I met a guy on Gaydar who sounded interesting. Call him Ben. We chatted a few times, then he called in to meet me at work. I work at a recycling facility, in a very small town. It’s the total opposite of Sydney glitz. I bought the house my grandfather built here in Cooma, the house where my mother first opened her eyes. It had been abandoned decades ago. Now I was slowly fixing it up.
Ben and I didn’t click sexually but it was good to meet another gay. He lived in a small country town, too, on a beach two hour’s drive down the mountain, and we moaned to each other like two old queens on a Tuesday, about how hard it was to meet new people.
We both admitted that we were in long term relationships. I was more interested in finding out about the scene here in the sticks than in making out. I told Robert about him that night.
‘Sounds like an old Oxford Street tart to me.’
Robert liked to disparage people I liked if he didn’t know them.
‘They’re from Melbourne.’
‘St Kilda tart then.’
Robert was a city boy too, street smart, and he’d fitted amazingly well in amongst the Country Woman’s Association members here. We’d met in a bar in Oxford Street when I was working for Big Fresh. He was live-in caring for a woman who left him her house when she died. We’d been together on and off for a while.
A week later Ben messaged for my address, and a few days after that a card arrived in the snail mail.
‘Look at this!’ I waved it at Robert who was dicing vegetables for a mirepoix, rubber gloves on so he wouldn’t smell of onions and garlic. He brushed at his dangling hair with the back of his wrist.
‘So retro. Hold it so I can read it.’
‘We’re invited to a dinner party, to celebrate their new renovations. Admire them, more likely. Smart casual, it says, and RSVP.’
‘Smart casual, honestly. Fashion Gestapo. I thought we’d left all that in the city. Why didn’t he just ring you, or message you, with the invitation?’
I thought of old rituals of manners and behaviour of the past, and shuddered.
‘Whatever. They probably get a kick out of all the small details. I wonder …’ and we mused about the identity of the other guests.
‘There’ll be a gay dentist, for sure.’
We decided we’d go, and sent off the twee little response card. In reply came a print of a hand-drawn map, like a kid’s treasure hunt, and the way from the highway to their house, sketched in all its glory, was marked out by red doggie paw prints. The map asked us to leave dogs at home, as their Chocolate Labradoodle hadn’t had all her shots yet.
‘Chocolate Labradoodle! Honestly. They probably call her Emily. Who’d take a dog to a dinner party anyway?’ A pause.
‘I feel like bringing one of Terry’s pig dogs along.’
Those dogs were as massive and bristly as the boars they hunted, and they all seemed to have too many teeth. We giggled at the image of biker dog meets fairy.
In the end we spent far too much time getting ready, and swapping clothes until we felt we’d both achieved the relaxed smart casual look, with cotton and silk and linen, and Italian loafers. Only one earring each, and only a glimpse of gold at neck or wrist. never both.
‘The great groomed!’ Robert called us as we both preened, but I have to say, we looked OK.
That magic that anticipation can make out of meeting a party of strangers – maybe he’d be there, the perfect man, the one I haven’t met yet. Or so I always hoped.
We cruised down the mountain with two hours to get there, didn’t drive fast or anything, but we arrived half an hour early.
‘Let’s go back to that pub on the highway, have a couple of beers, and come back later.’
I’d pulled into the driveway to check the name on the mailbox and before I could reverse Ben appeared at the top of the driveway, saw us, waved and ‘Coooo-eeee’d until I had to drive up, Robert swearing quietly beside me. Too uncool, arriving early.
‘Positively provincial’ he muttered.
Ben greeted us from the wide decking in front of a set of French doors, fat wriggling pup in his arms.
‘Qantas steward’ Robert sneered to me, twisting it into a smile of welcome as introductions were made.
‘Carol’s busy in the kitchen. She’s doing something really special for tonight!’
Crash! Crockery shattered somewhere behind him.
‘She’s under a lot of pressure – all the prep, and no one had time to walk Edith today – play with her.’ and he thrust the half-grown pup at us and hurried away. We heard his voice, distantly, soothing, while someone sobbed.
‘Queens! Always a drama!’
Robert chose a stick from the firewood displayed artfully along the wall, to wave in front of Edith. When he had her ear-pricked, quivering attention he threw the stick off the decking.
Edith darted down the steps, leaping the last two to pounce on the stick and carry it high, like a trophy, back up the steps to Robert, tail erect and beating like a speeding metronome.
From inside: raised voices, a short scream, more crockery, then a sudden burst of music, Shirley Bassey with Big Spender, to drown out the domestic problems.
I looked around. The evening’s beginnings felt less than auspicious. The sun had set behind us and below us land and sea joined in a dark monochrome, but the sky glowed bright in the west still, tinting with pastels, mauve and pink, the thin clouds running shadows over the gum forests on the mountains. I lit a cigarette. It felt good, this moment of peace.
Robert was teaching Edith (he was nearly right, with Emily) to leap from higher up; soon she was leaping straight from the deck even before Robert threw, twisting in mid air to watch where the stick landed.
And that’s what happened. Edith leaped, Robert threw, Edith twisted in mid air to follow the stick – and crumpled with a thud to the ground.
