Sunday Afternoon Drop-Off
Sarah Shepherd (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand)
Adam has his own key, given to him by Claire. He stands on the stoop of the Edwardian mansion house and buzzes anyway. No reply. Two more unanswered buzzes tell him she can’t be arsed traipsing downstairs to let him in. Or that she’s out. He turns the key in the sticky lock, pushes the heavy door, lets himself and his daughter in.
‘Can we say hello to Beetle, Daddy?’ asks Lucy. She skips through the foyer without waiting for an answer. A little wooden trap door opens into a small perspex-walled cavity beneath the stairs. Three of its walls are painted green. Lucy peers through the fourth, a see-through wall with air holes drilled into it. Beetle, a small brown tortoise, sits on a hay covered floor. Beetle belongs to the woman in Flat A.
‘Sure, sweetie,’ says Adam. He puts Lucy’s bag down on the foyer floor and leans against a shelf that’s covered in mail and flyers and four telephone books that nobody’s bothered to claim. A note is scribbled on the back of some junk mail and sticky-taped crookedly on the door:
ATTENTION TENENTS. CLOSE THE DOOR PROPERLEY BEHIND YOU!!!
Claire’s: Adam recognises the writing. And the spelling. And the unnecessarily emphatic and exclamatory tone. He looks around him. Grubby walls. Dirty, leaf-strewn floor. Dusty sills. Depressing shatter-proof institutional glass windows, frosted to keep the light out, with the thin grey grid lines that always remind him of school. The building has four flats. Why the tenants don’t get together and sort out a hoover roster for the entrance is beyond Adam. It pisses him off.
‘Daddy! He’s eating! Come and look!’
Adam crouches beside his daughter. Beetle the tortoise beak-wrestles in slow motion with a piece of cabbage.
‘He is, too. He must like cabbage, Luce. Just like you, eh? Cabbage is your favourite too, isn’t it?’
‘Eww!’ Lucy says scornfully. ‘Cabbage is yuck, yuck, yuck.’
‘Cabbage makes me fart,’ says Adam, and pulls a face, making Lucy squeal with delight. ‘Come on. Let’s say bye-bye to Beetle. Mummy’s probably wondering where we are. Bye-bye, Beetle!’
‘Bye-bye, Beetle, I hope the cabbage doesn’t make you fart!’ calls Lucy, giggling as she makes her way up the stairs. Adam grabs her bag and follows. He figures he has about two more years before his daughter outgrows his sense of humour.
First floor landing. They knock on Claire’s door. Still no reply. Adam opens the door and follows Lucy into the silent flat’s tiny hallway. He puts Lucy’s bag down and takes his daughter into the lounge.
‘Claire?’ he calls. Nothing. Third time in a row she’s been late. Last time, when he’d called her, she’d said she was ten minutes away. An hour later they’d still been sitting there watching SpongeBob when she’d finally swanned in. She’d stunk of smoke and booze and stale frying oil. Her cheeks had been flushed with the flare of rosacea and her clothes had been different somehow. Louder. More like she’d dressed when she’d met him.
‘Where’s Mummy?’ he says to Lucy and makes his confused clown face: big eyes, raised eyebrows, upside-down smile. He hopes she doesn’t catch the strain in his voice. Lifts his daughter’s little frame – but she’s getting so long, a proper kid now, nothing toddler about her. He plops her down on Claire’s huge, old, indigo sofa. It used to be their sofa. It had been the only one in the shop they’d been able to fit on together horizontally, so they’d taken it. He takes off Lucy’s Dora the Explorer trainers. Goes to the hallway and puts them where he usually puts them. In the spot where the coat stand and shoe rack should be. When he comes back in, Lucy is curled on the sofa, sucking her thumb.
‘Here, sweetheart, you watch some telly for a bit while I see if I can find Mummy,’ he says, switching on the television. Ryan Seacrest and his ridiculous teeth appear, along with an E! logo. Lonely men watch porn. Lonely women watch celebrity news. Adam switches over to Disney.
