Brett Denton is 26 years old and he is a literary studies major at Victoria University.
Beth hands me a plate and I drown it in soapy water. The day’s remaining sun pours through the window above the sink. The bay and basil leaves perched on the windowsill grow on an angle towards the glass seeking sunlight. I open the drawer beneath me but there are no towels left, so I place the soaking plate on the rack beside the basin and let it drip dry. The kitchen smells of Nicholson Street Footscray. Paprika, cumin and freshly baked bread. I’m still deliberating over whether or not Beth’s parents enjoyed dinner. Rotating their facial expressions over and over in my head. It’s all I know how to cook. Oven baked spuds sprinkled in spicy bacon and a green leaf salad dressed in oil. Beth’s father, Terry, didn’t seem to be impressed. Constantly moving the salad around the plate as if a T-bone steak may magically appear. And other than a few courteous nods from Beth’s mother, Fiona, no one really said much. I stare down at the washing water turned yellow from the food scraps and I’m instantly taken back to Christmas Eve as a child. I’m standing beside my mum in the kitchen, the air inside is hot and corny Christmas carols echo around us from the radio. We are peeling then rinsing potatoes by the sink. Come Christmas day, mum’s creamy scallop potato dish was always a lunch time favourite. The day before, we would spend hours together, peeling their golden flesh before slicing them ever so fine. By the time we had finished, night time would be upon us and we would have peeled through three full bags. I once asked her why we prepared so many, to which she shot me a bewildered look and replied, ‘You can never have too many potatoes.’
Beth offers tea or coffee. Fiona enjoys a peppermint tea. Terry, a straight black. I place the kettle on and search for tea bags in the cupboard between the cereal and long-lasting milk. Beth is fiddling with the remaining knives and forks in the washing water. Every second Tuesday is in-law night. It’s when Beth’s parents make the forty-minute trip down the freeway to Footscray from the suburbs. It’s also the day after my Centrelink payment comes through. The reporting deadline closes at 5pm sharp on the Friday before. If you’re late, even by a few hours, you’re penalised with a late reporting fine and must suffer the consequences: spending the first half of your week without pay. God forbid your phone is stolen and you can’t sign into your mygov account. Or perhaps your son breaks his wrist and needs to be taken to hospital immediately. But you tell him to stop crying, that he’s acting selfishly and needs to wait while you find enough change in your purse to access the internet cafe on Barkly street. Only to be told once you arrive, that there are no free computers at this time. So, you sit in the waiting area beside your son, glass-eyed and nursing his arm that’s changed colour to purple and hangs limp in a cotton sling you made from a pair of Spanx. But I’m one of the lucky ones. Since Beth moved in, things have been a lot easier. Although, I still refuse to take her money unless I desperately need it. I don’t know if it’s pride or a form of egoism that stops me, or just the fear of what she might think of me.
I pull the plug from the sink. The water whirlpools its way down the drain making a profound slurp sound. The remaining soap froths in the sink basin like snow. Beth places her hand on my arm. Her fingers are warm from the water. ‘I don’t think now’s the right time,’ I whisper into her ear. She glances at me then looks away, holds her hands above the sink and shakes them dry. Then she turns her entire body towards me and gives me a look. Her eyes are a beautiful blue and she’s imploring me to relax. I stare back at her and roll my eyes playfully. She smiles like she’s won something, like she has complete control over me. Beth and I don’t need to speak to communicate. We can go hours in each other’s company without a word. Sometimes I will write on the couch for five or six hours without stopping. Until my eyes feel like they are about to bleed out letters. Then suddenly Beth slips quietly behind me, draws her fingers down the back of my head before looping her arms around my shoulders. Her breath will blow hot on my neck as she slides her hands into my shirt and through the hairs on my chest. I fold my laptop then, take her by the arm and pull her around to the front of the couch. I continue pulling her gently until we lie on our sides and our noses touch. With my spare hand, I trace my finger down her spine, all the way to the low of her back and we kiss passionately. We lie there idly, without requiring words. I count the faint sun spots below her sky-blue eyes until eventually I fall asleep.
‘Sugar?’ I ask casually, before forgetting to check if I have any in the cupboard. Fortunately, neither Terry or Fiona take it sweet. Beth and I return to the table with tea. Terry stares reluctantly at the ceiling while Fiona eyeballs a framed photograph of a kookaburra hanging above the walnut book shelf we bought last week. At the auction eight months ago, the real estate agent claimed the interior walls were once painted a peach cream colour. However, on arrival, the skirting resembled more of a dirty pink and flakes of plaster peeled from the ceiling. But at least now there is furniture to sit on. Of what was already a constricted area, it took me weeks to fill the empty spaces of this one-bedroom apartment on Gordon Street. With the fortnightly pay check from my Sunday shift at Dymocks Highpoint, combined with my Austudy allowance, I gradually saved enough money for necessities. Thanks to Albert Street Savers and Facebook Marketplace, I picked up a complete dining set including cup-coasters and a brown corduroy couch without having to break my wallet.
