Sweet Emptiness

 

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Introduction

 

“I had a dream I was awake and I woke up to find myself asleep.” 

                                                                                  -  Stan Laurel

 

 

Ananda asked, ‘It is said the world is empty, lord. In what respect is the world empty?’ The Buddha replied, ‘Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self, thus it is, Ananda, that the world is empty.’    

                                                             - The Buddha, Sunna Suta, Pali Canon.

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Part I, Chapter 1

 

March 2003

 

A battered blue Nissan Pajero is grinding its way along the main street of Murrindoah. The driver is Ian Gordy, an amiably plump, middle aged accountant dressed in bush gear, and this is the beginning of a long drive through the mountains to get back to Melbourne and his job by nine AM.

He’s spent the weekend fishing for trout further back in the valley, where he owns an old fibroboard cabin by the Goulburn River. Usually during the season he comes every other weekend, though he’s hoping this will be the last time he has to take this early morning drive back to Melbourne because, after months of deliberating, he’s decided to retire. He’s going to tell them at work this week.

Pausing at the stop sign at the end of the main road, he takes a right turn up to the ridge that runs above the town, which connects to the road to Melbourne. As he settles in for the drive he feels a flicker of nerves in his gut as he thinks about his wife. Because it’s not just his job he’s leaving. He’s planning on leaving her as well. She can have the house - he just wants out. He’s happy to live out the rest of his days in his cabin, fishing and shooting and living off the twenty acre plot of land he’s got by the river. Fuck ‘em all. He’s worked hard all his life. He’s due his rewards.

As he reaches the top of the ridge above the town he changes gears, then reaches down and pushes play on the CD player - U2 with Bono singing ‘With or Without You’. Gets him going every time. He’s banging on the steering wheel now and singing along,

The song finishes and he slouches back in the bucket seat. He’s wondering how he’ll do it – how he’ll tell her. It’ll have to be tonight after work. He’ll sit her down in the kitchen. Start off with, ‘Now, Angela, you and I both know it hasn’t worked for a long time …’ and take it from there. Hold steady through the tears and Bob’s your uncle.

Then something occurs to him - something he hadn't considered - that maybe there won’t be tears or recriminations. Maybe she’ll not care at all. Or she might even laugh. And now he thinks about it, she has been acting a bit weird lately – going out with friends he’s never met. Going to the gym and doing yoga.

Yoga? At her age?

He's a bit upset now. As he straightens the Pajero up and enters the dim hall of thick plantation pines at the base of the next incline, he gets to wondering what it is she does on the weekends he’s away. That smug little smile she gets when he asks how she got on while he was away. What’s that all about?

‘Oh I get by,’ she says.

What the fuck does that mean?

Now he's angry. He's wondering how long she’s been playing him for a sucker, because the more he thinks about it, the more obvious it becomes. She’s got another bloke on the side. Jealousy is kicking in now. He changes to a lower gear and floors it, accelerating along the avenue, staring sightlessly at the road ahead.

He always knew. He just didn’t know he knew. Not until now anyway. Fucking bitch! How dare she treat him like this. He’s never cheated on her. Never! He always treated her well. With respect. How dare she make a fool of him like this! He’ll nail her to the wall when he gets home. Get the truth, once and for all.

Right then he notice flickering of orange and yellow light between the trees up ahead. Something's on fire.

As he roars clear of the avenue he sees it - that cute little weatherboard with the stone built chimney that he always liked - the one in the paddock beside the abandoned service station. It's burning furiously, a lonely fireball lighting up the surrounding forest.

He slows, pulling onto the verge and stops.

The house is a luminous ghost of itself within whipping veils of blinding yellow fire. But nobody is about. Not a soul. He remembered a month ago when he was driving past, seeing a kid sitting on the stairs. And washing on the line behind the house. He’d thought the place was vacant until then.

Were they still there? He tried to think - did he see them as he came up this time? Maybe not. But then, how else did the house catch fire?  

He leans forward, reaching for the packet of cigarettes on the dash. Pulls one out and lights it from a plastic lighter, throwing the pack back up on the dash as he looks about. He winds down the window, peering to either side of the burning house and up the road and back, feeling radiant heat on his face.

He gets a sick feeling in his gut as it he realizes they might still be in the house. They’d be well dead by now, that’s for sure. He takes a drag on his cigarette, pondering what a terrible way to die - to wake up on fire.

Something explodes behind the house. A flash of blue flame lights up the forest. Gas bottle probably. A cloudburst of fire and burning debris rises up inside a curling funnel of smoke and sparks, soaring into the black starlit sky, then falling back to earth in wide burning arcs. Just as well there’s been a lot of rain. The forest will still be wet, so there's not chance of it catching.

He looks back in the direction of the town, invisible below the ridge. Surely someone down there would’ve heard what’s going on - the snapping and crackling and roaring echoing all through the valley. And the glow beyond the ridge. Wouldn’t they see it? He should ring the pub - the landlord, what’s his name? Grumpy, muscled bugger. Nestor. Nestor Cahill, that’s right. And that weird little wife of his with the lacquered hair.

Then he remembers, there’s no mobile coverage up here. He’d have to turn around - drive back down into town. And anyway, what could they do? Ring the fire station in Warburton or Mansfield? With all the winding roads and mountains between here and there it’d take hours for a truck to get here. No point to it. Place’ll be ash in an hour. The damage is done.

For a minute more he sits smoking his cigarette and flicking the ash out the window. He really should do something. Take a look at least. Check the back of the house. Someone might be lying there, badly hurt.

He peers down at his watch, tilting it up to the glow from the fire. Just gone three fifteen. He's got a bit of time. Take a look so he can say he did then get on his way.

Stubbing the cigarette in the ash-tray he throws the door open and climbs out. Slamming the door, he pushes through the weeds to a wire fence running parallel to the road. Slipping between the strands he heads for the fire, heat burning his face, coughing from the stench of burning wood and plastic in his throat.

He’s halfway across the front lawn when he stops. He’s noticed a black spiral burnt into the scorched grass close to the house. He peers at it, wondering what it is, then realizes it’s what’s left of a hose, now melted into loops of carbonized black, spiraling over to the front door from a tap beside the chimney - or where it used to be, because it’s melted. He wonders if maybe someone was trying to put out the fire, and if so, where were they now?

Keeping a distance from the blaze, he skirts round to the back, finding the water tank toppled over and lying on its side, the corrugated iron half crushed by its own weight, the timber platform collapsed in a smoldering pile, tendrils of steam rising up from water-logged grass. 

He continues on to the pebble drive at the back and follows it along a row of fir trees to the side of the house, then up towards the front gate.

He notices an axe lying in the grass, right there, by the side of the house. He wonders what it’s doing there - an axe, lying in the grass like that. The heat from the fire is too intense to reach it so he leaves it. Stands watching the house burn, hypnotized by the whipping tendrils of fire leaping from a window high up on a side wall.

He looks at his watch. Nothing he can do here. Might as well go.

He heads back across the front lawn to the fence, stepping through the wires and wading through the grass back to the Pajero.

As he starts the engine the house collapses in on itself with a deep, quivering crunching sound and a dense ball of roiling smoke rises up, with red fire swirling inside it like a massive demon released. He pauses, watching it expand into a black colossus against the starlit sky. The things you see, he thinks, shaking his head. The things that happen. Putting the Pajero into gear he pulls onto the road and accelerates away. He’s hoping he’ll have a clear run to Melbourne because he’s late, and he’s got to be at work by nine.

 

About a mile further on he’s got U2 on the CD player again, and he’s humming along with ‘One’, as the road narrows, becoming a dirt track cut into the side of the mountain as it winds up through the towering eucalypts and primeval ferns dimly lit by his headlights. He throttles down and changes gears to pull around the first hairpin bend and that’s when she appears.

Right in front of him. A girl.

He stands on the brakes, the Pajero sliding heavily through the gravel, and skewing to a shuddering stop. He leans forward with his face to the windscreen, peering through the churning dust.

Has he hit her?

Then she appears, floating like a pale wraith in the mist of dust, the headlights pinning her starkly to the darkness behind her. It’s a girl alright. A scrawny little thing in a cotton dress, with stringy black hair cut short, and narrow eyes - looks kind of Chinese.  Or maybe one of those Tibetan girls he once saw in a National Geographic.

Slipping out of gear he pulls on the hand brake and opens the door, leaning out and shouting, ‘You okay?’

U2 is still blaring from inside the car so he darts back in and hits pause, then bobs out again, gripping the rim of the door.

‘You okay?’

His voice sounds small in the immensity of  the valley and the wall of trees rising up along one side of the road. Then he hears her voice.

‘I’m fine,’ she says. A foreigner – sounds Irish, saying 'foine' like his grandmother used to.

She’s holding a hand up against the glare of the headlights.  

‘Can you turn off the lights,’ she says.

‘Oh, sorry ...’

Ducking back into the car he turns them off, leaving the parking lights on, then climbs back out, leaving the door open. He makes to walk toward her, then stops when he sees her take a step back.

‘Sorry,’ he says again.

She smiles. It’s an amiable smile, kind of innocent, like a shy country girl meeting a stranger. Despite himself, he momentarily wonders if he’s got lucky. Then he remembers the fire.

‘Is that your house back there?’ he says, thumbing behind him.

‘My house?’

‘Yeah, there’s a house on fire back on the ridge, just out of town.’

She pauses, blinking at him, her eyes seeming to focus beyond him. Then she nods.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘It caught fire.’

‘Was anyone hurt? I looked but no-one was there.’

Again she pauses, appearing to think, then, ‘No.’

He waits for more but it doesn’t come so he nods, hesitantly, wondering at her reticence. She seems a bit stunned. Understandably, as he thinks about it.

‘So everything’s okay then,’ he says, holding a hand out flat like an auctioneer locking in a final bid. She nods.

‘Yes, it’s okay.’

‘Okay,’ he says. ‘So … how did it start?’

She shrugs.

‘I don’t know really, I was sleeping.’

‘Oh … well it’s gone now, the house. I’m sorry. Your place was it?’

‘No,’ she says casually, as if it’s nothing important.  

‘Oh ...’

He stops, wondering what to say next. Then he says, ‘Well if you want to get into town you’re headed the wrong way.’

He thumbs back the way he’s come, in the direction of Murrindoah.

‘The town’s back there.’

She doesn’t respond - the amiable smile fixed, her hands picking at her dress. He wonders if she’s a a bit mental. Or deaf.

‘The way you’re going, it’ll take you into the mountains,’ he says. ‘A hundred miles of winding road and trees. There’s nothing for you there.’

She looks behind her, then back at him.

‘Could you give me a lift?’she says.

‘What, back into town?’

‘No,’ she says, then points behind her. ‘The way you’re headed.’

‘What? To Warburton?’

She nods.

He scratches the back of his head, thinking the whole thing’s a bit strange. A burning house in the middle of nowhere then a girl in a dress walking barefoot through the mountains. He shouldn’t get involved.  

He steals a look at his watch but there’s not enough light to see. He’s aware of her watching him, her hands stroking each other in front of her dress. Then he notices the burns. Patches of red blisters on the backs of her hands, the wounds weeping fluid, glistening in the glow from the parking lights.

‘You okay?’ he says, gesturing at her hands.

‘Okay?’

‘Yeah, your hands. You get some burns, did you?’

She looks down, spreading her hands out before her and turning them over as if she’s only just noticed.

