Dave Clark

Contractual at First Sight

Dad’s phone calls are erratic at best, but today the usual huskiness of his voice sounds more like the panicked yelps of a hyena. 

I put down the wrench I’d been smashing against a munted radiator and turn my phone off speaker mode.

‘Whoa. Slow down. Give me a sec, yeah?’ I signal with a head flick to other lads in the workshop that I am ducking outside. I wipe my greasy hands on my overalls and grab an iced coffee from the fridge by the roller doors. I round the corner of the shop and morning light spears into my eyeballs. I squeeze them shut and bite back a few choice words.

I draw in deep breaths that don’t reek of sweat and burnt oil, then I put the phone to my ear. Dad’s yowling hasn’t slowed a beat, still huffing and puffing down the line.

‘Okay Dad, what’s going on?’ I lean against the brick walling, pushing my shoulder blades into it for the cheapest massage in town.

‘You know that phone plan? The one I got a month ago?’ 

How could I forget? He’d banged on about it ‘til kingdom come.


‘Well, there was a catch. At the end of all that small writing.’

‘The fine print.’ I take a sip of the iced coffee. Ugh. Not even one bit iced.

‘Yeah yeah, the fine print. Well, remember the extra three gig of data I got?’ Get to the point, big fella. I got a literal truckload of jobs to get through. ‘Some nutjob wrote in it that you have to give your oldest unmarried child away to another person on the same phone plan.’

‘Nice one, Dad. Which reality show did you flog that idea from?’ He really sucks at pranks.

‘No, Mick, I’m not pulling your leg.’ Dad’s voice slumps. The hyena’s sitting his cub down for a serious chat. ‘I wish I was. But it looks like you gotta get married. Today.’

Nice try, you old dog. The folks are always pushing me to settle down with some bird, even after Sarah broke my heart. Can’t a guy just enjoy his mid-twenties? ‘No way. You’re kidding me, aren’t you, Dad?’ 


He never calls me that. I go silent for ten seconds. My ears are filling with blood.

‘Son, I can’t get out of it. I called the phone company five times. They said it’s in there. I signed it. I can’t back out. We can’t back out.’

I bark at him. ‘You always gotta check the fine print!’

‘Do you?’

Nope. My legs wobble. ‘Doesn’t matter. Just don’t do what they’re saying. It’s ridiculous.’

‘It’s not, Mick. We owe them one million bucks if you don’t show up for the wedding.’

I spit iced coffee further than anyone’s ever spat before. ‘You can’t afford that. You’ll lose your house.’ And Ill lose the shop. Plus, I just convinced three blokes to work for me.

‘I know. So, it’s bankruptcy and homelessness for us both or you get married right now.’

‘Now? Who to?’

‘I’m not totally sure. They said we’d find out once we’re there.’

‘So, I get married. Today? And I don’t even know who she is? What the—’ A car splutters past me, backfiring, smoke billowing out its clacker.

‘Just get down to Births, Deaths, and Marriages by four. And chuck on a nice shirt. You want to look good for your future wife.’

I can only grunt.

‘And say nothing about this to your mother. She’d string me up.’

On the drive there, I don’t even enjoy Acca Dacca blaring from my new stereo. What good’s a killer subwoofer when your dad’s signed your life away? My hands shake like jocks on the line during a cyclone, and it only gets worse as I walk through the giant glass doors of the poncy building. Rigid shapes and marble everywhere. Wall-to-wall wank. Dad springs off a chair to my right and runs over like he’s a greyhound and I’m the rabbit.

‘That’s your best shirt?’ he growls.

‘Ease up. I didn’t ask for this.’

‘Nah, fair play. My bad, Mick, I’m just so nervous.’ But youre not the one getting married to a stranger. ‘We’re up next.’

We don’t have time to sit down, as a blue jacket with a head and limbs attached to it ushers us into a small office. 

Wood panelling on the walls, a lectern with a lion logo on it, a jam jar with three white flowers shoved in. An amateur violin piece is straining from a Bluetooth speaker. I could play something better with my left nut. 

A twig of a man beckons us forward. I cop a whiff of body spray from him as he shuffles some paperwork on the lectern. I bet six tinnies he’s a sucker for Old Spice.

‘Exciting times,’ he says, rubbing his mitts together like an over-enthusiastic boy scout leader.

‘Is it?’ I bark. ‘Are you in on this too, you deadbeat prankster?’ 

He takes a slight step back and his eyes water. ‘No, I’m a local celebrant. Got the call-up twenty minutes ago.’ His smile returns. ‘Not that it makes it any less special.’

