‘I don’t see why I have to,’ says Marina. She has a pout to her mouth and a defiant look in her eye.
Margaret has had enough of this, and, without thinking, slaps her daughter hard on the cheek. Marina’s head twists sharply to the side under the blow, and her hand comes up to her face. She stares at her mother in disbelief. There is silence in the shop for a moment, then a long, drawn-out wail from the girl.
‘Shut up,’ snaps Margaret, and moves behind the counter. ‘Shut up and get out of my sight. I’ll be ringing the school in ten minutes, and if you’re not there you’ll regret it, my girl.’
Marina bends, sobbing piteously, and retrieves her heavy school bag from the floor, swinging it up onto her shoulder, snot running from her nose, her eyes streaming. All the defiance has gone out of her. She turns and pushes her way through the big glass door of the shop. As the door closes behind her she glances back resentfully, still rubbing her face. There are red finger-marks on her face. The school will be ringing her when the teachers see the marks, that’s for sure.
Oh well, she sighs, it’s just one more thing.
Margaret Plessis is under pressure. Nothing new, she recognises. The pressure started when she was in year nine, and has hardly eased up since. For a few weeks after her marriage she thought she could make a new start, that everything would go well for her from then on. But life, she realised early, is not as promised in Woman’s Weekly. Marriage means a doubling of the pressure, not a halving.
She is alone in the shop until nine when her boss, Brian, arrives. Until then, as kids trail past on their way to the school, there will be a steady demand for sweets, each sale taking forever as the children decide then change their minds, then change their minds again. And never for much more than a dollar a time.
As she does every day, she keeps an eye open for the stealing. The kids know all the tricks, but after nearly seven months in the shop, so does she.
Margaret has yet to put the tables out on the pavement, the tables and chairs for those who, later, will drop in for coffee. This provides a growing segment of the shop’s income, and the part Margaret enjoys most.
Once Brian comes in she concentrates on this side of the business. There is a rush for coffee just before school starts as teachers drop in for a morning hit, rushing off with their take-aways, then another rush around ten o’clock. After that there is a steady trickle of coffee drinkers through the day, enough to keep her busy. As Brian is only too aware, Margaret makes excellent coffee. She has no idea how she manages this, as she has never had anything but the most basic of training.
Three boys enter the shop. Margaret knows them by sight. Crafty little buggers. One of them will try to distract her while the others do their best to nick something. It doesn’t seem to matter what they nick; perhaps it is simply the act of stealing that excites them. She is awake to them, however. The red-headed one is over by the comics, flicking through them as they stand on the rack. The tubby one is eyeing the sweets... he’s the one that’s going to try distracting her. The third one, a little taller than the other two, stands by the door as though butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
The fat one is about to point to a Mars bar when the door opens with a clanging of the bell. A man enters, goes to the newspaper stand and picks one. Margaret signals to the fat boy to wait while she deals with the man with the paper. She scans the paper quickly. ‘A dollar fifty,’ she tells him, which he knows already. He hands her a five dollar note and she opens the till and counts his change into his hand. ‘Three dollars, four, five,’ and smiles at him. He returns the smile and nods, turning away. She has, however, given him only two dollars fifty, offering two one dollar coins but telling him it is three dollars. He doesn’t notice.
Margaret’s attention has not shifted from the boys. She sees the red-head turn away, notices the tell-tale movement of his school uniform. ‘Guess I’ll have to get your Principal to search you, will I?’ she calls, and smiles to herself when the boy puts the comic back in the stand. She addresses the fat one. ‘A Mars bar or a Milo bar? Big decision, eh?’ The fat boy is covered with confusion, and pretends to search his pockets.
‘I thought I had some money,’ he says lamely.
‘Off you go then,’ Margaret tells them. As they are leaving the shop she calls out again, ‘I’ve got an eagle eye. I wouldn’t come back in here again, if I was you.’ The boys slink out. But they know, and Margaret knows too, that they have been successful many times before, and that she will forget them in time. They’ll be back.
