I DON'T EVEN really know where I first met Eli. She was just one of those people I saw at parties and gigs and bars. I liked her and I didn't care that she was a junkie; most people I knew at that time were junkies or at least partway there, myself included. Besides, I'd always had a soft spot for that kind of woman.
I was living pretty close to the bone that summer, more or less at the start of a losing streak that would go on to last another decade. I lived behind a shop in Brunswick Street and washed dishes in a Greek restaurant. I stayed up late, drank all the time and used dope when I could. At night I crouched in my windy room and carved hieroglyphs into my arms with broken glass, messages to myself, reminders of something or other – my own fucking stupidity perhaps. It wasn't the worst of times for me; they were yet to come.
It was a searing summer, worse in Fitzroy where the concrete streets exhaled the heat of the day back into the night long after sunset. Couples slept on rugs in Exhibition Gardens and news bulletins warned people to ensure their pets had enough water. Old people up and died from the heat. At night I dreamed of luxuriant bodies of water. People talked about the heat all the time, giving it a noise it otherwise wouldn't have. It made neighbours of everyone. On the streets, at bus stops, in taxis. ‘How about this heat?' ‘Hot enough for you?' Almost drove me mad.
Eli and I were drinking one night at Punters Club, just sort of flirting and carrying on. The music was loud and men were yelling and spilling beer over themselves. The summer excitement was fraying at the edges. The bar was packed with people with their sweaty faces and their moist, lingering handshakes. But there was Eli, with the collar of her man's shirt slightly upturned like a wink, displaying a shiny curl of clavicle. Somehow we ended up holding hands, on the step, trying to catch a breeze. She rolled the most perfect cigarettes I had ever seen, applying herself to the momentary task with girlish concentration. When she complained for the hundredth time about the heat, I took her by the hand and dragged her down the street. It was instinctive, spur of the moment. I didn't even really know her that well, but she laughed and went along with it. ‘Crazy fucker,' she said as she tossed her wine glass into the air and watched it smash against the road. ‘Where are you taking me, you cad?'
Fitzroy Pool was only a few blocks from the pub but I took her along darkened streets and beneath the graveyard shade of elm trees, just so I could hold her hand. Rose Street. George Street. Gore Street. I think she knew I was taking her the long way, but she didn't complain. Neither of us spoke. It was 2 am, moonlit, an enormous night full of murmur and heat. Cars tooted as they passed. People sat on their porches fanning themselves.
We clambered over the wire fence and plopped down on the scrappy lawns of Fitzroy Pool. We held our breaths. I was aware of Eli beside me, the very heat of her. Nothing happened, no alarms or guards or anything. We looked at each other and shrugged. It seemed too easy, but we were in. ‘Wow,' she said against my ear. ‘This is amazing.'
We waited a minute or two before walking around, but gently, unwilling to touch anything, as if in a church or museum. We didn't speak. Crouched here and there on the lawn and concreted area were pieces of white plastic outdoor furniture. A pair of goggles was slung over the back of one of the chairs. A towel curled like a fat snake around an umbrella pole. The pool itself was covered by a large plastic tarpaulin retracted by a wheel system at the deep end. The tarpaulin shrugged against its tethers in the warm breeze. I hadn't banked on this but it didn't seem to matter; it was enough just to be inside the grounds.
Eli wrestled off her shoes and stood silently on the concrete, staring down at her feet. Her hair covered her pale face, a momentary vanishing. I sat smoking on one of the sweaty, plastic chairs. Even through my shoes, I could feel the dull warmth of the concrete, as if the great engine of summer idled just below the surface. The entire city had fallen silent, aside from the thick rustle of the tarpaulin and occasional swish of wind through the trees that bordered the grassy area.
Now we were inside, we weren't really sure what to do. I felt even more foolish than usual. Finally Eli padded over to me, cupped my face in her hands and kissed me softly on the mouth with her winey lips. ‘You're a genius.' It was easily the nicest anyone had been to me in months. I thought I might cry. She squatted in front of me with her chin on my knees and stared at me for a long time, as if trying to remember who I was, which might well have been the case. Even in the half-light I could see she was stoned. Her skin and hair were silvery. It occurred to me that she had been crying. ‘You know ...?' she began, before looking away over at the shuttered kiosk.
