Authors: Dorothy Johnston,Port Campbell Press
Tags: #Short Stories
Though she'd cried out only seconds before, Laura did not look up at the sound of the door opening. There was an urgency in her coiled spine, her clenched hands and concentrated arms, that made the person standing at the door, Laura's friend and colleague, freeze.
The man's shoulders were shapely, wide and reassuring. His body parts were whole and beautiful and not misused. Later, cold limbs might have to be broken in order to be moved, but for now all of him was warm.
Laura loosened her grip, then turned and raised her head, and Sue moved swiftly to her side.
âHe's dead,' Laura whispered.
âI don't know.'
Sue grasped Laura by the arm. âBut what did he
âHe just died,' Laura said.
Laura swallowed, then she laughed. Sue heard hysteria, low and crouching, at the bottom of her laughter.
âWas he sick? Don't just
âI don't know,' Laura said again.
Sue pushed Laura roughly. The man's heavy upper body toppled forward. Laura lost her balance too, rolling onto the bed, then lying there with her head buried in her arms.
âLaur,' Sue said more gently. âIn a minute we're going to have to phone the police. He must have had a heart attack. We can't leave it for more than a few minutes.'
Laura said from beneath her folded arms, âCall Cam. I want Cam.'
âWhat?' Camilla said. Her voice over the phone was cross, in no mood to be interrupted.
Sue shouted; she couldn't help herself. âHe's dead!'
Sue was thinking she could ring the ambulance and police right now. Laura couldn't stop her and it was what she ought to do.
She went back to Laura's room and told her, âCamilla's coming.'
Laura was rocking back and forth on the end of the bed. Sue felt herself begin to sway as well. Her vision blurred and she thought, this isn't happening. She imagined suddenly that she was very young, at a dance somewhere. The strobe lights that others found exciting made her dizzy. The blue lights made her sixteen-year-old face a ghost face, frightened by its own appearance.
Camilla ran forward and folded Laura in her arms.
Sue said, âHe's dead Cam. There's nothing we can do.'
âHave you called the ambulance?'
Camilla sat with both arms around Laura, looking up at Sue. âThe police will make mince meat of her. What we have to do is get him out of here.'
Sue opened her mouth to protest, but, instead of speaking, left the room and returned a few seconds later with two pairs of rubber gloves. She handed a pair to Camilla, then started going through the dead man's clothes, which were neatly folded on the room's only chair.
A good quality dark blue jacket lay on top. Sue picked it up in hands covered with pungent rubber, while Camilla shook dark trousers. When a set of car keys fell out of the right-hand pocket, she put them on the bedside table. There was a long-sleeved white shirt, black socks and dark blue underpants, and, in an inside pocket of the jacket, everything they could have hoped for by way of identification.
The dead man's name was Josef Kafer and he was forty-one years old, according to his driver's licence. He was the owner of a Commonwealth bank MasterCard and private health insurance. Another card showed that Kafer's membership of the Kaleen Sports Centre would expire on February 1st, and another still was blank except for a barcode on one side. A small notebook contained a list of names and addresses.
Sue and Camilla looked at each other with this information in their yellow hands. Sue rolled Josef over on the crumpled sheet, noting that he wore a wedding ring. His penis was still warm. She thought of the cold to come, while the phrase âstruck down' gripped her - tentacled, insinuating. Such neatness and orderly effects. Only then did she notice the red marks on Josef Kafer's neck.
âWhere's his tie? Did he have a tie?'
Laura didn't answer. She began rocking to and fro again.
âLaura?' Sue said, moving her aside.
Underneath Laura, tangled in the sheet, was a dark blue tie criss-crossed with thin red lines.
Sue held it up. The marks around the dead man's neck weren't deep, but to Sue they stood out clearly. His skin was chafed and the colour raised beneath it, the way she made her hands red sometimes when she rubbed them.
âWas he wearing this?'
âHe did it! He did it!' Laura cried. She stopped rocking and waved her arms about, pantomiming someone pulling something tight around his neck.
