The Friday before my thirteenth birthday, while the city melted in the middle of an unexpected heatwave, my dad entered Vito’s for the last time. Ten years on, I still wonder if he knew this, when he threw an arm over the bench seat of our Falcon wagon and blew me his last kiss.
The drive through the city had been smooth enough. We passed over Farrier Bridge without so much as a lane change. Windows down on the freeway, hot wind ripping through our hair, singing “We Are The Champions” until our voices croaked. When I wrapped my arms around his tattooed neck from the back seat, he gave my hand a firm squeeze, strong and safe.
I’d just reached the cone of my melting ice cream when the crunch of gravel underneath us announced the front car park of Vito’s Auto Repair Garage. The no-rules, bare-fist fights held in an abandoned warehouse out the back.
When Dad turned to face me, the momentary set of his jaw and the darkness in his eyes hinted at his mental preparation for his fight. Years earlier, I’d been oblivious. Half the time, I’d be asleep on the backseat before we pulled up. As I got older, I noticed the effects fighting had on him. There was no fear. No mantra. Not a moment’s hesitation. Only the way he seemed to double in size on the intake of a deep breath and the heaviness the air held, as though he needed to part thick curtains to step through.
“You’re my mate, Breezer,” he’d said. “We’re mates, you and me. Aren’t we kiddo? I’ll be right back, I promise. Okay?”
“Can I come with you, Dad?”
“You can never, ever come inside. Don’t come looking for me until you see me coming. I’ll be right back. Promise.”
I’d heard variations of his promises over the years as he slid out the driver’s door, but what my father never realised, apart from habitually repeating himself, was how deeply I believed him. His promise of always coming back to his waiting car was something I held tight to, while I waited, alone in the back seat.
And he did always come back, carrying with him the stench of wounded flesh and blood. On his clothes, on his breath, on the steering wheel, in the material of his flimsy, slept-in seat.
The smell made me feel sick. Sometimes, I’d make a small sound, even though I gripped my mouth hard with a trembling hand.
Sometimes, I’d cry.
But when you come from St George’s Gully, this’s how you make a buck, he’d remind me before stuffing a bundle of fifties under the sun visor.
He always came back.
Until he didn’t.
On the Friday before my thirteenth birthday, my dad, Julius Taylor disappeared inside old Vito’s garage and never came out.
February - Ten years later
The drinkers inside Shutters Inn drift along the bar from snack bowl to snack bowl like fat, lazy blowflies over a picnic table. Schooners held above swollen bellies and high-vis shirts with armpit stains the size of dinner plates.
The air conditioner’s broken. The floor’s sticky. Cigarette smoke rises steadily above hats and shoulders until it’s scattered by a wobbly ceiling fan.
I don’t hear the bar phone ring over the Friday afternoon crowd that’s expanding by the minute. Don’t hear Kyle call my name, I only turn when his head shakes and his frown shoots arrows my way.
“It’s for you,” he says.
I slide two draught beers to the bricklayers at the far end of the bar, in singlets that read Jeremy and Deon Hughes, Get laid by the best. I push a fresh VB toward Rusty, the burly man with a flat nose and steep forehead and taking his money, I say, “Five bucks, Russ.” Then shout over to my boss. “Who is it?”
“How the hell should I know? It sounds like Mark again. He obviously can’t see you’re busy. The answer’s no, whatever it is.”
I straighten out Russ’s fiver and lay it in the till. I was late today. It’s been happening a lot lately. Dad’s watch, a 1950’s Rolex, runs on its own fickle time. I can’t rely on it anymore. I don’t trust it. Last week it was five minutes late. Now, it’s averaging ten minutes, sometimes fifteen. I’d say that’s why Kyle’s foul with me this afternoon.
“Make it quick,” he says as I pass behind him. His temper’s mounting and he’s trying hard not to make a scene in front of the customers.
I wipe my hands on the towel tucked into my apron and press the phone to my ear. I’ve told Mark to stop calling me at work, so it’s hard to keep the irritation out of my voice. “Yeah?”
“Ash,” he says.
I plug my ear with a finger and turn my back to the bar. “Don’t tell me you can’t do today. You’re making a habit of this and it’s getting me in all sorts of trouble.”
“For Christ’s sake, I’ve got my arse hanging out.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Please, Ash. I can’t. Not today.”
“Can’t you ask, Annie?”
“She’s not answering. Besides, we can’t keep using the neighbour.”
I glance back at the gathering crowd. “I can’t leave. Friday afternoons are three deep at the bar. I’m run off my feet here. Besides, Kyle’ll lose his shit after being late all week. His knickers are already twisted.”
“Mark, this is your roster and you rostered yourself on this afternoon, remember?”
“Of course, I remember but things come up. It needs to be flexible.”
“Flexible for who, you?” My sigh is harsh. It travels through the phone, hits a wall of silence and echoes back to me.
In less than half an hour, our little sister, Caitlin, will be standing alone at the school gate. She’s only eight. We both agreed to another couple of years before we considered the school bus option, especially in our neighbourhood.
