The sun was high, relentless in the clear sky as he slammed the door behind him and turned out of his gate. As he stepped from the shade of the house onto the footpath he was stunned motionless for a moment – Christ almighty! – by the white brilliance of the heat. He stood shielding his eyes with his hand – he would have to go back for a hat – when Nerida from up the road called out to him. He hesitated, looking down towards the Centro. He wished he could pretend he hadn’t seen her, but he was caught.
Neighbourliness made him uneasy. In Stephen’s trudging back and forth to the outdoor toilet over the years, he had developed almost without realising it an intricate sonic awareness of his neighbours’ private lives: the wheedling voices they used to talk to pet cats and dogs and birds, their habits with power tools and garbage bin lids (droppers or lowerers). He knew which back doors had aluminium flyscreens and which were sliding glass, he knew whose water pipes banged and filled at strange hours in the night, and he knew who had sat in their courtyards illicitly smoking when their partners or children were in bed. Occasionally, on the night air, came the floating grunts of sex.
But this was backyard knowledge. In the street, at their front gates, Stephen and his neighbours maintained the barest of greetings and he imagined that, like him, they were happiest that way.
Except for Nerida.
Retired Nerida and her girlfriend Jill – he was sure they were gay, though never sure enough to venture any remark that might reveal this – lived two houses from Stephen, on the other side of Bridget and Keith, who had moved out with the new baby while the renovations were done. Today the builders were absent, the house silent.
From her gateway Nerida beckoned at him again with a box of snail pellets. Stephen moved down the pavement and into the shade cast by her verandah. This was necessary – the sun was unbearable – but regrettable, as she took his nearness as a signal that Stephen was waiting for confidences. She beamed, tilting her head towards Bridget and Keith’s.
‘Spending a lot of money in there,’ she said, in a tone that meant fools and gold were soon parted.
‘Right,’ said Stephen. To keep out of the sun he had to lean towards her; it might look eager. He must make it clear he was in a hurry. ‘What’s up?’ he said.
Nerida’s face was square and masculine, like a nun’s; her metallic grey hair swept back from her forehead. She wore short-sleeved floral blouses with the collars ironed flat – today’s was maroon. The cobweb thread of a fine gold chain with a tiny crucifix lay against the sun-damaged skin of her chest.
Nerida said again, nodding at each word: ‘A lot. Of money.’ She still held the snail pellet box aloft. A cartoon snail grinned evilly from the box, showing its white human teeth, raising its villain’s eyebrows. Strange, how poisons for pests were so often labelled with pictures of them being schemingly wicked. Stephen supposed it would be harder to kill a snail if you thought it was innocent. If the box should have a picture of a snail writhing in slimy agony, vomiting blood, say. If snails had blood.
Nerida was waiting for him to respond, her free hand delving recreationally inside the roomy pocket of her trousers.
He said nothing; he did not want to allow Nerida the pleasure of telling him how much was a lot. She’d once uprooted three little native shrubs Stephen had planted on a whim in the nature strip, and replaced them with another two clumps of agapanthus. He hated agapanthus; they reminded him of Fiona’s parents’ long lawns on the far side of the city. But the agapanthus flourished, and the one grevillea Stephen guarded had neither grown a millimetre nor died since he planted it. It stood twenty centimetres high, atrophied in the shadow of the lush, healthy straps of the agapanthus leaves.
He saw Jill looking down at them from the verandah. The German shepherd, Balzac, was a shadow in the gloom of the hall behind her. Jill had never once, in all the time he had lived here, said hello or spoken to Stephen. Just as his glance met hers now, she averted her eyes as she always did, and stared down the street at the man from the plaza starting up his leaf-blower. Together they watched the leaf-blower man’s slow, zigzagging pursuit of three different leaves. One by one, he escorted each of them across the footpath into the gutter.
