On Valentine’s Day was first published in October 2017 in Quadrant magazine. It is set in Perth, Australia. I like my stories to have a strong sense of place, so used a visit to this city to research the setting. Usually it takes me two to six months to write a new piece of fiction of 3,000-5,000 words. This one took about a year of recrafting until the story reached a publishable standard. I was so happy when it was finally accepted. I’m not sure what inspired the story itself. I usually come up with a character and then work out what happens to him or her as the story progresses, but ‘place’ is what grounds me in the story telling.
You had to get out of them occasionally, those Australian country towns with the funny names: Wagga Wagga, Wee Waa, Woy Woy. Once, after a devastating week wiped out more than $4 trillion from the global stock exchanges, one of the local papers boasted a banner headline: WAGGA WAGGA WOMAN WEDS WOY WOY TOY BOY. You had to make an effort from time to time to get out, even if it meant flying all the way across the Nullarbor Desert to go to a Valentine’s Day party.
In the centre of Wee Waa, across the road from a church and the grave yard was a small primary school and a scatter of classrooms used for adult education. For the last four years Joanne Stephenson had been a teacher at the school. She loved those kids. At forty-two, with no relationship in sight, the probability of having a child of her own had become increasingly remote.
She also taught ‘Vision Boarding As A Tool For Memoir Writing’ in the evenings. She presented the course to men and to women, although attending the sessions, and handing in the final assignment wouldn’t help her students get a job. Even though her student evaluations had been slipping the last year or so—Joanne Stephenson has let everyone know in no uncertain terms how fed up she is with students arriving late for class or not doing their homework—all in all, the college was pleased to have her.
Living in Wee Waa was difficult for her, they knew. Once at the beginning of the year, she had turned all the lights off in the building and for twenty minutes had her students chant ‘om’ at the start of class. The Manager had called her into his office, but did not say any words of criticism. Well, not exactly. Joanne Stephenson thinks cutting pictures out of magazines and pasting them into a scrapbook is a creative act. Is this an activity we should be paying for? He asked her how things were going and patted her on the wrist. She said, ‘It’s a big ask expecting adult students to sit in those tiny children’s chairs,’ and he studied the way she tightened the scarf at her neck as she said it. He wouldn’t describe her as attractive, although her eyes were honest and reflected a willingness to listen mindfully when conversing with others. There wasn’t enough effort with the untidy hair though, and her scarves—worn so often to take the emphasis away from her face—were over the top, decorating her neck like a collage of bright parrot feathers.
‘I’m losing my marbles in this place,’ said Joanne to her younger sister, Penny in Perth. Joanne phoned her every Sunday.
‘You’re always harping on,’ said Penny, ‘but then you take yourself off somewhere and then you’re happy to be back home to your routines and you’re content for a while and say you have the perfect life, and then after a while you say you’re pulling your hair out with boredom, and you start up with the whining again.’
Penny was a part-time caterer for the film industry. She’d turn up on location with her big food truck, set up trestle tables and canvas chairs in the middle of nowhere. She thought her life was “pretty cool”. She was living with her husband of many years, who had recently taken a redundancy package. Penny and Clive had a twelve-year-old daughter, and recently moved to Perth from Sydney into a luxury high-rise apartment with large balconies overlooking the Swan River.
‘We like to have friends over for barbecues on the balcony,’ Penny was always gloating, as if to let Joanne know that, unlike her, she had a life outside of work. It wasn’t Penny’s social life that made Joanne envious however, it was the fact her sister had a child. Although the child’s determined nature brought Penny to tears of frustration. This she didn’t envy.
‘Living away from the city has been good for my allergies,’ said Joanne on the phone. She used to say it was to get away from petrol fumes, but now she said it was to avoid the dust mites. What have you run away from? a student once asked her. Bed bugs, she said and grinned. He looked dubious.
Her adult students were mostly salt-of-the-earth country people, spaced-out with endorphins from large quantities of good clean air. In class they’d share stories of their childhood struggles, of adolescence, the death of loved ones. They seemed vulnerable at these times, often carrying a deep grief. She was good at encouraging them to open up on the page, but the outpouring of emotion that sometimes followed was difficult to contain. She wished she had the counselling skills to support them.
