A lime green Mitsubishi Colt pulled up alongside the gutter, so I cut into Tewkesbury Avenue and hid behind a gum tree jutting from twisted XXXX beer cans. By the time the Mitsubishi skidded away, I’d lost sight of the couple. After crossing the road I hurried on for a while but then had to duck past jammed parking metres and grinning cars near Downtown Video because I didn’t want the staff in there to make a scene about my fines. The previous manager had gaffed a poster of one of my ex-bands to the window after scrubbing out the name and writing in purple crayon above an arrow pointed at my head WANTED - VIDEO CANNIBAL. The next manager tore down the poster and mailed it to some video detectives. Every time they barrelled into Ma’s apartment, searching for clues or recompense, I took the bathroom window express.
From the hood of a Nissan Bluebird, I staked out the Kings Cross overpass and waited for the lights to change from green to red. The disappointed tourists beyond the intersection pointed guidebooks at advertisements for strip clubs and porno, that obligatory zone of sleaze whose reputation was dwindling with each shattered neon tube. Only a few prostitutes remained on the corner of Victoria Street. I liked two of them. They were comic strips of human wreckage. They were teenage runaways who never grew up. Their fathers were lawyers or barristers in country towns with hollow mines and abandoned mills. The good old boys would come to the city once every few years for business lunches and to play hide and seek with their daughters. It was an ancient game.
To the right of where I was leaning against a lamppost with my bottle, a fire truck lumbered out of its crumbling brick house. When the driver slapped on a buckled helmet and flicked some buttons, his red light splashed the man in the grey suit and the woman in the black dress. The man had the woman pinned to the overpass rail as if about to dump her onto the traffic curving up from downtown into the Williams Street tunnel. She was pushing hard against him, gritting her teeth, and staring at the needlepoint of Sydney Tower. It poked through the yellow clouds of bushfire smoke drifting east from the hinterland. As the lights changed, and I slouched across the road, I felt like I was the next contestant walking onto a game show with the disappointed tourists as the audience.
“Who do you think you are?” The man smirked when I raised a toast. I lowered the bottle and rubbed it on my crotch to show him how much wine I’d lost. He wasn’t really a semi-midget. He just looked like one compared to the woman. He was rubbing his phone up the split in her dress. I couldn’t tell if she was enjoying it or in pain. She was wearing stockings and suspenders. The dark rings under her green eyes made her look as if she hadn’t slept for a week, or maybe just woke up from a coma. She arched her spine and gasped at the breeze ruffling the flags and palms that dotted the medium strip below.
Wanting to distract the man, make him think that I was just a local punk looking for some change, I held out my hand and shook a final drop from the bottle.
Lights from warehouses converted into apartments and factories converted into health farms pierced the smoke beyond the overpass. Taking a cue from my theatrical entrance, the woman drove her heel into the man’s foot. The phone arced from his juggling fingers and plummeted into a yellow Toyota Celica. She got loose. He clasped his abdomen, winded after lunging at the rail, hopped a few times, and rifled through his jacket. Beads of sweat and brown hair dye stained the collar of his white shirt.
The woman strolled across the overpass and hailed a taxi parked under an ancient blacked-out Coka-Cola sign. The taxi rushed to meet her in the gutter on her side of the road. She leaned in through the window and brushed back her fringe. The taxi driver, a sausage-munching regular down the road at Joe’s Cafe, smiled and opened the door for the woman. But when he saw me smash my bottle against the overpass rail, and wave the neck at the man in the suit, the cab took off without her.
“You’re going to regret this,” suggested the man in the suit. His voice was calm, almost apologetic. From a concealed pocket, he drew out another mobile phone. He jabbed the keypad and limped back towards Green Park.
I went after the woman. Her ribcage looked like an instrument that needed to be strummed. I had to think about Ma to stop my knuckles from reaching out.
“Don’t touch me,” the woman slurred. Her accent was urban Australian, fake British. I cut in front of her and shuffled into reverse when we got near the Kings Cross Hotel. She was fumbling with a Walkman, closing off the world around her with a pair of white earphones. She folded her arms and gazed over my right shoulder.
She looked less like a femme fatale up close and more like an arts student who sprouted too fast to attract boys at high school but looked beautiful 10 years later when they were marooned in renovated city offices and prefabricated suburban houses, breeding kids faster than they could think up names for them, and she was dating older, richer men. She had a long face and a thin nose and she smelled of Australian Chardonnay. I wondered if she digged rock music. I didn’t ask about the music because a negative answer might have blown it. Something told me that this woman was going to help pump out my songwriting juices.
“What do you want?” she snapped, when I tugged on her earphones.
“Who was that guy?”
“None of your business.”
