She worked harder than ever at her schoolwork. Her imagination could take her away from her life. Books, geography, history, French, even maths, seemed magical to her, faery doorways to enchantment and forgetting. She wouldn’t just do what was set in class or for homework. She’d read up about whatever interested her, fit the new information into the sketchier picture provided by school teachers and school books. She was a model student.
She thought about killing herself often. But she wanted to be sure. She didn’t want to survive and face questions. She’d learnt that the hard way. The first time.
“Grandam, how are you feeling today?”
“Much better, thank you, Jason. Not nearly so tired and worn.”
“What would you like to do?”
“Well, I don’t know. Do you have to work, today?”
“I work in the afternoon and at night, at the bar. But I’ve taken today off. I’ll have to work tomorrow, though.”
“Work is good for you … but surely you could contact …”
“… No. It was the money that … with Brent. I … if …” He gulped. His eyes were shiny with tears.
“It wasn’t just the money my darling boy, you know that, so much more, but people like us have a duty you know to make a difference …”
“…like mum does?”
“Oh your mother …” Most unusually, Lucasta could think of nothing to say. I don’t want to turn him against her but truly she is so silly and she puts her children against her without trying and makes such a fuss about unimportant things really I wish I could think of something to say to him poor dear boy so much pain and no way to undo the damage.
In the end, she kissed him on his cheek, and said, “Whatever you want to do, my dear boy. I am at your disposal.”
The first time. She’d gone to the shopping centre and locked herself into one of the cubicles. It took her a long time to get up the courage to cut the veins in her wrists. She’d used a Stanley knife. She bought it at the hardware store in the centre. The woman at the checkout had smiled at her as if she really cared.
When she cut, she put the knife against the vein, closed her eyes and sliced. The burn was much worse than she’d expected. At first the blood flowed freely, but then it started to clot. She began to weep.
“You OK in there darl?” The voice was smoke-roughened, gruff.
She couldn’t answer. The unlooked-for kindness made her wail even harder.
A face appeared over the top of the cubicle. Brassy, dyed hair, grey at the roots, lined face, yellow from cigarette smoke, resigned to life’s insults and miseries. There was blood all over the cubicle floor. The face took it all in in an instant, and then she heard footsteps going away, brisk, as if to say, I don’t want to know. “I’m going to be left alone to die,” she thought. “Good!” she added, defiantly. “Free at last.”
But the footsteps returned, with others. The cubicle door was unlocked from the outside.
While they waited for the ambulance, the woman cradled her in her thin arms. She smelled strongly of stale cigarette smoke. “Don’t you worry now love, it’ll all be all right, you’ll see,” her gravelly voice and worn face oddly comforting.
Esmé had shaken her head in despair.
“What was it, darl? Why’dja do it?”
Esmé had been too ashamed to explain. But before the paramedics had wheeled her away, past the goggling shoppers, her saviour had taken her hand gently into her own and bent down and kissed her cheek. “Don’t give up, love. I made it. You can too.”
Esmé never saw her again. But she never forgot her either.
Jason’s phone buzzed. It was Keith. “How arya, sexy?”
“Key! You missed a nice party.”
“Esmé an’ Oi watched Single Dads. You knaow, that TV series. She had the DVD.”
And afterwards, you made love, thought Jason. “Esmé could have come to the party too, you know.”
“Yeah.” Keith sounded doubtful.
“Yes, Key. Yes. She’s my friend too.”
“Key, my dear. You know I … she and you … you know I don’t mind, don’t you? You were my first friend here in Australia”—he pronounced it with the long “au” the English use, which always made him sound like Prince Charles—“and she was the second. I don’t mind, truly.”
Keith sighed. “Sometimes it’s so complicated.”
“Yeah. But … Key … you do know, don’t you, that … I care.”
Not, noticed Keith wryly, I love you. “Yeah,” he said. “Me too. Hey, what’re ya doin’ this mornin’?”
“I dunno. Taking Grandam and Lucasta sightseeing.”
“Whoi dontja go to the Healesville woildloife park. Lots of kangaroos an’ stuff.”
“Why don’t you come along too?”
“I can’t. Gotta work.”
“Oh, shit. All right.”
“OK. Well, not really.”
“Seemed not too bad. They’ve just left.”
“They stayed the night?”
“Yeah.” Jason grinned at the mixture of indignation and shock in Keith’s voice. “And you know what, Key, you can too. Tonight.”
“Done and dusted.” Jason could hear the smirk in Keith’s tone. He couldn’t help smiling himself.