‘I’m flying over to visit you next weekend,’ announced Joanne.
‘I was hoping you would,’ said Penny. ‘Henry and I are having a party for Valentine’s Day. It falls on a Saturday this year. It should be fabulous. A dress up party.’
‘I’ll dust off my devil horns and tail and shiny red tights.’
‘Not that outfit again.’
‘I’ve worn those horns so many times I’ll probably end up giving birth with them on.’
‘Ha. Ha,’ laughed Penny. ‘I really want you to come, but we’ve got a full house,’ she apologised. ‘All the beds are taken.’
‘That’s a shame.’ Secretly, Joanne was relieved. She liked her own space, no matter how small. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll book a hotel somewhere. And anyway, I don’t like sleeping in other people’s houses.’
‘I’m not just anybody. I’m your sister. Next time you’ll stay with us. Okay?’
‘You sure you haven’t got anything else to wear? And for goodness sake, you’re not expecting are you?’
‘Unless there’s someone in your life you haven’t told us about?’
‘I tell you everything. Why not be a single mum though? It doesn’t look like the whole marriage and baby thing’s going to happen for me, so why not?’
‘Don’t do anything stupid.’
‘You’re only saying that because Virginia has always been a handful.’
‘You’re forty-two, woman. You’ve left your run too late. By the time you meet someone and decide to have a child you’ll be too old.
Should she say that one of her gay friends had said he’d help out if she decided to take the IVF option?
‘You’d never be able to handle a baby on your own,’ Penny had exploded once when Joanne had mentioned the possibility of going-it-alone. ‘Without a guy how would you manage?’
The thing was, Joanne hadn’t given up on the whole baby thing. But she knew better than to say that to her sister.
That morning she’d woken up feeling decidedly unwell. It must have been the previous evening’s pig-out on Indian food. She’d wondered though, if that’s what morning sickness would feel like.
Joanne had been out with two men since she’d come to Wee Waa. One of them was a tennis coach. ‘Tennis is excellent for upper body strength,’ her gynaecologist had told her. ‘Fresh air and sunshine. It will do you good.’ The tennis coach had stopped giving lessons when he fell and broke his wrist. He’d asked her out for a drink. At first she thought he was wonderful—someone who shared a common interest. But soon the tennis coach had become elusive and unreliable. One autumn day in his old Merc, when she’d asked him if there was a problem, he’d said, ‘Have you tried wearing makeup?’ She’d stopped using cosmetics since the allergies. She brushed a leaf out of her hair.
‘And don’t leave that on the floor,’ he said, driving. ‘You know the rule about eating in the car.’
She rolled her eyes and sighed deeply. ‘I wasn’t eating a leaf, for goodness sake.’
He slowed down at an amber light and frowned. ‘Same thing. No crumbs, no bits of anything to be cleaned up.’
‘Oh really! You’re so anal!’
The second guy was more of a realist, more practical. His name was Joe Maddigan and he cleaned the windows in her three-story walk-up. His ladder couldn’t reach her top floor unit, so he had to get her phone number to arrange a suitable time to come and clean the outsides of the windows by hanging out the window ledge. One evening when he’d forgotten to collect his cleaning rags, she’d had to let him in again. He’d said something about missing the last train, so she’d let him stay over—after he’d promised to sleep on the couch. In the end, they’d both slept on the sofa. She’d dated him for a few months, but the thing was, what did they have in common? He was on the outside looking in and she was on the inside looking out.
‘There’s something I have to ask you,’ said Penny. ‘I know there’s meant to be a man-drought but I meet plenty of men.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘Are you dating anyone? I’m asking for a reason, I’m not just like Dad was.’
Dad. Good old Dad. He couldn’t understand why Joanne wasn’t married. It brought back painful memories. The smell of urine in the old family house—when he had become decrepit with dementia to the point that their mother had to place him in a home—then two years later, the death of Mother from cancer. We’re orphans now, Penny had said.
‘I’m dating myself. I take myself to the movies, or out for a walk.’
