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Fiction

Shanghai Baby

On the surface of the globe, for living matter in general, energy is always in excess; the question is always posed in terms of extravagance. The choice is limited to how the wealth is to be squandered.

Georges Bataille

 

BASRA WAKES TO the sound of knocking at the door. His clock reads 4.11 pm.

He doesn’t get visitors.

The extra Seroquel he’d taken on the way home makes him unduly tired.

He thinks the knocking is probably a nightmare, so falls back into his pillows. But the knocking persists and Basra, unable to properly stand up, shouts: ‘What!’

‘Basra, it’s Marguerite.’

He focuses his attention on the door, like a deer, but can’t clear his head. ‘Okay…’ he says, looking for his clothes.

‘Are you all right?’

‘Yes,’ Basra lies. ‘Hang on.’

He must think.

‘I won’t be long.’

‘We need you back at work.’

The words clear his confusion.

There is a point to Marguerite’s visit.

Which means he doesn’t need to analyse what she’s doing standing in the hallway. He reaches for his clothes, pulls them on and stumbles to the door.

‘Jesus, mate, you look terrible.’

‘Really?’ Basra says, as if he can’t quite believe he could look anything but handsome. ‘Come in,’ he says, letting go of the door and walking off.

Marguerite just manages to stop the spring-loaded door from shutting in her face, pushes it open and steps inside. The lack of furnishings is disconcerting. A small wooden table with two hard chairs in the middle of the lounge room and a faded curtain over an open door to a balcony are the extent of Basra’s comforts. Three framed certificates hang crooked on the wall on nails clearly intended for something else.

Marguerite studies the certificates as Basra takes a loud piss in the bathroom.

‘You can close the door if you like.’

‘Oh,’ Basra says.

‘Are you actually kidding?’

‘What?’ Basra says, continuing to piss in a way that indicates his task is far from over.

‘You’ve got a PhD?’

‘Oh… Don’t look at those,’ his bladder barely emptied.

‘You’re a doctor of philosophy… In the sciences.’

Basra presses his face to the wall above the toilet bowl.

‘Are you all right in there?’

The flow stops and he feels the full force of a spinal shudder ring the back of his neck.

‘Basra?’ Marguerite says again, edging toward the bathroom.

‘I’m good,’ Basra replies, determined to make a show of things.

‘You’ve got…’ Marguerite says, pointing to her mouth as he walks into the lounge room.

‘Oh,’ Basra says, wiping a thread of drool from his lips. ‘Sorry.’

‘No need,’ she says, not mentioning the piss stains on his pants or his incorrectly buttoned shirt revealing his navel and thin, muscular torso. ‘Sit down.’

‘Hmm,’ Basra drops down into a wooden chair.

‘Did you hit the early opener?’

‘No,’ Basra says, and adds: ‘Yes.’

‘You never told me you had all those degrees.’

‘Yes…’ Basra says. ‘No work in philosophy of science any more.’

‘Really?’

Basra still can’t properly comprehend what Marguerite is doing in his flat discussing his qualifications, and each time he tries to remember the context of the situation his head pitches forward.

‘Basra!’

He lurches to his feet.

‘Cup of tea?’ he says.

‘You sit there and I’ll make the tea.’

He smiles, rests his head on the table.

‘What medication are you on?’

‘Seroquel,’ Basra says, drooling onto the table.

‘Did we take a few extra today?’

‘Mm,’ Basra replies, drifting back to sleep.

‘Well you’re not going to be able to work tonight,’ Marguerite says, answering her own question.

‘They sacked me,’ Basra replies, finding it easier to talk with his head resting on the table.

‘The thing is,’ she says, ‘Colin changed his mind after lunch. That idiot Dylan has bought the business, but he can’t cook and he can’t wash dishes.’

‘That’s a shame.’

‘Yes it is, and I’ve told Colin that if he doesn’t give you your job back I’m leaving.’

‘That’s good,’ Basra says. ‘You should leave.’

‘Thanks, but I can’t just yet.’

‘Oh,’ Basra says. ‘You’re going?’

