In the dim light of the stairwell Olivia couldn’t make out just where she was. There was an amber gloom as the afternoon sunlight seeped through the orange glass side panels around the front door. Robert groped for one of those push-button light switches that leaves the bulb on for a couple of minutes. He said that his place was on the first floor. He grabbed her hand and cried, “Come on!” This was the first time that Olivia had been to his place, though he’d stayed over at hers a few times since they’d started going out. The rather musty air of the stairs persisted on the landing. The key grated as Robert shoved it into the lock of Flat One. A metal numeral was screwed to the door above a security peephole. He pushed the door wide and announced: “Home sweet home!” She followed him inside.
“So what do you think?”
The air was stale in here too.
“Ah,” she said, “it’s nice and bright.”
It was bright; at least that was true. The late afternoon sun beamed through the sliding doors that led on to the balcony. The building must face west. It was one of those ubiquitous red-brick blocks of flats, the usual three stories, built maybe in the seventies. From the outside it was OK. There was a strip of garden between the block and the road, and the trees planted there had grown tall and shady. One of them, a plane tree with broad lime leaves, leaned in towards Robert’s balcony. Olivia gazed at the tree. “Leafy,” she said. The rest of the place was an assault; she couldn’t bear to look around.
Robert led the way, following a narrow rabbit-run of carpet through a sea of newspapers, boxes, piles of books, bags of unidentifiable stuff. Papers were piled on every surface, on the old-fashioned timber dining table, on the four upholstered chairs that surrounded it. Olivia had an impression of raw-mince-coloured seat cushions, but it was hard to be sure. Papers and books filled bookcases against the walls. A grey vinyl couch near the balcony door was the only surface without stuff on it. The strip of clear carpet led in a narrow path to the couch and then, in a kind of branch line, to the kitchen. Robert headed there with a spring in his step. He offered a cup of tea. Olivia followed him, carefully. As she moved through the sea of papers she was aware of a small fear of losing her balance. She kept her gaze steadily ahead like a tight-rope walker. With relief she saw that the kitchen was no more cluttered than many kitchens, including her own. Robert plugged in the kettle. As it started to hum he pulled down a couple of china mugs from a cupboard, clattering them onto the kitchen bench. He chattered on, pointing out features of interest in this ghastly dumping ground he called home. He mentioned framed photos he’d taken, a clock that he said was a family heirloom, his backpack and hiking boots stacked in a corner on top of two cardboard boxes.
Robert headed there with a spring in his step. He offered a cup of tea. Olivia followed him, carefully.
“There are, er, a lot of newspapers,” she ventured. “You prefer to keep them?”
“Oh yes. It’s a lot of work, keeping up with the papers. I spend most of my Saturdays working through them.” He waved at a deep stack of clippings on the table. “It’s how I stay informed. You have to understand what’s going on.”
They took their mugs of tea along the little pathway to the couch and sat side by side. The cushions were saggy and Olivia sank against Robert’s elbow.
“Careful sweetheart. You almost made me spill my tea.”
The floor between the couch and the sliding doors to the balcony was filled with a crowd of healthy-looking pot plants: philodendrons, elephant ears and a few madonna lilies.
“Nice plants,” she said.
They were obviously looked after, watered and so on. As far as she could see, the narrow balcony was clear of junk; there was just a white plastic table and two plastic chairs.
“Yeah!” said Robert, pleased at her compliment. “I know how to look after plants. I have a green thumb.”
From where she sat Olivia noticed another side-trail through the knee-deep papers. It led to the open door of the bedroom, and to the bathroom next to it. She could see from here that the bedroom didn’t look quite as overwhelmed by paper, though it was crowded with racks stuffed with men’s clothes on hangers. Perhaps there was no wardrobe. Or perhaps the wardrobe was full. It was a strange way to live. There was a dusty scent in the air but no really objectionable smells. Olivia sipped her tea and said nothing. Robert seemed to think that this was all perfectly normal.
“Let me show you what I’m working on,” he said and reached over to a box of loose papers. When he pulled it towards the couch she could see that it was full of typescripts, cuttings, brochures, bound reports.
“This is my book.”
“Yeah, the one I’m writing. I told you about when we were at the restaurant the other night. I have the backing of some important people in government, you’d recognise their names. I’m going to really blow the lid on a lot of things.”
“Really? Government secrets?”
She couldn’t remember him mentioning a book before.
“Do you know the name….no, I should keep it confidential. But I can tell you, this book will be one of the most explosive things to have been published about the council in years.”
“The council? What council?” she asked, thinking of international tribunals, perhaps something to do with the UN.
