2021 Marjorie Barnard Award Prizewinning Story

Good People

by Jodie Kewley, Red Hill South, Victoria

His mother hardly spoke on the long drive home, which suited him. She asked if he wanted the radio on and he said no. She asked if he wanted to stop at Maccas and he said no. But that was all she said. Silence, he’d come to appreciate after so many years, had a texture all of its own. Almost like syrup. He watched the landscape slide by through the window. So many shades of green. He pressed the window down and breathed in and out, in and out, like someone doing yoga. Grass was what he smelled mostly, leaf smoke, autumn. It made him want to weep.

Norah wasn’t a good driver. She over-revved. She crunched the gears. Her neck was pretty much shot, so she was over-reliant on her mirrors. He found himself craning his neck on her behalf. ‘Shit, Mum,’ he said, when she merged into the city traffic. ‘You almost hit that guy.’ Norah said nothing. He wondered if she’d gone deaf in the time he’d been inside. 

Once they got through the worst of the city traffic, he closed his eyes. He’d been tightly coiled, he realised. He unclenched his jaw, felt himself veer towards sleep, leant into it. When he woke, the car was turning onto gravel. It was nearly dark. He didn’t recognise the place. They pulled up outside a cabin with a ‘Reception’ sign hanging crookedly from a post and Norah got out without cutting the engine or closing the car door. A fluoro light came on in the office when she stepped inside. A woman emerged from a doorway behind a counter. They talked briefly. Norah signed something. They both turned and looked in his direction, then looked away.

‘What’s happening?’ he asked when she got back into the car. She jammed the car into first and drove slowly over the first of a series of speedhumps. ‘Mum?’ On either side of the driveway was a string of prefab cabins. ‘Tell me you’re taking me home,’ he said, embarrassed to hear the catch in his voice. ‘Mum?’

Norah stopped outside cabin 18. ‘Ken didn’t want you staying.’

‘Are you serious? It’s your house. It’s our house, not his.’

She handed him a key. ‘I’ve paid the first month’s rent.’

‘No, Mum. I want to come home.’

‘You made your bed, Matthew.’

‘Oh, come on, Mum. How many times do I have to say sorry? Jesus.’

‘I bought you some groceries,’ she said. ‘They’re in the boot.’

He got his box of belongings from the back seat and put it beside the cabin door, then came back for the groceries. Norah kept the headlights on while he unlocked the door and turned on an overhead light. The place smelled of onion peel. 

‘You coming in?’ he called.

She shook her head.

He stood by and watched her struggle to do a three-point turn. As she cruised past she said, ‘And don’t you go calling Tisha. She’s got her life back on track. She’s doing well.’

He held his palms up, called out after her, ‘How could I? I don’t have a phone.’

Of the cabins facing him, about half had cars parked beside them – mainly utes and four-wheel drives. He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked around to the back of the cabin his mother seemed to have assigned to him. There wasn’t much to see, just a wire fence around which plastic bags and clumps of grass had wrapped themselves. Beyond that lay an embryonic housing estate. 

He went back inside and began unpacking the bags of groceries. Put some in the fridge, some in the one cupboard above it. Eggs, bread, milk, instant coffee . . . The cabin rocked a little under his weight. When he found a Kinder Surprise in one of the bags, he felt his throat constrict. It was the same sort he used to hound Norah for when he was little. 

The office was warm when he entered it, infused with the scent of baking. He shook the bell on the counter and a teenage girl appeared – skinny, round-shouldered, almost chinless. He wondered if she was bullied at school. 

‘I’m in cabin 18,’ he told her.

She smiled at him uncertainly. ‘Okay. Is everything alright?’

‘Everything’s great. Great. It’s just that I . . . that my phone’s not working, and I wondered if you might have one I could use.’

‘Sure, I guess.’ She reached into her pocket and handed over an iPhone. 

