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Faceless by Jeff Thompson. A serialisation, Part 3

By johnboy - 21 November 2013 0

scrabble

[If you’re coming in late, start at Part 1]

Paul needed to talk to Terry. He knocked on his door.
“It’s open.” Amanda’s voice. Amanda sat on the bed, reading. She was wearing a tight velour top and tracksuit pants. The room was a mess.
“I was looking for Terry.”
“Gone to the shops.”
“Can you let him know I’m looking for him?”
“Sure.”
He turned to leave.
“Paul?” He turned back. “You should be careful. Things can get pretty complicated around here.”
“What are you saying?”
“With Jess – I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Was it that obvious?
“Sorry, sorry– ignore me,” Amanda laughed. “What a bitch! I can’t believe I just said that.” She sat up on the edge of the bed. “Look Paul, the situation is complex. Just don’t rush into anything – OK?”
“OK.”
“I’ll tell Terry you want to see him.”
“Thanks.”
“And forget I said anything.” He swung the door shut behind him.

Roast lamb, jelly and ice cream, then Scrabble – Tuesday night with his mother.
“DECEIVE.” Mary added up the points. “Double word score – 48.”
“Great score, Mum.”
“It’s the luck of the letters.” She was winning.
“At least you have some vowels.” He was losing.
They sat in silence. Paul juggled his letters.
“Paul?”
“Yes Mum?” Paul didn’t look up.
“It’s not going to work out – is it?”
“I have some options – I’m just looking for something better.”
“No Paul – I was talking about you and Melanie.”
Paul dropped his shoulders.
“Mum, I had an affair.” There, it was out. He had finally told her. He looked up to catch his mother’s response.
“I know, Melanie told me.”
Why was he surprised? Of course Melanie would have told her.
“And she’s ready to forgive you.”
“Did she say that?”
“Yes.”
“In those exact words?”
Mary shifted in her seat. “Well not exactly those words.”
Paul placed an ‘R’ on the board.
“DECEIVER,” he said out loud.
Mary wrote down the score.
“I promise not to nag you anymore Paul but…”
“But what, Mum?” He looked up at her. She looked older, somehow. Drawn. Her concern visible.
“I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
First Amanda, now his mother.
“Mum, it’s your go.”

