Martin Smith looked down at the lawn below. It was the hottest April day on record. The lawn was lit by a distant, fluorescent streetlight and he was surprised to see his neighbour across the corridor, the young Polish woman, lying face down on the lawn in a bikini. She was lying in the path of a sprinkler, one of those ones which moves in a slow half-circle arc, then chatters back. Every time the water ran over her body, her muscles clenched. Her skin was dotted with glistening water droplets, like diamonds or pieces of glass placed on her back and legs.
He stood in the darkness of his hot room, watching his neighbour, imagining how good it must feel in this heat to have all that cold water drum into your bare skin. He enjoyed the sight of her water-studded back, but felt a little guilty spying on her like this. He didn’t know her first name. They had never spoken. They had once shared an elevator; she had been wearing a satin dress and carrying white tulips. But they hadn’t spoken. The name on her apartment buzzer was Cielecka.
He had been intending to open the window but daren’t now, in case it alerted her to him, so he went to the kitchen instead and poured a glass of water from the tap. When he went back to the window, she was gone.
When he lost his job, he convinced himself that he would find a new one pretty soon, but it had been seven months now and he’d run out of his savings. The money he got each fortnight from the government was enough to pay his rent with just ten dollars to spare. His electricity and gas had been cut off weeks ago. He had books on his shelves but the last thing he wanted to do was sell his books. He sat in his room at night, lit by cheap candles, resenting the fact that he couldn’t even make a cup of tea.
In the mornings he would go to the local church and pretend to pray so that he could participate in morning breakfasts of bad coffee, toast, jam and, if he was lucky, a couple of eggs. Sometimes he would splash out and spend a third of his ten dollars at a good café. It was a luxury he could ill-afford, but he would sip his strong espresso and watch all of the lucky employed going about their business trying not to feel bitter and envious.
A few days after seeing his neighbour on the lawn below, she passed him in the corridor and asked him into her apartment. He was surprised, but followed.
“These hot days,” she said, ushering him in, “they are terrible. You know what I would like? A glass of chilled vodka with a twist of lime. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Her flat was spotlessly clean. There was a green sofa, a couple of red armchairs, a small television and a bookcase, a rattan rug on the floor. She gestured for him to sit down then disappeared into the kitchen. She came back with two glasses of sangria, with pieces of lime, oranges and strawberries. She handed him one. It was nice to hold something chilled, straight from the fridge. She sat down opposite him. They sipped their wine, looking at each other awkwardly.
“You’re Martin, right?”
”What do you do Martin?”
“I’m unemployed at the moment.”
“Ah. I thought so.”
“Why?” he asked, wondering how she could know that.
“Just a hunch,” she replied.
He wondered what she wanted with him. Maybe she had just asked him over for a glass of sangria, but he somehow doubted it? He tried guessing her age. Thirty? Thirty two? Her hair was the colour of summer: golden and bright.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“Nothing flash. I temp. It’s irregular but okay. It pays the rent and puts food on the table but not much more. Which is why I can’t afford vodka.”
She laughed. He smiled politely. She leaned across suddenly.
“So I have a proposal,” she whispered conspiratorially.
“You do?” he asked, surprised.
“It’s up to you, of course. Just an idea. But something which would benefit us both, I think.”
He waited for her to explain but she just sat there watching him. She crossed her legs, straightened her slacks. Finally she asked: “You like vodka?”
“Yes. But I haven’t had a drink for a long while.”
It had been a beer three weeks ago which he bought with half of his ten dollars one very hot evening. The memory of it made him thirsty.
“So a bottle of vodka would be welcome, yeah?”
“What are you getting at?”
“Well… I was sitting up in bed reading the other night. It was hot. I was lying on my sheets with the fan on. Do you know what I did before?”
He shook his head.
“I went down to lawn. The sprinklers were on. I lay on the grass and let the water run over me. It was lovely.”
She paused, watching his reaction. He drank his wine, wondering if she knew he had watched her.
“Anyway, I came back and I lay on the bed naked and wet, letting the air from the fan cool me.”
He imagined her, lying on her bed, glistening with droplets of water. In this stifling heat, it was such a lovely, cool image.
