‘Reception’
by Grace Hart

 

 

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‘Hey. Have you finished?’
‘No. Nearly. Soon.’
‘Okay. Let me know.’

 

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‘Do you want a coffee?’
‘Only if you’re making yourself one.’
‘Yeah, I’m having one.’
‘I’d love one then, thanks.’

 

‘Here.’
‘Thanks. How’s it going?’
A shrug. ‘You know.’
‘Yeah.’
‘How are you? Finished uni yet?’
‘No.’
‘Ah.’
‘The coffee’s hot.’
‘Yeah.’

 

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The bell rings. It’s recess. Kids swarm the front office, looking for confiscated phones and basketballs. Some request to see teachers. The office ladies mostly ignore them. One boy stomps to my desk and addresses me as ‘Oi! Miss’ before being ordered to sit by one of the vice principals. He slumps down in one of the plush empty chairs outside my office, defeated. Accused of starting a punch on, he’s sullen. ‘I didn’t do it,’ he insists loudly. He sinks down so low in the chair so that his waist hangs over the edge and his feet lay sprawled on the patterned carpet at odd angles.

It’s too noisy to work. And I don’t really want to anyway. So I walk past the front office and to the back room. There’s a coffee machine, microwave and mini fridge in there. I’ve left my bag on the communal table, accidentally. When I enter, the school maintenance man is ferreting eagerly through my belongings. A tampon and my pouch of Champion Legendary Ruby have dropped out on to the floor. When he spots me, he doesn’t pick them up. Instead, he rolls his shoulders once, twice, and walks straight past me. I can still smell him—cologne and sweat—after he leaves the room.

I pick up the pouch and the tampon. Put them back in my bag. Begin to make my way back to my office without making a coffee or getting my yogurt from the fridge.

I think.

The maintenance man used to sing loudly at me in Spanish He told me I was beautiful and that I must’ve inherited my looks from my dad—I looked nothing like my mum.

Once, when I forgot to say hello, he drew his face in very close to mine, our noses almost touching, and growled at me.

I’m almost back to my desk when the boy from before motions for me to come towards him. I move closer, and he lowers his voice. Frantic, he says, ‘Tell him I did nothing wrong, okay?’ I nod. ‘Okay.’ He seems to accept this for a moment. He looks around. Takes a deep breath. ‘Usually,’ he starts. ‘I’m right in the middle, you know? Of the fights. Like, I organise them. Over Facebook. But I stopped doing that. Had a meeting with the school and stuff. So I don’t do that anymore. But they’re just saying it’s me because it’s easier, you know?I nod and purse my lips. I wonder if the maintenance man touched my tampon. Wonder if he stuck his fingers into my tobacco. ‘Can you talk to him?’ he moans. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ I say. The boy looks relieved. He straightens up and smiles at me, grateful. He sits down.

I don’t tell anyone anything, though. I don’t know how to help.

‘Can you do phones for a while? I need to talk to the office ladies.’
‘Sure.’
‘You remember how to answer?’
‘’Course. Easy.’
‘Thanks.’

 

‘Welcome to [redacted] this is Grace.’
‘Welcome to [redacted] this is Grace.’
‘Welcome to [redacted] this is Grace.’
‘Welcome to [redacted] this is—’
‘Welcome to [redacted]—’
‘Welcome to [r—’
‘Welcome—No… I’m sorry. I’m not sure where your son is. Have you tried calling his mobile phone? No, he’s definitely not here today. I’ve checked.’

‘Welcome to [redacted], this is Grace.’

 

‘That’s enough for now. We’re all good here.’
‘You sure? Looks like Val’s been crying.’
‘Everyone in the front office is fighting. Can’t control them.’
‘That’s funny.’
‘It kind of is and isn’t.’
‘Yeah.’
‘How’s your mum today?’
‘She’s good. Over in her office I guess.’
‘What’s it like working with your mum?’
‘I don’t really work with her. But yeah. I need a new job.’
‘Yeah. Have you finished that work yet?’
‘No. Nearly. Soon.’
‘Okay.’

