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Famous Reporter # 35
 

 

 

COLIN VARNEY

You seem perky today…

 

He never sees rainbows as positive or beautiful. Just weather that won’t make up its mind.

Misty rain glitters in the weak sunlight. He surveys the fists of gilded cloud with grim empathy. He wants to make the decision today and his mind is ROY G BIV. When he’d arrived in this city two weeks previously he’d been certain, immovable. Julia has certainly done a job of work on him. He’ll give his final answer before he flies back home. Julia’s coming at noon to drive him to the airport.

What mood is he in? Hungover: but that’s a condition, not a mood. Mouth thick: he has to unstick his tongue from his palate. Maybe he’s a touch surly? He won’t know until he see the Mountain. He’ll toil up the slope of the adjoining terrace until the flanks of Mount Wellington crane over the hill that his temporary residence crouches upon. He’s fascinated by the hump that guards the city. Nothing like it in Adelaide, that flat spread of baked suburbs. Where he’s staying now is all hills. The muscles in his calves lament from climbing. He is sure you can tramp upwards, circle the block and return to your starting point without ever negotiating a decline. "Hobart has no down" he declared to Julia. "It’s some kind of spatial anomaly."

He loved to watch her grin.

***

He recalls her saying: "You seem perky today."

"I’m not in control of my emotions."

"So you keep telling me."

"That is." He jerked a thumb at Wellington. In the brisk, clear air it seemed closer than usual. Each crag precisely delineated. Sunlight picking out ridges and towers. Screes of individual boulders. "It has a hundred moods, that rock. I check it out each morning, let it dictate how I’m feeling."

"You let the mountain choose your mood?"

Didn’t see the trap being set. "It’s bright and sparkly and so am I."

"So you Select Your Self?"

Grin fixed as he thought this over. A tiny chortle hissed from his nose.

"Touché."

Flashback to Adelaide. Crawling from his bed; hunching over coffee that was as black and impenetrable as his demeanour. Dreading hearing his own monotone in the lecture theatre as he zeroed in on each individual yawn, each daydreaming expression, each voyeuristic peek at a fellow student of the opposite sex. Meanwhile he could hear her breezy tone in their bedroom. Before the mirror, practicing. Explaining how you should "Select Your Self". Choose your ‘tude. The phrase recurring in every second sentence until it became a mantra. Julia the HR consultant. Customer service a speciality.

Students had actually complained about him. Grumpy and sarcastic, they’d said. They’d used the word "misanthropic". "Why can’t they demonstrate that level of vocabulary in their essays?" he moaned to his supervisor. He was advised to "lighten up".

Did Julia really believe in that stuff she spouted? He liked to think she fooled herself to make her job easier to bear. They used to banter playfully about it, before his jokes became too bitter.

***

Late night sci-fi flick: a Terminator rip off, humanity versus killer cyborgs. Half lost in the special effects and half pre-occupied by the fuzzy reception. The signal coming from the Mountain, from a gigantic rocket shaped spike on top. He imagined each blur of static was a fresh blast of wind across the summit. The ghosting was a cloud settling.

Why this fear of encroaching technology? This celebration of pedigree humanity? Bring on the mongrel, he thought. Then when they developed cancer of the colon circuit they’d just take it out and insert a new one. "I’ll be back".

Imagined his cancer as a rock: massive and cold. Immovable as a mountain. A force of nature. But the surgeons performed a mountainectomy. Afterwards he was informed that boulders and dirt had cascaded down the slopes to scatter and hide throughout his body.

After the first injection he told himself he’d be able to withstand the chemotherapy. He managed the insinuating nausea and the weakness behind his knees. But the ensuing jabs devastated him. Several strains of flu striking at once. Vision contracting: tunnel world. Muscles whining; refusing to shift him from the chair. His pores smelt funny. The skin on his hands dried and flayed: he watched himself disintegrating flake by flake. Fingertips numb. Cups dropped from his hands and smashed at his feet. When the course was finally over the ensuing celebration caused a hangover that took three days to shift. Overpowering relief. Glad he didn’t have to go through that again.

The doctor’s lips across the desk had a tic, a sort of facial shrug of apology. There was still mountain dust in his system. He had to do it again. He settled into himself for a few seconds, but didn’t have to think about it for long. Shook his head. Emphatically.

***

The call from Julia was a surprise. Hadn’t heard from her for – how long? – six months? Longer? A friend of hers was away on vacation. Would he like to house-sit in West Hobart for a couple of weeks?

