Extract from Leap; Chapter One

She comes when the others are out, announced by Sanjay’s Bollywood door chime; tinny and overwrought, its siren song ricochets along the ceiling and through his muscles as Joe takes the five long strides of the corridor. He was looking at YouTube clips and as he moves towards the door his fists clench and unclench, fingers unfurl, furl, in a subliminal sequence.

Last days of autumn and the air is like blood: it is hard to sense where the body ends and the atmosphere begins. He was not expecting anyone but here she is.

‘I saw the sign . . . for the room?’ Tipping her head towards the laundromat next door, the girl is framed by the backlit doorway. Hands tucked into back pockets, one blue boot poised behind her on the bottom step, she is at once forward and faltering. Familiar.

He frowns—disoriented. Time opens out, undulates and then compacts. ‘Oh . . . right. Yeah.’

She smiles. ‘Yeah. Is it still available?’

‘The room? It’s still empty.’ He has remembered the ad Sanjay scribbled on the back of an overdue bill last week, pinned to the community noticeboard beside the soap dispenser; a moment of monetary panic, which has led to this. He tunes in to the turning of the industrial driers, as if their ironclad tempo will settle things. ‘So do you want to come in?’

Stands aside to let her past, unprepared for her advent, or how pale and lovely she is. In an antiquated grey tweed jacket, all buttoned-up Katharine Hepburn, she’s overdressed and a little breathless, as if she’s been running. Her cropped black hair is ruffled and glossy—an animal’s pelt rippling to be touched.

He closes the door behind them and the corridor dims; leads the way back down to the kitchen, conscious of the worn carpet patterned with woollen hyacinth and the stale scent of Sanjay’s mull bowl. There is no way she is going to want the room.

‘Sorry I didn’t call first.’

He shrugs. ‘Do you want tea or something?’ His mother would be pleased.

She rubs her hands together. ‘Yeah, sure . . . tea would be good.’

He fills the kettle and rummages for matches in a drawer; releases the gas using a pair of pliers. Turns back, and she is watching him with an intense focus, as if there is something she can’t quite decipher or decide.

Drops the pliers onto the counter and smiles. ‘This place is a bit decrepit but everything works.’ As he says it, he is aware of the holes in his jeans, and his bare feet; of her appraising him, and himself caring.

They sit at the table under the window that looks directly onto the grey paling fence. Jack’s ex-girlfriend painted a vine on it with little blood-red flowers that faded to grandma pink. When Jack did the dirty on her she signed off, in tiny lettering along the main artery of the vine, idiot loser sisterfucker. It’s impossible to see unless you know it is there.

‘Have you had much interest? In the room?’

‘Yeah, no. We just put up the ad. You’re the first.’ He clears his throat. ‘The room’s pretty small. I’ll show you.’

They stand again, pushing back chairs, actors in a sloppy play, and walk further up the corridor to the back of the house and into the lean-to. It’s more cell than chamber—perfectly white, roughly two metres by three, a bare globe hanging noose-like from the low ceiling. A four-panelled louvre window looks out onto the back garden with its tiny orchard and chook house and rows and rows of cherished greens.

‘I like the outlook.’

‘Yeah, Sanjay is studying botany. The garden is his.’

‘Eighty a week plus bills? That’s unheard of, right?’

‘Sanjay’s dad—Vijay—is the landlord, so until they find him a wife, we’re safe. Yeah, so there’s the three of us—me,Sanjay and Jack.’

‘Hope you’re not looking for a mummy.’

‘No. Please, no.’

They both smile in the empty white space, right into one another’s eyes, and it feels more personal than it should. He stiffens and softens at once, like he is in position on a ledge,

counting his breath, ready to jump.

The background clanging of the driers calls them back; he remembers the tea. In the kitchen, he puts out milk and a bag of sugar and places the steaming cup on the table in front of her, then stands back against the bench, beside the fridge, arms crossed. Matter of fact: ‘We split the bills. There’s no landline but reception is okay. We have broadband . . . obviously no washing machine. Sanjay is vegetarian and has his own frying pan.’

She grins, delicate white hands wrapped around the cup. ‘Don’t touch Sanjay’s frying pan.’

‘To be honest, we don’t eat together much. Sanjay makes curries with stuff from the garden. Jack brings food from his mum’s. I eat at work. The fish and chips up the street are good.’

She gets up and walks to the fridge. ‘Can I peek? Do you mind?’

‘Go ahead.’ She is close now, right next to him: bending into the miserable yellow light of the fridge, summing up its miserable contents. He thinks he can smell her—something

like trees and water. She is within his reach.

She closes the fridge door and steps back to face him, crossing her arms in his mirror image. He doesn’t know if she is mocking him. Yeah, she is.

‘I’m a nurse and I only work nights—you’ll never see me. I used to live around here but I’ve been away the past few years. And I’m saving to go again, so I’m definitely interested

but I’d probably only be here for a few months. I don’t know, could that work for you, maybe?’

