Until they suddenly loomed large in the lives of her parents, Camy had never heard of Nicki and Sam Cabiri. Not only did they become regular visitors, but Camy also picked up hints that they had loomed even larger in that shadowy time before she was born.
If the arrival of Nicki and Sam Cabiri was sudden and complete, the arrival of their daughter Suzie was sudden and complete and unwelcome. She was two years older than Camy, but only one grade higher. Six months earlier Suzie had been diagnosed with leukaemia, which had meant long periods away from school for a variety of treatments and problems. Her latest setback was breaking her arm falling off the monkey bars. Although the accident was unrelated to the illness, the cast was emblematic of her general disrepair.
The first time the Cabiris turned up, Camy knew she had been assigned to Suzie. The fact that Camy was naturally introverted and uninterested in making a new friend counted for nothing.
To Camy there was something strange about the Cabiris. They had a sports car and Sam wore a leather jacket. Nicki and Sam drank spirits with coke at dinner instead of juice or water or beer. They smoked, even during the meal. Camy’s mother hated smoking, but dug them out a pewter ashtray without comment.
Camy didn’t understand the concept of entertaining. To her, it was a sign of shameless favouritism that her mother brought out soft drink and chips for guests. Camy was further scandalised by how Suzie set herself up in front of the bowl of chips and worked through them until the bowl had to be refilled. Camy wanted to say something but couldn’t. Instead, when Suzie thumped off to the toilet, Camy took a big handful. The injustice was complete when Sam Cabiri walked by her and said, ‘You’re a bit of an eater.’
The only good thing about Suzie’s greediness was that it stopped her from talking. She said a few unpleasant comments through a spray of chips and then turned the TV on without asking permission. Suzie’s parents didn’t make her turn it off, or apologise for her rudeness. The night was endlessly disorienting. Every licence was given to Suzie, but Camy still found herself being picked up on for the smallest things.
After dinner Camy said she needed to find something in her room, just to get five minutes away from the other girl. Camy was upset with herself for seeking such a cowardly way out, but the relief outweighed the shame. She dawdled on the floor of her bedroom, squeezing each moment for its full worth, like the last minutes in bed on a winter’s day, or the last seconds before stepping out of a shower. Five minutes soon became ten and then her mother was at the door with a hand resting on each of the Suzie’s shoulders. ‘Suzie’s been looking for you,’ she said sweetly. The girl lumbered into the room, moving her whole head and neck as she looked around. As Camy’s mother left she added, ‘Why don’t you two play in here until dessert is ready?’
Suzie made a full inspection of the room, picking up dolls and toys and putting them down roughly. ‘What else have you got?’ she said after completing her rounds. A hot prickling sensation ran up Camy’s neck, but she didn’t know how to stop what was happening. She found herself dumbly pulling her candle-making set from under her bed where it had remained unused since she won it.
‘What’s that?’ grunted Suzie. She took the box and peered at the faded photos on the box.
‘I got it at the fete,’ said Camy. ‘It’s for making candles.’
Suzie pulled it open and began fossicking through the plastic moulds. ‘What do you make them with?’
‘I have to buy some wax still.’
‘That’s stupid,’ offered Suzie. ‘What are you going to do with candles anyway? Stick them up your pussy?’
‘I’m not!’ Camy didn’t know what Suzie meant but it was all the more disgusting for its vagueness.
‘That’s what freaks do. You must be a freak.’
‘Shut up!’ Camy punched her on her good arm.
‘I’m sick. You can’t punch me or I’ll die.’
Suzie started laughing with a sort of gasping sound that turned into a cough. ‘Oww. You punched me good. I’ll get you when my arm is fixed.’ She rubbed her arm and suddenly seemed weak and tired but also satisfied. She sat on the floor against the wall and played with the different parts of the set, now absorbed in its workings. Camy sat on the floor opposite watching, hoping that the girl would remain peaceable until dessert. As time passed and Suzie quietly manipulated the candle moulds Camy felt the prickling sensation of having Suzie in her room recede, replaced by the unexpected pride of having her possessions admired.
The adults were oblivious to the subtle transformation in the girls when they were called for dessert. Sam Cabiri was standing over the two women, his arms around them, laughing hysterically. Camy’s father was outside smoking. Camy could see the red tip of his cigarette through the reflections on the glass doors. It was unusual for him to have a cigarette and Camy worried that he was being made fun of by the others. But then he was at the window doing something horrible, and it was clear that all of them had gone off the rails together.