‘Yeah, no, I’m fine,’ she murmurs - again the 'foine'.

She looks up, her eyebrows raised in a question.

‘So can you give me a lift then?’  

‘What, to Warburton?’

‘If that’s where you’re going, yeah.’

‘Well I’m headed further on actually, back to Melbourne …’

‘Well that’s even better if it’s okay.’

He pauses, on the spot.

‘I suppose ...’

He gestures at her hands.

‘But you’ll need a doctor for those hands, and I’m not sure ...’

‘It’s okay ...’

‘... ‘cause I’m running late for work ...’

‘Yeah, no it’s okay, really.’

 

She looks tiny, perched in the passenger seat of the Pajero, sitting straight with her damaged hands resting in her lap. For a while they drive in silence, the two of them lit by the soft blue light from the dash.

He wonders if she’s running from something - or someone.

To be polite he says, ‘What’s your name?’

‘Lily.’

He nods abstractedly, pulling the four wheel drive around another hairpin bend, headlights scanning the trees.

‘So what do you do, Lily?’

He glances across – she’s staring straight ahead, into the cone of the headlights, the stark lit track scrolling beneath them.

‘I work in a circus,’ she says over the clatter of stones hitting the chassis.

He nods in surprise.

‘A circus? What? Like Ringlings?’

‘No, no, nothing like that,’ she says, looking out the side window. ‘Just a small circus. But it’s quite old. It’s called the Cirque De Claire.’

‘What? Is that French?’

She nods.

He says he’s never heard of it.

‘Oh no, you wouldn’t have,’ she says, looking across at him. ‘It’s not well known. We do village carnivals and fêtes in France, and that sort of thing. I’m an acrobat.’

‘Really? An acrobat?’ He’s concentrating on the next turn.

‘Yeah, me and my boyfriend,’ she’s saying. ‘We do high-wire and rings. A bit of juggling ...’

He doesn’t hear the rest, pulling the Pajero around the bend.

‘So you've got a boyfriend,’ he says. ‘Where’s he?’

A perplexed expression appears on her face.

‘Where?’

‘Yeah, I mean, is he here? In Australia?’

‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘He’s in France ...’

‘Oh.’

‘Yes.’

There’s more questions running through his head but he figures it’s better not to know, so he goes quiet, concentrating on driving.

After a pause she speaks again.

‘We live in a caravan,’ she says chattily.

‘What, in France?’

‘Yeah, in France … in the circus. We’ve got one of those shiny little aluminium teardrop caravans. It’s lovely. Looks like a toy aeroplane with wheels. You know, with the porthole windows?’

‘Oh right ...’

‘... and we’ve got a dog. He’s called Bulle …

‘Bull?’

‘No, ‘Bulle', she says, pronouncing it ‘bool’. ‘It’s French. It means ‘bubble’.

‘Oh …’

‘ …and two elephants, Trumpet and Indira ... and two horses ... and a snake ... ’

He waits for more but when he glances across she’s gone back to gazing out the side window.

‘So you’re a long way from home then,’ he says for something to say.

He shoots her a look when she doesn’t reply. She’s still gazing out through her reflection in the passenger window.

‘So, just visiting then?’

She looks across at him.

‘Visiting?’

‘Yeah, here, in Australia ...’

‘Oh no, I live here.’

It comes out uncertainly, so quiet he barely hears it. He waits for her to elaborate, or explain, but nothing comes. She’s gone back to gazing out of the window so he lets it go.

When next he looks she’s fast asleep, slumped against the passenger side door, her head sliding back and forth on the glass and her hands tucked between her legs. She looks cold so he turns up the heater.

*     *     *     *

At that moment, two hundred kilometre away in an East Melbourne mansion, Oliver awoke in a spluttering rage.

Sitting up in the bed, he looked down at the sleeping figure of his wife Simone in the bed beside him. She lay curled with her back to him, just visible in the dim blue light of the bedside clock.

His head throbbed, he was sweating and he had a voracious thirst - not to mention the weight of shame in his chest when he recalled Julian's party last night.  He’d gotten drunk – as usual - and made a fool of himself.

Trouble was, any room with more than three people and he had to drink. With a few drinks under his belt he didn’t give a fuck. Alcohol smoothed things out - put a smile on his face so he could be normal. With a drink he could listen but not hear, see but not care, then walk away and forget.

He frowned, trying to remember what happened.

All that came was the last stages of the night - him clinging to the marble mantle in Julian’s lounge, arguing about something. What was it? He couldn’t remember. Whatever it was, it got him going.  He remembered being amazed at how intoxicating it was to not care - shoving his finger in peoples faces and showering them with spit because his lips couldn’t move fast enough.

Then what happened?

Simone. That’s right, she left. That look of boredom mixed with irritation on her face as she gathered up her coat and slammed the door behind her. He fringed as he remembered what he did then -  collapsed in an armchair with a bottle of red wine cradled in his arms, and started bawling. Totally lost it, sobbing and howling and wiping away copious phlegm with his sleeve as people crept out the door.  

Fucking embarrassing.

Then he fell asleep. Woke up to a dark empty room stinking of stale cigarette smoke and spilt booze. Shuffled out into the street to hail a taxi home and crept into bed beside Simone, hoping the night would be forgotten or at least never mentioned again.

 

A flash of lightning strobed against the curtains. The bedroom was silent and close. He wished he could open a window - feel the cool night air on his face. Smell damp earth and hear the wind and rustling leaves of the trees in the street. But the windows in this place couldn’t be opened. Some new thing Simone and an architect came up with - the house totally sealed with triple glazed windows and heavy doors that made a sucking sounds as you closed them - a sumptuous and ambiently heated silence that gave him the heebie-jeebies.

He glanced down at the still figure of Simone beside him, idly wondering when she would leave him - as he knew she would.

Eventually.

Which triggered recall of something he’d witnessed in a bar a couple of days ago. He’d wandered down to the Royal Hotel for a drink. And it being the middle of the afternoon, the place was empty. Just two blokes down the end of the bar - office workers they looked like - kind of generic, pulpy types with flushed faces and obedient hair dressed in cheap, rumpled suits. They’d looked up as Oliver pushed through the door, then went back to an urgent exchange which, as he paid for a glass of Shiraz at the bar, he happened to overhear.

From what he could discern, one of them had signed a divorce settlement that morning and it had knocked him about a bit. In particular, what took his attention was when, with a heave of passion, the divorced man exclaimed, ‘but she was so beautiful’, and laid his head down on the bar. He began a terrible sobbing then, repeating it over and over again, ‘she was so beautiful … so fucking beautiful’. His friend draped an arm over his shoulders, muttering, ‘Don’t worry about it mate, you gotta let her go ... you gotta let her go ...’ but he was inconsolable. The sobbing went on, the bereft man bent over, clinging to the bar with both hands, his friend darting abashed looks at Oliver who gazed into his wine further up, pretending he hadn’t heard a thing.

They left soon after, the good friend hustling his still bawling mate out though the swinging door. Alone in the bar now, Oliver got to thinking about what he’d just heard, the lines of a Doors song looping in his head, Jim Morrison singing: ‘… don’t you love her madly, don’t you love her ways, don’t you love her as she’s walking out the door …’

He thought about this now as he sat staring into the darkness, and he wondered if he would feel the same agony as that man had, when Simone eventually left him. Would he too fall to pieces and drunkenly vomit up his heart in a bar?

What the fuck was wrong with him?

He couldn’t work it out, this numbness he felt, as if he was slowly evaporating, and all the parts of him and his life were drifting like smoke in a vast and empty space. And in this dying emptiness, his love for Simone seemed one more disintegrating artefact from another time, an outdated protocol of simply being married to her.

That being said, he wanted to love her. He did.

And god, she certainly deserved it. Such a woman she was - loyal, beautiful, calm, successful, talented. She had loved him so delicately, and cared for him with such devotion it was almost saintly. St Simone. No woman would ever be as perfect for a ridiculous man like him.

He was lucky to have her.  

Turning on his side, he spooned his body to hers, feeling the silken heat of her bottom in his lap. Sliding his hand over her ribcage, he cupped one of her breasts in his palm. She shifted against him, groaning in her sleep. He felt his cock harden and press itself into the crease of her bottom. Reaching back she grasped it and gently squeezed, and he thought about the profound comfort it created in him, being held in this way by her.

‘Are you awake?’ she murmured.

‘Yes ...’

‘Oh ...’

She went still. Her grip on his cock went slack.

‘Simone?’

But her breathing had slowed back to sleep.

He felt himself deflate and fall out of her hand, and right then an intense desperation came over him – a sense that if they didn’t make love this one time, the last threads of whatever was left between them would break. It filled him with terror because he wasn’t ready.

Not yet, he thought, not yet.

Reaching over her belly, he ran his fingers down through the soft hair between her legs, into the slickness of her cunt. She gasped as if splashed with water and opened her legs, pushing her bottom further into his lap. He slid into her, kissing the nape of her neck and moaning his love for her, and as their familiar dance took them over, like most men when they make love, all his doubts and worries disappeared and she became all that existed.  

*     *     *     *

At that moment, as Oliver made love to Simone in their house in East Melbourne, in a tiny third floor flat in a block in Fairfield, Helen Schmidt’s clock radio gave a piercing buzz. She reached out from beneath the covers and slammed her palm down on the button, then squinted at the time.

Five AM.

She glanced at the window. Still dark. Of course it is. And what kind of idiot sets their alarm for five AM with absolutely nothing to do. In a life of nothing to do?  

Me! I do, that’s who.

Turning over she pulled the covers up around her ears. Closed her eyes. She’d had a restless night, full of dreams she couldn’t remember - woken up twice covered in sweat, and for a big woman like her with the creases and folds of her build, if she didn’t dry off straight away she’d get a rash so she’d had to take a shower. Twice. She figured all in all she’d only had about five hours sleep, but there was nothing unusual about that.

She looked over at the window, at the gusts of rain slashing against the glass. It was warm in the bed but she knew it wasn’t a good idea to stay. She’d fall asleep again. With her condition that was ill-advised. She’d wake up late in a total fug and spend the rest of the day more depressed and exhausted than she already was.

 Throwing back the covers she rolled out of the bed and bumbled into the bathroom, shedding her pyjamas as she went. Stepping into the shower she rushed through the five cycle ‘hot then cold’ routine that Dr Bob, her psychologist, had recommended to speed up her metabolism.

Ripping the curtain aside, she dried herself in a hurry, then patted baby powder beneath her arms and between her legs. Then she combed her cropped, greying hair behind her ears, squinting so as not to see her reflection in the mirror.  

In the bedroom she pulled on a pair of XXXL tracksuit pants and a T shirt from the Big Man store, then went into the lounge. Turning on the heater, she began her yoga exercises, largely consisting of flopping about grunting and cursing as each contortion defeated her. After a while she gave up and, propping herself on a pile of cushions, she tried the meditation Dr Bob had given her, mentally repeating ‘I am loved’ with each out breath.

After ten minutes of nodding off she gave that up too.

Gripping the arm of the sofa to pull herself to her feet she paused for a few seconds for the dizziness to pass, then went into the kitchen to make breakfast.

 

She felt trapped in this huge, exhausted body that ached from the simple act of living, which accumulated mass from the tiniest skerricks of food without creating the energy it needed to move.

