fiction | Amanda Lohrey

OVERLAND 192
spring 2008
ISBN 978-0-9775171-9-0
published 31 August 2008

THE BUDDHA AT BLUES POINT

Dusk on a Thursday evening and I’m staring out the kitchen window brooding on the state of my lemon trees. Gary calls.

‘I’m house-sitting for the Porters again,’ he says.

‘The Porters?’

‘You know, over at Blues Point.’

‘You must be very comfortable,’ I say teasingly. The Porters are wealthy.

‘Come over for dinner,’ he says. ‘See how the other half live.’ I rummage in the drawer for my diary and we agree on the following Friday. I’ll cook the main course and he’ll buy dessert and wine. ‘After a day in the garden, I’m too buggered to cook,’ he says. ‘And anyway, I like your food better.’

We speak for a while about what he’s doing with the Porters’ garden at Blues Point, how excited he is by the Japanese mud wall he’s building. ‘I’ve never done one like this before,’ he says. ‘I completely lose myself. There’s a kind of calculated asymmetry about it that’s weird, like all the normal rules don’t apply. When I work on it I feel like I’m living in another zone. If I get this right,’ he adds, ‘I’ll build a smaller version for you.’

‘So I’m a smaller version of the Porters?’

He gives his deep, abrasive laugh, and I recall now who these people are. Gary tends to work for the rich, they’re the only people who can afford his skills, and the Porters are a middle-aged couple whose son is a financier in London. They travel often, and each time they ask Gary to look after their house. Two years ago they undertook some spectacular renovations and employed him to redesign the garden with more or less a free hand. Since then, while transforming their dull fifties sprawl of lawn and roses into a series of undulating terraces, he has developed an intimate friendship with Helena Porter. Whenever we’re together he talks about her a lot, and I guess I’m a little jealous. For some years I’ve been accustomed to thinking of myself as Gary’s closest woman friend.

‘Come early and bring the children,’ he says. ‘There’s a huge plasma TV and a movie room. They’ll love it.’

‘The children won’t come. On Friday nights now they go to the Hillsong youth group.’

‘Really? Heavens, darling, when did they turn into Christians?’

I feel slightly defensive about this. It wasn’t my idea, but I’m happy for them to go. I explain to Gary that the church runs a good youth group over in Woolloomooloo, and when the kids are there at least I feel they are safe. About the rest, the God thing, they can make up their own minds when they’re ready.

‘Some of Annie’s friends joined and took her along and it’s turned out to be a safe place to have fun, for the moment anyway. Then Will heard they had indoor soccer and he wanted to go too. It’s very well organised.’ I hear myself use the word ‘safe’ – twice – and I know I sound like an overprotective mother. Yes, yes, I want to say, nothing in the world is without risk. I can also hear an anxious explanatory tone in my voice, overlaid with a fake cheeriness. We both know what evangelicals think about gay men.

On the Friday night Rob and I drive over to the Porters. As it happens, Will comes with us. He is feeling off-colour and doesn’t want to go to youth group, but nor does he want to stay home alone. It’s been a torrid day at work and I’m unable to get away early so of course we get stuck in the traffic on Broadway, marooned in our little tin metal capsule and breathing in the thick fug of gasoline and flayed tyres. Earlier we stopped in King Street to buy some barbecued chicken, Portuguese style, and before rushing out the door of the house I emptied the contents of my vegetable basket into the esky so I could make a salad and wok some noodles. Gary told me to pack my own spices because the Porters were not into cooking – ‘they eat out a lot’ – and the contents of their pantry ran only to the basics.

It’s a warm evening, humid and hazy, one of the last in the long Indian summer we’ve been having. The air conditioner in the car has broken down and by the time we arrive we are flushed, and beaded in sweat – cooked in our own juices, as Gary would say.

The Porters’ house is a big white modernist box with a massive terrace that overlooks the water. It’s like a palace: splendid, pristine and stark. We park beside a line of squat olive trees and Gary opens the door, looking as elegant as ever. It isn’t what he wears – just a pair of grey cotton drawstring pants and a white T-shirt – but the way he wears it. His long, sinewy body always looks rumpled and relaxed in what he refers to dryly as his après-garden clothes. He is the only gay man I know who really doesn’t care about style but has it anyway.

He stands in the open doorway grinning, and runs a large weathered hand over his close-cropped head. Then he beckons us into a spectacular foyer. This, too, is pristine white and lit by miniature spotlights, subtly concealed. The floor is a mosaic designed and laid by Gary in large, crudely cut pieces of white marble tile with a plain border in black granite. At the centre is a square, and inside the square is a simple, stylised tree of pale green jade, its branches curving upwards.

