Paul sat at the kitchen table and sipped black tea.
The house was quiet. The fridge hummed, as if hungover from a long night keeping food cold. The morning light angled in through the greasy window pane, cutting the table, and Paul, in half. A magpie gargled its song.
The Saturday paper was spread out. The front page photo: a happy Danish princess, holding a baby, standing next to a prince.
The magpie hit a new high note.
Paul lifted his cup and gently poured tea on their smiling faces.
- To Do:
Write To Do list
Little Mermaid – coffee
Paul drew a line through ‘write to do list’ and smiled at his own joke. The smile sat there for a second, unsure of what to do next, but as Paul slowly exhaled, it drifted away. The tea was finished. The cup was empty. The sunlight marched its slow march across the room. Paul’s hangover bit him on the head just above the right eye. He smelt Trish on his skin. He closed his eyes and on his eyelids they were playing footage from last night’s party. Atlantis. An Octopus’ Garden. A Hills Hoist draped in crepe paper hung with cut-out fish on brown string. A guy in a wetsuit. A laundry tub full of ice and beer. A tin foil King Neptune with a tin foil trident. The Little Mermaid. A lounge room converted to a dance floor with bodies pumping. Eye contact with Trish.
Paul opened his eyes. Sunlight marched. He closed them briefly to see the final scene.
A stark white bathroom. His hand cupping The Little Mermaid’s breast. His thumb on her nipple.
Paul rode his bike through the suburb towards his mother’s house.
“Oh it’s you Paul – let’s get the ladder from the shed.”
“Mum,” Paul leant in towards a hug as his mother turned and walked away.
And hello to you too Mum. Paul followed her into the garden.
Near the clothes line she stopped and turned abruptly.
“Paul I’m praying for you, both of you. Relationships can be healed.”
“Oh for God’s sake Mum.”
At a late age, his mother had given her life to Christ. Paul assumed it to be a fad. The latest in a long line. Liver cleansing diets, Life-force pills, a guru from Kashmir, and a bookcase full of self-help books. His mother loved a fad. But Christianity had taken hold and seemed to be thriving.
“Jesus Mum – will you leave it alone.”
“Well you should try again – with Melanie I mean. Go and see the doctor – there’s always new technology.”
Deep breath. Paul gently put his hands on his mother’s narrow shoulders, pulled her close and kissed her between the eyes. Then he turned and walked out of her garden.
“What about the gutters?” his mother called after him.
The café was busy. Trish was sitting outside at a shaded table. When she saw Paul approach, she forced a smile and waved.
They both said together: “Hi” “Hi”
Then they both said: “How are you” “How are you”
They both laughed. Paul pictured Trish. The Little Mermaid putting her tail back on.
Trish looked relaxed. Paul was nervous.
“Look Trish, I’m sorry about everything. Last night. And before that.”
“Paul.” She reached out and touched his forearm.
“We’re not in high school.”
“But Trish, this is awkward for me…the timing…” he began, but she interrupted him with a wave of her hand.
“Stop, Paul. Don’t worry about it. Let’s have a coffee.”
A young girl wearing black appeared. “What would you like?”
He rode back to the house from the cafe. Trish had held his hand and touched his leg. Made advances. He had let her, neither resisting nor encouraging her. He was in that in-between place. His heart wrapped in barbed wire. Keeping people out. Keeping himself in. He couldn’t tell the difference. He didn’t trust Trish. He barely trusted the bike between his legs to carry him through the tree-lined streets of the sleepy green suburb. To his new place. A group house near the University.
It was not his home. He used to have one of those but not anymore. Now he had a room, a bed, a chair and a separate cupboard for his food in the kitchen.
Paul Nandren had gone back in time. He lived in a share-house with a mate. An in-between place. An ‘after the break-up’ place.
He hoped the bike would get him there.
Asleep on the couch, Paul dreamt he heard a storm approaching.
