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Following the Lead

Jo Rendle

Layla eases the car into first gear as she pulls up at a green house on the corner. Turns off the engine, looks around at the vivid reds and oranges being blown about by the wind. She loves the autumnal tapestry of colour. She leans over, puts the lead on her dog, Serge, a border collie, before opening the car door. He’s had a long drive and is desperate for a sniff, a run, and a pee. Two and a half hours. At least the Nerriga Road is better than it used to be, although Layla has never seen so many potholes. Too much rain. She was going to stop at the pub, have a pee herself, stretch her legs, let Serge stretch his legs. But in the end, she’d kept going. She was running late – plus the pub is always cold, empty except for a couple of locals, and the grumpy bar attendant.

And now she was here. She hopes it’s worth it, reminds herself this is fun, even though it’s a bit of a long shot. Normally she prefers guys a bit closer to home, but she wanted to go further afield this time, check out the Canberra scene. The coast had become too small, she’d reminded herself last time she went online. Everyone knows each other. At least there’s fresh blood in Canberra, guys she doesn’t know, hasn’t met at the local pub or, like last time, while standing in the checkout queue at the IGA. How weird. What does one say? Was he the one who hadn’t bothered to answer her last message, left her hanging? Or had she not responded. She literally couldn’t remember. But she’d definitely swiped right, remembered his face – that he was a pilot (something she discovered after they’d chatted online) who turned out to have a holiday house near where she lived (just around the corner in fact). Layla smothers a secret grin at the thought of them both standing there, knowing yet not knowing. She’s glad she hasn’t told the only Canberra friend she has (from high school, Dickson College) that she’s in town. Too embarrassing. No-one really understands her Tinder journey with its reputation for quick hook ups. She’s not sure if she even understands it herself.

Serge pulls at the lead while Layla takes in the out-of-control garden, the overgrown grass, weeds in amongst a group of spindly rose bushes that haven’t been pruned for years. Gang Gang cockatoos are screeching across the sky, rushing from one tree to the next. A kid is cycling down the reserve. But Layla isn’t put off, or at least not yet. She stretches the stiffness out of her legs, finds a path through the grass, walks across the patio towards the front door. Heart thumping, Serge by her side, she listens to a distant piano come to an abrupt stop, footsteps on the floorboards, the turning of the lock. He was smiling in his Tinder photo, wearing jeans and an open shirt. A tattoo on his left arm. A truckie. A piano-playing truckie. But she isn’t prepared for his bright blue eyes, his excited anticipation, the way he rocks from side to side.

She answers his friendly ‘come in, come in. I’ve tidied up for you,’ with an easy grin. She’s good at doing this. Done it lots of times before. ‘Can I let the dog off,’ she asks, already leaning down to unclip his lead. Layla always warns the prospective guys that she’ll be bringing her dog (a combination, she tells them, of not being able to leave him at home, plus liking his company). But the real reason is that she trusts his judgement more than hers. If he’s on board she can relax, knowing it’s safe. If he’s a bit antsy, restless, unable to settle (one time he even started growling, put his hackles up), she knows it’s not on. No matter how lovely the guy might seem to be, she always takes her cue from him.

Serge is happy, running off into the kitchen. But Layla is slightly more circumspect. She’s been greeted by a smell of rubbish that should have been thrown out days ago. A smell she wasn’t prepared for, a smell she wants to sniff out, get to the bottom of. Is it fish, food that’s gone off, an old banana? At home Layla would go to the rubbish bin, check likely places, empty everything in sight. Here, all she can do is surreptitiously hold her nose.

It's dark inside. Dirty windows, curtains half off their runners. Layla can’t help but notice the pile of dirty clothes on the floor, shoes in the corner, dirty surface tops, a greasy frying pan on the stove. There must be at least a week’s worth of dishes in the sink. What tidying up has he done, she wonders. Alarm bells beginning to ring.

He looked so promising online, musical, a twinkle in his eye. That’s what interested her in the first place, that’s what had come through on Tinder. But Layla is an anthropologist, lectures at the university. She can’t ignore the signs. Participant observation is in her blood, that capacity to take things in, soak up the feel of a place, its smells, sounds, things that cannot be said. And everything is screaming. Loudly. Even though she’s only been there a few minutes, even though she’s hardly got to know him.

She looks over at Serge. She’s expecting him to be restless, tail down, fur on edge, reflecting her own unease. But no – he’s licking the guy’s hand, tail wagging madly. ‘He likes you,’ she says, turning towards him, studying his face as he bends down to pat Serge again. It’s then that she sees the way his eyes flicker, ever so slightly. Both eyes. As if he can’t settle on what’s in front of him. Then she notices the way he smiles. A bit awkward now. A slight sneering curve of the lip. Where’s the twinkle, she wonders. Does he know something she doesn’t know? Confusion pulses through her veins. Meanwhile Serge is telling her all is okay. This is the first time they’ve been at odds. Can’t he see the mess, smell the waste, taste the disquiet in Layla’s throat?

