T/W - Mild references to abusive relationship & sexual harrassment
Nat heard a loud, meaty engine pulling up out the front of the unit. Her arms dropped the work folder and clutched across her chest, her trembling hands sweating through the polo top. They’ll be coming through the gate any moment now. She took backward steps through the dusty backyard, stumbling into the Hills Hoist. Bracing against it, her eyes darted around the yard enclosed by brushwood fencing.
Could I jump the fence? Yes. No. Heels. Can hardly walk in them, let alone climb over.
A yell from out front. ‘Are you there?’
Nat felt clouds and overhanging eucalypts toppling her way. Air was escaping her. She could not force enough back in. She squeezed her eyes shut and images thumped into her mind. Strong arms grabbing, choking. Screaming biting crying.
‘C’mon Nat,’ she gasped, ‘breathe damn it breathe. Breathe. Slow. Nice and slow.’
‘Hello?’ Someone was shaking the latch on the front gate.
Her vision went black. Oh god, get it together. She smeared her brow and wiped clammy hands on her skirt. You can do this.
How could I do better next time? How could I have done any worse?
Nat planted her right foot on the side of a fading brown couch and leant forward, stretching out the tightness in her hamstring. She smoothed both hands down her threadbare pyjama pants and pictured herself on a bus-stop poster. The Lorna Jane Povvo Range. Unflatter Yourself.
She swapped over legs, sensing more stiffness in her left calf. What a day. The person at the gate had turned out to be a nice man the wrong side of forty, looking for a place for his elderly Mum to downsize to. No threat. But also no signature. Another ten-hour day with little to show for it.
I need to get better at selling houses. A stinging in her eyes. I need to actually sell one.
Nat walked two steps to the sink and filled up a glass of water. Her chest collapsed like a sunken pavlova as she took in the room. How would I sell this place to a client? One person was a crowd in this narrow space.
She took a sip as she returned to the couch and turned on the A4-sized TV. The peanut-butter brown wall behind it displayed one photo, her Uni graduation day last year, with Mum beaming alongside her.
Feature wall. With the feature being the bad paint job.
She rubbed her feet on the patchy orange carpet. Retro flooring. She breathed in deeply. At least the three dollar lavender-and-lime candle was masking the smoke from the previous tenant.
She stepped back to the kitchen and put her dinner in the microwave. Chipped tiling, rusting taps, cupboard doors hanging off their top hinges. All original detailing. She plastered on a smile and gestured at the barred-up window above the sink. Location location location. Some greying sky peeked over the neighbour’s solar panels.
The microwave pinged. She took a bite of the cooked broccoli and spat it out into the sink. Way too hot. The borrowed microwave seemed to nuke food. She tried to cool her tongue with saliva as she clenched and unclenched her fists. Another meal of veggies and rice lathered in tomato sauce was dulling the appeal of working on commission.
She placed the bowl next to her Samsung 3 on the couch arm and logged into Gordy’s Netflix account. Her appetite went into hiding as she paused on the blurb of a love story. Woman adored by prince. She shook her head. When will they make a realistic one? Prince Alarming, the man who sees beauty and violates it.
The mobile buzzed. Her hand flung to grab it, knocked the bowl onto the floor and shattered it. The tomato sauce looked like blood stains, the broccoli sprawled out like a wounded soldier.
She looked back at her phone and her body shuddered like a washing machine on spin cycle. I’ve changed. I luv u. PLS come back. The nightly text from Paul.
Nat’s gut ran in circles. Her forehead felt like nails were driven into it. That prick. Such lies. A jolt through her ribs, a tingling in her calves as she pushed both feet into the carpet. I miss having someone else in the house.
Her eyes jumped between the words and the mess on the floor. I can fix this mess. She started to sweep up a wasted dinner into her shaking hands.
She checked the cupboard to the right of the sink after scrubbing the carpet. Down to one bowl. She planned on sneaking one out of the break room at work tomorrow in her handbag. She already had two of their mugs.
The RSPCA dog calendar on the inside of the cupboard door had Rent circled in thick red. Due in two days’ time. She felt as though someone with a vice-like grip was pushing down on her shoulders.
Nat checked the deadbolt on the front door, turned off the TV and went to her bedroom. Unzipping the suitcase, she found her last pair of clean underwear. Her body deflated like a balloon onto the second-hand mattress on the floor. Tears fell.
