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65. PRIORITIES

September 5, 2008

I know you’re behind the chair. You didn’t tread carefully enough. I could feel you slinking up on me.

[Catherine]:
“I’m so sorry Joel. I want to apologize for over-reacting today. You are nothing like my father. I love you very much.”

Yeah, well, let’s take it month by month you fungus.

[Joel, twisting round in his chair and presenting himself magnanimously to his partner]:
“Contrition? No need at all Cath. I can’t imagine what it’s been like for you these last two years. I know how important the Baha’i community was to you. And to lose a great friend like Layla… now that I can understand… being her husband.”

[Catherine, flushing]:
“She was… she was my wife too Joel.”

[Joel, dismissively, derisively, innocently]:
“Don’t you think that’s a bit strong? Look Cath, you’ve been amazingly supportive of me and Layla all this time. Thank you SO much… but I really don’t deserve you. Look, I have to tell you. That night after the tram incident… after I called you…”

[Catherine]:
“You had sex with Layla.”

[Joel, flabbergasted]:
“You know? You guessed? Layla told you?”

[Catherine, demurely]:
“As I said… she was my wife too… we were very close. Look, we married rashly Joel. You know that as well as I do. Layla and I agreed that she should try to convince you to… you know… be married to both of us. I knew you were a faithful and loyal person but I also knew you loved her deeply and… well she could be very, very persuasive…of course, she was mad about you too.”

Catherine, head bowed down, postured awkwardly. She scratched the rim of her husband’s chair awaiting his response. Joel’s brain was caught in a wind tunnel. He attempted to connect a number of sky-diving thoughts. But… if then… else… back then… since then. They all fell and tumbled… hard to arrange. He used a lot of strength to bring them together but as soon as any strands were within touching distance he’d let go just in case.

Bemused… furrowing eyebrows… reflective… and back to the eyebrows. He turned away from his difficult thoughts and let time pass… distracted by his involuntary facial contortions… until simpler thoughts comforted him.

It’s not very likely is it? No, she’s in denial. She has imagined this as a defense mechanism. Oh Cath, that is so likeable.

Joel got out of his chair and strolled softly towards Catherine. Towering over her, he stretched out his arms and embraced her in a light tightness.

“Cath, my wonderful Cath. Everything’s fine. Thank you for that. I know you want to make it easy for me. It was so long ago and we have been through so much together that… you’re right… it’s irrelevant. I know you would never have done that to me.”

[Catherine, in his jumper, muffled]:
“Of course not Joel.”

[Joel, beatific]:
“And you know Cath… I didn’t have sex with Layla. She may have thought I did but I didn’t. She was very insistent… and I guess my body wanted to… but I didn’t. I would never do that to you. Still, it felt horrible being in such an inappropriate situation. I had to tell you at some time.”

[Catherine]:
“Yeah. Yeah. I suppose what I really want to say is that you shouldn’t beat yourself up so much. I know you feel you abandoned Layla to pursue your own interests. But I was just as quick to hop off to Haifa as you were. That’s all.”

[Joel]:
“Thanks. That means a lot to me Cath.”

[Catherine, breaking out of the embrace and brightening]:
“Anyway. We have to get ready to go to Afsaneh’s birthday lunch. She’s expecting us at one.”

[Joel]:
“Oh no. I’m not up to it Cath. Give her a communicate and say we can’t come. Make our excuses.”

[Cath, firmly]:
“We’re going. She’s eighty four. It’s just for an hour and it’s only her, the twins and their families. The Baha’is won’t be there… they’re having a big do for her tonight. You know how highly she thinks of you.”

[Joel, beaten to abruptness]:
“Just for an hour then.”

The Underwoods reveled in their time at the Parkin’s. Afsaneh, though frail, was as alert and exciting as a Jasmine flower. Joel was transformed. He treated her to such touches and utterances that might run along a river bank smelling of joyous, unconditional love.

He was ecstatic with this vibrancy and tested it. What about the complicated, secretive, sleazy past of this woman? He dug deep for this corpse of a thought. He tried to get a grip on it but surfaced without it. What fearful nonsense. Yes, it wasn’t Afnan, it was Afsi’s dominant genes his beloved Layla manifested. Young Afsi sure looked like her. Sure shaped like her. And she likes me. Cut. Quickly. Ah squeamy, squeamy.

Joel and Cath, buoyed by their visit, walked happily home to McLachlan Street. Strange. There was a man at their gate… suspiciously concealed in the Horsham heat by a hat, a moustache and a huge, shapeless top. They slowed. He approached.

“Excuse me. You are Joel Underwood?”

American.

“Er, I am. What’s up mate?”

“Wow. And you are Cath right? [stares too long] Mega. Incredible. This… this fills me up.”

[Joel]:
“Well, nice to have met you.”

“Wait, don’t go in. My name is Mike. I’m here on behalf of Mark McGuire. I have something for you. In a hotel room. Get into my copter? I’ll bring you there.”