When Camilla said Laura's name softly, but with a sharp undertone, Laura raised her chin.
âHe, he -' she sobbed.
Camilla shook her head at Sue. âWe need to dress him and get him out of here.'
Sue said, âNo. We need to ring the cops.'
âIt's two against one.'
âLaura doesn't count,' Sue said, feeling that to argue over numbers was just about the stupidest thing they could be doing. She was conscious of time rushing, as it had towards the midnight countdown less than a week before.
Laura's crying sounded like a baby or a kitten; at any rate, Sue thought, glaring at Camilla, like some small thing whose need for protection replaced every other need.
Camilla bent over Laura, holding her tightly, placing her own body squarely between Laura and Sue.
She turned over her shoulder to argue. âHow can you say that?'
âAbout not counting.'
Sue opened her mouth to say it was obvious that Laura had lost it. Instead, she shook her head.
She replaced the notebook in the jacket pocket, then held the dead man's feet steady while Camilla laced up dark brown shoes and Laura watched them from the bed. Laura lay curled like a hurt puppy, but at least she'd stopped crying.
There'd been a couple of receipts in the wallet and $48.75 in cash.
âLaura,' Camilla said briskly, having finished with the dead man's feet. âWhere did you put the money?'
Laura's small purse was on the bedside table. Inside were three fifty dollar notes, which Camilla put into Josef's wallet.
âI think that's everything,' she said. âWhat about the other pockets?'
âThe notebook, two pens and a handkerchief. And car keys in the trouser pocket. We could get rid of the book, I guess.'
âWhat if his wife notices it's missing? Better leave it,' Camilla said.
Sue went outside to check. She switched off lights that normally illuminated fire stairs. Not for the first time, she felt grateful that the ground floor of their building was unoccupied.
Sue stood outside the glow of the street lights and looked across the carpark, which was empty except for her car, Camilla's and Josef Kafer's. She'd given Laura a lift to work, as she often did.
She studied the buildings on either side. One was a lawnmower sales and repair place, whose owner she sometimes chatted to but did not know well. It was in darkness except for an exterior light at the front. On the other side was another small business, a carpet place run by two brothers from New Zealand. It was closed until January 15, but Sue ran her eyes carefully over it, looking for any sign of life.
The three premises shared a carpark and a laneway, on the other side of which was a sprawling timber yard. Stacks of new and used timber took up as much space as their three lots combined, with a large office fronting Grimwade Street and a smaller one facing their way. Even if there was someone in the office, and at eleven o'clock on a Thursday night it was extremely unlikely, they'd be too far away to see movement on the fire stairs.
It occurred to Sue that it would never again give her pleasure to see lights on in the lawnmower shop, to think of its owner working late, groaning over his business statement, while her shift was just beginning. She would never see a shadow moving there, behind a blind, or hear Bernie's radio, and feel in some way connected to her neighbour. Tonight all she felt was relief at blank walls. It was lucky that most people were away on holiday. She sucked in her breath, dismayed to be thinking this way already, with the mindset of a fugitive. She hesitated on the landing before going back indoors.
âThe coast is clear,' she said in a small, clipped voice.
Camilla had finished dressing Josef. Together they wrapped him in a blanket. It was a sombre procession down the fire stairs, and they did not make a neat job of it. Josef's weight proved unpredictable and slippery; his body moved as though it still had a mind of its own.
They staggered, nearly falling. A leg broke free of the blanket. Sue was within a breath of crying out. The steps had never seemed so steep and narrow, like rungs belonging to a ladder infinite in its extent.
They slipped again, and would have fallen to the bottom in a heap had it not been for Camilla, taller and stronger than Sue, strengthening her grip, adjusting her footing, heaving with her shoulder braced against the metal railing.
The moon was high and spindly, the night at last beginning to cool down.
Josef's car, a small red hatchback, was parked at the far end of the carpark. They squashed him into the back seat, and Laura into the back as well, where she folded herself into the furthest corner and pulled a blanket round her head.
Camilla said, âI'll drive.'
Laura whined, but made no other sound.
