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Friday evening. Peak hour. He, Adam, is standing at a pedestrian crossing on the outskirts of the city, not far from the Eastern Freeway, in the area sometimes called Little Saigon. He is meeting his girlfriend, Lucy, for dinner. He is late, yet when the traffic lights change he does not move. Three cycles of the crossing signals; he remains still. Strangers pass with a side-glance—out of concern or curiosity? He feels eyes on him through windscreens and passenger windows, but when he tries to meet them he can’t make out any figures through the glare. Somebody brushes past with a large black dog.

The late-autumn air bores beneath his collar. His lungs wheeze. Freezing out here. He has been drinking. Should have stayed where he was: a French-themed cocktail bar near his work. A bar popular with the other hospital staff, as well as students from a nearby university. Always busy. Shouts and laughter spilling from the doorway. Almost sounds pre-recorded? A Seinfeld laugh track, except with more chatter and clinking glasses, jazz undulating in the background. Apparently, sitcoms use laugh tracks recorded in the fifties. Creepy, when you think about it. The laughter of the dead.

The traffic resumes and vehicles again pass by in shrieking bursts. Adam has an urge to walk forwards now, to interrupt their flow.


He lives with Lucy in a small red-brick house near a theme park that overlooks the ocean. During the day, if they sit in the back garden or open their bedroom window, they can hear the loop of carnival sounds. Ferris-wheel speakers playing pop groups from the nineties (Aqua, TLC, Backstreet Boys). The hawking bellows of carnival workers. Dodgem cars. High Striker. The Laughing Clowns Caravan. Adam has lived there through his late twenties with barely an increase in rent. Now thirty, he can identify each amusement by sound alone.

Lately, Lucy has been acting unusual. At pains to keep her phone with her at all times. Even doubling back to retrieve it when she goes to the bathroom. Then there are the weekends away at Byron with her cousins (single girls, domineering personalities). Three trips already this year. Each time ignoring his calls and texts. He only hears from her when she needs to be picked up from the airport. Pores excreting alcohol, fake tan. Does not want to talk. Tired, she says. Signs are there. And then there was the text from the unknown number. Come see me soon x.

Since then, Adam has been having trouble sleeping. At night, he lies awake with exhaustion, as if his brain has been wiped by a great flash of white energy. He tries to focus on the ornate detail of the plaster ceiling rose that encircles the light fixture, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, listening to Lucy’s uneven, jolting breath. At these times, slowly, the deranged noise of the Laughing Clowns Caravan begins to haunt him: the electric cackle of the clowns, the poker-machine melody.

‘I can hear it again,’ he whispers at Lucy. If she stirs, she might tell him to put on earphones and listen to music, or else dismiss him with a tired moan.

Sometimes it helps to leave the house and walk a lap around the lifeless carnival. He listens to the wind as it whistles through the stagnant equipment, and to the nervous calls of seagulls, also disturbed from their sleep. He reassures himself, in a perverse way, that the sound is only in his head.


Across the intersection, a woman struggles to lift a chair through the open doorway of a restaurant. A boy wearing a blue beanie and an oversized Chicago Bulls T-shirt moves on foot between the idling upstream traffic. The boy carries a plastic water bottle and a brass squeegee in one hand while he searches his pocket with the other, eventually removing a packet of cigarettes. A bit young to be on the streets. Then again, difficult to tell his age. Could just be a baby face? Don’t they say that baby faces are the most attractive? Leo. Gosling. Timothée Chalamet—from that movie with the peaches. He studies the red, scowling bull on the boy’s T-shirt. Raging Bull. De Niro has not had a baby face for a long time. Not even when digitally de-aged in The Irishman. Pesci though—he’s going backwards naturally, crab-like: becoming more baby-faced with age. Actually, if you flip the bulls’ logo upside down it looks like an alien having sex with a crab. Adam saw it in a meme. He turns his head slightly to check.

‘You all right, mate,’ the boy says, catching Adam’s line of sight as he steps up to the footpath, cigarette now dangling from mouth.

Adam diverts his eyes to the woman across the intersection, who is now placing the chair at the end of an outdoor table. ‘I’m good,’ he mumbles. ‘All good.’

The traffic signals shift again. The boy makes his way across the road and Adam waits a moment before doing the same. Wet leaves colour the gutter in gold and brown.


