A five-minute read about destitution and obligation.
The Things We Take
YouÕre awake before you open your eyes. You feel the warmth of daylight and see the bright stain of colour on the back of your eyelids. You lie still in that dreamy, private place and imagine youÕre somewhere else. Anywhere else.
You hear two other sets of lungs snoring in harmony. One in each ear; one warm body on either side of you. You smile at the thought of that little face and that big face, and you remember why you get up every day. You remember why you do such terrible things.
You open your eyes and stare up at the ceiling of the abandoned country train station. ItÕs far, far away and you can see the white cockatoos squat on brick ledges like dollops of cream on the rim of a cake.
You stand and move over the cold, hard concrete floor. You look back to your family and see your partnerÕs thin and frowning lips. You gaze at your childÕs face, round with balls of fat clinging to the corners of her mouth. Someone has spray-painted a huge, obscene word on the wall above your mattress and you know youÕll have to move again before you teach your daughter to read.
You squint as you step from the shadows to the sun. The world is lovely out here, and the magpies warble their morning melody as you move through the paddock. The long grass is still damp and droplets of water soak the bottom of your jeans as you approach the curve in the train tracks. The trains slow here, and you can step up in between the carriages. You can press your body to the rigid metal ladder, and it will only take thirty-five minutes to ride into the city.
Here it comes. The unforgiving wheels rattle over the earth. You start to run. YouÕve done this many, many times but youÕre still afraid of the machine. With just one slip or trip or stumble youÕll be beneath the heavy metal containers. Your fists clench around the ladderÕs rungs. Your feet are clear of the ground. YouÕre safe. When the train slows again, you sprint with long, desperate strides from any workers and keep on going until youÕre moving casually over the metropolitan footpath.
YouÕre at your favourite place.
Sometimes you enter this alley from the west, where the road thins and the dull, matte pavement turns to red bricks. Sometimes you enter from the east, where you have to swerve between hanging plants that sit in wire beds and dangle from dainty chains. This place is so peaceful, so lovely that even the metal here is more like jewellery than hardware.
ItÕs just an alley. ItÕs just a boundary between houses and a path from one crowded street to another, but someone has brought creativity to the blank canvas of these walls. Someone has draped fairy lights and laid soil and planted small purple flowers. Someone you will never meet has painted garden gnomes and hung ceramic faces where once there was only rotting timber and cracked concrete. A strangerÕs anonymous gesture makes you smile, every day, when it can be so hard to even breathe.
You sit on the little wooden bench and wait. The alley isnÕt very wide, so you know anyone who passes must approach you and then stroll away with their back turned. They never see you following, not until itÕs too late.
Here comes a group of children.
There are four of them: all boys, early teens. They push and jeer each other. Their haircuts are identical eruptions of scruffy thin strands. All wearing jeans, sneakers and plain-coloured shirts. They go silent as they file past you and look at the ground. As they leave you behind, one of them whispers something, and they all laugh as they turn onto the next street and vanish.
A woman with a pram is clack, clack, clacking her way in your direction as the wheels skip over the imperfections of the footpath. SheÕs looking down into the folds of the blanket she pushes ahead of her and speaking softly to the little joy within. She smells like sunscreen lotion and coconut.
ÒGood morning.Ó She meets your gaze and gives you a huge, comforting smile as she moves past.
ÒHi, have a great day,Ó you reply. You wave to the curious set of eyes that watch you from the cotton womb of the pram. You wish the mother would stay and chat, but sheÕs gone and a middle-aged man approaches.
His leather shoes make soft tapping sounds on the ground and his dark suit jacket swish swashes as it rubs against him in the heat. In one hand he clutches a few plastic shopping bags, in the other he presses a phone to his ear.
ÒI donÕt give a DAMN!Ó he yells into the device.
ÒGood morning,Ó you chirp up to him, and he swears at you without even bothering to look down.
ÒNo, I said no, and thatÕs final,Ó he growls at the person on the other end of the line.
You stand and move behind him. He doesnÕt see you following, and he doesnÕt see you pick up the little garden gnome. HeÕs facing away as you swing the ceramic artefact at the base of his head. The phone heÕs holding to his ear is smashed.
YouÕre bent over, fingers in his smooth, delicate pockets. You take his wallet and his keys, and you unbuckle his fancy belt and untie his shoes. You take them too. You stand, look over your shoulder and get ready to run. Then you pause a second. You tip the contents of his shopping bags out beside your favourite garden. Within the clutter of useless debris that scatters over the floor, thereÕs a little pink doll. ItÕs a young girlÕs new toy. You take that too.
One of the most difficult things about writing in the second person is avoiding gender. There is nothing to suggest ÒyouÓ are male or female and I hope that people assign this personality trait in a way that engages them with the narrative. So, did you read it as a man or a woman? And have you read it in your own gender, or found something in the text that has suggested femininity vs. masculinity?
IÕm a man and I interpret this story as having a female protagonist; I donÕt know why. Perhaps the combination of love and duty is more closely related to the fairer sex. Sorry gents.