Sometime between the last of the bourbon and Coke and being woken by the sound of Michael throwing up, a seed is planted that will grow to become your life. As you lie there on the sand, the future is not something you are thinking much about. The sun is coming up and no one is talking because you are all pretty tired. Beside you Sally and Michael, one on either side, your best friends (your only friends), the three of you there waiting for whatever is supposed to happen with the dawn of the first day of the rest of your lives.
Michael is rubbing his eyes, running a hand through the curly hair he despises.
“I’ve seen enough. Let’s go home. I want to go to bed.”
Sally is rubbing her belly. She says nothing but rolls to plant a kiss on your cheek. Her hair falls across her face. She seems happy. You are just lying there, the chill of the last night hours lifting with the brightening sky.
Inside you want to congratulate yourself that this time, third time lucky, you have had the real schoolies experience. The success of it all is rooted in the proximity of your accommodation, a holiday rental unit reluctantly surrendered by its landlord, Michael’s father. You are in the thick of things, only twenty minutes walk to the action and, leaving aside written instructions in every room and various commandments (no strangers past the front door… keep the stereo down…don’t leave food out overnight: Chevron Island’s infested with roaches) all of which you have broken anyway, it has been pretty good. A week free of oldies.
You have not been arrested.
You have not died in a horror road smash.
You have not been bashed for wearing eyeliner or black fingernail polish. (Your mother will be relieved!)
And here in the last of your teenage years, it had to be done. Because the year you actually left school the only option was your parent’s beach house where nothing ever happened.
You can have the house but you’re not getting the car. I don’t see why you can’t catch the bus into Surfers.
The house was an old fibro cottage in Paradise Point. It was the worst house in the street and featured a rusting water tank and overgrown backyard as constant reminders of your lack of popularity. With no transport your school friends took the name of the suburb as a cruel joke. They were keen to be anywhere else. Most of the time you were stuck down the road at Runaway Bay, with some girl called Wendy (a real Goth, not just a bit of make up on a Friday night), listening to Madonna and smoking cigarettes by the pool. Each of you waited and waited for Wendy’s parents to drive you to Cavill Mall.
The following year you had glandular fever and barely made it out of the house between the end of semester and Christmas.
No, this schoolies has been the one. Michael finally appears to have forgiven you for locking the keys in the unit on the first day. You are still waiting to be thanked for convincing the firemen to come out. You felt like such a wimp beside them, big rough blokes who get off on saving lives but are still prepared to climb through a top story window so some stupid kids do not have to ring their parents.
In between then and now you had the schoolies you wanted, or a close approximation of what is possible, given who you are and your limited social connections.
The car chase you could have done without even though you emerged a hero. One final unexpected event seems trivial in comparison. Precipitated by a common need to celebrate your escape during the pursuit, combined with the disinhibiting effects of drinking, Sally, Sally of all people, delivers you from sexual naivety, that state of misery of all teenage boys. It is not so clear what exactly transpired, but you are left with a sense of relief.
And on that blanket on the sand with both of them beside you, you wish Michael would be quiet, that you can remain on the beach. You wish the sun will stay low in the sky forever and you do not have to go home or get older or worry about your parents finding out your uni results or anything else. You wish this moment, like the waves rolling in before you will just continue on and on and on.
But it doesn’t.
Here you are, dead on seventeen years later, sitting alone on your back deck waiting for the phone to ring.
This time the daylight is fading. The thriving garden, obedient to your nurturing, continues to defy the dry weather. You observe it begin to settle into its nocturnal glow. The failing light has activated automatic lanterns. That technology can yield this kind of visual irony simply adds to its soothing effect. Despite the fact that you are waiting for something beyond your control, you feel masterful in the knowledge that this refuge is yours, your home.
People tell you the garden is ‘delightful’. You agree with them (they want you to feel good about the life you have made) but secretly you would like an aspect. You cannot see anything beyond your creation. The house is in a hollow. You should move somewhere with a view. Josh thinks the same thing.
“Dad,” he says, “get a life.”
