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Sport 1: Spring 1988

The China Theory of Life

page 24

The China Theory of Life

Stella from upstairs clicks her way down from infinity. Her heels tap morse on the stairs yep yep yep yep. Her hips swing shiny all the way to the letterbox. She checks for mail, pulls out the paper, then sits in her hip high fur jacket in her red sports car — passenger seat — and reads it.

She looks up. Honey I just love the way he moves, she says.

He drives a purple Valiant
wears a leather jacket
unloads a huge orange brocade
lampshade from the back seat
and later, she throws
buckets of water
from the upstairs window
I don't care
I don't care
I don't care.

At night
their sounds tremble through the house
their voices murmur through the roof
If she flattens her palm to the wall
she can feel their voices
rock in her.

In the morning
the click of her heels
on the stair
don't care
don't care.

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Dave from upstairs comes down to borrow the broom.

There's fluff on the carpet and he hasn't got a vacuum cleaner.

Have you got one? No she said. Never mind he said.

Do you want to buy a black and white TV? It's a good one — I got it for a hundred and twenty and I'm selling it for seventy-five. It goes really well, there's nothing wrong with it.

I've just split up from my fiancée
she's 16 going on 17
I'm 19 going on 20
we lived wlth her parents
we were buying lots of things together
we have two TVs and were saving for a bed.

She's well built my fiancée, my ex-fiancée, she's a strong little bitch. You know she's only about this tall but she's helluva strong. You know she used to hit me when she got wild, but I never hit her back. I wouldn't do that.

But god, she's really strong. She used to sit on me and I couldn't move. We fought all the time, mostly about stupid things, but you know we only fought when we were at home, when we went out we never did. Funny eh.

I always said that if we ever split up I wouldn't worry about taking things or anything like that, I'd just pack my bags and fuck off out of there, just get my personal things and just fuck off. I reckon when you're just about married everything belongs to both of you y'know, it all belongs to everyone.

When I left I did take one of the TVs because I figured she couldn't watch both of them and I took my car because it's mine and she can't drive anyway.

I know quite a lot about cars.

You know the one I had — the Valiant — I got it for two hundred bucks and the back tyres alone are worth three hundred. I just swapped it for the bike, from a farmer guy. It's worth about two two. I really made on the deal.

I got an old Ford Prefect once, for a hundred bucks, from an old page 26guy. Dropped a new engine in, did some work on it and sold it to a guy — made a heap on that one.

I did a course on cars once — at the polytech — and I worked at a garage for a while but I got laid off.

Bloody boring not working. God whaddya do all day it's so boring. I might have a job painting up the road but I don't know yet. And I'm going to fix up the bike.


No animals said the landlord when she moved in.
Have you got any animals? Cats? A dog?
I don't want animals
I don't want any animals here
I have my own reasons for this
You can live here as long as there are no animals
this is a rule that I have
there are reasons for this.

This is a part of a set
he says about the new brown formica table.
That is the only thing about it
that it is part of a set
it has chairs to match
if anybody else needs the chairs
I will have to come and get the table from you
but then I will bring you
another table
so there is no problem with that.

Next morning there is a bed base and two sheets of iron outside the back door.


When she pulled the curtains that morning she saw that they were fixing her phone.

Two of them were up ladders jiggling the wires. Julie, the man yelled to his workmate from his position against the pole, do you want a safety belt?

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well hang on, I'll bring you one

He went around the back of the van and pulled out a safety harness.

Try this one. He handed her the belt, then returned to his own ladder, looked at the wires for a moment then took hold of one. Try this one he yelled across, see this one here, we'll try this one. Three over.

She picked up the corresponding wire, fiddled with it for a moment. He puffed on his pipe.

Can I try it from in here, he asked, wiping his boots on the mat. He picked up the receiver, dialled a number and had a mumbled conversation with someone at the other end.

It's fine now, all yours, he said.

Do you want to keep this phone? We can get you a push button one if you like. It'll be twenty-two dollars if we install it now, or fifty-five if you want us to come back and do it.

The old one's fine, she said.

She noticed the man had a star tattooed on the back of his hand. Maybe to remind him of where he was climbing to.


The phone rings for Tina.


Hello, Tina?



It's not Tina


This isn't Tina

Why not?