Mark sighs before a touch of mean hardens his tone. I know before he speaks what card he’s going to play. “No offense Ash, but you’re working behind a bar. The shittiest one in St Georges Gully, I might add. I’m investigating a missing person. The trail could run cold by dark.”
A groan rumbles up my throat. Where did the trail run for our father? I want to ask him. But I don’t. He’ll only tell me Dad’s dead. Not because of any evidence that confirms this. Not because his body was ever found. He says this because it’s easier to pretend the trail ran cold than to admit he couldn’t find his own father. Eventually, he stopped looking.
“Stop,” he says, answering my unspoken questions. “Don’t you dare go there. We’ve got more pressing things to worry about.”
He sighs before his tone softens. “Do this for me, Ash. Please? I’m not going to… I can’t get there.”
A dull ache forms behind my eyes, under the weight of Kyle’s glare and Mark’s expectations. Under the silent demands of waiting customers, whose schooners are near warm and empty and whose eyes shoot at my back like darts.
I’m not someone who’s ever late. I’m not someone who walks out mid-shift. I’m built with my father’s work ethic, loyal and constant. It’s how I’ve lasted almost six years at Shutters, longer than any other staff member. From serving T-bone steaks and cleaning guest rooms to running the bar, sometimes on my own.
It’s a seedy old pub, I’ll give him that, with its boarded-up windows and peeling paint, but it’s a means to an end. I want to be something better one day. Something bigger and better than a Shutter’s Slut. Something that involves getting out of St George’s Gully and ending up someplace other than jail.
“Fine, I’ll be there,” I say. “I wouldn’t want the trail of a missing person to run cold.”
I untie my apron. The other waitress, Jess, shoots me a warning look from where she’s pouring vodka. Kyle’s eyes narrow and his frown deepens.
“I have to go,” I yell over the noise. “There’s no one to pick the kid up from school.”
Glasses clink before the dishwasher snaps shut and starts churning water. “I thought you said after the last time, you had this organised,” he says.
“I did. I do. But what I had organised isn’t happening.” I take my bag from underneath the bar and throw it over my shoulder.
“Ashley, you can’t leave now, bloody hell, look at the place.”
“I know. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to piss you off. I really don’t have anyone to get my sister from school.”
He exhales a resigning breath and rubs the stubble at his chin. He’s a chunky man, with a face the colour of corned beef and a shirt ringed with sweat around the collar. His eyes dart between the waiting customers and says, “You’ve got one hour. Or you working here, which is what I’ve got organised…” his finger moves back and forth between us, “…isn’t happening.”
I nod and slip out from behind the bar. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
Out the back door of the pub, I trot up the stairs to Jess’s room where I stay, two or three nights a week, when I finish work late or an after-work drink turns into six or ten. The room’s so small that when my mattress is rolled out beside Jess’s single bed, you can’t open the door or the drawers.
I stir through my clothes strewn under the bed. Pull out a bottle of vodka instead of the bourbon, as I’ve found it leaves little tell-tale signs on the breath. I take a swig before burying the bottle in my bag and rushing to the car.
At the school gate, I don’t correct those who naturally assume Caitlin’s my daughter, and not my half-sister. A single, teenage mum’s not exactly the description I wanted for myself, but it’s easier than identifying Caitlin as the kid whose father didn’t want her and whose mother drank the best of herself away.
She runs up the path. Busy, blonde curls bouncing and a smile brighter than the sun. Her hand in mine is as small and fragile as a baby bird. I hug her. Inhale the scent of innocence and new life. My one hope is that she’ll stay this way. That St Georges Gully won’t harden her so much that she’ll sleep dreamless and be dead to hope. So many of us turn out this way. To be born here is to be deemed scum from the minute you take your first breath. Ruined before you cut teeth. Groomed to live outside the law.
St Georges Gully is a town on the outer western suburbs of Sydney. A town of abandoned shop fronts and cramped commission housing. A neighbourhood where young adults are plucked from the streets like weeds and sent to jail. Unless you’re born here, there’s really only one way in or out and that’s via St George’s Gully Correctional Centre.
During the day women, who are not really women but no longer girls, push strollers with a cigarette in one hand and a baby bottle in the other. By night, the guys pick fights and drink at Shutters except for those older boys, removed from the streets by the powers that be.
To survive high school, you’re raised to fight at a moment’s notice. Opinions and debates are settled with fists. It’s the way our father raised us. He was a brutal fighter and I adored him for training me and making me part of something he loved.
I smile across at Caitlin as we walk to the car, acutely aware of the minutes ticking by. Dad’s watch drums impatient fingers against my wrist.
“It actually sucked,” she says when I ask her about school. I love the way she uses the word actually. It’s her favourite word. “Does it actually work? Are they actually mushrooms? I’m not actually tired, is it actually bedtime?”
“What’s wrong, Bub? Is everything all right?”
She frowns and drops her lip. “No.”
“Emma doesn’t play with me anymore.”
“Can’t you find someone else to play with?”
We climb inside the car. The sun throws flames against the windscreen. Sweat gathers where my skin meets the seat and my hands grip the wheel. The trees are still and silent. The air’s thick. The air-con’s never worked, so I drive with the windows down and faster than I probably should. Empty bourbon bottles and premix vodka cans roll around the back seat when we corner.
