Alex Carter set the small table in the cramped room for seven: unique, hand woven place-mats, silver knives, forks and spoons, a recently out of vogue salt and pepper set.
The cutlery was worth more than the rent; the place-mats the envy of the most discerning diners. The cruet set still more fashionable than the neighbourhood. But the water tumblers she’d just bought, secondhand and not quite cloudy with age, provided an unpleasant incongruity. Nothing she could do about that. The crystal was all smashed: against walls; off benches; in sinks; out windows.
She stepped back from the table, stood and scanned it, hands on hips, like an odd parody of a 1950’s magazine housewife, mother’s little helper locked in a bottom drawer. From habit she squeezed a thumb and a forefinger at the base of her nose, sniffed and felt the nervous tremor in her hand. It was a lifetime since she’d had anyone to dinner and she’d never invited anyone to this place. Would the room even fit seven people? She’d cooked a curry, with a supermarket paste, nothing like the from-scratch Massamans she’d made in the good old days, with the freshest ingredients, a mortar and pestle hard-worked and hours spent at her kitchen island, the meal served efficiently, garnished for the convivial group with the casual information that it was actually a Thai interpretation of a Persian dish. Now the fragrance from the ready-made, filled the room, giving the faulty impression that it was a place where large meals were often cooked for the laughing, hugging many, where people cared for each other and the provision of food was a joy in itself. Would tonight’s guests expect that?
With an artist, a judge, a TV personality, a farmer, a banker and a former football star coming, who knew what they were expecting. But no, she knew exactly what they were expecting: nothing. Expectation was something they had given up, just as most of their near and dear had given up expecting anything of them. Hope was their thing, even if it tended to be a pale light at the end of a dark, scarcely-believed tunnel.
Alex placed a bottle of wine tentatively in the middle of the table, knowing it was the wrong thing to do but unable to accept having guests without at least some alcohol on offer. It would feel rude, mean even. Before the cocaine there had always been the friendship of alcohol. During the cocaine time alcohol had always been there to take the edge off it. She had considered the non-alcoholic wine in the supermarket and rejected it as an insult; a suggestion in bad taste.
None of the guests had alcohol as their main demon. They were much more creative than that. Cocaine sure, even dalliances with ice, heroin, but mostly prescription stuff like benzodiazepines and analgesics, usually in gargantuan quantities. Sharon, the judge, had a particular thing for handfuls of pain killers (which used to be over the counter), gathered for her by numerous underlings who thought they were the lone provider. Cracking them open and isolating the codeine was a trick that belonged to the good old days. These days you had to monster a lot of them to get the required effect and the practice tended to be unkind to your stomach lining.
Even Rick the farmer had kept his booze use in control and managed to develop a dependency on something called Librium. He knew the local doctors from the nearby towns personally and none of them would have believed him capable of the deceit his addiction required him to become a past master of.
Nevertheless alcohol had the wonderful quality of loosening inhibitions and recovering drug addicts did not need their inhibitions loosened.
She put the shiraz on top of the box in the corner, out of the way, and looked around. The unit was modern and recently painted. Two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a tiled area at the back and a living/dining area that assumed the occupant would not be the sort of person whose life ran to the luxury of friends. It was clean too and neat, except for that packing box of mementoes almost closed in the corner. Alex had been here two months but she might well have just moved in because there was nothing personal anywhere, not a picture, a photo, a keepsake or a favourite vase. Even now the personal was terrifying and compromised. Her remaining things were in boxes, crowding her bedroom and the spare, but the box in the corner would have to remain where it was tonight. The guests were rehab friends so they already knew she was a coke addict who’d fucked up across the board. It wasn’t as if they would be shocked by a decor that included signs of transience.
Why were they coming? The prospect was unnerving. Why had she organised them? She had plenty of other supportive friends, somewhere. Why the need for these strangers? They weren’t supposed to get together at all. The program and the rehab counsellors suggested that hanging out with other recovering addicts was asking for trouble. Two people with weak resolve could often equal two people making excuses for each other (but they would never use language like that). Of course no-one could stop them getting together. It wasn't like it was law or anything. Not that any of them had cared much for the law in recent times. Nevertheless, when they had agreed to this get-together, they had also promised not to tell anyone else. The truth of it was, this was the only group of ‘friends’ that they could sit with and not be judged, pitied, hated or constructively, caringly urged onwards and upwards. Every one of them had trashed parts of their lives in ways that couldn’t be changed or remedied. They could atone and they could hide behind the fact that they had been junkies, making it the drug’s fault or the result of their genetic susceptibility or the responsibility of circumstance, society and family, but still the damage was done. All of them had struggled through the required self-examinations, confessions, apologies and acknowledgement of their failures and mistakes. They were surviving the 12 step plan. All of them, except Weatherly still attended meetings. Most of them regularly talked to case managers. They had all been clean for months. But it was sometimes nice to sit in a group, without the meeting structure, with friends who had been through the same pain and understood that some things that they had once taken for granted and accepted as precious and crucial to their existence, would never be the same.
Weatherly, the painter, was the least worried, that was his schtick, anyway. He considered rehab to be a regular occupational hazard, said he'd made some of his best friends there, met some of the best dealers. The fact that he was coming tonight made Alex nervous. He might be too dangerous for the rest of them. But she had asked him because he never felt, or at least never expressed, remorse (outside of rehab), which was a blessing because remorse arced behind the group like the wave that could overwhelm them. And now he was at the door, the first to come, in a charcoal suit and a pea green and yellow tie, looking like the businessman he wasn’t, a businessman slightly unhinged.
His shoes, she noticed, were the deepest, darkest green. He kissed her on the cheek and handed her a cellophane bag of handmade chocolate saying: “Like to see you snort that.” A joke only another addict could make. Weatherly’s most recent dependency was back-pain suppressants. A caper he claimed to have particularly enjoyed because he did have a troublesome back so it took him longer than usual to admit he had a problem and his friends, partners and ex-partners never twigged to it. Alex hadn’t met anyone that expected Weatherly to stay clean for long, which depressed her. Clean was very difficult but it was imperative. The alternative was suicide in one form or another.
“It is.” Did she offer a water?
“Bet you’ve lived in worse.”
“No, actually I haven’t.” She was telling the truth. Alex had never experienced a spiral that took her to rat-infested bedsits or cardboard box homelessness. Last stop had been a harbourside mansion, or at least a harbourside house. A bathroom without a bath, in the motel she had stayed in before rehab, had been rock bottom for Alex. Her destruction had been on a personal level: family, friends, community, trust. Bridges that were much harder to ‘unburn’ as far as Alex was concerned. As Weatherly maintained, all his friends and family knew he was an addict so only a fool would be caught or surprised by him.
Faith, the young woman from the TV, was at the door with Rick. Rick looked like you expected a farmer to look, only sadder. He was tall and lean with big, hard-skinned hands and short hair that he didn’t think worthy of attention (which Faith had pointed out made him accidentally on-trend). He might have run over a friend of his in his ute, while he was loaded, (him not the ute), but he’d only mentioned it once, so no-one was really sure. Rick said Librium became his thing because drinking was a giveaway in a community like his and he had been trying to survive his problems, not make a call for help. He’d lamented it was a deceitful, deluded strategy that didn't work. But that was about all they ever got out of him.
In contrast to the rest of them, Faith was stunning, funny, her hair shiny blonde and her teeth so white that everything around her that purported to be white had to settle for being ‘cream’, the girl for whom success had seemed easy and endless until she started pulling her own hair out in a morning television green room, courtesy of a bump of ice, which she had been doing for ‘variety’ from her prescription regulars. The gossip media loved her fall and were no doubt readying themselves for her ‘comeback’. The only men who didn’t respond to Faith, including men in the street, men on the bus, men in the shops, were the men who were coming tonight. Rick had too much self-hatred to find other humans attractive, Teddy, the footballer, was desperate for his wife to love him and Weatherly, well, you just didn’t know with Weatherly.
They stood in the space that the table allowed, shook hands and tried to think of nice things to say. Alex held out cheese and crackers as if they were the answer to their problems. In another lifetime, if they thought they were going to be subjugated to more of this sort of awkwardness, they would have exited quickly. But not tonight. They were hanging on to dear life as they had been for months, if not years, and tonight was way too important to them.
Alex went to her small oven to check on the dinner. She was beginning to feel sick in the stomach. It was a disaster. Everybody was uncomfortable. They might even leave before she could serve the meal. Perhaps she should offer them a drink to loosen things up. They were adults. They could make their own mature decisions. They knew when to say: ‘No’. Fuck. Alex nearly pinched herself at her deliberate stupidity. Her new friends were by definition “Yes” people. “No” was something they were still trying desperately to master.
She returned to the room with a water jug and a bottle of cola, the only concession made to drinks with any flavour. The conversation hadn’t improved.
