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The one with the squint came round for dinner. Sindy with an S. She was Canadian, or something, not that it mattered. Not with that body.
He must have copped it for months.
How does she find you in a crowd, Robbo?
Where does she leave her white stick?
Let’s dob her in to ASIO – don’t know how she got through customs.
Funny boys weren’t they, Robert?
Late night/ hair of the dog mid-morning/ early afternoon yardarm tinnies on the go. The women in the kitchen pretending not to hear.
Cody stuck a while longer. (Who chooses these singsong names for daughters like pets or toys?).
Cody worked at the local tavern and juggled a set of put downs for boys.
No kidding, she’d say, straight out, eyeballing Paulie, Walker and Joe full on until grins wavered and they were squirming for waistbands, pockets, drinks.
What was that? Sounded kind of comedic. She’d say it even if you weren’t there, Robert, refusing to play by their rules. She had the boys flustered – this one talked back. They stopped their jokes about Cody, at least around her. It didn’t stop them looking, though.
Lithe body sealed in stretch-wrap jeans, stiletto boots, camisole top and leather jacket.
Cody had hair, too. Hair streaked silvery as pulverised ash. And a habit of scooping the lot with one hand, up and over, then letting that hand fall as if effort was tiresome.
How I yearned to be just like Cody.
How the women kept her away with wary glances and silence.
You and Cody were through before I stayed the summer at your sister’s.
Doesn’t stop her coming over, but, said Glenys. Like a turtle, she was, snapping at flies with the women in the kitchen. Snap-snap, they went. Snap, snap, snap. Gobbling at the boys and their habits, the failure of their continuous diets, their mothers, their children, husbands and lives. Snap.
I had the room next to theirs. Caught the late-night pleas, his and Cody’s. There was torment, the flight of predators; prehistoric and terrifying.
Then came Anna. The chiropractor who became the wife. Shocked us all.
Dark-haired, small, she never managed to get on with the other women. They complained she was reserved, too serious and clever.
Did Anna know, Robert? Did she know about the nights with Cody? About the pubs with the barmaids and the wait-until-closing-time competitions with the boys?
That might explain her distant manner, those melancholy eyes. That and the miscarriages, one after another, her cycle of dying and loss.
Until she gave birth to Liam.
The boat was landlocked, marooned in the drydocks of Glenys’s backyard.
She complained it was in the way of her washing line.
Wooden-hulled, the boat was long and thin with a spire for a mast.
Once he sailed her.
With sunbleached hair like a beacon, I watched him standing on the prow. The boat sailed. And sailed. Caught in the swell beyond the second line of breakers, the boat sailed in a pattern all its own. One by one the boys abandoned ship, came ashore laughing.
There was the volley-crack of cold tinnies on the beach and, in the distance, Robert on his boat, sailing.
Come in, Robbo, the boys called, gesturing with beer cans held high.
He ignored them. The boat sailed.
Stupid bastard, said the boys.
They turned their backs on you, Robert. Said the boat was a dud.
Hours later you dived from the boat’s deck and there was resignation in the peak and plunge of your overarm. Coming up the beach, water streamed from that golden barrel-body. Anna handed you a towel.
Boat’s a lemon, you said.
One of the boys laughed outright, but found himself alone and fell silent.
Yes, you said, nodding that sleek leonine hair, boat’s fucked.
Someone lobbed a tinnie.
Get that down.
Not to worry, mate.
She’ll be right.
By sunset the boat was wedged alongside Glenys’s Hills Hoist; it was as if she’d never known water.
He was a black pudding in his wetsuit. The rubber was too tight and buckle tubes formed at pressure points, all over. Whoosh whoosh went the rub of thighs as Robert walked. Whoosh whoosh. Sounding like water before he’d even got wet.
Equipped with goggles, knives and spear guns, the boys flapped into waves.
Later we would eat abalone they’d prised loose from rocks. Robert pounded them thin with a tenderising hammer, saying Glenys never got it right. There was garlic and lemon marinade, abalone seared on the barbecue, bread sticks and beer.
When the boys dived, the women watched from the beach. On their backs, squinting at water through sunglasses, they’d talk while their undone bather straps wriggled into armpits. Only one, the youngest, went topless.
The day would grow hot, sweat-sheened. Talk stopped.
Tired of the heat, of watching periscopic snorkels, the sunbathers would turn over, pick bathers from crevices and nuzzle into the sand.
Coconut oil on flesh was shiny as basting.
On the beach it was mostly a waking sleep. Except for the shark day.
Look at that, someone said.
Dazed heads turned, slow and disinterested.
What is that? Your wife stood up, fumbling with her bathers.
A solid square of rubber emerged from the water, your stance rigidly fixed yet careful, considerate even. Face set in a rictus, arms held out to either side. Robert, you were crucified that day.
What the hell is that? said Anna.
Your sister gasped.
As if it was the feature in a sleight-of-hand show, a wobbygong hung from one bicep.
What is that? said Anna again, shouting.
Bloody shark, said Robert.
What are you doing with it? said Glenys.
Robert posed on the beach, arms outstretched, shark dangling, clenched face gave way and he started to laugh.
I was fond of eating dinner at news-time when Robert was on TV. There he was with that hair and a suntan to complement white business shirts, impossibly striped ties.
Robert Elliott, Channel Ten News. All glitz and brash presentation, stage managed cuts and a chicken-head stare down the lens, right into our lounge room.
Look, Mum, it’s Robert, I’d yell, and they all ran in to see at the start.
With you on the weekend, though, we heard the other story: Stupid prick, you’d say. Deserved everything he got.
Politicians were all morons, human interest was re-cast as human trash.
There were extended phone calls and long delays, meetings with your producer that stretched into longer evenings; Anna’s face looked sunken, more lost, even as her belly bloomed.
You were Hemingway and Guy Leach, Arnold Palmer all rolled into one, Robert.
Ladykiller, playboy, sailor, stud.
Rumour had it that you skippered a yacht round the Mediterranean, worked up to sub-editor on a daily in London, played golf with Jack Nicklaus. Was any of it true? Does it matter?
On outings, in convoy, we’d wave two forked fingers from the back of our parents’ wagons as you sped past in your Jag.
Wanker, they hissed, grinning like maniacs, safe in their front bench seats. Wanker.
Then came Liam.
His ocean-views house with its spiral staircase, mezzanine, and waterbed became a nursery. The dog was sent out to stay in his kennel. Toys filled the spa.
Suddenly he was the perfect father.
Until a Christmas, his birthday, New Year, some party, whatever. By then I had no time for details.
Glenys said it was a shame the way Anna moved out, didn’t give him another chance. Never so much as a by-your-leave, said Glenys, snapping her jaw in that familiar way. Snap. And the whole empire, the myth, the girls, the boat, the shark – you – the whole lot that was you came down.
I hear you’ve had a perm, Robert, and that you wear sarongs round the supermarket in summer. No underpants, of course.
There’s a rumour that you’re at work on a novel and that golf’s great at the Vines.
Glenys said she met your latest, someone who was (said Glenys with a look) your age. About time is what she meant.
Now and then I’ll read your column in the community paper, if it makes it into the house. Nick’s got a thing about junk mail and it often goes straight into the recycling.
Robert Elliott on neighbours. Elliot on middle age. Elliott does golf and kids, the garden, parenting and women (or, more precisely, wives).
Reflections on life that bind with the suburban, and mundane.
Are you so roused by local issues, small concerns, Robert?
Glenys tells me it’s what she expected.
Bound to happen, she said with another of those jowl-shuddering looks directly at me. So I caught the unspoken refrain: Just you wait and see.