Short story by Michael Botur
Bill admires the columns and bricks and ivy of the campus, nods and smiles at all the students cycling idly along the footpath, turns down Winchester and Ellis Streets and pulls into the driveway of his son’s campus flat. He switches off the engine, balances a box of beer and a stack of pizzas on his ball-belly as he waddles over to the porch. The beer is cool against his skin. Lord, this summer is a scorcher. He can’t see Corky amongst the dozen or so half-naked slackers on the porch of Corky’s flat. These youngsters are all sorts of creeds and breeds and castes, colourful as a packet of M&Ms. There appears to be six boys. In each boy’s lap is a girl in an extremely skimpy singlet. Each boy has a smoke and a drink in his right hand and a cupped buttock in his left. All the girls are sucking something – vaporisers, cans of rum and coke, chins, necks. A student-boy emerges who looks like a smaller, slimmer Bill. Same round, flat nose and wide, soft eyes, and those ginger curls. Since starting uni he’s added diamonds and gold in his ears. His cap is turned sideways. Bill wants to correct it for him. It’s Corky alright. He shakes a girl off him, approaches his dad, glancing nervously behind him, distracted. ‘Just dump the munchies and run, if you want, chief.’
‘For you and your friends. I got you light beer – just thinking of you driving, later.’
‘Facepalm,’ Corky mutters without touching his face. Corky is muscular now, voice thick and heavy as a plank, with puffy freckled biceps from endless dumbbell curls. He’s sweating in the funky hot air. He tries to block his dad’s view of the girls on the porch. ‘Anyway: good to see you. Laters.’ Corky holds his hand in some strange ethnic handshake arrangement but Bill isn’t sure how to shake it.
‘Just sorta thought Corky and his old man could, you know, “hang ten,” as you lot say. If you’re not busy. How are your lectures going?’
‘WING THAT SHIT OVER HERE, NIGGA,’ calls one of Corky’s friends. ‘I been fuckin for daaaays! My ass is STAAAARVED, yo!’
‘SHUT THE FUCK UP.’ Corky studies the pizza and beer. ‘I am actually pretty busy. And can you, like, not call me that name in fronta the boys, dad? Corey’s the handle. MC Hard Core when I’m on the mike.’ Corky, or Corey, or whatever the heck Bill is supposed to call his son issues a Bro Handshake which involves a brief hug of the chests. Bill realises Corky has taken the beer and boxes and is trying to walk back to his friends. Bill is just a delivery person.
‘Whoa-OA! Whoa-ho-ho-HO, lookie lookie LOOKIE!’ Corey has pulled his cellphone out of his shorts and is impressed by something on the screen. He holds his phone up to the sun, waving it around for all his friends to admire. ‘SuWOOOP!’
Corey puts his pizza and beer on the ground in such a hurry the pizzas slide apart and a beer rolls onto the gravel and starts fizzing. Corey vaults the wooden railing of the steps, lifts a girl over his shoulder and barges through the front door, disappearing up the stairs while the girl shrieks and laughs.
Two boys come over and apologise and re-stack the pizza, opening the top box and offering dripping yellow triangles around. ‘Sorry bout Core, mister. It’s just the game, yo – shit’s epic-addictive.’
Bill shields his eyes with his hand and tries to glimpse through the window what his son is doing with that girl. ‘What game would that be?’
‘You kidding me? Truth or DAAARE, nigga. We ain’t played nothin else for DAYYYYssss, son!’
Bill turns to leave. ‘Well, I’d love to play with Corky sometime. Perhaps you could pass that on from me.’
‘What, play Truth, Dare or Promise?! With your SON?!’ This makes the young men guffaw harder than ever.
Bill takes out his phone. ‘He’s not changed numbers, perchance?’
‘Whuh? Naw. You need to keep the same number so the game can send you updates. Get some aaaaass in claaaaaass.’
A girl in an orange bikini top squeezes Bill’s arm with concern. ‘He’s probably just too busy with the game to message you back, sweetie. You should try it out yourself.’ She winks and blows him a mocking kiss. ‘Could spice things up. It gets people fuck-aaaaang!’
‘Later, pops,’ someone calls from a window upstairs. Possibly his son, he isn’t sure.
