Mum was in hospital the night I met Vince. She’d had another stroke. The first one they’d called mild: she couldn’t speak for weeks. This one was worse. On the phone, Dad said she couldn’t recognise him. I’ll be there as fast as I can.
I was asleep on the train when I became aware of the man behind me. He was wheezing loudly as though winded. I wondered if he was having an asthma attack, so I went to him. He clutched a leather laptop bag to his chest, brown and worn to the bone.
‘Are you all right?’ I asked.
‘Haven’t had one of these since I was a kid,’ he said, drawing in breath.
‘Do you have a puffer?’
He shook his head.
There was an old couple near the front of the carriage and a man asleep against a window. I called out to see if anyone had an inhaler. ‘Nah, sorry love,’ was the reply.
‘I should call an ambulance,’ I said, rummaging through my handbag for my phone. ‘Do you know what station we’re coming to?’
It was night. Through my reflection in the window I could see the distant lights of a houseboat or a bush property across the river. I flipped open my phone and started to dial the emergency services. He clasped his bag more firmly.
‘No need,’ he said. ‘I’ll be right as rain in a minute.’
He seemed disorientated. His gaze flittered from me to the seat in front then onto the carriage floor.
‘Maybe I can sit next to you,’ I said.
He didn’t answer.
‘What do you think?’ I persisted.
‘Sure,’ he gasped.
He made room for me to get to the window seat, leaning one arm on the armrest while still clutching that laptop bag to his chest.
‘Don’t you ever let go of that?’
‘It’s my work.’
‘It must be important,’ I joked as I edged past him.
He tried to laugh as he sat. I asked him his name. ‘Vince’ blew from his mouth like a punch. I told him it was probably best he didn’t speak. But he seemed unwilling to stop, undeterred by whatever discomfort he was feeling. In a rasping voice, he told me about how when he started having asthma attacks as a child his parents cancelled his tennis lessons. They refused to let him continue playing the oboe. They even threatened to withdraw him from art class for fear that fumes from paint and linseed oil created the wrong atmosphere for an asthmatic.
‘How do you tell a kid to stop being a kid?’ he said with a shallow breath. ‘I did art for my HSC. Pissed Mum off...’
He laughed, jerking forward. Then he stopped talking. Resting, finally. His eyes begged forgiveness. I’m not usually like this, they seemed to say. I’d bought a second-hand medical dictionary after Mum’s first stroke to understand more about what was happening to her. I kept it by my bed. I knew that Vince’s wheeze could be caused by heart problems leaving fluid in his lungs. I offered him some water from the bottle I carried with me. He gulped it down like a school boy. I felt the urge to touch his walnut coloured hair. It was curled with the same heavy ringlets as my mother’s.
I’d been at a temping agency in town when Dad had phoned. The recruitment consultant said I was neat, well organised, could obviously string two words together – ‘All the attributes for a great PA,’ she said. When I complained it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I started my English degree, she leaned across her desk, crumpling her sepia-coloured lips into an empathic smile. ‘Just think of it as a stopgap, Monica, until you decide what it is you want to do.’ It was the sort of logic Mum would have used had she known I’d dropped out of university and was looking for work. I’d given the consultant a number of reasons for leaving uni. I’d lost focus. My mother had been ill. I stopped short of telling her I’d been drinking too much. When it was her turn to speak, she was all warmth and kindness, experience and knowing.
‘Best just to say personal reasons,’ she said. ‘That’d be enough. And just a suggestion: too much eyeliner can be unattractive on some girls. The abused look doesn’t cut it in the CBD. Not that I’m saying you’ve got that look. It’s just a bit of advice…’
She shunted me to a seat in the corridor where I was to wait until one of the typing test computers became available. Then Dad phoned with the news about Mum I’d been dreading since her first stroke. I took the call secretly, going into the bathroom, collecting my tears in a tissue before my eyeliner bled onto my cheeks. Before I left the agency, the consultant handed me a form with her business card stapled to the top – Dionne Forecast. ‘Bring this with you when you come for your next appointment,’ she said, smiling in her crumple-mouthed way before going back into her glass office.
I was on the train by dusk, having gone home to remove my make-up and pack an overnight bag. A thunderstorm loomed outside. I leant against the window among the mess of newspapers, crushed polystyrene cups, dried chewing gum along the window frame. As the train pulled out of Central, I started to fill out the recruitment form. Would Dionne want to know that it was Mum who’d taught me to type? In my final year at school, she sat me at the kitchen table, her morning breath like sour milk as she looked over my shoulder? You never know when this will come in handy, she’d say. Something useful they’ll neglect to teach you at uni. I put the form on my lap, falling asleep before the train reached Hornsby, not yet beyond the outskirts of Sydney.
