Short story by Michael Botur
You’re standing in a cold kitchen, breath steaming in the frozen air, when the world ends. You’re hoping Hazel doesn’t hear the fight and wake up, but Cindy doesn’t give a shit about Hazel no more. Cindy wants you to deal with a crying child, wants you to stress, wants you to grind your teeth. Cindy swallows just enough to control her voice and calmly says she’ll give you some money to spend on daycare to look after Haze while you’re waiting for the mining recruiters to get back to you about drivin a dump truck around Opal, Queensland and you’re like, You sayin I need pocket money like a little kid? and you tell her she could save a bit more if she didn’t go out clubbing leaving you here like a fuckin babysitter and she says Babysitter is the only job you can actually hold onto and you feel the veins and arteries in your legs turn to cold metal cause NO ONE disses your job situation. NO ONE.
Cindy stands with her chin out, like saying ‘Punch me’ but at the same time saying ‘Don’t you dare punch me.’ You punch a hole in a cupboard instead. Your hand gets stuck in the door and while you’re trying to pull it out, Cindy gives you this wounded look, like you’ve smashed more than the cupboard, and she grabs her handbag and keys and doesn’t even say bye to Haze, just struts out into a night so cold there’s frost sparkling on the handrail. The clop of her Fuck Me heels that started this whole argument-thing gets smaller and – oh fuck – she actually gets in the Mazda that YOU fixed the disc rotors of and she’s gone.
You slump against the wall of the kitchen and dribble down it like a hunk of spit, pooling on the cold tiles. Everything outside goes black. You listen intently for the sound of her return but all you hear is owls. Your phone says it’s 11.45 August 31, then it’s midnight, then it’s September 1, 12.01a.m. and you take your back off the wall and crawl like an animal over to your La-Z-Boy – Cindy’s La-Z-Boy, really, ’cause Cind paid for every fuckin thing in this place– and you curl your big heavy man’s body into the La-Z-Boy and take the cap off your white coffee and suck some stinging liquid hard enough to make the house warm for a moment. The vodka doesn’t look like white coffee but it’s hot and bitter and it warms you and it’s comforting to have a little in-joke with yourself. That Al-Jazeera 24/7 news is on. You watch with the volume up pretty loud but Hazel sleeps right through. These radical fuckers have blown up a synagogue in Hamburg. The prams full of burned glass, the crying mums, the black smoke billowing out of broken windows, all that shit isn’t as devastating as shivering in a too-big flat with an empty fireplace because the one person who could’ve paid for firewood from a 24-hour gas station is gone and you’re alone. With your baby girl, yeah – but still alone.
Haze wakes you on the armchair. She hops up onto your lap and plays Bejeweled on your phone while you have more white coffee for breakfast and try think up a way to chuck Haze into daycare so you can get a job and catch up on the rent and survive September. Cindy threatened to pay for daycare but jetted before she’d actually released any cash, damn it. Haze isn’t three until the end of the month and you’ll have to pay shitloads if you put her in daycare now. Come October 1 she’ll be fully subsidised but the next 30 days will cost ya.
With no income and no breadwinner, you’re fucked. You take a swig of the white stuff. The pressure eases, a little. Right now Haze would cost $73 per day to get looked after; problem is you’re only gonna make $91 after tax if you drive out to the docks and unload shipping containers for 0800QUIKLABR for eight hours (plus 30 minutes there, plus 30 minutes back). October is 30 long-arse days away. It’s 720 hours away – you do the maths on your phone. Kristov vodka is going to cost you $126 a week if you want to be pain-free, not to mention the smokes you’ll need to go with the white coffees, plus the pizzas, the trips to McDonalds. WINZ will make shit difficult with or without Cind. You’ll have to beg them. Surviving September is gonna cost thousands. It’s cheaper to just be dead.
