I like to walk after therapy. I don’t feel ready to be normal again, or like I want to let go of the conversation yet. I follow the train line to the next station, or the one after that, depending on how it went. The city is coming together in my head. On this walk: the Vietnamese restaurant where I met Mary Lou; the roastery where I did coffee training; the kebab shop where Ross explained to me what a HSP is. A map of personal landmarks. For the first time I consider if Melbourne is my home.
There is a butchers by the next train station. Today I walk on its side of the road. There is a sign in the window seeking a cleaner in the evenings. It would fit in with my other job. I feel embarrassed to be looking at the advertisement. But I’m desperate for money, and here is an opportunity. I take a photo of the email address with my phone while a man walks behind me.
I come back next week for a trial shift. I smoke outside to pass the ten minutes until 4 o’clock. I don’t know why I’m unsure of myself. I think, It’s just a cleaning job. I meet Matt, who takes me to the back and shows me where to put my bag and where to change into the uniform: a black chef’s jacket, a grey flat-cap, white wellies, a blue plastic apron. The apron is too long on me and I have to hold it up when I walk. I can keep on my own trousers.
Matt shows me a laminated sheet on the wall – the cleaner’s tasks. He’ll help me out today and show me where things are. I clean a hundred black trays, scrubbing off meat, fat, blood and marinades, making sure I get the corners, then rinse away the suds and stack them to dry on the shelves above the sink. I do the same with deep blue and white buckets, ten or so, but wash them on the floor because they’re too big for the sink, and stack those to dry too. I take apart a saw, a mincer the size of a bath, a smaller mincer, a burger machine, a sausage machine and a tenderiser with a big American flag on the side. I wash the components in the sink, then scrape off the bone dust, cartilage and leftover flesh from the machines themselves, and scrub away the bloodstains and hose them all down with hot water until the stainless steel is shining and the air is thick with steam. I empty four bin bags and put them in a dumpster, and break down the cardboard boxes from the day and put them in too. I lift the heavy bucket of animal waste into a yellow dustbin kept in the chill room, and clean that bucket too. I scrape yellow fat off the long plastic cutting boards, douse them in white bleach and rinse them, and wipe the splattered blood off the walls above the counters. I put the machines back together. I clean the sinks. I mop the floors with water and red soap, and pull the suds and bits that everyone has dropped throughout the day to the drain in the middle of the floor. I empty the basket from the drain, wash it, and put it back.
It takes longer than the three hour shift. Matt tells me I will get faster, and helps me to finish when it’s almost 7. For all three hours I try to ignore how humiliated I feel. I try to walk more naturally in wellies that are too big. I try to think about something else when I push the dumpster through the car park and see my reflection in the shopfront of the IGA, when I catch the eye of a man getting out of his black Porsche, and a woman in athleticwear tying her beautiful Golden Retriever to the tree outside the laundrette. I fear I’m not better than this.
Matt and I stand next to each other in the back after everyone has gone home and survey the room. He tells me it’s a good clean. I say that’s great. He asks me if I can come back tomorrow, and I thank him three times. I change out of the uniform and say, See you then. I walk to the station. I smoke two cigarettes waiting for the train. I tell myself I deserve them.
I work at the butchers three or four nights a week. I don’t make friends with anyone. There’s little opportunity to because I work in the back. And there is a hierarchy in our uniforms that I feel as keenly as being new. I tell myself I like the break from talking and smiling to people all day in the cafe. I can put in headphones. I only need to say hello and good night. I can think or daydream or eavesdrop. I tell myself they’re dull anyway, working in a butchers, that I’m not missing out on any real craic. On Thursdays, there is a guy who reads out quizzes on his phone. I say the answers to myself, and get more right than they do. I am above them and beneath them.
There is one guy who sometimes talks to me. I think his name is John. I don’t have much choice if he decides to start a conversation. He finds me at the sink, and asks questions that have one word answers and segue into another story, fact or opinion. I guess he’s in his early 30s. He always makes self-deprecating jokes about his height, like when he asks me to pass him one of the black trays I’ve washed from the shelf. When he serves a customer who annoys him, he turns away at the end of the transaction and paces to the back and shouts, What a fucking whore, or something, after the automatic doors have closed.
On Valentine’s Day, John asks me if I’m doing anything after work. No, I say. I don’t want anyone to know me, as if that will make my time here less real. Then I repeat, No, nothing really, because I feel awkward in the silence between us. Me too, he says. Just me and my dog at home. Doing the three C’s together. He waits for me to ask him what the three C’s are, which I do. Cocaine, cocktails and ketamine, he laughs. I smile at him.
I move through the cleaner’s tasks faster now, like Matt said I would. Today I finish before 7, and say good night as John is still putting cling film over each tray. I take the tram to Ross’. I can smell bleach and blood on my hands, on the sweats I’m wearing. I have to get off early when a ticket inspector comes on because there’s no money on my Myki. I wait 15 minutes for the next one.
I pick up some dinner from the store and walk the rest of the way down the high street. It’s getting dark, but it’s still warm. I feel excited to see Ross. I wonder if he will have got me anything, but I know he won’t have. I don’t have anything for him. There are a lot of hairdressers in Toorak village. Barbers with leather sofas, mini-fridges stocked with craft beer, dark wooden floors. Salons are painted white, with good lighting and magazines and indoor plants on side tables. Every chair in every hairdressers is taken. Everyone is preemptively dressed, in tall shoes and shiny shoes, looking clean. I like looking in the windows. I find this funny and sweet, and think of all the ways it’s important and unimportant. I see my reflection in the clean glass. When I reach the end of the high street it’s dark, more quiet.
I pick Ross up when he lets me in and we kiss. We are staying in because I said we can’t afford much else. He orders an ice cream sundae on UberEats while I shower and change my clothes. I sit down with him and find a film to watch on the projector. I wait to press play until his housemate finishes talking and goes back to their room. I tell him about the hairdressers, but he doesn’t laugh or seem to find it interesting. I think it’s because it was Australian, and he is Australian. We are quiet, and I feel sore. I wanted him to laugh because it would make me feel like he understands me.
He falls asleep next to me while the film is still on. There is a pool of ice cream left in the box, but the thought of hearing the spoon scraping the styrofoam is unbearable so I put it down on the floor. I can still smell bleach on my hands. I do not watch the film. I’ve already seen it. I imagine walking past restaurants in the dark, seeing two sat either side of a small table with a bottle of wine. I tell myself it is natural to feel left out. I wonder if Ross feels that too but didn’t say anything.
Jonathan Morrow (@jonathanmorrow0) is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and theatre. He is Irish, but has lived in the US, Australia and is now based in the UK. His work is due to appear in The Rumpus.