Terry is turning 43, but he doesn’t feel very much like a grown up. Most of the time even when he’s at work, even when he’s in a suit and tie for heavens sake, he feels a bit like a gormless teenager. Naive and awkward. Goofy even. Terry’s wife Anna wears a suit to work too, but she is spookily efficient and seriously mature. Terry imagines what it would be like if they weren’t married. What it would be like working with her. He imagines her saving her secure files to come out of her office for his birthday cake and ten dutiful minutes of workplace bonding with the team. She’d have a thin slice and a cup of tea and she’d wish him many happy returns while assessing Terry’s haircut and shoes and thinking up clever questions for his performance review. Thank God we are just married he thinks, but the doubt has begun. Terry longs for Casual Friday and his oxblood red sneakers and doesn’t realise that the rot’s setting in, the way it does, the way it will.

Ash sits at a table in the beer garden of a pub called The Twa Corbies. He’s not bought a thing from them, not even a half, and so he sits there in the warm wind, with his paperback and takeaway hot chips, feeling pleasantly wicked. It’s two o’clock or so. Ash is watching two surfers head down the ramp into the water. The tide is going out, he thinks, as the two heroes of his novel are plunged into danger. Two seagulls are eyeing off his chips. The surfers are pointing at two other surfers who are already riding two small waves. A couple of Ash’s chips have fallen on the grass by his two feet, and the two seagulls swoop over to capture them. It’s all too much for Ash, the weight of all these signs and portents. He dashes into the pub where he buys two pints to see him through the rest of his paperback and maybe into the next one, because he never travels without two books.

This is what Robert was like. He bit his fingernails and drank too much coffee. He spent way too much time reading cycling magazines and not actually cycling. He secretly believed that Game of Thrones was the best book he had ever read and he knew that to say so out loud was asking for trouble. He enjoyed looking at his girlfriend’s girlfriend, and he hated how he often thought his father was, well, a fool really, when you take into account the feeble grasp of the real estate market and his Dad’s affectation of joining something described as the Country Club but which was located in the northern suburbs 20 minutes from the CBD on the train. Robert wore very hip stovepipe jeans, but felt it was really quite likely that he was just a dork who thought that wearing stovepipe jeans would give him street cred. It was a minefield. The things Robert hated about himself were mounting up. He was knackered noticing everything that’s wrong with him. So he grabbed his copy of A Clash of Kings and headed out for a double espresso.

Penny is walking up Carrington Road with her guitar case with her ipod on. She does this a lot in a deliberate strategy to use the drama of the music to elevate her small life in status. Actions like walking up Carrington Road, which is steep in some spots but really no big deal, are rendered heroic by the moody strings and sudden booming brass of a full orchestra. Penny likes to use some pretty good classical stuff like Vaughn Williams or Elgar, especially the Cello Concerto No 1 played by Jacqueline du Pré if she is in a melancholic frame of mind, but she favours film scores the most. Morricone or Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer or Mark Isham actually, he’s really good. Or Philip Glass, if she’s in the right mood. Right now she’s listening to Thomas Newman’s The Road to Perdition starring Tom Hanks, she is pretty sure. The music is perfect and she lengthens her stride, stretching her hamstrings. She is called to adventure and she’s feeling ready for it, but she doesn’t need a co-star damn it, and Tom Hanks is messing with her head.

Astrid is on her back. Astrid is in the park, under a tree. Not quite under. Enough for shade but not so much that she can’t watch the clouds, which is exactly what she is doing. The clouds are those feathery ones, spread across the sky, she thinks, which reminds her of Prufrock, but they are not Prufrock clouds at all, she’s pretty sure of that. But what is the name of these clouds? The proper term, the Latin scientific name. They are not cumulonimbus or stratus and she can’t remember any more names from Year 7 Geography. Watching the clouds and not knowing their names makes Astrid feel uncomfortable. It’s hard to relax when you feel so ill informed, and that’s why she has come here, to the park, under the tree. It’s depressing, she thinks, Year 7 kids all over the country know this and I don’t. Astrid’s head fills with a stormy fury that the clouds seem to mock. The clouds scatter across the sky, cheerful and efficient, like they are trying to get an even spread. Like diligently buttered toast. No, not like toast for goodness sakes. The clouds spread and the tree smirks while Astrid lies beneath them both, like a patient etherised upon a table.

