Walls of a Fortress

A short story by Angella Whitton 

Published in Visible Ink

After school, as an antidote to the long winter, Mum makes us sweet milk coffee. It’s the eighties and it isn’t called a latté yet. The milk boils and binds to the bottom of the saucepan. As we drink, it thaws our fingers that are red and wind-stung. 

        People visit and drink from brown mugs. Mum sits with them at the table and listens, holding a cigarette between two straight fingers and exhaling in slow white streams. They tell her their hopes and confessions. 

Dad is at work and my sisters are watching telly. If I do my maths homework, I’m allowed to stay. I witness people’s stories as my hand draws quadratic equations. Perhaps the smoke has created a screen or they think I can’t hear them. They repeat intimate details while I’m right here in the room. The secret is to never lift your eyes, to keep the pencil scratching. 

        People tell of their affairs, feuds, debts and secret pregnancies. Mum doesn’t judge them. Well sometimes she judges them, but she keeps a poker face and it gives them a strange liberty. I know her better. Every now and then, I detect her disapproval by a barely discernible intake of breath.

They stamp butts in an orange glass ashtray and, seconds later, light another. As a match is struck, I smell the sulfur. The oil heater burns as the low sun approaches the hills. The light is on, giving the room an amber glow. Sometimes they’re not sordid, the things they tell her. Sometimes they’re fragile hopes held close to a heart. Sometimes they are dreams hunting for a witness.

One of the guests sits at the table, knitting a jumper for a man far away. That’s how she will ask him what she wasn’t brave enough to say. She will send him the jumper to plead her case, to ask him not to forget. She hopes it will be enough. She knits and waits, the air around her full with smoky longing.

She works at the chemist in a white starched dress. Like us, her parents are town stock. They live down the road in a weatherboard house. Her mother drives back and forth to church. Her father bends in the field, tending a crop of bumper lettuce, quiet hands in the black earth. The man she knits for is from a cattle station. His parents’ house is not a house, it’s a castle, an actual castle with the walls of a fortress, passed down through the family for generations. He’s the oldest son and heir. He smells like hay and leather.

The castle-parents look down on shop-girls. They want their son to marry someone proper. They see him forming an attachment. He spends his spare time with her. They hear her laugh, like the clinking of crystal. They begin to plot. Pre-emptively, shop-girl starts to dress like the graziers’ wives, slowly integrating into her wardrobe chambray, linen and an antique fob chain. With her height, she looks good in clothes, crisp fabrics falling at stately angles. They are dressed like a couple, seen around town, holding hands, sitting in his ute. People are talking. Something must be done. Castle-parents panic.

Castle-dad has a cousin with a ranch in Texas. He tells his son he needs to see the world and learn more about running a farm. As he talks, castle-mum says nothing, drinks her tea and places her cup silently on the saucer. Castle-son weighs his options, has an idea what they are up to. He sees the life ahead of him and figures Texas might be the only time he gets away. His future will be forever tied to the seasons of the station. His last chance; he resolves to grab it by the horns. He says he’ll go, tells shop-girl it’s only six months, it’ll go fast. 

They say their goodbyes under the last tree in a row of a hundred, the windbreak to the castle. It’s cold and the dark-green trees lean sharply away from the gale. She puts her hands around his neck, touches his chestnut curls with her burgundy nails. They kiss. A Gone with the wind kind of kiss. He says that he loves her. He walks off against an ice gold sky.

The first night on the other side of the world, he writes the shop-girl a letter. She reads its contents at the kitchen table; I calculate the value of x; Mum smokes and listens. We are drinking the hot sweet milk coffee, cozy in the Winfield haze. 

Shop-girl knits every afternoon for a month. The needles clack insistently, incessantly, below the conversation. She fills the space he left with the rhythmic motion of her hands. Her fear is kinetic. She finishes the jumper, holds it up so we can see: a dark-green cable-knit with a turtleneck, stitches neat and tight. 

‘It’ll look nice with his eyes’, she says, and for a moment she slips away from us into an imagined scene. She’s kissing him under the crooked windbreak again: he’s wearing the dark-green jumper; she’s wearing a diamond. 
She takes it to the post office, the brown paper package tied up in string, addresses it with her burgundy nails. She sends it off with an anxious sigh. She sits in our kitchen, waiting, smoking with my mother, counting down the days. Anticipation rises and swirls amongst the smoke. After four months, the letters get shorter, start to peter out, and then comes the great letterless gulf. 

‘I don’t know why he doesn’t write’, shop-girl says. Perhaps there’s a problem with the American mail. She smiles a surface smile, bronze-lipped, taut with covered worry.

She brings herself to phone his parents to ask about his return flight. She’s still picturing an airport reunion. He will explain the absent letters away, she supposes. He will draw her into his chest. She will press her face into the dark-green wool. Castle-dad answers the phone. He tells her that castle-son will stay another couple of months. His flight has been postponed. The Texas cousin still requires his helpa sizeable phone-silence. 

She says, ‘Oh!’ and hangs up. Through the night, between cut-up sleep, she replays the conversation. She looks for hidden meanings in the pauses. The intonations. The unspoken. 

‘I don’t understand’, she tells my Mum. They drink milk coffee and wonder and smoke. They skirt around it, but the air is heavy with the notion that something has gone wrong. Shop-girl conjures up her surface smile. It almost hides her bleak suspicion.

