1. A streak of blood
“Darling, it’s me, Pats,” says the telephone. John wipes the crunchy bits out of the corners of his eyes and tries to wake up.
“Talked Nige into it. You’re on. Can you start today? Before he changes his mind. When can you be here?”
It’s seven am.
“Come as soon as you can. Heather’s in this morning, and Laurie said he’d drop by this afternoon.”
Laurie’s name has a pause before and after it, for emphasis.
John can’t decide what to wear. All his new clothes are for driving a truck. His student clothes are old. He settles on a thin green t-shirt and khakis. His hair is too long. A ducktail curls up at the back.
He swears at his Ford Falcon when she hesitates before starting. He swears at the traffic all the way down William Street and up the Cahill Expressway. Driving over the Harbour Bridge, he swears at the stockbrokers and real estate agents sailing their yachts on the water far below.
At a quarter to nine, John drives into the Gore Hill campus of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. It is not imposing. There are red brick warehouses to his right and to his left, temporary buildings up on cement blocks. Heat rises in waves from the asphalt parking lot. The cicadas are deafening. The red and white broadcast antenna looms high over his head. He hasn’t has any breakfast. He is hungry, and his head aches for coffee.
“Working for Patricia Bray,” he says to the guard in the booth. “Starting today.”
“Make sure she gets you a permanent parking sticker,” says the guard. “Right at the T, up the hill and should be some parking on your right. Good luck.”
John turns the Falcon and drives up the hill. Pat’s daughter Melody is walking down it. She’s wearing a tight fawn velour t-shirt and a short brown suede skirt. She carries a bulging manila folder. She sees him and makes a big surprise-and-welcome face. John stops the car and opens the window.
Melody wears thick fawn and brown makeup to conceal her bad skin. The head has come off one of the pimples, and a streak of blood has soaked into the makeup.
“Darling!” she says. “What are you doing here?”
“Starting work,” he says.
“Nige said yes? Nige said yes!” says Melody. “Yay for you!”
“Running late,” says John.
“Oh I won’t keep you,” says Melody. “Doing some photocopying.” She brandishes the folder. “College applications!”
“Good luck,” says John.
“Oh, you, too,” says Melody, and winks. John puts the car in gear and drives on up the hill. He finds the last space in the parking lot, next to a convertible Mercedes. There is no shade. The car’s vinyl interior will bake in the heat.
A woman stands at the door smoking a cigarette. Her forehead is the exact height of John’s mouth, and he already wants to kiss it. Her hair is clipped to peach-fuzz. She’s wearing combat pants and a black sleeveless T. Her eyes are green. One eyebrow is pierced. She squints at him through the blue smoke and offers him a cigarette.
“John?” she asks.
They shake hands. His are sweaty, hers are small and strong.
“She’s in the toilet,” says Heather.
“Sorry I’m late,” says John. He admires the way her round breasts stretch the thin black cotton.
“Late? It’s not even nine. I fuckin’ hate getting up this early. All she’s done is talk about Nige and how brilliant he is, Laurie and how brilliant he is, you and how brilliant you are. I’ve been bored shitless, no offense.”
“None taken,” says John. “I drive a truck, me.”
“Oh, she eats that shit up,” says Heather. “You’re her noble savage, you are. Did you really come first in your Honours year?”
“Second,” says John.
“Typical. She always has to lay it on with a trowel. Congrats, by the way. George Orwell, right? And now you drive a truck. Down and out in Penrith and Longueville. How ro-fucking-mantic. I mean, good on you and all, but she’s… Oh, never mind.”
“She’s given me my break,” says John.
Heather looks up at him, squinting against the sunlight. He casts her as the star of his own amateur porn flick, all apricot highlights and violet shadows. She flicks her cigarette butt into the gutter.
“You don’t need Pat,” she says.
“There’s always work for a truck driver,” says John.
“Right. Fallback plan. Me, I got this offer to do a kung fu film in Hong Kong.”
As she leads him inside, she demonstrates her best kung fu moves. “Haii-YA!”
