Christmas eve was its usual self: expectant, dissatisfied, drunk. But still a glass half-full. Sahara leaned her tired shoulders against the wall, the grubby bricks cool but scratchy, and lit a cigarette. Through its swirling smoke the lights of the famous fountain were smudged like frayed red and green tinsel; police patrolled the empty streets.
The Cross was never this dull in her youth.
Tugging her skirt down an inch, she tethered her hair back into a clip, stamped on the cigarette and headed towards a grimy pub on the corner, one of the few bars still alive at this time of night. Years ago her natural destination was the Bourbon, but it now brimmed with morose poker-machine players and cold coffee. No booze after eleven. The grimy pub would have to do. It was nearby, and her feet throbbed from prowling the Strip for the past few hours.
A cop tipped his cap in jest as she crossed the street. ‘No early Christmas presents for anyone tonight, love?’ he grinned.
‘It’s nearly midnight. Thought I’d start my holidays,’ she lied.
At the pub’s door she poised her chin, let her hair plummet. It was cooler inside thanks to the raucous air conditioner; the relief from the evening humidity almost rude.
The barman’s lips moved as he fiddled with his phone; his face fake-alight as a customer ordered a beer. The waitress glanced at the huge clock on the wall, then moved her eyes to Sahara. She raised an eyebrow for a second; then pointed her chin at a tiny circular table in the corner. Sahara exhaled faintly: the table was quiet, private almost; and its seat a soft leather booth. The room’s other chairs, ungiving and wooden, creaked and croaked with a few small groups, and couples gorging on nuts and crisps. A grey man with a florid face sat alone in the far corner, staring at his hands cradling his bottle of beer. His suit was drained, his thick white hair and beard rumpled.
‘A vodka and tonic,’ Sahara said.
As the waitress tapped the order into her phone she discreetly pressed her weight from foot to foot. ‘Long night?’ said Sahara.
The waitress nodded gratefully, her eyes skirting the room for the boss. ‘Not long to go.’
Near her a couple groped each other between sips of what looked like Cointreau. Tinsel and wrapping paper dangled to the floor from a few tables, and a bunch of women in Santa hats slurred along to ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ crooning from the speakers, shrieking at each other’s mistakes. Two blokes at the bar ogled too long at Sahara; she held their sarcastic grins for a minute, her face stony, then turned to her phone as it dinged. A text from Georgie: Busy?!!?
Not yet, she replied, and lay the phone face-down. She didn’t fancy arguing with him.
‘Last drinks!’ the barman called, dipping the lights twice. ‘Not my fault,’ he yelled to the groans. ‘Blame the government.’
The room emptied slowly; the couple ordered more wine then sculled it while loudly ordering an uber; the group of women wobbled to the door after wrapping themselves and each other disjointedly in the tinsel and ribbons. The bells on their felt hats could be heard jingling when the barman softened the music, but they kept singing and jousting, now up to day nine of the carol. As they bustled through the entranceway a girl threaded between them into the pub. Youngish, stork-thin, her beige dress inexpensive but strangely prissy; the bar’s uncertain light luminous on her pale arms. Sahara yearned for a cigarette; thought of her small flat and the weed and other stuff in her drawer; questioned herself again for being out at the fag end of a vanilla day. She should’ve told Georgie she wasn’t well; that she had a family do to attend; promised him extra shifts in the new year. But talking to or texting him required effort. She ordered two more drinks from the waitress and, smiling, asked her to keep the lights low – as a Christmas gift, she pretended to plead. ‘I’ll ask the boss,’ said the waitress wearily.
The skinny girl was at the bar, arguing with the barman; Sahara could hear her begging, ‘C’mon, please. Just one!’ to his crossed arms. Her hands were gripped as in prayer as she leaned on the counter, her voice choir-like, melodic. The manager, a pudgy man in a long black apron, emerged from the kitchen door, chased by a whiff of rank bacon. After surveying the room he placed his hand on the barman’s shoulder, then announced: ‘Okay everyone, this is definitely last drinks. But as it’s a special day, and as there’s only a few of you in here, this last one’s on the house. Then you can all fuck off for a fucking merry Christmas.’ The two young blokes cheered. ‘But don’t be asking for any cocktails or spirits. House wine or beer only.’
‘Aw, come on, mate. It’s Christmas!’ said one of the blokes. He was as well-shaved as his friend but sported a goatee; unlike his bald buddy his hair was swept back, gelled, as flush as his bespoke suit. Sahara pursed her lips: she could fleece these guys, easily. They were drunk, they were horny, they were eyeing the skinny girl as she settled herself in a booth and crossed her legs. A blow job each for $200 – it’d get Georgie off her back.
