Ali dies first, in 1996, or perhaps it’s 1997. He’s been travelling through Italy and Greece by himself, on a sabbatical from the academic world that he has come to loathe (he’s a professor at York). The pressure to publish work that he finds palimpsestic is becoming excruciating; beneath the words that he prints, he can see the ghosts of the ones he’s struck through and erased. He has no new ideas and finds his colleagues in the humanities facile. They can no longer think for themselves, he believes, and he does not exempt himself from this criticism.
After passing through Greece, he holes up in a pensione near Rome’s Termini station for a month, surviving on pasta and powder and pills. The pensione is run by a former priest who still wears his Roman collar and cuts the electricity in the middle of the night. The priest speaks no English and calls Ali ragazzo and passes no comment on his proclivities, simply crossing himself whenever he takes payment for the room, which is a cold all-in-one with a toilet and sink and bucket in the corner and a bed with sheets so stiff they feel like cardboard. A brass Jesus, weeping, is on the wall near the sink, and Ali finds its gaze disconcerting when he’s washing his balls in the early morning. He covers it up once or twice. The priest uncovers it when he cleans the room and even adds a figurine of the Virgin Mary for good measure. Ali returns the Virgin and assures the priest that he will not cover Jesus up any more; the priest gestures to indicate that the Christ is in Ali’s heart if he uses his head to search for him.
Sometimes Ali brings men back to his room. They occasionally demand cash and rarely spend the night. Two or three rob him while he sleeps, but all they get is a few lire and perhaps some leftover cocaine (which is about what he would have paid them anyway, had they asked). It takes Ali a couple of weeks to notice that the priest charges him double for nights of dual occupancy. This seems only fair, he supposes. The room is dirt cheap anyway.
On a cool autumn night, Ali is walking along the streets near the Termini station when a young man starts following him from across the way. The young man has pimples and a pugilist’s nose. He’s wearing black jeans and a charcoal jumper. Ali makes meaningful eye contact and beckons and the young man nods. Ali is pleased: this is a promising start to the dance. The young man crosses the street and walks behind Ali, following at a safe distance. A car or motorbike occasionally passes and Ali has to turn back to ensure the young man is still there. He observes that the young man is wearing new white sneakers, which is unusual for a rent boy; however, he doesn’t give it much thought except to note that the shoes make the young man’s footsteps impossible to hear.
Ali sidesteps a homeless man in a green sleeping bag who is camped out around the corner from his lodgings. When he turns, he sees the young man kick the homeless man in the chest and walk on, grinning to himself. The homeless man doesn’t even sit up. He’s used to being kicked by the world and might be too drunk even to feel it; either that or he’s dead, Ali thinks. He shakes his head and is thankful that, for his purposes, he doesn’t have to like the young man or find him of unstained character. Perhaps in anticipation of sex, or as a reaction to violence, his erection begins to feel uncomfortable in his briefs. He breathes in the cool air to calm himself.
Ali stops at the pensione and rings the buzzer for the priest to open the large wooden door. The young man hangs back nervously, hands in pockets, glancing up and down the street. Ali assures him that there are no police around and beckons him once more. Walking forward, the young man won’t look at Ali. He must be a novice at this trade, Ali thinks, and runs his thumb over the young man’s lips and lifts his chin.
Then he feels a sharp pain in his gut. He’s been stabbed, he realises. The young man retracts the knife and keeps spitting the word frocio, frocio, and Ali hears a siren, or the mew of mating cats, which he knows to be an auditory hallucination, and he slides to the ground with his hand over his wound, his torso like a wineskin coming apart at the seams. He doesn’t scream or resist as the young man scavenges through his pockets and takes his money. The young man’s footsteps are inaudible as he evanesces into the darkness and Ali begins to cry, for all that he has lost and is about to lose. The priest opens the door and crosses himself and knows there is nothing he can do but pray, and so he prays, and Ali’s final thought is that the young man and the priest and the weeping Jesus in his room are in on this together.
