Moccona With Two Sugars, story by Sarah Kelleher at Spillwords.com
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Moccona With Two Sugars

Moccona With Two Sugars

written by: Sarah Kelleher

 

Piss off, new guy. I’m trying to work, can’t you tell?
She will not bother to learn his name. New Guy, that can be his name. He’s one of the usual types. Cleanshaven. Edgy. They make him sharp, spider-like, the stripes shaved into the sides of his head, hair black and spiked on top. He should be chatting up chicks somewhere, not standing there in a high vis, in a Waikato warehouse that stinks of exhaust.
He laughs along with the others, then addresses her again. ‘Seriously, what’s your real name?’
She doesn’t reply.
She looks to the metal-scraped forklift, lifts her steel-capped boot onto its high floor, and yanks herself into the cab. She’s short, but she’s mastered the art of making this upward sweep look effortless, even though it burns from wrist to hip every time. It doesn’t hurt. Nothing ever hurts.
A quizzical look passes from cleanshaven face to bearded face. ‘Not much of a talker,’ explains the bearded foreman. Someone snorts with laughter.
She feels no rage. She’s above emotion. She occupies herself with the gather-and-click of a lap belt, a thumb-and-finger on an ignition key. The small diesel engine makes the forklift vibrate, sounding bored, and she snarls it into action across the concrete; it’s part of her, this heavy high slow hunk of metal, an eighty-horsepower ballerina with unseen nimble wheels and two yellow prongs capable of ankling someone should the mood strike her, tips hovering before her like snake fangs. Expressionless, she tilts her head, braking, and slots the prongs straight into a wooden pallet of Tomato Juice (Bulk).
‘Someone’s in a hurry,’ New Guy says.
Laughter. He’s fitting in already.
Automatic hands and levers: eight hundred bone-crushing kilograms of tomato juice tilt up, tilt in, and she withdraws, spins, glides fast across the concrete floor. The machine is balanced, now, certain on its feet. She could practically do pirouettes as she heads for Outbound, the shelving by the big open roller door that hurts her eyes with sunlight. The engine blares constant in her ears and wise words echo in her mind. Something about never rushing the job. Video compilations of warehouse shelves collapsing. Forklifts falling over. Statistics that made everyone fill a stuffy summer room with rolled eyes and bravado.
The concrete echoes with male conversation, the chop of their consonants, the swish of their esses. New Guy circles back to his question: ‘So, what’s her actual name?’
‘Dunno bro, we just call her Facegear.’ Laughter.
‘Because of all the piercings?’
‘Yeah, shame, right? Real pretty face.’
‘Yeah, she’s cute.’
‘I’ve got some gear for her face.’
Laughter.
‘Barking up the wrong tree though, mate, hate to break it to ya.’
‘Oh, nah, I wasn’t …’
‘Quiet as a mouse, cold as a witch’s tit, know what I mean?’
Laughter.
The Outbound shelves await her like railway lines across the wall. They’re high inhuman walls, within easy reach from this seat: one metre, two metres, three metres. Stock peppers them, cubes of boxes ugly with plastic wrap on their pallets, and she spots one gap, one perfect gap, she reckons, for this cube on her fork that forces her to keep her chin up. Her hand leaves the small steering wheel and works unseen to whine the load up the forklift’s mast. Up, up, up. She hangs herself out the open side so she can see. Pulses it an inch higher. No, an inch higher.
‘Whoa, what’s she doing?’
A guffaw.
As she speeds for the shelves, the machine grows twitchy beneath her. Warning its master. She’s scaring it. It’s reaching the limits of its counterweight. Weight and height and speed: these things are dangerous when combined. Is she sure? Really sure?
Of course, she’s sure. It doesn’t bother her. She’s never bothered by anything, or anyone.
‘Holy shit!’
‘What’s she doing?’
Laughter.
Adrenalin shocks her nerves as she skids to a stop. A perfect hard accurate stop. A tilt. A barely-there, horrifying tilt that lifts the rear wheels from the floor. The pallet touches the shelf with the slow and gentle and ear-piercing nature of metal; there is a rude indoor clang, too loud. The forklift recovers, thumping back to its feet. She leaves the weighty package on the shelf, spins, and whirs back across the floor with slow-descending prongs and a blank expression that hides a memory of weightlessness, nothing but air and odds. Just because. Maybe she’s a bit tired today, that’s all. Not scared. She’s never scared.
Guffaws echo.
She shoots her gaze across the concrete. The new guy’s eyes have crumpled slightly. He’s confused, or astonished, or disapproves of this recklessness.
She looks ahead, continues suavely for the next pallet.
My real name is Jemima, but none of these dickheads want to say something girly like ‘Jemima.’ Give it a week and neither will you. Not that I care.

