The Boy Under the Table
By Nicole Trope
Allen & Unwin Copyright © 2012 Nicole Trope
All rights reserved.
The boy was tied up under the table, scrabbling his way through an empty packet of biscuits, licking his fingers to gather the crumbs.
The kitchen was freezing; Tina could see the warmth of her breath in the air. It got like that sometimes in winter. The cold got trapped inside.
Her first glance had made the boy a dog, just a mongrel tied up to the table leg, but a second glance told the truth. People saw what they wanted to see. Tina hadn't wanted to see the boy. She thought she had perfected the art of tunnel vision. There were a lot of things she didn't want to see.
But she saw everything in the kitchen, everything.
She felt it too. The despair in the air had a familiar feel. Hopeless defeat. It came off the boy in waves and she had to hold on tight to prevent it knocking her over.
There was a thick piece of rope tied around the boy's ankle and another thick piece of rope tied around his neck. Both pieces of rope were connected to the central table leg.
It was one of those old fold-down laminate tabletops that had been around in the 1970s. Tina came from a house with the exact same tabletop, although in her house it had been replaced with a stone benchtop that swept away the past and looked to a future of steel appliances and automatic vacuum cleaners.
The rope was short. The boy couldn't have made it onto either of the bench seats alongside the table. Not without strangling himself.
The knots on the rope looked like they meant business. What did they call them — sailors' knots?
They would not be loosened. They would not give way. The boy wasn't going anywhere.
Tina began to breathe in a little of the boy's despair. It crept up her spine and tingled at her neck. Right now she wasn't going anywhere either. Her first instinct had been to run. When she had recognised what was tied up under the table she wanted to run screaming from the house, but she knew enough to wait and keep her mouth shut. She was in real trouble. Panic was stupid.
A rancid sweet smell filled the space. Tina wrinkled her nose.
The boy was skinny to the point of nothingness and dirty enough to be an animal. His lips and fingers were tinged with blue. His breath formed puffs of cloud in front of his face. His huge watery blue eyes met hers for a moment and then darted away.
The man smiled down at the boy and gave him a pat as though he were, in fact, greeting the family dog. The man's nondescript face was enveloped in a smug grin.
'See what I have here?'
Tina heard the unspoken words as though the man had shouted them aloud. There was no reply worth making. Instead she swallowed a piece of the boy's despair and stared at the wall.
His body had become a statue as soon as the man's hand made contact. He was perfectly still on his bed of newspapers. When faced with attack most animals instinctively know to become motionless. If you didn't move and you didn't breathe it was possible that you would not be seen. The boy's skinny ribcage filled with stale air while he waited for the hand to leave his head.
Tina held her breath as well. If the man did more than pat the boy she would have to do something. She would have to do anything. There are some things that cannot be tolerated. If he did more than pat the boy Tina would not survive. She was completely sure of that.
She looked away from the man and the boy and tried to convey the idea that the only thing she was interested in was her twenty dollars.
Twenty dollars, twenty whole dollars, twenty precious dollars.
Those were the words she kept repeating in her head, hoping they would blot out all the other words making a grab for her attention.
The man looked back at her, almost daring her to ask about the frozen starving child under the table. Wanting her to ask?
Tina met his stare. She was here for her twenty dollars. That was it.
The man nodded at her. He had chosen well. Tina could see him putting her into the harmless category. She was someone who wouldn't make trouble. If you want someone to keep your secret, pick the person who has more secrets than you.
He was right. Tina knew now that she had made a mistake with the man. If she got out of the house it would be a bonus. If she got out unscathed it would be a miracle. Her best hope was silence. Silence and acquiescence. If she did make it out the only story she would have to tell would be the one about her own survival. She would be quiet and she would acquiesce, agree, comply, assent, concede and concur with whatever the man wanted.
'Fuck you know a lot of big words for a kid,' Ruby had said. 'How come you didn't just stay in school? What are you doing here anyway?'
Tina had shrugged her shoulders like she hadn't been asking herself those questions ever since she packed her bags and headed to a place she could lose herself in.
On the day she left she went to the station because trains took you away and she needed to be away. She got on a train waiting for a plan to form, waiting for an idea to take hold, but her thoughts were trapped in anger and grief and she could not get past these emotions. So she sat on the train and stared out of the window and let the click clack of the rails decide for her. The train passed through station after station and each time the doors opened Tina leaned forward and looked for a reason to get off the train. Each time she let the doors close again without leaving her seat. Then the train stopped at Kings Cross and when the doors slid open the platform was teeming with people. In the warm gust of air that blew into the train Tina heard a woman laugh. The woman laughed loud and long and Tina got off the train, wanting to find the woman. Wanting to find the laughter. She found herself in the Cross instead and she roamed the streets that never emptied, feeling lost. Safely lost.