Margaret is careful who she short-changes. She tries never to do it twice to the same person, though with the number of people who drop into the shop, it is sometimes impossible to remember.
Her technique is always the same, and she is never greedy. One dollar at a time. She has only been pulled up a few times, and it is easy to claim that the miscounting is a mistake: a one dollar coin can easily be mistaken for a two dollar one. She used to keep track of how much she was stealing, but these days just accepts that it is a very welcome addition to her pathetic income. Brian pays her the minimum wage; it’s not much.
The first teachers come in for coffee, two of them, both wanting the same, take-away cappuccino. The espresso machine, a big commercial Zagato, has been switched on for an hour, so it takes very little time to prepare. Several other children come in in the meantime, and she is patient while they make up their minds. They are littlies, and she’s always patient with the littlies. She never short-changes them, either.
On the counter Margaret keeps a bottle with a slot cut in the top and a chain around the neck, the chain screwed to the counter. A thank-you note is taped to the side of the bottle, and in it there is a fair amount of money. The only people who contribute to this tip-bottle are the coffee buyers. It always amazes Margaret that so many people are happy to give her extra money, but they do. She is paid to make the coffee. Why do they want to give her more? Is it because they have more money than sense? Is it because it makes them feel superior in some way? Is it because they think that it is the thing to do? Margaret has no idea, but she is grateful.
Brian, surprisingly, insists that any tips she makes are for her alone. It’s a reward, he says, for working hard and using her special skill in making coffee. Once, some time ago, he even referred to her as his barista, which made her smile. She is no barista. She just makes good coffee. She makes sure that Brian does not discover how much she is making in tips.
What she has not yet discovered is that Brian, despite his protestations that the tips are hers alone, has been removing a considerable proportion of money from the jar. Brian wants to appear a benevolent boss, but he has two disadvantages in this respect: he is greedy, and can’t resist stealing some of the tips; and he is lascivious, watching Margaret’s every movement with lust in his mind.
She takes some of the money from the jar each day, a welcome supplement. She is careful to leave many dollar and two dollar coins, and at least one five dollar note. This is to encourage generosity in her patrons. She carefully removes all the shrapnel, the coins of twenty cents and less: she doesn’t despise these low-value coins, but wants to encourage largesse. It works.
Ted Plessis was the most handsome boy in the school, and when she first let him fuck her, Margaret still thought he would be a great catch. It has turned out differently, of course: Ted is lazy, and his taste for beer and gambling leaves him with empty pockets and an expanding waist-line. He has been dabbling with other substances, too, both using and dealing in a very small way. No-one would think of him as handsome now, his eyes dull, his cheeks bloated, his clothes often grubby, his fingers stained by burning tobacco.
‘Lay off,’ she tells him. ‘I’m too bloody tired.’
‘You’re always too tired,’ Ted complains. He has slept much of the day, having no money to spend at the club. He’ll be broke until Thursday, which means no fun for him unless he can scrounge a tenner or two; surprisingly, he still manages to beg a few bucks every now and again from his supposed mates.
Margaret sighs. ‘I notice it’s not you that works all day, washes the clothes, cooks the meals, cleans up around here.’ Though of course the place is a dump, dirty and unpleasant despite her best efforts to keep it clean. Between Ted and the kids, it’s a thankless and unending job just keeping the place vaguely habitable. Ted has rolled towards her back, his arm around her to fondle her breast. Well, he calls it fondling. She calls it mauling. She elbows him in the ribs and pulls away from him. ‘Fuck off,’ she tells him. ‘Leave me a-fucking-lone.’
