Kathryn van Beek

Frangipani

Masina wipes white crumbs from above her mouth and reapplies her 1-2-3 Dollar Store lipstick, bright pink like the plastic frangipani flower tucked behind her ear. She and Steve face the boutique stores, bars and eateries of Ponsonby Road from a park bench. With their matching thick-soled black shoes, black polyester pants and blue T-shirts, their dumpy bodies are almost interchangeable. Steve’s sandy grey hair looks lighter than usual in the summer sun of the early evening. The skin of his weathered arms is criss-crossed with faded tattoos and tanned almost as dark as Masina’s, though underneath his shirt his stomach is as white as a marshmallow. As the church bells strike five, he finishes the last mouthful of his corned-beef sandwiches.

‘Even better the second time around,’ he says. He says this every day.

Logan sits a few metres away on the grass, watching the Ponsonby people and hoping they’re not watching him. Hoping the distance between himself and his parents marks him out as a separate entity. Hoping no one notices his ugly black shoes, ugly black pants and the baggy blue T-shirt that swamps his lean frame. The people walking past seem festive, as though they’re holding themselves back from dancing down the street. It’s almost Friday, it’s the warmest it’s been in months and they’ve got places to be. They look perfect, like stock images come to life. The slender Polynesian woman in the pencil skirt is corporate diversity. Two laughing young men in suits are success. A blonde in yoga pants is work/life balance. Logan shifts his bum on the damp grass and wonders what he represents. He smells the sweet aroma of marijuana and turns to see a group of guys his age in posh school uniforms huddled behind the public toilets. He looks back towards the park bench and meets Steve’s eyes.

‘I bet they’re not going to get stood down.’

‘Finish your sandwich.’

‘It’s the same thing we had for lunch. Can I’ve a burger? There’s a burger place just down the road.’

‘Get real.’

Logan stuffs the rest of the sandwich in his mouth and chews abjectly. His fingers smell like bleach.

‘Come on, mate,’ says Steve, hauling himself off the park bench with a grunt. ‘Time to start the next shift.’

‘Do I have to?’

‘You’re the one who wanted to know what real life is like.’

 

They collapse into the car. It’s not going to get another warrant. The bumper’s lashed on with cable ties and gaffer tape. They drive a few blocks to the depot and pick up the van. The van’s in better condition than the car, but it’s even more embarrassing to drive around in, with Sail City Cleaning written in big letters on the side. Logan pauses before getting in.

‘I’m tired,’ he says.

‘We’re tired too,’ says Steve. ‘You’re not the only one who’s been working all day.’

‘Can I go home and look after Noah?’

‘Noah’s almost 14 – he can look after himself.’

Logan rolls his eyes and gets into the van.

‘You’ll get used to it,’ says Masina.

‘We don’t want him to get used to it,’ says Steve.

‘Why do we have to do two jobs anyway?’

‘We’re lucky to have two,’ says Masina. ‘Some people don’t even have one.’

The first office is above a designer clothes store with a range of floaty embroidered garments in the window. They climb the narrow stairs, and Steve opens the door to reveal exposed brick walls, polished wooden floors and trendy furniture.

‘This place isn’t too bad. Recruitment company.’

‘What’s that?’

‘They help people find jobs.’

Logan walks down the corridor. There are large, bright artworks on the walls. He points to one – a bold red circle with paint dripping from it.

‘I could do that,’ he says.

‘Finish your art homework one day and prove it,’ says Steve.

In one of the offices, a pretty young woman is still working. Logan slows down to admire the way her pale heart-shaped face rests in her palm as she reads. Masina calls out to her.

‘Hello, Becky. You’re working late again.’

Becky looks up and smiles.

‘Talofa, Masina. Who’s this with you today?’

Logan ducks his head in embarrassment.

‘This is our son, Logan. We’re giving him some work experience.’

‘That’s what I like to hear.’

Becky winks at Logan and looks back down at her work.

‘Okay, Logan, you can start in the toilets,’ says Masina. ‘Remember to wear your gloves.’