Her screams of pain and intermittent howling stopped my heart for a second. I threw my cigarette away and jumped down onto the lawn, Robert right behind me. Crashing out through the French doors came Ben.
‘What have you done to Edith? What have you done to my dog, no, don’t touch her, get right away from her – what have they done to you, my precious?’ and he stroked her limp hind legs.
Edith bit him, hard, ripping at his hand, growling and snarling. Ben’s hand was bleeding freely as he reached into his pocket for his cell phone, smearing blood all over his smart casual raw linen slacks. Edith jerked, leaving a print on his leg remarkably like those cute doggie paw prints on the map.
‘Yes, yes, an emergency, I think they broke her back!’
Ben turned his back on us, excluding us even further. Robert and I exchanged glances. He looked up at the sky as he spoke.
‘Her back’s broken all right. Snapped the spinal cord. Nothing you can do for her except put her out of her misery right now. She’s in agony. Don’t prolong it. Do you have a cricket bat? They can be handy if you don’t have a gun.’
I agreed with him. An awful accident, and the dog was still suffering.
‘Monster! Monster!’ Ben shook with intensity, spittle flying. I thought he was about to attack Robert when his phone rang, and he turned away, visibly struggling for control.
A scream from the kitchen, repeated.
‘We’ll go and see if we can help.’
Robert grabbed my arm, push/pulling me up the stairs and into the living room. I registered the smell of smoke as we passed through the French doors but the room – elegance in silk drapes, clever antiques, Persian carpets – looked tranquil.
Robert dashed for the source of the screams, and sure enough, as he opened the door, thick, choking smoke billowed out. Through it I could see broken crockery on the floor and someone bent over the sink, sobbing. Oh Carol. Robert passed her without pause and vanished.
At the same moment sprinklers, a whole army of them, popped out from their cunning recesses in the ceiling and a constant heavy shower of water, a veritable deluge, drenched the expensive artifacts as I watched. Unbelievable.
Ben loomed through the downpour.
‘What the fuck have you done now?’
Elegance and civilization had morphed into an injured, angry, dirty, demented midget with a high, annoying voice.
‘Get out! Get out of my home! You’ve ruined everything – just go!’ and he shouldered roughly past Robert emerging from the kitchen.
We left. The dog was just a puddle of shadow on the lawn.
At the bottom of the driveway I gave way to a huge SUV called Very Best Vets. It took the turn from the road too wide, crunched over the water meter exposed at the side of the driveway, stopped, went back and over it again, then turned a bit and moved on up the driveway.
I stared at the water gushing from the broken connection. Those sprinklers weren’t going to work for long. At least the dog would soon be free.
‘What happened in the kitchen?’
I glare/glanced at Robert, as if the whole fiasco had been his fault. He was fiddling with something on his lap.
‘Love! You wouldn’t believe it!’
His whole face came alight, beaming like the child he must once have been. Pure pleasure, innocent happiness, radiated from him.
‘You saw her frock, and her bald head?’ I nodded.
‘Well, she was in full drag – apart from the fluffy kitten slippers (poor dear must have bunions), she’d had a few glasses of plonk, and her wig caught fire from the gas flames under the deep fryer. She got too close when she stumbled and dropped the plates.
She was all frocked up but for the bald head and K-Mart slippers, drowning the wig in the sink. Really choking it. All smoke and sizzling, but when Carol saw me she jammed it back on her head, must have hurt, dirty water running down her face, all over her frock and it might have still been all right …’ he was laughing too much to go on. Finally
‘ … meanwhile the pan of hot oil just kept getting hotter until Whoosh! Fire ball!’
Luckily Robert had been a psych nurse. I’m not sure anyone else could have coped.
‘I grabbed something off the back of a chair and smothered the pan. Too late to stop the automatic sprinklers. Ruined her cape, of course. And the drapes were well away by then.’
I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. I pulled over to the side of the road and laughed and laughed. The image of the bald, stocky, middle-aged queen in heavy makeup and fluffy slippers was bad enough, but streaming with dirty water under a melting wig? Too much.
‘Told you Ben was a hopeless old poof. And Carol! She really needs some lessons in deportment. Not a bad cook though. Here – try these.’
He’d managed to palm a handful of salmon croquettes, along with a bottle of red wine. A good one, too, a Grange Bin 95 Shiraz from 2010.
‘I knew by then we weren’t likely to get dinner.’
‘Good thinking. Pity about the dog though.’
We’d finished the bottle, about to move off when darkness shattered and a Fire Brigade tanker sped past, siren blaring, lights flashing, driven by a mature man with a dapper moustache, smart-casually dressed.
According to later newspaper articles, investigators found suspicious circumstances surrounding the fire, which had started in two places at once: one in a wood pile on the wall, and one in the kitchen. The sprinkler system back-up hadn’t been installed. The insurance company refused to pay out the owner’s claim.
I thought about the cigarette I’d tossed away when I ran to help the dog.
I changed my name on Gaydar.
Ernest Malley works in the security industry which he joined after serving in the Australian Army, stationed in Canberra. New to writing but not to frolic and drama, this story actually happened, though the names have been changed to protect the guilt-ridden.