At various times the term ‘chronic fatigue’ had been hesitantly used by various doctors (though most denied such a condition existed). But in the end, no-one knew what it was that afflicted her. All she knew was she was constantly exhausted and depressed - ill with a condition which had no apparent cure. She’d had it for ten years now, since her discharge from the police force, and right now it felt like a sentence for life.

‘Get used to it,’ she muttered, pulling open a cupboard for a mug and a bowl. Filling the kettle with water, she dropped a teabag of caffeine free green tea into the mug.

God she yearned for coffee - a thick, powerful brew to cattle prod the heart and brain and make them fizz. When she was on the job she’d lived on coffee, pounding through days with her pulse going double time, talking loud and fast and laughing hard. She missed it - all of it. The emergencies, sirens and mad bastard villains. She missed the adrenalin and the methodical logic of building a good case then the victory of a good score.

Ready to go and up for anything. That was a life.

This, on the other hand, was not.

This was waiting. An aching tedium of breathing simply because the breaths kept on coming.  What was the point?

As she waited for the water to boil, she ate from a bowl of gluten free muesli with soy milk, standing at the kitchen window gazing at the rain.  

The kettle began to boil.

She tossed the remains of the muesli into the waste bin and filled her mug, then took it into the lounge, headed for the couch. Arranging the cushions, she made herself comfortable and opened a book Dr Bob had lent her to read. ‘Change Your Thoughts, Change your Life’ it was called. Propping the book on her capacious bosom she peered at the first sentence.

It asked her a question: “Have you ever wondered why life is so easy for some, yet so difficult for others?”

She sniffed. No, she had not.

She squinted at the next paragraph - half a page of solid type without a break. Three times she went over it but the words and sentences kept merging on the page. Even the bits she managed to read were incomprehensible.

She closed her eyes.

Settling more comfortably into the clasp of her couch, she dropped the book to the floor and sighed. Her breathing slowed as she floated gratefully into sleep, her last conscious thought a resolution to be more energetic later.

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Chapter 2

 

Lily opens her eyes. For a moment she panics because she has no idea where she is. Then she realises - she’s lying across the back seat of a large car. She blinks into the brilliant glare of street-lights streaming in through a water speckled side window, then sits up as the car slows, edging into the kerb, water splashing beneath the tyres. The motor cuts, leaving the steady rattle of rain on the roof.

Hunched in the front seat, the driver reaches up, adjusting the rear view mirror. His eyes swim into position, peering back at her.

 ‘You alright love?

 She goes to speak then gags, coughing as acrid tasting phlegm floods her throat. She wants to spit it out but swallows it instead.

‘You okay?’ he says again.

After she's recovered she says, ‘How did I get here?’

‘You were falling asleep. So I said you could climb in the back to lie down.’

‘Oh, ‘ she murmurs, then, ‘Do I know you?’

A silence comes down, him peering at her from the rear view mirror. His voice is soft when he speaks - tentative.

‘I picked you up, love, don’t you remember? You were walking along the road ...’

He trails off as if the rest is self-evident. She blinks, thinking back, trying to assemble an incoherent cloud of fragments in her head, which flit about on the periphery of her awareness then disappear as she turns her attention to them.

Then it comes to her. Lily. Lily is who she is.

She feels easier now, even elated. Untouchable. But still, there seems a distance between where she is right now and the empty abyss of everything before, a strange sense of being afloat in a cascade of moments all fading and disappearing even as they arise.

Sensing the man waiting for her to speak, she says, ‘Where are we?’

She says it as casually as she can.

‘Melbourne ... well, Fairfield anyway. It’s where you wanted to go, isn’t it?’

She peers out through the curving rain at a procession of pale weatherboard houses and trees varnished with water. The dark windows of those houses tell her nothing. Then it comes to her. She knows where she is, even though it feels like she’s never been here before.

‘This is it?’ says the driver. ‘Where you wanted? Sorry, but I’ve really got to get going. I’m running late ...’

‘No, it’s fine,’ she murmurs.

‘Bloody awful morning,’ he says, bending down to look up at the sky.

She nods, still gazing out of the window.

‘Yes, it is,’ she says abstractedly.

She looks up at the mirror to find him still watching her.

‘Where did you find me?’ she says.

Silence.

The man says, ‘Your house was on fire remember? You were walking along the road …’

‘And where was that?’

‘You don’t remember?’ he asks.

She pauses, then says, ‘No, I don’t.’

‘It was just outside of Murrindoah, up in the mountains.’

‘Oh,’ she says, nodding slowly, as if it’s all coming back, but it isn’t. She can feel his unease, so she lets it go, saying, ‘Right, right … ’

‘You sure you’re okay?’

‘Yeah … I’m fine.’

He looks away from her reflection in the mirror because he doesn’t want to know any more. It’s been a long drive and he doesn’t want to get involved. He wants her to get out of the car.

‘I’ve really got to go,’ he says flatly. ‘I’d lend you an umbrella but …’

But she’s already opening the door.

                        

Standing in the pelting rain she waves to the pale face peering at her from behind the water streaked window of the Pajero. The motor starts and the four wheel drive pulls out from the kerb and accelerates away, its tyres swishing on the road. It pauses at the corner with the indicator flashing, then turns and disappears. The street is empty now - just the steady roar of the rain and the splashing and gurgling of water.

She looks around. Everything glistens like plastic. She wonders how she feels. She decides she feels happy - the quiet roar of the rain, the empty road and dark windowed houses. She feels invisible.

Turning, she wanders up the sidewalk, her dress stuck wetly to her body, her bare feet making rhythmic splashes on the concrete. Smiling into the rain she feels free at last.

She walks past one house and then two, and then three, then pauses at a narrow laneway between two side fences. She blinks up at the sign.

‘Rollins Lane’.

Squinting through the water running over her eyes, she peers into the darkness further down the lane.

She knows where it goes.

Entering the lane, she follows it down between two high paling fences rising up on either side. At the end of the lane is a T intersection, the path veering off to either side, following the rear fences of the houses.

On the opposite side of the path is a bedraggled diamond mesh fence, beyond which, with her vision adjusting to the gloom, she can see the broken lines of an abandoned tennis court - the remains of a rotting net and collapsing umpire chairs smothered with morning glory. A chorus of frogs is croaking somewhere. A dog starts yapping in a back yard behind her. The sky is getting light, the rain less heavy.

She turns left, following the path along the back line of the fences, running her fingers across rusted swathes of netting on her right.

Further down, the path turns away from the fence line. It stops at the edge of a long field of high grass. She stands with her toes over the end of the path, feeling broken asphalt beneath her feet. Over to her left is a line of powerful lights following a railway line that disappears into a cutting.

She peers down the length of the field, flanked by the tennis courts on one side and the grassy embankment of the train line on the other. Then she sees it. Down the end of the field, just visible in the shadows, behind the low hanging foliage of some trees - a squat clubhouse at the entrance to the tennis courts.

Stepping off the path, she begins pushing through the grass.

 

Shaking off a shower of droplets, she steps out from beneath a wattle tree and pauses, standing beside a pile of bottles and crumpled cans. The front wall of the clubhouse is dimpled fibro-board painted white and smashed along one corner. A long darkened window spans across the front of the building, at the left side of which is a door at the top of a small flight of stairs.

Wiping water from her face, she blinks at that door.

She knows where the key is.

Three park benches are lined along the front of the clubhouse, end to end beneath the window. Crossing to the bench nearest the door, she kneels on it and leans over the back to peer into the space behind the stairs. There’s a terracotta pot in there, nestling against one of the foundation stumps. Gripping the backrest of the bench, she reaches into the pot and, beneath a rock, she finds the key.

Padding lightly up the stairs, she unlocks the door and pushes it open. Reaching up to the right she finds a light switch and flicks it on, then steps in, pushing the door closed.

Two long rows of fluorescent tubes flicker, then light up the room with a chilly white glare. The clubhouse resonates with the drumming of rain and splashing of water pouring off the roof. It’s cold in here, the air clammy and fusty with an odour of damp lino, wood rot and dust.

She sniffs, slicking her hair behind her ears as she looks around.

The floor is a patchwork of grimy pea-green linoleum squares. A kitchen of sorts is off to the right beneath the window - an enamelled electric stove perched on a bench, a sink with two taps and a table with four tubular steel chairs. Halfway down, sitting along the left wall, is a sagging iron bed with a mattress, a grey blanket and the lump of a pillow at one end. Above the bed, ranged along the wall is a row of three electric strip heaters.

Padding softly across the floor she goes to each one, pulling at the cords to turn them all on. As she pulls the last cord, she sees something move in the window. Whirling about, she steps back against the wall, but it’s her reflection in the window, dancing across flaws in the glass – a slim ghost with shadows for eyes. She blinks at it, then steps away from the wall.

Slipping the key into a pocket of her dress, she wonders what to do next.

A train passes, crashing and clanking along the rail line outside making the whole building quiver.

She needs to wash herself.

Down the end of the room is a closed door with an enamel sign saying: ‘Change Rooms’. She heads for it, pushing through and switching on the lights. Scuffed brick walls, stained concrete floor and a line of shower cubicles along the opposite wall next to a stainless steel sink with a corroded mirror screwed to the wall above it.

There’s a set of wooden shelves by the door, stacked with towels and boxes of tiny soaps wrapped in plain paper. Taking one of the towels and a packet of soap, she slips the sodden dress off her shoulders and goes to the nearest shower. She hangs the towel from a hook and turns on the hot tap, letting the water run, hoping it will heat but it stays cold.

Unwrapping the soap, she scoops up water and, working up a lather, she washes her face and between her legs and under her arms. She holds her hands beneath the stream, gently cleaning dirt and dried lymph from the burns on the backs of her hands. Then, turning the water off, she reaches for the towel and dries her body.

As she steps out of the cubicle she stops as she notices the thin naked woman in the mirror - a sinewy body, all ribs and veins and muscles, the nipples on her compact breasts pinched with cold.  

She gazes into the woman’s face. It’s a strong face with high cheekbones and soft pink lips, the skin finely pitted with acne scars. She cocks her head, then blinks, and the reflection blinks with her.

‘Huh,’ she murmurs.

Bending down, she picks up the dress from where she left it on the floor, then pushes through the door, back into the main room, now warm from the strip heaters glowing red along the back wall. Dropping the dress into the sink, she switches off the lights.

Pulling back the cover on the bed she slips beneath the blankets. A faint odour of Turkish tobacco and sweat rises up from the pillow.

Another train passes, crashing and clanking along the line outside. She looks over at the window. Soft grey daylight is now rising outside. The rain seems less heavy now.

She lies down and, turning on her side, falls instantly asleep.     

*     *     *     *

 ‘… so New York's faxed me the contracts. The exhibition’s scheduled for the fifth of October. We’ve got six months.’

‘Uhuh ...’

‘So, you ready for it? I mean, is that enough time?’

‘Yeah, sure, no problem ...’

‘They love your stuff, Oliver.’

‘Yep ...’

‘We’ve got two weeks in a top Soho gallery, with interviews, VIP guest list, the lot…they’re taking it very seriously.’

‘Uhuh.’

‘... and Jack Nicholson’s coming. He collects. And Robert De Niro, they’re all coming … everybody'll be there…’

Oliver spotted his reflection in the window covering the far wall. Frowning, he pulled in his gut. Dressed as he was in old jeans and a shirt hanging loose, he looked like a migrant factory worker.

‘You’re not listening are you?’

‘Yeah I’m listening. Why wouldn’t I listen?’

