There’s something different about the first week of May.
They start wearing boots and scarfs and shiny black puffer vests.
Maybe I had forgotten how cold Melbourne can get. The wind whips the back of my bare legs, and the hairs on my arms are on high alert.
I wipe the tears from my cheeks and keep walking. I have a little time to think about things.
Collins Street, up near the park. I weave through the steady stream of dark suits and mums with pushers until I can see it. A skinny building sandwiched between a McDonald’s and an accounting firm, with an overflowing Salvo’s donation bin out the front. Its red-bricked frontage looks uglier every time I see it.
Part of me dreads going – maybe most of me – but there isn’t really much choice.
My hands begin to sting from clenching my fists for so long. My knuckles have turned white, and my brittle fingernails have left deep crescent-shaped indents in my palms, which are now pink and raw. I can feel the air being squeezed out of my chest as I try to steady my breathing.
I toss my duffle bag over my shoulder and step out uneasily between the slowing traffic, and head towards the front entrance of the tall building. I have to step around bags of ‘donations’ strewn about on the footpath to reach the heavy wooden front door. Funny how rich people just drag their crap here, claiming it’s for charity.
Open the door.
I use my whole body weight to push, my shaky hands clinging tightly to the cold brass door knob as the inside heat hits my tense face.
I close the door behind me and find the reception empty. The rough grey carpet is littered with stains and spills; dirty with the faint trace of muddy footsteps and leftover autumn leaves. The dark timber walls and desk are tired and scratched. The odd assortment of pre-loved upholstered couches reeks of cigarettes. The ceiling texture reminds me of crinkled white paper.
I stare blankly, momentarily distracted by the calming sound of a small fan heater perched on the desk. Churning hot, thick air—
I choose a ripped olive green leather couch near the window and wait. An overcrowded pin board layered with “overcoming addiction” flyers and out-dated government self-help brochures above my head.
Soon a volunteer lady— “Sandy”, her name tag reads—bustles into the room and looks me up and down. She brings me a cracked blue plastic clipboard stacked with forms. She smiles, but it’s a knowing smile. It’s like she thinks she can see through me, her blonde curls bobbing perfectly in time with her over-the-top hand gestures.
She clearly doesn’t live here.
We talk for a while. I tell her I’ve never stayed at a hotel.
‘Oh sweetie, this is a hostel.’
She laughs gingerly. I’ve never been good with words.
I figure a hotel is just like this place. Remember Pretty Woman, when the staff at the five-star hotel judge Julia Roberts for wearing a leather mini skirt and trashy boots. Except, I’d be lucky to even own a mini skirt, and this is a women’s refuge.
It’s dark outside by the time the bouncy volunteer woman finally confirms they have a bed for me.
I stand up slowly and can hear the sticky leather peel from my bare, now sweaty thighs. The fan heater has clearly done its job.
I’m so relieved to have somewhere to sleep, knowing full well I don’t have a plan B. The stupid dingy apartment is no longer an option.
Bouncy Sandy leads me up the staircase, stopping only to point out the communal bathroom on the second floor. I follow her closely until we reach the landing on the fourth floor. We both try to hide that we’re out of breath, and continue chatting uneasily as the cold air travels deep into our lungs. Like the feeling of going for a run on a cold morning.
‘Ooooh, we could really use one of those little heaters up here.’
The warmth of the fan heater is long gone, and the corridor is cool, lit with bare white florescent bulbs that expose the flaky paintwork.
Nothing at all like Pretty Woman.
We walk past a rec room where a group of leathery women sit comfortably on mismatched recliners and two-seaters watching a comically small television set on full volume. They don’t notice our passing.
My room is second from the end. There’s a soft yellow light shining from the dusty glass dome casing on the ceiling. The room is big. An old brown wardrobe pushed up against one wall, a small white framed window at the back, and a set of wooden bunk beds on the right.
I didn’t realise I was sharing.
The room stinks, an awful mix of the sickly-sweet citrus air freshener hanging above the light switch, and really, really terrible B.O. It’s too cold to open the window. I breathe through my mouth instead.
It’s just turned eight o’clock but my roommate is already asleep on the bottom bunk. She’s facing the wall, and all I can see is the back of her Collingwood jersey and her bum crack peeking out from the top of her stretchy black sweatpants, the remainder of her clothes sprawled across the floor.
She clearly wasn’t expecting company.
I’m not in the mood to introduce myself, so as soon as I’m left alone I clamber up the wooden bunk—duffle bag and all. Cautious not to wake my roommate, I quickly slide under the duvet, shoving my bag against the end of the bed, and taking quiet gulps of air to steady my breathing and avoid the stench.
I can barely sit up straight with the low ceiling, so I fall back onto the foam mattress and gaze up at the crinkly ceiling. I can’t stop replaying this fucking awful day.
