I read on the internet that we never dream in colour. It’s not true. Most of us dream in colour. In fact, black and white dreams can be a sign of depression. Or so I read on the internet.
As a child living in Australia, I had a recurring dream where I stood on the edge of The Blue Mountains. The towering rocks, tinted with blues and lilacs, stretched under cloudless skies in front of me, and the sun burned hot on my back. I’d known, because you know these things in dreams, that every gorge, cave and crevice belonged to me.
I stopped having the dream when I came back to the UK when I was nine. I still dreamt, of course - still dreamt in colour - right up until my father died five weeks ago.
Now those mountains were back, drained of the blues and pinks and lilacs, as though Dracula had crept in and sucked the life out of them. I knew, because you know these things in dreams, that the gorges, caves and crevices were no longer mine.
I’m not saying I was depressed exactly, although losing your dad isn’t the best thing to happen when you’re twenty-three. A dad you loved, but never got to tell how much. A dad you looked up to, admired, but never had the balls to be anything like. A dad who you felt, beneath his smile, was disappointed in the boy you once was, and the man you’d become.
Perhaps I was depressed then.
I certainly felt numb, zombiefied and confused.
‘Isaac.’ A sharp poke in my chest woke me from my black and white dream. Rain, heavy and incessant on the window, infiltrated my ears. I sat up to see Olivia, forty-five, and undeniably gorgeous. I hated her. Sick to the back teeth of her describing me as her sordid little secret, despite knowing that was exactly what I was.
Her blonde hair fell over her manufactured face, as she leant on the bed, one hand on the Egyptian cotton, the other pulling on her heels. She smelt nice.
‘If you use my shampoo again,’ she said. ‘I’ll shave your curls off in your sleep.’
‘They’re not curls, they’re waves.’ I touched my hair, checking it was still there. I wouldn’t have put anything passed her.
She stood upright, gave me her usual I’m-the-boss-around-here
stare, grabbed her Prada bag, and headed for the door. ‘Don’t be late, and make sure you put the loo seat down and switch off all the lights. There’s a good boy.’
She always called me boy, due, I suspected, to the age gap. It gave her power over me, and I’d let it happen.
‘No lift today, then?’ I said, hoping to sound sarcastic, but it came out croaky. My throat was parched from drinking lager the night before. But I had an excuse for my brief spell of alcoholism.
My dad died.
Olivia glanced back over her slim, fit shoulders, and glared again. This time as though I was a toddler who’d missed the potty and messed on the floor. She didn’t like me anymore. Not even as a plaything. She’d given me until the end of the week to get out. I couldn’t have cared less.
I’m not saying it wasn’t fun at first. I liked being the secret lover of a company director. Living in her luxury penthouse rent free, and revelling in the knowledge it cost her over two grand a week was great. I loved the classic elegance of the place, with its immaculate kitchen, the ‘his’ and ‘her’ sinks in the bathroom. I got off on the fact I could walk out of the front door onto Covent Garden’s Piazza with its café, shops, and restaurants, as though I was some sort of celebrity. I loved the views of the Opera House from the roof terrace, where I’d sit for hours hiding from Olivia, thinking my own thoughts.
Olivia Noakes was one of the most powerful people at Noakes Information Technology, or N.I.T for short (they clearly hadn’t thought that through) where I’d worked since I graduated two years before. At first I got a buzz when other guys eyed her up. I would watch her flirting, stroking their faces with slender fingers, hugging them for a few seconds longer than absolutely necessary, and I would think, yes, but she’s sleeping with me. That was before I found out she was sleeping with them too.
‘You look ridiculous,’ she said now, one hand on the door handle as she eyed my pyjamas. ‘You need a shave. Honestly, Isaac, you totally bore me.’
‘But my dad died.’ I sounded whiny, of which I wasn’t proud.
‘For God’s sake, get over it and move on. When my father died I didn’t give it a second thought.’
‘That’s because your dad…’
The door slammed behind her.
…left you a fortune, and you’re an absolute bitch.
I climbed off the bed. ‘Anyway, they’re vintage,’ I said, looking down at my PJs. ‘I like Thundercats.’
Olivia told me on my first day at N.I.T. that I was cute, and good looking for a systems developer. I was flattered, I liked the way she touched my face, and said, ‘I love your green eyes. Your long lashes are very sexy.’
I didn’t twig she was seducing me.
Who’d have thought a company director of her calibre would look at me?
That was two years ago. I’m not sure I liked her even then.
Now, I showered and shaved, got dressed and hid my PJs in case Olivia, as she’d promised on more than one occasion, cut them up.
