Everything seems different in the morning.
I woke up dripping wet. The room a total mess. I dragged myself out of the soaking sheets and blankets, turned the heat off, opened the window. The sun was up, the sky blue.
Caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My hair was damped down so that it looked dark. I was disappointed. I expected much darker circles under my eyes. I expected to look like I had suffered.
During the night I had decided not to shower, or change, or sleep till she came home. To prove something to her, or punish her, or I didn’t know what. I had, in fact, slept. I smelt stale and sweaty. In the morning the wrong she’d done me wasn’t so clear.
There was blood everywhere. None of it mine.
I showered, put on my brand new dress, tiptoed across the slippery floor, holding the hem up, locked the door and went downstairs.
We lived in an 1880s mansion, subdivided into six flats. My secret was that the building belonged to me. It had been my grandmother’s. The rents were handled by an agent. Once a fortnight money like magic in my account. Enough to live on; enough for the upkeep.
I walked down the oak staircase into the foyer. The staircase, the marble floor and the chandelier above my head were original to the house. It had cost me five thousand dollars to have the chandelier repaired and cleaned and another two hundred a month to keep it cleaned. It was monstrously ugly and added heiniously to the electricitybill, but I loved it. It made Rebekah laugh.
Rebekah. I remembered to breathe. I would not think about it.
I knocked on the door to Kurt’s flat.
He opened the door.
‘Rebekah,’ I said
He nodded and I wondered again how old he was. He wouldn’t tell me. I realised that I didn’t know how old Rebekah was either. Not thinking about it, I told myself, about her.
He has one of those faces where you can’t tell. Acne scars and his gauntness. Most of the time I thought he was in his thirties. Sometimes he could be as much as fifty-five, at other times when he’s relaxed and smiling, twenty-five.
He came back from his war a year ago. He won’t say which one. Though he is matter-of-fact about being a soldier, having killed people. I figure somewhere in the Balkans, but maybe the Middle East.
His application form for tenancy reveals very little. They should not have rented him the flat with such scanty references. I have final approval. I must have approved. I don’t remember.
I met him first because he complained about my heavy tread on the stairs. I was half way up when this voice shouted ‘Stop!’ An enormous booming voice. I dropped the paper. Then the voice spoke again:
‘You have woken the dead.’
I turned around, gathering up newspaper sections. I squinted at the man standing at the bottom. I couldn’t really see him. The light was streaming in through the stained glass of the front door. He was a shadowy outline. A bloody big one: very tall with enormous shoulders. He had an accent I didn’t recognise.
‘I’m sorry?’ I stared, trying to make out a face. My eyes watered.
‘You walk like an elephant. How can someone so small make such a sound? You need not put all your weight into every step. You can walk, not stomp. I was asleep. It happens rarely. I like it.’ He went back into his flat, slamming the door behind him.
After that I was good at tiptoeing. Mostly because he scared me. I met him slightly more formally at the corner shop. This enormously tall, big-shouldered man smiled at me. Up close I could see how lean he was. Made him even scarier, seeing his cadaverous face. ‘Hello Elephant Girl.’
‘You always say that.’
‘I am your neighbour. Kurt Smith.’
He held out his hand. I didn’t know what to do. I shook it. He was still smiling.
‘And you are?’
‘I’m sorry.’ My cheeks went pink. ‘Annie.’
‘So you are Annie O’Dwyer. Then your girlfriend must be Rebekah Kahn. She likes her magazines, doesn’t she?’
‘Yeah, she does.’ His knowing our full names unnerved me, but how could he not know? All the tenants’ mail sitting on the table in the foyer. Never anything for him.
It took a while before I realised he was okay.
We’d pause in passing, exchange greetings. It took me a lot longer to realise that he was just like Reb.
The first time he knocked on the door to borrow some sugar I burst out laughing. ‘Sugar? You want some sugar?’
He was holding a small cup. Reb had ducked back into the bedroom, and shut the door, thinking it was Mormons. I always got stuck with the door.
‘Yes. Why is that funny?’
‘It’s like a sitcom, that’s all. I mean no-one has ever knocked on my door and asked to borrow sugar. Shit, maybe we should put up a white picket fence.’
‘You do not like sugar?’
‘No. No, I mean yes.’ I took the cup, filled it to the brim with sugar. Kurt waited in the doorway. I handed his cup to him, careful not to spill any. ‘There you go. No worries.’
After that he didn’t scare me. He wasn’t normal though. But neither was Reb. If I had met one person who stood out in sharp relief from the rest of the universe, it seemed no odder to meet another one.
We’d invite each other in for coffee and chats, Kurt and I. Conversations where he’d pretend to be human and I’d play along. I’d been playing along with Reb for enough years that it didn’t bother me.
Reb and he didn’t get on that well. No, not that exactly—nothing so strong—more that they were not easy around each other. Early on Reb said that I shouldn’t trust him: ‘Those are not acne scars.’
