One of Maggie’s Shadows pollutes our tiny kitchen in stained t-shirt, paisley vest and Levis. His gargantuan ancestors were discovering the vertical stride when those Levis were built. The threads opaque in some interesting places, reinforcing the old adage that good things come in small packages.
Not an attractive sight when you’re psyching yourself up for the working day. It disrupts my morning routine and my appetite. Mostly it’s coffee and quiet. I have the coffee and Maggie remains quiet, the result of a severe hangover. I haven’t seen her since the night of the dinner party.
Maggie is making the most of our generation’s ethos: ‘make love not war.’ She’s already serviced a battalion (or more likely they have serviced her.)
She has been busy with Shadow who belches and masticates in a manner unparalleled since Henry the Eight was a lad. Maggie cooks them all a morning after breakfast, wearing my gingham apron. This is the only time she has any use of kitchen accessories and the only food she’s able to prepare.
I call it the ritual before the education. The amount and quality of the food is directly in proportion to each Shadow’s performance. Today’s Shadow shovels quantities of bacon, eggs and tomato that would perk up a third world economy. A hearty last meal for a four star performance.
She doesn’t bother with introductions; the Shadows are such a transitory part of her life, it would be too confusing to keep up with the names. There is a standing order at the Neanderthal shop requesting the maximum in bodies and the minimum in brains. They’re all interchangeable, barring slight variations.
This Shadow has a tattoo down his right forearm, graphically proclaiming his intellectual proclivities: Screw Song. Give me Wine and Women. He is but a fleeting reminder to Maggie how good she finds single life.
They come to the flat, bewildered and angry at the role reversal. One night stands are Man’s domain. They just don’t get the point, until I’m forced to put them out of their misery. Maggie has an agenda that doesn’t include Shadows, I explain.
Maggie has mapped out a life for herself. A journalism degree, then a long and exciting career where men will only figure in the equation as the competition. Lucky Maggie to know what she wants to do when she grows up. We are taking the same course, but all I see when I look ahead are hazy outlines of my home maker mother. She loves it, and is good at it but it’s a frightening prospect for me. Our generation is supposed to do it better.
Maggie and her mate lurched through the flat last night like drunken sailors at the tail end of a pub-crawl. Their undignified scramble for the bedroom left considerable dents in our much abused second hand furniture.
Maggie’s raucous laughter alternated with the screech of castors and the thump, thump of the mattress groaning under the strain of double duty.
The generated heat permeated through my bedroom walls, leaving me in a sweat I lay in solitary splendour under a sheet, thinking about Arthur and the dinner party. It had been a mistake. Arthur doesn’t like structure, he didn’t take to Maggie and he doesn’t care for commitment. I woke this morning, arms and legs outspread like a sacrificial offering on top of the blanket, wondering if I was the only eighteen year old virgin this side of the southern hemisphere.
According to the gospel of Art, I was He’s notched up hundreds of Debs since he reached puberty. Debs are what he calls his victims. I suspect that’s what his first post-pubescent casualty was called.
It seems that everyone is getting laid but me. It’s not my physical appearance that’s the problem, more my arrested upbringing. I tend to intellectualise, rationalise and agonise before acting, which tends to stifle spontaneity and keeps me home on Saturday nights. Or did, until I met Arthur Grantham who defies logic and has worn away most of my defences. Art says I’m ready. I tell him that my mother brought me up to wait for the right one. He thinks that’s hilarious.
‘Who’s a pretty boy, then?’ Maggie asks the world at large, stroking a forefinger down Shadow’s tattoo. There are guttural sounds of acknowledgement from Shadow, which Maggie translates as a request for more toast.
It’s lucky that I’m not a breakfast person or I would have given it all up. I get on with my coffee which is all I can cope with after last night, and in the face of all that belching.
Beth and I went to Frank Trainer’s for poetry readings last night. Beth is hot for the soulful types who inhabit the place. We both work at McGill’s bookshop. It’s been my summer job since high school. Now it keeps me in text books and rent.
Poetic types leave me cold. The lilies maunder on about metaphors and alliteration. They wouldn’t recognise a metaphor if it did a Can Can outside Myer’s windows at Christmas time.
I’ve got a Saturday job at the Post Office’ says Maggie, wiping jam toast from her chin with a sleeve. ‘I’m fed up with waitressing. It’s safer behind the counter.
