Title: Getting Over It

Author: Elizabeth Knox

In: Sport 21: Spring 1998

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, October 1998, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 21: Spring 1998

Elizabeth Knox — Getting Over It

page 69

Elizabeth Knox

Getting Over It

I can't remember its name. It was one of the T-Something-Young Buildings. It was on Customhouse Quay and I worked there, in the first-floor suite occupied by the building's main tenant, Butterworths the legal publisher. I'd been hired as a bindery assistant and was training to take over the printer's job. She was pregnant.

Louise had chanced on the job on a day when the former printer was pushed for time, and she was killing time, minding shop in the adjacent suite, the photographer Gordon Burt's plan-printing business. I think this was after Burt's death, and his widow, Louise's Mum, was winding down his business. Louise told me that there she was one afternoon, feet up and filing her nails like a television secretary, when the printer came in with her ear muffs around her neck, and her inky hands clasped in supplication. She was late on a big job. ‘Current Law,’ Louise said. Then, threatening: ‘You'll see.’

Butterworths had the whole ground floor, and this one first-floor suite. Louise and I were in quarantine with our clamorous machines and smelly chemicals. We had two rooms, both with a 15-foot stud and huge sash windows, and a view of the back of the Huddart Parker Building and the kitchens of the Wellington Club. Whenever we threw up a window to let out solvent fumes we'd let in the turned-milk smell of burnt pastry. The suite had an attic—at the top of a ladder, and filled with back issues of the NZ Journal of Law—from which it was possible to step out onto the top of one of the partitions that divided the room. I liked to do that, stand above the door when people came in, and if it was the paste-up girl or one of the students doing holiday work, rather than an editor or manager, I'd leap down behind them. (This is me at 20, under seven stone, in the baggy red boiler suit I'd bought to keep the ink off my street clothes, and on which I had fabric-painted ‘NASA’.) Our suite also had a walk-in safe with an eight-inch steel door—probably airtight, though it never occurred to page 70 us. We—the paste-up girl, students and I—would sometimes take turns shutting one another in, to test ourselves, to see how long we could stand it. With the door sealed the safe was black, and after a while the blackness would begin to soak in. You would feel your body soften at its edges, then begin to lose shape. The blackness would settle, warming and numbing, like an oil between your face and the hand you put up to check its shape. Time would lag and then jump—and you would discover you'd missed afternoon tea.

Morning tea was best. I'd have a rye roll from the Natural Juices café, or a waxed paper cup full of vegetable soup (with barley) from the café on the fifth floor of Huddart Parker. And cafébar coffee—I'd flick the lever and feel the machine grindingly bite off my serving; I'd add water and listen to the granules hiss. The paste-up girl, Raewyn, would sit with the newspaper crossword in her lap and we'd all help—me, and the students, and the sharp-as-a-tack bow-tie-wearing retired judge who came in several days a week to put the finishing touches to a thousand-page legal text. After one lively fifteen minutes with the crossword all us under-23s were called into the Managing Director's office and warned to please be a little more formal with Sir Alex.

‘But does he mind?’ I asked.

The Managing Director went pink. ‘That is hardly the point. Sir Alex is a—’ (Writing this, I realise I've lost a word. The times in which I live, and who I am now, have lost its use. What did the Managing Director say? ‘Important’ or ‘Illustrious’? What words are used now to quell the young, and to instill status-consciousness?)

‘Sir Alex is a prominent man, and is used to being spoken to more formally.’

We were let out of the Managing Director's office. The South African religious studies student looked gloomy.

The paste-up girl tugged her forelock, said, ‘Your Honour.’

‘It's silly,’ I said. ‘Sir Alex is who he was as well as who he is now. And we were all once babies dribbling on our bibs.’

‘Besides,’ said the religious studies student, ‘does the MD think judges live in a world without children? I imagine Sir Alex has some experience—’

‘Who's a child? Speak for yourself,’ said Raewyn. ‘Not a drop of page 71 dribble has ever passed these lips. At least not my own dribble leaving—someone else's slobber arriving perhaps.’

The staff lounge was a square space lined with bookshelves—books on copyright law, or conveyancing this and criminal that. The lounge's only windows looked through into the proofreaders' office, where they could be seen, face to face, like radio interviewer and interviewee in a studio. Their lips were always moving—which was convenient when Raewyn and I would go into complain about the Managing Director's manner, or talk about our lives with the more motherly of the two—sitting on the floor with our backs against the other proofreader's desk and our heads below the level of the windows.

