Instalment 3: pages 10-14 [Elliot talks to Marina’s housemate Sarah]
“I’ll get the kettle on,” Sarah yawned, shambling into the kitchen. “’Scuse me. You know where the CDs are.”
She gestured vaguely at the lounge room, a primordial unformed chaos of books, bric-a-brac and expensive grey entertainment appliances. As in many share-houses mostly filled with new wage-earners fresh from uni, it gave the impression its residents could afford everything except furniture and a decent place to live. On the hand-me-down couch seven remote controls were bundled up: each had a ribbon caught in its battery case, the ribbon tails knotted together in an umbilical clump. CDs were everywhere. They filled a grid of wooden shelves built as a wine rack, spilled along the mantelpiece over the fireplace, and washed gently across every table top (obscuring sedimentary layers of long-departed flatmates’ unopened mail) and a good chunk of the floor. I rattled CDs in the wine rack. Someone of a thorough bent, probably Trish, had put colour-coded stickers on every CD spine, presumably denoting who owned what.
“No good,” I called. “Can’t see it. Beatles Anthology. Distinctive red cover. Where does Marina keep hers?”
“Tried her room?” chirruped Sarah.
“Good idea,” I said, “Toilet’s up there too, isn’t it?”
“Second on the right.”
I went upstairs, pulled the toilet door loudly shut and entered Marina’s room. I had a few good minutes at least. What I’d do with them bewildered me. I turned a slow circle to take the room in. I’d expected the hours of a ministerial staffer would have dampened Marina’s drive for neatness. I had, typically, completely misjudged a Carmichael. It was an auditor’s room, a room for a professional compulsive, its contents easily catalogued. Double bed, one, tasteful iron frame. Underneath, three large flat blue metal-edged boxes. Beside it four-drawer bedside table and little lamp, CD tower at its foot. Built-ins with sliding doors consumed one wall. At ninety degrees to the bed, a low bookcase supported framed photos and a stereo. Everything white, blue or brushed metal. The only clutter was a stack of decorative, feminine boxes at the doorframe. It was a solitary fortress of rationality, a bulwark against her flatmate’s pandemonium.
Her one spontaneity came in clusters of photos stuck to her deep azure walls. I examined a set. There was a barbecue scene from uni days, me with my arms around her, around us a crowd of that season’s usual suspects, all of us standing tattooed with late afternoon tree-shadows. Also one of her I’d taken on a beach, sitting in shorts, smiling her pale-green-eyed smile from under her tawny brown hair. Our one coast holiday that had been up north at Jervis, not south of Bateman’s Bay. Memories with the gritty, acid tang of over-steeped coffee.
A more recent shot was all suits and champagne flutes, an early evening back yard. In the background the American airforce monument’s wings stood as Bugs Bunny ears, a crisp vee against the sky. A swimming-pool corner was visible too, all blue-tile glossy-pelted and rimmed in sandy pink concrete. Marina was standing a little left of centre, hip to hip and arms all about a girlfriend: red hair and a wine-coloured smock dress.
The girl from the press-conference photo.
This was my second view of Jenny, and I stole it - prising the photo up and sliding it into my interior suit pocket. I opened the top-most decorative box in the pile. It must’ve been a present: all gold stars on red background, quite unlike her room’s formal blue and white neatness. The box held two spare keys on a ring with a flat metal tag. I turned the lozenge-shaped tag over, it looked like it was for some kind of security door. I pocketed these, too. I could still hear Sarah in the kitchen. I slipped down the hall, eased into the bathroom and flushed. I crossed back into Marina’s room for a final glance round: wardrobe mostly full, she hadn’t packed to be away long.
It seemed I’d been in her room an age: glaciers had swollen, scoured the earth and melted while I crept about shame-faced, ransacking the life of someone I’d once slept with. I turned to go downstairs, glancing into Sarah’s room as I went. Her door faced Marina’s across the tiny hall. The uni-student mess wallowed out of her cupboard and swamped the floor in folders, jumpers, washed-out cotton tops, special-occasion bras, books and CD cases. The avalanche crept up over her crumpled sheets. How she made it to and from her futon I couldn’t say. The only newish-looking thing in the room was her stereo (the household’s fourth), all steel-silver and pale wood trim.
