WE ONLY HAVE one rule for road trips: neither of us gets more time playing their music than the other.
Fredéric floated the idea once we’d been together for about a year. I was absolutely furious when he suggested it, and I swore at him. As far as I was concerned, it was my car and I did all the driving anyway, so it was only fair that we listened to Green Day and Billy Talent and the Offspring. But he dug his heels in until he finally got his way. These days, our music is meted out in controlled, equal doses, like hits of morphine: twenty punk rock songs for me, twenty dance-pop songs for him. The cycle repeats until we arrive at our destination.
Sometimes I sneak in a nine-minute song, like ‘Jesus of Suburbia’, just to stretch my time out a bit since punk songs are always shorter than pop tracks. It’s not fair that I should always miss out in life.
When we start our first road trip to Geraldton together one warm Friday afternoon, Fredéric is surprised when I offer him the first go at the music. His black, finely shaped eyebrows furrow at me. ‘What do you want?’
I slide my Oakleys on and reverse my ute out of the carport. ‘Nothing. I’m just being nice. You can play your music first. Jesus. Is it that rare that I’m nice or something? I thought you’d be happy.’
‘Okay, fine,’ Fred says, quickly flipping through the CD case. He extracts a burnt disc and holds it up to the CD player, like an armed robber holding a gun to the head of a servo attendant. ‘It’s Kylie. You know. That Kylie. Not even any of the hits you’d know. Just pure B-sides and rarities.’
‘That’s fine. Go ahead.’ Pull the trigger, fucker. Do it.
The CD player whirrs as Fred inserts the Kylie CD. ‘Mister, you’re up to something, and don’t pretend I can’t tell. I just don’t know what it is yet.’
There’s a confused, innocent face I make in situations like this. I think every man is born knowing how to make this expression if he’s ever accused of something he is absolutely guilty of. Fred doesn’t need to know I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking about how horrified I’d be if we rocked up to my family’s house with bloody Kylie Minogue blasting from the ute’s speakers. Jesus. That’s something they’d never get out of their heads. And I’d never live it down. Typical gay boy, listening to his poof doof. They’d never make the distinction that it was Fred’s music and not mine. They’d think I actually like gay music and shit.
The Minogue-fest begins with some electronic bleeps and bloops. But as soon as the outlying suburbs of Perth fall away and we start winding through hectares of scrub on the Indian Ocean Drive, I feel the muscles in my back start to un-knot, my shoulders release and drop. I can’t remember the last time I went out bush. It feels like I’ve been holding my breath since the last time I had country air in my lungs, just to keep myself alive in the city smog. And yet I can feel my lungs inflate with more urgency than usual, like they’re preparing for all the oxygen to be sucked out of the car at any moment.
BY THE TIME we pull up at the servo at Jurien Bay – the halfway point – my leg is shaking and I’m grumpy as fuck. The engine’s barely off and I’ve already grabbed my pack of Benson & Hedges.
‘Want some candy?’ Fred asks, grabbing his leather wallet with its gaudy gold features. He always does this to wind me up. He learnt half his English from watching Yankee sitcoms and he refuses to adapt to Australian English.
‘Lollies,’ I correct. ‘And nup.’
‘Anything to drink? I’m getting a latte.’
He screws his face up. ‘It is so disgusting that you drink that rubbish. It’s poison.’
I raise an eyebrow and hold my cigarette up to him, almost like I’m flipping the bird. ‘Do I look like I give a fuck, mate?’
‘Ew.’ Fred glances out the open car door, as if hoping there were no witnesses. ‘Don’t call me mate, Thomas. I am your boyfriend. I’m not your mate.’
An electric thrill courses down my spine. It’s my turn to glance outside. A couple of local blokes stalk past the car with plain navy polo shirts and footy shorts and barely-contained beer guts.
‘Don’t say that out loud!’ I spit. ‘Not here.’
Fred’s eyebrow peeks out from the top of his reflective silver aviators. ‘What? Why?’
‘Because. We’re not in Perth anymore. Just don’t be so loud about it.’
Fred snorts. ‘This isn’t Saudi Arabia, Tom. Nobody’s going to chop our heads off for being gay.’
‘You haven’t been in the country before.’
He stands up and closes the car door. ‘You’re ridiculous.’
He heads into the servo. I walk in a straight line from the car to the edge of the concrete, near a cluster of bushes and as far away from the bowsers as possible, and light up. Sweet fucking nicotine. That first hit after a couple of hours always comes with the best headspin. I prefer my head to be spinning. I don’t like what happens when it’s still.
Just before I finish my second cigarette, Fred barrels out of the servo. His steps are short and staccato, his black skinny-jeaned legs like angry pincers. His suede shoes clop on the concrete as he rushes towards me, latte in hand. The neutral reflection of his aviators doesn’t match the grizzled line of his mouth.
‘What’s wrong now?’ I ask, tilting my head to the side so I don’t blow smoke in his face. ‘Don’t they have vanilla syrup or something?’
Fred shrugs off my jibe and nudges the aviators up onto his hairline. ‘The guy in there is an asshole,’ he says.
‘Arsehole,’ I correct.
‘I say it how I say it!’ he snaps. ‘He’s a homophobe.’
I delay my response by taking a drag on my durry. Part of me wants to do an arrogant victory dance and point out that I was right about what country people are like. The other part wants to stomp on Fred’s endless parade of everyone’s-a-homophobe. He’s always inventing things to get offended by.
‘What did he actually do?’ I say eventually.
Fred winces. ‘There’s “vote no” things everywhere.’
‘Well, that just makes him an idiot,’ I say. ‘The vote’s closed now. He’s wasting his time.’
‘But then at the counter he has some petition,’ Fred says. ‘And when I walked up to be served he looked me up and down, like he was RoboCop giving me a full body scan with his computer eyes, and he asked me if I was from the city and I said, “Yes.” And then he said, “Obviously – we don’t get your type around here much.”’
‘Maybe he means French guys.’
‘He didn’t mean French guys.’
‘I know that look. And anyway, then I asked for a vanilla latte and he laughed. Like, he actually laughed in my face, Tom. Not a nice laugh, either. Not a friendly laugh. He was mocking me. I mean, they have the syrup. You pay eighty cents extra for it. So why is that funny? They must get customers asking for it all the time.’
‘Not guys, so much.’
‘This country!’ Fred explodes. ‘Is this another one of those absurd rules you keep inventing? A man isn’t allowed to have a flavour in his coffee, because what, that’s feminine? It’s homosexual? They’re scared if they accidentally have a sip of vanilla latte they’ll suddenly be compelled to start sucking cock?’
‘I’m not inventing them,’ I say, flicking my cigarette to the ground.
‘And anyway, that wasn’t the main thing,’ Fred says. ‘When he came back with the coffee and passed it over the counter, he smirked at me again and then said, “I guess there’s no point asking you to sign this?” And he pointed to a petition they have on the counter for the same-sex marriage vote to be scrapped altogether and abandoned. Can you believe that?’
Okay. So he wasn’t completely making up the homophobia thing this time around.
‘What did you do?’ I ask.
‘I took my coffee and I looked him right in the eyes and I said, “No, I will not sign something as hateful as that!” And I left.’ Fred inflates his chest.
‘Well, that’s good,’ I say. ‘I guess you did the right–’
‘You don’t even care what I just went through, do you?’
‘What? Of course I do.’
‘Then give me a hug.’
I stomp on the dying ember of my cigarette butt. ‘Not here, babe,’ I whisper.