It’s 11 at night and because the day’s heat won’t sod off, neither Bill nor his wife can sleep. Frances is in bed with a sheet over her, reading Cross Stitch and hooting with laughter, occasionally, when she encounters an unbelievable sex scene. Bill listens to his wife searching for titillation. He drums the arms of his sticky leather chair. He would be in the bedroom making love to Frances, but he’s lost the confidence. Frances can give herself a rub-and-tickle if she must. Work is more important, anyway.
Bill cannot believe he managed to send out 89 quotes tonight while sweat pooled in the cleft of his spine. It’s so hot that the chocolate truffles Bill and Frances left on the kitchen island melted into a small brown lake. They were $30 Fair Trade chocolates. Half of the $30 was supposed to help natives in Borneo. Frances reprimanded Bill for poor chocolate-monitoring and stormed off to read her book alone, holding up her chin, disgusted. Bill retired to his study to show the world that while he was a failure at chocolate, he could draft 89 quotes and expect extremely high rates of sales conversion. A manly feat. Buildings can’t be built without sound materials estimates, after all. Bill assures himself he’s essential in the world of heavy construction, assures himself he’s one of the lads, although he blushes when the boys, squatting in the shade of the cabin talk about how much pussy they crushed on the weekend then say, ‘Sorry, Billy’ and if he isn’t as warm blooded as they are.
Bill peels his skin off the chair, switches his monitor off and sucks up the courage to seduce his wife. His legs and back creak as he waddles over and stands beside her bed, clearing his throat til she’s ready to talk about this so-called Truth Dare or Promise app they’ve downloaded on Frances’s iPad. He asked Frances to dabble with it because, well, Frances is the risk-taker. Frances of the short, bold haircut with silver frosted tips. Frances with the tiny, radical tattoo on her ankle.
Bill recently saw a rave review of what everyone’s calling Truth Or Dare on the late night news when Frances’s snoring consigned him to sleep on the couch, then Hiromichi from the Honolulu office absolutely swore on the company’s social page that Truth Or Dare was indispensable in a good relationship. Furthermore, of course, there was the endorsement from Corky and his tribe of carnal savages. As a matter of fact, Bill wonders if he’s the last man on earth without Truth Or Dare.
‘Book down, then,’ he tells her. ‘Let’s give it a whirl.’
He sits on the edge of the bed and observes as Frances interacts with the little animated white rabbit.
Truth, Dare or Promise? the app asks.
Frances selects Truth. Truth or Dare shows a brain with a thought cloud. Then the rabbit asks a shocking question in a gay pink font.
Tell me truly: who do you have a crush on?
‘I’m not answering that,’ Bill grumbles.
‘It wasn’t asking you, honey.’ Frances hits the SKIP button and the rabbit does a little skip. It asks for another provocative truth.
Tell me truly: when did you last cheat on me?
‘FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.’ Bill reaches for the Lock button to shut down the godforsaken application. Frances swings the iPad out of Bill’s chubby, flailing grasp. She skips the question and another appears.
Truth: Who were you thinking about when you last masturbated?
Bill is scowling. ‘There’s no way either of us are answering that.’
‘Stoneleigh,’ Frances responds. A ticked loveheart appears on the screen.
‘Not Shelby Stoneleigh? You fancy our best man, do you?’
‘He’s okay,’ Frances shrugs.
‘Just a game,’ she says, plainly. A huge grin has split her face. She pats the bed. ‘You need to stop your huffing and puffing and come sit next to me. Come. Oi! William! If you’re going to be a sourpuss, I shall continue playing by myself and you can piss off back to your computer.’
Bill watches, aghast, as vulgar suggestion after vulgar suggestion appears on the screen, ludicrously cutesified by the charming rabbit. Frances keeps erupting with laughter and her book rolls off the bed and thuds on the carpet.
Finally, the app suggests the two fornicate in a church – SKIP – then the swimming pool at Corey and Lani’s old primary school – SKIP – and when the app comes up with Dare: make love in the middle of the road, Bill has had enough.
He gets off the bed, finds a duvet and prepares for a night on the couch.
‘Wait, love. Wait. Go ahead if you want. Stick it in.’
Bill pouts. ‘You could at least feign a dignified recalcitrance.’
Frances reaches beneath the covers, wriggles her legs, produces some panties and throws them at Bill’s face. ‘Quit your sobbing. We can do it on the sofa.’