The train lurched before entering a tunnel. It came out behind a strip of suburban houses along the foreshore, stopping at a station soon after. Across the main road, I could see a row of shops – a pub, an estate agent, a milk bar.
‘I bet there’s a medical centre over there,’ I said.
‘It’s okay,’ Vince puffed. ‘I’m feeling much better now.’
‘You don’t sound better.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ he said. ‘I just want to get to Newcastle.’
He wore a single gold band on his ring finger. I asked if his wife was waiting for him.
‘I did the designs for a hotel refurb. It’s reopening tonight. Biggest job I’ve ever done.’
As we waited for the train to move on, a police car came into the station car park, followed by another, then two ambulances. It wasn’t long before a policeman came up the stairs of the carriage, hat under his arm.
‘There’s been an incident. Buses will be provided for the rest of the journey.’ He pointed down the aisle. ‘Did anyone see what happened in the carriage back there?’
Vince shook his head.
‘No,’ I said.
The rain was still falling outside. The air smelled of the mudflats in the bay behind the station. Passengers sheltered under a shallow awning. Some meandered towards the vacant bus stop on the main road. I took Vince under the arm and guided him to an ambulance in the station car park where a paramedic covered his nose and mouth with a nebuliser mask. I sat on a bench in the back and watched the stretcher come towards us from the station. It carried a woman of about my age, who had a cake-sized brace around her neck. Her blood-soaked hair hung from the trolley. But her mouth seemed to belong to another scene all together: closed, but gently smiling despite itself, as though she were merely pausing for breath rather than lying suspended. Perhaps that was the appropriate response. Some higher way. But it disturbed me. Anger, rage, fear – anything other than a smile would have been better. Then she was pushed out of my view. The siren of her ambulance yelled loudly, ricocheting off concrete and tarmac, and was soon lost in the sound of the wind in the trees as she was taken away. I felt some part of me go with her and was compelled to look back towards the station, expecting more stretchers. More bloodied hair. More incongruous smiles. But the steel-framed station had already forgotten her, returning to its bland self.
After a while, I turned back to Vince. He sat quietly, taking short, sharps gulps of air, his eyes blazing and distressed over the top of the mask. The paramedic told him that he needed to go to hospital. But Vince signalled ‘no’ with a gentle flap of his arm.
He removed the mask, resting his hand on my knee.
‘I must go to the hotel. You’ll come, won’t you?’
It was a strange sensation, being wanted like this. I figured he was about forty, much older than I was. Mum would have said he was down-to-earth looking, with his long face and farmer’s tan. His clothes were casual, if not a little boring: green cord blazer, sky-blue shirt, paisley tie, new-looking jeans. His eyes, however, were something else. They were a deep teal, not like the tranquil pools you read about in romance novels, more like the colour of the harbour during an afternoon thunder storm: deceptively calm on the surface, but alive with unknown swells and currents. They looked at me now with a childlike lucidity that belied his age, much clearer than they’d been on the train.
I removed his hand from my knee.
‘At least let me pay for a taxi to Newcastle,’ he said.
The paramedic shrugged. ‘It’s your life.’
In the cab, Vince showed me prints of the drawings he’d done for the refurbishment of the hotel. He held my hand like we were an old couple reunited for the first time in ages. He seemed to need this small gesture of intimacy. And I wanted it too, if only for the distraction it provided before I went to see Mum in hospital. I let myself be cajoled by Vince’s eagerness to tell me about his work. The glass facade, he explained, was meant to represent a wave. He traced the slope of the drawing with his index finger as though dipping it into water. The windscreen wipers kept time like a metronome as we drove along the highway. It felt as though we could have stayed on this road forever, in this warm taxi, away from the world outside – the fibro homes and gangly trees that caught in the headlights. But before long, the taxi pulled in under the dovetail awning at the Seaview Hotel. The facade was as Vince had shown me. The hotel was no more than ten stories high, yet the large plates of turquoise glass seemed to curl right up to the night sky.
‘This is it,’ he said.
I hadn’t given him a clear answer about whether I’d come to the reopening party. I hadn’t told him about Mum’s stroke or that Dad would be waiting for me at the hospital. Being an only child, I’d often wondered if my parents’ needs would always outgrow my own.
