Warnings: drug and sexual references.
Sandwiched between my foot and the bathroom floor was something…crunchy. I jumped backwards hurriedly and reached for the light. Seconds later lightness flooded the room and I stared down at the floor to see what it was I'd stepped on
It was a mangled cockroach. It was still alive, if the waving front legs were anything to go by, despite the fact that gray-green innards were spilling out of it's cracked mahogany shell.
'Shit, that is so fucking nasty,' I muttered, disgusted, as I hopped over to the shower stall to rinse the cockroach intestines from my foot.
Freezing cold water sprayed from the rusted pipes and over my foot. I shivered, shuddered and swore while wondering, not for the first time, why I lived in such an infested broken-down dump.
With my foot free from insect guts, I turned my attentions to the struggling roach. It was put out of its misery with one hard whack of a shampoo bottle, before being unceremoniously picked up with toilet paper and dumped into the loo. I had to flush the toilet before peeing. There's something incredibly stomach turning about pissing on a dead cockroach.
I showered, shaved and dressed for work, before taking the time to make a cup of coffee and smoke a cigarette. The tobacco in my roll-your-own cigarette was stale and dry, but today was payday, so it didn't much matter. As soon as the corner store opened I'd have a pouch of fresh tobacco.
It was still dark when I left the house, which was no surprise given that it was two-thirty in the morning. I work in a bakery, baking bread and icing cupcakes, and after three months in the position my body clock has adjusted. It took time (and caffeine) but it's hardly like I've ever had a raging social life, and friends who expect each other to work normal hours. It doesn't matter if I'm asleep hours before Law and Order starts, don't go clubbing, and eat my 'dinner' early in the afternoon.
The streets are dark and quiet as I ride my pushbike to work. It's not until an hour or so later that the cars will start to come by, honking and tooting and cutting recklessly in front of each other. The Benz's and Porsche's of executives and professionals weave in amongst the belching twenty year old sedans and hatches of students and low paid workers, nobody getting anywhere, other than angry, quickly.
Still, despite the woes of drivers, I miss having a car. I haven't owned a vehicle since I was nineteen, which means I've been five long years without independent motorized transport. It's undoubtedly my own fault, of course. I chose drugs over a car. I chose drugs over a stable home and financial security. Hell, I chose drugs over every bloody thing you can think of, and when you make those decisions, without having any excuses to fall back on, the only person you can blame is yourself.
Two of the staff were at work by the time I arrived, baking bread and preparing the special orders. I was given the glorious task of mopping the floors and washing every utensil in the store. It's boring, minimum wage work, but it offers the perk of all the fresh bread you could want. Overcooked pies, day old rolls, cinnamon donuts; all of it is free to the staff. When you're on minimum wage, it really makes a difference to your budget.
The day rolled by in its usual fashion. More staff arrived. Customers showed up. We started serving 'breakfast' to those who want to sit under the shaded patio and discover the joys of badly filtered coffee and overly sweet pastries. At eight o'clock I was handed a mug of coffee and a ham and cheese croissant and told to take it out to a customer.
'Male; black pants, striped shirt, cute, blonde.' Marie directed. 'Take your smoke break when you've finished.'
Mr. Coffee with a ham and cheese croissant was cute, I decided. He looked toned and healthy, if a little short, and he had freckles sprinkled across the bridge of his nose. His blond hair, sun-bleached and silky, fell over his forehead. Not bad for a businessman, not bad at all.
Given that he was more interested in the folder in front of him than his breakfast, I made a polite noise in the back of my throat to indicate my presence.
'Oops, sorry,' he apologized, pushing his papers aside. 'I have an early meeting and I'm…Carmine? Is that you?'
I blinked. I realized I recognized the face, but not the name. 'Yeah. Sorry, I know I know you, but I can't remember your name.'
'Luke. We used to work together at Alphonso's together. Gosh, what was that, a year and a half ago? I left a week after you did. I work in horticulture now. Normally I'm a gardener, and I'm sweaty and stinky, but today I'm meeting with a potential client, so I'm all kitted up,' he smiled, happy. 'I'm glad I didn't run into you on a day when I was doing a job. You would have run for miles.'
Nobody would ever run from Luke. He's young and blonde and gay, affectionate and friendly. I know exactly who he is, now that he's reminded us of our link, and I can only remember positive things about him.
'Yes, yes it is,' he smiles. 'Carmine, you and I really need to catch up. We should have lunch together. What time is your lunch break?'
'Five thirty in the morning. It's long gone. I finish in two hours.'
Luke looked disappointed. 'Oh.'
I took a seat on the opposite side of the bench. I'm not normally one to impose, but Luke is different. Luke has always been friendlier, more open, and more trusting than my other acquaintances, the kind of guy who welcomes company. 'I'm on break now,' I shrugged. 'Do you mind if I sit down?'
