‘It’s just not that easy Jarrod. I know we need the money but shit, isn’t there another way? Can’t you speak with Eddy about extending the loan? You don’t seriously think he’s going to break your legs do you?’
Big eyes, the colour of the warm toffees Aunty Sue used to make, flick towards me from the mirror stuck to the top of the windscreen. The eyes belong to the voice in the front seat; I’m in the back seat. It’s just the two of us in the car and we’re going to Williamstown.
‘No I won’t. We already got rid of Mum’s house, don’t make me sell her rings too … You don’t need to tell me she’s a pain in the arse…’
The lady is driving real fast while she talks on the phone. Every time she says a curse word, she glares back at me, as if waiting for me to say something. Maybe not, actually. I’m not sure so I look away.
Daddy says ladies don’t curse, so she’s probably not a lady. I don’t really care if she’s not a lady. Her curly brown hair is pretty and she smells real nice. Sometimes, as the air rushes in from her open window, I can catch a sniff of her– it’s like coffee and jonquils all mushed together. For some reason it makes me smile.
I run my hands across the soft leather bench seat I’m sitting on. Strangely, I know the colour is called fern green and that it’s a very special colour. ‘Custom’ pops into my head and ‘limited edition’.
‘I always like riding in this car,’ I say, surprised that my voice comes out a little croaky. Maybe I’m getting a cold. The lady doesn’t seem to hear me. I try again.
‘I said, this car is always nice to ride in.’ No, voice still scratchy. Don’t even know why I’ve said it anyway- I’m not sure if I have ever been in the car before; it just feels like the right thing to say. Perhaps not because the lady glares back at me and her eyes are getting red around the edges.
‘Yeah, I know Ruby,’ she says. Her voice catches in her throat like she’s got a cold too or maybe she’s crying. I hope I didn’t make her cry. The lady looks back to the road, slows down a little and continues her conversation on the phone.
‘… of course I know what happens when you don’t pay. I told you not to get involved with those guys. Shit Jarrod, I don’t know what to do about her…’
She’s talking a lot about some woman. Grown up stuff is boring, so I open the window and lean my head against the door. The sky above is beautifully blue and I take a deep breath hoping to catch a whiff of salty sea air ’cause we’ll be at the beach soon.
The lady is yelling now, begging Jarrod not to do something. The harshness of her pleading is hard to hear and it makes me feel a bit prickly. I close my eyes and make myself concentrate on the feel of the wheels on the uneven road. In my mind I hum a little ditty Mumma used to sing and, soon, all I know is the rhythmic thump of the road through my seat. Kthump, kthump, kthump.
We’ll be in Williamstown soon, that’ll make the sad lady feel better, I know it. Everyone loves the beach.
‘Sit here and behave yourself Ruby. I need to make another call,’ says the lady, sternly.
I’m on a park bench in the middle of some sandy grass, looking out across the rocky breakwater to the sailing ships moored beyond. There’s a massive old anchor and chain next to me. It looks good for climbing. I start to stand, only the lady grips my shoulder and gently pushes me back down.
‘I mean it Ruby, I’m busy. Sit still, please.’
She lowers her face to mine, it’s such a lovely face, and she uses her two fingers to make a hand gesture from her eyes to mine and back. Oh sign language! Daddy taught me some scout codes. She must want to do codes with me, maybe play naval scout spies. I’m disappointed when she turns and walks away.
I count her steps, it only takes her twenty to get back to the car. Poor Lady. She thinks I don’t notice because I’m just a kid, but I see how weary those twenty steps make her. She leans back on the car door and takes a moment in the sun. She has her eyes closed, breathes in deeply and her fine, upturned face quietens. At last, she looks peaceful.
A car backfires as it travels along the road beside us and her eyes fly open, startled. Stupid car! If I had a rock I would throw it at them, the lady needs quiet. It’s too late though, the noise has broken her golden rest. As she looks down at the phone in her hand, her frown creeps back.
Poor, beautiful lady. I’m sure that she would be happier with me, feeding the birds. I wave to beckon her, pointing to the bag of stale bread in my other hand.
‘Come join me.’ I say. Nothing. Lady’s shouting down the phone again.
There’s a lot of birds around me now. They’re pretty loud– that’s probably why she doesn’t hear my croaky little voice. I do my biggest wave. She pays no attention so I take out a whole slice of bread and thrust it into the air above, as high as my hand will go. Finally she waves back but it’s more of a ‘hello’ than ‘I’m coming’. Lost in her conversation, she probably hasn’t understood my offer.
