Fiction: Animals and Other Street Creatures

Karen Lethlean
Anna always slept longer, so Rose developed the habit of bringing her tea in an insulated cup, to drink hot no matter what time she got out of bed. This sleeping-in gave Rose time to admire Anna’s legs half out of covers, and wonder over a tapered bump of her lover’s ankle. As limbs reflected in a mirror Anna applied just enough mascara, and selected an eye shadow tone complementary to a new scarf.

Memories of sifting through Dressed for Success used clothing rack to find an interview outfit and getting her make up done at beautician training college, formed a blur Rose needed to blink away. Time spent throwing up in a train station toilet on her way to a job interview not territory eager for re-exploration. So, Rose grasped onto images of her now boss, in too-loose suit, telling her she this job, ‘it’s yours…and can you start, say day after tomorrow?’ Three years ago, still gave her a buzz.

Despite getting the impression this boss, strung over his executive chair was somehow threatening her. Or at least challenging her, would she make a good employee, or would she begin to slack off immediately he’d given her a chance to start full time employment. Rosie met his gaze, and said, ‘I’d be happy to make a start sooner rather than later, will someone be here to show me around, because I assume you will be too busy.’

‘Sure, I will get my personal assistant to help you find your place. Be great to assess your skills further, Rosie.’

Workday commutes involved being shoved into too small a space on an express train. Rose imagined holding Anna’s hand near a dribbling waterfall tumbling over dappled rock ledges. Or footfalls of her boots as they walked a worn National Park trail. Many moments spent enjoying trekking with Anna. Mostly due to the proximity of all sorts of trails right close. Don’t the Japanese have a word, taking in forest atmosphere, that’s right Shinrin-yoku. Made most of the weekends bearable. Not that Rosie had a problem with Anna’s company, but feet on dusty trails was a highlight of any time away from her office.

Then there was the time they got lost. Grand Plan: Down to Pipeline track, off onto Bullawarring, out near Kingfisher pools, to Waterfall train station, meet up with my partner for lunch.

As we walked away, intent on curtailing my spirit of adventure, resisting any temptations to explore new trails. Heathcote creek, trips over a low causeway, flowing through outlets, east of Woronora River, running into spillways from Woronora Dam. A tributary of Woronora River, making recent media due to topographical impact of coal mining.

I photograph this full waterway, usually a turnaround point. Plan a Book of Face post to impress followers. Plus declare a beginning, off main trail, jumping off location. Truthfully a waterway reflecting surrounding trees, clear sky mirrored in expanse of water. Impossible to see hidden snags in my image. Water right down to dappled surrounds of rocky skirts.

Our shadows, soft edges, is a silhouetted image not as strong as in summer. But we can see an acknowledgement of outlines, rather than entire pair of us, present at this point. Only possible to walk the wide Pipeline track holding hands, now we must proceed in single file. Like a Hans Christian Andersen tale about a shadow which moves off and lives its own life. Little did we know these sensations acted as portends.

This new trail only a minimum, half hidden break in vegetation.

Another photograph angled up ridges, a flat rock we must now ascend, to reach the trail, as depicted. Marking signs of a track, just visible from within encroaching vegetation and shadows. A way, but not readily recognizable as a trail, if not for signage, would walkers turn here? Should our trek be written in a walk book? Bad luck there isn’t one.

Another photograph preserves a trail name. I assumed this was Goanna track, but that’s not correct. We will meet a junction with Goanna Track a few kilometres from this point. Might be able to refer Bullawarring trail head as located adjacent a Causeway, but I am sure this is not the only spillway crossing Woronora Pipeline. Not even sure about the correct name for this creek. Memory really is fallible.

Things head array way too quickly. Much of my headspace is spent thinking this track is very overgrown. Ducking, pushing aside tree limbs, doubling back more than once, stumbling through mini spaces. 

Not until we heard voices of other walkers – above. Only then I share with Anna, ‘This is not the correct path?’ I know how close you can be to a trail, and nothing is visible. Nothing demarking a trail can be seen uphill, toward sounds of others. If we push up this incline, that way takes me deeper into National Park bush. Too steep anyway.

We continue to avoid efforts to push through thick brush, scratches on arms and legs, and encountering a sinking panic not being able to identify locations of tracks. Any signs of humanity vanished, consumed by bush. No wonder escaped convicts stooped to cannibalism, or preferred returning to their cells, suffering punishments rather than stay, alone, trapped out here. Trees, scrawny besides trail edges, fringed with unexpected sinister broodiness. Made my skin tingle.

At this point I make my first major mistake, a decision to head downhill. Impossible to visualize errors until after. Better to ascended and search for correct track location. Yell in the direction of those fellow walkers. Coo-wee’d, bush whistled…somehow attracted attention. But we did not want to stumble further into lost territory, deeper into a National Park, made invisible, stumbling to Southwest. Knowing how undetectable a track can be, even if you are almost right on top of single file cleared lines, designated for bikes, or people.