My heart was beating too fast. I needed oxygen. I was coming across as a creep. I had to slow down and take in the details. I shouldn’t have been walking backwards. I bumped into a family of tourists and knocked a vanilla ice cream out of a little girl’s hand. She screwed up her blistered nose when I bent down and licked the dirt off the cone. I realized how wasted I was when I thought for a moment that the girl was the woman in the black dress when she was a child. I prodded the ice cream at my nose, and the girl giggled. After I prodded the ice cream at the girl’s nose, her mother grabbed her under the arm and dragged her behind an Aboriginal print dress. The father spilled some coins from a fishing jacket, grinded a disposable Kodak, and snapped me grovelling around backpacker’s feet.
The woman in the black dress rubbed her heel below her ankle to remove a piece of ash that had fallen onto her foot. She unclipped the golden horseshoe on her shoulder bag and fumbled inside. She came out with a bottle of Visine and tilted back her head.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
She dabbed a tissue at her cheek. “Kay Pitman.”
“How about a drink, Kay Pitman?” I had to remember that name.
“Are you going to pay?”
I rolled the coins around my fingers. “It might take a while.”
“Why should I buy you a drink?”
“Because you spilled my popcorn and my wine and I saved you from that guy.” I tossed the ice-cream cone into a yellow trashcan clamped to a sign that said NO PARKING.
“Leave her alone,” hollered the bouncer on the steps outside the Kings Cross Hotel. He wasn’t my friend. He was bald and skinny. He never usually let me in. He didn’t appreciate me embarrassing the bar staff by helping clear unwanted drinks off empty tables. He turned down his hearing aid, elbowed a smudge from the door, and let in two girls wearing headless Koala suits.
“It’s alright,” said Kay Pitman. “He’s with me.”
Popping its horn, a pink Suzuki Vitara, overloaded with surfers, lurched from around the corner of Victoria Street. I tucked in my T-shirt, hitched up my Levis, and took a bow. The bouncer pulled off his hearing aid and blew into it. One of the local prostitutes, who nobody ever seemed to choose, caressed a parking metre and slinked to the ground with the pole between her leopard-skin hotpants. The backpackers, spilling beer on the hotel’s veranda, whistled and clapped at either the prostitute or Kay Pitman or me. I couldn’t tell. The prostitute wore high-heeled sneakers and had orange hair. The backpackers all had chin-beards and floppy hats and wore Amnesty International Anti-Capital Punishment T-shirts and I Climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge T-shirts.
“Is that prostitute a friend of yours?” said Kay Pitman, shuffling her feet and looking around as the BMW floated up Kings Cross Road.
“We better not go in there,” I suggested. “We can hide out at my place and watch some videos. There might be something to drink in the cupboard.”
The prostitute pulled a matchbox from her leopard-skin bag. She scraped a bunch of matches along the flint and touched a cigarette. Then she hurled the loose fireball at the back of Kay Pitman’s dress and yelled, “When do I get to play with the drummer?”
“I’d rather get a taxi.”
“I can drive you home later.”
“How far is your place?”
“It’s just around the corner.”
“Do you know how to drive?”
I hitched up my belt and wrapped my thumbs around the buckle. It was a golden buckle. On the middle of the buckle there were two massive crossed drumsticks. It was the best present that Ma had ever given to me. I called it the belt with the golden buckle.
A mobile phone kept on vibrating in Kay’s bag but she didn’t answer it. We split through the backpacker ghetto on Victoria Street and she stumbled over the cracks where the roots of the trees drove up the sidewalk. Her shoes might have been as expensive as a used BMW but they weren’t as fast or as practical.
She grabbed a fencepost at the top of Butlers Stairs and angled her foot at the burnt leaves, diapers, syringes, and bones of KFC.
“I’m not going down there,” she whined.
A police helicopter stammered through the bushfire clouds covering Sydney Harbour Bridge.
“Do you want me to signal the cops?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Then there’s only one solution.”
I pointed to the cowskin boots.
Kay screwed up her face. “Has your leopard-skin girlfriend ever stuck her feet in there?”
“She’s not my girlfriend. And anyway, since this guy wants to kill you, and then himself, I don’t want to burden you with the magnitude of it all, but no, you would be the first woman to wear the cowskin boots. Ma tried one screaming morning when I was too drunk to go in search of candy. She took one sniff and fractured her spine on the bone-white shell of my Ludwig bass drum.”
“How old are you?”
“When did you stop breastfeeding?”
“She’ll be thrilled for you to hide out with us.”
“I’m not hiding out. I’ll get a taxi. He won’t do anything. It’s just an empty threat.”
When headlights swooped around the corner of Orwell Street, Kay wiggled into the cowskin boots and followed me away from the brightness and into the shadows.