‘The reason I’m asking is that I know someone I think you could be interested in,’ said Penny. ‘He’s a laugh-a-minute. Fun. Heterosexual. Not currently married. That’s about it.’
‘I don’t tend to do things just for fun. I want to come over, sit on your balcony, and watch black swans on the river.’
‘Well, whatever you like. You can do both. Play it by ear. Don’t forget your devil’s outfit,’ said Penny.
‘I take those red stockings with me everywhere.’
Joanne found a hotel overlooking the jetty, with its row of ferries bound for Rottnest Island. The few scattered shops, cafes and restaurants were set in between the road works that Perth council had promised would transform the area. A woman her own age manned the reception desk. This woman gave her the key to a cheap, old-fashioned room on the top floor. There were a multitude of grimy windows that could keep someone like Joe Maddigan very busy. She brought to mind his soft face and the way his chin gathered into a dimple when he smiled. She’d always been a sucker for young and cute.
How many weeks had it been?
She went for a walk along the marina’s boardwalk and then up the steep steps behind the hotel that led to Kings Park and the Botanic Gardens. Bold banksias, boronias and kangaroo paws as she made her way to the top where she could see the city skyline and the Swan River. The western coast, was just like she’d remembered it; native orchids, Federation houses, the light of the sun setting into the ocean. What would it be like to live there? She kept herself occupied with the mathematics of what another move would entail, and also with ideas of how to earn money in some different way, a contrast to all the things she’d done before. Working in a shop would be monotonous, but reception could be okay. How much an hour would a hotel receptionist get paid? She wouldn’t mind being cut off, living in Australia’s most remote city. After all, that’s where her sister lived.
A coffee bar overlooked the boardwalk at the hotel, but only one man was there eating bacon and eggs. A waiter came in from the kitchen with a tea towel over his arm. He asked Joanne’s room number and led her to the bench where the man was sitting. The man had a lean face, a greyish-blonde moustache and a downcast look. He glanced up as she approached and moved his newspaper to the side to make room for her. It was open at the sports pages. Like Joe Maddigan who only looked at the back pages. The man gave her a friendly nod and made a comment about the sunny weather. She smiled back at him hoping to avoid seeing any fried egg caught between his teeth. She tried to joke about the weather being perfect for all the romantics on Valentine’s Day. They exchanged information on things to see and do in Perth. He suggested she catch a ferry to Rottnest Island to see the quokkas. He wouldn’t mind going there again himself, if she wanted some company. When he finished his breakfast he stood up and handed her his newspaper. ‘Just for you,’ he said with a smile.
‘At last!’ Penny yelled through the intercom, before the click of the security gate of her sister’s block of units. Joanne took the lift to the nineteenth floor where Penny was waiting at the wide open door. Joanne stepped in and hugged her sister close. Twelve-year-old Virginia was lying on the couch in front of the television behind them.
‘This is how you do it,’ Penny said over her shoulder to Virginia.
‘She’s still not hugging then?’ Joanne whispered.
‘No. See Virginia,’ Penny said louder. ‘You put your arms around each other, maybe rock from side to side, then a little pat on the back.’
‘Was she watching us?’ asked Joanne. Penny had told her about Virginia’s recent aversion to affection. Maybe leaving her friends and school behind had made her resentful.
‘Out of the corner of her eye I think.’
The apartment was open and light, with a view across the river of the city.
‘It’s great to see you,’ said Joanne.
‘Say hello to Aunty Joanne.’
‘Hello darling,’ Joanne called out to the girl, who mumbled a greeting in return.
‘Now, what would you like?’ said Penny. ‘Cup of tea?’
Penny made them tea and a snack—toasted cheese on Turkish—and carried a tray out to the balcony.
‘So how’s life with Henry now he’s home all the time now?’ asked Joane.
‘To tell you the truth, I’m used to my freedom. None of this coming home in the middle of the day to make lunch.’
Joanne nodded with understanding. ‘If you’re not working you want to be out playing tennis. Right?’
‘What is it people say? I married him for life, not for lunch. Something like that.’
