Holding On – Part One/1

One/1

‘There are moths all over the wall,’ Helen said. She lay on the sofa looking at them as she talked into the telephone. The moths had arranged themselves on the white plaster like decorative plates. They were so still she could hardly believe they were alive. What were they doing clinging to the wall like that?

‘Perhaps they’re resting,’ she said. The notion of insects resting seemed an odd one. She had an idea that their lifespan was too short for rest. Holding on to the wall must take effort too. ‘I wonder if insects have muscles,’ she said. ‘I don’t think it’s possible to have muscles if you don’t have bones.’

There was a small cardboard box on the table beside her. She picked it up and looked at it as she listened to her friend’s non-committal reply.

‘They must be doing something,’ she said, ‘they must be useful in the wider scheme of things.’ She’d seen enough wildlife documentaries to have learnt that all living creatures, even the most repellent, had some function.

And the moths weren’t repellent. In fact, they were rather beautiful. They’d spread out their wings, revealing a palette of soft velvety browns and greys, with a splash of deep luminous black here and there. Maybe their function was to be pleasing to the eye, to decorate this lonely transit flat. That was a very egoistic view of the world.

‘There are insects everywhere here,’ she said, turning the box over to read the fine print on its side. ‘You have to get used to it.’ And she was beginning to get used to it, the constant static of insect noise, the scurrying, dense, oblivious world of invertebrates, louder here, more vivid than at home.

‘I switched on the computer today and the screen filled up with weird lettering – it looked a bit like ancient Greek.’ She flipped the box back so that the top was facing her once more. ‘I think it’s how they write programmes.’

The box was pale blue with a twine of soft pink running round its edge. A few dark blue flowers had been sketched in on the pale blue background. ‘When I tried to stick a disk in, it wouldn’t fit.’

There was something Helen wanted to ask, but she wasn’t ready yet. ‘When I took the disk out to see what was wrong, a beetle shot out of the slot.’ She shuddered remembering it. It had been unnerving seeing the beetle come scrambling up from inside the computer, as if that streamlined piece of technology had given birth to a strange primeval beast.

Holding On – Part One/2

One/2

Standing in her kitchen several thousand miles away, Sheila listened to Helen. She wondered why her friend had called. Sitting over there on some distant part of the planet, Helen had suddenly taken it into her head to pick up the telephone and dial her number. Presumably it wasn’t just to talk about moths.

Ben, Sheila’s youngest child, was in his high chair beside her. He was supposed to be eating his dinner. Instead, he was clattering a plastic horse around the tray on the front of the chair, crooning as he went. The noise distracted Sheila. She covered her free ear with one hand.

‘How disgusting,’ she said, thinking of the lumbering beetle emerging from the dark labyrinth of Helen’s computer, like a miner coming up from the pit. There was something horrible about a living creature appearing from out of a machine. She imagined going to an ATM and, instead of cash, receiving worms or small mud-coloured frogs in her outstretched palm.

Ben picked up the plastic horse with both hands now, raising it above his head like a priest with a communion chalice. He held it there for a moment and then plunged it straight down into the bowl of mashed vegetable in front of him. ‘Did the computer work after that?’ Sheila asked, turning away as he lifted the toy again.

She looked round the kitchen while she listened to Helen’s reply. There were thick brown cobwebs swinging between the ceiling and the tops of the cupboards. Finger marks, drips and grease spots smeared some of the cupboard doors. Bits of grated carrot, baby cereal and cottage cheese, left over from children’s dinners, had gravitated into the corners near the sink, mixing with the dust already there.

Behind her, Ben let out an excited shriek. Sheila glanced back and saw him smash the pony into his food a second time. Pureed carrot and pumpkin exploded outwards from the impact, splattering the walls around the high chair with dozens of tiny orange flecks. She thought of her mother’s hushed and spotless kitchen. Its cathedral-like tranquillity had seldom seemed farther out of reach.

Helen began to talk about insect noise and the strangeness of the tropical night. Was she ever going to get to the point? Sheila had saved up this bit of the afternoon for herself. She’d looked forward to it as if it were a piece of chocolate cake she’d kept hidden away at the back of the fridge. She’d been going to sort out the washing and sweep the floor. While the children watched afternoon television, she’d hoped to empty the dishwasher and maybe even vacuum. Now though her friend was gulping her precious hoarded minutes down in gluttonous, unsavoured chunks.