Camy was resigned to Suzie dobbing on her for the punch. But Suzie was more interested in squashing as much ice cream into a bowl as was geometrically possible. She was oblivious to the ruckus of the adults, and stalked off to eat in front of the muted TV.
At the end of that first night Camy milled outside with her parents to see off the Cabiris. She was amazed they were driving – as far as she could tell neither parent had stopped drinking since arriving. The father spun a long spool of car keys in his hands like worry beads as he made his last goodbyes.
Positioning Suzie in the back seat of the sports car was like moving a piece of furniture. Once she was in there was scarcely room for her legs, but she looked incongruously happy. Sam revved the engine and honked as they sped off into the night. Camy didn’t know what she felt.
Suzie started appearing in Camy’s dreams from this time onwards. Sometimes she appeared as a much nicer girl, with no sign of sickness, and it seemed to Camy that they had always been friends. At other times she was like a crawling crab, wet and broken, eating everything in her way.
In the last month before the summer holidays, when each passing day brought longer afternoons and less homework, Sam dropped Suzie over to play for an afternoon. With Suzie now so dominant in her dream life, Camy expected to be uneasy about meeting the girl again. Instead, Camy was confounded by how ordinary Suzie was. Her language was still crude and she moved strangely because of her cast, but she was remote and distracted.
The one surprising constant from the previous visit was Suzie’s interest in the candle-making set. As Suzie played with the components, Camy saw the set’s appeal once again. Suzie became animated about chipping in to buy different coloured waxes, melting them in pots on a stove. But when she was gone it seemed to Camy like a boring thing to spend pocket money on.
With only one week of school left, and with the summer days becoming fearsomely hot, Camy and her father put up the Christmas tree. Each new hot day made the air thicker with eucalyptus vapours from the park that sat as grey and heartless as ever across the river.
Six weeks of holidays should have felt formless and endless. The only notable landmark was Christmas. Camy had no friends, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. But in the last week of school she learned that her parents had volunteered her to stay at Suzie’s for the first weekend of the holiday, giving awful form to the formlessness. A gale was whipping across the bridge on the morning Camy’s father drove her to the Cabiris’. The waves on the river side and the sea side had their crests cut off by the wind. The bright sunlight on the foam and on the salt spray gave Camy a headache.
The Cabiri house was on the less populated southern headland. Until recently its only link with the city had been a causeway that would go under in storms and high tides. But even now with the bridge it seemed remote. The house, fronting on the saltwater inlet, would have been elegant if it had ever been finished and kept in good repair. One of its white walls had a giant weeping stain. The windows were salt-scoured and their frames marked with rust. From the garden you could see the waves beating against the old causeway.
Once Camy’s father had left, Sam Cabiri was nowhere to be seen. Suzie was far livelier than last time, running from room to room, showing things to Camy that her own family would never own. Some of the rooms were clean, but others were filled with junk. Suzie’s room was crammed with possessions. She had her own TV, blaring in competition with the radio. Suzie went around turning on electronic devices and pulling comics, sneakers and toys out of wardrobes and drawers, adding to the chaos. ‘Look at this, man,’ she said every time she lighted on something new. She was oblivious to Camy’s needs, treating her as an audience for her show. ‘Check that out,’ she said, half to herself, as she set off a police siren on her desk. The chaos seemed to relax Suzie and she turned off one device after another, until only the radio was left. She played with the dial. ‘What station do you listen to?’ she asked.
‘I don’t listen to a station.’
Suzie ignored the boringness of the reply and tuned the radio to some awful electronic music. ‘This is hardcore shit.’ She tried to scratch her arm under her cast but couldn’t reach the right spot. Camy found a clearing in the junk on the carpet and sat down. She felt betrayed by her parents. ‘What are we going to do today?’ she asked.
‘We’re gonna go to the shop to buy a pie and a coke. How much money have you got?’
‘I had lunch already.’ Camy’s father had given her twenty dollars, and she was planning to spend as little as possible.
‘But how much?’
Camy found herself tearing open her Velcro wallet to show Suzie the twenty-dollar note.
Suzie seemed satisfied. ‘You can buy an ice block.’
The walk to the shops took them past one executive villa after another. Many of them looked like they had been built around the same time as the Cabiri house, and bore the same signs of neglect. The lawns were uniformly flat and green and squelchy underfoot. ‘It smells bad here,’ complained Camy.
‘Does it smell like dick?’
‘No!’ Camy’s reply was almost a wail.
‘Then you must know. You know what dick smells like.’ Suzie was triumphant. ‘Do you smell your teacher’s dick?’
Camy wanted to cry. She stopped walking and stood in the road with her eyes scrunching up.
Suzie dashed around to block her way and shook her with concern. ‘Don’t cry! Don’t cry! I’ll buy you an ice block.’ She followed this up with a slithery dance that made Camy laugh, but yelling from the other side of the street interrupted her recovery.
‘Hey Scab! Fuck you, Scab! Fuck you!’ There were three boys around the same age as Suzie or a bit older on BMX bikes. They were the first people the girls had seen on the streets.
Suzie screamed back, ‘Go finger yourself you asswipe.’
‘Scab! Scab!’ The boys called out, laughing. As they rode off, one threw a rock at the girls but it fell pathetically short of them. Suzie was already throwing one back, but the boys were too far away now. The throw with her left arm was surprisingly good.
‘Why do they call you Scab?’ asked Camy. Suzie didn’t answer, but put a shepherding broken arm over Camy’s shoulder. They walked quickly, under the power of coursing adrenaline.
At the milk bar Suzie honoured her word and bought Camy an ice block. For herself she ordered chips and a milkshake as well as a pie and a coke. She also bought a bag of snakes for after. Camy was shaken and wished she could go straight home. But Suzie sat down on the plastic chairs and ate her large lunch with deliberation, inspecting each chip before it went into her mouth. It was an inscrutable process: no chip was rejected. ‘Those guys are shitbags,’ Suzie volunteered as she licked her thumb and moved onto her milkshake. Camy nodded. She had long finished her ice block and was fidgeting with the wrapper and stick. She felt her legs seizing up as the adrenaline soured in her system.
In the evening Suzie made them watch a science fiction movie. There was still no sign of her parents, and from her manner it seemed that this was nothing unusual. They set themselves up with soft drink, the snakes and packets of chips.
The movie had an adult rating and was an assault on Camy’s squeamishness. Sometimes Suzie used the remote to rewind a particularly wet explosion of a body, or to repeat in time with the hero bon mot that followed. Camy thought the actors must be as depraved as the characters they played.
By the time the movie was over Suzie’s parents were home. They’d picked up burritos and ice creams. It was nine o’clock, the latest that Camy could remember eating. While they ate, the parents asked Suzie and Camy about their day. Suzie spun it into a surprisingly well-formed narrative – a narrative in which Camy featured as a sort of star.
Camy’s bed pulled out from under Suzie’s. Suzie said ‘watch out for me spewing on you tonight,’ claiming to take all sorts of medications that made her vomit. She also claimed that she slept in the nude, and up until her father made her get ready for bed and brush her teeth she threatened to take off her clothes. But when she emerged from the little bathroom that connected her room to a spare room she was in long-sleeved pyjamas, with a sleeve cut off to accommodate her cast. Sam Cabiri came by once more to check the girls were in bed and to turn off the light.
Camy lay on her little pallet in the darkness. She was tired, but too saddened by the day to sleep. She did sums in her head to work out how many hours of her stay were left, discounting showers and sleeps. She was still wide-awake when Suzie started talking in the darkness above.
‘In that movie the person in the rocket goes at the speed of light and never gets old and his brother stays on the planet and is an old man when he comes back. I could do that. I could go in a rocket and fly around for as long as I wanted, and when I came back you would be dead and I would be alive.’ Her voice was thick and unpleasant. Camy screwed her eyes shut and pretended to be asleep.
‘I know you’re awake.’
Later in the night Camy was woken by Suzie crying. Camy heard the heavy scratching of her fingernails on her cast. It sounded like a dog digging hard earth. And then Camy cried in what she hoped was silence, feeling her neck convulse and her jaw clench and relax in the darkness.
On the last day of Camy’s stay Suzie’s father drove the two girls to a shopping mall. It was another hot day and the water and sky were deep blue as they passed the coast.
Sam gave the girls three hours to themselves at the mall, after which there would only be a few hours left of Camy’s ordeal. It felt like school had ended a month ago, though it had only been two and a half days.
