Read Tom Houghton Online

Authors: Todd Alexander

Tom Houghton

For Jeff Ross
and for Kirsti Wright

The Child is father of the Man;

I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

‘My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold',

William Wordsworth, 1770–1850

 One 

I
made it to the café before her, just managing to keep bile down in the rear seat of a taxi with a driver who smelled as though he'd been working for three straight days. It was a pungency I usually found appealing in a raw, sexual kind of way but in my state, his scent stirred no arousal, only added to my queasiness. The café was Hanna's choice as usual, a local she frequented, but it was too crowded for my liking and the hum of patrons soon became a kind of torturous chant.

I hadn't finished work until about eleven thirty the evening before and then the company went out for drinks, as was the custom. We were celebrating a handful of minor but positive reviews: I was playing Martha in a new gender-bending production of
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The director, Victor, had received incredibly good reviews for his gender reversing in
Streetcar
and off the back of my three-night stint as Stella (filling in for a drug-addicted, fresh-from-school loser) he offered me the lead in
Who's Afraid
. Reviews for this one were not as great, though I'd had a few positive mentions, which was always nice. I thought Victor's concept of keeping the play in its original form and merely having actors of opposite genders play the roles – no cross-dressing or wigs, I was merely a man named Martha and my lines were all Martha's, including those referring to motherhood – was limited in its freshness but I respected his vision and was happy for the pay. Besides, how often in a man's career would he get to play a character like Martha?

No one ever went out on a Saturday night on account of Sunday's matinee, which was inevitably packed with patience-trying seniors, so Friday night usually turned out to be larger than anyone planned. Last night I hadn't been in the slightest mood to be there, but by the third glass of wine, I was hooked.

I was tempted to order a Bloody Mary before Hanna arrived but chose to err on the side of reason, and she came through the open glass door just as the tattooed, brow-pierced waitress delivered my banana milkshake.

Hanna motioned to the creamy froth, and with a teasing little grin said: ‘You're putting on weight, m'dear.' She gave me a peck on the cheek and handed me an elegantly wrapped present.

My birthday. Just another day, no cause for celebration or commiseration. I thanked her for it, insisting she shouldn't have. It was a book about surviving bad sex; a little piss-take she often made with relish.

‘Very funny,' I said, putting the book in my shoulder bag before anyone could see. ‘As usual.'

‘So how does it feel to be forty?' she asked, before ordering a double-shot coffee.

‘Frankly, I'm surprised I made it. I always thought I'd be dead in my thirties.'

‘If that. Of course, you have me to thank for making it this far. Had I not come along when you were hobbling on crutches in the midst of your ridiculous daddy obsession, you'd have been doomed.'

‘Ah yes, my last great bashing. Broken leg, cracked ribs, a corker of a twisted nose . . .' I pointed to the battle scar. ‘But I never had a daddy obsession.' I delivered the line deadpan.

‘
Au contraire
.' She sniggered. ‘You mistook any man's attention for a lifelong marriage proposal. Even if he was a relative.'

‘Fuck off.' But I said this with a laugh I could not hold back. ‘He was not my relative.'

‘Same, same.'

‘Whatever. Child.'

We met the first Saturday of every month because without that commitment we would rarely have seen each other. I'd hastily agreed to this idea of hers, forgetting momentarily that I wasn't usually in the spirit for company on Saturday mornings. But the routine had quickly settled over us and neither was going to be the first to break.

I could tell Hanna was annoyed by my state but refused to acknowledge it, since the very fact that I was there
in that state
was testament to how important she was to me. Saner people would have cancelled, or at least insisted on moving the time or location to a more mutually satisfying outcome, but messing with Hanna's plans was not worth the grief.

Hanna didn't let me get away with much. I suppose the fact we'd known each other for more than half our respective lives gave her a certain leeway. While to an outsider her taunts might have appeared particularly cutting, to me they were just Hanna-isms. My skin had hardened considerably. We met at university – she studied Communications and I Drama – and due to one of those inexplicable twists of fate, we both found ourselves in an excruciating course on American classics. She'd offered to carry my bag for me as I struggled with those stupid crutches. I didn't find out until later that this level of consideration was uncharacteristic.

We were clearly from different walks of life, and I was attracted to her healthy if heavy-handed cynicism, which in those days made her irresistibly cool. I suppose in me she might have seen a pet project, dragging the Kiwi out of the boy who'd managed to haul himself half alive from the school toilets after a wayward glance at the wrong boy. I took myself a little too seriously and she would not have an iota of that. Hers was the precise psychology I needed. ‘You shouldn't really wear boating loafers' was one of the first things she ever said to me, referring to the brand new shoes I'd painstakingly chosen as apt for higher education, along with ‘I bet you're one of those people who never lets themselves go.' Needless to say, she was right on both counts. Even ‘You know old-time Hollywood is for losers – you should really start watching modern films if you want a career in today's industry' couldn't be considered erroneous.

