Author Archives: Teresa Peni

Crazy Norm, Teresa Peni

 

‘Can I have a word?’ Olive asked Norm.

‘Sure,’ he said, shuffling outside.

Norman stood six-foot tall between Olive and the café, blocking her from her own business. The sooner this was dealt with, the better, she thought.

‘Norman, you can’t come in and drink the water anymore.’ Olive smiled as she said this; she was too nice, even whilst booting him out.

‘You can’t talk to Sophie either, not unless you’re ordering a coffee–don’t tell her she’s beautiful, don’t bring her wine–’

‘Why not?’ he implored.

‘Because it’s not appropriate. You can order food or drinks, but stop pestering her.’

‘Can I wait for the bus, inside? You’ve let me do that…’

He was trying to salvage some of it–any of it–he didn’t have enough money to buy coffee every day, didn’t even like coffee… But he liked Sophie. Oh, she was a pretty one.

‘But Olive…’ The boss lady was shaking her head.

That’s it. Another place he wasn’t allowed to go. He looked down at his scuffed shoes and a good idea popped into his head: he would stand (and smoke) at the bus stop and watch Sophie from the street! He liked her little jeans that were shorts, she wore them with thick black stockings. A hole was beginning to wear out near her bottom, she needed to buy new ones. He wondered if that was something he could bring her.

‘And no smoking near the door either–you can’t smoke within four meters of the café.’

How big was four metres? Probably all the way to the bus stop.

Olive had reached her limit. He’d already been in twice today, standing at the water jugs pouring himself endless cups, staring at Soph, then sitting and shuffling the magazines. He was bothering the customers. Sweet Norm, but not right in the head. Yeah, she felt sorry for him, but he was stalking Soph, who was too young to handle it. This is my café, Olive thought, and I must deal with the weirdos.

Norm wandered off toward the chicken shop, where he liked to watch raunchy video clips; at least he would be out of her hair.

 

Norm was absent the following day. And the next. He must be catching the bus at a different stop, thought Olive, and she felt relieved; she had tons on her ‘to do’ list before her cruise holiday. This would be her first proper break in five years since she started the café. She finally trusted her staff to keep things rolling, it was time for a recharge. The night before her departure, Olive sweated in the dark and stared at the ceiling. But whatever worries that bothered her, she pushed them away with her plans: sleep-in every day, pretty cocktails, spa treatments, yoga at dawn looking out to sea… It will be alright, she whispered to her pillow.

 

On Monday morning Norman stood outside the café, smoking and admiring the pink clouds blanketing the horizon. He was serene and looked a little bit stylish. Wearing a wide-lapel, baggy brown suit and an old trilby felt hat, he’d traded his cruddy old Reeboks for leather brogues that were buffed to shine. Neither was he carrying the Coles bag that usually accompanied him everywhere. He sat on his bench, puffing away.

This was how Soph discovered him as she trotted up to the café door. She gave Norm a polite wave, but he barely noticed her; he was off with the pixies. Soph felt nervous. This was an important day, being trusted to manage the café. The pavement was riddled with puddles, the wind messed her hair, and her legs were cold. Autumn’s coming, she thought, fumbling with the keys; it was always a struggle to open the café door… that’s right, the square key first, then the oval one.

‘Can I help you, Dear?’ Norman was standing right behind her. Sophie flinched, the key found the sweet spot, the lock sprung open.

‘No thanks, Norm,’ she blurted without turning around, thrusting the door shut behind her. He stared through the glass. She couldn’t lock the door–that would be admitting he’d spooked her–but she avoided looking in his direction, even though he was just standing there. He could read the ‘closed’ sign. Sophie began the usual routine: warm up the coffee machine, slice the breakfast fruit. She put music on and checked her watch: Paz, their morning chef, would arrive in twenty minutes.

The rain began to pitter-patter. Norman sat back down on the bench, opening a collapsible umbrella he’d stowed in one of the generous pockets of the suit. In the other pocket was an old tin–carefully packed and extremely precious. Today was a special day and he must be bold, face his fears and reach his objective. He had been awake most of the night, plotting.

The café began to warm up. Sophie made herself a strong cappuccino and stirred the muffin mixture: apple, coconut and white choc chips. She washed the salad greens. A new album was playing because everyone had got bored of Jarryd James, now it was Lana del Rey. She lowered each chair down from the table tops as if they were dance partners, to Lana’s purry voice.

Olive’s cruise ship was probably departing the Sydney Heads this very moment. Shame about the weather, thought Soph, although it would no doubt be perfect in the Pacific Islands. She decided she would fish out her black jeans from the bottom drawer when she got home. Paz finally bowled up; his cheeky Peruvian grin beamed from under a beanie. He sniffed the air, perfumed with baked muffins, then darted back out of the kitchen, ‘I gotta get some tomatoes,’ and headed for the greengrocer down the road.

