Number 246

*‘Number 246’ was first published in Skin Hunger, Ginninderra Press, 2008.

It was Jake’s idea. My ole lady reckons they’ll be the last words she hears me utter, right before they shovel me into a premature grave. I’m easily led, so she says. And I’m being led tonight, that’s for sure, being led down a long and windy road from the pub to the brothel.

Yep, it was Jake’s idea. He reckoned it would help get over the disappointment of losing his licence. As he rightly pointed out, it opened up an opportunity ’cos normally we’d be out at the strip at midnight, not at a loose end in some pub. We’ve got a score to settle at the strip, but it will have to wait a few weeks until the cops stop breathing down our necks. It’ll give Jake time to tweak the carbies. We’ll burst back onto the quarter-mile like a meteorite, he reckons.

So Jake’s swaggering down the road full of piss and I’m following him. I’m not swaggering, I’m sort of staggering.

Maybe, if you were feeling generous, you might say I’m swaying. Swaying gracefully in the breeze, that’s me.

‘Fuck, it’s cold,’ I say.

‘Just wait till you’re in the arms of one hot babe,’ Jake says.

Who’s he kidding? I think, but I’ve enough experience to know he’s right, even if he is kidding himself. All chicks look good in the early hours of the morning when you’re full of piss, even the local ones giving it away for free in the back seat of the Commodore. Jake reckons he’s generally not much interested in screwing any girl unless it’s in the back seat of the Commodore. He says he’s making an exception tonight ’cos visiting a brothel is something all blokes should do occasionally, if the opportunity presents itself.

So, we sway along the footpath until I say to Jake, ‘You sure we’re going the right way?’

‘Yeah,’ he says, in a way that makes me think he’s got no idea where he’s going.

‘It doesn’t look like a red light district to me,’ I say.

‘Look, you git, brothels are illegal in this arsehole of a place, as if it’s gonna have a big fuckin’ red light flashing it’s whereabouts to the whole wide fuckin’ world. Anyway, we’re here,’ he adds, ‘Number 246.’

I look at the house: an ordinary weatherboard with rusty ironwork and an overgrown garden. Not a red light in sight. A rose bush reaches out and catches me as we trundle down the path.

‘This is it,’ Jake says, in a voice that suggests he is in no way convinced this is it at all.

We stand at the front door for what seems like an eternity.

I lean up against the house, relieved that the swaying has stopped for a while. ‘Ring the bell,’ I say, with the confidence of someone who knows the job ain’t theirs.

‘Yeah, okay, gimmee a mo,’ says Jake, ‘gotta take a piss first.’

He totters a couple of steps away and pees off the veranda into the darkness for what seems like a summer’s worth of watering.

When he finally stops it occurs to me that I might need a piss too and so I stagger over to the edge of the veranda and unzip.

‘Right,’ says Jake. ‘You ready?’ Now is probably not the time for me to mention that I don’t much feel like a root. My head’s starting to hurt and I’m tired.

Jake rings the bell. He’s standing up straight with his arms crossed like he’s waiting to be picked out from a police line-up. I’m still leaning up against the house, wishing I could be sucked into it, disappear into some parallel universe like what happens in the movies.

The door opens. We stare, Jake and me. Jake has his head cocked to one side, as you do when you use your body to ask a question that your mouth just can’t spit out. And if the woman on the other side of the threshold is anything to go by, it’ll be the only thing that’s cocked tonight, I reckon.

She ain’t no oil painting, as my ole lady is fond of saying. She’s wearing this big fluffy pink dressing gown which has turned her into some sort of stuffed toy, an old fraying stuffed toy that has been well used, chewed up and chucked onto the tip, I’d say. She’s got this grey, frizzy hair and a face like a frying pan. I’m not kiddin’, and I’m thinking that if Hansel and Gretel had been more astute they would never have gone into that gingerbread house. Astute – that’s a word my ole lady uses often – mainly in reference to me. If only you’d been more astute, Aaron…

Now, the woman is unscrewing her face, as you do when you’ve just woken up and been assaulted by bright light. She
doesn’t look surprised to see us. She stands there, we stand there, and then she smiles, she smiles a soft kind smile and says, ‘I think you might have the wrong number, lads. It’d be Number 642 you’re after.’

