The woman on the doorstep is everything I don’t want in a housemate. But she’s shivering. One more interview can’t make today any worse.
‘I wasn’t expecting anyone else,’ I say.
Despite the waspish wind, she smiles. ‘I saw the notice on your gate. I hope you don’t mind.’
I sigh and step aside for her to enter.
Inside, her footsteps echo up the flaking walls. The house is icy, so she stays wrapped in her bouclé coat. She’s youngish, like me, but she’s pretty. More than pretty. She’s exquisite, groomed and painted to a glow. Though, I reflect, swilling my drink, anyone could be under all those layers of makeup and tailoring.
‘Your missing ring’s in your handbag,’ I blurt. Unfortunately, I always say things like that.
She doesn’t hear me. She’s absorbed in inspecting the foyer. The soaring, unswept space with its dark doorways, cracked plasterwork and whiff of damp, isn’t to her taste. The pearl-and-petal face wears a look of apology, and she turns back the way she came. Catching sight of my drink, she stops. Her green stare assesses me.
She nods at my glass. ‘You don’t seem like a woman who drinks through a straw.’
‘I’m not,’ I say, annoyed to feel flattered. Actually, there are three straws in my gin. ‘Not at all. Usually.’
‘Nope. Fine day.’ Deliberately, I slurp as I suck up the last of the gin. ‘Are we done?’
She surprises me by searching the mostly empty foyer for somewhere to put her Vuitton. She makes do with the floor. ‘I’d like to see the place.’
We begin at the bottom of the imperial staircase.
‘It’s my grandmother’s house,’ I say, as we reach the first landing.
Again, the assessing green stare. ‘Oh.’ As if my pain is obvious, she says, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
Her tone’s like a kind touch. ‘None of the family wants to live here,’ it makes me explain, possibly assisted by the gin. ‘No-one but me.’ I hear the little girl in my voice, and I gather myself. ‘It’s none of your business. But fuck it. My grandmother died three years ago. Since then, my parents have been trying to sell her house.
‘Problem is, it’s heritage listed. Impossible to renovate, because every effing cobweb has historical significance. Can’t knock it down for the land, either. Buyers just run.’
The shimmering mouth curves sympathetically. ‘So, in the meantime, you’re looking after it?’
‘Can’t afford to buy my family out. Can’t afford to fix the place,’ I say into my empty glass. ‘Can’t even afford to live here on my own. I racked up a tonne of student debt training in social work, and the best I could get is the most pointless job in the whole of local government.’
The woman spins where she stands on the top landing, taking in the arched windows, the ruined jewel-blue and ruby carpets. The ceilings vaulting into darkness. ‘It’s not in terrible condition,’ she offers.
‘The roof’s half gone!’ Straws fly as I gesticulate. I’ve plumbed too much gin, too quickly, into my guts. ‘You should see the building inspection reports. There’s hardly anything left upright, or uneaten, or… unfucked in some way.’ I don’t tell her, because I can’t explain it, whichever room is mine stays safe. Nothing ever leaks or falls on me.
My visitor leans thoughtfully on a window frame. Sunbeams turn to rose in her red hair. She’s so vivid. So noticeable. My opposite. I run a hand over my own velvet-short hair. I’m a shadow in grey suit trousers, a snore of a t-shirt and the Converse every thirty-year-old wears. I want nothing noticed about me.
‘Your eyes are blue,’ the woman observes. ‘Or are they silver? They’re bright as coins.’
I groan and fish in my pocket for the horn-rimmed glasses that obscure my irises.
She’s tapping her chin. ‘How big is the house?’
‘Dunno.’ I shrug left and right down vanishing passageways.
‘You have a lot of stuff?’ I accuse.
‘Yes.’ She folds her arms. ‘How many working bathrooms are there?’
‘One. Most of the time.’
‘What’s it cost to live here?’
‘I meant,’ she says, ‘how much would it cost me to live here?’
