Momentum

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
Shaun is down on his luck. Drunk and grief-stricken, he heads for the nearest bar to seek solace. There he meets Eliza, a femme fatale drawn from the dark corners of the noir tradition, and is soon drawn into a world of hard drinking and addiction. Throw in a drug dealer looking for vengeance and Shaun's on a collision course that could only end in bloodshed...
Momentum is a novella bathed in the sweat and grime of contemporary Melbourne. Tight prose, scattergun dialogue and seeped in alcohol. Mickey Spillane would be proud.

Submitted: November 02, 2016

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Submitted: November 02, 2016

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MOMENTUM

 

There was a warm feeling as an arm pressed against mine. I was staring into the mirror that hung above the bar, wondering what a drunk thirty something was doing in a place like this. Again. The music was deafening, some modern dance hit with too many beats and not enough soul. Something to relate to, I thought, and smiled at my reflection. The beer bottle in front of me was almost done, and I was already thinking about the next one. It was that sort of night.

I made to move my arm, and it caught in a sticky patch on the bar top. The club was living up to its name. The bass continued to thunder. I saw the bartender coming towards me, wiping his hands on a tea towel. I realised the warmth had gone. The bartender hovered. There was a two second fight as I debated whether to get another drink. No-contest, as usual. I fished into my pocket for a note.

When I looked up again, a shot glass with a clear liquid in it stood in front of me. I frowned. Did I have one in without realising? I couldn’t recall, the events of the evening already becoming blurred snapshots. I closed my eyes to try and concentrate, and felt a tap on my shoulder.

I turned and was met by a pair of hazel green eyes and a wide, smiling mouth slashed with red. She gestured with her shot. I reciprocated and gunned the drink in one. Fire burnt a trail from throat to stomach and I bent over, coughing.

She laughed sarcastically. The song was winding down, the beat less frenetic. I raised my head and looked at her.

Nicely done,’ she said, tucking a strand of brown hair behind her ear. ‘Almost a waste of good sambuca.’

I struggled to see her features in the dim light. Like a mirage, or a dream. All I could make out was that smile of fire engine red.

I took a couple of deep breaths. The fire rose and fell, rose and fell.

Thanks,’ I replied. ‘Don’t do shots very often. A real man's man, as you can see.’

She waved a hand at me. ‘No worries. Saw you here, sitting by yourself, and thought I’d buy. I’m spontaneous like that.’

Well, I appreciate it.’ The shot had gone straight to my head, the stool rocking beneath me. ‘Thanks again.’ I turned back to the bar, afraid that I might vomit.

She frowned, picked up the rest of her round. I swallowed.

I’m sorry. I’m just, you know, not having a very good time of it at the moment. ‘

Well, that’s obvious,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t be here otherwise.’

I smiled. ‘So, what brings you here?’

She shook her head. ‘Uh uh, my dark secrets are staying where they are. When I come here I leave my troubles at the door.’ She made to go, then turned back.

Look, do what you need to do. I’m going back over there, but if you get sick of being on your own, come and join us. You never know, it might be fun. At The Pit, everyone needs a friend.’

I don’t know your name,’ I said, as the beat started up again.

She shouted something over her shoulder, but it never reached me over the force of the music. I swallowed once more and went back to my beer.

 

The Pit. Just the name conjured up images of a dated 60s horror movie, ghouls and demons lurking in dark corners, searching for fresh prey. The place was a dive, to put it politely. I first stumbled across it one long, drunken evening not long after Dad died. My brother Stuart had stayed on after the funeral until his own life took precedence and he had gone home to his wife and baby daughter. Without him I was a ship with no anchor, and began crashing into rocks almost immediately. Sarah had a late night waitressing job and worked most weekends, leaving me bored, depressed and more often than not, thirsty.

I began that evening trawling bars near the flat, never stopping for longer than one or two, filled with a restlessness that kept me moving. As the night wore on I edged closer to the city, seeking something I couldn’t define. Conversations became fractured and sloppy as the alcohol took hold, until time became elastic. I ended up past the casino, still swarming with people in the small hours of the morning, its gaudy veneer suggesting promise and fortune, neither of which I was full of. It was then I made my first sensible decision of the night and went for food, in need of ballast to steady the decks.

As I crept in search of nourishment I noticed a small alleyway to my left with a glowing pool of light at the end. There was a very faint sound of music. That light looked so inviting, I wanted to bathe in it. I leant against the wall for a few moments. A shriek echoed up the alleyway, then high-pitched laughter. I felt on a crossroads that would define my entire existence, lead me on a path that could end in destruction or salvation. Dad’s dead body flashed into my mind then, the last moments we shared, as his every breath became tortured until there were no more breaths to come. I blinked back tears, overcome with a ferocious need to wipe that memory from my mind.

I moved towards the light.

A sign came into view, creaking in the mild breeze. It depicted a white portcullis on a black background, the words ‘The Pit’ spelled out in red writing to look like blood. There was a black door beneath the sign, and that was it. No queue of people, no visible bouncers, nothing. I grasped the door handle on the second attempt, and wandered inside. There was a long, straight staircase with blue bulbs set into the walls and at the top, a tiny window. This had red light surrounding it, casting the attendants face in a bloody hue. The hand stamp was the same colour. Then, another door which opened into the club.

The first thing that struck you was the noise, a thunderous cacophony that assaulted the eardrums. It was dark, the tables set into corners and scarcely lit with candles. The bar was off to the right and formed a U shape against the wall. In the opposite direction was the smoking terrace, figures vaguely recognisable beyond the glass. There were less than fifty people in the club that I could see, and as I propped up the bar I realised that they all had the same urgent look in their eyes, as if they were trying to make up for lost time and losing the battle. I knew how they felt.

The rest of the night was no more than a vague sketch. I woke up on the couch with tongue plastered to my mouth and no recollection of leaving The Pit or getting home. A note from Sarah lay on the coffee table admonishing me for waking her up when I staggered in. I searched for my phone, realising when I found it that the battery had run out hours earlier. Not wanting to face the world, I pulled the covers back over me and demanded sleep. When it came, I dreamt of a portcullis slamming shut, impaling my hand beneath its rusty prongs, blood spurting across a quivering red hand stamp.

I vowed once my hangover had passed that The Pit and I were no longer one. But something about the place and its people I couldn’t forget, and the next time I was out alone, I ended up there. It became an almost instant reflex – as the booze count rose, my need increased. My drinking was getting out of control, filling the gaping hole that Dad had left behind. The world was closing in, shrinking to a few streets. It was my small part of the planet and I filled it with liquor and grief and tears.

My part of the planet, but no longer Sarah’s. It was a quiet passing like Dad’s had been. A few tears, a sympathetic hug, and she was gone. Years together and ended in the time it took to sink a pint. I took two days off work and withdrew from public view, vowing to cut down the drinking and make something of my life. I was approaching 40 with a passable job, no girlfriend, no prospects, and little hope. But try as I might, the whisper of the bottle was too loud. Saturday night came round and I was staring at the clock, trying to force the constant swirl of Sarah and Dad out of my head. There was a nagging urge for The Pit, for oblivion, just for tonight, and start again tomorrow. I let it overwhelm me, and reached for a drink. And so there I was, and there she was. The nameless girl who smiled red, as red as the letters that spelled out The Pit.

 

A few minutes later I felt that familiar tap on my shoulder once more.

My mate is getting friendly with some guy,’ she said, hooking a thumb over her shoulder. ‘Which is something I do not want to see. So you have to come and have a cigarette with me. ‘ She tugged at my sleeve. ‘Come on. You can’t leave a girl on her own in a place like this.’

I opened my mouth to reply, then thought better of it. I got the impression resistance was futile. So I nodded, and carefully slid off the stool, praying I was sober enough to walk in a straight line.

I followed a few steps behind, trying to avoid bumping into tables. I eyed her legs as I went, noticing for the first time how shapely they were. Slightly fuller than Sarah’s, I thought, and felt a sharp stab of pain in my chest. I wondered where she was, what she was doing. Hoping that she wasn’t fucking up like I was. I wanted to tell her that I was lost, scared of falling through the cracks and not being able to make it back, that I would succumb to the depths and the darkness. Wishing she would come and rescue me from this perpetual misery.

It was a mild night and a cloud of smoke enveloped me as we stepped onto the terrace. There were a couple of low benches but these were occupied so we moved to the edge of the balcony. She put her glass on the ledge. Despite the oppressive smoke it was a relief to be away from the din, and the fresh air cleared some of the cobwebs from my head.

She reached into her jacket for cigarettes and offered me the pack. I shook my head. Away from the gloomy confines of the club I could take in her features. Her eyes were the most striking, their greenish colour unusual and almost hypnotic. She was wearing a short sleeve dress and a hint of a tattoo was visible on her right arm, a mix of black and red. I had a sudden urge to bend and kiss that tattoo, run my tongue along its edges. The thought startled me and I felt a pang of guilt. But Sarah was gone now, so I could think what I wanted.

So, guy-with-the-world-on-his-shoulders,’ she said, blowing a stream of smoke into the air. ‘Did they give you a name when you were born, or what?’

Shaun,’ I said.

She pointed at me with her cigarette. ‘Nice name. And you already know mine. From the musical, My Fair Lady? My Dad was a big fan, apparently. I’ve always hated it.’

I kept a neutral face. I had no idea what she was talking about.

So, are you a regular here?’ I asked, changing the subject. ‘You seem to know a lot about the place.’

She smiled and nodded, leaning forward to knock some ash over the balcony. A gap opened at the top of her dress. I looked away. ‘You could say that. It’s a funny club, really. Not many people know about it, and very few come here more than once. It seems to attract a certain type of person, if you know what I mean.’

And what type of person is that?’

She laughed. ‘Those who should know better, I’d say. Or those that do know, but don’t care.’

Which one are you?’

I felt the full force of her eyes on me. Its effect was almost mesmerising. ‘That, my friend, is something you can work out for yourself. As I said, I don’t bring my troubles in here.’ The words were forceful, but she was smiling as she said them.

I raised my hands in mock surrender, smiling too. ‘OK, no more questions. Scout’s honour.’ I added a salute.

She laughed, more forcefully this time. ‘Excellent.’ Her cigarette was finished and she ground the butt on the ledge. Immediately she reached for another. ‘I know I shouldn’t, but fuck it. I can’t bear the thought of going back inside to see Clara in the middle of mating season. Seen that way too many times.’

Without thinking I said, ‘Can I have one?’

Help yourself.’ I took one and lit it. It had been so long, the first drag made me cough. But it felt good. It felt like home.

Jeez,’ she was saying. ‘You can’t hold your drink, and you can’t smoke either. You’re a bit of a mess, aren’t you?’

Sorry,’ I replied. ‘This is my first cigarette in three years. Takes a while to get back on the horse, you know?’

Her eyes widened. ‘Three years? See what I mean? That’s what this place does to you. Accentuates bad habits. I was a nun before I started coming here.’

I’m sure you were,’ I said. ‘I don't think.’

She looked away and dragged hard on her cigarette, and I saw a shine in her eyes. I got the impression there was much going on beneath the surface, an inner turmoil trying to break free.

'Look, I'm sorry...'

She turned and laid a hand on my arm, nails pressing into my skin. 'Let's not, OK.' She finished the cigarette with another hefty drag. I had barely touched mine.

'Thanks for coming out here with me,' she said, scooping up her handbag. 'It's probably safe to go back inside now. I'll see you later, OK?'

And she was gone. I looked down at my cigarette, which was no more than a column of ash. I tried to make sense of what had just happened, but an alcoholic smear had glazed my mind and memory.

 

After that I blacked out for a little while, and came to outside the club, leaning up against the brick, the first smudges of dawn hanging over the city. I was desperate for bed, for sleep, to forget. I pushed off from the wall and staggered up the alleyway, trying to piece together the last stages of the night. Beyond the cigarette break, there was very little. Had we talked again? Had she ditched her friend and gone home alone? Maybe she was still here, looking for me. I thought about going back to check, but every step took effort. A sudden bout of nausea hit my stomach and I crouched behind a wheelie bin and vomited in a guttural burst. A car horn sounded, then a peal of laughter. The puddle of vomit formed a yellow starburst on the pavement. Slowly, I stood up and wiped spittle from my mouth. I was a foul-smelling mess. A sudden flash of memory burst my consciousness, seeing her coming out of the toilets, striding purposefully. Approaching me, gesturing. I couldn't make out words but saw her pupils dilate and faint grains of white powder around her nostrils. Gesticulating wildly, hooking me with those big green eyes. Then, a hug, a smell of vanilla and an earthy spice I couldn't define, cutting through the nausea and clearing my head. I groped to try and prolong the memory but drew a blank, angry at myself for failing to remember. No matter, I vowed. No matter, for I will be back, back here until I see her again.

I stumbled to the street and flagged down a cab. The driver took a long, disgusted look at me but didn't drive away. I got in the back and lay with eyes closed, listening to the first cries of the dawn chorus. The cabbie had the radio on so I was left to my thoughts and self-loathing, noticing with horror the splashes of vomit on my jeans and shoes. I looked out at the awakening city, how beautiful it was, gleaming in the morning sun. It reminded me of what I had lost, and I wondered if I could ever shake that feeling off and look upon Melbourne afresh, with no baggage hanging on its coattails.

The driver pulled up metres before my apartment block. I stepped out and fished in my pocket for some money. As I did so a thin strip of paper fluttered down to the gutter. I paid the driver and bent down to retrieve the paper. It was a card with the now familiar portcullis insignia on the front. No name, no address, no phone number. I turned the card over and on the back were three words scrawled in black:

NEXT TIME. ELIZA.

As I fell into bed, not even bothering to brush my teeth, I ran that word over in my head as I fell asleep, pleased that I had finally got her name.

The hangover the next day was fierce. My diaphragm was sore from the vomiting and my mouth tasted of ash. I could barely get out of bed. Images of Dad and Sarah formed a merry-go-round, one rushing to the forefront whenever I closed my eyes, then receding to be replaced by the other. I dry heaved a couple of times in a long coughing fit that set me weeping, hunched over the toilet bowl with tears dripping onto the porcelain. Loneliness gnawed at me. I thought of phoning Stuart, just to hear another voice, but the idea of conversation was a step too far. It was a day to pick at the teetering mountain of regrets that festered on my skin.

Later I moved to the sofa and lay there twirling the business card over and over. Eliza, Eliza. Everything about her was a blank other than the most basic sensory recalls, that smell of spiced vanilla, the bright colour of her tattoo. She seemed out of reach, forever waiting in the next room, impossible to grab onto. I was intrigued by her and wanted to know more. There was a deep well of sadness behind those eyes, a hint of a traumatic past. What had she said? I leave my troubles at the door. Well, maybe. But she wasn't doing a good job of disguising them. Covering up her problems with alcohol and substance abuse. I could relate to that. I felt there was a connection between us, that we were the only two people who had been dealt the same rough hand. At the Pit, everyone needs a friend. At long last I rose (from my Pit, I thought, smiling) and stuck the card to the fridge door with a magnet. I mouthed her name, already desperate to see her again, knowing that in a few days time, I would have that chance.

 

By Monday I had mostly recovered from my hangover. I worked as a labourer, and part of the job I'd always loved was the physical aspect. Sweating out the alcohol through sheer exertion after a big night was almost a ritual for me. Coming home with a well-earned ache in the muscles, standing under a hot shower as the day's graft washed away, those moments I loved. There was a great satisfaction in seeing a project come to life, taking shape bit by bit. Being created in front of my eyes, and knowing that in a hundred years time there would be a part of a building that I had made – a microscopic detail that would stand until long after I was gone. A tiny piece of immortality that would mark my presence on this earth. I found that a comfort.