The male cubicle isn’t too bad. There’s some pee on the floor, and Logan resolves to improve his own aim in the future. The female cubicle is like something out of a horror film. The toilet bowl looks as though a brown bomb’s gone off in it. Logan feels himself retch.

‘Mum!’

Masina walks in, sprays the bowl with disinfectant and scrubs ferociously. Shit loosens from the sides and falls into the water. Masina flushes it away. Logan’s stomach heaves.

‘Good as new,’ Masina says.

‘That’s disgusting!’ Logan says. ‘You shouldn’t have to do that! These people should know better!’

‘Don’t judge other people,’ says Masina. ‘You don’t know what’s happening in their lives.’

 

The next office is three blocks down the road. It’s a modern building with Crystal Independent Music etched into the frosted-glass front door.

‘I’m not doing any toilets,’ says Logan.

‘You can do the vacuuming,’ says Steve. ‘Give my back a break.’

Logan hauls the vacuum cleaner from room to room, stopping when he gets to the kitchen. The remains of a celebratory feast are laid out on the table. Half a chocolate cake, five open containers of dip and three almost-full bags of corn chips sit beside a handwritten sign that reads ‘Help yourself’. Logan picks up a fork, spears a piece of cake and crams it into his mouth. The cake’s dry but delicious. Logan waves the fork in the air like a conductor as he chews. Masina comes in and looks at him, aghast.

‘Put that down!’

‘What?’

Masina walks towards him, brush and shovel raised.

‘You want me to hit you with this broom?’

Logan drops the fork.

‘The sign says help yourself,’ he says, his voice distorted by cake.

‘The sign’s not for us. It’s for them. Our job is to put the food away.’

‘But the cake will be gross by Monday.’

‘That’s not the point.’

Steve walks in, one eyebrow cocked.

‘What’s going on?’

‘This boy is trying to steal this food.’

‘I’m not stealing it!’

Masina gives Logan a dark look and strides from the kitchen, her thick black plait thumping against her back. Steve surveys the cake. The missing chunk stands out like a missing tooth.

‘We might as well even it up,’ he says. He gets a knife and shaves off a slice just big enough to disguise the stolen forkful. He breaks the piece in half and shares it with Logan.

‘Don’t tell your mother.’

He winks, and Logan’s reminded of the time he came home early from church and found Steve smoking pot in the garage.

‘What did you want to be when you grew up? When you were my age?’

‘What a question! I don’t know. Rugby player? Musician? These guys have it pretty good. I’ve found weed in here. I’ve found pills. I’ve found a used condom in the boardroom … ’

‘Serious?’

‘Your mother disinfected all the surfaces that night. With what they get up to, you’d think they’d be pretty cool, but they still bust our asses if we put a foot wrong.’ Steve nods towards the abandoned vacuum cleaner. ‘You going to finish the floor or what?’

 

It’s dark when they leave, and the noises and sounds of Ponsonby Road follow them down the side street to the van. A group of people Logan’s age stream past, briefly encompassing him in a mist of alcohol and expensive perfume. He walks a few steps with them as though he belongs, then catches a whiff of his own scent of sweat and disinfectant and stops still. The group moves past him and disappears down the road, leaving the sounds of high heels and laughter ringing in his ears. 

Their last stop is a big old building around the corner on College Hill. Masina turns to Logan before they get out of the van.

‘This is a special place. It’s where people come when they are dying. If they need their rooms done, I will do them, okay? You and your dad can do the offices and the lounge downstairs.’

‘Are they old people?’

‘Some of them are old; some of them are young. Remember Tiana Vincent from your primary school – we fundraised for her at church?’

‘Yeah – she had leukaemia.’

‘She came here.’

Logan follows his parents up the wheelchair ramp and in the front door. It smells musty like a rest home. Masina ascends the stairs to the private rooms like an angel in polyester.

‘Follow me,’ says Steve. ‘We’ll start with the lounge.’

