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Edition 48

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Fiction

Recessional

The tumult and the shouting dies;

The Captains and the Kings depart…

Rudyard Kipling, ‘Recessional’

 

SAM COMES UP to her at work. He’s wearing his favourite shirt, the grey one with the Portofino cuffs he says make him feel like a secret agent. People in the office talk about this shirt: how often he wears it, whether he washes it every time. People in the office are dickheads.

‘Ames,’ he says. Anyone else calling her ‘Ames’ would have set her to thinking up excuses. ‘I’m having a barbeque for Anzac Day. We do it every year. Have some beers, listen to music. It’s really chill, though it may ramp up ’cause it’s a Friday night this year. I’ll cook whatever vego nonsense you want to bring, so long as it goes on the barbie.’

‘I eat meat,’ she says, ‘sometimes.’

‘Right. Well, there’ll be plenty of meat. Get your iron levels up.’

She touches the puffiness beneath her right eye. Wonders if she looks anaemic.

‘It’s your duty as a Kiwi,’ he continues, ‘as a fellow Anzac. Without you, it’d just be an A’AC barbie, which sounds awful. C’mon.’

‘Will I get to meet your famous underage girlfriend?’

‘She’s nineteen, Amelia. Don’t listen to what those other knuckle-draggers say.’

‘Still, that’s quite an age difference,’ she says, her eyebrows raised. She’s thirty-two; Sam is a jokey, wayward thirty-one – the kind of colleague you half expect to have a teenage girlfriend. She’s been in Perth two years, after working rail and dam projects in Queensland and, before that, a government job in Wellington. She’s managed to stay ahead of the westward wave of the recession. Each new project has another zero at the end of the price tag. It can’t last. People talk about making hay while the sun shines, people who’ve never been on a farm in their lives. Right now they’re working on another desalination plant – her and Sam and the dickheads – though no one is sure if the deal will reach financial close.

‘Yes, Liddy’ll be there,’ he says. ‘She’s really looking forward to it.’

‘Will you have the recast cashflow ready by Thursday?’

‘Of course.’

‘Then I’ll come. And I’ll bring my famous guacamole.’

‘Excellent.’ He places his hand on her shoulder and smiles.

She tries not to sniff the scent of his Portofino cuff.

COLD CHISEL, MEN at Work, Grinspoon and then Sam hits pause. ‘Just got a message from Eddie,’ he announces. Conversations stop. Guests look at their host.

‘He’s not still coming, is he?’ asks Sam’s friend, the one who has made holes in his earlobes the size of Alka-Seltzers – the one with the slippery name that Amelia can’t remember. This is her second time among Sam’s friends. The first time was for a work do, and the evening had stretched into one of those glorious, unplannable nights – though she’d forgotten how it had pained her to see Sam outside work. To see he was the same sociable lunk with everyone.

Sam nods at his phone. ‘On his way.’

‘He’s got a nerve.’

‘Why?’ Amelia asks. Twelve faces turn to her. It’s the first thing she’s said since arriving and finding a beer.

‘He slept in,’ says the earlobe-stretcher, making air-quotes.

‘Didn’t make the dawn service,’ Sam adds.

‘He was hungover,’ Nikhil says.

‘Lousy cunt,’ says the earlobe-stretcher.

‘Easy now,’ says Liddy, who has just emerged through the sliding door carrying a platter of soft cheeses, crackers and preserves in little white ramekins. So small and eager, she wouldn’t look out of place in a Girl Guide uniform.

Sam says, ‘We’re talking about Eddie, babe.’

‘Oh,’ she says and tuts. This is the final word on the subject. Sam unpauses his iPod: piano intro. Tourism ad schmaltz. It’s time for a cool change, apparently. Amelia can’t help but screw up her face.

‘You all right?’ the earlobe-stretcher asks Amelia.

‘It just hits me, you know, right here,’ she says, knocking her breastbone with her knuckles.

‘I hear you,’ he says and sips his beer.

She looks up at his face, sees for the first time that he is on the make, that he is impervious to her sarcasm. She feels flattered and tired all at once.

‘Which dawn service did you go to this morning?’ he asks.

‘There’s more than one?’

‘Yeah. There’s Kings Park.’ He starts a tally on his fingers. ‘Then there’s one in Claremont, which is where you live, isn’t it?’

Oh God, she thinks, he’s been grilling Sam about me.

‘And there are services in Subiaco and Freo–’

‘You know what,’ she says, hoping the truth will douse him, ‘I didn’t go to any of them.’

