Devon was at home with his father when it happened, his father’s heart attack. They were having breakfast and then Roland’s eyes blinked and blinked as his mouth opened wide. He tumbled as he tried to find a hold on the kitchen bench. He hit the ground but he still looked as if he were falling on down through the floor. He lay with his back to the tiles, mouth open, working with soundless air. His legs moved spastically and his arms reached out for something as if still falling. They looked at each other in that moment with everything that was part of the complicated sum of Devon plus Roland Beckett.
Devon walked towards the phone. He stood for a little while, then bent down to take a hold of the phone cord at the jack and carefully pulled it from the wall. He walked to the front door and made sure it was locked. He went to the back door and made sure it was locked. He walked around their house and checked every window, making sure they were all closed and bolted. He pulled the curtains. He could faintly hear his father struggling in the kitchen when he came to the stairs that led up to his bedroom. He climbed the stairs and turned on his stereo. The band Fireside Bellows played a song called ‘I Ain’t Gonna Fall’.
Devon was already showered and shaved. The rule he and his father had was to come to the kitchen table already prepared for work. So Roland was dressed in his crisp white shirt when his heart faltered and failed. His only concession to comfort was that he hadn’t put on his tie and his top button was left undone.
Roland’s hand had tugged open that shirt and popped two perfectly white buttons out onto the tiles as he struggled. They’d reminded Devon of teeth. There was a little white thread bound within the holes of one of those buttons. Those buttons had looked lovely lying on the spotless off-white tiles. He had noticed them as he listened to his father’s body writhe – the backs of his shoes squeaking as they moved uselessly on the kitchen floor. He’d made himself look at those two buttons on the tiles, and at nothing else.
Devon listened to Fireside Bellows play another song, and for a few moments considered not going into work. But that choice was so distant it didn’t feel like a possibility. He couldn’t imagine calling Mr Winkler in the mailroom to tell him he wasn’t coming in. The problem was Devon couldn’t lie very well. And the truth felt like the idea of suicide.
He was nearly late getting to Brighton train station. He was usually five minutes early. Today the train was waiting at the platform like it was there just for him. He stepped inside the cabin and the pleasant smells of aftershave and perfume washed over him. There weren’t many seats free. He looked at his options and noticed a group of three, also dressed in business clothes. There was one seat among them, though there was barely any space, or way to get into it. The men shifted their briefcases and moved only the most minimal distance they possibly could to accommodate him. Devon didn’t mind. He wanted to be as close to them as possible. He always chose men like these to sit near if he could. They looked so smooth and clean, all of them. They smelled of shampoo and deodorant, dry-cleaned clothes and shoe polish.
Devon had his iPod playing and couldn’t hear what they were saying. He listened to Ian Curtis sing ‘Twenty Four Hours’. It amazed him how many times he could listen to a song and not really hear parts of it. It was like all those parts had to find a way to fit into his mind. They had to wait for him to be ready before they could enter him. The next song on this album was ‘The Eternal’. He didn’t like it and turned down the volume completely. He wanted to hear what the three men were talking about.
He watched them become more animated. They were a few years older than Devon – maybe in their mid-twenties. It was possible they were even older, but the gusto with which they went at each other in their arguments made them seem just out of high school. Men that worked in his father’s firm would rarely show this kind of excitement in public. And they would certainly not allow themselves to look so earnest.
The one with perfect teeth in front of Devon was saying, ‘And of course you’re going to go and lay it all at the feet of Greenspan. Doesn’t matter I suppose that he tugged the US economy through the ’87 crash and post-September 11. That means shit. He was supposed to predict that the banks would start playing fast and loose. That’s what he should have known, hey? That they’d want to screw their own shareholders –’
‘What? He wasn’t warned? Is that what you want to believe?’ said the man with glossy black hair next to Devon. ‘That you have to be a prophet to see how this was going to play out?’
Now the third man was forcing his way in. ‘But that’s what they called him – the fucking Oracle! The fucking Maestro! Did he tell anyone he’d decided on a fucking funeral march?’ The swearing barely punctuated the elegant voice. The use of the word fuck was just to give his soft voice bones. ‘A fucking elegy,’ he said in conclusion – but the one with perfect teeth began a new torrent.
