The door opened and with the same fluid motion, Mrs. Drewitt turned away and called, “Gilly. He’s here,” before walking primly down the hall. The whole motion was executed with a poise he had come to expect from Mrs. Drewitt. The arc of the door, the slight step and turn in the opposite direction were all perfectly balanced. Jacob was inclined to think that she’d been practising.
There was also a balance to the way Gilly appeared, stomping heavily and stiffly, her head down, eyes a bit dimmer. Like Mrs. Drewitt’s performance Jacob assumed it was gradually mastered.
“Hey,” she said.
Perhaps, this demeanour was more sudden. Last year, Gilly was still somewhat pleased that he had come. She wasn’t as excited as when she was little and he was indisputably her hero, but she tried. Today, she wasn’t even going to fake it.
“I just thought I’d pop over,” Jacob said.
He had never had to explain his visit before. It was taken for granted since the first invitation a decade ago. Initially, he didn’t think her parents meant it. Then they called and called again the year after. By the third year, it was part of his Christmas tradition. It gave him a break from his own family. Plus the Drewitt’s really went to town, turkey, chicken and ham and imported beer. By rescuing their daughter, he figured he’d paid in advance.
“Invite him through,” Mr. Drewitt called out.
Gilly rolled her eyes and stomped toward her father’s voice. Jacob followed. He could have made his way to the living room without his reluctant guide. Though this was the third house the Drewitts had lived in since he saved Gilly, they all followed the same pattern – a large empty shell of a living room to the left, filled with pristine furniture and fixtures, all impossibly light and now guarded by vacant-eyed Santas and misplaced snowmen. It seemed fitting that the Drewitts would have more than one Santa. Teams of them would be working in shifts, bringing more and more things to their two girls. On the right was a closed room. The closed room only appeared in the second house, where Gilly once referred to it as “Daddy’s study”. Mr Drewitt didn’t strike Jacob as particularly studious.
All three houses came together in the middle. The Drewitts preferred a spacious tiled room for everyday use. The room leapt in size by a couple of feet with every move, reflecting, or anticipating, the increase in the TV’s dimension. The lounge always looked out onto a lawn. They could’ve brought that with them even if they left their furniture behind. This middle room was hardly decorated for the season at all. A few figurines huddled at the base of the TV. Some Christmas cards were strung overhead.
“Jacob,” Mr. Drewitt said grabbing Jacob’s hand in his ruddy ones. The grip tried to convince Jacob this same hand held a gear stick or steering wheel of an earthmover. Jacob would’ve believed it if he hadn’t overheard Mr. Drewitt talking about his catering business one year. Apart from that one occasion, the most he said about his job was “It’s tough work in the mines. Tough but the money’s good.”
“Gilly, get him a beer,” he said now and dropped into the sofa beside Mrs. Drewitt. Gilly scowled so fiercely that he expected her to gob into the can.
In an armchair was Gilly’s younger sister, Karla. She was plugged into an iPod and offered a half raised hand in welcome. Jacob figured any more in return would be sneered at.
Mrs. Drewitt started to ask him how he was going when Mr. Drewitt cheered wildly. Something was happening with the cricket. One team had to be Australia. The other might have been South Africa. One team had bowled out the other. It was the Boxing Day Test.
Gilly returned, shoving the can toward him. The label may as well have read “Finish and Fuck Off!”. At least it wasn’t open, so he could be sure it only contained beer. It would have to be only one if he wanted to drive home. The heat always made him drunk. He watched her as he opened it. She only glared at him then swatted Karla with a pillow before leaning on the armrest.
“You two,” Mr. Drewitt barked before the conflict could escalate.
“Anyway, Jacob, how are you? Are you still doing the radio thing?” Mrs. Drewitt asked.
The radio thing was his breakfast slot on community radio. That was mentioned in the article too. For a couple days after it was published, the station had its highest listenership ever. Soon after the gravity of indifference pulled the show back to the solid ground of its usual ratings.
