Graham and Colin got to know each other during chemo sessions at the St John of God hospital in Bendigo. As well as cancer they discovered they had something else in common – a lifelong passion for literature. Graham had been a lecturer at Melbourne University specializing in twentieth century poetry, Colin a fiction editor with Harper Collins in Sydney, and their different perspectives made for interesting discussions they both enjoyed. They weren’t old, Graham was sixty-five, Colin sixty-two, but they were dying nonetheless; not quickly, not dramatically, they weren’t at the end yet, but they both knew that the countdown to the end had begun. The two men, who’d suffered more than their fair share of loneliness, saw this new friendship in the twilight of their lives as an unexpected good thing.
They met every Saturday morning at Lake Weeroona and walked its kilometre-long circumference talking about the novels and poetry that had meant so much to them. They appreciated the beauty of the lake’s non-indigenous trees and exotic bird life (ibises nested on one of the small islands), but not, perhaps, to the same degree as the park’s other visitors; for both men the imagined world had always been more real than the physical world around them.
It was a warm Saturday in late summer. The sun was a white glare in a blaze of blue and the park busy with picnickers, dog walkers and joggers. Graham’s Saab pulled into the car park a quarter of an hour late and his face looked haggard as he walked to the picnic bench where Colin waited. He explained that he’d had a bad night but insisted he was well enough to do their usual walk. They set off around the lake “widdershins” as Graham, a devotee of W.H.Auden, could never resist quoting.
Graham had lent Colin Asimov’s The Winds of Change and was keen to hear what he’d thought of it. He’d sensed Colin was dismissive of sci-fi and was hoping the stories might help change his mind. Colin agreed they were well-written and inventive, but Graham could tell he hadn’t been won over, and began to wax lyrical about Asimov’s genius. ‘He predicted so many things that have come true,’ he said. ‘Skype, driverless cars, solar power stations, laboratory-grown food…’
They paused at the boathouse to let two middle-aged women with a double kayak cross the path in front of them, and watched as they carried it down to the jetty. Graham winced and put his hand to his side. He nodded grimly when Colin asked if he was okay.
They walked on in uncustomary silence. Graham was the first to break it.
‘I think that’s one of the worst things about dying for me,’ he said. ‘The not knowing. Not knowing what happens next in the human story…’
Colin looked at him as if not quite following.
‘I mean, are we going to cure cancer? Are we going to develop artificial intelligence? Are we going to colonize space like Asimov thought? And how’s it all going to end? Are we going to keep polluting the planet to the point where it’s no longer habitable, or will some natural disaster – like another asteroid – end life on Earth? It’s like reading an incredible book only to have it snatched away before you can finish the final chapter. I’ll never know what happens to the human race. I’ll never know how the story ends. And I find that incredibly frustrating.’
Colin was silent and Graham wasn’t sure how attentively he’d been listening.
He began to reiterate his point, but Colin, with some abruptness, talked over him. ‘I don’t feel like that,’ he said. ‘I know how the human story’s going to end: nuclear annihilation. We’re going to blow ourselves to smithereens.’
Colin’s reply surprised Graham. Colin was usually wary of overstepping the bounds of his expertise, he often prefaced his remarks with, ‘I’m no expert’ or ‘I haven’t read much on this subject but…’ It was odd to hear him sound so assertive, especially about something that was obviously unknowable.
‘What makes you so certain?’ Graham asked.
After some hesitation, almost as if he feared being laughed at, Colin mumbled, ‘My brother…what happened to my brother. I look at his life and I know it’s going to end badly for the human race.’
Their friendship was relatively new and Graham’s picture of Colin’s family was still vague. He knew Colin was the youngest of three brothers but as yet they were undifferentiated in Graham’s mind and when Colin referred to ‘my brother’, as he often did in conversation, he rarely made any attempt at further clarification.
‘Which brother’s this?’
‘Glenn. He was the second son. Five years older than me.’
‘Yes,’ he said, with a slight lift of the chin, ‘he’s dead now.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Graham said. ‘Was Glenn the doctor?’
‘No, lawyer. Here in Bendigo.’
Graham hesitated, not wanting to be indelicate. ‘What…happened to him?’
