The suitcases and boxes still sat in the spare room. Romi opened them if there was something she needed. A cheese grater, her daughter Talia’s sports uniform, a particular DVD she wanted to watch.
The rental house was clad in brown brick, with orange and yellow striped awnings over the front windows. It was an eighties house. Justin’s new Subaru looked out of place in the driveway. It needed an eighties car to match—a Commodore, or an old Valiant. Parched grass was edged with petunias and wilted daisies. Inside, beige carpet was flecked with brown. The lounge room was dominated by a cream modular setting, the leather cracked and dehydrated.
They had lived there for a year. It was close to the school and the rent was cheap. On the weekends they scoured property listings online and went to open for inspections. Nothing had come up in their budget.
Romi’s favourite prints were stacked up in the corner of the living room, encased in bubble wrap. She stood at the kitchen bench, absently chopping vegetables for the evening meal. Her eyes glazed over. In recent weeks she had pondered their lack of a second child. Justin was ambivalent. We need to be settled, he had said, rustling the newspaper in his armchair.
The same holding pattern applied to her career. If they weren’t in the right house, there was no point her disrupting the family with a new job. Everything had to wait.
The knife almost sliced her finger and she put it down. Talia’s voice screeched from her room.
‘Mum, where are my sports shorts?’
Romi’s voice sounded distant, like someone else’s. ‘Check the brown suitcase in the spare room. Side pocket.’
Outside a car door slammed. Justin’s footsteps clicked in the tiled hallway and he shuffled into the kitchen. His shoulders drooped even more than usual.
‘How was your day?’ asked Romi, feigning interest.
‘You’d better sit down.’ He opened the fridge and pulled out a beer, fumbled in the drawer for an opener and flicked off the top. She watched his adam’s apple bob up and down as he drank.
Romi sat on a bar stool and eyed him, her stomach lurching.
‘Ten years, ten years of service. They’ve gotten rid of me, Rom. It’s all over.‘
Her mouth opened and shut, but no words came out. When she spoke, her voice shook.
‘Why Justin? Why would they do that? You know how that business works better than any of them. Other than Don, the rest of them are kids.’
‘Apparently my ideas are outdated. I’m not in touch with the logistics, now that all the admin is done digitally.’
‘You could retrain? Do some short courses?’
‘Yeah, that’s what I suggested. Bloody Don, he said, ‘Why would we spend money training you, when we could hire someone who knows all this stuff tomorrow?’’
Romi grimaced and raked her fingers through her hair. ‘Jesus. What an asshole.’
Talia sidled up to them, clutching her sports shorts. ‘Does this mean we have to stay here?’
Justin patted her shoulder. ‘Afraid so, love. It’s not that bad. You can unpack, settle in. We’re not gypsies anymore, that’s the plus side.’
‘But Dad, can’t you just get another job like that one? Then we can move?’
‘I’m forty five. I’ll get a job, but the chances of a leadership role are slim.’
Talia winced, her eyes filling with tears. ‘Dad, we can’t stay here. I’m too embarrassed to bring friends here. It’s a freaking dump.’
Romi stood and put an arm around her shoulder. ‘Come on, sweetheart, it’s all right.’
It was dusk as Romi hung pairs of socks and underpants on the rusted Hill’s Hoist. Everything was umber and gold—the clothes, the garden and the backs of her hands. She glanced over at the bedraggled flowerbeds and made a mental note to buy some weed killer. Some picture hooks too, she thought. She stuck a peg in the corner of her mouth and visualised the spare room as a nursery.