Down the Hume is Peter Polites’ first novel. The publicity material succinctly describes it as “part noir, part melodrama, part queer and all Western Sydney”. Its publishers Hachette Australia also describe it as a book for those who like the writing of Christos Tsiolkas and Luke Davies.
Polites lives in Western Sydney. In 2014 he wrote and appeared in the Sweatshop performance writing production Three Jerks. In 2015 he was a recipient of the WestWords writing fellowship. He wrote Steps into Katouna, a performance text for Urban Theatre Projects performed at this year’s Sydney Festival.
He is a guest curator and will appear at six events at next month’s Sydney Writers’ Festival which runs from May 22-28.
A short extract from Down the Hume is published below.
Before the sun got up I had morning dreams filled with screaming babies; when I woke it was just the cats fucking outside my bedroom window. I opened the window, took a deep breath of fresh air, but all I smelled was shit and cat sex.
I’d wake up all ‘up and at ’em!’ then – you know – I’d step into the kitchen and the cockatiel would sing at me. I wanted to run up to its cage and scream at the yellow and grey thing, ‘Die, you demon bird! You should be extinct like your brothers the dinosaurs!’ but there was no point.
When I went into the kitchen, I would find uncooked oats on the bench. There was also a barrel of banana-flavoured Muscle Milk Protein with no lid on it and a scoop next to it; the powder would be everywhere, on the laminate, on the steak knives, on the kettle.
Nice Arms Pete was hardly there in the mornings. At the time he was my boyfriend, though sometimes I thought he was my roommate. Or maybe I was his fucktoy, his sidepiece. He spent more time at the gym than at home. At the time I forgave him for this. Because of the way his traps fell out of his singlet, or how his biceps were two throbbing white mounds.
How did I get there?
Θεός προσέχομαι. I got there after some accidents. When I was a kid I walked to school alone and got the evil eye placed on me by a creep. Now a white windowless van follows me everywhere. Even now when I meet new babies and cats, I wonder if they see what is under the scars that run across my cheek.
My life wasn’t any good at home. Mama was mousy and beaten, compensated with psychic reachouts. Made moolah reading coffee cups and spent hundreds on fortune tellers. Old women or men in the καφενία with grey beards and a deck of cards. She worried in tears and dreams were a go-to, where she talked with departed men. Eventually her dreams filled with a son cast out because he didn’t want to shatter disco balls.
To her, I was before after everyone. Once she woke up in matted bed sheets seeing my thin legs running through a castle made of chemicals in glass tubes. That same morning, she looked out the bedroom window and saw a fleet of black cockatoos picking the seeds of a pine. Τhe breath fled from her body.
‘Δεν θέλω πουστις σε τούτο σπίτι,’ said Baba. An angry wall of Baba post ‘The Coming Out’ meant my rebellion shoplift, arrest and drug phase. Yeah, cringe-worthy cliché. What’s really unfortunate is that clichés ring true.
I held down assistant nursing jobs. Got fired for fighting. Got fired for cutting an enemy’s tyres. Worked at a bowlo, met Nice Arms Pete, didn’t know it but that’s when my troubles really started.
Went back to aged care. Lifting oldies, twisting my lower spine, changing brown and yellow stained sheets in the middle of the burbs. Nice Arms Pete and I moved in together and I tried harder than him to make it work.
I shouldn’t be held ransom to sienna roofs and red, yellow, green wheelie bins. This place, it’s purgatory, it’s shit. Back to where I came from? Nah, not there. Those mountains are just stories now where ex-landowning peasants direct a confession to God and saints and Παναγιότα herself. As their eyes cloud with cataracts they sing in unison from their nursing home beds: Εχουμε γεραση στην ξενιτία. We have become old in a foreign land. But there are enough people like me here that have the same flags in common.
I dressed for work in blue scrubs, packed things in my yellow bag. I’d lock the front door, walk halfway down the street then walk back to check that it was locked. I would do that three times. Then I’d cross myself. Πατερ Ημών.
First. Can I just say? About all this. Nice Arms Pete is the human equivalent of a trigger warning. Which meant that I was the one who was loaded. Bang, ready to go off.
That day I did good. I got outta work early, rode the bus home. The 119 slithered through the industrial area. An invisible dome separated red roofs from factories, child care centres from brothels. Every second business had a For Rent sign out front. Every second warehouse was shutting down.
Outside the bus window hi-vis lumpens speckled the streets, sultanas in a fruit loaf. Takeaways sold dollar-something bacon and egg rolls and cappuccino meal deals. The bus stopped two or three times. Each stop more men wearing bright yellow shirts and blue canvas pants got on.
Then, a random hottie. Had the work-a-day bright orange shirt on, blue denim thick around his legs.
A Benny Barba fade, number one clippers with a Nile River part, pomade slick. Mixed-race footy body from the Pacifica to Cape Town. Watched him stomp steel-capped boots down the bus, pulling at his half tucked-in shirt, looking like a donkey pretending to be a show horse. There’s not much difference between being a man and being a horse, except they shoot horses, don’t they? As Horseboy walked past I felt the heat radiate off him. Felt the heat on parts of my arm that I broke when I was a kid.