Devon thought they were probably more interesting when the volume was up on his music. His father talked enough about all of this. Men like George Soros and Warren Buffett felt like uncles, ones you never enjoyed coming over. Ones that took over the house, changing the music to suit themselves. He picked a song by TV on the Radio called ‘Wolf Like Me’.
The train swayed. It rocked and let Devon touch the man next to him at the hip, the knee and the shoulder. He felt the man’s warmth. The commuter’s face was so smooth it made Devon want to run the back of his hand across the man’s cheek.
All three of the young men wore wedding rings. Devon liked the idea of wearing one of those gold bands but knew that wasn’t likely to happen because he was probably gay. He never thought about making love with men. Didn’t dream about them or fantasise about men in elaborate, exciting sexual positions. Problem was, that was as true for women as well. He didn’t know what he was but women didn’t really exist so he was most likely gay. Secretly, he probably wanted all three of these men to stick themselves into him, even if the thought frightened him. That was the thing, you never knew what was behind the fear.
As the train vibrated, he felt the suffocating presence of his father very near him as well. But he already knew how to push his father away so that even when he was very close, like now, he was somewhere else. In science fiction, they called it a different dimension. The world was the same here but, in this dimension, his father had never existed. And if Devon had never existed as well, that was also fine. You couldn’t be unhappy about never being born. You couldn’t be anything.
When the song ‘Wolf Like Me’ finished, the band had another song that was alright, but he switched to Built to Spill and played his favourite song by them, ‘I Would Hurt a Fly’.
The three men rode into the city with Devon and they got off at the same time. It looked like they were all friends. Devon was delighted to be able to follow them under the station to where it came out onto Degraves Street.
They hadn’t stoped debating the whole journey. To Devon they looked like glorious heroes of a noble capitalism. Their hands and arms suggesting traffic could be directed through any and all confusion. Their forceful group stride, that forward momentum, would carry the day. Stepping up the slumping tired stairs and out into the city’s busy morning light, three strident visionaries.
Devon knew he needed to have his headphones turned up with ‘Black Steel’ by Tricky playing for the illusion to work, but he allowed himself these illusions when he could find them. If there was no truth in an illusion then there was nothing at all that would catch your eye. The rabbit had to disappear, not necessarily into thin air, but it did have to vanish. Or so he thought.
Devon wondered whether it was even possible that these three men might possess the secret to the causes of and solutions to the Global Financial Crisis. They moved through hundreds of people pushing past on their ways to wherever they were working. All part of the problem. All part of the solution. And these three like seers, looking into their complex interweaving and intermingling, trying to discover a way to understand it all and solve it for them. The people of Melbourne just went on into their own discrete worlds.
Devon was now going out of his way following these three men. The thought of being late finally pulled him out of the thrall. He turned down Collins Street and headed towards King.
His dad talked about the GFC a lot as well, and, despite having understood the markets for over thirty years, he didn’t a have an easy solution either. He didn’t go in for blaming people like Greenspan or Bush, Senator Phil Gramm, Abby Cohen or Kathleen Corbet.
Roland Beckett blamed a lack of discipline. Since he could crawl Devon had been told that the world only had one true motivation: survival. The two sides of that one principle were fear and force. The only two valid responses: discipline and drive. All the talk of love in Devon’s songs was nothing more than folly. A lack of discipline. A waste of drive. When Devon focused on his own survival, he didn’t feel the force Roland liked to emphasise. All Devon really saw around him was fear.
Devon played ‘100%’ by Sonic Youth and got to work only a minute before he was supposed to start. Usually he liked to be ten minutes early. At least.
Devon was asked to help out with the sorting today. There were other jobs he preferred doing but Warwick had called in sick again. He called in sick almost every week. He was already past his allotted sick leave and his colleagues in the mailroom had gone from thinking the guy was skating on thin ice to wondering why he hadn’t been given the sack already.
Roland could have got Devon a job pretty much anywhere in the tower but he wanted him to work his way up from the mailroom. Said you only appreciate the top when you’ve been at the bottom. Devon didn’t mind. Soon he’d be going back to uni anyway. He should have gone last year but he had taken a bottle of pills and that ruined a whole semester, derailed him for a while. Roland thought he’d be ready after a year in the mailroom. If not, then there were other ways and means of getting up into those offices on floors in the twenties and thirties. Roland would make that happen but first Devon had to show some grit.
