Kinga Jaworski 2019
King St Cross
THE AIR WAS MUSKY, THAT KIND OF HOT-HUMID, TAINTED with lingering tobacco smoke, burnt petrol and that familiar scent of ground Arabica coffee beans. Nela stood at the Spencer-Collins St intersection twisting the silver rings that circled her right ring finger, the false diamonds glinted in what was left of that evening’s sun. She liked the unusually warm autumn breeze that whispered softly that day, picking up the lengths of her black-and-white, beach-striped skirt. The floating material distracted her from the busy bustle of peak hour traffic that filled every space around her as she tried to keep the skirt from lifting too far up her long, vanilla-skinned legs. All the city’s people packed eagerly at this one crossing only to gawk at the still, black boxes turning from green to yellow to red, anticipating the safety of the little man that radiated a luminous pantone vert. The thick white up-arrow encased in the circular sea of dark blue sounded a pulse that mimicked Nela’s heart – every so often skipping a beat. The oval case was a poorly painted black made of chipping aluminium that piped hot during the 40-degree summers, searing the skin of any pedestrian daring enough to touch it. Her palms seeped a saline damp at the thought of it, leaving invisible hand-prints that modelled crinkles on her freshly washed skirt she held too tightly – it was okay though, she would tumble it through the washing machine with a sprinkle too much Homebrand laundry powder when she returned home. Nela could see the vagrant man making his way towards her, almost eyeing her from the crowd. His prematurely aged skin was imprinted with leathered wrinkles that were patched with acute lividness lazed underneath his black bagged eyes. The curling hairs of his ratty greyed beared covered the tears in his cotton flanno shirt, she could see his woollen beanie was just enough to cover his crooked ears from the eerie cold nights that were bound to flood the streets every evening – Nela remembered the denim jacket she brought, it was nothing like her usual hoodie but warm enough to save her if the Melbourne weather decided to change again. He reeked of a citrusy, skunk floral.
Evan caught the 5:50 to Flinders stopping all stations. He was hoping it would take the city loop so he could avoid stepping off the train into the mob of nine-to-fives. They couldn’t help themselves but beetle over the thick yellow lines that never seemed to need repainting. It curved just above the baker black tar. When he stood with one-foot half-way on and just a little off, he could feel the difference in the ground under his converse sneakers. Their canvas material was a little tattered but nothing too obvious for anyone far enough to notice. He remembered buying them that other year for a bargain at one of those end-of-financial year sales. ‘They were fuck off beautiful at that price,’ he thought nodding to himself in approval. He minded the gap as he stepped on, still staring down. People settled and the train pulled hard in one direction before letting go. It hummed along the tracks, reminding him of the days he was still a kid. Eager to see what now, was normal. The memories invoked a blank stare that patched his musing face. He thought a while - his parents lived far away from here, some 69 kilometres south-east of Melbourne's Central Business District. The place was a small town, running on potato farms and orchards. Most of the community worked with fresh produce, or in green dairy pastures, or made the commute to other places: buildings owned by big bucks companies. At first, he made the trip. Those rum burgundy machines with couch-like chairs did okay for a short while. They were thrilling at first. But every journeying hour would be an hour better spent elsewhere. His thought was cut-off with a sudden halt and shuffling movement of unsteady feet trying to keep themselves up right. The train stopped dead-still in the middle of the tunnel. Slithers of tightness gripped his chest muscles with a trembling intensity. He felt a little light-headed as the people that circled, cramming around him started to seem even closer now. Some little kid began to cry, begging his mum to get out of the metal box that enclosed all the strangers. The train driver’s voice crackled over the loud speaker ‘aaaattention please metro customers… we’re experiencing some slight delays due to mechanical issues… Evan zoned out, it wasn’t like anyone listened anyway. Everyone knew they’d be stuck there fora while before they started moving again …delays, conduct yourselves safely. On behalf of metro, we apologise for any inconveniences, thank you’. The speaker crackled off again. All he could think about was Nela. Fuck, she said 6:30 and it was already 6:05. He watched the third digit of his Samsung Galaxy flick to 6:06. The kid was pouring down rain by now with the force of a person puking on all fours.
