The motel didn’t even have pay-per-view. Taffy Cadogan had an on/off relationship with pay-per-view. Every dead-end hotel ought to have it. Pay-per-view movies, pay-per-view porn, anything. Hell, he’d fork out $14.50 an hour to watch mould fuzz over the toilet bowl if it would take his mind off everything. He was in that kind of mood. A nothing mood.
He glanced over at the bathroom with its grimy walls. It looked like the kind of bathroom where mould would grow on his toothbrush if he left it next to the sink for too long. He flipped through the free channels, all five of them, and turned the TV off. The silence buzzed loudly in his ears, which was pleasant, but nowhere near enough.
Taffy knelt on the threadbare carpet–the colour of curdled milk, it was the first thing he’d noticed in the room–and rummaged in his backpack. Vodka and half a bottle of rum. He chose the rum, mixed it with Pepsi in a dirty glass and sat on the edge of the bed.
Drink, pause. Drink.
He laced his fingers together and flexed them behind his neck. Fuck. In his head, the word was enunciated and elongated, like a low wail. Fu-u-u-u-u-u-ck. Here he was, travelling one and a half times around this misshaped, misbegotten crumb of a country in search of the bloody meaning of life or some such shit, and he was drinking alone in a paper-walled prison just like he used to do in his college room. He had progressed a total of nowhere.
Taffy sat for a while and finished the rum, and considered taking off his T-shirt and turning his back to the mirror and looking at the back of his neck but he didn’t because he knew he was drunk and besides, they had sworn only to do that at the very end of it all.
Then he stared at the vodka bottle, which he had put on the bedside table, for ten minutes. He realised he was being stupid and went to brush his teeth. Before he slept, Taffy opened the window and stuck his head out to look at the stars. He was twenty-three and young. He was vivacious and tall. He looked at the heavens, but did not find any meaning to life.
In the morning, the bottle of vodka was open and several sips were gone. So were his pants. His mouth tasted sour. The sheets were damp and sticky.
Taffy dragged himself to the bathroom and scrubbed his face and hair. He gargled at length and spat. He found his pants on the other side of the room and put them on. He had long passed the stage when there had been a difference between pyjamas and daywear.
The motel was a bed-and-breakfast next to the highway–a shack, really, with nothing but a peeling sign to recommend itself to the traveller with shallow pockets. It was surrounded on three sides by a wire fence and the tarmac had weeds poking up through a million cracks. At the back was a monstrous stack of tyres, rusty automobile parts, old bicycles. The front window had a yellowed local newspaper clipping taped to the inside: Angus Young had once stayed the night in the 1980s; it had been their proudest moment.
When the sun came up and glowed through the spindly eastern trees it was really quite picturesque, and as Taffy sat at a small wooden table in the restaurant next to the window he thought that things really weren’t so shitty and he was a wuss for mooching around last night like a whining, self-pitying arse. He really couldn’t stand people like that. His college roommate, Gaz, had been like that. A real do-gooder–or, at least, that was what Gaz thought of himself. He joined all the charity clubs at university, showed up at loads of fundraisers, was always going round asking people for money until Taffy just wanted to roll up a twenty dollar bill and insert it into his nostril or some other bodily orifice. But that was OK–Taffy had nothing against people who wanted to do good. In fact, he admired them, silently. But at the end of the day the real Gaz came back to their dorm and moaned about this and that, and said what a sonuvabitch their lecturer was, and then he would preach to Taffy about how Taffy could be a better person and make the world a better place. Don’t drink so much shit, Taffy, it isn’t good for you. Stop reading those disgusting magazines. Get off your lazy arse, Cadogan. And the next day Gaz would get up and do it all over again, making the world a better place for absolutely no one but himself.
The motel lady banged a plate down in front of Taffy: a stack of toast like the leaning tower of Pisa, with honey drizzled all over. There was also some scrambled eggs and a cup of orange juice. It smelt like heaven. Taffy gave the eggs a generous dousing of pepper and ate like a starved man.
The motel received its fair share of guests. One corner of the restaurant bulged with the presence of a plump gentleman in his sixties, in a ghastly straw-yellow-and-green checked suit that was bursting at the seams. He puffed away like a steam engine as he read the paper: easy guess the missus didn’t let him smoke at home. In another corner lounged a big-haired, long-legged woman in a scarlet PVC skirt, also working her way through a packet of cigarettes and a coffee. There was a fresh-faced couple with a two-year-old son; they all spoke to one another in Dutch. And there were two men in raggedy flannel shirts smoking on the back porch and talking.