Belatedly, I start to panic. None of the other interviews progressed this far. I didn’t expect this flawless woman to get serious. Why would someone like her want to live here? With me? My glasses only enhance the architecture of her bones. Her scent is clean; she’s polished and embellished down to the finest, shiny detail. She’s as lovely as my grandmother’s house should be. With all my heart, I don’t want the humiliation of her money.
‘Don’t assume I want a friend,’ I protest. ‘I like my privacy.’
‘I like mine, too.’ She relaxes her arms. ‘What’s your name?’
I almost burst into gin-bombed tears. I can’t do without her money, and there’s no-one else. ‘Georgiana Ficklewight,’ I snap. ‘Ana for short. Not George. Never call me George.’
She opens her mouth, then closes it.
‘I wouldn’t embarrass myself with that name. I mean, the 1970s wants its liberation back.’ I’m ranting away the impulse to cry. ‘Screw having a man’s name. I want actual equality. Equal pay, equal promotion. Equal never having to say I’m sorry. But guess who doesn’t? Any fucking woman called George!’
She’s waiting for me to finish. Her smile’s a little tired. A suspicion begins to heat up my ears.
‘What’s your name?’ I make myself ask.
My ears burn. My barbering gives them nowhere to hide. I put my hands on my hips and say, ‘So, do you want the room?’
‘I’ll take it.’ She doesn’t repeat her enquiry about the price. ‘Expect my things in a week.’
* * *
George moves in, and crowds eighteen shades of lipstick around the rim of my bathroom basin. Every time I turn the tap, I knock a few into the sink.
She brings clouds of towels into the bathroom, too. There are no rails, so the towels are piled on the toilet lid and floor. She doesn’t seem discouraged. She gazes around the porcelain walls, stripped of all the fittings my parents could sell, with a gleam that means lipsticks, towels, and every other comfort she wants will be accommodated.
The morning after George arrives, there’s a noisy delivery at six. I get up and discover her in the kitchen, lustrously dressed, installing Victorian doorhandles in the holes left by my family’s scavenging.
‘The keys you lost are in your office door,’ I yawn. ‘Not the company entrance. The panelled door with your name on it.’
She blinks. Of course, my comment makes no sense to her. She offers a solution. ‘Coffee?’
My face lights up.
She points her peony manicure at the stove. ‘Make it with my moka pot. I’ll have a double shot.’
George, I’ve learned, has two assistants at work.
We finish our coffee before I can think of any small talk. When I retreat upstairs, my new housemate follows, and there’s no choice but to share the one functional bathroom. The towering mirror dwarfs the single pedestal basin. Beside me, George’s reflection wears no make-up yet.
‘I need the sink,’ I grumble around my toothbrush, as she opens a multistorey palette. ‘You could skip covering yourself up. Wear your real face to work.’
She’s getting used to my gaucherie. She rolls her eyes; points a brush handle at her face. ‘I look like a child.’
Can’t argue with that. Barefaced, she’s freckled like it’s the summer school holidays. Her lash extensions overshadow her small features and her eyebrows are only a glimmer.
I spit toothpaste. ‘What colour’s your real hair?’
Her tumbling, dark red is a stylist’s masterpiece. She seems startled by my interest in what’s underneath. ‘My real hair?’
The edge in her voice makes me regret asking. ‘You don’t have to tell me.’
But she answers anyway. ‘It’s yellow.’
Yellow, I consider as I rinse, is the only colour that would make her more beautiful than red.
She hasn’t finished. ‘Brassy yellow,’ she underlines. ‘Cheap-bleach-job yellow. But it isn’t bleached. The colour grows out of my DNA.’ She’s almost hissing.
Fuck’s sake, it’s only hair, not who she is. But she looks so sad, it makes my ears burn again. They’ve been hot since she arrived, thanks to my stumbling communication style. It’s unlikely I can comfort her, and her lipsticks, deliveries and feelings are giving me claustrophobia.
‘Sucks to be you,’ I mutter. I glance longingly at the shower. ‘You take the bathroom. I’ll come back when you’re finished.’
