Right now I'm working on lots and lots of things including a few stories for anthologies that are due out next year and two new books! One of these books is for young adults- it's called The Girls and its about young women who were forced into a girls home called The Female Factory. The other is a big fat book called No More Boats which looks at the life of one family living in Parramatta from the 1960s to the early 2000s, a time when everything in this community got changed and rearranged and turned itself upside down. I've pasted a few sections from this book below:
So. This is how it goes. Summer. We spend the longest, longest time getting ready on these nights when mum works nightshift and Asheeka comes over and we watch the street and plan our moves and talk about the boys and Asheeka uses her eyeliner pen to make my eyes pop out like two round pieces of fruit cake.
Right now, here we are! Hanging over the balcony in mum’s two old bathrobes like we are in some five star hotel in the movies, like we are celebrities and all that waiting for our fans to show up on the road and wave and hold up signs. I love you Rosa, I love you Asheeka, those signs would say but no, not today. Today there are only the red flashes of lights of some police car that is parked up the street and the sun setting through the spaces between the apartment blocks across the road, spreading itself across the road like some kind of golden slime. It’s still so hot here in the night time that everyone’s sitting on plastic chairs on nobody’s lawn outside the apartment blocks. People just hanging with their phones on speaker so you can hear their music.
Asheeka leans against the balcony, unfolds her hands, lights a cigarette she stole from her father’s pack. She looks bored. She always looks bored when things make her nervous. She is wearing one of those skirts and tops, where the top isn’t long enough so there’s this space where you show off your belly. That’s what in now so she’ll wear it everyday even if it’s too cold to be showing off your body parts until something else is in.
I was getting myself done up when she showed up at my apartment door, her black eye liner smudged, her hair in a messy bun on the top of her head. You know when she’s like this, when everything’s not the glamour it should be that there’s something wrong. These days the something wrong is usually Arnold and his boys— the ones we’re hooking up with later tonight.
Tonight! I realise the leopard print dress I am wearing isn’t even zipped up at the back. Asheeka gave me this dress after our last fight. She said the same thing she always says when I tried it on, looks good, you need a fake tan, but. Buy it in a can at Chemist Warehouse and I can put it on ya.
Down on the street, my upstairs neighbour is standing in Nikes that flash small red lights every time he leans himself in a slightly different way against his mate’s new lowered Honda. All his friends are on the inside, he’s on the outside. No one is moving. They’re just scheming to do something later. That’s it, that’s what everyone does out here. Cars. Cars. Cars—driving around, leaning against them, looking good. Looking excellent. Showing off your muscles or your leopard print dress.
I look at Asheeka and I look at my dress and I try to zip it up behind me but the zipper gets stuck. ’I don’t know, ‘ I say. ‘Maybe something else. I don’t know if I can walk down the street in those heels and that dress. And you know everyone in their cars is ’gonna honk at me and there’s that guy on the corner who tries it on every time and also, maybe my relatives or something, maybe they’ll tell my mum.’
Asheeka puts her middle finger up and says ‘That’s what you do to all of them’ but I can’t do that stuff right. Not like Asheeka does, not with that same kind of look that says you are totally absolutely sure of everything you are doing.
Ash falls from her cigarette to the floor of the balcony. She’s not even smoking. It’s disgusting, everyone knows it, but sometimes it’s part of the look. When I’m closer to her I can see that her mascara isn’t really smudged. It’s some kind of bruise. A black eye. I know black eyes because Asheeka was the first person to give me one. I covered for her butt—that’s what you do. She’d punched me in the eye with that big ring of hers because I told her that she was too good for Arnold and his crew. Some girls, they just love the wrong kind of guys. I thought about it later, and I understood that he’d hurt her and she’d hurt me, not that that’s alright, but just that that’s how it is. That time we got hauled into the principal’s office, the two of us sitting there, me with my black eye. I remember how Principal Alloshi looked at her like he was suspicious and said, “Juanita, what happened?” He called her Juanita approximately half the time because Asheeka and Juanita were the only black students in our year at school and he couldn’t tell them apart. I don’t know why she never corrected him. That time, she just shrugged her shoulders and looked at the floor and I said
I fell down the stairs.
I can’t remember what Arnold had done to her that time. Truth is, I’ve always been jealous of her. She just carries it. You know? Like she owns the world or something and everyone believes her. Everyone except Arnold.
The Hare Krishnas in the last house on the corner start their drumming and someone turns up Eminen so they don’t have to hear it. ‘You know’, Asheeka says, we should get going. ‘Everyone’ll be waiting.’
I leave her on the balcony to change in the other room. In the wardrobe mirror I check myself out, I wish I had curves, I wish I had a lot of things, a bit more height maybe. I check the red and blond streaks in my hair. Asheeka told me how to do them from a packet you buy at Priceline. She told me I needed them and that I also needed to learn to use those wax strips to do my eyebrows and that I also needed to paint my nails in red at least once every couple of weeks. She said everyone would respect me more if I did these things. She said it like it was a fact and it was.
When I am changed things move quickly. The streets suck us into them again and we are walking down Church Street towards Guildford/Merrylands way when we see the sign emerging- that yellow, yellow glow of the McDonalds’ M. In two years, when we’re 18, we will go clubbing in the city, or at least to the local pub but for now, this is where it’s at on a Friday night— in the parking lot of course—no one hangs on the inside.
We pass the last apartment block at the end of my street and Asheeka has gone ahead. She has these muscles on the back of her lower legs. I don’t get where she got those from or the swimmer’s shoulders. I can see the red soles on her heels as we hit the lights coming out of the restaurants on Church Street. That’s how you know they’re not K-Mart crap she told me once because the leather is underneath the shoe, not just on top. She’s the only 16 year old I know that doesn’t shop at Supre. Most of her clothes are like this, bought with three evenings a week of putting the clothes people leave on the Myers dressing room floor back in their place.
