By Laura McPhee-Browne
This story was shortlisted for the Right Now Fiction Competition, judged by Anna Funder and Tony Birch. Read the shortlist here.
It’s cooking day. First we head to the supermarket, slowly but loudly in the mini van with Frank yelling directions out the window at people on the street. When we get to Woolies Wendy explains how it all works. We are supposed to have an idea in our head – a healthy meal idea that we will now tear around the aisles looking for the ingredients to cook – making fools of ourselves and giving the customers something to take their minds off the size of their Chicken Kievs.
I’ve not done cooking day before because I am actually a decent cook and it doesn’t do you well to promote that around the place. I don’t really promote myself at all because I’ll be leaving soon. Justin and Balls did cooking day two weeks ago and stole all the bacon pieces when Wendy was off trying to encourage people to participate over the loud speaker. They told me it was mad easy but I told them I’m not a thief. Don’t even like bacon really. Too fatty. Prefer the red meats with the nutrients and the energy and that. But this morning when Wendy and Phil were telling Nick with the boobs about it I saw that Macie girl listening in – her head tilted all pretty like a bird – and then she went and put her name down and even told Wendy she was looking forward to it. I could hear her from behind the phone box.
That Macie is more than alright, and I know Justin tried it on with her but she was too good for that so I would like the opportunity to show her who I am, as a man and in the kitchen and around this place. And so that’s how I’m here, in the supermarket, with the crazies and the grown men in tracksuit pants and Macie over there listening intently to Wendy’s every hollered word.
I’m not going to run through the aisles. I take cool, slow steps after we start – picking up an avocado and checking if it’s ripe the way my nonna taught me by plucking the small brown knob off its bottom to see whether it’s green and fresh. I know Macie is looking at me. There’s really no one else to look at in this bunch. I feel her eyes on my back, my hair, my jeans. I turn around with three perfect avocados in my basket but the only person behind me is Fran. Fran with the wool hair and wiry body. Fran and I kissed once, back when I first came in. We were both in the telly room one night and it’s real dark in there. I’d lost my job the day before and had three quarters of a bottle of rum under my belt and after she’d loaned me the third cigarette and we’d smoked them in the outdoor area she lifted up her hand in the moonlight and brushed a curl off my forehead. I needed love that night. And Fran needed me. We’d locked lips out there in the courtyard and after Sid and some other really smelly guy had come out there too we had gone up to her room. We didn’t fuck up there. We just lay down on the bed and put our hands on each other’s hips and slept quickly. It was so hot that night without a fan that we didn’t even move to put the covers on. Since then Fran has wanted to hang out, maybe kiss some more, but I don’t know what I feel about that so I’ve cleared out whenever I’ve seen her and haven’t answered the occasional knocks at my door, her thin voice calling to me to come for a dart. I didn’t notice her on the bus on the way here and I can’t make my face relax as I stand there in front of her.
Fran tells me she is cooking burritos and that she used to cook them at least once a week when she had her own place. She makes them with coriander and jalapeños like they do in Mexico. I am listening – Fran is nice to talk to – but my body is twitching with an itch to look around us for Macie, to make sure she isn’t getting the wrong idea about me and Fran. I try to look as casual as possible. I raise my eyebrows as little as I can without being rude and stand with one leg bent, as though I am about to leave the conversation, like I’m being kind but not really listening. It is hard to do this because Fran is being funny about the way she used to cook up too many burritos and would have to eat them for a week, and really that’s all she ever ate because then she would cook them again a day after she had finished the leftovers, but then I look over Fran’s shoulder and see Macie wandering past the lemons all Alice band and frosted lips. I tell Fran mid-sentence that I better go find the rest of the ingredients for my sushi rolls, adding that the seaweed is hardly ever in stock here, and begin to follow Macie at a distance as she wanders down to the seafood part of the deli, no basket and arms all full of olive oil and extra long leeks.