Even though Colin was wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, Graham could see the perplexity register on his face. ‘That’s what I’ve spent years trying to figure out…what happened to Glenn…’
‘If you don’t want to discuss it -’
‘No, no, it’s fine. It was more than twenty-five years ago. The world we live in now is sci-fi compared to the world Glenn knew.’
Colin smiled faintly as he recollected.
‘I hero-worshipped him when I was a kid, followed him around the house like a love-sick puppy. He was brilliant at everything – footy, cricket, school work; he got A’s in just about every subject.’ He laughed. ‘Art, that was the only thing he was useless at. I spent most of my adolescence trying to live up to his legend and falling hopelessly short.’ He hunched his shoulders and sighed. ‘After school he went on to do law at Uni. When he graduated he worked at a firm in Melbourne for a few years then set up a practice in Bendigo. He married Chloe, Chloe Sorrensen, a barrister he’d got to know during a long fraud trial.’
Colin shook his head.
‘God, she was beautiful! I mean, supermodel beautiful. And smart as a whip…cultured, funny. They started a family almost straightaway and had two lovely kids – Sarah and Dean.’
Their pace slowed a little as they watched the women in the double kayak paddle past; they seemed inexperienced, the movement of their arms not quite synchronized, the tendons in their necks standing out with the strain. The kayak sat unusually low in the water and as they rounded one of the islands it rocked dangerously and almost tipped. Graham noticed that neither was wearing a life jacket.
‘I was so jealous of him in those days,’ Colin went on. ‘I spent the whole of the eighties living in Melbourne in crappy share houses, teaching school, trying to write novels in my spare time. My relationships were like my literary efforts – they started with high hopes then went wrong somewhere along the line and had to be abandoned. While I was still labelling my food and arguing over the washing-up roster, Glenn had built a beautiful house in Mandurang just outside Bendigo – five bedrooms, a deck with stunning views, swimming pool – the works. It was set in five acres and there was a long driveway up to it. I used to call it Southfork to wind Glenn up but he actually liked the name and started calling it that himself.’
‘I saw them a fair amount back then. I’d drive up on a Sunday morning sometimes and spend the whole day there. We’d have lunch on the deck, play cricket with the kids in the garden till it got dark…’ He clicked his tongue. ‘They were good times, really good times…When I was alone with Glenn I used to tell him what a lucky bastard he was, that I’d give my right arm to have what he had. And I meant it. He had everything – a wonderful wife, successful career, great kids, fantastic home. He had the whole Aussie dream and then…’
A bicycle bell made them turn and they stepped aside to make way for a little boy on a bike who was pedalling furiously to stay ahead of his older sister on a scooter. The two men walked on again but Colin didn’t continue with his story.
‘And then?’ Graham prompted.
Colin stroked the wispy hairs of his goatee that had only just begun to grow back. ‘It would have been 1989, the summer of ’89,’ he said. ‘I’d given up teaching and got the job as an assistant editor with Harper Collins. I’d been living in Sydney for a couple of years by then. My mum had been ill and I was driving down to spend a few days with her in Melbourne and I arranged to stop off in Bendigo and catch up with Glenn. He would have been about thirty-eight, thirty-nine then; he’d started wearing glasses and had put on quite a bit of weight, and he looked like what he was – a successful, professional man heading into comfortable middle age.’
‘I met him for lunch at a cafe in Mitchell Street (long gone now) and we sat at a table in the front window. He seemed the same as always. He talked about Chloe and the kids, I brought him up to date with all the office gossip I used to get so caught up in.’
‘Anyway, we were halfway through our lunch when this battered ute pulled up outside and a woman in her early thirties got out. She had dyed black hair, thick eye make-up, and this huge Ned Kelly tattoo on her arm. She was wearing next to nothing, just a Black Sabbath singlet, cut-off jeans and thongs. Her face wasn’t unattractive, but she had a sour expression like she was ready to spit in your eye if you so much as looked at her the wrong way. Two little boys aged about five and four were sitting up in the front of the ute – no car seat, no safety belts. She got them out, lit a cigarette, then set off up the street dragging the kids after her.’
‘She doesn’t sound like a contender for Mother of the Year,’ Graham said.
