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Three Dollars

Elliot Perlman















































  Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars won the Age Book of the Year Award, the Betty Trask Award (UK), the Fellowship of Australian Writers Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys/Mail on Sunday Prize (UK) as well as the Miles Franklin Literary Award. He co-wrote the screenplay for the film of Three Dollars, which received the Australian Film Critics Circle Award for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as the AFI Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. His collection of stories, The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, won the Steele Rudd Award for Best Australian Short Story Collection, and was a national bestseller in the US, where it was named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Seven Types of Ambiguity was a national bestseller in France and in the US, where it was named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year. In Australia it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award as well as for the Queensland Premier’s Award for Fiction.

  Elliot Perlman is the recipient of the Queensland Premier’s Award for Advancing Public Debate and has been described by the Times Literary Supplement as ‘Australia’s outstanding social novelist’, by Le Nouvel Observateur (France) as the ‘Zola d’Australie’ and by Lire (France) as ‘the classic of tomorrow’, one of the ‘50 most important writers in the world’.

  The Street Sweeper is his most recent novel.

  For Janine, Lena and Harry

  … a man is not a piece of fruit!

  … You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—

  Arthur Miller

  Death of a Salesman

  Praise for Three Dollars

  ‘Funny and dramatic, literary yet accessible … what a find this is!’

  —Marie Claire (Australia)

  ‘Perlman is a marvellous storyteller.’

  —The Observer (UK)

  ‘The intensely appealing hero of Perlman’s debut novel is one of those troubled souls … hopelessly crushed by corporate imperatives and the all consuming arguments that develop whenever we choose to live with another person … Perlman employs both humor and compassion for all of his characters and captures the pain of inevitable adulthood with such startling accuracy that it brings tears to the eyes.’

  —Book Magazine (US)

  ‘Elliot Perlman’s new novel is priceless … With admirable subtlety, Perlman satirizes a world in which suburban paradise and homelessness are just a single missed payment apart.’

  —The Christian Science Monitor (US)

  ‘You’d laugh out loud if it wasn’t for the lump in your throat.’

  —The Advertiser

  ‘A compelling story, a great drama, even a great tragedy.’

  —The Sunday Age

  ‘Its anger and its passion mark the arrival of a writer of genuine ability.’

  —The Sydney Morning Herald

  ‘It’s such an enormous relief to discover Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars, a novel that is unequivocally about our times.’

  —The Age, Book of the Year

  ‘One of the year’s biggest literary finds.’

  —Bookseller + Publisher

  ‘The compassion and pertinence of Eddie Harnovey’s voice make this novel exceptional in the present Australian literary scene.’

  —Australian Book Review

  ‘Perlman’s critique of the culture of greed is considerably composed and rewardingly memorable.’

  —The Weekend Australian

  ‘Elliot Perlman writes about the importance of money in everyday lives with the kind of calculating desperation we haven’t seen since the novels of Henry James.’

  —Qantas The Australian Way

  Also by Elliot Perlman and available in Vintage:

  The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming

  Seven Types of Ambiguity

  The Street Sweeper


  Every nine and a half years I see Amanda. This is not a rule. It does not have to happen but it does. It has happened four times that I have seen her every nine and a half years which tends to make it more like a rule than an exception. But each time it is always and everywhere exceptional. Most recently was today. I had three dollars.

  As children we were put in the same class at school although she was a year younger than me, and has been ever since. It was part of a pilot programme to have the brightest children from the year below put into a composite class with the brightest children of the year above and me. I don’t know how I got into that class because I had not demonstrated a particular capacity for anything much. It was not that I was not interested in things but rather that I was interested in too many things. This interest in everything was completely internal to me, without external manifestations, and so went unnoticed by all adults except my parents, who were worried by it. I would just sit around and think; at least that’s the way I remember it. Perhaps Amanda remembers it differently. I couldn’t be bothered running around or even making much trouble. There were too many things to contemplate for me to be tempted into running at speed from A to B in order to get there sooner. While we were being taught about trains or mammals, I was wondering how it was the teacher managed to have the same smell every day, a musky smell that announced him long after he had gone and always would.

  Amanda had a smell of her own and long, long hair that was whiter than it needed to be to pass for blonde. She smiled a lot and could have been mistaken for Heidi were it not for her tendency to get dirty. This worried her parents, particularly her mother whose severe Calvinist bleaching techniques were in constant battle with the toughest stains Amanda could find. The dirt from basketballs hugged her chest at recess and lunchtimes and had to be treated with the sternest pre-wash solutions her mother could obtain on the open market. The scrubbing and bleaching left their own stains on the felt letters that spelt Amanda on her t-shirt.

