Short story by Michael Botur
Janelle pulled the curtains open and lit a joint and thought, Please tell me I remembered to buy the fuckin candles… Yup. Sorted. Three brittle candles, 99 cents from the supermarket, plus $1.06 gas. She groaned, dropped the roach of her joint into her coffee cup, prepared to leave her bedroom and fight the world. Fuckin petrol. Oughta splash some around here and burn the fuck-ups outta my life.
She made the bed, fantasised about throwing out her duvet, as if she had the money for a new one. It’d had the jism of six guys on it, including JJ. JJ loved to come on her clothes, her tits, her face. He loved soiling things like a destructive eight-year-old. She couldn’t believe she’d had a baby girl with that piece of shit. Baby Kruizer, with Play-Doh in her hair and nail polish on her knees. Janelle’s mum once told her Kruizer was the only thing in Janelle’s life she hadn’t fucked up. Janelle agreed.
It was Kruizer’s third birthday today and even if everything else in her life was fucked-up, Janelle was gonna make sure her girl’s birthday cake was not.
Janelle wet her throat with an old glass of warm Coruba, popped a Lorazepam and some Prozacs. When she came out of the toilet, she saw Kruizer had dressed herself and turned her iPad on. YouTube was taking care of her. The kitchen lino and some of the carpet had a white milk puddle on it dotted with Froot Loops. First fuck-up of the day.
Janelle was trying to find clean leggings in a pile of dirty laundry when a cop, a female, craned first her head then her whole body inside Janelle’s flat.
‘Way to knock,’ Janelle said, pulling shorts the final inch over her hips. ‘You sure you’re sposda enter people’s houses like that?’
‘Not exactly your house if you’re renting, is it,’ said the cop, but she stopped moving inward and took up a wide stance, clutching a tiny notebook and a pen. This cop – something Thai-looking – had a partner behind her, some desi Indian lady with a full-on dot between her eyebrows. Janelle had had her wrists grabbed by a lot of pigshits, but a desi and an Asian together? That was something new. It gave her a flashback to school, all them black-haired speccy academic girls in the tidy blazers with merit badges on them, making Janelle feel dirty for having freckles and see-through skin and a pilled shirt.
The pigshits stood in her house and asked if everything was going alright with the restraining order she’d put on JJ. JJ had been getting more out-of-it since he went from a hangaround to a prospect, saying Yes to fights he would’ve turned down a year ago, standing over courier drivers and petrol pumpers and even the Plunket lady who took Kruizer for playdates sometimes. Staunch with a gang, angry and lost without one. Prospect prospect prospect! Patch for a smash! Smash for ya patch!
‘So your arse is on my property just ’cause you care about my wellbeing?’
‘And to ask if you’re in possession of anything illicit we should know about,’ the first pigshit said, ‘we have a mandate to check on the welfare of all children.’
Janelle folded her arms. ‘Go to my mum’s place if you want someone to tell you how much of a fuck-up I am. I’m about to make a cake, so yous can go if you want.’
The Asian pigshit pressed her pen against her notepad. ‘So, to clarify, JJ’s not running a growing operation here? Not stashing any drugs? No booty calls?’
‘Booty…? Honest, you can fuck him if you want, but JJ’s outta my life.’ Until lunchtime every other fucking day, she wanted to add.
One of them gave Janelle a business card. ‘Call this number directly to reach me, sister,’ said the Indian one, like her and Janelle were on the same level. They trudged back to the cop car. They hadn’t even turned the engine off, as if Janelle wasn’t important enough to stop for.
She followed them out, picking up her watering can and showering Kruizer’s stiff little carrot flowers, which were sort-of pretty and looked like a miniature bouquet Janelle and Kruizey could take turns tossing behind their backs, giggling, pretending someone had married them. The carrots took about 40 cents off the grocery bill each week. The only people who knew Janelle had grown the fuckin things were her and God.
She was heading back inside to check on Kruizey-woozy when another vehicle crunched up the driveway. This one had no licence plates.
‘KRUIZE?’ Janelle shrieked, running back to the kitchen, ‘You sure you’re okay?’
Kruizey looked up from her screen. ‘I’m okay, mama.’
‘Stay here, babe. If I don’t come back, phone Mumsy, eh? Promise?’
Two bulldykes were getting out of the car, leaving it to rumble by itself. They had to be debt collectors from Home Helpers. You grabbed Size 2 knickers with Humpty Dumpty on them out of a door-to-door homewares van, no money down, and if you didn’t pay later, these ladies did the invoicing.
