Here was this stain on the carpet, a wet patch big as a coffee table. He had no idea what it was or how it got there. But the sight of it put the wind right up him.
Until now Thursday hadn’t seemed quite so threatening.
It was a simple enough thing, waking late and at liberty to the peals of the town hall clock below. Eight, nine, maybe ten in the a.m. – Keely lacked the will to count. All that stern, Calvinist tolling gave him the yips. Even closed, his eyes felt wine-sapped. He hung on a while delaying the inevitable, wondering just how much grief lay in wait. The tiny flat was hot already. Thick and heady with the fags and showers and fry-ups and dish-suds of others. The smells of his good neighbours. Which is to say the stench of strangers, for his fellow tower-dwellers were alien to him in the most satisfying way imaginable, anonymous and reassuringly disconnected, mere thuds and throat-clearings behind bare brick walls, laugh tracks and pongs he needn’t put a face to. Least of all – and strangest of any – the madwoman next door. In all these months he’d never seen her. All he knew was that she invested a good portion of each day fending off the wiles of Satan. Which was honest work, granted, but hard on the nerves. Especially his. For the moment she was mercifully silent, asleep or maybe holding Beelzebub to a nil-all draw between breakfast and lunch, and God bless her for that. Also for keeping it down while the poisonous afterglow of all that Barossa shiraz had its wicked way with him.
The building twitched in the wind, gave off its perpetual clank and moan of pipes, letting out the odd muffled scream. Ah, Mirador, what a homely pile she was.
He peeled back the lids with a gospel gasp and levered himself upright and bipedal if not immediately ambulatory. Teetered a moment in the bad weather and shapeless mortification of something like waking consciousness. Which was heinous. Though in the scheme of things today’s discomfort was the least of his troubles. He should be glad of the distraction. This little malaise was only fleeting. Well, temporary. Just a bloody hangover. But for all that a pearler anyway, a real swine-choker. Even his feet hurt. And one leg was still intoxicated.
The real pain was yet to stir. A pillar of dust in the distance.
In the bathroom, before a scalding block of sunlight, he tilted at the mirror to see how far the eyes had retreated from the battlefield of his face. Above the wildman beard he was all gullies and flaky shale. Badlands. His wine-blackened teeth the ruins of a scorched-earth retreat.
He took himself hand over hand to the mouldy shower recess, stood under a cold and profligate cataract until all prospects of revival were exhausted.
The towel not remotely fresh. Pressed to his face, it brought to mind the honest, plain, mildewy scent of hippies. Not to be judgemental, comrades. But while definitely on the nose, it hadn’t quite graduated to the full gorgonzola. Life in it yet. If you were a man unmolested by romance. Having let yourself go to this extent.
He tied the rag about his softening waist, sloped into the living room with its floor-to-ceiling window, and beheld the unstinting clarity of the western frontier: the shining sea, iron rooftops, flagpoles, Norfolk Island pines. All gathering up their cruel, wince-making sheen in the dregs of morning.
Port of Fremantle, gateway to the booming state of Western Australia. Which was, you could say, like Texas. Only it was big. Not to mention thin-skinned. And rich beyond dreaming. The greatest ore deposit in the world. The nation’s quarry, China’s swaggering enabler. A philistine giant eager to pass off its good fortune as virtue, quick to explain its shortcomings as east-coast conspiracies, always at the point of seceding from the Federation. Leviathan with an irritable bowel.
The great beast’s shining teeth were visible in the east, through the kitchen window. Not that he was looking. But he could feel it at his back, the state capital looming out there on the plain in its sterile Windexed penumbra. It was only half an hour up the Swan River, as close and as incomprehensible as a sibling. For while Perth had bulldozed its past and buried its doubts in bluster, Fremantle nursed its grievances and scratched its arse.
And there she was at his feet. Good old Freo. Lying dazed and forsaken at the rivermouth, the addled wharfside slapper whose good bones showed through despite the ravages of age and bad living. She was low-rise but high-rent, defiant and deluded in equal measure, her Georgian warehouses, Victorian pubs, limestone cottages and lacy verandahs spared only by a century of political neglect. Hunkered in the desert wind, cowering beneath the austral sun.
By God, didn’t a man come over all prosy the morning after. These days he was pure bullshit and noise, just another flannel-tongued Jeremiah with neither mission nor prophecy, no tribe to claim him but family. His thoughts spluttered on, maudlin, grievous, fitful, lacking proper administration, useless for anything more than goading the pain the vicious light had set off already. And, Christ, it was beyond anything the booze could induce. Here it came, the smoke and thunder, the welling percussion in his skull. Like hoofbeats. Two riders approaching. And the wind set to howl.
In the kitchen he scrabbled for ammunition, pre-emptive relief. Any bottle or packet would do. Said the joker to the thief. Lucky dip and rattle them blind from the knife drawer. Gurn them down like bullets. And reload. Or at least stand to. Sprawled against the countertop. Sweating through his soapy freshness in a few seconds. Think of something else.
