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‘The Omega Project’, RONE & Carly Spooner, 2017. Image: ‘Margaretes’, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The junkie scuttled behind them on Victoria Street. He was close enough that Tania could hear his feet slap the cement, the rustle of his baggy denim jeans; her nose twitched on his dank body odour. She flicked her head back to check the distance between them, which remained okay, just.

There was nothing to fear, she knew that, especially at eight forty-five in the morning, but this one was different. Mostly, the junkies were vacant, or if they were agitated it was within worlds nothing to do with hers. This man’s eyes sought connection. It was unnerving, a meeting of sorts, a recognition: we are the same species, his eyes said.

Tania made a point not to look back again. Small fingers sought hers for a few brief seconds and untangled; the child’s instincts were remarkable. Nothing was ever said when there were incidents on the street, just this little hand briefly seeking hers.

A drug deal being conducted on the corner? A woman takes her filthy T-shirt off in the middle of the footpath and scratches wildly at her chest? Rampant incomprehensible shouting from a charging man, head down, upper body rigid, dishevelled hair flying across his face? All those things had happened this week. And each time Lily would take Tania’s hand. Hold. Wait. Separate. No words needed.

Tania watched from the corner until she saw Lily take the right-hand turn into the black steel school gates. You don’t have to come all the way, she’d insisted, chin cocked, eyes bright: ‘Daddy leaves me on the corner.’

Tania believed her, but she stood to watch anyway, just to be sure. There was the perception of ‘being left’, of being unwatched, and there was literally being left, and they were two very different things.

There was the perception of ‘being left’, of being unwatched, and there was literally being left, and they were two very different things.

No backpack today. Lily carried only a plastic bag, which contained her lunch – left-over sausage and roast potatoes in one disposable container, strawberries and two chocolate Digestive biscuits in another, plus a small bar of Lindt chocolate because it was Valentine’s Day and Tania wanted to surprise her.

Lily had informed Tania that, with the help of Sunni and Hazel, she’d successfully secured herself a Valentine in time for the day itself, and while his surname was auspiciously ‘Hart’, Tania doubted a fellow eight-year-old was going to come up with any sort of gift, even though her niece had spent the entire evening cutting and pasting and glittering various craft projects for him.

Tania felt her cynicism calcify and she bit down on her lip. She tried to remember her own girlhood optimism about boys, of romance and possibility, the glorious, private, body-tingling, largess of it all. Maybe she shouldn’t have put the chocolate in Lily’s bag. Maybe you shouldn’t encourage romantic notions in small girls: chocolates and flowers, placating, promise-making crap.

The class was taking an excursion to the Museum, to align with the Term One Inquiry unit ‘Community’. Tania’s brother had stuck the notice to the fridge before he left. The children would be learning about The First Fleet, the notice read, Lives of the First Australians before European settlers arrived in Australia and 19th Century Australian Culture. It was curious what had been capitalised and what hadn’t.

These were the things that Tania considered; not considered, seemingly devoted her life to – grammar and punctuation and how it impacts meaning across languages. Her PhD supervisor was encouraging her to refine refine refine, before submitting her proposal. Three refines, all lower case, no commas; he rarely used punctuation when he emailed her, which was a curiosity in itself.

The proposal made her nauseous, curled her bowel into sickening loops. How she got to here was essentially a series of academic and professional accidents that made her look as though she had a plan when she didn’t. Her biggest problem, she was beginning to understand, was that she didn’t know how to quit.

How she got to here was essentially a series of academic and professional accidents that made her look as though she had a plan when she didn’t.

And now this latest accident and what to do about it. Was ‘good quitting’ aborting a baby, or keeping it? What would she quit by keeping it? Her life plans? ‘Good quitting’ was Matthias’ concept, though she wasn’t sure he’d approve of applying it to this decision.

What are you passionate about? her new therapist had asked. What brings you joy? Think about it, he encouraged; we’ll talk about it next time. He was German and Tania couldn’t think about it without his accent intruding and turning the questions inexplicably comedic and by turn, ridiculous.

