Tuesday morning and I’m driving. It’s cold outside and the windscreen is cloudy. I can see only through the little circle I have made by wiping my gloved hand against the glass. The circle keeps closing up, the world keeps getting smaller. There is nobody on the streets and the sky is low, the only motion outside the steaming shapes of stranger’s cars, indistinct forms defined against the grey by their movement.
I stop at the little bakery on the corner. From outside, the shop glows a welcome orange. Inside is less inviting. I buy a croissant, two pies and two coffees. The woman who serves me looks familiar. She smiles in a vacant way as she hands me the food, looking through and out the door.
I struggle with the van door; a massive dent scars the side and jams up the latch. Once inside I have to turn the engine over three or four times before it finally catches. When I get to Mark’s house I park in the driveway. The house looks solemn, unlived in, but I’m sure these are just my projections. I call Mark. He doesn’t answer so I rub my hands together and wait in the damp dying warmth of the van.
I watch the house for life, a shifting blind, a curtain pulled furtively aside. A movement next door catches my eye. A slipper shod neighbour appears on his front steps, looks in my direction and then keeps looking as if he is trying to see something that isn’t there. I stare back although I’m unsure if he can see me through the frosty windscreen. He turns, with a purpose that is at odds with the rest of his movements, then he shuffles down the steps and towards the letterbox. I watch him as he lifts the letterbox, plucks a single envelope out, tucks it under his arm and then walks back up the stairs and into his brick and tile home. An evaporating plume of his breath still lingers once the door has closed.
First, I try the buzzer and then when Mark doesn’t answer I begin knocking. I knock louder and when there is still no response, I look in through the side window. It’s hard to see much, the inside of the house is all muted winter tones, there is something idly unreal about the scene. I put the two coffees on the front step and walk around to the back of the house. The back garden is a cement courtyard punctuated by a Hills hoist, there is single red towel hanging from the line. The courtyard is made up of several large blocks of cement, in the cracks where they meet spring vibrant green weeds. There is a detached room that runs along the back fence. The room is empty save for an old brown corduroy couch that seems to slump like a defeated animal against the far wall. There are a few empty beer bottles in the middle of the room. It looks unnatural the way they are placed, like somebody had bundled them together with the intention of disposing of them but never quite got around to doing it.
I can hear someone in the backyard next door, a shuffling of steps, a metal door opening with a raw scrape. There is a momentary silence, a dry cough, then the repetitive coiled whir and satisfying catch of a lawnmower. The sound seems to permeate everything, it leaches into my other senses, illuminating the sharp edges on everything.
I put my shoulder against the backdoor, turn the handle and lean forward with a creak. The kitchen is dark, a monochrome haze, divided reliefs of grey light are splashed across the counters. There are boxes on the floor, the kitchen draws are open. I look to the roof and walls. A thick tarry stain fans out from the oven and over the roof, the kitchen smells putrid, a melange of burnt oil, paint and old fridge.
I call Mark’s name, when there is no response I walk towards the bedroom. The door is slightly ajar. I call out his name again, gently, into the darkness. I don’t want to startle him. I listen for his breath but it is hard to discern much, individual noises are lost in the whirr of the lawnmower. When there is no answer I go in, the air is thick and putrid, I turn on the light, open the window and then make my way over to his bed. He is sleeping on his side, his head facing the door. I sit down on the bed and look at him, his eyelids are purple against his pale face, his breath ragged. There are strands of his long black hair stuck to his forehead, I feel an urge to brush the strands away, to put everything back into place. I don’t want to wake him but I’m here now so I put a hand on his shoulder. He comes to on the third shake, opens his purple eyelids and looks up at me with dawning eyes. He seems momentarily disembodied, his mouth hangs open, his eyes fearful. In a moment he comprehends, closes his mouth, props himself up on his elbows and stares straight ahead.
I’m sorry to have to see him in this vulnerable state, I pass him the glass of water on his bedside table and watch as he takes long, deep gulps. When he has finished drinking, he passes me the empty glass. He leans back on his elbows and looks towards the open window.