Paul opened the door to his room and found Terry sitting comfortably in his chair reading a book. The digital clock said 10:34.
“Aha – Paul,” said Terry. “Just borrowing your room. Amanda’s asleep.”
Paul put the books his Mother had given him – ‘Healing damaged emotions’ and ‘Relationships. God’s way!’ – on his bedside table. He flopped out on the bed.
“Amanda said you wanted to see me?”
Paul had so many questions. But Terry spoke first.
“Firstly – there was a mix up. Amanda rang me to ask if she could stay. She said there may be some others. I didn’t think there’d be this many ‘others’.”
Paul looked doubtful.
“Right – I’ll give you the full story. I finished at ANU and bought the Kombi,” Terry paused. “That’s my Kombi, by the way,” he said motioning in the direction of the backyard. “Anyway – I set off on my working holiday around Australia. Remember?”
“Vaguely.” Paul felt a little guilty. He had lost touch with Terry for a time – he and Melanie had made other friends. Couple-friends.
“I got to Goulburn and the Kombi blew up – stopped dead. Nothing I could do, so I parked it on this guy’s farm, went to town, and bought the yellow Corona – that’s also mine – and set off again. The Corona didn’t miss a beat. Got me all the way around.” Terry scratched his nose.
“So, I end up in Adelaide. I meet this guy who says he’s going out to the Ranger protests – I gave him a lift and I ended up spending five weeks in this alternative existence. It was pretty gruelling actually – up early, in the hot sun all day, camp chores in the evening. And hardly any drugs. I turned up with some pot and it was gone on the first night. Apparently at the start, things had been different. But I came in at the end when everyone was exhausted, bickering, forming factions and splitting away. It was all pretty messy. But I did get arrested – and that’s where I met Amanda.”
Terry stood up and paced. “I’d seen her around the camp – but when we both got arrested and thrown in the same lockup overnight. Well, it was meant to be. We got chatting. It got cold. She put her arm around me. We had our first kiss in cell 1C.”
“Romantic.”
Terry paced. “Yeah – but when we got back to the camp things had deteriorated. People were packing up and leaving. There had been a fight. Raymond – he was there of course – he was trying to be the peacemaker. Keeping everyone together. Making jokes. But it was too late.”
Terry paused. Stopped pacing. “You know, that’s when I decided to come back and do law. I wanted to protest, but that just wasn’t my style.” Terry started pacing again.
“Amanda wanted to stay – so I left her with the Corona, gave her my telephone number and address, and told her if she needed somewhere to stay then she should come to Canberra. I caught a lift back to Adelaide with this couple who drove the whole way in the nude,” Terry laughed. “Not a stitch of clothing. It was the most hippy thing that happened to me out there.”
“How did the Kombi get here?”
“One night over a few beers I told Raymond about the Kombi. On an impulse I gave him the key and a map of where he could find it. When the protest moved to Woomera, Raymond organised for someone to fix it and pick up a group from Melbourne.”
Paul still had some questions. “So do you know any of these other people?”
“I know Amanda.”
“I’ve noticed.”
“Ah yes,” Terry raised his eyebrows.
Lucky bastard, Paul thought to himself.
Terry continued, “I do know Raymond – and I met Judy in Adelaide, at her house.”
“She wasn’t at the protest?”
“No – she lives in Adelaide.”
“Was Jess at the protest?” He tried to make the question flow. Naturally.
“Ah – the beautiful Jess!” Terry was sharp. “Yes Paul, Jess was at the protest – in the front line.”
“With Raymond?” Why did he care? Why did this matter to him so much?
Terry was searching for the right way to say it – Paul could tell. But in the end Terry simply said: “Yes, they were together.”
“How together?”
“Very together.”
“So what’s with Raymond and Judy?” This was the point. This was what he wanted to know.
“They’re married.”

Raymond knocked on the door and waited. Rang the bell. Had a stickybeak through the bottled glass at the shadows moving inside the house. They were home. He knocked again.

Inside the house Brigit Williams paused, stood in the hallway, considered her options. Leave him out there ringing the bell? Tell him to fuck off? Invite him in? After thirteen years with no contact. Nothing but the odd postcard and more recently a few emails. She walked purposefully to the door and pulled it open.
“Brigit…” He stepped forward for a hug, holding a bottle of wine. She backed away.
“Raymond you can’t come here. I want you to leave.”
“Oh Brig don’t be like that! Is she…?” He looked past her, down the hallway.
“She’s away. On a placement.” Brigit crossed her arms and stood in his path.
“I heard about you and Ian. I’m sorry.”
Brigit was angry now. “No you’re not. Please. Just go. This isn’t your life. She’s not your daughter.” She stepped forward and pushed him back out the door.
“OK, OK. I’ll go. I’m sorry Brig, it was never meant to be like this.”
She slammed the door shut and stood in the hallway waiting for him to leave.

Out on the steps Raymond stood still. He could see her dark distorted shape through the glass. Not moving. He waited.
“She is my daughter,” he whispered to himself and he turned and walked away.

The lift door opened on his floor. Paul reluctantly stepped out. People pushed past him. Paul told himself – you don’t have to do this. You can get back in the lift and go home. He stopped. He stood in the empty corridor. Contemplating. He had a bad feeling in his gut. Turn around. Walk away.
“Paul!” It was Rose. Powering her way down the passage to greet him. He stood still – waited for her to approach.
“Paul, good to see you.” She took hold of his arm. “Are you Ok? You don’t look well.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. I’ll be fine I’ll be fine I’ll be fine I’ll be fine.
“Good.” Rose marched him up the corridor. “I need to bring you up to date.”
She paused, looked around, and pulled Paul in to the disabled toilet. The door swung shut behind them.
“Paul, the Secretary called me into his office – me! – he said he’d spoken to Chris Watkins and hoped this wouldn’t happen again. He said he’d contact you to see if you were alright.”
Paul looked around the toilet and back at Rose – a middle-aged greying woman who wore floral prints and sensible shoes. He liked Rose but the toilet was making him feel nauseous.
“OK Paul? Let’s go.”
They entered the section together. Rose striding purposefully. Paul telling himself – I’ll be fine. Watkins emerged from his office, grinning. A painful forced grin – for everyone to see. He spoke loudly.
“Paul!” he announced. An over-vigorous handshake. “Good to see you back. No hard feelings? I behaved badly. Under a bit of pressure. Won’t happen again.”
Watkins looked around to make sure people were noticing.
“Good. OK. Well done.” Paul assumed Watkins was talking to himself. “Now we have to get on with that Hotspots tender – my office in five?”
“Sure, Chris.”
Nothing had changed.

