Clive settles back into bed with the newspaper, reaches for his coffee, just made, piping hot. There’s something floating in it, a small black thing, the size of a flea. Or a coffee ground. But which? This is life, he thinks. Not knowing, not being able to tell. You can spot the difference between sadness and euphoria, but what about the dangerous and the benign? How does he know if the pain in his back is a bit of swelling from moving furniture or cancer? Or whether the expensive Danish Blue that wasn’t put in the fridge as soon as he got back from shopping will turn out to be off or not? (So hard to say with cheese, he thinks.) Or whether his daughter’s new boyfriend is a creep or just a moron? How can he know? He can’t be bothered getting out of bed again to deal with the small black thing, so he chances it. That’s all you can do, Clive thinks, and he takes a swig of his coffee and turns the page to check the weather. There is something very comforting about a synoptic chart. Yes there is.
Everyone calls him Sailor Dave, but he doesn’t sail. He has an eighteen foot caravan – he calls it ‘the frigate’ – he says it’s like his ship on dry land. And also he’s partial to a Bundy and dry. Sailor Dave likes the wanderer’s life. This is what he does. He checks in to a caravan park and gets to know the locals. Finds out the good fishing spots and catches a few, flathead mostly. Cleans the BBQ with a slosh of his beer. The barbie in Greenwell Point is where it happens. He is there talking about the cricket and the government and the old days and the right way to cook a steak. That fella Gus is there, half listening. Sailor Dave is a bit of a gas bagger if you really want to know. Luckily Gus can tune out, quite easily. It’s a skill. For a while he looks across the pool to where Pearl is sitting in the shade and doing the crossword. Gus thinks, she’s a looker. He thinks, I’m admiring her. Not in a pervy way, but from afar, like a gentleman. Respectfully. Sailor Dave is banging on with some story about a radio shock jock and an MP and a scandal and it’s kind of ruining it for Gus, this moment of admiring Pearl. Gus has been propping himself up on the brickwork of the barbie, but now he steps back and goes for another beer. ‘Steady on mate,’ he says. ‘ And that’s when I realise this story is about Gus and that Sailor Dave is really not such a good fellow.
Legend has it there was this lady who loved birds. She lived in Blackheath and she watched them in the trees and on the grass and sipping the pollen out of the grevilleas. She loved the birds very much, but truthfully, the birds loved her more. They watched her from the trees and the grass and the blossoms. Some of them watched her very close. They would perch on her shoulder and pick at the threads in the sleeve of her jumper, and make soft, happy sounds in her ears. They would walk up her extended arms like post-op patients taking their exercise. People were quite scary things generally, and not to be trusted, but the lady was different, and the birds knew it. She was taller than the bottlebrush. She knew how to be as quiet and still as a scribbly gum. They made up songs about her and they sang these in the mornings, full throated and strong with melodies that stretched almost as long as a summer afternoon. The birds loved the lady and the birds lingered. They kept an eye on things. That’s what I hear.
Cherie likes summer in a very particular way. She sits on a big stripey towel on the beach smothered in Reef Oil and she bakes herself till she’s almost leather. She does all this while devouring crime stories from cold places. She swelters beside the lifeguard shelter in an icy barn on the outskirts of Stockholm. Two brothers are there with a hessian bag. Something is in it. There’s a weight to it. The earth outside is frozen, but the barn floor is a little warmer. The older brother breaks it with a mattock. The two of them dig a hole, unobserved. The bag will go in it. They will put a generator on top of it which no one would think of moving. The younger brother makes a black joke about gorgons. Cherie shivers.
On the beach there are parents smothering their kids in factor 30 and teaching them to swim out past the breakers to the sandbar. There are volleyball games and the odd hackeysack. Near the southern end there’s a pool full of kids and old folks and just up the stairs there’s an ice cream truck with a long line snaking around the shady side.
The tide is low and the Nor’Easter isn’t in just yet. A surfer strides out of the waves and chats to a lifeguard. Just near the waterline two brothers are filling in a hole. They are burying their sister till all you can see is her head. Cherie shivers and turns the page.
There’s a bit in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet where Hamlet writes a letter to his girlfriend Ophelia, and signs off with a heartfelt valediction ‘while this machine is to him’. The ‘machine’ is his body, and this bit always makes Len feel like Hamlet is Robocop. Or the Terminator. A more bionic sort of man. Steely arms and a hard stare. Legs like pistons. Less room for philosophy and more for action. The very thing Hamlet lost the name of. Len thinks about this in period six on a Wednesday afternoon and imagines his Hamlet as a vengeful cyborg, a creature that is half human and half manufactured to have superior strength and power, and not a lot in the way of a moral compass. And he’s not much for soliloquies. But he has GPS and that’s how he tracks down Claudius way before any bout at fencing or poisoned chalice. In Len’s Hamlet Claudius is dispatched in Act II and everyone gets an early mark, which is good because that means Len can get his machine to footy practice ahead of time.
Cal’s name isn’t short for anything so perversely people make it longer. He gets California, Caltex, and his mum calls him Calamine. She spells it Cal o’ mine on his birthday card. She is a bit tickled by this joke. There is this girl in his chemistry tute who has cracked one of those strange evolving nicknames which began as Calorie, then became Kilojoule and now he’s just become Jules. That’s what everyone at uni calls him, and he likes this, having a different name in this whole other place. Jules is different to Cal. Cal wears pyjamas his mum bought him for his birthday, and he plays indoor soccer and has trouble sleeping. When he can’t sleep he watches early episodes of Dr Who on YouTube. Jules though talks about music and tries to crack onto girls by discussing quality documentaries and the relative alcohol content of the limited range of cocktails available at Happy Hour at Manning. The girl in his chemistry tute is responsible for all this, this transformation into a much cooler dude. That girl, that deus ex machina of a lass, calls herself Lil but everyone knew her as Nancy. Lil and Jules quite liked each other and once after chem prac they saw a band together just two blocks from campus in the courtyard of a badly gentrified pub, and they nearly got together, they nearly kissed, they certainly thought about it, but Cal and Nancy intervened and so they ended up being just friends. Cal and Nancy should jolly well mind their own business.
Terence is in the not-particularly-good-but-conveniently-located café eating a wrap. The wraps here are probably the best thing you can order. His is full of tabouli and quite a lot of sliced BBQ chicken and he’s more than halfway through it. It will serve, he thinks. That’s when the two girls come in talking about last night’s episode of Revenge and how cute that guy is youhavenoidea rilly. The girl with the cherry red hair is very loud. It’s maraschino loud hair too, in a way that makes Terence feel for a second that he’s stumbled into a play, so fitting are the costumes. The owner sits down with the loud girls and scrapes his chair on the linoleum so it gives off a godawful squeal that makes Terence’s blood go cold and the hair at the base of his spine stand on end. The loud girls and the owner are talking about donuts and facebook and Shannon’s ankle and whether it is broken or just sprained. He is feeling like he is surrounded by bogans and feeling bad that he is so critical of the bogans. The bogans are talking about how someone’s cousin is in some singer’s back up band, and how they once supported the Angels at a festival. The bogans are harmless but can’t they be quieter? Is that too much to ask? he thinks. Terence feels like an arsehole as he spends the rest of the afternoon picking parsley and burgul out of his teeth. ‘My bad’ he thinks and it was.