For the first time since she’d left home, when she woke in the morning, her head and her heart aching, there was dried blood on the sheets.
She lay for a long time staring at the ceiling. She didn’t want to get up. She wanted to hide, here, in her room, and never have to see anyone, do anything. She heard Luke moving about in the kitchen, banging cupboards, the sound of the kettle boiling and then hurried footsteps down the passage, various muttered imprecations and the slam of the front door. Still she stayed in bed.
The light drifted across the window and her room brightened.
In the end she knew she had to get up. Life went on. Her father’s abuse had taught her that. Sighing, she climbed out of bed and went through to the kitchen. She put on the kettle. Tea would help. Tea always helped. Even though her father had been from Yugoslavia and her mother from Italy, she had always found tea made her feel better. She loved coffee; she made good coffee in the café; she drank too many cups of coffee a day. But somehow tea calmed her. The ritual of making it. The wait while it brewed. The careful precise mixture of milk and tea and time to make a good cuppa. Forced patience and focus. Zen.
She showered and dressed. One of her cuts was still bleeding. Her guilt and self-loathing over her need to hurt herself added to her depression. And she would have to tell Luke. Something, anyway. Because she and Keith ….
She dragged herself to the uni. Just because her life was in ruins didn’t mean she had to just give up. But somehow, the magic had gone out of French. Instead of something precious and enchanted, it seemed tedious and pointless. Why bother at all? But she had to. She had to have a piece of paper which qualified her for a job. She couldn’t work at a café for the rest of her life. Could she? And that made her remember that she would have to go on working at Don Vittorio’s. She couldn’t just resign. She needed the money. She knew Luke would help her out for a week or two. But until she had found herself a new job somewhere else, she couldn’t just walk out of the job at the café. And it was a good job too, by the standards of hospitality. The owner, a woman, paid her better than minimum wage, and when she’d earned the maximum she could each week before CentreLink would start cutting back her welfare payments, she was paid the rest in cash. She was given responsibility, trusted. She did a good job, she knew that. Somebody other than her father and mother appreciated her. She was important to the owner. And the owner was nice, too. And she, Esmé, made good coffee.
Idiot! she abused herself. Staying in a place just because you make good coffee there! You can make good coffee anywhere. Having made the decision she felt better. She would look online to see if there were any jobs higher up Brunswick Rd. Close enough to their house.
The resolution to action cheered her up a little and she was able to pay attention to the lecturer.
She was unable to face Luke, so went to a different café for lunch.
And, luckily, she didn’t have to work that evening.
The next evening, when she had to go to work, because she was expected and needed, and because she herself needed the money, she dragged herself into Don Vittorio’s and put on a face. From time to time, her co-worker and the owner would look at her, quizzically, but neither openly asked her what the problem was. And then, as she’d dreaded, towards the end of the evening Keith came in, a small smile on his lips as he said hullo, his eyes twinkling with affection and friendship.
She couldn’t help herself—she smiled back. And yet she also wanted to weep.
Keith knew at once something was wrong.
“Yeah.” Esmé was ashamed of her feelings. Love? Foolishness. Hope was dangerous. Just accept what was.
“Yeah, roight. I knaow somethin’s wrong, Ezzaloona. Tell mai.”
Esmé started to cry quietly.
“Oh, Ezz.” Keith got up from his side of the table and knelt in front of her. “Is it your dad?”
Esmé shook her head unable to speak, but it might as well have been. Because she would never be right, not after what had been done to her. Holding tightly to Keith’s hands, she said over her sobs, “I saw. The other night. You and …him.”
“Ah.” Keith tensed but he didn’t let go of her hand. “I knaow I’m a bit of a slut, Ezz. Oi … Oi’m gay, maostly. Ya knaow that.”
“Yeah. I know. I’m just being silly.”
“Nao, not silly. But just because Oi pick up a blaoke an’ we do the daid doesn’t mean I love him. That Oi’m his friend.”
“You love Tom.”
“Yeah. But Tom took me off the straits. He saved me. He saved moi loife. And yeah, we fuck. Nao. Oi’m wrong. We make love. Loik you and Oi do.”
