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By Geoffrey Cousins
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 Geoffrey Cousins
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The two Rolls-Royce engines buried in the bowels of the Honey Bear fired up with a deep-throated roar as the tangerine light of a late autumn sunset washed the castles lining the shores of Sydney's eastern suburbs. Inside these exquisitely coordinated temples of taste — in the art deco style, or the Gothic style, or the French fifties style, or the French provincial style, or the God knows what style, and even in one, for reasons that none of the other owners could possibly fathom, an attempt at an 'Australian' style, which included such items as a dining table that had once served in a shearers' mess together with a variety of farm implements scattered about the room, none of which were in fact Australian — women were shedding little tennis dresses in order to bathe before dining in some bistro that refused to take bookings, or explaining to friends on their B&O walkarounds why Charles was a wimp in every sense of the word, or rubbing their recently waxed thighs with special rose cream made in Portugal and only sold in one shop with no name, or screaming at their husbands who had arrived home early, for no reason, with no presents, no plans for dinner and a paunch that, in the dim light of dusk, looked even more prominent than it had that morning.
On the Honey Bear, all was soft, golden, sweet as treacle in a crystal jar. Indeed, Macquarie James Biddulph, master and commander of all he surveyed — one hundred and eighty-three feet of throbbing Huon pine and celery-top pine and swamp mahogany, all staterooms lined in suede leather tanned from the hides of his own cattle, from the vast properties in the Kimberley where they measured them in millions of acres — Mac as he was known to friends, and Big Mac to the press and to those who would like to be friends but had no chance of stepping across the great social gangway onto the sacred decks of the Honey Bear, Mac held a glass of Cristal of another origin in his prizefighter's mitt as he gazed benignly, patronisingly, at the gaggle of guests being piped aboard. Of course, there was no piper, although the thought had floated through the Big Mac mind more than once before it was dismissed as a touch ostentatious, though only a touch. But there was a bevy of immaculately turned-out crew members of both sexes in pristine white shirts and tailored navy shorts — tight-fitting shorts so the tight arses of the girls and the bulging quadriceps of the young men could welcome the guests with promises and glasses of vintage, and fresh peach juice for those who just drank peach.
Mac stood on the bridge, three decks and thirty feet above this assemblage of bronzed concupiscence, legs apart as if bracing against a rolling sea. The massive torso was bare and golden (waxed in the privacy of his own castle by a maiden who received a great deal more than the standard waxing fee and who would never reveal the secrets of the Big Mac chest). The Big Mac loins were covered only by a triangle of leopard-print silk, and the snowshoe feet with kangaroo skin sandals.
Although Mac was only five feet eight inches in his sandals, the width across his shoulders appeared approximately equal to his height, producing the impression of a solid block of squareness where the sum equalled more than the parts — although 'there'snothing wrong with the parts', as Mac was fond of saying. As if in confirmation, he glanced briefly at the apex of the leopard print, the bulge, the discrete (although not so discreet) mound straining at the Italian silk. Yes, it was there all right. You might not be able to see the Mac prick but you certainly knew it was there. It was a presence at the party and all the guests would sense it when they fronted up to pay homage — all packaged up like department-store boxes in their navy blazers and chinos and neat white shirts and tiny diamond bracelets, while he, Big Mac, a name they would never dare to speak on the Honey Bear, stood before them so full of juice, so full of torque, they would have to look away.
He gazed at them now as they came aboard. Talk about a motley crew. What was motley anyway? Whatever it was, this lot was it. God knows why he asked some of them. Because they were all usable in one way or another, he supposed. Look at that old ponce, Laurence Treadmore, tiptoeing across the gangway as if he was avoiding a dog turd — Sir Laurence for Christ's sake. Picked up his knighthood before Australia abandoned all that crap for those little lapel buttons everyone clamoured for. The dried-up old prune was even wearing a tie. A tie, on the Honey Bear? Never before seen, not even when Prince Charles sailed aboard wearing some sort of cravat. But tie or not, Sir Laurence was the chairman of his board and useful, full of useful qualities. Namely that he loved money and would rationalise almost anything to get it. And a fair chunk of his money, a handsome pile of millions (stashed somewhere, probably up his benighted arse since he never seemed to use any of it, to enjoy any of it), had been provided, directly or very indirectly, by Mac — or rather, if you wanted to be pedantic about it, by the shareholders of Mac's company.
