This story was written just after The Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. A lot of Sydneysiders vacated Sydney during this time in anticipation of gridlocked roads, etc, leaving the rest of us to enjoy the Olympics along with all the tourists.
Just before six o’clock on Friday evening, Anny and Gordon get out of Anny’s Honda. They walk down Bondi Road passing the tattoo shop, the vegetarian restaurant and yet another new Thai restaurant. The road is unusually quiet and Anny has parked directly opposite the fish cafe where she’s taking Gordon for dinner. The streets aren’t grid locked during the Olympics after all and there’s an unusual calm on this usually noisy busy road.
Walk in front of me, says Gordon as they head towards the traffic lights and the pedestrian crossing. I can see better if you walk slightly in front of me.
She doesn’t know whether to offer him her arm or what. She feels embarrassed at the thought of close physical contact with him and is pleased that he’s told her to walk in front. At least she knows now the best way to progress along the street with him. Not like the snail’s pace of the week before.
Anny’s friend had rung and asked Anny to help out by taking Gordon for a walk or a movie or something – to help keep him entertained for the four weeks of his visit during the Olympics.
If he’s halfway decent I’ll let you know, said the friend’s wife.
Don’t worry, said Anny, I’ll take him out anyway.
Tonight he’s wearing jeans and a cream shirt. At least he’s not wearing joggers and that bright jacket in loud primary colours that he wore last time. Tonight Anny has dressed down. She took the time to have a bath and change out of her work clothes before picking him up. She’s wearing dark brown suede trousers and a lemon cotton singlet top with matching cardigan – a colour that suits her dark hair and pale skin well enough when she is at her best, but she is not at her best today. She is wearing dark glasses, and the reason is that she has taken to weeping in spurts, never at the really bad times but in between; the spurts are as unbidden as sighs.
Before her first outing with Gordon she worried so much about escorting a visually impaired man, that when she arrived home from work she’d prayed that the one message on her answer machine would be from her friend saying the arrangement to go out was cancelled. This time as she stands at her mirror preparing to go out she feels good to be dressing for a date. It will be nice to go out for a meal, even though she has to pick him up and usher him around. He hadn’t seemed that bad. Maybe she’ll bring him back to her place afterwards. They could have a drink, she could show him the view down the gully – the jungle of vines and palms and ferns – maybe even hear the birds in the morning.
Standing at her dressing table she sees reflected in the glass the tree at the top of the gully – she doesn’t know its name – its twisted gnarled branches, a variety of greens in its leaves, the occasional red bloom amongst the foliage – the one the cockatoos like to eat. It’s draped against the red tiled roof of the house in front . The Pacific ocean behind. The terra cotta roofs and the blue of the ocean remind her of living on the French Riviera with a glimpse of the Mediterranean from her studio window, blue behind the red roof in front of her. A little corner of blue. . She’d been able to live happily alone then: without a man, without a car, without a regular job. Occasional commissions. When she came back to Australia she thought she’d get more commissions. And why hasn’t she? No time, not enough light, nowhere to work, too isolating. The familiar self-pity – she recognises it as self pity – rises in her like bitter bile.
It’s only a short drive to her friend’s house in Surry Hills.
You wouldn’t know there’s anything wrong with him, her friend had said on the phone. Slight brain damage from a New York mugging.
She parks directly outside the house so he can step straight into the passenger side of the car when she opens the door for him. He uses the handle at the side of the seat to move his seat back.
I hope it’s not too cramped for you there, she says.
No problem. I used to drive a sports car. I’m used to it.
Now Anny and Gordon cross Bondi Road at the lights and head towards the liquor store. Anny suggested they buy a bottle of wine to drink with dinner. She’s booked a table at the fish restaurant because he said that’s what he likes to eat.
They walk into the restaurant, Gordon carrying the Pinot, Anny leading the way. White table cloths, white crockery, black lacquered chairs. White butchers paper in sheets on top of the white cloths. No opportunity to illustrate signature table mats in here, thinks Anny. Not like the cafes on the waterfront in the south of France with their unique architectural styles. The waitress, uniformed in a black apron over black tee shirt and trousers, leads them to the back of the restaurant, away from the television screen with the Olympics and closer to the ambient background music. The fake strylitzias replaced at the front of the restaurant by the television set.
Gordon excuses himself and goes to the toilet. I’m glad he’s able to find his way to the toilet unaided, she thinks. And strangely enough he could read the $1.20 corkage charge in minute writing at the bottom of the menu.
A man and a woman at the next table finish their meal and leave. The table is quickly cleaned up. The white paper on the table cloth removed and replaced.
From the kitchen a waitress brings a jug of water with ice cubes and slices of lemon and places two glasses on the table. She picks up the bottle of wine. Do you want it on ice or room temperature? She asks.
Room temperature would be fine.
When Gordon returns from the toilet he pours the red wine into her glass and then into his own. They lift their glasses towards each other but neither of them proposes a toast. They settle back in their chairs. The sound of the Olympic games swimming excitement carries up to their end of the restaurant. They share a green salad and thick Italian bread as they wait for their meal.
