Title: They

Author: Christine Johnston

In: Sport 8: Autumn 1992

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, March 1992, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 8: Autumn 1992

♣ Christine Johnston — They

page 109

Christine Johnston


They lived in small wooden houses, in the vast suburb that stretches from the harbour to the ocean. Their kitchens smelt of gas, of sheepmeat and of tea. They kept bowls of mutton fat in the meat-safe with some curly bacon. Tea leaves accumulated in a colander in the sink. On the bench a dish cloth slept coiled like a small grey animal. Under the sink were shelves behind a curtain on a wire. There were mousetraps and a wire shaker with a piece of yellow soap.

The kitchen table was covered with patterned contact plastic, turning up at the corners. Cups hung on hooks and were stained with tea. There were biscuits in a coronation tin, sometimes stale sandy cake with pink icing.

The front rooms were cold and cluttered with china ornaments. Surfaces were adorned with doilies and embroidered cloths. There was always a mirror above the mantelpiece, plastic flowers and wedding photos. The fire was blocked off but soot persisted. A two-bar heater sat in the hearth, awaiting illumination.

Their bedrooms were modest and smelt faintly of face powder. Saintly faces looked down on their beds where folded eiderdowns promised comfort. At the windows hung nylon curtains and roller blinds, as well as drapes. No expense was spared to exclude the light and the eyes of strangers.

The front gardens were minimal because the street encroached. There were dahlias, hydrangeas and arum lilies. There was grass in the backyard, washing lines, hung with cheesecloth and tea towels, a vegetable garden with silver beet and dead beans, tin fences, 44-gallon drums.

The streets received the north-easterly, a wind of the ocean, cold and salty. It drove before it a sheet of misty rain, sweeping away the discarded fish and chip parcels and cigarette packets, and the small piles of dust and leaf litter which They had brushed into the gutter.

At certain times of day the streets were busy. Children dawdled, picking the flowers that poked through fences and singing their times tables. They never grew up. From time to time they would leave behind a small glove page 110 which they did not retrieve, in spite of it being impaled on a picket as a sign. High school boys walked five abreast, shouting fuck and pushing one another into the gutter. At any time of day they seemed drunk on their hormones. But they passed, always having somewhere else to go.

Mothers herded their children along the narrow footpath. Their voices rang out. Don't touch that, Jimmy. Dirty. Put it down. Ugh. Don't run. Wait. Jesus, they said to one another. It wasn't even morning tea time.

Men passed by at predictable times. Some were gentlemen and raised their hats. Others chewed on cigarettes and averted their eyes, concentrating on a short inventory of animal pleasures which could not be taken from them. They spat sometimes to show their contempt for the street, and the earth and their subjugation.

This was where They had lived all their lives. This suburb this street this house. From behind their net curtains They saw men spit and dogs urinate. Wind and rain would flush the street of body fluids and carry off the cries of mothers. They knew the futility of protest, the inevitability of conformity. Here death wrought the only changes.

On Friday They went up the street to get the messages. At the butcher's They got a lovely piece of hogget for Sunday. Mr Thomas gave them cheek. They called him a hard case. They met Mrs B. She said Doris was going into the Mater to have the operation. They said give our regards to Doris, tell her we were asking after her. They shook their heads. They didn't like the sound of it.

Whenever possible They went to funerals. They said he was a good age. They said he had a good send-off. It was a good turnout.

They went to church on Sunday. They were glad if it was Father Jack. They had a lot of time for Father Jack. They said he was a good sort, he was a godsend. God bless him. Father Culling was all right, but he was too young.

After church They made a pot of tea. They put on the tea-cosy. They took milk. They took sugar. They had a smoke. They talked.

They said let her stew in her own juice. They said you can't have your cake and eat it. They said it would break your heart. Give them an inch, They said, and before you can say Jack Robinson.

They laughed. They had a good laugh. It did them good.

They had had a flutter. They liked a flutter. Now and again.

No harm done. No luck, though. They had no luck.

page 111

The talk stopped. They drew on their cigarettes. They looked past each other and the walls of the kitchen where rot was setting in. The calendar showed a kitten. It always did.

They drained their cups and picked the tea leaves off their tongues. They picked the strands of tobacco off their tongues. They felt their tongues for places where cancers might grow. They stubbed out their cigarettes and nothing held them any more. Their hands rested on the edges of the table. The pattern on the contact was of kitchen things—patty cakes, teapots and onions. It was curling at the edges and there were toast crumbs sticking to it.

They were looking down on it, on the ashtray and the cups and the cosy teapot. They could see the fly-spotted lightshade and the cobwebbed cord. They were lighter than air and They bobbed about under the ceiling. If the window or door had been open They might have been drawn outside and floated away on the north-easterly, over the densely populated suburb and the racecourse, and out to sea, their frocks hugging their short, thick bodies, their cardigans flapping.

Just as well.

They floated down. Their cigarettes still smouldered in the ashtray. Somehow their hands still rested on the tabletop.

'Down to earth,' They said.

'Mind you,' They said, 'it takes the weight off your feet.'

'But. Even so.'

How heavy their legs seemed now, bloated with fluid. They were getting old. They took off their shoes and put on slippers.

'No time like the present,' They said.