The girl is strapped into the passenger seat next to him. Her margarine-yellow, stringy hair is smeared across shoulders so thin they could slice through her shirt. Why was she wandering the streets of Sydney on her own at eleven o’clock at night during lockdown? She looks about nine, he thinks.
‘Where are your parents?’ he asks, looking at the low clouds in the moonlit sky. Her short-sleeved shirt and shorts are stained, as though someone wiped the floor with them.
‘Um —’ she says, peering through her window and bringing a finger to her lips above chattering teeth. She cocks her pale cheek to one side as though listening for guidance from above.
When the lights turn amber, he applies the brakes and brings his black, late model Toyota Camry to a stop. The girl settles back into her seat like a feather floating down on a breeze.
‘There,’ she says. She presses her nose against the dark glass and fixates on a white food van parked across the road.
Martin circles the block searching for a carpark. As they approach the food van again, the girl swivels in her seat; her eyes lock on it like a heat-seeking missile even as he reverses into an empty spot.
They climb out of the car. Before Martin can meet her on the passenger side, the girl steps into oncoming traffic without looking.
‘Hey — hold on!’ he says, lunging for her arm and pulling her back to the curb. ‘You have to look both ways.’
‘There’s Mum,’ she cries, pointing to a blonde woman, with dry, red skin handing out soup.
He takes her elbow and commandeers her across the road. She takes three steps to his one and then skips every so often, to a beat he doesn’t recognise. He wonders if she’s always like this.
The logo on the van says ‘Servants of God Charity.’ The girl runs ahead and blends into the crowd. He picks up his pace.
Wearing a pilled, lemon acrylic jumper and stonewash jeans, her mum is handing out soup to homeless people.
Holy cow, her folks are charity-workers! Probably gave away her real clothes.
Laura hops and hums, rummaging for extra Styrofoam cups beneath piles of donated clothing packs in the back of her food van. Even though she and her husband have run this van in Redfern every week night for the last twenty years, her eyes still sparkle and her skin runs with goose bumps every time she hands a homeless person a hot soup. But since the coronavirus, she and her husband are out every night of the week, handing out clothing as well.
‘Here you go,’ she says, ladling her creamy pumpkin and chickpea soup from the old electric soup tureen on the fold-out card table. She hands a steaming cup to an Asian boy in a hoodie and shorts.
‘Cheers,’ he says, cupping the hot soup in both hands.
She pauses, eyeing his black-framed designer glasses and the signet ring on his little finger.
‘No offence, but you don’t look like our usual homeless people,’ she says, placing a hand on her hip.
‘I was a student until two months ago. Then my uni closed our department and let the teachers go. There’s no more assistance.’ His dark eyes droop at their corners.
More boys at his side murmur, ‘yeah, yeah.’
‘And no jobs,’ someone else pipes up.
‘None of us can travel home or pay the rent,’ says another.
‘I didn’t know,’ she says, absorbing his words and looking at the new, unfamiliar faces. Her usuals must be at the back of the line. She wonders if one tureen will feed everyone. ‘I hear you — this pandemic really stinks. For everyone.’ Laura nods at the crowd behind him. She remembers the smaller sizes are at the back.
Taking the pack, he drops his head and disappears into the crowd.
Three or four more Asian students surge forward to take his place. Laura looks over their heads. Where is Charles? We’ve been here since eight this evening, and the queue is still about ten people deep in both directions. As she turns back to the tureen, a small, cold hand clasps her arm.
‘Mum,’ says her daughter, Maisy. She’s crawled through the narrow space between the students in the front row.
‘Maisy, what are you doing here again?’ says Laura. ‘You’re supposed to be at Aunty Fay’s.’
‘I think so,’ says Maisy. Her eyes flutter like birds looking for a place to land.
A man presses forward, angles a shoulder between two students and emerges beside her.
‘I found her wandering the streets,’ says the man. ‘I’m Martin. Are you her mother?’
Laura nods, startled by the man’s tone. She turns to Maisy and raises her eyebrows.
‘She’s too young to be out by herself,’ says Martin, glancing at Maisy.
‘I agree. That’s why she was at my sister’s house,’ says Laura. ‘She knows better than that.’
‘Does she? I’m not so sure,’ says Martin, looking squarely into her eyes. ‘I need to talk to you in private.’
