Authors: Dorothy Johnston,Port Campbell Press
Tags: #Short Stories
Laura said, âWe don't know that guy who had our phone number.'
âWhat time did he get here?'
âAre you sure of that?'
Laura answered with a brave lift of her chin that yes, she was sure.
âWhat kind of car did he drive?'
Camilla answered quickly, âWe saw it on TV.'
âI want her to answer.' Constable McLaren indicated Laura with a sideways nod.
Laura said, âIt was red. A red car.'
When the phone rang, Constable McLaren told Sue, âYou can answer that.'
Sue prayed that it would not be Bernie. When she heard his voice, she said, âI can't talk now.'
When Constable McLaren asked her who it was, Sue reached for her cigarettes again. âA friend.'
Constable McLaren smiled as though this was just the answer that she'd been expecting.
Sue breathed the smoke in deeply. The constable gave her a long, assessing look, one which said that they were making progress, that it wouldn't be long now.
The three of them had gone through each other's statements carefully before signing them. They'd discussed the timing of events, and how they could give each other alibis. Their fingerprints had been taken at the station. Sue had worried about a match with Laura's on the tie, but then she'd relaxed a little, deciding that the police had not been able to find one. If they had, Laura would have been arrested by now.
It seemed to Sue, stuck in the girls' room with this self-satisfied policewoman, that they'd passed beyond the need for alibis. She thought of running for a hole in the fence that nobody but herself could see. She glanced at Laura, who sat staring at her hands. The old obstinacy did not return, but another kind.
When Bernie rang the doorbell, Sue confronted him. âI thought we had a deal.'
Bernie's face was flushed and he was panting.
âYou can't have it both ways,' Sue said.
Bernie smiled. âI think you better ask me in.'
His hair was damp, and he was freshly shaven. His jeans bunched on his running shoes.
He held Sue tightly from behind, pushing her down so that her elbows gave way and her face was pressed against the sheet. Sue was thankful that she'd thought to move the pillow. Her nose and mouth were squashed into the mattress, but with good luck she found a way to lever against it and manoeuvre her head into a better position. She could bang on the wall, and Camilla would run in and pull Bernie off her. She could struggle, kick, but she knew that that would only encourage Bernie to tighten his grip. Sue concentrated on breathing evenly, and the thought that it would soon be over.
After Bernie left, she opened the blinds and looked out over the carpark. There was a light on in his office and she could see his moving shadow.
She wondered if abattoirs closed for the Christmas break.
Watching Bernie's shadow, Sue was visited by a desire to go back there and see the camels, to stand where they'd left the red car. She knew it would be absolutely foolish and put the desire away. A week ago, if anyone had asked her what she thought of Bernie, she would have said that he was harmless. She would have said she was sorry that his wife was giving him a hard time.
There was a knock on the door. When Sue didn't respond, Laura opened it quietly and came in.
Laura hesitated before saying, âLet me do him next time. Please.'
Sue felt giddy, and steadied herself by leaning on the wall. âDo you remember any more?' she asked. âIs it coming back?'
Laura did not reply immediately. She sat down on the bed with her knees together.
âIt's like the rain,' she said, looking up at Sue. âKind of nothing, then too much at once.'
âDid you put the tie around his neck?'
âHe like held it out to me and flipped it.
. Then he lay down on the bed. It wasn't
âDid he have a heart attack?'
Laura's silence was unconvincing, unconvinced. She burst out, âI didn't kill him, Susie!' Her voice faltered and she continued in a whisper, âI do appreciate you â all you and Cam have done.'
The timber place opened, but there were hardly any customers. Bernie's place was in the doldrums too.
Sue was afraid of Bernie following her home. She did not know what she would do if he turned up at her flat, and took to going home by a route that was roundabout, looking always in her rear vision mirror.
Waiting for Bernie's ring on the door, she thought that perhaps the strangest aspect of his visits was that they continued to be neighbours, working side by side. She might look out the window and watch him serving a customer, bringing in one of the mowers that he kept out the back.