She arrests me with, ‘Before you go—’
Uneasily, I turn. She’s wiped the sorrow from her expression and looks serene as a sun-smitten teenager again. ‘Did you hear music last night?’
‘Mm-hmm. It’s the busker.’
‘That was a busker?’
‘Yup. This guy who sets up in front of the house. He’s always there.’
Her freckles and the faint downturn of her mouth disappear in the wake of her brushes. ‘I’ve seen him. He has a violin.’
‘A viola. He sings while he plays.’
‘But there’s hardly any foot traffic along this street. And he played all night. Why doesn’t he set up outside a train station, or somewhere busy?’
I shrug. ‘He’s… a crap busker?’
‘Are you sure it was him?’ she persists. ‘It didn’t sound like’—she borrows my word—‘real music.’
I take my phone from my pyjama pocket and check the minutes until my train to work. ‘I’m sure.’
‘No. No human voice sounds like that. No instrument, either. The sound was like a storm blowing.’
I grin. I’ve quickly learned George hates being wrong. So much, she’s applying one cheek higher than the other. ‘That’s how I know you heard him. That’s exactly how the busker sounds.’
* * *
There’s no reason to be cheerful. It’s too early to be awake, and I’m headed for Melbourne’s most useless day’s work. But every morning, when I walk out to where the busker stands, I can’t shut down my smile.
He answers with a beam of his own.
I’ve never seen such a graceful man. His limbs are so long, he should be gawky, but he flows like cursive even when standing still. I’ve ribbed him about it ever since he set up outside my house, eighteen months ago. Playful isn’t something I do. But his tender hand on the neck of his viola, and the ink of his smiling eyes, make me less serious. He doesn’t seem real, but he is, and for some reason that makes me want to laugh with delight.
As always, the viola notes whistle like wind around corners and his voice is a growl. And as always, I stop to listen.
‘Still can’t sing,’ I remark when he finishes.
‘Guess not.’ He takes the instrument from under his chin. Peers at me. ‘Huh. Jewellery today.’
I pinch my earrings. Tiny yellow sapphires, cushion cut. ‘They were my grandmother’s.’
‘Going somewhere after work?’
‘I’m meeting the boyfriend for lunch.’
He nods. For a moment, his expression is far away. Then he grins. ’I see the new housemate organised some hot water.’
I pat my damp hair. ‘The washing machine got repaired too. And her assistant came over to do the ironing.’
‘That was her stylist,’ the busker corrects me. I raise an eyebrow, and he points his bow at the coin-dotted viola case. ‘He liked my set. He gave me $50.’
I shake my head. ’You’re not even good.’
This time, my jab doesn’t make him smile. His eyes blacken and glance behind me. Quietly he says, ‘We’ll see if I am.’
Fuck, now the busker’s making my ears hot. I’ve said the wrong thing. I always do. I don’t know why I thought it would be different with him.
He stands, tense as a soldier. He won’t even look at me. His focus darts all over the street.
First George, then the busker, and after my commute, I can expect the usual day of burning up over my gaffes with clients. I hear my supervisor sighing already. Why am I incapable of social grace? With anyone? I force a laugh to cover my retreat.
Abruptly, the busker reaches for me, takes my arm. It’s a shock. He’s never touched me before. His gentleness is so powerful, I can’t pull away. ‘Don’t take the train,’ he whispers.
I don’t shove him off. I don’t shout, ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ No-one has cared what I do, not since my grandmother died.
Instead, the instant he releases me, I flee down the street, feet tripping faster until I break into a run. I head for the train station. But before I get there, I stop. I can still feel the busker’s grip, hear his voice, smell the cedar in his dark, silk hair.
I pause, panting, at the edge of a zebra crossing, staring into the station entrance. It’s ridiculous not to catch the train. Completely ridiculous. More ridiculous than George’s eighteen lipsticks, or the busker’s detuned viola punk music, or my daily gin hangovers. If I don’t catch the train, I’ll be late for work.
