BUT WHAT IF the cops see us?
But what if you run out of money?
But what if you miss your bus?
But what if it rains and you don't have a jacket?
But what if your house burns down while you're out?
But what if you trip over and graze your knee?
But what if he turns out to be a jerk?
But what if you're allergic?
But what if you fall asleep?
But what if your computer crashes?
But what if you get pregnant?
But what if you get mugged?
But what if you get married?
But what if I'm wrong?
Then where will you be?
– · –
IN THE EVENINGS you and I would go down into the little laneway. Sometimes I would buy us coffee or soup, although towards the end when money got tight you were happy with tea from a thermos. We'd sit on the bench outside the glass-fronted Laneway Bar and you would tell me the unauthorised biographies of the patrons moving their hands and mouths inside.
A middle-aged man, bald except for a grey ponytail, argued with the bartender over a bottle of wine. He was in the film business, you decided, because of his moisturised face and the way he held his hands.
A large frizzy-haired woman with ridiculously long fake fingernails sat at the window, talking animatedly to an Asian couple. The couple nodded and laughed, and the woman waved her arms in circles and knocked over a bottle. The Asian man bought them all champagne and they clinked their glasses. I suggested they were teachers at the same school. You shook your head. No, they didn't know her – look at the way the man's hand rested on his partner's thigh. After about an hour the Asian couple left the bar. The woman skolled her glass, moved to the next booth and started a conversation with a group of backpackers.
A year ago, on my birthday, we went into the Laneway Bar for dinner and sat in the window. You fidgeted and played with your food. I thought your appetite had gone, but you just said the noise of the bar was off-putting. You felt crushed under the weight of it, too much a part of the world. You preferred the distance.
One time there was a young man, about my age, sitting in the window booth. You liked his suit, said I should wear one more often, that they made my shoulders look good. On the table in front of him was a small parcel with a ribbon around it. When a woman entered the bar and sat down with him, he didn't look up from his beer. She too gazed at her hands, and they both sat still, in silence. What do you think he did wrong? I asked. Maybe he's not the one apologising, you replied. Maybe it's nobody's fault. Maybe their relationship is just in its last days. And then you put your hand behind my head and kissed me on the mouth. I asked you if you were cold, and you said no more than usual.
At the far end of the laneway stands a massive neo-gothic building of black marble and wrought iron whose slab-sided immensity leaves the laneway in perpetual shadow. I don't remember its tiny windows ever having been lit in the evenings, but I have only really taken notice of the building since I've gone back to the laneway without you. I've been sitting at the same bench across from the Laneway Bar, but all its patrons seem blank and silent. You wouldn't have had this problem. I've been finding it hard to concentrate lately, to keep from looking back towards the building and its dark windows, trying to spot movement behind the glass.
– · –
MY WIFE HELEN and I were making love one evening when she said in a serious voice, 'Would you say you are disorientated?'
'Disorientated. Is that what you'd say?'
'I'm fine.' I breathed into the curve of her neck. 'Why, is something wrong? Am I hurting you?'
'No, no,' she murmured. Her fingernails traced little circles on my back. 'I was just wondering whether the word was disoriented or disorientated.'
Not long after becoming pregnant for the first time, Helen told me that she felt tormented by words. A name, a phrase, seen by chance throughout the day, would reverberate in her mind, twisting and contorting and rearranging itself, growing larger and louder until she felt her head would burst and a tirade of tortured phonemes would echo off the walls. She made me promise not to book her in to see a shrink. She said it was the baby brain – she just needed to clear her head. 'It's not you, darling, I promise,' she told me, nuzzling my whiskers. 'My brain just spins too fast for some reason. I can tell you magenta spelled backwards isatnegam, and makes the anagrams ant game, neat mag and a tan gem. But I can't tell you why.'
My legs were starting to ache as I frog-kicked against the doona. I felt Helen's hips and shoulders slacken. 'Disorientated sounds funny,' I grunted.
She breathed deeply. 'It does. Disorientated. Detatneirosid. Diode Tainters. But I swear I hear it all the time. Although I usually say disoriented. Dis-ori-en-ted. I think. Don't I?'
'I don't know, love,' I said through clenched teeth. By now I was doing little more than rocking against her pelvis. 'It's a free country. You can say whatever you want to say, however you want to say it.'
'But that's not enough.' She sighed, pushed me out of her body and rolled over to her side of the bed.
– · –
I THOUGHT TAKING the scenic route would be the best thing to do. I thought it would be a nice change from the washed-out scrub of the motorway, a small change of scenery on the way to a big one. In reality, it just meant an extra hour and a half in the car with no radio reception and a daughter who wasn't talking to me.
'You made sure you picked up all your books before we left?'
'Wouldn't want to be missing a book on your first day.'
