Em is full of stories, but she only actually writes some of them. The charming ones, the jolly ones, the quietly observant and sometimes even insightful ones. The stories Em writes are sort of sweet and light, like After-Dinner Mints. She’s fond of these stories, as she may as well be, because she thinks she may never write the stories she wants to write. How to write the stories that broil with frothy rage? How to craft the stories full of hurt and savagery? Em writes about a sweet guy who is toying with the idea of growing a handlebar moustache, while inside her head the other stories slither with the serpents of her dreams.
Last night on the edge of sleep was when the idea came. For a story. It was to do with bitten nails and wanting to scratch – a sort of kōan. The first two sentences presented themselves like smiling eager children, all polished and perfect. A gift. That was the moment to seize a pencil and write them down but she was so tired and her limbs felt heavy, her eyes heavier. She closed her heavy eyes and repeated the sentences to herself three times like a charm. She would remember it. In the morning she would wake up and the story would be idling like an engine warming up in a cold driveway waiting for her to get it down. She slept, the story safely inside her. In the morning, of course, it had gone. No surprises there really. Even studying her bitten nails could not summon it back. The story always calls the shots. When will you learn, lady?
Sandy was sitting at a table for six in Cafe Sopra at 1:02pm on a Saturday. She had decided to wear the red and back dress, the sleeveless one with the floral thing going on. And the patent leather red shoes with the heels. She was pleased with that decision. And the decision about the Barramundi with the kipflers and caperberries. She felt good on her second glass of bubbly. It was a celebration after all. Carol across from her was wearing her sunnies on top of her head like a tiara. Not sure what she thought about that. Carol asked about the thing at yoga. Sandy wasn’t inclined to discuss yoga with Carol or for that matter with Andrew or Gemma or Mel. Especially Mel. So judgemental. The waiter with the short strawberry blonde curls and the delightful smile brought another bottle of champagne. Domestic actually. Sandy liked that he was wearing shorts. Sandy likes summer and right then, right there, while Mel was waxing excitable about the new woman at the child care centre and how much little Roslyn responds to her – she really does, respond – Sandy cast her mind out like a fishing reel all through the summer, cast it so far it almost reached the end of February and she saw the first leaves changing in her mind’s eye before the third glass was poured.
It’s almost midnight at the bus station. If you were there you would see six people. A couple of old blokes wearing rugby jumpers (Carn the ‘Tahs!), a young mother and her daughter who might be ten or so, Kayla the driver, and Charlie. Charlie doesn’t care what game the girl is playing on her iPod touch. He doesn’t care to know what article the girl’s mother is reading that’s so funny she just snorted. He doesn’t care that Kayla is giving him the eye. And he doesn’t care about the rugby. Charlie is here so he can be alone. Not with his thoughts though – in fact just the opposite. He takes the bus for the sensory experience. Charlie likes that Greyhound bus overnight long haul feeling. The smell of boots and sweat and air conditioning. The taste of stale Cheezels bought from a bus station vending machine. The blurring of the townstreescarspeople out the window and the shuddering of his bones all the way down the Hume. Charlie loves the middle of the night comfort stop, the leg stretches, the watery coffee, the deep black silhouettes of gum trees at dawn. The Greyhound bus it seems is a healing place for a troubled soul. Charlie is counting on it. And maybe Kayla is too.
Early, before sunrise, the tiniest hint of grey morning light in the sky. Let’s say around minus one degrees. That’s what it was when she checked the weather report last night. She is in bed under a doona and two woolly blankets. No beanie. Her head is cool and her body is warm. She’s comfortable except for the itches and she tracks them over her body, watching them and then noticing each one fade to gone. There’s one on her sternum right now just near her heart. It itches. She watches and sees clearly just for a second, the miracle of letting go, of being at ease. Still, mindfully awake. The dog stirs, scratches itches of her own, thumps off her bed onto the floorboards. Her claws tap to the kitchen door and back. The dog does this on purpose. She wants to go outside and sniff the morning air. She wants to squat on the mulch and pee. The dog has needs. It’s a battle of wills and, of course, the dog wins, but the woman doesn’t mind. She will remember that peacefulness for weeks and hang onto it when things go sour. She scratches her back, and the dog’s ears, and gets up to make the tea.
This is the story of Dennis and the terrible bike pants. Tanya is driving, some distance behind Dennis. She doesn’t know his name but that’s neither here nor there. She watches him cycling up the road and is transfixed by his really, truly ugly cycling pants. They have a pattern on them, though Tanya isn’t exactly sure you can call it a pattern. It seems to be a series of muddled fluro splodges. It looks like someone has thrown up on them after a children’s party. Why don’t they come to me for fashion advice? she wonders, remembering an encounter with a pasty Irish boy called Fergus, who she had transformed from dork to pasty Irish devil. Dennis knows none of this, and as he cycles up the road just metres ahead of the 2002 model Barina in which Tanya is critiquing him, Dennis imagines himself to be pretty fetching, particularly because he knows she is probably right now reading the ghostly COOGEE across his bum where his Speedos show through the cycling pants. Mmmm. Look out ladies.