Squid and Facegear. They are not friends. They occupy the two separate tables, but his wet chewing, and sniffing, seem to take place right here, at her table, in the centre of her head. He seems to live his life as if dirtiness is a sign of strength. Hard to miss in a breakroom so small.
She’s never bothered by how much he loves his nickname. He always smirks whenever he hears it, turning languid, a little more satisfied. But that’s because the guys still call him Drew sometimes and it’s also meant as a compliment, for all his tattoos.
Chomp, chomp, chomp. Sniff.
Her friends are the headlines. They’re who she chats with as she shoves bland microwaved meatballs into her mouth, not Squid with his potato-and-something and smacking jaw. He’s rolled his overalls up and on his left forearm a woman thrusts her bare breasts in black-and-white, obscene nipples like two bath plugs; her mystique is ruined by a ripple of muscle. She’s melting.

Auckland house prices to hit new peak, says analyst
Beloved stage performer was ‘life of the party’
Local Waitakere woman found dead

These are her friends. Local Waitakere women. Analysts. Vin Diesel and David Seymour and Taylor Swift.
‘Hey, Jemima. Long time, no see.’
She looks up. Her own smile, a smile this man has created out of nothing, is like a shock of sherbet.
‘Any good news?’ Jake adds.
She shakes her head.
‘That’s a shame. Well,’ he indicates the Zip water dispenser over the sink, ‘that thing got fixed in record time, I see. That’s good news!’
She nods. ‘That is …’ She clears her throat. ‘That is very good news.’
Squid’s lip-smacks become more open; he’s looking up. She senses his thoughts: Look! It speaks!
‘Can’t survive in this place without bean juice, can we?’ Jake holds her eye as he carries his mug to the kitchenette, as if making sure she has received his friendly expression before he turns to pry open the tin of Moccona. She pretends not to notice that his back has become more fridge-like, rolls of fat flesh-colouring his office shirt. But the extra weight suits him. It makes a teddy out of this young dad, his head topped with gingerbread curls. Well. Not such a young dad anymore.
Her eyes flutter around the square room. She suppresses an urge to apologise for the linoleum. Only in these situations does she notice how grey and dirty it is, after five, when the people from Office lose access to their Nespresso machine.
Jake glances at her over his shoulder. ‘How’s the tooth?’
She touches her cheek, and nods. That was six months ago.
‘Or should I say, the gap,’ he chuckles.
She nods. ‘How are you?’
‘Yeah, same old, same old.’ As he updates her, she holds her fingertips in her cheek because they’re pleasantly cold. Kids’ progress in home school, bathroom renovations, flesh slipping up and down on a cheekbone. Her fingers sneak off course, leaving her face via the ring in her nose, the dot of a stud in her upper lip, three rings in her lower lip: the comfort of warm numb metal. Warm numb metal that normally makes people shut the hell up, makes them keep walking.
‘Annie’s just glad the bathroom’s finally done,’ Jake finishes. ‘I don’t know who’s more relieved, her or me.’
‘How fun,’ she says.
‘Yeah, fun! That’s one word for it.’
‘Hard, I mean. Renovating is hard. It takes a toll on the household.’
Her face heats, because she’s done it again. She’s stopped the earth. Squid squares himself, spotlighting her with a bony arm over the back of his chair, high eyebrows lengthening his already long face. Since she has messed up in the usual way, she panics in the usual way, her hands withdrawing to her lap. The strain of it.
Squid smiles.
‘It’s been both fun and hard, in a way,’ Jake says. ‘Worth it, though. Check it out.’
‘Very good,’ she says at his phone. He swipes from picture to picture. She repeats herself. Very good, again? She sounds like an idiot; this is exactly why she never talks to anyone. She never has anything good to say. Not that she cares.
Squid’s chair creaks. ‘What’d you do that for?’
‘What’s that?’ Jake replies.
‘Rip the bath out? Classic mistake.’
‘Oh no,’ Jake chuckles.
Squid sniffs. ‘Give’s a look?’
Jake gives him a look. ‘My wife wanted it opened up a bit more, so I –’
‘Nah, nah, nothing sells without a bath. Should’ve gone for a half-bath, bro, or talked to someone who knows what they’re doing before you go ripping everything out.’
‘Yeah, probably,’ Jake chuckles.
Squid shakes his head at his potato-and-something.
Mug in hand, Jake ambles by her table. ‘Well, have a nice rest-of-your shift, mate. Nice to talk to you.’
‘Have a nice night,’ she mumbles. With sudden inspiration, she adds, ‘Don’t work too late.’
‘I’ll try not to,’ he laughs, and vanishes. Even though he’s gone, she continues to smile vaguely, warmed by a gentle ease, a satisfaction, that wasn’t there before.
Squid says, ‘What a dumbass.’
Her nose wrinkles. Swallow your damned food before you talk. She taps at her phone.