“Please take a seat everyone. Can I offer a drink? Soft drink? Water?”
They looked at her a little startled, saying together: “Um” and “Yes.”
Thankfully the footballer and the judge appeared in the entrance and the group deflected their discomfort by saying more ‘hellos’ and ‘nice to see you’s’.
Sharon immediately took a seat at the table, complaining in the way that only a law person could, about sore feet, because of the running she’d been doing, something she’d never done but had taken up to replace the pills, (the sort of pills that would have been a big help to her at that moment except that given her tolerance she would have had to take many times the recommended limit to feel anything). Sharon was stocky, purposeful, smart and no slave to vanity. Alex noted she had finally done something about the tiger stripe of grey roots that usually shaded the part on top of her head. It suggested a life moving towards control.
Teddy filled the rest of the room with his dark bulk, making the others feel like he was the only adult at the preschool. His problems had started with good old opioid pain killers but he was the journeyman in the group, having more than dabbled in everything you could snort, swallow, sniff, smoke and inject after an injury that suddenly ended a good career that looked like it was going to be legendary. He also got rid of any money, his or anyone’s else’s, that remained after the drugs had taken their share, by gambling in every way possible. There were lots of ways. One time he had lost the equivalent of the deposit on a large house, sitting on the bus on his way to the beach. Not one part of his story went unreported. He was more surprised than most that he didn’t go to gaol. His biggest thrill was that he was back living in his house with his wife and two children and his only lament that he was not yet back in the marital bedroom. Despite it all, Teddy looked healthy, fit, powerful and slightly sheepish at the fact.
There wasn’t much room to stand and chat so they drifted to the table, Faith passing around the water and personally avoiding the cola because at one stage, in a personal detox, she had had a multiple-litre a day habit. Most of the talk was on the safe topics of weather, sports and arms-length politics. Nobody talked about past pain or current progress.
Alex decided to serve dinner because the small talk seemed to be getting smaller and food offered a useful distraction. You would think they had nothing in common and nothing to chat about which could have been a valid assessment because they were archetypes of their small, clearly delineated worlds where an overlap was unlikely, even disagreeable. They had no interest in each other’s worlds and even struggled to find shared language. Outside of this room and this group, the footballer jeered the artist, who sneered at the celebrity, who sniggered at the farmer who sledged the banker, who hated the judge. But this team had been brought together by the unlikely forces of misadventure which meant they had lots in common and plenty to talk about. And that was the other powerful motive for this meeting. Who else wanted to listen to their too-colourful stories of addiction and depravity? Those stories were so much a part of them, sometimes it felt like they had nothing else meaningful to talk about. But here, in Alex’s newish unit, on the fringe of the fashionable suburbs, they had not found the confidence to talk about that part of themselves, even though they had before, in other places.
Then Weatherly clapped his hands together and said in reference to something Teddy had mumbled: “Slippery Tony? God I’d forgotten about Slippery Tony. He was my dealer for a while, in my smack phase,” he intoned the label with mock gravitas. “A heavy dude. Carried a knife. In his boot. Like a great big Bowie Knife, a Crocodile Dundee knife. The thing was always cutting his ankle, bloodying his sock. Can you believe that? And you say he was at your football club?” He made ‘football club’ sound quaint, like an eccentric hobby.
“He hung around. Could get you anything you wanted.” Teddy looked at the others to check that he wasn’t crossing a line. “And at that time I wanted everything.” A shrug from him and a nod from the others. The nod was just politeness because the comment, in this group, was redundant.
Alex felt a shudder of hot recollection. She had known someone called Slippery Tony too, hadn’t she? Yes. He came to the house a few times. Why had she allowed someone like that to know her address? She remembered one of her paranoia phases when she thought everybody was after her and the only safe place was her house. Her imagination was overflowing with returning nightmares like Slippery Tony.
“He had that girlfriend, with the koala tattoo on her shoulder, who was supposed to be someone important’s daughter?”
“Yeah. Yeah. What was her name? Candy? Celeste?”
“I was thinking of Waterloo something. Celeste Waterloo. Ha ha.” Teddy was suddenly self-conscious. He was aware that people assumed he was stupid and poorly educated and would think anything that sounded like an educated response was artificial and probably incorrect.
Faith turned to Alex and said: “I thought Rod said he was coming. Did he pull out?”
“He said he’d be here. I guess he’s just running late.” Alex checked her phone in case she’d missed anything.
“I text with him. Seemed like he’s been struggling a bit. Maybe even considering going back in.” Teddy’s revelation was greeted by more nodding from the table. Nobody at the table was far from such a decision. Conversation went elsewhere and Teddy felt forced to add: “But he’s a smart guy. I’m sure he’s on top of it.”
And then there was a knocking on the door and Alex was admitting Rod, in an expensive suit, looking like the businessman he was, or wasn’t any more. “Hello everyone. Sorry I’m late.”
They happily said ‘Hello’ back and then the room went still. Someone whispered: “Oh my God, he’s high,” but Rod’s state would have been obvious to the straightest dinner group. The sick knowledge was thick in the air.
Teddy stood and put a hand on his shoulder. “Mate.”
“It’s OK,” a female voice said from the doorway. “I’ll take him. He insisted on dropping in. I couldn't stop him.” The words came from the saddest looking woman Alex had ever seen. Her clothes were drab and ill-fitting suggesting someone to whom getting dressed was just another imposition. She stuck out a hand and said: “Jacky, Rod’s wife.” The table knew that whatever Rod had been through, was going through, was matched in suffering by his partner. They also knew they were looking at the face of their own partners and people they had hurt and let down. Faith stood abruptly and strode to the kitchen followed by Sharon. Alex understood there would be weeping but there was nothing she could do about it. She had to deal with the Rod situation first.
He was saying to the backs of Faith and Sharon: “What’s the matter ladies? Don’t want a bit of quality time with old Rod?” He laughed a little to himself and looked up at the mass of Teddy beside him.
Jacky moved in close behind Rod. “Are you ready to go hun?”
“What are you going on about? I just got here. These are my friends.” He looked happily around the table. “We agreed to have a little gathering. Just us junkies.”
Rod had been some sort of hedge fund manager and made more money than he could ever spend. He claimed he had never been near drugs until he was 40 and had never even been much of a drinker. But when clinical depression snuck up on him he decided he was smart enough to medicate his way out of it. It had worked for a time and then it hadn’t and, it appeared, still wasn’t.
“Your friends think you should see the doctor, like you said you would.”
“I said no such thing.” The assertion was preposterous.
Jacky sighed quietly and said: “Don’t give up now.” She was looking at him like he stood on the edge of a cliff and she had to convince herself he was worth saving, again.
Rod looked across at Alex and said: “You know, I knew Tim. Excellent fella. Ooo-wee we had some good times.” Alex didn’t know whether he was making up a connection to her ex-husband or not. She’d never heard of it before and she didn’t want to hear it now.
“He was wild, that man. Could party like no-one I ever met. And I’ve met a few.” He scanned the room expecting them to be entertained but was unfazed when they appeared not to be. “And the women…”
Jacky looked as if she was expecting something like this: “Rod.”
“What?” He wiped his mouth and paused, at least that self-aware. “Yeah. Whatever. But I tell you, I’ve got my own theories why those bastards killed him.”
“It would be a good thing to see the doctor, Rod,” Weatherly said it leaning back in his chair, the words of someone who knew about these things. Rod looked across at him, slightly startled. Weatherly was not touchy-feely and did not say things to make people feel better. He relished delivering brutal honesty.
“It would?” Everyone nodded, even the women in the kitchen.
“Go with Jacky, see the doctor and get yourself right, mate.” Teddy’s hand was back on the shoulder.
Rod got up as if he was the sort of man who always took good advice and nodded at the group and then at Jacky. She did not smile or thank him because she knew as well as anyone there that he was just as likely to get to the door, change his mind and bolt to another place where people might be more accommodating.
“O.K. See you later everyone. I’m off to see the doc.” He gave a little wave without looking back. Jacky silently followed him out.
After Alex pushed the door shut behind them, there wasn’t a sound from the room. Faith and Sharon returned from the kitchen and took their seats to the percussion of intermittent sighs. Rod might have gone over the edge but all of them walked a line close to it. His lapse reminded them when they hadn’t wanted reminding and it scared them out of congeniality. Alex served the meal and they ate quietly, only offering compliments on her cooking and the noise from crunched papadums.
Sharon finished her meal, pushed the plate away, smacked her lips and said: “If no-one’s brave enough to talk I will. I think it’s good, maybe even important, to get together away from the program and the meetings and the bloody ‘mindfulness’ and I want to do it again. Perhaps tonight had its problems but can we have another go some time?” She looked round the room with some of her judge’s authority still intact.
“I’ll do it again, even if it’s only me and you Shaz.” Weatherly grinned at the judge, knowing she was never likely to be a ‘Shaz’ anywhere else.