This isn't Tina's number

Yes it is

No it isn't — I've just had the phone connected and I was given this number

But this is Tina's number

Well it can't be her number any more, she must have moved

No she hasn't, she still lives there


Francis Street

This isn't Francis Street

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I'm sorry, but I don't know what's going on. Her phone must have been cut off

Oh. Okay thanks anyway

That's okay




She went to the laundromat
hoping that they'd be the machines where you could watch the washing go round and round, but they were the ordinary in-through-the-top sort, so it was like being in your own laundry, only colder.

And she'd hoped for magazines, and the pile looked promising, but turned out to be traffic safety booklets — two whole piles in different colours.

Going to the laundromat required a wealth of 50 cent pieces.
You needed four for the washing machine and one for the powder which poured from a chute into a white polystyrene cup, which you replaced after tipping the 50 cents worth into the machine. Then you needed a handful of 50s for the drier, but she wasn't going to bother with that — take it home and let it try its luck on the line.

How long will it take? she asked the woman in the back room who was busy folding sheets while another woman sat and smoked on the wooden bench. Thirty-five minutes she said, smoothing a fold in a lemon sheet. Here, give me a hand with these doubles Merle.

She read traffic magazines for a while. Then she just sat and listened to the rumble of the machines and watched the cars go by.

The two women out the back were talking

Terrible last night, terrible

Pete's got one of those flus that are going around and he was so restless I didn't get a wink.

I told him it's time for separate beds — I need my sleep you know, I can't keep dragging in here in the mornings, trying to keep my eyes open.

I tell him for godssake go and sleep on the sofa, I have to work, but do you think he'll move — just moans like a baby and says get me a cuppa tea will ya.

Yeah well I reckon separate beds are the answer — oh no, not straight page 29off, I mean not when you're first married and just starting off, I mean you like things nice and cosy then. When we were first married we slept in a three foot bed for two months because we couldn't afford anything more — but it was good then, I mean you don't mind them all close then, no matter how much they move — it's all romantic. But god, I wouldn't do it now. You know Jacky sweats something terrible at nights and he's movin' all over the place and he doesn't like the flannelette sheets like I do in the winter and I like to have more blankets and he kicks them off. We used to have a beautiful bed oh it was really lovely — had the headboards with the little tables at the side where you could put your lamp and things — it was beautiful, that pale sort of wood you know. But when we came here something must've happened to it in the move, maybe it was knocked or something, but god when we got it all set up in the room it had this terrible squeak, really terrible, so every time you even sat on the damn thing it made a noise. Well that was no good.

So one night Jacky said for godssake take this bed down to the mart and let some other bugger suffer it would ya so I did. Right the next morning. And I came back with two singles. He's never regretted it.


When she went to hang her washing up, the man with the limp and the occasional crutch was standing doing his washing with 'Born to be Wild' blaring out through the wide open window.


The phone goes.


Hello Tina

No, this isn't Tina

Oh, is she there? This is Mrs Adams, I'm ringing about the rent.

No, I'm sorry, this isn't Tina's number

But that's 724 329 isn't it?

Yes, but it's not Tina's number any more. You see I've just had my phone connected and they gave me this number

Oh — well this is a bit confusing

Yes I'm sorry, but Tina's phone must have been cut off, or else she's moved

Oh dear

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Sorry about that

All right, yes well thank you




A knock on the door.

The man from the telephone company asks if he can use the phone. They're installing a phone next door and he needs to ring headquarters. The star stays steady as he dials.


Dave is fixing a different car outside the window.
Revs it up
listens to the engine turn over and over again
how do you like this one?
just swapped my bike for it
it's a Torana. Worth four grand. It's a bit stoved in at the side, see, and there's some rust in the boot but I'm going to do it up and spray it black and sell it to a young guy.


The phone rings.


Hello, Tina?

No, this isn't Tina

Oh,is she there?

No she's gone out

Do you know where?

She said she was going to the Leviathan Hotel

The Leviathan!


Are you sure? she never drinks there, she always drinks at the Albert

Well that's what she said

The Leviathan shit I hope she hasn't gone to meet Tony again, Zac'll be wild. If she comes in tell her to ring Deb, okay





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What are you doing here, people asked.
Making up sets, she said.
They either said oh, politely, or else: sets of what?
China. She said.
It's the only thing that makes any sense.


He rings her up, says

What are you doing?

I'm going to the laundromat.