He breathed a hot air scented with burnt wheat as he spoke ‘couldja spera coupla dollas fora ticket to Fairfield?’ Her only instinct was to look down at the cracked pavement as he hobbled past. He seemed almost accustomed to her naïve gesture. She listened behind her as he asked the others around him again and again, moving deeper into the crowd before moving off in the opposite direction. Nela decided not to cross after-all and made her way up the street that seemed more like it was right. Google maps didn’t help much, that bloody phone was dying anyway. She could only think of two options: continue walking towards what she thought was King St or ask some stranger that looked like they’d have a brain about them. The world was smaller. People walked around everywhere, brushing her shoulder as they passed. Some staring down at glowing rectangles and others with coats hanging across their arms. The occasional stranger glared; couples talked about their new apartments they rented with rates higher then they could afford. They discussed cutting down on that brown liquid, one or two cups a week - they’d put it in for rent money instead. She picked a brown woman with bunned-up hair. It was that frizzy, charcoal black that matched the hair tie that held it all in place. If only they sold hair ties in her hair colour. ‘Excuse me, do you know where the Australian Institute of Music is?’ Nela asked sweetly: like a small schoolgirl avoiding trouble. A tradie covered in dirt smudges wearing a highlighter orange shirt sat on the concrete steps across with his legs spread far apart. His light tan boots where covered in the stuff. Polarised sunnies up and smirking. He eyed Nela from head to skirt, concentrating on where the wind moved it. She glanced briefly from the corner of her eye, beginning to clasp at the split that brought the beginning and end of the skirt together.
They met outside a heritage building built of heavy cream bricks with splitting cladding and fresh signs advertising something new everyone wanted. Nela walked by Evan’s right side. He was a little taller, eyes a little darker. His hair spiked up like echidna needles and felt like them too. It was doused in that wax stuff you’d buy at Chemist Warehouse after finally knocking off work some Friday arvo. He couldn’t leave the house without that stuff glazed in his hair. If you ever saw the boy walking down the street with his Mavericks cap on, you’d know Chemist Warehouse shut down for sure. But he was different. He remembered, was observant, knew things you’d forget before tomorrow began. He bore a golden heart, wrapped in hugs and sweet things that made you think differently about humanity. Every well-defined muscle in his body yearned for something more. His abdominals were always sore; from what, he didn’t yet know. And it was in this way you could get lost in his dark eyes – bursting, all-encompassing grey lines that danced around endlessly black pupils. You could miss his smile. The top corners curled out to hold lips that spoke of cheeky, non-conformist things. At twenty-one-and-a-half and living in a place far from his home region of rural Victoria, he did well to fit in. He payed his HECS-debt and lived on less than six-hours. It was colder now, not that Nela could feel it much. The conversation was far from any thought of the shifting weather. Evan told her about another one of those times Penny enlightened him with one of her fucked up stories. The world consumed them as they exchanged blurbs of abbreviated thoughts. Nothing else was relevant enough to notice, but it was the worn men on the stairs holding half empty emerald bottles sloshing with decaying liquid that made them freeze. They spat silent scrounges of despair and desperation, looking earth-ward beneath them as they spoke. One of the three squatting men rolled his eyes up to Evan’s as he forced out his sentences – each breaking away from his wilting lips. Evan placed the last of his gold coins into the man’s hand - there was a couple of silvers in there too, not much but it’d add up if you stayed long enough to count them. They flashed a blinding white as they danced in the light of the towering Praying Mantis eyes that stood watching from above. Nela watched the man rolling them in his palm as they clinked together. ‘Thanks mate, I mucha-appreciate that.’ Evan turned back to Nela as they re-established their feet. ‘I need some good karma.’ She thought about saying something good, but nothing came out. She wasn’t sure what that man would do with Evan’s money.