Here’s the thing. Fifteen years ago I watched a van go past called Mattresses Galore. For an instant my eyes played tricks on me and I thought I saw Mistresses Galore. What a great idea for a short story I thought. But I couldn’t get past the idea. Who is the person who sees the sign and why? And where is he / she off to? I didn’t have any answers so the idea has been mouldering in my notebook which has been gathering dust in the proverbial bottom drawer. I think I had a hard time because I’m more comfortable with non-fiction.
I thought I might dust the idea off and give it a go for the weekly writing challenge. I reiterate that all I had was the idea, no flesh on them bones, so I think it’s fair enough to send it off into the writing challenge ether. I’m not sure it’s ready, but ready or not, I’ve been working and re-working it all week so I think I’ll brave it and post my 15 year and one week old story. If you like it, let me know, if you don’t then wait until I revise it another thousand times.
Regular as clockwork, Joe Hunter closes the latch of the metal gate. At two sharp each day he leaves his weatherboard home behind and like an old plough horse he treads the same path he’s done for a decade. This past week, though, he’s had company trailing behind him.
Joe ambles down the familiar tree lined streets. He trudges along, eyes ahead mouth constantly moving. Nothing unusual there, most people have an earphone glued to an ear these days and are chatting to an invisible someone far away. Joe talks to Claire, Jean and Sheila who are also invisible someones although they are visible to Joe. They’ve been with him since he woke up a week ago at midnight to see them perched on his bed; actually it was once their bed. They smiled. Claire looks the same as the day they met which is a relief because Joe can’t bear to remember how gaunt she was before she died, and how the only indicator of how much pain she must have been in was the occasional moan.
‘Time to come home, says Jean.’ Joe starts to cross the road and narrowly misses being run down. The honking wakes him from his reverie and he steps hurriedly back. The driver shakes his fist before revving up and speeding away.
‘You were always in a hurry, Jean, come back next week. I’ve got things to do still’
‘It’s all done and dusted, Joe. They’ve retired you, haven’t they? To make room for those young things straight out of Uni. What has an old fart like you got to do or say?’
A medium sized van passes by. It says Mistresses Galore. Joe blinks and shakes his head, it’s Mattresses Galore. He smiles and thinks about how the mind can fool the eyes.
When they met he thought Jean was the strongest personality of the three friends, Claire, Sheila and Jean. Jean was bubbly and loud and did care who knew what she was thinking at any given time of day or night. She was opinionated on all subjects. Whether you wanted advice or not, she was never hesitant about giving it. Jean was the one who’d said, ‘we share everything, Joe, and we’ve decided to share you.’ He’d only known them for a week at the time. They’d shared their lives for three decades, then Jean and Sheila decided to die in a car accident. Soon after that, Claire was diagnosed with cancer. Claire who had turned out to be the strongest of them all, held on for months after the doctor predicted she would go.
Claire and her two friends were three of 70,000 people in Melbourne protesting Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Their idea of celebrating Claire’s 20th birthday was to be part of the first moratorium march.
Claire brandished a ‘Get the Hell out of Vietnam’ poster, her friends were shouting the usual slogans including ‘too young to vote but not too young to go to war.’ Joe has been reliving those times more often since he retired as a high school teacher. It was a miracle to have found them that day, amongst the thousands of people rallying in the streets. A miracle that they’d lasted so long.
Past the St Kilda Botanical gardens, then on to Acland Street. A lot of changes, but Joe doesn’t notice. The only bit of the past left are those cake shops. Sheila loved them. They were exotic bits of art. They’d all share a rum ball or a creamy vanilla slice between them on a Sunday night for dessert. Despite the stares they got from the rubes, they’d settled down and mutated into the establishment. And they were a family Except for the children. Joe couldn’t give them to Sheila.
Joe makes it to a bench overlooking the sea. He shrugs out of his rucksack and leans back watching the tide roll in. The roar of the surf zones out the traffic behind him. A middle sized van slows down an instant then rolls past behind him.
He remembers the love-ins, the sit-ins, the teach-ins and the three having a midnight picnic at the beach, getting stuck into a wine pack and getting hot under the collar about Australian politics. The three of found a two bedroom flat and shifted in, shared a king size bed and had some love-ins of their own.
‘Make love not war’ murmurs Joe. ‘Only nothing’s changed, has it? And then you left, Sheila.’ Joe murmurs sotto voce.
‘Only for a year Joe darling, I wanted a life, but I came back didn’t I?’ She dimpled at him. ‘Monogamy was boring, after us.’ Sheila giggles and Joe closes his eyes against the sun. Sheila should have had children. A tear rolls down his cheek.
The lovers smooching at Joe’s bench move on. It’s not that it bothers them to have a witness to their amorous actions, but they can’t take what seems to them Joe’s one sided conversation when there’s no mobile in his hand or earphone to his ear. Joe is sending his words off into the ether which makes the lovers feel uncomfortable.
Joe doesn’t notice them going. He’s heard that sometimes people who have lost limbs still feel them. He’s tired. The lunchtime thrum of traffic turns into peak hour feral and the noise mounts. A white van slows down then passes by. There are people peering out the back window.
Joe would arrive in hospital every morning in time for breakfast, stay the day and go home and collapse on the bed fully clothed. He washed her down when she could no longer get to the shower on her own. Joe fed Claire her meals. Claire who loved food hardly noticed what she was eating; she just opened her mouth obediently to Joe’s coaxing. When Claire could no longer eat, and her medication was withdrawn one at a time and Joe was forced to watch her slide into a coma.
He unwraps his cheese and tomato sandwich and stares at it for a while then feeds it to the gulls and cuts pieces off a Fuji apple to the crowding birds. It’s a good day for the sea gulls. They jump on the crumbled cupcake shrieking and hawking and fighting each other for the scraps. ‘Peace, not war’, says Joe making a V sign, but nobody’s listening. He takes his library book out of his rucksack and places it on his lap. He watches the gulls polishing off the last of the cupcake, then it’s all silent again except for the water and the occasional squawk. Only a couple of gulls notice. They stayed behind, hopeful for more. Joe rose and clutched his chest then slid to the ground. The gulls fly off.
A van rounds the corner. It says Mistresses Galore. ‘Welcome home Joe’, says Claire. Jean and Sheila wave him in. The middle sized van moves on.