MISS MONEYPENNY

Have you ever lied at a job interview? Of course not. Neither have I. 

I do remember turning up for an interview (my first serious one) with a local government department. I wore a black skirt, demure blouse up to my neck with a ribbon tied in a bow. (Thanks Mum – I’m sure it helped). No make-up, hair scraped off my face, face furniture in the style of Deirdre (this ones for the poms), i.e. on the enormous side. My Dad who gave interviews regularly had politically incorrectly but usefully told me that it was best not to look on the tarty side. 

There were curious glances a week or so later on my first day in the office. Who was the floozy with wanton hair and disheveled clothing? Too late. I was in. 

I nearly didn’t get my first job in London which would have been a shame, as that was where I later met the husband. I traveled the wrong way round the circle line and arrived late. I was dressed somewhat provincially in a type of anorak and flat shoes. I think the interviewer took pity on me. 

I have since attended many interviews, in London and in Sydney. I shied away from potentially demanding bosses. One woman asked me if I minded a boss who threw impromptu lunch parties for clients, expecting me to cook. Or sew up the sagging hemline on his trousers. No thank you. Strangely another job I turned down after the boss said the f-word. That seemed to be a problem in the early 90s. Bring it on I say now. 

I haven’t attended an interview in fifteen years. Not since I had children and went feral. Do they still ask the same terrifying questions? Terrifyingly banal anyway. ‘What are your strengths’ ‘…your weaknesses?’. ‘Where do you expect you’ll be in five years time?’ You had to answer these questions saying what the interviewer wanted without giving away what you were really like. A sort of verbal version of my first interview. ‘I’m positive, good with people and a great sport at office Christmas parties’. The weakness question? Was that a trick? Did they really want to know about your compulsion to steal office stationery? Your insubordination, terrible phone manner? And five years time? I didn’t know where I was going to be a week on Tuesday. 

I struggled with interviews in London. Once applied for a job in television and thought I could dispense with the navy blue suit. I arrived wearing a red silk suit with a Mandarin collar. I was advised that if I wanted the position I should turn up for the second interview in something less shouty. I tried, and failed, to please prospective employees. I mean, what was it? Did I come across as too flighty, too stupid, too dull? A girl could take all that rejection to heart. 

Then I moved. And not a small move. 17,000 kms from old London town. 

In Sydney they loved me. I just opened my mouth and out came my ‘posh-side of estuarine’ English accent and they fell over me. Offering me pot plants for my desk and invitations to lunch. Why? Did I sound more capable? Capable of what? Colonising the antipodes, whinging? Was I better at stand-up, which as a nation we undoubtedly are. 

I was offered some great and well paid jobs. Finally. Trouble was sitting in an office in London is very different to sitting in one in Sydney. Who could stay away from the beach all day?

Not me. It turns out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SEEING STARS

This story came second in The Pages Short Story Competition (UK) March 2009 and was published in their anthology

The morning light seems starker. I hold a memory where it has a pinker glow and feels like fingertips which massage my limbs to life. Now the light falls like shards of glass, sudden and brutal; a rude awakening. The sound of crows cawing outside the window with its inadequate curtains; something else I should get round to. Light peeps through the holes rather like daytime stars. Katie would have loved that. Daytime stars, her face shining with pleasure trying to touch them. Not a day goes by when she is not my first thought. I hope she is one of those stars now, perhaps one shining on me now or in the indigo skies of night.

I take my breakfast a little later, sitting at the gnarled kitchen table. It bears the scars of years as I do. From the table I see the lane outside my house and the field beyond framed by gum trees. A painting the artist neglected to put people in. No distractions, that’s a good thing. Except this morning the artist has been busy with his brush. A young father chases after a child. A girl, wearing a red coat with mittens sewn on string and a green beanie pulled over her hair. Loose and dark, curls flowing like streamers behind her. I feel something sharp hit my breastbone. This girl is allowed to run with her father, why not Katie? Then anger. A house in a private lane, the reason I bought it. I didn’t sign up for distractions and uncomfortable feelings. The girl disappears from view and the man waves and smiles at someone not in the frame just yet.