The pair of 53 year olds stand back to back on their eight thousand dollar handmade Berber Moroccan wool rug and strip. Bill pulls his undies down and, when one leg of the underwear is off and one leg remains, loses his balance and stumbles into the wall, leaving a dent in the plaster. Bill has become fatter and heavier than at any stage in his life to date. He makes a mental note to resolve that. He stands with his pyjama top hanging down over his penis and sneaks a peak at Frances, who has taken her necklace and bangles off. She is planting one foot on the back of the couch, one on the rug, wriggling her shoulders til she’s perfectly positioned. She places both hands beneath her belly button, makes the shape of a vine leaf as she invites him in.
‘You’re not needing lubricant, I take it?’
‘You shall receive my report in due course.’ Bill begins to kneel on the leather couch, gets off it, worried about the consequences of breaking the couch, puts his weight on the floor instead, keeping his centre of gravity low, squatting as he prepares to board, trying to think of successful NASA takeoffs instead of disasters. She’s easy to enter but he’s not sure what his lower half is doing because he can’t see over the ball of his belly.
When the squishy, thumping sound coming from their waists slows, Bill and Frances try lying down instead, but just as Bill pushes back against the couch to get leverage, he hears what can only be the sickening YORP of the wooden arm of the $8000 couch cracking.
‘Oh, come now. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Here. There’s a suggestion on the pad. Come with me.’
She leads him to the door.
‘The middle? In the MIDDLE? Of the ROAD?! For crying out loud, one would have to– .’
Frances holds up a hand and Bill shuts up immediately. ‘For once in your life, William, let go of the reins.’
They open the front door together. Frances checks left. Bill steps right out and surveys the roof. He licks his lips, studying the orange slash running down the centre of the neighbour’s window. If the Sugumarans open the curtains, Bill and Frances’ reputation as respectable neighbours will be utterly destroyed.
Frances tugs him to the edge of the road with one hand, pressing a towel against her breasts with the other.
Before Bill can finish informing his wife what utter, utter madness this all is, Frances has spread the towel on the asphalt and eased her creaking bones onto the hard surface. She opens herself up, grabs his wrist and pulls him into her.
Certain a truck is coming around the corner to flatten them within seconds, Bill pushes his penis into his wife’s vulva and lets go an involuntary ‘Ohhh!’ He’s forgotten how she feels like home, how it brings out a deep primal contentment within him. Frances’ vagina feels glorious – and he glides in and out so easily! Not a drop of lubricant! This could well be a tale for the boys at smoko.
Frances lassos his tongue and pulls his mouth into hers. Bill explodes inside her within seconds – it’s the sexy snaking tongue that does it – but they remain in the centre of the road, with Frances’s legs wrapped around his waist until a pair of yellow wolf eyes appear in the distance. A truck is really coming, but Frances won’t let him go until she has orgasmed, and she doesn’t orgasm until the truck is less than a hundred metres away and Bill has his fingers around the corners of the towel and is dragging his wife off the road like a sack of flour.
As Bill is about to pour his 7.28am coffee from the pot, Frances ambushes him, puts her e-book on the counter, drops to her knees and undoes the drawstrings of Bill’s pyjamas. She takes his penis in her mouth and starts to gently chew it like a scoop of ice cream.
‘Jesus,’ Bill says, trying not to spill coffee on her head, ‘You’re still randy from last night?’
‘Nr-nr,’ Frances says. As she shakes her head, she pulls Bill’s penis with her. She takes the cock out for a moment to talk. ‘It says we have to do it again.’
Bill withdraws his penis. ‘I have to work just now, er, freshen up and all… When’s good for you, to, how shall I say, repeat. The incident. From last night.’
Frances rises, smooths her nightie flat, wipes her lips, squirts hand sanitiser on her fingers and lathers her hands and wrists as if she’s filthy. ‘Tonight I have book club. After’s good.’
Bill squeezes her briefly to say bye, goes for a kiss then winces and decides against connecting with her mouth. ‘After book club. It’s a date.’ Bill checks his watch. He has a meeting in the city. He really must be getting on. ‘Or, rather, not a date-date, per se… we could go out to dinner?’
Frances shakes her head quickly. ‘The computer-thingamajig has other ideas.’
Truth Or Dare is on her mind as she pulls on her leggings, tests necklaces in front of the mirror, puts on her work pants. Frances lays down the tablet and locks it, sets up in her study and does her best to work on the graphics in ChallengeNordrup’s annual report. She buries a disappointing chart on pages 144-192 so the Japanese don’t complain.
