Installment 59: pages 242 - 245 [In which we move forward a little over two months to see how it all pans out ... ]
Coda: a night in late September
The evenings were longer now. The days, while windy, had tops cresting into the high teens and low twenties. After a prolonged stay in Jervis Bay, I was back in Canberra and fit to be let out in the evening.
Danielle rested one hand with an unassuming air of possession on my right thigh as she drove. It was comforting. Her presence was soaking into me like balm: her stillness, her impish wit, the smell of her hair, her clear, compassionate intelligence. Since I had been discharged, we had not spent a night apart. Not that, between my convalescence and her still-tender scar, these had been nights to steam the windows and wake the neighbours. Still, it had fostered a greater intimacy between us, a healing time that was ours alone.
I needed the reassurance of her presence. I was not at all confident about the meeting I was going to. Danielle swung the car off Northbourne Avenue and edged into the western slice of the city that bordered the sprawling university, a handful of blocks where the bus station, legal district, government offices, pubs, the Canberra Club, little sandwich shops and restaurants all jostled together. A small corner of a small town. She pulled up in front of one of the restaurants: not one of Canberra’s very best, but still one of the better.
“Sure about this?” she asked, half reading my thoughts.
“Nope,” I said.
“So what will you do?”
“The usual,” I said. “Bluff and improvise. Got me where I am today, didn’t it?”
A worried look crossed her face.
“Look,” I said, “he won’t be here to threaten me.”
“What does he want, then?” she asked.
“To buy me.”
“I didn’t know you were for sale.”
“I just want to see what he offers.”
“That’s not an answer.”
I leaned over and kissed her. “You’d better get going. You’ll get booked for sitting on a red kerb. I’ll be fine.”
“Call me when you’re done?”
The restaurant had been decorated in someone’s idea of ocean liner style. A sweeping curve of glass, striped with pale wood Venetian blinds, held the grey-brick pavement at bay. Chrome had been lavished on a bar with a profile that followed the window’s curves. A flotilla of crisp, white napkins stood twisted into yacht-sail shapes across acres of starched table linen. The chairs and tables were of the same pale, pale wood as the blind-slats. The air was heavy with generic taste.
“Ikea meets art deco,” I muttered, waiting by a decorative table bearing white hyacinths.
“I’m sorry, sir?” a waitress had materialised in a white shirt as starchy-crisp as the other linen on display, slightly baggy black trousers and a large black half-apron, half-marsupial pouch.
“Party of two,” I said. “Name of Carmichael. Six-thirty. I’m early.”
“Both the other gentlemen are here already, I’ll show you through.” She led on, smiling with the kind of casual charm that takes practice. It was early. The restaurant was near empty, a couple of corporate couples looking at menus, a few office workers at the bar.
Both? I wondered. Carmichael hadn’t said anything about anyone joining us. There was only one other man it could be, of course. I was lead around the bar and up a short corridor to a private room. The décor inside followed the pattern of the restaurant.
David Carmichael and Milton Dawes sat waiting for me at a table. I was aware of the chair being pulled back for me, the napkin being whisked into my lap, of taking the proffered menu. I don’t think my eyes left Dawes’ mopoke thick-spectacled stare.
“Elliot, good to see you,” said David. “Hungry? The steak here is pretty good.”
“Thank you, Minister,” I said, ignoring Carmichael.
“For what?” he asked.
“Getting me into the naval hospital when Marina called you. They tell me I wouldn’t have survived an airlift to Nowra.”
Eva had characteristically taken charge after my collapse. Yelled to the police we were in no danger, but that we had people needing medical attention. She was the one who’d thought of the naval base and prompted Marina to make the call.
“You were lucky,” Carmichael said. “Internal bleeding, wasn’t it?”
I looked at Carmichael. I didn’t mind spoiling his dinner.
“When the Minister’s stepbrother worked me over, he kicked me a few times. Turns out the impact tore the surface of my spleen minutely. The navy surgeons did a keyhole exploration when they heard I’d complained of abdominal pain. My body cavity was swimming in black blood. They say most people with a torn spleen die in under two days. My tear must have started small and grown.”
“But they fixed you,” put in David.
“Opened me up in Y from my navel and up under both sides of the ribcage,” I said, staring him down. “A torn spleen isn’t easy to identify when someone’s organs are coated in a congealing mass of their own haemoglobin. They had to vacuum the dirty blood out of my body cavity and lift most of my organs out of place and hand-clean them – just to identify the source of the bleeding.”
David flinched and looked away.
“Resulting in massive internal bruising,” said the Minister, nodding. “I had a report.”
You had nothing, I thought, furious. I hadn’t woken for days after the surgery. When I had, Danielle had been there, haggard and gaunt, but sitting with me. Hey, she’d said. They said you’d be in pain. This button’s morphine. If you push it, it’ll dose your drip. Silently, I had pushed the button. Then pushed it again. It’s not working, I’d answered. It’s working, honey, it’s just that you’re in a lot of pain right now. Then she’d started crying.
“I spent sixteen hours under the knife and could have died there,” I said. “But that isn’t what we’re here to discuss, is it?”
“I’m resigning, Elliot,” said the Minister, neatly taking the wind from my sails. “Shall we order? I’m due on the hill in forty-five minutes.”
The Minister took an omelette. I took David’s advice and ordered the steak. David opted for salmon with salad. When it arrived, he stuck to the salad. Mineral water appeared.
“I’ve spoken to the Leader. Everyone knows the election will be before Christmas. I won’t stand again. If I slip quietly onto the backbenches it will let someone new get to grips with the portfolio before we go to the polls.”
“A quiet exit,” I said. “Nothing hurried or suspicious, just bury everything with Jeremy.”