His back-pack was hurting his shoulders. It had too much in it. But he had wanted to escape and still take as much as he could with him. He had been travelling for nearly thirty hours. He had been walking out of the city for an hour, now, looking for somewhere anonymous to stay. His feet hurt. He stank. He hadn’t known which direction he was walking in – any one would do. He didn’t know which suburb he was in. All he knew was that most of the houses he could see had obviously been built before the First World War. On the central gable of the five houses making up the terrace he was walking past, moulded in plaster, was the name “Majorca Flats”. There was a small placard in the window of the fourth house – Room to Let. The lettering was in red, which had faded in the sunlight. It was just what he wanted. Probably there was something wrong with the room – or the writing on the placard wouldn’t have faded so.
But they would never find him here. He went up to the door and pressed the bell.
A dog started yapping. There was no other sound. Just as he was about to press the bell again, it was opened by an old woman. It was impossible to tell just how old. Her silvered hair was tied up in a bun. She was leaning on a walking stick, which explained the delay. A small ankle-biter rushed out of the house and leapt up against him, glad to have found a new friend.
“Yes?” Her voice was very upper class – “gentry”, he would have called it back home.
“I’m looking for a room. The notice in the window… “
“Oh, yes! Do come in.” She seemed absurdly pleased to see him. Couldn’t she get anyone else? And she just invited people into her house, without checking them out!
They stood awkwardly for a moment or two in the hall, and then she said “You’d better come and see it.”
The room was at the back, with a view out over a small garden.
“It gets the afternoon sun,” she said apologetically.
“That doesn’t matter,” he said, his eyes inspecting the space. A cupboard, a bed with a duvet, a chest of drawers, a rug. All very tasteful and surprisingly unfeminine.
“It was my son’s room,” she said, in a tone which forbade further questioning. He nodded.
“Fifty a week,” she replied. “I know it seems a lot, but that includes heating and water and electricity.” It wasn’t a lot.
“I’ll give you one week’s deposit and one week’s rent.” If he didn’t get a job within two weeks he would be in trouble. He’d worry about that when it happened. “Would you mind if I come in late? I’ll be very quiet.”
She looked troubled.
“It’s just that I might get a job as a barman. And bars finish late.”
“No, of course not. Well, that’s settled. Would you care for a cup of tea?”
She set off for the kitchen, her gammy leg dragging a little. She produced bone china in a perfect rose pattern. Somehow he knew that she always had tea out of bone china cups, that the special crockery hadn’t been brought out just for him. He felt tears pricking in his eyes as he was reminded of his grandmother. Well, all that was behind him now. Bone china and thin-cut sandwiches and tea with the vicar and the judge and all of them. Past. He hoped forever.
“I can tell from your accent you’re from England.” the old lady said.
“Yes, I am.”
“Which part of England? I used to live in Kent many years ago.”
For a moment he was lost for words as he debated what lie to tell. In the end, he said, “Shropshire,” because that was where his prep school had been.
“Oh! Lovely!” she said warmly. “Such a beautiful part of the country!”
He nodded, smiling, hoping she wouldn’t ask too many questions.
“My name’s Eleanor Cumberledge,” she said.
“Jason,” he replied, using his real first name because it made it less likely he’d ignore it when somebody called to him. “Jason Wellbury.” It was his mother’s maiden name.
“Will you be staying long in Australia, Jason?”
“Oh, six months or so. I want to avoid the English winter. You know how depressing it can be, Mrs Cumberledge.”
“Indeed! But our winter will start in a few months. It can be quite dispiriting too, you know. Everybody thinks Australia is always warm and sunny, but Melbourne can be very cold and rainy in June and July.” She laughed. “Even in December, too!”
Jason smiled. He didn’t care. Here he would be safe. The weather didn’t matter. He sipped his tea from the delicate cup and tried not to yawn. He was so tired, and his body clock was still on London time.
“Well, must get on,” she said. “You look exhausted. I’ll leave you to get settled.”
Actually, it was Jason who had to leave. He smiled a little to himself. Thanking her for the tea, he went yawning to his room, and stripping to his boxers, slipped under the doona and was instantly asleep.
When he awoke, the late afternoon sun slanted across the room through the curtains which he had forgotten to draw. It was a different light to the light of England, warmer, yellower, thicker. He lay quietly gathering his thoughts. He’d made it. He’d escaped. He’d start a new life here in Melbourne, far from family and friends and lovers and all the other stuff in his life. At last he stumbled up from the bed. He badly needed a shower. Eleanor Cumberledge had explained about the bathroom. He could shower in the ground floor bathroom at any time, if he were quiet. He was to use his own towel. Pulling on his jeans, and retrieving his towel and some clean boxers and a T-shirt from the rucksack, he padded along the passageway to the bathroom. Afterwards, he felt almost human once more. On the way out, the ankle-biter, whose name it appeared was Bolt, because that’s what he did if you left the front gate open, came up to say hello, and Jason fondled it. He liked dogs. Carefully letting the front door close on the latch, he set off to explore.
