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Sport 24: Summer 2000

Christine Johnston — The Bank of Heaven

page 157

Christine Johnston

The Bank of Heaven

On the day Muriel died she had risen early and taken the number seven bus down town. She went first to the café she considered to be Rachel's—‘Rachel's coffee bar’ was how she thought of it—and had a cappuccino. She had discovered cappuccino late in life.

After a coffee she always experienced a surge of wellbeing. Rachel called it a ‘rush’. The young have words for everything, thought Muriel. That distinguished them from Muriel's generation, who'd got up to all sorts of things during the war, but had no words to call upon, or quite unsatisfactory ones like ‘love affair’, to describe what was nothing more than a brief skirmish, a desperate physical connection.

On the Friday which was to be her last, Muriel felt the wellbeing more keenly than ever. How good life is, she thought, brushing the tabletop clear of crumbs. She dipped her spoon into a bowl of brown sugar crystals. Lately Muriel had begun indulging herself. No matter what she ate she didn't get fat, so she took a little sugar and a little cream. Never in her life had she bought cakes of chocolate with her groceries, but she did so now, for pleasure.

Muriel thought of Rachel, her granddaughter. It was impossible to think of Rachel and not feel her heart squeezed by love. She wanted so much for Rachel. She wanted the best for her. It was still possible, even after what had happened. The best could still come along. She would lose some of her rough edges, starting with the nose rings, and the world would see that she was a beautiful young woman with a heart of gold.

Suddenly Muriel wanted Rachel. She needed her to come into this really quite odd coffee bar. Muriel had just glimpsed a rather unpleasant poster—two men doing something untoward—and she looked away quickly. Young people were coming in. How reassuring it would be if Rachel were among them. Rachel's face would light up. ‘This is my Gran,’ she would announce. She would sit on the edge of page 158 the chair and speak to Muriel, telling her where she was going and what she was doing. She was always forthcoming with that sort of information and Muriel supposed it was mostly true. Then anxiety would cloud Rachel's face. She had too much on, that was her trouble. Assignments, presentations, examinations and so forth. She had often to request extensions. Or she had ‘boy trouble’. Then there were the protests. Rachel was protesting against student fee increases. Muriel wondered why. Kevin and Wendy had plenty of money. Rachel didn't need to worry about money.

Rachel was not among the young people. They were younger than Rachel, Muriel decided, probably still at school. How pretty the girls were and how pimply, scruffy and flawed the boys looked. It was the same in her day. The war had changed some of the chaps though. Some it had ruined of course, but it had improved John immeasurably. Before the war Muriel wouldn't have given John a second glance, hadn't given John a second glance, but after the war she had married him.

We had good times, Muriel thought, drinking the last of her coffee, scraping the froth from the sides of the cup. Delicious. John had been considerate. She had felt bound to tell him about that other business, that ‘skirmish’. She had called it ‘a love affair’. John had patted her hand and said that he didn't mind a bit. He had so much of the gentleman about him, it had charmed her. He had the authority of the gentleman too, and that was why he'd done so well after the war. Muriel knew he'd learnt that authority in the army. ‘Learnt’ was perhaps the wrong word. He'd acquired authority. You might almost say he'd appropriated it.

Everybody said she would miss John. When people said, ‘You must be missing John,’ she replied, ‘Yes, terribly,’ but the truth was that she didn't miss him in the way she had expected. She didn't actually miss him at all.

Muriel put on her glasses to look at the poster. She saw with some relief that the two men whose posture had caught her attention were dancers. Still, their pose was suggestive. The young people were looking at her, sniggering. Too bad. They put up a poster to catch your attention and when you looked at it, it made you dirty. That was how it was page 159 today. Every time you went down town or even turned on the TV, something made you feel dirty.

Muriel put her glasses away and stood up. She moved slowly because, if she didn't, she got this wild, giddy feeling. Outside the wind was cold although the sun shone brightly. She walked purposefully back towards the main street although she couldn't remember what it was she had to do. Her mind had gone blank. She wanted the feeling of wellbeing to return. She noted a prunus in blossom and the daffodils in the florist's window. Such things cheered Muriel as a rule, offering a reason to get out of bed in the morning and make the most of the day.

