Sport 25: Spring 2000
Caren Wilton — Shenandoah River
Mel and her mother are out walking in the cold afternoon. They're both wearing jackets, buttoned right up, and pairs of gloves that Mel's mother knitted years ago, and they're talking about trees. Mel's mother points out the japonica up Mrs Cateley's driveway, and Mel looks at the fat buds on their delicate, awkward branches and says, Mm. She tells her mother about the jacarandas in Sydney and how she and Kate sat in the park and the purple flowers fell on their heads like rain. Mel's mother says that sounds lovely and maybe she'll go and do that one day. Mel walks slowly, so her mother can keep up, but casually, without saying anything about it, and she feels the sharp air in her lungs and looks hard at the thin, budding branches of the trees. This is the only way she can cope with being in Masterton; if they stay in the house, she starts feeling like she can't breathe. She starts to want out, out, out, and there's nowhere to go.
It's June, and Mel thought her mother would be dead by now. That was the doctor; they pressed him, saying, ‘How long has she got?’ like people in a soap opera. Mel and Shirley were sitting in his big office on the seventh floor; Mel looked out past the orange curtains to where the clouds sat in a thick turmoil over Kingston. A plane, no more than a glint of light really, moved out beyond the cloud into the paler sky above.
‘Well!’ said the doctor. ‘I'll put it this way, shall I? Make this summer a good one, because it'll probably be your last together. Yep, I'd say she'd be lucky to have a great deal longer than that.’ And he tossed a coin he was holding into the air and slammed it down flat onto the back of his hand. For ever afterwards Mel felt as if he'd tossed the coin to see how much longer her mother had. Tails, she lives; heads, she dies. Of course this was the wrong way round. He'd already said. And then he looked at the coin and laughed in a strange, pleased sort of a way, and Mel looked nervously at Shirley to see what she was going to page 131 say, but Shirley had become a Buddhist recently and didn't yell at people like she used to.
In fact what she said was, ‘Thank you, Doctor, I appreciate you telling us that,’ and next thing she and Mel were out walking down the corridor, following the battered line of red tape that ran along the polished floor. Shirley walked fast, her head down.
‘Shirl,’ said Mel.
‘That was spooky, eh?’
‘Yeh, that guy. What about when he threw that coin up? What a weirdo. It was like he was enjoying it. Didn't Mum say his wife died of cancer last year?’
‘Yes,’ said Shirley.
‘Well, why would he be like that?’
‘I just thought,’ said Shirley, ‘that he was probably still feeling a lot of grief from his wife's death, and so he wasn't fully present with us.’
‘He sure wasn't.’ They passed a sign saying Chaplain's Quiet Room. Mel looked at the shiny wooden door with a certain sort of longing. If she was a different kind of person, maybe she could go in there and be comforted somehow, be told something that would make things easier, that would make her understand, and then her life would make sense. Shirley never had this kind of problem. She always had one thing or another to make her life make sense: first it was communism, then feminism, and now she was going to be a Buddhist. It was always all clear to her, in one way or another. ‘I was waiting for you to say something,’ said Mel. Shirley had always been the one who told off men in pubs when they came over and said, ‘You girls on your own?’ If you rang Shirley when she'd just dished up tea, she told you so, and asked you to ring back in ten minutes. Mel just let people talk, saying Mm and Uh huh and thinking miserably about her food getting cold on a plate in the kitchen.
‘I didn't feel the need to say anything,’ said Shirley. ‘He was obviously suffering a lot himself.’
‘Yeh, but he's a doctor! He should sort himself out!’page 132
‘Mel, he's a human being with his own pain.’ Shirley paused a second to let the automatic door open, and then she and Mel came out onto the hospital's front steps. Riddiford Street was thick with traffic, already, at three o'clock; the sun was bright, but a southerly breeze made Mel pull her jacket closer. Trolley buses lined the road, and on the other side a cycle courier in a bright green lycra uniform was shrieking, ‘Fuck you, fuck you,’ at a man in a truck. An Indian family with sad, worn faces climbed the hospital steps, the oldest woman carrying a tall, thin bunch of scarlet gladioli. She wore thick black-framed glasses and a white sari; Mel knew that meant she was already a widow, and it wrenched at her heart to think the woman might be losing someone else in that big cold hospital, in this cold city, so far from her home.
‘I'd better go,’ said Shirley. ‘I'm meeting Brendon. What are you doing now?’
Mel shrugged: what was she doing? What was there to do? ‘Going home, I suppose,’ she said. ‘Maybe Lana'll be out.’
Shirley sighed. ‘I don't know why you're living like that,’ she said.
‘With somebody you don't even like. It's ridiculous. I don't know why you always end up like this.’
‘There wasn't anywhere else, Shirl. I looked and looked. Anyway it won't be for long.’ Mel looked around nervously at the sound of breaking glass. The courier had smashed one of the truck's headlights; the driver was out of the truck and yelling something about fucking mental bitches. The woman in the sari had finally made it to the top of the steps and through the automatic door. She was tiny, probably only five foot; her pursed, determined face reminded Mel of her mother. Mel put her hand on her stomach. It hurt. She needed to eat something. ‘What do you think about what that guy said?’ she asked Shirley.
‘About Mum? I think we just have to open ourselves to it and accept it.’
‘Really? Do you think we should just give in to it?’
‘Acceptance,’ said Shirley, ‘is not the same thing as resignation. Mel, it's ten past three, and I'm meeting Brendon in Kelburn at half page 133 past. I've got to go.’ She touched Mel lightly on the shoulder and turned to cross the road. Mel stood there lamely, wrapping her arms around herself as Shirley headed up the zigzag to Nikau Street without a backward glance. What did she mean, acceptance wasn't the same thing as resignation? How come she didn't hug Mel or ask her to go with her? Why she didn't care?
Mel stood in the cold for a few minutes, the sadness washing over her and tightening her throat, and then she took a hard breath and started walking, rounding the corner, striding hard up Mein Street. There were cherry trees in bloom, kids outside Newtown School playing basketball while they waited for their parents, a cat with a ginger splotch on its face looking up from the pavement, wanting to be patted. Mel closed herself against it all.
She felt sick. Her chest hurt, as if someone had stuck a knife into her and it was still there; the pain came and went with her breathing. Maybe she had cancer too. If Kate was here, she would know. She would say the right thing and make everything all right. Mel stopped at the brow of the hill to imagine herself and Kate together, in Sydney, where she should be. Where she would be again soon, when this was all over.
They would be in the cemetery, the old one just off King Street, lying among the long grass and the wonky old tombstones. Clear plastic glasses stained with the residue of juices—watermelon for Kate, carrot for Mel or maybe pineapple—would lie tipped on their sides, and Kate would lean over Mel and stroke the hair back from her forehead the way she always did. ‘Honey,’ she would say, ‘it's not cancer. You're just sad and it makes your heart sore. What do you expect? It's your mum, come on.’
‘It's my mum,’ said Mel out loud, but softly, as she turned the corner into Coromandel Street, and a small sob gathered in her throat. She felt for the key in her pocket; maybe she'd run herself a bath. Lana's car wasn't there, so she might get a bit of peace and quiet for once. She would lie in the chipped, ratty bath in Lana's mildewed bathroom, but she'd close her eyes and imagine herself in Paddington, with Kate crouching beside her on the shiny white tiles, saying, ‘Oh, my honey, my honey,’ over and over.page 134
She jiggled the key into the lock—there was a trick to it—and shoved open the door. ‘Mel! That you?’ called Lana from the front room.