She said nothing, just gave an exaggerated sigh. I ran my hands along the top, then the bottom of the steering wheel.
The road cut through farmland, completely flat as far as the eye could see. I fiddled with the air vents, redirecting the plastic-smelling air away from my face and onto my hands. I wondered whether it was hot or cold outside, and touched my fingers to the window.
'Look at that, love,' I said, nodding up towards the sky. Out to the east five long chopped streaks of thin cloud fanned out from the horizon. 'Condensation trails, by the look of it. Contrails for short. Not often you see so many in one go. They're made of water vapour, not smoke: did you know that?'
My daughter still did not say anything. I stared at the road. After a few minutes she uncrossed her arms and leant her head against the window. I took this as a positive sign.
'Must be an airport over that way.'
'Maybe.' She looked up. 'Or maybe they're the trails left by nuclear missiles. Maybe every major city has been fried while we've been driving through the middle of nowhere.' She snorted bitterly. 'That would be a shame.'
I adjusted my grip on the wheel. 'Don't be silly. It's just planes.'
'That's how the world's going to end. Everyone will see the bombs or the meteors or whatever and say, "Nah, it's probably nothing."'
'For Christ's sake, it's just common sense.' I changed gear too quickly and the engine whinnied. 'Nobody's launching any nuclear missiles. Stop being silly.'
'You don't know that. You've got no more proof than I have. You can say you told me so once we get there, whatever. But right now you've got nothing.'
She sank into her seat with a huff. I played with the knobs on the air-conditioning, and tried to imagine how the rest of the trip would go. I would make a mental list of conversation starters in my head, and rattle them off one by one. Then, eventually, she would cheer up or the radio would come back, and we would hurtle on towards our destination. Anything after that, the arrival, the unpacking, the journey home, seemed purely imaginary, as though there would only ever be this car, this road, this chilly air.
The contrails had all but dissipated into the atmosphere. I squinted to make out their paths, and began to think that perhaps the world really had ended.
– · –
THERE'S AN UNATTENDED bag on the seat in front of me. It's probably nothing, not even worth mentioning, really. I'm guessing it was already there when I got on the train – I mean, I didn't see anyone put it down. The carriage is full of schoolkids, so maybe it belongs to one of them – although most of them seem to have backpacks and this seems more like a sports bag. It's pretty well chock-full of something or other. I want to reach across and open it, take a peek inside. But if it does belong to someone, well, that would be rude. The last thing I want is some cocksure footy boy berating me for touching his things.
Still, Bags Without People Don't Make Sense, right? What if there's a bomb in there? Surely I would hear ticking or something? Maybe that's a myth – I don't really know anything about bombs. Somewhere in the carriage, tinny R&B strains from minuscule speakers. I've heard you can detonate a bomb remotely with a mobile phone. A schoolgirl squeals as her friend tries to pull her hair.
If this thing were to explode I'd be the first to go. I suppose being this close I'd disintegrate immediately. I guess that's good – I'd barely even know what had hit me. I hope there'd be enough left of me to identify. I think about my girlfriend. Who would tell her? Would she see the news and, knowing I'm usually on the train around this time, connect the dots? Or would she not know, try calling me, think I was ignoring her, get pissed off, come round to yell at me and hear the news from my next-door neighbour? I wouldn't want to do that to her. Maybe I should call her.
No. This is stupid. It's just a bag. Be Alert, Not Alarmed. Besides, I get off the train in an ordinary outer suburb. Tactically speaking, surely they would wait until the train got into the city to detonate, if only to do the most damage. On balance, I'm pretty safe. And a little embarrassed at how much of a comfort I find this.
Jesus Christ. When did I become such a prophet of doom? I never cared much about anything when I was younger. The biggest argument I ever had with my mum was because I thought she worried irrationally. Now I get into my car and unconsciously check to see there's nobody crouched in the back seat waiting to garrotte me; I deadlock the door when I'm home by myself; I get funny feelings about bags on trains. I wonder how I would look through the eyes of the schoolkids. Would they see me the way I've always imagined myself – savvy, together, confident – or am I just another grown-up living in fear?
I get off the train and walk home through the park. It's a postcard autumn afternoon; the sky is the deepest, clearest blue and the breeze tugs at my skin from all directions. I want to savour this. I find a park bench and sit for a while, listening to the invisible lorikeets clamouring in the bottlebrushes, until the sky goes purple and the dusk blurs my vision.
I arrive home just as the news is starting on television.
– · –
I'M NOT AN ignorant person, but there are lots of things I seem to not notice. Like how Alex never wanted to stay at my place, at least not after the first few times. We only lived a few kilometres apart, so I assumed he simply liked his space. Plus, Alex lived in a proper house, as opposed to above a butcher's shop in a flat that smelt constantly of meat. That was another thing I didn't really notice. The smell itself isn't that unpleasant – sweet, and sort of cold – so long as you don't think about the severed legs and hanging, dripping torsos from which it emanates. Maybe that was a matter of simply growing accustomed.