'No, not at all,' he assured me. 'We have so much to talk about. What are you doing? Are you seeing anyone special?'
'Well, I'm working in a bakery. Not exactly enthralling work, but after Alphonso gave me the sack, there weren't a lot of options,' I grinned wryly. 'There's no one special in my life. Right now I'd settle for someone 'special in the sack' but who wouldn't? What about you? Are you still with your boyfriend?'
'Ezra and I will die together in an old folk's home. It's our fate. I've come to accept it.'
'How terrible. I can't imagine much worse.'
'He'll probably be too chicken to buy the Viagra. I'll have to share my stash with him.'
'Maybe you'll have haemorrhoids and won't want him anywhere near your arse.'
Luke burst into laughter. 'That's the worst thing I've heard all week. Haemorrhoids. Oh my God, I hadn't even thought of that.'
'On the bright side, you have fifty years of excellent sex ahead of you.'
He held his hand to his mouth to try and quell his laughter. His eyes were bright, happy; a reflection of his shimmering, perfect life. I'm jealous of Luke. I'm jealous of his personality, his boyfriend and his job. I like him – he's warm and friendly and it's impossible not to – but I'm envious that he has so much.
I'm insignificant next to him. I'm a recovering addict on minimum wage who lives in a crumbling studio apartment and travels by bike, while he is a sweet, gay gardener who's on his way to an important meeting.
'Carmine, you should come and work with me. My boss opened a new store a few months ago, but his girlfriend is pregnant and he's trying to hand over all of the work to the staff. You could come and work with me, or at the other store with his father. It's busy, and it's hard work, but it pays really well. You can pick your own work car and you get to take it home with you when you're not working.'
'Unfortunately, I am not a gardener,' I admit. 'I wouldn't have the slightest clue.'
'It doesn't matter. I'll vouch for you.'
I glanced towards the counter carefully. There was no one within earshot, but my break was almost over.
'Are you sure?' I asked carefully.
Luke nodded. 'Positive. Here, take my card, it has the address. Go to the Rocklea store, it's the new one. Come around at three o'clock this afternoon. I'll let them know you're coming.'
I took the card from his hand and stared at it. I recognized the company name. Their trucks were all over town, sleek and shiny and new, with the name of the business plastered on the doors. Hell, there was no way I'd pass up the chance of being hired. You don't get many chances in life, not unless you were born with the proverbial silver spoon in your mouth.
'That's great. Really, I appreciate it Luke.'
'If you get a job, you'll be doing me a favour.'
'I somehow doubt that. Anyway, my break is over and I should get back to work before they come and yell at me. Can you give me any advice on the interview?'
Luke picked up his mug of coffee. 'If they like you, they'll hire you. If they don't, they won't. I doubt they'll check your references, but bring a resume. Dress neatly, but not professional. Some of the guys are a bit rough, and it's probably not a good idea to get on their bad side.'
'No worries,' I replied, standing up. 'Thanks again.'
He waved aside my gratitude, as though it were nothing and I returned to the bakery, thoughtful. I'd like a new job, especially this one. More money and a company car? All I had to do was make it through the interview, and I was home free.
Darcy was sitting in a rickety chair in the shared laundry, staring hopelessly at the washing machine. Her washing was in a broken white plastic basket, at her feet, despite the communal machine not currently being in use.
'Doing your washing?' I asked.
'No, love, you do yours.'
I lifted the lid of the machine and threw in my dirty workclothes. I added powder and fabric softener to the compartments before jamming two dollar coins into the slot and selecting the super wash.
'Busy day?' Darcy questioned.
I took the seat next to her. Darcy is one of those hopeless cases; a forty year old prostitute and alcoholic who's fast fading. Her blonde hair hangs like straw; overbleached and dry, and her skin is blotched with sunspots, bruises and cellulite. When she's sober she wears short shorts and tank tops with flip flops and when she's drunk she'll take it all off and climb into bed with anyone foolish enough not to have locked their doors.
She's batshit when's she's drunk and lonely. Every tenant in the block is more than familiar with her inebriated dialogues; Do you think I'm pretty? I'm still beautiful, aren't I, fellows? I could have anyone, anyone at all. Men still whistle at me, and that's 'cuz I don't look my age. It's my arse. I have a nice arse, not big like the black American girls', and I've let men fuck me there, ooh, yes, I've let them do that
In between whoops and giggles, she'll move closer and closer, removing articles of clothing and encouraging you to touch her tight arse, feel her titties, penetrate her fetid cunt. Some of the tenants have been cruel to her. She's been hit, and had shit thrown at her, and others have invited their mates over, telling them they can come around for a free root. The latter bothers me the most. There's something about a depressed middle aged woman gloating that she's getting it from eight twenty year old losers, who in turn are taking the absolute piss out of her, that really gets to me. No one deserves that kind of disrespect.
