‘If you could just fill out this form with your contact details and those of your referees. Pass the rest along.’ The woman handed a sheaf of papers to the couple standing at her front door. A heavy fringe sheltered her heart-shaped face, her shapeless grey smock dress gave little hint of the forty-three-year-old body underneath, as was intended. Her body was not her self, after all, it was merely a vessel to be framed and draped. Her necklace looped across her chest as though scribbled by a toddler with a silver crayon.
From her position on the front steps, Tonia tried to catch the woman’s eye with a sympathetic smile (can you believe all these people?) but the woman’s gaze sidled along the queue of hopefuls lining the verandah and slunk down the garden path to the street where a discreet grey Volkswagen was parked. Perhaps she was already planning her getaway, thought Tonia. She was glad they had arrived as early as they did – though if Gary had actually fixed up the two rusted bicycle frames that were cluttering up their front hallway they wouldn’t have had to wait for a tram and might have gotten here sooner. At least a dozen couples had already been shown through and departed in the last hour, their faces giving nothing away.
‘We’ll try to move through as quickly as possible. If you could make sure your partner is with you.’ Only now did the woman look at Tonia, or rather, the empty space beside her. Where the hell was Gary? worried Tonia. He said he’d only be ten minutes, but that was when they were back at the gate, arguing over whether the two navy blue Butterfly chairs on the verandah were from IKEA.
‘Scuse me.’ Gary had nudged between a couple who were both bent over their phones, sussing out the waiting competition in between taking turns at Words With Friends.
‘Gary,’ Tonia had hissed, wishing his name had an ‘s’ in it so it might carry. Something like ‘Thomas’ would be much more suitable. Instead his name coughed out of her like a cat’s hairball. They probably wouldn’t be able to keep their Burmese, Shaun, if they were successful, thought Tonia. But you had to make sacrifices if you wanted to get anywhere in life.
‘Yeah, check it out.’ Gary tipped one of the chairs upside down to show the over-sized IKEA tag.
‘Gary, put it down! What if they see you? Besides it’s better than anything we’ve got.’ Tonia recalled their cramped one-bedroom apartment. The op-shop furniture crowding every room, threatening to fall over or fall apart if they looked away for too long. The art gallery postcards stuck to the walls, the mismatched glasses flogged from various bars and pubs. She banished the image, it was not good to dwell on these things, even her naturopath had been firm about that.
‘They’ll just think I’m making myself at home.’ Gary tipped the chair up the right way, its wire-frame skittering about on the verandah in his wake.
There was nothing wrong with their apartment, Tonia was aware of that. It was comfortable enough, but it just wasn’t right. It was not the kind of place she saw herself living. She scrambled in her handbag for her phone and searched through the grocery lists and bus times for the notes she had made at the seminar back in April. Gary had refused to come with her, had said he didn’t need some jumped-up game show host telling him how to live his life. ‘He’s a life coach,’ Tonia had reminded him. ‘And he doesn’t tell you how to live your life, he tells you how to get the life you deserve.’ She scrolled through her notes, scanning for the right one. Take what you deserve, don’t wait for what you’re given. It always made her feel a bit greedy, but apparently that was a natural reaction until you saw your true worth. She looked at the effortless Butterfly chairs and the lolly-red Vespa parked near the gate. These people knew their true worth.
‘Want a coffee? There was a place on the corner.’
Gary wished this day was over. That he could shed these ridiculous trousers and get into a pair of trackies. The Swans were playing tonight and he was almost done with the sky section of the mosaic coffee table he’d been working on. It had been hard to get the ribbons of light just right (much easier to do a setting sun than a rising one), the tiled roofs and television aerials crawling up out of silhouette against the hesitant cloud. He’d found a set of dinner plates at Savers during the week which were just the right lemon colour and had already used his new tile cutter to slice them into irregularly square pieces. He was keen to finish the sky before tomorrow, then he could work on the skyline itself. He was going to use real terracotta for the roof tiles, some old pots he’d scavenged from work that would have the right patina.
