He chose the location. Cafe in Ashfield, near his place. Tanned barista with the obligatory forearm tattoos: brewing group, Mexican sugar skull, Victorian lady with a parasol. Shiny monster of a coffee machine and fresh-baked sweet treats on the counter, dusted in icing sugar. An owner who's desperately hoping his business won't fail, even though he hasn't done anything original and has no background in hospitality. Running a cafe is easy, right? I used to work at places like these. It was endlessly frustrating.
I don't know where I would have suggested, if he'd left it up to me. Somewhere neutral, I suppose. A park bench near the beach, so we could look at the waves and resolutely not speak. Not somewhere noisy and enclosed, like this: I want the freedom to tear into him if I need to, without risking stares or being politely asked to leave. Maybe that's what he was afraid of. The location is a protective mechanism for him.
I order my coffee and sit in the window, my fingers on a mission to fiddle with anything: a half-hearted game of Words With Friends on my phone, the vintage teaspoon in the grainy brown sugar. I want him to know I'm not afraid. I want him to be able to see me from the street, for the sight of me to make him hesitate on his way in.
“Well isn't that just every child's dream,” Archie said when she heard I was meeting him. “You get famous and everyone who snubbed you in the past wants a piece.” Archie wears black-rimmed glasses and has a galaxy tattooed over her arm and is the DJ in our band. She used to also be my best friend until we started fucking and now we're something else, as yet undefined. The Facebook generation would say “it's complicated”, but I'm the generation after that so I just think it's normal. And ignore the crampy ball of nerves which settles in my guts every time I see her, which is often.
When the door opens I look over to it and it's not him, not him, not him. Another bedraggled hipster, here for coffee on their way to work. A short-haired lesbian couple, their jeans bulging over their hips, with a baby dangling in a carrier. A greying guy in a well-pressed suit. I play “Zest” with Archie for 64 points. She comments immediately – she's always on her phone: “You wanna dance, pretty boy?”
I hide my smile behind my long black as though someone might be watching.
And then he's standing in front of the table. Black hair, tufts of grey around his ears. Clean blue jeans, dark green woollen jumper, pristine white T-shirt collar at his neck. The vestiges of a tan, skin which is losing its elastic. A wedding ring on his finger. Hands like mine, wide-spaced fingers, made for the guitar. Mum always says I look like him.
“Elliott,” he says. It's not a question. I try not to be happy to see him.
“Dale,” I say. His face has hope or fear or something unguarded in it when I let out the consonant, but settles when he realises I'm not going to say “Dad.”
He takes the seat opposite. “It's like looking into a mirror.”
I don't say anything. The waitress comes over – skinny, perky, in Docs and a leotard - and takes his order. A cappuccino: what a bogan.
“You wanted to see me,” I say. It sounds accusatory.
“Well, we've just moved back to Sydney.”
I try to ignore the 'we'.
“It's been a long time,” he adds, too lightly.
It has been almost exactly eleven years, but I shrug.
“I heard your song on the radio.”
I know this already; it's the whole reason he called in the first place. Mum was unable to keep the cynicism to herself when she passed on the message. “Your father wants to see you. He probably thinks you're rich now.” I'm not rich, but my band, Lonely City Crew, is starting to take off. We've gone from having a modest following of our immediate friends and a few in-the-know teens to playing mid-level gigs at the Annandale. Then last week, we played our song on This Morning Australia, and our iTunes downloads hit the roof.
I feel my leg jiggling and I lock my knee to stop it. I won't ask him if he liked the song.
“I liked it.”
He liked it.
“You get it from me, you know.”
When I was seven, I was too small to hold his guitar; I would sit with it across my lap, sliding my chubby fingers over the strings, listening to the noise. My first song, when I was twelve, was called Slogan T-shirt, and the chorus went, “Your T-shirt says, 'Slogan T-shirt'.”
“I don't play guitar in Lonely City Crew,” I say. I'm turning into a brat: a superhero transformation, a regression brought on by exposure to this radioactive stranger. “It's a hip hop band. I'm a rapper.”
“I know that,” he says. He runs a hand over his hair; it springs up again as soon as his palm leaves it, thick, black, like mine like mine like mine.
I nod towards the ring as he settles his hand back on the table. “Are you married?”
“Yep.” He looks embarrassed; he should be. “You have a brother and a sister.”
This news shouldn't hurt so much and it shouldn't surprise me and I refuse to show my surprise on my face. I want to correct him: “Half-brother and half-sister” but I don't think I'll be able to keep my voice level so I say, “How old?”
“Seven. And eleven.”
He studies my face while I do the Maths. It was that easy for him. Out with the old, in with the new. Wait till I tell Mum and Geneva.
“Your mother already knows,” he says, as though he can read my mind. “I thought she might have told you.”
“We don't talk about you.” Fuck him. He deserves Elliott the Brat. I drain the dregs of my coffee: bitter, cold now. “I have to go. Was there something you wanted?”
He looks astonished, like he wants me to be grateful. “I wanted to see you.”
“Well you've seen me now.” My breath catches. I pull a twenty out of my jeans pocket – a massive tip, that skinny waitress will be pleased, maybe she can buy herself a decent outfit. I want to look like I've got bucketloads of cash, even if I don't. I want him to know he's not getting a cent.
