It was him. She was sure of it. She could hear Led Zeppelin blaring from inside the unit. It was a dead give-away. His taste in music hadn’t changed.
Who would’ve thought she would turn out to be one of those women who whittled away the hours cowering behind curtains, peering through cracks into other people’s lives? Not her. Not Gaby, that intrepid traveller; that inveterate wanderer.
But there she was, at it again. Waiting. Staring. But at least not, as yet, gossiping.
Not like Audrey who lived in the unit on the other side of her. Audrey, who had been so certain there were ‘eight of them’ living in the unit across the forecourt. So Gaby had been forced to wait and stare at that unit too, in the end reassuring Audrey that even international students had friends. She followed up her surveillance report with a suggestion that Audrey get out more, join a walking group or cooking class. But Audrey’s arthritis was playing up and she hated cooking.
Oh God, what if I end up like Audrey? she thought, as she closed the gap in the curtain. But it was him. And it was his car, the old Holden, that had been abandoned in the car park next to hers. It was missing three hubcaps, both side mirrors, windscreen wipers, and a good deal of its dusty blue bodywork. It was going nowhere but remained an item of great interest to the visitors. And there were lots of visitors. All hours of the day and night. All with damaged mufflers, screeching breaks, thumping music, and screaming, scruffy children.
But Gaby prided herself on her tolerance, her embracing of diversity. Her capacity to cope with noise and chaos, a product of years teaching in the heat and human crush of developing countries. Being woken by the revving of an engine at three in the morning was not much different to being woken by the reciting of the dawn prayers by the local imam in Kashmir or Banda Aceh. You got used to it soon enough.
And even Audrey could cope with a bit of noise. I just take an extra pill, dear. I knew what to expect once they handed those units over to the housing department. All sorts of riff-raff about the place. He’s been in prison, you know. But Gaby had known. And she even knew why, although refrained from offering this morsel of information to Audrey.
Because no-one wanted a murderer as a neighbour.
Especially if that murderer bashed an old school mate to death in a drunken rage. Inflicting repeated blows to the head with his bare hands until his mate’s skull caved in, its precious contents spilling out over the pavement…
No. No-one would want Justin Holloway as a neighbour if they were free to choose. And it was pondering this very point – having freedom of choice – that preoccupied so many of Gaby’s waking hours, gnawing away at her like the rust in the body of Justin Holloway’s old bomb of a car, pock-marking her life.
It shouldn’t have turned out this way. She wasn’t meant to be stuck back in the town where she had been born, living – if you could call it that – in a tiny one bedroom unit, grateful for any sporadic work she could pick up as a relief teacher. She wasn’t meant to view life through a gap in her kitchen curtains. How fast things can change. One day you are wild and free, the next a caged animal. She was sure Justin Holloway would agree.
She was searching the Internet for postgraduate courses in teaching English as a second language when she heard the knock at the door. A knock that was loud and sure of itself. It was not a knock to ignore. As she opened the door, Justin Holloway’s bulk extruded through the doorway like some monstrous character from an action movie. The villain with the muscles and the tatts and the goatee.
And, on this occasion, a bouquet of shiny silver beet. She looked from Justin Holloway to the silver beet, back to Justin Holloway, back to the silver beet again.
‘Thought I’d drop by and give you a better look at meself. Seen you staring through those curtains. Between you and that nosy ole chook at number five don’t reckon much goes unnoticed in this neighbourhood.’
‘No…I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to spy on you,’ she stammered, flustered. ‘I was just wondering if it was really you.’
‘So is it? Is it really me or just a bad dream?’ Justin Holloway laughed. Not a menacing laugh, just a laugh. He thrust the silver beet towards her until she reached up and took it. ‘Grew it out the back. Good soil, used to be a market garden in the old days.’
‘Oh…thankyou…would you like to come in?’ She heard the words, as if spoken by a stranger. ‘I haven’t got any beer,’ she added apologetically, because anyone could see Justin Holloway was a beer drinker.
‘Ain’t a problem for me, sweetheart, me beer drinking days are over…I’ll settle for a herbal tea.’
‘Oh, good, I’ve got plenty – peppermint, ginseng, camomile and…’ Justin Holloway laughed. That laugh again.
‘That was a joke, ain’t drinking any of your cat piss. I’ll have a Coke if you have it.’
It was Gaby’s turn to laugh now. ‘I don’t. You can have herbal tea, coffee, or mineral water. Anyway, do come in. Take a seat.’ It was the polite, if not sensible, thing to do.
Justin Holloway sank into her sofa. With tattoos covering most of his extremities he was as intricately decorated as the throw rugs that covered her old furniture. While she poured two glasses of mineral water she watched, anxiously, as he scanned the room, eyes roaming over curios and precious mementos from exotic destinations, finally resting upon the framed photographs of her students.
