Jane, my manager, is already at her computer doing the New York Times crossword.
‘Kat, birds in “12 Days of Christmas”?’
I’m certain she didn’t see me come in. She just knows the exact time I walk in every day. I sing the song in my head.
‘Calling. How was Harry High-pants last night?’
‘Yeah, he was funny.’
Jane rolls her index fingers around each other and widens her eyes at her screen.
‘Like yeah, I don’t know, we just kinda clicked. Same sense of humour, not as awkward as the first time.’
‘Did you bone?’ She swings around to face me. I pick the lint off my skirt.
‘Real good.’ I turn and sit at my desk, start my computer.
‘See! I told you it comes again.’
‘Yeah, you did. I remember you said that.’
Instead of revelling in that reality, in the nice time I had with Harry last night, I let myself binge on thoughts of Jeff, my last boyfriend, as I stare at the flashing Windows logo. As always, when these moments come, I can’t move until the memories play out. I never know which ones will come, but they always end with the same one. This time I watch him hang the washing from the bedroom window at his parents’ place in Coffs Harbour. I laugh from behind a book as he pulls his soccer shorts off real quick and swings his limp dick around like a propeller. I storm off annoyed as he laughs at me for crying when Michael Jackson dies. I hold his hand as he signs papers with the other at the real estate. And lastly, his perfect, cold ginger face.
I ease into work by deleting subscription emails. Asos, Goodreads, Groupon. Jane interrupts.
‘Kat, I need you to go check on Scary Spice today. The father called to say she didn’t drop the kid off on Tuesday. Tried calling her when I got in but it goes to voicemail.’
I have a crunch in my stomach. I can’t tell if it’s Jeff that brings it on or Scary Spice not answering her phone. She’s always glued to the thing, even when her baby, Chanel, is bawling. Scary’s real name is Saffa Sarab. Her first caseworker nicknamed her. She has a penchant for matty hair extensions and heavy eye make-up. That caseworker is on stress leave now.
On my first visit Saffa told me never to come to her house again in ‘shitty lesbian heels’. She said if I was committed to wearing heels then they should be at least six inches. She made me a too-sweet Nescafé and answered my questions from behind her phone. Saffa had elected to deliver the baby via caesarean because she ‘didn’t wanna ruin everything down there’ and had discharged herself two days early from the maternity ward because the nurses were ‘being bitches’ (they clipped her fingernails while she slept). Chanel was asleep in a baby car seat on the living room floor. She seemed fed and comfortable. I noted in my report that the mother showed no affection and did not glance at Chanel when she stirred or whimpered. The department decided to leave Chanel with her mother pending review and regular visits because Saffa was living with her own mother who would also be caring for the baby. Saffa was indeed her mother’s daughter. Maha Azzi had even longer fingernails than her. Picturing either of them changing Chanel’s nappy made me cringe.
Jane is telling me to wait until after lunch.
‘First I need you to write up and submit your performance review. HR is gonna fuck me if I haven’t signed off on the appraisals by tomorrow. I’ll say that we had a one-on-one already. There’s nothing you really want to talk about, right? Like you’re happy, everything is good? With work I mean.’
I am struggling working five days and the commute to Lakemba is draining me.
‘Yeah yeah, course. It’s all good.’
The first question in the performance review asks:
Describe the most rewarding task you have completed in your role in the past three months.
I think: ‘Robbing dishwashing tablets from the cleaner’s cupboard for home.’ I write: ‘Finding a suitable foster carer for the Wilson siblings was very rewarding because I managed to keep them together …’
When I was seventeen Dad forced me to get a driver’s licence. It all seemed natural to me the first time I got in the driver’s seat and so I tried to drive with one hand on the steering wheel but Dad would grab my resting left hand off the console and slam it back onto the wheel. It surprised me every time because he was otherwise so gentle.
I start one of the Department’s Toyota Camrys and rest my elbow on the console. I look around to see if anyone is in the car park before I slam my own left hand on the wheel. I drive south on Haldon Street towards Riverwood. The streets are crowded with double-parked four-wheel drives brimming with damp school kids, seatbelts off, hanging out of windows. I’m stopped beside a family, girls eating ice-blocks and snakes in the back seat, their father in the driving seat, hazards on, frantically looking into a shop. The mum waves at the dad with one hand and carries flat bread and legumes in her other as she waits to pay. The dad shouts out to hurry her. Over the past five years that I’ve worked in Lakemba I’ve seen the colour of its people change. They used to be caramels and olives, but now they’re definitively dark. The Lebanese and Indian grocers have morphed into Pakistani and Sudanese ones; the once colourful burqas and hijabs have darkened too.
