28: LUNCH AT THE DÔME
I take Fiona to the local Dôme cafe for lunch, and so we can talk on neutral ground. It’s all brass fittings, ceiling fans and mirrors. And, at lunch-time, busy and loud. Clattery plates, people talking. This is not my preferred time of day. I have always hated noises like these; they set me on edge, make me feel defensive and agitated. Fiona, I notice, looks like she feels much the same, and then I remember that my Fiona had the same trouble, and I feel like a fool for coming here. I go to suggest to this Fiona that we go somewhere quieter and calmer, but she flashes a quick half-smile and says it’s fine. We stay, we order, we sit.
It’s awkward. It’s awkward like a first date, and we both feel it. It’s absurd and intolerable and this very woman very nearly killed me recently so I just come out with it, no faffing around, “Is he dead?”
And she laughs and laughs, in part, I think, at the tension release, and at the bluntness, the coming straight to the point. She glances around the room, taking in the other customers, the big concave world maps set into the ceiling, the sluggish ceiling fans–she looks at everything, in fact, other than at me, and this gives me a bad feeling. I fidget with a page of The West Australian newspaper, aware of tension in my belly. Aware of needing information. Aware, too, of a hard question eating at me: how far am I prepared to go here, to get the information I want? What am I prepared to do? I’m horrified even to find myself offering hospitality to such a question. It’s the sort of question you associate with people who describe themselves as “realists”, the sort of people who “know what to do in a crisis”, and you can well imagine that would first involve rounding up all the emergency supplies, then all the white people who have Southern Cross tattoos and guns, and then putting up big walls to keep everyone else out.
I am only too aware that I am not one of these people. I am not a “hard man”. I am a tapioca pudding man. I am as threatening as porridge. And yet I have before me a person who has information concerning the whereabouts and condition of my younger self. And, even though he is my younger self, I don’t know where and how he is because, it seems, my brain is occupied by a runaway illegal psy-ops thing. Even thinking these thoughts is hurting me. Thinking these thoughts at lunch time was bad and unpleasant, and remembering the experience just now hours later after Fiona’s gone to bed and I’m writing up the day–I’m sitting here rocking, sweating, I have cramps, I can’t make my hand and arm work. God!
And all I did was ask that one question, which she didn’t even answer. It makes for a long day with few answers.
“Is he alive? The boy?”
“Yes, the boy, of course the boy. Who else would–”
“You know that little bastard of yours actually threw shit at me?”
“He did what?” Though no sooner does she say so than the memory fills in, and I remember it. Remember the day, the experience, the context, why I did it.
And then I stop in the middle of everything, unable to speak, as I remember watching my notebook burn, seeing it for the first time. The way she tore it to bits, furious because I was hunger striking, because I wasn’t being a good prisoner.
She burned my book right in front of me. She knew what it meant to me, and she destroyed it.
So yes, I flung my shit at her.
I stare across the table at her, and realise that for her this happened just the other day. I can see she’s still upset about it, and that she’s talking to me about it in the tones you’d use when talking to the sensible parent of a wayward kid. She’s not quite clicking that I now remember doing it, and that as I remember doing it, I feel proud of doing it. It was an act of resistance. In my head I was still a free man. I would throw my shit at her again at any and all opportunities.
My mum would be furious. But maybe not. She had done her best to raise me to be a decent person regardless of what the universe did or indeed does to me. Mum did not believe in “tit for tat” measures. She believed in being decent no matter what, because it doesn’t matter what the other side does. It only matters what you do. God, she said, is only watching you.
I wanted to ask her what God would say about kidnapping. I hoped God would be right there on my side with, “Fling thy Shit, my son!” Because, seriously, where was the justice with it? What had I done to deserve this?