But on the way out the door the phone rings


Hello is that Richie's cleaners?

Oh come on

Have I got the wrong number?

Are you serious?

I was wanting Richie's cleaners

Is there someone called Tina works there?

No. I don't think so. There's Richie — he's the guy who runs it — and Sammo his mate, who does deliveries and a lady who takes the orders, but that's Judy I think she's Richie's chick.

Well this isn't Richie's

Oh, righto then, sorry about that

Okay, bye



Do you mean Tina who works at Sammy's?

I don't know

Oh...because there's a Tina who works at Sammy's and she used to go with Richie sometimes I think. But not any more. Well I haven't seen them anyway. I think she was the chick who smashed a plate on his head and gave him four stitches. Rich was wild as hell.

What sort of plate?


What sort of plate?

Whaddya mean?

I mean was it patterned or plain?


Was the plate plain, or did it have a pattern on it?

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Shit I dunno

Well what about the colour


Do you know what colour it was?

What is this? How the hell would I know. I wasn't even there. All I know is Richie came in in the morning with a sore head and four stitches and started yelling and said she'd bashed him with a plate.

And he didn't say what sort?


Well didn't you ask?

For godssake

All right, okay. . . well what sort of china does Richie have?

He doesn't have china, he has a cleaning business. Suits, you know, a dry cleaners. It's nothing to do with china.

But what sort of china does he have in his house?

Look, I've never been to his house. I don't know anything about his china. I don't know about anything. All I want to know is is my suit ready, because it's my sister's wedding on Saturday and I have to have my suit. I'm the best man and Rich promised it'd be done.

Oh. Well I can't help you with your suit. I'm sorry.

Oh. Yeah well okay. . . bye then



On the way to the laundromat she left a note at Sammy's for Tina telling her to ring Deb and that the landlady was ringing about the rent.


It was mostly cups and saucers she collected.

This could seem rather a minor part of china collection, but it was — she felt anyway — a most important role. It was a matching of sets, a putting together of pieces that belonged together. She felt immense satisfaction when she placed a cup on a saucer and knew that it might be the first time the two had been together in years.

The idea that a set even existed gave life some sort of a meaning. She had faith in the idea of the set , it kept her going, the idea of all those cups and saucers to be matched.

Of course this could be extended to include plates and teapots and page 33sugar bowls and jugs, but she kept hers simple. Of course if she found plates or other parts to the sets she always bought them, but it was mainly the cups and saucers that concerned her. She had piles of both in her room. At last count there'd been 125 saucers and 83 cups. She liked the idea of such unity. It made her feel sound, gave her a sense of purpose. Also a sense of history — this was her part in the past, reuniting pieces of china that had been adrift for years.


She'd met him in the Corso shop — the one that was only open on Wednesdays.

He was sorting through saucers and she was rummaging through the 20 cent bargain table.

She saw that he was holding the father saucer - cream, with father written in fine black letters and a picture of a man swinging a golf club and further around, a fishing line and around from that, a pair of slippers. It was the saucer belonging to the cup she'd seen earlier in the place at the other end of town. If she hurried she could go back and get it before the shop closed.

She said excuse me and do you mind and explained about the cup.

He saw her point and said yes, it would be a shame to split up the set. So he gave her the saucer and said since he was going that way anyway, could he come with her to get the cup? She was a bit surprised, but not too surprised and said yes all right then.

Later, he said she had very good bones and could he paint her? She said if it was bones he wanted he should try the museum.


When she looked out the window she noticed that as well as the bed base and two sheets of iron outside the back door, there was now a chest of drawers, a fridge with a red tartan Mcdonald logo and a ladder.

She also noticed that Dave's Torana had gone and that there was a blue Wayfarer ute that she hadn't seen before.


Walking towards the gardens she noticed a telephone van stopped at an intersection. The same two were inside. They were waiting for a pause in the traffic. Julie was driving. She ran her hand across her forehead, her hair had fallen forward over her face. She seemed very tired.

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Stella says Honey would you mind?

She holds a very large framed picture. It is a painting of the Southern Alps.

He's in a bit of a mood, she said.

He's out now, but he might come back and smash a few things. He does that — it's his temperamental nature. My last boyfriend gave me this one and I don't think he likes it. He doesn't like nature very much, it reminds him of his childhood. He grew up in the country you see. So if you wouldn't mind, just for a few days until he cools off.

