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The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, Page 2

Elliot Perlman

  The curtains are completely drawn, just as you liked them to be, so that we could trap the night way past midday, getting up only to have a pee, make a cup of tea or put on the Django Reinhardt you’d bought for me. You told me one Sunday, when we were running late for one of those daunting lunches at your mother’s, to act embarrassed when we arrived late in a way that would give your family the impression our lateness was a consequence of our carnal appetites. You said it would stop them asking why we were so late and, at the same time, give your mother some small pleasure at the promise of more grandchildren. Your mother liked me, especially next to your sister’s husbands. But how does one suggest obliquely to someone’s mother that fucking is the fair excuse of what her roast has burned for? Anyway, it would have been a lie. We had been fighting, do you remember?—not about your smoking—and when I had finally chosen a shirt, you were still on your knees by the dresser, looking for the antidepressants.

  I am trying to remember your cruel irrationality and that coldness you smuggled out of boarding school, hidden like everything else under your tunic, hidden so well I thought you were me. I have thought of you at home, watching television by yourself with a plate of something colorful on your lap, unable to work the video recorder, and it has made me angry. It didn’t have to be like this. I have wondered what would really happen if I visited you. You’re so much better at this than me, I had thought. I hadn’t known why at first, so, stupidly, I had envied you in this regard. At four o’clock on other mornings, I have thought of you asleep in your house, the house I knew so well. I liked it more than you did and talked you out of selling it.

  I am cold but if I reach for a T-shirt, my new friend will wake up. She’s breathing through her mouth again. When she wakes up she will tell me about her past boyfriends, the early ones, the exotic ones, the ones who hurt her most. She will be lonely when she wakes up. I am sad for her. She deserves to have someone. I am stroking her hair very gently. I am sad for us too. I wonder if I am lonelier now than I was at the end. Are you lonely? Perhaps you don’t have time. There’s a crack in the curtains and the light is getting in. Of course, one day I will come around and see you.

  You said that no one else ever made you so angry, but you were flattering me and I didn’t believe you. I don’t feel it diminishes anything to admit that other people have made me cry, but I’ll concede that admissions are hard. They are hard until you have to admit that the thing stares you in the face, until it’s all around you like the weather. It’s you now, just you.

  Whatever is going on in my chest has woken her. My new friend looks up at me and sees you in my face. She doesn’t ask any questions. She doesn’t ask why you have made my eyes glisten in the light that comes through the gap in the curtains.

  “Good morning,” she says. She asks just this when I don’t have enough love for the three of us.

  “Good morning, again.”


  Nicholas doesn’t remember anything. He was still a baby, really. There’s no point even asking him. I have to remember it all myself. Nicholas had just stopped wetting his bed. We lived in the flats near the chocolate factory. Standing in the street at night, you could smell the chocolate cooking. Dad and I would go for a walk while Mum was getting Nicholas ready for bed. Sometimes the wind would take the chocolate into the flats and I could smell it from our room. When I went to bed Dad would read me a story and turn the light out. I’d close my eyes and, with dinosaurs in my head, I would sniff in the chocolate till I was asleep. (I always breathe through my nose so that nothing gets into my mouth without my knowing about it. Bill Economou from upstairs once swallowed a fly in his sleep. He said his window was open. He was dreaming about chocolate.)

  The books Dad and I read were always about dinosaurs. I couldn’t get enough of them. At that time I wanted to be a dinosaur scientist when I grew up. Dad said he thought it wasn’t a bad idea and that I was well on my way already. He said it beat making shoes in a shoe factory, which is what he did. I think he had a fair amount of respect for dinosaurs too.

  The first dinosaurs lived on earth more than two hundred million years ago and so you can’t even imagine how things were for them. I tried to imagine them in Australia, because there were dinosaurs here before Captain Cook and the Aborigines or anything you can see around now. They weren’t stupid, either, like a lot of people think. Bill Economou said they had to be stupid because they became extinct, but he couldn’t come up with another group of backboned animals that lived on earth for more than a hundred and sixty million years. The facts stared him in the face.

