MATT SHAKES OUT HIS ponytail, leaving the hair-choked elastic on his wrist. He’s going full Jesus now, arms outstretched, appealing to our greater sense of humanity.
‘I mean, come on!’ he says. ‘Who feeds hash brownie to a dog?’
Jez sniggers and I punch him in the arm. We’re all half-pissed on humidity and mid-afternoon beers in the spa, but I still know how to do indignation.
‘Hippie fuckwits,’ I declare, even though there’s a medium-to-high chance that it was actually Jez.
It’s 2007 and Darwin’s a bit light on for entertainment. Live music is mostly a bloke at the pub feeding scratched CDs into the stereo. Occasionally, a local band. Or you can go to Discovery and roll the dice in the toilets with some mid-strength pills, pick up an Army Jock and head to a drag show at Throb. Otherwise, there are house parties: the kind that usually start with fancy dress (The ‘70s! Pirates! Sinners and Saints!) but mostly end naked in the pool.
Last night was Jez and Matt’s turn to host the crew. Footy players and uni students. A handful of FIFOs. The latest set of doctors, lawyers, journos and teachers, all here to pad out the CV for a year (or two, max) and tick Kakadu off the bucket list. A dreadlocked posse wearing fairy wings and fisherman’s pants. Cough syrup chugging backpackers. A tour guide with time off from the bum bags of his retiree busgroup. He enjoyed grabbing handfuls of flour from the kitchen and throwing them into the dance floor. A self-appointed smoke machine.
Party infrastructure was minimal. Jez perched his iPod and a set of speakers on the book case. There were peeling posters on the lounge room wall and a sea of brightly coloured alco-pops and bottles of beer, hunted and gathered, with ice in the bathtub. The kitchen was drenched with melted butter and zip-lock bags of pot.
I made my exit around 2am when the cops knocked on the door with noise complaints. They walked straight past the couple going for it on the lawn, but I didn’t. Her skirt was hitched up, his face between her legs. I watched them for as long I could stand it, in between swigs of someone else’s shitty beer. And then I walked home through the back streets, jolted at regular intervals by the screech and zoom of car tyres on Trower Road, the rustle of possums from tree branch to power line, and the odd, piercing curlew shriek.
But after a few day time beers in the spa now with Matt and Jez, the whole thing is just another wild night in paradise, one we’ll file in our new Territory compendium.
Still stewing in my singledom, I unlatched my front gate and headed straight for the spa. Stripping off the last of my clothes, I plunged into the warm soup and stared up at the moon almost obscured by palm trees and leaning towers of bougainvillea, the bush threatening, as always, to swallow my small piece of suburbia.
But after a few day time beers in the spa now with Matt and Jez, the whole thing is just another wild night in paradise, one we’ll file in our new Territory compendium. Key words for the index: dog drugging and front lawn cunnilingus. As we continue our party post-mortem, my new housemate and her mother are huffing boxes inside.
CLAIRE. SHE’S TAKEN THE SMALLEST ROOM in the house. Sixty-five bucks a week, but the windows are painted shut and there’s that faecal trace of cockroaches still occupying the skirting boards. I pay eighty-five for the bigger room near the front door. No curtains but I’ve rigged up a sarong that doesn’t do shit to stop the dude across the street watching from his veranda.
Claire could be a Darwin share house action figure, the not-so limited edition. Pressed out in plastic, then packed into her cardboard box for shipping from China. She’s got an Akubra from her months in Alice Springs, a nose stud. She’s brought a collection of Aboriginal art with her, all swirls of blue, smudges of orange and red dots, the faint outline of dog footprints on one of the canvases. By the door, a pair of blunnies that she’ll soon swap for Havaianas. All of the Tori Amos CDs. I spy Boys for Pele sneaking out of its plastic sleeve; the album artwork has a photograph of the singer suckling a piglet to her breast.
Claire’s mother, on the other hand, screams Down South With Money, just-a-little-holiday-in-the-Top-End-while-I-settle-the-daughter-into-her-new-frontier-life. She’s a straight bob, silver pretending to be blonde. That kind of hair always stops me in my tracks. It rests perfectly on the collar of a white shirt; it books in with the hairdresser every six weeks. It says, don’t you know who I am?
Back home, Claire’s mother is the Acting Departmental Director, the Ministry Under-Secretary, the Commissioner for Commissioning. She plays bridge on Wednesday nights and tennis on the weekend. Below the collar and the bob is a cross on a gold chain. It catches on her lightly puckered skin.
