The week had been fiercely hot without even a breath of breeze, and humidity draped the house like a wet towel. Scott had even suggested they might have to cancel the dinner. But just after lunch a dry wind bullied its way under the blanket of cloud, whipping the leaves and curtains with a furious energy as though defying anyone to complain about its absence.
Donna set the table early knowing how much had to be done later in the day, and had shut the windows at three when the wind began to topple the glasses and nudge the new linen napkins from the centre of the plates. The metal chimes on the verandah screamed like a huddle of children being beaten, while the trapped air in the kitchen became unbearable. She peeled off her clothes at the bench, slicing capsicum and eggplant in her underpants as rivulets of sweat streamed from her armpits and between her thighs. That morning, Scott had refused to let her do the hot roast and had suggested a cool lamb salad instead, so she had begun cooking the meat mid-afternoon. She cried out as she opened the oven door, the wall of heat blowing her hair like a fiery backdraft.
Donna could hear him outside above the gusty wind and chimes, sweeping the leaves from the front path. He had done it twice already and she wondered why he bothered. ‘They are just going to fall down again,’ she said when he came in earlier for a drink. But he was still out there, clearing the debris from the path. Back and forward, back and forward, refusing to surrender. He was relentless like that, and he never gave up when he considered that something was worth finishing.
At six o’clock, they showered and Scott mixed them a gin and tonic. They sat on their narrow verandah watching leaves rain down on the path. ‘Don’t talk shop all night’, she said. ‘There’s more to life than restaurants, you know.’
He pulled her ankles onto his lap. ‘Then we’ll talk politics and religion,’ he smiled as the wind ballooned her skirt.
‘God, no. I like these people.’
And it was true. They rarely entertained – Scott’s colleagues were either single or dull, and he said her friends were tedious. But she liked Julie and Sean. They had a kind of loose, careless confidence and weren’t bound up in knots of co-dependence that she observed in her other friends. She and Scott had never been that way.
He wasn’t much of a talker, and this was what drew her to him in the beginning. He had stood at the back of the art gallery just watching the crowd. She sensed him there as she twisted through the clusters of people with a tray of flutes. He was with friends – they kept returning to him throughout the night – but he was content on his own, as though the exhibition were his, or he were capturing the scene in his mind to write about later. And as the years went on she learnt that he never said anything unless he meant it.
It was Scott who’d arranged the dinner that night. He met Sean two months ago after reviewing his newly opened restaurant. Sean had been pleased with the feature – and the resulting increase in business – and invited them both in to dine with him and Julie shortly after.
They had been greeted at the restaurant door as if they were long-lost school friends. Sean had spent time in South America and she liked the way he expelled the names of dishes as though his full lips were firing bullets. Tom-a-till-o, su-da-do, ar-e-pa. And Julie was sparkly and luminescent. The four had only called it a night when they noticed the street sweeper rumbling along the deserted street.
‘They’re like us,’ Scott said during the taxi trip home.
Sean and Julie arrived on time, bottles of wine clinking in a chiller bag as they locked the car, laughing as the wind tried to push them off the path.
‘Sweep up the bloody leaves while you’re there!’ Scott called. Donna smiled widely as the men clapped each other on the back, and Julie skipped up the stairs to kiss her cheek.
She put some music on and they sat on the verandah with icy drinks. When the old light finally melted over the hills they moved inside to the table. The chimes banged together happily as the four talked over each other, animatedly braiding strands of one conversation with another so that it seemed the night would not be long enough to finish a single thread.
‘Sean should put you on in his kitchen,’ Julie said. ‘The meal’s superb.’
‘You couldn’t afford her,’ said Scott, and Donna squeezed his forearm across the table. ‘And I’d never let her loose around Sean, anyway.’
Julie tipped her head back and laughed prettily, exposing her long, milky neck. ‘No fear of that, I’m afraid,’ Julie said. ‘He’s married to that bloody place. Not much time for me in the bedroom lately, let alone giving Donna anything on the side.’
Donna glanced at Sean but saw no hint of irritation and was relieved. She and Scott never spoke that way; she’d be mortified if he ever joked about their sex life in public. Their ninth wedding anniversary was coming up, and he had never stopped treating her like he did when he first proposed on the banks of the Brisbane River. He would never change, she knew. She felt a rush of grateful love when he steered the conversation to the new tunnels that were scheduled to start construction underneath the city.
