The teacher, Henry Goode, was the first to see the car, and this is his story.
He staggered that evening under the weight of year 12 assignments, his laptop and a half-read novel that would remain half-read. The briefcase that had belonged to his teacher father slapped against his thigh as he walked. His father’s initials, embossed in dull gold on a corner of the case, blinked in the fading light.
The Nissan Bluebird sat at the curb before Henry’s flat. To the extent that it was blue, the wagon honoured its name. But with neither a petite, wren-like character nor the sweep of an American sixties cruiser, the Bluebird was an automotive starling. Later, staring vacantly at the registration label after climbing into the passenger’s seat as if he might be taxied away from everything gone wrong, Henry would note the car was a 1986 model. But that is getting ahead of ourselves. For now he registered the car as a pale-blue cube under the streetlight that had flickered on, and which had only been repaired after months of complaints by his wife Lisbeth.
Behind the wheel of the Nissan sat an ordinary man, staring ahead, presumably waiting for a friend or lover. He made no movement of his head as Henry passed and opened the gate to his apartment block, his briefcase giving a lucky last bruise to his thigh.
None of this was remarkable except that the next morning the teacher, setting out with the briefcase again nagging his thigh, saw the Nissan still parked by the curb. Inside, the man sat and stared ahead. He had one hand on the wheel as if negotiating peak hour. But little traffic appeared before him, only a car or bike leaving the small, quiet cul-de-sac where parking remained at a premium. Perhaps the man had collected a neighbour last night and was repeating the exercise this morning. Who knows, thought Henry Goode. He walked in the direction of the number 3 tram.
That evening when the teacher returned he saw the man still sitting in his car. Henry regarded him more closely. A straight nose and receding chin, short, dark hair above a slope of forehead. Slope was the word that came to mind, as if that forehead were attached to a criminal mind in a nineteenth-century novel. But the man looked neither threatening nor friendly.
Lisbeth, returning from work, noticed the man also. She and the teacher took turns to shunt tofu and vegetables around a wok while testing their theories. Newly homeless. Busted marriage. Busted career. Thwarted love. Refugee. Stalker.
They laughed, uneasily. Every hour one or both looked out their kitchen window. The car remained parked, most likely with the man inside, but from the first floor of their space-age block they could not be sure. Lisbeth rested her hands on her belly, swollen dramatically in the past week as if to protect the small astronaut inside.
Next morning the teacher on his way to work noted with relief—from what, he was unsure—the Bluebird empty. He returned that evening to find the same. No stalker, just an empty car.
At 8 p.m. came a knock at the door. Caitlyn, a frowning student who planted notes in the communal laundry about respecting shared amenities, appeared before Henry. A man is living in his car at the front of our block, she said.
Henry took a moment to gather his thoughts. The car was empty when I last looked, he said.
Check the back of the wagon.
Next morning Henry saw the man lying cocooned on the floor in a sleeping bag, his pupa head visible behind the driver’s seat where the rear split-fold had been lowered. A scatter of receipts, a tomato-juice carton, a disposable coffee cup and a volume of Proust lined the front seat. A suitcase with clothing folded on top occupied the section of back seat still upright. The man faced away from Henry and appeared asleep.
The car was a contained and ordered world. Living room at the front, bedroom at the rear, crawl-through robe in the middle. Henry pursed his lips and adjusted his grip on his father’s briefcase. He made for his tram. Part of him envied the man.
When Henry returned home the man was sitting in the back seat as if being chauffeured. Staring down, perhaps reading Proust.
At that rate he won’t be starting the engine anytime soon, said Lisbeth. She looked out the kitchen window towards the car, a muscle twitching in her neck.
Visiting Paris late the previous year, Lisbeth had been besotted with everything from the Pompidou to the art nouveau metro signage. Henry had pawed through bookshops. They went to the Musée Carnavalet and stood before Proust’s brown, reconstructed cork-lined bedroom where he’d written his masterpiece. Henry found the room beguiling, Lisbeth thought it repugnant. Recalling that Proust’s bedroom was also his study, living space and repository of memory objects, Henry thought now that reading Proust in the confines of a station wagon, cosseted by plastic and vinyl, was logical. The interior life made tangible.
But he hoped the man was a speed reader.
Towards the end of their Parisian holiday, Lisbeth became pregnant. Probably one evening after they’d dined on rabbit. She had previously miscarried twice, and her pregnancy this time had been difficult. Months of morning sickness and, once, bleeding. Nights passed with her head lowered over herbal tea in the kitchen, where medical bills feathered the fridge. Placenta praevia, the gynaecologist called it. Lisbeth called it unjust. Yet her astronaut had orbited inner space for 27 weeks. Sometimes Henry put his ear like a conch to Lisbeth’s belly and listened for movement. She was beyond the worst, they told themselves.
