The phone rang as Audrey was rinsing lettuce for the prawn cocktails. The cat purred lovingly round her ankles. Must have smelt the prawns. Can a cat love? Only humans love, surely. She turned down the volume on the radio, wiped her hands and took the receiver off the wall. A low hiss, like the ABC’s off-air test pattern, told her it was not a local call.
Audrey Chapman speaking.
Mum? Mum? I can hardly hear you.
David! she said. Heart thud, delight. What a wonderful surprise.
I—to—ish you—py wedding—ary.
What was that? What did you say? This line isn’t terribly good.
Happy silver wedding anniversary.
Oh, said Audrey, looking up as Len came in from the garden in his socks, examining a scratch or maybe a rose-thorn prick on his thumb, I can’t believe you remembered. She toyed with the phone cord as she steadied her breathing. Are you enjoying London?
Len hovered in the doorway. There was a coin-sized, brown, scabrous spot on his shin, just above his sock, nestled among wiry hairs.
San Francisco, said David.
You’re in San Francisco!
I left London a few weeks ago, Mum. It’s just as cold here, but there’s a different light. It’s beautiful. There was a pause. How’s Dad? Can I speak to him?
The tips of Len’s ears had turned red. Like a guard dog. Standing there, hackles raised.
He’s in the garden, said Audrey. Tidying up. We’re having a dinner party tonight. Ten people—you know, the usuals. Doesn’t San Francisco have trams?
Can you call him in, please, Mum? Not much time left. And yes to trams.
Audrey covered the mouthpiece. Can’t you at least say hello?
I’m not talking to him, said Len.
You still there? asked David.
Audrey took a breath and said, Darling, I’ve called Dad in, but he’s covered in dirt from the garden. He’s waving hello—
The receiver flew from her hand. Len yanked it up by the cord and slammed it back onto the wall. How dare you speak for me? He can rot in San Francisco for all I care.
Audrey watched him, the back of him, his mottled neck, his flaring ears, as he headed to the laundry to scrub his hands in the tub.
Happy anniversary, she whispered.
She turned up the volume on the radio and untangled the phone cord. On the wall alongside was a brass key rack with four sets of keys—the garage, the shed, the back door and her car. Len had bought her the Holden, white with red seats, in 1963 so she could take David to rugby and boxing, and so she didn’t have to catch a bus to the shops. He told her as he handed her the keys that the name of the duco paint was Atherton Ivory. That same year he bought himself a Bel Air Chevrolet. Now he was driving a Volvo.
She tore the lettuce into bite-sized pieces, packed it loosely into a container and placed it in the refrigerator. Starting with her hair appointment that morning, she’d ticked off five of thirty jobs. Sixth was to chop the onions for the French onion soup.
When Len had suggested during an Angus & Coote ad on television that they forgo gifts this anniversary, that the money could be better spent on a new washing machine or dishwasher, Audrey had silently taken their empty coffee cups to the kitchen. Rather not decorate myself with something purchased from a sense of duty anyway. And silver does tarnish.
Seventh: iron the tablecloth. Should have tackled it yesterday. Might swap with onions. Except that I can’t face that vast length of Irish linen damask. Crumpled and stained by morning anyway. Eighth: dust and organise the tray mobile—coffee cups, sugar crystals, teaspoons, after-dinner mints, percolator. Audrey stood in the centre of the kitchen, hands on hips, looking at the key rack. Can’t face any of it.
Blast him. Half an hour. Need to get out of the house. Tell him I’ve changed my mind about dessert. A fancy chocolate Swiss roll instead of soufflé. Need extra cream. After all, it’s such a special occasion. She unhooked the car keys and took a wad of banknotes from the housekeeping jar.
Len was treating his thumb with Mercurochrome and barely looked up when she told him she was just nipping back to the shops before they closed.
Needn’t have worried about an explanation.
Audrey parked outside the grocery store. If nothing else it was a chance to sit in her beloved car. Her private space. No need to tend to anything, attend to anyone, and yet it held a sense of purpose. Her friend Judy said if Len didn’t want her to get a job, she could take up a hobby. A ceramics course at TAFE, or calligraphy classes. Or volunteer at the Sallies. Audrey ran her finger over the dashboard. Hobby-horse hobbies. Sally forth to the Sallies. Moths in my hair. Tea bags for earrings. Chipped china. The smell of old shoes. Len would notice her absence when he got hungry. Pacing the kitchen, waiting for her to make him a sandwich. Does he even know where the cheese is? The mustard? A grown human unable to feed himself. A laugh shot out of her mouth. What if . . . Do I dare? I believe I do. The list of chores can wait.
She looked through the car window, down the line of shops—the newsagent, the post office, the fruit shop, the hairdresser. And back towards the hardware store, the incense hippy shop, the new fish and chip shop with its modern cardboard containers, the Masonic Hall. Across the railway footbridge was the chemist—she’d been stopping by a lot lately on account of Len’s blood pressure and her own sleeping troubles. She recalled Dr Palmer rocking back on his padded chair, gazing at her—the unseen. The tone he used—she remembered him using it when palpating David’s pale young belly for blockages.
Uh-huh. Uh-huh. That’s Jim Dandy. We can help you with that.