‘I see the beggars have got at your place again,’ called Nerida to Stephen over the noise. She meant the graffiti tags adorning his fence in the back lane. The fence was covered in the squiggles and swearwords and odd, mysterious expressions: ‘Hazfelt is Ace’, or ‘Carl Scully is a deadshit’. Or in one place, in small black felt pen: ‘forgive me.’
With those two words Fiona’s wide, grey eyes last week – her light puzzlement as she asked him if anything was wrong – came into his mind. But he could not allow this scrutiny today, could not bear the steadiness of her gaze. It must be banished.
‘I’ll paint over it,’ he said to Nerida.
Up on the porch, Jill stooped to hook a leash to Balzac’s collar. The dog was elderly and losing his sight, with a deep, loosely shaggy coat that to Stephen, with his dander allergy, was even more floatingly hairy than the fur of ordinary dogs. But as always, as soon as Balzac’s cloudy old eyes made out Stephen, he strained at the leash, pulling Jill along behind him down the stairs and out of the gate.
Stephen called, ‘Hello Balzac,’ in a weary manner that he hoped might convey to Nerida and Jill just how little he enjoyed what was to come next, and that might even (he knew this was futile) distract the dog. But there was no stopping Balzac doing what he always did – skirting round behind Stephen in a neat sidestep, planting his brawny weight on the pavement and lodging his snout firmly up between Stephen’s buttocks. ‘Hellooo,’ said Stephen, trying once again to laugh it off and skipping forward, wriggling to dislodge Balzac’s nose. It made no difference, it never made any difference: the dog merely followed with his own heavy steps, nuzzling his broad snout a little further in. It felt to Stephen that he was balanced on the dog’s nose, legs dangling.
Nerida and Jill gazed fondly down at the dog. ‘He loves to say hello, don’t you boy,’ said Nerida. ‘Donechoo,’ she repeated to the dog, in the low, guttural baby talk people used with dogs.
At the sound of Nerida’s voice Balzac gave a shiver of enjoyment and, as always, Stephen was forced to reach down behind himself and push the dog’s snout firmly down and out of his bum. He followed this with a swift half-turn, quickly positioning his backpack at his groin so Balzac couldn’t begin again at the front.
Balzac licked his lips in a dejected way.
‘Sorry,’ Stephen called over the noise of the leaf-blower, and then shouted his usual addendum: ‘It’s just that I’m allergic.’ The skin of his fingers that had touched the firm, hairy planes of Balzac’s snout began tingling with allergic activity. He felt an urgent compulsion to wash his hands.
Jill dropped into a crouch, pulling Balzac to her. She put a protective arm around the dog’s broad, shaggy girth to shield him from Stephen’s insulting allergy, and crooned apology into his ear: ‘It’s all right boy, it’s okay.’ She pushed her face close to the dog’s, and closed her eyes. Balzac yawned wide, then extended his long elastic tongue and licked at Jill’s offered mouth and nose and eyes with enthusiastic, probing strokes.
Stephen felt nauseous watching this drooling exploration. ‘Sorry,’ he said again, annoyed with himself for saying it. Behind his back he splayed the fingers of the hand that had touched Balzac’s wet nose. He imagined the sticky paths made for the allergens running all up and down his hand. He pictured them: microscopic cartoonish creatures pricking at his skin with their sharp claws, waiting to spring into his eyes on their tiny chemical feet if his hand strayed to his face. Stephen knew this was silly, but his nose and eyes begin to itch and water anyway.
‘Have you seen this?’ Nerida said, nodding at the telegraph pole where a copy of the lost ferret flyer was stickytaped. ‘Isn’t that revolting! What kind of a person would keep a ferret! Good riddance, I say.’
Jill murmured in appalled assent.
‘But I suppose they feel like you would if you lost Balzac,’ Stephen said. Jill and Nerida looked at him, then each other. ‘I don’t think so,’ muttered Jill. It was the most direct thing she had ever said to him, but she still didn’t look up. She pursed her lips and went back to letting Balzac lick her face, up and down, in long syrupy strokes, while Nerida peered at the ferret picture, shaking her head.