Laying out date and banana bread slices, her head buried deep in the cake cabinet, Soph realised a figure was standing on the other side of the glass–a man in a brown suit. Still holding the metal cake-slice, she stood up, her face blank as a round plate.

‘What would you like, Norman?’ It was in fact opening time.

Norman stood as erect as his old back could bear. ‘How are you Sophie?’

She scanned him for clues: hair swept back into a damp mat under a hat, saggy face scrapped of the usual grey stubble, cheeks faintly pock-marked with acne scars probably from decades ago. His eyes were shimmering in their watery sockets, dull yet sane green points trained on her like gunsights. He was waiting for her answer, not shuffling his bag or feet for once.

‘I’m well, thank you Norm,’ she replied, and suddenly, Soph meant it. She was twenty-two and in charge of the most popular café in the street, and not afraid of Crazy Norm. Today he seemed less… imbecile… more a clean, quiet soul… albeit still bothering for her attention. She could handle him.

Paz bounced back into the cafe, ‘Forgot the money.’ His chirpiness vanished when he realised who was standing there. He moved slowly behind the cash register, flicking his eyes to Sophie in a bid to gauge her reaction.

‘Just grab that twenty bucks under the sugar,’ she said, pointing to a note she’d stashed earlier for such errands.

Paz considered staying, to make sure Norman was not going to get weird; but Sophie was acting confident, so he figured she had it covered. ‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ he declared, hoping Norman would get the hint and not hang around.

‘Okay–oh–get some salt, too, will ya?’ added Sophie.

She decided to show Norm who was boss now.

‘Norm, I’m very busy. Is there anything I can get you… otherwise I’m going to have to ask you to wait outside for your bus.’

Simples.

‘As a matter of fact, I would like to buy a cup of tea,’ he said, ‘Take-away.’

She wondered why he was ordering a drink–he never buys anything.

‘You realise it’s three-dollars-eighty?’

‘I realise that, my dear, and I have money.’ He plucked a fifty dollar note out of his pocket and lay it reverently on the counter. It looked as though it had been ironed.

She arched one eyebrow and delicately placed the cake-slice down, picking up the note, rang up the tea, then counted out his change. His large puffy palm caught the money as he watched her fingers with obvious fascination. Her body amazed him, the way young skin clung to muscle and bone underneath.

Soph turned to make tea, slightly worried he might start raving. He sometimes mumbled to himself or read the paper out loud.

He watched her flick her hair out the way. She was so much like an African mammal, like the zebras he’d once seen at Taronga Zoo–taut, exotic–he remembered how their buttocks quivered when flies bothered them, they’d flick their bushy black tails. His father had taken him to Taronga for his fourteenth birthday.

‘My father died last week,’ he said.

‘Oh, oh that’s very sad. I’m sorry to hear it.’ She stopped dipping the teabag for a second.

‘Ah, he had a good innings. He was in the Navy, you know. I’m taking him to Coogee–some of his ashes, that is.’

Norm patted his father’s cigar tin in the pocket.

‘I think he’d be happier there, back with the ocean.’

It would be just Norman to do the scattering; he didn’t know how to contact Dad’s old Navy mates. ‘I have to catch the 373 from Circular Quay,’ he thought aloud.

‘Do you want some sugar in your tea, Norm?’

‘I’m not taking my medication anymore,’ she thought she heard him say. Today was so weird.

‘Oh,’ was all she replied, heaping two sugars in. Then noticing the time: the 7:10am to the city will be along any minute. She placed the tea in front of him.

‘There you go, Norm, and a complimentary muffin to help you on your mission.’ Oops, now she was encouraging him. ‘You’d better get moving if you want to catch the bus.’

‘Thank you love, you’re very kind,’ he said, squishing the warm paper bag into his pocket alongside the tin.

Norman picked up his tea carefully, like a large child. He thanked Sophie once more and left, passing Paz, who had returned with the tomatoes and salt. He stepped back into the damp street, glittering now from the morning sun that had worked its way free of the heavy cloud and was giving the early commuters something to be cheerful about.

 

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Teresa Peni

A late blooming writer, Teresa spent her first twenty career years as a freelance photographer, parent and Kombi road tripper. Her writing reflects everyday people engaged in turning over the joys and rot of their inner lives, so they may grow and reap some sort of harvest. She combines being an anthropology and creative writing undergraduate at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

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No Woman’s Land, Teresa Peni

There were no spaces left to lay down on the grass, so quite a few ladies sunbathed on the rocks that circled the women’s sea pool, like lizards, like litter, like a colony of seals. Their luminous arses wreathed the giant sandstones.