So you’re collecting grandchildren? says Gordon.
Anny is not pleased at this question. Surely he can think of something else to ask her apart from grandchildren. She loves her little grandchild of course but she’s still a bit reticent about shouting out to the world that she’s now a grandmother. He’s asked the question in such a way that it sounds like a statement, so she sees no reason to reply.
How many have you got? he persists.
Just the one, indicating by her tone of voice that that’s where the matter ends for now.
She couldn’t help but look into his mouth and see his little yellowed receding teeth and his thin lips as he used his finger to wedge out pieces of stuck fish at the side of his mouth. There’s a grain of rice on his cheek next to his mouth and she wonders whether to say anything, but luckily it falls off as he takes another bite of his barrumundi.
Although there are fans on the ceiling it’s very hot in the restaurant. Anny wants to take off her cardigan but she doesn’t want to expose her arms, her upper arms that is, that are less than perfect even though she does weights and other things at the gym.
She wears a jacket or a cardigan always now to draw the eyes and attention away from that part of her body that is growing larger at a more rapid rate than the rest of her, which is causing her much alarm. You’d think that with all the exercise she did her body wouldn’t be so out of control. She never thought this would happen to her. She thought she’d be spared the disgrace and indignity of it all. Other women say they’ve had enough of the messy monthly bleeding and are happy to take a tablet that stops the flow. But then she also knows women who say they’ve had enough of sex too – that messy business. So, we’re not all the same, she reminds herself.
When Anny and Gordon finish eating Gordon wants to order a coffee straight away and keeps looking around for the waitress.
The service isn’t as good as it was when we first arrived, he says.
The waitress probably thinks we want to take it slowly rather than rush in, eat and leave in the quickest possible time, she says.
Eventually the waitress brings a latte and a short black with a mint chocolate on the side of each saucer.
Anny offers to pay but he tells her she can leave the tip.
Will you come in? he asks when she drops him back to her friend’s front door.
No thanks. I’ve got an early start tomorrow.
He looks disappointed and she tries not to feel bad as she watches him walk to the security gate and let himself in with his key.
She goes through her morning ritual of watering her herbs on the balcony. Takes the coriander and parsley out of their containers so the water can run off from the roots so they won’t get pot bound. She keeps them in ceramic pots on an old oak hallstand that she keeps on the balcony. There was nowhere else to fit the treasured hallstand after moving from the house where she lived with her children into a unit. She thought when the children left home she’d do so many of the things she never had time for before. But she doesn’t.
She keeps the beloved hallstand outside at the mercy of the elements – although under cover. She just has to remember to keep it well oiled. And it is providing a suitable place to grow herbs. Not that she’s a gardener. But she’s pretending to be happy. She’s trying hard to be happy. Growing herbs seems like a good thing to do.
She’d like to buy a rocket plant as well. When she lived in Europe she ate a lot of rocket. Especially in Italy. But the rocket plants in the Garden Centre at Bondi Junction have small light green leaves.
Is this the only rocket plant you have in here? Anny asks the young woman who comes up to serve her at the Garden Centre.
Yes. And you’ll have to repot it into a larger container.
Anny uses the opportunity to ask if she should repot her parsley and coriander plants.
Yes, definitely the parsley. I don’t know about coriander.
As the woman speaks Anny looks into her pale unadorned face, sees her short plain hair, her apron over her overalls and wonders if she’s gay. Working in a Garden Centre would be a good job for a gay woman, thinks Anny.
You can bring in your parsely and coriander plants and I’ll repot them for you, she says. There’ll be no charge for my time. Only the cost of the pot and the potting mix.
I’ll come back another day when I’ve got my car.
That’s a good idea, says the woman with a smile.
It always worries Anny when gay women smile at her.
She thanks the woman as a buzzer rings from inside the Centre for the third time since they’d been speaking together.
I’m feeling nervous and anxious and stressing out about taking this fellow out again tonight to the Opera House, Anny says to her daughter on the telephone. I was trying to do a kind deed but now I wish I hadn’t offered. I have to race home from work, eat, get the car, pick him up, find out how to park at the Opera House, maneuver him in, etc. etc. all before 7.30.
Don’t worry, mum. You worried last time and you managed. You’ll manage okay this time. Okay?
It’s raining. The ocean churned up and mottled with waves. The whole expanse of the sky grey with no definition between clouds and sky furring in with the sea. The waterfall at the top of the gully thunders relentlessly.
Anny closes the sliding door against the huge sound of water torrenting down rocks. She watches through the glass the leaves of the pot plants blowing in the wind. She remembers feeling lighter than this. Remembers not being weighted down with tears at the back of her eyes. Remembers being without this hole in her stomach. It’s not always like this, she reminds herself.
The double glazed glass deadens the noise. She turns the radio news down now that she is cushioned from the sound of the rain and walks to her desk. On the table a sketch of a mermaid wearing a bra.
No pubic hair and no nipples are her instructions for this children’s book.