The Nissan remained where it was, unmoved since that first night. The whole street knew of its arrival. The teacher had often seen his wife, worry written on her face, gaze through the kitchen window at the car as if regarding an ill omen. On the fourth day the car was empty when Henry left for work. The man’s belongings remained. Sleeping bag folded in the rear, suitcase on the back seat, Proust with a bookmark a quarter-way through in the front, but drink containers gone and receipts posted, perhaps, in the glove box.
The Nissan had no rust, a few minor scratches and some tiny, barely visible dents. Upholstery intact. The duco maintained a dull sheen. Lovingly maintained, a car salesman would have said. Henry removed a dead leaf trapped between the bonnet and side panel.
The man was back in his car that evening.
Despite his respect for order in the communal laundry, Henry found his washing interrupted. Jana Dorotich lived downstairs and wore thick make-up and floral dresses sown from window curtains. She heaved her basket on top of a machine.
The man in the car, you see him?
I think he’s settled in, Henry said.
He been there days. What’s he doing, eh?
Henry shrugged. Jana continued: I was going to call police. But then I see his eyes. He have sad eyes. I say to myself, he mean no harm.
Henry set his machine on mixed load and pressed start. I haven’t looked into his eyes, he said, but you may be right, Jana.
Probably his wife kick him out. Who knows? Affairs of men are complicated. Now we stuck with him in our street. She began separating her colours from her whites. But he have sad eyes, she said.
At week’s end the man remained.
No-one had knocked on his car door and told him to leave. It already seemed too late, he was part of the street, a tenant by default. The legal world has a term for it: adverse possession. That’s not what it was, of course, but after a week the area occupied by the Nissan seemed the man’s alone.
So no-one knew what had befallen him.
Why he had selected this street. Why he had sad eyes. People went about their business, noting daily the presence of the car and the man posted inside. Or they registered him no more than they would a power pole or a meter box, except they vaguely wished him gone.
One morning on his way to the tram, the teacher passed the man on foot, returning to his car. Neatly dressed, olive skin clean-shaven. At first Henry thought the man only a neighbour. One of us. Henry tucked in his lips, pulled his mouth to a half smile and nodded, as he might have in stepping round a colleague at work. Only when the man passed did recognition fall upon Henry.
Rounding the corner he looked back towards the man, who was opening his car door. Their eyes met briefly, and the teacher felt he’d breached an unspoken point of etiquette. Henry Goode began to wonder if the man were waiting for someone after all. Or something.
That a man should step outside his immobile home should have been no surprise to anyone. Personal needs must be attended to, after all. It surprised the neighbourhood nonetheless. He had a life, spasmodically, outside his car, sorties into the wider world.
Next day Margot Trigg, whose house was overshadowed by the teacher’s apartment block, saw the man further from his car, stepping from the park from where she, Henry Goode and 12 others in the cul-de-sac daily caught the tram. A day later Jordan Thomas, who lived with his cat Manxie at the back of Henry’s block and who said he was caught short on returning from shopping, found the man in the park’s public toilet, rinsing his razor and drawing a brush over his hair as he stood before a metal mirror.
Some noticed, now, the neatness of the man’s trousers and shirt, as if they had been pressed. His carefully cropped hair. His face clean-shaven, except for weekends when he allowed a shadow on his chin. Henry wondered whether he had a job. Otherwise, why bother? Others said no; on weekdays the man could still be seen in his car.
His appearances outside his car intrigued Henry’s neighbours. As they might for a TV series, they reported and discussed each new episode.
Alex and Nadine Furrugia, who lived in a white double-storey fronted by iceberg roses, saw him taking tea and cake in Café Kaiser on Carlisle Street. Caitlyn from the flats saw him in a coin laundry in Balaclava Road, but could offer no comment on his laundering etiquette. The twin daughters of the Clayton-Burns from number 42 saw him sitting on a park bench each time they looped skyward on the playground swings. Ruth Gold from 19 thought she saw him waiting at a bus stop, but agreed she might have been mistaken.
Every weekday, four-year-old Bradley Tapp would turn to look at the blue car with the man inside. Trails of green snot would descend from Bradley’s nostrils as he stared with an open mouth he still filled with a thumb on which he could taste mashed banana and his own bodily wastes. Bronwyn Tapp would wrench out the thumb and tug her son in the direction of the East St Kilda Total Care Kindergarten.
