Authors: Dorothy Johnston,Port Campbell Press
Tags: #Short Stories
Empty bottles stacked up on the table. The fishing rod stood against one wall. I picked it up and balanced it between my hands, feeling the life of the fish through the supple length of it, stretched cruelly and turned inside out. I put it back clumsily and felt ashamed.
âYou know, I'd like to see your farm some time,' Freda said.
John nodded slowly, but said nothing.
The echo of Freda's voice hung in the thick air, gathering a desire that the others seemed scarcely aware of. I looked at Freda and it seemed we shared, at that moment, a longing which had little to do with a farmhouse in Kangaroo Valley, but which had got fixed to this place neither of us had seen and threatened to overwhelm us with self-pity. It was the silliness of wishing for something that had nothing to do with us, but which brought home how much was in that category. There I was in danger of bursting into tears, and Freda with me, because I'd never sat on John's veranda at sunset in a green and yellow folding chair.
âThere's one thing and it's definitely a true thing,' said Maria in a sing-song voice, âthe men who come here don't come because they want to live to be a hundred.'
Maria spread her long fingers and light shone through the tiny webs between them.
âPhillip Jong, respected member of the Melbourne City Council, Herb Langley, star footballer turned coach, Dixie Smith, businessman, Frank Kelly, MLA -'
âAll died in parlours in the last year. There's one thing and it's definitely a true thing. It's true about you and me and it's even true about Freda there, winking fit to beat the band.'
âIt's an undeniably true fact that we're dangerous.'
Maria laughed, then coughed. Pearls of sweat stood out on her forehead. I followed her gaze around the kitchen, where layers of repair were tawdry and threadbare, where it came to rest on the cake.
No one spoke. It seemed like the end of the party. I got up and took some leftover pieces of cabana out to Jack the cat.
If we ever had gone for a trip out to that farm, if John had ever invited us, it might have given us a point of reference, a shared memory that would have stayed with us, helped us through the next few weeks.
That night John died in his bed of natural causes. He'd been dead for two days before the postman found him in front of the television, in the striped folding chair, with his head on one side, the colours in his long pink and white legs having run together, and a fateful look, a look of fulfilled ambition on his face.
Sophie has her eye on a house. She walks past it every day, and she talks to Melissa about it, with the mixture of make-believe and confession that forms the major part of her conversations with her daughter. It's only the nicest house she's ever seen.
Sometimes there's washing on the line at the back. Once she heard music coming from the front room, but she's never seen the people who live there. She has no reason to suppose the house will be sold, but this doesn't stop her from dreaming she has enough for a deposit.
âJust you and me,' she says to Melissa. âThink of it â all those rooms!'
Melissa turns in the stroller and arches her back. She knows this tone of voice of her mother's, and answers enthusiastically. âDa-da-da-da-da!' Five single commanding notes.
âYou wish,' says Sophie, laughing, then more softly, âI wish too.'
Great trees shade the house, trees that might have been there before any white person. One stormy afternoon they watch them, crossed and contorted by the wind. And the house stands up between them, goes on standing. It just has to.
Melissa's stroller has a hood, and Sophie turns it so that it's facing away from the rain, but stands with her own face to the sky. âLook!' she shouts in triumph. âLook!'
By five o'clock the dirt outside their block of flats will be as dry as ever.
Sophie wonders whether the house has any sort of special history. Simply being old in a new suburb is enough, but still she wonders. It doesn't have the design of a farmhouse, and she can't imagine it ever being surrounded by sheep. It's made from large blocks of stone, the colour of the French mustard in the Deli section of the supermarket. Sophie imagines the blocks being manoeuvred into place, the extraordinary muscular sweat of the builders.
There are other large houses on the hill, houses whose paintwork is barely dry, whose new brickishness is not yet softened by trees. Sophie barely glances at them, while she pushes Melissa's stroller energetically towards her chosen one. She thinks of her house watching as the suburb rises to meet it, and says, in answer to her daughter's questioning tone, âDon't laugh Missy! It's not so weird!'
