THEIR SIGNS USED a distinctive shade of blue. It was a colour they’d patented, like Tiffany Blue, though the shade was warmer; it almost made her feel happy about being sad. She’d seen the advertisement flash across the screen at the train station in Kings Cross. Fleeting: on the screen one moment, dissolving the next.
The Closure Company, a voice crooned. Let go. Let go. Let go.
Susie visited their office on Macquarie Street and the receptionist had her nails painted that same shade of blue. She handed Susie a tablet computer and told her to fill in the form. Susie wanted to explain to her that she was here, but she wasn’t even sure if they could help her. The receptionist held one talon up to her lips and said, ‘Shhh. You can discuss that with your counsellor.’
The lights on the receptionist’s phone were flashing manically, like emergency signals.
The form was three pages long. After her personal details, it asked whether she had any medical conditions. Susie wondered if sadness was an illness, because if it was, she’d had it for most of her life.
What are you seeking from your double? the form asked and listed options.
Demonstration of affection.
Susie ticked the box marked ‘Other’.
There were four package options – two encounters, four encounters or six encounters. The prices were specified for each, and payable in advance. Packages could be upgraded, and further encounters were available for purchase on an ad hoc basis.
The people in the waiting room wore their sadness in their bodies, the way their limbs folded inwards, taut and coiled like bentwood chairs. Nobody read the magazines; nobody spoke. Next to her sat a young woman, perhaps in her twenties. To Susie she seemed too young to have encountered loss. When her name was called the young woman steered herself cautiously down the hall like a vessel full of water.
Susie put the tablet back on the desk of the receptionist, who didn’t smile but nodded and scanned the form. She gestured for Susie to take a seat. The staff moved efficiently from one task to the next, attending to each person like aeroplane stewards.
The office was located on the twenty-first floor. Through the windows there were clouds on the horizon that seemed to be level with her. Large white clouds puffed upwards, rising and bulging like creatures with too many heads.
She was called in by a short woman who moved in a brisk shuffle.
‘I’m not sure about this,’ Susie said as she entered the room. ‘I just saw your advertisement and…’
The woman held up her hand. ‘We get that a lot. It’s best to treat this as a process. Most people don’t have a clear idea of what they want until they’ve had one or two encounters.’
Susie took her seat. All she could see out the window as she sat was blue sky, as though the two of them were rowing together across a shallow sea.
The woman was focused and efficient, clarifying certain answers, confirming others.
‘Tell me,’ she said. ‘About your loss.’
Susie opened her mouth and closed it again.
‘You lost your partner of fifteen years, I see. Tell me about that.’
Loss never seemed like the right word to describe what she had been through. Part of the problem was that there was no language for what had happened to Will, because nothing like this had happened before. It would probably never happen to anyone else again.
‘As I said on the form, he was onboard the flight. But that was almost eight years ago now.’ She said that often, as though repeating that figure could diminish the grief.
For so long he had only been missing, and then after a period of time that word was no longer adequate. It became something more permanent. There was a shame, too, she felt about her grief, because it was so difficult to describe to other people. Most people could speak about their loss, they could quantify it in words. Susie’s was always stuck there, lodged in her throat like something she couldn’t swallow.
The woman nodded and made some notes. She maintained eye contact with Susie but kept her face expressionless, as though she’d trained herself to have no reactions.
‘From what I remember, the search went on for some time?’
‘I remember they gave up. That must have been difficult?’
Difficult. She thought of the day she learned of the disappearance and how, when she looked back from that point everything looked different, as though on the landscape of her life the perspective had shifted. For many years, she wondered whether she would ever smile again. She still felt the loss inside her, a hard, black stone.
At the end of their meeting, the woman gave Susie her card and asked her to email a photograph.
‘Ok,’ said Susie. ‘I’ll see if I can find one.’
They made another appointment for Susie to choose the double. Mostly they used unemployed actors, the woman had explained.
