Fiction

Flame red

DEAR LANCE,

I am sitting on the back seat of the bus, heading for Melbourne. This morning, my father took me to the railway station and we waited in the shade of a stringybark tree for the bus to pull up and open its door. The train left for the city just as we arrived, blowing a sad message on its horn. I could have caught that but my parents thought the bus was cheaper and would still get me away from you. They said I was lowering their standing in the community. They said I had no pride, going to the pub and hanging around while you drank at the bar. They said I was like a little dog waiting for its master. Well, that is how I felt. I had to see you, Lance. There was no argument about it.

After my parents found out about me and you they tied me to my bed to keep me from wandering while they were at work. I explained that I only went to see you at the pub, that's the only place I was sure you would be, and that was in the evening. But they did not listen to me. Father said it was just a temporary measure, to give them time to consider what to do next. He apologised each afternoon when he came back from his mail rounds and untied me so I could make his lunch. Mother maintained a grim silence and would not be in the same room with me.

Then yesterday morning she came and stood outside my bedroom door while Father was tying me to the bedpost, and told me about the arrangement. I felt like a stranger who has come into the middle of a conversation and doesn't know what is going on. She said, ‘I'm sending her to the city to stay with my Aunty Ivy, who runs a hotel. I've told Aunty Ivy to set her the task of cleaning the hotel.'

So here I am on the bus to the city, Lance. I have never been to Melbourne before, or even outside Echuca. I am not sure such a place really exists. Maybe I am going to the place in Hell where bad daughters go. I keep my mind on the task that lies ahead. I understand cleaning – I have kept house for my parents since I was sixteen. But I feel strange, Lance, like I left my body behind. I have not eaten all day and I do not feel hungry. In my mind, I keep seeing my old body back there in my bedroom. I keep thinking she is waiting for Father to untie her.

 

DEAR LANCE,

Aunty Ivy picked me up from the bus terminal. She looks just like Mother except more wrinkled.

The evening air was stale and smelled of dirt and metal and petrol fumes. I tried to catch the scent of something living but there was none. All around us were buildings, and though there were some plane trees standing on the pavement, they had no odour. We drove down wide streets lined with buildings. Everything was dirt-coloured. There was a lot of traffic, even more than you see on the highway through Echuca. It honked and screeched and Aunty Ivy shook her fist at it. I sank low in my seat and covered my eyes with my hands. If the other cars were going to ram into us, I did not want to see it.

We passed under a bridge just as a train thundered across it. It was like driving under a dragon galloping to meet the knight.

Aunty Ivy turned and turned, nosing the car through narrow streets where all the houses were small and had peeling walls, no gardens. We parked behind a pub squeezed between factory hulks. Inside, it smelled of smoke, beer and disinfectant. She took me up here to the tower and showed me my room. It is hot and square and looks over a jumble of tin roofs all the way to the horizon. There is only one way out of this room, and that is down the stairs. You can't climb out the window because there is nothing below, not even a drainpipe. Just blank wall from me to the asphalt. I have a bed and a chair, that is all. I shall keep my clothes in my suitcase.

 

DEAR LANCE,

I am sorry I have not been able to write sooner. I expected to write to you every day but I have had so much to do I don't have a moment to myself. Aunty Ivy has got me working through lunch and dinner. Just when I think I can sit down for a minute she points out something else that needs doing. I work through meals with a sandwich in my hand. By the time I climb up to my tower, all I can do is fall into bed.

On my first day she told me I was going to serve behind the bar. I felt a thrill of fear. I told her I didn't know how – I said Mother had instructed her to make me clean. She said, ‘You're going to clean, too, don't you worry about that, but what I really want is bar staff.'

She set me to train during the mornings after I had cleaned. It is quiet then – hardly anyone comes in. She was impatient, snapped at me every mistake I made and called me stupid. ‘Not like that, stupid,' she said. When I had memorised the prices of all the popular drinks, she told me she wanted me to work lunchtimes and evenings. I trembled. Every morning, Bartlett puts a sign out the front advertising strip shows and topless barmaids. I said, ‘Why can't I work in the mornings?' She said, ‘Take off your top and leave your glasses upstairs.' I said I was blind without my glasses. ‘Don't be silly,' she said and shoved me toward the stairs.