Laura feels her blood pressure rising as the crowd mutters and shifts. She relaxes when her husband Charles appears by her side.
‘Something wrong?’ says Charles standing opposite Martin and brushing his long hair from his beard.
The students groan.
‘Charles, can you take over?’ whispers Laura. ‘This guy wants a word in private.’
Charles nods. Martin leads Laura a few feet away from the van.
‘Look, I’m only concerned about your daughter. She’s what, nine?’
‘— eleven,’ says Laura. Who is this guy? she thinks.
‘And she was wandering around alone in Redfern late at night in the middle of winter,’ says Martin. ‘That’s not common for a child with parents.’
Laura narrows her eyes at Martin’s polished leather shoes and the ring on his left hand. His plump, freshly shaven face is tanned beneath a sharp crew cut.
‘I’m a social worker,’ says Martin. ‘With Community Services. We see this kind of thing with neglected Aboriginal children on The Block.’
Laura’s head spins. He thinks my child is neglected? A surge of anger rises in her chest.
‘Charles and I work very hard, helping homeless people every night,’ says Laura, trying to steady her voice. ‘Maisy was with my sister.’
‘Are you aware your daughter may have attention issues?’ asks Martin. ‘I only spent twenty minutes with her and the signs are there.’
Laura slumps against the lamp post. Maisy? Attention problems? She’s a little spacey but hey, so is my sister.
‘Look, I apologise for being so forward. But this is serious. I want you to come down to my office tomorrow.’ He hands her a business card.
Martin Sedgefield, Senior Social Worker, Department of Community and Family Services, she reads.
‘Shit!’ says Charles, turning the key in the ignition of his 1969 Toyota HiAce van the following day. The engine winds through its hacking cough like a veteran smoker at the bathroom sink first thing in the morning. He peers down at the lifeless petrol gauge. Jumping out, he shakes the back of the van and puts his ear to the open petrol filler. The swish of liquid is a distant tinny echo, like a trickle at the bottom of a canyon.
Climbing back into the driver’s seat next to Maisy, he shifts into neutral, eases off the handbrake and then points her down Darlinghurst Road. The van rolls down the hill and gathers speed; the only sound is the rubber tyres sticking and peeling off the bitumen. Maisy, who is strapped into a jump seat between him and Laura, is humming tunelessly to herself.
‘Lucky the post office is downhill,’ he says.
The brakes gave up last month. But Charles and Laura always put their complete faith in God. The post office is only five hundred metres further. When the traffic lights ahead turn amber, Charles shifts into first gear and applies the handbrake to stop.
‘Please have something there for us today,’ whispers Laura to the grey, blank sky. They’re down to their last coins.
Maisy’s singing continues aimlessly, ‘sinos-vinos-triosh. Laga-ligos-liyos.’
Charles parks the van and hops out. He returns with an envelope in his hand.
‘Eureka! A donation,’ he says, climbing into the van and pulling out a Woollies Gift Card. ‘Fifty dollars. Excellent.’ He slides it into his 1970s plaid shirt pocket.
Ordinarily Laura would be thrilled. Another sure sign that God appreciates their work. She thrives on the euphoria of living entirely on random donations. Laura likens it to falling backwards every day from a tower; trusting in her faith and allowing her future to fall where it may. From a young age, she took great pleasure in owning almost nothing at all by giving everything away; mostly her time. And if she missed even one night at the food van, an agitation filled her, as powerful as a combine, driving her to peel and chop vegetables well into the night. She wanted her life to mean something.
Hers and Charles’ greatest fear was mediocrity.
But today fifty dollars is not much encouragement, she thinks as Charles pulls up at a petrol station.
The relentless work combined with her fasting makes her feel pure and light — weightless — as she thought a servant of God should. The world looked brighter when she transcended the details. She thought Maisy would appreciate the same lifestyle.
But at an early age, Maisy’s worldview mystified Laura. Take her passion for anything with the words Frozen on it. When Laura handed over Maisy’s Frozen dress and leggings — usually gifts from Grandma — to a clothing drive, she had a tantrum right on the church steps. Best to knock that kind of materialism out early, she thought at the time. She thought fasting would purify her spirit.
‘Where to?’ asks Charles, climbing into the van.