‘Oh. Hi.’ Mel looked through the doorway at Lana, where she sat on the old sofa knitting something purple, her legs looped gently over the dog. The dog bared his teeth when he saw Mel, even though she'd been living in the house for nearly a month. She bared hers in return. The TV was on. ‘I didn't think you were home,’ said Mel, and turned to go to her bedroom.
‘Hey, can you come here a tick? Oh, are you making some tea? I'll have a chamomile.’
‘I wasn't,’ said Mel, but she went into the kitchen and filled the jug anyway. It wasn't a real kitchen, more like just a corridor with a sink on one side and an ancient gas stove on the other. There were no windows; Mel flicked on the light to look for Lana's chamomile tea and her own coffee. There was no milk in the fridge, although Mel knew for a fact that Lana had been to the dairy that morning. That was so like Lana; she didn't eat dairy products, claiming to be allergic to them, so she didn't bother buying any milk even though she knew they'd run out. Mel put two teaspoons of sugar in her coffee instead and took their mugs through to the lounge.
‘Thanks, darl.’ Lana held up her knitting, beaming. ‘Look!’ She was making a woolly hat, or perhaps it was a tea cosy, with a border of entwined woman symbols all the way around the edge.
‘It's very nice,’ said Mel tiredly.
‘I've got to make one for Jess after this,’ said Lana, ‘and Rik wants one for her birthday, but I can do you one after that if you'd like.’
‘Oh, I've got one already, thanks,’ said Mel, untruthfully; she wouldn't wear a thing like that, or put it on her teapot, if someone gave her a million dollars.
‘OK,’ said Lana brightly. Sometimes Mel wondered if she was from another planet, so little idea did she have of anything. Maybe just another decade, although she was only twenty-three. Mel ran a finger along the back of the sofa. Everything in here was covered with dog hair. It smelt of dog. Mel caught the dog's eye and showed her teeth again, briefly.page 135
‘Now, Mel. I wanted to have a word to you, because you haven't put any money in kitty this week, have you?’
‘No.’ Mel leaned on the back of the sofa. ‘Sorry, I'll pay it on Thursday when I get my dole.’
Lana sighed. ‘Mel,’ she said. ‘Maybe as a non-disabled person, you don't understand how vital this is. For someone like me, my allergies, the ME, the low blood sugar, it's very important I eat well. I need your co-operation on this. I really wouldn't have agreed to share a house with someone I thought was unsupportive of my health needs.’
‘Yeh, yeh,’ said Mel. She went into the kitchen and opened the fridge, looking for food to pick at.
‘I need that money now,’ called Lana. Mel didn't answer; she was eating peanut butter out of the jar, with a teaspoon. The kitty was too much anyway, mainly because Lana bought all this stuff like soy ice cream and organic dried fruit that cost a fortune and had always mysteriously disappeared by the next day. Shirley was right, Mel shouldn't be living there, but she'd been so desperate to get a place she'd just said yes to everything Lana wanted. Yes, yes, yes.
Mel left the peanut butter jar open on the bench, the spoon sticking out of it, and went downstairs to her room. She lay down on her bed with her boots still on and kicked open the outside door, exactly the way Lana had asked her not to. She'd liked the idea of having the basement room: space, she'd thought, away from the rest of the house. Space. She needed space; that was why she couldn't go home to Masterton the way her mother's friends all thought she should have, that was why she was here. She pulled down the photo of Kate, the one thing she had up on the wall. It was actually Kate, Shaun and Trevor, dressed up for Mardi Gras, Trevor in the pink latex mini that was really Kate's but was too small for her. It was big on him; he'd been pretty thin by the time the photo was taken, but he had the widest smile, they were all smiling, Kate, in her silver body paint and her angel wings, Shaun in G-string with his big impressive muscles, and the three of them all touching each other as if they were truly entwined, as if nothing could ever separate them.
Mel had no photos of herself and Kate together, but you didn't page 136 need photos when you had love. She propped herself up on one elbow and touched Kate's sweet silver face with a finger. It won't be long, she promised the photograph Kate. After summer's over. Oh god, summer. Make it a good one. Mel started to cry, suddenly, putting one hand to her stomach and the other to her mouth, and she wept silently, falling back onto her bed which was really just a mattress on the floor, the tears filling her eyes and running down the sides of her face, on and on, tears like a flooding winter river, and no sounds except her choked breathing. She thought of her mother and of Kate, and she thought of her lemon tree and cried even harder.
It was two weeks since she'd planted the little tree out the back; it was like a symbol of something, of making an effort, turning over a new leaf, trying to have a life here instead of just waiting around till she could go back to Sydney. She'd been so pleased with it. Then Lana had put fresh chicken manure all around the little new tree and all its leaves had dropped off and the tiny green lemons had turned yellow and then they'd dropped off too. When the last of the lemons—not even lemons, really, more like little buds—fell off, Mel lay in the garden by the tree weeping for almost an hour, and then she punished Lana for a week by small means like pulling the Evening Post apart when she read it and mixing up the pages or putting the TV guide down the back of the sofa, or leaving the soy milk out on the bench so it would go off faster, or staying in the bath for ages when Lana needed to got to the toilet. Lana banged on the door and asked in her assertive way if Mel could come out soon so she could get in there, and Mel said yeh sure, just be a mo, and stayed right where she was.
She was losing it. She had eczema down the sides of her neck, and a blotch under her left armpit which itched incredibly. Food alarmed her, especially vegetables, which struck her as slimy and peculiar in a way she'd never noticed before; she turned down Lana's kindly-meant offers of stir-fries and pumpkin soup. She couldn't sleep, and when she did, her dreams were weird. She dreamt she was on an airport runway and Kate was on a plane that was taking off. It was all wrong because Mel was meant to be on the plane too but instead she was out on the runway and the plane was about to take off over her head.
She dreamt she had been planting seeds in the patch of garden page 137 out the back but when they came up they were all ugly grey prickly things which oozed horrible white sap.
She dreamt there was a huge cut in her leg and that you could see right in down to the bone and when she looked closely there were white squirming things like tiny maggots. She showed it to Shirley but Shirley just shrugged and said, ‘Doesn't look so bad to me. Why do you always have to make such a fuss about everything?’, and showed Mel the big raw wound in her stomach, and Mel was ashamed of having mentioned it when Shirley had troubles of her own.
She woke after these dreams and got up and walked around the house. She went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet with its lid down and looked around at Lana's chewed-looking toothbrush in the mug that said For lesbian lips only and the sick, drooping cactus left by a previous flatmate and Lana's array of vitamin pills, and sometimes she chose a pill at random and took it, and sometimes she pulled down the neck of her T-shirt and sat squinting sideways to look for blackheads on her chest and shoulders, and sometimes she just sat there. There was a Louise Hay poster taped to the wall above the bath, the green paint peeling away there from years of Blu-tack and Sellotape. Normally Mel sneered at Lana's New Age nonsense, but sometimes at three in the morning after one of those bad dreams she felt strangely comforted to read about the infinite well of love at the centre of her being and how it filled her heart and body and mind, and when she got back in bed and closed her eyes she could almost imagine she was back where she was meant to be, and Kate was beside her.