It was a nice enough butcher shop, I guess. Two Maltese brothers ran the place, old-style butchers who'd cut meat straight off the carcass right there in front of you – their circular saw made my fridge rattle. I had been living above that shop for just over a year when I took Alex through for the first time. He was the one who directed my attention to the sign above the door. On a white rectangle of Perspex a brown cartoon cow, wearing a bib and licking its lips, sat on a chopping block while an enormous knife sliced its hindquarters into perfectly formed T-bone steaks.
'That's fucking gross,' he said, as though I had put it there. 'How does that thing not creep you out?'
I told him it was something I hadn't really noticed.
After that it felt like the thing had somehow awakened. I couldn't enter or leave my building without looking up at the wretched creature, slavering over its own rump. What kind of cruelty was this, a poor animal parading its innards for the buying public? Who promotes their business in this way, sugar-coating torture with childlike cartoon imagery? I began to feel uneasy around the grinning Maltese butchers and their white aprons. My gut clenched when I heard the circular saw. Like a crooked picture frame or a dead pixel on a screen, the sign filled my mind's eye.
One night, after an argument with Alex, I got drunk and decided it had to go. Standing on a milk crate beside the front door I looked up at the poor cow, at its bulging, glassy eyes. I wanted to stroke its nose, tell it I was sorry, that I wasn't like the other people in the building. The sheet of Perspex made a groaning noise as I wrenched it off the wall.
If I'd been hoping for some sense of satisfaction, I didn't get it. One problem out of the way, a new one presented itself like a punch in the stomach: what to do with the sign. I couldn't leave it outside or put it in the bin, anywhere it could be seen by the butchers or dusted for fingerprints. I couldn't take it to Alex's, not tonight. I suddenly felt very tired. Without a better solution, I carried the sign upstairs.
No matter where I put the thing it felt conspicuous. What if the butchers came up in the morning to ask if I'd seen anything? I kept getting up and moving it. Bathroom, kitchen, laundry. I ended up sliding it under my bed, the only place I felt certain it was out of sight.
But still I saw it. Those wild eyes, the stench of meat. I had brought them closer to me. I lay flat on my back in the darkness, trying as hard as I could to forget that image, that moment when animals stop smelling like animals and start smelling like meat.
– · –
IN THE BATHROOM, two bluish-green towels hang side by side on a rack. One is cool and slightly damp, strands of hair woven into the turquoise fibres.
The other has been dry for a long, long time.
– · –
THE HOSPITAL WAS built on a hill to avoid the floods, which meant it could be seen from pretty well anywhere in town. My mother's sprawling bougainvillea on the back fence did a good job obscuring the view of the tan brick monolith, but still the hospital's thin, silver smokestack jutted into the sky. She would sit on our back veranda of an afternoon and watch as the rescue helicopters swooped in overhead, tilt her head to listen to whether the ambulance sirens were coming in or going out. She liked the hospital, said she felt safe knowing it was there.
Once, when I was very small, my older brother and I were walking the dog along the Racetrack, a narrow strip of grass that ran behind the hospital's loading bay. From here it looked more like a factory than a hospital, with gas tanks, roller doors and vans rumbling past. From somewhere in the middle of it all, the chimney shot skyward, black smoke belching from its top.
'Why is there smoke?' I asked.
'Don't you know?' My brother was pulling long strands of kikuyu grass out of the ground. 'That's what happens when someone dies in the hospital. They take you to the furnace and they burn you up.'
'No, they don't.' An image crept into my mind: a pile of bodies, of arms, legs, faces. Dirty, sooty bodies, shovelled into the furnace and out into the air. I fought the urge to hold my breath. 'I don't believe you.'
'They do too. You ask anyone.' This from the boy who told me the pinkie finger was the Rude Finger, and that the tree root we kept tripping over in the backyard was part of a dinosaur skeleton. I had believed him those times too.
I asked my mother when we got home if it was true, but she said the furnace was just where they burned their musty old sheets, and to stop being silly. My brother rocked with laughter – 'Gotcha! Gotcha!' – his victory made complete by my gullibility.
The victory is still his this afternoon, as I help my mother into her towel-covered easy chair, the last light of the day filtering through the venetians onto her yellow, skeletal arms. Out the window, the sun sets behind the hospital on the hill. Black smoke rises from the chimney, and I think of the bodies, imagine their sooty particles clinging to my lungs. I chastise myself silently. Stop being silly. I close the windows, breathe deep, but I can't shake the smell of dusty death from the air.