One of the raggedy men banged in through the fly screen door and spotted Taffy. He slid into the plastic chair opposite, snuffed out his cigarette, leaned his scrawny, sinewy arms–his shirt had the sleeves cut off just below the shoulder–on the tabletop. He sniffed Taffy’s orange juice. “Bit softer than usual, isn’t it? Need a dash of the good stuff? Eh?” He reached for his back pocket.
“Leave it, Rake. I need my head clear.”
Rake grudgingly returned the flask to his pocket. “What’s going on, mate? Eh?”
“I think I’m going to take off today. Today’s the day. I gotta go.”
“Mate, you said that yesterday.” Rake took a slice of toast and ate it in three bites.
“Yeah, but I’m serious today. I’ve been in this hole for a week. There’s no pay-per-view. There’s nothing here. I’m going.”
“You’re going nowhere, you mean.”
“That’s why I gotta go.” He ate as quickly as he could, trying to finish the toast before Rake could steal another piece.
“Damn,” said Rake, leaning back and stretching his arms behind his head. “Wish I could come with you. But I signed a fucking contract to chop the fucking trees here for six more months. It’s my prison, Taffy. This is my own Guantanamo Bay.” He snorted at his joke. “You opened my eyes to that, good man, with all your talk about your search for the fucking source of life.”
“Meaning,” corrected Taffy. “Of life.”
Rake didn’t really hear. They drank in silence: Taffy the orange juice, Rake from his flask. At last Rake scratched his chin and said, “Eh, you looked at it yet?”
“No,” said Taffy. “I felt like trying last night, but I didn’t. I can’t, anyway. You can’t see something properly if it’s on the back of your neck. That’s why we put it there. Do you know what she said to me when we did it? She said, when you find meaning to life you’ll be able to look at yourself from all angles, all at once. And then I’ll be able to see the number on the back of my neck without even trying.”
“She sounds like a nut, mate.”
“She was a bit of a nut.”
“You could do better than her. What’d you say her name was?”
“Awful name for a young gal.”
“I know. She used to hate it too. Wanted to change it to Finch.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. Finch is a name for a high-rolling lawyer, I said. Finch on the case. Finch to the defence. I convinced her not to, in the end–or to put it off, at least. She was ridiculous.”
“Eh, Taff, that woman in the red skirt has been making eyes at you for the past twenty minutes. You gunna talk to her or not, man?”
Taffy looked. “She’s about fifteen years older than me, Rake.”
“So what? You can make up for the lack of pay-per-view.”
“Suit yerself,” shrugged Rake. “You won’t care if I talk to her, then?”
“Not at all; be my guest.”
“Well, seeya if I seeya, mate.” Rake slouched off.
Taffy looked out the window. The sun was well above the trees now, and the forest had lost its ephemeral glow. There was nothing worth staying for in this place. He finished his juice and went to pay for his stay.
There was a bus stop ten minutes down the road from the motel, or so the receptionist had told him. It took Taffy half an hour to walk there, and he wasn’t even a slow walker. Back in university he had done impressive things like long-distance running and basketball tournaments. He wasn’t a star, but he was decent.
The sun was hot, and halfway there he had to stop and take the little black phone out of his left shoe and put it into his backpack. He hated to take it out, because what if it rang and he didn’t feel it vibrating? That would be the worst. But it was digging into his foot and it hurt.
When he reached the bus stop he dropped his backpack onto the gravel and examined the timetable, but the sun had scorched and faded the sign to unreadable. He sat on his backpack and waited until he began to feel giddy with the heat and light.
“What are you doing here, lad?”
Taffy looked up, shielding his eyes against the intolerable glare, and at first he thought it was a giant angel coming up the road towards him through the shafts of blinding light. Then the spots faded from his vision and he saw that it was only a giant man, moon-faced, bearded and in overalls. He was not descending from the heavens, but rather emerging from a petrol station fifty metres up the road.
Taffy replied, “Waiting for the bus.”
“There’s no bus, lad. Sunday, no bus. You’ll be waiting here till tomorrow morning.”
“Never any buses on Sunday out here, lad. Remember that. You gotta keep your wits about you if you want to survive out here, you know.”
“I forgot it was Sunday.”
“You all right, boy? Listen, where are you tryna get to?”
“Um.” Taffy tried to remember a map, any map. He picked a place at random. “Hurley Bay.”
“That’s on my way. I’ll give you a ride.”
