Room To Grow


When they bring him in, through the throbbing gallery, he is holding his head high. Just as he taught us to do. As though the press throng and the courtroom adjutants and the severe-looking judges were just another crowd at one of his auctions, waiting for him to take centre stage and steal the show.

I take my phone into the living room and settle down to watch. He looks tall. Taller. Maybe it’s because the officers escorting him are crouching low to avoid the cameras. Maybe it’s because I thought the whole ordeal would have diminished him. But no. He is tall and bold and blue-suited. That he looks unperturbed and ready to win gives me confidence. But the feeling is fleeting. As the officers withdraw and the gallery is subdued, he stands and hears the charges against him — against all of us — and I see the look of dismay pass over his face. We are doomed.


In an industry of lions, Winston Jeffery Aberdeen was the leader of the pride. When he moved from his partner position in a high-earning, middle-sized real estate firm and joined the Big R.E. movement, he took me with him. At that time I was just a pleb, really. I owned one Hugo Boss suit but I got it half-price. I handled the pissy little one and two-beddies (cosy, intimate) and did my own paperwork. But Winston saw something in me and took me along as secondary on some of the real earners (expansive spaces, bathed in light, sweeping views). At an open home at one such property, in a tranquil, coveted neighbourhood, Winston overheard me speaking to a woman who was trying to gauge the expected sale price of the property, which of course we had radically undervalued in the listing.

“Auctions are dynamic,” I said, “You never can tell.” Blah blah blah. The noncommittal, then the knife: “But we have a lot of interest. I think it’s well placed for a two-income, executive family.”

The woman turned away, perfectly affronted.

In his Range Rover on the drive back to the office we played Metallica at full blast. We had taken our jackets off and when Winston rested a bare, tanned forearm on the open window frame I did the same … fuck, man, feels like it was yesterday: the salt in the air, the heat coming off his body. When the hi-hats ending “Unforgiven II” simmered out, he cut the music.

“You really offended that woman back there,” he said, looking serious.

“Did I?”


I said nothing. I could tell his concern wasn’t genuine.

“What was your play?” he asked.

“I figured she was single, cashed up enough, but in two minds. She needed an extra reason to go for it. So I gave her one. To prove a point.”

Winston laughed. “The old I’ll show the bastards, eh?”


“I knew it. That’s good shit, kid. Not bad for a tubby, grubby little pleb.” Then he tousled my hair and I knew I belonged.


The hearing is a disaster. More staged than one of our padded auctions. The way they’ve drawn up the new legislation, there is no reasonable means of adhering to it. Short of running at a loss. Or a profit so slim it may as well be a loss. Now, as the big wig on the panel has Winston repeat himself again and again, picking apart his statements in that pedantic and pompous way they all speak, Winston begins to fade. Gone are the quick-witted asides and booming voice that used to enthral the slobbering masses. Gone is that bronze sheen of invincibility we all admired.

I turn the sound off but keep watching. Without a voice, his body language is amplified. He looks proud but beleaguered. Contemptuous yet resigned. And why does he have a beard? He looks like … He reminds me of …


He reminds me of Saddam Hussein at trial.

I remember the footage. His defiance radiating a stately, timeless character. His noble face and modern clothes made me think mid-century foundation, tastefully refurbished with a contemporary flair. But the whole charade wore him down, until he was at their mercy (adaptable, easily converted, ready for uplift. A bargain at the price).

Presently, a chyron below Winston reads Live: Aberdeen Gives Closing Statement. I find I can’t unmute the phone. Can’t move at all. His mouth moves slowly, while his body is still. Dead still. He stops talking, which seems sudden to me. Then he raises his hands by his side in a silent plea. Finally, he hangs his head. Guilty.



I have to run. I’d been crazy to think I could stay at home as they dredged the entire industry. I’ve already packed a small go bag. I take a final look at my apartment, its airy space and clean lines. Goodbye to the artisan touches. Farewell to the oversized windows with generous views of the apartment block across the street. I bolt.

I drive the Audi fast across the two suburbs to my friend Michael’s place. I run a couple of almost-red lights along the way. A few drivers in mid-range family SUVs honk their horns. Fuck ’em. Scrounging to pay off their over-priced shitheap homes. Anxiously sniffing around the Reserve Bank to see if the Governor farts and interest rates rise. Sad losers. But right now, I would nearly trade places with them. That’s how desperate things have become.

Michael’s missus, Amelia, buzzes me in, but when I get to their door, she opens it part way and says he isn’t home. “You can’t come in,” she says. “He’s caught up enough in this mess already.”

