[from a novel in progress]
The phrase, What the fuck am I doing here? is one that most of us have uttered at one time or another through our lives. For Alex, getting out of a car bum first and realizing that he was half-way to completely off his tits on MDMA, putrefying in the same clothes he’d been wearing for two days straight, and about to attend the funeral of somebody else’s grandfather, it was definitely one of those moments.
He stood up into a cold sea breeze, which annoyingly and somewhat unfairly seemed not to sober him up but to merely underline how off his tits he actually was. His drug hangover from last night was still there, but alongside this he was aware of the new pill doing its work, upping the bid against the hangover. He had secretly self-medicated on the drive to the cemetery and now he was, in general, fucked up. His heart was pounding in his chest as if pumping his blood through his organs was some sort of dragon-boat race or something.
Bec, used to this sort of thing from him and not at all willing to pander to it, got out of the front passenger seat and said only, ‘Try to be normal,’ out the side of her mouth. Drew came around the front of the car. He had produced a black suit jacket from somewhere and put it over his jeans and light grey jumper. He buttoned it up with one hand and stretched the other out to Bec. She stepped towards him and took his hand, then they moved onto the gravel path into the cemetery and took off at a properly mournful pace. They looked like models, Alex thought. They were also, he noted, in step. For a moment he thought they made the most lovely couple ever, and he felt a wave of love and warmth and affection for them. Then he hated them. Then he felt horny for them, but that, he supposed, was the drugs.
He realized that he was standing by the car like the big, black, half-fucked-up, reeking gooseberry that he was. He muttered a quick ‘Fuck’ and considered climbing back into Drew’s car, lying down on the backseat so nobody could see him, and just dragon-boating there until they came back and drove him away. At that moment it felt like a perfectly feasible thing to do, and he had actually turned back to the car – but it was too late. An older man, comfortably rotund, in a dark blue unbuttoned suit jacket, with an expression that was dry-eyed but properly bland and respectful appeared at his arm.
‘Are you going up?’ the man asked. Alex, flustered, turned to the car then back to the man – the backseat escape was no longer a possibility. He put a brave face on it, but then, realizing his expression was probably a bit intense and inappropriate in the circumstances, he dropped the sides of his mouth and tilted his head in an exaggerated parody of sadness. Fuck. What was he doing? Mime? Keep a lid on it, fuckwit.
He fumbled his sunglasses from the pocket of his inappropriate leather jacket and shoved them on his face to hide his wigged-out eyes.
‘Yes,’ he said.
The man must have presumed Alex to be in a heightened state of grief.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know.’
He put his hand to the small of Alex’s back and with his other hand indicated the gravel path up to the cemetery. Alex stepped off in the direction indicated. He concentrated on walking and not jittering. If things weren’t bad enough, somehow he had now become the chief mourner for a man he didn’t know.
Alex stared across to the woman standing at the side of the grave in what could be considered the prime mourning position. The most obvious thing about her, even from this distance, was that she had evidently had an absolutely enormous amount of plastic surgery. Her face was flat and smooth and looked as hard as a beetle’s back. Her mouth was dragged out at each side and her nose had been whittled down to a shaving of soap with two outward facing nostrils.
Apart from the extraordinary face, she was extremely small – the smallness of someone who has shrunk considerably. She wore a very big black A-line coat with a rather ostentatious orange-brown fur collar that moved in the breeze like a sleek fox making off across the paddock. Her arms were clad in black skin-tight sleeves, her legs in skin-tight trousers or perhaps even leggings. The sheer voluminous nature of the coat emphasized the skinniness of the legs and arms and made them look like burnt matchsticks.
But there was something, even as old and thin as she was, that was extraordinarily vivid about her. She wore very big, round, black-framed eye-glasses, so perfectly round that they didn’t quite look real, but could feasibly have been authentic 60s mod. On her fingers and wrists, and around her neck and in her ears were innumerable rings and bracelets and necklaces and earrings. Generally they seemed to be of jet and jade and perhaps amber – that was the palette. There were no gemstones that Alex could see, as such, which allowed her to get away with lips and nails which were beautifully, immaculately deep red.
She was the widow, presumably – although apparently the dead man was a number of husbands in the past – and therefore Drew’s gran. What a fantastic grandmother, Alex thought, with a wild rush of love for all these people he was seeing – Drew’s family and family friends. He felt closer to Drew the more he saw of the people in his life, as if something was leeching from them to him, some secret knowledge, some extra special kinship. He stole a look at Drew. He was still. His head was bent, examining his hands. He appeared deeply affected. But something in his calm suggested to Alex that he was somewhere else in his mind, just behaving properly for the family. He was, Alex saw, picking at his nails.