Mrs Abercrombie on her bicycle, overdressed and wearing a scarf longer than can be safe, she stops and shoves a copy of The Tribune in my mailbox then rides away. Mrs Abercrombie produces The Tribune from her kitchen table, rather like the one I am sitting at now I imagine. Her daughter helps her with the computer work, professionally printed and sponsored by local businesses. I don’t read The Tribune but it is delivered on Tuesdays. I have very few markers to distinguish the days. Mrs Abercrombie on Tuesday, Trents deliver on Thursday. For me most days bring only work.

After breakfast I make myself a cup of coffee and sit down at the computer. I no longer smoke. I have to pay for the groceries and the electricity. Sitting down at the computer is like plugging into my life support machine, I have a gift for it. Love, motherhood; I failed. If I didn’t have my column I would have no voice. Imagine a life of silence, nothing to say, and nothing to hear. My voice has a name; Victoria O’Hara. Victoria has an acid tongue. She reports, sometimes scathingly, on the news of the day. Sharp tongued, smart suited, cutting her way through policy changes and the swapping of wives. My alter-ego. But Margaret Johnson would never have been so bold. Margaret Johnson is the one who makes the coffee and neglects to sew up the holes in the curtains.

First I look up the days headlines; easier now the papers are on the net. Another top bank in financial trouble; let me get my hands on the CEO. Mother stages kidnap of her own child; dig up all the dirt from friends and family. Actor in bar room brawl; any photos on phones? This world we live in keeps me busy. Political scandals, extramarital affairs, whose doing what to whom. How addictive is this nonsense served to us. Larger than life, larger than our lives.

I sit back with my coffee and take a break; cast an eye over my home of the last five years. Faded and bleached by the sun. Cornflower walls now baby blue, the rugs threadbare, reds and oranges now indistinguishable browns. I have worked too hard to pay attention to it. I was sadder when I first came here. My spark had gone out, stars hidden behind cloud. I’d always been a career girl. Worked in the city, mini-skirted, make-up troweled on, with a cigarette like an extra finger. I hadn’t reckoned on love. Gil, my editor, wavy sandy hair, hard and sure. I’d had lots of affairs but Gil was special. He made me feel worshipped. He had an apartment in town, a nice one, not like mine. I was nearly forty and I fell pregnant. It was a shock for both of us but we adapted, gave up both apartments and bought a house in the suburbs.

Life changed. I expected to go back to work and take on a nanny but pregnancy changed me, I lost my edge. My body was taking me somewhere new with its expanding and softening. I became emotional and I reveled in it. When Katie was born I thought I would explode with joy. This perfect child I had given birth to. My articles and columns had always been hard and gritty, with Katie I had produced pliant beauty, wriggling and squirming with a dimpled smile. I marveled over her sandy hair and eyes the colour of the sky. But I always felt she wasn’t mine forever. Too perfect, too lovely, a child the angels wouldn’t be able to resist. And so my prophesy was fulfilled.

I didn’t move in here alone, I moved in with a grief so big it covered all like a blanket, or a desert. All or nothing, consumed or blocked out? I’d had five years away from journalism but they welcomed me back. Gil had moved on. He had stayed with me until Katie died, each blaming the other for not noticing the illness which took her. Gil had mentally left years before. He hadn’t reckoned on a home mum, where was his hard-headed woman, but I found I couldn’t leave Katie. I am thankful I gave into that impulse; I had five solid years with my angel child. Remembered each new tooth, each strand of hair. I sang to her and read her nursery rhymes. Built towers of wooden blocks and knocked them down. Shared her tears, her laughter and even relished her tantrums.

I keep a framed photo at my desk. A fair-haired child smiling back at me. Her mouth is open, the word she is saying trapped in time. Mummy.

A loud and sudden knock from the screen door makes me jump.

“Hello! Margaret Johnson? It’s Joe Trent from town.”

The Trents didn’t usually make social calls. I put my cup down and walked slowly to the door. “Can I help you?” My voice slightly snooty. “Yes.” A pause. “Dad asked me to pick up any outstanding accounts. The mail isn’t so reliable. I hope it isn’t inconvenient.”

I snort. “I have got somewhat behind. You better come in while I look for my cheque book.”

