Chapter 3 (b)
I saw myself in the mirror when we had finished. I was a big red drunken blur. My hair shone like a beacon fire. I did not know myself. Lucy giggled at my expression.
I nodded blearily. “Cool. Red.”
“Very red,” she said with satisfaction. “How does it feel?”
I hesitated. How did it feel? “Liberating,” I said, and surprised myself. “Yes. Liberating.” I spoke slowly and carefully: “It is a visible... expression... of my free will and... hidden feelings of... rebellion.” I frowned. “Or something like that.”
Lucy laughed. “Get used to it, woman. Express yourself!”
“I don’t think I’ve got that much to express,” I said apologetically. “I’m really no different from anybody else.”
She poured us each another shot. “Everybody is different. Everybody is screwed up in different ways.”
I drank. “I’m just bored. I go to work, I come home, I sleep. I wake up and do it all again.”
“So don’t!” She drank her own shot, and immediately poured more. “Just start talking. You might be surprised what comes out.”
I rambled. I talked about my childhood and my brothers. I talked about my father, his illness, and how I felt about that. I told her about my job, my self-esteem problems, how I hated every guy in town, how I wanted to do something meaningful with my life but never seemed to have the chance. I told her about high school, being picked on, and pretending to be sick to get away from everybody.
All the while, she sat beside me and nodded. She listened. She sympathised, and more importantly, empathised. She poured us both drinks. After a while she moved closer and held my hand as I talked. Tears ran unchecked down my cheeks, until she brushed them away. I wondered if that was what it was like to have a friend.
Then I stopped talking and she kissed me. Just like that. I had closed my eyes while I talked, and I never saw it coming. Her lips touched mine softly, just for a moment. Then she put her arms around me and I cried until her shirt was soaked.
The walk home left me with heatstroke. I spent three days in bed in the dark, trying to forget. I did not want to think about Lucy. I did not want to know why she did what she did to me. But I couldn’t help wondering. It seemed illogical, purposeless. I wondered if anything really did have a purpose. Was anything more logical than taking somebody to a paddock, showing them a fire, then leaving them there alone? I tried to blame her and hate her for my incapacitation. But she continued to fascinate rather than repulse my imagination.
On the third day of my dark confinement my mother phoned me. I felt a brief pang of remorse that I had not called her in so long. Then I remembered why. She spoke to me of my father’s illness. It was a topic I tried to avoid. I told none of my friends. I wanted to forget he existed. Then it wouldn’t hurt when he didn’t. My mother said he was getting worse. That there wasn’t long left. She asked me to visit, and I said I might. The truth was, I didn’t know if I could take it. How do you face a dying man? My mother sighed and hung up at last, disappointed in me as usual.
Afterwards, I could not rest easy. Thoughts of my father got muddled up with thoughts of Lucy, and thoughts of myself. I wondered if I was dying too, and if Lucy would care. I wondered why I cared if she cared. I tossed and turned and sweated in my bed.
At last I decided I’d had enough. I was recovered enough to get up. I thought watching television would kill my mind for a while, make me stop thinking. Before long, my mind was filled with commercials and the ludicrous dramas of daytime television.
But then there was a knock on my door. I had seen nobody in three days, I was unwashed and in my pyjamas. Whoever it was would have to be brave.
There was nobody outside the door. But there was a small envelope with my name on it. I picked it up and took it back to the couch, where the TV was still telling me that I wasn’t cool unless I consumed a certain soft drink. I flicked it off and opened the envelope.
“G’day Emma,” the letter started, in near-illegible handwriting. “I guess I’ve pissed you off, haven’t seen you round town for a few days. Avoiding me? No worries. Just so you know, I’m not leaving town. You won’t miss me.”
That was it. It wasn’t signed. It didn’t need to be. Was it a threat or a promise? I couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t avoid Lucy forever.
I was proved right the very next day. I had left my house almost furtively, glancing around, hoping not to see her. Or hoping to see her. I still don’t know. She bothered me, she fascinated me, she upset my comfortable little life. I didn’t see her. I continued to the shops. I had no food left.
She was in the queue at the check-out. I saw her first, and tried to change queues. But she grinned at me and I couldn’t move. I told myself it was because it would seem rude. She shouted at me across the four people between us in the line. “Feeling better?” She looked cheeky. She looked like she knew something I didn’t. That grin.
“Yeah. Thanks,” I muttered.
She held up an item from her shopping trolley. A small box. Hair dye. “I’m going red,” she explained. “Wanna join me?” The idea seemed strangely alluring. I had been naturally blonde my whole life. But what would it mean? I imagined sitting with Lucy in a bathroom somewhere, dying our hair. Certainly there would be no girly chit-chat. It would interest neither of us. I confess I was curious.
“Ok,” I found myself saying.
“Great, I’ll come round later tonight,” she said. Then suddenly she was through the check-outs and gone. The people in the queue stared at me. They knew me. I would be a hot topic of gossip for a week.
Lucy turned up at nine. I had been sitting on the edge of my chair, waiting. “Tonight” she had said. That could be any time. I was nervous. She stood at the door with a bottle of vodka and two shot glasses. Her feet were bare and her eyes sparkled. I thought she’d already been drinking. For some reason that bothered me: that she would start without me. I stared at her without speaking.
