Nicola caught a taxi from Tullamarine to Luke’s family home, watching the streets fold down off the highway and waiting for the ones she knew to start. it was blue-dark outside and the fresh scent of rain hung in the air. The taxi was still charging late-night rates: she counted out sixty dollars’ worth of fresh Australian notes. The driver watched her in the rear-view mirror, close and alert. Nicola smiled. He didn’t smile back.
Luke was waiting for her on the verandah in that terrible Bunnings swing chair his dad had bought several Christmases ago. It had a thin film of grease over the heavy cotton. When she came down the drive, he stood up and moved towards her. She put her face into his neck.
‘I’m sorry I couldn’t come pick you up,’ he said.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Nicola said.
Luke started at her accent, freshly Italian like it had been when she first arrived from Rome to live with her Australian father, then touched her head, as though reassuring himself the contents of it were the same.
‘I’m sleeping in Gemma’s room at the moment,’ he said, hushed, as he led the way inside. ‘She’s in with Mum.’
‘How is she doing?’
‘Gem? Okay. I don’t know. She knew him better. The daddy’s little girl thing, I guess.’ He said it without bitterness, a straightforward sweetness that Nicola remembered. ‘You want coffee?’
‘Do you have—?’
‘I’ll put the espresso pot on, yeah,’ Luke said. ‘You snob.’
Nicola smiled at him and touched the small of his back. He looked bigger than she remembered; rangier, taller. She wondered how old boys were when they stopped growing. Luke was twenty-five this year. Bizarrely, it took her a moment to remember his birthday, once as instinctive as her own. Now she had to reach for it: December. Born in the first blush of summer, and only a month away now.
The fridge, when Luke opened it for milk, was crammed with pre-made meals, chickpea curries and Bolognese sauce heaving against rounded plastic. Nicola wandered into the dining room and stopped with one hand on the doorway, half sure she was seeing some jet lagged hallucination. Luke followed her through and laughed uneasily.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I dunno.’
The table was lost under a fan of newspapers, every edition from the last four days. The Age, the Australian, the Herald Sun, even an Advertiser that had made its way from Adelaide. But the front-page photos and headlines all looked the same.
‘Mum said it was better. Now that he’s not … trapped. Her and Gem opened them all yesterday. The dog nearly choked on the plastic.’
‘Oh, Luke,’ Nicola said, and put her hand on his back again, too tired to avoid the instinctive urge to touch. That made them a small, self-completing line, her and Luke and the door, each of them holding onto the next.
They took their coffee downstairs to Gemma’s bedroom. It had once been the laundry and it still had that coolness from the cold stone floor and close walls. Tibetan flags were strung across the window and there was a tie-dye bedspread, remnants of Gemma’s hippie days. Nicola sat cross-legged on it and watched Luke roll a joint. His eyes were a little wild.
‘You look like you’ve never left.’
She smiled at him, heavy-lidded.
Luke picked up her hand and kissed her wrist.
‘My lovely wife,’ he said.
They slept curled around each other like children, the way they had in those heady green days in Thornbury, when they only left the house at five to sit in the Local’s beer garden and sweat while they waited for friends to arrive. Sometimes Nicola brought her laptop and pretended to work on her thesis. Other times, they’d tuck themselves away on the wooden benches, Luke occasionally stretching over to kiss her, their bottom lips catching and sliding like the slickest velcro, Nicola’s battered gold crucifix knocking in the hollows of their throats.
If Luke had to leave for work at one of his part-time jobs, Nicola went home and cooked dinner. Later he’d poke at the saucepan, playing dubious, and say, sternly imitating her accent, ‘And what is inside of it?’ Other days Luke came into the city with her and sat surly, clicking through job ads while she went to class. Nicola would meet him at lunchtime to sit on the State Library’s lawn with DonDon cartons of sticky teriyaki sauce and rice, stealing each other’s pickled radish.
In her dream, she was back there again on the green lawn, though she knew that it was gone, that the explosion had ripped through the State Library and its steps, dragging buildings back into Melbourne Central, a hectic vacuum of energy and disaster. In her dream, everything was whole and Luke was laughing and there was no sign of the trains that swept underneath them or the hide-and-seek call of violence.
She woke in the dregs of the afternoon, the kind of waking that felt like illness, her body only half hers. Luke should have woken her earlier. She went upstairs and his mum gave her a steely look as she sipped her tea.
‘Hello, Margaret,’ Nicola said. She kissed Margaret’s cheek: soft and plump, smelling like Nivea. ‘I’m so sorry. Dave was an amazing man.’
‘Thank you, Nicky,’ Margaret said. ‘It’s very good of you to come all this way.’
‘I’m sorry I couldn’t be here faster.’
‘Four days isn’t bad.’
Gemma’s face was strained, and she limped over for a hug, Nicola’s heart flooded with tenderness. She had sent Luke an unanswered message over Facebook six months ago: Can’t believe how old Gemma looks!! Now she realised that she was wrong; that the cool, twenty-three-year-old glow Gemma had possessed had been fraudulent. Now, Gemma looked old. Her eyes faintly hollow, the shadows there familiar. Nicola had looked the same before she last left Australia: the shell shock, the wide-eyed surprise of a kid not yet ready for the loss of their parent.
