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What a shitty start to the week. Queensland is well and truly living up to its ‘Sunshine State’ title and I have to work. Physical work no less which is something I haven’t done since I can’t remember when. As the owner of Australia’s largest home maintenance franchise my work usually involves sitting in air conditioned comfort however someone in PR decided it would be a good idea for me to get ‘back to basics.’ So now I have to spend a day each month showing solidarity with my franchisees.
I pull up outside the house of Joanne Michaels, a woman who needs her lawn mowed and hedges trimmed. While I walk to the front door, I decide the idiot in PR who came up with this idea will be getting the sack. My knock produces a half-arsed bark from a dog inside. The door opens, and I decide the genius in PR who came up with the idea I should get ‘back to basics’ will be getting a fat pay rise.
There, standing in front of me, is a tiny, beautiful woman. Perhaps tiny is not the right word. She’s short but has killer curves. Her skin is pale. At a quick glance, her eyes appear to be green or maybe hazel. Most would classify her as a redhead, but her hair’s pale, almost golden. A bit like the colour of light honey. My eyes dart to her left hand. No ring. Speak, damn it.
“Are you Joanne Michaels?” is all I come up with.
“Yes, call me Jo. How can I help you?”
“I’m from Marc’s Home Maintenance. You have a regularly scheduled service for lawn and garden maintenance. I’m covering for Keith today.”
Jo’s big eyes, which are green, become even bigger, and she has a slightly panicked look on her face. Surely my replacing Keith is not a big deal.
“Oh, um, yes. Sorry. I forgot Keith was coming.”
Jo seems to be tossing something around in her head as if she’s trying to make a decision. I start reassuring her I’ll do just as good a job as Keith when she starts talking also. We stop and say, “Sorry, you go,” at the exact same time. If I wasn’t a grown man, I’d say “jinx.”
Jo starts talking again. “I’ll leave you to it. Don’t mind our dog Chuck. I would say he’s all bark and no bite, but he can barely even be bothered to bark most of the time. Feel free to come and go as you need.”
A couple of minutes later, I’m unloading the mower from my trailer and trying to push aside a stab of desire that has stirred in me. Spotting a kid’s scooter abandoned next to the driveway, my desire vanishes in an instant. Women with kids are a no-go zone.
I spend the next two hours mowing, trimming, raking, and removing. It’s not too bad—with my sunnies on, I get to have a good perve on Jo while she does chores around the house. Just as I’m finishing, a young girl and boy walk up the driveway and disappear inside the house. They must be Jo’s kids. Time to make a hasty retreat.
I’m loading the hedge trimmer into the trailer when there’s a tap on my arm. I turn around to find a small boy with brown hair and big brown eyes looking up at me.
“Hello. Mum said you’re replacing Keith. Keith tells really cool jokes. Is he okay?”
“Keith’s fine. He’ll be back next time,” I reply, feeling strangely inadequate that I don’t have a joke to share. “What’s your name?”
“Darcy. Hey, what do you call a bear with no teeth?” he asks.
I play the part by scratching my head while twisting my mouth and squinting my eyes as if I’m thinking hard. “You’ve got me,” I say, which is the truth because I don’t know what the answer is.
“A gummy bear,” Darcy tells me.
I let off the most convincing laugh I can, and his whole face lights up. Maybe kids aren’t so bad.
“My sister Georgia never laughs at my jokes. She says they’re lame.”
“Well, Darcy, I think you are hilarious. Let’s go find your mum.”
Darcy takes my hand and leads me to the house and through the front door. The house is a run-of-the-mill ‘knock ’em up cheap and churn ’em out quick’ estate house. As usual, there are only about five or six different house designs in the whole estate, but they “mix it up” by reversing the layout every now and then. The blocks are tiny – I bet Jo could lean out her window and touch the neighbour’s house. The house is on the small side but is an open plan. Darcy leads me to his mum in the kitchen then skips away.
I desperately want to stall my departure, but I am at a loss for words. What the fuck’s wrong with me? I always know what to say.
