THEY SHARED A FISH
by Eva Lomski
The girl wondered if he was naked under the sheet. The young man lay on his stomach on a bed trolley positioned in the sunniest spot in the courtyard. Weeds shimmied in the cracks. The girl watched, waiting for the right moment to serve morning tea.
He was on his elbows, the sheet covering his backside. Freckles splayed across his shoulders. He had a biker’s moustache and a tattoo of a snake on his forearm. The braces on his wrists resembled a street weapon. She pushed aside the sliding door. The young man’s cowboy hat didn’t move.
“Coffee or tea?” She smiled. She wasn’t sure where to look, so she looked at her shoes. Calligraphy sprouted from her feet and ran into the path where it followed the cracks in the concrete. She tripped over it, but recovered and caught a bench before she fell. “What’ll it be?”
He put a cigarette to his lips. “Coffee. Milk. Three sugars.”
“Biscuits?” said the girl. Smiled. Smoothed uniform. Disengaged sticky cloth.
He blew out smoke. “Ginger nut.”
She hurried back to the common room and prepared a large plastic mug from the tea trolley. Sugar spilled, biscuits upended themselves. Usually, she worked the kitchens in the geriatric wards. Sad people, lost in mind and body, and wandering ghosts. The spinal rehabilitation ward was something different. All male. All her age. She couldn’t meet their eyes.
“Eighty-two percent are aged eighteen to twenty-four,” the professor regularly told the media. “Motorbikes and diving accidents.”
“Can they get erections?” someone at university wanted to know. The girl didn’t confess she wouldn’t know an erection if she tripped over it.
She took the mug and a straw outside and avoided the cracks. She looked at the tray clamped to the front of his trolley. Her hand shook as it always did, brushing hair and shaking hands and finishing assignments and meeting people. “Where do you want me to put it?”
He closed the book – something by Stephen King – and patted it. She took a cloth from her pocket, wiped the trolley, and put the coffee on Mr King, who protested. “I forgot your biscuits.”
“Ginger nut,” he said.
The older women in the kitchens, they didn’t have any problems, no matter how old or how ugly they were. They simply said, “Dere you go, my darlink!” and smiled and winked, and the patients smiled and winked back. Sometimes jokes were exchanged. The girl longed to know the art of the smile and the wink, especially when it came to men. She didn’t know what made her so unpalatable. Guys looked past her when she spoke to them as if trying to spot a taxi.
“Ginger nut,” she said when she returned, and she set the biscuits teetering on the book next to the mug. Mr King pushed one off.
“Ta.” He picked up the fallen and ate it.
The girl watched his muscles work under the tattooed snake and thought of how much effort went into those muscles before and after the accident. She saw herself lip-sticked with earrings and breasts swinging, sitting astride his muscled naked back.
“No problem,” she said, and left.
No problem spying on him from the common room window. That resolute hat. He came from the western suburbs, she knew that. She saw the mug turn into a paint can and the biscuits into nails. The bench was a toolbox, with his name on it. Insects big as bricks buzzed about his head. A row of houses made of beer cans and frozen pizza awaited him, she was sure; a room empty but for unreturned library books, and pairs of splattered old jeans.
Lorikeets chattering in the overhanging trees crapped eggs.
“They are the patients,” said her supervisor, “we are the kitchen. They need we treat them normal.”
“Everything else is for doctor. Now, no more, or I tell your mama. She worry about you enough.” The supervisor’s arms enfolded a lifetime of goulash teetering on tiny feet.
The girl hoped the smile and the wink might be a matter of maturity, and not personality, because if personality was the decider, she was gone. They prepared the lunches; making salads and sandwiches the dieticians prescribed and reheating hot foods that had been trucked in from the hospital’s main campus. Today, the patients had lasagne. It looked appetising, hot and cheesy, especially after time with the geriatrics, processing meat and vegetables into brown river sludge.
“You take in the food cart,” said the supervisor, spraying eau de goulash on her wrists and reapplying pink lipstick.