We stop on the corner where the Fijian-Indians used to sell cooked yams. Now there’s the bright lights of a brand new Coles. Everything is changing. We go left, past the emo pub and the Croatian bakery near the station and we head down under the overpass. Asheeka asks me random life questions whenever the street goes quiet and I know it’s because she can’t stand the silent spaces. How you going with, you know everythingGot lots of friends besides me now. Good. You’re well-liked now you know. People looking at ya. Cute. And I know she’s trying really hard to be nice. The housos that Asheeka lived in when we first started high school used to be somewhere around here. It’s dark and she holds my hand as she scans the streets. She thinks I get easily distracted and wander off too much like I used to when we were in year seven. She likes to keep me close to her so that she knows that I am safe.
When we get to McDonald’s Arnold and his crew are all leaning up against his car. He’s wearing a 59Fifty cap even though its dark and saggy jeans. He’s not that much bigger than Asheeka, but he stands there like he’s huge. Only two months since he’s had this old Ford Falcon. Painted it with the blue house paint he found in his parent’s shed and made it shinny with discount wood lacquer from Bunnings. He’s got new seat covers in a dark red. Not too bad looking. It’s his everything and he doesn’t let so many people inside it, except Asheeka.
Tonight he’s just hanging back, watching the Filipino kids break dance. He knows we’re here but he doesn’t say nothing. Neither does Asheeka. When Kylie and Paul and Steve and Ellie from school come over to say hi, Asheeka gets up all close to Paul. Everyone’s talking about how Mr Alloshi kicked two kids out of school the other day but I know that Asheeka’s not paying attention to none of it. She’s got her head snuggled up against Paul’s shoulder and she’s looking out at Arnold like she’s trying to get his attention.
There’s kids taking up every bit of the parking lot, just hanging, talking to their friends, strutting their stuff. The security guy’s got his arms crossed. He’s looking at everyone like he’s ’gonna start a rumble but we all know he won’t. Above there’s this big white moon behind the McDonald’s M and it’s like every bit of everywhere is lit up and I’m staring at that moon, not noticing much when Arnold comes over and yanks Asheeka hard by the arm and drags her over silently to his car where he throws her in the passenger seat and slams the car door.
No one says nothing.
I just watch the place for a while. Sometimes I hate this, the way that stuff just happens and everyone goes silent. Paul and Steve and Kylie and Ellie keep on talking about those two kids and Arnold is leaning against the back of his car like he’s got his dog back in its big blue cage. So I walk on over there and press my fingers to the windshield of the car and Asheeka’s in there, arms crossed looking like she’s filled with a rage so big she could crack the windscreen with it. When I tap the window with my nails again, she opens the door and whispers ‘get in’.
I do like she says and she squishes over and I notice that Arnold’s keys are just sitting there in the ignition. ‘Sometimes’, I say because I don’t know what else to say, ‘it sucks being a girl.’
And she thinks about it for a while and turns the ignition and says, ‘maybe it doesn’t always have to suck.’
As soon as the engine starts to whizz Arnold starts yelling from the outside and Asheeka presses the button that makes all the doors lock. She turns to me and grabs my hand and squeezes it a little and says, ‘we could go anywhere.’
‘Like movie stars,’ she says.
‘Us in our big fancy car. Just cruising without the boys.’
‘Better that way.’
Asheeka puts the car in reverse and taps her foot down on the peddle. She’s got one hand on the wheel and the other’s holding mine and I look up into that big fat moon and I almost can’t hear Arnold screaming.The
No More Boats
It is 1967. The Australian Prime Minster, Mr Harold Holt swims out into the ocean and gets eaten by a shark. Or he gets picked up by a Chinese submarine and becomes a spy. It’s possible, also, that he just shouldn’t be swimming, despite his reputation as a sportsman, because he’s thrown his shoulder out of alignment and is taking morphine and also because he might be depressed and maybe he doesn’t want to live anymore. Others say he is murdered because he opposes building military bases at Pine Gap or because he relaxes the White Australia Policy so that the Asians can get in.
It could also be because the oceans around Australia are rough places where boats are known to fall apart and people get caught in rip tides they can’t see and people and boats just disappear and no one knows why, or sometimes they do but no one wants to talk about what really happens out there. Not really anyway.
It is the day after Harold Holt has disappeared and Antonio Martone is standing in his new home. He is not yet the Antonio Martone whose concrete yard is pictured in all those newspapers. For now, he is just Antonio and he’s standing here thinking about how the future has finally picked its way out of his head and materialised in front of him. He lays his body down in the middle of the living room and thinks about what he has built. He always knew that this future was waiting for him in this new land across the sea. White aluminium siding, aluminium eight-over-eights, yellow fibreboard shutters, high rectangular windows, crisp brown linoleum marking the path to the kitchen. Upstairs there are three bedrooms, two baths: total square footage, twelve hundred sixty-five. He’s done the front door in an arch. People don’t always understand how much harder it is to bend wood and concrete into a half-moon shape than to leave it in straight angular lines but he’ll know; it will be a deep and private satisfaction to him every time he walks through his own door.
It’s a one acre block, big enough for a market garden out the back; he will grow olives and Bergamots like his father did. This is what he has dragged out of the raw earth that had been here, just a big dry tangle of a paddock on the only hill in town; a place of small brown non-descript birds. The house is East-facing. His wife’s body casts a long shadow over him as she walks through the front door. ‘Antonio,’ Rose says looking at him lying there on the floor, ‘I think you love this house more than me.’ She walks towards him bringing her soapy smell; the soft, clicking of herself. She rubs her now, slightly protruding belly. If it is a girl they will name it Clare, if it is a boy, Francis. They walk together to the front of the house where the light extends itself over the concrete slab he has recently lain. ‘Not much room to build a flower bed,’ she says.
‘Later. I make different,’ but he knows he won’t. It is cleaner this way. It makes the land look more solid. His wife wants so many impractical things.
