When Rufus knocks off on Friday arvo, all he can think about is where he's gonna get his hole. He gave Kristy a serve last night so he flicks her a text as he's walking to his car. But the Falcon's gone. It's on its last legs and he hasn't bothered to keep it locked since junkies boosted his stereo. Now the car itself has been boosted, leaving an oil-stained space. The junkies around here are brazen, but fuck—it's broad daylight in outer shitball suburbia. Well, good luck to 'em. Brakes are worn down to the drum and that's just for starters. With any luck the cunts'll take it joyriding and'll die in an inferno. Fair's fair. But now he needs a new ride or he'll have to walk to his ride, and that wouldn't be right.
Kristy's not responding so Rufus gives Melanie a buzz, figuring she'll be game. He thinks about bumming a lift off of Shorty, but where to? It's too early for Kristy, bitch'll be picking up her brats from school, and Melanie won't even be up yet, more'n likely. No point showing his face back at the ranch. Nup, he'll have to leg it. He can take a pit-stop at the local tav, check out the skimpies, have him a T-bone and a couple of brews. Sounds like a plan.
But the skimpies don't start until five and it's only four-fifteen when he walks in. Fucking kitchen's closed too, course it is. So instead of a T-bone he has to settle for a Jack's. There's a knot of anger in his gut and someone will have to pay to dislodge it.
He's standing at the urinal when his phone buzzes. The eye of his cock looks sore, like someone's jabbed him with a hot poker up there. Finally he gets a stream going, fumbling in his jacket for the phone. The message's from Kristy, and reads YEP CUM OVA BOUT NINE? He's texting YES when he drops the phone right down at the pissy end of the urinal. He even manages to piss on his boots trying to catch it. He fishes it out, runs it under the tap. He's accidentally sent an incomplete reply, the single letter Y. That'll do. He holds the phone under the dryer, puts it in his jacket. Then it buzzes again. That'll be young Melanie. She's an eager beaver, that one.
He walks back to the bar, orders another Jack's. Skimpies'll be starting in a minute. He sits on a stool, looks around. No one here he knows, just random tradies and assorted blokes, old and young, all getting revved up for a look at some titties. Nup, fuck this. His stomach's growling and he's never seen the point of barring up in a roomful of sweaty men. He doesn't need to wave a red lobster in front of a chick to get her to shimmy. They always shimmy for him.
Rufus gulps down his whisky, pushes to his feet. It must be an hour's walk to his place and it'll be dark by the time he gets there. Might as well walk into Macca's, get himself a feed. He bolts his quarter-pounder in record time, eats his chips prowling the back streets. He's freezing his nuts off, the wind slicing through him. He needs a car, pronto. There's an old Sandman parked on the verge ahead, bright yellow, but there's a rev-head and his bint frotting up against it. She's a little hottie, actually. Long blonde hair, red cardy, brown skirt. The way she's grinding her hips into her lucky beau's groin sends a bolt of pleasure whizzing through Rufus. He has every intention of walking past, hands in his pockets, when he half-catches something the clown says, turns around. 'What's that, fuckstick?' he says.
'I said “go find your own”', the boy says, but he seems to know he's made a mistake. He's shitting. The girl takes a step back onto the verge. Rufus throws down his cap, grabs the youth by the collar, head-butts him, breaks his nose. Blood pisses out. The boy stands there holding his face, the girl starts screaming.
'Keys,' Rufus says. 'Or you want another smack?'
The youth looks at Rufus through blood-smeared fingers, tries to bolt. Rufus takes him down in the wet grass, pins his arms, grabs his keys. He goes around to the driver's side and he's off. Not a bad ride, the old Sandman, System of a Down on the stereo. Rufus figures he's doing a community service, handing out lessons like that.
He holds the steering wheel in one hand, reads Melanie's text: ANYTIME YOUR REDY. Melanie's apartment is just a few streets away and he's bounding the stairs before he knows it, knocking loudly, pushing his way in. She's fresh out the shower. 'Hey babe,' she says, drawing him in with those magic fingers, that magnetic snatch. He's up her in record time, driving her into the couch, and then he's spunking. He pulls out.
She smiles warily, half afraid, touches his bare shoulder.
'Got any booze?' he asks. She saunters naked to the kitchen, returns with a beer. He drinks it, climbs into his pants, drops the empty stubby on the couch.
'Whirlwind visit?' she asks.
'Fly in, fly out.'
Then he's out the door, taking two steps at a time. His cock's burning but he knows he can't piss yet. The anger's still boiling away.
