I had survived three days without cigarettes or alcohol, and I wasn’t about to quit now. I was with Sophie in a pub that had greasy stain-glass windows and a bar made of rotting wood and the most soulless country crackling out of the jukebox.
She ordered another fine bottle of Shiraz. My perspiring palms kneaded together. In my state of frailty, it would be difficult to refuse another round of temptation. Christ, I’d kill for even a sip. But . . .
‘But what about Monday?’ She asked, red wine spilling onto her pearlescent shirt. ‘Aren’t you going to explain yourself?’ Dusk withered her skin, making it look scrawny and dry. It was hard to see the beauty I once admired.
‘Listen, it was an accident,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean to break-up with you, but after that drink gets in me . . . I dunno . . . I start seeing things a little clearer. You know what I mean?’
‘No, Bill, I DON’T have a clue.’ She uncorked the wine then took a deep swing from the neck of the bottle. I watched her polish off the remainders of the wine. Our waitress glided past, horror glued to her face.
‘Uh, hey guys – I’ve got another chianti here?’
‘I wanted the fucking Shiraz,’ Sophie said unreasonably. It seemed any moment now she would burst into tears. I could tell our progress for the evening had died. The waitress faded away, back through the saloon-swinging kitchen doors.
‘How about we forget about the whole thing?’ Sophie said, composing herself by jabbing a cigarette on the table a few times, then lighting it with a wax encrusted candle. The incense of the smoke choked me.
‘I don’t think we can. There must have been a reason, right? What did I say? What did I tell you?’
The waitress returned to our table, holding the Shiraz. She wiped a section of our tablecloth with a rag, then placed the bottle down.
‘I’m not gonna say anything until you take me back,’ Sophie said.
I slammed my hand on the table. The red wine fell over. Frustrated, I said:
‘You only came here because I said I’d pay!’
‘And you only fucking came here because you don’t know what happened!’
‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘I’m done.’
So I stood up, tucked a fiver into the hands of the mantis-eyed waitress, and walked into the welcoming night. I heard Sophie kick off at the waitress.
‘Get me a sponge and decanter!’
After stepping onto the pavement, I looked through the window. I saw Sophie swipe the sponge across the spilled red wine, gathering it into the fabric, before releasing the liquid into a decanter. I walked on, hoping my departure was not only a physical detachment from her, but a kind of cathartic amnesia that would numb my soul and clear my head.
I reached the bus stop. A commune of junkies hovered around the Queen Victoria Building. Some slouched against boxes and wrapped themselves in piss-stained blankets, while others weeded through a forest of orange filters. A melancholic dog slept peacefully beside two empty bowls and a kennel filled with newspapers. As I passed, a man and woman woke slightly from their otherwise motionless and dreamy embrace before returning to the void. All around me, the air reverberated with the sound of junkies coughing, sniffling cocaine noses, and tap-tapping their bare feet.
A junkie stood up, dislocated from the others, and walked toward me.
‘Got a smoke?’ He asked.
I checked my jacket. A pouch of rolling tobacco sat nestled against my breast.
‘For you, I’ve got two.’ I slung him a couple of pre-rolled cigarettes, stopping to light one for him. He drifted along the footpath, spectral, enjoying the reassuring and impenetrable solitude of heroin. He started to whistle through cracked lips. I saw him try to start a few times, licking his chops to build enough moisture. Eventually he spat on his hand and rubbed it across his face to get the whistle going. The tune sounded like Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, but I couldn’t tell over the howling wind. Even if it was, he would miss the beautiful dissonance in the chords – they needed bass and treble, structure and melody.
He yelled. ‘I’m vanishing into dust, into the air, up the nose and out the brain!’ He danced, a gracious pirouette. I stopped walking, in awe of the madness, of the cerebral carnage before my eyes. I thought about helping him, but I had no access point, no common ground. Human connection seemed unattainable. Were the other junkies concerned? I checked. They huddled around, sedated and lobotomised. The dancing junkie exchanged his murmurs for shouts.
‘Hey, hey, bartender, gimme twenty on forty-three, come on, hit me, look at ‘im, would yah just look at ‘im go. He’s getting away, he’s getting – hey, get away from my horse, get away, get away!’
An orderly line of business suits glanced from their smartphones to shake their heads. At first glance, I thought they were talking over each other, like pelicans rumbling for the last fish . . . until I walked past them. Up close, I saw shiny devices protruding from their ears like robotic thorns. They looked madder than the junkie. Both are talking to themselves, I thought. But at least the junkie knows how to dance.
Then I heard a SCREECHHHHHH. A motorcycle skidded across the pavement in front of me. The hog’s rider slammed into the bus shelter. Advertisement glass shattered, falling onto the rider like glycerine rain. A few feet ahead, another man hit the deck hard. He fell onto his stomach. It made a smack! Like a bird flying into a sliding door. I jumped to the fallen man and turned him over.