“I’ll be out soon,” he says, “just give me a moment.”
I feel unfocused, unsure of where to start, I need to move. I glance at the black stain, then turn away. I begin by filling up my van with the boxes that Mark has already packed. I carry them one by one, through the front door, out onto the street and into the back of my van. I gain pleasure from the repetitive physical process, there is satisfaction in watching the empty space in the van neatly fill, the incremental completion of each step in the process. I’ve packed four or five boxes into the van when Mark appears in his doorway. His hair hangs in his face, he is swaying slowly on his feet, as if gathering an inner force through a gentle rhythmic momentum.
I reheat the now cold coffees in a small Teflon pot I find in one of the boxes in the kitchen. The bottom of the pot is scratched so I have to pick out the small pieces of Teflon that float in the warming milk.
Mark drags two wooden chairs across the floor towards the back door. They screech against the floorboards but he makes no effort to pick them up. The light in the courtyard has an ephemeral quality, a shifting and elusive nature. The cloud shadows run quickly across the cement so we are plunged from light to dark to light. I wait for Mark to talk, to let him set the tone. The lawnmower has stopped next door, I can hear the shifting of feet, and a soft movement that agitates the rusty tin fence. Mark rolls a cigarette in his cupped hands; his hair falls down towards his lap in a thin curtain. He looks alone in some other place; I feel I’m intruding.
He lights the cigarette and inhales with relish. Briefly the tension in his face dissipates, he is looking up at the sky. It is a scene of fleeting hope.
I tell Mark that he can fill the rest of the empty boxes while I load the full ones into the car. He nods and blows smoke into the air above his head, there is the pack of rollie weed on his lap and he is already in the process of rolling another cigarette.
“Sounds like a plan,” Mark says, almost a full minute after I have finished talking.
He is looking at me now through squinted eyes. He is still beautiful, despite how he treats himself, despite the pale skin and the tired lines beneath his brown eyes.
“Do you think that maybe this was my last chance?” he says.
“With Louise?” I say.
“I don’t think so.”
But I know what he means, the stakes are higher now, failure costs more.
When the coffees are finished and Mark has smoked another cigarette we go inside. Mark takes a few empty boxes from my van and begins sorting out the odds and ends in his bedroom. He is sitting on the floor, turning each object over in his hand, as if he is assessing its history and possible future. He works slowly and methodically, his movements smooth and unhurried. He is carrying out the last rites, it is a private moment but I can’t turn away. My hands are pressed against the doorjamb. Mark looks towards me as he is placing a bundle of t-shirts into a grey garbage bag. I release my arms from the door and walk back to the kitchen to begin loading the last of the boxes into the van.
When I have finished loading everything, I join Mark. He is sitting on the bed now, a double mattress on the floor. He has almost packed everything into a box that sits in the middle of the room. There is a small oil heater on the far wall and the door is closed so the room is warmer than the rest of the house. He seems calmer now, his skin flushed, his movements languid. He sips frequently from a black mug.
“Maybe it was for the best,” Mark says, I don’t reply, I want him to continue.
“I think I felt trapped anyway,” as he says this, he brings the cup to his lip and sips. The edges of his lips are crusted deep red.
I make an indistinct noise of affirmation.
Marks swirls his drink around and laughs gently, then he tips the cup back and holds it there, till the drink must be empty. He puts down the mug and looks at me. Some wine has escaped his mouth and run down his chin leaving a faint red stain. He looks unhinged. I don’t know what to say. I should say that he will be okay, that maybe there is still some chance they might survive. But I don’t want to offer false hope, to say things I don’t believe myself.
I watch as Mark looks down into his empty cup and then looks over at me.
“Shall we put some music on,” he says.
I get up and go over to the small stereo in the corner of the room. There is a pile of CD on the floor, the CD’s are all in the wrong cases and most of them are scratched. As I’m dropping a CD into the player Mark’s phone begins to ring.