A car pulled up in the driveway. He stirred – hearing car doors slam and loud voices. Not a storm. He righted himself, wiped at his sleep dribble, walked to the kitchen window and looked out. A battered, dusty Toyota Corona sat in the driveway. Not Terry’s car. Two women he didn’t recognise stood beside the car talking to a man, another stranger. The three turned and waved as a loudly painted Kombi came down the driveway with its engine roaring, it stopped next to the Corona. That was definitely not Terry’s car. Paul watched as the Kombi doors flew open and people got out. Seven, maybe more. The Kombi was orange, painted with rainbows. There were three forty-four gallon drums tied to the roof – the drums were black, with bright yellow uranium symbols painted on the sides.
Paul checked his watch. He looked back out the window at the group to see if Terry was with them.
Not in sight.
Paul did not recognise any of the people standing in the backyard. They seemed relaxed enough, stretching and chatting. Maybe they drove in the wrong driveway?
One of the men walked purposefully across the back yard. The kitchen flyscreen moaned, there were three sharp knocks and the back door opened. The stranger stuck his head into the room.
“Yes?” The stranger knew his name.
The man turned and called to the others in the yard. “This is it!”
Suddenly the room was full of people. A couple of them spoke to Paul and shook his hand – “G’day mate.” “Hey Paul.”
They all knew his name.
“Hi Paul,” said the first stranger as he stuck out his open hand ready for a man-shake. “Terry said you’d be home.”
Paul shook the offered hand. “I’m sorry I…” Paul started but the stranger cut him off.
“My name’s Raymond – nice to meet you.” He was a big guy – taller than Paul, with big arms and big features. His beard was neatly trimmed and his full head of sandy blonde hair naturally cascaded to his shoulders – surfer style. But an ageing surfer. Hints of grey. The beginnings of wrinkles and smile lines etched his face, making him look a little rugged.
“Nice, this is very nice,” he said as he looked around the kitchen and out the window into the garden. He turned to face the group. They all stopped talking and paid attention.
“OK, let’s get unpacked.”
Abruptly Raymond pushed past Paul and set off down the hallway.
Paul followed him into one of the spare bedrooms.
“I’m not sure Terry was expecting you…” Paul began but Raymond held up a hand and cut him off. Again.
“No worries mate. I spoke to Terry on the phone – it’s all sorted.” Raymond opened a cupboard, which was empty and flung back the curtains. “This is great, it’s better than I expected. I’ll take this one.”
Raymond put his arm around Paul and pulled him close.
“Paul, mate – show me the rest of the house.”
Paul followed Raymond a couple of steps behind moving from room to room, upstairs and down.
“So you say you talked to Terry?” Paul ventured. “What exactly…”
But Raymond had disappeared through the kitchen and back to the main room.
For the next ten minutes there was movement and confusion as people carried sleeping bags, bed-rolls and backpacks from the car, through the back door and into the house. Unpacking.
Paul stood in the kitchen doorway and watched.
A short blonde woman in her early twenties approached him, stood too close for comfort and shook his hand. Paul took half a step back.
“I am Lenka.” She spoke English with a strong European accent. My God she was gorgeous, Paul realised, as he took her hand and shook.
Three men laden with gear also crossed the room towards him. They introduced themselves as Jonas, Flemming and Thomas. The one called Jonas took a six-pack from his bag and offered Paul a beer. “It’s a bit warm mate.” Paul took it without really wanting to. Music began pumping from the stereo in the lounge room. Raymond was turning the dials.
Paul nodded, mumbled something about calling Terry ‘to let him know you’ve arrived’ and retreated. He went straight to his own room, shut the door, sat on his bed and tried calling Terry on his mobile. No answer. He sent a text message – “What the fuck? Who are the people who have taken over the house? Call me!”
As he hit send, the bedroom door swung open and Raymond walked in.
“Paul, mate – we need a hand downstairs.”
