She stares at his eyes, so defiant and bright. But his face had already begun to thin out even then, his jaw and cheek bones more prominent than they’d ever been. She stares at her own eyes from just two years, but an entire lifetime ago. There is sadness inside them. She was good at keeping her face and voice and body positive, but her eyes betrayed her. And their sadness she can see so clearly in the photo.
“Hey Pete.” She whispers and she still just cannot believe she will never hear his voice again. Still can’t believe there will never again be a little yellow envelope with his name beside it on her phone’s screen. Still can’t believe she will graduate without him to see here there in the admittedly ridiculous university coat and mortar. Still can’t believe she will start her first day in her first job with her first real work colleagues without having him to share it all with. Still can’t believe that the whole world has just continued to continue on without him there.
She was so angry, she remembers, when she woke up that first day – her whole universe had changed and the whole fucking world had just continued on as though it was normal. The fucking birds chirruping in their trees just like nothing had changed. The fucking postman delivered the fucking mail! The morning traffic droned on taking the people in their cars to their fucking jobs just like everything was as it had been the day before. But nothing was the same. Nothing! And it never could be again. It surprised her, her anger. Big and loud and painful where there should have been deep and quiet pain. But there had been so much pain and sadness in those final months that when Pete’s failing body could no longer go on, there was nothing left for her but anger. One day he was here and the next gone forever and Claire was just so violently angry. But feelings with that intensity are destined to burn themselves out, and when they subsided she was left with a vacuum, a hollow, quiet, lonely vacuum. The anger seems so long ago. At least there was passion in that anger. Now she feels nothing.
She sighs. Here she is two years later with a scab on her knee and blood running down the length of her shin about to share coffee with someone who Anna and Jacob assure her is really interesting, funny and not up himself at all. (“You’ll love him Claire! He’s a climber too. And it’s only coffee.”) Only coffee. It’s only coffee Pete, she says to herself. And puts the photo back in the drawer.
She grabs a tissue, spits on it and works her way along her shin.
She thinks back to the last blind date. Why do her friends insist on setting her up with these morons? She shakes her head at the thought of him, how he spent the whole night with his eyes peeling back the buttons of her shirt towards the valley between her breasts. Why do some men assume that a woman’s breast size is inversely proportional to her IQ? He’d wanted their next date to be at a gym for Christ’s sake. You obviously work out, let’s meet at the gym sometime he had said trying to sound casual, but sounding to Claire like a character from a B-grade movie. I don’t go to the gym, she replied flatly, unashamedly allowing her voice to express her boredom. No way! I don’t believe it! He said. The moron just wouldn’t drop it. How do you keep your body looking so fit? Was this his best line? He feigned surprise and then his eyes were back on her breasts again. We’re rock-climbers, she said, and they both stared at each other in the awkward silence that followed the shock of the We’re she used where she should have used I’m.
“Right.” She says out loud now, happy enough with her knee. She goes back to the wardrobe. It’s too hot for jeans, so she chooses a simple cotton dress and her favourite brown sandals.
She looks at her toes as she’s doing up the thin strap. People underestimate the strength of toes, she thinks. All the little muscles in between those tiny bones. She scrunches her toes and then splays them.
She goes now to her dresser. She smudges a bit of pink gloss across her lips and brushes her blonde hair back off her face. Of all the parts of her body he could have chosen, Pete used to say he loved her toes. She remembers his feet now, in those final days. Pale and skinny on the white hospital sheets. No trace of the strength they’d had before. All shrunken and soft and fragile looking. Bits of blue fluff from woollen bed socks stuck at the corners of the toe nails. So she’d given him summertime feet for his birthday. Made him laugh (a sad and knowing laugh, but a laugh all the same) with fake tan and toenail polish. Summer skin from the ankles down! She told him, and she did hers too then, and they took photos of their feet together for all the summer holidays they’d never have together again.
Now there is a knock on her bedroom door.
“Yeah?” she calls.
“How’re you going Clairey?” Anna’s face appears around the edge of the door. She stands there leaning on the door frame, observing her friend.
“Good I think. I’ve stopped my knee bleeding at least.”
“You look beautiful.”
Claire shrugs and checks her watch.
“Better get going I s’pose.” She says.