A week later Susie returned, and the counsellor showed her a series of photographs that she flicked through on the screen. The thought passed through her mind that this must be what it was like for people who dated online – assessing people for the way they look in a single moment of time. Most of the men in the photograph were too smiley, their teeth too white, too well groomed. But there was one man with creases between his eyebrows and a hard stare, and he was the one that Susie chose.
‘It’s a lot of money,’ Susie said, as she signed the credit card authorisation form.
‘The doubles have to do a lot of preparatory work. This is an unscripted performance for them.’
Before she left, she received a list of rules.
You may not:
Touch the Double gently
Hug the Double
Hold the Double’s hand
Kiss the Double with a closed mouth
Undress the Double
Perform sex acts on the Double
Kiss the Double with an open mouth
Make contact with the Double in an aggressive or violent manner
If you violate any of these rules, your encounter will be terminated
A week later she took the lift to the eighteenth floor of The Closure Company’s offices. She had been given a suite number and a time. The doors on the rooms were numbered along the hall as though it were a hotel. When she passed some doors, there was the sound of lowered voices emanating from inside.
Susie knocked on the door, but there was no answer. She pushed down the handle and the door moved stiffly across the carpet. She moved in slowly and saw his silhouette by the window. He wore a suit, and his hat was on a chair beside him. Susie was surprised to see a bed in the room. She didn’t want to be close to him, so she stayed on the other side of the room, with the bed between them. It made them seem like lovers who had quarrelled. He didn’t turn around.
The only question she asked him was, ‘Why? Why did you do it?’
That was when he turned, though part of his face was still in shadow, which made it seem grotesque. When his face took shape, he regarded her distantly.
‘I didn’t,’ he said. ‘I didn’t do it.’ He shook his head, but there was a fear in his eyes, she could see. She picked up her bag and left the room, hearing the door close heavily behind her.
She jabbed a finger at the elevator button and swore she wouldn’t come back, even if they didn’t refund her money. There was a feeling inside her, not a sadness but something else that expressed itself as she walked home in agitation. The traffic lights took too long to change; a woman in front of her was walking too slowly and talking on her phone.
ONCE, LAST YEAR, she had arranged to go on a date with a friend of a friend. Her friends were, she was made to understand, performing an act of charity on her behalf. And she went along with it because what kind of person, she thought, chooses to stay alone. She’d given her his number and they had arranged to meet for an early drink at a wine bar near her house. It was an enjoyable drink, with some silences. They each had a glass of wine and he walked her home and for the first time in a long time she was aware of the velvety touch of the spring air on her skin. Outside her home though, she had a sudden unease that had to do with standing with a man she didn’t know outside the house she had shared with her husband. The man moved in closer and she felt something firm nudge against her hand. She looked down. He had, she realised, an erection and he was making her aware of it. He asked to come inside, but Susie stepped away.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and the grill over the front door groaned as she pulled it.
‘Please,’ he said, and she could see now, as she looked down at him from the stoop, the bulge inside his shorts. ‘Look how uncomfortable I am.’
She was relieved to hear her wooden door shudder behind her. She had a shower and as the water washed over her, she wondered if she had imagined what had happened, or if she had misinterpreted him somehow.
Later she saw a barrage of text messages on her phone, starting with I can’t believe I missed my tennis match for that. And finally: You deserve to be alone.
SUSIE WENT BACK, of course she did. How could she not, knowing he was there, expecting her. On the second visit she walked slowly into the room. Again, he didn’t turn around and she allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkness. The room smelled clean but there was a smell beneath that, of cigarette smoke and sweat. To her it smelled of sadness, of fear.
He turned to face her as she walked in. He was unremarkable in the way he looked. A man who she might meet somewhere, have some passing contact with and who might fall easily from her thoughts.
She didn’t speak immediately because she felt that she couldn’t. The words were frozen in her throat.
‘Why are you here?’ he said to her silence.
She wasn’t even sure she knew the answer to that, because this man couldn’t give her answers, at least not real ones. And yet, standing in this room with him made something seem real for her in a way that for so long it seemed distant and abstract, like a tragedy that had befallen a stranger. Watching him, she felt as though someone had placed her grief before her to watch like a disembodied heart.