So she stayed.
Her lack of money kept her there and her desire to disappear from a life she could no longer live meant that she stayed longer than she should have. Not that anyone, anyone at all, should ever stay in the Cross.
Nothing shocked Tina anymore. Ruby's words and her red leather mini had shocked her at first. Ruby's sallow skin and the sores on her arms that she scratched at constantly but always covered with makeup had drawn her eyes. She had felt a jolt of stunned recognition at seeing the real deal. She had forced herself to look at her shoes so she could pretend she hadn't seen.
The people putting needles in their arms as casually as though they were drinking coffee had shocked her too, and the filth and the all-pervasive anger had been terrifying. But it had been two years now and she barely registered the horror of her surroundings anymore.
She didn't see what she didn't want to see. The women on the street were pretty girls waiting for a date and she was a princess waiting for her prince. The world could be a lot easier to deal with if you lived mostly inside your own head. Probably all the same ugly, sick, twisted stuff went on behind the pretty fences of her childhood anyway.
She had built herself a fairly impressive wall in the last two years, but then she had been building that long before she got to the Cross. She could watch the world shit itself up right in front of her and not feel a thing. Sometimes she thought that any feeling at all would have been a luxury, but nothing got through. It meant that nothing could hurt her but it also meant that nothing could move her either. It was a price she was willing to pay. It was one interesting fucking trade-off.
The boy under the table was quietly battering against her walls, but she held firm.
'Take care of yourself first, before you think about anything else,' Ruby had said.
Ruby handed down the same advice that had been given to her. She had been in the Cross for five years and it was a tradition to help the newbie.
Some didn't help. Some led the younger kids in the wrong direction and then didn't stick around to pick up the pieces. But Ruby liked to educate. Knowledge is power and all that shit.
Usually Tina knew better. Ruby had taught her better. Usually she knew better than to get into a car with one of them. Usually she would never have dreamed of allowing one of them to take her to his house. Usually she would never have put herself in this situation.
Usually it wasn't fucking freezing and she wasn't fucking starving.
Twenty bucks could stretch to cover a week if she was careful.
She could almost taste the burger and fries, but before she was allowed to put any food in her mouth she had to put something else down her throat.
'You know it's just a blow right?' she said.
"Course I do, luv, that's what we agreed. I just thought it would be more pleasant if we got out of the rain.'
She had been standing on the street for almost an hour when he came along. An hour of cars that sped past and an hour of the wind biting at her body. An hour of the trickling rain down her back that the umbrella did little to stop. An hour of thinking time.
There had been no one to talk to. Everyone else had given up and gone home but Tina had stayed.
Tina is a determined student with a great deal of potential.
When she saw the gold sedan finally slow down she had breathed a sigh of relief. She had watched him go past three times already.
She opened her coat so he could get a proper look. The window slid down and she leaned in just a little, squeezing her breasts together. She was wearing a tight red singlet with a back mini and sky-high silver heels.
All ready for the club dontcha know.
'Cold, isn't it?' he said.
'You've got that right,' she said, and smiled. Like me, want me, like me, want me.
'Twenty for a blow, fifty for the whole thing.'
'Twenty is good.'
'I can meet you in the alley at the back.'
'It's really cold. Why don't you get in here?'
'Okay,' she said. Her mouth responded before her body processed the idea. The car was filled with heat. She could feel it coming out of the window. It was irresistible.
'Stupid, stupid girl,' Ruby would have said.
'My house is just a few blocks away. It will be better there — for both of us.'
Tina knew she should get out of the car. But she just sat there and nodded. She was so grateful to be out of the rain. She willed her legs to move but they knew what was good for them. Her legs stayed put.
She sat there and let him drive off. It was so cold. Tina never knew that cold could become your whole body, not until she spent a night on the streets. It burrowed in through your clothes and went straight for your lungs and your bones. It became all you could think about. You could not imagine ever being warm again.
So she sat in the car and she let him drive and she tried not to see the boy under the table. The little boy under the table licking the empty biscuit packet. The little boy who should not have been there.
'I want my money now,' said Tina. She glanced around the kitchen again, sniffed at the air. The smell must have been coming off the boy because the kitchen was spotless. It was clean enough to be in one of those adverts that tried to convince the public that their crappy lives would be perfect if they could just kill enough germs.
Her mother was like that. Her kitchen cabinet was stacked with the best germ killers. A whole arsenal dedicated to wiping out anything that dared to live on her surfaces.
In the clean kitchen in the man's house not a single thing was out of place. Even the tea towels were folded into perfect squares and sitting together on the draining board.
Not a single thing out of place except for one thing so very out of place.
The man's car had been clean as well. Free of the usual debris of a life lived moving from one place to another.
