THE NIGHT BEFORE Jules went up to Townsville for his Nan’s eightieth, we cut each other’s hair. In all the time we’d been together, he’d always cut mine in the kitchen, and I didn’t see why I should fork out at the hairdresser just because we’d split up. We were in the late, polite stages of a separation.
His hair was shoulder length, but he’d promised his nan he’d cut it off as a birthday present. I’d never cut anyone’s hair before. I was hesitant, and eventually he grabbed the scissors and started lopping it off himself. The towel slid from around his neck; straggly locks of hair fell to the linoleum.
‘I’m going to leave a rat’s tail,’ he said. ‘You can remember how to French braid, can’t you?’
When he was done it was cut choppily, odd tufts sticking up.
‘You look like a baby chicken,’ I said. We went to stand in the bathroom side-by-side so he could inspect it. We laughed like a couple of lunatics.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked, looking at us in the mirror.
Jules ran a hand over his head. ‘Can you do a better job of shaving it than cutting it?’
He sat on the edge of the bath while I passed the electric razor over his skull.
‘There,’ I said, standing with my hands on his shoulders.
He found the dustpan and swept up the hair in his tidy, court-eous way.
‘All right,’ he said at last. ‘I’ll see you soon, I s’pose. Thanks for the makeover.’
I’d barely shut the front door when he thumped on it again.
‘All my strength is gone,’ he groaned, and fell against me. I staggered back under his weight. He straightened up. ‘I left my phone on the table.’
The blood was pounding in my chest.
Jules glanced at my face; saw he’d frightened me.
‘Sorry, mate,’ he said. ‘Didn’t mean it.’
‘See ya, Samson. Say hi to your Nan for me.’
I watched him walk back down the front path. The car’s interior light flicked on when he opened the door. Its glow made sooty shadows under his eyes and mouth. He waved at me through the windscreen. It was still strange to think of him driving home to a place where I did not also live. I couldn’t afford the rent for our room by myself anymore, so I’d soon have to move out too, and it would no longer be our room or my room, but someone else’s.
I closed the door for the second time. Not long after, Leo came home, and Tilly with him, and we sat around the kitchen table and shared the last of the gin. They’d just come from a party and were full of gossip and impersonations of other people. I told them about cutting Jules’ hair.
‘It’s hard, learning to be alone again,’ Tilly said.
Leo made the two of them a cup of tea to take to bed. Through the wall I heard their low murmurs and thought, If I hear them start to fuck, I’ll sob.
But the house was quiet. Outside I heard possums fighting, and further away, the rhythmic clatter of a train.
When Dad first met Jules, he said, He’s no day at the beach, but I thought he was beautiful. We met not long after Toby died, which was just before Mum and Dad split up. I wish Jules had known Toby. I reckon they would have liked each other. Jules would’ve seen Toby for the cheeky, smart kid he was, instead of a wheelchair or a morbid advent calendar of failing organs, the way so many people did.
When I think of me and Jules now, it’s mostly in this house. In bed, with its blue sheets washed and sun-faded to grey. Me in my dressing-gown, him naked, lying on his stomach, face mashed against the pillows. There are a lot of memories of times like that, but one of them is this: we were joking about erotic massage, and I remembered that rhyme we used to chant at school camps and sleepovers, trying to give one another goosebumps. Walk through the jungle/ X marks the spot – marching my fingers up his spine; drawing a cross on his skin with my knuckle – Along comes a spider/ And bites you on the neck! – hands crawling up his back, then a sharp poke on either side of the neck – Blood rushing down/ Blood rushing down – fingers running like liquid over his shoulders, his flanks – Crack an egg on your head/ Let the yolk go down – he flinched when I pretended to do it, cupping one hand on top of his scalp, clapping the other over it for the sound effect, then letting my fingers, the yolk, drip all over his face, down to his chin. Let the chills go up/ Let the chills go down/ Cool breeze/ Tight squeeze – blowing lightly at the nape of his neck – Now you’ve got the
He used to come home from uni and tell me about what he’d learnt, making up dumb examples so I’d understand. An Oedipal reading of The Simpsons; applying transactional analysis to Stranger Things. At night we walked to the park with a pair of sewing shears and took cuttings from plants.
