Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for April is Stephen Greenall’s debut novel Winter Traffic (Text Publishing), an epic literary crime novel of corruption, murder and the true nature of justice, set against a Sydney backdrop of vendettas, money and sin. Read an extract below.
The girl is sun, feels made of it. She lies on the balcony that adds a zero to the rent and tells herself it’s strong enough to be here, to be worthwhile. Her every cell turns blind from shadow but the season is against her. Laura’s voice carries from the other side of glass.
‘You’re never gonna tan.’
I don’t want to tan / I just want to feel it. Kristy has said these words, said them twice. But Laura is work. ‘I’m dying,’ projects the housemate in an abject croak. ‘I’m actually going to die.’
‘I warned you.’
‘You have to go out, Kris. You have to go out and get us some pizza.’
‘Don’t talk shit – it’s freezing out there. God, you’re such a fucking lizard.’
She watches the view through one basilisk eye, the bad-news angle of the sun’s diminishing azimuth. Kris is seedy herself but knows how to hack it. What she doesn’t understand is why she shells out to live here, staying on after summer pisses off for the year. A high of seventeen can’t make her feel her element.
‘Hear me? Lizard!’
You’re wrong / I’m snake. Do snakes head for south for winter? She should rack off north – shuck oysters in Broome or go geisha in Japan. Kristy fixes on the surfer at large among the waves, a bloke who doesn’t give a shuck about temperature.
Wish I could do that.
The regret is old, a guy in Hugo’s who offered to teach, who rocked up to the sand with new boards, fresh wetsuits. The truth outed quick / he thought it was cute: I’ve never surfed a day in my life. He’d managed to fool her – looked the part but worked in property. That’s Sydney for you / what a prick, they dated for a month.
‘Get this straight,’ she says and rises from loveless slab. ‘I say no to this thing but you say yes. Then you beg me to go with because you’re so hungover and I’m a good person, I take pity.’
‘But now you’re pulling a heart muscle and making me go alone.’
Laura really puts the anguish into languish. ‘Look at me, woman. Would you pay to see this naked?’
She showers and readies, telling herself to expect it when she leaves the bathroom: the world suffocated, starved of oxygen heat. So it proves, blue methadone twilight, Laura lying useless / still awake. ‘How come you always get ready so much faster than me.’
Because there’s twenty things you do that I don’t have to.
‘I’m old,’ says Kris. ‘Know the shortcuts.’
The range light guides her to the kitchen, the freezer. High-end tequila: that’s the shortcut. Kristy hits a switch to turn the darkness on and syncopates her sips, listening for audio / receiving in stereo. The signal is strong and property guys morons, charge you a fortune for the sight of surf but nothing for the sound.
‘You have to do it, Kristiana. You have to get us somefood.’
Ouch – Laura jerks like a frog in science, her voice ageing a dozen years to catch up with her body. ‘Are you pissed off?’
‘Yes. I told you I wasn’t keen and now I’m the only bitch going.’
‘You don’t have to.’
‘You put my name down, Laura.’
‘You put my fucking name down. These aren’t like normal people – you can’t just bugger them around. They don’t give a shit you were Miss Beach Road two summers in a row.’
‘Whatever.’ Laura sounded ten before and now she sounds fifteen: detached and apathetic, fit for grunge. ‘That German bitch’ll be wrapped.’
‘Dutch. Why wrapped?’
‘Get real, Kris – they only fucking asked me cos they thought they might get you.’
‘Tell me about it.’
He gives a quick thumbs-up, all good, and navigates the traffic. Doesn’t ask questions but answers hers: Iranian, Qom, here two years. At fifteen he drove taxis in cities that she will never see, finds difficult to picture. Now he is twenty-three and a student of weather.
The car traverses an enormous gate and Kristy is aware of thoroughfares internal, an estate with roundabouts and give-way signs, actual traffic decisions to think about and make.
‘This is the biggest house in Bellevue Hill,’ he says in a flat tone.
‘You don’t believe?’
They come to rest at the entrance used by servants, tradies.