That Horseboy, he got at me. But Nice Arms Pete was an infection in my head. Nice Arms Pete with two little fluoride canines that jutted in front of messed-up teeth. Stuck right into the parts of my head that had pictures of red roofs and Colorbond fences. Nice Arms Pete who should’ve been waiting for me at the cottage we rented together.
When I first met him I told him what my name was in Greek. He got the accents on top of the vowels right. Rolled his R’s like a Greek when he said ‘Lambrraki’.
‘Why does everyone call you Bux?’ he asked. ‘Why doesn’t everyone call you Lamb?’
I explained it to him. The diminutive of Lambros is Lambraki; people started calling me Baki and in primary school a little blond boy who came from Queensland shortened it to Bux. But Nice Arms Pete never called me Bux. After saying my Greek name correctly once he never used that again either. He would always say, ‘Baby, can you get the pizza from out front?’ or, ‘Baby, stop going through my phone’ or even, ‘Hey you, come here.’
My stop was just inside the industrial area. I danced around a herd of hi-vis gorillas who stood in the aisle of the bus. Couldn’t help it. Did an up-downer to Horseboy before getting off the bus. That little bugalugs had butter-scotch biceps and blunt eyes. Made my dick twitch.
The cottage we rented bordered train tracks on one side and a soccer field on the other. As I walked over the bridge, a train went under my feet. The metal bones of the bridge shook and I could see early winter condensation forming around the soccer fields. Trees around the side of the park were blurry. Beyond the trees, normal suburbia. A kilometre away was Greenacre. Kids rode bikes without helmets and cousins sprayed bullets into each other’s houses.
Noticed this pair of headlights travelling down along the field. The glowing eyes made their way towards me. As I reached the front of the house so did they. A Hell Red Commodore. It was smooth and shiny, the bonnet had a scoop. Tinted black windows meant I couldn’t see inside. The passenger door opened. Two long denim legs came out and Nice Arms Pete flicked popcorn-blond hair out of his eyes. Saw me staring at him. My mouth dropped. Took quick breaths. Nice Arms Pete turned to the driver and mouthed something, then got out. The Hell Red Commodore sped off. Nice Arms Pete stood there facing me.
‘Pardon me, but your husband is showing,’ I said, tapping my chest. Nice Arms Pete walked towards me. His Nike Shox had a Richter scale that sensed my anger. Placed two massive palms on my shoulders. The fingers reached all around each muscle, anchored me to him. He sighed. ‘Work opportunity, making a few wickets.’
I leaned into him. Nice Arms Pete was taller than me and my head fell between his neck and shoulders. He smelled like pot-smoke musk, fabric softener and sweat. The streetlamp overhead made a tent of light.
We opened the gate, walked to the door. Nice Arms Pete had planted bushes that sprouted pretty full, already they hid the front of the house. The cottage, like most Sydney developments, was a joke. Used to be a one-room shack, raised high on bricks. First room had a queen mattress and built-in wardrobes made from plywood, a curved mirror that distorted how I saw myself. Sometime in the history of the house a second room was added, lower to the ground but higher ceilings than the first. This was the living room. In there we had an electricity- guzzling plasma that usually hummed static. The grey light lit up a second-hand couch and some unpacked boxes. The next room added was a kitchen and an eating space, with a laundry and a bathroom attached. Walls were painted omelette yellow and had black-and-white chequerboard tiles. To access each room, we had to walk through the rooms preceding it. It was a maze. With limited exits. A backyard with patches of concrete and my attempt at food gardening. Planter boxes with dead tomato plants.
I held the door open for him. Nice Arms Pete breezed through the bedroom to the living room and fell onto the couch. ‘All this stuff, can we get rid of it?’ he called out to me. He meant the unpacked boxes, full of porcelain figurines. I was in the bedroom changing out of my scrubs into grey marle sweats.
‘Let me go through it first. Stuff I want to keep,’ I said as I picked up dirty clothes from the bedroom floor. I glanced into the living room.
Nice Arms Pete was using a key to slice into the masking tape sealing a box. He spread the cardboard flaps, pulled out an ancient Greek drama mask. It had a startled ceramic face. The mouth on it formed a perfect round hole, looked like it was yelling or shocked. Anguish eyes. Long messy hair framing a matt white face.
‘WTF?’ said Nice Arms Pete. He held up the mask and interpreted it. ‘Been around, this mask,’ he said.
‘Our people have them. Every home I been in has ’em. Cheap trinkets for tourists. Let it go, yeah.’
The mask used to sit on a wall, under a photograph of my parents in front of the Acropolis – a photograph that all Greek families have. In my folks’ home there was a wall dedicated to the ancients. A Greek fantasy that we were among white marble temples and the beginnings of democracy, walking around in flowing white sheets with wreaths of olive leaves around our heads.
When Baba left periodically the wall changed. The shrine would be framed by empty longnecks of VB; they went all the way up the hallway. My tiny feet couldn’t negotiate the obstacle course of the empty brown bottles. Mama would be passed out on top of the bed. The neatly made bed, with its dark green cover and polyester blankets, sharp like a paper stack. Long messy hair framed her face. Her eyes loosely shut. Her mouth open, that same perfect circle.