“Keep an open mind Claire okay?”
“Promise.” She says feigning the annoyance of a stroppy teenager at an overbearing mother.
They laugh. Claire grabs her satchel.
“Want a lift to the station?” Anna asks.
“Nah, it’s only quarter past six. I’m early, I’ll walk.”
“Ok, well, have fun.”
Outside the frangipani in their front yard is in full bloom. Fallen flowers litter the grass beneath its branches. Claire picks one up and holds it beneath her nose. She rolls its stem back and forth between her thumb and forefinger as she draws in the smell of summer.
It was summer the last time she said goodbye to Pete. There was a frangipani tree outside the window in his hospital room. He hated being closed in. She used to open the window wide whenever she visited. Tried to bring as much of the outside into him. The fragrance of frangipani flowers always fills her with a certain nostalgia, a conflicting mix of easy happiness and deep sorrow. She spins the flower now and lets it briefly take flight and gently fall to the ground. You can’t hold on forever.
She walks along in the dewy evening listening to the sound of her leather sandals scuffing against the footpath. People are starting to cook dinner. She takes in the aromas as she passes along the street first onions frying, then cumin or some other Indian spice, then sausages or maybe steak, lasagne, roast chicken. Her stomach growls.
She wonders what this guy’s going to be like. Dave, also a climber, not up himself at all. She comes to the last of the row of houses where the seventh hole of the golf course sweeps along the road. Not that she’s ever played golf. But she knows the course because she sometimes goes jogging here in the mornings before work. It’s a bit creepy down here at night. Too dark. And the air feels cooler and damp. She picks up her pace. She watches her shadow lengthen and retreat, lengthen and retreat as she passes under the row of pale orange street lights.
“There she goes.”
“Jocelyn. On her way to the tearoom again. That’s the fifth chocolate biscuit she’s had today.”
The two women stifle giggles and hide behind their computers as Jocelyn waddles back past them, wiping crumbs from her mouth.
Jocelyn makes her way back to her desk. She is conscious of the high-pitched swishing noise her nylon stockings are making as her thighs rub one against the other. The office is so quiet. It seems to amplify the sound. She smooths her hand over her meaty bum. Her underpants are crinkled and creeping up between her cheeks. Her face burns. She is sure the outline is visible through her skirt.
She hates this job, hates the people who she works with, hates every lunch hour she spends alone in front of her computer screen, pretending to be busy, hates the groups of threes and fours who wander out of the office at lunchtime, laughing and chatting and talking about the weekend.
Each day passes with dread.
She walks along the navy carpet, focussing on bits of paper and fluff and dust gathered down there, avoiding eye contact with any of the wan faces faintly glowing in the soft light of computer screens. The long dreaded walk past each face who she knows, knows she had four trips already today. Four trips to the biscuit tin. Her ears hum in the strange silence of the office, broken only by the sporadic clipping of fingers against computer keys. A fluoro light is humming too.
At last she makes it to her desk. Her own computer’s screen saver swirling its three dimensional pyramids back and forth while it waits for her. She pulls her swivel chair out and seats her weight down onto it. There is a sound of metal creaking and straining as she does so. In the silence of the office it sounds like a gunshot ringing in Jocelyn’s ears.
Somewhere, someone giggles.
“Too many choccie biccies fatty.” Jocelyn hears somebody say.
Now she hears people openly laughing.
The clock says four-oh-nine.
The last hour passes with painstaking slowness. Jocelyn keeps her eyes on her computer screen; makes typing motions without pause; focuses intently for sixty-three horrible minutes on the little digital clock in the right hand corner of her screen.
Finally at twelve minutes past five the last of her co-workers files out of the office. She hears laughter in the hallway outside as they wait for the elevator.
At five fourteen Jocelyn logs off.
At home that night, Jocelyn takes of her blouse and skirt. She removes her sweaty shoes and peels off her nylon stockings. Her feet stink. She goes into the bathroom pokes a face at the sight of herself in the mirror. While she runs a cool bath she prods the doughy flesh between her thighs. The permanent rash where her two thighs meet is stinging from the walk home from the train station. She hates summertime.