At the hospital they eventually wormed the name of her parents out of her. When they arrived, they behaved exactly as if they cared. Her father shocked and manly, covering his alarm with a man-of-the-world bluff taciturnity. He fooled everybody. Her mother was truly frightened. Esmé could see it in her eyes. Why didn’t you help, she thought. Surely you knew about it? The walls aren’t soundproof. Surely you fucking knew?
The hospital made an appointment with a counsellor. Her parents took her home.
The day after, her mother stayed at home instead of going to work. This was unusual enough that Esmé was filled with hope. Maybe she and her mother could go away together. Away from him. When her mother sat on the edge of the bed, she seemed to Esmé to have shrunk. She’d always been a timid woman, but she appeared even more frightened now. Her eyes darted away from Esmé’s. Her gaze avoided her daughter’s.
“So are you a bit better now?”
Esmé didn’t know where she pulled the strength from, but she managed to say, her eyes fixed on her mother’s face, “You know why?”
In a light insincere voice, her mother replied, “No dear. I have no idea.”
Her mother was silent.
“You know what he …. What he does … to me.”
He mother stood up and went to the window. She hummed a little to herself. “I’ll go and make us a nice cup of tea. We’ll all feel better after that.”
Esmé was too worn to shout at her. After, she would run different scenarios through her mind, where she yelled at her mother, forced her to listen, made her understand what had happened. But at the time, she was too worn to do more than weep.
She excelled at school. She endured the school awards ceremonies, trying not to visibly shrink from the hand of her father placed on her shoulder while he pretended to be an ordinary dad instead of a monster. In her finals, she achieved a TER score of 99.9, placing her in the top 0.1 per cent of school leavers.
She didn’t tell Luke everything about what her father was doing to her, and the indifference and cowardice of her mother, but she did mention that she wasn’t very happy at home, and Luke, who had also been accepted into Melbourne University, suggested that they share a flat. He explained how she could get Centrelink, and how it would be more if she was “independent”. He was happy at home, but happy also to move into a flat or a shared house.
“I’ll be able to bring guys home,” he said, waggling his eyebrows.
Esmé entered into this game with spirit. “Me too!”
They laughed together. Two more tragic losers you couldn’t hope to find anywhere, she thought bitterly to herself.
She left home without saying goodbye. There was nothing for her there, except wretched memories and deep unhappiness. She did leave a note, though, for her mother. It was short, and brutal. “Ma, I’m leaving home. You know why. I hope I never see you or dad again.”
Esmé’s TER score was high enough for her to choose any course of study at uni. But she didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer. She wanted to study French. For her it was still a gateway to enchantment, a getaway from what had been done to her. It was the romance of a different culture, of a far-away place, of escape from hell, that attracted her. Once, she’d explained the attraction to Luke, who was studying the French horn at the music conservatorium. He said that being big helped you play the horn; and also that not many people took it up because it was so fiendishly difficult, so his chances of getting a post afterwards in a real orchestra were much better than with other instruments. They had to move house twice because their housemates complained about the racket. (Mozart’s second racket). They stayed together when they moved, because each was the other’s best friend. Esmé rather liked the sound of the French horn. Especially when it was muted by distance.
“It’s always my friend,” she answered when he’d asked what was so special about French. “No unpleasant arguments. Always there, happy to let me share.”
“Yeah, that’s like me and food! My best friend.”
Esmé knew Luke well enough to hear the bitterness underneath the seemingly unemotional words.
Centrelink allowed student welfare recipients to earn a couple of hundred dollars a week before the allowance was removed. So Esmé started looking for a job. Luke had been to The Lord Grey one evening, returning as usual without a companion, and said to her,
“The café next door to The Lord Grey is looking for a waitress. Why don’t you apply?”
He himself hadn’t found a job yet, but he wasn’t looking very hard. His parents supported him. He always seemed to have enough money. And she was always short.
She got the job, to her surprise. She wore a long sleeved shirt to the interview, so that the scars wouldn’t show. She was worried at first that she might meet her parents there, but then she remembered that they would never visit Brunswick Street. Her father, with his BMW 4WD tank would never demean himself by coming to somewhere as louche and counter-cultural as that. Gays! Immigrants! Refugees! Poor people! Her father was vocal on the subjects of gays and how perverted they were.
And that was where she’d met Keith.
He’d come in at about 11 pm just as the café was closing.
“Sorry, we’re closing,” she’d said, automatically.
