Paul was asleep in the car. He wore a grey suit, with a blue striped shirt and pink tie that had begun the day looking dandyish. Now, however, the shirt was crumpled, the collar undone, the tie loosened. Paul’s petulant face was flushed in sleep like a child’s, all long eyelashes and over-red lips. His hair looked childishly rumpled too; but the fairyfloss smell of hair wax told otherwise.
The car itself was a late model BMW convertible, the colour of mercury, with soft leather upholstery in a darker grey. A woman’s beige leather jacket lay abandoned on the passenger seat. Paul was nestled into the racing-style driver’s seat. His head lolled against the headrest. His arms hung limply. The only sound in the car was Paul’s soft breathing.
Paul was a management consultant, a rising star in the change management knowledge node at Casey LaVelle Consulting. Earlier that week, his team leader Tony had walked into Paul’s work pod, intending to query him about a passage in a memo, and found him staring into space. Paul started when he heard Tony’s footsteps.
“Paul,” Tony said, “What’s wrong?”
“With the Champion case? You know there’s always an implementation dip before you’ll see the improvement…”
Tony sighed. “No, that’s not it. I walk in here just now and you’re off with the fairies. Are you sick?”
Paul shook his head. He looked sick to Tony. There were large dark smudges below his eyes, and he hadn’t shaved properly. He’d missed the little groove below his nose. “I’m having trouble sleeping, that’s all,” he said.
“You’re off your game, mate,” said Tony, trying to sound playful. “What happened to the furious firebrand who shed two-fifty from Butler’s? Now you’re writing weird shit like this.”
He read aloud from the memo he was holding. “Standard guidelines indicate we should maintain organisational continuity while generating optimism regarding new changes. However, this doesn’t appear to be working any more. Staff are suspicious and will probably prove resistant to change. I believe a substantial revision of CLV strategies is necessary in this case.”
Tony looked up at Paul. The younger man continued to gaze listlessly back. The memo didn’t seem to have surprised or embarrassed him. A feeling of intense frustration began to suffuse Tony. He actually had to bite the inside of his mouth to stop himself shouting at Paul. When he trusted himself to speak, it came out in a measured monotone.
“You’ve never had a problem with our strategic guidelines before. In fact, you used to be one of their fiercest defenders. For Christ’s sake, don’t you realise why you survived all those rounds of staff cuts?”
Paul looked at him dully. “It’s just for this case.”
Tony’s frustration began to well up again. This time, it was tinged with sadness. He realised he was beginning to lose respect for Paul. “You’re not thinking straight,” he said softly. “I think you are sick.” Before he could say anything more personally compromising, he strode away.
The leather jacket on the car seat belonged to Paul’s girlfriend Vicky. It was a warm night, and she had left it there when they went into the restaurant to meet her friends. Vicky was fond of warm colours like beige and chocolate. They set off her tanned skin and shiny brown hair.
At these dinners, Paul could usually be relied upon to tell witty and acerbic anecdotes. Vicky was proud of having a boyfriend with a reputation for being funny; although when she first met him, his main attractions had been his snappy dress sense and the little wrinkles around his blue eyes. Tonight, however, Paul seemed weary and distracted. He had been in this mood for several weeks. Vicky was worried. She hoped this new, morose Paul was not here to stay.
“Yeah, he designed the Hawthorn Town Hall as well,” Paul was telling Andrew, Mia's florid-faced, rugger-bugger boyfriend.
“Really? Any other celebrities in your family?” asked Andrew, taking another swig of his Stella.
“Tell them about the guy in the drycleaner’s last Wednesday,” she prompted.
Paul looked at her as if he had no idea what she meant. Sensing her friends’ expectant eyes on her, Vicky pressed on. “You know, silly!” she said with a preemptive giggle. “When you went to get your suit and he said they were closed?”
Something deep within Paul seemed to stir. “That’s right,” he said. “It was ten past one, and they closed at six every day except Wednesday. But I happened to go there on a Wednesday.”
There was a silence as the others waited for the punchline. Vicky had to start the laughter herself. “What would you know!” she said, smiling around the table. “Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time!”
