises, an eye half-open. The grooms slept in their whitewashed quarters at the other end of the compound. It was Ramadan and they were tired: they had to wake before dawn to eat and drink as much as they could hold. She imagined that her brothers were asleep too, even though she was vague about their respective time zones.
You’re tired, she told herself. Hurry. It was hard to hurry, because she liked the smell of horsehair and compacted sawdust, the sound of horses chewing hay. When the treatments were finished, the only thing waiting for her was an empty blond-wood bed in the cool darkness. She unlocked the office, turned on the light and opened metal files to confirm which ones – the polo pony, for example – needed a shot of phenylbutazone or antibiotics. In those files, she looked for Dr Cass Mulholland’s handwriting, for the letters strung together in a wild rush, hard to distinguish from each other. The writing gave her a pleasant sensation, a tingling in the palms. She took the drug bottles out of the fridge and stood them on the counter. She looked again at the handwriting for the dose.
Her brothers also had to rise in the middle of the night for military exercises. When there was an attack, Stu – who was in special ops based in a Central Asian country he wasn’t allowed to name – would stay awake for hours. Perhaps he was helicoptered into rugged terrain, given uppers to keep his eyes open and dropped onto a mountainside.
She turned on the lights in the pony’s stable to see its jugular. ‘You’ll get better,’ Meg whispered. ‘What’s more, they might decide that you’re no good for playing polo anymore and it’s time to have a foal.’ Did the pony want a foal? Meg slid the needle into the vein, blood came back, she injected. The mare relaxed and Meg stroked her around the eyes.
Back in her apartment, she knew she should fall straight into bed, but checked her phone – no texts from Cass, but why would there be, at this hour? – and saw an email from her older brother, Liam. One line: He’s out. Did he write to you? Then a forwarded message:
Dear Liam, This is your Dad Kevin. I am living in a halfway house in Coburg. We all need to get together and have a cuppa. I want to re-connect with my children. With all good wishes, Kevin.
The email address was [email protected]
Dad Kevin. It looked wrong, as though he was setting himself up as a figurehead – Father Kevin – when he had no authority. She and her brothers pretended that he had nothing to do with them. She wondered if that was fair.
Her aunt had taken the three of them to visit him in jail, but she remembered only one occasion, when Kevin was sitting on the other side of the glass divider. His face was a full moon. His arms were anacondas, adorned with green tattoos. As she’d sat there, staring at him, he’d begun to cry. ‘My littlies, my littlies,’ he’d sobbed, and held out his arms as though he could hug them through the glass. She’d felt embarrassed for him, turned away and buried her face in Aunt Bridget’s neck. Liam, her older brother, had sat like a water dragon on a rock: very still, but poised to dive under. Stu had ignored the whole thing: he was obsessed with a toy dump truck someone had given him so that he wouldn’t run out of the room. She didn’t know why Kevin thought he could now turn himself into a dad.
She texted Liam: You ok? He trained officers in Brisbane: how to use this machine gun, how to use that semi-automatic. When he’d started basic training, she’d asked: How could you even pick up a gun? She stared at her phone, waiting for him to respond. He didn’t.
It was two-thirty in the morning and she’d be exhausted from staying up late, but she decided to play Telemann’s fantasias for flute – just the first two. She placed the music on the counter in the kitchenette and held the flute to her lips to make it sing. The music was from another world, another life: a connection that reached all the way from Hamburg in 1732 to Abu Dhabi in 2012. The notes opened a different part of her mind, one that grasped only this phrase then the next, each one a stepping stone to carry her across a creek. When she stopped, half an hour later, it would’ve been almost 9 am in Liam’s time zone. He’d written back finally: Sure.
Liam was the only one with a recollection of the afternoon when her dad shot her mum, the only one who could hope to know if it was an accident. She and Stuart had no memory of even a pattern of light on the kitchen floor. They think they know what happened, because Aunt Bridget – their mum’s sister, who’s spent her life keeping them away from Kevin’s side of the family – told them a version, then they each made their own. They’ve all done very well, according to Bridget, which is to say that not one of them is in jail yet.
In Meg’s version, it was an accident, but Dad Kevin was probably high. He came into the kitchen with a gun bought with the proceeds of a drug deal and asked Mum Felicity to make a cup of tea: a cuppa. She told him to put the gun away. She said that toddlers killed their grandparents with firearms with alarming regularity in the United States of America. She was laughing; she had a drink in her hand. Dad Kevin tripped over a toy telephone on wheels and the firearm discharged – the safety catch, if there was such a thing, wasn’t on – and Felicity was shot in the head and died instantly. Faster than you could click your fingers.
The three kids were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking cordial and eating fairy-bread sandwiches. Liam was five. Meg was three. Little Stu was two, and strapped into a kind of highchair. Their dad ran out the front door, sat in the car and smoked a joint.
Liam could remember Felicity, the hair she dyed black, her fingernails with their white half-moons. He had a tiny photo of her hidden in a silver locket that had once been Felicity’s, which he wore on a long chain beneath his shirt; his girlfriends encountered it when they undressed him. It wasn’t sentimental, Meg knew. It was one of the few things the three of them had left. Felicity’s flute, which Meg had inherited, was another.
When she lay down, she heard music. Not the Telemann, but another composition that she’d played long ago. She thought it was the adagio from Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D major: the sound was mournful, the trills like birdsong. Not much later, she woke to the sound of her phone. It was Stu calling. He had a careful way of speaking – they all talked this way – as if they were each a thoroughbred and easily startled.
‘Who do you reckon left a message on my phone, saying I was his hero?’ Stu’s voice was close to the mouthpiece and hushed. He chuckled. Meg sniggered with him. It was ludicrous to think that Kevin was tracking them down. He’d never sent them a Christmas card. The last time he’d been out – for four days, before he’d violated his parole and been locked up again for armed robbery – he hadn’t phoned.
