by Elliot Harley
Under 25 winner, 2020
“Push it to that lady’s checkout,” A man says to a child barely tall enough to see over the top of the trolley. Charlie’s stomach becomes heavy when they realise he is gesturing in their direction. The man’s wife turns to him, her mouth pinched.
“That’s not a lady,” She smiles at Charlie apologetically as she approaches and the tension in their belly uncoils a little.
They smile at the woman and start scanning groceries. A large box of nutri grain, two bottles of blue milk, two packets of spiral pasta, edam cheese, a large jar of pasta sauce, hokey pokey ice cream, lamb chops and fresh vegetables. Charlie looks up the vegetables and weighs them last, nestling them into the top of the bags.
“Thats $61.18, do you have a Onecard?”
The mother nods, swiping both cards and paying for the groceries. Charlie prints the receipt and hands it to her.
The man clears his throat, taking the trolley from the child “Thanks mate.”
Charlie’s skull rattles against the window, sun strobing red inside their eyelids as the bus pulls onto Dominion Road. It shudders forward and to a stop with the traffic. Some school kids, a young woman and a man with a silver hair get onto the bus. The kids sit up the front, turning around and hanging onto the backs of the seats to talk to one another. The man’s eyes lock onto Charlie for a moment. The man sits across from them and takes out his phone as the bus swings forward. Charlie shifts closer to the window, rotating their torso away from him.
“You have a bug in your hair!” Yells one of the kids.
The boy in front of her tosses a hand through his hair.
“Help me get it out!” his voice wobbles.
“She’s tricking you, there’s no bug” one of the other kids says, and she punches his arm. The bus banks around a long corner and Charlie glimpses a person hanging sheets on the clothesline, the large shapes billowing to surround them. There is a motorbike parked outside the takeaway shop and a person on their phone outside the dairy. Charlie slams their thumb into the stop button and the bell shrills.
They glance at the back of the silver man’s head. The bus swings into their stop and the back door hisses unstuck. Charlie’s thank you sticks in their throat and they leap out onto the kerb. The man outside the dairy finishes his call. His eyes meet theirs and they cross the road.
The mailbox has a newspaper advertising electronics and another letter for Deepak Singh. Charlie wonders how long ago Deepak moved away and where he lives now. Flowers spill over the sides of the driveway. Weeds, they suppose. They scuff their shoes along the concrete. They recycle the newspaper and put Deepak’s letter in the bin, letting the lid clatter shut. There is a rectangle of dark earth on the lawn where a piece of wood has been moved. Pale strands of grass lie limply in the patch. Rainwater in the flaky, rusting bathtub in front of the garage has evaporated, leaving a layer of slime and dead flowers on the bottom.
Charlie is desperate to piss and the door is locked. They wriggle the key until the lock clunks open. Takeaway rubbish from last night and dirty bowls from nights previous are strewn around the lounge. Ants cluster around the rim of a cider can, animals at a metallic watering hole.
Charlie dumps their bag in their room and runs to the bathroom. While pissing they notice cat shit in the shower. They wad up a generous piece of toilet paper to scoop it up. The shit spirals around the toilet bowl and is sucked violently down the pipe. Charlie sits on the rim of the bath and opens facebook messenger. SOCIO 101 group: 15 unread messages. They open the chat to get rid of the notifications. Molly has messaged them but they don’t read her message yet. They message Emily “Babs shat in the shower again 🙁 i’ve cleaned it this time but maybe we should keep the shower door shut from now on?”
The cupboard under the sink is filled with all kinds of crap. Charlie knocks over half a dozen dusty bottles and finds a near-empty bottle of bleach spray in the back. They work the trigger, tilting the bottle at different angles to connect to the liquid at the bottom. A measly amount empties onto the offending spot on the shower floor. They wipe it with some more toilet paper and chuck the bottle back under the sink.
In the kitchen, the recycling box overflows with containers stacked on top of one another. The sink is filled with dishes. Congealed, soapy food has floated to the surface of a pot containing a drowned fly. Its limbs spasm and Charlie realises it’s still alive. They tip out the water, sending the fly swirling down the drain.
A strange odour drifts from the fridge and they claim last night’s spaghetti from the top shelf, closing the door quickly. The leftover food rotates slowly under the strange light. They open the dishwasher. It hasn’t yet been unloaded. In the cupboard they stack different kinds of bowls together into a leaning tower. The pans and oven dishes are shoved into the bottom cupboard in a jigsaw on top of forgotten appliances. The pasta crackles with heat when pulled out of the microwave. Charlie wraps the bowl in a tea towel to carry.
They shed their work shoes and uniform, hanging them over the end of the bed so the shirt doesn’t wrinkle. Freeing their torso from their binder, they pull on a hoodie and sweatpants.
Babs appears in the doorway and meows, waving her plumy tail.
“Hello stinky,” Charlie pats the bed “come here baby.”
The cat purrs as they scratch behind her ears. They shovel a forkful of spaghetti into their mouth but its too hot and they spit the half chewed mouthful back into the bowl.
They open Molly’s message. She has sent a link to a 2 bedroom rental advertised for 550 a week. “This one looks really nice! Wanna go to the viewing @ 11 on Tuesday & go for ice cream after? I can ask Ben if he’s free to come along.” Charlie clicks on the listing, which reads: ‘two double bedrooms with built in wardrobes. Fully insulated with stove, dishwasher and heat pump in living area. Landlord will happily consider a mature cat. 12 month lease initially.’ They flick through the attached photographs which have been taken at strange, low angles. The carpet and walls look very clean.
There is a red rug in the lounge which reminds them of the one their nana has. It’s clean and freshly vacuumed. The lounge looks spacious enough to fit Molly’s leather couch and some dining furniture. The bedrooms are shown with perfectly made up double beds. One of them has a nice aqua coloured duvet with a diamond pattern. There looks to be room for Charlie’s desk in either of the bedrooms. They will need to check out the wardrobes to figure out if they will need to buy a freestanding clothes rack for extra hanging space.
There is a bath, which Charlie knows must appeal to Molly immensely. Her relaxation routine involves candles, story podcasts and a bubble bath. They wonder if she will want to keep plants in the bathroom. They glance at the dead cactus on their windowsill. Plants inevitably end up dying under their care. Charlie pictures Molly filling the deck of this place with greenery. They could buy some chairs and a table and sit among the plants together for a smoke or some wine.
Perhaps they could rescue a cat together. They imagine their new lounge set up like the cat cafe, with a cat tree beside the sofa. Those things are expensive at the pet store, but maybe they could find one second hand on trademe. Cats at the cafe seem to love sleeping in the lofty baskets. Their favourite cat there is the one with no eyes, who used his sense of hearing to chase a crinkly toy Charlie threw for him.
A message pops up from Emily. It’s a thumbs up emoji. Charlie frowns at the message, which refuses to answer their question. They stroke Babs, who has curled up beside them on the bed.
“What do you think Babs? Is it time for me to move out of here?”
Babs purrs, her yellow eyes narrowed. Charlie types out a reply to Molly. “Yes 🙂 pick u up at 10.30 on Tuesday?”