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  • Published: 3 May 2022
  • ISBN: 9781761043536
  • Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $32.99

Here Goes Nothing

Extract

The beginning of the end —

Huge iron-grey cloud banks lay motionless above our little house, the dawn skies fading. The finger of a nervous stranger in a flannel shirt lingered on the doorbell.

This was arguably the most significant moment of my life.

I wasn’t there.

My side of the bed was cold and empty. Gracie woke afraid and irritated because I hadn’t come home again. Staggering off the bed, she threw on her robe, clomped down the stairs and flung open the front door: the short, balding man on the porch was in his late sixties, owlish with thick eyebrows, his forehead shiny where the hairline receded.

‘Sorry to bother you, miss,’ he said. ‘My name is Owen Fogel, and you don’t know me.’

‘I know I don’t know you,’ Gracie said, annoyed. ‘You don’t think I know who I don’t know?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What do you want, my money or my time?’

‘I grew up in this house. Forty years ago.’

‘My time, then.’

‘Mind if I come in?’

‘Did you leave something here?’

He couldn’t tell if she was joking. ‘I’m just wondering if I could come in and look around, you know, for old time’s sake.’

Old time’s sake? Gracie couldn’t see how that expression related to

a stranger demanding access to her private home.

‘Haven’t you ever gone somewhere,’ he said, ‘just to get a sense of

where you came from?’

‘Nope.’

‘You never went back to an old school or an old job or the place where you lost your virginity?’

‘I lost my virginity in the back of a bus.’

‘I retract my example.’

Gracie gazed across the quiet street, then back to the blushing stranger now smiling with his tight mouth. ‘Visiting the past because you’re nostalgic is like drinking sea water when you’re dying of thirst. It’ll only make you thirstier. And it’s gross. Why would you do it in front of a complete stranger?’ she asked.

‘It’s a long story and I’d rather not tell it on the front steps.’

‘Oh well. Next time you’ll remember to cut it short.’

Gracie heaved the door shut. Fuck that guy. What an odious intrusion. She eyed the couch, lusting for sleep.

The doorbell rang again.

Through the peephole, the man’s desolate figure was sulking in the patchy sunlight, his finger jabbing the doorbell insistently. Gracie grew frightened.

‘I’m calling the police!’

‘I’m dying.’

‘What?’

‘You heard me.’

Now he crept forward a little. ‘I’m sorry to be intruding,’ he said through the door. ‘And I’m sorry that pretty soon I won’t be bothering anybody ever again. Most of all I’m sorry that my dying wish is to come and look around this stupid house and remember my mother and father.’

Gracie opened the door and steadily regarded the visitor; his body may have fallen on hard times, but he looked robust enough to survive the morning. ‘I don’t like you looking at me like you’ve come to collect a debt,’ she said, pressing her lips together, ‘but you can come in.’

‘Should I take off my shoes?’

‘Don’t bother. You won’t be staying long.’

 

2

The dying visitor stood in the middle of the living room, as if unable to choose a direction to walk in.

‘Go on, then. Have a look-see.’

He crossed the creaky floorboards from the TV to the potted cactus under the corner window. He made a cursory inspection of the floating shelves, the wallpaper map of the world, the cracked leather couch, the armchair, the enormous industrial fan. He stared at the odd religious paraphernalia—a Star of David that hung over a faded painting of Ganesh next to a wooden pentagram—and then fondled the fibre-optic Christmas tree with palpable sadness.

‘If it isn’t taken down by July,’ she said, ‘it makes sense to keep it there until December.’

He didn’t nod his head so much as waggle it.

‘What did you say your name was?’ asked Gracie.

‘Owen. Owen Fogel,’ he said and then muttered, almost to himself, ‘So much happened here.’

‘For instance?’

‘Puberty. I did a lot of violence to my body in those years.’

‘Terrific.’

He spoke in a strange, faraway voice: ‘Life is a funny thing.’

‘How banal.’

He eyed her, transfixed, as if he’d had a sad insight and was resisting a powerful urge to share it.

‘What?’ she asked, suspiciously.

‘Was I staring?’

‘Like you’re a lip reader waiting for me to say something.’

He laughed. ‘Sorry. It’s just sometimes, when you’re not prepared, a beautiful face can be startling.’

Gracie froze, suddenly self-conscious to be wearing only a robe, disturbed by the possibility of what she had ushered into her house. Owen had sinewy arms that could easily overpower her. She heard a low-level ting and realised it was coming from a beige hearing aid in Owen’s ear. So what? That didn’t mean he wasn’t a monster.

‘My husband will be home any moment.’

‘It’s so early. He didn’t come home last night?’