“Gao on! It’s not quite 11 yet!”
“Well, the coffee machine’s been shut down.” She stared at him blandly.
He bowed. “O esteemed princess! Howzabout a cup of grayn tay, then all you’ll have to do is rinse out the cup afterwards? And we c’n have a sip of this!” He reached inside his jacket and removed a small bottle of brandy.
“Where’d you get that?” she exclaimed. As soon as she’d spoken, she thought how silly she was. He’d prolly bought it at a bottle shop. There was one down the road, open until 10. Or he’d bought it earlier, the day before perhaps. Why should he have obtained it lately?
“I pinched it,” he said calmly.
“Nex’ door. I work there.”
“Are you gay?” She cursed herself for letting the question slip out. Just because The Lord Grey was a gay pub.
“Who wants to knaow?” he asked, drily, withdrawing a little.
“Why,” she said, suddenly feeling oddly happy, “The Countess Esmeralda at your service. Come this way, Prince Charming. Green tea on its way.”
She made some for him and herself, and sat down opposite him.
“The answer’s ‘yes’,” he said.
“Yes I’m gay. And you?”
“Oh. No. I don’t know. My best friend’s gay. But I prefer men, I think.” She thought of her father and wondered. But then, her mother hadn’t exactly been an icon for womanhood.
“That’s what I feel too,” he said, grinning.
After the first time, Keith would drop in a few times a week, just before closing, and they would have a coffee (if the machine was still on), or a tea, with or without a dollop of brandy, and talk.
One night, they were alone in the café, the café door was locked, and without thinking Esmé pulled up her sleeves. Keith saw the scars on her forearm and looked up and met her gaze, his brown eyes dark with some indecipherable emotion. Without a word, he gently lifted her arm and kissed the scars.
If he’d said anything she would have broken down and wept, and she would never have been able to forgive him or to be comfortable with him again. But he at once, very calmly, as if nothing had happened, began to talk about what he called ‘my latest conquest’.
“Such a dag,” he said. “Wears Target jeyns.”
“So do you!” His tact filled her with gratitude. She was ready to play any game to please.
“Yeah, but on mey they look stunnin’.” He cocked his head on one side and waited. She just smiled, glad she could.
“You’re supposed to agrey! Not jus’ stare at mey as if I’m demented.”
“Oh, precisely! You’re just simply an amazing stunner! Who cares if you’re a dag!”
“Natch.” He stood up from the table, and bowed. “Keith the stunner à votre service.”
And quite suddenly, they were friends.
Esmé didn’t tell Keith about her father for another six months. He never mentioned the scars. He never even let his eyes flick towards her sleeves. But on the hottest days, when a torrid northerly would make Melbourne temporarily uninhabitable, she longed to be able to wear short-sleeved shirts. But she never did. She envied his ability to wear a T-shirt.
One Friday night, they had drunk a little more brandy than usual, and were both feeling mellow. The café had a miniscule back garden, with high creeper-clad walls, and a creaky old bench. They took their brandy snifters out with them and sat at each end of the bench and talked. It was a very warm night, and the air was filled with all the smells of the city: garlic; meat cooking; car fumes; hot bricks; coffee; rancid cheap scent; and also, enchantingly, the sweet heady orange-blossom opulence of the cream flowers on the creeper. From a restaurant a few doors down came the muffled lilt of swing, played by a jazz band in the authentic style.
“So,” he said, “how’s French goin’?”
“Bearably. I have an essay due on Monday.”
“You workin’ tomorrow?”
“Pays the rent.”
They sat in a companionable silence for a while longer.
Moonlight Cocktail replaced In The Mood from the band, drifting across the brick walls, muted but still audible.
“Shall we dance?” asked Keith. He took her into his arms, resting his hand lightly on her back. They revolved slowly around the tiny courtyard in silence.
She felt safe in the cradle of his arms. He smelt of Brut aftershave; of sweat and day-old shirt; brandy on his breath. She could feel his erection pressed against her. It didn’t feel threatening or disagreeable. It didn’t remind her of her father. It was … lovely.
When the melody stopped, he held her for a moment longer and took her back to the bench. Once again they sat at either end.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” he said.
“Don’t be,” she murmured.
“I have no right.” He was silent while he sipped his brandy. “I’m poz.”
She knew at once what he was talking about.
“Oh,” she replied in a small voice. All at once she was overcome with sorrow. She felt like weeping at the pain of life, at all the horrors and suffering and pain. Her own pain was lessened. She rolled back her sleeves, and showed him the scars on her forearms.
