Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Dirty Secrets

I am sharing some writing today. When I visit other writers' websites I always want to read some of their work, see how they write.
This story was written in the aftermath of the Queensland floods at the end of 2010.


I didn’t notice him amongst the crowd. Why would I? I was preoccupied, going through my goods and chattels on the nature strip. There was stuff out there that well-meaning people had turfed out, just bloody turfed out. Here and there I was salvaging what I could. Checking that anything of Linda’s had not been dumped in all that mud and slime. A glimmer of colour and I was on to it. I have so little of her things left.
            Of course I had a smoke in my hand. It helped to disguise the stench of rot. Overpowering, it was. After a few days it reeked not just from under the skirting boards, but from us. It was in our skin. On our breath. In our fannies when we squatted to pee. You couldn’t get away from it.
I was smoking because it calms me, you’d remember that. And I tell you I needed calming. I can deal with anything as long as I have a smoke in my hand. Cheating husbands, dying daughters, heart attacks in the bath –
Pass me the ashtray, would you?
It’s the ritual that does it. The comfort factor and all that. It’s the taking out of the cigarette, the three taps against the box, the fishing for the lighter in my pocket, flaring it and drawing the cancer into my lungs. And then bending over and racking with the bloody cough as I’ve always done. That’s the tops, that cough is. People think I’m dying.
            Anyway, I’d just lit up, and when I straightened and pushed the hair back off my sweaty face there he was. This bloke. Up close. Holding out his own smoke for a light. Startled me a bit.
I noticed the please straight off. He speaks in a cultured way, I said to myself. He says Please. Private school or good upbringing? Looking at him, hard to say which.
He appeared ordinary at first glance. Like the rest of us, nothing special. Filthy dirty, of course. We all were. No two ways about it. Filthy, sweaty. And rank-smelling. I tell you the stench got into my soul. Even now I struggle out to the line with the wash and catch a whiff of it, like it’s living under the house, in that damp corner alongside the laundry tub and the dandelions. Resting quiet as a grave. Waiting for next time. Huh! They said the floods of seventy-four would never happen again. If they say that about these floods we’ll laugh in their faces. Bloody spit more like.
            “Disaster, isn’t it?” he says and blows out smoke.
            I don’t recall what I said, something trivial. I had said lots of things to lots of people over the previous days such as I’m not leaving the house and Yes, of course I’m bloody all right, that kind of thing. They were strangers, all these do-gooders. And I was polite of course. Up to a point. Because as you know you can only really let rip with family. Speaking of which I have to say you took your time getting here. Granted we’re only half-sisters, but you’d do well to remember I’m the only rellie you have.
            So we stand for a little out the front under the shade of the Poinciana. The earth squishy under our feet. The sweat dripping off us. And the flies, don’t get me started on the flies. We’re saying nothing. Doing nothing. Just smoking. And every now and then I glance at him. He’s probably in his late thirties which, thinking over things, is puzzling. I mean, thirty-seven years I’ve lived in this old place, thirty of those with Trev and then seven on my own.  
That Trev…If he hadn’t gone and had a heart attack, he’d have a lot of explaining to do. That one time he came back from the Gold Coast with a bug. One of those bugs. Walked around clutching himself, he did. It was painful to watch. That other occasion he went to Singapore. Business, he said. I’m beginning to think there was something fishy going on there. But we won’t fret about that now. We’ll get to that in good time. We’ll get to a lot of things in good time.   
So there were all these do-gooders out in the street. Volunteers they called them. Volunteering for what, that’s what I want to know. Stickybeaking? People crawling over everything like ants over jam. Too many if you ask me. But of course nobody’s going to ask me.
You remember Joan Bennett from number twenty-one? Well, she was standing outside her place, holding on to the gate and sobbing fit to burst, and they hadn’t even got her into the house yet. You wouldn’t know but this is the second time she’s gone through this and the first time she still had her better half to help her out like. So in a way you can’t blame her for dropping her bundle. Talk to her now and she’ll tell you it was the generosity of people that undid her. The kind-heartedness. I don’t get all of that.
Jules, from across the street – she’s new, you don’t know her – she was pulling out canvasses from her studio. Pictures of mud, they were. Hosing them down against the wall to see if they’d come good. She was angry. You could see it in the way she thrashed the hose around. Tight-lipped, not saying much. She didn’t get time to move all them paintings, what with work and other things. I did wonder why he, this fellow, wasn’t over there helping her. She’s a pretty woman, Jules. Wait ’til you meet her. You’ll see what I mean. Nice-natured, too, for a pretty woman. Waste of time, her getting angry. Waste of energy, sobbing. Weeping’s okay. But that’s something you keep for the dead and dying. It’s private.
            Then, “Going to take out your carpet?” he says.
            “Your carpet. You going to get rid of it?”
            I throw down the stub and let it sizzle in the mud at the same time patting my pocket for another.