She takes 20 minutes for lunch at midday and chews her cucumber sandwich in front of the TV, thinking about turning the tablet on. On her show, there’s a bored rich Mexican housewife having an affair with her family’s lawyer. That doesn’t make sense to her. Why begin tunnelling into a second person when you haven’t yet discovered your lover’s core? We only ever see a small percentage of a person, Frances thinks. There is more inside her man and she’s grateful this gizmo of his is starting to expose that.
At 3pm, Frances sends a zip file to her team leader in Brisbane and signs out of Virtual Office. She hasn’t had to do a school pickup for eight years now, but 3pm was long ago sealed in her daily rhythm as the acceptable knockoff time. Finishing at 3 gives her time to enjoy a cup of tea, burn through another few chapters of her book, complete a Cryptic Crossword, swing around her kettle weights in front of an exercise DVD and finally select something delicious from Uber Eats. Frances loves a good dinner party on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and she’ll bake for six hours in a row to prepare a few amazing dishes when there’s a potluck on at Shilpa and Shelby’s and she can break out the Cucine Torinese cookware.
Lani shows up a 4.45 on that moped of hers, her second, actually – the first was crushed by a police car in that rally where her friends chained themselves to the hollow, rotten old tree that the council wanted to cut down. She parks the moped, walks in and tosses her helmet hard enough on the polished parquet that Frances cringes. Surely she’s left a dent, although if Frances tells her off, her daughter will go off on another huff lasting six months.
‘Mamacita!’ her daughter cries
‘La niña mía!’
They embrace, then Lani immediately finds a cask of cooking sherry and fills the Winnie The Pooh mug she’s had since she was six, opens the fridge, stacks her arms with a pavlova cake, a box of strawberries, some cream, hummus and a big carrot which she holds with her teeth. Lani sits at the table and tucks into $32 worth of food. Lani has got the day off work from the veterinary centre where she volunteers now that she’s trespassed from the university for that dye attack on the chancellor over his support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Frances is just about to gush to her daughter about Truth, Dare or Promise when Lani pulls her MacBook Air out of her jute bag, finds the wifi and begins a group chat with her No Right Turn activist friends in Ottawa.
‘Lani, angel, you’re coming for Christmas in a couple weeks, right? You haven’t RSVP’d.’
Lani responds ten seconds later, reluctantly detaching her eyes from the screen. ‘Yeah, maybe – but I don’t celebrate the Christian stuff, remember. We’ll see.’
‘Can I show you this thing Bill and I simply adore?’ Frances unlocks her iPad, stroking the lurid application.
‘Not now, mama,’ Lani says, holding a finger up to say Patience, eyes on her screen. ‘Got my Circle of Progress meeting.’
Frances wants to tell her daughter you can’t make a circle with four people, but never mind. Frances sees something flash on her iPad. She hasn’t turned off the popup option and DARE is pinging.
Dare: Do something crazy to get somebody’s attention.
Frances approaches, hesitates, then pushes shut the lid of her spoiled daughter’s $1900 laptop.
‘MUUUM! You fucking bitch! That was important!’
Frances ignores the insult and stretches her face into a wide smile. ‘Sooooo?’
‘So what? Literally?’
‘So tell me about your love life. C’mon. What’s the goss?’
Lani makes a disgusted throat-clearing sound and rolls her head around. She crosses her legs to make a barrier between herself and her Mum. ‘Fine. But trigger warning, okay? This is going to rock your culture and I don’t know if you’re ready.’
Frances pulls out a chair, plops her bum into it and leans across the table, grinning eagerly. ‘Oh, I think I can handle a little bit of badness. Here, hon: look at this wee game we’ve been tinkering with. I’ll make it say Truth. D’you see? It’s asking who was the last person you slept with.’
‘Mum, I am SOOO not going there with you.’
‘Oh, come now, sister. You have to do what you’re told. It’s the game.’
‘Like, d’you seriously not know Sister is a term which can be used by People of Colour only?’ Lani looks away, finds nobody to comprehend how ghastly her mum is, and continues. ‘Anyone who thinks they need a partner is a conformist schill. If you must know, mother dear, I do Sweet Nights. I subscribe to the culture of the Mosuo people of Sichuan province, China. We’re free to spend a night with any man, woman or non-binary gender we like. But I’m sure you’ve never heard of it.’