The old Sandman can really go, he discovers before he has to plant the brake ahead of a busy intersection. He drums his fingers on the wheel, cranks up the volume. When he pulls in at his place it's dark and the pain in his groin has subsided. Now he's busting for a slash. Steam rises in the cold. Then he locks the van, heads inside. Grabs a beer, sits on the couch, watches the news. He can hear noises coming from the other end of the house—giggles, splashing water—but he concentrates on the story. Slanty-eyed, curry-munching, terrorist boat people are wasting taxpayer dollars, so they reckon. They oughta sink 'em on sight, watch 'em drown. See how quick the boats stop coming then.
'Rufus?' It's his fruit-loop of a fiancée, frizzy-haired Amelie, wrapped in her puke-stained dressing gown. 'I was wondering when you'd be home.'
'Now you know,' he says. 'Kids in bed?'
'Peter's down. I'm just about to read Leslie a story. Will you want feeding?'
'Nup, I'm good. Chuck us another beer.'
She does as she's told, his dutiful de facto, but her tired smile makes him angry. 'Put Les to bed, then,' he says, twisting the lid off his fresh stubby and chucking it after her. Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen, that's his motto. Not that Amelie's ever been all that keen.
Third beer down and he's thinking it's high time he slipped frizzy-features a length. Bitch's in need of a pity fuck, hasn't had one in a while. He corners her in the bedroom. 'Strip 'em and spread 'em,' he says. She stares at him, starts peeling off her dressing gown. She's a frigid sow and he's sore down there already, so he grabs the lube from the bottom drawer, jams some up her. He's hurting down there, but it only drives him harder. He screams when the sperm is ripped from him. But that's his quinella and he'll be making it a trifecta before the night's out.
Then he's out the door, stubby in hand. Enter Sandman, driving rain, pedal to the floor. Onto the highway, ripping it up, hugging the concrete barrier in the outside lane. The song builds to its crescendo, subsides. He unplants his foot from the accelerator, coasts down to the speed limit, swings the wheel, crosses three lanes, up the ramp. Stops at the lights, cop car facing him. Green, a drive-through bottle-o. 'Four pack of Jack's,' fumbling for the note. Parks the car round the side, cracks the door, unzips his pants, flips out his dick. Hot piss, cold rain. Cracks a Jack's, sculls it icy. Belches, tosses the can.
He's been hooning around half-pissed in a stolen car, hasn't he? He oughta flog some number-plates, make the switch, but he'll need a screwdriver. He looks in the back. Nup, just a mattress, blankets, fast food wrappers. A hard rain's drumming on the roof. He could rest his head for a bit, he hasn't been sleeping well. There's no pillow, but that's all right—
The rain's stopped and now he's busting again. He climbs out. Bottle-o's closed, wind's dropped, street's empty. Phone says 12:47, he's been asleep for about five hours. He cracks another can, turns the key in the ignition, works out where he is.
It's after one by the time he pulls into Kristy's driveway. Her lights are out. When she doesn't open up he raps on her bedroom window. A dog starts barking in a neighbouring yard. Eventually the door opens and there she is, yawning her box off. 'What time d'ya call this?' she says.
'You said after nine.' He offers her a Jack's. She takes it, ushers him in. 'You got a screwdriver?'
He completes his trifecta but it's a close-run thing. Kristy's willing enough after she perks up but he's a bit soft down there at first and then he takes forever. Law of diminishing returns, he reckons. She sits up drinking with him for a while, lends him a screwdriver, sends him on his way. He takes the plates off the Sandman and swaps them for the custom plates off the neighbour's Maloo. Now the van reads X T CEE. He's reversing out of Kristy's driveway when the Maloo owner's carport light comes on. By the time he makes it home the sky's beginning to lighten.
When he opens the front door, four year-old Leslie is standing there clutching her teddy.
Amelie wakes on a cold, grey morning to silence, or something approximating that. The baby, Peter, isn’t crying. Four year-old Leslie isn’t pulling off her mother's bed covers. And Rufus, her fiancée, isn’t banging around in the en-suite, humming tonelessly as he gets ready for his shift.
The bed is warm but Amelie can feel sand chafing the backs of her thighs, so she gets up and throws off the blankets, stands there brushing crumbs from the bed. She’s wearing bed-socks and an XXL-sized tee-shirt as a nightie. Now she pads into the en-suite, scowls at her tangled hair, her creased face. She sits on the toilet looking at her fingernails. Washing her hands, she goes off in search of nail clippers.
The kitchen upsets her, as it often does, with its detritus of crumbs on the kitchen bench. From a certain position, in a particular light, she can see the smears of spills hastily mopped up with a dirty dishcloth. Clean dishes sit in the draining rack, waiting to be put away just in time to be needed again. She doesn't need to open the fridge to know that a crust of dried milk has formed at the bottom, that there are cloves of rotting garlic in the egg tray.