“Sit down, Elliott,” he says. He scoops the chocolatey foam off his disgusting coffee and spoons it into his mouth like a kid. “Let's start again. Let's get to know each other.”
It's too late for that. It's too fucking late.
“I'm sorry, OK? I'm sorry about what happened when you were a kid. I can't imagine what it was like for you.” I have waited for him to say sorry for years and years and now it feels too easy; meaningless, just words. “I look at my daughter – Bella, your sister's name is Bella – and she's the same age you were and I just can't believe I did it.”
“But you did it,” I say.
“I'm here now.” He's not pleading; he's kind of proud of himself. He thinks he's being the adult here and he can reason with me the way he'd reason with the kid he remembers. “I'm back in Sydney for good. I want to make amends.”
I sit down. The waitress asks me if I want another coffee and I say yes and I don't ask for it in a takeaway cup. I don't have to finish it; I don't even have to wait for it to arrive. I've got the cash out already.
“How's your sister?” he asks.
“She's at uni.” It feels disloyal to Geneva to even drip-feed him tiny pieces of information. She knows I'm here, of course; we're close. But he didn't ask to see her. He asked to see me.
“My kid's going to be a lawyer.” A smile tugs the side of his mouth, like this is just hilarious.
“She's not your kid.” I've always felt like I needed to protect Geneva, even though she's the oldest.
He rolls his eyes. “Don't be immature. That's beneath you.”
“You don't know me. You don't know what's beneath me.”
He has a forcefield for my anger; it crumbles before it hits him.
My second coffee arrives, too hot to drink. I plunge my teaspoon into it until some of the heat is soaked up into the handle.
“You got a girlfriend?” he asks. He folds his fingers calmly on the table.
“No.” Archie isn't my girlfriend, and also it's a secret, and also I would never tell him, never never.
“Wise man. Focusing on your music,” he says.
I don't say anything.
He takes a sip of coffee. “I come here a lot. It's good coffee.”
I grimace. He wants to talk about the coffee?
He shrugs. “We live just round the corner. Maybe one day you can come round, meet your brother and sister.”
“Stop saying that. They're not my brother and sister. I don't want to meet them. I don't want to meet your wife.”
His look says that I'm the unreasonable one. “Why are you here, Elliott?” he says.
I'm here because when he said he wanted to see me, I didn't feel like I could say no. I'm here because when your father tells you to do something, you do it, no matter what's passed between you or how old you are. I'm here because he used to call me Lee and he taught me to play guitar and ride a bike and I'm pretty sure that there was a time years ago when he might have loved me. I'm here because I thought he might have something important to tell me, that he had some hereditary condition which was passed through the male line, or he had been diagnosed with cancer and had weeks to live, or he was about to have a sex change. I'm here because I thought he might ask me for money and then I might throw a coffee over him or scream down the cafe or laugh in his face or tell him to go fuck himself.
I'm here because I owe it to that ten-year-old who rode his bike around the verandah every Sunday, whose heart thudded every time a car drove down the street. That kid waited weeks and months, even when everyone else in town had made peace with the fact that Dale Jarrett was never coming back.
I don't know why I'm here. All I know is that being here didn't feel optional.
In another life, another guy stands up and throws the hot coffee into his face. It drips down his cheeks, burns away his smirk, seeps into the fibres of the expensive green jumper. In another life, the courageous guy who was once an angry teenager says, “Fuck you” and stalks out of the cafe. In another life, the guy who was once a ten-year-old on a bike reaches down and gives the old man a hug.
In this life, I skoll the still-too-hot coffee, and flick the money onto the table.
“You're wrong,” I say. “Bella isn't the age I was when you left. I was younger. I was a year younger.”
He looks up at me, his veneer finally broken. I thought I wanted to hurt him, but I don't feel the satisfaction I imagined.
“You've been out of my life for longer than you were in it,” I say.
He picks up the twenty and hands it back to me. “I can't imagine being a rock star is that lucrative,” he says.
I stare at him.
“Take it,” he says, his voice full of resignation. “I'll get the coffee.” I take it back and plunge it into my pocket and shrug into my hoody and he says, “Good luck, Lee.”
I press the combination to let myself in, walk up the stairs to Archie's flat and knock on the door. She answers wearing her paint-splattered blue tradies overalls – Archie paints - with her glasses pressed up on her head, below her platinum mohawk. God, she's so cool. She smirks at me.
“How'd it go?”
I press my fingers into my forehead; the smell of coffee lingers on me. “Still a tosser.”
“Parents, man.” She walks over to the sink in the kitchen and washes the paint off. The tea towel turns pink as she dries her hands. The painting is on the floor in the living room, everything shoved to one side to make space for it. Like all Archie's paintings, it wouldn't look out of place on a wall of graffiti: it's a girl with a flower behind one ear, windswept hair, a spider beneath one sultry eye. Hard black outlines, saturated colours, red and blue and purple and black.
I slump onto her lumpy corduroy couch. On the coffee table, next to a torn-open packet of Ginger Snaps, there's a pouch of Drum, filters and papers inside. I pick it up and start rolling a cigarette.
She raises an eyebrow. “That bad?” I don't usually smoke. She leans in to light it for me and her hand smells like paint and soap and gingerbread.