It seemed big for a mobile. He hoped he wouldn’t have to ask how to use it. He poked at its screen. The girl withdrew but he sensed her loitering on the other side of the doorway.

Cal picked up on the fifth ring, recognised his voice straight away.

‘Hey, Matt. How’re you doin’? Hang on, where’s the recording? Don’t tell me you’re out?’

‘Okay, I won’t.’

‘Man, that’s fantastic. I thought you had another five months.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m a good boy now.’

‘I can’t believe it.’

He assumed Cal meant his early release. ‘So, what say we catch up?’

‘Oh man, I’d love that, I really would, but I’m getting married on Saturday, so it’s kind of bad timing, you know?’

‘It’s this Saturday?’

‘Yeah. If I’d known you were going to be around we would’ve put you on the guest list.’

‘No worries. Who’re you marrying again?’

‘Kaylee.’

‘Kaylee? Have you told me about her?’

Cal chuckled. ‘You serious? I talk about her all the time. Kaylee Farago.’

‘Yeah, course.’ He should have remembered. He’d had a teacher called Miss Farago in grade 3. Sometimes he worried about his brain.

‘We’ll get together soon, yeah?’ said Cal. 

‘Sure. Hey, Cal, you ever hear from Tisha?‘

‘Tisha?’ Matt noted the hesitation. ‘Not really.’

‘No? I guess she’s not living with her folks anymore.’

‘She’s not, no.’ 

‘You know where she’s at?’

‘Listen, Matt, maybe you should leave it alone, yeah?’

‘Come on, Cal. I just want to talk, you know. I don’t have that many friends.’

He heard Cal take a breath. ‘I don’t know where she’s living, okay? But she still works at that same café. She’s the manager now.’

‘No way!’

‘But I didn’t tell you that, right?’

‘Right.’

The girl materialised just as soon as he’d hung up. ‘Cheers,’ he said, handing her back her phone. ‘Listen, could you tell me where I am exactly?’

The girl’s neck flushed pink. She turned and called out, ‘Mum!’ 

Her mother was scrawny too, with kind, faded blue eyes. ‘How can I help?’

He repeated the question, adding, ‘I don’t come from round here.’

‘Mickleham. You’re in Mickleham,’ she told him.

‘Ah,’ he said, as if that meant something to him. ‘And if I wanted to get to Coburg?’

‘How ’bout I print you out a Google map?’

‘That’d be good.’

He had a hankering to stay in the office overlayed with its sweet baked biscuit smell, to sit down on the padded bucket chair opposite the counter, to keep some thread of conversation going with this thin, helpful woman, but he couldn’t think how.

It was dark outside, and he felt colder than he’d felt for a long while. A trio of men were sitting, drinking, around a fire in a metal drum set up between two of the cabins.  They nodded as he passed. One of them called out, ‘Hey, mate, feel free to join us if you want,’ and Matt raised a hand in acknowledgement but didn’t stop.

He switched on the heater in his cabin, made himself eggs on toast, which he ate watching a game show on TV. The name of one of the contestants was Lionel Goodfolk, which got Matt thinking about what Mr Jarvis – one of the nicer officers – had said earlier in the day, after Matt had filled in all the forms and changed from his prison-issue tracksuit into the clothes Norah had brought (how stiff they’d felt) and signed for his box of belongings. He’d said, ‘You know, there are plenty of good people out there, Matthew. You’ve just gotta open yourself up to them.’ 

