ELLE fic­tion

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents - by Sue Woolfe

“Her Laugh­ter Like A Song Of Free­dom” by Sue Woolfe.

Ger­ard was a man who’d learned early to eke things out. When he was a child, his mother had come un­ex­pect­edly to his pri­mary school one lunchtime and hugged him across the fence. Ger­ard had tried not to turn and check which chil­dren were look­ing. But that af­ter­noon, when he let him­self into his house with the key un­der the dead aza­lea, he found a note from his mother pinned by a knife to the door­frame. He thought he could make out the word “gold”. His fa­ther, com­ing home some hours later, said it merely read “gone to get din­ner”. How­ever, nei­ther din­ner nor his mother turned up and Ger­ard learned how to make the mem­ory of a hug last. His mother, on her even­tual re­turn, seemed to be al­ways frown­ing over a cig­a­rette, as if cig­a­rettes were her only hope, but even they be­trayed her, he could tell that by the in­dig­nant way she stubbed them out in fierce cir­cles on dishes, the sink, once even in the cat’s plate. Fam­ily din­ners were so silent you could hear ev­ery­one swal­low­ing. Ger­ard tried to time his swal­lows to fit in with his par­ents’ to be com­pan­ion­able, but no-one no­ticed. Then, when Ger­ard was 15, his fa­ther, a lab­o­ra­tory at­ten­dant who stole lab­o­ra­tory bot­tles for no pur­pose that Ger­ard could see, was asked by the lab­o­ra­tory head one rainy af­ter­noon to be driven to the bus stop. Ger­ard’s fa­ther was a pro­cras­ti­na­tor and hadn’t emp­tied the sta­tion wagon of his lat­est haul. It was dif­fi­cult to con­verse, what with guilt, the rain and the jan­gling of so many bot­tles. The head be­came sus­pi­cious and silent. The depart­ment had been ask­ing ques­tions about the dis­ap­pear­ance of lab­o­ra­tory equip­ment, in­clud­ing bot­tles. When the head got out and be­fore he put up his um­brella, he broke the rules of po­lite­ness and peered into the gloom of the sta­tion wagon. Shortly af­ter­wards, Ger­ard’s fa­ther lost his job. Shortly af­ter that, he left home, strid­ing to the cor­ner, his pocket ring­ing with all the coins he saved. At the cor­ner, he turned to wave. He’d smiled a to­tal of five times in Ger­ard’s child­hood, from the time when Ger­ard be­gan count­ing, which was when he was in kinder­garten. So a wave seemed to be­lie the threat of im­mi­nent aban­don­ment and gave the boy courage, and he jumped the gate (it was girl­ish to open gates, and he didn’t want his fa­ther to loathe him for be­ing girl­ish) and he sped af­ter his fa­ther. “Where are you go­ing?” he asked. “Nowhere,” said his fa­ther. Over a silent din­ner that night, he asked his mother if his fa­ther had loved him. “Who knows?” she said. Some years later, when his mother died, Ger­ard de­cided to find a wo­man. By this stage, he lived alone in a small and grimy semi-de­tached house of cranky-look­ing red brick. He’d be­come a lab­o­ra­tory at­ten­dant like his fa­ther, but un­like his fa­ther, he col­lected noth­ing. Mak­ing things en­dure had be­come a lonely pas­sion. Af­ter din­ner, he didn’t just go to bed as his mother and fa­ther had done; he’d think of how to do some ek­ing out. When he’d sneezed his way through a box of tis­sues, he’d sort them and dry the most in­no­cent-look­ing ones with a hairdryer. He split tooth­paste tubes and bot­tles of clean­ing fluid into two so he could

use ev­ery last drop, and if the bot­tles had moulded han­dles, he’d take to their in­sides with a pipe cleaner. He spent many en­gross­ing evenings un­rav­el­ling the outer and in­ner tis­sues of toi­let pa­per, then rewind­ing them onto two tubes saved from the in­sides of pre­vi­ous rolls. In fact, toi­let rolls were the pin­na­cle of his night-time suc­cesses, he be­lieved. The dis­cov­ery of how to eke some­thing out brought him an in­no­cent and gen­tle glow, a feel­ing as if some­one had just given him a hug. One night, af­ter clean­ing his house care­fully so it would be pleas­ant to come home to, he put on his best clothes and went down to the town, to a bar. It was early, about din­ner­time. There