Her Place – Joshua Hodge

The apartment was filthy. Cramped. Depressing. Toby hated coming here.

The sink was full of dishes and cockroaches. In the six months he’d known Grace, he’d never seen her clean the place. He dropped his jacket over a chair as she moved through the piles of clothes and shoes and every other item thrown about the place. Toby made his way to the bed pressed against the wall, shifting the bedspread so he could sit. Grace had hastily scooped up a damp towel from the floor on her way to the laundry, revealing an old brown stain in the worn carpet.

Toby stared at it. He’d noticed it in the last few weeks, but still couldn’t tell if it was wine, or blood, or what. He decided he didn’t want to know, and turned his attention to where Grace was now bustling through the kitchenette. Having found a single glass in the cupboard, she filled it to the top from a cheap bottle of wine. He assumed her friends brought their own drinks in bottles when they came over to gossip and fight and dance to awful music, as any other glassware seemed to have been discarded long ago.

As she came over to sit beside him, glass in one hand and bottle in the other, he noticed she was trying to hide her smile. ‘What?’ he asked, taking the glass she offered him. She gave a shy laugh as she looked at him. ‘Nothing!’

Toby gave her a bemused smile in return. ‘You’re weird.’ Grace playfully pushed him, crossing her legs beneath her and arranging her skirt about her with her free hand.

‘So what did you want to do tonight then, lovely?’ Grace asked, taking a sip of wine from the bottle.

‘Well, I was thinking we could go out for dinner. Maybe have a talk? About us.’ Toby shifted his glass between his hands.

‘What about us?’ Grace looked puzzled. ‘You’ve got your serious face on, you know I don’t like it when you’re all serious, Mr. Grumpy.’ Toby looked at the floor.

‘Just some things I’ve been thinking about.’ Grace shifted on the bed, placing her foot across Toby’s leg.

‘We could talk.’ She slid her foot up his thigh. ‘Or we could do something else.’ Toby moved her foot back on the bed, but kept his hand on her leg. She grinned, pleased with herself. ‘And anyway, I can’t really afford to go out to dinner tonight. Mum didn’t leave me any money this week.’

Toby glanced at the half dozen unopened wine bottles Grace’s mother, Lianne, had left sitting on the bench by the fridge. The fridge itself contained almost nothing edible. Toby didn’t even know when Lianne had last been home. According to Grace, she was always seeing a slew of boyfriends, leaving the occasional message for Grace as to her whereabouts or intended date of return. Her absence suited his needs when he felt like staying over, but he thought that Grace missed her mum more than she let on.

‘I guess we’ll stay in tonight then.’ Toby gave Grace’s hip a squeeze. She slapped his hand away in mock outrage.

‘You think you’re getting sex tonight?’ Toby hesitated, but Grace winked. ‘Don’t worry, you are. I’ll just go have a cigarette and you put on a DVD, okay?’ She leapt up from the bed and dug through her handbag before disappearing onto the balcony. Toby felt slightly annoyed at how easily she always manipulated him. He called out after her.

‘We still need to have that talk, though.’ He waited, but there was no reply.

 * * *

Three weeks later, and Toby was sitting at a bus stop, drenched to the bone. The last few days hadn’t felt real. How long had he been waiting there? Traffic sped past, sending up fine sheets of spray from the steaming asphalt. His breath was short and sharp and came out in puffs of white. His phone lay limply in his hand, rivulets of water trickling over the message he’d read and re-read countless times. Those two words glared up at him.

I’m pregnant.

He felt hollow. Bruised, inside. It was as if the rain was washing him away slowly, his insides trickling across the pavement and down into the gutter. He didn’t even know if he was crying or not. He stood up on numb legs and went to lean against the chain-link fence that ran the length of the block. His forehead pressed against the wire, he thought he was going to throw up. He closed his eyes and prayed for the millionth time that it was a mistake; that it was somehow a joke, or a lie, or anything other than the truth.

He thought about Grace. Did he like her? Mostly. Did he love her? He knew he didn’t. Was he being heartless? Maybe, but he’d never made himself out to be her boyfriend. In fact, he’d been quite clear on that several times, letting her know exactly how he felt about their relationship and where he stood. He thought she understood, even if she seemed hurt by his feelings. He’d said it wasn’t personal, but it was. It was as personal as it got. He couldn’t see himself being with her. Not forever. It was just a fling; a casual thing they had that he could walk away from when the mood struck him. They hung out, they had sex, they argued, they had make-up sex. Maybe it had meant more to her than he’d thought. But he’d never lied about how serious he wanted it to be between them.

If she really was pregnant, didn’t he have the obligation to stay with her and raise the child? His child. He would have to move in with her. Where would they live? Her apartment was barely suitable for a grown adult, let alone the raising of a newborn child. What would his parents say? They didn’t even know about Grace. She’d never visited his house. She wasn’t the type of girl he wanted to introduce them to. All the usual interview questions would be embarrassing for Grace, for himself, for his parents. ‘What do you do for work?’ Nothing. ‘Are you studying?’ No. ‘What do your parents do?’ Time to leave.

The clouds had made the sky dark, and Toby realised he was shivering. Whether from the cold or the shock, he couldn’t tell. Didn’t matter. He stared with damp, red eyes at the text message once more. He’d put it off long enough. He’d have to call her. Go see her.

‘I’m not ready for this,’ escaped as a hoarse whisper from his cold lips.

