One crawled through the window, and another left by taxi. Not immediately, but within half an hour. It took 25 minutes for the cab to arrive, and the older sister, Jessy, stood out in the street waiting, swigging from a bottle of vodka. It was morning. Maybe 9 am. The younger sister, Monica, had called the cab for her. It was the least she could do.
He wasn’t real, and yet all too real in this. A thorn. An aberration. Something of a freak. Looking back over the years, the decades, the sisters could catch up, with a little tension, and agree he was bad, a freak. He wrecked our lives, they affirmed. Wrecked them before they’d really had a chance to get started.
It was a freaky situation, a freaky demographic. The port city ran on shabby gentility, working-class anger and out-of-it-ness. The sisters were two years apart in age, and the older had gravitated towards the younger because of a shared interest in the blues. There were some great blues bars in town. Both generally hung round with older men, but ‘the freak’ was roughly their own age. He was a junkie. That’s all you need to say, they agreed.
The house was the older sister Jessy’s place. She was renting it from her boss, a pub owner. She worked the bar for him on weekends, which meant she heard her favourite blues bands during the week, or at the Sunday afternoon session at the Railway Hotel before starting work. She didn’t like the music her boss lined up: psychedelic pop, alternative ‘white’ music (as she called it), and punk.
The junkie—the freak—turned up for the punk, nodding off to the frenzy and the anger, occasionally falling off his chair. When he danced, he hung his head and stared at the ground as others slammed around him. Jessy had only met him once or twice … well, she’d served him cider dozens of times … but had only talked with him once or twice. That was when he was hanging out for smack, and incredibly voluble and verbal and agitated. Waiting for the shit to turn up. Filling in the time talking with the barmaid before the bands got going, before he got ungoing.
The sisters went to hear the blues and jazz together. Old timers, the real musicians, came out and drew the young rockers and even punks to their long afternoon jam sessions. A lot of hard drinking and hard drugs. The bar where Jessy worked was a place to pick up trips, mushrooms when the southern forest season was on, and disturbed sex. The junkie went there because he liked the music—and he could score there.
One Sunday the junkie had turned up at the Railway’s lunch session and, detecting Jessy, latched on to her. ‘Who’s this?’ he asked, pointing at Monica who was taking a shot of tequila. ‘My sister,’ said Jessy. ‘Fuckin’ amazing,’ said the junkie. The sisters looked at each other, bewildered. They gave their private ‘he’s a weirdo, a freak’ sign, and laughed in a way that couldn’t be pinpointed as accusatory or belittling by any outsider. Or so they had always believed. But the junkie said, ‘What the fuck … I’m sitting right here, do you mind? As I was saying, fucking amazing.’ Monica patted her sister on the shoulder out of pity and wandered off elsewhere, her head moving at odds then in time then at odds with the twelve-bar blues filling the gaps.
‘What’s your problem?’ asked Jessy. ‘No problem,’ he said. ‘No problem. Actually, I do have a problem. I’ve got nowhere to crash tonight—can I use your floor?’ Jessy started to say no, but then said yes, discovering a stutter she never knew she had. Later, when the junkie had melted into the floor, she argued with Monica. ‘I’ve no idea why I said yes. No, I don’t like him and I’m not sleeping with him. I’ve not idea why I said yes. Yes, he’s a bit of a dickhead and junkies are all fuck-ups. Maybe it’s because what you see is what you get. Maybe that’s why.’
As children, neither of them had ever wanted to play with dolls. So relatives would give them toy cars and blue clothing. They didn’t like cars or blue clothing. They spoke to each other in a scatological private language, and watched each other pee behind the shed. From the time she first went to school and the teacher pointed at the example of her well-behaved sister Jessy, Monica always took the lead. If she was going to get into trouble so, somehow, would Jessy. There would be no shining lights, no favourite pupil, no favourite daughter, no better sister. Climbing a tree and willing her sister up after her, Monica would yell out, ‘All for one and one for all!’ She tried to get Jessy to poke a wild cat with a stick, but Jessy wouldn’t. She did manage to get Jessie to shit on top of a cow-pat in the paddock out the front of the house while their mother was making lunch. Shit on a shit, she said. But once she moved down to the city and a new shiny private school, Monica shed her older sister, and became the head girl of her year, barely speaking to her older, less accomplished sister. Jessy began to hang out with seedy blokes around the shopping centre near the school. She went to pubs and clubs on forged ID. Monica liked music, too. She thought of dobbing Jessy in, but decided not to. Jessy expected to be outed, but never was.