She was walking more briskly, but a man intercepted her, thrusting a leaflet into her hand. She was well past him by the time she looked down at it. Welcome the Lord Jesus into your heart. ‘I don't want this,’ she said aloud, turning back. The man looked up as she approached and his face softened to a smile. A smile for the old lady.

‘I don't want this,’ said Muriel and she thrust it at him.

‘You're welcome to keep it, madam,’ replied the man. ‘Take it home and…’

‘I don't want it,’ Muriel snapped, ‘I've got enough to carry.’ She stabbed at his chest with it. ‘I don't want religion,’ she said, walking away, her heart pounding.

She sat down at the bus stop and took out her little notebook where she had written a list of things she needed: 6" zip, double plug, 60 Watt frosted, Mr Muscle. What was six inches in metric, she wondered.

Why had she said that? I don't want religion. What an extraordinary thing for her to say. She'd been Church of England all her life. It occurred to her that she went to church for reasons other than religion. This is a revelation, thought Muriel.

She waited a bit. Buses came and went and Muriel sat on the seat. She told herself that the seats were for old ladies like her and she was entitled to sit there for as long as she liked. Muriel remembered the department stores of her youth where special chairs were provided beside the counters for the benefit of customers. Her mother would not allow her or her sisters to sit on them. They were for old ladies, page 160 she'd said. Old ladies seemed a breed apart in those days. It had been inconceivable that Muriel would become one.

A girl sat down beside Muriel. She gave the impression of being retarded or disturbed in some way. She sat too close and kept turning her head as if she wanted to initiate a conversation. Muriel looked straight ahead, planning her shopping expedition. She would avoid K-Mart though it was cheaper, because she liked someone to serve her.

‘It's my birthday today,’ said the girl.

Muriel turned to look at her. She was enormous. Her staring eyes filled the lenses of her thick glasses like two poached eggs. Her smile revealed small irregular teeth.

‘That's nice,’ said Muriel, getting up to leave. ‘How old are you?’

‘Forty,’ said the girl.

Good heavens. Was it possible? Muriel didn't want to look at her again, but she managed a smile. ‘Happy birthday dear,’ she said.

She set off along the main street. Not K-Mart, she said to herself. Not K-Mart.

She stopped in front of a fabric shop which seemed to have appeared overnight. On the street the bolts of cloth were displayed any old how. The wind was tugging at the loose fabric. What sort of shop had been here before? She couldn't remember. Two girls were leaning on the counter, gazing out to the street. One was scribbling in demented fashion on a small pad. The other raised her eyes to Muriel but didn't speak.

‘I've forgotten how much six inches is,’ Muriel said. ‘Have you got a tape measure?’

The one who was scribbling looked up. She was trying out biros. She threw one away, presumably into a bin, and took another. She was scribbling so hard she was tearing the paper but no ink flowed. The non-scribbling one sighed and started looking under the remnants that were heaped up on the counter. Eventually she found the tape measure but it wasn't imperial. Muriel had to explain to the girls about feet and inches. She showed them how you bent your thumb and how it measured an inch from the top of the nail to the first joint. She had never seen such blank faces. She wondered if they too were page 161 retarded. She worked it out, using her thumb. It was eighteen centimetres.

The scribbling one said that they weren't allowed to sell eighteen centimetres of fabric. They would have to round it up to twenty. She had found a biro that worked, but she continued the mad zigzag scribbling.

‘I don't want any fabric,’ said Muriel.

‘Well, what do you want?’ asked the girl.

‘Where are your zips?’ Muriel asked, looking around, ignoring the rudeness.

‘We don't have any zips,’ said the older one. ‘You'll have to go to Macleod's. This is a factory shop.’

Muriel walked away. None of it made any sense. A factory shop? Macleod's was right down the other end of town. She felt inclined to give up. They made it hard for you. They didn't want you to replace a broken zip. They wanted you to throw a perfectly good skirt away and buy a new one.

Coming out of the factory shop she met Hazel Macintosh.

‘You're looking a bit peaky, Muriel,’ said Hazel. ‘Have you lost weight? You can't afford to lose weight.’

Hazel had put on weight, Muriel noticed, but she had been brought up not to make personal remarks, other than the quite automatic ones of approbation demanded by politeness. Hazel was on various committees, always sewing for bring-and-buys.

‘This place is a godsend,’ she gushed, drawing Muriel back inside the shop. ‘Look at that material. It's perfect for placemats.’