But that was how it always was with Helen. All the time they’d known each other, it had been the same. Sheila remembered the maths classes where they’d first become friends. She’d been fourteen years old and full of good intentions. That year she’d meant to work really hard. She hadn’t though; she’d sat up the back of the room with Helen instead, eating drink powder until layers of her tongue had begun to peel off.

Was a shared fondness for lime Kool Aid a good enough foundation for a lifelong friendship? Sheila gazed at the calendar on the fridge door while she considered this question. Someone had circled today’s date, she noticed. She frowned, trying to recall why.

Dinner. Of course. How could she have forgotten? She was supposed to be going out to dinner tonight. And now, thanks to Helen, she wouldn’t have enough time to get ready properly.

Holding On – Part One/3

One/3

Next door, Kate had also just remembered that Sheila was going out. Kate was supposed to be babysitting over there. First though she had to sort out the pictures she’d taken that morning and put them in their ‘de luxe’ presentation folders.

Kate had several part-time jobs. The one she did for Tinkerbell Photographs – going round the local maternity wards, taking pictures of newborn babies – was probably the most lucrative. Because of this, and also because the spare pictures she took provided her with raw material for a project of her own, she didn’t want to risk falling behind with her orders and being sacked.

She scanned the table, looking for a space where she could spread out her work. There were dirty plates, stained mugs, overflowing ashtrays, smeared knives, cereal encrusted bowls, unlidded jars and half-eaten apples littered across its surface. Rudi must have had friends round again. A half-smoked cigarette lay discarded on the bit of polished wood in front of her. Kate picked it up and wiped away the puddle of cold tea into which it had been dropped.

What on earth was her father going to think? He loved this table. He’d spotted it in a junk shop in the country on his way back from some business trip. It had cost almost nothing and he thought it was beautiful. Although he sometimes let her mother put a vase of flowers in the middle of it, he really liked it best when it was left quite bare. He reckoned the timber it was made from could only be admired properly like that.

The width of the leaves was what made the table special apparently – at least that was what he’d told Kate when he’d brought the thing home. According to him, it proved it must have been made no later than the mid-eighteenth century. Trees that large had all been harvested after that.

When he’d explained this to the people in the junk shop, they’d made it clear to him that they couldn’t care less. Kate smiled, imagining him getting going on the subject. Even her eyes had begun to glaze over a bit when he’d started banging on to her about it – how Australian red cedar was one of the few deciduous trees that were native to the country and they used to grow from the Shoalhaven right up to the Atherton tableland until they were almost wiped out by the first colonists who, he said, worked in huge teams, cutting hundreds of 10-metre logs every single month. The shop people had probably thought he was off his head. Apparently, he’d tried to interest them in the details of the table’s workmanship too, but they hadn’t wanted to know about any of that either. He told her they’d just shrugged, completely uninterested by his talk of its antique quality. They hadn’t been even remotely impressed. The table, he finally realised, was merely something they wanted to get rid of – a bulky brown object that took up loads and loads of space.

Rudi appeared to share their indifference. Although he’d pushed the mess away from round where he was sitting, he’d done nothing more than that to clean things up. It didn’t seem to bother him that something wonderful lay hidden – possibly damaged – beneath the muddle he and his mates had left. The skills of the cabinet maker – so admired by Kate’s father –obviously held no appeal for him.

But that didn’t mean he didn’t care at all about fine handiwork. In fact he was busy even now, constructing an intricate little item for himself. On the small area of table that he’d managed to clear in front of him, he was arranging cigarette papers into a delicate patchwork square. Kate watched as he aligned each edge precisely, applying the focused attention of a master craftsman to his task.

Tonight’s outing was supposed to be a special occasion – Sheila had told Kate that when she’d asked her to baby sit. Kate contemplated Rudi’s hunched figure. What else had Sheila said? Something about her husband Adam and the firm where he worked. They’d won a big contract – yes, that was it, they’d won a big contract and Adam wanted Sheila to come out with him to celebrate.

Kate stacked up the cups and plates closest to where she was standing. She carried them to the sink and added them to the pile already waiting beside it. A jumble of saucepans and bowls lay half-submerged in the sink itself. Kate stared down into the grey, fatty water that surrounded them. Would Rudi ever be thoughtful enough to think of taking her out anywhere? Would he ever make enough of a success of anything to warrant a celebration?

She turned back to the table. A sudden longing for her parents swept over her. It was hardly surprising. They’d promised her faithfully that they’d be home by now.

