C C Canning
Every time he looked up, it seemed, her eyes had been on him. When he stood at the lectern talking his way through the Whiteman’s Creek slide presentation ‑ the artists’ perspectives of shopping malls, factories, offices and schools, streets teeming with happy, multicultural people, the park land and grid plans, the sales stats and projections so compellingly drawn that you could swear you had already been there – in the darkened room, filled with middle aged bankers and the smell of the imminent buffet lunch wafting in through the doors from the room next door, one face, one pair of eyes, always. And when he met her eyes, even though accidentally, she would smile so briefly and discreetly that anyone who was not meeting her eyes at that same moment would have been unaware of it, so turning it into a secret; a secret between two people who had not at that stage even met.
‘These events are hard for a woman,’ he said to her when he found her standing beside him on the pontoon later in the day while the conference delegates were waiting for a boat to take them across to Hamilton Island for the afternoon; ‘all the men want to do is play golf and go sailing.’
‘I play golf,’ she replied. ‘I sail.’
The nature of her smile in the bright sunlight suggested she'd said something completely different, but he couldn’t tell what. That evening she sat next to him at dinner. There were ten men and only two women, neither of whom occupied senior positions, but out of political correctness, and probably because the conference manager was a woman, it had been decided that he, as the host, should have the lead banker on one side and Alison on the other. The conversation encompassed the whole table. That was how he liked it; a round table for twelve people so that when he talked about his plans and the exciting prospects for Saville Corp it wasn’t just wasted on the person next to him. At the same time he could draw the best out of Lawrence and his other key people. It was like conducting an orchestra. He was in good form that night, enjoying the audience and sharing his enthusiasm with them. Why not? Whiteman’s Creek was one of the most exciting projects these bankers would ever be exposed to. He could tell they loved it.
As usual they drank their way through the wine list without regard to cost. This was what bankers particularly liked; to go away to luxury resorts and drink wine that cost more than the weekly salary of their secretaries, all paid for by clients to whom they were lending the money. It was one of the rules of the game. When the ‘92 Grange ran out (surprise, surprise) it was up to him to pick a replacement. He couldn’t go down in quality, but how could he match it, let alone do better? So he threw the problem to Lawrence.
The mood of the party was delicately poised, bright eyed, smiling, mellow but wanting more. While Lawrence looked from one side of the wine list to the other, matching prices to names like a spectator watching a game of miniature tennis, Saville decided to ask the million dollar question.
‘So, now you’ve all seen it, who would like to have equity in the Whiteman’s Creek development?’
He knew the answer, otherwise he wouldn’t have asked the question. Hands rose, mouths opened, chairs were pushed back and some even got to their feet fumbling in false bravado for bank notes and credit cards. Lots of laughter of the bloke-y sort filled the room and even the resort wine waiters, waiting for Lawrence to make a fucking decision, joined in the fun looking like they’d be keen to buy shares, too. But it went on too long and started to go flat because it needed to be followed quickly with another great wine; something that would at least sustain their spirits, if not lift them.
‘Come on, Lawrence, for Pete’s sake!’ he cried, but the more he was pushed the more determined Lawrence was to take his time. Then from beside him Alison said:
‘Hill of Grace.’
‘Hill of Grace ...?’
‘’96 or ’98?’ asked the wine waiter.
‘A good choice, Madam.’
Well, bugger me, thought Roger, not having a clue, but taking comfort from the wine waiter’s attitude that they would not be embarrassed by it, and rather pleased that Lawrence had been left floundering. Not just a pretty face, then.
When the wine was brought and she had, at his insistence, confirmed that she was satisfied with it, he turned and raised his glass to her eye-to-eye.
‘A good choice,’ he said quietly, for her alone, and she gave that same smile that he had seen earlier in the day, the one that you might not have noticed if you hadn’t been looking her directly in the eye. Whether it was the wine, or the smile, or just because enough had been said already that night and anything further would have been superfluous, his mood suddenly changed and he excused himself from the table, encouraging everyone else to stay and continue enjoying themselves. His influence on the table, the effect of what he had said, would only be heightened by his absence, so he took himself for a stroll on the beach. He was not a drinker and the golfing stories bored him.
Standing on the foreshore with the warm waters of the Whitsunday Islands lapping at his feet he had expected to be mildly exhilarated by the success of the day, but instead he was overwhelmed by the enormity of what he faced. Building Whiteman’s Creek was going to take a decade of effort, every day bringing more and more problems dressed as challenges to his desk. Was that what he wanted? There it was; there was the great scheme, created by his own hand: it would never be more admirable and exciting than it was at that moment. Let others have it, he thought. Yes, yes, yes.
Naturally he feigned surprise when Alison tip-toed out of the black night in her black dress trailing her shoes in her hand. Why is it that on calm nights when the ocean breathes softly, laying itself rhythmically at your feet, and the sky is starless like a photographer’s darkroom, people standing on the shore tend to whisper like children at the key-hole of an adult room?
‘It’s so dark,’ he whispered.
‘No city lights,’ she whispered back. ‘The warm air above the ocean rises and meets the cold air descending, creating a condensation that blocks out the stars.’
