After almost a month, Callum still cowered whenever the Mercedes pulled up outside his family’s imposing new home in Glen Iris, one of Melbourne’s old money suburbs. In fact, he cowered much of the time, whether the stone lions on the gateposts were visible or not. In his imagination they were not essentially different to real lions, although, being made of stone might make them all the more implacable. Their blind white eyeballs were the worst because you could never tell if they were looking at you — looking down, ready to spring as you passed between them; and the boy passed between them any time he closed his eyes, with a sensation of being swept inexorably towards them like a dead leaf on an autumn wind — or more accurately, in terms of his imagination, like a miniature little boy in an enormous bath, towards a plug hole.
All of his five-going-on-six years he had been living in a city apartment that was certainly big, but nothing compared to this place; then one day after school Jade, his au pair, took him here. He couldn’t understand why she seemed excited about it, or why his parents had done this to them. Callum wasn’t a baby anymore; he could follow cause and effect, and he had seen the boxes and the walls and floors getting barer as they piled up. But still he had started crying and struggling against his seatbelt once he had understood. When the lions came into view for the first time he had actually stopped, too afraid to move or make a sound.
Separating the yard from the street was a very high cypress hedge, with a remote-operated gate in the old-fashioned wrought iron style. The tessellated surface of the driveway was long and still full of dead weeds that the gardener, who came a couple of days a week, had recently poisoned. The yard was lush with diverse foliage and flowers, none of whose names Callum knew except for the roses. He imagined that he was living in the midst of a mysterious forest in which hungry predators stalked.
Jade had to carry him, patting him on the back and shushing him like a baby as they approached the grand entrance — otherwise he would have been pulling at her dress and crying all the way. It was lucky Callum was so small for his age. He thought that the lions must have been, in some possibly paraphysical sense, on their trail as they approached the portico with its big stone steps. It was odd, he almost knew: even though he could see behind them as she carried him towards the door, he didn’t expect to actually see the lions. They wouldn’t bound into view just like that.
It was, “Don’t worry, we’ll be safe inside…” and then, “Whoops-a-daisy!” as Jade dropped her key, smiling again as she put him down to pick it up. “You’re getting such a big boy!” she panted, while Callum clutched at her leg to keep from being swept down the drive, and she patted his head, ever-patient.
It was a great relief to be inside — except for those massive bay windows and all the little arched ones that ran all along the front wall of the ground floor. Through their stained panels the garden outside seemed a kaleidoscopic nightmare, hot and dark like the embers that might have been seen in the house’s various fireplaces, if ever they were used. Later, when it grew nearly dark, Callum would see his own reflection superimposed upon the shadowy garden that was the lions’ habitat. Glass would be no match for stone, he knew, when the time came. Also, if he looked too long into those funhouse mirrors, it quickly became difficult to tell what was outside or in.
By eight o’clock Callum was in bed, somewhere between sleep and waking. He was alone because his mother had told Jade she wasn’t allowed to sleep with him anymore — he had to grow out of needing her there all the time. Jade had sung him to sleep, but now he had woken up and it was very late. But the smiley face on his night light looked evil, and it cast just enough light for him to wonder what was hiding in the shadows. He could hear the crickets in the garden, and it sounded like the breathing of some great, inhuman thing. There were no traffic noises here, as there had been in the city. Then suddenly he heard a roar — yes, a roar! He couldn’t breathe. It was followed shortly afterwards by footsteps inside the house, and the distant tapping of what might (but only might) have been shoes on the shiny wood, soon muffled by carpet as ineluctably they came up the stairs. The house was still a vast, mysterious entity to Callum, and when the lights went out it became a hellish maze in which you could potentially get lost forever in a world of night. If this reinstituted trial bedtime separation from Jade had proven a partial success it was due solely to his fear of the house, which had kept him from screaming out just yet, or running to her room, even if it was just next door.
Of course it was probably just one his parents — but how could he know for sure? All he knew at this moment was that someone or something was coming up the stairs, towards him. It sounded like a person, but then, it was easy to imagine a lion walking upright on two legs; in fact, that idea was the most frightening of all. Those steps had hit the downstairs floorboards heavily like stone.
Now, as whatever-it-was neared his bedroom door, Callum couldn’t hold back. He screamed and screamed until a light came on outside his open door and something or someone was on him while he struggled, screaming still.
Brian woke, still exhausted. Once Callum had got over his alarm at whatever-it-was-this-time, there hadn’t been any more noise; even so, he found he couldn’t get back to sleep immediately, despite the pills. Where was Jade? He would have gone and tucked the boy in himself, but felt literally too tired to move, paralysed by the succubus of work, which he had only recently and belatedly come to perceive in her true, hideous form.