Something about her stance – that hand over her mouth – brought Stephen’s mother to mind again. I don’t ask you for much. Something else she said had set up a tinny alarm, faint but persistent, in the depths of his mind.
‘I have to get to work,’ he said to the women. He waved his keys and turned away towards the plaza.
How anyone could let a dog lick their face, their mouth, was beyond Stephen. They could watch a dog happily licking its balls, or worse, and then – he felt sick again as he crossed the street, towards the centre’s entrance. But Nerida and Jill were Dog People. They identified it early in any conversation with someone new. We are dog people. Are you a dog person?
Stephen knew he demonstrated some lack of humanity by not being a Dog Person. This seemed unfair. He was not a cat person either. He was not an animal person in the same way he was not a musical person, or an intellectual person. One was born to these things, like the colour of one’s eyes, or the length of one’s legs. Not to be musical or intellectual was unremarkable and provoked no suspicion. But not to be an animal person somehow meant he wasn’t fully human.
When Stephen told people he worked at the zoo their faces would light up. ‘Oh, I love animals! How wonderful!’ they gushed. How lucky he was, how privileged. They held him in high regard, and waited for tales of giraffe-teeth-cleaning or lion-cub-nursing. When he told them he worked only in the fast-food kiosk, their faces fell. But then they recovered. Still, to be surrounded by all those beautiful creatures. He usually agreed at this point, to finish the conversation. He did not say he found the zoo depressing. It was not the cages so much as the people – their need to possess, their disappointment, the way they wanted the animals to notice them.
He supposed being an animal person meant you liked to caress animals, be licked by them. That you did not fear them, nor they you. They gave you unconditional love. People said this all the time, but Stephen was confused. What was this love? Was it like love between people? He felt this to be impossible, but animal people did not agree. Some claimed their dog’s or cat’s affection for them was greater than human feeling. After Stephen’s father died and he returned to the data entry place where he worked back then, a receptionist made sympathetic noises about his loss. ‘I know just how you feel,’ she said: her dog had died three months before. Stephen had tried to be offended, but found it hard to muster the energy. He could not understand it, but he believed her when she said his grief and hers were parallel. For she was an animal person. She believed her dog chose to love her, could recognise her as special, in the same way a father could love a son.
But Stephen feared them. He feared the hair of animals, its quivery ability to float towards him and stick to his skin. And then it would begin, as it was now: the watering eyes, the congested nose, the desperate desire to wash himself down. The furious itching in the eyes, then the sides of his nose, forcing him to scratch and rake at his face till it was red. He would have to lean into a bathroom sink and rinse his eyes, but no matter how much he did this, the fierceness of the itching would not abate until he was far away from the creature, and had changed his clothes. Cats were the worst, but dogs too, horses, rabbits, anything with hair or fur. Worst of all was the way they insinuated themselves upon him. It was true, the little jokes people made about cats going to people who didn’t like them. But it was not a joke. Though it would only make things worse, he screwed the heels of his palms into his eye sockets, twisting and gouging at the unbearable itch.
He made himself stop then, and tried to ignore the itch – don’t scratch – along with the low humming anxiety about his mother, and the much more sombre, deeper chord about Fiona.
At the Centro entrance, the small tidy woman who sold the Big Issue magazine had already set up next to her camping chair. She wore her red vest and her baseball cap, her long, thick grey ponytail behind. And the man in the wheelchair was there again.
Stephen felt sorry for the Big Issue woman. She was about fifty, small and wiry, with a broad, husky voice that to Stephen evoked a life of hard knocks. She had gaps in her teeth, and mostly remembered to keep her mouth shut when she smiled. She stood outside the Centro every second day or so for hours. Stephen mostly bought the magazine, but not always. A stack of unread Big Issues lay on the floor by his couch.