  Dad calls me Luke but my full name is Lucas. Once I told Bill Economou that I was named after a dinosaur, the lukosaurus. I think that shut him up for a while. The lukosaurus lived in southern China and was two meters long, not counting his horns. A couple of weeks later Bill Economou came downstairs to our flat all of a sudden, knocked on the door and announced to Mum, Nicholas and me that he was named after a dinosaur, too, the billosaurus. I told him there was no such dinosaur but he said there was. Mum shirked it the way mums do. She said she hadn’t heard of the billosaurus but that there might be a dinosaur called that. I went to Nicholas’s and my room to get the books. There was no such dinosaur. I would’ve known about it if there were.

  Bill Economou said it was a Greek dinosaur and that I wouldn’t know about it. That’s when Mum laughed. Nicholas doesn’t remember this of course. Then she said that maybe it was a Greek name for a dinosaur and would he like some cordial. Bill Economou never says no if you offer him something. Mum should’ve known that. It was probably his sister who told him to say that about a billosaurus. It didn’t sound like something he’d think of on his own.

  Bill Economou has two sisters, two brothers and his mum and dad. One sister, Mary, is the oldest and the other is almost too young to talk. His brothers, Con and Nick, are older than him too. Nick used to play cricket with us for a while but then he stopped. I usually keep away from Con. I think Bill Economou does too. Mr. Economou likes to get you in a headlock. It’s not so bad sometimes. The Economous live directly above us and we hear them. Mum says we don’t need to watch TV on one of their good nights. They don’t sound like TV. I don’t know why she says that.

  Mary Economou fights with Mr. Economou. Sometimes Bill Economou invites me up if it’s a good one. She’s seventeen and still cries. She yells at him in English and he yells back in Greek. I hear a lot of Greek words from Mr. and Mrs. Economou, nearly every day. Never heard billosaurus, though. Bill Economou says Mary’s boyfriend always makes Mr. Economou shout in Greek even when he’s not there. He can often predict when it will start. The best ones were when Mary wanted to leave school and when the police came asking for Mary to talk about her boyfriend. Bill Economou rang me up as soon as he saw the police car pull up in front of our block. He did the right thing.

  Bill Economou was in the same class as me at school. He had always copied me in lots of things but tried not to let me know. I always knew sooner or later. Earlier in the year we did a couple of projects together, but Mrs. Nesbitt knew that I’d done most of the work. Bill Economou was even a bad colorer. Lines meant nothing to him. I was actually pleased when Mrs. Nesbitt said Bill Economou and I had to do one project each. I don’t think he should’ve asked her why. Later he agreed with me about this.

  Of course I chose dinosaurs. I had big plans. I knew my project would take days and days, some days just for thinking. There were more than three hundred and forty types of dinosaurs. I knew I couldn’t include them all. I didn’t actually like them all. As well as the lukosaurus, I liked the tyrannosaurus, the brachiosaurus and the stegosaurus best. My favorite period was the Cretaceous period. This was the heyday for dinosaurs. There must have been hundreds of different kinds of dinosaurs just roaming around chomping on things during the Cretaceous period. Mum said this was my Cretaceous period. I asked Dad when his was. He said it was before he was married. He must’ve eaten a lot then. Dad’s a big
man and when he’s hungry there’s no stopping him. Mum said that before they were married there was no stopping him.

  I had figured out that some kids would just do lots of drawings of something and call that their project. Others would copy out slabs from a book and call that their project. These projects would be all right, they might even get two or three red ticks or even a silver star. But I wanted gold for my dinosaurs. One gold star was my personal best. I wanted to beat it. It had got to where red ticks meant nothing to me. Mrs. Nesbitt was giving them to sucks for behavior and to milky girls for a chart of “The Fruits We Eat.” Dad said that dinosaurs would be hard because there were no pictures of them in magazines to cut out. Mum tried to get me to swap to dairy products but I just couldn’t. You don’t get the gold for pictures of milk. It had to be dinosaurs. Dad said he admired me, which was good I thought. He said, “Luke, I admire you.”