They left behind the concrete block with its steep and slipshod stairs. The moon was a skinny and accusing finger, poking out between clouds that had suddenly blown up. Sue stared out of the passenger window and could not shake the impression that the buildings at her back also loomed in front of them, or that they were still climbing down that frightful ladder. She did not ask where Camilla was taking them, but was surprised to see, the next time she looked, that the suburb had given way to paddocks.
The three women were wearing rubber gloves; Laura had stared while Sue was putting hers on as if she did not know what they were. Each had a blanket to sit on, to stop her clothes from coming into contact with the car's upholstery, but Sue worried that this wouldn't be enough. Her hands inside the gloves felt hot and sticky, as though she'd been kneading honey.
Bitumen turned to gravel. Summer grasses gave off a rich, dry scent. Wire fences in good condition offered up their own small gestures of security. Caught at their periphery, dark outlines could have belonged to the conscience of the city at their backs, rather than three prostitutes and a client newly dead.
Camilla turned the engine off, but left the lights on, and got out of the car. Shapes across the fence were larger, longer than those that might have belonged to cattle. Sue stared at a camel and her calf.
âWhoever thought that there'd be camels out here? Who owns all this? Where's their house?'
âHow the hell should I know,' Camilla said.
They unwrapped Josef and positioned him flopped over the steering wheel, with the car's bumper bar up against the fence. They decided it was better if the car was facing away from Canberra, as if Josef's heart had failed him as he was heading out towards - well who knew exactly, or could say?
Only then did Sue and Camilla realize that they had not brought another car, that they would have to walk all the way back into town.
When Camilla rang next morning, Sue realized it was later than she'd thought. She hadn't expected to be able to sleep at all.
She heard the phone ringing from the bathroom, and went to answer it wrapped in a towel.
âYou took your time,' Camilla said.
âSorry. How are you?'
âAre you coming over?' Sue asked. âI don't think we can make decisions on the phone.'
Sue found a clean white T shirt and some jeans. She threw the clothes she'd been wearing the night before into the washing machine, scrubbed the soles of her running shoes with a nail brush, then put them in the sun to dry. She found some Panadol in the bathroom cupboard and swallowed two with a cup of tea. She knew Camilla would be a while because she was picking up Laura on the way.
Josef Kafer's eyes had been a mild, milky brown, free, in death, from the slightest expression of reproach. Had Laura pulled the tie around his neck because that was what he'd asked for?
Sue told herself she'd known Laura was flaky from the moment she set eyes on her.
It was weird to think that here they were, at the start of a new millennium.
The day's heat began to climb the walls. Threads broke in the very act of being pulled together. Sue wished she had not given up smoking. She watched while Camilla smoked, sucking in air between the gaps in her front teeth, and felt, towards both her and Laura, a deep, boiling resentment.
Laura sat in silence behind a pot of tea. Picking up a mug, Sue wondered if it had always been like this, if Laura had always expected them to do her thinking for her.
âThere's bread, if you want to make toast,' she said. âOr cereal.'
She went into the next room, switched on the TV and turned up the sound.
Though the flat had only one bedroom, it was airy and well lit, north facing for the winter sun.
Josef's body would rot quickly. It would begin to smell. Sue had no doubt that it would be found that morning. The only dead creatures she'd ever had to deal with were pet mice. As a child, she had discovered that mice were fragile creatures, whose stake in life was poorly maintained. She'd buried her pets one by one, in a line by the back fence. She'd made a sign on a bit of fence paling. Mouse cemetery, it said.
Sue went to hang her clothes outside, where they would dry in fifteen minutes. Would one of her neighbours be watching? Did even this small activity have to be considered in advance? And what about Camilla's car parked in the driveway? Should they draw the blinds?
Sue stared at the clothes basket accusingly, as if it might be responsible for what had happened, while Laura went on sitting in the kitchen like a Buddha, or more accurately a simpleton, a girl who'd left her mind some place and forgotten to go back for it. She did not want to have to face the two of them; Camilla smoking, Laura's vacancy.