“Going to let me in?” She jiggled the vodka like bait in front of me.
“Oh.” I moved out of the doorway. “Sure. Come in.”
She sat on my couch, uninvited. She plonked the shot glasses on my coffee table and proceeded to fill them. “Drink up, woman.” She gulped hers back, and looked at me pointedly when I hesitated. “We can’t dye our hair sober,” she said as though such an idea were blasphemous to her.
I hadn’t had vodka in years, and it burned my throat as a swallowed the shot. I blinked hard and Lucy laughed. “You’ll get used to it,” she said. She poured us each another one.
We were halfway through the bottle before she mentioned the hair dye. We brought it into the bathroom. I wanted to read the instructions, but she said she’d done it a million times before.
She did her own hair first, as I watched through blurry eyes to see how it was done. She didn’t seem drunk at all, but I could feel a fuzziness in my head. I reached for the bottle to do my own hair, and stumbled. She laughed. “I’ll do it for you,” she said, and winked.
The first touch of her fingers on my head gave me a start. Her touch was gentle, but firm, as she applied the dye. I knew I was drunk. I closed my eyes and a wave of dizziness overtook me.
“My father is dying,” I said. I shocked myself. I had never said that to anybody. I felt Lucy freeze for a moment, then her fingers started moving again as she recovered herself.
“What from?” she asked. I sensed she had finally stopped grinning. She even seemed genuinely concerned.
“Cancer. Lung cancer.”
“Is he a smoker?”
“Are you close to him?”
I didn’t want to answer. “Not really,” I said. “Not since he was diagnosed.” That’s what I tried to say. Emotion and alcohol interfered. I don’t think she heard me at all, but she nodded. She understood. We finished doing our hair in silence.
It was a bad summer. The annual bushfires, almost a national institution, started early and with a rare intensity. The rain wouldn’t come. There wasn’t any water, and politicians were talking about recycling sewerage. It was a very bad summer.
It was the summer of Lucy. A bushfire in herself, intense and all-consuming. She came up from the city with her old Holden and her crew cut. People said she’d been in jail. People said she was criminally insane. People said she liked girls.
I met her by accident. I sometimes wish I hadn’t. I sometimes wonder how different I would be if she hadn’t been sitting there. Perhaps if she’d sat on the steps of a different building, smoking her cigarettes and taking swigs from a bottle of ginger beer, she would have chosen somebody else. Perhaps she’d already chosen me and knew where to find me.
Her midriff was bare between torn denim shorts and a black tank top. She was as skinny as a rake, and her voice was husky when she spoke.
“Got a light?” she asked, although the cigarette between her lips was glowing already. I shook my head silently. I did not stop, or turn to look at her. Climbing the stairs up to my apartment was hard enough in the heat. I did not want to expend more energy than necessary. I did not want to associate myself with her, if anybody was watching.
She got up and followed me through the door. The lights in the corridor were out again, and the darkness gave the illusion of coolness. There was a no-smoking sign on the wall. She blew smoke at it, and took another deep drag.
“I’m Lucy,” as if anybody in town didn’t know. “You’re Emma.” I didn’t ask how she knew my name. I just wanted her to leave. I said nothing. She stared at me, and I felt her gaze drill into the back of my head. I turned to meet her eye. I wanted to tell her firmly to go away.
“Want to get a life?” she asked me suddenly. “You’re bored, right?”
“Yeah.” The first word I ever said to her. Why did I say that? I wished immediately I could take it back, tell her to leave me alone. Instead I’d opened the door – just a chink, but enough to let her get a foot in.
“Come on then.” She grabbed my hand, and I did not think to resist. Her Holden was parked on the street, and she pushed me into the passenger seat. “We’re going for a ride,” she said with a grin.
We drove out of town. I sat, silent, beside her. I felt numbed by the heat, by the suddenness of her acquaintance, by the motion of the car. She drove faster and faster as we got further from the town. She would glance at me occasionally, with a manic grin, as if to see how much I could take. Would I be the square and tell her to slow down? I just sat.
It seemed just moments until we reached an iron gate by the roadside. Dry yellow grass stretched in all directions, broken by stark dead trees and wire fences. She stopped the car in front of the gate and got out. Then she screamed. It near frightened the life out of me, that scream. I jumped out of the car, thinking perhaps she’d been bitten by a snake. It was an automatic reaction, and it wasn’t until I was close to her that I saw her face. The scream was turning into a laugh. Laugh? Cackle! It was as though the force of all her emotions was being expelled through that mad cry. As though she had been dammed up and was now released. I stood and stared at her.
It was several minutes until she was again silent. She was out of breath, and sweat shone on her forehead. She pointed at a hill in the middle distance, and my eyes followed the direction of her finger. The fires. I hadn’t known they were so close. Seeing the flames, I could almost hear the crackle, feel the scorching heat. Was this what she had wanted me to see?
I never found out. She got back in her car and drove back towards town. She left me standing in a paddock, staring at a grass fire in the heat of that very bad summer.