The last time Nicola had seen Gemma she’d been a teenager, still half-trailing after Nicola in awe. Gemma had always wanted a big sister, she’d been charmingly upfront about it, and Nicola had been more than happy to adopt her, even as Luke complained about how selfish Gemma could be. Part of Nicola had felt quietly smug, that she could help the siblings get on better, that she could be the bridge between them, though that hadn’t really worked out. Her own arrogance, comparing her small body to some sturdy, untouchable architecture.
‘Anyway,’ Gemma said, ‘you’re in time for the funeral.’ Her face crumpled.
After a moment, when Luke only stood stricken and Margaret looked away, her mouth tight, her eyes shiny and hard, Nicola reached out and took Gemma back into her arms.
The funeral was on Wednesday, ten days after Dave’s body had been retrieved and twelve days after the accident, though by that time, obviously, everybody knew that it was no accident. Nicola’s family was Catholic on both sides; it seemed vaguely indecent to her to be burying Luke’s father so late. But the funeral was closed-casket.
Her father’s coffin, five years ago, had been open. He’d looked mostly peaceful, a little surprised, as though the aneurism had caught him as off guard as it had everyone else. Nicola’s mother had flown in from Italy, so that she could look after Nicola and try to convince her to come back. Nicola had refused. For six desperate months she’d lingered on in Australia, hoping for a ghost or a promise or a resolution, but she was the only one haunting the house they had once shared. Her father’s funeral had been small, only Luke and Nicola and her mother, a few neighbours. He’d been an only child, his own parents long gone; to Nicola, it had always seemed as though she and he were lone citizens of a deserted island who had, to their own shock, met.
Today, though, the church was full: family and friends Nicola had never met, and a healthy handful of politicians, mostly local. When Margaret had received a call from one of the prime minister’s aides asking if he might come to pay his respects, she’d snapped, ‘Over my dead body,’ and hung up. They’d stopped answering unknown numbers after that; their phones buzzed eagerly, full of strangers, and Gemma had to delete her Facebook after too many journalists messaged asking if she wanted ‘a little chat’.
Nicola sat at the end of the pew with Luke’s hand white-knuckled on her knee. People stared at her, the missing wife, the one who had never been introduced, who’d been hurried off-stage like a bad audition. Their narrowed eyes twinged at her temples like a tension headache. She thought it was St Augustine who had written about vision, picking up where the Greeks had left off. He’d said a gaze was like a touch, a smooth hand patting its way across her face. All disproved now, of course, though it hadn’t stopped her grandmother frowning when Nicola relayed good news and holding up fare la corna, the horns against the evil eye, vision a weapon again. Don’t risk it, streghetta mia. Here in Melbourne the church smelled of sweaty collars and salt water. Nicola missed incense, its heady claustrophobia.
Later, Margaret’s sister hosted the wake at her place with white-bread sandwiches going stale in the spring sun and an esky of VBs. Nicola stood in uncertain clusters with guests who asked her, again and again, who she was, and when she told them her name, said: Oh. Uneasy glances. The sky wavering blue above them. Nicola’s gaze wandered to the jacaranda blooms rotting in the gutter.
She’d only met Dave a handful of times. He and Luke had not got on. The first time he’d barely glanced away from the TV; a hard, uninterested gaze, a mouth curled slyly to the side. ‘Hiya, love,’ he’d said, shovelled down his food over dinner with rough precision and left for the pub. A few months later, after Luke had told her, grinning like a little boy, that his mum was really mad and they’d better stop by, Dave had said from the living room couch, ‘So, you two have been up to some hijinks?’
‘Um,’ Nicola said, not sure she knew what hijinks meant.
‘I’m sure it all seems like great fun,’ Dave said, ‘but marriage is a serious business. You could have talked to your mother about it,’ and Nicola realised that he was still not talking to her.
She found Luke and Margaret in Sue’s spare bedroom, watching TV from the foot of the bed. The news was replaying the prime minister’s first speech, intercut with military camps swarming with activity. ‘Our answer will be swift and our answer will be forceful,’ the prime minister said, his face certain in its suffering. ‘Australians have always prided ourselves on our hospitality, our friendliness. But a hospitality that is abused will not be extended again…’
Margaret shook her head. ‘As if they’re not bad enough. They’re going to be monsters after this.’ Her gaze slid to Nicola. ‘Did you have any trouble at the airport?’
‘I travelled on my Australian passport,’ Nicola said. ‘I’m the good kind of wog.’ Her mouth felt sour. She’d never had a large Italian-Australian family, never learned to laugh over the word the way some of her schoolfriends had. Just her Australian dad, and her mum over an unsteady Skype connection: Non capisco, what do they call you…? She wanted to cry.
‘If I was Lebanese I’d be in trouble.’
Margaret’s eyes returned to the television, to footage of fresh mosque attacks.
‘Terrible,’ she murmured. ‘Look at them.’
‘Let’s turn it off,’ Luke said. ‘Let’s go back.’