“Doing this helps,” she said, her voice trembling a little. She turned sideways on the bench and drew her knees up put her arms round them. She didn’t want him to touch her. Not yet. “My father …” Despite her will, she had to swallow hard to keep talking. “He … used … he used to ….” She said the last few words in a rush, almost gabbling them. Get it out, get it out, don’t hide any more ran through her head.
“I suppose he told you he loved you?”
She nodded, unable to speak.
He took her hand and held it.
“Moi dad threw me out. When he found out Oi was gay. I lived on the streyts for a whoile. That’s when Oi got it.” He looked down at his feet. The languid dreamy clarinet lead of Night and Day drifted out of the warm night air. “They tell ya to wear a condom, but Oi didn’t always have the money. And some blaokes prefer, ya knaow, ta do it without. They insist.” He turned to look at her. “Everybody has scars. Jus’ … sometimes, they’re invisible.”
“He was supposed to love me, to cherish me, to care for me. Instead he … ”
At the door of the café, after she’d locked up, he kissed her goodbye lightly on the lips, not as a lover, but as a friend.
He’s gay, she told herself as she cycled home. He’s not in love with me. He prefers men. But no matter what she said to herself, in her heart, she believed otherwise. She cherished her love for him. Love songs came to have a new meaning. Seeing a man on the street who looked like him made her heart turn over.
She tried very hard not to let him see what had happened. At least he is my friend, she thought. Better than nothing. A lot better than nothing.
But whatever it was, she was happy. Happier than she’d been since she was a little girl. Her happiness coloured her life, changed her face, made her shine.
She didn’t want to talk about Keith, even to Luke, because she was superstitious. She didn’t believe her good luck would last, especially if she talked about it. The last time she had tried to have a boyfriend, her father had punished her by beating her up before raping her. And anyway, what was there in fact between her and Keith? He was gay. He was kind to her and he liked her but in the end he was gay. She had to accept that. He was attracted to men, not women. And yet … she couldn’t get the memory of his hard-on brushing against her as they danced. If he was gay, why had he responded like that to their dancing? Didn’t you have to be one or the other? Straight or gay? And if you didn’t, would he be faithful to her? Could he be? She would shake her head here, as her mind scurried along these familiar paths, because he wasn’t her “boyfriend”. He was a friend. No more.
But she must have been more revealing than she realised because it wasn’t long before Luke guessed.
“You are quite keen on that Keith, aren’t you?”
“Oh, rubbish! We’re just friends.”
Esmé didn’t answer. After waiting a few moments for her response, Luke said, “He’s gay, isn’t he?”
“Yes.” Esmé refused to look at him.
“Ezz … don’t trust bisexuals.”
“I’m not trusting him!” she snapped, stung.
“Ezzaloona, I … don’t want you to get hurt.”
He waited for her to answer. At last he said, “I know I haven’t had a man.” He waved down at his body. “Who would look at me?” Without waiting for a polite contradiction, he went on, “but I have talked and read and listened. I know so many blokes who’ve been fucked over by bisexuals who give them the spiel about everlasting love and all that stuff and then dump them for a girlfriend.”
Esmé was touched. And also a little peeved off. “Lukie bibbots, he hasn’t made any vows, he hasn’t said he loves me, he’s behaved impeccably.” Except for the stiffie, she added silently to herself.
“But you love him.” It wasn’t really a question.
“Of course I don’t.”
Luke just grinned at her.
“Then there’s the other problem,” he said.
He stared at her maddeningly until she was forced to say, tetchily, “What?”
“Falling in love with a straight guy. I’ve done it often enough. Some cute bloke. He just has to smile at nicely at you, and you construct a whole happy-ever-after story, visions of breakfast in bed, picnics on the beach, holidays in Paris.”
Esmé coloured. These were exactly the sort of things she’d been thinking.
“And then it turns out he doesn’t even want to have sex with you. His obsession is the girls he sees getting on the tram. The girls he lusts after in pubs. The pretties he ogles in the street. You are less than nothing to him. And you’ve invested all your time and emotions in him. And in the end you do have your stories. Only it’s just you on the beach at the picnic. Not you and him. And it’s not breakfast in bed. It’s a bowl of muesli with going-off milk. By yourself in the kitchen. With last night’s washing up staring malevolently at you from the sink.”
This made Esmé laugh but she was saddened too, for Luke and for herself. For the world. For all the lonely people.
