‘Heated confrontations caused by rash words based upon judgementalism, which is itself precariously balanced on a pedestal of intolerance and ignorance, may make for compelling television drama but does the theatre of fiction truly reflect the dynamic of life?’
Shannon scratched his head.
‘Do you know what I mean?’ pressed Alice as she stared into the side of her friend’s head.
‘You lost me at precariously.’
Alice had known Shannon since they were at a school. He was a true eccentric. Always slightly out of place and out of step but remarkably perceptive. He had struggled at school. Battled to connect with the realities of formal education and the requirements of convivial society. He didn’t like the rules, and consequently wouldn’t play the game. Certainly lacking book smarts, he nonetheless had a rare authenticity, and despite his capacity for seeing through people and their deceptive and manipulative ways, he was never condescending. Never rode the proverbial moral high horse. Alice had never had a better friend. He was rare and special. Gifted in fact. Many people didn’t understand him but that didn’t bother him either. Unperturbed as ever, the epitome of laconic, Shannon stared at the road ahead and drove at exactly five kilometers per hour under the speed limit.
‘The stuff you see on TV,’ said Alice. ‘Friends who say horrible thoughtless things to each other during angry arguments, and then they make up and quickly move on.’
‘We’ve been friends for a long time.’
‘Twenty odd years now,’ he agreed.
‘I don’t recall you ever doing anything to make me angry. I can’t remember you ever yelling at me or swearing or abusing me.’
‘Why would I have done that?’
Shannon turned his head briefly to look at her. ‘Are you all right, Alice?’
‘In fact, I have a lot of friends with whom I’ve been friends for many, many years and the only time I can remember anything bad was when I used to drink. You remember that time, I was going out with Adam’s mate, Andy, and Andy tried to push me to go all the way with him one night after we got smashed together?’
‘You slapped him several times and kicked him in the nuts, but he was still trying it on, like he was possessed by some demon of lust or something…’
Shannon often talked about demons and angels and ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. By his tone, he might as well have been talking about breakfast cereals. He said he had seen stuff and he knew stuff. It was almost impossible not to believe though she reckoned herself a skeptic and had no firsthand experience of such paranormal shenanigans. A demon of lust? More like a horny teenager with no self-control. Alice refocused and joined the retelling of this well-known story.
‘Adam heard the fuss and came in on us. He totally exploded with a rage I had never seen before, and the violence which followed made me sick. I was frantic, hysterical, screaming at him but I couldn’t stop him. I think he only stopped beating on Andy because he was exhausted.’
Although Andy recovered fully from the merciless beating he received from Adam, the two of them never spoke again. Alice smiled macabrely to herself. There was an example, in her life, of TV like drama. She could hear Shannon talking in the background, but she tuned him out, eager to find another such incident in the annals of her existence. She wracked her brain to no avail. Her life was dull. If she wrote her story, it wouldn’t amount to more than a lengthy Facebook status update. Everything was so nice and calm like a relaxing picnic on a perfect day by the sea.
‘You should be glad,’ said Shannon, breaking through the fog of Alice’s private musings, ‘That you have had a peaceful and happy life.’
‘I’m not happy Shannon. And there’s no peace without happiness.’
Alice cut him off. ‘Save it Shannon. I’m not happy. I’m bored. I need some excitement, some drama. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a life like the lead characters on ER? No monotony there. There’s sex and violence, rage, life and death decision making, fatal errors. Not just existence. Not just passing time, like me. I don’t know who I am, or what I’m doing. I’m a piece of driftwood floating down a river. Human detritus.’
‘Steady on,’ said Shannon. ‘What are talking like that for? You’ve got friends and family, and a boyfriend now. You’ve got a good job and you’re good at it. Your health is good. Have a look at yourself. Forty-two years old but you look more like late twenties. You’re beautiful and intelligent.’
‘I was just trying to give you some perspective.’
‘I don’t want perspective. I want some heart pounding thrills and gut-wrenching tension, and I want you to shut up, okay?’
