Authors: Dorothy Johnston,Port Campbell Press
Tags: #Short Stories
There's a white Christmas tree in the foyer. Some customers glance at it, then away. Others leave small packages underneath.
Sophie's head aches from the dry heat, from air that snaps back at you when you breathe it in, that sucks the last moisture out of the ground with a hiss and crackle that might be laughter. Even reasonable men begin to dream of bursting bubbles on girls' nipples and sipping from wide-lipped glasses of champagne.
is the only business open after dark in their corner of the suburb. All of Fyshwick has shut down by six, except for the
and the brothels that compete with theirs. The computer sellers are at home, and the printers, and the take-away food proprietors who in other parts of the city keep much longer hours.
âAt night Fyshwick belongs to the ladies of the night,' Mrs Dawson says, making Sophie uneasy, though by now she's used to Mrs Dawson's ways.
Sophie works days for a change, three a week because custom is much slower in the daytime.
When she steps outside for a change of scene, her companions are delivery trucks with red waratahs painted on their sides. One labelled Priam Venison Supplies rolls by and she imagines whole deer carcases inside. She catches no more than an eyelash glimpse of the drivers, but petrol fumes are a relief after hours of perfumed towels and bubble bath. She'd like just to stand and stare at the traffic. Time out, she thinks, and smiles.
One day she takes out
bins and extra green plastic bags, squashing them together on the footpath so they look less bulky.
Sophie turns and sees a woman holding a neat metal bin by its handles, carrying it like it's half empty. She's maybe forty, wearing a wrap-around skirt, a frill-necked blouse and sandals with pantyhose.
âPooh,' the woman says meaningfully, depositing her bin with a sharp click on the footpath.
Sophie reddens, feeling her feet glued to the concrete. Then she looks the woman in the face and says, âIt's just rubbish. Like everyone has rubbish.'
The woman sniffs. âBut it's full of those balloons!'
Sophie stares at the shiny bin the woman has put down, at its tightly fitting lid and shiny number 17 painted on the side. She thinks of lunch wrappings and apple cores, empty water bottles. She shakes her head and murmurs, âJust garbage really', heading back inside.
For Melissa's first birthday, Sophie and Mrs G make a chocolate cake. They buy lemonade and sweet wine from Shoprite and invite their neighbours, who sit around the flat with plates on their knees and glasses in their hands, and speak the careful words of people who know more about each other than is good for them.
Mrs Fitzgerald from the next flat but one has a camera and takes pictures of Melissa with her face covered in icing.
After her guests have gone and Sophie is cleaning up, she stares at the calendar on the fridge with this day circled twice in red and asks herself: why did I expect it? Why did I think he would remember?
Mrs Dawson suggests that Sophie might manage her old Friday nights along with one or two days and Sophie says, âOkay, sure.'
One Friday night she's standing at a bedroom door saying goodbye to a client, a wide man who practically fills the doorway. He's wanting a last kiss and Sophie's smiling her
it's over for tonight
smile when she catches, around his shoulder, a glimpse of light brown hair, athletic hips under stone-washed jeans.
She pulls her head back, biting the inside of her bottom lip so hard she cuts it.
âYou've hurt yourself â what's wrong?'
âNothing,' Sophie hisses, stepping back and shutting the door with a clap.
But she knows it's no good. Before ten minutes has passed, Simon is saying, âWell well, turned the hooker have we Soph?'
Simon takes his time to look her up and down. He turns his head and says as if speaking to an invisible companion, âMy ex is standing here like the cleaning lady. Will it help if I sit on her lap?'
Sophie clenches her hands by her sides.
Simon says, âI thought I might have a nice cool drink.'
âThey don't serve alcohol.'
âAn upmarket joint like this? Don't kid me. I'll have Jack Daniels with ice.'
âYes. Otherwise I might have to make a fuss.'
âHow long have you paid for?'
âAs long as it takes.'
Sophie comes back with his whisky and one for herself, though she never drinks when she's working. She stands watching Simon nod approval; she stands still as a fountain with the water off.
