Authors: Dorothy Johnston,Port Campbell Press
Tags: #Short Stories
The paintings are a different story. Eve's reactions to the paintings are as varied as the paintings themselves.
Vincent brings them one by one. He walks up the stairs with a painting covered by a white cloth held securely under his right arm. Once he's inside and the door is locked, he removes the cloth. âVoila!' His voice is confident, even vain, but the way he moves his eyebrows up and down tells Eve that he wants her to like it.
He brings her his painting of the Belconnen tip, larger than any so far. There are seagulls picking over rubbish. They fly up at you out of the top half of the canvas. It's all there in the foreground, all the garbage nobody wants â hundreds of wormy mattresses, bad for the back, black and white TV sets, bicycle seats for old model bikes, and vacuum cleaners that only need a new valve, or three.
Eve laughs because he's crammed so much into a single painting. Vincent is offended. She says after a while, âThere's no love in any of your paintings. I think you should paint at least one with love in it.'
Vincent brings a set of small landscapes and lines them up under the window.
Eve kneels on the floor to look at them. âIt's like being out in the country,' she says. She looks up, above the row of scenes, and the sky through the window is a singing blue, that high, dry inland blue she loves.
She says, âI've got a favour to ask. Could you â would you do some painting here, in the studio?'
âPaint you, your portrait, you mean?”
âNot me.' Eve stands up and closes the curtains with a swift, sharp movement. âHere,' she says. âSome stars and a moon. The sky at night.'
The stars Vincent paints are silver and mother-of-pearl. They wink at Eve as she lies on her queen-sized bed. Vincent is pleased with the effect, but disappointed that she doesn't recognise the Southern Cross. They discuss the moon before deciding on a fingernail one, the thinnest crescent sliver. âYes,' Eve says, âthat's my kind of moon.'
She begins turning the lights out on her after-dark clients, so she can see her night sky at its best. She becomes surly and argumentative when they say they want to see what they've paid for. She loses some regulars, who reason that, in the dark, there's not so much difference between nineteen and thirty-nine.
Eve is usually glad to see the back of them. At the same time she thinks, I should say yes more often. I should save money while I can.
The days are longer now. Vincent never visits the studio at night, and so never sees her curtains the way they should be seen, with only the street lights a dull glow behind stars and anorexic moon. Rose describes the curtains as artistic. Rose has exams looming and is absorbed in her work. On her days at the studio, she arrives late and leaves early. After her exams she'll be away from Canberra for three months. There's a decision to be made. Rose knows a girl who might be interested in taking her place, someone they can trust.
Vincent holds Eve in his hard grip, and comes hard and fast as always. He does not try to kiss her, since she told him she would rather not. He removes his condom and they wipe themselves with tissues before speaking. Eve has grown so used to Vincent that her body has found ways to respond â not the feathery pleasure or rush up the spine she can give herself masturbating â it's not any kind of release but the opposite, a meeting of bone and muscle, a certainty of where she ends and another living being begins.
She rests, elbows on the pillow, waiting for this sensation to pass. Then she says, âWhy don't you ever come here at night?'
Vincent is turned away from her, dropping tissues in the basket, checking his watch. âI've other things to do.'
This time Eve won't let it go. âWhat other things?'
Vincent rests his hand on her shoulder for a moment, then crosses to his clothes, takes a fifty out of his wallet and places it on top of the screen. Eve wonders if it's payment for her question, or his refusal to answer. Either way, the bonus is welcome and he knows it.
Spring ends and summer begins. Rose passes her exams and her friend agrees to work her days at the studio while she is away. The friend is pleasant enough, but unreliable. Some days, she appears for an hour or two, then goes again. She claims that it's boring on her own. Eve speaks to her about it, but indifferently. After the Christmas rush, the holidays are a slack time anyway.