‘Sorry, mate, just a bit…’ I finish the sentence with empty hand gestures. I feel thrown, not sure who to blame for this whole mess.

A side door opens with a loud creak. Hinges need oiling. Through the door steps this large Polynesian-looking fella in his fifties with the bride-to-be concealed in his shadow. I catch glimpses of her ugly, puffy wedding dress. She must have picked it up from the Salvos on the way here. I can only see the top of her head, as her eyes are glued to the ground. About as eager as I am for these shenanigans.

I don’t hear a word of the celebrant’s droning, his voice a backing track to my imploding world. My mind is racing, then drawing blanks. The room shrinks in on us. I undo the only button on my polo shirt.

I feel a sharp jab to the ribs from Dad. ‘Mick, give her a kiss. She’s your wife now.’

She has a name, Dad.’ Dont know what it is, though. ‘So…’ I shrug my shoulders at her. She finally looks up and her eyes scream no to the idea of smacking lips.

Gorgeous eyelashes. Now to figure out who theyre attached to.

Dad coughs up a voucher from the phone company for the wedding night hotel room. ‘The least they could do,’ he says through the taxi window.

‘I beg to differ,’ I yell, as we shudder away from the curb, exhaust fumes filling the sedan.

After a twenty-minute drive of awkward glances and forced smiles between me and the missus, I give my business card to the driver for his shoddy suspension, and we check into the hotel. 

I unlock the door with the swipe key and stick out my arms in a cradling position, to see if she wants me to carry her across the threshold. She scoots out of reach and into the room. Not the traditional type. She trails her fingers over the white bedspread as I unload our bags near the floor-to-ceiling curtains.

We patter around opposite sides of the tight space, opening drawers, smelling the free soaps in the puny bathroom and sussing out the mini bar. Fully stocked. At least one good things happened today

I try to lighten the mood. ‘So, um, what do we want to do tonight? Order room service? Chuck a movie on?’

‘I want to get out of this dress.’ Her first words to me. 

A flame ignites inside my ribs.

‘It’s so itchy. Can you unzip me?’ Heck yeah!

‘Sure.’ I saunter her way, trying to play it cool, even though anticipation is building all over. 

She lifts her long, wavy brown hair off her shoulders. She smells like vanilla. I lower the zip to the middle of her back. No bra.

‘It’s okay. All the way.’

I happily follow instructions and the dress tumbles off her, falling to the carpet. That frock did her no favours.

‘Enjoying the view?’ she asks.

My tongue freezes up. Technically I can look all I want. Youre my…wife. ‘No. Well, yeah, you’re stunning. But…I wasn’t looking. Much.’

She steps out of the dress and turns to face me, her left arm wrapped around her chest. She’s smiling a gorgeous grin, teeth so white they’d have a special name for it at the paint shop. She taps me on the nose with a purple nail-polished finger.

‘Don’t get any ideas, yeah? There’ll be none of that tonight.’

It’s like someone rips the fuses out of my electricity box. My stomach drops. So do my eyes, sneaking another look. ‘If you change your mind?’

‘I won’t. I’ve got a boyfriend. He’s not too keen on this whole husband-on-the-side thing. Neither am I. We’re going to figure how to get out of this.’ She flicks the dress off to the side with her foot. ‘Can you grab me a robe from the cupboard?’

‘Sure.’ I slowly back away, a lump rising in my throat.

‘Thanks, hubby,’ she says in a flowery tone as I hand her the robe, covering up what I will never get to hold.

We go hard on the room service and mini bar, our way of saying up yours to the phone company. And we learn each other’s names. Hers is Tarlee. She’s training to be a lawyer, likes playing a bit of touch footy but shops way too much online. Maybe cancelling this marriage will help my bank account dodge another bullet.

Tarlee’s mum got conned by the phone deal. She outdid my dad, though, and got an extra six gig on her plan. Tarlee and I laugh. She’s worth twice as much as me.

I grab spare pillows from the cupboard. I sleep on the floor and am out like the clappers. We shower—separately—in the morning and then set up camp on the bed, armed with croissants and the hotel’s cheap-as notepad and pens. We want to annul this marriage quick smart.

After fifteen minutes navigating the labyrinth of phone options— press 3 to punch the person who designed this system—we get through to the legal team. We explain our situation and demand for it to be sorted out.

The voice on the other end breaks out of its corporate lingo and cracks up. ‘Pretty funny stuff, right? At first, we just wanted to see what we could slip into contracts and get people to do. Change your name to Butt Licker. Cluck like a chicken for ten seconds during your next meeting. Oh man, a few people posted videos of themselves doing that. Classic.’