At least if we drink all our water we can refill from flowing creeks. Might not taste nice, but at least neither of us will die of thirst. Possible to follow waterways and pick up Bullawarring trail later, so says calm, pragmatic elements of my brain. Listening, we descended those boulders, lucky not to fall and hurt anything. Only trees, Gymea Lilies, shrubs, and deep recesses in rocks. More than once we push through or stumble through thick ferns, wet from recent runoff. A voice inside my head begins a mantra, don’t fall.

Finally, beside a waterway, sand is a big surprize. Piled up into major banks, clean, cream, fine sand. Storm damage, major tree limbs carcases, are to be expected, blocking simple straightforward movement. We look for footprints, assess where others might have walked. Noting random muscle shells, surely not washed downstream from picnickers at Kingfisher pool. First people’s food? If so, laid around for some time, centuries.

We are pushing upstream – another mistake, downstream would have brought me back to the Pipeline roadway. Without hindsight, focused on keeping as close as possible to our initial plans, working myself deeper lost.

There is a map in my backpack, why didn’t I look, at least assess how close creek crossings, were to a thin blue line of Bullawarring track. Found a name for this waterway I am clambering along. ‘What if we strike out for Kingfisher pool,’ I suggest. Ignorant of how far away this landmark, can’t be too far. I’ve forgotten distances from signage, numbers slipped away since last time.

Crossing the creek. Perhaps another mistake. Didn’t see any alternative, limited chances to make our way upstream, looked easier on the other side. At least we transitioned over a shallow rock hop, after encountering deep sections. Perfectly still water, no ripples, and no breeze. Familiar with down in these ravines air remains unmoved, compared to ridgetops. Warmer, less extreme but any day will not continue this restful ambience. Take a photo of deep section of creek. Did not expect such deep swimming holes, maybe we are closer to Kingfisher pool than we think. Would not be able to cross unless we swim. Then what happens to not necessarily waterproof phones.

At this point I do look at my phone, realize deep in this abyss we have no signal. We cannot access maps, contact anyone, or generally use any of the device’s technology. So, another hiatus, we need to head uphill, away from this technology black-hole. Get high enough up the ridge line, to access commanding views of folds of the hills, site off phone towers.

Again, we are stumbling through shrubs, tripping on rocks, yelling, inside my head, at un-answering emptiness. Pause to take in breathless hushes. Listen to wind, take note of which way we are walking, east, toward the highway, can’t be too far. I am not circling, may not be walking in a straight line, but I am moving to the east. Not oscillating, nor wavering. Able to plot connections with known landmarks, roadways, tracks, and my own slushing breath.

My phone picks up, notches to indicate a signal, but we are still in rough bush. Rock outcrops, jumping across, pushing through trees barely a body width apart. Develop a strategy of pushing under-story plants away, stomp down low branches. Must work for deer, wallabies, even big lizards. Be easier if we found a deer trail through this bush.

Do not Fall!

Use the phone - maps function, arrow of direction – still said Princes Highway is 18km away. Surely not. Our planned walk was only 13k in total. Can’t be so far, it’s only 6 k along highway between Heathcote and Waterfall.

Already scratched, bleeding. Hot liquid on legs, give surface injuries away. I have some Band-Aids, cover the worst spots. Lasts about a Nano second. Before falling off, and bleeding anew.

Time is sucked up into bush, gullies, and creek lines. We are not aware it’s taken more than an hour to get up this ridge. Already contemplated calling State Emergency service, accessed this on Google, suggests that if an emergency call 000.

Go straight to 000. Makes sense, but my attention strays, my teeth grind.

‘Can I confirm your name and address? Am I speaking to Rosie?’

I expected this request. A calming strategy, perhaps.

‘What type of phone do you have? Do you have an Emergency App on your phone?’

Go ahead and download an App called Emergency +.

Several attempts involving multiple passwords, appears I cannot download this capacity without full signing into Apple store, getting through a password page, and then my phone will install requested function. Complaints bounce off a wall of technology. With a sour taste in my mouth, I am left wondering what type of person attempts to download this sort of function, when it is not required. Without a dire need, why would you? Unless someone attempts to install such an app on someone else’s phone to track other family members.

‘Nope won’t work.’

Stumbling, leaping, pushing through resistant vegetation, an official voice asks, ‘are you moving. We need to where you are.’

Can they see I am moving, signal from my phone is not stationary? My phone is on speaker, should be able to hear – muffled curses. Thuds, as I almost stumble. Don’t fall…Wishful for some bush fire damage, or recent control burning. New green shoots only just breaking through. A little bushfire damage would mean I could easily walk-through pale almost colourless windswept grass, craggy rocks with blackened dead trees sticking out like skeletal fingers. First people maintained a variety of trails, kept areas open to game. Knew where they were going. Did indigenous people ever get lost?

