I pull into the driveway and cross the yard. It’s Saturday morning and I’m picking up Tim to go see the fatality vehicles at the field depot. Tim lives in a rental behind the train tracks, just he and his mum Deb and two near-feral cats he found off the highway in an apple crate, on his way back from work at the stockyards.
Pinwheels spin among the geraniums and a set of gargoyle statues guard the steps leading to the patio. I gave Tim the statues for his 21st last September. When we were kids, Tim was obsessed with the Gargoyles cartoon that played on the telly before school. The statues cost a mint and I could only afford one, but the man at the shop said they looked shithouse by themselves. I agreed, and had to eat two-minute noodles for lunch and dinner until my next pay.
I knock on the flyscreen. I can hear talkback radio and Deb fussing as she makes her way to the door. She’s wearing lavender trackies and a Sydney Olympics T-shirt. Rubber gloves drip suds onto the lino.
She gives me a hug in the doorway, says she’ll go wake up Tim, the lazy bugger, but I tell her not to bother, we’re in no hurry. I follow her into the kitchen and wipe up as she finishes washing. Afterwards, she opens a packet of Monte Carlos and we watch a replay of Kochie doing something stupid with a prawn cocktail that had aired during the week.
When the ads come on I tell Deb that me and Tim are going to the field depot. She sighs, says she doesn’t understand why males are interested in such grisly things. I tell her plenty of girls hang around there too, and Deb says she can’t believe they just leave the wrecks out there in the open, where any sicko can come to gawk. I say it’s just to kill time and Tim’s thing more than mine, but that I’m sorry, sorry for being a sicko, and she pats me on the knee and passes me the Monte Carlos.
We detour to the drive-thru on Russell Street and by the time we get to the depot the crowds have been and gone. There are a few stragglers left, a couple of tradies in hi-vis who shoot us quick nods as we pull up in front of the chain-link fence.
It poured last night and the makeshift car park is tyre-churned to slop. When I park Tim gets out of the car, squats behind the open door to shield himself from the hi-vis men, and throws up his nuggets and shake. He guzzled half a goon sack last night.
I make my way through the muck to the far end of the fence, where the tow truck brought the car after the accident. It’s a silver Corolla, not that you can tell by the state it’s in. The engine bay is completely crushed in, like a soft drink can, and the driver door has been ripped from its hinges so you can see the car’s mangled insides. When I get closer to the wreck I can see the paint is mostly stripped off the back door. I wonder where the paint is, whether it disintegrated into metallic dust on impact or gummed to the highway bitumen like an oil slick.
When I get closer to the wreck I can see the paint is mostly stripped off the back door. I wonder where the paint is, whether it disintegrated into metallic dust on impact.
On the drive back to Tim’s we discuss our plans for that night – the same plans we have every Saturday night.
‘You need to shower first,’ I say. ‘You reek, mate.’
‘Piss off,’ Tim says, bending his head and sniffing the pink stain on his shirt. ‘I smell fine. I smell like a flower.’
‘You just spewed nuggets down your front,’ I say. ‘Trust me, you don’t smell like a flower.’
‘What’s the point, though?’ Tim says. He pokes a chip into my mouth, stuffs a fistful into his. ‘It’s not like Michelle will be there.’
‘Yeah,’ I say, mashing the cold chip between my teeth. ‘I s’pose not.’
Michelle was in the year below us in school. We’d all been friendly back then, but Michelle had been going out with Robbo since she was in year nine and he was in year eleven, and when he graduated everyone knew to keep their hands off because Robbo was bigger than a doorframe, but also a pretty decent guy.
They broke up a few months ago, because Robbo wanted space so they could both grow – together but apart, Robbo said – but mainly so he could try his luck with Jake Miller’s cousin Sally who once modelled for a Big W catalogue and had just started working with Robbo at the trampoline park.
The weekend after Michelle got dropped, Tim was in a good mood and showed her the trick he does with a straw and a lemon wedge and a fifty-cent piece. I rarely have more than a few beers and always drive us home, but Tim needs to be thoroughly woozy to talk properly to Michelle. Otherwise, he sits there in silence, making me do all the work from across the table.
If he’s had time to pre-drink, he’ll be optimistic about the night ahead. On the drive to the pub he’ll rub his hands on his knees, buzzed from the rum-and-cokes he drank while Deb made us dinner.
‘Tonight’s the night,’ he’ll say, turning up the radio. ‘This is my lucky song,’ he’ll say, no matter what song is playing.
Most of the time though, Tim moans into his seatbelt while I try talk him out of his nerves. ‘It’s all about confidence,’ I say. ‘Just talk to Michelle like you’re talking to me.’