Nothing is lost to the birds, though. One fat white cawing gull, swoops down and plucks the offering right out of my fingers. At first I’m stunned, then I laugh so hard my hat flies off and I drop the bread bag. It hits the ground with a thwack, splitting open, crumbs fly everywhere and a flock of whirling, squawking madness quickly descends. It’s fantastic!
I stand up and spread my arms like wings, ready to whirl around with them, such fun. I’m about to caw my loudest when I remember my true mission– feeding the black swans.
Still giggling, I launch forward to shoo away the feathery party and snatch back as much bread as I can. Unfortunately, my feet don’t move fast enough and I overbalance. I wince as I realise the ground is rushing towards me.
The nice lady must have been watching as she arrives fast enough to break my fall. She yanks me up, first by the wrist and then with a strong arm around my waist.
We both sit back down on the rough bench, puffing. My side hurts, but at least I didn’t fall down completely. That would get my skirt dirty and Daddy says demons chase dirty girls.
‘Oh Ruby, you poor thing. I shouldn’t have left you, I just thought you could stay still for a few minutes. I’m so sorry,’ she says. ‘I’m such a bad–‘ before she can finish her sentence, one greedy gull sneaks back to scavenge what is left of the crumbs.
I say nothing.
Lady says nothing.
Then I screw up my face and caw loudly like the gull. Her seriousness lifts and she hugs me while we both laugh. I bury my face in her soft sweet curls. She whispers something strange in my ear. It sounds like, ‘I miss you Mum.’
Back in the car, I flick some sandy dirt off my knee and watch it slide down to my shoes. The shoes make me sad because they’re pretty boring. I like pink ballet flats– why am I in daggy brown lace ups? How’d that happen? Weird.
Although the lady’s started the engine, we’re not going anywhere, yet. I wonder why before I remember I need to do something to make the car go. What is it? What am I supposed to do? I try the window. Nothing happens except for the lady sighing a bit too loudly. She’s getting cross. I think again. Seatbelt, that’s it! I try three times to get the clasp working but my hands are stiff, maybe too much playing with the birds.
The lady is tapping her fingers on the steering wheel while she stares at me in the mirror. I sit up proudly when at last I hear the satisfying click. I’ve done my belt up just the way Daddy taught me. He would be so impressed that I didn’t need any help at all and I can’t wait to tell him. With a soft groan the lady pulls the car out from the curb and we’re driving at last.
After a while, I brush some hair off my face and automatically my hand wanders to my nose. Sand there too. I notice the lady looking at me in the rear vision mirror, again.
‘What are we going to do with you?’ she says with scrunched up eyes. I can’t tell if she’s angry or tired, but I know I’m embarrassed; she caught me picking my nose.
I try to sit up straighter, Daddy always says the angels don’t pay slackers, but there’s a sharp feeling in my back. I must have cricked it at the beach. I try to give it a rub and am surprised when I can’t reach my hand up far enough to hit the spot. I try to wriggle into a more comfortable position, and now my hip is making a crunchy noise. It starts to sting as well– how’d that happen?
‘For heaven’s sake, Ruby, can’t you stop squirming around,’ the lady growls. She’s being a bit of a meany, so I turn my head away.
Nothing fun out the window. I look down and pretend I’m interested in the silver controls set into the cracked leather arm rest. There’s a button, a handle, and a strange lever the size of my thumb nail. The lever looks like it needs to be pulled. I yank it up and it clicks. Nice. Down, up, click. Down, up, click. Down, up, click. Down, up, click. Down, up, click…
‘Really Ruby?’ A grumpy voice breaks my focus and I look up to see strange eyes glaring at me in the mirror. I’m not sure who they belong to, yet they look familiar. A lady probably. Whoever it is, she’s got lovely curly hair.
‘Who are you?’ I ask.
‘It’s me Rosey, your daughter remember? We’ve been together all day,’ the lady says, wearily.
She has a lovely voice, musical maybe. I feel like I should know that voice. What did she say her name was? Rosey, I think she had said.
Rosey? Yes, I remember her now. We live together. She likes to call me Mum which always sounds so funny. As if I’m a mum– a really silly idea. We have a lot of fun together me and Rosey. I wonder if we’re going somewhere fun today.