Extra months pass, still no letter. She hopes it is only that life got busy on the ranch. 

‘He never was one to enjoy writing,’ she says, reaching, clutching. But then, sipping from her rust-brown mug, she tells Mum that when she’s alone, she fears the worst. That her dream of marrying the castle-son is slipping from her grasp. 

‘Something’s not right’, she says. She has too much pride to call them again, the castle-parents. She knows she could cry and won’t give them that prize. She’s afraid but all the while, she replays the last kiss under the slanting trees. She asks how he could forget it, prays the explanation will be innocent.
Shop-girl knows he’s due to arrive, waits for contact. Then, one Tuesday morning, she’s leaning over the counter explaining the properties of a Revlon concealer to a customer when she sees him. He has come into the chemist with ranch-girl in his crook. Shop-girl pauses for just a second. She looks at castle-son and ranch-girl. Her lip quivers, then she musters all her grit. She takes a breath, smiles her surface smile, and continues her sales pitch. The customer has heard about shop-girl and castle-son. She guesses how hard shop-girl is fighting to keep it together, and says, ‘I’ll take it.’ Then in an act of moral support, ‘I’d also like a mascara.’ She looks at castle-son once more then adds, ‘and a couple of lipsticks … the jazz coral and the sunset nude.’

Castle-son and ranch-girl approach the counter as she rings up the sale. He can’t speak, has laryngitis. He points to his throat, half-smiles, half-frowns, shrugs. Shop-girl stifles a gasp as she sees he is wearing the dark-green jumper. 

Ranch-girl asks for medicine in a sugary Texan drawl. She’s wearing linen and a ring on her left hand. She reads shop-girl’s badge and says, ‘Hi Audrey, I’m Carol-Ann. Charmed to meet you, I’m sure.’ She punctuates her sentences with a white-toothed American smile. Shop-girl calls upon her deepest core of metal. She completes the transaction as if it were any other. When the shop is finally empty, shaking and nauseated, she tells her boss she’s going home sick.

The word is out around town that ranch-girl’s his fiancée. As she walks to her car, she can see ladies pointing. She hears the words, carried on a breeze, she catches the phrase, ‘What did she expect?’ Though her chest feels like a broken glass, she stands tall, takes measured strides, holds up her chin.

Out of public view, she gets into bed, pulls a sheet over her head and cries for fifteen hours. She roars. She sobs. She weeps. She howls. 

The next morning, spent and damaged, she doesn’t go back to work. For two weeks she lies in a sheltered section of the field, surrounded by lettuce, on a tan banana chair in a yellow bikini. She eats from the garden. She lets the sun burn her. She lets it seep into her bones, burn off all her pain, burn off all her wanting.

Mum sees her across the road and takes magazines. Shop-girl nods but doesn’t speak, picks one up and begins to read. Summer is short in that town, but her baking takes place at the peak of the heat. She fries herself till her freckles unite. 
On the sixteenth day, she gets up: tall, brown, thin and resplendent. She books a bus to Sydney but before she goes, she will make one final appearance. She enters the racecourse all stunning and haughty. She enters the ring in a gold backless dress, bones angular, nails burgundy. Her hair falls in loose, dark curls. She’s neither a grazier’s wife nor a shop-girl. Most would be humiliated, but she has found it, somewhere hidden, the dignity of a lioness.

The women pause and stop gossiping in their low, mean voices. What they want to say is she never should have aimed so far above her station. What they have to say is that she has taken it remarkably well. They stare, open-mouthed.

She walks right up to them, castle-son and ranch-girl. A murmur goes through the gathered hordes. Will shop-girl rant or scream? Will there be a disturbance? She moves with a catwalk swagger, stops short, leans in close, so close he must smell her steel, says, ‘Who do you like in Race four?’

Castle-son, jaw slack, cannot find words. He stutters, gives up. It sinks in, what he has done, his sorry choice. Ranch-girl sees too clearly the effect. 

Audrey walks away. She stops at a bookie, places a bet and joins the shop-girls for one last champagne. Her horse comes in by three lengths. She doesn’t bother to collect her winnings. Instead, she exits, the crowd before her a parting sea.

She sits at our table in her gold dress, propped up by her elbows. Her suitcase is packed. It’s the last night of her current existence. As they smoke, she says to Mum, ‘How could he come to the chemist wearing the jumper? How could he?’

Mum shrugs, says, ‘Better you didn’t marry. Some men fall prey to proximity.’

 

In Sydney, Audrey is walking down the street: her new-found self-possessed walk. A man gives her flowers, asks her to dinner. He likes to eat and talk. A week later he introduces her to his parents. Just like that, they embrace her, make a fuss. By the time the autumn leaves start falling, he proposes. We attend the great wedding: six bridesmaids and a five-layer cake. His parents give them a floor of the family compound: a three-storey mansion of white pillars and red brick archways on the top of a hill. In the winter, his mother knits her a burgundy jumper. 

        I can picture Audrey, brushing her hair and looking out across the valley, saying to herself, ‘I’m the queen of all I survey.’

New people inhabit our kitchen. They confess to Mum, let down their walls. I carry on with algebra, listening but never lifting my eyes.