Authors: Marilyn Duckworth
WALLACE IS A DOOR-TO-DOOR salesman. When he meets six-year-old Jania, his life gains a new dimension. He is in love. This is ‘pure’ adoration. Or is it?
Esther, reluctant grandmother, is too self-absorbed to notice the drama that is about to break.
Innocence carries its own dangers: love grows where least expected. The little girl might have some answers of her own, but who will listen?
‘As ever, Duckworth’s dialogue is sharp and full of pace …’
New Zealand Books
‘This is a very fine novel, funny, sexy, unsettling and very, very hard to put down.’
The Evening Post
“So when the bag snaps on
flies open like leather wings
and you see instead of feathers
the tucked in jars, the notched tubes,
the salves the spices
the lovely stuff of the flesh,
ask him in go on, in for a moment.
There’s no telling what else he might show you —”
(From “Don’t Knock the Rawleigh’s Man” by Vincent O’Sullivan.)
Y FATHER WAS
a wizard. Yes. Wizard in his office, wizard in his toolshed, wizard at chess. My father the wizard. Hell! I don’t know why I should be talking about my father (at a time like this). I never got on with my father; but that, of course, was my fault for not being a wizard. I am that other thing, a “clumsy devil”. There are devils and wizards and I know which one is me. Wizards are doers, they can do whatever they set out to do. Devils are undoers: they do evil well but good things only badly. It all starts coming undone, unravelling. When I left school I wanted a “good” job more than anything in the world (well, almost anything; not more than
), but good jobs kept letting me go, like something weak and slippery, like Father let me go. It isn’t only the way I speak — the stammer and this kind of a lisp, which Father said I could get rid of simply by trying if I wanted — so obviously I didn’t try. Something stopped me trying — my devilness, he said and she agreed with him that time. And so my tongue went on hissing and jerking, goes on sticking in this dumb way and makes me awkward and ugly sounding.
Not quite unemployable, however. Today I am in employment, my own man. In this job I am the strongest person I have ever been. The Rawleigh’s man.
Rawleigh’s man — get it? — a title more than a job, better than Mister or Wallace. Independent distributor. When I began to cover the district from Kumara Street all the way to Victoria Avenue, women answered my knock: “The Rawleigh’s man! I haven’t had one of you at my door since (whenever)! I thought you were extinct!”
“One of you” wasn’t so good. Not exactly flattering to be one of. But I knew what was meant. They were pleased to see me. I am one of a lost tribe — door-to-door — a bit of nostalgia, like Mother’s art deco teaset. I get invited inside, if I’m clever — into kitchens, lounge rooms — to open up my sample case, stacked full with tubes and jars and spices. I flash my list of household products, a catalogue of smells, cleaning
aids to vanilla essence. “No medicine cabinet is complete without Rawleigh’s.” “A Friend of the Family since 1889.” It’s a matter of smiling and talking just the right amount, never mind about my tongue getting in a twist. Sometimes the whole family joins in: aunts, boarders, children. I enjoy the children, the way they lean their little bodies and peer and get elbowed back by Mummy, so I produce certain give-away things for them, my own line of product, not on the printed list: doll’s lipsticks, parasol toothpicks, that kind of thing, picked up cheap at warehouse sales. You have to be careful or they think you’re some kind of threat, a danger. Stranger danger — we learnt about it at school; the newspapers are mad on it these days. But I’m not a dangerous stranger, I’m the Rawleigh’s man, doing my job, earning my crust, earning trust, the sort of person you speak to in the supermarket.
Of course, there are those other women, the young ones, the deceivers, the seducers, who flutter at me, the sluts, but I know them for what they are. I know women. They are no danger for me. I sell them ointments and lipsalves without seeing their eyes blinking at me. I can look at customers’ faces without seeing, it’s a special art. A devilish art, okay, but I do it well.
I make a living — just. Father might be surprised if he knew. Of course, he can’t know, we don’t keep in touch, how could we? And I don’t know how long I can keep it up, this job. Any day it could happen. Chop. But that’s the times. The times we live in. You can’t expect to be confident, to feel secure in these nineties. Not if you’re Wallace Wells, tongue tied, always on the edge of evil, like a cliff, waiting for the push. I do know people like me have no right to live in the world, not like other people, but here I am stuck in the business of living; so I just have to get on with it, don’t I? I didn’t ask to be born.
That’s a joke, her and him together in a bed; I heard it once, it was disgusting. I was disgusted. Funny, because I’ve had girlfriends, I’ve nothing against that sort of thing, I’m a normal man with appetites. Sometimes I’m even greedy. It’s the devil in me. I can’t help what I am.
