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Adam Pettet

Adam Pettet

A.G. Pettet has published in anthologies, journals and magazines around the world, including Oxford Poetry (UK), World Literature Today (US) and Dazed and Confused Magazine (AUS). His third collection of poetry, Lifejacket, will be published in late 2018. He is a senior editor for Bareknuckle Books.

North


She was gone.

The bed empty beside me. I could hear her housemates chatting in the kitchen and sauntered through to find a table laid with coffeepot, teapot, cereal, toast in racks and a place set for me. Bright sunshine, conversation and this on a work day. Julian, a photography student, was poaching eggs at the stove while Chris manned the toaster. Kelly, Chris' girlfriend, although I suspected Julian wished otherwise, was filling the teapot with green tea. An Australian Rockwell moment, the nature of which I had never previously witnessed in a share house. The rich scent of the stovetop-brewed coffee heavy like a tidal wave breaking over the last vestiges of sleep.

Penny was in the shower and I was left alone to face this alien display of domesticity.

Chris is a sculptor and co-curator of a small gallery in the Valley, Kelly a regularly exhibiting installation artist. Penny worked in a bookstore and had, in the past, been a bit of a writer but hadn't written anything in years. They had all come from Melbourne and that, I believed in my youthful naivety, culturally elevated them from the usual Brisbane crowd.

"So Yuri, you write poetry?" asked Chris as he juggled hot toast to the table.

"I try," I murmured standing beside the table, unsure of the courtesies expected in this situation.

"Sit down and help yourself," said Kelly as she poured boiling water into the teapot, steam rising to form a tiny rain cloud over her head. I caught Julian watching the sunlight bounce from Kelly's blond ponytail and he turned abruptly back to his eggs.

Everyone was dressed and ready for the day, all smart lines and cool fashion. Not store-bought off-the-rack fashion but eclectic and vintage. It was 1997-98, the years of retro. I was a Beat wanna be in brown Yakka trousers and 50's yellow check shirt. I needed a shower though and felt slimy amongst all this clean, deodorised and scented flesh. Then there was the scent of bacon dominating everything, Chris now jostling for space at the stove, a frypan spitting on the flame.

A bustle through the doorway and Penny was there. Still wrapped in a towel, beads of water in her dark curls. Scraping marmalade onto a piece of toast, marmalade of all things. Who eats marmalade, I remember thinking.

"Running late," Penny says.

"You were up late for a work night," Kelly responds with a suggestive glance my way.

This is a family, I thought. This is how a family eats together, real meals with banter and horseplay, sunshine and great coffee. These guys were way too sophisticated for me, way too cool. I filled up on coffee, eggs and bacon knowing this would be my main meal of the day. Then everyone began rushing about and Penny tilted her head towards the door.

Outside the warmth of the kitchen gave way to the cold winter sunshine, weak like a poor man's tea: a twice-used bag steeping only memories.

We headed to the main road so Penny could catch a bus into work. I was an outsider at the bus stop surrounded by the early morning commuters. Unshaven and shivering I kissed Penny goodbye as she boarded. After waving toward the rear of the bus as it pulled away I trudged off, a long cold walk to the city ahead of me.

Where I could, I walked on the grass beside the footpath. The closer I came to my inner city flat the grass disappeared and I was surrounded by concrete and bitumen. The sound of traffic a constant hornets' thrum in the ears. I lived on the corner of Brunswick Street and Harcourt Street in the Valley, prostitute central. I had no television, I didn't need one, the reality shows played 24/7 outside my windows. Drug deals, fights and the ladies of the night. They became characters upon which my flatmate and I inflicted fictional lives. "Cat-boots" was our favourite. She wore long black suede thigh-high boots and little else. She seemed more normal, less drug-affected, out there for the money, like a sexy university student paying her way through school. I arrived home and went straight through to our small kitchen to make a cup of cheap instant coffee to warm up. The sound of the kettle roused Will out of his room and he stood dishevelled in the doorway, a small black beanie on his head.

"I'm making pancakes, want some?" Will asked in a barely awake monotone. I was happy I'd already eaten. Will's pancakes were thin, tasteless and chewy but they were all he could cook and often all we had to eat.

