For eighteen months, all I thought about was my baby girl, and how I was never going to miss another minute of her sweet and precious life. I was going to teach her at home until she was twelve years old. I would have to start with the subjects I already knew, like spoken English and art – because I can paint, I was going to be a painter, I had a man who was a painter, but he was a drinker, as well – and I would learn the others, like history and geography and chemistry and science, by reading books the night before then reading them back to my baby in the morning, and explaining to her about everything in the world and how it is in books and how is in real life. Except I wouldn’t tell her how it is in prison, because she wouldn’t need to know.
I was going to get us a place with the housos in Waterloo – a tower in the sky – and move my bed into her bedroom, or her bed into my bedroom, or just have one room and it could be our room where we would have both our beds from the beginning, so neither of use would feel like an intruder, or a guest, or a cellmate.
I would stay up all night watching her sleeping, stroking her liquorice hair, holding her caramel hands. If she was having a nightmare, if she was making fists or screwing up her eyes, or grabbing the sheet and pulling it over her chin and pushing it into her mouth and biting down so hard her gums bled and her jaw ached in the morning like she’d been punched, I would whisper, ‘It’s OK, baby, everything’ll be fine,’ and I would climb into bed beside her – or take her into my bed – so I could smell her and she could smell me and she would know she was not alone in the world with only her own breakable body to draw strength from, and her own soft brain to understand things.
I taped Polaroids of my daughter to the ceiling of my cell – nothing else but photographs of my baby girl in her pink dress with pink ribbons in her hair – so I could see her smile when I woke up in the morning and before I fell asleep at night.
One day last winter, the screws charged in and tore them down – and tore down everybody else’s pictures of their baby girls in their pink dresses with pink ribbons in their hair – because prison isn’t some kind of five-star holiday resort where you can go horse riding along the beach and put up pictures of your family, which you might be using to hide razor blades, or works, or your baby’s kisses drawn with crayon on the back.
Auntie Olive looked after my baby for eighteen months, like she looked after me for eighteen years. When I told her I was getting out on visitors’ day, she said she would meet me at the gate in Lenny’s shitbox, with my baby in the back seat strapped into a plastic chair.
Fat-pig Screw came into my cell to check that I hadn’t stolen any government property, such as the bed that was part of the wall, or the bowl that stank of other women’s piss and blood, or the noticeboard that said ‘1958’ and ‘boongs R a bunch of food theef’.
Sweet Caroline, my cellie, turned over in her bunk to face the wall. She’d seen her boyfriend in the morning, across a table in the visitors’ room. Fat-pig Screw pulled on her gloves and stuck her pork sausages into every dip in my mattress, every crack in my brickwork, then she jammed her hand inside my pillowcase and pulled out the smallest foil of yani you’ve ever seen.
Janelle, who had strangled her baby in its little pink dress, stopped in the corridor to say goodbye, because she was getting out today too. If you take a life you gave, you are only stealing from yourself, so five years is all you owe to the cops, who have to make sure the books balance at the end of the day, and nobody is thieving minutes from the till.
‘She’s loaded me up,’ I told Janelle, whose lips shone with the gloss she had painted on for the pimp who wouldn’t live with another man’s daughter.
Janelle shrugged – because what can you do? – and blew me a kiss made from the curls in her baby’s hair. Big-arse Screw steered her away.
‘That your girlfriend?’ asked Fat-pig Screw, crinkling her snout, snorting a kiss. She wanted me to slap her, so they could keep me another month – my yani was only worth a week, and where was the fun in that, eh? – but when I lifted my hands all I could do was push them into my eyes. I cried, because my baby was waiting for me in a plastic chair in Lenny’s shitbox outside the gate.
‘Where’d you get it?’ asked Fat-pig Screw.
‘It’s mine,’ said Sweet Caroline.
Fat-pig Screw looked at me like I was potato peelings.
‘So she’s your girlfriend,’ she said.
Sweet Caroline did that thing with her hips like she was bucking a mug, and touched me tightly on the shoulder, to give me muscle for the afternoon
The funny thing is, they call her Sweet Caroline because she is such a sour, twisted bitch.
Nineteen months ago, I tied my little girl to her cot with a big buckled belt, and she was lying in her own dirt, hungry and screaming, and my auntie found me on the pavement outside Derek’s pub, chatting up some mug through the window of his Falcon, and she said if I ever used again, she’d never give me back my baby. She’d change her name and take her to Queensland. Nobody would come to my funeral.