‘Yeah. But the thing is, I worry about Virginia. She’s a real homebody. She doesn’t want to leave the apartment. It’s just so hard to get her out the door.’
‘Oh,’ said Joanne. ‘I know how she feels.’ She leaned back on the woven-cane couch and stared pensively across the river. It seemed unnatural for a kid to be living up in the air like this, no backyard to kick a ball around in. Although there was the indoor heated lap pool.
Penny sighed. ‘She comes home from school and just wants to veg out on the couch.’
Joanne sat up and adjusted the cushions behind her back. ‘What’s wrong with that?’ she said, in a firm, maternal way. She rubbed her sister’s arm, gently, as if to reassure her.
‘Really? You think that’s okay?’ Penny smiled with relief.
‘Kids have a lot of pressure on them these days. There’s no harm in unwinding on the sofa but I find the longer I sit on the couch, the harder it is to get up.’ She thought now of herself, solitary in her apartment; of the pesky flies that multiplied like crazy in the holes between the bricks on her terrace, landing on her coffee table, thirsty; of the second toothbrush she kept in the container with the toothpaste in her bathroom, that someone had told her would make any trades people think she didn’t live alone.
After lunch Joanne joined her niece on the lounge, leaving Penny to do the final clean up before the party. I don’t need your help, she’d said. You know how I like to do things my way. Virginia was playing a game of tennis on the Wii through the television monitor. She had a determined, but fine-boned face, and long straight hair. She wore a pink and white all-in-one rabbit suit.
‘You’re still in your pyjamas?’ said Joanne.
‘When I got up it was lying on the floor, so I put it on.’
‘She doesn’t like getting dressed,’ Penny called out from the kitchen.
Sitting on the couch watching Virginia move on from tennis to golf, then ten pin bowling and finally, figure skating, Joanne glanced over at a packet of chocolate mint biscuits on the back of the lounge that Virginia had been munching between games. Joanne stood up and motioned toward the biscuits with raised eyebrows to indicate that she’d like to have one. Virginia, silent, scowled at her aunt then shook her head, ‘No.’
All the same, Joanne felt comforted being there with her sister and niece. When Virginia finished playing on the Wii she picked up the biscuits, took them with her to her bedroom and closed the door.
Joanne reached inside her bag for her crochet hook and yarn. So this was what she’d become: a woman sitting in front of the television, crocheting.
At the Valentine’s party, about forty people showed up. There were people in organza tutus, genie princesses, belly dancers and schoolboys. There was a cupid carrying a bow and a group of burlesque ballerinas. Penny and Henry were in their heart lock-and-key-couples costume. Henry had a huge blow-up gold key hanging around his neck. ‘Joanne! Long time, no see. Sorry I wasn’t here to greet you this afternoon.’ After that he went off to take photos of the belly dancers and the ballerinas.
‘Is there anything you’d like me to do?’ Joanne asked her sister. ‘You’ve put on a fabulous party. You must be exhausted.’ She patted Penny’s shoulder, softly, as if she wished they could go off somewhere, just the two of them.
‘Actually, you know what?’
‘What?’ Joanne adjusted her flashing devil horns in the tangles of her curly hair.
‘You know what you can do?’ said Penny, arranging slices of eggplant on the grill. ‘Meet Robert. He’s the bloke I wanted you to meet. When he gets here, make him feel included. He’s a good guy but he’s in recovery from a bitter divorce.’
‘Okay,’ Joanne sighed. ‘I’ll do what I can.’
When Robert arrived, he was wearing a light-up red bow tie and sweetheart-shaped red glasses—cute.
‘Joanne this is Robert,’ said Penny.
‘Hi,’ said Robert reaching out to shake her hand. He stared at the blinking horns on her head. ‘Very eye catching!’
Joanne nodded. ‘Love the glasses,’ she said. She looked past him, out the sliding glass doors to the city high-rises reflected in the water; people were making the usual comments: how it looked like a fairyland out there, magic castles in the air. ‘There’s Peroni out on the terrace, Robert—would you like one?’ Joanne asked.
‘Sure. I’ll come outside with you.’