The dog at your feet is waiting as well. He is waiting for the dinner he knows will come. You would like to have this certainty about your son calling but you are not so sure. Look at yourself, you think. Old man sitting at home. Why? Mobile phones will work anywhere.
You would like to take your phone and wait somewhere else, somewhere with distractions. But at thirty-six you feel too old to turn up to a bar on your own, at least in Brisbane. It is too small, this third city. You know too many people. You could call up one of them but on a Saturday night the best you will get is voicemail.
You should go out. Sally would tell you to go out. Sally has her own life now. You look at her photo beside the baby snaps you insist on keeping on display. Family portraits. The three of you at the beach. And there, you, the same you with thicker hair. Not much else has changed. You have the same cautiousness about everything you do, now reinforced with age and a tendency to want to go to bed at ten o’clock. You wish you were more than this, this man approaching his forties, shut up in a museum all day and eating by himself most nights.
You know you do not have to wait. You could call him even though it is too early to do something like that. They will have found their hotel, checked in, be unpacking their gear. You would like to talk to him before they start drinking. You would like the call to be answered by a sober Josh who might hear the concern in your voice. But what can you say without giving away that you are the old guy you never wanted to become?
You could text him. But what you risk is a curt response, no better off than you are now.
Am Ok. Call U L8r
The dog’s stomach rumbles and he looks up at you and reminds you of your other obligation tonight. The puppy you bought for Josh is now geriatric in dog years. Like you he has habits that seem absolute and unlike Josh he still needs you. The dog is at the end of his life. His arthritic legs make it an effort to return from walks of any distance. It has crossed your mind a few times to have him put down. Josh is always too busy to take care of him. But you cannot bring yourself to do it. Somehow it seems more dignified to let him see his days out.
You get up and take the dog’s dish into the kitchen. After setting his food down you consider your own dinner. But it is too early to eat. You would like to fix yourself a drink but if anything went wrong and you needed to drive…
What were you thinking?
It was not planned. You did not consider the outcome of that night, you driving, your friends in the back throwing water filled balloons at teenage passers-by, boys and girls out for a good time.
The three of you thought you were hot stuff, cruising past nightclubs in Michael’s yellow Corolla, looking out for unsuspecting victims. Perhaps Michael’s aim was too good or your driving too slow. The possibility that some of the real schoolies might have cars themselves had never entered your heads.
“Faster,” cried Sally.
You were flooring it, weaving through traffic down the Gold Coast Highway, a car full of angry seventeen year olds behind you. Gripping the wheel, you prayed for a police car. Anything was better than what would happen if those boys caught you.
“Keep going!” yelled Michael. “They’re still behind us.”
You turned sharply off the highway without indicating, across two lanes of traffic, losing them as they sped past the intersection. Soon you were on an unlit road, hurtling through a new estate development, out-driving your beams.
“Can’t see them now,” said Sally.
When you stopped the car, all was dark. You could hear your own heartbeat and the breathing of the other two but nothing else. Every time you saw distant headlights you feared the worst.
When you got back to the unit, you all joked about it and drank, drank more than you had ever drunk before. Michael passed out early.
You try to read. A National Geographic feature. Soon you are flicking through the pages, just looking at pictures. All the places you would have liked to have been but never made it to. Maybe that is all possible now?
It would not bother you even if he called and did not have much to say. Just to know they had arrived safely would be a comfort.
Enough. You pick up the phone and are about to dial when you think:
What if he doesn’t answer? What will I do then? You could leave a message. Josh is usually good with stuff like that. But would he want to know his father is worrying?
Schoolies week. That local rite of passage. You are easy with Josh. Perhaps not as permissive as his mother but there is probably not much he has not tried. You both avoid restricting him too much and remain there at a watchful distance. Josh has surely been stoned, had sex. You do not know any details and you do not expect him to tell. But he is not a wild kid. He is sensible. You tell yourself these things and hope you are right.