‘Yes, but not for a few weeks. Will you wake up now please?’

The words pull Basra’s head up from the table. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I just need a cigarette.’

‘Here.’ She lights one and places it on an ashtray in front of him. ‘I’ll get your tea.’

‘Thanks, Marguerite,’ Basra says, aware he has never used her name in conversation before.

‘That’s okay, Basra,’ she replies, keen to acknowledge the gesture and move the conversation forward.

‘So,’ she asks again, ‘you’re a PhD?’

‘Yeah,’ Basra says, looking at his certificates. ‘But they closed the research centre I was at and now I’m a kitchen hand.’

‘Still,’ she adds, ‘things could be worse, I mean…it’s no small thing you’ve done, all that study.’

‘No,’ Basra agrees. ‘It’s no small thing, but not many universities teach philosophy of science.’

‘Can’t imagine why,’ Marguerite smiles, like really!

‘It’s blue-sky.’

‘I’ve been to university. Nothing like what you’ve done, but I’ve nearly finished a BA.’

This wakes him sufficiently to take a drag of the cigarette and a sip of his tea.

‘Better?’ she asks.

‘Almost. I’m impressed you’ve studied… I thought you should study; that you should get out of Shanghai Baby and go to university.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes,’ Basra says, not at all ashamed to admit his thinking. ‘It’s a shithole, that place, and so’s the hospitality industry generally, and I’d hate to think you’d waste your life in it.’

‘That’s sweet, Basra,’ she says. ‘I’m touched you’ve thought about me at all.’

‘Why wouldn’t I?’ He looks up, takes a sip of his tea.

Marguerite avoids the question, which is infused with a logic she has no answer for. ‘It’s not all bad,’ she says, ‘the restaurant game. The tips can be good and it’s not as if universities don’t have their problems.’

‘Yes, but in the long run, I think it’s best to have an education.’

‘That’s what I think too, which is why I’m going to finish my degree overseas.’

‘Over where?’ Basra asks.

‘I’m not sure yet,’ she says, glancing back at the certificates. ‘And you got first-class honours.’

‘You need that to do a PhD,’ Basra says.

‘You ever worked overseas?’

‘No’

‘Okay, then… Dr Basra Al-Saadi, kitchen hand of Shanghai Baby.’

‘Don’t tell anyone at work.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Colin wants me back?’

‘He asked me to come and beg you. Lunch was terrible. Bloody… Dylan and his non-existent crew,’ she explains. ‘He’s hopeless. I think they’ll be getting another chef who can actually cook, and a maître d’ to replace Amy. Dylan’s going to run the bar.’

‘Dylan never struck me as someone with money,’ Basra says.

‘No. Me neither.’

‘At least I don’t have to look for another job. They want me back tonight?’

‘If you can make it,’ she says doubtfully.

‘I’ll be fine. I just need a shower. The drug fades pretty quickly once I get moving.’

‘You sure?’

Basra drags the last smoke from his cigarette and gulps the dregs of his tea, and then stands up, gripping the table for support. ‘Positive.’

Marguerite smiles warmly, like now they’re friends.

‘I’ll tell the boys you’ll be in for dinner.’

‘Thanks,’ Basra says, following her to the door.

‘I’ll let myself out.’

‘Yeah, good,’ Basra says, waving, suddenly crushed she is leaving the sanctity of his private domain, though simultaneously charged at the idea of spending another night at work with her.

 

MARGUERITE WALKS AROUND her bedroom taking photographs. It’s a beautiful, simple room. The walls are horizontal white boards and the window next to her bed is oversized and low set.

Work will be difficult today.

Why had she flirted with Basra during service last night?

The view takes in far-off trees and a crystalline sky, which is not just rare in Teneriffe but beyond the budget of all but a few. The floorboards are wide, scratched and dull, bare except for the Turkish rug she’d bought at a flea market in New Farm. Above her bed is a string of lights that, come the night, cast a warm soft glow over pillows stacked against the wall.

Seriously, though: why?

She pins her favourite piece of fabric to the window and watches reflected patterns of stitched leaves sway on the walls.