 

The week dragged by, the days moving like treacle. As time passed, Eliza seemed more and more a figment of my imagination, an alcoholic hallucination. I was leading a double life. The quiet labourer by day and reckless, hard drinking fuck-up by night. Most evenings I found myself in a bar somewhere, sitting alone with a beer under flickering candlelight. I craved laughter and the low throb of steady conversation. The flat felt too big for me, and its every surface reminded me of Sarah. It was easier to stay out for as long as I could, only using the place to crash.

The only thing that kept Eliza real was that business card, staring at me every time I went to the fridge.

Eventually Saturday came around and I awoke feeling sick to my stomach. All through the day I wondered if Eliza would show up, what she would say, if she had thought of me in our time apart. I needed a couple to settle down, and by the time I reached the Pit I was drunk and almost scared to walk up those stairs. But need swept me up and I half ran, half stumbled towards the glow of red.

She wasn't there. I made a quick circuit of the bar and dancefloor, craning my neck to search for her, but it was useless. I felt a fool for wasting my time and energy, and suddenly wanted out of there, to drown my sorrows far from this place. I strode down the steps and into the first bar I could find. Three hours later I woke up outside the door of my flat, a half smoked packet of cigarettes protruding from my jacket pocket. Things were spiralling out of control.

 

And I had further to fall, too. After that night I knew that things had to change. Mindless alcohol abuse was ravaging my health and bank balance. The late nights were a second world where history was irrelevant. I could be anyone I wanted to be, could concoct a fantasy to keep my thoughts from the mess my life had become. Every day I mourned Sarah and Dad, every day I obsessed over seeing Eliza again. As soon as the working week began I was thinking of the weekend, of seeing those green eyes, that tattoo. I lived in the twin states of being both excited and terrified, ready for the release if she was there and dreading the comedown if she wasn't.

My drinking was now encroaching on my work; I was late to the site a couple of times, having overslept my alarm after another binge. At first the guys laughed it off, criticising my unkempt appearance and stink of booze. I vowed to cut down, to keep it to the weekends, but every night I ended up in the pub. Once the foreman, Steve, got wind of it I was given an official warning. This should have woken me up, but if anything it pushed me closer to the edge. Part of me wanted to fail, I think. To elicit sympathy from those who had left me behind, a classic 'poor-me' cry for help. So I drank, drank all I could find. And when Saturday came around again, there was only one place I could go.

 

I hit a few bars on the way to take the edge off. There was no chance on Earth that I or anyone else entered the Pit sober. In between pubs I chain-smoked and fretted. As I walked down the alleyway my stomach did its usual flip as the door came into view. I pitched my cigarette into a puddle and went inside, preparing myself for the inevitable disappointment.

The scene was the same, the deafening din, the screaming. I took my place at the bar, ordered a shot and a beer, downed the shot in one, sipped the beer and thought about going out to the terrace.

A hand grasped my shoulder. I knew it was her.

'Shaun,' she shouted. I had a momentary flashback to my blackout, before she hugged me, that wild expression.

She reached for my hand, tugging me off the bar stool. 'Come with me,' she said, pulling harder.

I followed without resistance. She led us through the crowd, occasionally looking back to smile at me with those lips of red. My heart was hammering in my chest. I realised we were heading towards the toilets, and had a sudden fantasy of kissing her in the privacy of a cubicle, running my hand beneath her dress as she pressed against me. I clenched her hand tighter.

Eliza kicked open the toilet door. A girl with dark rings under her eyes stumbled past us. To the right, two more girls were adjusting their make-up whilst conducting a conversation in high-pitched squeals. Eliza dragged me into a cubicle. This can't be happening, I thought. Surely.

She reached into her handbag.

'I'm so glad to see you,' I stammered. 'I've - '

She put a finger to her lips. 'Keep your voice down. I'd rather not let everyone know what we're about to do.'

About to do what? I felt a tremor of ice in my gut.

She pulled a bag of white powder and a pocket mirror from her handbag. The tremor vibrated more strongly.

'What the fuck are you doing?' I hissed. 'What if someone catches us?'

She laughed. 'In this place? Trust me, it'd be unusual not to be doing it. Anyway, who are you, Mr Morality?' She poured coke onto the mirror and began chopping lines with a credit card.

I should have got out then. Got out of the cubicle, the toilet, the club. Rewound my life and played out a different path. Instead I backed against the toilet door and watched.

In quick time four thin lines of cocaine were lying on the mirror. She turned to smile at me, then bent and snorted two of them through a tube of plastic that looked like a hollowed out pen. She straightened, swallowed, then threw her head back.

'Man, that's good,' she murmured. I looked at her neck, wanting to kiss the bare flesh beneath her ear. She smiled and held the pen out. Her pupils were dilating already.

'Now you,' she said. 'Enjoy.'

I looked down at the line, gleaming against the surface of the mirror. Then back at Eliza. 'I can't, I mean, I've never - '

She rubbed at her gums with an index finger. 'Don't tell me, you've never done it before. Wow. I didn't think boys like you existed. Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.'

I swallowed. Her face softened.

'Look,' she said. 'It'll be fine. It's a lot of fun, despite what the fucking politicians say. Just loosen your grip a bit. It feels incredible. Besides, I'll be here to look after you. Now come on, before we get sprung.'

Here to look after me. That sounded alright.

I took the pen and bent to the mirror. You're pretty far gone, I thought. What was one more step?

I snorted the coke in two short bursts, and felt a freeze in my head straightaway. I imagined the granules leaping down my throat and entering the bloodstream, zooming through my veins.

I stood up, my heart beginning to pump faster. My face felt hot, but in a warm, comforting way. I smiled. 'Jesus,' I whispered.

Eliza stepped forward. 'See! I knew you'd like it.' She brushed past me and dabbed at the residue with her pinkie. She licked the powder off her fingertip, eyeing me as she did so. 'Your turn,' she said, and extended her finger. Her blood red fingernail was caked in powder. I bent and sucked the coke off the nail, then licked the last grains. We were inches apart now.

'There,' she said. 'All done.' Without thinking I leant forward to kiss her, but she backed away, a smile playing on her lips. 'Better get back out there. You can buy me a drink later, yeah?'

I nodded, but she was up and gone, the door clanging behind her. I felt trapped in her web, silk threads of cocaine reeling me in. I took a deep breath and headed back into the club.

 

The coke took hold almost immediately. Eliza had done a disappearing act again. The club was busier than I had ever seen it and she was lost amongst the throng.

I bought another drink and then a freeze rushed through me. All the negative feelings I had been carrying around were suddenly washed away. I felt lighter, cleaner. A low-level buzz had settled in my stomach. I downed my beer and headed for the dancefloor.

Under the relentless strobe light and the thumping bass everything took on a sharper focus. Eliza was gone, but she had set me free. I worked into a rhythm and started to dance in a frenzy. It felt like every movement was shedding off a piece of the past, pushing all the bad memories into the background. All the problems I was having now seemed inconsequential, irrelevant. Eliza would be back, I was sure of it. Nothing seemed more certain at that moment. I continued to dance.

 

Time lost its shape for a while, and I resurfaced on the edge of the dancefloor, sweating and overcome with heat. My mouth was drier than I had ever experienced. I headed towards the bar for a drink of water, and saw Eliza with her back to me, talking to a guy with black hair and a smear of beard. I watched as she tossed hair over her shoulder and stabbed a finger towards the guy's chest. As I got closer I could see the guy was getting angry. He grabbed her upper arm and squeezed, and I could see pain etched on her face. I moved in, heart pumping furiously.

'How's it going?' I said, smiling over the top of Eliza's shoulder.

Eliza swung round. Her pupils were still enormously dilated. 'Ahh, Shaun,' she said. 'I was wondering where you had got to.'

'Just having a dance,' I replied. I looked at the guy, whose hand was still clamped on Eliza's arm. Up close he looked pretty fierce, showing all his teeth as he glared at me.

'I'm Shaun,' I shouted over the music. 'You a friend of Eliza's?'

He stared at me for a long moment. 'Something like that,' he said. 'Not that it's any of your business.'

I raised my arms in mock surrender. 'Hey, do what the fuck you want.' I turned to Eliza. 'You coming for a smoke?'

She smiled. 'Sure.' She faced the guy. 'Could you let go of my arm?'

He eyeballed her, then released his grip. 'I'll see you later.' His looked at me. 'Both of you.' And he was off, pushing through the crowd. Eliza had gone too, so I followed.

 

Outside, the effects of the coke heightened. Despite my dry mouth, a cigarette sounded just the thing to take the edge off. I found Eliza in the far corner of the balcony, cigarette already lit. I lit mine as she turned to me, a glimmer in her eyes.

'Thanks for the save in there,' she said. 'Leroy can be a little forceful at times.'

I blew out smoke. 'Who the fuck is he, anyway? I wouldn't trust anyone who can't grow a proper beard. It looks like someone's smeared shoe polish on his chin.'

She laughed. 'He's nobody. Just a guy who I owe something. A blast from the past, you might say. I haven't seen him in here for weeks.'

'Seriously though,' I said, 'you might want to think about who you hang around with. From the sight of him, Leroy could start a fight in an empty room.'

She frowned. 'Wow, way to sound condescending. Well, thanks for your concern Shaun, I'll bear it in mind.' She shook her head and threw her cigarette in an ashtray.

A wave of anger rushed into my brain. 'Hey, I was only trying to get you away from the bloke. I won't fucking bother next time.'

She folded her arms. 'Ah, one bit of coke and now he thinks he's Rambo. Grow up, Shaun.'

I took a step closer. Part of me wanted to scream in her face, the other to rip her clothes off.

'Now who's being condescending? And by the way, thanks for 'looking after me', as you put it. You couldn't wait to ditch me.'

'I'm sure you can look after yourself.' She lit another cigarette. 'Anything else you want to say while the coke's doing the talking?'

'No. In fact, I've had enough of this fucking conversation. See you around.'

I made my way back into the club, my insides burning, Stupid, ungrateful bitch. And who was this Leroy idiot? Someone who thinks I owe him, she had said. Ex-boyfriend, maybe? I hoped not. Didn't say much for her taste in men, if so.

I looked at my watch. One last drink, then home, I thought. I'd had enough.

The club was starting to thin out so I got served immediately. I had a shot. As I was finishing a shadow crossed my path.

'So, we meet again,' Leroy snarled, right up in my face. His breath smelled of smoke and beer.

'What the fuck do you want,' I said. I couldn't be bothered with this, not now.

'How do you know Eliza?' he hissed. 'You rooting her?'

I slid out from the bar. 'As you said earlier, that's none of your business.' I made for the exit. Leroy blocked my path.

'Whatever. Me and Eliza, we're like that.' He crossed his fingers. 'And she owes me money. Has done for weeks. That gear doesn't pay for itself. Or maybe you could chip in, seeing as you've been at the charlie as well tonight?'

'I'm afraid I'm all out,' I said. 'This has nothing to do with me.'

He pushed me in the chest. 'Well, you stuck your face in earlier, so now it does. Shaun.'

I made to sidestep around him, and then there was a crushing pain in my stomach. I leaned over, gasping for breath. A second blow struck my nose and I felt blood running from my nostrils. The room started to spin. There were raised voices nearby, then the tinkle of broken glass. Some shouting as I staggered into the scarlet light of the stairway, swaying at the top of the flight of steps. I reached for the handrail and nearly made it, in the end bouncing from one wall to another like a pinball. At the last step I overbalanced and fell out the door into the night air, coming to a crashing halt by the bin I had been sick by the week before. Then I passed out.

 

I came to with a pounding in my head and blood drying on my shirt. My nose hurt like fuck but I didn't think it was broken. I closed my eyes. Leroy. I felt my stomach and winced. There would be some terrific bruises in the morning.

I opened my eyes to find Eliza kneeling over me. She had a tissue in her hand.

'Here,' she said. 'You were right, I should have looked after you. You can't seem to manage very well by yourself.'

I nodded, wiping the dried blood from my nose. It hurt to try and talk.

'I saw what happened,' Eliza said. 'I was just coming in from my smoke and saw Leroy. He scarpered pretty quick after he hit you. Fucking loser.'

I pushed off from the wall and tried to stand up. Eliza had to help. I took a couple of breaths.

'He really did a job on you, didn't he? Not that I had you down as a fighter.' She gave me an up-from-under look.

'You should see the state of him,' I croaked.

'Fucking hell,' she muttered, laughing. 'You know every cliché in the book.'

I pointed my finger at her and dropped my thumb, like a gun. She laughed even harder.

'You know what?' she said after. 'You're really quite something.'

And she leant in, grabbed my shirt, and kissed me. My stomach hurt from her touch. She tasted of salt and vanilla. As the kiss deepened her tongue flicked at mine, darting forward. I felt dizzy.

After, she took a cigarette, lit up, then offered me one. I shouldn't have, but I took one. Inhaling the smoke was painful, but I didn't care. I was on cloud nine.

'Do you need to go to hospital? We can get a cab up there if you do.'

I shook my head. 'No thanks. Painkillers and sleep and I'll be fine.'

'That's good. Look, I have to go. I need to meet someone. You'll be here, though? Next week?'

I nodded. 'If I've healed, I'll be here. I want to see you again.'

'Great,' she said, and started to walk away.

'Hey,' I shouted. I fumbled in my back pocket and found something, held it out to her. She took it and squinted.

'Oh.' She laughed. 'I'd forgotten about this. Next time, indeed.' She rummaged in her handbag and found a pen, scrawled on the back.

'Here,' she said. 'Keep me posted on your recovery.'

'Will do.' I put the business card back in my pocket.

She started to walk away. 'I'll be seeing you,' she said, turning to face me. 'And Shaun? Now you've had a night at The Pit.' Before the smile reached my lips, she was gone.

 

Despite my tiredness, it was impossible to get to sleep that night. There was a constant thrum of anxiety pulsing under my skin. My stomach and nose were a blackening mess. I stood under the shower for ages, head back, letting rivulets of water run down into my throat. After, I inspected my injuries in the mirror. My nose, whilst bruised on the bridge and around the nostrils, didn't seem broken. My sinuses were sore, but this was probably from the coke. I was more concerned with my stomach, where an ugly purple bruise was beginning to form. I touched my bottom rib and winced; possibly broken. I took a couple of aspirin and a painkiller left over from an old dental problem. In a few minutes the pain had lessened and the frayed nerves from the coke had been smoothed off.

I got into bed and looked at Eliza's phone number on the business card, trying to memorise the numbers. I thought of Sarah, and how much had changed since she had gone. She wouldn't be pleased with how I was fucking up my life, that was certain. Fuck, I could scarcely believe it myself. I ran over the events of the night, which seemed like a movie running on fast forward. That kiss, though. That kiss.

I lay awake, staring at the green numerals on my alarm clock, repeating Eliza's phone number whilst willing myself to sleep. The first light was breaking through the shutters when it finally came.

 

I ended up being off work for the week. Sunday was a slow-running amalgam of intense hangover and physical trauma. On awaking the pain in my ribs had lessened a little. The bruising had begun to yellow around the edges and deepen, but the rib itself felt a bit stronger. My nose was tender to the touch, particularly the nostrils.