STHER’S FIRST REACTION
when she hears that Jania has run away is — Oh, God, not again. Her second reaction is more despicable — Isn’t it peaceful without the child in the house? She will have to confront this sooner or later, her ambivalence towards the six year old, who is her only grandchild, who is her reluctant responsibility.
There is no law that says a mother must feel love for her daughter. There is no law that says a woman must feel love for her grandchild. She is fairly sure her own mother felt not
love exactly but certainly not
love for Esther. Yes, she is fairly sure of that. While she thinks about her mother’s not-quite love, she feels her lips drawing tighter, as she has felt them squeeze trying not to yawn rudely in public, how they squeezed when she was trying not to be car sick as a child. Nausea or anything as orgasmic as nausea is not for public display. You have to hide the inside of your mouth, the inside of yourself. It isn’t good to show your tonsils, her mother used to say — put your hand up when you yawn! It isn’t good to show how she feels about Jania — or doesn’t feel. There might be no written law that one must love family dependants, but it is certainly expected of her — her workmates expect it, her friend Melanie expects it, the man at the dairy, even Rex expects it. She does her best to suppress the evidence of her feelings, but suspects Jania knows, is coolly aware. Cool little Jania. Which is part of the trouble, of course. The child’s coolness. Her not needing, or what looks like not needing. Esther hides herself behind words like “non-demonstrative”. Not her fault, simply handed down in her family like scalloped nostrils, bony shoulders. There were no siblings for her to practise on while she grew, perhaps that was part of it. She had to make do with pets: guinea pigs in the backyard hutch and cats, of course, always cats. When her mother started going away for “holidays in the hospital”, she had needed her cat. Rex won’t have animals in the house — cats make him
sneeze, birds make him shudder — but he seems fond enough of his grandchild. She is certainly loveable, as all small animals are loveable, but it would be easier for Esther if Jania resembled her cat-like mother instead of her weaselly Canadian father. Meanwhile Jania has escaped, has strayed again and must be recaged, brought back into the fold.
The child is discovered this time only a short distance away; in the local public convenience, which perches on a triangle of lawn. She was setting up house underneath the sooty wash-basins, her shiny cushion, her school lunch box, her torch and a handful of troll dolls for company. Jania has no idea of the danger of public toilets, which Esther associates readily with germs, perverts, crimes of blood. She hauls the child across the road with unnecessary force, spewing words of reproach and disgust out of the side of her mouth at Jania, who has to leap to keep up with her grandmother.
“I was only …”
“What were you doing in that place?” Esther cries, noticing too late that she has interrupted what could be an explanation. And now Jania is silent, of course. Sulking.
It isn’t Jania’s fault that she is difficult. Some of the blame at least must go to the father who has had to raise her single-handedly from the age of three and a half — when Prue, her mother, died. And a poor fist he made of it. She was five when he gave up and sent her by Canada Airlines and United to Esther and Rex, her New Zealand grandparents. The other grandparents, closer geographically, were not worth considering; ageing hippies traipsing about North America in a sort of covered wagon. Jania’s father had made up his mind to go back to college and complete his abandoned degree. Just one more year now and he would take on fatherhood again, an improved version of Father, with letters after his name and a better job. How could they have refused? They weren’t selfishly stuck in the sixties, irresponsibly On The Road, after Jack Kerouac — no such luck.
Esther and Rex are firmly of their times, these nervous nineties, clutching with freckled hands at the receding security of the Welfare State. Rex still has his medical insurance, thank God, but now it costs him real dollars, and Esther’s
reduced working hours at her office have meant reduced “circumstances” as well. She won’t be able to retire for years now, thanks to this government, not if she wants her full guaranteed retirement income. She is fifty-six. Whereas Rex, one year older, has been retired four years already, forcibly, due to his health, his poor old heart.
Poor old Rex leans on the kitchen door handle and watches his two females approaching around the side of the house. Esther is hung about with Jania’s bright red school bag and pink frilly umbrella, the stained cushion under her armpit. Rex wears that double expression of apprehension and relief, as if his face can’t decide which costume to don after so many quick changes and so must wear everything at once.
“You found her then.”
“No. I swapped her for a dwarf. What do you think?” She hears her voice grating at him impatiently. She is aware that she and Rex operate with each other in pre-sketched patterns, deeply grooved over years of marriage. It has worsened since his illness, since the doctor warned her that Rex shouldn’t be stressed. He lives in a state of suppressed terror. Sometimes she is frightened too on his behalf, but sometimes she feels angry and longs to punish him, prod him into holding his shoulders back and his head up like he used to, like the man she married instead of this shuffling turtle. Now she can’t even shout. Her resentments, once intermittent as the shriek of a whistling kettle, have flattened out to a steady grinding hiss of escaping steam. She takes a breath and explains fairly calmly where she has had to go to retrieve his errant granddaughter this time.