“I’m no danger to him,” I say. “To either of you.” I hear for the first time how scared I am.

“Oh yeah?” Amelia’s insolent smile is like a crack in a wall. “Then why don’t you just relax at home?”

“Amelia! Come on, we’ve always liked each other.” And I mean it, more-or-less. She’s always had an old-world charm, a certain rough-hewn allure, with endless possibilities.

“I’m sorry,” she says and the heartless bitch closes the door.


Big R.E. was just a progression, a movement. Better cooperation between companies. Bigger players with more control. Let the little guys innovate, then buy the ideas and hire the talent. Just like FinTech. Winston read the winds and moved early, one of the pioneers, a frontiersman. And me with him, the Wills to his Burke. Like anything good, you insure it.

You grease a few palms. Look after the right ministers. Third-party party donations are made. Nothing illegal, at that time. Didn’t need to be. Power is its own authority. Within months we’d reached the nirvana we’d all imagined. Forget about buyer’s market and seller’s market; it was an agent’s market. Coast to fucking coast, Australia.

A few weeks ago, I watched a news story. One of these so-called analysis pieces, which means some righteous jerk’s opinion. These journalists. Because they chose an industry that doesn’t pay shit, they think they’re holier-than-thou, typing away on their little notebooks in their squalid rental apartments, dressing like it’s a day off. The caption to the story was Big Real Estate — How It All Went Wrong. There’s the first lie. Nothing went wrong. People wanted to sell homes for max profit and other people wanted to buy them. Any mooted legislative reforms were stamped out as swiftly as they were conceived. Find me the career politician who wants to wave away the four properties they worked so hard for. They wanted it this way. You wanted it this way. High cost of housing equals a healthy economy, and a healthy economy is good for everyone. Winston taught me that. Then someone, somewhere, got it in their head that housing was a right. Like fucking communism or something. And what was more astonishing someone listened. Someone who mattered, I mean. And it grew from there. Nothing went wrong with Big R.E.; you just changed the rules.

The fall, when it began, was terrifyingly fast, like they stormed our castle and just lopped off the heads of the king and all his knights. And the rest of us just froze in alarm, watching the blood spurting out of the dead stumps. These were CEOs … Jesus … I mean we’re not talking about a public shaming and a healthy payout: we’re talking prosecution!

One by one, then another one. Now Winston. And no sign of anyone stopping the blood. There’s even talk, just whispers, that the Minister could go too.


I try calling Lee Lee from the office. Lee is a good bloke, and better still, implicated. “Pick up, Lee!” I yell into the phone. “Pick up, you ugly little shit.” No answer. Voicemail. The try-hard velvety voice, a poor imitation of Winston. I hang up.

Outside my window speeds the dumb leafless suburb of Meadowland Heights. You know it’s the pits because it has Heights in its name. Like Lakes, Springs or Views. So fucking bland out there. I see trucks moving along a highway in the distance, the unimpeded horizon a sure sign of underdevelopment. Uncapitalised vertical potential, as Winston would say. Who would live here? Not the owners, certainly. I know this for a fact, because we’d package-sold a bunch of joints here to owner-consortiums, who rented them out to the bottom feeders. And look, over there housing commission. And we know the kind of people who live there … I shake my head. Who’d live in a place like this? My parents, probably.

Is this the kind of place I’ll end up? After I get out of prison? If they catch me? If I fall?


On the day news of the first arrest broke, I called my father, Derrick. My success had always been a source of tension with Derrick, given he’d worked himself into the dust for no good reason, as an orderly in a crowded public hospital. So, we’d grown up in a cramped, dilapidated unit in a middle-of-nowhere neighbourhood glistening with knives. But I looked on the bright side. I told myself it was a snug, environmentally conscious home, nestled between amenities, within a vibrant community. I figured if I could make that true, I could make my dreams come true, too. Derrick didn’t have dreams, so far as I could tell. He had opinions. And excuses.

That day, he said, “I see Leopold the Second has fallen.”

I’d heard this joke before. Because the CEO’s name was Leonard Secombe, Derrick thought it was witty to reference the Belgian tyrant, King Leopold II. “Similar in name and behaviour,” he’d said. That’s the thing about my father: big moral warrior. He likes to believe he possesses a hard-won wisdom. But that whole posture, the moralising, the judging, that’s just a mask you wear when your life hasn’t amounted to shit. When you’re successful, really successful, you don’t need morals.

