After my shift ends I go to the park at the end of the cul-de-sac. Under the concrete bridge, a storm water drain curves its way through the suburbs, like a snake.
I love it there: the way the air clings to the walls in moss and mildew. Last summer, in the drought, it caught the updraft and the wind shot through cool and black. I lean into the bend and roll cigarettes for my friends, Joe and Ahmed. Joe because the arthritis has transformed his hands into hooked claws. And Ahmed because he doesn’t have any.
The day the kid drowns, we all stand at the tunnel entrance and cross our arms. Rain churns like the sea, rising to the top.
‘Reckon it’s six minutes out the other side,’ Joe says. ‘Took everything, cans and all.’
His cigarette hisses as it hits the water.
‘Someone should call his mum,’ I say, but we’ve pooled our change for a Chiko Roll, and besides, no one knows whether he has a mum. We sit in the light from the street until the water has stopped rushing and the air is cool enough for sleep.
‘La niña,’ someone says.
I go home and drop my bag in the hallway, and Dad is snoring in the lounge room, only it doesn’t sound like snoring but like his whole body is coming out through his mouth and getting sucked back in. I clear a space between the bottles and eat a sandwich, and the bread is fine as long as I pick off the blue bits.
My boss gets his mum to work in the shop for a couple of hours on Thursdays. I come out of the coolroom and she’s sitting in the front window with her spiky chin in her hands.
‘Hi Nina,’ I say.
She waves her hand at me to come over.
‘Meg, lookit this,’ she says. She’s wiped a space in the grimy window. Outside there’s a line of kids pushing and shoving, all rainbow colours moving up and down. At the end of the line there’s an old-school ice-cream truck blasting ‘Greensleeves’, and a man in a red cap is handing out leaning towers of pig fat.
‘Where did those kids come from?’ I say.
‘Beats me,’ she says.
I think about the ice-cream. About it dripping down my fingers.
‘We should go get one.’
She keeps looking for a few more seconds. There are ten kids, maybe. Twelve. Her eyes glaze over a bit.
‘Get back to work.’
That’s when it’s obvious she’s Steve’s mum. Same slimy mouth. Same crumpled eyes.
Everyone knows what kind of a guy Steve is. Even my mother, God rest her.
‘Get some overtime in,’ she said when I started. She was pretty bad by then. Some days it kept her in bed from morning until the run to the bottle-o.
I didn’t argue. Not when overtime meant meat and electricity.
Anyway, Steve’s the kind of ugly that makes you feel a little bit sick just to look at him, with bulging eyes and a zitty moustache. We open the store together most days and work so close I can smell his body decaying. I do the sandwiches, he takes the money. And when the store’s empty, he shoves his hand into my jeans and makes me tell him stuff no one else should have to hear.
I tell him. Every time. And I take an extra ten bucks at the end of my shift, as compensation.
I don’t say a word about it to anyone of course. As if I have anyone to tell. Never look at him, but let my hand knock against his. Maybe someone will catch him, I think. Maybe they will come into the shop and see him there behind the counter with his eyes rolled back in his head and demand to speak to the manager. But they don’t. He’s smart. The mirrors are everywhere, facing the street.
When I look into them, I see my face. It looks like her face.
We find the body when the water goes down next morning, crammed up against the riverbank at the other end of the park. The kid’s face is swollen and his eyes are busting right out of it and his mouth is wide open like he’s gasping for air, and I guess he is. None of his gear is with him but in his pocket there’s a wad of silver foil and a few twenties rolled up. I give the weed to Joe and take the money down to the newsagent to buy a scratchie for dad and some stuff for Joe and a Snickers for me.
Then I go to the phone box on the corner and call the cops.
It’s hot in the park, even in the shade of these big trees. Joe passes the joint around and the smoke just hangs in the air and soon we’re inside a cloud of it. I look at their faces and they change with the shadows. Ahmed tells us the story about how he lost his hands, to pass the time.
‘Lion jumped the fence. Bit ’em clean off.’