We are told to remain in place, and not move. But we cannot comply with those instructions, keep still like a stunned mullet. Further declare our own uselessness and stupidity. More endurance is needed not to move. Seriously, it’s taken me much longer than twenty minutes to be in this position. How on earth?  Sure, at some points, we’ve been highly visible, sun shining down from an exposed rock ridge. If we’d stayed still, we’d be seen, but mostly from the air. At least we feel as if we are doing something, taking responsibility for our own actions, freeing myself from this trap.

‘I understand why you head out on a bush walk, I live not far from a national park, and enjoy local trails. Positive benefits from getting out in the bush.’

Can’t help thinking this is a strategy to strike up supportive/kindred relationship. I begin to shake my head, watching charge on my phone go down.

Another mention of, ‘help is 20 minutes away and to stay in my present location.’ I don’t know the time, or how long we’ve been lost but aware help will take more than 20 minutes to get to me.

Stumbling, thick vegetation again. Wistful of a deer trail. Warning not to stumble, break a lower limb, then I would have to stay put, and be winched out. Don’t want this to be our eventuality. We are descending into a new ravine.

Beep, beep, beep! As the phone is cut off. Probably a good thing, charge was reducing. I’d already began to wonder how much longer my phone would last.

Surprized at not being contacted again. Why don’t 000 ring back? We are still lost.

Look at the phone, Anna and I stumbled into another no signal area. Didn’t seem a deep enough ravine, but black holes capable of sucking up phone comms right through this national park, along with trails which vanish, or purposely closed off with fallen trees.

I spot overhead power lines. Between thick scrubs, a glimpse, enough to be breathless.

A text comes through, asking me, are you on level ground?

Now. Yes.

Can you hear our sirens?

Yes, we can!

My phone rings, Sam asks, ‘can you hear me yelling?’

Tell-tale shouts come over my mobile phone. ‘Only on my phone.’

‘Shit. Sorry I will mute the phone and try again.’

Faintly, but yes, we can hear someone yelling Anna and Rosie.

As if on a new quest, getting out to power pylons exists beyond impenetrable barriers. We hover so close, fall badly in thick trees. We, just for seconds, lost sight of power wires, a few times. But know rescuers are out there.

Akin to experiencing darkest moments just before dawn, thickest tea trees are before a cleared track. As if an impenetrable barrier was necessary to protect flora from ribbon of gravel cut across by mankind. I fall, badly. Unable to get myself upright, rolling around in leaf litter like pine needles. Be about right if impaled myself on sticks mere moments from release out of here.

‘Shit!’

Sam asks, ‘what’s happening are you okay?’

‘Fell over, take me a while to get up.’

‘Haven’t hurt yourself, Rosie?’

‘No. Hang on a minute, I need to pull myself upright.’

Finally, we tumble out, breaking through, exhilarated. Am at a power pylon, expecting to see a police vehicle. But no-one, nothing, still alone. Under a landmark, on a recognizable roadway, no longer necessary to tumble through vegetation. We begin to wander slightly uphill, following this track. Noting run off from recent rains still dribble, mud yet undisturbed by bikes or people.

‘Are you at the power pylon now?’

‘Yes.’

‘Can you tell me the number?’

‘T211.’

‘Is that all?’

Nervous about the yellow symbol appeared on my phone about switching to low power mode. My finger trembles. Cold wind makes me shiver. If we’d paid attention to the time, we appreciate late afternoon looming. Chilling air.

‘Might be good if stay in one place.’

Both of us are prepared to comply now. Despite a lingering sensation if I walk along this trail, I will eventually find my way to the highway. Sam, the reassuring police voice is telling me, ‘We are on the way.’

‘Ok thanks.’

A jumper, both of us have warmer clothing. Time to eat pieces of fruit brought with us. Wonder what to do with discarded peel, surely vegetable material is permittable litter in a national park? Forget it, police aren’t here. A little inner dance of joy. We are safe, we will be found.

‘I have pol air overhead.’

‘Yes, a helicopter is flying, nearby, but not over me.’

‘Can you see the helicopter now.’

‘Yes, its heading south, slightly to the east of my location.’

Penny drops, they are waiting at another power line. Apparently the one we are near is now defunct. The main line now progresses slightly east of us. I can’t see pylons, but wires are just over trees on the next ridge.

‘You saw the helicopter, south of you?’

‘Yes, it followed another power line to my east.

While we pace about, still unsettled, inner mantras now silent. Wondering what we should do now, pol Air emerges above surrounding ridges. Ruffling swathes of air, getting closer. Thumping in ears, we can see occupants in the capsule below rotors. Invisible confetti to celebrate discovery of lost settles. Smiling and waving from within this helicopter. Do we wave back? Within a short time, two police four-wheel drive vehicles emerge.