“So the ad goes in the nationals this weekend?”
“Yes.”
“And closes in two weeks?”
“Yes, Chris, two weeks.”
“OK – now the Secretary had a word to me yesterday.”
Oh no, thought Paul. Here we go.
“He thinks it’s important that we get a bit ‘hands-on’ with these consultants.” Watkins did the inverted comma hand gesture. Dickhead.
“Let them know we’re going to be working closely with them. Watching their every move. Someone leaked that review – not you, mate, no-one’s accusing you – so at the end of the day and all things considered we’re upping the ante in response.”
Sure. Whatever.
“So Rose and I will be touring the Hotspots in an official capacity – meeting the locals – seeing the lay of the land.”
Rose will be thrilled, thought Paul.
“You will look after the tender process and prepare some recommendations. We’ll make the final decision about the consultant when I get back.” Watkins smiled. “Of course, you’ll be in charge around here. You’ll be paid higher duties.”
As if the money would compensate. “Great, Chris.” Paul nodded and prepared to escape. Watkins stepped around his desk and put his hand on the door.
“And Paul, one word of warning – you don’t eat shit in your own backyard – if you get my meaning.”

“What did he say?” asked Rose.
“You don’t eat shit in your own backyard.”
“What?”
“Nothing, but it looks like you get a little holiday with the amazing brain boy in there.”
“Where to?” Rose was sceptical.
“The Hotspots.”
“Not with…”
“Yes with….”
“All of them? Surely not all the Hotspots? Shit.” It was funny to hear Rose swear. She never swore.
“Shit, shit, shit.”
Not happy.

Paul checked his Inbox. New emails from (in order of importance):

    The Secretary of the Department (Eeek!)
    John Gardiner (SES)
    Melanie (two emails in three days!)
    Trish (as always)
    His mother (who had recently bought an Imac and got ‘online’)
    And someone called acacia.spindrift@spirit.com.au (spam)

Paul’s phone rang. He grabbed it.
“Paul Nandren.”
“Paul, it’s Raymond – did you get my email?”
“No.”
“Acacia Spindrift.”
“Ah – Hang on.” Paul quickly opened it and read out loud – “Lunch?”
Raymond took that as a confirmation. “Yeah, great – where should I meet you?”
Paul gave vague directions and hung up. Strange. He had seen Raymond in the kitchen that morning. They had chatted about cricket, of all things. Miyad, who had returned from Sydney in the night, suggested Australia go into the first Test with an extra quick but Raymond thought the batting needed strengthening. Paul wondered. What did Raymond have to talk to him about that couldn’t be discussed in the house?
The phone rang. Surely not Acacia Spindrift again – calling back to confirm?
“Paul Nandren.”
“Paul – this is Roger Simpson.”
The Secretary.
“Rose Moradi spoke to me yesterday. I just wanted to check everything was OK.”
“Fine thanks.” Why was the Secretary calling him? He was flattered, but it was a little out of the ordinary.
“Actually, I’d like you to come up and have a chat, Paul. I can squeeze you in at 9:45. See you then.”
Dial tone.
Seconds later the phone rang again.
“Paul Nandren.”
“Hi Paul.” That voice. That tone.
“Melanie?”
“You’re not returning my emails.”
“Sorry, I’ve had a busy week. I’ve been meaning to…”
The line went dead. She’d hung up. He hung up. Paul rubbed his temples.
The phone rang. He let it ring three times. Rose looked around. “Are you OK, Paul?”
He answered the phone.
“Paul Nandren.”
“Paul, just letting you know that I’ve had a phone call from…”
“Mum, this is not a good time – can I call you back?”
He heard her saying sorry as he hung up. On second thoughts – Paul picked up the receiver and put it down on the table, off the hook.
It was time to do some catching up. First, Paul opened his email from the Secretary – nothing new in there. He wanted to meet.
Second, the email from John Gardiner – he wanted to meet as well. Sometime soon, ‘to discuss an opportunity’. Paul could see Trish’s hand in that, trying to swing him a job. John Gardiner was a good public servant, wore handmade Italian suits, and climbed ladders. He was Trish’s boss and he made no secret of building his little empire wherever he went.
He opened Trish’s message.
P – must talk soon – T
Paul ignored his mother’s email, which left Melanie’s. Two of them. Unopened. He looked at his watch. 9:35. He had to run.

