Sometimes, after school, David could hear his mother having an affair. The first few times, he could only hear soft steady breathing. The sound that breath makes when blown on a car window to make it fog up. He never saw anyone else in the house and so imagined his mother inside her bedroom fogging up all the glass. But as time went by, she became reckless, left the bedroom door slightly ajar, and the voices and noises David heard he could only relate to pain. His mother’s accomplice began to make appearances in the house, usually in the kitchen, half-clothed, cheeks bloodshot and drinking water from the tap, hands cupped. He wouldn’t acknowledge David. Just a half-formed wry smile and fickle eye contact. On a particularly dry afternoon, however, when David was sat outside beside the lawn mower he had given up on trying to start, the man happened to turn back as he walked out past David. He remarked, ‘Have a good one,’ as he fixed the cufflinks of his shirt and ambled down the street before David could respond.
‘Heard your mum takes it from anyone, Davie-boy.’ David was hit by an elastic band shot from across the the tram. David studied the pleats of his navy school pants. Johnson turned around abruptly, his legs pressing into David’s. They heard a jet fly overhead and David thought the world was ending. A single drone, or an object falling from a great height. He hadn’t told Johnson he loved him yet. But he hoped it would be the end before he felt the need to tell him.
‘Fuck up, Brent.’ The back carriage was full of laughter. The pleats in David’s pants weren’t straight. He pinched at the fabric. His mother couldn’t do anything right anymore.
‘Tell her she’s welcome to this anytime.’ David didn’t bother looking back. The image of Brent grabbing at his cock was one he had seen many times from the back of the classroom, in front of teachers, in front of girls. Crawling down Sydney Road, David thought that each man he saw could be the one who frequently emerged from his mother’s bedroom. He could be making his way there now. David searched for that self-assured slow strut that he had witnessed the other day, as the man had parted the long grass with his perfectly pleated business pants.
‘Let’s get off here and walk,’ David whispered to Johnson, who frowned. David stood up, grabbing at his school bag. He fumbled and swayed, pulled the string. Johnson sighed, picked up David’s bag as well as his own, and they both bumped into each other on their way to the doors. As the doors opened, Johnson tossed a bottle of water at Brent, hitting him in the chest, before pushing David off the tram. They would both pay for that later.
The affair made David sad. Not because he felt sorry for his father because his father sometimes beat him – not often, just when David brought the wrong milk home from the shops, or when he’d fallen asleep with the radio on. He felt sad because it seemed that secrets weren’t secrets at all and he wondered at all the secrets he had, that wouldn’t remain his own forever. If people would eventually figure it all out, piece everything together and discover what kind of puzzle he actually was. If maybe, years ago, when he had told Johnson that he had accidentally killed his pet budgerigar by squeezing it too hard with affection, Johnson had gone straight to David’s mother and told her. Or if maybe David’s own mother had overheard the conversation by hiding out near their secret place by the back fence between the tool shed and the old willow tree. And he wondered about all the secrets that he hadn’t yet told anyone, but which were written across his skin with erasable ink.
David slipped on the steps of the tram. Johnson steadied him on the bitumen. The sky was pregnant with clouds. The world was definitely ending. David knew it now.
‘Where do you want to go?’
‘Somewhere safe.’ The droning sound returned, and Johnson threw a stick up towards the plane flying above, laughing.
‘What do you mean?’
David’s eyes found the plane and waited to see if it would be hit by a missile and burst into flames. If its wings would fall off and plummet to the ground.
‘Somewhere where nothing can kill us.’
Johnson took off like a jet engine. ‘You’re nuts, Davie Hart!’ he shouted back.
When David was nine, he went away with his mother to the beach. He hadn’t seen his father in six days. On the sand, she asked David to undo the string of her bikini top. She lay on her stomach while he rubbed sunscreen into her back. He watched her from out at sea. Watched as men walked past her, pretending not to look at her curved, fully exposed back. From out that far, he thought she looked like a mermaid, looked like magic. But when one of the men began talking to her, the seaweed became tentacles trying to grab at his ankles. The sand felt like hundreds of tiny rocks shredding the bottoms of his feet. And the faster he tried to swim back to shore, the more vicious the waves became. He was picked up by a lifeguard fifty metres from where his mother was, sitting up, her hand holding her bikini top to her breasts, talking to a man that looked out of place on the beach. A thin layer of sand coated his business suit.