Sitting on the cool enamel on the edge of the bath staring at the angry red rings on her upper thighs, she replays that voice, too many choccie biccies fatty, and she makes a decision.
She turns the taps off. Leaves the bath water waiting. Goes into her bedroom. Turns the light on in the wardrobe and finds her sneakers from high school. They are the one item in her wardrobe from high school that still fits her.
At the back of the third drawer of her dresser is a sports bra her mother made her buy about three years ago. It’s never been worn. She retrieves it from its dark corner and holds it up. It looks like a maternity garment. She looks again at the rash between her thighs. She pours herself into the enormous brassier, slinging her left and then right breast into its firm grip. Now a black Wild Turkey T-shirt man size XL, and a pair of dark grey cotton tracksuit pants, loose fitting, very loose. The sneakers feel sort of crunchy at first, old sweat she supposes with a grimace, but they soften up with a few tentative paces around the living room.
Now she grabs her ipod and selects the album she’s almost embarrassed to own, but with the little white greasy knobs of the headphones shoved firmly into her ears no-one will know she’s listening to Christina.
She steps out into the evening. She will run, no, she will walk. But she will no longer be the brunt of the office jokes.
Outside the street lights are just beginning to flicker to life. The neighbour’s cat she notices is shitting in her lavender bush again. She hisses at him to shoo him off. He ignores her, scratches at the soil and saunters nonchalantly into the darkness of the hedge which separates her place from her neighbours. She walks on.
But no, not today, she decides, and walks back to her lavender bush, retrieving a wad of junk mail from the letterbox as she goes. She uses this as a shovel and scoops up the pile of black sticky faeces from beneath the lavender bush. Now she carefully carries the prize the appropriate neighbour’s driveway, dumps it and walks on. Christina is chirping in her ears.
But she gets to the end of the street and feels a wave of guilt.
So she rushes back to her neighbour’s driveway and using their uncollected newspaper delivery scoops the stinking deposit into the gutter.
Now she trudges again down the street and off into the night. She is puffing already.
She can feel a blister developing on her left heel already. The skin between her thighs is burning. She looks at her watch. Damn it! She thinks. She wishes she had checked the time she left home. She looks down at it now. 6.12. She wonders how long she’s been walking so far. Her armpits feel sticky and hot. She flaps her fleshy elbows in and out to no great effect. She turns up the volume on her ipod so she doesn’t have to hear herself panting like some asthmatic rhinoceros. He fingers feel tight and itchy.
She follows the road down the hill towards the golf course. As she rounds the corner at the bottom of the gully, the lights of the six forty seven train cut into the darkness. Now as the train rushes alongside the road towards the station, she sees the people bathed in light, framed by the carriages, moving past her. Some are staring out, others are on mobile phones, some are reading magazines.
She wiggles at her toes as she walks. She thinks her right heel is getting a blister too now.
Michael Davidson looks down at the gold watch on his wrist. Twelve minutes past six. A gold watch, he thinks, such a cliché. He stares at its face rolling his wrist back and forth to catch the light. It’s a nice looking watch, expensive, classy. It suits him he thinks. Except what it symbolises. Retirement. He looks at his own face in the bathroom mirror, affects a smile, brings his hands up to his cheek bones to smooth his skin. His hair is still very dark and his tanned skin looks as though it could belong to a man fifteen, maybe even twenty years his junior. He’s a good looking man.
He looks down at the watch again. Retirement! He thinks in disgust, and unclips the clasp. He removes the watch and replaces it into the vanity drawer. Retirement is for old people. He looks at himself in the mirror again. He’s not old.
“Maria.” He calls to his wife. She is watching the six o’clock news.
“My dentist asked me if I dyed my hair today.”
She does not reply.
“Did you hear me Maria? He asked if I dyed my hair.”
He walks out into the living room.
“Yes I heard you Michael. What do you want me to say?” Maria says turning her neck to face him.
“Well I must look good for my age.”
“Yeah. You must.” She says and turns back to the television. There are skinny brown children wading through floodwaters on the screen. One of the children is leading a bedraggled looking goat by a piece of rope tied to its neck. The news reader says they are some of the many thousand children orphaned by the floods.
“Well, do I?”
“Do you what Michael?”
“Look good for my age?!”