Holding On – Part One/4

One/4

‘You would have hated it,’ Helen said. ‘You couldn’t move without stepping on a corpse.’ She’d begun to describe the place she’d just been reporting from. ‘The smell was unbearable.’

Sheila shifted the telephone from one ear to the other. The house seemed even more untidy than usual today. Adam had recently started researching his family history and this was adding to the clutter.

On top of a pile of his genealogical papers lay a death certificate of some long-gone cousin. Its details were filled out in a firm steady script, each letter’s decorative curve and hook confidently formed.

Sheila wondered if that was copperplate script. It had probably been the way everyone wrote once. Now teachers didn’t even bother to show children how to hold a pencil properly so far as she could tell. Her oldest child clutched his as if it were a spanner he was patiently dragging across each page. No-one at school seemed to think it worth showing him a better way of doing it and he got annoyed if she tried to teach him.

In one of the columns on the unknown relative’s certificate the word ‘spinster’ caught Sheila’s eye. The once vivid Indian ink of the lettering had paled to a rusty faintness, mirroring, Sheila decided, the way spinsters had faded from the world.

Or the idea of them had. Spinsters themselves hadn’t disappeared at all. Helen, for example, fitted the definition of a spinster, but no-one would ever call her that now. She and all the others like her had done that thing that Sheila had read about in the papers, they’d rebranded themselves – and what a good job they’d done too. Now you could call magazines things like Mademoiselle and Ms and still manage to project a glamorous, exciting image, whereas a magazine called Mrs would possess no allure at all.

It was if Helen and the rest of her kind, having shrugged off the spinster’s mantle of dreariness, had decided to wrap it firmly about the shoulders of women like herself who stayed at home with children. Sheila could almost feel the thing – a lace-trimmed pink satin bed jacket she imagined it, tight across the shoulders, a little grubby at the hem and cuffs. She was slightly surprised, looking down, to find she was wearing nothing of the kind.

Holding On – Part One/5

One/5

Rudi took some dried green leaves from a sandwich bag and crumbled them onto the now completed paper patchwork. He pulled a wad of tobacco from a leather pouch and added it to the leaf fragments. With his fingers he teased out the tobacco strands thoroughly, pushing them around, making sure everything was evenly distributed.

He sat back to study the mixture for a moment. Then he picked the whole thing up. Deftly, he rolled it into a loose kind of cylinder, which he lifted carefully to his lips. From between them, like a lizard darting from a crevice, his tongue flickered out, sweeping along the papers’ long gummed edge.

Using his index finger, Rudi pressed the newly moistened strip into place, smoothing down its full length. Having ensured it was completely sealed, he twisted one end with a practised flick and put the now tightly packed cylinder on the table in front of him.

He picked up his packet of cigarette papers next and ripped a piece of cardboard from its flap. He curled the cardboard into a tube, which he inserted into the untwisted end of the cylinder. He placed this in his mouth and struck a match. Holding the flame to the twisted end of the thing, he inhaled, dragging smoke deep into his lungs. The heavy scent of marijhuana drifted through the room.

Kate moved back to the table and began spreading out her pictures on the little section she’d freed up for herself. Perhaps she should have another go at talking to her father, she thought. After all, he and her mother had only planned to be away a fortnight originally. That had been months ago, and she was getting sick of waiting.

Holding On – Part One/6

One/6

‘I managed to get an interview with the chief,’ Helen told Sheila. ‘He was magnificent.’ ‘Poor thing,’ Sheila thought. She had not yet encountered a man who could escape if Helen decided she wanted him. It was something she did with her eyes, Adam said. He maintained that she couldn’t help it. He said collecting men was Helen’s hobby.

Adam had come up with this theory while watching a documentary on prize chrysanthemum growers. ‘Helen’s just like them,’ he’d said, gesturing at the fat middle-aged men on the screen. ‘They don’t care about the flowers or the trophy; it’s just getting it that matters.’

Sheila thought he might be right. She remembered how irritated Helen had become when she’d misheard something Helen had told her about some holiday plans. ‘I’m not going with my mother,’ Helen had exclaimed, almost shouting, ‘I’m going with my lover.’ She had enunciated the ‘l’ and ‘o’ of lover so roundly that the word had come out sounding faintly obscene. The vicar, Sheila had noticed on the one occasion she’d visited the local church, had the same problem when he talked about the body of Christ, endowing the vowel in the word ‘body’ with a rich sinful fleshiness that resonated uncomfortably around the sparsely filled pews.

