In 1979 in the town of Paradise Lake, women of fifty favour blue knitwear and Peter Jackson cigarettes. They cook sponges without a recipe, don’t mind a brandy and dry, and love their grandchildren with an intensity that takes some of them by surprise. They’re most readily distinguished, one from another, according to their golf handicaps and the generosity of their judgements.
I know these things without giving much thought to the women themselves, even to my mother, who is one of them. I am seventeen and I am Stella Rose White. My legs are shapely and strong, my school uniform is short, and my dark brown hair is glossy.
I liken the way people in Paradise Lake know everything about each other to the osmotic process of absorption that occurs when plants share the same soil.
‘You’re a bright girl, you know, Stella,’ says my biology teacher, Miss Boner. ‘You would do well at university.’
‘Thanks, Miss Boner,’ I say, though I have no plans to apply for university. The only people I know with degrees on their walls are Dr Hughes, whose hand always lingers on my chest after his stethoscope has gone, and old Jack Wilks the dentist, who reeks of whisky in the afternoon and whistles through his teeth as he drills. Miss Boner herself went to university, but she has adult acne and no boyfriend and is no great advertisement for tertiary education.
Some people are scornful of Miss Boner because she is ugly and can’t control her classes and cares too much, but I stick up for her. Out of pity, I suppose. But then, to be honest, I pity almost every female who isn’t me and therefore – ipso facto, as we say in legal studies class – is not in deeply thrilling and requited love with Matt Richards. Matt Richards has a slow smile, a farmer’s strong arms, and hair that curls over the collar of his check shirts. He is already twenty-one and lives out of town but comes into Paradise Lake for footy training, and on match days, and to visit me.
It’s October, the last day of school before our final, external exams. After thirteen years it is suddenly and unaccountably over. We are asked not to throw eggs or flour, but we are allowed to call the teachers by their first names and everybody turns a blind eye to the alcohol that is stashed in our schoolbags for the party.
‘Bye, Letitia,’ I say to Miss Boner.
The first hot day of summer Matt borrows his father’s boat and invites a few people out to the lake. I am the only one who has never been waterskiing before. We run the boat out into the deep, clear of the gumtrees that ghost the shore. Matt sets me up with skis and a life jacket and I wait bobbing in the water while he gets back into the driver’s seat. The others yell encouragement.
‘Good luck, Stella!’
‘Keep your arms straight and you’ll be fine.’
Matt looks over his shoulder from behind the steering wheel. I grip the towrope and nod that I’m ready. As the boat accelerates I rise straight out of the water, first time, and stay on my skis as the boat picks up speed. Matt looks over his shoulder at me again. I can’t wave, of course, but my mouth is wide with pleasure. I’m completely exhilarated. I am – at least until the boat slows and my turn is over – Stella Rose White, naiad of Paradise Lake, minor freshwater goddess.
‘You are amazing, Stell,’ Matt tells me later, shaking his head in admiration, as he takes a beer from the esky.
He tells me the same thing again later still, while we are lying on a mattress in the tray of his ute, wrapped in a picnic rug under the black and silky night sky.
‘Sounds like our two young ones are having a bit of fun together,’ Matt’s mother says to mine at the lady bowlers’ trophy presentation day.
‘Do you think?’ says Mum. ‘To me they seem pretty serious.’
Behind her back Matt’s mother, Betty, is known as ‘Lady Richards’ because she gets a new gold-coloured Ford Fairlane every second year and refers to their family farm as a ‘property’. Of course, Betty doesn’t think I’m good enough for her son. Mum tells me not to take it personally, though I know that she does so herself. Mum also tells me I’m very young, that I need to get a good job and some financial independence before I think about settling down, and to make sure I’m on the pill.
Early in the New Year, Matt is busy at the farm every day crutching sheep. One hot afternoon I finish reading The World According to Garp and am dozing on the couch when Mum arrives home from her shift at the hospital and suddenly explodes at me. Later she says sorry, it’s just that her feet were hurting and I tell her I’m sorry I haven’t been helping more around the house.
‘You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, Stell,’ she says and I’m not sure whether it’s an exhortation or a lament.
The next day I answer two job advertisements and fill in the university course application forms that Miss Boner gave me. I make apricot chicken for dinner using the recipe on the back of a soup packet, and Mum tells me it’s delicious.