‘Daniel bothering you, Ames?’ Sam appears over her shoulder and clinks the neck of Daniel’s beer with his own. Daniel, Amelia says in her head. Daniel Daniel Daniel.

‘We were just talking about dawn services,’ Daniel says. She narrows her eyes and he mirrors her expression.

‘Ah,’ Sam says and checks his phone. ‘Are they the same in New Zealand as here?’

‘Pretty much,’ she says, remembering the first and last service she attended, back when she was a prefect at high school and attendance was mandatory. ‘I mean, dawn is dawn, right. We get it back home before you do, so–’

‘Right,’ says Daniel.

Sam smiles and slides away to pull the hem of another friend’s T-shirt.

Amelia raises her empty bottle to Daniel. ‘Bathroom,’ she says and escapes.

SHE SURVEYS THE spread on the plastic patio table. Caprese salad, potato salad, a bowl of kalamata olives, two french sticks and her offering: Turkish bread and homemade beetroot dip. Sam has finally fired up the barbeque but the meat will be a while. She wonders if it’s bad manners to take a finger of her bread now – no one else seems to be eating – and if it’s doubly bad to choose the thing she brought.

‘Sam said you were bringing guacamole?’

She looks up and sees Sally, one of Sam’s few married friends. They’ve spoken about me, she thinks. Sally’s hands rest on her belly; she’s reached that stage of pregnancy where she must have an overnight bag with her at all times.

‘I mean, I can’t eat it anyway,’ Sally continues, ‘but I love guacamole. I dream about it. Guacamole and runny egg yolks.’

‘I’m pretty sure you can eat guacamole,’ Amelia says. ‘If it’s freshly made.’

‘Really?’

‘I’ve never been pregnant, so I’m no expert.’

‘Fuck. I’ll have to Google it again,’ Sally reaches across the table for her phone. ‘My brain, among other things, is not what it used to be.’

‘You can probably eat this,’ Amelia says and seizes the opportunity to dab a piece of bread in the violent pink of her dip. ‘I decided to go Turkish instead.’

‘Turkish?’

‘Yeah, you know,’ she says, swallowing her mouthful and waving the remaining nib of bread. ‘Gallipoli. Anzac Cove. Little Mehmet. It seemed more appropriate than Mexican.’

Sally moves her hands up and down her belly. ‘But we fought the Turks,’ she says slowly.

‘The Ottoman Empire, yes. Have you been to Turkey?’

‘No. When Greg and I went to Europe it wasn’t the right time.’

‘Protests?’

‘No, I mean, we weren’t there in April, so…’

‘I went in June.’

‘Oh, really. Hey Greg, Amelia and I were just talking about Gallipoli. She says she went there in June.’

With his light blue shorts rolled up high on his thighs and his canvas shoes without socks, Sally’s husband looks boyish and faintly nautical.

‘What was it like?’ he asks.

‘Beautiful, sad, bustling, quiet…’ She can feel the adjectives bubbling up inside her. ‘Surprising.’

Greg nods and leans into Sally. ‘Hey babe, I thought you said someone was bringing the rum?’

‘That someone was Eddie.’

‘Fuck. Guess I’ll stick to beer.’

‘He’s still coming, supposedly.’

Greg grunts.

‘It’s actually quite nice of the Turks,’ Amelia says, ‘to let us take over Anzac Cove today, or tonight, or whenever the dawn is over there. I can’t imagine us being so accepting of the grandchildren of a thwarted invading force coming to, say, Cape York or the Coromandel every year to get drunk and make a mess.’

‘Beer,’ Greg repeats. ‘You want something, babe?’

‘I’ll come have a look myself.’

ALONE, SHE THINKS about Turkey. The red flags the size of tennis courts. The minarets. Gemma and Simon bickering in the backseat of the rental car. The Turkish woman in the blue and white headscarf, which reminded her of Royal Doulton china. How that woman ran her fingers over the names of the fallen at the New Zealand memorial on Chunuk Bair. How, when she came to a wreath that looked as if it had been in the sun for many days, she stooped to straighten it. How her honey-coloured handbag slipped off her shoulder and she placed it gently beside her feet. How she remained crouched over the wreath for seconds, minutes, years. And how afterwards, as the sun was setting, Amelia, Baker, Gemma and Simon passed a pier a short drive south of Anzac Cove. Children were swimming there. Locals. The four of them had their togs in the car and so they swam too, in the honey-coloured twilight, in the warm Aegean water, as if nothing had ever happened.

