Charlotte Mackay thumped a sweaty fist against the steering wheel and swore loud enough for the elderly woman in the nearby Morris Minor to hear. She ignored the raised eyebrows. Mouthing ‘fuck you’ as she turned back to glare at the temperature gauge and cut the engine. Ahead, the traffic jam stretched into the melting horizon.
She wanted to escape. Sit on the veranda with a cold beer pressed against the back of her neck, the bitter taste cooling the inside of her parched mouth. Most of all she wanted to ring Jake—to hell with Grayson’s threat.
What the fuck did Grayson expect her to do? She couldn’t trawl the live music scene and remain unattached indefinitely. At some point she needed to hook up to fit in. People talked and she needed to be invisible. Would he have cared so much if she’d got a girlfriend?
“Your relationship with de Brito compromises your position,” Grayon had bellowed at her, small missiles of spit spraying from his mouth.
Why couldn’t Grayson see the benefits of a high profile lover: a whole new level of access to people, places and sources for her. Doors opened for Jake de Brito and she stepped through them.
She rifled through the detritus on the passenger seat, throwing gig fliers, empty film canisters and assorted tapes into the footwell until she found Jake’s mix tape. The cassette slid into the tape player and she turned the ignition on and the sound up. Closed her eyes and tried to figure out what to do.
The opening synth bars crackled through the ancient speakers. Four bars in, the cello’s notes, full of longing, took up the melody.
She sighed. The song reminded her of the cello sitting in the corner of Jake’s bedroom. It wasn’t what she expected… a grunge god trained as a classical cellist. Or for him to seduce her with it: pulling her into his lap and positioning the cello between her thighs, his hand beneath hers, fingers moving over the strings. Even now she could feel the slow back and forth motion of the bow.
A horn blast from behind ejected her from Jake’s musty room, away from his naked tattooed body, back into the metal columns, melting in the combined heat mirage of the exhaust fumes and sun.
She blinked against the light and turned the Datsun 180’s engine over, eased the clutch out, coasted forward a car length and cut the engine again. She didn’t want to listen to the tape. She was having enough trouble thinking straight and the tape took her back to the night Jack pressed it into her hand back stage… and the raw memory of a young man she once made a different type of music with.
“Don’t, like, judge me for the first song,” Jake had said to her that night. “It was on the radio the first time I saw you. You were watching us through your camera. To me it’s, you know… our song. Not very rock and roll, eh?”
She had stared at the track listing.
” I Just Died In Your Arms? sounds like a death wish,” she’d said. Thinking: it’s a warning.
He burst out laughing, throwing his head back. “This is why I love ya Charlotte.” When he reached for her, she went rigid. “I’m sorry. I’m coming on a bit much, aren’t I?”
She should’ve got the hell away from him then. Run. A. Mile. But she didn’t! The temptation overwhelming. He was overwhelming.
But Jake de Brito, the Jake de Brito had said he loved her?
And she’d struggled to remain focused. Detatched. Professional.
“It’s been a while,” she finally said to him and kissed him lightly on the cheek, flattered by his attention and appalled by how it made her feel. How it changed things.
She hadn’t known being with Jake would make her feel so lonely. Why didn’t someone let her know the trajectory of loneliness went from benign to malignant when you lay naked near someone, feeling the rise and fall of their chest, breath whistling in and out. All the hours spent alone welled up with the inhalation, dissipating with the exhalation. But she feared without him the loneliness would swallow her whole.
Fuck. She had to focus. Had to stop Grayson breathing down her neck.
“He is a person of interest.” That’s what it all came down to in Grayson’s books. “If it’s a fuck you need Mackay, get a prostitute.”
“And I’d be able to claim a male hooker as a legitimate business expense, sir?”
“Understand this, Mackay.” He leaned so far forward the sweat on his forehead caught her reflection. “You have 24 hours to end your relationship with de Brito, or I will do it for you. You came here promising much, Mackay. Focus or else you’ll leave here scraping up what’s left of your reputation.”
Fuck Grayson. He would never again question her commitment.
The time for fence-sitting was over. She might not know if she loved Jake or not, but it wasn’t her who needed to make a decision tonight. Time had run out for them. Tonight, it was business. She’d make Jake understand one way or the other. Cold. Logical. They’d get it straight and then they’d move on. Start again.
She gunned the engine, mounting the footpath and turning into the next laneway, driving too fast, her impatience barely in check. Three blocks on she found a park, grabbed her bag and stopped at the first payphone, the coins dropping when the answering machine picked up.
“Hey babe. I’m running late. Traffic! We need to talk—serious—when I get to your place. I’ll be there soon.”
There. He had ample warning.
She caught the next tram back into the city, changed at Swanston for Brunswick and ran the last four blocks to his house in the fading heat, her white sundress dark with fresh sweat.
The front door stood ajar and she caught her breath before poking her head in, calling out. His ambivalence toward security meant he couldn’t be bothered to shut the front door, much less lock it and she often found groupies in the lounge room, Jake oblivious to their presence.
She pushed the door open. The smell of bolognaise sauce simmering in the kitchen made her stomach rumble.
When he didn’t answer and no one giggled in the lounge room, she slipped into the bedroom, taking in the cello in the corner, the left-over tangle of bed clothes in the centre of old iron framed bed, her clothes scattered on the floor. Familiar. Comforting.
She knelt on the floor and pulled a pair of red gloves from her bag, the soft leather sticking to her hands when she pulled them on. Reaching into the dusty space, she found the brief case and dragged it out. She aligned the dials on the lock and flicked open the top. A small pistol caught the fading light slicing down through the venetian blinds. She left the silencer, took the pistol and the four bags of cocaine, closed and slid the case back under the bed.
She walked down the hallway and into the huge, stuffy lounge room. His guitar lay abandoned on the couch, an overflowing ashtray holding down one corner of a scrap of paper, random lyrics and chords scribbled in pencil. A warm glass of coke sat next to it. Under the closed window the answering machine flashed. She cleared the messages and ejected the tape, slipping it into her bag.
Continuing on to the kitchen, she expected to see him at the stove humming to music only he could hear, but the kitchen was empty. She extinguished the gas under the bolognaise and flicked the safety off the pistol.
“Babe?” The gun felt heavy in her hand.
She dumped the bag on the kitchen table, remembering how his cheek felt against hers the first night they’d met. Her heart stuttered, just like it did when she leaned in to tell him how she’d come back to Australia because a fire gutted her Nashville apartment, destroying all her photos, the lie rolling easily off her tongue. He nodded and looked at her, when they pulled away, like he too knew what it meant to lose something big, something important.
What you have to forget to move on.
She moved slowly toward the bathroom.
Drip-Drip. Drip. The tap kept beat in the silence.
“Babe?” She prayed he was just asleep in the bath again.
The pistol steady in her right hand, she twisted the knob with her left. Slowly. Gently. The door groaned and she raised the gun as the space between the door and jamb opened.
Jake lay gazing at the mildewed ceiling, earphones in. Three bullet holes, in a triangle, dead of his chest.
Charlotte slid down the doorframe, cradling the pistol in her lap, staring into the congealing claret of the bathwater. Numbness settled over her, deepening with the realisation, without the traffic jam, she’d be dead too.
READ ON: Adam Byatt’s The Photographer’s Concerto is a further exploration of the relationship of Charlotte and Jake (a seriously sensuous and beautiful piece of flash fiction).
“What I Left to Forget” was written in response to the Form and Genre Challenge 2012’s first pitch: pen a 1500 word 3rd person POV story – open genre. It was the first original short story I penned after emerging from a long period depression and burn out in 2011.