“Di? Di? Come on, Di. I know you’re in there.”
It would have been better if she had just said nothing, just lay there. The voice would have gone away eventually. She did attempt a small silence, leaning back on her pillow and listened to the rattling of the door handle, then a sigh, and an ongoing tapping.
Finally, she couldn’t help herself.
“Fuck off, Nic.”
“Come on, Di. What’s up?”
“Why don’t you go and find someone else to rip off?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“What’s wrong? Come on, let me in, Di. Please?”
The door to Diana’s King Street bed-sit was pink, the paint chipped. She threw a cushion at it, producing a dull thumping sound followed by a soft whistle as the polyester cover slid down toward the floor.
“So, where’d you take it all to, Nic?” Diana raised her voice to the ceiling. “What was it worth to you?”
There was no answer. She could feel bitterness rising in her throat.
“What am I supposed to do now? You want me to go down to the fucking pawn shop and buy back my own stuff just so you can come and rip me off again?”
Silence. A shifting of weight. The sliding of cloth against the door.
Then, again: tap, tap.
A low, childish whisper.
“Don’t shut me out, Di, please, I need you.”
Something compelled Diana Kooper. She rose up from her spot on the futon and moved toward the closed door. The movement seemed to stretch out momentarily, as if offering the chance to change her mind, to sit down again, to forget. But she did none of these things, instead opening the door with a swish and a body fell immediately into the room.
Diana was ready for it. Her hands landed quickly on the soft hollow of Nicole’s armpits, pulling the other girl further inside then pinning her by the shoulders to the filthy carpet. She climbed on top of the body and knocked the head against the floor, hard. Soon she was aware only of sounds: fabric tearing; the soft whoosh of her friend’s breath beneath shawls of hair. Diana discovered a vital physical strength fed by rage and despair: a blinding extravagance of will.
But Nicole fought back, so that Diana too was flung against the furniture legs, against the floor, against the corner of the low bed. Blood swam from their noses and skin burnt at hips, knees, elbows. They knocked into an open cupboard door, sending empty containers and food packaging like celebratory confetti across the stained carpet. They were using fists, boots, wrangles, pinches. They were tripping each other up, wedging grit and splinters and skin beneath short fingernails.
Wrestling gave way briefly to a round of boxing. Diana could picture the kids practising in the warehouse near their old place in Glebe. Maybe Nicole could see them too. For a moment the girls were fenced in by thick red ropes. They had bright silk shorts on. Diana could feel her right fist clenched at her side, burning to lodge a lethal knock. She was raking up stray instructions from the schoolyard: Go for the soft temple / Avoid the jaw / Form the fist right / Dance! Dance on your feet.
Diana’s bare fist made sharp contact with an eye, flinging the other girl back. Nicole stumbled and held one hand across her damaged eyelid, trying to refocus. Diana smirked, too pleased with herself. She had only glanced away momentarily when she felt something land with the force against her own gut. Suddenly the wind was gone from her. Breathing is life. Life is breathing. She folded forward and fell. The world blackened.
When she came to there was a smell of hot metal. The electric kettle had boiled dry. There was a pillow beneath her head, and the familiar shape of Nicole Carr sprawled out on the bed beside her.
“Oh, God,” she said. All that effort, for nothing.
The body beside her moaned in response.
Diana got up and turned off the kettle.
Diana had coined the term Big Change Trouble when she was small. It was something she reckoned she could sense early, before others got a whiff of it. It was the kind of trouble she had watched her mother trying to dodge at the last minute, the way drivers who speed are forced to dodge sudden obstacles on the road, without much success. When she was a kid, Big Change Trouble meant the convergence of all number of small trouble things - things to do with her mother’s drinking, things to do with money, or things to do with school. It started with little ruptures right across all the stuff she’d gotten used to. Sometimes it was like she was outside of herself, looking down, watching it all going on, and always this sense that nobody else could make out it quite like she could.
Just before she did the bolt from Sydney, Diana could sense that eerie childhood feeling, so rotten, so familiar. It rose up the day after she and Nicole had beat the shit out of each other. She went to work, as usual, in the bar in Redfern in the late afternoon, her limbs tired and sore.
Dick Richards, the guy who always gave her good, reliable tips, stood at the bar rubbing his hand across his left nipple and saying “Caaaw,” widening his eyes and blinking. She got an odd feeling, watching the way his t-shirt creased beneath his hand as he rubbed. Maybe he was actually having a heart attack, right there at the bar. She felt removed from him, on edge, and said nothing that might have helped. She was more concerned that there was something wrong with one of her work shoes. The rubber sole was coming off at the front, and it was flip-flapping around, getting stuck on the edges of the bar mats. Twice she nearly tripped carrying two full schooners of Resch’s.