“I’m still there. Still working away.”
“It’s nice to have a hobby.”
Hobby was not the right word for something he did day in day out for the last twelve years. Nor was job. A job required a pay packet. Mr Drewitt would be the first to inform him of that. What was the word for something you threw yourself into for no material reward? Love? Obsession? Except that he had started by accident. A friend had offered him the slot. He preferred it to studying.
“I’ve got some work lined up with one of the other networks.”
He had told the same lie last year.
“You should think about the mines. I could speak to someone, it’s…”
Mr. Drewitt was prevented from finishing his trademark sentence by a fumbled catch. Mrs. Drewitt tapped him on the leg gently as the tirade started. It was for Jacob’s benefit, even though he had seen Mr. Drewitt swear at the Australian cricket team on Boxing Day before, even though he had seen Mrs. Drewitt tap Mr. Drewitt’s leg before.
“You got me a present?” Gilly said, not so much leaning into the chair as using her back to smother it into submission.
“Gilly,” her mother said with a blend of admonishment and pride which only parents were capable. The tone said, “You selfish brat, you dear sweet angelic selfish brat. Our selfish brat.”
“As a matter of fact, Santa dropped something off,” Jacob said reaching into his backpack and pulling out a small gift.
This was another part of the routine he couldn’t let go. It made sense to say it when she was five and six. Between seven and eleven, her parents encouraged it by asking what Santa had given Jacob to give Gilly. It was probably more for Karla’s sake. At twelve Gilly asked herself. It was the first moment he’d noticed her growing up. In the year gap puberty had taken the pot-bellied eleven year old and rolled her out thin and pale into early womanhood. Her clothes hadn’t caught on. She still dressed sloppy and bright. Only in the last year had she realized the woman she would become and seemed to be taking a darkened short cut of dyed hair and black eye-liner to get there.
She pat out the word, “Santa.” and took the gift from him. Karla grinned evilly, as though Jacob was still the only one who hadn’t worked out the truth. The paper was ripped in a jagged triangle. Wrapping paper always opened like that. Her impatience, and afterwards indifference, made those edges sharp.
“What is it?”
“They’re great. The Minute Minutes. They’re like this unheard of band who released some singles back in the early eighties. Over time they’ve become like a cult band. Nowadays, everyone’s talking about them. And they’re from here.”
“A band from here?”
Gilly dropped the CD into Karla’s lap. The tone was disgust with an admixture of incomprehension. Music, good music, did not come from Perth.
Jacob gulped down a mouthful of beer.
“Maybe, you kids, I’m sorry Jacob, I’m mean, well you, you three, you three guys, can go and listen to it in the back room. The Minty Minutes. Did we go and see them?” Mrs. Drewitt asked her husband.
He stuck out his lower lip and shook his head with the similar abhorrence and confusion worn by his daughter. Jacob took his can again and finished it in a gulp. Mr. Drewitt also reached down for his. It was empty.
“Gilly. Another one. And one for your guest.”
“And bring Jacob his present,” Mrs. Drewitt added.
For a moment, Mr. Drewitt held Jacob in his stare. He was sizing him up in one go, gulping down the details, and storing them with the other assumptions he had made.
Gilly came back with the beer then took her place once more on the armchair. Mr. Drewitt noisily opened his can and settled back. Her mother reminded her about the present, so Gilly shuffled off again, the most reluctant Santa on the shift, not even bothering to be in uniform. Mrs. Drewitt wiggled into position on the seat, touching her hair and smiling. It was a billboard smile, a waiting room smile. Jacob was startled when she spoke.
“And your parents?”
Gilly returned with the present. From the way it sagged, he knew it was a shirt. He would’ve been a little disappointed if it hadn’t been. The last five years had yielded shirts. He was keeping up his part of the bargain, and so should they.
“Open it now,” Mrs. Drewitt said.
The shirt was identical to last year. Everything was the same. Only Gilly marked any change in time.