[Joel]:
“Ah look, I’m not sure I want to do that. What have you got?”

[Mike]:
“I’ve got the Layla repository.”

Now that was unlikely. More likely was that if he went with the man he’d be found dead in the woods. Committed suicide after murdering his wife in the kitchen. He felt drained and doomy.

[Joel, warily]:
“Have you indeed. Bring it here Mike. I’ll give it back later.

[Catherine had edged past the gate into the garden] Cath come back. Stay here.”

[Mike, hurriedly]:
“McGuire told me to arrange a room. He thought your place might be bugged. Listen, I’m the guy who found it. I’ve got the original and I’ve been stranded down in Tasmania for the last couple of years. Come on Mr Underwood… I won’t get paid unless I follow his instructions.”

Joel didn’t know what to do.

[Catherine]:
“Mike, you’ll understand that Joel has to be very careful. He can’t go with you.”

[Mike, worried]:
“He has to. I need the money. I want to go back to America.”

[Catherine]:
“I’ll tell you what we can do. We’ll follow you in our copter… you bring us the repository… we’ll go somewhere that isn’t bugged… on our own. You can trust us. You know that.”

Mike pondered earnestly.

“Okay. But don’t bring any communicates… they might be tracking you. And here’s the number McGuire gave me. Call him and let him know you got it.”

[Catherine]:
“Alright, we’ll do that. And listen Mike, if we’re going to be without communicates, I want you to place the repository beside our copter and leave immediately.”

[Mike]:
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s do it. And please… make sure you’re not on-Stream when you watch it… they might have their feelers out for it.”

This all happened. Catherine decided that the last place anyone would expect her to go was her family home in Magee Court. They landed. Five elderly, vacant faces peered through a window. As they walked to the front door she heard an improvised snooty accent yell “lower the portcullis lads, the bladdy royalty’s coming”.

Five gleeful, in-bred heads met them.

[Catherine]:
“Thray sam skrawps tae darm pazunts, dee-aww.”

Joel held the repository under one arm. He looked irked and apathetic. After further agitated insistence from Catherine he capitulated and pretended to distribute alms in the manner of throwing bread to ducks. Every time this happened. Even in the school days. Only then there were fewer heads a gawping back and chuckling. Joel couldn’t see the humour in it.

[Catherine]:
“It’s so good to see you all. Is mam here?”

[Middle Head]:
“Aw yeah Caddy, shez cooking up.”

[Top Head]:
“Joooeeellll maaate. Something to show ya maaate. Ya Power puffta.”

The pair was led into the large living room where, as usual, they had to politely refuse a tinny. A re-run of that year’s footy Grand Final between Port Adelaide and Collingwood was being shown on their enormous Stream screen.

The Rourke household was a little piece of Collingwood fanaticism holding out against a siege of ‘Port Power’ aggressors. The addled Heads, eyes gesturing to the screen, goaded Joel.

“Last quarter maaate. Ja think you’ll come up? Will they come over the top of the Poys?”

Oh ha, ha ha, all very droll. It was a matter of recorded history that the ‘Pies’ had beaten Port by sixty points. Since his return from Haifa, Joel hadn’t embraced the footy scene as in his younger days but there really was nothing as irritating as a triumphant Collingwood fan.

[Joel]:
“Ah well, you should savour this. It’s nice to see them win one. Especially now that they’ve renamed the prize for bottom place as the Collingwooden Spoon.”

The Heads didn’t quite get it… but they could sense they’d been slighted. They cooed a little and eyed Joel with intense suspicion.

Joel glanced anxiously at Cath. Do you think there’s any chance they might pause their sporting feast so I can attend to a matter of planetary importance? Cath’s responding expression suggested that she wanted to be left out of this one.

No, it obviously wasn’t the time to suggest an interruption. Joel sat through the replay of the final quarter and the after match celebrations. The Heads were anxious through-out… and with good reason. Collingwood suffered from the wobbles so much it wasn’t beyond them to lose a recorded repeat. Joel had to grimace it out. He yelled out Collingwood insults at the screen to help the Heads feel justified in their hostile partisanship… and to allay the anxiety of waiting for his lovely Layla-in-a-box.

Eeveeeentually, and ensuring it was off-Stream, Joel got to plug the repository box into the Stream screen. He went right to the end of the feed and sat like a puppy statue. After a few moments his body tightened and he broke into some shaky bumping.

[Joel, standing up, shouting and shaking his fists]:
“Yayyyyyyaaaaaasssss!”

His big, old, damp face swung round to Catherine.

“She’s so beautiful.”

He jumped down on Cath and hugged her. Catherine, peering from under the scrum, meekly waved her palm towards the screen.

The Heads looked on at the commotion. It was hugely abnormal but they were used to making allowances for Joel. Like the majority of Port fans, Assembly of Godders were possessed by devils. They looked alternately and solemnly at the fuzzy screen and Joel’s grunting grabbing of their sister Cath.

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