She is remarkably supple.
2. Brutal, brutal
There is a computer printout tacked to the door. “Under The Skin,” it reads. Inside is a conference room with a long table and plastic chairs. A glass-walled office opens off to one side. Pat is behind the glass, talking on the phone. She’s wearing a crushed orange linen suit over a pink silk shirt. Her greying hair is layered and lacquered and permed.
“Well, he’s coming now,” she says. She looks up, sees them, waves a bejewelled hand. “In fact he’s here.” She listens. “Of course not. Of course not. I would never do that.”
John and Heather sit at the conference table. The plastic chairs are amazingly uncomfortable. John fears for the circulation in the back of his thighs.
“Yes it will. It always is, isn’t it? In the end,” says Pat.
Heather yawns and stretches and lays her head on her arms.
“You do that. You’ll feel much better. Call me later. Dinner. Yes. Lovely.”
The carpet is a sick shade of olive. The wood-veneer is peeling off the conference table. An electric fan rattles impotently. Sweat drips down John’s side under his shirt.
“Love you, darling. Love you. Kisses. Bye.”
Pat puts the phone down and comes out of the office.
“John! Darling! You made it! At last! You two met, then?”
“International freemasonry of smokers,” says Heather.
“Oo, fun,” says Pat. “Next time I wanna come with.”
She draws up a chair and sits herself down.
“That was Nige. Brilliant, brilliant. He’ll like you, John. He was the toast of London as a young man. Came out here from the Beeb. The BBC. Auntie Beeb, they call it. Misses England dreadfully, of course. Their loss. British TV, brutal, brutal industry. Chews people up, spits them out.”
Heather rests her nose on her crossed arms and looks imploringly at John.
“Anyway,” says Pat. “I’m glad we’re all here. We can start. But before we do,” – her bright tone modulates, becomes more formal – “I wanted to talk a little bit about what this project means to me, personally. Are we cool with that?” Back to bright. “Are we, you know, down with that?” Her pink lipstick has leaked a little into the wrinkles around her mouth.
Heather and John nod obediently.
“So John, I don’t know if you know this, but my father -”
“Ray Bray,” says Heather in a deep, newsreader’s voice.
“Yes, thanks, Major Ray Bray, was – among other things, he was a World War Two pilot…”
“Air Ace Ray Bray,” says Heather.
“…but after that – he was in politics, and at one time he was minister of police.”
“Under Askin,” says Heather.
“Yes, thanks, Heather, but he never has anything to do with the dreadful corruption or anything like that. Anyway, at the time, I worked for the equivalent of ATSIC, John, that’s the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission or Native Affairs as it is back then, and I wanted, we all did, to do something, for these poor, poor people. Because they are so, you know. But there was so little we could do. And now I feel a great sense of, you know, of obligation.
“So. Now, of course. Television,” says Pat. “Television drama. I feel, strongly, that if we can portray the reality of these peoples’ lives, then we can be a force for change. A force,” she pauses for emphasis, “for good.”
She looks around with a smile. John nods gravely. Heather grins.
“So, John,” says Pat, “I know you’ve never been in a story meeting before, but we’re still trying to knock the, the outlines into shape. You know. The bones of the thing. So we can get to, to the meat of it. Do you have your outline? You don’t have your outline? Heather, what have you been doing, if I may ask?”
“Smoking,” says Heather.
“Ha! Of course. Look, do you kids want some coffee? I need coffee, and donuts too I think. Is Melody back yet? Melody! MELODY!”
Melody sticks her head around the door and is sent to buy donuts and coffee. The coffee is vile, but his headache lifts like fog. He is so clumsy in his hunger that he drops a donut in his lap.
“Don’t do that,” Heather scolds. “You’ll traumatize your genitals.”
“Potty-mouth,” says John approvingly.
3. Not this place
“I notice,” says Heather, “that she didn’t bother boasting to you about her sister. Agnes.”
“Agnes Bray? Wait. No,” says John.