As we exit the national park, along very familiar trails. We are found, secured, about to be delivered home. So glad I managed to keep my shit together, get both of us out of this scenario. Now a way out of this maze of tracks, built no doubt to service power lines must be found. We pull up to a rear fence of bordering property.

‘Is there a gate up here.’

Could have told them yes, without a little dog doing a total yapping fit, and drawing attention to a wayward walker. ‘Yes, but you need a key.’

‘That’s fine says the passenger, we have all sorts of keys.’

Eventually accessing a gate back onto the highway, a great deal of time is spent waiting for a police car sized break in endless lines of traffic, returning from various interludes on the south coast. Such experiences helped to cement the relationship between Anna and me.

Sometimes I imagine the potential of ghosts along trodden paths or trails. Another thing shared with Anna.

‘My first ghost stepped out of bushes, scrub, thick trees a few weeks ago. Imagine my surprise, I stopped to take photographs of Gymea Lilly plants. Intrigued by how they look like Audrey II from the film Little Shop of Horrors. A creature shimmering and hazy with captured light. I saw age in her body, moving as though still burdened by a vast and lonely place. Her wrinkles like finest, most fragile spider webs, I’ve seen a few of those, usually laced with morning dew droplets. This was my first ghost.’

‘Okay, so what was she doing there?’ 

‘FFFFfire… came from a torn mouth. So, I looked about, but the trail was dressed in mist, rather than smoke. Sometimes crossing great divides and destroying suburbs, people die. When a change of wind direction happens, some get trapped. Out here on the trails such a thing might happen one day. In only one year’s worth of bush burnings, 445 are recorded as dead, hope I don’t encounter anymore.’

 

‘You think she might have been a victim of fires started when welders spent time working on this pipeline, in summer’s heat and understory vegetation caught aflame and rushed up a hillside toward ridge top homes? So many trapped, not expecting such a fire, so close to houses.’

‘Not sure. But her outline was set and static, her insides swirling, misty, full of translucent opals spun in an ancient hand. Later I realized every ghost was different in texture, but only after I’d encountered a few more. I tried to reach out, take her hand, offer a token empathy. But before I could a crow disturbed air, and she faded. I began to wonder about the flotsam and jetsam left after fires. Reminded me of a crust on edges of bathtubs, what happened when we transgress boundaries of death and life?’

Next time, when I got to look into the pearly depths of his eyes, a tiny boy stood ahead of me. “What happening? Why are you out here? Who are you?” I asked my silvery companion.

Again, lips opened, a dreadful scratchy noise came out. “L…l…l…lost…!”

Not so hard to figure, every Australian landscape that matters is dotted with lost children. Their voices and myths continue to whisper, down through the ages. Plenty of tales about kids who wandered away from home. Never to be found again. More than likely drowned in smallest creeks and rivers. We live in a country where children are immersed in liquid from an early age, learn to swim as preschoolers.

Back in the bad old days, probably more often associated with European settlement parents tended to not spend as much time watching children. That’s my theory anyway. Often survivors, such as the Duff kids, Isaac 9, Jane 7, and little Frank 3 years old, returned after being found by indigenous trackers.

So, my theory grew, a woman who succumbed to fire, and now a child, victim of a harmful environment, wandering off on his own. A light jacket, insufficient to warm a child, or keep out rain, partially dangled off his tiny frame. He was so beautiful, body textured like clouds rolling over the moon. Pearls of tiny lights still shining Earth below, residue of so many seasons, so much rain, a whole planet below my footfalls.

So sad, as children are our future.

I understood because a bubble of things lost swelled in me too.

These creatures were unearthly but familiar, texture of my apparitions could be found in photographs of early morning air.

Sometimes others ask, “where did you run? What did you see?”

Not tempted to unload stories of ghosts. I remark about tracks that populate wide trails, the sort of gravel areas under ridgetop power pylons. Sometimes I wonder if they are footprints of other specters or real people. Safer to talk about animal trails, twin pointed toes of deer prints, occasional long think wallaby prints.

Just keep ghosts to me, who will believe anyway? Anna probably will, but she keeps most things I share, as far as I know she doesn’t shoot off her mouth about her strange live-in companion seeing ghosts.

Until the third. Another woman. Bruises on her face, made her expression darker. Same deep tormented eyes.

“F…F…”

“You want to tell me about another bush fire.” Again, not a whisper of smoke drifting through scrub. Besides which, this woman is very different from my earlier encounter with a fire ghost.

 “N…Nooo – Fight!”