‘No.’ The ABC was playing footage of soldiers drilling. Margaret let a breath out through her teeth. ‘The bastards.’
They attended three more funerals before they were done, two of Dave’s colleagues and one of Margaret’s fellow nurses. Luke sat up the back with his hands clasped together.
‘Do you think they said hi on the train?’ he asked Nicola, and blanched as though he’d said something revolting, some gauche obscenity.
After the last one, they went to the Brunny. Gemma split off to her group of long-legged, honey-haired friends in denim jackets and culottes; Nicola and Luke found a corner of the garden for themselves.
‘I haven’t even asked you how the job’s going,’ he said.
‘It’s a job.’
Actually, it was the first job Nicola had ever loved, the heavy satisfaction of the finished product, the magazine at the end of every season like a gift. It felt very far away.
‘And I haven’t even asked you about your new girl.’
Luke’s mouth twitched and collapsed.
‘We broke up. Before the… Before the attack.’
He still wanted to say accident. Her sweet boy. She smoothed her hand over the nape of his neck and brought his head to her shoulder. It was the first hot day of the year. Nicola’s upper lip was shining, sweat prickling in the soles of her feet, between her shoulder blades. People talked about Australia’s open skies, but God she hadn’t missed that sun.
She pressed her lips against Luke’s forehead, a benediction.
Luke said, ‘Do you miss being married?’
It was their best joke. Too planned to be a whim; too scrappy to be taken seriously. She’d loved their cheap rings, the parental censure they’d attracted, the secret feeling of it being a game that was all theirs. She’d even loved her last grip on religion, the sacrament that didn’t require a priest, as though they were giving each other their own holiness. Now Nicola only ever referred to Luke as her ex, avoiding specificity. She’d been learning not to think about him, until two weeks ago she saw the news on her lunch break. She’d called Luke immediately, hands shaking, laughing with relief when he answered.
‘I know this is so stupid,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, I know we’re not speaking, I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I know the odds are…’
Sixteen thousand kilometres away, Nicola’s stomach rolled at the note in Luke’s voice. She wanted to lift the horns. She wanted to cross herself.
‘No. No. But we can’t get through to Dad.’
She had later thought, when she was on the plane and every night she and Luke spent tucked together in Gemma’s small bed, that perhaps they would take that old, raw comfort from each other’s bodies, a reminder that, if not particularly well or even with great stamina, they had at least loved each other first. But she wasn’t sure if she wanted it; it felt too unbelievably sad. And though the instinct of touching him felt coded into her muscle memory, whenever she did, she was always surprised by the new ridges and calluses that had made him someone else over the intervening years.
He looked very alone, though, there in the Brunny’s afternoon crowd. She went to take his hand and they both jumped from an electric shock. Luke began to laugh.
‘It’s like, um, honour to your father’s spirit,’ Nicola said. ‘He always fucking hated me.’
‘He fucking hated everyone.’ Luke nodded at the teenage boys nearby, aggressive and mouthy, draped in Australian flags. ‘He’d be thrilled this is his legacy.’
The day before she left, they visited Nicola’s father’s old house. The neighbourhood was changing; more Sudanese families, and no sign of Mrs Pisani on the corner. The tree Nicola first climbed had an ominous yellow circle of spray paint round its trunk. It was quieter than the rough neighbourhoods in Rome she’d been sent away from when her mother decided Australia would be safer. Aged fourteen, Nicola had arrived at this same tiny house, where all the worst things in her life had happened to her.
Luke said, ‘Is this some sort of initiation?’
‘The dead dad club?’ They shook hands.
‘He was so kind to me,’ Luke said. ‘Your dad.’
Nicola nodded, her lips pressed tight.
‘But you don’t have to have a kind dad to be part of the club.’
‘Oh, that’s in the constitution?’ Luke said, and tried to laugh, but was crying instead.
Luke drove her to the airport. She didn’t let him come inside. It reminded her too much of the last time she’d left, when they’d been frozen with fury and had nothing left to say to each other, and Nicola’s dad had been torn freshly bloody from her heart. She took her bags through Immigration and blinked, pre-emptively tired, when the customs officer stared at her passport.
‘You don’t sound Australian,’ he said at last, and sent her away.
The long trip back, the plane’s grim hum. The whole way she found herself frowning and trying to remember the English words for the Rosary. She tugged the cross around her neck that was more lucky charm than anything else and thought about flagellation, about scourging, about the obsessive hunger for suffering that was the fault line of her religion, the cracked door she could not come back through. All the gold and blood of Rome and the heavy stone of the Vatican rising as she caught her tram home. The problem with suffering, Nicola thought in a hazy, disconnected way, her body caught between two countries, was that it demanded its own other, its own whip.
It seemed bizarre and lucky that her apartment was still unharmed, whole, waiting for her. She stood for a moment braced by the sink, her neck heavy, and her gaze skittered to the pile of mail her roommates had left her; the pile where, in two months, she would find a letter from the Australian Department of Home Affairs informing her of legislation banning dual citizenship; informing her that it was time, after all, to choose.