The sorting was mind-numbing. Devon could allow himself to drift and let his hands throw the letters out into their appropriate destinations. He could ease away the pressure of holding down his thoughts. He could let his father come close again without worrying about the suffocation and crush. Devon looked only at the letters and let a few hours pass. The paper cuts were distant events he didn’t need to worry about.
His music played and he didn’t have to hear the people talking around him. He listened to two albums by Jane’s Addiction, replaying ‘Three Days’ and ‘Ocean Size’. He loved it when Perry Farrell sang in the second song about how he was born with a heart of stone, how he seemed to pause for the briefest moment, allowing that image to settle in Devon’s mind, and then went on singing about how this heart of stone wasn’t hard like a rock but could be shattered into fragments.
That wasn’t what had happened to Devon’s father this morning. Roland had a normal heart and it just got worn down with time and in the end it just spluttered and stuttered. Finally stopped working, like an old toaster. One last flash of heat, and that was it.
Devon didn’t really know what Perry Farrell meant but he wondered if he had a heart of stone too, because there were fragments and pieces, broken shards in his brain, and somehow this might explain why most of the time he felt nothing – but when he did – it tore through him into places that could only gasp and tremble.
Mr Winkler found Devon in the toilet. Devon sometimes went into a cubicle and sat there reading the walls and listening to his music. Often he sat there for as long as fifteen minutes. No-one said anything about it but Mr Winkler knocked on the toilet door like it was Devon’s office and told him Mr Cornell wanted to see him. Devon could see Mr Winkler’s shoes below the door.
Devon had been trying to think about what had happened this morning, what he’d done and what it would mean now that Roland was dead, and how that would feel when the numbness and confusion lifted. But Devon had been living numb and confused for a long time. His dad had driven so much distortion into him that it was still roaring through his head.
Through the door, Mr Winkler told Devon he was to go up to Mr Cornell’s office, now, and he didn’t go away until Devon told him he’d go up as soon as he was done. On the toilet wall someone had written what was probably the name of a band: Perils of Paradise. It reminded Devon of song lyrics he’d heard: ‘pain in paradise is a pleasure in hell’. Devon got up and flushed the toilet even though he hadn’t used it.
From the toilet to the elevator he kept repeating a phrase. Sometimes this could go on for days. The same word, or a sentence, going through his head again and again. He wished he could stop it. From the toilet to the elevator he repeated the two words – studiously aloof. It just didn’t sound right. Was studiously even a word? Aloof also sounded false.
And then it got worse. Looking at the numbers scroll through one to seventeen, without stopping, he got a sense of déjà vu. It might have been pleasant for some people, but for Devon it came with the fear that the feeling wouldn’t stop. The déjà vu could start repeating as well, until everything he was looking at and everything he was thinking came with the feeling of déjà vu. The stain in the carpet in the corner of the lift. Noticing the stain in the carpet. The déjà vu itself. This trembling feeling he had going through his whole body. All of it something that had happened before. Even his father at home in the kitchen, pulling open his business shirt and popping out those two buttons. Déjà vu in those two buttons.
Devon tried to push his thoughts towards something else. He thought about the birds his mother had bought him for his tenth birthday. Now he was thinking about how his mother, even against Roland’s wishes, wanted to buy the cage full of brightly coloured Dutch frill canaries because he’d begged for so long. A big, wonderful cage that was meant to go in his room but when he got them home he found that the birds were noisy and he couldn’t sleep with them in his bedroom. So they went downstairs to the back porch. Roland told Devon they were Devon’s birds, so it was Devon’s duty to feed them. But he forgot and Rose began feeding them.
His mother’s medication affected her memory though, and all the birds starved to death a few weeks later. No-one removed them from the ornate bamboo cage because Roland said they were still Devon’s responsibility and they just made Rose cry when she saw them. Then one day, Devon came home and climbed the stairs to his bedroom and found that Roland had taken the long glass jar that the Becketts normally used for spaghetti and filled it with the ten brightly coloured canaries. It was sitting on Devon’s school desk like a present. No-one threw it away and Devon watched them begin to decay. Maybe he was supposed to throw them out but he just couldn’t touch the glass and they started to seem pretty in the airtight glass.