For a brief second Paul considered telling his new ‘mate’ Raymond to fuck off. But he didn’t get the chance. Raymond was gone. Reluctantly, Paul stood and stepped out into the hall.
He was still holding his warm beer.
Raymond was in the kitchen, giving orders. Paul was told to help Lenka take her bags to the bigger downstairs bedroom, which had apparently become the female dormitory. When they reached the room, there were two women making the bed. Lenka introduced Paul to Judy and Jess.
Jesus, Paul thought to himself, how many of them are there?
Paul noticed Judy was older than the other women – in her forties maybe? She had short practical hair, jeans, a button-up shirt and sturdy hiking boots. Jess was younger. And prettier. She was all dreadlocks, cleavage and curves. She smiled at Paul.
Paul passed a backpack to Lenka who took it and touched him gently on the arm in thanks.
Hello to you too.
Jess dumped her pack on the bed and in one swift movement pulled her black T-shirt up over her head and held it to her face to smell it.
No bra. Bare breasts. Sizeable, bare breasts with rather large nipples.
OK. No worries, thought Paul.
“Whoah – that stinks,” Jess exclaimed as she grabbed a fresh shirt from her bag and put it on. “Hey, Lenka, do you have any deodorant?”
Paul suddenly felt like a dirty perv so he gave a little wave and backed out of the room. A stupid little wave. A pervy little wave.
He gathered the tea-stained newspaper from the kitchen table, tossed the motoring and real-estate sections in the recycling, sat out at the table under the apricot tree and waited for Terry to return. It was Terry’s house and hopefully he would have a good explanation regarding the arrival of the great horde. Paul had only recently moved into the house himself so it wasn’t as if he had any right to complain. Terry had kindly taken him in on short notice. Paul had asked if he could stay ‘until things worked out’. Which was not likely. Who was he fooling? Melanie had kicked him out. For good reason.
He craved a cup of tea, but he couldn’t face the kitchen. It was crowded. With them.
Apparently they had driven from Mildura to Canberra non-stop. They were exhausted from the trip, having come all the way from Adelaide in two days. And, according to Raymond, they were here to stay – ‘for the summer’.
Terry was still not answering his mobile. It was giving Paul the shits. Terry hadn’t mentioned anything to him but that was not unusual. Terry was unreliable at best. But he did own a house. And he did have a spare room. Just when Paul had needed one.
Terry had inherited the house from his grandmother when he was in his early twenties and had transformed it into a university group house. Over time it had developed into a disorganised, slightly bohemian commune, famous for its monthly ‘bizarre bazaar’ garage sales selling household goods, retro clothes and gourmet sausage sandwiches. Other, not-so-legal, substances were also available to those in the know. The house hosted regular parties that were famous with the local constabulary for the sheer volume of noise complaints they received. The parties were held in the ‘Pleasure Dome’, a shed that Terry and his mates had converted into a nightclub, complete with black velvet curtains, a dozen mirror balls of differing size and condition, 70’s lounge suites pushed against the walls, a bamboo bar and a dance floor that lit up.
Most people who attended these parties were unaware that Terry was the landlord. They mostly thought he was just another one of the crazy tenants. In a time where home ownership and inner city renovation had replaced the orgasm for the young and rich, Terry had remained refreshingly unattached to the bricks and mortar he owned. He loved the place, but at one particularly outrageous party he had initiated a drinking game that involved him removing the asbestos sheeting from the wall between his toilet and bathroom so he could piss into the bowl whilst standing in his shower. During his time at university, Paul had been a part of the party crowd and had developed a strong friendship with Terry. He knew the house and knew its reputation. But a room was a room and Paul was grateful for his friend’s off-handed generosity.