Ted sits up, rubbing his ribs. ‘You bitch’, he spits, and grabs her hair, pulling her to him. Margret screams and kicks at him with her knee, hoping to score a big one to his balls; but he lifts his leg just
in time, taking the kick on the thigh. He might have become a fat slob, but he is much bigger than she is, and he lifts her by a fistful of hair until her face is scrunched against his. His other arm goes around her neck, and he is thrusting his tongue down her throat. Her screams are muffled now, but she bites down on his tongue and it is his turn to scream in pain. He flings her from him and she falls from the bed on the far side.
Margaret reaches into the box that serves as a bedside cabinet and takes a long kitchen knife, holding it low under her crouching body. With her other hand she beckons Ted. ‘Come on, you bastard. Come and get it.’
Despite the blood running into his mouth, Ted is aroused.
Margaret stands naked before him, her breasts swinging away from her body in her crouch. She has a great pair of knockers, he thinks. He can see she means business with that knife, but she clearly hasn’t a clue how to use it. He rolls back on the bed and laughs at her. He opens his legs wide and rubs his engorged penis, making it stand out from his body, taunting her. ‘It’s you needs to come and get it, Marg. Nothing like a big stiff prick to keep a bitch in line.’
Margaret stands straight and looks at him. She is disgusted by him. She is sorely tempted to use the knife as a throwing blade, the idea of castrating him right now flashing through her brain. But she has cooled already, and knows that she will not attack him but simply defend herself.
She moves carefully around the bed, the knife pointed at him the whole time. She grabs her dress from the back of a chair as she passes it. He is laughing loudly now, roaring in triumph.
Only later will he, too, lie in his bed wondering what has happened to them. How has it come to this? But he will shrug characteristically, not bothering to search for an answer.
Margaret reaches the door and leaves the room, slamming the door as hard as she can. She crosses the narrow corridor and enters the children’s room. Errol has woken to the shouting and the slammed door, is sitting up on one elbow rubbing his eyes. ‘Shit,’ he says from the upper bunk, ‘what the fuck’s going on.’
Margaret is too tired to think about her seven-year-old’s language. She knows they all talk like that most of the time. ‘It’s all over now. Go back to sleep.’
Errol blinks and lies down again. He won’t remember a thing
in the morning. Margaret crouches and climbs in with Marina, nudging the girl over against the wall. Marina sighs as though in exasperation, and Margaret snuggles against the young body. She will not sleep that night, or at least, not much.
She isn’t going to be able to keep this up much longer, she knows.
Why does she do this? she asks herself. Errol is making snuffling noises in the bunk overhead; Marina is twitching, like a dog having a dream. From across the corridor comes the heavy rumble of Ted’s snores.
She had been pleased when she got pregnant. She was heavy enough at the end of the school year that she couldn’t find herself a job, and everyone knew it was Ted’s child. They had been the centre of romantic attention for most of the final year, Ted being such a looker and she, well, she being a pretty good looker too, she tells herself. Ted didn’t argue about it. He’d been bragging about fucking her regularly, and was reluctant to lose face by denying the child was his. Beside, he wasn’t a complete fool; he knew damned well that if it hadn’t been Margaret, it would pretty soon have been some other bitch he got up the duff.
But the dream of young love in Margaret’s heart was soon snuffed out. The apprenticeship Ted was offered didn’t bring in enough money to live on, so he quickly quit. Centrelink didn’t seem to mind too much that he hadn’t been inclined to find another job, and he soon got used to a life on the dole. Not the life that Margaret had dreamed of at all.
She is caught in a trap. Nothing she can do will make any difference. Dreams change, she thinks, but the outcome is always the same. The first time she left Ted, she remembers, she had a plan. She would get herself a job, a home and some self esteem. It couldn’t be that hard. And it wasn’t, either. The job at the abattoir wasn’t great, but it paid well. She shared a house with another single mother. Marina spent her days in long day care, expensive but manageable. She was just thinking about doing her HSC through TAFE, realising that unless she had some sort of qualification she was doomed to remain in shit jobs, when she discovered that she was pregnant again.
