Wednesday 25 September 2013

The Volunteer

by Wai Chim.

**Author's Note: Apologies in advance for use of foul language. I also realised this ended up not exactly working with the prompt - but I thought it was more appropriate for her to be a volunteer than a servant. Anyway, as always, thanks for reading. **


An unnatural digital shrieking jolted her from sleep. A siren, an alarm - it took several moments for Clary to recognise the ringing of the new household phone. She squinted in the uncomfortable darkness, seeking the hum of the radio clock beside her.

4:07. Who could be calling at this hour?

Her mum rasped into the phone, her cigarette stained voice even croakier than usual in these brutal hours reserved for sleep.


Silence. Clary pulled the pillow over her face, to snatch at the fervent tails of slumber but her curiosity ran too deep. Her ears were already straining to catch the snippets of words, an intake of breath, anything to tell her who could be on the other end of the line.

Nothing. Not even the usual wheezing of her mum’s chronic cough. Not a sigh nor a moan. Whoever was on the other line, whatever news they had to deliver, had rendered her mum silent and lifeless.

After a lengthy stillness, Clary heard the light click of the phone returning to its plastic cradle.

And then the onslaught began.

“Fucking asshole, cunt. Fucking lifeless useless motherfucker. I spit on his fucking grave.” A loud hacking and the wet slap of spittle as it hit the floor.

Clary pulled on the pillow tighter, creating a cocoon around her ears. There was no drowning out of her mother’s cries, the crassness of her words. They were a muffled drumming against her skull, thick and persistent, demanding to be acknowledged in her mind.

The tears were already forming in the deep junctures of her eyes.

The door to her bedroom slammed open and her mother blew in, upturning her momentary safe haven with brutal force.

“Get up, you useless cunt. Get up.”

Clary didn’t move a muscle, shut her eyes tight, hoping against hope that in feigning sleep, she might be spared. Of course, her unresponsiveness only angered her mother further and she felt the sharp sting across the back of her legs from her mother’s blow.

“Get up, you lazy no good selfish bitch. Sleeping like the waste of space you are. You better wake up.”

“Ma, I have to work in the morning,” Clary pleaded as the pillow was torn from around her eyes. Her mum had thrown on the lights, so that the harsh white fluorescent glare burned against her sensitive retina and she threw am arm against her brow as a shield.

“Working. You think you’re so goddamn important because you fucking work.” The pillow hit the side of the headboard and Clary felt clawing on her arms. “You think you’re so much better than me because you're getting a fucking education. A fucking job. Fine. If you want to stay here, you’re going to pay me some motherfucking rent. Fucking $200 a week. That will show you how much your fucking job is worth to me.”

There was no use mentioning that her 'work' was actually volunteering, that she wasn’t paid a dime. That it was all supposed to help her get into uni. Her mother’s tainted mind was running, drawing collusive parallels and conspiratorial tangents in her discountenance. There was no use pointing out the missed strands of logic or common sense; the urgency to judge just had to pass.

Her mother’s rant went on, a scathing recap of the world’s tyranny against her. How Clary was front and centre in her never-ending list of misgivings. Clary’s eyes clouded over, letting her mother’s caustic words wash over her, so that they did nothing more than brush a coat of dull veneer over her hardened mind.

After the tirade was over, her mother, still furious but having worn herself out, stood up to leave. Clary let out a silent sigh of relief, calculating the precious minutes of rest she could still salvage. But as her mother hovered by the door, she left her daughter with one last prick, one final jab that was meant to draw blood. This assault, even the weather-beaten Clary was not prepared for.

 “That no good nick father of yours, he’s fucking dead. Gone and offed himself. Fucking prick.”

She left the room in silence.

And after a long terse moment, Clary howled.


The next morning, Clary staggered into the kitchen, her eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot. Her mum was up and muttering, wrapped in her robe, already on her third cigarette of the day. Clary said nothing, just manoeuvred past on the way to the fridge.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” her mother sneered, taking in her daughter’s sullen state. “Wasted fucking tears on that asshole. Do you know what he's done to me? What he's done to us?”

Clary bit her tongue as she retrieved a carton of juice, watching it splash into her glass. Swallowing a fresh sob bubbling upwards, she sculled her drink in just two gulps.  She welcome the cool, sweet liquid that slid down her throat.

A swipe of her mouth with the back of her hand and a quick rinse of the glass later, Clary gathered her canvas bag and headed for the door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” her mother demanded.

“I’m going to work,” she snarled, slamming the flyscreen shut. Her vision blurred and her sobs came freely, drowning out her mother’s cussing behind her.


The volunteer centre was already bustling when Clary arrived to check in at the Red Cross disaster zone. She’d walked most of the two miles here, trying to extinguish the last of the crying. She ducked into a petrol station bathroom to splash cool water on her face. Peering at her reflection in the cracked mirror, she saw that her nose was rubbed red and her eyes were still bloodshot. But her cheeks were no longer puffy and the flood of tears had dried, for now. Given it was the height of the pollen season and all the vehicles were covered in a thick yellow film, Clary figured that she would pass for suffering acute allergies.

“Name?” The bored orderly asked without glancing up from her clipboard.

