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Monday, 1 September, 2014

Words by Vicki Stegink
Artwork by Natalia Seiler

I used to go for long drives in the middle of the night with my dad and his mates when I was little. Sometimes they’d leave me in the back seat; other times they’d tell me to be the lookout. I had to crawl through doggy doors a lot. I was seven.

I’d squeeze into houses, unlocking doors from the inside, and Dad would ruffle my hair and whisper, “There’s a clever girl!” Then I had to wait on the porch, mostly.

Afterwards, we’d glide away in the dark shiny ute and I might ask, “Daddy, what are you going to do with that TV?”

His answer was always the same. “Don’t worry about that my girl, Daddy’s on it.”

One time, I got bored of watching the dark road rush past the window and I opened a jewellery box lying on the back seat.

“Is this for Mum?” I asked.

Dad looked in the rear-view mirror and said, “Jeff, see if there’s any fake stuff in there. The kid can have it.”

I got a bracelet with a little silver charm in the shape of a key, which I adored. The colour rubbed off on my skin and it went black after a while, but I didn’t stop wearing it until the chain broke. Even then, I kept the tiny blackened key hidden in the bottom of an old shoebox.

*

My parents got divorced when I was nine. I didn’t like any of Mum’s boyfriends so I mostly stayed with Dad. I kept going with him to work, even when I grew too big to fit through doggy doors.

He’d send me ahead to check if there was a spare key lying around somewhere, under the doormat, in a flowerpot, on the windowsill beside the door. If there was, he’d say “Atta girl!” and let me sit in the front seat beside him on the way home.

He never let me keep any. I had to remember where I found them and put them back. “If people wise up they’ll start hiding their keys properly,” he’d say, “and I’ll have to break a lot more locks.”

I kept a couple in secret, though. A small green one I found behind a gnome and a fat dull golden one from under a “HOME SWEET HOME” doormat. I put them in the box with my tiny black pendant. I liked how they looked all together like that.

*

I’m sitting on the tram going home from uni. It’s packed, and the fat woman next to me is turned to the aisle, talking. Her handbag sits open on her lap, with a purse and a scarf and some other junk poking out.

More people try to squeeze onto the tram. I reach over and back again.

The fat woman gets off three blocks before the train station and I decide I can walk. I follow her at a distance until she stops in front of a building and starts digging through her handbag. It’s huge, so it takes a while. I take out a cigarette and my lighter while I wait.

Finally, she reaches for her phone. “Jerry, could you buzz me in? I’ve lost my keys and I can’t remember the stupid code. Just what I need, I’ll have to pay for another bloody keycard…”

I light my smoke and head towards the train station, keys nestled in my backpack.

*

When I was ten I asked Dad why he did it.

He thought about it for a minute. “Guess ‘cause I’m good at it, and it pays the bills.”

“How come you’re so good at it?”

He looked at me seriously through his beard, streaked with grey even then. “I don’t believe in surprises. If I don’t know every detail about a place, I don’t try it, end of story. And I’ve never been had yet.”

I asked if he liked his work, and he laughed.

“Sure, why not? Reading the papers after is always fun. I like to see if I get a mention on page five.”

*

I visited Mum sometimes, but things were very different at her place. I had to take my shoes off before I came inside, and she got cranky when I messed up her shelf of DVDs or touched anything in the kitchen.

I went to her when I got my first period and asked her what to do. She gave me loads of sanitary pads and told me to stay away from tampons.

“They’re dangerous, you’ll get Toxic Shock. Just make sure you change your pad every hour. It’s better this way.”

I never asked her what Toxic Shock was.

*

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and I’m feeling ambitious. I’ve got the itch.

I walk past the pool and see it’s a quiet day, so I smile at the guy behind the counter and wander in. There are three other women in the changing rooms. I lock myself in a stall like I’m going to get changed and wait patiently for their footsteps to disappear. I even turn on the shower for a bit so they won’t wonder why I’m being so quiet.

