“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)