I look around. Gee, it’s a nice car, pretty fancy. The custom leather button detailing is lovely; fern green always was his favourite colour. The colour of hope he used to say. Who used to say that? I can hear his voice now, even feel the scruffy end of day stubble as he nuzzles my cheek but the face isn’t quite within reach.
Suddenly there’s a punchy ache in my chest which releases warm thoughts that whisper up from my heart. I remember him.
It was a handsome man called Murray who bought this car years ago. We were married in sixty three, bought the car in sixty four. He had soft hands and a tender touch. Murray used to call me Angel, he made me feel like a princess.
We had a cheeky boy called Roy and we all lived together in a yellow Californian bungalow on Walpole Street. We– I remember me too.
I wasn’t bad looking either, or at least that’s what the girls used to say; Cheryl, Maggy and June. Couldn’t wish for better neighbours; we were all so happy back then. Saturdays were my favourite. Footy for the boys on the telly, girls having a smoke on the back porch, beers all round. The kids would swing off the washing line or play cricket.
That time Murray dressed up as a pirate with patches on both eyes for Roy’s fifth birthday party, was hilarious. I’ve never laughed so much. Ole Captain Noeyes he called himself. It was late, I think, and crazy hot so we had both drunk way too much. All of a sudden he was doing a blind sailors jig, I almost wet myself from laughing, then he tripped over the dog and nearly fell off the balcony.
The dog? Oh, I remember crying when he told me the dog, called Charlie maybe, had to be put down. He had something terribly wrong. What was it? A twisted colon. Poor old fellow. A few bad times I guess, amongst the beautiful family times. Great times, mostly.
I have a strong feeling there was a little girl called Rosey at that house too. Oh, she was a gorgeous kid. Head full of curls, face full of smiles, heart full of kindness and a voice like heaven.
Another twang of pain hits me releasing a fierce question. Could this Rosey know that Rosey? Reality blazes through. My baby girl is all grown up, mothering her mother. It was never supposed to be like this. The heartache of now is blinding.
My hand rises to my throat to stifle my panic. The touch of my wrinkled skin is shocking, like stroking an old worn nail file. Only then do I realise I’ve been holding my breath while I reminisce, that’s probably why the chest is giving me grief. I puff it out three times like Dr Wallace taught me and the pain goes away, blowing most of the memory out of reach, except for Murray. What ever happened to Murray?
The slight bump of old train lines under the wheels of the car jolts my mind and I look out. I think we might be heading down old Footscray Road.
‘We’re going to see the flower market soon. I know a man who works there. He gives me roses. He is really nice. Do you know the nice man with the roses? Do you think we could see him today?’ I say, all at once.
‘That was Dad. You remember Dad, his name was Murray and he worked at the flower market back in the seventies.’ She is sounding teary, probably because it’s hard work driving such a big car. Daddy always says ladies shouldn’t drive big cars.
‘Who’s Murray?’ I ask.
‘The man at the flower market, we just talked about it!’ she says in a raised voice. She sounds like she could use a rest. A flower market sounds restful.
‘Well can we go to the flower market? It would give you a break from driving.’ I suggest, hopefully.
‘No, no flower market today, maybe tomorrow. Let’s get you home.’
She lights a cigarette as she winds down the window. When she exhales, a steady stream of white smoke drifts out, wanders past my window and dawdles down the road. I turn to watch it disappear and wonder where it’s going. What has the nice lady driver been doing down that road to make her so sad? I want to ask her about it, but I remember Daddy told me not to speak to strangers, so I sit quietly.
The phone rings and the lady answers it with one hand, the other hand grips the wheel more tightly. It’s very clever the way she does that.
‘I can’t talk about it any more Jarrod, do whatever you want. It won’t make any difference to her now anyway,’ she says quietly and tosses the phone onto the seat beside her. She runs her hand through her hair and her shoulders shake a little. I think she might be crying. Maybe. She’s certainly dabbing the side of her face with a tissue.
I wish I knew her name because the nice lady might need a friend. If I could talk to her I would suggest we take a ride down to Williamstown. It’s such a lovely day for a ride. If she went to Williamstown beach that would cheer her up. I know it would. Everyone likes the beach. We could feed the black swans.
Daddy says nice girls don’t talk to strangers though. I’ll ask her later, when we’re not strangers anymore.