FOR AS LONG as she could remember, Tania had carried a canister of capsicum spray in her workbag. She’d never had cause to use it but she believed it was only a matter of time. Last Christmas Eve, Sheila from the Dandenong office, had been verbally abused by a customer – some derro who said her mouth looked like a cat’s arse and that he wanted to slash her from ear to ear. Poor thing had to take three whole months off work. And when she did come back – at significantly reduced hours – she only managed one shift before breaking down and begging her manager for a transfer.
Anna from accounts said that even now, almost a year down the track, Sheila couldn’t sleep unless she drank a whiskey or took a sleeping pill. Post-traumatic stress, they called it, like what soldiers get after the war. Which made a lot of sense to Tania. Because sometimes that’s what it felt like. War. Tania vs. the guy done for drunk driving who came in early for his licence. Tania vs. the taxi driver from Pakistan who slipped her a fifty in the sleeve of his road rules book. Tania vs. the pensioner with cloudy corneas, who recited the eye chart from memory. They made her sick. She tried to hide it behind smiling eyes and a gentle I-give-a-shit voice but she knew that one day, when she wasn’t on top of her game – when she had come down with a cold or hadn’t had enough sleep or was late getting out to lunch – one of the smarter ones would see her distaste like a crack across her broken face and they would snap like the derro had with Sheila that day in the Dandenong office and that’s when she would be waiting, like a cowboy in the movies, with her hand on the cold metal canister of capsicum spray.
TANIA PARKED HER Daihatsu and swiped herself through the back door. Thank God for the back door. Once upon a time she had had to plough through the mob at the front entrance, all bitching and smoking as they counted down the minutes to 9 am.
Counter 3. Her office: an eighty-centimetre square of bench-space between two thick Perspex plates. They were not supposed to have personal items cluttering the area – random spot inspections occurred approximately twice a year – but Tania had made it her own with a crumpled photo of her two-year-old granddaughter and a picture of a beach she’d ripped out of a Women’s Weekly.
Ticket holder number 5 drove a 2008 Honda sedan. She had the frightened look of someone surviving on shots of espresso and adrenaline.
‘How can I help you today?’ Tania asked with a smile.
‘My husband is dead.’ Her voice was flat and lifeless as if it had died along with her husband.
Tania pulled out the box of tissues she kept for such occasions in the top drawer of her desk.
‘The car was in his name.’
For what seemed like a long time, the widow sat and stared at an invisible spot behind Tania’s head.
‘And you would like the vehicle’s registration transferred into your name,’ Tania suggested after several minutes had passed.
Tania licked the bulb of her index finger and retrieved the relevant form – easily recognisable by its lime-green colour – from the organiser on her desk. ‘You’ll need to fill this out and bring it back, together with your husband’s original death certificate.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Plus the one hundred and twenty dollar transfer fee.’
The woman took the form in her bony, blue-veined hands. She frowned, as if contemplating what to do with it: eat it, preserve it or, in an angry rage, destroy it.
Tania looked at her watch. Nine twenty-three. The queue was making its frustration known with dramatic sighs and shifts of restless feet. She would have to move this widow along and quickly.
She had just composed her concluding remark – a perfect amalgamation of sensitivity and no-nonsense expediency – when she heard it. A loud plopping sound, like the first fat drops of rain. But it was not rain. It was tears. The widow’s tears, exploding on the green canopy of paper.
‘I have certified copies of his death certificate,’ she said, placing two crumpled documents onto the desk. ‘But the person I spoke to on the phone didn’t say I’d need the original too.’
Tania shifted the tissue box a little closer to the woman’s hand.
‘I have a three-year-old at home. Brie. And I’m thirteen weeks pregnant.’ She touched a spot below her navel. ‘We just bought a house and we have two hundred thousand dollars of debt and even though I know he’s dead, I can’t stop saying we.’
Tania held out a tissue and implored the woman to wipe her melting face.
‘I need to sell the car. But I can’t do it unless it’s in my name.’