Morning sickness and abattoir work don’t really go together, and to cut a long story short, because she hates remembering it, Ted moved in with her again, promising to change. Yeah, he changed, alright: changed for the worse.
Margaret listens to the coffee drinkers. They seem to live in a different world. They talk of problems at work, but they’re not the sort of problems she suffers from. They talk about problems in the staff room, who is having it off with who, how much they have lost in superannuation because of the global financial crisis, at what point to replace their 4x4, four years or six? How much their renovation is going to cost, which school to send their children to.
Margaret’s problems are more immediate, more intense: is she going to get raped again that night? Will Brian notice the bruises on her face, the finger marks around her neck? Will DOCS find out that Marina is not altogether safe near her father? Will Centrelink find out that Ted has moved back in with her, and stop his dole?
So she makes coffee and hopes that the tips will be generous. And she increases the short-changing, knowing that in doing so she is increasing the chances of being caught. She has to support her children somehow.
When she gets home she discovers that Ted has found her stash, her little treasure trove of stolen dollars and coffee tips. It isn’t as good a hiding place as she had thought it would be, under a loose floor-board. There had been more than two hundred dollars there, and Ted hasn’t even bothered to replace the board. He doesn’t care that she will know that he has stolen it from her. He is too stupid to realise that now she will have to find another hiding place, and that the new place really will be her secret.
But it is a serious setback. It has taken months to save that much, and Ted will no doubt blow it in one glorious night at the club.
This is not entirely accurate: certainly, when he returns to the house that night he is drunk again, but he has managed to buy a quantity of hash, some Es and a little smack. Over the next few weeks, he thinks, he will make considerable profit from these deals as he sells for well over the odds. Margaret tries to confront him, but as usual he laughs at her and hits her, though he can manage no more than to score a glancing blow. Margaret, despairing, staggers back onto the bed; her life is going to be like this always. She watches as he unfastens his trousers and remembers that once he was a handsome boy she thought she loved. She starts crying, and can’t stop until some time in the early morning.
‘Now the other dollar,’ he says, his hand still out to accept his change, his eyes hard.
‘What?’ she says, but she knows he will not accept the story of the accidental miscount.
‘The other dollar.’ His fingers curl as though to say, come on, you know you’re going to have to give it to me.
She takes a dollar from the till, and drops it into his waiting hand.
‘You finish at six, don’t you?’ It sounds like a question, but she knows he knows, and she knows he knows she knows.
She drops her head slightly in response.
‘Walk out the door, turn left, and I’ll be in the blue Civic.’ He turns and leaves the shop without waiting for her assent.
She has two hours before the end of her shift, and Brian notices. ‘You okay?’ he asks.
Margaret nods. She has not stopped thinking about the man since he left the shop. What is he going to do? Is he going to tell Brian she is short-changing customers? Why does he want to see her when the shop closes, then? Why had he not simply called Brian from the back of the shop, and complained immediately?
She is nervous. She will find out soon enough what he wants with her, but the two hours seem to drag. The shop is not busy that afternoon—it is raining heavily, and the air is unpleasantly humid—and she tidies the shelves and replenishes the stock between the occasional customers. The after-school rush has ended, and no-one wants to sit on the pavement drinking coffee when the wind is sending sudden flurries of rain across the tables.
She stacks the chairs and the three tables close to the door, but there is no room for them inside the shop until closing time. She shuts down the espresso machine and cleans it thoroughly, preparing for the following day. All the time her mind is on the man and the blue Civic. At five forty five she prepares to leave. There have been no customers for the last three quarters of an hour, and Brian nods his head to her: she might as well go early, he suggests.
But she dare not, finding short, simple jobs to take up the remaining time.