I am curious, she almost vanishes down some trails I suspect kids on mountain bikes have constructed. So, I follow. Concerned I might fall, have a bad stumble, and knock myself out. But I couldn’t help myself, she appeared to want me to follow. Mud sucks around my shoes, claiming them, I am half buried in open seam of earth. Her consistency was that of a weak soup, left out, dizzy at the edges. A willowing large white shirt, reminiscent of a man’s business shirt. But she wore close fitting jeans, with a large hippie embroidery section, just above her knee. I wanted to sweep my hands across her body, calm her panic. She made a mournful sound, deep in her throat. Rumblings that if you could touch her, you’d poke holes in her surface. I couldn’t imagine what she might be trying to say. But knew she wanted me to follow, gather my energy for a graphic discovery.

Besides a waterway, deep in a place where vines rustle and sigh as they settled in dusky air. I can see silver-tipped clouds which float in endless azure spaces. Suddenly I see a body. She hovers overhead, desperately pointing. Broken legs obvious. Worms and flies partially feasted on remains. I suspect soft facial tissue might have been subjected to cats, foxes, or other carnivorous creature’s forays. Her body, a whirlpool ready to suck me down. Obviously wearing the same clothing, yes this is her, or rather her earthly remains.

Now I must say something, explain to someone how I know there is a body here. Soon there will be police tape, a cordoned off area, and explorations as to how this person died. If I believe the ghosts, a fight; being bashed senseless, attacked by someone who was supposed to love her. At least one woman a week is murdered in such a manner. What stories will these earthy remains tell?

Up here, in my work domain, 18th floor of this city office building, lifts are infrequent visitors. Swishing lower floors are more peopled, gym and leisure spaces, not to mention a company backed café. If you factor in multiple elevator arrivals, blinking welcome lights, ready for action in a palatial, wall to wall elegant, tiled foyer. Strange connections as higher the floor fewer people, at least no ghosts up here.

Yet there may just be some, if not spirits memories of other times.

Thomas was trying to determine whether or not the woman sitting on his bed was a hooker. Chastised himself, what should he call her, call girl, prostitute, sex worker, or hooker? He considered himself relatively sophisticated, but Vegas was a long way from home – and there’d been no conversation about money changing hands, of “how much,” or “looking for some company,” or “wanting a good time.”

Still a fantastic blonde with pink highlighted tips and a sweet sort of whimsical smile reminded him of his niece, Patrice. Sat on the corner of his bed, he was filled with a vague discomfort which made him want to wrap her up in a blanket and give her a cup of tea or something. 

“Why are you checking your watch?” I said. “Got somewhere to go?”

“No. Just keeping track of the minutes as they pass. Time is delicate. There’s an enormous difference between one moment and the next.”

“Are you a poet or something?”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. That sounded like a poem.” I rummaged through my handbag.

 “I’ll be right back.” I stood and walked to the bathroom, closing the door behind me. 

I’d left my bag was open on the bed, and he slid over and rifled through it without thinking about what he was doing. A tin of Altoids (probably pot), a wallet shaped like a cat’s head, a few cough drops, two nondescript tubular containers that looked like lipstick, keys with a fuzzy dice keychain, tortoise shell sunglasses, and a comb. He put the bag down and snapped it shut – but maybe it hadn’t been shut in the first place, so he unsnapped it.

His thoughts tended to be jumbled, lately. Disjointed. He couldn’t remember certain things, and the things he did remember didn’t seem to make much sense. And the pain in his back kept him from being able to concentrate for more than a few minutes on anything if it wasn’t urgent. He was tired and should have gone to bed early – which wasn’t too implausible. He wondered what he would do if the woman (Angie? Annie?) Wanted to spend the night with him. And he wondered what he would do if she didn’t. 

His thoughts floated over him in a wave. All he could do was wait for her to emerge from the bathroom.

He looked out the window, everything falling away and imagined the moon was close, although he couldn’t see it. Too many artificial lights. He wasn’t certain how something so inexhaustible like an infinite universe existed. Maybe infinity was a sphere, like earth. A finite entity but with no edge, so you’d eventually wind around again to the place you started. Or maybe the universe was countless, converging, diverging. Truly limitless, and so perfect it defied logic, the realm of possible. He raised his hand and curved his fingers around the window of artificial stars, cradling them. 

I opened the door. “Oh my God. Are you okay?”

“I fell.”

“Do you want to lie down?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess so.”

I helped him to stand and pulled the covers back. “Get in,” I said.

He lay down, and I took off the towel and slid in next to him under the sheet. My breasts were heavy on his arm, and he took in a swallow of air. 

“It’s okay,” I said, and slipped her hand under his sweatpants. “It’s okay,” I said softly, and moved her hand over him. He drew in a sigh, craved a touch of another’s skin, aware of an intense hunger for touches, a physical sustaining food. He felt himself harden – incredible that his body still worked, that for all his pain he could still sail there, could meet her in that place, a spring orchard where time didn’t exist, and as she climbed down his body and put her mouth on him, he watched himself fall into a familiar darkness, warm and emergent and without lucidity, sowing the hole in his chest he’d been busy emptying. He kept wondering how this angel got here, was doing this in his room?

