The man in the faded shirt is waiting for the bus. He’s been standing on the corner for ten minutes before he notices a young redhead, perhaps in her thirties, perhaps slightly older, with moles like choc-chips scattered on her broad face.
“What bus are ya waiting for, love?” he asks.
“The one to Surry Hills.” Norma’s praying they’re not waiting for the same one.
“Ah, that’ll be the bus I’m waitin for – the 355,” the man nods happily.
“How long have you been waiting?”
“’Bout 15 minutes. 355’s pretty reliable, should be along soon…You know, Bondi has changed a helluva lot. I lived here, oh, what, 30 years ago. The tallest building then was the Grace Brothers, and that was three stories! Imagine that!”
“And now it’s a great big Westfield.” Why am I encouraging him? Norma wonders. Her therapist, Jess, had just talked to her about assertive behaviour, about listening to her own needs, not trying to please others. Community Health was a godsend.
Where was the bus? Norma considers hopping on whichever one arrives first. And then what? Walk the rest of the way? Catch the bus back? Why was she still listening to this man? What did he say his name was, again?
“…Mic Mac, little fluff ball, loves to crawl in between my shirt and chest and fall asleep, right there! Called him Mic Mac ‘cos that’s the sound – ‘Mic Mac, Mic Mac’ – he made when he was a baby…”
Of course, he has a ferret, Norma thinks. One of her co-workers has pet ferrets, she remembers, and one of them got sick. Poor thing had to go the vet, was shaved and hooked up to a tiny drip. She shouldn’t laugh but, fuck, it was a funny image.
“…spent $400 on a toilet brush! Can you believe it? Something special about your shit, love, I asked her…”
What’s he talking about? Norma notices the white hair sprouting from the neck of his shirt, the twinkle of the grey-blue eyes, the nasty bruise on the collarbone.
She still needs to pick up groceries for tonight. Why did she agree to cook for the three of them?
“…And so, we’re sellin’ the place in Newtown, after 30 years. My wife and I are separated, you see. Says I’m selfish, so does my daughter…But you know, what? I’ve never been happier. Mic Mac and me are moving down the coast to Mystery Bay.”
“Oh, how nice. That sounds tranquil, Mystery Bay.”
“You think so? My friends joke it sounds like a settin’ for a Stephen King novel.”
“Ah yes…” Norma forces a laugh. She hasn’t read Stephen King. The wind picks up, and she tugs at her velvet coat.
“You should come down to Mystery Bay sometime.” He hands her a real estate brochure, “here, take this.”
By the time Norma jumps off the bus, she’s tired and irritable. No wonder the wife left the selfish bore, she thinks. Did he really ask her to come down to Mystery Bay?
The light on Cleveland is taking forever to change. Norma stamps her feet to keep warm. It’s only six but already dark and the wind whips around the block. She has to stop at the Murder Mall, the redbrick on the corner with flashing neon script and more public liability cases than anywhere else in the state. Trips and falls. Muggings. A shooting, once.
A man and woman are arguing about Powerball at the intersection.
“It’s only 50 bucks, Mark.”
“You gotta stop buying them lottery tickets. There’s nothing in that.”
“Got any better ideas?”
“Get a job –”
“What like you? Yeah, we’ll be rolling in it then,” the woman laughs. “Two losers dropping brochures in letterboxes? That’s a good one.”
Norma herself buys lottery tickets every payday with her co-workers. They go splitsies and sign their names on the back. So what if the odds are bad? Someone has to win, right? None of them would turn up to work on Monday, that’s for sure. She’d never cook again or catch the crowded bus in the mornings. There'd always be enough hot water. She'd live in a house without drafts or leaks.
In and Out. It’s a game for grown-ups on a budget. How quickly can she find what she needs and scat? Lemon. Parsley. Pears. Rice. Stock. Parmesan. Walnuts. And victory! Slinging the groceries over her shoulder, Norma walks the five minutes to her flat. The concrete tower, all jutting balconies and grimy windows, leans forward in greeting. Where are her keys?
“Norma! Haven’t seen you in yonks.”
“Hi Greg, how’re you?” Please stop talking, stop talking, Norma.
“Yeah good, good. Trivia at the Shakey tonight, wanna come?”
“No, thanks though. My daughter’s coming over.”
“Soph’s a darling. Well have a good night then, Norms.” Greg turns the key in the lock and vanishes down the stairs.
How she hates being called Norms. Normal. Normality. Normative. Makes her sound like everyone else.