By the end of the month I am jumping the wake behind the boat and I have a deep tan, the colour of golden syrup in the tin. I receive an offer of a place in the arts faculty at Melbourne University, but I defer it and start as a legal secretary with O’Reilly and Sons in the Main Street, where I prepare letters and documents and strong black tea no sugar for old Bill O’Reilly. I also work for young Bill, who cannot spell to save himself, makes his own darkly terrible coffee in a silver pot on the stove in the backroom, and complains that his father’s cigarettes stink out the office. Mrs O’Reilly comes in every Monday to arrange the flowers and polish the desks with special beeswax that she orders from a convent in Ireland. I learn to do the banking, the stationery order, and title searches at the Town Hall. I usually have lunch at the Dew Drop Inn coffee lounge with Tracey McMurtrie, who works at Williams the Shoeman. The rest of the time I beat out the rhythm of the office on my green IBM golfball typewriter. Old Bill praises my letters out loud and my legs with his eyes. Young Bill never even glances at my legs. Everybody knows that the only two women he’s ever looked at in his life are his mother and the Statue of the Virgin up at St Mary’s.
We get a new client, a woman about ten years older than I am. She blows into town driving a yellow MG sports car and gets a job behind the bar at the Commercial Hotel. Her name is Maree Smith and she came here all the way from Queensland, apparently, although nobody can imagine why anyone would do such a thing when Paradise Lake in winter is dead quiet and cold as a witch’s tit.
Maree turns up for an appointment one Monday morning while Mrs O’Reilly is in the office waxing the reception table. Maree is friendly enough, though she shows no particular respect to Mrs O’Reilly, probably assuming the older woman to be the cleaning lady. I sense Mrs O’Reilly taking in Maree’s elfin face, dark eyeliner, and the row of little studs that run right around the curve of her left ear. I smile at Maree warmly to make up for the fierce silence of Mrs O’Reilly, who has pursed her lips and is working her cloth furiously against the dark rosewood.
Later that week I type up an application for a restraining order against some bloke and draft a couple of nicely worded letters to Maree Smith’s creditors in Surfer’s Paradise, providing sincere assurances and seeking extensions of time to pay.
Friday afternoon, because old Bill has got a doctor’s appointment and there are no more clients, Young Bill and I turn up the radio and sing along loudly to 3PL’s Hometown Hits while we work. Later, Young Bill leaves for one of his weekends in Melbourne, where he will see films and eat at restaurants in unnamed company.
Just before my nineteenth birthday I decide to colour and perm my hair. Old Bill tells me that I’m looking very nice, but he says it in a sad tone so that it doesn’t really sound like a compliment. ‘You’re good at your job, too,’ he says. Then he shakes his head. ‘Probably too good. It was different for me and Mrs O Reilly. And, as for Billy, well …’ He pauses for a moment then slaps the desk with the palm of his hand. ‘Have you thought about learning computers, Stella?’ he asks me. ‘They’re going to be the thing.’
I’m not sure what he’s trying to tell me, but before I can think of a reply he swivels around in his chair, facing away from me, completely occupied with coughing and the contents of his white cotton hanky.
Matt says my new hairstyle is all right, but he liked it better the old way. We are having a counter meal at the pub for my birthday when he gives me a box from Thomas the Jewellers in Ballarat. The package looks too long to contain a ring, but still my hands are shaking slightly as I open it. I can hear ‘Lola’ coming from the jukebox and a hoot of laughter from a bloke being served by Maree at the bar.
My present is a seed pearl necklace.
‘It’s really nice, Matt,’ I say.
‘Yeah.’ Matt looks into my eyes, then down at his beer. ‘I saw some other things that I’d like to get you at the jewellers …’ He shrugs and his voice trails off for a moment. ‘But Dad’s given me some land and Mum wants me to build a house on it first.’ Matt shrugs again. ‘So. Next year, eh, Stell?’
It’s the closest we’ve ever come to discussing the future beyond planning a holiday to Bali in October and I grin.
‘Next year will be perfect,’ I say.
My brown hair has been curled and streaked and it might have been a mistake. But my legs are still reputed to be the best in Paradise Lake and my heart beats beneath a perfectly filled 36C bra cup. I am almost engaged to Matt Richards. I am Stella Rose White and I walk down the Main Street to the post office with a bundle of yellow legal envelopes under my arm as though I am taking a turn along one of the great boulevards of the world.
Matt and a couple of his footy club mates are going out spotlighting.
‘I think I’ll stay home this time, Matty. I don’t actually like seeing animals get killed.’
‘But rabbits are pests. We need to get rid of them,’ he says.
‘Maybe,’ I say, but I wonder whether there is any need to enjoy doing it quite so much. ‘Anyway, even if they are pests, they’re also kind of beautiful. Didn’t you ever read The Velveteen Rabbit when you were a kid?’