They'd met in a café. Mel had gone to the movies in Paddington with her friend Jody, and Jody's friend Bob, and his friend Tamara, and after the movie she'd said, ‘Let's get a coffee!’ and simultaneously Jody and Bob had each said, ‘No, I need to get home,’ but Tamara, who she hadn't met before, said, ‘Sure, I'd be into that. You live in Stanmore, don't you? I can drop you home later if you want.’
She went with Tamara to slick Oxford Street café with tables made of pale wood and chrome, and a thin waitress in a black T-shirt; Tamara made a face as they went in, as though she hated the upmarketness of the place, but she flopped down at a table by the page 138 window and tossed her black leather bag onto the spare chair, and stared intensely at Mel. She had long greasy hair and a ring through one eyebrow. Mel knew from Bob that she was a lesbian. He'd been wanting to set them up for a while, and maybe this was the set up. Maybe that was why he and Jody had taken off so fast; maybe this was meant to be a date.
Mel ordered mineral water and Tamara iced coffee. Tamara raised one finger in greeting to someone further down the café, a blonde woman sucking bright pink juice through a black straw, and then she turned back to Mel, a strange smirk on her face. Maybe she was in on it. Maybe they'd told her Mel was after her.
Mel cleared her throat and took a sip of her mineral water. They sat in silence for a bit, and then, feeling responsible, Mel said, ‘So what do you do?’ although she knew already that Tamara did art of some sort.
Tamara blew out a gust of air into her iced coffee and looked over at Mel knowingly. ‘I'm an artist,’ she said, with a cool tone of superiority in her voice, and she blew a tower of bubbles into her drink. It made Mel think of how she'd done that with her milk at home, trying to avoid drinking it, and her mother had sighed and stood in the doorway and said, Can't you just drink up, and how Shirley, the sneak, had managed to get rid of hers by tipping it out the window, but of course she got caught after a while, and then she said Mel had done it too and they both got belted.
‘Really!’ said Mel brightly, ridiculously. ‘What, uh, what kind of art do you do?’
‘Primarily I'm a sculptor,’ said Tamara. Her face grew intense. ‘Cutting-edge kind of stuff about the power of the female body. The power of the cunt. I've been making these huge sculptures, cunt sculptures, huge, maybe ten feet by ten feet, out of rattan, papier mâché, a few found objects. I screenprint too—I've just finished a series of prints, they're’—she waved her arms widely, to demonstrate—‘oh, six feet by six feet. Primary colours. My studio's full of them.’
‘Gee,’ said Mel.
Tamara took this as encouragement. ‘It's vital, isn't it? Actually it's quite revolutionary, when you think about it. Because fear of the page 139 cunt’—she spat the word out—‘is the primal male fear. That's where patriarchy started. And still’—she gesticulated at Mel with a straw, splattering her with droplets of iced coffee—‘starts, over and over. That's why dykes are the true revolutionaries, because we're the ones who really reclaim the power of the cunt.’ This speech seemed to wear her out and she sucked heartily at her drink, her finger creeping up to touch her eyebrow ring.
‘Well, I'm a waitress,’ said Mel after a moment.
Tamara kept sucking at the iced coffee until it was gone, then looked up and smiled, almost lasciviously. ‘Have you got any piercings?’ she said.
‘Only my ears.’
‘I've got a few, here and there,’ said Tamara, and she looked at Mel in a way that made her quite nervous.
It was then that the blonde woman got up to leave the café, and she stopped by their table. ‘How's the art, Tamara?’ she said, and she smiled at Mel. Her eyes crinkled right up when she smiled, and she had a gap between her front teeth. Mel smiled back.
‘It's going great, thanks,’ said Tamara. ‘Actually I've been wondering about moving more into multimedia. I was thinking of giving you a call, see if you wanted to do some work with me.’
‘Yeh, well, I'm pretty busy at the moment,’ said Kate, and she said to Mel, ‘I'm Kate.’
‘Oh, yeh, sorry,’ said Tamara, ‘this is, uh, Marg.’
‘Mel,’ said Mel.
‘Join us if you like,’ said Tamara, getting that lascivious look again, and who could blame her, thought Mel, trying not to stare too obviously at Kate. ‘We were just talking about the power of feminist art to subvert patriarchy.’
‘Oh, fascinating!’ said Kate, and a slight smile appeared somewhere behind her eyes. She leaned her elbows on the back of the spare chair. ‘I'd love to, but really I've got to get home. Nice to meet you,’ she said to Mel, but Mel was on her feet too, seeing a way out.
‘I've got to go too,’ she said to Tamara. ‘I'll, uh, see you another time, nice to meet you.’
‘You don't want a lift home? I'm heading over your way.’page 140
‘No, no, I'm fine, I'm sussed, thanks,’ and then Mel was in the street beside Kate, out in the dark, the night still warm, a puzzled Tamara looking out of the lighted café window.
‘Well,’ said Kate, with a slightly amused tone, as if she understood everything that had just happened to Mel. ‘I'm going along Oxford Street this way, then I'm down on the right.’
‘Fine,’ said Mel. ‘I'll walk with you a bit of the way, if that's OK.’
‘Fine,’ said Kate. She smiled down at her feet for a moment, then said, ‘Date gone wrong back there? Was Tamara letting you know all about the subversive power of giant papier-mâché cunts?’
‘It wasn't a date.’
‘Oh, right.’ Kate breathed out a smile. ‘You're a New Zealander,’ she said.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Small town,’ said Mel. ‘You wouldn't know it. I've been living in Wellington for the last couple of years.’
‘And now you're in Seedney. What do you think of it?’
‘Big,’ said Mel, who was finding the city alarming and amazing all at once. She kept looking at Kate, at her curly blonde hair, her leather jacket, her tan; she was gorgeous all right. She wondered if Kate was a lesbian. Even partly a lesbian would do. Mel wondered if she had the nerve to ask Kate out, but the more she looked at her the faster her heart beat and the less voice she had. Soon she'd be reduced to monosyllables: Big. Small. Yes. No. Great. Dumb. Bye.
‘Well,’ said Kate suddenly, turning to face Mel, ‘this is my street.’
‘Oh,’ said Mel, proving to herself that she really was losing the ability of speech and turning into a moron. She was standing only a few inches from Kate. She felt a sudden urge to reach out and touch her, lay her hand on Kate's breastbone, move right in to her. Instead she took a step away.
‘Come up to my place and have a glass of wine,’ said Kate, as if she could read Mel's mind. ‘It's just round the corner, and my flatmate's away for the week. I'd like some company.’
‘Great,’ said Mel with a bravado she didn't feel.
They walked down Elizabeth Street under soft, feathery street trees. page 141 Mel found a small, shaky voice from somewhere and asked Kate what the trees were, but Kate shrugged. ‘I'm not much of a garden type,’ she said. On the steps in front of her house she kicked rubbish out of the way and stood frowning over her key-ring trying to find the right key. ‘Here we go,’ she said after a minute, and she opened the door and went in.
It was a tall house, a terrace, painted a deep coral colour. The wrought-iron fence was dark green, and a large tropical plant of some sort sagged onto the fence, rubbish strewn around its roots. Mel knelt and picked up a couple of handfuls of newspaper and two Coke bottles. ‘Where's your rubbish bin?’ she called as she entered the darkness of the house.
