I removed my eyesore from the parking bay, and tried to assemble the random information I had on Bill Mountain as I drove to my office at the Cross. Mountain was a writer, of short stories mostly, with a couple of novels. As he told it, the fees he’d got for the stories hadn’t paid for the paper and typewriter ribbons; the novels had been raved about in Meanjin and remaindered within months. His agent had got even more desperate than Bill and wangled him a crash course in film writing. Mountain took to it like a sailor to sex, and he landed a job writing TV soap operas.
He’d told me this as he worked his way through a bottle of Suntory whisky, his chosen drink. Those grooves in his face seemed to get deeper with every sip, and the rutted lines around his eyes criss-crossed like ski tracks.
‘It’s a treadmill, Hardy, a bloody treadmill.’
‘Is that the kind of dialogue you have to write?’ I’d asked. He threw a punch then which I ducked and he fell over. After that it was all apologies and more drinks until the next time. I didn’t like Mountain, but we had mutual acquaintances, and I seemed always to be running into him here and there, especially a few years ago when my drinking was nearly in his league. Since then I’d moderated it a bit, and our paths crossed less often, but I heard about him. I heard how he called me an ASIO man, a ‘disinformation agent’ and other unflattering things. I heard how he hit women in public, and drank all the money he hated earning so fast that he had to go on earning it.
The trouble was that he could be interesting on the subject of writing, and I had a lot of time for some people who seemed to like him. The last time we’d met had been a few months back, in a pub as usual. He’d been sitting with my reporter friend, Harry Tickener, slurping down the Suntory and twitching hairs from his woolly beard into the corner of his mouth, catching them in his teeth and plucking them out with a twitch of his head. It was an unpleasant thing to watch.
‘The guys who make up the story lines are even worse than the poor hacks like me who fill them in,’ Mountain had said. A hair popped out leaving an angry spot behind. ‘Bigger drunks than me, most of ‘em. They get paid more so they can afford it. Some go this route,’ he’d lifted his glass, ‘booze and gambling; some go the other way- religion. I know one outline man who gives it all away to some nutty church.’
Mountain had started to scowl when he could see that I intended to get at least a couple of words in with Harry. Harry played the conciliator.
‘How would you handle a straight thousand a week, Cliff?’
‘I’d invest it in Bill’s next novel. I’d stake him for six months while he wrote it.’
Mountain was hard to gauge, it depended partly on the Suntory level. Right then I’d half expected him to throw the bottle but he tipped it over his glass instead.
‘Might as well put it on a bloody horse,’ he growled. ‘Least you’d get a show. I can’t write a novel, haven’t had an experience in eight years.’
That was one way to handle Mountain, to plunge him into self-pity and steer him away from aggression. Then, of course, you didn’t get his funny stories about the TV industry, his malicious gossip and his very good singing voice-the things people liked him for. With me, it was usually a choice between the self-pity and skinned knuckles and I took the former every time.
I parked the car behind Primo Tomasetti’s tattoo parlour and tried to remember how that meeting with Mountain had ended or what had been said. I couldn’t, not without effort. It occurred to me that I could probably recall a lot more of Bill Mountain’s conversation if I tried, but I didn’t think it had ever included anything to suggest he’d take up car theft. The needle was buzzing in Primo’s place and my respect for art prompted me to sneak past and go up the stairs to my office without interrupting him. But he heard me and switched off.
I poked my head around the corner; the young client looked alarmed and pointed at his shoulder. ‘She’s only got one eye,’ he yelped.
‘Momento,’ Primo said. ‘Cliff, I got an idea. I’ll do you your Keycard number anywhere you like for fifty cents.’ Primo has been trying to tattoo me for years.
‘I haven’t got a Keycard,’ I said.
‘No class.’ He switched on the needle. I went up one flight and along the passage to my office which also has no class, unless it’s fourth class. The city is over-supplied with office space although they’re building more all the time. Some of the over-supply is right here in my building as well as much of the turnover. In the years I’ve been here a lot of people have moved out but never because their expanding business needed room to grow. I noticed that we’d been joined by an ESP consultant, whatever that was. It was all right with me; it sounded like a nice quiet pursuit.
Two days’ absence from the office had generated some junk mail and the registration renewal papers for the Falcon. I wrote out the cheque thinking that there should be a prize for keeping old cars on the road or at least a sliding scale of registration fees. Instead I had a registration inspection to pass. I stuck a thirty-three cent stamp on the envelope and wondered if I’d live to see the dollar stamp, standard mail. Probably.
Then I spread the photos out on the desk with the ones of Mountain in the middle. I’d intended to commune with them, searching for a pattern, but I found myself thinking exclusively of Mountain again. The haircut and beard trim made him look less bulky but he was one of those men whom drinking fined down rather than made fat. If he was actually thinner it could be due to the Suntory. He looked harder though; the grooves were the size of my little finger and the line of beard hair followed the sharp ridge of his jawbone.
Action. I rang the TV production company he worked for and asked for him. A syrupy-voiced woman told me that Mr Mountain was on a month’s leave which still had two weeks to run. I’ll say this for Mountain, he doesn’t go in for this pretentious silent number business. He was listed as ‘Mountain, Bill’ in Bondi Junction. I dialled the number and it rang and rang until I fancied I could see the emptiness of the room all around the instrument.
A few more calls brought the expected results: ‘Bruce Worthington’s credentials were worthless. He’d given ‘film and TV producer’ as his occupation and the Polyglot Film Company as his place of business. Like all the phone numbers on the defaulters’ list this one had been circled and ticked, indicating that it had been checked. But it’s not too hard to arrange for someone to answer a phone and say what the caller wants to hear. Takes organisation though.
I was getting sick of looking at these uninspired photographs already; they reminded me of the videos of bank robberies where the sets look phoney and the actors can’t act… but they caught crooks. Mountain looked to be sober in the pictures, in control of himself. He didn’t look relaxed, but then he never did and wasn’t. He also didn’t look as if someone had a gun trained on him from across the street or had his old mum tied up to the kitchen table.
I had another job in the offing just then, a piece of body-guarding nonsense for a man who thought he might be mentioned soon in a crime report. He probably wouldn’t be. I off-loaded the late nights and sore feet on a man who was glad of the work. Terry Reeves’ missing cars and Bill Mountain’s new life of crime held a lot more interest.
I drove home to Glebe in the late afternoon and had to stop for groceries because I was living alone again. My lodger for the past three years-Hilde Stoner-had moved in with Frank Parker who held the rank of Detective Sergeant in the New South Wales police. She was pregnant and they were happy. Frank’s career was progressing again. I occasionally went over to Harbord where they lived and Frank beat me on the tennis court. He couldn’t beat Hilde though.
Helen Broadway and I had an arrangement. She spent half a year in the country with her husband and child and half a year in the city with me. I thought it was mighty decent of Michael Broadway to oblige in this way, but Helen said he hardly noticed the difference between her periods of residence and absence. The deal suited everybody except perhaps the kid who didn’t get a say.