He locks the door and puts the key on its blue piece of yarn around his neck. They turn and face the horizon where the land is being cut up and divided and cut up and divided again into finite squares. Antonio has built on the hilly east side, the only place in the suburb that isn’t flat. From this one hill it is possible to see everything: Those tight squares of bricks of government housing, the fibro cottages, the old colonials, the wide stretches of nothing space in between everything. The corkscrews of smoke rise out of the factories in Silverwater and Granville to the east. There is the rumble of roads being poured, of concrete and bitumen stretching out towards his house to take it in. In the distance the sound of more railway lines screeching and moving closer.
People have gone off and fought in wars, they’ve taken boats from their ruined cities, left countries that no longer exist and they’ve all come here, to Parramatta - the furthest navigable point inland, like those early explorers who came across the ocean and down the river and stopped their boats here because they couldn’t get any further. Now they’re dredging the river, they’re cleaning it up, pulling out the moss-covered hulls and petrified wooden rudders of boats that got stranded in the mangroves here 150 years ago. Now they’ve got Kalinda’s Dance Hall and The Roxy Theatre. Now they’ve got the races at Rosehill.
Antonio looks towards the river but he can’t see it behind the mangroves. He is thinking of the point where the salt water meets fresh. He will take his line and hook out there later, see if he can catch a fish with the other men who sit by the pier. All he wants is this, his own patch of land, this moment in the afternoon; the future to keep coming and coming.
Do you know what his father did?
Of course you do. Everyone wanted to know about it but what the fuck did he know? Even the Croatian at the corner store who can’t speak English, he raised his eyebrows at Francis and said, ‘Yer fa-dah, hah!’ Francis had picked his packet of fags off the counter and pissed off out of there. No explanation. He wasn’t trying to explain it to no one. He hardly understood it himself.
He walked down the street, just puffin’ away. The man with no left arm stood there by his mail box, like usual, he watched the street. Francis kicked a rock as he passed him. He pretended to be interested in the rock and all, so he didn’t have to look the man in the face. It’s the same street he’s walked down on the way to Charbel’s place since they were in primary school. There was the same old Eels banners hanging slack from the same fibro cottages since their last win, same old convict graveyards, same people floating down the street like they’re cruising even when they’re not in their cars, same women in hot pink Spandex running around Doyle ground.
Dawn of a new century. 2001 and all that, but things were pretty much the same as they were in high school except now Francis was five years older and spent his days laying bricks instead of sitting in the Principal’s office. His two best mates were still Jesús and Charbel. On weekends there was still nothing to do. Women weren’t really interested in Charbel and Francis but they were interested in Jesús. Jesús could put it on like he was one of those Latin Playboys from the telenovelas his mother watched. He even did the slicked-back hair and the patent leather shoes and the walking up to a girl at The Albion like he was dancing a Salsa or some shit like that. But that wasn’t really who he is. Francis would be like that too if it helped him get laid. When Jesús wasn’t with a girl, Francis and Charbel hung out at his place. Charbel was still boring. Francis was still angry at his father for, among other things, giving him a pussy name like Francis.
So he walked.
The sun set through the spaces between the buildings and spread itself across the road like a kind of golden slime. There was a mania for sitting on plastic chairs on nobody’s lawn outside the apartment blocks. People just stewing. Cigarettes in hand. Those local newspapers on the ground everywhere. Someone had drawn a red line underneath the headline in The Parramatta Sun: It’s Not Racist if They Come Without Their Visas!
Down by the river there were people who had gathered on the grass to look at the river overflowing onto the footpaths. This time of year the shopping trolleys people dumped in the river floated up to the surface and laid on their sides, sunbaking themselves on the river banks. There were hubcaps, chip packets, children’s toys hanging out on the grass. Francis watched a man in a turban pose his family by the ferry pier and snap picture after picture. He pictured them all, floating away, down stream.
Summer was on its way and even this early before the west got really hot the place was on heat. Walking past The Albion he could see the women were already out in their short shorts and high heels, standing in the courtyard. A blond woman in tight white pants leant against the brick wall outside and watched the men playing footy in the park across the road.
He headed straight. Crossed over the highway. Stopped to have a fantasy or two in front of the imports at the car yard. Jesús was mowing the lawn in front of his mother’s pale blue fibro. Francis was sure all that all that mowing was just an excuse to take his shirt off. Jesús was the one with all the muscles even though it was Francis and Charbel that worked with their bodies. No one would guess it’s Jesús of the three of them, who’s training to be an accountant.
Jesús didn’t say anything. He waved. Francis walked himself straight into the living room where Jesús’ mother was dressed in her orderlies scrubs. She was leaning against the kitchen cupboard eating toast, flicking through the newspaper. Something Spanish played on the radio, on the TV it was the seven o’clock news. The kettle went off and she looked up at Francis as if he was making all that noise. ‘Be good,’ she said like she’d been saying since they were in primary. All the boys from school had been spending their nights here since forever, on account of Mrs. Consalvo always working nights. Even now that Charbel had his own place in one of the slicked up new apartments just off Church Street, they still came here. Force of Habit. Mrs Consalvo must have known what went on here under her small roof but she never said anything but you boys be good, or there’s leftover chicken in the fridge. She was cool like that. All the boys called her Mami like Jesús did. All the boys called Jesús, Jesus, like Jesus Christ even though he was always telling them to say it the Spanish way like Hey-Seuss.
At least Francis wasn’t the only one with a pussy name.
Even though it was the first day of September, Jesús still had the banner, ‘Welcome to the year 2001,’ up nine months later so that he could hide the hole Francis had accidently punched into the wall when he was high. He liked Jesús’ house. It was a loud space but it felt quiet. Francis’ place was quiet but it felt loud. Francis lived in a much larger house but every inch of it was taken up by his father, even when his father was just sitting on the couch saying nothing, watching the telly.
Charbel was entering the door, Mrs. Consalvo was leaving for the night. Charbel walked in with a couple of six packs so they could drink cheeper before they got to the bars. He was wearing board shorts and a wife beater. He would change into his favourite tsubi jeans and Polo shirt right before they went out. Francis would spray Lynx all over the outside of his clothes. They were all posers in their own way.