When the supervisor wasn’t looking, the girl used fork-fingers to straighten her pony-tail. She bit her lips. There was nothing to be done about the orange uniform, her own deflated giant peach.
The young man was the last to come in a wheelchair to the dining room. The nurses were there, talking with patients and helping with implements where help was needed. The girl wrestled with the food cart for a plate and was about to put the young man’s lasagne on the table in front of him, when she noticed her thumbnail, stumpy, grimy, workman-like.
“Can you pepper it for me?” he said.
Her thumbnail objected to its classification and parachuted the plate from her hand onto the young man’s placemat. Meaty sauce squealed and ran amok. She grabbed napkins to mop it up and heard a snort. A pulse thumped in her ear. She decided to smile and wink.
“I thought you were a big boy,” she said, her voice breaking only slightly.
“Oh yeah.” The cowboy hat moved up and down. “I’m a big boy. A very big boy. Wanna see how big I am?”
The closest patients, even the nurses, laughed. Her thumbnail throbbed amusement. Red-faced, pepper abandoned, the girl herded the tittering trolley back to the kitchen.
At clock-off time, she ran through a sea of deflated peaches, sweeping aside liana vines and bougainvillea, running, until she came onto a lilac bush in full flower. She turned and stumbled down a concrete path toward a red brick house. The path was edged with olive and mandarine trees, and there was a vegetable patch, sown the year she was born, overflowing with silverbeet, spring onions and nasturtium. A scarecrow flaunted the girl’s dotted old pyjamas.
Inside the house, which was papered in olive and mandarine, garlic sat on the washing machine and lonely pots sat on the stove. Through to the living room, where a coffin sat on the sofa and a tin of tobacco sat by an empty chair. The first bedroom contained a bed cut in half.
The second bedroom was the girl’s. It was painted purple; the bed covers were purple and the curtains were white. Violets lined the floor and the desk was of twisted willow. On the dresser, in a frame of eggshells, lay a photo of the girl with her parents at Disney on Ice. She flung open a wardrobe, injuring Minnie Mouse, and rifled fitfully through a row of white herons on hangers.
“Incomplete T10 paraplegic. You know what that mean?”
The girl’s supervisor leaned against the still-warm bain-marie, eating leftover rhubarb crumble. The girl scraped the patients’ dishes. She shook her head.
“It mean he no walk again, but sometimes he feel something here,” the supervisor said. “In his legs. You see he still moves arms?”
The girl nodded.
“Lucky boy. Lucky to be alive. Terrible accident. You promise never to ride the motorbike? Your poor dead father would not have liked the motorbike. Promise, or I tell your mama.”
As far as the girl was concerned, her poor dead father featured far too often in conversation, but she promised. It hardly mattered. The people in her circle drove the cheapest ugliest used cars, while she fought daily with the ignition of her mother’s Morris 1100.
“How about I find you a nice boyfriend from the church?” said the supervisor.
The girl thought she was neither that ugly nor that desperate. She was outsider enough.
“He has the same body, the young man,” said the supervisor. “But he never be the same. He is so young.” A false eyelash descended. “He is handsome, no?”
“How come you know this stuff?” the girl said.
“Me,” said the supervisor. She slapped her breasts, releasing the smell of talcum. “I have arms and legs, and I have eyes and ears too.”
It was like a painting, the girl thought, this pose on his elbows on the trolley in the courtyard. Again, the braces on his wrists, and he was naked to the hips. His shoulders were sunburned. Hairs like spun caramel followed the small of his back. She touched the feather that lay in the hollow at the base of her neck.
“Coffee, milk, three sugars?” she said.
She brought him the mug and three ginger nut biscuits. When he saw the biscuits, he put down Stephen King and pushed back the cowboy hat. Blue eyes, fringed with blonde. The girl saw the snake on his arm quiver.
“Maybe you’d like something else?” the girl said. “You like ginger nut, don’t you?”
He took a biscuit and studied it, and then it disappeared whole under the moustache. He chewed and raised his eyes as if in thought. “I like things spicy.”
