Type
Fiction
Category
Fiction

Ritual

We live in a hotel now.
Well, for the moment anyway. Until Thursday. Until the money runs out.
Everything smells like mushrooms. People come and go, with their conferences and morning corporate functions. This morning, when we filled up on our complimentary breakfast in the small dining room for guests, I felt someone’s eyes on me and curled my lip. The animal in me rising.
I’d take little packets of jam with me, slipped neatly into my bag, if it wasn’t for the old me watching over my shoulder.
That’s just not how it’s done.
Don’t.
In the black-and-white film I watched on repeat as a child, Shirley Temple steals bread rolls from the table and puts them in her pocket for later. In the warm house I grew up in, I couldn’t quite understand why she would do this. Na tros pio arga, slow down, my mother would insist in Greek as I shoved spanakopita in my little mouth at dinner, no-one is stealing your food.
On our way to and from the hotel room, up the ramp past reception, birds take swipes at our heads, protecting their nests. In the room, I listen through walls.
Amelia does her homework on a piece of paper ripped out of my notebook. We tell the teacher she’s lost her schoolbag again. We’ve lost more than objects along the way—accidentally dropped in the hotel carpark, fallen out of the back of the car in the haste of leaving for the day. Late for school again.
It’s just bad luck, that’s all. It could happen to anyone.

*

Brush your hair! Do you want to end up like Angela’s daughter?
Of course, according to my mother, unbrushed hair leads to pregnancy and living in sin in the city.
He was all that and more. Thought both of us being Greek would be enough for them. My parents disapproving, wouldn’t let that hooligan in the house. With my parents asleep down the hall, my window open, he slipped into my room. With those black jeans tight against me, we breathed together. His hair almost as long as mine. I bit his skin without drawing blood, held my teeth like a tomcat giving warning, what would it feel like, to give in to the newly-awakened wildness in me?
What have I done to deserve you?
Moved into our new house on the day the neighbour laid fresh concrete in her drive. She waved to us, smiling from across the road. Later that night he scratched our initials into the concrete before it set.
His lighter marking crosses with smoke in our door frames.

*

The hotel staff knock on our door too many times—to drop off fresh towels, make the beds, spy on what we are doing in here, a mother and child, in a suburban hotel with so many things in the back of our car and with Amelia going to school each day.
I pay two or three days in advance, trying not to max out the credit card, until I sell another thing, shedding what’s left of our old life one piece at a time. The humiliation burns as I walk into the marble-floored auction house with all the rings that used to mean something jangling on a chain around my neck.
I clasp one of Amelia’s unworn christening bracelets to her wrist. The red thread bright against her skin, the Filakto evil eye charm watching over us. She rubs her finger over the cool glass charm.
You must keep this on always, OK? It’s for good luck.
Can Teddy have one too?
Here, Teddy can have mine from when I was a little girl.
Now the house is gone, I realise we can survive without things.
Before we left our home, I packed the station wagon with all that I could. As I cleared out the cupboards I found a dark object I did not recognise. In my hand it was heavier than it looked. Smooth wood and mother of pearl disguised its intention. Flicked it open to reveal a fresh blade. My stomach dropped. Tucked the blade back in and slipped it quietly into the zipped up part of my handbag.
In the carpark at work, I arrive at the same time as Josie. Both of us shivering in too-thin jackets, our warm breath meeting the cold morning air, weightless flumes pale against the mirrored glass and concrete of the office building.
Going on a holiday, huh? Josie grins and points towards the back of my station wagon with objects pressed against damp windows, before rubbing her hands together as we walk towards the building entrance.
I smile.
Could kill for a coffee, what about you? I say before taking a turn down the opposite hallway. I don’t wait for her response.
I am not prepared for questions yet, haven’t come up with rehearsed and plausible answers. Josie does not ask me to put in for Sal’s birthday present but leaves the card on my desk with a pen. The team goes for lunch without me. I insist that I have errands to run. In the staff tea room I create a makeshift lunch out of the dried crackers and a cup of instant coffee. By now I do not hesitate to fill my pockets a bit each day.
You know, if you ever need anything… Josie comes back from lunch before the others. I am alone. Her voice is too gentle, too caring. I turn from her gaze.
I avoid her for the rest of the day, the rest of the week. On Monday an unmarked envelope lies on my chair. I dump my bag under my desk, eyeing the envelope. Before I pick it up, I plug my phone into the charger. My hands know what’s inside before I open the flap. The voucher means we can fill the car with petrol, eat properly for the next two weeks.
In the tea room later that day I can barely breathe as I approach Josie.
Thanks. I’ll pay you back.
No need.
No, please, I consider it a loan.
She hands me a cup of instant coffee like it’s no big deal.

