There was a neat click as May climbed each step of the maple staircase. She didn’t expect to find him on the rug below their bed, on his side, hands cupped into each other like he was sleeping. She sat on the bed above him, flipping off her cream shoes. ‘We need milk,’ she said before mentioning something about muesli, then about the last time he had come home with anything: dog food, red apples, even supermarket bread. And, before she could stop him he had reached for one of the shoes she’d just taken off. The three thuds sounded like far-off fireworks, or maybe a distant car backfiring. She watched him, lying at her feet – the wounds starting to bleed at the back of his skull where his pale hair grew thickest.
The shoes were from St. Andrews market, purchased one Saturday in April when the sky was clear. The air, too, was still enough to hear the trucks across the hill as they slowed down to pass weekend traffic on the narrow bitumen. A woman sat at the entrance selling flowers wrapped in purple cellophane, her windcheater having caught flakes of a pastry breakfast and pollen from the wattle whose branches she cut with rusted pliers. The regular stalls were selling the usual: duck eggs and cheap turquoise jewellery, buckets of blue-gum honey and dip-dyed woollen socks. May didn’t stop long at these, mostly she stood in front of the tables full of bric-a-brac, wondering what had caused people to get up so early, to swap the debris of their lives – sandals, fleece-lined jackets, old cotton t-shirts – for pockets of coins and curled five-dollar notes.
May looked away when the bleeding began to clot, eyeing her phone amongst the clutter of their bedside table: last night’s cup of water, some jasmine she’d pulled from someone’s fence and a half-empty packet of mints. She knew she should run for some tissues, maybe even one of the old tea towels she had collected to wrap the kitchen crockery in. ‘Is this what you wanted?’ he said, still gripping the shoe – his knuckles pushed up, white and bony, under his skin. And the conversation about who would go across the road for the milk – white and sweaty in its carton – was over.
‘Six dollars for those,’ a stall holder said from her spot on her blue tarp, unwanted parts of her wardrobe spread about her like a nest. ‘I’ll be sad to see them go.’ They had a pearly sheen in the early sun and May thought they looked like the kind of shoes her mother would have matched with eye-shadow when she was a girl – perhaps wearing them to a debutante ball or, if she was older, an engagement party. The leather lining smelt earthy, musty, but not of other people’s feet. Trying them on, May was surprised she could walk. The tip of each heel had worn away just enough to expose the metal ends. She slipped them off, noticing the backs of her feet, the way they were white with dry and cracked skin. ‘Just don’t wear them in the rain,’ the woman said, placing them into a faded plastic bag. As May turned away she noticed a wattlebird, its throat swelling as it sang.
There was a run in May’s green stockings, beginning where her toenail had pushed through the material and travelling up to her knee. Looking down, she also noticed his feet on the carpet, how familiar they looked, the milky-blue veins across the top of them. She remembered the way they’d pushed into the sand at the edge of the ocean, and the way they’d gripped the cool floor on a particularly hot day in summer. They were almost as recognisable as her own. Before she had finished talking with the woman on the emergency line, he had taken his hands from his hair to look at the pads of his fingers, at the blood that he’d wiped from his head. When he looked up at her standing above him, his eyes were almost perfectly round against the sharper angles of his face. ‘What did he use, sweetie?’ the woman on the phone asked, but May could not bring herself to say.
May noticed how gently the honey-man stacked his wife’s honeycomb, chips of it falling onto the white trestle-table before being brushed to the ground. His Blundstones and blue jeans reminded May of her father’s friends, how they stood with one hand gently resting on a hip, the other always holding something: a cup of tea, a bottle of beer, a paper plate of white-bread and sauce. There was a water-stained umbrella shading the yellow-lidded honey varieties: Spotted Gum, Brush Box, Tea Tree, Bloodwood and Ironbark. May wondered how the man knew what flowers the bees had been gathering pollen from. She thought of the beehive she’d been shown at school, and how the worker bees had been calmed by smoke from a teapot made of tin.
The emergency room, freshly painted, had two vending machines, each humming along at a different pace. May thought back to the cola she’d bought that morning after buying the shoes. The general store where she’d been was only a short walk from the market. She had flicked through the sun-bleached magazines, her eyes running over the weekend papers before she’d put the bottle up on the counter and handed over her dollars. The cans in the emergency room cost double that. Her vision shifted. She counted seven other people sitting with her. Most were watching a television that was attached to the wall. An advertisement for paper towels came on, making her think of the mess left on the floor in the bedroom at home. The baking dish, emptied of the honey-pumpkin they’d had for dinner, would also be sitting on the table in the kitchen. His mother had given her that dish for her twenty-ninth birthday, along with a packet of glass refrigerator magnets. She had already broken six out of ten of the magnets, sweeping the coloured shards under the refrigerator with their dark-bristled broom.
A testing pot sat in front of each honey jar, perfectly aligned with an icy-pole stick offered as a spoon. As May wrapped some dark Brush Box around one, the honey-man asked what she had bought from the woman’s stall. ‘Some heels,’ May said, putting the glob of honey in her mouth, her molars aching from its sweetness.
‘Women and shoes,’ he said, smiling through his close-clipped beard. May nodded, the man’s comment making her think of her mother’s bunions, how they pushed ridges in the leather of all her, now flat, shoes.
‘This one, the bigger tub, thanks,’ she said, pointing to the container labelled Ironbark. And she could taste her breath, thick and sugary as she unravelled two pink notes from her fist.
Everything seemed to have slowed down amongst the pale walls of the emergency room. A woman sat across from May knitting, her purse and a ball of wool in her lap. At her feet was a Violet Crumble wrapper. May looked at the woman’s shoes, laced-up canvas runners, her white socks around her ankles. Comforted by the click of plastic knitting needles, she wondered how long the woman had been sitting there, and what had brought her in. Two sheep had already been neatly knotted into the front panel of the jumper, their noses touching. When he finally appeared – a pink form in his hand and stitches poking from his head like tiny claws – the woman looked up too. ‘Not as bad as it seemed then,’ he said, picking up May’s bag and walking ahead of her, through the set of electric, glass doors.
Thick bunches of grevillea and yellow bottlebrush sat in buckets, their stalks tied together with heavy-duty rubber bands. The final triangle of what had been a large tray of baklava sat on its own and the trestle-tables surrounding the flower stall were slowly being packed away, folded into the backs of station wagons or tied to roof racks with orange hay-bale twine. May picked up one of the smaller bunches of grevillea. ‘Three drops of bleach and a spoon of sugar,’ the woman said, standing up from the milk crate she’d been using as a seat. ‘They’ll keep for weeks.’
A man in a cloth hat from a neighbouring stall nodded, saying something about vinegar and multivitamins, as well.
‘You trick the flowers, love,’ he added, winking at May as she took another bunch in her hand. ‘And they’ll be good to you.’ When May opened the car door a wave of hot air enveloped her. The steering wheel too, was warm, and the vinyl seats prickly against the backs of her thighs.
He didn’t say a word from the passenger seat – the pink doctor’s form already scrunched on the car floor. ‘We need milk,’ May said, looking across at him, before turning to watch the road again. Telling him once more like this – after what he’d done – felt right. She remembered that she’d helped him with his socks, after the woman on the phone had said it would be better if she could take him to the hospital herself. The fleecy socks – also bought at the market – weren’t the tie-dyed ones, but those that came in a packet of five, all clipped together, toe to toe, with plastic pegs.