Soon I’d have to move out of here, and maybe things would be easier then. Cheaper; less choked with our residue.
SOFIA, THE SUNNY Argentinian girl I work with on Tuesdays and Fridays, laughs at everything. Stuff that infuriates me doesn’t touch her. At most, she’ll roll her eyes.
‘That woman out there say she wants a cappuccino, but with espresso and milk in separate cups,’ she says. ‘She is gonna build it herself, I guess. And one Atlantic benedict, runny eggs, with extra bacon on the side. But on a different plate ’cause it’s gonna be for her dog. Can you put it through? I gotta pee.’
‘No worries. I’ll also tell her to go fuck herself.’
‘You just gotta meditate through it,’ she says in her beatific way, shrugging.
I was trying to be more like her. I didn’t hate the café, just hospitality. I’d done it for seven years, off and on. The place was fine. I got on with my boss, the cooks, the dishies, the other staff. Nobody grabbed my arse in the kitchen. The pay was okay. It was just the customers and their endless entitlement. Their graceless demands: Can I get? You forgot. I asked for. How long?
I went to the kitchen and stood at the serving window. ‘That order I just put through for three-oh-one – can you put the bacon in a takeaway container, instead of a plate? It’s for a dog.’
Subhash frowned at the docket. ‘A dog?’
He shrugged. ‘Okay.’
Uri sidled up beside him so the two of them were framed in the stainless steel of the serving window. He glanced from the docket to my face. ‘You wanna tell this bitch to come in here and suck my cock?’ he said.
‘No thanks, I don’t think that’d be good for anyone. You want another coffee? Subhash?’
‘Yes, thanks boss.’
‘Hey,’ Uri called at my departing back, ‘you tell her! She can suck my cock!’
I’D ALWAYS WANTED to study architecture. At uni I finally felt like I fit in my skin. First, I was really interested in social and community spaces. For one of my major undergraduate projects I designed a women’s shelter. At our end-of-year exhibition my parents and grandparents stood in front of the scaled model, the A1-sized drawings, my rationale pinned cleanly to the wall.
‘Aboriginal ethno-architectural forms… References the vernacular architecture of… Represents an attempt to move away from the neurotic architecture of the suburbs…’ Dad read in a mock-posh voice. I was speechless, hot-faced, with pride and shame. I was the first person in my family to go to university. I ended up going back for a master’s. By that time I was obsessed with memorial and funerary architecture. This was about six months after Toby died. I suppose the two things are linked; you don’t need to be a psychologist to see that.
I researched extravagant monuments (the Taj Mahal; the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae); houses for the dead (Chaukhandi tombs in Pakistan; the Saints-Innocents in Paris); shrines to gross tragedy (the Holocaust memorial in Berlin; the Hiroshima memorial; the 9/11 Memorial). Then I graduated and started applying for junior positions.
Most of the time I didn’t even make it to interview, but when I did, I sat and sweated into my cheap blazer and beamed and nodded understandingly when they said ‘Unfortunately, we’re after someone with a bit more experience’, even though the job I’d applied for was a graduate position that paid less than I earned waiting tables. I revised my hopes. I took more work experience. I kept applying for full-time jobs. I was offered an unpaid internship with a high-end residential architectural firm out in the south-eastern suburbs, two days a week. On the phone my Nan said, ‘What, they don’t even pay your train fare?’ Dad said, ‘Don’t talk about that stuff with Nan. She’s so proud of you. Just tell her about going out with friends, or something.’ I took the internship. I kept looking. I kept tweaking my CV, kept practising interview questions with Jules, sitting cross-legged at the kitchen table late at night. Rejection scraped away at me. I was so full of fury at the enormous, angular houses on the walls of the office, at the architects’ wide computer screens. Once, in the bathroom, I hit my head against the tiles so hard I saw static. At home that night I was embarrassed. ‘You’ve got an egg,’ Jules said, running his fingers over it. He looked frightened, then disgusted. ‘Plenty of people worse off than you,’ he said. ‘It’s not a competition,’ I wanted to say. ‘This egg is for them too. I’m angry for everyone.’ But I was ashamed. I ran every night.