I can remember the tales Raewyn brought the proofreader. For instance, there was the one about her quarrel with her boyfriend. They were in a sauna, and she shoved him onto the hot stones. There were her friends in Wellington bands, and the friends writing the music for a film called Squeeze. She told us about her Saturday nights at Spats, stoned and paranoid and hailed by all her transvestite friends, edging around the dance floor with her back against the wall. And I remember she talked about her younger brother who had died in hospital after a tonsillectomy—one moment he was unwrapping gifts; the next white, with eyes rolled up.

I think I talked about one of the things most on my mind: my 21st birthday. It was coming up, I'd like to make an occasion of it, I said, celebrate with friends, school and new (looking into Raewyn's smiling high-coloured face). But Dad's behaviour was too unpredictable. I couldn't have an alcohol-free party—he'd interpret that as a slight, not a precaution. He'd misbehaved at one of my sister's parties. He'd come in while we were burning her dolls. The dolls were lying on a stage of split manuka and lifting their heads to look along their changing bodies. My older sister was chewing over an argument she'd had with a friend of hers. She'd offended him and was upset about it. Dad came in, took one look at her and asked, ‘What's up with you?’ A ‘what's up’ with an unspoken, impatient ‘now?’ on the end of it. Then, without pause, he went on to say, ‘You're not very intelligent, you know, so there's no need for you to be so difficult.’

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I might even have said to the proofreader that of course this didn't sound like something anyone would say—far too illogical and unmotivated, it wouldn't pass as dialogue in a screenplay. But still, the thing I wanted people to get about Dad's bad behaviour was that it wasn't about us. He looked at us and reacted to the words and actions of whatever person he was warring with in some other time. Not me, my mother and my sisters, but his ghosts and inventions.

The proofreader asked me what my older sister had said in reply. I couldn't remember her saying anything. I remembered that I was knitting a scarf, and after Dad left the room I couldn't get the tension right. The scarf came out wavy-edged, some patches as tight as a torso in a corset, others loose and holed.

‘So,’ I said, ‘how can I tell my parents that I'd rather not celebrate my 21st? I either offend Dad and bore my friends with a boozeless party, or I risk some nasty theatre with Dad's phantoms.’

‘You could ask for a small family dinner,’ Raewyn said, ‘with one or two friends in the mix.’

‘A control group? Because, if they're there, perhaps Dad'll control his drinking?’ It was a good suggestion—but I didn't want to have to consider it, to plan my party around a problem, be politic, be the grown-up one.

In my first months at Butterworths, when I wasn't feeding flat sheets of paper into the bindery machine, and bundling the resulting pamphlets, or learning the hazardous ins and inky outs of the Gestetner, I worked in the mailroom. During a mailout I'd be there all day, on a stool at the long pine bench, stuffing envelopes with Louise, Raewyn and three students—while Faith, the 64-year-old mail clerk, between naps, fed envelopes through the franking machine. Though our hands were busy the mailroom was like morning tea run into extra time.

Faith was English, a self-defined ‘maiden lady’. She had, for decades, worked for the Red Cross, and was a nurse—a matron—in a hospital in Cairo during the North African campaign. When Faith told stories about her youth she tended to fall into the language of her youth. ‘Black fellows,’ she'd say, and I'd glance across the table at Louise, page 73 whose mother was Ngapuhi, and whom I would catch blinking, her eyelids chewing on the anger in her eyes.

‘But Faith is harmless,’ Louise would say to me later, ‘a poor old thing with swollen ankles, who likes her gin.’ Couldn't I just see it, Louise would say, Faith at 35, in the torrid zone, on some white-painted ironwork verandah, sinking down into a wicker chair and slipping her swollen feet out of her white shoes and then sinking further into the habit of her lifetime—London dry gin and a splash of tonic water. ‘Think about it,’ Louise would say. And I did think about it—all that sinking—while looking at Faith's feet overflowing her shoes, fattened by a sediment of thick purple blood.

We had Faith's ‘black fellows’, and we had the South African religious studies student—his stories, which would veer wildly between fury at being forced to learn Afrikaans at school, mentions of ‘our girl’ (the black woman who raised him), and simple, fateful ‘kaffirs’ shouting out ‘accident!’ when their brakes failed on bikes ridden down steep hills.