The lift got to the top of the elevator shaft and released Devon. He turned Tindersticks off because they weren’t helping him with his déjà vu or the memory. He put on Mogwai’s album Come On Die Young and skipped it to the song, ‘May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door’.
The office had a breathtaking view of Melbourne. On one of the walls was a portrait of Hyman Minsky, an economist Mr Cornell particularly liked to quote. Roland had told Devon the repetition of the same mantra over the last six months was maddening. ‘Extended periods of healthy growth convince people to take ever larger risks, and eventually, when enough people have enough risky bets on the table, the smallest trouble can have catastrophic results.’ In short, it was all about cycles but, at the moment, Mr Cornell wasn’t thinking about his mantra or Minsky. He was talking on the phone, giving someone harried directions regarding a meeting. As soon as he hung up the phone he was speaking to Devon.
‘Get those white things out of your ears.’
‘Oh, sorry.’ Devon turned his iPod off and took out the headphones.
Mr Cornell was in his late fifties but he looked older. He took a deep breath. ‘Where’s Roland?’
‘He’s not here?’
‘Don’t be an idiot, son.’
‘I thought he was here. He’s not here?’
‘Don’t be a fucking idiot, Devon! What’s happening?’
‘I left for work. I always leave like twenty minutes before him.’
‘What? What do you mean before him?’
‘Basic question, son. Basic! The answer is –’
‘Well … I’ve got to get to the train on time. And he drives. So he leaves later.’
‘But you work in the same building. How do you not come in together?’
‘He says it teaches me discipline. To use timetables and trains. If he drives me, then it’s luxury I haven’t earned. He –’
‘Son, I’m asking you where your father is.’
‘Mr Cornell, I’m trying to explain. I thought he was here.’
Mr Cornell stood up. He opened his arms and looked under his armpit. ‘Well, he’s not here, Devon. You understand. And it’s not a day he can miss. I mean it’s impossible that he wouldn’t be here today, yet I’m looking around, and it seems like the impossible is my reality. Those clients in the meeting room just waiting for Santa Claus six months before Christmas? I mean … this is impossible. This is, in fact, inconceivable. And no phone call. Not even a phone call. I can’t go down there. What am I going to say to them? This was your father’s whole deal. The tough explanations. The visionary spiel. What am I supposed to do?’ His voice had become a roar but the statements had become childlike and the question didn’t seem rhetorical.
Mr Cornell closed his eyes. He leaned heavily on the desk with his arms before him instead of slumping back into his office chair like he obviously wanted to. He murmured sotto voce like he had forgotten his partner’s son was in the room. ‘And he knows I’ve got cancer.’ He swallowed but held himself up at his desk. ‘That I’m going … That there’s nothing I can do to stop it.’
Mr Cornell opened his eyes and looked at Devon.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I know it must be hard for you to even think about cancer.’
Cancer meant almost as little to Devon as Sagittarius. He didn’t say anything though.
‘Was it long? Her suffering? Sorry to ask …’
‘What do you mean? Who?’
‘Rose. Dying of cancer. Leukaemia …’
‘My mother didn’t die of cancer.’ Devon shook his head. Couldn’t really imagine that Roland had maintained a lie like that for almost ten years.
Devon said, ‘A bathtub full of blood. That’s what it looked like. Blood on the bathroom floor. Blood down the hall. Down the stairs. Blood on all the handles. Because he carried her out to the street crying like a woman.’
Devon fumbled with his iPod. Managed to get the earphones into his head.
‘I don’t even know what leukaemia is,’ he told Mr Cornell.
Devon didn’t want to go home. He sat on a bench outside the tower and thought about places he could go. He listened to the whole album Ma Fleur by The Cinematic Orchestra. Eventually some young guns from the firm spotted him and recognised him as Roland Beckett’s son, and pulled him along with them to a bar. Devon said yes but he followed them with his earphones on. He walked into the bar listening to ‘Suds & Soda’ by Deus.
Of course they yanked out his earphones but they let him put them back in after a few minutes and motioned sign language at him occasionally. Making fun of him but unable to make him respond. They left him to drift into his numb paralysis.