Fat-pig Screw wrote up Sweet Caroline’s charge while I picked up my property. I had to count twenty-five dollars and sign for a miniskirt and a denim shirt and a wide belt – not the same one, not the same one – broken heels and a handbag. The screw at the main gate queried the signature on my pass, just to piss me off.
When the gate screw let me out, Janelle was standing in the car park, smoking through strangler’s fingers.
‘You seen Auntie?’ I asked.
‘I told her you’d been busted,’ said Janelle. She crushed her smoke into the wall. ‘Sorry,’ she said, then her pimp drove up and pushed his buffalo head out of the car window, and it hung there like a trophy that some mug had shot and stuffed, until Janelle kissed him like a mad, murderous lady buffalo, with no horns to show what she was.
‘You wanna ride?’ her pimp asked me, and he made it sound as if he was offering a disease.
I tried to ring Auntie, but there was no credit on my phone.
I crossed the road with cars shooting past my ears – I could feel their speed on my legs – and I froze. Drivers shouted at me to move on, get out of the way, shave my legs, find my auntie, see my baby.
Between McDonald’s and KFC, there were two hotels, a bloodhouse for visitors and a sports bar for screws. I knew the screws’ pub would be empty until shift change. I walked through the burning lights and accident noise to ask the barman if I could use his phone, but he didn’t like my skin. I’ve got the name of my baby’s daddy tattooed across the knuckles of my love hand – he has my name on his neck, I have my name on my neck, I would break his neck if I saw him again – so the barman threw me out, and it was no use crying or threatening him because he’d heard every story before.
I didn’t want to go into the bloodhouse. I’d already lost enough blood – I’d seen it fly up and fill my works like a fat mosquito – but I had to phone Auntie and tell her to wait with my baby, and not change her name and carry her to Queensland, and keep her from my graveside when I died.
There was a user hanging from the payphone saying, ‘OK, OK,’ and I wondered if he was buying, because this was the pub the visitors came to hook up.
Sweet Caroline’s pirate was sitting at a table in his earrings, signet rings and chains. He said, ‘Hello, beautiful.’
Oh, I used to be pretty, and I haven’t lost it all – it’s going, I know it’s going, heroin took it and used it for itself – but I’m not beautiful. It’s nice to be called beautiful. The young mugs all told me I had nice eyes – a drunk copper blacked them with a sucker punch – and my skin is still smooth, you wouldn’t take me for user until you saw my arms.
Sweet Caroline’s pirate – I can’t say his name, but you’d know it; you couldn’t spell it but you’d recognise it – managed Hemispheres in the Cross. I asked to use his phone, but he said the battery was dead, ‘beautiful.’
I waited until the junkie was finished, then tried the payphone, but you couldn’t use it without a card. Eighteen months ago, they didn’t have those cards.
Sweet Caroline’s pirate was drinking with a wog, and the wog bought me a Bundy.
It was my first drink for eighteen months. I swallowed it whole and it made my feet shake. The wog laughed and bought me another, then Sweet Caroline’s pirate bought me another and I bought a packet of Holiday, and I bought Sweet Caroline’s pirate a Bundy, and the wog a Bundy, then we moved up to doubles.
It was good to be with men again.
The wog was wog-handsome, with skin like hash. Sweet Caroline’s pirate had a soft voice, and gentle fingers on my thigh.
I told Sweet Caroline’s pirate how I was going to read all the books to my baby, how I was going to be a real mother, how I was going to get square and keep off the street and stay off drugs – maybe a little smoke now and again, eh? – how I was going to meet a nice guy and clean the house while he fixed the car, and we were going to move out of the city and live on a farm – I once grew roses on a prison farm – where my baby could grow up safe from dope and dealers and mugs and pimps.
The wog said I should live my dream. Sweet Caroline’s pirate gave me a hug – oh, it’s been a long time since I had a hug like that one, wrapped in arms as hard as house bricks; smelling rum and aftershave and sweat and smoke – and said, ‘I hope it comes true for you, beautiful.’
‘But you’re going to need some money first,’ said the wog. ‘Why don’t you come back to work at Hemispheres?’
‘We could pay you in dope,’ said Sweet Caroline’s pirate.
‘I’ve got to phone Auntie,’ I said.
Sweet Caroline’s pirate and the wog were the same type. I don’t mean they were same type of wog, they were the strip-club type. They wore their Rolexes loose, as if they didn’t care if the watches slipped off their wrists, and laid their wallets on the table, stuffed with fifties, like they might slip one into your bra to buy a feel.