“Tell you what,” offered Luke. I’ve got a recital on Sunday arvo at the Conservatorium. Bring him along. Might as well meet Mr Right.”
Esmé punched him on the shoulder. “He is not Mr Right! He’s just a friend.”
Luke smiled in a knowing, superior way which made her want to smack him.
“You are such a pain, Luke Spencer. I’ve a good mind not to come at all. Or come and throw rotten tomatoes.” They both knew this was an empty threat. She always went to his concerts, and always applauded vigorously.
“There’re some off tomatoes there, if you need any,” Luke pointed out, gesturing to a plate on the sink.
“Yuck.” They were disgusting. Blackened with pale grey-green mould growing over them.
“Thing is, you’re going to have to carry them in a plastic container because they’re falling apart. And throwing them could be difficult. Newton’s third law, and all that.”
She looked at him darkly. “You don’t impress, you know. I’ve met smooth-talking men before. Shallow things, they are. All baff and bombast.”
“So it’s settled, then?”
Esmé reached for the tomatoes. “Why wait until Sunday?” she asked rhetorically.
Luke grinned and fled.
Esmé wasn’t at all sure that Keith would like classical music. He seemed such a bogan with his strong ocker accent and his daggy clothes. When he mocked his “conquests” for dressing daggily he was making a little joke at his own expense. He himself wore “Target jeyns”. He didn’t care, really, what he looked like. That had been one of the things which had drawn her to him. It made him seem so … real man. So … genuine. But now she was worried that he would think her stuck up. Superior. Middle class and judgmental.
Luke had given her a pamphlet with the concert program on it. He was playing the Mozart piece he’d been practising for hours at their shared house. She knew it off by heart. She knew where he stopped, where he broke a note. She knew that she’d be on tenterhooks for the whole performance, waiting for him to make a mistake. But … to go out with Keith, even if they weren’t going out. That would make it all magical. Not quite a picnic on the beach or in the park. But nice all the same.
When she gave the pamphlet to Keith she was astonished and a little shamed by his response. “Oh, that’s a lovely piece. He wrote it for his friend, you know, who was a horn player,” he said. “I’d love to come.”
At the concert, Luke managed to get through the piece without too many mistakes. Even to Esmé’s jaundiced ear, his playing sounded better than it had that morning in their house. The audience, mostly music students and their friends, well aware just how hard it is to play the French horn, applauded him warmly.
Afterwards, she, Luke and Keith went to the pub down the road. They took a table on the pavement and ordered coffee. Esmé had introduced the two men directly after the concert and had watched with increasing dismay as they circled to each other like two toms. The two people most important to her simply had to be friends. Almost as if they sensed her feelings, they both made an effort at the café, and became more relaxed.
“I work at The Lord Grey,” offered Keith.
“Yes, I think I’ve seen you there a few times.”
“I’ve prolly seyn ya too, but there are so many customers. Unless you’re a regular …” Keith apologised.
“No problem. I don’t go there that often.” But Luke looked disappointed. He found Keith nice-looking, and rather sexy. But then he found almost all men attractive.
Keith glanced quickly at Luke and then smiled, “Bit of a hot-house really, isn’t it? All those precious flowers. And everybody trying to find Mr Right and in the end settling for Mr Right Now.”
On the tram ride home, Luke didn’t speak, but instead stared out of the window at the passing city. When they got home, he said,
“Nice bloke, your Keith.” He seemed a little melancholy. You might get someone to love, even if he is gay, but I won’t get anybody ever, was the subtext.
“Not mine, Luke.”
“He likes you.”
Esmé shrugged. “He’s gay,” she said. “He’s a friend.”
Luke had watched how Keith had looked at Esmé, and he wasn’t so sure. But he didn’t want to raise her hopes so he let the subject drop.
“Are you working tonight?” he asked.
“No. Well, I have an assignment.”
“How does pizza and a beer and a DVD sound to you?”
“I dunno. I bought some new gay movies from Amazon.”
“Do you think I’m turning into a fag hag?” Esmé had read that term just that morning and it had terribly depressed her.
“That’s a horrible word, Ezz. Just because you have two gay friends.”
One of whom gets a hard-on when he dances with me. “Yes, but, I’ll prolly never get a man, you know.” She sensed Luke’s sadness and all at once she shared it.
“Why ever not?”
So Esmé finally told him. It felt as if a wound was torn open and scraped with salt. But afterwards—though there was still a throbbing ache—for the first time since it had happened, she believed that she would be OK. Things would get better.