The street obviously dated from the late nineteenth century, when a quarter of the globe was imperial red and Victoria had been on the throne so long a world without her seemed impossible. The names on the buildings were drawn from the old country: Lansdowne Terrace, Devon Court, Surrey Court, Edinburgh Mansions. Some were very grand, with façades of stone, though you could see that the sides facing the alleyways were plain brick and mortar. In between these charming monuments to empire were a few ghastly modern structures, so vile Jason wondered how the town planning authorities had permitted their construction. He didn’t yet know that Ozzies have been prey to every overseas fashion, no matter how unsuitable or unattractive, because they secretly believed they were provincial and uninteresting. He didn’t yet know that Australia lacked the self-confidence of America.
A bar was just opening up. It was called The Lord Grey. Outside there was a picture of that good nobleman, who invented the tea. Jason went inside to see if there was work.
There was a man about his age wiping down tables and sweeping the floor.
“Excuse me,” said Jason, “may I talk to the manager?”
“He’s in there, mate.” The man gestured with his shoulder.
“Thanks.” Jason couldn’t bring himself to say “mate”. It seemed pretentious and false coming from him. In Britain, only working class men called each other mate. He’d read that Ozzies called their friends “cobber”. And they had other strange words, like “drongo”, and “billabong” and “reffo”. He felt too out of place to use these words. But he was also conscious of just how plummy his accent sounded compared to the different English he heard all around him.
The manager was an older man who looked like an aging rock star, and not in a good way. Like someone who’d taken too much cocaine, hadn’t slept enough, had spent to many nights awake and too many days on drugs to keep himself going. His hair – what he had – was shoulder length. It wasn’t an inspiring look.
The manager raised his eyebrows interrogatively.
“Hi, I’m Jason Wellbury. I’m looking for a job.”
“What’s your experience?”
“I’ve worked as a barman in pubs in England.”
“Well, you’re good-looking. The blokes’ll like that.” ‘Like’ came out as ‘loik’. But Jason didn’t spend more than a moment on that thought. What really made him stop was the realisation that this must be a gay pub. Just his bloody luck! The first place he turned into, and it was gay. He didn’t think he was ready for that yet. The man was still talking, and Jason tried to pay closer attention. “I’m short a barman tonight, and it’s Saturday. So I’ll give you a chance. Cash payments, OK, no records? I dunno how good you are. If you’re any good tonight, I’ll pay you. $12 an hour. And no rootin’ blokes on the premises.”
Jason must have looked a bit taken aback.
“This is a gay pub. You know that, right?” It came out as ya naoh thet, roight, with the question-mark rising-tone ending Ozzies seemed to put on all sentences whether they were statements or questions.
“Yes,” replied Jason. Rooting?
“Me nime’s Tom. They’ll love yer accent, mite. Roight, go talk to Keith over there. He’ll show ya what ta do.”
Jason went over to Keith.
“Got the job, didja?” Keith had a nice smile, mixing sardonic amusement at the necessity of having a job with good humour.
“Yeah. My name’s Jason. Could you show me what to do? ”
“Keith.” They shook hands. “Ok,” said Keith, “this is where we keep the . . .”
Jason didn’t stop working till 2 am. He was dog-tired at the end of his shift. He’d had only a couple of hours sleep since he’d left home — when? Nearly 48 hours ago — but he’d kept going. Hard work stopped him thinking, stopped him worrying, stopped him remembering. Oh God! That was the most important. When he thought about what had happened, he felt quite sick. A hard knot would form in his stomach and his heart would start pounding. He was glad he’d been kept too busy to think. And now he was so tired he’d fall asleep straight away when he finally got back to his room at Majorca Flats.
While Keith was mopping down the counter and stacking chairs, Tom called him into his office. Jason wondered whether all the effort would be worth it. Was he going to get paid?
“Here’s your pay,” Tom said. He handed over $96. Jason breathed a silent sigh of relief. “Can you work the evening shift tomorrow?” Tom asked. “We close earlier on Sunday nights – eleven – but you can start at midday if you want.”
Jason nodded. “Yes, I’ll start at midday.” He’d pretty much suspected that he wouldn’t be paid, but he’d had no real choice. Here was a job, paid under the table, with no complications from the tax authorities or the immigration people. He needed the money. There was no trust account, no bank account at Coutts to fall back on any more. He was utterly alone.
On the way home, he noticed several gay couples on the streets.