“Why don’t you tell me, you are the one who has been looking at himself in the mirror for the past fifteen minutes.”
“Maria don’t be like that.”
He stands silently for a moment. Maria has turned away and retreated into the news story again, she shakes her head sadly at the number of people dead and the number of homes destroyed.
“Maria? Your mother went grey quite early too didn’t she?”
“What are you getting at Michael?” she spins around to face him again, her dark eyes wide in anger.
“Nothing. I was just asking.” He laughs casually.
“Look. I am not young anymore. I am a grandmother for god’s sake. I don’t care if my hair is grey, or if yours isn’t. We are old! Don’t be so bloody vain.”
“I’m not old!” he says indignantly, accentuating the ‘I’, and grabs the car keys from the table.
“Where are you going?” Maria asks.
“I have to go and sign some papers at work.”
“I thought you’d settled everything last week.”
“They need my signature on a few things.”
“What at this time of night?”
“Jesus Maria, why are you always so bloody angry? They need them for one of my old clients for tomorrow. I’ll be back in an hour.” He says and makes for the front door before she can hassle him any longer.
Outside, Michael presses the remote unlocking device on his key ring and the little orange lights of his BMW flicker in recognition. He puts his hand into the gentle curve of the driver’s side handle and opens the door. He loves this car. The leather interior still smells brand new. He breathes in heavily before he takes his position behind the wheel. He pulls the door shut and notes with deep satisfaction the perfect sound with which the door closes. It is an expensive sounding door. He deserves this car. He wraps both hands around the soft leather of the steering wheel and sighs deeply.
Maria’s silhouette appears in the doorway of the house. She is tying down the open flaps of her dressing gown.
“Can you pick up some milk while you are out?” she calls.
“Okay.” He replies.
Maria disappears again.
The great shame, Michael thinks to himself, as he adjusts the rear view mirror to allow himself to inspect his moustache, is that he had to wait until his fifties to have such a car. When he was younger, yes! That would have been the time to have such a machine. He imagines trips to the coast with the wind in his hair in this vehicle, salty sea air, suntan lotion, music blaring, tanned skin in the sun, women in bikinis, the backseat of this vehicle.
He readjusts the mirror to look at his eyes. A little bit wrinkled, but he still looks good for his age. He could still get a woman today if he had to, if he or Maria ever got the courage to finally leave the other behind. How did he end up being sixty-five? He wonders. The sound of the numbers doesn’t even suit him. It sounds like the age of an old man, like his father. How did they get this far, he and Maria? How did they end up grandparents?
He adjusts the mirror to a functional position and put the keys in the ignition. The engine rumbles smoothly. What a great car this is. He slips his favourite Bee Gees CD into the car stereo and skips to track five. He shifts the leather bound gearstick into reverse, checks the mirror (for the view behind the car and not his own face this time) and eases the beautiful machine out of the driveway and into the street.
He remembers so clearly how it felt to be young. He can still feel what it was like for Christ’s sake! And yet he has a son now, with a baby of his own. It’s like it all happened too quickly. Like one moment he was that strong, virile, capable young thing, carefree and tanned and laughing in the sun, all eyes on him.
He rounds the corner at the bottom of his street and pulls onto the main road. Even the indicators in this vehicle sound expensive. Funny what a thrill he still gets every time he drives this thing. A Bee Gees falsetto peaks, Staying aliii – iiive. Michael shifts through the gears as he enters the 80 zone. Pity it’s not a hundred, he thinks.
It has always been him. He’s the good-times man. He’s the one with the strength of a bull, the rhythm of a dancer, the mind three thoughts ahead of everyone else’s. He’s the one in charge, the one with all the answers, the one who people come to when the shit hits the fan. But that Him is the Him in he remembers. Not the Him that is. And yet he can still feel it! But it’s all fading away. Like the colours from the polaroid photos from those Him times of his life. It’s like it happened before he realised and now there is nothing he can do to stop it. And now his son is that Him. The one who women notice when he walks into a room. The one who people come to when they need answers. The one who always knows what to say and do. The one in the centre of it all.
Up ahead the traffic lights change to red. He pulls his machine down through the gears and eases to a stop, frustrated.