Saffa and Maha’s flat is in an old housing commission building in Riverwood that’s waiting to be knocked down and rebuilt like the rest along Salt Pan Creek. The planners did a good job of flattening and spreading out the once vertical ghettos but the same problems still peek out from under the fresh coats of paint. On Kentucky Street I slow down and watch an old man drop a plastic bottle onto the playground beneath him where kids are contesting who can peel off the largest chunk of paint from the wall. Further down I see a huge woman with curlers in her hair ripping out the bougainvillea in the communal yard. Pots of flat-leaf parsley and Moroccan mint sit by her side awaiting their new home. I park outside the old block and smoke a cigarette in the car. We are not supposed to but I’ve seen Jane do it. I check my phone. There is a text message from Georgia to come to Freda’s tonight to watch Neil’s show. I say I’ll meet them there. Harry has tagged me in a Facebook post, some video of a laughing goat. I am completely unmoved by it but comment ‘lol’ for him anyway.
My heels click as I walk. The carpeted stairs leading up to the third floor have been trodden so much they’ve hardened almost to lino. Most of the flats are silent behind closed doors but some are open: I catch glimpses of a TV panel show, a man having a jovial phone conversation in an African language. Outside Saffa’s flat there are two pairs of glittery wedge sandals, identically tacky, and Chanel’s empty pram, blocking the corridor. I knock three hard knocks on the door. Knocks that my mother would knock. Nobody answers but I knock again and put my ear to the door. There are no sounds of dishes dropping into the sink, no shuffling feet coming toward the door, no baby cries, no music videos playing from phones.
As I turn to leave, the neighbour opposite opens her door and I sense that she has been watching me through the peephole. The neighbour’s name is Fatima. She’s done this before. Last time she told me that Maha was in Bali and Saffa was letting in all kinds of men at different times of the day and had asked Fatima to look after Chanel while she went to the store to buy nappies. Fatima said when Saffa returned to collect the baby there was no sign of the nappies. This time Fatima holds a tiny cup of Turkish coffee in her hands. Behind her on the living room floor is an old bloodhound, panting in the way that dogs do toward the end of their lives. The smell of roasted nuts wafts from her flat. Her green eyes and stony skin make me wonder if she was beautiful when she was younger.
‘I see you park the car from the balcony. Don’t smoke, my sweet. My husband, he die from the smoke. All his life from fourteen smoke, smoke, smoke and in the end he go down in smoke.’ She claps her hand on her hips.
‘Yes, you’re right, I must stop. Have you seen Saffa or Maha today?’
‘Hmm, she back again with the men Saffa. They come and go and baby it cries but she is feeding and cleaning. Baby look happy you know. Maha, again she go on holiday, to Egypt, to see her father he is sick.’
‘So you haven’t seen her today?’
‘Who? Saffa? No, I no see her for two days. And Maha she has gone for one week now. You know something beautiful girl, I thinking, best thing for government to do, take baby and give to nice home, nice parents who no make baby for themselves, maybe they show her something nice for life. Maha and Saffa, they good inside heart I know but not good for baby. Only good for shiny, for party.’ She points at the sandals outside their door.
‘Thank you Fatima. If you do see Saffa can you please tell her I came by and that she needs to call me on my mobile as soon as possible?’
‘Yes my sweet of course I will do this.’
I say goodbye and as I am walking down the flight of stairs she pops her head over the railing, keeping her door open with her bare foot, and says ‘Please habibi, you don’t say nothing to them for what I tell you. I don’t like trouble. I am old lady, on my own, my son, he never come.’ She scrunches her face and wobbles her head and the prettiness I imagined earlier disappears.
I get back to the office at five-thirty. Jane and the rest of my team have left for the week. In my report for the visit I write: File missing persons report in twenty-four hours. And: Highly advise removal and foster care of Chanel as soon as contact is made. And: Saffa requires counselling and health checks. And: All eventual parent-child visits to be supervised as she is the sole carer at the moment with Maha being away and neighbour reports unfamiliar people spending time at the flat and around Chanel.