‘You are pathetic,’ he declares. ‘You think you’re this big macho tough guy but when it comes to it you’re just weak.’
I grind my teeth. ‘Did you get my Red Bull?’
Fred’s eyes flash. ‘No, I didn’t get your damn poison! Get it yourself. I was too distracted by that connard in there. I don’t even want this now, that motherfucker probably poisoned it!’ He rips the lid off his take-away coffee and upends the cup. Milky coffee splatters all over my cigarette butt. ‘I’ll be in the car!’
As Fred slams the car door, I head into the servo. Fred wasn’t kidding about the ‘vote no’ propaganda. Badly made flyers are posted up on the windows; they hang from the wires that divide the staff side of the counter from the customer side. The usual slogans. Stuff about Adam and Steve. Stuff about Australia’s Christian values. Stuff about the children.
I grab a can of Red Bull from the fridge. The bloke behind the counter is what I’d expect. His name badge says ‘Mick’. Late forties. Rough. Stubble. Faded tattoo on his upper bicep. Looks like he’d rather be fishing. The footy is on the TV in the background, which says a lot since the season finished more than a month ago; it looks like an old game, maybe from the ’90s.
‘Want some grub as well? Pies are only three bucks,’ Mick grunts his finest sales pitch.
‘Nah, just the Red Bull thanks mate. Oh, and a pack of B&H Smooth.’
‘Need a lighter?’
He scans the Red Bull and the smokes. ‘That everything?’
I dig my fingernail into the soft webbing between my finger and thumb. ‘Ah, shit. Forgot I need to get a coffee for the missus as well. Just a latte.’
Mick nods as if I just asked him to walk barefoot to Ecuador and pick the coffee beans for me. ‘Sugar?’
‘Nah, um…she likes them flavourings though…youse do them?’
‘Hazelnut. Caramel. Vanilla.’
‘Yeah, go with vanilla, she’ll like that.’
‘She want bloody sprinkles and a cherry on top as well?’
I laugh. ‘Fucken wouldn’t put it past ’er.’
Mick snorts. My face is warm, and not unpleasantly. I’ve stepped into someone else’s skin. A skin I used to wear. A skin I still want to wear.
I tap my card to pay for everything. ‘The ’92 Grand Final,’ Mick says, jerking his head towards the TV as he begins fiddling with the coffee machine. It’s an old piece of equipment and looks as grubby as the operator.
‘Good win for the Eagles, wasn’t it?’
‘Unreal. I was there. That third quarter…fucken unbelievable.’
‘My old man always goes on about it,’ I say. ‘Wish I’d been there.’
Mick sniffs and wipes his nose on the back of his hand. ‘You from Perth are ya?’
‘Living there at the moment for uni. Just heading back home for a few days. I’m from Gero.’
‘Oh?’ he suddenly looks interested. ‘Where are you registered to vote?’
‘Are you registered to vote in the Durack electorate?’
My skin crawls. ‘Nah. Registered in Perth,’ I lie.
‘Damn,’ Mick says, whacking something on a plastic bin, spraying coffee grounds everywhere. ‘Tryin’ to get people registered in Durack to sign our petition. You seen all this bullshit about poofters wanting to get married?’
‘Yeah,’ I say slowly. ‘Seen it on the news and shit ay.’
‘Fucken world’s gone mad, mate. Absolutely bonkers. Our whole society’s broken. PC bullshit running rife and no one’s got the balls to put a stop to it. I mean I don’t give a shit if some blokes wanna run around being turd burglars in their own fucking time – I mean it makes me sick to my stomach, Jesus Christ, can you imagine? But why does it have to get rammed down the rest of our throats? It’s not fucken normal and it makes me sick that our bloody MP is out there wanting everyone to vote for this. Our MP! When I was a young bloke this shit was illegal, for Christ’s sake. It doesn’t make me homophobic to want to vote for normal marriage between a man and a woman. It’s always been that way since the dawn of time. Two blokes is perversion and it’s wrong and it’s ridiculous that we’re even being forced to talk about it.’
‘Ridiculous,’ I agree.
‘You must see ’em poncing around down in the city ay? Down there in Northbridge at their poofter clubs and all that?’
‘Fucken wouldn’t know, mate,’ I say, pulling a disgusted face. ‘I don’t go anywhere near ’em. Fuck that shit.’
Mick puts a white plastic lid on the takeaway coffee cup and slides it across the counter to me. ‘Good man,’ he says. He offers his calloused hand. ‘We need more young blokes like you. Not afraid to stand up for what they think.’
His hand scratches mine as I shake it numbly.
‘You and your missus have a good drive ay,’ he says cheerily. ‘And watch for the cops in Dongara, they’re mongrels with them speed cameras.’
‘Cheers, mate. Have a good one.’
I take the coffee. My fingers are too cold to feel the heat through the cup.
When I get back in the car, Fred’s screwing around on his phone, trying to make his Instagram load with the crap-all reception you get in this town.
‘There’s your coffee,’ I say, holding it out for him.
His forehead un-creases as he glances up. ‘What? You got one for me?’
‘Vanilla latte. Just like you wanted. Not so weak now, am I?’
Fred’s perfectly white teeth form a pearly line across the dark skin of his face. ‘Aw, Tom. Thank you.’ He rubs my arm. ‘Sorry. I was just frustrated by that guy. Did he give you any grief?’
‘Nah. He thought I was straight.’
Fred’s smile is tempered by the casual roll of his eyes. ‘Oh, you just love that, don’t you?’
I start the engine. ‘What?’
‘Look at you, with your backwards baseball cap and your baggy Def Leppard T-shirt and your baggy shorts…you love that everyone assumes you’re straight because you’re a bogan. You practically get off on it.’
I hate that I can’t hide the guilty smile from my face. ‘Shut up,’ I say. ‘Is it my turn for the music yet, or what?’
DRIVING ACROSS THE bridge that spans the Greenough River is always the sign for me that I’m finally home, back on the land I came from. But it makes Fred start to giggle, and he pauses Billy Talent’s ‘Try Honesty’.
‘Is that it?’ he says, staring off the side of the bridge into the river bed. ‘It’s just sand!’
He’s not kidding. The Greenough River is just an enormous ditch where water was supposed to be, but, through no fault of its own, it ended up like a desert. There aren’t even puddles or pools – just arid, abandoned sand.
‘It runs dry most of the year,’ I tell him. ‘Even at the river mouth it doesn’t break through to the ocean. There’s just a massive sandbar.’
‘Seriously?’ Fred says, with a wry grin. ‘It’s a river. It has one job: to have some water in it.’
‘You’re such a bitch. Even to rivers.’
‘We should pull over and get some photos. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
‘No way,’ I say. ‘I don’t wanna look like a tourist in my own town.’
We drive up the final stretch of the Brand Highway. In winter, you get a few flecks of greenery cropping up here and there, but it’s November now and the sun has a way of burning up any green sapling that attempts to thrive on the Greenough Flats.
‘What do you reckon?’ I ask Fred.
‘It’s very…bare,’ he says slowly, as if trying to contain his bitchiness. It’s a rare occurrence, so I feel oddly impressed.
‘You can say it’s shit if you want.’
Colour rushes back into Fred’s cheeks. ‘Oh, it’s not that it’s shit. It’s just…there’s nothing here. No trees. No bushes really. Just flat nothingness. And it’s not green but it’s not red dirt either, it’s just…’
‘Dead sticks, pretty much,’ I say. ‘I like it, though. All these dead sticks and empty paddocks. It’s home.’