Muriel thought that the material looked cheap and tacky but refrained from saying so. When she told her that she had come in for a zip, Hazel laid a chubby hand on her arm. ‘Don't ever buy a zip,’ she cried. ‘I've got hundreds. Come around and get one from me.’

While Muriel was saying how kind Hazel was, she was weighing up whether or not she could bear to visit Hazel for a free zip. The last time she had been overcome with yawns she'd had difficulty stifling. Her eyes had watered and she'd invented a little cough to cover the embarrassing yawns.

She looked down at Hazel's hand which looked disturbingly like page 162 an inflated rubber glove, but apart from that, quite youthful. Not at all like Muriel's own twisted claws. It was true that fat people aged better. Of course Hazel was a good bit younger than Muriel—she still had some colour in her hair, though it was not a particularly interesting colour. She found women like Hazel Macintosh depressing.

Even as she thanked Hazel and agreed to call around for the six-inch zip and a cup of tea ‘one day quite soon’, Muriel was firming her resolve to walk to Macleod's and buy one. I'm not that hard up, she was saying to herself, and I can please myself who I have a cup of tea with. She preferred mostly to have a cup of tea by herself. It would do her good to walk down to Macleod's. It was spring after all. She had spent enough time indoors during the winter. And she had to get away from Hazel.

‘Don't come on a Wednesday,’ Hazel called after her. ‘That's when we have our Bible study.’

‘No,’ Muriel called cheerfully, truthfully. ‘I won't come on a Wednesday.’

Muriel was on her way to Macleod's, glad that she had shaken off Hazel. A voice in her head told her she was uncharitable, not friendly enough. With so many of her friends dead, she should be cultivating people like Hazel. Muriel liked to walk briskly, but today it was hard going. What she needed was chocolate.

Suddenly Muriel heard a strange noise and her heart skipped a beat. She thought about an earthquake, a collapsing building, a bomb, but it was just a skateboarder. He roared past her, flew off the footpath and wove in and out of the stationary cars waiting at the lights.

‘You stupid boy!’ she called out. She steadied herself on a rubbish tin. Her heart was rolling and pitching. If she'd stepped into his path, and she almost had, he would have knocked her down. Now she'd cut her hand on the rough surface of the rubbish tin. She took out a handkerchief and pressed it onto the wound. Suddenly angry, she wanted to strike out at that youth for jeopardising her safety. Muriel was rarely enraged, but here she was, breathless and shaking with rage, nauseated. She needed to rest. She went into a bank—not her bank—and sat down in an easy chair.

She remembered wanting to kill John. That was when she had page 163 found out about the gambling. It had been salutary, to experience that urge. Needless to say she hadn't acted on it, but she understood those who did. If she hadn't been so well brought up, she might have done it.

Muriel thought about Rachel, wanting to get rid of the baby. ‘A termination’, it was called. Had she thought, this baby has ruined my life, just as Muriel had thought of John? He had just told her that they would lose everything—the house, their vehicles, their place at the lake. He had to pay all the money back at once, resign and leave town or the partners would call in the police. She remembered going to the window to look out at her beloved garden, and turning to see the back of John's head with its bald patch, feeling such passionate love for her garden and such hatred for John, and thinking ‘I want to kill him’. Poor John. Muriel could not forgive him while he lived, but she could forgive him now.

She sat in the bank for a long time. She even nodded off briefly, dreaming that the skateboarder was kneeling at her feet, asking for forgiveness. She looked around the bank. What remarkable decor, thought Muriel. The place was full of natural light and warmth and colour. I suppose I should get up and go out, she thought. These chairs were not meant for old ladies; they were provided for people waiting to make investments. She was feeling so much better but she didn't want to leave. This place is too beautiful to be a bank, she thought to herself. Which bank is it? She could see nothing to indicate the name of the bank.

A young man was coming towards her, smiling. He was remarkably good-looking, like the soldier with whom she'd had ‘the skirmish’ which she later called ‘a love affair’. I suppose he'll be wanting me to make an investment, she thought wryly. He doesn't know that I don't have any money. He held out his hand to Muriel and when she put her hand in his, he lifted her to her feet. Quite suddenly there was music.

‘Welcome, Muriel,’ said the young man. ‘We're so pleased to have you on board.’

On board?’ thought Muriel. ‘Good heavens.’