"No I'm good." I made us each a cup of coffee and grabbed a cigarette from the packet of 'Mild Sevens' on the kitchen bench. I was not sure if they were Wills or mine but it didn't matter, we shared pretty much everything. When you live in poverty money becomes communal. I headed to the table by our front windows and sat down on the plastic outdoor furniture we used for formal occasions. Will shuffled into the lounge clunking his plate of sad pancakes onto the wooden pallet we used as a coffee table and sat down on the lumpy futon mattresses we used as couches. There were four of these mattresses. Two propped up against walls in the lounge as our 'couches', one I slept on and the other Will slept on. A friend of ours who worked in a furniture-shipping place dragged them out of an industrial bin. I'm not sure what their fault was but they were fucking uncomfortable. I'd be staying at Penny's as much as I could, just to get a night's sleep from which I didn't wake up aching in three different places.

"See that streak down the window?" Will pointed with his knife. Just next to my face there was a long trail down the outside of the window as if a giant snail had slid down the glass during the night.

"Yeah."

"I was standing there last night smoking a cigarette when a hooker threw a used condom at me."

"Well that's a new one." Finding condoms in our front garden was a pretty common occurrence. This was the first time one had been used as a projectile.

"When do you get paid?" Will asked, although he knew my payday just as well as I knew his.

"Thursday."

"What day is it?"

"Tuesday."

"We should hit up the burger joint this arv. I just used up the last of the flour." Across the street from our flat was a laundromat. Two doors down from that was a dirty grease-pit takeaway. The owner was happy to give us a couple of burgers every now and then on tick and we could pay him when we had the money. This was a good plan, it meant that we wouldn't eat at all on Wednesday but that only made the money in the bank Thursday morning that much more exciting.

"So you stayed the night," Will said, rolling his last pancake into a long cigar, honey dripping from the end down his chin.

"Yeah, it was good, although the whole household eat breakfast together every day, it was weird." I grabbed my notebook from my bag and scribbled down some of the images from the morning.

I finished my coffee and went through for a shower closing the bathroom window to keep the warmth in. I changed into a pair of black jeans and black Bonds T-shirt, chucking on my dressing gown over the top, hell, I wasn't planning on going anywhere in a hurry. Will was crouched in front of the ancient bar heater in the lounge room reading a sheet of paper, a crumpled envelope on the floor beside him. He held the paper up to me as I came in the room.

"Man, I just got this letter from my dad. He says he can arrange a house on the beach for us in Ayr if we want to go up and pick mangos."

"Isn't it a bit early for mangos?"

"Nah it's pretty warm up there already and most of the ones there are picked green for juicing and canning and stuff."

"Where's Ayr?" I asked flopping down on one of the futons and putting a Charles Mingus CD into the stereo.

"Just south of Townsville," Will sneered. "It's a shit place but we'd make some cash."

"Fuck it," I replied. "Might as well. I'm sick of the cold mornings."

"What about Penny, you having just consummated and all?"

"When are we planning on leaving? We have to pay rent on Thursday and you don't get paid for another four days. I can spend a few days with her first."

"Well," said Will, smirking this time, "my dad included $100 in the letter to cover my fare up there. We could pay rent on Thursday and use the rest of your dole for your fare and some food when we get there."

Will really wanted to go. He had recently broken up from an 8-year relationship and had been bumming around all grumpy for the past month, barely ever leaving the flat.

At this point my misguided sense of poetic adventure took over. The kind of wanderlust that reading too much Rimbaud and Kerouac can inflict on the young impressionable male mind.

"Ok, how do we get there, bus, train?"

"Train," Will emphatically stated. "The bus sucks, I've done this trip a few times before."

We spent the rest of the day washing the clothes we wanted to take with us in the bathtub, hanging them to dry in the small courtyard at the back of the flats. I went across the road to call Penny and assured her I'd be back in a couple of weeks and wasn't giving up on her, while Will hit up the burger guy. We probably wouldn't get to pay him on Thursday but he would just have to wait.

That night we wrote up a list of what we needed.

Long-sleeve shirts – I wasn't sure why they needed to be long-sleeved but Will's father had been specific.

Long pants

Wide-brimmed hat – which neither of us fashion conscious urban dwellers owned but Will assured me we could borrow from his dad.

Notebooks & pens

Something to read

Snacks for the train

Alcohol – we decided on a bottle of Chartreuse and a bottle of Pernod. It was our French phase.

It wasn't a long list.

Thursday was rent day. Usually we were awoken by the old Italian landlady ringing the bell and banging on the door at 7 am. We always had to explain the same thing.

"I get paid today, I haven't been to the bank yet. When I do I'll pay you straight away." To which she would sneer, appearing more witch-like than usual and shuffle back to her flat across the hall. This morning though I was awake and ready. I'd been out to the bank at midnight when my dole went in. I opened the door on the first ring, handed her the money, gave her a weak smile and closed the door in her face.

