Ecstasy started to wake up after midnight. Heavy basslines and jangly hip-hop melodies ensured a dance floor wall to wall with skimpy dresses and tight black tees. The long bar curved right into the dancers and then back out again to the table where they were sitting. Adam watched the dancefloor, his eyes drifting from body to body, m.
‘My round,’ said Dennis, rising.
Scott shifted on the stool restlessly. ‘We gotta have a dance. Fucking hell, all the ladies are up on the dancefloor.’
Richard shook his head. ‘After this round. We have seats, man!’
‘Fuck the seats. We’re here to have a good time and that means bumping it up there with all the dangerous older women, all right? Adam?’
Adam nodded happily. ‘The music here is so cool! Listen, listen… bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum…’
Scott was looking at him like he’d turned into someone else. ‘What the fuck was that?’
‘Hee hee… the beat!’ Adam nodded enthusiastically, which got Richard laughing and Scott shaking his head. Adam didn’t care. He was having a great night. This was a fantastic club, the best in the city, big and stylish and always a queue to get in, some nights a queue so long it went right to the corner and doubled back, at least that was what Scott said, and it had a long bar, and some seats in out of the way spots so they didn’t get in the way which was where they were, and then coolest of it had a balcony over the dancefloor, there were stairs that went up to this narrow walkway and there were five people dancing on it drunkenly, up above everyone, totally in full view of everyone there, and they obviously didn’t worry about anything. They looked to be having some awesome fun.
‘Holy shit!’ Scott said suddenly. ‘Look there!’
‘What are we looking at?’ Adam asked, still watching the balcony.
‘In the blue dress!’
Richard nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah.’
‘Who?’ Adam asked.
‘Look, blind boys!’ Scott pointed more vigorously. ‘That’s Paula Travers!’
It took a moment for Adam to find her, but Scott was right. Paula had her blonde hair pulled back to show off her cheekbones. She was talking at the bar to another girl who looked even younger. ‘How did she get in? She’s only sixteen isn’t she?’
‘Maybe, but look at her,’ Richard said. ‘Imagine you’re the bouncer. That comes to the door, fluttering its eyelashes, and you’re going to turn it away?’
Scott laughed. ‘Fuck man, must get so frustrating, all these fucking girls coming on all night with no intention of ever putting out! Keep adjusting your trousers while maintaining a professional demeanour.’
‘They don’t do so bad with the women,’ Richard said.
‘Maybe that’s a job for Adam then. Bouncer, huh? What do you reckon?’
Adam laughed. ‘I reckon… I reckon I would suck as a bouncer!’ He giggled.
Dennis came back with a shaker and some shot glasses. He followed their eyes as he poured the first shots. ‘Paula?’
‘Yeah. She look twenty to you?’ asked Scott.
‘She looks legal. That’s enough.’ He poured out a shot each. ‘A toast?’
Scott raised his glass. ‘For Paula!’
‘Dick,’ Dennis said. ‘For Adam. Happy birthday motherfucker.’
‘Waheeeey!’ Adam said, and knocked down the shot.
Adam threw his body up to the music. He was out of control and it felt just great. He’d never been able to dance before but the drinks must have improved his co-ordination because he was pulling it off right now. And Scott was shouldering in time with the beat, and Richard’s head was nodding, but he was going off! Where was Dennis? But of course Dennis couldn’t be counted on, but it wasn’t about counting, was it? Like last night, Dennis couldn’t come, and it was on his shoulders, so he might as well pull it on, and anyway Dennis was dancing with some black-haired girl he’d found, of course he was.
And there was Paula again, she was still here! He grinned at her really big and she noticed him, looking away then looking back. ‘Hi!’ he shouted at her.
She was right next to Scott, who caught her eye and gave her a nod. She clicked who they were and smiled back. Adam put his hands up and danced more, because everyone was friends with everyone which was just how it was meant to be. Then Scott was tapping his shoulder, still moving with the beat, and he grabbed Scott by the shoulders and shook him.
‘Yeah, Adam – Adam,’ Scott said, ‘can you lend me twenty bucks?’
Adam laughed and pushed Scott away. Richard watched, bemused.
‘No, seriously,’ Scott said, coming back in.
‘I’ll pay you back Monday, I promise.’
Adam shook his head. ‘No way!’
