The Beginner's Guide to Living (10 page)

BOOK: The Beginner's Guide to Living
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“Yes, Will?”

“What's the worst thing about Mom dying?”

For a moment it's like I haven't spoken, but he looks up from the fresh wine stain he's been running his finger over. “That I didn't die first.”

*   *   *

Dad drinks too much so I drive, even though it's not allowed. The moon has an anemic glow that taints the stars. Adam doesn't come home.

*   *   *

After what happened at the restaurant last night, Taryn and I take refuge on her bed. Nobody else is home. “How could that guy be your brother?”

“Yeah, sometimes I wonder myself.”

“I bet he's jealous he's got no one to love him.”

It's been a while since Adam had a girlfriend as far as I know. He had one at the university though he never brought her home.

Taryn straddles me. “You know, I can't imagine not being with you.”

“Things change,” I say.

“I know that, Will.”

Her knees nudge my ribs as she changes position.

“Sorry. Not much of a romantic, am I?”

“I think you are, but not in the usual way,” she says, her finger settling on my lip. “There are plenty of ways to love.”

*   *   *

Adam doesn't come home for two days, no phone call, nothing. I'm in the kitchen cooking dinner Saturday evening, when he finally gets back. “Where've you been?”

“At a friend's place.”

“You could've called.”


“Bit adolescent, don't you think?”

Adam gets a beer out of the fridge, twists the top off and chucks it at the small garbage can on the counter near the stove. It misses. I reach over and throw it in. “Didn't know you could cook curry,” he says.

“Taryn showed me how.” I give him a warning look.

He goes back to the fridge and takes out a second beer, opens it and hands it to me. I take a swig. “Well, just make sure it's good and hot.”

“Dad doesn't like it spicy.”

“Dad doesn't like anything spicy. A little change won't kill him.”

“Maybe not.” The smell of the curry reminds me of Taryn's house and I smile to myself.

“I know what you're thinking,” says Adam, his lip a skeptical curl.

“I doubt that.” I turn the gas down on the curry. “Can I show you something?”

“Sure, as long as it's not tarot cards.”

I laugh. For some reason I'm immune to him tonight. “It's in my room.”

Adam follows me, carrying both our beers. “What you got hiding in there?”

“Sit down,” I say, pulling the box out from under my bed. “I found it in Mom's stuff.”

Adam drops down next to me on the bed, moving a pile of books to the side. “If Dad catches you…”

“He won't.”

The photo I hand him is in black and white, a close-up. It's of Adam and me—I'm a baby so Adam must be about six. He's holding me in his arms, looking at me like I'm the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. He taps the photo with his finger. “I remember this.”

“I found it with a bunch of old letters.”

Adam glances at me.

“I didn't read them. It was wrapped up in this.” I let a blue silk scarf fall from my hand to his. He holds it up like an artifact.

“I've never seen the scarf before, but this photo, it's the day of your christening.”

“I was christened? Nobody ever tells me anything.”

“It's probably the only time you've been in a church.”

I think to tell him about the day in St. Paul's with the candles, and that time with Mom, but I don't want to sidestep his thoughts.

Adam smiles. “The priest, when he sprinkled the water over your head, you gave him this filthy look. I swear. I remember being proud of you. I remember thinking, this baby is my brother. It was kind of weird—I'd waited a long time to get one, especially after Mom lost the other baby.” He wraps the photo back in the scarf. “You know, we need to keep an eye on Dad. He's been working too hard.”

“Active laziness.”


“Nothing. Yeah, I guess you're right. Maybe we could do something together. Something fun. Not like the other night.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. I'd had a shit of a day.”

“Jealousy's a curse,” I say, looking at him sideways as I sip from my bottle.

He frowns, and then he gets it. “You talking about Taryn?” He shoves me hard, but he's laughing. I slam him back, nearly push him off the end of the bed. He barely manages to save his beer.

“We could all go away, maybe for a weekend? Go camping,” I say.

