The White Line

Paddy O’Reilly

To the left is a bent house, all punched in by the wind and sun and the cheap materials folding it from the inside. I know what the rooms look like. Unstuffed furniture busted from slumping bodies. Bongs and needles and spoons the only shiny decorations. A handbag with its guts spilled out. Cups green and furred, their hairs topped with white spores ready to fly at a breath. Somewhere in a deeper room lies a body, alive, but only a body. Not enough breath from it to release the spores. The body will rise in a few hours and resume its life.

To my right through the driver’s side window a dog in shitting position on a dry nature strip, staring at me, daring me to laugh. A pit bull. Ferocious fighting dog caught in that ridiculous cross-legged, hunched shape, the one moment of its vulnerability.

Don’t worry, mate, didn’t see a thing. And by the way, have you seen my husband?

A car behind me flashes its lights, then the driver leans on the horn. I pull over. Angry red mouth blahhing as the car accelerates past, exhaust smoke, a finger from the window.

The phone map says I’m in Craigieburn, but it doesn’t look that different from Jacana or Dallas or any of the other suburbs I’ve cruised this last two weeks. There are good people here. They try. Their lawns are edged, porcelain cats pose silhouetted in windows, jaunty letterboxes await news from the local rag. Then some junkie comes and smashes up their house or breaks into their car or shits in the driveway. That’s why we moved.

Jewelee said to me last night, What the fuck are you doing, Mum, you think he’s out there waiting for you to drive past? You think he’s at the bus stop expecting a ride? He’s gone. Get over it.

Two more streets. The darkness is gathering around the trees and the traffic lights are starting to glow with the supernatural color they have at dusk. The night people are stirring, starting to twitch, opening their yellow eyes.

Jewelee says I should face the fact that my husband (not her father, and she would never call him her father) has probably gone back to his old ways and he’s shacked up with a skank in leggings and tatt sleeves trying to score. Remember the last time, she says, like it was a month ago instead of four years. Like she hasn’t lived off his money, like he hasn’t churned vats of cheesy dip in a factory all that time to pay for her Catholic school. He was the one who saved us when she got caught train surfing, the stupid girl. You’ve got to get her under control, he told me, or she’ll end up dead. So we changed everything. We rented in a suburb we could barely afford, got her into a good school, made her eat properly. We left our Broadie life behind and faked our new life until we were absorbed into it.

Now she’s too good for both of us. She’ll go places we never could.

There’s a shadow of me out on these streets. The me who thought the world ended at the Western Ring Road. It’s like I left the shadow behind when we moved, and now, driving past the haunted houses and the cracking weedy footpaths, I can feel the edges of it touching my toes, as if it’s going to join up to me again and I’ll be whole but different. All those memories, electric shadow shocks. A man on his knees. The dark burn of Coke washing down a yellow. The night someone strung dead bats along the school fence, their black leather wings shredded into streamers.

Home now, before the shadow swallows me. This used to be the only road to Sydney. Sydney Road, the Hume Highway, trucks swaying past my upturned thumb, hiss of the brakes, climbing into the stinking cab with a bloke who hadn’t washed for days. Just need some company to keep me awake, they’d say. Sometimes it was true. Three times I took the road to Sydney. I should never have gone that third time.

A man with the same gammy walk as Danko emerges from a doorway in the Coburg shopping strip. I’m concentrating on his hitched gait so hard the car drifts to the left. Centimetres from knocking the mirror off a parked car, I swing back into the traffic and crawl behind the man. I know it isn’t Danko — he’d never wear a hoodie — but I have to make sure. Or maybe he would wear a hoodie. Maybe he got a knock on the head and he doesn’t know who he is, what he wears. Maybe he’s hiding from someone.

Maybe he’s hiding from me.

• •

Anything? Shannon texts.

Nup.

She’s at my front door when I arrive, presenting a bottle of wine laid along her forearm like a waiter in a five-star restaurant. It doesn’t quite match her trackie-daks and nonslip PVC work Crocs.

May I tempt you, ma’am?

How fast can you open it, Garçon?

The lounge room is littered with treacherous objects snagging my eye as I fall onto the couch and take the glass from Shannon’s rough hand, calloused and flaky because she won’t wear gloves when we’re cleaning. I’ve seen her scoop up bubbling oven cleaner with her bare hands.

Can I tidy up for you, Lil? she asks. She can see my gaze flickering from Danko’s jumper tossed over the back of the chair to the footy fixture crammed with his tiny notes in blue biro on the cushion beside me to the photo of us in Bali, wrapped in the sarongs that we brought back and never wore again.

