It was an unexpected knock, followed so swiftly by a second and a third that it became one loud, long reverberation. It woke Renée Mallory from her doze on the couch. Jittery anxiety gripped her as she sat up.
Am I dreaming?
The sound repeated once, twice, thrice! The security door juddered … bang, bang, bang!
She brushed down her clothes and swiped her damp brown fringe back from her forehead. She opened her front door just a little. The slight lace privacy curtain fluttered against her face. She held it aside, just a little, so she could see who was there.
The man on her stoop introduced himself as Warren Price.
‘I’m Bernice’s partner,’ he said.
While Renée knew her neighbour Bernice, she was sure she’d never met this man. Nor could she remember ever seeing him in the street. Then a vague, visual memory came to her of him sitting with Bernice on the front steps of the Royal Hunter Hotel, early one morning. They were waiting for the door to boozy oblivion to open.
He was such an ordinary man that it would be difficult to recognize him at a future time. Middle-aged. Middle-sized. His crumpled shirt was half tucked into saggy track pants and his half a head of thinning hair was long and dishevelled. He stood at the bottom of Renée’s five steps, one hand on the railing and one foot on the bottom step.
She instinctively pulled back, cringing at some unknown discomfort, thinking to shut her door. Something about his eyes made her uncomfortable; rheumy old-age eyes in a young man’s face. They darted left and right.
Hoping he’d leave, she opened the screen door half-way across her body and poked her head out.
‘Bernice isn’t here.’
‘Oh, I know that,’ he said. ‘Ha, ha, ah. I know that.’
‘Oh? Then, what can I do for you?’
His statement took a second to make sense to her. What did it matter to her whether her neighbour left her partner?
‘Bernice is dead. I found her dead when I got home on Friday.’
Renée shook her head, took a sharp breath. Hearing the news like that was shocking.
He was a very odd man. Odd looking. Odd speaking. Inappropriate behaviour, was her trained nurse’s diagnosis.
The high concrete steps gave her a sense of distance, but his brief words reached up and bit her deeply. Shocking her most was his nonchalance.
‘Her funeral’s on Wednesday. Someone up the street told me you were her friend. That she came here a lot. That she talked to you all the time. Told you everything … ’
Renée recoiled. Who would tell him that? She kept to herself, and even after eight years living in this street she didn’t really know any of her neighbours. She didn’t know their names or where they worked.
‘I hardly knew Bernice. I just gave her a lift into town from time to time,’ she said.
Renée recalled the bruises on Bernice’s torso some months back. In the car on the way to the shops, Bernice had trouble clipping her seat belt, and had cried out in pain. She had calmly, and with dry-eyes, recounted how she’d been bashed by her partner the night before. She may have said his name but Renée was focused on the hurt, not the hurter.
Bernice had lifted her T-shirt under layers of pullover and heavy coat and shown Renée the purple, green and yellow blotches on her chest, waist and hip. Some bruises looked fresh but others were obviously older. Most likely there would have been other marks of abuse elsewhere on her body.
Renée recognised in her own history – the punches, the slaps, the hits. She knew first-hand the wanton abandonment of control, the unrestrained anger that fuelled a rage attack like that.
She had felt her mind blur and found it hard to separate Bernice’s pain from her own. She had pulled her Jeep over to the side of the road, her hands shaking, her body trembling.
Renée offered her a trip to the doctors. A counsellor. Lifeline. A women’s refuge. Police. Bernice decisively and defensively said no to them all. She needed pain relief tablets. Now please, from the chemist. The kind with codeine.
Renée had met this man’s type before. Misogynist. Wife beater. Animal. Men who were intimidated by, jealous of and destructive to women. Happy to have heterosexual sex and take advantage of the skills of womanliness, but hating women at the same time.
This man at her doorway made her very nervous. The muscles, the bones, the very cells of her body retained the pain of her own past injuries. She hugged herself tightly, hands rubbing across her upper arms from elbow to shoulder.
He was still there. Still talking. He moved up the steps.
‘I have been telling all my neighbours that me missus was alone when she died. I’m telling you that now.’
He looked up into Renée’s face with quizzical eyes. He took hold of the security screen door.