Charbel walked straight to the fridge stuck the beers in, looked over the rest of its contents. He walked over to the flower-covered couch where Francis was already sitting, handed him a beer and sunk down six inches as soon as he sat on the cushion. ‘Shit’ he said as he fell backward.
‘Shit,’ Francis said.
Francis took long gulps of his beer. His hands trembled. He told himself it was because he masturbated too much but he knew it was the pot: He needed to cut down (on both things really) but he just couldn’t stop. He liked the way the pot gave the world a softer edge. Even the air took on the feel of cushioned fabric; as though you could just reach out and touch it and everything else, all the things that were bothering you just sat like a quiet old man in the background.
When Jesús came into the living room he sat on the recliner without his shirt on, sipped his beer slowly, rubbed his belly. Charbel opened another beer he’d got ready by his foot. The nights always started out like this. Slowly. They saved all their energy for later.
Francis tried to concentrate on the TV. On the T.V there was a big ship in an even bigger ocean and there were tiny dots of people sitting around shipping containers. Then there was John Howard and his eyebrows and he was saying ordinary, average Australians over and over again and it was all very serious and Francis couldn’t get at the words.
‘You coming back to work on Monday?’ Charbel asks.
‘Nah, maybe.’ Francis had definitely planned on being back there but he was being a jerk.
‘You take as much time as you need.’
It was exactly that kind of tone, like you’re talking to someone’s grandmother, that made Francis have to be a jerk. It was like this: When Charbel said you take as much time as you need, that wasn’t everything he was saying. There was a whole lot of backstory shoved into that sentence like helium stuck in one of those over-inflated balloons. The story so far played over in his head in time lapse: Charbel’s dad (who everyone called Fat Frank, on account of him being, well, really fat) was the contractor on a new set of McMansions near Macquarie Fields; Francis and Charbel were both working for Fat Frank on the site and that made Charbel act like he was also the boss of everything even though he was the boss of nothing; Francis should be grateful for the job because he is a very average bricklayer who may or may not turn up to work on time but he didn’t really know how to be grateful for much; There’s a whole lot more backstory here about how Fat Frank and his dad used to be business partners untilFrancis’ father had exploded about how shit McMansions are and Fat Frank went on to make fuckloads of money and Francis’ dad ended up with not much.
Francis suspected that he got away with a lot because Fat Frank thought his family was pathetic or he had some kind of guilt complex or he just wanted to get back at Francis’ dad by hiring his son. Maybe all of the above. Whatever it was, when Charbel told him he could take as much time as he needed, he said it in a tone that made Francis think, maybe it was the pathetic thing. ‘I’ll be back by Tuesday.’
‘Everyone understands about your father.’
‘Wednesday then.’ No one understands about his father.
They drank more beers. Jesús took his shower and Charbel changed his clothes and Francis almost choked himself in Lynx. Then the boys slipped out into the street and Jesús took what he had promised them out of his wallet. The three dots of pink paper that sat there in his palm had the smallest set of wings on them. They said, take us, take flight and they did, the three of them standing there, staring at the granite statue of a lion pouncing on a neighbour’s lawn.
Even though this was Parramatta, and even though it was never really quiet, tonight felt calm. No one spoke. They walked. Each street they passed was a brick rectangle of an apartment block, in-between there were lost strips of lawn and too much concrete. They cut through the park. This was the park where they used to play footy on Fridays: Italians and Yugoslavians versus Asians; Asians always lost. On Sundays everyone united against the Islanders, but the Islanders always won. At night this park looked dark and grim. Not like it did in the daytime when everyone was screaming and running. There was the noise of the train everywhere, always pulling up and leaving again: its sounds skipped across the cement as they turned the corner.
Now they were at Francis’ old school. One of his old schools. He’d spent the last two years of school at Arthur Philip instead of the local Catholic where he’d started out with Charbel and Jesús but that fat old Brother who ran the place had had enough of Francis by the time he finished year ten. Public school. His father never got over it. The kids there were from a whole ‘nother planet than the Catholic school ones. He thought he was a bad arse before he wound up there and learned to stay silent. Francis picked up a rock and chucked it through the windows of the Science lab. He chose these windows because he always failed Science and because the safety glass in the windows just broke into patterns like spider webs and refused to fall out. It was a challenge: He was rising to the occasion. The wings he took earlier made him into some type of bird with no power to break glass.
It was a while before Francis realised he was standing in the same place holding a rock, staring at his own reflection in the glass windows, maybe he’d been there, yesterday, today, the day before, maybe he was back at school. ‘Stay loose’, Jesús said, holding Francis’s hand but Francis could feel the blood pumping right through his arm and out to his palm.
They cut through the library car park and walked out onto the main street. People think nothing goes on this far from the city, but they would be wrong. Everybody comes to Parramatta Friday and Saturday night. Everyone. Night time and everyone’s going off. This is what defines this place; the parade. It’s the scene where you come to be seen, you’re either in a car or you walked like you were in a car, cruising like your legs are wheels. Francis could tell what part of the west everyone came from. For instance, the three women in the tight white pants and Chan Luu bracelets- Rouse Hill, the lebs with bum bags and mullet cuts- Bankstown, the lumpy white girls with over-sized shirts and black spandex pants- Penrith, the African women with the big hair and neon-coloured dresses- Granville. Francis paid particular attention to the ladies: He would take them all, anytime, anywhere, if only any of them would have him.
They walked up through the mall to the Burger King on the corner. Everyone started here before they went anywhere else. Jesús pointed to a spare table in the corner and Charbel was put in charge of watching Francis there. Francis watched as Charbel took out his door key and tried to draw a line over where he carved Charbel + Lee into the wooden wall, when he was in love with Lee Chang back in the day.
