Tree imagined jumping through the window. He’d run into plate glass, hands pushed out in a swan dive, striking it like bursting through river waters he used to leap into as a younger man, fetal position and pinching nostrils. He’d tuck his chin to the dips of chest bones as he fell from the fourteenth floor. Gritty wind rushing into his mouth as if receiving mouth to mouth from someone who’d eaten something crumbed. Then a last look at the dull ribbon of river snaking into distance with slanting oblong reflections of tall buildings. Windburn singeing cheeks. Glimpsing people’s lives through sweeping windows. Falling through the pulsing heat of arguments, the electricity of laughter. Shards of glass tinkling off walls and windows like hail.
Through glass dawn came up. Across water lights glowed, some flashing, marking out deep-water channels. Tree dressed in front of the window. His reflection glided along, like someone on the other side desperately looking in. He wrapped himself in a white shirt before which suit, which tie. He hurried to the kitchen bench, biting into the soft warmth of toast. In bed Cara breathed through a pillowslip, the seam of her spray tan between parts in the sheets.
The lift descended lightly. Tree pressed his back to the wall as more people entered. Someone smiled but looked away before he could return it. Another week stretched ahead, its meetings, reports and deadlines. A five day obstacle course.
Two days ago they’d eaten lunch at Cara’s parents. “Jesus heaves!” her father said as the roast was put down. It sizzled on an oval metal plate. They passed the carving knife and fork to Tree. In his hands the blade trembled slightly as he plunged it into the meat. He’d preferred to carve out in the kitchen where they couldn’t watch.
“There’s a downturn coming,” Cara’s father leaned over and told him. “You heard it here first. Leave any property investments for now. And forget shares. You’ve got a better chance at the casino. At least with that there’s a help line if you get in too deep. Haven’t seen any help lines called property investors anonymous.”
Cara talked to her mother. They moved their hands in the same way. Left their carrots to last. Smiled similarly from the edges of their conversation.
By the time discussion turned to religion Cara’s father’s voice slurred. Tree wanted to say he’d heard that accent somewhere before. From bars where they have happy hour, or drunk and brokenhearted hour. Her father touched the tip of Tree’s elbow.
“The bible is just an instrument of social control,” he said. “It came out in the nick of time. Before people could do whatever they wanted seven days a week. So they wrote about needing to work. That kept everyone under control five days a week. But there was still two days. You listening?”
Tree looked at Cara. She glanced worriedly from her father to him. Her father touched him on the elbow again, roughly this time.
“Well, they just couldn’t have people with free will for two days a week. So they brought in sport. On the sixth day everyone went off to watch. But there was still one day where people had free will and could rise up.”
Tree’s gaze wandered over to Cara again. Her face softened into small smiles as she passed carrying plates.
“Listen! So they had to do something about the seventh day. So they gave God to the masses!”
Tree leaned back. The word God came hard at him, smelling of Shiraz. Cara’s father shook a finger, laughing. Cara had told Tree once her father ran on tobacco, port, coffee and anti-inflammatory pills. Tree stood, forcing a smile as if hawking something up. He said he wanted to ask Cara something.
“Leave them, leave them, mother daughter time,” Cara’s father said. Tree smiled thinly, standing and turning into the kitchen. Cara stood at the sink, suds up her arms.
“Can’t stand your old man,” Tree said quietly. “You’d better visit on your own next time. Or next four times. Tell them I’m working. Or having wisdom teeth, ingrown toenails, nose hair or corns removed.”
Tree put his hand flat against the small of her back. Just over where that tattoo swirled at the bottom of her spine. She nodded.
“I’ll just finish the saucers,” she said.
Tree envied Cara’s calm sleep. Lying there listening to her slow breath like waves breaking dully from a long way off. Even on the fourteenth floor tinny traffic sounds reached him; yelps of a siren, dinging of a tram. Turning over in the dip of their bed he wondered if their lives would ever deviate from this, him working, being tired from working or worrying about working. And would she stay the same; her artist fingers, voice that sang across rooms when she walked between them, wrenching off high heels tumbling hollowly across tiles before she put feet into his lap, begging for acupressure under toes.
Tree sleepwalked on Friday mornings. That’s what he told people. Between the alarm and front door he was a walking coma. By then he was always exhausted. Even Cara told him he looked like someone who’d donated too much blood. He took vitamins and supplements promising energy. Friday nights he lay on the couch, sleeping through late night crime documentaries before dragging himself to bed.
That Friday night Cara asked if he wanted to go out. Just pasta and a bottle, see some friends. Tree lay on the couch. He felt its ribbed patterns through his shirt. He told her no but she could go. Then she was kissing him through dreams, on his dry waxy mouth. He heard her say she’d see him later. He went to speak to her, even moved lips. But she was already rustling and clacking across the room.
Later he came awake at the time when no sounds drifted up. There were no lights of planes gliding across skies through the window. Later there’d be the shrieks of drunks outside in corridors staggering back to their apartments. As he sat up Cara came home, shoes looped over fingers.