And who was that behind the neat, prissy figure of Sir Laurence? Ah yes, one of the pigeons for the weekend: Jack Beaumont, the property developer. Well he at least seemed likely to enjoy the pleasures on offer. Good-looking fellow, though lacking the power, the charisma, the bulging triangle of a Big Mac, of course. He was only a baby pigeon in the great scheme of things, but nevertheless he had something to offer. And offer it he certainly would by the end of a weekend under the spell, the delicious warm embrace of the Honey Bear and all she had to offer. And here came some of that sweet, sweet candy.
God he loved to watch Bonny skip onto the boat. She seemed to skip, literally, she was so supple and full of life and youth and crushed fruit and mung beans or whatever the hell she ate. She was always stretching or bending or clenching her tight little buttocks to make them tighter still, though they couldn't be any firmer or rounder or more perfect, as he knew only too well. There wasn't a hair anywhere on her body except on her beautiful head, not one hair. He knew, he ought to know, since he paid for all those Brazilian jobs and facial mud cleansers and polishing and sluicing and colonic irrigation and everything else that went into keeping that perfect, smooth, taut body exactly the way he wanted it. And that was the point. He wanted it. Why not? Wouldn't any sixty-four-year-old man want a body like that sliding and rubbing and slipping and pulsing its way across his sculpted loins? It was a mystery to Mac why all men who could afford it didn't have a Bonny tucked away somewhere. Sure you had a wife, and kids if you must, but you had a Bonny to keep the juices running. She was his personal trainer in her official capacity, and a fine result she delivered. Look at him. How many men of his age had the biceps, the latissimus dorsi, the quadriceps, the sixpack — well maybe not quite the sixpack, but all the rest, all firm and hard and ready. The odd barnacle here and there, it was true. That's what Bonny called them, his 'barnacles', but that was an honest enough thing on a ship that had sailed more than a few miles. He was still seaworthy, that was the point. Seaworthy, shipshape, ready to voyage. And Bonny helped to keep the engines turning over.
Look at her little friends coming on board. They were all sanded and polished and varnished. Smooth, sweet, happy, grateful little honey pots. He loved every one of them. Which wasn't to say he didn't still love Edith. In his own way. But she was always asking him that: 'You still love me, Mac, don't you?' And he always gave the same answer: 'I'm here, aren't I?'
As for the contrast between these beautifully wrapped little bonbons and the amorphous lump of old political horseflesh following them, well it was almost enough to turn the stomach. Why didn't Harold Wilde do something about himself? Although what that might be Mac wasn't sure. There was no way any of Bonny's medicine ball throwing or shadow-boxing exercises (Mac loved to punch at her) or squats or anything could wear away the rolls of fat that were flopping around under that tent of a shirt. There must be a couple of kilos in the neck folds alone. Disgusting. The huge behind just sat itself on a soft Senate seat and dozed until it was lunchtime or dinner time or some meal time no one had ever heard of, and now it was waddling its way onto his boat behind his collection of sweetmeats, defiling the soft evening air, a great heaving mass of visual pollution. But useful, potentially useful. So feed him up, let him leer and sip and sup. One day, some day soon, it would pay back in spades. Mac gave him a cheery shout as he lurched his way aboard and the great bloated jellyfish almost slipped over as he looked up.
He would have slipped over if it hadn't been for the steadying hand from behind that grabbed at some protuberance poking out from the tent. There was Shane O'Connell, where he always was, lurking just behind someone, ready to pick up any crumbs that fell from a corporate table or grease some grateful politician's way into a sinecure. He was another member of Mac's board, the company that was the great provider, the tree of plenty, the goose of goodness, the cream jar for all these sticky-fingered players and hangers-on and pigeons; the company he, Mac, Big Mac, had created, sired — yes, sired like a great stallion and then given birth to like a ... well anyway, sired like a great stallion. By sheer force of personality and guts he'd wrenched it into the world, and now it was the largest home-insurer in Australia, a name everyone knew, HOA, Homes of Australia — the name he'd given it, just as he'd given it life and form and air.
But you had to watch people like Shane O'Connell. They were not always unquestioning in their allegiance to Mac, to HOA. They failed to understand that the two were indivisible, that HOA was nothing without Mac and that Mac was — he jerked back from that thought as if slapped with a wet fish. Sure, all his vast, complex, interlocking, tangled fishnet of private companies and Swiss bank accounts and hedge fund investments and trust funds and God knew what else (well he hoped God knew because Mac could never understand it all), sure this stuck-spaghetti mix all lived on the sauce of HOA, but there was no reason ever to assume that sauce would cease to flow. Maybe now and again Mac woke in the night, in the room he'd moved to across the hall from Edith, or in the apartment, with Bonny breathing softly, evenly beside him, the magnolia scent of her breath mingling with the musk of her mounds and clefts. Yes, he woke sometimes despite his oft-repeated boast, 'I always sleep like a baby'. (Babies woke, didn't they?) But not often. And not for long. If there was a problem, and lately there'd been one or two icebergs in the water, he attacked ferociously and sank them, or whatever you did to icebergs.
