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Short Story Prize

How to disappear into yourself (in 8 steps) | First place, VU Short Story Prize

Step 1

The steam of coffee is enough to wake you, pour one anyway. Make four others, three with milk, one with three sugars, one pot of tea. Let yourself into the meeting room, hand out the coffees to their owners. Don’t make assumptions about three-sugars Matthew. Take a seat, misjudge the whereabouts of the edge of the table, knocking your own mug against it. A piece of ceramic chips off the cup’s inner rim, like the tip of a cliff, sinks, lost at the bottom of the black water.

You are: stiff lines, hard colours, corporate setting. Pleats ironed, turtle neck immaculate, hair pulled back. You are: an intern, savvy, eyes-bright, tail-bushed.

During the interview for the position – unpaid, full of opportunities, two days a week – the manager, a man whose gestures are burdened with clichés, said ‘welcome’. Then he chuckled, sighed: Oh honey, we’re going to swallow you up.

After ten minutes, he shot his hand across the table, shook yours, made eye contact with raised eyebrows: Here’s a future, kiddo, a reason to get up in the morning.

When you come in every Tuesday, Wednesday, he is like this, a big knowing smile: Are you sure you can handle this, sweetie?

A brand of clothing bleach: subject of the boardroom discussion.

‘Okay, a mother, scrubbing a jersey after her son goes to football.’ This is the suggestion from a man – a boy younger than you, someone at the company’s nephew – in an ill-fitting polyester suit.

‘A familiar image, Kev, let’s move past it.’

But then pan out, it’s the father’s shirt. The son’s jersey is fine.’ Kevin sits up straight, stares around the table to confirm his genius.

The manager, tight smile, says, ‘Okay, let’s brainstorm.’

Outside the window: a fat pigeon, subtle under plumage of pink, purple, sits on the four-storey ledge, straightens head feathers, stands to attention, looks at you. Wonder: is this the same pigeon that haunts your fig tree in the autumn? Can all birds recognise faces, or just magpies?

There is more than a minute’s silence; this is your welcome to speak.

‘You could have a women stain her clothes, red wine, having friends over. She goes to change her shirt. Then a man—’

‘—her husband?’ Kevin, keen to rein-grab.

‘Sure, I guess that makes sense. A man, maybe a boyfriend or something gets the stain out.’ Suggest this as if it’s only just occurred to you. Don’t give the impression you have considered gendered laundry ads before.

Another beat of silence, continue: ‘So the woman is happy to change shirts, she knows she can get the stain out in the morning. She continues to enjoy her night. But then he – the boyfriend, husband, maybe – walks past the laundry, does a double take. He finds the product. The women, outside, continue to have a good night.’ You don’t mention it but you know everyone has cultivated the same image of this women: white, slim, blonde highlights. Don’t say: but this woman is brown, smart, tired of his shit. ‘Then after cleaning the shirt, he comes out, shows off his handy work. There’s a pause, but instead of congratulating him, the women look at each other like: “Oh, look at Luke here, only just figured out how to get a stain out at, what, 31?”’

This last comment gets a laugh but not much else. The manager looks at you, frowns. Imagine his perception of you adjusting, morphing into something ugly, something less acceptable – less employable.

Sarcasm: it slips into your other personas, ruins things. You sip on your scalding coffee, waiting for the sliver of ceramic to slide into your throat, to slice it open.

 

Step 2

Thursdays, back to the bill-paying job. You are: a local wholesome barista with soft florals, big smiles, even bigger earrings. The irony of your status as coffee maker at your internship is not lost on you. You are: full of Hi How Are You’s, no ambition.

On your break, over muesli and a book, a man, older, sits down, says hi. Off the clock does not mean less accommodating. He is after your number. He is after the person you look like at work’s number.

Smile, put down your book. Check the time on your phone.

‘Is that your kid?’ He smiles, inquisitive, gestures to your background.