“I was reading a book. A novel. It’s by an American. It’s about an aspiring writer. And he has a neighbour who tries to help him out because he’s very poor, see. And he can’t afford milk. So the neighbour has a plan to invite the milkman up for vodka and while they are drinking the writer goes down and steals some bottles of milk. But he does it all wrong and he steals buttermilk instead and he can’t stand buttermilk.”
“What are you getting at?” he asked again.
She gave him an irritated look, as if she was annoyed at him interrupting, but then said:
“Well, it gave me an idea. There’s a bottle shop which delivers. It does its deliveries in one hit. I thought, well, I could ring and order a bottle of vodka. And he’d come up here and I’d be all apologetic and say how I thought I had enough money but didn’t. And he’d be all right with it because I’m a pretty blonde and men never get angry with pretty blondes. And all the while, you’d be downstairs taking a couple of bottles of vodka from his van. So we’d both have vodka and it’d be for free.”
She sat back and smiled.
“What do you think?”
“But that would be stealing.”
She looked at him as if his objection was just silly.
“I’m not a thief.”
“But it would only be a small thing. And just imagine, sitting back, with a glass of vodka and ice, with a twist of lime, getting slowly drunk. Wouldn’t that be just wonderful?”
“But I don’t want to steal,” he said, not quite believing she was even suggesting it, especially to a stranger.
“Let me tell you something,” she said seriously, leaning closer again, “once I was in this man’s shop and he propositioned me.”
“He asked me if I would sleep with him. When I said no he overcharged me for a bottle of wine. When I accused him of it he denied it. This isn’t just thievery, you see, it’s payback.”
“But aren’t you afraid he’ll be angry when he sees it’s you?”
“Oh no, he uses a boy to do his deliveries. It won’t be him. But it’s him who will pay.”
She put her empty glass on the table. The ice was nearly melted.
“So what do you say? A favour for me. It’s just a lark really. And you get a bottle of vodka for your time.”
He thought for a few moments. He wasn’t sure. What if he was caught? What if the man came back when he discovered the bottles gone and accused him of theft?
“What’s your name?” he asked.
He looked at her and the way she looked at him with her cool blue eyes, with expectation and anticipation, he felt as if he would be a failure in some way if he said no, so he nodded, without really understanding why he did so, and she clapped her hands in delight.
“That’s my boy, Martin,” she said, “well done you.”
So an hour later, he found himself waiting downstairs, standing in the phone box on the corner, pretending to speak into the hand set. He was waiting for the delivery van to come. He kept scanning the streets, checking to see if anyone else was around, but everyone was inside, in their air-conditioned rooms, watching television. He felt ridiculous, like someone playing at being a spy.
The van came. A young lad climbed out and opened the back. He took out a bottle and, checking the number of the apartment, went inside the building. Martin put the handset down and walked over to the van. He looked up and down the street. He had to act quickly. He looked at all the windows with their shutters down, keeping out the sweltering heat. Nervously, he opened the back of the van. There were cartons of beer and champagne and a box of spirits. He grabbed two bottles, pulled them out, then walked hurriedly across the road and into the park, where he hid behind the shelter of a tree.
He waited. The bottles were hard and glassy in his hands. He watched the empty road, the parked van washed by the light of a lamp. The boy was taking a long time. He felt bad about what he had done but it was too late now. He toyed with the idea of putting the bottles back but it would be just his luck to get caught, so he waited. What was taking him?
Finally the boy came out. He walked to the van. He put the bottle of vodka back into the box, then went to the cabin and climbed in. The engine started up. He drove off.
Martin sighed with relief. He ran across the road and up the stairs. He rang her doorbell. She opened it, saw the bottles and laughed loudly. She pulled him in.
“Sit down,” she said, taking one of the bottles from him.
She went into the kitchen and came back a little while later with two tall glasses of vodka and ice with a slice of lime floating in each one.
“That was so easy,” she said gleefully, “he said he didn’t mind. He understood. He was very polite and friendly.”
She laughed again, handed Martin his drink and sat down, resting her feet on the table. She sipped her drink and sighed happily.
“That was a great little adventure, Martin. A great adventure.”
He drank his drink. It went down, chilled, sweet, perfect. She looked at him, her eyes sparkling.
“And now we have a secret, don’t we? You and I have a secret to share.”
She smiled, resting the tip of the glass to her bottom lip, watching him.