But you had to watch the doubters. Shane O'Connell was easy to handle once you knew where he was headed. But he was deceitful and shifty and on the take. At least Sir Laurence's arrangements were all in the open — well, in the open with Mac. There was no need for others to be concerned with them.
O'Connell was one of those lawyers who didn't really practise law and was only on his board because he represented the interests of the biggest foreign shareholder in HOA. Just how he'd brown-nosed his way into that job Mac had never discovered. Anyway, it wasn't O'Connell who had been waking him up in the black hours lately. It was that damn idiot Buckley, a creature of his own making. The man had been a run-of-the-mill accountant before Mac promoted him to chief financial officer and then, only a year and a half ago, to chief executive. And now he'd found religion or something and was scampering around mouthing off about 'corporate governance' and 'transparency' and 'triple bottom line'. There was only one bottom line in HOA and that was the line Mac drew in the sand, the auditors audited, the shareholders knelt before. As they all had and did in the regular, steady rhythm of corporate communion. So why this idiot Buckley was digging around in corners among contracts and 'conflicts' that didn't concern him and hadn't concerned anyone else — because they didn't know about them, because they didn't need to know about them — Mac was at a loss to understand. He was well paid, obscenely well paid. He just failed to understand what he was paid for. Why did he need to know the detail of every consultancy fee? What business of his was it when reserves were released to profits? The actuaries were responsible for working that out, not the CEO. Or, more accurately, Mac decided what was needed and the actuaries signed off on it. It had always been that way. For Christ's sake, he'd hired all these people, and they hadn't been easy to find; flexibility of thinking was required and not many people had it.
Apparently not Buckley. Well, he'd have to go. But in the quiet transition the market appreciated. Which meant a replacement who looked better. Which was what was keeping him awake at night. Still, as his father used to say, 'Macquarie, the solution to any problem is usually in front of your eyes — you just look through them.'
Enough of this navel gazing (though he took one last peek down at the Big Mac chest and stomach and thighs before they had to be lightly covered to greet the guests). The last of them was aboard now and it was time to descend and dazzle them with all his force and power and the trappings of this floating castle. The one he'd really blow away was this last figure, coming aboard in a jacket that looked like tweed — tweed, on a twenty-degree evening — probably with patches on the elbows, and carrying a duffel bag that reminded him of something you found in an army disposal store. Archie Speyne might be the director of the Sydney Museum of Modern Art, he might be used to sauntering around halls jammed with masterpieces (half of them jammed with crap from what Mac could see), but he'd be bowled over when he took the art tour on the Honey Bear. Yes, they'd start with that today. He'd been planning to start with the toy tour, all the boats and gadgets and playthings, but this was better. Straight into the art. He couldn't wait to see the look on that pumped-up little know-it-all's face when he saw Mac's Whiteley, better than anything the gallery had, and the Moore sculpture — a small one, admittedly, but on a boat and who the hell expects to see a Henry Moore on a boat in Sydney Harbour? Well, he'd be blown away, and would soon forget about plaguing Mac for whatever it was he'd been manoeuvring for over the past few months. Mac had invited him for sport, so let's have some sport.
Wisps of early-morning fog were burning off the gunmetal Hawkesbury, flocked here and there with shafts of sun filtering through the impasto of clouds and mist. The river was still, tide turning, windless, birdless, fishless, boatless — except for the sleeping Honey Bear, resting at anchor in an angophora-lined cove. Its gold standard hung limply at the pole. The deep navy of the hull with amber rails and beading curved elegantly into the sheet-glass water. A fish jumped. The ripples spread out gently from the point of entry and reflected in the eight coats of marine varnish. As the haze swept up off the river, the peeling pink bark of the angophoras was lit with klieg lights and the colours danced and dazzled in a blotchy palette. The great river turned blue in unison with the sky and the world was suddenly awake. A pelican flew overhead, peered down at the floating blue log like a bewigged judge assessing a miscreant, lowered its undercarriage and set down in a foamy wash.
Excerpted from The Butcherbird by Geoffrey Cousins. Copyright © 2009 Geoffrey Cousins. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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