‘I want you to tell me what happened,’ she said. And she heard the huskiness in her voice, the sound of unbroken tears. He turned away from her.
‘No one knows exactly what happened,’ he said.
‘But you must know. You were there.’
He turned back around to face her and he looked, she thought, triumphant at her sadness. She left again; she wouldn’t cry in front of him. She would not reveal her pain; it belonged to her. It was the last thing that remained of Will.
The next time she spoke as soon as she walked in. ‘Did you like your job?’
‘Very much. I enjoyed the responsibility, that people trusted me with their lives. I’d been doing this job since I was a young man. I can’t tell you the first day I dressed in my uniform – the way people looked at me. I got that feeling every time I went to work.’
‘Tell me what happened at the end?’
‘People don’t understand how easily something might go wrong. I watch them sometimes, the way they take their seats, they stare out the window or put on their headphones, not knowing how much they rely on me to keep them safe.’
THE FOLLOWING WEEK, Susie flew to Melbourne to be with Monica. She stayed in a hotel because Monica lived in a share house and she didn’t want to embarrass her by sleeping on her bedroom floor. While Monica was at university during the day, Susie went to the zoo. She saw the meerkats sniffing at the sky and an orangutan whose eyes seemed human.
Afterwards, she found the butterfly house. The air was warm and humid inside: thick to breathe like steam. The butterflies flew to the feeder and off again. They moved in delicate bounces, like children. Once she stood so still that a butterfly landed on her head, the weight of it like the pat of a leaf falling on her hair. She stayed there, watching butterflies unfurl their wings, and it was the happiest she’d felt in years.
The next day she went again. She bought a fold-out chair from an army disposal store in Brunswick. It was the type of thing you would take to watch a sports game, with a cup holder for a glass or a can. It was a Tuesday morning and quiet. Only Susie and a few others were inside, families mostly. She’d filled a thermos with herbal tea.
There was a beautiful big black butterfly, with streaks of teal and red spots on its wings, like ancient symbols. All morning, her eyes followed that single butterfly. It didn’t look like it was flying so much as swimming through the air. Susie watched that creature, the way it flew from leaf to flower, as though it were in search of something it never came any closer to finding. She sat so still that butterflies landed on her arms and legs as though they thought Susie were a flower.
Towards lunch, she noticed that its wings had grown translucent and its flutters more rapid. Eventually, it simply fell, hit the bottom of the nursery and lay on the decomposing foliage, twitching. Susie looked up and around her to see if anyone else had noticed the butterfly fall. Beside her a mother was pointing out a butterfly to a girl whose hair was wispy and blonde. Susie had been the only witness to its death. She folded up her spectator’s chair and took it with her on the tram.
WHEN SHE RETURNED to The Closure Company, the room felt claustrophobic, as though it had become too small for both of them. She was surprised about the anger she felt towards him and she wondered if this was what it felt like to hate.
‘Why did you do it?’ she asked.
‘I didn’t do it,’ he said, but she walked closer to him and he took a step back. She was aware, suddenly, of her own power. Then she remembered, she had saved lives; she’d held children as they’d died. The most difficult things a person can do she had done – and survived.
‘Why?’ she said. She was so close to him she could see the pores of his skin.
He sat down on the bed and looked up at her, as though he needed her to believe him.
‘Have you heard of hypoxia?’
‘I felt like I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted to see Penang, where I was born.’
SUSIE WALKED HOME and remembered the recording that had been released to family members; it had been a while since she had played it. She listened to it in bed again that night on her phone with the lights out. She tried to get an indication, some idea from those transmissions, and from the words he spoke, of his intentions, but the voice on those recordings sounded calm. What she always focused on when she listened to those recordings were the silences; each time she listened harder for some sound that might have been missed. She wondered too if there was something in the rhythm of the intervals, but even those gaps were mysterious.
She kept listening all the way until the end. ‘Goodnight, Malaysian 3-7-0’ and she listened to those words over and over again because she knew they were the closest she would hear to Will saying goodbye to her.
SUSIE KEPT GOING back though, even when she’d used up all her encounters. And each time she went back, he came up with a different story.
