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2018 Short Stories

3rd Prize

3rd Prize

Soles
Carla Fitzgerald

Como, NSW

48 feet, 12 hours, one Octopus.

It was easier if you broke it down like that. I breathed one, deep breath of fresh air before entering Miranda Fair.

The oversized clock blinked 9:04am at me as I entered our shop. Phuong’s mouth was fixed in a hard smile for the benefit of his client but I caught the meaning in his eyes. You try getting a three-year-old out the door by 6:30am, I cleverly retorted with my eyes.

Not the right time to bring up Friday though.

I buttoned the garish pink smock and took my position on the stool. Hunched, focused, mildly dizzy as my head adjusted to the fumes. I was ready for the onslaught.

Feet 1 and 2) square shape, Shellac, colour = Red-dy and Willing.

She doesn’t see me. Just another Asian to service her needs. The choice between Red-dy and Willing and Scarlet O’Hara still weighing on her mind.

The renovations have been delayed, she tells her phone. Yes, again. Well apparently, it’s a problem with the colour of the tiles ordered. That colour is extremely rare and hard to source. No, it’s not the same as Sarah’s. She has off-ivory gloss and we want mist gloss. Yes MIST.

I catch sneaky glances at her. She is sprayed, tinted, highlighted and painted. Make-up applied to conceal, rather than enhance. No idea of her real age. Why form this armour? Did someone call her ugly as a child?

‘A million miles away again.’ Kim says in Vietnamese as she directs her client to the seat next to me.

‘Trying to be’, I softly reply.

‘Tell me how, if you work it out.’

I move quickly, efficiently, knowing my cloak of invisibility is only as only good as my perfect brushstrokes.

***

Feet 3 and 4) Ingrown nail on left, bunion on right, colour = Nearly Nude.

Hazel parks her trolley at the side of the room. I take her tiny arm and practically lift her into the chair. She smiles at me and calls me pet. I’ve not heard this term before but I like it. Only from her though.

She looks around the room, takes it in. No magazine or screen for her. Her ears and my mouth prevent idle chit chat. Which suits us both.

I wonder if she is lonely. She is certainly untouched. I feel her body relax and see her eyelids droop as the treatment goes on. She waits longer than is necessary for her nails to dry, takes her trolley and slowly moves towards the butcher shop. She briefly looks up at the poster of the pouting girl with the bright orange nails and continues on. What now for the rest of her day?

‘Thank you pet.’ See you next month.

***

Mama would have been about Hazel’s age by now. I always think of her at work, which is hard on the hands and easy on the brain. How did she live with the constant threat of airstrikes? How many dead loved ones does it take to become unremarkable? It was not hard to believe that taking me on that awful boat seemed a better option.

I let out a long sigh. All I have to face is ingrown toenails, mind-numbing boredom and occasional rudeness.

‘Ouch!’

My client jumps.

‘You nearly cut my toe!’

‘I’m so sorry Ma’am.’

***

Feet 7,8,9,10. Mother wants round shape, Shellac, colour = Expresso Yourself.

Daughter is still deciding.

Little one couldn’t be more than 3 years old. Doll-like, frilly and already pierced. The only girl out of four children, I hear her mother proudly tell another customer.

‘Arabella, what colour do you want your nails done?’

Arabella lines the bottles of polish up in battle formation. Neutrals versus pinks it appears. But greens look to form a surprise attack from the east.

‘Arabella?’

‘Nothing.’

‘You don’t want to have your nail’s painted?’

‘No, I busy.’

‘Don’t you want to look beautiful?’

‘No.’

The mother chuckles with the lady next to her.

When no-one is looking, I show Arabella the drying machine. Her eyes light up and she grins at me conspiratorially. The battle now involves an extra-terrestrial creature blowing hot air.

***

More and more indistinguishable feet.

***

Break time.

I take the escalator stairs down two at a time. Like a smoker desperate for a hit, I race for the outside and gasp for fresh air. I stretch my arms above my head and feel the autumn sun on my face. My chest, realising its freedom, releases an almighty cough.

There is girl of three or four at the bus stop who looks like mine. My heart lurches as I watch her climb over her Mama. I call Penny. Yes she is fine, she had a 2-hour nap and they will go to the park this afternoon. I hear her squeal in the background and my heart physically aches. We will go to Shelly Beach tomorrow. I long for her pure, natural goodness.

***

24 feet, 6 hours, one Octopus to go.

I wash my hands at the tiny basin in the storeroom.

‘How’s that man of yours treating you?’ Phuong appears from nowhere.

‘Fine, thank you.’

‘Does he know how to keep you happy?’ He massages my shoulders, as I quickly wash and dry my hands.

‘Yes….um Phuong have you made a decision about next Friday…me leaving early…my daughter’s Easter hat parade?’ I speak loudly, in English.

‘Let me think about it some more.’

He gives a wide smile and I contemplate stabbing a cuticle nipper into his heart.

***

Feet 21 and 22) short, any shape, colour = Scaredy Matte Black.

She has only 20 minutes, she says. Is that enough time?

I nod and she squeezes my arm in thanks, while placing her sleek briefcase next to the chair.

I examine her as she furiously fires out a text message. She has pale skin and hair with blunt edges that look to be making a point of some kind. Her phone rings and she nods away, occasionally making comments about ‘…getting back to our core values.’

As I apply the final coat, she meets my eyes and asks me something. Her words come out too quickly but I catch the words ‘how’s your day?’ and ‘busy?’ I smile and nod, usually all that is required.

***

Kim and I speak in soft tones as I apply the scrub and she buffs the foot of her client.

‘Did you ask Octopus about Friday?’

‘I did.’

‘And?’

‘He’s still thinking about it.’