“Oh. Thanks,” said Taffy, and picked up his bag. They walked back to the petrol station and the man showed him into his utility. He disappeared inside the shop for a moment, while Taffy rested his head against the cool leather, and reappeared with two bottles of Solo. He gave one to Taffy. “I’m Arthur. Art. I’m actually from Sydney, you know, but I’ve been driving up and down the coast for a few months just doing odd jobs for decent folks. I did a woodcutting stint around here not long ago. One of the worst jobs ever. Wouldn’t hang around in this area again for more than a day if someone offered me their firstborn son.” Art didn’t stop talking as he started the car and pulled out of the station. “There was one day I almost got killed on the job. Some Chinese idiot I was working with cut a tree the wrong direction–you know, you hafta chop it a certain way if you want it to fall right–and it bloody almost fell on me. Bloody Chinese. Couldn’t speak more than three words of English. I tell you, boy, if them yellows want to come here they damn well better learn our language first. Couldn’t even follow a couple o’ basic instructions. A kid could have done it. If I had a choice, y’know, if I had a say in it, I wouldn’t let them come over at all. Like if I was Prime Minister or something. I’d make a law against it. You wouldn’t, either, would you? They’re all like that. Remember that, lad. Once I was working with a Jap kid in a little butcher’s shop near Coffs Harbour. All he had to do was chop meat, y’know? Easy as pie, specially when you think about all the sushi the Japs chop up. But one day the kid chops the very tip of his third finger off! What an idiot!” Art hooted with laughter and slapped the steering wheel. “Hey, where’d you say you wanted to go again?”
“Yeah, that’s right. What’s up at the bay for you? Family? Girlfriend?”
“Not much of a talker, are you? We’re similar like that, you and me, I reckon. My mum used to worry that I was too quiet, that I wasn’t socialising proper and all that. She even took me to see a therapist one time. She’s dead now–died seven years ago, had some sort of embolism. The doctor kept telling her, your blood pressure’s through the roof, you gotta take your meds, but I said, you take them if you want to, and you don’t take them if you don’t want to, all right, Mum? She’d always been a good ma to me, and I always wanted to treat her right and good in return. Anyway, she stopped taking them for a while ‘cause we found this special tea that helped her heart, but then one day she didn’t drink the tea and she took the pills and a week later she was dead. Bloody doctors. Bet you they get a commission every time a patient dies.”
“I don’t think it works like that, Art.”
“You disagreeing with me, lad?”
“Hell, yes, you are. You’re saying I’m wrong, are you? You’re saying I’m fucking wrong about my dead mum?”
“I’m not saying anything about your mum.”
“You better as hell not be. Next thing you’ll be saying the Japs and Chinks belong in our country.”
Taffy said nothing. Rosalind was half Chinese. He wanted out of the ute. Art was a giant of a man, and he oozed out of his seat and spilled over the handbrake and crowded into Taffy’s seat like a monstrous piece of putty, filling the vehicle with hair and grime and the sour smell of sweat. A green road sign flashed by: Hurley Bay, thirty-three kilometres. He should have picked someplace closer.
There was only one another person on the beach: a woman in a white crop-top and short shorts combo, jogging. Taffy stood on the top of the rocks and watched Art’s ute disappear with a distilled feeling of relief. He took the phone out of his backpack and checked it. No missed calls. He hadn’t expected anything anyway. There was only one bar of battery left. He’d have to recharge it tonight.
He didn’t feel like looking around for a motel or a place to have lunch just yet, so he lugged his bag down to the sand and gazed at the scenery. The hinterland was thickly crowded with trees and rocks: in fact he’d never seen a bay that looked so full. He had a sudden urge to swim, to soak the heat out of his parched skin. He glanced at the crop-top jogger and decided he didn’t care. He stripped to the nude, hid his things under a bush and waded into the water. It was deliciously cold.
Last month when he was up in Queensland he had gone snorkelling in the tropical waters. He could have floated in the water for the rest of his life, hearing nothing but the sound of his own breathing roaring in his ears. It was like the world had been reduced to a blue endlessness, just the fish and his hands, silvery fish, yellow-and-black striped, the little blue fish like darting turquoises, the fish that nibbled at his toes. He could be the king of the fish.
After swimming he sat on a rock to dry off and thought about Art. People like Art never changed. It was OK. He had probably been brought up like that. He couldn’t help it. No, it wasn’t OK. It was dreadful. No one could be so fucking narrow-minded without it being at least one part their fault. Taffy wished he could punch a grain of sense into the giant’s head. If he could have a superpower, he would wish for a big golden fist that he could knock into people’s heads, and it would set all their thoughts right. Because the world was made up of people’s thoughts, really, and if everyone had their thoughts right, then the world would be right.
