Originally published in ‘Lockdown: Melbourne Writers’ Group and Friends Respond to Isolation in 2020‘
THE instructions were explicit: Ring or knock twice, and if there is no answer, leave the package with a note on the doorstep.
Deng waited half a dozen heartbeats at the front gate of the Brighton mansion, the second buzz on the intercom still sounding in his ears, then turned back towards his van. He didn’t want to linger too long in this neighbourhood; someone was likely to call the police and report a young black man lurking in the street.
At that moment, he heard the click of the gate unlocking. A long path lined by young fruit trees in ceramic pots took him to the front door.
The woman who opened it was wearing a light blue mask that covered the lower half of her face, a brightly patterned silk kimono and, it appeared, nothing else. Long tresses of blonde hair framed her high cheekbones as she looked up at Deng with cool grey eyes.
He held out the box. ‘Package for Mrs Rowntree?’ The woman drew something from the pocket of her gown and pointed it at Deng’s head. A pistol? He recoiled, flashbacks of his early years in South Sudan swimming in his head, then relaxed when he recognised it as one of those thermometer guns that were in vogue. The woman examined the reading on the gun, nodding in satisfaction.
‘Bring it inside,’ she said in a cultured drawl, turning back into the house without waiting for an answer. Deng hesitated. Mr Ironside back at the depot had reiterated several times that drivers were not to enter houses under any circumstances. But something pushed him through the door.
He found himself in a vast entrance hallway bathed in light from high windows, and gasped involuntarily. So this is how the rich live. The room was more than twice the size of the tent he and his five brothers and sisters had occupied for three years living at the Kenyan refugee camp. Half as large as the flat in the Housing Commission tower in Kensington he shared with six others.
The floor was polished marble and the walls were lined with expensive works of art. Pop music wafted from further back inside the house. Deng followed the sound to the woman who had answered the door. She had removed her face mask and he could see that she was in her late-30s, her features delivering on the promise he had sensed at the front door.
‘Drink?’ She waved her fingers in the direction of a well-stocked bar; in her other hand ice tinkled in a glass filled with a clear fluid and a floating slice of lemon.
Deng shook his head. ‘If you could sign for the package, I’ll be on my way.’
‘Oh come on now … take that thing off your face and relax. Surely you’ve got time for one drink?’
‘B-but, I’ve got other deliveries to make.’ Back at the depot, the GPS tracker would already be raising alarms.
‘I’ll make it worth your while,’ the woman said, her voice slightly slurred. Her kimono slipped to the ground. Deng had been correct: she was wearing nothing underneath.
‘So you live here all alone?’ They were lying in her bed, the late afternoon light shadow-playing onto the wall opposite them. She had told him her name was Charlotte before dragging him here half an hour ago. He hadn’t even had a chance to finish his second drink.
‘Hmmm,’ she yawned. ‘My husband died last year in a car accident. He worked in private equity. His sons got most of his fortune, I got the house.’ She sat up and pulled the sheet over her breasts. ‘So yes, I live here alone. Alone and bored. Ugh … this lockdown. I can’t see my friends, I can’t travel. I can’t even get down to Portsea! I’ve been climbing the walls for days … and then you turned up on my doorstep as if by magic. A big, handsome African man. I couldn’t believe it.’
Deng shifted uncomfortably in the sheets. He probably should grab his clothes and get out of here. Ironside’s going to sack me. As if reading his mind, Charlotte turned onto her side and wrapped an arm across his chest, pinning him to the mattress and tracing a horizontal figure eight — the symbol for infinity — across his rib cage, then playfully tweaking a nipple.
‘How long have you been a courier?’
‘A month. I lost my factory job at the start of the pandemic but there’s plenty of work doing deliveries. Online shopping has been booming during the lockdown.’
‘And it pays well?’
‘Not really, but people like me don’t have a choice, do we?’
She rolled over and a sheet slipped down, exposing one of her breasts.
‘How old are you?’ she asked.
‘Just over two metres.’
She climbed out of the bed and Deng watched her naked body disappear into a walk-in closet. He reached to the floor and began pulling on his jeans.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ She was holding a shirt and a pair of trousers. ‘I think you’re the same size as Jeremy was. Try these on.’