But still he drifted on the hither side of unconsciousness. What was wrong with the boy, still incontinent, still speaking like an infant just learning to string his words together, and so spindly and sick-looking. No, mustn’t be too hard on Jade. She was devoted, studying so she could be his integration aide as well as his au pair by the time he started school. To be honest, she was also more or less their housemaid, notwithstanding the woman who came once a week. (Brian would have done something about that, but Cathy insisted he leave it be.) A pretty girl, too, with her big, dark eyes, fair skin and such articulate, pixie-like features; possibly a good figure, she was but always so neat and conservatively dressed, it was hard to be sure. You never heard about any boyfriends, or friends for that matter. Brian had begun to notice these things more intently of late, since he and Cathy had stopped having sex. And didn’t Jade look at him in a certain way, occasionally, and take more than a polite interest in his work? He would never do anything about it, but still it was nice, a vestige of the joie de vivre that had otherwise completely evaporated from his life.
Actually, was he dreaming, or had she come and knocked on his bedroom door earlier, sometime after he had come home in the early evening and headed straight for bed? Probably just telling him dinner was ready. Brian’s thoughts trailed off as the pills resumed their efficacy. Soon he dreamt of a satisfactory resolution to his marital difficulties — and an improbable one, involving both of the women in his household. It made a pleasant change from dreaming about work.
If Cathy had come home, she hadn’t come to bed. That didn’t surprise Brian; she often went to sleep in the living room, in front of the TV, after coming home late from work — it was an old habit. Now that they had the space, she had made up the guest bed, arguing that they both needed their sleep, and that his snoring drove her to it. Brian loved Cathy; she knew it, and he knew that she knew. It had always been that way, and in consequence there had always been an Eleatic kind of distance between them; except now it was expanding.
Looking out the back window through a screen of golden birch leaves, Brian sipped his coffee. The doctor said he should give it up if he wanted to sleep naturally, but there was no way that was going to happen. He felt surprisingly cheerful. At least they owned this place outright, having subdivided and traded in a couple of investment properties, as well as cashing in some intangible assets, in order to buy the grand home that they both, but particularly Cathy, had always dreamed of.
Now he heard someone coming downstairs, Jade, no doubt; Cathy would be in one of the downstairs bedrooms. But when she appeared in the doorway, it turned out to be Cathy after all. She was wearing her dressing gown, but it didn’t look as though she’d had a shower. She had panda eyes, messy hair and a foul expression on her face. Callum was with her, holding her hand.
“Oh, good morning, both of you. I thought . . .” He felt absurdly like someone caught doing something he shouldn’t.
She stared at him without smiling, for a moment. “Morning.” His son said nothing, as usual, mouth hanging open as though his father had horns growing out of his head. Cathy sat Callum down at the table, went straight for cupboard, took down the cereal, then went for the fridge. She was stomping around, hostility emanating from her like an almost-visible aura. He had subtly to get out of her way, trying not to cringe.
Brian was struggling to understand. He was about to say “Where’s Jade?” but something told him it would be better to pretend that there was nothing unusual in his wife having breakfast with her son of a Saturday morning.
“Hey honey, why don’t we go out for breakfast this morning instead? It’s a beautiful day.”
“Not today, Brian.” That was all she said, not even looking at him. “Corn Flakes or Cocopops?” she asked Callum in a tone almost as unpleasant.
Often at times like these, Brian remembered the song lyric “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, don’t make a pretty woman your wife.” It was a private joke that sometimes gave him solace. Cathy’s proud, graceful carriage was in everything she did, he reflected, watching her as she pulled out her chair and sat down. But he was angry. She should be more supportive during the difficult time he was going through professionally, though of course he understood how the uncertainty it affected her as well. But if their marriage had been in any decent shape the audit should have brought them closer together.
“Too much work to do? Fine. I suppose I should have booked in advance; it just seems like we don’t spend any time together lately. I mean, look. I’m not asking where you were last night — ”
“I told you, Brian! My sister was in town!”
He cursed himself. No recriminations, stay positive.
“Of course. Sorry, I forgot, what with all that’s . . . All I’m saying is, work isn’t the only thing that matters. We’re supposed to be a family.”
“With this audit hanging over our heads I honestly don’t know how you can think of anything else!” She was looking squarely at him now. “And soon I might be the only person here with a salary coming in, so excuse me if I’m prioritising my career at the moment. We can talk about this later. Callum doesn’t need to hear about our problems.”