The hangover though, was like nothing I had experienced. It was the usual post-booze comedown cranked up to ten. My head felt clamped in a vice, with nails nipping at my brain in a rhythmic assault. The dehydration was far worse, and was untouched by the vast amounts of water I drank. I was restless, unable to concentrate on anything, and moped around the flat all day, only venturing outside in the twilight hours. The throb from my rib made walking uncomfortable and I knew that work would be an impossibility. I put off phoning Steve, telling myself I would do it first thing, before he left for the site. I knew I was pushing it, that being off sick so soon after a warning was reckless, but I didn't have any choice. Besides, my nerves were on a tripwire and such a conversation would send them sprawling.

Late, unable to sleep again, I texted Eliza, telling her I was feeling OK. I eschewed detail – not too much, too soon. She was constantly on my mind, but better to build it up slowly. A small voice gnawed away at me, saying that she was trouble, that I should stay clear. Too late for that. I wanted more. I stared at the phone for a long time after pressing send, but no response. Agitated, I threw the phone across the bed and dived beneath the covers.

 

Steve was angry. Angrier than I had ever heard him. By the end of the call I was one step from the sack. I retreated to bed and made a doctor's appointment. I was lucky and got a booking for the next day. The doctor took one look at my ribs, the bruising now almost black, and I was signed off work immediately.

On impulse I went to the site with my certificate. Steve looked at it with gritted teeth, then sighed and waved me away. As I was walking to the tram stop, my phone buzzed. A text from Eliza, and my heart leapt into my chest. It was only perfunctory, glad I was on the mend etc, but it was enough. I went home to bed and hoped I would be fully fit for Saturday night.

 

I was almost at full fitness when Saturday came around again. I could breathe through my nose without hindrance and there was only a twinge in my ribs when taking a deep breath. To be on the safe side I wrapped a bandage tightly around my waist to give some extra padding. I spent the afternoon pacing the flat, staring at my phone every now and then, drinking slow beers and popping outside to smoke cigarettes under a concrete sky. Since the text from Eliza, nothing. I had no idea if she would even be at the Pit that night. She probably would be, I thought. The place was an addiction for her. And I hoped she wanted to see me again. I certainly did her.

When I reached the Pit I was most of the way gone. The upside was that the lingering discomfort from my rib had gone. I took a seat at the bar. I scoured the dancefloor for Eliza, but no sign. Fear swept through when I saw a bloke with a strong resemblance to Leroy, but on closer inspection it was a case of mistaken identity. She wasn't on the terrace either. I had a couple of drinks and waited.

As the night drew on my faith began to dwindle, and I was about ready to leave when she swayed in, arms linked with a short blonde girl I recognised as Clara. They were laughing raucously, then Eliza tottered on her heels and knocked a bloke in the back. He spun round. She mouthed something, and he grinned. He bent to whisper in her ear. She laughed again, nudging Clara in the side, and they moved on. As they passed the bar Eliza looked in my direction. I smiled and waved. Her eyes lingered on me for a second, then moved off. There was no acknowledgement of my presence. A bitter droplet of rage ran down my throat. Playing games, Eliza. How juvenile.

They took seats in a booth out back behind the dancefloor. Clara came to the bar opposite me, and immediately struck up a conversation with a heavily tattooed guy. Eliza remained alone in the booth. Fuck it, I thought. Let her sit there. I went for a couple of cigarettes, smoked them slowly, let the rage burn off. Back inside, Eliza was dancing now, Clara and the guy nearby, getting closer. There were plenty of men watching her, and who could blame them. She was worth a stare.

I watched for a while, getting more drunk, and now with a desire for coke. Just to get out of it, up and out and away. At that moment Eliza moved off towards the toilets. I intercepted her halfway.

'Ohh, hi Shaun,' she said in an exaggerated fashion. Judging from the state of her, she had been at more than just coke. There was a distant, vacant stare. 'How's the wounded soldier?'

I nodded. 'I'm OK. I thought we were going to see each other tonight?' I regretted the desperate tone of my voice.

She narrowed her eyebrows. 'Umm, we are seeing each other? Right now, it seems to me.'

'You know what I mean. And what was that when you came in? You looked right at me, then walked off!'

The furrow in her forehead deepened. 'I did? I don't remember. Sorry.'

'It was only a while ago, I'm sure you can refresh your memory.'

She sighed. 'Like I said, I don't remember. I'm sorry if that doesn't pass your interrogation.'

She made to leave. I placed a hand on her arm. Anything to stop her walking away.

'You said you wanted to see me again. Outside. Last week. That's what you said.' The more I rambled, the more pathetic it sounded.

'Oh, for God's sake. We had a kiss. I'm sorry if you thought it was more than it was. I dunno, seeing you with your face all bruised, I wanted to cheer you up a bit. Look, I just want to enjoy my Saturday night, have some drinks, a dance, some fun. If you're up for that, fine. Your decision. I can't deal with this now.'

I let go of her, defeated. Tears pricked my eyes. My right hand was clenched into a fist, the nails digging into my palm. I couldn't be in sight of her, not now. I threw a couple of doubles back at the bar and left the club.

I found the nearest pub to the alleyway and had some more drinks, cursing Eliza. The immature bitch. But still I wanted her. She had me hooked. I suspected there were other men in the same boat, all strung along like cans on a wedding car. But that wouldn't deter me. I would win her over. Somehow.

At closing time I staggered from the pub, thinking about how to get home. On the corner, I could hear heels clicking up the alleyway. On impulse, I shrank back into the alcove of the pub door, flat against the brick. Eliza stepped out to the street. She moved towards the road to hail a cab. A small metallic din erupted from her bag. She delved inside and stuck a phone to her ear. I tiptoed into earshot.

'Hi, Matt. Yeah, sure. Good timing, I was just about to go home. Yep, I'm alone. Ha ha, really? I never knew that. Cool, see you in a few. I'll walk round. Bye.'

She replaced the phone and turned up the road, hugging her jacket close. I stepped out of the shadows and followed. A few paces on she stopped to light a cigarette, then walked on. I mimicked her movements, always staying at a safe distance. We were walking away from the city, towards the beach. The smell of salt became more pronounced as we went. Every so often a cab or tram rattled past. My ribs were aching in a dull throb. We took a left, then a right, and were now away from the main road and in pitch darkness. I lost sight of her for a moment, following only the sound of her heels. Then, the clang of a gate. A brief knock, then a door opened, light spilling out onto the front porch. It looked like a guy who answered. Eliza hugged him, having to arch up on her toes to do so. This must be Matt. Then the door closed and I was left to my own devices.

Stay or go? I mulled this over for about two seconds. I placed a hand on the gate and swung it open. The creaking sound seemed loud in the confines of the pathway, but there was no-one around and the moment passed. I crept to the doorway. There were muffled sounds coming from the front room. A bar of light shone between the curtains. I stepped off the path into damp soil, ducking beneath the window ledge, shifting slowly towards the light.

Once I reached my target I placed a hand on the sill and hoisted myself up. A small section of the front room was visible between the curtains.

Matt was sitting on a brown sofa, hunched over a small coffee table that was littered with various smoking paraphernalia – a hash pipe, lighter, cigarettes, ashtray and so on. A girl I didn't recognise was sprawled on the sofa opposite. She looked asleep but rolled her head from side to side on occasion. Her skirt was rolled back to obscene proportions but she didn't seem to care.

There was the sound of a toilet flushing, then Eliza entered the room, planting herself down on a beanbag beside the table. She lit a cigarette and left it in the grooves of the ashtray, smoke curling up to the ceiling. It looked like no-one was speaking, but there was an intensity in the room. A focus. She watched Matt with intent. He produced what looked like a Swiss Army knife and began cutting something on the table.

My knees were starting to cramp, but I couldn't avert my gaze. Next, he pulled a sealed bag of powder from his pocket. Eliza leaned forward and said something to him. He smiled and nodded, and she sat back, puffing on her cigarette. He tipped some of the powder onto the table. A tremor of fear leapt into my throat. This was serious shit. The desire to up and leave was almost irresistible, but I stayed put. I had to see.

Matt was rolling up what looked like a fifty dollar note, taking his time to form a perfect cylinder. Satisfied, he put one end in his mouth.

Across the sofa, the mystery girl stirred. As if she knew what was coming.

Eliza stubbed out her cigarette, ready.

He took a lighter from the table and adjusted the flame to a lower level.

He looked at Eliza, a glassy smile on his face, note still firmly between his lips.

Then he stared right at me.

I ducked down, heart pumping in my chest. Had he seen? There was a gust of wind, and somewhere, a door slammed shut with a loud bang. A dog began to bark, piercing the night with its cries. I leapt up and onto the path. In the darkness I had no idea where the gate was, so took a chance and jumped. I just made it and sprinted across the street and into a laneway. There was a rubbish skip beyond the entrance so I hid behind that. The dog was still barking, and lights came on in various houses. I could see the door, open now, two figures standing. There was also a shadow at the window, the curtains now half open. I was out of breath and knelt on the cobblestones to try and get some air into my lungs. They couldn't have seen. I made some noise getting over the gate, sure. But that dog, and the slamming door. They had no reason to suspect an intruder.

And if they did, so what? There was nothing to prove it was me. Suddenly I thought of the garden, my footprints in the soil. No way to disguise those. But again, no reason to suspect me. The door was closed now, the curtains drawn again.

As my breathing slowed, I felt in my jeans for a cigarette, pulled one from the pack and lit it. Fuck, Eliza, I thought. Getting mixed up with heroin? For that was surely what it was. A bit of coke, maybe, but that stuff was poison. I thought of the look she had given me when she got to the Pit, that stare of nothingness. Maybe she had been at the gear before going out. There was a whole side of her I was just beginning to know, and like an iceberg, most of it was hidden beneath the surface. I pitched the cigarette away in a shower of sparks and got to my feet. I could feel the nausea and tiredness of a hangover starting to come on, and craved sleep. As I stumbled back to civilisation, I vowed to meet her one last time. I couldn't be sure about the smack, and I couldn't just walk away without knowing one way or the other. My rational self was telling me to forget her, but lately, it was the other half of my brain that had control. Yes, I would try once more. I had to.

 

I thought about little else during the week. My ribs continued to heal and I was able to return to work. Just being outside in the open air had a cleansing effect, and I managed to string a few days together without booze or cigarettes. I spoke to Stuart and tentatively organised a visit to see him in Queensland. I wanted to see my niece, do the Uncle thing. A few days out of Melbourne and away from the Pit seemed the answer.

But one last effort with Eliza. I found myself making up excuses for her possible heroin habit. That maybe it was a one-off. Part of me wanted to be her white knight, the man who would make her leave the gear behind and start a new life. It was hypocritical, really. I'd been quick to embrace cocaine, who was I to judge? And was it any of my business anyway? She had treated me like dirt last time, too. One minute interested, the next full of disdain. Again, I made excuses. It wasn't the real her, she was just drunk or high. That girl I met on the first night, that was her. Beautiful, vulnerable, funny. It was a question of bringing that girl back.

These thoughts were a constant presence. I knew that she was becoming an obsession. All my life I've had difficulty being on my own. Cancer took my mother when I was four, and the woman I see in old photographs I can barely remember. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can see a vague outline of a face or hear the whisper of her voice. I will myself to conjure more from the recesses of my mind, but nothing comes. Growing up with a single parent was tough. I was envious of the other kids. Sometimes a kid would be teased, called a 'Mummy's boy.' I would have liked to have been one of those. Dad did a brilliant job, don't get me wrong. But it leaves a hole, no matter what. I had no formative female relationships as a teenager, and now, when I'm interested in a girl, I latch on quick. I guess I'm afraid they are going to leave me. As Mum did. As Sarah did. And now Dad was gone too, and the hole had grown wider. I needed something to fill it. I'd only known Eliza a short while, but already I couldn't bear not seeing her any more. The pattern repeating again. Sometime it had to stop.

 

Back in the Pit. I was more sober than I had even been inside its walls. No Eliza, no Leroy, nobody. I moved to sit at the bar but changed my mind and smoked on the terrace, waiting it out. I drank slowly, rattling ice cubes in my mouth to prolong the taste. Checked my phone for messages.

Restless, I made for the bar. On my way, someone bumped me from the side, then apologised. It was Clara.

'Heey,' she said, clearly a bit worse for wear. 'You come here often?'

I rolled my eyes. 'Hi, Clara. Eliza not with you?'

She shook her head. 'Supposed to be meeting her here. Running late, as usual.'

I nodded.

'You're Shaun, right? I'm sure we've met, but you can never be sure in this place. '

Can't remember all the men you've fucked, I thought. Although you could see the attraction. She had something about her. 'Yep. A few weeks ago.'

'You know, I'm surprised I don't remember. Good looking fella like you.'

I smiled. It was a poor attempt at flirting, but hit the spot nonetheless.

'You going to the bar? Great, you can buy me a drink.' She took my arm. 'We can get to know each other.' She grinned. It was a smile you could grow to like.

 

We had a couple of rounds, and as the alcohol kicked in I could see why she was so popular with the blokes. It wasn't just her looks, although they helped. She had a great sense of humour and could hold her drink, too. Once, as she got up to go to the toilet, she placed a hand on my thigh. Our eyes locked and I had to turn away.

Clara came back and sat down. She took my hand. Her nails were soft against my skin.

'So, you want to dance? I'm in the mood.'

I let go of her hand and made to get up. 'Sure,' I stammered. 'One more drink and I'm there. You want anything?'

She shook her head, a slight smile playing on her lips. 'Don't be too long,' she shouted, heading for the dancefloor. 'I don't like dancing on my own!'

I ordered two doubles at the bar, and downed the first as soon as I received it. Fuck, women were trouble. All this with Eliza, and now Clara comes into view. The girl was a loose cannon for sure, but the attraction was there. On both sides. And if Eliza wasn't here, and the opportunity arose, then...

I knocked back the second, took a deep breath and followed.

I fought through the dry ice and found Clara already with eyes watching her every move. And move she could, her toned stomach rippling as she danced. She was lapping up every moment of it, making the absolute most of each change in beat. As she turned I caught her eye. She smiled and danced over to me.

'Glad you made it.' She span on her heel, giving me a close-up look at her legs and backside. 'This music's great!' she shouted, and leaned into my chest, wrapping an arm around my waist. 'Come on, dance with me!'

So we danced. Or rather, I shuffled a bit while she seduced the daylights out of every male in sight. I was self-conscious and wished I was drunker or on coke, to be completely in the moment rather than struggling on its edge. Clara moved closer and pressed her body against mine. We were joined from chest to toe, her crutch gyrating, my hand on her lower back, grazing the flesh of her arse. We rotated a little, and she pulled her head back and stared at me. The room seemed to condense until all that was left was us, the pink glaze of her lips inviting me to kiss them. I'm going to do this, I thought. I'm going to, and fuck the consequences. I leaned in.

'Looks like you two are having fun.'

I lifted my head. Eliza stood a metre away, hands on hips.

Clara groaned and muttered to herself, but stopped dancing and let go of me. I stood tall, feeling a slight coldness now that touch had gone.

'Just dancing,' I said. I was part embarrassed and angry. 'No crime in that, is there?'

Eliza folded her arms under her breasts. She was wearing a tight top that showed a sliver of skin above her waistline. I noticed her belly button was pierced.

'I never said there was,' she replied.

Clara had disappeared back into the dancing hordes. On to the next target, no doubt, and I knew I had had a lucky escape. Her intoxication was already starting to dissipate.

'So what's the problem, then?' I shouted. 'You jealous?'

'Fuck you,' she shouted. 'Fuck you.'

She strode off towards the smoking terrace. I think she expected me to follow, to cater to her every whim. I stayed put and had a drink. That little stunt was enough. There was too much going on, too much drama and hassle. I knew it would be hard, but I had to leave. Leave this place and get on with my life, no matter how depressed or lonely it made me. It was safer and cleaner than this.