We can hear the muffled sounds of an argument.
…I still don’t understand why you can’t do this in MELBOURNE…
But here we are. Wellington Parade, Alawa. The lounge room ceiling is sagging and the backyard is basically the spa and a pile of palm fronds that we haven’t taken to the tip. But our leafy northern suburb is just fifteen minutes from the city. And best of all, it’s cheap enough to live off the dole over the wet season.
Claire yells out to us through the screen door. ‘Hey! What’s happening with the bed in my room?’
The boys are here to pick up a bunch of furniture, all stuff that my old housemate left behind. Jez needs the bed, since he accidentally set fire to his old one. It was meant to be gone before Claire arrived.
I scull the last of my beer. ‘Don’t worry, we’re on it.’
She sighs and pivots on one foot, somehow avoiding the loose tendrils of mid-eighties carpet. Her mother is still standing behind her, sniffing and judging. The ceiling, the carpet (in this climate!), a leaning tower of past tenants’ mail in the hallway. Jez still can’t stop laughing about Matt’s dog and the hash brownie.
Matt starts fiddling with his hair again. ‘Yeah, well, Bella went ballistic but she’s sleeping it off now,’ he says. ‘Bullet’s been taking care of her.’
‘Who the fuck’s Bullet?’ I ask.
‘Dunno, probably some friend of Rob and Anja’s. He was the only one who could calm Bella down.’
The boys grab towels and slap their empties in the kitchen. Jez is happy enough with the bed in Claire’s room and Matt helps him manoeuvre it down our long corridor. The wooden slats clap against the walls.
‘You guys got a trailer for this thing?’
They don’t. Instead, we shunt it down the street on foot: through a laneway, along the bike path, past the university gym and into the troppo house Matt and Jez share in Nakara. When we arrive, Bella comes bounding out the front door and a guy who’s all shoulders no neck follows closely behind her.
‘Bella! Back inside,’ he says.
For the first time since Matt brought her back from Maningrida, Bella meekly trots into the house. I rub my eyes.
‘Oh hey, Bullet,’ says Jez. ‘Give us a hand, will ya?’
The boys have been groaning for five streets, but Bullet lifts the bed on his own and carries it down to Jez’s room.
Matt goes into the kitchen to make coffee and Jez and I collapse on the couch. Bullet returns with Bella licking at his ankles.
‘Well, thanks for letting me crash, guys. Cool party. Guess I should…’ He makes to leave without leaving. Matt thrusts a mug in his hand; Bullet shifts some bottles and sits back down on the floor.
We’re all at the uni. Matt’s been in Darwin the longest, doing his final year of a PhD on fire management. With his rolling tobacco and skin names from work out bush, he’s the closest we’ve got to a born-and-bred. I’m a law student trying my hardest to sleep with Matt, and Jez is studying something to do with sound engineering. Or marijuana, it’s hard to tell.
‘Trained in Thailand, worked my way up from there…you wouldn’t believe the money in this sport.’
Bullet is in town for a kickboxing tournament.
‘That’s pretty cool,’ says Jez.
‘Yeah,’ Bullet says, ‘you might have seen the posters around town.’ He puffs up, flexing a little. We haven’t, but Matt punches him on the shoulder, still grateful for Bella’s recovery. ‘Onya Bullet.’
‘How’d you get into kickboxing?’ I ask him.
‘Trained in Thailand, worked my way up from there…you wouldn’t believe the money in this sport. Sponsorship, tickets, merch, the works. So many Calvin Klein shirts. I just wear them once and throw ‘em away.’
I crinkle my nose.
Bullet shrugs. ‘You just get so many.’
Jez is leafing through the paper, not listening. He wants to see a movie, some heist film I’ve never heard of. ‘It starts at five,’ he says. ‘Who’s in?’
Matt looks up. ‘You wanna come, Bullet?’
I’M STILL SWEATING OUT LAST NIGHT, but the cinema is only a few streets away so we walk. Past a group of countrymen sitting on the grass outside the library, a drive-thru Macca’s heaving with taxis, and into the air-conditioning of Casuarina Shopping Centre.
I breathe in the chain stores selling winter clothing, nail bars high with fumes, and a murmuration of kids in from one of the communities. In carefully coiffed baseball caps and basketball singlets, they move in unison, darting, ducking and diving between Big W and the soft serves at Wendy’s.
