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Sport 5: Spring 1990

Stephanie Johnson — Sappho Reclining

page 97

Stephanie Johnson

Sappho Reclining

Tonight I'm cooking a celebratory dinner for some women I consider my friends. Presumably I am a friend of theirs—they seem to enjoy my company. Of some of them I have my doubts. I've heard them talk about other women disparagingly. I wonder what they say about me when my back is turned.

Sometimes we have philosophical conversations. I remember one night, all of us full of sharp white wine and New Zealand green, we discussed the ideas of 'loyalty' and 'discretion'. It was generally agreed by those who bothered to listen to one another that they were old and tired notions belonging to the patriarchy. Sisterhood, which is a word you don't hear so often anymore, is an idea diametrically opposed to personal loyalty. Sisters, you see, like to have everything out in the open. If a sister does something one doesn't like, for example, one complains about it to everyone else as a preliminary to confronting the culprit herself. By this stage one has everybody else's opinion on the matter. The words 'loyalty' and 'discretion' imply the involvement of an individual. In sisterhood there is a common morality, a commonly-held knowledge of our common selves.

Tonight, as I stand at the bench of my newly-renovated kitchen, these are the thoughts that I chop into the onions, the red pepper, the fish. The red peppers cost me a bomb. The fish was caught by my daughter's husband. The onions my ex-lover grew. I wish I knew someone who grew red peppers then I wouldn't have to pay for them either. This is my loyalty to myself: Never to part with anything much, but take all unto myself.

None of my friends can keep a secret and neither can I. This makes for spicy conversation but, as it occurred to me the other night over at Sandy's, conversation that is easily exhausted. What can one tell when one has told all one's secrets? Secrets are slow stewers, like garbanzo beans. They take a while to soak and boil and soften enough to come into the mouth. Often before the telling of a secret I have the sensation of 'leaping from a high point into an unknown substance, of a sharp wind page 98suddenly blowing through the room lifting the corners of papers, shifting the dust in the corners.

There's still dust in the corners of this room, dust a few weeks old, dating from the last days of the Women's Work Scheme. I took off to my daughter's at Whitianga before they finished. I couldn't stand the mess and the scrapping anymore. I told the Labour Department my daughter had had a miscarriage and the other women on the scheme covered me. Shakti was pleased to see me and I had a good rest in the sun while she fussed over me. She worries about me, she says. When I ask her why she just looks troubled.

'I eat well, I sleep well, I play well,' I tell her.

Shakti knows all that. There's eighteen years between me and Shakti and she knows me pretty well. Somehow, despite her Coromandel upbringing, Shakti has cottoned on to the work ethic. She refuses to go on the dole. Poor old hubby is up at four, peering through the net curtains at the sea, to check the weather. Then he's off out on his boat with his partner, sometimes for a day and a night, catching fish. Shakti has a vegetable garden and she throws pots. She hasn't eased off at all since she got pregnant. I came back to Auckland with bags of carrots and rhubarb and a few more free plates and wonky cups to add to my collection.

I slice the fish and chuck it into a lemon, soy and honey marinade. The lemons came from my neighbour's tree which is at the back of her section. She boarded up the hole in her fence to stop me nicking things from her garden. It was a bit tricky this afternoon when I met up with her on her front path. She was buggered though, and didn't notice.

'Still shift working?' I asked brightly, and scooted in my gate.

Later on, while I was rolling a joint on my newly-completed deck, I saw her out the back with the hose. She was yawning and rubbing her shoulders with her free hand. Silly cow. Her husband up and left her with two teenage sons and she's still working. She'd be easily eligible for the DPB but you can't tell her anything.

I can do the rest when they arrive. There's six of us and there should be plenty of food. I asked Sooz to bring dessert, which was probably a bad move. She could arrive with some ghastly concoction, the ingredients bought at Harvest. A lot of seeds glued together with carob, topped with tofu cream. Too redolent of my Coromandel days and the things I used to cook for Dave before he completely fried his brains and tried to fly off a cliff. He was sent to Carrington and I came to Auckland to be closer to him. Auckland was the last place I'd expected to find myself. That's what I'd been trying to do in Coromandel. Since then I've page 99developed a fiery passion for french pastries, you know, those round ones shaped like a womin's parts with a bright apricot clit and a bit of custard?