QUIET AT THE café. Uri and I ate lunch together. He told me about his group assignment. His worst insult was fuckin mother-fucker. He said mother-fucker as though it were two distinct words, which was, I suppose, technically correct. My phone vibrated. Jules had sent a picture of him with his mum. They were both beaming; his mum had a thick brown arm around him like she’d never let him go. Mum says hi & sends her love. A smiley face. I showed the picture to Uri. He held it at arm’s length, squinting at the screen.
‘It’s Jules?’ he said. ‘Mother-fucker. I didn’t recognise him with no hair.’
AT HOME I cleaned the glass panels on the back door. Later that day, a bird flew into it and died. I arrived home and found it on the concrete step. The air stirred its feathers. I knelt and put my hand to it, hoping it was only stunned: my palm covered its body. I examined the door and saw a smudge, the site of the fatality. There was a small slick of bird blood on the concrete. I went to the shed to find a shovel, and when I came back, Leo and Tilly were there, flush-cheeked from a bike ride home. They watched as I scooped the bird up and carried it to the bin at the side of the house. It weighed nothing at all. I returned the shovel to the shed, propped it beside the hot water system.
Tilly gave a small, embarrassed smile. She was still wearing her helmet, and her dark hair was all fluffed out around her face.
‘We were witnessing,’ she said. I was thankful for that, at least.
IT ALWAYS STRUCK me as funny, the way my GP spoke about exercise and mental health. ‘Make sure you’re getting plenty of exercise. Being outdoors helps,’ she’d say, even though I’d told her about the positive correlation between how much I feel like swallowing Domestos and how much I run. I was interested to see what I could subsist on. Before I went out running, I ate a quarter of an apple and a teaspoon of peanut butter – and, miraculously, it always sustained me. But at other, odd times – walking home the eight-hundred metres from the market with a single bag of groceries – I felt an emptiness so complete, so wearying, that it felt as if I were walking through honey. It was November and the wind was gusty. Posters ripped themselves free from walls.
I drove to Dad’s in peak-hour traffic. The suburbs stretched long and flat; the air was filmy with dust. He fussed with the coffee. I watered his plants. I was the only one who did and, somehow, they were still alive, though I’d thrown out a drooping peace lily last month. We traded war stories about work. He asked if I’d called Mum lately. Out of my usual daughterly hurt and cruelty, I hadn’t, but I just said ‘no’. Sometimes it felt like it was only Dad and I left; like we’d had Mum cremated with Toby. We were a different family now.
There was something ritualistic about the two of us in his narrow kitchen: Blend 43 and cubes of sugar spooned from a small ceramic pot shaped like a frog’s head. Hairy knuckles, sun-spotted hands. I sat at the table. He glanced at me from across the bench.
‘You all right, Bloss?’ he asked.
‘I dunno. I’ve been feeling really bad.’
‘What, bad in the guts?’
‘No, like – in the head.’
He looked at me a long time, and I felt my mouth tremble in that terrible way. He came and stood by my chair, cradling me from behind, and I clutched at his arms.
‘What’s up?’ he asked. ‘Is it Jules?’
‘Everything’s bad,’ I said.
‘You’re gonna get a job,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry about that. This is just a little hiccup on the way.’
‘Not just work.’ I wiped my nose with my wrist. ‘It’s everything. I feel like the world is evil. I can’t stop thinking about that Four Corners report about Nauru.’
‘I didn’t see it,’ he said.
‘And I feel bad about Trump.’
He laughed. ‘Trump’s not your fault.’
‘I didn’t say he was my fault.’ I felt teenaged.
‘What about your psychologist? Are you still seeing her?’
‘I haven’t been back for a couple of months. I’ve used four of my sessions. Medicare only gives you six a year.’
‘You can get four more if you go back to your GP.’
‘I feel like I should save the rest for if things get really bad.’
‘Will you know? If they get bad?’ he asked. I thought of roadside flood markers.
Dad rubbed a hand over his eyes and blinked. He looked tired. ‘Wanna go to the RSL for a drink?’