Colin laughed drily. ‘I was about to make a joke,’ he went on. ‘I was about to say, “Did you order the hooker?” when Glenn suddenly jumped up from the table, all flushed and flustered. He said she was a client’s wife and he had to speak to her, and before I could say anything he was rushing out the door.’
‘He ran up the street after her and she stopped and turned around, but she didn’t smile when she saw him. Even from half a block away I could see how ingratiating he was with her, how anxious he was to please her. She just stood there looking bored, gulping down lungfuls of cigarette smoke, screaming at the older boy every now and then and giving his arm a shake. Glenn looked like a big stiff next to her in his pin-striped suit and glasses. It was like watching representatives from two completely different worlds.’
‘When he came back he tried to act normally but I could tell he was – I don’t know – excited. He told me her name was Melanie Davis and she was married to a drug dealer from Campbells Creek he’d been representing who’d just been sent to prison for five years. He said Jack Davis was a mean son of a bitch who’d served time in his twenties for GBH. The police had been going to prosecute Melanie as an accessory but dropped the charges when Davis agreed to plead guilty. Glenn said, “She’s on her own now with two little kids to bring up,” as if he wanted me to feel sorry for her. I don’t know why, but even then I felt nothing but hostility towards her. I remember I said, “Well, she’s got their drug money. She can spend that”.’
The path was blocked by two walkers whose dogs turned in slow circles sniffing at each other’s haunches, hopelessly entangling their leads. Graham and Colin walked on the grass to avoid them, watched by a red-masked Muscovy duck with strangely sentient eyes.
When they were back on the path Colin began speaking again.
‘I didn’t think much more about it. I stayed with Mum in Melbourne for a few days then drove back to Sydney. We were busy at work preparing Conrad Johnson’s Sleepwalker for publication.’
Graham nodded approvingly. ‘Wonderful book.’
‘Isn’t it. We knew it was going to be big and we were working flat out to resolve some legal problems with the text and to make sure we were targeting our advertising as effectively as possible.’
‘About three months after my lunch with Glenn I got a late-night call from Chloe. She was upset, alternating between tears and anger. She said Glenn had been acting strangely, coming home late, lying about where he’d been. She was convinced he was having an affair and wanted to find out what I knew. I told her I hadn’t spoken to Glenn for a while and had no idea what was going on, but she didn’t believe me.’
‘I found the call really disturbing. I’d never heard Chloe like that before, the Chloe I knew had always been so serene, so calm and collected. I felt dirty somehow, like I’d walked in on her getting undressed or something…’
Graham knew what Colin meant and was tempted to share a similar experience but didn’t want to interrupt the story.
‘I tried to think if I’d noticed anything different about Glenn the last time I’d seen him,’ Colin said, ‘and I remembered how wired he’d been after he’d spoken to Melanie Davis. But I couldn’t believe for one second he was having an affair with her, there was no way Glenn would have risked his marriage to Chloe for someone like that.’
‘I rang him a few days later and told him about Chloe’s suspicions. He sounded surprised and a bit embarrassed. He categorically denied he was having an affair. He said he and Chloe were just going through a bit of a sticky patch that was all, that she wanted another child and he wasn’t sure he did, and it was causing a lot of tension between them. I believed him. I mean, why wouldn’t I?’
‘But then, a few weeks after that, he called me at work, something he never normally did. He sounded different. He sounded – ’ Colin searched for the right word ‘– contrite. He said he hadn’t been honest with me the last time we’d spoken as things had still been up in the air – that’s how he put it, “up in the air” – but there was someone else. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When my head finally stopped spinning I asked him who it was. He was incredibly reluctant to tell me and that’s when I knew. I said, “It’s that woman I saw you with, isn’t it, it’s the drug dealer’s wife.” When he finally answered me he didn’t sound contrite anymore. He said, “Yes, it is. And her name’s Melanie”.’
Graham turned to Colin, his interest piqued. ‘What did you say?’
‘I told him he was out of his mind. What about Chloe, I said, what about Sarah and Dean? Did he have any idea of the pain he was going to cause? And for what? I said that Melanie Davis wasn’t fit to shine Chloe’s shoes, she was toxic, anyone could see that a mile away, she was nothing but trash…he just hung up on me.’