Sondra’s death in 2010 is at once more peaceful and more prolonged—unlike Ali, she has always had a keen appreciation of her own mortality. She’s aboard a yacht that is adrift in international waters (she knows she’s somewhere in the Pacific Ocean). The yacht smells like floor cleaner and makes Sondra feel as if she’s still in palliative care, which in a way she is.
There are only six people on board. Apart from Sondra, there are a well-intentioned doctor whose book Quietus (2007) was published under Sondra’s imprint; the doctor’s husband, who is the benevolent owner of the yacht; a woman whom everyone knows as the daughter of a prominent politician; and two moribund old men. One of the men is constantly on a drip. The other wears the melting mask of an alcoholic. No-one seems keen on conversation and, in any case, the doctor discourages interaction between her patients. She tells them to spend their time reading or watching films from her vast digital library. She asks them to come and see her when they’re ready.
Sondra is sharing a cabin with the politician’s daughter, Cassie, whose presence on the yacht is a minor mystery. Although Cassie has the shattered eyes of an insomniac, she strikes Sondra as healthy, naive, incongruous. At least she agreed to take the top bunk, Sondra thinks. The first night, Sondra wakes to the sound of Cassie scratching at the wall and muttering odd imprecations, or perhaps speaking an ancient language like Latin or Aramaic—a language that, in any event, Sondra cannot identify. For the next few nights Sondra lies awake and listens (the pain often wakes her anyway), but over the concussions and caresses of the waves against the hull she can only make out that Cassie is crying, ceaselessly, until daybreak. Sondra wonders if she ever sleeps.
During the day, Cassie finds herself a nook and makes herself as small as possible, or otherwise she watches a film or television series on a laptop. She never makes eye contact and Sondra finds excuses to hobble by and stare at her chipped nails and hooded eyes.
On the sixth night, Sondra is given a strong hit of fentanyl and sleeps inter-mittently and dreams of the static message that Johan left her; she wonders what he wanted to say. Then she wakes with a start. Cassie’s white knuckles are gripping the edge of the bunk and her face is upside-down, making her eyes look like they belong to something animal, something inhuman. She doesn’t blink. Her lips are split open and dry, as if she’s been eating glass, and Sondra can smell her unwashed hair, which cascades almost onto Sondra’s mattress. Cassie growls. Even then, Sondra resists the urge to invoke God’s name; rather, she hears herself wheeze and dissembles her fear with a coughing fit.
Cassie returns to her bed, presumably laying her head on the pillow, but no more sleep will come to either woman. Cassie will drag her nails up and down the wall and curse the darkness with incomprehensible words and Sondra will steel herself against the pain and grind her teeth and wait for what further horrors may come.
The next morning, Sondra sits beside Cassie, who has settled into a shadowy corner of the aft deck. Without looking up, Cassie begins to sob; her eyes are bloodshot but they appear nothing but human. Sondra clears her throat to speak and Cassie glances at her for the first time. Without being prompted, Cassie says that she’s sorry: she knows she’s only on the yacht because of who her mother is, because they (the doctor and her husband) want to prove something to her mother, but she doesn’t care. She’s sick. She’s dying. She’s ready to die. Her lips twist into a haunted smile and she gets up and becomes the first person to see the doctor.
Within a few days, the two elderly men have also gone. No announcements are made. When Sondra asks about their whereabouts, the doctor touches her shoulder and tells her to take her time. The doctor and her husband seem in good spirits, excitable even. Their skin begins to tan. They spend their days on the deck, reading paperback books not drawn from the digital library. The doctor starts reading a book that Sondra gave her. It’s titled VS Naipaul’s Fear and Loathing in the Moslem World (1985) and was the first book Sondra ever published. She remembers the young British-Moroccan academic who wrote it, who was sullen and withdrawn and spent a weekend sleeping on her sofa. She wonders what happened to him.