But first to get this over with – after all, Tonia was right, they did need to move forward with their lives. The Baby Boomers didn’t have to wait, and it wasn’t his fault that the Generation Xers decided to. It was up to the Gen Ys to grab their chance. Besides, thought Gary, anything to keep Tonia happy. Ever since she’d finished uni and found herself bound to an office cubicle from nine to five she’d been miserable. ‘I’m too old for this shitty lifestyle,’ she had screamed at him last night when she stubbed her toe on one of the bicycles in the corridor. ‘I’m almost thirty,’ she had wailed. He tried to remind her she was almost five years off, but she was having none of it. And he could understand her frustration. But were these pants really necessary? His ankles were freezing. He’d been relieved she’d let him get away with the maroon trousers rather than the skinny black jeans she’d made him wear last weekend, his arse crack squeezing out the top of them and barely covered by the faded Blur t-shirt. He was glad they weren’t successful that time; there’d been a Belle and Sebastian poster in the toilet. Framed, of course, so perhaps it was studied nostalgia, but there was a chance it wasn’t and he didn’t think he could handle that kind of revered twee day in and day out.
‘Well, only get coffee if you can be quick.’ Tonia had craned her neck, careful to keep one foot planted firmly in the queue. You never knew, she thought, people could be desperate. She’d grabbed Gary’s hand as he passed, whispering fiercely in his ear. ‘Check what beans they use. It might be important.’
But that was almost half an hour ago, so where the hell was he, she wondered. The three couples who were ahead had already been shown through. Tonia glanced at the sheet in her hand, unsure whether she was supposed to fill out a separate one for him. She tried to recall whether the woman handing it to her had been right or left-handed. And was she wearing glasses? Should Tonia be?
‘Sorry, excuse me.’ Gary appeared beside her, a tray of coffees in hand.
‘Well, I’ve hardly got time to drink it now. Why’d you get so many?’
He shrugged, taking a sip from his cup. ‘Seven Seeds.’
‘That’s what beans they use at the cafe. But they’ve also got a single origin cold-drip filter and the barista said that was their favourite.’ He nodded at the closed door. ‘So that’s what I got them.’ Tonia was reminded that this is what she loved about Gary – he was good with the little touches, which might just get them over the line. And then they could relax, stop worrying about what was around the corner and become the people they were destined to be.
The door opened and a large wren cast in pink resin flailed from the proffered hand. This woman obviously liked her feature jewellery. ‘Next?’
Tonia made to pass over the application form but Gary got in first, sticking one of the coffees in the outstretched hand. The door opened wider revealing the woman pursing her lips as she inspected the cup. Tonia and Gary shuffled past as she took a hesitant sip and closed the door behind them.
‘O. M. G.’ Her eyes sprang open and fixed on Tonia. ‘Heaven. How did you know?’ Crows feet stretched from the corner of her eyes, freckles restrained under concealer.
‘Gary.’ Tonia nodded at Gary and the woman ran her eyes around him as though cutting out a dress-making pattern. Tonia was determined to do everything to show they were the right fit.
Thomas peered out at the grey day. Should they have gotten the windows tinted blue so it wouldn’t look so dismal in here? Was that all it might have taken? A hint of cerulean so he didn’t feel so relentlessly sandwiched between the overcast sky and the polished concrete floor. Even the children’s play set was in muted tones of greys and browns; children don’t need to be assaulted with bright plastic colours at every opportunity. He could never quite remember what the architect had said: was the point of the retractable floor-to-ceiling windows to invite the outdoors in? Or was it the indoors out? Thomas sighed. It was time they got rid of that play set anyway, he thought. It might actually hamper their development if they were allowed such unstructured play for so long. Was it possible for gifted children to regress? Thomas sighed again, heavier this time, and timed his pivot so that he turned from the windows to face the corridor just as the next prospective couple appeared with Emily.
Young, they all looked so young. The woman was slim, with the usual heavy fringe and a grey woollen jumper over high-waisted jeans, a small purse on her shoulder. Perfect. The man’s trousers were nicely rolled, his denim shirt buttoned to the top. Check. They’d already seen at least ten couples this morning and it was amazing how wrong some of them got it. Of course, it wasn’t about the clothes, they would be taken care of, but it was an indication of the type of person they were, wasn’t it?
