A change for a few weeks while I go hard on the final stages of the PhD, some stories from my e-book collection Life Happens. This first one, Walking was written during my early years in one of the most magical places on the planet, Gove, and managed to win a prize in a short story competition. I hope you enjoy!
The women in my street walk at night. They rarely sleep. When the children – those who have children – are safely in bed they slip from the house. Husbands, lovers – we are all escaping from them. They sit in the house, the particular room is irrelevant, engrossed in the cricket, the video, the book on calculus, impervious to us. They are shrouded, veiled, at a distance from us. They do not listen to us, do not hear us: they barely speak. We are barely there, in the room or in their consciousness.
Listen. I hear a door slam. There. It is Jane walking out this evening, cigarette in hand. I see her because I am sitting on the verandah, nursing my glass of wine while my lover sits inside, a million light years away. Even if I had not seen her I would still know who it was. Robert does not leave his house at night. He does not slam doors and walk away. Often I hear his voice – sometimes quietly as he talks to his boys; sometimes he yells, screams abuse at Jane. No wonder she leaves the house. More often I hear Robert fiddling; tapping away at something, fixing, mending, tending to his house. He does not leave.
I sip my wine and wonder where she is going. She is leaving in her car. Often at night, we leave in the car – late, quietly. Jane leaves quickly and vanishes into the night. Not so me. When I leave I make a noise. I whirl away quickly, slam doors, reve engines. I want him to know I am leaving unhappily, deeply troubled.
There is something that troubles the women who live on my corner. There are five of us now – one left, she could not handle the ebb and flow of life here. This corner, my corner, our corner of walking women. But we are not weeping women. We are strong women, we are brave. Foolish? Did you say foolish? Well, yes. That’s possible too. But what is it that keeps us from sleep, that causes this creeping restlessness? Sometimes it seems it visits different houses nightly – takes turns in disturbing us all.
Jane is still gone. I know she has not gone into work. It’s Saturday night – she doesn’t work Saturdays. She has left too quietly – as if she is sneaking away. I can’t help but wonder why, guess at how Robert has upset her this time. I do like Robert, don’t misjudge me, but he is just like the rest of the men in this street. Ah, why do we stay? What keeps us here?
Across the corner live a lesbian couple. Two women without men. Now I had always assumed – perhaps hoped – that same sex relationships were somehow better. That two people of the same sex would understand each other better and be more liberal, caring: be so much closer. But I have heard the smashing of plates and shattering of glass. I have seen the bruises, shared the pain. They too leave at night, race to the car and hurtle off into the blackness.
They are no happier than us. Our scars are not on the surface. I have heard some of Jane’s and she know of mine and realises there is worse to come. As do I. Why do we stay? She stays because of the boys. I stay because of love. We all stay for love. It is there. Sometimes.
Sue, who lives next door, is clearly happy. Well, she and Mick are young and enthusiastic and spend so much time together. Yet, I have heard shouting, the screams at night. Sue does not walk out at night. She is still too young. She still believes in love and happiness and a golden future. But wait. Things will change (and not very long now) and she will vanish into the darkness like the rest of us, urged on by some strange disease that infests the rest of us.
Perhaps it is this place? Jane was happy once. She was thinner, she didn’t smoke: she laughed, was happy, enjoyed her life. My lesbian friend was once engaged, never bruised or battered and her haunted expression never imagined. Once I too was thinner. I barely drank. I slept at nights and never lost my temper at work.
We were all so different once. Before. When? Before we moved here? Before we became involved. Before we thought we had found love?
Listen. Jane is home again. She shuts the car door quietly and moves to the house. I cannot see her face. It is too dark. She has seen me. Her cigaretted hand moves in salute. I imagine a tired smile has crossed her face. She knows. I know. We suffer together: alone. She is inside now. Perhaps she feels calmer, perhaps the pain has eased. I hope so.
I finish my drink and return inside. He is still on the phone. Still talking to her. He thinks me unreasonable. I cannot explain. He believes it is enough that he is with me and not her. But it is not. He smiles at me. He expects me to stay. I have no resolve. I have no strength. I have walked outside but only sat this evening. I feel no better. I will stay: stay until I can bear no more.
It is hotting up now. The weather is steamier, muggier; we all feel it. Here on the corner we have moved ahead with the season. Now we are sweatier: we strain more, our burdens seem more unbearable. The ceiling fans are on high but their pathetic draft is not enough to cool us, to comfort us. The air is heavier, expectant. As are we.
The season has changed. We have changed; taken steps towards our own specific futures. Here on the corner our futures are changing. I rarely sit on my lover’s verandah now of a night: the insects are too thick, too bothersome. It is cooler outside, but now it seems more comforting and welcoming inside. Well, it has been. Tonight I am sitting outside. I need some fresh air. I have no glass of wine to nurse.
There are footsteps across the way. Jane is moving about within the house. She is going from room to room looking, assessing; gathering in. Packing. Jane is leaving. She has had enough. Now she is going. She has been smiling again lately. Having made her decision she is now resolved, now calm and almost happy. Things are not about to become easier but they shall become smoother, easier for her to manage.
Outside a bright light blazes. Robert is up on his roof. Tap-tap, mend-mend; taking care of his house, his home; his soon to be empty home. He says very little to any of us. He is getting on: he is getting by. He is staying put. Why do women always leave and take their children? Why do men leave and disown their children? Ah, generalisations: I am good at them
Tap-tap goes Robert’s hammer as he hammers his home.