The boy just sat there quietly, mouth hanging open, blinking. It disturbed Brian that he had so little fatherly feeling towards him, deep down.
Cathy was alluding to the fact that Brian was a CFO currently under pressure from an independent audit investigating various allegations of fraud in his department. It had the potential to embroil Brian and the company both in very costly legal trouble. That his position was at stake was only the start; his career might be over, and then there were the fines and even the technical possibility of jail time — not that it would come to that.
“Very classy, Cathy. Take a stab at me, then hide behind our son.” She gave him daggers, but he went on, “I’ll never understand how you can talk to me like that when I’ve supported you to get to where you are today? You owe me — ” Brian now found himself saying. He was going to say “consideration” or “appreciation.”
“Supported me? How much do I owe you? Go on, tell me and I’ll pay!” It was true that they had always maintained separate bank accounts, besides the shared one into which they both paid equally for household expenses. Her earnings even now as HR manager were well below his, and it was true that she hadn’t had her Masters degree when they met, several years ago. His position at the same company, James and Morgenstern Escrow, had probably not hurt her career, either.
“Cathy, please. That’s not what I meant. I really have no idea why we’re arguing like this. I only wanted to take you and Callum out to breakfast.” He hesitated to say, “and Jade too,” though her presence would at least have ensured some level of decorum.
Rather than sign the proffered truce, she decided to open up a new front. “Fine then. Callum, drop that spoon and get up. Daddy wants to take you out for a babycino. Come on!” she almost shouted when the boy continued sitting across from her at the round table, standing up herself and turning to Brian.
“When I came home last night he was crying out in panic and you were fast asleep with your earplugs in. I had to — I stayed in there with him all night, and neither of us slept a wink. I told you I was going to be home late; you knew it was up to you to look after Callum!”
His wife didn’t know about the sleeping pills; Brian regarded them as shameful, a womanish vice. “But Jade . . .”
“She had the night off, remember? You were supposed to be on duty, and he wasn’t supposed to know! God, if I hadn’t come home when I did your son would probably still be lying up there with his pyjamas soaked through!”
At this, as though he were embarrassed (which struck Brian as unlikely) Callum commenced quietly weeping.
When did Jade start taking nights off? Brian recalibrated his emotions. “So you’re pissed off with me because you had to spend some time comforting your child while his permanent babysitter was away for the first time this year?”
Just then, coincidentally, they heard her enter via the front door — a Godsend! The clock on the microwave made it only 8:46.
It was often like this, though seldom as bad. Forced to stand up for himself with Cathy, Brian found himself reproaching her by rote, as if she were giving him his lines.
He had to leave. As Brian strolled down the driveway, he attempted to reassure himself by admiring his domain. The garden was lovely in the morning sunlight, and the air was warm. It was annoying about the dead weeds everywhere, though; when was the gardener coming back for them? He could hear birds together with the trickling of the fountain and traffic noises that were far enough away to cause no mental disturbance. The street was a quiet one despite its proximity to the suburb’s main shopping strip — mostly antique shops, like the one at which he had bought the mahogany dining table that was “the wrong shape for the room,” according to his wife.
What alerted him to the missing lion statue was the piece of it that was left on the footpath, the spattering of marble chips and dust. He looked up; the sun was in his eyes, so he crossed to the other footpath to get a proper look at the lofty pedestals. The lion on the left was entirely gone.
His dignity shaken by the exchange with his wife, the vandalism struck Brian as a personal affront. Rage grew within his bosom as the anonymous insult sunk home. To think that it could happen here! He would call the police. He would call the council and demand that they install some speed bumps, too. His day was ruined. It was an omen. He was going to lose his career and his marriage. It would happen in slow motion, step-by-step, but the end result would be as senseless as this overnight act of vandalism. “Bastard!” he yelled, kicking the gatepost as hard as he could. He surprised himself. Then he bellowed again as the pain of a fractured toe rewarded his effort.
Cathy had felt for a long while like a somewhat green twig flexing, not quite ready to snap. But she couldn’t wait until she was all dried up; the time for decision had arrived. She understood Brian’s thinking about the move: mistaking the symbol for reality, he thought that investing in a substantial home would solidify their shaky marriage bond. That poky little apartment had certainly contributed to the friction between them. So what the hell, she had thought.