She should never have gone to his depressing flat and witnessed his depressing life.

A faded dreamcatcher hangs high in a corner of the ceiling.

As always, her room had brought Lukas back to life – her one true love. His presence was everywhere and she could not stop her senses being overwhelmed by the history of their relationship.

Her affair with Lukas began because Marguerite did what she promised herself she’d never do and went to see him in his office. He sent an email insisting she pick up her graded paper if she wanted to pass the subject, and without even thinking about all the reasons she shouldn’t go, she walked along the narrow corridor of D Block until she found his door, which was ajar, and which made Marguerite call out rather than knock, the pitch of her voice betraying her anxiety. She realised too late she’d made a mistake; that she’d been lured into spending time with him in a place where she had no control. But she couldn’t run because Lukas sprang from his chair and ushered her inside before locking the door behind them. She watched helplessly as he reached out, pulled her towards him, their bodies pressed hard against each other.

Really! He took everything so seriously, Lukas. Like, he thought she really was a comedian and that her jokes were actually funny and that she didn’t care about things like… But her jokes weren’t original. She stole everything, and Lukas said that was fine because all the best writers did.

She takes a picture of the window and a picture of the bed; she videos the fabric patterns on the wall. She takes images of the ceiling, the floorboards and the view outside and posts them on Instagram.

How she longs for the night.

The pleasantness of the early morning belies her emotional turmoil. When the moon rises she’ll draw the curtains, dim the lights and let her torment overtake her.

Her heartache has stretched into four weeks of solitary confinement in her large bare room with a collection of her favourite things where she surrenders to the relentless pain of hope.

She cannot let Lukas go.

His lips were soft and then forceful, tender then merciless. Which made her cry. He was mortified at her tears, but she put a finger to his lips and pressed further into him, wrapping her arms around his back. She couldn’t look at him. She wanted to slow everything down; stand at the precipice of falling in love for as long as she could, but their bodies betrayed the lust they’d spent two months repressing.

I must get rid of that fucking dreamcatcher.

How long before I crash again and wake up in rehab somewhere?

Marguerite tugged at a woollen thread hanging from the dreamcatcher, snapping it free from the web, then she twirled it into a bracelet that she tied around her wrist before walking naked down the hallway to the shower, her towel dragging along the floor behind her.

Was it seriously because Basra has a PhD?

 

MARGUERITE WALKS INTO the kitchen with Colin. After hurrying from the train station she glows with a mix of determination and remorse.

‘Marguerite, this is Jaye,’ Colin introduces them, taking his position by the stove. ‘He’s doing a trial today.’

‘Hey,’ she says, as if Jaye was one in a long line of chefs she’d met at Shanghai Baby.

‘Hey,’ he replies, the quickest of glances telling him she represents a type of trouble he’s in no position to contemplate.

‘Maggie’s our number-one waitress,’ Colin says.

‘That’s me: numero uno.’

Jaye focuses on cutting the box of limes he was busy on.

‘Morning, Basra,’ Marguerite says, careful not to make eye contact with him, determined to kill any ambition he might have about them both. He was so animated though, scrubbing pots with twice the energy required to get them clean, making her realise that her task would be more difficult than she’d imagined.

‘Morning,’ Basra says too loudly, as if to remind her a connection was forged between them during service last night when in a moment of poor judgement – a lapse, as it were – Marguerite had not resisted when Basra pushed into her arse as she dropped plates off at the sink.

It was pretty fucking busy!

He’d become so inspired since she visited his flat.

‘Where were you working before here?’ Marguerite asks Jaye, pulling last night’s dockets off the spike that sits on the counter between them.

Jaye doesn’t want to go into detail about his working life right now. He’s concentrating on slicing a perfect face off each wedge of lime. Rather than impressing Marguerite with his resumé, he wants to impress Colin with his knife skills. He needs money, not love, and today is all about big-ups and progress rather than another 29-year-old Saturn Return spiral of decay.

‘I was at Claude’s for a while,’ he says flatly.

Marguerite smiles.

‘You look so busy,’ she says.

‘Leave him alone,’ Colin booms. ‘He’s trialling for a bloody job.’