The shirt, the tie, the smart suit – it wasn’t really me. It never seemed to match my dark, wavy hair, which had had a warped mind of its own since childhood.
Outside, heavy rain slanted towards me, sharp and cold on my cheeks. It was days like this that a tiny part of me knew what had drawn my parents back to Australia four years ago.
A black taxi approached. I hailed it and was at work in ten minutes.
I entered N.I.T, a tall building with floor-to-ceiling windows, and headed for the lift. As the doors closed behind me, and I found myself alone, trapped inside the shiny walls with my conscience, thoughts of Mum drifted in.
‘There’s been a dreadful accident, darling,’ she’d said, crying down the phone just before Christmas. ‘Your father fell from a ridge in The Blue Mountains.’
There had been a painful pause where I’d felt sure she was going to add, ‘But he’s OK. He’s fine,’ but instead she said, ‘He’s gone, Isaac.’
I’d fought back tears, wrestled them into submission, as she continued in a whisper, as though if she spoke louder someone might hear and believe her words.
Pain of his loss caused bubbles of anger to rise inside me that day. My father had spent so many years taking risks. Said it made him feel alive. He’d insisted he couldn’t write his books if he didn’t rise to the challenges travel opened up, and my mother had followed him wherever his ideas had taken him. She’d given up so much, so my father could fulfil his dreams.
As my anger grew, I’d wondered if he’d died going that bit too far for the sake of his stupid, bloody writing. Maybe if he’d taken a step back, I could have got to know him better.
Up until the age of nine, when my parents travelled I’d stay at home with a nanny, and later my gran. I would think about them constantly while they were away, hoping they’d come back soon, safe and unhurt. Eventually, they would turn up, tired and thin, Dad buzzing from their adventures; brandishing gifts from parts of the globe I’d never even heard of, but Mum always had sad eyes.
‘It’s so good to be home,’ she would say, hugging me close, and going on about how much she’d missed me. Even as a child I knew Mum didn’t want to travel as much as they did, but Dad would already be planning their next adventure.
Now, stuck in the elevating lift, I sucked in a sigh. I didn’t like travelling or writing. In fact, Dad and I had so little in common. Ironic, I’d always thought, as we looked so alike. I was his younger mirror image, trapped in the cold glass going nowhere, while he’d lived life to the full.
I’d always been a bit of a homebody, but it was only when we came back to the UK, after living in Australia, when I was nine that my identity fully took hold. I slipped into the British way of life, and wanted nothing more than my computer, and the comfort and security of home. Travelling, to me, seemed like a nightmare, ignited, a psychologist might deduce, by the constant worry I’d felt as a child when my parents were away.
I shuddered, recalling how my skin prickled that day my mum uttered the dreaded words that my dad had died; and how, as I’d stood with the phone pinned to my ear, how I knew she was stifling tears. It was bitterly and bizarrely ironic: My dad had tried so hard to feel alive, it had, as I’d feared it would one day, killed him.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t come over for the funeral, Mum,’ I’d said, biting back tears, hiding my emotions - tucking them away in pockets inside my head. I was scared that if I let those tears go, I wouldn’t be able to stop them. ‘I’ve got chickenpox.’
It was true. I had contracted chickenpox, and knew I wouldn’t be allowed to fly. But the truth was, it was a way out, an excuse to stay in England and pretend my father was still alive, and my mum was doing just fine, living life to the full on the other side of the world.
Mum had sucked in a breath. ‘That’s OK, darling,’ she said, still in a whisper. ‘Please don’t worry, just get well.’
I spoke to her again after the funeral. ‘Friends are rallying round,’ she’d said, as if to reassure me. ‘My neighbours, Gus and June, are being so good. I’m absolutely fine.’
I’d chosen not to read between her lines. I’d chosen to believe her words. I’d chosen not to pick up on her sadness.
The last time I spoke to her was at the end of December. She’d called to wish me Happy New Year, and to tell me she was going to send me my dad’s ring.
‘I wish I’d taken more in the day your dad died,’ she’d said, her voice faraway, as though her thoughts were on that mountain ridge where he’d fallen. ‘If I hadn’t let him head off with that ridiculous tour guide.’ She’d broken off, and a silence hung between us for some time.
‘I wish I’d been at the funeral,’ I said, guilt manifesting.
I never said goodbye, Dad.
‘You mustn’t feel bad,’ Mum said. ‘Your father would have understood.’
I’d swallowed hard. Would he?
‘Please come over soon, though,’ she said after another silence. ‘I miss you.’
‘I will. Let me see if I can get some time off work. I love you, Mum.’
‘I love you too, darling.’