From the speakers; Honey came in and she caught me red handed. Picture this we were both butt naked banging on the bathroom floor. The music wrapped itself around Francis’ body. Jesús showed up again with the food. Francis watched the red stream of light that followed his hand every time he put his arm into the bag and pulled out another burger. Then Francis was stuck to his chair chewing, chewing, chewing. This food was something musical. His throat was a flute. His body was light but he couldn’t move. He looked at Charbel who was trying to eat his entire burger in one mouthful. But she caught me on the counter (it wasn’t me) Saw me bangin’ on the sofa (it wasn’t me).
Moving again. They were out in the open mall. St Johns Church was twice the size it usually was. Jesús was standing in the flowerbeds in front of the church. He was all movement and light. Francis found it difficult to keep track of where he was among all this moving. Now, Jesús was next to the old men with the worry beads sitting on the benches near the children’s play equipment and then he was next to the guy with The End of the World is Coming sign and the microphone, then he’s hanging around the entrance to The Connection Arcade, smoking, talking shit in Spanish. Maybe he was skipping. Maybe he wasn’t. The flight of his feet across concrete.
They went off again. They headed south towards the brighter lights of Church Street. The bikies had parked on the pavements again, just because they could. How do you join a bikie gang? Francis would like to be one of them. They had a tribe. He’d like to be in a tribe. Francis thinks he would like to sit up on the thick leather seats of one of their Harley Davidson’s. Doesn’t. The hot spice smell of cheep men’s cologne. Somewhere, an apple hooka. People cram their legs up underneath too-small tables in front of the restaurants on the sidewalk.
The words, One World glowing in the distance. They head towards it. Those shops selling cheap shit. Shirts for five dollars. Jeans that are already ripped at the knees hang in the windows. Plastic cats with oversized heads that bounce in the sunlight. Everyone wanted something cheap. More two dollar shops. Everyone believed in a bargain.
They were standing in line in front of One World. Francis stood up as straight as he could for the bouncers. He gave instructions to himself: Get your ID out of your wallet. Hold it in your hand. Look at them in the eye, like you haven’t been up to nothing. Play it cool. The signs in front of the bar said; Sexy. Bounce. Kareoke.
Inside the place was dark and cool. Blue lights skipped across the dance floor. The ceiling was stained by the cigarette smoke of everyone who had come here over the years from the tradies who used to come here by themselves for a beer afterwork to the all the professionals who came here now from all the corporations that had relocated from the city. In the corner a giant screen played soccer from another country. Two thirty-ish men sat at the counter drinking beer, not talking. The D.J played Prince. Maybe it was retro night. Francis hoped it wasn’t retro night. Three women, all with frizzy hair drank Bacardi Breezers by the bar. Retro brought out women who looked like school teachers. They should have stayed in Burger King where Shaggy and Tupac brought out the girls in the short shorts. Almost ten and there was a slow creep of people entering the place. Things began to slow down again. The boys sat down in a booth in the corner. Francis lit a cigarette and watched the smoke disappear into the air in front of him.
Francis watched Jesús’ eyes dart around the place. It was too loud to really hear anything. Francis stood up, did the drinking gesture with his left hand, pulled on his cigarette with the right. ‘Drink?’
Jesús stopped looking around, looked at Francis. ‘You alright?’
‘’Yeh, fine.’ He gave himself the instructions in his head again. Stand up straight. Look the guy behind the counter in the eyes. Keep your hands in your pockets so no one can see they’re shaking. Charbel looked at him again. This time for too long. You are not the boss of me Francis thought. You are not the boss. ‘Beer?’
‘Yeh’, Jesús got out his phone. Francis knew he was trying to work out if the women in the bar were a better chance of a hookup than some girl he’d been texting with. Francis moved towards the bar where a woman with dark roots and bright blond hair was wiping the counter with a rag. ‘What can I get you?’ she shouted over the music. AC/DC started up with Back in Black. It was definitely retro night.
‘Three scooners of New.’
The woman pulled out three frosted glasses and began to fill them up. One of the frizzy- haired women leaned against the bar next to him, sipped her pink Bacardi in its bottle. She didn’t look so bad up close. Too much makeup but he wasn’t picky. Her clothes said she’d been at work all day. The ID card she used to get into wherever work was, was still clipped to her pants. She was tapping out the rhythm of the song with her hands on the bar. She was mouthing the words : Well I’m back in black, yes I’m back in black. He could feel the words vibrating underneath his feet. The woman behind the bar put his drinks in front of him. He brushed up against the woman with the frizzy hair on purpose when he went to pay. She turned and looked at him, ‘Sorry’. They made eye contact. Where to go from here? He was pretty shit at this but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
He smiled. She smiled back. He ran his hands down the front of his shirt to smooth out the creases. ‘You like AC/DC?’
‘Yeh, they’re alright.’ She nodded, looked him up and down.
‘Yeh my dad knew AC/DC, like back in the day, before they were all famous and shit.’
She looked at him. Raised her eyebrows. Disbelieving. Never tell a real story that sounds like it isn’t true. ‘That right.’
‘Yeh. They were in Villawood together. Like back before it was Villawood, like now. They came from Scottland and my dad came from Italy. They lived together.’
‘You’re dad’s in Viallawood?’
‘No like, not like it is now, like it was before. With just regular people.’
‘Regular’ she said. She nodded her head. The music just kept on getting louder. He wasn’t sure she’d heard a word. She looked at him like he’s a wanker. He was a wanker. Shitty pick up line. He needed to work on something better. He realised just how much he was moving. Swaying from side to side. Some guy pushed up against his back to get towards the bar. He looked towards the guy and then the girl was gone again. Shit.
He pushed the beers into a triangle. Held them with his two hands. Tried to give it all his concentration but he couldn’t. He was looking for the girl with the frizzy hair. Where did she go? Should have started with, What’s your name? My dad’s a regular guy from Villawood. Fuck. What kind of pickup line was that? Maybe he could find her again. Buy her a drink. She was interested, maybe.