We have been at odds with each other for ages, disconnected and sore. It’s been a long time and we are not that sure why it even happened. We are tired though. Bone weary. We meet at a park where kids and dogs are playing. We meet so we can talk it through, to recover ourselves from the car crash we’ve created. It is hard to do. But it’s sunny and the dogs are playing in the off leash area and we have coffee and the winter sun on our backs. We look at each other and breathe. We see the hurt and breathe. We remember, but we see the past more clearly. We offer each other what we can – sorrow and honesty, gentle hands and tenderness. We lie on the grass like teenagers. We are relieved and so tired we fall asleep. When I wake up through a curtain of fringe I can see a Staffy looking over at us, laughing the way Staffies do. She thinks we are funny and so we are.
Liesel is wearing a tight-fitting beige dress standing with a whole bunch of other girls wearing tight-fitting beige dresses, so that from a distance it looks like they are naked. Jacqui O sunnies and tzuged coiffs. tanned and taut and semi-tanked, swaying across Alison Road to the Randwick Raceground. Sarah doesn’t know them. She’s just watching this scene from her car at the traffic lights. Sarah feels a wash of disgust and a kind of shame by proxy. It’s a weird feeling to have but more than that, she knows it’s no good for her. And it’s no good for Leisel and her mates, thinks Sarah, who are probably right now discussing who’s brought the cocaine and who is most likely to get with Patrick. Sarah judges Leisel from the driver’s seat, and then she judges herself. I’m a judgemental cow, she thinks. The judgements are coming thick and fast now. Their skirts are too way short. The one with the raven hair is way too overtly sexual. They have no self-control. They have no self-respect. Sarah sits in her car wishing she could summon some compassion, some tenderness, some god-damn loving-kindness. The lights change and she drives on, her hard heart heavy in her chest.
Oliver is a cross-referencer. That’s what he does. Draws connections, collates information, makes indexes. It’s a hazardous occupation because Oliver can’t turn it off. He can’t help himself. He’s always cross-referencing the habits and proclivities of his old girlfriends and his new ones, or their namesakes in history or works of literature. He cross -references the names of his co-workers with figures from myth and popular culture, which once lead to a bit of an incident with Kim from Finance because of The Jungle Book and the Kardashians. He knows it’s sort of impolite, but it’s how he sees things, how he plots a chart to navigate the world, and he has an extraordinarily good memory for faces. And anyway, no one calls him Oliver except his Mum. They call him Ox, as in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary (ha!), but Yasmin, his latest paramour calls him Roget, which he loves, because it reminds him of Federer, who Oliver thinks is sportily debonair.
So, is it a habit or a compulsion? Oliver is not sure, but he knows this. It wasn’t truly a problem till the day he met his new boss, Attila.
Your driver today is Mohammed. He arrives in a black Toyota Aurion, polished and pristine. He is tidy in jeans and a blue t-shirt. He looks like a rugby league player you think, as he puts your bags in the boot. You get in and you tell him where to go. Domestic airport, Virgin. Mohammed says that he doesn’t know the way. It’s his first day driving for Uber. Geez. But it’s ok. He’s joking. Mohammed is a joker. But it’s not all laughs for Mohammed. He’s one week divorced from his Gucci-obsessed miserable wife. She doesn’t understand him. She thinks his lovely top of the line black Toyota is shit. She’s already dating a guy with a BMW and an investment property in Brunswick Heads. You don’t know her name, but you already don’t like her. Yes, of course, there’s always two sides, but you hate seeing Mohammed so sad that he overshoots the terminal and has to drop you at QANTAS, that’s how sad he is.
For Trish the holiday is only half the thrill. Unlike Pete who cannot get into a holiday until he’s got to where he’s going, Trish has had weeks of quiet and rising anticipation, imagining the palm trees and the scent of coconut oil and the cold, steely taste of the beer and the richness of the sunsets. Vorfreude, they call it. What a great word. But now they’ve arrived and their resort is way better than Trish ever expected it to be. This has never happened before. There’s crisp white bed linen and a charcoal coloured rug. There are handsome lampshades – nothing too frou-frou, deftly understated, in fact. There’s fancy tea and coffee and decent sized mugs, and real milk – not UHT – in the fridge. There’s a bath and bath salts scented like coriander and lemongrass, and complimentary kimonos to wear for the duration of your stay. And Trish now realises that this new feeling she’s experiencing, this delight at having found a hotel room that exceeds expectations, deserves its own word. Is she experiencing a feeling of hotelation? she asks Pete, but he’s crashed out on the banana lounge with a James Patterson paperback over his face, and he’s in no position to comment.
Maverick is a dog. She’s a kelpie-staffy cross, and she’s not a maverick. Maverick does whatever she is told. She is obedient. Really, Maverick is the best trained dog in the park. Probably in her suburb. Maverick doesn’t chase all the ibises trying to get stuff out of the bins. Maverick doesn’t bark at the parking officers booking everyone on the clearway. Maverick sits and stays and drops, and yes, Maverick rolls over. Maverick’s owner is called Prudence and she, of course, is heedless.
