The middle of nowhere

by Chris Womersley

DRUG ADDICTION IS 98 per cent hunger, 2 per cent feast; you get accustomed to bad news. But I had no inkling when I picked up the phone on that grim afternoon that what Anna told me would propel us even deeper into the shit. I listened and hung up. The day took on a dreamlike quality, faintly absurd, dark at the edges.

My girlfriend, Tess, was sitting at the kitchen table when I went back in. She was like one of Schiele's women – all elbows and eyes and hunger. 'Who was that?' she asked. 'You look terrible.'

I lit a cigarette. My fingers were like twigs. My inadequacies as a human being were never more evident than when I had to console someone. The kettle had recently boiled and steam was bleeding down the windowpane. It was winter. It seemed like it had been winter for fucking years.

'Maggie overdosed,' I said, when at last I could speak.

'No.'

'But she's not dead yet. She's in a coma, on a respirator or whatever.'

Tess stood. 'Oh, fuck. Fuck.'

'In Cabramatta.'

'Sydney? What the fuck was she doing up there?'

'Went up last week to get clean. Beach life and all that shit.'

'Is she going to be okay?'

'They might have to turn off the machine if nothing changes. Tomorrow morning.'

'Tomorrow. A machine? Jesus.'

Tess sat down and put her head in her hands. She and Maggie had been friends since high school. I stood at the kitchen door and stared at our crappy garden, a miniature abandoned city littered with garden pots and house bricks, the ruins of a wooden chair. It was always like this: just when we thought our lives couldn't get any worse, they did.

Things moved quickly, as if the afternoon were tumbling uncontrollably down a hill. Convinced we might be able to save Maggie somehow, we decided to drive to Sydney. But first we had to score. Phone calls were made, cash counted out on the bed.

 

I SAT IN Mark and Jill's fetid Yarraville lounge room, waiting for Mark to return with the dope. The place smelled of sour milk. Jill dozed on the couch. Parkinson was on TV, talking to some English dick with a private school haircut. One of Jill's sons came in and pilfered a cigarette from Jill's packet. He was about sixteen, rangy, face set in a permanent scowl. He didn't acknowledge me as he slunk away.

'Fucking kids,' Jill murmured without opening her eyes. 'Suck the marrow from your bones if you give them half a chance.'

A door slammed and Mark appeared, motioning for me to follow him upstairs. By the time I located the bedroom he had two spoons, a ball of cottonwool and several plastic water ampoules on the carpet in front of him. He gestured to the spare spoon as he drew up his own dope and began to navigate the battered veins on the back of his hand. 'Wanna have a taste here?'

I paused. Junkies almost always came in symbiotic pairs: to use alone was the worst sort of betrayal. I thought of Tess waiting in the car, and shrugged. 'Sure. Thanks.'

I mixed up, injected myself and sat back to absorb the impact. Those few seconds after a hit offered a sense of completion that was otherwise utterly foreign to me. If only it could always be like this. If only the ten seconds after a hit could be expanded to fill my every waking moment. Then. Then life would be magical.

I became aware of Mark poking me in the arm. 'Wanna buy a gun?'

'What?'

'A gun, mate. Wanna buy a gun?' He held out the item in question, partly wrapped in a tea towel. I had never seen one for real. It was an almost mythical object.

'Piece of cake to use,' Mark was saying. 'See that magazine? With, you know, bullets. Pop it in, snap. Like in the fucking movies.' Grinning, he raised the weapon and pointed it at my face. 'I could shoot you right now...'

My eyeballs froze.

'...Not that I would, of course. You're one of me best customers. See that? The safety. Safe as fucking houses, mate. Yours for seven hundred bucks.'

It shocked and pleased me that he thought I was the kind of person who needed a gun. It took me a few seconds to find my voice. 'No. Thanks. I got to go to Sydney tonight.'

Mark stared at me. His eyes looked like holes torn in a sack of bones. 'What you going there for? All that fucking sun. Yuppies. Full of poofters, too. Fucking full of poofters.'

'A friend OD'd. We got to see her.'

'Oh.' His eyes drooped and he rubbed his nose. The back of his hand was stained with blood and freckled with track marks.

Jill was yelling for Mark to get downstairs. I made to leave. It was nearly six – I had been almost an hour and Tess would be fuming.

'Sure you don't want that gun?' Mark asked as he rummaged in a pile of laundry. 'It's clean as a fucking whistle, if that's what's worrying you. A bargain, mate.'

Jill called out from the top of the stairs. 'Mark! Get out here, will ya.'

He sagged and the gun, still partly wrapped in the dishcloth, dropped into the pile of clothes, soundlessly, as if into water. Then Mark snapped to and brushed past me. 'Fuck. What, woman?'

