Mickey was talking, and when Mickey was talking, his hands spoke with him. They were childlike and stubby-fingered, so out of proportion to the dense fat of his forearms and the rest of his bulk they may as well have been the product of an amputation. In jerks and flutters they flew above the arcs of his speech, soaring on the volume of a voice that always bordered on too loud.
It was one of those Australian summers when the temperature had climbed to a hundred degrees by mid-morning Monday and wasn’t looking to break until Sunday afternoon, when the days were searing, dry and cruel. Radio warnings were being broadcast about leaving dogs and children in cars; on older roads cracks in the asphalt were seeping with black lines of melted tar. At eight on Saturday night the air outside in the quiet café courtyard was thick with heat, and still. The streets around us were quiet; anyone with sense had found respite in air-conditioned houses or movie theatres, at the beach or in swimming pools.
James poured Diet Coke over the last stubborn cubes of ice in my glass and I watched droplets of condensation run down the outside to soak into the rough wooden tabletop; Mickey, as always, drank coffee. I could feel the sweat underneath my arms and at my temples – I had already, and gratefully, taken off my shoes and socks to flex my feet and now I was gingerly resting my heels on the just-unpleasant, soaked-in warmth of the brickwork underfoot.
Despite the heat I was content. The sun had set and it was peaceful there, surrounded by the sweet scent of flowers in full bloom and the deep green of the garden, the night only just begun and in the company of friends.
I watched Mickey’s hands swoop through the air, clutching like soft-shelled crabs skewered through the middle. He was growing more and more animated as he reached the climax of his story – the appearance, at his ex-girlfriend’s gallery opening, of his ex’s new partner.
‘I looked him right in the eye,’ Mickey said, his hands sweeping out, dangerously close to his coffee cup, ‘and I didn’t say a word.’ His eyes bulged slightly under his thin ginger eyebrows as his right hand came up to his lips in a mimicry of motion. ‘I just took a drag on my cigarette, blew the smoke in his face, and then I put it out in his drink.’
James and I gave each other sidelong glances. I reached for my glass, hiding behind the nutrasweet taste and a crunching mouthful of melting ice cubes. James smiled thinly at Mickey and asked if we wanted to get something to eat.
Once again, Mickey had outdone himself.
Mickey’s two defining traits were an inability to get out of cars and an uneasy relationship with facts. He didn’t drive and showed no signs of wanting to learn, but in truth it was difficult to imagine him behind the wheel. Clumsiness informed his movements; after the inevitable and insisted-upon twenty minutes he would spend in conversation after a ride home, parked by the roadside, the front door to his apartment building only feet away from the passenger door, he would finally exit with loud sighs and bad grace, scuffing his feet on the wing of the car, heaving himself out with hands groping at the roof. It wasn’t just vehicles – he could be counted on to spill coffee over his shirt, to quite innocently look down to find himself somehow standing in ornamental flower beds, to misjudge the appropriate volume of speech in movie theatres at crucial points in films. And these habits, along his unswerving belief that if someone was to give him a lift it meant they were also content for him to sit in their car as long as he’d like at the end of it, could be easily, politely, overlooked.
More difficult was his habit of freely, casually inventing events as he needed to, something which became all the lonelier, and all the more impossible to ignore, in equal measure as time went by.
It’s hardly as if Mickey was alone in the practice. The first time I met my friend Harriet’s new boyfriend I was desperate to talk to him about whether he’d be suing the rockstar who had stolen his song. The new boyfriend played in a bottom-tier Melbourne garage rock band who’d been fortunate enough, and hard-working enough, to get a booking as a third or fourth support act for a touring US supergroup. You’ve heard of them; for two years they were exploding across old and new media on both sides of the Atlantic, their star has faded now but they still make headlines from time to time.
‘Supergroup Lead Singer is such an asshole,’ said Harriet, a month earlier, her mouth tight with conspiratorial anger and righteousness. ‘At one of the tour afterparties, he and New Boyfriend just hung out, all by themselves, and shut the door on all the groupies and all the drugs, and found a piano in this big mansion they were partying at, and they wrote a song together. And now Supergroup Lead Singer is releasing it as his single and New Boyfriend isn’t going to get anything.’
‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘That’s terrible.’ I was dismayed by the news – I’d liked Supergroup’s sound and thought well of them as people from what few interviews I’d read.
‘Yeah,’ said Harriet, nodding her head. Her phone silently vibrated on her living room coffee table and she snatched it up, urgently, her attention already fading away from me. ‘I guess it just goes to show what famous people are like.’ Her fingers raced over buttons, spelling out a text; her eyes were on her phone as she spoke.
I’d forgotten, somehow, that Harriet was fond of stories that couldn’t be proven, that somehow purported to make her and those around her fascinating and popular. And maybe she didn’t remember she’d told me that story – lies are more easily forgotten, after all – until I asked New Boyfriend, when I eventually met him, if there’d been any progress on reclaiming the rights to his stolen work, in the process rehashing what Harriet had said.
‘What?’ New Boyfriend asked, truly nonplussed. He was wearing gold-rimmed glasses and a polo shirt; he couldn’t have looked any less a rock star if he tried. ‘No, we never hung out with those guys. The drummer said hey to us once or twice but that was it; we were kept totally segregated from them.’
‘Oh,’ I said, confused. ‘But Harriet told me…’
‘No,’ said Harriet, too quickly, and broke off. She stared at the table in front of her, silently, and a horrified embarrassment washed over us. New Boyfriend changed the subject, and I followed suit, neither one of us miserly enough to draw the smallness of her deceit out into the open air.