The lift doors were about to shut when a hand shot in and stopped them. Paul hated it when people did that. He was surprised to discover that the hand belonged to John Gardiner, who stepped into the lift.
“Paul Nandren.” An official handshake worthy of one with a stellar career. It was just the two of them in the lift.
“Paul. Glad I caught you.” The lift started upwards. “Been trying all morning.”
John turned to face Paul. He was a small efficient man but oh, the suit, and the tie! Sartorial perfection!
“Paul, I need you back. It’s my Division now, Brigit Williams has moved on. She’s gone to PM&C. You’ve probably heard?”
Paul hadn’t heard. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He was not surprised. Brigit was kick arse.
John was still talking. “I have just the job for you. A new position. A promotion.”
Paul was unsure how to respond.
“Anyway, think about it. You’ve got time – two or three months. Enough time.”
“Enough time for what?” Paul decided to play dumb. He wanted to hear John say it.
“Oh, you haven’t heard? They’re shutting down Hotspots.”
Paul wanted to know more.
“Is that common knowledge?”
“Of course not. Watkins doesn’t know yet. He’ll find out when he gets back. But it’s a good opportunity.” John was talking about the job offer. “Big things are happening, Paul, big things. Can’t tell you more than that now.”
The lift went bing. John stuck out a finger and held down the ‘close door’ button.
“When the Minister makes the announcement, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And you will want to be a part of it.”
He took his finger off the button – the doors opened. “Right, I’ll be in touch,” he said and waited until Paul had stepped out of the lift.

Four men were coming down the corridor towards him. Armani suits. Silk ties. Paul recognised the Secretary, Roger Simpson, and the Minister’s media advisor, George Mann (known as ‘the man’). Two younger men carried papers and briefcases. Paul stepped aside and waited for them to approach.
The Secretary spoke. “You must be Paul Nandren.” Skin colour, the big give away.
“Yes sir.” Paul had said sir on an impulse.
“Call me Roger,” the Secretary corrected him. “I hear that dickhead Watkins has been giving you a hard time.” The Secretary turned to George Mann and took some papers.
“He’s a dickhead, we all know it,” said George Mann.
The two younger men laughed. George Mann smiled. Paul – who was doing a half-step-jog to keep ahead of the four men – also smiled.
“Well we can’t afford to lose staff like you, Paul.” They all turned a corner and approached the lift. Paul could walk normally now.
“The department needs men of your…” the Secretary paused. Paul thought he was about to say “colour.”
“…calibre,” said the Secretary. “You’re the type of person we need to groom – as they say.”
Paul felt shafted, not groomed.
“I’ve heard about you – John Gardiner has been in my ear.” The lift doors opened and they all got in.
“He says you’re the man for the job.”
George Mann looked at Paul. The two EAs looked at Paul.
“Exciting times Paul, I’m sure John has briefed you. Big things are happening.” The Secretary turned to him. “Some patience is needed. Don’t let Watkins get under your skin.”
The lift reached the ground floor. The Secretary stepped out into the foyer and walked towards a waiting car. George Mann turned to Paul, gave him his card, and said, “I’ll call you.”
Paul assumed George Mann had his number.