I know for him it must be tough, but I don’t want him out front, said an increasingly agitated Lisbeth Levers, whose own front had grown substantial at 29 weeks. Time he moved on, said Craig Wilson from number 28, hitching his tracksuit pants as if about to intervene. He freaks me out, said Kaytee Millar, putting headphones over her ears while extracting the last life from her chewing gum. We should give him some food, said Francine Armenio. He have sad eyes, said Jana Dorotich.
After three weeks the Nissan had not moved. Walking past it of a morning, the teacher noticed a film of city dust slowly coating the duco, leaves crowding the curb-side tyres, leaf litter collecting on the unmoving wipers and where the bonnet met the body. A few days later a power-drink bottle lodged beneath a wheel. Noting the car empty, the teacher ran a finger along a rear panel. On the way to school he took guilty pleasure in the dust secreted on his index finger. He had seen the bookmark halfway through Proust.
After four weeks a large, fluorescent sticker appeared on the windscreen. One day the car was as it had been, the next it screamed with an orange wound. The council sticker informed the owner that the vehicle should be removed or council would take due measures to remove said vehicle at the owner’s expense. It covered half the front windscreen and would take a scourer to remove.
Griz Norton from number 18 had seen the brown-hatted council inspector tap the side window of the Bluebird while its occupant sat in the rear seat with Proust on his lap. After little or no exchange the council man shook his head so that his hat tipped from side to side before he slapped the neon sticker across the windscreen. The man in the car continued reading, the light on his page presumably dimming to a dusky orange as if the sun had suddenly set.
The orange sticker was a small spot fire in the dead-end street. It blazed during the day, glowered under the streetlight at night. It told the world that this not-so-mobile home was unwelcome. The teacher felt a stab of pity for the man in the car. But he wanted him gone.
Some thought Craig Wilson had tipped the council off, others thought he would have bypassed bureaucracy. He had once tackled to the ground a zoned-out druggie who had unwisely targeted the Wilson home for a break-in, a story the local paper ran in order to argue for hero vigilantes as a reliable form of law enforcement. Others thought it had been the teacher’s wife, whose apartment overlooked the Bluebird and whose design consultancy made her intolerant of disorder in the aesthetic and social fabric. (Wait till her newborn chucks on her shoulder, Francine Armenio liked to say.) That her hormones must be strung with high-wire tension only promoted her candidacy.
The car remained, the orange sticker blazed, but after a few days people’s eyes adjusted to the glare. Like an amber traffic light, it indicated neither moving on nor stopping.
Lisbeth Levers’ birth-giving was booked for week 38. Her gynaecologist recommended an early-term C section. To some, Lisbeth’s scheduled birth said as much about her temperament as it did about her physiology. The kid’ll have a spreadsheet for nappy changes, Craig Wilson said.
Lisbeth had worked more and more from home as the weeks passed. She and her business partner shared a tiny shopfront in a posh strip two suburbs away. The street presence barely justified the rent, the traffic jangled her nerves. Lisbeth preferred the security of home with her bag reassuringly packed for hospital; the ready supply of salted peanut butter for which she cradled a fetish; her husband’s back and shoulder rubs.
She entreated her womb to hold strong.
She worked with her catalogues and laptop at the kitchen table. The shared study had been converted to a nursery. Jana Dorotich inspected the nursery after seeing pots of paint hauled past the landing of her flat, and confirmed the colour scheme and by default the baby’s sex. Like the sky, everywhere blue, she said. In each corner of the blue ceiling Lisbeth had painted a fluffy white cloud.
Henry sometimes worked at the kitchen table too, marking essays into the night. He read and jotted comments and stabbed in a mark before turning to the next. His briefcase rested against a table leg. After a time he would stand and arch his back, sip cold tea and gaze out the kitchen window into the night. He would see the square gleam of the Bluebird’s roof under the streetlight. Occasionally a light would ignite the car, then extinguish itself. He imagined the man inside, turning in sleep from one aching shoulder to the other. The Proust beside him, each night the bookmark buried deeper into the book.
No-one knew when the traffic light of orange sticker would turn to red.
On the night of Kaytee Millar’s seventeenth birthday—a night she would recall on Facebook as totally awesome and absolutely massive—cars teeming with teenagers on mixers and caffeine performed five-point turns at the end of the street. Global rap hammered windows and walls, and screams denoting high spirits or, perhaps, violence scored the night. Jana Dorotich thought of calling the police, Craig Wilson interrupted Netflix to tell a visitor to collect his stubbie or risk drinking from his other end.
Next day Francine Armenio and Griz Norton collected empties from their front yards, Alex Furugia extracted a condom from his roses. Henry Goode washed vomit from the footpath. A gaudy contribution also graced the bumper of the Bluebird. The teacher stood and looked. The car was empty. There was nothing he could do about the broken aerial, but he refilled his watering can and showered the car until the remains of a radiant cruiser and half-digested pizza were gone. Inside the car, the bookmark in Proust was three-quarters through.
