Type
Fiction
Category
Fair Australia Prize

FAP winner – Fiction: Your cart is empty

Jeff is doing the school run for me today. I’m wondering where he is, if he’s going to want his usual teeny-tiny black coffee in a giant mug, when, just as we’re sitting down to breakfast, he knocks on the glass patio door and hauls it open. I pop a ristretto pod into the coffee machine. He rubs a hand across his bald head.

‘Hey,’ he says, pointing to my coat. ‘I know that coat.’

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I got it from you. Well, from your shop.’

‘How long did it take to arrive?’

‘Less than a week.’

He nods, taking the mug from me, giving me an approving smile. We’ve known each other only three days, but I know that look – a look that suggests he is plussing and minusing and multiplying, even while he’s taking the plate with the raspberry and choc-chip muffin that I’ve made for his breakfast. The kids want raspberry muffins too, but I swat their hands away and tell them Jeff is our guest, and we don’t serve our guests Weet-Bix. Lucas is ten and Izzy is seven. The baby of our family is Ruby; she’s four. I forgot to tell Jeff about Ruby’s role in school drop-off. That she doesn’t go to school yet, which presents its own set of problems. That he’ll have to take her to daycare after dropping Lucas and Izzy at school, then me at the train station. We all sort of forget, very often, that Ruby exists, even though she is clearly the one who needs the most attention, especially at school run time.

 

We’re already late, just coming off the freeway towards the kids’ school. Jeff has one hand on the steering wheel, gesturing and remarking about the pros and cons of spending more than fifty dollars on lockable galvanised steel mailboxes. He leans over to ask if I’m back to a 12C after I lost that bit of weight in April; he says that some women prefer to switch to underwire after their breastfeeding days are over. He toots the horn at a pair of cyclists. He reminds me to order tampons, and I hush him, even though he’s right and I would’ve almost certainly forgotten to buy any before next week.

He’s crawling at about forty k’s an hour. He brakes before a yellow light he absolutely could have made. I grip my door handle, check the time on the dash.

Jeff looks into the rearview mirror. ‘This past minute, Lucas, the one just gone? I earnt $200,000.’

Lucas says, ‘No-one earns $200,000 a minute.’

‘And $4000 this past second,’ he says. ‘And that one just gone. And that one.’

Lucas stares out the window. ‘That sounds kind of ridiculous,’ he says.

I spin around. ‘Hush,’ I say. ‘Jeff is doing our school run.’ I settle back in the passenger seat. The cushion that supports my lower back is comfy, but I wonder if we should upgrade the car. ‘Do you sell cars?’ I ask.

Jeff wipes his nose with the back of his hand and takes a quick look at it. ‘Not yet, but we sell crystals and cushions and necklaces and baby bouncers and rice cookers and coats and books and door handles and hammers and acupressure yoga mats and kevlar vests and measuring spoons and Himalayan salt and pictures of your brain etched on marble with raised gold stitching and makeup brushes and Nespresso machines. Everything from A to Z. But not cars. Although—’

A cry from Ruby cuts him off.

‘Do you want some candy, Ruby?’ Jeff asks.

She nods mournfully.

‘I brought licorice?’ He tries to reach into his back pocket.

She sobs. ‘Not licorice.’

I point to the drop-off zone. It has a speed limit of five kilometres per hour and runs the length of the side street next to the school.

Jeff asks Ruby, ‘Would you like to pat my head instead?’

‘Yes, please.’ She sniffles and reaches over. Jeff angles his bald head back towards her little cupped hand. Then he does an incompetent parallel park behind the Jamisons’ Honda – our back tyre chocked up on the kerb and the front of my car blocking the bike lane.

‘All right, kids,’ I say. ‘Lucas and Izzy, this is you. Let’s go let’s go let’s go.’ Already I am late, even with Jeff doing half the school run. ‘Next time, do all the drop offs by yourself, Jeff, you’ll be fine.’

‘We can all achieve a great deal when we put our minds to it, Eleanor_1979.’ He pulls on the park brake and the kids climb out.

 

My required seven-point-two-five hours plus lunch will only end at 4:55, which means I won’t get home till at least 5:30. Thank god Jeff is doing the afternoon school run as well, I think as I hit the top of the Goodwill Bridge. I feel like I’m flying in this coat. The sky is blue and the clouds are creamy. The river is the colour of money, that’s what Jeff would say. He’d say, That river is the colour of a Benjamin Franklin. He’d say, It’s the colour of a Woodrow Wilson.

