The afternoons when Murray got home first, he liked to take the dog for a walk down the foreshore. In winter the fat palms shivered. Murray spent his days with trees. Naming them, measuring them, collecting the soil they stood up in. He’d lived in St Kilda for thirty-odd years, but sometimes the sour smells of rotting seaweed and dim sims and car fumes still surprised him. He had a habit of sniffing his fingers to see if they still smelled of forest at the end of the day.
The dog was a border collie named Quincy. Murray was engaged in a steady, patient strategy to win him over. He had a feeling the dog liked Lou better but he kept trying. He had a feeling the dog was onto him.
Lou rang while they were out walking.
‘You down the beach?’ she said. ‘It sounds windy.’
‘Just on our way home. How was your day?’
‘Oh, a bit long. Got this really turgid letter from the Honourable Minister for Education. It’s the death rattle. I reckon we’ll be gone this time next year.’
Quincy stopped and started sniffing at the pavement. Murray let him.
‘You’re sounding a bit nihilistic there, Louise.’ He was hurting in his joints like he might be coming down with the ’flu.
‘I’m calling it like it is. The union’s gone to shit. Nobody cares about these kids.’
‘Well, maybe not those wankers on Spring Street, but – oh, Quincy, mate – ’ he grimaced. ‘Your dog is hanging a whacking great turd. On the pavement outside the Espy.’
Murray was happy he’d got a laugh out of her. He thought he was getting better, after all these years, at listening for the signs and signals. He’d been in love with Lou for a long time, but he was still scared of the sorrow of which she was capable.
At work out in the forests, the first thing they did was choose a centre point, hammer in a star picket, run a tape out in cardinal directions. They could only hope that what they measured in that circle-plot patch was representative of the surrounding bush. Murray liked patterns he could read; liked trying to gauge things.
In their backyard, under the curve of the verandah roof, was an old church pew. Murray sat on it to pull off his boots. Inside at the kitchen sink he scraped half a tin of dog food into the metal bowl. It smelled foul: offensively meaty. He tipped in the leftover fried rice, then remembered dogs weren’t supposed to have onion. He plugged his fingers into the rice and tried to find any shreds of the offending vegetable. He went outside with the bowl in his hands. The sky was like something from a Renaissance painting.
‘They’re called stratocumulus,’ he said to Quincy. He made the dog sit before he set the bowl on the bricks. He was aching all over.
He thought a bath might help. That’s what Lou would suggest. He went into the bathroom and turned on the taps.
He looked at his soft belly, the stencil of his ribcage. His dick hung down limply. Only yesterday he’d had a good wank in almost exactly this position, bracing himself with one hand on the veneer of the sink cabinet, thinking about Lou’s legs.
Murray stood looking at himself in the mirror. There was fine hair on the backs of his knuckles; bike-riding muscle clung to his legs. He shivered. The light in the room was like a doctor’s surgery. Those stupid energy-efficient bulbs Lou bought. They took forever to come on, then made everything anaemic and dull. The wind came in through the gap in the sash window and made a noise like a toothy whistle. The tiles were cold underfoot. How could he relax in there? He reached over and shut off the tap. He tugged at the rubber plug and everything drained away noisily.
He stood under the shower instead. Through the bubble glass he could still make out the outline of his own reflection in the mirror, skin slowly turning pink with the steam. He turned to face the shower head, cupped the water in his hands, and splashed it over his head like a baptism.
Lou was home by the time he’d dressed again. He found her in the kitchen, talking quietly to the dog and scratching his belly. Quincy lay spread-eagled.
‘Bloody turncoat,’ Murray muttered. Lou turned up her face to him like a naughty kid, did her disarming smile, still crouched. She went on stroking the dog’s fur. Sometimes Murray wanted to write poems or songs for her, but he didn’t know how. She was like a cigarette itch.
They were becoming older in symmetrical ways, both of them thinner and bolshier. He had the elegant sort of skull that was kind to thinning hair. She tried to sit up straight these days, to undo years of a tall woman’s self-conscious hunch. Somehow they had always managed to coordinate their spasms of melancholia so that one of them kept it together. Hers were shorter, more acute, more frequent. Often precipitated by a tiny failure, a forgettable embarrassment.
It was happening again, Murray was sure. Last week they’d gone to a friend’s book launch. She’d clutched her glass of wine with that private, terrible look on her face. Every time someone tried to make conversation, she’d slipped away and left him to do the work. He hated explaining her absence, her awkwardness. She knew it. She was always apologetic, always guilty after the fact.
‘We can just go, Louie,’ Murray had said. ‘Tim won’t care. We’ve said hullo. We’ve bought his book.’
‘Can’t. He’s our friend,’ she’d said, as though that explained it. They’d fought between the tram stop and their flat.
Now she straightened up, kissed him on the cheek. He couldn’t even remember what that other Louise was like.