Taffy put on his khakis and a clean T-shirt that said Free Love in pink letters–he wasn’t really a hippie, but sometimes he tried to be–and walked back up to the road. The afternoon had brought an unexpected dry breeze. Hurley Bay had two hotels and a backpacker’s inn, all along the same strip of road. He checked himself into the inn and left his things in a white-walled room the size of a cupboard, tucked the phone and his wallet into his pocket and went to the supermarket to buy bread and ham.
He cruised the aisles slowly, enjoying the air-conditioning and the slow stirring of stale air. The other shoppers paid him no attention and he enjoyed that, the feeling of invisibility. It was almost an art, how unnoticeable he could make himself.
Outside the shop he sat down on a bench and made a couple of ham sandwiches with cheese. He had to stop eating before he was full because it didn’t taste very good. He wandered around Hurley Bay for a while, looking for poor people to give the rest of his bread to, because he hadn’t done anything out of goodwill for a while now, but there were no poor people, only a drunk bearded man on a street corner yelling obscenities at passing cars. Taffy gave the bloke a ham sandwich.
He went to the local library and read several chapters out of Hannibal, of all things, but he couldn’t borrow it because he didn’t have a library card. He thought about stealing it but decided against it–he was unlikely to find the meaning of life in there.
He went back to the inn.
He sat on his bed, counted the money left in his wallet. Fifty-three dollars. That was plenty. He could last another month, even more if he worked a bit. He stretched out on the mattress and fell asleep, his mind empty of thoughts.
When Taffy woke again it was already dark and his stomach was growling. He unplugged the phone from its charger and tucked it into his sock, grabbed his wallet and walked to the nearest diner, a homely cafeteria with linoleum floors and cling-wrapped sandwiches and home-baked muffins. He ordered a grilled chicken burger and fries for five dollars–a splurge–and retreated to a corner table.
“Any drinks?” the waitress yelled after him.
“Just water, thanks.”
“Just water!” He wasn’t used to raising his voice.
Almost as soon as he sat down, a woman slid into the booth with him. It took him a moment to recognise her as the crop-top jogger from the beach. She was maybe thirty, with dark blonde hair and a tan. She wore a lime green sports jacket, short-sleeved, barely zipped up over her breasts, and a white skirt. Her pink briefs showed through.
“Hello,” she smiled.
The waitress came with Taffy’s glass of water. He said, “Thanks.”
“Saw you on the beach this morning,” said the crop-top woman, with a knowing gleam in her eye. “I’m Jenny.”
“David,” said Taffy, using the Anglicised version of his real name. He didn’t want to go through the fuss of explaining any unusual names. It was irritating.
“David,” echoed Jenny, still smiling. “You’re a very good swimmer.”
“You’re a good jogger,” said Taffy.
Jenny laughed. “You staying in Hurley Bay for long, David?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Interesting answer. Where are you holed up at, David? Jupiter’s? The Vista?”
She wouldn’t stop using his name. “The inn just down the road. I’m sort of on a budget.”
“Ah. Travelling student? You look young, David. Not in a bad way. It’s attractive. Young men are the good ones, I say. It’s when they get old that they turn into jerks.” She laughed like this was the best conversation of her life. “So, are you at university or something?”
Taffy’s dinner came and he tucked in gratefully. Jenny watched him eat for a while, and then asked, “Can I have a bit, David?”
He gave her some of his fries.
She talked about her family for the rest of the meal, how she used to live with a man but he went to stay in Melbourne for a while with their daughter. Her daughter, Teresa, just turned three, really pretty, blonde as the sun, never cried as a baby. “My house is right on the edge of Hurley Bay,” she told him. “I jog on the beach every morning. Where are you from, David?”
“Everywhere,” said Taffy, because he had always wanted to say that, but now he realised how stupid it sounded. “Um, Melbourne. But I’ve been moving around a lot. I haven’t been back there for a while now. I want to get out of the country, honestly–go to India or somewhere. But I don’t have the money. Yet.”
“Rad,” nodded Jenny. “That sounds rad.” She noticed that he had finished his burger. “Hey, you want to go for a drink, David? There’s a bar across the road. I’ll buy you one. Come on.”
“Sure,” said Taffy. What the hell.
He followed Jenny across the road. It was dark outside, the street pathetically lit by a single streetlight; a couple of boys not much younger than Taffy cruised downtown on bikes. Inside the bar they sat at the counter and drank two beers each, not saying much. Jenny seemed to be thinking about something and he didn’t particularly feel like starting up another conversation. He downed the second glass as quickly as possible, practically sculling it.