She felt stupid for seeing a therapist; her problems were indulgent, hardly substantial. Maybe Rob was right: the only thing wrong with her was too much thinking. A brain inspecting itself for fracture lines is bound to find some. But truly, what did bring her joy? Lily did.

She wondered if Rob really did just walk away from the corner, not wait to check. Did solo parenting make you cut corners, or become more vigilant? She thought of all the parents, all over the world, just trying to keep their kids safe.

She watched as a few older kids in school uniforms broke into a trot at the sound of the school bell. This was the first time Rob had left Lily for longer than a night and it was gratifying, as well as a little terrifying, that he trusted Tania enough to go for a week. Of course she’d said yes, though she was worried about the bigger picture. A woman he’d met online. There was an element of desperation, Tania had thought, but didn’t say.

The woman lived in Denmark. Two middle-aged people trying to recreate a rom-com with airport scenes. It was ludicrous, but her brother was lonely; Tania understood that. So was she, but whatever.

She tucked the umbrella under her armpit and turned back toward Victoria Street for the short walk home to Rob’s old terrace on Langridge Street. A tram rumbled past and then the approaching siren of an ambulance from the other direction. She stopped to watch it, a habit from childhood.

It was when the ambulance had passed that Tania saw the junkie again. He was standing on the footpath on the opposite side of the road, directly in line with her. His eyes trained, without any doubt, on her. Comma, on her, she thought, and then, Colon: on her. The second made it worse.

His eyes trained, without any doubt, on her. Comma, on her, she thought, and then, Colon: on her. The second made it worse.

For a moment, they both stood still. Cars whizzed by, other people sidestepped them on the footpath – children in the same yellow and green uniform that Lily wore, some on scooters and bikes, harried parents, young men with earbuds, a single woman with a pram. Through the gaps, Tania noted the junkie’s auburn beard, matted hair, his dirty white T-shirt hanging lank under a thin black jumper, the ill-fitting jeans, no shoes, filthy feet. His age was anyone’s guess. He was a shadow person, not part of the thrumming modern world.

Junkie, she thought, no longer as a descriptor but as the word itself. Junk. Junkie. The word swirled and felt strange, like words sometimes did. A metal roller door skirted up and slammed into position. Boxes of Asian greens, papaya and mango were pushed and shoved inside and out as the shop owners went about setting up for the day.

Tania turned away and started walking back down Victoria Street, toward Nicholson Street. Her heart rate stepped up a little when her peripheral vision clocked the junkie keeping pace with her on the other side of the road. She turned back, once, twice to check and yes, it seemed he was following her from the other side. Or maybe it was a coincidence.

Either way, old instincts kicked in; it wasn’t the first time she’d felt this sort of mild threat on a public street. The decision was whether to outpace him, get home quickly, but run the risk of him seeing her house, or take a detour and bide her time till he lost interest. She thought of Lily and chose the latter. It wasn’t her home; it was Rob’s and Lily’s, and she didn’t want anyone unsavoury, albeit probably harmless, knowing where they lived. She’d be gone in three more days, back to sleepy little Adelaide and the University, back to the proposal and this decision.

Her right hand instinctively raised and touched her pelvic bone. She didn’t really consider herself pregnant – though she certainly was – but she was intrigued by the hand to belly thing. She’d always found it slightly gratuitous the way women did this and yet here she was, barely three weeks, sort of doing it herself.

She spent a good ten minutes perusing the shelves of the gigantic Minh Than supermarket. The sign was emblazoned in red across the building: Established in 1975. The year she was born, two years after Rob. She wasn’t stupid; she knew this was probably her last chance to have a child, if she wanted to have a child.

The aisles were expansive, wide and long, filled with packets and packets of ingredients she’d never tasted and many she’d never seen. This one supermarket made Adelaide’s whole Chinatown seem small, her world seem small, just as Rob liked to remind her.

The junkie was gone when she came out, but she took a slightly longer route, through the Hive shopping centre, stopping briefly to check the price on the potted orchids in the Vietnamese fruit and veg shop, and out again. Single fat red roses wrapped in cellophane and stuffed into plastic buckets sat out the front near the footpath, five dollars each.