Camy still had twelve of her twenty dollars. Suzie had far more money than that, and wanted to go to a movie as well as shop. She went as far as making Camy queue for tickets until Camy cried and ran to a news agency and hid among the magazine racks. If she’d bought the ticket she would have had been down to her last fifty cents.
Once it was clear that Camy wouldn’t be moved from her decision they roamed the mall. Every now and then an adult would cast a peeved or sympathetic eye over Suzie with her lumbering walk and broken arm, but no one paid any mind to Camy. Although the mall was vast and had many levels, they eventually circled in their own steps. With two hours still to kill, Suzie was restless. ‘Let’s go to the supermarket.’ she said.
It was more a mid-range department store than a supermarket. At first it looked to Camy like one great expanse of kettles and women’s nighties, but as they crept around the store they found electronics and games and toys. Suzie strong-armed her way to the front of a queue to play a car-racing game, and Camy found a display robotic vacuum cleaner muddling around a pen like a wombat. For long minutes she watched its metallic red dome with adoration as it nudged its head against the walls of its enclosure.
When Suzie had crashed too many times and run out of lives she pulled Camy from the vacuum display to search for floor staff.
‘Do you have wax?’ Suzie asked a uniformed man in a belligerent voice.
‘There are waxes and polishes in the cleaning products section.’
‘I mean like candle wax.’
‘We don’t have anything like that.’
‘I bet they do so.’ She stormed around the aisles until she found a small arts and crafts section, at the back of the store where boxes lay unpacked.
‘Look at these,’ she said, picking up a little tin of enamel paint. ‘You could make wax any colour you want.’
‘I don’t think it’s the right kind of paint,’ said Camy. ‘You would have to use normal paint like these.’ She pointed to some much less glamorous plastic tubes of water-based colours.
‘Nup. Stand over there and watch if anyone comes.’
By the time Camy had reached the spot the girl had indicated, Suzie was bundling the tins into her bag.
‘What are you doing?’ Camy asked.
‘Shut up dickhead!’ Suzie hissed.
Suzie stopped after bagging three or four tins. She carefully slung the bag over her cast-arm and emerged from the aisle.
‘We gotta get out of here now because of you.’ She stomped away, and Camy trudged behind. As they approached the exit Suzie veered down an aisle with light bulbs and electrical plugs. She then again broke off her approach to the exit, going down an aisle of tracksuits. She peered past tracksuits, but then there was someone behind her.
‘I’d like to look in your bag.’
‘It wasn’t my idea, she made me do it,’ Suzie said, immediately sobbing. ‘I’m sick. She made me do it anyway.’
The security guard opened the bag and pulled out the tins of paint, and then turned on Camy. ‘You were keeping lookout for her. Do you know that’s just as serious an offence as stealing?’ Camy shook her head, more in denial that this was really happening than in disagreement.
The guard took them to a room at the back of the store with security footage playing. He sat the crying girls in front of a little screen to watch their crime. They were blurry urchins on the video, one peering out from the aisle and the other scooping tins into her bag. When the guard had turned away from the footage to lecture them, Camy’s figure could be seen pocketing its own little tin of paint.
The night before Christmas Eve, the Cabiri family made an unscheduled appearance around dinnertime. It was the first time since the shoplifting episode that the two girls and their respective parents had seen each other, and to overcome the awkwardness the parents busied themselves. Camy’s father drove in the Cabiris’ sports car to the supermarket with Suzie’s mother, an acknowledgement perhaps that he was not very good at outdoor things. Suzie’s father wrestled the barbecue out of a corner where it sat wedged between canoe paddles and a mouldy wicker settee. He cleaned the barbecue with newspaper and connected it to a gas bottle. He was soon sweating and coated in a fine layer of grease. Camy’s mother watched him while she absentmindedly set the outdoor table on their deck. When they were done, the two of them sat on the deck drinking.
‘LOVERS,’ Suzie mouthed silently to Camy, and then made a noisy imitation of French kissing. The girls watched their parents from the long kitchen window and then went down to the under croft so that Suzie could give an uninterrupted presentation of the staph infection on the lip of her cast. After Suzie had gloried in Camy’s revolted expression she said, ‘When my dad marries your mum we’ll be sisters. And then,’ she added, ‘You will really be my bitch.’ Camy found herself giggling uncontrollably.