Aimee sat on the front steps of her council house, basking in the winter sun. Her face was raised to the warmth, her eyes half closed as she took one last drag on her rolly before flicking it into the little terracotta pot beside her. She opened her eyes fully, surveying the familiar scene with a smile. Everything looked so much more cheerful when the sun came out. It felt like it had been raining for months, but Aimee knew it had just been a week. Still, a week was long enough when you had bills to pay and needed to get back out to work.

Aimee had been living on Kupe Street for nearly ten years now. Since just after the arrival of Hope. Summer had only been a year old and thinking back to that time now she could feel the weariness that had settled in her bones, and never really left. She had been tired ever since. It was true what everyone had said though, about having two under two. She chuckled out loud remembering the struggle in the early years when John had first left. Not that that made any difference. He was no help with the babies. She missed the company though. Even though at the end all he had done was yell and tell her how stupid she was. She was stupid though, for getting pregnant again, but she hadn’t meant to. Still, no point worrying about that now, she thought, watching the cat across the road licking its paws.

 A cup of coffee and one more ciggie, and then it was time to crack on. She knew she should give up; she didn’t want the girls starting. The timing was right. Anyway, the smokes stopped her eating and putting on weight. There was food in the cupboards; they always had food. She made sure of that. But it was Monday and the benefit wouldn’t be in her account till Thursday, so if she could make things stretch that would be good.

The girls were at school, and with the sun out, she had to get through a pile of washing, and of course today she was going to change her life. She smiled at the thought of the white application form waiting on the dining room table, with a pen lying beside it, ready.  The carefully selected clothes, all ready, lying on her bed.

Aimee walked into the hall, past the lounge to her right, already immaculate as she always liked to get that tidy first thing. It was easy this morning as Aroha from next door hadn’t slept over on the pull-out sofa. Aroha only stayed over on the nights Aimee worked. Her older sister Marama had done it before her, but when Aroha turned 14 she had taken over. Shabby chic, she thought contentedly as she glanced at the little room, decorated with second-hand junk. She smiled at the 3 ducks flying up the wall over the couch. They were all from different sets, but she loved them. She had seen some on eBay go for nearly a thousand dollars – they were matching though.

 The kitchen was at the back, facing the small square yard, fenced with wire, and the only feature was the already fully loaded washing line. The kitchen walls, the cupboards and even the ceiling were decorated by the girls art work. Pictures they had painted over the years at school. As they aged and yellowed, she discreetly replaced them with the newer, more vivid additions. She had started in the toilet, doing the ceiling, and calling it the Cistern Chapel, and the idea had spread, taking over most of the house.

 The breakfast dishes had been washed before she walked the girls to school, and were drying on the rack on the bench. The crockery was all mismatched with Aimee’s criteria for replacement pieces being pretty colours and designs, and good quality. Mostly from New Zealand, from Crown Lynn and Kelston. Maybe one day they would be worth something. You never know, she thought optimistically, but you can’t go wrong buying quality. Quality and class, thought Aimee, it never dates.  Aimee turned on the electric jug, prepared her mug with a spoonful of instant coffee, and with an extra spoon of sugar instead of milk, which was already halfway down, and the girls would need later.

 Deciding to save the smoke for later, Aimee sat down at the Formica table, carefully placing the steaming mug a safe distance from the form in front of her. The table was green, with four matching chairs. Steel frames, backs and seats upholstered in green vinyl. She had been walking past a café down on the waterfront with the girls, and noticed the café had the same tables, in different colours. She had asked Sid, a client who had a second-hand shop, and he had explained they were back in style, though the ones she had seen at the café were probably reproductions, not from the seventies like her set. Were they like antiques, and valuable she had asked, hopefully? Sid had tried to explain that they weren’t antiques, but collectable kiwiana. He would give her $100 for it. Aimee declined. Classic kitsch, he had summed up. Like Aimee herself, Sid had said smiling, so Aimee had smiled back, taking it as a compliment.

A box sat in the middle of the table with “recipes” written on the outside. It was usually so full with bills the lid wouldn’t close. The lid was down, and Aimee smiled at it with a feeling of accomplishment. Everything was up to date for now, and all her loans were paid off. Probably a year after John had left was when it had all started to pile up, one thing after another. She had been managing on just the benefit until she had to replace a tyre on the car to get her warrant of fitness. At that stage she had been living in a rental house the next suburb over. From there it all snowballed really. She tried really hard, and counted every penny, but at the end of each week she was struggling more and more. The move to the Housing Corp. house had been a good thing really; at least she knew her rent was always covered. The car was hard though. Maintenance, insurance, registration, warrant, and then when she got behind there had been the parking fine that had resulted in tickets for no registration, no warrant. So she had taken out a little loan with one of those finance companies that advertise on telly.

 She had started off working inside. She had been scanning the ads in the paper, but really she wasn’t qualified for anything and if she earned more than $80 a week she would start to lose her benefit. By her calculations she only needed an extra $200 a week to get out of the financial hole. She had left school at 15 with no qualifications, because she was stupid her mother had said. Too stupid to pass exams and stay in school, and just stupid enough to leave. She got a job at the local supermarket, and had been living at home when she met up with John.