Soon the doctor puts the book down. She says it’s so-so, intellectually lightweight—and then remarks to her husband on the beautiful weather, which seems to Sondra overwarm. The heat makes her stop and catch her breath more regularly than she would like and (maybe she’s imagining this) the pain in her abdomen burns more intensely. She once thought that book would be part of her legacy.
Cassie’s bed sheets are stripped and the damaged wall daubed with touch-up paint. Her belongings are taken away. The only traces of her that remain in the cabin are the scratches that are still visible beside her bed. With some effort, Sondra hoists herself onto the top bunk. She pants and traces the impressions beneath the skin of the new paint. There’s no meaning there, Sondra thinks, and lies down on the bare bed that used to belong to Cassie. She buries her head in the caseless pillow, trying to catch the scent of Cassie’s hair, but everything just smells of floor cleaner. A stitch forms in her abdomen and the pain grows until she finds herself lying in the foetal position, wincing and clutching her solar plexus. She misses Cassie, she realises. She misses everyone she’s ever known.
The sea is still and solemn and she wishes the shadow on the gibbous moon would never leave. It seems to her that the moon is more perfect as an incomplete circle, eternally waxing, as if it still has something for which to strive. Walking slowly, she goes looking for the doctor, or her husband; she wants to tell them that she’s ready.
She doesn’t find them in their cabin, where the bed has not been slept in. They are not in the kitchen either. Her breath flows uneasily as she moves through the unlit aft deck and, for a moment, she considers that perhaps the doctor and her husband have disembarked in the lifeboat and abandoned her to drift at sea forever.
She’s about to step onto the yacht’s deck when she becomes aware that they’re out there. She hears their ecstatic groans before she sees their silhouettes, entwined, the doctor astride her husband, his hands on her hips, her left shoulder pulled back and her right hand gripping the scruff of his neck, her legs wrapped all the way around the deck chair as if she means to push him farther inside her, to eliminate the distance between their bodies, to make them one, and Sondra understands that they have forgotten all about her, they have forgotten all about the world, and soon Sondra forgets as well, as if her memories have been drawn from her like poison.
Johan’s death precedes Sondra’s by some six years, and is perhaps the most romantic, or tragic, of the three. It’s 2004. Although business is slow, Johan still works as a car mechanic (more as a hobby than anything else). His garage is in Maroubra, Sydney, and has a double-brick facade with a whitewashed sign. The windows are grimy. Fleabane shoots up from the cracks in the cement. Sometimes children run up to the garage on a dare and retreat when they spy the bald, stooped mechanic, who seems to them an apparition, or a hunchback without a belfry.
Johan is good at his job and has his loyal customers, who sit with him biannually and whine about the way the suburb has been disfeatured over the years. On a Wednesday in August, though, a taxi driver’s car breaks down outside Johan’s shop. The driver, Amen, is plump and stubbly. His wedding ring looks as fragile as alfoil. He asks Johan if he’s open for business and together they ease the taxi into the garage. They make small talk and Johan opens the bonnet and peers at the engine. Amen leans there beside him and Johan can smell his deodorant, musky and pungent, and beneath that the earthiness of his sweat, and faintly on the breeze the scent of the ocean. Amen jabs at a part of the engine, a spark-plug probably, and his arm brushes against Johan’s and feels cool and slightly moist. Johan thinks of Ali—one weekend, so many years before.
He stands to his full height and the two men stare at one another uncertainly and something passes between them, an admission or an understanding, and Johan begins to kneel. He’s dismayed when Amen walks away but then he realises that Amen is simply closing the roller-door, shutting them off from the light of the street. Johan can smell Amen’s unwashed erection and his eyes water and he takes Amen in his mouth and clumsily sucks him off until the taxi driver comes onto the car’s headlight. When they reopen the roller-door, the imprint of Johan’s knees remains on the dusty floor.