‘Look, Liz, you had to laugh,’ he'd say, looking at me, stubborn but blushing.

Don and I would argue, aimlessly, about books he had read, or I had read, but never both of us. Or we'd argue about plays he'd read in the Greek (Aristophanes was better than Euripides, he said, in the Greek, and I had no comeback). And we argued about religion. I was an atheist—but was trying to invent some kind of transcendent world-worshipping religion of my own, founded on feeling, awe and spookiness. I thought the thing to do wasn't to describe the sights and sensations that gave me the feelings, but to synthesise and idea, like making a model, all mapped abstractions.

Don lived with his Kiwi aunt in Tawa, worked weekends in the parish, would finish his BA this year, then go to Auckland Theological College and train as a minister. Given all this—the level of his commitment—I was fairly careful on the subject of beliefs. I'd argued religion with my churchgoing cousins, with Sunday-driver Christians and teenaged Children of God, who would as readily tell you, in their husky, dazed manner, that they believed in unicorns. He was the first Christian I'd met who could quote Scripture freely. And I think I page 74 was his first real atheist—that is, I too had read and could quote the Bible, though not freely, my imagination had snagged in Isaiah and Saint Matthew. But I had given the nonexistence of God a good deal of hard thought, and I had faith in God's nonexistence. What Don and I did was compare favourites—my Saint Matthew, his Saint John—in the same half-baked, self-assertive way that we'd swap favourite books; not the books themselves but, like swapping blows, my Yeats beats your Keats. We did this in the same way that Raewyn and I would pledge ourselves to our favourite bands, to The Newz or Coup D'Etat, to Magazine or Ultravox. It seemed that none of us under-23s knew how to argue, only how to disagree.

Don disagreed so thoroughly with everything the bearded psychology student said that he'd only ever say ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ to him. Don avoided being in the same room with the psychology student, except when it was all-hands-on-deck in the mailroom and he was forced to endure his regurgitated behaviourism.

One day, when Faith was nodding over her ledger, her face hidden by piled envelopes, and the psychology student had just left the room, Don confided that when he was forced to listen to that man he began to feel book-burning urges. ‘I don't know whether it's him or his ideas. Or just the air he has, of being well on the way to solving everyone's problems, and having none of his own.’

I said that many of the people I knew who were keen on psychology, and were doing it at varsity, seemed to have something in common—they were all a little baffled or frightened by people. I asked had Don noticed how, at every second thing I said, the psychology student would waggle one finger and close one eye and breathe ‘Ah!’ in a knowledgeable way. ‘What is that supposed to mean?’

‘Well, Liz, clearly everything you say is terribly telling.’

‘Is it?’ I was worried. I didn't even want to hear in what way Don thought everything I said might be telling. Don kept smiling at me till the psychology student came back in, and said he had forgotten his wallet. As he retrieved the wallet from the stool at the top end of the pine bench, I noticed that the tips of his tanned fingers were yellow and bloodless. And, if I could have seen through his long hair, I'd have seen that one ear was pressed white also.

page 75

That was the same day Louise finished up at work. Her farewell card did the rounds, flowers were purchased, and a peach satin nightdress. Afternoon tea was to be Louise's shout.

At morning tea, the Managing Director turned up to tell us that the next six months would be hard for Butterworths and we must work at a notch above our best.

‘A typical modern absurdity,’ muttered Don at my ear. ‘Like giving one hundred and ten percent—only more British.’

The Managing Director was going on and on and the editors were gradually growing red in the face.

‘He sounds like the “Come on Kiwi” ads,’ said Don.

I turned and tilted my head to reply—‘Yeah, give your all because if you don't someone else will’—and my head touched his shoulder. For a moment I froze in this awkward position, not wanting to draw attention to the contact by an abrupt movement out of it. What I can remember thinking is neither ‘how embarrassing’ nor ‘how nice’, but reflexively beginning to itemise our differences. Don was a carelessly racist man who believed in God. And I'd been there when Louise had drawn him out a little about his views on women. He'd been complaining about his female cousin's materialism. He said that he admired self-denial: ‘Any wife of mine will have to be content living on a low income, on a living, in fact. She couldn't be wanting nice curtains or chintz cushion covers.’

