In which Tom Whitebait endures the inevitable interview with Jennifer Byrne. It’s supposed to be about the new book, phwoar, but inevitably the talk turns to bloody Cliché Street again.
“Phwoar,” he breathes, sinking back into his chair, feeling his backstrap squish between the unforgiving aluminium bands like a crabstick melting on the grill. “This is awkward.”
Opposite, she beams at him, her whole face given over to the signalling of adulation; her dimples become furrows, rippling around the sharp prow of her cutting leer.
A twinkle in her eye? He grins back insanely, his own eyes bulging with the effort of it all, weathered old buoys bobbing in the swell of deliberate humility.
She leans in, her head weaving like a carnival dragon, adoringly, round and round and round; her eyes beat down upon him in a palpable caress, a tender rubdown, a Brasso polish.
“Yes.” He chokes on the word, his gums bare as the out-tide sand, his right hand snatching at his left fingers as if into soggy chips that you’ve added too much vinegar to.
“Now, obviously, when we go, we want to talk as much as possible about the new one, phwoar, but there’s so much more to cover as well, you know – we want to get to know the real you, um, again…”
“Nurries,” he barks, and this time there’s no hiding the long tooth of disdain.
She pauses, “Did he say “nurries”?” she seems about to ask, then continues.
“…the people, and of course, the places, Fremantle, Perth, um, those rich, raw landscapes, you know, really get a feel for the physicality, the sensuality of your writing, to really sink our teeth into, um, the viscera, to –”
She’s gushing like – like – like the stormdrain up by Mettam’s Pool, that cracked old thing that lingers half-subsumed beneath its carpeting of sand, a concrete numbat nosing out the burrow, prospecting, but not for termites; plastic bags, but tender ankles, to ensnare and shred apart between its rusty sprongs, just like it did back on that stolid, sunburnt arvo he and Deano and some other scrubby, sand-haired kid had scampered up that blazing stretch, each with a fistful of seagrass or Saltines or Samboys, it didn’t matter which, (wait it was a box of Jatz wasn’t it?); each as eager as the next to be the first to sink their feet into that undulating cool white froth. But it’d been his idea to wait a bit, to cut back up towards the straggling scrub, to where the boondies lay thick and fresh and undisturbed and solid. That’d been the plan – to peg ’em hard in the fleshy part of the arm. And then? Who knew?
He snaps back; her hand’s brushing his knee. Not unpleasantly, but chaste, her nails upturned, skimming the surface like a pelican’s wishbone.
“I’ve read them all, you know.”
“Really?” He bloody well hoped so.
Something – a sharpness, in his voice or to his gaze – doesn’t strike quite right, and she’s giving him a look, now, something alien, unreadable, a skittish magpie stare.
“Oh yes,” she says, peering and pouting in equal, half-committal measure, with all the windswept sagacity of the rotting Longreach limes. “I like your writing. I love it. It makes me feel so… connected. It’s so earthy. So honest.”
“Phwoar,” he breathes, just audibly. “She’s something.”
A cameraman signals from behind his instrument; they’re ready to go. Jeeze, had they not started yet?
“How was it that it all began?” The thought comes from nowhere. Or maybe it’s from Jennifer herself; from that cavernous smile, that cataract of slick ingratiation, the rising mists – the subterranean foetor of memory, washing in like that glutted treacle-tide over the Leschenault mangroves, basking in the tepid breath of yesterday’s remembrance.
“Poetic?” she’d queried, back towards the cameraman. The producer gives a curt nod, Jen’s rich girl’s features scrunching up like shuffled cutoffs: “Dunnies?” And he’d felt compelled to defend himself, to strike back out for all those simple, steadfast, Anglo-Saxon ingenuities – dunnies, undies, barbies, chooks, nurries. Words you’d never look at twice until some gussied-up Easto gives you the squint; or would you? Thing is, it’s been so long – so many, many years. Maybe ask Damo, or Chaz. Shaggsy or Nogs. But then even the tradies are ‘boxer’ people, now.
“…and it’s become one of our defining experiences, our literary rite of passage. Cliché Street. Tom Whitebait, thank you so much for joining us.”
Oh shit, yeah. They were rolling now were they?
“Nurries – I mean no worries.”
A fly in his throat, and it’s 1975. But it isn’t, of course, and no fly either, just a clot of self-loathing rising up to breach like a half-ton of mouldy ambergris.
“Cliché Street .”
She pauses, lets the words hang in the air like Sargasso kelp, and, as if by some strange act of synaesthesia, it almost seems to bear an equal stench.
“How did that book change your life?”
So predictable, this question, and achingly insubstantial. And it burns him, like a stinger in the shorts.
She’s waiting, lips half-parted in a barnacle grimace, eyes peering oddly, nowhere in particular, ready to pounce upon his first sign of utterance.
“Well, um. It was me twentieth book, you know. I mean -”
She obviously has no idea, but presses on anyway. “Of course. But your breakthrough. Your first real success.”
“Well, no. I did win the Vogel for An Open Drain.” And the word ‘Vogel’ makes him want to giggle like an infant with some car keys.