His hands shook again. He turned with the three beers. Pushed them straight into some blokes big chest and watched as the beer jumped out of his hands and all over his shirt and down this other blokes pants.
Two hands jumped out at him from the enormous body in front of him, pushed him backwards and then he was on the floor where a giant foot kicked him the stomach. He was all wet, he thinks his insides have burst open and are soaking through his shirt. He ran his hand over his stomach, checked it for blood. It was beer. It was only the beer he spilled.
‘Fuckin’ cunt’ someone was yelling from above. He was so small down here, everyone else was huge. And then someone got their hands up under his armpits and he was being dragged across the floor. ‘Get up. Get up’ he can’t work out where all the instructions were coming from until someone dragged him onto a chair. It was the bouncer. He remembered his instructions to himself: Get your ID out, look them in the eyes, be cool.
This big black face was all up in his and he was saying ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’ And Fracis was looking from his big stern face in real time and then the ID tag he was wearing around his neck. The face on the tag was smiling. The face in front of him was not.
‘Yeh,yeh. Leave.’ Look him the eye, like you’re not high or anything. Charbel took his left arm. Jesús took his right. He was out in the night air and the bright lights of Church Street again, just like that before he could even understand how he got here. ‘Can I sit down?’
Jesus and Charbel are dragging him down the street.
He started to use his legs. His head was thumping. He walked. They were back in front of the library before he was allowed to sit down on the steps.
Charbel was huffing and puffing in front of him. ‘You almost got bashed.’ Francis watched him look around like there might be someone waiting to hit him again. ‘Fuck. Why do you always do that?’
‘Make people want to bash you?’
‘I never did nothing,’ Francis said. He ran his hands all over his body just to make sure all his parts were still there. It was true. He never did nothing really but he was always getting in fights. He just had something about him. Something that said bash me.
Hours later, when Mrs Consolvo came home they were sprawled out on her flowery couch again, ordinary as a Neighbours episode. Mrs Consalvo was too tired to talk in the mornings. Francis watched as she entered through the doorway, paused to run her hand across the image of her husband who went missing all those years ago. In the kitchen she turned on the Spanish news on the radio. In the living room she sat and ate toast leaning against Jesús’ shoulder. Francis shoved his shaking hands deep into his pockets. The boys watched TV and laughed and talked about shit.
Antonio still had one leg that moved properly (the right) and one arm that functioned (also the right) so he got in the car and drove after Rose had gone to sleep. Since the accident he had stopped being a morning person and turned into a night one. He went to bed at four instead of waking up at four. He wandered the streets on his crutches.
Tonight, he started out where his downfall began in 1799. To the outsider all these things may seem unrelated but in his mind it all made sense. It wasn’t far. He drove down Victoria Road and up O’Connell St and entered Parramatta Park through the main gates next to the RSL. He couldn’t smoke and drive at the same time anymore. He didn’t have enough good arms. He parked on the roadside and looked up to where Old Government House sat in the darkness up on its hill. Light spilled from the back where the restaurant was still open. An elderly couple walked out the side, holding hands and slowly wandered down the street. Antonio wound down his window, lit his cigarette, exhaled.
He’d gone on a tour of Old Government House when they’d opened it up to the public not so many years after he built his own home here. He’d thought the place was going to be a whole lot more than it was but in the end it was all illusion. Wooden Greek pillars covered in paint and sand to look like sandstone. Wooden floorboards painted in small squares and lacquered to look like tiles. Wooden counter tops with contrasting layers of coloured paint so they looked like marble. This was Australia: marble and granite and sandstone that was really just cheap, old, wood.
All those years later when Fat Frank drove him out to those acres and acres of nothing where he wanted to build houses that had roofs with no eaves and plastic pipes glued together instead of copper pipes, stick-on yellow fake windowpane strips, stick-on shutters, stick-on chimneys and polystyrene frames for the slabs he thought of Old Government House. He should have known Fat Frank was right when he said those houses would sell. Everyone here wanted to live in joke houses, even the leaders of the country. Fat Frank thought he invented the McMansion but it was really Mrs Macquarie when she moved into Old Government House and wanted all those things like the sandstone and marble and tiles she couldn’t afford.
Antonio flicked his cigarette butt out the window and let it land on the ground, unfurled the fingers on the only hand that worked. He thought about the undertaker preparing Nico’s body: the cleaning of skin, the dressing of his body in his good navy suit. He thought about how histories could be written on bodies. Nico had always had bumps and scars, places where the skin was uneven.
He checked the glove box to make sure he had another pack and he does, squished under the small bottle of whisky he kept there too, for his nighttime driving. Of course, he doesn’t drink it while he’s driving, just when he stops, when he’s settled in for a few hours in a cul-de-sac or a side street. These were the places he drove to, to think about what he was going to do about everything. Other people, they go to the beach or a river or a mountain full of trees when they just wanted to stare out into space and think. Antonio liked looking at houses, streets too but mostly houses.
He started the ignition, bashed the gears back into drive with his elbow. Tonight he drove up onto the highway and cut across to Woodville Road, headed south west towards another of the places where he began. He drove. During the day Woodville Road was always full, always loud, the houses had people on their veranda’s, people parked on the sidewalk in front of the small shops. Children skipped on their way to school. At night, the whole place went quiet. This landscape was flat, you could see right out to the horizon, no place for anything to hide. He took a long hard look at the houses when he was stopped at red lights. Sometimes he stayed there and looked for more than one red light. If there wasn’t anyone behind him he’d stay for two or three red lights, just staring until his eyes were full-up with the place. There were the Queenslanders stuck too far south and the places made from shit-brown bricks sitting in their squat squares and the odd McMansion with its Greek columns and gold-plated exterior fittings sitting like a giant fuck-you in between two fibro-houses with walls you could break through with a kitchen spoon. Giant rectangles of brick apartment blocks 3-4 storeys high broke everything up with their straight, straight lines. It pissed him off the disorder of the place. When he looked at things like this sometimes it made a lot of sense how everyone around here wanted to move sideways— not out of the community just to the nearest estate where they could be in the community but not in the community, where everything was given a bit of symmetry and all the disorder got locked out at the gate.