Gilly studied Jacob from the armrest. Satisfied or no longer interested, she plucked one earphones from Karla, delicate despite the malice in lips.
“You’re not even listening to anything, you retard. It’s not even on. Mum, she doesn’t even have her iPod switched on.”
Mr. Drewitt used the same disciplinary technique as before. His chastising hand drawn back by his telephone ringing out the X-Files theme. While Mr. Drewitt nodded and answered in quick short sentences, Mrs. Drewitt signalled to Gilly to pass the CD over. She looked betrayed, but she handed it over. Mrs. Drewitt mouthed the band’s name and Karla, sulking, fixed the ear piece back in place.
“And I brought his for you,” Jacob said, handing over a wrapped bottle.
This year’s gift was another recommendation from his father. The Drewitts always remained silent about the choice. At the most, Mrs. Drewitt would say, “That’s for later.” This year it was the billboard smile again.
Mr. Drewitt’s replaced his phone.
“Dave’s here. Yeah, out the front. Jacob, be a mater and help my brother. He’s got an eski and whatnot. And Jacob, next year, how about a case of beer. Only Simone drinks that.”
Outside, he could feel the beer in the sunshine. Commercials made the comparison in the other direction, emphasizing which beer’s golden colour. For him, the light was full-strength.
“Jacob, isn’t,” Mr. Drewitt’s brother said. His handshake said all the things Mr. Drewitt’s did, only more convincingly. “Take those,” he said indicating to a case of beers with his chin.
Dave put the eski down and let himself in. Jacob jogged as best he could to catch up. The new arrival’s voice swelled quickly and reached the living room before they did.
Jacob arrived to see Dave release Mrs. Drewitt from an embrace. The handshake between the two brothers was longer than Jacob’s and Mr. Drewitt’s. Dave had to prove his superiority of age. Mr Drewitt his wealth. Jacob couldn’t tell who let go first.
“You just missed David Hussey taking a wicket. No, wait, here’s the replay.”
“That’s Michael. Michael Hussey, you dickhead.”
“Yeah, Michael. Who do you think I said?”
“Regular Richie Benaud, this one,” Dave said opening his eski.
“Karla, let Uncle Dave have the seat,” Mrs. Drewitt said.
The youngest Drewitt was not even going to attempt to convince them she was listening and slid from her place. Dave thanked her, called her sweetheart and dropped in to the chair like it had always been his.
“She just went upstairs.”
“Go get her. Tell her her uncle Davie’s here.”
Karla just made a face and slowly walked off.
“Where’s Bernie?” Mrs. Drewitt asked.
“Her mum’s. Gotta go there later and pick her up.”
“It’s okay. Things won’t be starting for a while,” Mrs Drewitt then stopped. “You’re welcome to stay of course Jacob. We just invited you early ‘cause, you know, young people are so busy.”
“Give him some ham, Simone. You eat ham, dontcha? It’s good ham. Same stuff we use up at the mines. Get him some ham, “ Mr. Drewitt said.
“I’ll take some too, Simone,” Dave said.
Mrs. Drewitt came back with two plates heaped with ham, chicken stuffing and coleslaw, which caused Mr. Drewitt to remark on her generosity. His wife said that they had plenty. Jacob knew he was outstaying his welcome, but he needed food to take the edge off the beer.
Dave ate everything with his hands, sucking flesh from the bones, peeling filmy chicken skin and quivering ham fat before slurping it down. His hands and lips were glazed like his food. His mouth stuffed pink and white he told his brother the ham was not bad.
“Simone, hon, I’ll have some too,” Mr. Drewitt said, turning from his chair.
“I thought you said you’d wait.”
Mrs. Drewitt fetched another heaped plate and handed it to her husband. Dave smirked at Jacob. It was a smirk which strained to say a lot while leaving room for plausible denial, a smirk which could only be made by greasy lips. Jacob didn’t know the right response for this moment, no look which neither accepted nor rejected that quiet leery claim. Even if it were true, it was there business. Jacob grabbed his can. It was empty. Unfortunately, the other two had noticed.