She turned back to me, shrugged. ‘I was just thinking. You remember that smell when you were a kid and you'd been swimming on a really hot day and you lie down on the scorching concrete? That smell of, I don't know, chlorine and ... summer?'
‘Yes, and coconut oil.'
She smacked my thigh. ‘Yes! Sorry. And icy poles.'
‘Fuck. Yes! Although no doubt the PC police have dispensed with those.'
‘Probably. Now Native American something or others.'
She made pincers of her thumb and forefinger and held them in front of her face. ‘Peeling sunburn off your nose.'
‘Bombs when the lifeguard wasn't looking.'
‘You could do backflips? I can barely swim.'
‘Sure. Brisbane girl, mate. Spent my teenage years at the beach or in a pool. Under-15 freestyle district champ, in fact. I'll give you a few lessons, if you like.'
The fact that she had told me this made me bolder than usual. I leaned down, making a face, hoping for another kiss. ‘What kind of lessons, exactly?'
She fell backwards onto the grass laughing and stayed there, just staring up at the sky. Someone passing in the street outside called out and laughed. Then silence again. I flicked my cigarette away through the half-light and the orange tip shattered against the high brick wall, on which were painted the pool rules: No running. No bombing.
‘It's a shame that all has to come to an end, isn't it?' she said at last. ‘All that ... you know. All that.'
I didn't know what to say. It was true, I guess, about it all coming to an end and it being a shame. I followed her gaze up to the stars and wondered what sort of sound they made up there, supposing they made any sound at all. Perhaps a low whistle, like a faraway train. ‘You know the light from some of those stars has taken millions of years to reach us?' I said. ‘Might be light from stars that don't even exist anymore, that have exploded or died or whatever the fuck it is they do.'
She didn't say anything, but moved her foot against my calf in a gesture of reassurance. After a few minutes, she stood up in front of me and ran a hand through her dirty blonde hair. ‘Come on, then.'
‘We going to fucking swim or what?' She pointed with one arm outstretched. ‘Retract that tarp, my good man.'
‘I don't know. Just roll it back or something. Can't be too hard. I really need to swim. I feel like shit.' And she wandered away.
I STRUGGLED WITH the retracting mechanism for several minutes, but it seemed to be locked by a metal ratchet or something. It was difficult to see. I felt mildly ill and there was the tart flavour of bile in my mouth. Perhaps I'd eaten some dodgy takeaway food, but I couldn't remember eating anything at all that day. Maybe some toast for breakfast. Perhaps that was it. I stood and kicked at the wheel thing to try to dislodge the ratchet, but to no avail. I was rapidly sobering up – not a desirable state to encounter at such an inconvenient time – and I tried, with rising panic, to remember whether I had any alcohol at home.
I straightened up and lit a cigarette. A breeze ruffled my hair and chilled the sweat on my neck. On it came the smell of diesel fumes from Alexandra Parade. Eli was nowhere to be seen and I doubted I would be able to figure out the stupid tarpaulin mechanism. The whole swimming thing was losing its appeal. ‘Eli,' I hissed. ‘Eli.' No answer. Fuck. Where was she? I searched the shapes and shadows of the darkness.
The tarpaulin buckled at around the centre of the 50-metre pool. I squatted down and looked across the plastic surface, which shimmered slightly in the moonlight in a parody of water. Another movement. A muffled cry. Her voice. Eli's voice. Shit. She was under the tarpaulin. The dumb bitch had gone swimming under the tarpaulin. There's no way she could find her way out of there, under-15 swimming champion or not. Especially not drunk and stoned. Shit. I ran back and forth at the deep end, calling to her, thinking maybe I could guide her towards the edge of the pool. I stepped on to the raised edge, then off. Sweat salted into my eyes. I barked my shin against a banana lounge. Should I go in? Again the lumpy punch from beneath the tarpaulin, this time at least a little closer to the edge. I called out her name, told her to keep going in the same direction. What a disaster. I imagined the police, the headlines, jail, my entire life telescoped into a single tiny, idiotic point.
Then there she was, just a metre away, peering out from beneath a cowl of blue plastic. She was laughing and motioning me to be quiet. ‘There's no fucking water.' And she raised the tarpaulin high over her head to show me. Sure enough, a square cave, its neon-blue floor bruised here and there with middens of leaves.
‘Jesus. I thought you'd gone swimming under there,' I said.