“Want another one, David?”
“No thanks,” he said. “I think I’d better get back to the inn.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
They trudged slowly out of the bar. “Y’know, David,” said Jenny languidly. “I’ve never seen the inside of a backpacker’s inn. Ask me in, will you? I’d like to come in with you.”
Taffy stopped walking, and immediately she clutched his arms and stood on tiptoe to kiss him. Her body was very sinewy and strong, and her kiss pressed forcefully into him. She tasted like beer and salty fries and strawberry lip gloss.
“Hey,” said Taffy, breaking away gently. “Lady, I have a girlfriend.”
“No, you don’t.” Jenny grabbed him desperately, pulling his head down to hers.
“All right, I don’t, but I want to go to sleep. Alone.”
She came after him still. “David, David, David, David…”
“It was nice meeting you, Jenny.” He pushed her away, less gently now, and closed the door of the inn in her face.
In his cupboard of a room Taffy sat on his bed and drank vodka from the bottle until he was mind-numbingly drunk. He could see himself as though he were outside his own body, a solitary drunkard, a wasted fool. He was an utter idiot.
He lay down, his feet dangling off the too-short mattress, wishing himself asleep, begging, grovelling for God to knock him out cold. With his head sideways on the pillow he could gaze out the window across a concrete car-park expanse. There was a skinny teenage girl walking in small circles in the darkness, talking on a mobile phone. Her body was shaking with emotion, but Taffy could not tell if it was laughter or sobs. At last the girl walked off and the world was entirely empty of people. Taffy looked at the gravestone buildings and the shapes of shadows upon shadows in varying shades of black, and he understood with a sick feeling that it wouldn’t make a jot of difference whether tonight he lived or died. He was just some bum in a motel.
He hated the night, because the darkness made him completely honest with himself, and he couldn’t stand seeing his own soul bared. He was crying now, weeping into his pillow like a bloody baby. He was so fucking lonely. He said it into his pillow. I’m so lonely. He sobbed it and then he screamed it. He was so lonely he wanted to run out and find Jenny and sleep with her in a dingy motel room just so he could feel a body pressed up next to his. Why had he pushed her away? Stupid, stupid idiot.
He stared at the little black phone, plugged into the wall, blinking pathetically as it recharged. Ring, you damn thing, he pleaded. Please ring. Please ring. I need you to ring now more than ever. I’ll cut off my leg if you ring, I swear it. I’ll stick a pen in my eye. I’ll cut my balls off. Please ring.
“Useless piece of shit!” shouted Taffy, rising from the bed like Neptune from the swells, and kicking the phone across the room. It slid about a metre and stopped, leashed by its wire.
A knock on the adjacent wall. A muffled yell from his neighbour: Shut the fuck up, arsehole!
Taffy madly untangled the sheets from around his ankles and staggered out of the room, taking nothing with him.
The streets were a dark desert at three in the morning. Only the bar was still lit, the barman wiping down tables. Taffy stumbled desperately towards him. “Tell me the number on the back of my neck!” he screamed. “Read it to me! Read it, damn you!”
“Get out of my bar, you fucking lunatic!”
Taffy turned around and tried to thrust the tattoo at him to read, but the barman took a knife from behind the counter and waved it, and Taffy yelled sorry and ran out, almost tripping on the kerb. He stood under the single streetlight and tried to read the tattoo in the reflection from a glass-fronted shop, but he couldn’t even make out the first few numbers, no matter how he twisted and strained. Sick with frustration, he staggered on until he came to the beach. The waves were crashing high on the shore. They seemed to be straining for something eternally out of reach. Taffy could relate. He went down to the sand and dipped his feet in the high tide, and he fell into a nauseous sleep there on the border between the land and the sea.
When he woke it was morning and it was because there was a man shaking his shoulder. The sunrise nearly split his head in two like a cantaloupe. He was thoroughly soaked with saltwater. He spit it out of his mouth. It was a miracle he hadn’t drowned.
The man who had woken him sat back on his haunches. “You all right, mate?”
“Yeah,” said Taffy, shivering and shuddering as he sat up. “Thanks.”
“You remember me?”
Taffy squinted painfully at him. Dark blue suit, clean shaven, middle-aged. “Nope. Sorry. Do I know you?” Most embarrassing if it was an old family friend.
“You gave me a ham sandwich yesterday?” A pause. “The drunk on the street corner? I shaved.”
“Seems we’ve switched roles,” grunted Taffy. He got up and brushed in vain at the sand coating his entire body.