When he walks, the boy with the blue beanie hunches his shoulders as he raises the cigarette to his mouth. Music plays from another restaurant further up the street; the boy must hear it because he now bobs with a slow-beat swagger. Each step improvised, each turn spontaneous. They cross under a large boat sculpture that forms an archway over the tram lines and signals the beginning of Little Saigon. It is a Thelma Houston song. Adam knows it well. His mother would play it on summer afternoons. He would sit cross-legged on the white shag carpet in the living room, drawing in a grid-lined notepad. Always the same pattern: tiny swirls, whirlpools on the page. Mum would sing while she fussed around in the kitchen. Just the two of them. The memories present in his mind as a warm glow, pulsing pleasantly. Tears take him by surprise, rushing his eyelids. He smiles. Good. Let them come.

The boy reminds him of himself and his old friends: the awkward teenage years. Cringe to think of it. Roaming the streets with cans of Woodstock. Nightclubs with fake IDs. Then there were the ecstasy pills. Cheaper than drinks. How old are you? girls would ask. Played it cool. Twenty-two, he would tell them. Find out later that the girls were also underage. Funny. Remember one in particular. Grinding on him, against a wall. Thick, black curls. Thick hips.


Lucy’s family is from the country. He met her when they were both strangers to the city. He was back after a long absence interstate. He was determined to start anew, and so was Lucy. Too many people knew her name where she was from. Nowhere to escape. Small-town syndrome. Strange how all that space can be suffocating. And there was also her ex. Bad break-up. Probably she was running from him too. She just about ran right into Adam’s arms.

Now, Lucy likes to give him life advice.

‘You don’t have any hobbies,’ she says. ‘That’s why you’re so restless. You go to work. You go out. You watch Netflix. You complain.’

Lucy has many hobbies. She has her art practice (drip paintings with bright acrylics that she sells on BlueThumb), horse riding back on the farm, winemaking, yoga. She might claim to be a reader, though she mostly skims biographies of tennis stars or self-help books written by social influencers (‘Activate your potential!’ ‘Transcend your limits!’). She wants to save enough money to start an interior design business.

‘What hobby should I have?’ Adam might ask, to humour her.

‘You like movies,’ she says. ‘Why not do a short course? Filmmaking. Film producing. Film reviews?’

But he has given up on film. Thought and thought, but never did anything about it. He is an administration clerk in the radiology department. He takes bookings, screens patients, files their data, preps them for scans. Bookings are the worst: the ceaseless ring of phones. There are still people around who remember his mother. She’d been a nurse at the hospital for years. It would be embarrassing to go back to study now. He is already halfway through a Health Sciences degree but has deferred this semester. The last time he studied anything about film was in high school. What would he put in the application? Please enjoy this sepia-toned music video I made in Year Nine?

Still, he should do more. People do more. Lucy is frustrated with him. Fair enough. She is a good person. At least, he thought she was. Patient, generous. If she is in a bad mood, it never shows. Rare for her circles. She is a paralegal at a law firm. Commercial law: the worst kind. She is driven. Ambitious, in her quiet way. Hungry for knowledge and networks that might help her later on. She sacrifices her evenings, sometimes weekends. She seems fulfilled. He thought that her productiveness might somehow rub off. For a while it did. For a while, he thought they were in love.


After his mother died, and he got his own driver’s licence, Adam left the city and travelled across the country, sometimes alone, sometimes with new friends, burning through the small inheritance left to him. At first, he moved between youth hostels all along the east coast. Worked at bars and cafes alongside European backpackers, reformed bikies. Later, he came to prefer the interior. He would drive for days at a time, camping under a sky bursting with the universe. He liked being on the road best. The in-between spaces. Towns built around rest-stops, surrounded by sprawling fields or desert plains. His longest stay was at a wilderness park where Baz Luhrmann filmed Australia. Valleys filled with ochre rocks twisting towards the sky, deep gorges between sandstone cliffs with running waterfalls, rainforest canopies. Landscapes that seemed to him more like something out of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

Yet it began to feel like a false way to live. Adam was rootless, unanchored. Something always nagging at him. Each place felt like a pit stop. His exchanges with others were pleasant but empty. For a while he dated a GP who had fled the city on forced leave, anxiously awaiting the results of a coronial inquest. So many people he met were in some form of hiding. The rest just passing through, on their way to somewhere else. Four years after his mother died, Adam finally felt that he could return home.


The boy with the blue beanie stops outside an Asian grocer and speaks with a group of young people gathered by the tram stop. Adam has unwittingly followed the boy for three blocks. He crosses the street, then pauses to get his bearings. Someone is resting supine on a wooden bench with an umbrella held to their chest like a crucifix. Roasted ducks hang in the window behind him, their oily bronze necks wrap around steel hooks. Faceless people pass in both directions: bulky coats, scarves under chins.