HOODOO GURUS. PAUL Kelly. The Go-Betweens. Anzac shmanzac, Amelia thinks. She starts compiling a mental playlist of songs both countries can claim. ‘Counting the Beat.’ Anything by Dragon. Gotye featuring Kimbra.

Over at the barbeque, Sam is showing Greg a video on his phone. Daniel and Sally talk about the morality of bringing another life into the world. Nikhil says to anyone who’ll listen, ‘I knew Eddie’d chicken out.’

‘You eat sausages, hey Nikhil?’ Liddy shouts.

‘Yeah I eat sausages,’ he says, ‘so long as there’s no beef or pork in them.’

Liddy’s mouth withers to a pink asterisk. ‘Oh, well,’ she begins.

‘Only kidding, Lid. I eat ’em.’

‘We have lamb rissoles, too,’ Liddy says and winces. Amelia knows that expression. She has winced that wince: My God! I sound like my mother.

‘Don’t worry about me, Lid.’

‘And you, Amelia? Sam said something–’ 

‘I eat everything.’ She pushes off the railing and steps closer to Liddy.

‘Great,’ Liddy says, uncertainly. ‘Great.’

‘I don’t like the look or feel of raw meat,’ she says, unable to stop herself, ‘so I don’t cook it at home.’

‘Ah, I thought it was some complex moral code.’

‘Moral-free zone right here,’ she says holding her arms aloft, then worries Daniel may be lurking behind her. She lowers her arms and coughs into her fist.

Nikhil is still standing there with the two of them, looking at his phone and biting his bottom lip.

‘So, Liddy,’ Amelia says, ‘you’re studying to be a vet?’

‘Vet nurse.’

‘Right. Sorry. No, not “sorry”, there’s nothing wrong with…’

‘That’s okay. I wouldn’t want to be a vet even if I was smart enough. All you do is cut.’

‘You like animals, then,’ Amelia says, wanting to keep the conversation going, not wanting to seem like a bitch or a knuckle-dragger.

‘I’m working in a city practice while I finish my diploma,’ Liddy says. ‘It’s all cats and dogs and the occasional ferret, but I want to do bigger animals.’

Nikhil snorts and moves away.

‘Like horses?’ Amelia asks.

‘No, not horses. They tend to have their own specialised vets. I’m writing a paper at the moment about deer. I like deer. And goats, alpaca, ostrich. There are more and more hobby farmers, especially in the Swan Valley, with small herds who need a lot of help.’

‘Do you eat meat?’

‘Of course. Venison is beautiful. If I didn’t eat meat, it’d be kind of hypocritical to help farmers with the animals they’re raising for the table.’

Amelia looks at Sam, tending the barbeque. He could turn around at any moment and see her playing nice with Liddy. ‘What about kangaroo?’ she asks.

Liddy shakes her head. ‘That’s different.’

‘Different how? Because of Skippy?’

‘They don’t farm kangaroos,’ Liddy says. It’s her turn to look over at Sam. ‘Everything in the supermarket – remember, most roo meat still ends up in pet food – comes from wild populations.’

She’s read this on the internet, Amelia thinks. She braces for a wave of outraged naivety, but it doesn’t come.

‘So possum’s off the menu?’ she asks.

Liddy’s eyes widen. Amelia can’t help thinking the expression is possum-like.

‘People eat possum?’ Liddy asks.

‘Back home they’re a pest. We mostly just poison them, though every so often someone tries to put one in a pie.’

‘Gosh,’ Liddy says. She picks up a pair of tongs and clicks them together twice. ‘I was supposed to take these to Sam,’ she says, excusing herself.

THE SKY IS dark when Eddie arrives through the sliding door like the final guest on a celebrity talk show. He holds aloft a bottle of Bundaberg Red.

‘Oh no you don’t,’ Daniel says.

‘Good to bloody see you too, mate.’

Amelia remembers him from that night in town. His black rimmed glasses and tugboat captain’s beard.

Sam slides between Eddie and Daniel. He says something softly that’s swallowed by the music. Amelia steps forward, wishing Diesel would find the words on the tip of his tongue and quiet down already.

‘You’re joking, right?’ Eddie says.

‘You’re the joke,’ Daniel says, reaching around Sam to thrust a finger into his friend’s chest.

Nikhil says, ‘I think you should just go, Edward.’

‘No way, man.’

Amelia looks at the bottle in Eddie’s hand, notices the swaying liquid, the three fingers of rum already consumed.

‘Let me be the voice of reason,’ Sam says. ‘We’re all here celebrating the end of a great day, but the reason we have the day off – you know this – is the diggers.’