  We were at a government school and Amanda’s mother seemed to feel it was this, more than anything intrinsic to Amanda, that was staining the angelic Heidi shampoo commercial that left home so perfect each morning with her brothers. The family lived in a large Georgian-style house across the road from a plant, fruit and vegetable nursery by the canal. Her mother never set foot inside the nursery, preferring instead to buy the family’s fruit and vegetable requirements in the shopping strip that called itself ‘the village’.

  Amanda’s father was more of a presence than a person. She seldom referred to him and I think I only ever saw him once. He wore a d
ark suit with a crisp white starched shirt. Her mother must have loved doing his laundry or perhaps it was the housekeeper who had this privilege? He was a cross between Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and Fred MacMurray in ‘My Three Sons’. His pronouncements were never heard, just heard about. His status in the family was seigneurial. And not only in the family: he was the first person I had ever come across with a job that had a two-word name. He was a chemical engineer.

  Amanda would say it from time to time, not boastfully but matter-of-factly, ‘a chemical engineer’. It sounded good but we didn’t know what it meant. My father worked for the council in ways he could never bring himself to discuss and I never pressed him. He wore a white shirt and tie too but it was more crumpled than Amanda’s father’s shirt, something Amanda might have noticed on one of those evenings at our place after school. But what were the chances of an eight-and-a-half-year-old girl noticing something like that? Only her mother was sensitive to pleats.

  There were quite a few afternoons at our place when a group of us would hide from each other, not just Amanda and me but also a few of her friends and some of mine. I tried to make it about equal. My mother would make afternoon tea for us. Sometimes Amanda and I would hide in my parents’ wardrobe. We all hid in different permutations and combinations but I never took anyone else but Amanda into the wardrobe. We wouldn’t say a word, we would just wait in the dark, bunched up and the sides of our knees pressed against each other as we sat on my parents’ shoes. In the warmer months she wore my beach hat, the one with my name embroidered on it, and when her parents took her away with her brothers to Coff’s Harbour for a holiday she called me on the public phone, feeding her pocket money in, coin by coin.

  ‘It sucks here,’ she said and I, never having been there, agreed and was delighted to hear it. My sister Kirsten had a David Bowie album I had learnt by heart while watching her and her friends colour their faces. I quoted a line from it to Amanda in Coff’s Harbour and told her to write it down when she got off the phone and to carry it around with her. Be elusive but don’t walk far.

  I had no idea what it meant.

  It was through Amanda that I first learned of the precariousness of things and of the arrogance of certain memories in demanding your attention out of turn. When her mother called our place for the first time ever I expected her to want to speak to my mother, or at least to my older sister who had just started secondary school and had taken to wearing make-up when she went up the road for bread or milk. But Amanda’s mother told me that I would do. Amanda would not be coming back to school after the summer and there was to be no more playing. I remember she asked me to have a good day. That was the end of the first time I saw Amanda.

  When I saw her today I had three dollars. This might not be so bad under certain circumstances. I cannot imagine what they might be but I was not under them.


  Childhood summers are always better than adult summers. I have heard a variety of explanations for this: memory improves the past by natural selection, it is the origin of the specious; children have nothing they have to do during summer so every scorching day is like a year in which each day is long and free; and the recently elucidated El Nino effect acts surreptitiously to give your current summers to other people.

  My mother was hanging washing on the clothes line in our back yard. It was a very still, hot day, the kind made for remembering. I watched her for a moment or two without her noticing me. I had not yet realised that I wanted to talk to her. When I started kicking the soil at the base of the birch tree nearest the clothes line with my heel she asked from behind a sheet what it was I wanted to talk about.

  ‘Do you want any help?’ I volunteered, not in a hurry to indulge my urgent need to tell her about the phone call from Amanda’s mother.

  ‘No thanks, Eddie. I’m just about finished here,’ she said, securing a t-shirt to the line. She did not persist with her inquiry immediately, knowing instinctively how many beats to wait.

  I picked up an old, nearly bald tennis ball which I kept on the patio as an aid to lengthy outdoor sessions of personal reflection and started throwing it in the air to myself.

  ‘Did you hear the phone before?’ I asked, breaking the silence I had myself imposed.