 

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‘Gracie, you want to have lunch together? They’re
doing pizza.’
‘Yeah, Ma.’
‘Have you heard from Soph?’
‘She’s not talking to me.’
‘Please, we’re at work. Don’t start.’
‘You asked.’
‘Have you finished that job yet?’
‘What? No. Nearly. Soon.’
‘Come on. Lunch soon.’
‘Yeah. Okay.’

 

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I stop working.

Lunch in fifteen,

thirteen,

eleven minutes.

He walks in. I don’t know much about him except that he’s the student counsellor. He’s very loud and his right ear was mostly blown off in some war. He sits across from me. Leans in to me. He’s big. He tells me my mum has told him a lot about me. About what I’m studying. ‘Oh, yeah,’ I laugh. ‘Don’t believe everything my mum tells you.’

A minute passes.

It’s all very still, very quiet, before he bursts out laughing. He rears up. I can smell his breath. It’s sweet, like fruit, but not in a nice way. He asks, ‘Do I intimidate you?’ I say, ‘No.’ He laughs again, before telling me I should be intimidated. He leaves after that.

I cry at my desk.

I don’t stay for lunch.

I tell everyone I’m sick.

Twenty, fifteen,

thirteen,

six,

five minutes until my dad picks me up.

I tell Dad about the counsellor.
He tells me working with others (men) is hard.
I say, ‘I know. But it isn’t supposed to be this hard.’

Later that night, when Mum gets home from our work, I speak to her about what happened in my office. I don’t tell her about the maintenance man.

‘Stan has kids,’ she tells me. ‘About your age. You don’t have to worry about him.’

I still feel like my skin is too tight.

The next morning, I wake up earlier than I have to. I have a coffee. A cigarette. I go back.

 

Stan comes to see me.

 

He stands in the doorway to my office. He’s very tall, bigger when he’s standing. He leans on the frame, one arm up, the other on his hip. I don’t say anything and he laughs.

‘I’ve been bad.’

‘No…’
‘Your mum says I have to leave you alone.’
‘No… It’s okay.’
‘Sometimes,’ he laughs. ‘I act a bit crazy. It’s the war, I think.’
‘Okay. That’s fine.’ I laugh too.
‘I’ll be very good, now,’ he says.
‘It’s really fine. Don’t worry about what Mum said.’
He laughs. Straightens up. Sucks in his breath before blowing it out in a big huff.
‘I’ll leave you alone. I’m going back to my office now. I’ll be bad somewhere else.’

I nod. He laughs, and then leaves. I turn back to my computer and pretend to work. I think he might still be there. I open an empty Word document and type my name over and over again. I can’t remember what I was doing before gracegracegrace grace grace

grace    grace

grace

grace grace grace grace grace grace grace grace grace grace

grace grace grace                      grace

grace    grace grace grace click

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‘You finished that work?’
‘Just. Really sorry it took me so long.’
‘No problem. Heard you had an issue with Stan yesterday.’
‘No? Who said that?’
‘Stan said you don’t like him anymore.’
‘No. I do like him.’
‘You’ll have to get used to him. That’s just the way he is. Very loud.’
‘I know. It’s fine.’
‘Sure. I’ll have a look at the sheets. Let you know if anything needs adjusting.’
‘Okay.’

 

‘Grace. Can you just add in the dates?’
‘Yeah, ’course.’
‘Can you get them back to me in under an hour?’
‘Sure. Just the dates?’
‘Yeah. You’re not busy, are you?’
‘No way. Basically just sitting here.’
‘Har har. Funny. Do you want a coffee?’
‘Only if you’re making yourself one.’
‘Yeah, I’m having one.’
‘I’d love one then, thanks.’