‘Helena wanted the tree of life,’ he says. ‘It took us ages to agree on a design.’ And he gives that word ‘ages’ a slightly camp inflection, something he does rarely.

The tree is beautiful, and I know I ought to exclaim over it, but my eye is drawn instead to the statue of a giant Buddha. This stands to the right, against a side wall of the foyer, and it is the Buddha that is stunning, for it’s not one of those reproductions that seem to grace every second decor shop or garden-furniture outlet. This is the real thing. When you see the real thing you recognise it instantly, but what is it exactly that you recognise? Its embodied power? Its silent authority? The fact that while it ought to be exotic it seems somehow familiar, imbued with a subtle intimacy? This bronze Buddha is over a metre and a half high and he sits on a reinforced marble and iron table in the classic posture of composure, legs folded in lotus position, a pleated cloth draped ritually over one shoulder. The large head is a pattern of dense black whorls crowned in a topknot, and encircling the topknot is a gold tiara that rises to a peak with a golden lotus at the centre. The ears are enormous, long and narrow with elongated lobes that rest on his shoulders. Around his neck is a single strand of beads and in the upturned palm of one hand rests a golden casket.

Rob and I find that we are gaping, for it brings you to a standstill. The poise of the body is mesmerising, as is the benign and blissful gaze, the benevolent curves, the burnished sheen of the metal skin.

I look over at Gary. ‘Buddhist chic,’ I say disparagingly, but Gary is not on my side. He raises an eyebrow in mild rebuke at my misplaced glibness; we both know this Buddha is special. It’s just that I am irked by the fact that money can buy it. Surely it should be in a jungle temple somewhere, not sitting in a mercantile mansion on the built-up shores of Sydney Harbour. And what of its ambiguous status here? Is it an altar, or is it an ornament? This is the kind of thing that bothers me. I like things to be clear-cut.

‘Where’s the movie room?’ asks Will, ready to race ahead and explore the interior, but Rob and I are momentarily becalmed, still admiring the household god. At the Buddha’s feet is a shallow silver bowl in which a handful of pinkish-white jasmine flowers float in water, while in front of the bowl, on a small square of red and gold silk, lies an artful scattering of shells. On either side are two fat candles set in crystal glasses, unlit.

‘You don’t light the candles?’

‘They’re scented,’ says Gary. ‘It’s overkill.’

‘Are the Porters Buddhists?’

‘I don’t think John is anything. Work is his religion, but Helena seems to have got interested in the big guy somewhere or other.’

‘What does John do?’

‘He exports pharmaceuticals to Asia. He’s in Vietnam half the time …’ His voice recedes as he walks off ahead of us into the cavernous living room.

We take off our shoes and trail after him. Like tourists lagging behind a tour guide, we follow Gary out onto the wide circular terrace that looks down over the harbour. For a few moments we are in the delicious chill of air conditioning and then it’s out again into the humid night, where pungent scents from the garden waft up to the terrace and the scene is one of late-summer enchantment. A clanging ferry bell sounds from the wharf and the sky is changing to blue-black with the last traces of fiery sunset emblazoned over the water.

Below us the garden is lit from lights concealed behind boulders and a scattering of stone lanterns. ‘It’s not an orthodox Japanese garden,’ Gary is saying, ‘it’s a hybrid.’ He is pointing something out to Rob. ‘The stone lanterns aren’t traditional, they’re a stylised version that I designed and had cast by a guy out at Penrith. But look,’ he says, and points to a shadowy corner at one side. ‘That’s where I’m building the neribei, the mud wall. You can’t see much now but after dinner I’ll show you a photograph of one, and the plans. When I finish it we’ll have a party and you can come over for champagne and we’ll christen it.’

For a while we linger on the terrace, murmuring our plebeian compliments. Rob cannot be dragged away from his desktop long enough to take an interest in our own garden but maintains a polite interest in Gary’s work. I, on the other hand, am an obsessive gardener, even if I do have only a small patch at the rear of our dilapidated terrace. Out in the warm, still evenings I work in the soil while the 747s glide in overhead and dump their fuel mist onto my lemon trees. When Gary visits he brings me cuttings and we pore over gardening magazines. I know he has put his heart and soul into the Porters’ garden because lately he talks of nothing else.

‘This doesn’t look like a Japanese garden,’ I say.

‘Good. It’s not meant to.’