He sometimes wondered where the woman lived, whether she was really homeless. He couldn’t imagine her living on the street – she looked healthy and well-kept, purposeful. Perhaps she was saving up to buy a house. He pondered now, nearing her, whether this was allowed. If you were very successful, at what point did the Big Issue people tell you that you weren’t allowed to keep being a vendor? Once or twice he had pictured the woman in some grotty refuge in the inner city. He imagined she kept her area of a broken-windowed dormitory scrupulously clean, her bed always made, but he worried about her living in such a place, with the junkies and the violence and the filth. He worried about her being robbed, her Big Issue money taken from under her mattress while she slept. But this anxiety only visited him if he had bought a magazine, when he felt some responsibility for her well-being, and it only lasted for a moment. Mostly it was easy not to think of her at all. He had seen her occasionally in civvies buying cigarettes or groceries and looking, without her red vest and cap, like any other shopper. He felt an odd pride for her then. He once said this to Fiona, but she gave him a strange half smile and said the woman was just like any other shopper.
He passed them by now, the woman and the wheelchair man. The wheelchair man was about thirty, and was often at the Centro, whizzing along the wide aisles. Stephen had developed a deep dislike of him over the months, with his little crossed feet and his sparse, mousy beard and his thin grey jumpers. The man had a proprietorial air about the Big Issue woman; he always bought a magazine, and then she would have to stand with her awkward smile and listen while he talked at her, and they both knew that this, not the magazine, was what he had paid for. Often the man was still there, berating her, when Stephen came out of the Centro an hour later; the woman would still be smiling, nodding wearily.
From the fluorescent interior of Jungle Jim’s up ahead came the familiar funky stink of mouse shit and dog biscuits. Stephen had bought a goldfish there once. To him a goldfish seemed the ideal domestic creature. You could sit by and watch its graceful movements through the water. Just the fact of a fish pond, Stephen thought, lent a special Oriental peacefulness to the place. It was a golden thread linking him in his Norton backyard, despite the leaf-blowers and the aircraft noise and the abandoned shopping trolleys, to the world’s ancient wisdoms. A goldfish slid through the dark water, dignified, detached and silent, heedless of him.
Also, it was hairless.
But the goldfish had died. He learned later you were first supposed to do things to the water, but he hadn’t known this, and over twenty-four hours the fish swam slower and slower in the water of the big cracked garden pot, and then developed a whitish desiccated coating and clouded eyes, and finally floated horribly on its side. He had to scoop it out and bury it beside the old staggery lavender bush.
It came to Stephen suddenly that all his mother’s friends were dying.
First his father, and now their friends, one by one. Every few months his mother had to stand in the Rundle graveyard and watch a friend lowered into the ground. He had never talked to her about this, and she never mentioned it except in passing. But each time he went to Rundle, he saw the growing pile of homemade funeral service booklets on the table by the phone.
The pet shop woman was sorting through the lumpy display of dog-chewing things as he glanced in the door. A flash of revulsion went through Stephen at the sight of those strange bone-like objects, their seeped-on bandage colour. In the window were three puppies in the upper level, and one lone guinea pig in the lower floor. The sign on the dogs’ level – no matter what breed was in there – said ‘Pomeranian Maltese X’ and ‘Shi-tzu’ (Stephen remembered his boss Russell’s worn joke about how the zoo had replaced the lions and elephants with one small dog: ‘It’s a shit zoo!’) but the puppies all looked the same to Stephen. They leapt and yapped in their knee-high bed of shredded paper. A sign said DO NOT TAP ON THE GLASS and had some small print about RSPCA regulations against tapping on pet shop windows. Soon the sun would strike the glass directly and stay there all day until sinking below the Centro roof peak in the afternoon. The puppies would stop leaping and lie panting in their white forest of shredded documents.
The guinea pig snuffled, a hairy caramel all-sort, forgotten in the far corner of the window.
But where would he keep a pet until the party? His eyes still itched; he ran his hands down his jeans again to stop himself rubbing at them. He supposed a mouse was out of the question. Fiona would kill him.
