PUNCHING ABOVE YOUR WEIGHT

I will put the finished table in our warm courtyard. I have chosen joyful colours of yellow and orange, with peaceful ones of blue and green. I want to incorporate mirrors to catch the light and shells from the beach I live so far from.
If my mother could see me now, maybe she can, I don’t know, she would consider my work. “A waste of time, Noreen. Haven’t you got anything useful to do?” She would have disapproved of my lifestyle. Mum wasn’t a lover of art or a lover of love for that matter. She lived her life neatly without leaving anything behind and when the time came she got on with the business of dying as she had got on with the business of living. Head down, no complaints. And Dad, he married Maureen Pollard from next door before the year was out. He found mum hadn’t left anything behind either.
*
I use special glue for my tiles but I also have to use tile grout and sealant. I have drawn my design and collected sea shells and marbles. A reminder of family holidays perhaps. Why is it the things you want to forget that stay in the mind and the things you cherish start to fade away? I catch a stray marble and am grateful I haven’t lost mine yet.
*
The ocean takes me back to the four of us on holiday, me, Roger and the kids. Jessie refusing to take off the cardigan she wore over her bathers. I tried to coax it from her before deciding to let the sun do its job. Like the tale of the old man in his coat and the contest between the wind and the sun. It didn’t work with Jessie, always stubborn. Her skin so fair and lightly freckled I fancy she had the right idea. As for Dan, he ran towards the ocean as soon as he could stagger on two plump legs. Skin the colour of caramel and hair as dark as rain clouds. I tried not to have favourites.
Roger and I sat in our deck chairs, me with my huge brimmed sunhat feeling glamorous and him with his battered fedora. He’d sat on it before we’d left home but still insisted on bringing it. His long moustache obscured part of his face but I knew furtive eyes covered by mirrored sunglasses checked out the bikini-clad talent doused in coconut oil.
We didn’t fear the midday sun in those days, we wanted to make the most of our holiday. We’d turn up at nine with not a smear of sun cream between us and didn’t leave before four. Back at the boarding house with tight red skin, you could almost smell burning flesh. Dan just got darker, I couldn’t imagine where he got his olive skin from. A throwback to forgotten generations? An Italian uncle who’d snuck in on our bloodline? Not that we were pedigree mind. Common or garden Australian, right down to our Hills Hoist and beetroot in a can.
Halfway through our holiday our deckchairs skirted the shoreline, the occasional wave caressed our toes. We dozed off, hats over our faces. I’d checked on the kids before, Dan building sandcastles and Jessie fashioning herself a sand coffin, never one to look on the bright side. If she’d grown up these days we’d have taken her to a psychologist, as it was Roger and I exchanged a look, gazed at the ceiling and got on with it.
I’m straying from the story, Dan’s story. We heard an anguished voice pleading for help and our eyes snapped open. A bald headed man leaning over a child, our child. I stood and screamed whilst Roger hurried to Dan, scattering beach umbrellas and sand in his wake.
“Get the bloody surf life saver”, Baldy yelled.
The beach closed, just out of season, Roger had to scramble to a payphone to call emergency services. I ran to my baby boy, hovering over him, blubbing and trying to hold him.
“Get out of the sodding way! I need space for fucks sake.”
I sat there sobbing as a bald stranger blew life into my son’s lungs. Between breaths he swore at me, terrible words but I deserved them. I’d failed Dan, I’d fallen asleep. An ambulance arrived and efficiency took over with men in overalls. Later we discovered from the newspaper that the bald man was an Anglican minister. I didn’t think religious men swore. The article said, “Cleric Saves Boy While Parents Sleep.”
Why would I want to re-create a beach scene where we nearly lost Dan? Of course we lost him anyway. He left home as soon as he could, went south and put himself through Uni; became a Marine Biologist.
“Marine Biologist! What the hell is that? He could have joined the family business, but no, not good enough for him. You bloody spoilt him Noreen.”
Roger had shoved me towards the side window where his van was parked. Thompson & Son Plumbers. “Where’s the son, Noreen? Where’s the bloody son?”
Roger’s voice quivered and his eyes filled with water. I could see a chasm opening up in the middle of our family home. Working class roots but Dan wanted more. It made me feel both proud and heartbroken. And envious it was he who had got away.
*
The ocean design had lived in my head for weeks. It would give me a rush of freedom, the one I get whenever I stand at the seas edge, looking into forever. Nothing much changes over the ages, if you stare out to sea, without glancing back at beach towels and garish umbrellas.
