Fiction

Flightless Birds

By Patrick Eades

            We were in the garage by Christmas. The temperature refused to drop from 35 degrees at nine in the evening, our stomachs stuffed with prawns, ham, fruit cake and beer. John was half cut and I felt on edge from the heat and stench emanating from my husband. We lay there on our bed, surrounded by old push bikes with flat tyres, a set of golf clubs from the 1970s and tools upon tools hanging from the walls. It’s pretty hard to fall asleep when there’s a two-foot bow saw in your eyeline. Peaceful dreams I think not.

            ‘What a year,’ John said.

            What a year. Part of me wanted to pull the bow saw off its hook and saw John’s face off. Or at least his tongue. The other part of me wanted John to roll over and hold me, tell me everything would be alright. That the next year would be better, that we were still young and free, the best years yet to come.

            I knew I had to tell him, but I didn’t know how.

            I had slim-to-none chance of sleeping, so my thoughts returned to the past, drawn back like a magnet. The present was hell and the future beyond my grasp.

#

            Eleven months earlier, in January, we both returned from our Christmas break, full of energy and ready to work. Well, John did at least. I could have happily stayed off for another month, but John became restless not working. The boss called a meeting at 9:30, and came straight out with it. Restructuring.

            The rest of the day passed like a funeral march. The post-holiday balloon of chatter and gossip had burst, the air flat and quiet. Whispers broke out, and then died at the sound of footsteps. John told me at dinner (a Japanese Mexican fusion place on the harbour, about 70 bucks for a main) he wasn’t worried, he was the sole financial manager for the company, his job should be safe. They would have called me a secretary thirty years ago but these days I was a ‘PA’. I couldn’t give a shit what they called me as long as I could keep my six-figure salary.

            In the end they wouldn’t even allow me to keep my pencil case. Company property. John couldn’t speak when he found out they replaced him with a 23-year-old accountant, who would do his job for half the wage. No redundancy or ‘severance package.’ Two weeks’ notice and a half-arsed goodbye card mostly empty because our colleagues couldn’t think of what to say. We’d been at the company ten years.

            My parents didn’t sound surprised. The economy sat perched on the edge of a cliff, about to plunge into recession, fueled by the greed and stupidity of professions like ours. I felt a strange sense of relief when I walked out for the last time, but I had to hide it from John, who smashed his box of possessions against the front door when it wouldn’t open. They spilled over the entrance way, and the security guard watched us scratch around on the concrete floor like pigeons searching for breadcrumbs.

            We went back to our apartment in Balmain we rented for $1400 a week. A ridiculous figure, but we had harbour views and marble floors, and a place to park our Mercedes. Since we’d stopped IVF, we’d been a little more frivolous with our spending. An attempt to buy the happiness our bodies couldn’t grant us. A gold-plated band aid for an aching heart.

            I did the math, we had a little over three thousand dollars in our accounts, and we owed five and a half thousand on our platinum card. It didn’t take a financial manager to work out we were screwed. John slid the floor, silent, but two bottles of cab sav later he told me not to worry, he’d have a new job by next week at the latest.

            Next week turned into the week after, and both of us still very much unemployed. Newspapers talked of the next great recession. Businesses tightened up, tossing deadwood overboard and hauling in their gangways. John and I would scour the internet and papers for jobs all morning, and then go and sit in the park in the afternoon, stare at the harbour bridge while we plastered ourselves with red wine and gin.

            Locals gave us looks that told us we no longer belonged. I never felt like I belonged. The suburb was crammed full of white yuppies working white collar jobs and pretending they weren’t as white as they thought. They flocked towards wealthy black people like seagulls, would boast about the number of multicultural friends they had, and then walk past a homeless Aboriginal woman like she didn’t exist. The former blue-collar neighborhood had been starched and pressed clean, gentrified beyond recognition. John loved it there. Said he was considering voting greens—upper house only of course—in the next election. I’m pretty sure he still thought Bob Brown was their leader.

            I called my Dad. Told him straight. We were unemployed, four thousand dollars in debt and staring down eviction. And we’d run out of booze. Dad said my old room was still vacant, long as we didn’t mind being woken at six in the morning by mother performing laughing yoga—a new hobby of hers.

            John said no initially. In the end it was my parents’ home or the street.

            So we went. John whinged and moaned; no more turmeric lattes, no more wine bars, no more uber eats. He said we’d be drinking VB in the pokies lounge in the RSL on Wednesday nights by March. Told me to go and buy Ugg boots so at least we’d meet the dress code.

            A scorching Saturday morning in February we left/escaped/dragged ourselves away from the inner west, on our way to the outer suburbs of Sydney with a van full of stainless-steel furniture and a hangover the size of New South Wales. The Sutherland shire wasn’t a bad place to live, it has easy access to national parks and beaches, backyards and public schools you wouldn’t be afraid to send your child to. But there’s one thing missing—according to John at least—culture. I’d grown tired of defending ‘The Shire’, the place I’d grown up but never been able to quite escape. I cringed when I heard friends claim they were from ‘God’s country’, and the race riots in Cronulla made me feel sick. John grew up on the north shore, but his parents had retired to the country, and the thought of moving out of Sydney didn’t even cross our minds.

