‘You’re trouble,’ Manu said.
Yes, with a capital T, he thought. He was certainly that. But Manu would never know the half of it. He would only know him in those days. The days when it had all still been fun. He held the squeaky toy, a pink elephant, over Manu’s Kava bowl – dangling it above it, ready to drop.
‘Don’t do it Karl,’ Manu said, ‘I’m warning you, I’ll never fucking speak to you again . . . it’s over if you do it. I’m not joking.’
Of course he’d dropped it – couldn’t resist a challenge – liked to fly in the face of that magic word if. That red rag to a bull. The pink elephant had splashed into the Kava like a dud. A useless shuttle plummeting into the Pacific, no survivors on its forced entry. But it didn’t float. He’d thought that it would float but it just lay there at the bottom, inert, its painted-on white eye dead to the world.
And Manu did speak to him again. ‘Trouble,’ was what he’d said. In those days.
They’d lived in a huge old Victorian on The Terrace – three boys, two girls and a grizzled survivor from another age, an Italian who’d traversed the war and had somehow found himself living in New Zealand with strangers a fraction of his age.
Mr Vitalio had come with the house, he lived in one room and kept to himself. When they spoke to him he pretended he couldn’t understand English. The only sentence they’d ever heard him say was Mussolini was a good man, as if he’d been a friend of his, as if they’d been simpatico. They knew he’d said it to drive them off. A political manoeuvre to keep them away.
Vitalio spent his days walking around town; Karl would see him sitting on the same bench every day feeding pigeons. He’d lock himself in his room again when he got back to the house. His door creaked in the middle of the night when he’d get up to use the kitchen or the bathroom. There’d be a tiny knock on the kitchen door, barely audible. Vitalio had started knocking ever since he’d come across them all on the kitchen floor, in various states of disarray. The boys: Manu, David and himself, dressed and at some point undressed in drag. The girls: topless. Stoned. Wasted. They’d been spitting vegetables at each other in the dark. Carrots, cabbages, potatoes, anything they’d been able to lay their hands on. Taking big bites, food leaving and entering their mouths in slow motion – arcing in the moonlit kitchen. Captured in one of those frozen moments when someone turns on the light and everything is exposed in its true gaudy glory. One of those moments that can’t survive illumination. It had felt wonderful in the dark – wet pulp flying, chomping and biting and spitting up close in each other’s faces – seeing the whites of each other’s eyes. But they’d seen themselves for a moment crystallised in Mr Vitalio’s stare. His round spectacles peering in, surveying their gross misuse of food; the waste, the abuse of vegetables, half-naked youth. He who had survived the war. He, who knew what it felt like to go hungry, had stumbled on their drug-fuelled romp. The first of many in that house. A look of total incomprehension on his face. He’d bowed out quickly, closed the door on them as if he’d found them mutilating a corpse.
He’d startled Mr Vitalio in his own room like that, taken him by surprise – trying to get his own back for everyone. Frozen him in a moment. He’d heard plaintive cries coming from underneath his door. They knew he had a cat, a stray that he’d brought home one day. They’d heard it but no one had seen it. They joked about him torturing it in his room, elaborating on the unspeakable acts that were taking place in there. He’d quickly opened Vitalio’s door hoping to catch him in the act. He was sitting on his bed feeding the bedraggled little thing crumbled chocolate cake from one of his gold-rimmed saucers. It sat licking icing from the two fingers stretched out towards it. Vitalio could have been doing anything but he remembered hearing him as the door opened, whispering sweet nothings to that cat. Bending over gently, whispering up close to its face.
And David, splayed over the roof of his brown Toyota hatchback, wearing a rainbow-coloured Margaret Mahy fright wig; lipstick smeared, dressed in drag. In those days they were always dressed in drag. David, holding on like a starfish on a rock, his fingers gripping the edges of the open windows as they’d careened around corners trying to shake him off and roaring when he’d finally flipped onto the pavement. Folded over in a heap in Courtenay Place, holding his bruised body and laughing. All of them laughing, sprawling out of the car. Laughing in those days.