‘Lest we forget,’ Daniel says, barely opening his mouth.

‘It’s a contract,’ Sam continues. ‘Pay your respects, keep the memory alive, then have a holiday. You weren’t there at sunrise, we don’t think you should be here now. Maybe next year, hey?’

Eddie rises onto his toes so that he’s almost eye-to-eye with Sam. ‘Fuck next year,’ he says.

Sam turns to the side. Whether it’s planned or not, he’s facing Liddy now. Something passes between them. He steps back and strikes Eddie’s cheek with his swinging right hand.

‘Sam!’ Liddy shouts. Amelia isn’t sure if it’s disapproval or approbation – a pacifist’s scorn or some cavegirlish blurt of arousal.

‘Ah,’ Eddie says, crouched and holding the side of his face.

Sam fans his hand as if he’s tried to pick up a plate that’s piping hot. Amelia wants to step forward and say something. Use her powers as the token New Zealander. Grant him diplomatic immunity. Sober things the fuck out. All this because Eddie slept through the dawn service? It’s ludicrous. A John Howard wet dream.

Eddie stands and is much smaller this time. He places his bottle of rum on the table, turns and re-enters the house.

Liddy’s beside her now, leaning against the railing.

‘That was seriously fucked,’ Amelia says.

‘I know, right? Like, why would he think he could come here?’

‘That’s not what I mean. Those guys were like the Stasi or something. I’ve never seen Sam… I mean, it’s a fucking barbeque.’

Liddy pulls her possum face again.

‘I need to get some air,’ Amelia says.

‘But we’re outside. And the meat’s ready.’

‘I’ve just… Excuse me,’ she says and walks away.

SHE FINDS EDDIE sitting on the kerb. ‘Mind if I join you?’

‘Emily, right?’

‘Amelia.’

‘Ah. Bet you get that a lot.’

‘Not that often.’

‘Eddie,’ he says and offers his hand.

‘Yeah, I know.’ She leaves his hand dangling, but waggles the bottle of rum she plucked from the table as she left the party.

He rubs his cheek. ‘Quite a scene back there.’

‘I was going to say the exact same thing.’ She unscrews the red cap and takes a slug. ‘I don’t think you should have given up so easily.’

‘I was punched.’

‘He barely connected.’

‘So I should have gone a couple of rounds with him?’ He takes the bottle. ‘Was the party that dull?’

‘Well, there was a Delta Goodrem song on earlier…’

‘Liddy’s doing.’

‘Maybe.’

‘What do you think of her?’

‘Why do you care what I think of Sam’s girlfriend?’

‘Just making conversation.’ He leans back and looks up at the canopy of the neighbour’s fig tree.

‘Did Sam say something?’ she asks.

‘I think she’s good for him.’

‘She probably is. Certainly good for his testosterone levels.’ She takes another drink. ‘Bah,’ she says and wipes her mouth with the back of her wrist, ‘I just work with him. And I only met her for the first time this afternoon.’

There’s a slight breeze. Amelia crosses her arms, waiting for the rum to take effect. ‘Is it a hangover from high school?’ she asks.

‘What?’

‘The way that lot talk about Anzac Day. The bullshit Sam was spouting about it being a contract.’

Eddie shrugs. ‘I guess it started somewhere.’

‘I didn’t go to a dawn service either, if it’s any consolation.’

‘Is that why you’re out here?’

‘I’m here by choice. I think different rules apply.’

‘Because you’re a girl?’

‘And a Kiwi. And because I managed to avoid Daniel since he interrogated me about it.’

‘You think being a Kiwi gives you special privileges?’

‘Without me, it’s just an A’AC party.’

Eddie looks at her, his brow furrowed.

‘Take the NZ out of Anzac and what do you get? Sorry, it’s Sam’s joke.’

‘Figures.’ He takes another drink and rests the bottle on the ground between them.

‘The music in there isn’t right,’ she says. ‘For Anzac Day. I think maybe Sam’s playing his Australia Day playlist by mistake.’

Eddie scratches his beard. There’s something awkward about the action, like a dog scratching its ear with a hind leg. ‘You mean, there’s no New Zealand music?’

‘That’d be a start. But shouldn’t an Anzac Day playlist trumpet the things Australians and New Zealanders have done together.’

‘What, like Crowded House?’

‘You’re not a fan?’

‘Uh, no. They sound like,’ he pauses, searching for a simile, ‘like Christians too scared to sing about God.’