‘Redfern Community Centre,’ mumbles Laura, feeling as though she’s being called to the principal’s office. Some people think walking down the street is hazardous to your health. A night on the streets would be good for Maisy’s soul.
They park the van out front and slam their doors hard. As only some of them lock, Charles pulls out the metal soup tureen and carries it under his arm. Maisy skips ahead, runs headlong into the centre’s glass doors before the sensors open them, smacks her nose and reels backwards.
‘Mum,’ she cries, bursting into tears and holding her face.
Laura wades toward her through her fatigue and hunger. But the sliding doors have already opened and embraced Maisy. She’s dancing through them into the foyer like a whirling dervish.
Maisy settles herself in one of the brown plastic chairs beneath a television screen high on the wall, while Charles and Laura take seats opposite Martin in his glass walled office. Charles plants the metal tureen on the floor between his knees. Outside, Maisy gazes up at the screen, watching but not seeing. Pale and lank, she’s folded into a corner of her seat like a forgotten jumper.
‘I apologise if I shocked you last night,’ says Martin.
Laura stares back. Charles shifts in his seat.
‘Maisy is showing serious signs of either neglect or attention difficulties,’ says Martin.
‘You said that last night,’ says Laura, balling up her fists. ‘But why do you say that?’
‘She tried to run across the road into oncoming traffic. She’s eleven, but looks nine. She’s barely aware of her surroundings. She seems to have run away from her carer without an inkling it might not be a good idea.’
‘She was just tired,’ says Laura, crossing her arms and sliding her lips into a line.
Martin glances through the glass wall of his office at Maisy. They both turn in time to see her stand on the plastic seat, spread her arms like a super-hero and launch into the air. As she jumps, her foot catches on an armrest and she crashes to the floor and wails while holding her knee. An officer from the front desk runs to help her.
Laura glances at Martin, bites her lip and then looks at the carpet.
‘Look. I can see you’re both very dedicated people. We do similar work,’ he says.
Then he pauses. Charles’ jeans are actually worn through at the knees; not in a fashionable way. His receding, blonde hair is almost as long as Laura’s.
‘It’s one thing to forgo the luxuries in life in pursuit of higher ideals. But quite another to neglect the developmental needs of your child. Maisy didn’t make this choice. You did. Maisy’s job at this moment is to grow, learn, and thrive. I’m afraid, looking at her small height and her slight frame, she’s severely malnourished.’
‘We all eat the same food,’ Laura says in a tiny voice, sliding down in her seat.
‘That’s very noble of you. But Maisy needs much more than a cup of soup at dinner time.’ Martin glances from Laura to Charles. These two are proving to be quite stubborn. ‘I would like a paediatrician to examine her.’ He pulls out a notepad and writes down a name and number and hands it to Laura. ‘Doctor Caroline Nesbitt is excellent.’
He stands and motions to the door.
‘I’ll call you to check on Maisy in a few days’ time. I’ll need to file a report,’ says Martin, handing them a form on a clipboard. ‘I trust you’ll take this very seriously. I could have reported you both to the police just because she was out. Especially during lockdown.’
Charles and Laura duck their heads and tiptoe over the maroon polyester carpet toward Maisy. She’s tucked into her brown plastic bucket seat, mesmerised by the news on the screen above her. Taking a seat next to her, Laura peers into her daughter’s face, frightened of what she might find. Maisy’s tiny frame blurs and then sharpens to reveal every bony joint beneath her translucent skin. Deep blue waterways criss-cross just beneath its surface. It seems to Laura she can see the blood pulsing through Maisy, even though she’s as limp as a beach towel.
A pang of shame fills Laura and her eyes well with tears.
‘Oh, Charles!’ she sobs.
‘Everything will be fine, Laura,’ he says, sliding into the seat next to her.
Laura’s eyes are red and wild.
‘No, no, but they’re not fine,’ says Laura, gasping for breath.
‘Now, let’s not get crazy over this,’ says Charles, twisting his hands in his lap.
But we ARE crazy, she thinks. Not just crazy, we’re totally blind.
‘How did this happen?’ she says clasping Charles around the neck and sobbing into his flannel shirt. ‘We’re good people, aren’t we?’