I shivered in my room until I heard the hubbub of voices as the men gathered, then I scuttled downstairs wearing my longest T-shirt, no bra. She looked sideways at my chest, her lips clamped together. I have breasts like sparrows, and I can't imagine anybody buying beers just for the chance to look at them. I scurried behind the bar before she could say anything.

Cherie was there, serving and chatting nicely to the customers. She has a bouncy way of moving. I used to think she moved like that to make her flesh more appetising, until one day I saw her come in from the car park, dressed in a long skirt and a loose blouse, and I noticed she bounced then, too. She wears a black suspender belt decorated with pink rosettes, and black stockings that leave the tops of her thighs deliciously bare. When I first started working with her I didn't know how to manage my eyes – they seemed to put themselves on her no matter how I tried not to. It is better now but sometimes I get this rush of panic – Cherie is naked – and I blush red-hot. I can tell by her secret little smile that she knows how I feel.

Every lunchtime the strip show goes on in the backroom. The girls come into the pub carrying gym bags and wearing tight jeans and stiletto heels. Aunty Ivy has set aside a room for them close to the stage. A few minutes to dress and put coloured gloss on her eyelids and lips, then on comes the first one. Cherie and I work up and down the bar from the main room to the back room. As soon as the music starts the men crowd in, shouting and whistling. On my first day I thought they would climb over the counter and rape us, but Cherie said cheerily, ‘They'll do no such thing.' She and I work hard for the next two hours. I feel like I don't draw breath until the last strip show ends and the men pour out of the pub.

Once the men are gone Cherie empties her plate of tips on the bar and counts the money. I don't get any tips, although Aunty Ivy put a bowl down on the bar with a sign saying TIPS. Cherie passes me twenty dollars on the sly and says, ‘Don't tell Ivy or she'll snatch it out of your hand.' I wasn't sure what to do with the money. Aunty Ivy doesn't pay me a wage. She says I get free bed and free meals and that's all the wages I need.

Sunday is my day off. I was so worn out the first Sunday I slept through the day. Same thing happened on the second Sunday. I half woke up once and thought I was back in my bedroom at home. I felt Mother was outside the door. A board creaked. Then I remembered I was living with Aunty Ivy now and drifted off to sleep again.

On the third Sunday I made a real effort and managed to crawl out of bed in the afternoon and take a walk. I found a shop selling books with all kinds of pictures in them. It sold other kinds of books, too, but all I was interested in were the picture books. I went along the shelves, taking out books and leafing through them, until I found a book with scenes from fairytales. There was a dwarf throwing a tantrum, and a proud woman asking her looking glass who was the fairest one of all, and a sea witch with green seaweed hair. I laid the book down and looked at some others but I came back to it and went through it again. This time, I saw a lion wearing a burgundy smoking jacket. His mane hung on his shoulders in princely waves. I bought it with the money Cherie had given me.

When I got home, I went through the book, choosing the pictures I wanted to look at the most. I cut them out with a Stanley knife (borrowed from Bartlett) and stuck them to my bedroom walls.

The next day, Aunty Ivy walked in and looked around the room with her mouth pursed suspiciously. She comes upstairs some mornings to check on my room. She says, ‘I don't want you doing any damage to my property.' She used her foot to lift the lid of my suitcase and check inside. Her feet are bent at the joint of the big toe. The joint has swollen so big she has to wear over-sized shoes to fit over it. She put her finger on the picture of the Lion Prince and said, ‘Where did this come from?' I told her I brought it from home. She said, ‘Hmph! A likely story.'

She reached into my suitcase and took out all my T-shirts. ‘You won't be needing these,' she said, and marched out of the room. I was too stunned to move for a second. Then I ran after her. She turned on me and snapped, ‘What? What?' I wanted to grab them from her but I was too scared. She walked away with my clothes, shouting, ‘And you can get back to work. I don't pay you to sit on your bum all day.'