“Right, I’m finished so I’ll be on my way.” I’ve blown my chance. What chance? I’m not interested, remember. She has kids, remember.
“I didn’t catch your name.” A lifeline.
“Sorry, it’s Marc.” I shake Jo’s hand as she looks straight into my eyes. There are orange specks in her green irises. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“I just realised I was rude and didn’t bring you any drinks while you were working. Can I make it up to you with a beer?”
Hell yes. “Sure, I’d love one.”
Jo gets two beers out of the fridge. She drinks beer! I like her even more now. Jo grabs two stubby coolers and suggests we head outside to the patio. I take the caps off our beers. We are just settling in when a girl who is the spitting image of Jo appears. She looks about eight or nine. I’m hopeless at guessing kids ages. She’s older than Darcy, but I’m not sure of his age either.
“Mum, don’t forget we’re raising money for that school over in Afri–”
“Georgia, where are your manners?” Jo cuts her off. “This is Marc,” an apologetic looking Jo gestures to me.
“Sorry, hello,” Georgia greets me then turns back to her mum.
“We’ll talk about it later Georgia.”
“But the donation box is due back tomorrow,” she pleads.
“Um, just take whatever coins are in my purse.”
“I’ve already checked. There’s not even five dollars. Sarah’s mum took her door knocking in her neighbourhood and Sarah said they’ve raised over sixty dollars.”
“I tell you what, Georgia, when I’m a stay-at-home mum like Sarah’s mum, I’ll take you door knocking in the neighbourhood to raise money for charity.”
Georgia storms off. I stifle a laugh.
Jo sighs. “Wait. Have a rummage in the car to see if there’s any spare change rattling around in there.”
Darcy appears. “What’s for dinner, Mum?”
“Bangers and mash and whatever veggies I can find.”
“Again? Why do we eat sausages all the time?”
“Because they’re cheap, and we don’t eat them all the time. Now go and do your homework.”
We watch Darcy slowly drudge off to his dreaded homework.
“I’m confident I’m a hot contender for Mother of the Year,” Jo jokes. “Do you have kids?”
“No. If it’s any consolation, I reckon you did more jobs in the two hours I’ve been here than my soon-to-be ex-wife did in the three years we were married.”
Jo smiles. What a smile!
“It’s my ay off,” she says and gestures the quotes with her fingers.
“Where do you work?”
“I work Tuesday to Friday as a receptionist cum secretary for a gynaecologist obstetrician.”
“Where are his rooms?”
“How do you know the doctor I work for isn’t a woman?” she asks with a smug smile.
“Just teasing! Dr. Peter Fenton’s rooms are on Wickham Terrace.”
“City or Spring Hill end?”
“Where does he have lists?”
“Royal Brisbane and the Wesley. Rooms and lists, huh? You sound as though you know what you’re talking about, Marc.”
“My dad was a doctor.”
Jo nods her head, and we sip our beers in awkward silence until she asks, “So do I pay you or Keith?”
“Um, I’m caught short and pay day isn’t until Friday. Can you let Keith know I’ll pay him then?”
I’m about to reply when she continues. “Actually, I have to stop my maintenance schedule for a while. Money’s a bit tight.”
Now’s a good opportunity to find out if she’s single.
“Sure, I guess you’ll just have to get your hubby to step up,” I say, trying to sound jovial.
Jo is silent for a moment, seemingly mulling something over in her head.
“No, I’ll be doing it.”
I still don’t know if she’s single.
“Do you know how to use a lawn mower?” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I realise how condescending I sound.
“Pull the cord and run it over some grass?”
Yep, I deserve that. “What about filling it up?”
“What about two stroke?” I volley back.
“What stroke? I’m sure I’ve got an instruction book somewhere. I’ll figure it out.”
I need to decide if I want to leave without finding out if this beautiful woman who is full of contradictions, and with kids to boot, is single. Deciding to leave it up to chance, I grab the invoice I had placed on the small table between us, write my number on the back and hand it to Jo.