“Ah, the local…”
“I have a lot to say about their planning processes. I have years of experience…” He launched into the details. The buildings that had been approved that shouldn’t have been approved, revamping the retail centre, pedestrian precincts. Olivia’s mind started to glaze over. She sipped her tea and tried not to look around, concentrating on the plants.
“I’m so happy you can stay tonight,” he said, breaking off from street planning issues.
“Er, yes…maybe…I do need to be up early tomorrow….”
Robert carefully returned the book papers to their box. He waved towards a bookcase across the room.
“You see there on the shelf? My CD collection.”
She looked and could see, stacked carefully, hundreds of CDs. From the island of the couch she couldn’t make out any covers or titles.
“You haven’t got into streaming music, then? I still have a lot of CDs too. I don’t really know what to do with them these days.”
“Oh, I’m not into that rubbish. Who wants to pay every month?”
“But you don’t have to pay…”
“My CD collection is fantastic! I’ll put something on.”
With surprisingly delicate movements through the sea of detritus, Robert waded to the shelf, selected a CD, and inserted it into a player sitting on the same shelf unit. The strains of a Gershwin crooner joined them in the room. The Man I Love. Robert came back to the couch and put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. “…he’ll be big and strong, the man I love…”
“It’s wonderful to have you here.”
Olivia leaned stiffly against him, holding her mug of tea with both hands, her pink nails glittering.
“Sweetheart, I know it’s a bit messy in here,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind. In fact — I’ve never asked anyone this before — but maybe you can give me some advice, on how to tidy it up a bit?”
He sounded a little lost, and she remembered how he’d seemed when she first met him, gentle and maybe a bit needy. On their first lunch date he’d told her about his wife who’d died of breast cancer. He’d almost cried, right there in the restaurant. She sat up and looked around. Well, she certainly wasn’t going to volunteer to clean up, but she could make some suggestions.
“Sure. I can help if you want,” she said.
“It’s hard to know where to start. And I don’t want to get rid of anything, just straighten it up a bit. Especially now you’ll be staying over — you know, so there’s room for two people.”
Olivia considered. This was going to be tricky. She wondered what was behind it all, why Robert needed to keep all this stuff. She looked around, this time allowing her gaze to linger, wondering what small suggestion she could make that he might be happy to follow, what change might bring the most difference. This mess was gruesome. What really ought to happen was a complete clean-out into a skip bin. Robert was pointing to another framed picture.
“That’s my mother,” he said.
Olivia looked at the photograph. It was hanging on the wall opposite the couch, in a kind of prime position. It was a head-and-shoulders shot of a woman in late middle age, wearing clothes that placed her in the sixties, perhaps. Something floral. She had dark waved hair and looked out of the frame as if assessing all she saw.
“Is she still alive?”
“No, no, been gone for many years.”
“Where did you grow up?” Olivia asked. “In Sydney, right?”
“At Bondi Beach, in an apartment. Just me and my mother. She was a brute.”
“What? What d’you mean?”
A conspiratorial shadow crossed Robert’s face, as it had done when he’d told her about his exposé of the council.
“She beat me.”
Now he looked tragic. Was it true?
“Yes, there was no way to satisfy her. And I was just a young boy who wanted to get out and play with my friends, but I didn’t have many friends, and I couldn’t bring anyone home anyway, not to that apartment.”
“What was wrong with it?”
“It had her in it.”
“I’m… so sorry to hear that. It’s so… sad.”
“Yes, it was bad. But I got away to uni, and I’ve had a great career at the council, and made my own way in the world. I’ve been successful, despite her.” Now he was sunny again.
Olivia would have liked to know what had made his mother so brutal. And what about his father? Where was he? And she wondered if that childhood stuff explained the hoarding. There was something about Robert, here in his milieu, that gave her the creeps, and she hadn’t had the creeps around him before. She’d thought him charming and kind of vulnerable. She changed the subject.
“You know,” she said, “you could make a lot more space in here by doing just one simple thing.”
He jumped up to his feet.
“You could just move the pot plants out on to the balcony. They’d thrive out there and it would free up all this area in front of the door. What do you think?”
Robert grabbed her empty mug from her hands and strode to the kitchen.
“I think you’ve got a nerve coming in here and telling me how I should live, that’s what I think.”
His sudden anger shocked Olivia. She stood up too and looked back at him in surprise. He was almost shouting at her now.
“I keep everything where I like it, and no one has the right to criticise me. I think you should apologise.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean…”
“The plants love that position.”