Esmé didn’t speak.
“Moi mum and dad were the one-marriage toipe. Ya knaow, faithful until daith. But they didn’t love each other.”
“My parents didn’t either. I think mum was in love with dad. But she was so frightened of him. And he didn’t love her. He was a narcissist.”
“Your dad was a cunting prick and I hope every minute of his loife is a torment and agony. But that’s not the point, Ezz. You can have the form of the ideal, marriage. But maybai not the reality. What matters is that ya love each other.”
“And do you?”
“Of course. I love you and I love Tom.”
“You love Tom more.”
“Daon’t torment yaself, Ezz.”
“I … I hoped I’d …”
“I’m here, amn’t Oi?”
“Yeah, but …oh, Keith!”
Keith’s accent had strengthened as it always did when he was emotional. “Oi remember after Tom took mai in. Oi was grateful—don’t think Oi wasn’t—but Oi wasn’t in love with him. Oi didn’t even love him, Oi think. Oi was just a hardened street punk. But hai was koind to mai. He wasn’t in love with me, come to think of it. He felt sorry for mai. And of course there was sex. But he was koind. Moind you, he didn’t put up with any shit from mai. But he … he showed he cared, that he loiked me for more than my cock and arse. That he loiked me. For me. And ya kanow, Ezz, ya can tell what a man is loike from what he’s loike in bed. Shows ya what hai’s loike in his heart.”
Esmé thought about that. Keith had always been kind and caring in bed. When she’d been unable to make love—like normal people, she thought bitterly—he’d been totally unfazed. He’d made sure she’d had pleasure in bed. He’d been affectionate and loving.
“Oi love Tom. And he loves mai. But he doesn’t mind about you and me.”
“He knows?” Esmé was furious and embarrassed.
“Hai’s part of my loife, Ezz. Of course he knaows. But only that I’m sweet on ya.”
Esmé looked stricken.
“Not the details,” Keith added quickly, guessing what Esmé was imagining. “That’s proivate between you and me.”
Esmé looked at him, doubting.
“Ya think Oi’d tell him about our proivate stuff? Have Oi taold you anything about him and mai? What we do?”
“No. No you haven’t.” All of a sudden Esmé wondered exactly what they did in bed. She’d never asked Luke what men did. But then, he wouldn’t know, because he’d never had anyone. Or had he? And now she wondered. What exactly happened with bums and cocks and stuff? Exactly?
“Men … well … wai’re a bit sluttish, ya knaow. We loike a lot of sex, and wai aren’t always too pa’ticular about how we get it. Some men prefer it without ties, with strangers. I dunno. Oi had that when Oi was on the straits. Oi got enough fuckin’ with paiple who didn’t care about mai. Paiple who despised me. They thought that because Oi naided the money Oi was a nothin’. But sex is noice. Very noice.” He smiled suddenly, quickly and endearingly. “ And if ya can do it with someone you loike … someone you love … then it’s seriously good. Aiven a nice blaoke ya pick up in the pub. Long as he doesn’t look down on ya. Long as there’s somethin’ there. Some spark. Though Oi’m getting’s a bit sick of that too, if ya wanna knaow. Oi love Tom. And Oi reckon Oi’m getting’ half in love with you, Esmé. But Oi naid … fuck it, Ezz, Oi naid men in moi loife. Oi daon’t wanna hurt ya, and Oi’m sorry Oi have. But Oi could never be one hundred per cent straight. Never. No matter how much you main to me. If Oi promised ya Oi would, Oi would be lyin’.”
Esmé looked at him for many heartbeats. “I don’t know, Keith. I can’t. I … I need time to think.”
Keith looked bleak.
Esmé reached down and slapped his cheek lightly.
“Stop it.” She felt much happier than she had before. I’m getting half in love with you. But the more rational part of herself argued forcibly for normality—a boyfriend who was straight, who loved only her, who wouldn’t pick up men in pubs. Like they’re all queuing up, she thought cynically. “I said I’d think about it.”
“Can wai go on bein’ friends?” Keith looked so anxious she almost gave in right there.