‘OK, let’s just calm down,’ says Charles looking around the community centre and pulling her hands off his neck. The people around them twist in their seats for a better view. He tries to hold her hands in his, but she wriggles out of his grip. ‘You’ve just had a shock, is all.’
‘Mummy!’ says Maisy, suddenly aware of her parents. Her thin eyelids flutter and close. She cocks her head to one side as though listening to someone above her.
In a small high-pitched voice, she replies to the ceiling, ‘But Mummy and Daddy are saints! Every night, they help people on the streets. I know they care about me, even though I don’t see them very much. And that’s OK because I know You will look after me.’
Laura’s mouth drops open and she stares at Maisy. Charles glances from his wife to his daughter and gnashes his teeth. He kicks the metal soup tureen with all his might. It spins towards Martin’s office door and falls to pieces.
Everyone in the waiting room is now watching the Holy Rollers instead of the television.
When the tureen hits the office door, Martin looks up from his laptop. His and Charles’ eyes meet. In them, Martin sees his own father again — a Jehovah’s Witness missionary. In the 1970s, his parents had dragged Martin across America in a combi-van, spreading the word of God. They barely had time for him. Martin had felt as valuable as the ‘The Watchtower Magazine’ his parents’ handed out for free.
One day, when his parents passed a fair in their beat-up van, Martin had jumped out the back door and dived into the crowd. He snuck into the fairground clutching the skirts of a large buxom lady with a squad of children, and spent the day gazing open-mouthed at the frolicking clowns, booming rollercoaster ride and the painted ladies. At the close of the fair, he was the last child standing. When his parents appeared at the front gate — like two long, hungry shadows — and the police handed him over, he burst into tears.
‘So, you say this kid is nine?’ said the police officer, leaning on the gate with a baton sticking out from his black leather belt, with one eye on his father.
‘Yup,’ said his father wearing a paper-white, long-sleeved shirt; the same hue as his skin.
‘Holy Toledo! You Witness’ sure do make small kids,’ said the officer, cocking an eyebrow and staring at his mother in her potato-sack-like dress.
With tears in his eyes, Martin had watched the other families pile into their cars one by one, hoping someone would turn and run back for him.
Is it any wonder he had recognised Maisy? It was like looking into a mirror.
What these folks don’t realise is once Maisy can, she’ll flee for good, thinks Martin remembering his own decision to leave America.
He stands, wipes his hands on his trousers and opens his office door. Martin picks up the pieces of the soup tureen and sits opposite them.
‘Look guys, Maisy will be fine,’ he says, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. Laura wraps her arm around Maisy whose eyes are half-closed. ‘But she has to know you’re in it for the long haul. Don’t be dumping her as soon as a bigger and better cause comes along. She is your biggest cause.’ He pauses and glances at Laura’s red, worn-out hands. ‘And mediocrity is not as scary as you think.’
He hands the soup tureen back to Charles, who looks away, coughs and swallows. Martin walks back to his office. Laura balls her fists, grunts and drops the clipboard on the seat. She grabs Charles’ and Maisy’s hands and marches them out of the community centre to their van.
That night, Charles and Laura load their food van as usual with clothing packs and a tureen of steaming pumpkin soup. On the pavement in front of Aunty Fay’s inner-city terrace, Maisy clutches Laura’s leg and whines, begging her to stay. She sobs as her mum and dad clamber into the van and drive away.
Aunty Fay grabs Maisy’s hand, drags her into her tiny terrace and locks the front door. Maisy throws herself onto the flowered tapestry lounge, screaming and punching the pillows. Aunty Fay covers her ears and finds refuge in the bathroom. When the faucets squeal and the ancient plumbing hammers, her Aunt belts out her extended play, Elvis medley. Maisy wipes her tears with the back of her and slips from the house through the back door. Scrambling onto the wheelie bins with the sound of Jailhouse Rock in her ears, she leaps shrieking from the fence with her arms outspread like a super-hero.
Rattled and tired, Maisy doesn’t notice the SUV hurtling down the narrow side alley towards her.
Visnja Majewski lives and writes in Sydney, Australia. She completed her undergraduate degree in Fine Arts, followed by studies in scriptwriting and creative writing.
Visnja is a member of the Author’s Guild in New York, and her short stories are published in Passengers Journal, Adelaide Literary Magazine and The Fiction Pool.