‘I know when you’re not listening Oliver … the phone goes dead …’

‘Seriously, I’m listening, and I’m impressed. I’m really, really very depressed … I mean impressed.’

‘Yeah fuck you too. You could try thanking me.’

‘Thank you Julian.’

‘The thing is, if I sign this deal there’s no turning back. Right? We’ve put up a bond and it’s a lot of money. So you’re sure you’re ready ?’

‘I’m working as we speak …’

Julian laughed.

‘Yeah well, that’s good. But it’s got to be new work Oliver. None of the old stuff you filled your last show with … the stuff out of storage ...’

‘What old stuff?’

‘Victoria gallery … last October.’

‘That wasn’t old stuff!’

The hiss of a long sigh on the other end.

‘It was. I saw those paintings three years before. You’re just lucky the reviewers didn’t figure it out, they would’ve been brutal … well, more brutal than usual anyway …’

Oliver said nothing. What could he say? It was the truth. He just hadn’t thought anyone noticed.

Julian said, ‘So I’m flying back tomorrow. I’ll be there for your shindig on Thursday.’

Oliver frowned.

‘What shindig? What’s happening on Thursday?’

‘Your birthday, you idiot. Simone’s putting on a dinner.’

‘Well she could’ve told me ...’

‘She did.’

‘When?’

‘Last night. At my party. You were standing right next to me ...’

Ahhhh yes, the party.

‘Yeah well, I was a bit under the weather ...’

‘So I noticed. Me and the rest of Melbourne ...’

‘Yeah yeah...’

‘... so I’ll see you when I get back then.’

‘Yep ...’

‘Oh … and Jemma sends her love. She said she might drop in.’

Oliver went to speak but guilt stopped his mouth. .

 

Hanging up the phone he leant back against the wall, gazing at his reflection in the long window filling the back wall of his rear studio. Idly he wondered why he’d never done a self portrait. Most artists do a self portrait at least once in their lives, but he never had.

He wondered how he’d do it.

He turned to the side and held up his shirt. He’d put on a bit of weight - big hairy gut poking over his paint flecked jeans. Monkeyman. With his gaze fixed to his reflection he collapsed his shoulders and loped on the spot, swinging his arms like an ape.

It got him thinking about that monkey. The little one at the zoo.

Where was it?

London. That’s right. London zoo. When he was a kid. Was it a chimp? Whatever. Fucking horrible day that was. Raining, with him and his parents bunched under an umbrella, wandering from cage to cage with nothing to see because the animals had all disappeared out of the rain. But as they rounded a corner, they noticed people grouped around one particular cage, and as they pushed through the crowd, Oliver had wondered why everyone was giggling and pointing.

Then he saw what they were looking at - a drenched little monkey squatting on a tree stump in the rain with his nose pressed to the wire. Gazing serenely at the crowd, he was masturbating with deft, quick strokes, while at the same time slipping a finger in and out of his arse.

His parents pulled him away but he never forgot. Because quite aside from the extraordinary spectacle of the monkey’s long, thin, fluorescent pink cock, he’d never forgotten the expression on its face. There’d been something in its eyes that disturbed him - something he couldn't quantify at the time, but which as he recalled it now, was blindingly clear.

Despair.

That’s what he’d seen in the monkey’s eyes. A despair so paralysing the monkey didn’t feel the rain, or see the giggling, gaping crowd. With only the nerve endings of his cock and arse to remind him he was still alive, he was desperately wanking because if he stopped he would surely die.

 

Sighing, he skirted the three empty easels lined along the back wall, and ambled over to his desk, where he threw himself into his leather swivel chair. Spinning it about he gazed out through the floor to ceiling window. Rain was pelting down in a steep silvery slant outside, making the leaves and white trumpet flowers of the Datura tree outside twitch and quiver like it was in pain.

He sighed, slouching down in the chair.

A half hour later he was still there, chewing at his bottom lip, swinging the chair back and forth as he gazed out the window watching rain trickle down the glass.

Time, he thought.

Time kept passing.  And so much to do, but he had absolutely no urge to do it. He put his hand down his pants. Gave his cock a squeeze. It hardened half-heartedly, like a sleepy dog having its head scratched. Maybe ring Jemma, he thought. See if she wants to come around. Bit of up against the wall fucked like an animal sort of thing. She loves stuff like that.

But then ... maybe not. Julian’ll be back over the next couple of days. Bit close.

An all too familiar panic arose in his gut as the emptiness closed around him - the emptiness of absolutely nothing to do. He should be working but he’s not. The phrase looped in his brain, ‘… I should be working but I’m not, I should be working but I’m not ...’

Why not? Why wasn’t he working?

Good question. But between himself, the walls and the unopened cans of paint and the bottles of linseed oil and brushes going stiff in the jars, not to mention the pile of blank canvasses stacked in the storeroom, he didn’t know why not. The work just wasn’t in him any more. And it hadn’t been for a while.

How long?

Too long.  A year, thereabouts.

A year of gazing out the window, drinking coffee and napping, wanking and playing computer games. A year of sitting around holding onto his cock like that fucking monkey.

He pulled his hand out of his pants and stood up.

‘What to do, what to do, what to do.’

He walked to the window and stood with his hands behind his back, looking up at clouds heaving and fuming in a grey, dismal sky. Maybe he should go for a walk - put on a hat and coat, feel a bit of rain on his face, fresh and cold. Might get him going. He’d feel better, that’s for sure.

But he couldn’t.

He had stay here - to be ready in case something happened - in case something changed. In case work happened.

Turning away from the window he sat back down in the chair. Slipped his hand down his pants again and grabbed hold of his cock. Somehow it felt reassuring.

 

Until about a year ago, Oliver had always worked.

Work had been everything to him - all he’d done and all he knew. And it had paid off. Since leaving art school two decades before, his career as a painter had been the highest producing and most meteoric in the country. Within four years of graduating he’d blitzed Melbourne, then each of the capital cities, with images so meticulous and exquisitely rendered that his exhibitions now sold out before the paintings were even hung. Even the persistently lacklustre reviews (citing aesthetic glibness) couldn’t stop his paintings walking out the door.

Because no-one could match his particular talent.  

It wasn’t just his exceptional technical skill as a draughtsman and painter – it was the way he used glazes. He layered them so perfectly he could imbue anything with a glow so deep and unworldly the surface of the canvas seemed to disappear.

This technical adeptness was such that he used to challenge himself sometimes, painting random images just for the hell of it. If he couldn’t think what to paint he’d pick up a magazine and lift the first high quality photo he could find. And sometimes he’d close his eyes and select a small part of the image, perhaps a mark on a wall or some garbage lying in the grass. It didn’t matter what it was, he’d blow it up, map it out on a large canvas, and paint it. As he applied each successive glaze it would begin to dance and shimmer and vibrate, taking on a life that totally transcended its mundane form, and another Oliver masterpiece would appear - totally empty of aesthetic intent, yet pregnant with a charisma so inexpressible the viewer was instantly hypnotised. This transformation of the banal and mundane into the extraordinary was Oliver’s talent, and his paintings walked out the door.

They always had.

Within a decade his work had become so eminently collectable that every painting, drawing, sketch and notebook became pure gold as soon as it was finished and he had become a brand instantly recognised as ‘Oliver’.

Of course critics and academics and fine art aficionados hated him. They regarded his prodigious output as excessive, his talent facile, and his paintings utterly vacuous. But his incredible commercial success eclipsed all of them - because he was Oliver, who transcended the mundane and banal simply by painting things so perfectly that they became divine - whatever they were.

But then it stopped.

Or rather, he stopped. He couldn’t work out which.

He didn’t stop suddenly. He ground to a halt so slowly he didn’t even notice he wasn’t working anymore until the silence of his creative death had become so deafening he could no longer deny it.

It began innocently.

He'd just had a yen to relax a little, that’s all. To not work as hard as he always had. Previously he’d always stuck rigorously to a routine - Monday to Friday from ten in the morning to six at night with no break. He ordered food in, eating as he worked.

Then he would walk home, which was just around the corner, and after eating whatever Simone put in front of him, he would drink wine and watch television until midnight, then go to bed. On Saturdays he went out and got drunk or high, or high and drunk, whichever came first. And on Sundays he slept, ate and made love with Simone. With the exception of the odd day or night off for social appointments, this had been his life since he left art school.

Until about a year ago, when it all changed.  

The catalyst was a large and very comfortable couch. It was Simone who'd bought it. She’d grown tired of there being nowhere comfortable to sit when she came to the studio to visit.

‘Sit on a chair,’ muttered Oliver when she complained.

He gestured at one of the hard backed chairs scattered around the studio, then went back to mapping in the line of a woman’s breast on a canvas.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Chairs are for sitting, not relaxing.’

Oliver stepped back, squinting at what he’d just done.

‘I don’t come here to relax.’ he said absently. ‘I come to work.’

‘Well I don’t,’ she said firmly. ‘I’m your wife and I won’t sit on a chair. I want a couch, so I’m buying a couch.’

Absorbed in his work, Oliver thought nothing of it.

So she bought him a couch and had it installed along one wall of the rear studio - a huge puffy confection covered in velvet, long enough to lie full length, and so soft and affectionate it embraced and consumed whoever sat in it.

Ironically the arrival of this couch coincided with Simone finally accepting that the studio was no place for her, so her visits stopped soon after.

Oliver didn’t care either way. He had work to do.

Nevertheless, over the next month, the couch kept beckoning, like a drug dealer in the shadows, waiting for a moment of weakness to capture him.

Which is what happened one morning when, finding himself suffering the throes of a particularly bad hangover, Oliver became sleepy as he worked. Usually in these instances, he’d head down to the kitchen and pull himself a double shot of coffee from his old Gaggia machine, then push on through. But this time he was acutely aware of the silent lure of his new couch, sitting soft and cushiony against the far wall.

He didn’t give in immediately - he stood looking at it for a while. It felt wrong, almost sinful to stop work and sleep. But the cushions seemed to billow towards him, beckoning him to lie down.

Fuck it, he thought. Just the once.

So, putting down his brush, he crossed the studio, and for the first time in his working life, he lay down during a working day and took a nap.

The couch took him in its embrace and soothed him, and his nap was wonderful - deep and dreamless and refreshing. And when he resumed work an hour later he was amazed at how much better he felt.

After that it seemed logical to make naps as part of his daily routine. And for a while it worked. He’d never experienced such tranquillity and inspiration. Added to which, there was also a sense that after decades of ceaseless production, perhaps he deserved to take his foot off the accelerator a little. Enjoy a little leisure.

It was his reward, to rest a little.

But the naps gradually grew longer. A half hour nap became one hour. And why not? What’s wrong with a little pleasure in the day. Then he passed the two hour mark one day, though it left him disoriented and sluggish. So he pulled himself up and applied a little discipline - cut the time back to an hour, which made him feel like he had it under control.

But within a week, he was back to two hours, then three, which had the effect of gutting his work day, because by the time he’d finished napping, all urge to work was gone.

A new and seductive habit of procrastination smoothed the way for this new development. As each wasted day passed, he reassured himself he’d make a fresh start tomorrow, then waste the rest of the afternoon cleaning brushes and priming new canvasses or playing with photos on his computer - or simply cleaning the Gaggia in the kitchen. Or he would simply lie back down on the couch and take another nap.  

And so it went. The more habitual the naps became, the more reasons he found to take them. He was tired. He deserved it. He was uninspired, hungover, sick … until one day he didn’t begin work at all. He spent the entire day lying on the couch. And it didn’t fuss him a bit ... not a bit.

