The Real Wild

An excerpt from Our Magic Hour

Before Emy’s going-away party Audrey and Nick got drunk at home, then they were running late and Nick still hadn’t written a message in the card, and while he was bent over the table trying to think of what to write, ‘Mesopotamia’ came on the radio and Audrey did a silly dance with flailing arms. Nick put his head down on the table. He was coming off a fourteen-hour shift.

‘Wake up,’ said Audrey, breathless. ‘This is very serious. We’re going to a party.’ She stopped jumping around. ‘You don’t have to come if you’re too wrecked,’ she said.

He lifted his head. ‘Nah, I’m scared you might dance like that in public.’

They arrived just as the speeches were starting, and hung back in the doorway. Audrey looked around the room. She waved at Adam. Everyone was standing close, flush-faced, ready to raise their bottles and glasses. On the wall over the couch, colourful cut-out letters read SAYONARA EMY!

Patrick had his arm around Emy in the centre of the room.

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘what’s the first thing you see at the start of Lost in Translation?’

‘Scarlett Johansson’s exquisite arse in those see-through undies!’ Emy shouted.

‘A thing of beauty.’ Patrick cleared his throat. ‘We thought it’d be nice if you had something to remind you of us. So we had a little photo shoot—a couple, actually…’ He produced a bound album and opened it: pasted inside, pictures of their friends pouting and clowning in flesh-toned underwear.

‘This is disgusting,’ Emy said, ‘it’s great.’ She shrieked when she got to the photo of Nick, thin and hairy and mock-wistful, gazing out a window in his apricot-coloured jocks. A few wolf-whistles went up, faces turned to Audrey and Nick. Someone called You’re a lucky woman, Audrey.

In the bathroom later, Emy collapsed onto the toilet and Audrey sat on the tiles with her back against the door.

‘I’m fucked,’ Emy announced cheerfully. She kicked off her knickers. ‘I’m just the safe side of a really lavish vomit.’

‘Where’s Ben? Is he here?’

‘He went to the servo to get some more ice. He’s in a bit of a shit about this whole thing. We’re not really sure what we’re going to do.’

‘What do you mean?’ Audrey said.

‘I said a long-distance relationship might be hard work. Now he’s sulking.’ Emy stood up and examined her reflection. She turned to Audrey. ‘It’ll sort itself out,’ she said. Audrey wanted to hold her tightly. Someone had put a daisy in an empty VB bottle on top of the cistern.

Drinking, dancing, talking in the bathroom, out in the yard: Audrey lost Nick for a while, and found him in the hallway under the bald light bulb.

‘Hey,’ she said in his ear. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Can we talk?’ His voice was shivery.

‘What?’

‘I said, can we talk? I’m freaking out.’

‘Are you okay?’ Audrey asked. She looked at his pupils. ‘Have you taken something?’

‘Jordy gave me something to keep me going.’

‘What the fuck?’

‘I feel heaps better. Can we just talk for a second?’ he said again.

Audrey followed him down the back of the house to the laundry.

‘I’ve been feeling really bad about Katy,’ said Nick. ‘I just keep thinking there must’ve been something we could have done. We must’ve missed something.’

Audrey leaned against the washing machine. The room was quiet and cold. She felt the blood run faster through her body. ‘I can’t talk to you about this tonight, Nick.’

‘What if we just don’t listen to one another? Maybe she tried to give us hints. I keep thinking about the night before, when everyone was round at our place. We must have missed something. I feel horrible.’

‘It’s the speed.’

‘It’s fucking not.’ Mad eyes. Audrey was scared to touch him. ‘I can’t stop thinking about it, all the time. Things keep happening so quickly, and we never stop to process any of it. Your mum’s always threatening suicide. We just ignore her.’

‘You don’t know her like I do. She’s been threatening it since I was nine.’

‘We don’t listen to one another,’ Nick said again, voice rising. ‘You’re not listening now.’ He was hysterical, arms flung out.

Audrey gave a short laugh. ‘Are we having an argument?’ she asked.

Nick drew back, and then his fist was in the wall. White shreds and dust fell to the ground like salt as pulled out his hand. He stared at it; cradled it with his other. There was a rough hole in the plaster.