He was very old, maybe eighty. His eyes were closed and wet. All in all, he was incredibly ugly – skin creased like ancient papyrus, beard as disarrayed as a fantastical garden, and hands shaking as if frozen in turbulence.
So to my knowledge, this is what happened: the old man alighted a bus, the 261 to Sydney Downtown, then jaywalked across the busy intersection to reach a pub called Three Gents. He had almost made it when the motorcyclist ran a red light and decked the old man.
The tallest of the business suits strutted over. He stuck a flipper my way.
‘Jeffrey,’ he said.
‘Bill,’ I replied. I shook his flipper, recoiling as the slime stuck to my palm.
He crouched down. It looked like a strenuous endeavour.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘I think this man’s in a serious –’
‘Hold that thought.’ He straightened out his two bent periscopes, and went over to inspect the metallic bus seats one by one. He placed his camel leather briefcase on the third closest (the cleanest) seat. Then he brushed cigarette ash from his tweed jacket, lit another cigarillo, and emerged from a treble clef of smoke. Jeffrey almost reached the old man, when a woman’s wail stopped him. A young lady, who must’ve drifted toward the chaos, stood next to a few tourists that were leaning against the QVB, snapping photos and whispering to one another. She had a great figure, bursting at the seams, and a tight black dress that only just concealed her arse.
‘Oh my dear lord,’ she cried. ‘Oh my, someone call an ambulance. There’s been an accident, someone call quick!’ Jeffrey walked over to her.
‘Do us a favour,’ I called out, ‘And call an ambulance.’ She gawked like an enormous magpie. Her protests disappeared in her throat.
‘I . . . I can’t use my phone,’ she said. ‘My fingernails are too long.’ I looked at them. They were crimson blades of beauty. Even though her blonde hair gleamed in the sun, it only served to accentuate the forgettable qualities of her ordinary face.
‘Don’t worry baby, I’m a medico-legal expert,’ Jeffrey said, every tooth a Colgate opal. ‘I’ve been in the field for years, and I’ve never lost a man.’
The old man hadn’t moved.
‘I think he’s broken some ribs,’ I said. Jeffrey left the girl, and returned to the old man’s side. He turned to me, eyes lifeless as shrunken heads.
‘Got a comb?’
‘Nope,’ I said. He parted his fingers as an ersatz comb before running them through oily black locks.
‘Are you a doctor?’
‘Aren’t you?’ I asked. Jeffrey lowered his voice.
‘No way – I’m a solicitor. But girlies are far more attracted to danger than disaster, right?’ I couldn’t believe this lying snake. ‘So, are you a doctor?’
‘Then fuck off.’ I ignored him, this time. If I were drunk, there would be a second motionless body on the ground. I was edging for the fight, but the alcohol withdrawals made me vigourless and soft. A punch would sting my knuckles, and dissuade a follow-up. It was odd, the way the nicotine cravings coiled the chest into a palpating mess, while the need for a drink made you simply deflated. If I threw a punch, the motionless body would be mine.
‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘I’m just as qualified as you. At least at the bookstore they make me take CPR annually.’
‘This isn’t a fucking game, kid,’ he said. A swelling urge possessed me. I wanted to knock back beer after beer and force the world into a somnolent and etherised blur. The seeds of memory burst half-formed in my mind. I remembered a night at Three Gents (the night I met Sophie) when the tequila flowed and the women danced and the jazz swung. I remembered feeling in my element, which meant nothing, really, except I felt comfortable, unthreatened, swept by days of pointless reverie that never dared to collapse. Then Sophie approached me. Without asking what I was drinking, she bought a double whiskey on the rocks. I drained it, and she signaled the bartender for another. I liked her instantly.
‘Did you hear me?’ Jeffrey said. ‘Get outta my way if you don’t know what you’re doing. The last thing this man needs is a tree-hugging soft-cock sitting here to satisfy his curiosity.’ I stood up, more shocked than anything, but I didn’t leave.
‘Hey – shouldn’t he be bleeding?’ I asked. Jeffrey shredded the old man’s shirt with a Swiss army knife. The old man was bruised and shriveled; a peach used as a tennis ball.
‘He’s bleeding internally, I reckon. Chances are he’s a goner.’ Jeffrey stared vacuously at Three Gents. My eyes followed. Of all the days, I thought.
So I walked to the motorcyclist. I parked his hog on the curb then removed his helmet. The rider had a young face, gentle brown eyes (he was crying) and handsome jawline (it was bleeding) and narrow nose (it looked alright) – all of which led to a depressing fact: he was a boy. Fourteen or fifteen years old, maybe.
‘Cigarette?’ I asked. He nodded. I slung one his way, almost grabbing another for myself. Then I thought better of it. The boy puffed away. Jeffrey approached, awoken from his statuesque gaze. He looked like Magritte’ Son of Man. The illusion was enchanting, until it dissipated.
