freshly squeezed pulp noir
Wednesday, March 05, 2003
Instalment 4: pages 15-19 [Elliot talks to his flatmate Eva and Marina’s mother]
When I don’t know what I’m doing, the only thing to do is speak to Eva, the world’s best flatmate. Besides, I needed to scour Sarah’s hippy tea out of my mouth with something black, bitter, and teeth-rattlingly sharp. I pulled out David Carmichael’s mobile and persuaded Eva to slip out of work and join me for a mid-morning coffee at Curtin shops.
I waited in the courtyard between buildings, among the mosaics of native birds and the wooden sculptures of giant fan-tailed wrens. I could almost see our flat from where I sat. Supermarket trolleys clanged out front of Coles and retirees, students and mums with babies rattled past. It was a little more public than I’d have liked, but Eva had insisted on an outdoor table to make the most of the sun. Eva arrived, we collected our coffee.
“How’s the day going?” I asked once she’d folded her long, willowy frame into the chair opposite me.
“Not great,” she grimaced, plonking her long black down in front of her. “Too many calls from members to get on with preparing my existing cases, and the merger with the union in Newcastle could, no will, turn ugly. I shouldn’t have ducked out, but I’m going to need this to make it through to lunch.”
“Bugger,” I said.
“Yup, I’ll be in a mood to get hammered when I come in tonight,” she replied. “What’s so important it couldn’t wait until then?”
“This is in confidence,” I began.
“No,” I said, lowering my voice, “I mean, seriously. You can’t even tell the weekend brunch crowd or the guys at Thursday night dinner.”
“Sounds juicy.” Her eyes flared with their customary wickedness.
“Yeah,” I said, leaning in a little. “Marina hasn’t shown up at work the last few days. Not back from holiday, no explanation. Her Dad wants me to find her.”
“Wacky,” said Eva. “Who’s to say she isn’t lying on a beach somewhere, man-handling some random hunk?”
“No-one. But her Dad doesn’t want to tell the police, and he’s prepared to pay me to look for her.”
“You interest me strangely young sir,” she said sipping at her coffee. “Speak on.”
I shrugged. “Not sure what else there is to report. But Marina loves her job, she wouldn’t just ditch it.”
“Burnout?” suggested Eva. “Couldn’t face her fellow workers, or ultra-successful Daddy?”
“Maybe,” I said, cupping my hands around my warm mug as a cloud-shadow passed over the square.
“No-one at Gorton Place knows anything?” she asked.
“I went round and had a chat with Sarah. Nothing obvious, just let the topic come up. But they haven’t heard. They’ve swallowed David Carmichael’s line: there’s some family panic involving an Aunt on the north coast, Marina’s at her bedside.”
“Cue the violins. Have you tried speaking to Stephen?” she suggested.
“No, I hadn’t really thought about it. Carmichael warned me off speaking to Stephen and Marina’s mum. I’ll give Stephen a call later. I guess I just presumed his father would have called him already …”
“Maybe there’s something he’ll say guy-to-guy that he won’t tell Daddy.”
“The random fling theory?” I said. “It’s possible. But why wouldn’t she phone in with an excuse?”
“How would I know? You’re the ex,” she replied coolly, shrugging.
“Hmm. Maybe I should visit Stephen in Sydney. See what he’ll say face to face.”
“If you’re getting paid, why not?”
I let the idea percolate while I finished my drink, thinking a little bitterly of Stephen at Peeper’s Sydney office. I’d been up once for a rare national meeting of library staff. The firm in Sydney was the marble-lobby type and boasted a God’s eye view over the blue slate surface of Sydney harbour.
“Maybe Marina also had some girl talk with her Mum as well,” I added.
“Why not? Besides, why’s Carmichael scaring you off the family?”
“You think he has something to hide?” I asked.
“Hell, I don’t know,” she said. “I’m just being provocative. Did he mention where she went on holiday?”
“He said Marina didn’t tell him.”
“Do you think that means she didn’t tell anyone?”
“You’re right, I’ll have to speak to the relatives,” I said.
“Of course I’m right dear, when aren’t I? Go do some digging, tell me what you turn up tonight. Anyway, enjoy the sun while you can, they’re expecting a storm tonight.”
She kissed me on the cheek, checked her watch and strode purposefully back in the direction of her car. A number of eyes in the square followed her straight black hair and olive complexion.
I called ahead before I went round to see Daphne Carmichael, though it was unlikely David would drop home for an early lunch. I drove along Mugga Way into Red Hill past the strip of embassy residences and private schools, the way I’d often taken when attending straightjacketed Carmichael family dinners. Red Hill, handy for his golf (David would be away working the turf and membership at the Royal Canberra by ten on any Saturday), her shopping in Manuka, and their children’s single-sex schools. They’d renovated, virtually rebuilt the place, when the kids flew the nest. The house was now the type of new that causes neighbours to fume about the “integrity” of the streetscape, views and overshadowing. It was bare, cubist, white-faced and pushed forward like a fist, filling the block to its edges.
Daphne was, to a casual glance, one of Manuka’s waxen matrons. Flesh softened in the autumn sun hung within the purple folds of her clothes, and she had made no effort to conceal the grey streaks in her hair. Firm lines at the edge of her mouth spoke of hard use, as did set, appraising brown eyes.
“Elliot,” she had said at the door, simply, smiling, “come through. Coffee?”
“Thanks,” I’d replied.
Minutes later I sat in the lounge-room, facing her amidst the cream leather, the Laura Ashley cushions and the view over the clipped and cowed vestigial front garden. A thin border of shaved grass and topiary trees demarcated the tidy front terracing from the footpath. Cooling coffee for me, steeping tea for her, crisp silence, and her daughter’s name hanging between us. We had been friendly once, in our way, and Daphne had held a certain affection for me. That was the place I needed to get us back to. I needed to lead with something honest.
“I’m getting worried about Marina,” I said. “I know she’s been missed at work.”
“She’s on leave.” Daphne’s reply was calm, but her tone was strained.
“Come on Daphne, you know me. I’m not here to make trouble. I know Marina and I aren’t seeing each other any more, but the family did a fair bit for me last year and – I’d like to help, if I can.”
“That’s good of you, Elliot,” she said, smiling wistfully. “I’ve always thought you were still a little in love with Marina - I know she was the one who broke it off - and perhaps a little jealous of how far she’s gone and how fast.”
Just like her husband, she knew just how to fence me in with a polite, razor-wire phrase. As always, I smiled and let her.