The Fräulein directs her to a bedroom. In residence a girl with auburn hair, the innocent milkmaid look that for some is shocking poison. Kristy puts on a basque in black lace, two small bows the colour of lust where stockings meet suspenders.
Hairclips in her mouth and both hands busy; a construction of high and striking ponytail. The other girl’s fingers stroke her fabric to assess. ‘That’s so nice. What brand?’ Kristy answers through pins and gritted teeth.
Tahni from Cobar. ‘Aubade. That French?’
A blonde nod, then a sharp rap on the door that makes her tell the future. ‘That’ll be The Fräulein with the masks.’
So it proves, Tahni taking possession with a solemn demeanour, giggling about it when The Fräulein leaves. Cheap and plastic, three whisker strokes on either side of a pink-button nose. ‘How many will there be you reckon? Girls.’
‘Don’t know,’ says the veteran. ‘Fifteen, twenty.’
‘And we all wear the same one?’
‘Turn around.’ Kristy goes to her bag and roots around for the glitter-pen. ‘She give you a number?’
‘Eight.’ The stylus is applied to the small of Tahni’s back,Kitten 8 inscribed on the thin strip of skin between panties and camisole. ‘Why do you call Anita that? The Fräulein.’
‘Because she’s so warm and cuddly.’
‘But I heard these guys are the best ones to work for.’
‘They are, girl – by an outback mile. Come on, do me. I’m always five.’
Tahni complies, sounding grave when halfway through the calligraphy. Sounding terrified. ‘You’re beautiful.’
‘No – I mean it. You are, like, disgusting.’
Kristy ignores her bag when it starts to ring; Tahni announces her save-up desire for a Nokia 1011. ‘They run on this thing called 2G. You get four different rings to choose from.’
Kris nodding, wondering emptily who she missed. ‘Ask your boyfriend to get you one.’
‘Ha, still browsing. One of the girls at my other place says you can meet guys with this lot. Real ones, I mean – businessmen who want serious girlfriends. They set you up and that.’ Kristy says nothing and Tahni wonders, ‘That how you got yours? Boyfriend?’
‘Stuff that.’ A dash of bitters in her voice, newly introduced. ‘If a man buys you a mobile phone it’s because he expects you to answer the bloody thing.’
It makes Tahni laugh again. ‘You don’t have a BF?’
‘Sure I do,’ says Kris with a final twist of hair. ‘But I don’t let him buy me shit.’
‘Which is why you do this. The freedom.’
Tahni goes into the en suite and shuts the door, Kristy not listening for the sound but hearing it. After a minute the door breaks its seal and a shy voice wonders if she wants some. The disgusting blonde goes to the bedroom door / locks it.
‘I’m assuming Anita hit you with the rules.’
The greenhorn shrugs. ‘It’s just some coke.’
‘You can come along high – half do – but you can’t use on the premises.’
‘Having a drink is fine, but the blokes who come here – use The Fräu – they can’t be in the same postcode as a stripper copping defib on the lawn.’
This from the hall, an open-handed hammer on the door that Kris just bolted. ‘Clean up,’ she says and crosses the room, unlocking to admit a pair of dyed-in-the-wool peroxide fans. Emu struts and cassowary eyes, ladies who glitter and sweep the room in the hope of items as shiny.
‘Look who it is,’ says the taller, dumping a bullshit Ferragamo on the bed. ‘Little Miss Read-Your-Aura. I thought you moved to Nimbin to sell crystals?’ Tahni comes out of the en suite and gets hit with mustard gas, the sum result of Opium + Shalimar + Poison + Angel. None of the perfumes are giving an inch / it’s a Mexican fucken stand-off.
‘That thing is Belinda,’ says Kristy with a thumb-jerk. ‘She has costume tits and a short fucken memory.’ Belinda looks steak knives and almost speaks. Doesn’t: when jogged, her memory is actually pretty good. Tahni extends a hand to the second girl but Kristy tells her not to bother. ‘Belinda’s pet, Beware of Dog.’ The pet gives Kris the finger and twenty tense minutes go by before The Fräulein swings through, gathers them up for the pep talk.
