Shortlisted for Field of Words Short Story Competition 2016
When I am in the early stages of courting a woman and it comes time to relate the history of my life, I try to avoid telling the story of Marianne. When the question arises – as it almost invariably does – of how I discovered my sexuality, I tell the rather more palatable tale of Angela, the young woman I can properly call my first sweetheart, with whom I carried on a year-long affair as a recent graduate of high school, as a late-teenager. That latter tale is full of the prosaic tropes of youthful passion and temporary heartbreak and its predictability stops most women from asking the more difficult questions.
Elizabeth was no ordinary woman. Younger than I by some five years, she had had a sad early life and was filled with the need to remake the world. She was shorter than I, as most women are, but not so short as Marianne. When I first met Marianne at the age of thirteen she was scarcely as tall as I was, and she a grown woman.
But I am supposed to be telling you about Elizabeth.
When I first met Elizabeth, she was volunteering with the YWCA and working part time at the State Library. I went to the library often, to fill the long afternoons of my solitude, and one morning she spotted me browsing the periodicals. As she approached I expected her to call me ‘Sir’ as many people do on the first encounter, but instead with a quick smile she asked, ‘Can I help you with something, Ma’am?’ The knowing look in her eye marked her out at once. I took her to dine that night at a hotel and we sat in the public bar, defying the men’s stares.
She told me of volunteering at the migrant centre and of life during the war. She had married early, and been widowed at twenty-one. He had been a violent man. It had been a relief when he had decided to enlist, and almost another one when the news had come. She said that before he went away, she had been under his control. With her steely gaze and quiet determination, I found this hard to imagine.
Had I ever been married, Elizabeth asked.
I had not.
I had, of course, had a childhood sweetheart. But that was such a very long time ago.
‘What was his name?’
She smiled as she waited for my response so I braced myself for a moment of honesty.
‘Angela,’ I lied.
Elizabeth’s mother and father took an instant liking to her new ‘friend’. She was saddened to learn that my parents had died without seeing me grow into a woman, but I gave her to understand that this may in fact have spared them some grief, given the kind of woman I have turned out to be. I was living in a bachelor apartment in the inner northern suburbs and Elizabeth came often to visit in the evenings.
One night we returned to my apartment after attending the cinema to see the latest Hitchcock film. On our arrival home, Elizabeth went to lie down and I set about fixing our supper when a noise down below made me suspect we had company and when I opened the door and descended the stairs my suspicions were confirmed. I turned on the downstairs light to see that an unspeakable word had been smeared over my windscreen in a sticky substance and I hastened to rub it off before Elizabeth emerged and saw it. When I returned inside, I saw that in attending to the mess, I had made a disaster of our supper. I tried to feed the charred remains to the dog but even he wouldn’t touch it.
Elizabeth wanted to know what had happened so I tried to distract her by telling the story of how I met Angela, soon after I completed my studies as a boarder at a ladies’ college, but Elizabeth was diverted by the idea of a woman such as me attending a college for young ladies.
What a time I must have had, she said.
Nothing like that, I assured her. Although I knew by then that my allegiances lay with the ladies, my relations with my fellow students were never anything but collegiate.
‘You knew by then?’ She snapped to attention as a certain type of woman always does, alert to the nuances of a conversation. ‘So Angela wasn’t the first?’
Regretting my clumsiness, I allowed that there had been someone else before Angela, someone I had met when I was just thirteen years old, right after the accident, and with whom I still maintained a correspondence.
She fell temporarily silent at the reference to my parents’ death, but then persevered.
‘So you grew up with this girl.’ It wasn’t properly a question and I felt justified in not answering. ‘But she wasn’t at the college with you?’ This was a question and I answered honestly that no, she wasn’t.