‘There’s no colour,’ Fred says, tapping his fingers on the knee of his skinny jeans. ‘That’s what’s missing. It’s all kind of beige and brown. Although the sky is nice. I like the sky like this – no clouds at all.’
I drive us through the Greenough Hamlet, past the old colonial buildings. Some are crumbling; others have been refitted, and offer Devonshire tea to travellers.
‘What does that mean?’ Fred asks, as we whoosh past a brown sign with a drawing of a camera on it.
‘It means there’s a giant camera ahead. Massive-arse Kodak camera the size of a house just sitting in a paddock. You don’t see that every day. It’s pretty cool.’
‘You’re not as funny as you think you are, Thomas.’ He pronounces it the French way: Tomaah. ‘It’s a photo opportunity for tourists, isn’t it? Come on, pull up.’
‘I’m not stopping. It’s just a fucken tree. You’ll see it as we go past.’
‘But I want a photo.’
‘Only tourists stop there.’
‘Well, I am a tourist!’
‘Well, I’m not!’ I shout. I don’t even know where the volume came from, or how I managed to generate all this prickly heat in my face. ‘I’m not a tourist, Fred! I’m from here. I was born here. I belong here!’
The sound of the pneumatic tyres on bitumen is deafening.
Fred doesn’t fire up. A year ago, or two years ago when we first started dating, he would have. We would have had an epic fight, sworn at each other, lashed out and gone for jugulars, and then fallen silent for the rest of the drive. But two years is long enough to know someone.
‘I knew you weren’t okay,’ he says. ‘You don’t want me coming up here, do you?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Don’t bullshit me, Tom. I know.’
My eyes are wet, but it’s been years since I let them spill over. I built a dam of metres-thick concrete and nothing can get out now. When the reservoir gets too high, I just build higher. I blink my eyes until they dry out. Another layer of concrete.
‘It’s different when I bring you up here,’ I explain to him. I talk more slowly than usual because he just doesn’t get it. ‘When Mum and Dad come to our flat in Perth and have a cuppa, it’s no big deal. But bringing you up here, to their house, to come to the party and be seen…’
‘Oh, that’s it. You’re embarrassed to be seen with me.’
‘Piss off. You know that’s crap. I’m saying it’s hard for them and it’s weird for them and it’s weird for the rest of my family.’
‘Well, that’s their issue. Anyway, they should want to meet someone who’s about to become a part of their family. They’ll probably want to ask all about our wedding.’
I take too long to find a proper response. When I finally mumble ‘yeah’, Fred’s already drawn an intake of breath as loud as a cyclone crossing the coast.
‘I knew it!’ he says. ‘I knew it was too easy. You never told them.’
‘You don’t get how hard it is.’
‘You lied to me, Thomas. Putain!’ He crosses his arms, like he’s protecting himself from me, though my hands are firmly planted on the wheel. ‘You didn’t just lie by omission, you lied to my face. You got off the phone and you said your mom was excited and your dad was okay with it.’
‘Mum, not mom.’
I focus on the Brand Highway ahead. Sometimes roos can leap out here when you least expect them. You never know if they’ll turn around and hop the other way, or bounce straight into your path and fuck you up.
‘Say something!’ Fred demands.
‘I didn’t want to tell them we got engaged,’ I say. ‘Not right now. With the vote and all this fucken nasty shit going on. I wanted to protect you.’
‘Liar. You wanted to protect yourself, Tom. Be a real man for once and say what you really mean. Menteur.’
‘I want my music back on,’ I say, jaw tight. He knows he’s wounded me with that ‘real man’ jab. ‘Typical of you to talk so I don’t get to hear all twenty of my songs.’
I put the Billy Talent CD back on. I feel the vibrations of the bass guitar more than I feel guilty about hurting Fred. And the screams and riffs are mercifully louder than my mind.
We whiz past the famous leaning tree of Greenough, bent over and abandoned in its paddock. It looks like a bloke who got kicked in the crotch and never got back up.
It looks like me.
THE SUN IS a giant, bleeding pomegranate over the Indian Ocean as we drive into Seacrest. I stop off at the bottle-o on the highway to pick up some piss, then we roll into beachside suburbia.
‘Why did you just change the CD?’ Fred says, speaking for the first time since we argued. ‘What was wrong with your punk music?’
‘I just felt like Acca Dacca.’
‘Uh huh. You should turn it down, though. We’re in a built-up area now. People will be sitting down to dinner soon.’
‘I want it loud.’
Fred throws a savage smile my way. ‘Of course you do.’
Home is a four-bed two-bath on Columbus Boulevard. Cream brick, mint-green tin roof, ’90s rose pattern on the glass panels in the wooden front door. Dad’s pulled the boat up on the lawn to make room for my ute. Connor’s Commodore is already in the driveway.
I pull up, yank the handbrake on and wind the window down while ‘Back in Black’ blasts from the speakers. Over the roar, I hear the flick of the lock on the house’s security screen. I’ve announced my arrival and the family’s come running.
‘So this was why you wanted me to play my music first,’ Fred says, collecting the empty takeaway cup and Red Bull can. ‘You are fou, Thomas. Absolument fou.’
I pull the finger at him the way I normally would if we were mucking around, but I’m really not sure if we’re mucking around anymore.
I kick the ute door open and stretch my back and legs out until I get that shiver of pleasure coursing down my spine. I leer at my grubby reflection in the ute’s window tint. I like how I look when I leer. My lip curled and jaw clenched and chin jutted out and eyes that say, I’ll fuck you up.
I rip open the plastic skin of my Benson & Hedges, slide a smoke between my lips and light it as my family spills out onto the front lawn.
‘G’day boys,’ Mum calls, phone to her ear. ‘I’ve gotta go, Josie, the boys are here.’
Connor and Dad stand at the side gate that leads to the patio, each swigging from a can of Emu Export; they both give me a nod. Madison, Connor’s wife, stands on the threshold, one hand on the doorframe and the other around her belly. Like we need to be constantly reminded that she’s preggo.
Mum pockets her phone. ‘Tom!’ She rushes up and plants a kiss on my cheek. ‘How are you, love?’
I hold my durry up as the pleasant buzz vibrates through my arteries. ‘I’m smoking, Mum.’ As in, get away from me.
‘Hello, Fred!’ she beams, pecking him on the cheek too.
‘Nice to see you again, Catherine,’ Fred says in his heavy French accent.
Fred and I grab our bags from the tray of the ute and walk over to the house. Dad waves us over to the gate. He has a grey plastic bag looped around his thick, sunburnt wrist.
‘Son,’ he says, with a nod at me and a crunch of my hand. When we shake hands it’s like a contest to see whose bones will give under pressure first. Neither of us ever yields; I hope his hand hurts as much as mine afterwards. ‘How was the drive? Much traffic?’
‘Nah. Left before people knocked off work.’
‘Which way d’you come up?’
‘Huh. I like the old road better. No stupid scenic drives or low speed limits.’
‘Well, it’s the quickest–’
‘Ah! Fred-o-reek!’ Dad moves on to Fred; he always tries to say his name the French way, and always fails. ‘I got a present for ya.’ He opens the grey plastic bag to reveal a bright yellow-and-blue cotton beanie emblazoned with the logo of the West Coast Eagles. ‘This family is an Eagles family.’
Fred takes the beanie, glancing between me and my Dad and looking completely confused.