‘Sorry,’ Marguerite says, arms up in surrender as she retreats from the kitchen. ‘Just trying to be nice.’

‘This is all from last night?’ Jaye asks, looking at the pile of dockets next to the spike.

‘Yeah,’ Colin says, reaching for the paperwork and throwing it in the bin. ‘Busy night.’

‘Guess I better finish the limes.’

‘No time to waste,’ Colin says, readying his mise en place and pans for lunch.

‘Have a good service boys,’ Marguerite says, grabbing an apron and wrapping it around her arse, resolving on her way out that the easiest way to extinguish Basra’s lust is to flirt with Jaye.

‘What’s next, chef?’ says Jaye.

‘Put those in the coolroom and have a look at how we set up for service. You’ll be on pans tonight if you think you can handle it.’

‘Cool,’ says Jaye, who despite his best intentions to stay inside Stephen Covey’s conception of Quadrant II type behaviour, which required a disciplined focus on achieving one’s goals – listed in his mind as 1): total abstinence from drugs and alcohol; 2): paid employment – was nonetheless freshly motivated by Marguerite’s presence in the kitchen.

 

MARGUERITE LIKED THE Boundary Hotel for its British green carpet and dim yellow lights. Its unrenovated condition made it exceptional in West End, which as a suburb had few commercial spaces not made over.

Jaye was worried about Basra. Something wasn’t right with him, and it was about more than wanting to protect Shanghai Baby’s number-one waitress from an arsehole like him.

Marguerite ordered a gin and tonic for herself and a Diet Coke for Jaye, who’d left his wallet at the restaurant. She knew it was a lie but didn’t care. He also said he was sober, which was equally unbelievable, but it wasn’t important to her that Jaye was broke, had a desire for total abstinence and an obsession with Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. She simply needed to spend sufficient time with him to extinguish Basra’s lust. She had no intention of taking things further with anyone determined to make their life more difficult than it need be.

Since she began her relationship with Lukas five months ago – which despite the lack of contact over the previous few weeks was still ongoing in her heart and mind, and in her body and soul – she knew what she wanted in a partner, which was someone driven by a purpose. She didn’t really care what that purpose was so long as it was achievable. He’d raised her expectations about many things.

What are you doing?

Jaye tried to avoid going to the hotel with Marguerite, but she begged him, which he knew was a performance aimed at Basra.

Okay, he’d replied, like old mates.

What is wrong with me? I have nothing to offer this person. I should be in the kitchen impressing Colin with my willingness to work unpaid, doing whatever it takes to get the job.

‘You having a dry spell?’ Marguerite says, setting their drinks on the table.

‘Just until I get the hang of things at work,’ Jaye says, embarrassed about not drinking. ‘Got to try and remember everything from lunch.’

‘I’m sure you’ve seen it all before.’

Jaye smiles as he takes a slug of Diet Coke, wishing he had the same confidence in his abilities that Marguerite seemed to.

‘You do anything other than waitress?’

‘Not really,’ she says. ‘I went to uni for a bit but I want to travel.’

‘What did you study?’

‘Creative writing mainly… And how not to be a complete idiot.’

‘How’d that go for you?’

So good.’

‘Yeah, never quite got the hang of that one either,’ Jaye says, reclining in his chair.

How can someone so young be so confident?

She was too good for waiting on tables and far too good for him. And it wasn’t because of her long legs, shiny skin and perfect nose, but the aura of privilege that clung to her. ‘Where do you want to go?’

‘I don’t know. Some days it’s Europe, Spain maybe. Other days it’s Alaska or South-East Asia or India. I can’t go everywhere, but I want to spend a year getting lost.’

‘Most people go to get found.’

‘I guess,’ Marguerite says, pleased she’d voiced a reason for wanting to travel.

‘You running away?’

‘No. I just need a change of context.’

‘I went to Europe,’ Jaye says encouragingly, ‘to eat the food and learn some tricks.’

‘What a brilliant idea.’

‘You think so?’

‘That’s why I’m at Shanghai Baby.’