‘I need something to go right.’
Nat jumped on the brakes of the little white Daihatsu that work had provided. The usual red light fifty metres from the office. She straightened up her First Choice Homes uniform while cursing the delay, tucking the white long-sleeved shirt into the dark skirt that sat well above her knees. She buttoned the shirt up to the top, then undid two. She tilted the mirror down. What looks professional? The teenager in school uniform in the car next to her lifted
his eyebrows and smiled creepily. Nat returned serve with a scowl. Buttons done back up.
The light turned green and she darted into the carpark, stumbling through the sliding doors short of breath and one minute before 9am.
Gordy was waiting for her inside the wood-panelled entranceway with lemon meringue doughnuts. ’You’re a life saver, Gordy,’ she said between bites, the zest washing away the bite of cheap toothpaste.
‘The breakfast of real estate champions,’ Gordy chirped back. ‘Nat, today is your day. I can feel it.’
Gordy was her cheer squad, with charcoal slicked-back hair in place of pigtails and pompoms. Two years older than her, they had become friends at school, listening to K-Pop and experimenting with popcorn flavours. Salted caramel was the best. Chorizo and paprika had been disastrous. The friendship strengthened over years of bingeing TV comedies and studying together through Uni. And a month ago, he had absorbed verbal abuse and a face full of spit from her ex as she ran to his Corolla and locked the doors.
Gordy’s warm hand on her arm snapped her attention back. ‘Nat, this is going to be your day.’
‘Gosh, I hope so. I need a sale quickly.’ They walked past the neat rows of desks and partitions of the other eight salespeople. If she didn’t sell one soon, it would be goodbye rent money and the pull of Paul’s texts would grow stronger.
‘Addison Avenue. The two-bedroom house. It’s down to three interested buyers. I gave the first person your name instead of Darrell’s and you’re meeting him at 10am.’
‘Gordy! We’re not meant to do that!’ As the longest serving salesperson, Darrell demanded first dibs on new property listings. Nat pictured his long limbs as tentacles, sliming his way into everyone’s business. Her body shivered.
She lowered her voice to avoid further stares. ‘You could get in so much trouble....far out...’
‘And what? Oh, thank you. Gosh yes! Thank you!’ The stares returned, accompanied by recently-caffeinated shakes of the head.
‘You’re welcome,’ he said as they hugged. ‘But for that, you can buy brekkie tomorrow.’
Nat quick-stepped to her desk in the back corner, electricity in her limbs. She grabbed what was needed for an open house and brushed the sugar from around her mouth. Taking a deep breath of filtered air, she headed back to the front door. Gordy gave a thumbs up as he answered a call on his headset.
‘Thank you,’ she mouthed back.
Nat felt like she owed him in so many ways. But being able to buy him breakfast – just another one of Gordy’s pipe dreams.
Nat hopped into her car as businesses lining the street eased into the morning. Parents eager for coffee after dropping off their kids, people grabbing copies of the local paper. She punched the address for the property listing into the GPS as her phone rang. Please don’t be the client cancelling. She rifled through her bag to see who it was.
Her arms burned up, hands wanting to crush the phone. ‘Stay in control. Be firm,’ she said aloud before answering the call.
‘Hi Paul. I’m in a rush. What is it?’
A cockiness in his voice. ‘You look good today, Nat.’
Her breakfast lurched into her mouth. Her eyes flashed left and then right. Green ute down the road. Paul’s tanned arm out the window flicking her a wave.
‘How did you...what...what are you doing...?’ She wanted to shrink into the seat.
She wanted to reverse the car into his. Why am I not recording this conversation?
‘Looks like you’ve found a job. Good for you.’ A smug laugh. ‘I’ll see you soon, babe.’ The ute’s engine thundered as he pulled away into a gap in traffic.
9.57am and the Federation-style house was well-lit, open with a gentle breeze airing out some of the freshly-painted smell. Nat fluffed the green cushions, put the happier photos of the middle-aged owners on the mantelpiece and moved a few potted violets inside, all while alert for any green utes driving along this affluent suburban street. None seen. She’d contemplated cranking some Jay-Z to use up the adrenaline but needed a gentler band for ambience. Coldplay.
She looked around. I’d happily live here.