We drove in his old Commodore. The passenger-side door was broken and couldn’t be opened from the inside. He made a big show of jumping out and jogging around to open it for me, like a chauffeur. Inside he went to the bar, returned holding a pint for himself and a Midori and lemonade for me. My face opened in a slack smile.
‘What’s this?’ I asked.
He looked bewildered. ‘A woman at the bar had one. I thought it looked like your sort of thing.’
I hadn’t had Midori since I was fifteen. When I brought the straw to my lips, the smell made me think of my high school friends’ bedrooms; hand jobs in carports; boys fighting at the local pool, spilling blood and shadows on the concrete. Rexona and Rage and gossip magazines spackled white with chloriney fingerprints. I put my hand on his.
I bought the next round of drinks, and we took them over to the pokies, like always, and played a couple of games, like always, and stopped when neither of us was winning. We sat at the bar to share a bowl of chips and have another drink.
‘Have you spoken to Jules?’ he asked.
‘He’s gone home for his Nan’s birthday,’ I said. ‘He came round before he went, though. I shaved his hair off.’
‘He asked me to,’ I said.
Dad grinned. ‘Thought you might’ve chased him around the house with a pink Gillette.’ He drained his beer. ‘It’s going okay, then? With him?’
‘Yeah, yeah. We’re not getting back together. We’re just in a funny place. Like the other day – we’ve had each other for so long, there was probably no one else he would have asked to cut his hair. We have to figure out how be friends again.’
‘Very admirable,’ Dad said.
I thought he was going to say something about him and Mum then, but he just slid off his stool and headed for the bathroom. When he came back, we went back to his house and watched a Lateline report on fossil fuels until I was sober enough to drive home and he’d fallen asleep in his chair.
The house was silent; Leo was out somewhere, maybe working. My belly was full of midori, but I pulled on my runners anyway and scraped my hair into a bun. I only went a short distance; I took the trail along the Maribyrnong, and stopped to stretch at the rise near Lily Street. The city glittered. I watched it while I stood with my arms behind my head breathing out a stitch. The air smelled of fumes and damp leaves. The knife in my ribs twisted with each inhale. I waited for it to pass.
In bed I started to watch a JFK conspiracy documentary on my laptop, but it kept freezing, and I dozed off. Around eleven Jules phoned, and I accepted his FaceTime request even though I was ashamed of the way I looked. He was drunk and full of joy; he was sitting on a crate under a mango tree, his face washed in floodlight and sweat. He tilted the phone upwards, but all I saw was a mass of dense foliage.
‘Smells amazing,’ he said. He was speaking too loud, straining to be heard over the background noise. I heard crickets humming.
‘How was the party? Did she get a surprise?’
‘Yeah, she got a real shock. We were all saying afterwards, it’s probably not the smartest idea for an eightieth, hey.’
‘Lydia’ll outlive us all.’
‘She’s a tough old bird is Lyddie. Hang on, I’m going to put you down while I roll a smoke.’
Through the screen, the world tilted sideways and went dark.
‘What are you doing, anyway?’ he asked, reappearing. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m at home. In my room.’ I held up my phone for him to see.
‘Have you been out today?’
‘I had dinner with Dad. I went for a run.’
‘That why your hair looks like that?’
We smiled at each other shyly, pixellated. Our movements jerked and lagged.
‘Hassan said there’s gonna be a crazy storm there tomorrow,’ he said.
‘That’s what they’re saying.’
I wanted us to be comfortable enough to sit there and hang out, three thousand kilometres apart, without small talk. The tip of his cigarette glowed. I waited.
