Those wolves — no, they were foxes. I kept calling them wolves because I could never seem to get the name right. I was scared the first time I heard them howl. They sounded like crying children. But you explained they were only going through the dustbins searching for scraps. Before long the noises became familiar and I didn’t hear them any more.
Your toilet flushed differently. I would marvel at the lever. The thing was loose, didn’t really work properly, but it didn’t bother me, it was new. For the first two weeks I’d press the top of the cistern in the night forgetting where I was — blindly fumbling for a button to push, knocking over your shampoo, toothbrush and random objects gathered on top, a convenient shelf in a small space. In my sleepy fug I was somewhere else, somewhere warm, somewhere where bathrooms were without levers and oil heaters and such. In the dark, if it were not for that lever, I might have been at home: your townhouse heated, warm like any Australian summer night, I might have crawled back into your bed thinking myself home, none the wiser. If it were not for the lever I might have padded back to your room though unfamiliar doorways, a map of my own in my mind. But there was the lever: the constant fumbling for the familiar. In the dark was the smell of your shampoo — paw-paw and coconut. That tropical scent seemed so far removed from the cold bathroom tiles and your musty feather duvet. Far from home. In your mismatched bedding there was the scent of your coconut head. Coconut wrapped in cheap haberdashery.
Your double glazed window and I grew intimate. Catching glimpses of everything and nothing much. My eyes like the shutter lense of your Lomo camera behind me. (Both of us taking records, memories for later.) My hands pressed up to the thick pane watching vapor trails. They lined the sky making patterns, crossing out clouds, making maps for birds. They were just pollution you said, but to me they were magic. You said those things in a voice that sounded sing-song. ‘Wa-er’ you’d say missing the ‘t’. And ‘grass,’ with a sharp sounding ‘A’. ‘Ass’ you said. Like the other name for a donkey. Splayed out on your bed, I’d listen to your melody. ‘Just a common twang,’ you’d said it was. But your song made even the dirty words seem beautiful.
Sometimes I’d pretend it was hot. When I missed the heat of home enough. You’d arrive back from work, the stars out and the bite of cold on your skin. You would open the door, the crisp rush charging up the stairs. You would catch me wearing the only shorts I’d packed, the heating turned up to full, Paul Kelly playing on the stereo. Me, looking lost, barefoot on your threadbare carpet. You not knowing what to do.
There was the attic, a childhood dream manifested, to keep me occupied. I was searching for things, nothing in particular. I’d climb the narrow wood ladder into darkness, skirting my hand over the wall, feeling for the light, skimming for a switch, forgetting the pull-cord every time. And you had so much stuff up there — all of it utterly useless and riddled with impracticality, but it smelt like old memories. (They were not my own.) I would spend hours searching through dust. Drawing pictures in the surface of table-tops and chests of drawers. (When I left I wondered if you’d find them.) I would drag things down to your room. A makeshift dresser or a chair. And you’d arrive home and marvel at how I managed to get anything down those small, steep stairs. Your bedroom would be filled a little more each time I ventured up into the cold: a throw rug for the bed one day, bric-a-brac on the sill another. Hands placed on aged and foreign objects, eyes attempting to remember the outline of each, to make them old.
Your kitchen smelt of laundry powder. The scent of some brand I’d never known before. (When I would arrive home — to my real home — I would crave that smell.) I would navigate the laundry rack, dryer and washer as I moved between bench, stove and sink to make things you’d not cooked before. (And I wondered, sometimes, if you were resentful of my dishes — if you were longing for three-pound pizzas while you smiled at my vegetables.)
You didn’t seem to mind the phone calls from here before I left. My hesitant voice asking if you had a blender so that I might make soup when I arrived — because the weather would be cold, wouldn’t it? You didn’t think me odd when I asked if you had a needle and some thread there, in your house, nine thousand miles away. I can’t recall why I asked you then. Maybe I couldn’t imagine finding a lone needle in your big city. Maybe I might need to mend.
In your place, your house, I would think of squirrels and foxes and wolves and darkness. I would pretend I might bear the cold long enough to call it home, to stay longer. I would wonder how long was long enough, and ‘long enough’ for what?
When I left, I left clothes in your cupboard, notes tucked in places around the room like hidden Easter eggs — small treats to help you remember. (I knew sometime you’d forget.) You wanted to see China yet I bought you some book about Australia. And I wrote things inside the cover like maybe I’d meet you in Barcelona. And I took your maroon shirt — your smell still ingrained in the thread. And I pulled my suitcase down three flights of stairs, heard the foxes. Heard them by the dustbins. Pressing your door shut, my thoughts moved to my coat still draped on your hallway hook. Too late. Your key on your bench. Your laundry-come-kitchen smell in my clothes. My coat on your hook. A fox by the garbage. Lomo eyes. And a taxi at dusk rounding the corner of your street.
Published in Escape: An Anthology of Australian Stories. (Shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Short Story Award)