But…the thought of kissing these men, let alone…her mouth twisted. Perhaps it had been the call to her daughter in Katoomba earlier that day – the argument had exhausted her, left her despondent, guilt-ridden. When Sahara suggested she’d visit in the new year Cecily’s voice had turned stealthy, her availability in January suddenly uncertain. It led to sour words – it always did – and the afternoon had remained stale, unpalatable. The jobs had been hard work, tedious, the johns parsimonious. But the hollowness of her flat had no allure, and the photos of her unforgiving daughter on her sideboard would only press-gang her depression.
So here she was. Watching two losers attempting to molest a skinny girl who blatantly wanted to be left alone. On the street outside a stout guy lit a cigar. Its vapour furling gracefully towards the stars made her chest ache; she would sprint to her car, drive to her daughter’s homestead and try, try to be a good mother. Even with Cecily’s viperish tongue the Blue Mountains were tempting – all that rambling, lonesome bush, all that sky! Georgie would hunt her down but she could handle him.
The thought of his oily flabbiness towering in Cecily’s parlour made her ears burn. Perhaps it was best that she remained far away from her daughter.
Her phone pinged; another text from Georgie. He’s reading my mind, she thought irritably. Her fingers wavered over the screen, uncertain what to answer; then it rang.
‘Yes,’ she said dully.
‘Where are you?’ he barked, his voice its usual battering ram.
She sighed, her eyes still on the two blokes. One had his arm along the skinny girl’s shoulder, the other was walking his fingers up her thigh. The girl seemed to be giggling gloomily, pouting, tugging her skirt towards her knees. Sahara tried to catch her eye but the girl’s were bleary, her nostrils moist. She’s drunk, Sahara realised. Or maybe stoned. But why was she alone, and in this pub, of all places, on this night?
‘For fuck’s sake, George,’ she murmured into the phone, ‘it’s Christmas eve. Surely I can have an early mark today.’
‘Still half an hour till the witching hour, lovey. You’ve got tomorrow off, remember. And you promised me a big haul as a Chrissy present. Better get cracking. I reckon you can get a few more in before Santa comes.’
Sahara said nothing; all she had to do was press on that red button…
‘I know you’re still there, bitch. Make some more matches tonight or else.’ And he hung up.
She scanned the room. The barman was wiping glasses, the manager had disappeared. The old man was still at his table, staring at the drab maroon wall, his eyes as lost as the skinny girl’s, although once or twice he jerked his face towards the girl; still on the same bottle, Sahara saw, as when she arrived. Why was he here, alone? Why was anyone? She smiled grimly – perhaps he and the girl had wondered why she too was here alone. But it seemed neither had noticed her. They both were stuck inside their heads, inside some inescapable web, blind to the world.
The manager was smoking a cigarette behind the bar; as if he felt her raised eyebrows he lifted the cigarette towards her in offering. She nodded and when he reached her table took it from his fingers and sucked deeply. As the nicotine comforted her lungs the smoke filtered towards the ceiling like an old black and white film, and she could see her daughter as a toddler in the smoke, grinning cheerfully, waving at her. She lifted her hand to wave back but she’d dissolved into the yellowed ceiling. She remained riveted, then: Fuck it, I’m leaving, she decided. Scrabbling for her handbag, a small yelp from across the room made her pause. The skinny girl had slumped, her mouth wide and wet, murmuring plaintively, ‘No, no, please.’ Sahara sagged back into the booth. Where’s the cops when you bloody well need em.
The skinny girl’s shaking forehead was rested on the goatee’s chest; the goatee’s hand was deep between her thighs while the bald guy leered, sculled, spat jests from the corner of his drooling mouth. Sahara sucked hard on the cigarette then checked her lipstick, lifted her wineglass and handbag and walked to the girl’s booth. Despite her still-raw soles she was relieved to be wearing heels – height provided a shade of empowerment.
‘I’m leaving now, honey, why don’t you come with me,’ she said, her eyes centred on the girl.
‘And why don’t you fuck off. She’s with us,’ said baldie.
‘Unless you wanna join us, honey,’ said goatee.
The men were taut under their expensive suits; gym-lovers no doubt, with dense, barbarous spleen. Sahara paused – the neon flickering from the strip throbbed at her, calling her name – then straightened her spine and sat on the wooden chair opposite the three.
‘Why not,’ she said.
‘What’s your name, love?’
‘Like the desert?’
‘More like the dessert,’ she said, automatically. She slanted her head, smiled playfully as they guffawed. ‘Actually, how about a Christmas gift for you guys? This one –’ she nodded her chin at the girl ‘– won’t be much fun tonight. But join me in the Ladies and I can show you nirvana.’
‘Yeah? And what’s the gift?’
‘Two for the price of one.’
The men raised their eyebrows at each other, grinning. ‘Together? That dunny’s a bit small,’ said baldie.
‘One at a time. But here’s the deal. Let that girl go. I’ll book an uber to collect her when I’m in there with…you.’ She pointed seductively at the goatee guy. ‘The barman’ll get her into the cab.’ The men twiddled with their bottles, unconvinced. The girl was now snoring softly, a light dribble scoring the goatee’s shirt. Sahara buttered her voice, licked her top lip.
