Authors: Brooke Davis
Parking inspectors go to hell
, Millie says, crawling back under the table.
The woman who gave Millie a Caramello Koala pokes her head under the table.
Found a friend, Jeremy?
She’s not a friend, Mum.
She kneels on the floor.
She smiles at Millie, and Millie smiles back.
She seems nice
, Jeremy’s mum says
Well. She’s not.
He’s not very nice either
, Millie says.
Jeremy’s mum laughs.
You two would make the perfect couple
, Jeremy says, crossing his arms.
I’m on a break soon, darling
, she says to Jeremy.
Why don’t you come have dinner with me?
He looks at her sideways
. Can we play Uno?
Of course, darling,
Black, shiny shoes stop next to Jeremy’s mum.
a voice says.
FYI, you’re not paid to sit on the floor.
, Jeremy’s mum says. The black, shiny shoes walk away.
He’s scary, Mum
, Jeremy says.
I don’t like him.
Oh, darling, don’t be too hard on him. He’s just a little kid, really.
No he’s not. He’s a grown-up.
Darling. I mean, inside.
She tickles his belly.
Millie puts her hands on her own belly. Jeremy’s mum is so beautiful and smells like a mum so Millie says,
You’re very beautiful and you smell like a mum
, and the woman’s face softens and she puts a warm warm hand on Millie’s leg and says,
Thank you, darling.
And Millie wants to curl up in her arms and stay there and never leave, but she doesn’t do that at all because the lady isn’t her mum and you can’t really do that to mums who aren’t yours. But you should be able to hug all the mums who aren’t yours, because some people don’t have mums and what are they supposed to do with all the hugs they have?
: Agatha wakes with a start when an announcement is made over the loudspeaker.
Ladies and gentlemen, if you would kindly move your clocks forward an hour and a half. Throughout this journey, we’ll be existing on what we call “Train Time.” We’ll keep you updated as to further adjustments.
Agatha sits up.
She moves all her watches forward.
3:32: Agatha gets out her Complaint Letters notepad and pen and starts writing:
Her hand jolts as the carriage shakes, and the
streaks across the page.
, Agatha says, tearing off the sheet of paper and crumpling it.
, she writes again, and stops.
Agatha looks out the window. They’re zipping through the bush. Everything always crackles and hisses at her in the Australian bush, the trees splayed out in the air like they’re in agony. And that dirt, that deep-red dirt that gets under your fingernails, stains your clothes, and never seems to leave you.
She suddenly thinks of Ron’s hair. Red hair like copper wire, flattened atop his head with a wave at the front and a perfect part on one side. She was fifteen when she met him; he, eighteen. It was a vulnerable and mysterious time. She remembers not often hearing her own voice. She remembers feeling so ridiculous just being alive. Her skin always felt watched. Eye contact was this dangerous thing. Her body was taking her to places she didn’t want to go, to this strange address she had only heard of as womanhood. No one ever told her what to do once she got there. She just bumbled about and hoped no one noticed what was going on underneath her clothes.
She had seen Ron for the first time in the park near her grandmother’s house. She was walking home from school and she knew she was thinking too hard about how to walk, that she was thinking too hard about how to move her arms, and that this must be obvious to everyone watching her.
What was the first thing he said to her?
Chuck us the ball, would ya?
She thinks this is it.
The boys were playing cricket. She heard him, but she didn’t look up. She felt her body tightening as she saw the ball out of the corner of her eye, rolling toward her feet. And that ball kept coming, rolling toward her like a snowball, growing bigger and bigger in her peripheral vision.
Chuck us the ball, would ya?
And then there was the look he gave her, under a hand that
was blocking the sun, and the way he sauntered over to her, and his voice, and the way he gestured, and the way he stood.
Can’t you pick up a ball
, he said, and smiled at her as he picked it up. It wasn’t really a question. Agatha looked at the ground.
, he said, and walked away. But there was a hesitation in his step that Agatha noticed, and kept, and felt, as she lay in her bed that night, eyes wide open, gazing up at the ceiling.
And later, when they were married and owned a house and lived an entire life together, he put his hand on the crown of her head after her mother died. It was just in passing, as he walked from the sink to his chair, but his hand on her head felt so heavy with love that it seemed to stop her head from falling forward onto her chest.
He made her a Bonox every night without her having to ask for it. He didn’t gamble. Or smoke. He read the daily news out loud to her when she was sick. He ate her meatloaf, even when it was terrible. He didn’t smile much, but he never complained.
Did this make him a good person?