Paul spent the morning working on the tender documents as directed by Chris Watkins. If he was going to be in charge he needed to get his head around things. The phone rang. He looked at his clock. 12:35. He had forgotten about his lunch appointment with Raymond.
“Paul Nandren?” it was the guy from the reception desk. “There’s a man calling himself Osama here to see you.”
“OK, I’ll be right down.” Bloody Raymond.

“So you’ve come to warn me off.” Paul had decided to use the direct approach.
Raymond took a bite of his sandwich and spoke with a full mouth.
“Warn you off what?”
“Warn me off – tell me to keep my distance.”
Understanding dawned and Raymond looked surprised. “Shit. No, Paul. Is that what you think this is about? Bloody hell, mate.” Paul sensed Raymond was actually being genuine.
“Look,” he put down the sandwich, “I’ve really fucked things up in recent months, but that’s my problem. I would never presume to tell you what to do.”
Paul waited.
“You like Jess?” Raymond asked.
“I don’t know. I just feel like I’ve walked into this really complicated situation and everyone is keeping me in the dark.”
“It is complicated. It’s all my fault. And I’m trying to fix things up.”
“So if I was interested in Jess – you’d be OK with that?”
“No – I’d be insanely jealous. But I’d get used to it. Fucking hell – I deserve it.”
Raymond looked dejected. “I’ve been an absolute bastard. To Jess. The poor girl comes all the way to Canberra for me to say – ‘and Jess, this is my wife’.”
“She didn’t know?”
“No, we picked Jess up at the airport.”
Ouch.
“Judy and I will survive – we always have. But I’m worried about Jess.”
They were silent for a moment.
“Shit, Paul – I can’t believe you thought I was going to put the hard word on you. You must think I’m some sort of a cowboy.”
A silent nod.
“So why do you want to have lunch with me?” asked Paul.
“I just wanted to get out. Fresh air. Have a chat.” Pause. “So what did you do this morning?”
Paul, immediately suspicious.
“Why do you want to know?”
Raymond turned and considered Paul for a moment.
“Let’s just say I have an interest in the inner workings of government. It amuses me. And yes, I have a particular interest in your Hotspots.”
“Why?”
“It’s personal I guess – someone I know is…involved. It sounds like it’s going to shit.”
He was right.
“Total shit. I’ve been working for two years finding ways to protect some of our most endangered and vulnerable eco-systems and habitats. Right? There are any number of ways we can do this but we’re trying to deliver positive outcomes on a case by case basis based on the latest science and research. Basically it’s our job to do it right. But when it comes to the most critically endangered and threatened habitats what do we do? We get in a consultant.”
“Oh surprise me,” said Raymond sarcastically.
“Yep, some jumped up dickhead with a fancy logo who used to work for us. He gets to make the final decision, not the team of experts and policy makers who’ve been squirreling away for four years – what would we know!”
“How will it work?”
“Well we’re tendering for a consultant to make our decisions for us so it looks independent and non-political. Johnny has made it clear that the Hotspots program is this government’s attempt to display its environmental credentials. Which is bullshit. But anyway what they want to do is spend 300 million dollars protecting our most vulnerable eco systems. You know this already – right?”
“Yeah, like the 10 billion to save the Murray Darling or however much they promised.”
“Exactly – funnily enough the first list of recommendations for Hotspot funding were all in coalition seats, mostly marginal.”
“Ah – hence the review.”
“The review was a way to cover their arse. They realised it looked suspicious. The credibility of the consultant and the science behind the decisions was called into question so they thought they’d review the whole shebang.”
“Someone leaked the review,” Raymond stated.
“Obviously. Not me by the way.”
“And?”
“And what?”
“Tell me what happens next.”
“I can’t – I’d have to kill you.”
“OK let me work it out then – you’re going to tender for a consultant to run an ‘independent’ process, a process that will provide a more rigorous, scientific assessment of the proposed Hotspots,” he paused, “because the review said the previous process was bullshit and the Government was going to be accused of pork-barrelling and therefore give the Opposition a free kick in front of goal.”
Silence.
Raymond nodded, “You have had a big morning in the bureaucracy.”
“Apparently – yes.”
“So how much are you going to pay this consultant?”
“$937, 700”
“Serious?”
“Deadly.”
“Shit – some bloke is going to pocket almost a million dollars to organise a tender and make a set of recommendations. Then the report will be tossed in the bin because we’re not going to pursue our Hotspot policy anymore.”
“How do you know that?”
Oh shit. Walked into that one.
Raymond smiled. “So it is true?”
“How did you find out?”
“Been working with an old mate on a few things – Brigit Williams.”
Paul’s old boss, now at PM&C.
“Seriously – you know her?”
“Known Brigit for years – Conservation Council, Greens,” He paused for effect. “Fuck, mate, me and Brigit linked arms with Bob Hawke to save the Franklin. We’re heroes!”
Paul looked suspicious. “She told me about her adventure saving the Franklin, but…”
“But she didn’t mention me? She was already hooked up with Ian – he was back in Melbourne – I was there, by her side – supporting her.”
“Old habits, hey?”
“Yeah – don’t remind me.”
“And she told you they are canning Hotspots?”
“No – you just told me that. She slammed the door in my face.”
Paul wondered about Raymond. “Do you work for a newspaper?”
Raymond laughed. “Don’t worry, mate, your secret’s safe with me. I work on the edges. I tried to work inside the system but it crushed my spirit. Brigit is stronger than me, and Ian got the girl so I drifted off – took up different hobbies. I’m still interested though.” Raymond tilted his head and looked at Paul.
“Why don’t you go to the press – tell someone. What have you got to lose?”
“And tell them what? There’s not much of a story in it. Risk losing my job?”
“I thought you quit?”
“Hang on – you were the one telling me to stay in my job,” Paul protested. “Plus, it’s only $900,000.”
“Only $900,000. Imagine what we could do with $900,000! You know our Ranger protest cost us 20 grand. And we did a great job. Regular news headlines. Lots of graphic pictures of citizens being arrested for a good cause.” Paul thought about that for a moment- Raymond’s headline: Environmental warriors save nation’s future from greed and avarice.
The Daily Telegraph headline: Loony fringe arrested – dole bludgers caught wasting taxpayer’s money.
Raymond continued. “But with serious money we could really change public opinion. It’s still chicken feed – compared to the money governments and corporations spend twisting public opinion. But they underestimate us, you know,” he paused and shook his head. “What a waste of money.”
Paul agreed. “But it happens every day in here. In there,” said Paul gesturing at the John Gorton Building.
“Democracy,” Raymond lamented. “Millions of dollars spent keeping the rich, rich and the poor, poor. And fucking the environment in the meantime. Maybe I should just give up and go back to the middle classes where I belong. I’m too old for this shit.”