She flicks on the kettle, sees that it's almost empty, hears it starting to boil. Rufus must have boiled it already this morning. She lifts the kettle from its base, opens the top and inspects the remaining water, deems it unworthy. Tips it out, fills it up. Now for a teabag. There's a fresh box in the cupboard, where she doesn't want to look. All the cups are stained, most of them chipped. Maybe a glass of water instead.
Start with the pills—bottles and packets of them—next to the hotplates. The hotplates are dirty. She let the pasta boil too long last night and now there's a brown foam where no brown foam should be. In fact, brown foam should not exist. Nor dirty nappies or ingrown toenails. If she looks up at the extraction fan, she'll see that it's clogged with yellow grease. No, that's wrong. Last time she took it down and cleaned it she ended up breaking it trying to put it back. Now there's just a hole where the fan should be, a rotor spinning.
Contraceptive, multivitamin, antidepressant, St John's Wort. Amelie knows she's not supposed to take these last two together. She wipes her mouth, catches a faint glimpse of herself in the kitchen window. To describe her in a word, she's harried. And what is the time? Surely after seven. The clock on the wall's no help, it's always a quarter to four up there. Her phone battery's dead and at any rate she's out of credit. Maybe when Rufus gets paid—
Not a peep from either, just the whine of the kettle. She ought to check on them; maybe for once they'll sleep in and she can have a long, hot shower. But she knows that when she opens the door to their room, Leslie will have wet her bed and Peter? Peter will stink. She'll have to start cleaning everything straight away, so for now she just creeps along the hallway and cups her ear to the door.
Amelie has an urge to turn away. If only she could hear, through the door, a single gurgle or sigh. But there simply isn't one forthcoming. She turns the handle.
Cot empty, bed empty, covers strewn. Curtains open, window closed. No children. Amelie knows that, conventionally, this ought to be a moment of panic. She ought to imagine that some cruel person has abducted them. She ought to call out their names, dashing through every room in the house. But there's no panic. She's respiring, her heart's beating, but that's it.
Amelie closes the door, heads back to the kitchen. The kettle's boiled. She selects a mug from the draining rack, goes to the pantry, selects a teabag, drapes it over the edge of the mug. She pours the boiling water, gets the milk, pours.
Thoughts, possibly unpleasant ones, are trying to push their way in. The thoughts are waves trying to break on the shore of her mind, but with concentration she can becalm the waters. Waves become ripples and then stillness, a glassy surface.
She opens the pantry and looks for something to eat. Normally she doesn't eat in the morning, but today she has an appetite. Perhaps this means she's finally getting better. There's a box of apple fruit bars. One of those will do.
Amelie sits at the kitchen table and time starts passing. The nail clippers are right there, so she makes a start on that. Next she'll have a shower, wash her hair. It needs a trim. Maybe she can get fifty bucks from Rufus and tell him it's to buy clothes for the baby.
Her bowels are starting to move, so she finishes her cold tea and puts the mug in the sink. Her hand hovers over the tap, compelled to wash the mug, but she resists.
Under the scalding spray, she scrubs at her skin with the loofah, but she can't get at the dirt within. Every time Rufus touches her privates with his dirty fingers and unwashed genitals she imagines illness lodging there, festering. Last night he didn't even ask, just took. Then he'd gone out, probably to the pub or to the other woman she sometimes smells on him. She'll get that human papillomavirus she's been reading about. She imagines him invading her passages, pounding her cervix, spreading his cancer. She has to get it out, but her fingers won't reach far enough in. She's sore now, raw and aching. The bathroom's filled with steam. By the time she's finished washing out the conditioner she can't remember if it was shampoo, so she conditions it again. Then she sits down in the shower and lets the hot rain fall on her. It's then that she notices the filth down here along the seals, in the corners, along the back of the shower door. She needs a scourer, some hard-bristled brush, but there isn't one. Just Rufus' toothbrush. If he's kind to her later she might think about soaking it in disinfectant.
By the time she's satisfied, Amelie has been in the shower for more than half an hour. She knows she ought to have turned on the extraction fan, but the fog is good for hiding in. Now she opens the window and sees the sun cresting the line of trees in the neighbours' yard. She brushes her teeth and throws on some clothes. She should venture out front, see if Rufus' car is in the driveway. That'd be a useful clue.