The wall lights give him a halo. Brown hair curls away from his temples and above his head, and it's like each curl exists in its own bubble of light.
Simon laughs when Sophie says in his voice, âHow
Melissa? I miss my daughter and from now on I'm going to stay around and be a father to her.'
Sophie watches his throat; she plays that trick of fixing on some vulnerable part of a client, keeping her eyes there. It doesn't work. He's too good to look at; she's had so many flabby men.
âMelissa's thirteen months old. Where have you
? There's such a thing as child support. If you don't pay it you're breaking the law.'
Simon laughs with his head thrown back, and out of the blue she's laughing with him. âYou little law-breaker,' he says. He pats the bed beside him. âRelax, Soph. Just sit down.'
âI'm here now, aren't I?'
Sophie puts out her hand and touches Simon's arm, fingers light and quick, a miniature hydrofoil on the surface of his skin.
âCome home with me,' she says. âMelissa's beautiful, you'll see.'
Mrs Dawson lifts her eyebrows and stares through the brown rings of her make-up, and though part of Sophie is already out the door, another part is held by the older woman's eyes. Though she cannot read their expression precisely, she knows what it is not: it is not surprised.
To sleep would be to waste the night. Sophie lies next to Simon, listening to his breathing. When light begins to come in under the door and through the curtains, she squeezes her eyes shut and nervousness takes over. Will he like Melissa? Will he recognise his own high cheekbones, sunny hair?
She remembers wanting to squeeze all of Simon's loveliness up into herself, as if you could make a young man's beauty cleave to you. He's still asleep when she leaves to fetch Melissa, who stares at the stranger lying across her mother's bed. When Sophie puts her down beside her father, she crawl to the edge, turns round, and begins to slide off backwards. Simon opens his eyes.
Melissa toddles three determined steps and grabs hold of Sophie's leg. âDa-da-da!' she cries.
Simon laughs and stretches, holding out his arms.
All morning Sophie watches him, watches them together. When Simon walks over to the fridge for juice it's like a miracle, and Sophie has to pinch herself time and time again. She forgets that she's supposed to be at work. When the phone rings, he tells her not to answer it, and this seems like a promise to make up for all the promises he never kept.
Simon is like a jaguar or a cheetah, Sophie thinks. He sits on the end of the bed and smokes and shakes his head so that the light flies out of it. He breathes blue smoke into the waiting air.
The anger towards her is gone, for what can it have been but anger that took him to
She can't conceive of Simon paying for sex in the normal run of things. âMaybe when I'm eighty Soph?' she imagines him replying if she asked him; but not believing it, not believing there'd ever be a time when women didn't line up to pleasure him for free.
Simon lifts Melissa into her cot for her afternoon sleep and they lie side by side on the bed, Sophie staring at the wall, at a dirty patch of plaster, wishing it was dark. She thinks that if only it were night now she could read Simon's mind.
He closes his eyes. She doesn't know if he's asleep, or pretending to be. âWhen Missy wakes up,' she whispers, âwe'll show you the house.'
They stand under one of the big trees, in deep, perfect shade. As usual, the doors are shut and there's nobody about. But Simon likes the house.
Melissa giggles whenever Simon's hand or any other bit of him comes within her field of vision. She giggles and kicks out with her bare feet.
âHey baby, want an ice-cream?' Simon says.
Sophie humps the stroller up the milk bar's single step and says hello to Mr Loukakis. She feels both delighted and faintly embarrassed while Simon studies the list of ice-creams and icy-poles and Mr Loukakis catches her eye and winks. For the next few moments, she is entirely happy. They are a family buying ice-creams on a hot afternoon. Mr Loukakis is impressed by her man, and who wouldn't be? This evening they will sit together making plans.
Simon says it's too hot to be shut up in the flat. âHow about a beer, Soph? The Terminus. Come on, they've got air-conditioning.'
Melissa sits on Simon's knee while Sophie goes to the ladies, wets her hair and straightens it.