“I’m in,” said Teddy nodding his large head and the others agreed.
Faith added: “It should be a regular thing, like monthly or something?”
No-one replied. It was too big a step.
Alex solved the problem: “I’ll message you all about a possible place and date. How about that?”
The room seems satisfied and Sharon proceeded to tell a long-winded story about a banker who had come before her many times for flashing and was many times acquitted because he could never be reliably identified. Until he unwittingly exposed himself to an ex-girlfriend.
They limped through dessert and everyone declined coffee. The dinner was over and the people were leaving before Alex had a chance to think what she had been so anxious about. The only one remaining was Faith who had stood at the table saying ‘good night’ to everyone and telling them how she hoped to see them soon and wishing them the best, as if she was the one who had just hosted the dinner party. Weatherly had stood in the doorway holding the door open for Faith. When she hadn’t moved he asked: “You coming?”
“I think I’ll stay a little longer.” She swivelled in Alex’s direction. “If that’s all right?”
Weatherly arched an eyebrow and disappeared.
Alex stacked the dishwasher while Faith took a seat back at the table.
“It went O.K. did you think?” Alex asked her from the next room. “Dinner I mean.”
“It was really nice. So great to see everyone.” Even Faith knew she was talking nonsense. “Like Sharon said, it had its problems but everyone thinks it’s really worthwhile. And, like, the curry was lovely.”
Alex didn’t know what to say to this or how to pick the truth from the gibberish. She decided on change of tack: “Poor Rod.” Alex sat at the table with Faith, considering it rude to go on cleaning up especially as Faith wasn’t offering to help.
“Yes. At least he’s got Jacky.” They were both quiet and Alex wondered why Faith had stayed on. Was she lonely?
“I just wanted to make sure you were OK with that stuff from Rod about your husband, ex-husband.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m sure Rod didn’t mean any harm, or at least he wouldn’t have if he knew what he was doing.” Tim was a non-topic for Alex. She had spent a lot of time with therapists disarming his memory. She accepted that her drug addiction and the destruction it had caused was her fault, she had owned it, but the cause of it all would always be Tim. Talking about him did not interest or please her.
“It must have been very hard for you. The whole break up and then his passing?”
“So hard I became an addict.” It was a kind of joke, the kind you felt bad after making but it was better than slapping Faith in the face.
“Do you think he was murdered?”
“What? No. Of course not. Poor Rod. He’s really gone.”
Alex thought about her response. It sounded like she knew what she was talking about. She didn’t and she didn’t want to give that impression.
“Actually, I really have no idea. I wasn’t there. I hadn’t had anything to do with him for a fair while.”
“So you weren’t in communication?”
Alex had suffered a great deal for and because of Tim. It mattered that he was in the past and stayed there. The interview-like questions were stirring things that did not need to be stirred.
“I’m sorry. It’s not of my business. I shouldn’t be asking you. It’s just that you looked so flattened when Rod started talking about it, I thought you might need some, you know, support.” “It’s OK. I really try not to think about him at all.” Alex was disappointed that her face had shown ‘flattened’, had shown anything. “He was the devil. But he’s gone and I want him to stay that way.” She sighed when she hadn’t meant to. “I suppose that’s harsh isn’t it?”
“No. No. I totally understand. Very difficult for anyone. But you weren’t in touch at all?” “A text every few months, just about practicalities, was as close to communicating as we got.”
After another small gap of cool silence Faith offered: “One of my girlfriends kind of knew his group.”
Alex wished her gone. She didn’t know why Faith wanted to talk about Tim. It didn’t feel like the support she had claimed to be offering.
“Said he was a nice guy.”
“He wasn’t.” He was a two-faced, lying, self-serving prick. If Faith’s friend hadn’t seen that then he had deceived her too, which made her a fool just like Alex was. She could see a sympathetic look on Faith’s face that said she understood and that Tim couldn’t have been that bad and eventually Alex would get over it. Alex could feel her rage shaking off its remission, rising up from its home in her chest, as ever present as her addiction.
“Six years into a beautiful, caring, fun, wonderful, sexy, soul-mate kind of marriage, he decides he wants out. No flagging of his change of heart, no intimations that he is unhappy, no suggestion that I’m suddenly ‘so last year’. He doesn’t have the decency to explain, he just gradually backs his way out of my life. By the time I comprehend that he might be leaving me he’s already long gone. Oh and of course he gives me the fucking house like it’s some sort of chivalrous gesture when he knows damn well he’s going to have enough money for a suburb of houses. Nice fucking guy? Right.”
“I see. I’m so sorry. I was only trying to help. Sometimes we need to talk about the things that hurt us.”
“I’ve done more than enough of that. Haven’t you?”
“I suppose so.” Faith was quiet for a moment and didn’t get up to leave as Alex had expected.
“My girlfriend Fi said Tim had been involved in a really big money deal. Huge. I kind of thought if he had been, you should have got some of it. Did you?” Faith looked around the room and Alex wanted to hit her for answering her own question.
“No, Tim did not do one good, generous thing for me.” She could have been more truthful.
“Well maybe you should have got your share. I’ve got a friend, like a financial expert, who can follow it up for you if you want.”
“No. Thank you.” Alex had stopped listening. “Actually, Faith, I’m really sorry but I’ve got a bit of stuff I’ve got to do, for the accountant. I’ve been putting it off and I promised myself I’d have look at it tonight.”
“Tonight? O.K. I understand. Thanks for the lovely dinner.” Faith stood, picked up her handbag and made her way to the door. “We all need money Alex. I can really help you out. That’s all I was saying.”
“I’ll see you next time.” Alex pushed the door shut behind her.
When she was confident Faith had really gone, she slumped on the couch. What was that all about? Was Faith actually trying to be supportive? Or did Faith think Tim had some money that her friend or Faith herself could get her hands on? Or was she just as plain crazy as Alex was? Alex wanted to scream at Tim’s memory and order the ghost of him to leave but the walls were thin and the last thing she needed was to give the neighbours reason to call the police or worse, pay her a visit. She slapped the couch hard with open palms and kicked her legs like a child. She would have loved a drink, done most anything for a drink but she knew a drink would allow her to justify then next step, the next pain delayer and she couldn’t live through that. Literally could not live through that.
She breathed deeply rhythmically as she’d been taught and thought of her safe place. Tim needed to be removed. She had dealt with him and she need to clean her mind of him; simply wipe down the bench tops her in her head. If she allowed him to return all the other bad would return with him.
But now the small place was too quiet. Alex hadn’t imagined the time ‘after dinner’ and the story about doing some things for the accountant was a pathetic and obvious ruse. All her thoughts and plans had been about the lead up to, and the dinner itself. Now the guests were gone too soon and the unit was a lonely and lifeless place not softened by good memories. She got up and took the shiraz to the empty cupboard and shut the door. After other dinner parties, before the bad days, she liked to have a small after-party drink with Tim, to relax and take in what had happened, discuss what dishes had worked and think about the things people had said. Alex sat back on the small couch and pushed her head into the cushions. Post mortems had to be done without help now.
In the morning she spoke to her mother Emma, as she often did these days. Her mother asked safe questions and said supportive things. Alex only noticed now that her mother had lost the maternal need to harp and lecture. Or maybe the need was still there but it was submerged beneath fear. That fear had reduced her to simply hoping that Alex would go on living and then if she could achieve that, wish that she might stay clean. Step by step. Alex guessed she would know she was completely recovered when her mother started to insinuate that she could make better choices with her clothes or her friends or the things she did. But that was not now. Now was love and unquestioned support and there was nothing more extraordinary.
While she was talking to her mother there had been a text from Weatherly: “In your ‘hood. Coffee?” When she’d said goodbye to her mother she texted back that she’d love a coffee and they agreed on a time and place.
She walked the few blocks to the main street and its shops and restaurants. The shops weren’t particularly interesting or original and the area not so pretty but now this was one of the things she could really enjoy: just to walk the street and see the people and places without thinking about scoring or feeling like the social reject junkie that she knew everyone was watching. You had to cling to the small pleasures especially when thoughts of Tim recurred without invitation. In a week she would start work at the real estate agency further down the road. A friend who owned the company had helped get her the place with the local franchise. It was nothing other than answering phones and doing some data entry but she felt it was something solid that she could rely on as a first step. It was in the real world and that mattered.
There wasn’t a day when she didn’t at least think about a bump, a line or a rail of coke but she had gradually erased the head space that accompanied that desire. She had stopped the ‘nagged by the white girl’ language that went with being part of the users club, a club with unspoken rules and regulations that spent so much of its time worried about scoring the drug, how to take it, when to take it and who to take it with, to the exclusion of non-club members. At the time she had loved the club because it felt like an elite group who derided those who didn’t belong. Everyone wanted to belong. The club knew that everyone else couldn't handle their drugs and were needless worriers. Rehab helped her see how stupid that was.