“You mean, do a little male bonding?”

“Jesus, Adam, can't you drop the sarcasm for once?”

He grins. “If you insist. God, it's been ages since I went camping.”

“Dad always liked it, remember, it was kind of our thing.”

“As long as you're sure you can bear to be away from Taryn.”

“For Christ's sake.”

“No, I'm serious,” he says. “I remember what it's like. You two seem pretty close.”

“Yeah, we are.”

“So, stop moping around trying to solve the problems of the universe. Enjoy what you've got.”

“Yeah, maybe you're right,” though there's something about the word
that pisses me off.

“I know I am. You want another beer? Dad won't be home for a while. Anyway, these days I don't think he'd care.”

“Sure.” I put the photo back in the box as Adam gets up. He's wearing a new pair of trousers with a sharp crease down each leg; he must've bought them while he was gone. “Adam?”


“Do you reckon everything's going to be all right?”

*   *   *


Adam and me having a fight. I'm about seven, Adam thirteen. He's got me against the wall and he's shouting, “Shut up!” He wants to hurt me, I can see it in his face, the way his lip curls. Mom steps up beside us, says, “Adam, let go.” The tremble of his hand as he grips my shirt and stares at her. “Let go,” she repeats, “that's Will's way. He's different from you.” “He's crazy,” my brother says. He lowers his face close to mine and releases me, strides off in disgust. My mother's arms circling me.


is wearing a fluorescent green T-shirt and a nose ring that sparkles as her nostrils flare. Some bald man's looking for an opera CD she's obviously never heard of and she's giving him her best get-lost grin. Seb's in the Goth metal section, next to a guy who clanks when he walks. It's like a fancy dress party in here. I pull my jacket around my uniform and head for the Bs.

They're playing Disturbed over the system and it's good and loud. I find B and start sorting through the discs—there's a lot of shit in here—and then I find what I'm looking for.

“What's that?” asks Seb, like I'm holding a dead baby in my hand.

“Jeff Buckley. A live recording.”

“Jeff Buckley? Are you kidding?”

“It's not for me.”

I can see the frown behind his veil of hair. “Who's it for, then?”

“This girl I know.”

“Which girl?”

“Her name's Taryn. I met her at my mother's wake.”

“That's weird.”

“Well, actually I saw her there … doesn't matter.”

“She's got crap taste in music, whoever she is.”

I put the CD back in its place. “She's got long hair,” I add. Like that explains everything.

“Oh, yeah.”

“And her parents used to be friends with mine.”

This isn't getting closer to anything. He's waiting for more, but I don't know what to say, we don't do these kinds of conversations. Seb's bangs stick in his eyes as he shakes his head. “You're having sex with her, aren't you?”

I pick the Jeff Buckley CD up again and push the rest of the row back. The sound of plastic on plastic, an urge to smile that I resist.

“Shit,” he says, folding his arms across his chest. “Are you in love, or something?”

“Yeah, maybe I am.”

“Well, okay,” he says, scooping his bangs out of his eyes. Then he heads for the counter where the bald guy seems to be miming the opera, the girl with the nose ring having lost the will to live.

*   *   *

That night, I wrap Taryn's CD in some purple paper I find in the linen closet where Mom kept all the birthday stuff. Apart from the fridge, my sounds are the only ones in the house. Everyone else is asleep. Adam came home early and had dinner with us, spaghetti carbonara, which Dad cooked. Dad's getting the hang of it, I think he even enjoys it, except when he pulls something out of the cupboard that nobody's touched since Mom died. This evening, when it happened, he turned the jar of peppercorns around in his hands as if he was jealous of its last contact.

There's no moon so I rely on body memory to find my way back to my room, but as I go past Dad's half-open door, I hear a noise. Edging closer, I recognize his voice. I can't quite make out what he's saying—
, maybe, or
, but then, I'm sure of it, I hear the word
. Or

My father rolls over onto his back. He's talking to Mom. “What would you do?” he whispers into the dark.