Adam checks the time. The restaurant is only a block further on. Just get through dinner, then raise it in the car. No, home is better. Say you want to talk about things. Mention the text. Come see me soon x. Who the fuck was that? No, no. Do it calmly. Say you saw a text come up on her phone. Didn’t mean to look, but can she explain? Possibly it was innocent?


There was nobody for him to visit when he returned to the city. Old networks gone: friends moved away or else moved on. Not that Adam minded. He would soon have Lucy for company, and his co-workers at the hospital. He didn’t leave the interior to restore his old life. That door was closed. He would look for a new one in the geometry of the city: its pillars and spirals, tunnels and curves; the sprawling labyrinth of stone and steel.


Across the street, the boy takes a cigarette from a young man with a ponytail, then wraps his arm around a slender girl with pink hair. Drinks are passed around from a cardboard box on the footpath. They’re like something out of A Clockwork Orange: little droogs at the Korova Milk Bar. The neon sign in the window of the Asian grocer washes them all in electric blue.

On the exterior side wall of the grocer, somebody has sprayed ‘PORK’ in large white letters, as if out of a hose, the paint drooping down the wall. Many smaller, less distinguishable words are scattered below those hulking letters. A kind of secret language. Like dogs leaving their scent around the neighborhood. Marking their territory. PORK was here. Confronting though, this particular mark. Adam is vegetarian because of Lucy’s influence, but last week, when he was drunk, he ordered a bacon deluxe cheeseburger from Hungry Jacks. He took a bite, savouring it at the back of his mouth, then spat it into the bag. That grisly, charred mince. Salty rasher. Tastes it still. His tongue tingles. PORK was here.


When they were first dating, Lucy made Adam watch Cowspiracy. Most Friday nights they would go to vegan restaurants in the northern suburbs and then to the cinema, taking turns to choose the film. Later, they would take turns making dinner using recipes from a cookbook he bought her called Veg.

When they don’t feel like going out, their dates take place in the car. Adam is not opposed to this. He likes to be on the move. He prefers the drives to be aimless, but Lucy likes to look at houses. They drive through the wealthy south-eastern suburbs, slowing the car to a roll to try to peer over hedges or through wrought iron gates at the mansions hidden inside. Neat English gardens. Grand sandstone entryways. Turrets. Flagpoles. Often they do not speak. Instead they listen to a playlist he has compiled from the soundtracks of Quentin Tarantino films. He has titled the playlist: ‘Modernity.’

He likes Lucy most when they drive. There is something about the car engine’s constant movement that lulls him into contentment. They make fun of the people who live in those stately properties, of the people who aspire to live there. Still, those wide avenues and overhanging elms, the manicured hedging, ornate masonry—they are beguiling.

Lucy’s favourite house: a stone cottage covered in ivy with a green Porsche parked in the driveway. Adam likes the gardens best: soft canopies of silver birch, hydrangea flowers that look painted on with watercolour, the flamed leaves of lilly pilly. He takes comfort in the familiar loop of fruit and blooms.

It is true that Lucy’s family are well-known horse trainers and vintners. For her, so much will come easy. He has traded off his indifference to wealth, to the material. Always professing a preference for adventure, spontaneity. Wasn’t that his appeal? Lucy had come to him as if out of a mist. He, wandering aimlessly, unable to grasp anything solid. Before he met her, so many things seemed out of reach.


At the restaurant, he sits in a booth by the window and watches the street. Couples and families are leaving from dinner or drinks, and he catches some of their lazy chatter as they pass. The young people at the Asian grocer, the little droogies, are no longer in view. Relegated to the margins. The restaurant’s yellow light glares up from the tabletop with streaks of pink from a neon sign outside. If Adam leans back, his face is in shadow. For a moment, he feels a sense of relief and a kind of emptiness that comes with rest after a long journey. He will be straight with Lucy. Ask her directly. How long had it been? Three years? Wasted. How could she do it? If she did it. Presumption of innocence. Come see me soon x. Would she move out, or him? What to do with their car? Yet she does talk about their future. When they visit her parents, her mother always joking about grandchildren, what does Lucy do? Smiles serenely. Plays along. On one of their recent drives she asked, in a causal way, what he thought about marriage.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. Blindsided. ‘Is there a point? You’re in a relationship. A long-term relationship. What changes with a marriage?’

Not the best answer. Could explain her recent behaviour?

‘It’s a commitment,’ she said.

