I texted Ricky to ask if he was serious about coming over, suggesting he may even get over Esme if he came.
At the thought of her, I felt a pang of guilt. It was my fault Esme left him, and hadn’t answered his texts or calls. She’d even deleted him as a friend on Facebook.
The thing was, according to Ricky, she’d been his rock during the weeks they were seeing each other. She’d weaned him off pot, motorbikes and pastries, and I grudgingly thought they must be made for each other.
And then I mucked it up for him.
We were at his house that evening, a three-bed detached he shared with some bloke in Arnos Grove. There was Ricky, me and a group of mates he’d invited. We were knocking back beers, crunching on Pringles, and yelling at each other over Bon Jovi bellowing ‘It’s My Life’ from Spotify.
Esme, who I’m not going to lie, was standoff-ish, opinionated and annoying, sat straight-backed on the sofa, clearly not having as much fun as we all thought we were having. I’d made several failed attempts to talk to her in the past, but for Ricky’s sake I thought I’d give it another go.
I grabbed a bottle of lager and plonked down beside her. ‘So, I hear you’re a biochemist,’ I said.
She nodded and began a five minute talk on the importance of doing drug trials on animals. ‘Much better that a rat ends up with two tails than a man ends up with…’
‘Two dicks,’ I said, realising at that moment I should probably stop talking – and drinking. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ I went on, believing I sounded cheeky – cute even. ‘I reckon that would be pretty cool.’
‘Do you honestly think if you grew another penis, Isaac, you’d be happy?’ She narrowed her eyes, which were pretty narrow anyway. ‘I mean, from what Ricky tells me, you haven’t got much use for the first one.’
I stared at her for some time before saying, ‘You talk mainly through your nose. Did you know?’
‘And you, Isaac,’ she snapped, ‘talk mainly through your arse.’
‘Touché,’ I said, drunkenly hurt, wondering what my friend, an animal lover, was doing with this woman. ‘To be honest Edith,’ I went on.
‘Esme,’ she corrected.
Yes, I know. ‘I think drug trials on animals should be banned altogether. And don’t get me started on fox hunting.’
She rolled her eyes as I rose, folding her arms around herself, like a straightjacket. She emitted a vibe that said, 'I can't be bothered to argue with a prat,' so I took the hint and drifted away, shoulders slumped, as though the end of the world was nigh. I headed into the garden where I bumped into Ricky.
‘You know what?’ I said, aware I was slurring, but not letting it stop me finishing my drink. ‘I’ve missed you since you’ve been going out with Edith.’
‘Esme. Yes. Esme. Dear ol’ Esme.’
He smiled. ‘I’ve missed you too, bruv.’
We hugged for a good minute, mainly to hold each other up.
‘Esme doesn’t like me much, does she?’ I said, finally letting go.
He shook his head. ‘Not so much. Not since you told her she looks like Margaret Thatcher.’
‘In her younger day - I did say in her younger day. And I was joking, having a laugh. She looks nothing like Margaret Thatcher, really she doesn’t.’ I pushed through some weeds. ‘Your garden is a mess, my friend,’ I said, pulling up a dandelion. I looked at it. ‘My mum told me when I was a kid that picking dandelions makes you want to pee.’
‘And do you want to pee?’
I slowly rolled the stem around in my fingers. ‘Nope. Pretty sure I don’t.’
He laughed, pulled up a bunch of dandelions and tossed them over the fence into his next door neighbour’s garden.
‘You’ll never keep Esme if you don’t keep your place nice, Ricky,’ I said, swaying. ‘She likes things neat and tidy.’ She did.
‘You’re right, my man,’ he said, grabbing a handful of nettles and dropping them instantly. ‘Ahhh! Damn you, demon, stingy things.’
I headed back into the house leaving him to uproot more weeds and find a dock leaf. I needed to pee.
Esme was still on the sofa, brushing non-existent creases from her dress, looking completely out of place amongst Ricky’s raucous mates who were huddled around the TV playing Call of Duty. I suddenly felt sorry for her – decided to try even harder. Use her correct name.
‘Hi, Esme,’ I said. ‘How’s things?’
She glared up at me. ‘What’s Ricky doing?’
‘Weeding the garden,’ I said, glancing over my shoulder and out through the window, where Ricky had fallen into a patch of nettles.
‘He’s doing weed in the garden?’ Her face fell.
‘Weed-ing the garden,’ I repeated, raising a finger – or possibly two - and pointing towards the back door. ‘He wants you to be happy, Esme. Go see him.’
She rose and grabbed her bag, a cumbersome thing that my gran might have liked. ‘He wants me to smoke pot with him?’ she said.
‘No, no, no,’ I said, as she hurried towards the front door.
‘I can’t believe it. After all I’ve done to help him quit. All those times I helped him to improve himself.’
‘No, no, no,’ I said again, stumbling across the floor and tripping over the power cable. Everyone groaned as the plug was yanked from the wall and the TV screen went black. Cushions were thrown at me from every direction. ‘He’s not smoking dope,’ I called after her.
I knew she couldn’t hear me above the commotion, as she flew through the door, slamming it behind her.
I suppose I could have chased after her and explained, but instead I did nothing. Absolutely nothing. I didn’t even tell Ricky she’d gone, until long after we’d returned from A & E following his allergic reaction to the nettle stings. In fact, on the sound of the door slamming, I did a happy dance. She’d finally left the building. Snotty, opinionated, prim, Esme had gone. Yes!
Ricky was heartbroken. I hadn’t seen that coming.
Now, sanity stepped in. I knew Ricky had a dream to travel, and although New York was top of his bucket list, he'd talked of coming to Australia one day. In reality he could barely afford to fuel his pie, cake, beer and porn fetishes, so a trip to the other side of the world was out of the question. But then he hadn’t been funded by Olivia, which, I confess, made me feel more and more like a gigolo. On the plus side, I may have sold my body to a horny company director, but at least I could search for my mum. That was all that mattered. Nothing else came close.