He held the edge of the door tighter now. Took the control from Renée. Opened it wider.
Renée stepped backwards, away from the assault of his breath, a sour mix of bourbon and stale White Ox tobacco.
He was inside her home.
Just like that.
She pushed backwards, flat against the wall. Without invitation he sat down on her white linen couch. He made himself comfortable in the warm spot where she’d been sleeping only moments before. He pulled a cushion behind his back. Settled in.
Renée reviewed her options in slow motion. As in the past when fear took over, when anger threatened to harm her, time in the real world slowed. She felt as if she was walking through muddy water, bogged down. In opposition to this slowness, her breath quickened, and her chest tightened.
The stranger had a different look now. Hand wringing and jittery, he leaned forward from the couch and his eyes betrayed his words. He told how he’d called on all the neighbours on the left hand side of the street and now Renée was the last visit on the right. Some twenty homes in all. A well-practiced monologue.
He chewed some sort of gum, and the sucking, clicking sounds were abhorrent to her. It was an ambient, sexual sound and she found it revolting. This is a long term problem she endures. She feels an intense visceral anger, hatred and disgust whenever she hears the sounds of someone in close proximity eating, or chewing. Friend or stranger.
Chew, chew, chew.
Now, in this moment, she was at a crossroads. She must control her usual reaction, avoid any provocation to anger in her visitor.
‘Someone up the road said you were a nurse, right?’ he said. ‘So you know that she OD’d, right?’
‘Did she?’ Renée asked, her mouth dry, her tongue sticky and her voice squeaking.
‘Well, I work up at the hostel up the road, right? And, ah, well I checked her obs the day before, cos, well, she was out of it, right? Her pulse, her BP, her temp – they were all normal. And then I had to go to work, see? On nights.’
Chew, chew, chew.
‘Are you a nurse?’ said Renée, wondering how the hostel could employ a man like him.
‘Nah, I’m on the night watch roster, but I’ve learned a lot up there. That’s where I met Bernice. Brung her home with me one day to do some cleaning and she stayed, so that was okay. I’ll take another girly home soon. Very handy to have all that do-mestic stuff taken care of.’
Still pushing her body hard against the wall, trying to breathe quietly and calmly, Renée was at a loss what to do. Ask him to leave? Should she leave?
His words were slurring now. He’d stopped his pretence of sobriety. He flicked at his bitten down finger nails. His first two fingers and the palm of his left hand were stained orange from nicotine. An ex-prisoner might hide his smoke in his hand. The air in the flat was musty now.
Warren spoke without making eye contact with Renée for several minutes. Unable to rouse … heart attack … brain aneurism … seizure … tox screen … epilepsy…
‘What do you want?’ said Renée. She’d listened long enough.
‘Only, for you to know, I didn’t do it.’
‘Didn’t do what?’ said Renée.
‘I didn’t kill her. She was already dead and even if people talk they can’t prove it. She took pills, all sorts. Every day. Cost me a fortune. I’ve got receipts.’
‘I know she took pills, I know that. It’s all okay. So thanks for telling me. I’ll say goodbye, alright?’
Renée watched for a change in his demeanour. Best to keep him calm.
‘The police took video, photos. A statement. They counted tablets and looked at her scripts. I had nothing to do with it. With her being dead.’
He sat with legs spread wide, without fear now, in no doubt about his impression on her.
Chew, chew, chew.
Renée stayed quiet. She didn’t want to set him off. Who knew what his buttons were? Bernice might have missed her final cue.
‘She drank, too. After I’d leave for work. She’d take pills and get pissed. Some people said they’d seen me manage her back into the house. Well, I’d have to rustle her sometimes. She’d be in her underwear! For fuck’s sake I couldn’t just leave her on the street in the dark in her knickers, could I? Neighbours’d call me at work and so yeah, I’d have to go home and handle her back inside.’
He was red faced now, a large vein throbbing on the left side of his brow. She counted his pulse. How odd, she thought, but still she counted. Forty, sixty, eighty, a hundred and forty – hypertension. Blood pressure through the roof. Anger management an obvious issue.