'Um, not really. I saw an old friend of mine. He gave me his card. He said his employers have work going.'
'You're leaving the bakery?' she confirmed, surprised, in her gravelly voice. 'Shit, that'll be good for ya.'
'Yeah, well, maybe it won't work out.' I pulled my tobacco from my pocket and starting rolling a smoke. 'What've you been up to?'
It wasn't unusual for Darcy to go missing in action for a week or two. Sometimes we'd start worrying that she was dead but she always returned, and as soon as she did our discussions on her possible death ceased, to be resumed only during her next exodus.
'Oh, you know,' she replied vaguely.
I offered her a neatly rolled cigarette. She accepted the cigarette and put it in her mouth, while I fumbled in my pocket for a lighter. I offered her a light, and we leaned in close to one another, strangely intimate. The flame licked the end of her cigarette, catching the stray thread of tobacco, before burning the end of the tobacco tube. She inhaled, moved the cigarette from her lips, and exhaled a long stream of dark smoke.
'You're a good boy, Carmine, a good Italian boy. Your mother would be proud.' Darcy patted me affectionately as she slung one bruised leg over the other. 'When I meet her, I'm going to tell her what a good kid you are. She deserves to know.'
It's highly improbable that Darcy will ever meet my mother. It's highly improbably that I will ever see my mother again. I was given my marching orders when I was fifteen, and I didn't take my ejection from the family home well. Why would I have, when I had nowhere else to go?
'Yeah, well I'm gonna pretend to be a good Italian worker this afternoon,' I grin. 'I want this job.'
Darcy laughed. 'I thought you wogs were drunken layabouts?'
I hugged her, in a camp kind of way. 'I'll sleep with their daughters,' I promised.
'Huh, unlikely. It's their sons that will need protecting.'
In case you couldn't tell, I liked Darcy. She was the closest thing I had to a family and in her eyes, I was the son she'd lost to social services thirteen years ago.
My resume was full of gaps; months of unexplained unemployment, but I was counting on Luke's assertion that I would be judged more on my personality than my employment history.
On the clothing front I figured I was okay. I was a run of the mill six foot, with a run of the mill build, so jeans are easy to find and generally fit perfectly. With my denims I wore a plain white singlet under a checkered button up shirt, and I'd gelled my hair into a sticky, but presentable, mess. It looks nice when it's styled, even if it's gummy to touch.
I smoked one last cigarette, chewed some gum, and followed the directions on map I'd downloaded from the internet. It had taken me two bus trips to get this far, and I now had fifteen minutes to get there.
It took me five. The place was impossible to miss. There was a huge sign out the front and the air smelled earthy and damp, almost like a rainforest. In the middle of an Industrial area, where warehouses and factories belched chemicals into the air, it seemed to be a beacon of environmental hope.
The six-foot wooden gates were open and I walked inside, resume in hand. It was a gardener's paradise inside, filled with anything and everything imaginable, from bizarre looking cacti to Grecian-style marble statues. The statues were beautiful, absolute works of art, but the price tags on them were enough to make me aware I'd never have sufficient cash to own one.
'Carmine,' Luke called out, seemingly appearing from behind a palm tree. 'You came.'
'Um, yeah,' I replied. 'Is that still okay?'
He hugged me quickly, and started walking in the direction of a large warehouse that was situated on the property. 'I told Geoff all about you.'
'I hope you told him good things.'
'I only know good things,' he replied lightly. 'I'm glad Geoff's interviewing you. He's easier to get along with than Jamie.'
'Who owns the place?'
'Jamie. Geoff's his father.'
Luke held open the door for me and gestured for me to go in. I stepped inside, and found myself surrounded by a pots and pots of plants, many of them overflowing with bright, beautiful, flowers. It was warm and humid, and if the smell of earth was strong outside, it was a hundred times more powerful inside.
A radio was playing in the background and several water features were trickling as we walked across the polished concrete floors towards the register. There was a man sitting at the desk behind the register, talking on the phone, who didn't bother to look up as we approached.
'Wait here,' Luke whispered. 'I'll get Geoff.'
He went into what I assumed was the store's main offices. I licked my lips, took a deep breath, and mentally rehashed my answers to the usual questions. What were my strengths? What were my weaknesses? Why had I been unemployed for months at a stretch?
The man at the counter hung up the phone, wrote something down, then turned his attention to me. His brown eyes fixed on me, and an expression of recognition spread across his face. He scrutinized me as though he was watching me shower in jail.
Which, incidentally, was precisely where I'd last seen Shay.
'Carmine, this is Geoff,' Luke announced, introducing a man in his mid-fifties.
Fuck, I thought, my mind still on Shay. What were the chances of coming across two familiar faces in the same day? The job opportunity was as good as gone. It's one thing for a gay guy to bitch up in order to survive a seven month sentence, and it's entirely another to have everyone in the free world to know about what you've done.