Audrey looked at the wall. That old familiar feeling was in her arms. Enervation, adrenaline: too much of one of them. When she and Irène were children they’d called it the floppy arms before they stopped talking about it.

She stood very still.

Patrick appeared at the door. ‘Everything okay?’ He saw the jagged hole. ‘Fuck, mate,’ he said. He looked from the plaster to Nick to Audrey, pressed right into the corner of the room.

Nick stared goggle-eyed at the wall. You fucking idiot, Audrey wanted to say, but even her mouth was weak. She left him standing there with Patrick.

She went to the kitchen and got another drink. Adam came looking for her.

‘Ben just told me what happened,’ he said. ‘You okay?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did he—’

‘He did a line of speed and put his fist through a wall.’ She saw something flicker across Adam’s face. She remembered that expres-sion, the one she hadn’t seen for years, the one Katy made when she saw Audrey’s bruises at the swimming pool when they were four-teen. Now Adam was ready to make pitying noises in his throat. ‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m just going to go outside for a bit.’

‘Do you want me to come?’

‘Would you mind if I just—if I were just by myself?’

She finished her wine in the backyard. She was watery in the legs.

She watched a possum run along the fence and disappear into the lantana below. Nick came and stood beside her. She couldn’t look at him. She watched the black shapes of the garden moving in the night.

‘I don’t know why I did that,’ he said.

Audrey folded her arms and turned to him. ‘My dad did that once, when he missed Maman’s face. There is no excuse.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ Nick said. He was ashen, a cartoon of a man pleading. He knew her well enough to feel the weight of his mistake. ‘I’ve never done that before,’ he said. ‘It’s not me. I don’t know what happened. I’m sorry.’

Audrey didn’t want to go back inside to the party or stand out here with him, but there were no other choices. She didn’t want him to keep apologising. Audrey dropped her head. ‘No.’

‘It’s okay. Let’s just go.’

 

He said Sorry again as they arrived home, and Audrey said It’s okay again.

Inside she washed the dishes they’d left in the sink.

‘I’d never do what your dad did,’ Nick said, standing behind her. ‘I know that.’

He touched her arm. She started. The glasses skittered on the drying rack. Nick took a step back, bewildered.

‘I can’t help it,’ Audrey said. ‘I can’t help it.’ She couldn’t believe how quickly it had happened, this new pain. She was twenty-four; it was seven years since her father had last hit her. Nick had only ever known her with a crooked nose, a break that had happened in the Wellington Street flats and never quite healed straight. Stringy blood in her throat and her eyes, but when she’d got in front of the mirror it was all coming from her nose and it wasn’t as bad as she’d thought. Sylvie had wiped the snot and blood from her cheeks with a warm washcloth. Audrey was fifteen.

Nick knew the story. Audrey told him everything eventually. In bed they took turns being still.

‘How are you feeling?’ Audrey said.

‘Better than before. I just can’t drop off. My body’s so tired, but my head isn’t.’ He clutched the quilt to his chest. ‘I shouldn’t have come tonight. I should’ve stayed home and crashed.’

‘How much did you do?’

‘I don’t know. Not that much. I just freaked out.’ He rolled over, face to the ceiling. ‘It’s gone now. I can’t feel it any more.’

The next time she glanced over he was asleep. His scratched, swollen hand lay on the pillow. It was purple. His middle knuckle seemed to have disappeared. It looked sick, not sinister.

Audrey remembered the scene in A Clockwork Orange when Alex’s eyes are held open with metal claws. She thought about hair. Someone had told her it keeps growing even after you die. She thought about her infancy, herself and Irène as children. With their mother they were mes filles or mes p’tites. When Neil was home, they were the girls once more. They slipped in and out of their selves like hands in and out of pockets. At work now she knew the word for it: hypervigilant, she’d say, meaning children who slept with one eye open, little hardened invertebrates.