            I’d forgotten how cramped my old room felt until we unpacked our stuff. Mum had left the pink bedspread on and my fluffy animal collection in the corner ever since I moved out; ‘Your kids will love it when they stay over!’ We had to edge around each other to reach boxes, and I laid down on the bed for a minute’s breathing room. John spooned me and whispered in my ear, ‘Well, this is cosy.’

            His breath was sour with last night’s wine and the sweat from lifting our boxes upstairs. I’d been home for two hours and already felt suffocated.

            It only took a week before the subject of our employment status arose. My mother floated the question while I had a mouth full of spag bol, and I waited to see if John would answer. He responded by cramming a whole slice of garlic bread in his mouth. I kicked his shin under the table before I managed to splutter, ‘We’re still looking.’

            I hadn’t been unemployed since my first job, taking orders in the local pizza shop in high school. I asked to be a delivery driver, but my mum said it was too dangerous and called the owner. The owner told me he had plenty of ugly delivery boys, he needed someone pretty like me on the front desk. And I did what I was told. Practiced my smile, my happy-happy phone voice, and learnt how to apologise to mothers pissed off at receiving a supreme instead of pepperoni. No-one liked supreme.

            When I finished school, I transferred my skills to become a secretary and occasional dental assistant at Dr. Ali’s dental practice in the city. I told my parents Dr. Ali said I should go to university and study dentistry, and my mum warned me they have the highest suicide rate of any profession.

            When I met John, he told me he could put in a good word with his boss for a PA job going at his office, and that was it. I’d been there ever since. I had worked for twenty years, but I’d never had a “career.” I always thought it would be temporary, until I had children. I had wrinkles in the corners of my eyes from smiling all day. My colleagues loved my happy nature, but that fake-it-till-you-make-it shit is rubbish. Every time I smiled to another arrogant arsehole in a suit, or to a boss whose eyes never quite made it up to mine, I pushed my body beyond its capacity for fakeness. Only by stepping back I could appreciate the toll.

            So while John kept his focus narrowed on financial manager, accountancy and banking jobs, I turned elsewhere. I called about a part time job in a nursery located in the coastal stretch between Sydney and Wollongong. The grand sum of my gardening experience involved looking after a potted bonsai lime tree on our balcony (I had assumed it was a bonsai version, but in retrospect it was probably a regular version stunted through neglect).

            When they asked me at the interview why I applied for the job, I had to think for a minute. I could have bullshitted them, waffled on about my green thumb and love of nature, but I told them the truth. I was sick of working for arseholes. I was sick of talking to arseholes on the phone. I was sick of creepy older men staring at my arsehole. The nursery lady, a grey-haired woman with strong arms and a face full of wrinkles, laughed and asked me to name my favourite deciduous. I said the ones who decided to stay green. She laughed again, and I laughed with her. I told her I wanted to get my hands dirty. I’d take dirty hands over dirty minds any day. An hour later she called me to ask when I could start.

            John raised his eyebrows when I shared my news at dinner.

            ‘How quaint,’ my mother replied.

            ‘Someone’s gotta bring home the bacon,’ said my dad, raising his beer towards me.

            John’s face turned the colour of the napolitana sauce on his schnitzel.

            Later, John whispered to me in our room, the air escaping from his mouth in raspy explosions.

            ‘They think I’m a bludger do they? Leeching off my wife and her family and forcing you into a manual labour job?’

            He said the words manual labour like he would Nazi, or paedophile.

            ‘No, they don’t. You know what they’re like.’

            ‘Did you tell them who was the one making 180k the last five years?’

            I thought about saying who was the one who spent that 180k every year, on degustation dinners at Michelin star restaurants, on Giorgio Armani suits, on yearly membership at Royal Sydney golf course (despite the fact his swing was so ugly you could turn blind staring at it). But I felt that might escalate his angry whispers to a level capable of passing through the fibro walls that separated us from my parents.

            I said, ‘Don’t worry, something will come up for you soon.’

#

            It turned out I loved the nursery job. They had me start behind the cash register, but the older lady who interviewed me, Barb, mentored me in the art of horticulture. Pretty soon I knew how to aerate, fertilize, graft, pollinate and propagate. Our bathroom mirror became my audition camera for upcoming gardening Australia segments. I’d always had a secret crush on Costa, the bearded eccentric who hosted the show. He looked nothing like John.

            My job, while bringing in much needed income and purpose to my life, had the opposite effect on John. He hated sitting at home while I left for work. My parents had semi-retired, and John started going on long, aimless walks around the neighbourhood to avoid sitting on the back deck and watching them mulch garden beds all afternoon.

            One day I came home from work and couldn’t find John. I called him, and heard his phone ringing on our bedside table. He didn’t return until ten in the evening, I told my parents he met up with friends. He stank of body odour. He told me he got lost on his walk and didn’t realise the time until night fell. His eyes stared back at me like two lightbulbs underwater, their light barely reaching the surface.