Remorse whipped her like a cat ‘o’ nine tails and she flinched. She had gone too far. She wasn’t mad at Shannon and he didn’t deserve to be spoken to like that. An apology was crystallizing on her tongue when another thought poured cold water on it. Will he forgive me if I don’t apologize? If I start acting like a bitch all the time, alternating nasty sarcasm with icy indifference, how long will he put up with it? Where the hell did that come from? Now I’m going to turn nasty and feral? Why? To see what happens? Her pulse quickened. The very idea of such an experiment excited her. Her keenness suffocated her conscience which was protesting as strongly as it could given the circumstances.
Alice remained stubbornly silent for the rest of the journey even though she could feel Shannon’s confusion and hurt. Well Shannon could take his trite perspective lessons and shove them. Sure, she had a boyfriend now but she was past forty and deadened by the disappointment of not having found the man of her dreams and carried his children in her womb. By now she should have been a soccer mom, a member of the P.T.A., a housewife with philanthropic pursuits to occupy her spare time. Her children should have been her favourite topic of conversation, and she should have mastered the line about how they drove her crazy, but she loved them to death. She should have had an affair, and hypocritically hated her husband for having one as well, but then forgiven him because she was too afraid to live alone again. And what about the children? She should have had to make that impossible decision between her own happiness and the emotional welfare of her children. Our marriage is a smoldering train wreck but let’s stay together for the sake of the children.
Was this guy she was with now, Chris, going to marry her, or was he just passing the time with her until hot little Miss Right came along with her gym toned body, dazzling smile and factory enhanced breasts? Alice looked down at her breasts and felt the urge to grab them and validate their genuineness. She should have had a cancer scare. Breast cancer was so common, why had she missed out? Why had nothing happened to her?
Without a single word of thanks or even a simple good-bye, Alice climbed out of Shannon’s car and after slamming it behind her, walked briskly across her front lawn and up to the front door. She didn’t look back though she felt sure he was sitting there staring after her.
The house was quiet. A silent and damning testimony to her aloneness. Her parents’ only child, she had inherited the house, which they owned when they died. Now there was a love story. Mum and dad. Married for forty-nine years, three hundred and sixty-four days when Al, her father, had died of a sudden and massive stroke. Her mother, Pat, had wilted a little more with every hour that passed following her lover’s death, so it was no surprise when she passed into the afterlife just two months later. If she wrote her parents’ story it would make a tremendous book. A definite bestseller. The phone rang, interrupting her thoughts.
‘Are you all right, Alice? What happened back there?’
The plaintive compassionate tone in Shannon’s voice almost made Alice cry. Her experiment wasn’t going to work. Shannon was too much of treasure to her, and she was way too soft.
‘I’m sorry Shannon. I really am. I don’t know what possessed me to act like that.’
‘Do you want me to come around and perform an exorcism?’
Alice laughed, soothed by her friend’s ready forgiveness. ‘No, I did it myself already. I’m fine. I’m so sorry.’
‘Okay, see you later.’
Everyone she knew was so nice, and there was nothing wrong with nice, was there? Nice is good. Nobody goes searching for terrible people to hang out with. Miserable, cynical, nasty, bitter people didn’t make good friends. Did that mean that all the world’s bastards and cows were friendless, and living in putrid isolation? How did that work?
Alice fell onto her soft lounge and gratefully accepted its embrace. These musings were driving her insane. The very concept of utilizing her valuable time to contemplate these dark questions was disgusting. Twisted. Was she twisted? She wriggled on the smooth cool leather, contorting herself like a worm exposed to sunlight. Is that what lunatics do? Maybe she should get up and start banging her head against the wall in order to pulverize her demented ponderings. When she stopped thrashing, Alice noticed the quiet and she shivered. Dense and ominous. She forced herself to rise from the lounge and go for a drink: a very strong drink.
The gurgle of Coke landing on a liquid bed of overproof rum was suddenly drowned out by the sound of the telephone. Alice finished pouring her drink, then turned to stare at the phone which was flashing as it lay on the kitchen counter.
She filled her mouth with the rum and Coke while waiting for the invisible interlocutor to speak.
‘Patrick from CSB media surveys. Would you have time to participate in a short survey on home media use?’
‘Would you have time to come over and have a drink with me?’
Alice took another draught, closed her eyes. Waiting again.
‘Ah, I’m working,’ said Patrick, clearly thrown off his spiel. ‘Miss Bradshaw, would you be willing to…’
‘Is that a no Patrick? That sounds like a no to me.’
Alice emptied her glass and sighed. ‘Last chance buddy.’