They’d kept a sickly rabbit when they were living in the New Street flats. It was allowed to hop around the apartment; it knew to shit in its box. Audrey and Irène poked bits of lettuce and broccoli into its anxious pink mouth, but Neil loved it most. It sat on his lap like a cat while he read. When he was a good drunk, mawkish and weepy, he’d stroke the rabbit’s ears and bellow about man and nature, and the creature would cower on his knees. Audrey was twelve. She read in a library book that rabbits could die of fright. ‘Winter gardens,’ Neil would drone, ‘were all part of that, showing man’s dominance over nature, the triumph of the artificial over the real wild.’ Audrey watched the rabbit, clenched and petrified in her father’s lap, and imagined its heart beating furiously.

The rabbit didn’t die of fright. It ate all the shredded paper in its hutch and blocked its insides. Neil buried it in the yard, out near the gaping drains. A neighbour came out to protest with a mug of tea in her hand. ‘It’s the state’s land,’ she said. ‘You can’t bury a fucken bunny there.’ Neil leaned on the shovel for a moment, cigarette dangling from his lip, but said nothing. He was gentle with the rabbit. Its fur rippled in the wind. Audrey had watched from a distance.

She slid her feet between Nick’s thighs. She thought of his wounded expression in the kitchen. He’d looked destroyed at the idea that he could frighten her. She heard the first train rattle towards the city.

It was still dark when he turned on the heating in the morning. Water streamed down the drainpipes. The gutters flooded. Audrey got up with a mind to go to the laundrette. She took two armfuls of washing out to the car, and came back inside dripping.

‘It’s really raining,’ she said. ‘The gully trap’s overflowed.’

‘Do you want me to come with you?’

‘It’s all right. I’ll get the papers.’ They stood on either side of the kitchen bench. Audrey put her hand on the coffee plunger and very slowly pressed down its head.

The laundrette was cold. Audrey sat on the wooden bench and shuffled her feet over the linoleum, made her instep line up with the diagonals of the diamonds. Last night Nick had said You’re not twelve now, Spence. He’d said it to reassure her. She wanted to say, meanly, How astute of you. Thanks for making the distinction, but making Nick feel bad would have punished her, too. When she’d left the house he was on the phone to Emy already, still apologising.

Katy was the first person Audrey ever told about her dad. Adam next. They were young, thirteen or fourteen. They sat out on the windy oval, or huddled in the bike shed. Katy jumped hurdles, Adam captained the football team and then the school, Audrey always had runs in her tights. In Year 11 she read Raymond Carver for school, in Year 12 it was Toni Morrison. Katy made herself vomit every lunchtime for a year; she could do it quietly and efficiently.

 

Audrey would wait for her outside the stall. Once Katy said I know I haven’t got it anything like as bad as you, and Audrey had shrugged, said It’s not a competition. In the worst times Katy had vomited into a plastic container to assess the weight of it, so she could know what she’d thrown up. Eventually she stopped. Audrey wasn’t sure if Adam ever knew.

They only ever saw the marks on Audrey’s body. She couldn’t make them understand that there were good times, too. Drives to the coast, Gippsland creeks where their parents had camped in a tent and she, Irène and Bernie had slept in the back of the station wagon, curled like dogs, their breath fogging the windows. The week before Christmas when they’d choose the tree. Her mother always wanted to get a small one, or a tree with a bald patch, in case no one else wanted it. Weekday mornings, her father grating carrots and potatoes for hash browns the size of the frypan. Sometimes her parents were so in love it was like a film. Sylvie was bright, an electric woman. She danced to ‘Tusk’ while she cooked dinner, showed the girls how to apply makeup in front of the speckled bathroom mirror, let Bernie wear her costume jewellery. Neil was charming. He liked taking photos. They had a lot of pictures of happy times. Katy and Adam never got to see them. Once they were smoking in Adam’s backyard at night and Katy asked Does your dad ever do—anything else? and Audrey had been high and terrified but even then she knew it must have taken Katy some guts to ask it. She’d shaken her head over and over. No. No. No. He’s not a bad person. My parents are not bad people.

The washing machine finished. Audrey heaved the wet sheets back into the plastic basket. She thought of Bernie pissing his bed, aged six or seven. She’d hurried to bundle the linen into the machine before their parents noticed, then to bundle her brother into her own bed. She thought of how much force it took to open up a wall with your fist.

With thanks to Text for this excerpt. Our Magic Hour is available from all good bookstores.