He literally nodded off; fell into a doze on the lounge-room floor. They’d been smoking a sweet, potent bit of mull he’d brought along by way of thankyou, which Jessy appreciated, feeling both a one-up on her mull-hungry sister and a little sad that she wasn’t there to partake in the free session. Monica never had any money. She wandered from place to place, boyfriend to boyfriend, half-hippy half-student. Jessy wasn’t sure what Monica was studying—maybe French. Monica had topped French at school. Jessy wished Monica would spend more time staying with her—but Monica said she needed to keep moving around. Yet never far—always within a few miles of Jessy’s place. Dropping in at awkward moments, searching Jessy’s stash spots for mull. Eating the crumbs of food from her cupboards, borrowing clothes. The sisters were the same shape.
Jessy invited the junkie into her bed. It was a cold night. She had been lying awake, saying to herself, why not? What’s the worst that can happen? Might be interesting. It wasn’t interesting, really, but then again, it wasn’t uninteresting. She was surprised to see it was all in working order, but he didn’t seem to be there, not really. Why should that bother her? He’d be gone early in the morning, out hunting for a fix. She’d told him he couldn’t shoot up in her house and he’d spat at her. But the stream of abuse was toothless, really, and water off a duck’s back. A junkie who finds a safe-house with food, warmth, sex and maybe finance is the proverbial barnacle never to be scraped free. Jessy was worldly enough to know this. She was a Freo barmaid, for god’s sake.
‘You’re fucking hopeless, Jessy. I mean, how did you let that creep get a toehold? You’ll never get rid of him now. Someone running around after him … fuck.’
‘You’re just pissed off, Mon, because it cramps your style—he’s in the way when you just drop in, whenever.’ Jessy was feeling pissed at Monica. It was great having her little sister drop around—good they were on speaking terms again. All that weird stuff between them in the past; but she had a boyfriend to consider now. They’d been together for weeks. And though the junkie was bleeding her dry, she liked him. She really did. He could be deadly funny and had such a negative take on the universe that it was a relief after the new-age bullshit that was consuming Freo. He was high-maintenance, but he was hardcore. And what the fuck was Mon on about? There was always A-grade mull in the house these days and the junkie had no problems with the sisters smoking it. He’d just say, ‘Mull up!’ He wasn’t like other junkies either of them had known, who wouldn’t share a drag on a cigarette. He was kind of a politicised ethical junkie, Jessy told her scoffing sister. Then Mon said, ‘Did you hear old Wilhelm kicked the bucket? Dirty old bastard. I went to a beach party where we celebrated his fucking demise. C’est la vie!’ Jessy didn’t like this side of her sister—the side that relished other people’s pain and misfortune. Jessy sometimes wondered if her sister was mentally ill—if she suffered from some kind of personality disorder.
When the junkie vanished for a few days, Jessy said to herself, That’s the way of it. Monica laughed long and loud. Walking to the bar in the late afternoon, Jessy wondered if he’d OD’d somewhere, or maybe been shot dead. There had been threats. He seemed to live with threats. She worried about him being cold and hungry—it was a bright, sunny winter day, but it was bitterly cold and a sharp wind was coming up all the way from Antarctica. She would light a wood-fire tonight, late, when she came off her shift. Normally she wouldn’t bother, just turn on the bar heater, but she would light the fire and drink a few wines and have a few bongs and … wait.
As she crossed the bridge, the stench of a live-sheep carrier drew her eye across to the port. The junkie had told her about the agony of the sheep suffering heat stress in the hot zones, that they would die in droves and be tossed over the sides. He would say to her, ‘Fucking Horse Latitudes of the Now … the Sheep Latitudes … one of the many antipodean gifts to humanity’s legacy of cruelty.’ The Coffin Ships, he called them, and she knew there was even more irony she was missing. He always let her know she was missing things. The gulls squawked at her and played opposites with the wind. She couldn’t work them out, but they made her feel better. She wondered which ships carried smack into the country. She wondered what he knew and how much such knowledge would cost him. Somebody yelled at her from a car so she put her eyes down and held her short skirt tight to her leggings.
