Read Reading Madame Bovary Online

Authors: Amanda Lohrey

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Reading Madame Bovary

BOOK: Reading Madame Bovary

Reading Madame Bovary


Reading Madame Bovary

Published by Black Inc.,
an imprint of Schwartz Media Pty Ltd
37–39 Langridge Street
Collingwood VIC 3066 Australia
email: [email protected]

Copyright © Amanda Lohrey 2010

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.

The National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

Lohrey, Amanda

Reading Madame Bovary / Amanda Lohrey.

9781863954907 (pbk.)

Short stories


Book design by Thomas Deverall
Typeset by Duncan Blachford

Printed in Australia by Griffin Press

For Jan McKemmish



Madame Bovary

Ground Zero

Freedom, Order and the Golden Bead Material


The Art of Convalescence

The Existence of Other Men

John Lennon's Gardener

Letter to the Romans




That's me. Isadora Kay Munz. My mother called me Isadora because she greatly admired Isadora Duncan. A free woman, she used to say, I wanted to name you after a free woman. What's a free woman? I wondered then, and still I haven't figured it out. I hated the name, Isadora, and the fact that my family called me Izzie. When I reached sixteen I announced to everyone that hereafter I wanted to be called Jackie (after Jackie Onassis, whom I greatly admired) but soon the borrowed glamour of that wore thin. When I made out my first job application I signed myself I. Kay Munz and I've been Kay ever since.

From time to time my mother will bring the subject up with reproach. I gave you a distinguished name, she'll say, and you have made yourself ordinary.

I fall back on my schoolgirl Latin.
Alis volat propriis
: she flies with her own wings.

The house

The house is in Strathfield, Sydney, Australia, The Southern Hemisphere, The World, The Universe. It is a medium-sized Victorian terrace, six metres wide. Too dark, like all terraces, and with an immense mortgage that weighs on our brains like the hunch on a hunchback. We've been here six years and still we are unable to afford the repairs that would restore it to some level of gentrified grace and comfort. The walls and ceilings are flaking near the cornices, there's a brown damp patch in the corner of the dining-room ceiling, the bathroom still has the pink bath and the baby-blue tiles that our predecessor, a Portuguese bricklayer and cement contractor, got as a bargain deal.

Every night I dream about houses; some of them vast and palatial where I wander from room to room, others small and cramped and Dickensian. Sometimes the roof is missing, sometimes it's a wall. Sometimes there are no doors or windows. Sometimes a great crack opens in the foundations. Sometimes a bright light floods the house and I am happy.

The list

I begin each day by reading the list I have made the night before.

Sometimes this is the first thing I do in the morning after I sit up in bed. Here is a list of things I might do in one day. Every day the items change but never the length of the list.

– defrost meat in morning for dinner in evening

– make school lunches

– put on load of washing

– give dog flea tablet

– sign permission note for school excursion and fold into
envelope with seven dollars in change

– change Rebecca's dental appointment

– buy white cardboard for Ben's school project

– buy replacement air filter

– buy and post birthday card for George

– buy stamps from slot machine, fresh ham for school lunches,
ditto apples

– pick Ben up from aftercare

– hear Ben's reading practice

– wash mosquito nets in ti-tree oil

– cook dinner

And then there's my job. All of the above is just maintenance.


But I remember whole days spent in the pursuit of sex, not the act itself, but the preparation and anticipation. A date (single) or assignation (married) in the evening; shopping for a satin and lace chemise, a bodystocking, revealing enough to titillate but not absurd enough (red heart-shaped net with black lace, too ridiculous) to make us both laugh (inwardly), to bring on that fatal self-consciousness which is death to ecstasy – which is loss of self, or loss of all but a small corner, one blind focal point of self. The lingerie was not for him: I wanted something new for each new occasion, a new charge, no old associations. This was the flood of sexuality that motherhood dammed. Or dispersed. Men don't know how to handle this in the women they live with – they resist it when what they should do is enter into it; become the father as sexual object. A man who is good with a child takes on a new and subtle, but potent, sexual charge for the mother of the child. If only they knew.

The brothel

on a Monday morning and as usual I am at the station waiting for my train, waiting for it to throttle to the platform with its loose, dusty rattle.

They are filthy, these Sydney trains – never wear white to work on public transport – but once I am seated my mind tends to wander. This morning I find that suddenly I am reliving a recent fantasy, the one about the brothel. Some time ago I read about a male brothel in Paris. Yes, a male brothel. Those films about respectable housewives who secretly want to be prostitutes make me laugh. That's a male fantasy! Women want to go to brothels alright, but as customers, not workers. In the weekend papers I read about this brothel, and dozing on the couch in the sunroom I drifted into a prolonged fantasy. What would it be like, this place? How would it work? The best thing about it would be its evanescence: easy come (sic), easy go. And now I find I'm reliving this fantasy, on the morning commute of all places.