‘I’m not good with girls like you are,’ Tim says.
‘You have a mother and several female cousins. You went to school with girls for eleven years, for Christ’s sake.’
‘Still hopeless though.’
‘What about Kelly McCleary?’ I say. ‘You went around with her for nearly four months and didn’t turn into a mute whenever you got within a metre of her.’
‘This is different,’ Tim says pressing his palms to his eyes.
I turn into the driveway, pat him on the knee. ‘I don’t think you can be in love if you’ve never had a sober conversation.’
‘I don’t think you can be in love if you’ve never had a sober conversation.’
The gang are gathered in the beer garden, jugs of Extra Dry and bowls of greasy chips dispersed around several tables like pots of gold. It’s not until we weave through the crowd that I see her – Michelle – at a table in the corner of the courtyard. She’s with her friend Tess, who I know from school but rarely see out on the weekend.
I’ve never spoken to Tess properly, but I remember she got drunk off sunset-coloured Cruisers at a formal after party me and Tim wrangled an invite to even though we’d both started our apprenticeships by that point. She spewed down her dress and then tried to pash me as I was about to take a leak at the edge of the paddock.
‘Go on,’ I say to Tim, shoving his shoulder. ‘Go talk to her.’
‘What do I say?’ Tim says. ‘I didn’t think she’d be here.’
‘Just say something.’
‘Shit,’ Tim says, wiping beads of sweat from his upper lip, the rabbit hairs glistening. ‘Shit. Shit. Shit. Don’t say anything about the depot, all right?’
‘I’m not stupid,’ I say.
We lurk by the bar, and when Tim doesn’t make a move I head to Michelle’s table, Tim trailing behind me. ‘Hi Michelle,’ I say. ‘I dunno what to say to you, mate. I’m bloody sorry.’
‘Me too,’ Tim says, squinting up at the screen suspended above Michelle’s head. ‘I’m sorry too.’
Michelle glides an empty schooner between her hands. The table is slick with condensation. ‘Get me another drink, would you?’ she says.
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘All right then.’
‘And one for Tess,’ she says.
‘Sauv Blanc,’ Tess says, taking the chewed straw out of her wine glass. ‘Nothing Victorian.’
‘Righto,’ I say.
Tim follows me to the bar. I order Tess a house white, a jug of beer for the three of us. Tim picks at a coaster, ripping off the top layer of cardboard as though he’s peeling sunburn. I look at Tim’s nubby fingers mutilating the coaster. His face is beginning to gleam under the hot lights.
‘Let’s drop the drinks off and sit somewhere else,’ Tim says as I swipe my card. ‘She probably wants her space.’
‘Christ, Tim,’ I say. ‘At least drink this with her.’
‘It’s awkward,’ Tim says. ‘I don’t know how to deal with, you know, grief.’
‘You’re not the one dealing with the grief though.’
‘I just want to have a good time,’ Tim says. ‘Not deal with heavy shit.’
‘You’re a dick,’ I say.
The gang appears at our table in twos and threes. Some of them say something nice about Michelle’s brother, tell her the intersection at Watergrove has needed traffic lights installed for years. Mostly they just squeeze her on the shoulder, set down a drink.
Tim downs beer, only speaks to ask Tess why she’s drinking her wine through a straw. When Michelle asks what we did today, Tim’s face flushes red and he looks at the screen again.
I tell her we watched Chicken Run, which Tim hadn’t seen before because claymation makes him nauseous, and when we went on an excursion to see it on the last day of year four, Tim pretended Deb forgot to sign his permission slip and I had to sit by myself in the cinema because I hadn’t made any other friends.
Michelle says she hasn’t seen it either.
Tim downs his beer and slips away to the toilet. I keep an eye on the door and after a minute he comes out, handprints on his jeans. He moves over to the end of the table and takes an empty seat, away from us. Jake is at the climax of a loud story, chip raised above his head like a sword. Tim swipes a sip of someone’s beer and laughs when everyone else laughs.
The drinks keep appearing and we keep drinking them. I’m already onto my third and will have to walk home if I have any more. I don’t care. I take a sip of what’s in front of Tess, an orange concoction that tastes like pure sugar.
When Michelle gets quiet Tess and I discuss each drink, trying to remember who bought what. Tess holds Michelle’s hand from across the table. I feel my head begin to spin, and notice there’s something attractive about Michelle when she’s looking all sad like that. I feel bad as soon as I think it. I think to remind Tess of that time after the formal but decide against it.
I feel my head begin to spin, and notice there’s something attractive about Michelle when she’s looking all sad like that. I feel bad as soon as I think it.