Still waiting for Terry to call, Paul, under the apricot tree, watched two of them – maybe Jonas and Thomas but he could not be sure – as they contemplated removing the forty-four gallon drums from the roof of the Kombi. Paul seemed to recall that Jonas was the tall, thin one with red bushy hair and a goatee. Thomas (maybe or maybe not) was the shorter, thickset guy with dark hair and a serious tan. Paul had noticed that, aside from red-headed Jonas, the whole group looked like they had seen a lot of sun – outback tans not beach tans. They looked worn and tired. Not holiday-fresh.
Paul decided not to get involved with the drum removal and turned his attention to the newspaper in front of him. He read the front-page headline: Baxter break out – Refugees escape detention centre. Paul read the article. The immigration department had employed Aboriginal trackers to help find the escapees. Australia was fucked.
“I hope you have a sugar in your coffee?” Lenka stood above him holding out a cup.
“Yeah sure,” replied Paul. He wanted black tea but he accepted the coffee.
Lenka had European skin, no blemishes, with no appearance of make-up. She was short and very cute. She sat down beside him.
“Things are always hectic with these people. I like to take a break sometimes.”
“I can imagine.” Paul closed and folded his paper.
Lenka leant forward and gently touched Paul on the arm. “Paul, I am sorry we have invaded you.” She sat back and they both took a sip as they watched Jonas and Thomas struggle with the drums. Getting them off the Kombi roof was proving a difficult task.
“Are you visiting Australia, Lenka?” Paul asked.
“Yes. From the Czech Republic. Me and Flemming – Flemming who you have met, yes? – We travel together. But we only joined the protests three weeks ago and since then we have been running, travelling all the time. But it’s lots of fun.”
“Ah – that is a long story. We met Jess at the pub…”
“Jess?” Paul feigned ignorance. Of course he remembered Jess of the large breasts.
“Yes. You met her inside…”
“I think I met her.” Paul tried to keep his voice even.
Lenka continued, “Well – we met Jess at the pub. Then we went to the desert for the protests. Now we are in the Nation’s Capital – quite exciting journey for us. Raymond said we should stay to Canberra but soon we must go to Sydney and then back to Perth.”
“Oh right. So, which protests were you at?”
“The protest in the desert, you know.”
There was a series of loud crashes from the driveway. The forty-four gallon drums had rolled off the roof of the Kombi and landed on the ground, bouncing around the backyard. Thomas yelled at Jonas, who stood on top of the Kombi smiling with a rope in his hand.
“No damage done!” Jonas yelled out.
Lenka turned to Paul.
“Well thank you for chatting and nice to meet you. I must now go with Jonas and Thomas to buy beer for the party tonight.”
A party tonight? Great.
Paul tried Terry’s mobile again. No answer. Annoying but not surprising. Since Amanda had moved into the house Paul had hardly seen Terry, or Amanda for that matter. Amanda was Terry’s latest serious girlfriend and Paul wondered if she was the one to tame the serial bachelor of his single ways. Hard to believe.
Despite a number of long-term relationships, Terry had always remained single. Like a revolving door of love – he goes in with them, they go around a few times together, then she comes out on one side and Terry comes out on the other. A naturally convenient separation.
Amanda was the latest and she’d lasted longer than most. Paul guessed that it was Amanda who was the link between Terry and the Kombi brigade. She had just appeared in the kitchen one morning wearing black pants, a faded orange t-shirt and one of those knitted Rasta caps from the 80’s. When she took it off a mass of braided blonde hair fell out. Her tan was so strong she looked brown. She had a silver stud in her nose. She walked over to Terry, who was standing at the sink and proceeded to tongue pash him with the kind of vigour reminiscent of the last dance at a blue light disco.
After an awkward couple of minutes Terry finally did the introductions. “Ah, Paul, this is Amanda.” She was still trying to kiss Terry on the lips. “She’s going to stay for a while.” They kissed again.
“So Amanda – um – what do you do?” Paul had asked.
“Nothing much…go to the blockades, get involved with the protests, do a bit of transporting people.”
Paul stole a quick look at Terry.
