- Published: 1 August 2016
- ISBN: 9780857989918
- Imprint: Random House Australia
- Format: EBook
- Pages: 304
Man in the Corner
For the duration of his wife’s disclosure, David’s eyes followed the lines of the patterned ceiling in their bedroom. If he tilted his head at a certain angle, the curlicues in the corner of each plaster square had a way of looking like Papa Smurf. It was one of those things that once you saw one way, you could never see another way again.
‘But you did do it,’ he said, looking at Papa Smurf. ‘You did work there.’
‘I did, yes. Not for long, but I … Will you still be able to like me?’ she asked urgently.
‘Like you?’ he said, reaching over and grabbing her hand. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Everyone does stuff they regret.’
‘Not like this …’
‘Actually, yes – exactly like this.’
The night before, when Leah had asked him to ‘lie down’, he’d eagerly taken his place on their waffle bedspread and begun unbuttoning his shirt. It was a perfect moment for it too – the cleaner had been that afternoon, the kids were asleep, the air con was thrumming reassuringly, and Leah’s shoulders looked magnificent in her lace nightie. But when she lay herself at the far edge of the bed and said, ‘I need to tell you something,’ he knew it wasn’t the ‘lie down’ that he had hoped for.
‘You have been acting a bit strange,’ David said.
She pursed her lips and swallowed, then placed the sole of her foot on top of his.
‘Leah,’ he said, still holding her hand, ‘sometimes you’re really not into having sex, and then when we do have sex, you don’t seem to enjoy it much. Does this have something to do with it?’
She didn’t answer, and by the sound of her long exhalation the question had upset her.
‘When we met, you remember, when I dropped the coffee and you bought me another,’ she said. ‘That was the very next day, the day after I quit. I’d had this experience that made me realise what I was doing, it was … it wasn’t a bad experience, per se – I mean, it was obviously all bad – but this one particular guy made me …’
‘You don’t need to tell me all the details,’ David said, holding up his hands.
‘I wasn’t going to tell you details, I was just going to say that … that in a weird way we have that experience to thank, because it readied me for you. It readied me for something more serious. It readied me for someone older, for someone more steady. For my entrepreneurial garbage man. For the father of my children.’
There was a scurrying in the ceiling, a scratching sound. David and Leah simultaneously looked upwards, then to each other.
‘When was the last time we had a pest guy come?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. Ages.’
‘It’s probably just a possum.’
She rolled towards him and kissed the side of his mouth. It was a grateful kiss, one that you’d give a child for voluntarily tidying their room.
‘Well,’ David said, ‘I’m glad you got it off your chest.’
She didn’t reply, just returned to her position on her back, crossing her ankles and starting to think again.
‘Did you ever see Alicia after that?’
‘No. Not ever. I don’t want to ever see her again.’
‘I just don’t understand why you are only telling me now.’
‘I don’t know. Lexi started kindergarten, Saul’s at day care, I’ve started singing again with Melinda. You’re working a lot. I guess I have more time to think.’
‘It doesn’t really matter now,’ he said, summoning a tone of finality. ‘You’ve told me, and I’m glad you did.’
‘The weird thing is,’ she said, nodding to herself, ‘is that I promised myself I’d never tell anyone, that I wouldn’t even let myself think about it. I pushed it into a deep, dark hole and covered it over. I didn’t think I would be able to block something out so entirely, but I did. I did for years. Every time it crept into consciousness, I bashed it on its head and it fell back inside the hole. But then today, out of nowhere, it just erupted. I couldn’t hold it back anymore.’
‘So how did –’ But David stopped himself. He wanted to ask how many different guys there’d been, but it was probably better not to. Better to forget about it, just like Leah had. Probably better that way, David agreed with himself. Probably.
The headache began the moment he opened his eyes. It was like he’d been struck in the back of the head by something heavy and dull, a medicine ball dropped from a height or a punch from a boxing glove. He swallowed two Panadol with his morning coffee and took a sheet of the green-and-white capsules to work.
As he drove into the office, he tried recalling the details of her story – the blonde photographer-girl Alicia, the businessman with the big nostrils who liked exercise gear, the brothel near the casino – but the dull ache in the right side of his head took over.
David parked his car and stepped slowly towards the office, feeling his breakfast sit uncomfortably in his belly, as though it was pushed right up against his skin, the muesli and milk and blueberries all mixed together.
After reconciling that day’s run (only six bookings, a poor Wednesday), he took two more Panadol and tried to rest his head in his hands, but the electric engine for the roller door broke before any of the trucks could leave, and Roger, in an attempt to fix it, derailed the whole thing. David tried giving verbal instructions, but there was no point, he had to do it himself – climb the ladder, set the engine to manual and yank the chain to release the clutch. His forefinger got stuck in one of the links and a red swelling developed around his first knuckle.
Then the business broker with the moist way of talking, Roy Smythe, called again about some guy who wanted to buy his business. David told him for a second time that he wasn’t interested; Waste Hero paid his bills, the mortgage, the school fees. It was his baby that he’d built up for almost twenty years, and he wasn’t going to sell. But at 1:40 pm, after a third dose of Panadol, when Roger spilled his hot lamb roll all over the daily running sheet, David couldn’t help but mutter, ‘I could really do with a fucking change.’
The headache was unbearable by 4:30 that afternoon. He left work early, driving at a snail’s pace with both hands on the wheel and his head pitched forward, squinting. He wanted to ask Leah if taking ten Panadol would class as an overdose; it was the sort of question she would know the answer to. In the light of his front porch he inspected his forefinger. There was a purple ring around the knuckle.
The nausea that had briefly settled between the car and the front gate now rose up suddenly, and David leaned over the recently trimmed box hedge and vomited onto the lawn. Then the porch light started swaying, the whole world moving with it.
He wiped his mouth and climbed the three front stairs, dropping his briefcase on the tessellated porch tiles. The brass buckles clinked like a knife tapping an empty glass. He myopically sorted through his bunch of keys, trying to insert his house key into the squiggly line of the lock. But it was a puzzle he couldn’t solve. The keys clattered on the granite flagstone.
‘This isn’t a headache,’ he mumbled. There was the sound of the children thumping on the stairs and Leah humming up and down a minor scale.
‘Leah,’ he tried calling out, but all he heard was gargle. ‘I’m having a stroke.’
With all the remaining coordination he could muster, David lunged for the doorbell with the palm of his hand. The bell sounded deep in the house as David’s legs gave way; his shoulder first hitting the brickwork, then his face was against the tiles. He had never seen the tessellation up so close; it was like an Aztec design. Upon this realisation the world went black, switching off exactly like his childhood cathode-ray television, the outside drawing into a small static box, which milliseconds later disappeared into complete and utter blackness.