When Michelle starts to cry, I walk them to the cab rank. I can see Tim tracking us as we lace through the tables. Outside, the air is cool, the sky navy and splashed with stars. I can feel the throb of the cover band in the function room pulsing up from the cement. Michelle turns to me, wipes her nose with her hand. I want to kiss her.
‘Say bye to Tim from me,’ Michelle says.
She wraps her arms around her chest and I imagine Tim inside, his gelled hair, the sweat stains under his armpits. I can feel something bubbling up.
‘We saw it, you know,’ I say.
‘Alex’s Corolla. At the depot. We went there this morning. It was Tim’s idea. He wanted to see it.’
Michelle blinks once, very slowly.
‘Jesus, Mack,’ Tess says. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ She puts her arm around Michelle as the cab pulls up, shoots me a look like I’m scum.
I stand in the gutter and watch them drive off, then wander through the car park. Someone has chucked a bag of Maccas rubbish onto the roof of my car. Melting ice cubes puddle on the bonnet. A pickle slice has slid down the windshield, losing traction just before it reached the wipers, smearing the glass with a trail of mayonnaise slime. I pick up the paper bag and chuck it onto the road. I can feel my pulse in my neck. My throat feels swollen, like there’s something feral growing in there.
There’re a couple of blokes standing across the car park. They shout something at me and I pick up the drink cup, lob it in their direction. It catches in the breeze like a leaf and rolls into the gutter.
They yell something else and I feel very alive, as though the night is suddenly prickling with the chance of adventure. I take a step towards them, but it’s four against one and I decide I’d rather pick a fight I have a chance of winning. I give them the finger and go back inside.
I weave through the sloppy games of pool, pokie machines ringing in my ears like tinnitus. I want to plough through the remainder of Michelle’s sympathy drinks but a glassy has cleared the table and wiped it clean. I order another jug and sit at the bar.
I think about sending a text to Tim, telling him what I told Michelle. I imagine his face falling as he scans the screen. I decide against it, wait for him from across the courtyard. He’s still perched on his stool in a smoke haze. He’s laid out a straw and a lemon wedge and a fifty-cent piece on the table, grinning as he shows his trick to whoever’s watching.
After a while he wanders over. ‘Come have a drink,’ he says. ‘What are you sulking here by yourself for?’
I take a sip, wipe froth from my lip with the back of my hand. ‘Not sulking,’ I say.
Suddenly Tim looks like a boy, all sweaty and clueless. I think back to when I moved up from Brisbane, how the teacher made Tim my buddy on the first day, and how Tim invited me to his house for a sleepover that weekend. He told me later that it wasn’t his idea to have me over, that Deb forced him and said that if he didn’t make an effort to make me feel welcome she’d confiscate the PlayStation, a birthday present from his Dad, who Tim hardly ever saw because he had a wife and twins out near the dam.
We had fish fingers for dinner and the sleepover was going well until we started playing Radikal Bikers in the lounge room and I spilt my can of Pasito all over the console. Tim pretended he wasn’t upset, said he’d been hoping for one of the new PlayStation 2s that was supposed to be released in time for Christmas, so really I’d done him a favour.
I scull the last of my beer, stumble up from the bar. ‘Where ya going?’ Tim says.
‘I’m getting out of here.’
‘It’s not even ten yet. I’m not ready to go.’
‘Find your own way home then.’
The air feels like a blast, and when I reach my car I notice Tim is lurching behind me like a thug.
I shoot for the door, can’t get away from Tim quick enough. The air feels like a blast, and when I reach my car I notice Tim is lurching behind me like a thug. I look around for the blokes from before, but they’re gone. The car park light is blown and the black tar looks endless.
‘What are you doing, you idiot?’ Tim says. ‘Come back inside.’
The sound of his voice makes the drink slap in my gut. I feel something spark up my spine and shoot into my hands, which are itching to strike something. I take the pickle from the windscreen, turn around and flick it at Tim. I aim for his face but it lands on his shirt. Tim scrunches his nose and wipes at the mayo stain on his shirt. He looks up at me, mouth slack like I’ve punched him.
‘Close your mouth,’ I say. ‘You look like a fucking gargoyle. You’re so ugly I can’t stand to look at you.’
He does as he’s told, looks at the key in my hand. ‘You’re not gonna drive are you?’ he says.
I open the back door. I take off my jacket and bunch it in a ball, lie down and stuff the jacket under my head, knees tucked into my chest. I lock the car. Now that I’m free the feral thing in my throat is still and all I want is sleep, but the blur of Tim’s body is next to the car, watching me. He touches the window, wipes away a circle of fog. He cups his hands and peers in, watching me like I’m a baby, waiting for me to do something else.