I explained that after my parents’ death I had discovered myself to be the heiress to a small fortune, albeit one I could not access until I came of legal age. The question of what to do with me until then fell to my uncle, who dealt with it expediently, enrolling me in the college, sending me a monthly allowance and bringing me up to his family home for the holidays. Just before I left for college, I had met Marianne when she was singing one night at the hotel in the seaside town where I grew up (a town that no longer exists, having long since been swallowed up by the expanding outer suburbs). After a year it was decided by mutual agreement that it would be preferable for all concerned if I spent my holidays with Marianne and for two blissful years that was what I did.
‘That was good of her parents,’ Elizabeth murmured and I said something noncommittal. She didn’t ask any more questions so I allowed my memories to unfold in silence. The long walks along the beach (though we never swam in the ocean) and the evenings seated on the stools outside the hotel, before her husband had to relocate for work, and they moved away. One night soon after we met, in the company of her younger brother Steve, a painter, we went to the little carnival that took place on the foreshore every summer. Steve proposed a ride on the Ferris wheel and Marianne laughed at the idea, saying she was too old for such frivolity, but Steve bounded up to the ticket booth and returned with tickets for us all. We climbed into the metal cage together and glided upwards until we had a clear view of the sun sinking into the ocean and Marianne exclaimed at the quality of the light.
At that time, my face and body had not yet taken on the androgynous look they did in later years and Marianne treated me merely as an innocent girl whom she was happy to take under her wing. With her compliments and gentle attention, she thought she was preparing me for life as a distinguished young lady.
In reality she had set me on an entirely different course.
As the Ferris wheel rotated and Marianne talked in her intimate way (which made the rest of the world irrelevant), I sat close to her and breathed in her scent of suede and little dogs and expensive perfume. After the Ferris wheel, we went for a drink at the hotel and Steve did a hasty sketch of Marianne and me.
I have it still.
Marianne talked of problems with her husband and I listened sympathetically, trying to say the right things, though in truth I felt out of my depth.
‘I wish I was twenty years older,’ I said to her once. Was it that same night, or another?
‘Don’t be crazy,’ she said. ‘Why would you want to miss out on all those years?’
‘These aren’t too bad,’ Elizabeth said, indicating the toasted sandwiches I had cobbled together in place of the ruined meal and I continued with the tale I had started to tell her about Angela. When she left for the evening, I was confidant it was that story that she remembered.
As the flow of displaced persons from Europe slowed, Elizabeth shifted her attention to alleviating the sorrows of prisoners. There was a plan to bring an evening education program to the men at Pentridge. She was keen to be involved.
‘Life is hard on the inside,’ she said.
I said I supposed that was the intention.
‘In A division they work eight hours of the day -’
‘That’s standard -’
‘And the other 16 hours they have nothing to do but sit around and think about all the mistakes they’ve made.’
I said it sounded a lot like life on the outside.
As usual, she laughed off my cynicism and told me that there had never been an education program in the prison. It was hoped it would change the attitude and help the men to become literate and take an interest in the arts. By the end of the month she had signed up to teach literacy and music appreciation and over the following months the program, which became known as ‘revolutionary’, flourished. The prison yard, so they were saying, now buzzed with talk of Shakespeare. I was proud to be associated with such a competent and compassionate woman. By the time we had known each other for three years and she had taken a part time job as a school teacher (and I had held many a discussion with her parents about Mr Menzies and the aftermath of the war), it was decided that it would not be too disrespectable for her to move in with me.
The week she did, I received a long letter from Marianne, whose daughter was about to finish school. She was full of hope but also fear for the girl, who would be embarking on life in a world so different from the one in which Marianne had grown up. She wrote of her musical career and asked how life in the city was going and whether I was any closer to finding myself a husband and I was filled once again with the sense I have often had that I am trailing far behind her. I became lost in a memory of a day so many years ago now (ancient history for her and pre-history for me), during one of the periods I stayed with her. It had been her birthday and I had accumulated a small suitcase of gifts over the term, using up the pocket money my uncle sent to me at school and carefully wrapping and packing the books and records. I was young enough that it did not occur to me to conceal the extent of my affections.