            He draws hard on the smoke and looks at me, narrowing his eyes against the sun. That’s when I notice he has nice eyes.
            “Might be a good idea to get it out now, while the trucks are still here to take it away.”   
            “Spose,” I say, lighting up and starting to rack with the cough again.
            “I’ll start on it,” he says. “Give you a hand.”
I grip the picket fence, draw in another lungful, and watch him jog up my front path and steps. Just like that. He has good legs like one of them boys from the gardening shows and it strikes me that his body is altogether nicely turned out. Like a hammer. I love a good hammer. The feel of it in your hand. Solid and smooth. Heavy. There’s nothing more satisfying than whacking in a nail with a good hammer.
Anyway, he’s jogging up the steps. We’re all close to damn near expiring in the humidity and he’s on the run. But I didn’t think anything further of it. Some people are just keen is all. And you’d know that on the whole I like a bit of enthusiasm.
            When I heave myself up the stairs I find the bloody door shut. Might not have been on the latch, I can’t remember. It certainly didn’t blow closed. We could have done with a stiff breeze in all that putrid mugginess and stink.
            So I rap on the door. “Oi,” I say, “open up.” He must’ve known that a woman does not like to be shut out of her own house because immediately the door swings open.
“Shh,” he says, putting his finger to his lips.
The cheek of him, I’m thinking.
            I have to say he’d worked quickly. Moved the old settee and telly onto the back deck and got one side of the heavy muddy carpet up off the floor already. You remember that grey carpet with the swirls of big yellow roses? Rolled it back, halfway across the room. And down on his knees he is, the carpet squelching a foul rancid ooze that ran across the floorboards and got up your nose. And from underneath it he’s picking up pieces of laminated plastic. Drooling thin streams of water the colour of Trev’s gearbox oil, they were.
            I could see there were photographs under the plastic and the muck but I just watched him, waiting for the explanation that never came.  
            “What are those?” I said at last. Measured-like, you know.
            “Just plastic. Nothing to worry about.” But he wouldn’t look at me.
            “Huh,” I said and hooked one out with my walking stick.
You know I fought against having a walking stick for a long time but what a handy thing it is. I used it on that mongrel dog last week, the one down the road, the one that races up and down the fence barking like a little Hitler. I gave him a blood nose...I’d like to give his owner a blood nose too. And not on the nose, if you know what I mean. Arrogant snot.
Anyway, where was I?
Ah yes, the plastic. The photographs. He tried to pounce on the one I had hooked out, but I flicked the stick near his face. “Leave off,” I warned.
            I took it to the kitchen. I carefully ran the water over it, and then I turned it right side up and laid it down on the counter and wiped it with the tea towel.
            Well, you wouldn’t bloody believe it.
I had to blot my face with the tea towel. “Jesus,” I said, steadying myself against the sink. I had to stop to light another smoke. Draw in a lungful. Go through the whole coughing business.  
It’s, you know, two blokes...
Well you can guess what they were doing. Hard at it, I tell you. Left little to the imagination.
            After a bit I noticed him waiting against the kitchen doorframe. He’d tucked the photos away under his shirt, against his skin. I could see an ear of plastic peeking out.  
            “You were a lot younger then,” I said. I was grateful I could string some words together.
            He nodded, held out his hand, and I saw the wedding ring for the first time. “Please?” he said.
I gave it to him of course. I mean, what was I going to do, fight him for it?
            But before he left, he cut up all that carpet. He cut up all that soggy, stinking mess and carted it out single-handed to the nature strip. Like a lot of things it hasn’t been replaced, but I’m getting by.
            And he made me a cup of tea. Let’s not forget that. On the gas-cooker, see. We didn’t have power for days. Bloody Energex.  
            Aww I can see you’re thinking.
It was a nice touch, I have to say. But for me it was watching him that did it. His hands reaching for the cup and saucer. His strong legs striding across my kitchen floor. He put everything on the tray, he did. Good upbringing in my opinion. You don’t learn those little niceties at private school. And did I mention his eyes were sensitive-like? Shy. Makes you wonder how a bloke like that got caught up with my Trev in the first place. Dark brown eyes, they were.
Well, what colour did you expect, blue?
            Anyway, I didn’t tell him about the other bit of carpet. Yup, I’ve got another piece. We all have our secrets, some of us more so than others, but you’d know about that.
The sewing room wasn’t touched by the floods. It’s up a step. Part of the porch. Trev built it in after you ran away. On that cool, leafy side of the house where you sometimes slept when you stayed over, remember? Blissful it is up there on a hot day. Last week, down on my hands and knees – a bloody effort it was I tell you – I  managed to get half the carpet up myself. That’s a job you can finish off for me. I’ve got other things want doing but you can start there.
I don’t know about you, but I like a little bit of nudity. And at my age I can’t be fussed about where it’s coming from or whether it’s in good taste.


Copyright K W George
(First published in Rex,
literary magazine of the
Queensland University 
of Technology, 2011)


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