I managed, working up a ridiculous sweat, to move the dead man a little. I could open the bedroom door just enough to squeeze myself out into the hallway.
Mum and Dad leant up against the wall opposite my door. As the door opened and as I came out, so did the stink, in a fresh, hot wave. Soon they were coughing and choking and gagging, and as I approached them, they reeled away from me, too. “It’s you!” Mum said. “What have you been doing?”
Dad was already pushing me, swearing under his breath, to the bathroom. “You, my boy, are having the world’s most serious shower right bloody now!”
“But what about Zonk?”
Dad stood next to me, close up. He looked like he hadn’t slept. Just hours earlier he’d been packing a suitcase, intending to leave us. He was full of anger and confusion and misery and seemed always to be taking it out on me. But now, despite the stink clinging to me, he and I stood there in front of the bathroom door, and he hugged me round the shoulder–Dad was not a hugger–and he looked me in the eye, and that was enough, even before he said a word. I started crying. Dad said, “I don’t know why, or how. I really bloody don’t. But someone’s–” And he couldn’t finish the sentence. It was too much for him.
I hated crying. I hated crying more than I can begin to say. It was weak and sissy and it meant you weren’t a proper man. It filled me with shame when I cried. It always felt like the End of the World. But there was one thing that was worse, and that was seeing my Dad crying. And seeing that he obviously felt much the same way. His hand over his wincing eyes, as if in intolerable pain. Sobbing his guts out, shaking his head, trying to speak but unable. It was awful.
“We’ll go to the cops, son. We’ll sort it out. Find the bastards.”
I had no confidence in the police for this kind of thing. It wouldn’t register on their radar. They had proper crims to catch.
I went out the back to see Zonk. I had to see her, to pay my respects. I felt like I owed it to her. She had been a good dog. She had loved me as I had loved her. She had been nine years old, in her prime, still full of trouble and mischief, still bonkers. We’d nearly called her Bonkers.
She lay under one our gum tree. All her life, she’d liked to rest in the cool shade of that tree, and here she was, as if asleep, stretched out on her side, very still, her eyes most of the way closed.
I crouched down next to her. I couldn’t speak. It was an impossible day. It was too much all at once. It defied belief. I reached my hand out to stroke her flank. She was still warm, and soft.
Wait a minute. What was that?
I felt again, taking more care, not daring to form the thought. And at first there was no trace of the movement I’d felt a moment ago, but I moved my hand again, and–
Zonk had a pulse. It was weak and fast, but she had a pulse.
I raced into the house, and told Mum and Dad. They didn’t believe me. I badgered them. “Come on! We might be able to save her!”
Dad, his face terrible to see, said he would show me I was wrong. That it was wishful thinking. That wishing would not make it so. There are hard lessons in life, he was telling me. Things sometimes don’t work out the way you want them to, he said.
“Like you and Mum?” I said as we went out the back door.
“I’m so sorry, mate,” he said.
We went up to Zonk. I knelt down and started searching for the pulse, hoping I could find it again, not wanting to look stupid over this, not wanting to look like a liar. Dad was looking anywhere but at Zonk. He stood with his arms crossed, a typical pose. It was a difficult moment.
But there! Right there. “Feel that!” I said.
He was reluctant, but he agreed to humour me, to shut me up. He squatted next to Zonk on the grass under the tree, and put his big veiny hand where mine had been. And felt nothing. He said, “Mate, this–” Then as he moved his hand a little, he felt it, too. It was there.
We all went to the vet. The clinic had only just opened for the day. The doctor examined Zonk, and took note of the signs of discharge around her mouth. We explained what we thought had happened. In the end, all we could do was leave Zonk with the vet while they did their best to save her. They said they would phone us later.
In the car, going home, we were all exhausted and the day had hardly begun. “Who would do such a thing?” Mum said.
“People are bastards,” Dad said. “Mad bastards.”
But I was thinking. Who would poison a family pet? Possibly someone intent on committing murder, who knew there was a dog on the premises that would need to be silenced? That what happened to Zonk and the dead man might be connected? It was something to think about. It explained the evidence, and the coincidence.
Back home again, we noticed the stink as soon as we got out of the car. When we opened the front door, it came pouring out at us like a living thing, enveloping us. We coughed and gagged. Mum and Dad shoved me into the shower, and made sure I had the shower to end all showers (Mum said she could still smell the stink on me), Dad was looking again at my bedroom door. I saw he was mouth-breathing. He asked me what the hell had I been doing in my bedroom. “Been messing about with your old chemistry set again?” Mum had tried to stick her head through the crack in the doorway, but the stink repelled her.