“My number’s on the back. If you need help, give me a call.”
“Really?” Jo asks sceptically. I hope she doesn’t think I’ll bill her.
“Yes, really. No charge, I’d be happy to help.”
Jo’s enthusiasm is infectious and I find myself smiling. I glance at my watch, the universal cue for “I’ve got to get going.”
“Thanks for the beer, I’ll leave you to your bangers and mash.”
We stand, then Jo leads me back through the house. I almost stop dead in my tracks when I see a framed wedding photo of a beaming Jo and a man, who must be her husband, on the wall.
I wake up to the awful buzzing sound of the alarm. Like usual, I can’t believe I already have to get up. I haul myself out of bed and shuffle down the hall to Darcy’s room. He’s still asleep, so I gently nudge him and open his blinds.
Back in my room, I get dressed in my usual work attire—pale blue employer-supplied shirt, navy-blue straight skirt to my knees, and ballet flats. At least wearing the same thing every day means one less decision to make. I sometimes “go crazy” and change the colour of my shoes.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” I greet Georgia in the kitchen.
She has a mouthful of cornflakes and makes a sound I assume is a reply. I yawn and head straight to my favourite appliance—the coffee pod machine, a whopping seventy-nine dollars at Aldi.
An hour later, I’m rushing to make the train. Darcy didn’t want to get up—can’t say I blame him. Georgia couldn’t find her goggles for swimming, and Chuck decided today was a good day to live up to his name. To top it off, the only parking spot I could get was a good three hundred metres from the station.
I make it in movie-style fashion, slipping in just as the doors are closing. My feet are already killing me and it’s only seven-thirty. At least being early in the train line means I can get a seat. No such luck on the return journey. I pull a brush from my bag, wrangle my hair into a ponytail, then get out my E-reader. Thank God all the old classics are free. Otherwise, I’m not sure how I’d afford to read.
Bugger, the battery is flat. Guess I’ll just have to spend the twelve-stop ride reminiscing about the hot-bodied man that graced my doorstop yesterday. Marc. Tall and tanned with beautiful blue eyes and little laugh lines at the sides. And to think I was going to cancel. Lucky I forgot. I have no idea where I’m going to find the money to pay for it though. He was worth sacrificing my last two beers. I wonder how old he is. Early thirties, maybe?
Doesn’t matter, Jo. You haven’t got a hope in hell. A fat man sits next to me. Back to reality.
I get through the morning relatively unscathed. The mornings are usually okay, but as the day drags on and Peter runs further and further behind, the ladies start getting cranky. His patients are usually pregnant with tired small children who want to be anywhere but at a doctor’s surgery. The worst is when Peter gets called away to one of his patients in labour and I have to ask his other patients to reschedule or keep waiting.
Out comes a lady positively glowing with her husband sporting a huge smile. Looks like they’ve just heard their baby’s heartbeat or seen it on the screen for the first time. This is one of the things I like about my job. I also love it when the mums come back for their six-week check up with their new babies. Sure, the mums have eyes hanging out of their heads and don’t know if they’re coming or going, but who doesn’t love cuddling a baby?
The newly pregnant couple pays their bill. Once they leave, I realise the next patient isn’t due for ten minutes, so I take a break to call my dad.
“Joanne! How’s my little girl this fine Monday?”
“It’s Tuesday, Dad.”
“Oh, who needs to keep track of the days when you’re traipsing around the country?”
“Where are you?”
“I’m almost at the Western Australia border. I’ve been travelling across the Nullabor. It’s very flat, and the road is in great condition. Did you know it’s the longest stretch of tarred road in Australia?”
“No, Dad, I didn’t.” Only my dad could get excited about a long, flat road.
“I’ve also just bought the most expensive fuel ever. It was over two dollars a litre.”
I whistle. Shit, a patient just entered.
“Gotta go, Dad. Stay safe.”
“Love you, darlin’.”
I let Peter know his next patient is here and remind him I’m leaving early for a doctor’s appointment.
End of Excerpt