I stared at the butt of the gun for what seemed a long time. There was a small part of me that had always loved the idea of having one. Just for show, that adolescent fantasy of putting it to the head of some drunken thug in a pub, of being the person in the darkened street who others should fear, instead of the other way around.

Outside in the hall Jill was issuing a lengthy complaint as she and Mark clomped downstairs.

Without thinking, I grabbed the gun and jammed it under my leather jacket. I went downstairs, where Mark and Jill were still arguing, and hurried to the back door.

'Hey! Wait.'

I glanced behind to see Mark bearing down on me through the stinking kitchen. Mark was older than me but not someone to be messed with. He was the real deal; he'd done time. Stealing the gun was stupid. Terrified, I fumbled with the door handle, but he was upon me.

'Your mate,' he croaked, 'the one who OD'd.'

'Woman.'

'What?'

'It was a woman who OD'd.'

'You know who he was scoring off?'

I shook my head.

Mark prodded me in the chest. 'Means there's good dope up there. You find out anything you let me know, okay? Give me a call and we can set something up.'

I nodded and bolted into the freezing night air.

'About fucking time,' Tess said when I got into the car. 'All okay?'

I started the engine. 'Everything's fine. Let's go.'

'You're not fucking stoned, are you? Did you have a taste already?'

'Course not.'

 

NATURALLY, GOOSE WASN'T ready for us when we swung by to pick him up. Like children, musicians always need help locating their shoes and socks, wallets and keys. Tess pushed past him and stomped down the hall. 'Come on, Goose. We got to go.'

I sighed. 'We're in a hurry, mate.'

'Did you score?'

I searched his features for hints of sarcasm. He had the kind of ravaged, rock star face adored by women before they knew better. He and Tess had been lovers a few years ago and, although he had dumped her, I knew Goose would take her back in a minute, if only to spite me. 'Yeah,' I said, and headed to the kitchen to mix up.

'Bad night for driving,' Goose said a few minutes later, above the din of rain. 'You sure this is a good idea?'

It was a good question. I had secretly hoped Tess would lose interest after she got stoned, but she shook her head as she tightened a belt around her upper arm, then injected herself and sloughed off the makeshift tourniquet.

Her eyes became sooty. 'We got to go.'

Goose hiccuped. 'When are they turning the machine off?'

'Eleven tomorrow morning.'

'Fuck. What should we take with us?'

Tess picked a shred of tobacco from her trembling lower lip. 'I'm taking a scarf,' she said at last.

'You think it will be cold up there?' Goose asked.

'No, you idiot, it's just...'

'What?'

'It's a scarf Maggie gave me. It used to be hers and she gave it to me because she knew how much I liked it. I thought maybe it would help her wake up, you know.'

And, as if we doubted her, Tess produced a red woollen scarf from her bag and waggled it shyly in front of her face.

 

WE STOPPED FOR a break at a pub in Holbrook and took a corner table with beers and a packet of chips. I felt conspicuous among the salt-of-the-earth types with their dirt-stained fingernails and sun-bleached hats. The beer made me feel sick. I went to the bathroom where, flushed and faint, I locked the stall and sat on the toilet lid with my face in my hands. I was beginning to think the whole expedition was a waste of time and money. The last thing I wanted was to visit the dying – the dead, most likely.

After a while there was a bang on the door of the stall. Goose. 'Come on,' he said. 'We got to go.'

I unbolted the door.

He was wild-eyed, gesticulating. As always, he stank of incense and BO. 'There's some guys in the bar reckon they can get us more dope.'

'Is that a good idea? You sure they're not cops?'

'Mate. These guys are not coppers.'

'But we don't have much money.'

'Tess and me sorted that.'

When I was ten my father took me to the footy at the MCG. After the game I went to the toilet while my dad waited in the crowded walkway. I got confused among the crowds and exited by a different door, and couldn't locate my father in the heaving throng. As instructed a thousand times by schoolteachers and parents, I waited patiently by a wall to be found. I was afraid, nearly crying. The hotdog stand was closing; drunken groups of men staggered past, armpit to shoulder, like unseaworthy vessels. A small man appeared and asked whether I was lost and needed help, and whether I'd like to go with him. He had beery breath and a shaving cut on his right cheek. I was unsure how long he had been there, one hand outstretched, as if offering me an invisible gift or waiting to take something from me. And, as I stood in a cold bathroom at the back of the Holbrook pub inhaling the scent of urinal cakes and chip fat, I was reminded inexplicably of that long-ago day.

I nodded and followed Goose into the bar.