Joe, tall, thin and copper haired, strode confidently across the threshold. He looked a little chilled, weather for apple cheeks. “Would you like a coffee? I just brewed a pot of the good stuff.”

A smile spread across Joe Trent’s freckled face. “That would be great. There’s a hell of a cold breeze today.”

“Sit down.” He sat and I poured two cups, using the only china I possessed. It was decent; emerald green and rimmed with gold.

“Thank you. Do you mind if I call you Margaret?”

“I prefer Maggie but I use a pen name in my job so I’m used to being called Victoria.”

“Are you an author? Would I have read anything of yours?” Joe leaned forward, obviously a reader.

“No, at least not yet. I’m a journalist.”

“You look like a Victoria. Which paper do you write for?”

“The Age. Do you read it?”

“No. I don’t get much further than The Tribune. I like books though”

“What do you read?”

Joe relaxed. “Fiction; Winton, Carey but what I can get hold of in the library usually.”

“What holds you in a small town like this?”

“I figure one place is much the same as the next.” “I can’t imagine this town would be like one of the big cities.”

“Oh, the things people do and see are different certainly. But I don’t think people differ greatly. They have the same needs, the same hopes. Why do you stay here, Victoria?”

“I’m not sure. Can’t picture being anywhere else. People leave me alone. I like that.”

When we had both finished the coffee I filled in a cheque and handed it to Joe. I had made a friend.

Later that week I worked on a story of a young actress who jumped from the 25th floor of a building. Nobody; friends or family knew that this beautiful woman was anything but happy. The sun shone brightly through the windows behind my computer and I bathed in the warmth, looked at the emerald green of the grass beyond the glass and wondered what could be terrible enough to make this woman take her own life. Then I remembered. I remembered what it felt like when Katie died. It wasn’t the pain that hurt, rather the lack of feeling, the numbness. I would never feel again so what was the point of being alive? I moved past this stage and I sit here now passing judgment on another woman’s pain. It didn’t seem right.

“Hello, Victoria! Are you in?” Joe’s voice rang out like a favourite tune.

“Yes. Have I forgotten again?”

“No. I thought I’d save you the bother of putting a cheque in an envelope and see if you had any of that great coffee.” I opened the door to a smiling Joe. His copper hair framed like a halo by the sun.

“Come in kind sir. I’ll put the pot on.”

“Why did you never marry, Victoria?” Straight to the point. We sat around the table; Joe had bought some biscuits from the store which I put on a plate. We held our coffee cups in our hands, breathing in the aroma. You have to get the coffee to the right heat without burning it. Burn it and it’s ruined.

“I don’t really know. I had a child once and that was the closest I came.”

“A child?” Joe leaned forward frowning.

“Katie. She died. Cancer.” That sadness, like a cloak again.

“That’s awful. I’m so sorry, Victoria.”

“Yes. Still is.”

“How old was she?”

“Five, almost six. I came here after she died.”

Joe’s face showed a mixture of horror and sadness as if he knew a little of how it felt to experience that measure of loss.

“I never wanted to go back out there. I didn’t want my life threaded with others. I lost the love of my life and my only child. I don’t believe in second chances.” I had a vision of Gil with a wife and new children. That route wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to repeat something as wonderful as what we had.

Joe came a few days later, this time bringing my groceries in a box. We didn’t speak of Katie again.

“Where do you get that coffee from? I know we don’t stock it.”

I laughed. “No. I get it mail-order from the city. It’s good, isn’t it?”

We drank our coffee and talked of deeper things. Not gossip or hearsay but the meanings behind choices and the details that make us what we are. Spring and Autumn, we were, each with our own weathers and characteristics.

One day when Joe was here the little girl and her father ran past again, playing the same game. Childish laughter filled our ears. “Those two again. I can’t bear the sound. I wish they’d go away.”

“Why do you want to stop people’s happiness? Just because yours has been destroyed?” Joe looked deep into my eyes which I was sure were cold and cruel.

“What would you know? Don’t suppose you’ve had anything bad happen to you in your short, carefree life. Don’t stand in judgment of those who’ve lost someone. You’ve no idea.” My words like poison seeped into the tableau of two friends chewing the fat over a warming drink.