“Maybe. We’ll see. Now drink up your coffee and go away!”
“Oi haven’t got any! Honestly, the service in this place!”
They didn’t make love again for six months, though they did remain friends. Keith would pop in after The Lord Grey closed or sometimes just later on in the evening if things were quiet in the pub. They drew pleasure from each other’s company. He would talk lightly about his ‘conquests’, pretending not to watch her reaction. She hoarded her love quietly within herself. She’d been to hell and back with her dad. She’d learnt the hard way to store little bits of happiness when she got them. And spending time with Keith made her happy. As for the sex, it didn’t matter to her. So she told herself. Anyway, she couldn’t have proper sex because of what her dad had done to her. So she told herself. And friendship was pretty good anyway. And all of these things were half true. But sometimes she would smell his midnight odour, the aroma of beer and sweat and cheap aftershave and she would feel a stirring within her, a small wrenching in her gut and her heart and she doubted.
It wasn’t until the first really warm day in spring. The cheerful music of the jazz club floated into the warm scented air. Keith came around from The Lord Grey and they had a latte each before Esmé locked the front door and they moved into the back courtyard. They sat side by side on the bench, listening to the jazz, to the muted roar of the city and the cheerful ping of the trams as they rumbled past along Brunswick Street. At last Keith stood up and reached out his hand to her and they started to dance. A very competent rendition of Benny Goodman’s I let a Song Go Out of My Heart filled the air. They danced close, their torsos stroking against each other, their thighs brushing. She could feel his erection. He was wearing boxers. She could always tell.
When they kissed, at first it was tentative and wary. Then it deepened and they stopped dancing and simply held each other.
He pulled his head back, his breathing ragged, and asked, his eyes warm with concern and affection, “Ya okay with this?”
For answer, she squeezed him closer into her arms. “Yes,” she said, her voice muffled, her head against his chest.
She was wearing a dress, a summer dress, floral and bright in a thin fabric. He brushed the bottom of the dress up, and gripped her round her hips. He slipped his hand down the front of her thong and into the warm folds of her body. He didn’t stop kissing her as her caressed her. As her body began to respond, her mind was free of any memory of her father. Ripples of pleasure moved outwards from the focus of his attention, and his tongue in her mouth muddled her mind clearing it of anything but the sensations she was feeling. She didn’t want him to stop. But she knew also that she ought to think it through, without this confusion of lust and pleasure and affection.
“Wait,” she gasped, “I … it’s too nice.”
He stopped at once. She could see his erection, straining down one trouser leg, his boxers and his chinos useless concealment.
“Too noice?” He raised his eyebrows in amusement and puzzlement. “Is that possible?”
She looked into his soft brown eyes, so warm and filled with affection, concern, friendship and love. The eyes muddled her too. They turned her decision-making brain to mush. All she could feel was the intense wish to melt into his arms, to go on kissing, to enjoy again that wonderful sensation of him touching her and pleasuring her. Loving her.
“Yes,” she said crossly, annoyed at her muddle and blaming him for it.
His mouth curled up at the corners and his eyes smiled, and he said, “That’s the whaole point, love.”
Love? He’d never called her that before.
“What? To confuse me with all your masculine wiles?”
He opened his hands in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get gesture. “Moi?” He pronounced it ‘moy’. “Plain old moi?”
“Yeah, well, you know you’re sexy. Don’t play the ingénu with me!”
He sobered. “I’ve been thinkin’ of you ever since the last toime. ’Cos I want ya to have … a good toime …” Esmé made an inarticulate protest. “…yeah, a good toime, because ya deserve it. Just because your dad was a vile loathsome bully and pervert doesn’t mean …”
“He used to say gays were perverts and abominations,” Esmé observed quietly.
Keith stared at her. “After what he did to you? What a prick! What a cunt! He is the abomination! A loathsome worthless piece of dogshit!”
She was glad of his fury. It proved—and despite all the evidence which he’d already given her that he loved her—it proved that he did.
He looked at her for several heartbeats, his face serious.