He feels like lion losing control of his pride, threatened by the presence of his young son. His strapping young son with his thickening mane, ever broadening shoulders and ever more visible perky testicles like firm little plums bursting with testosterone whose gait is more sure and purposeful with every padding placement of his powerful paw. Has his old lion’s body has reached its peak, and passed it? Must he now slowly fail in all the areas where his son is blooming?
The light changes to green. Michael accelerates out into the night.
Surely it’s not that way yet. Not yet! He still feels like he could take control of his pride... it’s just... well... oh he doesn’t know anymore. But hey! Even just last week in the fruit section at the supermarket, a woman stopped to ask him about the pineapples he was buying, a good looking woman with a deep cleavage diving down between soft breasts in the V of her tight-fitting T-shirt. (Now he’s driving along that stretch of road where the suburb is dark and leafy and the streetlights stretch through the linear gap in the silent trees like a long string of orange, glowing pearls in the night.) Did he think the organic ones were really worth the extra cost? She had asked. Absolutely, he had told her, flashing a casual smile and stepping closer to her, close enough to smell the faint smell of her perfume mingled with that earthy, slightly acidic, sexy smell that some women get in summer. And somehow topic of his age came into the conversation. She was blown away, this complete stranger, when he said how old he was. (Now he comes to the railway crossing where, the lights not glowing their annoying red warning, he is free to pass across the tracks. He feels the expensive buzz of his beautiful machine’s high quality suspension as it accommodates the tracks beneath equally high quality tyres.) You’re having me on! She said and playfully flicked his chest with the back of her hand. It’s true! He professed, puffing his chest out just a little and flashing her one of his charming smiles, the one he has perfected after years of flashing it to himself every morning in the bathroom mirror. She took two of the organic pineapples, that stranger with the soft full breasts and gently flirting closeness that female strangers sometimes offer him. Said if they kept her looking as good as he does...
David Sloeman has never been a David, only ever a Dave. Right from the day he was born his parents have called him Dave. (The only place he’s ever been David is on his birth certificate.) They were just too laid back to ever bother with the extra syllable. His favourite photo of the three of them is one from when he was a toddler. His dad is in a pair of flares. His hair hangs in long stringy curls down to his shoulders and his face is concealed behind a straggly beard. His mum is grinning from beneath an enormous floppy straw hat and a pair of massive sunglasses. She is wearing a floral dress. Her skinny shoulders brown and bared to the sun. Dave is sitting in his mother’s lap, he’s naked and not quite in focus because he’s laughing and waving at whoever the photographer was. The photo is faded and one corner is torn, but he keeps it anyway because it makes him happy. Ever since those carefree days of hippy parents and sunshine – everyone has just always called him Dave. Up until a fortnight ago.
He arrived back in Brisbane a month ago. Unpacked his few belongings from his backpack and into a real live wardrobe for the first time in two years. Got a job that actually relates to his zoology major. Shaved his beard off and thought about cutting his hair. He’d kept that though. What sort of haircut would he have anyway if he had to cut it, short back and sides? He laughs just to imagine it. Maybe he’ll shave it all off one day. For now he’ll keep the straggly ponytail knotted at the nape of his neck.
Why he insists on calling me David, Dave thinks about his new boss, must be something to do with passive aggressive dominance behaviour. Like he can’t help cocking his leg and pissing on his territory or something. He calls me David, Dave thinks, to keep me in my place. Sometimes he (Dave) appears to ignore his boss because he just doesn’t respond to the name David. (He feels like it belongs to someone much older than he, someone who might wear a tie, might even vote for the Liberals.) This apparent ignorance serves only to stir the hackles on his boss’s neck even further. So his use of David remains.
“See you on Monday David.” His boss calls as he walks down the corridor. And there is a tone, like he expects he might not turn up, like he’ll have a huge drunken weekend and just not show on Monday morning. It infuriates him. And he thinks it has something to do with his ponytail but thinks there is something more to it too. He’d like to raise the issue with his boss, but what can he say – I don’t like the way you call me by my birth name and I don’t like the way your voice sounds?
He strides out of the building, shrugging of the negativity of his bosses parting words. He plucks a few leaves from the lemon scented myrtle in the office car park and rolls them between his thumb and forefinger. He brings them to his nose and breaths in and out, imagines his negative thoughts dissolving as he exhales.