Vincent turns up one mid-summer night, and they lie together on the big bed under the sky they have created. âA firmament,' Vincent calls it. He speaks as though the word has been invented for that moment, his voice without its usual glimmering and edge of vanity.
Rose comes back, relaxed and full of stories. Her routine of work and study begins once again. It is well into autumn before Vincent brings Eve another painting, of herself this time, as the original Eve in the garden. It is her hair, her eyes, her naked body; but the painted feelings are those of someone else. Eve finds it comical and disturbing. She knows it would be rude to laugh.
She glances through the
after Vincent has gone, taking his painting with him, and sees something that makes her catch her breath. It's one of Vincent's landscapes! A photograph, not a terribly clear one. An exhibition of new work by well-known Canberra artist, and his name really is Vincent! For some reason, this makes Eve feel extraordinarily pleased. She takes a pair of scissors from the drawer where she keeps the condoms and carefully cuts out the notice.
She tells no one about the gallery opening. When the day arrives, she finds herself leaving the studio at five, locking the door behind her. She unfolds the bit of newspaper on the passenger seat of her car.
Vincent has taken Canberra's monuments as one subject for his show. The new Parliament House is there, huge on one wall of the gallery. Eve's eyes snap to it as she walks in. The old House has been transformed into a wedding cake, carrying scores of lighted candles. There are real candles on either side of the painting, so that it looks like a mockery of a sacred offering. And there's a real wedding cake in front of it. Eve wonders if it's just to look at, or if the guests will eat it afterwards. She looks for the small landscapes Vincent once lined up under the window of the studio, but they haven't been included; neither has his portrait of her, and for this she is grateful.
The Belconnen tip takes up most of another wall, larger than life, just as Eve remembers it, the rubbish heaving itself up out of the canvas. Seagulls wheel above her head with ugly, voracious cries; Eve is sure she hears them. She knows she ought to leave.
A few guests are looking at the paintings, but most stand with their backs to them, drinking wine and talking to each other.
Eve notices a picture of a wave towering above dry grassland. She walks across to take a closer look. In the foreground are horses pulling trotting sulkies. Their silks and harness, the jockeys' taut, frozen ligaments, are desperately bright. The horses are glossy with sweat; and just behind them is this wall of water. A tidal wave a hundred and fifty kilometres inland, it's already drowned picket fences, betting booths, grandstand and spectators. In a second, the horses leaping out of the picture will be swept away; only they never will.
Over dead yellow grass at the bottom, Eve spots the letters VS. She puts out a finger to touch them. She can smell the paint, as if it's only just been finished. She holds her finger a centimetre above the signature. She knows what the subject is. It's the flooding of the lake: Lake Burley Griffin.
Eve turns around and sees Vincent talking to a woman dressed in black.
She walks forward, holding out her hand. âHello.'
Vincent flicks his head to the side. His expression is blank.
âI'm sorry, do I know you?'
âSure you do. It's me, Eve.'
Vincent offers her a small frown of concentration. âYou're making a mistake, I'm afraid.'
The woman in black looks amused.
âIf you'll excuse me -' Vincent says.
For a few moments, all Eve sees is the colour black retreating, Vincent's suit, the woman's dress and long, gloved hand.
When a drink waiter appears at her elbow, she shakes her head and walks towards the door.
Eve drives to the studio and, without turning on the lights, takes down the midnight curtains with their stars and moon. She rings Rose and leaves a message, saying something's come up suddenly and she has to go away.
Now she can walk outside any night and look at the real sky, she sits in her flat with the lights off and looks at her curtains. She must work out what to do. She has only a little money left, and no job, or prospect of one. For a whole week, she does nothing. She does not return Rose's calls. Then she gets out her old backpack, the only thing she brought with her from her hometown when she came to Canberra.