“Nice stereo you’ve got,” I said, entering the kitchen.
“Cheers. It’s great what late shifts and catalogue specials can get you,” smiled Sarah. “Find your CD?”
“Nope. Maybe she took it with her.” I shrugged and took the proffered mug of tea. It tasted caffeine free and made from powered twigs. I wasn’t sure if my system could handle the shock.
“Where are you working these days?” I asked.
She laughed: “Supermarket in Fyshwick, shelf-stacking, mainly.”
“Late shifts?” I asked, trying to smooth the way a little before asking about Marina.
“Yeah, got called in last night. A competitor out in Queanbeyan went under, we shifted more stock yesterday than expected.”
“Get many jokes about working in the centre of light industry and prostitution?”
“Enough,” she said coolly and sipped her tea.
“So you don’t know when Marina’s back?”
“No, but she’s in demand. Her office keeps calling.”
“Yeah. She didn’t show up after her holiday. We were a bit worried, but her father says there’s been a family drama. Something about her aunt on the north coast.”
“Doesn’t sound good,” I said. “How’s her job going? Bringing many politicos back to your soirees?”
“A girlfriend Jenny’s showed up a few times. She’s good value, witty, you’d like her if you started coming to Thursday nights again.”
“I might have to do that,” I smiled.
“So what about you, Elliot? What’s new in your world?” She grinned over her mug, “Who’s new?”
I laughed: “No-one new, well – no-one who’s stuck around. You know my story since Marina. Otherwise, its just the part-time legal librarian thing.”
“Which firm are you with again?”
“Peepers. Page Edward Prentice.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Doesn’t Marina’s brother work for them?”
“Sydney office,” I replied, my smile tightening.
“Money okay?” Sarah asked.
“It keeps body and soul loosely related. Eva and I still shop on our old uni budget and our rent’s good - but it’s just tiding me over ’til I work out what comes next. Peepers would have hired me as a solicitor, but after last year …”
“Yeah, I heard that stuffed you up. Any way around it … ?”
She trailed off: I’d probably assumed my bored martyr’s face, what Eva calls the bring on the lions, you bastards look.
“Nothing to stop me trying again,” I said. “It’s whether I can be bothered. Being a solicitor isn’t the only thing I can do with a law degree. Anyway, any new gossip here? Anyone in your life? Marina’s?”
Sarah suddenly looked quite weary: “After work and uni, I really don’t have the energy to see anyone at the moment. And I can’t imagine Marina having time to meet anyone outside Parliament House.”
“Well, there is TND, isn’t there?”
“Thursday night dinners have kick-started some couples,” she laughed. “But no, no-one for Marina. Are you angling to get back together?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head, “Look, I should take off. Thanks for the tea.”
Sarah walked me to the door and pecked me on the cheek. Unlocking my car I realised what I needed: strong coffee and a chat with Eva, world-champion flatmate.
“Well, I can make some phone calls,” I said. “Work out who saw her last, drop round to her place.”
“I’d appreciate that,” he said. “But this is a small town – “
“Look, David, you asked me because you know I won’t embarrass Marina, which means I won’t embarrass you. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I began to get up.
“Do you have a mobile?” asked Charmichael.
I sat back in my chair and fitted my words together carefully.
“I don’t have a service at the moment, no.”
It was true enough, my pre-paid was out of credit and it didn’t look like it was the fortnight to be getting a recharge card.
He drew a small thick tongue of black plastic and chrome from a pocket and placed the flip-open Motorola in front of me. He turned it over to show a sticker on the back bearing its number.
“One of mine,” he said. “Make any calls you need, call me as soon as you know anything.”
I shrugged and pocketed it.
“So why not get a professional investigator? Someone who takes the happy snaps in a worker’s comp case. You must know several.”
“It’s a small town – “
“And you don’t want the hired help finding out about family trouble?”
Carmichael’s face shifted tectonically, something harder grinding up out of his features. “How are you for money, Elliot?”