I wasn’t wild about his mates.
One night I came home late and a shape came at me in the foyer. Words slurred into each other, a mad tumble of sounds I couldn’t understand. I smelt alcohol: spirits, sharp and very sweet. Hands grabbing at me, at my hair, my breasts. I couldn’t breathe. It, he, was all over me. I screamed and kicked out. He kept coming at me. Unsteady, but strong. I couldn’t get him off me. Then he wasn’t there.
A flash of noise and light, Kurt’s door open, then shut, and my attacker gone, and Kurt there.
He helped me up the stairs, got me into the flat where Reb took over. She sat me down, checked me over.
‘I’m fine. Really, I’m okay. Didn’t hurt me.’
She gave me whisky. ‘You’re shaking.’
She must have turned to say something to Kurt, but he spoke before her, looking right at me. For the first time since his friend had attacked me in the hall I focussed. The room around me came into view: the television, the damask curtains being blown by the southerly, Reb’s arms around my shoulders, Kurt looking down at me.
‘If any of them even looks at you again. Tell me. I’ll kill him.’
‘Yes, do,’ said Reb, looking straight at Kurt. He was unable to meet her gaze.
I began to suspect Reb was seeing someone else months before I said anything to Kurt. He’d heard us fighting a million times before, if you could call it fighting: me yelling and Rebekah, puzzled, responding as calmly as she would to someone asking directions on the street.
By the time I began to suspect, we weren’t fighting. I’m sure it was the silence that made Kurt ask. I told him everything. Opened up in a way I never have to a man before. I’ve trusted lots of people in my life, but very few men. It felt wicked trusting him when Reb had told me not to.
This time he looked down at me as I stood in his doorway.
‘She’s gone,’ I said. I breathed in deep, hoping I wouldn’t cry. I made a little noise that was intended to be a laugh. ‘Who’s more beautiful,’ I asked, ‘me or Reb?’ The question had never occurred to me before.
Kurt softened. He smiled. He had a lovely smile, almost as gorgeous as Reb’s.
‘You like plump blondes, eh?’ I grinned.
He grinned. The moment vanished.
‘Infidelity is not so terrible,’ he said and I felt pain in my chest. I couldn’t breathe. ‘There are lots of worse things. Many, many worse things.’
They never found her body. But they found her blood. Oceans and oceans of it. One of the policeman asked me how we did it. I looked at him blankly.
He repeated his question. ‘Two women. How do you do it?’
We were alone in an interview room. We weren’t being recorded. I thought he had wanted to know how Kurt and I had killed her. I would have said, ‘We used our teeth and hands.’ Then I would have laughed because we didn’t kill her and she’s not dead.
‘So what do you do? You and her together. How do you do it?’
The policeman leaned a little closer to me. He’d seen photos of Reb. He was staring at me. I could almost hear him thinking, ‘such a waste.’ He thought he really wanted to know, when what he really wanted was to see.
I could smell his breath. I looked up at him, straight into his eyes. They were a light watery grey. He couldn’t hold my gaze. He shuddered despite himself and looked away. Their glamour rubbing off on me making the rest of the world slide away.
Sometimes I’d forget Kurt was a man. The edges of his face would soften, his lips seem more full. He said I wasn’t forgetting, just seeing more clearly. I asked him why other people didn’t notice what he was.
‘You mean why do you see it?’
‘Because you are so sad.’
She did not feel things the way I did. I honestly don’t think she realised how much pain she caused me. But if she had realised? She would’ve shrugged and done it anyway.
Rebekah, it turns out, wasn’t her real name.
Kurt knew. ‘We keep an eye on each other,’ he told me. ‘All of us. None of us use our real names.’
I sat on the couch with my feet crossed underneath me. She chose the couch cause she liked the feel of leather. The television was on, an ad for the election, a man in a grey suit talking about Medicare; then cricket, coloured uniforms, umpires in white to match the ball on an oval lush green but for the pale brown of the wicket. The crack of bat and ball, impact, and a white streak heading over the fence. A pretty girl in the crowd catches it, holds it aloft, adjusting her sari with her other hand. The camera focusses in close on her smiling face. And applause, an ocean of applause, and screams and whistles and drums. She must feel it’s for her. In the centre of the oval the batsman raises his bat for his fifty runs.
Kurt added his own clapping to the noise.
‘Are you exiles then?’ I ask him.
‘Some are. Or tourists. Or spies. Or anthropologists. Or merchants. Or all or none of these. I think sometimes that we are all spies. Imagining the world a court and manoeuvering into place.’
‘In La Jolla. In the Third District. Wherever.’
‘And I interest you?’ I asked it because I didn’t understand.
Kurt laughed, took my hand, kissed my fingers. ‘Of course. Almost as much as the cricket.’
‘Oh that, that’s not really cricket. They have to be all in white for real cricket.’