The harsh nasal burr of the PA system breaks into my reverie like a buzz-saw hitting a brick. But in the overall scheme of things it's a minor distraction. I see a large house, in the eastern suburbs maybe; or it could be a nondescript building in the city, an old office complex, three floors rented out; or a former private hotel of small apartments. I go in, and look through a one-way mirror at some young men playing cards in the parlour. They sit with their shirt-sleeves rolled to the elbow and my eyes caress their tanned forearms, their elegant necks and cropped heads and you can smell them, through the walls, their salty, spicy smell, and I hesitate, and then point, silently.


(The chainsaw again.) The woman on the desk (yes, it's still a madam – cosier, I think) nods, presses a buzzer beneath the desk, ushers you soundlessly out the back through the swinging, ranch-style doors and along a corridor carpeted in ice-blue. She produces a discreet single key and unlocks your apartment door. Inside there is subdued lighting, comfortable white couches, simple mirrors. He comes in, says hello, you say your name, he looks at home in the apartment, relaxed, like a woman, he asks if you'd like a drink, a cocktail, you say yes though you never drink cocktails but you want to watch him mix it. He pours things into a simple silver shaker, his gestures are spare and practised, he hands you your glass and sits opposite you, crossing his legs, one arm along the back of the couch and your eyes are drawn to the golden hair on his tanned forearm. There's something about that forearm that's full of promise.


His dark hair falls onto his forehead, casual, but he hasn't taken too much trouble with his appearance; he says he's been to the market that morning and found some wonderful barramundi. You wonder if you should believe him, if all the shopping is done by someone else, but you decide it doesn't matter. ‘After another martini we'll have dinner,' he says. ‘Okay?' You smile, you don't say anything. You gaze out of the window at the lights of the city.

You begin to submerge in that feeling of anticipation, of novelty, of alarm, of imminent revelation, although, in the end, it won't matter what it's like, in the end you may not even reach the sex, you may simply eat and eat and eat from his superbly delicate and thoughtful meal, and drink from his champagne, and fall asleep on his couch with your head in his lap and his mesmerising male smell in your face …


You look up, over to the corner. The table's set, but not fussily. He brings in a platter of fillets (he knows you hate fossicking among the bones) in a fine light sauce. He says, ‘I didn't think we'd need an entrée – it's too hot tonight.' You are soothed by his judgement, his ease, his conviction. You wonder what this superbly laid-back male has conjured for dessert, your sweet tooth. You shut out the thought of cheese cake


faux pas
that could flatten your erotic impulses, deflate your pneumatic balloon, dry up your brimming juices. You are momentarily uneasy at the thought of a fruit sorbet; too light, too unimaginative. You feel a warm, expansive ease in your belly and you cannot tell, or care, if it's your stomach or your womb expanding; you feel the blood flowing; the surge down
. There is no moment when it begins to flow, just that sublime gush of recognition when you become aware, when you acknowledge to yourself that the sluices are open. Juicing …


What do you talk about? You don't want to think about that, words can wreck a fantasy, words can wreck any erotic encounter, he might say something stupid and look suddenly goatish, or worse, say something melancholy, waiting for you to mother him. You make your responses warm but brief to discourage conversation. He suggests you have dessert and coffee on the couch; you think this is a wonderful idea, you tell him you want no coffee because you know it focuses the mind and clarity of thought is the last thing you want now, you move across, sink in the luxurious cushions stuffed with raw wool, not too firm, not too soft, and wait. He brings in the sabayon with raspberry sauce and sits beside you. Bliss, a proper pudding plate of fine white porcelain, a proper spoon, nothing dinky or parfait-like. There is something manly about this spoon, something unspeakably strong and streamlined and fine

Town Hall!

and you are almost at the high point of seduction when the PA blares


Here you are. Here
am in the gritty underworld of my terminus, a dark, musty hole of litter and dust and broken bottles and shit in corners; a place where men solicit rough trade in the public lavatories or, in one famous case, a judge exposed himself to commuters in the stairwell. Up the long, grubby escalator I glide and out into the diesel fumes of lower George Street. And the seduction moment is lost and I am in work mode and all I can think about is how you would pay afterwards. Cash, of course. In those other brothels, the ones for men, you pay before; you deploy your charmless credit card on the formica desk of the madam. Here, you bring cash. One-hundred-dollar notes, drawn especially; those notes that are too impractical for shopping. You fold them in a roll and ease them into the hip pocket of his pants, which hang on the large wooden knob of the door. Slipping that wad into his pants is your final, final pleasure.

You are a woman who likes to pay for it. No emotional investment, no protecting the investment over time (what is time, here?), no ego, yours or his, a total disregard of face; no cherished defences, nursing of sore spots, no ghosts, no vulnerability. Paid civility, the freedom of the cash contract. The free joy of the cash nexus is greatly underrated and we could do with more of it. If we paid parents and children to carry out their family rights and duties we might have less trauma. In the cash transaction we are equals – you are helping me by providing a service. I am helping you to make a living. No murky devious world of manipulation, obligation and superego – should, must, ought to. Duty.

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