Short Story: Midday in the Bourke Street Mall

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She has such a strong sense of this moment but almost no sense of herself in it, except as an observer. Maybe because she doesn’t come to the city much anymore. She isn’t a part of it. She used to work in the city years ago but not since then. But this is where the recruiters are. This is where the jobs are now.

She has already met with one recruiter. She mistook his polite enquiry about what she was doing for lunch as a come on. Or maybe she didn’t mistake it at all. She will meet with another recruiter this afternoon and will listen for over an hour while he outlines everything that is wrong with her. She will sit there and take it.

But for now she sits at midday in the Bourke Street mall. There’s a book in her bag but so much is going on around her that she has no interest in getting it out. The bench below her is hard and cold, metallic beneath the back of her thighs, even through the material of her skirt.

Across the mall, sitting also and leaning against a grimy, tiled wall underneath the front canopy of an expensive department store is a woman not wearing any shoes. The soles of her feet are grimy, too. A beanie with a pompom on top can’t conceal her stringy hair and her mouth can’t conceal her lack of teeth. But she is not ashamed. She holds herself with pride. A casually well-dressed man approaches and stands over her, begins speaking to her, feigns concern for her.

Back on the other side, back on the bench, she watches the two of them speak. She doesn’t know much about the real world but even she can tell he is an undercover police officer. Someone from the department store must have called and asked if they could move on a homeless woman. She’s been sitting on this bench for over an hour and no one has come to move her on. She is ashamed on the woman’s behalf. Not of her status but of her treatment.

He talks to her for a while and then a marked police car slowly winds its way through the pedestrians and parks a short distance away. Two uniformed police get out of the vehicle with clipboards and take over the conversation. They won’t just move her on, it seems. She has to be convinced to go.

A tall, stout man walks past the bench shouting, “Richmond! Richmond!” and it distracts her from the police. He’s wearing a heavy brown blazer, shorts and long socks. He crosses the tram tracks that run down the middle of the mall and keeps shouting. “Richmond! Richmond!” She knows he isn’t asking for directions.

His single word soliloquy catches the attention of the same undercover police officer now freed from responsibility for the homeless woman. He tails him half the length of the mall and the man doubles back. Then he takes off his blazer and throws it onto the roof of a phone booth. She’s less surprised by the gesture than the fact that there is still a phone booth in the mall.

The man walks away, unconcerned by the loss of his blazer, and the undercover police officer follows him. Another undercover officer appears from somewhere. And a third. She wonders if their job is simply to patrol the mall. Why else would there be undercover officers here?

She looks back to where the homeless woman was sitting and the space is empty. She is gone. She has been moved on. But the grimy, tiled wall beside the entrance to the expensive department store doesn’t look any less grimy.

She realises there are things wrong here. A nine-year-old girl walks past in a sheepskin vest and wearing boots with two-inch heels. She’s with her mother who’s dressed the same way. A sparrow hops in front of her and she’s close enough to see the bird is missing all the toes on its left foot. It hops to a crack in the pavement and drinks dirty water pooled in the gap. And there are smokers. So many smokers. Her hair is going to smell bad for her meeting.

A tall, swarthy man walks from the east end of the mall hiding something in his hand but the massive clouds of vapour he leaves behind betray him. He’s smoking an e-cigarette, breathing in, breathing out, and it hangs over him like the Cheshire cat, a tail snaking around his shoulders. Later, he will walk back from the west end doing exactly the same thing.

Down near the phone booth, the undercover police are still talking to the “Richmond” man. They talk to him for a long time. Long enough for an ambulance to arrive. His blazer is forgotten entirely as he agrees to get into the back so they can check him over and the door closes after him before it drives away.

And then the real world is interrupted by an RMIT fashion student wanting to survey her on how she feels about discount and department store brands. “Do you have positive feelings about Kmart?” I have no feelings. I’m numb, she wants to say. I’m changed from sitting at midday in the Bourke Street mall.

Except she isn’t changed. She has such a strong sense of this moment but no sense of how to change any of it, not the recruiters who will hit on her and criticise her, not the police who will move on the homeless and the mental health challenged, not the sparrow without toes, not the smokers, not a fashion student who will end up with a huge student debt and a job in one of those discount and department stores, not even herself. Not because she isn’t a part of it. But because she is.

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