His suspicions were confirmed within hours of her picking him up from the airport. Sitting across from him in the café at Battery Point. "I want you to do the second course of chemo."

Ambushed by affection. After all he’d done she still cared for him. Although there was an alternative explanation, he thought wryly. She wanted him to continue suffering. "I’m fully prepared for you to harangue me about that for the sake of a holiday, but you’ll never convince me." His smile dwindled. "You don’t know what it’s like."

Sipped her coffee. Blanched at its strength. "You reckon it’s worse than cancer?"

***

There was a photograph of Julia on the mantle in the house he was staying in. Taken at a party it showed three sozzled people, two men and a woman, dancing and playing air guitar. Julia’s off to one side, grimacing as she watches. He laughed out loud. She was repulsed by many things – stupidity, poverty, the Liberal Party – but nothing revolted her quite as much as air guitar.

He moved the photo to the bedside table. Knew this was dangerous, but was prepared to take the risk. Sure enough, she stepped from the frame and into his dreams. Where were you last night? She demanded, face stricken. You know where I was. I was taking air guitar lessons he insisted. Okay, she snapped. Show me. Show me what you learned. So he tried his best, but everything was wrong. Left arm too high, other too low so that you couldn’t imagine the phantom instrument. His face-pulling not emotive enough. Tried dropping to his knees while soloing and pivoted onto his nose.

He’s not sure how she discovered he was cheating on her. He thinks it was a series of small clues, each innocent in themselves, that slotted into an incriminating jigsaw. His life collapsed around him. She left home, then returned and demanded that he leave instead. Grappling with guilt, he complied. When she agreed to have him back he was gushingly grateful. Rescued. She hadn’t forgiven him, merely tolerated that piece of their history.

During his second affair he experienced an impending sense of doom. Knew he was pathetic at deception. Kept telling Christie this was the last time, the last time. Knew that if he continued Julia would fit the puzzle together again. But he couldn’t stop. "It’s my nature", he confessed while trying to explain himself. This time she retreated to her birthplace, her old home town. Put a large body of water between them. Reacquainted herself with the Mountain.

He awoke in the night long after his ludicrous nightmare. Squinted through the darkness at the frame, trying to distinguish her there. Heart yearning. She hid in the gloom.

***

He wanted to dislike the city that had stolen her. Hobbled over the hills during his first days there, angry because he tired too easily, the chemotherapy still cursing him. Scowled at the vistas. Offices, factories, residential suburbs, so far so good. But then he saw that he was surrounded by mountains. Rearing on all sides, infested with trees. And that river cutting through everything. You could ignore the Torrens. It hardly got in the way. Tamed by small bridges. But you couldn’t get away from the Derwent. It had beaches, for God’s sake. And the only thing that spanned it in the CBD was an engineering marvel, a bowed highway in the sky. Capital cities shouldn’t be like this. They should be steel and tarmac and air you could chew. You should be capable of appreciating nature if you wished: driving to the coast, perhaps, or peering up Cross Road to discern the slung saddle of the Adelaide Hills. This capital was all wrong. As his frown deepened he was distracted by the Mountain. The sun spotlighted the dolerite columns known as the Organ Pipes: shadows thickened down the vertical furrows. The rock mirrored his severity, scowling down at the buildings cradled by nature.

***

Two dogs panted and capered around his chair, accompanied by their aura of exploded fur. He sniffled, cleared his throat raggedly. Reached for a tissue. Had Julia forgotten he was allergic? Or was this revenge? They brushed past his legs; hair clung to his pants.

Lunch was delectable and the view from Julia’s balcony spectacular. From this point on the eastern shore he could see the whole hunchbacked city across the expanse of the Derwent. The sky grey but pellucid: the uniform light allowing colours to wash and merge. No object standing out. Calm and peaceful.

Kyra, Julia’s partner, was nervous and flighty, too keen to make a good impression. Deep down he wanted to resent her, but she was smart, funny and vulnerable. Every time Julia squeezed past her fingers brushed lightly against Kyra’s arm or back. They held hands beneath the tabletop, thinking he couldn’t see. He sneezed, snatched another tissue. It occurred to him that what he was actually allergic to was Julia no longer being in love with him. But he watched the clouds shred and clear over the Mountain and decided he would follow suit. He’d become sunnier.

While Kyra was washing up Julia implored him again to reconsider his treatment. He shook his head as he blew his nose. "You can’t fight your own body. It’s civil war. Bombing your own country. You can’t win."

He settled back smugly, basking in the analogy.

"But don’t you feel stupid not trying?" she asked.