‘What, you think I'm an idiot?'
‘You scared the crap out of me.'
‘No such luck.' She scratched her nose and looked behind her. ‘You get that tarp thing working?'
‘But there's no water.'
Eli stared at me as if measuring me for something. Beads of sweat had formed on her forehead and I could feel her breath on my knee. She held out her hand and I helped her from the shallow end. Together we figured out the tarpaulin mechanism, which wasn't so complicated, and rolled it back, releasing the perfume of warm plastic and old chlorine trapped in there for god knows how long, distilled from a thousand summer days. Neither of us spoke as we bent to the task, which was curiously satisfying, a sort of double-handed rolling. Eli didn't say anything the whole time. She was filled with some sort of weird energy all of a sudden, like she was on a mission.
When we had finished, she strolled the length of the pool, stooping here and there to trail her fingers in the imaginary water, shaking her hand dry each time, and when she got to the shallow end she shrugged off her white shirt, stepped from her jeans and just stood there in her underwear. It wasn't fancy underwear like I thought she would wear, swiped no doubt from David Jones, but just plain blue underwear, practical, like from a Target catalogue. She just stood there, skin glowing, rubbing one hand over the opposite arm. After a few minutes she approached the curling metal ladder, turned around and stepped backwards, rung by rung, into the water.
‘You going to join me?' She made a whooshing sound with her mouth as she breast-stoked around the shallow end. ‘It's nice when you get used to it.' And laughed with the ridiculousness of it, that thing Australians say to encourage their friends to join them the water.
Unsure of what exactly I was doing, I wandered down to the shallow end and sat on the lip of the pool. Eli watched me from the corner of her eye as she swam. I swung around and dangled my feet into the pool.
‘Careful,' she said. ‘You'll get your shoes wet. Don't want wet shoes, you'll catch your death. You can't swim in your clothes, everyone knows that. You'll drown.' I hesitated, about to say how unlikely that was, when she came up beside me and rested on the edge of the pool, elbows winged on either side of her. ‘Come on,' she whispered. ‘I'll give you those lessons. But we'd better stay in the shallow end. After all that drinking, and if you're not such a good swimmer and all.'
By the time I'd taken off my jeans and t-shirt and kicked off my shoes, it didn't seem so foolish to be swimming around with Eli in Fitzroy Pool in the middle of the night. She stood beside me with one hand cupped under my chest and observed my freestyle with a professional eye. ‘No. Your arm is going way too loose coming out of the water. All over the place. Try and drag your fingertips along the surface of the water – the hand that's coming around – so you get that clean action, like this, see? Be with the water. That's it. Yes. Nice and tight. Feel that weightlessness? That's what you want.'
I don't know how long we spent paddling about in that damn pool, grinning like seals, kicking up the swirls of leaves, but it was the most fun I'd had in years – made sweeter, of course, by the fact that I knew it couldn't last. I felt I was somehow unbound from myself. Eventually we scrambled out of the pool and, suddenly shy, stepped into our street clothes, into the other, public versions of ourselves, before climbing back over the fence into the adjacent parkland.
We wandered back to her squat that smelled of sour milk. She had the front room. We smoked for a while in the sallow light from the streetlights outside before falling asleep fully clothed as trucks lumbered past. In the night I felt her childish breath against my neck and finally woke late in the morning to find myself alone. It was already hot and when I staggered into the sunlit kitchen, it reeked of heroin. Eli sat in a wooden chair with one arm folded back hard against her chest. She wore just jeans and a white singlet. Her neck was sweaty, her eyes post-coital and her belt was looped on the table; she'd obviously just had a hit.
‘Hi there,' she said.
A cat purred and squirmed around my legs. I eyed the spoon on the table. ‘Morning.'
‘I saved you a taste,' she said in a thick voice and nodded towards the crooked spoon. It wasn't a gift, not exactly, because junkies never gave gifts – especially not of drugs – but rather a sort of conclusion of events. ‘Thanks for last night,' she said. ‘It was fun.'
I was surprised, but knew right then and there that I would remember all this, the night and its subsequent morning, the girl in the kitchen like some creature raked from the sea; that it would be a memory to sing across the years to myself among so many unremembered nights and days. And so, I guess, it has been.
I mumbled something and set about having a hit, fiddling about with a glass of water and a spoon.