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Posted on 3 Jul 2020 in Extracts, Fiction |

LUKE HORTON The Fogging: extract

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This week in our series of extracts from recent Australian books, we’re delighted to bring you an extract from Luke Horton’s debut novel The Fogging.

The fogging of the title refers to the routine spraying of insecticide around hotels in Bali, and it is during the fogging of Australian couple Tom and Clara’s hotel that Clara disappears. But this is also a finely observed novel about connection, and about mental illness.

Tom has a problem with anxiety. Overthinking things. Sweating. At times, shaking. The flight to Bali was a bit of a nightmare for him. But it’s not his only problem. He and Clara are both 30-something academics, however his career has stalled. Clara’s, on the other hand, seems to be progressing.

When they arrive in Bali, Clara is the more energetic of the two, getting up early to explore the beach and the markets. And it is Clara who strikes up an acquaintance with a French couple, Madeleine and Jeremy, who are holidaying at the same hotel with their five-year-old son Ollie.

For Tom, dealing with his mental illness is an ongoing negotiation with himself. As the novel deftly unfolds his story, his encounters – and his view of the world – are refracted through it.

In this extract, before Clara’s abrupt disappearance, Tom is finally beginning to relax.

Extract courtesy of Scribe Publications

Chapter 8

The next day was what Tom thought of later as the best day. Later. When everything was ruined and the holiday had taken on a significance to him that he could not have anticipated. They had settled in. The bad flight was way behind him, the next flight was a whole week away, but, more than that, he was having a good time. He had warmed to Jeremy, he had warmed to Madeleine and Ollie. No longer was he just being well behaved, putting up with them for Clara’s sake. No longer was he feeling anxious around them, either. They had broken the ice. They were friends now.

It reminded him of what it used to be like, being on holiday with friends — something he had not done for a long time, but which was once such a regular feature in his life. Weekends away, whole weeks during summer camping by the beach. Looking back, these times seemed to have stopped suddenly, but that couldn’t be right. Surely the end was gradual — so gradual he didn’t really notice it. Why had it happened? He knew and he didn’t know.

In truth, being with Madeleine and Jeremy reminded him what it was like to have friends in his life in any way. This had stopped, too, somehow. He made calculations. At twenty-two he had maybe four, five good friends. At twenty-eight, fifteen, twenty. At thirty-five, one — or two, if you counted Clara.

He remembered how, very early on with Clara, sometime in those first years, he had become hung up on the idea of friendship. It embarrassed him now to think of it, and yet if he was honest, he still nursed many of the same doubts and questions he’d had then. What it means, how it is done. He obviously banged on about it a lot because one day Clara presented him with a book she had picked up from an op shop called A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You. She thought it was sweet, funny; she was only gently mocking him. But he had been humiliated by that present, and he was as embarrassed thinking about it now as he was then: that he was preoccupied with something that was so obvious there was a children’s book that explained it to you in the very title. Of course, he thought then — and still did think, privately — it wasn’t actually as simple as that. Simply liking you did not make someone your friend, not in any meaningful way. People could ‘like’ you and not see you one year to the next. In what way was that friendship?

At the time, when Clara had given him the book, they were part of a tight little group, people from university, mostly, and a few of Clara’s older friends from high school who had also moved to Melbourne from the Gold Coast; Tom had happily let his hometown friends go when he moved to the city. Perhaps because of this, because they were her friends first, he always felt slightly on the outer of this group. He was uptight, paranoid. Everyone else — it was girls mostly and a couple of guys, boyfriends of the girls — seemed to see each other more often than they did him, and he wasn’t sure quite how this happened. But he knew he wasn’t always easy to get along with, he could be argumentative, prickly, and he always suspected he was tolerated rather than liked. Back then, he was often like this, moody, unpredictable. He slept about as badly then as he did now. He had a reputation for saying things most people wouldn’t — and to people’s faces, too. Certain people called him ‘acid tongue’. But he couldn’t handle the injustice of people walking around oblivious, not knowing what everyone thought of them. So he told them. An early girlfriend had said if there was a song about Tom, it was The Smiths’ ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’.

When they first got together, he and Clara would argue all the time about the smallest things, and did it everywhere — in front of her parents, in front of his — but he’d put a stop to that. He was agreeable, now. Mild. Quieter.

He’d been trained in the art of argument by his parents — trained to take offence, rise to the occasion, take the bait. To be thin-skinned and sharp-tongued. And it wasn’t good for him. He’d agreed with his therapist about that. He could give, but he couldn’t take. Besides, if his parents were how you turned out if you kept up with all that, he wanted no part of it.