He walks over to his bicycle and is rolling the numbers of the combination lock into the correct sequence when a palm lands squarely, friendly on his back.
He turns to see his colleague, Jacob grinning at him.
“You’ve got that thing with Anna’s friend tonight don’t forget.”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“She’s cool, Claire, interesting. You’ll like her.”
“We’ll see. Anyway man, have a good one hey? Be cool.”
“Yeah you too. See ya.”
Dave clips the buckle of his helmet beneath his chin, swings his laptop over his shoulder and mounts his bicycle. He whistles a tune, thinks about the night ahead. Claire. Sounds like a bit of a snobby name. Like David. He wonders what he’ll call her if they decide to see more of each other. He never really calls anyone by their real name. Like his straggly hair, and his laid back attitude to life, it’s something he’s inherited from his father.
He’s cruising now, on a downhill stretch, creating his own breeze in the warm evening, whistling his tune, thinking about what he can eat when he gets home, wondering what she’ll talk about this Claire.
“Bugger.” He says half heartedly to himself. He hates it when he gets a red light at the bottom of the hill. It kills all that beautiful momentum. He pulls up beside a row of cars. Looks in to the sedan beside him. The woman is smoking. She has kids in the back. He’s disgusted. He looks away, back to the traffic lights. Still red. He looks at his watch. 5.47. Plenty of time. The lights change to green. He pushes off. His belly rumbles. Peanut butter. Yeah that’s what he’ll have. Toasted rye bread with peanut butter.
Jocelyn picks at the elastic of her underpants. It is beginning to rub in the crease between her right buttock and thigh. She’s really sweating now. Feels breathless and sticky. Her boobs feel itchy. She’s right down near the golf course now. At least the air is a bit cooler down here she thinks.
She looks up ahead and notices someone else on the path. They’re heading in the same direction as her. She hopes it’s no one she knows. She’ll have to endure the horrible period of time when she’s passed them, while her big arse in saggy tracksuit pants waddles away in their line of sight. She’ll just keep her head down, she thinks, and pretend she lost in her music so she doesn’t have to make eye-contact with the person up ahead.
Behind him the train blasts its quick warning out into the darkness. Michael doesn’t see its one glaring eye staring down along the track or the glowing yellow carriage windows which trail along behind it because he is driving away. But he hears the clatter and there is a certain satisfaction at knowing he’s beaten a train like that, stolen across the tracks before the irritating red flashing warnings have had a chance to stop him, all those stunned fish faced people inside the loud hurtling beast, numbly gawping out at him, while he waits, he in his lovely expensive vehicle with its recently buffed wax polish reflecting the flashing red glow of the crossing signals have to give way to those idiots. But not tonight, he smiles and hums along to the Bee Gees. Tonight he’s cruising away and those fish faced idiots don’t even realise it. And he smiles because he knows he deserves right of way.
“Why are they idiots?” Maria had once said to him while they were stopped at some other set of lights, him cursing at the annoyance of being made to wait for society’s minions to pass. She flashed her wide accusing eyes at him, waiting silently for a response, her pale face reflecting the irritating red flashing glow of the lights.
But how could he explain it to her? She’s so different from him, too soft, too tolerant. That’s why people think she is such a pushover. That’s why she just rolls over and lets old age kick her while she’s down. Not him!
Not enough people know how good the combination of peanut butter, avocado and toasted rye bread is, Dave thinks as he’s shoving the last bite into his mouth. He’s had a quick shower and thrown a clean set of clothes on. Just a T-shirt and a pair of cords. He wipes the crumbs of his sandwich from his face and wonders if he should’ve shaved. Too late now. He’s got just enough time to brush his teeth and then he’ll have to hurry if he wants to get the bus into town.
Great. Jocelyn thinks to herself, she’s really attractive. Jocelyn is now close enough now to see that although the person up ahead of her on the path is no one she knows, she is a really tall girl, with lovely toned legs and long blond hair. She’s probably got a really pretty face too. And she’s probably popular. And has a boyfriend who knows how to cook Italian and buys her roses and makes her laugh. Great. She thinks again and tries to quieten the huff out of her breathing, tries to make her movements appear more effortless.
