MICHAEL THINKS ABOUT the sounds Rachel is making. Little whinnies like she's losing motivation. Michael knows what that feels like. Even listening to her doesn't really fuss him, not like it does Rory. Michael knows Rory's committed presence on Friday nights is more about this other ritual than anything to do with drinking. Rory sitting there on the veranda, waiting, like a dog with his ear cocked all night to flat seven, never quite relaxing until the moans and squealing and slapping flesh settle in. Every time it happens Michael leans back and resigns himself to the re-run entertainment.
Rory always acts like it's the first time. 'Jesus, mate, do you reckon she's really into it or what?' Slapping his knee, going 'Jesus, Jesus!' a few more times under his breath.
Shaking his head, Michael goes to fix more drinks.
This matter of whether Rachel was 'into it' or not was always a priority for Rory. Being 'into it', for real, was the point.
Michael returns to the slim veranda, placing another big serve of rum and Coke in Rory's hand, and Rory takes it in an absent way, offhand, trying not to clink the ice in the glass so he won't miss anything, his leg twitching, his torso pitched forward as if willing the sound of her to come sooner, and Michael has to admit Rachel is a bit full-on. Massive crescendos, unintelligible sounds timed to thrusts, wails which start low and guttural and curl up the scale until it sounds like she's a hyena, harassed and about to explode.
Sure, sometimes, late and alone, Michael would reach for his cock and tug at it in a half-hearted way, coming into his own cupped hand to spare the sheets, then padding into the bathroom, a bit sheepish, to rinse off. Climbing back into bed in the dark; Rachel going on without him.
That was what sex was like with his ex towards the end. Mostly she'd fucked him like he wasn't even there.
Rory pipes up again, on a similar track. 'You know Shane's missus kicked him out?'
Michael raises half an eyebrow in response.
'Well, Jesus,' Rory pauses, taking a long drag on his cigarette like he's about to reveal something akin to a tsunami death toll or the national debt. 'He racked up her credit card like eight grand or something fucked like that. That's a lot of bloody pussy in the cat, mate.'
'She must've known.'
'Reckons she didn't.' Rory flicks his ash, impatient. 'I'm only telling you 'cause youse used to be mates.'
'We didn't used to be mates, Rory, we're talking about just after high school. I lived with them for a couple of months, that's all. Plenty of times I wanted to line that guy up.'
'Yeah, well.' Rory stubs out his half-smoked ciggie into the ashtray harshly, pissed off that Michael has taken the wind out of his story. 'Maybe you shoulda.'
The comment stings but Michael doesn't show it. He knows apathy is his problem, knows it's the lack of action and Rory's right; he should have knocked that guy out when he had the chance. Should have done a lot of things when they were still in reach of his hand. Better than sitting on this veranda for hours thinking about it.
Rory leans back in his chair trying not to look triumphant.
WHAT MICHAEL KNOWS about the people in his block he knows mostly by sound. Sound was how people told you things about themselves without meaning to. He could trust in those scratched overheard conversations, the slamming doors, the high heels picking their way quietly down a stairwell. What people told you to your face was no more and no less revealing than the clothes they hung on the line. Talk was only a little black dress or an old work shirt flapping about in a hot wind with nobody in it.
Michael knew more than he wanted to. The American upstairs, with the shiny silver Statesman: Panama hat on the dash, golf balls on the parcel shelf and at least two mashed-up cartons of Pure Blonde on the leather seats. He'd got the car – the wife had got the house. Every Wednesday evening she'd pull up in the black Jeep, beeping the horn impatiently for the ambling teenage son they shared to wade down three flights of stairs. The kid would arrive home on Sundays.
Michael and Rory had seen the American on Friday nights waiting for taxis out the front, real late, coming back after an hour, usually with a greasy bag of McDonald's in his hands.
'Boys,' he'd say, gesturing like he was tipping the hat still on the dash in his car, and he'd go back into his box.
'You know where he's going, don't ya?' Rory would smirk, and one night he'd even asked him straight out. Michael had expected the American to make an excuse but he didn't.