A text pinged to my phone:
When I win the lotto bruv I’ll be there, even if you are a knob.
I grabbed a lager from the fridge, fell onto the sofa and closed my eyes. I hadn’t intended to sleep. My goal was to work out a travel plan, but I woke six hours later to the sound of the cuckoo clock competing with the Grandfather clock, telling me it was 2.a.m.
I glanced down. Byron was on my lap. He opened his wild eyes and looked up at me, his claws puncturing my shorts.
‘Ouch,’ I cried, twisting, spilling warm lager down my T-shirt and over his fur.
He stood up and stuck his bum in my face, thin tail twitching.
‘Yeats,’ I said, noticing the ginger cat curled in an armchair. ‘Can’t you teach Byron some manners?’
I switched on a side-lamp, pushed the cat off, rose and stretched. There was a laptop on the floor down by the side of the chair, Yeats was sitting on. I’d brought my own with me, but it had no internet connection. Maybe this one had.
I picked it up, disturbing a cockroach as big as a conker that scuttled across the ceramic floor tiles. I removed the laptop from its bag and switched it on. It whirred for a few moments before the picture of Mum, Dad and me at The Blue Mountains filled the screen. A lump lodged in my throat.
Stay focused Isaac.
I found a decent website, and booked a flight to Ayers Rock for the next day. It was going to take over five hours to get there with a stop at Alice Springs. The thought of more air travel made my stomach churn and I thought I might throw up. But I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to find my mum.
It was as I went to close down the computer I noticed my hand. The mobile number had vanished. I must have washed it off in the shower. I couldn’t believe it. The first woman I’d fancied in years, and who seemed to like me too, and I’d lost her bloody number.
‘No,’ I whispered, rubbing my skin as though the number would magically reappear. ‘No, no, no, no, no.’
The following morning I headed round to Gus’s.
‘Hi tall man,’ said Ellie, answering the door as she ate a piece of cake.
‘Hi small girl,’ I said. ‘Is Gus in?’
‘Grandad!’ she yelled over her shoulder. And turning back to me, she asked, ‘Do you want some cake, tall man?’
I shook my head. ‘I’m fine, but thank you, small girl.’
She laughed and rushed away as Gus appeared, and I explained that I was heading off. ‘Any chance you could carry on feeding Yeats and Byron?’
‘Sure thing,’ he said, and I handed him the keys. ‘Good luck, mate,’ he added, taking me into another of his over-friendly bear hugs, but this time I appreciated it. ‘I hope you find her, son.’
‘I hope you find your mum, tall man,’ said Ellie, appearing again with a huge piece of cake wrapped in kitchen roll, and handing it to me.
‘Thank you,’ I said, not having the heart to decline, and heading for the car without looking back.
I dropped off the hire car at the airport and checked-in. I’d never been to the Outback, although I had seen Crocodile Dundee as a kid, which, I felt sure, equipped me with all I should know. Like the fact I needed a wide brimmed hat, and should probably make friends with an aborigine.
After a long and tiring journey, the plane skidded onto the runway at Connellan Airport. The sheer redness of the land hit me, and Ayers Rock looming in the distance gave the illusion I’d landed on another planet.
The driver of a shuttle bus heading towards Yulara agreed I could jump on board with some tourists, so long as I coughed up fifty dollars. The British and Americans on board made excited noises as we journeyed along Lasseter Highway. All I could see was dry arid land - a lonely deserted part of the world. I wished I was back in England listening to the hammering rain on the window. Why would my mum come here?
The ride took just under fifteen minutes, and we pulled up outside a pretty swanky four-star hotel. The tourists clambered out and disappeared inside, clearly thrilled to be there. I was the last to get off.
I walked about, the oppressive heat of Yulara sapping the last of my energy. Not surprising as the temperature was now knocking forty degrees. I was tired and starving, and worse than that, in my haste to come I hadn’t even thought about somewhere to stay. I imagined Olivia rolling her eyes and saying, ‘Stupid, boy.’
I grabbed a drink, a burger and some fries at the Gecko’s Café – a light and airy restaurant. The food was good; the air-conditioning cooling. An hour later I was heading along the red sand once more, in search of Cillian.
Tourists milled about in shorts, hats and sunglasses; cameras round necks, rucksacks on backs, smiles on faces. A group of adults and youngsters had gathered to do Aboriginal art, and further on a local Aboriginal dance was being performed. Yulara promised wonderful lookouts, camel rides, emu spotting, and I knew most people would have been in seventh heaven as they ticked off things on their bucket lists. But all I wanted to do was find Cillian. Find my mum.
I asked around and eventually tracked down the address Suki had given me to the outskirts of the main tourist area.
I knocked and was let in by a young, tanned Aussie guy.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m looking for Cillian.’
‘You a mate of his?’
‘No, not really. I just need to ask him something, that’s all.’
‘Room five,’ he said. ‘That’s if he’s not cooking.’
‘He’s one of the chefs here; a good one.’ He continued on his way, calling back, ‘But you could be in luck. I’m pretty sure he’s got a fortnight off.’
I knocked on door number five, and after a few moments the man in the photograph on Suki’s wall opened it. He was around fifty, tall and muscular, with a tattoo of a dove on one shoulder. A wide-brimmed cowboy hat covered most of his black hair, which was tied in a ponytail, and he was wearing a waistcoat and jeans.
He smiled a knowing smile, his brown eyes meeting mine. He gestured for me to enter the room, and as I stepped in, the coolness of the air-conditioning hit me.
‘Hi,’ he said, his Australian accent strong. ‘It’s great to meet you, Isaac.’