At this point it seems that Jake has finally got the ole jaw muscles working again ’cos he comes out with one word: ‘Brothel?’

The woman looks at me when she answers. ‘No, no brothel here. You want Number 642, down that way.’ She points in the direction we’ve just come.

She keeps on looking at me, which is wrong. She should be looking at Jake; it’s his fault we’re here. I knew it was a mistake the moment we left the pub but, hey, I thought I’d go along for the ride, even if it wasn’t in the passenger seat of a hotted-up Commodore. But the ride’s over for the night, I’m thinking, and I decide to take the initiative – that’s another favourite word of the ole lady’s. If only you’d show a bit of initiative, Aaron… I reckon she’d be proud of me tonight…watching me stagger off, taking the lead, showing a bit of initiative…

When we get to the footpath, I stop and wait for Jake to say something. He says he reckons he’ll buy those new mags we looked at the other day. Reckons he’ll have the money saved in a few weeks. Reckons a bit of a bounce in the back seat of the Commodore is all he needs for sex, along with a good dose of internet porn. Couldn’t agree more, I tell him.

So we stagger on back up the road, past Number 642 with its discreet red light and carefully cropped garden. I think of
the woman we’ve just woken up and think about how she kept looking at me, as if she knew me. But then, she gave us directions to the brothel. Obviously, we weren’t the first midnight visitors she’d ever had. I guess all pissed dickheads look pretty much the same at midnight.


Back at Number 246, a woman lies awake. Alongside of her rests her husband, a mountain of swollen flesh under the bedcovers. The air is thick with alcohol fumes; guttural snoring reverberates around the room. Close to her, the stink of beer breath makes her avert her face, then turn over. Once she would have rolled his body onto its side but the body is heavier now, and the woman weaker, worn down, worn out. She tries to clear her mind and return to sleep but the face of the too tall, too thin young man keeps intruding. It’s a face that had become obscured, dimmed in her memory. For years now the person to whom it belonged had been stored in her mind as nothing but words – lanky, angular, funny, kind – words she had been unable to pull together to form a picture. The jigsaw puzzle had remained in pieces.

But tonight, he’d been standing there on her doorstep. She’d felt a powerful, almost overwhelming urge to reach out to him, put her hand to his cheek. For a brief moment she’d become a young girl again. Thank God he’d not spoken and spoilt everything.

She holds him now in the night, puts him to her breast for comfort, as she allows herself to fall back into the prison that is memory, that place where dreams are crushed less easily than lives…

Neil has caught up with her as she leaves the school grounds and is asking her if she’s going to the party on Saturday night.

‘The party? No,’ she replies, and then asks, ‘Whose party?’ She never goes to parties, is never invited.

‘I’m going,’ he says. ‘You should come. It’ll be fun. Everyone will be there.’

Neil had sat next to her in maths that day, in chemistry the day before, in English the day before that. He spoke with her, joked with her. Neil, she decided, liked her. And it was a thought that made her insides melt, even if it failed to make the slightest dent in her impassive exterior, that outer crust that had hardened through experience. In class she helped him with his work and had at first thought that this was what it was about – mere expedience. Get friendly with the geeky, smart girl; get your work done quickly so you can jerk around. But she’d been wrong.

Neil had caught up with her after school and asked if she was going to the party. ‘I’ll look out for you,’ he said. His idea of a date, perhaps.

But she hadn’t gone. She’d dressed to go, though, in jeans and her best top. She knew where the party was happening, not far from her home. She could hear the low beat of the music. She hadn’t gone. But Neil had gone, had gone and got loaded full of booze and then driven back home at three in the morning with his mate Murray, who’d got his licence three weeks earlier. The newspaper report said the car skidded on a notorious bend. A memorial service was held at the school for the two students killed, but she’d been unable to attend, having been laid low with a mysterious virus.

As the woman at Number 246 lies awake, with nothing but a dream cradled in her arms, she can’t help but wonder what would have happened if she’d gone to a party on a Saturday night, long, long ago.

She thinks it is possible that her life might have been very different.