Not too far from here behind Villawood Station was where he first met Nico but he wouldn’t go there now. Instead, he kept driving, drove right until he ended up at the same place he ended up most nights now. He came around the back way and entered down the side of one of the last houses that was being built. He couldn’t go through the front gate. The security guard knew him now, had told him last time that he shouldn’t be coming around at night anymore. On account of you don’t live here, he said, and, he added you don’t even work here anymore.
He may not work here anymore but he still knew that this was lot number 185 that he had his car parked in front of and that that security guard wasn’tmoving from that gate house unless that little TV he kept in the corner blew up.
To his left it was all oversized houses shoved up too close to one another, the lights were still on in some of them, where their new residents lived. To his right there was nothing and nothing and nothing. Fat Frank was behind schedule. Antonio could see it from here. It would give Nico some satisfaction to know that he had caused all this lateness. Sixty Days, sixty days. It was Fat Franks mantra as the site manager, none of the McShitboxes should take more than sixty days before they were basically ready to go.
Antonio fished the bottle of whisky out of his glove box, shoved the bottle between his thighs and unscrewed the lid with his good hand. He got out of the car, leaned up against it, looked up at the sky and back to lot 185 and took a deep drink. The house was still half finished, still had the yellow tape that the guys from Work Cover used to cordon off an investigation site around the scaffolding lying on its front lawn.
Lot 185 was The Aspire: Its selling point was its 50 percent glass frontage. Rooms Filled With Natural Light! the brochure said. Fat Frank had come up with that himself. That’s why he was the site manager and Antonio wasn’t anymore because he could cut the costs of building a place in half by replacing bricks with much cheaper materials like glass and then he could work out how to sell it to the customer like it was something they wanted; Rooms Filled With Natural Light!
That kind of shit was always bringing him down but it was lot 185 that finally undid him after forty years in the construction industry. If he was being honest with himself maybe he’d admit that it was really something that started a much longer time ago, maybe even as far back as those early days on the factory floor with Nico, maybe even further back than that.
It might of started back in the Nissan huts at the Villawood Migrant Hostel. Nico had it down, even then, the ability to stand larger than other people. Nico had arrived in Australia not too long before Antonio but he knew about things like where to look for a job and what land to build on and standing up when you drank beer with Australians.
The weight of the heat inside the huts drew everyone to the yard, even in winter when it was damp and mouldy and the whole place smelled like shit. There were English and Irish and Italian and Polish and German and Greek, entire villages from places he’d never been to just materialized like that, out of nowhere. Nico walked the perimeter and Antonio walked with him. Nico knew exactly that moment when Antonio’s mind had wandered off to some dark place. Nico touched him silently on the upper arm. They walked. Nico brought him back.
Everyone knew who Nico was, of course.
But on the day Nico died he was fat and graceless and no one wanted to listen to what he had to say. They laughed at him when he walked across the construction site. Nico had become a nobody and part of that nobodiness had rubbed off on Antonio.
Still, if he could he’d ask Nico to forgive him but it was probably far too late for that. Antonio took another of the pain killers his doctor gave him out of his pocket and swallowed it with a gulp of his whisky. He kicked a loose piece of cement on the ground with one of his crutches. He had that tightrope sensation again, that terrible hunger for air. He crouched down slowly and picked up the loose pieces of cement laying there. One by one, he threw them at the newly-fitted windows and watched the glass crack out in spirals.
Nico showed up beside him. He looked light, unbroken. He had a bucket of cement chips and they threw them together at that house, at the eves of the tiles on the roof, at the gold plate they had started applying on the stair railings. Nico shook his head. He’d survived the allied forces bombing his village three times, taken a boat to the other side of the world, worked twelve hours a day, made something of himself. And now he’s come undone. Nico said, ‘You know, I was everything they told me to be, I did the jobs they told me to do, never complained, worked hard, stopped speaking my own language, looked the other way when they called me names. Now, everything is different, what a waste. They laugh at me when I speak.’
In some part of his mind, Antonio knew what would happen if he tried to lift Nico that day after his fall on lot 185 but it was too late to stop everything from happening now, and that was only just the beginning.
7:30 am. Clare walked because she liked to walk. It didn’t matter that it took her an hour from Surry Hills to Newtown. She liked looking. The women in tight skirts went barefoot on Devonshire and Belvoir carrying their heels home from the nightclubs on Oxford Street. She walked under the overhangs of shops and looked through their windows; full-skirted 60s dresses, bright red plastic underwear, posters about the hazards of cigarette butts finding their way into drain pipes, people who spend hours at coffee shops reading newspapers and books. She was born in these city streets even though she wasn’t really born in the city; she was made to be born here and when she walked these streets she told herself that she was.
Someone who was really born in the city- her mother. Clare knew exactly which terrace she had lived in but she could never picture her there. When her mother described the home she grew up in it was always a dull and grey and silent image. Now, someone had picked out the details of the window frames and guttering in a bright blue. On the bottom balcony there were long rectangular pots of herbs and on the top floor balcony they had a wrought-iron set of two red chairs and a table with a giant Buddha face hanging from the wall behind. When Clare walked past at night she could often see the shadows of people behind the windows. Behind the front door grates they had bicycles with baskets on the front like women in French movies ride to the markets. When he was feeling affectionate her father still called her mother ‘Rose of the Hills,’ as though she was from some far flung mountain village and not here, not impossibly hip Surry Hills.
Clare stepped onto Cleavland Street, a dog barked from somewhere. She was going to be relaxed today. She had resolved not to get uptight about anything. Last night she had called home several times to speak to her little brother Francis. At 23 he was not really little anymore but Clare could not seem to think of him as anything but a perpetual adolescent. Perhaps it was the seven year gap between them or perhaps it was because he’s so damn immature –either way, in her mind, he was always in primary school, always in school shorts with his socks pulled up to his knees. Her father’s retirement party: Why should she even need to remind him that it was this Sunday? In the house in which Francis still lived? She turned onto city road. Not her problem. She was not going to worry about anything today.
