Instalment 31: pages 127 - 131 [Elliot returns home after a day in the cells, and speaking to David Carmichael]
Danielle dropped me home, but didn’t stay. I was reassured by a certain glance that passed between her and Eva, that scary feminine telepathy that we with two chromosomes can never properly tune into. It was a look that seemed to say: You go get some rest, I’ll cover this shift.
Danielle had been sweeter to me than I’d any right to hope. I didn’t think she was about to run out on whatever we had, though why she’d want to hang around some new boy in her life who’d got himself entangled in a murder investigation was beyond me. Standing by a man on trial for murder had proved too much strain for Marina in the end.
“Shower,” Eva said when the door had closed behind Danielle. “Put on some decent clothes.”
“Keats always put on a clean shirt when he felt too depressed to write.”
“I’m sure it did him the world of good,” she said. “Other than that whole TB thing. Shower first, then I’ve got some soup in the microwave.”
I returned to the kitchen wet-haired, wearing what had been an old white dress-shirt of my grandfathers and my blue cords. Thick, soft, comfort clothing; tidy enough to make me feel I was making an effort to pull myself together, worn enough to be properly comfortable. The soup helped too.
Despite what an observer might think, my and Eva’s friendship wasn’t based on all talking, drinking, shared friends and common history. Sure, we had spent too much time in the same circles, the same pubs, the same uni courses to ever be able to afford to fall out with each other in a town as small as Canberra. Our lives were not so much parallel, as enmeshed. That wasn’t it either, though. It was the long, deep-running comfortable silences, the times when there was no need to speak, that were the bedrock of our friendship. Sometimes, in a politically-charged university town, full of undergraduate wits and press-gallery tub-thumping, silence is the best thing someone can share with you. We ate an early dinner of soup without saying a word.
After our silent meal Eva shepherded me through to the balcony and soon returned to put a gin and tonic in my hand. We sat and watched the cars come to and fro in the gathering night: people making last minute trips to Coles, or picking up pizza or Indian for dinner. I listened to the whispered rattle of trollies, and watched the orange street lamps reflect in smudgy patches on bonnets. I tuned out of my own concerns enough to realise a white sedan had parked on the wrong side of the road below us, against the red kerb and idly wondered if it was someone visiting in our block of flats. They’d feel pretty silly if they got a ticket with a half-empty car-park behind them.
“Shit of a day,” remarked Eva eventually.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You’re all talked out already then?”
“Give me a while,” I said, grinning tiredly. “Tomorrow maybe.”
“I knew you couldn’t keep a good talker down.”
She paused, then continued: “Danielle’s a lot better than you deserve, you know. You’ve done well there.”
“I know,” I said.
“Do us a favour? Don’t screw it up.”
She rumpled my hair affectionately and headed off to bed.
I had the distinct impression it was going to be some time before I slept. I sat on my bed, listening to the high whistle of my own nerves sound in my ears, and flipped through old photo albums. My bed was pushed into a corner of the room, leaving just enough space for a small chest of drawers, my big reconditioned desk and chair, and almost enough room to properly open the doors of the built in wardrobe. A framed poster from a National Gallery exhibition (a long-ago present from Daphne Carmichael) completed my furniture. Not much room, so it was much easier to lie in my cords, old creamy shirt and sock-feet on the bed.
I was looking for evidence of where Danielle had first come into my life, trying to untangle her from my history with Marina – separate out any little memories I had of any times when it was just us talking, little foreshadowings of the unexpected turn in my present. There weren’t many, maybe none. She was there though, in pictures from one particular holiday at her coast house when I’d remembered to take a camera – or to get prints from Marina. Marina had always been the shutterbug of the two of us. I even found an old photo of hers from a Carmichael family barbecue, David playing at jolly chef with a novelty apron and a set of tongs, smiling behind angry fat-spitting sausages.
There were pictures from a few other holidays we had taken together, including that first time away when we had gone south of Bateman’s Bay, out towards Danielle’s place. I hit three empty pages in the middle of the album. It was before the accident, before the trial, when I’d still been with Marina. Some occasion when she’d taken photos and I hadn’t, and I’d left space but forgotten to get copies of her pictures. Something about that tweaked at my memory, some other holiday perhaps –
It was the sound of the telephone that shattered my reflections, shrill and insistent in the night-silence. I sat frozen a moment, then crashed to my feet and blundered out into our little dining room. I heard a doorhandle twist and saw a frowsy-haired Eva stick her head from her room. I waved her back towards sleep. I glanced at my watch as I seized the receiver.
Sweet God, I thought, ten-thirty on Sunday night. Who calls then?
I knew the answer of course. It had to be the police: We apologise for the unsociable hour, but now we have you rattled, how about answering a few more questions while you’re weak and impressionable?
I tried to muster enough conviction to tell the petty powers-that-be that whatever it was, it could wait for the morning. Jenny was dead; and the dead wait far more patiently than the living.
I put the receiver to my ear and spoke crisply: “Hello, Elliot Naylor.”
“Hello Elliot,” said a man’s voice. It was instantly, unplaceably familiar: a bass voice, mature, pacing words with the comfortable ease of long-held authority. “This is Milton Dawes. I expect you have some idea why I’m calling.”
“… ,” I said, articulately. This is not happening, I thought. It was certainly not the way things were done on the Hill. Protocol, that was the word I was reaching for. This was not protocol. Ministers had secretaries and staffers, people who called and said, “Mister Naylor, I have the Minister for you. Could you please hold while I put you through?” – giving you just enough time to adjust to the fact you were getting a call from Someone Important. Commonwealth Ministers of State did not call private citizens late at night.
“Yes, Minister,” I managed, sounding in my own ears like a British sitcom extra, “I imagine I do.” A sense of caution, something gleaned from his tone stopped me speaking their names. Jenny. Marina.