Mike is standing on the busy street corner. He looks at shoppers bustling past, arms weighed down with store bags; cringes inwardly as he tries to estimate how much money has been spent. Christmas in the city sucks.
In a rush to get away from the madness, Mike strides to the tram stop. More Christmas shoppers. Bags bang against his legs as a woman tries to read the digital timetable.
‘Excuse me. I’m so sorry.’ Her voice is soft and smooth, like honey dripping from a spoon.
‘I just love this time of year, don’t you?’
Oh god, she’s a talker.
‘It’s so full of joy. Everyone’s so happy. It’s a time of families and love, and friendship and gifts.’ She holds up six bags by way of explanation. ‘I’m so blessed. Good gal pals and a loving family. It’s my way of giving back.’
Mike considers moving to another spot to wait for the tram. Even by his standards, that’s rude.
‘Good for you,’ he says with as much sincerity as he can muster.
‘I’m going to six parties in the next week. God, I’m going to be so exhausted.’ Her shoulders move in a wave formation, an exaggerated move to flick her hair out of her eyes. ‘Wouldn’t have it any other way though. How about you? What are your plans over Christmas?’
‘Not sure yet,’ Mike answers. In truth, he’s been ignoring phone calls and text messages.
‘I’m Zara.’ She holds out her hand. Mike extends his own and they shake hands.
Her hand feels cool and smooth; the nails perfectly manicured. He’s reminded of his mother, whose hands were similar. Guilt washes over him. He should return her calls. But he’s reticent to fall into her trap, to repeat the patterns established over a lifetime.
Looking into Zara’s sky-blue eyes, he says, ‘Mike.’
He knows his mum wants him to come home for Christmas. But five years ago, he vowed to never set foot in her home again. She is a cunning, heartless woman who drove away his sister. Her guile had caused his dad to die lonely and unloved, even with his wife of forty years by his side. Mike had finally reached his own breaking point. He can’t back down now.
‘What number tram are you waiting for?’ Zara’s voice interrupts his thoughts.
He glances at the timetable. A message is flashing on screen detailing all trams have been delayed.
‘Seventy-two,’ he says. He pulls his phone from his pocket to check the app for more information. ‘Doesn’t matter now. They’re all delayed.’
‘Nuts and bolts!’ Zara says, stamping her foot. ‘I’m in a hurry.’ She leans in, reading Mike’s phone over his shoulder. ‘What’s the hold-up, do you know?’
‘Yeah, looks like there’s been a car accident up north. Car and a tram collided. No trams can get through until the tracks are cleared.’
Zara places three bags on the ground and pulls her own phone from her handbag. ‘I’m calling an Uber. You interested? 72 is my tram too. I live in Camberwell, just near the junction.’
He’d really rather not spend a second longer with this vacuous chitty-chatter, but it could be a reasonably cost-effective way to get home. He can tune out her noise. Besides, he lived closer to the city than she did.
‘Sure, let’s do it.’
In the Uber, he checks his voicemail messages. Predictably, there’s about seven from his mother, imploring him to come for Christmas. There is also a number from his friend, Roger. He excuses himself from Zara, who mercifully stops talking, to listen to the most recent from Roger:
Yeah, mate it’s Rog again. Cherry and I would love you to join us at Christmas. We’ve got about twenty coming for lunch, and it’d be great if you can come too. Arrive around 11, lunch will be around 2, no presents please, just come.
‘This is me,’ he says to the driver, noting the familiar surroundings of Prahran. ‘Well thanks for the lift, Zara.’ He passes her a $20 note. ‘This should cover my share of the fare.’
‘Oh, thank you so much.’ She flicks her hair over her shoulder again, bats her eyelids. ‘Merry Christmas!’
‘You too.’ He shuts the door. Watches the car drive away, a renewed sense of vigour for the season cascades through his body, along with a simultaneous jolt of pleasure that he’s single.