‘Yeah, that’s them.’ Swipe open, find the original picture. She is all: short red hair, freckles, overalls with no undershirt, school age. This works with men your own age. It’s all: tight smile, mental math, politely excusing themselves from your situation.

He takes your phone, holds it at arms length, grabs the glasses from his pocket, places them on the tip of his nose. ‘Your son is very cute, your eyes.’

It does not occur to you to correct him before he counters, snapping his glasses off his face, back into his pocket. Now he’s there, leant over close to you, scrolling through pictures of his own children. He clarifies, breath hot but not unpleasant: ‘They’re adults now.’

He shows you one of his daughter, hand delicate over huge belly, blonde. You think: laundry-ad woman.

‘You may be busy now, but, if you’re not, would you like to get a drink?’

You smile. ‘Have to get back to work.’ Gesture around at the café. Surely this will work: single mother, café worker.

Smiles, unruffled. ‘Tonight then?’

‘Too busy, my kid.’ Still this, ‘my kid’, not ‘my daughter’.

You also think: sad old man. Asian fetish – what else? But: he did not act surprised at your perfect English, does not mind you have a kid, your job. Didn’t ask where you are from. Wonder: how low have your standards dropped?

Alright then, he writes down his number slides it to you. Text him, sometime when you’re free, if you want. ‘I have Netflix. There’s a great market near here I like to go as well – you’re not a vegetarian?’

You stare at him a second, realise the Netflix is not for you, but to keep your kid entertained. The Netflix idiom of your time would not, has not occurred to this man with silver in his beard, who is, must be, older than he looks. Which isn’t bad – his looks.

‘Alright.’ Why not? Take the piece of paper, put the number in your phone.

 

Step 3

Twilight: along the Maribyrnong, Gretel, balancing, precarious, socks, sandals slipping on rocks. The river water swells up, dampening the bottom rocks, Gretel’s socks too, no doubt.

She hops up, one, two, a few rocks, starts balancing on a slim ledge, arms out, flapping every which way. She, as usual: overalls, striped undershirt. A ridiculous name, her father’s doing – German, did not bat an eyelid when you asked about the state of the ginger bread-housing market.

Of course, there is no house-owning, ginger bread or no. There is no German either, just you, Gretel. Everyday you know her better, in the overalls she refuses to take off, hair she clips herself when it passes her neck-line. Now, you call her, have for a while, interchangeably with Gretel: Hansel. She is there, leaving a trail – to clean up, to follow, just for you.

You are: walking a few metres behind her, on the path not the rocks. You’re all: hair un-brushed, mid-rise jeans, singlet, bad tattoos showing.

You want to say, to call out: Hansel, Gretel, my love, be careful, do not fall into the river; I will have to follow you in.

But your daughter can see the river. You know if you say this she’d be all: turning around, squinting, no doy.

A woman walks past the opposite way, with children, grandchildren you suppose, frowns at you like: who let this Asian dyke look after their child. Shuffles the young boy with her towards the park rather than the river.

Call out in your sweetest Good Mother voice: Gretel, sweetie, be careful up there.

She doesn’t say no doy, but she does turn around to look at you like: I see you there, performative mothering.

You look over to see the young boy break grandma’s grip, skip over to the well-kept grass. Besides the boy, a patch of dandelions stands tall, un-mowed, bees leaping to pollinate them. A conscious choice. Imagine: a council worker somewhere in a high vis-vest, mowing around flowers.

A kelpie off its leash gallops through the dandelions, tongue lolling, snapping at the bees. The kelpie rolls onto its back, up-rooting the flowers, rubbing dirt into its silk coat.

 

Step 4

In the morning on your day off, outside, in your small but generous Footscray backyard, looking at the fig tree. It is the end of summer. The sweltering hot nights are fewer, the green bulbs beginning to ripen. You raise a hand to the fruit but no, not yet. A few more days.

Inside, Gretel, shoes on, at the door waiting. Ready to go, to visit grandma. Grandma who dotes, fusses, loves.

Walk over, bend down, try to grab her face, lick your thumb, go to wipe cinnamon off her cheek. Gretel, turns, squirms like: gross.

