– by Jacinta Mulders, SPP Writer in Residence
Photo: supplied by author
Cate studied the table in front of her. People had scratched their names into the wood; drawn stars with key ends. Before her, a soda water, with a meagre segment of lime floating in it. Around her, the murmur of a bar on a Saturday evening. She pulled back her blonde hair, smoky from the night before, to reveal large, glittering ear studs, and watched as a languid, young guy raised a phone to his ear.
To one side, Jemma entered the beer garden. Cate raised a hand. Jemma wore, typically, loose-fitting clothes—they hung in layers from her thin frame. Her face looked silent and still. When she leaned forward, her hair, tousled, fell past her face. She brushed it back, and set down a bottle of white wine and two glasses.
“How was the rest of it?” Cate asked. She took off her sunglasses, propped her chin forward and looked at Jemma.
“Fine,” Jemma said, glancing at the bar. Her eyes rolled back to Cate. “What did you think?”
“Bloody magic.” Cate’s smile flashed.
“I’m probably just hungover.”
“Hair of the dog,” said Cate raising her glass. The white wine swirled.
“I didn’t see you much,” Jemma said, smirking. She pulled her hair in front of her face—deliberately, this time, and gave it a shake.
“Yeah. Elliot.” The words slipped out. The cold of the evening cut Cate’s cheeks.
“The guy with the nose thing.”
Cate ran her fingernail along the wood. “He got my number, actually.”
“Really?” Jemma looked up, eyes wide and soft.
“Do it yourself?”
“I always jump the gun.”
Jemma began to rummage for something in her bag. “Truth be told Cate, Elliot seems pretty restless to me.”
“I thought you didn’t know him?”
Her hand emerged, holding a pack of papers. “You’re right. I don’t.”
They kept drinking. The light faded. Every now and again, Cate looked over at the guy who had been on the phone. A girl had arrived, and was coiling close to him on the bench.
“My draft text,” Cate said, handing her phone to Jemma. In the speckled twilight, the screen light was sharp.
“‘Hi Elliot,’” Jemma read, “‘Great to see you last night. Wondering if you’d like to hang out again soon? No pressure. Cate.’” She held the phone in her long fingers, and looked up at Cate’s expectant face. “Mate, it’s pretty tentative.”
Cate’s cheeks slackened.
“Directness is good. Here,” Jemma said. She took the phone and deleted the text, replacing the words with her own. She handed it back.
Cate read it. It no longer felt like it belonged to her; to send it seemed like cheating. But she sent it anyway, then thrust the phone into her pocket, leaving one set of fingers touching its side so she could feel it buzz.
One hour passed, and then another. Cate took her hand out of her pocket eventually, and accepted occasional puffs of Jemma’s cigarettes. She felt her chest bone rising higher and higher, her thoughts becoming more and more slippery.
“Jemma,” she said, cutting into a conversation, “what if he doesn’t?”
Jemma narrowed her eyes. “Then he doesn’t. Don’t abide flakes, Cate,” she said, raising her glass to her lips.
It was dark out when they left the bar. A cold wind ran through the streets: it hollowed out spaces between the buildings, touched the crevices of the city. Against the black sky, the city lights glowed. Cate walked hunched, her hands in her coat pockets. The side of her loafer caught the dirty kerb. Other people passed and overtook—bunched, anonymous, laughing, but Jemma and Cate didn’t pay them any attention. Jemma lit a cigarette, inhaled and threw an arm around Cate’s shoulder.
“Babe. Don’t be like that.”
“It’s not even a crush. I just liked his T-shirt.”
“It hasn’t even been”—Jemma glanced at her watch—“three hours. Anyway, if he doesn’t write back, it’s not even a thing.”
Cate nodded, morose. “Next weekend. Maybe I’ll meet someone called Hamish, or Henry, or with another, similarly fancy English name.”
Jemma hoisted her backpack more firmly on her shoulder. “I’ve seen his nose ring. It’s not even centred.”
They parted a few blocks up. Cate got in a cab. Driving home, she watched streets and houses roll past through a half drunk haze. In the empty suburbs, outside her front door, she stared absently at the text she’d sent—checking, once more, there was no reply.
Jemma had kept walking around the dark streets. Occasionally, she lit a cigarette—but more for its company, for the light of the orange tip against the building walls and passing faces. The night became cooler; it didn’t bother her. The emptying streets had a dullness to them; they seemed to droop and collapse in the face of the passing night.
At one point, someone called her. Jemma stopped under a streetlight to answer.
“Vibes?” they asked.
Jemma’s voice was calm and smooth. “I went home with someone, actually.” She blew out a thin stream of smoke. “Cate didn’t see. She’d left.”
“What’s he like?”
She paused for a moment. “Kind, cool. Nothing to write home about.”
When conversation ended, Jemma lowered her phone from her ear. As she did so, it vibrated twice. Two texts.
Cate’s read: “Sorry for moping.”
Elliot’s read: “Again?”
She pushed her phone to the bottom of her backpack, put in her headphones, and kept walking. The night continued to eat itself.
Jacinta Mulders works in international human rights law research at Australian National University. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, Seizure, Oyster, Pollen and TheVine, where she worked as an editor. She plans to commence postgraduate studies in creative writing in late 2015.