So I sit there and she tells me how it felt when my junior self leapt up and down on his bed screaming like a monkey, throwing his shit at her, for fighting back at her using the only tool he had. The way she tells the story, it seems like the boy must have have had at least half a tonne of the stuff, that he must have taken a trailer to Bunnings or something, or a garden supply store, because in her recollection the bombardment went on and on for hours and she wound up completely head to toe covered in it and she was cleaning it out from her hair, from her fingernails, from all kinds of nooks and crannies, for ages afterwards, and how even now she can still feel it and smell it, that it’s like it’s stuck to her, it’s uncanny, she says. Her coffee’s cold. We order fresh coffees.
“What are you smirking at?” she says to me, with, if I’m not imagining it, a hint of flirtation.
“I’m smirking? I’m not smirking.” I’m totally smirking, but I’m trying, with my hand, to wipe it off. It doesn’t want to wipe off. I’m trying to remind myself that this woman’s husband killed himself. It’s not helping.
Our food arrives. I’m having the large burger with chips. She’s having the lemon chicken wrap with the tomato relish. Fresh coffees arrive about the same time. The tension dissolves. We swap a few mild jokes. We pretend we’re regular people, perhaps work colleagues at a conference sharing a meal.
Once the wait staff take our table number away, we ease back into our proper discussions. Possibilities seem to hang in the air; entire possible timelines sprout from this moment.
“You said you wanted to talk,” I say to her.
“I did.” She sips her coffee in a significant, meaningful manner, getting foam on her top lip, and licks it off in a way that I can’t help noticing.
“No talk without proof of life.” I was quite proud of that line. It sounded good coming out of my mouth. I sounded a bit like I knew what I was doing. From my reading I gathered that “proof of life” was a term used in the “kidnap and ransom” business to indicate to people from whom the kidnappers want to extract ransom money that the victim is alive.
Fiona’s face hardens like drying cement. She sags a bit. “Funny story.”
“You know,” I say. “I’ve always liked the burgers here, but I’ve never been, you know, a hundred percent committed to them. I’ve always felt like I could abandon one any time if necessary. You see what I’m saying here?”
“Look. Listen to me. It’s Jase. He’s after me for money.”
“Dude called Jase is after you for money.”
“He found my safe-house, where I had the boy. I had to move him.”
I put my cutlery down. I sit back in my chair. Practice big deep long calming soothing settling chakra-realigning breathing.
I still want to tear the table in two like an old phone book.
I clutch at my head. There may be some rocking.
“Are you saying Jase has custody of the boy?”
“No. It’s worse.” She’s starting to cry.
“Is it something only Chuck Norris, a pair of Uzis, and a time machine can fix?”
“For God’s sake, this is you we’re talking about!”
“Is the boy dead or alive?”
“I tried to cut him down from the harness, you see, but he fought me, and he fell, and–”
“You had stakes. You had punji stakes.” I was shaking my head, whispering.
“I got him to the emergency room, but–”
I look at her. I can barely stand to sit with her. Flashes of memory are unfolding in my head. I am feeling rather than seeing things. A bone-deep sense of that sense of chaos or madness that I think of as TV static associated with channel 5a. And my head feels much too large, bursting, as if I had the Moon for a head. I also feel much too weak to move, let alone stand up. The thing about liquid reality is not only that it’s inclined to shift around on you between glances, but that your experience of it can flow to other people under certain conditions, such as past and future versions of oneself.
“Which hospital? Tell me. Tell me or so help me I will kill you here right now.” I am not ordinarily the sort of person who says such things. But I was becoming this kind of person. People were messing with me. It was becoming intolerable. I and what it meant to be me were under threat.
Fiona had gone very pale and still. “And if I tell you, why would you let me live?”
“What–” An EEG scan of my brain right now would destroy the machine. “What were you even thinking with this entire operation? Torturing a teenage boy. Attempted murder on me. You seduced my poor old dad, broke up my family. Yes, I get that you’re angry, sure. You’re understandably upset. You’re a grieving widow, and I am genuinely, genuinely sorry for your loss. But–” I look around the cafe. I look at my abandoned lunch, my cooling coffee. I get up and stalk outside. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’re going deep.”