Alex turned back to the widow. He was fascinated by her, and feeling – feeling sorry for her … for her loss, perhaps, or for all those procedures, for a lifetime of wanting a different face, for having been through so very many husbands, for being so unlucky in love. The phrase resonated. Unlucky in love. Oh yes. Yes. He knew all about being unlucky in love.
He felt a sudden strong shock of kinship with this old stick thin Joan Rivers widow-woman, and he found tears oozing out of his eyes, dripping off his bottom eyelashes and ploshing onto his cheeks from behind his dark glasses.
It was at this moment that the tide broke and he was consumed by a flood of feelings. A great sad soak of them. He allowed himself to wallow in it, in them, and felt oddly elated by his decision to let it wash over him – just wash over him – the sheer hopeless futility of it all – of love. Of life. Of everything. There was a beauty in it – letting yourself be immersed. Letting yourself feel it.
Oh God he was so out of it.
At this pivotal point, tears on his cheeks, Alex noticed a change in tenor to whatever the priest-guy was saying. Things, it appeared, were coming to an end. They were to be released from this graveside into the wild wide blue unknown. The mourners became less focused on the open grave. They turned to each other. They began milling around. Alex turned to Drew’s uncle, his tour guide to this particular funeral, took his hand and squeezed it warmly.
‘Thank you,’ he said with immense depth of feeling and a kind smile.
He then walked purposefully towards Bec and Drew. He kissed Bec quickly and directly on the lips, then turned to Drew and also kissed him full on the lips. They weren’t long kisses, and there was no tongue (of course – this was a funeral) but he did put one of his hands to the back of Drew’s neck where he could finger that double swirl of almost invisible hair. When he pulled back Drew was smirking at him.
What was he doing? He didn’t care.
He turned from the smirk and made a bee-line for the widow. If he was aware of a noise from Bec, some hiss of words to his rear, perhaps his name, it didn’t register and certainly not enough to stop him. If there were odd glances from Drew’s relatives, if people stepped out of his way as he moved through the crowd, he didn’t notice. It didn’t matter. He reached the widow and without a word enfolded her in an enormous hug. He felt her twig-thin limbs hug him back. He buried his nose in the foxy-fur of the collar of her coat and took a big sniff of the old-fashioned floral perfume that it seemed deeply infused with. It occurred to him in that moment that it would be wonderful if that was how foxes actually smelled – like Chanel No.5.
He disengaged from the hug but held the old woman’s shoulders. He set her back a little from him and looked at her with what he hoped was an expression of sadness and a sort of solidarity of feeling, but he realized at the last minute that she couldn’t see his eyes and so he nodded with a sense of sadness and solidarity instead.
‘You’re so great,’ he gushed. ‘You’re just so great.’
The old woman nodded, and her stretched lips stretched wider – was it a smile? – but she said nothing. In his current frame of mind the regal, stately nature of her response seemed utterly perfect to him. They were so simpatico, he thought. She got it. She got him. The sheer enormity of their moment of connection threated to overcome Alex completely.
But at that moment, the tipping point as it were, Bec appeared at his elbow with the kill-joy alacrity of the designated driver. With a nod and a close-lipped smile at the widow that said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss – and for him’ in equal measures, somehow maneuvered Alex’s arm off the widow’s shoulder and underneath her own where she clamped it to her side with the sort of iron grip he was sure professional wrestlers had a name for. She then turned him on his heel and smartly led him away from the graveside and back down the gravel path towards the car.
‘Well,’ she said out the side of her mouth, ‘Thanks for keeping it normal.’
The wind off the bay was chill, and Alex flipped up the collar of the coat Drew had loaned him. It felt new and soft and smelled not of Drew – neither of the too-ripe cologne he wore or the sour-sweet scent of his sweat when he didn’t bother with it – but, disappointingly, merely clean. It was sexless and void. His mother was too organized for it to smell like anything else. Alex had only met her two days before but he already knew this about her. What was the point of wearing Drew’s clothes if he couldn’t get a whiff of Drew off them?
The day after the wake, Alex had unzipped his Le Coq Sportif bag and found that he had not precisely packed appropriately for the trip. True, he had only arrived home a bare fifteen minutes before Drew and Bec were due to pick him up, still tripping from the night before and still, mostly, dressed, but what had made him pack a half dozen pair of clean underpants and socks and nothing else except his toothbrush?