She said, ‘Did you ring him back?’
‘Course not.’ They were still laughing; it was cruel, but they did it anyway. She was lying back in bed, her eyes on the ceiling. Stu said, ‘Don’t feel sorry for him. Are you okay that he’s out and trying to talk to us? You’re not going to be nice to him.’
‘There’s no point. He’ll be locked up again soon.’ They could be nice to him when he was in jail. They could visit him. Neither she nor Stu had seen him since they’d been children. Liam was the only one who’d paid Kevin a
few visits, but he’d given it up, saying that Kevin asked him to smuggle in a few grams of speed, please, just so he had something to trade.
‘Exactly. Take care. I love you,’ Stu said.
Meg heard a sharp intake of breath and a forced cough. She knew that he was trying not to cry. He hung up before she could ask if he was all right. She said, ‘I love you too,’ to the silence.
The only thing she could do now, even though the time was wrong, was play another of the fantasias. She was a grub in the dark – boneless – but when she took the flute out of its velvet box, she had a spine. This time, she played from memory with her eyes closed, because it was a trick one of her teachers had insisted on. She played a few bars and lost her way and found it again. When she stopped, she heard someone in the hall outside, perhaps Cass or one of the other vets arriving, or the man from the laundry; the grooms never walked along this corridor. She tried to listen to the music that had taken her to sleep, a melody to transport her to where she was meant to go. She played three bars until she couldn’t be certain of the next note. It wasn’t Mozart, she was sure, because otherwise she’d be able to play it.
AT THE RACETRACK twice per week, Meg sat in a four-wheel drive with Cass – if she was lucky – or one of the other senior vets, and they drove slowly behind the gallopers, ready to spring out if a horse broke down. Those same nights, in dark stalls she scoped horses’ airways to look for traces of blood. Every morning, she rose at two and again before eight to administer treatments. She watched lame horses trot up and down in the high-roofed treatment room, performed nerve blocks to locate the origin of a horse’s lameness and injected arthritic knees. Outside, where it was late spring, the air became furnace-hot. No one phoned her. There were no more emails.
Besides locating lameness in equine forelegs, a few times each week Meg had to put on a blue scrub suit and anesthetise a horse. To cope with her nerves, she wrote numbered lists of what she’d do if a horse’s blood pressure fell or if a heart stopped. She never wanted to kill anything, and especially not in front of Cass, who was the surgeon. This was partly why she was here, because in suburban veterinary practice in Brisbane, she’d been a killer. Here are some kittens in a basket. Please could we put them to sleep? She was nervous about administering anaesthetic to horses: it meant bringing them close to death, slowing their hearts. But she did it, again and again. She knocked them out and woke them up again. Miraculously they survived.
Meg looked forward to when the horse was in recovery, when the surgery was done. During those times, she and Cass sat in the office. They watched the closed-circuit TV; Meg kept her eyes on the screen. The grooms, who were all from India or Pakistan, stood around the horse in their white uniforms, covered its eyes with a white towel and pressed the creature against the green padded walls so that it couldn’t thrash around and break a leg. One of the grooms, the one everyone called Babu – that couldn’t possibly be his name, just a humiliating diminutive – stood in a corner of the recovery room, issuing orders. Meg couldn’t hear him, because the TV yielded only images. He was in his mid-twenties, and slighter than most of the others.
This time, she saw Cass draw a bottle of whiskey out of the filing cabinet under the printer, even though alcohol was forbidden in the hospital, and pour them both a drink.
Babu must’ve given the signal already, but Meg had missed it. Cass was saying, ‘Intestines haven’t fallen out. Good sign.’
The horse was upright. They clinked glasses. Meg was twenty-six years old but still adolescent enough to lose her voice when Cass was around, so she nodded and sipped.
Cass tucked a strand of her blond-streaked hair behind her ear. ‘You’re the best anaesthetist we’ve had.’
‘I’m not an anaesthetist. I’m an intern,’ Meg said in a rush.
Cass flapped a hand dismissively and topped up Meg’s glass. ‘Are things okay here? I mean, do you get out?’
‘I go to the races.’
‘When you have a chance, take a skiing holiday in Switzerland.’
‘Is that where you go?’
‘Wherever the kids want,’ said Cass. Meg laughed. That was what she was meant to do. She wondered why some people sacrificed their lives for their children, and she was meant to laugh about it.
She leant forward to peer at the screen. How many grooms were there? Ten, all assisting the horse, which was now unsteady on its feet and shivering. ‘Are they paid enough?’ she said.
‘I doubt it.’ Cass swigged her whiskey.
Meg had never much cared for alcohol. She couldn’t ski and there were casinos in Switzerland; they were dangerous. Even though gambling had to be possible from the United Arab Emirates, so far she’d stopped herself from looking online. What was the point? Access to online blackjack was blocked. For now, she was safe, but the money was accumulating in her bank account, more money than she’d ever had in her life, piles of US dollars she didn’t know how to waste or spend. If she went to Switzerland, she’d blow the lot and never come back.
‘You want to go to a conference on equine anaesthetics?’
Meg enunciated the right answer: ‘Yes.’
‘I’ll find you one. Hey, the receptionists say you have some nice music in your apartment, something classical?’
Meg was suspicious. Surely they could tell the difference between a live flute and music from a stereo. ‘I play stuff off the internet,’ she said.
Cass would be too busy to go searching for conferences. Meg would be safe here, looking out the window at the barns with their green roofs, horse yards and, beyond them, the whitewashed grooms’ quarters. No one, she thought, offered the grooms a drink. She’d bet a $10 bill that they played cards out there. She had a split-second fantasy about sitting with Cass on a rug in the groom’s quarters playing blackjack, the twelve of them, as though the barriers between them could dissolve. Cass and some of the grooms were drinking from tiny glasses. They were all talking and laughing. The cards were creased; there were piles of samosas and bhajis on a plate, and no one was losing a cent.