‘Might be a bit noisy in the beginning,’ Sean said, ‘but I can’t see it affecting business.’
‘I wouldn’t like to be living on top of one, though,’ she replied. ‘Think of all that nothingness underneath. I need to be on solid ground.’
Julie refilled her glass. ‘It won’t be nothingness. It’d be like living on an ants nest – just think of all those people underneath you as you slept.’
‘Like living in a cemetery, then,’ offered Scott.
Donna affected a shudder. ‘Oh god, can you imagine? I think I’d rather have a big hollow nothing,’ she said, getting up to clear the plates.
Julie scraped her chair back and rose unevenly to help. ‘Give me dead people any day. There’s nothing wrong with that.’
‘Jesus, don’t get her started,’ Sean said loudly, ‘Jules is right into that stupid stuff. Thinks we can talk to the dead, like they all hang around playing solitaire in a big call centre and just give us a ring every so often when they get bored.’
Donna flinched. His words shattered the air like broken glass. She wondered how Julie could bear it. When she was small, her father took the training wheels off her bike and pushed her down the driveway. And then he just laughed as she lay on the gravel weeping, her blood spouting through ragged skin. It was no different to this. She knew Scott would never put her down.
She turned her back to them as she piled the plates on the kitchen bench. Julie lurched a little at her side as she tossed the dirty cutlery in the sink.
The power went out just as Donna was opening a new bottle of wine. It was likely the wind had brought down a tree on nearby lines, and the two men cheered as the house was plunged into darkness.
‘Look what you did, mate,’ called Scott. ‘Don’t take the piss out of the dead. First they cut the power and next thing you know you’ll be pinned to the ceiling.’
‘Scott! Get some lanterns,’ Donna shouted over their laughter, holding onto the bench as the blackness rippled all around her. Julie’s hand grappled at the folds of her skirt, and she felt like she was wading on the bottom of the ocean.
Scott knocked something from the table as he worked his way from the chair to the kitchen. She could not even make out his outline, only hear the clumsy patting of his big hands along the walls as he found the cupboard.
‘Shit. I threw out the lanterns at Christmas.’
Julie started to giggle again, and Donna had an urge to swat her needy hand away. ‘Then candles, get some candles,’ she said, and in the dark her voice sounded as thin as water.
‘I don’t know where the bloody candles are. I didn’t even know we had candles.’
Sean was still in his chair. His barking laughter reached out from the table and nipped at the corners of the room.
‘Here, move,’ she hissed, and Julie gave a little yelp as Donna slapped her hand from her skirt and groped her way to where Scott was fumbling blindly. There was only one tealight candle left in the drawer. The match flared brilliantly in the dark and she put the little candle on a saucer at the centre of the table. Julie edged through the shadows to her chair and her eyes looked too bright in her head.
‘Can’t let the wine go warm,’ Scott said, his large frame forming behind her in the flickering light. He refilled the glasses and the coarse hairs on his forearm shone like blades of burning grass as he leant across the table.
Julie nuzzled the rim of her glass against her lips. ‘No, I don’t think of it as a call centre,’ she said. ‘It would be more like this. Like right here and now, in the shadows. That’s what I think.’
The jangling chimes outside sounded brassy without the music from the stereo, and Donna suddenly thought how stupid this woman was. ‘No. Dead is dead. You live and then you don’t. I’m afraid that’s all there is to it.’ She drank deeply from her wine. ‘Should I bother trying to serve dessert like this?’
‘Well, I don’t want to die,’ said Julie, and Sean snorted. ‘Not a lot you can do about that, honey.’
‘I know that. But I think there’s got to be more to it than being so alive and meaningful one minute and then just lights out the next. It doesn’t seem right.’
Donna looked across at Scott, wanting to see the disdain in his eyes that she knew he would be feeling. But he was sitting too far forward to see his expression. It didn’t matter. She always knew exactly what he was thinking. They had a connection. It was impenetrable. Unbreakable.
‘When I go, I want it to be fast,’ said Sean. ‘You can hit me with a truck or shoot me in the back of the head. Just don’t tell me it’s going to happen.’