People had cried in front of Tania before, many times, on average once per week, but she had never given in to their mucousy demands, no matter how sad the story. On the odd occasion that she had felt herself softening, like ripe fruit, as she listened to their sorry tale, she reminded herself of her own struggle: her father’s handprint, a bloodied stamp across her mother’s sunken face; raising Leah from the age of two as a divorced and essentially single mum; waking up empty after having her womb and its mango-sized cancer removed at the premature age of thirty-one. Nobody had cut her any slack and she had managed to survive. She was probably even better for it. Hardened. Inured. Unbreakable, almost.
But today was different. There was something about this widow and her spiky words that struck at Tania’s heart like a mace. And the overall effect was one of disorientation; of being bombarded with so many emotions at once that it was impossible to focus on just one. Tania’s daughter, a psych nurse, said it happened to doctors and their patients – one person, usually the patient, causing the doctor to feel and act in a certain way. She even had a fancy name for it. But Tania didn’t care what it was called. All she wanted to do was get away; get to some place where she could breathe again. And in her desperation to escape, she broke a cardinal rule of customer service. She said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
THE TEA-ROOM WAS empty. Relieved, Tania steadied herself at the sink. Her boss spent Sunday nights screwing Anna from accounts and Monday mornings sleeping in. He didn’t answer his phone before 10 am and even if he did, Tania wasn’t going to call him. She wasn’t going to beg him for a concession she knew he would never make; a concession that she – hard-arse Tania as he liked to call her, before giving her a good slap on the bum – would never request.
She called Leah instead.
‘I told you not to call me at work.’
‘Is it an emergency?’
‘No. It was a mistake.’
‘What was a mistake?’
‘Are you sure everything’s OK?’
‘I dunno Leah, you’re the psych nurse. You tell me.’
‘Nothing’s wrong. Just checking in, making sure that little
‘Since when did you give a shit about Eric?’
‘Now you really have got me worried.’ There was a scream followed by a loud metallic bang. ‘Look mum I’ve gotta go, but I’ll come round when I finish work. I’ll bring leftovers. We’ll have coffee, watch Farmer Wants a Wife.’
WHEN TANIA RETURNED, the woman had wiped the mascara from her cheeks and was sitting straight-backed in the chair.
‘I can go home and get the original.’
‘That won’t be necessary,’ Tania said, surprised at the pleasure she gleaned from the disbelief on the widow’s face. ‘I’ve sighted the original. And I’m satisfied.’
Tania held up her hand. She stamped the documents. ‘You’ll receive a sticker in the mail. It should be there by the end of the week.’
An ever so faint pink colour, like rose water, flushed the widow’s eggshell cheeks.
But Tania couldn’t bear to look at her.
‘Thank you,’ she said again.
Brian, from the adjacent cubicle, leaned back in his chair and pointed to his Casio watch. He was fastidious about his appearance, from his bushranger hair and thick-framed glasses all the way down to his Astro Boy socks.
‘I was starting to worry that Tania the great had taken a fall from her golden perch.’
He had not yet forgiven her for displacing him as employee of the month.
‘It’s all under control Brian.’
‘And then I saw who you were dealing with.’
‘I have work to do Brian.’
‘I forget the name. Alice, or Alicia, or something equally pedestrian.’
‘She was in here last week. Some sob story about her mum dying in a car crash and needing the rego transferred into her name.’ Brian laughed. ‘No documents. Nothing. Just unwashed hair and one hell of a performance.’
Tania gripped the edge of the desk. She watched the slow bleach of her jagged knuckles.
‘She should’ve gone into acting. Better than those waifs, Cate Blanchett and Nicole bloody Kidman. Almost had me fooled. Really…’ Brian chewed on his lip as he searched for the perfect word, ‘authentic’.
In the queue, a teenager with a spider tattoo was cursing his girlfriend on the phone. A frazzled mother looked poised to strike a toddler, who was pounding sultanas into the floor. A pensioner’s malfunctioning hearing aid stabbed the air with its high-pitched ring.
Tania pressed the big red button which directed the next ticket-holder to her desk. As she waited, she forced herself to think of Sheila and the derro in the Dandenong office. She willed herself to remember the man’s needless declaration of violence and Sheila’s long and sleepless nights. She forced herself to imagine that it had been Leah, or a grown-up Ella, whose face the derro had threatened to slash from ear to ear. And then, with her head full of indignation, she plunged her hand inside her workbag and felt for the cold metal canister of capsicum spray.