Was he a good person? Was he a better person? Than her? Than most?
3:46: But there was this. Well into their marriage, Agatha saw Ron looking at another woman’s bottom. It was what’s-her-name from next door, Tallulah or Tiffany, some kind of name they probably put on handbags, and she had been pruning her rosebush in clothes that would make a prostitute blush. Her
undergarments rose out of the top of her jeans as though they were trying to make their way to her neck. Like a dog yanking at its chain, trying to get to the food bowl. He was waiting in the car, and Agatha saw his face through the glass as she locked the door to the house. They had not had sex in years, but there was still something about this situation that shook Agatha. Something about her husband’s face—blank to the untrained eye, but it was the slitting of the eyes that was different, the slight parting of the mouth—something about this bottom in the air, something about the space between his face and that bottom. Something about what Agatha wasn’t.
She opened the car door and climbed in. When she sat down she felt her bottom spread out over the whole seat, right to the very edges. Handbag Name waved to them as they drove past, all red lips and curved lines. Ron’s mouth was clamped shut, flat-lining under his nose, like a heart-rate monitor.
, his mouth seemed to say.
, she says now, looking out the train window.
3:52: She looks at the sheet of paper in front of her.
, she says.
She wonders what her face looked like to her husband. She cannot recall ever looking at him with a soft face. She wonders if he ever felt love in his fingers and toes for her. There had been a lilt of impatience in her voice, always, hovering around her words. She never asked him selfless questions. If she poured orange juice for both of them, she would always take
the bigger glass. She would walk through a door, knowing full well that he was following, and allow the door to close behind her. She didn’t massage his crook neck, just let him crane it to one side and push his own fingers feebly into the muscle, feeling around for the source of pain like a mechanic. She saw his grimace but would continue spooning mashed potato into her mouth. His discomfort had seemed irrelevant to her, as though he were one of those orphan children in a war-torn country.
Was she testing him? Had the entire relationship been a challenge, a standoff? Just how much can you take, Ron?
How much are you willing to take? And why? Why, Ron, are you willing to take this?
4:01: She was a bad person to Ron. The sentence arrives in her head so loudly, it is as if she has yelled it. She was a bad person to Ron, purely because she could be, because it was easy, because he didn’t stop her.
arl sits in one of the booths in the Matilda Café, sharing a bottle of wine with Manny and watching the sun set over the desert. The train squeaks and creaks, and the sound of that, the gentle constancy of it, is comforting, like rain on a roof. A dust devil touches down on the horizon, and Karl watches with wide eyes as it twirls and twists and then disappears completely.
Karl unwraps the toilet paper from around his hand and examines it. He shows it to Manny, wiggling his eyebrows.
Shoulda seen the other guy
. Karl spreads Evie’s typewriter keys on the table in front of him.
Forgot what, Manny?
he says, sighing. He shuffles the keys around.
He turns to Manny.
Is there such a thing?
An elderly couple walks into the carriage. They smile at Karl as they sit down in another booth. Karl nods at them politely. The woman opens her book and begins to read. The man winks at Karl.
Enjoying the train?
, Karl says.
, the man says, pointing out the window.
He nudges his wife.
They’re dead, but they have new sprouts.
His wife doesn’t react, so he looks to Karl for a response.
Well, I’ll be
, Karl says.
The man turns to his wife, who doesn’t lift her eyes from her book.
I’ll just go have a Bo Peep at what they’ve got
, he says.
He returns with two cups of tea.
, he says, placing them on the table.
Oh boy. Is that hot!
He blows on his hands and rubs them together dramatically.
Oh boy, they were hot.
His wife doesn’t flinch and continues to read.
, he says again, taking his seat and gesturing toward the window.
The other staff were nice
, the woman says suddenly, as if her husband hasn’t been talking at all, saying it with the confused urgency of someone who has just woken up from a dream.
the husband says.
The other staff were nice
, she says, not raising her voice.
The other staff were nine! What?
, she says, not taking her eyes from her book.
, he says.
He sips his tea while she reads her book.
Karl glances at her face. She appears so unmoved by this man, so beyond any kind of expression for him.
Why do they get to be alive?
Karl whispers. He glances sideways at Manny.
I know, I know
. The table under his fingertips feels cool and hard as he types on it.
That’s harsh. But . . .
stares at the man, still shaking his head at the trees out the window, and the woman not in love with him in any way.
I loved Evie and she loved me. Shouldn’t we get some kind of reward for that?
Karl turns to Manny, who looks straight ahead at the couple.