The ludicrous scruples of the young. Of those who imagine that people like them—their own kind—must be people who like what they like, think what they think. Who want gestures of assent and, often, expect assent to look like surrender. Who don't know that it's possible to build a comfortable house on the dry shore of another person's belief, look on it all day and all night long, and never be obliged to dip even a toe in the water.

Of course I'm talking about myself, not Don.

Shortly before my lunchtime, on the day Louise left, I was in the foyer, wrestling with some boxed reams of paper that had just been delivered. The warehouse men had gone to lunch at noon, and I page 76 couldn't wait, I had a job on, and this was the gorgeous lime-green English paper we'd had to buy because the mill workers at Kawarau had been out for months. (The sales rep had sold us several months' supply of the English paper, not because he thought the strike would continue, but because he knew that when the mill did start production again they'd end up shipping paper that wasn't sufficiently seasoned and, consequently, we would be stopping our machine every five minutes to sort out paper jams.) I was trying to load the boxed paper onto a trolley, a little forklift. I'd discovered that I couldn't slip the tines of the fork under the boxes, because they'd snag in the looped pile of the carpet. I was in a crouch, trying to lift and drag the first box onto the tines, when Don appeared and offered to help. But I was intent on a private battle. He insisted. I said, ‘Some printer I'd be if I couldn't do the heavy lifting.’ I got one box on. I wasn't in any hurry. But he couldn't be discouraged. He picked me up under my arms and lifted me, bodily, out of the way.

‘I'm sorry, but it's my upbringing,’ he said, and began to load the trolley.

I stood behind him, grinding my teeth.

After the presentation I went back upstairs to put the Gestetner to bed. I wedged two lengths of cardboard in the ink trough to remove the excess ink. I switched on the drive motor and squirted blanket wash onto the auxiliary oscillating roller. The velvety surface of the tacky ink went slick, then clear as the solvent evaporated. The inker drip pan filled with stained solvent. I held a cloth to the rollers as they turned, then wiped the ink tray clean and replaced it.

It was a hot afternoon, and when I opened the windows the air in the back lot pressed in, hotter than the air indoors. Across the lot, two men stood at an open window, looking up at the sky and loosening their ties. I looked up too. The sky was covered by high white cloud, beneath which was edging what looked like a cloud of ash, black and solid. When I turned back to the room I noticed that all the loose paper was dimpled like seersucker, as though soaked then dried, and that the laminated top of my desk was slick to the touch.

The machine was still running and I had my ear muffs on, but page 77 because I was poking at its works, was closer to it when cleaning than printing, I didn't want to be startled. I had my shoes off. I'd discovered I could ‘hear’ people coming along the hallway—the different vibration of footsteps under the machine's syncopated rhythm. Someone was approaching the door of the suite.

It was Sally, one of the students. Sally explained, shouting over the Gestetner, that she was avoiding the psychology student. They were ‘seeing each other’. He'd said he wanted her to go away with him this weekend. She didn't want to say no. She wanted to have simply forgotten, to miss him all day, then get on the train to Otaki and her parents, then on Monday say, ‘Sorry, it slipped my mind.’ Even with my earphones on, I could hear her. The ear muffs were designed to cut out the higher decibels, but a raised human voice was still audible. And I kept my eyes on her lips.

‘So,’ Sally yelled above the machine, ‘can I wait here?’ She perched on the corner of my desk and began to fiddle with my scissors. ‘He pushes me around,’ she complained, then, as if there was some connection, ‘He thinks you're very clever.’

I told her that someone was coming up the stairs, and she peered at me, her face losing colour.

‘I have a strong hunch it's him,’ I said. ‘Only Phil Kirk and him bounce like that, and Phil's heavier.’

Sally wailed. She ran out into the bindery room. I switched off the Gestetner in time to hear her huff as she heaved the safe door open.

The psychology student appeared. I glanced at my blotter pad and realised that Sally had taken the scissors with her. He asked after Sally.

I said, ‘Is she avoiding you?’

‘What business is that of yours?’

I shrugged.

The psychology student told me that he hadn't even realised that Sally was in today till he signed Louise's card and saw Sally's signature on it. Then the proofreaders told him that Sally had gone home with a headache. But then he saw her for a moment on the far side of the gathered people at Louise's presentation. He looked at me with narrowed eyes. ‘Why does everyone lie?’