She dug her fingernails into her palms. ‘No, I mean . . .’

‘Has he done that before? I’m sure he just fell asleep on a friend’s couch. Isn’t that what they always say? “I must have passed out.” Or, wait, “I was too drunk to drive and it was too late to call.” Classic.’

She swallowed a fuck you. ‘Are you even dying?’

‘I am. Truly.’ He caught the panicked glint in her eyes. ‘Wait.

Am I making you anxious?’

‘Yes.’

Please don’t be.’ There was only sorrow in his voice. Maybe the worst that would happen was that she’d be forced to endure his story or attend to a seizure.

‘Just keep three feet away from me.’

‘I only know the metric system.’

‘Are you kidding me right now?’

‘May I continue the tour?’ he asked in a placating voice. Gracie nodded warily.

He moved skittishly around the room, sighing at the cracked walls, the peeling wallpaper, the blistered paint. He fingered the dust that covered the broken jukebox and even squatted in the corner, as if to get a child’s point of view. That he only seemed dimly mindful of Gracie’s presence somewhat alleviated her fears.

‘Is it okay if I go that way?’ he asked, gesturing to the kitchen.

‘I guess.’

In the kitchen, Owen brushed his hands along the cabinets and the countertop while sneering at the apparent smoke damage from stovetop fires. He moved into the damp laundry and tromped down the steps to the pitch-dark basement. Gracie fished a corkscrew out of an ice bucket and slipped it into the pocket of her robe. Owen emerged from the basement and walked to the sunlit studio at the end of the house before circling back to the living room.

‘May I look in the bedrooms?’

‘Wow. Rude.’

‘Is that a no?’

‘Oh, whatever. Help yourself.’

Owen smiled politely then disappeared down the stained-carpeted hallway. Gracie made a coffee and smoked two cigarettes while imagining Owen masturbating on her bed. She thought: He’ll come on my pillow soon and leave. Or he’ll fall over and sue us. Something absurd will come of this.

Now she could hear a clatter in the bathroom and the sound of phlegm hawked into the sink. She made a mental note to incinerate the handtowels.

He returned to the living room combing what little hair he had with his wet fingers.

‘How long have you lived here?’

‘Two years.’

He moved around the room at the speed of someone trying to walk up a down escalator. Gracie fondled the corkscrew in her pocket and said, ‘I can’t remember if we were supposed to get the best house on the worst street or the worst house on the best street.’

‘I don’t think this one’s either.’

Gracie was still uneasy. The only sound was the chit-chit-chit of Mrs Henderson’s sprinklers, which were turned on in defiance of the water restrictions.

‘Well, thanks for stopping by,’ she said.

‘What do you do for work?’

‘I’m a marriage celebrant.’

‘Interesting!’

It occurred to Gracie that Owen’s grin seemed bogus, an instant red flag; when you’ve just met someone, you shouldn’t be able to tell their fake smile from their genuine one.

‘Newlyweds are refugees fleeing single life,’ she said. ‘Most people totally misrepresent themselves and enter into legally binding, lifelong marital agreements dragging a trail of half-truths. They’ll do anything to grow old with someone overnight.’

‘Huh?’ An astonished look crossed his face, but it seemed routine, as if it was his tendency to be surprised. ‘How did you get into this profession?’

Her nervousness prevented her from escaping this conversation, which had now run away from her.

‘It’s kind of a funny story.’

‘Is it?’

‘About ten years ago, my best friend Tara asked me to officiate her wedding. I had to do a one-month course at TAFE. Now that I’m saying it out loud, it’s not really that funny a story at all, is it?’

‘Not really, no. You get clients?’

‘Every weekend. Mooney videos the weddings. We’re a one-stop wedding shop.’

‘What’s a Mooney?’

‘Angus Mooney. My husband.’

‘The missing husband.’

‘He’s not missing.’

He made a ‘poor baby’ pout of his lips. ‘Do you enjoy marrying people?’

‘I’m usually freaked out that I’m going to ruin their special day, but I love it.’

‘Do you?’

‘It’s my calling,’ she said, earnestly.

She fished the corkscrew out of her pocket and fingered it openly, looking Owen directly in the eye. It was time for this lonesome, death-haunted man to get out of the house. ‘Anyway, as I said, thanks for stopping by.’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘Where’s the next stop on your nostalgia tour?’

‘Nowhere. This is it.’

‘Have you seen everything you want to see?’

An abrupt smile appeared on Owen’s face, as if he had just suffered an unwanted spasm of good cheer. He sat on the cracked leather armchair and eased back into it.

‘Not quite,’ he said.


Here Goes Nothing Steve Toltz

The virtuoso new novel from the author of the Booker-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole.

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