After a pause long enough to allow Alice to refill her glass with a stronger combination of hard and soft drinks, Patrick spoke. His tone altered. Softer. Conspiratorial. ‘I don’t finish until 9. Would ten, ten thirty be too late?’
‘Nope,’ she answered quickly before drinking again from her glass.
‘Can I confirm your address, Miss Bradshaw?’
‘See you tonight, Patrick.’
Laying the receiver slowly down on the counter she stared at it as though expecting it to ring again. Did Patrick know where she lived? He had her phone number but did that automatically mean he had her address?
Shannon sounded surprised to hear from Alice again so soon, and also by her indistinct speech as she breathed each word down the line to him.
‘Are you drunk?’
‘Just a quick question. Telemarketers.’
‘If they call you, does that mean they know where you live?’
‘Yeah, I think so. Maybe. Why?’
‘Nothing. Sorry, I have to go. I’m meeting a friend. Bye.’
She hung up as Shannon pressed her for more information. Alice knew she had to leave the house. Her head was spinning but her thoughts were strangely lucid as she hurriedly went to the toilet and changed her clothes. Patrick would have to be disappointed. What? He’s not going to show up. That’s crazy. I’m crazy.
Half an hour later, she parked her Mazda 2 in a dark lane off George Street and walked a block to the entrance of the worst named club in Sydney. Flash. Apparently, it was meant to be some sort of oblique reference to the paparazzi, and the pretentious claim of the club’s owners that Sydney’s A-listers, and the cream of visiting foreign celebrities danced and drank there. Tonight she would be drinking there, and her plans for the rest of the night were at best, loose, and at worst non-existent.
The neon lights adorning Flash, welcomed her, together with the leering eyes of a couple of young male clubbers who were hanging around the front under the watchful gaze of a bouncer. The club’s guardian smiled at Alice, but she ignored him as she marched in.
Alice made her way to the bar, ordered a glass of water and a schooner of Tooheys New to chase it down. The barmaid had a nose ring and it glinted as the reflection of the club’s lights danced on it. She grunted something about a price and Alice told her to speak English, or if that was English, then to open her mouth wider when she spoke.
‘Ten dollars, smartarse.’
Alice pulled a twenty dollar note from her purse and said, ‘That’s very expensive, but I guess as long as you didn’t add any mucus to my beer, I’ll have to pay.’
‘Are you going to sit somewhere else?’
With her pulse racing, Alice stared into the dark almond eyes of the other woman. ‘I could move around to that side of the bar and pour the drinks to prevent customers getting snot in them.’
The barmaid’s eyes widened then narrowed, before she walked away to serve another customer.
Alice followed the woman with her eyes, hoping that her glare would burn a hole in the lycra singlet she was wearing. No such luck. The ring in her snout obviously did not make her a sow, nor did it affect herself control. Admirable indeed. Alice sensed a body behind her, feeling the heat emanating from it along with the pungent odour of masculinity and some other unknown scent. She turned to face him.
‘G’day, my name’s Mark. Can I buy you a drink?
‘I might not be able to taste it though, Mark.’
‘Your aftershave is more powerful than a speeding locomotive.’
‘Yes, but sadly it can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound.’
Alice returned his smile in spite of herself. She swallowed a mouthful of beer then sipped her water.
‘I’m glad you like my aftershave. It’s new.’
‘What’s it called? Superman Returns?’
Mark laughed very naturally, seemingly unperturbed by Alice’s acerbic quips. ‘Just Superman actually.’
This guy was nice, dammit. Another nice guy. She looked down at her blouse to see if it was emblazoned with the words, ‘nice guys apply here.’ I’m going to have to try harder to blow him off. I do have a boyfriend after all, Alice reminded herself.
‘Well Superman,’ said Alice casually, ‘I think it’s time for you to find a phone booth, rip that cheap shirt off, miraculously lose your pants and zoom off to save the world. We’re all good here.’
She raised her glass to Mark and winked at him. She was satisfied that she couldn’t have been any stronger in her rebuttal of his advances. Except of course if she gave it to him straight, and simply told him where to go. Alice watched him pondering his next move. Surprisingly it was not away from her. What’s he thinking? Seeking a clever retort or a polite surrender? Damn, he’s good looking. If he keeps standing there, I might just have to lead him off to a dark corner and ravish him.