The stoned party they had crashed – burst through the doors still raging from the last party. Raging in drag; burning up everything, making noise. Louder than loud, they’d provoked the room full of stoned zombies. Yelled at them – staged fights in the centre of the lounge; knocked over tables, glasses, everything. The edges of the room stared dead-eyed back at them until one had reacted – lurched up from his chair then fell back again. They’d left quickly, always sensing trouble before it ever had a chance to sniff them out. The stoned party where someone died – they’d found out later a man was stabbed when they’d left that night.
Another party where the balcony of the old Victorian had tumbled into the road – lost its grip, pummelled by an army of punks who had pounded and jumped until the whole thing collapsed and toppled down the bank. Leaving a balcony door wide-open to nowhere. It had tricked a few including himself who’d nearly stepped off; he’d nearly ended it inadvertently that night. Until one person had walked through it and off into the dark – falling – ending up on the tarmac on the road. They’d stared down at his limbs twisted at an odd angle like they try to replicate in movies – it had all seemed like a film in those days.
Some fat librarian type had beaten off would-be rescuers, lashed out at them when they’d tried to move him. Clutched the busted guy’s head to his fat woman’s chest, between his fat woman breasts, until the ambulance had arrived – the librarian’s face purple and swollen with tears, howling like he’d just lost his best friend. Someone had said, amongst that small gathering of sheepish bystanders (he thought it might have been David), that the guy didn’t even know the victim and he didn’t know why he was acting so cut-up like that.
The house emptied out like rats leaving a sinking ship when the first siren started – the ambulance that was on its way. People spilling out of exits, jumping out of windows – until silence. Then later walking through smashed rubble, each room the landscape of a mini war. The light of the morning coming in, all of them rubbing their eyes as if they had just been through a siege and been released – as if they’d just awakened.
Mr Vitalio had left soon after that.
Another party. Another fight, that had started out a staged one, until David had pushed him hard in the middle of a room. He’d thrown wine back at him; tipped his glass over David’s shirt. He’d felt thick thumbs deep in his windpipe – pressing in, cutting off his air. David’s face pushed up so close and purple that he’d thought he was going to bite him.
And later in the taxi, Manu shouting at David. ‘What did you do to Karl – what have you done?’ After he’d locked himself in the bathroom at that party and trashed everything. Thrown the contents of the medicine chest into the bath – red cough syrup bleeding into white foot powder. He’d made a great black crack in the porcelain that had opened to the centre of the earth. He’d sat staring into that fissure for what had seemed like hours. And Manu outside the door shouting, thinking the worst when there was too much silence.
‘Open the door, open the door . . . ’ and then a small whisper through a crack, ‘what are you doing in there mate?’
And watching David’s eyes in the rear vision mirror, half shrouded in the back of the taxi on the way home. Hearing himself say to Manu: ‘It’s nothing.’
And in the warehouse flat when he’d moved on from the Victorian. Malcolm telling him how finding out that he was POSITIVE had been a revelation – how it had stopped him killing himself. He’d fallen in love with him then – had never forgotten his face, his eyes, his earnest hands, his calm – even though they’d only spent an afternoon together talking. The shadows falling, the sun slanting and Malcolm’s boyfriend Tai hovering in and out of the room hating him – sending hate out to him for getting so close to Malcolm so quickly, for slurping up his time. Malcolm had told him it was ending anyway when Tai had left the room – he was going to end it soon.
Those times talking to a stranger had been exquisitely fine – finer than anything since. He imagined Malcolm sitting on his boat at the end of his jetty after he’d travelled down to the Marlborough Sounds, saying goodbye to the deep green he’d described. The water that had haunted him and called him back. Saying goodbye to that water – coming home. Malcolm had told him how he’d started drawing again, he’d had designs on being a painter in his youth but things had gotten in the way – substances – people. He’d started drawing on a little A4 pad – small drawings, he called them. He showed him some – one with a lion sleeping in the middle of a curved protecting hand. ‘That’s God’s hand,’ Malcolm said. ‘I modelled it on my own.’ He curled up his hand to show him; put it beside the drawing. It looked exactly the same.