I slid off my stool and headed for the exit, forcing myself not to look back. I descended the staircase for the last time, pulling a cigarette from my pocket as I went. I imagined the portcullis raising and a drawbridge coming down, my escape from the Pit to civilisation. In the red glow of the foyer, I lit my cigarette and went to make the final steps.

There was a clatter of feet behind me and a whirl of hair. A hand grabbed me and I was pushed into the wall. My cigarette dropped to the floor, and next thing I knew a mouth pressed against mine. A cold hand slid under my shirt. Now a wet tongue slid against my teeth, probing, the hand sliding upward and coming to rest on my thumping heart. My head filled with a familiar vanilla scent. She had come for me. I felt a vague sense of being manipulated, a pawn in some game. But every second my defences were breaking down.

Eventually we broke apart, breathing heavily. My shirt was half undone.

I watched her breasts rise and fall as her breathing slowed. 'You know,' I said, 'I don't know whether I'm coming or going with you. One minute you're swearing at me, the next sticking your tongue down my throat. Forgive me if I'm a little confused.'

She bowed her head. 'Come home with me,' she whispered.

'I'm sorry?' My hands were shaking. Must have been the cold.

She looked me straight in the eye with those orbs of green. 'You heard me. I don't want to repeat myself. I know you want to.'

My throat was full of cotton wool. She was right, but it would cause more problems than it solved.

'Just like that, huh? You flatter your eyelids and -'

She came into my arms and kissed me before I could finish. I gasped, and her mouth left mine and moved to my neck, leaving little bites with her teeth. A shudder of desire swept through me from top to bottom. She clung to me, her head buried in my shirt. I caressed her back, feeling the skin under her top. It was going to happen.

She pulled back, gave me a quick kiss this time, and took my hand. 'Come on,' she said. I didn't hesitate.

 

We hardly said a word in the cab back. Occasionally she would raise her head and look at me until I had to break the stare. I was thick with desire and need, but there was fear involved too. Fear that I was getting into something that would drag me further into a maelstrom of alcohol and substance abuse. I had no idea what Eliza thought of me, whether I was just convenient or someone she genuinely cared about. It was impossible to know her mood from one day to the next. I had to get out before I got in deep.

We wound through the streets and I was completely unaware of our location. I was sure we had crossed the river, but that was all.

'Nearly home,' Eliza said. She smiled, and it caught my heart on a hook. She needed me. Wanted me, even. I was the one, even if it was only for tonight. I couldn't resist.

 

The taxi stopped outside an apartment block. Eliza slid out of the cab and stood by a lamppost as I paid the driver. I got out and joined her. Still saying nothing, she turned and walked up to a glass door, fishing in her bag for a set of keys. I followed, taking the time to stare at her legs again. My heart was thumping, knowing that very soon, I was going to see her naked. This was the familiar foreplay of the first time together; the forced formality as a mundane event such as entering a building got in the way of what was about to come, adding a layer of nerves to already fragile states of mind.

The security system disarmed with a click and we were inside. There was a fire door to the left and a lift at the end of the corridor. As we waited Eliza murmured and leaned back against me. I could feel myself hardening against her. Fuck, this was like nothing else. I could barely breathe or hold a thought in my head.

When the lift doors opened we stumbled in. She swiped her key fob and pressed the button for the third floor. As the doors slid shut she spun and we were kissing again. We moved back a few steps as the lift rose, slamming into the lift wall. She groaned into my mouth.

She pushed me away as the lift ground to a halt. There was a starry, far off look in her eyes.

I went to speak but she placed a finger to my lips. 'Shhh. Now come on.'

Her flat was directly opposite the lift. She unlocked the door, making minimal sound. Once inside, I reached for her again, but she danced away down the corridor and into a room on the left, turning on lights as she went. 'Go on through,' she said. 'There's beer in the fridge, and spirits on top of the cupboard. I'll be out in a sec.'

I walked past as the door began to close and saw the corner of a double bed. We'll be fucking on that soon, I thought. It made me both excited and more nervous than I had ever been.

The corridor opened out into an open plan space with kitchen units to the left. I decided on spirits and hunted down a bottle of vodka. A couple of shots wouldn't hurt, I told myself. Keep everything nice and relaxed. I found some ice in the freezer and poured a hefty slug of vodka. I downed it in one, then made two fresh drinks mixed with some orange juice I found. I took my glass, walked round a little further and gasped. Before me was a view to take the breath away. A balcony ran in an L shape outside the flat, and floor to ceiling windows accentuated the beauty of the landscape. I slid the balcony door open and stepped out into the cool air. The lights of the city twinkled all the way to the horizon. I sipped my drink and moved round, wanting to take it all in. Despite the late hour the city still throbbed with life, the stillness punctured by the occasional scream or screech of car tyres. I rested my drink on the sill and lit a cigarette. I looked up at the stars, and Sarah entered my mind. What was she doing right now? It had only been what, four weeks since she had left? She was somewhere, out there, right now. One of those lights belonged to her. Was she at a strange guy's flat, writhing in passion? I didn't think so, but a pang of jealousy crept in, mixing up with the deluge invading my consciousness.

'It's amazing, isn't it?'

Eliza stepped onto the balcony clutching her drink. For a second I was disappointed she hadn't changed her clothes, put on something seductive. Not that I needed any persuasion. She moved closer and eyed me over the top of her glass. 'The view, I mean.'

I nodded. 'It's spectacular, all right.' I held out my glass. 'Cheers. What are we drinking to?' I grinned.

She didn't say anything, just tapped her drink against mine. 'Thanks for the drink.' She reached forward and took my cigarette, had a puff.

'So,' I began, 'how did you end up living in a place like this? Must be setting you back a few dollars. Especially living on your own.'

She shook her head, frowning. 'I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind.' It was like a shutter being pulled down. 'I'm into the here and now, not the past.' She finished her drink in two long swallows. 'On that note, come inside. I have a little something for you.'

She led me back into the apartment. On the glass coffee table lines of cocaine had been laid out with a craftsman's care. She sat down and stared up at me. 'This is the aperitif,' she said, gesturing at the bounty of drugs. 'Depending on what happens, there might be a main course. If you're lucky.'

With that, she picked up a rolled note from the table, bent and snorted two lines in succession. She gasped, pinching her nose between thumb and forefinger. 'Fuck, that's good.'

She held out the note to me.

This was some sort of test, that was clear. Pass the stages, and I might let you fuck me. I remembered the adrenaline rush the last time, the feeling of supremacy. I wanted some of that back.

I took a seat on the chair across from her and took the note. She had a big grin on her face. 'Man, this is special stuff.'

I hoovered up two lines and felt a freeze in my nostrils straight off. There was a bit of discomfort as the coke hit my sinuses. I swallowed, a flutter of paranoia kicking in. What if this was doctored stuff? Full of washing powder or rat poison? This could be Leroy's stash. God knows where he got his gear from.

Eliza's giggling bought me back to the moment. 'Gimme,' she said, and I handed her back the note. It appeared we weren't saving anything for later. Two more lines disappeared up her nose, then she was on her feet. 'I need music,' she exclaimed. 'You have the rest.' She moved to the stereo.

I looked down to see two smaller lines remaining. There was powder smeared across the glass. You've swallowed the camel, I thought. Why strain at the gnat?

A low beat of trance came through the speakers as I finished the coke. I took up the last few granules with my finger and massaged them into my gums. Hell, it worked in the movies.

Eliza was moving softly to the beat as she came back to me, bending to extract a cigarette from the box on the table. I could see the curves of her breasts. This was part two of the performance, giving me something to look at, to keep me at her beck and call.

'I'm not supposed to smoke in here,' she said, lighting her cigarette, 'but rules are there to be broken.' She arched her back and closed her eyes, starting to lose herself in the music.

I took her advice and lit my own cigarette, watching her dance. Her body was amazingly compact, with every muscle and sinew working in perfect unison. Everything was moving with precision and poise. I couldn't take my eyes off her.

She looked at me and began tracking shapes with her cigarette, its orange tip swirling this way and that. The colour seemed to take on extra vibrancy, its hue darker and richer. Now she raised her arms above her head, and the bottom edges of her tattoo became visible. I studied them. A scroll ran underneath a blaze of red that looked like a flower of some kind. There was some writing contained within the scroll that I couldn't make out.

'What's the tattoo?' I asked.

She put her arms down and swayed towards me. A burst of adrenaline shuddered through me as she stubbed out her cigarette. Her stomach was now in my eyeline, the belly piercing glinting in the light. She leaned down, her hair tickling the top of my head. 'You'll find out soon enough,' she whispered, and took my cigarette.

She took a final drag, disposed of it. Then she leant back down, put her hands on my knees. I parted them slightly. She lifted my head with her hand and kissed me.

As soon as our lips touched I was swept up in a wave of desire and euphoria. This time there was no holding back. I wanted to devour her. There was a ferocity in our kisses, as if a great dam had been breached.

I leant back into the sofa and she straddled me. I ran my hand under her top, fingernails lightly scraping her skin. She pulled back, a thin trail of saliva visible on her lips. She reached behind her and brought my hands round and up over my head, almost in a crucifixion pose. Her pupils were massively dilated now. 'God I want you,' I said, not realising the words were mine until they were out of my mouth.

She said nothing, only moved her hands down and grabbed for my tee shirt. I lifted my arms and she pulled it over my head, tossing it to the carpet. She buried her face in my chest and proceeded to give me little butterfly kisses on the skin there. I groaned, the sound increasing in volume as she took my nipple between her teeth and bit down lightly. Stars lit up in my head.

With a growl I pushed her back and started trying to lift up her top. I was rock hard now, the coke pushing the blood all in one direction. I felt invincible.

But reality came crashing in as she slid off me and stood up. Her hair was tousled and wild, to say nothing of her eyes. The green glittered and sparkled.

'In the bedroom.' she hissed. 'Now.'

I didn't need a second invitation. I pushed up off the sofa and we almost ran to the bedroom. I slammed the door behind me and we kissed standing up. We turned so the bed was behind me and as we came out of a clinch Eliza pushed me back onto it.

'Too much light,' she said, and moved to her dressing table. She lit a couple of candles, then switched off the main light and stood over me, her face and hair shimmering in the gloom. 'That's better,' she whispered.

I went to hold her but she took a step back, placing a finger to my lips. 'Ah ah,' she said, waggling the finger from side to side. 'I want to see you first.'

I shrugged. Test number three. I unbuckled my belt, slid my jeans down my legs. My erection was full and straight. Clumsily I removed my jeans and socks. I could barely see Eliza, only the outline of her hair, glowing russet under the light of the candle.

'All of it,' she ordered.

I was under her command. I took down my boxers and lay back.

'Very nice,' she said. It felt like my heart was beating through my dick. Oddly, an orgasm seemed far away. I was completely engulfed by her, and wanted to be swallowed whole.

She moved forward and took my dick in one hand. I gasped as she ran her fingernails up and down the shaft, her hair hiding her face as she worked. I shuffled a little.

'Now you,' I groaned.

She let go and smiled in triumph, a glint in her eye. The game was won. All resistance had been broken.

She pouted. 'Sure you don't want me to carry on?'

I shook my head. She crossed her arms and finally, finally took off her top, shaking her hair like a shampoo commercial, making the most of every second. Her breasts strained at the edges of her bra, nipples clearly visible against the flimsy material. My mouth dropped open, drinking her in. As I gaped she turned her back to me and rolled her jeans off, showing me the curves of her arse like they do in porn films. It was the most incredible thing I had ever seen.

She flung the jeans away and turned back to face me, like a goddess in the candlelight. 'So, what do you think?'

'I think you're fucking beautiful,' I said. 'I want to eat you with a spoon, like ice-cream.'

She laughed. 'Better do it then, just in case I melt.'

She pulled me to my feet and mashed herself against me. My erection pushed against her stomach as we kissed. I reached round and unhooked her bra, slipping the straps off her shoulders. As I ran my hand down her left arm I felt tight, glassy skin under my fingertips. She flinched slightly as I caressed the skin and started to kiss my cheek and ear. 'Let's get into bed,' she said, the words fluttering in my eardrums. She stepped away and pulled back the duvet. I slipped in, lying flat on my back. She moved around the bed to blow out a candle, and as she moved into the light I could see that both arms were full of tiny white scars that ran from shoulder to elbow. The black smudge of the tattoo covered up most on her right arm, but some were visible. Once the candle was out I could see little as my eyes adjusted to the near darkness. I heard the creak of bedsprings and all of a sudden she was on top of me.

She took my hand and moved it to a certain spot. She was very wet there. My fingers slithered and probed and she began to moan softly. I increased the motion and the moans became more frequent. She writhed, her knees banging against my hips. After another minute or two her whole body began to shake. An orgasm swept over her and she arched her back and cried out, sitting back and crushing my knees. I sat up and pulled her against me. Her skin was clammy, her breathing fast. I held her as the force began to subside, kissing her neck and chest. She dug her fingers into my hair, then leant down to kiss me.

I ran my hand over her arm. Again, she flinched.

'What are -'

She pulled back. 'How many times do I have to say it? Don't ask!' She was smiling, but I felt the resistance there. Now she placed my hands on her breasts. 'Isn't there something else you'd rather do?'

I don't know how much time passed after that moment. She was every fantasy I'd had and then some. Eventually, she moved herself down and we were together. The fit was perfect, as if our bodies were made for each other. I felt engorged inside her , stimulated by desire and chemicals and sheer need, and bellowed when I came, the weeks of build-up and tension and adrenaline spooling out of me as I twitched and thrust. She collapsed on top of me, both of us finally done, over for now, as the last lit candle continued to flicker on the table beside us.

 

Sleep was impossible. By now, the light in the room had turned a murky blue as morning approached. The candle was long blown out. Beside me, Eliza doze. The last stages of the coke high were too much for me and I couldn't settle. I was outside of myself, as if I'd left the sensible, practical me waiting in the corridor while the reckless alter ego took over. She was here, beside me, real to the touch. I smiled and had to stifle a laugh. It was pretty unbelievable.

Sitting up, I propped a pillow behind my head and reached for my cigarettes. I lit up and knocked the ash into a plant pot on the table beside me.

As I did so Eliza rolled over, murmuring. She had been cocooned in the duvet but now an arm was free and rested on on top of the covers. The tattoo was exposed, and I adjusted my position to study it further.

It was more intricate than appeared on first glance. What I thought was a flower was in fact an olive tree, ornately drawn in green and red ink. The writing in the scroll was a quote I didn't recognise:

 

'In the midst of winter, I found there was within me an invincible summer.'

 

Looking closer, I inspected the scars around the tattoo. In a couple of places they were circular, with mottled outlines. I had a suspicion of how they got there, and the realisation was saddening. This was a girl with a troubled past. In a perverse way it made me feel good, too. Knowing that I could be there for her, if she let me. To ensure she never went through that heartache again.

Then, she woke up. Even coming out of sleep, she looked the business. She smiled. 'Did I say you could smoke in here?'

I quickly stubbed the cigarette out. 'Sorry, I assumed -'

She nudged me with her elbow. 'Relax, it's fine. Smoke to your heart's content.'

She placed her arm back under the duvet.

'I like your tattoo,' I said.

'What? Oh, thanks. I got it done a few years ago, You know, was having a rebellious phase. It's from Camus, before you ask.'

I knew I was entering dangerous territory, but asked anyway. 'I'm sorry, too. About, umm, the scars and stuff.'

She tensed immediately. 'Yeah? And what would you know about it?'