After Cass finished her third whiskey, she stood up and began to tip the contents of her handbag onto a glass-topped table. Meg rose too and peered at the scraps of paper, the bottle of foundation and loose coins in three denominations, to help Cass find whatever she had lost.
‘There,’ said Cass. It was a white access card, with a magnetic strip.
‘Are you okay to drive? Should we phone you a taxi?’ Meg asked.
‘My driver’s waiting.’ Cass had drivers, nannies, cooks, and probably an apartment suspended above the desert, the Persian Gulf a blue glitter to the horizon. Meg could do the same. She could stay on this safe path, find an apartment in a building that looked like a sculpture. She could be an anaesthetist or an orthopaedic surgeon for racehorses, cleaning up fetlocks and removing torn cartilage from knees, and work with Cass. That was what Cass was saying, wasn’t she? Meg could have the home in the sky, the driver, the handbag. All she had to do was keep swimming between the flags, stay on the track.
The last few years, she’d come close to finding what she needed – a steady job, someone who loved her – but the longest she’d managed to hold a job was five and a half months. It was Dad Kevin’s fault: he’d shot the floor from under her feet. Actually, there were men like Dad Kevin everywhere: not criminals exactly, but café bosses, university lecturers, vet practice owners and clients, who were violent or undermining in all manner of quiet and not-so-subtle ways. She walked with Cass to the front door of the hospital, keeping close by in case Cass stumbled, and watched her climb into the car.
And a girlfriend in the apartment with its view of the ocean, a girlfriend her own age? Or older? The Emirates were a kind of wild west; no one would care, so long as you were quiet about it. Of course, she always had to go for women who were fifteen years her senior; they bristled with invisible hooks, with bait just for her. Outside, the night was warm, but not unbearable, and the light from desert stars was muted by suspended sand.
ONE MORNING, THE phone in Meg’s room started to ring. She picked it up and the receptionist said, ‘You were playing the flute again, weren’t you?’ As though everyone knew that Meg played the flute and they were all fascinated. Meg didn’t look like a flautist: she wasn’t wispy and femme. They wanted to catch her out, maybe see what she looked like when she played.
‘There’s someone here to see you. Her name’s Dr McCredie and she’s visiting Abu Dhabi…’
‘I’m due in surgery in four minutes.’ This was a lie.
‘Hold on.’ Then the receptionist said, ‘How long do you think you’ll be? I can’t see anything in the appointment book.’
‘I don’t know.’ She wondered if Syl would know that she was lying.
‘Dr McCredie says she’ll come by at five and meet you then.’
Meg imagined Dr Sylvia McCredie – Syl – tucking her hair behind her ears and smiling, as if she was a friendly aunt, checking up on her niece.
Meg did go into the theatre to quadruple check that she had some syringes of epinephrine in the crash cart. A skylight yielded a rectangle of blue sky: the room was full of desert light. Besides being Meg’s ex, Syl was a distant relative – that was the shame of the whole situation – because she was the wife of one of Kevin’s third cousins. She wondered what Syl was doing in Abu Dhabi.
Later that same day, when it was still light, there was Syl in the reception area with her long hair blow-dried straight, wearing a necklace of red stones. The red stones were hard teeth against Meg’s collarbone when they embraced. Just seeing Syl made Meg realize she’d been lonely.
Syl said, ‘What do you do here? I mean, where do you go?’
I go nowhere. The horse hospital was comfortable, almost vacuum-sealed. Outside, there was the chance that someone would look at Meg with hostility, just because of her cropped hair and the strength in her arms and legs. That, and the intensity of the work, was why she only went to the racetrack, and made rare forays to pizza restaurants in malls. She’d blamed herself for her failed assimilation, but now she realised it was because she knew she didn’t look like a normal tourist or well-paid foreign worker.
‘The beach,’ Meg said. She’d been there once. She leant forward and asked the driver to take them to a bar with a view of the Persian Gulf. He named a place she’d never heard of and she said yes. Sylvia asked Meg questions about whether she was being paid enough, and what the other vets were like. Then, for twenty minutes, Sylvia talked about things that didn’t matter: how she’d had to do a short cat-medicine course to cater to all the poofs who kept cats in inner-city Brisbane. If only Meg had agreed to work at one of the practices, then Meg could’ve handled the cat lovers (Meg liked cats). Syl was on her way to see her eldest daughter, Meredith, who was studying a Masters in English Literature or something equally useless at York University.
‘I don’t blame her, but how’s she going to get a job at the end of it?’ As they drove along wide freeways, as the car wove in and out of traffic, Meg began to relax. This was a social visit. Maybe, since Seth wasn’t with Sylvia, they’d separated.
The driver stopped. Meg was meant to know where the bar was, so once they were standing on the street she looked around for a sign. She walked up some stairs hopefully and they found themselves on a rooftop with a view of the gulf. They were seated at a table with a flickering candle. A romantic place.
‘You’ve been here before?’ Sylvia asked.
‘Never. I was faking it.’
Syl said, ‘I’ve come to tell you something.’
‘Did you break up with Seth?’
‘No. We’re married.’
As if this conversation had never happened before. They could be women in long dresses in love, drinking tea in Brighton in 1923, having this very same conversation. Did you leave George? One woman sweeping a wisp of hair back from the face, saying, No, darling. We’re married. Think of the children. And the other with jaw set, eyes stony. Meg felt a frightening rage. Her eyes were burning with it. When the waiter appeared, she ordered, without giving Syl a chance. She knew what Syl liked anyway: hunks of meat and light Spanish reds, which tended not to give her a headache.
The sea was wrong – too flat, too still – and the dunes, which were lit by sculpted buildings, were too sleek. The only heartbeat she could hear was her own, not the sound of the ocean, which was edging closer and closer, everyone knew, until one day it would drink cities like this. ‘That’s pretty fucked,’ Meg whispered.
