This week I won Open Short Story of the 2013 Sunshine Coast Literary Competition for my story Space for Chaos
“What do you think?” I moved the frame a little each way until it fell in the middle. He stood there with all his limbs where they should be. Straight legs holding his torso, hands hanging loosely by his sides. If he liked it he would answer now, before his body gave him away.
My heart danced shyly as he shifted his weight and lifted his right hand to his chin. Stroking its smoothness. He shaved everyday, even if he wasn’t going out. He was a very clean man, he smelt like a lemon grove in the Grecian sun. When we met I had liked this about him. I didn’t have to ask, as with others, that he shower before we had sex. I liked the smell of soap on his skin, fabric conditioner on his clothes. He didn’t leave a mess behind him. No toast sweat on the countertops or short dark hairs round the basin.
I’m not usually one for paintings. I don’t understand them. Still lives or country scenes, why not take a photograph? Abstract and modern paintings show uncertainty to me. As if the artist doesn’t know what they are about, leaving it for the viewer to work out. I prefer photographs, we have them scattered around the room. Mostly of him and me. On walking holidays in the West Country, one his sister took at a pub garden in June. We’re smiling but I remember we were plagued by wasps. They hung around the sweet scent of shandies. Before I met Neil I bought all these photo frames that I liked the look of. Shiny chrome, some with flower tendrils engraved in them. I was young and lived alone. In a flat two streets back from the seafront. I didn’t have anything to put in them, no photos from the children’s home and my only relly, Auntie Joan, was as ugly as she was mean. I kept the promotional family shots they came with. I didn’t mean to, I put them out on the sideboard, on the shelving unit I bought from Homebase. The models in these pictures are very good looking. Sometimes I imagined that they were my family. When Gloria from work gave me a lift home and I invited her in for a cuppa I pretended they were family.
“Oh yes. This is our Geoff. He’s doing so well. He’s taking exams to be paramedic. And that’s Amy. His daughter, my niece. Three next birthday.” She stopped giving me lifts after that.
Neil and I pooled our resources, as he’s so fond of saying, and were able to stump up the deposit for a house on the outskirts of town. When the smell of family barbecues and the stench of car exhausts from the bypass abate I can still catch a whiff of the sea. It smells of salt, ozone and, I fancy, malt vinegar. Soggy chips in a bag. The old chip shop on the corner of Mile Road is shut now. When people want fish and chips these days they want it on a plate, with a glass of sav blanc on the side. I shouldn’t moan about the middle classes, I guess me and Neil are among them. Except I don’t have a taste for the finer things. I expect that’s why I want reassurance on the print I bought from the shop next to Primart, where the solicitors used to be.
I don’t trust my judgement, on paintings and colours. Clothes I wear or home decoration. In the children’s home the walls where painted white or psych ward turquoise. A perfect mix of pale blue to calm us, stop us slashing our wrists, and a green, which was about all the nature we got. Except for that patch of scrabbly lawn out the back. When it was mowed the older boys used to grab great handfuls of grass clippings and shove them roughly down the back of the younger kids’ jumpers. Played havoc with my hay fever. If I try I can still smell freshly mown grass but not in a good way.
I had walked past the shop on my way to the bus stop. I was early so I hung about, window shopping. I don’t like to impulse buy, I have a rule. Never buy straight off, leave it three days, then go back to the shop and have another look. If I still like it, whether it is a new skirt or a pair of shoes or a bathroom cabinet to put my birth control cap in, I talk to Neil about it. Last week I didn’t do any of those things.
The frame caught my eye first. It was a deep midnight blue with sparkles. Sounds awful and I know it’s really naff to choose a print by its frame but it looked sexy next to the plain wooden frames, cheap gilt ones and flimsy black plastic. It wasn’t an art shop, more a shop of pretty pictures to match interior decoration. Colourful. I have simple tastes. Glittery frames are not simple though.
I know I am skirting around the issue. All this talk of frames when you don’t even know the artwork I picked. The artwork I couldn’t resist, that I broke my impulse purchasing rules for. That’s me though, all frame, no feature.
My mother named me Marlene, before she died moments after my birth, unnoticed by the mid-wife. Auntie Joan insisted I keep the name. It’s a stage actress name, a bawdy nightclub singer in dark jazz clubs. Androgynous, small breasts. My face is pale and without beauty. I have clean, even teeth and short wispy hair. I don’t wear make-up and appear younger than I am.
There were blokes before Neil. Blokes he doesn’t know about. I may not be the kind of girl men lose their heads over but I have my charms. At the firm where I work, I used to sit on reception, before I was promoted. I found if I brushed the hands of a man I wanted to sleep with or swept the ends of my hair near his face, so he could smell the exotic tea I rinsed it in, extraordinary things would happen to ordinary me. An intense look from my green eyes and the rest went in a blur. Backs of cars, street doorways, once in a public garden. I’m not the sort of girl you pay for a hotel room for. I know that. These men who came and went were not clean. They smelt of sex and sweat, felt moist and rough.
I have never told Neil about these encounters, not to save him the hurt. I didn’t want him to know about my past, to share it. A girl like me has to save her special moments, not squander them. They’re mine to take out at will, memories waving over me, bringing secrets alive again.
My friend Sarah from the home was special in a different way. She made chains of wild grass to wear in our hair. “We’re princesses now, Marlene.”
And later when Sarah had been fostered by a scruffy, smiling couple from the next county, I found love in awkward places. Ioannes, Greek for John, in the multi-storey car park near the big supermarket on the main road. He swiped the back seat of his car to clear soft toys and Lego. I still ended up with one piece, the head of R2D2, embedded in the skin of my buttock.