I produced the suitcase and presented the gifts to her one by one as she grew ever more flustered and then turned and hugged me while her husband watched from across the room with a strange expression. Later, he went to a business dinner and we went out for the evening. We ate at the hotel, where an earnest young poet struck up a conversation and was welcomed into our fold with the generous warmth with which Marianne always received younger people. We lingered there after supper and a jazz band started up. Marianne drank several whiskey and sodas and was leaning out the window, admiring the scene in the street below, the music thrumming and her body moving to it. I stood behind her with the eager young man by my side. Had he not been there, I might just have stepped up and slipped my arms around her waist, but I hovered beside him and Marianne soon declared that it was time for her to return home to her husband.
Elizabeth transformed my apartment. Within days of moving in, she disposed of my sticks of furniture, exclaiming about how someone of my means could live so poorly, and decorated the place so that it shimmered with the touch of a woman of taste. We fell into a routine, she working at the school and visiting the prison and I cooking the meals, walking the dog and signing the cheques. After a time, we moved into a larger apartment. We spent our evenings entertaining friends, many of whom had young children and were happy to have the acquaintance of two unencumbered ladies.
It wasn’t until Elizabeth and I had been living together for many years that she asked to see a photograph of Marianne. I pretended to have difficulty locating one and late that night showed her a shot that had been taken the previous year of Marianne standing next to her daughter.
‘She’s an old woman.’
She turned to look at me wonderingly so I was forced to tell her – not too defensively I hope – that I had stayed with Marianne and her husband during the holidays for two years when I was at school, that she had been most kind to me in the aftermath of my parents’ death, and that Elizabeth had misunderstood. I added, making of it an afterthought, that Marianne was happily married and had raised a talented daughter, who was now an accomplished concert pianist.
‘How nice for her,’ she said after a pause and switched off the light.
I did not sleep for a long time.
When I did, I dreamed that Marianne and I were running down the beach and into the ocean in that little seaside town that no longer exists.
Winner of Charles Darwin University Travel Short Story Award 2016
‘So you want to visit Pakistan?’
The two men are looking at me across a desk with expressions of polite interest. I am lucky to have got to the embassy while it’s still open, the rickshaw driver taking an aimless route through the city with a blank expression, before pulling up outside and pointing to the sign. In the waiting room a German guy spoke to me. I admitted that I decided on the detour only yesterday and he said drily, ‘You’ll have to wear a scarf.’
‘Yes, I want to visit Pakistan,’ I say. ‘I have heard it is a beautiful country.’
‘You have no husband, no boyfriend?’
I have Sharn, who will be waiting for me in Beijing in July, but I do not try to explain this. ‘I have been travelling with a friend,’ I say instead. ‘She wants to stay longer in India. I want to go to Pakistan. We will meet up in China next month.’
‘Ah, you have made a good decision. Everyone goes to India. You have spent three months there already and you spend only few weeks in Pakistan! Well, better than nothing. What work do you do in Australia?’
‘I’m a teacher.’
‘And what religion you are?’
‘No religion,’ I say.
The two men look at each other and then at me.
‘Are you Christian? Most people in Australia Christian I think.’
‘No, I’m not Christian.’
‘Then you are Jewish?’
‘No, I’m not anything. I’m not religious.’
‘But you believe in God?’
The two men burst into peals of riotous laughter. One of them slaps his thigh and gasps for breath. He says to me, as to someone failing to perceive an obvious truth, ‘But you believe in Adam and Eva? The first man and woman.’
It’s too late to change my tack so I just say, ‘No.’
The man takes a deep breath and then says, as if to a very dim child, ‘Who created you?’
‘Who are you responsible to for your good and bad deeds?’
I hesitate and say, ‘To myself.’
‘But who will judge you, at the end of your life?’