He had remembered to pack the books, though – those thirteen paperbacks. They were, after all, the whole point of this trip. Well, he had thought they were. There turned out to be that funeral of an old man he didn’t even know and all the attendant blah-blah. The thirteen paperbacks were, at the moment, in a canvas bag hooked over his forearm.
He felt better this morning, two mornings after the funeral. He felt more himself – perhaps the massively hungover version of himself, but still undeniably himself. He was feeling hangover-moody and a bit emotionally fragile, and found his current mode of transport perfectly fitted that mindset – he, Drew and Bec were on the ferry across the mouth of Port Phillip Bay from Queenscliff to Sorrento.
They stood on the top deck of the ferry, open to the slate gray winter sky. Drew and Bec were huddled together alongside the blue cover of the massive twin exhausts at the rear of the deck which was warm. Beck stood with her back against the warmth and Drew, chivalrously, stood on the windward side with his arms around her. Alex had looked once and then away, and nothing would make him look back. He stood instead at the side railing, gripping it in fact, and looked steely eyed and focused at the land they were chugging away from, scanning it for recognizable features.
He could see Queenscliff behind them, and perhaps the tip of Drew’s parents’ house up on the hill just across from the church, although there was a large cypress tree in the way and it was obscured. Plus he wasn’t sure he had the right spot.
And the cemetery. That was where? Half way down to Point Lonsdale. He could see a lighthouse right down just before the open sea. The cemetery must be somewhere between Queenscliff and that point. Drew had said he used to surf off the point – so beyond the lighthouse somewhere. And across the opening of the bay was Point Nepean.
Alex’s geography was hazy, but he was surprised at how small the opening to Port Phillip Bay in fact was. So much water had to come in and out of that opening every tide. So much sea-going traffic.
He saw it all, the triangulation of The Rip – Queenscliff, Point Lonsdale, Point Nepean – the spots he had inhabited over the last couple of days. It felt like he was floating above and seeing the landscape through which he trudged or stumbled or was ferried, like a dotted line in an Indiana Jones movie. He felt comforted, somehow, with more of an idea of the landscape and his progress across it. More grounded perhaps.
This was welcome, because otherwise he wasn’t feeling too grounded. There was the funeral, there was the drug cocktail of the other day, or series of days, but before that, long before that, he had been feeling uneasy. An itch. A wriggle in a too-tight collar.
It had been so good, so amazing, during the summer break. Everything between the three of them had been fine. But something was different now, he thought. He checked himself, though. No. Nothing was different. Nothing had changed, as such, about them, about the shape of their relationship, but it was as if something had moved around that shape, as if the sun had dropped further towards the horizon and the shadow the three of them threw across the ground had shifted, grown larger, perhaps, or become freakishly shaped.
It didn’t feel the same between them. He certainly didn’t feel the same about them. Well, he did feel precisely the same about Drew – even more hopelessly attached, if that could be possible. But Bec – he didn’t feel the same about her. He felt wary of her. Alex supposed that partly it was seeing Drew and Bec together in Drew’s family home. He hadn’t realized Drew’s family had met Bec before. He hadn’t realized quite how much of a couple they looked, seemed, were, he supposed. But there, in that setting, he saw them as others must see them, the three of them that is – a fit young man, confident and charming, and a gorgeous smart young woman on his arm, with an easy smile and just as much charm – and him, the gay-best-friend, the gooseberry.
It wasn’t like that. It had never been like that before. It didn’t feel like that to him. Well, it hadn’t. But in the simmer of that suburban family setting, things had been reduced, somehow, to a known common denominator, thickened like a careful béchamel sauce.
He didn’t like how the other two played up to it. Drew, less so. He was just the same slack charmer as he always was, but adored, clearly, by his entire family. He was merely settling back into a comfortable old couch, the prince returned. Bec, though, she had played up to them. Alex had known her almost all his life and he knew when she had her game face on. Whether it was a half-marathon, an exam, wheedling a favour, or charming the potential in-laws – he had learned to see the determination underneath whatever was showing on the surface.
Alex pulled his chin in to his neck beneath the collar of Drew’s coat. The shadows were shifting around his feet, tick-tocking smoothly from one hour to the next.
Everything was different. He couldn’t deny it. Nothing had changed but everything was different. He didn’t like it and he could do nothing about it. He gripped the railing, scanned the horizon and felt the weight of the canvas bag on his arm.
First published in Bent Street 1, 2017
Ashley Sievwright is the author of The Shallow End, shortlisted in the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2009 for Best First Book; Walter; Hothouse, a novel published on Kindle; and the photographic books A Year of Lighthouses, and Another Year of Lighthouses. Ashley lives in Armadale, Melbourne.