Syl said, ‘What?’ Maybe she’d heard. She sat back in her wicker chair and closed her eyes. She lifted one of her legs and folded it beneath the other, so that she was sitting half cross-legged. Her thumbs and third fingers pressed into each other and rested on her knees. Meg waited for Syl’s eyes to open. She appeared to be meditating. Well, she’d always been a kind of hippy. A hippy with expensive clothes.
Meg lifted the black screen of her phone and pressed the home button. So that she didn’t self-combust, so that she didn’t stand up and run down the stairs and into the milky ocean, she thought about blackjack. This was her kind of meditation. She was good at the game and it was quite possibly less rigged online. She searched for blackjack sites, but found none she could penetrate. It made her even madder.
The meat arrived. Syl opened her eyes when the waiter set down the meal.
She said, ‘I’ve gone vegetarian.’
Meg pulled the dish towards her and lifted a little to her mouth. It was lamb cooked in yoghurt, served with couscous. She couldn’t say anything, so she ate.
Syl said, ‘What are you doing here? Wouldn’t you get flogged and sent home if you even kissed a girl on the street?’
‘That’s a myth.’
Syl’s chest was rising and falling. So what? Was she was furious too? Meg kept eating: the lamb, every grain of couscous, all the wine and more, and thought about choosing something for dessert.
Syl said, ‘You’re running away, over here. From who you are, your family.’
‘Better to stay married, I guess.’
Syl’s lips tensed into a smile. She beckoned to a waiter, glanced at a menu and ordered a felafel salad.
‘I came to say that your dad’s dying. He’s got melanoma. He asked me to give you the message.’
Meg made an involuntary sound, an oh. She ran her finger diagonally over the screen of her phone. It left a greasy streak. She held the button at the top down until the phone turned off. What do you say to that? What’s the right response?
‘Hard to know how long he’s got. He has mets in his spine and his lungs. They’re inserting a titanium brace in his back so he doesn’t become a paraplegic.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Meg said.
Meg said nothing. Then she muttered sorry again, because there was no way she could ever come back to Brisbane.
‘I did this meditation course,’ said Syl. ‘It’s helped.’
‘You’re enlightened now? Or it’s helped with your butorphanol problem?’
‘Why are you being so horrible?’
‘You say I’m in denial. You think a little meditation can make your marriage less of an endurance test?’ said Meg.
Syl pushed the salad away, stood up. ‘Come to Brisbane.’ She raised a hand, headed for the cashier.
‘I’m paying,’ Meg shouted after her. ‘It’s on me, okay?’
What to do now? She didn’t even like wine. She ordered a piece of lemon semolina cake, ate a mouthful, then laid down her fork. It was as dry as sand. Below, the sea was still too flat. At tables on all sides, men and women folded towards each other, their faces reflecting candlelight, their wine glowing, their eyes holding tiny flames.
DAD KEVIN had set a series of timed explosions. When she was finally drifting off to sleep, she received a text from Liam: Kevin’s dying. What to respond? She wrote: I know.
Liam texted: :/
She wrote: (<_>)
Their dad hadn’t come back inside after he’d shot Mum Felicity; he’d sobbed in the car with his head on the steering wheel. Did this mean the shooting was an accident? It was what Meg believed, because otherwise the three of them carried blood in their veins that could turn viscous with envy or with rage.
On the afternoon of the shooting, Stu remained strapped into his high chair. She didn’t know what she and Liam had done. She imagined that they’d sat beside their mother and talked to her. Liam told her to wake up and Meg asked her for another fairy-bread sandwich.
A little later Stu texted her. He wrote: Did you hear about Kevin?
You told me not to feel sorry for him.
Then, silence. She shivered. Where was Stu? Should he have a mobile phone? She told herself he was on some US base, safe (were the bases even safe?). The love she felt for Stu and Liam was painful. She scrolled through her pictures of them. The last time they’d been in the same room was Christmas 2009: three years earlier. She’d taken a photo of them sitting side-by-side, stuffing Christmas pudding into their mouths. They had the same uncontrollable curly hair and permanent tan. They kicked each other under the table. Stu had a prominent Adam’s apple. Liam had a tiny mole just above his top lip near the corner of his mouth, which sometimes disappeared when he smiled or twisted his mouth in irritation.
Meg went to sleep. The phone woke her an hour later. She thought it was Syl, calling to beg her to come home – why would Syl care? – but it turned out to be Cass. Meg had to meet a horse in the treatment area and admit it for surgery; it was probably too far gone with what Cass thought was a colonic torsion that had been treated for twelve hours with pain killers and buscopan. Heart rate of ninety-two, so there was little hope.
Naturally, the horse was a heartbreaker: tall and so dark brown as to be almost black, with patient eyes. Babu had already filled out the form. Babu was like that; he seemed to know as much about where to place a needle for a nerve block as Meg.
‘What’s his name?’ she asked.
‘I call them all Buraq, after the white horse that carried the Prophet.’
The horse was the wrong colour, Meg thought. Babu stroked him on the muzzle while apparently assessing Meg’s level of competence, which irritated her.
Babu said, ‘I was joking with you. They say his stable name is Ed.’
Was he teasing her? Or making fun of himself? She couldn’t work out how to ask him without causing offense.
Babu said, ‘Did your marriage happen?’
‘What’s it to you?’ said Meg, without looking at him.
He was the only one around. They had to knock out the horse, lay him down in the padded room, attach his legs to the hydraulic lifter. She didn’t make eye contact with him. Was he curious about whether people like her got married? She wondered if her reaction was too strong, then thought she didn’t care if she’d made him ashamed. Perhaps he’d got the message: this was a question you just didn’t ask a Western woman.
Later, as Cass was stitching up the horse’s abdominal wall, she remembered that she’d registered Meg for an anaesthetics and intensive-care symposium in Brisbane, Australia, in July. That Meg should get the confirmation soon, if she hadn’t already.