‘You’re a fucking criminal,’ he said.
‘I dun mean to,’ the boy said.
‘Lay off him Jeffrey, for chrissake. Listen, what happened? How’d you hit him?’
The boy sniveled. ‘I dun mean to, ya know I dun mean to.’ He stared at me absently.
‘Come on, mate,’ I said. ‘We’re all having a shit day.’
Puff . . . tap . . . puff . . . ‘I was drivin’ and I, I, tilt my head like this – ’ he craned his neck sideways ‘ – and the sunlight went into mah visor and it hurt like saltwater. Mah eyes tearin’ up, ya know, so I can’ see so good, ya know what I mean, ya know what I’m sayin’?’
‘Yeah, I’m with you.’ My phone rang in my pocket. I didn’t answer it. I knew it was Sophie. Temptation lifted its awful head, sniffed the air, then returned to slumber. The desire for a drink swelled in my stomach. A whirl of sexual arousal forced my heart into a churning anxiety.
‘HEY!’ Jeffrey shouted. The dancing junkie had ducked beside the old man, reaching toward him with fingers disintegrating to the bone.
‘Wait here,’ I said to the boy. He jumped up, and limped toward the hog.
‘Don’t worry, I’m a fantastic doctor,’ the junkie said. ‘Step aside, comrades, let big daddy work the floor.’ Jeffrey yanked him to his feet. He flexed a Herculean chest and gritted his opals, suffocating as his neck bulged against an immaculate double Windsor.
The junkie passed one of my own cigarettes back to me.
‘Hold my cigarette,’ he said. I smoked it, indebted, lightheaded, illuminate. Head spins proliferated. My arms and legs blazed with relief. I felt like a giddy young lad, a younger me, sneaking out of class to smoke cigarettes beside the wharf. I used to smoke quickly, wait for the head rush, and chuckle as I surrendered to dizziness and fell to the ground.
‘This is UNACCEPTABLE,’ Jeffrey said. Now his eyes looked bloodshot, verging on explosion. ‘Reviving your degenerate friends, or poking a shitty needle in your arm, doesn’t qualify as medical experience.’
The junkie’s emaciated face rose from its shallowness, like a crab surfacing from a bed of sand. A roar echoed along the pavement. The hog lit up, carnal, enraged. The boy zipped along on the pavement, his helmet sitting in the gutter. Jeffrey didn’t even notice. He kept the junkie taut in a vice grip.
‘Don’t hurt him!’ The girl with long fingernails said. She stared at Jeffrey, concern creasing her face.
‘Be cool, don’t be square, relax boss man, be cool,’ the junkie said. Jeffrey let him go.
‘Best of luck, fellas,’ he said. He grabbed his briefcase from the seats, spat out his finished cigarillo, lit another, then walked to the girl. Game face on, smile chiseled, beaming effervescent glory. The girl was trapped, her mouth agape, eyes unable to resist the urge to stare down at his crotch and admire a visibly tumescent cock.
‘Come on, baby,’ I heard him say. ‘Let’s hit the road. I know a great pub, PJ O’Brien’s, just round the corner. I’ll buy you whatever you want.’ She giggled, then tucked her hair back into a professional ponytail. She linked hands with Jeffrey. I could never imagine those fingernails cradling a newborn or embracing a lover or creating something beautiful like a sculpture or a poem or a rocking horse or even chopping up some fucking onions for a soup on a cold winter night. Without looking, they stepped onto the road.
‘Hey, listen – he’s awake.’ The junkie said. ‘Step aside, step aside.’ He knocked into me. ‘I’m here, brother.’ He yanked at the old man’s eyelids, trying to wrench them back to life. I walked over to them. The old man’s breath came out rugged.
‘Please . . . drink . . . thirsty.’
‘I’ll find some water,’ I said.
The old man shook his head. ‘Get . . . me . . . some . . . fucking . . . red wine.’
And then he went still. He was dead. The junkie knocked his skull a few times, as you would a door. I thought of Sophie. She was probably waiting at the pub, drinking that delicious Shiraz, alone and dazed. The junkie tapped my shoulder.
‘Wait right here.’ I held the old man’s glacial hand. I couldn’t see Jeffrey anymore – he was forever gone. My phone rang in my pocket. I wanted to answer, but there must’ve been a reason for breaking up with her, right? People don’t just abandon everything on their whims, right? The junkie returned with a bottle of cheap red wine. He knocked the top, took a swig from the neck, then handed it my way. I stared at it. A great reckoning stirred inside me, an awoken beast, a seed of realisation. I gulped down the spicy crimson, remembering the gush of its sweet recovery as the splashes painted my throat heavenly red.
‘To his memory, aye?’ The junkie grinned, exposing tobacco-stained teeth. I took another swig, knowing I had to go back to Sophie, to explain what happened. But most of all, I hoped that she hadn’t drunk all of that fine Shiraz waiting in a decanter.