By Rachel Flynn
Helen put both hands on the blue Grafio notebook with its subtitle, made for tomorrow’s outstanding achievers. Jeff had bought it for her at the newsagent down the street while he’d selected that Saturday’s winning lotto numbers.
‘Here. I’ll clear a space at the table for you,’ he’d said, ‘and I’ll do the cooking for a week. That’ll be plenty of time to see if you’ve got anything to write about.’
Jeff put a pen in her hand. It was white plastic with a blue rubber grip, picked up at the hotel room on the last trip to Sydney. They’d only stayed one night. A forty-minute drive to the airport, a one-hour flight up on Saturday afternoon, some take-away Thai from the only queue-out-onto-the-footpath establishment they could find, a balmy Sunday morning funeral and then the flight home. Twenty minutes up, twenty minutes level with coffee and a snack pack, then twenty minutes down. It was during the snack that Jeff began one of those conversations.
‘You need an interest now that we’ve retired,’ he’d said, his mouth full of peanuts.
‘I’m not retired. You are.’
‘You always said you wanted to write, except that the kids came along.’
‘You came along before the kids.’ She turned to face him.
He turned away to look through the window at Canberra eight thousand metres below.
‘What you need is an interest that doesn’t require much equipment.’
Or expense, she’d thought.
The blue cover of the Grafio notebook was smooth and cool to touch. The first blank unlined page was for her name. She remembered the summers before each new school year. They began with the anticipation of Christmas, then the slow week to the New Year, when their father would reluctantly take one day away from the farm for a trip to the beach. Then there were the hot dry days of January punctuated by quick drenching thunderstorms. Finally they would get to the last week, when their mother would drive them into town to get new things for school. When they got back home they would clear the kitchen table, spread out pieces of brown paper that had been collected all year, and cover their new books. As soon as he could, her brother would rush outside to play cricket against the chimney, while she stayed at the table and carefully ruled up a rectangle at the bottom of the front cover of each new exercise book. She would write her name and grade in perfect script, bent over the table, tongue out.
Helen sat at the same table now. Somehow she had inherited it, along with its scrapes and dints. Her brother had married up, to a girl from the tennis club who had become a woman who insisted on a Parker dining setting. Helen never could play tennis well enough to marry up.
‘Written anything yet?’ Jeff’s question came through the screen door. ‘Have you put me in it? Are you putting any sex in it, you know, like this morning with the opera and all.’
He was interrupted by his mobile ringing. Well, not ringing exactly. It was a rooster crowing. Helen put a finger in her ear till it stopped.
That was his usual phone greeting.
‘Mal … yep…I’ll ask her. Mal wants to know if you want their daphne plant.’
‘Why don’t they want it?’ asked Helen.
‘They’re having the place demolished on the weekend. They’re building four townhouses, remember?’
Helen got up from the table and pushed the screen door open.
‘Have you got a spot for it?’ asked Jeff. ‘He’s over there now. We could go and pick it up.’
‘There are plenty of spots for it.’ She pointed to the gaps in the garden where ten other plants had died during the last appalling summer.
‘We’ll need to take a shovel,’ said Jeff, ’and some string. Have we got any string? Where are the scissors?’
The drive across town to Mal’s place was directly into the sun and bordering on peak hour. They went the back way, Jeff’s description of the devious set of one-way streets and back lanes that he took.
‘Mal’s wife’s doing a writing course,’ he said. ‘You’ve met her. You know, Gina.’
‘Yes,’ said Helen, ‘at that gloomy poetry reading.’
‘Yes well, it was free, and included afternoon tea. But you could talk to her about writing. Mal reckons she’s coming along well, says it’s therapeutic, that she’s working out stuff.’
‘You know, teenage torment, that stuff.’
They pulled into the curb and found Mal trying to dig up the daphne with a hand trowel.
‘I’ve got a shovel here, mate,’ said Jeff.
Jeff eased the shovel around the roots, levering it this way and that. Mal stood with his hands on his hips, his shoulders angled forward, the last of the sun reflecting from his broad forehead. The house was waiting to be knocked over. The windows and doors were already gone, sold off on eBay. Weatherboards were missing. The spouts lay across what was left of the veranda. DIY looters had crept in and pilfered the stained glass windows and the decorative weatherboards for their own renovations. The garden had been abandoned months earlier.
The sun dropped below the roof next door and they were suddenly covered with a chill shadow.
‘You’re not still living here are you?’ asked Helen.
‘No, no,’ said Mal, ‘we moved out last Thursday. Everything’s in storage. I’m staying at my sister’s place, in her daughter’s room. She’s off overseas of course.’
‘You and Gina squashed into a teenager’s room?’ said Jeff.
‘Just me. Gina’s at a friend’s place for a while, just her and a suitcase.’
‘You’re separated?’ Jeff stood up straight; the shovel paused.
‘Not separated … just in different houses for a few weeks. After that, well … something will turn up.’