‘To learn about Chinese food?’

‘No, stupid,’ Marguerite says, slapping his knee. ‘To fully understand how the commercial domain of hospitality operates.’ She drained the gin from her glass. ‘You going again?’

The commercial domain of hospitality… Jesus,’ Jaye mocks. ‘Why? Do you want to open your own place?’

God no. I’m a writer, stupid. It’s all experience – and besides, a girl has to pay her way. Now, are you having a G and T or not?’

‘Yeah, okay.’

‘I was getting worried about you.’

‘Wouldn’t want that,’ Jaye says, half-smiling.

It took weeks of careful planning to get ready for today, which meant ensuring he had no money to buy alcohol and being so late with paying bills that if he didn’t preference them over his desire for oblivion he’d end up on the streets.

I’m a failure.

‘The barman’s cute,’ Marguerite says.

‘I hope you told him that,’ Jaye says, squeezing a fat slice of lemon into his gin. A dead-set fucking failure.

‘He asked me to marry him.’ Marguerite watches relief and regret light up Jaye’s eyes as he guzzles.

‘You think you can spring for a takeaway?’

‘Are you serious?’

‘A half-bottle will do.’

‘You’re some date.’

‘This was never a date. This was about getting Basra off your back.’

‘You sure about that?’

‘Pretty obvious.’

‘Well I hope it was to him.’

‘I wouldn’t worry about that,’ Jaye says.

‘Anyway, I actually did think you were cute before I got to know you.’

‘Make it a full bottle then,’ Jaye says grinning.

 

‘YOU THINK TOO much, Jaye,’ Marguerite says, brushing his hair behind his ear.

Jaye pushes off the wall outside the hotel. ‘We should get back to work.’

‘You think so?’

‘Really, though?’

‘You kissed me, sweetheart. What’s the big deal?’

‘Why do you do that?’ Jaye says.

‘What?’

‘Stare at me like that… I had plans today. I was serious.’

‘You can’t have been too serious. You just drank half a bottle of gin.’

‘Well I was until you came along.’

‘Don’t blame me for not giving up. We just met. You could have said no.’

‘I should have said no,’ Jaye says, kicking the ground. ‘I should have stayed at work chopping fucking onions.’

‘Don’t worry about Colin. You’ll get the job.’

Jaye stops and grabs Marguerite by the shoulder. ‘You have never seen me cook!’

‘I don’t need to. You’re a survivor. You’ll be great.’

‘You’re a fucking fruit loop,’ Jaye says, taking another slug of gin. ‘Can you keep this in your bag?’

‘You’re not going to finish it?’

‘What do you think I am? I just said I have to cook dinner in a restaurant I’ve been at for a few hours which apparently gets quite busy…’

‘Just asking,’ Marguerite says, enjoying Jaye’s stress about cooking his first service. ‘I’ll leave it in my bag by the dryer if you want to get it later.’

‘Thanks.’

‘I didn’t mean to get you started again. It’s just, Basra…’

‘It’s fine. Really. I’m happy to help. And you’re right. I didn’t have to start drinking,’ Jaye says. ‘He’s not fucking dangerous is he?’

‘No. He’s a sweetheart. Really. He’s just in a really intense place right now and I can’t be what he needs.’

‘Which is what?’

‘His future.’

 

AS SERVICE PROGRESSED it was obvious to Marguerite that Jaye would be around Shanghai Baby for some time. She’d seen many chefs trial in the tiny kitchen only to be kicked out the door by the relentless stream of dockets. Many were genius cooks who could prepare sauces, pastry and protein to perfection, but given the way Colin had organised things they needed to be a gun on pans most of all. She was reassured that her first impression of Jaye was right – that he was attractive in a hopelessly romantic way, and talented and capable and…not dumb.

Since going to university she realised intelligence turned her on more than anything else. As a child she knew she was smart, but because she was also beautiful, people either discouraged her from pursuing intellectual pursuits or failed to notice that quality about her. And as she transformed from a girl into a woman she got lazy. Everyone assumed her life would work out fine; that her beauty and wealth would ensure she never had to excel at anything other than lighting up a room. But it wasn’t enough, and without intellectual stimulation, or at least someone she could talk to, she got depressed.