Still, Greg’s alright, Norma thinks. He has a Plan. Though it involves buying a six-pack in the morning and tapping away at the computer, at least it’s a Plan for Better Days. She imagines him playing Solitaire until Happy Hour.
Hanging her coat up, Norma glances in the hallway mirror. Blue mascara smudges, puffy eyes. Good one. She twists her hair into a bun and dabs at the smudges with a grubby finger.
Where’s the coffee? She puts the kettle on and measures out two heaped teaspoons of Nescafe. Closes the blinds, whacks the radio into life. In this place, she thinks, you can’t find a mug or a bowl when you need it, but there’s Wayne’s yoyo on the bench, a pack of dog bikkies, nail clippers. Nail clippers, in the kitchen?
“Wayne, you disgusting slob!” she shouts to the empty room.
With shaking hands, she pours the hot water onto the coffee grits and clinks her spoon around. Argh, fucking weevils! Fuck it, Norma pours the gunk down the sink. Better a glass of wine, anyway. Her heart’s thumping, her toes tingling. The onions are making her cry. Come on, Norma, deep breaths, like Jess taught you.
Jess had copper hair too but was beautiful in a way that made Norma shy. It was flattering to have someone examine you like an exotic bird, turning you this way and that, asking you carefully formulated questions, even ruffling your feathers sometimes, in the hopes of better understanding you. Sometimes Norma forgot that she paid Jess, that they were not friends.
The chicken stock al a Jamie Oliver is doing nicely. And was there a more comforting smell than onions in butter? Norma grates the Parmesan and chops the parsley, the sound of the knife thump thumping on the wooden block immensely satisfying. The wine seems to be doing the trick. Nina Simone’s on the radio, her voice like furniture polish and brandy.
Norma hadn’t seen Soph in weeks. When was the last time? Coffee in Darlinghurst after her shift? Her daughter had looked like a parsnip, tall and pale, with a beanie on her curly head. Soph had spent the afternoon doing the laundry, washing the bloodstains out of the cheap, cotton sheets at the hospital. Surgeries, stillbirths, severed limbs. Soph had terrible dreams.
“How are you, mum?” she’d asked when their coffees arrived.
“Good, Soph. And you?”
“I’m okay, just a little tired.”
Norma knew her daughter was unhappy and broke and she tried to help where she could, slipping her fifty bucks here and there, leaving groceries on her doorstep. She suspected that Soph had the same impulse she did: to disappear from the world entirely, to dissolve like mist. Nothing left, not a trace. There wasn’t a cure for that.
In goes the last ladle of stock. Risotto’s almost done. Norma slices the pears and carefully dresses the salad as if a child for school. She arranges her favourite bowl with the smiling goldfish in the centre. Lights the candles, dims the light. Fans out the serviettes.
Where are the wine goblets? The ruby-coloured glasses they got for their wedding? Her and Will used to bring them out all the time in the evenings. Life’s too short, Will’d say (not just about the glasses, but most things. The phrase normally preceded a big spend). Only six glasses out of the dozen remained, the others smashed or lost.
They had Sophie as teenagers and tried to make it work. What a tired phrase: Tried to make it work. Of course, people go into relationships with a sense of optimism, thinking this, here, will turn out all right and, certainly, for the better. Otherwise, why do it? Norma wasn’t optimistic by nature. The last straw was when Will spent their savings on the greyhounds.
“I’ll win it back.”
“Come off it, Will. You’ve fucked it.”
“I’m sorry, all right? Give me a chance to make it up.”
“What, like last time?”
Norma invited him tonight at Soph’s urging. Anything for her daughter.
She hears the rat-tat-tat at the door. Right on time.
Norma sighs, turns the stove off and wipes her hands on her apron. The circus begins.
As she’s walking down the hall, she eyes the real estate brochure on the sideboard. Mystery Bay might not be such a bad idea after all. Maybe the ferret man had it right. She'd rent a cottage with a wide veranda and steps leading down to the water. No visitors, no interruptions. She’d have a fire and stew rhubarb in winter. Maybe even read Stephen King. On the rare occasions she’d go into town, Norma would know everyone by name – Marge who runs the grocer, Tony who delivers the mail. Actually, Norma hated small talk so that probably wouldn’t suit her. Besides, she’d never been out of the city. No, that wasn’t it. Could she really leave her daughter? Her husband?
Deep breath, Norma, open the door.
Tanya Vavilova works with university students from all walks of life as a case manager and program coordinator. She is currently studying creative writing at the University of Technology Sydney. Her bedside table is forever stacked with true crime, memoir and novels about middle-class loners. She has been published in Seizure Online, Archer and Nerve.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org