At six o’clock she leaves and turns left and sees the blue Civic twenty metres or so from the shop. The rain is still falling heavily, and she has opened her umbrella, the one Brian keeps in the shop for just such an event. She lowers the umbrella a little and shelters
behind it as she pushes into the wind. Her legs are getting soaked, her shoes squelching already. She reaches the Civic and pulls the passenger door open, struggling with the umbrella as she does so. It is a golf umbrella, large and difficult to control in the wind. She turns and sits with her back to the driver while she pulls down the inner spokes, and shakes the umbrella slightly before pulling it between her legs and tugging the door shut. The wind slams it closed more forcefully than normal. She turns and looks guiltily at him. ‘Sorry,’ she stammers.
He takes the umbrella from her and drops it behind them onto the back seat. ‘Belt up,’ he tells her, and starts the engine, pulling out immediately without using his indicators. They drive in silence for ten minutes, until Margaret has no idea where they are going, or even where they are. They reach the edge of the town and pull off onto a muddy track, which winds around a hill until they reach the top. Behind them there is a large aerial tower surrounded by a barbed wire fence and warnings about electro-magnetic fields. He stops the car at right angles to the track, so that they are looking out over the town. Despite the rain and the scudding low clouds, the view is impressive. He switches off the engine and sits looking through the windscreen, though now that the wipers have stopped, rain is pouring over the glass, obscuring the view. A mist of condensation is already blurring the windows.
‘I have to get home,’ she says after a minute or two. ‘My children...’ Her voice is low, not much more than a whisper.
He turns to her slowly. ‘Margaret,’ he says. ‘That’s your name, isn’t it?’
How does he know?
‘You don’t recognise me, do you?’
Margaret turns and scans his face, looking for clues. She shakes her head.
She can’t remember everyone in year nine, just those in her set. Mostly the pretty girls and the footy guys. The ones that called themselves the A Team. Remembering the A Team and the way most of them have turned out makes her squirm with embarrassment, even now. She shakes her head again.
He sighs. They are silent for a while until eventually he turns to her, sitting sideways in his seat. ‘Ben,’ he says. ‘Ben Farrow. Remember me now?
She tries hard, but in the end shakes her head again.
‘Okay. Well, I was in years nine and ten with you, then my parents moved.’
‘So I always fancied you.’
Shit, she thinks. Is that what this is about? Is he going to kidnap me? Is anything, ever, going to turn out good?
‘So what do you want with me now?’
He looks into her eyes. ‘I want to help you.’
Fuck me, she thinks. Is this ever going to end?
The light is fading, and the windows are completely misted over. She relaxes and sits back, looking at the dark shapes of the trees beside the track. ‘I just don’t believe this,’ she tells him. ‘I have a shit life, a shit job, a fucking hopeless husband and two kids that can’t even speak English. I’m a no-hoper, and you come along and tell me you want to help me? Pull the other one.’
He says nothing, just smiles.
‘You want a quick fuck, don’t you? You think because you caught me out you can get your leg over. Well fuck you.’ She turns away from him and opens the door, fumbling with the unfamiliar belt buckle. Rain lashes in, wetting her jeans.
He reaches across her and pulls the door shut. His smile has gone now, his lips pulled tight in anger. ‘Well if that’s the case, Margaret, what’s going to happen is I’m going to reserve a newspaper for every Thursday, and when I open it I’m going to find a hundred and fifty bucks in it, every week.’
Margaret turns to face him, her eyes wide in surprise, sucks in a sudden breath and hold it. She searches his face. He means it.
‘You’d better, Margaret. Know what’ll happen if you don’t? That fuckin’ idiot boss of yours will find out what you’ve been up to, know what I mean? And that won’t be the half of it.’
He leans forward and starts the engine. They drive a different route back to the road, rattling down a stony hill and through the dense undergrowth of small black cypress trees until emerging on the muddy stretch leading to the road. The car fish-tails a little, the back wheels spinning. He manages to keep the car on the track though, and they reach the road in minutes. They have been silent since leaving the hill. She doesn’t have to direct him as he drives straight to her road, stopping two hundred metres from her house. She reaches behind them for the umbrella, opens the door and erects it before standing. She turns and looks at him. He looks straight ahead. She slams the door and he drives off. She notes the registration number of the car before setting off towards her house.