 

WE FOLLOWED THE bobbing taillights of the ute along the highway, onto a dirt road. The Corolla was my car but Goose was driving, hunched grimly over the wheel. Dust billowed around us.

I leaned forward. 'How far is this place?'

'Couple of kays, they said.'

'Do we know the way back to the highway?'

Tess turned in her seat. 'Jesus. Relax, will you.'

The car swerved. There was a soft thump against the undercarriage.

Tess squealed. 'A fox. Was that a fox?'

Goose nodded. They started giggling.

I looked behind us but there was only the pale ribbon of road vanishing into darkness.

After a quarter of an hour we pulled up at a two-storey weatherboard house with a sagging porch. Wrecked cars huddled on the lawn. Two guys stepped out of the ute, waved for us to follow, entered the house. Goose cut the engine. A frog gulped somewhere nearby. We tumbled from the car, Goose and Tess now in charge, me scurrying along behind like a little brother.

One of the guys appeared in the dim hallway and led us through to a kitchen out the back. He was young, rat-faced, with a tumble of black hair across his eyes. His gaze lingered on Tess's breasts. 'Wanna beer or something? A cone? Jimmy'll be down in a sec.'

Goose was all business. 'Jimmy the man, is he?'

Ratface nodded. Another man appeared in the kitchen, and I couldn't tell if he was the second one from the ute or a new guy. He was massive: a meathead, with hairy forearms. Meathead pulled a beer from the fridge and cracked it, downed several loud mouthfuls and let out an almighty belch. 'Ah. Good fucking stuff. You want one?'

Tess sighed. 'Actually, mate, we're in a hurry. A friend of ours is in hospital and we need to get to her, so -'

'She your girlfriend?' Meathead asked Goose.

'No. She's with him.'

Meathead looked at me as if he could scarcely believe it, before swivelling his gaze back to Goose. 'What's that tatt there, under your sleeve?'

Goose rolled up his sleeve to display a mini-skirted nurse brandishing a squirting syringe on his forearm.

Meathead grunted approvingly and swigged again from the can. He winked at Tess. 'Got a few of me own, you know. Hidden away. I'll show you 'em later. Mate.'

Goose checked his watch. 'Look. Sorry to hassle, but we are in kind of a hurry, like we said...'

Meathead picked something from his teeth. 'Okay. What do you want again?'

'Just what we talked about at the pub. Is it Jimmy we need to see?'

Meathead stuck out a paw. 'Nah. Jimmy's not here. Just give me the cash and I'll run it over to him and pop back with what you need.'

Ratface sucked on his bong with a throaty gurgle.

Goose smiled nervously. 'Um. Not sure how you do things here, but if I'm gonna hand over eight hundred bucks I need to see the gear first.'

Meathead drained his can, crushed it and dropped it to the floor. 'Come on, mate. Hand it over.'

My knees began to wobble. We were a long way from anywhere. Nobody even knew we had left Melbourne. And there was definitely no fucking dope.

Ratface put his bong on the table.

Goose stood. 'No, it's okay. There's obviously been a misunderstanding or something...'

Things went blurry. Ratface was on his feet. Meathead shoved Goose back into his chair. Tess protested. A chair was clattering to the floor and I was standing, maybe saying Watch it or What's happening? The floor felt cold through the soles of my shoes and I was thinking how I really needed some new shoes. Meathead was poking Goose in the chest and Tess was gesticulating, and I saw someone outside looking in before realising it was my reflection in the window, hovering like a pale moon in the darkness.

Ratface's little mouth was opening and closing, opening and closing. 'Holy shit. He's got a gun. Phil, he's got a fucking gun!'

I had the gun in my right hand. Meathead stepped backwards. 'Whoa there,' he said. 'We're just kidding ya.'There was a funny pause. 'Bet you don't even know how to fire it, do ya, mate?'

He was right. I wondered about the safety catch, and ground my teeth. There was a flat crack and my hand jerked. I thought someone had knocked it, even as Meathead staggered backwards saying, 'Ah fuck, you shotme, ya cunt.'

He was sprawling against a cupboard, blood oozing between his fat fingers. I don't know where my newfound authority came from, but I heard myself telling Goose and Tess to get out and start the car, and I ran after them.

By the time I dived into the passenger seat Tess was weeping in the back seat. Goose wrestled with the steering wheel; the car skidded and jerked; someone – maybe me – swore loudly. The car stalled. Ratface and Meathead appeared on the porch, waving their arms and shouting. Goose fiddled with the ignition. There was a loud crack, and Tess yelped. 'They're shooting at us! Fuck. Go.' Finally the car was careening out of the driveway. Another shot. 'They're coming after us,' Tess said. 'We're dead.'