‘Actually, William and I, we spent a week in Sichuan when we were backpacking from India to Tibet, then we ended up in Yunnan province and– ’
‘SHUT THE ACTUAL FUCK UP AND LET ME FINISH, MUM. Anyway: just to show you how truly conservative you and dad are: on my Sweet Night – which is only in the week before I’m ovulating each month, I’m allowed to go to any boy’s flat I want. Or girl’s. And I can take whoever I please. And I don’t need YOU to judge me.’
Frances can’t stop smiling. ‘But honey, that’s wonderful, actually, your father and I, we’ve been enjoying a little bit of– ’
Lani jams one finger in her ear and opens her laptop lid again. ‘SHUT THE FUCK UP, MUM: FaceTime.’
‘Just saying, it brings people together.’ Frances tucks her iPad back into its pouch. ‘Well, it’s meant to.’
The fan can’t cool them even at maximum speed and at 1am Frances and Bill roll together in the middle of the bed and give up trying to sleep and Frances unlocks the iPad and they open Truth Or Dare. The game dares Frances to press the Kia Sorento family SUV up to 120 kays an hour on a long straight stretch of motorway while Bill licks between her legs and the car bumps off road into a cornfield and her wet thighs crush his nose. Bill drags her from the car and shunts his wife up onto the bonnet. Her hot pussy juices steam on the heat of the engine as he fucks her with the hard spear jutting out from under his belly, the muscle in his arms flexing as he holds her knees far apart and drives hard with his hips til he collapses on her shoulders and she holds him inside her.
Caller display shows the incoming call as the Stoneleighs’ number. Bill picks it up, cringes as if the telephone is a hot coal, and tiptoes through the house before planting the phone in Frances’s hand. Frances hugs the phone between head and shoulder, peels off her gardening gloves then goes to the quietude of the library to debate with Shilpa about who is more obliged to host supper.
Shilpa and Shelby Stoneleigh refuse to come to Bill and Frances’ place. It’s simply NOT acceptable to consume more of Bill and Frances’ hospitality than they give out. Etiquette dictates the Stoneleighs do the hosting yet again.
When it’s all been agreed on and Bill and Frances are clacking across the Stoneleighs’ patio in their most expensive shoes, Shilpa and Shelby open the door to reveal tonight’s lineup of guests.
The cheeks of the ladies are kissed and the men pump each other’s arms and the women scuttle to the kitchen and argue about whether Frances had to bring a gift, and whether Frances has kept the receipt because Shilpa will absolutely positively NOT accept the carved bamboo salad tools Frances paid ninety dollars for.
Shilpa mixes complaints with compliments, soaks the Outhwaites in praise for the achievements of their twins, Logan and Lyle, who have been granted leaves of absence from their jobs at the Oakleaf Institute think tank to perform with the philharmonic on a tour of Benelux.
‘They’ll do fine, so long as they can stay off their bloody mobile phones,’ the Outhwaites say. ‘Logan’s managed to get himself a case of the crabs; Lyle had to be rushed to A&E with a torn frenulum.’
The women, plus Junot from Switzerland, and French Bernard, chatter about the sexy software that seems to have fizzed up every relationship on earth as they sup their broth and eat garlic bread then begin to work on huge white plates with little puddles of asparagus and lamb in the middle.
Bill eats his meal quickly, apologises to everyone, fiddles with his Samsung Galaxy.
‘He hasn’t seriously brought his phone to the table?’ Shilpa scolds Frances, guzzling pinot grigio, ‘Oh, shame on you!’
‘See, that’s the thing,’ Bill yawns, fiddling with his napkin, looking at Shelby for relief, ‘Too much shame in our society. A little less shame and we’d all be better off.’
‘Strip naked then, see how far that gets ya!’ Shelby says, his jaw slack, spewing laughter across the table. Pierre and Bernard and Junot from Switzerland laugh so hard they have to thump the table to regain control.
‘Very well. Phones out, everyone.’
Frances gives him her dark-rimmed anxious eyes. ‘Bill, you wouldn’t… .’
‘I’m serious. Why should I be ashamed for something that’s perfectly natural?’
When everybody has his or her phone in front of them, Bill directs his friends to Truth, Dare or Promise on the app store.
‘Download it. Each and every one of you. Go on. It’s free, you know. Or shall I have Frances spank the lot of you? She’s done that, and worse, mind.’
‘WILLIAM.’ Frances kicks her husband. He doesn’t flinch.