He reached for the radio. Checked himself. Many, many months now, and he still struggled to master the impulse, as if some ruined bit of him yearned for the ritual of the pre-dawn recce, scouting for bad news before the phone began pinging. Because there’d always be a whisper, a Cabinet leak, a buried press release about another government cave-in, fresh permission to drill, strip, fill or blast. The industrial momentum was feverish. Oil, gas, iron, gold, lead, bauxite and nickel – it was the boom of all booms, and in a decade it had taken hostage every institution from government to education. The media were bedazzled. There was pentecostal ecstasy in the air, and to resist it was heresy. But that had been his gig, to meet the stampede head-on every morning, beginning in the dark, trolling across the frequencies half asleep while the basin filled with shave water and the still functional face took shape in the mirror at roughly the same speed as his thoughts. Part of it was simple triage, belching out soundbites like a spiv’s PR flak. All the while trying to hold to the long view, the greater hopes he’d begun with. Like appealing to people’s higher nature. And getting Nature itself a fair hearing. Which was, of course, in this state, at such a moment in history, like catching farts in a butterfly net.
No easy thing to unwind from. The toxic adrenaline, the ceaseless performance, the monastic discipline. Sucking in trouble every day before sun-up, preparing a full day’s strategy in the shower. Finding yourself in the office at midnight, after the final, five-way phone hook-up, shaking with rage, caffeine and fatigue. But a year’s bitter liberty should have done the trick. Really. For a bloke who was half smart. Getting sacked? That was a mercy, a cold-turkey intervention. For which a man should be grateful. He was well out of it. What had it all been anyway but one long fighting retreat? Mere pageantry and panto. He’d just been something for the cowboys and their wild-eyed cattle to wheel past, a procedural obstacle set in their path while they yahooed on towards the spoils.
So screw it. Don’t touch that dial. Not the radio, nor the telly. Least of all the laptop. Leave it shut there on the table like a silt-sifting mussel beside the mobile. He was no longer relevant. And he didn’t give a shit about any of it now. He just couldn’t. Would not. Didn’t even read the papers anymore. Tried not to, at least. Had no need of more stories about ‘clean coal’. The national daily prosecuting its long war against climate science. Didn’t matter which rag you read, it would be another instalment about the triumph of capital. One more fawning profile of a self-made iron heiress and he’d mix himself a Harpic Wallbanger and be done with it. Just to get the fucking taste out of his mouth. You didn’t even need to look. You knew what to expect. The summer ration of shark stories and prissy scandals about the same coked-up footballer between episodes of soul-searching about shopping hours. Made your kidneys boil for shame.
Nah, the news only upheld what you understood already. What you feared and hated. How things were and would be. It was no help. Neither was the plonk, of course – only fair to concede that. Like the news, drinking offered more confirmation than consolation. And it was so much easier to fill a void than to contemplate it.
Still gnashing at that meatless bone. Let it go. Concentrate on choking down the morning’s free-range analgesics. And stay vertical. Think up.
Well, the upside was he hadn’t died in the night. He was free and unencumbered. Which is to say alone and unemployed. And he was in urgent need of a healing breakfast. Soon as all his bits booted up. Just give it a mo.
At the sliding door to the balcony he looked down beyond the forecourt across the flaring iron rooftops to the harbour. Cranes, containers on the quay in savage yellows, reds, blues; the hectic green superstructure of a tanker’s bridge. Searing flash of sun on canted glass. Everything vivid enough to bring on an ambush.
The sea beyond the breakwater was flat, the islands suspended in brothy haze. An orange pilot boat surged past the moles and out into open water, twin plumes of diesel smoke flagging from its stacks, the wake like a whitening wound on the skin of the sea. Which seemed all very lyrical and seafaring until you cracked the door a little and felt the red-plain wind. More hellish updraught than pastoral uplift. Harsh, pitiless. Laden with grit sharp enough to flay a baby-boomer to the bone.
Retreat. Snap the slider back in its slot. And stand there like a mouth-breathing moron. In your rancid towel.
Still. The real estate agent was right: it was a hell of a view for the money. That was the upside. Not just surviving the night but waking to this, an unparalleled prospect of the great Indian Ocean. The champagne outlook for a homebrew outlay. The Mirador wasn’t just the tallest building in town, it was the ugliest by quite a margin. You had to smile at the lovely deluded aspirational romance of the name. When local worthies could have just settled for Aqua Vista or Island Vue they plumped for Mirador: bolthole for the quaking matador, the sex-free paramour, sad, sorry and head-sore. Where you had, despite your fears, the unsought luxury of looking out from on high. Out and down. Like a prince. From your seedy little eyrie. On all the strange doings and stranger beings below. All those folks, booted and suited, still in the game. Trying to give a shit. While keeping the wolf from the door. As if that were even possible.