“Hope you didn’t mind,” she said. “Just had to get out.”
“While you’re dancing Nutbush I’m here like someone under a general anesthetic.”
Cara kissed him, bending so her hair fell over his face. Cold night air still lay on her skin. Their faces glided together. Her mouth left an aftertaste of Margarita with salt sprinkled around the glass.
Over breakfast at a café Tree told her he’d applied for a promotion. Harder to lie on the resume when they already know you, he joked. He reclined back, looking past her down the curve of river. Cara asked him questions; where based, how much, any perks. He worried she’d already started spending the extra salary in her mind. When she stood to go to the toilet he thought of his doubts. Is this what I really want to do? Maybe leave for the heat of Vietnam and just wander through markets, burning the roof of my mouth on condensed milk sweetened coffee, living in a peeling paint room with a half dead rubber tree. No need to answer to 7.30am starts and reports on someone’s desk by 5pm. Give up working long hours and endless meetings to afford a thirty five year mortgage and two weeks annual leave on the Gold Coast.
Cara returned. People in the café stared at her as she half turned between tables. Tree was used to that. She moved gracefully, as if following a rhythm of quietly sung music. Opposite him again she said she’d been imagining. Imagining their next place after here. Finding a house in one of those streets lined by flowering plum trees, close to a bakery that sold warm bread and coffee that smelt like air rolling in before a thunderstorm. Maybe after that settling down in a coastal town, discovering a cute little house under shade, a life like staying in a bed and breakfast every day. She leaned across the table, bumping knees with him. He smiled. The river glared, blinding him when he looked in that direction.
At work Tree stood from his desk as if coming out of a trance. Put away the pens, stacked reports and papers into crooked piles. Morning was over but its tensions thrummed in him. Deadline brought forward. More budget cuts. Sorry about missing the promotion. Need to come in for a few hours Saturday. Along shelves the spines of folders lay on top of each other like layers in rock. He shouldered into his coat. Said goodbye to others at their desks and they nodded back.
“You look like you’ve got a job interview or a visit to the dentist,” someone called. Tree kept going, hurrying by the end of the corridor so there was a gentle skim of air over cheeks like a bow wave at the front of a boat. He walked out into sun. Slowed down in the warmth so that people behind him detoured past. He strolled through the cool thrown by buildings. By the time he reached the river he should have been back at his desk. At the time he reached the café Cara and he’d breakfasted at yesterday he was due at a meeting. By their unit he should have been on his fifth coffee trawling through spreadsheets. Tree listened to central heating. It exhaled through rooms. Heat wafted over him in the bathroom as he pulled down his tie, flicking the button undone so he could see ridges running down his neck. His cheeks looked sunken as if they’d been squeezed when bones were soft and forming. If he was still living on his own he may have smashed something. The glass he used for painkillers during 3am migraines. Bottle of aftershave that stunk like spilled drinks. The mirror where his dark eye sockets reflected.
When Cara came home he was asleep. She asked why was the light off. Tree saw her grope for a light switch.
“Don’t!” he said.
Cara stood still. She asked what was wrong.
“Something to tell you,” Tree said. He sat up, frizzing hair with hands, trying to wake. “Didn’t get the promotion.”
In the hallway Cara eased out of shoes. She lifted from each one, then stood at her usual height. The height he kissed, argued with, seen that first time over the shoulders of others.
“Thought they just about promised it to you,” Cara said. She walked into the room barefoot.
“That’s not all of it. They said I never would. Not enough results orientation. Need to be more of a people person. Have the hunger of a shareholder, not an employee.”
Cara asked again why the light was off. Tree told her he didn’t want to see her face when he explained.
He didn’t know her that night. When she blindfolded him she tied the scarf hard, knotting it roughly behind his head. So tight he thought when it came off there’d be those red welts that uncomfortable shoes leave. Normally when they were together like that he’d put fingertips to her face, tracing the edges of lips, bones in cheeks, her fine eyebrows. But that night she flung his hands away.
Tree rang in sick the next morning. His manager said it would cause problems for the rest of the team. That he should contact Jesus and see if he could be instantly healed because they’d need him back. Down the hall he dropped yesterday’s work clothes. His shirt lay like a puddle just inside the door. Further along trouser legs were wide apart as if they’d attempted a final step without him. His tie draped over the back of a chair. Inside out socks lay bunched.
He turned a chair and sat, facing that wide window. Light angled through it, shining a slanting square onto floor. How thick was that glass, should he break it first? He closed eyes so tightly that the pink light behind lids turned black. He kept them that way as he lifted out of the chair and went towards the glass.
Most nights Peter Farrar can be found writing, eyes bloodshot from trying to add one more paragraph when he should be in bed. He can't build anything, doesn't read maps well, is reckless with money, has a drinking problem and dresses badly. Writing is his only hope really.