Short Straw

(Copyright 2001)

It was dark by the time I got back from the morgue with Kelly's gear. There wasn't much, just what was left of his clothes, his wallet and the keys to his flat. The wallet was empty except for his Medicare card and an old train ticket, so I threw it in the bin outside his place, along with the clothes. I dropped the keys off at our landlady's place and told her the news. Old Mrs Ferguson has seen a lot in her time, I guess. She just shrugged and took the keys from me.

I headed off down to The Esplanade where I knew the blokes would be by now. I only had twenty bucks left until next payday so I hadn't really planned to go out drinking. But I hadn't planned on Kelly, either.

The pub was pretty packed for a Sunday evening. Jason, Ex and Gunna were sitting at a table in the corner. There were half a dozen empty glasses in front of them. I bought a beer, went over and sat down.

"You look like shit," Jason said.

"That's good," I said. "I wouldn't want to feel this bad unless I looked like shit too." I took a long pull of my beer.

"What's up, dude?" said Ex. Ex's parents were Chinese and had given him a traditional name that we couldn't pronounce, but we knew it started with an X. He was born here and can't speak Chinese, so he can't pronounce it properly either. Go figure.

"Seen Kelly lately?" I asked, conversationally.

"I was gunna go and see him this arvo," Gunna said. "But I never got around to it."

I smiled, despite how I was feeling. The other blokes laughed. Gunna was always going to do something or the other. But he never did, which is why we called him Gunna.

"Well, that's too bad," I told him. "'Cos Kelly's dead now."

"Our Kelly?" Gunna asked, putting down his drink.

"Yeah. Walked in front of a bus or something, so they said. Stoned, maybe. Or pissed. Or maybe just careless."

"How do you know about it?" Jason asked.

"The cops came round to the flats looking for someone to ID him. I told 'em I knew him well enough and they hauled me down to the morgue."

"Aren't they supposed to track down his next of kin or something?" Ex asked.

"Dunno. Maybe they couldn't find any. They didn't really seem to give a shit," I said, downing the rest of my beer. "They gave me his stuff and made me sign some papers."

"I've never been to a morgue," said Gunna. "What'd it look like?"

"Like a morgue, dickhead," I said. I really felt bad. Kelly had been OK, a decent bloke who just never got a break. The boss always picked him for the crap jobs, but Kelly never complained. He was always telling us that when he won the Pools, he'd buy us each a house overlooking the beach. But we all knew Kelly was never going to win the Pools. He just never had any luck.

"So who's gunna tell Kelly's girl?" I asked.

"Not me," said Gunna straight away.

"Oh man, I forgot about her," said Ex.

"Shit!" said Jason. "She's gunna freak."

"Do we gotta tell her?" asked Gunna. "Won't the cops do that?"

"Why would the cops do that?" I said to him. "It's not like she's his wife or anything." Gunna's OK, but he's not real quick sometimes.

"We're probably the only ones who know about her," said Jason.

"But maybe Gunna's got a point," said Ex. "It's like you said, she's not his wife or anything. I only saw her with him once or twice. Maybe she doesn't give a shit either."

Jason and I looked at each other. Kelly had talked to us a lot about his girl and we'd often seen her when she came to visit him in his flat. She'd even had her kid with her once and they looked like a nice little family together.

"She's gotta be told," I said. "And it's down to one of us. I've done the morgue thing, so I reckon it should be one of you."

"Not me," said Ex. "I remember Kelly saying once that she hated Asians and Pommies. She'll kill me."

"Chickenshit bastard," I told him.

"Hey man," said Ex, smiling and shrugging. "Can I help it if I'm surrounded by racist round-eyes?"

"Well, count me out, too," said Gunna. "I wouldn't know what to say."

"You say that Kelly's dead, that's all," I told him. It sounded simple when you explained it like that.

We could almost see the gears turning in Gunna's head.

"No. No way," he finally said.

I sighed. When Gunna actually took the effort to think about something before speaking, it meant he'd made up his mind. He can be a stubborn bastard sometimes.

Jason looked at me and shrugged.

"Hey, mate," he said. "I would if I could, but Jonesy's brother got me a week's work up north starting tomorrow. I've got to leave at dawn and won't be back until next Sunday. If I turn up late, they'll tell me to piss off. Sorry mate."

He looked real sorry, too.

"But I did the morgue," I repeated.

"I would have done that if I'd been asked," said Gunna. "Just 'cos nobody asked me, it still counts, I reckon."

"You pack of stinking bastards," I said.

"Cheer up, mate," said Jason, slapping me on the back. "Seeing as you drew the short straw, we'll buy the drinks tonight."