Joe stopped and the room fell silent, like after the first snow, muffled and deadened. “Actually I do. My mum died. Three months ago.”

“Oh, Joe! God, I’m sorry. I had no idea. Why didn’t you say something?”

“Same reason you don’t talk freely of Katie I suppose. If I don’t say it out loud, maybe it’s not true. Maybe her old car with its squeaky brakes, which she never bothered to get fixed, will draw up outside and everything will be as it was. Mum and dad working side by side in the shop. Dad making awful jokes, mum laughing and pulling faces at me when he wasn’t looking. Christmas, when mum would buy me far too many presents and play Christmas songs on the music system from November driving us mad. Now we’re just two empty cotton reels rattling around in a box.”

“How did it happen?”

“Cancer, same as Katie. It’s terrible to watch someone you love so much slowly fade away, but not painlessly. She didn’t even get to have that. I look after dad now; mum would have liked that, her boys helping each other through. I guess that’s a good reason to stay.”

Joe and I had struck up a strange friendship, loosely passed off with deliveries and payments as excuses. We had death and loss in common but I think we would have been friends regardless. A shared love of coffee and books; I leant him a few of mine which lay around the place unread. We swapped photos of our childhoods and some of me in my twenties, globe-trotting. The obligatory shot in front of the Taj Mahal, another shooting the breeze with black clad Greek men in island villages. Joe brought pictures of his mother, young and dressed in mini-skirts with a copper-haired toddler balanced on one hip.

“What was her name, Joe?”

“Felicity. I think it means happiness in Italian.”

More family snaps; trips to the seaside in their old Holden, Joe’s dad with only one arm suntanned. Eventually I shared photos of Katie with him. We said nothing, just passed them between us. Robust and full of fun before disease claimed her. By then I was with her around the clock but still she managed to sneak away without saying goodbye. One day when the first warm breeze of summer filled the house, Joe arrived to find me packing boxes.

“You’re late.”

I put one arm across my arms to shield them from the sun. “Yeah. Busy day in the shop. How about you?”

“Packing some things away. Do you want my computer?”

“Are you moving?”

“Not exactly. Hey, it’s a bit late for coffee. Do you fancy a glass of wine?”

I set a bottle of wine and two glasses on the table on the veranda, pulling up the two bistro chairs. I’d hardly used them. It’s not quite the same watching the sun go down with a glass of wine alone.

“So?” Joe’s eyebrow lifted almost to his hairline.

“So, I’ve decided to try my hand at travel writing. I plan to visit different countries and the paper will pay me to write about them.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

“I only just made the decision. Squared it with the editor this afternoon. You can stay here if you like. Housesit.”

“I might do that. Won’t be the same without you.”

“I know it’s sudden but I don’t have any anchors to keep me tied to one place.”

Joe spoke softly. “Aren’t I an anchor?”

“No, you’re a friend. I won’t be away forever. And who knows, you might want to join me at some point. I’ll show you how different people and places can be.”

“You look different. Softer. Am I to call you Maggie now?” I raise my glass and smile thank you.

MARRYING UP

I have a secret. One that I think is easier to hide in Australia. Where they don’t ask you what school you went to (unless they are genuinely interested) or what your father does. I married up. 

There. I said it. 

I’ve always had a bit of a posh accent for a lower middle-class girl. We moved around a lot and I watched a lot of high quality drama. I threw in the occasional ‘cor blimey, that’s a bit of a two ‘n eight innit’ to fit in. (Golly gosh, you’re in a bit of mess.) My Dad had a book on Cockney rhyming slang. 

I grew up in several, almost identical looking, new homes on estates. Nice estates. Hanging baskets, white plastic fencing round the front garden, rockeries, that sort of thing. We usually lived in the first houses built and were surrounded by fields of wheat. Stubble burning season was a highlight. And we had the first colour telly in the small town we lived in which made us up market for a few weeks. Blinded by the greens at Wimbledon, a dozen or more of the neighbours lined up on the settee, balancing cups of tea on their knees. 