At noon, I run out to get a banh mi with extra chilli. I amble to the office bathroom at least twice more than I need to. I offer to stay a little late.

 

*

 

A bit after five o’clock, I’m crossing the bridge back towards the train station, almost running, dodging parliamentary staffers on scooters, hot bearded dads on those cargo bikes, me huffing in my new coat. Who are all these people? Why are they moving so leisurely?

Yesterday, Jeff crawled out of the cubby where he’s been sleeping. In his arms he was balancing four white boxes. He knocked on the back door and handed the kids and me an iPhone each.

Mine rings in my pocket. It’s my friend Robert.

‘Robert,’ I say, ‘Jeff did the school run today. It really took a load off.’

‘I bloody hate the school run,’ Robert says.

‘Oh, me too. Jeff was pretty much a dream. He collected them this arv, too.’

‘It’s good when things work out,’ Robert says. ‘Listen. I just got off the phone with Anna’s boss.’ Anna is his daughter. Teenager, gorgeous girl, babysits for me sometimes, used to joke that Robert and I should get married haha.

‘Her boss at the chicken shop,’ Robert says, ‘is this kid I used to teach ten years ago. Still calls me Mr Burstow, can’t help himself. Polite as all get out.’

‘That’s nice,’ I say. I see four cyclists congregating at the bottom of the bridge and I need to make a run for it if I’m going to get around this slowpoke in front before we get to them.

‘So I rang this kid to say that Anna wouldn’t be taking any more Sunday shifts. No longer worth it. If she isn’t getting penalty rates, know what I mean.’

‘I do,’ I say. ‘Sundays are …’ What am I trying to say? I don’t go to church. Robert doesn’t either. But don’t Sundays still mean something? A day when I don’t work and things are a bit quieter. When we can all – Lucas, Izzy, Ruby and I – kind of breathe and not be at one another’s throats? When we can make eye contact for a few moments and sloth about? Or not. Drive to the planetarium and eat Calippos in the car. All of which is not possible on any day of the week other than Sunday. Plus, obviously: no school run.

‘Right,’ Robert said. ‘That’s what I tried to – you know. Then this kid says, okay, Mr Burstow, I can tell you right now that Anna won’t be getting any more shifts.’

‘What?’

‘She won’t be on the roster this week or next, do you get my drift, Mr Burstow? Who knew kids even talk like that, Ellie? What an autocrat.’

‘So he fired her?’

‘I swear to god. I taught that kid about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. I remember it very clearly. I taught him Denise Levertov and Gary Snyder, for god’s sake. And now I have to tell Anna.’

‘That you accidentally lost her job.’

‘Taught him Tracy K Smith and Louis MacNeice: “would dragoon me into a lethal automaton, would make me a cog in a machine”!’

‘Oh, Robert. You did the right thing.’ I tell him I’m sorry, that I’ll have Anna over to babysit soon, and I hang up, and as soon as I do the phone rings again. It’s Lucas. On his new phone.

‘Lucas, mate, what’s up?’

‘Mum?’

‘Yes, love, you OK?’

‘Jeff isn’t here.’

I feel a tremor of panic. ‘What do you mean?’

‘We didn’t want you to worry. But he still hasn’t shown up. Do you have Ruby?’

Shit shit shit. ‘No. Is Izzy with you?’ I’m speeding up, my feet aching in my black stockings and heels.

‘Yes.’

‘Are you at school?’

‘Yeah, but just us. No Jeff.’

That fucking fucker.

‘What do we do?’

‘Stay. Stay there.’

I ring the number Jeff gave me, hoping that he’s mangled in a gutter, a minimum of one limb damaged, with me understanding that people can get run over by cars, while also wanting to cry because I’m a single mother so of course I’m aware of all the literature that says not to let strange men into your home. And even though I set him up in the cubby, which is just made of discarded shipping boxes, and didn’t give him a house key or tell him I loved him, I have put my children’s lives at risk, not fully appreciating that while I always try to do the right thing – just like Robert ringing that fascist chicken shop kid for his beloved daughter – the world is filled with self-serving and industrious devils.

The call goes to Jeff’s voicemail. ‘Jeff, where are you? You promised you’d do the school run and you did not deliver. You had better be dead, you scumbag.’

 

Robert agrees to go wait with Ruby at daycare. When I arrive, Ruby is surprisingly not hysterical. My feet are blistered. I’m a hot mess. Robert leans in for a hug and accidentally kisses me on the earlobe. It’s utterly embarrassing but the whole thing is such a debacle we can laugh it off.

