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Hot Desk Extract: Westie

As part of the Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowship Program, Mark Hewitt worked on Westie, a novel set in Melbourne in 2008. It traces the downward spiral of a drug-addicted, emotionally volatile 27-year-old man who befriends a reformed criminal at a “philosophy salon” organised by a friend.

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Next thing I know I’m on a train on the way to visit Lee. I’ve put Eloise in a cab, walking her from park to kerb, one foot in front of the other. I can’t really remember going down the stairs to Parliament Station or down the escalators to the platform or getting on the train, but here I am, sitting on the train, and the train is going through a tunnel. As the train comes out of the tunnel I see it’s getting dark outside. I spend the rest of the train ride thinking mostly about Lee, and the conversation we will have when we see each other in his hospital room when I arrive there soon.

“Brother,” he will say, “brother…” and trail off. He will be out of it on morphine. Which I won’t have seen before, because last time I saw him he wasn’t on such a strong drug yet, but now the cancer will have escalated, I guess, to the point that they have to give him the hard shit.

“At least these cunts are getting me high,” he will say, with a glimmer of his former laugh that used to light up his face. You used to be able to see his soul through his eyes like that, because he gave himself over to his laugh like he was never going to die or like he could die at any moment or like laughing and dying were more or less the same thing. And now look at him, lying here, dying. His eyes were – his eyes are, I should say, because he’s not dead yet – his eyes are blue, and he would always squint a bit even when smiling just a little bit.

But today when I see him his eyes will be on the way to dead when he makes this joke, and I will force a laugh, if I can, and pretend that nothing is different. We will pretend that he is not terminally ill. We will talk about anything but his cancer. On the other hand, I might come out and ask so matter of factly about an aspect of his cancer – bone or blood or tumour or spreading or prognosis or whatever – to vaguely make it seem like the whole thing is actually no big deal, but mostly so I can get him talking about it so I can relearn some of the details I can’t remember from last time I saw him in the hospital, because last time I saw him, instead of listening to him, or even trying to, I had been nodding and only appearing to listen, half drunk and stifled by the collar of my polyester polo shirt (I remember), and by the smell of something bleach-like, and by a feeling of not being able to get up and crack the window open despite desperately wanting to.

“She let me go too soon,” Lee said, that last time I saw him in the hospital. This was one thing I remember him saying. We must have been talking about his ex-girlfriend, Nicky. “She could have been looking after me, in this palace,” he said. His hand shot up from where it was under the bedsheets as he got the impulse to make a gesture with it as he was talking. But his hand couldn’t find the surface, so it bobbed around under the blanket like a puppet he was controlling but only semi aware of. “She loves hospitals, the sick bitch.” He let roar fully then, laughing at his own joke like he always did, like he always does. His laughter faded quickly.

“She dodged a bullet,” I said, not being able to summon a laugh myself. Then I added, “It’s shame you didn’t.”

Lee laughed again, but not hard enough this time to make me feel like my joke, if I could call it that, had really landed.


Now on the train I catch myself clenching my jaw as I snap out of my daydream about Lee. I have missed Box Hill Station and feel awful fury about it. I’m aware of the fury in my face only as I see an old man’s face change as he clocks my face. He is sitting opposite me in dirty, torn up clothes and has messy grey hair and crazy eyes.

“Dumb cunt! You missed your stop,” or something, I am ready for him to say. But he doesn’t say anything, he just looks at me. I look back at him, dying to look away but forcing myself to hold his stare until he stops looking at me. We stare at each other for a while. His eyes begin to relax. They also grow more menacing, being more relaxed. There is something on his face, in his wrinkled-bunched-up crows feet, I can’t tell whether it’s dirt or a faded tattoo. He seems like maybe he has been to jail. I get up quickly, telling myself that I only broke gaze with him because my stop is coming up. The next stop is still a good couple of minutes away, and I spend this time looking at my feet, trying to breathe slower and not look at him.

The doors open and the spring air – it’s the first day of spring, or maybe it’s tomorrow – hits me in the face, and it’s too cold. I stand still on the platform for a second as the train doors close behind me, then I turn around to look through the window at the guy still on the train, clocking him through my reflection. He is looking at me with the exact same expression as before. I stand there on the platform looking back at him, and at myself, until the train pulls away. When the train disappears into the distance under the murk of the blackening sky I am still standing there watching it go. Its horn echoes its suburban ghost echo and I stand there looking in its direction for maybe half a minute after it’s gone.

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