‘You have cinnamon on your face Gretel, let me get off.’

Head shake, still squirming. ‘Then go wipe it off yourself.’ Since when are you a thumb licker anyway? ‘Please.’

You expect a jutted-out bottom lip. But no, she runs off to the bathroom, submissive, you have kept her from fun long enough.

In the car, almost there, Gretel in the front seat now, you wonder, have wondered before, how old children are meant to be before you let them in the front. Say, right before you pull up: ‘Remember, honey, don’t take what grandma says too seriously.’

Gretel there, being Hansel, pick picking at her left thumb. You want to ask her what she’s doing. Instead: ‘Did you hear me? Gretel, what did I just say?’

A murmur, eyes roll. Think: that isn’t supposed to happen for a few more years. Three. At least three more, give you that time, mother mercy.

‘Gretel.’

‘I know.’ She looks up from her thumb, sits up straight, straining her seat belt.

‘Because, sometimes, when grandma thinks we’re going to do something, we won’t.’

I know, Mum.

Another eye roll, you pull up, jut the handbrake up. Wonder: why did you say that? To fill the silence. To mother. For who? Gretel? Performance, again, you both know. Wonder: for yourself? Gretel is already out the door, up the driveway. Watch her appear, disappear, appear, disappear as she climbs up the brick semi-exposed staircase.

You are: a good mother, a good daughter. You are: crisp white woollen shirt, hair tied in a clean base-of-neck knot. You are: thoughtful breaths. You are: mindful. Get out of the car. Climb the stairs after your daughter. Necklace, gold-plate heirloom, bouncing from your sternum up, down, up, down.

Creak into the apartment, smile, kiss ma on the head.

‘Filthy dress, Gretel. Does she ever take that thing off.’

You mother says this in Vietnamese; for your ears only. ‘She’s dressed like a workman, all the time like a workman. If you need money, ask. You need a better job. With better pay. Ask your sister.’

You wonder if your mother is a better grandmother than mother because she is incapable of scorn in English. She never got the inflection right. You wonder if you can speak Vietnamese anymore, if you could understand it from anyone other than your mother.

Look around, pigsty. Your ma seated on the couch. Wonder: who put her there. Magazines on the floor, stack fallen down. Pick them up.

‘Oh, thank you, dear, I was just about to pick them up.’ Look at her, you both know she wasn’t, couldn’t.

‘What are you saying, Grandma.’

‘I’m telling your mumma to go get you cookies. You look so skinny! Is she feeding you?’

‘She just had breakfast, Mum. She doesn’t need cookies.’

Gretel back to being Gretel pokes her lip out. Think: who’s the performer now?

‘Well, I’ll just have to do it.’ Your mother puts her hands on either side of her thin thighs, so thin now, the white cotton of her jeans crease, look hollow. Think: she shrinks, is shrinking, is disappearing. You are tempted to say: alright then, go on.

 

Step 5

At work, the waitress, young girl, studying business-something, nice – daft sometimes – asks: ‘How’s your internship going, getting paid yet?’

‘Not yet but, actually, ends next week. That’s when I’ll find out.’

It’s quiet, no customers. You are: making a buck by looking busy. The waitress, wiping clean tables says: ‘Well, you know what you’ve got to do.’ The waitress says you know you’ve got to look the part. Tells you that’s how she gets things. Wonder: what things exactly? Waitress tells you, repeats herself, you’ve got to do everything you can, to look the part. Shave your legs, smile, over-enthuse. Tells you in subtext: you can’t make coffee forever; don’t you know this isn’t how you provide for your child.

You think of turning to her the way Gretel does to you, saying, no doy.

But no: why would you have thought of that before? You are a local humble barista, smile, say ‘That’s a good idea.’ Grab a cup to be polished.