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I decided to swab the Gestetner's rubber blanket with restorer. The smell would drive him out of the room. I fetched the bottle. He was still holding forth on how women lied to back each other up even when they didn't like each other. And how some people in this place liked to make fun of others behind their backs. Then, ‘I suppose you think it's okay for you and Don to make fun of me because with you two it's just “intellectual rage”.’

‘We didn't think we'd be overheard.’

‘That's a risk you take when you air your views at the top of your voice.’

I said I supposed he thought that he was open because he liked to tell everyone how their minds worked, and that his views were of course unimpeachable because he got them out of books.

He said he wasn't the only person at Butterworths who thought I was weird and aggressive. ‘Don does too,’ he said, and smirked.

‘Why—doctor—an unqualified “weird”,’ I said.

‘I've been thinking about what you do.’ He began to nod. ‘And I've come to a few conclusions. You know, it's not what you do that's interesting, and telling, but why you do it.’

I was looking daggers, I suppose. He put his head back, folded his arms, and said, ‘You should see yourself.’

I took three deep breaths, held the last, uncapped the bottle of restorer and sprinkled it onto a clean rag. The psychology student opened his mouth, then gagged, glared at me with tearing eyes, and walked quickly out of the room.

I capped the bottle, then wiped the blanket, wiped away the thin rainbow of old ink. I threw the rag in the bin. Then I went around to the safe door, breathed again, and braced myself to haul it open.

A white blur came out of the darkness and resolved itself into Sally. She stopped before me, staring at me with wide eyes. I removed the scissors from her hand. Then told her to please shoo. Once my room was cleared of fumes I intended to take the plates off my machine and oil all moving parts—though exercising common sense—as Louise had taught me.

Sally went.

In my last hour I ran out of maintenance work. I took off my page 79 NASA uniform and shook out the bunched cloth of my red jersey dress. (I think there's some TV footage of me in this dress—red and slit to the thigh—and high heels, standing on a high curb in Civic Square listening to a union leader address a gathering protesting the National Development Bill. I don't look the part of a protester.)

I went down to the mailroom. It was empty. I sat myself at the bench and began to collate pamphlets. The room grew cooler and darker. Cold percolated through the door behind me. It started to rain, then the rain began to spark and clatter. I got up and opened the door. The air in the backlot, that canyon formed by the rear of buildings, was thick with falling ice. Hail beat the hot air down, and built up in heaps; the asphalt steamed, then was awash.

I remembered I'd left the window open upstairs and ran out of the mailroom. The passage was dark; the power had failed. Deep in the rabbit warren where the proofreaders and paste-up girl worked the hail could be heard only as a muffled rushing.

I ran into someone, was caught under the elbows and steadied. I recognised Don by his deodorant and the texture of his shirt. I told him where I was going and he followed me to the head of the stairs. We could see a little, in light coming in the side door that opened onto Willis Street. The stairway was black. I took off my high heels and left them in the hall.

‘Be careful,’ Don said.

I ran up the first flight. Then stopped in shock, turned back to look at Don. I saw his look of alarm, and then he was beside me. But by that time I was laughing and pointing. My feet were wet, the carpet of the landing had squelched when I leapt up onto it, and there was a waterfall running down the carpeted flight above. We could see the water, a glimmer of movement. (The following day we learned that the abandoned fourth floor, right under the building's leaking roof, had simply filled with rain—its partitions like tanks—some to the level of four feet. After its first haemorrhage the water drained slowly for the next twelve hours.)

The first-floor corridor was as black as the black mist that filled the safe when its door was closed.

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Don said we should go back; wasn't there a naked light fitting somewhere along here?

‘The power's off, Don, and I want my bag.’

‘But—safety procedures, Liz—what do they say? “Don't go back for personal belongings.”’

I found the keyhole with my fingers and tried two keys before finding the right one.

The room was lit dimly by the light coming in its windows. I went in and began to switch everything off at the wall. Don trailed after me saying, ‘Liz …?’ intermittently, then, ‘You should have let me …’ as I hauled myself up onto the bench beside the folding machine to reach a cord and pull the top window shut. As I inclined against the glass of the sash window there came a thunderclap directly overhead. The buildings of the backlot fell back, flattened, drained, and disappeared behind a dazzling blind. I felt my hair lift in an electric wind, a wind without pressure, a wind that was inside my mouth too, gently tapping at my back teeth.