“Ya do deserve better. But maybe—‘strue, Ezz–maybe ya naid better’n me. I’m pretty damaged. Oi lived on the straits. Oi whored to pay for everything. Oi caught the big H. Oi took drugs an’ stuff.” There were some things he was never going to tell. Never. To anybody. Tom knew, because Tom had seen him that night, huddled in the doorway, an icy southerly scouring his bones. Tom knew all right. He’d been in bad places himself. Tom didn’t need to be told. “Y’re a noice middle class girl. Ya knaow, proper accent, educated, noice home …”
“… where my father raped me several times a week. And beat me up. A nice middle class home where the grounds were big enough to mean the neighbours couldn’t hear the screams …”
“Yep. That’s it, exac’ly. You naid someone who has no baggage, someone noice and normal and straight.”
It came to her in an epiphany that that was precisely what she didn’t need. “No!” she wailed. “What I need is someone like you! ‘Cos you understand!”
A voice came from the window in the three-storey Victorian brick house which backed onto their building.
“Can youse two get on with it? I main, ther’re paiple tryin’ to slaip here. Take him home, darl, an’ fuck him silly.”
As far as they could see, the speaker was a very old old lady wearing a shapeless grey dressing gown, her hair in curlers covered with a net.
“Not thet Oi daon’t moind a bit of a soap drama, ya knaow. But Jaysus, a lady’s got ta slaip. Moi beauty slaip, ya knaow.”
Keith stood up and bowed to her, and shouted back, “Ma’am, I apologise for disturbin’ your repose. We will take your advoice at once.”
Esmé giggled, suddenly and inexplicably happy. She stuck her arm through his and said, “C’mon. Let’s go to your flat.”
As they left the little courtyard, Keith turned and waved, but the old lady had gone.
At the flat, he looked at her solemnly for many moments, before taking each of her hands in one of his.
“What Oi said before. I meant it. Maybe Oi am bad for ya. Oi love ya, but Oi love Tom too. And … ya kanow … sometimes Oi’m goingta pick up blaokes at the pub. None of that mains Oi daon’t love ya. Oi do. But, Ezz, I am gay. That’s what Oi am. Maybe if Oi hadn’t been on the straits and had to whore, maybe Oi would never have found out. Ya knaow, lots of the blaokes who hired me, they were married. Seriously.
“But this is important. Oi’m prolly always going to be gay.”
Esmé shook her head. “First, I think you’re bi, not gay.” She reached down and caressed his cock which immediately started to swell. “Which proves my point.” She smiled at him. “Second, I’ve already said it. You’ve been to hell too. You know the road there. And the road back. “Somebody nice and normal”—she put scorn into her tone and expression—“someone who hasn’t seen what hell looks like …”
“… the walkin’ wounded?”
It didn’t sound like a cliché coming from him in his strong ocker accent.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes. Someone who knows what it feels like. To … you know.”
“Yeah. Oi knaow. But Oi still think ya naid someone to love who loves just you.”
“Do you want that?” Esmé’s regard was painfully direct.
Keith was tempted to lie and say yes. Because he truly did think he would hurt Esmé and he didn’t want to. Maybe it would make it easier for her—for both of them—if he just forced the decision.
“Nao,” he said at last. He was silent for a while. “It sounds loike Oi’m lookin’ ta get the best of baoth worlds. But Oi can’t make a promise Oi can’t kaip.”
“What can you promise?”
“That Oi love ya and will go on lovin’ ya. That aiven if Oi slaip with other blaokes, Oi won’t slaip with women. Except you. And whatever happens, Oi’m still ya friend. And we naid friends. More’n anything.”
He was still holding her hands. She said, “We’ll try and see, OK. I can’t make promises I can’t keep either.” She felt his hands tighten then relax, and his eyes gleamed.
“So would ya loik to, naow?”
“That’s all you’re interested in.”
“I have news for you, sista, that’s all any man is interested in.”
“Somewhere out there my prince is waiting,” said Esmé piously. “Meanwhile, I’ll make do with the pauper. The sex-crazed paper.”
“I can get a pea to put under the mattress,” offered Keith, his eyes sparkling, struggling to keep his expression disinterested and professional.