Meg could feel the blood pulsing in her fingertips. Brisbane. The brown river. The bats hanging from the trees. The heavy air. In a way, she longed for it, for the houses she’d lived in with friends, with girlfriends her own age, with whom things had never worked for more than a few months. She had to pay attention to the horse: his blood pressure was still low. She gave him dobutamine.
At dawn, they sat in Cass’s office and drank coffee, watched the closed-circuit TV.
‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ Cass said. So far, the horse hadn’t tried to stand. He was in sternal position and his head was down, his eyes half-closed. He’s a smart horse, Meg thought. He wouldn’t rise until he was certain the ground would hold him.
Cass said, ‘I hope he makes it through the week. If it hadn’t been for all your ministrations, we would’ve lost him already.’
Meg hadn’t wanted the horse to die and he hadn’t. She was so tired that she had a perfect and complete aural hallucination of the piece she’d been trying to play on the flute. It passed through her like breath, in and out, a long cascade of notes. It was her piece; no one else had written it. She’d composed it at thirteen, an imaginary cadenza for a symphony that didn’t exist; at the time, she’d called it a fantasia, even though it was inspired by Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D major. The piece was half-plagiarised, but then Mozart had borrowed the flute version from his own oboe concerto. The sheets of manuscript paper were long-lost, recycled in another lifetime. She’d grab some paper from the office printer right now and begin to write it down. She’d cancel her registration to the conference. Meg needed to stay at Abu Dhabi, work on reconstructing the piece, looking after the horses, quietly taking care of Cass.
SOMEONE WAS BANGING on her door. It was 6 am, hours before Cass or any of the vets would be around. Meg switched on the closed-circuit TV in her room, which was linked to a camera in the hall, and saw that a groom was standing outside in a white uniform. She opened the door.
‘Miss,’ he said. ‘You must come. Babu has been injured.’
The groom, whose name she didn’t know, was walking at speed. From the treatment room doorway, she saw a lot of grooms standing in a semi-circle. She would’ve gone straight to them, but from the stables came the sound of a horse’s hooves striking a wall, then a metal grille. She hurried past and found Buraq lying on his back, rolling. One of his hind feet scraped the wall. He had colic again; this time it might be fatal.
The office was locked. She took the key out of her pocket and began to open the door, to fetch painkillers. She had to go into Buraq’s stable, grab his halter and make him stand and walk. That was his only hope, to stay upright until she could drug him and work out what to do. The man who’d come to fetch her was at her elbow.
He said, ‘We think Babu has broken his back. He went in to take that horse out of the stable and the horse rolled on him.’
He began to give her instructions. Something about how when the ambulance came she had to tell them that the horse hospital would pay and that there was a health fund for the grooms. Forget about the horse. Here is a man, and aren’t you a human? Don’t you feel anything? A strange sensation came over her, a sinking of her blood from her head to the small of her back.
She asked, ‘You called an ambulance?’
He said, ‘Of course. Sadiq is waiting out the front and will bring in the orderlies. Mohammed is trying to call the director, but he isn’t answering.’ He gestured to another man on a phone.
Some of them were standing and some were kneeling beside Babu. She couldn’t see his face, only his hips, which were at an angle. If you were a groom in a hospital in Abu Dhabi, this could happen, and the flow of your life could be diverted, could even end. She had her apartment with its blond-wood bed, a pile of US dollars in an HSBC account, and a sense of invulnerability, just because of where she’d come from. What did they have? She was afraid to really look at him.
The ambulance arrived and the orderlies taped Babu to a piece of rigid plastic. She followed them to the front door, repeating what the man had told her to say. Someone handed her a bundle of papers – Babu’s work permit and passport – and a phone in a faux-leather case.
Outside, the sunshine was a blow to the face. She said to the medics, ‘I’m coming with you.’
Actually, she was sick with shame. There was the horse, which was likely worth more than Babu in the estimation of the hospital, and she’d ceded that point, she’d agreed. She’d gone to look at the horse. So now she was climbing into the back of the ambulance without waiting for their answer. She forced herself to sit by Babu’s head.
‘My back is not broken. My ribs maybe.’ His voice surprised her.
His head was taped down. Blood crusted his lips and the skin around his mouth; he tried to cough. His lungs were probably crushed. She didn’t say anything except, ‘Shhh’, as though he was a child, and hated herself for it. The orderly told her to get out of the ambulance. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m coming.’ The papers were on her lap. She moved, so that she crouched near Babu’s feet, so that the orderly could sit at the patient’s head. She forced herself to meet Babu’s eyes. His fringe was long; it touched his eyelashes.
Even though she’d said the right things, it was obvious that they were going to some inferior hospital for people from India and Pakistan, the people who did all the work in houses and laundries, who looked after children and animals and built towers. She saw these towers through the back window of the van and felt the road roll smoothly beneath the wheels. This was Babu’s track, she thought. How do you get off this one, and onto a different one?
HIS REAL NAME was Suleiman Aziz. She wrote it down on the form, along with his visa number. Finally, she felt almost useful: she could write answers in boxes. She could tell the nurse that the weight of a 500-kilogram horse had been applied to his chest.
When the nurse went away, she whispered, ‘Should I call your wife?’ She held up his phone.
He tried to shake his head, which was still held fast with what looked like electrical tape. ‘No wife. Cleaned out the locker years ago,’ he said. ‘Ran off with her boyfriend to Faisalabad.’
Meg returned his phone to the chair beside his bed, unsure about what to do. Did he have a mother? She couldn’t bring herself to ask.
‘I was no good for her,’ said Suleiman.
They were wheeling him away for x-rays. She waited in his cubicle, googling different treatment options for people with fractured spines: bed rest or surgery, depending on the severity of the fracture and the extent of the neurological compromise. This felt like her only power.