A dark blue car pulled up and a tall man, possibly in his late twenties, hopped out. Jacket, stubble and short brown hair, much lighter than hers. He seemed to skip towards Nat.
‘Hi, I’m Nat. From First Choice Homes. A pleasure to meet you,’ she said, arms stiff by her side.
‘Sean,’ he replied and offered a strong handshake.
Crap, thought Nat, as she felt her face burn up, I forgot to initiate that. ‘Would you
like me to show you again through your potential new home?’
‘Potential, yes. Still deciding. But yeah, that would be good.’
A cedarwood note tickled her nose. ’Okay, please come in, make yourself at home.’
‘Ladies first.’ A warm rush. Quickly followed by a tightening of chest and a stumbled step.
Deep breath. Clutched the work keys. Fixed the smile back on. Nat walked quickly into the lounge room and turned around. Sean was looking around at the light fittings and not her.
A dropping sensation in her stomach.
Sean asked a litany of questions about the place as they walked through each room. The manual that Nat had practically memorised labelled one to four questions as polite inquiry, more than ten as someone close to signing paperwork. He was on to his fifteenth.
Stay focused. She’d been at this point five times over the past few weeks. She was close but no ink had been spilt.
She reiterated all of the main features and led him through to the backyard. The breeze grew stronger, stirring the wattle in the air. Sean did a slow 360 spin on the manicured lawn. Nat liked what she saw. Hoped he did too.
‘So what do you reckon, Sean?’
‘I’m gonna need to think about it.’
‘What’s the hesitation?’ I can’t keep eating nuked broccoli.
‘I don’t like to rush a big decision.’
She knew what that was like. Seven times before giving Paul the flick for good. She hoped it was for good.
‘True.’ She stood taller. ‘But there are two other people looking at the property later today, and they specifically said they love to rush big decisions. You might not have long to decide.’
Sean chuckled, his shoulders relaxed. ‘Really? They said that? It’s amazing what people reveal to real estate agents.’
‘I know.’ Her mind and stomach settled. ’You’re not rushing the decision though. It’s your third time looking at the place. I think you can see yourself living here.’
‘Yeah...maybe.’ He bit his lower lip. ‘How much would I kick myself if I delayed?’ He’s looking for someone to back him up on his decision. Darrell, in one of his less mucky moments, told Nat that with a single buyer, the agent had to apply the nudge.
‘You’d be bruised all over from the kicking.’ She knew from experience.
He laughed again. Good sign. ‘I don’t usually do this...aagh...I don’t like pressure decisions.’
‘What’s your gut telling you?’ Hers was screaming. Hurry up and sign the damn thing.
‘To go to the toilet.’ Her turn to laugh.
‘Sign this form and the toilet’s yours to use.’
‘Most people tell you to follow your head or your heart. You seem to be telling me to follow my bladder.’
‘Or bowel. No judgments.’
He stepped closer to Nat. She resisted the urge to knee him.
Sean breathed out loudly. ‘Would I need to sign something today?’
She fought, and lost, the impulse to smile.
‘Sign? Yes, great, yes, I have the paperwork in the car. Great. I’ll get it now.’ She ran two steps towards the car then swung around. ‘Sorry. Woops.’ She threw her hands out. ‘Any other questions or things you’d like to know?’
‘Yeah.’ His eyes dropped to the turf. ‘You wouldn’t happen to have any toilet paper in your car, would you? Gonna need to test out my new toilet.’
‘Natalie darling, how are ya? Big day I hear.’
Nat’s skin sprinted for the hills. She swivelled her chair around slowly. ‘Hi, Darrell.’
He was sitting on a nearby desk to hers, his tie loosened, smirking but eyes frosty.
‘Addison Avenue. Got a nibble, yeah.’
‘More than a nibble, Darrell. Got my first sale.’ He’s angling for something. Don’t bite.
‘Well it’s not a sale until all the paperwork’s in.’ He stared at her thighs. ‘And I’m happy to help you with that, workmate to workmate.’
‘Actually, it’s all done. Boss signed off on it.’ Her temples stabbed with pain.
He stood up, his smile gone. ‘You know that was my listing, yeah?’
She shuffled her chair backwards until it hit her desk. The air sucked out of the room.
She looked past him for support. All heads were buried in end-of-shift tasks. She grabbed her
handbag and placed it in her lap.