However the husband grew up on 30 acres in the UK. Posh. Swimming pool, tennis courts, lake with a boathouse, boat obviously, a nursery (the plant kind), a Japanese garden, a maze, summerhouse and croquet lawn. Their Christmas outing were trips into London to watch the ballet or Beatrix Potter on Ice. While ours were Dad’s firm’s panto trip to Norwich or Bury St Edmunds, watching Richard Briars in Babes in the Wood or Selwyn Froggatt in Jack and the Beanstalk. Are you starting to see the difference? 

The husband’s family holidays were taken on Ibiza or Corfu, alternatively the family chalet in Switzerland. We went to the east coast of England, Felixstowe usually as we owned a static caravan based there. I wore a cardigan over my swimmers on the beach and enjoyed my one ice cream a day. Can’t even imagine what he got up to. 

My first posh crush was on Peter Gabriel. I didn’t care for the money or the lifestyle, not even mini-breaks in the English countryside. What I longed for was the sound of a cut glass accent, ex-public school (private for those outside Old Blighty). I liked the slightly pompous ones who appeared to have a broom shoved up the back of their ermine and furs. I met the husband at a conference in Westminster. Our eyes met across the crowded room and I knew. We were both desperate for a ciggy and bored silly. On that slightly unusual premise we built a life together. 

Who would have thought it? The man who went to boarding school with a tuck box for books, food and records and a chest for his clothes would end up with the girl who’d had a fake fur pencil case, leaky fountain pen and roller skates slung across her back. 

It’s all gone relatively smoothly. Apart from that time at a dinner when gazing into his baby blues I picked up the wrong fork. The horror in his eyes and the shame I felt. Hurrah for the antipodes is what I say. Who follows all that crap? I’ve held onto my posh accent – most of the time. Whereas the husband? He’s more Mudjimba than Holland Park these days.

SPLINTERING

This strange tale won first prize and was printed in The Pages Anthology (UK) June 2009

I remembered the first time, walking home from work, I saw the poster.  They called themselves Birds of Paradise, one bird in particular caught my eye.  Stretched with languor on the stage floor, his body melting into a pool, a pool of molten flesh, the face of a boy, eyes widened, almost afraid.  Dark hair and brows, his mouth open.  I still heard the sound of broken glass but I bought a ticket for that nights show at the Midas Theatre.

     At home I ran a bath in preparation.  Put on a slow, seductive blues CD and slipped beneath the bubbles.  I wanted to look good but not too obvious.  He must tire of painted ladies falling in his path.  I practiced what I might say.

     “Hi.  Olivia.  Call me Livi.”  Then a laugh at something he said.  My head would tip back and a dainty laugh would escape my lips.  And how we would meet, losing my way, looking for the exit, we would stumble across each other.  Our eyes locked, we would both know, like animals.

     I walked to the theatre, wearing my dark cloak over a white dress.  The evening cooling as I strolled beside the river, avoiding the dangerous streets.  The first green on spring trees, blossoms in bud.  Big boats and small boats, people milled around, dressed up and expectant.  What would their evenings bring?  I knew what mine would bring.  I’d watch him closely all through his set, never taking my grey eyes from him.  And then I would disappear into the night.  A woman of mystery.

     “Good evening, ma’am.  Could I see you ticket?”

     A stocky man with salt and pepper hair, wearing a suit, leant towards me.  I passed him what he asked for.

     “Thank you.  Follow the lights down the steps, sixth row from the front.”

     “No.  There must be some mistake.  I bought a ticket in the first row.”

     “The numbering can be a little confusing, independent theatres, you know.”

     No, I did not know.  Rage flooded me.  I made my way to my inadequate seat.  And waited.  Things would proceed slower than I had planned, a rumba rather than a cha-cha-cha.  Three acts before him, mostly female dancers dressed in tight fitting flesh coloured gowns.  Others in white leotards, bright lip-sticked mouths but no smiles.  Then from centre stage, where one minute there had been a gaping chasm, the door between life and death, the boy.

     He led with his upper body, curled and weaving, dressed in white.  He slid to the floor, turning himself seemingly in knots, knots that bound and then unraveled. 