If she kept this baby, she’d be on her own. She knew that. There’d be no romance, no support. Like Rob and Lily, but worse, because a single mother is still a single mother.

A storm had been predicted for later in the day and though the morning had been bright and sunny, Tania could see dark clouds menacing on the horizon, turning the light dull. The wind was whipping up and Tania hoped the clothes she’d hung before drop off would have a chance to dry before the rain.

When she got to back to Rob’s terrace on Langridge Street, the front gate was open. Rob had explained in his list of instructions that the latch was broken and it was better not to lock it, otherwise she might not be able to open it again, but it usually stayed shut regardless. She felt the wind pick up at the back of her dress, whooshing fabric through her thighs. She closed the gate and squatted down to push a rock in front to keep it closed, awkward with the umbrella under her arm and handbag over her shoulder.

After four days, she still muddled the keys on the miscellaneous jangle given to her by Rob and it took her a while to push open the front door.

Inside, the stench was immediate. Eye wincing, chin crumpling, jaw clenching: an ambush of rank body odour, sour milk, rotten cigarettes. The sensory impact repelled her backwards and then propelled her forwards. Forwards and towards.

Later she would wonder why she didn’t turn and run back out right then. Instead, she moved in and in, knees and head leading her feet.

Later she would wonder why she didn’t turn and run back out right then. Instead, she moved in and in, knees and head leading her feet.

The terrace was small and narrow, joined on one side by another terrace and on the other by a high wood-panelled fence, topped with trellis. Front door to dining to lounge was only seven to eight metres; the only legitimate way to get inside was via the front door, which was locked, and yet, even with this knowledge, Tania knew what was happening.

His smell, concentrated now, was already familiar. She knew he was in the house before she saw him. She knew it with the same strange calmness she’d had about their parents, all those years ago, well before their Aunty had made them sit down, told them the news.

The junkie. He was sitting on the grey couch Rob had found in hard rubbish and covered in a trendy woollen blanket. Hunched forward, elbows on his knees, head raised, eyes on her.

Blood rushed in her head, loud and violent, though her voice, when she heard it, was whisper soft – ‘What the fuck?’

At first, it looked as though he was about to stand, but then he sat up a little straighter and raised his hands in an act of surrender. Tania saw that his right hand was badly gashed and dripping blood onto his jeans, onto the blanket, the pale blue carpet.

Her eyes darted sideways; a trail of blood ran across the floor to the sliding glass door, which was wide open, the trellis on top of the fence had sheared off and lay in pieces on the bricks outside.

Had she not locked the side door before she’d left? Her mind swam thick with the effort of remembering earlier that morning. Had she let the cat out? Where was the cat?

‘You don’t remember me, eh?’ The junkie put his hands down. He was grinning, his teeth small and yellow, lined with black.

‘Um. Get out.’ Her voice was trembling. ‘You have to get out. I’m going to call the police now.’ The umbrella dropped to the floor as Tania reached into her handbag for her phone. Her fingers shook as they fumbled around the crap in her bag for the solid shape of her phone. She kept her eyes on the junkie, who had started looking around the room as though searching for something he’d lost.

Tania pulled out her phone and pushed in her passcode, failed, tried again.

‘Nah, nah, nah, just listen to me, eh? I’m not gonna hurt anyone. I just wanna talk. I been watching you. You know me, eh.’ His voice was raspy, tinny, unnerving with its friendly tone.

‘What?’ Tania was still whispering, all the air gone from her chest. The junkie made a move to stand up and her voice jumped back into her throat, stronger, louder.

‘Stay there,’ she said. ‘Don’t move.’

He was skinny and looked weak and didn’t appear to have any kind of weapon, but the dripping blood terrified her.

‘I’m going to call an ambulance and the police and you shouldn’t move. Don’t touch anything.’ Her temples were pulsing but she could feel some clarity, some common sense rising. She took a step backwards and pulled up the keypad on her phone.

‘Nah, nah, nah,’ he said again. ‘Just wait.’

He held his bleeding hand against his chest and tried to stand again.