Layla allows different possibilities to run through her head. She’s often had to deal with tricky situations. Work meetings where male academics talk over her; students who won’t leave her office; having to find a way to complement someone when you don’t like their work. She prides herself on her communication skills. On making people feel at ease, on calming them down, showing empathy. Friends say she’s a good listener, a good friend.

But her neurons are firing. Fight, flight or freeze. Intuitively she knows it’s the middle option – but how to go against Serge, how to do it without making the guy feel bad, without him reacting negatively (after all who is this guy), with her own sense of being ‘a nice’ person intact. She isn’t worried about knives he might have (although maybe she should be). Serge would let her know on that score. She isn’t worried about him keeping her there by force (although, again, maybe she should be). Serge would protect her. She’s worried about how to politely exit his house after such a short time, before they’ve even had a chance to get to know each other. She doesn’t want to upset this piano-playing truckie.

Layla leans up against the kitchen counter, wondering what Serge can see in him, what she can’t see in him. She visualises staying (having dinner, staying overnight) – imagines each moment of the evening, how it would play itself out. No, she thinks. It’s all a bit strange. She fingers the leather of Serge’s lead that is still lying across her hand. Her lifeline.

Layla tries to formulate the I-must-go words (tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth). She coughs gently (phlegm caught at the back of her throat). Tries again to spit the words out. It must have worked because he says, ‘no, you’ve only just got here,’ while at the same time edging towards her. She says how lovely it’s been to meet him. He replies by saying how much he’s been waiting to see her, how attractive she looks, how she is what he was hoping for when going on Tinder. He wants her to stay.

She says she really must go (slightly more loudly this time), while searching her brain for an excuse (could there be a sudden emergency, a possibility of having forgotten something, maybe she has to get petrol, anything really). He makes it clear he doesn’t want her to go. He’s close now. She can feel his breath (hot, beer heavy) on her cheek. She wonders if he’s going to block her from walking back to the door, from turning the handle. Her mind is rushing, keeping one step ahead of him, of his talk, of his wandering hands. How to keep him at bay, keep him from touching her, from pushing up against her. She’s pulling on all she knows now, on how to keep the other person at ease, how to listen, be a good communicator. Things she does so well. Serge in the meantime is sitting quietly beside them both, waiting, watching, sweeping up the crumbs on the floor with his side-to-side wagging tail.

Her body tenses further, if that’s at all possible. Excuses, explanations slicing through her brain, only to be discarded as soon as they arrive. Like a tap dripping, until eventually one lands. That’s worth a try, she argues to herself (back and forth), as she lets the last idea settle. Now to introduce it into the conversation.

‘Your place is so interesting.’ Return smile, slight easing of her shoulders, a glance at the open lid of the piano in the corner of the living room. How long have you been living here? Do you like it? Canberra has such a lot going for it. The rest of the country thinks it is full of public servants, politicians, and minders. But it’s so much more than that.

‘How long have you been playing the piano?’ She touches him lightly on the arm. She can feel him relax, slip sliding into the getting-a-bit-more-friendly moment. Not that he has asked her any questions, not that he even realises he hasn’t shown any interest, in who she is, in whether she is feeling comfortable, at ease in this stranger’s house. The only attention he has paid has been to Serge, as if he intuitively knows to get the dog on side.

With encouragement (I love the piano, you play so well), he sits down at the open instrument, picks out a tune. All of Me by John Legend. Starts humming the lyrics. Could this be intentional, Layla wonders. No, she answers herself before the thought can go any further. He’s not that clever. ‘Keep playing. I love this song. I’ll get a bottle of booze from the car,’ she says instead, quietly, touching him on the shoulder. She walks slowly to the door, feet steady on the ground, emanating confidence, letting him know she’ll return in half a sec.

Gently now. Don’t rush. The car is just over there, she reasons, you can make it. She might even be able to drive back tonight. Maybe not the Nerriga Road though – it can be a bit isolated at night. But she could go via Bateman’s Bay. Only an extra thirty minutes. Maybe she could drop in to see her friend before she heads off. Laugh at her mistake. At the only time she and Serge have been at odds.

‘I’ll take Serge with me,’ she adds. ‘He needs a pee. Plus, he hates being away from my side.’ A bit too fast. Did he notice her fear? She can taste it on her tongue, smell it on her breath. It reminds her of another time she had to leave, the time the guy blocked her way, put his hand up against the door, before pushing her back onto the wall. He was tall too. Strong. He worked out at the gym.

She opens the front door as he nears the end of All of Me (just a few chords to go). With Serge on the lead (clipped in without fumbling, without trembling), she heads off across the porch, down through the overgrown grass. It’s only as she nears the car that she finds herself walking just that bit faster, gently hurrying. Panic that’s been waiting patiently in her stomach is suddenly on the move. It journeys up through her oesophagus, reaches the back of her throat, creates an acidic taste in her mouth. She refuses to take any notice though. Instead, Layla opens the car door, watches as Serge jumps in, before starting the engine, and heading off. Ten minutes down the road she opens the door and vomits into the gutter. Maybe Serge isn’t so useful after all.

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