'Where else does a man go around here on his own at this hour?' The American's smirk had matched Rory's but with more panache, looking up at both of them on Michael's dimly lit veranda. The solar lights Michael had stuck half-heartedly in pots he'd planted nothing in cast such a pitiful amount of light that both men were just dark cut-outs edged by the light inside.
Rory had laughed. 'Yeah, good on ya, mate.'
Old John lived in flat nine up the back, his veranda facing the concrete retaining wall of the new units next door, where he'd be talking pidgin English to his mail-order bride in Thailand while making his way through a cask of chateau de cardboard.
'I take you,' he'd say, 'I take you to Movie World' – his accent getting worse until the point where only she could understand him. He'd talk to his bride about dreams or to his workmates about work, bitching and moaning about some wanker who'd got something or other he wasn't entitled to.
'I married a dickhead,' he'd say about his first wife. 'I work with dickheads, my family are dickheads and you're a bloody dickhead.'
He was that kind of guy.
Once when Michael was hanging out his washing John arrived in the drive, getting out of his car in his airport fluoros happy to be off work, happy to be facing the prospect of another long afternoon session, and he'd joked with Michael about getting him to do his washing. He always ribbed Michael like he thought he was gay, a bit effete, not really a man.
'Wanna do mine? Not much chop myself without me Asian slave.' And John laughed, getting ready to back his little white Meteor into the garage. Michael knew the slave comment was just to get a rise out of him and maybe in some way a kind of apology. Michael knew John was lonely. They all were.
'When's she coming home?'
'Ah, it's a bugger,' John said, stepping back out of the car, happy he'd asked, 'I'm a bit short of cash at the moment, it's gonna be a wait. She's moving our house right now. Up the headland. All the water they've had has flooded the whole place. She's moving us up to higher ground.'
Michael nodded, like the image of Suri struggling up the hill with a house on her back was a normal thing. He'd met her once, when he'd first moved in. She'd bought round some sort of yellow curry with lemongrass, to welcome him he supposed, and Michael was grateful – no one else had bothered and the curry was good, fresh and clean-tasting like nothing he could get from the takeaway up the road. She'd been there with John for a few months, as much as the visa allowed, and she spoke of him with a kind of love in her eyes. When John was around, though, she just told him and anyone who'd listen about how much he stank. 'Stinky man!'Pinching her nose.
HARD TO BELIEVE it had been six months since Michael had moved his things out of the house. He'd done it in slow motion, taking the items to the hired ute in the front yard one at a time.
'I don't know why you just didn't pay for a removalist,' his ex-wife had shot over her shoulder. 'God knows you can afford it.'
He let the comment slide, thinking God had nothing to do with it, going to the spare room where she'd stacked up his stuff against the wall; it wasn't much, considering. He looked at the boxes. He could hear her banging china and steel cookware in the kitchen, cleaning when she should have been changing her mind. He went as slow as he could, hoping for a miracle. None came.
Unpacking the boxes back at the flat he was almost calm but his hand shook when he found the keepsakes from Maui – their honeymoon, before everything. The shells. Stupid really, when you thought about it. She'd collected one for each day. He remembered how childlike she'd been, bending in the bleached sand, searching for the right colour, for the right feeling. She'd make up a story, a kind of metaphor, between the shell and them, and then she'd put the treasure in her pocket, smiling. Michael had thought it was just a honeymoon thing but she'd carried those shells home with her wrapped in one of her silk tops and she'd kept on collecting shells from everywhere they went, all the beaches he'd taken her to, at home and around the world: Cottesloe, Horseshoe Bay, Cable Beach, Bora Bora. She'd stopped two years ago.
People told him he was mad moving into the block of flats. He didn't need to, they said, he'd done well out of the 'sorry business'. But divorce wasn't really a sorry business – it was exactly the opposite. Divorce was two people who no longer knew how to forgive each other. His wife and his business partner in bed together, shells stuck to their backs. A fucking cliché he hadn't seen coming. The bastard had bought him out with interest. His wife threw a crystal decanter shaped like a duck at his head. He didn't fight back.