were pud­dles on the foot­path from re­cent rain. The bar was dim and de­serted. But, as if she were meant for him, a wo­man was sit­ting alone on a stool, drink­ing whisky. He stood at the other end of the bar, wait­ing. He knew how to wait, he had a firm be­lief in wait­ing. Any­way, it was in­ter­est­ing to wait for her. The light was tan­gling in her red hair. Her clothes were crum­pled, as if she’d slept in them. She had dark cir­cles un­der her eyes be­cause she’d re­cently cried so much that mas­cara had slipped down her face. Ger­ard didn’t mind; in fact, he thought that it all made her into some­one who might like him. He was moved by the way she drank quickly, need­ily, like a wild home­less cat that had stopped clean­ing it­self, that had stopped want­ing hu­mans. This thought gave him courage to move closer to her, and speak. “Would you like to come to my place?” he asked. He con­sid­ered the pos­si­ble at­trac­tions of his house, be­yond him­self. He’d left it spot­less, es­pe­cially the bath­room. He al­ways scrubbed it with vine­gar, as his mother had taught him. To­day he’d done it es­pe­cially well. His mother would have paused be­tween cig­a­rettes, so great would her ad­mi­ra­tion have been. He wished he could tell the wo­man that. “You’d like my bath,” was all he said. The bar­man paused mid­way through pour­ing her an­other whisky. His lips twitched, as if he was re­peat­ing the line to him­self for future use, thought Ger­ard, feel­ing ur­bane. The wo­man said noth­ing, but ten­drils of her red hair fell into the slop of whisky in her glass. Ger­ard wanted to take her hair and dry it on the soft lapels of his coat. He didn’t have a chance to speak fur­ther, be­cause she raised her pale face to him, al­most as if she’d al­low him to kiss her. It was all he could do not to stroke it. The long­ing to stroke her drew the right words out of him. “Come home,” he said. This time he didn’t check the bar­man’s re­ac­tion. She drank the new whisky in two swal­lows. Ger­ard loved her pale throat, the way it dis­tended. She slipped off her stool. “The bill,” said the bar­man. “Of course,” said Ger­ard, who wasn’t in the least miserly, just some­one who eked mo­ments out. He touched the notes ten­derly as he handed them over, be­cause he could do this small thing for her. Then he drew her lit­tle hand into the crook of his arm, and led her to the door. She was much smaller than him, so all he could see was the hair on her rounded head. “You must have a beau­ti­ful name,” he said when they were out in the street, with the bar­man shut be­hind them. “Beate,” she said. “Of course,” he said. He was a lit­tle dis­com­forted by her voice. It wasn’t the fluffy, com­pli­ant mur­mur he’d ex­pected, but deep and grav­elly. He couldn’t think of any­thing to say as they walked to his house. Nei­ther, it seemed, could she. But as they dodged a par­tic­u­larly large pud­dle out­side his gate, he thought of tak­ing off his coat for her to step on. He didn’t do it, didn’t even of­fer to do it, but the gal­lantry of the thought made him feel a very nice person. On his doorstep she raised her face to him. He could scarcely breathe for her beauty. “What do you want from me?” she asked. “You,” he said. He opened his door. “What the hell’s this?” she cried. He’d pinned up two long strings from the ceil­ing and down the length of his hall, to which he’d pegged used en­velopes with mes­sages to him­self. The mes­sages, he saw with sud­den alarm, said dull things like: eggs, mop head, jam, pins, but­ter. He’d taken to pop­ping used shop­ping lists back on the string when he came home from the shops in case he could use them an­other time, to save him­self writ­ing out a new list. He wanted to ex­plain to her the econ­omy of this strat­egy, but she in­ter­rupted him. “Where’s the bath­room?” she said. Her voice sug­gested she didn’t re­quire an ex­pla­na­tion. He led her to the bath­room. He had a vi­sion of run­ning a bath for her and sit­ting on the edge, per­haps on his best towel, but he tact­fully with­drew and made him­self go ]