“How did you know she’d be in there?”
“I didn’t, did I? That’s why I’ve been so long.” She swallows a rude word. What has Rex contributed to Jania’s rescue?
“I’ve got the dinner on,” he appeases. “I know someone who likes my cheesy cauliflower.”
Jania perks up.
“Do you deserve dinner?” Esther asks her. “Are you sure? You’re not going to run off and be a silly girl again?”
“Of course she won’t, will you? You didn’t mean to worry Esther, did you?”
Jania hangs her head, judging silence to be the better option.
“She misses her father,” Rex says in the kitchen, ladling cheese sauce. His sauce has gone lumpy for no good reason, and he has had to put it in the blender to get it right. Not that anyone will notice the trouble he’s gone to.
Esther gazes gloomily at the gluey mess on the kitchen bench. “Well, she won’t find him in a ladies’ toilet.”
“Nor a men’s either, I hope.”
“What do you mean? He’s entitled to a leak.”
“You know what I’m saying. We have to explain it to her Esther, some of the facts of life. She’s altogether too trusting. There’s too many villains about.”
“What?” Jania has appeared, nosing at the benchtop, suspicious that secrets are being kept from her. “What’s a villain?”
At the dinner table Esther explains. She is proud of her explanation, one she had rehearsed carefully weeks earlier, when there was a slack period at work. She had studied a handbook on child rearing, which lives still under some papers in her desk, and had even made some useful notes at the time. Later on her nerve failed her, which wasn’t like Esther but we all have our weaker pressure points. Today, nerve buoyed by irritation at Rex for having raised the subject first, she wades in, waving phrases above her cauliflower cheese about “good and bad touching”. Rex watches her performance with an unhelpful look of scepticism on his lumpy face.
Jania pokes windows in her mashed potatoes and quickly finishes all but her “best bite” of cauliflower.
“You understand what I’m saying?”
“What? Yes. Can I have some more cheesy stuff?”
“Finish your potatoes first.”
“Oh, Granny!” She knows Esther doesn’t like being called Granny, her father’s word, and slides a sideways glance ready to catch the reaction. There is no reaction. Esther is too tired. The anger falls off her like a worn shoe. It doesn’t really fit, this anger she feels for Jania when she causes trouble. It isn’t
quite anger for the child but anger for something she can’t precisely locate. She doesn’t know where to look. She won’t find it in a ladies’ toilet, nor anywhere else she might run away to. It is somewhere here in this house.
“Don’t worry, love, we’ll clear the dishes, won’t we, Jania?”
“We do have a dishwasher,” she reminds her husband, defensive.
As if he is humouring her, as if she is brain damaged.
While Rex and Jania watch ‘Coronation Street’, lines of sight linked at very different angles to the screen — Jania from the floor, Rex from his wonky armchair — Esther sits with her elbows on the table in her polyester blouse and thinks about her long-term lover, a thought which gives her almost no pleasure at all.
STHER’S FAMILY ARE
careful to cover their mouths when they chew and when they yawn: Esther is equally careful to cover her illicit passion. Behind the poised hand it is acceptable for feelings to writhe and convulse, everyone does it. Love is the excuse, or Esther’s excuse. Excuse me, I fell in love — well, you know how it is. In the beginning she told it to herself like a story, like a novel in which she was heroine and beautiful. In the first instance, sixteen years ago, the little bit of guilt on the gingerbread only helped it to slip down faster, if that isn’t too rude a metaphor for what Esther and Donald get up to in his car, her car, the park. But as time goes by guilt has a way of solidifying like fat and sticking in the throat. It isn’t natural to be able to deceive the parties involved for such a length of time. The sum of years measuring a marriage can only end up in the credit column, a deserving plus, a tick from the hand of society, while in an affair — this affair anyway — the amount has become merely ludicrous, a clumsy total, a tachyderm trying to tango. At one time they had feared being found out; by now who would believe them? Donald has Odoreaters and orthotic arch supports in his shoes, Esther has had her varicose veins stripped. It is possible, in fact, that some of the older staff in Esther’s office might remember prodding suspicions about the two of them, but if so no one is excited by it now, not even Esther and Donald. Not excited. Yet there is something there, a comfortable added dimension to life, like shag-pile carpeting. She would miss it if it were removed and the floor left bare as her husband’s hairless chest.