He gazes at her from behind his folded arms, noticing the smudges of fatigue under her green eyes, and how they only make her more tangible. ‘Yeah, that could work.’ He is

nodding, head tilted to one side, liking the need in her face. ‘The room’s yours if you want it.’

‘Do you want to, like, consult your housemates?’

‘Nah. They’ll be happy. Every cent.’

He walks her back up the corridor and it is as if the air in the house has thinned, is colder and lighter. He can feel it now on his skin; it fills him with a melancholic longing. And suddenly he would like to withdraw the offer. He would like the unfathomable girl to walk out the door, down the three steps, and never come back.

‘When can I move in?’

*    *    *

So much for pretty manners—she didn’t drink the tea. He pours it down the sink, washes and dries the cup and puts it back in the cupboard, all trace of her removed.

In the living room he picks up Jack’s guitar and makes some discordant sounds then puts it down again. Only in his imagination will he ever make music. The house looks like shit in her wake, so for a while he straightens up, carrying textbooks and socks and guitar strings and rollie papers and chucking them on Jack and Sanjay’s unmade beds. Restacking vinyls. Picking up wrappers. Jack would say the house already has a mummy.

Goes back to his iPad but can’t concentrate on the American dude tic-tacking up the gap between two San Franciscan office buildings. Picks up his phone; no messages: no extra shift needs urgent filling. Sanjay and Jack both at uni. The shapeless hours that belonged to him, that were his to waste, have grown horns.

He pauses, loose and limber, in the corridor and rubs his palms in a circular motion. They are like cowhide. He has that feeling of old: whipped up, like something is about to split open. Cusses and kicks at the broken bit of skirting board but it doesn’t help.

Late afternoon is peak hour below the rail bridge—a jam of kids in mussed uniforms hurling rocks and kissing and smoking and fighting, drinking cold sweets out of cardboard cups—but needs must. Joe stands at the kitchen sink and drinks two full glasses of water then pulls on his cheap Chinese Feiyue. The kung-fu shoes are almost worn through but he likes them like that. It’s the next best thing to no shoes at all.

Out the door; key tucked between two bricks. Stretching up through his spine and then higher, onto the balls of his feet, straight as a stringer, before returning heels to ground. Rising and falling repeatedly, without teetering, then dropping down, still balanced on his forefeet, into a slow squat and smoothly back up. Standing in neutral, still and quiet, five long measured breaths in which he remembers—everything, before clearing the low brick fence in a running jump. Precision landing, right foot swivelling left. Swerving around woman with pram; dash to corner.

Sharp right towards the playground, clearing the rail with a speed vault. Swinging glibly along the monkey bars then bounding up the yellow slide pausing for less than a decimal point at the top before dropping down the other side onto the spongy play surface into a roll into a sprint up the footpath south past the sweatshops to his favourite laneway. A climb-up onto the concrete wall then quadrupedie crawl—cat balance—along the narrow wall before dropping down into a straight, hard run, until his head has cleared and he is at the bridge.

The kids are on the northern side so he takes the south. There is less here to train with but he needs to get close to the ground, so for a time he scrambles up and down the metal-grated stairway on his hands and feet; forwards down, backwards up. He does it as softly as he can, feeling each movement surge through his body, every muscle and tendon. He is barely there, barely human. Then he moves to the pillar with the slight incline and the six bolt ends protruding some twelve feet up, to practise his passe muraille. He’s still a couple of feet short of the bolts but he does five, ten, fifteen wall runs. Starting some twenty feet back each time, spitting onto his hands to wet the soles of his shoes, long strides in the approach and a final running jump at the wall, right foot first, pushing up, reaching with his torso. He knows he will touch the bolts some day. It is only a matter of time.

Spent, he drops to the ground, drenched in sweat, panting, and lets himself go limp, skin melting into the hard cool surface of the concrete. He lies there for a while, sensing sweetly where his body ends and the concrete begins, then rises slowly and makes a final cat leap onto the side of the platform beneath the southern end of the bridge. Takes the envelope of tobacco out of his pants and rolls a cigarette.

Lights up then gazes along the symmetrical inner workings of the bridge—so high above the water—sizing up the beams and stringers, the bracing and struts.

It won a design award, this bridge; they said it was ‘cool’ and ‘grand’. The decorative holes along its brash orange sides suggest Swiss cheese. But Joe likes it for its newness—the planning sign still planted in the ground. The bridge holds no memories. It is simply a giant climbing frame, brand-spanking, with a nice mix of footholds, handholds and sheer drops. And aside from the kids who hide out between school and home, it is almost always empty. Trains rattle over, fat carp harry below, but the underside is his. When he pulls up outside the laundromat, the sun is dropping from the sky. He ducks into the machine room, already brightly lit ahead of the night shift. A man in a hoodie is stretched out along three orange plastic seats, sleeping soundly, smelling slightly of decay. Joe pulls the room ad off the corkboard advertising cello lessons and tarot readings and panel beating; scrunches it, and tosses it in the bin.

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