*
Jessie still lived at home, she hadn’t found her path. She was always lost, I just hadn’t noticed it. I didn’t know how to deal with her so she hung around like an overstuffed armchair, sitting in front of the telly, eating TV dinners. I couldn’t do a thing with her. It was not how I’d imagined things would turn out when the kids were small and saw adventure everywhere. When everything Roger or I said had been their world.
That night as Roger and I lay in bed with rain hammering on the tin roof, I thought I’d like to leave. To walk out and keep walking until I walked off the edge. I wasn’t a clever woman or even a kind one, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have plans for a better life. The rain went on and on, a wonderful sound. I felt safe and tucked up, reassured that everything would be okay, despite laying down every night next to a man I no longer loved.
*
I spread the adhesive on the table. I have arranged the tiles in a design on a sheet of cardboard next to me and I systematically add each piece. I work quickly and with some skill, art is new to me. I have tried a lot of new things in my middle years. I place the yellow tiles in a curve and scatter seashells along the shore line, adding blue and mirror tiles, waves that catch the light. I discard the tiles that aren’t quite right, that don’t fit. Some might have worked once but no longer have a use.
*
One morning as I sorted the dirty laundry into piles; food and coffee stains, I tried to think of where I would go if I did walk. I had always dreamed of Europe, the architecture and the food, so different from home. All that art, you’d think Venice would sink from it. Or America, ‘the land of the free’, they call it but on the evening news they didn’t look free to me. Stake-outs and drive-by-shootings. Not America then. An Aussie beach, the magic white light of the sun on waves that turn into infinity. Nothing resonates, I simply don’t know. Does anyone? Who doesn’t feel in the wrong place where the right place is somewhere else, carrying on without you?
By the time I finished shoving my family’s clothes into the top-loader, I knew the place I wanted. Not a country nor a distant city with dreaming spires, a space inside me where I could be separate from my family. A place I didn’t have to share. A place I could hear women all over the world yearning for. A room of my own but not with a rocking chair and a collection of imported china objet d’art, a place deep at my core, a shimmering oasis that is truly home.
That was the day the top loader went bung. I phoned Roger.
“Not my area, Nor. Phone Gav from Fixit Repairs.”
A sharp intake of breath from Gav and he announced he couldn’t be here until Tuesday.
“That’s fine. I can go a day without it.”
“Next Tuesday, love.”
*
I don’t want to lose the balance of light of my mosaic. The orange tiles are too bright, too much like an everyday beach scene. The orange of strapless bikini tops or the colour of sun baked skin. That’s not what I want. I don’t want garish beach huts and life savers flags.
*
Experimenting with curse words, I shoved a load of soggy washing into a bin liner and carried it to the car. The bag heavy felt as heavy as a dead body and I wondered how many wives had carried their dead husbands to a secret grave.
It wasn’t a body, only the detritus of bodies, pants and t-shirts, bras and knickers. In the laundromat a middle-aged woman sat reading a book. I listened to the wonderful rhythmic sound of clothes tumbling around to the whirr of a motor.
“Bugger!” I had forgotten to bring change. I riffled through my purse several times, each time expecting to find a different result.
“Can I help you?” A smooth cultured voice with upright consonants.
“I don’t have the right change.”
“Let me.” The woman held out a palm filled with 50 cent and 20 cent pieces.
“I couldn’t.”
“Don’t be silly.”
I accepted the coins and put my load into the machine, as big as a monster. I sat on the wooden bench smoothed by decades of shuffling bottoms.
“Thank you.” I handed back the remaining silver coins to the woman.
“You’ll need those for the dryer, you don’t come here much do you?”
“I haven’t been in a laundromat since school. I used to do the washing for my mum.”
The woman smiled, she closed her book and placed it in her lap.
“Don’t let me stop you.” I indicated her book with the slight angle of my head.
“Well actually I’d rather talk, if you want to.”
“Yes, I don’t get much of a chance to talk. My family don’t go in for it.”
“Families can be tricky and I must confess, I have a perfectly good washing machine at home.”
“Why do you come here?”
“Dirty clothes are a great leveler.”
I frowned and she continued, “It’s hard to pretend over soiled underwear.” She held out a beautifully manicured hand, her nails painted shell-pink, “Saffron Hughes.”
I took her hand, “Noreen Thompson. Do you really have a machine at home?”