‘I have the oldest parents in the world,’ I joked after telling him about Mum. He laughed and slid away from me across the back seat of the cab. I could see that his mind was already at the reception. I wished he still had the frailty of the Vince I’d met on the train.
‘You’d better go then,’ he said.
He reached over and kissed me on the cheek – the warm and familiar kiss of an old friend. Then he got out of the cab and waved to me from under one of the palm trees that lined the hotel’s driveway. The taxi followed the looping driveway, passing a group of young women smoking cigarettes outside the revolving doors. Their hair was set in buns and quiffs, Central Coast pompadours. They greeted Vince with coquettish smiles and embarrassed glances as though he was a movie star. He tilted his head and said something that made them snigger. They looked beautiful, confident, exclusive. I wondered what it felt like to be one of them. I wanted to stay and be one of them.
At the hospital, Mum was asleep in a small ward that she shared with two other women. On her bedside table were a bunch of posies and an unopened carton of cigarettes – the sorts of gifts Dad would have brought her. I sat on the chair next to her bed. A tube ran from her arm to a drip. There were others from under her clothes that were connected to a machine that monitored her pulse and heart rate, just as it had done the last time she was in here. She looked peaceful, like the Mum I used to see at home asleep on the couch in front of the Bill Collins matinee on a Sunday afternoon. I wanted to wake her to tell her about my journey. Then I thought about what Dad had said about her not recognising him. I hoped there was something biological that meant she could never forget I’d come from her.
I sat with her for an hour, listening to the gentle wheeze that accompanied her snoring. I wished she’d heeded her doctor’s warning about smoking after her last stroke. It’s too late to teach an old biddy new tricks, she’d laughed. That was about four years ago. She’d only been fifty then. But it wasn’t like her to change. Apart from a weekly trip to the bowling club, she and Dad had rarely left the house in the ten years since he’d been made redundant. With Dad’s payout, they trawled the Trading Post for the living room furniture they’d always wanted but could never afford. They even bought an old-fashioned poker machine to put next to the fish tank. Mum was always handing out twenty-cent pieces when my friends came over after school. Three cherries, you win. A mantra she said under her breath regardless of which fruit appeared on the payline.
I took a packet of liquorice out of my overnight bag and put it on the table between the cigarettes and posies. I left Mum and went to the waiting room where I found Dad lying asleep across some plastic seats at the back. The room was just as it had been when I was here after Mum’s first stroke. Clothes strewn over chairs and the yeasty stench of half-eaten dinners and body odour. I smiled at a man in the corner who had two children in sleeping bags at his feet. He ignored me and watched the television. An old man sat in the opposite corner so still I thought he was asleep. He pointed to a group of vacant seats as though he’d reserved them for me. I crouched next to Dad. His glasses were pressed across the bridge of his nose and he smelled of alcohol. When Dad drank, he was in love with the world. When he was sober, you never knew what he thought about love. I took his glasses off and slipped them into his shirt pocket, his ribs pushing through the cloth like thick keys. I spread my fingers out between them.
‘Jesus, Dad.’ I whispered.
I sat on the floor and watched the TV. The late news was all about the woman I’d seen at the station. She was in a coma. The newsreader spoke in a strange code. He repeated unprovoked attack three of four times as though in different contexts the words might actually sound real rather than a slogan cooked up to advertise a computer game. She wasn’t referred to by name: she was simply the woman. The woman suffered an unprovoked attack. She might have been me. Or any other woman, for that matter.
After the news, I put on my iPod and was starting to nod off when Vince came to the waiting room. He stood awkwardly in the doorway. The lights from the corridor behind him put his face in the sort of Bogart shadow that Mum used to love in those movies we’d watch.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked.
‘I couldn’t stop thinking about you,’ he said sheepishly.
‘You don’t sound so sure,’ I said.
He raised his eyes, holding up a pharmacy bag. ‘Okay – I guess I came to see a doctor, too.’
The old man in the corner smiled at me.
‘And of all the places you could have gone, you just happened to come to this hospital and walk down this corridor?’ I said.
I stood and went into the hall. Vince had shaved and changed into a herringbone suit. He smelled freshly laundered.
‘Do you want to get a drink?’ he asked.
‘What about your function?’
‘Not a great atmosphere for an asthmatic,’ he joked, wheezing gently.
I turned back to the waiting room. Stumps of coffee-coloured teeth jutting from Dad’s open mouth as he slept.
‘I should stay,’ I said.
‘We don’t have to be long.’ ?