Upstairs, the cinema complex is a jangle of arcade games and their tinny theme songs. Bored teenagers man the candy bar and hand out slushies to their mates for free.
We queue for tickets then escape outside to the rooftop car park and smoke another joint before the movie.
Walking into the cinema, I realise I can’t remember the name of the film we’ve come to see. I slop into my seat. The curtains part, and a reel of awkward local ads for lawn mowers and roofing companies starts to play. It doesn’t take long for me to fall asleep in the theatre. There’s drool on my shoulder when I wake up mid-film. On screen, a man is pounding on the table so hard that hundred-dollar bills fly up in the air. He pulls out a gun. Points it right at me.
My mouth tastes of old roach and Bullet has his arm around me. I shake it off, make for the bathroom. Somehow, I always pick the toilet that doesn’t flush. This one’s been decorated with a permanent marker. Prison Bitches 4 Eva. Hot Chicks DON’T Blow! Liv for Aaron. Big arrow through that heart.
When I get back to our seats, the credits are rolling. We fold out of the cinema and Matt lights up another joint. Bullet reaches out for it first.
It’s dark now. We decide to head to the city. Shenanigan’s might have a band instead of Old Mate the DJ, or we can grab a beer at Kitty O’Shea’s. They do a cheap parmi and schooner. I sit down on one of the metal benches in the bus interchange to wait.
Jez asks Bullet more about his world tours, the sponsorship deals, those Calvin Klein shirts. Bullet tells us about Germany, Brazil, the US circuit. Parties, girls. Cock fights. Mafia bust ups. He got thrown into jail once for an off-book bout in New Orleans. Drugs. So many drugs.
‘Fuck, you guys wouldn’t fucken believe it. You’d get high just sitting on the dunny.’
Bullet finishes the joint. The bus arrives and Matt opens his wallet but it’s empty. He turns to Bullet.
‘You got that twenty?’ Bullet mutters into his shirt. He’s pulled the collar up close to his face.
Matt looks puzzled. ‘You know, the money for the movies?’
Bullet pushes his head into Matt’s face. ‘You fucken what?’
Then Bullet laughs. The sound of it ricochets around the interchange. ‘I’m just kiddin’ you, man! Of course, I got it. Please.’ He gestures us all onto the bus.
I position myself on the back seat between Matt and Jez. Number 4 does the milk run through the suburbs. I groan and wish I’d brought my car. Bullet is talking faster now. He cracks his knuckles.
‘Matt looks like he couldn’t fight for shit,’ says Bullet. ‘C’mon, Matt. Let’s do it. You wanna take me?’
Matt puts up his hands in pre-emptive defeat.
Bullet jumps up and launches a fist into one of the empty seats. ‘Just try. Just fucken try.’ He laughs again.
Then Bullet doesn’t stop talking. The Calvin Klein shirts. Did he tell us about them? You wouldn’t believe it, he gets so many. Just throws them away. Does Matt want one? Jez? No? Too bad. Sometimes there’s so much free shit he chucks it out still wrapped in the plastic. That’s how much the promoters fucken love him.
I imagine that bin full of freshly-minted shirts in their packets. The rustle of wrapping, cardboard and starch.
Bullet doesn’t smell like that. He smells of Bella and beer and long-disappeared deodorant. Of hash brownies and nights on the couch. Of the plush toys no one wins in those arcade games, the left-over popcorn going stale under cinema seats.
When we get off the bus, Bullet struts down Smith Street Mall, still talking about kickboxing and champions he’s taken down and the fucken money, man, on trees, fucken money you wouldn’t believe.
I look at Jez. He looks at me.
There’s a line at the Vic Hotel already, teenagers in boob tubes and tight pants, a guy arguing with the bouncer about why he should be allowed in wearing thongs. For a moment, I think one of those girls is Claire. I look back but she’s disappeared into a wall of lit ciggies and lights, Bundy and Cokes.
I’m caught off balance and Mitchell Street
collapses over me in a wave.
We keep walking, and then there it is. Kitty O’Shea’s. Shitty OK’s. I peer inside. German tourists eating chips in the beer garden and a man with a long beard is nodding off at the bar. An older woman gyrates next to the jukebox. The deep fryer out the back belches old vegetable oil. The room suddenly pitches and I feel sick.