‘There was a fire,’ he said. ‘My co-pilot was badly burned. The controls were damaged. There was nothing I could do.’
And when she left that room she experienced a momentary feeling of resolution, but it was only temporary. She still had questions, and the urge to revisit swelled in her once again and she found herself taking out her credit card and arranging another visit.
On another occasion he said, ‘A woman entered the cockpit. She drew a gun on me. Shots were fired in the cabin and it depressurised.’
And she kept going back and back, even though she knew it was not good for her. That it was making her sick again. What she wanted was an ending, and each time she visited she had a feeling of almost reaching it. Except not quite.
The day of her last encounter was a warm day and for the first time in a long time, she wore a light, summery dress. She felt as though she was floating as she walked up the hill from Kings Cross. He actually smiled at her as she walked through the door.
‘What happened?’ she asked. By that stage their encounters had fallen into a regular rhythm of exchanges.
‘I’d always wanted to see the Southern Indian Ocean, that uninterrupted stretch of sea. I’d spent so long flying those planes, I wanted to see how far she could glide.’ A small amount of spit came from his mouth and landed on the window. He saw it and covered his mouth as he watched it drip down the glass.
‘Are you sorry?’ Susie asked. ‘For what you’ve done?’
He looked at her and cleared his throat. He didn’t speak but turned his back to her.
Outside, she heard a noise, a cacophony of sound. She thought for a moment she was imagining it – it sounded like a carillon, but very close by. It called to her and she moved towards the noise. He said something that she didn’t hear as she walked out the door.
On the way down in the elevator, she thought again of the flaperon that had been found from the plane. When she’d flown to France to see it, she was shocked to see the barnacles that had grown on the wing. They looked almost like mussels and it interfered somehow with the pristine idea of her loss. They’d grown large in the
months it was at sea; there was something crude about them, something almost sexual.
Outside the air was warm, but there was a breeze now. She’d worn her hair up that day and the wind on her neck was like the exhale of a breath. From behind her came the sound of bells. The jangling of small bells and the clang of larger ones. One woman was wearing them on her ankles and they jingled as she walked; another wore a cow bell around her neck.
A woman stood still for a moment and rang a large bell between her legs. It looked like an old school bell, so large she had to hold it with both hands. A hundred or more women passed, all dressed in green. She heard the dissonance of those bells and there was a beauty to the way those sounds converged.
These women called themselves the Green Order and they had these parades through the streets as a form of protest. She’d never seen them before. Mostly what they were known for was their overnight plantations in parks in cities across the country and around the world. They had made plantations at St James’ Park and in the gardens of Versailles. They were careful to plant trees that were native to each area. Governments weren’t sure what to do with them afterwards: to cut down the trees or to leave them standing.
Some of the women didn’t hold bells but signs: End Deforestation Now and Trees are the Lungs of the Earth. The women passed her and moved down the hill towards Circular Quay, a dancing and chiming mass of green. Only now, Susie saw, there were police officers standing behind the plastic barriers, watching the women with a cool indifference. Some had their arms folded, others wore sunglasses with tinted metallic shades; they watched these women pass with an indifference that seemed very close to hate.
THE NEXT MORNING she woke early, as she often did, and walked towards the harbour. There was a park she walked through, where there was a jetty she often stood at the end of, to peer into the harbour. In the current beneath her she liked to watch the seaweed sway, stretching out and contracting, like long strands of hair.
That morning, though, the sun was rising as she saw the harbour and when she entered the park there in front of her was a copse of trees where there had once been open space. Hundreds of green trees, standing there silently, and when the wind blew they whispered among themselves. Some were taller than her. Around each tree was a mound of loose earth as though it marked a grave.
She kneeled down in front of a tree and took a handful of earth and held it to her face. It smelled of nutrients; it smelled of growth. Her mind moved to the rings inside the tree’s trunk; growth lines radiating outward, like grooves in a record. She thought of the sound of the record player in their lounge room. The soft warm hum when it played. And how it remained there in the background between each song and in the air around her even after the music had stopped.