The train left at 11am so we headed into Fat Boy's Cafe to grab a coffee before catching the bus to the station.

We bought tickets and boarded the train bottles clanking in my bag and found our seats. The train was filling up; I was surprised so many people were heading north. A cute girl with long red hair, a nose ring and wearing a satin slip over flare jeans, sat a little way up from us. Pure nineties alternate, she seemed to be alone and I started to wonder what other adventures this trip might bring.

The train pulled away and I closed my eyes, feeling as though I was leaving my life behind and being reborn a new person. One that can be any new personality I choose. I always feel this way at the beginning of a journey. We stashed our bottles and headed for the restaurant carriage. I ordered us toasted cheese sandwiches and we took a seat by the window watching the city slide away. A group of burly beer-gutted men came in sporting team T-shirts and ordering Four-ex at the bar. They talked loudly and we discerned they were a team headed to a darts championship in Townsville. We ate our sandwiches and tried to be inconspicuous. When their blokey boasting became intolerable we headed back to our seats and sneaked shots from our Chartreuse in small plastic cups from the water cooler.

We sat and read. Will was reading about Kriya Yoga and I was working my way through the collected poems of John Ashbery. Each time the train stopped to pick up passengers we would jump off and smoke half a cigarette before the train signalled its departure. It started to get dark and I began to feel a little buzz from the Chartreuse. Will came stumbling back from the bathroom.

"Man I just fully levitated!" He seemed so sincere I couldn't laugh. "I was reading about these breathing techniques the yogis use for levitation and I tried one out and fully bumped my head on the roof of the toilet. You gotta try it." He turned to the page in his Kriya Yoga book and handed it to me.

I worked my way through the breathing exercise, got up from my seat and headed for the water cooler at the end of the carriage. I did feel lighter and began to feel like I was floating down the aisle. Was I levitating? I don't know. Was I a little drunk? Yes, yes I was, so the experiment will forever remain tainted.

As it got later we began sneaking cigarettes between the carriages where we could open the door and blow the smoke out into the night. We'd rolled a couple of joints and planned to have them late in the evening and then try to sleep. We had just sparked one of these up when the alternate girl from a few rows up decided to join us. She bummed a cigarette and stood by the door the wind snatching the smoke from her mouth at each exhale, the cigarette end glowing against the darkness.

"Where you headed?" Will asked.

"Hayman Island, I've got a job waiting. Housekeeping at the resort." She smoked the rest of her cigarette in silence then, as she's headed back to the carriage she asks. "You guys have any more pot?"

"Sure," Will pipes up.

"Well, let me know when you're having some and I'll join you," the girl smiles back over her shoulder as she squeezes through the connecting door.

Will and I raise eyebrows at each other.

I awoke out of the half doze that passes for sleep on any overnight trip where you remain seated the entire time. Dark fields surrounded the train.

Will was trying to sleep beside me his head against the glass. Up from me a flared jeaned leg stuck out into the aisle. I got up and headed to the toilet for a slash and to wash my face. Grabbing a cup of water from the cooler to rinse the dry cotton from my mouth.

Returning to my seat I gave Will's feet a kick. "Smoke?"

"Sure."

I went on down the aisle and tapped the redhead on the shoulder and mimed the universal joint smoking movement. She smiled, nodded and followed me back up to the space between carriages. At this time of night most of the passengers were either asleep or trying to be and the train was moving much faster than earlier in the evening.

Will already had the outside door open, the dark landscape rushing past, and was hunched over lighting the joint. We all squeezed into the small space. The redhead stood with her back to the open door the wind whipping her long hair out into space. We hadn't gotten her name earlier and now it felt impolite to ask.

The joint went around once.

"Hopefully this will help us sleep for a bit," I murmured. Will grunted and nodded. The girl simply smiled and stood rocking back and forth from heel to toe, the leather of her Doc Martin boots squeaking in the darkness.

The joint went around once more the end glowing red with each inhale then dying down again when passed. Will took one final draw and squashed the roach on the floor.

"Thanks for that," the girl smiled, looking first at Will and then looking me straight in the eye. "That'll at least numb the pain." She rocked back and forth a couple more times then rocked far back. The night seemed to snatch at her hair.

She fell back into the speeding blackness, the heel of her boot making a loud metallic clunk on the edge of the doorway, and then,

she was gone.

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