‘The footy team,’ I say. ‘You know what footy is, right, Froggy?’
Fred’s mouth falls open slightly and he looks away from me and back to Dad. ‘Thank you so much, Rodney.’
‘Can’t have ya going for the Dockers,’ Dad says quickly. ‘Come out onto the patio. Let’s have a drink.’
Five minutes later, we’re all seated around the glass patio table. The citronella candle wafts into the air and Cold Chisel plays from the dirt-caked radio. If it weren’t for the Frenchman in the green Bunnings chair beside me, I could easily have never left Geraldton.
‘Why d’you always drink king browns?’ Connor asks, digging his finger into my ribs and bruising me for no reason at all. Older brothers are good at that. ‘Doesn’t it get warm by the time you get to the bottom?’
‘Not if ya drink quick,’ I beam back at him with my best shit-eating grin. ‘I must sink piss faster than you, bro.’
He scowls at me and goes to the patio fridge for another tin. I got under his skin with that. I love getting under his skin, the stupid cunt.
‘What’s your “business partner” drinking?’ Dad asks me. He knows full well what Fred is to me but it’s his jokey way to avoid having to actually say the word ‘boyfriend’.
‘Moscato,’ Fred says, taking a sip of his bubbly wine. ‘I like it because it’s sweet.’
Dad raises an eyebrow and his mouth curves, like he’s about to burst out laughing, but he doesn’t. I feel mortified. I wish just for once Fred could be normal and drink beer. At least when he visits my family. He just has no sense of what it means to be a guy.
We talk about the usual stuff. Dad’s work. Dad’s fishing. Dad’s excitement for who the Eagles are gonna pick up in the upcoming draft. Mum’s work at the council office. Connor’s surfing trip with his mates. All of it’s boring as hell. And then Madison goes on and on about how she’s twenty-eight weeks pregnant now and the baby is the size of an aubergine. I want to tell her to stop being posh and just call it an eggplant. Aubergine. Who does she think she is? Her parents have a house in the old part of Mount Tarcoola, up on the hill. Everyone in their family thinks they’re someone.
Nobody asks me or Fred anything about our lives, which is fine by me because I’ve never been one for the spotlight. After my first longneck, I head into the house to piss. The house looks preserved in time: the same brownish-gold clock on the wall that’s been there since I was a kid; same green, torn sofa in the living room, Dad’s work boots on the tiles next to it; same blue-patterned china plates drying on the sink, Mum’s thin wedding ring sitting in a pool of dishwater beside them.
As I pass the end of the kitchen bench, something catches my eye, half-hidden by a mess of bills and torn envelopes. Some familiar, orange-yellow forms.
I can suddenly hear my heart thudding, louder than a snare drum. Louder than Bon Scott screaming. I brush the torn envelopes away to get a better look. On the bench are two postal vote ballots, one for Catherine Murray and one for Rodney Murray. Still in their plastic packaging, unopened and untouched. Unconsidered.
I cover the forms back up and go to the dunny to pee, heart hammering like I just dropped a pinger When I get back out onto the patio, every head jerks around to face me.
‘What?’ I say, glancing at the stunned expressions on their faces. Everyone looks like a kid who just had a lollipop yanked out of his gob. Except Fred. Fred’s looking down into his moscato, his brown cheeks flushed with pink.
‘Why didn’t you tell us you were engaged?’ Mum demands.
The drumming of my heartbeat crescendos with cymbals and shit like that.
‘Why’d you tell ’em?’ I ask Fred instantly.
‘They asked me what was new!’ Fred says quickly. ‘I’m not going to lie. I’m happy to be engaged. I’m proud.’
‘You never said you were one of those gays that wanted to get married,’ Mum says, like she’s accusing me of nicking a twenty from her purse. ‘You never told us that.’
‘It’s no big deal.’ I head for the patio fridge to get my second longneck. It won’t be enough to wipe this moment from my memory. I’ll need more.
‘Ha! Who proposes to who?’ Connor asks, scratching his chest uncomfortably. ‘Like, when it’s two guys…’
‘You can’t ask that, babe,’ Madison says quickly.
‘Tom proposed to me,’ Fred says. ‘He took me out to dinner – Italian, my favourite – and then we went for a stroll on the boardwalk at Elizabeth Quay and he played my favourite song on his phone and then he got down on one knee and asked me. He was very romantic about it.’
The sea breeze rustles the leaves of the kurrajong tree in the backyard. There’s no other noise for a long moment.
‘Well, congratulations, boys,’ Mum says eventually. She doesn’t get up from the plastic chair. Her fingers cling to her wine glass tightly enough for the skin to go whiter than her French tips. ‘Very exciting,’ she adds, like she just got told she’s being audited by the tax office.
‘Thank you,’ Fred says.
‘Yeah. Cool,’ Connor says, his eyes flicking rapidly between me and Dad, like he’s checking for a sign of what he should say. ‘To each his own. I’m not judging or nothing, bro. I think, like, freedom of choice, ya know?’
‘Yes, I think…good for you…’ Madison says, choosing her words with caution.
I don’t respond. I don’t want to prolong this agony. I wish I could take this moment out into a paddock and shoot it between the eyes.
I can’t bring myself to look at my father. I can already see his face in my mind’s eye and that’s enough. His face will be scrunched up, the forehead just a mess of sun-beaten wrinkles and the mouth open, tongue pushing against the back of his bottom lip like he just swallowed unflavoured cough medicine. I saw that look, once, when I was fourteen and a tailor in Perth told Dad his rented tux was flattering on his behind. I see that look every day and I know that look every day. I don’t need to see it again. And his silence says everything, anyway.
‘So, who’s coming to Dad’s fiftieth?’ I boom to the table, as if absolutely nothing has happened. ‘Anyone else coming up from Perth?’
The conversation reignites, like a broken-down Commodore brought back to life by a clever auto mechanic. The ignition turns and the pistons fire and the engine purrs and we drive in peace for the rest of the night. No one mentions the engagement again.
FRED BIDES HIS time until we’re in my childhood bedroom, curled up under the sheets and my old Eagles bedspread. I turn the lights off, bathing the bedroom in cobalt moonlight, and slide under the covers. When I wrap my arms around Fred’s back like I normally would, to spoon him, he snarls, ‘Get your hands off me.’
I knew he’d gone too quiet on the patio. ‘Go on. Say what you wanna say, then.’
Fred exhales through his nostrils without looking around at me. ‘Your family is a fucking nightmare, Tom.’
I don’t have anything to say to that.
‘I always thought it was me,’ he says. ‘The few times we’ve met down in Perth, I thought maybe they were just getting used to me being your boyfriend. But being up here, I can see what’s going on. They’re not okay with it. They’re not okay with any of this.’
‘They’ve accepted you, haven’t they? Dad gave you an Eagles beanie. They accept you as much as they accept me.’
‘I was touched by the beanie gesture,’ Fred says. ‘But…do you really see acceptance?’ He shifts in the bed to face me. His deep, chocolate-brown eyes look black in the moonlight. ‘I see white knuckles and teeth-grinding. Is that how you say it? Or teeth-grounding? Anyway, your father’s face when I said we were engaged, he looked like…’
‘I don’t want to know.’
‘Right,’ Fred says. ‘So you do know. Deep down, you know.’
‘I told you. I don’t want to know.’
‘And it’s downright weird that there’s never been a discussion about you being gay,’ Fred whispers. ‘Most families talk about it. Even my family talked about it around the table. I’ve had so many talks with my sister and my mother and even my father asks me questions sometimes. But your family treats you like a criminal. Like, they’re just barely letting you still sit at the table because they have to, not because they want to.’
