They were all pretending not to notice him.
Well, everyone except her.
He stumbled down the aisle of the tram, one hand flung out to steady himself. When he paused, several passengers turned to look out the window, away from his heavy lidded eyes and beer breath.
His gaze landed on her, as she knew it would.
Her spine straightened, and she slid a hand over her little gingham apron, patting it twice.
Eyes always land on her, in the end.
So when he fell into the seat opposite, and grinned his bleariness her way, our girl raised one eyebrow over a smoky eye, and smiled back.
He had no idea what was coming.
‘You smell pretty’ was the first thing out of his broken-toothed mouth.
She shook back her ruffled mane and slid one slender wrist under his nose.
‘Thank you! It’s Chanel, and a dash of insouciance…but just behind the ears.’
The young man next to the drunk glanced sharply at her. He had a lavish pirate moustache and a Supersuckers T-shirt, and the kohl girl admired both with a long look that started a flush working its way up his neck.
The drunk was still trying to work out insouciance, but he wasn’t giving up on her yet. He took in the lissom mermaid swaying across her left arm and tried again.
‘Your tatts are cool. I got a few myself.’
He wedged his brown paper bag against the upholstery, the dark neck of a bottle peeking out. When he rolled up his sleeve a ragged German shepherd snarled at her in patchy inkwash, fangs bared.
‘Sweet.’ Her green eyes didn’t blink.
‘I got my mermaid in prison, actually.’
The drunk hiccupped his surprise.
‘Yes sir, I did. I’m not ashamed to say it.’
She leaned forward in her seat, and winked.
‘I’m not ashamed to say anything, to be honest.’
The pirate was trying not to look at her.
‘Yep! Forced to do a stretch inside, thanks to a stint of flagrant toupee snatch-and-runs, and riding my pennyfarthing without a helmet.’
‘Quite a slide to ruin, hey? But what can you expect, after a childhood brought up by travelling ferret groomers? I mean, my parents tried their best, but after the Great Shadow Puppet Scandal of 1994, they threw up their hands with me. And don’t even get me started on what happened to the triplets.’
The drunk’s eyes were wide as his hand lifted the bag halfway to his mouth.
‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly.’ She shook her head at the bottle. ‘I’m far too hungover for beer, thanks anyway.’
The drunk frowned, and looked down at the brown paper.
‘Scooter Macgregor was in town last night, you see – had a day off from the hula hoop convention – and we painted the town red. Rode our pennyfarthings into Flinders Lane and dipped into the cocktails at the Lithuanian Redhead Appreciation Society.’
She laughed, shaking her hair from shoulder to shoulder.
‘Man, can those guys party! After we indulged in their Žagarėliai with extra acorns, we overdosed on their lethal cocktails made from tree sap, pumpkin vodka and undiluted mink spit…lord, is my head pounding!’
The drunk turned in bewilderment to the pirate, who was watching the kohl girl’s reflection in the tram window and trying not to smile.
She tapped the drunk’s knee with one long finger. He glanced down at her hand, adorned with a strange twisted ring that looked for all the world to him like a tiny bell, and then back up at her.
‘As I was saying…what better way to laze away a hungover morning than with a picnic and a rollicking tale?’
She unsnapped the latch on her vintage doctor’s kit bag, and reached in. When she pulled out a book, the pirate tried to glance inside and was rewarded with the startling sight of a trio of blood oranges, a small taxidermy guinea pig, and a porcelain milk jug in the shape of a cowboy, its hat tilted at a jaunty angle.
She held the book up to the drunk, her hand in a flourish across the cover.
‘I’m so smitten with this story – ‘My Life as a Finnish Banjo Renegade’ by Kyllikki Muukkonen.’
The pirate tried to swallow a snort.
She turned the cover his way, and grinned.
‘Oh, have you read it? It totally changes the way you perceive Scandinavian bluegrass and its highly controversial dogma, don’t you think? Though it doesn’t quite beat her previous book, ‘Ventriloquists I Have Known.’
The drunk was starting to look alarmed, glancing down at his beer as though one bottle wouldn’t be enough to get him through this.
‘As soon as the picnic’s over though, I do have to get back to work – I train cats for flash mob performances, you see. Tricky work, especially getting their little paws into the leotards, but someone has to do it.’
The drunk tried to stand up. One bottle would definitely not be enough, not unless it was whiskey – why do the freaky ones always look so damn good?
When he staggered down the steps of the tram, she turned to the pirate with another wink.
‘Damn, could have sworn he wanted to talk!’
The pirate slid along the seat until he was directly opposite her, and tucked his feet under so he was sitting crosslegged. When his voice finally came, it held more than a note of laughter.
‘I’d love to hear some of that story, if you don’t mind?’
And she cradled the book in her palm, slid one nail into its inky depths to flick it open, and began to read to him.
I know, I’ve been writing non-stop lately. My muse always seems to be on the end of my bed, shaking me awake, tucking strands of hair behind my ear to whisper me stories.
I have no complaints.
Well, one: I’d like to be able to share a mink spit martini with the kohl girl sometime.