“Your mattress? Huh! Why bother?”
He let go her hands and lifted her dress. His hands were warm against her tummy. But she shivered all the same. He kissed her softly on the lips then without pausing, moved his mouth over the soft down on her chin to her neck. Her whole body was electric to his touch. The shock from his warm lips flowed across her torso to her nipples and her groin. His kisses became more intent. In a moment he was kissing her again on her mouth, and his tongue was tangled with hers.
“Turn round,” he whispered.
She obeyed. She could feel his fingers undoing the hooks on the back. And then, the late night chill startling against her skin, her dress was over her head and puddled on the floor. His mouth was against her buttock, and he bit her gently. His finger hooked under the strap of her thong and he pulled it down. He bit the other buttock, a little harder this time.
Esmé had never been so aroused. She knew love, she had thought. She had been used as an object by her dad. But this! It was intensely erotic, and supremely tender. She didn’t know what she wanted him to do with her. But waiting for him to do it was unendurable.
He kissed her neck. He took her hand and tugged her over to the bed.
He nipped gently at her breasts and then traced a line of fire with his tongue down her torso to her groin. In a moment she felt his tongue stroking her within the folds of her body. Heat washed through her.
He moved his mouth away. She gave a stammering cry. Was it no? Yes? Don’t? Even she didn’t know.
“We can try fuckin’ again,” he whispered, his mouth against her ear. “Oi’ve bain thinkin’. With a dude, if he’s toight, ya gao more gently. Ya use a lot of lube.” He kissed her cunt again, and then her belly button, and then so gently it almost tickled, he bit softly down onto her nipples. “Ya wanna troi?”
“Turn soideways,” he whispered. He snuggled up against her. She heard the sound of the condom packet tearing and then the snap as he put in on. A bottle top clicked, and she felt his hand liquid with lube start to stroke her. His finger penetrated her and it was so slippery and so gentle it was inside her before she had time to tense up. He continued moving it very slowly in and out of her, each time softly rubbing her clitoris. She did not know whether to lie still or give in to the overpowering urge to writhe helplessly as pleasure thrilled through her body.
Keith inserted a second finger and then a third, and still she did not clamp tight. She was surprised to find herself weeping silently, but could not have said whether it was from happiness or sorrow. She felt the head of his cock press against her. He pressed it against her opening, but moved no further. He pulled away, and she waited, trusting him now with every cell of her body. She heard the squirt of the lube bottle, and then once again he was pressing against her. He slid gently into her, and started slow and cautious thrusting. Once or twice she thought of her father and she inadvertently tightened on him, and one of those times, Keith squeaked in discomfort. But she drove her father from her mind, and when she climaxed and then felt him make a final deep lunge into her as he too came, her mind was empty of her past.
Outside there was the muted late night hum of the traffic. A voice rose up mysteriously from the street, its message inaudible. The last tram pinged its bell at an errant car. A sash window was slammed down. A distant dog barked.
They lay in each other’s arms.
Her eyes were wet, and so, she saw in the light from the window, were his.
“Silly,” he said kindly, gruffly. “Sex is supposed to make you happy.”
She smiled through the tears. “I am,” she whispered.
His eyes drooped closed. She didn’t sleep for ages, watching patterns of light on the ceiling as cars or pedestrians went by, feeling the drift of the thin curtains in the breeze as if they were on her own skin.
Whatever happens now, she thought, even if he leaves me for someone else, it doesn’t matter.
It was just four months later that Jason started work at the pub, and she met him for the first time.
Cody and Luigi lay in bed after their love-making. Cody had been right. The breadcrumbs did go everywhere.
“Let’s do something,” suggested Luigi. “You go back to work tomorrow. But we have today off.”
Cody didn’t speak. He looked away from Luigi, waiting for him to suggest something. Luigi sighed inwardly.
“Let’s go and have a decent coffee on Brunswick Street. And something to eat.”
They showered. Separately. Luigi was rather depressed by that. He wondered if things would ever be right again between them.
It was a warm autumn day. They sat outside on a table at the café drinking their caffè lattes. Cody said he wasn’t hungry but Luigi ordered bruschetta for himself.
