‘Scuse me, mate. Do you know where the strip clubs are?’
It’s nearing midnight in the Melbourne CBD. Toby and I are chaining our bikes up outside Hungry Jacks (all the better to eat you with, my dear) and a bloke somewhere between our ages has approached. He’s clearly drunk – not yet in a falling-down-slurring way, but there’s an obvious sway to his posture. His eyes are bloodshot, and his clothes speak of corporate money.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘No idea.’
‘Not talking to you,’ he says, swinging his eyes to Toby. ‘Talking to your friend here.’
‘Husband,’ I correct, firmly enough to regain his attention. This earns the pair of us a derisive snort.
‘Husband? Bloody taking a chance there, mate.’
I make a huffing noise, one that an arrogant drunk might mistake for laughter, and realise that, come to think of it, I do know where to send him. The venue has such a ridiculous name on so massive a sign that after four years of regular passing by, it would be more surprising if I hadn’t remembered.
‘Go up there,’ I tell him, pointing to Flinders Street. ‘Go up there for two blocks, and there should be a strip club on your right. The Spearmint Rhino.’
‘The Rhino.’ He sways a little, starting to slur now. ‘Cool. Hey, can I have a smoke?’
‘Sorry, mate. We don’t smoke.’
‘Don’t smoke?’ He looks hazily outraged. ‘What kinda people are you?’
‘Hey,’ says Toby. ‘We’ve given you directions.’
I give them again. He squints and stares, then nods his comprehension. Or bobs, rather, like a wobble-headed plastic dashboard dog.
‘Thanks, mate. You’re a legend.’
Off he goes.
‘Charming young man,’ I mutter.
‘No,’ says Toby, choosing to ignore my sarcasm. ‘He wasn’t.’
We head into Hungry Jacks. Sitting outside is a dreadlocked girl on a pale green rug. She is young and skinny, bedecked in plastic coloured beads, wearing beaten-up shoes and tights so ripped that they are more air than fabric. Delirium, I think. She looks like Delirium.
We walk to the counter, order our food. This being week’s end, there’s not too many people about, but still the usual nightlife has filtered in – mostly men, without the bottle-blonde, totter-heeled womenchicks in shiny Supre dresses you usually see on Friday or Saturday. As we wait for our meals, Delirium comes to the counter. She asks the server for some water. He hands her a tiny plastic cup, the smallest size they have, in which sundaes, rather than fizzy drink, are served. She points to the big cardboard cups; can she have one of those instead? He shakes his head and tells her no. They only serve water in plastic. It’s a policy. She looks sad, but takes what she’s given without complaint. As she heads back outside, I am struck by a realisation, instinctive and unverifiable. Delirium will wait out there, sipping her water, until enough time has passed that she can legitimately go back in for more without looking desperate or greedy. Until then, she will deal with what she has. Our food arrives then, and I resolve that, if I cannot finish my meal, I will offer her what’s left. It seems a meagre offer. But better than nothing.
We eat and talk. A drunk man yells at a marauding pigeon, running to scare it ouside. This tactic works, and he sits back down with his friends, evidently satisfied. I haven’t eaten a proper dinner; despite my resolution, all that’s left are our two cokes. I tell Toby that I’ll give them to the girl. He nods, and as we walk back outside, I brace for her to refuse them. But as I offer the full cups, explaining that we couldn’t finish their contents, her face lights up; she thanks me profusely and starts to drink. We walk back to the bikes.
‘I wouldn’t have noticed that,’ says Toby. He looks at her over his shoulder. ‘She’s so young.’
The bikes unlock. We put on our helmets, but somehow, neither of us rides away. Instead, we shuffle slowly forwards, eyes on the Delirium-girl, watching as she’s joined by a skinny-tall boy in a black hoodie. They’re clearly together: they swap a drink and talk, laugh. He crouches down, asks a question. I can’t hear what. In answer, she pulls something out of her backpack. He pats it, which seems odd – I don’t remember seeing an animal, but that’s what the gesture suggests. Then he picks up whatever-it-is and slips it into his hood.
I look at Toby. He looks at me.
‘I want to buy them a meal,’ I say.
He looks from them to me, then smiles. ‘OK.’
My helmet goes back in the pannier. I walk over. They glance up at my approach.
‘Hey,’ I say. ‘I know this is random, but do you guys want some food?’
Something sparks in the girl. Her smile is hopeful and genuine. ‘You’re sure?’
‘My treat,’ I say.
They swap a grin like this is the best thing they’ve ever heard. She stands up, and they start to follow me back inside – but then there’s a pause, this shy hesitation. I wait for the explanation.
‘We have a rat,’ she says, a little hurried, a little worried – wanting to be honest, even though she fears it will cost her my offer. ‘Is that OK?’
‘He’s in my hoodie,’ the guy says, sheepishly. ‘He keeps wriggling around,’ and when I look again, I can see he’s right.
It’s so bittersweet an exchange, I can’t keep from grinning. ‘Of course it’s OK! What’s his name? Is he a named rat?’
‘He’s Tushie,’ says the girl. She blushes.
We go inside.
I tell them my name. We all shake hands: the youth is Dan, but somehow, the girl’s name goes straight out of my head. She looks so much like Delirium, I can’t think of her as anything else, despite her cheerfulness and lucidity. Her smile is broad; she tells me that everything is going right today, and as Dan nods, I want so much to ask how they are here, and why. They can’t be much older than sixteen, and not out of home too long, either – not if their braces and her glasses are anything to go by. But I keep my questions to myself.
At the counter, I tell them to order whatever they like. They hesitate, not wanting to ask for too much, but clearly hungry. There’s a pause.
‘Anything,’ I say again. ‘It doesn’t matter what.’
Tentative, waiting for me to correct him, Dan asks for a large Stunner meal. Delirium wants a small version of the same. I ask them what Sundae flavours they want: he has chocolate, and she has caramel, the same as I did. Once again, I’m at the counter waiting for food. They talk to each other, voices soft. Dan has a job interview tomorrow, but worries he can’t afford the tram fare. He doesn’t want to risk another fine, and wishes their shelter paid for such things. Delirium offers to lend him her Myki, but he says no, because it’s not registered to him. I blink in surprise.
‘Myki works now?’
‘No,’ says Delirium, a mixture of sad and mischevious. ‘That’s why we use it.’
Their food comes. I hand it to them, an intermediary, and though part of me wants to stay, ask, learn, the rest of me knows that I’m done. It’s time to go.
‘Have a better night,’ I say.
They grin and nod. Delirium tells me something kind in parting. I wrench a little.
Toby is waiting for me outside. He’s seen the exchange. We smile at each other, reclaim our bikes, and start to wheel them through the darkness. As we cross at the intersection, a drunken bloke who I’d swear was the would-be strip-club attendee yells and staggers past us at a loping run – towards what, I don’t know.
We ride home through the night. The wind is cool, and the stars above flicker with time.
Sunday is over.