‘And what is the point of weddings?’ he said. ‘The expense. The indulgence.’ Regrettable. Where was he going with that?

‘I know!’ she said. ‘That could be our house deposit.’

Adam orders a drink.


He has had four gin and tonics by the time Lucy arrives.

‘Have you been drinking?’ she says.

‘Well, you were late.’

He orders a soup with no intention of eating it. Not in the mood. Maybe he should travel again? Deserts and rainforests suddenly seem so distant. Would like to roam the streets. Paint the walls in a secret language. She will want to sleep with him. Friday-night routine. Have to get in before that. Would be wrong to wait until after. Have struggled lately, anyway. Possibly the drinking? Maybe she will still want to? Break-up sex. Make-up sex? But what to say? Have to get the wording right. When the soup arrives, he eats two spoonfuls, then pushes the bowl to the centre of the table. He orders another drink.

Lucy is only slightly younger than him. Short fringe (a fringe with an attitude). Plain face, but attractive. A little pale. He hates it when she doesn’t blend her makeup properly. Those orange lines along the jaw. Brilliant eyes. Alive with light. Tonight she is trying to convince him to work for her family’s vineyard.

‘No more patients and endless phone calls,’ she says. ‘No more depressing lunches in that filthy hospital cafeteria. Doctors speaking down to you. You always talk about moving somewhere more remote. This will be better. You get the country air, but you’re only an hour or so from the city. You could work the cellar door. Or somewhere back of house, if you prefer? My grandad is always after people with a work ethic. He has a lot of trouble finding people of quality.’

‘I have zero interest,’ he says. ‘I’ve told you before. I couldn’t think of anything worse.’

The couple next to them shift in their seats, briefly turn their heads. Is he too loud?

‘Well, the offer stands. You would be looked after. I just think you need a change. You need to shake things up. I would jump at something like this.’

‘Do you usually help your grandad source his workforce, or am I just lucky?’

She laughs self-consciously, turning to glance at the couple next to them.

‘Well, it’s a small town, who knows, there might be an ex or two working there already.’


‘Why did you drink so much,’ she says, lowering her voice.

He finishes his drink, tilting his head back and letting the ice and a piece of cucumber briefly sit on his top lip. Lucy is checking her phone.

‘Who’s that?’ he says.

She doesn’t answer. Adam wipes sweat from his forehead. Boiling in here. There is a half-eaten plate of crispy eggplant between them. He returns his glass to the table and gestures to a passing waiter for another. Good. He puts both elbows on the table to steady himself. Good. Now, what were they talking about? Still with the job? Who the fuck is she texting? He feels the alcohol rise through his body like water, when it reaches his temples his face turns hot.

The waiter returns. Adam shifts his right elbow from the table and loses balance. Something hard hits him in the face. His cheek is burning. Glass shatters. He tries to stand. Stuck. Tries harder, pushing. Suddenly he is on the floor, on his hands and knees. Stale beer smell. Waves in his temples. Blood pours from between his fingers, down his wrist.

Many patrons now stand around him, including Lucy, who is using a napkin to wipe something from her clothes. Someone wraps his wrists in a tea towel. There is talk of an ambulance. He feels no pain, but his hands pulse, as if he is holding a beating heart. He finds his legs and wills himself to the doorway. Need air. People in the way: move, move. Lucy? Another glass breaks.

Outside, his hands still throb. He is shaking. He has lost his jacket.

‘I have the car,’ says Lucy, appearing from behind.

He is a walking storm: the streets part before him. A dog barks somewhere nearby. For a moment, he thinks he is being chased. He tries to run, but his feet are like anchors. The street lights flashing, then disappearing. He is being taken. Sucked into a vortex.

Only when they reach the car do things slow down.

‘What the fuck do I do?’ Lucy says. ‘Do you need a hospital?’

‘I’m good,’ he says, aware that he is slurring. ‘All good.’ He waits for an exhale to speak again. ‘It doesn’t hurt at all.’

Lucy reaches into the back and puts an old rug on his lap. She offers him water. She will help. Lucy will help.

They wait at an intersection for passengers to disembark from a tram. A group of young people spill out onto the street in front of their car. Slender pink hair girl. Ponytail boy. Little droogies. He tries to make out the boy with the blue beanie and Chicago Bulls T-shirt, but the group moves into the shadows and out of sight. Music is playing. From where? Adam thinks he has caught the echoes of a refrain, right on the edge of his hearing.

‘I don’t want to go home,’ he says. ‘Can we just drive?’

Read more from New Australian Fiction 2021or buy a print or ebook copy.