In Parramatta, right now, her father would be sitting on a chair on his concrete front lawn, arms folded across his chest. Her mother would be sitting on a chair on the front lawn of their neighbour, Lucy’s half-built house, drinking tea and eating macaroons and delving into a running commentary on everyone that walked down the street. Her brother would be out, still, from the night before.
Here, walking down King’s street things were quiet. The only people out were small men with big dogs and women with dread-locks and yoga mats. King Street! You could lose yourself here somewhere between a second-hand shop and a Thai restaurant. She liked to read all the light poles as she walked by them. There were share houses that needed a sixth roommate and Socialist Alliance meetings about freeing the refugees and bands full of boys with long faces and pouty lips. Hmm interesting, her mother always said in response to everything she saw here. It was her mother’s favourite word, interesting.
At the bookshop she unlocked the door, turned the sign around to ‘Yes, We’re Open’ and turned on the lights. The first few customers drifted into the shop around nine. Always, it was middle-aged women at this time of day. They came in and ran their fingers up and down the spines of books and carefully considered their covers. She knew these kind of women. They were looking for the book that would define who they were; The book of their life. It wasn’t there. She could save them the time and money by telling every one of these forty-something women outright, but they’d never believe her. They believed in stories. She took their money and wrapped their books in brown paper bags.
At ten, things went down a different road entirely. He walked in, this kid looking no older than 15, with his tight jeans and Vans, he walked straight up to the counter and got all startled once he got there, like he’d taken a wrong turn and gotten lost.
‘Oh Miss,’ he said trying to shove his fists into the too-tight spaces of his jeans pockets. ‘Miss Martone.’ He smiled and stood there looking at her. Clare smiled back. She could never remember their names, not even when she was still teaching them. She tried but there wasn’t enough space in her head after she’d learnt everything there was about every book, made matching worksheets and scrawled red marks across her student’s essays. As if it mattered: It didn’t matter, in the end, what she really needed to know was their names.
‘Hi,’ Clare fingered her name tag feeling embarrassed, like she’d been exposed.
‘You don’t remember me do you?’ He had that kind of hair that was becoming trendy among the metrosexuals on King Street: That long sweep of fringe to one side that constantly needed to be flipped out of the eye.
‘I was in your class, year 10, about six years ago.’
‘Right,’ That year, her first year of teaching, was a bit of a blur. ‘I do remember you but I’m not sure I remember your name.’ It was the line she used, always when she was caught on the outside.
‘Right well nice to see you again Paul, best of luck with everything.’ This was the part where they were meant to go away so she could stop feeling like she was on display.
He put on a face like he’d been caught doing the wrong thing before he stammered. ‘I’m here to work. I start today. Ben hired me.’
‘Right,’ she said. But it’s not right. Ben should have known better.
She didn’t want her past around her today so she sent him off; to the storeroom to unpack and tick off books, to the back shelves that needed sorting and cleaning, to the coffee shop around the corner. But every time she sent him off he was back again asking what he could do next. One time he did come back to the counter she thought she could remember him for a second, some image of him being quiet and alone on the playground with a book; Quiet and alone: he had the words stamped all over him. He called her Miss throughout the day, even though she asked him not to and spoke quietly, like he was in a library. She watched him stopped there absorbed in a graphic novel, turning the pages carefully, until he remembered not being alone again and put it back on the shelf.
The rest of the day was much the same. In between customers she flipped through the pages of a coffee table book on houses and considered buying it as a retirement gift for her father. He liked houses, building them, looking at them. She would like to know what happened at the site of the last one he was building. Then again, maybe she doesn’t want to know the whole story, not exactly. It didn’t make sense when he was trying to explain it to her from his hospital bed, something about the importance of dignity. Then again, her father had never made much sense to her.
Their shifts ended at the same time. She stayed back, closed down the cash register and locked the back doors. When she walked out of the shop and locked the door behind her he was still there staring at the display in the window. ‘Well,’ she said looking at him, standing there, inspecting the books on display in the window as if he’d never seen a book shop before. ‘That’s it for the day.’ She wasn’t so sure what else she needed to say to him. He just kind of hung around and looked from the books in the window and back to her again.
When she began to walk, he walked beside her. He didn’t say anything, just walked, his feet dragging too heavy. His Vans going slip slap on the pavement. She wondered if he was awaiting instructions. She felt the need to say something, ‘How are you getting home?’
‘Train, another train, walk.’
‘You still live near Parramatta then?’
‘Yeh near there, Merrylands.’
‘Long way to come to work.’
Slip, slap. They walked down King Street towards the train station. ‘You don’t teach anymore then?’
‘No. I work in a bookshop.’ The condescending tone of her own voice made her wince at her words. These were the things that he wasn’t understanding: that she was not a patient person, that she was a very efficient teacher but not a loving one; That she had left that all behind when she moved to the city. This was her life now. Alright? She didn’t need to explain it to anyone.
Even Paul’s feet next to her had gone quiet. She had this effect on people sometimes. She tried to be nicer. ‘So why are you working all the way in the city then?’
‘My parents think I’m studying law at Sydney but I dropped out so I thought, well, at least I could get a job in the city, you know. It feels a little less like I’m lying when I leave the house everyday.’ He pulled on the black spikes of his hair. ‘I like books.’
‘My parents think I’m still a teacher,’ she said softly and made a point of looking at him in the eyes like she was really listening.
So here they were; former teacher, former student, both liars.
‘Right’ he said and smiled. I’ll see you at work next week.’
She shouldn’t have told him anything that personal. She felt embarrassed by it now and even though he wasn’t in front of her, she knew her face was turning red. She watched him go as he turned and headed towards the stairs at Newtown Station.