After you have been gone long enough for me to start believing them, with their soft-spoken story of shipwreck slipping you into the past tense, I go to see a soothsayer living on Collins Street. She says that you are alive and living on microwave meals in Vegas, and I want to believe her so badly that I buy her last copy of The Big Issue for twice the cover price.
I think about the clod of earth I dropped on your empty coffin and the feeling of dirt under my fingernails. I think about my glass bracelet flinging the sunlight across the dirt piled on each side of your grave. I think of the strangeness of Father, we commend our brother Domenic . . . And I think about Vegas and heaven and hell and wonder if some wires got crossed somewhere between the overhead tram lines, the skyscape of fluorescent-lit offices, and a life bundled into a shopping trolley.
You liked Vegas and work kept you going back, a two of hearts taped to your suitcase to help you identify it on the luggage carousel. You liked microwave meals, too. You marvelled at how far we’d evolved and joked about saving the packaging for when the revolution came and plastic would be rarer than diamonds.
Melbourne’s dressed in her own favourite grey. The buildings rise from the rain-blackened streets and office workers slip by leaving pieces of conversation in the air:
‘–said I’d have it to him by Friday and he said Juliana wants it the day after tomorrow, and you know what happened last time–’
‘I thought Paris, but only if the wedding’s in April. But Mum has–’
‘Did you see her hair? Hello, 1987!’
Collins Street’s no place for homelessness or even for standing still.
The soothsayer turns to rummage in her trolley, even though I tell her to keep the change, and though I don’t want to be rude I walk away after a few moments of her incantation: ‘It’s in here somewhere. I know it.’
The café with the good muffins is just around the corner, and I go in and order the pear and almond one before I remember I am alone and can have the raspberry – white chocolate every time now. Silver lining.
I flip open The Big Issue and its centrefold urges me to write to one of the asylum seekers detained at Woomera. For a moment I consider this; I scan the list of names and will one to jump out – my asylum seeker, tracing characters with a stick in the red desert sand: Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.
Then the soothsayer is banging on the window of the coffee shop. I go out with half a muffin in one hand, the magazine folded open in the other.
‘The pear ones are no good,’ she says, and she takes the muffin from me and eats it. ‘I forgot to tell you: you must leave, for the child’s sake – Vegas, that’s over – find a life for the two of you.’
There is no child, as you know. And any plans I’d had for combing Vegas casinos with a photo of you printed a hundred times deflate rapidly as I watch the muffin disappear. Even though I’d told myself this soothsaying thing was all a joke, I feel disappointment rise in my chest. ‘Vegas is over,’ I repeat stupidly.
‘Yes,’ she says, and she looks at me intensely. She points to the page of asylum seekers in the magazine. ‘For him, you hold the key.’
I look where she’s pointing. ‘I don’t–’
‘It’s a new millennium. It’s time to move on.’ And, as if taking her own advice, she begins pushing her trolley up the hill, her head low. People in suits dodge out of her way and I feel sorry; and, being tired of self-pity, I hope it is for her.
I follow and then overtake her, stand in her path and stop the trolley with my hands.
‘You again,’ she says.
‘I don’t think it’s over,’ I say. ‘Not for me, anyway.’
‘Women rarely do,’ she says, ‘but it is, I assure you.’
‘He’s not in Vegas,’ I say, ‘and there is no child.’
‘He is probably where you left him; men don’t move very far on their own steam.’
‘They say he was on a boat to Italy that never arrived.’
‘Italy? It could be Italy. I was always bad at geography. The microwave meals are for sure. Men aren’t good with cooking.’ She reaches down to adjust her sagging stockings. ‘But there is a child,’ she shakes her head, as if trying to get rid of static in the signal, ‘or there was one.’
And, of course, she is right about that. For a moment, when she reaches out to touch my shoulder, it feels like she has known me for a long time.
Winner of the 2015 Viva La Novella Prize
‘Dazzling, intelligent and heart-rending. I have long been a fan of Collins, and this is why.’ – Toni Jordan