We walked to a pub on Regent Street, a short distance away. The public bar was dimly lit with red mottled carpet and a bank of pokies. A woman with a European accent served us beer, which we drank at a round table near the window away from a drunken crowd who watched a sports show on the TV. Before long, Vince had his hand over mine on a dry patch of the table between beer spills.
‘Do you always have groupies following you about?’ I asked.
‘Your entourage – the women you spoke to outside the hotel?’
‘Oh, them. Yeah, I pay them ten dollars an hour to smoke cigarettes in the rain. I can get you some if you’d like. You can hire both types. Men and women.’
‘Do you I need them?’
He smiled. His lips were thin and red, smudged with beer.
‘No – you’ll do fine just as you are. As for the rest of us.
‘That’s really lame,’ I said.
Then, in his soft Sydney accent, he told me that I made him feel more real than he’d felt in a long time. I might have laughed at him, but he seemed awkward, almost contrite. Nevertheless, his intentions were quite clear. Somewhere between the taxi and the hospital, he’d taken his wedding ring off, leaving a pale band of un-tanned skin. When desire overtook morality, someone always got hurt, but I didn’t want to think about that. It’s only a stopgap Monica until you decide what else you want to do. I stood up to go to the bar and clear my head. Vince kept hold of my hand.
‘I like you,’ he said.
‘You don’t even know me,’ I said, more wryly than I’d intended.
‘You’ve got to see this,’ he said as we came through the revolving door into the Seaview Hotel. ‘The inside of the wave is better.’ He pointed up to the ceiling, tracing the line of the glass facade just like he’d done earlier. From its summit at the top of the building, the glass sloped gently away from the main wall of the hotel and dropped to the ground, creating a large atrium where there was a tropical garden and waterfall. This was overlooked by small cast-iron balconies that I imagined you’d find in Paris or Rome.
‘If you don’t want to face the sea,’ he said, ‘You’ve got Europe in the tropics.’
To a soundtrack of jangly surf music from the party across the atrium, Vince took me on a secluded wooden path to a small pool at the centre of the garden. We sat on a bench where he told me about the tropical plants he’d chosen for the hotel – the lipstick palms and Rangoon creepers. When he spoke, he seemed able to shut out the rest of the world, as though his vision for the hotel might just have been how the world ought to be. But to me, the atrium seemed a dream-like world where everything was in its right place but wrong at the same time. As for where I fit in, I felt as though I was standing outside of myself looking at me trying not to be me. Vince picked one of the flowers and put it in the button hole of my cardigan.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
‘Can we go up to your room?’
He had a suite on the top floor of the hotel that faced the beach. On the balcony, we ate spring rolls and sipped champagne, listening to the sea still seething from the storm earlier. Vince had his arm around my waist. Hotel suites. Champagne. I started to feel I was on holiday in someone else’s life. No longer Monica, perhaps Monny, or even just Mon. My houndstooth skirt wasn’t right, nor was my black cotton cardigan. Mon would have worn something more fitted. A dress that fell just above the knee. Maybe lace. More exclusive than the women I’d seen outside the hotel earlier. More exclusive than Dionne with her empathic smile.
‘Happy?’ Vince asked, looking more the part in his smart suit and smelling of Jazz, or some other aftershave. ‘You haven’t stopped smiling since we got here.’
I blushed and turned away. Mum had once told me there were two types of smiles: one when you were happy, the other when you wanted to be happy. I don’t know which of these applied then. Perhaps it was a third type: a smile that came from a lack of unhappiness. The smile Mum wore more often than any other.
‘I’m happy too,’ he said, before I had a chance to answer.
I kissed him. ‘It’s cold. Should we go in?’ I put my arms around him, trying to conjure the insouciance of Mon.
We went over to the bed and faced each other, his eyes searching mine as though to check that everything was as it should be. He peeled off my clothes gently, being careful not to bruise what was underneath. I was more abrupt, grabbing at his shirt, his belt, dragging them from him, finding patches of warm skin which I held against my own. We kissed on the bed, our legs intertwined. Then he reached over me, taking a condom out of the shaving bag on the bedside table. ‘We don’t want to forget this…’ he said. I drew him towards me, trying hard not to spoil this moment with the thought that perhaps he’d made plans to use it on someone else before we’d met.
When I woke in the morning, the room was in bright sunshine. A salty breeze came through the slat doors carrying the sounds of kids playing on the beach.
Was I still Mon? Was this how my life could be?
I turned to Vince who was leaning on his elbow. He stared at me blithely as though the little time we’d know each other had ballooned and become all-encompassing.