“Oh – any protest we feel passionate about. When the issues come up, we want our voice to be heard.”
“And what voice is that exactly?”
“Depends on the issue of course. But we want them to stop mining uranium,” she ticked off her fingers, “release asylum seekers from detention, stop logging old growth forests, give the land back to the original owners….you know.”
“So – what brings you to Canberra?”
“The weather – it’s too hot in the desert for protests.”
Of course – the weather in Canberra – not usually an attraction for visitors.
“Plus we’ve worn out our welcome in Adelaide and Terry said he had a few spare rooms.”
The Kombi roared to life, paused, gasped and roared again. From the passenger seat Lenka waved to Paul and smiled her Czech smile. Things were not all bad. He waved back as the Kombi took off on its beer run.
Paul was kissing her. No. She was kissing him. The music was pumping. Paul was dancing. She was dancing. She was kissing him. He wasn’t stopping her. The music was African. The girl was from the Czech Republic. The feeling was incredible. She stopped. She smiled. She danced away from him. She disappeared into the kitchen. Paul kept dancing.
The one called Judy offered to give him a massage. “You look uptight.” She spoke above the music.
She took him in her hands. Paul resisted. She worked him. It felt good. He closed his eyes.
“Wow, you are tense.”
She was good. He felt himself relax. He let his head fall back. Someone passed him a joint.
Jonas and Thomas were arguing in the backyard away from the loud music. Politics. The environment. Economics. Both were gesticulating and spilling beer to make a point.
“What do you think Paul?” called Thomas.
“I think you have to consider the local farmers.”
“Fuck the local farmers!” Jonas roared. “They’re the ones fucking things up with their outdated, broad-acre…”
Paul, maybe a little drunk himself, interrupted.
“But any real change will be brought about by them. Through them. Surely…”
“Good point Paul.” Thomas looked at Jonas. “What are you going to do Jonas? Round ‘em up, kick ‘em all off the land they own?”
“That’s what they did in the first place.” Jonas stabbed back.
“Sure,” said Paul, spilling his beer, “but effective, lasting change must be enacted by those most affected by the change.” There was a pause.
“Well said, Paul.” Thomas nodded.
“Oh fuck off with that bullshit,” said Jonas, chucking his empty bottle into the wheelie bin. “No offence Paul but that has to be the lamest shit I have ever heard.”
This was Paul’s moment for a useless but interesting fact. “Do you know there are only about three hundred thousand farmers in Australia? Amazing hey?”
“No shit? See Thomas, I say we fuck them off.”
Paul made a quick exit.
Halfway through the night, Paul spotted Terry and Amanda on the stairs. They were kissing. Paul caught Terry’s eye – he really wanted to chat. Terry waved with one hand. His other hand was busy. Not the best time to chat.
Walking down the hallway Paul passed Raymond’s room. The door was open. He saw Raymond sitting on the bed with Jess. She looked at Paul, who felt like he had interrupted something. He kept walking.
In the bathroom Paul met Khalil, Mahmood and Ali. They spoke rapidly to each other in a language that was not English. They shook his hand. They said good night and shut the door, leaving him alone in the stark bright room. He considered a tactical chunder but resisted the urge. He needed fresh air.
On the front veranda he found Jess sitting alone on the steps. Crying. He sat beside her. It was a cool evening. He put his arm around her. She leant into him.
He woke up on the lounge. Flemming and Lenka were dancing in the middle of the room. Slowly, intimately. There was no music. He got up and made his way into the kitchen. He heard singing and a guitar. He went out to the backyard. A small fire was burning and people sat around with Judy playing a battered acoustic. She played Billy Bragg and The Carpenters. Tiddas – of course. Paul became aware of his pissed state when all of a sudden he found himself singing along doing Indigo Girls harmonies. He knew all the words. Judy loved it.
“You like the Indigo Girls?” And for the first time in his life he knew he could safely confess.