They lay next to each other on the bed. The shifting lights made angel-wing patterns on the walls and traffic growled from the street outside.

“I can pay you for doing this.” He whispered, hopeful this was not said aloud.

She drew a breath through gritted teeth. “Is that what you think I am?”

“Well, honestly I aren’t sure.”

I stood beside the bed now, still naked, reaching for the towel, “I know men want sex. Felt sorry for you, especially when I found you flat out on the floor. This was only a pity f**k!”

But all that was a long time ago, and a different country.

For now if you were at these elevators you worked here. Social callers a rare occurrence, there simply wasn’t such a thing as a causal drop-in from a very best pal, or sister, or long-lost cousin. Such meetings are arranged for outside, chief place Town Hall steps. These spaces are not aesthetically designed, rather swish open plan, barriers between desks designed to evoke friendship, comradely and productivity. Excited desk buddies saying, ‘come and look at wonderful facilities generously provided in our work-day haven.’ No rather, this up here on floor 18, a mundane place where you worked hard and drew a thin pay packet. Regardless of how much money each pay period, why would you encourage someone to drop in on this drab wood panelled, recycled equipment, no leisure spaces places. Be link encountering a ghost on running trails.

Other than workers escaping for lunch or cigarette. Smokes could be seen as a luxury beyond many workers, either in cost or health impact. Anyone else visiting this building was either client or sales representative. Their major concerns, items such as amount of letter-head stationary someone ordered, or payment of third-party insurance premiums or perhaps someone might be investigating websites visited or inappropriate use of staff email accounts. You never knew what those IT cyber bullies were watching. Made me shiver to think, how they might keep tabs on use of computers. Sundry company hierarchy could sniff out any pilfering right from their plush head offices in a completely different building. In these surrounds, up here on the 18th floor no-one called in for a quick chat, gossip fix, or social interaction nor would staff waste valuable company time with such trifling things as amicable social interaction.

Especially with people like the auditor’s assistant, weighing in at about 140kg, who seem to have preference to multi servings of chocolate biscuits, or scones and whatever morning tea offering going. Advisable to keep secret arrangements to share a work-day snack. Food was like a switch to him; lay out a spread and guess who showed up requesting paper work that had long since been archived. Turn around and where was he? What was he doing while you find said invoice or contract? Shovel, shovel... enough said. Spillage crumbles followed him across desks or over just cleaned carpets. Not to mention those greasy finger prints on whatever paperwork he’d examined. Most just spoke about this guy by his role, few even knew his name. Poor guy ought to apply more self-control or take advantage of gym discounts offered. Be a lot healthier for him, imagine the potential medical problems he might encounter.  

Office etiquette demanded blank stares whilst awaiting elevators. Such rules existed for everyone’s comfort, like not eating yoghurt when James was in the tearoom; he hated even thinking about someone eating off-milk. Likewise, I made sure not bring tuna for staff room lunches. All sorts of rules exist, some written, others not.

Eye contact best avoided as part of established norms. If a line of sight error was made apologetic body language should be quickly adopted to negate impact of gaze direction errors. A lack of such eye contact ensured an equal lack of conversation. What could you talk about, anyway? Pay rates, penalty offers, Christmas bonuses; none worth mentioning. Besides what if your work-place peer did not receive equal windfalls? Awkward moments right there. Far better to keep head down, avoid social interaction. Never been one for workplace comradery.

Against unspoken rules to share stories about Christmas party time! Last day trading days meant limited work and mucho drinkie-poos. Alcohol hatched schemes. Once enough of workers consumed a skin full on board, they reached consensus easily. You see, at the time, chair hockey a much better idea than the usual photocopy machine terrorism. Remember when Dave sat on screen? Best part of a week’s cleaning required to remove oily film from his butt-plant. But you wouldn’t gossip about consequences or who hooked up with who afterwards. Thank God, I can go home to Anna, be in her arms, and stay safe.

Similar rules about toilet breaks. Ensure toilet visits were minimal; never answer your mobile in cubicles. Office bathrooms were not places for taking a shit either. Used these facilities for solid waste only in an emergency, of course. Additional toilet rules included steer clear of post meeting peak times, avoid applying make-up. Such actions a surprising source of gossip.

If you did make a gaff and broach lift foyer silence or hand-basin eye contact, take up apologetic body language to negate any impact. Above all avoid being drawn into any conversations. Rules I try to stick by.

Always remain silent, unless you shared a cheery hello and rarely a word more than a polite, ‘how have you been?’ Not meant for a reply other than, ‘yep, good.’