'Nothing. Just, you know, if you want to talk about it.'

She turned to me, face burning with anger. 'OK, what would you like to know? How I used to spend evenings cutting myself with anything I could lay my hands on? Knives are good, but it's amazing what can be used if you put your mind to it. Or cigarettes. That smell of cooking flesh is really something. Once, I smashed a window and ran my arm up and down the broken glass. Is this the sort of thing you want to hear?' She was on the verge of tears.

'Hey, I'm sorry, OK. I didn't mean to upset you.'

She was out of bed now, pulling on her jeans. 'Yeah? Well, you did.' She found an old Hawks jumper and put it on. Even with the rage in her eyes, she looked a million dollars.

'Look,' she said, ruffling her hair, 'I like you, Shaun. You're a nice guy. But there's a reason guys don't get involved with me. They just can't handle it, my lifestyle, who I am, what I used to be. None of it is very pretty, and some is flat out disturbing. Seriously, you'd be horrified. It's better off if you don't ask, don't get too close. It will end badly for both of us.'

I made to interrupt but on she went. She was on fire.

'Even now, there's aspects of my life that I'd rather keep to myself. I'm still working a lot of stuff out, and sometimes I go off the rails. I admit it, I fuck up a lot. Do stupid things. Hurt people. Get mixed up in stuff I shouldn't. But that's part of the package, at least at the moment. I don't want to expose you to any of that.'

'But surely that's my choice. Anyway, you kind of already have?'

She shook her head. 'Seriously, I can't get into this. My brain is fried. I don't know, Shaun. I liked you the very first time I met you. I wouldn't have brought you that drink, otherwise. And yeah, I resisted the thought. Knowing what I would be getting into. But seeing Clara all over you last night, yeah, it made me jealous. See, that's pumped up your ego, hasn't it? I'm attracted to you, yes. But I don't want questions, and I don't want a relationship. Now, I'm going outside to smoke a joint. I need to take the edge off. If you want to join me, that would be great. I'll leave it up to you.'

And out she went.

I lay there for a while, staring at the ceiling. I had so many questions, so many doubts. The beginnings of the coke come-down were fraying at the edges of my nerve-endings. I had had little sleep and physically things were going to get ugly pretty quick. Being around Eliza was a toxic cocktail that was going to cause me some serious damage. But yet, a joint sounded good. To keep the wolf from the door a little longer.

She was outside on the balcony, leaning on the rail. It was fully light now and I could hear the first murmurings from the street below. I couldn't stop thinking about her arms, seeing a fragile girl pulling a knife across the skin, watching as droplets of blood sprang free. Wondering what tragedy had made her do it, take it out on herself in that way. I was desperate to know, but scared by the possible truth. Although from her speech, she was not going to be revealing her secrets any time soon.

She took a long drag on the joint and blew a smoke ring. The pungent smell made my stomach churn.

'I'm sorry, Eliza,' I said.

She continued to stare out over the city. 'Stop saying sorry. It makes you sound a bit pathetic, to be honest.'

I shook my head. I wasn't angry, just amazed at her behaviour. 'What is it with you? What makes you think you can just insult people like that? OK, I shouldn't have pried before. But, and you may find this hard to believe, I care about you. We hardly know each other, that's true. Still, I do.'

She handed me the joint. 'Fair enough. I hate bullshit, that's all. I'd much rather cut through the crap and be honest. Way I am.'

I inhaled some smoke. Instantly I felt a rush.

'And,' she went on, 'thanks for caring. There's not enough of that in this world, it seems to me.'

I nodded. It was like Jekyll and Hyde, talking to her. I stayed quiet and smoked some more. The tiredness was starting to come. I had one more puff and passed the remainder back to Eliza. She had another couple of drags and pitched the roach over the balcony.

She leaned back, raised her arms above her head, and yawned. I tried to keep my eyes from her chest.

'So,' she said, 'I'm heading back to bed. Knock out for a few hours and hopefully sleep through the worst of it. You staying, or going?'

'I'd prefer to stay,' I replied. 'I'm in no fit state to face the world yet.'

'Fine. Make yourself at home.' That up-from-under look again. 'Who knows, I might have some energy when I wake up.'

I followed her inside, knowing that her hold on me was growing with every passing minute.

 

She fell asleep quickly, legs tucked up to her chin, a look of innocence on her face. It was hard to equate that face with the suffering girl that I knew, who had buried herself beneath a mountain of pain and regret. Who pushed everybody away to protect herself from peril, and had found the only solution to keeping the demons at bay was a diet of drugs and alcohol and self-harm.

I took longer to go to sleep, anxiety starting to kick in. Maybe I should have gone home. The thought of waking up in familiar surroundings was a nice one, to bear the brunt of the come-down alone. To be able to think without being on edge the whole time. I needed to get my brain back in order and prepare for work. I was still on probation with Steve and any more mishaps would probably result in my dismissal. Which would fuck everything up, big style. But that seemed in a different dimension, too much to digest for my tired mind.

I had dreams, bad ones. I think there were a lot of them, but the only one I remember was of Eliza standing on the balcony. The sky behind her was passing from light to darkness at rapid speed. Clouds swirled, darting like tongues across the horizon. She carried a chef's cloche, which flashed and glinted as the sun swept into the sky.

I walked towards her and she smiled and lifted the cloche lid to reveal lines of cocaine marked out in neat rows. She gestured for me to come forward and take my share; I did so without question.

As I bent to snort the first line she began to laugh, a grating cackle. The skin on my arms puckered with goosebumps as the laughter increased in volume. The lines in front of me began to wobble and break apart. Suddenly a great gust of wind blew and the cocaine formed a single line and leaped into the air. I looked up at Eliza and she was still laughing, her mouth open wide, showing her teeth. Her jaws stretched even wider, forming a black maw, her tongue poking out, rippling like the waves. The wind was more fierce now and the cocaine line darted towards the gaping mouth. The world was beginning to disappear as the mouth grew and grew, taking everything in its path. I struggled to resist but fell into the black hole, sliding down a chute of cocaine which rose up around me, like I was in a canoe. We rode further and further until the cocaine evaporated into blinding dust. When I opened my eyes an olive tree stood before me. The scroll containing the Camus quote floated in the air. The lettering crinkled and rolled as I looked, the words elongating, then condensing. Then the word 'invincible' danced out alone. The letters started to ooze into one, the shapes disintegrating into a slimy black pool, then forming what looked like a chain of small interlocking circles. As I watched with fascination the chain sprang and locked itself around my neck. I screamed and placed two hands to my throat. I tried to cry out, but no sound came. Blurred worms crossed my vision as I frantically struggled to pull the chain free. It was no use. I sank to my knees, drawing blood as I scratched at my neck, knowing that the next breath would be my last...

I sat up in bed, one hand across my mouth, breathing rapidly. I noticed my hands were shaking. God, this was bad. Really bad. I closed my eyes and could see the last vestiges of the dream pressing behind my eyelids. I had to get out of here, get home. Get back to sanctuary.

I laid back down on the bed and tried to steady my breathing. As I did so, Eliza woke up.

'What time is it?'

I rolled over and looked at my watch. I could scarcely believe it. 'It's four in the afternoon. Fuck. Fuck.' Panic leapt into my chest. I gasped, trying to calm down.

'Just relax,' Eliza said. 'What is it?'

'Only a dream,' I replied, talking more to myself than her. 'Only a dream.'

I lay flat and worked on it for a while, and I could feel the colour coming back. It was time.

I sat up and turned to Eliza. 'I should go,' I said. 'Think the party's probably over for me. Tell you the truth, I'm fucked.'

Before I could move she rolled over, pushed my legs apart and lay with her head on my chest, green eyes piercing. 'That's a shame,' she said. 'You know, sometimes when I wake up after a coke session I feel, I don't know, in a heightened state, or something? Do you know what I mean?'

She moved her body down and round slightly. I felt myself begin to react.

She smiled widely. 'Ah ha, I think you do.' She looked down and saw the strength of my response. She pulled at the waistband of my boxers.

'Eliza, please,' I groaned. 'I have to go.'

'Come on,' she murmured. 'There's quite a big part of you that wants to stay, isn't there?' She laughed, sat up and threw the Hawks jumper to the floor. Her nipples were already hard. I think my mouth may have dropped open.

'Now, you sure? Say the word and I'll stop.'

I couldn't speak. Couldn't do anything.

She grinned, triumph sparkling in her eyes. 'That's what I thought,' she said. I laid back, defeated.

 

The sky was darkening when I eventually crawled home. I had a hot shower, standing under the jet for as long as I could stand. My body ached all over – most of it from the come-down that was persistent even at this late hour, but also from a lack of sleep. And, to be frank, from the sex. Eliza was every man's dream, sexually. The one experience that would set the benchmark for all that came before or after. Yet the thought made me uncomfortable, too. She was clearly an expert, that was certain. A master at how to use sex for personal gratification. Or to her advantage. I thought of the other men who were involved with her somehow – Leroy, maybe Matt. How were they caught up in her web? Had she performed similarly for them? Seduced them for personal gain? And if so, what did she want from me? It was too much to think about.

I thought back to my departure, waiting in the hallway for Eliza to let me out. She had come out of the bathroom, back in the Hawks jumper and jeans. I hovered with my fingers on the door handle, waiting for her to say something. There was a long period of silence.

I took my hand away and faced her.

'So,' I said. 'Umm, thanks for a great night. And day.' I reddened. 'You know what I mean.'

She nodded. 'No problem. I enjoyed it. Going to be a wreck for a couple of days, mind you.'

I didn't know how to handle this. Should I kiss her? Arrange a date? I felt like a lovestruck teenager.

'So,' I repeated. I waited for her to help me out. She just looked at me with a quizzical expression.

'So,' for a third time, 'you know, what happens now?'

'I'm sure we'll run into each other at The Pit.'

'That wasn't really what I meant? I was thinking, like, you know.'

The corners of her mouth turned up. 'You asking me out? What, dinner and flowers, that sort of thing?'

'Whatever you like.'

'Look at me, Shaun. Do I look like the romantic type?'

I don't know what type of girl you are, I thought. That's what I want to find out.

But all I said was, 'I guess not.'

She spread her arms. 'Look, maybe we can do this again some time. Hey, I'll let you know.'

I knew she was playing me, but nodded anyway. I was sick and tired of the bullshit.

'Whatever. I'll see you around, Eliza. Take care of yourself.'

I swung the door open and walked to the lift, hoping to hear her reply. But there was nothing, and by the time I reached the lift the door had clicked shut behind me.

 

The inevitable happened the next morning. The shower had done the world of good and I fell asleep quickly after. I awoke feeling refreshed, with the pleasant languor that comes from a long rest. Went to look at my phone. Realised that I had forgotten to set the alarm. My stomach dropped into my boots as I checked the time.

10am.

Fuck.

I leapt out of bed in a panic and threw on my clothes. I was going to be nearly three hours late at bare minimum. Steve was going to fucking kill me. And what was worse, I knew it was likely to happen. Knew from the moment Eliza had given me that look, the look that had compelled me to stay.

I ran to the site and was instantly directed to Steve's office. He was on the phone when I entered. He pointed to the vacant chair. I studied my fingernails for what seemed an eternity. Finally the receiver was slammed into the cradle.

'Nice of you to join us,' Steve said. 'Alarm didn't go off, is that it?'

'Well actually -'

'I don't want to hear it. Jesus Christ, Shaun. What the hell's gotten into you.'

A girl, I wanted to say. 'I'm sor -'

'You could at least look at me. Might make the apology seem a little more, I don't know, sincere?'

I dragged my head up. Red blotches stood out on his cheeks.

'I'm sorry,' I repeated. 'I'm having a few personal problems at the moment.'

He picked up a pencil and twirled it in his fingers. 'Really? Anything you want to talk about?'

I shrugged my shoulders. 'No. I can't. It's complicated.'

'I see. Too complex to discuss with your boss. Look, I'm sorry to have to do this, but I'm going to have to let you go. This lateness, and shoddy work when you bother to turn up, it can't go on. I have a number of guys who can come in who actually want to work. Like I said, I'm sorry.' He stood up and stuck out his hand.

I didn't feel anger, more a dull resignation that it had come to this. I got up and shook his hand.

'Shaun,' he said, 'I'm disappointed. When you focus, you're very good at your work. You have talent. Don't waste it.'

I heeded his advice, walked off site and straight into the nearest pub. I came to ten hours later on the living room floor, an axe splitting my head and the taste of whisky thick in my mouth. The front door was ajar and a half empty pizza box lay beside me. You've done it again, Shaun, I thought. I cleared up the mess, thinking of the cuts on Eliza's arms. I felt the attraction of that approach, to take my mind off the utter despair. I wept then, standing at the sink with my hands in a bowlful of suds. I was falling apart. The bout of crying wore me out, and I was in bed soon after.

 

The days became long and drawn-out. I was bored, depressed, and restless. My thoughts were consumed with trying to stay out of the pub and obsessing over Eliza. Every morning I would lunge for my phone upon waking, desperate for any communication from her. But nothing. I sent her text messages, being too afraid to call but desperate to keep in touch. I spent hours agonising over the content of the texts, worrying if I was being too pushy, or too dull. Nights gave no respite – I lay smothered in bedsheets, fantasising over her body, wishing to be under her gaze. It was constant, and tiring.

And also, a bit pathetic. I knew it, knew it was wrong. Knew she was a whole heap of trouble. But still she was an all-encompassing thought.

The lure of the pub became overwhelming after a couple of days and one afternoon, without even being conscious of it, my feet led me to a bar just off Brunswick Street. I took a stool, a wedge of early afternoon sun spilling over the bar. It was quiet, always the best time to be drinking, when contemplation was more acceptable than raucousness. I sank a few slow pints, then as the after work crowd came in, moved onto the stronger stuff. I probably talked to a few people. Was whispered about by a few others. The shadows had lengthened and gone when I staggered out the door. As soon as I hit the street the alcohol came on at once and a cold hand wiped my memory clear.

I came to standing in the doorway of Eliza's apartment block, face pressed to the glass. A couple of cigarette butts lay at my feet, so I had been there a while. The red bulb of the security light blinked at me. I took a few steps back. The movement sent my head spinning and I retreated and sat on the wall by the street.

I reached for my phone. My stomach dropped as each pocket turned up a blank. Where could it be? I got down on my knees and searched. No luck. Shit. It could be anywhere. There were no recollections, nothing to narrow it down. It was hopeless. I placed my head down and took a few deep breaths. How to get inside? The hour was late, and the chances of anyone coming home at this time were minimal. I conducted a more thorough search of my clothing. My wallet was gone, too. There were a few bucks in my back pocket, but otherwise, nothing. Only my keys remained. I sat back on the wall and lit a cigarette, utterly defeated.

As I extinguished the butt I heard the buzz of the security door and a figure emerged. The door swung quickly shut behind them and I cursed at having missed my moment. My body was shrouded in darkness as they stepped towards the road and into an orange halo of a streetlamp.

I froze. There was something familiar about that face. They moved out of the light, pulling the hood of their jacket tighter around their body. As they moved closer to my position, I crept off the wall and flattened against the side of the apartment block. They stopped again. Then I saw the flash of a lighter and the face became clearer. I peered through glazed, drunken eyes, and it came to me.

Leroy. That lack of beard, the slight hunch of the shoulders. I stood stock still, willing him to move on. He hovered for a moment, inhaling smoke, then finally walked off.

I let out a breath, unaware that I had been holding one. Fucking Leroy. No doubt hassling Eliza for drugs or money, or both. I could picture him up there, shouting at her, his face turning purple as the anger increased. And I knew what he could do with his fists...