But there are precautions that need to be taken first. She needs to find her gloves, find that big, hooded jacket. She opens her purse but there's nothing much in there, just a few cents and her lucky scratchie she's been saving for when she's feeling really low. Amelie's scratched a couple of the outer panels but not the inner ones. She dry-gulps half a Valium, flicks on the kettle again. She could be a winner yet.
Maybe Rufus left a message on the home phone, he might have rung while she was in the shower. But when she picks up the phone, the line's dead, disconnected. They haven't paid the bill. She puts the phone down and picks up the bottle of alcohol gel, squeezes some out, rubs her hands together. Her fingernails sting from where she's cut them too short. One's started bleeding but if she wants a band-aid she'll have to open the cupboard again, and if she does that she doesn't know how long it will be until she's ready to leave. She puts on her gloves instead.
The front door stands there, implacable. Just turn the handle, step through, close it behind. Remember to lock it with the key. She does this. Then Amelie stands in the sunshine, thinking about the word 'intrepid'. If she doesn't start moving, a neighbour will see her. If she's really unlucky, one may even ask her if she's all right.
Now she's at the edge of the carport, looking out over suburbia. Rufus' car isn't here. Birds are singing, the wind is blowing, but there's another sound, a persistent dripping. It's the leaky tap, the bucket beneath it full to overflowing. She crouches down to turn the tap tighter, straining with all her might, but it won't budge. She can't bear the plunk any longer and this sends her to the end of the driveway, where generations of junk mail lay bleaching in the long grass. She opens the letterbox but there's nothing of note in there, just some letters addressed to the previous resident, an M T Link.
She stands guard, like a cat at the edge of its territory. She could wheel the bin out, it might be bin night tonight. But she'll have to look later, see if the neighbours' bins are out. She pulls the string on her hood a little tighter just as a car comes around the corner. It's a yellow panel van and now it's slowing down, pulling in. Amelie steps back to let it pass. It's Rufus behind the wheel, but that's not his van. He cranks down the window. The numberplate reads X T CEE.
'Where're the kids?' she says, her arms folded.
He jerks his thumb back across his shoulder. She goes around to the back of the van, opens the door. Leslie is propped up in the far corner holding Peter close to her. They're sitting on a dirty mattress. 'Mummy!' Leslie says.
Free of his sister's embrace, the baby starts crawling toward the door. Amelie stops him from tumbling over the threshold, picks him up. He seems dry enough. Fast food wrappers are strewn everywhere. The baby has squished a piece of cold hash brown in his chubby fist and his chin is filmy. Amelie puts him down and he totters off after his sister in the direction of the house.
'Took 'em to Macca's,' Rufus says, coming around. 'You shoulda seen Les go at them hotcakes.'
'Whose van is it, Ruf?'
He grins at her, cups her buttocks and lifts her onto her toes, into his embrace. 'Mine now, the old Sandman.' He's wearing yesterday's work clothes, a grubby yellow shirt stained with patches of oil and grease from the workshop, grey jacket, grey cap. He smells of booze, stale sweat, something else.
'You didn't come home last night,' she says. It's a wild guess.
'Thought you wouldn't notice. Off with the fairies, weren't ya?'
'Why aren't you at work?'
He opens his mouth to laugh and a vapour of decay escapes. 'It's Saturday, you crazy bint. Now quit yappin'. I need a kip.'
The children are trying to get into the house but they can't reach the handle. Amelie opens the front door and everyone piles in, and for a while she does her best to give them her attention. She changes Peter's nappy and dresses him in a clean onesie that he's almost outgrown. She makes Leslie get in the shower, washes her hair, gets her dressed, gives her some dried apricots to chew on. Then she turns on The Powerpuff Girls.
Rufus is in bed, stinking it up. He's not asleep yet but the light's off. Amelie sits on the edge of the bed. 'Where've you been, Ruf? And where's the Falcon?'
He lets off a huge fart. 'Just fuck off, would ya?'
She thinks about the sharp knife in the kitchen drawer, the twitching muscles in his neck. 'Just tell me where you slept.'
'At Kristy's, all right? And yes I fucked her. Better root than you ever were. Now fuck off outta here before I get aggro.'
'Get fucked, you dumb skank.' He rolls over onto his front.
She closes the door quietly on her way out. Mojo Jojo is threatening to take over the city of Townsville, like always. Peter's pawing the TV screen with sticky fingers. Leslie's eating a packet of Twisties and has made a mess on the couch.
Rufus' mobile phone is on the kitchen counter, lit up with a recent message. He doesn't usually leave it out where she can see it. CUM AGAIN TONITE BIG BOY? it says. It's from someone called Melanie. Amelie deletes the message, thinks about the knife again.