Basra’s excess energy was becoming awkward.

‘Can I get you gentlemen more wine?’ Marguerite asks a table of two finishing their meal.

They seem unsure, as if it were necessary to do a risk assessment before having another glass of red.

‘It’s Thursday, isn’t it?’ the larger of the two says.

‘Sure is,’ Marguerite smiles.

‘We’ll have one more,’ he grins like a real high roller.

What depressed Marguerite most about the end of her relationship with Lukas – and she did have to accept that a month of no communication meant something like the end – was how nothing had changed except she no longer studied. In many ways she was worse off than before she met him, and it was impossible not to consider how things might be different if she’d never stepped inside his office to pick up her graded assignment. It wasn’t like she didn’t know what his feedback would say: This shows promise but is overwritten. See editing suggestions below. Thereafter half her prose would be crossed out with suggestions about how she should rewrite it.

The bell rings again, which means Jaye is just showing off now. He’s getting plates up as fast as Colin who has cooked the menu for five years. And the customers are happy. It only takes the smallest thing to piss them off, but the bonhomie in the dining room is raucous. Her tips are good.

‘Order up,’ Jaye says, sweat pouring from him as she picks up the plates from the pass.

The fact Basra was on Seroquel, which Marguerite knew was an anti-psychotic medication because she’d been on it herself, should have been sufficient news to inspire resistance to his flirting last night, but because she hadn’t managed to do that he was intent on performing his duties today with an energy and enthusiasm the working-class nature of the tasks didn’t require, his eagerness to please, a signal, as it were, of his sexual ambitions, which Marguerite felt abused by each time she entered the kitchen.

Marguerite smiles at Jaye on her way out the door but he’s too busy to notice.

And then the sight of Dr Lukas Cottrell strolling through the entrance of Shanghai Baby stops her dead. His wife walks next to him, smiling.

How strange to be contemplating the end of things as you walk through the door.

Marguerite flicks fresh linen over table nine before securing it with brass clips. She places the chairs an even distance apart after brushing them, and then walks to the bar to gather clean glasses, polished cutlery and menus.

Lukas weaves between tables to get to the bar.

He looks so confident.

Marguerite drops plates at the sink where Basra pushes plastic racks through the dishwasher.

‘Order up,’ Jaye says, even though she can see he only has three of the four dishes from the order on the pass. She hates it more than anything else when chefs call a table away before all the meals are ready.

‘Ace,’ she says, like doing two trips to the kitchen for one table’s meals is no problem at all.

Lukas sips champagne and smiles attentively at his wife as Marguerite explains the specials to the men on table four. She wants to respond knowingly to questions about pork, beef and lobster, but she can do no more than smile and nod and say ‘that’s a wonderful choice’.

Why are you humiliating me?

What do you have to gain?

It’s been a month; I was colouring it in.

Marguerite walks to the kitchen where it’s hot and loud and mad. She wants to bury her face in Jaye’s shoulder and cry about cruelty to animals; about how the world needs to go vegan now.

Basra grabs Marguerite’s forearm as she leans over the sink, which forces her to look into his dark eyes ablaze with lust and concern.

‘It’s okay,’ she says, glancing at his fingers gripping her arm. ‘It’s just…someone I know is outside.’

‘Get busy love,’ Colin yells from his position behind the bar, jealous at how well Jaye is going, mad at not being needed.

Basra releases his grip, satisfied Marguerite has shared the nature of her pain with him.

I can’t go back out there.

 

JAYE BRUSHES THE back of his hand across Marguerite’s groin as they stand at the bar of the Boundary Hotel, his knuckles rolling across her pubic mound.

‘Find what you’re looking for?’

‘Think so,’ Jaye says, filled with confidence after crushing service.

‘I hope you’ve got some other moves,’ she says, flirting again with the barman Dale.

Jaye rubs the small of Marguerite’s back, pulls her closer and whispers in her ear. ‘Back in a minute, sweetheart.’