Stopping in front of a fruit shop that was almost arrogant in its display of perfect, shiny, colourful orbs, Alex realised that of all the things she felt: numbness; pain; need for a hit; desire for an ordinary life; desperation at who she had become, loneliness was the most powerful emotion of them all. She was terribly lonely. Maybe her only remaining friends were in the rehab group. Alex had to hold onto the edge of a display box, her legs losing strength, giving up on her like everyone else. That wasn’t true. She had friends, she had just kept them at bay because she couldn't face them, couldn’t face how she had treated them. At the time she didn’t know she was treating them so badly, her perception was that they were just being pathetic and weak. Somewhere along the line she had lost the ability to read emotions. She knew when people were cranky or very sad but there was a big gap between these extremes where nothing registered. It might have been that, at the time, she had simply lost the ability to care what other people thought or felt. What mattered was how she felt. It was hard to accept that she had become such a person. It was like being caught lying, a big continuous lie. You could blame other factors but nothing stopped it being you.
Now it meant that she was alone because she didn’t want to be friends with people who knew she had been that person and would still have her as a friend. Groucho Marks and Woody Allen had both said something about that feeling. It might have been funny for them but it was desolation for Alex.
Weatherly was already at one of the outside tables of a place called ‘Karm’ with three coffees on the table when she arrived. Alex saw him down an espresso in one gulp, push the cup aside and pull the other one in front of him.
“I ordered you a latté.”
“Thanks.” Weatherly was quietly thrilling to be around. He had a raw nerve-ending approach to life that he explained as art. Alex considered that before she hit rehab he would have been a wizard to party with, a horizon and dimension expander, or something like that. He was capable of going anywhere, doing anything. It wouldn’t surprise to hear that he was living in a yurt in Mongolia or a bombed house in Bhagdad or couch surfing a mansion in New York. Post rehab he was simply dangerous, maybe even lethal. He lacked the self-loathing the others took for granted and seemed unafraid of his own destruction.
“That was fun last night, with the gang.” He looked away from her as he spoke, the words coming out like someone else’s. She was taken by his pale, thin ankles that presented embarrassingly nude above moccasins that might have been homemade.
“Fun? That’s putting a gloss on it, don’t you think?”
It was clear he liked her frankness. He brushed his pale, wavy hair back from his face and leered at her. “It was a bunch of addicts at dinner. It could have been a lot, lot worse.”
Alex sipped at her coffee and agreed. Weatherly didn’t live anywhere near her so what was he doing here so soon after last night? Probably filling in time like everybody else.
“Have you been painting?” She didn’t know if he was strictly a painter or if it was just one of the media he worked in.
It was the wrong question.
“Haven’t done anything for a long while.” He paused and pushed out breath, his green eyes intent on her. “This is how it happens for me. I take drugs, I get perspective and inspiration and I work. Then I take more drugs, I get completely fucked up and can’t work. I get off the drugs and I’m an empty echoing well, so I go back on the drugs. Or something like that.” He was wistful but humorous. “What about you? Molested as a child or something?”
Alex tried to recall if she’d had this discussion with him. It was hard to believe she hadn’t.
“No. Nothing like that. I’m pretty low on excuses really.”
Weatherly waited because both of them knew how this worked. Either she explained or she didn’t. Sometimes you felt like it and sometimes it was just annoying.
“My story is so uninteresting. Things got a bit tough for me and I took up blow and it got out of hand. At Sunny Plains we agreed on pain and anger as my motivation.”
“Your ex-husband have something to do with it?”
Weatherly finished his coffee and sat back letting his legs and those ankles splay in front of him. “I don’t know whether you want to hear this but I knew Tim. I knew him quite well.”
“Where would you know Tim from?” This had to be a Weatherly joke, surreal and mocking at the same time. Tim and Weatherly could not have come from more different parts of humanity.
“We went to boarding school together when we were 10. He had done school of the air up till then and his parents decided he’d better go to real school, make some friends get some discipline.”
“I know.” She remembered him telling her and how amazed she was that someone could voluntarily send a child away at that age. But it wasn’t a bad memory for Tim.
“My parents were busy zooming around the world and I was getting into trouble so they figured the easiest thing to do was to get a school to look after me.”
Alex could feel the lead in her stomach that came with talk of Tim but she let Weatherly go on.
“Funny thing about an experience like that is you never lose the connection. I wouldn’t have seen Tim for more than a decade and we weren’t close in those final years of school but when he walked into my studio we started talking like we’d seen each other the day before.”
She had to stop herself asking what Tim was doing in an art studio.
“He’d made a lot of money. I don’t know how. But someone had told him that art was a good investment if you got the right piece. So he’d come to me to buy something or get advice. Thing is, he had this hard edge to him. We had a few laughs and then he was straight down to business and he made it clear he wasn’t someone to fuck around with. He’d always been tough, like those western guys are, but it came with a laid back attitude. He wasn’t the one to get into fights or act tough or push other kids around. When I saw him again after all those years I thought he might have turned into that guy.”
“I don’t care. I’m doing my best to forget him. He’s a significant part of my life I’m trying to get past. Problem is, my rehab friends are mad keen to resurrect him.”
“I get that and I wouldn’t even mention it, haven’t mentioned it as you know, but when I saw you were having a heart-to-heart with Faith I thought I had to say something.”
Why the fuck did he have to say something? Why couldn’t they all just keep their mouths shut?
“That wasn’t a heart-to-heart.”
“Well whatever. What I know is that that Fiona chick once had close links with Tim and the dudes Tim was boating with when he died. She had some sort of break up with one of them and now she’s trying to work out a way to get money off them. She thinks you are that ticket.”
“That’s plain stupid. I haven’t got any access to Tim’s money. I honestly wouldn’t even know if he had any.”
“That’s not what she thinks. She’s pretty sure you and Tim kept in contact and you know everything about whatever he did.”
“Oh for goodness sake. He dumped me. He ruined my life. I’ve spent the past few years trying to get over what he did to me.”
Tim’s departure had been copybook, cliched even, because Alex refused to believe it was happening or that he was capable of it. First of all he disappeared emotionally. He stopped sharing things: thoughts, hopes, jokes, stupid things that happened during his day, the outrageousness of daily news. Physical intimacy from loud sex to quiet reassurance petered out. He still made supportive comments and asked how her day was but they sounded like pre-made templates that he issued without thought. She began to recall pieces she’d read on men not being ‘present’ in relationships. Then he really wasn’t present. He began working all the time: later and later nights, weekends away, weeks out of town. Eventually she had confronted him about the obvious but he denied any affairs and she believed him. He said it was because he was heading up a huge water recovery project within his division. It was very exciting, a huge pay rise, would take a mammoth effort but he knew he could pull it off. Alex told him he was destroying their relationship, his ambition was sacrificing what they had. She guessed he already knew that.
For a long time she didn’t believe that they were finished. Her deep conviction was that when he got his big project done he would return to her. She just had to wait it out. They were strong enough to get back on track. It was simply stress. Love would overcome. You could slap yourself for such naiveté.
They began to live like strangers in the same house and all the while she clung to her faith in their bond. And then he came home and asked for some time apart. There were no affairs but he needed space. Tim felt he had changed and grown away from her. They were headed down different tracks. She wanted to ask him if he was reading from a hackneyed soap opera script. He moved out and never moved back in. Soon enough she found out he was sleeping with someone else. She went to his rented place and confronted him about it and he confessed. She told him to stop and he said he couldn’t and wouldn’t. And that was the end of it. When the divorce came through he acceded to her every demand and more. He signed the house over to her and most of the remaining cash. It didn’t make her any less angry at him. They communicated by text, if at all, and her friends found ways to let her know who he was being seen with.
After some time, she was only crying in private. One day, at a girlfriend’s place, where a few of them had gathered in support, Alex had had a line of coke. It wasn’t her first and it was no big deal. Plenty of her friends did coke. She and Tim had often done coke together in the days when they were so impressed with themselves. The whole world did coke. She found it gave her the confidence she was suddenly needing and she noticed the relief on her friend’s faces when her mood lifted. Everyone agreed: it wasn’t like ice, it didn’t take over your life.
For a while it genuinely helped. She began to go out more, she started taking charge of things. She cleaned up her house and removed any signs of Tim. She had the bedroom painted and changed colour schemes throughout the house.