The men are looking at me with trepidation. The first man asks, looking thoughtful, ‘Are there other people like you?’
Most of the modern world, I think, but say only, ‘Yes, there are a lot of others.’
‘And is there a name for someone like you?’
I tell him, self-consciously, and he asks me to write it down. On a scrap of paper I print neatly ATHEIST and hand it to him. He rolls the word around in his mouth. Then he prints my visa and sticks it into my passport. He tells me I can stay for up to three months but after that I will need to leave the country and re-enter. They both wish me a safe and pleasant trip and as I am getting up to leave the one who has done most of the talking says, ‘Thank you. That was very interesting.’
It is 46 degrees in Lahore. The city festers under a merciless sun which reflects off the cement buildings and the off-white shalwar kameezes of the men. There are no street signs, and I say as much to the manager of the hostel as he checks me in. ‘Yes. They have been talking about putting some up,’ he says with a shrug.
The air in the dormitory is stagnant; the fan moves around with a dull creak. I go out and eat a bowl of noodle soup at a crowded little café. When I turn to leave, I notice a row of eight men seated with their backs to me have all turned to stare over their shoulders.
Back at the hostel, a group of travellers gathers on the deck and a joint is passed around. Most people have come to Pakistan for the trekking. I am conscious of my accidental presence in this country; my lack of plans or direction. I lie back and look up at the night sky; nothingness stretching out forever. A crescent moon is visible above the buildings with a single star beside it. ‘It looks like the flag,’ a dreadlocked young guy murmurs.
The next day, I learn that the dreadlocked young man is an Austrian student on a year-long budget trip through Asia. His name is Michael, and after wandering through the bazaars in the stifling heat, we agree to travel to Islamabad together, and then head further North.
We ask the hotel man to direct us to the local bus depot but on arrival discover he has told us the way to the luxury bus station. The bus seats are wide and a fan is mounted on the wall, beside, of all things, a television.
Michael asks me about my work back home and I tell him I have worked as a teacher ever since I graduated.
‘You don’t have military service in Australia?’
‘We have in Austria.’
I ask him if he has done it and he says imperturbably, ‘I got exemption because I tried suicide. That’s the one good thing about suicide. You don’t have to go to the army.’
The bus starts up again and for a time we sit side by side in awkward silence.
Faisal Mosque looms in front of us, shockingly modern against the background of the sprawling capital. Michael takes a photo of me standing in front of it with my scarf draped around my face and I take one of him.
We take off our shoes and try to walk in together but a guard stops Michael and gestures that he cannot go in with shorts on.
‘You go in, I’ll wait here,’ he says and I go in alone. When I come back, he asks me for my scarf and wraps it around his legs. The guard lets him pass and he shuffles in holding it in place.
He comes back out looking sombre.
‘Do you have religion?’ he asks me as we put our shoes back on.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I grew up atheist.’
A memory comes to me of Sharn, in the early days of us, scoffing at that word.
‘But how can you know there isn’t a God?’ she had asked.
‘It’s not about knowledge,’ I said. ‘It’s about belief. People who believe in God don’t know there’s a God. They believe there is and I believe there isn’t.’
In our first year, Sharn took me with her to church at Christmas and Easter and introduced me to everyone as ‘a friend’. Later I started staying home. ‘What is the point of me coming?’ I had asked her. ‘If you don’t even tell people I’m your girlfriend.’
The bus trip North is terribly uncomfortable, the narrow road winding mercilessly around the mountains, the vehicle jerking from side to side. I sit by the window and my head is smashed against the glass as we take sudden turns. Almost twenty-four hours of this sort of travel leaves us aching, stiff and weary.
It is now a week since I have spoken to Sharn. In the months leading up to our trip, we worked hard and lived modestly, and life shrank to a dull routine which we thought travel would erase. Instead we found ourselves sinking into another routine. Arriving in a town; packing up; our lives crammed into a single room, with nowhere to retreat.