“Yes. I know it sounds sad but I’m not. I used to work as a croupier on a ship. Very social and busy, I miss it sometimes so I come here for company.”
“Gawd, there’s no peace at my house, there’s always a row going on. Have you ever married?”
“Yes, three times.”
“No!”
Saffron counted on her fingers. “Nathanial, the accountant, dull. Timothy the Future’s Trader, unfaithful, and finally Gerald, the high court judge who preferred men.” Saffron looks down at her hands. She plays with the space on her finger where three different rings would have been. She has other rings, large and elaborate but they make her ring finger seem all the barer.
“I only have Roger the plumber and he’s still hanging around after 20 years.”
“That’s nice.”
“No. It isn’t.”
The following week Saffron sat reading a different book, her blonde hair falling in her eyes. I dumped plastic bin liners full of washing which spilled stained clothes onto the floor.
“Hi. I’m organised now. I have the right change.”
I sat down next to her and she lowered her book. I marveled at the irony of a beautiful woman spending her time in a laundromat by choice. It made me feel sad.
“I’ve a couple of tickets for the opera on Friday night. Would you like to come?”
I was silent for a moment. “I’ve never been to the opera. I wouldn’t know what to wear.”
“Don’t worry, it’s the performance people come to see. We’ll be in semi-darkness. It’s Madame Butterfly.”
*
I smooth the grout. It’s the grout that keeps it all together, prevents the tiles from separating and going their own way. I watch it dry knowing my mosaic will last. I will brush on sealant so the table can live in our courtyard, among pots of flowers and wisteria climbing the walls.
*
I dressed carefully that Friday night. I couldn’t afford a new dress but I managed to find something at the op shop, a clinging jersey dress with a vee-neck. Salmon pink with a black silk rose sewn above my left breast.
“People like us don’t go to the opera,” Roger said as I headed to the door, car keys in hand. “Don’t punch above your weight, love.”
I slammed the door and started the car, glad I hadn’t cooked him any dinner.
I met her in front of the auditorium, Saffron in black with earrings that sparkled, she made me so proud to be with her. A beautiful, cultured woman who saw something in me, plain Noreen. I was aware of Saffron in seat next to me, the lights went down and I became more aware of her. The soft curve of her body in the black dress, the rise and fall of her chest. A spotlight brought to life two figures on the stage. There was to be a wedding between an American Naval Officer and a Japanese woman called Butterfly. She wore a traditional kimono and as soon as I heard Butterfly’s incredible voice I began to cry softly and I didn’t stop until the end of act one. But nothing prepared me for the pain and release of Butterfly’s final scene as she bravely said goodbye to her son and the curtain fell.
Saffron and I stay seated while the audience leaves the theatre. She looked at me.
“It gets some people like that, Noreen. You’re very lucky. There’s not much that makes me feel that deeply.”
I smiled as my tears dried on my cheeks. Saffron touched my face gently.
We met once a week, sometimes the opera, sometimes plays or musicals. We went to restaurants and afterwards walked in the park if the moon was full. She paid for me when Roger refused to give me money. Saffron offered with grace, making light of my embarrassment.
*
I apply the second coat of sealant and step back to admire my work. I hear the door close. Our new house, chosen because of its sunny courtyard so unlike the standard Aussie backyard.
“You finished it!”
Saffron gazed at the table. “It’s perfect, Noreen. Can you see us, sitting with our glasses of Chablis, watching the sun go down?”
After dinner we sat on the doorstep, the table wasn’t dry, and I didn’t think of Roger or Jessie, or even of Dan. I sipped my wine in the clear cold night, finally home.

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4 thoughts on “PUNCHING ABOVE YOUR WEIGHT

  1. Julie.. ANOTHER GREAT PIECE!!

    I am looking forward to the day when I can say this book is written by my friend Julie Osborne-Chilver!!! You should seriously do this!

    I am off to the UK On Sunday night for 4 days before I go to Cyprus for 4 weeks!!

    Hope all else is well with you and enjoy the first days of spring!.

    Xxxx

    • Thanks so much Georgia. I am working on two books (almost finished) at the moment – one fiction and one non. The next big step will be trying to get them published. Although for the fiction one I am looking at publishing on-line using Amazon.
      Your holiday sounds fabulous! My brother is in Cyprus at the moment. XXX

  2. Oh wow … I love the way the beginning starts at the end … and the glimpse into how we don’t know what’s right until it is … or we find it … (bad phrasing) … AND I got some practical tips on shell-pics, so I’m not stupid in my methodology 😉 xxx

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