The days grew shorter, frost formed on the Nissan and its orange sticker. Alex Furrugia pruned roses for next spring, Francine Armenio had wood delivered for winter. Margot Trigg and her husband Ambrose installed a fake fire with a fourstar energy rating. Henry Goode kept marking essays, making cups of tea and layering dried biscuits with scrapings of peanut butter his wife had overlooked. Lisbeth got bigger.
Here is how it unfolded. Or the neighbourhood’s version of it, piecing together intelligence floating by like space junk.
With Henry’s mobile turned off, the call came to the school office. A staff member knocked on the door where Henry was taking year 11 English.
He got a taxi, and from triage they took him to a small, curtained cubicle where his wife lay motionless and half-raised, her face masked for oxygen. A network of tubes and wires ran to and from her body. Someone he thought was a doctor but later learned was a nurse spoke to him, followed by a doctor who spoke more. Both talked of things in which Henry had no schooling. The doctor had a warm Scottish accent and a calm way of unfolding his sentences. Henry would later recall he could have curled up for comfort in the doctor’s gentle vowel sounds.
They wheeled his still, silent wife to theatre. She was a small city of monitors and sundry equipment. There was a point at which the teacher was allowed no further. His wife disappeared through translucent swing doors.
After six hours she was wheeled back through the swing doors to a ward that was not the one she and Henry had planned for. Once she was settled, Henry sat beside her. How white she was, barely there on her white sheets. Her small hand like a child’s in his.
After eight more hours the charge nurse sent him home. A taxi dropped the teacher at his front gate in the first sliver of light. He stepped out and saw, under the streetlight, the familiar blue car. Wired from his vigil, dizzy with fatigue, he stood and stared at the car. The blue car with the man inside who had steadfastly, mutely taken up residence before his and his wife’s apartment. Before the small blue room that had once been a study and now held a loss as big as a suburb.
He lurched onto the footpath, faced the rear door of the car. Inside, the man would be sleeping, curled like a foetus. He kicked the car door. He kicked again. His right foot did all the work. A voice screamed in what remained of the night. Something had released inside him, and he recognised the voice as his own. He continued with terrible words he hardly knew he possessed, and a wrenching sound as if he were being torn in the way that Lisbeth had been by the small spaceman inside. He thought he saw movement in the car, a blurry ultrasound waving of life, but he kept on until a sudden exhaustion overcame him. With a final kick he turned and made for the gate.
He later recalled a sense of quiet command as he pulled the gate aside, stepped through and closed it calmly behind him. The echo of his uneven footsteps as he limped up the concrete stairs to the first floor. The autopilot opening and closing of his front door.
Jana Dorotich woke the teacher an indeterminate number of hours later. Strode through his door with a casserole dish she carried to the kitchen.
That man in the car, he find her, she said.
The man was nowhere in sight when Henry Goode returned to the blue car. To his shame he found evidence of his shoe on the rear door. The front door also bore a wound. It was, he saw, unlocked. He opened the door and sat inside.
The smell of vinyl and of slept-in sleeping bag met him, neither strong nor unpleasant. He closed the door and sat in the front passenger seat. The upholstery, the dash, everywhere blue. Behind and to his right lay the folded sleeping bag, the closed suitcase alongside. Before him the glove box that might have held a name, an address. But his hands remained in his lap.
The old car registration had lifted slightly off the windscreen. He fingered it back down and read, in reverse, the make and model. First year of registration. Expiry. The same date the council officer, after a request from the teacher’s wife, had drawn the sticker like a veil over the car.
He heard the muted sounds of a bird call, a distant tram. Someone’s door closing. The air inside the car was warm, and glowing from the orange sticker. To his left rose the apartment block where he lived, which seemed part of someone else’s world.
The gate where she had collapsed. Slumping with her hands about her body as if to hold herself together. The man taking her in his arms and calling. Jana Dorotich running. Caitlyn, later, taking the watering can to wash away the blood. Thorough. There had been so much of it.
On the driver’s seat beside him sat the Proust. The bookmark protruded from the very end, inside the back cover.
The ringtone of his mobile had never seemed so loud and unreasonably intrusive. The call was short. When he’d finished he was out of the car, flinging the door closed behind him. Now, they’d said. He ran.
When Francine Armenio stepped from her home with a thermos of tea and a cake she’d baked that afternoon and placed in an airtight container, the car, and the man, had vanished.
No-one recalled seeing him go.•