Bernie rang the bell with his right hand. In his left, he held he held a bunch of roses.
Sue left him while she fetched a vase from the laundry. When she returned, Bernie had pulled back the bedcovers, and was lying on the sheet. His head was on the pillow, with his hands clasped behind it.
He made no move towards her. Instead, he watched her arrange the roses neatly. Nothing in Bernie's expression or his body betrayed a change of plan.
Sue put the flowers on the side table and sat down on the end of the bed. She thought it would be wise to start a neutral conversation, but could not think how.
âWas it you?' he asked her.
âWas it me what?' Sue changed her position slightly.
âWas it you who did it?'
âThe other one. The one you're hiding from me.'
âNone of us,' Sue said.
âI want to do her.'
âYou know what I mean.'
When Sue didn't answer, Bernie said, âI saw his car. I saw you and Camilla carrying him out. You nearly dropped him.' Bernie laughed. âWhy are you afraid of me going to the cops?'
âI'm not afraid,' Sue said. âI just don't want trouble.'
She felt Bernie's accusations pelting her like hail stones in a storm. She felt herself to be tied up in an orchard, beneath a heavy tree. She longed to change places with someone, put somebody else in her place.
Bernie's voice was confident, but his manner of lying on the bed told her he'd moved on from the position he'd favoured up till now, but had not quite figured out the next one. His desire for Laura was real enough, but he was bluffing too.
Sue leant across and touched him gently on the arm.
âLet's call it quits. I won't say a word about what's happened, if you don't.'
âThe cops will work it out,' Bernie said.
âThen they'll find out about you as well.'
Bernie smiled. âCome here and let me kiss those tits.'
Sue did as Bernie wished.
He lay on top of her, moving up and down. Sue shut her eyes, as though she had her back to him still.
After he'd left, while she was waiting for her breathing to return to normal - she would have liked some notes to crisp between her fingers - Sue opened the blinds and stood by the window. She lit a cigarette. The rain began again, slanting against the timber yard. She watched Bernie bring his lawnmowers indoors.
Sue turned around and studied the sheets, which were only slightly crumpled, feeling that she was right up close to where the rain beat on the roof, aware of the lop-sided course of it, and the beat growing more insistent, as though she was lying flush with the ceiling, as though she could flutter her eyelids and they would brush the plaster there.
The leverage she might still exert over Bernie returned to Sue in this imaginary position, a fantastic levitation that allowed her to view, God-like, the doings of the room, to wrap up shame and impotence, to parcel guilt and secure it with a tie.
She was startled by a noise outside, a sharp sound like a firecracker. She blinked and stared through the rain, but could not see what had made it. With a sigh, she pulled the sheets off the bed and took them to the washing machine.
Ride it out. The phrase had had only a superficial meaning until now. In front of Sue's eyes, the words seemed to gallop towards an unknown horizon. She did not know how much patience she had left; she wondered if it was as hard for Camilla as it was for her.
As for Laura â Sue's resolve to keep Bernie away from Laura hardened into armour, an impenetrable second skin.
Sue had always preferred working in the daytime. She liked the calm of it, and the sunlit view from the girls' room; she liked bringing something nice back for lunch, eating it and answering the phone, picturing the would-be punter on the other end. She liked the older, easier clients who chose daytime over night.
She'd enjoyed late afternoon especially, how the light in the girls' room changed, with its windows facing west, how the early evening sun filled the glass completely. Bathed in this light, waiting for the bell to ring, it had sometimes seemed to Sue that the barriers of skin were an illusion. She'd stretched and arched her back; she'd felt lithe and slim.
The others, being less experienced, had deferred to her. The business had been run the way she'd planned and wanted it. How quickly the balance had changed! Now Sue found it hard to believe that she and Camilla had ever seen eye to eye on anything. She'd been kidding herself with her idea of a co-operative. Sue thought of the woman she'd first worked for, seeing her clearly as she had not done for years. It was right back then that Sue had conceived the idea of working for herself, as part of a collective; though it wasn't until a decade later that she'd been able to act on her dream.