And so Mickey was not unique, but he was in a league of his own. While originally we’d been fascinated by the stories of his remarkable exploits, as soon as the first one of his accounts became suspicious, the remainder, and those that followed, quickly fell apart with even a fraction of scrutiny applied. It became blindingly, painfully obvious that these re-tellings depended on certain factors – that none of us, or anyone we knew, should be around as these events unfolded, that no one ever ask what the consequences were, or what happened next, and that, most importantly, they leave Mickey looking heroic, rebellious, praiseworthy, or cool.
The interrupted attempted mugging of a stranger, where Mickey threw himself into the fray, fighting off two men and terrifying a third into submission, in an act of heroism that surprisingly, never saw any hint of a police follow-up.
The afternoon where Mickey, facing dismissal for turning up to work an hour late for the third time in a month, was taken aside by Mitsubishi’s Head of Pacific Sales (who for no apparent reason happened to be in the building at the time) and told: Michael, you have more potential than anyone I’ve seen in twenty years; that’s why you get bored making follow-up calls so easily.
The sex. The incredible, never-ending avalanche of sex, that saw Mickey disappearing into bedrooms, into public gardens, into shopping mall toilets with women of all ages, all backgrounds, and all nationalities, all of them beautiful, all of them sophisticated and worldly-wise… and all of them seduced in an instant and vanished just as quickly.
Once the curtain had been lifted there was no going back, and we saw these productions for what they were – episodes in a life Mickey wished we believed he led, probably a life he himself wished he led. Maybe we did him a disservice by never calling him out on the lie. It would have been as simple as asking: ‘What happened next?’
That was always the part of the story he hadn’t considered. Mickey’s constructions ended as soon as his starring role had been played out – the cigarette landed in the drink and cut, roll credits, applause.
Maybe, if we’d spoken, some dam in him could have been broken; I don’t know and I can’t say. What I know is that we recognised the desperation in Mickey, the constant need to be reassured and attended to, the sadness of a life in which a fiction seemed more likeable, more acceptable, more appealing to people than a truth, and it stayed us from ever saying a word.
And then, finally, Mickey crossed the line. As he was balancing the incredible fiction he was constructing at his work about needing to take care of his dying mother, a story that bought him forgiveness for a month’s worth of offenses, a story that only came to light through separate channels later, Mickey had a falling out with Konrad.
Konrad was German, a friend we’d made at an open-air philosophy lecture. He was our age, and friendly, as many of the German travelers I’ve met have been. He already had his own circle in Melbourne, but spent more and more time with us as time went on; meeting us for drinks on weekends, for lunch in the city on days when work allowed, riding with us to house parties in the noisy inner-Eastern suburbs of the city, where post-grads in woollen scarves, with spiky hair and shelves full of Simone de Beauvoir, unfailingly offered him joints and sat down next to him, laughing and moving closer with every hour that went by.
What they fell out about, to this day, I don’t know.
Mickey insisted we cut our ties with Konrad; not, he assured us, because the two of them were arguing, but rather, because he, Mickey, had just recently discovered Konrad had confessed to a string of sexual assaults in Germany that had never been reported. Because Konrad was stalking Mickey’s sister, and Mickey had never told us until now. Because Konrad spoke about us behind our backs, because Konrad was a liar, because Konrad was our enemy and Mickey was our friend.
He told us these things around James’s table late one night, after making a panicked afternoon call to me, demanding to know if I’d spoken to Konrad that day. I’d picked Mickey up after work and driven him to James’s place, where, with his pale hands grabbing one cigarette after another from my pack on the table, Mickey laughed and waved away our concerns, telling us to just trust him, the stress he’d claimed earlier suddenly forgotten.
We asked Mickey how he knew any of the things he was saying; we asked him to prove them. We asked if he knew the seriousness of the allegations he was making, and we asked why the only action he was taking was to speak to us, now.
Mickey didn’t want to hear about making statements to the police. He didn’t want to hear about talking to Konrad, or clarifying facts; he just became angrier and angrier the more we suggested acting on the things he’d said, and started to demand we tell other people the things he’d told us. Finally, he was yelling; his face contorting with the force of his emotion. His hands flailed crazily in the air, free from any grace or intent; his skin flooded with bright pink and red from the base of his neck to the carroty-orange of his hair.
When it became obvious we would need more than his word to crucify Konrad in the court of public opinion, Mickey fell silent. For twenty minutes he sat and sulked, tense and uncommunicative, and then I drove him home. James, looking sleepy and unconvinced, bid us goodnight at the front door with the promise of following through on any action that needed to be taken; I looked at him and knew he was thinking, as I was thinking, that Mickey had graduated from the harmless to the unforgivable.
In the ride home, with the stereo down low, I rolled down my window so I could smoke one of the few cigarettes Mickey had left me with. My headlights searched out across the darkened road in front of me; it was late, and I was tired. It had been raining, and the damp clean smell of rain on tarmac came up from off the road as we sped by.
Mickey, beside me, began to grumble about loyalty. He sat there, arms folded sullenly across his chest, his gut tight under a t-shirt and his skin pale in the darkness, and reached for another one of my cigarettes.
I turned into his street and we pulled in to the kerb and sat, quietly, the embers on our cigarettes silently firing red and yellow. A long shadow, from a branch ahead, lay over Mickey’s face. I turned to look at him and blinked, surprised by just how clearly the weak glow from the cigarette illuminated his face as he breathed it in, hard.
Mickey started to repeat himself, a long refrain about loyalty, about gratitude, about the sins of Konrad and the need for us to distance us from him, to let everyone know how terrible he was.
I lost my temper and regained it in the instant it took me to flatly tell him to get out of the car. Jerkily, he opened the door, pushed himself out, and slammed it closed again behind him.