His wallet and keys are on the bench, too. There's seventy bucks and change in the wallet. Actually, the keys aren't his. They must belong to whoever owns the Sandman. She takes all three items—wallet, keys, phone—and pops the other half of her Valium. Then she goes into the lounge and turns off the TV. 'Get your jumper, we're leaving,' she says.
She finds Peter's beanie, puts it on him. She helps Leslie with the jumper and makes her sit on the toilet. Then they're in the van, the children squeezed together on the bucket seat beside her, and she's reversing. Amelie has her license but she doesn't have a car and Rufus won't let her drive his, so she's rusty. She clips the wing mirror on the letterbox on her way out. Luckily the van's an automatic. She puts it in drive and the van lurches forward onto the road.
It's windy, tall trees swaying, but at least the rain's held off for now. But the streets aren't familiar and she doesn't know her way. She drives randomly, turning only when she has to. Seventy bucks isn't going to go far and the fuel needle's hovering just above the red line.
'Push that lock down,' she tells Leslie, who does as she's told. They're on a dual carriageway heading somewhere, away from Rufus. The van might go another fifty ks, and she drives slowly. Everyone overtakes her, some aggressively. Eventually she takes an exit. She doesn't recognise the road. She turns left at the traffic lights and creeps in the direction of the hills. There's a fuel station on the left but she passes it without stopping. The needle's on the red line. This is a desolate stretch, they're out of suburbia. There's a lonely bridge up ahead.
'Where are we going, Mummy?' Leslie asks.
Amelie pulls off at a truck stop just before the bridge. The first droplets of rain are falling from the leaden sky. She puts the van in park, cuts the ignition, goes around to the passenger side, gets out the children. There's no one else here. She carries Peter in one arm and Leslie trots behind. She walks them over to the bridge. It's a steep drop to a train line cut through the hillside.
Amelie puts the baby down and starts reading the messages on Rufus' phone. The messages aren't all from Melanie, some are from Kristy too. Many of the messages are explicitly sexual. She feels a tightening in her guts as she clicks through.
'I'm cold, Mummy.'
A car passes them, but doesn't slow. Amelie looks over the edge, then back at Leslie, who's frowning. She's hanging onto her brother, stopping him from wandering onto the road. 'Watch this,' Amelie says. She hurls the phone over the edge. It doesn't smash, just lands way down there in the mud.
'Is that Daddy's phone?'
'He's not your daddy,' she says, wishing it were true. Amelie steps up onto the lowest rung of the bridge's railing. It's not a massive drop but she suspects it'd be more than enough.
'Don't fall, Mummy.'
Leslie seems to know her thoughts better than she knows them herself. She steps down, hugs them both close to her. 'Go sit in the car,' she says.
Leslie turns and leads her brother into the wind and rain. Amelie knows that Leslie won't be strong enough to open the van's door, so after some hesitation she follows behind, puts them inside. She cranks down the window a fraction, shuts them in. Leslie stands on the seat pressing her chubby hands to the glass.
Amelie turns back to the bridge, thinks about the word 'chasm'. Her heart isn't in it now, but she can't go back home. She sits in the gravel, pulls her coat around her, shuts out the world.
Time's passing, but she couldn't have said how long.
She's startled by sirens, red and blue flashing lights, a concerned face hovering over her. 'Are you all right, ma'am? Are those your children in the van?'
She allows the policeman to help her up. A policewoman is looking in at the children, both curled up asleep on the front seat.
'Are you aware that this van has been stolen?' the policeman asks.
'I didn't . . . '
'We're looking for a man named Rufus Weston. He's wanted in relation to an alleged assault and the alleged theft of this vehicle. Do you know him?'
'Yes, he's my . . . ' Her what? Her gaoler?
'The van was reported stolen yesterday. The number-plates were stolen too, from a different vehicle. That's just been reported this morning. Can you tell us where Rufus is now, Ms . . . '
'Barker. Amelie Barker. He'll be at home, sleeping. I took the van.'
That seems to mean something to the policeman, “I took the van”, but she doesn't know what. She tells him their address.
'Ms Barker, can you account for Mr Weston's whereabouts between the hours of four pm and two am last night? We're investigating a number of incidents.'
She thinks about it, but not for long. 'Who knows where that fucker's been, what he's been up to?' she says. 'Not me.'
When Rufus wakes up, sunlight's streaming in through a crack in the curtains. He reaches for his phone. That's right, he left it in the kitchen. He ventures out but it isn't there on the bench either. His wallet's gone and so are that punk's keys.
He opens the front door, peers out. The Sandman's gone. He walks to the carport, wanders halfway up the drive.
A cop car turns into his street, puts on its sirens and lights.