four men and a dog on paddle boards on a calm water

The day before the steam cleaner came to clean the carpets, the young couple carried all their furniture into the kitchen. A stain on the carpet had been hidden beneath the couch and the skirting board had come unstuck in places. The young woman took down the frames and posters while the young man took down the curtains. There was a sudden flood of light through the windows. They packed several cardboard boxes and piled them outside on the balcony. There had been no forecast for rain.

After dinner, they plugged in the TV, put it on the floor and sat crossed-legged in front of it like small children.

Through the night, the young woman slept stiffly. Beside her, the young man didn’t sleep for more than an hour without waking up.

Neither of them had given much thought to it being the first weekend they were spending together in over a year.

The next day, a small woman and her son came to clean the walls. A man also came and replaced a tile with a hairline crack in the bathroom, after which the small woman’s son scrubbed the mould from the room. Then the carpet cleaner arrived and said that no one could walk on the carpet for some time after he had finished.

The couple waited on the balcony for the carpet to dry. She closed her eyes to the sun while he read from a magazine.

For dinner, they ate soup and were cautious not to spill it on the clean carpet. They spoke very little though they agreed the apartment looked new, perhaps even better than the day they’d moved in.

By the time the young man came back from work on Tuesday, the furniture was gone. One box filled with books, nine vinyl records and a selection of kitchen utensils sat by the door. A backpack beside the box contained all his clothes. He only had two pairs of shoes, one he wore and the other he’d tied to his backpack using the laces.

That night he slept on a camping mat on the clean carpet.

He’d been approved for an apartment in Williamstown a week before and took the Wednesday off work to move in. He took the day unpaid and carried the box and his backpack on the train.

At Newport, he changed trains. He was the only passenger to get off at Williamstown Beach.

The apartment was basic. It was on the second floor of a three-story block. There was no balcony. The bedroom was separated from the living space and the bathroom was windowless. There was a single bed with linen and a bookcase that a previous tenant had left behind. He placed the books and the records onto the bookcase. He kept his clothes in the backpack.

Light came in through a large window next to the door. He had no view of the beach but the smell of salt and the sound of gulls came in when he slid the window open. It was quiet aside from the gulls and the breeze.

For dinner, he ordered a pizza and ate it on the end of his bed off a plate he balanced on his knees.

At work the next morning, he sat down at his desk and logged into his computer. His colleague asked if moving had gone well to which he replied that it had. He pulled his headset on and made his first call.

At lunch, he stood out on the street and smoked a cigarette.

His dialler said that he’d made eighty-six calls by the end of the day. He hadn’t closed a sale but had come close on several calls.

In the evening, he walked down to the beach after eating the last of the pizza cold from the fridge. The air was warm and he walked for a long time along the water.

On the way back, he cut across a small carpark to reach his street. The carpark belonged to the only commission flat in Williamstown. It was prominent in the skyline and dwarfed all the terraces of Nelsons Place. He thought the view from the apartments on the top floor would be spectacular.

Standing in the middle of the carpark was a tall man with a large dog. He wore a winter coat and had the hood pulled over his head even though the evening was warm. He watched the young man cross the car park.

Across the harbour, through the fence of boat sails and masts, the city of Melbourne was alight in neon.

A week later, the young woman agreed to meet him in the city after work. They went to DeGraves and ordered coffee and sat two cafés away from the café they often went to when they had first met. He ordered a strong latte and she ordered a flat-white.

The evening was crisp.

From her bag, she handed him a book that she said had ended up in one of her boxes. He said he had been certain the book belonged to her. He agreed to keep it anyway. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever finished reading it.

When they said goodbye, he waited for her to suggest meeting again. She left without doing so.

He took the train home well after the sun had set and slept poorly.

The next day he caught the early train to work. At Flagstaff, he ordered a coffee and sat in the park to read the book she had given back to him. It started how he remembered but after a few pages he realised that he hadn’t finished reading it before.

Then he went to work.

The next evening, he noticed that a red armchair had been left beside the three green bins in the small carpark under the commission flat. Someone had left a flat tire in the seat of the arm chair. He picked it up, dropped it on the gravel and brushed pieces of rubber off the seat. He pressed his nose against the arm of the chair and sniffed. It smelt of cigarette smoke but he decided to take it all the same.

It was heavy, but he knew that if he could get a firm grasp underneath and hold it against his body, he would make the short walk to his apartment.

In the middle of the carpark, the tall man with the large dog watched as the young man picked up the armchair and carried it down the street.

At the end of the week, his sales came to five although the expectation for each team member was eight. Only three closed six sales and no one made it any higher. There were several members of the team that had been worried about their work performance. Two finished the week with zero sales and were fired with immediate effect.

Marilyn, his colleague, asked him to join her and some of the others for a drink after work. He thought that it was a nice idea but decided against it.

On the weekend, he walked to the Botanic Gardens. It was a warm day and the Botanic Gardens were small. The paths were made of white pebbles and several flower beds had been arranged with great care. He admired the statues.