  I had decided to write out my own theory of why dinosaurs became extinct and to do a drawing of a lukosaurus. Then Dad gave me a great idea. He suggested making cardboard cutouts of different types of dinosaurs. He said I could fit the dinosaur cutouts into slits in the top of an upside-down box. Then I could move each dinosaur in a different slit to show how slowly they must’ve moved and which ones came first after the beginning of the earth. This was a great idea. It could get me the gold. It probably would. Mrs. Nesbitt would never have seen anything like this in her life. Dad said he would bring some shoeboxes and cardboard offcuts for me from work. I asked him not to say anything about it in front of Bill Economou.

  Dad gave me the idea on one of our chocolate walks. I was pleased he hadn’t tried to talk me out of dinosaurs and into dairy products. He didn’t like milk much. I’ve never seen him drink it. He said he’d drink it if it was on tap. Then he laughed and lifted me up high in the air. I was way above his head in those hands at the end of his thick arms, sort of near the moon. He held me up there for a good while in the chocolate wind and we didn’t speak. His arms didn’t waver so I was perfectly still in the air. Only the sky moved, just enough to give tiny shakes to the stars. That was the last chocolate walk we had. I don’t remember a chocolate wind much after that, either.

  Nicholas doesn’t remember the chocolate winds. But I remember them. I remember that one too. We came back to our block and before we got to the front hall we heard shouting and a door slamming. Mary Economou ran down the stairs. She shouted “I hate you” in a new voice that sounded like someone scraping a tin roof. She didn’t mean me, though. She didn’t mean Dad, either. She hated someone upstairs. I knew Bill Economou would tell me everything the next day so we let her run out into the street and I went to bed really happy and sleepy.

  I don’t think anyone really knows for sure exactly why the dinosaurs disappeared. I know I don’t. The books shirk it a bit really. It seems that about sixty-five million years ago they just disappeared. I was thinking of maybe being the first dinosaur scientist to know for sure what happened.

  It’s hard to know where to start trying to figure out something like that. You would probably have to work out a whole new code or way of thinking, maybe something combining maths and the dictionary. Between maths and the dictionary you’ve pretty much got it all covered. I was thinking about the dictionary a fair bit. I think there’s a trick to it that no one ever tells you. When you look up a word, like dinosaur, you get “Reptile (freq. huge) of Mesozoic era.” Where does that get you? More words. So you look them up and you get more words. Well, sooner or later you have to be lucky enough to already know at least one of the words you’ve looked up or you’ll never understand anything. No one ever says anything about this.

  One theory says the dinosaurs disappeared because of a great catastrophe which affected the whole world. Perhaps they all choked from dust in their throats as the earth passed through a swarm of comets or from bits of rock and sand from an exploding star. Some people think the earth might have been hit by a giant meteorite. Sometimes I think that might’ve happened. It’s hard to explain these things. A great catastrophe.

  I had nearly finished the writing part of my project. Even though it was his idea, Dad kept forgetting to bring home the shoeboxes he’d promised me. I asked him every day and every day he forgot. I had to change my plans. Dad wasn’t cooperating. It was at about this time that Mrs. Nesbitt and I started having discipline problems. I had told her that she was really going to like my dinosaur project and that she might even think of gold stars when she saw it. (She keeps them in a tin in her desk drawer.) But I had also told her that it was going to be a bit late. She asked me why. I didn’t want to tell her. I told her that I couldn’t say because it would spoil the surprise. I didn’t want to tell her about Dad’s box idea. She said that she was already surprised that my project was late. I asked her if she would hang on. She gave me three days. (Bill Economou had asked for three more days, too, and he’d already handed his in. It was on “Fish of the Sea.”)

  I knew I would just have to change my plan. I tried to explain it all to Dad but I could tell he wasn’t listening. He was all silent. He’d been that way for a while. Mum was silent too. She only said what she had to say, about things like washing or peas. On the third day I came to school with my project, but it was different now. I had two sheets of paper with writing about dinosaurs from the books and a big model of a megalosaurus, a two-legged meat-eater. Since the writing was just stuff, all my hopes for the gold pretty much rested on the model megalosaurus. I had taken two wire coat hangers and threaded them through seventeen beer cans Dad had. (They were empty, so I didn’t even ask for them.) The can at the head was flattened for a snout and the whole thing could bend so I could show how dinosaurs had walked. (I kept the movement part of the first plan.)