The next morning, I woke up wishing I'd had a few more beers on Jason's shout the night before. Maybe if I had, I wouldn't have woken up. Or at least I wouldn't have remembered anything. As it was, I'd had enough to need a good spew, but not enough to have forgotten about Kelly's girl. I had a quick shower, found some clothes that didn't stink too much, sank half a box of Panadol and then headed round to Ex's place to get the car.

Kelly's girl lived out near Waterton so last night Ex told me I should take his sister's car and save the train fare. He also said he'd square it with the boss at work about me taking the morning off. He's OK, that Ex. His sister, Min, and I had a bit of a fling a while back until Ex's dad cracked a mental and threatened to cut off my balls if I didn't leave his daughter alone. I've known Ex's family since I was a kid and his dad helped me out a few times when I got into a bit of trouble, so I didn't take offence. Ex's folks don't mind him hanging out with round-eyes, but there's no way they want Min to hook up with one. I can see their point of view, I guess.

Min herself answered the door when I rang the bell. She gave me a hello-kiss that just about cleared my headache. Mr Ex might like to believe his little Min is pure as snow, but I've got some Polaroids in my photo album that tell a different story.

"Hi," I said.

"'Lo," Min replied. "You come for the car? Ex told me you need to go out to Waterton for something." She actually said Ex's real name, and made it sound easy, but then again she's always been good at getting her tongue around things.

"Yeah, hope you don't mind? I won't be able to pay you for the petrol. I'm a bit short this week."

"That's cool. What are friend's for? I'm sure I can think of a way you can make it up."

"Not while you dad's still got that butcher's knife of his," I said, with a smile.

Min said nothing, but gave me a smile back. One of those inscrutable ones, I think they call it. She handed me the keys to her car and I walked out to the street to where the battered Datsun was parked under a big old fig tree. It took a while for me to get it started, but it eventually fired up with a belch of grey smoke from the exhaust. There was almost a full tank of gas and I felt a bit better about that. At least I wouldn't be bringing it back empty.

I didn't know the exact house where Kelly's whore lived but I knew Waterton well and found the street fairly easily. I drove up and down a few times before I stopped outside a place that seemed to fit the general description Kelly had been blabbing about one night after we'd emptied a bottle of Smirnoff. I remember him talking about the swans made out of old car tyres beside the letterbox. The house wasn't much to look at; a typical hundred-a-week shitbox rental with peeling paint, cracked roof tiles and a weed infested lawn. It didn't look like a brothel, but what the hell do I know?

I locked the Datsun, hoping the local Waterton lads would leave it alone, and walked up the cracked concrete pathway to the front door. I pressed the bell and waited. I was just about to press it again when the door opened with a creak. The woman standing there wasn't Kelly's girl; she was about ten years older and had short bleach-blond hair.

"Sorry, love," she said looking me up and down. "It's a bit early. We don't run a 24 hour service, y'know. You'll have to come back later." She started to close the door again. I put my hand out to hold it open.

"No, I'm just looking for someone. I've got a message for her."

"Who ya looking for?" she asked suspiciously.

"Kelly's... I mean Michele."

"There's no Michele working here," she said, shaking her head and beginning to close the door again.

"That's her real name, not her working one," I said. "I can't remember her last name."

The old girl wasn't convinced. "What's she look like?" she asked.

"About 25, long black hair, nice bod. She's got a kid."

"What do you want her for?"

"Like I said, I got something to tell her. It's personal. I'm a mate of a friend of hers."

She laughed. "Honey, nothing's personal around here. Anyway, Michele's still asleep. She was on the late shift last night. Her last punter left at one this morning. Is this important enough for me to wake her?"

"Listen, lady, don't make this harder than it already is." My head was starting to pound again. "I'd be just as happy to turn round and piss off, but I really think she needs to hear this."

"Wait here, then, and I'll go get her."

"Jesus!" I said. "I'm not gunna tell her in the doorway. Let me in."

"OK, have it your way. Just don't try anything funny. The lads in the house next door look out for us and will be over here to kick your arse if you try any bullshit." She opened the door wide and I walked into the hallway. "Go into the lounge room," she said, pointing the way. "I'll get Michele."

I went into the lounge room and sat down on a old stained sofa. I looked around the place. It sure was a dump. Obviously, their clients weren't in the high end of the market. Hell of a place to raise a kid.

About five minutes later, Kelly's girl walked in, wearing a thin dressing gown and running her fingers through her tangled hair. She looked a bit out of it, maybe she was still half asleep or maybe she was still up on something. She dropped down onto the couch opposite me, letting her dressing gown fall open. She had a good bod, no doubt about that. There was a pack of fags on the coffee table and she reached across to get one. She lit up and blew a cloud of smoke at me.