In the forest, in that theoretical circle plot they’d measured out, they had to work out the diameter of each tree. The universal standard was diameter at breast height. Lou had laughed the first time he’d described it to her: the way you had to throw a measuring tape around the trunk and catch it with the other hand, pull it tight to get a reading. ‘Wouldn’t want Hinch to hear about that,’ she’d said. ‘You’re literally tree-huggers.’
He put his arms around her, fitted her to the bones of his body. He could throw his arms around a tree and work out how much carbon was in a forest, but holding Louie, pressing his face to her neck, did not permit him to estimate anything.
Murray’s sister came for tea. Lou had taken to inviting her more regularly, after the divorce had come through and her children had moved out. Lou insisted it wasn’t pity: ‘I just can’t imagine going from a four-person household to living by yourself,’ she’d snapped once, when Murray had asked, but he hadn’t really seen the difference between that and charity. Lou had always gotten along well with his sister. She always remembered the kids’ birthdays, what they were studying.
Lou made soup, and when she was slicing the bread she turned to laugh at something Murray was saying, and the bread knife nicked her fingertip. There seemed to be a lot of blood. It dripped over the bread and the cutting board, and ran into the lines of her palm when she held up her hand in shock.
‘Let me get a look,’ Murray said. She’d cut a jagged flap of skin from the tip of her middle finger.
‘Have you got elastoplasts in your bathroom?’ asked his sister.
‘Yes, but we’ve got no bread,’ Lou said in a panic, and they all laughed. Murray had a flash of her carved in stone.
Whenever his sister started on about menopause, Murray kept his mouth shut and listened for Lou’s empathetic murmur. He was grimly fascinated by the way they spoke. When he was a child his mother, then his sister, too, had burned their sanitary napkins in the incinerator in the backyard. He remembered watching them from the doorway, poking the soiled stuff with a stick. He didn’t really understand the way any of it worked, but something about that memory of his mother and sister standing there by the incinerator at dusk made him think of bleeding as a ritual, something secret and pyrrhic. He’d tried to explain it to Lou once, and she’d laughed. ‘Nothing too mystical about it,’ she’d said, ‘it’s a sort of dragging pain at the tops of your legs.’
Murray and Lou stood in the kitchen after his sister had left.
‘The way she talks about it – it’s almost like a grieving process, isn’t it,’ Lou said thoughtfully, drawing the tea-towel in between her fingers. ‘I’ve never even thought about it like that. Isn’t it funny. None of us understands one another at all.’
She flung the cloth over one shoulder like a waitress, turned back to the sink. Murray watched the shadows on the back of her neck as she scrubbed.
‘You’re beautiful, Louie,’ he said.
She looked up in surprise; she was already grinning. ‘When I’m doing the dishes.’
Out in the forest, once they’d measured the trees, they moved on to the other components of the ecosystem. There was a way of breaking down the bush into the trees, the shrubs, the herbs and grasses, the litter – the leaves and sticks – the fallen boughs. Last was the foot of soil underneath it all. They measured everything, left holding armfuls of brown paper bags filled with leaf litter, cores of soil.
Murray wanted to say, don’t be sad, Louie, but it didn’t seem to fit. She looked indefatigable, pushing her hair back from her forehead with the back of her hand; she looked placid. Had he dreamt it? He felt unwell.
‘I might jump in the shower before bed,’ he stammered.
‘Okay,’ she said. She glanced at him over her shoulder again. ‘You all right? You look a bit grey.’
He set the tap running. He stripped off his clothes quickly, and tried not to look at himself in the mirror, but that made it worse. He shut off the tap and sat on the edge of the bath. The cold enamel dug into his bum. He put his head in his hands.
‘You all right?’ Lou’s voice floated in under the door. ‘Murray? Don’t bloody pass out in there.’
‘I’m okay,’ he said. ‘Can’t a man take a shower by himself?’
The water was pooled at his ankles. He sniffed his hands. They smelled like nothing at all.
Midweek he had to drive out to bushfire country. In the morning he and Lou fucked sleepily. She reached for him like a lucid dream; froggy hands, stale breath. He was barely awake when he came. Afterwards she sat on the toilet and complained about the tiles being cold under her feet, and gave him a torpid leadlight smile, exactly like that Ray Carver poem. He almost told her that. The first time he’d come as a kid, he’d thought there was something wrong. It had frightened him that he was capable of it. He’d called for his mother, panicked, hand still clutching his cock. His mother wasn’t home. He’d thanked God regularly for years afterward. Remembering it even now made him ache with embarrassment. He’d told Lou that before. She’d laughed like a child.
After all these years Murray was still struck by that immediate disorientation that came with a new site, walking in circles, lining out tapes. It all looked the same. There was no north, no south. All the trees were mountain ash at first. He liked mapping out the people, too. The ecological researchers were young and efficient; they did things by the books. They spoke less, worked cheerfully. The old boys were quiet at first, but they got to talking as the day wore on. Then the fieldwork moved slower. They’d stop to lean against the trunks, watch the researchers measuring leaf litter or diameters, and theorise on relationships. By the end of the day, Murray was always so familiar with the site that he’d wonder how he was ever disoriented. He liked working with the CSIRO blokes, who insisted on taking a six-pack of Melbourne Bitter – though they were all from Canberra – in the ute fridge. At the end of each day they had a sort of debrief before they went back to the motel. Murray liked the ceremony of that.