‘This shit . . .’ Nice Arms Pete rotated the mask in his hands, ‘it opens a shed door to your weakness, bro.’ He put it over his face, biceps bulging. I looked at my partner’s face covered with this mask of anguish, large pec muscles like plates bursting out of his singlet. I lost my balance and fell backwards, landed on the mattress.
‘You in a mask and just a big white body is totally working for me ATM,’ I said to him, lying on the bed.
Got up. Went to the kitchen. I held the fridge door open with one arm, leaned into the cold. Three brown bottles of VB, one head of broccoli and a plastic container. Nice Arms Pete wandered in from the living room.
‘And the cupboard was bare . . . No groceries today?’ I said.
Nice Arms Pete put the mask on the counter top, moved around me and stole a bottle of beer out of the fridge. Twisted the sharp metal in his hand. Angled the bottle, poured the liquid into small plastic cups. I closed the fridge door, turned around and rested on it. Nice Arms Pete offered me a beer, apologising for not getting any groceries.
‘You said you were all future and no past when we met.’ I took the drink from him.
‘That’s why I don’t keep those things.’ Nice Arms Pete pointed to the mask on the counter, walked towards me, angled his body into me. ‘Don’t you want that too?’ he said.
Nice Arms Pete sculled the rest of the beer. Head tilted back, throat muscles contracting rhythmically. My eyes looked at Nice Arms Pete’s rockmelon arse, then to the counter where the bottle sat next to the faux ancient mask.
‘If we are all future and no past then who was in that car that dropped you off?’
‘He wants me to move stuff. For money. He is a boy,’ said Nice Arms Pete. He was facing away from me, his small waist and back sprouting like a muscular fountain.
‘Boys have a strange way of becoming men.’
‘He looks like a man. Bit woggy-looking too. Yeah but nah.’ Shook his head at the end, eyes went somewhere casual, blowing it away.
‘Seriously, a wog?’
‘Don’t trust me, eh? You wanna go through my phone?’ Nice Arms Pete pulled out his smartphone. Thrust it in front of my face. I could look everywhere apart from the phone and my partner. Nice Arms Pete, cheeks flushed. Blue veins on his neck throbbed. Clicked it in him. He repeated, ‘Here!’ louder, louder. I swatted the hand away. ‘You’ll go through it anyway. Here, take it.’ Pegged the phone at my head. I ducked. Bounced off the wall and landed on the chequerboard floor. The phone broke into three parts: battery, case and body.
Outside the cottage, a train on tracks zoomed. Echoed all through the mist-filled backyard.
‘I’m sure lots of random hot wogs just want to give you a job.’ Said it to him as I was bending over to pick up the pieces of the smartphone.
‘He’s a roid muncher, a gym queen, a juicehead with bacne. Gonna move Dyna Bolts for him. Nothing spesh, easy money,’ said Nice Arms Pete.
I stood up, handed him the phone, my hairy arm extended. I looked at the ivory of Nice Arms Pete’s forearm with milk jelly smooth muscle and marbled veins.
‘You are using roids, aren’t ya?’
‘How can I sell if I don’t know how they work?’ said Nice Arms Pete. It was a hiss, spit landed on my chin.
‘How can you sell it if you don’t fuck him?’ I just said it, my eyes scanned the surface of Nice Arms Pete’s face. It was slowly contorting and puffing up with red. Tops of his eyelids creasing, lips slamming against each other.
His fist shot out. Struck the side of my face. Nostrils got pushed down, my neck clenched taking the blow, and my eyes expanded post impact. I spun around away from him, put my whole arm on the wall and slumped into my body. I held up the walls with my arm, because if I didn’t the whole house would have crashed. I breathed into my lungs but the worry beads spun around in a tornado.
Nice Arms Pete hotfooted it. Heard him push over the empty beer bottle; it rolled off the counter and broke on the floor. In the living room I heard the bulb shatter as the lamp fell over. In the bedroom he knocked over a chair, made a thud on the wooden floors. Heard him fling open the front door, the door hitting the plasterboard.
I ran to the bedroom. There was a hole in the plasterboard from where the knob pushed in. Saw him just beyond the fence as he walked into the park.
Condensation from the grass and the cold air created an envelope of mist around his shape.
The arm that I broke as a kid tingled.
I ran after him. Caught up in the middle of the soccer field.
Nice Arms Pete kept walking. He walked from the middle to the goals. I heard the sounds my feet made flattening blades of moist grass. Kept following him. At the goals he turned around. Skin so white, face visible in the dark.
Reached up, placed my hand on his shoulder.
‘I should have known better,’ I said.
He touched my face. When his hand went along my bruised top lip and my almost broken nose, I winced from the pain. His fist went into a deep denim pocket. Pulled out a Syrinapx bottle, twisted the cap off and handed me two light blue pills.
I stood opposite Nice Arms Pete. The two little moons shone in my olive hands. Streetlight filtered through the trees casting a frame of shadows around the soccer field. We stood in the net.
Down the Hume by Peter Polites is published by Hachette Australia
You can buy the book here