She stands under one of the heavy branches that overhang the fence. Like everything else about the house, the trees are beautiful. She begins to think it strange that she never sees anyone about.
Sophie's flat is one of a long line fronting a busy street. If there were a neon sign out the front, there'd be nothing to distinguish it from a motel room, except that the agent might see the outside was kept cleaner; if he had to attract overnight custom, that is. He might hose the concrete down every now and then, and plant a few shrubs and bushes. When the sun's high, it seems as though the walls and roof of her flat are shouting to it, âCome on down here! Burn me up!' By three in the afternoon, Sophie would rather be anywhere than where she is, anywhere at all.
The woman in the flat next to hers is Sophie's friend. Her name is Mrs G. She has wide Polish cheekbones and a settled smile. Mrs G is a widow whose son used to live in Canberra. When he was alive, he always took her places in his car â the Fyshwick markets and all kinds of places. Sophie doesn't know whether this was long ago, or just recently, since Mrs G is vague when it comes to time. She loves Melissa and talks to her in a mixture of languages which Sophie calls Ponglish.
Sophie, Melissa and Mrs G catch the bus to Fyshwick markets and Sophie leaves Melissa in the act of reaching both arms up to a round ripe canteloupe. She says to Mrs G, âThere's a shop I want to take a peek at. Too awkward with the stroller. Meet you at the pet shop over there? I'll hurry. Thanks.'
as a prowler might, a street walker of a different kind, a splinter of nervousness running up her spine. She's already rung and asked if they need new girls.
A computer place, a Sleep Doctor and a Pink Panther printers occupy the same cul de sac as the brothel. Small bushes ring the computer place, spiky Fyshwick bushes backing out of white pebbles with bits of black plastic showing through. It's like the area around the flats, but cleaner, buildings huddled together as if apologising for taking up the space.
Sophie takes a deep breath and rings the bell.
âNew girls are always welcome,' says the woman who opens the door. She has a cigarette voice with a deep crack in it somewhere.
She shows Sophie inside and arranges herself on a tall bar stool behind a white-topped desk. âThe best range of services in Canberra,' she says.
Sophie nods politely and says she can't stay long. She hasn't mentioned Melissa, and is nervous in case having a daughter will count against her.
She's told she can try out, Friday and Saturday nights for starters. Sophie says maybe just Friday night.
âFine,' says the woman, whose name is Mrs Dawson. She tells Sophie not to worry. An older girl will show her the ropes and she'll be fine.
Mrs Dawson has long wavy red hair and wears a low-cut blouse which shows the wrinkles round her breasts. She says that businessmen travelling interstate feel at home in Fyshwick, and especially at
âWhat'll I call you, love?' she asks.
âSophie. I prefer that to Sophia, which is my real name.'
Mrs Dawson nods. Sophie can see that she's trying not to smile. She can wear what she likes to work; she doesn't have to wear lace nighties or suspender belts, or any other daggy stuff. The only thing is: âSome clients only want a G-string massage, so get yourself a G-string, love.'
is overdone, Sophie thinks, hurrying to the pet shop, from Mrs Dawson's make-up to the red textured wallpaper, to the fountain in the foyer, to the Roman bath surrounded by ferns and tropical flowering plants, to the beds which are something else.
During the week she buys a green silk G-string from a lingerie shop in Civic. On Friday night she shows it to Mrs Dawson, who pronounces it âfine'. Sophie is already sick of that word, but she smiles and nods.
No adult has touched her since Simon left when Melissa was seventeen days old. Her breasts have been Melissa's, her mouth, her hair, her hands; all this her baby has had for the asking.
Her first client squeezes her nipples so hard Sophie almost cries out with the pain.
There are no buses from Fyshwick to Woden at five o'clock on a Saturday morning, so Sophie calls a taxi. The driver changes lanes without needing to, coasting effortlessly across two sets of broken lines which gleam white under the arc lights. The sun is a green glow over the hills. Sophie wonders when they turn the street lights off. She's never been out on the road at this time of the morning before.
