Miles is a compliant man. ‘Go along, to get along’ is his motto. With his wife, kids and work. He botches the perfect affair and his Byron Bay fantasy falls flat. His wife compulsively digs up the front lawn. His children are troubled by the meaning of his existence. His professional life has been reduced to designing high concept labels for organic pickle jars. But a stranger entrances him with tales of her life with a Venetian mask maker, and Miles peels back the translucent layers of that onion, his soul. If he bends now, will he break later?
‘If you look at it long enough, the eyes open.’
The concrete Buddha had a skin of moss from the Byron Bay damp. The stone hands lay folded in the lap and Miles imagined a frangipani blossom, just one, placed there. As a design statement? A prayer? An unthinking moment when Jan picked up a fallen flower from the brick pathway and placed it, rather than tossing it into the green jungle behind the line of purple and white agapanthus.
The canvas chair creaked as Miles shifted his weight to ease the pain in his knee. Not yet, the surgeon had said. Put up with it until it’s bad and then come back and see us. Us? The receptionist with the black—bobbed hair and long fingers and blue eye shadow and cool manner had made him feel sweaty and fat and fifty-five.
He brought his thoughts back to the Buddha. A garden gnome. It looked like a garden gnome with curly hair, no hat. Bigger of course, but the same thing. Not Disney, but no personality and in every two-dollar shop these days. A blind accessory. He reached for the coffee Jan had put on the table. Important not to take the eyes off. His hand touched the pottery ashtray. His fingers moved over the butt of the marijuana joint they had shared. At 11 a.m. Not even lunchtime. How many years had it been since he last . . .? Back to Buddha. Was he doing this to make her happy? Going along in the hope of sex. No. Reassurance. No. Wanting to be found attractive. Oh yes please yes.
The fountain, a stone ball that dribbled water, gurgled and gurgled and he didn’t look away from the concrete eyelids.
How do you find a Buddha? Is it just a reminder? How do you see?
The eyes opened. He dared not blink. They closed.
Just stone again on a bed of sphagnum moss.
He was empty, hollowed out, a large orange peel pushed together by a child. He looked harder. Nothing.
A prick in his ankle and a mosquito feasted on his blotchy skin. He slapped at it. Missed. His toenails looked yellow. Old. Skin things were growing. Must get a tan, must get a tan.
At night, mosquitoes and cane toads bounced across the lawn so what the hell was he doing here, hoping for magic.
He rubbed his finger with a thumb where the gold wedding ring had been. Wife, kids, large house, hot black pavements, grubby brick Sydney. Just arrive, Jan had said.
He drove for 10 hours, frightened by trucks that crammed his rear-vision mirror and blew past him. Holding onto the steering wheel. Holding too hard. A long gravel driveway. A light on the porch. The knock at the screen door. The suitcase that felt too big, too airport. And Jan. Blonde hair, more beautiful than he remembered her. She wore a white muslin blouse and a piece of fine silver jewellery below her neck. But nervous. Like she’d made a mistake. And determined not to show. A kiss on both cheeks. The European hostess.
‘You’re so kind to the elderly.’ They were the same age. It was a well-rehearsed act. She was supposed to say, ‘Oh but you’re not.’ But she just looked and took the suitcase from his hand and walked across the polished floorboards of her home knowing he had to follow. Down a corridor and she dropped the suitcase on a double bed with a white cover and turned back to him.
‘Kitchen,’ she said. Miles turned back down the passage. God he was tired. This all meant something he couldn’t grasp. There was a blender on the grey benchtop. It was full of white peaches. The din was a relief. He checked out the expensive appliances, the insects on the window and the tasteful down lights. Two champagne flutes, quickly filled with prosecco and then topped with the peach slush.
‘Bilinis. How . . . how . . . Venice and life and thank you. Here’s to Harry’s Bar.’
‘Here’s to here and now.’
Better much better.
They talked of long drives, you just do it and then you find a groove, and the old Bulahdelah bottleneck and how much better the roads are in Queensland and he started to nod and fought and blinked and she said, ‘ Go to bed.’ He went to his room stumbling, unthinking. He pushed the suitcase off the bed and buried his head in the pillows. Nothing.
He drifted, sweating, and rain tumbled dumbly on the iron roof.
The morning sun was harsh through the white curtains. He felt groggy and sour, damp through his crumpled clothes.
Shower, shirt and shorts and he padded barefoot into the kitchen. She was at the bench, blonde hair down over a brown patterned . . . a kaftan, dammit. She didn’t turn.
‘How have you come up?’
‘Too early to tell.’
‘How do you have your coffee?’
The machine ground beans and she flicked levers, turned knobs, frothed milk and held a glass of coffee to him as if it were an offering.
‘Good morning,’ she said with a slight inclination of the head.
‘I don’t deserve this.’
She held his gaze and with a slight smile turned back to the machine and started the grinding thing again.
‘You look very beautiful. And young. And . . .’
He sipped the coffee. The glass was hot on his lips but the bitterness was welcome.
‘Your kaftan. I think I’m having flashbacks.’
‘Is that a good thing?’
Say yes, just say yes. But there had been terrifying flashbacks, acidic and metallic, long ago. Fresh razor blades to the brain when he spoke their name. Say something. Change the moment. Nothing.
‘Let’s flash forward. To the deck,’ and she indicated the doors. He gestured her to lead. Damn, even the marching order had to be negotiated.
They slumped into covered chairs. Director’s chairs, he knew, completely covered in canvas.
‘Tell me about the phone.’
‘We were outside and arguing and I was pissed, as you know. Ory was filming me with her mobile phone, saying this is evidence, it is all the evidence I need so I took the phone from her hand and threw it in the pool.’
‘She said I was violent. But she was afraid for her phone. Those were her friends, all the assholes telling her she was right and wonderful. It was her ‘lifeline’ to the world. No, it was her world and I threw it into the chlorine. She stops everything when the phone rings. She demands silence. She sends the kids outside. They’re not kids anymore. And we have a big house.’ He looked away from her. ‘It sounds pathetic now.’
‘I’m not sure I’d like being videoed either.’
Jan looked out into the trees. He stared at her profile, willing her to say more. Nothing. She knew he was watching. And she waited. He could see, beyond the wrinkles and behind the tan, a girl of 25 who had once intrigued him. But she had been quiet then, the ‘still waters’ type and he had taken her for granted and gravitated into a ‘life of the party’ orbit. Now he needed her. Or someone.
‘I had to sleep in the hammock. All doors were locked. I went out, bought her another iPhone and flowers and she told me to keep the flowers. You know, the thing about Ory that really bugs me . . .’
‘I don’t want to know.’
‘But she . . .’
Her eyes swivelled on him and they felt like gun turrets. One more word in that direction bucko and . . .
He looked back at the garden. At the concrete Buddha.
‘If you look at it long enough, the eyes open.’
And she went inside.
This was too busy. Too hard.
Charles Hambling trained as an actor and holds Masters degrees in Creative Arts and Arts Management. He was founding Head of The Knox Academy of Performing Arts.
In 2015 he cashed in his mr. chips and now lives, with his wife and daughter, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
To contact the author email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +61 (0)403 048 213.