It’s Jewelee’s job, I tell her. Don’t encourage her.

We watch the news, then Home and Away, then Shannon yawns and pops her knee joints as she hauls herself out of the chair.

See you tomorrow then, hon. We’re doing Fitzroy, yeah? The terraces?

Yep. Take the bottle?

You finish it. I’ll get breathalysed for sure if I have another glass.

This normal talk, the wine, the tomatoey whiff of last night’s congealed bolognese on the stove, the telly, my back pinging from the horror client’s house this morning — it’s all ghosted with my tiredness and absence as if the exhaustion owns me now. Either I’m not here or the house is draining away.

Jewelee appears at the kitchen doorway, spooning her favourite mango yoghurt from the half-litre tub. I try to summon some motherly indignation.

Have you been home all this time? Why didn’t you say hello to Shannon?

Jewelee shrugs and licks the spoon. She’s fifteen and so perfect she looks like someone airbrushed her.

Next question should be, Have you done your homework? or When are you going to do your chores? or Do you have a clean uniform for tomorrow? But my tongue lies fat and dumb in my mouth.

You should go to bed, Mum.

Mmm.

At this point she would usually melt away to her bedroom where she spends half the night with her phone screen lit up but she stays, stirring the yoghurt, lifting the spoon and watching the creamy orange globs drip back into the tub.

Mick said he thought he saw your husband on Lygon St last week.

My sudden asthmatic breathing and lurching heart say I should get up and go there but I can’t.

Where? Why didn’t you tell me before? Stop calling him my husband. Call him Danko, please Jewels. Please.

When she shrugs again, I can imagine myself slapping her, bending her over the kitchen table and whacking her bottom with a wooden spoon, taking her shoulders and shaking until she vomits. Instead, as usual, my eyes start to sting and I have to clench my teeth and gulp hard to hold back the weepies, as Jewelee calls them.

Don’t, Mum, she says. I’m sorry. He only told me today. And he wasn’t sure.

She lands beside me on the couch and offers me a spoonful of yoghurt.

You could go to the police again, she suggests.

The young copper nodded sympathetically last week. She stood behind the counter with the bulletproof glass between us and asked a few questions, wrote down Danko’s name. She asked if it had ever happened before, if he’d ever disappeared without notice, and I lied and said no. That time I knew, so I didn’t go to the cops. I found him myself. Anyway, we were not the same people back then. We were lean and sharp and twitchy, all three of us, trying to adjust to our new life. We believed the neighbors checked the contents of our bins, so we drove to the shopping centre to toss our takeaway containers. We saw them paying incredible prices for food at the organic shop. Three suburbs away, our heartland, that would have been unthinkable.

The smiley sweet young copper told me to bring in a photo of Danko and any information they might need like medical problems, names of friends. I won’t go back. They’ll look him up, see he has a record for possession, slip his file to the back of the drawer.

Night, Mum.

Jewelee springs off the couch, phone alight as she goes.

I was fifteen years old when I first went to Lygon St. This city seems small sometimes, but I discovered it wasn’t when we moved, and we never ran into our old friends. We relocated six kilometres away and it felt like we’d crash-landed on Jupiter. And when I think about the Melbourne I’ve never seen, which is most of it, I realise how my own life is spent like a slot car travelling the same track over and over. So easy to get lost if you slip off the track.

That first time in Carlton, my next-door neighbour, Dino, wanted to cruise his remodelled and hotted-up 1977 purple Monaro down the Lygon St strip. Six of us jack-in-the-boxing from the windows and sun roof of the car on a Saturday night, my gut pulsing to the dirty guitar of AC/DC, passengers of other cars checking us out and mooning us from the other side of the strip. We ordered two capricciosa pizzas from Toto’s, shouting from the car window, and picked them up on the next circuit, the boys in the car squabbling about who would pay until the kid standing on the kerb with the two boxes threatened to empty the pizzas into the gutter. Horns playing “La Cucaracha,” arty types sneering from the footpath, the smell of garlic in the air, and beer, which I’d spilled all over my front. Dino shrieked like a baby and threatened to leave me on the street till the others checked that not a drop had touched his precious upholstery. We woke the dead on our way out of Carlton, beefy engine bucking and us screaming in unison along with the stereo, With a bullet in his BACK!

We only went back a couple of times. Danko’s never mentioned the place. I can’t imagine any reason for him to go there now.

At two in the morning I wake with my mouth crusty and my trapped arm a firework of pins and needles. The television tells me I’d look better in a pair of Slim Panties.

I stagger to bed to be up at seven for work. And start again.

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