‘Where the fuck have you been,’ Ted demands, but she pushes past him and heads for the kitchen.
He’s back on Thursday afternoon. He’s holding the paper, waiting until Margaret has finished serving the elderly lady buying cat-food. He is holding the paper rolled up in his right hand, slapping it into the palm of his left as he waits to be alone with Margaret. As the door clangs shut behind the old lady he gives a final, noisy slap.
‘You’ve been very silly, Margaret,’ he says.
Margaret is very frightened, but has nothing to say.
He reaches into the paper and removes four twenty-dollar notes, holding them up.
‘That’s all I could get,’ she says.
He laughs unpleasantly. ‘That pretty little Marina of yours,’ he says. ‘How old is she?’
Oh God! ‘Eight,’ she says. ‘She’s just a little kid.’
‘Mmmm,’ he agrees. ‘So let’s make sure you come up with the goods next week, eh?’ he says.
Margaret leans on the counter as he leaves the shop, desperate now. She realises that she is well and truly in the shit.
Brian’s eyes are wide with surprise. They are in the office at the back of the shop. He is sitting in his executive chair, swivelled to face her. The computer monitor beside him darkens suddenly as the screen-saver kicks in, hiding the spreadsheet that he had been attempting to analyse before Margaret interrupted him.
‘Blackmailed?’ he exclaims.
Margaret lowers her head.
The first thought that enters Brian’s head is that he’s finally got a hold over her. ‘You’d better tell me,’ he says, doing his best to hide his excitement.
Margaret tells him. She tells him about the short-changing, the demands, and how she managed to steal eighty dollars over the course of the last week.
Brian has been a shopkeeper for many years. He has been bankrupted twice and each time struggled back to try again. He has employed many shop assistants since he first started, and most of them have stolen from him or from his customers. Whatever else Brian is, he is not naïve. This is the first time he has had any involvement in blackmail, though.
Margaret has made a couple of assumptions in admitting to Brian what has been going on: she assumes that he will call in the police, who will at least listen to him while they wouldn’t listen to her in a million years; and she assumes that her own guilt, piddling as it is, will count for almost nothing against the crime of blackmail. She expects to get a right ticking off, and maybe even the sack; far better than letting herself get caught up in this protection racket, which is, after all, what it is.
‘Sit down,’ Brian says. She looks around, but there is no-where in the office to sit. She perches on the side of the desk.
‘We’ll have to think about all this.’ He decides to take it slowly, to feel his way. ‘You’ve been a very silly girl, Margaret.’
‘We can play this two ways,’ he says after a while. ‘We can get the police in, but then if we do you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.’ He eyes her speculatively. He can see she is frightened. How frightened, though? ‘Or we can protect you, and give this bloke a bit more than he expects.’
Margaret looks up quickly. ‘How would you do that? And why?’ She is no fool. She thinks she knows what’s coming.
Brian looks away. ‘I work very hard,’ he begins slowly, quietly. He doesn’t want her to be too frightened, just enough to get what he wants. ‘You probably don’t know what long hours I work, just scratching a living. I don’t have time to go out, just work, work, work.’
He looks up at her, his eyes appealing now. ‘I get very lonely.’ He has never mentioned his home life to her. His wife has nothing to do with his business, nor his children. He keeps them well away.
‘A bloke like me, working all the time and living alone, well, sometimes we might find someone like you very attractive. You are very attractive. I want to help you.’
Not again, she pleads silently. Not again.
‘So maybe, you know, maybe if I...well, I have friends, friends who might, sort of, talk to your mate and sort of warn him off, like. Would that be all right?’
Margaret drops her head. All this because of small change. She feels Brian’s hand on her knee and begins to sob. ‘And look,’ Brian continues, ‘maybe if you’re really nice to me I could forget about the small change, eh?’