Right now Maverick and Prudence are in the park wondering why so many of the trees have orange ribbons tied to their trunks. Is it the council or the Hare Krishnas? Either way, this makes them both unsettled. Trees are best unadorned, they both agree. Prudence sets about removing the ribbons with the tiny blade on the corkscrew she still has in her bag from the picnic last Sunday. Maverick follows Prudence around the perimeter of the park as she hacks through the ribbons and stuffs them in her bag. Prudence makes good progress all the way round to the last gumtree on the south side, where – uh-oh – she is spotted by the parking officer. Maverick hides behind Prudence’s legs and Prudence cheerily waves at the parking officer, whose name is Omar, though she doesn’t know this. Omar waves back, all casual and cheerful. How does she get away with it? Maverick wonders, and the ibises look on admiringly.
Sal is a flight attendant and a poet. She offers travellers drinks and cheese platters with the quiet dignity of someone who writes gentle haikus at altitude. She writes a poem about ‘Mr Whisky’ in business class with the kind eyes and the dimpled chin. She writes a poem about the dark haired girl sleeping over three seats with her red Explorer socks on. She writes poems about the smell of rubber on hot tarmac. She writes poems about the tenderness of honeymooners. Sal composes the poems in her head. She gives herself five rows to compose in and then keeps on repeating the complete poem for the length of the aisle. That’s how she does it. Sal’s poems waste no space, they squander no time. And when everyone’s been fed and had their second cup of tea, when the lights go down and we all huddle under those tiny blankets, Sal carefully squeezes her finished poems into the gaps in the overhead lockers.
Tracey sits in the big tent at the music festival watching the band. Irish or Celtic, something like that. The music is good. Not so loud, the quality that it has above all is clarity. It rings like a bell in the night air, and the crowd is under a spell. Tracey is listening but more than that she is watching the family sitting in front of her, the very next row. Dad has just got back with two glasses of wine, and the mum is holding their child who must be maybe a bit shy of two, Tracey guesses. The mum is bouncing the child on her knee and the music is heart-achingly sweet and the child is so close, Tracey could reach out and touch him. She wishes for a moment that the woman would pass her this child, take a break for herself and her husband, kick back for twenty minutes with their wine and relax, and let her take care of this small, small boy who is wrapped up in a woolly blanket and a beanie and has sleepy eyes. Tracey sits and listens and aches and makes wish after wish.
Marcus had come up with the idea on a holiday at Byron. He and four old mates from indoor soccer woke up beyond dusty one sticky morning and Stephan, who was the weather man on a commercial free-to-air network, fixed everyone a drink made of vodka, tomato juice, beetroot, spinach and chilli. Apparently he had got this secret recipe from the actor who plays the long-suffering patriarch crime boss on that show. Not the Sydney one. The Melbourne one. They got into a conversation about it at the Logies. Chris the goalie had challenged Steph straight up. That’s practically a Bloody Mary. Steph reckoned it was called a Bloody Oath, and Marcus didn’t care because he was thinking about his idea, the book he would write. A Guide to the Hangover Cures of the Rich and Famous. Stephan could be his introduction, Marcus’s way in to the world of celebrity drinking. He would take a micro-recorder and place it carefully on the bar – with their full consent of course – and he would capture the spritz of their conversations, the wit and the thrilling anecdotes full of names and faces. They would confide in him as if he were a bartender, worldly and simpatico and discreet. Marcus would listen to their secrets spill out of them. He would put an understanding hand on their shoulders and he would get them to tell him about the things they were ashamed of. As well as their tips for hangovers. Bloody oath, it was a good idea.
Adam is not at all sure what to make of Hamish, even though Hamish just bought him a scotch and last week he paid him a compliment about his taste in shoes. Why the suspicion? Is it because Hamish is tall and muscular with a chest like a bar fridge? Is it because – not in looks but in some other hard to grasp way – Hamish reminds him of Morrisey who reminds him of Sebastian Flyte who reminds him of his uncle’s old, sad wolf hound called Tristan? For Adam, Hamish is always giddily receding down a hall of mirrors, a glass of Glenmorangie in one hand, and the other deep in the pocket of his linen trousers. Thing is, trust him or not, Hamish has a laugh that makes him very hard to resist.
She is in the eighth row back from the stage watching the band. Listening to the band. It’s early afternoon and everything has really got going now. The queue for coffee is slackening off and the queue at the bar is getting longer. She has a cider, and why not. It’s a festival. There are sausage sandwiches and gozleme. There are kids running around the tent poles and teenagers and an old couple dancing up the front and a guy with hair like Michael Bolton. The cider is cold, the sound is good, and it’s so hot she takes her socks off surreptitiously. Michael Bolton turns at the precise moment she’s doing this, their eyes meet and then his travel down to her still hot bare feet. She flushes and the heat travels to her cheeks. She doesn’t fancy Michael Bolton at all, not a bit of it, but she feels caught out and kind of awkward. Suck back on the cider, love. Michael Bolton so doesn’t mind.
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 heaven’s 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.