Don put both his hands on my waist, to steady me, although I wasn't toppling—then he helped me down.

‘Holy—something!’ I said. He put my bag into my hand and took me by the elbow and led me back downstairs. It was five o'clock. We joined other staff members at the side door to wait out the rain. There was a swift, shallow river running on Willis Street. As we watched a boy went by, holding one jandal and chasing his other.

My mother had forgotten to turn down the pressure cooker. It had erupted and she was on standing a chair by the stove wiping pea soup off the ceiling.

Another reheatable meal. It seemed that we were, once again, going through one of those patches when we couldn't be sure if Dad would be home for dinner.

I leaned against the bench and watched Mum. Then I told her that I couldn't stop thinking about this guy at work.

‘Don,’ she said. Then, ‘Don't look so surprised, Elizabeth. You talk about him—Don said this, Don did that.’

‘I don't like thinking about him all the time. It's like being possessed. page 81 Why should I spend hours wondering what he's thinking instead of thinking myself? This is crazy. It's not like my crush on old hairy legs in the fifth form or the guy with green eyes in the seventh.’ (Or my 58-year-old boss in my first year at work—but my mother didn't need to know about that.) ‘I mean, those crushes were about the way they looked.

My mother asked me, ‘So—do you think you're in love?’

‘I can't turn my attention to anything else. It's like trying to move underwater. And thinking about him hurts. Why should it hurt? Is hurting being in love? It's impractical anyway. It's a waste of time.’

‘You're telling me that you don't want to be in love. Have you thought why you don't?’

‘He's—well—he's a Christian.’ Once I'd said it, it didn't seem sufficient. I thought about it some more then blurted out, ‘He's better than me. He's a good, civilised person.’

My mother made a thoughtful noise. She handed me the sponge and I rinsed it and wrung it out and passed it back to her.

‘If you've decided that you don't want to do anything about it—’

‘Like what?’

‘Get his attention.’

‘How? Kick him? He isn't interested in me. He makes conversation. He goes, “I see.” I'm going to jump down his throat one day about it. “I see,” he says—hurrying me along.’

‘Not very flattering,’ my mother said, her voice dry. She climbed down from the stool, rinsed the sponge again then dried her hands and got a cigarette. I watched her light it, her pursed lips and thin lowered eyelids. I waited for her to produce a prescription for my disorder. When she didn't say anything I prompted her: ‘Mum, what should I do?’

‘Try to see as little of him as possible. That's the way to do it. You'll find you get over it, in time.’

I saw Don ahead of me, just as he turned a corner in the hallway. I stopped, stood scratching my palms with my fingernails. He was headed for the mailroom. Where I was going. But I could find some work upstairs—despite my contractual obligations.

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I stayed for a moment, immobilised by an immense and unreasonable pain, prompted by nothing more than the sight of someone turning a corner away from me. There was work to be done, so I'd go do it—the sensible thing. Because I was myself—not mad—myself.

The phone was ringing in the first-floor suite. It was Mum. She wanted to know why I'd told Dad that I'd rather not go out to a restaurant for my birthday. ‘If he wants to shout you dinner, you must say, “Yes.” You must say, “Yes, thank you.” You should learn to be a little more gracious, Elizabeth.’

‘Okay—if you want me to I will. I'll pretend. I'll be graciously insincere. If that's what you want.’

‘Don't take that tone with me. One troublemaker in the house is quite enough.’

‘Yes. All right.’

‘That's better.’ Mum said goodbye and hung up.

Troublemaker—I'd heard that before. Defend yourself, and you're a troublemaker (weird, aggressive). Withdraw, and you're a troublemaker (ungracious, cold).

I went downstairs again and found Raewyn, perched on her stool, face turned down to her light-table, a scalpel in hand and the wax machine at her feet hot and reeking. But what she had in front of her was the cryptic crossword excised from the Dominion and disguised as layout work. She said to me, ‘I'm in a fix—I need Sir Alex.’ Then she read me a few clues.

I wasn't much help. I reported my conversation with my mother.

‘See,’ she said. ‘You should have compromised. Look—once your little sister gets a job and you go flatting together, then your Dad will be your Mum's only problem. She'll have to realise that he's always been her only problem.’ Raewyn looked at me, earnest for once. ‘Don't you get it? All you have to do is compromise—then wait.’