Peter from accounts who I saw when his clever wife was away on business. He had messy hair and a tidy house. Books on tables, possessions placed on surfaces in a way that suggested balance and care. Except for glasses and cups. He put them down on the very edge of surfaces, a lip overhanging the edge. He’d push me roughly against the kitchen cupboards and all the time I would be watching and waiting for his half filled wine glass or coffee mug to fall violently to the floor.
The morning before I found the print, at breakfast, Neil and I sipped organic orange juice and nibbled on rye toast with sesame seeds.
“Can you pick up my dry cleaning, Marley?” I pulled a face. “Sorry love. I can’t get away until six.”
It’s not the dry cleaning that bothers me. It’s calling me Marley but he knows this. It’s a dog’s name. I used to think about changing it. I bought a baby names book. “Don’t panic, Neil. It’s for me, not a baby.”
“What’s wrong with Marlene? I’ve never met another Marlene. You’re unique.”
I winced. “I’d be unique without a stripper’s name.”
I thumbed that book for months, all sorts of weird names. Place names; like Chelsea, Paris and India. Herbs and spices; Paprika, Saffron and Coriander. It made me snigger and I thought that maybe Marlene wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe it was just for me that it conjured up a dodgy bint on a small stage, surrounded by men in raincoats. Or a man in drag, sweating under hair extensions, blowing smoke rings from his large, fleshy mouth. But I did still long to be a Ruth or a Helen. Perhaps a Joanne. Maybe I would get lost with a nice, unremarkable name. Sink back into the fluffy rug at home and disappear from view. Neil would come home, late from the office as always, and search the house. Never find me. What if I couldn’t find Neil? If he left and I had no proof that he’d ever been here. Except for photographs, as happy as the promotional shots. And a dent in the arm of the sofa where he laid his head watching the telly, which would disappear overnight. He would leave, I was sure, if he found out what I was really like.
It was a large print, although the frame wasn’t heavy. Still I needed to fetch the car and find a parking space outside the shop. I paid the man at the counter and went to pick up the car. “Never thought I’d get rid of this.”
He stacked it against the wall behind the counter. I could see that it had sat in the shop, gathering dust, for months. Usually I would be put off, if someone else hadn’t bought it already then it wasn’t fashionable or particularly good. But I could see through the dust on the frame to the sparkles beneath and the subject intrigued me. I was sure it wasn’t classy but in all its confusion I could see myself.
I had stood in front of it, not seeing what became obvious later. A beautiful woman dressed in black, her hair unruly against a background of fire red and orange. Her eyes were guarded but I could see the world in them. She longed to shut them, to hide away.
When I first started the job at the financial sales office on Hammond Street I had dressed in grey suits with bright shiny blouses. People were kind but I didn’t want kindness. I found if I dressed all in black, down to my stockings and shoes, I faded into the background. I become noticeable only when I wanted to. It’s strange how black can turn from invisible to sexy by the turn of a head, a carefully planned pout.
I met Neil on the bus, he said it was cheaper than paying for petrol when most of it was wasted in traffic queues. It took him six weeks of shy glances to ask me out. Then it was only for coffee. I liked it. Fast men come and go quickly.
“You have lovely eyes.” That’s what he said. Corny but true. “Why do you wear so much black?”
“I’m not good with colour.”
“You’d look good in anything, Marlene.”
Rain fell lightly as I walked home. My flyaway hair lay damply about my head, sticking to my face at the front. I had paid for the print out of a roll of cash from my wallet. A roll of cash saved for emulsion to do up the living room. We had lived with ‘Cloudy Bay’ for long enough. Neil and I had picked out a tasteful shade of green called ‘Leafy Glade’.
I hoped Neil would like it. I needed him to, as if I had painted the original myself. He was a careful man not given to spontaneous actions. I let myself into the house to collect the car keys which were kept on a hook over the telephone table by the stairs. The house had that empty feel of homes where both partners work, childless. I caught a sniff of sterility. Neil and I were both tidy. Nothing was out of place and everything matched. The large picture window overlooked the front lawn and the facia of the other homes on Lavender Close. And the wall at the far end of living room with a sky light which, when the sun shone, lit it up. Test paint patches of various shades covered a corner of the wall. My insides lurched, warm feelings turning to a shiver of doubt. Who was I kidding? He was going to go off his rocker. I’d forgotten his dry cleaning and spent the money for the paint we had saved for, debated over for months.
I slumped to the sofa. What a fool I’d been. I wouldn’t collect it but what a shocking waste of money. The rain had stopped now and silver clouds were paling. If I was religious I would have seen what happened next as a sign. But I’m not. A shaft of weak sunlight emerged from the skylight, lit the bare wall which now appeared enormous, empty. Waiting for something to grace it. The sun shone like those brass lights set up over the top of paintings in galleries. It was a clean space but it ached for chaos.
He stood there, my Neil, staring at the picture. His head inclined to the right, like an art critic from The Times. “It’s unusual.”
A girl who didn’t look like me, but was me. Her long wavy dark hair, pale, nervous face. A girl with secrets. Her eyes glanced right where a small mirror hung. The young woman looked at her reflection which wasn’t the same. The girl in the mirror was smiling, not a hint of doubt playing on her lips. Her eyes knew, were unafraid.
“Good unusual, or bad unusual?”
A grin broke out across my lover’s face. He laughed.
“I like it,” reached out to me. Placed an arm round my middle and pulled me to him. “It’s very you.”