‘She’s like one of those people who go fishing for marlin,’ Adam had gone on, switching metaphors as he went. ‘The excitement’s in the catch for them. They don’t want to eat it; they just want to hook it and haul it in. When they have, and when they’ve weighed it and looked at it choking on the deck for a bit, they chuck it back, and that’s just what Helen does with men.’

Adam had been cutting his toenails while he talked. He wore a crumpled pair of trousers and an old torn shirt. His hair stood up on the back of his head and because it was the weekend he hadn’t bothered to shave. He’d always claimed he was immune to the thing Helen did with her eyes.

Sheila looked at him as he drained his glass and wondered whether chucking it back wasn’t the most sensible thing to do with a marlin. She’d never seen a recipe for it and found it difficult to imagine how you could get through even a small one, particularly if you had children who weren’t fond of fish.

‘They gave us a tribal welcome,’ Helen said. ‘You would have loved it.’ What had made Helen pick out this as the thing she’d have loved? Did Helen not take her seriously? She might have loved all the other things Helen had talked about – or at least not loved, she decided, remembering Helen’s reference to dead bodies, machete wounds and smell, but she might have been fascinated by them all.

She racked her brains, trying to remember where this thing, (whatever it was, a civil war, she seemed to remember, with a resulting refugee crisis, she was pretty sure that was it), was happening. If she could only remember the names of the tribes involved it would help.

‘Which side do you think is in the right?’ she heard herself asking finally. Even as she spoke she could tell how hopelessly naïve this sounded. The issues were bound to be far more complex than a childlike question of goodies and baddies. She braced herself for Helen’s patient scorn.

Instead, she heard her friend asking something about tests. ‘You know those tests,’ Helen was saying, but then a burst of static blotted out her voice. Sheila didn’t know if this had been the start of some kind of elliptic reply or whether Helen simply hadn’t heard her question and was continuing with her own train of thought.

She pressed the receiver harder to her ear. Could Helen have hung up in disgust at her stupidity? The connection had definitely been broken somehow. Now only the fizz of the airwaves sounded in her ear.

Holding On – Part One/7

One/7

Kate stared down at the photographs. As usual, she felt disappointed. Through the viewfinder the babies seemed so fresh and alive, but their vitality never came out in the pictures she took. Instead, they gazed up at her, row upon row of them, their faces as blank as sea-smoothed pebbles on a shingle beach.

It was as if some mysterious chemical reaction had drained away their energy, leaving nothing but the not-quite-rightness of waxworks. Once, at a friend’s place, she’d met someone who took passport photographs. He’d told her he had exactly the same problem with the stuff he did. He’d said there was no point worrying about it.

He’d been right, of course. She began to pick out the pictures she was going to use, sliding each one into its own ‘deluxe presentation folder’. It was stupid to even think about it. After all, none of the babies’ parents ever seemed to mind.

She had a lot to get through today in any case – and she needed to be vigilant if she was going to avoid mistakes. She’d been worried yesterday when someone had complained about a folder with a strip torn off one side – Rudi must have used it without thinking – and last week there’d been the family whose baby picture had featured a large ring from a coffee mug cutting right across their child’s face.

Kate had managed to sort out these glitches without anyone from the Tinkerbell head office hearing about them, but she was afraid she might not be so lucky next time. Given the number of extra prints she’d been making lately to get material for her own purposes, she couldn’t afford to attract any unnecessary attention.

The smell in the room was intensifying. It distracted Kate from what she was supposed to be doing. She looked across at Rudi, who was heaving in another gulp of smoke. His eyes were closed and the fingers of his left hand gripped the joint tightly. Watching more smoke unravelling from its glowing tip, Kate tried to ignore the increasing uneasiness it brought with it.

It had been the unexpected fear the drug had awoken in her that had made her stop using it in the end. With hindsight it was easy to see that she should have given up much sooner. She’d wasted far too many evenings worrying that she might forget to breathe, while trying to ignore the suspicion that the people she was sharing a joint with were emissaries of Satan who could read her mind and knew that she knew who they were.

Not that it had always been like that. When she and Rudi had first been together , she’d actually enjoyed smoking. She’d liked the way the drug relaxed her. She’d liked the cloudy soft-cornered view of the world it created. She’d liked the impression it gave that something had been slipped between her and reality, some invisible substance that cushioned her somehow.