I turn it off and there is silence. My heart beats a little faster in my chest, a familiar thrill.

I open the cubicle and pick up the first bag I see. I move it and listen for the jingle of keys; they’re at the bottom underneath a towel.

Someone walks in and starts to strip down to their togs. I carry on as if nothing’s out of the ordinary. They can’t know the bag’s not mine.

The newcomer heads to the showers and I pick up her bag as soon as her back is turned. Jingle, jingle. Keys in the front pocket, easy.

*

When I was thirteen, I had cramps and wouldn’t get out of the ute to keep watch. Dad was pissed off. If I was going to be a fucking liability I shouldn’t have come. He scored two plasmas that night though, so he was happy on the way home.

“Thing is,” he told me, “in this line of work, you’ve gotta run a tight operation. Otherwise the shit’s gonna hit the fan, and someone’s gotta pay for it. I don’t need that kinda mess on my hands, kid. Got it?”

I caught his eye in the rear-view mirror and tried to suppress the ache deep in my guts. “Got it.”

*

It’s a Saturday night and my friends are breathless with laughter as they roll joints and drink cheap beer, but I’m too busy thinking. The glowing end of my rollie is reflected in the dull glass bottle on the table, a smudge of light through the smoke. I turn over the keys in my palm. They clink together softly.

Newton’s law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It sort of made sense in highschool but now it just seems damn stupid. The echo created by this small bundle of metal is so much bigger than the object itself. I consider the boxes of echoes piled in my wardrobe and smile.

Newton was wrong. I’ve got it figured out.

I drag on my joint again and watch the smoke curl back out of my mouth to the ceiling, writhing.

*

At highschool they told me I should consider uni, so I applied like everyone else. Dad said he needed to relocate anyway so I figured I’d stick with him, but Mum had married some rich bastard and lived an hour closer to uni, so that was that and I moved in with her.

Her new place was just as neat as her old one. Dad wished me luck when he dropped me off. “Fucking OCD bullshit,” he growled, and I shrugged. He always said it drove him spare.

Living there was about what I expected. If Mum wasn’t at work or out having lunch with her new husband, she’d be ironing all her socks or alphabetising the spices in the kitchen like a maniac.

And there were plenty of rules. No smoking inside, put everything back exactly as you found it and no leaving any laundry on the floor or else. She found a cigarette butt on my windowsill once and got so mad she just about fainted. I wondered what she’d do if she knew about the shoeboxes.

*

I always smoke afterward. Like a man having a smoke after sex in an old movie. It seems to fit, somehow. Dad always smoked on the way home too.

I watch people as I smoke, looking for clues. This must be the one. I can hear her explaining it to her friends. “I came back and they were gone! Do you think Sara’s trying to pull a prank again? She knows I can’t get back into college without them.”

I can feel the weight of the keys, a light bundle in my pocket. They carry a different weight for her.

“They’d better not be gone or my boss is going to crucify me. He just gave me the master key for the shop last week!”

I watch and smoke in silence. Anger, confusion, tears, desperation, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve seen it all. Only once was I tempted to give them back. I’m still not sure why.

I’d identified the man, patting his pockets outside the gym, a middle-aged bloke with salt-and-pepper stubble. I’d picked open his locker in one of my finer moments. I waited with the cold autumn wind in my hair as he went back inside the gym and came out again five minutes later, silent and calm. There was no frustration or sadness or even confusion in his aging eyes as he passed me by. I couldn’t understand it.

For a moment I wanted to walk after him and tap him on the shoulder with an “I think you dropped these?” on my lips – but why should I have?

So I took another drag on my cigarette and washed the urge away with nicotine.

*

When I was seventeen I asked Dad about it again. We were on the way back from a place, just me and him, and the tray of the ute was full.

“Why did you start, anyway?”

“Just had sticky fingers, I suppose. Started small, but as soon as I figured out I had a knack for it I got some of the boys together and worked from there, started taking it seriously.”