I said, “We’ll see, Derrick. I can’t imagine he’s guilty of anything. It’s not like he’s a drug addict.” I knew that would shut him up. My brother, Hayden, has an “addiction illness”. It’s pathetic to listen to my father defend Hayden in one breath, and in the next criticise the likes of Leonard, Winston and me.

Then my father said, “Tell me, how many lives has your brother harmed?”

See what I mean?


I call the Minister and, to my surprise, he answers. “There’s no need for alarm, son,” he says. “I’ve been around long enough to know how these things go.”

“But Winston has

“A few have to fall on their swords. It’s a pity; I wish it wasn’t so. But the circus will end soon, trust me. They’re not going to scrape the bowl, son. You’ll be alright.”

“Can I come and see you?”

“No, no. Listen now, son, that wouldn’t be the best idea.”

“I don’t know where else to go. I I don’t have anywhere …”

The line goes dead.

I U-turn, hard, and put my foot down. I speed back towards the city. Out of the dreary, dead-end burbs, through the up-and-coming fashionable inner-north. I skirt the city and race into the lavish east. Majestic homes built on grand, rolling grounds. Period details on the high gates, enviable gardens. I slam on the brakes in front of one such gate. Via the intercom, I’m told the Minister isn’t in. Nor is he at his city penthouse apartment, I’m told. I drive to the beautifully restored colonial purchased in his mistress’s name, but nobody is home there either. He must be at his ski chalet, or his vacationer mansion down the coast.

Or has he already absconded to his “second” home (hilarious) in Majorca?

It doesn’t matter. I’m done in.



I’m driving again, only without direction now. Aimlessly. Aimless. Like them, the others, Hayden, all of you. I’m in the far south-east, shop signs in Chinese characters, crummy lean-to businesses selling nothing anyone wants, taking up perfectly good land. My phone is running out of charge. So what? Who would I call? I drive on. When I see the cop car approaching, I slink down in my seat and turn off before it reaches me. Now it’s narrow streets and unimaginative (we’d say functional) housing towers. But I’ll admit the murals on the community services building add a nice splash of colour and the small park with children cavorting over its brand-new equipment makes me smile, despite everything. And I see the needle exchange where Hayden collapsed and they saved his life. That was last December. That had happened but who is the family pariah now? My eyes hurt. I have a headache beating in time with my heart. I drive another block but it’s all too much. I pull over and rest my head on the steering wheel and let time run away.

A knock at my window. A muffled voice outside says, “Are you okay?”

I shake my head. They gesture for me to follow them and I do. We walk away from the Audi and through an open gate, along a narrow walkway between rows of small, terraced apartments. Curious faces peer out at me. The person leading me (did I get a name? A contact number? Should I be adding it to a list?) is speaking gently to me, water, they say, rest. The estate isn’t much but now I notice its flexible layout and use of community spaces. Each apartment facing the walkway looks move-in ready and adaptable, with room to grow. A woman walking in the opposite direction says hello to my host, and smiles warmly at me, for no reason. I see a bench in a courtyard and I collapse onto it. My host urges me to stand and, taking my hand, leads me into a strange room. It’s a light, open space, and seeing my confusion they explain it is a community kitchen, accessible to all residents who need the space or want to use some of the appliances. And there are people there now, bending over their cooking with studious expressions. It is all so practical and efficient, so sensible. I am handed a cup of water and drink it rapidly. I recover my breath from the exertion and my eyes regain their focus. I can now make out my host’s face, as she crouches in front of me. What stands out at once is the kind, level way she looks at me. Because why why is she helping me?

“Do you need somewhere to stay?” she asks. “To rest, for a little while?”

“Yes,” I say, “Yes, please. But… I can’t pay.” I hear myself say this again, and again, the words taking me over. “I can’t pay.”

She smiles and leads me out of the kitchen and through the front door of a nearby apartment. It is basic but warm and smells faintly of mint. Two children sit at a compact kitchen table, doing homework. They don’t seem surprised to have a stranger in their home.

“Let me show you where you can rest,” she says, then giggles, adding, “Maybe you want to get out of that suit.”

I lie down, devastated and grateful. My phone springs to life with a message, then another, then it blacks out and dies. The estate is quiet, almost soothing. Beyond it, out in the streets, I hear sirens approaching.

Andy McQuestin

Andy McQuestin is a Tasmanian living in Naarm/Melbourne. His short fiction has appeared previously in Overland, and several other Australian and international publications.

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