The question went in nicely between my second and third ribs and twisted just a little.
“I had heard they were cutting back on support staff at Page. How are things in the library?”
“Three days a week, thanks for asking.”
“Look, I do think Marina may be in some trouble. Make your calls, but keep looking for her. I’ll meet your expenses. Hundred and fifty a day.”
I laughed: “David, you earn more than that in an hour. Two fifty, if there’s anything after tonight. Not that there will be.”
“Fine,” he said suddenly rising to show me out. “But you start now, take some time off the librarianship. Give it your full attention for a week, find her for me.” At the door he dropped a slab of hand to my shoulder: “And Elliot, don’t bother Mrs Carmichael or Stephen about this.”
I was still off balance from his sudden back-down when I hit the street, a cheque bearing a five hundred dollar advance in one bewildered hand. David Carmichael gives away money with the promiscuity most people part with teeth and organs. He was seriously worried and I had no real idea why. When Carmichael had showed me out, he had given instructions that any call from me was to be put through immediately. The receptionist had given me a quizzical look then, re-appraising my status. I did a little of the same standing on the pavement, then pulled out Carmichael’s phone. I called work and organised with my boss Jan to take a few days off – things weren’t busy, and earning Carmichael’s money beat boredom.
Most parliamentary staffers (along with IT heavy-hitters, High Court judge’s associates and the bright young things of the Attorney-General’s department) wind up in Kingston, an especially leafy and park-riddled suburb where almost every spare plot of residential land has been covered by a ziggurat of yuppie boxes. Marina Carmichael had returned from her year-and-a-bit with a big Sydney law firm to slot straight back into uni share-house life; though within striking distance of the Kingston latte-belt, and in a nice suburb. Yarralumla is one of the oddities only Canberra could produce, tucked between Parliament House and the lake by a six-lane parkway, it manages to accommodate embassies, the Governor General’s residence, a nursery, disused brickworks, a yachting club, and some cheerfully neglected rental properties that university students call home.
Marina’s place was tucked at the bottom of a cul-de-sac, two stories of red-brick and big square windows crouching behind a tangled mass of unpruned trees, bushes and climbing ivy. Among the friends of its inhabitants, the household was known by its street name, Gorton Place. It had a reputation for fantastic costume parties, dancing in the lounge-room to daggy music, an open-house dinner on Thursday evenings where friends were expected to bring both a dish and a mystery guest, and a spare fridge that kept a perfectly even fourteen degree temperature inside, year round. It was pretty much the social drop-in centre for many of my crowd, generally presided over by Ted and Trish, the couple who were first on the lease. To fill the four bedrooms they’d taken in Marina and an odd night-owl Arts student Sarah.
It was ten in the morning, I was still in the suit, but I’d gone around to Marina’s anyway. It was a perfect Canberra’s autumn day: still cloudless sky, an easy twenty in the sun and warmer if you were standing behind glass. I stood on the pavement and wondered what I was doing. Of the four cars and two motorcycles that belonged to the household, only one battered car was visible, though the bikes were probably around back. Nonetheless, it meant someone was probably home. I knocked.
There was a beleaguered stair-thumping noise, and Sarah opened the door looking scarcely awake and characteristically dishevelled.
“Oh,” she said. “Hi Elliot. Did you have a job interview or something?”
She stared pointedly at the suit.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Don’t think it went so well, though. Sorry to get you up, but is Marina in? She told me she was taking some leave. Been meaning to drop by and reclaim a CD.”
“Marina? She hasn’t been about for a few days. Don’t honestly know when she’s coming back. Her work keeps calling, though. Do you want to come in?”
Sarah would be great-looking, I suspect, if everything about her weren’t so bloody crumpled. Any student can get away with wearing baggy old clothes, or for that matter things that look like they were bought from the children’s department and shrunk in the drier – but Sarah had never, it seemed, found a comfortable style. She layered herself in a warm, brown, blandness that made her eyes look puffy and her brown curly hair even more unkempt.
“Thanks,” I said, stepping inside. It seemed an easy day for lying. Now I just had to cheat my way up to Marina’s room.