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All the structures of the lake were ablaze. The big house, the amusements, the boardwalk. The Ferris wheel had caught finally. Towers of black smoke and the women standing in the shallows. One stayed in the shadow of the boathouse while the other was lit a flashing gold by the fires. The baby was inside, asleep in her cot. The man had come to curse them and make demands, screaming that all was gone. The women stood, calm and unmoving. The performance of death came inevitably, as all things do. The water, the stars, the flames. The man showed a knife and then a red line was drawn across his throat and he fell forward. Life was pouring out of him but against the reflection of flames the colour of the water changed only a little.

With the lake finding its level against their shins, the women then spoke and touched hands. The people of the town would be drawn by the fires. They would discover the violence of this man. His inevitable acts. The flames and the blood and the blame. It had all come so quickly in the end.


None of this is real.

May was stuffing crackers into the face of little Phoebe while fighting to keep her shopping bags from yawning their contents onto the concrete. The grey footpath alongside the grey road buzzing under a grey sky. These dusk storms that Queensland was too proud of. The rain was close to beginning and May was maybe five seconds away from concluding that Karl had missed his chance, so it was four seconds later that he came dumbsmiling his way around the corner. That great arch of teeth May had been victim to all her life. The smile which meant that her impatience now cooled to irritation.

None of this is real.

Not the traffic or the shopping bags or the yellow of Karl’s teeth.

None of this is real.

Not the traffic or the shopping bags or the yellow of Karl’s teeth.

There are collections of particles in some particular and temporary arrangement and we assign them values for a time. We call them a shopping bag. The smile of a man. We might call the arrangement of our neural response love. May had been seventeen, listening to her first counsellor, and this was his opening salvo—all this on the temporary arrangements and them not being real—and he had looked so pleased with himself. He’d talked much more than her during those six mandated sessions, and May couldn’t remember much of the rest of his theories, but this idea of the absence of reality had stayed with her.

It had always been a relief.

‘I have no time,’ she said. ‘Really, no time.’

‘I’m late but I have doughnuts.’ Karl shook a paper bag.

‘No kiss?’

May settled her shopping and the child enough that she could lean in to his cheek.

‘And who are we?’ Karl asked, bending at the waist so that his excessively round face was too near to that of the small girl.

‘Phoebe,’ May said. ‘The infant you’re menacing is Phoebe. Please, open the door.’

‘She wants a doughnut. Isn’t that right?’ He stayed bent until his back could no longer maintain. ‘Does she talk?’

‘She talks and she’ll have a doughnut,’ May said. ‘Please, the door.’

He produced a grenade of keys and began to riffle through for the one that might recognise the lock to his office. Karl’s business was sandwiched between a tattoo parlour and Red Lantern Massage, and an overflowing bin on the footpath meant his doorstep was all coffee cups and chip packets. The unreal sky was darkening further, becoming the skin of a mouldy orange. A bus honked its tuneless horn.

The unreal sky was darkening further, becoming the skin of a mouldy orange.

‘No-one has time for niceties anymore,’ Karl said. ‘Everything’s big talk now but small talk is the grease. That’s what keeps the machine of civilisation from sticking.’ He waved them through.

‘The shopping,’ May said, struggling to push Phoebe inside. The child was crying and reaching for Karl’s bag. ‘And the doughnut, Karl, please.’

He took a folder from the unstaffed reception desk and poured onto it three of the cinnamon-sugared rings. Karl handed this all to Phoebe and patted her softly at the crest of her French

braid. She opened her mouth and filled her cheeks.

‘Slow,’ May said to the girl and raised a finger. ‘Breathe.’

Phoebe allowed herself to be lifted onto one of the chairs at the office table. May took the other and cringed at the girl’s furious hunger. Karl still wore that grin which seemed to sit an

inch in front of his face.

‘May, how are you?’

‘Why do you have a reception desk? You’ve never had a receptionist.’

‘You don’t need a receptionist. You just need the desk. Sorry I’m late. Just had a doctor up to his elbow in my prostate. Insufferable organ. I hate it and it hates me. The only thing we agree on.’

May’s shopping bags ceased supporting each other and their contents tipped onto the linoleum floor. May stopped a tomato and a tin of beans with her feet.

‘We couldn’t do this over the phone?’ May asked. ‘It’s just I’m working. Damn, where’s my phone? Did you see me put it down? My phone.’

Phoebe signalled for her drink bottle.

‘Couldn’t be helped.’ Karl, who had been rummaging through the documents piled haphazardly on the table, seemed to find the necessary cache of papers. ‘Now, Casey.’

May paused in the search through her shoulder bag. Her grandmother had died the year before. Nine months? It must have been nearly twelve. They had cremated her—this Casey—and scattered her ashes in the foaming water of the Pacific Ocean. Her grandmother had always refused to go anywhere near the beach. Awful places, she would say. All that sand. Karl had stood beside May and her mother as they fought with her grandmother’s dust against the wind.

‘Casey’s will,’ he said now.

‘You need to talk to Mum.’

‘I have.’ The levitating smile had retracted and Karl’s tone was one of serious calm.

‘Did she owe money? She can’t have. I thought this would have been sorted by now. Is it debt? I thought you couldn’t inherit debt.’ Phoebe was now clawing at May’s neck. ‘Pencils,

Karl? Something?’ She took the pen from his hand and the topmost papers from a pile. ‘Phoebe, darling, will you draw me something? A rainbow?’

Phoebe looked into the tip of the pen.

‘A black rainbow is fine, sweetie. Draw. There are black rainbows.’

‘Casey appointed me executor.’ He put his elbows on the table and brought his fingertips together.

‘Very impressive.’

‘The executor is a very responsible position.’

‘I don’t doubt it. I should ask, though—can suburban solicitors without receptionists be appointed executors?’

They exchanged smiles of condescension. May had known Karl all her life. All of it that she could remember. Since her father had quit the family and Karl stepped in to help. They had even moved in with Karl and his wife for a few months until they sorted out a place of their own. He had been her father’s closest friend and had spent the years since making up for it.

Casey had property. Karl said the word as if it deserved May’s attention. There was land.

Casey had property. Karl said the word as if it deserved May’s attention. There was land. A decent chunk of land and a house. Property. May was struck by the continued use of this other word: Casey. She was Grandmother. Casey was some dead woman. May made the point that this property couldn’t be real as her grandmother had collected and actually used those vouchers on the back of supermarket receipts. Hadn’t bought a new dress in her life. Money was the great, bonding worry of their family. Karl agreed but only said again about the property. A house and twenty-four acres of lakeside Nebraskan property.

‘Nebraskan. Now I know you’re shitting me.’

‘I am not shitting you, May. You, I will never shit.’

Phoebe stopped drawing at the sound of this fun-seeming new word. May adopted her best poker face but knew she would be dealing with it for the remainder of the day.

‘So she had money?’

‘No,’ Karl said. ‘Well, a little. Three thousand and sixty-eight dollars in a savings account. A little jewellery.’

‘And twenty acres of Nebraskan property?’

‘Twenty-four and a house. There’s nothing particularly strange about it. Unbelievable as it is, people die every day, then their stuff gets handed out. There are inheritances. People inherit. It’s not just in Dickens. It happens all the time.’

‘Not to us it doesn’t.’

This is an extract from Loveland by Robert Lukins (Allen & Unwin). Loveland is available now at your local independent bookseller.