***

A screen of dust or motes hung before the rocky flanks. Diffuse sunlight snagged there, smudging the scene. No detail, just a shadowy bulk suspended behind the hill. He decided to be hazy too. Lazy and dithering. He napped in the afternoon.

Next morning a cloud sat atop the summit like a bad wig. The Mountain adopting a sense of insouciance. Chuckling, he ambled back to the house and changed his clothes so that nothing matched. Decided to be defiantly indifferent. He and the Mountain were playing games.

The spell was rent when he received an email from an ex-student, asking how he was faring. She’d come to visit him while he was recovering from surgery. The only one of his students who had. And she’d never graduated, never got past her second year. Suffered attacks that made it hard for her to sustain long term projects, like study or jobs. Enduring weeks when it was impossible to leave her bedroom. Brain chemicals: balance and imbalance. He’d attempted to keep her in the loop, supplying notes from missed lectures and granting essay extensions. Keen to keep her on: she was bright and intelligent. Coming at texts with skewed but often relevant viewpoints. He’d tried to inspire her by recommending writers that shared her condition – Poe, Plath, Hans Christian Anderson. Hoping for empathy. But she felt that study was exacerbating her disease and quit, devastating him. Yet she kept in touch. Hoped his treatment was succeeding. Before he wrote her an affectionate reply he put on a less clashing combination of attire.

***

Rang Julia, babbling self-righteously. "Attitude choice my arse. I’ve got another explanation. I subconsciously project my mood. For example, today the shadows were deep and vertical. Looked like the walls was rearing up, kind of sneering and arrogant. Yet there was a fluffy cloud off to one side that looked like the Mountain’s thought bubble. So I decided to be quiet; musing. Went with the cloud rather than the rock." Stalled, impatient for her response. "So what do you think of that?"

"You sound sneering and arrogant to me", she smirked.

***

The night before his flight home they hit the restaurants and pubs of North Hobart. He made some scathing comments about their "cute little townette" but made sure they could see the twinkle in his eye. The truth is that he had become very affectionate towards the streets settled in their basin of trees and sundered by the river. Kyra left early, allowing the exes to wallow in nostalgia. And the future.

"My oncologist has been in touch." He eyed her accusingly. How would she have obtained his number? "He knows I’ve been wavering. I’ll give him my final answer tomorrow. Before I fly back."

"And what will it be?"

He shrugged. Took a deep slug of wine.

She opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it. Then lunged forward determinedly and blurted it anyway. "Don’t you think you owe me? After what you did? Can’t you just do one thing for me?"

He shrank into himself, pulling on the wine. Glad the glass covered the taut line of his lips. Digging at the sore of his remorse was unnecessary. He was already questioning himself. The glass felt insecure in his grasp. He glared at his lumpen fingers, still sandpapered from the drugs.

***

Next morning, hungover, plagued by rainbows, he heaves himself up the terrace. Sometimes he can’t decide if it’s a road or a wall. Where are his climbing ropes? He purposefully does not glance to his left, doesn’t want to sneak a peak at the slopes until he can see them in their entirety. Droplets sheen his face and spangle his jumper. Moisture seems suspended in the air, too delicate to fall. The arc of ROY G BIV buries itself in the lowering sky where individual clouds have congealed. He puffs badly as he reaches the top. Cusses quietly to himself. Swivels to look.

The drizzle casts a veil, draining his surroundings of hue and definition. The Mountain a lightly shaded pencil sketch. A ghost in the mist. As he watches, the rain strengthens and the veil thickens, darkens. The hulk dissolves before his eyes. Melts into dishwater. Damp seeps though his clothes as he witnesses the gradual obliteration. Soon there’s only the sky looming down; blanket of grey. He strains, trying to penetrate the pall. A mournful tide seeping through him. And deep within the melancholy, a spark of terror. He finds himself descending the road, but can’t remember the moment of turning around to start back.

***

In the airport lounge he excuses himself and wanders to the toilet. Hovers in a cubicle, mobile phone in hand. Staring at the number of his oncologist. What will he tell him? He feels he needs the answer before take off, before leaving Julia’s realm. It seems fitting; complete. But what’s his decision?

Fishes a coin from his pocket and flips. His still ineffectual fingers fumble it on the way down and it clatters onto the tiles. Stops it rolling with his boot. Crouches to inspect the result. Sighs; straightens. Thumbs the connection to the number.

When his oncologist asks him what it is going to be, he surprises himself by declaring the opposite of what the coin had said.

 

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