“Clarissa Stevenson.” Clary managed a small, polite smile.
The orderly checked the list and marked her name, waving her over to a far table. “You’re on the phones. But don’t expect much. Most of the temporary homes have already been assigned. Just a straggler or two left.” She dismissed Clary with a grunt and a shrug.
Clary settled into her station, tossing her bag to the floor. Glancing at the giant white board that listed the housing assignments made today, she saw that the orderly was right - it was pretty empty. Two weeks ago, when the floods had been at their peak, those boards had been filled with lines and numbers, each representing a displaced family that had lost their home to the rising waters. Clary had spoken to a number of them, mothers sobbing as they gave their babies dates-of-birth, fathers angry and bellowing when they realised that they were on the waitlist for another day. Clary had smiled and gritted her teeth through all of it, following the script as best she could, lending the sympathetic ear when it was needed and doing her best to give the firm but professional denial that the Head of Staff had belaboured on them.

But today, today there was none of that. The boards were empty, the last of the waitlist had been more or less been assigned. They were now more likely to turn away attention seekers and profiteers, the ones trying to use disaster resources to their own advantage. There were no more woeful stories to be listened to, at least none that were being called in.

As the hours ticked by, Clary felt herself sinking into numb complacency. She fiddled with her phone, did some practice questions for her HSCs to pass the time. The sense of boredom seeped into her bones but she refused to let her mind wander. The sleep deprivation crept up, so that she had to brace her arms against her chin to keep from collapsing on the table.

The orderly came into the room, surveying the rag-tag team that were drumming their fingers and lolling in their seats. “Who wants a job?” she barked.

Clary was the first to leap up, the only one actually. A few of the older volunteers sniggered behind their hands but she ignored their ribbing. “I’m free.”

The orderly grunted and motioned for Clary to follow. She led her past the canteen and a few empty offices to a back room, undoing the lock with a key from around her neck. It was the sharp pungent fragrance that hit her first, clawing at her nose hairs, dissolving into her sinuses. Clary sneezed once and the orderly smirked as she yanked on the cord that lit up the room.

Clary let out a gasp.

Standing on every table, covering every shelf and visible surface, scattered across the entire floor were buckets upon buckets of flowers. 

Clary’s jaw dropped. She recognised some of them the more common names: gerberas, carnations, even a cluster of sunflowers tucked into a tall standing vase in the centre of the room. Some of the other blossoms, they were equally bright and colourful, but she had no idea what they were. There were a few wisps of baby’s breath and number of large fern leaves, possibly even some wildflowers and weeds. Clary turned to the orderly in wonder.

“A donation,” she declared with yet another shrug. “The Friends of the Gardens society thought that a truckload of flowers was just what we needed for the disaster.” The orderly snorted and shook her head. “I tried to turn them away, but the Head of the Red Cross, he thought the centre could use a little bit of cheer. You have allergies?” she asked with a quirk of an eyebrow.

Clary, too stunned to speak, simply shook her head.

The orderly smacked her lips in approval. “Anyway, your job is to get these distributed. Spread good cheer.” Her fingers hooked the air as she uttered the words. “I don’t care how you do it, where you put them, who you give them to, just get them out of here.”

And she left Clary standing at the door, gaping at the insurmountable task.

Slowly, painstakingly slowly, her dormant mind clicked into gear and she went to work. Clary found bits of string to tie haphazard bouquets together, clawing into the recesses of her mind for what her art teacher had once told her about colour matching. She found dirty glasses in the kitchen, and when those were tapped, she retrieved stale milk bottles and soda cans out of the recycling bins. Clary jammed every vessel, every bottle, basin and receptacle she could find chock full of flowers.

These she then distributed throughout the centre. She gave them to the volunteers sitting bored at the call centre and she lined them up along the window sills. She took them into the administrative offices and gave little homemade boutonnieres to the janitors and cleaning crew on duty. The kitchen staff guffawed when she asked if she could use the slop buckets and then gawped when she returned them, brimming with blossoms. Each and every one of the staff looked genuinely surprised and touched by her offers, and soon, you couldn't find a single corner of the centre that hadn’t been dressed with Clary's good cheer.

And Clary had to admit, the work made her feel better.

As the day's sun stretched its fingertips across the sky for a final time, Clary gathered up the last of the stalks and stems strewn about the now empty room. There was a gentle knock and Clary glanced towards the open door.

She recognised him instantly, the Head of Staff of the Red Cross. He was soft-spoken and gentle, but still commanded a definite presence. Clary had noticed the gossip and cackling of the other staff noticeably die down whenever he entered the room.

“Clarissa?” he asked gently. Clary blushed, she had no idea that he knew her name.

“Clary,” she choked out. “Everyone calls me Clary.”

His smile brightened. “Clary, the staff have been talking a lot about you today. What a bright ray of sunshine you’ve been, so to speak.”

Clary felt her blush deepening. “I was just doing my job,” she mumbled, looking down at her shoes.

“Well, you’ve been doing it with a big smile and lots of energy. Everyone’s been raving about your cheerful demeanour and generous warmth.” Clary squirmed. “So on behalf of the Red Cross, I just wanted to thank you for all your hard work and service. We are incredibly honoured.”

Once again, Clary found herself at a loss for words.

“Well, let me know if you ever need a letter of recommendation for your work.” The man smiled and left her, standing knee deep in garden waste, as her strangled tears returned.
And Clary wept, once more. 


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