On one side the grass has been cut, but on the other it's taller than she is, waving in the dawn wind, each single stem weighted with its head of seeds.
The driver doesn't try to make conversation. He tells her it's been quiet for a Friday and that's it till he flicks off the meter.
Sophie's shocked when she opens her bag and sees the roll of notes; it's like she's already forgotten. She's glad she's sitting in the back seat, and tells the driver he can keep the change. He flashes surprise, but she's gone, out and away, running across cool concrete.
She grabs Melissa and kisses her,
. Melissa squirms in her arms, while Mrs G yawns and says she's been no trouble, but next time don't come charging in and wake us up, eh? Sophie laughs and says she won't.
âIss only few steps from my door. I vill brink her ven she vakes.'
A few hours later, when she goes to the shops, Sophie's sure it's written all over her. But Mr Loukakis says, âG'day Soph, how's the nipper?' He doesn't even say she's looking tired.
There are two girls at
who've been with Mrs Dawson for years. They're called the twins. They do doubles and are incredibly popular.
The twins become Sophie's friends. They show her how to bring a John off quickly and teach her tricks of concentration, advise her to fake an orgasm sometimes, but not every time. They laugh at private jokes and treat one another with a courtesy which Sophie thinks of as old-fashioned, until she realises she's never met anyone, old or young, like them.
The twins have large breasts. They walk with their arms swinging sideways across their bodies like fat people, but they're not fat.
âTits are worth something,' Mrs Dawson says, âbut a good personality's worth more.'
Sophie's breasts are quite small. They've shrunk back now she's stopped feeding Melissa. She supposes that it had to happen.
At home, she cups her breasts in the palms of her hands and lifts them, turning side on to the mirror. Pears, she thinks. Pears, personality. Personality, pears. Then she thinks his name, just that one word.
So fuck you, she says aloud to the dry air, to banish disapproval.
One afternoon she has a cup of tea and a slice of carrot cake at the School of Arts cafÃ©, a posh place where the tea costs thirty cents more than at the take-away across the road. The cafÃ© is tastefully decorated for Christmas, and there are reserved cards on all the larger tables. Sophie sits at a small one in a corner. What the hell, she thinks, staring back at two middle-aged women at the table next to hers. I can afford it, just the same as you. When she feeds Melissa a few crumbs of carrot cake, it sticks in her throat. âHey,' Sophie says too loudly, âdon't throw up in here!'
Sophie pays Mrs G well for her night's babysitting, and Mrs G never asks questions about Sophie's job, not even half-framed Ponglish ones, for which Sophie would have to find half-deceitful answers. She feels the need to ask each week, âOkay for Friday?' and Mrs G nods in businesslike agreement.
Early on Saturday morning she pushes her door shut behind her, telling herself there's time for a couple of hours sleep before Melissa wakes up, but, tired though she is, she can rarely go to sleep.
She has to wait till Monday before she can take her money to the bank. Until then it sits in a drawer in her bedroom. She hates keeping the money in the flat all weekend. She hates opening the drawer and seeing it. It makes her feel dizzy, like she's standing on some high place on a ledge and the ground starts to shake. But she loves the thought of it sitting in the bank. She has a new relationship with the house she's saving for. She doesn't visit it so often, but at night it fills her dreams.
Total fire-ban days follow one another through December. The city is surrounded by elephant high yellow grass just waiting for a spark. The loose guttering on the flats is searing to the touch. The thin walls moan and the people inside them pant like dogs.
Sophie walks into
freshly-watered luxury and air-conditioned stealth. The fountain in reception is like the rain that always passes overhead, the rain clouds that won't be tempted earthwards.
Bubbles catch in fat men's skin folds. They order champagne because it's Christmas. âCheers,' they say and raise their glasses in Sophie's direction. Champagne bubbles in wide-lipped glasses, while the soap in the Roman bath presents itself as viscous, rainbow-coloured. Clients loll and sip while Sophie rubs their backs, leaning on the tiled rim.