Naylor's Canberra
freshly squeezed pulp noir

Thursday, April 24, 2003  

Instalment 12: pages 48-51 [Elliot drives back to Canberra, and attends dinner with Marina's flatmates]

It was a three and a half hour drive back, and I had to beat the closing dark. Eva was bound to be angry with me for pushing it, but the idea of looking up one of our Sydney mates or dossing in a youth hostel didn’t appeal. I also needed time to think over what Stephen had given to me before I chased off anywhere else. It was time to get home.

I was a little nervous setting out, but with the M5 link to the city completed, it’s a fairly easy outbound trip. Once you hit the Eastern Distributor, there’s only one set of traffic lights before Canberra’s outskirts. Still, even in the early afternoon, the ‘school hour’ rush was setting in, and traffic slowed to an even forty-five in the tunnels near the airport. It made me nervous enough to keep my foot heavy to the floor once I hit the highway. A late eighties Laser can get up over a hundred and twenty, but the engine growls about it.

By the time I hit Lake George, thirty or forty minutes out of Canberra, the shadows stretched from the hills like thick purple scars. Car lights were coming on. I wanted to be in before it got dark enough I might have an accident, but the more I pushed myself the more likely it was. Darkness was puddling in the folds of the valley as I came down off the highway into the city’s fringes. The light was now a mere illusion, enough to stencil the treetops as veins in the sky, no more. The darkness was mounting like my tension, and it was no longer a time for me to be behind the wheel.

I pulled off in Dickson and decided to park in the underground members lot at Dickson tradies. I got out and walked around the carpark for a bit, swinging my arms and working the knots in my shoulders loose. The last leaves were long gone, but the asphalt’s stubble still rasped with old parking metre slips, hamburger wrappers and old paper bags. The Tradies’ is a big glass fronted affair with several decommissioned green and yellow trams refitted to provide restaurant seating. Darkness settled. I was a fifteen-minute drive from home down major roads. I wasn’t going to make it. I exhaled and called Eva.

“Eva,” I said. “I’ve done something a bit stupid. You’re going to be cross.”

“Surprise me.”

“I decided to drive back. I got off the highway before I got too badly spooked. I won’t be driving anymore tonight.”

There was a long pause.

“Eva?” I said.

Her tone was flat, angry but accepting: “Where are you?”

“Dickson tradies.”

“Alright, I’ll come pick you up. But you’re buying me dinner out of Carmichael’s filthy lucre.”

“Done,” I said.

“Nowhere near it,” she said. “You think you’re going to hear the last of this? You get to drink and I have to drive you home.”



“I wanted to try.”

“You stupid bastard. Go order the drinks.”

“Sure, but I think we should stop by the Thursday night dinner crowd on the way home.”

“We’ll see,” she said grimly, and hung up.

I went in and ordered a steak, a straightforward bottle of cab sav and two glasses.


TND was traditionally a late-starting event, and by the time we arrived it was only in mid-swing. Plates of cheeses, bread and crackers lay half-demolished about the lounge-room, and most of the dozen-odd guests were already balancing on their knees chipped share-house crockery bearing rice and a thick vegetarian curry. A patina of steam hung in the air, spreading the lingering scent of spices.

“Hi guys,” called Sarah, congenially waving her beer in our direction.

I waved back with my free hand, the other clutching a bottle of the Tradies second-least expensive red. I scanned the room and noted Jenny and, with a slight shock, Danielle. She smiled at me broadly, and raised her wine glass just a fraction. I didn’t have time to replace the idiotic stunned expression on my face with something more cogent before Eva bundled me into the kitchen.

“Come on,” she said. “Time to say our hellos and get that bottle opened.”

Ted and Trish, the couple that had first leased the house, were doling out the last of their curry from a veritable vat on the stove to the last of the guests, standing utterly swathed in steam. Between them and us were a few gangly, shaggy-haired men in skivvies and women without make-up in cardigans. A typical Canberra house party.

“Hi guys,” called Ted. “Let’s get that wine open, give its lungs a chance!”

“Good to see you,” cried Trish, barrelling at Eva.

The two were soon entangled in conspiratorial feminine snatches of half-whispered conversation and punctuating shrieks of laughter. Rather than stand about like a useless lump I soldiered on towards Ted with the wine, to attend to the manful business of corkscrews. A desire to open the wine, though, was about the sum of what we had in common.

I can’t say I’ve ever much liked Ted. I’d always thought he regarded girlfriends as an accessory as easily acquired and disposed of as his ludicrous Hawaiian shirts. The lurid shirts, I always suspected, were chosen to emphasise his gym-hewn muscles and mocha-coloured skin. In pallid Canberra the exotic makes a splash, and after a shy adolescence Ted had turned to weight-training to capitalise on his Sri Lankan Indian genes. His looks and muscle tone drew a lot of attention, particularly in comfortably daggy government town where few outside the military tried that hard. He knew it, and with his laid-back mateyness, he knew how to use it. He’d hit his party years late, but had worked hard to cover ground quickly. My view of him was probably jaded a little further by the fact that several of his short-term serial girlfriends had been women I’d liked, but made only tentative moves towards, in the immediate aftermath of Marina. In my more generous moments I might even have conceded my attitude was one part jealousy to three parts concern for how he treated the women in question. Trish, small, cute and feisty was the first woman to hold him in line for terribly long – if she had. I liked Trish, but had a horrible feeling that one day her sharehouse would implode along with her relationship to Ted, the most likely cause being a taller, blonder woman making him an offer he was too vain to refuse. If Ted knew how I felt about him, he did a good job of ignoring it, treating me with the cheerful condescension he reserved for less well-built males. Still, he was one of Marina’s flatmates, and a talker, so I hoped to make something of the opportunity.


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