‘Oh fucking hell, come on! I said I’d buy Paula a drink, okay?’
‘Paula?’ The light dawned. ‘You like Paula?’
‘She’s cute. Come on, man, don’t make me beg.’
Adam put an arm around Scott’s shoulder, leaned right in to his ear. ‘Because we are friends,’ he said. ‘Because we are friends!’
Adam pushed the shot glass into Richard’s hands. ‘To us!’ he said and clinked his glass against Richard’s, then tipped it into his mouth. The shot bounced around inside, smooth and sweet, and he swallowed greedily.
Scott was hanging with Paula in one corner, and Dennis was somewhere in the dancefloor crowd. The music was good and he was already sick of not dancing. ‘Come on!’
‘I don’t think so. I’m over the dancing, man.’
Adam grabbed Richard’s arm and pulled him close enough to talk to properly. ‘Do you think it’s going all right tonight?’
‘Sure, it’s going great. Shit, Scott’s talking to a girl, that’s a minor miracle right there.’
‘He is, yeah! That girl – how did he do that? That’s crazy! Because, you know, I need it to go right. My parents are mad at me and I don’t know what I’m doing at all but you guys are my friends.’
Richard had to shout right into Adam’s ear. ‘Your parents are mad at you?’
‘Yeah, they’re all, you know, be like this... You sure you don’t want to dance, I can’t go by myself!’
‘No, man, I’m fine.’
‘I’m happy you’re fine! I’m fine, you know? How is it going to work when you’ve gone, I don’t know, but it’s fine, you know? Now come on!’ He grabbed Richard’s arm and pulled him, but Richard didn’t budge. Adam gave up, lifted his hands, and the momentum seemed to carry him towards the dance floor anyway. Even though he was by himself it was okay, with all the people, no-one cared, he squeezed through dancing couples, and suddenly Dennis was right in front of him. He was locked in a French kiss with that girl, that girl he’d found, and it seemed staged like a movie. Adam whooped. ‘Go Dennis! Go go go!’
The balcony was just as good as Adam had imagined. It was too small, of course, and he had to hunch over to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling, but looking out over all the people down below, he was flying high! He flapped his arms and did all the dancing stuff he’d got on top of during the evening. They couldn’t touch him! Rocking out!
Vertigo hit and he grabbed the railing. The floor seemed to zoom up towards him, or away from him, or both at once. The balcony wasn’t too steady any more and he guessed he should lean on the rail until his stomach stopped leaping around. His face was so cold! His cheeks were like ice!
Hey, there was Scott. And Paula too, they were talking. They were right there, wow, it was like they were rising up towards him, queasy – he could see right down her top! He should tell her about that, that it’s not the, not the...
Scott was looking up at him. Adam tried to give a wave but his hands were holding real tight to the railing. Huh.
His first heave sprayed a small circle of translucent vomit over the floor. People scrambled clear and yelled in surprise and disgust. Scott had pushed Paula away, Adam couldn’t see either of them any more. He leaned back against the wall. His body rippled like tinfoil. Oh, he thought, there’s more.
Scott reached Adam as he expelled the weight of another few drinks over the balcony’s floor. His face was white and coated with a sheen of sweat. ‘Hey! Hey, man, you alive?’
‘Uh,’ Adam replied thinly, watching rivulets of watery puke drain over the side of the balcony.
‘Come on, let’s go.’ Scott took Adam’s arm and led him gently down. ‘Into the bathroom, let’s get you sorted…’
Adam shook his head, then winced as he discovered head-shaking was a bad idea. ‘No… outside. Need air. S’all.’
‘Rich, help me get him outside.’
Richard slid into Adam’s field of vision from somewhere. Adam put a hand on his sleeve. ‘Did you see me?’
‘The whole club saw you,’ Richard said.
The street was crowded and the music was still loud. Adam was hustled around the corner and set against a wall. The icy breeze was sharpening itself on his face and he grinned. ‘It feels like all the blood in my head has dropped down my neck. Wow. Weird. Oh god.’
‘Are you all right?’ Scott asked.
Adam breathed in through his nose and exhaled. ‘I think I’m okay now.’
Richard and Scott exchanged glances as he doubled over and lurched away from the wall to throw up in the gutter.
Eventually he straightened up. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Now.’