‘I thought you had to have certain things.’

‘No, a Japanese garden is a grammar. It’s not this plant or that plant, or a pagoda here or a water-flute there. It’s a set of principles that can be applied anywhere, in the desert even.’

‘Like?’

‘Like no straight lines or geometric shapes.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because these would be an affront to nature. You need to think about things, like where the shadows fall in winter, how the seedpods from a tree will carpet the ground in spring, where the wind will come from most of the year. Ideally you have at least one water feature, but we’re a dry continent -‘ he raises his eyebrows archly ‘- and I’m designing a waterless garden. Once everything is established it will survive on whatever rainfall comes. Or none.’

‘Are you still getting on with Helena Porter?’ I ask. I don’t know why this question comes out the way it does.

‘Most of the time.’ He bites his lip at one corner. ‘She’s very particular. Bit of a control freak.’

‘Lucky she’s got a perfectionist like you around.’

‘Isn’t she just?’

Will has been standing beside us, looking a little pale. ‘Where’s the plasma TV?’ he asks.

‘Over here, mate.’ Gary laughs and ruffles Will’s hair, and taking him squarely by the shoulders ushers him indoors to another white room, with two long and luxuriant white sofas and a large wool mat in grey and white stripes. On opposite walls are two enormous oil paintings, one of grey and white lilies and the other of red poppies. Both are stiff and crudely daubed: they have no depth of field.

‘Can I watch the footy?’

‘Sure, but you’d better eat out here with us. You can see how perfect it all is. I’d hate to have to explain a tomato sauce stain on the rug.’

‘Cool,’ says Will, gazing at the big screen in wide-eyed covetousness.

While Gary shows him how to use the remote controls I return to the terrace. Rob is squatting on his haunches and running his hand admiringly over its mosaic surface, a scallop pattern of terracotta chips and soft river stone in muted greys. ‘This is the best thing he’s done,’ he says. ‘Too beautiful to tread on.’

‘Tell him. He thinks you don’t appreciate his work.’

‘He can take that as read. I’m in awe of his work.’

In the nocturnal light of the terrace light I see how tired my husband is. He has been working too hard; his eyelids droop and the lines on his forehead are deep grooves. He is encumbered, a hostage to his family, a prisoner of his metropolitan mortgage. Unlike Gary, who rents a small studio apartment in Darlinghurst and goes from mansion to mansion, house-sitting for the rich.

Indoors I ask Gary if we can look around. ‘Sure,’ he says, and Rob and I take ourselves off on a tour of the house. We soon discover that every room is painted out in white, not cream but a cold blue-white of the purest tint. Much of the furniture is also white, and in immaculate condition, the kind of sheen and perfection that only money can buy. There are four bathrooms, all spacious and austerely luxurious with spas and bidets, acres of marble and enormous mirrors, and not a stray hair in sight. The only warmth anywhere is in one of the spa rooms, where Gary has done a mosaic floor, an exquisite fan pattern in pale jade-green. It’s like a grotto. Apart from this, the whole house has the air of a sterilised airlock.

‘It’s a bit antiseptic,’ says Rob.

Gary has come upstairs to join us. ‘Helena is very fussy.’ He shakes his head in mock exasperation. ‘Have you seen her bathroom? You could do stem cell research in there without fear of contamination.’

He leads us down the stairs to a small suite at the rear of the house: Helena’s consulting rooms, where she works as an osteopath. These, too, are a palette of white on white, and immaculate in every detail. The embossed silk cushions, the pale green Chinese vase, the Balinese pen holder, the ivory dish of paperclips – everything in precise alignment.

‘She doesn’t need the money,’ says Gary, ‘but she likes to work. She’s very serious. Not a lady who lunches.’ As he says this he is absent-mindedly adjusting the notepad which is not quite flush with the edge of the desk, and in that small gesture I see that the house is a temple, and Gary the keeper of Helena’s flame, her high priest.

‘Is there a photo of her in the house?’

‘Yes, here on the shelf, with John.’

I look, and see a tall handsome woman with broad, angular shoulders and ash-blond hair pulled back tightly from her face. She is one of those women who have a scrubbed, shiny look and she is dressed all in white. And again I feel a pang of jealousy. After all, I’ve known him longer. He brings me plants in pots and advises on fertiliser, and when to prune. We go to the movies together. Like most women, I enjoy having a close gay friend: all the warmth and energy of testosterone without having to deal with its dark side. If Gary does have a dark side he keeps it hidden.