into his kitchen to pre­pare warm co­coa for them both. In the dis­tance, as he moved be­tween his shelves and his stove, he could hear her tin­kling, and the whirr of his toi­let roll on the holder. All the sweet­ness he’d felt for her came rush­ing back, and he han­dled the lit­tle pot of milk over the heat with great gen­tle­ness. “What’s your name?” she sud­denly shouted from be­hind the bath­room door. “Ger­ard,” he said, hop­ing it was a good name. “Some loony’s been muck­ing around with your toi­let roll,” she shouted. “I’m sorry,” he said, star­tled. He sank back into the kitchen. “Have you got any­thing else?” she called. “Any other rolls?” “They’re all like that,” he said. Then he re­mem­bered the pile of re­cently dried tis­sues in his bed­room. They were wrin­kled, he now saw with alarm, and he tried to flat­ten them as he car­ried them to the bath­room door. He knocked, placed the tis­sues into her del­i­cate hand and tact­fully with­drew and sat on his bed. He heard a snort of laugh­ter from the bath­room, but he tried not to lis­ten. Sud­denly, in the fa­mil­iar­ity of his room, with his foot bent against the old wardrobe from his child­hood, he seemed to be no longer alone. Be­side him in a pool of grey light, he saw a be­ing, trans­par­ent but dent­ing the mat­tress, there but not there, dressed in el­e­gant new clothes, with Ger­ard’s hair fall­ing no longer lankily onto Ger­ard’s fore­head, but stylishly. Be­fore his very eyes, the ghostly Ger­ard got up, as­sured and poised, and walked into a bar, the very bar Ger­ard had been in this evening, but the ghostly Ger­ard was dig­ni­fied, though hum­ble, un­re­mark­able but re­spectable. In that mo­ment, Ger­ard felt a rush of joy. He be­lieved that one day he could be that man, if the world was kind. Right now, with Beate, the world had be­come be­wil­der­ing. When he heard the shower tap turn­ing on, Ger­ard felt bereft, more bereft than he’d ever been in his life. He saw with new eyes, as if through the bath­room wall, the bath soap Beate would be us­ing right now. Last week he’d boiled down old bits of left­over soap to make new cakes, ex­cept that they hadn’t come out as cakes but as clumps. Then he re­mem­bered that yes­ter­day he’d al­most run out of sham­poo, so to get the last drops out of the bot­tle, he’d filled it with wa­ter all ready for his next hair wash­ing. He was sure that she was laugh­ing at him as she show­ered. He tried in­stead to con­cen­trate on an im­age of her emerg­ing pink and damp and rosy and ap­prov­ing, wrapped up like a Christ­mas present in his towel, but it didn’t work. So he set the light low and got into his py­ja­mas. He was glad to re­move his shoes be­fore she came into the room, be­cause he’d been mak­ing his shoelaces last by not us­ing them. (Lately he’d thought that he should make his mat­tress last longer by not us­ing it, but he hadn’t put that plan into op­er­a­tion yet, which he saw now was tak­ing things to ex­tremes.) He wanted to dis­own his thoughts, as if they weren’t part of him. She came into the room, arms folded. “Are you the ob­ses­sive loony?” she asked. It took all his courage to an­swer. “Yes,” he said. “Je­sus!” she said again. She roared with laugh­ter. Af­ter a while, she picked up her co­coa. “What are you drink­ing out of?” she asked. So he had to ex­plain how he saved up old jam jars. He’d given her his only cup. She sighed. “I put up with a lot,” she said. “I’ve learned to.” He was re­lieved, though sad, at the res­ig­na­tion in her voice. “I’m nice,” he said, hope­fully. “I wanted more than nice,” she said. “I’m sorry,” he said. How­ever, she got into bed be­side him. She was naked and warm, though damp. Her eyes were brown be­tween thick lashes, and her nip­ples, high on her freck­led breasts, were shaped like stars. A puff of love re­turned to Ger­ard. “At least my bath­tub was clean, just like I promised,” he told her. Love didn’t last more than two weeks, to Ger­ard’s re­lief. Beate seemed quite ea­ger to leave, to stay with her sis­ter, she said. Ger­ard hadn’t heard about this sis­ter; in fact, he hadn’t heard much about Beate, al­though she talked a lot on his mo­bile, which he sel­dom used be­cause there was