One had a shaved head, one had dreadlocks. Neither dyke took off her sunglasses. ‘See you had the 5-0 up in here,’ one of them said. ‘Got friends in the police gang, eh?’
‘Here’s the list of shit you owe,’ said the other, pushing a printed list into Janelle’s hands. She cringed as she recognised each purchase. Kruizey’s iPad; Baby Genius DVDs. The Dell Sunshine690 laptop computer Janelle had hoped could pretty-up her CV and get her a job. Every stupid purchase had had a smell of hope that had gone sour. Fuck. Kruizey’s knickers that were sposda be a reward for pissing in the toilet instead of pissing in the posh Plunket lady’s car. If Janelle got kerb-stomped today over some tiny knickers, the only thing she’d think of would be Kruizey, grinning as she waddled around the house wearing only Humpty Dumpty knickers, too overjoyed to notice the paint peeling on the windowsills.
‘Total’s eight hundred,’ said the dreadlocked dyke.
‘Shivers, I got 10 cash, 15 maybe… I could, like, borrow off my mum? It’s just I got my daughter’s birthday cake to budget for.’
‘I got a kid too.’
‘Oh.’ Janelle let herself breathe for a second. ‘Amen to that, right?’
‘And my kid doesn’t have a FUCKIN SCROUNGER FOR A MUM. Ten won’t even pay for the fuckin gas it took to drive here.’
Kruizer appeared between Janelle’s legs, sucking her thumb. Janelle scooped her up.
‘Thirty bucks by six o’clock, y’hear? OI. Y’HEAR?’
‘Promise,’ Janelle told the women. They went back to their car, walking through the carrot flowers. The Koreans next door were watching through gaps in the fence. Janelle closed the door, kissed the cheeks of her special little girl, whose birthday was rushing by minute by minute. ‘Sorry, Kruizey-Kruze. Just work stuff.’ She latched the door, pulled down Kruizer’s knickers, checked Kruizer’s vagina, put moisturiser on it, put some foaming carpet cleaner and a sheet of newspaper over the spilled Fruit Loops, wiped the sticky thumbprints off the iPad. She caught up on the conversation bubbles on her phone, went to the end of the driveway, lifted from the mailbox an inch of bills, a letter from Corrections about her probation, and Kruizey’s first present of the day: a free sample of beef jerky Kruizer bit into hungrily.
Janelle was sipping a quick Bacardi and trying to find a good birthday cake recipe on her phone when chainsaws began to rev in the driveway. JJ was here. Fuck.
JJ clomped into the house with his hard metal half-helmet on and stood over Janelle, blocking the light, his buckles tinkling. She heard his biker friends bellow at him, ‘TWO MINUTES, PROSS.’ JJ tilted his head backward, as in Let’s go, get on the fuckin hog, you’re lucky we stopped for you.
‘It’s bub’s birthday,’ Janelle said, ‘So if you’re wanting me to come out with yous…’
‘Your mum’s expecting you,’ JJ said. ‘Reckons she wants you to bring Kruize to her place.’
‘Tell her I’ve gotta stay home and bake a cake. Remind her we broke up, I don’t give a shit.’
‘You disrespecting your mum? Take this before I smack you.’ JJ took out six point bags plus a little weed and a couple of fifties. ‘Little for you, little for the bank. Where you stashing the stuff anyway? Hot water cupboard like I said?’
‘Birthday. It’s your daughter’s birthday. Not Christmas.’
‘Shut the fuck up, you fuckup. Birthday’s what I said. Here.’ He tried to put the stash in Janelle’s hand. When she didn’t take it, he put the little bags on the table. Janelle’s fingers were inches away from the pain relief, the freedom. Payment for the bulldykes. Balance. Half a day without hassle.
JJ’s jaw wiggled strangely. He was tweaking. A little giggle burrowed through his teeth. ‘How’s my bank account by the way? Where’d you chuck it? Hn hn hn.’
She slid the pain relief back towards JJ. ‘I really wish you’d take your stash home, J. And maybe bring something for your actual daughter next time.’
‘Still got ya ring on? Give us that, thas a grand worth. Your daughter oughta have it. Newsflash: I ain’t marryin ya anymore.’
Janelle bunched her fingers and pulled her fist under the table to hide the engagement ring JJ had gotten down on his knees and given her at Nitro Circus that night with a smoke and a dandelion between his teeth, doing his little tweaker giggle as he proposed.