But since Helena came on the scene I’ve never quite figured out her role in his life. She is more than his employer, but not quite his friend – not one of those friends who bring you soup when you’re ill. I get the impression that, for him, she represents some kind of ideal, and is perhaps a remote mother figure. In all the time I’ve known him he has rarely spoken of his own mother, only of his father, whom he loathes. I once asked him about his mother and he closed up.

‘She sided with him,’ he said, and declined to discuss it further.

He is standing now at my shoulder, looking at the photo. ‘Helena has a whole wardrobe of white clothes,’ he says. ‘She likes to look crisp.’ He gives a quick shrug of his lean shoulders. ‘The laundry woman comes twice a week.’

In the entertainment room we find Will settled into the first quarter of the football game and Rob has joined him on one of the big white sofas. My son is a striking likeness of his father, and when they lounge together like this they are as two halves of the one beast, united in an intimate sprawl of limbs. But here they are overshadowed by the big screen and its frantic, darting figures, almost as large as life, athletic phantoms of stunning vigour. The effect of the screen is hypnotic; its depth of field, the clarity of the faces in the crowd. But those muscular figures on the bright green turf, dishevelled and raw, look out of place in this clinically white room. You can see the sweat glistening on their foreheads, the mud stains on their thigh bandages, the bristle on their unshaven chins. Their cries and grunts follow me into the kitchen.

Gary has gone ahead of me and is rummaging in a drawer for a bottle opener. He uncorks a red and begins to lay the table in the dining area while I set about slicing salad vegetables and heating the wok. As I’m about to warm the sesame oil, I hear a plaintive mewling from behind a door off the kitchen. Gary returns, frowning. ‘I’m just going to check on the cat,’ he says, and opens the door.

I lay down my cleaver. ‘You have a cat here?’ I ask incredulously. The whole place is too perfect for animal dander.

‘We certainly do.’ He says this with an air of dark resolve, as if the cat is a problem.

Curious, I follow him to the door. There in the laundry is a handsome pet basket lined with silk, like an oversized picnic hamper. On the floor of the basket is a finely woven rug, and nestled into the rug is a grossly obese cat. It’s a plain old tabby, with the classic black stripes on bluish grey fur and the thin pencil lines across the face. Its eyes are copper, unusual in a tabby, and they glint in the dim laundry night-light. To one side of the basket is an impeccable enamel tray of kitty litter and on the other a terracotta food bowl and milk saucer, spotlessly clean.

‘This,’ says Gary with mock formality, ‘is Cat. Helena found him in the park at the bottom of the hill. She thinks he was a wild cat, probably abandoned in the park as a kitten. He was all mangy, and bleeding from the neck, so she brought him home and set him up here. She’s looked after him like a baby – expensive vet fees, homeopathic drops, the lot.’

‘He looks very pampered.’

‘Well, that’s a matter of opinion. If you ask me, he looks depressed.’

‘He’s a very fat cat.’ Obscenely so, I might have added.

‘That’s because he’s not allowed out. He’s been here for over three months and hasn’t set paw outside. Instead he has all these gadgets to play with. Look.’ He reaches to something on the laundry shelf. ‘This is an electronic bird.’

‘You’re kidding.’

‘No, it has a sort of a twirling feather action. And that,’ he points to a low shelf, ‘is called a Panic Mouse. Truly. It uses a microchip to create an erratic kind of movement that’s supposed to look natural.’

‘Sounds like something out of Blade Runner.’

‘You said it.’

‘Why isn’t he allowed out to torment a real mouse?’

‘Helena thinks he’ll run away. Before she left she gave me fourteen pages of instructions for house-sitting, with strict instructions to keep the cat in – heavily underlined. If she said it once, she said it a dozen times: “Don’t let the cat out.”‘

Gary bends over to stroke the cat behind his ears. ‘But tonight’s your big night, isn’t it, mate?’

I stare at him. ‘You’re not?’

‘Oh, yes I am. I’m going to put him outside for a few hours. He needs to find his feet in the world. It’s not natural being shut up in here like this. Look at him, look how passive he is. He just sits there like an egg on a cowpat.’

‘What about Helena?’

‘By the time she gets back, Cat will have his new routine.’

‘Does it matter that much? I mean, he looks very comfortable.’

‘Yes, it does matter; it matters a lot. I do gardening and I do house-sitting. I don’t do detention centres.’

He turns his attention to the locks and bolts on the side entrance and opens the door out onto a set of sandstone steps. He lifts Cat out of the basket and places him gently on the top step. ‘There you go, mate,’ he says. ‘Boys’ night out. Go and cruise the garden, you never know what you might find.’