One of the things he’d looked forward to most was being able to sleep-in, but he woke at 5.45am. He lifted the curtain beside his bed. It was still dark, the moon a ghostly strip behind cloud. He lay there thinking about Miss Farago, with her long boots and short skirts and the fuzzy mohair jumpers he’d wanted to run his hand over. He used to brag to the other kids that he alone had been to her place. Even now he could picture Miss Farago’s flat: the unscuffed walls and springy carpet, the matching furniture, the books all neat and vertical in the bookshelves. Nothing broken, nothing lying on the floor. No dishes piled up in the sink. There, in her neat lemon-toned kitchen, she’d made him a Milo milk and a peanut butter sandwich cut into triangles, and he almost forgot how upset he’d been when Norah’d failed to pick him up from school. Didn’t mind so much that she was in Casualty, again. Once he’d finished eating, Miss Farago told him to pick a book from the bottom row of the bookshelf. He’d chosen one with a one-armed pirate on the cover and they’d sat on the couch together, his cheek right up against her soft woollen sleeve, while she read it to him. When Ken arrived to take him home, he’d clung onto Miss Farago’s hand. ‘Come on, Tiger,’ Ken had said, as though he were the kind of guy who joked around with his stepson, and Miss Farago had had to prise his fingers off hers one by one. He could still remember when they’d got in the car, Ken bringing his face right up to his own, hissing, ‘Show me up like that again, and I’ll kick you all the way from here to Timbuktu.’

At 7.29am, work on the housing estate began and Matt, not normally one for breakfast, made himself coffee and toast just for something to do. He’d always imagined time would pass more quickly once he was released, when he didn’t have to put up with his cellmate watching cartoons, the volume up loud, didn’t have to work in the bakery, tying plastic twists on bags of bread. But if anything, it felt slower. He thought of Tisha, her feistiness, her small body, tensile from years of callisthenics, her ripe laugh. The fun they’d had. 

He did thirty push-ups and a hundred sit-ups in the space between the bed and wardrobe. He had a long shower, made himself another coffee. 

The café had been renovated. It was smarter, glassier. Standing behind the coffee machine, head bent over the milk-frother, Tisha was so far from the slip of a girl who could do backflips when the urge gripped her, he almost turned around and walked out. It wasn’t just that she was wider, fleshier, or that her wild curls had been straightened, it was that she was a woman. 

She flinched when she saw him. Handing the milk jug to a heavily-inked girl beside her, she wiped her hands on a cloth tucked into her apron, without taking her eyes off him. He sat down at the bench that ran along the front window. She followed.

‘What are you doing here, Matt?’ She glanced around as though spies might be listening.

‘You’re looking good, Tish. I hear you’re the manager now.’

‘Matt. This isn’t a great time, you know?’

‘You never answered my letters.’

She sighed, sat on the stool beside him. ‘What letters? I never got them.’

‘I called as well but your Dad hung up soon as he heard the recording.’

‘I didn’t know.’ She picked up a sugar sachet and wrapped it round her finger. ‘It was such a long time ago, Matt.’

‘Don’t I know it.’

She glanced up at him. ‘I was so lost.’ 

‘But now you’re found?’

She almost smiled. ‘I’m doing okay. You?’

He shrugged, told her how Ken wouldn’t let him stay in the house, about the cabin park, about Cal getting married, even though he knew that’s not what she meant.

‘Excuse me, Tisha?’

They both turned. The tattooed waitress stood awkwardly, glancing from him to Tisha. ‘It’s just that Michael called to say don’t worry, he’s going to pick up Zane from school.’

‘Thanks, Katie,’ said Tisha.

‘Zane?’ said Matt. ‘You got a kid?’

Matt could see the pulse beating in Tisha’s neck.

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘How old?’

‘What does it matter?’

‘How old?’

‘Eight. Zane’s eight.’

Matt stopped swivelling on his stool. ‘Is he mine?’

‘Listen, let’s just  . . .’ She patted the air with both hands. ‘You can’t just turn up out of the blue . . . ’ 

‘Is he?’

She stared at the bent sugar sachet. ‘Okay, yes.’

‘Jesus, Tish.’ He stood up, hands on hips, sat back down. Tisha didn’t move. ‘You got a photo?’

She tapped on her phone, passed it to him. The boy had Boris Johnson hair and Norah’s grey-green eyes. He had an embarrassed smile.