The man laughed easily. “Hurley Bay’s not a good place to get pissed. Especially not alone. Look, I know I’m not exactly one to give advice, but at least you can credit me with years of experience. I wasted a good part of my youth in burnt out towns like this. You should get out.”
“I’m not wasting my time. I’m searching for the meaning of life.”
He laughed again. “Found it yet?”
“Nowhere near. But I have stumbled across enough losers, idiots, whores and drunks to fill a spaceship and colonise Mars.”
“I pity the children spawned by such a population. Lucky that on Earth they’re spread out more or less evenly over the face of the planet. Saved by the law of equilibrium.”
“What the hell is that?”
“I figure the only way to remain remotely sane is to regard the good and the bad as a balance. See, if you lose your job on the day you were expecting a promotion, but then a stranger on the street gives you a sandwich and tells you it’s going to be all right, then you’ve had an OK day. It balances out.”
“So it’s OK that one kid gets abused by her father while another grows up in a mansion with ten ponies?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Sounds like that’s what you’re saying.”
“It’s not. Don’t be so angry at everyone.”
Taffy bit back his reply.
“Where are you staying, kid?”
Taffy told him.
“Come on, I’ll buy you a room at the Vista. At least you’ll get meals and a clean bed there. All right?”
“I don’t need any charity. You lost your job.”
“I’m richer than that kid in the mansion with ten ponies. Let me buy you a room. One week’s stay, that should be enough, right? Go fetch your things; I’ll meet you in the hotel lobby.”
When Taffy got back to the inn he picked up the little black phone and flipped it open to check that it was OK. He had two missed calls. They were both from the same number. It was her.
She picked up on the first ring. “Where are you?”
He couldn’t speak for a moment. “H-H-ah…”
“What? The reception’s terrible. Hang on. OK, go.”
“Oh, yeah. OK, I’ll be there tomorrow.”
He choked out. “Did you find it? The meaning…”
“Hell yes. How else do you think I’m calling you? Only when one of us figured it out, remember? That was the pact, Taffy.”
“I know. I almost broke it a couple of times, tried to look at the tattoo on my neck.”
“But you didn’t.”
“But I didn’t. OK, well. See you tomorrow, Rosalind.”
“It’s Finch, by the way. I changed it.”
The day before Rosalind came to Hurley Bay, the world became beautiful. Every cliché came alive. The clouds were painted on the cerulean canvas of the sky. The streets were vibrant with the seaside atmosphere. The hotel was perfect. Taffy even said hello to the barman, and didn’t flinch when the fellow reached apprehensively for his knife. He saw Jenny jogging on the beach and waved to her like they were old school friends. Taffy didn’t really know what he was looking forward to: Rosalind, or the secret that she brought. He didn’t care. He hadn’t felt like this in months.
He lingered over complimentary breakfast in the Vista, slowly stuffing himself with blueberry and white chocolate chip muffins, until it was lunchtime and he realised he had eaten enough for two meals without a break in between. He went swimming in the hotel pool, sat in the sauna until he couldn’t breathe, tried the gym. He had wine with his dinner: it felt like a celebration.
That night he went to sleep early and almost completely sober. When he dreamed, he tried to remember her face in every detail. No photos, they’d said when they parted. They wanted to see how time would change them.
Taffy guessed that she would come by bus. He hovered around the bus stop through the morning, reading the paper from front to back. He did the crossword. He kicked pebbles. At lunch he went into the café across the road and asked for a table next to the front window. Several buses came, but she was not on them.
As he was finishing his pie, the café owner came to his table and said, “I just got a call from concierge at the Vista. There’s some guy named Finch waiting for you.”
Taffy jumped up. “Girl. Finch is a girl. Can I get the bill?”
“The pie’s three fifty. Just leave it on the table.”
Taffy left it on the table and walked out of the café. He looked up at the perfect sky and felt scared. She was here. He walked in a wide circle, laced his fingers together and flexed them behind his neck, and loped to the Vista.
As soon as he came through the doors she was walking towards him across the foyer. She looked like she’d come from a Hollywood beach. She was wearing a short dyed sarong that showed her legs from the middle of her thighs down. She was tan, even darker than him. Her hair was much longer and thicker than he remembered.
“Taffy,” said Rosalind, and as she embraced him he heard the soft clink of her wooden bracelets, and he saw a scar on her shoulder that he had never seen before.
He drew back and said, “You bloody went and changed your name.”
She laughed, delighted. “I knew you’d hate it. Now you tell me: how the hell can you afford to stay in a place like this?”