“Speak of the devil,” says Mark.
He nods his head.
I go into the kitchen. I’d like to make another hot drink but I don’t know where the cups are. I look in the box where I found the saucepan but it is only full of various sized pots and pans. Cutlery is strewn through the box at random.
I open the back door and look outside. The clouds have come back but the sharp chill in the air is gone. The door of Mark’s room opens and he passes me in the kitchen on his way to the courtyard. With both hands he cradles the black mug, his eyes on the floor.
“Louise is coming over in five minutes,” says Mark.
I watch him from the kitchen. He is sitting in one of the green plastic chairs. He is rolling another cigarette.
“I didn’t plan on her coming today,” he says.
He looks in my eyes. His features seem to be sliding around his face, he smiles, but it is a misplaced smile, a smile happened upon.
“Just five minutes more,” he says.
I leave him to smoke in the courtyard. I stand on the kitchen bench and remove the charred curtains from the rail, stuffing them into a garbage bag. I take a wet sponge and begin to scrub the stain above the oven. The stain is thick and the sponge doesn’t remove much, just seems to push the tar around. The fibro underneath is burnt. I rinse the sponge, once, twice, three times, until the water in the pot is black. Then I place the pot down on the counter, pick up the garbage bag and go outside.
Louise arrives as I’m shoving the garbage bag into the waste bin. I sit on the front steps and wait for her to get out of the car. She takes forever, is bent over, is busy organising something on the passenger seat. When she is finally out of the car she walks quickly. We hug at the bottom of the stairs.
‘How is he?” she asks.
Up close she looks drained, her features drawn tight, she clutches her handbag to her chest.
“How long is he going to stay with you?” she says.
“I’m not sure, as long as it takes, I guess.”
“Tell Gaby that I’m thankful, to both of you.”
I wave her thanks away.
Louise puts her hand on my shoulder, pauses like she is about to say something, then takes her hand away, turns and walks slowly up the stairs and into the house. I’m left standing there at the bottom of the stairs. I look to the house next door, at the drawn blinds and the red bricks that are coated in a spidery dust. I should go, I should walk around the block to warm my body and clear my head. But I’m stuck there, waiting for Louise to come back down those stairs.
Soon I hear their voices filtering through the open door. They begin to rise in volume. It is, I ascertain, not quite an argument. Mark’s voice is the one that carries most, he is pleading, with her, not from anger necessarily, but more I suspect, from lack of control. I feel I am hearing things that don’t involve me, so I go and wait in the van, because as much as I feel otherwise, my role in all of this is minor.
After 10 minutes or so Louise appears on the front steps. She looks as if she has been crying. I get out of the car and stand in the driveway. I give her a moment to compose herself then we walk, together, over to her car.
“I feel like I am giving up on him,” she says. “That it was all for nothing.”
“It isn’t like that, you did all you could.”
All we can utter now are platitudes. Words lost all importance some time ago.
“Let me know how it goes, how he is. I want to be involved somehow.”
I tell her that I will even though I think it is best for him if she stays away. She gets into the car and looks up at me through the closed window, I can’t read her expression but I am sure I will think of it for some time after. She starts the car and reverses onto the road.
I watch as Louise drives away and wonder when I will see her again. I’m sure she will be okay and even though I would never tell anyone, I am glad that she has finally got out. Because I don’t, if I really acknowledge it, believe that he is capable of change. Whether this is a reflection on his character or mine, I am unsure.
I turn back to the house and see that Mark is standing in the doorway. He is leaning against the doorframe and gazing up at the sky. I wonder how long he has been there and if he has been watching me. I look at him and think that I should call Gabrielle and tell her that he is drunk, to give her prior warning. It was her idea for him to stay with us, something I haven’t told Mark. I decide that I will call her later, that first I will go inside and we will finish cleaning and packing the house. Then, despite my reticence, Mark will come to our place and stay with us and I will give him a chance to change. Because I feel, in all of this, that I owe him that much at least.