Janelle followed JJ as he stomped around the house and found his daughter in the wash room, scooping a mountain of laundry powder with a toy digger. JJ knocked the washing powder under the bath with his boot, scooped up Kruizer and held the girl against his spiky leather.
‘That shit’s poison,’ JJ said, toeing the pile of powder. Kruizer watched her dad’s face twitching strangely. ‘God you’re useless.’
‘Smoking’s useless; that powder there’s worth two bucks,’ Janelle said, ‘Listen, I’m on a budget and you need to – ’
JJ picked up a scoop of laundry powder, pushed Janelle’s throat against the wall and held the powder in front of her eyes.
‘PROSPECT! HURRY YOUR ARSE UP!’
JJ dashed the powder on Janelle’s knees, kissed his daughter on the scalp, said ‘Don’t even dream of goin anywhere,’ and clomped back out to his bike.
‘Daddeee!’ Kruizer squealed, ‘My birfdayyy.’ She ran hard at her dad, hit the door just as it was closing, and fell back into the arms of Janelle. Mama had got up off the floor just in time to catch her.
Fay the Plunket Lady was the fourth fuckin disturbance of the day. She arrived while Janelle was occupied in the woodshed, caught Kruizer with a bottle of perfume, took it out of her hands just in time to stop the girl pouring it into her hair.
‘G’day!’ Fay pipped as Janelle exited the woodshed.
‘No it ain’t.’ Janelle had to let a caregiver take over for 90 minutes. Court had recommended it, plus apparently it was ‘weird’ for a mama to be with her girl around lunchtime. Lunchtime was when you were supposed to be at Zumba classes and sip $12 juices afterwards then post photos of paleo salads on your Instagram. At least, that’s what all her friends online indicated. Janelle had been reading their stupid updates while she sat out in the woodshed in silence, hunched over her phone, smoking a skinny joint and slurping bourbon and coke and trying to feel average. Average would be better than anything she’d felt in ages.
‘Tell me Janelle: how is your mum doing?’
‘I dunno. Ask her if you can catch her without anxiety pills in her fuckin mouth.’
Fay took the birthday girl out to the driveway and strapped her into her clean Plunket car that smelled like fresh laundry.
‘Yous’ll be back in 90 minutes, eh? We got a party to take care of.’
‘She needs lunch,’ Fay said, frowning. ‘I’ll get some protein down her. See you in a bit.’
Her mobile went off and Janelle put down her drink, parking it on the laptop computer containing her CV, her photos, her half-finished assignments for that dumbarse medical typing qualification she probably wouldn’t score anyway.
Mumsy was ringing. Fuck. ‘I can’t really talk now. Got some stuff on. Are you coming round here and baking a cake or not?’
Mumsy asked why Janelle couldn’t just buy a cake from the store like everybody else in this world and where her selfish streak had come from anyway – ‘You got it from your uncle Jono, well he’s second to last in a looong line of bastards and it seems to me you’ve elected to take after him’ – and finally Mumsy asked to speak to her granddaughter.
‘Plunket lady took her.’
‘They’ve taken her? They’ve TAKEN her. You stupid, STUPID – ’
‘Not like that, fuckin hell. Just a Plunket thing. She’s probly on a roundabout laughing her arse off right now. She loves other peeps looking after her.’
‘Well perhaps I should show her some real mothering and take her on a weekly basis, then.’
‘I WISH YOU ACTUALLY WOULD.’
‘So you can have time to, what – go to Zumba classes?’
‘YES. ACTUALLY FUCKING YES. YES I WANT TO GO TO FUCKING ZUMBA INSTEAD OF FUCKING COURT.’ Janelle lifted the phone away from her ear, wincing. ‘Can you just honestly quit giving me shit and say if you’re coming round or not? Else I’ll do the cake myself.’
‘I can’t just go filling up the petrol tank willy-nilly can I.’
‘You could if you were a good mum. You’ve had, what, 56 years of your life to save up? Good. Mums. Have. Petrol. Money. Simple fact.’
Janelle ended the call, lay on the carpet face-down. She ignited her cigarette lighter, held it against the corner of a faded rug, hoping to see flames. This kind of burn needed petrol, she decided. She blew the flame out, walked onto the driveway, backed her car carefully out onto the road and raced up to Mobil, not giving a fuck if she were caught driving while disqualified. More community service hours. So what. She filled an empty plastic milk bottle with two litres of petrol, paid for it and by the time she returned, Fay was tiptoeing backwards out of Kruizer’s room.