‘Let me buy you breakfast,’ he said.
We went to the Breeze Caf? at the back of the hotel. It was a garish place with wicker furniture and surf boards hanging from the ceiling. But I wouldn’t have minded if it was a breezeblock room in the basement, so long as I was with Vince. We ordered coffee, eggs and toast. Plain, simple and comfortable. I held my hand in his hair as though it was mine. Perhaps this really was me, Monica, and this was a version of happiness that I could become used to.
While the waiter poured coffee, I peered over his shoulder at the television above the bar. There were reruns of the news I saw last night. Footage of the train. A photograph of the victim, as she was now being called, taken at some happier occasion. Then a strange photograph appeared on screen – an unclear image which showed the back of a man. It had been taken by a security camera in the carriage where the woman had been attacked. The police were asking this man to come forward. He might have seen something that could help with their enquiries. There was little with which to identify him. Just his torso. His shoulders. The back of his head. His laptop bag. His locks, just like my mother’s.
I didn’t feel the blow to my stomach, but I knew there must have been one from the bile in my mouth. I knew from its taste that I’d been in a dream when I thought I’d been awake. It was one of those dreams where you needed to truly wake up to see your self-deceit. The photo of Vince was indecipherable – just a grainy snapshot of the back of someone’s head. But if I knew who it was, his wife certainly would too.
I turned to Vince. He watched the TV screen.
When had he decided he wouldn’t tell anyone? Before or after we’d met? Had I become some kind of refuge? A shield against a simple act of kindness towards this woman? I withdrew my hand from his hair, wiping it on my serviette.
‘Why didn’t you help her?’ I said.
‘I begged her to go into the next carriage. I was being goaded. It was hard to know what to do. They were kids. A girl and two boys. I’d never been so frightened in all my life.’
‘You could have told the police.’
‘I wasn’t thinking straight. They all had phones. They were wielding them like knives. I panicked. I was panicking. I’m still panicking. Look at my hands.’
He held a trembling hand out in front of him. Had he really been having an asthma attack or was he just panicking when I met him? Could one be the symptom of the other? A confusion of two different conditions.
‘Something happened when you came to help me.’ He took the first deep breath I’d seen him take since we met. ‘I just didn’t want you to leave me. You understand, don’t you?’ he said.
Understand. What did I understand? He’d abandoned the girl and run to me. I’d abandoned myself and run to him.
‘I’ve been feeling guilty. I was going to tell you…at the hospital, the pub…I’ve been weak.’
I closed my eyes. What about her?
‘I meant everything I said about you,’ he said, his voice cloying. Desperate. Ugly.
‘You need to phone the police,’ I said, brushing crumbs from my houndstooth skirt. Monica again.
A week later, I was at the hospital with Mum. We watched the TV with Helen and Ruth, the women who shared her ward. Daniela Bellio was out of her coma and recovering. Vince had become part of the news story, too. The media were curious about this man who’d fled the scene and gone into hiding. His attempts to defend himself had become increasingly desperate. He appeared now outside his house, a suburban redbrick bungalow, with his wife and daughter, who looked strained behind their paper-thin facades. Vince stood to one side, one arm over his daughter’s shoulder. She was a girl of fifteen, perhaps, whose eyes were hidden by a long fringe. His wife stood away from them. She was wearing a floral dress and read from a small sheet of notepaper. She said she understood the fear Vince had experienced on the train. He’d suffered a great deal of trauma, which led to his irrational behaviour. He was now receiving counselling. He was a loving and caring father and husband. He was sorry for not coming forward earlier. We all are. Her voice broke off. Her eyes were dark and tired, never moving from her script. I wondered whether Vince had told her about me. About us. Or whether I’d become another omission, hidden in the folds of the story he was now telling everyone.
When the news report came to an end, the Sunday matinee started. Pillow Talk. Doris Day. Mum squeezed my hand. She was having problems with her speech and the muscles in one side of her face had packed it in. Despite her assurances, I didn’t believe she remembered me. Every time I visited her, Ruth and Helen would announce me like they were her maidservants: ‘Here’s your daughter, Monica.’ I knew things would never be the same between us. I’d never tell her that I was angry she was abandoning me. Nor would I say that I’d been angry that I’d abandoned myself. She’d never know about Vince and me. She’d never know my typing speed. Or about the various PA jobs I’d do to save up to go places she’d never been: Vietnam, China, Central Europe. She’d never read this or any of the other stories that I’d write. My past was ahead of me. Hers was coming to an end.
I squeezed her hand and watched the matinee.