‘Ravishing charm Miss…?’
Would that reference to her marital status send his eyes to her ring finger, or had he already glanced and seen it bare?
‘Mrs. Bradshaw,’ said Mark with something like distant fire flickering in his eyes, ‘Would you like to accompany me to a dark corner of the room, for a drink and more in-depth conversation?’
Alice had misjudged this confident and sexual man. He was bad. He had tried nice, but his smooth-talking charm had rolled off Alice like water, so he had switched his attack to wicked and forceful. There was no denying the salacious intent of his invitation. Alice suddenly felt very hot. She sculled the rest of her beer but that afforded no relief for the parched tightness of her throat. Before she could find the necessary witticism to repel Mark, he was all over her. So, close she could taste Superman on her lips, and it nauseated her.
‘And don’t even think about telling me to leave you alone. I know this is what you want, so let’s stop wasting time, Mrs. Bradshaw.’
Pushing hard against Mark’s chest, Alice stood and swayed for a moment as blood rushed to her head. Mark stepped back to maintain his balance, thus giving Alice the opportunity to leave which she took without a second thought. Was he following her out? Should she tell the bouncer to stop him and let her get away? She had blown him off when she entered but his job was to protect patrons. Fighting to control her breathing and feeling as though she had a volcano erupting in her stomach, she walked right into the back of the bouncer.
‘Watch it love,’ he said without animosity.
‘There’s guy who might follow me out. He’s tall and wearing a pale blue shirt and he stinks of Superman. I don’t want him to follow me, okay?’
The bouncer looked confused but nodded. Alice gave him her best smile which was hideous given her state of mind: scared to death and sick to the stomach. She pushed past him and would have broken into a run had she been able to control her legs. There was an urgent voice inside her head saying run, hurry up, but her legs were in rebellion. She couldn’t feel her feet. Were they frozen? Was she running in the snow barefoot? Was this a massive overreaction? She had toyed with Mark. Maybe she did want him. She thought of Chris, her boyfriend: lifeless, joyless Chris. Sensible, safe Chris. Alice stopped dead in her tracks. Breathless, she stood and stared at the ground.
‘Are you alright?’ a faceless voice asked.
There was a gentle hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off as though it were repugnant, like a cockroach. I do want Mark. He might hurt me. He won’t hurt me. He might hurt me. Alice took a deep breath and walked back to Flash. Very slowly. The bouncer smiled a crooked smile and welcomed her as though for the first time. Her question about Mark following her out evaporated in the heat of the bouncer’s forgetfulness. What would she say to him? Apologize? Yeah, apologize and tell him she would be his Lois Lane. Alice saw Mark straight away, standing where she had left him at the bar. He was chatting with another woman, flirting, no doubt offering her the same lines as Alice had gagged and nearly choked on. Never mind, the other woman was no match for her. She would simply grab Mark and drag him away.
Alice couldn’t move when she opened her eyes. Through a blurry haze she saw a vaguely familiar face and heard a comforting voice, but pain intruded, piercing her flesh, and she cried in pain. She started to hyperventilate. Then Superman assaulted her nostrils and she screamed.
‘Calm down. I’ll call a nurse. You’re all right, Alice.’
Frightening thoughts rampaged through her mind. She was hurt. How did she get hurt? Had Mark beaten her? Raped her? Alice squeezed her eyes tightly shut. She couldn’t remember. She recalled meeting Mark and the exact words they had exchanged during their intense verbal foreplay. She had left, she knew that. Fled in fact way from him and the club, propelled by fear then inexplicably drawn back to him. To danger. Why? Why had she returned. What happened next?
Alice opened her eyes and realized her blurred vision was the result of only being able to see out of one eye. Focusing was difficult. Her breathing was amplified in her ears.
‘Alice? You’re in hospital. You had a fall and your friend brought you in.’
‘Friend?’ Alice shifted her one-eyed gaze from the unknown face, to the man standing quietly to her left. ‘Shannon? What happened?’
After receiving assurances from the nurse that Alice was going to be all right, Shannon pulled over a chair and sat down beside her. She listened without taking her eye off him as he recounted the events that led to her being here. She had called him from her car; crying, hysterical. She’d told him where she was and that she was badly hurt and that she had done something really stupid. As her friend gently reminded her of his arrival at the lane where she had parked in the city, and how he had helped her to his car, and driven her to the hospital, the memories drifted back. Hazy and unclear, like her sight, at first but gradually crystallizing into vivid images. She wanted Shannon to stop speaking.