Scott and Richard had different expressions. Richard looked concerned, but Scott looked kind of angry. Because of Paula, of course, he had been talking to Paula. ‘There she is,’ Adam said, pointing, because she was there. Helpful.
Scott adjusted his whole face as she came over. She peered around him at Adam, who put a finger to his temple to acknowledge her. Richard shaded backwards, too, then said ‘I’ll go get Dennis’ and walked away.
‘I hope he’s okay?’ she said. Adam saw Paula had a friend waiting. He did the temple thing with her too, but she didn’t seem to see.
‘Yeah,’ Scott said. ‘He’s made of stern stuff, he’ll be right.’
That’s me, Adam thought. Made of stern stuff. Grrr.
‘Wild,’ she said. ‘I’m not worried, you totally pushed me out of the way.’
‘Yeah. Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to, you know, shove you or anything.’
‘It’s cool, I’d be so pissed off if you hadn’t, huh? Anyway we’re going, so.’
‘Oh, yeah, yeah. We’ve got to get him home anyway.’
There was a beat, which Adam noticed, because it was the length of one shudder inside his head.
Scott said, ‘But maybe we could, I don’t know…’
‘I think maybe,’ she said. Then she and her friend left, and Scott stared at her back as it went away, and that had gone okay hadn’t it?
Richard came back with Dennis, who walked up to Adam with a smile. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Terrible,’ Adam said. ‘My mouth tastes of yuck.’
Dennis cocked an eyebrow, grinning. ‘Too much too fast, huh?’
Scott broke in. ‘Who’s fault was that, then?’ He was angry, Adam saw. How was he angry? The Paula thing had gone okay hadn’t it?
Dennis looked at Scott with a completely neutral expression, which just made Scott angrier. ‘You buy him all those fucking drinks and then fuck off to pick up some slut, and leave us to clean up. Fuck you.’
‘Drop it, Scott,’ Richard said. ‘It’s all our fault.’
Scott wasn’t impressed with this. ‘Don’t try and smooth it over. The only person he gives a shit about is him. Don’t think I don’t know what the hell you’re trying to do, you fuck. We’re not your boys, all right?’
‘Come on,’ Richard cut in, harder. ‘Let’s just go, all right? Come on, guys.’
Scott and Dennis were eye to eye now. Adam watched, and it was horrible, because he thought he’d been fixing all of this but it wasn’t fixed, it was broken worse than ever. Scott was so angry and Dennis was so calm, it was like he’d gone away.
Scott said, ‘I see right through you.’
‘Stop,’ Adam said. ‘Stop it.’
‘Listen to him,’ Dennis said. He didn’t step away.
Scott turned and walked. Richard took Adam’s arm and followed.
Adam looked back at Dennis, his head swimming. Dennis wasn’t moving to follow. ‘He’s not coming.’
‘Yeah,’ Richard said.
The noise of the factory had never been so insistent. Adam wasn’t even sure what he was doing at work. He was hungover. He was more hungover than he’d ever been in his life. He was uneasy on his feet and starving, although the thought of food made him feel ill. It wasn’t good. He looked morose, he knew, and he didn’t care. Morose was appropriate.
‘Adam,’ said Tau as he approached.
‘Hi Tau,’ Adam said, trying to gather himself. As bad as he felt, he was pleased to be remembered. Tama caught his eye happily.
‘You look unwell, my friend.’
‘I had a bit too much to drink last night,’ Adam said. ‘It was a complete disaster.’
The small tattoo on Tau’s cheek twitched. ‘It went out of control?’
‘Exactly.’ Adam dropped his shoulders. ‘It all went wrong. Everyone was arguing, and I couldn’t fix it.’
Tau leaned past Adam, adjusted one of the settings on his equipment by a half-notch. A whining noise that had been incessant all day dropped to nothing. Tau spoke as he inspected the rest of Adam’s workstation: ‘What is the lesson then, my brother? If everyone was arguing, it does not reflect badly on you for failing to stop them. It reflects well on you for not falling into the same traps. You have achieved perspective, haven’t you, eh?’
Adam changed the subject, not wanting to think about that any longer. ‘I shouldn’t have even come in today.’
‘Well, you did. I have something for you.’ Tau produced a small object from his pocket and dropped it in Adam’s palm. It was a stone, almost pure white, with a flat base and a crested upper side, smooth and warm to the touch. Painted on the raised side with deft black brushstrokes was a character in an Asian script. ‘Happy birthday, Adam.’