No coffee cups or water bottles or burger wrappers. Nothing.
Nothing but the pine smell and the heat.
In the kitchen Tina stamped on her fear and forced herself to look around. She was in enemy territory. Time to work out the lay of the land.
'If you're dumb enough to let one of them drag you home always plan an escape route,' Ruby had said. 'But mostly don't be dumb enough to let one of them take you home.'
Ruby carried a knife, hidden from prying eyes. Tina had never needed a knife. Correction: Tina had never needed a knife before.
She could see a small window and a back door that the man had locked three different ways after they used it to enter the house.
Shit, she thought. You could turn one lock and get out before you got caught. If you were quick you could maybe turn two locks. Three would be impossible.
She looked at the window again.
There was something a little off about the window. Tina stared at it without staring at it and then she realised what she was seeing.
The latch was broken. It was hanging off the window at an odd angle. With a little bit of work she could get through it in no time. It was a small imperfection in the perfectly maintained space.
She kept the triumphant detail to herself. She stared at her feet and went over the movements that would get her through the window and out of the house.
The man held out a crisp twenty-dollar note.
There it was.
Who said money can't buy happiness? No one who had ever been hungry, that's for sure.
Tina grabbed the note and stuffed it right down the bottom of her cloth backpack, underneath her wallet and the few bits and pieces of her life she carried around.
It stopped her thinking. That was the one benefit of hunger. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else occupied your thoughts.
'Come into the lounge room,' he said. 'I've got the heat on in there.'
It was a lot warmer in the lounge, and Tina felt her hands begin to thaw again. The boy under the table was wearing a pair of shorts and a torn T-shirt.
I'm just here for my money, Tina thought.
The man sat himself down on a leather recliner. He unzipped his pants and opened them a little.
Tina felt the bile rise in her throat as it did every time.
'Just think of the money,' Ruby had advised.
'Sometimes it's good to feel a woman's lips,' said the man, giving her a creepy smile.
Tina said nothing. She got down on her knees.
'Don't talk to the fuckers. Just do your thing and leave. They love to think that we actually enjoy it because they are so special and so different from every other fuck who ever handed us twenty bucks. Well fuck 'em, I say. They're all the same,' Ruby had said.
Tina had listened and learned, grateful for eighteen year old Ruby and her brash kindness.
'They'll love you.' Ruby was looking at Tina's clear skin and green eyes. 'You still look like a little kid. How old are you, anyway? Don't shit me.'
'Shit, you look twelve. All the daddies in their four-wheel drives will be after you. Poor bitch.'
The man groaned and it was over.
'Can I use your loo?'
'Yeah, sure, it's over to the right. You could stay awhile, you know. I'd be willing to pay extra. I could make dinner.'
And we could play house, thought Tina. Do I give the kid under the table a pat as well?
Tina looked at the man. He was so clean. No extra hair on his face and he smelled of soap. He was even cleaner than his house, but the kid under the table told her that there was plenty of dirt where she couldn't see it. Black stinking dirt.
'I'm good,' she said. 'I have to get back. Billy will look for me.'
'Billy your pimp?' asked the man.
People were stupid. The whole fucking world was raised by the television. Tina nodded. 'Big bloke from Tonga. You must have seen him when I got in your car. I told him I was coming here. He usually likes to follow me to make sure he gets his money.'
'Now let me tell you about Billy,' Ruby had said. 'He's the best fucking thing I ever thought up.'
The man knew there was no Billy but he wasn't one hundred percent sure. None of them ever were. Mostly they didn't take the chance.
In the bathroom Tina used some of the man's mouthwash. She used it twice. She wiped her hands on the white towel and then she wiped her nose as well. She made sure the towel was lying perfectly straight again.
There was a uniform hanging just outside the shower. Tina felt her heart in her throat until she looked closer. It was the wrong colour for a cop's uniform. The blue was different and the pants could have belonged to anyone but the badge made it official. But it was just a security guard's uniform. Just a security guard.
'Jumped-up fucks. Think they're more dangerous than they are,' Ruby had said about the ones who told them to move away from the front of the ritzy stores.
'Jumped-up fuck,' said Tina softly, enjoying the sound of the words and the memory of Ruby.
The man was dozing in his recliner.
'I'm going now,' said Tina, focusing on the large fireplace and the iron poker standing next to it.
'I'll give you a lift,' said the man, opening his eyes. He stood and zipped up his pants. He had been more awake than asleep; waiting for her. Listening for her.
'Nah thanks. Billy just rang me. He's waiting around the corner.'
'Oh,' said the man, and he gave Tina a small smile. 'I didn't hear a phone ring.'
Tina sniffed and said nothing. You can't argue with silence. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Boy Under the Table by Nicole Trope. Copyright © 2012 Nicole Trope. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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