The first word Mon had ever said was sister. It came out perfectly formed, and Jessica felt a glow; it had hung over her like an overheated aura all her life. Everybody heard the baby girl say it, even nona and pop and auntie Maria. Mum laughed and dad grunted, but all heard baby say sister and look straight at Jessie as she said it. Nona had said, ‘Well, that’s a weight to carry, young lady—you must always look after your sister. She looks up to you.’ And Jessy, looking down through the playpen bars, took this literally.
When the junkie turned up again, he was ‘clean’. He stayed clean for two months and Jessy clung to him with a ferocity she didn’t know she had. ‘He is so fucking together,’ she told Monica, who said, ‘Just wait, sis, just wait and see how far the mighty can fall. I mean, who can trust a guy who doesn’t mind you smoking dope and drinking and getting off your face in front of him and doesn’t touch anything—nothing at all. It’s just not natural. It’s all too fucking à la mode for my liking. Don’t trust one bit of it.’
But as Monica picked at her pimples— a habit since puberty— Jessy bit her nails and hated her sister. Hated her to her very core. And to make things worse, to embed this hatred deep, Monica would start trying to conspire with her against others whom Monica considered their mutual enemies … all entre nous, as Mon gushed with grotesque familiarity. Aligning through hatred. Monica’s latest target of hate was Jessy’s boss, who had made a pass at Monica and was to be mocked for his yellow teeth and too-tight denim jeans, which had a worn patch like Robert Plant’s over-rubbed lemon.
The junkie fell, of course. And he became hell to live with and Monica lambasted Jessy and Jessy even lost her job for a while, getting sucked into the vortex of shit. She didn’t use; she liked the fact he never tried to get her to use. The junkie went on about what a crap life it was—that he admired her for keeping away from the shit, the hammer. But she smoked and drank more, and took pills, and started to get sores on her face and arms and legs, and the doctor told her she was malnourished. Hair was falling out by the handful.
Yet things eventually steadied a little, and he got straight again, then relapsed and got straight, and they battled on. Monica would come around and look daggers at the junkie and whisper to her sister who would stare, mute, conflicted—the little birdie speaking devil thoughts in her ear. One time Monica suggested they spike his smack with Ajax.
The junkie seemed to accept that Monica wouldn’t speak to him—he was always courteous, if ironic, when he spoke to her, and was generous with his pot, which Monica scoffed into her lungs without remorse. Jessy hated the dynamic in the house when all three of them were there. It never struck her that no-one else ever visited and that she invited no-one over. The outside world for her was the bar and Sunday sessions at the Railway, where she went with the junkie on her arm, weirdly proud to be seen with him. His freakiness was chic. He was thin and wiry with a crazy beard and wild hair and she thought he was beautiful, whatever the rest of the world thought. And he’d stroke the back of her neck and say ironic but never bitter things. He detested the world but had no hate in him. She loved that.
Was it a Robert Johnson recording they’d been listening to when Monica told Jessica about her abortion? Jessy knew better than to ask the details. That was in Mon’s final year at high school. Were they on talking terms? How did they come to be listening together? Mum had ordered Jessy to drive Monica to her piano lesson. A Saturday morning. Listening to a cassette in the car, Cross Road Blues.
Jessy went naked to the kitchen from their bed and while making coffee heard the bedroom door slam. She hesitated, then kept at her task. She decided to cook them breakfast—mushrooms and tomatoes from the market, fried and on toast. They liked mooching through the Friday markets together. He’d got his dole on Thursday and as he wasn’t using smack, after buying an ounce of pot and selling a few sticks to get some of the dough back, they had cash—her wage and his dole and the dope money. It was going to be a good weekend. She took the breakfast on a tray to the room and, balancing the tray on her knee, opened the door against a breeze that she felt and saw in the shape of the curtain blowing into the room. An open window. The junkie never opened a window, even when a room was smoke-heavy. And in the same instant, taking Monica in—in her bed—riding the junkie, who looked as if he had ascended, all beatific and innocent in his betrayal. Fucking in her bed, fucking her sister. Her boyfriend fucking her sister. She dropped the tray and ran, naked.
That the situation persisted, that it developed a pattern, was what they found hardest to deal with, talking around it in later life. The always going away, the never returning. The returning. The habit of it.
One crawled through the window, and another left by taxi. Not immediately, but within half an hour. It took 25 minutes for the cab to arrive and the older sister, Jessy, stood out in the street waiting, swigging from a vodka bottle. It was morning. Maybe 9 am. The younger sister, Monica, had called the cab for her. It was the least she could do.