Christina’s gone. In the corner of the bedroom are the cardboard cartons to be sent on to Brisbane, where she’s gone to be with her family again. The day after she leaves the deliveryman comes to pick them up. He’s got a sandy-coloured goatee and smells of beer. He’s on his own, the cartons are heavy, so you offer to help. Half an hour later they’re all gone. You sit on a stool beside the now-empty corner and notice one of her blond hairs on your jumper, the one she knitted with her mother and her grandmother. You gently pull at it, but it has somehow become tangled in the woollen threads. You tug it out a short, sharp movement as if you were pulling a hair off your own head.
Over the next few weeks you’ll find them everywhere, these strands of fine blond hair. Sometimes they’re in unlikely places: resting on a window sill, caught under a chair leg. But most often they’re entwined in your clothes. You open your wardrobe, pick out something to wear, and there one is, snagged around a shirt button, snarled in a sock. Of course you don’t keep them, but it feels wrong to put them in the bin. You end up opening the window and letting the wind take them from your fingers.
Your flat is three rooms at the top of a large Edwardian house. It’s made up of a kitchen, a sitting room, and a bedroom, flanked by a long corridor. The toilet is out on the landing. You rent the place from Frank and Karen, a middle-aged couple who live in the rest of the building. They’ve been project officers for the local council all their working lives, and are model landlords: they never make you feel like a tenant. You like your flat. It’s pleasantly shabby and reasonably functional and, up there on the third floor, the windows are always full of sky. With its high white walls and black-painted floorboards, it feels like one of those contemporary art spaces that shifts from rundown building to rundown building until they either go mainstream or fizzle out.
The place has one major quirk. There’s no bathroom, so the bathtub is in the kitchen. And the bathtub is a quirk in itself. It’s short, squat and very deep with a moulded step that you sit on, the enamel worn thin by successive tenants. The kitchen is quite small, and fat from the cooker – not stove, cooker, you’re in London – collects on the bathtub’s rim. You’re continually wiping it away, this spray of fatty droplets from chops, sausages, bacon, and whatever else you cook. You hate the constant mix of substances: bread crumbs in the soap caddy, specks of dry shampoo on the oven door. It never fails to remind you how broke you are, how you don’t even have enough money to get back to Australia. In six months your visa will run out, and there’s no hope of an extension.
You’re broke because you’re unemployed, and you’re unemployed because of the impending war in the Gulf. Two weeks ago a tense-looking Sue, the head teacher of the English Language School you worked at, asked you into her office. You weren’t surprised when she told you that projected enrolments weren’t looking good, and that it wouldn’t be possible to keep you on. She began to give the obvious explanation, but you told her there was no need. You didn’t need to be reminded that ever since Bush and Thatcher had vowed to throw Saddam out of Kuwait, students had stopped coming in droves. The recent announcement of the UN Resolution authorising ‘all means necessary’, accompanied by the mobilisation of a global army ready to attack Iraq, hadn’t helped matters: it looked certain to be a winter of empty classrooms.
When you collect your last pay you find it fattened out with a two-week bonus, which at least softens the blow. Still, things are looking grim. You’re a foreigner in this country, so you can’t go on the dole. But even if you had the money for a ticket home, you don’t want to go just yet. A dose of self-reliance will be character building, you tell yourself. Just what the Lady ordered.
You spend your days hammering out job applications on the portable Remington a friend lent you. Your typing isn’t very good. It’s fast but not accurate, so you waste what seems like hours in stationery stores finding the best value paper, weighing up the pros and cons of correction ribbon over liquid paper. In your covering letters you don’t take any risks and are always careful to obey British conventions. You never ‘apply for a position’, you always ‘seek a post’.