Safer for the male population. ‘Great, maybe now you can give away your own bacon and eggs.’
Shadow has finally had sufficient. He ambles over to Maggie and wraps the equivalent of two large porkers around her, and to take the metaphor further, clasps his hams firmly on her backside. His testing the way to a man’s stomach theory.
‘Ginger’s having a tonight, why don’t you come?’ Maggie disentangles herself and speaks over Shadow’s shoulder, patting him kindly at the same time. ‘Great grog, grass and men, not necessarily in that order.’ She says.
Can I ask Art to come along? ‘
‘That rather defeats the purpose Anne girl. I’d like you to meet someone whose conversation is obsessed with things below his navel.’
I’m aware of Art’s faults, but they’re mine to criticise. I resent anyone else pointing them out to me.
‘Playing cupid isn’t your thing, Maggie. Stick to your Neanderthals.’
The junior salesgirls have lunch when the senior staff return at two o’clock.
Dealing with the wowsers, the browsers and the blue rinse brigade is the bonded serving girl’s privilege.
The city workers flock in during their lunch break like alcoholics on the o’clock swill. They want it now, they want it yesterday, the want it, even when they don’t know what it is the bloody well want.
Cal me Ethel dear,’ said Ethel the octogenarian. Ethel dear wants a book.
‘Does Madam know the name of the book?’ Mr Martin, the manager, doesn’t allow us to be familiar with the customers.
No, madam didn’t. ‘It’s by that writer…’ The grey eyes squint in deep thought, adding a baker’s dozen of wrinkles to the collection. ‘You know dear, they made a film of it with that good looking Clark Gable.’
‘Madam may mean Margaret Mitchel’s ‘Gone with the Wind.’ A joyful Ethel Dear crows and clutches her find to a meagre3 bosom.
My friend Beth, McGill’s other indentured slave battles with hordes as I usher Ethel the aged to the counter.
Add to this mayhem a soupcon of trouble called Arthur Grantham and it’s a recipe for disaster.
His black cable jumper is a handknit, probably crafted by one of the Debs. I picture myself knitting a scarf to match. When I learn to knit. My mother tried her best to instil in me all the womanly virtues. Tried is the operative word.
That’s Him.’ I whisper to a dishevelled Beth who bags a Penguin for an Executive type.
She senses the capitals and looks up. He’s spotted me and heads in our direction.
The leathers, the helmet, the pale complexion, all serve as a barrier. Suits part automatically on either side of him like sparrows before a peacock.
‘Mmn,’ says Beth. Leave him to me in your will.’
Only if I die next week. Art’s not long on commitment.’
She eyes me curiously. ‘Then why bother?’
Because I’m a masochist.’ Art doesn’t’ fit into my girlish notions of romance. I’d always thought that love was a matter of choosing. I hadn’t understood that it could choose you.
I try to straighten my hair, my blouse, my skirt, at the same time.
Beth has what Mills and Boon would describe as raven hair, jade green eyes and an unfair advantage. Like Maggie, she has prepared blueprints for her life. Why is everyone but me in control of their destiny?
‘Art?’ An inauspicious beginning. Not the scintillating opening I had practiced at four this morning. I want to get laid Art. I’m ready to join the grown up world.’
My palms are sweating, my mouth is dry. I lean against the Crime Fiction to keep myself vertical. ‘Slumming?’
‘Come to take you to lunch.’ His face is an inch away from mine. I can smell a mixture of Brut and incense.
‘Can’t,’ I say, trying not to hyperventilate. ‘Not till two o’clock.’ Hell, I thought, I don’t want to be is teacher. I had an apprenticeship in mind.
I introduce him to Berth, and he produces his ‘I’m bookmarking you for further reference’ smile. His mouth curves upwards under a fleshy nose and does something drastic to my insides. Even though I know he’s sizing her up as the next Deb, my heart does a two-step in double-time,
‘You can cover for Annie, can’t you? Only I’ve brought chicken and champagne.’
‘I thought we’d go to the beach and celebrate my new job.’ Beth nods her assent and turns to serve a Twin-Set who has bought a Jaqueline Susanne novel.
I point to Mr Martin who had just come back from his two-hour lunch. That’s the manager. He’s the one to ask, not Beth, and I’m not going to ask him for an extended lunch or he’ll give me a permanent leave of absence.’ Arthur turns his charms on Mr Martin.