‘Ssh,’ Fay said, ‘Wee thing’s sleepy as a slug.’ Fay paused and sniffed the air. ‘Did something… burn in here?’
Fay walked around with her nose in the air until she bumped the table, looked down and saw the empty black can lying face-down on Janelle’s ruined laptop in lake of smelly Coke.
Janelle spotted it at the same time, took the roach of the joint and held it up, shrugging. ‘Ruined, then, eh. Fuck it.’ She sparked her lighter and sucked a puff of black smoke and collapsed against the wall, holding the middle fingers of her fists out towards the ceiling. ‘Thanks a lot, God.’
‘Sugar… .’ Fay took a tea towel, lay it over the dead laptop like a shroud. She hovered at the door, stepping into her shoes. ‘Just got to pop out to my car, fetch my bag. I’ll write you a cheque.’
‘DON’T YOU GIMME A HANDOUT. DON’T YOU EVER ACT LIKE YOU’RE BETTER.’ She picked up her $1500 laptop, stepped on the pedal of the rubbish bin and dumped the computer in the bin with a clang. ‘I’ve had a pretty fucked-up day so you need to DRIVE YOUR SWEET-SMELLING CAR THE FUCK UP OUTTA HERE. GO SEE SOME OTHER FUCKIN FAILURES.’
Fay disappeared and Janelle seized her mobile, phoned Home Helpers about their God damn 30 bucks, phoned the pigs about JJ sidestepping his protection order, phoned JJ and told him to come with his little boy scouts. Come take fuckin everything. Got me some gas and I’ma BURN THIS MOTHERFUCKER DOWN. She drank three bourbons, paced the kitchen, shredded her pointless mailbox coupons. Come alll you fuckers.
The bulldykes were first to arrive, squirting driveway gravel as they braked.
‘Stuff’s inside,’ Janelle said, moving out of the way, ‘On the table.’
She’d laid out $190 of merch – bags of crystal, foils of weed, a pile of blunts, plus a vial of weed oil.
‘Fuckin A-right,’ said the dreadlocked bulldyke. She was cramming the merch in an ice-cream container as a bike arrived, rumbling, then rumbled even closer, and closer, then JJ dipped his front wheel inside Janelle’s hallway, twisting the doormat, blocking the exit with 500 kilos of steel.
JJ marched down the hallway, the buckles on his boots rattling. Picture frames rattled. He didn’t slow down to ask what was happening, just saw two strangers with their fingers on his merch. The dreadlocked dyke positioned herself to confront him then collapsed as JJ’s helmet crushed her face. She tried to hold her nose on her face with her fingers full of dark red blood.
He roared ‘CUNT!’ and dragged one debt collector down the hall in a headlock, the other by her legs.
‘THIS HERE’S TRIBAL! TRIBAL!’
Kruizer emerged from her bedroom, rubbing her eyes. JJ sensed the girl, returned inside, took three strides and snatched her up.
Janelle tried to seize her. ‘DON’T – what are you – ’
‘Sweetmeat,’ JJ said, picking bloody blonde hairs off the rim of the helmet, ‘I need to get at ya birthday presents.’
‘I could be a pwesent.’
‘Not you. Tell daddy where mummy keeps the birthday presents, eh girl?’
Janelle watched her daughter point to the hot water cupboard.
As JJ emptied the cupboard he let go of Kruizer, who went running into her mummy’s arms. JJ packed his stash and his reserve stash in a bag on his bike. As he guided his bike off the front doorstep and straddled it and woke the engine up he was surprised to see a cop car slowing and stopping in the driveway.
‘Awesome timing,’ JJ announced loudly, ‘I’s just cleaning up this shitty useless mother’s drug den.’
‘Tell tales if you want, I don’t give a fuck,’ Janelle called out, burying Kruizer’s face in her boobs and holding out her phone while she videoed.
JJ shook his head at the cops like a tired old man. ‘Yous oughta call Child Protection. D’you know you’re dealing with a drug den right here?’
‘We had an inkling,’ said one pigshit.
‘I take it you won’t mind coming to the station to put a few things on paper?’ said the other.
JJ gave them a wink then buckled his helmet and blew a kiss toward Kruizer. ‘Wouldn’t mind at all, Officer.’
Janelle continued filming as JJ showed the cops the harmful substances he’d helpfully removed. She filmed JJ following the authorities away. She was saving the video when six other bikers arrived.
‘You missed your prospect by about a minute,’ Janelle said, her voice exhausted, raspy. She swapped her heavy, sleepy girl from one arm to the other. ‘JJ’s gone down to the cop shop to snitch on everyone. Better hurry if you wanna stop him.’