Cat just looks at him, copper eyes glinting.

Gary begins to flap his long, sinewy arms. ‘Go on, off you go.’ Still Cat doesn’t move. ‘Oh, for goodness sake,’ and he nudges the animal with his bare foot. ‘Go on. Midnight curfew. You’re due back before I say my prayers.’

‘How will you know if he comes back?’ I ask. I can see there’s no cat door, and the security in the house would no doubt allow of no open window.

‘Oops, almost forgot.’ And he reaches into his pocket and draws out a collar with a bell attached. Amazingly, Cat is still there. Gary squats and clips the collar around the furry grey neck. ‘Mission accomplished.’

The acrid smell of burning sesame oil wafts in from the kitchen.

When it’s half-time in the football we eat at a long oak dining-room table set with a big glass vase of russet and gold leucadendron fronds from the garden. After the second glass of red we begin to reminisce about old times, how we had first got to know one another. Gary recalls that we met in a pub on Broadway but he is wrong about this. We met at a party in some squat in Glebe, a decaying old mansion that was due for demolition. Someone had brought him along (picked him up, I suspect) and we took an instant liking to one another. I remember how, around two in the morning, I went into the kitchen to look for more wine and he was sitting alone at the table eating ravenously, like a wolf. I didn’t know then that he was only sixteen (he looked older) and had run away from his family in Cessnock, from the father he hated. He never speaks of his family but he must have said something once because I knew his father had beaten him since he was a child, beaten him until he was big enough to fight back. When he ran off to Sydney he had no job, nowhere to live, and was hustling the streets in Darlinghurst. Later I heard that he hadn’t done well at the Wall, wasn’t boyish enough in his looks. Too rangy. When after a while he hitched a ride north, we lost contact.

Then one day I got a postcard to say he was living in the little town of Maleny, in rainforest country in the hills behind the Gold Coast. That summer, on impulse and at a loose end, Rob and I drove up to see him, and there he was, part of a household of hippies in a rambling old weatherboard farmhouse beside a creek. The house was a haze of dope and incense – picturesque squalor with apple cores under the dining table and a dead mouse beside the greasy stove. Rob and I slept in Gary’s room, which was spare but tidy, almost monastic. Gary was having an affair with a schoolteacher in the town, called Hamish, and some nights he stayed at Hamish’s and we had the room to ourselves. A Buddhist retreat was being built nearby, and Gary had work as a casual day labourer. He was also, he told us, learning to meditate. He had a seriousness about him, even then.

And it was in Maleny that he learned to garden, after striking up a friendship with an old guy, a local eccentric who had been a mango farmer in the district but had hit the bottle when his wife left him. Once the Buddhist retreat was finished, Gary got a part-time job assisting a man who did what used to be called crazy paving, in sandstone, and that’s where he developed his interest in mosaics. He began to collect stones from the creek bed, small stones, smooth and flat, in shades of ochre and brown and grey, and these he set into patterns. Later, when he was in demand for this work, it struck me as ironic, given that the father he had run away from was a bricklayer.

I remind Rob of how seduced he had been then by the hazy, lotus-eating life of Maleny, how he had contemplated moving there when he finished his studies.

‘Still might,’ he says, ‘one day. Get out of the rat race.’ And turning to Gary: ‘Do you still meditate, mate?’ he asks in that teasing, jocular way in which men speak to one another.

‘Sort of. Old habits die hard, I suppose.’

But I know from the times he has stayed with us that Gary gets up at four a.m. and meditates for two hours before he goes to work. Some habit, you might say.

Will looks up from his noodles. ‘Are you a Buddhist, Gary?’ he asks.

‘No, Will, I’m not an anything. Been there, done that.’ He turns to me. ‘You remember last year when I had that surgery? They gave me a form to fill out in the hospital and where it said “Religion” I wrote “Gardening”.’

‘You could have put “Compost”.’

He flashes his wide grin. He has an engaging smile that disarms everyone, but in his eyes there is always something steely, as if there are things he has worked out for himself and these are non-negotiable. ‘I don’t think so. They might have thought I was making a suggestion about what to do with my organs.’

‘Why do you meditate?’ asks Will, with the callow curiosity of the pubescent male. ‘Is it, like, for mental strength?’ When he grows up, Will wants to play AFL for a living and he is very into the idea of psyching out the opposition.