‘Okay, lover,’ Marguerite says, staring at Jaye amble across the carpet to the toilet door.

‘He’s going all the way, don’t you think?’ she says to Dale.

‘He’s a superhero for sure,’ Dale says.

‘It’s not just the tattoos… It’s his walk. Don’t you think he’s got the cutest walk?’

‘First thing I noticed,’ Dale says, happy to play along with his biggest drinking customers.

‘And his mouth. He looks like he’s always smiling.’

‘You got the whole package there, Marguerite.’

‘I’m glad you think so, Dale. I really am.’

‘You going again?’ he asks, as Marguerite drains her glass.

‘I think I will. Back in a minute.’

She traces Jaye’s steps across the carpeted floor to the bathroom.

‘It smells so bad in here.’

‘Don’t let that stop you,’ Jaye says, giving his cock an elaborate flick.

‘Why did you ask Basra to come?’

‘Because he needs a friend.’

‘And you thought tonight was the night to start all that?’

‘Probably not, but we can have a drink with him.’

‘Okay,’ Marguerite says, ‘but don’t upset him.’

‘I like Basra,’ Jaye says sincerely. ‘I really do. He pushes himself too hard, but he’s…’

‘He’s a doctor is what he is.’

‘What?’ Jaye says, opening the toilet door for Marguerite to walk out of.

‘He’s got a PhD from Sydney Uni. He used to be a lecturer,’ she says.

‘Get fucked,’ Jaye says, surprised.

‘I saw his qualifications.’

‘When?’

‘Colin made me go over to his flat after Dylan sacked him.’

‘They sacked Basra?’ Jaye says.

‘It was the day before you started,’ she says, looking around the bar.

 

BASRA DOESN’T LIKE the look of the Boundary Hotel. Everything is postcolonial in a way he finds kitsch.

‘What are you having cowboy?’ Jaye asks.

‘A beer, I guess,’ Basra says.

‘Okay.’

‘Everything finish up okay?’ Marguerite asks.

‘Yeah, it was fine. Same as every day,’ Basra says. ‘You like this place?’

‘No. Sometimes…’ Marguerite replies, shaken at Basra’s inability to make small talk. ‘It’s gross I know. It’s just that it’s close to work and I like perving at the barman.’ Marguerite winks at Basra, who loosens up a little, a smile creeping into the corner of his eyes.

‘He looks fit,’ Basra says.

‘Here you go,’ Jaye says. ‘Schooner of the finest.’

‘Thanks,’ Basra says.

‘Fucking bullshit dinner,’ Jaye adds. ‘Unbelievable. Don’t know why Colin’s selling the shop. The Baby’s a goldmine.’

‘He’s tired,’ Marguerite says. ‘And Amy’s having another baby.’

‘I know, but shit. It’s not like he’s going to get another business like it.’

‘You’ve been cooking awhile Jaye?’ Basra asks, sipping his beer.

‘Fourteen years,’ Jaye says burping. ‘Left school at fifteen and started my apprenticeship. Worst mistake of my life.’

Marguerite slaps Jaye’s thigh: ‘Don’t say that. You like cooking.’

‘Cooking is fine. But I could’ve done any number of things, I guess. Could’ve studied,’ Jaye says.

‘No point,’ Basra says. ‘You do ten years study and there’s no money for research.’

‘Marguerite said you did a bit of study.’

‘Too much. Should’ve been a chef.’

Marguerite laughs at Basra, slapping his leg the same way she did Jaye. ‘Stop it you two,’ she says. ‘Both of you are amazing. Both of you have done amazing things…’

Jaye and Basra look at their drinks.

‘I’m more amazing,’ Jaye says.

‘Shut up,’ Marguerite laughs again.

Basra finishes his beer and stands up. ‘You going again?’

‘Sure,’ Marguerite says. ‘Dale knows what we’re having.’

‘Okay,’ Basra says, walking to the bar.

‘He seems okay,’ Jaye whispers in Marguerite’s ear.

‘He’s fine,’ she says, pushing him away. ‘Don’t start all that. You invited him so be friendly.’