Nothing left to say once you passed an obligatory, ‘busy isn’t it?’

Response: ‘Yep sure is.’ Always answer in the affirmative. Then what? No point talking about weather in these air-conditioned surrounds, until you got outside, ignorance could be bliss. Humidity, scorching sun, and limited greenery for shinrin-yoku. Not a damn thing you could do about cloud, smog, heat, wind, dust storms or rain. Temperature control being about the only creature comfort this stingy company offered lowly paid staff. Climate provided an easily a solo small-talk option. No one would risk re-hashing weekend activities, football games, or even public transport hassles; who knew where broaching such conversation material might lead? If someone dared to brave chit-chat it must be terminated upon lift arrival. How repulsive to continue small talk with so many strangers constrained in a small box rising through building levels eavesdropping, even if you kept whispering.

While milling about listening to lobby music, I inadvertently gazed at a stocky man, dressed in jeans, beer belly curling over his belt. A grey, half-grown beard spread across his chin as if compensation for a receding hairline. This person’s returned gawk an undressing ogle, right from neckline to groin causing core tingling embarrassment. I turned away. However, emanating heat drew her back. This time as I peered into his face, doing my best – is that really what you think of women? Don’t piss me off, you arsehole – expression. His tongue flicked out and he slowly licked parted lips like a lizard creature.

Alarm bells zapped inside my head. My God! This creep thinks he knows me. Unheralded I remembered his shape. A solid body, missing this paunch. Recalled his scratchy skin, scaly against hers. Hearing again those grunts, his slobbery jowl and hot breath passing my ear. Memories dredged up out of a sweat stench from some corner of my brain. Must have been early days, only just after she’d run away from her bastard stepfather. Tried to push himself against her so many times. So why did sensations feel so fresh?

Considering office expectations I poked about over thoughts, what to do now? Not talk to him. Ignore the prick; he’ll have to do the same.

Stuck in a holding pattern waiting for a damn lift, must get here soon, right? I faced this guy and tried to stare him down; adopted a strong persona; part of a range of coping strategies. A mantra spun inside her head; that was then – this is now! How dare you use my past against me! I am stronger than you.

Sparks flew as I charged up a force field with greater electricity than his emanations. Imagined asbestos suits proved ineffective, allowing easy passage through his flames.

Grasping for control and remind myself, let my power suit stand for authority and to manufacture distance from this creep.

Astutely made up, spruiking formality in contrast to past vivid, childish even garish to hide sins or injuries. I told myself to make barriers out of ensuing years. Much changed since then, I am a different person now.

Look at her, he appears to be thinking. Stood there wafting a professional aura, declaring - I earn good money. Can afford fully qualified stylist hair-dos. I wear those chick-suits. Deep down she is still a scared little girl, lipstick tad blurred, spaced out on something to get enough courage for what is about to come. Just now as he remembered deep, shuddered pleasure, he couldn’t help but smile. Nothing wrong with his memory. Still recalled her glancing about their cheap motel room, wide eyed like a rabbit looking for a bolthole. Changed hair style; shorter, darker. Bet her boobs are not quite so perky now, he thought, hard to tell in that less than shapely jacket.

A stronger image bubbled up, like brain porn. Cute little Rosie, wearing red, one of those lacy body suits; as if some form of seductive lingerie part of required rig-out. When all he wanted was nudity, feel her tight twat. Probably wouldn’t be after thrashing he’d dished out. What about those times when she’d doubled up with another chick, what was her name? Jill; that’s right. Decked out in a leather outfit, like together they were leather and lace, God what a night that had been! Even though this Rosie looks like a dyke, still like to go there.

Past regrets trickled in like flow from a cracked dam, threatening structural integrity. Images of being lost, or sights of ghosts filtered through my brain.

I began to thank her luck, or stars, Anna, or whatever force ensured breaks and assisted escaping from potential downward spirals. Money spent on those secretarial courses, while working shifts in the bookshop. Pressure I’d put on the old man behind the counter to give me a job. Chance to make a break. Get out from the hole I’d dug myself into. Customers were few and far between. Euphoric days spent, more often than not, reading shop stock. Transitioning through a schizophrenic lives. Floating toward rebirth, finally free from violence and drugs. Her bed-sitter provided sanctuary after those motel cesspools.

Back beyond, in other lives, were grimy hotel rooms, dingy shared flats always unclean and smelling of wet boy plus cheap after shave. Working hours permeated with musty odours, vomit-stained carpets and a stench flowing back into my nasal senses even now. How could a smell smoulder like bush fire aftermath stay in your brain all this time? So dirty, ash ridden, blackened landscapes were not the only side effect of bush fires. Suddenly sharp again, as if freshly torched; my arm hairs sizzled. Linking to fear, burning afresh out of school days. Flushing her face in the process of remembered pokes in ribs and legs by boys during quiet assembly moments. Obnoxious twerps who giggled to catch sight of panties through worn out sports outfits. Hung tampons from noses when teachers weren’t looking.