‘I’m still waiting for the mental strength bit to kick in, Will. Some things you just get used to doing so you keep on doing them.’ He pushes back his chair. ‘I’ve got some coffee cake I bought at Marlo’s. And then I realised Will mightn’t like it so there’s chocolate-chip ice-cream as well. And that’s yer bloomin’ lot.’

Outside, the sound of a ferry horn drifts across the water and, as if at a given signal, Rob and Will push back their chairs and rise from the table, keen to get back to their stations in front of the giant screen. I take them in dessert, with a warning not to spill anything. ‘Watch out or your spoon will miss your mouth,’ I say, knowing how easy it is to be drawn into that shimmering screen where the clarity of the plasma makes all the men look so … present, so lithe and graceful and finely tuned, as if technology refracts the light in such a way as to improve on the human body. No wounds, no scars, no traces.

Gary and I linger at the table and talk. He tells me he is getting more requests for mosaic work. He could make a living from this now, without the gardening, but he only wants to do floors and is refusing to do mirrors, lamp-bases, birdbaths and grottoes. He counts them off on his fingers. ‘Grottoes, especially,’ he says. He isn’t keen on tabletops either.

‘What’s wrong with grottoes?’ I ask.

‘Too precious, too sentimental. Garden kitsch.’

‘What about the mud wall, the watchamacallit?’

‘The neribei.’

‘Mmm, that.’

‘First I have to get this one right. They’re deceptively difficult. It could take me a long time.’ He says this wistfully, but with satisfaction, as if there is a part of him that never wants to finish the wall, that wants the process of building it to go on for ever.

The finish of his work is so perfect it’s hard to imagine the chaos of its beginning. I remember the first time I observed him at it, having dropped in on him one summer evening in Leichhardt where he was laying out a terrace. He sat on a small stool, in shorts and thongs, with a pile of cut tiles on a wicker tray beside him. I could see it was slow, contemplative work and he made it look simple.

‘How do you make sure it’s even all over?’

‘You lay that small square of timber over it,’ he gestured to the side, ‘and bang it gently with the hammer. If you leave the slightest edge of tile sticking up it’ll cut your toe off.’

By the door were neat stacks of ceramic tiles. They looked so square, so dull and uninteresting, but once broken and assembled into some other form, they took on a new life.

Now the mud wall, the neribei, is his consuming passion. ‘It’s such a beautiful thing,’ he says, ‘You can’t imagine how subtle it is, so simple and yet so mysterious. Here,’ and he draws from his pocket a folded photograph taken from a website, ‘have you ever seen anything so perfect? Lately I’ve begun to dream about it. I have this recurring dream where I’ve got it halfway up and something always happens to stop me finishing it.’

I look at the photograph and it is indeed an exquisite pattern, or rather it is a non-pattern in which a large encompassing symmetry – the shape of the wall – is a boundary or frame that encloses many small but harmonious asymmetries. I peer at the small print beneath the photograph, which says that traditionally these walls were built along the outer grounds of temples. The mud is faced with carefully embedded fragments of thin stones and curved tiles set in broken lines. Note the traditional Japanese scroll tiles along the top. At the base are several large sandstones of different sizes. Nothing is perfectly patterned or symmetrical and occasionally a round tile, medallion-shaped, is inserted to break up any appearance of regularity or predictability.

‘Where are you going to get the Japanese ceramic scroll tiles?’ I ask.

‘I’m not going to use them. You should never imitate something slavishly, you should always adapt it to local conditions. Anyway,’ he says, ‘you’ll see how it works when I make you one, once I’ve figured this one out and got it right. It will keep that long-suffering dog of yours from getting through the fence.’ He pauses. ‘How is Sammy?’ he asks.

Samson is our dog, a large mutt of friendly disposition, and Gary is fond of him. When he first used to drop in on us at Erskineville he would deliver a mock scolding on the evils of keeping a big dog in a tiny yard.

‘How can you?’

‘We walk him every day.’

‘But look at him. He’s like Gulliver in that place with all the little people. You should have got yourselves a lapdog.’

‘Little people, eh?’ And I gave him a shove.

Sometimes, ‘out of pity’, he would take Samson for a walk in Moore Park. One day he went off with the dog and Will, and two hours later Will returned home in a state of high excitement. His eyes were wild and he could barely catch his breath as he gasped out the story of how the ironically named Samson, a placid dog who refused ever to fight, had been attacked by ‘some big black dog’ that had bounded up to him and seized him by the throat.