‘So you’ve done a bit of travelling then.’ It was a statement rather than a question.
‘I’ve been living overseas for the past 25 years, teaching mostly. In Indonesia and India. I set up a school in Aceh. I went back after the tsunami to help rebuild it. They’re my students…’ She stared at the photos, at those joyous faces, and felt once again that stabbing sadness bordering on grief. Indra, Pak, little Ana…‘I miss them…’
‘So what went wrong?’ Justin Holloway was staring at her. He’d taken a small brass bowl from the coffee table and was running his big fleshy fingertips over its smooth surface. She felt naked.
And then suddenly she felt the colour rising in her cheeks until she was hot and flushed and indignant. Indignant that just like her sister, Justin Holloway, convicted killer, should dare to judge her life.
‘Nothing went wrong. Nothing. Just because I’ve returned to Hobart after 25 years doesn’t mean something went wrong. I came back to look after my mother.’ Who the hell did he think he was, inviting himself into her home with his bunch of silver beet? She needed a drink. Justin Holloway had touched a raw nerve.
She went to the refrigerator and pulled out a half-empty bottle of wine.
‘I’m having a glass. Feel free to join me.’
‘I told you. I don’t drink.’ She heard the edge in his voice. She should’ve been more sensitive.
‘I’m sorry…’ She went to replace the bottle.
‘Have a drink, seems like you need it. Well, you need something,’ he added, laughing in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. ‘Yeah, I gave up drinking. Thought it best in case I got pissed again one day and bashed the living shit out of someone else.’ Justin Holloway stared at her. She was still naked. ‘Do you remember him? Duncan Rowe.’
‘No.’ She didn’t. She hadn’t been able to locate him in her college yearbook even though he’d been in her class. It was like he’d never existed. She remembered Justin Holloway though. The cool kid with the cute manner that could get him in trouble or keep him out of it depending which way the wind was blowing. Justin and his ghetto blaster and Led Zeppelin.
‘He wasn’t a mate of mine ’tho that’s what they said in the newspapers. He just happened to be at the pub that night with a couple of blokes from his cricket team. I’d been drinking all day. Leanne had just left me. Taken the kids. Did 20 years… Played up for a bit on the inside. Spent the last few years up at the farm. Learned to grow stuff. It was alright. Got paid. Got a job at the nursery down the road…Don’t mind it here. Beats a prison cell.’ Justin Holloway was no longer laughing.
‘Well, for some of us it feels like a prison cell.’ Gaby blurted out the words as she poured a second glass of wine. She knew she had drunk the first glass too quickly. She knew Justin Holloway, reformed drinker, would have noticed. When he spoke next it was softly.
‘I remember you at school. You always wore your hair tied back, sat in the second row from the front on the left. You always had the right answer but always waited to be asked. Didn’t shove your opinions down everyone’s neck like that pain in the arse, Susan whatever her name was.’ Justin Holloway was staring at her. She took a large gulp of wine.
‘You got a lotta time in prison. You think lots. Sometimes I’d think about school, about what everyone might be doing now. Everyone except Duncan.’ He lowered his eyes. ‘When I thought about you, you weren’t living by yourself in a one bedroom shoebox, next to an ex-crim, drinking to drown your sorrows. Something is seriously fucked-up, sweetheart.’
Gaby took a deep breath to speak, to defend herself, but let the air expel, felt herself deflate like a limp balloon. How could she articulate what had happened to a man who had spent the past 20 years in prison? She would appear churlish. A pampered princess. And she was anything but.
‘I chose a different path to most of my friends, that’s all. After I finished university, I taught on the west coast, saved money to travel. Got a job in a rural school in Srinagar, India. Local wages. I fell in love with the place and the people. I didn’t come back for three years and then didn’t stay home long.’
She wanted to tell Justin Holloway how proud she was of her life, her achievements. Of the good she had done. How she had not cared about owning a house or a car or having a husband with a six-figure income. How she believed that when the time was right she would meet someone, a kindred peripatetic soul, and they would travel the world together with their beautiful, bright-eyed children and that now, aged fifty, she was still a little surprised that somehow it had not happened.
She wanted to tell Justin Holloway that coming home to care for her dying mother after 25 years abroad had been a noble, altruistic gesture. She knew how her mother loved the house in Battery Point, wished to spend the few precious months she had left looking out upon the fruit trees, the oak and walnut, with the waters of the Derwent River shimmering in the distance.
And it was the house in Battery Point, the two storey Georgian terrace that sold for over $850,000 that turned her story into a tragedy of sorts. A dreary domestic tragedy she would never have expected to be a party to, let alone the main player. Gaby’s bedroom, her bedroom since childhood, had been on the second floor overlooking the town. It was large and light and crowded with treasures from her travels. Each time she returned home for a fleeting familial visit to mark a special occasion – a marriage, birth, death – she had arrived laden with batik prints, books in Arabic script, handcrafted ceramics, intricately embroidered fabrics, so that her room mirrored what to her had been her real home, the wide world out there with all its richness and colour. Her family home had become her home away from home. A comforting reminder of where she really belonged.