“So you do like it!” I accused him, and his old brown eyes wrinkled at the edges, smiling at me in the darkness.

“Guess so, kiddo. Guess so.”

*

It’s a Thursday night and I reflect that whiskey has a nasty habit of burning even more on the way back up than it does on the way down. I hear wet noises coming from somewhere to my right and make a foggy mental note to ask Claire whether the same is true for vodka.

Later we sit on the grass and wait for her boyfriend to come and drop us home. She passes me a joint and laughs and says something about our Microeconomics exam in the morning.

I can’t focus. I’m trying to remember why I’m here. I ask her and she laughs again.

“We walked from Freddy’s, don’t you remember?”

But that’s not what I meant. Now I’ve got five shoeboxes full of keys that nobody knows about and I still feel as lost as ever.

She asks about the exam again. “So how fucked are you for Micro tomorrow?”

Nathan’s Ford pulls up at the curb as I answer. “Couldn’t care less.”

Half an hour later I’m hunched over Mum’s shrubbery and Nathan and Claire have scarpered, probably because they don’t want to watch her kill me.

The light above the front door snaps on and before I know it she’s got me by the hair and is screeching about the mess I’ve made of her bougainvilleas. “Relax,” I keep telling her, “I’ll clean it up tomorrow,” but she’s not having any of it. I try to tell her that the pain in my scalp isn’t helping the nausea but she’s not having any of that either, so I have to push her away and mess up her stupid plants even more.

“For God’s sake! What am I supposed to do with you? What will it take for you to pull it together?”

I’m glad when she storms off and lets me find my own way inside. Then I remember I didn’t get to ask Claire about the vodka. It doesn’t really matter anyway, I suppose. One way or another, everything ends up going down the drain.

*

One night in September my dad calls and says he’s hitting up a place just outside the city, and do I want to tag along? An hour later I’m standing at a dirty suburban train station, waiting for the low hum of his ute to come round the corner.

Then it’s two thirty in the morning and he’s driving me home. The cover on the tray bulges in the rear-view and we both pull on cigarettes, Dad steering with one hand as he rests the other on the window frame.

“How’s uni, kid?” It’s a gruff but genuine question I decide to dodge.

“Business is better, by the looks of it,” I say.

He smiles at me though his ever-greying beard and shakes his head. “Ah, it’s alright. A couple of the boys thought they could make a start for themselves a month or so back and got themselves locked up.”

“Greg and Sammo?” He nods at me and I roll my eyes. “Typical.”

“Yeah, but I’m still two pairs of hands down, even if it does serve the fuckers right. Good men are hard to find.”

There’s a pause while we smoke.

“You setting up shop over the north side next, Dad?”

He nods. “Yeah, why’s that?”

“I could come if you want. Lend a pair of hands.”

He looks at me sideways. “Serious?”

It’s my turn to nod. “Just give me a second at Mum’s to grab some stuff.”

“You know I can’t wait around with the load tonight.”

“Just one minute. That’s all I need.”

The house is dark and still when we pull up and I slip inside. A moment later I’m back out with a duffel bag over my shoulder.

Out of habit I turn back to lock the door behind me. I pause for a second, looking at the keys in my hand. They are heavy and plain, one for the back door and one for the front. There’s nothing extra on the keychain, exactly the same as when Mum gave them to me.

I leave the house unlocked and walk to the car. I heave my bag onto the back seat and notice the boxes inside bulging against the material. I can hear the contents jingling together. I’ll figure out what to do about that later.

“All set?” Dad says as I get back in beside him.

I wind down my window as we pull away from the curb and lob the house keys out as hard as I can. They hit the front door with a loud smack and end up on the doormat.

“I am now.”

Dad looks at me like he’s not sure if I’m being serious. “You’re really sure about this? What about uni?”

“I’m sure,” I say. “I’ve learned enough.”

I light us each a smoke as we head north.