“Here have one of these. It’s a drink for heroes,” Dave said and snorted.
“Dad, Gilly’s smoking,” Karla said appearing behind her parents.
“Simone, can you deal with it?”
“I’ve told her before. She needs to hear it from you.”
“For fuck sake. I’m trying to eat.”
Mr. Drewitt dropped a chicken wing on to his plate and glared at his brother, who only shrugged and smirked again at Jacob. It was a smirk of camaraderie. “We’re not in this shit,” it said.
Mrs. Drewitt tried to hold a smile then said she had better check on the food. Everyone knew it was provided by the Drewitts’ company, but no one was going to deny her a moment of composure. Karla fell into his place and started to pick at the coleslaw with her hands.
“Hey Karlamello. That’s not cool ratting on your sis.”
“Yeah it is. She’s a bitch.”
“Uhh, she’s, you know, just being a girl.”
“I’m a girl.”
“A teenage girl.”
Karla tweezered some more chunks of coleslaw and sucked them from her fingers. She studied Jacob while she did this. It was not the expert gulp of her father. She was breaking him apart. Even then, she couldn’t get the parts small enough, so she had to keep looking at him.
“Hey Karlamello, why don’t you get Gilly to come down?”
Karla laughed with her fingers still in her mouth. It looked as if she was choking on them.
Dave asked what was funny, but Karla wouldn’t answer. When he could see he couldn’t get a response, his nostrils flared and his eyes sank and darkened.
“That was an LBW,” he said pointing to the screen.
“What? What?” Mr. Drewitt said returning to the living room.
“LBW,” he repeated when they showed the replay.
“Yep, yep, I think you’re right. Umpires.”
“What would you know? You couldn’t tell a wicket from a leg.”
“Ha, ha. Well, I remember, look, just. Hey Karla, get out of my spot.”
Karla slid again from the seat. The girl had to have a slinky for a spine. She looked again at Dave and laughed behind her hand. Dave was too busy arguing with the TV. After a few moments, he said to his brother, “So what happened?”
Looking back to see that his wife was still in the kitchen, Mr. Drewitt made the pinched finger gesture for marijuana and waved his hand away. Dave nodded nonchalantly. Remembering Jacob he apologised for his daughter.
“It’s especially bad when you’re here,”he said and started again on his food.
Jacob looked askance at no one. Now, they would know he was feeling uncomfortable. What could he say? He couldn’t agree that it was just weed, that he like them had tried. He couldn’t share in that lack of concern that only came with the authority of parenthood. Mr. Drewitt could be indifferent about his daughter’s harmless recreational drug use, but Jacob had to feign indignation, or at least approximate concern. Thoughtful words were needed. After all he was the one who had saved her. If he could pull her from a river, he could pluck her away from a joint – assuming a joint was what she used. Jacob used to use a bucket bong. Did teenagers till use them? Jacob reached for his can but it was empty.
“So what are you doing now, hero?” Dave said.
The Drewitts must’ve said something about the radio. They seemed so pleased ten years ago. It seemed like a detail a person would remember. He wasn’t a celebrity, granted, but he did something less ordinary. Most other people seemed to remember. Dave’s face, however, was blank.
“I’m still in radio.”
“Radio, huh? You should ask Mal for some work. Good money in the mines.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Then again maybe he wouldn’t handle it.”
Jacob was sure he wouldn’t. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than working up there – the heat, the sand, the constant grind of the machinery, the imprisonment of distance. It was the strange paradox of all that space. It looked so open, but where would you go.
“Actually, I might have something lined up with another radio station.
He was sure he hadn’t said this to Dave before.
“Okay. Which one?”
It couldn’t be one of the commercial ones. Even Triple J seemed something this guy would listen to, or know of, which would mean he’d remember.