I pour myself a glass of wine, a red from Bulgaria. It occurs to me that Sooz and Jan probably won't drink it, Bulgaria being in their minds but a stone's throw from Chernobyl. I decant it into one of Shakti's knobbly carafes and make a mental note to tell them it's Yalumba. Sooz wouldn't know it's from somewhere not New Zealand, but Jan is enough of a soak to pick it up.

In the livingroom I select some music. It's not strictly wimmin's music, it's Windham Hill. The music is feminine though, I think. And so relaxing. The label makes me think of all those nighties me and Shakti wore for years with almost the same name, 'Wyndham', that I got from Farmers on my mother's account.

I light some incense, reposition my crystals on the mantelpiece, and struggle with the sliding doors onto the deck. There's a chilly breeze blowing through them. They won't close the last two inches, haven't since they were installed. I never said anything though. By that stage I was frightened of Jill, the leader of our scheme. Ginormous Jill, I called her, behind her back. She's massive, probably six foot. At the beginning she was OK about all the false names etc, etc, but then she realised I wasn't only collecting my wage to be trained as a carpenter, I was getting a free deck and kitchen. She could easily have come clean with the Labour Department if I'd kicked up a fuss. Mind you, I could've told them she wasn't a builder's arse-hole. She was supposed to be in charge and she knew stuff all. The other wimmin on the scheme were much younger than us. They didn't cross me because of my great age (I'm fortyseven) and they didn't cross her because of her stature. Also, they witnessed a nasty fight on the first day. I gave Ginormous some tea in a cup of Shakti's featuring glazed daisies and she refused to drink out of it. It was a poofy cup, she said. After that she brought her own tin mug, the sort men on construction sites drink from. The handle got really hot and she usually burnt her lip on the rim the first few mouthfuls, but she persisted. Actually, by the end of the scheme I quite fancied Jill. We all did. I let her go to one of the younger wimmin though, the one who was always stubbing her fingers and toes. She was a real girl. I could see Jill's food was up for her. She would rather have had me but I doubt we would have been good together. I've got more dominating the older I've got. Although we would have had a good time together in private, I'm sure, I can't picture Ginormous dominated. Also, she might have sensed page 100I'm a bit rusty in that direction and would've been right. There's been no one since Sooz and she's been with Jan for—ooo—must be coming up three years ...

What a rambly old night I'm having. Where is everybody?

Sooz and Jan arrive with their dessert which has to be baked. They fuss around in the kitchen turning on the oven and looking for aluminium foil. As luck would have it, they come across the wine bottle with 'Made in Bulgaria' stamped on it plain as day.

'Not to worry,' says Jan in a husky voice, fishing in a brown paper bag with her slim dark wrists, 'We can have beer.'

She opens two bottles of Mac's Ale. Sooz's wide blonde face, gleaming with moisturiser, shines beneath the fluorescent bar. I light a smoke and suddenly Ginormous is standing among us, her deep-set eyes flashing below her black eyebrows and peroxided velour pile hair. She looks like a huge seal with her sleek shining head and black clothes.

'Gidday,' she says.

I'm about to introduce her to Sooz and Jan when I remember that she had a brief scene with Jan soon after Sooz and Jan got together. Sooz narrows her eyes at me. She thinks I did it on purpose, invited Jill to get her back. There's a silence, which is rare in my kitchen when I'm entertaining.

'Why don't you go out onto the deck?' I say to Jan and Sooz. After sending a smouldering, deeply feminine look at Jill, Jan follows Sooz. Ginormous Jill grins at me, pushing air through her teeth. I offer her the joint. We can hear Sooz and Jan struggling with the sliding doors.

'How's it going?' squeaks Ginormous through her inheld breath.

'Fine, I say, just as there is a splintering crash from the livingroom. The pelmet has fallen from above the door. Sooz and Jan appear, lugging it between them.

'Shit, says Jill, 'I put that up.'

'Bung it out on the deck, 'I tell them. They poke it through the opening they've managed, about three feet. It crashes onto the wood.

'Never mind,' I tell Ginormous soothingly. She looks very attractive tonight.

'Have you got a beer?' she asks.