I decide to walk.
I peel into my morning meeting 40 minutes late. The rest of the team’s already seated in the conference room, among the environmentally friendly pot plants. Rob, Barry and fuzzy old Jolene. As always, the facial hair is incredible. It’s like an alpaca exploded in there.
‘Here you go, Jolene.’ I sneak her the lost button from her favourite cardigan.
Present too, fugging the room with her perfume-sprayed cigarette smell, is Nerissa Darling. The team leader. My supervisor.
Nerissa considers me. Smooth-faced, she has shiny, loose tresses to her waist. She’s fifty-ish, and she wears button fly 501s and Doc Martens like it’s the ‘90s, and she’s still a social work postgrad.
Her chair is empty. She prefers to lounge on the edge of the table.
‘Ana.’ My supervisor throws a length of hair over her shoulder. Her slouch is deceptively friendly. ‘Hey, Ana. Hey, Anz. I feel like you have something to say to the team.’
I recoil. I’m never mentally prepared to find I work here. ‘Hell, no. I mean, erm, no.’
‘That’s cool. That’s cool. But I feel like you do.’ More hair sails over Nerissa’s other shoulder. ‘We talked about this.’
Oh. Yes. That conversation was the reason for the straws in my gin, the day I met George. Legally, Nerissa’s required to give me three warnings before she fires me. That day, she gave me the first.
I realise what my supervisor wants me to say. My throat clogs as I address the team, trying to remember her script. ‘I acknowledge my responsibility for the, erm, emotional safety of…’
‘Everybeing,’ prompts Nerissa.
My anxiety refuses to be swallowed. ‘…everybeing I impact as a Ravenscar Shire… Care Force… Key Worker.’
The mouth of the station entrance is dark in my mind. My shiver insists skipping the train was the right decision, but Nerissa’s pissed, and I’m two warnings from unemployment. I should definitely show her I’m micro-manageable, all the way down to the words I apologise with.
Instead, I lose my temper. At least it clears my throat. ‘I’m fu— Very frigging sorry for being late, okay?’
Nerissa sighs. ‘That’s all you have to say, Anz? Then I’m afraid we need some democratic dialogue.’
I’m too slow to suppress a groan.
My supervisor’s eyes are gimlets. ‘Care Force, how do you feel about Ana’s acknowledgement?’
Jolene glares up from her decoupage, whiskered as a caterpillar. She doesn’t give a smear of glue about Care Force. Six months ago, she was denied early retirement because Nerissa demanded age representation on her team. The federal funding Nerissa’s Care Force proposal brought the shire means Nerissa gets what she wants. By way of today’s protest, instead of case files, Jolene has brought a hatbox she’s lacquering with pictures of blunt instruments. ‘What’s the problem? She said she was sorry.’
Rob snarls through his moustache, ‘I feel disrespected.’ He screws up a fist on his stacked case files, and Nerissa looks pleased. She turns her gimlets to Barry.
Barry takes his time. Strokes his beard several times before answering.
‘Stop playing with it, Barry,’ snaps Jolene.
Barry ignores her. Finally, he says, ‘I’ll accept the acknowledgement.’
‘That’s two out of three Key Workers,’ Jolene notes. ‘Enough democracy for one day. Apology accepted.’
Nerissa’s lips press. It takes her a hair toss or two to recover, then she starts a slow clap. ‘That’s cool, Care Force, that’s cool. We love and own that we’re all differently competent.’
Jolene slaps a clipping of a large, steel dildo on her hatbox. ‘Can we get on?’
‘Time is short, right Jolene?’ Nerissa glances at her age representative’s project. Cravenly, I hope for once Nerissa will take her attention off me, and show an interest in anything Jolene does, other than being old.
But our supervisor smacks a file down in front of me. ‘A Care Force Key Worker creates peace in our community through meaningful understanding. No matter the conflict. Our team is wide open to your update on this case, Ana.’
‘Wide open like a pair of jaws,’ mutters Jolene.