‘Do you want to talk about what happened?’
‘I went back to him, Shannon. Why did I do that? I suspected. No, I knew he was trouble but I went back to him. Why?’
‘Who’d you go back to?’
‘His name was Mark.’
‘I don’t know. I just met him at Flash.’ Alice turned away from Shannon. Her face burned.
‘So, you met some random at Flash and then what?’
The silence slapped her face as she argued with herself, asked herself hard questions then warned herself to back off, to say nothing more. It grew heavier as she delayed, uncertain what she should say or how to say it. Shannon deserved the truth and maybe it would assist her somehow if she verbalized her thoughts. Was there a suggestion of anger in his voice just then?
‘Tell me what happened Alice.’
Alice related all the details of the initial encounter, her resistance, her flight, her foolish and mysterious return. The walk to the car which she had suggested was a better option because it was closer. Mark’s firm hold on her arm as though he feared she would run again. His lascivious whisperings in her ear, his free hand on her breast; squeezing. Rough. The arrival at her car. His impatience as dark as the alley where they stood beside her car. His mouth upon hers, his hands pulling at her clothing. Oh God, she had wanted it, wanted him. She liked the dread, the foreboding ignition of some primal passion. He was causing her pain, gripping tightly, pinching her, and pulling her hair. Out of control, she submitted to his animal lust freely. It was bad. He was bad. She was bad. Then she heard a loud crack. Something snapped and she noticed the limpness of her arm. The pain was terrifying like an electric shock which violently tore her from the swamp of lust. When she fell, she hit her head on the side of the car and everything started to spin wildly.
‘Stop Alice’, said Shannon. ‘Stop it. That’s enough. It’s over now and you’re going to be all right.’
Alice finally looked at her dear friend and saw his tears.
‘We’ll find the bastard who did this, and sort him out in time, but for now you just need to concentrate on your recovery.’
Swallowing hard before she spoke to clear the knot of emotion which Shannon’s tears had triggered in her, Alice said, ‘We won’t find him. We won’t look.’
‘I already informed the police. They’ll be in to talk to you before the day’s out.’
‘I’ll forget everything, Shannon.’
‘Trauma induced amnesia. It was my fault anyway.’
‘You don’t believe that.’
Alice attempted a smile. ‘If I want to deceive myself then I will. It’s not that hard to accept lies about yourself especially when they come from within.’
Apparently lacking the will to continue to persuade her, Shannon was lost for words and merely reached out his hand to lightly squeeze her good arm. ‘You should get some sleep,’ he said.
‘I’ll come back later.’
Watching him go stung. He was obviously bewildered. She had infected him with fatalistic despair, but she could not summon regret. She was alive and her body, though broken, would heal. Alice felt strong and a sense of freedom and peace blanketed her as she drifted off to sleep.
With her arm still adorned in a cast, Alice approached Flash calmly, and with settled intent. Two long weeks had passed. Her eye socket had healed to the point where her vision was normal and all that remained was a halo of sickly yellow around her eye. She had expertly buried that under make-up and donned her slinkiest dress. The cast was hardly fashionable, but she reasoned it would elicit sympathy and function brilliantly as an ice breaker. Her three-inch heels clicked on the concrete as her leather handbag flapped happily against her hip.
Alice didn’t expect to find Mark at Flash. Even though he had no doubt not intended to hurt her, he might be worried about the possible ramifications of his consensual and frantic dalliance with Alice. Things had just gotten a little out of hand. No, Mark, her Superman was gone, but she was very hopeful of locating and latching onto another hero to make her feel alive.
She breezed past the bouncer, ignoring his smiling welcome, and into Flash. The pig snouted barmaid saw Alice approaching, and after rolling her eyes, hastened away to the other end of the bar. Alice grinned, licked the sugary sweetness of heightened anticipation from her lips.
Heavy metal lover and cricket tragic, D.A. Cairns lives on the south coast of News South Wales. He works as a freelance writer, has had over 80 short stories published, and has authored six novels to date as well as a zoological memoir.