When Paul got back to the office, Trish was sitting at his desk.
“We need to go somewhere to talk. Privately.”
Paul considered the disabled toilet. Bad vibe. Watkins’ office was free – he ushered Trish in and shut the door.
“Are we still going out Friday night?”
“Yes, if you want me to. Is that what you..?”
“Good.” She said and walked out.

The afternoon dragged. Watkins came back to his office and looked over at Paul.
“Finished that tender preparation?”
Paul nodded. “Getting there.”
“Then take the rest of the day off – you deserve it.”
“OK, Chris. Thanks.”
Watkins looked around the section to see if other staff had noticed his magnanimous behaviour. What a vain prick. Paul shifted paper on his desk. He reached for his mouse to shut down and remembered the emails from Melanie. He had to read them at some point. He didn’t want to. He had to.
Email one: Deep breath, focus, remain calm. Double-click.
Paul – There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. I don’t have the courage to tell you to your face.
I’m pregnant.
Please call me – I need someone to talk to at the moment.
Mel.

Paul let out a long breath. He sat back in his chair. He couldn’t take his eyes off the words on the screen. He opened the second email without thinking
Email two:
Paul – Please talk to me. You’re one of the only people I can talk to about this. I miss you.
Mel.

[This is Part 3 of Canberra author Jeff Thompson’s book “Faceless”. The full book is available for kindle or from the publisher Palmer Higgs.

Watch this space for further parts. For all the parts to date check the tag.

[Photo by WireLizard CC BY 2.0]

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