So I told them what I have said here. The boy who couldn’t lie straight in bed told the honest, unbelievable, truth. Mum and Dad wanted to believe me, but had their doubts. Then Mum had an idea. She went to their bedroom and came back with her hand-mirror, the one with a handle. She went to my bedroom door, opened it as far as possible, holding her breath, and stuck her arm, with the mirror in hand, into my room, and moved it around.
Then she stopped, frozen, and gasped.
“Love?” Dad said.
She turned, dead white, shocked speechless, to look at me, her eyes huge. I could see she had a million thoughts jostling to get out of her head, that they were stuck, like a traffic jam. She handed the mirror to Dad. He had a look.
“Holy snapping duckshit,” he said in a tight whisper. Then he turned to me, astonished more than anything, a look of stunned respect in his eyes. “How the hell did you do that?”
I explained again. I told the unbelievable truth. They listened, but they had questions, I could see that. My story made no sense, like all my stories. But the idea that I had murdered a man in my room during the night also made no sense. What was the man even doing there? What was I doing with a grown-up visitor during the night? Who was this man? How did I know him? Why had I not introduced him to Mum and Dad? I repeated my story again and again. “Please believe me. Please,” I said.
There was a long, horrible silence. Mum and Dad were fried. Things between them were hard and fragile. They weren’t turning to each other for comfort. They only seemed united about the dead man because it involved me, the son they had in common. In every other way they were by now almost strangers. And now someone had killed our dog. On top of everything. And this, this gobsmacking impossibility. They were numb. It was too early in the morning for this shit. They both had to go to work later today, somehow. I had to go to school. I had that assignment to hand in.
“What are we gonna do?” I asked.
Mum got up from her lounge room chair, and went to the phone on the table in the hallway, and rang the police.
It took ages. First the uniformed police came out, and they realised as soon as they got out of their car that there was definitely a situation here. A matter requiring serious looking into. They came in, had a good look round, remarked on the stink, saying, yes, it was a familiar odour in their line of work, something they had encountered from time to time. They did allow that this was a particularly pungent example of it. I managed to ask about that “other” aspect to the stink, that sense of ancient rot, of something other than the piss and shit you’d expect. They said, “That’s just the smell of death. Tissue breaking down, bacterial processes, it gets very swampy in there. Gas builds up”
I was horrified, but also fascinated.
Mum was concerned about more pragmatic matters. “How do we get that smell out of the house? Because we can’t live here like this. It’s just, it’s overpowering. The boy’s room, it’s uninhabitable!”
I was thinking about all my books. It had taken me years to collect them, many of them second-hand. They weren’t worth anything, but they were precious to me. I lived in them in a way I couldn’t live in the real world.
The uniforms said there was a cleaning service the WA Police recommended that would sort out the house. Mum asked, “Yes, okay, and where do we live in the meantime?” The uniforms had no ready answer to this.
They called in the detectives, and so we met Detective Senior Sergeant Lockley, a middle-aged man with a gut, a pitiless face, and who used Brylcreem on his hair.
Lockley took one breath as he came through the front door. “Now that’s a beauty!” He was impressed.
He and his team split us up for the interviews. Because whatever had happened had happened in my room, Lockley took me aside himself, and left Mum and Dad to his juniors. He and I talked outside, on the front porch. It was coming up on lunchtime on a cold, wet and miserable day in July. There was enough wind to make you shiver. I was still in my pyjamas, arms wrapped around me, shaking with cold.
Lockley started out easy. He could see the state I was in. Waking up to find a dead man in my room, then the whole thing with Zonk–it was, he said, “a bit much for a Monday morning, eh?” He was good that way, trying to win me over, to get me to trust him. I think he could see I was a weird kid. He tried various conversational gambits, asking about who I liked in the footy, in the cricket, that kind of thing, but of course I had no interest in any of that. I hated sport in general, and those in particular.
In the end he circled around to the dead man. I told him what I knew. I gave him my formal statement. I knew nothing. I had heard nothing. I slept through the entire thing. Only the hideous stench woke me, around six this morning. He had managed to get a glimpse, using Mum’s mirror technique, inside my room. He’d seen the mess, the blood, and the victim. I said I was really sorry I’d had to move the body, but I had to get out of the room. He said that it wasn’t ideal, but it was okay. They could eliminate my prints and traces, no worries. All the same, he said, frowning, flipping through the pages of his notebook, squinting at his scrawled shorthand, he was having some trouble with my account.