I looked at them and thought, I was twenty-something, once. I debated taking up residence in the old handball court up the back corner, usually the reserve of saddle-bagged pensioners or hairy-lipped lesbians. Rocks or court?

The court was supposed to be a quiet space, there was a new sign—no music, no talking, no phones—what wasn’t specified but everyone knew, no clothes. One woman was already there, baking herself like an overcooked gingerbread. This snug, private corner was created by two adjoined concrete walls; this had once been a space for fit girlies to bounce balls around when it wasn’t the done thing do in public.

The woman slept. Thirty-ish, was my quick assessment. A sliver of shade cowered in the corner. I put my things there, as far away from her as possible.

Down the steep cliff steps to the sea pool; time for a swim, time to cool off and get a feel for the place. Time to fit in. The water was busy. There are too many people in the world already. One or two strokes were all I achieved before some Russian dame with her hair piled up nearly kicked me in the head. All shapes and colours, some of the women were swimming topless, others kept themselves discreet in shorts and singlets. A Muslim mother and daughter explored the rock pools in their burkinis. We all frog-kicked, floated, caressed the clean seawater, and avoided putting our feet down on urchins.

Talk, talk, talk, so many women, so many words. Beside me I heard Chinese interspersed with English: ‘Never again, I said!’

Crones exercised their flabby arms with aqua punches; ultra-slim teens minus any pockmarked cellulite slid their perfect thighs into our cool green world like elegant herons. They’d never drank alcohol, you could see it in their skin.  I took possession of the pool corner that poked out into the ocean, carved straight into the rock, and faced a blue horizon. Cleansing waves spilled over the edge, I let the frizzy foam spray all over my face. Like my husband’s gush. I thanked the sea for its Merlin healing tricks, Mother Earth for her massaging wetness.

Back up the cliff in the hot court now lazed three Arab women: a pair of sisters or maybe best friends, twinning, had arrived and spread out in the space between the lone lady and my sarong; two designer handbags bullied my beach bag, competing for the shade. Perched on their elbows in unison, their set of buttocks were lithe shiny olives intersected with G-strings. Why did women show their bottoms at the beach nowadays? I found it a bit off-putting. I remembered when going topless was all the rage, but we don’t really do that anymore, except down there in the Ladies’ Pool where men can’t particularly see us unless they’re kayaking past, hell-bent on a fitness mission. Everyone used to do it, didn’t they? Or was I remembering it that way because I was young back then, and that’s what we young people did. Getting your tits out in public had felt rebellious, even though it was okay by law; it was a political freedom. They’re just nipples, get over it! Blokes didn’t seem to mind at all, although it wasn’t something you did in front of your Dad. These days it’s a bit outrageous—my kids died of embarrassment and begged me to put my top back on at Cave Beach. Ahh, I see now—you do it with your friends. But now my friends were more inclined to cover up their post-baby bosoms, wracked with hard labour and gravity. I wondered if there was a link between the feminisms of the day and which body parts we exposed when sunbathing… perhaps there were also variations depending on one’s age.  I tried on a bummier costume in my mind.

The pair started chatting at full volume, waking the first woman from her sun trance.

‘You look like my friend Fatima,’ I couldn’t help but overhear. She was indeed a Fatima, but not the one from Bankstown. This nude Fatima kept her knees together enough to keep her secrets.

In my head I pointedly re-read the rules under the QUIET sign. It distinctly said, no loud talking. My jaw wobbled but I decided not to be a fussy old cow, in case they thought I was being a bit racist. Then, one of the sister-friends turned her phone volume up to torture me with some shitty dance-pop. I stuffed my earpods in and stripped my wet swimmers off, resigning myself to bronzing the parts of me that still looked Irish.

The summer holidays were over; I was free again. This trip to McIver’s Ladies Baths was to celebrate my kids going back to school. Nourish myself. I needed to un-tether from their universe. God this was lovely. It was so hot, the twins decided to go for a swim.

I finally gathered the courage to turn over, I needed to cook my other side. My pubes were sparse—it’s a fact of life they don’t tell you that happens after forty—balding. All those years of waxing etc and now I wish I had more lushness down there; it’d be ironic if Seventies-style bush became a thing again. Lying flat on my back, my tummy-fat roll stretched out in a less offensive way. Sweat dribbled down between the cracks. A big floppy hat covered my face to protect it from burning. I am a naked flower.

A timeless minute went by.

Sloshy wave sounds and cicada drone rolled through the heat.

Then, a little boy, maybe three or four years old, climbed the short fence separating the handball court from the grassy area where his mother sat, and perched himself up there, hovering right above my face. This was not how my day was meant to go, I had just dropped my son off at the school gates, I’d done my time. He was ruining the moment.