 

Step 6

At the man-with-grey-in-his-sideburn’s apartment, stand together, look at Gretel-Hansel. You have set her up in front of the fireplace. There is no fire in the fireplace. Instead: the largest, flattest television you’ve ever seen. Gretel sits on a beanbag chair, frowning at the cartoon on, book you told her to bring open on lap. She looks at you, still frowning, like: I know you don’t let me watch cartoons, what’s going on? Is this the new normal? She looks back at the television.

He takes you through the corridor, impossibly long, to the other side of the apartment where he has: smoked salmon, greens, lit candles.

‘I don’t know why I thought she was a boy. Why didn’t you say anything?’

You are tempted to say: because it doesn’t matter, because it shouldn’t matter, because you are afraid, now, constantly, you are not the one following the bread crumbs, but the witch who fattens her up. The one who fills her with assumptions, getting her ready to be eaten.

Instead say: ‘That’s okay.’

Unprompted: ‘She’s too pretty to be a boy, looks too much like her mother.’

Smile, sit down, feel his hands rub your back, his mouth kiss your neck. Inhale, exhale, close your eyes.

 

Step 7

Late for internship, say to your manager: traffic. Not: daughter, sick, had to find someone to watch her. Today is the day you are meant to be all: pristine makeup, big smiles, full of reasons to be promoted.

He waves his hand at the lateness, this is a first, after all. Then asks, best interview voice, hands straightening tie: ‘Why do you think you should be promoted.’ Subtext: not the other interns, not the boss’s son, or distant cousin’s neighbour, not the people who kiss arse more than you.

You are tempted to say: because you’re better at the job than the people getting paid. You are tempted to say: because you have a child to feed. Does he really think you care about advertising? Does anyone? You are tempted to say: because it would be nice if someone just gave you something, anything, once. You’re tempted to say: to fill your diversity quota.

Instead say: ‘Excuse me.’ Pick up your handbag, let yourself out, go, get Gretel, your Hansel, your sick daughter-son from your mother’s – cruel you know, to leave her there too long.

 

Step 8

In your kitchen, doing the dishes, Gretel, still sick, recovering in the adjoining lounge room, sitting on the floor, a jumper underneath the overalls, attempting to make a house of cards, frustrated she can’t get past two triangles without collapse. Through the nook in the wall you smile at her, then look up at the television to the news.

An ad break: women on a patio, pink drinks, lurid ornamental cocktail umbrellas, straight-teeth laughs, chocolate-covered fruit. Then: slow motion close-up of a woman, cackling, she is done up but not in a flattering way, brunette, the ‘other’ in a circle of blondes – one of the blondes looks like you, diversity, check. Then: the camera moves out slightly, you see: man. Someone’s husband, through the window, reading a newspaper. He looks up like: women. Everyone in the ad gasps. Fast pan to woman opposite brunette, looking down at her white dress, deep red strawberry stain splattered down one side. The protagonist: newspaper man’s wife. A beat of everyone looking. Then: she laughs it off, excuses herself, comes back in jeans, shirt. The night continues. Cut to: husband looking at the dress in the laundry. He opens the cupboard, pulls out Stain Wane Ultra Sand. Cut to: him scrubbing. Cut to: him, hair dryer in hand. Cut to: him on patio, presenting the dress. The women gasp again, brunette breaks into a coughing fit, wife leaps up grabs the dress, kisses him on the cheek. Cut to: her in the dress twirling, freeze frame: Save Her Night, Try Stain Wane Ultra Sand.

You look down at Gretel, she has three triangles, two cards placed on top, complete concentration on the next layer.

You turn to the window. The sun is almost set but you see it, there. Between the large dense leaves, a single plump, purple fig.

Open the screen door, walk towards it, reach up, twist it off the branch, bring it to your face, to your mouth, break flesh with your teeth to let the rich pink insides burst, filling your mouth with flavour.

Inside, Gretel’s house collapses under itself. She looks up just in time to see the fig thud to the ground, the last sunlight slipping away from the corners of the empty yard.

 

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Katerina Gibson is studying her honours in creative writing at the University of Melbourne. She is from Brisbane, but lives in Footscray.

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