‘Your family isn’t perfect.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ Fred says softly. ‘But we’re not staying with them this weekend. We’re staying with your family, and frankly I don’t know how I’m going to survive it with my sanity intact. I feel like I’ve stepped into another dimension.’
‘Told you things were different in the country.’
‘No, but I can deal with outright homophobia. At least I know the measure of someone who really tells me what they think. Like that connard at the gas station.’
‘Servo,’ I correct.
‘But your family…’ He takes a sharp intake of breath. ‘Oh, wow. I just thought of something. Do you think they voted no?’
I scratch my belly. It sloshes with beer. ‘No. I saw their ballots on the kitchen bench. They never voted.’
‘Oh,’ Fred says. ‘Huh. I don’t even know what to think about that.’
Suddenly, Fred’s body begins to tremble. He covers his face, shielding himself from the glow of moonlight, and he shakes, facing into his pillow.
‘Don’t cry,’ I instruct him. I burp and smell regurgitated Emu Export. ‘They’re just set in their ways.’
‘I’m not crying about your stupid family,’ he says thickly. ‘I feel so detached from you right now. It’s like you morph into a completely different person when you’re back around your family.’
‘Come off it.’
‘You do. You’re trying to be who you used to be and it’s such a train wreck for me to watch, because I’m the only one who knows the real you.’
I know he’s right. Fred brings out the best in me: the soft belly beneath the hardened skin. When we met in consumer psych class at uni, he was the only person who laughed at my presentation. The only person in the class who could make me laugh, whispering funny comments and insults to me about everyone else in the room. The only person I could talk to about punk rock (which he hated) and Tarantino movies (which he loved) and how sometimes I felt angry enough to set fire to the world (which he understood).
But being with Fred unravelled me, and I can’t bear to be a frayed, lonely strand of thread in front of anyone but him. Faced with my family, all I want to do is twist myself back around the spool until I’m the same tightly wound ball of string they created.
‘If you knew the real me, you would’ve shut up about us being engaged,’ I say. ‘I told you it wasn’t the right time to bring it up.’
He chokes on a sob. I touch his back while he cries. I hate seeing him cry. My eyes get wet. I quickly set another layer of concrete on the reservoir within me. Nothing’s getting out.
‘Stop rubbing my back,’ he says eventually. ‘I don’t want you touching me. You’re such an asshole to me. Especially in front of your family.’
‘Fuck’s sake, we’re in Australia. It’s pronounced arsehole.’
‘Well, to me you’re just an asshole!’ Fred cries. ‘You’re better than this, Tom. You could do so much better than this and instead you’re choosing to be weak. I hate that about you.’
‘What do you want from me?’ I demand. ‘It’s like you want me to be the poster boy for gay marriage. That’s not me! Isn’t it enough that I came out? Isn’t it enough that I proposed to you? Isn’t it enough that I didn’t end up killing myself? Why can’t you just be happy with that? That’s the best I can do.’
He goes silent. I go silent.
He wipes his face and furls the sheet around himself. I press my body against his, his warmth keeping my blood flowing. I’m a cold-blooded lizard resting on a hot rock in the sun. After a while, I get hard, and I start to rub against his butt.
‘Don’t even,’ Fred mumbles sleepily.
‘But I’m horny.’
‘Then have a wank.’
‘Can’t you at least give me a blow job?’
I wait until I hear his first snore, then I roll away from his warmth and feel the cool night air on my skin. I could bring some porn up on my phone, but I don’t need it. This was my bedroom as a teenager. It was impossible for me to pin up all the muscly hunks I wanted to plaster my walls with, so I went for the next best thing. The walls are covered in posters of the West Coast Eagles.
As a teenager, during the day, with my mates, we’d talk about their stats – career goals, disposals, who was the most accurate goal kicker, who was the fastest player, who could lay the hardest tackles. And at night, I’d stare up at those posters from my bed, the moonlight making the footy players’ strong arms glisten. Bare, bulging biceps. Broad, powerful pectorals almost bursting through their yellow and blue guernseys. I wanted them, and I wanted to be them, all at the same time.
It only takes me two minutes to shoot my load. I wipe the warm cum off my belly. There’s no afterglow: just the same crushing, airless sensation I had when I was a teenager. That I’m broken and fucked in the head. That my brain chemistry has let me down without my consent by not letting me be attracted to girls. That nothing – not even a fiancé – will ever make me okay.
THE BATHROOM HAS dual basins, so Fred and I get ready for the day side by side, but without talking. He showers first while I clip my toenails and take a shit. I shower after him. We haven’t spoken all morning. Last night’s words hang in the air like thick, oppressive condensation and I don’t know how to make them evaporate.
I brush my teeth and look at my naked body in the mirror as the sharp bristles make my gums bleed. The things I hate most about myself are:
I’m five-foot-seven, about five inches shorter than both Connor and Dad.
I have a big mole on the left side of my face and it has two hairs coming out of it.
I have a scar on the same side of my face, an ugly dimple from the bad acne I had as a teenager.
My biceps are puny and undefined.
I can’t be bothered making myself go to the gym and work out, so I have a layer of beer-induced fat around my middle.
I’m too much of a pussy to get a tattoo like Connor.
I am very pale and very average looking.
I’m a massive homosexual.
That last one has nothing to do with seeing myself in the mirror. I just hate it.
Fred is your classic good-looking, hunky gay guy. His brown skin looks chocolatey and smooth beneath the tight white Armani T-shirt he’s slipped on for the day. There’s no fat around his midsection, just the sexy V-line that models usually have. He has two different types of moisturiser for different parts of his body. He sings a French pop song to himself as he whips citrus-scenting moulding clay into his black quiff. I have absolutely no idea what he sees in me.
My short-back-and-sides haircut is a bit scruffy. I haven’t had a trim, or shaved, for a couple of months; the mutton-chops on the side of my face are out of control. I cram a Fox-branded snapback cap over my hairline and figure that’ll make me look like a bit less of a mess.
‘You look nice,’ I tell Fred as he scrubs the moulding clay from his fingers. ‘Hot.’
‘Mm hmm,’ he says, though his jaw softens.
We head out to have a family breakfast at the main café on the Geraldton foreshore. Half the town goes here on a Saturday morning. Some families rock up in their cars and head in from the town side of the café; others hit the beach first for a swim and wander into the café stinking of salt and seaweed and dripping water from their boardies onto the lacquered wood-panelled floor.
I line up at the counter to order our food when a soft hand taps my arm.
‘Tom? Is that you?’
The girl beside me is vaguely familiar – brunette with a severe fringe, heavily made-up eyes, earnest expression – but I haven’t seen her for years. The cogs of my brain whirr furiously until they match the face with a name.
‘Kira. Hey. How are ya?’
‘I’m so good. Wow, I haven’t seen you since leavers’ week. I’m married now!’ She flashes a ring. ‘We just bought a house in Sunset.’
‘I heard about you,’ she says, placing her palm on my arm again. ‘I just want to say how brave you are. I’m so proud of you.’
‘Cheers.’ I shuffle forward in the line.
‘Are you still with your partner?’
‘That’s so beautiful. I feel so much empathy for you two. For all my gay friends. It’s just so wrong how we’ve been forced to vote on your human rights. It disgusts me. But of course I voted yes, just so you know! I just think it’s so ridiculous that you can’t get married yet! Isn’t it ridiculous?’