Jim Dandy. Does he think he’s John Wayne?
The doctor had a habit of simultaneously pursing his lips and tapping his prescription pad with his gold pen. As though itching to prescribe. Or show off his pen. Or his fat, scented fingers.
Put me to sleep. It’s what we both want.
There was the shoe shop where David’s growing feet had been measured year in, year out for shiny black lace-ups, the drapery and the radio repair shop, the bank and the dry-cleaners. How many hundreds of times had she been into each of these over the past twenty-five years? Once a week to the hairdressers. New clothes, shoes, sticky-tape, magazines, stamps, soap, summer pineapples, light bulbs, stockings, exercise books, pencils and rulers. The endless emptying and replenishing.
She dabbed on some lipstick and patted her hair. Hell. Still wearing house flats. Comfy, though, especially if I’m going to be wandering around for a few hours. Tee-hee, naughtiest girl. I should probably be committed for civil disobedience. I could commit myself to the unmarried mothers’ home. Live out my days with expectant women, not a man in sight.
She opened the car door and stepped onto the footpath. Important to follow through with buying the cream. Meantime, how about a dress-shop browse? The invitations had stipulated smart frock for the ladies, suit and tie for the gents. Wish I had the nerve to break the rule and wear a long skirt. In fact, what about a long skirt with tinkly little bells and stitched-on mirrors from the incense-lotus-land-hippy shop? That would get them talking. A midriff top, jingly earrings and Jesus sandals for good measure. Can just see Ilsa’s eyes widening. And the polite pretence ‘You look lovely’, because God forbid we should say what we think on the North Shore.
She waved through the window at Marian on her knees folding up a hem for an elderly customer in expensive-looking courts. Audrey’s smart dresses and suits had all been purchased at Marian’s. Apart from when bolts of bright, shimmering cloth had returned with Len from his business trips to Singapore—these had been made up at the dressmakers in town. Second thoughts, won’t browse. She knows about tonight. Don’t fancy any questions. Marian was looking at her with a mouthful of pins.
Oh, goody. Ilsa in all her porcelain-skin-gleaming, her coral lipstick and her sweet hello. Hello, Ilsa. Audrey moved aside from the door.
The party is tonight, isn’t it?
As though I should be slaving over a hot stove, or up to my armpits in dust, instead of swanning around the shops. Yes, it is, she said. I’d forgotten something. Not my dress, she added.
Ilsa smiled. Always so sweet.
They stood side by side on the footpath. Marian glanced up at them from time to time. Wants to know if we’re coming in. Ilsa was saying that she and Ron were so looking forward to the evening, that Audrey’s dinner parties were always superb. Dancing would just top it off, she said. You don’t fool me.
Couldn’t be more than an infatuation, Audrey was certain of it. The Christian Ilsa wouldn’t dare. But corridor--whisperings, and absences from into-the-midnight-hour dinner parties. These things gnaw away at you. Fact was, Ilsa was a far cry from being an ‘old dishrag’—a term Len had flung at Audrey in the car on the way home from a party. Ilsa the buxom, the glistening-lipped, the promise. Ilsa the convivial, the shiny one. The one he’d love to have on his arm, love to have in his bed. Or serving him breakfast with a smile so inviting he reaches and pulls her to his lap like a Hollywood waitress. Smacks her a cheek kiss, smacks her curvaceous rump.
Over the years the thought of another life had crossed and re-crossed the threshold of Audrey’s mind. What if she’d stayed in Melbourne? What if she’d kept her job? She didn’t care that Len wasn’t attracted to her anymore. She knew and didn’t care. But when he’d kicked David out, her bones had screamed.
I ordered the most gorgeous frock for tonight, darling Audrey. And—Ilsa drew Audrey to her ample breast—congratulations on your milestone! I can’t wait to toast you two tonight.
I bet. And I can’t wait for your day of reckoning at the gates of our Lord.
Would you like to see it? My dress? Ilsa asked.
Audrey shook her head. Sorry, forgot the cream, among other things, she said.
Just like an alibi. Throw them off the scent. She turned and headed in the direction of the grocery store, a little thrilled.
Audrey found herself adding extra items to her basket. She bought bread and ham, a banana and a chocolate milk. Milk and a banana, she always told David, when he was rushing to uni, a party or a ‘demo’. If you can’t manage a proper meal, always milk and a banana.
What are you demonstrating against? she’d ask.
About the Story
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing a Novel course 2017.
It’s 1972. ‘It’s Time’ is on the airwaves. Gough Whitlam is soon to be prime minister. Women are mobilising, marching. Change is in the air. On Sydney’s North Shore, on the morning of her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Audrey Chapman is in the kitchen preparing for a dinner party. A phone call impels her to drop everything. A trip to the shops turns into a night spent in her car, and another, as she enters a period of homelessness, journeying further afield to a country town that holds significance and secrets.
The Author: Susan McCreery
Susan McCreery is the author of Waiting for the Southerly (Ginninderra, 2012) and Loopholes (Spineless Wonders, 2016). Published and awarded, her writing has benefited from a Varuna Fellowship and an ASA mentorship. She has appeared at the Wollongong Writers Festival and Newcastle Writers Festival. She is a proofreader and an ocean swimmer.
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