I crept into her room while she was on the phone and stole back my clothes. I keep them in the box labelled Disinfectant in the cleaning cupboard. Every time I appear in a fresh T-shirt Aunty Ivy scowls.

It is Sunday again and Ivy has gone visiting friends. Bartlett is in charge of the pub. He has a big moustache. His eyes are folded down at the corners and he reminds me of a bloodhound. Before she left, Aunty Ivy told me to make sandwiches for her Sunday regulars. But as soon as she had gone, wearing black high heels that made her press her lips together from the pain, Bartlett jerked his head over his shoulder, telling me to get going and leave it to him.

So here I am, wearing Bartlett's jumper because the autumn air is chilly and sitting in a dusty little park outside the railway station. The trains come and go every five minutes, even though it's Sunday.

I think about you coming here and taking me away. I yearn for it, Lance, though I know you won't come. Every morning when I clean I think myself back to the pub in our town. I see you leaning on the bar, fingers curled around your beer glass. Somebody whispers in your ear. You straighten up and look at me waiting for you by the door, and I turn to flames. Then you sag against the bar again and turn your head away. I go on waiting by the door, though you don't look at me again. Something in me keeps hoping, and writing you these letters.

 

DEAR LANCE,

It has been several weeks since I last wrote to you. Aunty Ivy has been staying in on her day off because there was a death in the family of the people she goes to visit. Her voice cracks when she says ‘death' and it jumps nervously when she says ‘funeral'. I say to her, ‘Wouldn't you like to comfort them?' She says, ‘No, I would not.' I ask her, ‘What do you do when you go to their place?' I ask this because Cherie wants to have me over to her house for dinner one night and I need some clues as to what to do and say. Aunty Ivy says, ‘We play euchre.' She sees me getting ready to ask another question and snaps, ‘Don't you have any work to do?' I scuttle away.

While Aunty Ivy was hanging around on her day off, Bartlett took me down into the cellar to look at the grey barrels of beer. It was cool and the air smelled deliciously of brick and hops. We ate lunch there and when we had finished he let me touch his moustache. It's dark brown and spreads over his lips like a Victorian lady's petticoats. He took my hand and pressed my fingers to it all the way along, brushing it down and smoothing the fibres. He lets me touch it whenever I want, anywhere in the pub, as long as Ivy isn't watching. The regulars see us and nod wisely. One of them comes in wearing a droopy tutu, with her boyfriend who dresses all in green, and she wiggles her eyebrows significantly.

Now I am released from the pub for the afternoon. Aunty Ivy's friends are over their grief and she has gone back to visiting them. Bartlett hides a satisfied smile under his moustache.

 

DEAR LANCE,

Cherie asked me to go with her to the hairdresser. She said she wanted someone to help her decide how to have her hair. I told her I knew nothing about these things and showed her my coarse braid. She looked annoyed, so I said, ‘Aunty Ivy won't let me.' ‘I'll deal with Ivy,' she said, and marched away. A minute later, she came back and told me we were going out.

While we waited in the salon, sitting in canvas-and-chrome chairs and sipping espresso, she told me things about herself. She told me she wanted to have children but her husband had asked her to wait; he said babies would change the shape of her breasts and she had to make the most of them while they were still plump. She said Ivy made her leave her wedding ring off for work. I asked her how she could talk to the customers as if she was clothed. She said, ‘I'm always clothed in my mind. When I'm behind the bar I'm wearing a ball gown the colour of starlight. Chiffon,' she said, ‘acres of it,' smoothing her hand over those twinkling skirts. She nodded with satisfaction. ‘That's the secret of my success.'

I told her about you and me. She misunderstood and thought I'd had a romance with you and that's why my parents sent me down here. I couldn't make her understand how it had really been. I said I wrote you letters and didn't post them. She said, ‘Why don't you post them? How can he know how you feel if you don't tell him?' I was afraid to tell her the truth, in case she despised me, so I told her how my parents run the post office. I said, ‘They'll be expecting me to write to him and they'll examine every letter with hawk eyes.' She patted my hand sympathetically. Then the man with pearl earrings came and escorted her to the washbasins.