 * * *

The music in the beer garden was loud, combining with the collective din of voices to drown out what Ian was saying. Toby sat and stared at the crowded tables and let his friend talk. He’d convinced himself that he needed just one more night before confronting Grace. One more night to collect his thoughts.

Moisture trickled down Toby’s glass, his beer untouched since they’d sat down nearly an hour ago. Someone bumped the table as they passed, and Toby realised Ian was asking him a question.

‘I said did you want to come up the coast this weekend?’ Ian repeated. Toby looked at him.

‘I don’t know, who’s going?’

Ian took a sip of his drink and licked the foam from his lip.

‘Just you, myself, and I’ll be bringing Cathleen as well, if that’s cool?’ Toby shrugged, knowing Ian would be calling his girlfriend every hour otherwise, confirming their love for each other again and again.

Ian gave Toby a wide grin and raised his glass. Toby lifted his own, and Ian clinked them together, spilling some onto the table. Toby set his back down whilst Ian took another sip. Failing to recognise his friend’s mood, Ian pressed on.

‘Hey, why don’t you invite whatshername, you know, that cute bird you were seeing?’

‘Which girl, what do you mean?’ Toby coughed out. Ian mistook it for defensiveness.

‘Don’t act all bashful. We all knew you were seeing someone. It didn’t take a genius to guess why you were blowing us off all the time.’ Ian gave a playful twitch of his eyebrows. ‘So, bring her along, we’ll do a double date kinda thing.’

Toby stared at his drink. Ian was still waiting on a response, but Toby suddenly felt ill. Slipping off his stool, he made to go for the bathroom. His elbow caught his beer and it fell with a smash on the courtyard floor. Some girl squealed and a few people laughed. Toby was already through the bathroom door and heading for a cubicle.

‘Mate, are you alright? What’s wrong?’ Ian’s voice echoed off the tiles. Toby retched again and vomited thin strands of bile.

‘Toby, you feeling sick?’ Ian sounded concerned now. Toby didn’t reply, but Ian could hear him stifling sobs. Ian crouched down by the cubicle door.

‘Look, I’m sorry if I said something, I was just having a go. I didn’t mean anything about you and that girl.’

Toby retched again, and wiped his hand across his damp lips. He mumbled something.

‘What’d you say?’ Ian leaned closer.

‘I got her pregnant.’ Toby sobbed again. Silence met him from the other side of the cubicle door. Toby waited, his face red and streaked with tears, his hip resting against the cubicle wall as he leaned over the toilet.

‘Ian?’

Toby wiped his face with his hands, and opened the cubicle door. Ian was silent, his mouth slightly ajar.

‘Ian?’

‘When you say pregnant, you mean pregnant?’ Ian’s voice was barely audible. Toby sighed a confirmation. Ian paused, then nodded.

‘Okay.’

Toby wasn’t sure he had heard Ian correctly. ‘Sorry?’

‘I said okay. I know you; you’ll do your best. I’m sure you’ll make a great dad.’ Ian gave a genuine smile.

Toby hastily replied. ‘No, that’s not okay. I don’t know what to do.’

Now it was Ian’s turn to look confused. ‘Don’t know what to do? I don’t understand.’ Toby wasn’t sure how to make it clear to his friend how he was feeling.

‘I don’t want to be a dad, Ian. I don’t want to be with her, with Grace. I’m not going to be with her. I can’t raise that child. It’s not fair.’ Tears pricked at his eyes.

A drunk walked into the bathroom, a swagger in his step. ‘What’re you two gay boys up to, eh?’ he chuckled.

‘GET THE FUCK OUT!’ Ian shoved the intruder, startling Toby. The drunk turned and left, his fly half undone. Ian turned back to Toby, the sound of his yell bouncing off of the walls.

‘Not fair? What’s not fair would be you leaving that girl with a kid and not taking any fucking responsibility.’ Ian wasn’t yelling, but there was anger in his voice. He was breathing through his nose, his nostrils flaring. ‘You know that my dad fucked off before I was even two. It left mum a wreck, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to let you do that to your kid.’

Toby gave a pleading look. ‘This is different to your dad, mate. Your mum was older and a better mother and her family took care of you.’ He wanted Ian to understand.

‘No, this is exactly the same. You’re a dad now, whether you want to be or not, and you’re going to do your best at raising this kid.’ Ian paced the bathroom, his fists clenched by his side. He turned to face Toby, and his voice softened slightly.

‘I know you’re scared, I’d be fucking terrified. But you can’t run away, not from this. I’ll help out with whatever you need, and you know your parents will too. You’ll get through it, mate, I promise.’

Toby ran a hand across his face, knowing his friend was right. ‘Okay. Alright. I’ll try. I haven’t even spoken to her, though, since she told me.’ Toby realised how awful that was as he said it.

‘You can’t change that. But you can start to fix it.’ Ian stepped over to the door and waited. ‘Let’s get you cleaned up, and I’ll drop you around at her place.’

 * * *

Toby watched the taillights of Ian’s car disappear around the corner, and walked over to the apartment block across the street. Looking up he could see that Grace’s bedroom light was on. She was going to be angry at him, and he deserved it. He hoped she didn’t cry too much. They were going to have a serious talk for once. Maybe things would work out alright. He was nervous, and had no idea what he was going to say to Grace. It didn’t matter. She was part of his future now, and he was going to try to make it work.

Joshua Hodge

Joshua Hodge is an aspiring novelist, currently undertaking his first novel. He has written a number of short stories and poems, and aims to make a name for himself as an author of Australian fiction. Living on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, Joshua’s writing is characterised by elements of his coastal lifestyle and unique humour.

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