“It’s just, the thing I keep coming back to, the thing that makes no sense, and I think you’d have to agree with me there, it makes no sense at all. The deceased. A man was murdered. It looks like he was stabbed in his heart, my people are telling me, based on their initial impressions, in his heart, a really intimate sort of murder. You have to be up close, really close, and know what you’re doing, do you see what I’m saying here, Robert? The deceased was most likely killed by someone who knew him. And it happened right there in your bedroom. You can see where we’re going with this.”
I was shit-scared. I could see exactly where he was going with this. He sucked on hand-rolled Drum cigarettes, his thick yellow-tipped fingers working on automatic. Lockley and his team were going over our whole house, and especially my room. Lockley seemed to be assuming I had somehow, for some reason, lured the victim to my room late last night, perhaps for what he called an “assignation”. He wanted to know if I’d done this before. Was I into boys? Did I frequent men’s public toilets, like the ones in parks where the walls and doors were covered in scribbled names, phone numbers, and times and dates. You got the impression that some of those toilets saw a lot of activity.
“No!” I said, but said it too emphatically, as if stung, when I was just embarrassed.
“Got a girlfriend, Robert? Big strapping lad like you?”
I closed my eyes. I was nearly 16. “No.” Not for lack of wanting a girlfriend, of being at least interested in the idea, of being willing to entertain the thought. But it wasn’t something I could pursue. I was a wreck. I had the sweats. I was always sweating. I stank. At ballroom dancing lessons, no girl would hold my hand. Wanting a girlfriend was like wanting to be an astronaut.
“What about when you’re on your own?” Lockley said, leaning in, lowering his voice.
“You have a bit of a fiddle? Bit of a play with yourself?”
A bomb of shame went off inside me. I flushed red-hot, and bent over double, hunching into myself, rocking. Was this a typical detective question? Was this routine questioning? Was he just playing with me now? Having a bit of sport with the hapless kid? The kid he obviously wanted to fit up for the dead man’s murder. I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know what I could say that would be safe. I felt like at any moment Lockley would pull out the handcuffs, and he would arrest me.
Lockley leaned back and smiled, a genial, grandfatherly sort of smile. “It’s all right, son. I have to ask these questions. It’s just me job. Truth to tell I’m as embarrassed as you are. But we need to know, that’s the thing. We just have to know.”
“Okay,” I managed.
“And the facts so far,” he went on, as far as we can tell so far, “well, they’re bloody peculiar, to say the least. You, for instance.”
“Me?” Oh God, I thought. Here it comes! He’ll bring out the cuffs any moment now.
“You’re the only real suspect, but there’s not a drop of blood on you. I mean, just look at you.”
I was confused. “I have had a shower…”
“You have but your pyjamas haven’t, do you see? Whoever killed that poor bastard, whoever did that would have gotten soaked with blood. All over their front. It was done up close, intimate, like this,” he said, coming up to me now, close enough I could smell his smoky breath, feel his body heat. It was awkward and uncomfortable. I flinched away, looking at my feet. “The murderer,” he went on, “went for the victim’s heart. Think about that, the quantity of blood moving through the heart every second. And next thing, it’s all coming out. The heart keeps working, for a while, in a panicked, rapid state. The killer would have been soaked.”
“What if he was wearing a raincoat?” I said.
Lockley laughed, a genuine, amused, surprised laugh. “Well, yes. Yes, indeed, I’ll pay that. Unless he was wearing a raincoat!” He kept chuckling. Then he said, looking at me again, making eye contact, touching my shoulder, “Now look, son. You’re all right. We don’t think you did it. All right?”
It was like sunrise. “But–”
“What the victim was doing in your room, and why the killer took that opportunity to do it, we may never know. That’s the universe for you. It’s a cussed bloody thing. One moment you think everything makes sense and there’s a place for everything, then something like this happens. Two people, a killer and a victim, in a boy’s bedroom, in a locked house, in the middle of the night. Killer gets away clean, and probably poisons family dog. It’s the sort of thing detectives talk about, late at night, over drinks, the strange ones, the ghost stories, the black cats that crossed their paths. The ones that got away. We chew on them for years and years, trying to puzzle them out. I’ll probably spend the rest of my bloody career wondering about your bedroom, son. Imagine that! Why kill a man in the bedroom of a teenage boy? Why do that? How do you get into the house without the victim knowing you’re coming?” He shook his head, sad, and maybe disappointed in advance, knowing or at least suspecting this would be one of those cases, the ghost stories, the black cats, the ones that get away.