I take Ruby in an Uber to get Lucas and Izzy from school. It’s almost dark. Peak hour traffic – a back and forth of horns and glittering tail lights – edges past me towards the entrance to the freeway. We round the corner into the drop-off zone, our driver pulls on the park brake, and I leap out.

Lucas and Izzy are wearing their backpacks, knees up, resting against the school fence. Lucas musses a bunch of dead leaves through the dirt. Izzy bends over the phone Jeff gave her, two thumbs working furiously, her face ensnared in the phone’s glow.

Izzy sees me and her face falls. ‘Aw, Mum, I want to keep playing.’

I stop. ‘You loved it, didn’t you?’ I ask her. ‘Being forgotten?’

Izzy nods.

Lucas begins to cry and he runs to me. I hold him close, the dead leaves crunching between our bodies.

I read the children stories before bed. I send Robert a text and he replies that he broke the news to Anna and she won’t forgive him for a long time. I tell him again that he did the right thing. I tell him our children will kill us even as we are trying to save them.

 

*

 

I can’t sleep. I pace the lounge room floor. I want to run away.

Instead, I sit at the dining table, which is covered with Lucas’s headphones, Izzy’s glue and glitter and puffy stickers, Ruby’s snipped-up paper on which she’s obsessed with drawing puppy faces. I love finding these fragments under my cup of tea or stuck to the bottom of the milk bottle – droopy eyes and docile dog smiles or frowns – imprinted with however Ruby is feeling at that moment.

Sitting alone at the table with the lamp lit next to me, I feel like I’ve managed to stitch the pieces of today together. I’ve kept my children safe and I haven’t cracked. I peer out into the backyard. When Jeff first arrived, I gave him a torch, telling him they’re called ‘torches’ here. There’s no light coming from the cubby. I wonder if he’s found a new family. I wonder if he’s found a $200,000-per-night hotel.

I open my laptop and click on a new tab. I type ‘A’ and then ‘M’ and the browser bar seems to remember.

I am not the only one with a complaint:

It is too easy to buy things accidentally with clicking. I will not be using them again.

The FBI should seize all their assets and anyone whoms works there!

I keep finding costs but they are costs I did not (I repeat) purchase!!

Two (manic) teenagers delivered my package. They were on bikes! One ran through the sprinkler! They were late.

A knock at the patio door and I just about die. I slam my laptop shut. ‘Jesus! Jeff.’

‘Hello, Eleanor_1979,’ he calls out, muffled through the glass. He waves a grey box.

I go to the door.

‘Let me in?’

I shake my head. ‘You forgot the kids. Where were you?’

‘Eleanor, thanks for the voicemail feedback earlier. I am willing to work with you to find a solution. I value you, Eleanor. I do not believe yours is an accurate representation of what happened, although I acknowledge regret about what happened.’

My god, what an autocrat. I want to know why he speaks like that.

I sit back down and open my laptop. I’m aware of Jeff’s presence less than five feet from me, on the other side of the glass, next to the kitchen table. He’s a dog that won’t quit. A fit little terrier, gracelessly pathetic, his head shiny and aglow underneath the outdoor bug zapper. Jeff points up at the zapper and mouths, Did you get this from me? I sigh and nod.

I turn back to my screen. And right at the bottom of the consumer complaints there is this:

All day long, I bend, stow, stretch, lift, pull, reach, carry and walk. I can’t afford lunchbreaks. I can’t afford to quit.

I stand and step towards Jeff. I pull on the handle and open the door, just a bit. He proffers the grey box.

I feel the sting of tears. ‘I have options, you know. You’re not the only one out there. I have friends who’ll help me do the school run. I have Robert, I have Anna. I could pay Anna since, actually, she just—’

‘Do you want to know what’s in the box?’ He goes to post it through the gap in the sliding door. It doesn’t fit so he lifts it out and tries different angles, bashing it ridiculously against the frame, completely useless, then finally jams it through with the heel of his hand. As inelegant as his parallel park this morning.

I pick the box up off the floor. Inside is a pair of sneakers. I kick off my slippers and try to balance on one leg. I let Jeff hold my hand through the gap in the door. I lace up my new shoes.

‘Black ones,’ he says. ‘For work days. To match your stockings.’

‘They fit perfectly.’

‘I know,’ Jeff says.

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

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Laura Elvery is a writer from Brisbane. She is the author of Trick of the Light (UQP 2018). Her next short story collection, Ordinary Matter, will be published in 2020.

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