“President Agnes Bray,” says Heather in her newsreaders’ voice, “of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy.” They are walking down the hill to a sandwich shop near St Leonards station. The cement footpath winds past muffler repair shops and warehouses where photographic supplies are sold in bulk. The sun glares down. The sweat is like prickles embedded in John’s skin. The air smells of eucalyptus oil and of ozone from the electric trains.
“Storm tonight,” says Heather.
“The ACM won’t like this series much,” says John.
“Oh no,” says Heather. “It’s the slippery slope, innit. Aboriginal rights equals a republic, equals anarchy, equals a thousand year reign of darkness and terror. The end.”
“So Pat’s working off her guilt?” asked John.
“Straight guilt, liberal guilt, white guilt, guilt at being such an obscene and stupid cow,” says Heather. “God I hope my kung fu film gets funded. I feel sick. She never washes the coffee cups properly, she just rinses them out with cold water. I bet I’m coming down with something.”
“If you do,” says John gallantly, “I’ll bring you chicken soup.”
She grinned up at him. “I like you,” she says. “Keep the aspidistra flying.”
John badly wants to see her expression when she comes. He imagines himself rearing over her naked body as she writhes.
“John! John!” calls a voice. It is Melody running down the hill to catch up with them “I wanna sandwich too!”
She takes his arm and looks up at him confidingly. She’s washed her face and re-done her makeup, but she stopped at her jaw and there are greasy smudges under her ears. She smells faintly sour.
“How did the college applications go?” he asks.
Melody shrugs. “They just want you to jump through all these dumb hoops.”
“College?” asks Heather. “So you finished school in the end?”
“Nah, this is for junior college, I wanna get my international baccalaureate,” says Melody. “The High School Certificate’s not recognized anywhere else in the world.”
“Did not know that,” says John.
“There’s a lot you don’t know,” says Melody naughtily.
“This is the place,” says Heather. The food sits in stainless steel trays behind glass. There are sweets as well, Freckles priced at one cent each, jelly babies and sugar teeth at two. Heather orders a salad roll. John has roast beef. Melody opts for peanut butter and jam.
“A PBJ,” she says. “Only in America, the J is for jelly.”
“Shouldn’t we get something for Pat?” asks John.
“Oh, Mum doesn’t eat during the day,” says Melody. “Only donuts and things.” She gazes fondly at John: “Sweet of you to think of her.”
“There’s a liquor store around the corner,” says Heather.
“Miaow,” says Melody.
“How’s your auntie Agnes?” asks Heather.
“My family is so embarrassing,” says Melody to John. “And people wonder why I want to study overseas?” They collected their sandwiches and started back up the hill.
“Mum’s the best, though, she knows all the coolest people,” says Melody. “Is it true Laurie Freeman’s coming in this afternoon?”
“S’posed to be,” says John.
“Ooh, I want to meet him! I wonder what he’s like?”
“He’s lovely,” says Heather. Melody stares at her.
“How would you know?” she demands.
“Met him on a film we did last year. He got me this job,” says Heather. To John, she ads: “He’s exactly, exactly how you’d imagine. Tall, sexy, funny, charismatic as all get-out. Basketball genius. White people secretly wish all Aborigines were like him, then there wouldn’t be any problem.”
“Ouch,” says John.
“He’s so good at it,” says Heather. “First time I go to his place, he’s living in this dump of a rental in Glebe and he says, ‘How do you like my home?’ And I’m all, ‘Uhh, actually, Laurie, it kind of sucks.’ So he points at this huge painting on the wall, of the Kimberley, where he’s from, and he says, ‘Not this place. My home.'”
John doesn’t know what to say. He wants to get Heather alone again. But on his other side, Melody is trudging up the hill, nursing her PBJ and sulking.
Pat has received a distressing phone call. She hears the kids coming back and straightens her shoulders. She has done her best to be an exemplary mother, but her efforts have been in vain. Nevertheless she has to endure with courage the ordeal that lies ahead.