John didn’t like her working so she quit her job and looked after the house and him. She missed having her own money, but John gave her money for the housekeeping. He didn’t earn a lot so there was never much to spend on extras – makeup or clothes, things she used to treat herself with when she worked. John said she didn’t need it anyway.  He was the only one looking at her now, and they seldom went out anymore. John would rather just drink at home. It was cheaper, and she didn’t need to dress up. Who was she trying to impress?

She was 25 when she had found out she was pregnant with Summer. Stupid getting pregnant when he had always said he didn’t want children. Aimee had thought he would change his mind, and his heart would melt and his face would light up with joy when he saw the baby, like hers had. His hadn’t. It didn’t matter now though, she thought, glancing proudly around the kitchen at the girls’ paintings.

She only stayed one night at the inside job. The money had been great; she had made $600 on her first shift. The house charged the clients at the door, and then the clients selected a girl and the house gave you your half at the end of the night. The thing was Aimee only needed $200, and you had to work the whole shift from 6pm to 6am, and you had to do 2 shifts a week, if you wanted to work nights. That money had been like a Lotto win at the time. The relief had been enormous, just paying off some bills, and buying some much needed clothing for the girls.She hadn’t spent a cent on herself. She just couldn’t. It wouldn’t be right. She wasn’t doing it for extras; she was doing it for the bills and her girls. Amiee knew that as long as that was where the money was going, it was alright.

She had thought about it for a couple of weeks before she had taken the plunge and gone to the streets that first night. She had heard the other mothers talking at the school gate about someone’s neighbour who was working as prostitute from her house. Aimee considered it briefly, but figured that it wouldn’t be wise on her street, and with the girls living at home.
In the end, simple economics had made up her mind for her. Only twenty dollars for one of the girls from next door to sleep over and keep an eye on her girls, and if she worked outside, she only had to stay out till she had the money and then she could go home. She wouldn’t have to give half to the house, and she could choose the clients instead of them coming in and choosing her.
The first night had been daunting. Easy to look back and laugh now she thought. To start with she stood on the wrong corner and a little queen in a big black coat had come over and told her to fuck off, down to Cross Street with the other fish. Aimee had moved quickly to the area where she later found out the “real” girls worked. It was a short road, with only two other girls in sight, one at each corner, so Aimee stood in the middle, half way between the two. It didn’t take long for the girl at the first corner to get picked up, and then maybe twenty minutes later another car came and slowed to an idle in front of her. Aimee leaned in the window, smiled hello at the man. He asked how much and Aimee replied, $200. The client had laughed and asked if it was her first night. When she said it was, he introduced himself and told her to hop in the car. That was how Aimee had met Sid, who had told her the prices and explained how things worked on the street.
Aimee glanced down at the application in front of her and the closed box in the middle of the table and felt a sense of excitement. The form was for a job at the local superette. She had seen the advertisement on the wall a couple of weeks ago. After thinking about it for a few days she had finally got up the courage to call the number on the ad. Aimee had spoken to the manager, who asked a few questions. When he asked if she had experience, and she replied that she had worked for one of the big chains, he had told her he would post her an application form and could she come in for an interview.
The form had arrived, and the interview was set for today at 2pm.  The rain had helped her decide. The rain, and the fact that now she had to spend two or three nights to get the same money that she used to get in a night. Also the girls were getting older, and she wanted to be here for them in the evenings. Like the smoking, it was time to quit. The time was right.
 The day had passed in a blur. The washing had been brought in, folded, or ironed and put away, another load drying on the line. The beds were made, the house was vacuumed, and in anticipation of a celebration, Aimee baked a batch of muffins for the lunch boxes, and a chocolate cake for dessert tonight. At 1pm she ran upstairs to get ready for the interview.
Aimee had put a great deal of thought in to what she should wear. A pamphlet from WINZ had recommended tidy clothes or business attire. A suit, Aimee had thought, and knew she had just the thing, her one indulgence, but first she had to deal with her hair and makeup.
She looked directly into the mirror as she started to brush her long hair. Originally, it had been golden brown, but as she had gone grey she had started colouring it blonde with a home colour kit. She hadn’t coloured it in a while she realised, with dark grey re-growth making a startling contrast to the brassy yellowed ends. Still, if she tied it back it wouldn’t look so bad, she thought, securing it with a pink scrunchy one of the girls had left on her dressing table. Her skin was pale, and the years of struggle were etched around her eyes and mouth. Laughter lines she thought. He’ll know I’m happy when he sees them.
Shoes were a worry. She only had the cheap black stiletto boots she used for work, or trainers. Last night Aimee had wiped the boots, colouring in the scuffs with a black vivid marker and binding the frayed heels with black electrical tape. From a distance they looked fine she thought. Finally, Aimee pulled on her suit over her washed-to-grey mismatched underwear.
The suit was red leather. It had a pencil skirt to the knees, and a fitted jacket with a nipped waist. It had cost a bomb, even second-hand, but it was quality. Fully lined and soft leather made from whole pieces of hide, not patchwork. Quality and class, thought Aimee, never dates. The black boots weren’t great, but they would have to do, and she headed for the door. Everything would be fine, she thought, smiling, revealing two missing teeth. What had Sid called her? That’s right, she remembered – Classic Kitsch.

Published in Brief 46.

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