‘In the kitchen. Here.’ Kate was already uncorking the wine, pouring it into two fine glasses with an elegant flourish, like a wine waiter. ‘Jesus,’ she said. ‘What's that?’
‘I just picked it up from out the front. I felt sorry for your plant.’ Mel lifted the bin lid and dropped in the rubbish.
‘Good deed for the day, huh? Now. Your wine. And come through to the lounge.’ Kate pressed a glass into Mel's hand. ‘Shaun's away. My flatmate. Means I can live in a mess for once, it's such a relief.’
Mel followed Kate down the hall. She cleared some papers off the sofa—‘Just chuck them on the floor,’ said Kate—and sat down while Kate hovered over the stereo, choosing a CD. She turned the volume control and Ella Fitzgerald sang smoothly into the room, sang, ‘A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket.’ Mel had drunk half her glass of wine already. She leaned back into the cushions and looked up at the black cat watching her from the sideboard. ‘Puss, puss,’ she said.
‘This is Roger. Isn't he beautiful?’ Kate swung the cat down onto Mel's lap. She was only a breath away from Mel, only a touch; things stood still for a minute, and then Mel put a hand up to Kate and Kate leaned right down and she was kissing Mel, taking the wine glass out of her hand, running a hand over Mel's stomach. Mel seized Kate by the shoulders and pulled her down onto her, and Roger scrambled to safety. Kate's tongue was wet, silky and alive in Mel's mouth; oh god, it was so long since she'd been kissed like this. She heard herself moan, page 142 pressing against Kate, and then Kate was unzipping Mel's jeans and she was moving her legs apart, completely shameless and desperate and wanting. When Kate's hand came into her hard she cried out; she was rubbing herself against Kate, hard, rhythmic. She was never like this. She'd never been like this. She came and came and came, almost crying, shocked at herself, digging into Kate's arms with her fingernails, and then she looked up at Kate, at the bright openness of her face, and she rolled away and pressed her own face into the cushions of the sofa. Kate sat by her, still in her purple dress, touching Mel's shoulder with a tentative hand. After a while she said, ‘Are you OK?’
‘Yeh.’ OK wasn't really the word for it. Mel sat up, carefully, as if some part of her might break. Her breath still came in little fits and starts. She looked up at Kate and tried to smile. She felt very naked.
‘I'll get us some tea.’
Tea didn't really seem to be what was called for, but Mel nodded weakly anyway. When Kate left the room she got up and prowled around looking at things, trying to quiet her jittering mind. There was a vase of irises on a small table, and copies of Vogue by the TV. Mel took down a CD and looked inside the cover; she was starting to feel more normal. A poster on the wall said Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death. Act Up, Fight AIDS. Mel picked up a photo of a young man. He was very thin. He stood laughing into a bunch of bright roses. Mel put it back and sat down again. ‘Is that your flatmate?’ she said when Kate brought the tea in.
‘No.’ Kate picked up the photo too and stood looking at it for a moment. ‘No. It's Trevor.’
‘My friend. My old friend.’ Kate put down the photo and started pouring the tea. ‘We were at school together. I knew him from when I was eight.’
‘Does he live in Sydney?’
‘No. Well, he did. But he died.’
‘Oh.’ Mel looked at Kate carefully.
‘In January. This is his sofa.’ Kate touched the arm of the sofa. ‘Do you take milk?’page 143
‘Thanks.’ Mel took the mug from Kate. They looked at each other for a second, and then Kate settled herself on the sofa, stretching out her leg so it leaned against Mel's, and they drank their tea in silence.
Looking back, that was where it all began, really; not with the sex, but with the way Kate rested her leg on Mel's, as if it belonged there. It did belong there. Mel sat in the kitchen at her mother's thinking about the way Kate had leaned her leg against her own. She would never forget it, as long as she lived. It was seven-thirty at night, and the big sky outside was crazed with red light. Mel put another handful of jellybeans into her mouth. Jellybeans were one of the few things her mother had an appetite for, these days, so she shouldn't really be eating their last packet, but she couldn't help it. A pile of Woman's Weeklies lay on the table. Mel picked one up and flicked through it.
It was Saturday. Mel had been at her mother's place for twenty-three-and-a-half hours. There were nineteen hours to go until Sunday night, and then she would get on the train and go back to Wellington and the flat she shared with Lana, The Woman The Nineties Passed By. Her mother didn't seem sick. She talked all the time. She kept telling Mel stories she'd already told her, like the one about her friend Doreen's daughter who'd gone to Bali for a fortnight and fallen in love with a Balinese man. They were married now and living in that big green house in Pownall Street. His name was Wayan. Actually a quarter of the population of Bali were called Wayan. Men and women both. They only had four names there, did Mel know that? Wasn't that strange? Wouldn't you think you'd get confused? Mm, said Mel. Her mother didn't ask her about Kate. She didn't say, You must be missing her. She didn't say anything about her.
‘Yeh?’ Mel flipped over another page. Her mother was in the bath. She'd had the house for four years now; she was gradually doing it up. Mel thought it looked worse than when she started, but as her mother pointed out, it wasn't her who had to live in it. The bathroom was next. That morning they'd gone down to Mitre 10 so Mel could tell her mother which vinyl she liked and what she thought of the different kinds of toilets. Mel's mother pointed out doorknobs with flowers page 144 painted on them and talked brightly about how she wanted to have it all finished by April. Mel got a sick feeling in her stomach.
‘Can you come and wash my back for me?’
‘Just a minute.’ Mel chose several more jellybeans, two black and a green, arranged them in a row and bit into them all simultaneously. If Kate was here, she thought. If Kate was here, everything would be all right. She put the Woman's Weekly down. When this was all over, everything would be all right. She got that sick feeling again.
‘I'm coming.’ Mel went and pushed open the bathroom door. Her mother sat up in the bath, beaming, her skin rosy from the heat. She wore a small, ridiculous plastic shower cap over her short hair. She was thin, thinner than Mel had ever seen her, and there were blue marks around the puckered scar that crossed her chest, as if someone had been drawing on her, marking her up for alterations like a dress or a road. ‘What are those marks?’ Mel knelt down beside the bath and dipped the flannel into the water.
‘Those? They're from the radiotherapy.’
‘What are they for?’
‘I don't know.’ Mel's mother smiled blissfully as Mel soaped up the flannel and rubbed big circles on her back. ‘Oh, it's so good to have someone wash your back! Blossom,’ she put a hand on Mel's shoulder, ‘I'm so glad you're home.’
‘Yeh.’ Mel kept going. When she was small this had been a treat; she had fought with Shirley for a chance to wash her mother's back. Mostly Shirley had won.
‘That's so nice,’ said her mother. She started to sing, in a small, quavery voice. ‘Almost heaven, West Virginia. Blue ridge mountains, la la la la river.’
‘Shenandoah,’ said Mel.
‘Dark and dusty, painted on the sky. Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye. Take me home…’ She looked at Mel to see if she was going to join in, but Mel was looking at the floor. Her mother stopped singing. ‘I can just see that green vinyl in here,’ she said. ‘Oh, page 145 Mel! I forgot to tell you about that new job Brendon was going for.’
‘No, you told me.’ Mel rinsed out the flannel and scooped water over the soap.
‘Have you finished?’ Don't stop yet, it's lovely. A job at the Education Department, no, the Ministry it is now, Shirley says the pay is really good. He's doing very well.’