I GOT OUT of work early. The weather was starting to turn. Plastic bags thrashed their way down the street. The sky was a weird, sick grey-yellow. I drove over the bridge to Westgate Park. The flashing signs were ablaze with lower speed limits. For a long time the Westgate scared me in an oblique way. When I was in primary school, one of my friend’s dads jumped from it and killed himself, and I couldn’t see those rising pylons without thinking of him. This was before the warning signs prohibiting pedestrians, before the wire at the top of the barriers. The wind buffeted the car. On the radio they kept saying once-in-a-decade weather event. I parked by the lake, under the bridge. In summer, after a string of hot days, the water sometimes turned bright pink – something to do with algae or salt. But the lake its normal muddy colour. When I had time, I liked to start my run there, taking Williamstown Road to Graham Street, then cutting through to the beach, running as far as the BP servo in Elwood. I stretched by the bike path, watched the cars trickle in and out of the petrol station for a couple of minutes, then ran back. The view going that way, back toward the western suburbs, was my favourite. The power station, the winking shipping yards, the curving stream of car lights rolling across the bridge, all the neat bright squares of apartments and offices.
It was only six o’clock when I got home, but it felt much later. The sky was low and oppressive.
‘Post for you,’ Leo said. The Red Cross and VicRoads envelopes I tossed on the bench. There was a third, smaller one printed in Dad’s hand. I sliced it open with a knife. A newsagency greeting card with a photograph of two piglets curled up asleep together. DEAR BLOSS, KEEP ON KEEPING ON! I LOVE YOU AND I’M PROUD OF YOU ALWAYS. HERE’S TO BETTER LUCK. LOVE DAD XO. Taped to the other side was a scratchie. Leo leaned in to read over my shoulder.
‘Does that say Boss or Bloss?’ he asked.
‘Bloss,’ I said, self-conscious. ‘Like Blossom. It’s his nickname.’
Leo laughed, but gently. I fumbled in my pocket for my house key. Leo watched as I scraped away at the first panel – $1,000,000 – then the second – $5 –, brushing away the silvery shavings as I worked.
‘I used to love those things when I was a kid,’ he said. ‘Remember Maccas used to do the Monopoly one? Do they still do that?’
The third panel was $25, the fourth another $1,000,000. There were two left to scratch.
‘You feeling lucky?’ Leo wiggled his eyebrows.
‘That’s the trap,’ I said. ‘They make you think you’ve won, or that you’ve nearly won.’
‘With that attitude, you won’t win shit.’
The fifth panel was $200. The final one I scraped away at slowly, wanting the game to last. Leo watched. And then it was there: $1,000,000. I counted the zeros. I counted the zeros in the first two million-dollar panels, sure I was misreading it. Leo and I looked at each other.
‘Match three to win,’ he read from the card.
‘What the fuck,’ I said. My hands had started to shake. I could stay here in this house. I could buy Dad a new car. I could pay my rego and pay off my credit card. I could get new runners. I could do all of that and still be secure.
‘How do you even claim the money?’ Leo asked. We stared at each other with idiot faces. ‘Do you just go to the newsagency? How much do they take in tax? Mate, this is fucked.’
I flipped over the card. SCRATCH HERE TO REVEAL YOUR UNIQUE BARCODE & DETAILS ON CLAIMING YOUR PRIZE!! And somehow, as I got to work again with the house key, scraping away at the metallic flakes, I knew it was a prank before I saw the cartoon face, cartoon tears of laughter springing from its eyes, and the bright bubble letters – GOTCHA!
Leo put a hand on my shoulder. He was grinning. I felt those hot foolish tears starting to build. I tried to laugh, but my breath caught and I aspirated my own spit, coughing and crying like a crazy person.
‘I’d already paid my rego in my head,’ I said.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ll buy you a beer.’
We laughed all the way down Stirling Street. Rubbish swirled in the gutters.
WE ARRIVED HOME to a brownout. It was raining inside, through the skylight and ceiling cracks. We rolled towels and wedged them against doorjambs, dotted the floor with empty ice-cream buckets to catch the water. I lit candles and put them in jars. One on top of the toilet cistern, half-a-dozen on the kitchen bench. They looked pretty.
‘I suppose I can’t do my assignment now,’ said Leo, nudging the blinking internet modem with his foot. We said goodnight and went to our rooms.
Sometime in the night I got up to get a drink. The power was still out, and I fumbled down the hallway clutching my phone for a light. The fake scratchie was on the kitchen table where I’d left it, littered with metallic flakes. They looked like lead shavings. I collected some on my fingertip and licked them. I thought they’d taste elemental, somehow, but on my tongue they were like nothing at all.