‘I look at it at night, it helps me sleep . . . I make art for different reasons now.’
And David gathering up his codeine – following him from chemist to chemist, talking loud, walking through the streets, his packages spilling from his hands. Hiding nothing, giving no thought to anything, just that afternoon and that night and disappearing.
Finding David cooking up a batch on the stove when he came home, like it was the most natural thing in the world that he’d broken into his flat – poppies spilling out of a Kleensak all over the floor. He’d told Karl about the photos he’d taken with his model girlfriend up in the bush, cooking each other in a bath. He made everything sound so good – he made you want to taste it. Always moving, always on the run, his hands moving at speed – hummingbird hands and lips.
David with all bells ringing. The wild flash of his mouth – a tiger flash – a brilliant amber stripe through stone.
They’d started rifling bags – tossed on beds, wedged under chairs at parties – taking money stashed for taxis. Safety money. It was only later he’d thought about the girls left out in the cold, unable to get a ride home. Only later he’d thought about what might have happened to them. Had he thrust someone out there in that role?
Chill out man, David had said. Just Chill. Then later, I told her I could snap her arm like a twig. And later, I fucked her till she bled.
And all the things that happened in between. The things he could not name. In those days.
Man, Man . . . Manu, you wouldn’t want to know.
He’d thought about that lion sometimes when he couldn’t sleep. The lion in Malcolm’s hand. Its tiny eyelid closed by a smudge of crayon; a whispered stroke standing in for an eye, a stripe resting above its cheek. Curled up and peaceful – its limbs, naïvely drawn, almost fawnish, laying so still – so heavy – so real – so there. Unconscious; the lion dead to pain, dead to the world – resting on that hand. He thought about how they’d all been up close in cars, in taxis, in kitchens, in bedrooms – how close they’d got, or striving to get up close; trying to slip inside, to crawl inside through the eyes – and sometimes they’d slipped through for a moment, sometimes they’d fallen in and seen each other.
And David turning up at his door one night – bruised and bleeding from something that he’d done. A thick shard of glass sticking out from his forehead that he didn’t even know was there, wedged right between the eyes, saying: ‘You’ve got to hide me . . . let me in!’
And later, David slipping into his bed, so stoned, so out-of-it, pressing up against him. He could feel the glass on his neck, on his back, scoring him.
He thought about how far he’d got from that afternoon with Malcolm – how far he was from that sweetness that he’d seen with the light changing; how light reveals things. How far he’d got from any gentle thing. How far he’d got from a face that had told him how it was changing; a face dying but filled with hope; a buoyancy.
And later – ten years later – calling David when he’d arrived back in that town by accident. Some would call it a convoluted, twisted design. God’s manoeuvring hand. God’s softly drawn hand. Recovering from the ravages of that illness that would never leave him – when he’d been through the mill. Calling him and this strange voice coming down the line, so slow and laboured and hardly even there. A man with a wife and kids voice, a grown-up voice that had forgotten the past, that didn’t flicker, didn’t change, when he’d said his name – It’s Karl. A strange shackled voice that had lost its fire, that had disappeared. A voice that had forgotten him. Forgotten everything.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wes Lee lives on the Kapiti Coast in a little bolt-hole by the sea. She directed her black comedy Woman with a Weapon at the Maidment Theatre in Auckland. Her writing has appeared in various online and print publications: Stamp, Trout, PopMatters, Snorkel, Pleasures and Dangers: Artists of the 90’s. In 2002, she was an award winner in the New Zealand Society of Authors National Short Story Award. She has work forthcoming in The Ugly Tree, Mannequin Envy, Thieves Jargon, Misanthropists Anonymous and BuzzWords.