‘Yeh, you told me already.’
‘I wish you and Shirley got along better.’
‘We get on OK.’
‘And you and Brendon. I wish you'd give him more of a chance. He's such a nice lad, Mel, he's got a really good heart.’
‘And he's got lovely eyes.’
‘What's wrong, Mel? Oh, that's right, I forgot, you're funny about men, aren't you.’
‘I am not funny about men!’
‘They're half the human race, you know. You can't just go cutting them off like that.’
‘I don't,’ said Mel weakly. ‘You don't know.’
Her mother snorted. ‘I remember that friend of yours, that big girl who was very funny about men. I remember her telling me all our problems would be solved if we all turned into lesbians.’
Mel stared at her mother. She had never heard her say the word ‘lesbian’ before.
‘Absolutely ridiculous,’ said her mother. ‘The lot of you.’
Mel took a deep breath and stood up. ‘I think I need to go for a walk,’ she said.
‘Oh!’ Her mother looked disappointed. ‘Can you just give me a hand out of the bath first then?’
‘I can't fucking do everything for you!’ Mel screwed up the flannel and threw it across the bathroom. It landed on the window sill, a crumpled piece of blue. They both stared at it. ‘All right! Come on then, get a move on.’
‘No.’ Mel's mother folded her arms tightly around herself.
‘What? You want a hand, I'll give you a hand. But now.’page 146
‘No.’ Mel's mother stared at her defiantly. ‘You go out. Go on! Go out and have a nice time. Why don't you go out and visit some of your friends? Don't worry about me. I'll be fine.’
‘Fucking hell, Mum.’
‘Don't talk to me like that. You know I can't stand it when you use that kind of language in my house. Go on, off you go, you selfish little beast. I can get myself out of the bath all right.’
‘Fine,’ yelled Mel. ‘Fine, just play the martyr. Fine.’ She stamped out of the bathroom, scooped up another handful of jellybeans in the kitchen and pulled on her jacket. She had to get out. There was nowhere to go, but she couldn't stay in the house. As she opened the front door she could hear her mother coughing, but she let the sound slip away behind her and went out into the night anyway. It was almost dark now, the sky just lit by a few last strands of red to the west. The sky was so big here; it was the only good thing. There was nothing, nothing else. It was nine p.m. and nothing moved except the pictures on people's TVs, where they sat watching in silence, behind their closed curtains.
Mel stopped walking and leaned on a wall, breathing hard, thinking of King Street in Sydney, the trucks thundering past and the loud voices of the crowds of people, the crazy barefoot feral kids with shells and beads woven into their bright-coloured dreads, the muscled gay men leaving the gym in pairs, the sudden bursts of restaurant smells, the sweet foul grime and sweat that filmed your skin in the hot weather. She stood in the silent Masterton street and felt almost sick thinking of the life of it, the beat, the freshness and colour.
She put her hands over her face, blocking it all out. She admitted defeat; she would go back, she had nowhere else to go, but she was going to take her time about it.
She could hear her mother coughing before she even reached the driveway, but she didn't go inside. Instead she felt in her pocket for her key-ring. She had a key to her mother's car. She thought about where she could go. Anywhere. Up north. She'd just take off. Then her mother would be sorry. Then she'd stop trying to manipulate her like this. Mel stared at the key. The coughing went on and on. ‘Mum?’ She turned and went up the path. ‘Mum? Are you all right?’page 147
Her mother was half in, half out of the bath, doubled over with coughing. She clung to the handbasin, shivering. Her body was so white. Mel could see the ribs all down one side, like an animal carcass. Like a skeleton. ‘Mum?’ Mel looked around in a panic. ‘What shall I do?’
Her mother coughed and coughed.
‘Shall I get somebody?’
Mel grabbed a towel, draped it around her mother's body, and half-carried her to a chair to sit down. Tears steamed down her mother's face.
‘Do you want the doctor?’
Mel's mother shook her head.
‘Do you want to go to bed?’
Mel's mother put a hand on her arm. ‘Want my nightie,’ she whispered.
Mel took the nightie from under her mother's pillow, looking as she did at the photos of herself and Shirley on the dressing table, their pale grey Intermediate uniforms, their geeky haircuts, their soft, half-formed faces and freckled noses. Next to the photos were a pot of Nivea, four brown jars of pills, a matching hairbrush and hand mirror. Mel went back into the bathroom and held out the nightie to her mother as if to a small child. ‘Here you are. Pop this on. That's it.’ Obediently her mother slid her arms into the sleeves, shivering.
‘Shall I make you some tea?’ Her mother nodded. Mel led her through to the lounge and settled her in front of the heater, flicking the switch to high. Her mother sat, small and folded over on herself, gazing down at the bars as they crackled and reddened.
‘Better now?’ Mel touched her mother on the shoulder, then went into the kitchen and stood at the sink filling the jug. The old glass of the window reflected her face, stretched, slightly distorted, pale.
‘Gingernuts,’ her mother called in a small voice.
‘What?’ Mel plugged in the jug and went to the doorway.
‘Gingernuts, Mel. They're in the tin with the parrots on the lid. On top of the fridge. Open them, they're for a special occasion.’ Her mother's voice was small, soft, wheezy.page 148
‘A special occasion?’ Mel laughed and frowned at the same time, but she went back through to take down the parrot tin, and instead of flinging the packet down in front of her mother in the way that always made her frown but not say anything, she took out six biscuits and put them on a plate.
There had been a storm in Sydney the day she found out about her mother. Mel was walking up Oxford Street after work. It had been fine that morning; she was wearing a dress she'd borrowed from Kate, yellow with white flowers, short sleeved, too big on her. It was soaked through. On Oxford Street rain blazed down the road. The rubbish bins were full of broken umbrellas, their spokes leaning at crazy angles. Mel thought they looked like dead birds, herons, maybe, or swans. The gutters were spewing water; it streamed over the pavement, over Mel's feet. Water blasted into her face. She stood on a traffic island at Taylor Square, waiting for the lights to change, the sodden dress flapping around her. ‘Bit damp, isn't it?’ said a young man to Mel, bracing his umbrella against the wind with two hands. His linen suit was spotted and splashed with rain.
‘Just a tad,’ said Mel.
She looked at him and smiled, and he smiled back and suddenly said, ‘Oh, what's the point, fuck it!’ and pulled his umbrella down and put his face up to the sky, tasting the rain and laughing. And Mel laughed too and closed her eyes and stuck out her tongue for a mouthful of rain, and they laughed and laughed until the lights changed and he said, ‘Well, don't know what my boss is going to say about this when I get back to work!’ and was gone, and Mel kept going up Oxford Street, pushing against the rain, giving herself up to being wet, smiling at the people who were still struggling against all odds with raincoats and umbrellas and trying to stay reasonably dry.
At Kate's breathless, she banged on the front window, calling, ‘Hi baby, hi baby, baby baby, it's me,’ until Kate came and opened the door. ‘I'm all wet!’ said Mel, and fell into the hallway giggling.
‘You want a towel?’ Kate's voice was short, almost angry.
‘No, I love it. What's the matter? Baby? Baby, have you had a bad day? You should go out there, it's amazing, the people are the best page 149 thing, Kate, they're all smiley, it's not like Sydney, it's not like anywhere, it's great.’