They finished off her bottle between them. He was happy to stay as she had ice and lime and a fan which blew on them. They listened to music on her radio. He started to feel brave and heroic for stealing the vodka. He made derisive comments about the boy who hadn’t even noticed that the back of the van had been left open and she’d laughed brightly. Drunk, she persuaded him to join her in the park, where they stripped to their underclothes and stood under sprinklers, enjoying the coldness of the water, wet droplets on their limbs, the sudden pelting water drumming against their bare skin; they laughed, looking up at the starless sky.
When they got back to the apartment building, they stood outside her door and she grabbed him suddenly, and surprisingly, and they kissed. Their mouths tasted of purloined vodka. He was caught up in the perfumed smell and alcohol-taste of her. But then, just as suddenly, she turned away and opened her door.
“Goodnight,” she said, waving and shut the door.
He stood looking at her apartment door for a few moments, then turned and went back to his. He had imagined climbing into her bed with her, both wet and naked, but now here he was in his darkened, hot room, drunk and alone, a trail of sweat sliding down his forehead.
He lay on his mattress and his mind swirled.
They didn’t see each other for a few days. He found his bottle of vodka by his door one morning, half of it gone. He knocked on her door but there was no answer. He drank the vodka warm, without lime, and finished off a plastic container of cold vegetable curry he had bought at his local church fete for one dollar.
Nearly a week later she called him over. Her place was bright and warm, but cooler than his. She gave him a glass of iced water.
“How have you been Martin?”
“Okay I guess.”
“It’s so hot, isn’t it? I come from a cold country. I’m not used to all this heat.”
He nodded, sipping his water.
“That was fun though, the other night, wasn’t it? The vodka, the park, the water?”
She laughed. Then she put her glass down.
“I have another proposal, Martin.”
“Not more vodka? It won’t work a second time.”
“No. No vodka. Something else.”
He waited. She smiled a little smile.
“You know, in this heat, I hate to clean. It only makes me hot. But cleaning has to be done. The floors swept, the beds made, the dishes done.”
“But I have to work also. So it’s all so tiring. But here you are, Martin, with all that time on your hands.”
She looked at him and raised her eyebrows.
“You want me to clean for you?”
“That would be very helpful to me. Yes. While I’m at work. That would be convenient for us both wouldn’t it?”
“A job? What would you pay me?”
“Oh, not money.”
“Well, I’ll leave you a sandwich, some coffee.”
“Is that all? That’s not much for cleaning work.”
“But I’ll give you something more valuable as well.”
“Silence,” she said.
“I’m sorry? I don’t understand.”
“Well, like I said, we have a secret. But it’s a secret I can share with others if I want to. I could ring up the man in the bottle shop and tell him how I saw you take the bottles from his van.”
“But… you asked me to.”
“Only you and I know that, Martin.”
“I’d tell him the truth and you’d get into trouble as well.”
“Oh I don’t think he’d believe it. A young, respectable and pretty blonde versus an unemployed boy. Besides, he’d have his man. He’d be happy with you, I daresay.”
“But you’re joking, aren’t you? I mean, you wouldn’t really do that.”
“If you think that you really don’t know me, Martin.”
She crossed her legs and watched him.
“Besides, it’s a good business proposition. I’m not talking about much. An hour at the most. You have the time. We both benefit. What do you say?”
He couldn’t believe she was treating him like this.
“You’re a nasty bitch,” he said and she laughed.
“I’ll leave the key under the mat,” she shouted as he turned and left.
He could hear her laughing as he crossed the hall and went back to his own apartment.
In the morning, he told himself he wouldn’t do it. But he was hungry and the thought of coffee was very tempting. It was only a small chore after all.
He crossed the hall. He took the key from under the mat. He entered her apartment. He went straight to the kitchen. On a small table was a sandwich on a plate and a packet off coffee. Propped up against an empty vase was a note.
1. Do the dishes
2. Make my bed
3. Vacuum the floor
No ‘hello’ or ‘thank you,’ just a list of what she wanted him to do. He sat at the table. He ate the sandwich. He boiled a kettle, poured coffee into the plunger and made the coffee. He washed her dishes. He found the vacuum and cleaned her floor. He went into her bedroom and made her bed.
He drank his coffee and washed up the cup and plate. She couldn’t complain he hadn’t done a good job. He spent the rest of the day at the library and in the park.
