Angie’s hand hovered over the letterboxes of the Crystal Lake Apartments, as she looked through the French doors into the living room of a unit on the ground floor. This apartment, which faced a tiny paved patio adjoining the street, was now furnished; someone had moved in. Angie went closer to get a better look. The interior was ice white, the pristine chill of the carpet and walls broken slightly by the furniture – shiny black leather hanging on silver bones. On a transparent coffee table, a glass vase held a bunch of pale lilies, and in front of the sofa was a white fur rug. At one end of the room was a high counter, beyond which gleamed the kitchen.
‘Cool, eh!’ Angie said to herself, sweeping the room with her gaze. It was like a picture in the magazines she leafed through when she took Jade to the doctor for her shots.
Angie shoved the leaflets in the letterboxes, thinking of the pristine interior. It was so pure, so unspoilt, so luxurious. Angie yearned for this kind of elegance. The back flat she shared with her baby daughter and her mother, in an old villa in Falcon Street, was a dilapidated orchestra of conflicting colours. The carpet with its thin rainbow stripes was shadowed by stains; islands and continents of accident spread across the floor. The walls had shabby bands of orange and brown flowers.
‘Gross,’ Angie said when they moved there.
‘Stop grizzling,’ Mum said. ‘Orange is cheerful, people went wild for it when I was young.’
The ceiling, which had once been white, had a dark patch in the corner by the wetback cupboard, radiating outwards on ragged brown spokes.
‘It’s a dump,’ Angie complained.
‘At what we can afford, you’re lucky to have a roof over your head,’ said Mum, spreading a crocheted rug over a hole in the cover of an armchair.
Angie pushed the pram full of leaflets along to the next driveway. It had started to rain and, though her jacket was zipped right up and she had her hood tied under her chin, drizzle blew in her face, and fingers of wet reached round the back of her neck.
‘Bugger,’ Angie said to herself. There were still heaps of streets to do before she was finished.
Crossing the road, she sat in the bus shelter that faced the Crystal Lake complex. Angie took her thermos flask out of the pram, and poured hot Milo into the plastic mug. She usually had a break and a smoke in the shelter at Gibson Park but that was three streets away and she was already cold and wet. Anyway, she was supposed to be quitting smoking.
Angie remembered the section before the apartments were built, when it was still the remains of someone’s garden, with a broken fence and a walnut tree that littered leaves and nuts onto the pavement. One week the walnut tree had been there, the next there were just piles of smashed branches and men pushing chunks of the naked tree trunk onto the back of a truck. The Crystal Lake building went up pretty quickly after that.
The light was on in the ground floor apartment, though it was still afternoon. The white room had a moonshine radiance. A young woman, with hair the colour of melting butter and high-heeled boots, sat on the sofa reading a magazine. There was a wine bottle on the table and Angie could see the woman holding a glass in her hand.
Angie finished her drink and put the thermos flask away. Mum looked after Jade while Angie did her leaflet drop, but she mustn’t be too long. Angie thought of what it would be like when she finished the deliveries. At home she would fill the blue plastic bath with warm water, take it into the living room and let Jade play in it beside them, as she and her mother ate tea.
‘Love you,’ Angie said aloud, thinking of her little daughter. Mum and Angie took it in turns to make the meal – it was Mum’s turn tonight. Mince patties. They always had them on Thursdays. Angie hated the way the smell hung about over the frying pan and drifted thickly through the flat.
Angie stood up, still watching the windows of the apartment. On the sofa, the woman’s flesh glowed with a peachy tan; her denim-covered legs fluttered against the cushions like blue ribbons. Angie looked down at her own legs, her track pants undulating over generous thighs, and thought about dieting.
The next week, when Angie passed, there was something new in the white room on the bottom floor. Close to the French doors, an ornamental horse leaped wild and confident into the air, mane flying, hooves barely touching the carved ground. It was a cloudy, emerald colour. Awesome, Angie thought.
When she was younger Angie had liked to draw horses, sketching their heads on her pencil case with felt pens or creating fudge-coloured ponies on her social studies folder. One day she would get riding lessons, have a horse of her own.
‘Who do you reckon will pay for that?’ Mum had asked. Angie didn’t know.
All those things Angie had wanted but never got, had left nothing but an empty space inside her, as if something growing had been torn out.
Angie peered at the dark stone horse near the windows and wondered if it were made of jade; it looked pricey. 500 Names for Your Baby, the booklet that came free with the New Mum Nappy Pack, said jade was a precious stone of great beauty. That was why she’d chosen the name, she liked the idea of something green and precious.
Angie had hoped her daughter would have green eyes; instead they were a zingy blue – though when she saw how vivid they were, she didn’t mind.