“There’s a Radio National?” Dave said to his brother, who shrugged and continued to shred the remaining chicken into fibres, which he placed into his meat padded mouth.
Dave only muttered the station’s name again and opened the eski. He handed a stubbie to Jacob.
“Drink up. We should celebrate. A hero and a star.”
The laugh that followed was an old version of the one Karla emitted earlier, a laugh that had grown muscular and surly with age, a laugh which needed feeding and which the owner was obliging by dropping bits of meat into it from time to time to say ‘hero’. That word nourished the laugh more than the food.
The only way to pacify it was a bit of self-deprecation, Jacob said no one listened to the station. Dave responded with a snort.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve seen and done out on the boats. Fuck me, you have to be on the ball. All the time. Not just once in your life. All the time, mate. Isn’t that right, Mal?”
Mr. Drewitt nodded still following the game. He seemed poised ready to say something, studying every moment for something to call their attention to. Dave waved him away.
“I’ve got stories I can tell you.”
It was dark, warm, heavy. He felt like he was sinking. He reached out for the space in front of him. Something was on his leg. Tight. Strong.
“You all right?”
It was Gilly. And he was…where was he?
“Mum sent me to check on you. You can’t hold your piss, can you?”
His mind was waxy. Thoughts dribbled down. Dave – that was his name. Was Dave still there? Who else had been there? And lunch,. He had been having lunch.
“Uncle Dave said you passed out while he was telling you about the time he got knocked overboard and had to swim back, one handed, cause he was till holding the line, or something. He’s so full of shit.”
The word was not so much said as carried out of her mouth on a fizz of stifled laughter.
“Nuh. You’re alive aren’tcha?”
She shrugged and dropped onto the foot of the bed. He could only hear traffic, so he guessed he was at the front of the house. He wished he’d picked a more graceful way of finding out what was here.
Gilly pulled out a partially smoked joint from the pocket of her hoodie. She glanced quickly at the door. She could either hear something he couldn’t, or she heard the right kind of silence because and so placed it into her mouth.
The lighter was giving her some problems and the joint looked as if it was about to split open. This new habit was not something from the last year. It was from the last couple of weeks. Was it for his benefit? And if it were, he couldn’t say that he wasn’t a little flattered.
“Can I re-roll that for you? It looks like…”
“No. I don’t need your help.”
“It just looks…”
That looked bad. That looked how it kind of was, an attempt to tweeze out her feelings. Not because he would reciprocate, only because he wanted, like anyone else, some validation, any validation of a chance, and a chance unattainable was still a chance.
She sucked on the joint with a little too much effort, blowing out the smoke too soon. The room became stale and peppery, covering his own stale yeasty smell. At least her getting stoned, or trying to, would cover that.
“So, like, what do you do at Christmas?”
“See my folks. Mum and her partner first, then Dad and his family later. He’s got some new kids with his new wife. My Mum’s a socialist so she doesn’t really celebrate. And her and her friends just talk politics, and….”
She was studying something in the carpet.
“Yeah, right. Wish my parents were divorced.”
“They seem to get on all right.”
She shrugged her thin shoulders and picked some leaf from her lip.
“They’re too dumb not to, and, besides, we wouldn’t have to see…” She stopped and looked at him. It was not the appraisal either her father or sister gave. It was the crest of a wave, a wave which quickly sank.
“You don’t have a girlfriend to visit?” she asked.
He coughed dryly and pulled himself up straight. He couldn’t believe he had been lying all this time.
“It’s not a come on. Fuck no. I mean you’re like my parents’ age. And, sorry, but that music…”
“The Minute Minutes.”
“They have a trumpet players.”
“Yeah, Gordon McFee. His trumpet lines a pure class.”
“It’s a trumpet.”
He couldn’t deny that there had been some attempt to convert her. When he got it, she was still twelve years old in his head, an age ripe for moulding. His half brother and sister were too young to have his musical tastes instilled in them. Gilly was the best option. He should’ve bought it a year early before she became possessed by this bogan-emo hybrid, some one who probably liked Iron Maiden for the lyrics, but thought the Sisters of Mercy were gay.