In the car, with the Iranian, Kristy wondered, ‘Why weather?’ He didn’t quite catch it, asked her to repeat. ‘Why study weather. What’s so special about it.’
‘The weather is wondrous,’ he told her simply, actual wonder in his voice; the gold-spun girl broke into smile. The conversation proposed no flirtatious undercurrent, not at any point.
‘Meteorology,’ she said. ‘Just swirling around us, day after day. What’s your favourite chart, mate. Synoptic?’
‘I like the pictures from satellites. From above, so far, every city has a different…’
‘This is the word. London is a tumour.’
‘Got that right.’
‘You have been?’
‘Heaps. Tell me some others.’
‘Moscow is a net,’ he said. ‘Los Angeles looks like a gunshot. You know – the spray of blood.’
‘What does Honkers look like?’
‘Hong Kong is pearl.’
‘Also a pearl.’
‘Come on, buddy – no Ski Double Ups! Gimme some Copenhagen.’
‘I have not seen Denmark. But Reykjavik is a knife wound, a nick in the side of the body that goes to septic.’
‘Righto. So give me Sydney.’
‘Sydney is a…’
Silence, the car passing through pretentious gates. ‘The biggest house in Bellevue Hill.’
‘You don’t believe?’
The scope of it weighed. Not visually: the magnitude exerted on internal synoptics, a hyperbaric pressure in her temple no meteorologist could ever chart. The spooky gift, Kristy’s almost welcome stranger. Maybe it was finally on the wax again.
‘No,’ said the girl in a voice far from sun. ‘I believe.’
The phone in the hallway is ringing when it shouldn’t. At three a.m. it is a frightening object, crying out a promise of adverse information. Good news has manners and waits for the sun.
Sutton gets vertical / goes urgent through the dark. Susan rolls over, never really comes awake. By the third shredding peal he is johnny-on-the-spot, his fingers tight around the throat of receiver.
He says the word twice and hangs up. But then he just stands there for a while and you would reckon him a statue.
In the laundry he dresses in yesterday’s clothes. They reek of work, of him. He pulls on boots while standing and his shadow puppet mirrors, a servant saying master is composed just like a stork.
He knows that Bloke is underneath, intent for certain music: when soft feet turn cement it means the man is going out. A secret gap between earth and house, a squeeze of perfect rover. He races his human to claim the truck / he has never tasted silver.
Until here and now: the human is exploring his utmost velocity, and even Bloke hooning leopard rocks up late to the appointment. The canine scents the danger – the ferry casting off – and launches for a tray that is already swinging hard, a drastic arc of entry into atmospheres of harm. Sutton sparks ignition at the second time of asking and her injury squeal of tyres is a taste of what will come.
The man on the toilet was christened Brett. The name might have been acceptable if he’d been born a girl; that would have been quirky, distinctive. At sixteen he had bad skin and big dreams, casting round the family for a handle he could hack. He smash-grabbed nanna’s maiden effort, seized Whittaker and whittled back.
Now he is forty for the third year running, Whit Hammond that ARIA saw fit to induct. Twice: the player of bass for two bands so honoured, albums you know and songs you love.
Not that he looks real hall-of-famous, cowering on the shitter of his Bellevue Hill pile. Salon streaks for the raddled peacock, hands that made full stadiums quake. They reach for a wall-phone that is pink like the Sorbent and tremble to recall his show-stopping number.
Sutton ignores the reddened eyes that regulate the highway, chariots past crossing lights obedient and blind. The journey feels slow motion despite his every acceleration – moments pressed like hours under long exposure film.
Bloke snaps hungry hippo at the riptide in her tray. It is the ebb of trackside streetlamps as they merge in killjoy warning, urging wowser U-turn / wrong and way and go and back. The dog can eat the lotus breeze, taste gear-change in the driver. It is the rumour of himself that Susan has not ever met.
‘Sutto? It’s Whit.’
‘I’ve got some trouble. Mate, I’m sorry I fucked you over but I need your fucken help.’
‘They’ve got Kristy. Okay? They’ve got Kristy and they’re hurting her.’
The line goes dead and Whit begins to cry.