Matt looks at me and shakes his head.
‘Also,’ I say, ‘rabbits are fascinating. They breed according to the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence. You know, the same as the way pinecones grow? And grains of wheat?’
Matt shakes his head again. ‘You’re amazing, Stell,’ he says on his way out.
Record spring rains delay the shearing out at the Richards’ farm and Matt can’t make our holiday to Bali. The travel agent says no refunds are possible, so I ask Tracey if she wants to come instead. She’s so excited that she screams down the Dew Drop Inn and I feel almost happy. But I get a heat rash on the second day there, and I hate peanut sauce and the trashy novels for sale in the hotel lobby shop. Tracey gets a massage on the beach every morning. At the disco in Kuta she meets a guy from Perth and for three entire days she’s convinced he’s the love of her life.
Matt comes around the first night we get back. He hardly glances at the fake Ray Bans I bought him, but he tells me that I look amazing and when we make love he hugs me to his chest so hard that I can’t breathe. Afterwards, I put on a Balinese sarong and make us both a cup of coffee. Matt gets completely dressed, even his shoes and socks, and instead of turning on the television stands awkwardly in the kitchen and says that he has something to tell me. As I turn around with a steaming coffee in each hand he’s saying that he’s really sorry, but that he has to go.
I feel a chill travel up my body, because somehow I know immediately that he doesn’t mean just for tonight. I carefully place both cups on the table without spilling anything before I ask him what’s wrong. He has got somebody pregnant he tells me, an accident. She wasn’t important to him and he never intended … but now there’s going to be a baby. A Richards baby. And, well, he says, I must see that makes all the difference.
But I don’t see. I simply don’t see how Maree Smith, the barmaid from the Commercial, can be having Matt’s baby.
Maree disappears from the pub and from the Main Street and has no more appointments with Young Bill. I do not clap eyes on her or Matt for many months, though for a time I see Maree’s yellow MG for sale in the car yard. Mum makes me vegetable soup with tasty lamb shank
stock and suggests I take golf lessons. Mrs O’Reilly gives me a St Christopher medal, although she knows I’m not Catholic. When Betty Richards comes into the office to talk to Old Bill about wills and family trusts, she brings me a bunch of daphne and tells me that she and Mr Richards miss me a lot. The baby is a girl and I study the mother and baby photo in the local paper for a long time.
That summer I get up early each morning and swim laps at the local pool and I partner Young Bill in the mid-week doubles comp at the tennis club.
‘Oops!’ says Bill, when our opponent’s ball lands behind the baseline. ‘Out by half a rice bubble!’
We win the trophy and I think I am feeling better. I go out a few times with Craig Short from Short’s Real Estate. He’s a nice guy, a handy cricketer, and very good-looking, according to Tracey McMurtrie. But he adds up bills and splits them carefully and never leaves anyone a tip. And his laugh isn’t throaty and his chest isn’t smooth and his arms aren’t strong from fencing and we don’t go water-skiing on Paradise Lake or make love under silky black skies.
Craig Short does not take it well when I break it off with him. No matter how many laps I swim, I’m not tired enough to sleep and I lie awake listening to the long haul-truck drivers and the slurred and lonely who call into the radio station in the dead hours. Once, there is a knock on the door after I am in bed and I know it will be Matt. He is only a little drunk and against my better judgement I let myself fall into him, though we both cry afterwards. When he goes home, I am more desolate than I was the first time he left.
Weeks later, he again comes around near midnight. I pull the cord of my dressing gown tight and usher him only into the kitchen to make coffee. I force myself to ask after his daughter and wonder whether, from this moment on, I will always have to live on the verge of tears.
I am Stella Rose White. It is 1986 and I am twenty-five and, according to my mother and to Jock MacLean, the flirtatious old circuit magistrate, I’m in the prime of my life – unlike Old Bill who is dead now and Mrs O’Reilly who is clawed with arthritis and goes to daily Mass where she seeks comfort from God and Father Moloney. Tracey McMurtrie and Craig Short are getting married. I buy an expensive dress and red stilettos to wear to the wedding. When we are standing in a circle at the end, wishing them luck as we wave them goodbye, Tracey’s uncle leans towards me and tells me that he’s sure it’ll be my turn next.