***

Man dies in accident with truck, WorkSafe investigating

She stands near the small group gathered by the kitchenette, just close enough to be with them without being with them. One headline. One company-wide email. They have snapped a rubber band inside her and she’s blank with the strange, faded sting. Her supermarket lasagne has gone cold on the small square table, but that’s fine. Practically pleasant. A tiny numb fact amongst tiny numb facts. A tiny numb day amongst tiny numb days.
It’s after five, but the girls from Office have thought it appropriate to hang around and dunk teabags with the bearded foreman, Zip machine rumbling.
‘He was just so, like, nice.’
‘So nice! Like, proper nice.’
The bearded foreman: ‘Always up for a good chat, a good laugh, our Jake.’
‘Yeah.’
‘His wife and kids, though.’
The bearded foreman shakes his head at the floor, and it makes Jemima like him, suddenly, with a strange desperation.
Slapping, swishing steps enter. The steps conclude with the rough clamp of a tattooed hand on her shoulder. ‘Getting emo there, Facegear?’
She shrugs off Squid’s sharp fingers in her flesh, and walks to her lasagne. Squid asks what’s up everyone’s backsides and the answer turns him wooden, and he replies in clipped, rounded noises as if speaking to small children. ‘Yeah, bummer,’ he says. ‘That’s a bummer. Mm.’ His slapping, swishing steps disappear through the exit.
Jemima sits. She leans into her elbows, hands surrounding her mug. Its heat is nothing. She is made of nothing today.
An office girl: ‘He was always real nice to me.’
‘Super nice.’
‘Yeah. He was nice.’
Real nice? Super nice? Jemima imagines breaking both of their noses in two swift jabs. Blood and squeals and mascara.
‘He was, like …’
‘It’s okay. It’s okay.’
‘Sorry. It’s just hard when it’s, you know, someone you see every day.’
‘Of course it is, honey!’
Jemima squeezes the thick black mug, tightening herself to fight what cannot be real, vinegar in the back of her throat. These almost-tears are unearned. She feels nothing, really. She cannot feel anything for a guy she barely knew. She trains her eyes on the glass straight ahead. The windows are a second-storey view of artificial light, pallets, and stock, the smooth travel of a forklift like an ugly yellow bug.
‘Yes, he popped in here fairly often,’ says the bearded foreman.
No, he didn’t.
‘Always a pleasant bloke,’ he adds.
Super nice? Pleasant bloke? That’s all you’ve got?
She rests her gaze on the black blob of her mug. This is what he was. It’s so obvious, she wants to spit it in their faces: He was this. Are you stupid? He was Moccona with two sugars. Obviously.
He was. Just something that helped get her through a shift, sometimes.

 

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:

This short story was inspired by the death of a guy called Josh. He died in a workplace accident, leaving behind four sweet kids and a kind iron maiden of a wife whose strength I will never understand.

I figured out I last saw Josh six years ago. I was a minor background character in his life – just passing through – as he was in mine. Regardless, the news took the wind out of me. I had many inconsolable hours trying to process how I always assumed we’d cross paths again, and now we never would. I was a mess throughout the funeral, but it was both heartbreaking and heartening to hear about a guy who had changed a lot since I last saw him, yet was still fabled as the familiar cheeky shit-head with a heart of gold. He got up to a lot of mischief in his far-too-short 38 years, but there’s a reason his family were forced to shift the funeral to a bigger venue. Josh was one of the genuinely kind ones in the world. He impacted many, many people with his heart-on-his-sleeve kindness. And insults.

What I love about writing is we can use stories to reveal the truth. This is a work of fiction, but the underlying message and emotion come from real life. I think too often we underestimate the impact of choosing to be nice, sometimes.

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