‘I’m going to go and check out Pakistan,’ I finally declared, making the decision only as the words came out. ‘We’ll travel separately for a few weeks. Give each other some space.’
A sudden violent jolt interrupts my memories. I look out the window to find I am looking straight over the edge of a cliff and the bus is hanging on a dangerous angle; one wheel has gone over the edge.
The driver is turning the wheel frantically and muttering what sound like curses. Men in front and behind us have their eyes closed and their hands clasped and are praying to God in eerie unity. For a moment the world seems to stand still, hanging on the edge of a prayer I can’t understand.
Then the wheels gain traction and the bus slides forward and once again we are on the road, winding up the side of the mountain. People breathe again, look at each other, smile.
‘Why are we here then?’
Sharn thrust the words at me. I turned to the tiny motel kitchen bench and swept up an armful of cans, tossing them into a bag.
‘Would you keep the noise down,’ she snarled. ‘We’ve got neighbours.’
Like you care, I thought, stumbling in drunk at all hours of the night.
I placed my copy of The Grapes of Wrath inside my bag, thinking of the peaceful morning I could be having with it.
‘Why are we here?’ she repeated.
There is one more village before the Chinese border.
The minibus to Passu stops for us but there is no space inside, with people jammed into seats and standing up. The driver looks at us and gestures the roof, where there is a luggage rack loaded with suitcases. Michael climbs the step ladder and sits down on top of the luggage. I climb up and sit beside him. The bags are fastened to the bus with tightly tied ropes, and as we grab hold of them, the bus starts moving. Soon we are taxiing around the side of the mountain with the wind in our faces, clutching the ropes as the bus rattles from side to side. We grin at each other like children.
Passu is a tiny village with only one guesthouse and everyone there is heading to China. In the communal area, travellers share stories about the trekking they have done in the previous days and plans for the next ones. We decide to do a single day trek the following day, and a young Japanese man suggests one. The trail is not well marked, he says. None of them are. You have to look for the travellers cairns that tell you which path to take. It passes the glacier and crosses the Hunza River. You can do it in a day if you leave early.
At breakfast the guesthouse owner gives us a map with the trail roughly sketched out. He serves us eggs and toast and tea, and tells us he has been here for fifteen years.
‘You have wife?’ Michael asks.
‘I had. And one boy.’ He pulls a faded photograph from his wallet of a smiling woman in a shalwar and hijab and a young boy. ‘She has gone to God now.’ He pats his heart. ‘Many tourists coming here now. Everyone coming here for trekking. Some people they cross the glacier with guide. Have to carry lot of supplies, food, drink.’ He shows us again the route we need to take on the hand drawn map and says, ‘I will see you tonight, God willing.’
We pass the glacier. It lies inert and green-tinged in the crevasse between mountain peaks and a chill wind comes off it. We find the trail that leads past it by the stone pyramids piled up on its side and follow its sketchy path through the hills in companionable silence.
At the top of a ridge we hear a woman’s cry and look up to see an elderly couple waving at us from beside a simple hut. The woman beckons us to approach and as we draw close she mimes drinking. She gestures at the ground outside the hut where a thin rug is spread out and hastens inside. We sit down cross-legged and she emerges with a pot of tea and some cups. She pours us a cup each and she and the man sit down. She beckons us to drink. She points to our feet and then raises her hand to her forehead. We are tired. She smiles and points to the tea.
We smile back and drink.
The woman gestures from me to Michael and back again. I realise she is asking if we are married and Michael realised this at the same time and nods. We smile at each other.
The old woman walks with us to where the land starts to descend. She points into the middle distance. I squint into the sun and eventually I can make out the jagged trail down the mountain side.
The old woman looks at me and mimes a question, her palms turned upwards. What now? I gesture the trail back down towards the village; the road ahead leads to China, where Sharn will be waiting for me.
We start off down the trail, the ground hard beneath our feet and above us only sky.