It takes two minutes to fix, five seconds to tie off, ten seconds to get the rush, one reason to become an addict, and one moment to fall in love...
Light from the kitchen sluices down the hallway and splashes up against the bathroom wall. I sit in its dim wake, on the edge of the bathtub, mixing a fix. I don’t need much light; I’ve done this hundreds of times. Normally, I’d revel in the ritual. I love the ritual. The routine. The process. But today it’s different. Today, I just want it done. Today, I just want it to be over. The truth is, if I can’t have him, if I can’t be with him, I don’t want to live at all.
My hands tremble as I pull back the plunger and draw the liquid, the same colour as Harry’s eyes, into the syringe. I wind a belt around my bicep and take a deep breath as I pump my fist and raise a vein. It’s been a while now, but I instinctively angle the needle against my skin and plunge it in.
A wisp of blood blooms in the cheap plastic tube. It’s a good hit. I press down on the plunger and release the belt that bites into my skin.
I close my eyes.
No more pain.
Now, there’s just peace. Silence.
And the endless expanse of nothingness…
A garbo found a dead junkie in a back alley today. His body, stone cold and grey, was slumped in a pool of his own piss beneath the stairs at the back of the laundromat on Fitzroy Street. It won’t make the news, of course. He wasn’t important enough to waste ink on a headline. He was just another addict who didn’t have the willpower to give up his habit in order to fall in line with the good tax-paying citizens of Melbourne. Instead, he was someone those people could feel smug about as they sat at their kitchen table discussing the rising level of crime while devising ever-more cruel and barbarous ways of punishing those who live outside the norm.
Fifty-years old, the man was a true bohemian, an eccentric Polish poet and sometime resident of the Gatwick Private Hotel. Despite summer’s killer heat or winter’s dismal chill, he would stand, unperturbed by honking car horns or dinging tram bells, amid the flurry of activity on Fitzroy Street, reciting poetry for passers-by who never bothered to stop and listen. Except for me. Every time I saw him, I’d stop. Even if it was only for a few minutes. When he recited his words, his face lit up, his movements became animated, and his voice became louder and increasingly fervent. Fractured, jangled, and repetitious, he’d ramble about horses and loneliness and angels who’d travel from place to place delivering messages of peace and comfort to those who were lost and suffering. His words connected odd ideas and disjointed realities that reflected the truth in which he lived. To most, he would have sounded like a madman, but I was always mesmerised as I waited to hear where those connections led, to hear the way his truth bled from his head to his lips and out into a world that would have been happy to wash its hands of him.
To wash its hands of me.
I look down as I reach for my glass of Jack Daniel’s and Coke and realise that my hand is trembling like a vibrating guitar string. Not enough to spill the contents over the rim, but enough for the bartender to give me a second look. What can I say? I’m like the poet. I’m a sick man. A sick, sad man who’s happy to drink alone while waiting to score.
I slide my gaze around to all the patrons in the room. Where’s that fucking Pauly? He knows I’ve got a gig at the Emerald Hill Hotel later and he’s already twenty-five minutes late.
Once upon a time, this place, with its marble walls and mosaic floors, was one of Melbourne’s leading hotels. The rot set in after World War II and by the 70s the hookers, dealers, and petty crims had taken up residence. Now, a nebula of cigarette smoke clings to the ceiling, and the entire place is encrusted with a layer of desperation and depravity.
I peer at the end of the bar. The stranger in the black leather jacket is still there. A swoop of dark brown hair falls from a side parting across eyes that strive to get my attention. He has no idea what he’s doing to me, the things he’s stirring inside of me. Things that belong in the past. That need to be forgotten. Ignored and buried. Absolutely buried.
I tear my eyes away and get my mind on the gig. If I’m late again, especially because I’m scoring dope, Karen will have my guts for garters. My assertive yet well-meaning sister loves me, but her disapproval of my ‘lifestyle choices’ are a constant source of aggravation.
And Madison. Shit. She’s working tonight… I can’t forget that I promised to pick her up after the gig. After I deal with Chris. Our vainglorious frontman. I had no idea what vainglorious meant until Angus told me. It’s a good word to describe him, but I still prefer backstabbing arsehole. We spent months searching for a singer, then, when we found Chris, we spent months working with him, teaching him how to sing the songs, how to dress, how to use a mic, how to talk to the audience… Now, he’s about to betray us. My fingers tighten around my glass as I think about it. Where the bloody hell is Pauly? If he doesn’t get here soon…
Thank God. I turn around to see Pauly, pasty and weedy and baring his nicotine-stained teeth, standing behind me grinning like a psych ward escapee.