Later I couldn’t sleep.  As I tossed and turned a flickering image, like a flame, danced through my conscious mind.  The boy in tight white danced and turned until he rolled like a cocooned moth spinning inside my head.  Finally before night turned to day, I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of dark streets lit by moonlight. 

     When I awoke, late, almost lunchtime and bathed in sweat, I couldn’t remember what had happened, although I knew something had.  A space, where something had moved in.  Scratching around my thoughts and memories I retrieved him, my dancer, not the other boy.  I thanked God I had bought another ticket for tonight’s show.  But I had missed work.  I heaved my bedding aside, untangled it from my legs, and wrapped a single sheet around me.

     “Hello?  Is that Simone?  Yes, it’s me.  Olivia.  Yes, I know.  I was sleeping.  I have the most horrible migrane.  Yes.  Yes.  I should be fine for tomorrow.  See you then.”

     The office would run along without me, I doubt they would even miss me, so efficient I’d become invisible.  Selling on the phones, role-playing, it came easy to me.  Selling advertising space to corporate executives, a work of theatre on its own.   

     I would go back to work tomorrow but I had to see him again today.  His beautiful face, pale with those dark brows.  Half moon crescents on pools of ink, his black eyes without expression.  Sinewy limbs that seemed liquid. 

     I opened my wardrobe in search of something to wear.  I may be older than the boy but I dressed well.  Mummy left me her tea dresses from her youth, my sister Rebecca didn’t want them.  She thought them too flimsy, said they lacked substance.  I loved them.  Dusty pink and cream.  Ribbons and silk.  Roses and lilies.  I chose cream roses on the palest green silk, my ivory court shoes and a cream shawl to wrap around my delicate shoulders.

     I would not eat.  I wanted to look pale and thin.  Besides I had no appetite for food.  I ran my bath and picked out golden ear-rings, the sort that dangled.  Pretty, glittery, jittery.  If my pale grey eyes didn’t hypnotise him maybe my ear-rings would.

     Sitting in the front row, old velvet chairs in cherry red, I watched those girls sashay across the stage.  How well they danced, turning circles in on themselves, throwing pale arms to the sides, east and west.  I bided my time.

     The boy walked onto an empty stage.  I stared hard but his eyes didn’t see me.  It was haunting, as if only a memory, he looked through me, ignored me.  Let him dance, let him perform, I’ll throw him pennies and he will move to my tune.

     Before I walked home, alone in the darkness, I bought a ticket for a front row seat for the rest of the tour.  I didn’t look for the boy’s name on the billing, I didn’t want to know.  He belonged to me and I would call him ‘the boy’ forever.

     That night I slept well, content in the knowledge that I had control.  I dreamt of doves, blurry against a night sky.  The doves cast no shadow.  When I awoke the dawn was coming up and I showered and dressed for work. 

     The wonderful thing about a city apartment and a city job is that I walked everywhere.  No need for a fuel-guzzling car or parking tickets.  Heels snapped on the concrete, the sound of birds perched in an occasional tree and small trucks dropping off deliveries.  Beep, beep, beep, the reverse song assaulted our ears.

     I stopped in front of a café.  Bright lights in the yellow glow of early morning with the smell of croissants and bagels, ground coffee.  I placed my hands on the glass.  The smell of scorched rubber and fear.  When did I last eat?  My mind swam as I entered the café.  I ordered a coffee to go.  The dizziness pleased me, it was euphoria.  The thought of hot food made me nauseous. 

     I stopped in front of a black glass and chrome building and took the lift to my office.  I walked across the blue carpet to my desk.

     “Liv, you can settle this.”  Simone was holding court, Tim and Adam on chairs rather than at her feet.  “The first non-native animal introduced into Australia, any idea?”

      A day away and things hadn’t changed.  Simone’s blonde hair swept up and held by a bejeweled clip.  She looked glamorous and felt competitive.  Long red finger nails, her chin jutted the air precociously.

     “Liv, you okay?”

     I sat down wearing a Mona Lisa smile.  Their faces all turned to mine.

     “Yes.  Why?”  I removed the plastic lid and sipped my coffee.  Would I keep him secret or throw snippets to the poor?

     “You look odd.  Maybe you should have taken another day.”