Deng glanced at his phone. There were five missed calls and several text messages, all from the same number. He sighed and took the clothes from her hand.
Achol answered her phone on the third ring.
‘Where have you been?’ Deng’s older sister said in Juba. ‘We’ve been worried sick.’
‘I’m OK. Nothing to worry about. I just wanted to check you were all fine.’
‘Nothing to worry about? We don’t hear from you for three days, you disappear off the face of the earth.’ There was an edge of hysteria to her voice. She switched to speaking English and he pictured her crouching in a corner of the living room trying to keep out of earshot of the rest of his family. ‘Your boss, Mr Ironside, called. Or I should say your ex-boss. Mum wanted to go to the police but I told her they’re not interested in missing black people.’
‘I’m staying with a friend.’
‘A friend? What friend? You know it’s illegal to be visiting friends during the lockdown? And what about your job? Deng! What’s going on?’
Deng looked over his shoulder to check that Charlotte was still in the shower. ‘I’ve quit my job. I can’t say much more, but everything’s OK. I may be gone for a while, but don’t worry. I’ll be back eventually … when the lockdown’s over.’ The shower stopped. ‘I’ve got to go, but I’ll be in touch,’ he whispered.
‘Be careful,’ she said, her words cut off as he hung up. Deng looked at her name on the screen for a few moments, then swiped to switch the phone off.
Charlotte emerged from the en suite, a towel wrapped around her body and another around her head like a turban, her skin still steaming from the shower. ‘What shall we do today?’
Deng stood up. He was naked.
‘My, oh my,’ she said.
‘Was your husband a good man?’ Deng asked, turning towards Charlotte and holding a framed photograph from her wedding day. In the photograph, the happy couple had just emerged from the church in a shower of confetti and she was gazing up into her husband’s eyes, an adoring smile on her face. Her new husband’s expression was hard to read and the age difference was stark.
She sipped her drink thoughtfully before answering. ‘I don’t know if good is the right word,’ she said. ‘Ambitious. Driven. Arrogant. Yes to all of those. But good? Well, he never hit me or anything like that.’
‘Did you love him?’
‘I did once. But by the time he died? Love is such an overrated word, don’t you think?’
In the silence, Charlotte grabbed the remote and switched on the television. The premier was on the screen providing an update on the lockdown. The numbers were still stubbornly high, the premier said.
Deng looked at the photo in the frame again and tried to picture himself with Charlotte in a similar picture, him black and her white. Are there any such things as happy endings? he wondered.
‘How long has it been?’ he said.
‘How long have I been living here with you?’
She thought for a moment. ‘Three weeks? A month?’
‘And what happens when the pandemic is over?’
‘Let’s not think about that.’
They slept late each morning. This was a novelty for Deng, whose routine had been set years ago by his mother rising before dawn in preparation for her job in the hospital laundry.
As always, Deng woke first, climbing out of bed carefully so as not to disturb Charlotte. He spent the next hour working out on the treadmill and weight machines in the basement gym until his muscles ached. He emerged from the gym bare-chested and glistening with sweat at the same time as Charlotte was in the kitchen preparing her first Bloody Mary of the morning.
‘Well, well, look at my boy,’ she said, her eyes running up and down his rippling abs and bulging pecs. There was something about the way she looked at him and the tone of her voice that annoyed Deng this morning more than others.
‘I’m not your “boy”,’ he said.
She appraised him while stirring her drink with a celery stick. ‘Uh-huh.’
‘I’m not a possession. A toy.’
Charlotte sipped the drink, added another dash of tabasco, and slowly crossed the room to her favourite seat with a view of the swimming pool. ‘You’re free to leave any time you want,’ she said, looking out the window. ‘Go back to — where is it you come from? — Kensington. You’re not a prisoner.’
One part of him knew it was true and he had no right to complain. His memories were still fresh of the 10 days, earlier in the winter, when the police had sealed off the housing commission building he lived in for quarantine reasons. Six of them trapped inside their tiny flat, effectively under house arrest.
Now he had asylum in a magnificent house, free food and drink, and Charlotte asked little of him in return. There was nothing to stop him leaving if he wanted to. But without fully realising what he was doing, Deng had advanced towards her with clenched fists until his face was centimetres from hers.