They’d come to the southern end of the lake and walked towards the weatherboard cafe that was popular with locals. They passed an elderly woman sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette, taking deep drags with a sort of vacant determination. A tram full of tourists clanged its bell on Nolan Street. At the tennis complex across the road a tournament was in progress but Colin and Graham’s eyes rested uncomfortably on the young, athletic bodies and quickly looked away again.
Colin looked up the lake and in spite of his sunglasses the glare made him squint. ‘Not long after that my mum called and told me Glenn had left Chloe and moved in with Melanie Davis at Campbells Creek. He’d been seen taking her kids to school apparently. She said Chloe was coming apart at the seams, she was on anti-depressants, couldn’t go to work…’
‘How horrible,’ Graham said and the sentiment was heartfelt. He knew what it was like to be left.
‘My shock was beginning to give way to anger,’ Colin continued, ‘and when I rang Glenn I had to work really hard to control it. He was ready for my call. I think he’d been expecting it. He was defensive, battened-down, virtually monosyllabic. I pleaded with him to move back home. I used every argument I could think of: I reminded him of the wonderful life he had with Chloe and everything he was throwing away. I warned him that he was going to destroy the law firm he’d worked so hard to establish, that no one would hire him when they found out he was shacked up with the wife of a violent criminal. When all that failed I tried to scare him into going back home. I said, “Do you think this Jack Davis is going to sit twiddling his thumbs in jail while you fuck his wife and play Daddy to his kids? You told me yourself he was a nut job. Can’t you see you’re putting yourself in danger?”’
‘His reply completely threw me. He said, “Do you think I don’t know that? Jack Davis has already threatened to kill me. He sent a pig’s head to my office yesterday with a screwdriver through its eyeball…”’
‘Jesus,’ Graham gasped.
Colin gave an impatient shrug of his shoulders. ‘But there was nothing I could say to get him to change his mind. He’d made his decision and that was that. He just kept saying, “I’m with Melanie now”.’
‘Next time I was in Victoria I went to see Chloe.’ Colin shook his head at the memory. ‘It was heart-breaking. She’d aged ten years. Sarah and Dean were clingy with her, fractious and distant with me. Chloe was convinced I’d known about the affair all along. Instead of being a comfort I spent the whole time defending myself, and the more I spoke, the less convincing I sounded. I realized that Glenn hadn’t only destroyed his relationship with Chloe and the kids, he’d destroyed mine as well.’
Graham could hear in Colin’s voice how keenly he felt the loss even after all these years.
‘Afterwards, I drove out to Campbells Creek and parked up the road from the Davis house. Glenn was outside painting the front (it didn’t look like it had been painted in years), the boys were running around the yard chasing each other with sticks. Melanie was going back and forth with her Walkman on, hanging out laundry. I sat and watched them for a good ten minutes. I just couldn’t compute what I was seeing. I couldn’t understand how Glenn, the brother I’d looked up to my whole life, could have traded Southfork for this run-down cottage, Chloe for Melanie Davis, Sarah and Dean for Jack Davis’s feral brats. I just couldn’t get my head around it.’
The cafe’s terrace was crowded with breakfasters and as they walked along the wooden boardwalk Colin’s story was interrupted by the thump of reggae music, the hubbub of conversation and scrape of cutlery.
‘What did you do?’ Graham asked when the cafe was behind them. ‘Did you confront him?’
Colin made a noise like air escaping a bottle of fizzy drink. ‘I thought about it, but there was no point. I just turned the car around and drove away. After that, I cut off all ties with Glenn. I told him that as long as he was with Melanie I didn’t want anything to do with him. I told him to go back to Chloe and the kids or I’d never speak to him again.’
Colin gave a sad laugh. ‘And I never did.’
‘How did he – ?’ Graham didn’t want to say the word.
‘About nine months later I got a call from my mum to say Glenn had gone missing. Two days after that his body was found in a burned-out car near Kyneton. He’d been shot in the head. The police were pretty sure Jack Davis had organized it all from inside prison but they couldn’t prove anything. No one was ever brought to trial for his murder. Davis got out a couple of years later and moved straight back in with Melanie. They carried on as if nothing had happened. They had another couple of kids as I understand it.’