The next day was the same. A list of things to do. He ate the sandwich, had a coffee. He had a glass of orange juice as well. He did the chores, then went home. It wasn’t so bad after all.
On the fourth day, the list changed.
1. Do the dishes
2. Make my bed
3. Do my washing
4. Do my ironing
She was pushing it too far now. He did the dishes and made her bed. He went into the laundry and found a basket of dirty clothes. He put them in the washing machine and, while he waited, made a second coffee and watched a program on her TV. Then he hung out her washing and went home. She could do the ironing herself.
But, when she came home she knocked on the door.
“Martin? You didn’t do the ironing.”
“You can do the ironing.”
“But we had an arrangement?”
“You’re pushing it, Maria. I’m not your servant.”
“But you want my silence don’t you?’
“You can push it only so far. Besides, I don’t believe you’d do it.”
She smiled in an amused kind of way. She went back to her own apartment, leaving the door open. He followed. He watched her pick up the telephone and dial a number.
“Is this Mr Royston? Hello. I understand you had some vodka stolen the other week? Yes? Well I saw who did it and wondered if you would like to know his name? Yes. It was from the van. Of course. His name is Mar…”
He rushed up and pressed the receiver button down. She looked at him and raised her eyebrows. Then it occurred to him that she had probably rung the time or the weather. She was just pretending. He pressed the redial button and took the receiver from her hand. He pressed it to his ear. “Royston Cellars. Is that you again?”
He hung up. She looked at him.
“Are you going to do the ironing now, Martin?”
He nodded silently.
While he stood at the ironing board, she sat in an armchair, watching, drinking white wine. She put on a piece of choral music and listened to it while he ironed her shirts, pants, dresses and underclothes.
“That’s good,” she said, handing him a glass of wine.
He felt like refusing it but it was icy cold and it was so hot, and, besides, he was thirsty.
“By the way,” she said, as they sipped from their glasses, “I like fabric softener in my washes. That was my fault. I should have told you. But next time use it please.”
He downed the wine in one go and left.
“Goodnight, Martin,” she said.
The lists got longer. Do the dishes. Make the bed. Wash my clothes. Do the ironing. Dust the furniture. Do my shopping. Clean the bathroom. Make me a vegetable casserole.
He obliged. He ate his lunch and drank his coffee. He worked conscientiously. And, sometimes, she’d invite him for dinner and a glass of wine. Sometimes she would chat with him as if they were friends and he would almost forget their arrangement. But then she would go days without seeing him and she would add something to the list. Take my dress to the dry cleaners. Clean the windows. Bake me a chocolate cake.
One evening, she called him over. She poured him a glass of wine. She sat down.
“I’ve been thinking, Martin. I think we’re doing this the wrong way.”
“We’re wasting resources.”
“Well, you come over here and look after me. I come home and you sleep in your hot and dark room. It’s not very sensible is it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, why don’t you give your landlord notice? Move in here. You can sleep on the couch. Then you’ll be here when I want things.”
“You want me to move in?”
“Yes. You’ll have to pay of course.”
“How much do you pay now?”
“Two hundred and fifty a week.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t ask that much. How about two hundred?”
“Two hundred? For sleeping on your couch and doing all your housework?”
“Yes, but you’d be using my water and eating my food. You’d have to contribute. And be reasonable. You’d be saving fifty dollars a week.”
“And losing my independence!”
“Don’t be such a bore. Think of it, Martin. Think of the opportunities.”
She stood up and walked over to him. She pressed her mouth against his and kissed him warmly.
“Think of all the possibilities,” she said.
He gave three week’s notice. He dumped most of his possessions on the street, then boxed up his books and clothes and moved into her apartment. She gave him some bed clothes and a pillow and he made up a bed on her couch. On the first night he expected a goodnight kiss, but she simply turned out the light and went to her own room.
He lay on the couch, wondering what he had done.
In the mornings she would wake him up and, while she showered and dressed, he would make her breakfast. Sometimes she would wake him with a kiss, other times with a nudge. It was like living with two people. Sometimes she was cold and distant, other times affectionate and friendly. A few times she cuddled up to him on the couch and they touched and kissed. Most nights they didn’t.