‘Thanks, Daddy,’ says his daughter.
Adam looks around. The old teak coffee table seems to have more stains on it every time he visits. In the middle of the table is a big square candle. In the wax, five inch-wide depressed holes house five stumpy black wicks. Each hole has wizened black matches trapped in the wax. Beside the candle, an empty Smirnoff bottle. Slung around the bottle’s neck are half a dozen of Claire’s thin, cheap metal bracelets; newer versions of the ones that used to annoy him by jangling in the cinema. Another half dozen bracelets litter the top of the table: a drunken game of horseshoes. A metal ashtray is filled with butts, ash overflowing onto the table. It’s disgusting. He wishes she’d give up. He sweeps the bulk of the ash into his hand, picks up the ashtray and the bottle and heads for the kitchen.
On the bench beside the sink, a half-gone foil of Berocca tablets sits outside its tube. Beside it, a glass with dried, powdery orange sediment. In the sink, a crumb-covered plate holds a knife and the knife holds the remains of a scraping of Marmite. Adam puts the vodka bottle in the overflowing recycling tub, washes his ashy hand, rinses out the dishcloth and starts back to the lounge. To wipe the coffee table down. Halfway there he stops. Goes back to the recycling bin in the corner. What Claire gets up to when Lucy isn’t here is Claire’s business. He knows that. She is a good mother. He knows that. But. He pulls the top layer of bottles out, stands them on the floor, and counts. It doesn’t look good. A dozen empty Heinekens. Five Cab Sauvs. Two Grey Goose hip flasks. Two more empty litre bottles of Smirnoff, plus the one he’s just added to the collection. One poorly-cleaned peanut butter jar.
‘What’s going on, Clairey?’ he murmurs. Straightening, he opens her little fridge. Half a wrinkled red capsicum grins toothlessly up at him from the middle shelf. In the door compartments is Claire’s usual ancient collection of once-used-then-forgotten curry pastes and exotic sauces. For a fridge that is expecting to be catering for a four-year-old, there’s a distinct lack of dairy products and fruit.
‘Daddy, can I watch Special Agent Oso, too?’ comes Lucy’s voice.
‘Sure, honey,’ he calls.
Claire kept their deco oak dining table with the turned legs and square top that he always loved and she was indifferent about. He always thought she kept it to spite him, but he has to admit it is just about the only sort of table small enough to fit into this kitchen. He pulls out a white plastic chair and sits down at the table. He runs his finger along one of the table’s panel joins. Claire’s phone sits on the table beside a small waterless glass vase filled with brittle, dead lavender. The phone is dead too. Doesn’t matter if it’s on or off anyway. It’s not with Claire.
‘Molly Dolly!’ says Lucy, excited, in the lounge.
Adam pokes his head around the kitchen’s door-less frame and looks in. Lucy stands on her tip-toes on the hearth, reaching up to the mantle to where her favourite doll sits. Claire hadn’t been able to find it when he’d picked Lucy up last. He’d had to deal with Lucy grizzling at bedtime because she didn’t have Molly Dolly to sleep with. Lucy was scheduled to stay two nights as usual, but one without Molly was traumatic enough for everyone, so on Saturday morning he’d bought her a new soft toy. It didn’t offer Lucy the same comfort, but at least she’d been bribe-able. And at least the novelty of having a new toy had off-set the insecurity she’d felt without her Molly. Now Lucy grabs one of the doll’s legs that’s dangling casually off the mantle, pulls her doll down and kisses her enthusiastically, several times. Hugging the doll, Lucy looks around for her father.
‘Molly Dolly!’ she says, grinning, triumphant.
‘There she is,’ says Adam. ‘See? I told you she’d be okay.’
‘She’s been very lonely,’ says Lucy, serious now, holding her doll at arm’s length and looking at her. ‘She didn’t like being here on her own. She missed me very lots.’
‘Poor Molly,’ says Adam.
‘Poor Molly,’ agrees Lucy, and hugs the doll to her chest. She climbs back on the sofa. Once within striking range of the digital babysitter, she turns instantly back into a zombie. One hand tucks Molly to her side like a rugby player holding a ball. The other hand is at her mouth, and her knees are pulled up to her chest.
Adam checks his watch. Half an hour’s passed. Give it a while yet. If last time was anything to go by, she’ll turn up soon. Still sitting at the oak table, he turns Claire’s phone in his hands and wonders what to say to her when she turns up. Wonders what to say about the bottles. About leaving his daughter here.
He takes off his jacket. Hangs it on the back of the chair beside him. Reaching into the pocket he pulls out his phone, wallet and keys and puts them on the table. He moves them around the table for a few moments, lining everything up straight and in size order: His wallet, his phone, Claire’s phone, his keys. He decides to call his wife.
‘Hi, where are you? I’m just starting dinner.’ As he hears Jane’s voice in his ear, Adam pushes Claire’s phone away from his stuff.
‘She’s not turned up yet.’
‘Jesus. Where is she this time?’
‘Don’t know. Her phone’s still here. Listen, I think something might be wrong.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Her bin, it’s full of booze bottles.’ Adam can hear Jane breathing into the phone. He sighs. Another woman in his life that’s not replying.
‘So what? Ours is, too. Why are you snooping in her bin, anyway?’
‘I was just tidying up a bit. It’s spirits, Jane. Vodka. And there’s nothing in the fridge.’
‘Are you going to wait for her?’
‘I was going to, yeah,’
‘Why don’t you bring Lucy back here.’
‘I’ll give her another few minutes. I’m sure she’s just been held up.’
‘Okay, well, up to you. See you soon.’ Jane rings off. Adam listens to his phone beeping in his ear. In the three months they’ve been married, Jane’s become increasingly impatient of his dealings with Claire. About a month ago she gave up any pretence of tolerance and since then Adam has twice had to stop her slagging Claire off when Lucy was in the room.
Back in the lounge room, Lucy is lying on the sofa with Molly. She’s asleep. At four o’clock in the afternoon. Adam sits beside her and gently rubs her shoulder. Lucy raises a fallen thumb back to her mouth, but otherwise makes no response. Claire’ll be pissed off, he knows, with a wakeful daughter come seven-thirty, but Claire isn’t here. He decides to let her doze.
He picks up Lucy’s bag. Takes it to her tiny room, the room that was once his and Claire’s study. Now it’s completely dominated by a pink, frilly mosquito net that hangs unevenly above an unmade bed (pink sheets, pink quilt, pink throw). Even in the space where there’s nothing the room looks pink, reflecting off the every pink surface. It’s like a fantasy inside of a bubble-gum bubble. Lucy loves this room. She always complains that her room at his house is too big. Not snug and cosy and pink like this one. He puts the bag at the end of the bed and straightens the bedclothes.
He lingers. He tries to stop himself doing what he knows he’s going to do next. He’s pulled like a fish on a reel to the other side of the hallway, to Claire’s room. Their room. He crosses the hall, stands and leans in the doorframe for a second. He listens; there’s no noise from Lucy in the lounge room. He crosses the line. He steps in to the room.
The air feels thicker and stiller and dustier. Adam hasn’t been in the room for more than three years. It’s a mess. Claire is the only woman he knows whose bedroom always smells like old socks. Old socks and Chanel Allure. On the floor beside her bed (also unmade, half the white duvet slumped on the floor), is an empty coffee mug (upright) and a wine glass (on its side). Adam sits on the end of the bed hesitantly, and soaks it all in. Candles fill every horizontal space; the dresser, the chest of drawers, even the window sills are crammed with the things. He missed candles. He misses candlelight in bed. He misses Claire by candlelight.
From where he’s sitting, Adam can inspect the dresser. The hairdryer fights for space with plentiful pendants and earrings and bracelets. Lip glosses, brushes, and other tubes and trays that Adam has no name for poke haphazardly out of a glittery black bag beside a hair brush – the same old hair brush. Adam pulls Claire’s top drawer open. He does it then he pulls his hand away quickly; it’s as if he found it like that, open. He looks with his eyes and doesn’t disturb. Underwear. Bras. Tights. Camisole. Under the camisole, the edge of a small black picture frame. Here we go. A photo she obviously doesn’t want Lucy to see.
Adam feels a stab of jealousy. Must be a new bloke. Makes sense. She’s entitled. Explains a lot. He’s almost relieved. He resolves to give Claire some leeway. Starting a relationship is hard enough with a kid, god knows. She doesn’t need her ex whining about sticking to drop off times and quizzing her about her alcohol intake. He pulls out the frame gently to look at the photo. Let’s be seeing you then, son.
Inside the frame is a drawing: Lucy’s. It’s of three figures standing together, holding hands and smiling big black half-moon felt tip smiles. Even though Lucy’s artistic skills are rudimentary at best, it’s obvious who’s who. One of the figures is big, with a goatee, like his. One is smaller, with a triangle skirt and several red bracelets around its arm. Another, the smallest of all, also has a triangle skirt – a pink one, of course.
Some arsehole, no doubt a stand-in kindy teacher with no clue, has written, in tidy print, at the bottom of the picture:
This is a picture by Lucy of her family visiting a cafe. Lucy enjoys going to cafes with her mummy and daddy, especially ones that have ginger bread men and apple juice.
Adam pushes all the air out of his lungs. He puts the picture down on the dresser. Puts his palm over his mouth. Puts his elbows on his knees. Clasps his hands together and lets his head hang down. Closes his eyes and feels the immense weight of gravity.
He sits up and runs his hand through his hair. He looks at the roof as he does. He puts the picture back carefully and shuts the drawer. He stands. He leaves the room.
Back in the lounge he sits beside sleeping Lucy. He watches her, Dora the snorer. He flicks off the television, but this makes the room hushed and accusing. He sees the stereo remote beside the telly one, and pushes play. Jeff Buckley’s angelic voice fills the room and it’s so fucking sad that he laughs. It’s so sad. He’s got a new one to add to his list now. It’s a fine, strong list of regrets.
1. What if he’d handled Claire’s obsession with Lucy when she was born. What if someone had said to him, hey, don’t worry, you’ll get your wife back soon.
2. What if he hadn’t met that bitch Bridget. What if he hadn’t gone back to hers.
3. What if he hadn’t gone back for more.
4. What if Claire hadn’t checked his texts.
5. What if Bridget had had a fucking heart and not told Claire everything.
6. What if Claire had been able to forgive him.
7. What if he hadn’t been so lonely and hopeless when he’d met Jane.
8. What if Claire didn’t still love him.
9. What if he’d dared to believe that she might.
And now, a perfect 10: What if Claire wasn’t so fucking sad about this whole mess that she couldn’t cope with it.
Adam strokes Lucy’s cheek. It’s so soft. He tries to distract himself by counting her eyelashes, but they’re too thick.
It’s a cold
And it’s a broken hallelujah
I did this, he thinks. This is my fault.
‘Daddy?’ Lucy is waking, looking at him. Adam pulls back from the brink of the mother of all mea culpas. ‘You have long tears.’ His daughter gently pats his cheek with her palm.
Adam wipes his eyes with the back of his hand and tries to laugh but it comes out as a sob. ‘Mummy must have onions, eh?’ he says. It’s lame, but it works. Or at least he thinks it does. She climbs up onto his lap and puts her arms around his neck, kisses his wet cheek. He buries his head in his daughter’s hair and feels his hand span from one side of her ribcage to the other. He’s not sure who’s comforting who.
‘Let’s go back to Daddy’s for a bit,’ he says.
Sarah Shepherd worked in London editing websites and writing advertising copy before returning home to New Zealand, where she is currently working on a collection of short stories for her Masters in Creative Writing at Auckland University of Technology.