By Laura McPhee-Browne
This story was shortlisted for Right Now’s Fiction Competition, judged by Anna Funder and Tony Birch. Read the shortlist here.
Come along the side of the place, pulling the broken branches back so you can get by. You’ve been here before. More recently than you’d like anyone to know really, but as soon as you walk through the doors they’ll greet you warm and you won’t be able to hide the routine you have around this place, the swag.
She kicked you out only two hours ago and you’re already coming back here. When you were younger, before the cough and the habit, you would have stayed out for nights on end, drinking in cans and the moonlight. You’d have treated it like a party and grinned until your cheeks broke and the tears dried up before they could roll and you pissed everyone off down by the bridge and over behind the casino where the girls go to be safe. You can’t do that now and wouldn’t want to. It’s just so shitty to be back out here when you can still feel the kisses of her mouth on your back and your groin and feel her hair in your teeth and on your spotted tongue. You feel old because you don’t want to do it anymore.
Come in by the side of the door, not under the light, and look up to see the staff, just look at them straight. You’ve got to show them that you know you’re here. And you have to make sure no one wonders why you won’t look up, what they might have to do to make sure you eye them. You’ve got an itch at your crotch but it waits and you smile at her, the one that’s always here with her book and her bullshit knitting, and the gay one with brown skin and eye creases like a turtle. Say something that tells them you know you’re back soon, and you know how pathetic you must look after you left talking of love and central heating. Not because you care what they think, but because it’s easier than their questions and the marinated pity they dish out to any hint of sadness.
Your cough starts up on the stairs, just a tickle and then a fire. Get it out, get it out before you keep climbing up to your room – number 41 this time and where Sonny died two years ago. Don’t think about that though – you’ve thought about that almost every fucking day since he choked on his own vomit after a better than good stint on the windows and the cheer that comes after. You can’t sleep when you think about him, mostly ‘cause of his sniffing when he talked and the way you hardly ever told him you liked him, let alone loved him. If you picture his red jumper on the floor of number 41 you’ll see it there all the night and you’ll cough harder in the morning. Don’t miss breakfast. You need the milk and the coffee. Set your alarm.
In the room five minutes and there’s a knock at the door. You pride yourself on your way of knowing, from the beat and the rhythm of a knock, who’s there. But this knock is lean like you’ve not heard before; two stark raps that reach in under the gap at the bottom. You wipe your eyes of memories and walk the two steps from the bed across to open it – a man stands there with one arm up holding on to the side of the door frame like he’s been there for hours and you’ve made him wait it out. He asks you if you want some crack or some dope. You don’t want either really, not something that won’t knock you down completely. It’d be too much like television and you haven’t got the energy left even in the tips of your fingers to ping all night. No. This guy doesn’t want to leave. He asks if you’ve stayed here before, did you come from home, do you want to go halves in some windows tomorrow. Yes, none of your fucking business, no. One day a while back you would have answered his spittled, gaping questions but not now. It’s much easier to be the rude bastard here than the almost friend.
Once he slurps off down the hall you close the door. Damn it, you think, I’ll get drunk. There’s a one glass down bottle in your bag and you pull it out now and settle yourself with the RULES OF STAY to read them again and take heady gulps. It is past midnight when you feel the whiskey boil of your stomach become a purr. You feel like crying and calling her on the phone to tell her that she is your moon and your stars and the ocean below but you don’t. You pick at the wall and sing, loud enough so that maybe others can hear, though you don’t care now whether anyone thinks you have a good voice. Your fight for recognition seems to be over, but maybe it’s just the whiskey and the goings-on that make it seem so. Close your eyes at two o’clock and dream of an eerie visit to the bumper cars: moving and banging and swerving past empty cars so that you don’t feel rested by morning.
Breakfast hits you on the head with the strength of 43 beans in a polystyrene cup. Make a pile of jam on raisin toast. Two of the tiny bowls they have here filled with corn flakes and sugar and milk. Beg the girl on breakfast shift for two yoghurts and get two yoghurts because she’s one of the ones who prides herself on her bleeding heart. Watch the bleeding heart duck to the corner for a sip from her large takeaway coffee cup. You can’t even muster the scorn and decide to talk to the woman sitting across from you, for want of a proper jolt, or something to make you smile. Her name is Fanny Josephine Gold. She tells you the whole name through a mouthful of vegemite and white bread and you like the creature, with her attempt at happiness and a headband and red lips like hope. She’s been here twice this year but isn’t using this time. She says that’s why her skin is smooth and glowing – back to the way it was when she was younger and the men would propose to her every time she left the house, though she never said yes to any of them. Laugh and smile, give a little. But don’t stay too long here with her. Fanny’s eyes are crooked – she doesn’t see farther than she wants to.
You’ll wash car windscreens on Clarendon Street today. The weather is drippy and dark – hopefully no one else’ll be around to steal the cars with younger feet or rounder faces. Your good luck bucket and the best squeegee you’ve had are safely down the bottom of your sack and you climb upstairs to get them now, with two pieces of toast and peanut butter wrapped in napkins. It’s hard work out there on the windows – running, grinning, calling out, arms back and forth back and forth across the putrid glass of those who own the cars. Then there’s the bend down with the biggest grin of all – the hand out only if and when the money comes, and the gushing of thank you’s and you have a good day’s like you mean them.
You get out the doors of the place and it’s not as cold as you thought it might be and you walk down the side of one of the old factories you never saw no one go in or out of and flick out a smoke to keep you company and you don’t really think you’ll do windows today anymore. Soup van is on tonight. You can hold off on lunch and your last bit of dole will stay in the bank account you set up with her – to keep it all out in the open. When it’s as cool as it looks out here not many people are about the south of the city. You can walk for hours without having to burn eyes with another. Hitch up your jacket around your chin. Take the last puff. Embrace the hours as if they weren’t just to kill.
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.