‘This is Tonia and Gary,’ said Emily, reading off the sheet as she ushered them into the living room. ‘I’m Emily, and this is Thomas.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ Gary stepped forward and shook Thomas’s hand. ‘I got you a coffee.’
Thomas waited for the requisite ‘mate’ to be tacked on the end of Gary’s introduction. It wasn’t. Maybe these were actually the ones.
The two couples sat down on opposite couches, the coffee table a tundra between them. ‘We were going to ask you to tell us a little bit about yourselves,’ said Emily, and Tonia could immediately tell it was a well-rehearsed speech, down to the small apologetic giggle injected in middle. ‘But it doesn’t really matter, does it? Though we should tell you more than a little about us.’
‘Please do,’ said Tonia.
‘Well, Thomas and I have been married fifteen years.’
Emily looked fondly at Thomas. He tried to picture himself as she must see him. A small moment of panic ran through him – what did he look like? He tried to change his position to catch his reflection in the windows. There he was: black rimmed glasses, a grey cashmere cardigan. Wasn’t there supposed to be something else?
Emily glared at him. Thomas knew he was meant to say something to this couple, but he could not look away from his own reflection. Emily took a deep breath and carried on. It was all going to be okay, thought Thomas, nodding at himself. This decision was going to inject some life back into their marriage. He tried to pay attention. Somewhere, behind Emily’s forced smile, Thomas knew there must be some residual fondness for him. A tiny bit of passion that had not been polished and refined, sanded and blasted to smooth perfection. At least, that’s what they were both banking on – the promise of what they used to have. He could not allow himself to consider what might happen if, after all of this, there was nothing there.
‘Though we prefer to think of ourselves as partners, not husband and wife,’ Thomas added. That’s right, that was his line, he hoped he had not come in with it too late. He patted Emily’s hand. ‘As you can see, the house is completely renovated though we had to extend the mortgage to do so.’
Tonia solemnly took in the living room, the fine workmanship of the marine plywood kitchen island and cupboards, every evidence of living carefully tidied away. She could not imagine Gary’s tarpaulin spread across the floor in front of the television, broken tiles and their dust strewn about. Some things would have to change, she thought.
‘As you know we’ve got two children, Oscar and Lily,’ said Emily. ‘They’re both in primary school. They’re wonderful children, both quite advanced, and we don’t anticipate the change will cause them any problems.’
‘Are they aware of what’s happening?’ asked Gary. He quite liked the name Oscar. He wondered what team he barracked for.
‘Of course not,’ said Thomas, sharply. ‘We thought it best that we don’t say anything to them, that we make the transition as smooth as possible.’
‘Absolutely,’ Tonia beamed. She was glad the children weren’t any younger, she’d been terrified they wouldn’t be toilet trained.
‘Now, you’ve both got the right build, so I can see we wouldn’t have to make any adjustments to our wardrobe if you were successful. And we obviously share the same aesthetic sensibilities,’ said Thomas. ‘I do like your trousers, Gary. I’m sure if I was a bit younger…’ He let his sentence trail off and sighed, once again, looking out the window.
‘Uh, thanks,’ replied Gary, wondering what Thomas could possibly have to be so morose about. ‘I, uh, like your place, it’s just what we’ve always wanted.’
‘I would hope so,’ replied Thomas.
In fact, the house terrified Gary, with its varnished chipboard feature wall, the floating staircase drifting to the mezzanine. He could already feel the bruises starting to form where he would be sure to knock his shins and elbows against all the hard edges. Here we are, marooned in the middle of it all, thought Gary. The couch a life raft of softness.
‘We’d need to call your referees,’ said Emily. ‘But we can do that later. To be honest though, we don’t want to know too much about you, we think that will make things easier. We’ve decided on a four-week transition period where we would co-share the roles. We need to make sure you are able to perform to our standards. The first two weeks would be primarily observational, but then Thomas and I would step back in readiness for our departure.’
‘We’d still be here in those final two weeks, for any trouble shooting and to make sure you’ve got the hang of things, particularly in our respective workplaces, but the two of you would be captaining the ship, so to speak,’ said Thomas. ‘Does that seem okay?’
‘Sounds great,’ said Tonia. She had a really good feeling about this couple. There was something reassuringly familiar about them.