no-one to ring. What he’d learned was that she’d laugh at him in her grav­elly way when­ever he came into a room. When she wasn’t look­ing, he prac­tised dif­fer­ent styles of en­trances – thought­ful, ur­gent, pas­sion­ate, ab­sent-minded – to see if he could en­ter in a way that wasn’t ab­surd. But she con­tin­ued to laugh. He made sure she had enough money to see her through for sev­eral weeks, and he in­sisted on pack­ing her a suit­case with a week’s sup­ply of his favourite food, ce­real. Af­ter see­ing her off, he went to bed straight af­ter din­ner for a long time, toss­ing and turn­ing as he tried to feel good about him­self. But as he shuf­fled his feet in the dark, the way he lived seemed more and more shame­ful. Af­ter some months, old habits re­turned, and with them a new ten­der­ness, if not for Beate, then for the mem­ory of that first night at the bar, when she had seemed like a lost, wild cat. He eked this mem­ory out through the next five years. But one Satur­day night, his neigh­bours had a party. They didn’t in­vite him. Ger­ard com­forted him­self that this was prob­a­bly be­cause they didn’t know he ex­isted. Not many peo­ple did. Any­way, so much noise came through his wall it was al­most like be­ing at the party. He dragged his bed to the wall, and lis­tened to the mu­sic and chat­ter and a wo­man’s voice, a laugh that al­most be­came a song. It wasn’t at all like Beate’s laugh. It was a song about summer and

“She came into the room, arms folded. ‘Are you the ob­ses­sive loony?’ she asked. It took all his courage to an­swer. ‘Yes,’ he said”

happy homes and love, and no-one crit­i­cis­ing any­one else. A song of free­dom. He went to his kitchen and got down one of his drink­ing glasses (the old jam jars) and cupped it to the wall, not to spy but to de­light in her. That’s when he con­cocted the plan that changed his life. He knew how to change things. He would hold his own party. He thought about it all night, long af­ter next-door’s party had shouted good­byes and slammed car doors and driven off. He thought about the best time for a party, about the right date, about the wine. He was quite good at wines, be­cause he’d used wine oc­ca­sion­ally as a so­lace on cold win­ter evenings. He was rather fond of sweet, red, dusty, med­i­ta­tive wine. He thought it sug­gested po­etry and a walk along a dark, brood­ing coun­try road. He wasn’t sure what peo­ple ate at par­ties, but he’d put out his favourite food, which was still ce­real. He might even buy lit­tle boxes of dif­fer­ent ce­re­als, he thought, so peo­ple could choose which­ever one they wanted. He wor­ried about bowls for peo­ple who wanted to eat their ce­real wet, but there were al­ways his jam jars. He tried to imag­ine peo­ple stand­ing in his din­ing room en­thu­si­as­ti­cally eat­ing ce­real from his jam jars, but their faces were in the shad­ows, whereas his brim­ming table glowed un­der the bright lights of his imag­i­na­tion. His favourite day­dream was about the mu­sic at his party. It would be the mu­sic of a wo­man’s laugh­ter, and that laugh­ter would set him free. He be­came so sleep­less with ex­cite­ment that he de­cided not to put the party off a mo­ment longer. In Molly Dyson’s 39th year of be­ing a vir­gin, she un­ex­pect­edly found her­self at a party. Later, she had trou­ble ex­plain­ing the evening to her­self, al­though later, much later at a hap­pier time, she could tell her daugh­ter about it and smile. Per­haps it had all hap­pened be­cause it al­ready was a short­sleeved Syd­ney summer evening promis­ing par­ties in per­fumed gar­dens, even though all she was do­ing was com­ing home from work. The front door of the house round the cor­ner from hers was open, and be­hind it was dark­ness, like a cave. Caves were con­nected with mu­sic for Molly Dyson be­cause the first piece of clas­si­cal mu­sic she’d lis­tened to as a child, re­ally lis­tened to, de­light­ing in the echoes and rip­ples and storms, was “Fin­gal’s Cave”. The first paint­ings she no­ticed were Rem­brandt’s, where men glowed like wrapped Christ­mas presents amongst brown shad­ows. Later, she hid her love of lush­ness