It wasn't a happy prospect—waiting for vindication. When I thought about leaving home I thought about the home we'd leave behind—I thought about the things I saw all the time—Dad out to page 83 all hours and Sara and I able to watch Kenny Everett without interruption, a kind of bleak peace; or Dad in, muted by hangover, and Mum out in her garden till the last of the light had gone.

I found a price missing in the copy of the ad for Hopkin's Law of Employment. I went to find the person who wrote it. Her secretary said I'd find her in the downstairs safe. The safe was a twin of the one in the bindery department, and was used to store books. Its door was partly open, the light on. I could hear the thumping sound of someone moving full boxes of stock. And I could hear voices. I was at the door, I had my hand on its cold iron surface, ready to push, but paused to listen.

‘…there's time enough to think about that,’ said Don, from inside the safe. ‘My life is rather busy right now. I imagine when the right girl comes along…’

The price-omitting manager was cutting. ‘So, do you intend to remain a virgin for the rest of your life?’

‘I see that as being my business.’

I withdrew my hand, walked away backward. For the next five minutes I hovered outside the manager's office till she appeared. I said, ‘Excuse me,’ and showed her the omission. She snatched the paper out of my hand and went into her office.

Don turned up in the first-floor suite at twenty to five. Someone had sent him up with a stack of manila folders and a roll of book-plastic. He was meant to cover the folders. I had the sharpest scissors, he said.

I gave them to him, but instead of repairing to the clear bench in the bindery room, he sat on the edge of my desk and asked me about my birthday dinner. He'd been talking to Raewyn. He wanted to say something. ‘You know that thing I do?—that I realise annoys you—saying “I see” when you're talking—well, it's a nervous habit. You see—my father is an alcoholic, or a drunk anyway, like yours. When Dad was drunk he'd just rave on. And on. Not nastily, just loud and constant. I'd tune out. But I'd go, “I see, I see.” Now it's a habit.’

‘I see.’

He smiled. ‘Side effect. Constant noises of acknowledgement.’

page 84

‘A bad habit. Like my grim clowning.’

‘Or me divorcing my feelings from my behaviour. It's horrible.’ He looked at me hard. ‘Do you ever feel that the face you show people is artificial? That you're lost in a maze of careful habits. I hate how sedate I am.’

He wasn't being careful at that moment. He was fiddling with the scissors. I was wondering why everyone fiddled with my scissors. Then he jumped and dropped them, and clasped the fingers of one hand in the other. ‘Damn—I mean—I cut myself!’

I fetched the first-aid box, tore off a wad of cotton wool and gave it to him.

The cut was on the index finger of his left hand. He showed me the pooled blood in right palm. ‘I'm always doing things like this.’

I filled the first-aid kit's stainless steel bowl with warm water, poured in a cap full of yellow Savlon and told him to put his finger in the bowl. His blood formed oily feathers in the water, as if his finger was flowering, putting forth shoots. After a minute I lifted his hand, dabbed it dry and bandaged his finger. I held his hand gingerly, as though the whole thing was injured. It was tricky to hold, passive and pliable, but at the slightest pressure of my fingertips his ligaments rolled under his warm skin.

He thanked me. Said the bandage was comfortable, not too tight, not too loose. He asked if he could leave the folders—he'd get to covering them first thing Monday morning. He thanked me again and left.

Don was at Butterworths for another week, then returned to university. On his last day we shook hands, wished each other all the best. I remember him saying, mournfully, ‘I'll probably graduate from Theological College all starched and boring.’

On my birthday my family—and my old friend, Carol—had dinner at The Jade Garden. We made our toasts to my adult life with sparkling grape juice.

There was a man by himself at a table near the door, who began the evening with a stack of coloured paper beside his teacup and ended page 85 it with a heap of paper cranes. When we left he hooked a hand at Mum, smiled and nodded and gave her a tiny red crane.

Out on the street my older sister suggested to my mother that she give her crane to the birthday girl.

‘No, it's your mother's,’ Dad said. ‘That man was watching us all evening, and he probably thought, “Poor woman! Four noisy girls to find husbands for.”’

‘How charming,’ said my older sister, annoyed.

‘Get cracking, Mrs Knox,’ said Carol, and clapped her hands. ‘Where's my husband? Chop chop!’

‘Husband schmusband,’ said Sara.

Mum let me carry her crane. Longevity—as light as air.