The wog let me use his phone, but I couldn’t get through to Auntie. I thought maybe the hotel roof was blocking the signal, so I took the phone into the car park. I dialled another number, talked quickly to a machine, sat back with the wog and waited.
I could hypnotise the wog with my tits. They were part-covered, half-secret. I brushed his arm with a cup of my bra while I scooped his wallet into my bag. Because you are what you are, and prison can’t change that.
‘I need to try Auntie again,’ I said, picked up the phone and walked slowly to the carpark. I could feel the wog’s stare on my arse. I kicked off my lame heels and ran – when I was a little girl, I could run like a horse, I used to run barefoot to Auntie when she picked me up from school – and I waved down the cab I’d called.
I was pulling on the taxi door when I heard Sweet Caroline’s pirate galloping behind me. I swung my bag into the front seat, but the cabbie saw two waving beer bottles and he slammed the door and drove away, with everything inside.
The wog threw me into the wall. My shoulder blades scraped down the brickwork. ‘Where is it? Where is it?’ he shouted, running his hands through my clothes while Sweet Caroline’s pirate held me upright. I pointed to the cab, which was gone, and he started punching me in the stomach and kicking at my legs. You’re hurting me, oh stop, please stop. Sweet Caroline’s pirate held me with an arm twisted behind my back, whispering filthy ideas, biting my neck with his ugly gap teeth, and the two of them pushed me into their car. I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you all.
They said I was going to have to compo the wog by working at Hemispheres, to pay him back for the money he’d had in his wallet and the business he’d lose without his phone.
I said, ‘Youse can compo your fucking arses.’
They drove me to the club, where the wog grabbed at me, took hold of my blouse and pulled me towards him, bursting the buttons and ripping the cotton, snatching the petals from a rose. I tried to bite his nose, but he butted me with the side of his head.
Dizzy, now I’m spinning. I’ve got to stay on my feet.
The wog dragged me upstairs, past the stage and the bedrooms and into the filthy room for users – there’s my blood on those walls, thin red trails like tears – where the wog wanted to beat me up some more. But Sweet Caroline’s pirate said he shouldn’t mark my face, and shouted for another man to help handle the mad bitch. It takes three of you plastic gangsters to hold down one girl. I’ll come back with a crew of Tongans and they’ll tear you to pieces. A young kid came in with a shooter, and passed it to Sweet Caroline’s pirate.
Now I’m scared, really scared, like this is where I die for a wallet I didn’t even get to keep, for a thieving cabbie’s phone.
Sweet Caroline’s man held it near my mouth. He said, ‘You do fifty mugs, and the money goes to the house.’ I smiled inside, because I could do ten mugs in a night, and there were only fifty drunken footie players and lonely uglies between me and my baby girl.
First I had to do it with Sweet Caroline’s pirate and the wog, but that was for free, so it didn’t count. Afterwards, they gave me a cheeseburger, then locked me up until the rain washed the first mugs in from the street. I did it six times with a mob of mongrels on their way to a bucks’ night. They all wanted to watch – oh let him finish, please let him finish – so I charged them each a bit extra and stuffed it in my bra. When they left, I curled up sore in a corner, and I didn’t cry, but I wished I was back in prison and I hurt in my body and my head and my heart because I was a thief and a whore and I got caught.
A blonde walked in – swollen sunglasses hiding pinned eyes in daylight – and I asked if she had a phone, then I saw she was a user and she only had one thing. She sold me a cap for twice the street price – all the money for letting the retards watch their mates – then ran out to get herself two more.
After that, I loved everything: breaking open the cap, the smell of flame on the teaspoon, the feeling of cord tightening around my arm – I’ve still got veins there, yeah I’m not so bad. I loved the blonde girl and her maybe-clean works, and the world closing down around me.
Two men came in and did me while I was stoned. They did the blonde, as well, and I don’t think she was even a worker. She took their money and said she was going out and did I need anything. I had to ask Sweet Caroline’s pirate for a sub to buy dope.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘beautiful. We’re not monsters.’
I was thinking of my baby in her little pink dress, and I wished I had a photograph of her. I would have put it up on the wall in the room and looked at it all night long. It would have been like I was watching over her, keeping her from harm, even though I was not there with her. Sometimes in the night I wake up and I know she has woken up, too. She is afraid and alone and I can hear her cry. I close my eyes tightly and concentrate hard, and I send my spirit across the city to her bed.
She can feel my love, and that makes everything all right.
MARK DAPIN | THE BEST AUSTRALIAN SHORT STORIES 2011 (Black Inc., 2011)