Matt has just ordered his coffee but the waiter has not yet brought it over. He is sitting on the timber bench with his back to the wall, considering whether he ought to have some toast. This involves staring out the window at the passers by, which is how he comes to notice the thalidomide woman. She has a magnificent head of blonde hair and she’s wearing very funky sunglasses. She stops to talk to someone she knows, a frowny woman walking a big shaggy dog with a lumbering gait. It is a sort of miracle that Matt notices any of this actually, because she is the fifth thalidomide person he has seen in as many days.

On Monday it was the guy at the car wash, on Tuesday the fellow in front of him at the deli buying goat’s cheese, on Wednesday the woman who sold him the tickets at the cinema, yesterday the man who cycled straight through the almost-red light, which was cheeky and dangerous, but Matt had noticed his missing arm, and the tiny stump coming off powerful shoulders, and he’d repented of any urge to curse him as he flew past the cars in front of him, streaking up Cleveland Street like a Lycra clad demon.

Matt is a little freaked out. It all feels very David Lynch. Like they have been sent. The Thalidomide Five. He waits for his coffee with a growing sense of unease and a political awkwardness, because you would, wouldn’t you?

Sometimes you just know when a relationship is over. When you’ve done your dash, tried your hardest, drifted apart, grown adrift. Sasha knows this is true of him and Francis. They met three years ago at a record fair browsing through A-K. He was looking for early Elton John and she was after David Byrne, his post Talking Heads stuff which is not always commercially successful but generally pretty interesting. They bonded over Godley and Creme. There was a long time where they connected. They used to find each others’ quirks adorable, her double denim, his neckties, his always making the orange juice with ginger, her calling out the answers to the cryptic crossword. It was charming once, but now all that seemed to grate, and that morning Sasha knew it was time. He was wrestling with it in the shower and that was the problem. Francis had the most amazing shower he had ever stood under, shaved in, scrubbed beneath. The perfect pressure, the perfect temperature, and these fabulous tiles, dark ceramic, the colour of oyster shells with cuttlefish white grout between them. He loved staying over at Francis’s place so he could enjoy the thrum of the warm water on his eyelids, and since the drought broke, the guilty pleasure of the long shower. He had had a lot of girls but none of them had a shower like this. Sasha was resolved. All relationships can be salvaged with roses.

It is a Sunday morning and Graham is very busy being offended. He is at the beach and it’s early because that’s the best time to get there he always says. It’s not too hot yet and not madly crowded. These things are true but he takes no great satisfaction in this because he has seen three young men (and one pot bellied middle aged fellow who has really let himself go) wearing t-shirts or singlets that feature the logos of beer brands. Bintang. Heineken. VB for God’s sake. And one of the younger blokes, the slightest of the lot of them, he’s gone with Jim Beam. And why not? wonders Graham in a sarcastic voice in his head. Why the hell not wake up and put on a shirt that celebrates a toxic substance that you possibly over indulged in last night or some time anyway? Because that’s lovely, to wake up and think about drinking straight away. And these drinks, Good Lord. These guys in the t-shirts are so clearly bogans and proud of it. Graham decides then and there to get a t-shirt printed that says ‘Hunter Valley Semillon 2005’, which – if he recalls correctly – was a very good vintage. Nice one, he thinks. Graham is a plonker alright, but he’s in a better mood already.

Jack stopped reading novels in around 2004 he reckons, an election year. Another unbelievable result, Howard back in and the national asylum seeker paranoia well and truly revved up. The offending book – the one that provoked him into action – was a present from his wife Cassy, a literary prize winner about some boy genius from Wauchope who grows up to be a world class cricketer and a spy for ASIO. To Jack this was a load of old rubbish too big for the skip. It is fair to say Jack has trouble suspending disbelief. So he takes a vow, makes a pact, gives his allegiance to non- fiction. Buys books about 1968, and the city of London, and the case for climate change. Biographies about Eddie Izzard and Captain James Cook, books about real cricketers and real spies. They are long books, heavy hardbacks, good for killing late night mosquitoes and holding doors open against a stiff breeze. Jack thinks he is happy with these books, which can be trusted because they are researched and true and factual. He is comforted by dates and times and names of real people and places. He tells people about this at barbecues. How it has revolutionised his life. How much he is learning. How superior facts are to stories. But sometimes, late at night when Cassy has turned in, he pretends to stay up to watch the late news, when he’s really indulging in a few chapters of the latest Richard Flanagan or an old Christopher Koch. Or maybe a Margaret Atwood. Depends on his mood. The truth is, Jack’s faith in fiction waxes and wanes, and he’s kind of annoyed that he was so evangelical at those barbecues, and that now he can only share his dirty secret with Ticky Fullerton on Lateline.

Derek is watching the cat as he walks up Glebe Point Road. Derek is walking, not the cat. The cat is sitting on the footpath up ahead. He’s a ginger tom, or not, because something like ninety percent of ginger cats are toms, so hey, this cat could be one of the not-toms. Derek’s hands are in his pockets and he’s trying hard to project non-threatening. A non-threatening vibe. This is because the road is four lanes, two of parked cars and the odd empty spot. It’s peak hour now and the road is busy. That’s why Derek is worried about the cat. He is being careful not to startle it. The cat looks ansy. Toey. Like he might just up and dash across the street at any time. Derek feels a bit queasy thinking about it. So hands in pockets, projecting non-threatening nonchalance, Derek gets to the cat, squats down.   The cat has astonishing greeny-yellow eyes. His tag says ‘Russell’. Derek strokes him, feeling a bit foolish for his concern, for goodness sake. Russell accepts the attention in the benign, uninterested way that cats do. Russell scratches under his own chin with a lazy hind leg. Russell watches the parade of bikes, pedestrians, cars and buses on their way to the city or on their way back. Derek thinks he might as well sit down and hang with Russell for a bit, maybe till peak hour is pretty much over, with as much of that aforementioned nonchalance that he can muster.

The cafe is pumping for 7:15 am. Not full, but filling up. They are playing music that sounds like a car chase scene from a French new wave film and Brendan can see it in his mind’s eye. He sets the car chase at midnight so there’s no gridlock and also, so he can enjoy the City of Lights lit up like a postcard. The music leads him through the streets on the tail of a Citroën DS, and from the cabin of a late model Peugeot 208, Brendan can see it all. The speeding and mad lane changing down the Champs-Élysées, the screeching around Place de la Concorde, skidding off on to a road he doesn’t know so well, pushing up through the gears and fanging it up to la Défense for the big finish. You’d think the younger Peugeot would have the advantage, but the Citroën driver knows his stuff and takes a last minute sharp turn and the Peugeot overshoots and comes to rest in just the sort of deserted car park in Courbevoie where you really shouldn’t be messing about at midnight. It’s just in time too, because the next track is Stevie Wonder’s You are the Sunshine of my Life, and you can’t speed through the streets of anywhere to that.

Stephen stands at the door and he is not sure whether to go in or not. This is Stephen with a ph, not a v. He wears baseball caps because he has this idea that the cap somehow distracts people from his ears which he doesn’t particularly like. He has twelve baseball caps he thinks. ‘Ears are ears,’ Stephen’s dad always says. ‘They’re for hearing not for looking.’ Stephen appreciates the sentiment but he wears the caps anyway. Stephen’s dad is inside the door where Stephen is standing. He is lying down on the couch in his pyjamas. Stephen’s dad looks grey and pasty. Maybe he’s asleep. He sleeps in the afternoons. He tends to. Stephen feels suddenly like he might be sick. His shoes seem tight on his feet and a chill sweat creeps up on the back of his neck. The penny drops into the abyss. The kitchen is a shambles and it has been since breakfast. There are crumbs on the sideboard, there is dust on the stereo, there is sand in his bed. He’s not sure whether he set the machine to record Dr Who and what he’s supposed to wear to the thing at Jan’s. When is that thing?

He cannot keep the chaos at bay and he knows it. He makes a noise like a growl. Like a wounded animal. Stephen’s dad says nothing. Maybe he is asleep. Stephen waits at the door.

One time I was at this cafe in Newtown and I saw the writer. The one with the lovely voice that can sound gentle and caring but can also sound like he’s taking the piss a bit. I like him for how he goes through the world, an ex-Catholic with a lot of rage and compassion. He makes affectionate fun of Australian men, and champions thinkers and people who hold their sorrows quietly and get on, just keep going. I think of him as a Dad figure but he’s not that much older than me really. I imagine him standing behind me with his hand on my shoulder, a gesture of affection and reassurance. I sit not so far from him. He’s reading the paper and finishing his coffee with a smoke that smells a lot like pot. OK so I’m not sure whose smoke that was, but it could have been his. The writer would get away with it because who would suspect him? He’s so respectable in his black t-shirt and jeans with his genteel manners and humble way with the cafe staff.

Yesterday I heard him being interviewed on the radio about his new play. He talked about caring for his father through eight years of decline into dementia. I wanted to thank him for this, to tell him that it affected me, that I felt his sadness and anger and I admired his forbearing and strength. I didn’t though. I watched him pay and thank his waitress, and walk up towards King Street with his Herald under one arm. If he had turned around I would have blown him a kiss, but he didn’t, so I missed my chance.

The guy on the bus was handsomer than Robson Green, who played the Aspergery psych on the British crime show on tv. That’s what Janet thought. She started to wonder whether she meant that the guy on the bus was more handsome than Robson Green the actor, or whether the guy on the bus was more handsome than Dr Tony Hill, the character he played. Where do you separate the person from his shape, where do you separate the man from the name? She was fond of Tony Hill. He shambled about like Colombo. Not like Colombo actually. Not with a clever performance to get the crims to see him as no threat so they finally drop their guard. Tony Hill wasn’t bunging it on for effect. He was genuinely odd, but intense, smart and passionate. She used to watch that show, sitting on her second hand lounge, wishing that Tony Hill would get it on with the police detective he worked with to catch serial killers. The detective had long hair and attractive eyes and was way out of his league. But she saw it too, that attractive intensity, Tony Hill’s potential, and somehow Janet wanted this rewarded. Acknowledged. If it couldn’t be her in a Purple Rose of Cairo type of moment the police detective was pretty good, and she’d cheer for that. She’d be happy to. She watched the guy who was handsomer than Tony Hill get off the bus three stops before her own.

 

It’s after dinner and Stella is sitting in the easy chair watching tv shows on her iPad. She’s watched the news, and a cheffie thing where she learnt how to do grilled sardines with chilli and a salad with pomegranate dressing and now she’s watching some Scandi noir show, all bleak and cold and windswept. The detective is walking through the forest looking for what we expect to be the grim discovery of the body. It will be a grandmother, a woman who made maps of walking trails, who witnessed a terrible sight, swans that have been doused in petrol and deliberately lit. She sees this and then she is killed. Is she killed because she witnesses this act of brutality or is the act a trap, designed to lure her to where the killer can strike? We don’t know. Stella doesn’t know either. She’s ticked off though, because she realises this is ruining her chances of ever enjoying a walk in a forest in Sweden. Now these places are gothic and dark, and full of menace. She imagines the crackle of the leaves beneath her footsteps and the chill air sneaking down the back of her shirt collar. It’s eerie and no amount of IKEA will ever make up for how spooked she is.

Simone has a stack of old Drum Medias. Drum media is a free music newspaper that they always have on the doorsteps of pubs and record shops which has a shiny cover but on the inside it’s newsprint. It is full of reviews of albums and gigs, and articles about bands and musicians, and big raw looking advertisements with grungy rock and roll graphics alerting readers to up coming shows and tours. Simone collects every edition, and it comes out weekly mind, so that’s a lot since 2004 and every week she circles the bands she wants to see. In her bedroom these editions full of circled gigs are stacked one and a half feet high under her mattress. Gigs at the Basement, Metro, the Roundhouse, the Enmore, the Factory, Camelot, the Vanguard, Notes, the Annandale, the Bridge, Selina’s even. And she’s got this week’s edition of course, and she’s circled Tracey Cain and the Ables at the Annandale, which would be handy because it’s right on her bus route. But she won’t go until she has a boyfriend, so she bought herself a digital radio and a pair of Sennheiser headphones and what she’ll probably do is go sit in the back room in the Jason recliner and listen to FBi till she falls asleep.