Kate came back and handed Mel a towel silently. Mel looked at her in bewilderment, but took the towel and followed Kate into the lounge, rubbing her hair dry. She sat on the arm of the sofa, next to Kate. ‘What's up?’
‘There was a phone call for you.” Kate was fiddling with her rings, not looking at Mel. ‘Your sister. She said could you ring her urgently.’
‘What? Shirley rang here?’
‘Yeh. She left a number. You'd better ring her.’
‘But…you sure? How did she get your number?’
‘Your flatmate gave her it. Look,’ Kate looked at Mel for a moment, hard, ‘you should ring her. Really. She said it was urgent.’
‘What is it? Has something happened? Do you know?’
‘Ring her. You've got to talk to her.’
‘Oh. All right. Where's the number?’ Mel could feel the last hour's joy draining out of her and being replaced by a shaky numbness. Kate wouldn't look at her. Kate was hiding something from her. Everything was going all wrong. She shouldn't have come in. She should have stayed out on the street in the downpour with all the people glittering and laughing and talking to one another. It was the most beautiful thing ever. It was gone.
‘The number's by the phone.’
‘OK.’ Mel twisted the towel around her head and went through to the kitchen to hear Shirley tell her that they'd found cancer in her mother's lungs and they didn't know how long she'd got and that Mel had better come home right away, while in the lounge Kate sat on the big Art Deco sofa Trevor had left her and took off all her rings and laid them out on the arm in a row, and then picked them up and put them all back on again.
There were three more weeks before Mel went, but she and Kate never really said goodbye, not like they should have. That was what she thought now as she walked down Riddiford Street, late for her lunch date with Shirley and not caring, either. There was no real goodbye. They lay in the graveyard with long grass tickling their necks and ate page 150 olives and hummus and cried, they walked down King Street looking in the shop windows and clinging together very tightly, they fucked on Kate's clean white sheets early in the morning with angled slats of light from the blind falling across their pale bodies and Kate sobbing and howling and Mel just keeping on going, pushing her hand into Kate harder and harder, hurting her, biting the soft skin under her arm, leaving red marks.
But they didn't say any of the right things. Kate rubbed Mel's arm and thought of Trevor—the purple flowers by his bed, the clear liquid coming into the drip, the thick summer light across the red roofs of Woollahra—but she couldn't say it, she couldn't explain what she knew, whatever it was, so instead she said inane things about how Mel would be fine and they would talk on the phone every day and everything would be OK. Mel wore sunglasses, inside and out, to hide her puffy eyes, and told Kate that she would be back soon and then they would get a house together, and Kate said, ‘Well, it's got to be in Paddington, don't think I'm moving too far,’ and Mel said Paddington was too posh and it would have to be Stanmore, or anyway Glebe was her absolute limit. Glebe was a pretty nice suburb, good cafés, and there were lots of trees; maybe they could find a little worker's cottage somewhere.
Mel quickened her pace and pulled open the café door. She charged up the stairs and stood in the queue looking at Shirley, trying to catch her eye, but Shirley didn't look up from her City Voice. Mel could tell Shirley knew she was there; she was just pretending not to.
‘How's it going?’ She finally got her drink and muffin and sat down.
‘It's OK.’ Shirley's eyes were watery. She didn't look at Mel.
Mel felt alarm start to rise in her chest. ‘That lemon meringue pie looks yummy!’ she said brightly.
‘So what've you been up to?’
‘This and that.’ Shirley leaned her cheek on her hand.
‘Oh, right.’ Mel nodded, as if this was really interesting. ‘You know, Shirl, I was thinking I might plant a vege garden at our place. Then we could have organic veges, and that'd be much better for Lana's page 151 health. Probably for me too. I thought, some lettuces, those ones that come in different colours, and some spring onions. And some broccoli.’
Shirley looked up at Mel in a surprised sort of a way, as if she hadn't noticed her before. ‘You're not eating much.’ She pulled Mel's plate toward her and frowned at the muffin. ‘Is that your lunch? I hope you're not getting an eating disorder. You're looking very thin these days.’
Mel dropped a marshmallow into her hot chocolate. ‘I've always been thin.’
‘Do you think I'm fat?’
‘No! Look, I just had breakfast. I'm full’
‘You just had breakfast? What time do you get up?’ Shirley lifted the top off her bagel and started picking out slices of onion, laying them on the side of her plate.
‘I don't know. About eleven.’
‘Eleven!’ Shirley shook her head. ‘I came back on the train from Masterton this morning. I've been up since five thirty.’ She sighed. ‘Do you want some of this onion?’
‘So have you decided what you're going to do?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Your life, Mel. What are you planning to do with your life?’
‘Well, nothing at the moment, really. Later on I'll go back to Sydney.’
‘Is that all you can think of? Sydney? What about here? What about Mum? You can't just sit around and wait for her to die!’
Mel looked down at her muffin.
‘Maybe you should just leave now. Why don't you? Why don't you just go back to your little fuck in Sydney? Don't worry about us.’ Shirley's voice was getting louder and louder.
Mel picked up a knife and speared the muffin. ‘What is it with you today? Did you have a fight with Brendon?’
‘No I didn't! You were twenty minutes late. You think I've got nothing better to do than sit around waiting for you.’
‘I thought Buddhists were meant to have incredible patience. I thought you'd be sitting here meditating.’page 152
‘Oh, fuck up!’ Shirley slammed her teaspoon down on her saucer. A few people glanced their way. ‘Don't patronise me! I know about you. I know what you're like. Mum told me how you went up there and left her stuck in the bath, coughing her lungs out, like she does every night now may I add. She told me how you went out on the town for the night.’
‘It wasn't like that.’
‘And she said you ate all her jellybeans, her last packet. You've always been a selfish little shit, since the day you were born. It's me that has to sacrifice everything for Mum. You just keep on doing what you want. You always have, why stop now? I'll do all the work, I always do.’
‘No one ever takes any care of me.’ Shirley was crying hard now. It was years since Mel had seen her cry. ‘No one ever worries about me, no one ever thinks that I might need anything. You all think I'm some kind of fucking superhuman.’ She stood up and slung her bag over her arm. ‘I'll see you later.’ Tears were running down her face. Mel watched her as she elbowed her way through the queue of people, saying, ‘Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me,’ and then she was gone down the stairs. Mel looked around nervously, but no one was taking any notice. She was hungry. She pulled Shirley's lemon meringue pie across to her and began to eat, and she ate until it was gone.
Then, when she went back to the house, she told Lana she was moving out and going up to stay in Masterton for a while, and she went and lay on her mattress and looked at the photo of Kate—who was silent, and maybe frowning slightly under her silver paint—and she didn't know where any of it had come from or where it would lead.
She did it, to her surprise. She moved her things back to Masterton, and left them in boxes, stacked up the walls of her old room. She found it was true that her mother coughed like that every night now. She found that she barely ate, but that she still insisted they make a proper dinner every night—meat, and at least two veges—and set the table too. She got tired and needed a nap just from walking to the dairy, and every night she went to bed at seven-thirty, leaving Mel to wash the dishes.page 153
After that the evenings were Mel's, to read, to watch TV, to look out on the sky—on a clear night the stars were good—and think. She was startled to hear the phone ring at ten—she'd been about to go to bed—and when she heard Kate's voice she sat down cross-legged on her mother's floor and held the receiver to her face, and closed her eyes gently as if she herself were the Buddha.
