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Marrickville Light

Australian voices remind Kate of dead people. The people she loved as a child, who loved sun and ciggies. More than life itself, as it turned out. A large cup of syrupy black coffee was on the bench table. Her left hand was bunched in a fist to conceal a dozen or so almonds. She pinched out a couple with the fingers of her right hand and passed them to her mouth, crunched and chewed, and took a drink. Cassie sat next to her, hands in the pocket of her leather jacket, waiting for her tea to cool.

‘Al came back from Adelaide months ago. Hasn’t called anyone.’

‘She in Marrickville?’ asked Kate.

‘Who knows? Wouldn’t have thought so. Too pricy.’

‘She back at uni?’

‘Not that anyone’s heard.’

‘You could ask Jeannie.’

‘Don’t speak to Jeannie much these days.’

‘Who could blame you?’

Kate gazed through the window into the neat courtyard. A stunted, bushy olive tree with silver-green leaves, two tall lime trees with fat twisted boughs, pale green, radiant in the winter sunlight. A woman in dirty chef whites and ragged blue-check trousers leaned against a leaf-shadowed wall, smoking a rollie. She looked up directly into Kate’s face, smiled, took a long, slow drag, and held her gaze. Kate wanted to touch the frame of her reading glasses but stopped herself. A moment later she touched their right arm and passed her hand through her hair. The chef threw her cigarette end into an empty flowerbed and walked away and around the corner, hands in her pockets.‘

How do you get a new life anyway?’ said Cassie.

‘Isn’t that why you went to London?’

‘Which worked out so well for everyone.’

‘You going home?’

‘Don’t tell me you’re not thinking the same.’

‘I didn’t say I wasn’t…Actually, wasn’t that just what I was saying. Kind of.’

‘Just don’t expect it to be home when you get back.’

‘Wherever you go, there you are.’

‘Thanks for that, mate.’

‘You know what,’ said Kate, ‘I’m not even sure which home we’re talking about.’

‘Me too.’

‘Better stay here then,’ said Kate.

‘Well, I want you around, anyhow, you ungrateful bastard,’ said Cassie.

Kate’s phone buzzed and clattered on the glass counter in the kitchen, Cassie’s rumbled in her pocket. Cassie read hers first.

‘It’s Al.’

Kate reached her phone.

‘Illawarra Road. Phở Thủy Tinh.’

Cassie rose.

‘Let’s take my car.’

The restaurant was little more than a family front room, with six tables and a dozen white plastic chairs, and a woman sat alone out of the late afternoon sun that cut through the blinds.

‘I would like it if I were not unloveable,’ she said. ‘I always say too much.’

Cassie looked away, frustrated. But the room, sun-raked and simply beloved, seemed to agree that Al could be held for a while, but must, after no great passage of time, depart from the cheer and leave for the street, where the crowds were not waiting for her.

‘But that’s stupid,’ said Kate. ‘We love you.’

‘I missed you,’ said Cassie.

‘Thank you, but I know that you enjoy my company for a while. And then an unnameable desperation begins to creep over you, and you’d do anything to be elsewhere, anywhere, than in a room with, across a table from, in a bed with me.’

Denial was not possible out of Kate’s ingenuous face.

‘You’re very low, Al,’ said Cassie.

‘Where have you been?’

Three bowls of duck phở were placed on the table.

‘I arrived with my luggage. I looked online in the taxi. There was too much choice and nothing I could afford. The real estate agent was alone in the office. She told me of a new property that had come available that afternoon. I was distracted by her red dress, her red hairband, the red necklace, the red bangle on her left arm, and when she stood, her green flats. She locked the office and walked me over, her moving quickly, me following slowly, haltingly, with my backpack and pull-along. I lost track of the time, but it was almost dark when we arrived outside an Italianate house, formerly a home for unwell mothers, which she said had recently been converted into apartments. They had been let all at once to a group of international students, who had departed, all at once, with no notice. We entered the lobby, which was very grand, dressed in grey veined Calacatta marble, illuminated with brass uplighters, and hastened up the blue carpeted staircase to the third floor. She spoke quickly in an undertone and apologised for the lack of an elevator. We passed one broad brushed steel door after another down a long corridor until we reached the end. We stood outside. Her hand moved inside the large leather bag that was slung over her shoulder. And stopped.

‘She handed me the keys and said, given my circumstances, which I had not described, I could move in tonight, without a deposit, the paperwork to be sorted out tomorrow. Or, perhaps, not tomorrow, because tomorrow was Sunday. Monday. She began to tell me that she had an event to go to, but broke off, turned around and walked at speed, just short of running, back down the corridor.

‘I opened the door and an immensity of white light burst in, a phosphorescence that passed through every strand and particle of me. I thought there must be a row of klieg lights unaccountably arranged some distance ahead. I struggled to put on my sunglasses and, even then, I had to squint hard to look around. The apartment was furnished but had no blinds, no curtains. The light was coming from outside.’

Cassie began eating. There must have been the best part of half a duck in the bowl.

‘I dropped my bags. The door was closed behind me. I walked to the window. My body seemed to vibrate in the light, but the room was cool. There was no sign of night outside, no sign of life in motion. The trees were silver, the asphalt ash-white, the bricks and steel, the concrete and the glass of the buildings were oyster white and palest grey. Colour had fallen out of the world.

‘I felt tired beyond endurance and sat down in an armchair that faced out to the picture window and the street. I thought I would fall asleep, but I found that the tremor in my bones, my organs, through my skin, held me in place, awake. I did not want to move, or think, or feel anything except this hovering frequency, this deep oscillation that harmonized with the radiance of the world.’

Al began to eat. Kate began to eat. Cassie had almost finished.

‘This is so delicious,’ she said.

The server returned with plastic tumblers of ice water.

‘Thank you so much,’ said Al, and she smiled as she looked into the woman’s face.

‘Are you…?’ started Kate.

‘My phone rang in my pocket,’ said Al. ‘Light collapsed all around into darkness that was thick, tarry, that soaked into my clothes and pushed into my eyes, my ears, my mouth, and, for what seemed like minutes, I couldn’t breathe. My phone stopped ringing. It started again. I began to see the outlines of the room, the trees, the buildings outside, and I answered. It was Jeannie.’

Cassie looked across to the television, that sagged on the restaurant wall, where a contestant had one minute to make the audience laugh. The door opened and Jeannie walked in and across to their table.

Al drank from the tumbler, set it down on the placemat and spoke, loud and bright over the noise of the café.

‘Do you want to come back to my apartment?’

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