Keely rested his brow against the warm glass of the door. A ship’s horn set the pane thrumming against his skull. The first blast sent a zizz through his brainpan, down his jaw to the base of his neck. The second was longer and stronger, rooting so deeply into him he recoiled and backpedalled with a grunt.
And that was when he registered the strange sensation underfoot. The carpet. It was wet. And not just wet, it was sodden.
The stain was a metre long. It squelched as he stepped out of it. He noted, for what it was worth, that there were two distinct wet patches – one large, the other small – like the elements of an exclamation mark. Like two blasts of a horn, which at least had the courtesy of signifying something.
Keely’s place was ten storeys up, top floor; this was unlikely to be a plumbing issue or an overflowing bath. A leak in the roof? The last time a decent spot of rain graced this city, he’d been in a job and not quite so comprehensively divorced. Anyhow, there were no watermarks on the nasty stucco ceiling. It was low enough to reach on tiptoe. The surface wasn’t simply arid, it felt powdery, left white grit on his fingertips. And the rest of the flat – galley kitchen, bedroom – was normal. Floor, walls, ceiling. Even the kitchen sink was dry. The only other wet surface in the place was the grout-sick shower stall he’d just left.
Keely slumped into the solitary armchair and looked out across the balcony with its coralline aggregations of dove shit. No reason to panic about a bit of damp carpet, he knew that, but his heart knocked like a sick diesel. And it was with him again, that evil shimmer. Fucking head. All these weeks. Mersyndols, codeines the size of bullsharks; they’d kick in soon. Surely. But he couldn’t even feel them in the water yet. Swim, you bastards. It was an effort to think straight, to glance past his hairy knees at the gunmetal carpet and find a reason for such provocation as this wet floor, to reason on it and not panic.
With a single big toe, he dabbed at the nylon weave. Positively marshy. He stood again. Pressed his foot into the disturbing lushness of it. The towel fell away and there he was, naked, flabby, heat-blotched. He was a long way up, but knowing his luck some unsuspecting ratepayer was getting an eyeful. Hoary morning glory, ahoy! He kicked the towel against the wall, swayed a moment from the effort. And then an awful thought reached him, as if on relay. The room swam a little.
What if he’d made this stain himself? Had he done things last night he didn’t remember? Had it come to that? He’d hit it hard lately but he didn’t drink to the point of passing out. Well, not blacking out, that wasn’t his form. He got hammered, not crazy. But who else could have spilt something here in his living room? And spilt what, exactly? He hoped to Heaven, and by all that was green and holy, that he hadn’t found a new means of disgracing himself. Couldn’t endure it.
But he had to know.
So he knelt on the carpet and sniffed. He dabbed at the fibres, smelt his fingers – delicately, tentatively at first, and then more boldly – pressing his palms into the dampness, snuffling, rubbing, squinting. Until he thought of the picture he made, truffling about on all fours, date in the air, tackle adrift, whiffing out his own spoor like a lost mutt in full view of whichever bionic parking inspector happened to look skyward at this awful moment. Which – yes – seemed funny enough in its way, just didn’t feel very amusing. Not yet, not while he was trapped in the dread of not knowing, with shame looming behind the flashes of colour in his head. He’d laugh later. Right now he had to make sure.
Safe. All he wanted. Was to be safe. In his flat. In himself. So he kept at it. Until he was satisfied. Reasonably, moderately sure. Unable, at least, to detect a hint of urine. Or faint notes of puke. Or any other bodily fluid.
Thank God. Thank Ralph Nader, Peter Singer – the entire sandal-wearing pantheon. Comrades, he was in the clear. Which solved nothing, of course, but you had to hold onto any little triumph that came your way, didn’t you? Yes. Yes, yes, yes. For three seconds Keely was exultant. Until the thought sank in. There he was. A middle-aged man of moderate intelligence, nuddied up and egregiously hungover. Almost high-kicking and spangle-tossing at the prospect that he had probably not gotten up in the night, off his chops on the fruit of the Barossa, and pissed on his own floor.
So. Elation departed in haste. And dear God. Here it was. Whatever it happened to be. There on the carpet. Evidence that his inner Elvis had surely left the building.
And now, next door, as if feeling his misery in the ether, the demoniac started up for the day. No you don’t, she said through the thin wall. No, you won’t. Never!
No, he muttered bitterly. Probably not.
He was hungry.
He poured himself a bowl of muesli and champed away penitently, not taking his eyes from the stain. Nah, that wasn’t urine. But if he was wrong, on a February day like this, his sanctuary would soon reek like a Marseilles pissoir.
After two spoonfuls of Swiss chaff he gagged and conceded defeat. He required an improper breakfast.
Copyright © 2013 by Tim Winton
The preeminent Australian novelist of his generation, Tim Winton is the author of the bestselling Cloudstreet, The Riders, and Dirt Music, among many other books. He has won the Miles Franklin Award four times (for Shallows, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, and Breath) and has twice been short-listed for the Booker Prize (for The Riders and Dirt Music). He lives in Western Australia.