Heather, John and Melody come bounding into the conference room, their gestures large and free, filled with the heedless energy of youth. She intends John for Melody, that’s why she gave him the job, but those plans will have to go on the back burner now that Noel has plunged her life into chaos. Her heart contracts as she looks at John, such a decent, studious young man. More a son to her than Noel, who doesn’t appreciate any of the sacrifices she has made for him. She remembers in unpleasant detail the pain of Noel’s birth.
She emerges regally from her office.
“Mum, Mum, can I stay when Laurie comes? Please say yes, please!” says Melody. “Heather’s already met him, why can’t I?”
“Melody, please sit down, I have some bad news,” says Pat with noble calm.
“Do you want us to leave?” asks Heather.
“No, we’re all… family, in this,” says Pat.
“What is it?” asks Melody, not particularly alarmed.
“I’ve just been on the phone with Terence McAllister,” says Pat, “the principal of Noel’s school.”
“Oh God, what has he done now?” asked Melody.
“He was acting inappropriately in class. His bag was searched, and the school found… Melody, I’m sorry to have to tell you this…”
“Jesus, just say it.”
“They found …marijuana.”
“What?” snaps Pat.
“I am sorry,” says Heather, at once, contritely, “I truly didn’t mean to be rude, but the way you built it up I thought it would be something worse.”
“Worse,” says Pat levelly. “Worse. My son is on drugs. I have taken steps. I have booked him into a detox facility.”
“You’ve done what?” says Heather.
“Marijuana is a gateway drug. Noel has so much potential! He’s a brilliant, brilliant boy. I can’t permit him to waste himself in this way. This has to be nipped in the bud.”
This time John has to bite his tongue. Heather laughs out loud.
“Listen young lady,” says Pat sternly. “The only reason I took you into my confidence like this is that I expected you to act in a mature manner and treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves. If you can’t show me that kind of respect, then I don’t know about our working relationship. I just don’t know.”
It is an awkward moment. John holds his breath.
“Well?” asks Pat.
“I’m sorry,” says Heather quietly.
“I beg your pardon?” asked Pat.
“I said I’m sorry,” says Heather.
John hasn’t been so embarrassed since he left school. He risks a look at Heather, whose face betrays no expression at all.
For a while no one says anything. The fan rattles in its cage.
“All right,” says Pat. “Apology accepted. You’ve blotted your copybook, though.”
“I,” says Heather, “I might just duck out for a smoke.
“Don’t be too long,” says Pat.
John goes after Heather. She is sitting on the front step with her fists clenched.
“I hate her,” she says. “Christ, how I fucking hate her.” She is shaking with anger. “She’ll fuck up that poor kid of hers the way she’s already fucked up Melody. Detox. Christ.”
“Screw her,” says John. “Let’s go. Let’s get on the plane to Hong Kong.”
For a second he sees it all: their apartment in a high-rise, 747s passing the window on their way in to land, the pair of them eating noodles out of cardboard containers and drinking Tsing-tao, squabbling over the fate of their Triad antihero and his kick-boxing librarian girlfriend, and if Heather starts to win the argument he will throw her into bed and hold her down by her ankles.
Heather exhales and starts to laugh.
“Wouldn’t it be great?” she says, and digs up a cigarette. “John Woo, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan?”
“What are we waiting for?” asks John.
“For the universe to stop with the mighty sucking for just one half of one second,” says Heather.
John sits down beside her, crestfallen.
“You might as well hear it from me,” says Heather. “Pat’ll just turn it into a movie-of-the-week. I’ve got a sister at the Spastic Center. She’s great, but there’s only me, so I can’t go anywhere.”
“Oh,” says John. “Sorry.”
“Me too,” says Heather. She squeezes his hand and kisses his cheek. Her skin is velvety and smells of smoke. “We can’t change things, any of us, really. That’s what’s so awful.”
5. Last thing I need
“In a way it’s a blessing,” says Pat. “I was just saying to Melody. Aboriginal people have such terrible battles with substance abuse, and now, in a small way, I share their pain.”
Heather presses her pencil into her notebook until it brreaks. John’s hard-on aches. The phone rings.