A tremor ran through me, and I felt a phantom spike of pain in my ribs, a reminder of the damage he could cause. I was desperate to get inside. I told myself that she could take care of herself, but that nagging doubt wouldn't go away.

Minutes dragged by, and still no sign of life at the door. I was beginning to lose hope when I heard the familiar click again. This time I was onto it in a flash and gripped the handle as a young couple emerged, arms round each other's waist. They didn't thank me, which was fine. I preferred to go unnoticed.

The artificial light in the foyer stung my eyes after the blackness outside. I jogged to the lift, remembering my last time here, clutching Eliza as we waited. Then I realised that there was a security gate in the lift itself. Without one, I couldn't get off the ground floor. The stairwell was the only choice, but that too needed a key fob for access. I was trapped once more.

Frantic now. I ran to the stairwell door and pulled hard on it a few times. It was a futile gesture which probably woke up half the occupants of the floor, but anger and frustration had taken over. Then, miraculously, on my fourth pull the door opened and a middle-aged man with a beer belly stepped out.

'What's with the fucking racket?' he said.

'Sorry,' I replied as I shuffled past. 'Forgot my key.' I shot up the stairs, feeling a tightness in my chest when I reached Eliza's floor. From exertion or worry, I couldn't tell. I ran to her door and knocked a couple of times. There was no answer so I banged harder. Still nothing, and now I was hammering away with both fists, hissing her name in a low voice. Finally, finally, I could hear footsteps shuffling down the hallway. The door opened and I barged in before she had a chance to speak.

'Eliza,' I shouted, panting. 'Thank fuck you're OK.'

I stumbled towards the kitchen. There were a couple of candles lit in the living area and bottles on the table. Then the overhead light came on.

She pushed me and I fell against the breakfast bar, striking my wrist on the edge. A sharp twinge of pain shot up my arm.

'What the fuck are you doing here?' she shouted. 'Jesus, you could've woken the fucking dead, noise you were making.'

I faced her, clutching my arm. She was dressed in normal clothes and had make-up on, so I hadn't woken her up. Her eyes were a fury.

'I just came to see if you were all right.' I pointed at her and did the gun salute again, trying to make her laugh. 'You haven't been returning my calls.'

Her face took on a darker shade of red. 'So you thought the best thing to do was turn up here, drunk, at this time of night? Get out of my fucking flat, Shaun. Just get out.' She stormed towards the balcony.

'What difference does that make?' I shouted, following her. 'It looks like you've been entertaining guests, anyway.' I thought of Leroy, under the streetlamp, faced bathed in orange. I caught her arm. She winced and spun to face me. Then there was a crack and pain jumped into my cheekbone. Tears sprang into my eyes. Before I knew what I was doing I grabbed her again, shaking her. Our faces were inches apart. I could see all the way into the green of her eyes. I blinked and realised that there was liquid running from the corners of them, and I moved my head back and saw that she was crying, and the shame rushed in and I let go.

'Is that what you came her for?' she cried. 'A bit of domestic to round off your night? Go ahead, hit me if you want to. Why not, I've had men hitting me all my life. Join the fucking club!'

I staggered back and fell onto the couch. Tears ran down her cheeks and splashed to the carpet. I had to turn away, stare at the floor, knowing that part of her pain had been caused by me.

'You know why I pushed you away?' Her voice was lower now, fatigued by the crying. 'Because you're all the same. Fucking immature little boys who solve their problems with their fists. You know, my Dad used to knock me about when I was a kid. For the tiniest thing. I spilt a carton of milk once, he pushed my head to the ground and made me lick it up. Like a fucking dog. With his foot resting on my neck. Sometimes I can feel a force there, the imprint of his boot. It comes on at random moments. I was nine years old, y'know? Nine. And every man since has been nothing but trouble. Now it seems, including you. Now fuck off and leave me alone. You fucking cunt.'

I recoiled in horror, hearing that word spat at me in all it's ugly glory. 'I'm sorry,' I said, already breaking her cardinal apology rule. 'I shouldn't have lost my temper. I wanted to see you, that's all. I was outside and saw Leroy leaving - '

'You saw Leroy? What do you think you're doing, fucking spying on me like that?'

'I wasn't,' I stammered. 'He came out just as I turned up. How was I supposed to know he was here? I was worried. I shouldn't have touched you like that, I know. That slap, it made me angry. It's no excuse.' I put a hand up to my cheek. It was hot to the touch. I got up. 'I'll go. Just tell me you're OK, and I'll go. Promise. I'll never darken your door again.'

'You wanna know why Leroy was here? Why do you think? Have an educated guess.'

'I don't know. I assume it was drug-related.'

Surprisingly, she laughed. It came out as a vicious sneer. 'Well done you. A gold star for Shaun. As it happens, I owe the guy a thousand dollars. A thousand dollars. That's a lot of candy I've shoved up my nose,don't you think? What a fuck-up you've got yourself mixed up with. I gave him what money I had, which wasn't very much. He wasn't satisfied.'

She stared at me for a long moment and then crossed arms and pulled her top up over her head.

There were small sharp bruises forming on both her upper arms. The skin was a reddish/purple colour and the bruises were evenly spaced, as if made by pressing fingers. Worse, there were scratches and bruising on her sides, just below the bra strap. Most likely from a punch.

Bile crept into my mouth. I swallowed quickly to force it back down. Shame and sorrow and guilt churned in my gut.

'You see,' she said between sobs. 'Had a good look? I couldn't get what he wanted, so he beat the shit out of me. Notice he didn't go for my face, though. He's a pro like that. Knows what he's doing.' She threw her tee shirt at me. 'So there you go, Shaun. The whole happy tale. Bet you're glad you came round, now. Whatever. Leave. Please.'

'I'll fucking kill him,' I hissed.

She laughed. ' Oh really? Shaun's going to kill him. A foolproof plan. It didn't work out too well for you last time you ran into him, did it? Spare me.' She wiped the tears away. 'And you know what the best thing is, Shaun? He'll be back. One way or another, he'll be back. He's started to charge interest on what I owe him. An extra 50 bucks a day. So I'll never have a chance. I'll never be able to pay the debt off.'

'Let me help you,' I pleaded. 'I have money.'

She snorted. 'You have that sort of money lying around? And you'd give it to me? A worn-out druggie with nothing to live for?'

The bruises glittered in the light. 'Don't say that. Don't ever say that.' I got up and moved towards her. She didn't retreat. 'I don't have it, as it happens. I lost my job, this week. But I can get some.'

'Really? What for?'

'Oh, don't ask. I've been fucking up quite a bit myself. Maybe we can fuck up together. Beats doing it all alone.'

She smiled, only briefly, but a smile all the same. 'And you'd do that, for me? Knowing all you know, what I've told you?'

I shrugged. 'Sure, why not? I care about you. I think I've told you that before.'

I moved closer and tipped her chin up with my hand. I could see the last few tears drying on her cheeks. I bent and kissed her softly on the lips. Her bottom lip quivered. I pulled back and stared at her.

'I shouldn't have slapped you,' she said. 'That's as close to an apology you're going to get, so I would accept it. Fair enough?'

I nodded.

She reached behind her and unhooked her bra. It slid to the floor. She seemed nervous, a shy smile on her lips.

'So,' she said. She gestured at her bruises, mixed in with the scars and her tattoo. 'Do you still think I'm beautiful?'

'I nodded. 'More and more every day.'

She stepped into my arms.

 

Our lovemaking that night was different; still passionate, but with a tenderness that had been absent the first time. Being together with Eliza in that way, that was when it all made sense. I could lose myself totally in the moment, and more importantly, so could she. It was the only time I ever truly felt the walls had come down, that she had stripped not only her clothes but all the barriers that had been erected over the years. Once done, she curled an arm across my chest and rested her head in the crook of my shoulder. No turning away. I stroked her hair, ran my fingers through it. Eventually, Eliza slept, but I was unable to do more than doze. I knew that we were heading towards something bad. The ruin of her arms was a reminder that outside the confines of her bedroom there were malevolent forces closing in.

As dawn approached I got up and pulled a chair out onto the balcony and sat watching the city come alive. We were in the last stages of autumn and it was going to be one of those cool, sunny days when the pure blue of the sky gave your heart a lift. I stepped back inside for an ashtray and cigarettes and smoked as the sun climbed.

Despite all our problems, I felt a strange peace that morning. I think it came from knowing that there wasn't much further to fall. We had both abandoned ship long ago, and were now clinging desperately to the lifeboat. Leroy was certainly coming back, that was a given. Not here, as there was no way Eliza would let him in again. I suspected he was familiar with her movements though. Which was more than I knew. I didn't know where she worked, if she did. She was financing this apartment somehow. I thought of her drug debt, the bill rising with each ticking of the clock. How had she got into this mess? Maybe to start with they were friends, sharing coke in the same way we had done. I hated to contemplate the thought, but perhaps they had been lovers. And something had gone awry somewhere and he had exacted his revenge with some financial blackmail, mixed in with violence. That fit with my limited knowledge of Leroy. But even so, how was she haemorrhaging cash that fast? Matt sprang into my mind, and that formed a possible solution. Heroin was an expensive habit, and she could have wasted an obscene amount on it. But I couldn't be sure. All I had to go on was a glimpse of something through the curtains that night. I hadn't seen much, I had been forced from my vantage point by then. So there was no proof. I wanted to confront her about it but knew I wouldn't, not that morning at least. We were on a more solid footing than we had ever been, and I wasn't going to break the spell.

So, the money. I had made a dumb promise, one that I would struggle to keep. Since Sarah had gone, my savings had been slowly frittering away. The flat was too big for one person, and its location, in the heart of the northern inner-city, was in the most expensive area. Deep down I knew that I had to move to somewhere smaller, take on a shorter lease with a cheaper bond. But I loved the area and wanted to stay. Work paid well, but now that was gone, and there was no money coming in. Finding labouring jobs shouldn't be too hard, but there were no guarantees. I had to do something now.

I did a few mental calculations and came up with $500 I could probably find for Eliza. I thought of asking Stuart for a loan, but dismissed that avenue immediately. I wasn't getting him involved in any of this. He was too smart, too good, for this grubbiness. Even associating his name with it added a layer of grime to my skin.

It's fucking crazy, a voice screamed in my head. You can't give her $500! You might as well take the money and set fire to it. You're risking your future, your flat, on what? She could turn around and reject you again, easy as.

Which was true. But I felt an obligation. More than that, a connection. That if Leroy could be paid off then Eliza had a clean slate, and we could move on, hopefully together. It was a ridiculous fantasy, but one I embellished as I blew smoke into the morning air. I didn't know if Eliza was even capable of love, with all the suffering she had endured. But we had come a distance already. This was the next step.

 

For a while I dozed in the sun, thinking everything through. Later, a shadow crossed my path and I opened my eyes. Eliza placed a hand on my shoulder and smiled.

'Hey,' I said.

'Hey yourself,' she replied. She pointed at my cigarette pack. 'May I?'

'Sure,' I said. She dragged a chair out and sat beside me, lit up.

I had much to ask, but had to tread carefully.

'So, how are you doing? Did you, you know, sleep well?'

She exhaled smoke. 'OK, Had a few bad dreams, but that's normal these days.'

'I didn't get much. Hence the early rise. Quite a view.'

She nodded. 'Best thing about this place.' She stretched her arms above her head and grimaced.

'Is it still sore?' I regretted the words as soon as I spoke them. Nicely done, Shaun.

She frowned at me. 'What do you think? You've seen what he did to me. But I'll live. I've been through worse.'

I imagined her as a child, her father with boot on her neck, an overturned carton of milk spilling over a wooden floor. The thought made my throat go tight.

I rotated my chair so I was facing her. 'Why did you let him in, anyway? Leroy, I mean.'

She sighed. 'I know who you meant. OK, seeing as you're so interested in my life, I'll tell you about Leroy. I've known the guy for a while. We met at a house party, a friend of Clara's I think it was. It was one of those raucous deals where the girls take too many drugs and start stripping off and jumping in the swimming pool. It ended up a bit of an orgy. Before you ask, that sort of deal isn't my thing, so I was sat inside with a couple of mates. Leroy comes over and offers us all a line. To be honest, I liked the guy, thought he was cute. And he was offering us coke, which I'd done before, free of charge. Fair enough. So we hung out, talking shit and having a laugh. He's a funny bloke, sometimes. Little did I know, then.' She stubbed out her cigarette and carried on.

'Anyway, he asked for my number, said he could get more coke if I wanted any. I gave it to him. A week or so later he texts me, saying he could come over if I wanted to buy some from him. Clara was here, wanted to, so I said yes. We did some lines, the three of us, and it was fun. I hadn't been doing coke for that long, but I loved the euphoria I felt and the way my troubles just melted away. So I bought a gram from him. It cost me $250, and between us we paid. This is a very expensive country for coke, unfortunately.

'So, after that, Clara was all over him – as I'm sure you can imagine.'

I blushed at that, but said nothing.

'But he always brought the conversation back to me, made me feel like the centre of everything. I knew he fancied me, and as he was leaving, he asked me out. You could tell it took him a lot of coke to work up the courage, and even then he had this sheepish look on his face.

'I wasn't interested, so said no, He had this smoky flash in his eyes that I've never forgotten. Like there was a deep anger beneath the surface, you know what I mean? Thinking about it after, it reminded me of Dad. And I never want to think of that prick ever again. Not that that's likely, thank fuck. He ran off when I was eleven and I've heard nothing from him since.'

She took another smoke. 'What I should have done then, was keep Leroy out of my life. But, from then on, he texted me every so often asking if I wanted more coke. I had no other way to get some, so said yes. Big mistake. The first few times he let me have some for free. I thought that was weird and said so, but he told me it was cool, that he had got his hands on a large batch and wanted to get rid of some quickly. He said I could pay him some money whenever. I think he hoped I would change my mind about him, that some free coke would make me fall in love with him or some shit. That wasn't going to happen, but he seemed to be OK with everything. He never tried it on, never touched me. So I thought all was good.

'Then I started running into him at The Pit. Again, not all the time, just occasionally, as if by chance. I never told him I liked to go there, so I don't know how he found me. Maybe it was a coincidence, but I reckon he started following me. Possibly he came round one evening and saw me leaving, decided for some reason to see where I went. I think he wanted to see if I had a boyfriend. He's one of those guys that can't believe any rational reason for a girl to reject his advances, needs a third party to direct his ire at.'

Which was now me, I thought. A block of ice slid down my spine.

'So I see him outside the Pit, and once again he offered me coke. I said no, I wasn't interested any more. He told me I owed him a thousand dollars, which was way more than I had used. He said I could halve the debt if I slept with him. That was when I knew he was trouble. I told him to fuck off. He flew into a rage, but the bouncers stepped in and chucked him out. Funny thing was, I didn't see him for a while after that. I think he was trying to scare me, have me looking over my shoulder all the time, wondering when he would show up again.

At the time though, I didn't care. I was reckless and stupid. I stopped buying coke for a bit, trying to sort myself out, but Clara had taken up the habit too and there was always some around if I wanted it. I pushed Leroy to the back of my mind and for a while it worked. Booze played its part there – I was using it to nullify everything, quite happy to neck a bottle of vodka every night and pass out, just to put it off for another day.'

'I know that feeling,' I murmured.

'Right – so he was out of action for a while, then he showed up again. On the night he decked you. The rest you know. As for last night, I didn't let him in. Why would you think I did? He must have pulled your trick. He's about as persistent.'