Cass arrived in a black pants suit with a gold chain around her neck. She lifted a hand to wave at Meg, then hunted for the doctor. Meg heard her telling him that Mr Aziz had to be transferred to another hospital, the Sheik Al-something hospital. The doctor reported that there were a couple of cracked ribs on the x-ray, nothing worse. He was waiting for the radiologist’s report. Babu was returned to his cubicle. They’d freed his head from the board and he’d been given painkillers.
‘His vital signs are stable,’ said the doctor.
In answer, Cass shrugged and raised her palms in a gesture of frustration. The doctor walked away, while Cass stood in the hall as if she’d done everything she could. Meg ran her eyes from the top of Cass’s gold-streaked crown over her black jacket to her black elastic-sided boots and knew that it wasn’t fair to hate her, but hated her all the same for her complacency, her comforts. They were the same as the ones Meg enjoyed, which made a distaste for Cass a disaffection with herself.
‘When you feel better, call me,’ Meg whispered to Suleiman. She wrote her phone number on a slip of paper. She said, ‘Tell me if you need anything.’ Did he hear any of this, now that the drugs had kicked in? Taped to the inside of Suleiman’s phone case were the pictures of two children, a boy and a girl. She couldn’t tell how old they were, but the girl had pigtails and a serious expression, and the boy was smiling, his dimples showing. One of his front teeth was missing. She inserted the slip of paper and closed the phone case.
‘What’s your phone number?’ she asked.
Maybe he didn’t want to give it to her. The doctor came back and said Mr Aziz would be monitored overnight.
Meg said, ‘Are his lungs all right? Looks like he’s been bleeding.’ She pointed to the blood on his chin.
‘He bit his tongue,’ said the doctor.
‘Where does he go after he’s discharged?’ said Meg.
The doctor said, ‘He’ll be fine.’
So he was going back to the grooms’ quarters? She sat next to Suleiman’s bed and thought about the photos of his children, wondered how often he saw them. Cass smelled of something floral. She squeezed Suleiman’s hand. He blinked, withdrew and took a breath.
‘When the morphine wears off, it’s going to hurt,’ Cass said. ‘Tell them to give you more.’
She turned and began to leave, expecting Meg to follow. Meg said to Suleiman, again, ‘Phone number’, in a whisper.
‘On my phone.’ There it was, etched into the metal at the top. She keyed the numbers into her own device.
Cass was waiting in her cream Audi four-wheel drive. His children, Meg thought, with their square white teeth. She held their images in her mind.
Cass leaned forward and dropped her face into her hands. ‘We need the day off. I had to destroy that dreamy horse this morning. Do you want to go to the beach?’
Meg shook her head. ‘I need to sleep.’ She was lying.
Cass said, ‘They woke you early?’
‘Take us to the horse hospital,’ Cass said to the driver. ‘I’ll tell the director that you need the rest of the day off. It’s been busy for everyone. The grooms had a sit in. They have a health fund, but they want employment insurance too. Who can blame them? It’s been very difficult.’ Cass went on, ‘Thanks for going with him. Thanks for arranging it all. Are you okay?’
‘Fine. Actually, could you drop me off at the Al Wahda Mall?’
‘If I’m going to Brisbane, to the conference,’ said Meg. For a moment, she was scared that Cass would want to come.
‘That’s right! Check out Giordano.’
The mall was wide avenues of marble; palm trees grew inside, under the glass roof. Maybe they were fake, but Meg couldn’t tell. It was possible to imagine that she’d stepped into a place that existed in a permanent state of suspension, cool and peaceful. Before she became completely lulled, she found the bank, where she withdrew US$5,640 – everything – of which she jammed $3,000 into her wallet in $50 bills and the rest in her jeans pockets. Greasy, fragile money. The travel agent at the other end of the hall sold her an economy ticket to Brisbane departing the following day. She kept a hundred dollars. The remainder – more than four thousand – she took to a Western Union office, where she had a money order made out to Suleiman Aziz. Money for her conscience; money he could use to buy off his employment agent, so he’d be free? Or for the children? There was no point deluding herself. When Meg slid the money order into an envelope and addressed it to Suleiman Aziz it was for her sake, not for the grooms’ cause – so that she had nothing to blow at Treasury Casino in Brisbane.
When she returned to her apartment in the hospital, she laid the pages of her recovered fantasia on the counter in the kitchenette, summoned her best vibrato, and played what she had written from beginning to end. There were mournful sections and parts that might’ve been a parody of the adagio: exaggerated in their desolation. She played again, making a recording on her phone. She was enclosed in the music; it was the only chrysalis she needed.
Afterwards, while sitting on her bed with the flute beside her, she wrote a text to Stu: Going to see the old man before he dies.
Stu wrote back: When?
She’d do the 2 am treatments and the 8 am treatments as usual, then she’d leave.
See you there, Stu wrote.
Can you really come?
I’ll tell them he’s dying. They’ll give me leave. x Stu
Her cocoon of a bed held no appeal. She longed to fly home now; she wasn’t sure if she could sleep.
Liam was more difficult to convince.
Why? he wrote.
Because he doesn’t want to die alone
His people will be there
Maybe he wants to say sorry?
She didn’t beg him. He’d come. None of them, Meg thought, would ever understand Dad Kevin, but they had to be there, with their lukewarm kindness.
She couldn’t bear to listen to her flute recording; she suspected she’d distilled into it all the pain she’d felt at thirteen. But maybe Suleiman Aziz wouldn’t hear her loneliness; maybe he’d hear something else, some other music that made sense to him. Whether he liked it or not, she was gifting him a soundtrack for this period in his life. She typed in his number, attached the recording and pressed send.
DON’T BE A caterpillar. Be a moth that flies free of the cocoon that has confined you for years.