At night he mostly ate dinner by himself, then phoned Lou lying on top of the bed.
‘How’s the motel?’ she asked.
‘Pretty flash. WIN news programmes, floral quilt. Little plastic bag of bickies and all.’
She laughed. It was an old joke of theirs, making his work travels more exotic than they were. ‘You know what they do have, though,’ he went on, ‘is a really good globe in the bathroom.’
‘Are you being funny?’
‘Not in the slightest. It’s sort of warm light. Make you look fantastic. I think I might get one for our bathroom.’
‘All right,’ Lou said. The way she just let it go made him furious. Murray wanted her to understand it: that energy-efficient globe was horrible; it was driving him mad. She started talking about the letter she’d been asked to draft on behalf of the staff, something about a funding profile, she might see if she could write a piece for the Drum or somewhere like that.
‘The problem is, none of them have got much fight left, they’re all so burnt out.’ She paused. ‘Fiona said today, I wish the kids knew how hard we were pushing. But they can’t – they’re kids, that’s it.’
‘It’s really enough that they go to school,’ said Murray absently. He held one hand to his nose, but his fingers just smelled like cheap soap. ‘How’s Quince, anyway?’
Driving back into the city he stopped at a big lighting store. He stood in front of all the globes and chewed his thumbnail. He ignored all the energy-efficient bulbs. The LED ones were expensive. He thought the bathroom had a bayonet fitting, but he couldn’t be sure. Maybe he should call Lou. He felt helpless.
A kid with a name badge and a haircut he recognised as trendy approached him, asked if he wanted a hand.
‘Lot of choice, isn’t there,’ Murray mumbled.
‘The LED ones are good. They only use about 10 per cent of the energy of your traditional bulbs.’
‘Just give me a second, will you, mate. I’ll let you know if I need anything.’ It came out meaner that he’d meant it to, and Murray instantly wanted to apologise, but the kid’s smile didn’t waver.
‘No worries. Take it easy,’ he said. Murray went back to the little boxes. Even the incandescent bulbs had names and codes he couldn’t understand. He flipped his car keys over in his hand.
Lou phoned when he’d just arrived home, but the line was breaking up and he couldn’t understand her.
‘ – branch meeting last night – ’ she was saying.
‘What?’ Murray said desperately. ‘Louie, I can’t hear you. Will you be home soon?’
‘ – quart’ to six,’ she said, and disappeared with a crackle. Murray looked at the dog.
‘It’s too cold to go down the beach now, Quince,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we just have some tea and call it a day.’ It was almost dark. Lou had marked the shortest day of the year on their calendar in the kitchen, and he’d been watching it draw nearer.
He went to the shed and fetched the stepladder. He unscrewed the old bulb and fitted the new one. The light was better. He took the old, energy-efficient one outside and hurled it into the bin. It made a satisfying noise. Was that dangerous? He couldn’t remember. The bath was ready. Murray dipped a foot into the water. His skin hurt; he was aching all over. He lowered himself into the tub and closed his eyes.
Keys in the door, Lou’s boots in the hallway.
‘You home?’ she called.
‘Where are you?’
‘Nina can’t use her MSO tickets tonight. It’s Tristan and Isolde. Do you feel like going?’
He wrung out the facecloth. He didn’t answer.
She appeared in the doorway. ‘I’ve just had the most beautiful walk home,’ she said. Her cheeks were red. ‘All the stars were out. Just this bitter wind.’
‘Doesn’t sound too flash.’
‘The way the clouds were moving,’ she said, ‘made it look like the moon was falling.’ She was breathless. He knew it then: one day soon we’ll be friends. He wanted to say it out loud. He wanted to tell her, like the morbid facts they read to each other from the newspapers. Inexorably rising sea levels; endangered animals.
‘You hardly ever have baths,’ she said. She took off her woollen hat and let her hair fall down. She turned to the mirrored cabinet above the sink and scrunched her fingers at her scalp. He could see her reflection in the mirror. She was ready for him to say something funny. She turned back to him expectantly.
He felt his mouth go slack as a child’s. ‘I think I’m crook, mate,’ he said. ‘I think I’m getting crook.’
He brought his hands to his eyes. Tepid water splashed up his forearms.
‘Okay. It’s all right,’ he heard Lou say.
‘I’m scared,’ he said. He pressed his palms hard against his eyelids. Pinpricks of light swarmed across his vision. No Louise, only those terrible stars.
She was stroking his ears with flat palms, like she might comfort a dog. He could feel her hot breath on his cheek. She was very close.
‘You’re okay,’ she said.
‘I know. Stupid.’
‘Not stupid, Murray, fuckssake.’
He opened his eyes. Lou looked relieved.
‘Did the bulb go in here?’ she asked. ‘Light’s different.’