Michael had never been good at doing things the way other people thought he should. Indifference had helped him in business, made him appear hard and untouchable. In his personal life indifference had left him tethered to the sea floor, floating and tremulous: an anchor attached to a broken boat, a lost craft bearing a dead sailor.
'WE SHOULD EAT something.' Michael rises from his chair on the veranda anxious to lift the mood, and he and Rory set about preparing the BBQ in a comfortable mutual silence, knowing each other's chores. They wheel the boutique-sized barbie under the light and Michael thinks about the huge monstrosity he used to cook on – the Beefeater, nine burners and all sorts of add-ons he didn't really care to know. If he could he would have had a wood barbie – old-school – but no one liked the look of them anymore.
Rory makes a crack about the size of the gas bottle. 'Like a bloody kid's drink bottle, it is.'
Michael laughs, and because it's just the two of them they don't bother with a salad or anything besides the snags, the rib fillet and onions, eating the snags first wrapped in fresh white bread, drowned in tomato sauce and juicy onions. The only concession Michael makes is the red pepper chilli relish he slathers on the meat for extra kick.
Rachel's activities in the bedroom of flat seven have wound down. Now they can hear a mixture of John rattling on to someone on his phone and the Friday night drift of music and parties from other unit blocks lining the street. John's still up, which means he's got a day off tomorrow or he's really gone. Even Mrs Warner downstairs seems to be having one of her nights, the old bird partial to a stereo war and a whack of karaoke. When the muzak strains of 'Piano Man' kick in, Michael and Rory move their chairs back from the lip of the veranda on cue, as if in fear of being co-opted. One too many times they've found themselves in Mrs Warner's blue and white kitchen, downing shots of cheap tequila with gaggles of hard drinkers who've rolled home with her from the Royal, the swill and the stagger on for young and old. Mrs Warner might be a riot but the hangovers Michael got from crossing her threshold made him feel like he'd been in one. Michael knew whenever Mrs Warner cut loose his choices were join in or just let her go – pretending when he saw her in the morning, looking frightful but still strangely efficient, that he hadn't heard a thing, especially not her hacking her guts up in the toilet.
Michael and Rory concentrate on their meat without much ceremony. Michael chews and thinks about how his ex had been quick to make noise complaints, as if the walls and the great expanse of lawns were not enough to keep them from the crowd. He wonders if the distance had made it worse, contracted her sense of entitlement. He'd try to soothe and placate, eventually walking away, embarrassed at her tone with the police, indignant and more posh than she actually was. Here, in the thick of it, Michael just lets the sound of other people's lives packed on top of each other wash over him like a fresh salty sea with a bit of weed.
Rory talks about fishing.
Michael watches the street, notices the group of young Indian men from flat three ambling up the footpath, on a rare night off, probably coming in from dinner. Usually on Fridays the driveway plays host to the taxis they drive pulling in and out at odd times, the beeps and ticks of the radio transmitters like something out of a sci-fi movie. The boys are a new addition to Sunny Lodge, moving in not long after Michael, and he often sees them wandering around the suburb, in couples or groups, their pace slow and companionable in the cool night. Michael has taken to walking, enjoying how the streets feel at different times, first thing, late evening.
The young men approach. When they'd arrived initially none of them would look up. Now Michael has spoken with them a few times, they raise their faces and smile. Perhaps a hand. Their eyes are glossy like the logos on their American street clothes. Michael says hello. Rory just nods his head.
'Turning into bloody Vindaloo Court round here,' he says under his breath, not looking Michael in the eye, focused on something on the bottom of his shoe. Michael doesn't laugh – knows that laughing is a way of endorsing the comment. He knows he's supposed to think Rory doesn't really mean it. That he's just having a bit of a lend, but Michael doesn't like the way everyone around here treats the young men they refer to as 'the Indians', not bothering to know any of their names, the bad jokes proliferating. It was the same in Dubai, Michael thinks, with fewer attempts at humour. There, racism wasn't something you hid under an aside. It was brutal. A young Indian man in blue overalls falling through the sky on a building site, a plastic bag of cooked rice exploding on impact in his pocket, like the rest of him, half contained in his overalls. Michael being drawn away from the scene by his Emirati hosts, their long white kanduras flapping about in the dusty wind: diversion, denial, erasure.