“I have all their albums.” No-one heaped shit on him.
Thomas and Jonas talked to the police. Thomas offered the younger officer a cigarette; he accepted and lit up. Jonas made a few jokes. The four men laughed. Paul heard them say ‘just try to keep the noise down’. They drove off with a wave. Paul went back into the house.
In the kitchen Paul was introduced to Miyad Moradi who was sitting at the table with Jess and Raymond. Miyad wore jeans and a tight black shirt. Olive skin. Black hair. Melbourne.
“Hi, Paul,” Miyad said. “Good to meet you.”
Ha! Check the Aussie accent on Miyad Moradi, Paul Nandren commented to his drunken self.
“Yeah, cheers Miyad,” said Paul. “Welcome to Canberra, mate!”
I’ll see that accent and raise ya! “Want a beer Miyad?” Paul offered, on his way to the fridge.
“No thanks Paul – Ramadan.”
“Well – I think we’re all out of Ramadan – but we do have some vodka.” Paul said, suddenly realising he was quite drunk.
Raymond laughed. Miyad laughed. Jess smiled.
Score one for the drunk guy!
Terry was asleep on the stairs. Somehow. Amanda was sleeping in his arms. That was sweet. Paul was wondering how he was going to get passed them when he felt someone at his shoulder.
“After you.” It was Jess.
He climbed over the sleeping couple. Jess followed him. They stood together in the hallway at the top of the stairs. He told himself to be cool.
“Hope your bed is comfortable,” he said. Cool.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine – I’ve slept on worse,” she replied
“I’m sure you have.” Yep. That was cool. He wasn’t too drunk yet, he told himself confidently. Jess was totally gorgeous and he was transfixed. He felt he could stand in the hallway all night with her and be happy. He was drunk
She gave him a pat on the shoulder and made her way down the hallway towards the bathroom.
Paul walked down the hallway to his bedroom and wobbled into bed.
Someone was getting into his bed. He lay completely still. It was a she. She was taking off her shoes. She threw back the quilt. Her head hit the pillow. Braided hair. Amanda.
“Amanda,” he whispered. He gave her a nudge. No response. More urgent – “Amanda, wrong bed.”
“You’re in the wrong bed.”
“Alright,” she said. She didn’t move. He was too tired to care.
The digital clock said 8:13. Morning light through the curtains. Voices in the house. His bladder had woken him. Amanda slept soundly beside him. At one point in the night she had rolled over and nestled into him. He had rolled away. But the intimacy of the moment lingered. He carefully got out of bed.
On his return, Amanda was gone. He was relieved. He flopped down on his bed and drifted off to sleep.
When Paul woke it was quiet. The house was empty. There was a note from Terry. “Gone to the Phoenix – my shout on Guinness you lazy bastard.”
It was 2:30 in the afternoon.
Terry sat with Amanda on an old leather train seat. The Phoenix was a themed pub with no discernable theme, just an eclectic gathering of couches, tables and chairs. Terry and Paul liked it. The great unwashed lefties of Canberra liked it too.
“Where are the others?” Paul asked.
“You bastard. And where’s my Guinness?”
Amanda smiled and Terry ordered.
“So explain to me again – exactly what is happening? Who are all these people?”
“Wait for the Guinness, Paul.” Terry held up his finger, while presenting Paul with the black beverage.
“Here’s to Paul – a man who can look forward to a rent-free summer full of parties and beautiful women.”
Paul took the beer. “Who are they?”
“They?” Terry smiled at Amanda. “‘They’ are staying with us for the summer.”
“When do they leave?”
Paul sipped Guinness.
“Did you say rent-free?”
“Absolutely. I own the house, don’t I?” said Terry
“Parties with beautiful women?”
Terry had him there.
“But” Paul jabbed Terry with his finger. “Keep that Raymond bloke away from me – he gives me the shits.”
Watch this space for further parts.