But of course she started getting high more often. She went to more parties and the invitations to parties came from new people, different people. She took coke to feel good and even now she felt if she had her time over she would still have taken it in those early days. It was the one thing that reduced the pain. But soon enough she had to take more and more just to feel good and then she was taking it not to feel bad. She developed into the party animal herself and then she began to party all by herself. So then it was the whole loser train wreck. She insulted and ignored her friends and family, she moved with groups that thought too much coke was never enough and she spent money like it was someone else’s. Somewhere in the middle of the party, reports came through of Tim’s death. What had been a rollercoaster ride had fire rockets added to it. The whispered warnings that had turned into screams from those who cared, became nothing. It was full steam ahead. To get through the funeral she had to do a few lines and then do them again at the wake where she yelled at people and wept ferociously and behaved as badly as humanly possible, at least that’s what her sister told her. Her sister thought it was funny, sort of, because Tim was such a prick. Why not let everyone know how you feel at his wake?
So inevitably the sale of the house to pay money owed and mortgage payments not made resulted in the overdue dawning that she had stuffed up everything. When she hit the much-prophesied rock bottom the only people there to pick her up were her mother, father and her reluctant sister. They ushered her to Sunny Plains Rehab.
After that some of her friends returned but they were nervous of her, certain that at any moment the worst Alex, the bully and the big note, would return.
She didn’t particularly like her new unit but at least she was out of her suburb and removed from the raised eyebrows and smug knowledge that it was obvious what would happen to Alex Carter, it was just a matter of time.
“So you don’t know any of the stuff he was into?”
“Nothing that wasn’t in the newspapers. To do with water apparently. Fascinating stuff.”
“For the government?”
“Yeah. He worked for the government as a bureaucrat. I was never sure what he actually did. It was very bland stuff. Allocations, licences, buybacks. He explained it to me several times but I couldn’t take it in. It was to do with water and irrigation. I could never get why he was so fascinated by it. Put me to sleep in minutes.” She took a breath and wondered if anything she remembered was real. Perhaps the whole story about water and water recovery was bogus; a front to cover for something else, something bad that he had gotten himself involved in.
“But I could be just making this up because the coke seems to have turned my memory into an unreliable witness.”
Weatherly looked away and said to no-one in particular. “Junkies always say that stuff. How their memories are shot and they’re missing chunks of their life. Usually it’s bullshit, a defense strategy. They don’t remember what they don’t want to remember. Who wants to remember being total self-serving, fornicating fuckwit? In my experience it all comes back to you in shuddering, 3-D full-colour detail.”
“Well I don’t want to remember anything about my ex-husband.”
Weatherly sat up straight in his chair and looked straight at her. “All right, I’ll leave it alone. But just let me say this: no matter what Faith tells you, rest assured that your ex-husband was no longer a mild-mannered good guy. I’m guessing you knew that. I don’t know what he was into but whatever it was it wasn’t nice.”
Unexpectedly Alex felt the indignation of someone who has their enemy criticised by an outsider. Tim was her own private demon. She might have killed him herself if she’d been given the chance but that didn’t make him fair game for everybody. She fought back a defence of him, aware how ludicrous it would be.
“How do you know all this about Faith?”
“I could tell you it’s a small world or at least a small city, which would be true, but I won’t. Faith told me some of it. Actually she told Rod.”
“She told Rod?”
“They confide in each other. Don’t know why. I wouldn’t pick Rod to be my confidant, in the state he’s in.”
“Poor thing. And he confides in you?”
“And Rod knew Tim too?”
“It’s beginning to feel like a conspiracy.”
Weatherly laughed out. “I don’t reckon you’d be a stranger to paranoia would you?”
“Fuck you. I wish you’d all just leave the topic alone.”
“Only trying to help.”
Weatherly look around the coffee shop as if he might know someone, then leant close and said: “How about sex then?”
“You are joking, right?”
“Yep.” He sat back, with an air of relief. “But sometimes congress can be helpful, distracting at least. Maybe you shouldn’t be so tightly wound.”
A raven-haired woman in a tight three-quarter pants and a loose top, stepped to the table and put a moist hand on Alex’s wrist.
“Alex. How are you? So good to see you.” It was Louise Teal, a friend or at least someone Alex had known a very long time.
“I’m O-K.” She said it softly with an emphasis on the acronym, leaning her head to the side and adding a little earnest nod, the way a well-being guru might. It was how you convinced people that they weren’t obliged to worry about you anymore.
“I hope I’m not butting in,” she nodded at Weatherly and eased her bottom down onto the edge of a seat. “I heard you were doing better. It’s so great to see you out and about.” Louise gestured at the tables around them as if they represented formidable challenges for any right thinking person. She made Alex feel like a crazy, troubled adolescent, one you needed to support and encourage but be wary of at the same time.
“Things are improving.”
“I’m really pleased to hear that.”
She was going to ask Louise about her husband Phil and their children but opted for a deflection: “This is my friend Weatherly.”
“Hello. It is, isn’t it? You’re Bo Weatherly aren’t you?”
“I am. Pleased to meet you.”
“I love your stuff. I very nearly bought the, what was it, Clifton Gardens Picnic, just superb.”
“Thank you.” Alex noticed a light in Weatherly’s eyes but couldn’t discern if it was fired by the presence of an admirer or the possibility of a sale. “I really like that one too. Took me quite a while to get the colour right. Perhaps you would like to come and have a look at some of my other watercolour…” He crimped off the word and rolled his eyes at both of them and said: “stuff. There might be something else that grabs your attention.” It might have been clichéd but it was still slightly salacious and Louise did not miss it.
“I’d like that very much.”
Alex had a sudden flush of understanding that this was why she liked being around her rehab friends. They were significant people with the same problems as her but their problems were somehow more glamorous, less a nod-and-a-wink secret. In the light of their prominence Alex’s shame was dulled just a little bit.
Weatherly passed Louise a card and she took it and examined it, a precious gift.
“Are you around this afternoon?”
“As soon as I finish my meeting with Alex I’m free.” Alex knew Louise had heard the word ‘meeting’ and was impressed by its implications. It was a piece of generosity from Weatherly.
“Well I might come over around 4 if it’s not going to affect your schedule.”
“Sounds great. Address is on the card.”
“Fantastic. I’ll see you then.” She stood and straightened her clothing. “Lovely to see you again Alex. So glad you’re on the improve. If there’s anything I can do, just call. Bye.”
Weatherly watch her go and smirked.
“I guess you won’t be needing me for sex then.”
“Alex sweetie, that is beneath you.” Weatherly stood and stretched his shoulders back. He was tall and lean in a way that might have been attractive when he was younger.
Alex felt a strong desire to ask a question: “Hey Weatherly. In steps 2 and 3 of the program where we trusted in a power greater than ourselves to restore us to sanity and made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. And they kind of suggested it didn’t have to be God, just some greater power?”
“Who did you give yourself over to?”
“Satan of course.” It might have been a joke but Alex was unsettled. She didn’t believe in God or heaven or hell but pledging an allegiance to evil didn’t seem funny.
“I thought about the muse but my muse seems to be linked to drugs so I went with the devil.” He laughed in pleasure at the effect he’d had on her. “Oh relax I’m just kidding. I just gave in to a greater power.” He waved his hands above his head. “I didn’t name him or her. Just a greater power.”
“Me too I guess.”
“Thanks for the coffee date. I guess we’ll catch up at the next dinner or lunch or, what are we doing?”
“Lunch at Sharon’s.”
“Lunch then. See ya.” He leant down to kiss her on the cheek and it surprised her. She allowed it but it felt like the seal to a friendship that she hadn’t fully agreed to.
Alex walked back down the main street and watched the people meeting and talking and separating around her. None of them seemed to know how precious a boring, steady, day-to-day life was. A mundane existence looked like a kind of paradise to her now.
Now Weatherly had brought up Tim as a subject. He was the third person in a week. Before now she was the only one who ever brought up his name and even then she was always reluctant. Was there something going on? Did they all have an interest in Tim that they were pursuing? Could Faith really be trying to get her hands on some of his money? Alex was very wary of paranoia. It had tormented her too much in the past. She walked up the pavement trying not to stare at the people passing her. All that had happened was Rod had mentioned Tim which created Faith’s curiosity and then Weatherly’s warnings. They weren’t three random references to Tim. They were a chain. So there was nothing to worry about. It was true her memory wasn’t what it used to be and her thinking still lacked clarity. She was foggy but the psychologist said the fog would lift. Alex wasn't so sure. The fog had been around long enough for it to be permanent.
Tim had been in a boating accident, on a farm irrigation dam, while he was with some of his ‘water’ buddies. The coroner reported he had hit his head while skiing. The witnesses confirmed it, the autopsy agreed. A motive was never suggested for murder and no-one was ever charged with it. Tim wasn’t significant enough or divisive enough or passionate enough to be murdered. No one had ever heard of him and no one would again.
Alex was as devastated by Tim’s death and she was enraged. She was so filled with fury at him over everything that had happened between them and his death only exaggerated that fury. It was another supremely selfish act that could not be combatted and he could not be held accountable for.