We lie spoon fashion on Art’s red and green tartan rug; an island surrounded by debris; the protective shadow of a bluestone wall and the uneven rhythm of the pounding waves.
The conversation is desultory, the weather indifferent. Art and his jacket protect me from a brisk wind. After playing peek-a-boo behind the clouds all afternoon, the pallid spring sunshine calls it a day.
Art and the champagne are a heady mixture. The affect me like one of Maggie’s tokes and the combination is equally addictive.
I’ve stayed too long at the fair. But I can’t summon the energy necessary to worry about facing Mr. Martin. As Ethel the Octogenarian and Art would have put it. ‘Tomorrow is another day.’
The two: Art and Mr Martin played the two men together game. The mere woman stood deferentially by, unacknowledged and superfluous. Art called him sir, managing to look up at the diminutive Mr Marin from a six foot altitude.
‘I’m Annie’s brother, sir. Just passing through.’ He brushed stands of hair form his face and smiled. I thought I’d catch her up on family news before I went back home. His baby blues widened. His head cocked to one side, waiting respectfully for the pronouncement from on high.
‘Don’t worry about the clock watcher; I fixed it, didn’t I?’ The muffled words bury themselves in my neck. I remember the fate of the previous Debs and nod.
He discusses his new job in between bites. A residency at Lena’s in Carlton. Art fancies himself a singer songwriter. I know the place. It’s a hangout for Melbourne Uni students. Every table sports the obligatory Chianti bottle and wax candles. The Greasy Spoon’s alternative to ambience. The food is mediocre and the waiters are students.
That’s who I want to offer my lyrics to’ he answers, deftly unhooking my bra. I hardly feel the breeze. “It’s too late for the Clock-Watchers and the Suits. The establishment is dead: long live the new order .And they’d better get out of our way’ he adds, paraphrasing Dylan. Arthur positions himself strategically.
Scavengers cautiously make off with our chicken bones, while Art confidently makes off with my virginity. The gritty texture of the blue stone wall belonging to South Pacific sandpapers my skin.
Eight year old Annie is at the beach on the school holidays. She plungers into the water, crawling through a hole under the wire netting hidden from sight below the water line to get to the more prestigious South Pacific. It’s the same as the rest of the beach only walled off, so human nature being what it is makes it exclusive. A shilling is a whole week’s pocket money to 8 year old Annie.
She’s disappointed that the much touted private beach is as dirty and ordinary as the rest of the seashore. She crawls back through the hole in the wall, tugging at the bathers that constantly ride up and staring curiously at the ludicrous acrobatics of the couple only a few feet and a decade away.
The blood pounding in my head murmurs cryptic messages. I’m one of Maggie’s Neanderthals; just another Deb being casually taken on a sandy seashore.
They won’t respect you in the morning, cries my mother.
The gulls, the coloured yachts heading for harbour in the twilight and eight year old Annie are impassive witnesses as I wrap my arms and legs around Art for warmth.
‘I’m starving’, where have you been?’
‘Fine thanks, Maggie.’ If she’s learned to cook the secret will be buried with Maggie who plans to hire a personal chef when she’s rich. Money means power she says, citing her mother as a prime example of powerelessnes.
‘Daddy earns the money and mum dances to his tune. And a merry jig it is’ she adds sardonically. ‘No one is going to have that sort of power over me.’
The eternal textbooks, notes and ashes litter the table. I grab the overflowing ashtray and head for the kitchen.
‘You smell like a pub at closing time,’ she persists following me. ‘What have you been up to Annie Girl?’
I handed her the emptied ashtray and head for the bathroom. ‘Chicken and Champagne with Art.’ I lock the bathroom door. The cross examination can wait.
Hot water scours my body, but my mind is in a turmoil. I lather up my washrag and scrub parts that Art’s hands had so recently explored. The spreading hot pink flush isn’t only from the water.
He’d dropped me off at the flat, and as I wondered what the etiquette was after a screw. What did you talk about, did you discuss it? Should I have said it was wonderful – it wasn’t. The anticipation is agony, the act is meaningless. My agonising was for nothing.
Later,’ he called and roared down the street like arsonist fleeing the scene of his disaster.
The interrogation continued as I cooked dinner.