Carefully, she cuts out the moon and stars, and sews them, using tiny stitches, onto the dark green canvas of her rucksack. They have no lustre there, but she is pleased with the effect. She sells her car and wind-surfing gear, and pays up her rent. Then she catches a bus along the Federal highway to the best hitch-hiking spot. As she stands waiting by the road, her rucksack beside her on a patch of grass, the mother-of-pearl and silver stars wink at her, and the skinny moon curves around her belongings.
In spite of everything, it gave her a secret pride to know that she did her job well.
Her practice was to start with a client's legs, moving in soft figures of eight from ankle to thigh. She completed ten, maybe twelve strokes like this, both legs at once, her hands moving in time with each other. She liked particularly to press her fingers lightly on the small of the back, curve down the slope where the buttocks swelled, and brush the balls with the tips of her fingers.
One hand helping the other, she worked on each leg separately, using the same figure of eight, taking care with the inner thigh, tucking her fingers under the part of the leg that rested against the massage table. Then, in circular movements with her thumbs, she worked up, following, as far as her ignorance of anatomy allowed, the lie of muscles and tendons. The backs of the knees were often stiff. Feeling resistance tighten under her fingers, she would take a knee between her hands and rub it, jostling and nudging the client into relaxation.
She ran her knuckles up the spine and back, with light strokes, barely touching the skin, then worked the vertebrae apart with her thumbs, starting at the base of the spine, where Kundalini the curled snake lay resting before his journey. The large muscles of the back claimed her attention for a full five minutes, with many up-and-down knuckle and butterfly strokes. She moved the head gently into position, kneading, with one hand after another, the muscles at the top of the spine. Only then did she say to the client, âYou can turn over now.'
The man who liked to come with the news said, âI only want a six inch massage. From here to here.'
His left hand spanned an octave, from the top of his thigh to where his hip bone made a ridge.
She smiled to herself, because of the time she'd succeeded in wasting, and because he had not complained till now.
He asked her to turn the radio on and then, if she wouldn't mind, tune in to the twelve o'clock news.
That surprised her, but she didn't show it. It was part of her bargain with herself, not to show surprise.
She worked quickly while he lay on his back, straining to finish before the weather report.
He came with his eyes open and she watched them clear.
âWould you like a cup of coffee? No sorry, tea, we're out of coffee.'
He didn't answer immediately. After a few moments, he sighed and said, âWell that was worth every penny.'
She smiled openly then, wiping her hands on a towel.
âDo you think we could go again?' he asked her.
âI think we could go again, don't you? I'm not in any hurry.'
âI thought you were in your lunch hour.'
âThey can wait.'
âYou'd have to pay the same.'
âNo,' she said, suddenly decisive. âSave your money for another day.'
He sighed again. âAfter all, I think I will have some coffee.'
âTea then. That is, if you'll join me.'
She washed the strong, sweet stuff around her mouth and her eyes clouded over with the steam. Every movement she made in that room she had made hundreds of times before, a sequence with only the slightest variations. Each had a price attached and, added to the next, refused to develop into an occasion.
He dressed quickly, without speaking, his mind already on the next thing.
The following week, he turned up again. This time he paid for extras while, in the background, overshadowed by a passing train, they heard that a minister in the Labor government had been dismissed.
Pleased, he said, âI thought you were Labor from the way you poked and prodded me. I could tell you were angry. I'm Labor myself.'
She thought how best to reply to this. Finally she said, âHe doesn't seem to have done anything so terrible. Apart from lying and talking to the wrong people.'
âAbsolutely the wrong people. Especially at midnight, alone in his office.'
âIt's the cover-up that gets you every time,' she said, and they shared a laugh.
After this, she did not see him for several weeks. She kept the radio on all day, imagining for some reason that she'd hear his voice and find out his name. She became familiar with the voices of the different newsreaders, and deaf to the complaints of her other clients.
âThe music will be back in a minute. I can't help the news,' she said.
Each hour was separate, distinct, measured by her alarm clock and escalating accusations against the government. Her attachment to the items, and to the radio that broadcast them, gave her at times a kind of cleansing relief.