On the train to Redfern I call Mum.
‘… I don’t know Kat, I really don’t know. It’s the anxiety again, its come in and … and I feel like it’s dug its heels in.’
‘But what are you anxious about Ma?’
‘What am I anxious about? What am I anxious about? Geez Katherine, sometimes I really do think you’re off in la la land down there. Your father can barely move anymore. I’m here taking care of him, and the nurses help, they do, but at night when I want somebody to get me a glass of wine, there’s no-one to do it. Or if I want to book a flight to come and see you, I can barely see the numbers on my card.’
‘So when do you want to come? I’ll book the flights.’
The conversation continues in that fashion, me fending off more guilt-laden remarks, until Mum’s spirits brighten as the train approaches Sydenham station. She tells me about a show she’s been watching on telly where strangers get married; there is even a tearaway bride. I imagine how many mums in Australia share the same gripes, perceptions, pains, accents, hair. The same conversations with their overworked children. It’s bleak. I’m comforted knowing I’m part of a brigade of hapless offspring.
I walk to Freda’s from Redfern and Neil is already playing. I’ve heard him sing this track before, it’s an Aretha Franklin one and it melts my muscles to see a wiry pale kid singing music that was made deep in the gut. He sounds like he could have been Aretha’s brother. I watch the sides of his mouth twitch and contort as I make myself comfortable at the table with Georgia and Rosie who quietly pour me wine and put slices of pizza on my plate. We watch Neil belt out the track. I’m proud of slipping in off the street swiftly, but then I catch Harry smiling at me from two tables away. He’s bathed in red light like a halo and I raise my slice of pizza at him. He’s had a haircut. Baristas can do things like that during the week. After Neil finishes, Georgia, Rosie and I surround him and say we miss living with him. He says he misses it too but moving in with his boyfriend has been pretty cute.
The wine helps us dance and I realise I’m the only person in office clothes on the dance floor. I’m wearing the skirt I wore to Jeff’s funeral. I remember Mum telling me over the phone to make sure I looked respectable for the service: ‘a skirt below the knee’. She and Dad didn’t come because she said it had caught them by surprise and they wouldn’t have had enough time to pack and make it down to Sydney. Jeff had been dying for six months. I took Mum’s fashion advice to heart. It was the only thing I could cling to, the only thing offered by my parents when the most exciting thing in my life was killed by slow illness. It was more than just Jeff’s funeral that day. I buried the kids I thought I’d have too. After the funeral I thought never to wear the skirt again but post-grief dirty laundry is a real situation and one day it was the only clean bottom I had. Since then I’ve worn it at least two times a week over two years.
I was wearing it too, the night I ripped the locket with some of Jeff’s ashes off my neck and tossed it out the car window on the M4. His parents had the locket made because they thought I deserved a piece of him too. It was heavy, but I wore it. That night I was driving a little girl home to her grandmother’s place in Auburn after a supervised visit with her abusive father. He had ignored his daughter for my arse and at one point patted it as I moved around the room. Heat had bled from my pores. I wanted to smash his head with the wooden blocks the girl played with but I just cut the visit short. The fury made my foot heavy. I drove 110km an hour down most of the freeway. When I realised I was treating the little girl as her father had my hand went to my neck and the necklace flew out the window underneath a billboard for the latest iPhone. The little girl said: ‘Hey, don’t litter!’ and I was immediately showered in the foolishness of my move. I had never longed for Jeff or that locket more than in that one tiny second. I pulled over and gave the little girl my phone to play with while I scurried on all fours through the shrubbery and gravel under the giant lights of the billboard. I never found the locket. I also never wrote about the bum pat in my report.
Freda’s is fun but I want to go home. I tell the girls I’ll see them later and make for the street. Harry is smoking a cigarette with his friends out the front.
‘Kat – Rob, Mario.’
‘Hey, nice to meet you guys.’
‘You headin off already?’
‘Yeah, pretty buggered.’
Harry whispers something incomprehensible in my ear.
‘Don’t worry about it.’
I kiss them on the cheeks and walk away. I check my phone for anything from Saffa but as I unlock my screen a text from Harry flashes up: Wanna come back to mine? We meet on the corner of Regent and Redfern Streets and take a cab back to his in Waterloo. He lives in an apartment in one of the huge new builds that will probably only last another twenty years because they were so shoddily planned and built. Dad would have called them a heart attack, would have made plans for repurposing the old factories into housing estates rather than replacing them with grey boxes and Domino’s pizza stores. The apartment has an incredible shower and after I wash and Harry gives me a t-shirt to wear, we sit on his sofa and smoke a joint. We watch Black Books but I am fixated on how Bill Bailey’s hair moves more than the general comedy. The sex is good again and we cuddle for a while on the sofa before going to bed. He asks me to stay over and we have sex again, me on top. I come for the first time since Jeff. My fingers are full of Harry’s chest hairs, something Jeff didn’t have. I apologise but he just laughs and we fall asleep after I check my phone one last time. I will have to remember to call the police and Jane in the morning.
I sleep roughly, dreams of cooking my hand in a waffle maker, my Dad with a white beard talking to me from the sky like Zeus, dancing in the bush with Jacqui Lambie. That’s the one that wakes me up. I check my phone, it’s 3:36 and there is a missed call from Saffa and a text message. I take the phone to the bathroom to read it. I’m at The Gap. Can you come? I wake Harry as I rush around the flat chucking my clothes on.
‘Hey, hey what’s up?’
He grabs my hands.
‘Scary Spice, she’s gonna do something stupid. I’ve gotta go get her.’
‘Whoa, Kat, are you sleepwalking?’
‘No, no sorry, she’s a client of mine, she’s been missing with her five-month-old, she just texted to say she’s at The Gap. I have to go.’
‘Oh fuck, for real? You want me to drive you there?’
‘No, but can I borrow your car?’
‘Yeah course, I’ll take you down to it.’
In the elevator Harry tries to hug me from behind as I tie my hair in a ponytail and clear my eyes of sleep in the mirror. He starts the car for me and as I’m reversing asks again if I’m sure I don’t want him to come.
‘Yeah, honestly, thanks. I’ll bring the car back as soon as I’m done. Shouldn’t be too long.’
‘Nah, no worries, take your time.’
I watch him in the rear-view mirror and feel something good rise in my chest. I call Saffa as I drive maniacally through the streets but there is no answer. I text and say: Wait for me, I’m coming. Is Chanel with you? No response. I drive harder. I call Jane but she doesn’t answer either.
It doesn’t take me long to weave through east Sydney. The curved lawns that follow the streets that follow the bay are cut with precision, as though someone had spent their entire day getting it right, a professional or perhaps just a retiree. Unlike Redfern at four in the morning, the streets are empty.
I’d been to The Gap once before with Jeff, just to see. I stop the car and run out to the cliff, slicing through the custard air, but Saffa is not there. I look over the fence, around me, I call out but my voice is muffled by the haze. I run further down the track, away from the surveillance cameras and Beyond Blue signs. I push through the bushes to the rocks, try and see into the water. I hear my skirt rip. I’m sweating from places I didn’t know could sweat. I see a shadow on the granite horizon and at first I think it’s an animal so I stop. But it’s Saffa sitting close to the cliff’s edge. I walk slowly toward her, making noise with my feet so she will hear me coming. She is cradling Chanel, who is asleep.
I startle her, because her shoulders seize up. She turns her head to me. Thick drawn-in eyebrows, heavy blue eye shadow, foundation like ganache and deep red lips. No sign of tears. Her hair is a bird’s nest and the zipper on her black dress broken so that only the two ends meet.
‘What did I tell you about wearing heels?’
‘I took them off over there so I could walk over.’
‘Yeah, me too.’
‘I came to see you today Saffa. What are you doing here? How did you get here?’
‘Okay, well can you come over here and we’ll talk please, or pass Chanel to me.’
I am talking to the back of her head now. Saffa says something that I can’t make out over the sound of the sea. The sweat on my skin mixes with the clamminess rising up from the waves. I flick the juice off my forehead and make my way over to them. I sit close enough on the rocks so that I can hear her and see her face.
‘You know when I was eleven my uncle shoved his fat finger in my vagina. When my parents found out he told them it was like done in a joking way and that he was my uncle, “like my father”. My parents never spoke about it ever again.’
Saffa looks at me and then back to the sea again.
