Instalment 13: pages 52-56 [Elliot talks with Marina's housemate Ted at the Thursday Night Dinner house party]
“No Marina this evening?” I asked with affected naivety.
“Nooo,” answered Ted. “Your favourite former girlfriend hasn’t shown up for a while. Owes me some rent, too.”
Strike one for sensitivity, I thought.
“Not like Marina to miss the rent,” I grunted. “What’s the story?”
“Some family crisis, should blow over in a few days. I don’t want to be a bastard and hassle her.”
“Don’t tell me she’s flown the coop?” I asked, “She hasn’t gone and broken your lovely family home here, has she?”
Ted flinched, the jerk as he pulled the cork out coming twice, not his normal smooth action. I had the feeling I’d hit something.
“No trouble in paradise, big fella? Marina hasn’t slipped out under cover of darkness?” I paused, like a Carmichael waiting a beat before closing with the knife, tilting my head towards his girlfriend. “You haven’t slipped the leash, have you?”
There was an opportune flurry of laughter from Eva and Trish, it seemed to put a little shudder into Ted.
“Very happy with Trish, thanks for asking.”
His smile was a hastily assembled replica of the usual article. He deposited the bottle of red wine in my hand and steered me firmly towards the kitchen door.
“Who here haven’t you met?” he asked. His grip was firm. Programmers were not a race I associated with the gym, more with caffeine-jitters and scurvy-rickets. It was clearly time to update my stereotypes.
“Lot of new faces,” I replied.
“Yeah, it’s got big. Sometimes it’s hard getting everyone out by midnight. Take the wine round? I’ll be out soon, but Trish’s got some desserts in the oven. Could you get Sarah to give me a hand? Wouldn’t want to disturb Trish right now.”
He railroaded me back out into the lounge room. The dining table had been squeezed into a corner as the buffet and was already covered in breads, salad and opened wine bottles. I stumbled towards Sarah, clutching bottle and glass. Her little conversational knot now included both Danielle and Jenny.
“Sarah, I think Ted needs a hand,” I said. “Trish has abandoned him for the delights of Eva’s conversation.”
“On his own again is he?” she said, levering herself up, “Sorry, time to go play hostess.”
On his own again? I thought, making a note to discuss Ted’s possible philandering with Eva. Something in this little house was past its expiry date, and if it was Ted and Trish, and Ted had two wandering eyes again, and hands to match, it might have something to do with Marina’s wanting a break. I quickly shelved a priapic and unbidden image of my ex-girlfriend, six feet of sculpted Ted and churning sheets. I smiled at another girl’s sea-blue eyes instead.
“Hi Danielle,” I said, plonking myself down in Sarah’s spot. I gestured with the bottle and she proffered her glass.
“Lovely, thanks,” she said, brushing my arm as she withdrew her glass.
I smiled again before turning with the bottle to the red-head: “I don’t think we’ve met, I’m Elliot.”
“Jenny,” she said, politely covering her white wine glass. “Pleased to meet you.”
“So what’s your connection to the house?”
“I work with Marina,” she laughed. “In the Minister’s office.”
“It’s great. It’s certainly nice having the resources to really do the job, and to have some input on policy, not just press releases and position papers.”
“So you were with him before the election, when he was a shadow-minister?”
“Yeah, one of the few. I used to rock up to meetings without even having read the papers: just to try to suck information out of the government. There’d be three of them, fully briefed by the department, and across the table – just little me. Great training.”
She grinned the kind of broad, even white smile that parents require money, or excellent genes, to bestow.
“So your guy had a big win recently with those police raids,” I put in.
“Were these those brothels in Fyshwick?” asked Danielle.
“Jesus, and the rest,” answered Jenny, taking a gulp of her wine. “There were raids in three states and territories. You have no idea what they do to these women. Fucking awful. They’re often from mainland China, dirt poor. People smugglers, snake-heads offer to get them out at a discount - if they’re willing to work off the difference. They’re told they’ll be waitresses.”
“But they wind up as prostitutes?” asked Danielle.
“Not always first up,” said Jenny. “Sometimes they’ll start them on something messy and badly paid, dressing carcasses or backyard sweatshops. Long shifts, no real pay. Then after a while they’re given an option: better pay, fewer hours - as sex workers. Well, they’ve paid off none of their debt after interest, food and board - and they’re told that the snake-heads back home will kill them if they go to the authorities and get sent back. These women come from rural communities that really stigmatise prostitution. But what choice have they got? Half the time they don’t even know what country they’re in and haven’t been allowed to leave where they work and sleep. They’ve wound up in sexual slavery. So yeah, I was very happy to be part of the office that day.”
I scented a certain self-congratulation in her speech, and it rankled.
“They all wound up deported, though, didn’t they?” I needled.
Jenny looked away. “They’re in migration detention. Some are making refugee claims, on the basis of the snake-head threats. But yeah, they’ll probably get deported. Death-threats from criminals fall a long way short of the Refugee Convention definition of persecution. Besides, there’s no official or human-rights group reports of anyone sent back actually being harmed by the traffickers. It’s a scare tactic.”
“It’s a wonder no crusader has ever tried to get them victim of crime compensation,” I said.
I’d already hit home, but couldn’t resist pushing a little more, rubbing her face in what we did to these people once the credit was claimed, captured in a headline and a nice set of photos.
“If they stayed,” said Jenny, a little bitterly, “it would only prove the snake-heads right. They’d just be able to lure more women in.”
“You’re presuming the smugglers tell their clients the truth,” I countered.
Danielle chipped in: “Yeah, but whatever you think of returning them, you’d have to admit when they get back to their home towns, people there are going to get the message pretty clearly: You don’t get to stay. No matter what. That’s what’ll put the traffickers out of business, right?”
It was a life-line, thrown to me too late.
“Excuse me,” said Jenny, making a small gesture with her empty glass. “I need a top-up.”
I watched her departing back, her hips twisting beautifully beneath her skirt as she prised her way through the people sprawled across the floor, and spoke my thoughts to Danielle: “I wandered straight in with my size ten hobnails of mealy-mouthed hippiedom there, didn’t I?”
“It wasn’t subtle,” she said ruefully, “and it’s hardly fair baiting someone who can’t really be expected to say ’yeah, you got me - my boss backs a heartless bi-partisan policy’, is it?”
I watched Jenny top up her glass, reach into a handbag by the door for cigarettes and a lighter and step out into the night.