Guilt floated around her like a lukewarm bath. Was she really afraid of Bernie, and, if so, on whose behalf? The truth was, Sue told herself, she could all too easily imagine herself in Laura's place, much more easily than imagining Laura in hers.
A different picture came into Sue's mind. The three of them pulled against each other like old pieces of elastic. Ping! They let each other slip.
She would never have believed that she would lie awake at night, tempted to pick up her phone and call the police. It seemed to Sue, in the middle of the night, that, in the choice of confessions she was presented with, this one was preferable to any of the others. Sue pictured herself and Camilla arrested as accessories. There would be a short jail term. There would be a life to pick up and continue with, after that. Sue had been in jail before, though never for more than a few nights. There would be things she could do in order to prepare Camilla, things to warn Camilla against.
Laura was different; Laura was, as she had been from the moment she'd cried out, and Sue had run to see what the matter was, the obstacle, the sticking place.
Laura would have a hard time in prison, and there'd be nothing Sue could do to prevent that. Being pretty and vague and vulnerable was in some ways the worst combination.
Camilla had understood this when she'd said that thing about mince-meat. That was what had made her act so quickly; she hadn't only meant the cops.
We have to get him out of here.
Was it possible that Camilla was in love with Laura? No, Sue said to herself, it wasn't that.
Camilla had done what she believed was right, and Sue had gone along with it, down to the small details, arranging Kafer's body slumped over the steering wheel.
Camilla had been annoyed, during the long walk back from the camel paddock, that Sue hadn't thought of the fact that they'd need another car. I've thought of everything else, Camilla's manner had implied, why couldn't
have thought of that?
They'd had to half carry Laura for the last kilometre, propping her up between them, stopping for rests more and more frequently, until Sue had begun to fear that dawn would come before they reached Grimwade Street. Even then she hadn't thought of Bernie, or to check for cars.
âMornings are the best times,' Laura said.
âFor pretending that it never happened, Susie.'
Laura's statements seemed more and more to be cradling a hidden sting.
âToo late for that,' Sue said, the words threatening to stick on the roof of her mouth.
She poured water and drank it. She remembered being the kind of person who prided herself on not needing to lie. Husbands lied when they cheated on their wives. Wives lied when they gave in to their husbands. Bernie lied because it gave him an advantage and because he enjoyed it. Prostitutes lied when they pretended to feel pleasure. Sue had not done that. She liked to think her business had not suffered because she'd chosen to be honest.
Laura said, âIt's okay, Susie. Really.'
Sue nodded, not trusting herself to reply. She was aware of the boundaries of the girls' room, how the walls tensed and flexed around them. The brown shadow on the wall moved; now it was between her and Laura. Sue couldn't believe that Laura did not see it too.
Laura was waiting for an answer, for the kind of re-assurance Sue felt unable to give.
She shrugged, then switched the TV on and began to fiddle with the remote, turning it over and over in her hands.
Sue thought of the grass where exotic beasts trod lightly, where they might even feel at home. It was as well that camels could not see into the future. But perhaps they could?
She said, âI'm going to the bakery. Want anything?'
Laura shook her head.
The days and nights had never seemed so long. Sue lived on bread and milk and eggs, like a baby or an invalid; she spent hours standing at the window smoking. She wished the new term had begun and the high school students were back in the park.
From the window of her flat, early in the morning, she watched two young mothers, each wheeling a baby in a pram and with an older, pre-school child, meeting at the swings. They sat side by side while their children ran about, a boy and girl who could have been cousins. The women sat in the shade and handed out fruit boxes and muesli bars. They re-applied sunblock and adjusted hats while their babies slept. Every now and then, one of the mothers got up and rocked a pram back and forth a few times, then sat down again. Sue watched them and felt comforted, though she did not know why.