Kate was crying. Mel could see her, sitting on the arm of the sea-green sofa, streetlight glow filtering through the bamboo blind they always kept closed to put off burglars, the white walls, the sharp planes on the face of Shaun's African mask, the white full-moon glass shade of the Art Deco lamp in the corner, and Kate's face puffing up and turning red in blotches.
‘I still love you,’ Kate was saying. ‘I'll always love you.’
‘Oh, thought Mel, so that's what it is, and she was back in her mother's room looking at the brown velvet La-Z-Boy and the potted African violets and her mother's collection of crystal ornaments in the shapes of mice, rabbits, even a dolphin, all of them bought for her by Mel and Shirley over the years, way back before Mel grew up and learned to look down on such things.
‘It just happened,’ said Kate. Kate was a romantic, easily swept away; she had a soft heart, she could just look at somebody and fall in love. Mel could picture this, too, the woman in Kate's film class. Tall, slender, sleek hair cut close to her head, Ray-Bans, a leather jacket, good jeans, dry wit. A Master's degree, perhaps, some smart fucking postmodern novel next to her bed; that'd be something for them to talk about, a conversation topic Mel had never been any good at.
‘Perhaps it's my taste in literature, do you think?’ said Mel, no longer the Buddha.
‘I've always thought you'd be better off with someone a bit more educated. You'd have so much more in common. I was a bit low class for you, don't you think?’
‘Mel, this is not a joke.’ Kate was crying hard. The blotches would be starting on her neck, a large one below her left ear, the next under her jawline, moving up her cheek. A pang shot through Mel; she imagined putting her arms around Kate, the softness of her flesh that page 154 she so struggled with, the little soft pieces that pushed over her bra. Tears came to Mel's eyes too. She didn't say anything; what would she say? Would she comfort Kate—it's OK, darling, it's OK, the way she used to when Kate cried over Trevor in the heavy warm Sydney darkness, only ever in the dark—or would she be cruel, call Kate a faithless slut, how could she, with some wanker, fuck, she was so easily impressed, so shallow, she was a whore and an idiot not worthy of Mel's contempt.
Mel cradled the receiver against her face and didn't say anything. Kate was saying, ‘I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry,’ again and again. Tears ran down both their faces. ‘I didn't mean to,’ wept Kate. ‘I didn't want it to happen, you know that, don't you? I love you, I'll always love you.’
But what does that mean, really, thought Mel. She picked up a matchbox, a present she'd made her mother at Intermediate, yellow felt pasted on both sides, a blue felt whale glued on top. It struck her as bizarre that her mother still had this; were they the same matches, after all these years? Or did she replace them, each time she used them all? She felt another pang, this time for her mother.
‘Mm?’ Mel began to pick at the whale's tail.
‘Say something. I can't bear this.’
‘Well…it's been a nice day here. It rained a bit, but it's starting to fine up. Of course it's probably not as hot as where you are, but that's New Zealand for you, crap weather.’ Mel heard a sharp intake of breath from Kate. The whale came off, leaving a stiff patch of dried glue behind it. ‘How's Roger?’ said Mel. ‘Still snore? Still leave fur and flea shit all over everything? Of course if you didn't have that white bedspread it wouldn't show as much.’
Kate was silent.
‘You should try that flea stuff that you just squeeze onto the backs of their heads,’ said Mel. ‘I've heard it's very effective.’
‘Maybe I'll call you back later,’ said Kate.
‘Sure, if you like. If I'm out at a party or something, you can leave a message with Mum, tell her how you'll always love me but you find a good postmodernist irresistible, and who could blame you? Maybe you guys can do some bonding, talk about deconstructionism or page 155 whatever the hell it's called. She'd be into that, especially in her state, she's not too good these days, you know? Or had you forgotten, what with all the excitement?’
‘Oh, honey,’ said Kate.
‘I have to go,’ said Mel. ‘I'll see you later, eh? Honey.’ She put down the phone and said, ‘Get fucked, Kate,’ and then she went outside and walked round the garden looking dizzily at the dark sky.
She called Shirley to tell her, and Shirley said, ‘Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry, how terrible for you, what a thing,’ and Mel sniffled on the phone and ate jellybeans two at a time and realised that the pain in her chest had grown until it took up her whole body and it was going to eat her entirely.
Shirley had love. Shirley had Brendon. They had a clean three-bedroomed house in Kingston with wooden panelling in the hallway and expensive embossed wallpaper that the landlord wouldn't let them stick drawing pins into. Shirley kept her meditation stool next to her bed and sat, that was what she called it, night and morning. She'd offered to teach Mel once, she'd said it might help her with the things she was going through, but Mel had laughed and said, What things, defiantly, Shirley was always putting her down, making out she couldn't cope, and she'd had enough of it.
Mel wept into the phone and talked on and on to Shirley, telling her for some reason about Kate's house, the hall painted maroon, all the other rooms white, the photo of Trevor outside with the roses, taken the week before he went into the hospice. She told Shirley about the awful hospice worker called Ann; it was like it was her own story now, Ann and her red curly hair and the freckles, even on her arms, and the way she threw out the tall purple irises Kate had brought in which were still OK and then next thing Trevor died and he would have hated to die with no flowers by his bed and Kate went ballistic and Ann said, Look, he wouldn't have been able to see them anyway. The way Kate always drew in breath, as if for courage, and said, Fucking bitch. How dare she. Mel could do it herself, tell the whole story, giving it Kate's intonation even. She could see Ann the hospice worker; she'd made her almost middle aged, late thirties, but not ageing well, flabby upper arms, a double chin, her uniform a bit tight round the page 156 middle, the pale, barely-there eyelashes of a redhead.
‘You didn't tell me about this,’ said Shirley.
‘What, about Ann throwing out the flowers?’
‘Well, that, and Trevor, Kate, your relationship, everything.’
‘I told you about Kate.’
‘Yeh, but not really,’ said Shirley. ‘Not really.’
‘I guess,’ said Mel. ‘I didn't think you'd want to know.’
‘But I do,’ Shirley, and she sounded so plaintive that Mel was confused for a moment and even thought of saying sorry.
Instead she got embarrassed and said to Shirley how tried she was, which was true, and she got off the phone and went to bed. It was after eleven; her mother had been in bed nearly four hours already.
Then as she lay in the tight single bed in her old room she found herself thinking of a girl she'd seen in a café in Wellington a few weeks ago, beautiful, freckles everywhere, long spilling curly red hair, her black top showing the beginnings of a fat luscious swell of cleavage, and that too peppered with freckles, a girl who had made Mel remember sex, even though mainly it was the last thing she was thinking of these days, and she thought: Maybe that's what Ann the hospice worker really looked like? Then she fell asleep.
She rang Shirley again the next night with her new idea.
‘You're not serious,’ said Shirley, sounding much more like her usual bossy self.
‘Well, I don't know,’ said Mel. ‘I'm thinking about it.’
‘So does this mean you're not a lesbian any more?’
‘Well…’ Mel looked down at the nail polish she'd put on inexpertly, some kind of symbol of her decision. Small smears decorated the skin around her nails, and she'd smudged both hands by not sitting still for long enough. ‘I don't know,’ she said finally. ‘Not necessarily. It's just because I feel like it. It might not mean anything. I might not even like it.’
‘What about diseases? Are you thinking about that? What about safe sex? Have you got some condoms?’