“OK, it was just a suggestion. You don’t have to move them.”
“I don’t think you know much about growing pot plants successfully,” he said, rinsing their mugs, clattering in the sink.
Olivia stood by the couch with her hands in the pockets of her jacket and watched him warily, letting her pulse subside. She didn’t really care where he put the bloody plants. She wasn’t coming back here any time soon, that was for sure. An image came to her of her own small flat, closer to the city, where she’d lived since her divorce. She saw her lone pot plant, one of those dramatic white orchids potted in a ceramic bowl, sitting in the centre of her kitchen table. Lately it’d been losing petals. Perhaps it was true that she was no pot plant expert. Robert finished rinsing the mugs and came back to the couch.
His sudden anger shocked Olivia. She stood up too and looked back at him in surprise. He was almost shouting at her now.
“Sit down, sweetheart,” he said. “I have an idea — we could watch a movie, and maybe get in some takeaway. What do you think?”
Olivia hated take-away. As to the movie, maybe she could leave after it ended. That might be a way to exit gracefully.
“Do you have Netflix?”
“Of course not! Expensive rort. Have a look through the DVDs.”
He pointed across the pot plants to a low cabinet upon which the TV sat. The lower shelves were crammed with rows of DVDs. Olivia couldn’t see how to reach them without moving some of the pots, and she didn’t think she should touch the pots. Her phone rang and she reached into the pocket of her jacket where it was vibrating. As she pulled it out and glanced at the screen, Robert stepped up beside her and filched it from her hand. He touched the red hang-up button and laughed.
“We don’t want any interruptions this evening,” he said.
He took the phone to the kitchen, setting it on a high shelf next to some stacked plates and a ceramic jar labelled ‘garlic.’ He was over six feet tall; Olivia had thought his height attractive. His athletic build and strong biceps had been a turn-on.
“Hey,” she said, lightly. “Give it back.”
“You don’t need it tonight. Think of this flat as your refuge from annoying interruptions.”
He smiled. He was standing in front of the high shelf. If she wanted to reach the phone herself she’d need to stand on a chair, and every chair was covered in junk, and anyway he clearly wasn’t going to let her get at it. The Gershwin CD had moved on to Someone To Watch Over Me. Robert’s attention had switched again. He was reaching down to a cupboard under the kitchen sink and pulling out a large cardboard box.
“This is fantastic,” he said. “Let me show you. It’s a juicer. We can have fresh orange juice for breakfast. In fact, I could bring this over to your place.”
He hefted the box onto the kitchen bench and began to unpack a heavy old-fashioned juicer machine.
“Do you have any oranges?” she asked.
“No, but we can get some when we take this to your place.”
“I don’t think I have room for it.”
“Rubbish! There’s heaps of room in your flat.”
He launched into an explanation of how to put the juicer together, demonstrating, then took it all apart again and packed it back into the box, which he then took to the front door and stacked on top of a pile of newspapers.
“So we don’t forget to take it tomorrow,” he said. “Is there anything else you think we should take? I want to have everything I need at your place, for when I stay with you.”
Olivia looked around. She was still standing by the couch, unsure whether to sit or stand.
“Can I have my phone back, Robert? I don’t feel comfortable without it.”
“No, you don’t need it. I’ll order the takeaway. Do we want pizza? Or Indian?”
He had come back to the couch and now pulled out his own phone. He threw himself down, and tugged on her hand, pulling her down beside him. She was starting to feel unwell; her skin was a little clammy.
“Robert, I think I should go. I have some things to do, and…”
He stopped flicking through his phone and turned towards her.
“No, no. Please stay.”
Now he sounded suddenly distraught. Were those tears welling up in his eyes?
“I’ve been really looking forward to you staying. I know it’s a bit messy, but I don’t have many people come over. I should have cleaned up, I know. I thought you’d be different. I thought you wouldn’t mind.”
She definitely minded, in fact she was revolted by this place. Anyone would be, Olivia thought, but she could hardly say so. Robert’s mother looked down at her. Now he was on his phone again, ordering Indian food. The Gershwin was on to Embraceable You. Olivia rose and picked her way gingerly towards the bathroom. Her stomach was beginning to heave.
“OK if I use the bathroom?” she called.
He looked up from his phone.
“Of course! Don’t be long.”
She followed the trail to the bathroom and closed the door with a feeling that was something like relief and something like fear, enough to make her stomach churn even more queasily. It was a standard seventies bathroom and smelled of drains. There were shaving bristles in the sink. She sat on the closed toilet seat and lowered her head towards the floor, hoping the queasy sensation would pass. It didn’t. She slid to her knees, raised the toilet seat and heaved. The sting of bile filled her mouth and spasms forced half-digested muck up her throat. The retching sound was raucous. Could he hear it over the CD?