‘I am fucking friendly,’ Jaye says. ‘I’m the best friend he’s got.’

‘You’re the only friend he’s got.’

‘He’s got you babe,’ Jaye says, winking.

 

BASRA STARES AT Marguerite as she walks back to the table from the bathroom. Alcohol shines her cheeks. He wonders how drunk she is; what he’s doing sitting in a bar with her and Jaye when all he feels is crushing loneliness and constant lust.

‘You look sad.’

‘Jaye’s getting another drink,’ Basra says.

‘I’m not sure I should have another drink.’

‘The night’s just begun,’ Basra says optimistically.

‘The night…’ Marguerite says, looking up at the wooden ceiling, ‘is ours to forget.’

‘Dale asked me to marry him,’ Jaye says putting their drinks down.

‘Dale loves me,’ Marguerite says.

‘He’s actually into Arab boys,’ Basra says.

‘Fuck, Basra,’ Jaye says, shocked.

‘He hasn’t stopped looking at me.’

‘I think he’s right,’ Marguerite says, looking at Dale stare at Basra.

‘Jesus,’ Jaye says. ‘I didn’t know that was a thing.’

‘You knew that was a thing,’ Marguerite says.

‘I knew it was a thing…but I didn’t know it was a thing for Dale.’

‘I’m upset… Dale,’ Marguerite cries out.

‘Don’t embarrass him,’ Jaye says.

‘He’s not embarrassed,’ Basra says.

‘He’s really fucking not,’ Jaye agrees.

‘To work buddies,’ Marguerite says, raising her glass.

Jaye and Basra get up from the table, both reaching for Marguerite as she stumbles out of her chair, neither embarrassed to feel the touch of the other’s skin at the small of her back, which dances their attention out the door where the night is starry and hot and eucalyptus fills the air.

What are you doing Lukas, with your small, lovely wife?

Basra loosens his grip on Marguerite and Jaye as they walk along the pavement to the CityCat stop.

I really should drink more. Things are less complex when I drink.

The night is alive with stars and city lights on the river, the heat of the day still trapped in the bitumen.

‘It was forty-three today’ Marguerite laughs.

‘I know,’ Jaye says. ‘And hotter in the kitchen.’

‘It’s funny,’ she says. ‘All of us out together.’

‘Yes, it’s funny,’ Basra agrees, as the lights of the CityCat approach.

‘Quick,’ Jaye says, running.

‘C’mon Basra,’ Marguerite says, taking off after Jaye. ‘Last ferry.’

The three of them sprint toward the wharf, competing to see who’s fastest.

Basra times his run. He isn’t as drunk as Jaye, who looks athletic racing along the timber walkway.

Marguerite’s arms sail through the air, her hair wild.

Basra’s heart soars as he races past her, arms and fists pumping, screaming, ‘C’mon,’ to which Marguerite yells, ‘wait…’ her shoes too rigid to unwind like the boys.

The three of them bundle onto the jetty as passengers line up on the rocking deck eager to get home.

‘Let’s go,’ Jaye says, leading the way past disembarking passengers.

‘Wait,’ Marguerite says, taking off her shoes.

‘Do it on the boat,’ Basra yells, gripping her elbow as she tries to rip a boot off.

‘I can’t walk,’ Marguerite pleads, pulling at her second boot as the deckhand waits patiently to slide the gangplank back aboard.

‘C’mon,’ Jaye yells.

Marguerite steps onto the walkway as the ferry lurches hard into a pylon. Basra reaches for her, but the deckhand gets her first and drags Marguerite aboard.

‘Careful,’ he says, as Marguerite laughs and steps into Basra who embraces her with a force beyond what is needed to steady her.

Rather than push him away though, Marguerite folds into Basra’s chest, which still heaves from running.

‘Oh, Basra,’ she says, punching his shoulder. ‘I’m not very well.’

It’s always this way…

‘Don’t say that. You’re fine.’

A slip followed by a fall.

‘I need to forget,’ she says.

‘I know,’ Basra says, pulling her closer, willing everything to disappear.


From Griffith Review Edition 57: Perils of Populism © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review