Graham frowned. ‘That’s awful, Colin. Awful.’
‘I’ve thought about it endlessly, as you can imagine, trying to understand…you know…what he was thinking…why he did it…’
Graham was wary of sounding presumptuous, but he thought Glenn’s motivation was obvious.
‘It sounds like infatuation,’ he said. ‘Sexual infatuation. That can be so powerful it blinds people to everything else.’
Colin spoke without looking up, his gaze fixed on the bleached slats of the boardwalk. ‘I’ve no doubt sex played its part, but I think there was more to it…’
‘You think he was trying to demonstrate something, trying to prove himself?’
When Colin didn’t answer Graham tried to explain what he meant more clearly.
‘D.H. Lawrence wrote a lot about the middle class man’s sense of emasculation – do you think it was that? Do you think he wanted to put himself in danger, prove he was a real man, show he wasn’t afraid of Jack Davis?’
Colin nodded distractedly. ‘He probably was trying to prove himself in some way…I think he did feel emasculated by the life he was leading…but it goes deeper than that. I think there was something else – something less conscious, something universal…’
They left the boardwalk now and began to climb the gentle incline to the children’s play park. On the expanse of grass to their left two Year 12 girls lay sunbaking, their arms outstretched as if they were being crucified. A little beyond them, a group of young mothers sat on blankets with their babies and toddlers, enjoying a picnic of cupcakes and take-away coffees. Their excited cross talk was punctuated every few minutes by squeals of laughter. One of the children, a two-year-old girl in a white sun dress, had wandered away from the circle of strollers and was trying to catch a dusky moorhen that evaded her outstretched arms with ease. Each uncertain, jerky step brought the child closer and closer to the edge of the lake. She was so absorbed in her game she didn’t hear her name being called and was less than a metre from the water when her mother ran over, swept her up in her arms, and carried her back to the others.
‘What do you think it was?’ Graham asked.
Colin took off his sunglasses and stared hard at him as if trying to commit his features to memory. ‘Do you know the word, “cacoethes”?’
Graham pursed his lips. ‘Cacoethes…no, I don’t think I do.’
‘It’s ancient Greek. It means the compulsion to do something detrimental to our own well-being, to commit an act of madness – like putting our hand in the fire when we know it’ll burn us.’
‘So,’ Graham ventured, ‘it’s a sort of urge to take risks?’
Colin shook his head. ‘No, it’s more than that. Risk-takers hope to survive, but cacoethes actually makes us seek our own destruction, it draws us irresistibly to what’s harmful to us.’
Graham was silent as he considered this.
‘Cacoethes is the reason I don’t think the human race is going to make it,’ Colin went on. ‘The truth is we’re not rational beings. We’re irrational. We’re driven by perverse, self-destructive forces we don’t understand and have no control over. There can’t be any greater example of cacoethes than nuclear war. That’s the ultimate act of madness. And we’ll do it one day. I’m a hundred percent sure of it. That’s how the human story’s going to end, Graham. Not with a whimper but a bang – an enormous, scorching, nuclear bang.’
Graham didn’t respond, although he wanted to. He was more hopeful than Colin, much more hopeful. He’d read about so many wonderful futures he hated to think that none of them would exist. But he didn’t want to argue. Colin’s opinion had obviously been formed out of a deeply personal experience. In any event, it wasn’t an argument either of them could ‘win’. They’d both die not knowing.
They walked on past the play park where a group of children on the swings were competing to see who could swing the highest. Graham and Colin’s conversation turned to D.H. Lawrence and the reasons for his loss of popularity over the last fifty years and soon they’d disappeared from sight. If the sunbakers and young mothers had noticed the two frail-looking men at all, then they’d instantly forgotten them and on the lawn by the lake it was as if they’d never existed.
Unnoticed by her mother, who was looking at photos on a friend’s iPad, the little girl in the white dress set off again in pursuit of the dusky moorhen that was strutting back and forth at the water’s edge. In the sky to the west a bank of cumulus cloud was now visible, rising slowly above the treetops. An ibis, perched on a high branch, launched itself into the air with an explosive clap of wings, its primeval silhouette sharply defined against the late summer sun.