That was the last time I spoke to her. I should have packed my bags as soon as I got off the phone. Found some balls and jumped on the first plane to Brisbane to make sure she was OK, because she hadn’t sounded OK. But I didn’t, because, not only did I hate travelling, I was too afraid of who would greet me at the other end. Too afraid I would discover that I hadn’t only lost my dad that day on The Blue Mountains, I’d lost my mum too.
Now, the lift continued upwards, and my conscience, like a separate entity, screamed, ‘You should have called her, Isaac.’
I was relieved when the lift doors slid open.
Olivia was in her office with Ian, the marketing manager, their heads touching as they studied a spreadsheet on her computer screen. He was her latest conquest. She hadn’t pretended otherwise. And none of it mattered now. It was over. My only consolation prize was I’d managed to save fifteen grand while living with her. I liked to think that meant I was using her as much as she was using me, and pushed away thoughts that I was practically a male prostitute.
I headed for my desk. Well I say desk, it was more a space on a long table I shared with twenty other employees.
‘You OK, Isaac, my man?’ It was my best friend, Ricky. We’d started at N.I.T. the same day; both fresh out of The University of Hertfordshire. He made me laugh. He stood by me. He was part good guy, part stupid, part pastry devourer. He smiled up at me, a page of binary codes on his computer screen in front of him, a sausage roll in his hand, flaky pastry in his beard.
His desk was chaotic. Post-its dating back months framed his computer screen. There were fur-lined mugs, a toy Minion, a Bobblehead Darth Vader, a photo of his mother’s spaniel, Tilly, and, taking pride of place next to his keyboard, a picture of Esme. The woman he’d loved and lost. And I thanked the gods daily for the lost part.
‘I’m fine,’ I said, taking off my damp jacket and hanging it on the back of my swivel chair. I wasn’t. My head was full of my parents, and I had a thumping headache. I rubbed my temples.
‘You sure, matey? You haven’t been yourself since…’
‘Honestly, Ricky, I’m fine.’ His persistence, however well meaning, was making me uneasy, stirring more emotions. I needed him to stop. ‘What about you? Everything OK with you?’
‘Indeed they are,’ he said, leaning back in his chair and grinning. ‘I’m going out with a woman called Dallas tonight. She’s a drag queen.’
I widened my eyes. ‘What?’
‘Before you say it,’ he said, waving his sausage roll in my general direction. ‘I know Dallas is a weird name.’
‘That wasn’t what I was going to say.’ I tried to hold in a laugh. ‘Ricky, you do know that drag queens are men who dress as women, don’t you?’
His mouth dropped open, revealing part munched-up pastry. It wasn’t a pretty sight. ‘I did not know that,’ he said.
‘Good God, what planet do you actually live on?’
‘He looked like a she.’
‘They often do.’
‘Need to cancel that date then,’ he said, putting down his sausage roll to pick up his mobile. ‘I was looking forward to it too. She’s such a nice lady – man – lady.’ He began tapping his fingers on the keyboard. ‘Even promised to talk me through my Esme trauma.’
‘Your Esme trauma?’
‘Yes, Isaac, my Esme trauma.’ Suddenly his eyes were on Olivia in her office. ‘Have you seen the way her top hugs her tits this morning?’ he whispered, putting down his phone. ‘They’re fantastic, for her age.’
‘That’s because they’re forty years younger than she is.’
‘They’re fake, Ricky,’ I muttered. ‘Nice, but fake.’
‘I did not know that,’ he said, taking off his glasses, and rubbing his bloodshot eyes.
He didn’t know much about anything except IT. And he certainly didn’t know about Olivia and me. But then nobody did. Mainly because she didn’t want anyone to know, and, if I was honest, neither did I. Being with Olivia didn’t feature in my top ten all time proudest moments.
Thankfully Ricky wasn’t one to question why he’d never been invited back to my apartment. In fact, he’d never asked where I lived – which backed up my theory that he was clever in the Information Technology sense of the word, but dim. Whenever we met up it would be at his place or a bar or a restaurant, and Ricky was fine with that.
‘Olivia’s a panther,’ he said.
‘Cougar; and I’m not interested.’ I opened up my emails.
Ricky popped his glasses back on, screwed up his face, and ogled Olivia for a few moments. ‘Shame she’s not as nice as her tits.’
‘Well she’s certainly as fake.’
He nodded. ‘A bit of a bitch.’
‘Indeed. And maybe keep your voice down a bit, mate – you don’t want to be done for sexual harassment.’ Although the truth was, Olivia was the biggest sexual harasser I’d ever met.
‘You’d have to be quite something to catch her eye. She’d never look at the likes of you and me, aye, Isaac, my man?’ He picked up his sausage roll again and took another bite, flakes of pastry landing on his keyboard.