She had met Tim at a picnic race meeting in the country with school friends when she was 21. The hook up was immediate. After that they had gone out with other people but it felt like neither considered there was ever anyone else. For the first six years of their marriage, life had been as perfect as humanly possible. They had delayed having children until they were more financially secure but Tim’s agricultural investment development company had started to do very well. They always saw themselves as one of the lucky couples that had actually got it right. They had both married the right person. So many of their friends hadn’t. They would last the distance without the pain. They had married, he was promoted quickly at work and suddenly they had money. Tim received a small inheritance and they bought their beloved house and adopted the lifestyle. And they partied. They really partied. It was amazing how quickly they had become that successful young couple. And they were only going to be more successful.
But it had so rapidly gone so badly wrong.
Everything about him was painful: the break up, the affair, his death and the anger that every step caused her. The cocaine was so much a part of her feelings about Tim that rehab had meant leaving Tim behind. Tim, pain and cocaine, inextricably linked and supposedly in the past. There had been weeks when she had not even thought about him. The anger had been reduced to an easily ignored crackle. It was probably the best thing about rehab.
And now he had resurfaced with help from the last people she had expected to have had anything to do with him. Who would have guessed that three of the group knew or him or claimed to?
A message from Sharon invited the group come to her place for brunch, next week. Sharon asked if Alex could make sure that everyone knew it was on. The address was in a leafy suburb known for its large houses on big blocks. It seemed Sharon had not suffered too much at the hands of her addiction, financially anyway.
What had Weatherly said? That Tim had a ‘hard’ edge. Tim was a bastard and probably a liar and a cheat but she’d never seen him as hard. He was the mild-mannered guy at the party who made ill-timed jokes, who hadn’t updated his shoes in ten years and stopped drinking after the fourth beer. Alex had always struggled with the image of him being a party boy who had multiple girlfriends. But enough people had informed her that’s exactly what he was.
So perhaps something, a drug even, turned Tim into a different sort of person. A hard man, a mean man. It didn’t matter though because this sort of musing on her ex-husband was against the rules. May he rest in peace, even if she was never going to.
She passed a woman with a small dog in a bag she had slung over a shoulder. The woman looked straight ahead coolly but the dog was taking everything in, stalling and looking and sniffing. Alex thought is must be the dog’s job to do the scouting.
When Alex arrived at the sandstone front gate of Sharon’s house she could see two people at the side of the house partly concealed by a Moraya and they appeared to be kissing. Weatherly and Faith. Alex tried not to look. Their coupling had all the hallmarks of two abusers who had lapsed. There was nothing healthy about it, especially when Weatherly had spoken about Faith in a way that made you think he thought she was a gold digger and nothing more. Libido had a lot to answer for. Her sense that Weatherly had been too off the air to want sex had been proven wrong several times. Or had it? Kissing was just kissing. It didn’t mean you would or could go the next step, the next several steps. A shiver of recollection reminded her that she had done her fair share of sleeping with people she shouldn’t have, never would have, if she wasn’t kite-high and real world oblivious. She clicked the low gate back into place. They heard and stepped away from each other. Alex wasn’t sure why. If Weatherly and Faith decided to get it on it was no scandal. Couldn't have been less of a scandal really. Maybe the sense that it was a junkie thing to do unsettled them both. But it made Alex feel like these get-togethers were probably a bad idea. There was something creepily incestuous about them: the way they knew Tim, gossiped together, disparaged each other and then hooked up. She considered walking back out the gate but the thought of her silent flat made her stay. This would always be better than.
“Hey Alex.” Weatherly said it without pretence and Faith repeated it. They were teenagers caught out making out: the boy too proud to be embarrassed, the girl lip-lickingly pretending shame.
“Hey you two. Good day for a brunch.”
“Always a good day for junkie brunch.”
Faith rolled her eyes and gave him a little push forward. “How are you faring young Alex?”
“I am ‘faring’ one day at a time. Thanks for asking. You?”
“Never gets easy does it?”
“No time for melodrama ladies,” Weatherly held the door open for them and indicated their entry.
It was large house with rooms big enough to handle Egyptian artifacts, Italian pottery and walls full of paintings. Sharon came out to greet them in silver, dangling earrings that Alex had never seen her wear.
“Hello. Hello.” She kissed them all and then turned to lead them through the room that opened onto the outdoors. A table of fruits and cereals and yoghurt stretched along one wall extended by warmers for eggs and chorizo and hash browns and other breakfast foods tended by two young women in catering uniforms. “You’re the last. You three. I was beginning to worry. Rod’s not coming of course. I haven’t heard from Rick. This is Greer.” She waved towards a tall woman with short, purple hair on the end of a timber table that sat outside. The woman smiled at them without warmth. The all knew Greer was Sharon’s longtime partner who had moved out when Sharon got bad, was still very supportive but so far had refused to move back in. It sometimes felt like everybody except for Alex, had a long suffering but persistent partner somewhere. Teddy said his ‘hellos’ from the table. Sharon poured juice and they all took seats. The sunlight was soft and a bit dreamy. “The girls are going to serve us a couple of dishes but if they’re not your sort of thing please get what you like from the bench.”
Sharon had had a husband and children at some stage but none of that rated a mention here. She had a granddaughter that she liked to show pictures of but her house revealed nothing to cater for anyone under 20 and no sign it ever had.
The mood was good and Alex felt that she might have been at a brunch for any group of well-adjusted, successful people. No doubt everyone at the table had been both those things at some time, if not recently. She sat down next to Teddy who took up at least two places on the bench. He passed her a coffee cup, his brown arm like a rebuke to the group’s ill health.
He began to tell Faith, who seated herself opposite them, a story about a well-known footballer whose wife was sleeping with the coach. “Somehow he got a photo of them together and threatened to put it on line. He didn’t last long in the marriage or on the team.” Alex restrained herself from asking if the wife was a user. It would have ruined the story. Faith left the table for the bathroom or something. Weatherly was holding court with Rex and Sharon at the other end so Teddy turned to Alex and said: “Thanks for the dinner the other night.”
“Pleasure was all mine.”
“It was nice.” He paused aware she would think him insincere. “Like,for us.” He waved a paw around the table. “You know what I mean.”
“Did you get rid of everybody eventually?”
A little laugh, because it was a joke. “Yes.”
“Rod hit a bit of raw a nerve eh?”
“I’m all raw nerve Teddy. You should know that.”
“Weird that Rod could know Tim.”
“And Faith and Weatherly.”
“Really? That’s mad shit.”
“He was a farmer?”
“Nope. He was a bureaucrat. He grew up on a farm in that western river country. He loved it but he had a couple of brothers so he chose to head to the city. We used to visit his family’s place when we were first married.”
“My brother, who’s a cop, said something about him being a mover and a shaker?”
“I don’t think he was ever either of those things.”
“He must have been a big wheel.”
“Why?” It was happening again but she didn’t wish to take her annoyance out on Teddy. “Well, three high fliers knew him. It means he had to been flying pretty high himself.”
“I really wouldn’t know. He was my ex-, not my husband. How much do you know about your ex’s lives?”
“Lots. I’ve never been married before but I’m still in touch with my significant girlfriends. I know their husbands, their children, even tell you their pets.”
“You can consider Tim one of my insignificant exs.”
“He was something to do with water wasn’t he? That’s right, he was with a politician and some big name farmers or something when it happened.”
Teddy shoveled a huge spoonful fruit and yoghurt into his mouth and Alex looked away. She watched the others chatting and laughing and realised if she didn’t do something about these questions she would never be able to enjoy one of these gatherings and she would end up avoiding them.
“He was at one of those huge irrigation dams with a group that included a politician, her boyfriend and a landowner who has a farm the size of New Zealand or something.”
“That’s right. The big news story was the boyfriend not your husband’s…You never got suspicious? All those big players together with one water bureaucrat who suddenly dies.”
“Jesus Freddy. No.” Enough was enough.
She stood and banged a spoon against a thick glass. “Excuse me everyone but I have a request.” They stopped and turned their heads. “Please don’t talk to me about my ex-husband. Every one of us has a topic which is off limits. Mine is my ex-husband Tim. I don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want advice or support I just want forget him. So please don’t bring him up. Thank you.” She sat down again. People muttered and nodded and went back their food. Down the table Weatherly raised an eyebrow at her. “Sorry. I didn’t realise.” Teddy looked genuinely contrite.
“That’s OK.” It wasn’t. His questions had been more than naïve. “It’s just I haven't talked to anyone about him, except my shrink, for ages. Now four of you. It’s too much.”
“I got ya.” Teddy reached for toast then spooned out three eggs from the dish offered to him. “You got someone new?”
“You want to talk about footy? I know about footy.”
“Right. How about some blue berries? They’re fantastic and really good for you.” He retrieved a platter of berries from the other side of the table.
“Thank you.” She spooned some into a bowl feeling melodramatic. But she had been right. The thing was out of control. It would ruin everything. But then what were they here talking about if not the past?