‘Hey, man,’ he says, slapping me on the shoulder with a sweaty, slimy palm like I’m a long-lost friend. ‘How ya going?’
I shrug him off. ‘I was just about to go and get a burger.’
He loses the smile. Every junkie in St Kilda knows they can score from the hamburger joint up the road, a twenty-five-dollar foil of junk served with lettuce on a hamburger bun. It’s more than what I pay Pauly, but price is nothing when your stomach starts cramping and your skin starts crawling.
‘You weren’t really going to go there, were you?’
‘Let’s go. I’ve got a gig tonight.’ As I turn to leave, I look back at the stranger at the end of the bar. The edges of his mouth droop with disappointment when he realises I’m leaving. This town is full of freaks and weirdos, misfits, outcasts, queers, and eccentrics. It’s easy for people to be themselves here. Everyone except me. I gulp the last of my Jack and Coke and head for the door with Pauly trailing like a dog behind me.
Tommy, our six-foot tall bass guitarist, stands in the million-watt glare of the stage lights beside our drummer Shane as they lock into the heart-thumping rhythm that drives Scandal for the Masses, our final song of the night. Shane’s a killer drummer who has a knack for solid backbeats and keeping meticulous time, while Tommy is one of those guys who plays his instrument instinctively. He doesn’t know anything about technique or practice, and he doesn’t have to. He was born to play bass guitar and that’s all there is to it. Angus, on the other hand, our pale skeletal rhythm guitarist, took guitar lessons for years and is a technical wiz. He stands to my right with an ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips while chunking out the chords that underpin the melody. And centre stage, our frontman Chris struts back and forth across the boards belting out the lyric of the final verse that’s heavy on the rock and laced with gut-wrenching angst.
I close my eyes, slide my fingers down the fretboard of my second-hand Gibson SG guitar, and launch into the riff that ties the whole song together. Then the final note of the refrain… It’s loud and sustained, but when it finally fades in the amp and dies, I open my eyes and realise that the three hundred punters crowding the room are stomping on the floor and shouting more, more, MORE. I can’t help the small smile that curls the edges of my lips. This is what I play for. This is what I live for. But there will be no encore. Not tonight. Chris thanks the crowd for a ‘great fucking night’ as we make our way off stage.
I hand off my gear to our roadies and follow Tommy down the corridor at the back of the stage. Inside, the shoe box-sized room is packed to the rafters with girlfriends, well-wishers and assorted hangers-on. Shane cracks onto a couple of blondes and Angus is caught by an old friend. Tommy makes his way through the throng searching for his girlfriend, Lisa. And then I spot Chris. My blood boils as I watch him wrapping his arms around Gone by Monday, so called because of his wham, bam, thank you ma’am policy on women. All I want to do is punch his lights out and send him home with no teeth, but before I can confront him Karen slides up in front of me grinning like the clown at the entrance to Luna Park. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you,’ she says, barely containing her excitement.
‘It’s gonna have to wait.’ ‘It can’t wait.’
‘I’ve got to talk to Chris.’ ‘Now? About what?’
Before I get an answer, Gone by Monday, with her permed hair and ample flesh oozing from her skin-tight shirt, ploughs into me as she walks past, drenching me with her glass of rum and Coke.
‘Oops,’ she says, swiping her finger through the sticky liquid on my skin, before licking it with the tip of her tongue.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Karen sighs.
I flick the trickling drink off my chest as I hiss at Chris. ‘You need to get your skank out of here.’
Bewildered, Chris huffs, ‘It’s just a bit of Coke. You need to relax, mate.’
I grit my teeth as I take a step closer to our trumped-up singer. ‘I’m not your fucking mate.’
‘Hey now…’ Karen says, stepping in between us. ‘What’s all this?’
The noise level drops to zero as all eyes turn to watch us.
Suddenly worried, Gone by Monday tugs on Chris’s arm and whispers, ‘Let’s get out of here.’
But Chris won’t be told. He flings his arm around her shoulders as he glares at me. ‘What is your fucking problem?’
