Sorting Things Out
Her aunties pick her up that morning. They arrive in Aunty Rae’s new car, the flash little BMW – bright red. Aunty Rae bought the car because of its colour. Lana’s been up since eight, set her phone alarm especially. No one else in the flat has stirred. For the past ten minutes she’s been keeping her eyes and ears open to make sure she hears them when they arrive. She wants to get out to the car, before the aunties come into the house for her. She’s sure they’ll disapprove. She can’t remember the last time she’s been up this early.
The aunties are saying all the usual stuff about her health, and how happy they are that she’s feeling a bit better. Lana sort of listens, sort of doesn’t. It’s all pretty predictable stuff. But the bacon and eggs are good, and they’re paying, and the warmth of the sun on her back feels good too. So she concentrates on her breakfast and lets them do most of the talking, quietly floats along on the rhythm of their words. Occasionally they look at her as though they expect her to contribute a word or two, so that means she has to keep at least one ear on the conversation. Backwards and forwards they go across the café table, talking about her and around her in their aunty voices that sound so much like each other’s. Her mum had sounded just like that too. Lana remembers when the aunties used to ring home, and if they didn’t say who was calling, she would never know which one it was. She’d guess, and usually get it wrong.
‘So we just want you to know we’re here for you, Lana,’ Aunty Rae, the older sister, the one who comes in the same small, blonde package as her mum, says. ‘Things have got a bit on top of you at the moment, but we’re here to help you work out what needs to be done.’ Blah blah blah. All that usual help and support bullshit.
Lana finds it easier after Aunty Rae leaves. Only one pair of eyes checking her out now. She doesn’t feel quite so much under the spotlight. ‘I’ve got the day free, Lani,’ Aunty Reenie tells her. Her mum used to call her that. ‘We’re going to get this business sorted out, once and for all.’
Aunty Reenie looks nothing like her mum. She is tall, skinny and freckled, she usually wears jeans. Aunty Reenie doesn’t do dresses. She’s a no-nonsense person, and it feels kind of good to sit and listen to her talk on the phone to the arseholes at Baycorp and Telecom who’ve been hassling Lana for weeks about the outstanding accounts. Reenie uses her teacher’s voice with them, her friendly one, and whoever’s on the other end of the phone listens to her, shows her some respect. People don’t talk down to Reenie. Although both times, they want to talk to Lana first to get her permission before they’ll speak with her aunt about the accounts. Lana answers their questions about her date of birth and her mailing address – all that usual Privacy Act bullshit – then she’s more than happy to hand the receiver back to Reenie. She finds it hard to keep track of the things Reenie talks about with them. Balances and contract terms; penalties and disconnection fees. It’s like some other language and her mind keeps wandering off.
Although she does like the bit when she hears Reenie tell the people on the end of the phone that she hopes to have the accounts settled within a couple of weeks. Maybe there’s hope yet.
Same thing happens at the bank. Reenie does all the talking, and Lana stands by and watches while she and the teller cancel the direct debits and automatic payments and whatever else keeps Lana’s bank account empty. She’s feeling more and more tired – that fuzzy grey tired – as the day progresses.
Aunty Reenie leaves the courthouse till last. The bitch at the fines desk looks over her glasses at them. Lana feels the urge to run, takes a step back, remembers why she has taken to avoiding the place. Reenie doesn’t seem fazed at all. But then it isn’t her that owes all the bloody money, is it?
The bitch prints out the list of fines. ‘Almost $7,000,’ Aunty Reenie says. Lana watches her aunt run her finger down the list that is longer than one page. ‘No warrant, no rego, no rego, no warrant, no rego, etcetera, etcetera,’ she says.
‘Lana’s had a tough year,’ Aunty Reenie says to the bitch. ‘She lost her mum a few months back, and now she’s got herself into a bit of a financial pickle. It’s taken quite a toll on her. Physically, she’s been sick most of the winter, can’t seem to shake the flu, and emotionally, she’s got pretty low too.’ Reenie sends Lana a brief smile. It’s probably meant to be reassuring. Lana tries to maintain the numb feeling, but it’s hard with her aunt spelling things out like that. Her sorry life in a list. Tears well, then spill over. Still Reenie goes on. ‘Her doctor’s advised her to take a few months off work to help her get on top of things again, so now she’s on a sickness benefit.’
Reenie is weaving magic with her words. The hard edges of the bitch’s face soften. She tells them that the judge might let Lana do community service to work off the fines. A hundred, maybe one hundred and twenty hours will do it. It depends which judge she gets on the day.
‘That’s a fantastic solution, Lani, don’t you think?’ Aunty Reenie sounds thrilled. ‘You could come and work at the school. Or maybe the hospice. Maybe you could do the patients’ hair for them.’
‘I’m not up to work, Aunty Reenie. I haven’t got the energy.’ Lana feels like lying down right there on the floor of the fines office and sleeping for a week. She’s never felt so tired. ‘Anyway I’m over hairdressing for now.’
‘You wouldn’t have to do it right now, Lani. You could wait a few weeks till you’re feeling stronger. But don’t you see? This is a way you can sort things out for yourself.’ Reenie’s enthusiasm is enough to make a person wilt. ‘Imagine how it will feel to have all this paid off and behind you. What a load off your shoulders that will be. You can start again with a clean slate.’
Reenie talks as if it has already happened. As if.
‘I notice your car warrant has recently expired,’ the bitch chimes in from behind her know-everything computer screen.
Oh God, and her car needs new tyres. ‘I really do need to lie down, Aunty Reenie,’ Lana says. ‘I’m exhausted. Can we go home now?’
Lana sees her aunt’s sympathetic expression slip for just a second. Sees something less positive flash across her face.
‘I know you’re tired, Lana,’ she says firmly. ‘But this is important. We will get your car warranted today, we will get your application to do community service underway today, then, once you’ve got these fines settled and behind you, it’s your job to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’
But Lana’s feet are sliding out from under her, her body slipping slowly down the wall. The linoleum feels cold against her cheek. She hears a pale voice saying, ‘Yeah, I know, Auntie Reenie, I know.’ Blah blah blah.