     “I’m fine, good actually.”

     Simone’s skillfully plucked eyebrows draw together in a frown.  I smile and say nothing.  I don’t want to share.

     The day dragged, a day in monochrome.  Printing machines whirred and buzzed and beeped.  Phones trilled melodically.  None of it meant anything.  No flash, no sparkle, no beauty.  Simone bent over her computer, worked hard, added value.  Tim and Adam on the phones, sold things you cannot see.  Smiling helps the voice sound happy.  I remembered all those bullet points in sales training.  Wear a dark suit, don’t wash the car on Sunday and don’t be ordinary.  What was this if it wasn’t ordinary?

     “Hello Liv, nice to see you back.  Can I tempt you to your usual?”  Matt, the sandwich boy.  Toothy and tall. 

     “I don’t think I will today.  Thank you.”

     “I hope you’re not on a diet, Liv.  You’re perfect as you are.”

     Perfect?  What did he know?  Those girls in flesh coloured dresses, willowy with clean lines.  No lumps or bumps.  Nothing to spoil their silhouettes.  Like lines on a page, some straight, others with a graceful curve, perfect.  But not me.

     The hum of a busy office blurred the afternoon.  Snatched conversation then heads down.  The strip lighting constant, denying us the colour changes of natural light.  Yellow through to white, then the pink grey of late afternoon.  I left before the light faded.

     I dressed all in black and twisted my hair into a chignon, standing in front of the mirror, with no make-up.  My skin pale and my enormous eyes, delicate silvery lashes.  In the partial obscurity I was just a white face suspended.  When I sat in the front row, like a girl from another place, he couldn’t fail to notice me.

     After six I slipped into the streets, a dark figure moving against a tide of office workers.  I felt ghostly, like an aberration walking through the tiny streets of Venice.  It was dark and the rain started, slate coloured clouds blocking out the stars.  It reminds me of another time, the reflection of light on rain on tarmac.  I swore as my dress soaked up the rain, absorbing it greedily.  I reached the theatre and walked through the enormous entranceway.  I dripped like a water feature.  I went to the ladies to repair the damage.  In the mirror I checked my face, now lined with messy tracks of mascara.  I look strange, otherworldly.  I don’t recognise myself, only the smell of burnt rubber, it won’t let me forget.  A sound behind me startled me.  The toilet flushed and a girl emerged from the small cubicle. 

    “Hi.  You here for the show?”

     “Yes.” 

     “Thought I recognised you.  You’re usually in the front row, right?”

     I nod dumbly.  The girl lights a cigarette. “Hope you don’t mind.  Dancers curse, ciggies.  Sadie.”  She held out her free hand and I took it.  I forgot to let go.  I felt awkward but Sadie just smiled warmly and waited.

     “Olivia.  Livi.”

     “Who’s your favourite bird of paradise?  It’s him, isn’t it?  All the girls love him.”

     “Do they?”

     “Oh, yes.  He’s oblivious of course.  Mar…”

     I put my hands over my ears.  I don’t want to hear his name.  It would spoil everything.

     “Are you okay?”  Her hand reached out to touch me, concern in her voice.  I pulled back and ran.  Out of the bathroom, into the dark corridors, the opposite way from the auditorium.  Doors everywhere, I tried a handle and it opened.  The room dark but I knew it wasn’t empty.  It had a muffled quality, as if lined in cotton wool.  Something feathery and soft brushed my bare legs, a store room.  I daren’t turn the light on for fear a sliver of light under the door would give me away.

     I must have fallen asleep.  I was awoken by voices and light footsteps outside.  “Come on, Penny!  We’re on in a minute!”  More footsteps, and voices, indistinguishable words.  I waited for the voices and footsteps to subside.  I turned the handle and closed the door behind me.  There is no one around.  I slip down the noiseless corridor.  A door sprang open and a white dressed figure emerges.  It was him.

     “Hello.  Are you lost?” His beautiful face, leaning askew. 

     “No.  No.  It’s okay.  I know where I am.”

     “Good.  I have to be backstage.”  He smiled and brushed past me. 