“I can swap it for you.”
She picked again at her lip. Nothing was there. She seemed to want to tug at her skin, peel it off.
“Nuh,” she said and continued to study the carpet.
After a pause, she said, “Is your family that shitty?”
“Why? What makes you think that?”
“You keep coming here for Christmas.”
“No, they’re not shitty. My little brother and sister are fun. I mean kids are easy. They like whatever…I’m sorry. I’m not trying to say…”
“I know. I’m a bitch. They tell me all the time.”
She flicked her head toward the wall. The tone was frighteningly mature. She had gone beyond resignation to naked self-awareness. This thin and drawn, part pale, part boot polish black woman-child was what she would always be.
“Betcha wished you’d saved some other kid.”
He had no answer for this. There was no choice. He had just responded. Anyone would’ve done the same. It was what made the Drewitts’ generosity so hard to accept. They were still paying him, and not for saving her.
“I did what I had to do.”
“Still, I betcha wish I wasn’t such a bitch. I know they do.”
She flicked her head again in their direction.
“Your uncle likes you. He was asking about you when you’d disappeared.”
She smiled the perfect sarcastic smile, a tight slit across the face, almost sweet in its acidity. He remembered from high school it was something all teenage girls could do well.
“Well, Dave’s just a charmer. A real ladies’ man. Anyway, I had to go off and listen to that retarded band of yours.”
He wanted to explain their importance. The best he could manage was a protracted ‘gah.’
“Told you I was a bitch.”
He had a feeling he should be grabbing her hand now, if only he knew what he was pulling her from exactly: well-off parents, a big home, apparently a good school. Which of these was he saving her from?
“You know. I don’t remember. I mean I can like see it, but I think that’s so much of what Mum and Dad have said. But like the feelings, being scared or whatever. There’s nothing.”
He could easily recall the rushing water. The spring was located behind his eyes. He’d never seen water that clean or pure. Never felt anything that cold. A cold which disregarded skin and clutched tight round the bone and squeezed, squeezed a she squeezed her hand. Never felt such a tiny hand before. He thought he would break it as the cold would break his.
Equally strange was that there was a river at all. Most of the time it was dry, or at best muddy. One flash flood a few hundred kilometres away, and little Gilly was swept into the water. Or she just jumped in. He could never tell. And when she was screaming, he didn’t think to ask.
If she would have only stopped screaming. He was sure if she stopped, she would be okay. It was her screams, her fear, which was pulling her away. Thank god she was light. It was just that much harder for the river to get a grip. He dragged her out and the held her sopping body close. The waters poured from her and down his front in long cold cords. The parents hadn’t been near at all.
“Don’t just stare into space. Come on. What was it like?”
“I don’t remember much.”
“Bullshit. You must remember something.”
That was one thing he had long wanted to ask. What the fuck where they doing that there little girl was near the river. He was already in the water before they arrived. There was something about their faces, a flushedness, a redness, which he was only starting to learn himself, and which, like the peach light of sundown, would flash in his memory and go. You didn’t ask those questions. You didn’t accuse. No one was to blame when nature was involved.
“Cold. There’d been some heavy rain. The river rose and took you.”
“That’s what Mum and Dad said.”
“That’s what happened.”
She looked for somewhere to stub the joint out. Finding nothing, she pinched it with a licked finger and thumb, and placed the butt in her pocket.
“Could I get some water?”
“Help yourself,” she said and got up to open the door.
The voices quickly gathered, though the bodies remained out in the living room. Above them was Dave’s. He wanted to know where the hero was. Jacob stopped and listened to the babble of echoes in the living room. They were having their own muffled party in the empty clean space, free from the languid Boxing Day bodies. If there was a way he would join them, float over, be pure voice. As it was, he left.
The ham was good.