He’d better not do it again.
Her eyes flicked across to him, and back out the window. If he did it just one more time, Gosha knew she’d lean over the paper and snarl at him. It’s not enough he had to sit with his legs wide apart, taking up most of the tram seat, but did he have to spread his newspaper so wide as well?
Right in her god damn face.
He cleared his throat. The sound spiralled into a coughing fit, the paper jerking with each spasm. He made no move to cover his mouth, and Gosha felt her grimace darken into a scowl.
She was just about to lose her temper when the car hit them.
They slammed into the seat in front of them. The paper soared into the air, a shout merging with the sickening crunch of metal on metal. She sprawled on the floor, the tram bell clanging so loudly her first instinct was to cover her ears. She looked through the fluttering pages to see the man next to her, his mouth hanging open in a perfect O of shock.
For some reason this annoyed her more than the coughing.
She groaned, and slowly climbed onto her hands and knees on the tram floor. A hot slice of pain shot through her left ankle, making her yelp.
What a shitty little day this was turning out to be.
A child howled at the back of the tram. People were starting to stand up, testing their limbs and shaking their heads at each other in exaggerated amazement. An elderly man was being led to a seat, a trickle of blood working its way down the liver spots on his forehead. A shopping bag had vomited up its contents, oranges rolling against each other amongst a crystalline carpet of spilled salt.
Gosha climbed to her feet. Her ankle was tender, but she could still put weight on it. She reached inside her bag to check everything was where it should be, and looked around.
The newspaper man was unsteady on his feet. She watched him for a moment, cars honking as they veered around the tram.
He nodded slowly, as though his head might fall off his shoulders.
‘I think so….you?’
She shrugged. ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I could do with getting off this thing though.’
He rolled his eyes in agreement as they moved towards the doorway. When he spoke, she could hear the cough building in his voice.
‘I guess we’re pretty lucky, hey?’
They stepped onto Collins Street as he erupted in a phlegm fit. Gosha felt the scorn flash across her face and wondered if he’d caught it. Lucky. If that were true, it’d be the first time she could remember.
A police car had been parked nearby, and an officer was already standing next to the twisted car, black boots in a sea of broken glass. Gosha automatically turned away, and started to limp in the other direction. She barely got two steps before a policewoman ducked into view.
‘Excuse me, were you on the tram? I just need to get your details.’
Gosha felt her jaw tighten. The very colour of the uniform made her pulse quicken. The accident had nothing to do with her, but she couldn’t shake the possibility she would still be blamed for it somehow.
The policewoman held her pen up.
Her first instinct was to lie. She was flicking through the names of girls she went to high school with when she thought of her grandfather, making that awful whistle of disapproval. God, between him and her social worker, it was a wonder she could get out of bed in the morning.
The policewoman winced.
‘How do you spell that?’
She could have just given the diminutive version, but where would the fun be in that? She dictated every tricky consonant, and gave her grandfather’s address. She hoped there’d be no reason to contact him; another call from the police would be the last thing he’d need.
She thought of him the last time, picking her up from the police station with his braces sagging and his head low. How he’d driven her home without a sound, without a word, until they reached the driveway. He’d taken the key out of the ignition and sighed, tobacco breath souring the air between them.
‘Malgorzata, let me tell you something.’
His Polish accent always grew thicker when he was upset. She’d looked out the window and pulled her bottom lip between her teeth.
‘A smart bee would rather make honey than sting a man.’
He’d reached over and tapped her head with a surprisingly strong finger.
‘And you, dziewczynka…you are not a smart bee.’
She limped down Collins Street, the sound of car horns trailing her. She turned down Chancery Lane and into an alleyway behind a Chinese restaurant. Leaning against a dumpster, she drew the wallet out of her pocket.
The newspaper man stared up at her from a square of plastic, mouth closed this time. Joseph Pearce. It was a solid name, the name of a man with a gold pass gym membership and a loyalty card for a veterinarian’s office on the bay. She wondered if he had a cat or a dog, if he treated them well.
It was also the name of a man with $213 in his wallet. She folded the notes around his credit card, and dropped the wallet into the dumpster.
She could smell ginger, and maybe star anise through the kitchen windows. She stood in the alleyway, shifting her weight from foot to foot, feeling the pain pulse and retreat.
It was a clean pain, white and sharp like a sliver of ice in her shoe. She stretched her toes, and felt it snake down the length of her foot.
She pushed her weight off the dumpster and realised the pain felt pure, clear, and not entirely undeserved.
At the last Melbourne writers’ meeting, we set ourselves a challenge: we were each given a name in another language, and the words salt, secret, bee and truth, We’ve had one month to weave our stories, which had to include all the above, just in time for this weekend’s meeting.
Funny the things that fall out of your pen, hey?