This yielded only perfunctory smirks. Paul sighed and stood up. “Sorry, everyone,” he said. “I’m feeling pretty ratshit tonight. I think I might hit the road.” He pushed in his chair and walked out.
Vicky quickly excused herself and followed him onto the footpath. “What do you think you’re doing?” she hissed. “You embarrassed me in front of my friends!”
He looked at her sadly. “I’m tired,” he said. “I’m going to try and get some sleep.”
“No you’re not,” Vicky said with a sudden spurt of rancour. “You’re going to sit up reading that architecture book again.”
“I read it because I can’t sleep,” said Paul hotly, sounding more like his old self than he had in weeks.
“You can't sleep because
you read it. There are people you can go to, you know, sleep disorder specialists…”
Paul exhaled sharply. “I haven’t got a sleep disorder!” He unlocked the car and got inside.
“Paul — remember!” cried Vicky. “I need the car tomorrow! I’m driving down to Sorrento for Kate’s hen’s weekend!”
Paul, however, had already started to drive away. Vicky knew there was no point in further shouting, and went back into the restaurant.
Paul had moved in with Vicky four months earlier. Since leaving his parents’ house when he was at university, Paul had lived in a succession of grand, crumbling terrace houses in slowly gentrifying inner suburbs. Vicky, however, wanted something new and modern; so their new house was a warehouse conversion on the other side of the river.
This meant they were much closer to Vicky’s friends, who were gradually conquering the eastern suburbs through successive home renovations and sales. It also meant that Paul hardly ever saw Carmen and Graham, his best friends from uni. This was fine by Vicky. She disliked Carmen’s well-meaning moral outrage, calling her a “chardonnay socialist”. Carmen was a music therapist; Vicky thought Carmen ought to get a “proper job”, instead of encouraging retarded people to bang on xylophones.
As for Graham, Vicky thought he was weak. Not like Paul. Graham was content working as a site engineer for a building company; but Paul was responsible for deciding whether people like Graham kept their jobs. As a result of moving in with Vicky, Paul and Graham’s regular beer-drinking sessions at the Rampart Hotel had been severely curtailed.
This saddened Graham. Paul was one of his dearest friends. It was only recently, at one of their increasingly rare tête-à-têtes at the Rampart, that Paul had advised Graham not to break up with Carmen after six-and-a-half years. Graham had felt the relationship beginning to stagnate, felt himself beginning to grow restless and look at other girls in a different, disconcerting way. When he confessed this to Paul, he was surprised by the vehemence with which Paul responded.
“Don’t do it,” he said. “You and Carmen are stable. You’ve got something that can last. Don’t stuff that up.”
“But you and Vicky are the same, aren’t you?”
“It’s different with Vicky. She’s never happy with what she’s got. But you guys…” He trailed off. Graham had noticed that Paul was starting to do this a lot, not finish his sentences. It was annoying.
Paul looked like he was searching for the right words. "When I was about nineteen, I went back to visit my parents, and I noticed my dad had torn down my old cubby house in the back yard," Paul said. "I made it when I was in grade five. And then as soon as I move out, he gets rid of it. It made me so sad and angry at the same time."
"I like stories," Graham said, mock-sarcastically. It was meant to be a joke, but the comment seemed to sting Paul. His expression grew stony.
"Fine," he said.
Graham was bewildered. “What are you saying? You’re not happy with Vicky? You don’t look very happy.”
Paul sighed. “She’s a great girl. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. I haven’t had much sleep lately.” He rubbed his hand through his hair; hard, as if to massage his brain. “Listen, I’ve got to go.”
Graham felt somehow cheated. He suspected something was very wrong with Paul and Vicky’s relationship. Paul’s oblique story, however, made Graham’s own revelation about Carmen seem humiliating in its frankness. Years earlier, Graham and Paul had been able to talk openly about anything, without having to justify their manliness to each other. While Paul certainly looked harassed, Graham suspected that his excuse of sleeplessness masked a deeper rebuff.
As Paul got up to leave, Graham took a sip of his beer. “Take it easy, mate,” he said; but even as the words came out, they seemed utterly banal. He mused that Carmen would have known what to say. Women were usually good at handling such situations; and Carmen was better than most. Graham resolved to discuss the issue with her when he got home.