He watched them mock and torment a young waitress by dropping things for her to pick up, like cigarettes and beer bottles. When they got even more drunk they let a glass break and made her clean it up. She was too pretty and removed. She wasn’t impressed by them. Maybe that’s what it was, but Devon didn’t feel sorry for her. He didn’t hate the hot shots. He listened to another song by Deus called ‘Jigsaw You’.
If he was honest with himself he wasn’t numb at all, really. He wasn’t quiet and still because he had nothing to say or nothing he felt like doing. He kept imagining what they would do, these young men in their lovely attire, if they saw him start screaming and flailing his arms around. He skipped to the next song, mouthed Not yet. Not yet. Just a few more moments. And knew it would pass. That it could pass like a song. That it had passed. If he gave it another few seconds.
The young men from his father’s firm began to leave and he left with them but they each went to cars or piled into taxis and he still couldn’t go home. He walked a few steps as though he would go somewhere but then turned down the first alley and found a place beside a dumpster full of wine bottles, of beer bottles and bottles for spirits. Other dumpsters were full of other kinds of rubbish. He listened to an album by Lamb.
The waitress came out of a side door crying. She lit a cigarette even though her face was getting warped by the crying. She took a puff and didn’t move. New waves of hurt kept breaking over her. She took a few more breaths and then noticed Devon beside the dumpster.
It would have been natural for her to flick her cigarette at him or shout something and leave, but she walked over to him and motioned with just her palm opening and closing to stand up. He got to his feet and took a step towards her, wondering whether she wanted to kick him for what the men he was with had done to her.
She stepped closer to him and took one of his earphones and put it in her ear. ‘Gorecki’ was playing. She listened for a few moments.
‘I got fired,’ she said.
‘Didn’t want the job really.’
‘Maybe you should be happy.’
‘I should have quit though.’
‘Maybe you did. Just reversed the way it happened.’
‘I like this song,’ she said and Devon nodded at her. ‘I was wondering what you were listening to all night.’
‘Just music,’ he said.
‘It didn’t make sense – you with those arseholes.’
‘I’m an arsehole as well. I’m worse.’
She smiled like she didn’t believe him and leaned in to kiss. She was still wearing her name badge. It said Nadia. It took a while for Devon to feel her lips. He had a lot of thoughts about what it might be like. It felt like nothing until he closed his eyes. There was tobacco on her breath and there was the taste of tears because her face was still wet. Nadia was the first person Devon had kissed. They listened to Lamb play a song called ‘Gabriel’.
When the déjà vu started this time it brought with it the phrase studiously aloof and the words he’d seen on the toilet door – perils of paradise. Déjà vu about kissing Nadia and the feeling of suffocation, like both of them were stuffed in a long air-tight glass tube. Déjà vu about being in this alleyway surrounded by the bottles. Déjà vu in the taste of tears and tobacco. Devon thought about pain in paradise being a pleasure in hell, and didn’t know where Nadia’s kiss came from.
He walked to Flinders Street station, let two trains go. He listened to Primal Scream. He got to Brighton station on the last train. Got off and walked home slowly. Turned up the volume on his iPod until he could barely think. Unlocked the front door. The air in the house seemed vast and dead. Like it had been a tomb for a decade instead of a day. Everything perfectly placed and immaculately clean. As always. As though Roland and Devon Beckett had been living in a museum instead of a home.
He walked to the phone and plugged it into the wall. He turned his iPod off and pulled out the white plugs. He dialled the number for the police. He hung up. Took a breath and tried again. He told them he’d found the body of his father on the kitchen floor. That Roland Beckett was dead. He said it a few times before they accepted the information and asked him for his name and address and then told him they were sending a car over. They would have continued talking to him but Devon hung up and pulled the phone out of the wall again. He picked up his iPod. Put it down again. The light was still on in the kitchen from the morning.
Devon walked towards the kitchen and its body. When he got there he sucked in a hiss of air. The two perfect white buttons from his father’s shirt were still on the pristine off-white tiles. One with thread in it and the other without thread. But the body wasn’t where it had fallen. The body wasn’t there.
Devon couldn’t think. He looked around like it might materialise suddenly. He listened to the house and couldn’t hear a thing. He wasn’t sure if it was silent. His ears were roaring with sound. He wasn’t sure his eyes were working properly either. He kept blinking, trying to see the body of his father. But it wasn’t there and now he thought he could hear the sound of footsteps climbing down the stairs.