Before I get to her and blow her away with my offer to help hold some of her stuff, Wendy steps in front of me like a crossing lady who has seen you step off the kerb too soon. She has that way about her Wendy, because really she’s never angry with any of us or unhappy in general but everything she says is yelled and everything she does is extreme and determined and breathless. I don’t want to be bothered right now, Macie is within my reach, but Wendy asks me what I’m making and when I tell her she demands I go right now with her the Asian section in aisle four so we can make sure they have all the Japanese ingredients I need. She seems exasperated by my choice but I know it’s so much better than the other meals this lot have got planned. Wendy walks in a way that’s kind of stressful, with her head tilted to the side and one leg as well. It’s like she’s constantly about to look back to see how slow the people behind her are being. I’m not speeding up though – my length doesn’t look so good when I’m in a hurry. Macie could be following and I don’t want her to think that I let myself get bossed about by a tiny drum-bellied woman.
We’re at the Asian section now and there’s no seaweed. I keep looking over the three shelves again and again – maybe I missed it, maybe it’s been pushed back by someone trying to find the light coconut milk. But it’s not there. I’ll have to think of something else to cook. Wendy suggests vegan bolognaise which she says has lentils in it instead of cow. I am not keen on this at all, and tell her. We decide on spaghetti bolognaise with cow but also heaps of vegies as a compromise. My dad used to make the best spaghetti sauces. He’d always be in the kitchen, letting mum relax after she’d been standing all day in court shoes at the Target check-out. When he died we didn’t cook for months and months. My brother would collect a hot chicken or a quiche from the shops and we’d heat it up in time to watch the Simpsons, then Neighbours, then Seinfeld, which I never found very funny, and then usually more Simpsons or some Law and Order if we felt like we could deal with the deaths. Finally I’d had it and started trying to cook us some real things in the kitchen again, where the colander in the sink hadn’t even been washed since the day dad carked it, and was crusted with hard penne.
After heading back in the van we meet in the big steel kitchen with our food, ready to show each other up with our slicing and mincing and dicing and fry pan flipping. I try three times to get in at the bench next to Macie but Ernie, the kid who looks too young to be in here and smells like a cross between crayons and petrol gets in on one side, and Wendy is on the other side supervising William O who really shouldn’t be wielding a knife in any kind of situation. I am stuck next to Fran. I shouldn’t say stuck, Fran will probably be fun to cook with because she makes the kind of jokes I like – witty ones – and doesn’t laugh at the end like someone else said it.
I don’t see straight away what happens next but I hear a small, strangled yelp and can’t turn around because Wendy has pushed in behind me yelling “Hey” and “Stop that” and “STOP THAT”. When I finally get around I see William O on the floor. He is holding his throat where blood is seeping out. It’s coming out slower than I thought blood from a cut throat would. People are running about and Macie is nowhere but I keep looking for her to try and make her feel safe with my eyes. I am holding Fran’s hand because it feels nice to have something to do. After a while William O is carried out by the paramedics. I know their names – Greg and Suz. They even know our names, we see them so many times a day. I hear Wendy say “he did it to himself” and “he did it slowly, in front of us, I couldn’t stop him though” and she is crying as she says it and I realise it was her yelping and not William as he started to slice.
It’s night now and I’m upstairs in my room, eating Minties and streaming Angel on my laptop. I wish somebody would come up and see me, maybe Macie with a spliff and the idea of staying in my bed. I hear a tap at the door but try not to get excited, there are knocks all night along this corridor ‘cause that pirate guy stays on this floor and likes to use his walking stick to bother everyone by tapping on doors. He finds it hilarious and you can hear his cackles all night long. I get up and slip on my Adidas slide sandals with tiny sticking-up bits for good foot circulation and open the door. Fran is standing there – her hair is puffing up even more than usual and she has been crying. I can tell because she has snot coming out of her nose and she is breathing all heavy and her eyelashes are clumped and they look beautiful like that. Like the eyelashes of a seal, just from the water. “Hi Con,” she says and takes my hands in hers, and she tells me how she keeps thinking of the bloody afternoon and wishing she could have helped William O. But she didn’t know him and everyone here is so sad it’s sick and she doesn’t want to do it anymore. We lie down on the bed and I touch her hair softly, up and down. We won’t sleep but we do. Hands on hips like last time, hers jutting through her jeans like life.
Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker living in Melbourne, Victoria. She has had poetry and short stories published in a number of journals including in Brief Magazine, The Suburban Review, Empty Mirror, The Squawk Back, Kumquat Poetry and an e-anthology of stories raising money for Typhoon Yolanda. She recently won a competition through Writers Victoria to have a very short story of hers published on the backs of the Writers Victoria business cards in 2014. Laura tweets micro-fiction daily @laurahelenmb.