Beneath the large trees that blocked the view to the beach, he sat on a wooden bench and read from his book. He’d come half-way but found himself reading pages more than once and needing to go back to certain passages.

The wind was cool.

He walked across the road after reading for a time and sat on a stone wall to look out over the water. People swam, dog owners walked close to the water’s edge and seagulls drifted across the sky.

On the horizon, he could see two container ships making for Bass Strait. They were small black rectangles slowly moving along the water. He sat long enough to see them grow smaller and pass between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean and out of sight.

He smoked a cigarette and returned home by way of Nelsons Place. He had discovered that walking across the small carpark was the best way to reach his street.

The tall man with the dog was there in the carpark. The dog sniffed the gravel. As he walked passed, the young man smiled and nodded at the tall man, but the tall man looked away.

He called the young woman on Wednesday night when it was cold. Eventually, she answered her phone and asked what he was doing awake so late. He asked her if she thought they’d made a mistake to which she replied that everything would be fine. She told him that she needed to sleep and she hung up.

He stood up from his armchair and went out onto the stairwell to smoke a cigarette. The sea breeze was sharp and cool.

Down on the street, the tall man passed with his dog. He was wearing his winter coat but had pulled the hood off his head. The young man could see that the tall man was bald.

That week, he made only five sales again and was told that if he didn’t make at least eight sales the following week he would be asked to leave.

Late on Saturday night, he laid back on Marilyn’s bed in her apartment in the city. His head spun from the alcohol he had consumed and his forehead was covered with sweat.

Marilyn stretched beside him. Her curtains were thin and the orange light of the city was faint in the room.

She was slender and her skin was soft but he felt ill in his stomach. When she was asleep, he left the bed and went to her bathroom and vomited into the toilet. He used her toothbrush and then went back to the bed. She was naked in the orange light.

He lay down beside her and slept intermittently. The hum of cars slowly quieted but never went away. He left when the morning sun started to turn the small apartment blue.

He was cold standing on the platform at Flinders Street some hours later.

After he arrived home, he slept much of the day.

That evening he tried to call the young woman again. Eventually she answered by asking him which part of it all he didn’t understand. He asked her to visit him in Williamstown. She told him it was a bad idea and hung up the phone.

He sat in his armchair the rest of the night. It still smelt of cigarette smoke. He was unable to sleep since he’d already slept most of the day.

He finished reading the novel by Tuesday. He was unsure what to think of it but he told everyone that he’d liked it very much.

On Thursday, he called in sick to work. His manager asked him how many sales he had made in the week to which he replied that he had made five. His manager told him that on Friday he would need to make three sales to reach his target. The young man promised that he would be able to do so.

In the afternoon, he walked down to the beach by way of the Botanical Gardens. It was cold and the water was unstill. Along the water’s edge he saw the tall man walking his dog. The tall man wore his winter jacket but had it unzipped at the front. His bare skin was exposed and the young man could see that he had a blue triangular tattoo on his chest.

The sun was dim behind the clouds. Out on the horizon he saw only one container ship, though it moved so slowly that he couldn’t tell if it was entering Port Phillip Bay or leaving it.

The tall man’s dog skipped into the water.

The next day, Marilyn made three sales by lunch time. She stood at her desk whenever she knew she was about to close. The other salesmen watched her eagerly.

The young man finished the day with one sale. He left for the elevator with a crowd of his colleagues before his manager could stop him.

He got off the train and walked past the old houses and the public high school towards the water. He sat by the docks on the ledge of the stone wall and looked at the city.

In front of him, the sail boats and yachts were quiet and empty. Small pieces of wood and plastic floated beneath him.

He smoked a cigarette and tossed it into the harbour when it was finished.

After a time by the water, the young man went home. He climbed the steps to his apartment and saw that his door had been left ajar. He pushed it slowly open with his palm. Looking down, he saw that the wood around the lock had splintered. He stepped back and saw a large dent in the pane of the door at the height of his shoulder.

Inside the apartment, small pieces of wood littered the carpet. The cushion of his chair had been turned over and left on the ground. His bag of clothing had been emptied onto the carpet. Three books rested in arches upon their pages on the floor. The cupboard doors in the bedroom were open. The cupboards were empty but after looking through the apartment he made note that nothing had been taken. He picked up the three books. Their pages had been bent only slightly and he returned them to the bookcase. He put the seat cushion back into place and pushed the clothes into a pile against the wall.

He opened the window and sat in the arm chair. The breeze came cold through the flywire and the sun set behind the grey clouds.

He woke suddenly, still sitting in his armchair. He was covered in sweat. He stood and went outside to smoke a cigarette on the stairwell.

It was cold and he thought about how he might close his door while he waited for it to be fixed. He figured he would make use of a pile of books.

He pushed the butt of his cigarette into the metal rail. The sound of a container ship horn reached his ears. Then it was quiet aside from the distant sound of waves.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was selected from entries submitted to our Creative Challenge Series #2: Word Salad, which required that the words bolded in the text must be included.