‘You know what?’ I say. ‘I might just call it a night.’
I’m heading down the steps, back onto the street, but Bullet grabs my arm. ‘You know what?’ he whispers in my ear.
I’m caught off balance and Mitchell Street collapses over me in a wave. Tourists are crowded around the traffic lights, waiting to cross over. A valet is parking cars at the Crown. Under the raintrees, buskers sing and clap sticks. One of them has a guitar that’s missing a string. An old guy shuffles out of the Salvo’s hostel with an arm full of plastic bags and a party of well-heeled types head into a restaurant.
But they’re all out of earshot. Bullet’s breath is hot on my cheek. ‘I don’t think your night’s done just yet.’
My throat goes dry. Matt and Jez are coming towards me and then it all happens fast. Bullet’s fist. An uppercut heading straight for Matt’s groin. I hear Matt gasp, but Bullet backs off first.
‘Just jokes, mate! Can’t ya take it? I’m joking!’
Matt grimaces, hand still over his crotch.
Bullet puts an arm around Jez and scruffs his hair. He’s back to jovial now. ‘Ah well, if you don’t fancy another round… You boys don’t mind if I crash again, do ya? Don’t have to be back at the tournie ‘til tomorrow.’
Matt looks at Jez. Jez looks at me.
I stammer it out. ‘Look sorry, just…we’ve all gotta work tomorrow and…’
That’s when I feel it. A line of spit down the side of my face, warm and viscous. Before I can wipe it off, Bullet kicks the car parked next to us. The door collapses mid-panel, an alarm starts to go off.
Bullet grabs Matt by the shirt. ‘You gonna let that fucken cunt talk to me like that?’
Jez white-knuckles his keys, serrated side up. I pick up a bottle someone’s left on the steps near Kitty’s. Should I smash it first?
Bullet smirks. ‘Don’t worry, I know where you pussy bitches live.’
He kicks the car door again and fucks off down Mitchell Street. The car siren’s still going and we bolt back to the interchange, sticking to the shadows until an Alawa-bound bus pulls into the bay.
THE BOYS COME BACK to my place. We all crash on the futon, and I vaguely hope that even with Jez there, Matt’s fingers will reach inside my skirt. They don’t. The sun’s still not up when I hear voices, a rattle of the door. I curl up in a ball on my corner of the mattress, drape the sheet around me.
Next morning, the three of us break out of the bed like it’s an eggshell. We are small chicks, fluffy and dishevelled, scratching our way towards food and the light.
The kitchen is quiet. Jez holds up the muesli.
I pass him some and survey the pantry. Not much on my shelf, just a near-empty tub of peanut butter, a few tins of tuna. A jar of instant coffee stolen from work. I grab a spoon from the drawer. The coffee is threaded with stray lines of sugar, the odd ant. I don’t care. I’m eating Nescafe straight out of the jar when I hear a cough behind me.
Claire’s wearing a silky kimono, hair knotted on top of her head. ‘Big night?’
Matt flicks the switch on the kettle. ‘Something like that.’
‘Me too,’ she says. ‘The Vic, Discovery…Next thing I knew, it was three in the morning…’
Claire considers the spoon in my hand, lightly coated with damp coffee. ‘Hey, I’m sorry if we got off on the wrong foot yesterday.’
I wave her away. ‘All good.’
‘No,’ Claire says, ‘I was a bitch. Sorry about that. It’s just…moving, you know? And Mum was driving me crazy. She wants me to move back to Melbourne.’
I know. And it wasn’t so long ago that my mother was sniffing her way around our house, horrified by the carpet, the ceiling, the army of tree frogs living in our bathroom.
The toilet flushes. There are footsteps in the hall.
I raise an eyebrow in that direction. ‘Guess you did have a good night, huh?’
Claire half-smiles and opens the fridge; the light inside flickers like a strobe. Down the corridor comes that smell again. Dog, half-smoked joint, armpits. Spilled beer, the number 4 bus.
When I turn around, he’s still wearing the same shirt as yesterday. Maybe I’ll find it scrunched up in our wheelie bin later. Or maybe I won’t.
Miranda Tetlow has spent over a decade with ABC Radio as a presenter, reporter and producer of programs including Conversations with Richard Fidler. Miranda also writes a blog called Postcards from the North. She won a Northern Territory Literary Award in 2017 and is working on her first novel.