‘Big time snitch, I’m telling yous. You oughta waste his arse.’
‘You better be on the level.’ The bikers lowered their shades and she cupped her hand around the screen of her phone and showed them the video of JJ and the cops talking, the familiar pats on the shoulders, JJ’s good guy nark voice, cooperating, sniggering. Wouldn’t mind at all, Officer. The bikers cursed and punched their chests and finished off the carrot flowers as they rumbled away.
Janelle had just sat down in the lounge to smoke a cone and have a cry when Mumsy arrived with a Betty Crocker cake, two perfect eggs and a litre of milk.
‘Before you ask: 12 dollars and 80 cents.’
Janelle threw a $20 note at her broke-arse pathetic mum, took the iPad out of her little girl’s hands. ‘Go give your granny a kiss, babe.’
Mother and daughter and granddaughter mixed the cake, argued about whether crushed eggshells would block the sink, put the sloppy cake mix in the oven, argued about whether Kruizer was allowed to lick the eggbeaters and finally sat around the table sipping cups of water while the cake baked. Janelle kept leaving the table to pee all the bourbon out. She fetched her largest, sharpest knife as she returned.
They talked about Janelle’s piece-of-shit father hiding out in Spain, about Mumsy taking the government to another dispute tribunal to get her compensation extended another six months, about the spot on her lung, about how Janelle should never ever use toothpaste with fluoride in it.
Janelle took the simple bread-coloured cake out of the oven and put it on the table to cool in front of them. She was glad they’d got the cake sorted, she said. This was tonnes better than community service.
‘What’d they have you doing today, Nelle? Picking up trash by the side of the highway with one of those spiky sticks?’
‘God no. I’m not going to dumbass community service on my girly-girl’s birthday.’
‘YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO COMPLETE YOUR HOURS TODAY,’ Mumsy squawked, shaking. ‘TODAY IS MONDAY.’
‘Chill, mum. Light the candles already, would ya?’
‘HOW DARE YOU DO THIS, JANELLE. YOU’RE A LOSER. YOU’RE A TOTAL WASTE.’
Janelle wrapped her fingers around the handle of the steak knife and tapped it against her palm, laughed and shook her head. ‘Know how many people have told me off today, Mumsy?’
‘The day’s not over yet.’ Mumsy laced her fingers and placed them on the table, ready for a long dispute.
‘Mumz, today is not Monday anymore, today’s not even Fuckup Day: today’s my daughter’s birthday. That’s all I’m gonna let it be. Now unless you want me clean up the one remaining problem in my life I suggest you shut the fuck up. Kruize: cover your eyes.’
‘Wh – you couldn’t possibly – what are you fixing to do with that, that knife?’
Janelle hefted it, considering something, then pushed the blade across the table and leaned back. ‘Hurry up and cut us a slice of cake already, Mumsy. Fuck’s sake.’
While Mumsy cut the cake with wobbling hands and Kruizer leaned on her elbows, gawking, Janelle reached on top of the highest shelf, took the milk bottle full of orange liquid, opened the lid.
‘Janelle, I’m… JANELLE. DON’T. DON’T YOU DARE. Is that – is that gas? Don’t! DON’T!’
‘NEXT TIME I TELL YOU TO COME ROUND FOR YOUR FUCKING GRANDDAUGHTER’S FUCKING BIRTHDAY, DON’T SAY YOU AIN’T GOT ENOUGH FUCKING GAS.’ She pushed the bottle hard into her mum’s arms. ‘SAVE IT. STASH IT SOMEWHERE. YOU NEVER SAVED A SINGLE CENT. SO SAVE THIS.’
Mumsy poured her face into her hands. Her shoulders began shuddering. Kruizer got out of her chair, climbed her granny’s chair and kissed the upset shoulders. Mumsy’s face had turned crimson and her lips were snotty. ‘Nelle, the, the, the Man Upstairs gave me the same bucket of manure when I was your age, you know. Debt collectors, old bill. Your father’s bloody mates from the bloody Pigeon Boys coming in my window at five in the bloody morning, waking my baby girl.’
‘So you were just as big a fuck-up as me. Congrats. You shoulda brought a present today, just for the record.’
Mumsy shot fierce pink eyes at her daughter. She grabbed Kruizer’s chubby cheek and squashed it between her thumb and finger. ‘I bloody well got you this, didn’t I?’
Janelle sucked in breath, almost said something, stopped herself, and hacked into the cake.