It’s not. And there is nothing to keep me in Paradise Lake, undistinguished inland bush town of nothing, small red dot of nowhere on the map of Victoria, between two slightly bigger no-places. Mum will understand if I leave. In fact, she’s the one who keeps telling me that the world is my oyster. I still believe her. Yet, I can’t quite envisage where else or with what thread my pearly new life will start. Periodically I take to reading the employment and real estate advertisements in the Melbourne papers. Whenever I do this, I see that it would be possible to land the same sort of job I have now – only with less pay and less responsibility, because nobody else would rely on me as much as Young Bill does – and catch a crowded train to work on which nobody would say good morning to me and go home at night to a small, expensive flat. It is a future in which things would be different, only not necessarily in a good way.
Lying in bed one night while ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is playing on the radio for what seems like the thousandth time in my life, I have a moment of great clarity. It is that I have absorbed the books of my childhood too deeply. Of course, there are no terrifying Hobyahs. But there are no golden tickets, unexpected legacies, or handsome, mysterious strangers either. It occurs to me that I am required to make things up as I go along, and it’s not a comforting thought. Procol Harum drone on about vestal virgins. The song is incomprehensible and unutterably depressing. ‘I will be happy,’ I tell myself, ‘if I never hear it again.’
Tracey asks me to become godmother to her baby and I don’t blame her for the note of triumph in her excitement. Something in my friendship with Tracey has shifted. It’s not that I envy her – far from it – it’s that she no longer envies me.
I tell Tracey that as an atheist I’m not really qualified to be a godmother. I know she considers my lack of belief in God to be an affectation, but it’s one she accepts in view of my former status as Miss Boner’s best science student. Tracey presses me to say yes, but her request feels like a trick question, in the same sort of way that the pay rises Young Bill keeps giving me feel like a trap.
I receive a bizarre phone call from the hospital to say that Mum is in the emergency ward having stitches in her head because a piece of metal the size of a bread and butter plate fell out of the sky while she was hanging out the washing and nearly sliced off her left ear. Mum stays in hospital overnight for observation. When she comes home the next day she puts the space object on the mantelpiece in the lounge room, propped up like a trophy against the old clock, and lots of people come around to have a look at it, including Craig and fatly pregnant Tracey and even Young Bill, who has never set foot in our house before. Mum gets interviewed on 3PL and the Sun News-Pictorial sends a photographer and a journalist up from Melbourne to do a story on her. There’s a lot of speculation about the origins of the thing until, eventually, Mum gets a letter from NASA explaining that it’s probably a piece of a spent rocket or just possibly a late fragment of Skylab, the space station that disintegrated over Western Australia a few years ago. NASA doesn’t seem at all concerned that the thing could have actually killed Mum, but they do ask if she’d mind posting it back to America as they keep a log of all pieces of orbital debris that are over four inches in diameter.
I take pride in my rationality and I should know better than to ascribe any meaning to this random event. Still, it does signify that Paradise Lake is part of the great, ordered, cosmos, and I am somehow buoyed. I finally agree to sleep with Jock, the circuit magistrate. He is forty-three, smokes too much, and wears good quality but crumpled suits. Naked, his stomach protrudes over his legs and his bum is surprisingly flat and spotted with pink goosebumps. But he cracks a good joke and tells me stories from his time working in Papua New Guinea and we talk about books and sometimes on Thursday nights we watch reruns of The Sweeney on television because he likes John Thaw and I like Dennis Waterman. We decide that one day we will go on holiday together to Lake Como.
‘My God, Stella White. You are so beautiful,’ he says when he unbuttons my shirt. And it’s still true. For a while I’m not lonely, despite the fact that Jock, naturally enough, spends most nights at home in Horsham with his wife and teenage sons. I join the Red Cross and enrol in an Italian conversation class at the local TAFE college. I take up lap swimming again and buy a yellow one-piece swimsuit, which is a colour most women cannot wear.
To celebrate my thirtieth birthday I book a plane ticket to Italy and a language course in Pisa and tell Bill he will have to do without me for the entire month of June. There are only three other people in the beginners’ lessons – a self-satisfied American college girl, a French nun, and a Japanese computer programmer. I make friends with Iris, a tall Swiss woman with a long, beautiful face, who is doing advanced Italian and nods seriously at my jokes. Iris and I take a weekend trip to Florence, trailing through the Uffizi and dripping sweat in the Piazza della Signoria. Iris navigates the bus timetable to find us a swimming pool in a beautiful park. I wear my yellow bathers, but all the local women, even the old ones, are wearing bikinis. I buy a turquoise ring at a shop along the Ponte Vecchio, send a postcard to Jock, and develop a liking for Nutella crêpes. Back in Pisa I have a sinus infection and spend a few nights trying out my Italian with a French guy we meet in a bar. He borrows a thousand lire from me, but he prefers Iris, and tells her that I am too easy to get to know. There’s no mystery about me, apparently.