They stay till ten, when she's aching with hunger and Melissa has fallen asleep in her arms. Simon's drunk, but can still walk and talk normally, which amazes her all over again because she's practically forgotten how he does it.
After she's changed Melissa and settled her, Sophie finds Simon asleep diagonally across the bed.
Light brown hair falls across one amber cheek. Sophie bends and gently lifts two curls. She knows why she's never kept a photograph of Simon, because no picture could ever hold him the way she holds him in her mind. His real, sleeping presence lets out all the memories of before Melissa was born; it's as if the bad times never happened.
She strokes the creamy olive places and Simon doesn't wake. She's always loved his skin. She wishes, and is shocked by the wish, that he would never wake.
She goes to the kitchen and sits with a vegemite sandwich and a glass of water. She does not think of making plans.
The young man's smile ushers Sophie forward from the waiting room. He smiles with his head on one side, in a considering way. Sophie smiles back, plonking her bottom onto the chair, setting her bag on the floor beside her.
âI filled in my form,' she says. âBoy, they come thick and fast, those forms!'
She stares at a potted plant. Why do Social Security clerks always give her that daffy smile? Maybe they hate the routine as much as she does.
They're so high up there's a view from the window of the lake, a part of Civic, the Canberra she feels over her shoulder but hardly ever sees.
When she glances at him again, the young man's smile has vanished. He clears his throat like a bad actor before reading a part.
âIt's come to our notice that you have a second income. You know there's a limit to what you can earn over and above your benefit.'
Sophie shakes her head emphatically. âYou've got the wrong girl. I haven't got a job. No way.'
She feels Simon's fine hair brush her face, remembers how he kissed her outside the flats as she was leaving for Fyshwick, told her to have a good one, and did not come back.
The young man rocks on the heels of his chair and asks, âWhere's Melissa's father?'
âHe left. He was here for two days, then he left again.'
âDon't you know his address?'
The young man makes it sound like it's her fault Simon disappeared. It will be just like it was the first time; no one will believe her.
âDid Simon come to you with some bullshit story? Like, your accusation doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But Simon trying to get out of paying child support, that
make sense, if you follow me.'
Sophie thinks of Mrs G, but Mrs G would never dob her in, of that one fact she is certain.
âThe trouble with girls like you is that you think you're invisible, and then -'
âWhile you've got eyes everywhere, like Superman!'
The young man lets his chair legs fall with a small, self-satisfied thud. âI was behind you in the bank.'
âOh Jesus, that's cool. That's really something. You haven't got the resources to chase my prick of an ex, but you follow me to the bank!'
âI happened to be there. I live in Woden if you must know. Look, Ms Robertson, I could throw the book at you, but I prefer to try and work something out. Your benefit will have to be suspended, but you can re-apply. That is, if you give up your job. You have to make a choice. And if you're caught again, don't expect to get off lightly. The most you'll have to do right now is re-pay what we've overpaid you. And believe me, if you think that's tough, you don't know how tough we can be.'
Sophie feels herself begin to spiral downwards, out of the high, air-conditioned office, down and down, like a leaf that's been dead too long. Her throat's all choked up with dead matter and when she tries to speak the words won't come.
Two days later, she makes another special bus trip, but this time gets off at the lake.
She takes her G-string from her bag and throws it as far as she can out into the water, watches it slowly float away. âThat's pollution, that is,' she tells Melissa, who nods as though she understands. Sophie thinks of a storm, waves tearing at green silk. But hey, it's only old Lake Burley Griffin. âIt'll return to nature,' she tells Melissa, and then, âI never liked the colour green. If I decide to go back, I can buy another one. A different colour this time. Black maybe, or pink.'
Lake Burley Griffin's just a lake and not a river; there's no outlet to the sea. What if her G-string just goes circling round and round?
Melissa has fallen asleep in her stroller, but Sophie goes on talking.
âAt any rate, I pissed that Simon off. I'm sorry for your sake, but what a shitty father, eh. He would've just sponged of us, Missy. That's what he'd've done.'