However, Beth has far grander plans for the apartment. For an office clerk, she has the eye of an interior designer and the obsessive drive of a professional athlete. The first night we spent here together was during a bitterly cold August. Above the mattress flopped on the tatty brown carpet where the dining table now sits, we wrapped our naked bodies together, our bellies full of cheap wine and dumplings. When the sun rose the following morning, I woke to Beth pacing the room clutching an imaginary measuring tape, her eyes glazing and her mind spitting out colour schemes for curtains. All the while she wrote notes on her phone of necessary houseplants to improve our health, ‘Lavender, aloe vera, peace lily.’ I remember staring up at her from the mattress, dizzy with sleep and struck with admiration. A fondness blossomed inside of my chest, drawing me in to her optimism and light.
Beth and I sit down at the table. The steam from the tea rises tall then evaporates into space. Beth leans forward placing her elbows above the table. With her right hand, she curls a loose strand of her blonde hair around her ear. ‘Mum. Dad,’ she says, clearing her throat.
I stare down towards my feet as a burning sensation swells in my chest.
‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell y – ‘How’s work, Betsy?” Terry asks, cutting her off completely. He likes to refer to Beth as Betsy, like she’s still his little girl.
‘Oh. Good, thanks,’ she replies, a tad stunned. ‘Busy. You know what it’s like.’
Terry plays with the collar of his shirt and smirks. Then he wipes at his sleeves ensuring the soft white cotton is ironed flat. ‘You’re working hard. That’s the main thing,’ he says, glancing at his wife. ‘One day, when you have a house of your own, it will all be worth it.’
Fiona nods her head in agreement then takes a long sip of her tea. The hot steam clouds her glasses with fog. I exhale a deep breath like I’ve skipped a bullet and breathe in the smell of tea. Its fresh floral fragrance reminds me of my late grandmother, Joan, who could finish a cup within minutes of the kettle boiling. Shockingly, not once in her life had I heard her complain of a tongue blister. I’d often visit my grandma’s flat on weekends and make her a pot while she sat in her big red chair and told me stories that may or may not have been true. One Sunday she was adamant that the black cat with silver eyes, who lived in the maple tree across the pavement, was sneaking into the kitchen through the laundry window and eating her Scotch Finger biscuits left on the counter. I knew better than to argue with her. Instead reassuring her that I’d close the window and restock the biscuit plate with her favourite savouries on my way out.
Fiona places her cup down onto the table. With the back of her hand she wipes the band of wetness above her lip. Her mouth parts momentarily like she wants to speak, but she pauses and says nothing. A thickness lingers in the air between us all accompanied by silence, before Terry finally addresses me.
‘Harry,” he says in a stiff unwavering voice. “You must be nearly finished with your studies by now, I’m sure?’ he skims a glance at his watch when he asks me. Its giant face shines silver in the down light. It takes me a moment to respond; I try to think of something intelligent to say, something sharp. But I’ve taken too long and Beth steps in.
‘Harry’s latest story was published in the emerging writers short fiction magazine.’
She puts her hand on my shoulder and a warmth ignites in my stomach. It feels like pride.
Terry blows cool air into his cup before downing it quickly. ‘Well. That’s a good sign,’ he says mockingly, peering up at the ceiling. ‘Maybe one of your stories will pay for a new coat of paint around the place.’
He begins to laugh and turns to face Fiona, who, as if she has been queued on a Spotify playlist, begins chuckling along with him. But there’s something about her laugh that sounds forced and rehearsed. I turn to Beth, whose hand has moved from my shoulder to my leg. She squeezes above my knee firmly. I can feel the sweat from her palm leaving a dampness on my skin. She’s communicating without words again. I want to pick up Terry’s cup and throw it against the wall. But I don’t. Instead, I lean back into my chair and start laughing. A laugh I too have rehearsed. ‘That’s the plan,’ I say, placing my hand on Beth’s stomach beneath the table. It’s swollen and warm and I begin to daydream. I lie on a field beside a lake. Surrounding me is tall grass and the serenade of chirping crickets. The sun is full above me when I sit up and a child appears behind an oak tree. The child is calling out to me as it runs in circles across the grass. It’s pursuing an orange-spotted butterfly but can’t quite reach it. “Daddy, Daddy. Come quick! It’s getting away.”
I return to consciousness and suddenly I feel still, possessed with calm. I take Beth’s fingers in mine and clear my throat.