My fingers twitch. ‘You are. You’re out of the band. And I don’t want you here.’
Chris narrows his eyes, suddenly confused. ‘What?’
‘Get your shit and get out.’
‘Ah… Joely…’ Karen says, concern evident in her voice. ‘You wanna tell me what’s going on?’
I glare daggers at our lead singer, the man whom I believed was my friend. ‘Tell her.’
Chris frowns as he scoffs, ‘Tell her what?’
‘Tell her what you think of The Blackhearts. Tell her what you think of me and Tommy and Angus.’
Chris’s smile is feeble, hastily slapped on in the shaky wake of discovery. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘You know what we’re talking about,’ Angus says, sliding over to join us. ‘You’ve been auditioning for other bands. Figure you can do better than The Blackhearts.’
‘What?’ Chris says, feigning resentment. ‘That’s bullshit!’ ‘Two words for you,’ Tommy says. ‘Dead. Jellies.’
Chris scoffs. ‘Is that what this is about? I jammed with them a few times. What’s the big deal?’
I glare at him. ‘I gave you a chance when no one else would even look at you.’
He looks at each of us in turn. ‘I hung out with them, all right. Played a few tunes. It’s no big deal. You guys do it all the time.’
‘Your exact words to them,’ Tommy says, ‘were that Joel is overrated, that the rest of us are two-bit hacks, and that you can’t wait to join a real band.’
‘No way!’ Chris snaps. ‘I did not say that! They’re bullshitting you.’
Angus smirks. ‘They also told us that you didn’t get the gig.’
My fingers curl into my palms as I take a step closer to our backstabbing singer. ‘You just played your last gig with The Blackhearts.’
‘You’re dumping me?’
‘You don’t want to stay with a bunch of two-bit, overrated hacks, do you?’
‘Fine,’ Chris snaps. ‘We’ve been playing these shithole joints for months. This crappy band’s going nowhere.’
That’s it. I’ve had all I can take. I clench my fists and smack the prick in the mouth. Everyone in the room gasps as he stumbles arse-over-tit onto the floor. When he attempts to pick himself up, Tommy gets ready to smack him as well, only Karen steps in and stops him. ‘That’s enough,’ she shouts. ‘Enough!’ She glares down at the hapless singer. ‘He’s not worth it.’
And she’s right. He’s not worth it.
With his ego bruised and his split lip pissing blood, everyone is silent as Gone by Monday grabs their stuff and helps him up and leads him out the door.
Tommy slides up beside me. ‘You okay?’ ‘Yeah,’ I reply, flexing my battered knuckles.
‘Okay…’ Karen says, glowering at me, ‘…what the bloody hell was that?’
‘That was a blessing in disguise,’ Angus says. ‘Is that right?’
‘Chris is good, KK, but he’s not great. We need somebody great.’
‘Bloody oath,’ Tommy adds.
Karen glares at me. She knows all too well how hard it was finding a singer in the first place, even a mediocre one. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ she says. ‘I’m your manager, I need to know what’s going on.’
I glare back at her. I can tell her need to take control, to instantly smooth things over and make them better, is clawing away at her insides. Normally, I’d let her deal with it. But not this time.
‘All right,’ she finally says. ‘We’ll talk about this later, work out what we’re going to do. Right now, everyone should just go home. Or whatever.’
‘Yeah, all right,’ Shane says, grabbing one of the blonde chicks he was hitting on. ‘I’ll catch ya later.’
Tommy slaps me on the back, then grabs Lisa and cuts out. ‘Wanna come back with us?’ Angus asks.
‘Nah, mate. I’ve gotta meet Madison.’ ‘Fair enough. I’ll catch ya later then.’
I wipe the sweat off my face and the rum off my chest and pull on a t-shirt and jacket.
‘You gonna be okay?’ Karen asks.
‘I’ll be fine.’ I grumble, fingering the foils of dope in my pocket. ‘Say hi to Madison.’
‘Yeah,’ I reply as I wave and head out the door.
I look up and see the conductor standing beside me, giving me a greasy look as he waits for me to pay. He knows my kind, with our pinned eyes and vacant stare. He deals with us every day. I dig around in my pocket for the fifty-cent fare and hand it over. Satisfied, he leaves me alone and plods away.