"Sal said you wanted to see me."

"I'm a mate of Steve Kelly's," I said. "I live in the flat next to his."

"Yeah, I recognise you, now. What's your problem? I was asleep, y'know?"

"Yeah, sorry 'bout that." Like I told Gunna, it was simple. All I had to do was tell her Kelly's dead.

"So, what's up? Not after a freebie, are you?" Kelly's girl smiled, but it was a strange smile as if her mouth was used to moving all by itself. None of the rest of her face changed and her half closed eyes were still sorta blank.

"Nah," I said, shaking my head. "It's about Steve."

"What about him? What's the silly prick gone and done now?"

Like I told Gunna, just tell her. Oh shit, why did Kelly have to get himself killed? And why did he have to get hooked up with a crazy whore? Suddenly, I really didn't want to be in a stinking little room in a Waterton brothel. I wanted to be down at the pub with my mates, drinking ourselves senseless until we had to drag ourselves back to our jobs the next day.

"Well?" Kelly's girl said. "What's up with Steve?"

"He's dead," I said, at last. See, Gunna, that's all there is to it.

Something flickered in her eyes as if she hadn't understood what I'd just said. For a second, I thought she hadn't heard me properly.

"Liar," she finally said. "You're lying!" There was something in her eyes now. When I was a kid, I saw the neigbour's cat get hit by a passing car. As it lay on the footpath dying, the cat's eyes had the same look of pain and confusion as Kelly's girl.

"Why the hell would I lie about something like that? I'm sorry, but it's true. The cops made me ID him."

I was expecting her to freak, but I wasn't really expecting her to come at me like she did. Maybe it was something to do with what she was up on, but she just lost it. She jumped on me, kicking and biting and scratching, screaming at the top of her lungs all the time. I felt her nails raking down my face, and I sorta pushed her away automatically. I guess I pushed pretty hard 'cos she went backwards over the coffee table, just as the older woman came back into the room.

For a moment, I thought the older one was going to take a swing at me, but when she saw Kelly's girl crawling around on the floor, bawling and yelling like a two-year-old, and the expression on my face, she seemed to put it all together pretty quick. Maybe she knew Kelly's girl better than I did.

"Didn't take your news too well, huh kid?"

"She's friggin' crazy!" I said. "I had nothing to do with her boyfriend getting killed. I just thought she should know about him, that's all. Stupid bitch!"

"Oh, well," she shrugged. "Life sucks, honey. You'd better split now, before the lads next door hear the noise. They might beat the crap out of you just for practice."

I got out of there pretty quick. Min's Datsun was still parked outside and it still had all four wheels, so I jumped in and turned they key. Thank Christ it started first time. I looked at my face in the rear-vision mirror as I drove away. The scratches weren't too deep, Kelly's girl mustn't have had very long nails. The bleeding had stopped already. I'd looked worse after a Saturday night at the pub.

Like I said, Kelly was an OK bloke. Maybe his whore really loved him. Or maybe she just saw him as her ticket out of the toilet of her life. What he was offering must have looked pretty good, compared to what she had. Kelly would have made an OK dad too, I reckon. Maybe his girl was looking out for the kid after all. Yeah, Kelly must have seemed like a dream come true. And then he checks out of it all. I guess I could understand why she was so pissed off.

Shit, my life isn't that great, but I've got an honest job, a half-decent place to live and good friends. I even reckon there's a chance I'll get Min's dad to give me another go with her someday - he'd rather have a round-eye for a son-in-law than an unmarried daughter. But maybe I could get careless tomorrow and step out in front of a bus, just like Kelly. You never know.

The drive back home seemed to take forever. Out on Station Avenue, I saw one of those flower stalls set up by the side of the road. I don't know why, but I pulled over. I sat for a while in the car until there was no-one around and walked over quickly to check it out. The cheapest they had was five bucks, which was half of what I had left in my wallet, but what the hell. It took ages for the girl to wrap the bunch up in shiny paper, complete with a silly bloody ribbon around it. I kept looking around nervously. It would be just my luck to be spotted by one of my mates driving past.

When I got back to Ex's place, I parked the Datsun under the fig tree again. I'd only been gone a few hours, but it seemed like the whole world was different somehow. I looked at the flowers in my hand. In a couple of days, they would probably be brown and withered, but right now they were full of colour and perfume.

I must be crazy, I thought, as I walked up the path to Ex's house. I don't even know if Min likes flowers.