Tryina figure out how to get through the month takes up a whole day, although you give yourself a break around noon and eat noodles and cereal with Haze, and play Duplo, which brings up all these memories of uncles and rope swings and your mum making pies from basically nothing. All stuff you hadn’t thought of in ages. An advert pops up on your phone for a new pay day loans company and at around 3pm, as Haze is napping in a pile of blocks, you beg the company for two hundy and the operator lady on the phone is mega-helpful and she does you a favour and skips the part about how much interest you’ll have to pay. You watch the loan drop into your bank account and you unfurl Hazey’s little fist and make her high-five you. Daddy’s earning.
You celebrate with a drink, scoop Haze into your arms, lug her to her pram and head out to get a $4.90 pizza from Dominos, feeling drunkenly confident, so confident that you ring up WINZ and they let you make an appointment for financial assistance. The appointment’s tomorrow, 8.30 in the morning. Sweet, you say, you’ll definitely 100 percent guaranteed be there. The pavement seems all wobbly and cars keep coming onto the sidewalk and honking at you and you chuck rocks at them. You and your Number One Lady munch the pizza on the way back. You curl up at the foot of her bed like a dog. You whisper rhymes till Hazel’s snoring, little snippets of Dre and Pac and Cube. Optimistic stuff. Silliness.
You’re in court, defending yourself against charges the prosecution was keeping secret from you, and the judge is Ben Haggis, this kid with a ridiculous briefcase and different-coloured eyes you used to hassle back in school. Benji Faggis you always called him. He’s brought his briefcase into the courtroom and he keeps ruling against you, piling years onto your prison sentence, and finally he opens the briefcase and in there is a printout of all the hidings you gave to people that were weaker than you, the sticky drinks you poured into Faggis’s hair, the girls you criticised until they let you fuck them.
You wake up in a cold knot on the foot of Hazel’s bed. You call for Cindy. You can see your breath and the window is white and dribbling. This flat is always cold. Hazel crawls across your chest so she can grin into your eyes, pressing her knees into a bladder so crammed with white coffee you’re about piss your pants. She prises your eyes fully open, crams her little paws inside Daddy’s hands and she’s saying Rollercoasty, rollercoasty, merry-go-round. Your day’s fucked already. You’ve not only gotta take two people to the toilet, you’ve gotta make her toast, pour her milk, wash the bed sheets she’s pissed in, praise her if she ain’t pissed, run her a bath before Cindy gets the electricity and water switched off, spread goop inside her sandwiches, trim the crusts 360 degrees so her sandwiches are circle-shaped, cut off some cling film, put the sandwiches in the wrap, put the wrapped sammies in her bag, put her bag –
No. It’s only September 2. She won’t need sammies ’cause you’re stuck with her and you have an appointment in 10 minutes and it’ll take you 40 minutes to get there.
September 2 is about apologising to the receptionist for being 45 minutes late, begging for another appointment, waiting two hours for that appointment to come around, spending some of next week’s rent money on a pack of nappies when she pisses herself in the toy corner, making it through the appointment without crying in front of a woman, depositing Hazel in a toilet stall by herself while you weep, unseen, in the next stall over, then bus home. Just getting the application forms has taken up a day in which you could’ve done anything. Retyped your CV. Smooth-talked the receptionist at that steel fabricator place. Signed up for a welding course and got some student money. Painted pictures with Haze using the fucking Christmas art set that Cindy left in the cupboard with all the other toys she’d lined up for Hazey. You put Haze down for a nap, draw the curtains, sip warming, numbing acid, watch the terrorist fires on the news, trying to imagine how satisfying it must be to walk into Cindy’s work with a belt of dynamite and a trigger.
September 4, first order of business is getting Haze to try the childcare centre for a day so you can give the registration paperwork to WINZ soon as so when October rolls around you don’t miss out on what you’re owed so you can wipe your arse with something other than strips of fucking newspaper.
To get to daycare as quickly as poss means you have to go in a straight line, shunting the pushchair across a sports ground so muddy it’s pretty much a lake.
You try to make it a fun trip, singing dumb songs with Hazel. The whole thing would be a hundred million times easier in Cindy’s car but you try not to even think her name. You spot the entrance of the daycare on the far side of the Milo-coloured lake. Hazel’s asleep, smiling as if she doesn’t even know how agonising it is to be alive. If you have to do this every day, four kays there, four back, her sleeping pattern is going to be majorly fucked up, but you’re here now. No sense turning back, doing eight kays for nothing. No sense being alive, if you look at the big picture. Easier to choke Cindy on her mum’s doorstep, point your fingers at the cops, pyow pyow, get warned to put down the weapon, get shot, no more misery. No more struggle.
That can be the mission for tomorrow, though; today, the mish is to get a little girl inside and warm and dry.
It’s noisy and bright in the daycare and there are wet clothes steaming on the column heater and there are women without makeup and a hundred paintings drying on an Extendaline than runs across the room and there’s stickers and colours everywhere, colours you’d forgot existed in this world. Bright joyous yellows, blues, purples. The colours of ice blocks and swimming togs. They tell you they can offer a half-day free trial, here and now, and you’re like Fuck yeah. Other people will be actually DOING the hard work, but YOU made it happen. Someone oughta tell Cindy.
The daycare centre’s got about 40 kids and four staff and no mums. Not many of the grown-ups are down on the floor getting proper-involved with the kiddies. It’s more like they’re watching a game from up in the commentary box, arms folded. Workers wade through the children, sipping from steaming mugs or going outside to huddle around cigarettes.
You unclip Hazel and she waddles over to a box full of various stuff and pulls out a giant book with thick cardboard pages.
‘Got a lavatory around here, sister?’ you ask this teenage-looking girl who reveals a mouthful of braces.
‘Scuse me? Laboratory?’
‘A lavatory.’ Being a big man around all these kids makes you nervous. Someone might find out you’re despised by Hazel’s mum, and Cindy’s mum, and that tyre-fitter place you done a month at, and Benji Faggis, and all the people you ever punched or swore at or shouted at or took for granted. God damn vodka makes you wanna fight yourself. You need a quiet room to have a quick private coffee and recalibrate.
‘We got a toilet, if that’s what you mean?’
Hazel sees you’re about to shut yourself in the toilet and drops her book and chases you. She claws the door, bleating, while you slip your backpack off your shoulder, sit on the toilet, unscrew the bottle cap and knock back a blast of relief. Ahhh. Cheaper and sweeter than weed or rocks any day. You tip your head back while the coffee melts into your arteries, analysing the ceiling, think deeply about the smoke alarm up there, one of those TaiCorp pieces of shit you saw on 60 Minutes that failed in that shopping mall fire. Any smoke swirls around the TaiCorp, it probably won’t even work.
Hazel is still attacking the door and you’re screwing the top back on your bottle and thinking, Why the fuck hasn’t a teacher picked Hazel up and tried to calm her down?
You open the door and she seizes your legs. You’d rather a teacher was taking care of her, but no – one of the teachers is pressing a child against a seat and smacking an exposed bum, and another teacher, the jailbait with the braces, she’s opened a ranch slider and she’s letting the wet wind in while licking a cigarette paper, pretending to monitor the kids. Really she’s monitoring her smoke. You watch her hand a ciggy to another teacher then roll one for herself. Hazel gets into a fight with a baby that seems to have no one looking after it. No one shows you how to sign Hazel up. Plus didn’t they make it illegal to smack kids? You must be liquored. You’re paranoid. You’re remembering the smacking thing wrong. The white coffee reaches your toes and you shiver with warmth. You instruct yourself to be happy. You go sit on a bench and see if you’ve got any credit on your phone to email some CVs out, beg for forgiveness from every boss you ever told to go fuck themselves. Every person you hassled at school. Every Cindy.
September 10, you get up before Haze for the first time in, like, ever, but your dole money hasn’t come through, and no one wants to chat on Facebook and you find yourself on a slope, sliding down through this featureless zone, these days with the same breakfast cartoons and the same news reports about work-related shit happening to people that actually get to be at work. The only difference between the days is you take Hazel to a different playground one Thursday, then there’s this Saturday where you try to cheer yourself up by trying out a $22 bottle of white coffee, something classier than the $19 Kristov, a treat.
Icy rain slaps the windows. Gales scream down the chimney. It’s a message from some god that you’re nothing against nature. You think of the old-time Maori battling through whitecaps, clinging to logs and crawling onto the shore, arriving soaked and starving, with far less than you. Those people built roofs to keep the rain off. They gathered firewood and went fishing in the rain and kept their families together and bred a million descendants. What’ve you done? Started with nothing, finished with nothing, zero descendants.
Okay, one descendant, but even when you’ve got your fingers in her ribs and she’s giggling so hard her cheeks flush red-hot, you don’t feel worthy of claiming her as your own. She should really be looked after by someone better. She had her sample session at daycare. When September ends you’ll dump her in daycare every single day then get on with making the world right. Working a job, maybe, or maybe cutting the bad bits out of the earth. Cutting yourself out, firstly. There has to be a decent beam in this flat you can hang yourself from. You’re fucked, otherwise, if you hafta go on living.
It’s September 20, well past the halfway mark of the month. You’re gonna make it. You drink to that. You need a swig anyway ’cause WINZ is supposed to inject some sweet relief into your bank account so you can get that payday loans company off your case. They ring, like, eight times a day. You don’t wanna switch your phone off ’cause all your old group is on Facebook, and there’s a school reunion coming up and you can’t stop looking at pictures of how people’ve turned out. Take Ben Haggis, for example – the dude’s kinda handsome these days, his photos are all warm fuzzies and white smiles and he always wears real expensive golf shirts in his profile pics. Dude musta won the Lotto or something.
You have a stiff coffee and agree to trudge to the park, even though a screen of rain hangs in the air like a bead curtain. You feel guilty for doing this kinda thing on a workday. Feel guilty about everything. Feel guilty when Hazel tries to spin a roundabout by herself and keeps slipping over then crying while you sit on a park bench writing a plan on your phone of how you’re gonna get your shit together.
Haze nags you to play and you tickle her bulgy little tummy till she releases laughter from her core like a beam of light. She does everything with full gusto, no bluff, no moderation. She thinks jokes about poop and pee-pee are hilarious, like you’re some astonishing comedian. She thinks your noodles and hot dogs are gourmet cuisine. She’s never mad at you for longer than ten seconds. She deserves way better than you. Grown-ups lie about their feelings 24/7 and fuck each other over. It’s hard to imagine a grown-up worthy of her.
There’s a fresh-faced bitchboy on a park bench with his two girls a few metres away. They all wear bright, gay jackets that fit perfectly, complete with shiny wet polyester hoods. That faggot doesn’t look like he’s fucked over many peeps. Good for him. Big hundy kilo boy like yourself? You’ve slapped a few people. Maybe the slaps mean you’re not allowed to apply to join the army or work for the government, maybe you lug around a criminal record like a boulder but the slaps seemed essential at the time. Gotta be staunch. When it feels like being patient’s not gonna get you any respect, you gotta stand up and take it.
Haze jumps on a swing and starts squealing ‘Wheee.’ A text rumbles your phone. It could be about that outbound sales from home thing you told that lady on Facebook you’d do. Hopefully not another rejection.
Dear sir a late payment fee of $48.60 has been added to –
‘MOTHERFUCKER.’ Your bowling arm drives your phone straight into the wet bark. That’s a $110 screen you’ve just smashed. The clean-faced faggot puts his hands on his knees, stands up and walks over, staring only at you, blocking out the sky.
He tells you he’s a police constable when he’s at work. He tells you you’re lucky it’s his day off. His eyes are blue and clear and firm. Reminds you of the time you ripped up Benji Faggis’s Star Trek magazine and he didn’t attempt to stop you, just looked at you so hard that his eyes saw right into your shitty soul.
September 21 begins at 12.01am, and you pray to that big wanker in the sky before you open your internet banking, but the cash ain’t in. You writhe all night till it’s dawn then wake Hazel up. This is it. The final march.
You push the pram through the wet gravel and puddles. Hazel kicks her feet happily, munching a free muesli bar sample you got in the mail. You read about Quick Labour on your phone as you push. 0800QUIKLABR’s website has this real smiley profile of the boss fella, Benjamin something. Should be same as all the other labour rackets. They’ll promise you work, you’ll promise to work, you’ll shake hands, then it’ll fall to bits come the first drug and alcohol test and you’ll drink a month’s worth of white coffees right there in front of the receptionist and tell her she’d better call an ambulance.
You try not to think dark stuff as you pass Hirepool and Carter’s Building Supplies and open the door and walk into the heat-pumped air of Quick Labour. You park Haze in a corner so she doesn’t fuck up the interview for you. There are toys. The receptionist uses your actual name and comes around the desk and gets on her knees down to Hazey’s level and shows a trick that the fireman doll can do when you pull his drawstring and makes Hazel squeal with joy.
The boss strides down the hallway with his hand extended, as if you actually matter to him.
‘I’m Ben, awesome to meet ya,’ he says, squeezing your hand. There’s muscle in it. His eye contact is strong and penetrating like that cop the other day. He’s got a name tag on: General Manager Benjamin Haggis.
This is a mafia set-up, a sting. Punishment. Humiliation. You’ve been lured here to get whacked.
Back in school, one time Ben was working the scoreboard while you and the boys were watching this netball game, planning who would get to fuck what girl. Something about seeing him looking all in-charge and driven bothered the hell out of you and while he was checking a clipboard on the sidelines, you kicked the back of his legs, collapsing his knees. He fell right in front of a Wing Attack and fucked up her run. Ben’s fuckup cost heaps of time out and your school lost the game.
All this shit plays in the little movie theatre inside your brain while you stand there speechless. He directs you into a chair and turns his computer monitor to you. He says he’s gonna be straight up and starts telling you what he calls the “unexciting parts” of signing up to work for him – there’s the deductions, some of the health and safety policy meaning you can’t work without hundred-dollar boots, and you have to pay for your own medical assessments – plus Ben says he’s gonna be straight-up: pay is only three bucks more than minimum wage.
‘Still, though, happy to start you this week, if that works for you,’ he says with that same smile – hard and probing, but clean. Confident. Not judgemental. ‘Or whenever’s convenient.’
Why don’t you hate me? asks the voice in your head. Everyone else hates me. Too honest to be a crook, too crooked to be honest.
‘On your application form, you’ve not ticked the box which asks if you have any childcare commitments?’
‘I shouldn’t have… Look, I got a kid, alright.’
‘And she’s at home with mum?’
Benji Faggis, who you blinded with a fire extinguisher in the corridor outside science, leans right back in his leather chair, then leans right forward. ‘Bring her in, my friend. I know it’s hard.’
You laugh slightly. ‘You’ll never know till you have kids, brother.’ You half-rise. You think of the towers they talked about on the news on September 11, falling and exploding. Armageddon came on a Tuesday. Some people’s lives were over. For the winners of the world, though, the week carried on.
‘I have four of ’em,’ Benji Faggis says. Your eyes creep around his framed photos. There he is in his black graduation gown. His baby is playing with his hardhat. ‘My wife homeschooled ’em. You can’t put a price on the safety of your kids, can ya. You got a daycare centre sorted? Hey – oh, I see I’ve upset you. Hey there.’
