A Victorian Young Writers Award 2014 shortlisted entry, by James Noonan
‘Is it cancer?’
It seemed only natural to bring up. He’d wanted to break the silence somehow, and when your pants were by your ankles and there was another man’s hand fondling your testicles, small talk was kind of out of the question.
Phil had expected to be shot down, waved off, even laughed at. But when he got no immediate response, a shiver of unease spread through him and he felt his balls contract even further, like pupils to bright light.
‘Well, there is something there—possibly a tumour,’ the radiologist finally said, and then as if to allay Phil’s mounting apprehensions, he added, ‘but there’s no way of knowing yet whether it’s malignant.’
Phil swallowed. ‘I see. So what’s next?’
‘Your urologist will want to discuss the results with you. He may want you to have some blood tests done.’
‘And if it’s …’
The man breathed and hooked the transducer back to the machine. ‘I’m really not at liberty to say. But, look, your lymph nodes are normal. Which means, worst case, if it is, at least it hasn’t spread. And this particular type is nearly always treatable.’
With the air of a man who had said too much, he got up and retrieved some paper towels from a tray. ‘I’ll leave these here for you to clean up. Take this form out to reception when you’re done. Take care.’
Phil lay there, not really knowing what to think. Minutes passed, perhaps hours. The slimy stuff on his groin had seemed to numb most of his body. Eventually he wiped himself and pulled up his jeans. Then he looked at his watch.
He was running late.
The cold, grey streets of North Melbourne drifted by in fragments. Inside the train, figures fit for a funeral struggled to shake off their morning fatigue. Gulls circled idly above the entrance to Southern Cross Station, which appeared cavernous and swollen like the carcass of a giant whale. Phil wondered whether this was how he’d view the world from now on: his mortality externalised like a glaring, inalienable truth.
He felt ill. A hollow ache had settled in his stomach. He didn’t want to think about treatment. He wasn’t sure if he could go through with it. If it were anyone else, he wouldn’t hesitate in throwing his support behind it. But about his own welfare he was largely apathetic, in the way he felt most men were about their health. He was content with being alive; he just didn’t know how hard he’d fight to stay that way.
When he considered the possible months ahead, Phil thought of the colour yellow. The look and feel of it, whatever the fuck that meant. It was as if in his mind it were linked inextricably with images of sickness, of chemotherapy, sore nuts and no hair. He remembered what his mother used to say about him, how he’d come out the colour of piss. Extreme case of newborn jaundice, the doctors had said. Phil couldn’t imagine loving something like that, something so sick-looking.
He re-read the text from Dana, confirming the location of the café. He hadn’t seen his daughter in nearly a year. In that time she’d got a new job, or had had something published. Anyway, she’d moved out of her mum’s place and was living in the city with a friend, starting a new life. One in which her father should probably play more of a part.
Phil got off at Flinders and walked down a tiny side alley called Degraves. He couldn’t remember the last time he was in town, despite living so close by. He already felt out of place here. This was just the type of scene Dana would feel at home in: young, lively, European. Neon signs and smoky garage cafes gave the impression of tiny opium dens, and it felt like he’d stumbled upon an unknown inner world. Waitresses no older than Dana were dressed in frumpy sweaters and beanies, some sporting nose-rings, others luridly inked. Among this crowd, he spotted her, huddled in the front corner of a café or a soup kitchen—he couldn’t tell which—her wave possessive of the same qualities of her mother’s greetings: cool, calm and aloof.
He stepped inside, sucking in his gut as he passed the coffee machine.
‘Sorry I’m late.’
She smiled, as if wincing of pain. ‘This is Andrea.’
Phil hadn’t noticed the girl sitting beside his daughter. Her hair looked like someone had taken a pair of shears to it, hacking at random. She was wrapped in what appeared to be a rug, like what Phil had seen those Mexicans wear. She appraised Phil, taking in his entire form before turning sweetly to Dana. It dawned on Phil that his daughter could be a dyke for all he knew.
‘I thought it would just be the two of us.’
He knew he’d said the wrong thing, had started wrecking this already. He braced himself for a row, in which Dana would list all the things she thought would be different. But his initial fear that she had recruited a back-up of sorts in Andrea, a witness to the proceedings, quickly dissolved; Dana, he realised, would not want to cause a scene, not here. She wasn’t sixteen anymore—she was a young woman with greater things to occupy herself. Perhaps that’s why she’d brought her friend along, to keep the conversation light and impersonal. Regardless, Phil was grateful on some level for Andrea’s presence.
A waitress arrived, half of her head shaved. She smiled at Dana and Andrea, and looked expectantly at Phil.
‘Ah, I’ll have a flat white. What do you guys want?’
‘We’ve ordered,’ Dana stated, and sure enough two half-drunk lattes sat before them.
‘I like your glasses,’ he said, wondering why the rims were so thick. He didn’t think they suited her. ‘Since when have you needed specs?’
‘Oh, they’re not prescription. They’re only frames.’
Phil didn’t know what that meant, or what to add. He became conscious of his hands, and where to place them.
‘Here’s the book I was telling you about.’ Dana had produced a slim publication, and she handed it to Phil. Its cover was a black-and-white photograph of an empty room save for a rocking horse, its shadow extending up the wall. The title ‘Blank Canvas’ looked to have been inscribed graffiti-style, much like the alley walls around them, above the words ‘A Scrapbook for Emerging Melbourne Artists’.
‘It’s our inaugural edition, the launch was last week.’
‘Yeah, this looks great.’
‘Andrea covers all the editorial and online production, I do the design and marketing.’
Phil flipped through the book and stared at the back, a continuation of the front image, a cracked concrete floor. ‘Always knew you had a knack for this stuff.’