Tama shook himself free and came over. ‘Is it your birthday Adam?’
‘It was yesterday, actually,’ Tau said.
‘Gee gee! Happy birthday little son!’ Tama said. ‘You should of warned me Tau! How old you turn, Adam?’
Adam peered at the stone. He liked how smooth it was to hold, the weight of it in his hand. No-one had ever given him something like that before, something so simple. ‘I’m eighteen. How did you find out?’
Tau shrugged. It was the first time he’d made such a small gesture. Tama giggled. ‘Tau knows everything.’
Adam smiled at Tau and shook his hand. ‘Thanks. What does that mean?’
‘It translates, roughly, as movement. It’s a reminder. This stone has moved across oceans, been washed smooth in the water, fashioned by everything it has been through.’ Tau’s voice hushed a little, and Adam imagined him on a beach at night, stories by the fire. ‘Think about that. You will find your own meaning in it.’
‘Did you paint it yourself?’
He nodded. ‘But I’m not very good at calligraphy.’
‘It’s really good.’
‘It’s just a small thing. I want you to do whatever seems right with it. Keep it, or throw it back into the sea, or whatever you want, eh?’
‘Okay.’ Adam squeezed the stone in his hand, felt the reassuring curve of it.
Tau smiled at him. ‘Rely on yourself first, my young brother. Everything else will follow.’
Tama reached over to tousle his hair. ‘Eighteen!’ Tama said happily. ‘All grown! Hee hee hee!’
Adam grinned back at Tama and batted his chunky hand away, but by then Tau was gone. He held up the stone so Tama could see. ‘He’s pretty amazing, isn’t he? He dropped out of school but then taught himself all kinds of things. I would never have that kind of discipline.’
‘Oh,’ Tama cautioned with a giggle, ‘don’t be fooled, he didn’t quit school for homework, eh. He learned his discipline the hard way around, ran wild for years, gangs and stuff, did some houses, did some cars. A real bad kid! And now look at him.’
Adam beat Tama to it. ‘Waste of good brains.’
Tama grinned. ‘You’re learning, little son. M’h.’
Sleep in the afternoon took the edge off, and aspirins, and by evening Adam was feeling functional again. He hid in his room, no desire to find himself having a repeat of yesterday morning’s conversation with his parents, let alone a whole new conversation about responsible drinking.
He decided to think about Kirsty.
Because, he liked her, and he liked her in that way. He’d liked other girls like that before but he’d never been able to do anything about it, they’d all been hopeless cases, and it wasn’t as if he was any good at that sort of thing, he was hardly Dennis was he? He was just him.
Richard didn’t seem to mind. Which was important to Adam, he would never, ever, want to betray one of his friends. But it seemed like this wasn’t a betrayal at all. Richard had asked him to invite her.
He liked her. She was really pretty and really nice, and easy to talk to. And there was that extra magic thing that made Adam’s chest go all tight whenever he looked at her, that too. Or thought about her, even.
So why shouldn’t he invite her to the ball? What possible reason why not?
He should do it now.
There was noise in the background as she came on, a lot of voices for a Sunday night. ‘This is Kirsty. Is that Adam?’
Adam toyed with the phone aerial nervously. ‘Yeah, it is. Uh, is something happening?’
Kirsty sounded distracted. There was noise in the background. ‘Too much to get into right now. It’s crazy down here, actually, I can’t get a moment’s rest.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘Family crisis. All the rellies are here and it’s driving me barmy. I even have a pair of great-aunts sharing my bedroom, you would not believe it. Chaos!’
Adam knew exactly what to do. He glanced at a clock, wondered if it was too late, thought it probably was and went ahead anyway. ‘Would you like to come up here for a while and have a break?’
Over hot chocolates at the kitchen table. ‘It’s my grandmother,’ Kirsty said, finally getting around to it. Softly. ‘She died a few hours ago. We knew it was coming.’
‘Oh, god,’ Adam said. ‘I’m sorry.’ He desperately wanted to give her a hug.
‘I feel like I’ve been smiling at people for ages and ages,’ she was saying, ‘and I don’t even want to be smiling, it’s all so fake. I’m sick of sitting still, I want to, I don’t know, fly away somewhere... They mean well. I just want to be out of it for a while.’