Helen supported the branches of the daphne while Jeff slid the shovel under it. Between them they heaved it into a pot.
‘Doesn’t Gina want to keep the daphne?’ asked Helen.
‘I would have thought so,’ said Mal. ‘It was a present for our twentieth, but no.’
‘Who from?’ asked Helen. ‘Family?’
Mal moved his head slightly, and let his hands slide from his hips and into his pockets. Helen could see them making fists, pulling the fabric tight.
‘I gave it to her, so, yeah, family.’
They all paused, silent for a minute. Mal pulled his fists out of his pockets and rubbed one into the other. Jeff leant on the shovel and shook his head in slow motion. Helen trussed the branches of the daphne with string so it would fit into the car. A burst of Abba came over the fence as a door opened, then closed.
‘How long will this building project take?’ Jeff asked.
‘Nine months,’ said Mal, ‘maybe twelve. One point four million, probably more. I’m drowning in debt. This house is worth nothing.’
Helen glanced at the house. It seemed to slip sideways and she took a step back, onto Jeff’s boot.
‘Well, we’ll leave you to it, mate,’ said Jeff. ‘But look, why not drop in for dinner on your way back to your sister’s place. We’ve got enough, haven’t we, Helen? What’s for dinner anyway?’
Helen shrugged. ‘You said you were cooking for the week.’
‘Oh yeah. So I did. We’ll have a barbie. So drop over, Mal.’
Mal shifted his head slightly to the left, a non-committal gesture.
Helen pointed to the spot in the garden where she wanted the hole dug, and Jeff pushed the shovel in.
‘What’s going on with Gina and Mal?’ she asked. ‘Has she left him?’
‘Nah, why would she?’ said Jeff. ‘He doesn’t hit her or anything. And she’s been looking good this year, lost a bit of weight, got some new interests. Anyway, you get back to your story. I’ll plant the daphne. Then I’ll get the dinner on.’
Helen wandered back towards the house. She inspected the buds on the crab apple, and sniffed the blossom on the orange tree. The tiny fig tree, self-sown in her sister’s garden and transplanted last autumn, had ten leaves now. They looked like the hands of the Madonna pleading for peace.
The screen door slapped shut behind her and she went back to her seat at the cleared table where the Grafio notebook was still waiting, it’s first unlined page still blank. She turned to the next page, with its faint blue lines, and wrote a title: Daphne
She remembered Miss Elliot teaching them to write each letter individually. Helen had practised at home until her script was perfect. She was the first in the class to be awarded a certificate. She could picture it now—thick paper with tiny imprints of gum leaves and blossoms, her name in gold lettering, and signed by Miss Elliot. She probably still had it somewhere, maybe in that folder in the top of the wardrobe. She stood up to go and look for it, but heard Jeff’s voice as he came through the screen door.
‘Make it like the footy,’ he said. ‘The agony and the ecstasy, the highs and lows, champions and mongrels. And make it so you don’t know the end until the last page, like, if it was four points the difference and the siren had gone and Buddy had the ball in front of the posts, but at an acute angle.’
‘Yeah, acute, narrow, hard to kick, but can Buddy do it? You don’t know, do you? See? Keep it tense till the end.’
Helen sat down again as Jeff came over to look at how much she’d done. She almost heard him frown. His hand was heavy on her shoulder and he breathed out in one quick snort.
‘I could make it about Mal and Gina, and how he has murdered her, and is going to bury her in the yard where we dug up the daphne.’ Helen sat back and looked sideways at Jeff. She crossed her arms. ‘I could make it that you did the digging so they wouldn’t find any evidence at his place, and that the body was already in the house while we were there in the yard, and that your finger prints would be on the shovel and your footprints in the garden so you would be a suspect.’ She turned to face him. ‘I’ll change the names of course, just to protect myself in case he really has murdered her.’
She waited for Jeff’s reaction. He walked around the bench into the kitchen. He bent down to get a pot out of the cupboard. He put it on the bench and pulled the cutlery drawer open. He selected the heavy-handled Mundial knife. Its blade glinted in her direction.
‘Will I put on some potatoes?’ he said. ‘What else have we got? Are there any sausages?’
His phone crowed.
‘Yep? … ok … no drama … see ya.’
He slipped his phone back in his pocket.
‘Mal’s coming over. Now, where do you keep the sausages?’
Helen looked up from the notebook where her pen was poised to write. Jeff stood with his hands spread across the bench looking at her.
‘What?’ she said.
‘You know you could make more of yourself,’ he said. ‘Put some colour in your hair, lose a bit of weight, stop wearing black. Gina went to the gym. You could do that. Or just walk a lot. That’d be cheaper.’ He paused, staring across at her. ‘You could try that anti-wrinkle cream they advertise. Yeah, give that a go.’