“O.K. Let’s see. I went out with a girl, a woman, who worked as a bookie. Leonie. She could add up three columns of figures at a time. Seriously. She could add and subtract any number of numbers, give you their square root and order Chinese while charming the guy next to her. Incredible.”
“So what happened?” “She couldn’t stand how bad I was at maths. Numbers are a kind of magic to me, you know like ‘lucky seven’ or ‘unlucky six’ or if a horse is 3rd in the barrier that’s my birthday so it must be a winner. She said I was going to lose all my money and she didn’t want to be around for it. Moved on.” He finished his mouthful. “Of course she was wrong.”
“I didn’t just lose all my money. I lost everybody’s money.” He laughed a white-toothed, open-mouth laugh that she knew was constructed to hide sadness. He was hard not to like.
“So how do you fill in time these days?”
“I dunno. I run. I have coffee. Talk to my mother and my sister. I’ve got a new job starting next week. Try not to think about drugs.”
Teddy nodding energetically. “Job’s good. What will you be doing?”
She told him and then asked him about is kids and the difficulty in the conversation disappeared. He described their personalities, their quirks and their achievements unable to stop himself smiling as he did.
They finished up after lunch time and agreed to meet again in a month. A bbq in the park was the plan.
“His brother’s a cop you know?” Weatherly said as he slid out the door.
“I know but so what? I don’t have any reason to worry about cops anymore.”
On her way into the unit her phone began to ring, showing a phone number she didn’t recognise. She guessed it to be a sales call but couldn’t control her imagination telling her it might be good news or an old, understanding friend. What if she missed their call and they never rang again?
The person on the line was saying: “Ms Carter? Alex Fisher Carter?”
“Yes.” She should have hung up, she knew that. Knowing her full name didn’t mean they weren’t scammers.
“You used to reside at 26 Flinders Avenue Green Park?”
“Yes.” Now it was sounding like some sort of criminal prosecution.
“You were married to Timothy James Park now deceased?”
“You’d better tell me what this is about.”
“My name is Kemp Boater from the solicitors Saunders & Saunders. We sent you a letter about your husband’s estate but we received no reply. This number was provided to us by…” He was reluctant to finish.
“Tim and I were divorced. He doesn’t have any rights over me or what I own and the house was a fair part of our division.”
“We don’t want anything from you Ms Carter. We were wondering if you could some in to the office to see us.”
“I really don’t see why. There is no connection between us, except we were once married.”
“It is to do with his last will and testament.”
“It probably tells you to beat me with a stick does it?”
“Your relationship with the deceased, acrimonious or otherwise, is not of my concern. As executor of his will it is my concern to see that it is properly served.”
“He has been dead for over a year. The Will was handled and disposed of. But you’re calling me about it now? That makes me think you’re some kind of scammer.”
“This is not a scam Ms Carter. The bulk of your husband’s assets went to his sister Grace. You may not know that. Grace died last month. It was not a surprise she had been unwell for some time. Mr. Carter’s assets transfer directly to you on the death of his sister. That’s why we’re calling now.”
Grace had never been well in Alex’s memory. She had a form of motor neuron even when Alex first met her. She was a sweet, smart person with a sense of humour despite everything. Alex had lost contact and that was not something to be proud of.
“I appreciate your call but I’m not interested.”
“I shouldn’t say this over the phone but it could be very worthwhile for you.”
It wasn’t the possibility of money that made Alex take the address and organise an appointment, it was the chance that the money or the executor might explain what Tim had been involved in.
Alex had been eating chips at her main table, compulsive eating seemed to be her new thing, when she saw a young woman with long pale hair in a loose light sundress standing outside the front door with the unhurried attitude of someone who wasn’t sure if they were in the right place.
Alex put the chips away, and stood behind the security door clearing her throat and waiting for the woman to explain herself.
“Oh Hi. Are you Alex Carter?”
“Yes.” Should she have said yes? Or was paranoia getting the better of her. “How can I help you?”
“Hi. You don’t know me.” The woman stepped confidently towards the door with her hand held out to shake. “My name is Fiona Hart and I’m a friend” she paused “Of Faith’s.”
Alex remembered the reference to a ‘Fiona’ and so she opened the door and shook the hand.
“Faith said she was telling you about me…Can I come in?”
“Sure.” Alex led her through to the kitchen table but did not sit or offer her a chair.
“I’m sorry to come here like this, unannounced, but when Faith told me what she’d said to you I got concerned.”
“I got the impression that Faith told you I slept with Tim, your ex, and that I was hoping to get money from him.”
Alex guessed she was in her mid-twenties. Her eyes were blue and her face symmetrical which made her pretty but unremarkable. Or perhaps to a man that was remarkable.
“I don’t think she said it in that many words. Please take a seat.” Alex pushed a chair at her and dragged one out for herself.
Fiona sat, brushed her dress down over her knees and continued. “I was a good friend of Tim’s. He was a good man, a special man but I never slept with him. I certainly don’t want his money either. I don’t know how Faith got that. I think sometimes that she lives in a fantasy world.” She moved the hair off her forehead in a way that might have been a habit.
“I appreciate you coming here to tell me this but why would you go to so much trouble. He was my ex-husband so who he slept with was none of my business. And I didn’t…don’t know anything about his money.”
“Because he was a good person.” Fiona was obviously annoyed by the ignorance of the question. “I wanted,” she said it too passionately and immediately corrected herself “to set the record straight so people didn’t spread nasty rumours about the type of person he was.”
Alex was sitting with her elbows on the table, her hands interlocked in front of her mouth. It was a while since she’d witnessed this type naiveté and maybe genuine honesty. She was intrigued. “Do you want a cup of tea or something?”
“No. Thank you. I won’t stay long.”
“So what sort of person was Tim?” Alex asked it not because she wanted to know anything more about Tim but because she wanted the woman to keep talking.
“He was quiet. He was generous and he was a deep thinker. I’d never met anyone like him. I don’t know what he was doing mixing with those people.”
Alex wanted to ask are you sure you didn’t sleep with him but instead: “What people?”
“Politicians, lobbyists, Big Water. Awful people who saw themselves above the law and above criticism.”
“What exactly is Big Water?” Alex had heard the term several times but still didn’t quite know its meaning.
“The people who control the rights to the largest amounts of irrigation water in the river system. So there are plenty of farmers who own rights to small amounts of water but these guys are only concerned with owning and manipulating vast quantities. Usually at the expense of everyone else.”
“So if he was such a good guy why was he hanging around them?”
“I don’t know.” She was suddenly disconsolate, her argument collapsed under interrogation.
“Why were you hanging around with them?”
“I was a sort of a call girl for a while.”
“Mostly hostessing and making conversation with big wheels but sometimes…” She spread her palms in resignation. “I don’t do it anymore.”
“And this is how you know Tim was a good guy?”
“Yes it is.” She was back to confident now. “But I’m sure I won’t convince of that.” She stood and straightened her dress again. “I just needed to tell you. Thanks for talking to me.”
“Thank you too.”
Alex heard the door click shit and wondered who the hell they had just been talking about.
The park they had chosen ran down to the water and was guarded by large leafy green trees. The grass was surviving haphazardly and while there were plenty of picnickers there weren’t enough to make it crowded. Faith had an area claimed with rugs, deck chairs and a couple of fold out tables. She had eskies of food and drink and music playing when Alex arrived. Most of the group was there and from a distance as Alex walked across the flat to them, it looked like a party. A get-together of old friends. A reunion. Maybe it was the latter. Maybe the former. They seemed as close to being her friends as anyone. She accepted a glass of lemonade in a wine glass as Faith trilled hello. Rod was still missing but apparently Rick was on his way. Everyone else as there looking no worse for wear than they had at the other gatherings. Weatherly kissed her on the cheek. Freddy and Sharon shook her hand. They talked about nothing, complimenting the weather , the spot and the spread of chicken and salad that Faith had laid out. It felt good. Alex was glad to be amongst people she knew and away from her lonely flat that was visited by policemen. If there was anyone she was going to tell what was happening to her then it was these people. Despite ordering them to not ask her about Tim now she needed to talk about what might be his legacy.
Then Rick came wandering across the park to them. They almost cheered to see him. He looked a bit rough but maybe he was always that way. The smile on his face seemed new and a positive sign. If he had made it to the picnic things couldn’t be all bad.
After greetings and repeated, chat Faith handed out paper plates and they took what they liked and sat in a circle to eat. Alex found herself prompted into a confessional or maybe that first meeting: ‘My name is Alex Carter and I am…’ Instead she said: “I know I said I don’t want to talk about my ex-husband but something has happened and I need to talk about it.”
“Fire away” said Teddy his late piled so high it suggested Faith had scrimped on plate size. The others nodded encouragement.
‘I’m going to inherit my ex-husband’s assets. I’m pretty sure I hated him and now I’m going to gain from our relationship and I don’t know how to feel.’