He shut his mind, once again, on the things Fiona might be tempted to say to him today.
Anyway, Ella and Larry already had a guinea pig and a rabbit. The first time he went to their house Stephen sat on the back deck, looking down at the view, feeling the great luxury of Fiona’s ex-husband’s wealth lapping over him with the breeze and the sound of the water. Then Larry, the younger daughter, had appeared beside his chair, clutching something long and furred at her chest.
‘Oh!’ he’d said, making a child-greeting smile. ‘Hello!’
His voice was awkward; he had not been ready for this. And then he saw that the column of fur was a live rabbit. Larry held the creature under its forelegs, elbows at her sides, her fingers meeting as she clasped it, as if it were a posy of flowers.
Stephen yelped. Larry and the rabbit both stared at him in silence. He watched the rabbit’s glazed gaze from its brown eyes, its long body dangling down the little girl’s front. It didn’t struggle or shiver, merely hung there, resigned, its soft pouchy skin bunching up around its neck. Was Stephen supposed to do something? Larry just stared, her jaw set, blinking now and then in the sun. He heard himself babble. ‘What a lovely rabbit! Is it yours?’
She said nothing, but moved her jaw to one side, then nodded. She shifted a little, hitching the rabbit up as though it were a piece of clothing.
‘What’s its name?’ Stephen was worried about the rabbit now. Perhaps it was going into some sort of catatonic trauma, its blood supply halted. It hung, like a pelt.
Larry stared at him with her slightly bulging, wide blue eyes, and looked as if she might cry. She said, in a low, gravelly voice: ‘Fluffy.’
‘Hello, Fluffy!’ Stephen said, hearing his woodenness. ‘Do you think he might like to go back to his cage now?’ He looked around for Fiona, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Larry shook her head. ‘Oh,’ said Stephen.
‘It’s a girl,’ croaked Larry.
‘Ah,’ Stephen said. He swallowed. The rabbit swallowed too. Then Larry whirled and ran off down the side of the house, the rabbit’s body stretching and bouncing softly as she ran, the breeze billowing her little purple dress.
Stephen had slumped in his chair, a simmer of unease beginning in him. What was he doing there anyway? Fiona was his ex-brother-in-law’s sister; could there be a more tangled and foolish thing to consider than what he was considering?
There had been something erotic about it from the start, all those years ago when they danced together at Mandy and Chris’s wedding, and snuck out to share a line of speed Fiona had brought. At the end of the evening they took another bottle of wine from the ice crate and drank it on the back steps of Stephen’s parents’ house, talking and laughing and smoking furiously till dawn. Nothing had happened between them, but whenever the memory returned over the years his gut had fizzed with recalled anticipation. After the wedding, on the three or four times they met over the years there had been a fond, enthusiastic embrace, a lively clinking of glasses.
But well over a decade then passed without them seeing each other, and in that time Mandy and Chris divorced, Chris had remarried; Fiona had finished uni, become a physiotherapist at one of the big teaching hospitals, married and then unmarried a barrister. And had two kids.
They had met again by accident at the zoo kiosk counter, the little girls behind her at one of the iron tables, stuffing chips into themselves. The promising warmth in Fiona’s eyes across the counter, the instant flirtatious revival of the possibility that had always been there, made him catch his breath. He’d watched her stride back to her bag on the table for a pen, observed her body as she bent over the counter to write down his phone number. He found he wanted to bury his fingers in the thick sandy scruff of her short, surfie-boy’s hair. He wanted to touch the fine sheen of sweat on her brow. As she bent to write and the modest neckline of her blue cotton sundress fell open, he saw the soft cleft between her breasts, and he wanted to fit his thumb to that space, just there.
When she moved back to the table and her chattering girls, gathering up the strewn detritus of their lunch, his boss Russell saw him watching.
‘Who’s she?’ Russell said too loudly.
‘Just someone I used to know,’ Stephen murmured, turning away to wipe the counter.
‘Bit mumsy, isn’t she?’ said Russell, considering her as she began to push Larry’s stroller up the sloping path, calling to Ella over her shoulder.
Russell, like most men, would never notice what Stephen found so arousing in Fiona. She was too circumspect, too guardedly dressed, for one thing – Russell liked unambiguous short skirts and bouncy cleavages. But in seeing her again Stephen was undone, just as in their youth, by her direct, mischievous gaze: the sceptical way she listened to him talk, biting her lip a little to keep from smiling. She had a held-back quality, a hiddenness, that to Stephen – along with her slender, strong brown arms, the quick, graceful movement of her smooth calves as she walked – was sexy as hell. An old, old lust sprang up in him.
On his way out of the zoo that day Stephen paused to watch one of the keepers feeding a hummingbird from a pipette in his hand. The little bird whirred and hovered, darting in and out to the keeper’s motionless upturned palm. A dull little bird with a black throat, until it moved again and the light struck differently, and for the briefest instant its throat flashed iridescent red before dulling again. The watchers gasped, waiting for that glory to reveal itself once more, but the colour vanished, the bird cocked its head and moved away. Fiona was like this, Stephen thought then. The ruby-throated hummingbird. If you waited, if you carefully watched, she might show you a glimpse of this gorgeousness, this vividness. And you wanted nothing more than to see it again.
But two kids, he’d thought, sitting on her deck that afternoon. Let alone the awkwardness of their own siblings’ marital history. Suddenly there by his side Larry reappeared. This time she gripped a scrabbling guinea pig to her chest. ‘Oh,’ Stephen said weakly. Where the hell was Fiona?
The guinea pig wriggled and struggled in Larry’s little hands, which formed a vice-like band around its body. She gave Stephen the same slightly hostile stare. ‘And what’s this one’s name?’ Stephen said, praying for the guinea pig to calm down, or else escape.
‘And it’s a–’
‘Boy!’ She looked scornfully at Stephen. He nodded; he could feel sweat in his armpits. The guinea pig had stopped struggling now. Perhaps she had killed it. But then it suddenly began again, and Larry bent her head, whispering ‘Nuh-uh,’ into her chest. Her tone was not cruel, rather that of a firm, patient nurse, but still she squashed the animal’s little body against herself, to calm or disable it.
The glass door to the house slid open; relief flooded through Stephen at the sound. But when he turned towards it, it was not Fiona striding towards him but Ella, the older girl, who had earlier stood behind her mother when she greeted him at the front door. Ella had changed her clothes from the t-shirt and shorts and now wore a pink floral dress with a bow around the middle. Her blonde hair floated around her head in a knotted staticky halo, as if she had begun to brush it but then lost heart. She did not look at him or speak as she flew past him, seemingly on her way to something important, but paused briefly to fling a plastic heart-shaped bowl on the table. It was filled with compost, fruit and vegetable scraps; some sludgy lumps of watermelon, a bent and bruised parsley stem, shreds of apple skin and banana and other unidentifiable flesh.
‘Ah,’ Stephen called brightly to Ella’s disappearing back, ‘old Smooth will love that.’ But she was gone, and only Larry stood at the edge of the deck, the guinea pig put away now, her hands by her sides. Then Ella reappeared, joining her sister. They stood together, staring at Stephen in curious revulsion.
And finally, thank Christ, Fiona emerged from the house with a jug of water and glasses.
Ella, emboldened, cried out in contempt: ‘It’s not for Smooth,’ and fled. Larry cast one last dark glance his way before following her sister, flouncing away down the side of the house.
Fiona was amused, sitting down beside him and laying her cool hand on the back of his neck. They both looked at the bowl of sludge. ‘It’s fruit salad,’ she said. ‘She made it for you.’
Charlotte Wood is editor of the anthology Brothers and Sisters, and author of novels The Children, The Submerged Cathedral and Pieces of a Girl. Her new novel, Animal People, will be published in October 2011
Overland 204-spring 2011, pp. 71–79
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