I don’t do the work. Instead, I take my coffee outside. The bell has just rung, so there aren’t many kids around. The principal, a kind man with a long, thinning ponytail, has planted a round of new trees. They line the footpath I walk on, and I keep going until I come across a row of ribbed, portable classrooms that remind me of primary school. I kick up dust as I walk, and eventually I take a seat on a patch of grass to drink my coffee. I watch, from afar, the maintenance man walk around in very big circles. He doesn’t pick up rubbish, fix things, or do much of anything, really. What he does do is leer at passing kids. He whistles as he walks, or sings loudly. He calls out to them in Spanish and laughs. When he spots me, he looks away. I finish my coffee and put the plastic cup in the bin. I check the time on my phone; I wonder how much longer I can stay out here.

‘Gracie, I waited in your office. Where were you?’
‘In the toilet.’
‘For thirty minutes?’
A pause. ‘The maintenance man creeps me out, Ma.’
‘Not everyone can creep you out.’
‘Not everyone does.’
‘Stop it. This is my workplace.’
‘Okay. Yeah.’
‘Sorry.’
‘Me too.’

 

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‘Here.’
I’ve already printed the sheets out.
I take the work over.
Drop it on the desk in a pile. In a nice way.

 

‘Finished.’
‘Oh, lovely. Dates look good.’
‘Yeah.’
‘I have a bit of a tough job for you, if you’re up for it.’
‘Tough? I’m up for whatever.’
‘Can you go down to the containers?’
The containers are big, shipping crates locked by heavy padlocks.
I hate going down there by myself.
‘Sure. Whatever.’ I smile.
‘Great. You know the drill. We’ve got heaps of boxes.’
‘Yeah, cool.’
‘Here’s the key.’ She hands it to me. ‘Lots to file.’
I take it. Put the chain around my neck. ‘Thanks.’

I walk back through the office. I pass Mum, who’s talking to the principal. They both give me a little wave. I wave back. I hold up the key to let them know where I’m going. Mum nods. I walk outside and through the row of freshly planted trees. It’s lunchtime, so I navigate a path through a mass of kids who mostly part for me. The keychain knocks against my chest as I walk fast, even steps. I keep walking until I reach the very back corner of the school. I find the containers. To the right of them is a vegie patch that was once intended to be a sustainable VCAL project. No-one’s been out here in a long time. Some vegies are still growing, but they look deformed and gross. It smells mouldy, so I pull my jumper up over my nose and breathe in my own smell instead. I pull the keychain from around my neck, jam the key into the lock and jiggle it from left to right. When the lock pops open, I turn my body sideways and move through the gate carefully, trying not to touch any of the rusted metal. I open the container and step inside, breathe in the dusty air, and begin to file.

I think I cut myself on a piece of paper.
No blood comes out though.
When I look up from my finger and to the door—the room’s only source of light—the maintenance man is standing there.

‘What are you doing in there?’
I suck in my breath.
I say, ‘I’m doing my work.’
‘Why are you in the container?’ I can see the outline of his balls through the thin material of his pants. I can always see them. I look away.
‘I was told to come in here.’
‘Who said you could come in here? Who gave you a key?’
‘Christa.’ My heart is pounding. ‘What do you want?’ I spit.
He starts, ‘Oh. Nothing then. Just—’ He shakes his head. He smiles. ‘Don’t make a mess.’
He walks away. I don’t move from that spot for a long time. For as long as it takes me to stop being able to hear him sing as he crosses the schoolyard. When I can’t hear him anymore, I go back to filing.

 

I finish.
I take the keychain from around my neck and lock the container.
I cross the schoolyard and walk back inside, through my office and hand the key to Christa.

‘How’d you go?’
‘Yeah. Okay. Do you have anything else for me to do?’
‘Not really. Just keep yourself busy.’
‘Okay.’

 

I see Mum. She asks how I went in the container. She knows I hate it in there. I tell her it was okay. I tell her we can talk more at home

and she’s happy with that. So I go to my office and pass time click click click;

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that

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I’m not sure    if

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I shut down the computer at 3:47.

I leave for the day at 4:00.