‘Shirl,’ said Mel, ‘you don't have to sound so horrified. I mean, you do it with guys, right?’
‘Not guys plural,’ said Shirley.page 157
‘Well OK, you go out with Brendon, he's a guy. They're not that disgusting, right? Lost of people seem to like them.’ She wasn't convinced about herself—it had been a while—but time would tell.
Shirley sighed and tried a new tack. ‘You shouldn't see this as a way to get over your break-up with Kate. You can't just bypass the grieving process.’
‘No.’ said Mel, ‘but I thought I might have a night off from it.’
‘Well,’ said Shirley, and there was a tightness in her voice that it occurred to Mel might be jealousy, ‘good luck.’
‘Thanks,’ said Mel, and she added, ‘You too, Shirl,’ not knowing what she meant, and then she went through to the bathroom and got her mother's make-up bag out from under the basin, and she unzipped it and looked at the contents and then put it back.
She sat on a tall stool in the Kuripuni tavern with a bourbon and Coke and no real idea what to expect. She'd drunk here when she was under age, a tense sixteen-year-old with blue eye shadow and ratty long hair, chafing at the bit, longing to get away, drinking bourbon and Coke then too, getting guys to buy it for her when she could.
Was this even a good place to pick up men? Did she know how to pick up men? She'd never been very good at picking up women—Kate was an exception—but picking up men was easier, that was what everybody said. Men were always keen; they didn't take much picking up. Mel watched as a stocky man in his late thirties—red face, blue checked shirt—stopped at the bar beside her and muttered, ‘Pint of Red,’ to the barmaid.
Mel smiled at him, experimentally. ‘Hi,’ she said, and the man grabbed his drink and returned quickly to his seat, not looking at her.
She saw Te Rangi the moment he came in. He was with a group, but she saw him immediately, liking his green eyes and the way his jeans hung off him. And so she decided to watch him for a while until he knew that she was watching him, and then see what happened.
They fell onto Te Rangi's crumpled bedspread. ‘Shit,’ he said. ‘What a mess. What a place to bring a lady back to. Hang on a mo.’ He left the room, taking with him an ashtray brimming with old cigarette butts and a couple of half-full coffee mugs. Mel lay on the bed, looking up at the ceiling. Things appeared to be moving slightly. page 158 When she closed her eyes they spun fast, dizzyingly. ‘Sorry,’ Te Rangi was saying as he shoved an armful of magazines between an armchair and the wall. Mel fixed her gaze on his beautiful muscled arms. ‘Well.’ He sat down on the edge of the bed, looking suddenly very shy. Mel reached out an arm and scooped him down towards her, and then he was on top of her and they were kissing. Mel kept her eyes open to minimise the spinning. She ran her hands up under his T-shirt; his back was as smooth as a girl's, but his muscles were hard and tight. His eyes were closed. He put one hand on Mel's upper arm, and the other to her face, gently, as if she was a precious, precious thing. Mel slid her hands down between them and started trying to undo his jeans. The button wouldn't come. Te Rangi lifted himself off her for a moment and undid it, and Mel pulled down the zip and pushed her hand into his underpants, feeling the pressure of his hard cock, the smoothness of the skin. Te Rangi went, ‘Ohhh,’ in a kind of long gasp. It was years since Mel had touched a man. She lifted her hips and pulled off her own pants, and pulled him towards her. ‘No.’ He tried to sit up. ‘Hang on—condom…’
‘I'm on the pill.’
‘Look, it's OK, all right?’ Mel was almost shouting. She reached down to guide him and felt him slide into her. He touched her face again for a second and looked at her entreatingly, almost with love, and then his eyes closed and his breath became hoarse. Mel listened to the springs of Te Rangi's old bed creaking beneath her, and then his harsh expelled breath as he came. He ran a hand across her face, tenderly then pulled out and fell beside her, face into the pillow, murmuring something Mel couldn't hear. She looked at a paua shell on the window ledge still full of cigarette butts and thought about Te Rangi's sister's kids asleep in the next room and what her mother was going to say about her not being there for dinner, and after a little while she roused herself and sat up and said quietly, ‘I have to go, my mother's expecting me.’
‘Your mum.’ Te Rangi's voice was thick, sleepy.
‘Yeh, She's not well. I'll see you later, eh?’ She touched his hair—it was like touching a child, saying goodnight, she felt oddly like page 159 murmuring, ‘Sleep tight, don't let the bugs bite,’ the way her mother used to—and then she picked up her things and crept out of the darkened house, feeling her way around the furniture, shoes in one hand.
When she woke her head was heavy—the bourbon—and her stomach seemed to have a shaky, unpredictable life of its own. She looked at her arm, slung across the bed, the fine hairs, the skin pale now as they headed into winter. She wondered what Te Rangi had seen. He had a tooth missing, and a smile as bright as the sun which she saw him cover with a hand; she knew he was trying to hide the tooth from her. When she'd touched his arm in the pub, letting her hand rest lightly on it for a few seconds so there'd be no mistake, she'd seen that smile come to his lips, then. And later.
She reached for the clock. It was seven, which meant she'd had three hours sleep, max. Her mother's light snoring came from the next room. She'd be upset with Mel; she got nervous at nights, now, wanted company, felt threatening presences outside the house, wanting in. Things scared her now that had always been there, things she was only newly noticing: the kowhai tapping the window in a southerly, the shed door banging, voices on the street, a car turning too fast.
Mel went through to the kitchen, where her mother had washed and neatly stacked her few dishes from last night. She'd be upset about that too. In the fridge Mel's dinner—a chicken breast, mound of mashed potato, a carrot, three sprigs of broccoli and a dollop of gravy—sat on a plate, covered in Glad Wrap. She took it out and started to eat, thoughtfully, with her fingers, standing at the sink looking out on the lightening sky and dipping each cold vegetable into the congealed gravy. No one could make gravy like her mother could. She ate the mashed potato with her fingers too, thinking how good it was cold.
Her stomach was coming right. She made coffee and opened the back door and drank it standing on the step, her bare feet cold, the hairs on her legs rising with the chill. She looked at the sky—so big, here—and thought of Te Rangi's long arms, the thin parallel lines of his ribs, his clear eyes with sadness behind them, his semen that she'd let inside her, that she'd wanted for some reason, like a fool, like page 160 a thoughtless romantic dumb kid who didn't know any better. She rubbed the itchy patch on her neck and thought of Kate, the fat gorgeous curves of her stomach, the gold of her tanned skin, her giggle when she leaned over Mel as if to kiss her but instead bit her on the nose or lip, or, once, dribbled on her face. There were tears in her eyes as she went out to the garage to get the secateurs, and as she made the first few snips into the climber Albertine a little sob came out of her, but then she thought of how her mother had been saying for over a month that the roses needed doing but she was feeling too weak, and how Mel had just said Mm and turned the page of the Woman's Weekly and ignored her, and how Shirley and Brendon were coming over next weekend so Brendon could do the roses. Mel pruned and pruned, doing it the right way, the way she'd read in the book, cutting at an angle above an outward-facing leaf bud so there'd be even more flowers next summer, and after a while the torn petals of the season's last few Albertines fell around her feet and a thorn caught the skin of her thumb and made it bleed, and as the sun rose on another cold Wairarapa day and her mother stirred and coughed under her duvet, Mel finished pruning Albertine and moved on to Iceberg.