*

Before I tuck Amelia into bed at night, we play magical eye spy. Dressed in her pajamas, she makes a great show of waving her arm around as though she has a cape, her other hand holding the edge of her imaginary top hat.
I spy with my magical eye, a trampoline made of jelly and gummy bears.
What else?
I spy with my magical eye—a treehouse with hammocks and a golden castle, a chocolate cake that replaces each slice we take, a bed that’s fifty billion gajillion metres high so that we need a helicopter to get into bed.
We conjure up these things into the room, filling it with laughter for a moment before she sleeps. She checks her bracelet is on her wrist. Checks Teddy has his too.
At night, footsteps always pass our room. I check and triple check the lock and push a chair up against the door. After Amelia falls asleep, I sit and wait in darkness. My eyes find the red thread of her bracelet. I hear boots pause mid-step outside our door. I see a jacket through the crack in the curtain. Brown leather. Smell the stench of a cigarette leak under the door.
Chtýpa xýlo. Touch wood.

*

When I first found out, I was surprised he didn’t try to deny it. Said he did it for me. Told himself it was a sure thing. Fortune favours the brave, my love. But in our kitchen with the fluoro light humming above us, I saw only dark shadows beneath his eyes, his face that of a stranger. The dishes from dinner still unwashed, our daughter demanding another story before sleep. He wouldn’t stop. Couldn’t say no. So much money. Always on his phone, making deals. Throwing our lives away. He owed them, he owed them all.
Are you coming home? I call but his phone goes to voicemail. He comes and goes as he pleases, his parents don’t tell me anything when I call their house. I have never been welcome there. Didn’t keep the house clean enough for their son. Made him iron his own damn shirts.

*

It rises up to meet me wherever I am, this newly minted rage. My pockets filled with my fists. But it’s not a fire, wouldn’t be so predictable, couldn’t be so easily defined. I am not brimstone, no lava sits beneath my skin. It’s a low rumble, a stampede.
A sound lives inside me. I am disgusted by it and want to kill it forever. But this sound keeps going, cannot be strangled by my own throat. It’s coming closer, circling, with nowhere to go, searching for prey.
Another sound pushing through the tungsten light in the hall of the house I grew up in.
Then iparxeis pia gia mena. If you leave with him, you are dead to me.
It’s only when Amelia is asleep and I cannot lie still in those early blue-tinged hours, curtains pale at the edges, the room looking deceptively safe, that I feel it rise at its worst. A car arriving or leaving, headlights piercing the room. I may break in two. My body can barely keep itself from shattering everything that is left. That’s when I want to throw paint bombs at the old neighbour’s house, scrawl obscenities across her driveway, that concrete holding our initials, desecrated.
It wants to spill out over my day, over the man at the servo who parked his car too close. It wants to smother the sound of the receptionist whose voice I hear cheerfully answering the phone all day at work, crush the laughter around the photocopier as my coworkers discuss their plans for the weekend.
And smashing windows at work, not a chaotic outpouring, but rather, a calculated swipe, each pane an ocean, breaking through the sky. No pay packet ever enough.
On the way back to the room, Amelia is skipping and chanting a schoolyard song. Outside the room next to ours a man sits on a plastic chair smoking, watching Amelia. Without looking, I reach into my handbag. The smooth wood and mother of pearl cold in my hand.
That’s just not how it’s done.
Don’t.

*

Amelia sits on the hotel bed picking a scab on her shin and talks about you.
Stop it.
But I miss Daddy.
No, I mean, stop picking at the scab or it will leave a scar.
OK.
I kept a shoebox of some of your things for Amelia, thought one day she’d want to see them, to stop her from thinking you were a strange dream.

*

For a while I was addicted to you, wanted to spin in your orbit untethered. As if led by the Pied Piper himself. Didn’t understand what led me to you or what leads anyone to anything.
If it’s between calling them or sleeping in the car, what will it be? Spin the wheel, flip a coin, take a chance, step right up—
Kala na patheis, I told you so, see? You got what you deserved.
Like that first time we met at the carnival, three tries for ten bucks. Three shots, try your luck, winner, winner chicken dinner. I turned myself three times and found you. Still dizzy, I couldn’t tell the sky from the ground.
You’re a whirlwind, spinning everyone in the air around you. Eyes closed to the plates crashing at your feet.