‘Ridiculous,’ I agree.
‘I remember all the laughs we had back in geography class,’ Kira says, tapping on her phone to unlock it. ‘You have such a great sense of humour. Always laughing and always making us laugh too. Don’t you remember?’
I don’t, really. ‘Yeah, it was fun.’
‘Smile!’ she commands abruptly.
Her mobile phone is shoved before my face and suddenly she’s by my side, squeezing my shoulder and pulling a duck face for the camera.
‘What a great selfie!’ Kira declares. ‘Gosh, it’s so good to see you. How long are you in town?’
‘Just today and tomorrow. Here for Dad’s fiftieth.’
‘Sounds like a whirlwind. We seriously have to catch up for a coffee next time you’re up. Or a sleepover, even. My friend Bryce has like, all the seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race and we should totally just hang out and shade all the contestants.’
I don’t even know what that is. Has this woman actually met me before? ‘Later,’ I say. I never want to see her again.
Kira flutters back to her table. The cashier calls me up to the counter. I order scrambled eggs for me and pancakes for Fred and take my number back to the table.
After breakfast, Mum insists we all go for a walk along the foreshore together. Connor and Madison lead the way – stopping here and there for her to sit on one of the limestone walls and pose for photos of her clutching at her belly. She is fucking insufferable. Mum and Dad stroll behind them, hand in hand, though their bodies seem to stretch away from one another.
Fred and I bring up the rear. After we’ve walked in the sunshine for a few minutes, Fred’s fingers intertwine with mine. My hand freezes in panic, and I let him squeeze my hand briefly before I pull away.
‘Not here,’ I hiss.
Fred sighs and retreats. ‘From what I can see so far, this is a quaint, peaceful little holiday town,’ he says. ‘I don’t think anyone’s going to come and bash us, Tom.’
‘It’s not that peaceful,’ I assure him.
We pass the outdoor basketball court. Some local hotties are playing ball. One of them is tattooed and rough-as-guts looking, and he makes my stomach flip. It’s not until we’ve nearly passed the basketball court that I realise I know him. He catches my eye and gives me a gruff nod. ‘Hey, Tom. How’s it goin’?’
‘Carl,’ I say, with a nod back. He used to call me Tommo, once upon a time.
Carl wipes the sweat off his glistening shoulders with a casual flick of a towel. ‘Haven’t seen ya since ya quit from IGA. You’re in Perth now ay?’
‘Yeah. Studying commerce at uni.’
Fred clears his throat to suggest an introduction. I ignore him.
‘You always were a bit of a brain!’ Carl says. ‘Compared to me, anyway. I never been any good with words or nothing.’ He glances at Fred. ‘Hey dude. I’m Carl.’
‘Are you his – you know…’
‘Boyfriend. Yes,’ Fred answers.
‘Ah, I heard that, man,’ Carl says, turning back to me. ‘And like, I fully respect your choice. Like, me, I’ve never wanted to be with a guy, like, fuck that shit, ya know? It’s not for me. But, like, full respect to you guys.’
‘I just can’t stand those real crazy lefty gays that you see in the news,’ he goes on. ‘Total fucking fairies, you know. Not normal ones like you. You know like how they flounce around in rainbow tutus and push to be married and shit?’
‘But you’re still, like, a normal guy. You’re still a guy and that’s what I like about ya bro.’ Carl claps me on the shoulder. I can smell his sweaty armpits. He reeks. ‘We might have different opinions and I respect your opinion and you gotta respect mine, right? Some cunt at the shop said I was homophobic because I think marriage should stay normal and between a man and a woman. I was like, “How is being normal suddenly homophobic?” The whole country’s so warped, man. But I don’t have any problem with poofs. I say go on and live your life. You do you. But at least you just accept that it’s what you are. You don’t get in everyone’s faces trying to get gay-married and try to discriminate against the rest of us and make us feel bad for our morals and our beliefs. The whole thing is so ridiculous!’
‘Ridiculous,’ I agree.
He squeezes my shoulder, and suddenly the squeeze is too hard to be matey. He’s trying to hurt me. I shift away until he lets go.
‘See ya round, Tom. Later, buddy,’ he adds to Fred, with a pointed glance at his tight Armani T-shirt.
Before we’re fully out of earshot, Fred blurts out, ‘Who the hell was that?’
‘Just some dropkick I used to work with at IGA. He used to be okay.’ And he used to call me Tommo. Everyone did. When did that change?
‘He’s a homophobic asshole.’
I don’t even bother correcting him. My phone buzzes with a notification. Kira just posted the selfie of the two of us on Facebook. The caption reads:
So proud of this dude – my old geography buddy Tom Murray living his life fully and openly as a queer man here in Geraldton. Love is love and if you don’t think so, you can delete me off FB. There’s no space for homophobia in my friends list! #VoteYes #TheWilltomyGrace #howfabulousishe
The word ‘queer’ churns my stomach. I would rather be shot dead than have that word applied to me. I am homosexual but there is nothing queer about me.
‘What’s wrong now?’ Fred asks.
‘Nothing,’ I say quickly. I untag myself from the photo and delete Kira from my friends list. And I block her so I never have to see that image again.
GO HARD OR GO HOME
THE AFTERNOON PASSES quickly. Fred says he has a headache and goes for a nap. Connor and I sweep the patio and set up the trestles and hose down the plastic chairs for the guests while Dad goes to the shops to get meat and ice. Mum makes salads. Madison has to lie down because she allegedly feels woozy, but she spends the whole arvo sprawled sideways on the patio swing telling me and Connor when we’ve missed a spot on
Dad, Connor and I have just cracked our first beer of the night when Mum pops her head through the sliding door.
‘I forgot to buy cool drink!’ she says. ‘We got plenty of alcohol but nothing for people who aren’t drinking.’
‘Then go get some,’ Dad says.
‘I can’t! The potato bake’s in the oven.’
‘Well, people will be rocking up any minute and it’s my party,’ Dad counters.
‘I’ll go,’ I say. ‘I need durries anyway.’
I crack the door of my bedroom to see if Fred’s still napping. He’s awake, head propped up on two folded pillows, earphones plugged in as he watches a music video. The window is wide open; the sea breeze swirls around the room, causing the edges of my footy posters to flap in the wind.
I wait until he sees me and yanks out his earphones.
‘I’m going to the shops,’ I say. ‘Need anything?’
‘Yes,’ Fred says at once. ‘I need to get out of this house. I’m coming with you.’
We drive five minutes to the local shops: a new pre-fab concrete set-up. Fred rolls his window down and closes his eyes as the wind plays over his skin. He stays in the car while I head into Woolies.
When I come out of the shop with plastic bottles of cool drink and a fresh pack of ciggies, his eyes are wide open, staring into space like he’s transcended Geraldton and found nirvana.
‘You look totally zoned out,’ I tell him as I start the car.
He takes a deep breath. ‘I’m just trying to survive this weekend.’
‘It’s not that bad.’
‘For you, maybe. It’s hard for me.’ He touches my arm. His skin is warm. ‘I’ve never seen you so tense. So bottled up. You’re not acting like yourself.’
I reverse out of the car park. ‘How d’you mean?’
‘You’re usually so affectionate at home. You talk to me in that cute little voice you do. You kiss the back of my neck. But since we got here it’s like I’m just a mate.’
Part of me wants to scoop him up into my arms and tell him I’m sorry. I want to admit that I am a bad boyfriend and an even worse person. But I just can’t say it. Tears spring to my eyes. More concrete.