Maria! Michael thinks as he adjusts the volume on his stereo. How did she become so old? Really old in how she behaves, how she thinks? It’s no wonder she is looking so dowdy. She thinks old. When did she change? When did they start becoming so different?
Just then, bathed in the dull orange glow of a street light He catches sight of a woman walking on the footpath. Very attractive. Full breasts. Long legs. He remembers when Maria could wear a little dress like that. It seems like a lifetime ago.
The woman on the path is much younger than Maria. Walks with confidence. She looks like she would be an assertive woman. Strong. Feisty. A voracious lover. The sort of woman he needs. The sort of woman Maria used to be. Nothing like the woman Maria is now.
Michael eases his foot off the accelerator just a little and sings a few lines of the song that is now playing. You and me girl, got a highway to the sky... He gets the next few words wrong but mumbles through anyway, watching those strong, long legs. Mumbles along as he watches the little waist, the swinging hips, the summer dress gently moving across the curves as she moves. Feels his groin stir to life. His spine shoots the message between balls and brain. Testosterone! He marvels. He’s still as hungry as he was as an eighteen year old.
“How’s it goin?” Dave nods at the bus driver as he boards. Swipes his card against the sensor. Listens for the beep.
He moves down the aisle. Finds a spare seat next to an old guy. He’s got a greasy comb-over and is wearing long pale blue golf socks pulled up to his knees. Dave flicks his head and nods in greeting. The old man moves over and stares out the window. He hates these cocky little bastards with their long hair and their hippy clothes. Dave settles himself onto the seat as the bus pulls away from curb.
It’s funny how little things come back to you, Claire thinks as she makes her way along the footpath towards the tee of the sixth hole, out of the blue sometimes. Just now she has a memory of Pete turning his head to look back at her. They are making their way in a pair of kayaks across a bay in the Marlborough Sound on New Zealand’s south island. He’s in front. He’s calling out to her, telling her about a seal up ahead on a rock. He’s pointing to it with his paddle. The sun is in his face and he’s squinting and smiling wide because he knows she loves to see wildlife. The paddle’s blade is hot pink and the sun glistens across its wet surface. Pete turns back again and plunges the paddle into the dark ocean. Claire walks past the sixth tee, a curlew calls. A couple of the street lights are blown up ahead, so it’s darker than usual. She hears someone walking behind her and stiffens her back a little, broadens her shoulders. It’s a known fact that meek looking women are more likely to be attacked than their confident, sturdy looking sisters.
Love is such a beautiful thing... da da da dah ah... summer’s day. Michael sings. Rubs his crotch. Keeps watching the woman on the footpath. Taps his fingers against the steering wheel. Forgets about the milk Maria asked him to pick up.
Jocelyn can’t bear it. She’s close enough now to the girl up ahead on the path to smell her perfume. She even smells beautiful. She’s probably on her way to her boyfriend’s house. Jocelyn scratches her own left armpit. It’s damp. She can’t bear the thought of her enormous arse cheeks rolling one against the other insider her tracky dacks right in front of this girl. She feels a bit light headed from trying to stifle her heaving diaphragm.
Claire can hear the footsteps louder now. Can hear the faint buzzing of what must be the person’s music hissing out through headphones. She doesn’t look behind her. This action makes one appear insecure. She keeps her eyes ahead. Squints slightly into the lights of an oncoming vehicle.
Dave’s bus pulls up a few stops closer to the city. The old man clears his throat and asks to be let out. Dave obliges and smiles at the old fella, wonders where he is off to. The old man ignores him. Shuffles with hunched shoulders towards the front door of the bus, gripping every available hand rail and seat back as he goes. He thanks the bus driver and steps out. The bus doors suck closed. The bus pulls away again from the curb.
Jocelyn sniffs her damp fingers. God, she really stinks. She suddenly tastes a bit of vomit in her mouth. She’s so hot all over and she hates the girl up ahead. She pictures the look on the girls face, how her eyes will widen, how her lips will grimace and sort of curl at the corners when she sees a fat arse pass and waddle along in front of her. She can’t bear it. She feels a black feeling of dread inside her stomach. Wants the girl to just disappear, or turn off the footpath or something.