She goes out onto the deck with the others. I would've been left alone in the kitchen, browning my onions and peppers, if it hadn't been for the arrival of Mags and Red. I hear them before I see them, having a ding dong out on the road. I open the window but can't make out what they're page 101saying. Red comes in first with Jade, Mags's daughter, asleep in her arms.

'Put her in here,' I say, rushing past and opening my bedroom door. Red lies Jade down gently and we cover her with one of Sooz's screenprinted quilts, a long ago lover's gift. After that Red smiles for the first time and we go back to the kitchen. Mags is in there, her face blotchy from crying. She's struggling to open a bottle of beer. Red takes it from her, opens it, and gives it back with a kiss. No one wants my wine.

'Hey!' I say, stirring the fish which is almost ready, 'Have some wine! Tonight's a celebration!'

'Yeah?' says Red, 'What of?'

'My new kitchen and deck,' I say, opening the oven door and taking a quick squizzy at Sooz's pud. It's a sort of wholemeal and carob sponge, with nuts on top. Could be worse.

In the livingroom Ginormous puts on Tracy Chapman and winds it up loud. Then there's a blue arc from behind the stove and all the lights go out.

'I never said I was an electrician,' says Jill from the dark, 'I told you to get someone to check the wiring.'

'Never mind,' 1 say again, 'I've got some candles.'

Despite the cold wind blowing through the gap in the door, dinner is sort of romantic. Mags has loosened up with the food and beer and her eyes shine at Red, purple and soft. Sooz has her arm around Jan as I serve the pudding. Jill is quiet, a muscle moving in her cheek casting a darting shadow on her face.

'To friends and schemes,' I say as a toast, before we begin the dessert.

'I wouldn't mind learning plumbing,' says Jill, her mouth full, reminding me.

'Hey!' I say, 'Has everyone seen my fountain?'

Their faces are blank, with smudges of carob around their mouths.

'Come on.'

'Stay here,' I say, when we reach the deck.

Sooz looks worried. With the strong wind and the weight of the wimmin the deck leans and creaks like a ship.

I rush down the steps and under the deck where I shove the piece of PVC piping over the end of the tap. The water rushes through, into the hose, along the ground through the high grass to Sappho, who stands black, shining, magnificent, the water bursting behind her and streaming between her abundant breasts.

page 102

'Catch that, says Ginormous.

'I made her myself, 'I shout up, which is partly true. Shakti and I found the piece of driftwood on the beach and lugged it back to her place. Then Shakti's neighbour, who is a part-time sculptor, spied it out his window and asked if he could make it into what the shape suggested to him. After a wrangle I managed to claim ownership of the finished product, having been the first person to see it in its original state on the beach.

'Own your own sexual fantasy!' I shout above the rushing water, 'Look at her!'

Sappho's head is bent in the moonlight. The women line up on the deck, watching. The air is thick with the scent from a full-blown Queen of the Night in my neighbour's garden. The bush gleams beside her house, the perfume hanging around it like a pale cloud. My neighbour has her windows open to it.

Sooz picks up her guitar and begins to play. It's an old favourite of mine and I leap up the stairs to dance. It's while we're all stomping and singing that things begin to fall apart.

'Look!' says Red, laughing and pointing at the drainpipe and guttering coming away from the house roof. The deck bucks and splinters beneath our pounding feet. Jill is cracking up, holding her sides. The handrails subside into the garden with a thump. I watch them go. They narrowly miss Sappho, who has suddenly gone dry. Under the deck there's a loud snap as the PVC jerks away from the tap, the hose ricochets away into the grass like a snake, and knocks poor Sappho sideways into the garden.

Running down to save Sappho could've saved my life. As I bent towards her, prostrate in the dock and thistles, there was a sound like thunder. The deck fell sideways, taking with it the back wall of the house. Red and Sooz and Mags and Jan flew into the air in formation, like juggling balls, while Jill, being heavier, shot like a diver over the debris and into the garden. She lay beside Sappho her arms still by her sides. All I could do was lie beside her.

It is as if some monolithic secret has been told-there are all the components of one, greatly magnified. I shiver in the chill wind and wrap Jill in my arms,

In my neighbour's garden Mags struggles free of the Queen of the Night to go to Jade, who is crying for her from inside the house.