Trees blurred past. Objects reared from the darkness, lit momentarily by the approaching headlights before vanishing. A road sign, wire fences, the bobbing light from a distant farmhouse. Tess was still yelling, and possibly Goose was as well, but all I could think was that I'd been let in on a great and terrible secret. My God, I thought, so that's what it's like to shoot someone. And there, in the passenger seat as we barrelled through the night, I almost laughed. Power.

We sped along dirt roads for what seemed like hours, Goose crunching through the Corolla's gears and sliding round corners until, miraculously, the lights of the tailing ute vanished. We pressed on – passing no cars, seeing only the glimmering eyes of animals in the night – until we came to rest in a field. Goose cut the engine and we sat there in silence, smoking and chewing our nails.

 

WHEN I WOKE my shoulders were crunchy from sleeping against the car door. It was cold, and my breath fogged in the weak light. I heard the call of a crow, like the brief cry of a falling infant, then something more sinister clumping about just outside the car.

Tess moved in the back seat. 'What the fuck is that?'

I reached for the gun and peered cautiously through the fogged glass. Impressionistic splodges of colour, then a lumbering darkness, giant eyes.

Tess snorted. 'A cow. It's just a fucking cow.'

I wiped the window with my sleeve. Sure enough, right in front of me – so close that I could pat the damn thing – was the massive head of a cow, looming with a mouthful of grass. I laughed, relieved.

Tess and I stepped from the car and the cow backed off. We lit cigarettes and looked around. We had stopped in a grassy clearing beside a rutted dirt road. There was a farmhouse in the distance and a pretty weatherboard church a few hundred metres away through some trees.

'What time is it?'

I checked my watch. 'Nine-thirty.'

I rubbed my freezing hands together. We were stranded God– knows-where with a gun that might have killed someone. No one becomes a junkie by accident; it takes a certain amount of determination. That same determination is never quite enough to stop being a junkie, and I had known for years I was in way over my head.

I blew a smoke ring and watched it unravel as it glided away in the cold morning air.

Tess pointed. 'Look.'

Beside the church, almost indiscernible among the grey trees, was a crowd of about fifteen people standing in a loose circle. We watched them for a few minutes and then picked our way across to them through broken headstones. The cemetery smelled of damp grass. A few mourners glanced up before turning back stoically to the casket in the open grave. The service was evidently coming to an end. The priest was reading something from the Bible.

We stopped at the edge of the gathering as it began to break apart. Someone was weeping inconsolably, a terrible sound. Mourners tossed handfuls of dirt and other small items into the grave and left in groups of two or three, nodding vaguely to us as they passed.

An elderly woman, short and powdery, was the last to leave. She approached us and placed her hands on Tess's shoulders. 'It's all right, love,' she said. 'She was ready to go. She was in so much pain. You know it's better that way. I know it's hard, but do you know what?'

It was then I realised that it was Tess who was weeping so loudly. Her shoulders were convulsing, and her face was furrowed and wet. She was nodding and trying to say something but the only sounds she made were inarticulate sobs.

'You were her favourite,' the old woman went on. 'Her absolute favourite. She talked about you all the time... Goodbye, dear.'

Before leaving, the woman gave my upper arm a quick squeeze. Then we were alone, except for the gravedigger waiting a respectful distance away.

Tess wept for several minutes before she composed herself and kneeled at the edge of the grave. I waited, wiggling my toes for warmth. The polished coffin lid was spattered with clods of earth and photographs, a book of poetry and an old hat. Weird to think that someone was inside that box. A dead person. A sob caught in my throat. My face tightened.

Eventually I knelt beside Tess on the muddy ground. I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer to me. She didn't resist. 'I'm really sorry about Maggie.'

Tess sniffled and looked at me with red eyes. 'I know. So am I. We'll never make it now, will we?'

'No.'

'We really fucked up, didn't we?'

She unwound the scarf Maggie had given her from her neck and tossed it into the grave. I checked the gravedigger wasn't looking, took the gun from my jacket pocket, wiped it on my jeans and allowed it to fall in.

Tess sniffed. 'Where did you even get that fucking thing? Do you think that guy died?'

I shook my head. I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to talk about anything.

We kneeled in silence for several more minutes before standing and walking back to the car. Goose was still asleep inside.

'Where the hell are we?' Tess asked.

'God knows.'

'Got a smoke?'

I shook one loose from the packet and lit it for her.

'Any idea how to get back from here?' she asked.

'None at all.'

And we stood there for some time, it felt like years, trying to decide what to do as the sun rose behind the trees.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 34: The Annual Fiction Edition © Copyright Griffith University & the author.