They edged past the other guests, passing a schoolboy and the cupid. The sliding door gave way in a rush, and Joanne and Robert stepped out onto the balcony, a little red devil and a spectacled romantic. The air reverberated with cool unpredictability. Joanne found the plastic esky, burrowed into it and salvaged two beers.
‘Thanks,’ said Robert. His bow tie sparkled as he twisted open the bottle. ‘Penny tells me you’re a tutor. Where do you teach?’
‘In Wee Waa, New South Wales.’
He looked surprised. ‘Penny didn’t tell me that bit. I’m a Production Manager in the film business,’ he said. His cheeks were starting to redden, his glasses skew whiff on his head.
‘Do you like it?’
‘Yes.’ A grin, a lopsided one. ‘Not much money in freelance though.’ He shifted his weight to his other leg. ‘Are you dating anyone?’
‘Now? This minute?’
‘Obviously not at this very moment.’ He gave her a puzzled look.
Below them a ferry slid in to the old wooden dock with a gentle clunk.
‘No. But since living in Wee Waa I’ve dated a tennis coach and a window cleaner.’ she said. ‘Jason and Joe. Things didn’t seem to work out with either of them. What about you?’
He told her about the split up with his wife and how they’d been trying to have a baby for years. Now his ex-wife was waiting for him to give approval to the laboratory to destroy their unused fertilised eggs. The breeze moistened his eyes.
Joanne looked at him sympathetically. ‘That’s terrible. What an awful decision to have to make.’
All the time he was talking, she was trying to think what his way of speaking reminded her of. It wasn’t one particular person, although she might have had one or two students in Wee Waa who spoke with the same rhythms, the inflection at the end of a sentence, the dropping of the ‘g’ sound at the end of a word.
She wished she could think of something else to say. All she could think about was a childless woman like herself somewhere, desperate to implant those eggs.
‘Want some nibbles?’ Penny edged through the sliding door. She thrust forward a plate of grilled eggplant in one hand and napkins in the other.
‘Yum,’ said Robert, enthusiastically. He seemed fond of Penny, and put his arm around her shoulder.
‘Where’s Virginia?’ asked Joanne.
Penny made a face. ‘In her room. Where else would she be?’
‘It must be the adolescent mood swings,’ said Joanne.
She remembered when the whole family had been living in Sydney. She would pop in to Penny and Henry’s house every day after work to see her niece. And every weekend too. She adored the little girl. ‘Go home and start your own family,’ Henry would say in irritation.
‘You know, I’ll be back in a minute,’ Joanne said now.
‘Okay,’ said Robert, looking perturbed. ‘If you must.’
Joanne hurried inside, across the lounge room, down the hallway toward Virginia’s bedroom. She knocked gently on the door then walked in. Virginia was sitting in bed, headphones plugged into her ears. Joanne flicked on the light. Virginia looked up and indicated with a lift of her eyelids that it was okay for Joanne to enter.
Joanne leant closer to the girl, put her arms around her, placed her lips on her hair. ‘Don’t worry; I won’t kiss you. I’m going now. I just came in to say good night.’
Virginia remained silent but gave a little smile.
‘See you soon,’ Joanne said, before leaving the room.
She closed the door behind her. Maybe she wouldn’t be up to the task of handling a moody child. It might be beyond her capabilities.
Joanne read for half an hour before climbing into bed. Then she went down the hall to the bathroom. It was well past midnight. The rest of the hotel was in darkness. She had left her front door slightly ajar, and returning to her room, she did not turn on the corridor light. The door diagonally opposite was also ajar, and as she was passing she heard someone whisper. She recognised the moustache and long face with tucked-in chin of the man who had given her his newspaper. He was lying on the bed watching her from his dark room and he gestured at her to come in. She ignored him and headed for her own room, shut the door and locked it.
She lay there awake for most of the night. She knew that there was a time when she might have considered walking into that room, and earlier that evening she could have given a signal to Robert. Not so long ago she might have done—or she might not have done, depending on how she felt at the time. Now it felt like an impossibility.
After all, she was in a new and unusual condition.
Her body was holding a secret, a secret she wasn’t going to tell.
© Libby Sommer 2017