, Karl says, flushing pink with embarrassment,
don’t make it so obvious we’re talking about them
. Karl turns Manny’s face toward him. He holds Manny’s upper arm while he does it and can feel the curve of Manny’s muscle.
, he says. Karl unbuttons the top of Manny’s shirt and looks in.
, he says. Karl lifts up the bottom of Manny’s shirt.
, he says again, rubbing Manny’s stomach.
, a voice says, and Karl jumps. A man in an Indian Pacific uniform stands at the end of Karl’s table. A notepad hangs from a piece of string that dangles around his neck. A dishcloth is folded neatly over his belt.
I’m Derek. The head conductor
. He taps a forefinger on his name badge. He runs a finger softly over the part of his hair, and uses the heel of his hand to flatten his fringe to the side.
Hi, Derek the Head Conductor
, Karl says.
I’m Karl the Touch Typist.
Dining with us this evening, sir?
Sure am, sir
, Karl replies. He puts an arm around Manny.
Me and my friend here, and the wife and grandkid.
, Derek says in a low voice,
we don’t allow objects of sexual fantasy on the train.
Objects of what now?
Karl says, leaning forward.
What you do in your own time is none of our concern, but while you’re on this train—
Sorry, objects of what?
I don’t know what your caper is—
But you must remove this sex doll from the dining carriage ASAP.
Karl slides his arm from Manny’s shoulders. He looks at Manny apologetically. He puts his elbows on the table and links his hands together.
Manny is not one of those
, he says quietly.
Derek says, holding out the notepad around his neck and scribbling on it,
I don’t know what your type call them these days, but get it out of my sight
He rips the sheet of paper off the notepad and places it forcefully on the table in front of Karl.
1 x SEXUAL MISCONDUCT
, the note reads in capital letters.
Before Karl can answer, Millie bounds into the carriage.
she says, sliding in next to Manny.
, she says, and hugs him. Agatha is not far behind, and sits on the opposite side of the booth. Karl pockets the piece of paper.
That’s a warning,
Three of those and you’re off the train. Sir.
A warning for what?
, Agatha says to Derek, her eyes on his name badge.
What time do you make it?
She seems agitated.
Derek checks his watch.
, Agatha says, tapping a finger on the table,
you can’t just change the time and call it what you want.
FYI, yes I can
, Derek says. He leans back on his heels and folds his arms across his chest.
Think of this as my house
While you’re in my house we use my time.
What about Millie Time?
, Karl says.
And Karl Time?
, Derek says. He places both hands on the table.
NO. Just Train Time.
And after an elongated look at each of them, he says,
, and turns, then walks down the aisle and out of the carriage.
, Karl mutters.
Who wants sangers?
He produces three sandwiches in a plastic bag from under the table.
Millie says, raising her hand.
Karl hands one to Millie and one to Agatha.
, Millie says, and unwraps hers.
What time do you make it, Typist?
Agatha says, snatching at the sandwich.
Karl looks at his forearm.
Freckle thirty, by my watch
, he says.
What time do you make it, Millie?
, she says, giggling.
Agatha still appears agitated.
All I know is that it’s time for a drink, Agatha
, Karl says in what he hopes is a sympathetic voice.
You can have Manny’s
, he says.
Do you mind, Manny? He doesn’t mind.
He fills up the second glass and pushes it toward her.
Agatha takes the glass, slams back the wine, and pushes it toward Karl. She wipes her arm across her mouth, and eyes Karl as though she’s testing a bartender.
Karl laughs nervously and pours Agatha another drink. He sits up tall and says in his deepest voice,
So what did you get up to today, Millie? You look like you’ve been busy.
She’s wearing some sort of homemade cape and has decorated her arms in letters and colors.
I met a boy
, she replies.
, he says.
Do girls your age usually? Meet? Boys?
He said he has something to show me
, she says, chewing on her sandwich.
I’m very excited.
, Karl says.
What about you, Agatha?
She doesn’t say a word, just throws back the second drink and pushes the glass toward him again.
Maybe some water for the next one?
he says, his voice wavering a little.
Agatha taps her finger on the side of the glass.
He hiccups. He puts his hand over his mouth.
Here’s the dessert you ordered
, a woman in an Indian Pacific uniform says, walking up to them and handing them a tub of yogurt each. She winks at Millie. Millie winks back.
But I didn’t—
The woman—Melissa, according to her badge—puts a hand on his shoulder and a finger up to her lips. His shoulder melts into the heat of her hand.