In fact, it was wonderful.

 

Six months later he finally accepted he had a problem. This was no longer a temporary phase as he’d been telling himself. Because now, when he looked into himself for the energy to start work, there was not a skerrick of inspiration or motivation to be found. The great flywheel of his creative energy seemed to have stopped.

And it scared the hell out of him.   

Desperately he tried to kickstart it. He tried using drugs, but they didn’t work. Amphetamines made him panicky, cocaine deluded, alcohol sloppy, ecstasy unfocussed and marijuana only sent him straight back to the couch.

One time he tried magic mushrooms, with mixed results. Over an intensely inspired day and night he filled two sketchbooks with the most amazing drawings he’d ever seen. That night he went to bed ecstatic, believing he’d found a whole new direction. But when he returned early the next day and opened the sketchbooks, the drawings had disappeared. He couldn’t work it out. Until he looked more closely. And then he saw, on every page in both books, a few tentative squiggles so faint they were barely visible, and the odd dot or two, usually in the corners of the page.

Next, he tried an assistant.

Having always worked alone he thought maybe their watchful gaze might bring a change. A witness to his sloth might push him to work.

To this end he employed Judith, a busty young art student. She was very impressive in the interview. Newly released from art school, her final year thesis was a thick and very appreciative critique of himself, titled, ‘The Magical Mundane: The Paintings of Oliver Starke’.  This, in combination with her effervescent enthusiasm at the idea of working with him, ensured he hired her on the spot.

For a month everything was wonderful between them, largely because it didn’t entail any actual painting. In the guise of ‘preparation’, they cleaned both the front and back studios, bought new canvasses, new paints and materials. Then Oliver set her to reorganising his storerooms and cataloguing his old work, which he helped her with, while basking in her admiration. Their days were full and busy and though no paintings were begun, nevertheless, Oliver felt as if they were getting somewhere. He particularly liked how amazed she was by him. It made him feel renewed and strong and inspired. Trouble was, by the second week, her amazement had evolved into enthusiastic fucking on the couch, which naturally entailed long post-coital sleeps as a feature of each day.

It was inevitable that Judith would notice that nothing was being done. And, as Oliver ran out of excuses, it was painfully obvious to her, that for all her amazement and ministrations, the great man was now a spent force.

It was painful for him to see the dying of the light in her eyes, so they agreed it was best if she finished up. He sent her off with a large bonus conditional on her keeping quiet, then resumed his excruciating wait for inspiration.   

 

Now all this was problem enough - but what made it worse was, Oliver hadn’t told anybody he’d stopped painting.

As far as Simone and Julian knew, for the last year his routine had remained unaltered - as driven as it had always been. Each morning he’d leave home for the studio as usual, and stay until six when he would walk home and eat dinner with all the gusto of a man who’d been hard at work all day. And when asked, he always said it was going well. He even made sure he had paint stains on his hands each night to maintain the deception.

And then, two months ago, Julian suggested they take his new work (assumed to be under way) to New York - to break him into the American market. With a panicked heart, Oliver had blithely agreed. In fact, having had a few wines at the time, he actually said it was a wonderful idea.

The irony was nobody would have blinked if, a year ago, he’d said he needed a break. After all, with the immense body of work he’d created over the last two decades, not to mention his huge success, he’d certainly earned a holiday. But for some reason which escaped him, (though he’d often wondered about it) he felt compelled to maintain the pretence of unstoppability.

But now a deadline was in, and it was too late to confess, because too many lies had been told, and Julian had worked too hard to make the New York exhibition happen.

And time went relentlessly on.

Oliver tried not to think about it.

 

Which was what he was trying to do right now, sitting on his swivel chair at his desk chewing at his lip with his left leg juddering up and down.

He decided he felt tired.

He looked at the couch at the other end of the studio. Maybe it was time for a short nap. He glanced at his watch. Eleven AM. Pulling his hand out of his pants he stood up from the chair and stretched, still gazing at the couch.

After all, he thought, what the fuck else was there to do?

And as he collapsed into the luxuriant cushions, the couch clasped him in its familiar embrace, and he sighed with pleasure. Scrunching a cushion so it supported his head, he settled himself and, closing his eyes, fell into sublime, drooling unconsciousness.

*     *     *     *

Opening her eyes Helen lay still. Something had woken her up. She blinked at the pot plant by the fireplace. When did she last water it? And how long had she slept? Strips of sunlight were beginning to stripe the wall, coming from the slats of the Venetian blind - it was late morning.

She heard it again.

‘Lift va fuckin’ fing, eh!’

God, what a horrible voice - a glottal honk, a toneless, broken brawl of a voice. She lay still, listening to the rhythmic clang of a heavy object bumping at the banisters in the stairwell - then the metallic crash of the security door of the flat downstairs being thrown open.

She heaved herself upright. She knew what was happening now.

The flat below hers - people were moving in.

‘Bugger.’

For over a year now the downstairs flat had been empty and she and all the other tenants had become very possessive of the peace. It was a welcome relief from the chaos that had emanated from that flat throughout the years before.

The flat was owned by a government department. They used it as a clearing house for newly released criminals, lunatics and various other human debris. As such, each successive tenant, whether dazed, traumatised or mad, brought a new and unique mayhem with them for the short time they were there. For that reason, with its battered steel screen and scuffed front door, that particular flat formed a screaming black heart in the centre of the block, imbuing the lives of all around it with tension and anxiety, not to mention chronically disturbed sleep.

Nevertheless, that flat was the reason they’d all bought their places so cheaply. When presented with the bargain of their respective flats, they'd all imagined it to be a fair exchange. But Helen had now been here for four years, and it became clear within the first months after she'd moved in, that ownership of her flat had been no bargain.

The first year she’d lived above an Indian family who couldn’t communicate without screaming and slamming doors, and the entire block echoed with the Bombay ballads they played from daybreak to midnight, Daily she vowed to put her flat back on the market. Trouble was, with the stench of cigarette smoke, spices and ghee filling that section of the stairwell, she knew she’d not get much for it. She decided to put it off and see if the next tenant was any better.

Next came an alcoholic ex-con - obese and covered in hair, with his massive arms scribbled with haphazard tattoos, he took to sitting on his balcony drinking flagons of port all day, and leaping to his feet when anyone passed by on the path below to lean over his balcony rail and chat amiably about his intent to rape and kill them as soon as the sun went down. Luckily he was drinking himself unconscious before he could do it, thought Helen at the time - so she was getting more sleep than when the Indians were there. A few days later he remained conscious enough to assault one of her neighbours on the stairs and was carted off back to prison.

Within a week the ever changing procession of the damned, delirious and doomed threw up another tenant -  a stooped, toothless junkie newly released from prison. The day after he arrived they passed on the stairs and he'd smiled and wished her a good day, and Helen had thought he seemed quite nice. He was certainly very polite, so she was encouraged to believe that all was well for a while. Even after she found him slumped in the stairwell turning blue from an overdose of heroin, and had to revive him by walking him up and down the stairs for a couple of hours, she'd reassured herself that at least he was quiet.

Once more she put off selling her flat - until a week later, when a rich stench of death spread through the stairwell and she realised why she hadn’t seen him around for a while.

The smell of dead junkie was still clearing when the next tenant was delivered - a one-eyed recluse who was never seen during the day, but whose nightmares were so horrifying his intermittent howling and screaming kept everyone on tenterhooks each night - until early one morning, when he dove headlong from his balcony onto the pavement below, to lie broken and screaming amid a ring of confused residents in nightgowns and slippers, who didn’t know what to do until Helen took command.

The next day she rang a real estate agent and put her flat on the market.

But then the strangest thing happened. No new tenants arrived. Over the following weeks the clanging steel door of that flat remained silent, and she and the other tenants began to hope their ordeal was over.

As the weeks became months and the flat remained empty she took her flat off the market again, daring to believe that maybe it had gotten lost in some bureaucratic crack - that it might stay empty and silent.

And it had. For a whole year now.

And the silence was magical.

Sounds she'd never noticed before became fascinating - the whispering of wind, the susurrant rustling of leaves in the treetops above her balcony. The twittering of birds.

Not only was the silence intoxicating, but with the toxic melange of odours from that flat now missing, new smells emerged. The subtle perfume of flowers and eucalyptus from the trees - the wafting aroma of ginger and soy from the Chinese people on the ground floor. The crisp tang of wet grass when it rained.

The longer the flat remained vacant, the more precious these textures of tranquillity became, such that the tenants had taken to whispering to each another as they passed in the stairwell, like awed supplicants in a church trying not to disturb the peace.

 

Clambering to her feet Helen tiptoed to the front door of her flat. Pulling it open as softly as she could, she peered down into the stairwell.

The first thing she noticed was the smell. It was back. That acidic redolence of cheap deodorant, cigarettes and adrenalin - the cat piss reek of fear and violence she’d breathed every working day of her 20 years as a cop. It was back and she didn’t want it to be back, but it was, and it felt like a fist crushing her heart in her chest.

Two men in grimy overalls appeared below, loping down the stairs to the front door, the hasty squeak of their sneakers on the stairs, the sullen murmur of their voices. Maybe that horrible voice she’d heard was one of the removalists, she thought. Maybe the tenant was actually someone nice.

Soothed by this thought she decided she should go down.

See for herself. Introduce herself.

Fixing a Dr Bob smile onto her face, she crept down the stairs to the next landing. The security door which had been so wonderfully closed for so long, was now propped against the wall with a brick, the flat door wide open.  She poked her head and looked in.

Other than a battered white vinyl sofa propped on its end against the far wall, the flat seemed empty.  

‘Hellooo?’ she trilled in a nervous falsetto.

Nothing.

‘Helloooo?’ A little louder.

She stepped in and peeped around the corner into the lounge-room.

A kid was standing there - grubby little fucker in stained white sports gear with a baseball cap pulled low over his ears. He seemed preoccupied, muttering to himself and scratching at an elbow, glaring at something out of her sight.

She edged further around the corner to see.

It was an old television - one of those huge heavy HMVs from the seventies, all varnished timber and cream plastic knobs trimmed with gold, only in this case very much the worse for wear, the cabinet scratched and splintered down one side. For some reason Helen noticed the cord was coiled, unplugged at the back. She wondered if the kid knew.

Widening her smile even more she said, ‘Hallo!’

No reaction. The kid kept mumbling to himself.

‘Are you going to plug it in?’ she said, pointing at the coiled cord at the back of the television.

She said it loud enough she was sure, but he didn’t seem to hear.

She was about call out again when the kid bawled ‘Fuckkk yah!’ in the horrible voice she’d heard before.

Then, stepping forward, he rammed the sole of his sneaker into the screen. The television reared back and crashed against the wall. It rocked back and forth and went still. The kid was dancing on his toes now, like a boxer between bouts. He leapt forward again and karate kicked the television, harder this time. The empty room reverberated with the crash and jangle of innards as the television smashed against the wall. A rear panel fell off. Dust spewed out, the kid watching as his smashed television slowly rocked itself back upright.

For a moment there was silence.

Then his eyes slipped to the side and he noticed Helen.

For a few seconds they stared at one another.  

What an ugly human being, she thought. Long, gangling body lost in the baggy sports gear, with a strangely misshapen head, shaped like a butter-nut pumpkin - narrow in the middle, as if his mother had coughed as he crowned at birth, and a bulbous forehead beneath a baseball cap. And his mouth - it clung to his face like an crimson sea slug - two thick, wet, lips that twitched as if thinking their own thoughts.