So she shouldn’t have been at all concerned – at least not on her own behalf – when her mother informed her, with little preamble and minimal fuss, of the reverse mortgage on the family home.
Her mother, her body now brittle with cancer, had been sitting out of bed that morning, her thin frame encased in a fluffy mauve dressing gown and pink slippers. She was sipping a mug of tea, enjoying the warmth of the winter sun through the big glass windows of the family room. Small pleasures were the only pleasures now, she explained to Gaby, before launching into a slow, breathless monologue detailing her first-born daughter’s failing family business. How an injection of funds had been needed to stave off the receivers.
The marine providoring business had been badly affected by the global financial crisis, by a US aircraft carrier’s decision to suddenly turn around and head back to the Gulf, by the demand from Workplace Safety that asbestos lining in the roof of a warehouse be removed. Her mother hadn’t wanted to see her daughter’s life destroyed after all her hard work. Three children, a family business, a beautifully presented home and garden. All that and still always there to look after her mother. So many doctors’ appointments. It was timely that Gaby had returned home to share some of the burden. Her mother was truly grateful.
As Gaby listened to her mother’s words, she had looked around her, at the family photos of her sister and her husband and children. So many photos of the children. Baby photos, first day of school photos, graduation photos. Smiles all around. There had been one or two photographs of her, Gaby, as a child, alongside big sister Rosemary, and two family photographs taken when her father was still alive. But there were no photos of Gaby on the summit of Kilimanjaro, walking the Annapurna Circuit, surrounded by the smiling faces of the children of Banda Aceh. Gaby’s life had been left enclosed in the bedroom upstairs. And for the first time it occurred to her that her mother hadn’t wanted to know about it.
Oh, my God, she’d thought, it was as if I had been dead to her. And the knowledge struck her like a savage blow.
It was not long after this that her mother passed away. Taken earlier than expected. It was merciful, her sister said. Merciful. No more pain. But Gaby felt cheated. Felt she had not yet been offered the opportunity to rise up from the dead in all her daughterly glory.
And the more she thought about it, the more she began to understand how much she had depended on her family’s stability, on the rock solid foundations of her family home, to keep her chaotic, fluid life afloat. How the anticipated inheritance had always been there as a cushion, as the safety net that had let her fly high.
She had depended on her distant family, yet that distant family had never depended on her. She hadn’t even known about her sister’s financial difficulties.
And what was she left with now? A sister who was too exhausted to even try to understand, and Audrey. She had Audrey. Oh, she had friends. In Canada, France, New Zealand, India, Italy, Indonesia… But here? Here she had a rental unit next to a tea-totalling, vegetable-growing, convicted murderer and a pile of her mother’s furniture packed away in a storage unit until such a time as she might need it. You won’t be needing any furniture, we should sell it, her sister had said. But Gaby had clung to it with a fierce possessiveness that surprised Rosemary.
‘Hey…sorry, sweetheart, I’ll shut up. You’d think after 20 years in the slammer I’d know how to mind me own business.’ Gaby looked up, had no idea how long she had been lost in her own thoughts.
‘No, it’s okay. It’s okay…It’s going to be okay.’ It had to be okay, that’s what she meant. Change the subject, she thought, blinking back tears. Change the subject. ‘So, they’re your kids I’ve seen running around the place?’
‘Nah…they’re my grandkids, ain’t had much opportunity to procreate in the past few years, been trying to make up for that o’course in the past few months.’ Justin Holloway grinned. Gaby remembered the large blonde woman with the generous curves and tight-fitting leggings she had seen about the place. She didn’t look the sort to appreciate her bloke’s neighbourly visiting rounds. ‘They’re not bad kids, not that I can take the credit. Me mum, you know, she took the kids to visit me every weekend, dressed ‘em up real nice and tidy. I miss me ole mum. Passed away a couple of years back. She’d be pleased, the ole girl, to find me keeping off the grog.’
Gaby took another gulp of wine as she thought about Justin and his mother. How she had been there for him. And how, in his own way, Justin had been there for his mother. Justin and his children and his grandchildren. Justin and his family.
Justin Holloway took a final mouthful of mineral water as he stood up to leave. On his way to the front door he stopped to admire a Ramayana miniature, remarking that the design would make a mighty fine tattoo. Gaby took another defiant mouthful of wine. Because Justin Holloway understood things were seriously awry – thought he did not say so. So it wasn’t as if she had to make excuses. She wasn’t about to pretend.
‘Daughterly glory’ was first published in 40°South South Short Story Anthology 2012, Forty South Publishing, 2012