It comes back to you again and again, the final incident that triggered Christina’s departure. You banged your shoe up against the rusting iron picture frame she’d left in the corridor, and sliced a large piece of leather off the toe. Your shoes weren’t exactly new, they weren’t even all that comfortable, but they were your Bond Street brogues, the only good pair you had. You’d always hated that stupid frame. God knows where she’d found it; it was so far gone it looked like it had been trawled up from the seabed. It had been standing in the narrow corridor for weeks, shedding huge flakes of rust, generally making a nuisance of itself. The sight of it, and the sight of your wounded shoe, filled you with rage. You kicked the stupid thing twice, three times, hoping it would collapse. It was surprisingly strong and each kick damaged your shoe even more. With a great effort of will you stopped, then stared down at the mess you’d made. The gouges in the leather were flesh-coloured against the black shoe polish. Then suddenly, something inside you snapped.
You kept very calm, walked down the corridor and opened the door to the bedroom. Positioned at the back of the flat, it had windows on three sides. In the clear winter light Christina was sitting at her worktable, gazing out the window. She was working on her sky diary, a large sheet of gridded paper whose squares she filled in everyday with a different colour, a colour that never actually resembled the sky, but, as she had told you, her particular interpretation of it. You started shouting at her, my shoe, look what you’ve done to my shoe, it’s ruined, it’s fucking ruined, that stupid frame, I told you not to leave it in the corridor, you know I’m clumsy, and now look at my shoe. She looks up at you, silent, waiting for you to stop, and as her ears flinch, as her eyes lose their dreamy lustre and brace themselves against your anger, you know that you have lost her.
In three weeks she’s gone. Until she leaves you continue to share the bed, an enormous, lumpy monster that stands on claw-like wooden legs and pushes you up towards the ceiling. You make love like you’ve never made love before, every touch your last. She’s never seemed more precious, more beautiful. One night when you’re fucking doggie style, her cheek pressed into the pillow, she weeps and starts to tear at her hair. You have to stop her ripping out great handfuls. Afterwards you know it’s better not to mention it. This is her only lapse, and for the rest of the time she’s completely calm, nearly serene, biding her time until she steps on the plane, wanting to make it as good as it can be.
The day of her departure arrives. It’s a late evening flight, which gives you time to have an early dinner. You make roast chicken with all the trimmings, her favourite. You don’t talk much during the meal, so it’s all over much too quickly, and when she offers to wash up you tell her not to be silly, you’ll do it later. You lug her suitcase through the quiet suburban evening, first to British Rail, and then onto the Piccadilly Line for the long haul to Heathrow.
Terminal Four is a madhouse of queues and security guards. It swallows you both alive, but you’re determined to see her off like any ardent lover. She checks in and you follow her across the squiggle-patterned carpet, the roar of the terminal making it impossible for you to really feel her presence for the last time. In front of the international departure gate you kiss and embrace and dissolve into tears, surrounded by a United Nations of different races toting the latest cabin baggage. You’ve been together for seven years. You are 29, she is 26. Three years age difference, a kind of golden mean, a comforting statistical average because we all know that men are less mature than women and need to be a little older to sustain any kind of relationship. She’s wearing her leopard-skin coat. It’s the last thing you see, the spots on the back of her leopard-skin coat, as she disappears through the metal detector. You don’t stay to watch the plane leave.
You catch the Tube home. It’s around 11.30 p.m. and the train is nearly empty. Without its usual crush of passengers, the carriage feels as light as an empty drink can. It shakes wildly as it hurls itself between the outer stations. You sit swaying in the clatter and din, staring at the line map stuck on the curve towards the ceiling. You randomly count down the stations: Hatton Cross, Hounslow West, Osterly, Chiswick Park, Stamford Brook, Hammersmith, Knightsbridge, Green Park, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden.
You’ve never been able to imagine, riding in that glinting carriage light, the boroughs of London pressing down above you. You can only ever imagine a blank space, an empty plain stretching in all directions, and you are always amazed when you step off the escalator and find yourself in the busy high streets.
This is an excerpt from Great Western Highway, the second novel by Anthony Macris in the Capital series. It was published by University of Western Australia Press in 2012; read the Verity La review here. A revised edition of the first novel in the series, Capital, Volume One, will be published by UWAP mid-2013.