‘My ex used to say Neil Finn should be our poet laureate. We stayed in a hostel called Crowded House when we went to Gallipoli. I thought Crowded House was a pretty good name for a hostel, especially in that part of the world.’

‘I’d rather sleep under the stars. What was it like? Gallipoli?’

‘We only spent an afternoon visiting the battlefields and memorials. Just a few hours. It was so different to everything else on that trip.’

‘And your ex, you dumped him because of his taste in music?’

‘Let’s just say I left his iPod in a better state than when I met him.’ There’s a pause as they both appreciate the joke without laughing. ‘Actually, we both broke up with each other. I’ve never been just the dumper or the dumpee. Does that even happen?’

‘It happens to me.’

‘Oh diddums.’ She hands him the rum.

‘Do you think if I went to Gallipoli, did my pilgrimage, I’d be allowed to go to next year’s barbeque?’

‘It’s not the fucking hajj.’

‘I was joking.’

‘Were you?’

Eddie presses the bottle to his chest. She leans forward to hug her knees.

‘We were there in June,’ she says, ‘and there were, like, no Kiwis or Aussies except us. But the peninsula was humming. The parking lot up Chunuk Bair was full of tour buses from other parts of Turkey. On the summit you’re surrounded by these huge stone tablets with descriptions of battles in Turkish. They stand upright, like drive-in movie screens or something. Between the tablets you can see the peninsula stretching out. It’s so beautiful, that place. So cruel.’

Her stomach rumbles. She could go back into the barbeque for a piece of blackened steak, pretend nothing’s happened.

‘Down from the summit,’ she continues, ‘is the New Zealand memorial. The Turks filed past the wall of names. It meant something to them, you could tell. Back then, I couldn’t say what it meant to me.’

‘And now?’

‘It’s too early in the evening for all this. I’ve only had two beers and two sips of rum, albeit on an empty stomach.’

Eddie offers the rum again, but she shakes her head.

‘Do you want to get some food? My car’s just over there.’

‘I don’t think you should drive with that Dutch courage in your veins.’

‘I’m fine.’

‘Even so.’

‘Ames,’ Sam calls from behind them. ‘There you are.’

‘Okay, well, nice chat, Amelia.’ Eddie says her name with care and resignation.

‘Wait here a minute.’ She stands.

Sam is leaning on the wooden gate.

‘How’s your hand?’

‘Fine.’ He looks at his knuckles. ‘You coming back in?’

‘That an open invitation?’

He sighs. ‘If it has to be.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘It means I’d really like it if you came back in and ate something.’

‘See, I’m confused, Sam. Are you just worried about my iron levels, or is it something more?’ She says the last five words slowly, as if they were individually wrapped confections. This, she realises, is the point of the evening.

He smiles and it’s exactly what she’s needed. It’s worse than him striking his friend, that fucking smile. She turns to check on Eddie, but he’s gone.

‘He didn’t get in his car, did he?’ she asks.

‘I don’t know.’

‘You’re a helluva friend, you know that Sam? He’s been drinking. He had to preload just to have the balls to show up tonight.’

He sighs and raises himself to his full height. ‘Should we look for him?’

‘You go back to your precious barbie.’ She returns to the footpath. The streetlights are sparse. Parked cars line the kerb.

‘Ames,’ Sam says.

‘See you at work. And if I don’t have that recast cashflow by close of play Monday, so help me God.’

She walks down the middle of the street, looking inside each car for Eddie. Maybe he’s waiting to continue their conversation. She wants this, if only to prevent him from wrapping himself around a lamppost. No, she wants go back to the kerb and tell him more about Turkey. How Gemma cried when they first made it to Anzac Cove. How Baker walked off to be by himself and it was left to her to explain everything to Simon.

The further she gets, the less likely it is she’ll find Eddie. She thinks about his car ploughing into someone’s living room. She thinks about him crouched on Sam’s deck holding his face. About the woman in the Royal Doulton headscarf crouched over the tired-looking wreath.

She comes to the end of Sam’s street, one dusty continent and one cantankerous sea between her and her parents, her and Baker. She will never see Eddie again, even if he gets home unscathed. Even if the plug doesn’t get pulled on the desalination plant and Sam doesn’t get squeezed out of the project team, she will never be among his friends again. She doesn’t know where she’ll be, but she won’t be in Perth by Christmas. All of this seems clear to her.

And right now there’s nothing she can do about Eddie, or for Eddie.

She reaches Princess Road and hails a taxi.

 


From Griffith Review Edition 48: Enduring Legacies © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review