‘Anyhow, I called this mate of mine, a retired cop. Sid. Ex-drug squad. I drink with him at the Royal. It’s good to have a drinking buddy who’s awake at seven in the morning. He doesn’t sleep well, all the things he’s seen. So I called him first. Before triple 0. I knew he’d know what to do. And he did.’
‘Well, its good you had some help when you realised Bernice had died,’ said Renée. ‘Thanks for telling me. Bye now.’
Chew, chew, chew.
She was desperate for him to leave.
‘We put everything right, Sid and me. We found all her pills and put the packets out for the local coppers. Collected up all her scripts. We picked up Bernice’s body from the bathroom floor and put her back into our bed. For dignity, said Sid. It was awkward, she was cold and bloody heavy. She was still in her clothes, rugged up like a polar explorer, and stinky like a dirty dish cloth. That weren’t unusual. Sometimes she’d stay in bed for days, just getting up to take more pills. Hardly ever showered.’
Renée felt some parts of her mind travel to other places, a childhood coping mechanism. She allowed herself to go numb, her nerves went into auto-suspension. She watched him from the safe distance of this psychological protection.
Levering his weight onto his knees, he groaned as he rose unsteadily, an old man in a young man’s body. Renée stepped up to the doorway, and opened the screen door. She inadvertently pushed it so hard it bounced back and shut with a slam! She glanced at him. He jumped and scowled. Stared at her with half-lidded eyes. She winced. Swallowed hard. Don’t make eye contact.
‘Righto, so the doctor said she would of had heaps of tablets in her stomach. And I was on nights. So I had nothing to do with her death. Right?’
He was at the doorway.
Please just leave.
He turned back to Renée.
‘So you’ll tell everyone right? What I just said? About it not being me who killed her?’
‘Yes, of course. I’m so sorry for your loss.’
She shut and latched the door behind him, watched him walk away through her window. Watched until he was gone from sight.
The living room smelt sour. She felt soiled, even though he hadn’t touched her. Her hands were damp, her body heavy, exhausted. She shuddered. Chilled and yet sweat rimmed her brow.
How had she let that whole scene happen? Why had she even opened her door? She’d seen a stranger there, she should not have let him in.
She considered her own use of tablets. No, I’m okay. I’m not addicted to anything. I just take codeine for pain relief. I only need them for my back pain.
It’s ten years since I hurt myself. Wait, no. It was Raymond who hurt me. Raymond who pushed me down the stairs. And then sat on me for an hour to stop me calling for help. It was him who held his hands around my throat and stopped the life giving air until I finally gave in and nodded.
‘Yes. I won’t call out for help. Yes, I’ll keep this a secret. Yes, you are in charge of both of us. Yes, I won’t fight you anymore.’
Renée had learned not to stress Raymond when he came home from a hard day at work. She’d learned how to make dinner just so. To wear just the right thing. Never to talk about going back to work. Never to invite her family to his house. Never to see or call her girlfriends without him present.
What will Raymond do when he comes home tonight? He’ll smell that awful man. He’ll sense something has happened.
She opened the pantry door. She passed her fingers over the smooth cedar wood doors that matched her island bench and the floating wood flooring. Her industrial modern home was a newly converted 20th-century warehouse apartment in Melbourne. The value had rocketed since the renovation.
She felt around the back of the shelf and found the air freshener behind the cereal packets. The lavender smell would calm her. She hesitated. But Raymond hates me using it.
She reached for the Tupperware tub, thirty years old, special and familiar to her. Renée swiftly poked out six tablets from a foil strip. Ahh, there are plenty left! Codeine. High strength. No prescription needed. Bernice had shown her the best ones. Codeine becomes morphine in the human body. Ahh.
Renée returned the container to its hiding spot. Hidden in plain sight. Dry mouthed, she couldn’t swallow the tablets and she quickly grabbed for the cup on the bench. Cold, sweet coffee washed the acerbic taste away. Her hands shook, but she knew in a short time she’d feel settled again.
She bent down to the wine rack and grabbed a bottle. Poured a glass of red wine, a burgundy from the Hunter Valley. Twelve bottles for the price of eight. Great shopping value. Raymond would approve of her budgeting. Renée tossed the screw top into the bin. She wouldn’t need the lid tonight.
Renée waited for Raymond to come home.