so well that any­one look­ing at her plain, em­bar­rassed face would as­sume she was plain all the way through. The mu­sic that erupted from the house was heavy metal, not lush at all, but at the cen­tre of it, on this par­tic­u­lar summer evening, there was a plain­tive qual­ity, like a child call­ing. She should have seen that as a sign of what was to come. But Molly Dyson had had a lit­tle brother who’d died in early child­hood, and sud­denly there in the road all she could think of was how the child’s tiny hand had held hers, al­most pro­tec­tively. Her steps fal­tered. Just then, a man with flap­ping shirt sleeves, who was hold­ing a jam jar of red wine, came to the door and glanced at the evening sky, glum on the steely roofs of build­ings, and then at her. “Are you look­ing for some­thing?” he asked. She laughed be­cause she of­ten filled si­lences that way. And also be­cause some­one had no­ticed her, and as­sumed she had a pur­pose. She tried to look pur­pose­ful. The man was smil­ing, his whole face glow­ing, she later re­mem­bered. His mouth was open, drink­ing in her laugh­ter. “The party’s here,” he said. Molly Dyson had al­ways been convinced that the whole city was par­ty­ing with­out her on those end­less days when merely to go to bed was a re­lief from lone­li­ness. And now, at last, she was in­cluded. “Good,” she said. She turned a right an­gle on her sen­si­ble heel. “I’m so glad you found it,” he said as she walked past him. He had an un­cer­tain voice, as un­cer­tain as her own, so she felt un­usu­ally sure of her­self. “So am I,” she said. She went down the hall of the house, where mes­sages, clearly im­por­tant and ur­gent, hung from a string. She wasn’t im­po­lite enough to read them. How­ever, she made a men­tal note to hang her mes­sages up in the same way – not that there were many ur­gen­cies in her life. The house smelled of vine­gar. Per­haps the man, her host, was a keen cook, and he was pick­ling some­thing mar­vel­lous, lamb, with cu­cum­bers, black pep­per, ex­otic spices. She’d read in the news­pa­pers about peo­ple who did things like that. She looked around the room, ad­mir­ing ev­ery­thing. The din­ing table was heavy with rows of empty jam jars. There were also lines of lit­tle pack­ets of ce­re­als. Per­haps they were for a party game! She’d been good at party games, she’d looked for­ward to par­ties when she was a child, to show off how good she was at car­ry­ing wob­bly eggs on spoons. She laughed aloud to think how like those wob­bly eggs she’d be­come. And the ce­real boxes – no doubt for an ap­par­ently child­ish game, pro­found in its sim­plic­ity. She cast her mind around the pos­si­bil­i­ties, to be ready. Maybe you had to see how many corn­flakes you could fit into a jar with­out squash­ing them – that might be it! And then you had to say what this was a metaphor of – what would she say? She was see­ing the wide world at last, here in this un­ex­pected mo­ment she was sud­denly so­phis­ti­cated and cos­mopoli­tan. All the petty and in­con­se­quen­tial things in her life were like a pre­vi­ously se­cret pro­ces­sion, head­ing

to­wards the light of this party. She sat down on the sofa, which creaked, but to choose to have such an old sofa seemed non­cha­lant and whim­si­cal. She won­dered if ev­ery­one had gone up­stairs. That must be what one did at par­ties these days. She thought how right she’d been not to give into an im­pulse to run away and hide in a coun­try town that might be friendly, when this could hap­pen to her in the city. And just around the cor­ner from her! Good­ness, this might be the start of a new life! So she tapped her feet to the heavy metal, and tried not to lose the beat. When the mu­sic stopped, the house was so quiet she could hear the roof twitch­ing in the evening. Had ev­ery­one gone to sleep up­stairs? A whole party full? Af­ter a while, it seemed im­per­a­tive to do some­thing, so she went to the front door. The man was still there, fin­ish­ing the last drops of wine in his jar. “Where is ev­ery­one?” she asked. She was used to peo­ple’s eyes flick­er­ing to­wards her and away, dis­ap­pointed that it was only her they were look­ing at. He was the first man whose gaze she had held. “I didn’t get around to invit­ing them,” he said. He had a side­ways, self-ef­fac­ing smile. A strange but pleas­ant nudg­ing seemed to hap­pen in her stom­ach, at least some­where in the re­gion of her stom­ach. It made her dizzy. She thought of some­thing to say. “May I have a drink?” He looked down at his glass. “I’ve only got milk left,” he said. He came back to the porch with a milk car­ton, two jars and an ice tray. She helped him dis­lodge the ice blocks un­der the gar­den tap. Their hands knocked to­gether. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry,” she said. “For this,” he said, in­di­cat­ing the empty house. “But it’s so chic,” she said. “To hold a party like this! It’s so full of...” Her hands took in the air, the street, their lives. “Pos­si­bil­i­ties.” She tossed back her head and laughed. They went back to the porch. “There’s lots to eat,” he said. “It takes me back,” she said. Af­ter a si­lence, she added: “Drink­ing milk, I mean.” And af­ter an­other si­lence, she said: “I al­ways think ice blocks make things fes­tive.” Af­ter sev­eral re­fills of milk, he looked at his watch, which al­lowed her to look at hers. “Nearly mid­night,” she said brightly. She still be­lieved in his party. “What’s for your din­ner tonight?” he said, be­cause of her bright laugh. She was torn be­tween hon­esty and the de­sire to make her fridge seem glam­orous. She de­cided on hon­esty, which she al­ways did. “Old spaghetti,” she said. “I have some ce­real,” he said. “I know,” she said. There was a pause. “To eat?” she asked. They ate ce­real in his kitchen. He owned two bowls, so they ate from bowls. There wasn’t any sugar, and she didn’t of­fer to run to her house for some, be­cause she sus­pected her packet in the cup­board was limp with empti­ness and per­haps black with ants. Be­sides, there was some­thing brew­ing in the at­mos­phere, the way he dabbed his fin­ger in the milk at the bot­tom of his bowl, touch­ing the china as if – she thought with an­other blush – as if it were her. The thought wouldn’t stop. As if it were her breasts. What if he guessed her thoughts! He might laugh. On the other hand, he might de­clare love. She wouldn’t know where to look. But when his plate was dabbed clean, she felt the thought fade. She be­gan to move her legs un­der his laminex table as if she were about to leave. She was at his front gate be­fore he spoke. “Would you stay tonight?” he asked. She thought of her bed, nar­row and for­lorn in her silent house. She stayed. In the dark he seemed less shy. To her sur­prise, lit­tle was asked of her. Only that she hold him, which she was glad to do, damply and clum­sily. She was also glad that the bed­ding op­er­a­tion hap­pened at the far end of her body and she didn’t have to look, just mur­mur en­cour­age­ment. By morn­ing, she felt a cer­tain fond­ness, es­pe­cially be­cause he’d ended with such gen­tle­ness her 39-year wait. She boldly kissed his chin, though it was prickly al­ready. She wanted to thank him, though that might not be ap­pro­pri­ate. “Why have you been a vir­gin so long?” he asked. She laughed, to fill the space of the room. “I know!” he said. “It was be­cause you wanted to make things last.” He touched her curly dark hair, as if he was mar­vel­ling that she was there be­side him. It was very plea­sur­able to her to fill a room with an ac­knowl­edge­ment of hap­pi­ness. It was al­most like hap­pi­ness. “I might hold an­other party soon,” he said. “If a party can bring you to me.” “I’ll come,” she said quickly. “When?” she asked af­ter a while. “Maybe next year,” he said. “That’s not so soon,” she said, gen­tly, so he wouldn’t feel crit­i­cised. She laughed again, to show how soon she wanted his party, and him. “When would you come to an­other party I held?” he asked. She wanted to say to­mor­row, but that might seem greedy. She so wanted to be per­fect. “In six weeks,” she said. He set the ex­act date, even to the hour. He wanted to be pre­pared. He wanted to be sure she’d come, and he thought that ex­ac­ti­tude might pro­vide a guar­an­tee.