Later one of the other regulars, Marty Miller, told her about how he had to walk home all the way from St Peters the previous afternoon, because he had these three boils on his arse and they had burst, and even though one of his mates went by and offered him a lift, he didn’t want to get in. He didn’t want to make a mess on his mates’ seat. It was so bad, he wouldn’t even have gotten into a taxi. It was about eight kilometres he had to walk. He was the nicest guy, Marty, but he didn’t generally talk too much, it was unlike him to even be standing at the bar. Usually he drank over by the window, looking out at the street. Diana was left wondering about him, long after he’d gone home. Marty Miller and the boils on his arse, the blood and puss leaking down his legs as he walked. Why did he have to tell her about it?
That night, Jeff Fenech was due to defend his WBC Featherweight Title. Skychannel was broadcasting it live. Gradually, the place filled up and soon there wasn’t a punter in the whole pub who wasn’t barracking for Fenech. It was dead busy. Diana’s boss, Micheal, was completely stoned. He kept smiling and pointing at the bruises on her face and shaking his head, but he was smiling from the wrong side of the bar. There should have been two of them serving. It was annoying. Beryl and Matt’s two kids came in again, they must be six and eight years old, and Diana had to keep her eyes on them as they pushed their way through the crowd to find Mum and Dad at their usual spot in front of the card machines. Probably just asking for money for a feed, poor buggers, but they weren’t supposed to come into the pub, especially at night, especially in a big crowd like this. She lost track of them, couldn’t tell if they’d already gone or not.
Big Change Trouble gives a certain flavour to everything. It might as well have been in the beer itself, the yeasty scent of it filling the room every time a drinker exhaled. Jeff Fenech went to twelve rounds with the tiny little Mexican, Mario Martinez. It was a long, monotonous fight with barely any drama in it. Jeff wasn’t at his best. “His hands are fucked,” people were saying. “His fucking hands are ratshit.” There’d been too many fractures, too many punches over too many years. It was difficult to watch. Everybody sensed the champion’s reign close to being over. Jeff won the fight, but it wasn’t with anything you could call style. The pub emptied out quickly after that. It was like someone had just taken a giant scoop out of the place, and everybody was gone, even Dick Richards. She put up the stools, wiped down the bar, emptied the flat amber fluid out of the trays.
When she got outside, she watched two taxis go past with their “Engaged” signs up, even though there was no one but the drivers in them. Several mounted police turned out of Raglan Street and she could hear the sound of their horse’s hooves against the blacktop, the clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop ricocheting up and down the length of near empty Botany Road. Her little Suzuki coughed to a start and she drove home the back way through this odd disquiet. When she got to the laneway behind her King Street bed-sit, she was met by the picture of Nicole Carr walking into the stream of her headlights. Nicole held up a limp hand, shielding her face from the light.
“You gotta help me, Di. I want to get clean.”
She seemed thinner than ever, her hair all flat.
“I want to give it a go, I mean it, really,” she said through the open driver’s window. “I got to stay away from Harry.”
She followed Diana up the stairs.
“You’ve got to help me keep away from him, Di. We’re bad for each other.”
Nicole was going to move out of Harry’s place in Bondi and find a place of her own. She was going to work two jobs and save to go to a private college, do a course in natural medicine. Diana could tell she’d had a hit not long before she arrived. Her friend sat at the table, flicking her hair back out of her eyes and doodling on an old telephone bill. They went to sleep a little after one, but Diana slept lightly. At seven, Nicole was up and getting restless, wandering in small loops around the tiny space. Diana tried to sleep on, raising an eyelid occasionally to see Nicole hunched over, biting her nails, staring out into space. They ate blueberry yoghurt for breakfast, sharing the same spoon, eating straight out of the tub.
Diana was supposed to be at the TAFE that morning, to see about a supplementary exam. And she was due to start at her shift at The Royal at two. But she was afraid to leave. If she left, Nicole might go out. If Nicole went out, that would be the end of it.
“You must hate me,” Nicole said, sulkily.
“Yes and no.”
The bed-sit had very little in it. The old blue fridge rumbled and buzzed. Nicole had already stolen the stereo, the television, the microwave, even the little dual ring gas cooktop. There were two folding chairs beside a fold-out table. There was the futon. Diana shared the bathroom down the hall with Bernie and Wanda, the drag queens in the next room. The tiny bed-sit’s best feature was a set of French doors, opening onto a railing and overlooking the busy road below. The breeze, or sometimes just the hot air created by the ceaseless traffic, made the red curtains above the doorway dance and sway. The girls sat watching this dance for most of the morning. Funny the way the fabric lifted, ballooned then fell. Lifted, ballooned, then fell. There was something in it. And yet, also, there was nothing. Soon Nicole Carr’s stomach would knot into a long, sharp cramp.