     Electricity.  Chemistry.  Isn’t that what they call it?  I faced his dressing room, I know he wouldn’t mind.  I could wait until he finished his performance.  A delicious surprise. 

     A large mirror, the bench in front on it lined with pots of make-up.  I sat down on a chair facing it, racks of clothes behind me, on chrome rails and every piece white.  I checked my appearance, pale without makeup and my hair is frizzy from the rain.  What must he have thought?  More hag than harlot.  I saw a photo and picked it up.  It’s him with a girl, a shiny shiny girl.  White blonde hair and honey coloured skin.  The frame slipped from my hands, fell to the hard floor.  The glass splintered.  My hot tears ran down over lines of mascara and rain drops. Time to go home. 

     Outside it is dark and a beautiful moon shined silver on the pathway.  I wandered near the river where the chatter of people having dinner or drinks after work filled my ears with noise and my insides with loneliness.  It didn’t seem fair.  I looked at their faces, interested in each other, laughing together.  I was an extra in my own life.  I didn’t even have centre stage in that production.  The moon as a spotlight didn’t shine on me.

     It must have been three or four days, maybe a week.  Or it could have been moments later, I heard pounding on my door.  Was it at the door or was it in my head?  I got up from the bed and pulled a robe from the back of the door, walked with a light head, in the direction of the noise. 

     “Livi, it’s me.  For Gods sake let me in!”

     Rebecca.  I buzzed her in, the door opened, all silk blouse and sensible shoes.  My sister, the only woman I knew who dressed up to come into town. 

     “Oh Livi!  You look awful, you really do.  Please don’t faint.”

     My head sped up, spinning and spinning.  I felt I could spin into another dimension.

     I sat in an armchair, the red one, and the light from the windows came in in shafts.  I couldn’t see the room, bleached of colour.  I heard a sound from the kitchen, water on glass.  “Here.  Drink this.”

     Ah, yes.  Rebecca.  “What is it?”

     “Water.”

     My throat felt so dry, as did my mouth.  I took small sips from the glass. “What are you doing here?”

     Rebecca looked close to tears.  Has somebody died?  Again?

     “Simone rang me.  You haven’t been in work for days and she couldn’t get an answer here.”

    “I had to sleep.”  I felt sleepy again.  My eyes began to close.

     “No, Livi.  We need to talk.”

     Rebecca took my hand.  “I know it’s been hard.  But it’s been months now and… I think you ought to come home with me, for a while.”

     “What about my job?”

     “Simone suggested it actually, no problem, she said you should take as long as you need.”

     “As long as I need to what?”

     “Oh for Christ’s sake, Livi.”  Rebecca paused.  “I’m sorry.”  She knelt in front of me, took my hands in hers.  “It wasn’t your fault.  There was nothing you could do.” 

     The accident.  Shards of glass inside me.  Splintering, sharp, that’s what pain is.  The rain, late, driving back from shopping.  So late.  The street lamps shone on the wet roads, no one around.  He was dressed in grey with his hood pulled over his head.  He stumbled out into the road, holding something.  I put the brakes on.  Thud.  He rolled across the bonnet.  I got out of the car.  Screaming, the boy was lay face down, hot greasy chips all over the road.  No blood, just screaming, who was screaming? 

     I looked down.  Rebecca was still there, crying.  I took a deep breath, the light rose, the lines aren’t as blurred, my focus regains.  The walls I’d painted midnight blue, my Louis Ghost dining chairs, transparent, barely there.  The Persian rug under my feet, my feet feel like ice.  And Rebecca, her face close to mine.  Where have I been?  What have I been doing?  Was the boy was real?

     “I want to stay here, Rebecca.  I’ll be fine.”

     She didn’t look sure.

     “Thank you so much for coming.  There are some things I need to face.  We’ll have that lunch though.  I’d really like that.”

     Later, after Rebecca left and I caught my breath, I knew what I needed to do.  I took an old ashtray from the back of a kitchen cupboard and placed the unused tickets for The Birds of Paradise tour inside.  Using a lighter that someone had left here, I set fire to them, watched the flicker of orange and red like a dance itself.  And out of the flames I could almost see the boy emerge as fire turned to ashes and he disappeared forever.