The air around Merri Creek trail was still, the water stagnant.
‘At least fifty in there,’ Johnson said, tossing a stone into the water.
‘If it flooded, all the bodies would come out.’
‘Bodies would litter the path.’
It began to rain, droplets falling heavily onto the tops of their heads. Splattering on their school bags.
‘If there was a tsunami, would we make it to safety from here?’
‘Depends how big the tsunami was.’
‘An end of the world kind.’
‘Probably not. There’s no high ground here.’
‘What about something nuclear?’
‘Depends where it was dropped and how big its radius was.’
They sat in silence. Their shoulders just touching. David picked at the pleat of his pants. Johnson threw more stones into the creek.
When he was younger, David would help his mother get ready for when his father was due home. He would pick out a dress and then he would help her to match her lipstick to its colour. Sometimes he would even apply the lipstick for her, and she would giggle when he got it on her teeth, or over the curves of her lips. He liked the feeling of presenting his mother to his father in all her perfection and his hard work. He would stand a few metres from the door, and watch as they greeted in the hallway. He would smile at the small round kiss she would leave on his father’s cheek. And the hallway would fill with the her perfume.
‘This is the scent I was wearing on the night we first met,’ she told David, often. It was a sickly floral smell that clung on to her clothes and the air in his parents’ bedroom. But after a short while it disappeared completely, and David could only smell earth, sand and the ocean. And his mother smelt like the most natural thing in the world.
‘Has your dad come home yet?’
‘Yes.’ The rain had become heavier, and David began to calculate the rate at which the creek was filling.
David thought of last night, the small red kiss his mother had planted on his father’s forehead. The silence in which they had all had their dinner. His father’s heavy breathing from the bedroom followed by sharp splinters of words.
‘Brent’s a cock.’ Johnson turned quickly, looking David in the eyes.
David smiled. Johnson’s eyes looked like storm clouds. ‘I know.’ When lightning struck, David reached out for Johnson’s hand. He waited for the trees to snap and collapse over them.
David learnt the word limerence from his mother. He found it one day circled in one of the books she was reading. The pages had been opened to that passage, as if it had been opened and smoothed flat many times. He decided it was a word he could never use in conversation, but wondered if his mother had. He wondered if she had circled it so she would remember it the next time his father came home. But he never heard it uttered in the house. He often wanted to write it down and leave it somewhere where Johnson would find it. He figured if Johnson knew the meaning of it, he would have discovered he felt the same way. David began to scratch it into a path once when they were sitting together sharing a slushy. It took him a while to notice what he was doing. The word ‘limit’ was still engraved in the concrete near Johnson’s house.
‘You don’t believe in the end of the world, do you?’ Johnson said, his thumb pressing into the knuckles of David’s hand.
The trees remained straight and tall around them. The creek drew in the rain and a small waterfall had begun to form over the rocks, spilling onto the path.
‘It’s not the end, Davie, not yet.’
When David was carried back to his mother, propped up on one elbow in the sand, she became so panicked by the sight of him wrapped up in a towel, that she let her bikini top fall. The whiteness of her breasts in the summer light enveloped him as he collapsed into them. He watched her hands shaking in the car on the way back home.
‘How does someone know if you love them?’
She smiled, and took his small, water wrinkled hand in her trembling one. ‘When they are willing to accept any kind of danger with you.’
With one hand on the wheel, she laughed harder than he had seen anyone ever laugh. The wind rippling through the car window whipped strands of hair across David’s face. Her hair smelt of ocean salt and shells.
‘Let’s stay for longer,’ David said, squeezing the sandy skin of his mother’s hand. She flattened her foot on the accelerator and the car braced itself against the oncoming wind.
‘Yes, I’m not ready to go home just yet.’
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