“Right,” she said. “Good.” Her hands jumped into the pockets of her uniform, and she went to walk back to the common room.
He was up on his elbows, twisted around, staring at her face. The white soles of his feet hung limp over the end of the trolley.
“I don’t want three,” he said. “Why don’t you have one?”
“They can’t sack you for one biscuit,” he said. “I’ll say you were doing patient therapy.” He tapped the plate.
She walked up close. Smelled cigarettes and coconut oil. The cowboy hat nodded. She took a biscuit and sat on the bench. His face was two feet away. Sunlines around his eyes. He sipped his coffee.
“You always work Spinal?”
“Geriatric, usually,” she said.
This, she didn’t know how to answer, especially from two feet away. Her tongue split and split until Medusa filled her mouth. She levitated above the trolley, the bench, to settle in the trees amongst the egg-crapping lorikeets. Levitating was something she did very well, particularly during funerals, exams, parties, lectures and speaking engagements. The higher she flew, the faster her skin turned to feathers.
“Have you worked in the hospital long?” he said.
Bang. Back on the bench. “Um. Since I started uni.”
Her mouth kept moving. “Pays better than serving hamburgers. A friend of mine, she works in –“
“What do you do at uni?” he said.
And moving. This medusa of hers was moving like a demon, speaking of its own free will. Hot. It was hot in the sun. “Doing a double degree.”
“You like it?”
“The only thing I like is psychology.”
“At least you can get a job with psychology. Got to think of the future.”
His wrists stilled. “The future. Yeah.”
Medusa shrivelled. “Oh, crap,” she said. “Sorry.”
Lorikeets ran across calligraphy paths and crapped on them, and through a sea of giant peaches and crapped on them.
“I’ll take the mug,” she said, avoiding his eyes, realising she was yet to eat her biscuit. She put it in a top pocket. The spun caramel on his back glowed gold. She willed her brain to think. “You’re sunburned.”
The cowboy hat came down. “Can’t reach.”
His naked back. The heat of sunburn sitting aside his naked back. The heat of sunburn between her thighs … the coffee mug leaped out of her hand and tipped brown over his white sheet. “Oh no. Let me get that.”
So much for the smile and wink. So much for personality.
“Leave it,” he said.
“It’s my job.” She grabbed a cloth from her side pocket and swatted the sheet and the mug and Mr King, and then she bent and wiped at the coffee seeping into the cracks in the concrete. Calligraphy spelled out ‘failure’. Her neck was hot, her shoulders were hot, her hands shook. She stood back up and put the cloth back, and her free hand reached out and placed itself on his caramel shoulder. “All done.”
Hot skin. A tattoo snake undulated. Its tongue flicked, chemical receptors seeking moisture and air particles in order to analyse and respond. It struck and her wingtip was lifted and used to pry open his solitary chest to reveal a lake over which two white birds circled. They shared a fish, open-mouthed. His cheek neared her resting hand.
“Hey!” The shriek of goulash from the door to the common room. “Why you take so long? Have you forgotten morning tea?”
A hand reclaimed. ”Coming.”
His hat was lowered.
The supervisor. “What are you doing?”
“Tell her ‘therapy’,” he said. He smiled and lit a cigarette.
Medusa filled her mouth. She grabbed the tray and mug, jetstreaming smoke and feathers.
“By the way,” he said, “ I don’t burn.”
The cracks reached for her and she caught the bench before she fell. The supervisor waited for her in the doorway, making the girl decide whether to squeeze through face first, or with her back to her supervisor. False eyelashes blinked and blinked their questions. The girl went for face-to face. Halfway through, bosom to bosom, the girl looked past the supervisor as if trying to spot a taxi, took the ginger nut from her pocket and bit.
“I am, “she said through crumbs, “treating the patients normal.”
And she shook her feathers and retreated, for now.
Eva Lomski lives and writes in Melbourne, Australia. Her stories have appeared in several Australian journals including The Best Australian Stories 2012(Black Inc.), The Sleepers Almanac, Kill Your Darlings, Griffith Review and Island.