‘What sort of assets?’ Weatherly asked pushing a bright pink fig into his mouth.
‘I’m not sure. But they’re worth money, maybe even a significant amount. It’s to do with water licenses or something. Irrigation.’
‘Didn’t that big river dry up?’ Faith asked, only just paying attention.
‘It has at various times,’ Rick said quietly but he looked more animated than Alex had seen him. ‘If they are licenses or rights to water they could be worth heaps.’
“So I’m told” said Alex. “But what am I supposed to do. I don’t know anything about this sort of stuff and I feel like I shouldn’t be accepting Tim’s money.”
“Money is money.” Said Weatherly a little bored. “Take it where you can get it. You won’t have to thank him or even see him anywhere where he can make you feel guilty.”
“I’m with him.” Faith said and giggled at the insinuation.
Rick said quietly: “A broker will sell them for you, no worries. They’ll take a percentage.”
It was obvious that it was Rick who she should have been asking about this stuff.
“It’s not much different to selling shares or bonds or whatever.”
“I can look into it for you. If you want?” Sharon offered without enthusiasm.
“No. Thanks. It’s probably better that I work it out myself.”
The conversation moved on from Alex’s issues. The group didn’t have much time for other people’s problems.
By mid-afternoon they had dispersed sticking to unspoken rules of not wearing out the friendship. They all had form for indulging in too much of a good thing. Alex and Teddy helped Faith pack up her things and get them to her car. They told each other how well everyone seemed to going, even Rick.
When Alex got back into her car Rick walked across the parking area and let himself into her passenger seat. He sat looking forwards breathing evenly.
“Let me guess. You were a friend of Tim’s?”
He turned and tilted his head. “Probably not a friend but I knew him.”
“You and everyone else. Except me.”
Rick ignored her annoyance. “Knew his brothers better. My farm was down the river from the aggregation the Peachtree family put together. Way back before they were even separating water from land and working Tim used to visit and us ask what we thought about water rights and flows and allocations. He was young, younger than me but he seemed to a have a really good grasp of what was going on. I remember Dad was really impressed by him.”
Rick had not excused himself for getting into her car or asked if she wanted to talk about Tim or if she had the time. He was apparently going to say what he wanted to say even if it meant Alex driving him to her place.
“He seemed to know everything that was about to happen with the regulation of water. He said it was about to be the equivalent of the wild wild west. Most of the bureaucrats weren’t across the detail and the ones who were weren’t going to be listened.to. He said the politicians wouldn’t be any help.”
She knew Rick had long since lost the family farm and the family. It wasn’t clear why he was feeling the need to share his knowledge of Tim.
“Locals appreciated that he went to that sort of trouble.”
“Right.” Alex put her foot on and off the brake thinking Rick might take a hint..
“Do you think he was…you know, do you think they got rid of him?”
Alex had told herself she liked Rick but now she was tempted to ask him why he thought he had a right to ask this sort of stuff. Instead she said: “I don’t have a clue. We were divorced by then and pretty much cut off from each other. As far as I know they never found any evidence of it.” She left off the back question.
“It must have hurt.”
“It was bloody bad luck whatever it was. I could never match up a decent bloke like that with a mob like the Peachtrees. The farm was only dollars to them. They didn’t give a rat’s about the country or the community or agriculture. Could have been buying a factory for all they cared. But he seemed genuinely interested and you know, honest.”
“I think you’ll find he was pretty keen on the money. He was probably just soft soaping you.” For the first time she wondered if that was true.
Rick looked surprised other comments or as surprised as he was capable.
“Yeah, you’re probably right. I haven’t got much of a record when it comes to perceptiveness about business and business people. But they must have had some pretty significant contacts in government. How they got the approval for that aggregation and all those irrigation licences, I’ll never know. No-one else could get a water allocation for love nor money.”
“Sad though. Really sad. I remember you at the funeral. Tough day. Didn’t think we’d end up getting together like this.” He didn’t look at her and she hoped he didn't mean some other sort of getting together.
Rick slapped both his large hands on his knees and stood. “I’ve over-stayed. Talked too much about things that aren’t anything to do with me. I should get going. It was nice to be here. Thank you.”
Suddenly she wished he wasn’t leaving, realising she had misread his need. He didn’t need to talk about Tim he just needed to talk.
“Maybe a coffee somewhere?”
“I’m fine, thanks. Better not take up any more of your time.” He got out as she said: “I have plenty of time to spare, believe me.”
He turned and put his head back at the window. “What I wanted to tell you is there was some bad stuff going on with those people. The big owners, the politicians and the bureaucrats were all in it together.”
He nodded energetically. ‘It meant the little people were suffering. Somehow your husband was caught up in that.’
Alex wanted to tell him that she just didn’t care. She’d only asked the group because she didn’t know whether to take Tim’s money or not. But Rick seemed so intense about Tim and the water that she thought it was best to let him talk.
‘Maybe the money was just too good. Or perhaps he got off on the power. Some people love that stuff don’t they? Talking big figures and big deals. Knocking about with powerful people dreaming up massive schemes.’
He shook his head and looked away. Alex made her face look like she understood his trouble.
‘And you know maybe he believed their theory that the only way for agriculture to get ahead was for the big operators to be given whatever they wanted. With kickbacks for those who could make that happen of course.’
He looked at her and saw that she didn’t share his concern.
‘I know you say you stopped caring about him but I think there’s a chance they killed him.
Staged an accident or something.’
“That’s what Rod said but there’s no proof, not even a theory. What I saw of the coroner’s report he thought it was hardly worth the effort. So I’m sorry but it’s just bringing up old wounds for me on the basis of some of silly murder fantasy.’
He blinked back his surprise. “Fair enough. Thing is, I saw him before he went away on that weekend. Bumped into him in town of all things. He was shit-scared and I didn’t even realize it until afterwards. Thought he was hung over or something, sort of sweaty and jittery. But when I thought about it afterwards I knew he was packing shit. I don’t know who or why but I can still see his eyes…his eyes, like he was on his way to something that really frightened him. That’s all. Thanks for the chat. See you next time.’
He walked away from the car not waving or looking back
In the morning there were two policemen at Alex’s door. A tall blonde one and a shorter, darker one. They were confirming her full name and marital status before she had a chance to ask what they wanted. The tall one told her they had a search warrant which allowed them to go through her unit. The darker one looked straight at her. Their faces were impassive. Alex didn’t know what search warrant looked like and whether it was even a real thing. Should she be ringing a solicitor?
“I don’t use anymore and I don’t deal.” Alex blocked the doorway thinking it was making her look guilty.
Their uniforms looked genuine and she couldn’t think what she had to lose by letting inside them her place. It was so empty they could do a thorough search in a matter of minutes. Then they would leave her alone. If she tried to fob them off they would probably come back, more suspicious.
“Well what’s this about?”
“Can’t say at the moment I’m sorry but we do need to go through the premises.”
They followed her through the front door as she offered them a cup of tea or coffee which they declined. It didn’t seem appropriate but then what did? She explained the layout of the unit and they methodically checked every room, emptying boxes and then repacking them and doing the same with cupboards and drawers. They crawled around on hands and knees and looked behind the one print she had put up on her wall. They wouldn’t tell her what they were looking for or who suggested they raid her rooms. The dark one asked to see her computers and devices and when she provided them he sat at the table scrolling through files and histories.
“There’s really nothing to see. I haven’t used, haven’t been in contact with a dealer for over eight months.”
He ignored her, his eyes zoomed in unblinking on her screen.
After several hours when they had gone through every possible hiding place they thanked her for her patience and made their way out. The blonde one turned back and said: “I shouldn’t tell you this but we were give a tip off that you might have been holding some important government documents. The ‘tip off’ sounded dodgy to us” he nodded towards his partner, “so we’re glad we didn’t find anything.”
“Dodgy?” Alex was realising that she was suddenly very angry.
“Yeah. Like it came from somewhere political or something. An agenda maybe. Have you upset someone powerful?”
“Not that I know of.”
He shrugged. “Well, watch out I guess.”
By the time they were out sight Alex was stamping her foot on the floor, slapping the wall with her open hand and screaming out: “How fucking dare they!” She had just been violated and she was too stupid to know it. Who had given the tip off? What was the tip off? Did they think she was dealing coke? But they had not reacted to her mention of the drug and they had of searched in places that wouldn’t have held any significant amount of cocaine. Were they hoping to get her a simple charge of possession? To what end? How would that justify a search warrant unless she was a Crime Mrs. Big? So it had to be something to do with Tim’s licences.
She dialed the number she had for Teddy because he was the only person he could think of who had suggested a positive link in the police force and one of the very few who knew of her new assets.
His answering service entreated her to leave a message so she yelled into her hand piece that the police had just searched her place and did he fucking well know anything about it.