Tarlee and I have to pick our jaws up off the bed. She finds her words before I do. ‘Surely that’s not legal?’

‘That’s the beauty of it. It is totally legal. If you sign it, you agree to it.’

I speak up. ‘But is it ethical?’

‘Probably not. But is anything really?’ Well, yeah, most things are if youre not a tool about it. ‘After a few joke clauses, the people writing the terms and conditions felt that customers still didn’t appreciate their work. They’re artists, you see, aficionados of legal wording, but you know, who reads all of it?’

‘What?’ asks Tarlee. ‘So, they chucked in this marriage clause so that people would read and acknowledge their work?’

‘Got it in one, darl. You sound nice, by the way.’ Stop hitting on my scam wife.

Tarlee sits up dead straight. ‘Watch yourself, pal. I’m studying law and am looking for a case to test my skills on.’

‘Easy, girl. Can’t take a prank or a compliment, can ya?’ 

Tarlee and I brandish our fists at the phone. ‘Mate,’ I jump in, ‘what do we need to do to cancel this contract?’

‘Why would you want to cancel it? Plenty of people arrange marriages around the world.’

‘For cultural reasons,’ I say. ‘Not ‘cause they’ve been tricked by fine print.’

‘Well, there’s no benefit for us in cancelling it. You’ll just have to find a way to live with it. Oh, and before I go, the fine print says that we don’t cover the room service bill.’ What? We ordered up extra bottles of the fanciest wine. Lots of crab. Every dessert they offered. ‘Our records show you’ve already clocked up $840. That’s impressive. But can you afford that?’

 ‘Course we can,’ I say, shaking my head to Tarlee. Mum says not to enter a relationship with debt. Strictly speaking, we racked ours up after we got married. ‘You’ll be hearing again from us soon.’

After ranting and raving about how unfair all this is, we switch gears and come up with a plan. Tarlee borrows a laptop from hotel reception and begins creating a document. I give work a call and then get a taxi to the hardware store with a list written on my palm: hammer, nails, gloves, and bin bags.

An hour later, Tarlee joins me in the backseat of the taxi, holding some paperwork. As she buckles in, she says, ‘My lecturer reckons it’s good to go.’

We hop out fifteen minutes later, standing in the heart of the city, a street away from the phone company’s headquarters. We walk hand-in-hand, trying to look inconspicuous and in love, which is hard to do, when carrying a garbage bag of empty wine bottles and a hammer tucked into your Y-fronts.

A bit of Googling showed where employees parked their cars. We walk down a ramp, into an underground carpark that smells of mould and carbon monoxide. A few globes overhead flicker light onto the cars. Lambos. Porkers. A Rolls-Royce. Each gas guzzler worth more than my salary.

A quick scope for security cameras and other people. All clear.

We reckon that the head legal eagle will have a parking spot with his name on it. A stroking of the ego. Bingo. A black Beamer, glistening and calling out Im so much richer than you plebs!

‘All good?’ I ask Tarlee, hoping she’s ready to bend some laws, also hoping we stay hitched a few more days.

‘Let’s do it,’ she replies, too quick for my liking. She wants out of this. We put on our gardening gloves.

I hammer nails into each tyre, a satisfying hiss escaping out the holes. Tarlee picks up a wine bottle and rugby-passes it straight through the windscreen. The breaking glass sounds way better than the deflating tyres.

‘I thought you said you only played a bit of touch footy?’

‘Okay, so I made the Samoan under 18s before we moved here five years ago.’

‘Damn.’ So proud of my wife. I grab a long neck chardonnay and try the same pass into a side window of the car. The bottle bounces back and almost scones me on the head.

Tarlee snorts. ‘Novice.’

This is the moment in movies where she’d stand behind me, put her arms through mine to show me how to throw it. And we’d end up turning towards each other and making out to a booming soundtrack. Kind of hoping for that. Instead, she jumps on the hood of the car and piffs a bottle through the sunroof. Now she’s stomping her boots into the hood like she’s auditioning for Tap Dogs, denting it good and proper.

‘That should do it,’ I say, beckoning her off the hood and brushing a shard of glass from her coat. ‘Now go turn on the charm.’

I jump in our work truck that’s pulled into the carpark. I shimmy into a pair of overalls that Trev has brought along and grab the iced coffee from the drink holder. Its cold this time; hallelujah. Three minutes later, Tarlee returns, followed by a clean-shaven man, all pretence and hair gel. He looks mid-forties. And like he’s never taken a dump in his life. His eyes are bouncing from Tarlee’s hips to his car. His face hardens like concrete.