She said of course and took the picture.

Stella, she said
mmm luv
don't let him smash the china.


When she came home late that afternoon she saw that the orange brocade lampshade now sat grandly in the branches of the tree outside Stella's window.

There was a saucepan on the lawn, two chair legs, a bottle of tomato sauce and a small yellow teacup which was still in one piece, despite its fall from the window.

She picked it up and took it inside. She'd been looking for this one for a while.

She noticed that there was a new cream Holden Kingswood parked outside her bathroom window and beside it was a white Mini with two flat tyres and a tow rope looped on its bonnet.

D'ya like them? Dave asked — they're my new ones. I made nine hundred on the ute and got this one — he patted the Holden — and I think I'll keep it for a while. This other one needs a bit of fixing up so I'll do that and get rid of it. It's a bit of. a bugger though because I've just got that job painting up the road so I haven't got much time to work on it. And I've got another one arriving next week.


As she was going through a pile of saucers it occurred to her that she'd always wanted one of those moments of revelation that occurred page 35to people in books. That one instant when they knew — when it all became clear to them, when they saw, suddenly, what it was they should do and having had this moment, this unveiling, they acted and from that point on their lives were changed.

She longed for something as definite as that.

She waited for a while to see if anything became clear.
When it didn't, she went to the laundromat instead.

Charlie doesn't like the apricot, Merle was saying to Ruby when she went in, says it reminds him of his mother. She used to have only apricot — wouldn't have any other colour on the beds and he hated it. Even the wincy were apricot. Imagine. So I had to give my pair to Eileen because he made such a fuss.

Hello luv, she said. Beautiful day isn't it. Do you want some 50s? We've had a bit of a run this morning, but number ten's free if you don't mind going on the end.

That was fine, she said.


She said he could only paint her if he painted her china as well.


The saucer as Underdog

Saucers were the most ignored items of china. Mostly she found them stacked high in piles on bottom shelves or on the floor or under tables. .Precariously wobbly piles, or short stacks jammed into cupboards.

Always the saucers were tucked away, under or in.


Around the comer a man was trimming his hedge. He leaned in to the ladder and cut away the renegade branches sprouting wildly from the main body of the hedge. He did this for a couple of sections then came down off his ladder and stepped back over to the other side of the road to check his level, ducking up and down and narrowing his eyes to get a better view. Then he moved back to the hedge, moved his ladder along and began on the next section. The ground was littered with clippings, like a laying out of wares.

He spent days doing this, completely absorbed in levels of green.

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He painted her picture with the china.

Well, not so much with the china, more her as the china. Her as a mosaic.

He'd started with the Poole cups — her toes the colours of their soft insides — each toe a different colour. Then he'd moved up, across her body painting her in the colours and patterns of the cups and saucers. The patterns marked her like small tattoos — a leaf on her ankle, on her knee a proud red horse, blue fish in her armpit, her shoulders covered in tiny blue stars. She carried fruit with leaves on her hip, a cluster of yellow flowers on one breast and allover the colours.


When she got home with the picture she noticed that the yard was filling up with cars.

And against the back door leaned another bed, five large pieces of wood, a wardrobe and an old stove.

On the front doorstep was a green and spotted cup and a note from Tina. It said:
          Thanks. All the best for your trip.

Actually, she hadn't known she was going on one.


This is my new fiancée, Sharon, Dave said.

Hello she said

Hello said Sharon

Why are ya goin? Dave asked

china, she said

That's a long way. You'll need a car. Why dontcha take one of mine — go on I'll give you the truck for a hundred bucks — go on, it's a bargain, it's a bit of a bomb, I mean yeah, there's a bit of rust, but the engine's pretty sound, it'll go for a bit. Go on, a hundred bucks, that's all.

It's a bargain.

It's a deal she said.


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So you're off then, said Merle, folding a blue floral single in half

that's a shame

we'll miss you won't we Rube

Yep, said Rube, shaking out a pillowcase, thought we almost had you on a wash and leave, but never mind, next time eh

Here, chuck us over those doubles would ya Merle.


After loading the cups and saucers carefully packed into their tea chests on to the back of the truck

and before driving off

she put the father cup and saucer carefully on the front doorstep just so he'd know.


On the way out of town she passed Julie and the man in the telephone van.

She waved.

He raised his hand and the star rose and fell across the sky.