You have met his mates and they are not a bad group, mostly jock types, the sporty guys who gave you a hard time at school. They even seem to accept you. And you congratulate yourself that your son has the courage to introduce you to them. Some of them even seem flirtatious, but, in awe of their youthful beauty, you know better. They are just boys, your son’s mates. As straight as they come. Well at least for the next five years or so. At least until they have done their degrees, bought their first property and begun to weary of the empty promises of corporate life.
No. That is your story, not their’s. You do not know these boys. You cannot assume they are not who they make themselves out to be. But your concern is natural. You want to protect your kid from the mistakes you have made even though you know he needs to make his own. He is at an age where you want to sit down with him and tell him all the things he does not know but could probably work out with a calendar and a bit of common sense. But will you do that with Josh, your one unnatural heir? Probably not. Teenage boys have no time for sentimentality.
These photographs of Josh on the credenza, these are the images marking all stages of his life. And your life. Photos of Sally as well. Sally who stuck in there for years at your insistence she play along as a happy couple, to satisfy your family and neighbours, the parents of the other kids at school. Eventually Sally had enough. She pretended for Josh’s sake, but she got tired of it all. Bored with those romantic hinterland drives that never came to anything. Weary of chaste kisses at partings. And the photos of you: you do not like to see yourself back through time but keep them there because Josh is in them, in those baby pictures, always with you holding him, because you would not leave him alone for the seconds it would take to pick up the camera.
And here you are, bathing him in the Broadwater three doors from his grandparent’s house. That house has gone now with their passing, along with the rusting water tank and the rampant passionfruit vines. Even the views of Straddie have been lost to a pumped up archipelago of ‘mchouses’, an enclave of concrete kerbing and manicured turf.
The phone rings and you snatch it up.
“Ah ha. You know you shouldn’t be on your own all the time.”
“I’m fine,” you say.
“He’s fine,” she says. “He’s a boy. He’s seventeen.”
Sally stores her concerns to the endnote of those occasions that must be shared: birthday dinners; the obligatory exchange of gifts at Christmas; the Kodak moments of family life.
“You know you are always welcome at our place.”
“I know,” you say. “Thanks.”
Josh has a girlfriend, but she is not at all like Sally. They appear to have independent lives and less commitment than you and Sally had even before that night on Chevron Island. It is healthy. Josh knows his mind more than you did. That does not mean he will not get it wrong occasionally.
You select a CD. Slow jazz, the first album of a female singer you used to listen to when Sally moved out. The voice is like syrup through the warm evening.
Josh will have to make his own mistakes. He is not you. He does not appear to be pretending to be someone he is not. He does not think that by giving himself to a woman too willing to experience all the pain and pleasure of life he will save himself from shyness forever. Josh will not have any of those worries. He will never scandalise his mother by being found in the arms of another boy under the tank stand for all the neighbours to see.
You cannot train his life just as you could not direct your own. Sometimes things just grow wild. You never guessed you might choose loneliness and responsibility as your neighbours.
The music slips through the evening, tendrils into the night, blossoming here and there as it goes.
When you open your eyes it is after nine. The house is quiet except for the sound of the phone ringing.
“Josh! You want me to call you back?”
You dial him, pleased to avoid a hasty ending blamed on a lack of pre-paid credit.
“So you got there okay?”
“Yeah. But we’re staying home tonight. It’s crazy out there.”
“You’re not going out?”
“Too many dudes running around pissed. We’re getting up early to trek through Springbrook.”
“That’ll be nice.” In your memory you see rusting wrecks in the gullies that drop away from the mountain road. “Go slow on those curved bridges.”
“Don’t worry,” he says, “we will. What are you up to?”
“Not much. Rex and I were just listening to some music.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
In the brief silence that follows, that pause in which you consider what you will say next, something inside you lifts and dissolves into the night air.
“Ok. Have a good time Josh. Take care.”
When the call is over, you put down the phone then hesitate a moment. He could be telling you what you want to hear. Perhaps your son knows you too well. You smile to yourself as you look out to the garden.
The dog raises his eyes before lowering them again with a long dog sigh. You throw him a couple of treats, lock up the house and walk out into the night.