There’s something creepy about the big room. It’s the colour an interior decorator might call ‘sea-foam’. The walls are sea-foam, and there are sea-foam easy chairs arranged in a circle around the walls. Posters on the wall say ‘Live every moment’.

‘I’ll wipe the surfaces and do the rubbish. You do the floors,’ says Steve. ‘Once you’ve finished in here, follow me down the hall and do the offices too.’

‘Where do they keep the dead people?’

‘What?’

‘I’m serious. I don’t want to see any dead people, all right?’

Steve looks into Logan’s wide brown eyes.

‘Perhaps you should have thought about that before you got caught smoking pot at school.’

Logan drags the vacuum cleaner around the lounge as though it’s a ball and chain. Knowing there are dead people in the building gives him a feeling like he’s just watched a horror movie. The sky is black through the gaps between the sea-foam curtains, and the windows look like dark eyes. He finishes the lounge and shuffles out, swivelling his head to check he’s not being followed, catching a glimpse of his anxious face in the glass-fronted cabinets. He moves down the long, empty hall, stopping at a partly ajar cupboard door. He clicks it back into place. It springs back out. Logan turns the vacuum cleaner off and surveys the door in the sudden silence. The hair prickles on the back of his neck. He closes the door again, this time pushing it shut with the weight of his shoulder. It eases back open with a belligerent creak. Logan wrenches it wide in frustration and stops dead. He stares into the cupboard, into the expressionless face of little Tiana Vincent. Her lifeless black eyes stare back at him. She slides face-forward onto the floor with a thud, dark ringlets cascading from her head like blood from a wound. Steve appears from a room up the hall, a yellow duster in his hand.

‘Quit clowning around,’ he says. When Logan doesn’t move, Steve picks the girl up and puts her back in the cupboard next to a teddy bear and a toy train. She’s a doll, just a child-sized doll. Logan’s eyes sting with tears.

‘Why are you making me do this? You’d never make Noah do this!’

‘That’s because Noah doesn’t get stood down from school.’

‘I want to quit school, anyway!’

Blood rushes up Steve’s neck, across his face to the tips of his ears.

‘What are you going to do when you quit? Do you want to be doing a job like this when you’re old and your back aches?’ Steve pokes the duster at Logan’s chest. The purple vein between his hairline and the bridge of his nose throbs visibly. ‘You can be better than this!’

Steve breathes heavily, in sync with the pulsating vein. Logan looks down at the sea-foam carpet. A hot tear falls from his eye and runs down the side of his nose. Steve lowers the duster. He sighs.

‘Finish vacuuming down here and go wait for us in reception. We won’t be long.’

 

Logan turns the pages of a women’s magazine. He reads about a rugby player’s wedding reception feast: crayfish mousse, rack of lamb with truffle mash, and wine-poached pears. He reads six tips for dewy skin. Masina returns back down the stairs.

‘Mr Burrows has passed,’ she says.

On their way out, Masina pauses at the counter, pulls her wallet from her pocket and slides a $10 note into the donation box. Steve unlocks the front door and holds it open for her, patting her on the bum rump as she walks out into the chilled night air. Logan follows them back down the ramp and into the van. He buckles his seatbelt.

‘Why did you give them that money?’

‘God gave us two hands. One to receive and the other to give.’

Steve turns the key and the clock numbers glow green. 23:23.

‘You’ll be tired at school tomorrow, mate.’

‘That’s okay,’ Logan says.

A song plays on the radio. Steve taps his fingers on the steering wheel and sings along in his warm, deep voice.

‘Big wheel keep on turnin’, proud Mary keep on burnin’.’

Logan groans. Steve turns the stereo up.

‘Rollin’, rollin’… ’

Masina puts her hand on Steve’s knee and joins in. Her lipstick’s mostly worn off, leaving a thin pink line around her lips.

‘Rollin’ on the river.’

Soon they’ll be back at the depot. And soon after that, they’ll be home.





Kathryn van Beek

Kathryn van Beek is a writer, communications professional, and momager of a famous cat.