But the odd thing was that, the more time she spent being cool towards him, the more he wanted her. He would admire her perfect skin and her shiny hair and he would look at her mouth and remember the last time they kissed; and, the next time they kissed, her mouth was all the more wonderful, her touches all the more delightful. And, if she thanked him or wished him well, he was filled with a strange kind of happiness which, even when she was cruel to him or indifferent, he remembered with fondness and longing.
Once, on a very hot night, she left her door open and he could see her lying naked on the bed with her back to him. He stood looking at her, admiring her in the way you might a fine sculpture in an art gallery. He had the feeling that she knew he was there and was letting him look; that perhaps she had left the door open for this very reason?
But he daren’t go in. She had made it clear to him that, apart from when he made her bed, her room was her domain. So he just stood in the doorway and looked.
In the morning, he saw her in the kitchen in her satin robe and she looked so wonderful. He grabbed her lightly, pulling her gently close, then kissed her. She slapped him hard on the face. His face stinging, he looked at her in shock.
“Don’t do that again,” she said calmly, but firmly.
He shook with rage.
“You know what?” he said, “when you get home, I won’t be here.”
“But where would you go?” she smiled.
“I’ll find somewhere.”
“You’d sleep like a homeless person?”
“I have friends.”
“Really?” she said with a raising of her eyebrows.
“You can’t treat people like this,” he said, trembling.
“You love me, Martin. You are a country I have colonised. I came into your life and changed you forever and, no matter what you may feel, you can’t do without me any more.”
“We’ll see about that,” he said.
After she went to work, he packed up some of his books and clothes then left. He walked aimlessly. He sat in a café drinking coffee and eating cake. He sat on the library steps watching the people and the pigeons.
He wasn’t going back. He didn’t care if she rang and told them about the vodka. He didn’t care that he had nowhere to go. He would never go back.
He bought himself a cup of tea from a tea van. He found a park bench and sat drinking it. The day was very hot so he found a tree and sat under the shade. He remembered standing, watching her back as she lay on top of her sheets the night before. It was painful to remember.
He remembered the night he had seen her, lying on the lawn, with her skin shining and wet. She had enchanted him.
He wondered what might have happened if he had refused her suggestion of stealing the bottles of vodka. Would he still be in his own apartment, alone and with no electricity or gas? Drinking water from the tap, buying cold curries from church fetes?
The other day they had shared a bottle of white wine and an aubergine curry. She had sat opposite him with her left foot resting on his right thigh and she had smiled.
He walked around the park, wasting time. He wasn’t due for money for one and a half weeks and he only had twenty dollars to his name. Living with her, he had been able to buy wine and books, even a bottle of vodka which they had shared with ice and a twist of lime.
He thought of the long days of cleaning floors, washing clothes, cooking dinner, making her bed. He remembered running her a bath, pouring shampoo into her golden hair, massaging her head, soaping her neck and shoulders. But he also remembered the nights when she didn’t come home until very late, with him pretending to be asleep on the couch; or when she spent days largely ignoring him, leaving him notes of instructions propped up against the vase in the kitchen. Nights of tender kisses, other nights of stony silence, angry criticisms, all depending on her mood or desires.
He would be better off without her.
He found a delicatessen and bought some iced water and sat under a bridge drinking it. He fell asleep and was kicked awake by a passing cop.
As the sun went down he walked past a paddock and watched a group of school boys playing football. The ball made a loud, leathery, thudding sound when it was kicked. He wondered how they had the energy to play in this heat.
He imagined long, aimless nights like this, carrying his heavy suitcase of books and clothes, watching other people get on with their sweatyblives.
He went back to the apartment.
The front door was open and he found her sitting on the floor with her back to the sofa, wearing grey silk pyjamas. A window was open behind her and a breeze was blowing out a white, lace curtain, like the sail of a boat. She was eating slices of blood orange which were laid out on a plate before her. They lay in dark, red crescents, along with the orange and white strips of the ones she’d already chewed back to the rind.
She looked up as he came in.
“The breeze is cool,” she said, “and these oranges are delicious.”
She held up the plate and he took a slice, biting into the moist flesh. It was sweet and juicy. He sat down beside her. She turned to look at him.
“I knew you’d come back,” she said, then she leaned across and kissed him, her mouth sticky with citrus, her teeth biting into his bottom lip, but not enough to break the skin.
Outside a van went by. Together they finished the oranges, piece by bloody piece.