She barely flinched. ‘Lay a finger on me and I’ll have the police here so fast you won’t know what’s happened,’ she said. ‘And I don’t think they’d look too kindly on a black man hitting a white woman. Do you?’ She waited a few moments and then bared her perfect teeth in a half-snarl, half-laugh.
‘No, I didn’t think so,’ she said to his back as he stormed to the bathroom. ‘Maybe you are my hostage after all.’
After Deng had showered, the incident still rankled and eventually, as he had done after other arguments, he decided to leave the house for a long walk around the neighbourhood to calm down, leaving Charlotte alone inside with her cocktails and endless phone calls to her circle of friends.
Brighton was a world away from Kensington, and may as well have been in a different universe from his childhood in Kenya or Sudan. Deng walked along empty, treelined streets past the silent mansions with their high brick fences and security cameras that
seemed to follow his movements. There were few other pedestrians, but sometimes a car passed, slowing down at the sight of a black man in this ultra-white neighbourhood, particularly one dressed in expensive clothes and shoes. Or was he imagining that?
Eventually he arrived at the shopping strip. He ignored the stares of other customers while he bought an ice cream to eat on the walk back to the house. What are you looking at? he wanted to say, but he bit his tongue and kept his eyes down.
By the time he had got back to the house, Deng was calm again. Neither he nor Charlotte mentioned that he had stormed out and they picked up as if nothing had happened.
One afternoon after another of those walks, Deng heard the intercom buzz. This was unusual: in the weeks since he had turned up on Charlotte’s doorstep, there had been no visitors apart from deliveries of food and alcohol. In the early days, Mr Ironside from the delivery company had phoned seeking Deng’s whereabouts as his GPS had last shown him at this address, but Charlotte had put him off the scent and the missing courier had gone off his boss’s radar, out of sight and out of mind.
Charlotte was swimming laps of the pool and Deng was about to answer but the video screen showed two policemen in uniform.
‘Charlotte!’ he yelled. ‘I think you had better come here.’
A few minutes later, the police officers were in the foyer. Deng sat on the stairs out of sight but within earshot.
‘We’ve had reports of a young African man in this street and are going from house to house to conduct welfare checks,’ he heard one of the officers say. ‘Do you live here on your own?’
‘Yes. Just me, all alone in this big empty house.’ Charlotte’s voice bounced off the marble floor. ‘What does he look like, this African man?’
‘The description wasn’t particularly good, but about two metres tall with very dark skin.’
There was a moment’s silence and then Charlotte replied. ‘Perhaps it was a delivery person?’
‘The description we got was that this man wasn’t dressed like a delivery person. He was wearing expensive clothes. Probably stolen.’
‘Well, thank you for checking. I’ll let you know if I see anything.’
‘Make sure you keep all your doors locked, you can never be too sure,’ the police officer said.
Deng waited a few minutes before coming down the stairs.
‘Well, I suppose you’re not going anywhere now,’ she said, raising an eyebrow and laughing. ‘You’re under house arrest.’
The premier was on the television again when Deng came into the house from the pool, droplets of water on his body and a towel over his shoulder. Finally, after weeks of hard work and cooperation by the community, the lockdown could end and restrictions could be relaxed, the premier said. Freedom of movement would be restored. Everyone should be very proud of themselves for getting the numbers down.
Deng stood there for a few moments, dripping water onto the carpet, his body shivering with a chill. He took a deep breath and headed for the shower without saying anything. Fifteen minutes later, he appeared in the living room in his courier uniform. Charlotte was on the phone.
‘… I know, I can’t wait to see you either,’ she was saying. ‘It’s been terrible, hasn’t it? Just awful.’
She cupped her hand over the phone and whispered to Deng. ‘Make sure you don’t leave anything behind.’ The voice on the other end of the line said something and Charlotte laughed before turning her back on him.
‘Well, we make do the best we can with whatever’s lying around,’ she said down the phone, before laughing again.
Deng closed the front door silently and padded down the path. His battered old van was where he had left it six weeks earlier, untouched apart from a bed of dead leaves on the roof and a few bird droppings on the bonnet. He sat in the driver’s seat, took one final look back at Charlotte’s mansion, then turned the key in the ignition. It was at least half an hour’s drive to Kensington and another world away, but if he hurried he’d be home in time for lunch.