Claire Duffy (Deakin University, Australia)
Taking a walk and looking at house fronts, knowing behind the facades there’s all sorts of turmoil. This is no stroll, almost a run, with sweat and a heart-beat and sore feet from shoes that don’t fit. She sees the man with the dog on a string leash, he lives around the corner, lives on his own, and the curtains are falling to pieces from the sunlight slowly eating them away. He holds onto that string like he’s holding onto a dream. He’s too old to work now but looks like he lives on a farm and should be driving a tractor and looking after sheep but he lives in the house on the street round the corner. He’s talking to the dog so she keeps her head up and watches the crest for a car that might come, a nod from the man as they pass, each on their own side of the road.
She’s passing the house with the pink car and the woman is leaving. The woman’s pushing the kid into the back seat and she’s hurrying around to her door which she slams and then she pushes the lock down. The man’s in the doorway and he’s not coming out. She yells as the engine starts up, she’s yelling at the kid but she’s yelling at the man and he won’t come out of the house. The tree in the yard is dropping its flowers all over the ground, they are pink and spiky but delicate and the car tyres squash them when she reverses onto the empty road. The kid in the car is playing with a Batman toy that twists at the waist and has a black cape that comes off. The woman has a bruise on her tattooed arm and she is leaving.
Walking faster now and there is the house with the little old man. He has a wife but you never see her, except through the gauze curtains, when she is ironing his shirts. She is tall and has old black hair and droopy arms. She looks like she knows where she is meant to be, no questions asked. The man has stopped selling vegies at his gate. Weeds are growing on the patches of dirt now and you can’t buy Jerusalem artichokes from him anymore. He doesn’t grow anything anymore but the car is still there so maybe he died and she is all alone now.
If she keeps walking on this road she’ll get home sooner and then she can eat but she wants to stay out a bit longer to give her mum a scare. The psych is only a call away, that’s what her mum says, only a call away. The long street that runs past the shopping strip is out of the way and will lengthen her trip but she’s doesn’t want to see the look on the people’s faces.
There’s an empty block and the rubbish is trapped against the fence and stuck on the weeds and she can imagine a car driving past and the rubbish flying from the window. She never sees anyone doing that when she’s on the street so they must do it late in the night when they can’t see the mess they make, as if they cared.
She turns into the court where nothing has changed. There is the yellow tree she always hated and there’s the letter box with the cement pig on it, its head disappearing in the top of the lid like it’s really inside but it’s just cut off to look like that. The lights are on in some houses and the cars are in the driveways and some garage doors are closed and she can’t tell if there is anyone home. She gets to the bend in the court and loses her nerve and stops and puffs and turns her head back to the entrance of the court. Then she is moving towards the place she promised to stay away from.
Her fingers are curled through the cyclone-wire fence which stands across the front-yard of the empty block in the court and she is looking at the path that curves to the clothesline, which stands bare at the back of the block. The bushes are backed up against the fence like girls at an old fashioned dance-hall waiting to be asked for a dance. She leans her forehead into the fence and it is pressing into her skin and she pokes her tongue through the criss-crossed wire and curls it around a strand and it tastes of that metallic tang.
The place where the house once stood is scarified and scattered with remnants of wood and wire, an unhoused patch of earth. She is looking at the spot where she was screaming and struggling with the man from next door when he stopped her from running inside the burning house again. The grass is blackened in patches and she knows that part of it is shaped like a sister who shouldn’t have been there.
She remembers the wind as a great moving force coming out of the sky and pressing the windows and bending the trees. The court late at night, her headlights arcing across the house-fronts, the flames, a wild beast in a fury, devouring the objects that made up her life: the antique table with rosewood inlay that she and her husband found in a junk shop and polished up on weekends, the tapestry she finished after two years of off-again-on-again enthusiasm, the tiles in the bathroom from a builder’s bankruptcy auction, her husband, whose clothes she found strewn in the smoky hallway like clothes flung from a suitcase in a road crash.
There’s the guy who was there when it happened, coming out of his house. He’s walking down his steps and he isn’t looking at her, he’s going to his car and he’ll see her when he drives past and she knows it’ll freak him out so she turns the other way. The opening of the court looks like a gaping mouth that’s going to swallow her but she has to keep walking and she makes it out of there before he drives past.
She walks back to her mother’s house where she has to live now, part of the promise she made. She smells the onion and meat in the air and guesses she’s not too late for tea. Her hair is messed up from the way she was ripping her fingers through it when she went to the court.
‘Too long, Paulette. See what the clock is telling me, it’s telling me, too long.’
Alla-han-dro. That was how her mum said it. If she had been a boy, Alexander would have been her name, that’s what her mum said. But she was a girl and the best they could come up with was a borrowed name from a distant aunt. She was a lesser Paul, Paulette. People called her other names—Paula, Lette, Pauly, Polly, Poor Lette, Paul Yet? It was a joke her sister made but she doesn’t joke anymore.