What are they doing now?
Sitting on the balcony having a fag, a drink and a laugh at my expense I suspect. Thrilled they’ll finally have their ‘spare room’ back?
Will they even bother looking for me? It just shits me that he walks around like he owns the place after what, three months?
I push those thoughts away and begin scrolling through my phone contacts, ticking off a mental list of who I’ll call tomorrow. I don’t plan on staying here more than a few days, after all. It’s just a last minute, get-out-of-jail card kind of thing.
The low battery message on my phone reminds me I hadn’t bothered to unplug my charger from next to the sofa bed. That’s what a dramatic exit will do to someone. And I suppose it’s a bit rich to ask for a phone charger in a place like this.
I sigh heavily. There’s nothing I can do about it now. I can’t be bothered getting out of bed so I clumsily wriggle into my favourite oversized Eminem t-shirt and fleecy tracksuit pants before reaching dangerously far over the edge of the timber bunk to turn off the light. I plug my earphones in and lie restlessly for hours until my brain gets bored, and my phone runs out of battery.
Slept terribly, thinking about home.
Aching arms and legs.
The sound of peak hour traffic.
Sharing a bed with a duffle bag is no easy feat. My knees stiff from being curled up under my chin all night.
I sit up quickly, forgetting I’m on the top bunk in someone else’s room, and smack my head on the ceiling.
I feel woozy and it takes me a minute to recover.
Before I have time to gather my things, a Sandy-lookalike knowingly bustles in with a fresh towel and toiletries pack, insisting I have a shower. Eager to avoid the stench and her insipid conversation, I quickly accept the offer.
She starts to tidy the mess on the floor as I jump down from the bunk bed and head towards the bathrooms.
I’m relieved to find it empty.
The showers are the only nice thing about this place; clean white tiles and newly renovated cubicles. I place my things in a metal locker inside the public swimming pool-style change room—you can never be too careful. It’s almost a relaxing experience besides the blue UV lights.
I choose the furthest shower cubicle and turn on the tap until the water is searing hot. Then I let myself sit on the slim metal bench, shoulders hunched, and thank God for the great water pressure. I wash my hair, twice for good measure, and try half-heartedly to get the knots out with my fingers. Then I just close my eyes and let the water scald my back and legs. It’s hard not to think about anything. Especially home.
But somehow, maybe for the first time, it feels good to cry.
Brought back to reality by a sudden blast of cool water and the sound of footsteps creaking on the wooden staircase. The hot water system is clearly not accustomed to long, reflective showers.
I rub myself dry with the newly donated Kmart towel. I only have my black jeans and grey sweatshirt to change into, and use an elastic band to wrap my long knotty hair in a tight, wet bun. I sit under the blue lights of the changeroom and enjoy the warmth and silence a little longer.
With my wet towel and dirty clothes in tow, I trudge up the stairs – surprised to find a crowd of people on the fourth floor. I cautiously make my way down the corridor towards my room. The Sandy clone from this morning is crying to a copper in the rec room.
Two more coppers are leaning against the wooden doorframe – a short man, and a skinny woman with a dark blue folder. I can hear more shuffling from inside.
A heavy sense of dread settles tightly on my chest.
How could they know I was here? What could they possibly want from me? They wanted me gone so badly and they’re still making life hell.
There’s a heavy metal clunking from inside the room.
‘One, two, three—lift,’ a man groans.
The coppers spin around in response and take a step backwards as an ambulance officer appears, his latex gloves clutching the metal bar of a hospital stretcher. He expertly manoeuvres the stretcher out of the tight doorway and down the corridor. The body covered entirely by a white sheet.
‘Shit,’ I say under my breath.
The two police officers file neatly into the room in his place. I stand in the doorway. The smell of rotting eggs and pungent body odour is overwhelming.
I inhale. Desperately looking for hints of the fake citrus air freshener.
The bottom bunk is empty. There are two syringes at the edge of the bed.
I feel sick. I say nothing.
‘Likely been deceased for more than twelve hours.’
He sighs, opens the window.
‘Put time of death as 7 p.m. until the toxicology report’s released,’ the skinny woman mumbles unremarkably into a dictaphone.
My head throbs. The painful egg on my browbone has tripled. The dizziness begins to take over. My heart feels like it’s going to explode out of my dry mouth.
‘I… Do you know?’
‘Is…is she okay?’ I step inside.
I’m trembling and my breaths are raw and wild. The copper jots down my name, lack of address, and phone number. Eventually, when I’m out of breath, I stop talking.
I think about the smell.
Jess is a final year Fine Arts and Law student at QUT. She has a keen interest in crime fiction, and loves stories that allow her to use her legal studies as a basis for her short stories.