‘What’s happened?’ he demands.

Tarlee makes up a story in her cute voice, bouncing on her toes. The legal chump is hypnotised by what she says and does.

‘She’s disarmed the cavalry,’ whispers Trev. ‘You’re up.’

I hop out of the truck. Feigning ignorance, I ask, ‘Can I help at all? Looks like your car is in a bit of trouble.’

The slick suit turns to me. ‘This lady says that some kids trashed my BMW.’ A slow emphasis on every letter of BMW. ‘Who does that type of thing?’

Who indeed? ‘That really sucks. But it’s your lucky day. We got called out for a job but it’s a no-show. So, if you like, we can tow your car to our workshop.’ I walk a lap of the car, inspecting the damage. ‘Windows and tyres—we can have this sorted by tomorrow.’

‘Tomorrow?’ The pace of it all is throwing the guy around. Just what we’d planned.

‘We can tow it back right now. We’ll do you a good deal.’

‘Um, maybe,’ he says, kneading his Botoxed forehead with his knuckles.

I call Trev over and he begins to hook up chains to the car. I grab the clipboard from the truck’s front seat and say, ‘We just need a quick signature to say it’s all good to work on your vehicle.’

‘Yes, yes, obviously.’ The man is distracted, trying to connect the dots we’ve deliberately put far apart. He takes the pen from me, then pauses, his eyes gazing up at the roof like he’s figuring out how to describe the taste of quinoa.

Tarlee and I exchange a nervous look. ‘Sir,’ she says to me, while putting a hand on his arm, ‘after all this poor man has been through, could you maybe drop the car back for him tomorrow?’ She bats her lashes. ‘Free of charge?’

Seal. The. Deal. ‘Look, we don’t usually do that.’ I ham up my indecision until he looks at me, pleading with his Bambi eyes. ‘But you seem like a good fella. I think we can make it work.’

I gently nudge the clipboard at him. He signs the paperwork, passes the clipboard back and runs his hands through his hair. A leer crosses his face, and he starts chatting up Tarlee. ‘I really appreciate your help today. How about I say thanks by buying you dinner?’ Youre old enough to be her dad.

She returns serve with a scowl. ‘How about you carry out the conditions of the contract you just signed?’

His face turns into the biggest puzzle. ‘What do you mean? The contract with this dude?’ A condescending finger points my way.

‘Yes, with this dude,’ she says. ‘You just agreed to annul our marriage and the million-dollar clause within one day, or else you us owe five mill. With that amount, I can probably buy my own dinner.’

His expression shatters, just like the windscreen had. ‘You’re the couple I spoke to this morning.’

Tarlee and I high-five. Till death—of phone contract—do us part.

‘You can’t get away with this,’ says Captain Legality, a flabby attempt at stopping us.

‘We can,’ I say. ‘And we just did.’ 

Tarlee mimics the lawyer’s voice, sounding like a real namby-pamby. ‘The Family Law Act states that a non-consensual marriage can be annulled, and because you signed the form, contract law says you’re screwed if you don’t.’

Trev shoves both middle fingers in his direction. Suck it.

I wave the clipboard in the air. ‘And there’s two additional clauses you just signed off on. First, both our parents get unlimited data on their phone plans. Free of charge.’

‘And?’ A snarl spills out of his chiselled mouth.

‘When’s your next meeting? Because you agreed to cluck like a chicken. For a minute.’

Tarlee pipes in cheerfully. ‘Standing on your desk. With us filming it.’

And I place the contractual cherry on top. ‘And you’re doing all of that…in a very itchy wedding dress.’

Dave Clark is a writer-poet with CFS, living in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). He works as a counsellor, creating space for quieter stories. 

He won the 2022 Northern Territory Literary Award (Poetry) and has works published in Bramble, Red Room Poetry, Grieve, Pure Slush, swim meet lit mag,and Raining Poetry.  

Twitter/Instagram: @DaveClarkWriter 

Published by swim meet lit mag

swim meet lit mag is a young online publication based in Brisbane, Australia. Swim meets bring people together; swim meet lit mag seeks to offer an accessible space to read and publish all kinds of creative work from around the world, with a particular focus on local emerging writers. Now in its third year of operation, swim meet lit mag plans to continue expanding its catalogue, which is, and will always be, free to access. Each issue is framed by a swimming-related theme, to which the responses are always wonderfully surprising and diverse. 

%d bloggers like this: