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.