I watched her sit in front of the mirror, with the sea-blue cape covering her, and chat to the man. They laughed and talked like old friends. The man cut her hair as if he was creating a sculpture. It was beautiful to watch. When he had dried it and tidied up a few ends he escorted Cherie to the cash register and beckoned to me. I thought he meant the woman who had come in and was sitting next to me, flicking through a magazine full of hairstyles. He walked over and bent his arm as if he was going to lead me to the ball. Cherie said, ‘Go with him. I booked for you, too.' He sat me down. I took off my glasses to keep from seeing my reflection in the mirror. He unbraided my hair and passed his fingers through it again and again, like a sculptor testing raw material. He asked me, ‘When was the last time you had it cut?' I couldn't remember. Mother didn't like me to cut it – she said it would only make me think about myself. All the time, I avoided looking at my reflection. He took me away to wash my hair and when he brought me back, he took up the scissors and began to cut. ‘Oh!' I went, and ‘Oh!' with each slice, as if he was cutting off pieces of my body. Only it didn't hurt, Lance – it was just surprising. Cherie came and sat with me and talked about hairstyles and lengths and things like that. Now and then she touched my hair, and when she did her sleeve or the back of her hand kissed my cheek and my skin tingled. When he had finished cutting he pointed at the floor. I put on my glasses and there was a heap of tresses lying all around my chair, long, long ropes of hair cut to pieces. It looked like all my hair was lying there. Panic came over me. I glanced in the mirror. There was still plenty of hair left, as he had cut it off at the shoulder blades. But I didn't pay much attention to that. I was looking at the young woman in the glass with a feeling of wonder. I looked at that young woman with her pale face and her glasses big like the eyes of a dragonfly, and I asked, ‘Who is that? Who can that be?'

Cherie drove me back to the pub and showed me off to Bartlett and the regulars in the main bar. She said, ‘Look at her. Doesn't she look beautiful?' The regulars smiled and said, ‘You look beautiful, Laurel.' They raised their glasses and drank a toast in my honour.

Ivy looked at me with glittering eyes and said, ‘You can't hide anymore. You have to come out in the open now.' She said it as if she was laying a curse on me. The woman in the tutu winked and the curse slid off before it could do any harm.

 

DEAR LANCE,

Something has happened. Ivy now pays me fifty dollars a week on top of my free bed and free meals. Bartlett had a word with her in the kitchen. I watched them through the serving hatch. I think he must have threatened her because she shrank into a little old woman.

I went to the bank during my lunch hour and opened an account, and now when Ivy takes fifty dollars from the till and slaps it on the bar, daring me to pick it up, I slip it into my pocket and take it down to the bank and put it in my account.

And that's another thing: I have a lunch hour. I said to Ivy one day, ‘I'm going out for lunch, I'll be an hour.' I said this with some nervousness. As soon as the words were out I thought she would jump on me and tie me to a chair. I was set to run if she tried. She didn't look happy but she just went ‘Hmph!' and didn't stop me. I go out most days for my lunch hour and walk around the streets. Wherever I go I hear people who visit the pub call out, ‘Hello, Laurel!'

Ivy said to me the other day, ‘Where do you go when you go out?' It's the first time she's ever asked me a personal question. I told her and she went, ‘Hmph!'

Now I must confess to you, Lance. I serve drinks topless. Cherie bought me nice red underpants and a red suspender belt with white rosettes. When I put them on, my skin shrivelled inside them. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror. Cherie said, ‘What would you like to wear over these more than anything in the world?' I said, ‘Leaves and flowers. Flame-red flowers. Lots of them.' She put a kiss on my cheek and said, ‘Your wish has been granted.'

I was scared as can be, Lance. I crept into the bar hoping nobody would notice me. They did notice me and it was horrible at first, like nothing covered me, not even my skin. But as I served beer, my arms turned into branches and my fingers became twigs. Leaves grew out of them, glossy dark-green ovals that smelled of fresh rain and sap and young life. My breasts turned to scarlet flowers. Flowers grew where my new underpants had been, and spilled down my legs, mingling with the leaves, forming skirts as dense as any thicket. I rustled with every movement I made, and the sound was pure.

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