“But Emma’s my best friend.”
I look across at her. “What’ve you got there?”
“It’s my painting,” she says. “Do you like it?”
There are dots and splashes of bright reds and blues and greens. Then I give her a smile. A genuine, real smile. Because she deserves it and because home will steal my smile when we get there.
She blinks up at me. “It’s actually a flower garden in a teapot.”
Opposite our house, the St Georges Gully train line runs through narrow bushland. Us and our neighbours are the last three houses in the street before an intersection and the overpass bridge. Underneath the bridge is a makeshift home for the town drunks and homeless.
Our house is about a hundred years old with a small front veranda, roofed over for shade and railed in with fancy rusted iron. It’s a small place, set deep back from the road. If it were a six on a clock. the houses next to it would be at four and eight.
Caitlin skips the faint narrow path through mowed weeds. It’s made of feet going back and forth. A dark ghostly trail where the weeds are crushed into the earth, bruised and battered. The path leads to front timber steps that have sunken and cracked.
Inside, through the squeaky screen door, Caitlin dumps her school bag and skips into the living room. I pull open the curtains that look as though they’ve been closed all day.
Eleanor Taylor is stretched out on the lounge watching Wheel of Fortune on TV. She lifts a shaky arm to shield her eyes from the light and squints up at me. She’s not yet passed out but judging from the droop in her face, she’s well on her way. It’s not even four pm and already a bottle of wine sits empty on the coffee table, a second is opened on the floor beside a red-rimmed glass.
I turn and pull the curtains closed, blanketing the room once again in darkness. I hate the dark, but I’ve come to realise, this is a house best kept that way.
Mum coughs to sit up. She wears a thick dressing gown intended for winter and faded black leggings. She pinches the collar together underneath her chin and says cheerfully, “Baby Doll, how was school?”
Considering she can speak means she’s still in the early stages of getting plastered. Usually, the fun, caring and capable Eleanor Taylor enjoys a bottle of wine at lunch. Then she’s replaced by the depressed, miserable, and teary Eleanor Taylor who drinks her own full bottle of wine until she passes out somewhere between the lounge and her bedroom, where she stays until morning. She can go from fun and happy to a pissed off, crazy, drunk woman in less than half a dozen mouthfuls. Snap at something she might’ve laughed at five minutes earlier.
“Hey Mum,” I say.
“Where’s your brother?” she croaks. “He was meant to be here this afternoon.”
She says it with half a plum in her mouth. Her voice, both slurring and articulate as the high-school-music-teacher Eleanor Taylor attempts to speak over the top of shit-faced Eleanor Taylor. It’s as though there hasn’t been a handful of years between working full time at St George’s Gully High and living on welfare.
I scoop dirty washing from the floor. “He’s tied up at work, Mum, but I’m here.”
Her head lolls as she attempts an eyeroll. When she opens her mouth to speak, her teeth are the shade of white after a wash with a red jumper. Merlot fills the cracks of her dry lips like blood.
“He’s always tied up working. He’s always needed for something, what about me?”
“I haven’t got much time. I’ve gotta get back to work.” Out of habit, I glance at Dad’s watch on the way to the laundry, even though it can’t be trusted.
“When will your brother be here?”
“As soon as he’s done working, Mum. Okay?” I yell from the laundry. “He’s held up with a missing person or something.”
I throw the washing straight in the machine, along with what’s already in the basket. “Caitlin, get changed and bring me your school uniform so I can wash it please.”
While Caitlin changes her clothes, I soak dirty dishes in the sink and fill the kitchen bin with rubbish but don’t risk the extra couple of minutes to run the bin outside and replace the plastic liner.
“The missing five-year-old?” Mum says, standing. “Someone’s taken her, I bet. Can you believe The Gully’s made the Nash, National News? God, I hope they find her. I heard the police are door knocking. Do you think Mark might be on the news? He might get interviewed by A Current Affair.”
Caitlin wanders back into the living room and sits on the floor in front of the TV. “Don’t you change that channel, missy.” Mum points to the screen with her glass, red wide swirling and sloshing dangerously close to the rim.
“Oooo, it’s a song title.” She squints leaning forward and takes a step to steady herself. “A song title starting with the letter I. I waaaaant… I waaaaaant toooo—”
“Mum, you said you wouldn’t smoke inside the house anymore. That’s why I put the ashtray outside by the chair, remember we talked about Caitlin’s asthma?”
She looks at me, her eyes taking and takes a few seconds to focus. “I didn’t bring it back inside, I swear.”
“She gets asthma, Mum.” I lean over the bench and splay both hands beneath me. Close my eyes so I can take a deep breath. “Sit back down before you fall down, for Christ’s sake. I’ll get you something to eat.”
“Using the Chrissssst name will not be torrreelated, young lady.”
Her slippers whisper across the carpet to the coffee table, where she pours a long ribbon of red until her glass is full to the brim. She falls backwards onto the lounge, her wine held shakily above her head. “Come up here and give me a cuddle, Baby Doll.”
“Ash, I’m hungry,” Caitlin says climbing onto the lounge.