Now as we sat having breakfast – because it didn't conflict too heavily with her role of wife and mother – I got a vague sense that she only continued to meet with me out of a sense of duty. It was as if she was somehow proving to the world that she was worth her mettle, loyal to the end, when what I really wanted to ask her – still – was what possible attraction she had in a friendship with me. Of course, I was not oblivious to the fact she was feeling exactly the same: she with her demanding and tantrum-prone toddler and constantly travelling, forever-absent husband, a life she considered unutterably boring. Why be friends with an inner city–dwelling actor who was awake most of the hours she was asleep and who, by virtue of his career, was surrounded by an ever-swelling current of spotlight-hungry wannabes? At times I thought I'd quite happily exchange my life for hers but I knew she'd rather wilt within expectation than die by footlight.

‘If I hear another order for a babycino I'm going to scream,' she said, after we'd ordered our meals.

‘Oh darling, don't deny you order them for Bankes. You just pretend to be normal while I'm around.'

‘Ah, that's where you're wrong.
They
think they're the normal ones, I'm the outcast. I refuse to speak to my partner about my child in a baby voice –' and here she nodded her head in the direction of a handsome couple, the man of which was loudly referring to the woman as ‘mummy' – ‘I don't even bring my child to cafés, I point-blank refuse to subject him to the monotony.'

‘I marvel that you manage to stay sane being surrounded by all of . . . this.' I waved my hand around the restaurant.

‘Could be worse, I suppose. I could be forced to live in Seven Hills and end up a complete weirdo like you.'

‘Happy fucking birthday to me,' I sighed.

‘Ever the victim.'

I took the opportunity to change the topic, daring to ask to see the latest pictures of Bankes. Hanna took some convincing, fearing they would bore me, but with some persistence on my part she relented and I was genuinely surprised to see how much he'd grown. I wondered what he knew of me, if anything.

‘How's Puppy?' she asked, putting away her phone. She'd met Damon only once, at drinks to celebrate
her
fortieth a few months back, when things between him and me were still fresh and uncertain. I'd wrongly assumed it made sense for them to meet when there was a crowd around.

‘Great, actually.'

‘So it's true, eternal love then?'

‘You can demean it if you like. It is what it is.'

‘Don't come over all Mister Sensitive on me.' She put four sugars into her fresh coffee and stirred it, making a repetitive chink against the sides of the cup.

‘I'm not,' I protested, but it came out sounding sensitive.

‘Are too.' And there it was, that Hanna-light upon her face, the mischievous glint that took me back to when we first met. Did it matter how disparate our lives had become? Damon thinks my friendship with Hanna is token, wonders why either of us bothers, but he is not privy to these sibling-like moments when I could reach over and kiss her, if only it would not make her gag.

I chose offence as the more practised course. ‘Oh, you can be such a cunt.'

‘As you can be a dead bore.' But this was delivered with a giggle. ‘So, has he won the Pulitzer yet?'

‘He's gotten a lot of interest in the play but there's still a long way to go before we pop the champagne.'

Damon made a living as an actor but, as most actors make their income being waiters, what he really wanted to do was write. He had a unique way with the written word and I thought some of his turns of phrase were truly beautiful, but his work was lacking the most essential ingredient of being a playwright: character development. I couldn't tell him I felt this way, because our relationship hadn't gotten beyond the physical, so instead I encouraged him to keep at it but knew any producer in their right mind wasn't going to trade his poetry for lack of audience interest. He emailed Victor a few scenes of one piece and Victor merely wrote back:
Thanks
. Not another word, either at the time, or in the intervening six weeks. Damon asked me what I thought this could mean when it was clear it could mean only one thing.

‘Would it pay that much?' Hanna asked.

‘You already know the answer to that. It's a validation more than anything else. It'd be very good for his . . . reputation. Unfortunately I fear Damon is too busy asserting his own trivialities to spend any time writing effectively about others'.'

Our meals arrived and we picked at them half-heartedly. I knew I shouldn't, and that I would regret it, but I'd ordered the big breakfast even though its greasiness would play havoc with my belly. I drooled at the sight of her toasted muesli.

‘Still off the sugar?' she mused.

‘It packs a punch heavier than heroin. It will not defeat me.'

‘Off the booze too, then?'

‘My dear, with my genes you should have learnt to stop asking such redundant questions.'

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