‘I saw my uncle three days ago at Woolworths. He had this new wife and he’d dyed his moustache black. He looks at me in the toilet paper aisle with his wormy little eyes and he goes “tfeh”.’
‘What does “tfeh” mean?’
‘In Arabic it’s like a sound of disgust. Like the sound of spitting. Worse than that even.’
‘Fuck, I’m sorry, I didn’t know that had happened to you Saffa.’
‘Who cares anyway. They can all get fucked.’
‘Where have you been these past two days?’
After a moment of silence in which Chanel stirs and Saffa keeps staring out to sea and I realise I am about to piss myself, Saffa answers.
‘Ali told me he was gonna take me and Chanel down to The Entrance for the weekend. We could sit on the boat, he would fish, smoke the shisha. I thought maybe he actually wanted to be with me you know. Like he had never said anything like that before. Never seen Chanel and me as a thing together. Like usually he just wants to fuck or eat. He was even gonna bring his Range so we could put the baby seat in.’
‘And what happened?’
‘I was packed, I was all ready to go and then his whore of a sister Shadia, who I used to be mates with and who introduced us, she sends me a picture of him sitting with his wife and twin boys at Shadia’s son’s birthday party. The cunt looked happy as Larry too. His wife, that skinny rake, was sitting there with a LV bag in her lap. I sent him a text calling him a fucking rat, a dog, a scum and to never see me again.’
Saffa looks to the clouds and then back to sea.
‘After an hour I tried calling him but he had blocked my number. I left Chanel with my girlfriend and went out in the city. Ended up meeting this rich Aussie cunt. We spent two days racking coke and partying.’
I flick back to Chanel’s file in my head and see Saffa’s age. Twenty-nine. I find it hard to accept that someone my age could have had all these experiences. I can’t offer Saffa good advice because she’s actually lived, I haven’t even tried cocaine. I sometimes feel like a teenager. I look at the opening in her zipper, at the flab bunched up. Saffa cracks my contemplation with a wail that comes from wherever her soul lies, a cry I am sure will wake someone up in pretty Vaucluse. Chanel is crying now and Saffa’s make-up-spiked tears drop onto her as she sobs. I move closer with outstretched awkward arms as though I could catch all the hurting.
‘I don’t fucking get it man. I don’t fucking get why me why anything, everything has happened to me. Like I try and every day I’m good I get on with shit but I swear to God in my head every now and then I think how the fuck can all this bullshit happen to one person? Like what the fuck does the world have it in for me for? Everything I know is completely retarded. Have you ever felt that Kat? Ever felt like how can all these shitty things be real?’
I try to answer but she continues, yelling at the sky. Stalactites of saliva form between her lips.
‘You think I’m strong, I know you do, you think I am that bitch that gives you attitude, that acts like I know everything about everything. It’s all an act man. I’m a fucking fake bitch. What the fuck is the point of all this shit? Of my slut mum, of me, of this dress, jewellery, of Chanel.’
Saffa tightens her grip on the crying Chanel and holds her close to her chest; she kisses her forehead repeatedly and then her arms unravel like water and little Chanel, in her little jumpsuit with clown fish on it, rolls away.
I don’t even see her dropping. As soon as she has left her mother’s hands, as soon as gravity takes her into its own, Chanel ceases to exist.
Saffa and I are panting in unison like dogs. I feel my heart fall through my body. I feel my ears being pulled up to the sky. I feel my gut innards relax so much so that they must be spilling out of me. I hear the blood in every one of my veins. The only sound is blood. Saffa pulls tufts of her hair extensions out. I think she has forgotten I am there, or just forgotten everything. She rocks her body, awaiting its rebirth, as though dropping Chanel off the cliff would unburden her from being Saffa Sarab and forge her a new identity, a new path with a whole different set of shit to deal with. In that moment, in that very moment in all my fear and disgust and wetness I know that I have to be the one to help her with realising that journey, with spurring it on. And so I get up from my puddle and stand behind her. I fix my gaze on the furthest point of the ocean I can make out, and I push Saffa, hair, make-up, broken zippers and all, after her daughter. This time, I do not search frantically for what I have thrown. This time, my hands played the right move. And so I walk away, past Saffa’s discarded heels, back to the car where I will call the police and report what I have seen: a woman who jumped off a cliff, her baby in her arms.
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