She didn’t like to tell him that in her hap­pi­ness, she hadn’t taken pre­cau­tions. He would’ve as­sumed she had. She didn’t know how to ex­plain. She left the city im­me­di­ately. And by the last day of win­ter, in a rented house in a coun­try town that didn’t prove friendly, she gave birth to a child. She still didn’t know what words to say to such an ur­bane man who was sur­rounded by ur­gent mes­sages. In fact, she didn’t con­tact him for three years. But one day, be­cause her child ex­pected it of her, she wrote him a let­ter. She counted the hours be­fore he’d re­ceive it. She thought he might read it when he got home from work. Af­ter 24 hours, she al­lowed her­self to think, “He’ll be read­ing it now. Right now.” She could imag­ine his face so clearly, read­ing her mod­est words in his kitchen. She re­cited her let­ter to her­self, sure she could even tell which word he was up to. She waited for his re­ply. But there was no re­ply, and as the days and weeks passed, she felt abashed. Per­haps this so­phis­ti­cated man didn’t even re­mem­ber her. She hadn’t guessed that when she left the morn­ing af­ter the party, Ger­ard didn’t clean or re­ar­range any­thing in his house. He didn’t move the jars or touch the boxes of ce­re­als. He wanted his things to be like they were when she’d gazed on them. He kissed the bed sheets ev­ery night, the very spot where she had lain. It was the most dif­fi­cult wait­ing of his life, that six weeks wait­ing for their next party. All year lay in those six weeks, the heat of summer, the chilly fear of autumn, the drea­ri­ness of win­ter, the hope of spring. And then the joy­ful evening, which be­came the dread­ful evening when she didn’t come walk­ing up the street into his arms, not at dusk, not mid-evening, that dread­ful mo­ment at three in the morn­ing when he had to agree with the snick­er­ing voice in­side him that she wasn’t go­ing to turn up. He’d wept then. He felt he’d never wept be­fore, not when his mother left, not when his fa­ther left, if this was weep­ing. Grey-faced with ex­haus­tion and de­spair, he couldn’t go to work the next day, or for many days, un­til de­spair be­came re­sent­ment, and he could kick things, like the walls of his house, or him­self. When her let­ter ar­rived in the post three years too late, with her name on the back of the en­ve­lope, his heart had left his chest, and only crept back in ter­ror if he promised not to open it, not yet, not yet. Be­cause there has to be an end to pain. He didn’t put her let­ter in his garbage bin, but on his man­telshelf, where he’d al­low him­self to glance at it, still un­opened, his timid heart say­ing, “Not yet.” It might be there still on his man­telshelf to this very day but he ran out of pa­per one day for a new shop­ping list, and his heart al­lowed him to take her en­ve­lope down, of course only so he could

“When her let­ter ar­rived three years too late, his heart had left his chest, and only crept back in ter­ror if he promised not to open it, not yet”

use the en­ve­lope for a mes­sage to be hung on his string in his hall. Once he’d torn the en­ve­lope, it seemed waste­ful not to read her words, her won­der­ful, won­der­ful words. He shouted un­til his neigh­bours cupped glasses onto their walls to lis­ten to the noisy man next door who’d al­ways been so quiet. He left the city that evening for her coun­try town. “That’d be Craig John­son’s old house,” said a taxi driver at the sta­tion. “Craig had some ten­ants, but they left a week or two ago. And Craig’s passed on now.” In the dark, he could make out a small house in a gar­den of weeds with a big yel­low sign say­ing “For Sale”. “Where have the ten­ants gone?” he asked the driver. “Don’t know,” the driver said. “She kept to her­self. You can prob­a­bly get in, we leave back doors un­locked here. We’re not like you city peo­ple, we’re all friendly.” “How long have they been gone?” “It’d be just a mat­ter of days.” He fol­lowed Ger­ard into the house. He heard her voice. He smelled her. Ev­ery door he opened, he was sure she was there be­hind the next one and the next one. The house was full of her laugh­ter and of some­thing else, the gur­gling of a child. In a dark cup­board Ger­ard found a stuffed toy, a smil­ing shark with thread­bare fur. “Funny what kids take to,” said the taxi driver. He saw Ger­ard’s face move and feared he’d over­stepped the mark and that he might lose his tip. “She’d be miss­ing it,” he added. “It’s been loved. Got kids my­self. They al­ways pester you to go back for some­thing they’ve lost. And you al­ways end up giv­ing in.” Ger­ard was hold­ing up the toy. He could see dan­gling from its tail, and il­lu­mi­nated by street light, one sin­gle curly child­ish blonde hair. He turned to the taxi driver. “What’s the kid like?” he asked. He was sur­prised to find that as he asked the sim­ple ques­tion, his voice trem­bled. He cleared his throat, to cover the trem­ble. “Smart,” said the taxi driver, who didn’t re­mem­ber at all. “Smart!” re­peated Ger­ard proudly. He put the toy on the man­telshelf, be­cause a man­telshelf had brought her back be­fore, or at least it had held her won­der­ful let­ter. “A bit of a dump,” the taxi driver said, look­ing around. “I’ll buy it,” said Ger­ard. “Can you take me to the owner right now, Craig John­son, did you say – his rel­a­tive?” “Sure,” said the taxi driver, bright­en­ing up be­cause this fare was turn­ing out to be a good one. “Once you put some paint on this place, you won’t know it,” he said. “I’ll wait and see,” said Ger­ard. “You never know.” q Taken from Do You Love Me Or What? by Sue Woolfe ($29.99, Si­mon & Schus­ter Aus­tralia)

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