‘I’m with you on that,’ said Scott. ‘Couldn’t handle a long death. Not patient enough, I’m afraid.’
‘That’s true. You’d be tearing out the tubes before they could even inject the first lot of drugs.’ She ran her hand along the brushfire of his arm and locked her fingers through his.
‘What about you, Donna?’ Julie cocked her head across the table like a talk show host.
‘I don’t think about it, to be honest.’
‘Don’t be silly. Everybody does at some point.’
‘Then I guess I would want it to be quick. But not before I had a chance to say my goodbyes.’
‘I never picked you as the dramatic sort,’ Sean said.
‘I wouldn’t call that dramatic,’ she shot back. ‘Isn’t wanting to say goodbye to your family and friends a natural instinct?’
‘But why? For your sake or theirs?’
‘Both, of course. It would make it easier for everyone to move on.’
‘Except you,’ replied Sean. ‘Unless you had a cubicle ready in the great call
centre in the sky. Then you could just phone whenever you wanted.’
Scott laughed abruptly, and she jerked her fingers away from him, as if hot embers had blown onto her skin.
‘I hate the idea of being kept alive,’ said Julie, strands of her white hair sticking in flat patches to her temples like the scalp of a newborn. ‘What if I could hear and think and smell, but everyone thought I was as good as dead and then pulled the plug?’
Donna rolled her eyes. ‘I doubt it works like that.’ She pushed her chair back and opened the door of the fridge, pressed her shins against the cool shelves. There was no point fixing dessert. She couldn’t find anything in the blackness, and she was no longer hungry.
‘Would you do that to me, darling? Would you pull the plug?’ Julie whimpered, and in the low light Donna could see she had lurched onto Sean’s shoulder and was raking her nails through his hair.
‘No, Jules,’ he replied. ‘I’d keep the life support on. You’d only come straight back and haunt me. At least I could keep you quiet this way.’
‘That’s so romantic,’ she giggled and she rubbed her beakish nose along his jaw and pulled his flaccid lips to hers.
Donna blew hot air through her teeth and shut the fridge. ‘Of course, any couple would do the same,’ she said. ‘That’s not especially romantic. When you really love someone, you never let go. Ever.’
Julie nodded, her head bobbing up and down on her spindly neck like a dashboard toy, sending a frenetic motion of shadows up the wall.
Donna began to clear the glasses. The wind had fallen away as quickly as it arrived, and the house felt larger around her. She had no idea of the time.
‘I’d pull the plug.’
She froze. Her hand inches from the kitchen counter top. The stem of the glass was cold on her fingertips.
‘No you wouldn’t, Scott.’ Julie’s voice was high and breathy, like a child’s.
‘Yes, I would. I’d pull the plug.’
Sean let out a rough bark and slapped the table. ‘Well, I know someone who’s not getting laid tonight.’
She placed the glass down carefully and slid it away from the edge of the kitchen bench. She could not see Scott’s hair, only the side of his face was aglow; it was as though part of his skull was missing.
‘Oh, you’re just saying that,’ trilled Julie. ‘In reality, you’d never be able to do it.’
‘Yes. I would.’ He looked at the table as he spoke. Did not turn to her. ‘What would be the point of dragging it on? She would not really be there. Not in any way that mattered.’
Behind them, half lost to them in the gloom, she felt the membranes and ligaments inside her seize and tighten, heard him speak as though she was not in the room. Watched him from above as he cut those dragging tethers, never once looking back.
‘Well,’ said Sean. ‘I think on that note …’ He held Julie’s elbow as she grappled on the floor for her bag, then placed his hand against the small of her back, guiding her through the kitchen. Scott followed behind them with the candle. The couple paused at the bench, and Donna could only just turn her cheek for them to kiss as they jumbled promises of getting together again soon.
She stood there in the immense blackness as Scott walked them out through the litter of leaves to their car. And then, as the latch fell in the gate, there was a hum and a flicker, and the house suddenly blazed with harsh, new light.
In the kitchen window, she could see her reflection, cut in half by the frame. She was translucent. Already disappearing. As good as gone.
Read the other stories in 218.5: Autumn fiction: