Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Working Girl

Laura Elizabeth Woollett

I want to be a model or a writer. I am neither of these things. What I am is fifteen and five foot eight, with collarbones deep enough to drink my black coffee out of, a head full of dreams, and a job with Western Australia’s largest and only Sunday newspaper. The job is my first job. The job is a high-paying job, which earns me four times as much as my friends’ jobs and will allow me to buy spaghetti-strap singlets from KOOKAÏ, three-inch stilettos from ZU, a pastel polo with a Hilfiger flag on the breast, a black French Connection T-shirt that alludes to fucking but in a clever and expensive way. It isn’t the job of my dreams, but it does let me skip dinner and leaves me smelling of ink.

I tell my mum, when she drops me off, that I will eat at Dad’s. I tell my dad that I already ate at Mum’s, and then smugly spend the hour while my stepmother gets ready nursing my Nescafé and watching FashionTV and prodding my little sisters’ fat until they whine or giggle. My stepmother gets ready loudly. She talks on the phone and calls my dad Mas! and if she sneezes, she makes a heart-stopping sound. At a quarter past five, she jangles into the kitchen with her red lips and Jakarta Vuitton and slaps the pizza money on the counter, and I am already homesick.

“Ready Luluuuuu?” she drawls.

It is still light when we leave the yellow brick house. If it is summer, the light is thirsty and gold; if it is winter, blue and sad like piano music. My stepmother’s blue-black hair flashes ahead of me, the vaccine scar on her bare arm, the thin bar of flesh above her low-slung tracky dacks. She is five feet tall and as glamorous as it’s possible to be in stretchy gray polyester, like an actress snapped on her way to Starbucks.

Someday, I will live in a city with Starbucks.

The drive is ugly, warrens of pale brick and gas stacks and dam-like expanses of freeway. I clench my stomach to keep it from grumbling too loudly and also because I’m anxious for the drive not to end. It is always better to be going someplace than it is to be in the actual place; I understand this, and that stopping is to be feared the same as death. This is why I sometimes ride the bus after school a few stops too long.

“You remember Jamie?” my stepmother asks me one afternoon, both of us squinting through oversized sunglasses past the windshield’s glare. I know the boy she means, or think I do, and my heart skips because he is pretty, so pretty I have no clue how I could’ve forgotten his existence for so long. It was many months ago that I sat in a dark room with him and watched the Occupational Health and Safety video, and afterward took a test about the video, and covertly took in his beautiful green eyes and chestnut hair and imagined having him as a boyfriend, and never exchanged a word. We were supposed to start work at the same time. There must be an exciting reason for the holdup. I tell my stepmother I remember and matter-of-factly she says, “He died.”

“Oh,” I say. “Like . . . actually died?”

“Car crash. So sad, lah. He was cute.”

My stepmother and I don’t often talk of deep things, and don’t talk as easily as when I was seven. When we do talk, it’s of the things money can buy, the songs on the radio, the people at work, my older sister. “Lazyyyy,” my stepmother likes to say about my older sister, who is seventeen and mortal in ways I’m not: has a boyfriend and ex-boyfriends, makes average grades, stresses over her exams, has been to parties with alcohol. I’m good at school without trying too hard, work every Saturday night instead of going out, have never kissed a boy. But if I were more like my sister, perhaps I would’ve spoken to Jamie and made him my boyfriend and perhaps in this alternate universe he wouldn’t be dead.

“Yeah,” I say. “He was.”

*

We are almost always early to work. I do not like being early because it means standing outside the factory and talking to people, or really standing to the side while my stepmother talks. My stepmother is good at talking. She talks to the coarse-faced Aussie men and women with their crow-like voices, and to the fat boy who goes to my school and drives a forklift, and most of all to the other Indonesian women. I like the Indo women best because their hair is shiny and because I don’t have to pretend to be interested when they talk, though there are words I understand: mas, husband; anak, kid; tidak papa, no problem. Sometimes my stepmother paws my arm unexpectedly and my face heats up like a fire just fanned.

“Right, darlinggg?” she purrs, then cackles like a witch.

My stepmother is a wicked stepmother. Her fingernails are long and her laughter scares me. My stepmother is a good witchy mother, who found me a job that pays twenty-five dollars an hour and makes sure I get to it on time and doesn’t mind if I don’t eat because she doesn’t either. She does smoke, menthol cigarettes from a flashy gold packet, as guiltlessly as a goldfish drinks water. I would like to smoke. I have not eaten since Friday night, will not eat again until Sunday afternoon.

There is a canteen attached to the factory that serves brown and yellow food from a bain-marie. This is bule food, white people food, and looks as crude and solid to me as actual shit. I am aligned with the Indo women in my contempt for this food, the bule who need to stuff their faces with pies and chips to get through five hours of manual labor. I watch them watch the bule like a clowder of black-haired cats, listen out for the bitchy words that give me so much pleasure.

Aduh! Gendut!” So fat!

Then they laugh their wicked smoky laughter and I smile, as much as a good girl can smile over wicked things.

*

My idols are Nietzsche and Mischa Barton. I have not read a whole book by Nietzsche, but I know he is a great philosopher and I like the things he says on Wikiquote: God is dead. If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. One must have chaos in one to give birth to a dancing star. I have not met Mischa Barton, but I want to wear the greenish-blue Chloé dress she wore on a red carpet, and to have her cute squarish cheekbony face with the cute squarish smile, and to talk in her unlikely fake California accent with the British undertones. I want to be Mischa Barton’s alter ego, Marissa from The O.C., who is a pretty rich girl but also very tragic and who says philosophical things like, “I have no one” and “I don’t know why I’m here” and “Do you ever wonder what your life looks like through someone else’s eyes?”

I wonder about my life too, how it looks and why I am here.

I pee with my stepmother in the tiny, ill-lit factory bathroom, check my unmade face and ponytail. I have read enough to know that beautiful girls are not discovered in the world’s most beautiful places but in factories, slums, hopeless zones where their thin wrists and cheekbones look as rare as pearls. I am mindful of this as I say goodbye to my stepmother at the earplug dispenser, take my bristle-less broom from the wall, and bear it sceptre-like to my work station. It is a few minutes to six. On the hour, the machinery above us will grind into motion, set my nerves on edge.

I am a newspaper sweeper. I work in a pair with another newspaper sweeper, always a woman, almost always Indo, to sweep newspapers from under the great rolling machine that spits them out. The machine is not meant to spit newspapers but to assemble them; however, machines are fallible and it’s our job as sweepers to make up for this. Sweepers must move swiftly. Sweepers are stronger than they look.

It’s usual for my sweeping partner to already be at the work station by the time I arrive. All the Indo women I work with are punctual like my stepmother; I wonder if this is something that just comes with the territory, like shiny hair and making the most of small spaces. We smile at each other, exchange names, and instantly forget them. She goes back to reading her TV guide. I set down my prized fake Burberry backpack, lay out the things that will help me through the evening:

1 x yellow factory-issue earplugs
             1 x 600 ml Diet Coke
             3 x Mentos, original mint

I look around for something to read.

*

People say menial work kills the imagination, but the moment the machines start, I feel my mind crossing over to a plane where nothing is real and everything is what I make it.

If the newspapers come in soft falls, I pretend I am raking leaves. Or I pretend I’m a starved street urchin, grubbing around in the gutters. Or else that I’m living in a dystopian society, where everything is noise and Nietzschean abysses. If they come hard and fast, I pretend I’m digging my way out of an avalanche. Or I pretend I’m under siege, and that the broom is my gun. Or else that I’m the victim of a terrorist attack, seeing everything through a chemical haze: scrap metal, shattered glass, the redness of my own blood before blacking out.

Sometimes we cannot keep up with the newspapers and the glass barrier turns white as a bank of snow and the machine jams, and a man in a Hi-Vis vest has to turn off the machine. These are moments like death, absurd and suddenly quiet. We watch the man wade through our chaos, impersonal as a soldier or a police officer, and do the mysterious, irrelevant things that men do in such situations.

“She’ll be right,” the man says. “Give us a shout when you’ve cleared 'em and I’ll turn her on again.”

We are bathed in sweat, trembling in our sneakers, our hands and jawlines smeared black. We nod and say, “Thank you.”

*

I turn sixteen in the summer. I learn the taste of alcopops and kiss a couple of boys, none of them as beautiful as beautiful dead Jamie. Summer turns to autumn, and autumn to winter, and everyone is talking about the little Filipino girl who was raped and murdered in the toilets of the shopping centre near our factory.

“Mate of mine is going out with one of the homicide detectives,” one of the Aussie women is saying. “She says it’s way gorier than the newspapers are saying.”

“Like how?”

The outside of the factory is barren and yellow-lit, like a place where people regularly get murdered. Beside me, my stepmother is silent, her red lips a spell, her dragon nostrils taut; she has daughters who are younger and softer than we are.

“Bastard broke all her arms and legs trying to get her clothes off. Crushed her larynx. That’s this bone here.”

Ughh-ahhh, poor little thing.”

“Poor baby.”

“Did it all in under five minutes too. Just shows, can’t leave 'em alone for a second.”

“Well, at least it was quick.”

“Five minutes of that though.”

The sky is completely black. Puffs of smoke move across it like little girl ghosts. I am pale like a moonflower, university-bound, with nothing in my stomach and no one in my heart. Yet there are things that touch me still.

“Sick bastard. Deserves the death penalty.”

“My mate says he’s a retard.” The woman lets out a luxurious funnel of smoke. “Not that that’s any excuse.”

*

At the end of my shift, there is too much ink on my body to wash off in the factory bathroom, no matter how much soap I use or how much I scrub. I know that when I get home and pass a Clean & Clear wipe over my face, it will be stained black; that the shower water that swirls between my feet will be dirtier than Indonesian tap water. My stepmother comes out of her cubicle and declares, “Eee-yuckk, my boogie black.”

I laugh. I too was just picking my nose in the adjacent cubicle, marveling over the unnatural blackness of what came out.

The late-night radio plays crappy club music that doesn’t offend my sixteen-year-old ears: Basement Jaxx, DJ Sammy, Armand Van Helden. We crank it up as my stepmother drives me back to my mum’s place, in an older and leafier suburb where the houses aren’t all neat brick boxes. It’s a longer drive than the drive back to Dad’s, and a drive that takes her out of her way, but somehow it’s implicit that I prefer to sleep in my own bed after these strange nights of manual labor. Tomorrow, I will go shopping with my best friend, who is pretty and not a virgin. We will meet at noon at the city bus shelter and weave in and out of every shop containing objects of beauty, and lift them up, and hold them against us, and try them on in mirrored rooms. In one of these shops, I will buy something divine and wrapped in tissue, and take it home with me on the bus in a shiny bag. At home, I will lay it on my bed and unwrap it in secret like chocolate and inhale its scent and delay removing the tags, and dream and dream of the day when everything in my life is as beautiful as the things money can buy.