After that they meet weekly in Johan’s garage—less often if Amen happens to arrive when Johan is with a customer. They engage in snippets of conversation but are wary of telling each other too much. Amen says he has three young children, one of whom has Down syndrome. He reveals this with melancholy in his eyes and tells Johan that he’s married to his cousin, whom he loves like a sister (he laughs bitterly at this).
It’s around the time of that revelation that Sondra receives her first diagnosis of breast cancer. Johan has his hand on her thigh when she gets the news. The doctors assure Sondra that they don’t have to perform a full mastectomy: a lumpectomy will suffice, they say. Johan is sceptical but when he tries to raise it with Sondra she shouts him down and tells him it’s her body and she’ll do what she pleases with it. He doesn’t demur (he never has) but, staring at the cobwebs dangling from the cornices of their bedroom, he can’t get to sleep.
Midnight is on the clock when the home phone rings. Johan immediately suspects that it’s bad news. He picks up and hears a whimpering voice and wonders if it’s a young boy—lost, afraid, dialling random numbers from a far-flung phone booth. The sobbing settles and Amen’s voice crackles down the line. He mumbles that his wife found out about them, that she has left him, that he’s broke and has nowhere to go. Johan clenches his fist. He asks how Amen’s wife could possibly have found out and Amen admits that he told her. He loves her, he confesses, and he’s never done anything like this before, besides which he’s not gay, and it’s all getting too much for him. He asks if Johan can put him up for a few days, or maybe pay for a motel, nothing classy, he says, one of those highway motels, a Formula One or something like that. Johan twists the porcine phone cord around his finger and tells Amen that he cannot help; he says not to call his home and hangs up. And even though the phone doesn’t ring again, Johan sits in the living room beside an etiolated pot-plant and waits for the dawn.
The following afternoon, Johan drives Sondra to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where she is to have her operation. He kisses her fingertips and strokes her forehead and tells her everything will be all right (which is true enough for now). She doesn’t respond. He stays with her until she is wheeled away and then he drives home, fretting for her, fretting for himself. The sun sets on his car and he switches on the headlights.
As he pulls into his driveway, he realises that Amen is sitting on the front porch. He’s wearing a hangdog expression and wringing his hands between his knees. Johan’s head pounds. He slams the car door as hard as he can and Amen is on his feet, pleading for help, asking for a place to stay. Johan thinks his words sound garbled and confusing and, pushing past Amen, he unlocks the front door and closes it behind him. He flicks on the corridor light and there’s a momentary burst of brightness, like a flash from a camera, before the bulb pings and extinguishes itself.
Johan stands with his back against the door and Amen knocks furiously and calls out his name. After a while, Amen retreats to the street. He begins shouting that a paedophile lives at the house, a bestial mechanic, a ghostly old white man who fucks little girls. Dogs bark and howl. There’s a loud clang, like a garbage bin being tipped over, perhaps, or a letterbox being kicked. Someone yells out that they’re calling the police and after that everything goes quiet.
Johan sighs. He retrieves a light bulb from a low cupboard in the kitchen and returns to the corridor. His headache is blinding him and his face feels cold, or numb, as if he’s been walking through a blizzard; an avalanche of confusion rushes over him and he sees the bulb in his hand. He tries to recall what it’s for and allows it to drop onto the floor, where it smashes at his feet, which he notices are not bare. Maybe he has just come home, he thinks.
He takes his phone from his pocket and with an unsteady hand he dials the last number that he’s called. It requires all his concentration to stay on task, to keep at the forefront of his mind what he’s doing. His tongue feels thick in his mouth and he realises that he’s lying on the floor, although he has no memory of falling. He feels as if he’s living a series of disjunct moments. Sondra’s phone rings and rings until Johan hears her voice and an extended beep: it’s gone through to her messages. He wants to tell her that he loves her, despite everything, that he’s grateful that she chose him as her partner, that he loves her, that he loves her, but already it’s too late, and he won’t say another word.