“Will you excuse me?” said Pat, and ducks into the office. “‘Under The Skin’, Patricia Bray speaking,” she says. “Oh, Laurie, Laurie darling, hello, hello, how are you?”
The fan rattles. Heather sharpens her pencil.
“Oh, oh dear, I am so sorry to hear that.”
A bead of sweat crawls down John’s back. Heather licks the end of her pencil.
“No, of course, you do what you have to do. I know exactly how you feel. Exactly. Believe me, I do.”
Melody yawns. She has a yellow cavity in one back tooth.
“Yes, yes, whenever. Bye darling. You take care now. Bye.”
Pat puts the receiver down and comes out of the office.
“Laurie’s not coming. Family emergency, he says,” she told them. “He’ll try to make it tomorrow.”
“Oh well,” says Melody. “Can I have some money? Bunch of us going down to the pub.”
Pat takes her purse from her handbag and counts out fifty dollars. “Don’t get wasted. Last thing I need is both of you in detox.”
Melody pockets the money and leaves.
Pat gazes into the middle distance. “Typical Laurie,” she adds. “He on blackfella time.”
At four-thirty Heather says: “Gotta run.”
“Give my love to your sister,” says Pat warmly. John watches the way Heather’s bum moves as she walks out the door. When she is out of earshot Pat began: “Really, she’s a saint. Her sister…”
“She told me,” says John.
“Ah,” says Pat. “Well, We’ve all suffered our measure of personal tragedy. I think that’s why we’re drawn to this project. Nigel, for instance, lost his only daughter, to cancer. With that, and not being able to get work in England any more, he’s a wreck of a man, really, a shadow – Oh, that’ll be him now.”
The door bursts open. Behind it is a tall, bearded man in a beautiful linen shirt and black pants. He brandishes a bottle of chardonnay and a corkscrew.
“Fucking weather, eh?” he growls. “You must be John. Pat. PAT. Where do you keep the fucking wineglasses?”
“Desk, darling,” says Pat. She kissed him. “John, this is Nigel, of course. Our executive producer. Our EP.”
“Very pleased to meet you, sir,” says John, suddenly sick with nerves. He doesn’t want to go back to driving a truck.
“Sir? SIR? D’you hear that, Pat? Fucking brown-nose!” Nigel calls from Pat’s office.
“Told you you’d like him,” says Pat. Her eyes glitter.
“Love him. Love it. Fucking sir,” says Nigel. He comes out with two glasses. “All I could find. You better get a mug,” he says to John.
“I’ll pass,” says John. “I’m driving.”
“The fuck you will,” says Nigel.
“I’ll get it,” says Pat, and heads for the kitchen.
“How’s she treating you?” demands Nigel. He opens the corkscrew and twists it with relish into the cork.
“She’s, she’s great.”
“Liar. Did she shitcan that punk chick yet? No? Good. Bitch can write. Nice arse, too. Pat’s a fucking retard. Have you heard her with Laurie? ‘I’m gubba,’ she says, ‘you can call me gubba, I don’t mind. Gubba, gubba, gubba.’ Cunt. She thinks it means governor.”
He pauses to wrench out the cork.
“What does it mean?” asks John.
“Eh?” Nigel overfills the glasses and thrusts one at John. “Drink that. She can have the fucking mug. Sir.”
“Thank you. What does gubba mean?”
“Garbage,” says Nigel. “That’s what they call us. Fucking garbage. Bottoms up.” He drains his glass.
John tastes his. It’s amazing wine, all oak and sunshine, the best he’s had. Pat comes back with a coffee mug.
“Started without me?”
“Took your fucking time,” says Nigel.
“Oh,” says Pat gaily. “I on blackfella time!”
They roar. They remind John of the pigs at the end of Animal Farm. You could almost mistake them for people. She loves her son, he reminds himself. Nigel misses London.
He looks at the sunlight playing in his glass. Something inside him eases, that had been wound tightly for a long time. What the hell, he says to himself. What the hell. I can do this.