He'd turned away and started back to the hotel, feeling uncomfortable with the setting. She followed. At the door of his room she said, in her normal voice, ‘You believe very much in this project, don’t you? Enough to risk your own equity if it doesn’t succeed?’
Well, of course he did, he'd replied, because no-one should expect to succeed if they weren’t willing to put themselves on the line and that was the nature of the business and he wouldn’t be where he was today if he hadn’t been prepared to show that commitment throughout all his dealings. Above all else, he had said, believing it implicitly, property development is not for the faint hearted. How this conversation, held under the low voltage down light in the passageway outside his executive suite, turned up at breakfast time the next morning as an assumption that he was offering equity as security, took some explaining.
At the end of the flatmate scene Luke sniffed loudly and coughed, then slipped his hand onto Willie’s thigh and squeezed it firmly, just missing his erection. The light in the cinema had grown brighter, or his eyes had adjusted, and he could see the look on Luke’s face, his brow furrowed and his lips puckered in a teasing smirk that directed Willie to look down at what he was holding cupped in his free hand. The light wasn’t quite that good. Willie took what he thought was a pencil but which he quickly recognised from its feel was a shortened drinking straw. He leaned forward until his face was down in Luke’s hand and put the straw to his right nostril, sniffing as quickly and silently as possible. Then he did the same with his left nostril, shuddering slightly at the sweetness before straightening up and waiting.
The girls, Nadine and Manu, meanwhile had become bosom buddies, nicked a car and headed out of Paris. It was pretty obvious they were headed for oblivion; the only interest was in how they got there. Now that they had each other it was becoming a different movie. Nobody minded the ride to hell so much if they were holding hands with a friend. Would it be the same, burying his head against Nicole’s thigh if she had someone else with whom she laughed and committed murder? No, what he wanted was for him alone: it was an exclusive pool to drown in.
It didn’t take long for the ice man to call. He sneaked up silently and ran a frozen cube around Willie’s temples and down his cheeks before blowing a cold blast of air down his back, causing him to shiver and cross his legs. Then a thrilling explosion took place inside him, a chain of miniature blasts that rippled through him like a rope of nitro glycerine tearing across the rock face of a canyon, each explosion releasing a flash of heat that flooded his body. He put his fist in his mouth because there was a bubbling sound like a pent-up geyser rising inside him and he didn’t know whether it was a voice or vomit that was rushing to get out.
Nadine, who had ceased being Nicole in his mind on account of her disloyalty and detachment from all actions except the felicitous stroking of Manu’s hair, arbitrarily decided to put her gun into their latest victim’s mouth. He didn’t know why, but Willie immediately started to laugh. Maybe it was the fact that the victim was so obviously meant to be one. He was the sort of sleaze ball who could never get a fuck unless the woman was already dead, or he found himself in a bad porno movie. The gun was just impossibly big, the way cocks are in the same movies, and she needed two hands to hold it so of course it was obvious she was going to make him suck it like a dick before she blew his head off and Willie couldn’t help himself because he saw it all so clearly. ‘Yeah, suck on that, Sleaze Ball’, Willie wanted to say the minute he saw the gun and then, long before she pulled the trigger he was calling out something like ‘Ketchup’, because that was what he reckoned they were about to see and he dug his elbow into Luke’s arm to make sure he didn’t miss it.
It was such a great feeling, knowing what was going to happen, almost like he was directing it; the light and sound were so clear and there was a rhythm to the popping of their guns like a hidden sound track that only the ultra-sensitive could hear. It was like, ‘slap, slap’, the beating of a hand upon his thigh and the exquisite tickling of his scrotum. At that moment Willie thought this might be the best movie he would ever see. Shit, they just went straight to it, the way life really was if you knew how to find the sub-text; none of that bullshit about giving in to it all and being a tame little victim. This was the honest way. Live life briefly but brightly.
Up ahead a series of side-drum rolls followed by the metronomic boom of the base drum signalled that the march had started. The crowd around them stood in silence as the melancholy wail of the brass band and bagpipes filled the George Street canyon, and then, little by little, like a growing whisper, the sound of footsteps swept back towards them so that they all lifted their heads erect, waiting for the off, and Sam grabbed Albert’s hand.
Some put their left foot forward, and some put their right, but they all smiled awkwardly together and a few even called out loud, ‘Quick march!’ The young played heel-and-toe, skipping to get into step while the brass band crescendo bounced from wall to wall.
Albert should have known it would be like this. A brass band and uniforms, a cultivated reverence focused on a very special day, the last survivors dying, their skin and organ cells long ago ceasing to replace themselves, small deeds made into myths and the sun swinging up over the horizon to warm the dawn as it had and would forever long after they were gone: how else would it be? No wonder he'd stayed away in the bush, working with his trees all these years. But he didn’t regret it, and possibly, in the trusting lightness of his granddaughter’s hand he sensed that this was not about war at all, but about generations and, in particular, the rare chance for one generation to say to another, though far removed by age and custom, that they were capable of the same feelings.
Then, he’d go along with it, if that’s what it was. They could throw torn up paper at him out of the department store windows if they wished (not considering who would have to clean it up), but maybe out of this he could bring himself to tell his granddaughter some of the things she wished to know; the things she didn’t know.
‘Oh, he could swim alright, my father,’ he said, beaming down at her. ‘He could swim for Africa.’