Jacob is on the phone to Anna. She’s asking if Dave said anything about the date today at work. Jacob is saying he hasn’t met her yet, what could he say about her? He’s smiling at his girlfriend’s need to overanalyse everything. He changes the topic and says he’ll pick up a DVD and a curry on his way over. They begin to discuss what movie to get, a foreign film perhaps, or something funny.
Jocelyn can’t bear it. She decides she’ll cross over the road, save herself the pain.
Claire hears the sound of the footsteps behind her change slightly. She’s relieved to hear that they sound as though they’re crossing away from her. Not that she was ever actually afraid or alarmed or anything, (It’s probably just someone out for a walk.) but it’s good to be aware of your surroundings, especially on this dark strip of road down near the golf course. The lights of the approaching car are right in her eyes now. She can hear the dull thudding base beat from the car’s speakers.
Michael can see the woman clearly now. Can see her face, her slender neck, the fullness of her breasts. Could he think of some excuse to stop and talk to her? He takes his foot off the accelerator a little more, thinking. Look at that little waist, he thinks, those perfect breasts!
Anna and Jacob decide on a comedy after all, and massaman lamb curry.
The skin on Jocelyn’s inner thighs is stinging as she quickens her pace to cross the road. Her mouth feels dry and tastes sort of bitter. There is a vehicle coming along the road she is crossing but it is slowing down for her to get across. She can hear a thudding base beat – the car’s stereo.
Claire hears the car’s engine change as it slows to allow the walker behind her to cross the road. She hears its music too, thinks how loud it must be inside the car.
Jocelyn’s heels are really burning now as she’s hurrying across the road. Her arm pits are itchy. Her inner thighs really stinging. Her black T-shirt stuck with sweat to the folds of skin bulging around her bra.
Dave moves off his seat to allow another passenger to sit down. He’ll be getting off at the next stop anyway, and the young woman, laden with a bag of groceries looks like she needs a seat more than he does.
Michael rubs the heel of his palm across his crotch again. Shakes his head at his foolishness. He can’t stop! The woman will think he’s some sort of creep if he stops. Pity, would you look at those tits! It’s as high as a mountain and harder to climb, he sings as he plants his foot on the accelerator, still rubbing his balls, smiling at the power of testosterone, still shaking his head at his boyish ways.
Maria switches off the television. Goes to the fridge. Pours herself a glass of Semillon Blanc. Retrieves the new novel her book club is reading this week from the coffee table. Settles herself back down on the couch. Opens up to the page where her bookmark is positioned.
Dave presses the button on the hand rail of the bus which chimes a little bell and lights up the “next stop please” sign.
Jacob hangs up the phone and pats his pockets, wondering what he’s done with his car keys.
Michael turns his head to get a look at the blond woman’s bum as he accelerates away from her.
Maria turns a page.
Claire’s pupils begin to dilate in the darkness thrust suddenly upon her as the car with the loud music passed her.
Jocelyn’s armpits are itchy, her feet are burning, her thighs sticky; and suddenly the car coming towards her accelerates and there is no time for anything. She just stands there, staring. Just stands there with her terrified eyes wide open and her ears on fire with the sound of the tyre’s screeching.
There is time not to stop, but time enough to see the horror, the sickening gruesome terror on this other woman’s face. Where did this other woman come from? What is this idiot doing on the road? How can this be happening? But these thoughts don’t come to Michael a series of thoughts, rather as a sudden state of emotion. There is no time for clarity of thought. There is only time, only just enough time to see the horror on this other woman’s face.
Claire has heard the car’s engine begin to accelerate. But now suddenly she hears the piercing shrill as the car tyres brace against the road. And now the screech is abruptly silenced by a sickening hollow thud. She spins around to face the scene on the road behind her.
The music from the stereo keeps playing during those first few moments. The car’s engine has stalled and is silent. The dark lump in front of Michael’s car is motionless on the road.
Michael can’t move. There is something warm on his face and his ears are ringing and the Bee Gees keep singing and he’s stranded in that moment.
Claire is running now, the palpitating heart inside her chest pushes adrenaline around her muscular body. Her sandals slap against the bitumen. She can’t see the person in front of the car, but knows what she will find when she reaches the car.