He opened the front door of the Majorca Flats terrace house as quietly as possible, but all the same, Bolt heard him, and barked once sharply. “Shhh!” hissed Jason at him. He didn’t want to wake Mrs Cumberledge up. He knew, from the times he’d spent with his grandmother, that old people found it hard to sleep. He patted Bolt on his head, and tried to make the excited dog calm down. The hall floor was polished floor-boards. Bolt’s paws tap-tapped on the bare wood as he danced around Jason. Jason caressed the dog’s head, then, worn beyond belief, went to bed.
He’d set his alarm for 11 o’clock so that he’d be in time for his job. When it went off, he was startled out of a deep sleep, and a dream which seemed quite real. In the dream he was looking down at Brent, who was dead, blood pouring out of his head. The horror of that dreadfully realistic dream didn’t leave him during his shower, or the hastily gobbled snack he bought before he went into The Lord Grey. He nodded good morning at Keith and was amused when Keith said “G’day” back. Australians really did say that! A warmth filled his heart, a comforting sense that something was going right. He was far from home, and far from happiness, but maybe he would eventually be happy here. All the same, the horrible memory of the dream kept on coming back to him as he worked.
The clientele were by no means all gay, or at least, Jason’s gaydar didn’t ping with many of them. There were several groups of friends, some groups all male, some all female, but most mixed. There were single men of all ages nursing a coffee or a glass of wine. There were some obvious couples. One or two of the men tried to cruise Jason. He evaded their attentions politely, with a smile. He wasn’t one of those men who resent unwanted attention. To be fancied was a compliment, and he knew from his own experiences how hurtful a crude brush-off could be.
When they’d finished cleaning up after The Lord Grey closed, Keith invited him to have a drink with him. They went next door where there was a café. Keith was obviously well known. The waitress, a pretty young woman with curly brown hair, gave him a corner table, where they could watch the room, and brought him a cleanskin red, without being asked.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked.
“His name’s Jason,” said Keith. “Jace, meet Esmé.”
Jace! Jason was a bit taken aback at the diminutive. He and Keith weren’t friends yet! Keeping his thoughts from his face he murmured, “Pleased to meet you!”
“Likewise,” answered Esmé, giving him a more than cursory smile. “Nice manners,” she said to Keith. “Better than your last conquest.”
Keith grinned at her. “Jace’s not a conquest.” Jason wondered if he was the only one who heard the unspoken ‘yet’. “He’s the new waiter.”
“Well, here’s hoping you last longer than the last one.”
“Tom’s a mean bugger,” said Keith. “Won’t pay enough. And then he tries to pick us up. You know what he’s like.”
“He’s tried to pick you up?” Jason was amused. Tom was not exactly sexy; worse, he wasn’t even likable.
“Yeah,” said Keith, not meeting Jason’s eyes.
Jason looked up and found Esmé looking back at him. Like that, was it? He wondered whether Keith and Tom were still an item, and decided there was no way he was going to sleep with Keith, even if they weren’t. The relationships would all get too fraught if he did. He quite liked Keith, but he wasn’t yet a friend, let alone a “conquest”. And no matter how desperate he was, there was no chance in hell that he would have a scene with Tom.
He said none of this. Instead, he sipped his wine. It wasn’t bad for a cleanskin. Not as smooth as the wines he’d been brought up on, a little rough and a touch too tart, but drinkable all the same.
“You’re from England, right?” asked Esmé. Her accent wasn’t nearly as strong as Tom’s.
“How long are you out here for?”
“A few months.”
It seemed taken for granted that he didn’t have a visa for longer, and that he was working illegally. And no one cared one way or the other. He wondered if they’d be so easy-going if he had a dark skin, if he’d been Muslim instead of Church of England.
The visa was a problem. He’d entered Australia as a tourist. He wasn’t supposed to work, and he knew that if they found out that he’d done that, that he would be expelled from the country and might never be permitted to return. If he wanted to stay permanently he would either have to apply for permanent residence or marry an Ozzie. He didn’t think they accepted gay marriage in Australia. He could marry a woman. He’d had his share of girlfriends. But after what had happened, he didn’t want any more pretence or lies. He was mostly gay. He didn’t want to hurt any woman by pretending otherwise, just to get a visa. And he’d read somewhere that the Australian immigration office checked up on married couples to see if they really were married, because there’d been so many scams. He wondered how they did it. Naturally, they couldn’t go into their bedroom to see whether they were actually fucking. He laughed to himself at this idea, and wondered what they’d make of his parents, who slept in separate bedrooms.
It was getting late. Jason stood up and thanked Keith for the drink.