As the tram jerks east along High Street, I listen to an old man standing at the back of the tram playing a violin. Cradled beneath his chin, his crooked fingers draw the bow backwards and forwards across the strings. Every note and every trill vibrates with the passion he has for playing it. I recognise the movement. Mum used to listen to it all the time. It was one of her favourites. I remember when I was small how she’d sit in the armchair in the corner of the lounge room and doze while Vivaldi’s violin concertos spun on the cheap suitcase-style record player beside her. As melodies and motifs were rung out of the machine’s tinny built-in speaker, she’d screw up her face like she’d just sucked a lemon or was attempting to expel some kind of demon that had shacked up inside her. I could never understand why she listened to it if it caused her so much pain. It was only when I got older that I realised her contortions weren’t caused by discomfort but by immeasurable pleasure. Finally, the tram rattles to a stop at Chapel Street. I get off and head towards Black Velvet, a massage parlour hidden in the heart of Prahran.
Inside, the same old jazz plays on the stereo as the girls, in skimpy lingerie and heavy makeup, wait for their next client. A married man who’s bored, a single man who can’t get laid, an empty man who needs somebody to want him… It’s a business that profits from the misery of others.
‘She’s waiting for you,’ Apollo grunts, urging me to get off the ‘showroom floor’. Built like a brick shithouse, Apollo ensures clients stick to the rules. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile.
I slip through the door behind the reception desk and make my way along the corridor to the dressing rooms out the back. When I get there, I lean against the door jamb and knock.
A lone voice calls out instructing me to come in.
I walk in and catch Madison in a rare moment alone, wearing nothing but a sheer black robe and a G-string that shows off the curve of her well-toned arse.
‘Are you ready?’ I say, watching as she touches up her makeup.
She smiles when she sees my reflection in the mirror. ‘In a minute,’ she replies.
I step up close behind her and whisper, ‘A minute’s a long time.’
She turns around and wraps her arms around my neck. Despite her beguiling smile, there’s a hardness to her face that no amount of make-up can cover. It’s not a hardness that you can strike matches on, but a toughness that exists in her spirit, that comes from knowing things, and seeing things, that ordinary people will never see, let alone understand. It’s a face that’s seen some shit. She’s almost ten years older than me but the moment I met her I knew I wanted to know all about her. I wanted to know where she’d been, what she’d done, and where she was going. I didn’t care about the difference in our ages, I was fascinated by her.
How was school today?’ I say, pressing kisses to her ear, her neck, her shoulder.
‘It was pretty good. We started on risk exposure and management.’
‘Risk exposure? That sounds…’ ‘Boring?’
‘I wasn’t going to say that.’
She smiles. ‘It is boring. But it’s a means to an end.’
At twenty-nine, she knows there’s not a lot of jobs for rub ’n’ tug girls who are starting to show their age. There’s no way she’s moving into full on prostitution, so she’s back at school learning how to manage other peoples’ money.
‘How was the gig?’ she asks. ‘It was good. A good crowd.’
‘I really want to come and see you.’ ‘It’s hard when we both work nights.’
‘I’ve missed you,’ she says, unbuckling the belt around my jeans.
There’s desire in her eyes as she tugs on the zipper and slides her hand inside the denim. I grip her wrist and stop her. There’s so much junk in my veins, so much chaos in my brain… I don’t know if I can do this right now. ‘We should go home.’
Her breath is hot against the curve of my ear as she whispers, ‘I haven’t seen you for two weeks.’
I hold my breath as she starts to stroke me, as she attempts to stoke the fire of a longing that struggles to burn inside me. But I don’t want to hurt her. I never want to hurt her… So, I close my eyes and force my mind to go to another place, to The Prince of Wales hotel and the stranger who watched me as I waited for Pauly… The way he looked at me. The way he wanted me. I know he wanted me. I imagine the smell of him. The feel of him. The scratch of his stubble on the side of my chin, the hardness of muscle beneath hot, sweaty skin… And suddenly, my heart quickens, aroused by blood and promise.
Jars and bottles tumble as I lift Madison onto the bench and spread her thighs.
This is not a lie.
I push her G-string aside and slide inside her. And as I pump and grind and rock the table, I remind myself that I love this woman. That we belong this way. That the love we share transcends the ordinary.
I tell myself that this is not a lie.
This is not a lie.
This is not a lie.
Genre: contemporary fiction/trauma fiction
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