Racking his brains for something to say, he asked, “Do you think it’ll be all right at work?”
Cody shrugged. “Dunno.” He waited a couple of seconds. “We’ll have to see. I do have the medical certificate. So they won’t sack me because of that. But I’ll have to have a story ready. The doctor didn’t say what I was sick with—”
“—They never do—”
“—but they will ask. I have to have some plausible excuse.”
“You were unconscious. Which is true. No one knew where you were. Which is true. If we don’t count the killer. And you were found by someone on the street—only you don’t remember much—and taken to a doctor. It’ll do for now. If there’s a court case …. Well, we’ll worry about it then.”
He took a bite of his bruschetta.
Cody’s face turned a whitish green and his forehead was all at once covered with beads of sweat,
“What?” asked Luigi, alarmed.
Swallowing convulsively, Cody strangled out a whisper, “It’s him.”
The sweat on Luigi’s skin froze.
“Where? Can he see you?” he asked in a whisper.
Cody just shook his head. He was looking directly behind Luigi.
Luigi moved his chair a little and turned his head to look in the direction Cody was staring. There was a skinny middle-aged man with grey hair walking along the pavement away from them.
“I’m going to follow him,” declared Luigi. “To find out where he’s from.”
“Oh, God, Lou! He’ll try and get you too!”
Luigi was filled with a cold deep rage. The thought of what the killer had done to Cody, to the body and soul of the man he loved more than anyone went to his bones and guts. He would stalk this monster and punish him. Impractical notions of gunslinger battles filled his head and then a cool realism damped them down. He would follow this man to his car or his home. And he would take a photo with his mobile phone of the man and his car or his destination wherever that was. The police would have him then.
“No he won’t,” Luigi said confidently. “No way. He hasn’t seen me before.”
“Then I’m going to come with you!” Cody was still pale and greenish but he looked better.
“Don’t be dumb! He knows you!”
“I’ll wear your dark glasses. Anyway, you’re not leaving me here alone with him around. Don’t, Lou! Please don’t leave me alone.”
Luigi was torn. It really wasn’t safe for Cody to accompany him. Surely the killer knew him with a perverted profound intimacy? But Cody looked so disturbed at the mere thought that he would be left alone that Luigi gave in.
“C’mon then. But let me quickly pay.”
Luigi flung down a $20 note on the counter inside and fled. The waitress ran after him with the change, but by then they had disappeared.
The man walked briskly along the pavement, stepping around the tables and chairs outside the pavement cafés. He turned down a side street. Luigi and Cody followed cautiously, trying to peer round the building on the corner like cats. He stopped next to a car and they heard the keys beep as he opened the door.
“Memorise the numberplate!” ordered Luigi, while he himself stepped out onto the pavement and lifted his mobile for a photo.
The car pulled out and moved away fast. Luigi took several photographs as it disappeared into the distance.
“Did you get it?” demanded Luigi.
“Yes. It was YIZ___”
“Lemme write that down. Just in case we forget or the photos didn’t come out.”
“Let’s see the photos.”
They were clear enough. A grey Toyota Corolla. In one of them, the man’s profile was visible.
“Is it him?” asked Luigi, passing over his phone to Cody.
Cody inspected the image very closely. “Can we make it bigger?” he asked. “Focus on the face?”
Luigi fiddled with the phone. “It’s so small. Maybe, we can take it home and I’ll transfer to my computer, with its bigger screen.”
When they got home, the results were inconclusive.
“I could’ve sworn it was him,” Cody said, but there was doubt in his voice. “And if it was him, where’s his Kombi?”
“Well, maybe,” reasoned Luigi, “maybe he likes to use the Corolla for everyday stuff and the Kombi for when he … you know …” He faltered.
“Fuck! I thought we had him!”
“We might still do.” Luigi paced up and down his tiny sitting room in excitement.
“No good going to those detectives. They couldn’t give a flying fuck about gay blokes. But why don’t we talk to that cop from Macedon? He was really nice and he cared. What was his name again?”
“Colin. I’ll never forget it.”