Oblivious to her own ignorance she leers on. “That must have changed everything. I mean, from the safety, you know, the relative security of being undiscovered, unknown, to being – wow – a published author, work being read by thousands and thousands of people…”
“Yeah. Of course, I mean apart from all those other successful books I’d already written.”
But even as he grasps for it, the meaning slips away, a conger in the shadows, teasing with his own snapped line, and there’s nothing in store except:
“I mean, there I was, you know, with enough to put down a deposit. So we bought this old asbestos heritage fish shack up the coast, which was all we could afford, and then we were committed. Off the back of this one book! It was crazy. Mortgaged at last. And able to afford it, to keep up with some really horrifying market conditions, interest rates you just couldn’t believe. It was like after a decade of really trying, you know, hoping against hope, and now it was all coming together, just…”
“Cruising into shore?”
What was that? Some kind of – and it must have been – some kind of attempt at emulation? Poor flattery? A crass joke?
“Um, yeah. It all just started to coalesce for us, like the cloudmass over D’Entrecasteaux, you know, on one of them mornings when, um, you’d go down for a swim. And we could, we could afford to…”
“You were finally keeping the wolf from the door?’
Mental note: it’s a dingo you bloody drongo. Thylacine even.
She fidgets with her paperwork, a minute gesture. Her expression changes, a shifting spectrum of sultriness and sneering, vacillating like the flickering shade beneath that broad old golden wattle where he’d used to sit, back then, up by dad’s old shed – and this could only have been a matter of minutes before he inevitably shot through again, the family barely noticing by this stage – the bastard, headed up the coast in search of god only knows what irresponsible delights – and he’d daydream, up on that sun-dappled mound of bone-white sand and straggling buffalo, about the day he too could call a shed his own, and the wonders he’d keep there, the rods and boards and bicycles, the craypots and crabnets – the EH panelvan, a sketch, a ghost, pieced together from every glimpse he’d been able to snatch as they wound around those tangled coastal roads, implacable beneath its masque of birdshit white, a spectral cetacean of the streets.
And then you’d take it down the mole with a couple of grandad’s homebrews and minimum chips, and maybe, if everything went just right, you’d get to cop a feel, and the teenage bodies would buck, roister and roil…
She’s talking about the book; laying it on pretty thick, to be honest, and he can’t for the life of him help but think back to that first time they’d met, with Cliché Street on the presses for yet another printing and a million-strong community all eating from his hand, the dingo well and truly booted off the porch. They’d said such nice things, back then, and now.
“… raw, earthy, honest. So real, somehow, almost in spite of the fact that these characters, these people and their situations, are so familiar. To all of us…”
And she’s still bloody going; and it’s still the same old stuff. Don’t they ever get tired?
He nods, and smiles; she pouts, and peers and beams, her drivel unceasing, a torrent steady as the backflow of the Binningup desal. Her adulation seeps from eyes and tongue like the first light of morning through the canopies of Nornalup tuarts; it spews out thicker than a steak and curry pie the morning after, when all you’ve had to drink is salty goon; and it’s eating at him, endlessly, the caustic brine of obeisance lapping on the bulwark of his ego; when the seconds turn to eons, and he’s crumbling – cracked to bits and smoothed all over, rock-pooled, tide-tugged, picked up and painted and sold for a tenner at the last gift shop on Red Bluff Rd – the kind of place you’d end up after closing, stuck behind the cabinets of googly-eyed seedpods while the old bird by the counter spins a yarn so crusty you’d swear it had formed inside a backpacker’s wetsuit, glancing at your watch only to find it’d conked out in that last great foaming dump you’d failed to clear in time, and your ankle’s all a-twinge with the memory of it all, the way you’d used to get after a few on that overlong sabbatical in Margs, when the evening wind would sweep in from the west, all warm and wet and you’d snuggle in your canvas chair with only the thin glow of a mozzie coil to delineate the boundary between salt-weathered decking and the boundless night to come.
“Now, Tom. You know we’ve got to talk about it. It’s the elephant seal in the room as it were. Ha, ha.”
“Here it comes.”
“You know what I’m going to ask, right? About phwoar? What people have been saying?” She leans back. “Where are the fish, Tom?”
And it almost gushes out of him, the whole insane dunny dimpled dream. He wants to laugh in her face and tell her that, yes, Becky – painted up like a ghost Aboriginal – has spoken to him while he was on the throne. But hadn’t Luther also written his whole reformation on the bloody dunny too? Probably hadn’t flushed it either.
And there’s a silence longer than the line for the tuckshop when the out-of-date party pies were half price. The cameraman raises his eye above the eyepiece a little concerned, and glances at the producer, but Jen is laughing too, waving her little finger at him like a miniature mallee root.
“The fish are gone, aren’t they Tom?”
“It’s bloody brilliant! I mean that’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? About what we’ve done to our seas and oceans? Only Tom Whitebait could write a book all about fish without any fish in it! If this doesn’t win The Booker Prize…”
“Phwoar, yeah, thanks.” (Jennifer Byrne. Phwoar eh?)