Mata Hari and her gingham piglet

My grapefruit piglet wears aprons.

I turn my head so quickly that the celery poking out of my Bloody Mary spears my nose. I pull back, frowning, and try to track the person who uttered the bemusing line, but his houndstooth back has already headed off down the footpath. Damn, that sounded good… I’m pretty sure ‘grapefruit’ was actually ‘breakthrough’, but my misheard version makes me chuckle, rotund little piglets in gingham aprons already trotting through my overactive imagination.

Can’t quite work the grapefruits in there, though.

It’s one of the first days of spring, and I’m having an Eavesdropping Afternoon. This bagel shop in the midst of Fitzroy has homemade sarsaparilla, black and white checked tiles, and communal tables that allow me to spy on people openly. When I sit on this corner stool and smear my cinnamon bagel with cream cheese, sipping on my luridly red Bloody Mary, I’m instantly on the Lower East Side of New York, with a light heart and an open notebook and plenty of ink to spill.

His missing tooth captivates me, and he almost catches me staring. I look down, fast. His tracksuit has a rip at the knee and he’s wearing odd shoes that carry his feet in the smacked out shuffle I know so well around here. She’s pushing an empty pram and as they amble past the open window I hear the whine in her voice as she remonstrates with him ‘it was my last piece, ya bastard….now I have to go back to KFC’. I wonder if the empty pram is a ruse to beg money from people, or if the kid actually fell out somewhere on Brunswick Street.

Suddenly I’m not in New York but back in Croydon, sipping a mugachino at the Palm Tree Café on Main Street as teenage mums with Alpine cigarettes in tired fingers yell at toddlers called Axl.

I’m not making that up. Axl.

Two men kick out stools at my table and fold themselves down. One has almost amber eyes, and the lines around them when he laughs melt me completely. Lucky for him, he has no grey hair flecking his curls, or I’d be feeding him cream cheese with my fingers by now. His friend doesn’t laugh back, just slides his sunglasses onto his head with a sigh as he reaches for his black coffee. I can see the stories bobbing to the surface of his skin, and think if I don’t make any sudden moves, I won’t frighten them away.

I pretend to lose myself in my notebook, circling the pen above the parchment with a frown of mock focus. When he speaks, his voice is weary. ‘I shouldn’t have done it. It’s just…..I couldn’t help myself.’

His friend nods, and offers a grunt of support. ‘I know.’

But I don’t……what did you do? Cheat on someone, steal something? Make a piglet wear an apron?

‘She said she didn’t speak to him anymore…..I fucking knew she was lying. Why would she tell me that?’

His friend lifts his shoulders in resignation and smiles with tired eyes. I can tell they’ve had this conversation before. I try not to get caught watching, but the resigned way the speaker is stirring sugar into his coffee is having a hypnotic effect on me.

‘I mean, I know I shouldn’t have gone through her phone – but three god damned texts from him! On the same day! Shit, they broke up nine months ago, why is she still speaking to him?’

His friend shakes his head ruefully and drawls ‘I’ve told you, man – never let your woman go near someone who’s been in her mouth.’

It’s all I can do not to snort tomato juice all over them. I manage to keep myself in line, but I’m in danger of blowing my cover entirely. If they didn’t want me eavesdropping, they shouldn’t be providing such stellar material.

‘I knew something was up. I fucking knew it.’ The spoon is still circling, chiming against the porcelain with tiny peals of doom. ‘You know how they suddenly don’t wear the makeup they used to?’

I almost shake my head. If she’s stopped wearing mascara for him, it’s not a good sign.

‘Maybe she ran out?’ I try not to smile at his mate, at the version of male tenderness I’m witnessing. I want him to reach out a place a hand on his friend’s sleeve, one touch, a reassurance of his place in the world and those that still surround him. He’s not going to move. I wonder what they’d do if I reached out instead.

‘Nah, that’s not it. You know what else?’

I try not to lean forward in readiness. Even Mata Hari blew her cover in the end, her secrets billowing out of her in front of the smoke and steel of a firing squad. I try to keep still.

‘She stopped wearing matching underwear for me.’

All three of us sit back heavily in our seats. When they turn to look at me in surprise, I quickly tap my pen onto the paper and pretend to scribble a few words.

I ache to write his lines for him, words of warmth and wisdom to carry him through this. I want to write him a woman, a tawny haired girl with dimples who talks in her sleep and wears black corsets with pearl inlay. She’ll probably keep in touch with her ex-boyfriends but know enough to erase their texts…my girls are damn smart.

I want to write lines to wrap around his skin and fortify his armour, keeping him whole. It’s taken me so many moments like this, where the words knock woodenly around a heavy mouth and the ash behind your eyes threatens to burst forth, where the one you love slams you so far from your axis that you know you’ll never, never be the same again…but my armour is triple plated, and the arrows no longer get through.

I almost believe this as I pack up my books. I feel sure and sad as I walk around the table, past the boy with the hand sliding tiredly over dark stubble as he cups his chin in his palm and vainly looks for answers.

If this were New York, his mate would take him to a Brooklyn strip joint where they’d swill Coors and get thrown out by bouncers with sunglasses called Bubba. But this is Fitzroy, and when I hear ‘So how about Trampoline…..rum and raisin ok with you?’ my smile walks away from them.

It’s all I can do not to ruffle his hair as I pass.

Mata Hari and her gingham piglet


Melbourne, Australia

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