‘Just gotta get through tonight,’ I say, as we drive back down Verita Road.
Fred nods and slides a magenta CD into the car radio. ‘I need some music.’
Dense electro music vibrates through the car. A female voice sings.
It’s Lady Gaga. He fucking chose Lady Gaga.
‘Not that,’ I say. ‘We can’t play that.’
‘Tom. Come on. I just need some music to feel normal again.’
‘Okay, but not this. Not on the way back home. Change it.’
Fred stiffens. ‘No. Calm down.’
‘I said no!’ As quick as I can, I hit the eject button on the CD player and wind the window down. I fling Lady Gaga out the window.
Fred stares at me, his mouth open. ‘I can’t believe you just did that.’
‘You wouldn’t listen to me,’ I explain.
When we get back to the house, there are a few cars already parked out the front. The first guests have arrived. I look at Fred, feeling justified at having avoided these guests hearing Gaga blaring from my car. Fred just stares back at me, open-mouthed and clutching his hands together like I’m a hot stove he just burnt his fingers on.
Dad’s fiftieth birthday bash goes down as it’s supposed to. About sixty guests rock up: a mix of blokes he’s worked with over the years, fishing buddies, guys from the footy club and a handful of family members who made the trip up from Perth. We eat snaggers and steaks and Mum’s potato bake and coleslaw and devilled eggs and all the normal salads you get at a barbie. People’s kids, some of them my cousins, race around the backyard playing make-believe and riding tricycles and singing made-up songs. The dirt-caked radio plays the normal mix of party songs from the ’70s through to the ’90s, though nothing more recent than that. Dad is fifty,
I make it through most of the night without incident. Fred goes inside to talk to Mum and Madison and some of the other women. I stay close to Dad and say g’day to his mates, most of whom I haven’t seen since I moved away from Gero for uni. One of them asks me if I have a girlfriend yet. I tell him ‘nah’ and try to talk to him about the draft instead.
And the later the night gets, the more piss I sink, and the less awkward I feel sitting at the table with the other blokes. In the discussion of footy and fishing and dirty jokes and stupid shit people did on the worksite, I forget that I’m different. I even begin to feel like I belong at this table.
Of course, all illusions eventually shatter. It happens when Damo, the same bloke who asked me if I have a girlfriend yet, says, ‘Who’s that fruitcake in there?’
Goosebumps erupt on my skin as my body tingles with horror. I feel like someone just turned a floodlight directly onto me. Damo is pointing a hairy, calloused finger through the window to the kitchen, where Fred is helping Mum wrap up the leftover salads and put them in the fridge.
‘His name is Fred-o-reek!’ Connor announces with a burp. He’s plastered. ‘He’s French and he’s a little bit fancy, you know.’
‘Fancy!’ Damo scoffs, a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth and almost singeing his thick, grizzly beard. ‘I think you mean fairy! What’s he doing here?’
Dad takes a long gulp of his beer. ‘Just one of Tom’s uni mates,’ he says, looking at his hands.
‘Tom, buddy!’ Damo calls down the length of the table. ‘You might wanna watch your back when your mate’s around. Reckon he’s the biggest poofter I’ve ever seen.’
Nobody’s eyes are looking my way. Those at the table who know I’m gay don’t want to say anything: suddenly they’re all studying the graphic images on their cigarette packets or peeling the labels off their empty stubbies. Those who don’t know I’m gay are chuckling into their drinks. One or two of them have the same cough-medicine face I’ve seen my father wear.
One of my uncles goes to say something about Richmond’s chances of making it to the finals next year, but Damo’s pissed as a newt and he’s on a roll.
‘Oi! You! Brown boy! Fred-o-reek!’ Damo cackles, his ruddy face shiny with sweat. ‘Come out here!’
I can hear the blood in my ears and feel it pounding in my throat. My hand grips onto my longneck of Emu. Just stay inside, Fred, I think.
But he hears the laughter and drifts out onto the patio.
‘Yes?’ he asks. Even the word ‘yes’ is heavily accented.
‘Freddie…you a big fairy, like ol’ Freddie Mercury, are ya?’
Fred’s face loses its colour immediately. He glances over at me. ‘I’m gay, yes,’ he says fiercely, sticking his chin into the air. ‘And I don’t like being called a fairy.’ He glances at me and takes a step backwards, towards the sliding door.
‘I don’t give a crap what you like to be called!’ Damo shouts. ‘I am so sick of this PC bullshit being rammed down our throats. You’re lucky I didn’t find you out on the street somewhere, or you’d really know how I feel about ya, faggot!’
He balls his fist and rubs his knuckles like he’s polishing a weapon. I see Fred flinch. Fear flashes in his eyes as they shift, searching for me. Searching for my help.
Adrenaline floods my bloodstream and I feel my whole body roar with a rage I didn’t know I had. Without meaning to, I rise to my feet. ‘Oi!’ I shout down the length of the table. ‘If you’ve got a problem with him, you’ve got a problem with me!’
Someone coughs uncomfortably. A couple of guys leave the table. Dad rubs his temple.
‘I reckon your young bloke’s a dirty yes voter, Rod,’ Damo says, nudging Dad with his elbow.
Alcohol and adrenaline make me stronger than I’ve ever been. ‘I did vote yes,’ I say. ‘Because I’m going to marry him.’
Damo’s face drops in shock, before he bursts into a loud guffaw.
‘Holy shit. You’re kidding me. Rod! Rod! Did you know this shit… Did you know?’
Dad stands up and leaves the table.
‘Your son’s a poof!’ Damo says, still laughing. ‘Your own son! Jesus Christ.’
My face is as hot as a cigarette ember. I feel like my skin has been peeled from my flesh. When it comes down to it, if I like men, I’m a faggot, and in their eyes nothing can redeem me. None of it makes a shred of difference. Drinking the right beer. Listening to the right music. Talking about footy. Distancing myself from Fred. None of it made one bit of difference to how they see me. It can all come undone with a single chink in my armour. The one thing I can’t control.
Dad’s gone to the patio fridge to grab another beer and pretend nothing’s happening. Connor stares at me, open-mouthed. So many of the guys’ eyes are on me and I can’t handle it for another second. Fred has bolted back into the house and I abandon my king brown to follow him.
‘What’s going on?’ Mum shouts as I sprint past the kitchen. ‘What have you done?’
I catch Fred just as he goes to slam the door of my bedroom. I sneak the tip of my black-and-white Converse between the door and the doorframe.
‘Leave me alone!’ Fred cries, pushing the door against me and squashing my shoe.
‘No,’ I say softly. ‘Let me in.’
He stops fighting and I burst into the room, closing the door behind me and locking it. Fred is silhouetted against the moonlight, a black shape framed by silver, clutching onto the windowsill as his whole body shakes.
I move behind him and wrap my arms around him. He doesn’t feel as warm as he usually does; I’m burning up, heart racing and skin radiating heat. I feel his sobs vibrate through my chest and my eyes get wet. I try to build another level on the reservoir. But there’s no concrete left. The dam finally bursts, and the sound of concrete cracking open cuts through every cell in my body. Noises come out of my mouth that I’ve never heard before; and I’m clinging to Fred’s clothes, my fingernails digging into his flesh; and suddenly his arms are around me instead, and I’m repeating the same thing, whispering it, my breath hot on his ear.
‘I’m sorry, Fred. I’m so sorry.’