Even without knowing this kid, she hated him. She knew what he was - the mad, stupid DNA of him - him and all his kind, with the cocky bounce in their steps and nervous ticks and heroin pinned eyes. Just standing here looking at him, she felt sick all over again - the whole toxic soup of defiant despair this kid came from was an infection. And the places he came from, the overheated commission flats reeking of cigarettes and burnt food and sweat and the stench of unwashed bodies. The dank stairwells stinking of urine and greasy haired girls shrieking from the balconies.

She'd gotten away from it but now here it was again - come to live beneath her in the form of this ugly little brat before her.

As if a switch was flicked somewhere,  the kid blinked. His lips gathered themselves into a wet crimson grin as his black eyes remained wary, unblinking beneath the shadow of the bill of his baseball cap.

‘It dint work,’ he said, gesturing at the television.

Helen was about to point out that he hadn’t plugged it in when he bawled, ‘Who’re you!’

She cranked up her smile.

‘You moving in?’she said.

He gave this some thought, his lubricious lips hovering tentatively.

Then he said, ‘Yeah mate!’

She nodded enthusiastically.

‘Excellent ...’

It was his eyes that frightened her the most – two black holes drilled into the bottom of the dark bony sockets in his head. They seemed to glitter, as if electric circuits were shorting inside his head.

The kid looked around, then back at her.

 ‘I’m gunna be livin’ here, eh!’ he roared, as if it was a surprise.

Helen wondered why he was shouting. They were only six feet apart.

‘I’m your neighbour,’ she said brightly.

The kid just stared at her. An uncomfortable pause ensued, his unblinking gaze fixed to her face. The thick, twitching mouth gathered itself.

‘Nah mate,’ he bawled. ‘It’s jus’ me movin’ in!’

She frowned at the peculiar disconnect between what she’d said and what he’d just told her - the question he’d just answered which she hadn’t asked.

‘The housin’ agency mate, they put me in here!’

‘Oh yeah,' she said. 'Which agency?’

‘The agency mate. Y’know? For youff wiff problems?’

Youth With Problems - she knew it. So he wasn’t just barmy, he was a criminal as well.

He took a step towards her. She instinctively stepped back, shifting her feet to a defensive stance, but he stopped and lifted a bony finger to his left ear.

‘I’m deaf mate!’ he bellowed. ‘Carn hear nuffink.’

‘You’re deaf?’

‘Yeah!’  

Great, not only mad and criminal but deaf as well.

He snickered.

‘Went to sleep in a speaka mate!’

‘A speaker?’

‘Yeah! Put me head in a speaker at a pardy, mate.’

He snickered then paused, watching her. She figured he was waiting for her to nod, so she did. Then he delivered the punchline.

‘Went to sleep an’ woke up deaf, mate. Busted me eardrums. Boffovum.’

As Helen deciphered the mush of vowels and consonants of this last word, she realised he was waiting for her to react. She gave a tepid smile. It was all she could do.

They stood looking at one another, then his eyebrows raised with an inspiration.

He said, ‘Yer wanna see somefing?’

‘No, it’s okay …’

But in a flurry of skinny arms and legs he’d bounded across the room, to a large cardboard box beside the balcony door. Scrabbling at the flaps, he threw them open and looked back at her, his lips hanging loose in a ready-for-anything gape.

‘Come an’ see mate!’

She crossed the room and, making sure she was on the opposite side, looked into the box.

Ducks. About ten of them. Half grown with shiny new feathers still tufted with down, they quacked frantically as they scrabbled over each other, pin-balling off the sides of the box, slipping and scraping over the shit smeared cardboard.

‘What do you want ducks for?’

‘Pets mate! I bought ‘em at the market!’

‘Pets?’

He nodded, beaming at her from beneath his cap.

‘Yeah mate, pets,’ he roared. ‘I never ‘ad pets.’

She was digesting the pathos of this last statement when a bumping and grinding came from the doorway – the two removal men hauling in a bed base.

‘I better go,’ she said, stepping back. ‘Enjoy your ... um ...’

‘Ducks, mate!’

‘Yeah, your ducks ...’

‘Fanks!’ he blurted. ‘Fanks a lot!’

As she headed for the door she happened to glance back and caught a snapshot of him, wet grin collapsed, his obsidian eyes watching her, unblinking and flat. And right then she instinctively knew this would not end well.

*     *     *     *

That night, six o’clock sharp, Oliver picked up his scuffed leather bag and ambled home along the tree shrouded length of Harold Street. It took him fifteen reluctant minutes to circle the block to the long red brick façade of the warehouse where he and Simone lived.  

He’d bought the place when he and Simone first married. Back then it was a burnt out warehouse. Originally built at the turn of the century as a clothing factory, it resembled a fortress on the outside - towering redbrick walls crenelated at the top like a castle, with a loading bay and a huge redwood door in the middle of the front wall. Over the following year Simone had transformed it into an extraordinary house - designed it, supervised the building of it and designed the décor, creating a vast modernist interior of high ceilings, hardwood floors, green tinted glass and stainless steel.

Pushing the redwood door closed behind him, he paused in the foyer, gazing up at two of his paintings set high up on the wall. He did them about ten years ago - two huge canvasses from the ‘Bird of Paradise’ series. Brilliantly coloured and carefully lit from lights inset into the ceiling, they soared twenty feet up to a cathedral ceiling of hewn red gum beams arching overhead. The amount of work it had taken to paint them. And the glazes - he’d never created such perfect blends of colour with such luminescent depth.

Breathtaking.

Yet each night, as he closed the door, these two paintings taunted him with what he had once been and the talent he seemed to have lost.

Or maybe it was the house that made him feel sick. He wasn’t sure. All he knew was he hated the place. He didn’t know exactly why, he just did. Perhaps it was the excessive space and meticulously designed order. Or maybe it was his paintings hung like prisoners on the walls. Whatever it was, when he closed the front door behind him, he always felt a twinge of claustrophobia. It was like living in a fucking museum.

Music was coming from the kitchen - the loping cadences of a Bach cello suite. And the faint murmur of voices - a man’s voice, then laughter.

With his leather bag hanging open Oliver crossed the hall and, passing the double doors leading to the lounge, entered into the bright lights and stainless steel expanse of the kitchen.

He stopped in the doorway, looking in.

Simone was standing at the cooking range with her hip against the rail, looking sleek and oriental in a white kaftan. She held a globe of wine to the side as she stirred a stainless steel pot with a wooden spoon. An open bottle of red wine was on the bench, the air redolent with the warm aroma of cooking tomatoes, onions and garlic.

A man was leaning against the marble workbench - a handsome man, tanned and sleek in blue jeans and a black T shirt that clung like a second skin to the muscled plates of his torso. Still smiling, he was sipping from a glass of red wine.

The scene was so intimate Oliver felt like an intruder, particularly as he saw Simone’s smile fall away when she noticed him standing in the doorway.

‘Oliver …’ she said.

He nodded at her, then looked at the man, who gave him a wide and friendly smile. A brief, but tense silence followed. And in that silence Oliver had an epiphany. He didn’t know who this man was, but he knew this was the man who would take Simone away from him. He felt it, as a kind of reverse déjà vu - as if he’d already lived this moment, and all the events that would follow, and now he was living it all over again.

And the thrusting stab in his heart reminded him of the thoughts he’d woken up with that morning, sitting up in the bed beside Simone’s sleeping body, when he'd wondered how it would feel to lose her. And right then he wanted to fix the mistakes he’d made and be everything to her that he hadn’t been. He wanted to heal all the hurt he’d inflicted on her and make love to her until she was so filled with him she could never leave.

‘Oliver, you’ve met Roberto,’ said Simone.

She glanced across at the man, who smiled more widely and lifted his wine glass to Oliver.

‘My pleasure,’ he said. His voice was pleasantly accented and deep - Greek or Italian – confident and friendly.

‘Sorry?’ said Oliver, cocking his head as if he hadn’t heard.

‘I am Roberto,’ said the man. ‘Roberto Tacchi.’

Oliver nodded vaguely then looked away, as if thinking of other things.  Roberto, perhaps sensing something was not quite right, stepped out from behind the bench and came towards him, holding out his hand.

 ‘I am honoured to meet you,’ he said in his rich accent.

Oliver glanced at the outstretched hand, then turned away, dropping his bag onto a stool by the bench. As he let go of the handle the bag teetered and fell sideways to the floor, spilling pens, pencils, pads and bits of paper over the tiles.

Immediately, Roberto bent down, as if to help clean it up.

‘Leave it,’ snapped Oliver, waving him away.

‘No, please, it’s okay,’ said Roberto, picking up a pencil.

‘Fuck off and leave it!’ bellowed Oliver, and his voice filled the kitchen, an explosion of such vehemence even he was taken aback.

When he saw the shocked expressions on both Roberto and Simone’s faces he felt as if he was falling. He wanted to explain. He wanted to apologise to this graceful man and shake his hand and welcome him to his house. He wanted to tell Simone how beautiful she was, and tell them both how tired he was and how his life had ground to a halt and he didn’t know why. In the few seconds of shocked silence that followed his outburst, all these things leapt into his mouth.

But he swallowed it all and felt sick instead.

His wife looked away, exchanging glances with her guest, and Oliver spotted the swift moment of intimacy between them. He winced as if a dagger had been slid into his gut.

‘Oliver, you know Roberto,’ she said. ‘You’ve met him before.’

‘Yes, we have met,’ said Roberto, smiling apologetically as he stood back, wiping his hands on his jeans. ‘But I’m sure you meet so many people  ...”

And right then Oliver did remember - they had indeed met. Last night at Julian’s soiree.  Simone had introduced them.

Chalk up another one to that horrible night.

Preoccupied, he missed a part of what Roberto was saying.

‘... so your wife and myself, we have business together now. We signed the contracts today …’

‘I told you about it Oliver.’ added Simone tiredly.  ‘I told you.’

And again he remembered that yes, she had indeed said something of that nature. Something to do with business. Ahh yes, that’s right, it was in the taxi on the way to Julian's soiree.

But even knowing all this, Oliver still could not back down.

‘So what?’ he said to Simone. ‘You’re in business. Excellent. But what the fuck is he doing in my kitchen?’

Our kitchen Oliver,’ said Simone flatly. ‘Our kitchen ...’

‘I don’t give a fuck.’ he said, wishing he could stop but unable to. ‘Do I bring my business home? No, I don’t ...’

Simone raised her voice to meet his.

‘Oliver, he’s my business partner, and my friend, and I invited him to our kitchen in our house, because I assumed you might have the courtesy to greet him as a friend ...’

‘Yeah well, no,’ he mumbled. ‘Fuck it, I’m too tired ...’

Having dug the hole so deep he could no longer get out, Oliver strode across to the fridge and pulled open the door. Taking an opened bottle of chardonnay, he plucked a glass from the rack on the wall, filled it to the brim and sculled it. Burping loudly, he refilled the glass and sculled that one too.

Pushing the fridge door closed with his hip, he saw Simone glaring at him. She pointed to his leather bag still lying at the foot of the stool with its contents scattered over the floor.

‘Are you going to clean that up?’

He looked down at it.

‘No,’ he said. He gestured at Roberto with his glass. ‘Get your little mate to do it. He seems keen.’