“I did a favour for a guy, he bought me a week’s stay here. It’s nice, isn’t it? I like it. I ate about ten muffins for breakfast yesterday.”
“So you’re doing favours for guys now, are you?” Rosalind chortled. “Always knew you had it in you, Cadogan.”
“Desperate times.” He fell silent and looked at her. Was she glowing? She was so golden, like burnished bronze.
“What?” She hated to be looked at.
“How’d you get here? I thought you’d take the bus?”
“Ferry dropped me off at the beach. Nice beach. Want to go down there?”
“Sure. You can drop your backpack off in my room first.”
“Sure,” mimicked Rosalind, and then she laughed at herself, but Taffy could hear a tinge of sadness in it.
He walked next to her as they went to the elevator, hardly believing that she was right there, right by his side. If he turned his head to the left he could see the top of her head bobbing along next to him, like a dolphin. They floated up to the third floor.
Taffy’s room was very nice. It had a plush rose carpet and a widescreen TV in front of a double bed. There was a balcony, and a desk with a lamp and a book of touristy places in the vicinity. The pillows and sheets were always clean and white, and a generic piece of art hung on the bathroom wall. Rosalind walked around the room three times and looked at everything, and ran her fingers over everything. It was a habit of hers. She had never learnt the meaning of the phrase DO NOT TOUCH. Taffy watched her and her childlike marvel. Nothing ever got old for her.
“Beach?” said Taffy at last.
“Yes,” said Rosalind, and clapped her hands. “Ooh, wait–let me put on some shoes first.” She had come all this way bare foot, and now she wanted to put on shoes for the beach. She rummaged in her backpack–identical to his, they’d bought them together–for her thongs, jammed the old things on, and ran ahead of him from the room. At the lift she waited for him, and the expression in her eyes sparked a sudden vivid memory of when she used to wait for him to catch up to her, and then she would catch his hand in hers with a smile. She didn’t do it now, though.
They went down to the lobby in silence and walked towards the beach. Taffy looked at Rosalind’s body. She looked strong, strong enough to run into the ocean and back without getting swept away. He told her that.
“You look strong too,” she said at once, quietly now. “You look taller and browner and darker and scarier. Your hair is long. You got a piercing.”
“Wait–how do you know that? I got that where no one can see it.”
“I took a stab in the dark.” She broke into a sudden grin. “So I’m right? You really did do it?”
“Hell yes. Meaning of life my arse, I got punctured!”
“You big fool,” she laughed affectionately. “You better let me see it later.”
“Hell no. It’s still raw.”
“Ouch, gross. Hey, how long has it been? Not since you got pierced. Since, you know, we started all this.”
“Three hundred and eighty-nine days.”
“Shit. More than a year? Hey, shit. You counted?”
“Couldn’t help it. I missed you a lot, Finch.”
“Ugh, don’t you call me that. I can hear disdain in your voice when you say it. I missed you like hell too. More than a year, phew. I don’t know how I survived.”
They were walking on the sand now, and the sea wind was strong. Rosalind’s long, long dark hair fluttered everywhere thickly.
“You got strong,” said Taffy simply.
“You think it was a stupid thing to do? What we did? Running off, running apart.”
“Why would it be? You found what we were looking for, didn’t you? It was all worth it in the end. How’d you read the number on the back of your neck, anyway? I tried mirrors. It doesn’t work.”
She laughed shortly. “Funny story. I was in a bar, had my hair up in a ponytail. A guy comes up to me with a piece of paper and says, ‘I saw your tattoo and if that’s your phone number, could I keep it and call you later?’ I got really pissed off at him and I snatched the paper and told him to get lost. And then I was sitting in the bar by myself and I had your number in my hand, finally, and I thought, well, if this isn’t the time to call, then it’ll never be.”
Taffy let the tide lap at the soles of his feet. “So, what? The meaning of life is to be a hot Eurasian chick and get hit on by sleazes in bars?”
“No, stupid! I didn’t say–”
He cut her off. “So, what? It’s to prance around on beaches in little sarongs showing off your legs to perverts?”
“NO!” said Rosalind, whirling upon him, and suddenly he saw that her eyes were red-rimmed. “Shut up, Taffy! You think the past year has been a ride in the hay for me? You think this has actually been easy? This has been the hardest bloody thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m a twenty-three year old ethnic girl alone in a world that doesn’t give a dumb fuck about anyone or anything. Wherever you walk it’s the same, streets full of people who try to be Mr. Good Citizen but still go home and jerk off in the shower or fantasise about having an affair or pull the lad mag out from beneath their Bible. Everyone’s a pervert. It’s impossible to be good.”
