Aldo remembers, through the late-night haze of his seventieth birthday party in a back room of the Brisbane Workers’ Club, with the glow of port on his lips and Mary on his lap, the week in 1999 when he twice injured his hand. His eyes blur with time and distance. His well-wishers allow him, as they have learned to do in recent years, a moment to himself. He drifts amid the tunes from Rich’s guitar and the plumes of Mary’s cigar and his fingers move over the dimples and ridges of disturbed tissue on his right palm, the papery skin, he imagines, rasping like a freshly-laundered scarf.
Where Mary sits now is where, during those early, lonely Brisbane years, Patience would curl herself in the evenings while he listened to op-shop tapes in his Carrington Street bedsit. Aldo drew in ink and watercolour the women of whom he had dreamed in his adolescence: brutish, thick ladies, German waitresses, Amazons, firewomen. The nervous wriggling of Patience and judicious pulls on his new brass hash pipe kept him awake into the early hours, when he’d block his ears to the late-night traffic and imagine he was back with his dad in Uralla in the little weatherboard shack next to the creek. A ‘dead-end town’, his dad had called it. ‘You wanna get outta here and do somethin’ with yerself.’ But instead of the closed shopfronts and the silent main road Aldo recalled platypus surfacing in the creek, dry forests of craggy-barked Angophoras, granite gorges overhung with she-oaks and flowering heath. He blocked out his squalid room above the Vietnamese greengrocer, forgetting for long moments that he was, like a dog in a field of bindies, trapped in this overgrown suburb of a city.
Saturday mornings he’d take Patience to the Royal Botanical Gardens and turn her loose to scratch for grubs in the grass, sit and prick her ears at the horns of ferries on the river, or roll in the shit of other dogs. Meanwhile he, in his boardies and Akubra, sat on a bench and sipped the varied flavours of solitude, making up odd stories in his head, singing tunes under his breath, nibbling steamed sticky rice from the Thai Palace on Cook Street.
One morning in the park he overhead people talking about the the results of the election. They strolled the gravel paths discussing politics and leadership. It gave him a queer, timeless shiver: he was a worker ant hearing of the birth, deep underground, of a new queen. He took a pen and a scrap of paper from his pocket and sketched a winged ant, which he would later colour in fiery reds and yellows. Patience stopped near the cactus garden, pricked her ears at a ferry and sat gently on a miner’s compass—a small plant that will, as it ages, lean its barb-studded dome to the north.
She yowled and shrieked. Other walkers stopped and turned. The spines had sunk deep. Aldo stood frozen. A rough-sleeper who lay wrapped in a blanket on the grass nearby rolled over and pulled the blanket over his head. Aldo lurched forward, stooped and took the dog in his arms, his heart racing. He murmured soothing words. When he touched the embedded spines with his left hand she reflexively chomped down on his right, again and again, small droplets appearing and glinting in the sun like crimson petunias. He tried pulling at the fang-like barbs. Patience clamped down. His hand was ravaged by those little teeth, all torn up and slippery with blood. He had never seen this much blood. He could smell it, a mineral tang in the morning air.
A Jordanian gardener emerged from a grove of pandanus, telling Aldo to wear one of his leather gloves and hold the dog’s muzzle closed while he pulled the spines, yelp by yelp.
At work the next day the foreman called the other men from their stations to see the wounds. Aldo held out the hand, which he could not move, in the morning sunlight. The foreman sent him home with instructions to drink a case of XXXX and try not to masturbate.
Brisbane was good for shows. Tex Perkins played often at the Juggler’s. Redgum, Crowded House, guitar trios, burlesques; late-night screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Herzog documentaries. Aldo avoided other people by going to social events; that is, he precluded any need for making close friends by taking himself to shows attended by other people’s friends. This was, at that point in his richly meagre existence, the way he wanted it. There were a few girls, yes, but he preferred the company of Patience and kept them at arm’s length until they quietly drifted on, ships leaving an indifferent port.
Three nights on, the bites on his hand stiffening and throbbing, he wandered from pub to café in Fortitude Valley drinking cheap red wine, sipping with his left hand, stopping to ponder graffiti and speaking to nobody, stopping to gaze into the starless city sky. As the sky lightened with the dawn he sat on the steps of the closed-up Heathcote Hotel. A couple he had spotted earlier in the night came and sat with him on the bricks. The man was tall and gaunt, with pale eyes and a missing front tooth. His wife looked like a rumpled witch, with black wavy hair and an intensity about her like a sun-dried tomato, as if she had been put out in the sun and her flavour, through some solar alchemy, had become fantastically focused. They told him about how they were travelling to Cape York in a camper van, how they were reading Pablo Neruda. The sex they were having, the man said, was just amazing. The sun hit the top of the empty pub’s white facade. The couple rolled and lit a joint. A dreadlocked bloke in a high-vis vest walked past pulling two wheelie bins and murmured, ‘Ah, that smells good.’
Aldo smoked with them and then quietly excused himself. His heart thumped against his ribs and a seeping nausea gripped his guts. A muscle in his lower lip twitched spasmodically. He felt as if something inside him that had held a great tension had been suddenly sliced through, that it had given way like a snapped rope on a ship’s mainsail and a significant part of him was loose, twisted, contorted by brutal winds. He took an alleyway, bounced off a steel dumpster, dribbled quickly down a set of steps and hit the window of a small gallery, smashing it with his bandaged fist and sitting heavily on the stone sill. Someone shrieked inside. Three tottering women emerged from the door and wrapped his hand in toilet paper and masking tape. The world throbbed and receded, his doors of perception opening and closing like the iris of someone watching television in a dark room. His wounded hand guided him home, through alleyways and around fast food outlets. He slept through the next day. Patience tore open the dressing with her teeth while he lay like a corpse. She licked the raw cuts, pausing to gaze through the square bedroom window at traffic stopped by the lights.
After a week off work the foreman put him on the crane, giving a quick run-through of the controls and making him practise loading and unloading a pallet of cement bags from the tray of an Isuzu truck. The rattle and roar and clank of the crane filled his ears. Lifting, moving and placing with slow precision made sense to him, put him at ease. From his elevated seat he could see the great muddy flow of the river, traffic moving like columns of coloured beetles.
In the evenings he no longer took out his drawing tools. He listened to an Arvo Pärt piano tape and read Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. He put the pipe in the pantry and didn’t touch it. When his dealer Mick called, he told him he’d quit. He could feel a change, a marvellous energy. Patience could feel it too, emanating from him like a good smell. She grew less fidgety. He began to cook meals, buying fresh coriander and mint from the Vietnamese grocer downstairs, quietly asking the grandmother behind the counter for advice: ‘For this you need trasi, the shrimp paste. You get this trasi, and you come back tomorrow for bitter eggplant.’
It is very late at the Workers’ Club and only the die-hards remain, Paul on someone’s clarinet, Mary dancing, Rich, still playing, Sam dozing at the table. Deb is opening another bottle of red. Aldo remembers going back the next day for the bitter eggplant, the onset of summer, more books, finally making the call to go to uni. He fingers the palm of his hand and closes his eyes. He recalls his first meeting with Paul, that ratbag, and all the others Paul introduced him to. He breathes deeply through his nose and the room around him shrinks to touch his face, as if he were a chrysalis hanging from the underside of a branch, waiting for time to sculpt it further.
Jed Calvert is a writer and mycologist based in Toowoomba, Queensland. He has studied sculpture, travelled extensively in Asia and is currently pursuing a PhD on the symbiotic fungi of rainforest plants on Cape York Peninsula.