Kevin lay on his side. His head was a yellow stone against the white hospital bedclothes. Syl was wearing a skirt and jacket suit, standing up with a fan of cards in one hand. She was playing with her children, who sat on the floor. No point waiting in the doorway. Meg walked in, right up to Dad Kevin and his bald head. She couldn’t quite touch him, but she could brush his shoulder through the sheet and enunciate one syllable: ‘Dad.’
There was no response. His back was to her and she stood over him. His eyes were closed, his lips drawn down. She forced herself to leave a hand on his shoulder even though she wanted to withdraw it. In her memory, he’d been a large man; now he’d deflated, a spent balloon. If she’d imagined that when he passed away she’d be free of everything that had stopped her from living the way she was meant to, then she was wrong. His past was all around him, in the shape of men who sat and stood arrayed about his bed, five of them, from Syl’s husband Seth to a collection of men in late middle age. Meg could feel them looking at her. Who is this dyke who claims that Kevin is her father? While she was watching him, looking at the liver spots above one ear, his lash-less eyes, he took an enormous breath.
Read him as a metaphor for everything that stood between you and your dreams, but the other impediments were still there: the uncle or whoever he was sitting in a corner staring at a page of People – probably a picture of a minor star with enormous boobs in a low-cut top – and another man with his hands in his pockets, shifting slightly, looking at her with his brows drawn down. She couldn’t really blame them, of course, for the fact that she was motherless, that it had taken her this long to fly home to see her dying father, and that she couldn’t keep a girlfriend for more than three months. But they had something to do with her troubles: they helped to build and maintain this world in small and undermining ways. It was all in the manner they looked at her, even in how they stood, their backs half-turned. No wonder she’d loved the horse hospital, although now it showed her how one set of prejudices could be exchanged for another.
She walked over to Syl and kissed her on the cheek, as if by doing that she could create some sort of counterweight. Syl took half a step back, then moved forward again and laid an arm on Meg’s shoulders in a way that could’ve been interpreted as familial. They stood there for a time, Meg’s head bowed and Syl’s too, as though they were comforting each other, which they were, although not about the fact of Dad Kevin’s approaching death. Meg could hear the slap of cards as Syl’s three-quarters-grown kids played.
Seth was saying, ‘Mate…’ Another woman, standing by a window, was staring at her phone. She was in her fifties, with dyed black hair. Meg guessed that she was one of Kevin’s other cousins.
Meg and Syl released each other. Seth said, ‘Going across the road for a few.’ He might’ve been saying it to Syl. They stumbled out of the room, and Meg thought that whatever she’d been thinking about these middle-aged blokes wasn’t fair; it was yet another kind of prejudice instilled by Aunt Bridget.
Meg followed them along the hall at a distance, entered the bathroom, splashed her face with water. She’d seen him. He wasn’t even conscious. She’d seen him and she’d wished him well without hesitation – had she? – and she’d been forgiven by Syl. She could go, if only she knew where.
She’d sent a text to Suleiman Aziz on landing, just a simple: Are you ok? Now, her phone buzzed. It was a response, one word: Why? She ignored the question, wrote: Are you at the horse hospital?
She asked again: Are you okay?
My father used to play the alghoza. I like the music.
What was an alghoza?
Music for alghoza is more difficult, but your music is good too.
I hear you maybe not coming back.
She held down the home button, turned off the phone. Then she stepped out into the hall from the bathroom. Liam was standing outside, waiting. He slipped his phone into his pocket and embraced her. Then he stepped back, laughed – why, she didn’t know – and kissed her forehead in a way that was patronising. She punched him lightly on the cheekbone.
‘Don’t do that,’ she said.
‘Look at me like that.’
‘Haven’t seen you for years, and this is the greeting I get.’ He touched his cheek. He would never hit her. They walked along the hall in the direction of Kevin’s room, Meg leading.
‘I love you, bro,’ she hissed. She’d forgotten that he was so tall that his head nearly touched the ceiling.
In Kevin’s room, they tiptoed around Kevin, hoping he wouldn’t wake up. His lips were grey. Meg had expected tubes: one up his nose for oxygen, a drain from somewhere unspeakable, an IV in his arm at least. He had none.
Liam said, ‘Dead already?’
At that moment, Kevin took a breath.
The woman by the window told them there was no point in more blood transfusions. He’d been in palliative care for forty-eight hours.
‘Might go join the others,’ said the woman. ‘You’re staying here? Look after our stuff?’ She gestured to a violin case under a chair.
As she left, another woman breezed in, kissed Meg and Liam and said, ‘So good to see you. I’m Aunty Margaret. Isn’t this terrible?’ She began to cry.
Meg and Liam agreed that it was terrible. One of the kids threw all the cards on the floor and said, ‘Sam’s cheating.’
‘You’re just losing,’ said one of the other kids.
Aunty Margaret offered to take the kids to the café, and Syl said she’d go too. She gave Meg a look as if to say, I know you need some time alone with him.
They didn’t. That was the thing. They didn’t know how to be alone with Dad Kevin, what to say, or if there was any point in saying anything.
After Syl and Aunty Margaret and the kids had gone downstairs, a nurse entered and took Dad Kevin’s pulse. She pulled back the white sheet to reveal his yellow chest, where there was an IV. The nurse gave him a shot of something, probably morphine, then rolled him onto his back and tried to prop him against some pillows.
‘Make him rest easier,’ the nurse said. ‘If you think he needs a drink, you can give him a cotton bud soaked in water.’
The nurse called, ‘Mr Borrow.’
There was no response. After dipping some cotton into a glass of water, she held the drenched wad to his lips. Water ran over his chin.
A few minutes later, Stu turned up wearing a backpack. He was not as tall as Liam, but he was broader, with a thick neck.
He hugged Meg, then Liam.
‘Hi,’ said Stu to Kevin. ‘It might be time for the cuppa you wanted. Should I help you sit up?’