Kim rolls her eyes. ‘Yeah he’s thinking about something...’

‘If only I wasn’t married to my wonderful, handsome, very protective and entirely made-up husband’, I whisper.

Kim giggles and I stifle my own laugh.

My client looks up at me sharply. They always think we’re talking about them and their horrible feet.

***

Feet 29 and 30) calloused, very short, no colour.

I watch as the other girls become suddenly engrossed in what they are doing.

It is my turn anyway. I lead him to a seat. He is self-conscious, unsure of what to do. No he doesn’t want the massage chair on. He’s already regretting taking up his wife’s suggestion.

His feet are worse than I imagine. Probably lost sight of them a long time ago. That belly and red face reveal a good life. I wonder if he’s trying to change – a health kick perhaps? Maybe his wife has given him an ultimatum?

I am on a roll now, contemplating their relationship and its future. 40 years together, 3 kids, you don’t want to throw that away?

I watch his face. He looks over my head, impassively, occasional glances at the clock.

‘Good luck.’ I say as he hobbles out. ‘Goodbye…I mean….’

***

More and more and more.

***

Mama seemed so happy when we got here. The two of us and our simple rhythm. She never sat down though, even after work.

After the dishes, we’d have tea and try to make sense of my homework. I remember that huge, dusty second-hand dictionary that she’d flick through like a woman possessed. It made me sneeze.

She didn’t say a thing in the Doctor’s surgery when he confirmed my pregnancy. It always annoyed me that someone so brave would become so meek in the face of perceived authority. Perhaps because I recognised it in myself.

I heard her weeping on the phone to my Aunt in Vietnam later that night, when she thought I’d gone to sleep. The next morning, I woke to the kettle puffing and her madly cleaning out the walk-in wardrobe where Rose now sleeps. And she continued loving me as fiercely as before.

***

Feet 31,32,33,34. Both want round shape, colour = Berry Naughty and Good as Gold.

They are engrossed in each other.

‘Yeah I was thinking of switching to Communications.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘So I can become like a newsreader or like, a foreign correspondent or something.’

‘Cool.’

 ‘Yep, I’m sticking with mine.’

‘Musical theatre?’

‘Yep, I mean I’ll probably have to go overseas to get started out but that’s cool.’

‘Yeah.’

I let out a long drawn out sigh as I apply the final coat. I get the gist of what they are talking about. A limitless future. That’s what you think you have when you’re that age. I look up at the two girls, still locked in an animated discussion.

Or maybe they really will do what they say. Not everyone’s hopes are thwarted.

***

Finally, feet 49 and 50 teeter out the door and I pull the shutters down behind her. I shot daggers at her as she walked in 5 minutes before closing time but knew Phuong wouldn’t turn down 30 bucks.

I gather my handbag and cardigan and rush for the door. A huge cough begs to be released. Phuong blocks the exit.

‘You did well today. Give me a hug.’

Pinning my arms to my side, he embraces my stiff, motionless body.

 ‘I’ve been thinking about Friday’, he says, still hugging.

He releases me slowly and holds me in place by the shoulders, like a child. I do not move or react.

‘Yes?’ (She should be having her bath by now).

‘I will let you go.’

‘Thank you.’ (Penny will need to leave in 30 minutes).

‘So long as you don’t make a habit of these requests.’

‘Yes. Thank you.’ (And she doesn’t know the bedtime song).

He turns and I lift the shutter to let myself out.

‘Bye, gorgeous.’ He calls out, grinning. (I will have to give Penny her money tomorrow).

***

There is someone watching me. I look up. It is the woman from earlier today. Feet 21 and 22? Scaredy matte black. I thought she only had 20 minutes?

I instantly look at her feet to see if they are smudged. They look fine.

It is her that speaks first.

‘Are you… ok?’ Her eyes search my face. ‘It’s just that I saw you…and him…and…’ She trails off.

‘I am fine’. I interrupt her. ‘But I am late’.

‘Oh…ok, yes.’ She slowly moves out of my way.

As I break into a run for the station I hear her words, ‘Me too.’

***

Rose is asleep when I get home.

My shoulders ache and my head is numb.

I crawl in next to her and breathe in her goodness.

‘Mama?’

‘It’s ok darling, don’t wake up.’

‘Mama I made a spaceship today.’

‘Wow, that’s cool!’

‘And Mama?’

‘Yes darling.’

‘I don’t think I want to work in a shop like you when I grow up.’

‘That’s ok.’

‘Yeah, I want to be a pilot.’

‘Ok sweetie. You can do anything you want.’

I feel her breath slow down and warm my face. I stroke her hair and her cheeks. It’s turned cold, so I put socks on her perfect little feet.

Tomorrow is Sunday. 0 feet, 0 hours and not an Octopus in sight.

Judge's Comment

Our own time is as mysterious to us as the past and the future: each person is a world unto themselves and fiction is the best way we have of understanding what life is like for other people. A woman works in a nail salon in the Miranda Fair shopping mall. Through a careful accumulation of precise and witty detail, anchored by the metaphor of nail polish colours to reflect character, we enter the picture, we begin to understand how it feels to be her and see her sensitivity, compassion and acute appraisal of those she encounters. One shift working in the nail salon offers glimpses of her life: how she relates to clients, her co-workers, how she copes with harassment from her boss, memories of her mother in Vietnam and most poignantly, her relationship with her own child. As with the other two prizewinners, this story shows us some of the consequences, possibly for good or ill, of attending to our duties to others, of sacrificing ourselves to a higher purpose, up to a point, without erasing those unique selves.

Author's Comment

As an aspiring writer, busy Mum of three and Shire resident it is enormously gratifying to have won Third prize in the Short Story category. I’m grateful to Sutherland Shire Council for providing such opportunities.

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