Helen’s left hand went to her neck where she could feel her skin, loose and folded. She pulled it away and laid it flat on the table. ‘Why shouldn’t I have some wrinkles?’
She looked into his face and tried to see the young Jeff. He turned away, opened the fridge, pulled out a beer and flicked the top off. ‘I only mean that in a nice way,’ he said. ‘So where are the sausages?’
‘There’s some rissoles in the freezer,’ said Helen. ‘You can barbeque them frozen, and they’ll still cook. Make sure you put the lid on though otherwise they’ll still be frozen in the middle.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Send Mal out the back when he gets here. See if you can write a whole paragraph by then.’
The pot of potatoes boiled on the stove. The steam condensed on the wall and started to dribble down. Helen smelt the rissoles cooking and heard snatches of conversation coming in through the screen door.
She closed the notebook and went to get some plates and knives and forks. She drained the potatoes and mashed them with some butter and salt. She peeled off three lettuce leaves and put one on each plate, then sliced a tomato, cucumber and avocado and piled them into the leaves. Jeff and Mal came into the room halfway through a conversation. Mal stood with a green spiral-bound folder in his hands. Jeff put the dish of rissoles onto the table.
‘Where’s the sauce, Helen? Have we got any sauce? What about some condiments? Do you want mustard, Mal? How about another beer? Get us a couple of beers would you, love.’
‘I saw the daphne in your garden, Helen,’ said Mal. He rubbed his right hand over the left. ‘It’s already flowered this season, not that Gina noticed. She’s been busy this year. Bit of a new start I guess.’
‘Jeff told me,’ said Helen. She looked across at Jeff. He was busy with his rissoles, leaning over so as not to drop food on his shirt where it strained across his stomach. Mal sat opposite, with a vacant chair beside him where Gina would have been.
‘Gina left this course book behind, ’ said Mal. ‘You may as well have it if you’re going to take up writing.’
He slid it across the table to her.
‘Won’t she need it?’ asked Helen.
‘Dunno,’ said Mal. ‘Haven’t seen her, didn’t ask her.’
‘Maybe you don’t need it either,’ said Jeff. ‘I mean, you can just make up stuff, can’t you? You know, fiction. That’s what writers do.’
Helen flipped through the book. It was a set of photocopied articles and stories. Gina had written comments in the margins and across the print. At the back were blank pages with indifferent instructions at the top; describe a man, write about your own kitchen, pretend you are a seagull, and so on. Gina had written her responses neatly in green biro. Helen looked up and saw that Mal was watching her.
‘She wrote stuff about me,’ he said. He pushed his plate aside, leaving the lettuce, tomato, cucumber and avocado abandoned on one side, like a boatload of refugees in a sea of blood.
‘She shouldn’t have written about me.’ He leant forward, one hand a fist inside the other.
‘It’s a bad idea, you being a writer,’ said Jeff. ‘Look, give me the notebook. I’ll use it for something.’
‘No,’ said Helen. ‘I like the notebook. It’s mine, I’m keeping it.’
‘But what about art? You always wanted to be an artist, remember?’
‘Art needs a space. I don’t have a space.’
‘You could have a space. I’ll clean out the garage. I don’t need all that stuff in there.’
‘The garage is cold.’
‘I’ll put in heating for you, and carpet, even a skylight. But you don’t have to take up a hobby, just because I’m retired. Anyway, you could join a club. You know, a club for older ladies. Jim’s wife joined a club. They have social occasions, like a trip to an open garden, or a matinee at the movies, or a shopping trip. They get discounts. Sometimes they even go away overnight.’
‘I’m not an older lady,’ said Helen.
They stood facing each other. The clock ticked. A dog barked somewhere. The screen door opened and shut itself, opened and shut, slipping in and out of the catch in response to a slight breeze. Click open, click shut, click open, click shut, click click, click click.
‘I could fix that, now that I’m retired,’ said Jeff.
Helen slipped the Grafio notebook and the blue and white pen into her bag and headed down the hall. Jeff followed her to the door.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Just somewhere. Somewhere quiet.’ She opened the door then felt his hand on her arm, restraining her.
‘But you’re coming back,’ he said. ‘When are you coming back?
Helen turned to him. ‘I’m not like Gina, you know.’
Jeff’s phone crowed and he turned to answer it. ‘Yep?’
Helen stepped outside and pulled the door shut. There was still some pink in the sky. A train clickety-clacked around the curve to the local station. An untidy flock of fruit bats flew over. Local birds squabbled over roosting spots in the street trees. A schoolboy went whizzing past on a skateboard, a lit cigarette in his left hand. A brown car rolled slowly along the street, it’s lights off. An argument burst out of the purple share house across the road. The door opened and a girl rushed out. ‘It’s always about you, isn’t it,’ she shouted back through the door. ‘You, you, you.’ A hint of marijuana came wafting from next door where the Vietnam vet lived with his new Thai wife. She was just a girl, really. A girl he had picked up at the airport last week.