“Shit, Rosalind, you’re worse than me. And I thought you were the one who found out the answer.”
“I did. Well, I’m sure I found more than you.”
“You want to know what I found? OK, sure. I found that it doesn’t make a jot of difference what you or I do with our lives. Whether I’m happy or sad affects absolutely no one but me. I’m not going to better the world by having a good day or stuffing my head with knowledge. I found insignificance. It sucks.”
“Well, that’s cock crap. Of course what you do with your life affects others besides yourself. It affects the person you’re going to marry in the future, your future children, your friends, every single person that you’re going to meet throughout your life–what if Wilberforce had said, screw it all, I’m just going to stay in bed all day?”
“Wilberforce, Wilberforce. Your bloody hero. OK, fine. You say you found out the meaning of life, then tell me what it is!”
Rosalind said, “Just watch.” And she knelt down in the sand, close to the water, and began to write in big loopy letters with her finger. She wrote, The meaning of life is to learn to love oth…
And the tide came and washed it out.
She wrote, The meaning of life is to share the knowledge of…
And the tide came and washed it out.
She wrote, The meaning of life is to fuck as many women as…
And the tide came and washed it out.
She wrote, The meaning of life is…
Taffy yelled, “That’s not the bloody meaning of life, that’s just futility!”
Rosalind jumped up. “Fine! So I didn’t find anything, OK? All I did was get picked up in bars by men who want to get in my pants. I called you not because it was the end, but because I couldn’t bloody wait for the end a second longer. I called you because I wanted to see you, that’s it.”
Taffy stared at her. At last he dropped onto the sand and stretched out on his back and closed his eyes. And after an even longer while he said, “You never used to swear so much. I don’t like it.”
A jogger in a white crop-top came along the beach. It was Jenny. She looked at Taffy and then at Rosalind, and said, “Damn,” and jogged off.
Taffy glanced up at Rosalind all golden with the sun at her back like a corona. Rosalind looked down at Taffy in the sand. They weren’t sure who started laughing first.
“Let’s go back to the hotel,” said Taffy.
“Fuck, OK,” said Rosalind.
In the hotel room Rosalind had a shower while Taffy flipped through the TV channels. It was pay-per-view galore, but Taffy couldn’t feel interested, not with what she had said about perverts.
She came out of the shower in shorts and a singlet. She had tan lines on her arms. Taffy turned off the TV and said, “Finch is the stupidest name I’ve ever heard.”
She said, “What kind of idiot gets their groin pierced?”
And Taffy stood up and put his hand under her chin, and kissed her slowly. His nose was saturated with the scents of bath oil and sand and hot beaches and peppermint. The taste of her slid deliciously down his throat.
“Does it hurt too much?” asked Rosalind.
“No,” mumbled Taffy, and he was astonished by how much he loved her.
How much do you think it costs to go to India?
By plane? Too much.
How much money do you have in your wallet?
Fifty-three dollars, minus some. Let me think. Forty-four fifty.
How much do you think it costs to sail to India?
More than forty-four fifty.
You think we could cycle there?
Hm, yeah. Maybe.
Hurley Bay had a single bicycle store. It sat along the beachfront arcade, wedged between a surf instruction centre and a booth that sold handcrafted jewellery. Most of its bicycles were made of old parts from other bicycles. Taffy browsed up and down the tiny aisle for a few minutes before he realised he didn’t care, he just wanted anything that would take them out of town. He asked the shopkeeper for two bikes.
The shopkeeper helped Taffy wheel the bikes out to the kerb. Rosalind was just coming out of the grocery store with two bags of bread, canned beans, canned tomatoes, canned tuna, chocolate, peanut butter, mixed nuts and toilet paper. She crossed the road and began putting everything into their backpacks.
They stood straddling their bikes, bags on backs.
“You sure you don’t want to go back to Melbourne?”
Rosalind looked at him and released the brakes. She began to roll downhill, picking up speed as she went. Taffy rolled after her.
There was a man in a dark blue suit standing next to a Mercedes. He raised his hand as Taffy sped by. “Don’t drink and ride!” he called jokingly.
“Who was that?” asked Rosalind, slowing to let Taffy catch up.
“The guy who paid for my room at the Vista. Why?”
“Nothing, he just looked a helluva lot like the sleaze at the bar. Except my guy had a beard.” Rosalind turned her bike sharply at the next intersection.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to hunt down that Art guy you told me about. Give him a piece of my half-Asian mind.”
“I thought we were going to India.”
“Yeah, well. We have our whole lives to do that.”