He opens a drawer, hands you a small packet of pink Hello Kitty tissues. ‘I know it’s hard, man. Listen, job’s yours soon as you’re able, so long as you can get to the site, that’s not an issue. Now: go to your daughter. We’re cool. Just be here for the alcohol and drug test on October First. That work for you?’
‘Can’t wait,’ you say, your lips sticky with snot. You sniff and try to blink the tears out of your eyes. ‘And bro – sorry ’bout, y’know. All the stuff that happened.’
He tips his head sideways like a parrot. The dude’s too content to remember. He doesn’t recognise who you used to be. ‘Oh?’ he says, bamboozled as fuck, ‘What stuff?’
You open the gate of the daycare centre and your girl scuttles towards the rainbows and Play-Doh and little chairs and tiny tables. Play-Doh is gangsta. You wanna spend the day feeling its cool calming squelch between your fingers. You can smell ciggies and hear someone swearing, but that’s okay. Lower your expectations way down and you’ll be alright. Terrible place, lasting damage to your kid, but that’s penance, you suppose.
Through the smoke comes a kid with bloody knees, but that’s okay. Can’t expect every kid to get close attention.
There’s a leak in the roof and the bucket someone’s put out to catch the drops is overflowing. All the teachers are outside having smokes and when a chain of little kids starts tugging on the pilled, ratty track pants of one of the teachers, she makes a little kicking motion with her leg, holding her precious ciggy safely away.
She’s kicked the kid. It wasn’t a punt or a drop kick or anything, but it was still a kick.
You poke your head out the ranch slider and the teachers pull their cigarettes away from you. The teachers pretend they’re on the job.
‘She all good, your daughter? What’s her name again?’
‘Hazel.’ Your stomach rumbles. You need a coffee bad. ‘She’s got a nametag on… .’
‘You register?’ says a tall teacher with mean black eyebrows. There’s a hicky on her neck she’s tried to erase with foundation. ‘You can leave your boy here if you’re registered, ’sall good.’
‘I gave you the paperwork ages ago. I came in and spoke with you. ’Member? And she’s a girl.’
Hicky mashes her cigarette out, swats the smoke away, comes inside, stands in front of a whiteboard with wensday October 1 written on it.
‘KIDS! MAT TIME! GETCHA ARSES IN HERE!’
The children sit timidly on their bums. You kiss Hazel’s head and she shrieks and tries to clutch you with tiny hands that you shake off. You’re a big dude, mustn’t forget that, mustn’t be dragged. You cried in front of a man, yeah, but once in 25 years isn’t bad, and you doubt you’ll see Ben Haggis again. He’s satisfied, he’s happy. He doesn’t get anxious about people scheming against him cause he’s never fucked anyone over.
You jump a collection of Tonka trucks and a child who is painting directly on the floor, and a puddle of some yellow liquid with a toddler standing beside it playing with his diddle.
Hazel chases you all the way to the door and her screams follow you towards the bus stop, across the rainy car park. Inside the bus shelter you pause, listening to fat rain drumming on the roof. You are clutching the handle of an empty stroller. Trucks go by, making brown water whoosh onto the sidewalk.
There’s a bottle of relief in the backpack which dangles from the stroller. You’re alone and sheltered, it’s grey out here and, screened by the rain, no one notices you. All you need is just a little eency peency sip of confidence to get you to Quick Labour.
Your phone spooks you with a reminder. If you don’t get your arse downtown and give an alcohol-free piss sample, you can forget about working at the only employer in town that’ll have you.
It was nice to catch up with Ben and say sorry. It was nice to be offered a job, even if it ended before it even started. You’ll drink to that. You’ll tell the bus driver Sorry, this was a mistake. You’ll cross the road again with an empty stroller that has no purpose without a little girl in it. You’ll march back into that daycare centre and pluck Hazey off the mat and take your baby home. She needs her daddy.