Her mother is wearing a purple cardigan and the sleeves are all saggy and she pushes them up to keep them out of the food but they slide down again. The windows are fogged up from the steam coming from vegies boiling on the stove and the exhaust fan is louder than the TV so its sound is just a murmur in the background. Her father is sitting at the table and reading the paper under a fluorescent light. He looks at her as though she’s the pet rabbit and she storms to her old room and slams the door. She hears the twittery sound of her mother carping to her father and doesn’t want to hear the knock on her door.
There is the note that she wrote and keeps folded in the bedside-table drawer. It is written on buff onion-skin paper from the art shop and she remembers choosing the thick black ink-pen after the psych suggested it. She holds the bumpy paper and feels the sweat prickling her hot skin under the T-shirt and track pants. She’s thinking about the man who lived next door to the house and how he said it wasn’t her fault and she’s glad he said it because then she could agree. The paper is soaking up the pads of sweat from her finger tips and she can hear her mum putting out the tea and she doesn’t want her mum to come to her room.
She wants to move out but her mum knows better and told her to wait till the storm blows over, luv. Her mum didn’t say it but she knows what goes on and she said it was okay to stay, but there are rules in this household, I don’t care how old you are.
She is remembering a photo that stood on the sideboard in the house in the court and she can see the dust on the glass in front of the picture. It is sunny and cool in the photo and she remembers how happy she was meant to be with a gold band on her finger and a white wedding dress. She is looking at her husband in his dark suit and her sister with the purple flower in her hair and the best man and they are all laughing and standing close together. She thinks if she saw this photo or one like it at someone else’s house she would think they were so happy they would stay that way for all time.
There is the pink dressing gown her sister-in-law gave her after the accident, telling her she believed that it wasn’t her fault. It was the last time she saw her sister in-law. She pulls it on over her cooling sweat-damp clothes and opens the door she painted teal so long ago she can’t remember why, a teenage whim. The corridor smells of cheap soap as she passes the bathroom and she wishes she could burn incense and rub patchouli oil on her skin but she can’t because everything is gone.
She is eating the meal her mother cooked and she is watching her father ignore her and she is re-living parts of her life in her mind: the part where she deletes the phone numbers of dead people from her phone, and the part where she is dry eyed at a double funeral, and the part where she is writing a note because she is left with no choices, and the part where she is explaining to her mother that she didn’t know they were both in there.
It is morning and she is watching the TV news and searching for sensations in her sedated body for a piece of herself. The couch and the curtains have been there for years and the pictures on the walls have never changed and the girl she was when she grew up here is gone along with the woman she became. With no house and no husband and no job she is a space with an outline but no infill. She clings to the message on the onion-skin paper and it draws her forward like a heaving-line attached to a stricken ship.
This week they are taking her car, to give it a run, and she is in the back seat with her seat-belt on and she is expecting her father to drive past the court and her mother to tsk-tsk. Her dad says, she’s got to get used to it some time, and her mum flicks a looks back at her and then stares out the front again. She is not looking at her mum and she is pressing her handbag into her lap and looking at the houses slide past like they have done for the last month-and-a half.
She is climbing out of the car she saved up to buy and she is watching her father drive it away. She sees the heads of her parents through the back window of the car and they are like two cardboard cut-outs in a cartoon. She’s holding her handbag in front of her like a teddy bear she once had and she turns and steps toward the sliding doors in the brown brick building.
She is looking at the psych in her warm room with office furniture and steam is coming from the coffee cup. She is telling the psych how she stays in the house, in her old room and goes out for walks. The psych is reading out the report that the police filed and it says the fire was started by a faulty wire in the bathroom where her husband had been tinkering. She knows she is meant to feel relief but there is her dead husband lying in their marriage bed surrounded in flames and smoke and there is her naked sister clawing the ‘carrawa twist’ carpeted floor, the carpet she and her husband had chosen when they built their house, and she is closing the door and choking on the smoke.
The psych is telling her she is improving and her mum is telling her dad to go and get the car from the car park as she approaches from the carpeted corridor leading out of the rooms. Rooms her mum and dad have never visited.
She is exhausted and just wants to lie down and she feels in her bag for the onion-skin note. She is listening to her mum gab on about who they met at the shops while she was visiting the psych. The friends who want to see her as soon as she’s up to it; did you know Pat and Rebecca are expecting their first? Her dad is sitting at the wheel of the car doing his duty and she is sitting behind him reading the note over and over again—Never let an opportunity go by—Never let an opportunity go by—Never let an opportunity go by. She knows the psych thinks she is using it to look forward but she is using it to look back too.
Claire Duffy is a PHD candidate at Deakin University, Geelong. She is interested in the transformative power of humour in feminist literature. She views writing as a powerful tool for voicing that which is not obvious, and that which is not easy—a catalyst for understanding. Windmills, Verandah, AntiTHESIS, Hecate, and In Stead have published her short stories.