On her forehead are the infinite constellations of her freckles. Time dissolves in the mapping of their shapes. He traces their outlines with callused fingers, his bright eyes wandering lost across the surface of her skin. A winter wind whips through their walls, slamming doors and shaking bare cupboards. A synchronised protest from their stomachs as they sink into the couch.
‘Want some?’ he asks as he sinks his teeth into a knotted rubber band and tightens it around his arm. She shakes her head and tries not to watch him, pulling her cardigan across her chest and folding her arms. His sigh is long and wavering as he throws the limpid band across the coffee table and lies down across her feet, curling up like an infant. Her body shivers into his, her breath visible. He props his head up suddenly with a white fist and peers up at her.
‘We should burn the table.’
There are veins in his body left unbruised. Against his heart she hears the ebb and flow of time. Thousands of shipwrecks weighted down by forgetfulness and neglect. Freddie drags the coffee table out into the concrete courtyard, scuffing the wooden floor of their lounge room. She stands in the doorway. He kicks at the legs until they come off one by one and throws the broken table into a pile. He carries a plastic chair outside and tells her to sit and watch while he douses the wood in petrol and fumbles with some matches. The flames are instant. She pulls down her hood to shield her eyes from embers and sparks. The crackle of bone as she shifts in her seat. His smile is ablaze as he wraps his arms around her shoulders, the ice-blue tips of his fingers beginning to thaw.
There are remains of his childhood strewn through the house. A patched cricket ball, a red Fender guitar with no strings. The address of his parents’ home folded at the bottom of a small wooden toy box. She is surprised these things still take up residence, that they haven’t been broken, burned or tossed away. She keeps a suitcase open in the corner of their bedroom and knows exactly what to pack when they decide to leave.
They take a tram down The Esplanade, their bodies ashen, shoes damp. His fingers burrow under her sleeve, digging softly at her wrist. His manic eyes stare down two men as they get on the tram.
‘Quick,’ he says, as he pulls her towards the doors. They leap out onto the pavement just before they close.
‘Inspectors,’ he spits, ‘fucking lurking like shadows.’
She trips over the tram tracks as they run out onto the road. He catches her. They laugh and she kisses the lobe of his ear, smelling the sweat on his neck, his unwashed days.
They step onto the footpath. His fingernail rips a ladder in her stocking and she stands still, watching the ladder climb up her leg to her thigh. The ocean is still before them, a glittering grey mass surrounded by the neon glow of Luna Park and phone lights carried by skittish teens and wandering dealers. Most of the dealers they recognise by face, some they know by name. There is a cacophony of music and he drums with two hands across her back.
‘Let’s walk towards the music,’ she says as she leads him to the other side of the road. The red man signals for them to stop walking halfway across. She stops and waits for Freddie to run back over and lead her by the hand. Car horns screech at them. They each hold a finger up at the drivers, an ocean of anger in their eyes.
Stale beer and roasted meats overcome the smell of seaweed on this side of the street. Her hunger comes back, but she knows Freddie won’t be hungry for a few more hours. She chips a nail running her hand along a brick wall and swears so loudly that someone on the other side of the street stops to look at her. An old man licks his lips and keeps walking. Freddie pulls her cardigan high around her shoulders.
She says, ‘I hate everything that isn’t you.’
Freddie left home when he was fifteen, showered in his father’s bad habits, all the while hoping for something better. He held a bottle of expensive wine under his arm and stood on the doorstep of the only girl in high school who had ever spoken to him.
‘I would break the world for you,’ he said, ‘Let’s own it together.’ Freddie was only a year older, but he spoke as if he had already seen the world. There was nothing more perfect than the sound of his voice, and the way it could wrap her up and shelter her from everything. His lips were thicker then, and all she wanted was to feel them against her skin.
‘Hayley,’ he whispers. She walks forwards, untangling herself from his embrace.
‘No, Hayley. Come look at this.’ She turns around, her feet bowed towards one another. Her cardigan slips off one shoulder.
‘This car,’ he says. ‘Come here.’ She rolls her eyes, walks towards him, his teeth glowing, the yellowed canines exposed by the faint streetlight above.
‘Car’s unlocked,’ he says. He directs her gaze with his head to a black sedan. ‘I know how to jumpstart a car.’
She folds her arms. ‘You do?’
‘Done it before.’ There are people everywhere. She walks away from the car. He runs to catch up.
‘No one will think this isn’t our car,’ he says, gripping her shoulders. ‘As long as the owners can’t see the car from wherever they are, we have time to jumpstart it. Takes me two minutes.’ He removes a piece of fluff from her hair and blows it out on to the road. His eyes are radiant.
‘Okay,’ she says, grabbing his arm as they walk back towards the car. He opens the passenger door and gestures for her to sit down. She looks up and down the street before sidling inside. Freddie casually walks in front of the car and sits in the driver’s seat. She watches the veins in his forearms pulse as he fumbles with some wiring. She waits with her head against the headrest, closes her eyes.
His second cousin, Charlie, had a house in St Kilda where the windows didn’t open and the walls let in the wind and the dust and the mice. He did every kind of drug, and paper bags and needles lay in cupboards where food should have been.
They lived with him for two months before he left them with the house. They kept the shutters on their front windows closed. As did most of the houses in their quiet street. Freddie told her they would only stay until he made a little money to buy a car. Then they would travel up the east coast and they would spend nights sleeping on beaches, drinking coffee in remote sunny places. Maybe one day own a lighthouse.
She barely notices that the engine has started.
‘Yes!’ He hits the steering wheel with both hands, indicates and merges onto the road.
She pushes a finger into the side of his head, ‘Clever boy.’ In the glove box she finds a torch and a bag of weed.
‘We’ll get papers,’ he says. She places it back in the glove box and pulls her knees up to her chest, chewing at the corner of her fingernails as he drives alongside St Kilda beach.
‘Let’s be sober tomorrow,’ she says. He nods in agreement, strokes the sunken contours of her face. They hold hands, and he steers and indicates with his one free hand. Out of the city, they roll down the windows and her hair twists and knots in the wind. She finds particles of sand in the creases of the passenger seat. She licks a finger and picks them up. They dry from the wind and she watches as they fly away.
‘Can I throw the weed out the window?’
He doesn’t even look at her as she says it. He accelerates faster and laughs, ‘Yes, yes. Let’s do it.’
She laughs back and takes the bag from the glove box. She brings it up to her nose and inhales before tossing it out the window, spots it in the side mirror as it falls to the ground.
She spends most days swimming across his endless tide, diving deeper each time to discover a man that never really grew up, who never really had anything to offer her but love. In between sleep and hunger, there are moments of lucidity, when they both want nothing more than to be there together, to be alive. And she forgets that she ever wanted anything more. It is the most beautiful thing she has come to know.
They don’t see it until it is a few metres from the bonnet. The slight sidewards turn of the wheel is just enough. There is a guttural cry from underneath the car as their bodies rise on such small impact. A shower of stones behind them as they veer off the road. His wired eyes close as he pulls on the handbrake. The tremble of the running exhaust shudders their seats. Dust spills in through her open window and she can smell the heavy vapour of an approaching summer storm.
‘Freddie,’ she whispers. ‘We have to leave this place before we destroy one another.’ Her eyes are crystal. It begins to rain. They get out of the car, leaving the doors open. Rain drips steadily from their bodies. The collapsed body of a rabbit lies between them and she has never heard such a deep breath.
She reaches out to touch his face. ‘Let’s keep driving,’ she says, ‘away from the ocean.’
Image: Ken McMillan