The Swiss woman frowns at her husband, who says, ‘Ahh, ze eagle has landed’ as the app arrives on his phone. ‘C’est reparti!’ he adds. He shows the suggestion on the screen of his phone to Shelby. Shelby looks worried and flips his phone over and begins to stand. ‘Shouldn’t we… get dessert out of the way first?’
Junot from Switzerland begins giggling. ‘My telephone, she is to say, “I dare you to play strip poker, hee hee!’
Bernard elbows his woman. ‘I am thinking we are finding some playing cards, no?’
Bill is fed up. ‘Do we honestly need three hours of degustation to get us in the mood to love our wives? Cut to the chase, I reckon.’
Frances stands. ‘WILLIAM. We have to go.’
Shilpa is shaking. Her cheeks are scorched pink. She follows them out as they scuttle down the hallway. ‘YOU’LL BE HEARING FROM ME.’
Frances is sobbing with embarassment when she gets to the car, but by the time she arrives home, in black silence, there is a notification on her phone from Shilpa.
Bill can’t stop pacing. ‘Are they suing us? What’s it say? I’m so – SO – sorry I said what I said.’
‘No, actually, it’s…. it’s good? I think? It says “that application of yours may just have saved our marriage.” That’s a quote.’
‘Details, if you’d be so kind.’
She whispers in his ear. Bill’s eyeballs bulge.
Saturday, there’s lunch with Marilyn and her three identical daughters. One is still doing biology lectures, the other is on placement while she learns to be a physiotherapist, the other is in her first year of provisional registration as an occupational therapist. Frances grins through conversations on fabric softener, dahlias, medical training, BitCoin and what type of wood is best for a pergola before clearing her throat and pushing her phone across the polished table at Marilyn.
‘It’s time you tried this.’
Marilyn studies the screen, reading suggestions, her fingers occasionally darting away in shock. Finally she checks the back of the iPad as if there is a hidden aspect.
‘Very … empowering. But I need a man.’
‘I do believe it’ll find one for you.’
Marilyn summons bravery and lets her daughters download the app for her. Frances messages her every day with morsels of gossip about Shilpa and Shelby licking each other’s arses in the reflecting pool of the botanic gardens at midnight. Then a story emerges about the Europeans doing something wicked with ben wa balls in their theatre box above Les Misérables. Word has it the app has also reached Ed Carter, school principal, and Ed and his wife had sex in the passenger seat of the family wagon during a particularly long drive-thru line at KFC and since then they’ve been making love every day for three or four sweaty, gasping, exhilarating minutes, occasionally with the aid of a cannabis cigarette, if what Bill’s heard is accurate. Everybody is stimulated. A generation’s urges have surfaced.
Truth Or Dare has just fifty phrases programmed into it. Use up fifty sexy suggestions and one starts recycling the same old sex. Over the past two months Bill and Frances have accepted computer-generated suggestions to shag in a school swimming pool, fuck in a fountain, undress underwater, carouse at a carnival. Finally the only unused dare is to do it in their children’s bedroom. They’ve been saving that one, procrastinating, avoiding. It’s sacrilegious, even more sacrilegious than Bill rubbing Frances’s thighs with holy water from the font in St Bartholomew’s to make it easier for him to slide into her on the soft carpet of the font. They did that one on the fifth night, and it came back on the forty-fifth night, too. The forest has been done, the canal too. They’ve made love in the ball pit at Lollipoppa’s Playland, made love in the changing rooms at K-mart, made love behind the war memorial, Frances’s face pressed against the marble, panting foggy breath on the names of the dead. They’ve licked and sucked and poked and rolled in the lawn bowls club, the city council hearings room, the school for the blind, the grotty public toilets attached to the 24 hour police kiosk. New Year’s Eve is coming up and it’s hard to imagine how they’ll find new naughtiness.
With Christmas and the end of the year not far off, Frances and Bill log into an international video conference call, nod along as the Executive GM of Risk announces new targets for the coming year. They fingerfuck secretly under the tabletop, looking the Executive GM dead in the eye. The Executive GM asks if everybody understands the new numbers this year and Bill pounds the table and roars ‘Yes! Yes! Oh God, yes!’
They peak when Frances swallows her wet breath and says, ‘Excuse me, sir,’ to the camera, and checks a message on her iPad. It’s from Lani and it’s shocking enough that Frances thrusts the tablet in front of Bill’s eyes like it’s contaminated.