I won’t let those school yard bullies hurt me anymore!

The man’s gaze stung; made me realize everything is stored; nothing forgotten; like a cancer in remission, always there, ready to grow new abscesses. I remembered, how she’d felt in those motel rooms. No matter how bad the need, always too frightened to ask, ‘where’s the toilet?’

Too scared to use such facilities even when bowls and taps were clearly visible.

Early evenings always made claustrophobic by customers calling. Even transitioning to the book shop, when none came, mere possibilities still pushed in, suffocating; tight throat, weights on my chest, tossing through sleepless nights. Just in case I drifted into a dream full of blissful freedom, floating in salt water, wandering a leaf strewn trail, there were always reminders crouched with grimaced faces, in corners.

Reincarnated now, visits to smoke laden, noisy parties with tinny music pounding out of cheap speakers. Memories mingled with present and Anna. Distinct as if fused and blackened by an exhausted bonfire. I felt a drunken breath hot in her ear, a hairy groin, a salty burn in her throat. Alive again as if bouncing out of her memories like giggling ghouls overjoyed in a new loosening.

This catalyst, strutting about like a rooster, his body language saying - I have had her - she was mine. Feathers flown, scratches from spurs made sharp scratches inside my head. As I looked down, grip failed, I conceded defeat. All I wanted now was for a lift bell to ring heralding escape. Yet he drove home deeper. ‘You’re a friend of Jill’s aren’t you?’

Had to be sure, didn’t he. Shit! All those times trying to get Jill clean enough to team up. Probably wants to know where she worked now. Not even asking, if…just assuming. Listen, mate you do not want to know, and do not really care. Yet any words turned to mercury in her mouth. Jill and Rosie weren’t a double act for long. Envious, almost angry, because Jill was more skilful with their limited make up, way too strong. Lead her into this lifestyle, said one night, ‘I see a dentist, he does me in the chair, great way to make money, you want part of this action.’

Wasn’t too long before she showed up with a guy who gave her $80, to be part of three-some.

A voice inside my head accused Jill of always matching perfect lips her nails. And no matter what, Jill’s mascara never smudged.

Extra paid for two girls part finance for my escape. Congratulated herself, even now, for making a clean get away. Not even given Jill another thought, not since I saw cops snapping handcuffs on her bony wrists. This arrest fuelled my push against double barbed hooks of cash and chemicals. One thing still churned, not being able to return Jill’s lip gloss. Unable to bear accusations of the tiny tub, full of glitter like spangled blood, so I threw it into the river.

Rose saw again, a plain room, neat desk and few files Anna used. A poster declaring – Trust your imagination. Depicting a strung up car tyre, swing style; and empty grassed hills behind. As soon as I looked at Anna’s face, I knew. Saw her again, just shortly afterwards this counselling session. She appeared in the bookshop. Simple really. Probably had details of where she worked prior to time in her office, looking at the poster. This was the first time I held her hand. Pushed a crime novel into her palm and stroked her long fingers. Not long after I sent her a note, remembered how I traced the words, with my fingers before folding the crisp paper and smoothing down the edges. I wonder where she put it. I always assumed Anna might have destroyed it, committed to memory the words, and shutting off the chance that a client might be in love with her. Something this tiny could always get lost in memories. A small, lonely version of myself from back then, who had no idea how to deal with the world or people in it. Still more meeting happened. Beginning of my one love.

F**king haunting ghosts – not real! I reminded herself; I got out of The Game.

Hell, prick isn’t doing this. How long might such torments continue, how many more arseholes were out there? How much longer would I fight against her past? A clunk as she registered, what if this dude worked in the building? I could always use stairs or stay at her desk lunch times. Imagine Anna tight lipped, jutting jaw incriminating face, probably grind her teeth, and force Rose to feel bad.

‘Temporary barriers, girl push them over!’ she’d probably say. ‘Be the person you want to show the world.’

Fixing her eyes straight at the man with as much defiance as Rose could muster, I tried to morph words projectiles. ‘No, you must be mistaken.’

He looked her up and down again with grinned lips. I waited for his next attack and met his stares with eyes as black as midnight, giving less away.

‘Perhaps I am wrong,’ he said over a microwave like lift-arrival ping.

As she departed into elevator benign safety, ‘see you later, Rosie,’ rang like rifle shots in her ears.

BIO: Karen Lethlean is a trying to be retired English teacher with some published short fiction, essays and non-fiction in anthologies, websites and literary journals. She won Torquay Froth and Bubble literary festival short story competition 2010 with Long Haired Wierdo. In her other life Karen is a triathlete who completed Hawaii Ironman twice! 

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