Mrs Warner complains about the amount of 'Indians'. 'There's bloody eight of them living in there now,' she'd say to him, gesturing with her head while carrying a load of dry washing up the stairs. 'It's not right. You blokes don't realise: there's no separate meters on the water in this building. I'm bloody paying for all that water.'
In a way Michael was sympathetic. Mrs Warner lived off the smell of an oily rag and she did it alone but the difference was something cultural, like the washing hanging off every available surface on the veranda instead of pegged in an orderly fashion on the Hills, like walking everywhere and chatting on the street at all hours of the night; it was people living differently. Mrs Warner didn't understand. The boys weren't making homes. They were driving night shifts down the long roads it took to find a better life.
The boys pass, the rounded sound of their constant talk overflowing like a water bubbler. And then, suddenly, there's no talk. For a tense moment, silence, then the deep bass of John's voice, puffed up to full flight, railing abuse from his veranda, not making much sense. Michael and Rory spring up on instinct from their chairs, looking down the long side of the building towards John bent awkwardly over his railing brandishing a cricket bat in one hand, the other clutching a novelty-sized Australian flag. Made in China. He appears to have gaffer-taped the flag roughly, in some kind of drunken rage, to the iron railing. Most of the young men have congregated at the bottom of the stairs leading to their flat, while John is further down. Two of the young men break away from the group and approach John, necks craned. Their friends look on calmly.
'John!' Michael calls out. 'What's going on, mate?' John looks away from the boys below him, straining to see Michael further down the drive.
'Nothing! Fuck off. This is between them and me.' John points the bat towards the young boys below him. 'You and me.' He says again quieter, more menacing.
The Indian boys don't respond. All of them looking at John, waiting. Their silence seems to infuriate him.
'You see this flag, mate? You know what this means? It means this ain't your place. Nah. Ain't your fucking place.' John is so drunk pools of spit drag out of his mouth in long translucent drips, landing on the drive in front of the boys as he talks.
'This bat, it's Australian, fucking bat. Signed '74 tour. Australia B. Me, I was on that tour. Me.' John points the bat towards his heart, beating his chest with his other hand.
Rory looks at Michael. 'What the fuck?'
Michael shrugs, keeping his eye on the scene. 'He's gonna take their bloody heads off with that thing.'
'Nah, he's not going to do shit – look at him.'
Michael knows he should do something.
'You fucking stay there!' John yells. 'I'm coming down to meet ya.'
'Shit,' says Rory, mildly amused, taking a long sip on his drink.
Michael pushes past him.
'What are you doing?' Rory calls out. 'Leave it!'
But Michael's already out the door, letting it slam shut behind him, his heart thumping, racing like it hasn't done in months, his feet slapping on the stairs. When he reaches the drive he can see the boys have regrouped, standing around calmly, like they know what to do without speaking. They don't look interested in a fight. John stumbles out from the stairwell, cricket bat thrown over his shoulder, charging front and centre.
Michael can't hear what he's saying. 'Hey!' He yells out. 'Hey, John, you stupid old bastard.'
Everyone turns to look at Michael but before anything can be done he's launched into a crash tackle, taking John with him sideways, past the bemused looks on the faces of the boys stepping back to let them through. Michael can feel the crunch of bone and skin and flesh on the concrete drive as they land, the heavy weight of the both of them, and the pain of the flailing cricket bat hitting his chest and winding him feels, in some way, good. John is writhing and wrestling under him, calling him a fucking dickhead, and Michael is almost overcome by the reek, the sweaty boozy haze of white wine and rum, and for a moment he thinks of Suri but he holds fast, pinning John to the ground until he stops moving. One of the boys reaches down to pick up the cricket bat.
When Michael finally lets John to his feet, both of them brushing themselves down, cuts above the eye, the knee – the tackle a stalemate – they look up, dumbfounded. There are the Indian boys a few metres away, hunched in a tight circle round the cricket bat, pointing excitedly at all the signatures.