He didn’t make a move towards Kevin, but placed the backpack on the ground and began extracting a smaller case. Meg couldn’t place it until he unlatched the box and withdrew a set of small tin cups and saucers and a green metal teapot, whereupon she recognised the children’s tea set from Aunt Bridget’s house in Roma.
He handed Meg the teapot and a teabag and said she should go looking for hot water. Liam was standing in the hall. ‘Is he still breathing?’
‘God, I’d like to put him out of his misery.’
Meg thought of Syl, sitting with her legs half-crossed in a restaurant in Abu Dhabi. ‘To live is to suffer.’
He slapped her on the bicep as she passed, as though she’d told a joke. She went back into the bathroom, ran the tap until it felt hotter than lukewarm and filled the teapot. It’d be disgusting; they just had to complete the tea-drinking ritual. Then they could go.
When she returned to Dad Kevin’s room, Liam was saying, ‘Do you have any scones? I could do with an effing scone.’
‘I bought a Sara Lee,’ said Stu.
Stu crouched on the floor where the kids had been playing cards. Kevin’s mouth was open; each breath, now that they weren’t talking, was harsh. Stu placed the tiny tray on the floor and arranged the cups and teapot on top.
‘You can’t be serious,’ Liam said.
‘Mate. He wanted a cuppa.’
Liam rolled his eyes. ‘You making fun of him?’
Stu said nothing. With massive hands, he broke open the Sara Lee cake box and produced a pocketknife, which he used to cut the cake into large hunks. He placed a small piece on one of the minute plates. Meg stood up and set the plate down on the table on wheels in the corner and swung it over to Kevin’s bed, then turned her back: she didn’t want to watch, didn’t want to see Kevin still lying there, his mouth half-open. It pained her. She felt the pain shudder through her, making her weak: her own grief. For what? For not coming back until now? For ignoring the rule that said you had to love your parents, whatever they did.
‘Don’t waste it on him,’ Liam said.
Stu was pouring the tea into four cups. He set down the teapot and hit Liam with a closed fist to the temple, so that Liam fell sideways, stunned, and reached up to touch his head.
At that moment, the woman came back from the pub. They pretended that nothing had happened.
The woman sat in a chair in the corner and checked the violin case beneath her chair.
‘Good thing you’re still here,’ she muttered.
Stu dipped a cotton bud in tea, squeezed it with his fingertips.
‘Here’s your cuppa,’ he said. ‘The last one. It’s better than you think, Dad.’
Meg shivered. Stu held the tea-soaked piece of cotton to Kevin’s lips. Kevin opened his eyes and gasped. While his mouth was open, some tea ran down his throat.
Kevin fell back into a stupor. She felt more pain, physical this time, a needling along the ribs, a thickening in the throat, as if she might let out a sob. She wondered if Stu felt it too.
Liam said, ‘You burnt him, you idiot.’
‘It wasn’t that hot.’
Stu sat down on the floor and consumed his corner of cake in three mouthfuls. Liam ate his too. Meg couldn’t.
‘Looks like we’re done,’ Liam said. He packed up the teacups and saucers and took them to the bathroom. Meg had thought the same thing, that once they’d drunk tea, they could leave. Now that the three of them were here, she didn’t wish to go anywhere.
Stu said, ‘What do we do now? You know any songs?’
‘Only rude ones. Do you have your flute?’
She glanced across at Kevin, then at the window, where outside was a haze of lights. Mum Felicity might’ve played the flute for Kevin. She wondered what tunes Felicity had known.
‘You got a flute?’ said the woman. She lifted the case from the floor onto her lap and began unzipping it. Inside was a violin.
To stop her lips from quivering, Meg joked, ‘I’ll play until you guys beg me to stop.’
She opened her backpack and took out the velvet-lined box. Liam was standing in the doorway. He said, ‘They won’t let you play here.’
The woman was already tuning her violin. She said, ‘Let’s play him out.’
Liam threw himself down in a chair, raised his hands, tried to smile.
Stu said, ‘See, you’re not going anywhere until he goes.’
Meg breathed into her flute, played the first bars of the piece she’d transcribed, but already the fiddle was starting to play ‘Danny Boy’ and her fingers had no choice but to follow. They played quietly. Liam closed the door. They were playing ‘Scarborough Fair’ and a part of Meg was recoiling at the sentimentality, the violinist’s slow tempo, but then the men came back from the pub and one of them had a guitar and changed the tune. It took her a few bars, but she realised soon enough that it was ‘The Black Velvet Band’ and they all played along, Meg adding a few trills, the woman shifting her fingers up and down the violin as though it was just a warm-up. One of the other men started to sing, his voice low, gravelly. Then the guitarist changed the tune again and they played more loudly, they filled the room, blocked out the sound of Kevin’s breathing: a long set of protest songs, each one louder, faster and more forceful. Was this where Meg got her music from, not Mum Felicity but these people? A nurse stood at the doorway and held her finger to her lips and they ignored her until she went away, or went to get security.
In the spaces between the notes, Meg started to hear another melody. Their music made room for this other voice – was it the alghoza? – which was almost inaudible. It was saying that they had to keep going until her dad’s exhalations became further and further apart, more laboured, until the effort became too much, until he let go. They played until Meg forgot all but the notes and trying to find a harmony with this invisible other, the alghoza, if that was what it was. As if this sound could carry Dad Kevin over the abyss.
Just as the violinist started to waver, Syl came in with hands held high, lifting her knees and pointing her toes in a dance that looked part-Highland, part-Irish, and her youngest daughter dragged at her elbows and took her hands and whirled Syl in a circle, her hair flying behind her.
Meg played kd lang’s ‘Constant Craving’. She heard the guitar and the violin pause, then take up the tune, heard the violin’s tone become clean and high. Syl and her daughter fell to the ground laughing. Aunty Margaret said, ‘He’s gone.’ Meg closed her eyes, let the music bear her, longed for the sound to play on and on.