Each time Angie went by the apartments, she looked into the white room. She noticed when the flowers were changed or a bowl of growing hyacinths was put on the transparent table. Most days the place was empty, though Angie always hoped to see the stylie woman. She wondered what she did for a job. Angie had seen her carrying in a slim satchel, and once a cheery red suitcase. Maybe she was a model or worked in television. Angie would have spoken to her if she hadn’t been so shy. She had discovered the woman’s name from looking at the letters in the box: Monica Ingram, Monica . . . Angie turned the name over in her mind like mouthing a piece of gum. Wasn’t there a place called Santa Monica? She thought it was in California. It sounded sunny.
Angie took great care to fold the leaflets for Monica’s box into neat halves. Some days she looked at the week’s hot deals and specials before she set out, hoping to find something Monica might like. She considered the dehumidifiers, the car radios, the slippers, but everything looked ugly, and lumpy; nothing there would suit Monica or her white room.
One afternoon when Angie passed, there was a shiny black BMW parked outside and Monica was going into the apartment with a man. Angie fiddled with the letterboxes longer than she needed, while she watched the couple at the patio doors. The man was wearing a suit. As Monica stepped forward, he elegantly guided her elbow with his hand. Angie wished she could feel warmth like that on her skin, and have such a man close against her back.
Angie thought of Ryan, Jade’s dad, though she hardly saw him now. She first met him in the bus exchange and they’d started going out before she’d left school. Ryan worked in a petrol station and wore a black beanie, which he pulled low over his face. On Valentine’s Day, Ryan gave Angie a red and white teddy bear with ‘I love you’ embroidered on its tummy. When they went to parties Ryan always got wasted, pissing on front lawns, throwing up on couches. Once he’d vomited all over the pink skirt she was wearing. Angie didn’t like people getting drunk; it made them angry and unpredictable.
When Angie became pregnant, Ryan said, ‘Get rid of it.’
‘Why?’ said Angie. ‘I’d like a baby and Mum would let you live with us.’
‘Nah,’ said Ryan, picking at a strip of sticking plaster on his thumb, ‘I couldn’t handle being a dad.’
During the next few months, the black BMW was often parked outside Crystal Lake. Once, Angie watched Monica and the man kissing on the patio, though she’d never seen them together in the apartment. Angie thought the pair must spend a lot of time in bed. She imagined golden bodies locked together on satin sheets.
Angie heard the shouting before she got in sight of the building. The French doors were open, and Monica and the man were in the living room. As Angie stopped by the letterboxes she could see the couple – fighting. Monica was struggling in the man’s arms, kicking at his legs. Angie knew she shouldn’t look, it was none of her business, better to quickly drop off the leaflets and hurry on, but she stayed.
‘Bastard!’ the woman screamed, her voice slurred.
Monica’s black top, which seemed to be torn, was forlornly hanging from one shoulder.
‘Shush,’ the man said holding the woman’s wrists as she flailed about. ‘Calm down. I didn’t plan to meet someone else. It just happened.’
Monica broke free and stumbled backwards as one of her high-heeled shoes came off.
Shit! She’s drunk, Angie thought as she watched. The woman fell heavily against the table, knocking an open bottle of red wine onto the floor.
‘Come on, Mon, I’m bloody sick of this. I was trying to do what’s right, tell you to your face, and all you do is kick up one hell of a scene.’
‘You prick!’ Monica shouted.
The man moved forward. Monica grabbed the jade horse.
‘Here, have your precious Chinese art treasure,’ she yelled, drawing back her arm.
No, Angie thought, no.
Monica threw the horse with all her force. Angie heard the ornament shatter as it hit the wall.
The woman was crying now, clinging onto the man by the lapels of his jacket. ‘Stay, please stay,’ she wept. ‘You know how I hate being on my own. And I’ve only got you.’
The man came out of the building and got into his car. He slammed the door shut and drove off. Angie hurried past. She thought of drunk Monica alone and crying in the apartment, the beautiful leaping horse now nothing but shards, and the red wine dripping like a fresh wound on the white carpet.
Angie thought of Jade, wearing her dinosaur T-shirt, running to greet her, shouting, ‘Mama! Mama!’ She thought of the sweet smell of baby shampoo in Jade’s hair and the way the child’s curls parted from a little whorl on the top of her head; in her mind, Jade’s blue eyes were shiny as bling and the toddler’s cheeks lolly pink with excitement.
Angie pushed the pram faster, keen to finish now. When she turned into Arklow Street she was almost running. Quickly she shoved the leaflets into the boxes; if she kept this up she’d be back with Jade in three quarters of an hour, half maybe, or even less.