As he walked down the stairs and through the double doors into the lounge, he heard a loud clang from the kitchen as Simone threw a wooden spoon into the sink.

 

Pausing to drain his glass, he threw himself down on one of the leather couches in front of the television. Setting the bottle on the coffee table he grabbed the remote and sat back, listening to the faint reverberation of Simone and Roberto’s voices in the kitchen.

Briefly he wondered if he should go back and apologise. Then he heard footsteps in the hall and the heavy clunk of the front door closing.

Too late.

Sighing, he refilled his glass and pointed the remote at the television, thumbing the ‘on’ button. With a fizz the wide screen came to life and he began flicking through channels – game show, game show, news, soapie, game show, movie … news. He put the remote down and watched the newsreader mouthing silently on the screen while sipping at his wine.

He heard the soft pad of Simone’s feet behind him, then sensed her stop behind the couch. He pretended to be absorbed in the TV, lifting the remote and turning the sound on. He took a sip of wine.

‘Turn it off Oliver,’ Simone said from behind him.

He thumbed the mute and waited.

 ‘You’re a pig,’ she said. ‘A rude, self obsessed, pig.’

Then she left, the soft pad of her feet receding as she walked away.

Keeping his eyes fixed to the screen Oliver took another sip of wine and wished it had all been different.

 

When he’d finished the bottle Oliver went back to the kitchen and opened another. Belching loudly he returned to the lounge and settled himself back on the couch. Refilling his glass he switched channels to a sitcom.

Two glasses later he began to doze, his big body slipping down the leather of the couch. At some point, being almost prone, he lifted his feet up onto the couch. Propping his head on a cushion, he fell asleep.

He awoke to the whisper of Simone’s feet on the floor again. With his eyes still closed he felt her stop behind the couch. Her finger poked at his shoulder.

‘Oliver.’

He winced, pretending he’d just woken. He looked up, squinting as if newly awake. She was staring down at him, her hair damp from a shower and her face radiant and pink. He could smell the jasmine scent of the soap she used.

‘We need to talk,’ she said.

‘What … now?’

‘Yes now.’

Swinging his legs off the couch he sat up and reached for the wine bottle but it was empty, though he couldn’t remember finishing it.

Simone settled herself at the other end of the couch.

‘So?’ he said, setting the bottle back in the table. ‘What’s up?’

He noticed her bottom lip quivering.

‘What’s wrong Simone?’

She looked away, staring fixedly at the muted television.

‘I can’t stand this anymore,’ she said.

He burped softly.

‘Stand what?’

‘You, Oliver. Us. This. I can’t stand this.’

They’d been here before. And usually she would burst into tears and everything would be fine. That was the way it had been in the past anyway. And somehow, in Simone’s tears, he always felt cleansed, as if she cried for them both.  

‘What’s wrong, Simone?’ he coaxed softly.

‘Don’t do that!’ she snapped, glaring at him.

‘What?’

‘You always do that! You think if you can make me cry it’s over. But this isn’t going away! Not this time!’

This is new, he thought, and the crushing sense of finality he’d felt before came back.

‘I'm sorry Simone,’ he said through a sigh. ‘I’m just so fucking tired. This New York thing’s really got me under the hammer ...’

He stopped when he noticed her glaring at him, her eyes narrowed, as if burning a hole in his face.

‘What?’ he said.

‘You’re a liar,’ she snarled.

 She’d never called him a liar before...

‘Why am I a liar?’ he said.

‘You’ve lied about everything.’

‘Everything?’

‘Everything!’ she shrieked. ‘You’ve lied about your work! There’s not going to be a show in New York!’

‘Whoa, hang on ...’

‘... because you haven’t done any paintings!’

And right there he felt hairline cracks appear in his secret. He didn’t know what to do. He tried to gather his wits, but the wine was sitting heavily in his head.

‘But you’ve seen me ...’

‘Seen you what?’

‘You know,’ he said ineffectually. ‘Going to work ...’

She snorted.

‘You haven’t worked for over a year, Oliver, Jemma told me!’

Damn - worse than he thought.

‘Jemma?’

‘Yes! Jemma!’

‘When were you talking to Jemma?’

‘She came into the shop and I was saying how exciting it was that you were exhibiting in New York ...’

She stopped then, glaring at him.

‘And you know what she did?’

‘What did she do?’

‘She laughed! The bitch! She laughed!’

‘She laughed? Why did she do that?’

‘Because there are no paintings Oliver! She told me. She said you just sit around all day doing nothing and she thinks it’s a joke!’

Oliver felt a chill.

‘What else did she say?’

Simone looked at him like he was mad.

‘What else could she say Oliver?’

He frowned, absently scratching his arm.

Simone threw her head into her hands and a long keening sound erupted from her that wrenched at his heart.

‘Don’t Simone, please don’t.’

She stopped crying and sat up, looking at him.

‘Tell me why!’ she blurted.

‘I don’t know why ... I can’t work, that’s all. I’m tired ...’

‘So why didn’t you say something?’

Oliver thought about this, as he had thought about it so many times before.

‘I don’t know,’ he said.

A silence came down, neither of them knowing where to go from there. Simone wiped her eyes with the hem of her night gown.

‘And why were you so rude to Roberto?’ she said.

‘I don’t know, Simone, I don’t know.’

*     *     *     *

This horrible, horrible suit. It was all for Crystal, this horrible suit.

Helen bought it about a month ago - ten dollars from the Salvation Army secondhand shop in St Kilda. Big baggy bastard, double-breasted dark blue pinstripe with lapels almost as wide as her shoulders. From the stink of it when she first bought it there was no doubt it was last seen swilling pots in the TAB bar of a very bad hotel on a big sweaty bastard who pissed himself regularly - she’d dry cleaned it twice since she’d bought it and it still had the stink of him. It even felt horrible, the cheap synthetic cloth scratching at her neck - but unfortunately it was the only suit she could find with the bulk and size she needed.

And need it she did.

But it did the job. With her bulky breasts strapped into a corset and a crisp white shirt, muted tie and her hair slicked back with California Poppy, she looked like a big bloke out for a drink - which was exactly what she needed to look like, to go where she was going tonight.

Because Crystal required it. And whatever Crystal wanted, Crystal got.

 

She met Crystal about four weeks ago, in the front bar of the Crown Hotel, a toilet pub now glitzed into a gay bar, alternating boy and girl nights. She’d been going there every Friday night.

All part of a new resolution to make friends.  

Not that she particularly wanted friends. Since retirement, she’d been content to sit in her flat doing nothing but eating pasta and listening to talk-back radio.

But when one night she found herself screaming at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, then weeping at the pathetic sight of herself weeping, it occurred to her that maybe she should get out and meet people. That’s when she realised that the apparent comfort of her singular life had simply been a warm woolly space to go mad in – an insidious kind of madness that would consume her if she allowed it, and turn her into a living ghost. She needed people, whether she felt like it or not. And more particularly, she needed her own kind of people, who she’d avoided so assiduously during her time in the job.

So, once every week she forced herself to go out. She’d pull on her jeans and Blundstone boots and her big shirt, slick back her hair, then clatter down the stairs to catch a cab to the Crown, floating on hope that maybe tonight she’d meet someone interesting.

With the excited optimism of most who approach the thumping, roaring exterior of a night spot, she’d push through the swinging doors and squeeze through the packed women to the bar. There she would commandeer a stool and order a beer, and that’s where she would remain for the rest of the evening, waiting for the magical meeting to happen.

But it never did.

All night she sat listening to giggling and laughter around her, casting sidelong looks at women dancing beneath the blue and red lights at the end of the room, and wonder how they did it.

How did people find the courage to introduce themselves and have conversations with people they didn’t know? It seemed impossible to her. What do you say when there’s nothing to say? What do you do?

It was all too much.

So she’d keep drinking at the bar and doodling on coasters, hoping maybe someone would do it all for her - introduce themselves and do all the talking as well. But no-one ever did.

So each of these Friday nights had their inevitable end, where she’d stumble out into the night with her belly bloated with beer and take a cab home vowing never to come back again.

Until the next Friday night, when she'd push through the swinging doors with the same blind optimism, to doggedly sit at the bar and drink beer and draw on coasters.

Until she met Crystal.

 

That particular night had been a quiet one - just a few couples at tables along the wall. She’d just arrived and was perched at her usual spot at the bar, hovering over her first pot of beer, when the door burst open to a clamour of squealing voices.

Turning with everyone else at the bar, she watched a gaggle of six suicide blondes crowd in, all giggling hysterically because everything was too much to handle. They weren’t the usual types for this place, which tended toward serious dykes in jeans and Doc Martens. These girls looked like they’d stepped out of a Hustler magazine - tall and slender with long coltish legs clad in candy coloured tights and spiky stilettos and their impossibly large breasts crammed into skimpy tube tops. In this place they looked like aliens who’d tumbled giggling from the same space ship.

Oblivious to who was watching, a couple collapsed legs akimbo around a table, while another two scampered onto the dance floor.

And one headed to the bar, where Helen was sitting, trying not to stare.

Jigging restlessly on the balls of her feet, the girl stood next to her waiting to be served. Helen noticed she kept touching herself – her face, her hair, the back of her neck - restless fingers darting everywhere, as if checking she was still all there.

On some kind of powder, no doubt.

She watched in the mirror as the girl ordered six Midoris with lemonade and paid out of a Glomesh purse. And she watched the girl giggle to herself as she tried to figure out how to carry six drinks back to her friends. First she tried to gather them up between both hands, but there were too many. She looked back to her friends and called out, but the music was too loud. She looked back at the drinks, giggling to herself.

Helen was just thinking maybe she should offer to help when the girl looked at her with a wide, intoxicated smile.

 ‘You couldn’t give us a hand, could you?’

It took a few seconds for Helen to realise she’d just been spoken to.

She paused for only a second, then blurted, ‘Sure! I’ll give you a hand,’ and right then the universe split in two, and a new one began.

Wrapping her hands around three of the glasses she followed Crystal back to the table and helped her distribute the drinks among the other girls. Stepping back, she paused, unsure whether to walk away - but Crystal asked if she’d like to join them. So, after pretending polite reluctance, she grabbed a chair from another table and squeezed her denim clad bulk in among the slender bodies around the table.

Within a few minutes, she’d fallen effortlessly into their squealing, giggling, fidgeting world. It gathered her up in a cloud of giggles, cheap perfume and cigarette smoke, and she began to feel an elation she’d not felt in a long time - the elation of being with friends.

They were lap dancers who usually worked at a bar in the city, but that night they'd decided to take a break and come to the Crown where they could dance and have fun without being pestered by men - all related to Helen in verbal shorthand amid the flouncing and giggling squeals of their kind.

The rest of that night glowed singularly in the firmament of her recent life, like a newborn star in a dark and empty sky. Never before had she laughed with so much of her body, or danced so wildly. Nor had she snorted lines of speed off a toilet cistern or smoked a joint passed beneath the table, or drunk so many different kinds of sugary cocktails.

As the chemical enhancement of Helen’s senses progressed, the table where she sat became a cocoon of excitement and joy, and she forgot herself. These hard, beautiful girls with their shrieks and giggles and mischief, and their handbags full of cash and baggies of speed - they seemed to glow, making the rest of the bar seem dank and dreary by comparison, like an outland around a brilliantly lit city.