I continued to stare into her office. She was laughing now. That flirty laugh that made her face light up. She flicked her hair and brushed her hand down Ian’s arm. I turned to Ricky, wanting to tell him I was capable of landing her, but I knew he would never believe me. He’d seen my failed attempts at Uni. How my bedpost remained practically notch free, as I fumbled through my late teens.
‘I’d rather lick a gerbil,’ I said instead.
Later, at Olivia’s place, I put on my Thundercats PJs, grabbed a lager from the fridge, and ordered a pizza with extra mushrooms. Olivia wouldn’t be back tonight, and I was glad. I dragged my fingers through my hair and flopped onto the sofa.
Since Mum’s call at New Year, I’d dialled her number several times, but something always stopped me connecting the call. I was a coward.
I picked up the jiffy bag that had arrived the day before. The postmark was 31st December. It had taken over three weeks to arrive. Inside I’d found a ring and a note that read,
For you, Isaac. Dad would have wanted you to have it.
Love Mum x
Now, I tipped the ring from the bag, and studied the emerald embedded in gold. It had belonged to my father, and his father before him. I held it in the palm of my hand, the stone glinting in the light of the side-lamp. I slipped it onto my finger. It was a perfect fit. We were so alike, and yet so different.
I gulped the lager, the amber liquid soothing as I swallowed. And,
needing to take my mind off my parents before I cried like a baby, I picked up the remote control and aimed it at the 52-inch TV on the wall.
I flicked through the channels, landing on The Eagles in concert, ‘Life in the fast lane’. I listened until the song came to a close, and the crowd cheered, before flicking onwards to find a show about finding long lost family. Jeez, far too much crying and hugging.
I settled on a programme about Aborigines and their beliefs, and closed my eyes, letting the calm voices and haunting tribal music wash over me. I drifted into a half-sleep, where all I was aware of was the sound of my own breathing.
An advert boomed from the screen, making me jump.
I shot to a sitting position, making an odd sound like a startled donkey, aware my tongue was stuck to roof of my mouth.
‘Call your mum,’ my conscience cried out, like a phantom inside my head.
But I’d let over three weeks go by. I hadn’t helped her with her grief. I hadn’t told her how desperately sad I was. How, in the lonely hours of every morning, a lump lodged in my throat, threatening to choke me if I refused to cry.
I looked at the time on my mobile phone. It was nine o’clock, and I worked out it would be six in the morning in Brisbane. Mum had always been an early riser, so I dialled, the whole number this time, and waited for the ring tone.
I wasn’t sure what I would say, and as it rang and rang, I bit at my thumbnail, fighting back tears.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said before it was answered. ‘I’m so sorry for not calling sooner. Sorry for not coming over when you needed me. I love you. I loved Dad. I’m a total dick.’
‘Hello.’ It was a male voice.
I cleared my throat. ‘Is Kate there?’
‘Who is this?’
‘It’s her son. Isaac.’
‘Isaac. Wow, I’ve heard a lot about you, mate.’ His Australian accent was strong, his tone friendly.
‘Is she there, please?’ I struggled to stop my voice from cracking.
‘No, no, she isn’t.’ He paused. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t know where she is.’
My body stiffened.
‘She headed off about three weeks ago. But we haven’t heard anything from her since. Not a dickey-bird.’
‘Who is this?’ I cut in, suddenly overwhelmed - too far away.
‘Just a neighbour, Gus Livingstone’s the name. I’ve been feeding your mum’s kitties. The cheeky blighters wake me and the missus up at the crack of dawn for their food.’
I was irritated by the trivia. ‘Did she say where she was going?’
‘She was heading Ayers Rock way, the Northern Territory. Took off just after New Year’s. I’ve no idea why. But she seemed excited, you know, happier suddenly. Like she’d been before your dad died. I’m sorry about that too, mate. Patrick was a great bloke – a real fun guy.’
‘And she never came back?’
‘Well that’s the odd thing. We’d reckoned she would be back about a week ago, as she said she’d only be gone a couple of weeks.’
‘Did she take her mobile?’
‘Yeah, she had her phone alright, but it’s dead now, no signal. Doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m sorry.’
My heart thumped. ‘Have you called the police?’
‘Yeah, I did, but they can’t do much if she headed off on her own accord. Plus she’d told work she wouldn’t be available, took clothes, and you know how your parents travelled a lot, and...’
‘I’m coming over,’ I cut in, brushing away a tear with the back of my hand. I knew Mum wouldn’t just disappear without a way of contacting her. ‘I’m on my way.’
‘Good on ya, Isaac. I’ll be here waiting for you.’