‘Can any of you fall in love?’
‘With the cricket? Who could not?’
‘Are any of you famous?’
‘No,’ said Kurt clearly puzzled by the question. ‘Such visibility.’
It was February. It was hot. Kurt and me, we went to the fair. The bears walking around in their leather and steel capped boots stopped and stared. I could see them wanting Kurt. Tom, a bloke who knew me, marched up to say hi. He said he was sorry about Reb, but his eyes kept sliding across to Kurt. I introduced them and walked away to the big Morten Bay fig trees by the water. I sat on the bench next to a woman with cropped hair dyed brilliant red. She looked like she was in her early fifties. She nodded.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ She meant the bridge.
‘Mmmm. I love it.’
‘To think everyone fussed about the cost and said it was too big. Looks just perfect, doesn’t it?’
‘I’m never going to call it the Anzac Bridge,’ she said firmly. ‘Bloody stupid name.’
I opened my backpack and got out one of my apples and offered it to her. ‘I’ve got others.’
She took it and bit in. The apple made a satisfying crunch and she wiped juice from her lips. ‘Good.’
I bit into my own. ‘Yes, very good.’
I wondered when the empty feeling inside me would go away. I wondered when I’d stop feeling like the rest of the world was at a remove.
I never felt like that until I met Reb; she put a glamour over me so that I could never focus properly on my own kind again. So that my own world had faded into banality and was nothing next to hers, then she’d lure me into it completely and seal the exits, like a tomb, like the side of a hillside that had been home to Thomas. Go away a week, come back and you’ve lost a lifetime. I have lost my lifetime and never lost a minute. Reb did not lured me underground, had merely grown tired of me and wrought some metamorphosis to get away. She left blood behind but she had so much of that to spare—all I have is Kurt, who will grow tired also.
Kurt sat at on my bed, smiling at me. He began to stroke my feet.
I put my book down. ‘Will she come back?’
Kurt shrugged and ran his thumb along my ankle. ‘You look tired.’
I wasn’t, hadn’t been, now my eyes were heavy, they stung. I closed them. My head sank down into the pillows. Kurt’s hands were rubbing the backs of my calves. I felt something faintly moist on my toes. A light fairy touch. His mouth on them. On my knees. His hands on my stomach, my breasts, his mouth softening on mine. I felt him shifting against me, changing into breasts, narrow waist, vulva, clitoris, tapered thighs. Long soft dark hair like Reb. Hair tickling my face, my cheeks.
‘Where did she go that night?’ I asked.
‘I’m serious,’ I said. ‘I have to know.’
Kurt sat up. Looked down at me. His breasts were beautiful. Small and firm. Not like Reb’s at all. Though God knows hers were beautiful. I leaned up on my elbows and kissed both nipples.
‘I could show you,’ he said.
‘The night she didn’t come home. I thought that I would go mad.’
‘But you did not.’
Didn’t I? I thought but didn’t say.
‘I turned all the heaters up too high cause I was so cold and couldn’t get warm. Last month, Kurt. This summer.’
‘Are you cold, now?’
Yes, I wanted to say. Inside I am.
‘If I show you where she went,’ said Kurt, smiling at me, ‘you will regret it. Nothing will be the same.’
‘Nothing is the same,’ I said. ‘It’s already happened. It’s already too late.’
‘All right,’ said Kurt. ‘Get dressed.’
He led me to the aqueduct. We followed its path until we got to Wentworth Park.
He took my hand and led me under one of the arches. It was four in the morning. The air was warm, humid. No southerly had kicked in that night. It smelt like damp grass, urine, and a dank moldy smell, something just about to rot. There was not quite enough light to see all the bricks in the arch clearly.
‘Are you ready?’ asked Kurt.
I wasn’t. I was. ‘Did Rebekah love me?’
Kurt laughed. ‘She enjoyed you. As I do.’
I wanted to slap him.
‘Are you ready?’
‘Sure,’ I said.
A door appeared. Just like that—Kurt didn’t do anything. No magic words or waving of hands. One second there were bricks and mortar and mold and no door; the next second there was. Just as Rebekah had appeared in my life. One second not there; next second everywhere. I tried to think of how it was before Rebekah, but I could remember nothing.
‘You keep saying that.’
He moved to the door, reaching his hand towards it. I could see the muscles at work in his arm, the grain of the wood of the door, the dull brass of the door knob. I was suddenly very afraid.
‘Stop,’ I said as emphatically as he had once said it to me. ‘Don’t.’
Kurt stopped. He turned and stared at me. I couldn’t read anything in his face, but then I never could. Not him, not Rebekah.
‘You understand this is it?’
‘Your only chance?’
‘You don’t want to see where Rebekah went?’
The door disappeared. We went back home. We made love. Then and many nights.
One night he did not come home. I felt cold. I did not turn the heat up. I lay in the dark with my eyes closed, feeling the emptiness inside me grow.