When the bar eventually closed they stumbled out into the cold morning air giggling and chattering at the tops of their voices, and with birds trilling and the sky turning pink and orange from the rising sun, it seemed to Helen as if a magnificent celebration was going on, and she’d finally been reborn from the awful purgatory of her lost decade.    

And somehow she found herself in a cab with Crystal.

And somehow they ended up back at Crystal’s motel room in the city, where they snorted more powder then played Tom Jones on the CD player and sang ‘Delilah’ at the tops of their voices.

And somehow a long kiss that was accidental but on purpose turned into a frenzied shedding of clothes, then the soft luxury of entwined nakedness on the bed, and a strip of morning sun from beneath the blinds casting a blinding white line across Crystal’s perfect body as Helen made love to her.

 

The next afternoon, still intoxicated from the night before, they arranged to meet the following Friday. But this time the girls made it clear they didn’t want to go to the gay bar. So she tagged along with them to a men’s club to watch them meet football stars. It was a predictably dreadful evening, during which she sat on a stool by the bar drinking expensive cocktails, watching her new friends cavort with over-muscled thugs and their flunkies.

But at the end of the night Crystal took her hand in the cab, and they went back to her motel room and made love again – only this time the sex was different, because this time Crystal made her needs patently clear.

‘Hurt me!’ she murmured, gripping Helen’s wrist and pushing her fingers deep into her cunt. ‘I’m a filthy slut so hurt me ... hurt me.’

And even though Helen found it quite confronting that the young vagina of this slim, beautiful girl could indeed accommodate the entirety of her carefully folded hand, she did her best.

Though truth be told, she was not experienced in this kind of sex. Nor particularly inclined to it. After all, the few other women she’d slept with had always been very soft and romantic in their love-making.

But, as Crystal moaned, screamed and writhed on the skewer of her forearm, though Helen did have some momentary doubts, nevertheless she did everything Crystal wanted.

In fact, she did everything so well that Crystal came like a steam train, spurting and shrieking and clawing at her shoulders before sinking into a satisfied coma for a half hour - after which (unlike the last time), she made passionate love to Helen in return, which caused Helen, for a few moments at least, to believe she might even be in love with this long legged, pneumatic apparition.

Since then they’d been meeting every week, with Helen spending obscene amounts of her savings on taxis and drinks at various clubs, simply so she could make love with Crystal one more time.

Always just one more time.

Of course, when sober she was under no illusions – she knew at some point, Crystal being the creature she was, the end when it came would be abrupt. But until then she was happy to do whatever the girl wanted, because the sensation of her naked body against her own, after so long alone, was like rain on a desert.

So each week she waited for the next tryst, filling the empty hours with a sweet anticipation that made everything electric.

 

And the suit?

Well, a couple of weeks into their affair, Helen decided she was sick of going to the bars and clubs. So at the end of a phone call she asked Crystal if she’d come to a movie with her, or dinner at a restaurant, or at least a quiet bar where they could talk.

‘What ... like on a date or something?’ came the sullen reply.

‘Yeah, something like that.’

There’d been a long silence.

‘Crystal?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Is that a problem?’

More silence.

‘Well, you know ...’

‘What?’

‘Well, like, you and me hanging in a group is okay, but ...’

Helen heard the rasp of a cigarette lighter from the other end of the line so she waited, listening to the soft crackle of the cigarette as Crystal drew back.

‘But what, Crystal?’

‘Well you know …’

‘No, I don’t know.’

‘Well, like, you know, if we’re with people, nobody knows ...’

‘Nobody knows?’

‘Yeah ... about you and me. ‘Cause like, you know, I’m with my friends right? Not just you.’

‘So?’

Crystal sighed.

‘Well, frankly,’ she drawled. ‘I don’t want people to think I’m going out with a fuckin’ bull dyke, you know?’

‘Oh ...’

‘... because ... well, like, it’s not like I’m gay or anything.’

This caused Helen to pause, but only for an instant.

‘No, I suppose not,’ she said tactfully.

Had she been having this conversation ten years before when she was stronger, she would have told Crystal to go fuck herself then hung up in disgust. But her need was too strong now – Crystal’s body was all she had that made her feel alive.

‘Okay,’ she said impulsively. ‘So what if I was a man?’

‘Eh?’

Helen was herself shocked by what she was about to suggest, but she kept going.

‘What if we go on a date and I come as a man,’ she said. ‘You know, wear a suit ...’

A piercing shriek came down the line, and though Helen laughed along, she began to think it might work. After all, she thought, a suit was only a short step beyond the jeans and timber-workers shirts and boots and slicked back hair she got about in anyway.

Then, to her surprise, Crystal agreed.

‘I gotta see this,’ she added, giggling into the phone.

Then she squealed, ’Are you gunna wear a moustache?’ and Helen had to hold the phone away from her ear as fresh shrieks of giggling distorted in the earpiece.

Still, having stepped into the unknown to feed her addiction to Crystal’s body, she was not the kind to step back. So, after arranging to meet at the motel two nights later, she grabbed her bag and went out to buy a suit.

 

When the big night came she actually thought she looked pretty good, until Crystal opened the door and squealed, then fell about laughing.

’Oh come on ...’ said Helen pushing the door closed.

Crystal’s motel room smelled, as it usually did, of stale cigarette smoke and cheap perfume, the bed unmade and underwear and clothes all over the floor.  

Crystal peered at her through a wide grin.

‘What’re we gunna call you?’ she said.

Helen sighed.

‘Do we have to do this? Come on, get dressed.’

‘I know! Bill!’ said Crystal wondrously, then fell onto the bed in another fit of giggling, squealing, ‘What about Merv. Merv the perve ...’

‘Oh for god’s sake ...’

But Crystal insisted they find a name for her. So after running through ‘Fred’, ‘Harry’ and a few other monikers, they settled on 'Ned', after Crystal’s favourite uncle.

 

The dinner was not a success - largely because Crystal, being a creature of fast food outlets, bars and motel bedrooms, couldn’t cope with the hushed formality of the place, or the waiters pouring her drinks and attending to her needs.

‘It’s like being in a fucking church,’ she whispered, then gave a start as a waiter appeared at her side and refilled her glass.  

‘You don’t have to whisper, Crystal ...’

‘Well for fuck’s sake ...’

With Crystal casting suspicious glances about her in case one of the waiters surprised her again, conversation was painfully sporadic - largely limited to an ongoing critique of the décor and cocktails (fruit daiquiris) and the food.

‘... I mean, you’d think you’d get more for your money ...’

In this way they ploughed through three courses of gourmet Chinese food, all of which Crystal attacked like a pig at a trough while sculling daiquiris as if they were cordial, then ordering more.

Finally, as a waiter collected the piles of dishes, she picked up her handbag and disappeared to the toilet, where she stayed for half an hour while Helen sipped a glass of house wine and doodled with a pen on the backs of serviettes.

When Crystal finally returned, trailing a pungent stink of perfume, cigarettes, vomit and mouthwash, Helen didn’t care. She quickly paid the bill and they caught a cab back to the motel, to fulfil her weekly fix of needful, naked love.

 

So here she was again – her fourth time as ‘Ned’.

With her hair slicked back and a pair of op shop brogues that squeaked as she walked, Helen clattered down the stairs, afloat on a cloud of carnal anticipation.

She’d just reached the bottom of the stairwell when her mobile phone beeped a message. Panting heavily, she stopped and fished the phone from an inside pocket. She thumbed up the message.

 It was from Crystal and it said: ‘DNT CUM ... WE FINISD’.

Helen glared at the curt capitals lined across the tiny blue screen. She knew what they said but couldn’t quite digest their finality, or their brevity. To be cast aside like this by these crude abbreviations? It was too much.

Hastily she keyed in ‘WHT TH FUK?’, pressed send.

She waited, gazing fixedly at her ridiculous reflection in the glass of the entrance hall door. The message had stripped her bare, such that she now felt the humiliation of what she’d done - the roly-poly suit and carefully shined shoes and slicked back hair. It wasn’t Crystal who had humiliated her - it was herself and her pathetic lust for Crystal’s contemptuous sex. She’d turned into a caricature of her own blind desire.  

There was a clatter of shoes on the steps outside, then the front door opened.

It was the kid - that deaf kid from downstairs.

He stepped through the door and went still when he spotted her, wide-eyed with his mouth hanging open, wet lipped and slack. Then recognition bloomed and his mouth rearranged itself into an incredulous grin.

‘Fuck mate, I fort you was a cop!’

Helen forced an amiable smile.

‘No ... it’s only me.’

The kid cocked his head, his black pinhole gaze flicking over her suit.

‘You goin’ out are yer?’  

She was about to tell him to mind his own business when the door bumped open behind him. A short, plump girl in jeans and a fluorescent tank top sidled in clutching a six pack of wine coolers in both arms. She stopped beside the kid, gazing at Helen with a blank, bovine stare.

After an uncomfortable few seconds Helen said, ‘Hi,’ but the girl just blinked at her.

She could feel herself beginning to blush. It was something she hated about herself, that she blushed so easily. Her cheeks, normally flushed anyway, would turn deep crimson whenever she was under pressure and her face would burn. She could feel it happening right now.

With his gaze still fixed on her face, the kid bent down to the girls ear.  

‘It’s her what I was tellin’ you ‘bout,’ he murmured in a stage whisper.

The girl stifled a giggle.

Helen’s phone beeped.

‘Yer phone’s goin’,’ said the kid, nodding at her hand.

‘Yeah I know,’ she said, slipping it into her suit coat pocket.

‘Aren'cha gunna answer it?’

‘No, not right now.’

The girl began giggling again.

Helen couldn’t stand it anymore. With their fascinated gaze following her every move, she pushed between them and out through the door. She headed around to the back of the block where her car was - and old Holden EK sedan. Unlocking it she clambered behind the wheel and slammed the door.

She pulled the phone out from her pocket and thumbed up Crystal’s reply.

‘YU DUM? WE FINIS. FUK OF’

‘Fuck you, you little bitch!’ she muttered.

Her thumb hovered over the speed dial but she paused. What was the point? What would she say? Argue, plead? What could be said that wouldn’t highlight the already humiliating position she was in.

And what if Crystal had found someone else?

She didn’t want to hear about it.

 

Slamming the door of her flat behind her, Helen dropped her car keys and mobile onto the hall table. Kicking off the shoes, she shed the suit and corset, then bundled it all up and, picking the shoes off the floor, took it all into the kitchen and stuffed it into the waste bin, slamming the lid down.  

Massaging her breasts back to life she went back to the lounge and, picking up a cushion, threw herself down on the couch. There she sat for a long time, hugging the cushion to her chest with both arms, gazing sightlessly at dim patterns of light on the wall.

Then she heard something. Cocking her ear to the window she listened.

Quacking.

She frowned, listening more intently. Definitely quacking.

Then she remembered. The kid and his box of ducks.

Still clasping the cushion, she crept out onto her balcony and peered over the rail. Down below on the kid’s balcony, illuminated by the dim light of the moon, was the box the kid had showed her yesterday. In the light flooding through the blinds from his lounge, she could see the dim shapes of the ducks scrambling across one another, and the sound of their feet scrabbling at the bottom of the box.

And she could smell their acrid stink.

She wondered if he fed them, or cleaned their box.

And what the fuck was he doing with a box full of ducks anyway?

In the pit of her stomach she felt the barometric pressure of approaching trouble begin to rise.

‘Fucking kid.’

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Part II, Chapter 1

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Part III, Chapter 1

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