She kept talking, softly, unfolding the whole day, circling around and around getting closer and closer to the centre every time.
‘I need to move,’ she said suddenly. ‘I need to not be here. I’m going for a drive or something.’
Adam stood up. ‘Can I come too?’
Kirsty smiled at him.
The isolated end of the beach. Kirsty went to the edge of the surf and screamed out at the harbour. Adam felt uneasy about watching. He was standing in the dunes, thankful they’d dressed warm as the wind came in off the surf.
‘It’s this fucking beach,’ Kirsty coughed out when she’d screamed herself hoarse. ‘Fuck it!’ She kicked sand. ‘Fuck! It!’
Adam stepped nearer to her, he couldn’t help himself. She stopped kicking sand and looked at him. She wasn’t crying, but her face was shadowing all wrong. ‘What is it about the beach?’ he asked.
‘This piece of shit beach! It’s…’ Kirsty whirled around. ‘I lose important stuff here.’
‘What kind of things?’
‘My grandfather died here.’ Kirsty turned back, restless. ‘He was the one that used to take me here. He had a heart attack, and I was the only one with him. I was only six years old and there I was with my bucket and spade and he…’ Kirsty stopped. She seemed to shrink as she sat down on the sand. ‘God, that messed me up.’
‘That’s so sad,’ Adam said.
Kirsty smiled. Her voice was soft all of a sudden, almost breaking. ‘I wanted to wear my togs to the funeral. In the end I wore them underneath my dress. Compromise.’ She laughed.
‘But it’s your beach?’ Adam asked. ‘So you keep coming back?’
‘I have places. This is where I lose stuff.’
‘Other stuff too?’ Adam asked, afraid he’d say the wrong thing but genuinely curious.
‘Other stuff.’ Kirsty laughed bitterly. ‘My virginity, for one thing. For what that was worth.’
Her words hung in the air. Adam didn’t want to move in case it tipped things over the wrong way. Was she really talking about this stuff with him? He wanted to speak, heard words from his lips, ‘Did it go wrong?’
‘Oh, hell. Look, I’m not proud of any of it. There isn’t much to tell, really.’ Kirsty sniffed. ‘Oh, so now I’m gonna cry? Nice one Kirsty. God, sorry, I’m such a mess all of a sudden, and there I was thinking I was handling today so well…’
‘It’s okay,’ Adam said. ‘You don’t have to say anything. We can go.’
Kirsty blew her nose, then sighed. ‘I was young and stupid and of course I thought I was in love. I remember... being so afraid my legs felt all shaky. It was at a party here on the beach, there was a big bonfire down that way and when I turned my head I could see it...’
‘Really? I think I was at that party.’
‘You were. Heaps of people were. So when… when he said let’s go somewhere quiet, hell, I was really nervous, I wanted to be good, you know? I didn’t want to be bad for him. God, that sounds naïve. I got sand all down the back of my top. The surf was like now, and the clouds were being blown over the moon like now. It was warmer though, summer.’ Kirsty laughed with the wind and surf, her voice frail. ‘So I lay down and he undressed me, because I didn’t know how to do it myself with him watching. Christ, I was so pleased when he produced condoms, I’d been a bit worried about that. That was how I knew he loved me, see? Also it meant I hadn’t been stupid when I’d worn my nicest underwear… I was just looking at the moon and he got on top of me, and I’d never even been touched down there before… And I giggled. It was this stupid little-girl laugh. I was so embarrassed. Over the next few weeks I beat myself up over that, figured that was why he wouldn’t talk to me again.’
Adam watched her sitting there, indistinct in the night, a part of the dark and a part of the dune.
‘I remember that I just looked up at the rushing clouds. And there was the bonfire and the surf sound and the sand in my back. And I kept thinking to myself over and over and over, I love you.’ Kirsty bit her lip. ‘But it didn’t come true.’
They sat there for a while, then Adam stood up. He walked away from Kirsty, down towards the beach. The water came in towards him, lapping at his shoes, then receding. He watched it go.
When he turned she was looking at him, and he saw the moonlight in her upturned eyes. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s weird. It’s how you look.’ She smiled at him, a new smile, one he hadn’t seen before. ‘Like you’ve just come out of the sea.’
The water around him, moving.