Her solicitor thought there was a chance that she could get the house, or at least the best part of the sale proceeds. Done right, the thing could be kept out of the courts, anyway. From talking to friends who had been through the same thing, it seemed that some men would sign away anything to avoid painful legal proceedings and, who knows, to impress their ex-wife with their magnanimity. Cathy thought she knew Brian’s character. It was a strange thing, she reflected, that a man at the top of the business hierarchy could be so weak.
But both she and her solicitor were concerned about the audit of Brian’s department, should it result in legal costs and fines, or should his assets be frozen.
She was thirty-seven now, and it really seemed as though she were facing her last ultimatum: settle for what she had with Brian, or take a last shot at happiness. She had met Keir McSweeney at a conference she had attended last year. He was speaking on strategies for optimising workflow, but had managed to make it really funny and entertaining in an irreverent way, while at the same time showing that he could talk Six Sigma and all the rest in his sleep. Technically it was a step down from Brian, but money wasn’t the only thing in life; she had never been as materialistic as Brian accused her of being (just because he didn’t know how to get her attention without buying her things). He was a highly successful Productivity Consultant who ran his own business. On one hand it was as if he didn’t take his work seriously at all, and didn’t fear the consequences; but then you also go the impression that really he was very efficient and had a gift for focusing on the essential (not like Brian, who wore his responsibilities like a lead-lined cape). He had got her attention, along with everyone else’s, when his presentation began with a challenge for anyone who was just there because their boss told them to be, to leave. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell on you,” he had said, and turned his mischievous smile directly on her.
Callum was acting yet more strangely than usual since the vandalism of the lion statue, deducing a confirmation of his lion fantasy from its disappearance. Now and again he even claimed sightings outside the window, behind trees and shrubberies, and so on. Then he would cry in hopelessness, certain that someone, himself or another member of the household, was sure to be eaten, sooner or later.
“Where’s the lion now, do you think? Where’s he hiding?” Jade asked one afternoon in the midst of making a cake.
“I don’t know,” he said, pausing from licking the spoon in his hand. Then he pointed to the window above the kitchen sink that looked out on the back garden. “There.”
“So he moved from the front and now he lives in the back?”
The little boy nodded his little-old-man head. He was thin yet jowelly, and his white hair looked as if it were thinning. But she had faith he would grow up some day into a strapping man, just like his father. She really couldn’t see his mother in him — but then, that was probably just her bias: she admitted to herself that she didn’t like Cathy. And it wasn’t just jealousy; the woman could be quite cold and unpleasant, besides being a bad mother. Since a childhood car accident had robbed Jade of the prospect of having children of her own, Jade had felt that working with other people’s children was her calling, and the arrangement she had with the Holmans was ideal. It seemed unlikely that they would ever be separated while he was a child.
“Callum, you know, lions don’t really like to eat people.”
“Yes they do!” He said with great conviction.
“How do you know?”
He thought about it. A child of few words, his only answer was a pained look that combined equal parts fear and confusion.
“Did you know, when I was a little girl I fell into the lions’ cage at the zoo, and a big scary lion came up to me and sniffed me all over. I had a lolly in my pocket and I gave it to him so he wouldn’t eat me, and he didn’t.”
“Did he eat the lolly?” Good, she had him. She was the only person in the world with whom he could have a conversation like this; with anyone else he was more than halfway towards mutism.
“Lions don’t eat lollies. They eat people.”
“Let’s see then. Maybe we can make friends with him like I did with the lion at the zoo. We’ll leave him something sweet like a lolly, like maybe a piece of this cake when it’s ready, and if he takes it we’ll know we don’t have to be afraid.”
So just before sunset Callum rather intrepidly allowed Jade to lead him outside, where they placed a slice of the cake on a stone bordering an overgrown garden bed right up the back of the yard, where Callum trembled to go. There were the dark cypresses and other trees, and the nasty-looking old garden shed, too. The following morning the plate was empty and a note was left underneath written in capitals:
THANK YOU FOR CAKE.
YOU ARE A GOOD BOY.
PROMISE I WON’T HURT YOU.
LOVE, LION XXOO
Shortly afterwards, Cathy and Brian had the argument that would end their marriage. Brian had had to face the audit panel and had found their questions difficult to answer. He was then summarily informed of their decision to suspend him, albeit on full pay. When Cathy came home he was sitting in the downstairs living room closest to the front entrance, where she could not avoid encountering him on entering the house. He was halfway through his second bottle of wine since coming home mid-afternoon. He had begun disburdening as soon as she walked into the main living room, just as if he were certain of a sympathetic ear, despite the fact that she hadn’t even bothered even to text him “good luck” or “how did it go?” It was embarrassing and damaging to her own reputation in the company, she knew; people would stop talking when she walked into a room. It was the fault of the maudlin idiot before her.