I smiled, trying to disguise the shockwaves burning inside. She had been utterly foolish, trying to string Leroy along. Getting free coke from him was the height of stupidity. She must have known that he would come for his money eventually. And now she had brought me into this vortex of trouble. Had she slept with me for that reason, just to help her deal with him? I tried to dismiss the feeling, but it persisted.

'What about the money?' I asked. 'Haven't you got anyone who could help you? Family?'

'I don't have any family. As I told you, my Dad ran off when I was a kid. My Mum's dead. Heart attack, if you must know.'

'I only have my brother. My parents are both gone, too. My Dad only a few months ago.' My lip wobbled as I said it. God, I missed him.

She gave a sympathetic smile, but said nothing.

'Well, what about friends? Could Clara help you?'

She snorted. 'Clara? All her money goes on clothes and holidays. That's probably why she has a new man every other day. Needs someone to buy her pretty things.'

I shook my head. 'A job? You must be working, to afford a place like this.'

'Kind of. I work part-time in a bar, when they can bother to give me shifts. Barely enough to keep food in the fridge, let alone anything else.'

'And the flat?'

'Fucking hell, you want my life story? After my Mum died I sold the house we were living in, used the proceeds to buy this place. Hoovered up every last cent I had.'

I sat back. 'Well, you don't seem very concerned about it. When he comes back, he'll do more damage than before, if you don't have the money.'

'Cheers, Mr Patronising. As it happens, I've been thinking about that. There may be a way to get hold of some. Not all of it, but enough.' She stood up then, leaned back against the balcony and looked at me. 'That is, if you still want to help?' The sun was behind her, flashing through her hair. She was wearing a man's shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbow, the top two buttons undone.

'I said I would, if I can. I'm fucked if I can't find my wallet, though. But if it stops you from getting hurt, sure.' That was a strong admittance of my feelings for her, but I didn't regret the words. It was good to be needed.

She crouched down, placing her hands on my knees. 'Do you have to be anywhere today? I mean, anywhere special?'

'No. No job, so nowhere to be. I'm pretty much empty.'

'Do you want to spend the day with me? Hang out?'

I smiled. 'What, like a date?'

She laughed. 'Not exactly. You know I don't do dates, remember?' She slid her hand up my thigh. 'That is, if you want to?'

I bit my lip. 'Sure. Whatever you want.'

She smiled, and once more I wondered how I had got here, and how, at that exact moment, I didn't care.

 

For the next 24 hours or so, everything was great. Somehow, for that day, we managed to push our problems down into the subconscious and keep them there.

We ate pizza and watched movies on Eliza's tiny old school TV, lying on the sofa together, occasionally retreating to the balcony for a smoke. Later, we took a shower. Her bruises had cleared up a little, and I kissed them one by one, the stream of the shower blasting water over my hair and down my back.

After, she made dinner for us and we drank a bottle of wine while we ate. Eliza was vivacious and full of energy, as if freed from her shackles. With her I felt alive, helplessly alive. Maybe part of it was knowing that it couldn't last, that every moment was precious. We had to make the absolute most of every second while we could.

As the evening wore on we retreated into personal silence as real life encroached on us once more. We continued to drink, and as a new day approached, Eliza excused herself while I made more drinks. As I finished up, there was a cough from behind. I turned and she stood, hand on hip, in the doorway, wearing nothing but a smile. We didn't make it to the bedroom, and when it was over the ice cubes in my drink had long since melted.

 

The cracks started to appear the next day. It was early afternoon, creeping towards dusk. My first waking thought was finding that money, and nerves crept into my stomach immediately. Getting replacement bank cards was the first priority, and cancelling the existing ones. I could withdraw money over the counter at the bank, but that meant a trip into the city. Also, I needed a new phone. Which would eat up a bit more of the money I had mentally put aside for Eliza. I only wanted a basic one, but still. Fuck, there was no way she was going to get the full amount anytime soon. Maybe Leroy would give her a bit more time, but I wasn't hopeful. His fuse seemed to be growing shorter with each visit.

'There may be a way to get hold of some.' Those had been her words. She'd thrown that little nugget in there, and given no further explanation after that. And we'd subconsciously agreed to put things off for a day. Well, that was over, and now the enormity of our situation was back. I looked over at Eliza, still asleep. Her bruises had darkened to an angry purple. I touched my ribs, which still throbbed after overexertion, then my nose. Between us, we had suffered quite a bit under Leroy's hands. I wanted that to stop. Whatever it took.

I dressed quietly and went out to the balcony, eager to be on my way. There was one cigarette left in the pack and I made it last, feeling like the condemned man before a trip to death row. Then I went in and shook Eliza awake.

'Hey,' I said. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. It still amazed me that she could look so good immediately upon waking. I smiled.

'I was thinking about making a move in a bit. No rush, but I want to get to the bank and see about getting this money. Oh, and to pick up a phone, too. '

She got out of bed, pulling the Hawks jumper on again. 'Sure. Do what you need to do.'

I followed her through to the kitchen. 'What do you want me to do? Come back here later on?'

She opened the fridge, studied its contents, then shut it again. 'It's up to you,' she said. 'If you want. Leroy isn't going to turn up here. He knows he won't get through that door a second time. I doubt I'll see him for a few days. He's not stupid – he'll give me a bit of time to get the money.'

I frowned. Her blasé attitude was beginning to rankle. 'How can you be so sure?'

'I can't. But if I lay low for a couple of days, see if I can work something out, plus your help, hopefully next time I see him, I'll have enough to settle the debt. For good, fingers crossed.'

I bit my lip. 'I hope you're right. Where are you going to go for your share? You said you had a way to get some.'

She moved to the couch and sat down, looking up at me. 'Wow, he's back on the questions again. And I've only been awake what, 5 minutes?'

'Just asking. If you don't want to tell me, that's OK.'

I looked around for my shoes. I spied them in the hallway, and as I bent to tie the laces she said, 'Why not? I've told you everything else. I was going to see if my friend Matt could lend me some money.'

I stood up. 'I doubt he'll be able to help, I mean, a junkie isn't likely to -'

A cold hand gripped my heart.

Eliza was frowning, eyes narrowed to slits. 'A junkie? What do you know about Matt? You've never even met the bloke.

So, why call him a junkie? A nasty thing to say about someone you don't even know.'

A bulb flickered dimly in my head. 'I dunno, Clara must have told me. That night I saw her in the Pit.'

'Nearly mated with her, you mean. But whatever. Clara doesn't know that about him. It's not the sort of thing he tells people.'

I spoke without thinking. 'And you? You an “indulger” as well?'

'You bastard,' she said. 'You've got some front, asking me that. I've never touched it, if you must know.'

I nodded. 'Sure. Whatever.'

'You know what? I'm pretty sure that is none of your concern. Can you fuck off, please? I'm sick of having to explain myself to you.'

She ran past me towards the bedroom. As she slammed the door I placed my arm in the frame and pushed. She let go and we faced off from opposite sides of the bed.

'Don't fucking lie to me, Eliza,' I hissed. My fists were clenched, fingernails digging into my palms.

Her face darkened. 'I'm not lying! I haven't seen the guy for weeks. Last time I went round there was ages ago. After the Pit, I think.' She held up a hand. 'Anyway, you still haven't answered my question. I answer all of your endless questions, how about you do the same? How do you know about Matt?'

I shrugged. 'Don't remember. You must have told me, then. When you were wasted or something.'

'Nope. Definitely not. That I would remember.' I could see her mind ticking over, going through the possibilities. 'In fact,' she murmured, 'the only time I ever mentioned him before then was on the phone. Outside.' Her eyes snapped open and fixed on me. 'Outside the Pit, if I recall. Before I went round there -'

You could see the cherries line up, three in a row. Jackpot, baby.

'You were there, weren't you? You heard me on the phone to Matt?' She picked up a pillow off the bed and flung it at me.

'WEREN'T YOU?'

'Hey,' I said, as another pillow hit me. 'Stop that.'

'AND,' she screamed, 'you must have followed me round there. To know that about him. Followed me, like Leroy has. You worthless piece of shit. How could you?'

She was crying now. I tried to move round the bed.

'Don't you fucking dare,' she said between sobs. 'It all makes sense, now. Matt had this feeling that someone was watching us, he wouldn't stop going on about it. I told him he was being ridiculous. A bit of pre-hit paranoia. But he wasn't. You were there all along, watching. Spying. Like a fucking pervert.'

'Eliza, please -'

She threw herself at me and ran a hand down my face, nails scratching. 'Get the fuck out. GET OUT.' She dived back onto the bed and buried her face in the mattress, on the spot where we had made love not hours before.

'Come on, Eliza. Let me explain.'

She pulled her legs up to her chest. 'You know what? I was just starting to trust you. I told myself not to let you in, but as the days passed I found myself wanting to. But it looks like I was right. I'll never forgive you for this, Shaun. Congratulations. You're on the endless list of men who've betrayed me. Now go.'

Defeated, I turned for the door. As I hovered, she spoke again in a small voice.

'You know, I really haven't done heroin. But now, I might. What's the point of the truth, right?'

'But what about Leroy -'

'Oh, who fucking cares. I'll deal with it myself. Just like I always have.'

With that, she lapsed into silence.

I stayed around for a while and tried to apologise, but she was having none of it. So I left.

 

Outside, the first spots of rain were beginning to fall. There was a ball of lead in the pit of my stomach. You fool, Shaun. You stupid, stupid fool.

I touched my face where Eliza had scratched me. My fingers came away with blood on them. I was a physical wreck. For some reason I thought of the Pit, the portcullis again, its mouth opening and swallowing me whole. There was nothing left. All I had was a weak promise made to a girl who now despised me. If she wouldn't see me or speak to me, I could still do this for her, a mediocre act of penance that would never be enough.

I stepped into the rain, resigned to a long walk home. The cold droplets on my face and hands helped to wash the blood off. As I walked, I had a big stroke of luck. Looking down, I saw a square black object peeking out from behind a car tyre, hidden in the shadow of the wheel arch. I reached and picked it up. The leather was drenched and completely ruined, but no mistake. My wallet. I raised my eyes to the sky. Perhaps there was hope, after all. I rummaged through the contents. The cash was long gone, but in a sleeve at the back, pressed in behind my drivers licence, were my bank cards. I yelped and kissed them, my heart surging at this bit of good fortune, Eliza momentarily forgotten. Then the rain shook me back to life and I made for home.

 

After a long hot shower, I dressed and taped up my wounds as best I could. Eliza was at the forefront of my mind, haunting me with every step I took. I couldn't wrench that look from my head, her face falling apart when the awful truth dawned. She had been betrayed her whole life, but it was me who had tipped her closer to the edge. I feared for her safety, not just from Leroy but herself. It felt like she could do anything. I had to get the money, and get back to her quick. She wouldn't let me in, but still.

I went out and found a cashpoint, and drew as much money as I could. It amounted to $600. I used some of it to buy a cheap phone. It could call and text, which was all I needed. I tried both to Eliza and no surprise, no answer. I figured she was probably still in the flat, laying low. I called again. Still nothing. Frustrated, I ate up some more cash on a pack of cigarettes, then made the fatal mistake of going in the pub. I told myself the same story, that one was OK to wash the disgust and regret away. It never was.

When I left, one had turned into five, all doubles, one after the other. I hailed a cab and headed straight for Eliza's. I knew it was futile, but had no other plan to try. I had hoped the alcohol would have calmed my nerves, but it hadn't worked. We were in the end game now, I was sure of it. One way or the other, resolution was close. The thought made me want to vomit.

At Eliza's I leaned on the buzzer to her apartment for a couple of minutes. Of course, no answer. I rang her phone again. Nothing. Was it worth trying upstairs? I debated for a moment, then the security door opened and made the decision for me. A few minutes later I was banging on her door, shouting her name over and over, my hands throbbing with every hit.

'Hey,' a voice said to the side of me. I turned and saw a woman stick her head out of the adjacent apartment.

'Sorry,' I replied. 'I was -'

'Oh, it's you,' she said, pointing at me. 'I remember you.
You were here the other night, banging and crashing at God knows what hour. What is it with you young folk? No respect, that's your trouble.'

I didn't have time for a lecture. 'Is she in? It's urgent.'

'As a matter of fact, she isn't. Left, oh, an hour or two ago?'

She said something else, but I was already gone, bounding down the stairs two at a time.

 

Next stop, the Pit. Eliza would have been crazy to go there, with the threat of Leroy ever present, but it hadn't stopped her before. I walked up those familiar steps, shrouded in blue, wondering if I would ever see her again in this place. Inside, it was reasonably quiet for a Saturday. I checked the smoking balcony, the dancefloor, even the women's toilets. I hoped Clara might be about, maybe she had spoken with Eliza, but she was nowhere to be seen either. I stopped for a couple of drinks and left, knowing there was one more place where she could be. Deep down, I knew it was her most likely option. And the worst she could have chosen. I made one final sweep of the club, then descended back into the night. Into the night, and to Matt's.

Trouble was, I couldn't exactly remember how to get there. I had been wasted the last time, and wasn't in the best shape now. I stopped on the corner and lit a cigarette, trying to piece it together. Finally I made a snap decision and started west.

As I walked the nerves increased to full intensity. I drew hard on the cigarette, wishing I knew where to go. I stopped on the next corner I came to and leaned up against a tram stop, trying to get my bearings. I heard footsteps behind me as someone strode past and continued on. I closed my eyes. It was near the beach, I was sure. Maybe two or three streets back. I could smell the salt in the air so knew I was in the vicinity, but no more. Come on, think! There was an laneway opposite, that I remembered. To get there was a left, then right? Or was it the other way round? I pitched the cigarette and got to my feet, staring down the road directly behind me. I felt a prickle of recognition. I carried on, took a right at the end. A can was swept by the wind and tinkled on the asphalt. A dog barked. I told myself it was the same dog as before.

Then, a car pulled into the street, headlights blinding in the pitch black. Circles of light swept over the buildings opposite as it indicated right. The orbs running over the cobblestones of a laneway, picking out a rubbish skip as the car moved past, then took its exit. There it was! So Matt's house was somewhere around here...

I knew it was on this side of the street, opposite the laneway or close to it. A thought came to me, and I pulled out the new phone and pressed a button to light up the screen. The blue glow pushed the darkness back a little. It wasn't much, but something at least. The first I came to didn't have a gate. Frantic with worry now, I ran to the next. A gate this time. I swung it open and crunched down the path. There was an outline of a car to my right. I shone the phone round. No, this didn't look right either. I sprinted back to the road and tried the next. Another gate. I moved up to the doorway. The living room window had it's curtains drawn and there was a sliver of light running underneath them. I felt a strong sense of deja vu. I reached down beneath the window and touched spongy soil. Yes. This was it.

I rang the doorbell and waited. The glass was frosted and I couldn't see in. I rang again, heart thumping against my ribcage. She was in there, I was sure of it. Finally, a murky shadow appeared, their figure distorted through the glass. A lock clicked, then the door opened.

Matt stood before me, face half in shadow, half in light. He was older than I was expecting, with deep wrinkles across his forehead. He looked a little spaced, but I didn't think he had been at the gear. Yet.

'Is Eliza here? I really need to talk to her.'

He grinned, showing me yellowing teeth and a lot of gum. 'You must be Shaun. I have to say, we've been expecting you.'

'Great.' I took a step forward, waiting for an invitation. None was forthcoming. 'Can I come in?'

'Umm, I don't know if that's the best idea. She's, um, not in the right frame of mind for visitors.'