  ‘No. Did you take a message?’

  ‘No,’ I said, now holding the tennis ball in one hand and digging the ground around the birch again.

  ‘You didn’t?’

  ‘No. It was for me.’

  ‘Really, for you. Who was it?’ Phone calls for me then were unusual.

  ‘Mrs Claremont, Amanda’s mum.’

  ‘Amanda?’ she asked still with a few sheets between us, unconcerned.

  ‘No, her mother.’

  ‘Her mother? What did she want?’

  ‘Amanda’s not coming back to school after summer,’ I said matter-of-factly.

  ‘Her mother rang to tell you Amanda’s changing schools?’

  ‘She won’t be playing with me anymore.’

  ‘At school?’


  My mother pulled back one of the sheets to look at me. I knew this even though I was again watching the ball in mid-air. She waited for me to catch it and ran her fingers through my hair, knowing she was comforting me for more than I understood.

  In addition to the promise of a summer’s worth of unjust boredom and the gnawing hollow of a child’s loneliness, my mother saw something else when she examined me there under the sun, something resulting from choices other people, possibly even she, had made or else had been unable to make, choices which were connected to me only by virtue of their remote consequences. She seemed to be scanning the back yard slowly as if surveying our patch for either the first or else for the last time. Then she asked whether I would like to join her in the kitchen for a cool drink. But before I could accept we heard my father calling her from inside with restrained urgency.

  I was left by myself to nurse my anger at the capriciousness of adults that had in the space of an hour led Amanda’s mother to expel me from Amanda’s society and my mother to lose interest in palliating the expulsion. Ready to curse the world that bore me by slamming the ball hard into the uncaring back fence, I was stopped by the shock of my uncle’s sudden appearance between me and the fence I had so nearly punished.

  ‘Hi, Eddie,’ he said quietly, sheepishly. ‘You can throw it to me… if you like.’

  George Harnovey was my father’s brother. Born in 1922 and seven years older than my father, he had stories from the Depression and the Second World War which he used to bring over along with soft-centred mints for Kirsten and me, claret for my father and muscatel for my mother. He would also bring over Aunt Peggy. Much younger than he was, she had, from all accounts, enjoyed the 1960s more than anyone married to George had any right to expect. That day he stood empty-handed.

  ‘Alright, don’t throw the bloody thing,’ he trailed off. He sat down under the birch tree and I went over and sat with him. When I said hello he kissed me and I handed him the ball. He was unshaven and his eyes were streaked with red. He smelled of beer so much that thereafter beer would always smell a little of him.

  ‘You’re a good boy, Eddie,’ he said to himself, and then turning to look at me he whispered, his eyes moist and plaintive, ‘Do you think anyone saw me coming in?’

  Before I could answer that I had not understood his question he started again, ‘What you need here … is a verandah, good and wide. Did your father ever tell you? We used to … used to have a verandah at Dad and Mum’s … along three sides of the house. Marvellous.’

  He took out a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his forehead before blowing his nose. Then he left it lying in his hand, squeezing it from time to time.

  ‘Along three sides with vines growing up the supports to the guttering … wisteria and … er … passionfruit I think it was. See the world from a verandah. We lived on ’em.’

  I did not yet know that my father had invited
George to stay with us for a while. But just by looking at him, unshaven and bleary-eyed, I could tell that not only was he no longer the avuncular raconteur, the family’s town crier bringing news fresh from the first half of the century but, as Auden put it, here was a man who had already spent his last afternoon as himself.

  Unlike George, my father had never sold a camera, nor any photographic equipment in the back of a pub. Nobody had ever seen him crouching in the back of a utility extolling the virtue of some instant rolled lawn which he could get a little more of if required. My father had never gone rabbiting as a child nor had he ever been a carpenter who mistook himself for a property developer until the bank reminded him what he was. By the time George had been disabused by the bank manager he was not a carpenter anymore. But there had been a time, forever ago, when Peggy thought she was marrying a property developer. She always had a delicate way with lipstick and mascara.

  ‘She used to do my nails … can I tell you … She used to cut my hair,’ George told my father one night in my room when he thought I was asleep. ‘Said I was good with my hands. Used to do my nails … I was never any good with my hands …’

  I closed my eyes and listened, imagining Peggy cutting my hair. She had a way with her hands, and her voice. I knew it even then.

  ‘She wasn’t … faithful … y’know,’ he whispered. ‘Could’ve stood some of them. Not the last two.’