Tap-tap go Jane’s shoes as she takes all she owns. She will not be there tomorrow night. The tapping will cease for both of them, I imagine. She is moving through the house like a dynamo. She must pack it all, not leave anything behind. She cannot come back. She must forget nothing. This is the end. I am sad about this. But it is the sadness about death, about waste.
Jane is doing what she must to stay alive. She must go before she and Robert kill each other.
A quiet night except for the tapping. Next door Sue and Mick are watching the television. I imagine them curled in each other’s arms, smiling at the same things on the screen. Even the heat, the sweat of close contact will not deter them from their closeness. Sue has spent the last week away, some course in Darwin. They have missed each other; they touch each other all the time. Not a cross word has passed between them in the three days since she returned. They are still young, still in love. They believe in it, and in happy endings. I hope the sickness in Jane and Robert’s house does not jump the fence and breach their walls of love. They should not be invaded by foreign germs. Not yet. Not ever. Let them discover diseases of their own, if they must. It has been good of late not to hear Sue and Mick’s raised voices or slamming doors. Perhaps they will last?
In fact, the corner has been very quiet of late. Perhaps it is the weight of the air, the oppression in the atmosphere that keeps us quiet? Across the corner there has barely been a sound now for weeks, or is it months? Of course, I am rarely on my verandah these nights, but we used to hear our lesbian lovers from inside behind the noise of the air conditioner. They worry me. They are too quiet. I see my friend of the two very rarely these days. We have not chatted for some time now. We are both becoming quite isolated. Probably we are caged by the same things. Yet I hope their qualities are different because when I look upon her face I see death. There is something in her eyes – or is it that there isn’t something in her eyes – something missing; something lost. Her smiles are vacuous, meaningless. She is vague, missing. Slowly she is being extinguished. It will be a lingering and painful death. I consider her weak for not doing anything: for not getting out when she had the chance. And she had it, by God. But am I any better, any stronger? I doubt it.
Jane has found strength. It is good to see. At least one of us has some determination, some courage. At least one…
I listen for voices within my house. It is silent now. He has finished on the phone. Still he needs to talk to her. I had thought that would change, stop, go away. But it hasn’t. I think I understand more now. But still I do not like it. I say very little these days; it only causes arguments. At least he understands me more now. My patience, my stoic perseverance, is winning through. There is more to keep him here now. That makes me safer, secure: even happy. I have not walked for a long time; I have not disappeared into the night in a fit of tyre black or petrol fumes. I do not disappear from his bed before dawn. I stay.
Jane is going. Happiness is returning to us all. Perhaps she is taking away this disease of disquiet, this revolution of unrest with her? Perhaps in her final waking she will drag away the blackness of our nights and leave we, who remain, in peace and contentment? A night thought. A good thought. But I have my doubts. Our happinesses are momentary, fleeting. We rejoice in Jane’s decision, in her courage, and we smile, hoping for the best for her in her new life. But we know, or at least I do, that the walking is not over. It is very far from over. It is never over. Troubled minds, unquiet hearts stay with you; they are the part of you that does not remain in the house as you leave. No, you are their house and they stay with you wherever you go.
Soon the rains will torment out of the sky. Soon this corner will be drenched with rain and the sounds of tears and fists and glasses smashing will not be drowned out by the rain: they will simply accompany it.
The coolness of the night soothes my mind. My aches are slowly dissipating. The screen door is sliding open. My man has come outside, ostensibly to look at his garden in the silver black of this night. But really, I know these things now, he has come to bring me back. I am more precious now. He does not want to lose me, so he does the right thing. He has learnt that a little reassurance goes a long way.
There is a future. A future for us all on this corner. Perhaps we cannot stay here? Jane has to go. Sue is safe for now, but wait a few years. Our alternative couple take their troubles wherever they go. I shall be gone soon, too, from this corner. But I am not like Jane. I do not plan to go alone.
Time has passed. All is still and quiet on my corner. The season is cooler; the oppression and expectation has left the air, left the corner. The nights are almost cold: the fans are off; we lie entwined in each other.
Listen, you will hear nothing. There are no women left on this corner now. Jane left long ago; Sue and Mick moved before the tired air of this corner invaded their hopes and future; even our lesbian couple have found a new house and peace and harmony, if only for a short while. Robert is left and I remain.
But we are going to. Our house and contents are all but packed – this is our last night here. My last night on this verandah. We have found a quieter place where our neighbours do not impinge upon us, and their midnight screams do not float through the darkened air into our lives.
Listen. All is quiet here now. There is no flood-light on Robert’s roof: he is not working, tapping or mending now. There are no footsteps echoing through his house, no cries, no slamming doors, no walking out. There is no breaking crockery or screams from across the corner – all is dark there too. Silent.
Inside here is quiet too. There are no voices over the phone now. No more long and detailed conversations from which I must escape. Now I sit on the verandah because I wish to. Now I sit here under this frangipanied night listening to noises from the past.
Hush. All is quiet. All is dark. All is peaceful on this corner. No longer my corner. We sit together, my husband and I, on our last night here. He ruffles my hair and goes to stand in his garden, inhaling the perfumes of his vegetables and flower for the last time.
Listen. All is quiet now. No one walks at night any more. All our despair and hopelessness has gone – has been taken away. Hush. All is quiet. We are going, leaving this corner, leaving it in peace; letting it recover from us all. Ssh. Listen to the peace while you can.