Lani has composed a 300-character text citing stats about one in two marriages failing. Lani says she refuses to believe some magical download has saved their marriage, that is unless Viagra and Vicodin are the explanation for her parents’ weird behaviour, and Lani says she’s 99 per cent sure that’s the case. Lani is hurt and embarrassed and ashamed so she’s stabbing her mother. Plus, Lani says, she’s not coming for Christmas. She’ll be at Free Love Forever, the week-long festival of lust which runs from the 25th until New Year’s Day.
The message makes Frances collapse into sobs of shame and she marches into the backyard and hurls her tablet into the lillypads.
Bill rubs her back and makes a mental note: Find. New. App. Urgent.
Christmas Day, they shut off their phones and hold hands at the dinner table. The turkey is so large it blocks out some of the light coming in the window so Bill saws it to pieces with his electric knife and they eat a small percentage of the browned beast without discussion. When Frances gets up to plop a fruit pie into Bill’s bowl, he wraps his arms around her, cupping her breasts, nibbling her neck, but Frances growls and Bill locks himself in the lounge where he watches Men Behaving Badly on a 72 inch curved screen with surround sound.
Nobody visits in the next six days. They ache for their children. Shilpa and Shelby send a pxt from where they’re doing it behind a pile of giant wrapped boxes in Santa’s village in the mall. The Europeans are in India, now, photographed with their hands down one another’s pants in front of the Taj Mahal. Principal Ed Carter is busy with his divorce but still meeting people every week on that new enhanced Tinder Dare everyone’s talking about.
Lani keeps up the text messages but doesn’t visit. She tells her Mum the phone number of a counsellor on campus who will take on what Lani calls “disturbed depressed privileged white people.” Lani also shares a link to a report in the Guardian about the spread of venereal disease amongst over-50 year olds.
Because of the pops and sizzles of the fireworks, it’s a while before Bill manages to hear Frances’s sobs. It’s nine o’clock on New Year’s Eve and Frances is in Bill’s office, shoulders shuddering, looking at a digital montage of their younger years when Bill and Frances had cheekbones and taut skin and bright eyes and their babies wouldn’t stop climbing on them.
Bill silently leads Frances upstairs into Corky’s bedroom. They toss clothes and pottles of hair gel aside, porno magazines, drawings of Transformers with naked girls in their arms. They sit on Corky’s bed and pash, fondling each other’s shoulders and ribs. Frances decides to move to Lani’s bedroom, with the ponies and unicorns painted in a frieze at headheight from corner to corner. Bill turns the dimmer low, pushes Frances’s shoulders back. Lani has had sex in their bed plenty of times. Now it’s time to repay the favour.
Bill takes several stabs and still can’t ease into her. Her iPad signals a new message and Frances lurches up to read the latest abuse from her one and only daughter, who is supposed to be at Free Love Forever.
The phone starts ringing before Frances can clear the text. Lani’s wet voice is hysterical, begging for rescue.
This boy has gotten really hostile while she’s been in his yurt and she’s being tossed on drunken waves on seasick legs and the world is ending.
Lani has messaged Corey too, her wet voice confesses. Corey’s promised to hunt down the punk that hurt his sister and kill him.
Bill and Frances put their nightgowns and underwear on and speed towards the domain. The place is covered with yurts. Lani gives detailed instructions about the flax bushes she’s hiding in and they find her, behind a city of portaloos, and Lani falls into the open car.
Corky has messaged to say he has a baseball bat, Pick me up, I’m going to waste the cunt that raped my sister, and when the three-quarters-full Kia Sorento arrives outside Corky’s house, he springs into the vehicle with a hammer in his right hand he keeps thwacking into the left.
‘LET’S GO FUCK SOME CUNTS UP. C’MON? WHERE YOU GOIN?’
It’s a hill they’re going to. They are mesmerised by the fireworks. It’s just after midnight. There are several other cars up here, rocking mysteriously. Everybody’s using the app, presumably. Frances’ fingers spider across Bill’s thigh and settle in his lap. They hold hands.
It’s an hour of questions and silence and a furious Corky getting out of the car and walking laps then returning to the family wagon before Lani explains she wasn’t actually raped, she never said she was, it wasn’t rough. Free love is awesome, she says, still snotty, still sobbing, But monogamy’s got a few things going for it. She’s just sad that her sweet nights mean she ends the year all alone.
Frances twists her neck from the front seat to the back. ‘Look around you, niña mía– is this alone?’