The Arab girls were back and cooed sweetly, giving him the attention he craved, ‘What’s your naaaame?’

Don’t encourage him.

He clung like a monkey to the fence, making toddler chirrups, settling in for more of their girl-love. A helicopter buzzed along the coast so I shifted my hat to hide my yoni from the sky.

‘Go see Mummy,’ I urged, ‘Bye bye.

‘No, no, no,’ he shot back, and rearranged his penis, staring at my nipples as if it were lunchtime.

That. Was. It.

Excuse me, is this your son?’ I thrust my head over the fence to locate Mum. She was mid-conversation with a girlfriend, having a good old time. My boobs wobbled under my sarong as I spoke: ‘He’s staring at me and I don’t like it.’

He was probably only two, but I had not driven all the way across the city to this sanctuary for women, only to have a boy feel a throb. I didn’t care if he was just a kid. I registered the look of horror crawl over her face when she realised I was accusing her baby of being weird just now.

Words kept spilling out of me: ‘I have just dropped my child off for his first day of high school, so I don’t feel like babysitting,’ and promptly lay down again like a collapsing deckchair. I felt like crying.

All that mediation was obviously not working. I had failed some test. I remembered a meme from Instagram earlier in the day: It’s a lot easier to be angry at someone than it is to tell them you’re hurt. Your son is hurting me.

I miss my little boy.

The Arab sisters couldn’t believe it. There was a ‘discussion.’ They included Fatima. All three looked at me as if I’d levitated. I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying because (a) the language barrier, and (b) I’d jammed the earpods back into my boiling head. Instead, I caught the eye of the presumably elder sister and held up my hand—flat palm facing down to the ground, then twisting the wrist so my palm faced up again, then flickered it back and forth—palm down or palm up? Was that okay, what I just did?

She grimaced and gave me a weak thumbs-up.

You young ones, you’re people-pleasers, I thought.  But her eyes said, Wow, you just did that?

Yes. Yes, I did. He was annoying us all, admit it.

That was another thing about aging, you give different zero fucks.

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Teresa Peni

A late blooming writer, Teresa spent her first twenty career years as a freelance photographer, parent and Kombi road tripper. Her writing reflects everyday people engaged in turning over the joys and rot of their inner lives, so they may grow and reap some sort of harvest. She combines being an anthropology and creative writing undergraduate at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

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If I Could Just Have a Word, Teresa Peni

When you went out last night, the minute you left (in your diesel-guzzling, unsustainable 4WD, pulling out of the driveway like it does every morning at 6:50 am–I know because it’s right next to my bedroom window) I noticed your dog, Pepper started barking (and yipping, and talking to herself a fair bit) and continued to do so pretty much the whole three hours you were out (This I also know because I was watching the movie, ‘Room.’ It was a very long and suspenseful movie, and Pepper’s yips punctuated every intense moment Brie Larson and that amazing little boy actor–who didn’t even know dogs were real–tried to escape their shed prison). I actually videoed the barking (in case you were wondering, I have evidence), and I felt a bit (a lot) annoyed that my peace was interrupted. I felt—

—Oh I
—I’ll just
—Sorry about

I felt angry because this is not the first time I’ve complained about your dog barking, and I thought you should know that she barks every time you leave her alone at night (at possums, at the boogie man, at the echo of herself coming back across the creek valley), and I am worried (about her) you are not aware this is happening (how could you? She saves her best barking for the moment you zoom off in your beast of a car), and I am not alone in thinking this is a bit annoying (yep, me and the other neighbours have moaned about it behind your back) and we were thinking (use ‘we,’ I sound more badass) that perhaps Pepper ought to be left inside, or you could take her with you when you go out at night (which you young people seem to do a lot, and as I have no social life to speak of right now, it means I get to stay home and listen to your dog. Maybe I should go out more?)

Oh she’ll rip the—
She’s an outside—

Frankly, I think we need to remember that she’s your dog (and your problem) and that if I went out and left my kids screaming for three hours in the backyard during an evening, you’d probably call the police (which I can’t do… because I’m trying to be reasonable, and because nobody is home at your house to receive the cops) (Hmmm, maybe I should make the kids do that…)

Yeah, well my housemate is normally—
She’s away for the—

(What happened to that nice boyfriend you had when you first moved in? Why did you change your hair from blonde to brunette… don’t women normally dye it blonde after a breakup?) Listen, when you leave your dog at home alone during the evening, outside, and she spends the whole time barking, I feel upset, and I would appreciate it if you did something to alleviate her disturbing the peace. (LET’S NOT EVEN start to discuss the fact that the arrival of your cat has created territorial and self-esteem issues for my cat…)

*names have not been changed to protect the guilty

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