‘Any questions?’ said Emily, in a manner that made it obvious that questions were not welcome.
‘What were your jobs again?’ asked Gary, ignoring the look of annoyance that Tonia shot at him.
‘I’m an interior home wares architect and Thomas is a graphic designer. You…’ Emily looked down at the application form, slightly panicked. What if they weren’t up to it? They didn’t really need experience, after all by this stage both of her and Thomas’s jobs involved supervising others – they didn’t actually do any work. But whoever took over their positions did need enough knowledge to be convincing.
‘I’ve studied architecture, so that’s no problem. And Gary has a real eye for design. You should see the mosaic he’s working on,’ Tonia’s words ran together in her hurry to reassure.
‘The what?’ Thomas dragged his eyes back from the sky. A lone starling had lifted from its perch on the back fence and was whirling about without a care in the world. The image was unbalanced; Thomas wished the bird had a mate to frolic with. ‘Did you say mosaic?’
‘Yeah, it’s a hobby of mine. You know, little tiles that make up the picture.’ Gary sat up straighter. ‘It’s actually quite intricate, you see.’
Gary had started on the mosaics when he was labouring for a landscape design company. The client wanted a water feature and all he had to work with were an old birdbath and some terracotta pots. It had only taken him one weekend to put it all together, the terracotta set in circles rising from the brown tones at the base to the warmer, more orangey ones at the top. It was quite meditative, really, Gary found. It took him away from everything frantic about the world, slowed it all down. It was the first time he’d ever felt that way, as he looked for the ways those tiles might fit together. So he could understand why Tonia wanted to do this – that she felt it would give her the same feeling of satisfaction, of no longer having to scramble up the greasy pole. She needed to feel complete.
‘Isn’t mosaic a craft?’ Thomas asked.
‘Well, darling, so is knitting. But it’s been reappropriated quite successfully. Remember the yarn-bombing project the children did at school?’ Emily’s voice was soothing. She just wanted to get this over and done with.
Thomas tried to imagine thousands of tile pieces pressed into the polished concrete floor of the living room. He saw tendrils of glass tiles climbing the windows, exotic blooms of colour colonising the white plaster walls. It was not possible. He needed to know that when they left it all behind it would stay the same. Their minimalist oasis, the place where they had got everything just right, at least for a short time.
‘Is it ironic?’ asked Thomas. Because that could be its saving grace. A hobby could be incorporated, perhaps, as long as it was not genuine.
‘I don’t think so.’ Gary watched the colour drain from Tonia’s face. ‘I mean, it could be. But—’
He was interrupted by a loud thud against the glass door. A smear of something red had appeared there, it seemed to float, a russet coloured cloud. And there on the slate below, the body of a single starling, its wings flung open, its chest madly vibrating.
No one said a thing until Emily rose, sticking out her hand, her bird-shaped ring immediately looking to Thomas like a death mask.
‘Well, we’ve got your details, we’ll call you if you’re successful.’
Tonia and Gary were back on the verandah within seconds. They avoided the eager glances of the other couples in the queue.
‘Well, never mind. I don’t think they were quite right for us. It would have been too difficult.’ Tonia walked ahead of him down the street, nodding in agreement with herself.
‘We’ll find something else, something will come up soon. Something we deserve.’
Inside, Emily and Thomas sat opposite each other on the couch, each with their iPad in hand.
‘I think the advertisement needs to be more specific,’ said Thomas.
‘Definitely,’ agreed Emily. She tapped away at the screen. Thomas looked at the window, all he could see was the bloody cloud on the glass; it seemed to grow, crowding out the grey sky, turning it sepia.
‘What about this?’ said Emily.
Thomas’s email pinged. He looked down at his iPad.
DO YOU WISH YOU WERE JUST LIKE US?
You can be. In fact, you can be us. A well-established creative couple is looking to leave their lives behind and we need a young, aspirational couple to step up and take over our roles. You will assume every aspect of our lives – our jobs, our house, parenting our two delightful children. Please note, you will not be able to maintain any vestige of your own personalities, including hobbies. Please email for audition details and key selection criteria.
‘Yes, that sounds exactly right’, said Thomas. Emily always managed to make things just so.