That’s new. Usually it’s the one about how his bitch wife did it so he couldn’t jack off.
Two cops rock up with their lights going. We claw our way out of our cloud and hope they don’t sting us. Joe’s still got his hands wound stiff around the baggie, but they don’t even look at him.
‘Lauren?’ says the tall one.
Couldn’t give them my real name, of course.
I take them down to the river and they throw some yellow tape around the entrance to the tunnel. Flies are everywhere, crawling along the edge of the dead kid’s mouth, in and out of it like it’s the penthouse suite. Joe spews right into his hands and it could be the rotting flesh or it could be the grass.
The short cop gets out her notebook and takes photos on her phone.
Behind the trees there’s a house that backs onto the park and there are two kids hanging over the top of the fence with their mouths open. I don’t think they’re screaming, but the cops are asking me hundreds of questions and I can’t listen to two things at once. I’m saying, I don’t know anything, and the kids are pointing and their mouths are going up and down.
The tall cop gives me his card and tells us not to touch anything. Yellow tape is serious tape. If you fuck with a crime scene, you’re obstructing the course of justice. He says this with a straight face, pointing right at Ahmed who doesn’t even have hands for Chrissake.
I pull out the jerky and cans of Sprite from the shop. We sit around the tunnel entrance and when the cops aren’t looking Joe throws bits of tan bark at the dead kid and it just ricochets off him and into the water. Puddles of it, brown and thick and about to be malaria or rabies and I know they’re all looking at me so I can tell them what to do now, but my head is buzzing and my eyes are pushing against the bone.
At the back of the shop, the old fryers take up half the space. Steve left them there years ago, said he was going to fix them up and sell them but he never did. I sit on the one in the corner and peel the vinyl. Wait for the door to rattle. Stand in the cool room; pull a beer from the top shelf.
On Fridays the guys from the wood yard come in for beers, like it’s a bar, and Steve cooks battered savs and potato cakes and they all laugh. The guys from the wood yard are good value. ‘Real men,’ Steve says. ‘Salt of the earth.’ You can tell they’re real men by their hi-vis shirts, marching down the cul-de-sac in neon yellow and green.
Nina shouts at me to wipe the sandwich bench. Straighten the ice-cream containers. Fan out the cheese slices. Flies drag themselves around in the hot air. Bzzz. Flrrrt. The strips will get them eventually. I go to the fridge and move the older cans to the front.
Heat rises from the road. Across the road the guys from the washer factory are all lined up with their roller door open to get the heat out. February is a shit time to be working in a factory.
I take a bite of my Snickers. Get a Coke; rub it across my chest. I put it back in the fridge, wait for some poor bastard to buy it without wondering where it’s been.
Years ago people talked about building a new estate around the factories. The government was going to put in new trains. Every ten minutes from the city. People living in their flash new Devines and coming down the cul-de-sac for sandwiches. Steve got the sign repainted, replaced the rods in the lights. That was when the new fryers came, when he was going to fix the old ones to sell them.
No one told us straight why the trains never got built, just that they didn’t. They started. Bought up the houses closer to the city and knocked them all down. For a bit I wondered what they’d put there instead. Apartments, probably. People living in their two bedrooms by the water.
Plastic rustles at the door. Luc from the washer factory. He’s a big guy with hair pushed back over his bald patch, and he smells like a grandfather who doesn’t shower. It’s important to know all the regulars -– that was the first thing Steve taught me. I was scared I wouldn’t remember them all, but I do. All we have are regulars.
‘Hey, Meg. Nina.’
I butter the bread for his jaffle. Ham, tomato, orange cheese. Just a bit of salt and pepper. Just a lick of mayo. Black coffee, hold the sugar I’m sweet enough.
‘Here you go, Luc.’
No one’s ever got time to stop. Grab the sandwich, back to work.
I make myself a bit of toast. The flies come and walk along the edges of the cheese. Little wings batting. I stare at them, at their knees. It’s disgusting, the way flies have knees.