It was a chilly morning and yesterday there had been bluebottles, but Frank went in anyway. Frank with his recently widowed white hair and his body still pale from this last winter just over. He dunked himself right under. The water was cold. He swam eight strokes out, not far, so he could still stand up. It was almost 6:30, he supposed. His shoulder hurt. He swam twelve strokes left, parallel to the shoreline. He worried about Christmas and his drinking and how the recycling bin was full but they hadn’t come to empty it. He swam twelve strokes right where he stopped and looked at the shore and felt the early sun beating on his right cheek. What if his daughter Sam, who he hadn’t seen for two whole years, what if she didn’t kiss him warmly? What if the warmth was gone? When he turned back around there was a jet stream trail scratched across the sky and he considered swimming out further, far past the headland and on, till his arms tired and his head grew foggy and his legs gave out out and then the recycling wouldn’t really matter so much. How do I know all this you wonder, from the warmth of the balcony where I sit with my first cup of tea? How do I know the ins and outs of Frank’s thoughts and fears? It’s in the strokes.

On a beanbag in the rumpus room is where you’ll find Max. He is alone but that’s ok because he likes to concentrate. Max loves manga. He loves the stillness of each image, the minimal movement on any shot. The lips, their big eyes, someone’s hair blowing in the breeze while everything else occupies space so solidly. He loves how little the camera moves, the slow way the characters blink, the quiet of it all. Sometimes he watches it with the sound off, admires the grandeur of the dark grey smoke billowing out of a valley that owes something to Cezanne in its look and feel. Not that he knows that, but it does. The smoke rises and Max is still, watching the hero stalking a giant beast, part reptile part machine. The hero has big eyes and clear skin and a passionate desire to right wrongs. He wears a hat with ear flaps and he is afraid of nothing. Max pulls his beanie more tightly onto his head even though its 24 degrees. The wool makes his ears itch but that’s not important. Not in the scheme of things.

It is a cloudy Wednesday and Helena is in the food court eating a falafel roll with extra chilli. She’s had a crummy morning. A cardio ultrasound with all that gel crap, and an email giving her the boot from her favourite account that had seemed so full of promise. The food court is brightly lit and noisy in a muffled way. Her head feels heavy and loud and somewhere inside it a story is coming about a guy with a wonky eye who gets a crush on his piano teacher. She likes this guy and his sweaty palms and nervous scales, the way he clears his throat to answer his teacher’s questions. When would she get the test results though? And how exactly had she lost the account? She feels weak and wobbly and the food court noise is dull and cheerless. Helena feels like she is underwater, and for a second she stops breathing. The piano guy seems like maybe he’s part of the problem. Helena realises that all her characters are nice. Maybe too nice. She should write more mean characters. Maybe if she can write mean she would toughen up. She wants to call a spade. She wants to speak her truth and if she can’t manage that then maybe she can learn to care less. Helena finishes her falafel roll and puts the foil wrapper in the bin. She is in a hurry now, so she can get back to work and write a story about a piano teacher who deliberately sends ambiguously flirty texts to one of her students – the one with the wonky eye – and then brags about it with her mates at Friday night drinks.

Les thinks he’s old, but he’s only sixty. Les’s dog Carl, who is a Staffy-Kelpie cross, has no concept of time and therefore none of age either. Carl feels good. He likes the mornings, particularly these misty foggy ones that are cold, but not too cold. Les takes Carl for a walk on the edge of the national park. His boots are getting wet, and because they are old boots and not ever so well cared for, his socks are getting damp. That’s just the catalyst though. He’s worried about the leak in the laundry, his tax debt and whether he’ll ever again bump into the nice guy he met in the queue at the post office. Les starts up a small whinge, just in his head. It’s subtle and wordless, but Carl can tell. And even though Les is trying his best to conceal his irritation from Carl, because it’s not Carl’s fault that Les is a grumpy bugger, Les knows that Carl knows. He wonders whether Carl is so intuitive because he’s named after a psychologist. What if he had named his dog after a chef or an astronaut or a mining magnate – what then? But instantly Les knows this is a crazy question. It’s not about the name, it’s about the nature of the beast.

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