WHEN FRED AND I emerge from the bedroom the following morning, our bags are already packed. My parents are in the living room: Mum’s on her iPad looking at pot plants, Dad’s reading the Sunday paper. Their coffee cups are empty; their plates are covered in toast crumbs. Connor and Madison are nowhere to be seen.
‘I reckon we might leave early,’ I say behind them. ‘Always too much traffic on a Sunday arvo.’
They both jolt at the sound of my voice. Mum slides her glasses onto her forehead.
‘Oh. Well, that’s probably a good idea, love. Don’t want to get caught behind some caravans, especially on the coast road.’
I knew they wouldn’t want to talk about last night. I don’t want to either. And so we never will.
I fold my arms, like I’m shielding my heart. ‘Why didn’t you guys vote?’
Mum and Dad exchange a horrified look. ‘Well, we didn’t know it was something you wanted,’ Mum says quickly, her hands kneading one another in her lap. ‘You never said.’
‘But you know I’m gay. You know Fred.’
Dad folds his newspaper and throws it on top of a buttery plate.
‘You know how I was raised,’ he says. ‘I believe marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman. That’s the way it’s always been since the dawn of time. I think I’ve been very tolerant towards you and your lifestyle, son, and your partner. But you can’t ask me to vote for something I don’t believe in.’ He scratches his squared chin. ‘I decided not to vote at all. I did that because you’re my son. I did that out of respect to you. You should be happy.’
‘Thanks, I guess.’ I hold my arms even tighter against my chest. ‘We are going to get married. The vote’s going to come through as a yes. I’m sure of it. And when it does, we’re going to get married right away.’
‘That’s your choice,’ Dad says grimly.
‘Will you be there?’ I ask.
‘We will be there,’ Mum says quickly. ‘Just…let us know.’
‘I remember how excited you both were when Connor got engaged to Madison,’ I say, digging my fingernails into my forearm so I can feel that pain instead. ‘You both sprang out of your seats. I’ve never seen you so happy. Dad, you called Gran straight away, remember? You insisted she fly out from Melbourne.’ I want to pierce my skin and draw blood. ‘God, you practically bullied Connor into inviting everyone you know.’
‘That was different.’
‘Yeah, it was,’ I say. ‘Are you going to call Gran and tell her to fly over for my wedding?’
Dad shifts in his seat. His face is flushed and his mouth is an aggressive line.
‘What about all your mates? What about my uncles and aunties in Perth? Do you want them to come and celebrate your son’s happiness? Like last time?’
‘You invite whoever you want,’ Dad mutters. ‘I won’t tell you what to do.’
‘But it mattered so much last time.’
‘Do what you want. I don’t care.’
I shake my head. ‘We’d better go.’
I shake Dad’s hand and kiss Mum on the cheek.
‘Thanks, Catherine, for the laughs,’ Fred says. ‘Rodney, thanks for the beanie.’
Dad nods at him without a word. They see us out. Mum walks barefoot on the front lawn; Dad lingers on the porch, arms crossed and face dark as he watches us pile into my ute.
‘Safe trip, boys,’ Mum says. ‘Text when you’re back safely in Perth, please.’
‘For sure,’ I say.
I go to start the ute, but I can’t. I don’t want to leave without asking Dad why. It’s been at the back of my mind for two years now, a shifting shadow that I hadn’t been able to pin down until this weekend. I get back out of the car and walk up to face my father. His body tenses as I approach, his jaw setting more squarely than ever.
‘What?’ he grunts.
‘You always called me Tommo,’ I say. ‘Everyone did. My whole life. I was never Tom or Thomas. I was always Tommo. Why’d you change it?’
Dad stares at me like I’m speaking French. ‘What?’
‘You must have noticed,’ I say. ‘Everyone changed. Nobody calls me Tommo anymore. None of the guys.’
‘How the hell should I know, Tom? Probably because you’re different now.’
My skin prickles. ‘That’s the thing,’ I say, with a sense of relief. ‘I never changed. Everyone else did.’
‘DO YOU THINK the yes vote will win?’ Fred asks as we pull into the Tarcoola servo before hitting the road.
‘I wish I could tell,’ I say. ‘I really hope so.’
I fill the car up and then park as far away from the bowsers as possible.
‘Want some candy?’ Fred asks, heading into the servo.
I grind my teeth. ‘Lollies, babe. For God’s sake, just for once, say the word “lollies”.’
‘Never.’ Fred smirks at me. ‘Anything at all? Drink?’
‘I’ll come in with you,’ I say, locking the ute.
I grab a Red Bull from the fridge. Fred grabs a bag of snakes and we meet at the counter. The man at the counter has skin like cracked leather, as if he’d been left in the sun for about a decade. To my surprise, a small rainbow flag badge is pinned to his teal polo shirt. He puts the fuel through and scans our items. ‘Anything else, mate?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘A vanilla latte for him.’
‘Roger that,’ he says, not even blinking. ‘Eighty cents extra. That okay?’
I nod. As we wait for the coffee, Fred’s fingers reach for mine. When our skin touches, I feel like I just copped an electric shock, but then I steel myself and let the tendons in my hand relax. His hand merges with mine, and a clammy heat forms between them.
‘Vanilla latte,’ the servo guy calls, peering out from behind the coffee machine. He spots our joined hands and I instinctively flinch, but he immediately blurts out, ‘Oh, just so you know, I voted yes.’ He points proudly to the pin on his shirt. ‘My son is gay.’
I take the latte for Fred. ‘Thank you,’ I say.
‘You boys gonna get hitched once it’s legal, or what?’ the guy asks with a smile.
‘Yeah,’ I say, as Fred holds up his hand, showing the thin band of white gold studded with a tiny diamond, ‘We’re engaged.’
The guy beams at us. ‘Won’t be long now and it’ll be legal. Congrats, fellas.’
Fifteen minutes later, we’re on the Brand Highway zooming through the empty beige paddocks of the Greenough Flats when a brown sign flashes by the window. I plant my foot on the brakes.
‘What are you doing?’ Fred asks, gripping his coffee to stop it from spilling over.
‘You wanted to see it, didn’t you?’
Fred raises an eyebrow. ‘You’re full of surprises this weekend, Tommo.’
I chuckle. It sounds so strange to hear such an Aussie name pronounced with a heavy French accent. ‘You’ve never called me that before,’ I say.
‘You never told me it’s what you wanted to be called,’ Fred says, touching my leg. I smile at him and sit up straighter, feeling the muscles in my back flare and my chest broaden, feeling that he knows me.
The leaning tree of Greenough is striking: its trunk rises briefly before folding and plummeting for the earth; its branches and leaves look like a dying broccoli head brushing against the dirt.
‘It’s incredible,’ Fred says, taking a photo on his phone. ‘How did it come to be like this?’
‘The wind,’ I say. ‘There’s so much wind in this part of the country, no trees can grow here. That’s why the paddocks are so barren. This little fucker somehow survived, but the wind blew it over while it was growing, and so it ended up like this…bent sideways.’
‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ Fred says.
‘I feel sad when I see it,’ I admit. ‘Think of how tall it could have been if it hadn’t been deformed like that.’
Fred tilts his head to the side as he gazes at the Leaning Tree. ‘It’s funny,’ he says. ‘That’s not how I think of it.’
‘How do you think of it?’
‘Well, I don’t see it as deformed,’ Fred says. ‘Despite the almost impossible conditions, the tree found a way to adapt to its environment, and it survived. And now, look: it’s the strongest tree for miles.’