Margie looked at her son sprawled on the couch. “Have you been eating properly?” she asked.
Paul rolled his eyes. “If anything, I’ve been eating too much,” he said. “I’ve got breakfast or lunch meetings most days, and if we stay after eight, they give us a free dinner as well.” He pinched a roll of stomach. There wasn’t much to pinch. “Next you’ll say I’m stacking it on.”
Margie brought over the two mugs of tea. “Darling,” she said, “I’m just worried about you. You’re looking peaky. Have you been to a doctor?”
“You sound like Vicky. She thinks I’ve got a sleeping disorder.”
“Are your glands up?” Margie leaned over to feel Paul’s neck. He screwed up his face and batted her hands away, just as he had when she’d tried to put sunscreen on him as a child. Margie felt a pang of sentimental loss. Her little boy. She thought she’d got all that out of her system when he moved out of home, but then a part of her had always longed for the time when he needed her completely.
“Mu-um!” protested Paul. “It’s nothing, okay?”
Piqued, Margie sat back. “There’s no need to yell.”
“I wasn’t yelling!”
“You’re much more difficult now than you ever were as a baby,” said Margie, shaking her head. “I don’t understand it. You’ve got a good job, a nice new house, a lovely girlfriend who cares about you…”
Paul’s face was reddening. “And what? That’s supposed to make me happy?”
Margie didn’t know where to start. There were so many things wrong with that one statement. “Now, I never said that! You might feel down now. But Paul darling, you must realise what a great wicket you’re on. Happiness doesn’t just come to you — you’ve got to go out there and make
“But Mum, don’t you see? I don’t think I even get a say
in whether I’m happy!” He was breathing hard; he seemed really upset now. Margie wanted to hug him, but she knew he’d just push her away.
Paul jumped up from the couch. “See, I’ve got to go now,” he said bitterly. “Vicky’s friend Kate is getting married. They’re having a big restaurant do.”
Margie listened to his footsteps recede down the hall. It was silly, she knew, but her bottom lip was starting to tremble.
The tea mugs steamed away, forgotten, on the side table.
Don was outside watering the roses. He watched Paul storm from the house and head towards the car. “Don’t listen to your mother,” he said.
“She has it all backwards,” replied Paul. “She thinks I’m ungrateful.”
“Well,” Don said. It seemed like a very Margie thing to say; but he didn't tell his son that.
“Dad, do you remember when you took me to Alleura?” Paul had a faraway look on his face. Don recalled it from Paul’s childhood. He had been a dreamy boy. Not like kids nowadays, always demanding to be entertained. You could leave Paul for hours and he’d never get bored.
Don smiled. He’d totally forgotten. “That’s right,” he said. “The National Trust had an open day.”
“You bought me a book about famous houses in Melbourne,” said Paul. “That house was in there.”
Don laughed. “I'm surprised you remember. That must be twenty years ago!”
Paul was silent for a moment. It was getting dark, and Don couldn’t see his face properly. “It seems important to me,” he said quietly.
Paul woke to the sound of birdsong in the greyish morning. He blinked and looked around, unsure at first where he was. Then he remembered.
The car was parked across the street from the old house. Its white walls and fluted columns gleamed faintly in the twilight. Set back from the street, it had a pleasing symmetry, a grandeur beyond its size. Its wide front windows were just the right height for a child to rest his chin on and peer through. Through the wrought-iron gate, Paul could see the shallow bluestone steps lapping towards the pavement, hollowed in the centre from generations of footsteps.
Alleura was surrounded by a bluestone wall covered in ivy. The leaves moved in the gentle breeze; and Paul remember how the previous evening, they had seemed alive, seemed to beckon him over. Now, he could see a gleaming gap in the ivy. Paul got out of the car to see what it was.
The ivy had been carefully trimmed around the brass nameplate. The lettering read: Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre. Dr Sam Hall, M.B.B.S.
Paul laughed. Still chuckling to himself, he walked back to the car. He locked it, and left it where it was. It was a lovely morning for a walk.