As Anny and Gordon drive to the Opera House Anny thinks about what annoys her the most about him. Probably that he doesn’t remember things that she tells him. For example on every outing so far he’s asked if she’s travelled.
Travelled outside the country I mean, Gordon says now in the car.
Yes, I’ve travelled lots.
Where have you been?
Just about everywhere.
You’d think he’d remember this bit of significant detail about her and her life. But each time she’s seen him he asks her the same question. And the other big problem is his loud American voice. When they’re out everyone around them can hear what he’s saying. And then when she says something and lowers her voice he says, What? In a loud voice,
What did you say? He repeats.
She’s stopped initiating conversation. So then he keeps saying, Well?
Well? he’ll say for no apparent reason when she’s driving or they’re walking along the street. He says it now as they drive towards the Opera House.
She’s concentrating on her driving and worried about finding somewhere to park.
Well then? he says by way of a variation.
Looking at Gordon sideways as he stands there silhouetted by the Harbour Bridge on the forecourt of the Opera House, the wings of the Opera House behind him, she can see from his profile that he was probably quite handsome once. Defined cheekbones, regular features, a strength in his face and probably he had a decent physique. Tonight he wears dark blue corduroys and a pale blue denim shirt open at the neck and brown American style loafers. At least he’s not wearing one of those horrible navy blue blazers with gold buttons that most men his age seem to wear for special occasions.
Gordon looks over at the sign pointing to the Drama Theatre.
At least they know how to spell theatre here in Australia, he comments. Not like the Americans.
He probably isn’t even aware that she’s not speaking to him. In the theatre he talks to the man in the seat at the end of the row. Tells the man he’s here visiting from America for the Olympics. Now he’s talking to the man about theatre on Broadway and off Broadway.
I used to go to the theatre, says Gordon wistfully. But not recently. Not since I lost my wife.
As they sit watching Troilus and Cressida she can’t help but notice his sniffing, like a tic, a regular involuntary sniff. And then there he is asleep, first on one armrest leaning to the right and then on the other armrest leaning in her direction. She worries that he’ll fall over or down in his chair and she’ll have to wake him up, or worse still, that his whole body will fall across on to her.
There was a lot of nudity in that play, she says to Gordon as she drives him home. I hadn’t realized when I booked the tickets that there’d be so much nudity.
Yes, he says.
Judging by Troilus and Cressida, nudity and sex is back in – in the theatre, she says. Breasts and bottoms everywhere, she thinks. Jiggling bottoms. You can only see so much of jiggling bottoms. I can see the need for wardrobe. Wardrobe and makeup.
There are more accidents on the road on rainy days, he says looking out the window. People get more frustrated.
They drive up Macquarie Street, across William Street, into Oxford Street and then right into York Road on the eastern side of Centennial Park. Then into Birrell Street and right into Bronte Road, winding around the roundabouts, straight down the hill past the palm trees and the ocean and are rounding the corner to turn into Macpherson Street. It is a narrow road, not well lit and not used much in the evening. Coming down Macpherson Street from the west is a Lithuanian cyclist in training to compete in the Olympic women’s road cycling in a week’s time. She arrived in Sydney that afternoon and is having a practice ride on the Centennial Park to Bronte route. She doesn’t know, or she’s forgotten, that cars drive on the other side of the road in Australia. She’s approaching the corner of Macpherson Street and Bronte Road cycling fast down the hill at between sixty and seventy kilometres an hour on the wrong side of the road, and she’s hasn’t any lights.
There isn’t time to say a word. Gordon doesn’t yell out. Anny doesn’t touch the brake. The bike and rider flash before them, like a huge sea bird heading straight for the windows of a plane, smashing into glass. The cyclist comes down the dark street and fills the air straight towards Anny gliding into view of the headlights.
And then she’s gone – she’s disappeared around the corner and into the lights of Bronte Road.
What Anny feels is not terror or thanksgiving – not yet. What she feels is something else. A lightness – as disconnected from previous and future events as the woman on the bike was, the black bird.
Gordon speaks first. That was close, and then, with his hand on the door he says, I won’t ask you to come in. I know you’ve got an early start tomorrow.
She nods, then turns the car around and drives home. She puts the car away in the lock-up garage and walks up the internal stairs and out on to the balcony. She turns towards the sea looking for the position of the moon tonight. There it is up to her left. The knotty branches of the flame tree move overhead, and under these branches the moonlight comes through on to the weathered hallstand, on to her newly potted herbs and on to her new home.
She inhales deeply the sweet clear smell of trees after rain. The gentle flow of the waterfall. The dribbling of moisture off branches and leaves. The cleansing bright spike of air.
She smiles to herself as she thinks of tomorrow afternoon when she’ll see her granddaughter again. She’ll lie on the floor and let the baby use her as a climbing tower. She’ll haul herself up to a standing position using Anny’s body for support and then Anny will watch her crawl away to explore every surface of the room, to pull and shake and rattle and examine with her little fat fingers every interesting movable object in her path.
Copyright © Libby Sommer 2017
First published in Quadrant magazine
Header Image: Creative Commons