            I worried about him. He hadn’t had a job interview in months and wasn’t in shape for one now anyway. A patchy beard had crept over his cheeks, streaks of grey woven through. His clothes hung off him like a skeleton, his already thin build now emaciated by days spent wandering and meals neglected. He’d told me once before he couldn’t stomach the taste of bread if he didn’t win it.

            My room had become a tomb, a place where conversation and frivolity went to die. A 3.5 by 3.5m coffin. We had never been in closer quarters before, and I had never felt further apart. My room had become John’s sanctuary, he had stolen it from me. Nostalgic memories of lying on my bed reading Agatha Christie novels, of gossiping with my school friends till the early hours of the morning, of fantasising romantic embraces with my year 9 crush (Jacob Hollister) and the babies we would have had been crushed under the weight of John’s gloom. I stayed up watching the late news with my dad, and prayed John would be asleep as I crept up the stairs to bed. He wasn’t. He would wait for me. Ask me what I had been talking to my parents about without him. Was it about him? No, I would tell him, and it wasn’t. They worried, I could tell, but they trusted me to fix it. I felt like a mechanic standing in front of a burnt-out car.

#

            In September we received news that my brother’s house, in the posh suburb of Lilli Pilli, was going to be renovated, and they needed a place to stay for the next eight months. My brother, a dickhead and a well sought-after engineer, his wife (also a dickhead), and their two boys (well on their way to becoming dickheads) would be coming to join the party. John first suggested the garage. Theoretically, my parents four-bedroom house could accommodate us all, but it would be chaos. It already felt congested, and I could sense John’s panic at the impending invasion.

            The garage was big, four-car at least, but overflowing with furniture and boxes we hadn’t unpacked yet, gardening supplies and leftover junk from my childhood. My pink BMX with training wheels lay in one corner, covered with spiderwebs and the front tire as flat as a tack. My mum had been keeping it to hand down to my as yet unborn daughter (You’re 35 hun, might want to think about getting a wriggle on, she loved to say).

            Our new quarters were 95% watertight (a stream of water as wide as my forearm would snake its way through our “living room” with a solid day’s rain), relatively airtight (John’s farts still lingered unless the southerly blew greater than twenty knots), and as hot as Hades (my dad’s description) once the mercury passed 25 degrees Celsius.

            John didn’t mind. He complained—plenty—but he didn’t mind. He had his sanctuary back. For a little while.

            My brother Craig told me he felt bad for shafting us to ‘Vinnie’s warehouse’, so most afternoons he would wander down with a six pack of Coronas and keep us company before family dinner. Craig was an engineer, and he did well at school, went to university. Our family called him the allen key from a shed full of sledgehammers. I still thought he’s a moron. He had the social intelligence of a telegraph pole. John hated those visits. I don’t think he hated Craig per se (I wouldn’t have blamed him), but he hated the disturbance to his sanctuary. Craig would natter on about the footy, politics, the price of maintaining a boat, all the things John detested or could no longer afford.

            John’s walks stretched out into the evenings, and often he wouldn’t be back for dinner. Sometimes I wondered if he would ever come back. The man I loved had been hollowed out, a shell of self-pity set to roam the earth for eternity searching for a life once lived.

            My mum asked Craig if he could find a job for John, like she used to ask my friends to find a boyfriend for me, because I was obviously incapable of managing such a task myself. Craig—to his credit—asked around, and told John his site needed more casual labourers for the excavation of a motorway extension out west. I failed to suppress my frustration when John declined (not the best utilisation of his skill set), and we fought that night. Whispers turned into raised voices turned into me screaming at John to just have a bloody go. It ended with John setting off for an evening walk and me hurling my future child’s BMX against the dartboard on the wall.

#

            And that’s how we arrived here at Christmas night, surrounded by a fog of stale beer and prawns, a film of sweat we couldn’t shed and another argument lurking around the corner. What a year. There never would be a perfect time, so I told him.

            ‘John, I’m pregnant.’

            He didn’t speak for a minute, and I wondered if he’d fallen asleep. He rolled over, and in the faint moonlight I could see a smile stretching across his face.

            ‘Are you sure?’

            ‘I’m sure.’

            He hugged me then, squeezed me harder than he had in a long time.

            ‘John,’ I managed to choke out, and he loosened his grip. ‘We can’t keep it.’

            ‘Why not?’

            I tried to summon the words to explain the myriad of reasons why having a baby was a dumb idea. Maybe the fact John was unemployed and I earned the princely sum of $500 a week. Maybe the fact that our marriage teetered on the brink of collapse, that we were drifting apart so fast John was almost out of view. Or maybe it was the fact we lived in my parents’ garage, with no bathroom, no kitchen and no goddamn air conditioning.

            But John knew all that. He knew it all, and he kept smiling. For six years we had been trying to fall pregnant, full of youth, wealth and hope. Our youth was now in the rear-view mirror, our wealth had slipped through our fingers, and hope… I looked around our room, my eyes drawn to the crumpled pink bike frame lying beneath the dartboard.

            I raised my arms in a gesture at everything and nothing.

            John kissed my forehead and stumbled off the bed, headed towards the garage door.

            ‘Where are you going?’ I asked.

            ‘To tell your brother, I’m ready to dig those holes.’

The END

Categories: Fiction

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