“You OK?” called Robert. He was standing outside the door, tapping. “Need any help in there?”
She managed to raise her head and spit, enough to call out weakly, “No, no. I’ll be OK. Out in a minute.”
She grabbed the edge of the basin and hauled herself unsteadily to her feet. Once the tap was on, the gush of the water helped to hide the sound of her last spits and retches. She washed the sourness from her mouth and splashed cold water on her face.
“Sure you’re OK? I’ll come in…”
She heard him trying the door, but she’d latched a little chain that kept it closed, except for half an inch, through which he was trying to see her.
“No! No, I’m coming out now.”
She lifted her face from the sink and the mirror reflected pale cheeks below her dark hair, which was all over the place. She shoved her hands into it to try to fix it up a bit, but Robert was rattling the door on its little chain and making concerned-sounding noises. She unlatched it and pulled the door open. He was right there, and put his hands on her shoulders.
“You look awful, come and sit down.”
He led her to the couch and pushed her down. Her hands were shaking a little. She felt in her pocket for her car keys and, without really focussing, started to plan. Robert fussed around her, stroking her back. He said he’d make another cup of tea for her, peppermint this time. Good for the stomach, he said. From the kitchen he called:
“You’re not pregnant, are you? Ha ha!”
Olivia’s stomach lurched again. She stood up and walked to the front door of the flat, stepping carefully along the path between the papers and boxes.
“I’m just going down to my car,” she said.
Robert was out of the kitchen in a flash.
“Robert, I have to go home. I don’t feel well.”
They Can’t Take That Away From Me, crooned the music. He reached her and put his arm around her shoulders.
“Come and lie down in the bedroom,” he said. “You’ll feel better soon. Probably just need some dinner. The butter chicken is on its way.”
He pulled her back the way she’d come. In the narrow passage he stepped behind her. He was nimble in this terrain. Now he pushed her towards the bedroom. She tried to turn around, to head back to the front door, but he’d put himself between her and it. As she turned, he pulled her close, into an embrace.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart. If you are pregnant, I’ll do the right thing.”
Then he pushed her on towards the bedroom, towards the bed, rumpled, only a sheet covering it. Olivia groaned a bit and curled up rigidly on the mattress. Robert gathered up a beige quilt from the floor and pulled it over her tenderly, patting her arm. He leaned down and kissed her forehead. She kept her eyes open but didn’t look at him. All her muscles were tense.
“I’ll finish making that peppermint tea,” he said and left the bedroom.
The CD stopped playing; the flat went quiet. Olivia listened, her stomach still fluttering as if full of nervous little fish. She heard Robert moving things around in the kitchen — the flick of a switch, a mug being placed on the bench, the tap running, the hiss of the kettle warming. The doorbell rang.
“The butter chicken’s here already,” called Robert.
As she saw him pass the bedroom on his way to answer the door she pushed off the grubby quilt, stood up, took a deep breath, and walked after him. He opened the door to a young delivery man in a hi-viz shirt who was proffering a plastic carrier bag. As Robert gave a loud greeting and reached for the bag, Olivia stepped around him, knocking over a mountain of papers as she pushed past. The box with the orange juicer fell too, knocking Robert in the shins.
“I’m just going down to my car,” she said.
Her voice sounded high-pitched. There was a commotion as Robert picked up the box and tried to balance it on another pile of papers. The delivery guy raised his eyebrows, and moved aside to let her through the doorway.
“Wait!” called Robert.
The delivery guy turned and watched her as she hurried down the stairs. Robert stood beside him holding the plastic carrier bag; the aroma of Indian spices floated in the stairwell. Neither of the men moved.
“I thought you’d be different!” he cried after her.
The light was still on in the stairwell; the delivery guy had pushed the button. It timed out just as she reached the last few steps and in the darkness she tripped. There was a thud as she tumbled onto the tiles of the shadowy foyer, and Robert called again.
“Wait! Are you OK?”
She fumbled to her feet in the gloom and found the front door. A streetlight shone through the side panels and gave the door a halo of orange. Outside she started running, around the building, across the road to her car parked opposite. She fumbled with the key and climbed in behind the wheel, breathing fast. The nausea rose again; she sat still for a moment and looked up at the balcony of Robert’s flat. He was silhouetted against the glow of the room, his hands on the railing, looking down at her. He called out, but she couldn’t hear what he said.