So he was pleasant, now, and polite. You could just do that, it turned out: swallow it back down, roll with the punches. It was an anti-anxiety strategy, too, of course. If he could just not care about things so much, they wouldn’t piss him off or stress him out or make him paranoid, so he was trying to let things go. It might all come out in other ways, of course, like in your legs on a plane or in your hands as you raise your cup to your lips, but he was working on that.

After the present of the book, he’d dropped the subject of friendship, kept his thoughts to himself, and, over time, the preoccupation waned. Besides, only a few years later, when they were no longer in contact with most of the people in the old group, it became a moot point, because they suddenly found their people. A big, messy, amorphous group, introduced to them mostly by Trish, who was a girl who could go out on a Friday night and have a whole new gang by the end of the weekend. And, for a couple of years, they were busy with art openings, gigs, parties, spontaneous all-nighters. There was drugs, lots of booze. It felt late — he was twenty-seven, she twenty-five — but they’d had a quiet, supposedly studious, but in truth lacklustre period after their trip overseas, some of which had been especially lonely for him, as she had spent time away from him, and they entered this new world with a hunger they recognised in each other, but did not discuss. He was happy for the distraction from the PhD, which he had just started, but was already loathing, and she was yet to start hers, so had the time.

Luke Horton

But it was short-lived. As quickly as it bloomed, it withered. Certain key people moved overseas — instigators, party-throwers, the glue between groups within the group — a few had kids and moved to outer-ring suburbs. By then, Tom himself had to knuckle down and get on with his research, Clara was finishing her honours thesis, and no one seemed quite in sync anymore. And something that had been so effortless, the spontaneous nights out that moved from openings to restaurants to bars to lounge rooms, even backyards the next morning, something that took no arranging at all, no need for texts or Facebook invites, became something that took work, was difficult to line up, and was never as satisfying. It felt prematurely nostalgic, elegiac, vaguely sad. Very few of these people actively kept in touch, and soon they hardly saw anyone.

He was aware this wasn’t the full story, and others might tell it differently. And he knew that if he’d kept going to the shows, the art openings, he would’ve kept seeing those people; it was as simple as that. That the anxiety played a part in this was something he found hard to acknowledge. He had concealed it even from Clara, as far as he could, and he spent so much time covering for it that he had himself half-believing the lies too: that he was just busy; that he had too much work to do; that he was old now, needed to knuckle down; and, to Clara, that he didn’t even like those people anymore.

Clara did better. Some of her older friendships endured, and the small group that had formed around Emily — Paula, Celia, Thuy, Chris — remained her friends, and by extension his. It came more naturally to the women of the group, friendship, it seemed. To talk on the phone, meet for drinks, coffee. The gendering of it was depressingly predictable. Not once had a male friend suggested anything like this.

He still had Barry, of course. Barry he saw because they played tennis together, itself something they had taken up semi-ironically as the classic buddy thing to do, but which soon became the most significant and regular contact he had with anyone. Barry was a leftover from the big group. But Barry didn’t go to parties much anymore, either; he worked long hours on the weekend in a bike-repair shop. As the only job he’d ever really enjoyed, he was doing all he could to hold it down. He was on a health kick, too, not drinking, and he’d lost weight. But he was still depressed, most of the time. Before Barry stopped drinking, they’d sometimes had a beer or two afterwards. Very occasionally it became five.

Being with Madeleine and Jeremy brought some of the old times back. All those times he’d forgotten about, when they’d spent whole days, whole weekends, with people without a second thought, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. It reminded him how much he liked it. How much he missed it. But he was rusty. Rusty as hell. He felt like he hadn’t spoken about himself to anyone in years — someone who wasn’t Clara or his mother or his therapist or Barry — not if he could help it, not in anything but the most cursory way. But Madeleine was insistent. That he not dodge the question — about his research, his teaching, what growing up the son of an architect and an artist in a small Victorian town was like. He found himself clearing his throat a lot. Telling them rambling stories that didn’t go anywhere, as if he had forgotten how to tell a story that made sense, that held shape — what it was about a story that kept people’s attention. Besides, his childhood seemed so quaint to him, like he was telling stories of some incredibly distant past.

From Luke Horton The Fogging Scribe Publications 2020 PB 240pp $29.99

Like to keep reading? You can buy The Fogging from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.