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Well, you knew it was coming. At least they’re still paying you.”
“I’m sorry, did you say ‘they’re’ or ‘we’re’?”
“Whatever you said, I know what you meant. You can’t just turf me out, you know — much as you’d like to!”
“What are you talking about?” Had he got wind of her plans to divorce him?
“You may be the head of HR, but you’re not on the Board!”
She rolled her eyes. “Have another drink, Brian. That’ll make it better.” This was doubly maddening as he seldom drank, unless it was a social occasion or just a glass with dinner.
Brian already had the bottle raised to top up his glass; but rather than follow her instruction, he stood up and said, “Fuck this. Fuck you. I’m leaving.” He had meant for fresh air, but now his heart thrilled to the possibility of misconstrual, and of his playing along with it. Perhaps he could regain her respect just by staying in a hotel for a night or two.
She was about to reply, but intuition told her no. A drunk-driving conviction might be a useful reference point in the near future.
Brian blundered about for a while in that stiff, uncoordinated way he had developed since hurting his toe, grunting irritably as he searched for his keys. Cathy listened from the spare room that had become her bedroom, and couldn’t help smiling to herself. Where did he think he was going?
He didn’t return. Presumably he had come back during the following day to pack the suitcase that was gone from his cupboard. Jade hadn’t seen him. Well, this was a surprise, especially since the fight hadn’t really been all that bad. To be sure, it was more as if he had packed for a short trip than for a permanent move.
Callum interpreted his father’s disappearance along predictable lines. “You said! You said!” was all he could say. And when three days later his mother didn’t come home from work either, he was inconsolable. It was less the fact of her absence, or his father’s, that set Callum so much on edge, as the fear that the lion might come for him and Jade, too. So they slept together that night in the way they had before his mother had insisted on separating them.
The next morning was a fine day, and Jade said that it was too nice for school, which was welcome news to Callum, who wasn’t settling in very well, though at least the other children didn’t pick on him. (That was because Jade was so well-liked; all the little girls and boys made a special effort to be nice to him because they wanted to impress her.)
After breakfast, they went outside to hang washing on the line. Jade was very happy and excited, Callum thought. Talking about everything, games they could play and nice things they could eat and drink, and places they could go. It scared him in a way. And she kept looking at the shed, and stopping and listening, so Callum did too. Normally Jade would hang the clothes on the end of the line that was closest to the house, using the pulley, but this time they were up the other end, in the shade of a big ash tree near the smaller of the two garden sheds.
Over the song of the birds, suddenly he heard a clattering and a bumping noise. Both he and Jade looked in the direction of the cypress hedge at the rear of the garden, near the old shed. Jade stopped talking for a minute, and then she started wandering off in that direction. Panic seized Callum, and he thought about running inside; but he knew he had to be wherever Jade was, so he followed her. She was standing near the shed now. There was more noise like before, but also a horrible one like someone coughing very hard into something that muffled the noise.
Then Callum saw the lion’s face in the window, and he screamed.
Jade turned around and went to him, and got down on her knees to comfort him. She told him to remember how lions eat cake, that they only hurt bad people, and how they were both lions too, him and her, and the lion can be his friend, can even be his new daddy; in fact, he was his real daddy all along. But he could see that she was scared, and he didn’t know if he could believe what she told him, or if she believed it herself. Her pupils were very big.
In a moment the shed door opened and the lion stepped out, the sun behind his big, horrible head that Callum had glimpsed before with its wild, dirty mane and cruel features. Jade stopped talking when she heard the creak, and stood up and spun around.
The lion was angry. He called Jade a horrible name that Callum didn’t understand, except that he was so angry he might eat her right then and there — and he came forward, slamming the door behind him so that it jarred and swung wide open again behind him. He grabbed Jade and hit her in the face. Callum could see his big red paws that stained the white of her jumper.
“I’m sorry!” she kept on saying in a tiny little girl voice, “I’m sorry.”
The lion told her to take Callum back inside and wait, so she picked him up like he was a little baby and threw him over her shoulder to carry him back up the path to the house. She was talking again about how he would never hurt them, not really, and how they were going to be a family together somewhere else, far away.
But Callum wasn’t listening. He couldn’t stop screaming after seeing his mother in the dark shed behind the lion, eyes wide open and staring, with so much blood on her face he hardly knew who it was, and something tied around her mouth to keep her quiet.