My patience snapped. 'Eliza! Eliza!' I shouted. I made to move into the hallway.

'Hey man,' he slurred. 'No need to shout. Think of the neighbours. And I can't let you see Eliza. Not if she doesn't want to.'

'Matt,' a voice said. We both looked round. Eliza stood at the top of the stairs. Straightaway I could tell she was out of it. She was swaying from side to side, and had to grasp the banister to stop herself from falling. Even from my position I could see the dark rings around her eyes. She had changed to a tattered blue dress and tights with ladders in them.

'S'OK,' she said. Her voice was barely a whisper. 'I can talk to good old Shauny.' She came down a couple of steps, a plastic grin plastered to her face.

Then many things happened at once.

 

Matt had an arm across me. After Eliza's instruction he lowered his hands to his side. Eliza was two steps from the bottom now. Heart in my throat, I took a step forward. Fast footsteps and a scraping sound came from behind, then a cold object slammed into the base of my spine. I stumbled forward, knocking Matt, whose jaw had dropped open and hung slack. An arm came around my neck and crushed into my windpipe, pulling me back, pressing my spine further against the sharpness behind. There was hot breath on my skin.

I looked at Eliza, who had her mouth open, ready to scream, her eyes out on stalks. The coldness left me and then I heard a click as a black cylinder appeared over my left shoulder, pointing at Eliza.

'I wouldn't,' the voice behind me said and my stomach crumpled. Leroy. Leroy, with a gun.

Eliza stopped, hands halfway to her mouth, the pose almost a caricature. The gun moved direction and was soon nestling against my cheekbone. White stars danced in front of my eyes and I thought I was going to faint. Beside me, I heard moaning and then retching.

Leroy glanced towards Matt, who had crumbled to the floor, saliva and God knows what else in a small pool at his feet. He snorted.

'Now,' he said, the gun still wedged into my face, 'I think we should move into the living room and get comfortable. You first.' He gestured at Eliza with the gun, other arm across my throat. She was crying silently as she shuffled off the bottom step. Despite the horror of the situation she had a faraway look in her eye.

Matt had shifted to his knees, looking up at Leroy as if he was a bad hallucination. I would have felt sorry for him, but the gun had returned to the small of my back. I had other things to worry about. The fear was absolute now.

Leroy closed the door with his left foot and pushed me forward.

'Get up,' he said, and Matt was immediately on his feet, like a private standing to attention. Leroy cocked his head and Matt moved through.

'Now you, soldier,' Leroy said, and we did an awkward dance, shuffling like we were in a three-legged race, all the time the gun centimetres from my body.

 

The living room was basically how I remembered it; the coffee table was in the same spot and appeared to have gained an extra layer of detritus. Even the girl with the blonde hair was there again, in a similar state as before. She was sprawled out on the sofa, covered by a blanket. Leroy ordered Matt and Eliza to sit down. They did without objection. We remained standing, the gun still prodding me in the back. My hands were drenched in sweat.

Leroy moved me over towards the girl. With his left hand, he reached down and shook her a couple of times. Her head lolled forward and she murmured a little, but didn't stir.

'Fuck,' Leroy said, snapping his fingers in front of her eyes, 'this one's really out of it.' He glared at Matt. 'What shit have you been giving her?'

Matt shrugged. 'Hey, it's a free country, man. Do you think you might, you know, put the gun down?'

Leroy ignored him and turned to Eliza. She was afflicted with the open jaw syndrome, too. 'By the kook’s of it, she's been on the gear too. Isn't that right, Eliza? Eliza?'

She was staring at a point over our heads, somewhere out the window and far, far away. Please say no, I thought. Please.

'Wassup?' she bleated. 'Yes, yes. Yes, and on with the show.'

Despite my predicament, anger swelled inside.

'You fucking idiot,'I shouted at Matt. 'She's never done it before. What if something happens?'

Matt spread his arms. 'Hey, she asked me, man. She wanted some, I had it. No worries. We were only smoking. I thought it would chill her out.'

'Looks like it's done that,' I said. The anger was dissipating, now. I was more disgusted with myself. Her being here was all my fault.

'As interesting as all this is,' Leroy said, 'this isn't a social call. And I'm tired of holding onto you.' He shoved me into a chair. He took a step back, gun still trained on me. I could see right down the barrel. 'Try anything, and I'll shoot you. Simple. Got it?'

I nodded. Bile rose in my throat. I swallowed it down quickly.

'Now,' he continued. 'On to business. Eliza here owes me twelve hundred dollars. She's been shoving a lot of my coke up her nose, haven't you my dear? I've been trying and trying to get this money, but she hasn't been very responsive. Too busy fucking around with this cunt, getting off with him right in front of my face. Rubbing my nose in it.' His face had darkened a few shades.

'Which wasn't a very nice thing to do. I thought, Shaun, that after our last meeting you would back off. After all, Eliza is clearly my girl. But obviously I was wrong.'

'Well maybe beating her up wasn't the best way to win her heart,' I said.

Leroy sprang forward and slashed me across the face with the gun barrel. Blood sprang into my mouth. I spat a stream of red to the carpet.

'Don't fucking talk,' he shouted. 'Another word, I swear to God.'

The pain in my mouth was excruciating. Through all this, Eliza had remained stony silent. Only when Leroy smashed me did she let out a small gasp. She could barely muster a syllable to defend me.

'So.' Leroy said. 'I want my money.' He stared at Eliza, eyeing her legs. 'And if I don't get it, I will take everything that I can.'

I swallowed some blood. 'I have some,' I said. Talking hurt. A lot. 'Not all of it, but some. In my wallet.'

'Get on your feet,' Leroy ordered. I stood. The room was tilting, floors sloping downward.

He gestured to Matt. 'You, search his pockets. Get the wallet, take the cash, throw it on the floor.'

Matt did so. Leroy bent, inspected the money. 'Five hundred bucks? Is this it?' He stood up, shaking his head.

'It's all I have,' I whispered. 'All I have to give.'

'Well, that's not really good enough, is it? What about you?'

'Me?'

Leroy took a step forward and dug the gun in Matt's ribs. 'Yes, you. Gear making you deaf?'

Matt's face drained of all colour. 'Only what's on the table.'

Leroy and I looked down. There were a few notes scattered amongst the ashtrays. No more than a hundred dollars, by the look of it.

After Leroy had pocketed that lot, he looked at Eliza. 'And what about you, bitch? Come bearing gifts?'

'She doesn't have any,' Matt said. 'She asked me earlier if I could lend her some. I was like, if I could, I would, know what I mean?'

'So, between the three of you, all you can come up with is six hundred lousy fucking dollars? Fuck that shit.'

He's forgotten the girl, I thought. I looked at her. Still lifeless.

'I can get more,' I pleaded. 'Give me some time, and I'll get more.'

'Uh-huh. No more time. Anyway, perhaps Eliza and I should go upstairs and discuss it further.' He grinned. 'I'm sure we'll be able to come to some kind of arrangement.'

'No,' Eliza muttered. 'No, no, no.'

There was a flicker of movement as the blanket twitched.

Leroy moved closer to Eliza. 'What do you think, girl? Do the right thing, and maybe I'll let you off the rest.' He had the gun hanging by his side.

I took a step forward. 'I can't let you do that.'

He faced me, and now the gun came up, dead on my chest. My insides shrivelled like a chip packet in an oven.

'Excuse me? You trying to tell me what to do?' His finger squeezed the trigger.

I took a freeze-frame, the last I would ever see. Eliza, staring at the gun, feet pointing inward, tears running down her face. Her tattoo had emerged from the sleeve of her dress. We were in the depths of winter now, that was for sure. Matt had shrunken into the sofa, hunched in the foetal position, hands thrown up to shield his face. Leroy, his face creased with anger, that ridiculous beard a vague presence on his chin. And the girl, hidden beneath the blanket, but now sitting up, life somehow in her eyes, getting to her feet...

She ran at Leroy and jumped on his back, screeching a high-pitched wail. The gun arched upward and went off, firing a bullet into the ceiling. The noise was deafening in the confines of the room. Leroy roared and dug an elbow into her stomach. She cried out and fell to the carpet. I sprang forward and grabbed for the gun. I only succeeded in clamping onto Leroy's wrist. I squeezed hard, trying to loosen his grip on the gun. He was too strong, so I kicked him in the shin with as much power as I could muster. He grunted and fell forward, but somehow stayed on his feet. Losing balance, I fell backward onto the coffee table, knocking an ashtray and glass pipe to the floor. Leroy stumbled with me and as he did so the gun went off. Blood burst from my arm and I rolled off the table, screaming, close to blacking out as the pain enveloped me. I could hear more screams now. It sounded like Eliza had finally come to life.

Leroy had recovered his composure and was saying something to Eliza, gun now pointed at her. I couldn't make out the words. The world had gone silent. She was still screaming, pulling her eyes down with scraping fingers.

I tried to sit up but couldn't. Leroy's finger tightened on the trigger once more and I closed my eyes, willing myself to pass out so I wouldn't have to see.

I opened them to see Matt, good old Matt, come off the sofa, pick up the metal ashtray and take a swipe at Leroy. He was aiming for his head but mistimed and cracked Leroy's shoulder. Leroy stumbled and Matt did as I had tried and went for the gun. My vision clouded and the scene faded to a murky grey. The blood felt like a river gushing out of me.

There was another shot. I blinked and colour came back into the world. Matt was sprawled on the floor, hair standing up in black stalks, lying on his side by the coffee table. Leroy was bent over, hands on knees like a runner after a marathon. The gun lay by his feet. Behind him, the girl was clinging to the sofa, drawing large gulps of breath. They were all staring. I twisted my head to follow their gaze. To find Eliza, bent forward, hair covering her face. A dark pool spreading outward from the breast of her dress. She toppled and slid off the sofa, blood seeping into the cushions, ending up face down, hair fanning out around her as the blue of her dress reddened.

Black lines appeared top and bottom of my vision. I blinked and this time they didn't go away. I was suddenly very tired. Some time passed; There were sounds, shuffling, barely more than a whisper at first. I could see a blue light in the corner of my vision. Maybe we were at The Pit again. The blue light swung to the opposite side, then back, in a regular metronomic pattern. There was a whooshing sound in my ears, like being in a wind tunnel. And then I opened my eyes and was back in the room.

Every heartbeat sent fresh pain to the wound. The patch of carpet my arm now rested in was wet. I twisted my head and tried to sit up. There were bloodstains on the carpet, mixed in with broken glass. Resting under the sofa, the metal ashtray. Eliza was still face-down, blood spooling out in a large puddle. Her dress was a muddy red colour and drenched in blood. My gaze ran upwards, along her arm, and there was the tattoo, the last three words all that was visible through the blood and bruises. I think there were tears in my eyes then, and I blinked them away. I prayed that there was an invincible summer within her, a hot ball of fire repelling the bullet that had taken residence inside.

I sat up, the pain starting to recede as adrenaline kicked in, and looked around the room with glazed eyes. Leroy was nowhere to be seen. The blonde girl was sitting upright, staring at Eliza with a face devoid of expression. She was in complete shock. Footsteps approached and Matt come running in. 'Ambulance is on it's way.' He stared at Eliza, then leaned over and vomited. I shuffled across to her body. So much blood. With my good arm, I turned her over. Her airway was clear and miraculously there was still a faint rise and fall to her chest. Her eyes were starting to close. There was blood everywhere. Some dripped from my arm onto hers.

I turned to Matt. 'Get bandages, anything. We need to apply pressure.'

He ran out the room. I grinned weakly at Eliza, placing my hands over her chest. The wound looked big enough to drive a fist through.

She coughed. Blood ran from her mouth. She started to speak.

'Y,know,' she said.

I was crying now.

'Don't say you're sorry,' she whispered. I laughed. It hurt.

She grinned. 'Y'know,' she repeated. 'I think all the stupid things I did. Was really just momentum from The Pit.'

Sirens were close. I could see blue light penetrating the curtains.

She coughed again as Matt rushed in, ripping a bandage from its packaging with his teeth. I looked down at Eliza. Her eyes were closed now. I took the bandage and pressed it to the wound. There was a rattling sound coming from her chest. I kept holding the bandage and watching her chest rise and fall, rise and fall.

'Come on,' I shouted. 'Come on.'

Then the rise slowed, slowed, and stopped, as the first paramedics entered the room.

 

Eliza died minutes later. They didn't even have time to get her in an ambulance. The paramedics worked on her for what was only minutes, that felt like hours. The invincible summer had been extinguished at last.

 

The paramedics had to physically wrestle me into the ambulance. They continued to apply pressure to stem the bleeding, and hooked me up to a saline drip. The adrenaline had heightened and the pain took on a distant, dreamlike quality. As we rattled through the city with sirens blaring I wept for Eliza. The stupid, drugged-up girl. I replayed the incident over and over, seeing Leroy pointing the gun and Eliza's face a rictus of despair as she knew what was to come. I knew that picture would haunt me for the rest of my life.

We pulled into emergency in convoy, and as I stepped down from the cab the paramedics were pulling Eliza into the hospital, her body outlined in the green glow of the ambulance bay. I put a hand out to steady myself and the pain started to return. I was led into the hospital and doctors came to see me straight-away. The next couple of hours passed in a blur. They found bullet fragments in my arm which required surgery. I had lost a lot of blood but the bullet had gone straight through my bicep without nicking any of the shoulder arteries, which would have caused severe nerve damage and greater loss of blood. I emerged a couple of hours later, bandaged and woozy from painkillers, just in time for an appointment with the police.

Leroy. As soon as I mentioned his name a sickness took hold. How we had underestimated him. I thought of the first time we had met, that sneering gaze, those punches to the nose and ribs. I thought of all the injuries I had suffered since, mostly external but some self-inflicted, drowning in a sea of booze and illicit drugs. I gave a statement, stopping every so often to stifle a sob or lament a regret. Despite everything I blamed myself for what had happened, for that last argument we had had. I had driven her to Matt's through my own doubts and stupidity. I wasn't sure if I could ever forgive myself.

It turned out Leroy had been picked up almost straight after the shooting. The first shot had alerted neighbours and they had phoned the police immediately. For that I was grateful. I knew I would have to face him again in court, but that was for another time.

After, I found Matt in the foyer. I hugged him and thanked him for his efforts in trying to stop Leroy. I think he was surprised. As the first light of day streamed through the curtains I walked into the bright sunshine. I did what I should have done weeks before and phoned Stuart. He was getting on the next flight. I went home, locked the door and wept until the pain became too much. Then I took more painkillers and knocked myself out.

 

My arm continues to improve. I will never regain full use of it, the nerve damage has put paid to that. I haven't gone back to labouring. The way forward remains elusive.

Alcohol continues to weave its thread through my life. I would like to say I have control over it. For long periods I do. Then a wave of depression will knock me under and at those moments I crave it with every fibre of my being. One day I'll sort it. One day.

Eliza consumes every waking moment. I have dissected our relationship from first moment to last and still struggle to make sense of it. I miss her, certainly. I will always miss her.

The other day I found myself walking down a familiar alleyway. I tend to avoid this part of town now. But here I was, looking for the sign swinging in the breeze, the white portcullis and letters of blood red. As I drew closer I realised it was no longer there. A different sign hung across the boarded up door of The Pit. I ran my hand over it, tracing the letters that spelt out its demise. I could almost feel a humming sensation under my fingers. I closed my eyes and saw the hallway lined in blue, the stairs leading into the unknown, the booze and darkness and drugs and a girl that changed everything.

Maybe it was for the best. The Pit's brightest light had burned out. I tapped the sign with a knuckle and headed for home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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