I want to thrust the door wide open, tell him that I'm okay, that he only needs to take care of himself.


The word cuts through the stillness of the house. Dad rolls over again and I hear him punch into a pillow. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” I close my eyes, press into the wall, don't breathe until the punching stops. One last drawn out “fuuuck,” followed by a long groan.

I want to go to him, but don't. Back in my room, I draw my sheet over my face.


The investigation of matter and the substances of which it is composed. Such as alcohol, which is what we're meant to be distilling, except Henkel went to get some papers she'd been grading, so nothing's happening. Standard Tuesday afternoon in Chem. Seb's lending his earphones to Rick, “the dick,” or “prick,” depending on who you are.

Henkel comes in. “Class!”

Rick spins around, wires dangling from his ears, and knocks the burner over. Splintering glass. Water and alcohol everywhere.

“Shit,” says Henkel, racing over.

“Yeah, shit,” I say, as she goes past.

“Stand back, everyone.” She frowns at me as she turns the burner off and points to Rick. “You can clean this up. The rest of you get on with the experiment. Will, can you come up here for a minute?”

Rick rolls his eyes at me. Definitely “prick.” I go up to Henkel; her lab coat has a green ink stain on the pocket the shape of a squashed pear.

“Will. You've always been a good student…”

“What?” Arms crossed, I lean against the whiteboard, as she pushes her glasses higher on her nose. They never stay up on their own.

“Mr. McKinley explained about your mother.”

“Oh, yeah. So what did he explain?”

“Well, that she died.”

“I see. And did he give you any details? For example, that she was hit by a red Honda? Or that they cut her chest open to try and revive her even though she was technically dead?”

She looks down at the papers covered in red marks, and takes her glasses off. She has nice eyes. “Will. I don't think this is very helpful.”

“No? Well,
think you can go and get fucked.” And before she can say anything, I go, down the deserted corridor, past the Year 12 lockers and out into the rain, and I keep going, across the muddy oval and over the fence, till my shoes are squelching and I'm soaked.

In an empty bus shelter not far from the supermarket, I sit and shiver. Cars, trucks, bikes plummet past, tires flicking up the rain. God, I hope a bus doesn't come along, I can't do people right now. Though, if one does, maybe I'll get on it, see where it takes me. Far away. Anywhere but here.

*   *   *

When I get home, I strip, climb in the bath, slide beneath the surface of the water and hold my breath. Everything is amplified, the squeak of my ass against the porcelain walls, distant hollow sounds as I try to stay under, but it's too warm, I can't. Before my lungs start to scream, I drag myself above the surface of the water. And for the hell of it, I fart.

*   *   *

I saw this program on TV tonight, before I went to bed. They were talking about water having memory. Most of your body is made up of water, they said, a constant process of evaporation and reabsorption: from the tap, moisture in the air, recycled sweat. Maybe that's why old couples start to look like each other—they keep exchanging carbon and H
O. Like us. Adam, Dad, and me.

I drag my arm out from under the sheet and turn it around in front of my face. Part of me used to be my brother, another used to be Mom. There has been an exchange. Some of my molecules went with her and now they lie unraveling in the earth. That's if they were ever really mine.

While I watched that show I thought about what kind of memory water might hold. Maybe somewhere deep down I have memories of being a watermelon or a fish. Then I got to thinking that maybe this is what Buddhists mean about being born over and over again. And every now and then you get a glimpse: you remember what it's like to be part of the sea.

I get out of bed, stand in front of the mirror naked, tall, scrawny, in need of a tan. My hair a bit anarchic, a birthmark like a tear on my left hip, my dick hanging there like some forlorn thing. So this is me, Will Ellis, this is my part of the world. I raise my arms above my head, wave them around—shit, I hope Adam doesn't come in. The more I analyze myself, the more I feel detached. My body has disconnected from the flow of the world.

BOOK: The Beginner's Guide to Living
10.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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