Andrea finally spoke, her voice the texture of silk. She’d launched into a spiel about injecting life into the moribund marketplace, saying words like ‘reconceptualise’ and ‘avant-garde’. Phil found her insufferable.
‘How’s James?’ he asked, turning to Dana and sampling the coffee that had just been laid down.
‘Good. Almost finished his apprenticeship. Booked a trip to Europe with Jess in September.’
Jess … He’d heard his son talk about her before. Dana, as if reading his mind, her eyes on the coffee in his hands, said, ‘Jesse. His best mate?’
Now came what he had been fearing most, arriving a lot sooner than anticipated. They’d both sensed it, both tried to avoid acknowledging it. It was the kind of silence that felt dimensional, like a solid presence had joined them with all the weight of the past.
Phil cleared his throat. ‘And your mum?’
Now Andrea shifted in her seat, finally sensing, Phil thought, a terrain in which she wasn’t welcome. She stood and announced she needed to use the bathroom. Dana smiled after her.
‘Works too damn hard, same old Mum. I worry about her.’
‘She just looks haggard all the time, like she’s aged twenty years. She’s gone grey, did you know? The only day she’s away from the office she’s tied down with Grandpa—you know what a handful he can be.’
Phil did. Julie’s father, a former academic, had progressed to late-stage Alzheimer’s, and in recent months had grown increasingly unpleasant. He now loathed his own daughter, whom he blamed for incarcerating him in the prison that was his nursing home. Phil had gotten snippets from Julie via texts, believing she wasn’t telling him the full story.
‘You should hear some of the stuff he calls her. It’s vile. Things like “cunt” and “whore”. I feel so sorry for her.’
Phil winced, holding up a hand—but what right did he have to be spared such obscenities, such realities? When he and Julie had split, the role of caretaker had fallen solely to her—even though he offered numerous times to help out, to be present. She’d mentioned that it would just make things worse. That worn-out, defeated sigh of someone too old to be perpetuating a lie. He grimaced at the memory of him telling her she needed to get out more, meet some people, get laid. For some reason he thought it’d be that easy, to go from a thirteen-year marriage to mere buds exchanging tipsy banter over each other’s sex lives. She hadn’t spoken to him since.
‘So, how are things with you?’ Dana said, rather earnest.
‘Good, yep.’ He drained his coffee. His daughter stared at him.
‘Nah,’ was all he said, a stiff shake of the head, holding the cup up for any more foam to slip down.
Dana’s friend returned—he’d already forgotten her name—and remained standing.
‘Well, we should get to the office,’ Dana said, reaching for her bag. ‘Hard at work on the next issue. You can keep that one.’
Phil felt the queasiness in his stomach return. ‘You sure you don’t want to have another?’ But even as he spoke he knew the answer.
‘It was nice seeing you, Phil.’
Dana had always called him that, a habit James picked up in his mid-teens too. They said it was from The Simpsons, that the son—Bart?—referred to his dad as “Homer”. It felt borrowed when they were younger, adopted, but he was able to accept it as he did any other fad they’d taken to at the time. This one had stuck, though, and he wondered whether he was always destined to become who he now was, known to them not as Dad, but a man named Phil.
‘You too, kid. Listen, I’ll get this.’
‘Nah, it’s all taken care of.’
‘Phil, they’re friends of ours. It’s on the house. Relax.’
‘Well, at least … take this.’
He stood, fishing for his wallet. He withdrew a fifty, paused and then took out one more. He cursed himself. He’d wanted it to be a quick, seamless exchange—the kind of familial gesture for which it wasn’t necessary to state a reason, but where she would simply extend her hand and accept the offering. A single, fluid motion. But it was clumsy, an act clanging with inexperience, and it seemed all eyes in the café were now fixed on the image of a man trying not to make it look like he was paying for his daughter’s time.
Dana hesitated, her mouth half-open, then enclosed a hand around the notes.
Phil stepped forward and put an arm around her. She reciprocated in part, patting his side, and at the last second, just as she was pulling away, he kissed her hair and heard her say something like ‘Yeah’.
He watched them leave. What’s-her-name stopped to peck the ponytailed barista on the cheek; Dana brushed a loose strand behind her cheek, now a light crimson. Then they walked up the narrow lane, lost almost among the bustling crowd. For a moment he thought they’d gone, but then he saw her again, camera out, focusing on the art-washed wall that led back to him. Phil leaned away from the opening, thinking how odd it would be to see someone like him, Dana’s father, distantly in that shot, sitting alone looking lost. Maybe she’d wanted him in it, who knew? By the time he looked back out, they had gone.
He considered ordering another coffee, but his presence here seemed bloated, alien, and he had no reason to remain.
The day had fined up, but in that ambiguous way of Melbourne’s. It was only a matter of time before that bright ball of yellow in the sky was snuffed out by gathering cloud. Knowing it wouldn’t last, he savoured the sliver of sunlight, the momentary warmth it provided as he emerged from the laneway. It was then, walking up Flinders St, that he spotted the pub on the corner, Young & Jacksons, his old watering hole. He went there nearly every Friday before picking the kids up from school for the weekend, sometimes spending hours putting away the drink. Absentmindedly he fiddled in his pockets, but then remembered he’d given the last of his cash to Dana. All his loose change was gone too, spent on his train pass. And so, as he waited on the curb for the lights to change, to cross over to the station, he peered inside the pub, at the sleek, restored furnishings, the gilded mirrors, the silent laughter and clinking of glasses. He stared long enough to notice his reflection in the window, a solitary figure around which other shapes and shadows passed with purpose.
The lights turned amber and then, languidly, to red. The walk signal flashed. He guessed he was headed back the way he had come.