Gwen sipped her coffee in the breakroom that smelled of smoke. She didn't light up herself. She smoked, but she did not care for tobacco. For all his laxness on OHS, Marlon did not appreciate it when anything else was smoked in the workplace.
She drummed her fingers on the plastic table. There was much on her mind. She lived a simple life, and seldom found herself with great moral choices to make. What Pennington offered… It can’t have been the right thing to do. And yet, how could she say no? Legally, Pennington’s plan was probably legal. No law against it – or if there was, it were part of some old law against witchcraft, something that remained on the books even though no one had cared since the dark ages. No, there was no law against it exactly. But there were similar things, modern things that were pretty damn illegal.
She needed to distract herself. Someone had left a Woman’s Day on the table, but the crossword had been finished. The only other thing to read was the shopping centre’s newsletter, which was usually pretty dull. There was no one to chat to, so she picked it up anyway.
“New Carpet Shop Opening!” read the headline. After that was a brief paragraph explaining how Majestic Carpets would be opening in the shop next to the Place O' Pets.
What had that shop been that used to be there? Oh, that’s right, it had been Royal Carpets. Gwen sighed. A story about a new carpet shop opening on the sight of a former carpet shop might just be the dullest thing she had ever read. Besides, after the first paragraph it just trailed off into ramblings about the Illummanti and alien conspiracies -- as bloody usual. For the hundredth time, she wondered who wrote the newsletter and for the hundredth time she decided she’d rather not know.
“Poor tree,” she whispered to the page. “You could of been anything, and they made you into this.”
Fiona, the new girl walked in and nodded an awkward greeting. She took her coffee cup with its picture of some boy band and put a tea-bag in it. She hesitated before flipping the tap of the hot water boiler. That was a new one, Gwen thought. another awkward mannerism to add to a long list.
“How you settling in?” Gwen said.
Fiona looked at her, startled, as if she’d only just noticed Gwen. “I’m okay,” she said. But she said in a defensive way, as if she’d just been unjustly accused of not being okay.
Gwen considered pressing forward the conversation, but took mercy and let Fiona be. The girl picked up the newsletter and read, focusing all of her attention on it. Gwen considered playing a game on her phone, but the battery was low. She sighed and sipped her coffee. The hot water contained the echo of the beans, long dead and yet alive, their spirits trapped in freeze-dried granules. Gwen coaxed them into a final song before they went to their reward.
Looked up to see Fiona struggle with the newsletter. The one good thing about the ridiculous paper was watching new staff puzzle over it. Fiona was literally scratching her head, and soon put the letter down on the table, gently as if it might go off.
“Who writes that stuff?”
“How long have you worked here?”
“Have you worked in other places?”
Gwen paused a moment before answering. “Yes,” she said. Technically, that was true.
“Is this a good place to work?”
“You tell me.”
“I mean compared to other places?”
“Better ‘an some,” Gwen said. “Worse ‘an others.”
“It’s just… I don’t know if I like it here.”
“This is your first job, love?”
“Yes,” Fiona said. “My parents wanted me to stay in school, but my teacher talked them out of it. They tried to get me an apprenticeship, but…”
“But it didn’t work out.”
Gwen tried to imagine Fiona wiring a house, or using a circular saw, or even a kitchen knife. Each image she brought to mind, made her wince. Fiona--and those around her--were probably safest when she was stocking shelves. It was a sad destiny in life, but there are worse ones.
“Well, you’re young,” Gwen said. “This might not be a job for life, but you shouldn’t give up just yet. Stick around a bit. You’ll know better after a month.”
“That’s what my parents said,” Fiona moaned.
“Yeah, parents,” Gwen said. “They want what’s best for you, and that’s the problem. Means their advice is no good. You can just think ‘what’s the best for me’? and get the same answer. Might as well not bother talking to them.”
Fiona’s eyebrows huddled together like possums on seeking warmth on a winter night as she puzzled this through. “Yes, I see what you mean.”
“Who you should ask is your grandmother,” Gwen said. “Or your granddad. They’ll do what grandparents always do – what they wanted to do for their kids, but couldn’t ‘cause… Well, ‘cause they’re their kids. They don’t always give the best advice, but you can always get different advice.”
Gwen hoped she was making sense. She wasn’t sure that she was, until Fiona nodded slowly.
“That’s a good idea, Rachel,” Fiona said. The girl never got anyone’s name right, even though they were all wearing nametags. “I’ll ask Nan. See what she says.” Fiona sipped her tea, deep in thought.
Gwen sighed and swirled her coffee around her chipped enamel mug. The air in the room felt muggy and stale. It always had been muggy and stale, she thought, but now she felt it. She took a sip, and examined the design on her cup: Geeveston, Tasmania, it read, over a picture of a tree.
Sometimes in life you know what it is that you ought to do, but you don’t know until you say it out loud. Grandmother. There was nothing for it but to ask grandmother.
Reaching into her pocket, Gwen withdrew a crumpled paper bag containing a small bottle. A handwritten label read ‘Love Potion.’