  Bill Economou loved it. Mrs. Nesbitt was angry. I was surprised. She was angry in front of the whole class. She asked if I had needed the extra three days to get enough beer cans. The class laughed when she said that. She looked at them and said that she was very disappointed with my project. Then she went down the aisles between the desks asking to see other projects. She’d already seen all of them three days before. She was just doing this to make me feel bad. It worked and I felt bad, really sick. I thought maybe I’d caught an epidemic, a throat one.

  At lunchtime I went home without asking. I just wanted to get away from school for a while. Mum had given me a pear in my lunch. I’d told her not to but she didn’t listen and put it in my bag anyway. When I got to the front door, I felt inside my bag for the door key. I felt the pear all squashed up. The megalosaurus must have done it. I really just wanted to be home with a peanut butter sandwich, some milk and maybe some TV. I opened the door and Dad was there. This was my third surprise in half a day if you count the pear. He was watching TV on the couch.

  Dad stayed home in the days now and looked after Nicholas. It’s what his work had told him to do. He told me that they’d asked him if he could stay home with Nicholas for a while and not make shoes. That’s all he said and then he went back to a TV show about hospitals. I wanted to know who was making the shoes now but didn’t ask. I had my sandwich and milk. Then I started to scrape the pear off the inside of my bag. Dad forgot to ask why I was home at lunchtime.

  After that, everything seemed different. Mum and Dad would be all quiet when I was in the room with them, but then they’d shout when I’d gone. I couldn’t hear the Economous. Dad made plenty of cans but I didn’t need them. Things were different at school too. It was like Mrs. Nesbitt was always thinking about my megalosaurus. I just couldn’t get back in her good books and I got sick of trying. Bill Economou got a silver star for “Fish of the Sea.” He kept showing it to me.

  I suppose that’s why I did it. It all happened so fast like it wasn’t really me and I got caught. Mrs. Nesbitt caught me at her desk, in her gold-star tin. She shouted. It hung in the air and made my sweat jump. Everyone looked. She held my fingers out and showed the class. There were gold stars on my fingers. My face got very hot. She started
writing a note to Mum. It was about me. I didn’t let her finish it. I left. I ran all the way home again. It still wasn’t me, though, not really. My bag was still on the pegs.

  The front door wasn’t locked and I pushed it open. Dad was in the lounge room. His shirt was off and he was puffed like I was, out of breath. He said he’d just been for a run. Mary Economou was there too. Her face was red and her hair was messy. I was confused. I stood there looking at them. Then I cried, first in yelps. I felt really strange. She’d never seen me cry before.

  Dad took my face and pressed it into his chest. He put his fingers in my hair. He told me nothing was wrong and that he and Mary Economou had just been for a run. He kept telling me not to be upset. He asked me to tell him that nothing was wrong. He told me there was nothing wrong with going for a run. Then he squeezed me so hard it hurt. He smelled of sweat. Then he cried and told me nothing was wrong. His chest moved up and down. It slapped me. I couldn’t see anything past his chest. He told me he was sorry.

  Two days later I came home from school and Mum was there, not Dad. He had gone. He wasn’t coming back for a while. They’d swapped again. Mum would be home with Nicholas, and Dad had gone to look for another shoe factory where he could make shoes again. I asked her where he was. She said he was looking for work in a level playing field. I asked her where that was and if I could go there. She said I would never find it. Bill Economou had borrowed an atlas from the library for “Fish of the Sea” and we went to the map of Australia to look for Level Playing Field. We couldn’t find it. Bill Economou said she must have meant the Southern Tablelands. When I asked her, she said yes, that was it. I tried to imagine Dad living on a huge flat table, making shoes and writing me letters. She said we would get letters.