She’d never thought till then that she was going to need that kind of thing, but just about that time she’d started feeling quite unlike herself. A terrible sense of emptiness had suddenly grabbed hold of her – it was as if a void had opened at the centre of her life. It had come up on her so fast, that frightening awareness – for a while she’d thought she might be losing her mind. And the drug had really helped her during that strange period – it had let her almost forget how bad things had become.

Yes, smoking had been a comfort, if she were absolutely truthful– and at the start Rudi had been too. She hated to admit it, but she’d been looking for a kind of guru and for a while she’d imagined that he would fit the bill.

Of course, he’d only been in the country a week or two when they met for the first time. Maybe that had made a difference to the impression he’d made. He’d been full of excitement and uncharacteristically energetic. Perhaps that had given him a false allure.

He’d just finished his national service, Kate found out later. He’d been discharged one morning and caught a plane the next day. He’d had to get away, he said, he’d had to escape the straitjacketed conformity of his own little homeland, its narrow minded love of regulations, its rigid obsession with control.

‘Did you use soap powder today?’ Rudi’s words came out jerkily, cutting through Kate’s thoughts in little staccato bursts. His face was contorted from the effort of speaking while trying to hold in the smoke he’d recently inhaled. Stacking up the folders, each embossed with ‘Your Baby’ in raised gold letters, Kate pretended she hadn’t heard. Rudi had found a recipe for organic home-made detergent somewhere and had brewed up jars of the stuff. Noticing them on the windowsill when she’d come over to see if Kate could baby sit, Sheila had asked if Rudi had begun recycling his own snot.

‘I don’t think you care about the environment at all,’ he announced suddenly, letting out his breath in a wheezing rush. ‘You know what damage the surfactants alone do.’ He balanced the joint on the edge of a saucer and picked up a mug of tea, which he drank from noisily. He put the mug down and looked directly at Kate. ‘You will destroy everything,’ he said, scowling at her. Then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and picked up the joint again. He put it to his lips and drew in another deep lungful of smoke.

That was a bit unfair, Kate thought, especially considering all the trouble she’d taken growing her vegetables. Rudi had wanted them to be completely chemical-free, so she’d knelt out in the garden every evening, cleaning the pests off each plant by hand, painstakingly, leaf by leaf, never using snail pellets or derris dust, let alone anything stronger. And after all that Rudi had taken most of them and put them into the vegetable drier he’d insisted on buying. He’d laid them out reverentially, as if he were performing some kind of religious service.

Kate spotted the thing amongst the clutter on the table. She dragged it towards her and peered inside, trying to make out the snow peas and tomatoes she’d nurtured with such care. It was difficult to get a clear view of anything within the circular container. Although it was made of perspex and had been transparent originally, a coating of mould covered most of the inner surface now, making it impossible to see through to the shelves where the vegetables had been arranged.

The preserving powder must have been the problem, she thought. According to the booklet that had come with the drier, you were supposed to sprinkle everything with it, but Rudi had been convinced that that was completely unnecessary. He’d said it was just more evidence of the big multinational conglomerates trying to rip people off. ‘It’s the same with shampoo,’ he’d explained, ‘they always tell you to wash and repeat on the bottle, but repeating is just a way to get you to use more.’

Kate swept the photographs she wasn’t using into a plastic bag. She looked over at Rudi, who appeared to be having trouble with the final part of the joint. She wondered if he was staying in this evening and, if he wasn’t, whether he’d be coming back before morning. More and more lately he seemed to end up at friends’ places, crashing out on the floor or a sofa, too stoned to make it home.

He pulled a pair of tweezers from his tobacco pouch now and began manoeuvring them onto the stained and soggy butt. ‘I’m babysitting at Sheila’s tonight,’ Kate told him. He was concentrating too hard on what he was doing to look at her, but his lips twitched in what she took to be a smile.

Having secured the bedraggled object between the tweezers’ metal prongs, he lifted the thing towards him with tremendous care. Then, still clutching the tweezers, he inserted the damp, tobacco smeared scrap of paper into his waiting mouth. At last, he closed his eyes and took a long, deep drag.

He gave Kate a tiny wave with his free hand while he did so, a mere flap of the fingers really, as if he were dismissing her from a regal audience. The soap powder issue seemed to have slipped from his thoughts already – or perhaps he’d simply absolved her, magnanimously, on this one special occasion.

Kate turned away. She felt she had to. There was something so avid and intense about the way Rudi was sucking at that thing. She felt like a voyeur intruding on some intimate and very private act.