He leant over her, breath reeking of tuna. ‘You stole my commission.’
Nat shuffled the chair to her left. ‘I did not. That house was up for grabs.’
‘Up for grabs?’ His face erupted, one of his tentacles pointed at her chest. ‘The only thing up for grabs is you, you dirty slut. I bet that’s how you got the sale, isn’t it? Who needs a brain when you’ve got these to show off?’
She stood up to get away. He blocked her path. ‘Darrell, I’m asking you to move.’ Nat slipped her hand into the handbag.
‘And I’m telling you to back off my properties. Are we clear on that?’
Nat swiped open the voice-recording app. ‘No Darrell. I’m not clear on that. Why don’t you explain it as clearly as you possibly can for me?’
Refresh. Refresh. C’mon.
She sat in her car, as roller shutters closed and the street emptied out. Gordy was standing outside the sliding doors, pretending to check for rain, in case Darrell kicked off again. Darrell slunk off in his car, his glare frostier than the chill of the approaching evening. Gordy nodded to her and went inside.
Nat looked back at her phone. Rent due COB tomorrow. She swiped past the message. Refresh. Refresh. Nat wanted to see numbers appear in her newly set up bank app.
Her fingers were more fidgety than usual. She was so used to her heart beating briskly and muscles rigid. She tried to remember the last time in her life she felt calm. Never in a crowded place. Not at that work-mandated social event, the all-day spa that was supposed to melt all her troubles away but only melted away her bank balance.
Certainly wasn’t at the police station last year when she first reported Paul’s violence. It had taken months of stocked-up courage to go in there, only to be asked, ‘Did you do something to upset him?’ She’d wanted to do something to upset that officer’s face.
She gripped the steering wheel, hands colder than an iced latte. She felt like she could
crush metal. She ground her teeth.
She looked down. Still nothing on the phone. When do I feel calm? When I swim? Trying to sleep? When I’m with Gordy? Warmth flowed into her arms. Her wall of protection wasn’t nearly as high when she was near him. A man with whom she could share some popcorn and peace.
Nat’s heart exploded back as numbers appeared on her phone. A beautiful, four digit number. In her account. In the positives. She sat up and squealed loud enough to rattle the windows. It was okay – she could pay to replace them now if they did shatter. She tapped at the numbers again. They were real.
Her thoughts bloomed. She wanted to buy underwear and a plant that wasn’t dead and book a holiday and pay her rent and buy a fancy bottle of wine – did it really taste better than a $5 bottle? She could find out. She could buy things. She could save it all. She punched the steering wheel with the delight of having options. She opened up Spotify and scrolled to Jay-Z.
The sun winked goodnight through her window at home as Nat basked in the warmth of paid rent, lamb korma and a $19 bottle of wine. Her shoulders loosened, tongue tingled. She put down the smoky smelling wine and grabbed her phone, scrolling to Paul’s number. This number made her throat close up, legs give way and her stomach lose whatever it had in it. A number that had ruined fun nights out. A number she was told to answer - or else.
She stared at the 0s, 4s, the 7 and the 2. Swap a few of the digits around and it was probably some sweet old lady on the other end, happy to give you her recipe for caramel slice just for taking the time to say hello. But in this sequence, the numbers were hell.
Her eyes blurred. She felt those hands lifting off and gripping back onto her body.
Do it. You’ve wanted to do this for so long.
It won’t stop anything.
It’s an important step.
What if it’s the wrong move?
What if it’s the right move?
Why should I be the one who has to do this? He’s at fault.
He won’t give up that easily.
Neither will I.
Clicking edit, she deleted his name and typed, DON’T ANSWER THIS PRICK. Saved.
Her breathing steadied after another glass of wine. Time to text Gordy.
She wanted to thank him for setting up the sale. She wanted to say how much she appreciated his friendship, to say they were taking on the world on their own terms. She typed and deleted several versions before settling on what she had wanted to say for a long time.
tmrw morning — brekkie is on me.
Dave Clark is a writer-poet with CFS who lives and breathes in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). He works as a counsellor and enjoys reading, photography and giving voice to quieter stories.
His works have been published in Mascara, Verdant, Adelaide Lit, Quillopia, Slippage Lit, Melbourne Culture Corner and Right Now.