Then I am home again, tanned but with a blocked nose and jet lag and two thousand dollars owing on my Visa card. Nothing has changed in Paradise Lake except that Father Moloney has left town. He shot through out of the blue, without saying goodbye to Mrs O’Reilly, who has hosted him for a roast meal and a game of euchre every Tuesday night for ten years. Mrs O’Reilly doesn’t come into the office much any more, but when she does her skinny shoulders are a little more hunched and her lips are a little more pursed. One of her eyes becomes permanently weepy, maybe due to Bell’s Palsy or else to the news that Father Moloney has been arrested on child molestation charges dating back years ago, to a time in another diocese before he came to Paradise Lake.
I break it off with Jock and get a dog. Not instead, just at around the same time. I can still beat my godson, Charlie Short, at chess, but never at Connect Four. Mum retires and is gradually squeezed out of the bowls team. She puts the car keys in the freezer and is found one afternoon wandering the football oval in her nightie. Tracey, goggle-eyed and confiding, tells me that people are saying that it is some after-effect of being hit by an object from outer space. But I know that it’s just genetics. I remember visiting Pop up at the place on the hill when I was about ten. I’ve never forgotten the moment he grabbed me by the wrist, looked into my face, and asked me whether I could bring him six hats for his six-hat donkey team. Bill gives me plenty of time off to take Mum to her medical assessments and get her settled in at the Westhaven Home for the Aged.
Yet Bill doesn’t even tell me that he’s thinking about retiring to the coast and selling the practice until he introduces me to my new boss, Emma Prendergast, BComm (Hons), LLB. She and her husband have just arrived in town. She is thirty-four years old and has a silver Subaru, a lot of ideas about computerising client records, and two children who never ingest food colourings or additives.
‘Stella’s been suggesting we go digital for a long time,’ says Bill, gesturing towards me with an open hand, like he’s trying to sell me as well as the premises. ‘She’s not a dinosaur like me.’
I cannot bring myself to look at him.
Emma smiles vaguely at me and says I’m welcome to stay on, of course. I nod, but my impression is that she sees me as no more valuable to her future vision than Mrs O’Reilly’s antique office furniture. I tell Emma that I’ll be happy to stay for long enough to help her find someone else and ensure a smooth transition. She shakes my hand and seems grateful – whether it’s because I’ve agreed to help her settle in or because I’ve indicated that I’ll leave soon enough I can’t tell.
Tracey orders a skim milk cappuccino and a caramel slice every Wednesday. I forbear to tell her that the cake really blows the calorific benefits of drinking skim milk out of the water. It is 2009 and the Dew Drop Inn has new owners and a new name, and even tables on the footpath, but it is still the same sort of place it has always been and I usually order green tea because the coffee is terrible. Having been to Italy a few times now, I’m pretty fussy about my coffee. Tracey forbears to tell me that in my efforts to avoid becoming a bitter and twisted barren spinster I have become something of a pretentious wanker.
We both look up as Emma Prendergast comes striding towards us in high heels and a smart pantsuit, looking impressively businesslike. She looks very attractive too, in a strained sort of way, and I wonder if I should have tried harder to keep in touch with her after I left O’Reilly and Prendergast and started teaching at the TAFE college.
Tracey rolls her eyes and shakes her head. ‘I don’t know who she thinks she is, prancing around like she owns the bloody place.’ Tracey has hated Emma ever since Emma represented Craig in the divorce settlement, out of which, it must be said, Tracey got a shocking deal.
I hardly think this is Emma’s fault – she only acts on instructions after all – and suddenly I want to reach out to her. I want to tell her that I admire her for trying to do everything right. That I will hand out ‘How to Vote’ cards for her election campaign even though she hasn’t got a hope in hell of getting in as a Green around here. And not to blame herself for her teenage son going off the rails and her husband having an affair with the water aerobics instructress from the swimming pool, because these sorts of things can happen to anyone. And I want to tell her that space debris is meaningless and that our time and place in the universe is unbearably fleeting and small. But perhaps she knows all this already or else she doesn’t want to hear it, because she doesn’t notice me trying to catch her eye. She walks straight past, head high and hair flowing, without a glance at Tracey or me or any of the other middle-aged and elderly women in the main street of Paradise Lake.
'Patterns in Nature' by Sue Hurley won the 2012 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.
CONTENTS: SEPTEMBER 2012