on’s apartment was brick brown and smelt of Naphelene. The puffy man from the real estate told him that he’d tried to convince the owners to render the walls and rip out the carpet, but they hadn’t wanted to outlay the expense.
When he left her, Don had taken with him an eiderdown – not the one from their bed – three clean shirts and two pairs of pants. She asked him to leave the keys in the dish on the sideboard, next to the phone, but he hadn’t and was waiting for her to call.
After he moved in, Don went out and bought a leather recliner, TV, deep fryer and microwave from Cash Converters. Since then, he had accumulated a blazer, another pair of suit pants, a new tie (green with purple intersecting diamonds) and a beard. When he hung up his clothes in the bedroom, he noticed a hole in the back of the built-in wardrobe. It was about ten centimetres wide and about a meter from the floor. It penetrated through the back of the wooden cupboard and the brick wall behind it. The wall was shared with his neighbour. He visualised their apartment, a mirror-image of his own. He imagined its inhabitants, curiously soundless as they moved around their rooms. They were a couple, he knew. He’d seen a man letting himself in, middle-aged, missing a circle of hair on top. Later he’d caught a glimpse of a woman, who was fleshy with high cheekbones, which she emphasised with rogue. He put his eye to the hole but could only see black. He thought there might be another layer of bricks cemented between him and the neighbour, but when he pushed his finger through the hole, it went straight to the other side. He wriggled his finger around, touched nothing.
At seven-thirty, Don watched Border Security USA. He switched halfway through to Masterchef Australia but he hadn’t watched the earlier shows, and couldn’t get excited.
At eight-thirty, he watched CSI while eating party pies with Tabasco sauce. He didn’t bother with a plate. There was nothing on the other channels.
During the re-run of CSI: New York, he plunged Mars bars in the deep fryer and licked the hot, glutinous mass from his fingers.
At ten-thirty, he began watching Body of Evidence but fell asleep.
He woke up when it was still dark and was sick into the half-empty party pies box. He remembered his father wondering why carrots were always in your vomit, even when you hadn’t eaten any. He spent the rest of the night polishing his shoes on the balcony and drinking the last of the Southern Comfort. He pissed over the railing.
On his first day of work, a staple pierced his finger. He pulled it out and watched the blood ooze from two pinpricks, which looked like a snake bite or a vampire bite, he couldn’t decide which. He found himself rehearsing what to do when bitten by a snake, something he memorised once, before going bushwalking:
- Stay very still;
- Call loudly for help;
- Wrap bandages or strips of clothing around the wound. If somebody is there, they should do this for you.
The man in the cubicle next to him saw the wound and gave him a bandaid. By midday, Don had a headache again and had got blood on the keyboard. He found it hard to properly hear what the man next to him was saying to him.
‘How are you finding Adelaide, Don?’
‘Get your apartment all right?’
‘Yeah, I did. Thanks.’
‘Where are you from again?’
‘Who’d you work for there?’
‘Golder and Associates. Just doing tax stuff mainly. Investments.’
Their curiosity seemed unnatural. He felt as though they wanted to prise him open.
Two and a Half Men at seven-thirty. From eight-thirty, Sea Patrol and the tail-end of Desperate Housewives.
He bought a torch from Coles and shone it through the hole. He saw a built-in cupboard like his own, except with shelves lining one side, piled with blankets, towels, bed linen. Underneath one of the towels on the right, he could make out the edge of a folded letter or note. The writing was large, with an expanse of white space between the words, as though the writer had taken a breath between each one. He could make out ‘delicious’ and perhaps the first three letters of ‘divine.’ From this, he concluded that it must be a love letter.
He saw an ad for bathroom cleaner, a clear liquid erasing vivid purple germs that swarmed and skidded across the tiles. Once he started visualising the bacteria, he saw them everywhere. In public toilets, his skin crawled.
His fingers swelled in the heat. He couldn’t get his wedding ring off. She had taken hers off in the winter.
What’s Good for You, House, Numb3rs.
He couldn’t sleep in his chair. Something had crawled up amongst the springs and died there. He slid his nose across the fabric, found a point where the dead-smell was the strongest. He cut a circle in the black leather with a pair of scissors, pulled out the cottony lining with the blades. He was careful not to touch anything with his hands, in case of diseases. He ended up cocooned in the eiderdown on the bedroom floor.
On the work phone, he ordered a double bed from http://www.ikea.com/au/en/catalog/products/40121284. In the picture, the bed was made from two palely golden wooden boards – hardwearing – across the top and bottom. The mattress was sold separately.
He saw a mouse scuttling around the edges of the lounge room. It occurred to him that the neighbour’s cupboard was an ideal nesting place for them. He shone the torch through the hole again. He didn’t see anything. He noticed the edge of the hole had been sanded away, the wood smooth beneath his fingers, the brick cool.
A girl sat next to him on the train. She had dyed red hair, which cascaded – he let this word slip and slide around in his head – around her face in messy strands. He watched her from the edge of his book. He noticed her peripheries, the end of his vision, the beginnings of her. She wore red shoes; had an incandescent green iPod in her hand. She smelt intensely of something in his past, a scent he couldn’t place. Cloves maybe. Or ginger. Something picked or plucked. There was dirt under her nails and writing on her hand. He couldn’t make out the words at first. He thought it might be a nursery rhyme:
It’s raining, it’s pouring.
The old man is snoring.
He went to bed and bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning.
In the thirty-three minutes and fifteen seconds he sat next to her – she hopped off three stops before his – without looking at her, pretending to read Gone Tomorrow, he inched closer until he touched her along the length of her arm. She didn’t move away. She leant over. Their thighs brushed. He was aware of his unsightly knees. She rummaged around in her bag. She found what she was looking for, a Nikko. He wondered what she used it for, perhaps graffiti. She wrote something more on her hand. Numbers. A phone number. She caught his eye. He looked at her warily. She smiled, took his hand and pressed hers against his. The black ink came off on the back of his hand, faint, the numbers in reverse. He pulled his hand away. She got off.
He saw her over and over again. On Law and Order, on Medium.
He could smell the rats. He wandered restlessly around the apartment. He poured himself another drink and carried it with him. The number was still on his hand, faint but persistent. He noticed how low the roof was. He could touch the blades of the ceiling fan. He washed his hands, scrubbed at the number, which wouldn’t come completely off.
In his bedroom — never completely dark, despite the blinds — he lay with his hand flung over his head; the eiderdown was cloying, made too hot by his own body. He had to take his pyjamas off before he fell asleep. He woke up in the middle of the night and with an erection. He was so aroused he put his penis in the hole in the cupboard and pretended it was the girl on the train. He came quickly, into the back of his neighbour’s cupboard, over their towels and sheets and pillow cases. Afterwards, he worried he had stained the letter.
He rang up in the morning and took the day off work. He bought some porn (promising all redheads) and masturbated all day. He was cautious about using the hole again, but by night-time was weak with longing. This time he was much slower. He left his cock pushed in for a while. It was at this point he felt something wet touch his penis. He pulled away in shock. He realised it was a mouth that had touched him, so he put his penis back in the hole. The mouth wrapped around him again, pulling and licking. After a while, he came into the mouth. When he put his eye to the hole he couldn’t see anyone. The torch revealed nothing either.
He watched the neighbours closely. Neither of them looked in his direction. He heard them coming down the stairs as he was leaving his mail box. In a panic, he turned back and pretended to open the box, but he already had his letters and he felt foolish and caught out, although no one noticed him. He left a bunch of red and yellow carnations on their doorstep. In the afternoon, the flowers were gone.