‘A bird in the hand, matey…’ said the baldie to his friend, shrugging at the dozing girl.
‘Okay,’ said the goatee. ‘But she was looking forward to us. Said she wanted it bad. So I hate to see her lose out. But let’s be fair – for that price you should be giving us two freebies.’
Sahara held his eyes. The door beckoned, Georgie would be unimpressed at the lack of payment, but the girl, the girl…Sahara remembered herself years ago, slumped against a stranger in a strange bar, alone, in need…she knew where it would end. Maybe not whoring in the Cross, but rape, molestation, accusations and denials, possibly addictions, and the unrelenting consequence of self-disgust. She peered around the room; the barman was nowhere to be seen, the old grey man was still at his table, his head in his hands, his bottle still untouched. His shoulders seemed to be heaving.
She sighed dramatically, smiled, stood. ‘All right, come with me.’ She pointed at the baldie. ‘Do not touch her. I mean it.’ The bald guy laughed, his palms in the air.
The bathroom was cramped and sour; she’d never liked sex near a stinking toilet. He tried to kiss her but she butted him away. ‘Blow job only.’ He fiddled with his zipper, leering as they always did, and she tilted against the basin, her arms crossed. Finally his trousers and undies drooped at his knees.
As she lowered herself onto the toilet seat and leaned towards his hip a crisp blast echoed from the bar; the thin fibro walls rattled; a scream pierced the bathroom.
‘What the fuck was that!’ yelled the goatee guy. He tumbled against the toilet booth’s shaky partition, his boxers strangling his shins.
Too close for fireworks, Sahara thought vaguely. She pushed past him, choking on a sweet charcoal smoke. The barman was standing immobile with a rag in his hand, the girl was frozen to the booth, the owner was gasping at the kitchen door; all were bug-eyed, mouths an o, gawking at the far corner.
For a moment Sahara believed the bald guy had fallen face-first into a meat pie; it took a few minutes to realise it was blood, not sauce, dripping from the table, splattered on its black wood.
Opposite him the old man stood, staring at the gash on the bald guy’s skull; his shoulders cowering, his crumpled grey suit flecked scarlet. A gun, as small and plastic-looking as a toy, hung from his fist. The neon outside the window flickered. He lifted his head, his eyes darting wildly around the room; finally resting on Sahara. He moved his mouth but his words were inaudible; finally he shrugged. ‘She looks like my daughter,’ he said apologetically. ‘My lovely, lovely daughter. And you know…that bastard – he looked just like him – he wouldn’t let her be.’ Then he peered at the gun with confusion, set it at his temple and shot himself.
The skinny girl began to shriek.
After the police had removed the body and barricaded the room with tape, after the staff and customers had given their statements to the detectives and the forensic guys in their white suits had arrived, Sahara dragged off her heels and plonked herself in the gutter outside, kicking her bare toe at the butts and soiled kebab wrapping. The sulphur had glued itself to her nostrils, and she knew she’d never forget that smell, or the sweeter, metallic scent from the bodies on the stretchers. When the cigarette she’d shoved in her mouth refused to light, she lit another match, then more, until an untidy hill of dead matches collapsed against her ankle. Each one’s tiny spark softened the chill in her bones, a little; each tiny whiff of smoke curdled west towards her daughter.
The girl and the goatee guy had been taken to the police station. The barman had disappeared, the owner was still sprawled on a booth seat, sucking from a bottle of whisky as police and forensics scoured the bar. She’d wanted to speak to the girl, but realised she had nothing to say.
‘Here, let me help you.’ The cop who’d passed her in the strip, a lifetime ago, squatted beside her and lit her cigarette. ‘Hell of a way to spend Christmas,’ he said, taking a heavy drag. ‘From what I heard he just was sitting there, doing nothing. I don’t get it. Why was he even there? Tonight of all nights? And there seems no connection between him and the bloke he shot.’
She nodded dully. ‘He was lonely.’
The cop puffed loudly, shook his head. ‘Are you okay to get home? Where do you live?’
‘Blue Mountains,’ she said softly.
‘Hell of a trek up there at this time of night.’ He poked the pile of matches with his boot.
‘It’s morning,’ she said. A frail apricot sun teetered just above the terraces. She stuttered quietly, ‘I just wanted to help her. If I’d stayed with her, then maybe…’
The cop drew back, raised an eyebrow. ‘I never knew you had a soft side, Sahara.’ Noticing her eyes brimming he softened his grin. ‘Hey. It’s not your fault about the…dead guy.’ He stood up quickly, stretched. ‘I’ve gotta get back to work. Just be careful lighting those matches, okay? We don’t need the Cross burnt down tonight.’ He patted her on the head. ‘Hell of a Christmas present, eh?’
She lit another match; thought she heard her daughter’s angry laugh in the dying night. Texted Georgie. ‘Can you send me one? I’m free now.’