*

Holy places like carnivals, all that gold trim and varnished wood. Three times. Our wedding rituals performed three times. Your parents barely smiling, mine absent, refusing their blessing. Drowning in chanting that would not ease up, crowns and handholding entwined. What for? Have children, have children, have a son.
Ragisa tin kardia tis miteras, broke my mother’s heart for this.
The boy and girl on top of the cake. Looking to the crowds, never facing each other. At midnight, you kept dancing, my dress pinned with notes, quietly wincing each time the silk was pierced.
Gave you three chances, then three more. On and on, another three. More. Each time I looked at our daughter I cleared the slate, the debt of my anger for you washed clean by the sight of her. Three more times I gave myself into the rhythm of you, the dance slowing down until I could barely twist and turn to your tune, slipping on the carpet, the bathroom tiles, the rug on the floorboards in front of the kitchen sink, my rings on the sill as I did the dishes each night, twisting my hands and the dishcloth in the suds, slipping beneath the water as you danced around me never still, your shape a blur as you returned each night, closed next to me in your own dreams, me awake for hours, captive to your guttural snore—a gasp, a snort and you alive at my side for a moment, only to retreat once again into that place without me. The darkness of our bedroom unable to disguise the distance between us. Your hibernating self, edges softened. Your rich scent a torment in my bed. Wanting your generous lids to open, those lashes directed at me with purpose, your touch, intended.
I could not teach you to slow down so I sped myself up.
I was a weight around you and you, a meteor forever falling from the sky.
The nights woken by headlights shining directly into our room. The venetian blinds glowing, angelic, high beams forcing streaks of light through the gaps, shadows and lines thrown across the walls, the cupboard, the pile of clothes over the chair in the corner. The street silent in the middle of the night, the neighbours tucked up, nestled in blankets and dreams. You jumping out of bed.
What is it?
Nothing, go back to sleep.
An engine splutters, the light retreating, spinning the room around. Your skin cold against me as you jump into bed, back turned.
We started destroying things—so many wedding gifts thrown to the kitchen floor. Those spiteful moments laughed at in times of peace, our arms around each other again. Until.
Until there was nothing left in the account. No food. No you. The shame stopped me from breathing a word of it to anyone.
Except for Sue. But not the whole story exactly.
You know I’d offer for you to stay at our place, but with the boys and Dan’s business stock in the spare room…
No, of course not, we’re fine in the hotel for now. It’s just temporary.
As we finish our coffees in the usual café, I try not to think about how the coffee could be a loaf of bread and a tin of tuna, or a bag of apples, or toothpaste. Sue grabs her purse and heads toward the counter.
Let me get this.
No, you don’t have to do that.
Don’t be silly, I insist.
Thanks Sue.
My pleasure, she says a little too loudly.
I keep up the routine, keeping an eye on what’s left of our money, checking our belongings, scanning the hotel room each day. I gather. Myself, my child, my bearings. I check and check again. Our hair brushed, our clothes clean, our teeth gleaming. My smile there as usual at school drop off, making conversation with other parents.
I overhear snippets about the school fair, the book stall, the cake stall, the working bee. I try not to hear conversations about the holiday, the renovations, the new car, the gym membership. But I cannot block out the conversation between two parents talking about a mutual friend. I stand at the gates waving to Amelia as she walks into class. The bell rings solid and true as the day begins.
Jeez, you’d keep that shit to yourself, wouldn’t you?
Definitely.
I mean, I don’t want to hear about her financial problems. So embarrassing.
My head down, I curl my lip and suppress a low growl as I pass through the school gates into the street.
I go to work, make excuses about why we can’t go to the party, the lunch, or go on that school excursion. Everything extra is cancelled until further notice.

*

The sheriff comes for your shiny car but it is gone. I leave only at the last moment, handing the house keys over to the sheriff who locks the front door. I wait for him to leave before walking along the footpath, around the corner where I have parked my station wagon in anticipation of this moment. Holding hands with my child. The neighbour watching without waving.
How about we have an adventure today?
OK, but where are we going, Mummy?
It’s a magical mystery tour darling, just you wait and see.
Is Daddy coming too?
No, darling. It’s you and me. Let’s be explorers, shall we?
Umm, OK.
Amelia checking her bracelet is still there on her wrist and around her Teddy. Her fingers curl under the red thread, twisting until the tip of her finger goes blue and releasing, the movement reassuring, so familiar now she does it without looking.
Mou ragise tin kardia, broke my heart.

*

Can I have pancakes, Mummy?
Each morning, we fill up on breakfast—the eggs and bacon are included in the cost of the room but the pancakes are extra.
Not today, Amelia, another time.
But we always had them at home. Not fair.
Amelia refuses her scrambled eggs and I try to stay calm as I encourage her to eat, quickly, please eat.
I cross my fingers until I get a job that pays more. Hope I can get a deposit together. Get a nice little rental, some furniture—close to the school so we can walk, use less petrol. I’ll take care of you, my darling, I’ll make everything better, I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die, I will love you in sickness and in health, until death do us part. Jam the chair against the door. Touch wood. Kali sou epitixia agapi mou, good luck, my love. Cross my heart three times. My pockets filled. Throw out the switchblade. Find my feet.

 

 

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Jenni Mazaraki is a writer living on Wurundjeri land (Melbourne). Her short story collection I’ll Hold You was highly commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript 2020. Her work has been published in Australian Poetry Journal, the Newcastle Short Story Award Anthology and Empty House Press. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing.

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