‘Sit down,’ she said. ‘I want you to stay there. I want you to stay there while I call the police and I don’t want you to move until they get here.’ This seemed to make sense.

‘You don’t remember me, eh?’ The weird grin again.

She stared at him closely. Surely she didn’t know him from anywhere? There was something, something about him that felt familiar but when she searched her memories, all she could come up with was seeing him on Victoria Street when she was walking with Lily. It couldn’t have been more than thirty minutes ago, but it felt like years now. She’d known him for years.

It couldn’t have been more than thirty minutes ago, but it felt like years now. She’d known him for years.

‘I don’t know you,’ she said. ‘I’ve never known you. I’m not even from here.’

‘Yeah, ya do. Bayswater High, eh. Back in the eighties. I remember you.’ He laughed briefly, but his brow was furrowed as though he might start crying. He laid his left hand over his right, and Tania watched as his blood trickled over both.

Tania and Rob had both gone to Modbury High in the eighties. In Adelaide. She didn’t even know where Bayswater was and yet, her brain sped through all the boys she’d ever gone out with, flirted around, been harassed by, who’d cheated on her, the one she’d cheated on.

Her first kiss, forced, the oval, grade seven, Kessan Rogers. Darren Leach, year ten, pushing down on the back of her head, trying to get her to give him a head job in his Corolla, his embarrassing personalised number plate. The sleazy English guy with the wannabe French name, professing his love for her and then hooking up with her best friend in a side street, his bike lying on the grass, their bags tossed on top, she’d seen them. The boy whose identity bracelet she wore, stainless steel, who cried when she handed it back, beginning of year eleven, couldn’t remember his name, though she’d had it on her wrist all summer. Andrew Davies and his sweet poems written on toilet paper.

‘You’ve got me mixed up with someone else. You need to get out of my house. Or I call the police. You choose.’ A new plan.

‘I just need­ –’

‘I’ve got nothing. Get out now. Or I call the police.’ She stepped sideways so that she was closer to the screen door than the front door. It was a risk, given that the side door led nowhere but to the tiny courtyard and a broken fence she couldn’t hope to scale quickly or safely. She felt the carpet under her sandals.

‘I’m going to count to ten. If you are not out of this house by the time I finish, I’m calling the police.’ Her voice was strong and clear now and she looked him straight in the eye.

He stared back at her, his brow crumpled and mouth tight. Then he groaned, shook his head from side to side. When he stood, blood dripped down his jumper and onto his grotty T-shirt. It was a bad cut.

She backed away as he passed her, but she saw that a small shard of wood was lodged in the wound. His movements were unsteady but he was walking toward the front door, his back to her. She didn’t move, heard the screen open, his bare feet pad on the bricks out the front, and then she remembered the rock in front of the gate. It felt like hours ago that she’d moved it there. She heard the rock scrape across the bricks. He was talking to himself now, fast and low. She strained to hear, but couldn’t make out the words. She heard the gate creak open and close.

She turned and ran to the kitchen, yanked the tea towel from the oven and then ran back down the small hallway to the front door. She wrapped the tea towel around her hand and pushed across the deadlock on the screen, closed the wooden door. She ran back to the side door, pulled it closed and flicked over the lock, using the tea towel as a glove before dropping it to the floor.

Upstairs in Lily’s room, Tania slunk to the floor and sat cross-legged on the play carpet. Her phone was clutched in her left hand and she pulled it to her knee, pressed in the passcode again, dialled triple zero.

‘Police, fire or ambulance?’ It was a woman’s voice on the other end.

‘Police,’ said Tania. ‘And ambulance.’

She took a short breath that jagged. The hand in her lap reached for her belly and rested there while she told her story to the woman on the phone. She described the man who was in her house. She told the woman that he was hurt and bleeding badly. She gave Rob’s address, spelt out Langridge. And then she lay on Lily’s floor and waited, the undersides of her calves trembling slightly against the carpet.

Silent minutes passed. Lying on the floor, Tania wondered what the man was going to say, before she cut him off. The thing he needed. She’d assumed money, but now she wasn’t sure.

She wondered if there would be a siren and she sat up again, to listen.