“No worries!” said Keith, his smile warm. Jason was surprised by the rush of friendship he felt for the other man. He hadn’t expected to fit in so quickly. Everybody just accepted him at face value — a young backpacker, working his way round the world. It was comforting to feel that he knew some people here, even if the acquaintance wasn’t yet deep. And Keith was cute. His hair was thick and curly, a chocolate brown which exactly matched his eyes. He had a little beer belly, but his arms were strongly muscled and covered with dark hair. There was hair visible at the neck of his short-sleeved shirt, and his waist was still slim. Perhaps the sexiest aspect was the way he looked at Jason: desire, liking and a wistful awareness that he was probably wasting his time all simultaneously in his gaze.
“Are you working tomorrow?” he asked the other man.
“Me too. From six till eleven. I see you then.”
“See ya later, mate.” Keith waved him away with an off-hand gesture, but as he stepped out of the café onto the pavement, Jason was conscious of Keith’s stare.
The next morning, Monday, he met Eleanor Cumberledge as he was making tea for breakfast in the kitchen.
“Good morning, Mrs Cumberledge!”
“Good morning Jason. How are you?”
“Very well, thank you! And how are you, Mrs Cumberledge?”
“Fine, thank you. Did you sleep well?”
He had no intention of going into the details of his dreams which had been a mixture of the erotic and the terrifying, sometimes at the same time. “I’m sorry Bolt made such a noise when I came home,” he apologised. “I hope you aren’t kept awake all night afterwards.”
“Oh, no.” But she was a bit vague, from which Jason deduced that he did in fact wake her.
“I’ve used some of your tea. I’ll buy some of my own this morning.”
“Not at all!” she said warmly. “Don’t worry about it.”
But Jason felt he ought to. He didn’t know how much money she had, and obviously, if she had to rent out a room, probably not too much. “Where’s a good place to buy groceries, Mrs Cumberledge?”
It was odd that Mrs Cumberledge had no other lodgers. Jason wondered why. After all, if she needed the money, presumably one or two other boarders would not be too great a burden and the money would make a difference. But maybe she simply wanted somebody in the house, so she wasn’t alone. But then, why was the sign in the window so faded. He shook his head at his thoughts. What difference did it make? He would only be here for a few months.
After he’d stacked away the groceries he’d bought, he set out to explore. Mrs Cumberledge had given him a few suggestions of places to see, but before he did that he wanted to get the feel of the city. The street outside The Lord Grey had had tramlines running down the middle, and he waited at the tram stop on the side which seemed to lead towards the city. He could see the skyscrapers in the distance, about 2 or 3 kilometres away. When the tram came, he bought a three-hour ticket, and took a seat. He’d noted the number of the tram as he’d seen it approaching, and he’d memorised some landmarks at the tram stop so that he could find his way back.
The tram swayed and rattled its way towards the down-town office area. Along the way it passed through streets lined with Edwardian houses, pavement cafés, pubs, bars, restaurants, clothes shops, book shops both new and second-hand. There was an Indian grocery with posters for Bollywood films in the window, an Italian bookshop called Scopo, a Greek video shop, the head offices of Kosmos, Melbourne’s Greek Newspaper, a Lebanese pastry shop, a ladies’ hairdresser called Euphrates . . . . every culture of the world seemed represented.
In some ways it looked oddly English. In others, the city reminded him more of some southern European city, warm and friendly, with its tree-lined streets and trams and pavement cafés. He heard Greek and Italian on the tram, as well as several Asian languages he didn’t recognise. It was wonderfully exotic and interesting. People would stay on the tram for a few stops then get off, and new ones would take their place. Several men gave him that look which he’d come to know, but he avoided their attention. In a way though, he was pleased to see that he was still good-looking enough to draw some interest, even if he wasn’t ready to take it any further.
He got off the tram at a park which would not have been out of place in London: emerald grass dappled with the shadows of plane and elm-trees; those overly neat flower-beds beloved of park administrators everywhere; tarmac paths; wooden park benches; statues of the once great and mighty. He saw that the park had once had railings, just like a London Park, but only the holes in the stone plinth surrounding the park were left. He sat on a bench and watched the people go by, and thought. He tried not to think too hard, because nothing from the past he could think back on could bring him peace. And the future was too unsettled for him to think about that. Love; and Death; and Loss; and Sorrow. These were all forbidden subjects.
A woman, wearing an Islamic headscarf, baggy trousers like a pasha’s, and the most exquisite embroidered slippers thickly decorated with sequins and pieces of coloured glass, tripped past, one child in a pushchair and the other tottering along behind her trying to keep up. A genial old man wearing baggy shorts and a weathered polo shirt, trailed by a Fox Terrier just like Bolt, ambled past in a sort of relaxed jog. Some young men, of various ethnicities, were playing soccer in a patch of brilliant green lawn, glowing from the sunlight. Monday morning. Free. Perfect.