Matt cradled the phone, brought it up closer to his face. ‘Zane,’ he said.

‘He’s a good boy,’ said Tisha.

A coffee appeared before him that he couldn’t remember either of them ordering.

‘What have you told him about me?’

‘That you had a problem with drugs and made some bad choices.’

‘Is that all?’

‘I told him that you stole your stepdad’s car when you were high and that we went on a joyride.’ She spoke slowly as though the words were dragging their feet. ‘I told him about the woman, Matt.’ 

He nodded.

‘I know where she’s buried,’ she whispered. ‘I still go there sometimes.’

Matt put down his coffee before his shaking hands could spill it. The waitress stole glances at them while she wiped down the tables. 

‘This Michael guy, he’s your boyfriend, yeah? What’s he like?’

‘He’s no Ken, Matt, I can assure you of that.’

Some women at a table in the corner burst into laughter.

‘I want to see him. I want to see Zane,’ he said. ‘What school does he go to?’

‘It’s too soon. We’d have to build up to it.’

‘I just want to see him, that’s all. Honestly.’

Another sigh. ‘You promise?’

‘Cross my heart and hope Ken dies.’

She smiled despite herself. It was something he used to say.

‘Turn left. When you get to the roundabout turn left again, then keep going. You’ll see it. They get out at three-thirty.’

More time to fill in. He walked past the school and around the block twice, feeling the same sense of disembodiment he felt post-spliff. His feet and his brain seemed to be moving at different speeds. His chest felt hollow, as if a balloon had been implanted in there. ‘Zane,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Zane.’

On his third approach, the school carpark was full and there were cars parked on both sides of the road. A knot of women stood outside the fence, but most of the parents were in their cars. Matt didn’t know where to position himself and stood to the side of the gate. It could have been his old school; sheets of paper stuck up on the classroom windows, tree roots lifting up the asphalt on the front playground, lunch rubbish caught up in the bushes beside the main path. He could have been waiting for Norah to pick him up, on foot because they only had one car and Ken rarely let her use it. 

The kids trickled, then poured, out. Matt focused only on those boys with fair hair. As the crowd thinned he worried that he’d missed him, but then there he was – hair the colour of a hatchling chicken, shirt untucked, knees muddy below his shorts, a backpack that seemed too big for such a small spine.

‘Zane. Over here!’

The boy looked past him, to a man standing beside a car, and broke into a trot. Matt pivoted to see the man bend down and ease Zane’s backpack off, to nod as Zane told him something. He watched as the man opened the car door for the boy to climb in and put on his seatbelt. He watched them drive away and imagined the man making Zane a Milo milk and a peanut butter sandwich when they got home.

‘You get there alright then?’

The woman who worked in the cabin park’s office was putting the bins out when he got back. Not even six o’clock and already it was chilly and dark. 

‘I did, yeah. Thanks,’ he said. ‘Thanks for the map.’

They walked back together along the driveway, agreed that it felt like winter already. She stopped at the door to the office.

‘You warm enough in the cabin?’

He wasn’t sure if it was a question or an invitation. ‘I’m okay. For now, anyway.’

She nodded, ‘Good’, and waited for him to walk on.

‘I’ve got a kid,’ he said, the words spewing out like coins from a poker machine. ‘A boy, Zane.’

‘That’s not a problem,’ she said. ‘Kids are welcome here. I’ve got a foldout bed I could lend you if you didn’t want him sharing yours.’

‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Good to know.’

They had another fire going in the metal drum, the men, the tradies who were working at the housing estate and staying at the cabins. There were four of them this time. One was sitting on an upturned olive oil can. They fell silent as Matt walked by. He felt his neck prickle.

‘There’s a spare beer here if you want it, mate.’

Matt hesitated for just long enough for a bucket to be turned upside down for him to sit on and a tinny thrown his way.

‘Good man,’ said the beer-thrower, clapping him on the back when he sat down with them. ‘Good man.’

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