‘Gary picked this big stick of wood up from the grass,’ gasped Will, ‘and whacked the black dog across the back … but it wouldn’t stop, it just kept gnawing into Sammy with its jaws locked, like this.’ And he curved his hands around a vacant slot of air, grimacing like a fiend. ‘So Gary kicks it in the throat, kicks it hard, like this,’ Will swung his foot, ‘and, and, he was wearing Blundstones!’ Will was in a lather now, his cheeks flushed, his hair dark with sweat. ‘The black dog let go of Sammy and just stood there – he was sort of stunned.’

‘Is Sammy all right?’

He nodded. ‘Then the owner ran over, this big fat guy, and he was shouting, and he swore at us, and I thought there was going to be a fight, but Gary just glared at him and he backed off.’

I’ll bet he did, I thought. Best not to tangle with boys from Cessnock. ‘Is Gary coming back for dinner?’

‘He said he had to go see a friend.’ Will took an apple from the fruit bowl and bit into it with happy vehemence. He had been in a battle and he had returned home on the side of the victor. But Gary, I knew, had gone off in a dark mood.

‘Samson’s good,’ I tell Gary. He has a book on Japanese gardens open on the table now and is pointing to a picture of an elegant bamboo fence of great intricacy. It’s the Gyaku chasen sode-gaki, or Upside-down Tea-Whisk Sleeve Fence. Gary is admiring of the craft in its design, but it looks to me to serve no discernible purpose. ‘That wouldn’t keep out a dog,’ I say.

‘Not meant to. It’s meant to create the effect of a dappled screen to obscure anything ugly on the other side. Anything you don’t want to see.’

‘It looks like the sort of contraption a cat could get caught in.’

But he seems not to hear this. He is stroking his chin in slow, repetitive movements and I see that he is uneasy. ‘This coffee cake is too sweet,’ he says absent-mindedly. ‘Helena makes wonderful cake. It always looks perfect and it tastes good as well.’

Yes, I think, I’m sure Helena does everything perfectly.

He stands up from the table. ‘I haven’t got any new gardening magazines but I’ve got something else that might interest you.’ He moves off in the direction of the stairs and then stops. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘did you hear that?’

‘Hear what?’

‘Was that a bell?’

I listen. ‘A bell?’

‘The cat bell? I thought I heard it.’

I shake my head. ‘I didn’t hear anything.’ We sit silently for a minute but can hear nothing. Surely he isn’t anxious? Not quite two hours have passed, which is not all that long for a cat on night prowl. But maybe Gary is having second thoughts. Earlier that evening in the laundry he had seemed confident Cat would return, but perhaps there was an element of bravado in his actions, his sweeping aside of Helena’s diktat. Perhaps there are depths in his relationship to Helena that I am not privy to. I realise that the sardonic certainty of his pronouncements about the cat was in part the effect of his camp mannerisms, and that underneath he had his own doubts about what he was doing. The cat, feral in its origins, its primal memory, might never come back.

As the night wears on, Gary becomes more and more tense. When the football is over we all move downstairs into the billiard room, the only room in the house that isn’t white. It seems a relic from another age, a time before houses like this one were built around their movie rooms. Halfway through a game, Gary leans on his cue and bites into his bottom lip. ‘What if that bloody cat’s got run over? My God, I’ll have some explaining to do. Helena will kill me.’

Well, why did you do it? I want to say. I know how much this job and his relationship with Helena Porter mean to him, how infatuated with the mud wall he is. So why risk it all for a mangy feral cat?

For the rest of the evening the absence of Cat blankets our desultory attempts at distraction. The silence, the fact that no tinkle of his bell can be heard, seems to annul all conversation. Will wanders back upstairs to watch the English Premier League, and even the blare that emanates from the big screen, the high-pitched, almost hysterical commentary of the sportscasters, seems secondary to this silence, the sound of no cat bell. Like the sound of one hand clapping, I almost say, but it’s no time to venture a joke.

‘It’s probably just stalking some mouse under a bush,’ says Gary.

‘Would it know a real mouse if it saw one?’

‘Let’s hope.’

When at last we get up to leave I am tired, and I know we have stayed too long, have played too long with the house and its toys. It seems to take forever to gather up my wok and utensils, my jars and spices, and I wish we’d left an hour ago. By the time he farewells us at the door Gary is drawn and agitated. ‘When you drive down the street,’ he says, ‘keep an eye out for the cat. I could be up all night listening for that bloody bell.’

We walk out onto the wide steps to look at the new grasses he has planted around the entrance, but he leaves us there, walking off into the bushes beyond and calling out. ‘Cat? Cat? Here puss, here Cat … Come here you bloody vagrant.’

Rob and I return to the foyer to claim our shoes. We squat on the bright, white mosaic to do up our sandals and when I look up at the enigmatic Buddha, for a moment my fatigue leaves me. I see at a glance that the essence of its charm is this: it is not wholly symmetrical. Because it has been hand-crafted and is not mass-produced from a mould, the figure has flaws in its configuration. The head tilts ever so slightly to one side. The thick lips are a fraction lopsided, the lotus petals on its crown are uneven. And it’s these imperfections that make it look not only more real, but also more seductive; or rather, that curious meld of the seductive and the comforting. And still I can hear Gary out in the garden, at one-thirty in the morning, calling loudly.

‘Cat? Cat? Here puss …’

Rob catches my eye and we exchange a meaningful look. We just know that cat is never coming back.

But the cat does come back. The next evening Gary rings to say he appeared on the doorstep in the morning, miaowing loudly and demanding to be let in. ‘He was ravenous,’ he says, and there is triumph in his voice. ‘I’ve never seen him so hungry.’

‘So he knows where his home is?’

‘Of course,’ he says in a lordly tone, as if he had never really been concerned. ‘He just needs to be a normal cat, that’s all.’

For a long time after this I don’t hear from Gary, and then one evening he appears suddenly at our front door carrying a potted cumquat tree on which are golden balls of fruit. And I hear of how, when Helena came back, relations turned frigid. Helena soon discovered that Cat had grown accustomed to roaming free; he scratched at the door aggressively and demanded to be let out. Not only that, this new licentiousness had produced a whole set of obnoxious behaviours. The worst of these was that Cat strutted about the house and clawed at the furniture. He raked his claws along the bottom of the armchairs and sofas, so that loose threads hung in ragged disarray and the fabric began to shred. Helena had to have little protective curtains put along the bottom of all the upholstered furniture.

She is furious with Gary. She had given him firm instructions and he ignored them. They are still not speaking.

‘Just a lover’s tiff,’ says Rob.

Maybe, I think.

Some time after this Gary rings to say he is working over the weekend in a street near our house, and I offer to take him lunch on the Saturday. Just a small job for the mother of a Greek friend, he’d said, and when I arrive I am surprised to see that it is, of all things, a grotto. And then I know that he is unforgiven, that he isn’t going back to the Porters and that for the time being he must do whatever work comes his way. I sit on a worn director’s chair and watch him fit turquoise mosaic tiles around a crude black Madonna at the centre of a scallop-shell alcove. He sees my expression and grins. ‘Lovely, isn’t it?’

‘I thought you didn’t do grottoes.’

‘Not if I can help it.’

The courtyard is covered by a trellis of jasmine and I linger for a while in its shade. I study his immaculate handiwork, the precision of his settings, the fine brown hand against the blue tile, the long, strong fingers crusted with grey-white flakes of mortar. He works in silence and then, out of the blue, tells me he’s going away soon. His sister, whom he hasn’t heard from in years, has cancer. Her husband rang just days ago and said she has only weeks to live and would like to see him one last time. I try to imagine him at a family gathering.

‘Is your father still alive?’ I ask.

‘Yeah,’ he says, smoothing the grey mortar between two bright blue tiles. ‘He’ll see us all out. The old bastard’ll live for ever.’

And then I don’t hear from him for weeks, until one evening he rings and invites us to dinner in Vaucluse. He is house-sitting again, this time for new clients, the McManuses, a couple who have gone for a month’s skiing in Aspen.

‘There’s a great big backyard,’ he says, ‘and I haven’t done much to it yet so you can bring that poor bloody cooped-up dog of yours.’

‘And my wok,’ I say.

‘Yeah, that too.’ He laughs. ‘You know my secrets. All I really want is for you to feed me.’

*

Did I mention the dream I had about the Buddha at the Porters’ house? I’m out in my backyard in the moonlight, weeding, and I look up and the Buddha is seated there, half concealed among the red chilli pots and the flowering shrimp bushes, their delicate green fronds framing his burnished curves. I’m in two minds about whether I want him there. I’m ambivalent about that gaze. Is it an expression of detached serenity and the bliss of nirvana, or is it just the complacent and self-satisfied smile of a man who didn’t hang around for the messy business of raising his children? And if I invited him to stay, what would it mean? But while I’m pondering this, the Buddha winks. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says. ‘I’m just passing through.’

© Amanda Lohrey
Overland 192 – spring 2008, pp. 54-64

 

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