A short story by Angella Whitton
Published in The Australian Women’s Weekly
Runner up in the Penguin Australian Women’s Weekly Short Story Contest
A Woman And A Bike
A woman is riding a silver bike, her pedaling urgent, in first light.
She rides past the town pool, past streets of fibro and weatherboard houses on quarter acre blocks, past the old biscuit factory. The houses are raised, on stilts in case it floods. As she rides the houses become less frequent, then it’s semi rural. There are small farms, barns, and jacarandas. She’s puffing but she presses on. The town is in a flat but then the road starts a slight climb.
It’s not hot yet but it will be in an hour. There are no cars on the road. Later there will be the school bus, the occasional tractor, and a few farm wives going to and from the shops.
The woman comes to the matchstick forest. A mist is rising, reaching between branches like an old man with bony solicitous fingers. On either side of the road are rows and rows of trees: trees that are straight and tall though young; trees that will be cut into matchsticks; trees with grey-green leaves and white trunks.
She has no purse. No keys. No shoes. Nothing. Just her and the bike. They push on through the fog, between the rows of matchstick trees. Her sundress has large yellow roses on it and it’s flapping about. Her short wavy hair is moving too, in the current of air created by the movement of the bike. She’s wearing coral lipstick and a plain gold wedding band. If you observe closely her hands are blackened. Like the centre of your forehead after Ash Wednesday Mass.
At the end of the matchstick forest, she comes to a fork in the road. She comes to a halt, looks left, looks right, looks at the signpost with chipped paint. She wrings the handlebars and looks behind her. She sees a single crow, flying low, and it passes over to the right. She turns her bike that way and cycles off, resuming her frantic pace.
Past the forest are dairy farms. Bright green grass and clubs of black and white Friesian cows gathering on the top of small hills to chew the cud. They have made their way there from the milking sheds. The mist is thinning.
Glad And The Butcher (I)
Glad steps into Kelly’s Butchery to purchase some meat. She wrings her hands as she considers the options. She tries to think what Bill would choose. When she chooses the wrong thing, the whole night starts off on the wrong foot. He eats in silence and dark clouds gather over his head. Sometimes there is a storm. She has to choose the right thing.
Norman Kelly laughs at her. They are alone in the shop. He’s middle aged, with grey-black hair, parted in the middle and brill-creamed. He wears a navy-and-white striped butcher’s apron. He can’t see the gravity of a choice between chops, mince or soup bones so he finds it amusing. But then, he doesn’t live with Bill. He says, The chops are very popular this week.
Norman’s the Catholic butcher. He whistles when not engaged in conversation with his customers. Slow melancholy tunes. He lives above and behind the shop. On his own for the last five years since his wife, Violet, died.
Everyone remembers the accident at the old biscuit factory. They say she tripped and fell into a machine and it pressed her into a hundred biscuit-sized pieces. They say she was beautiful, vague, one of those people who is always far away. They say those kind of people shouldn’t really operate machinery, those kind of people don’t belong in factories. She was saving for a washing machine, they say, and then a vacuum cleaner, and well, she just meant to fill in time until she had children.
‘They’ are the St Bonaventure’s Parish Ladies Group. ‘They’ have a lot of opinions on people’s lives.
The biscuit factory shut. You used to be able to smell biscuits for a mile but not anymore. It looms on the edge of town. The windows are barred up. Kids don’t even play there.
You look nice and bright in that dress, Norman says to Glad as she glances over soup bones. She stops wringing her hands and smiles at him. I made it myself, she says, I stayed up late.
She was up until three in the morning, chain-smoking and feeding the fabric into her old Singer. Bill was snoring like he always does in the next room. When they first married she would lie awake, looking at the ceiling and worrying about things while he snored. Then her Mum gave her the Singer and she started to sew. She made everything herself: dresses, curtains, tea towels, table clothes, pillowcases. Before she left home, her mother helped her make all the things that had been in her glory box.
The butcher’s words were the first compliment she’d had from a man in about ten years. Her husband Bill was as frugal with positive comments as he was with money. She found herself spending even more time perusing meat cuts after that. And visiting the butchery in the quietest hours of the day, so they could talk.
One day as he wrapped some chops in white paper he said, I usually shut the shop up for a bit at ten-thirty. I go upstairs and make myself a cup of tea. Oh, she said. Do you feel like a cup, he asked and his question hung in the air as she contemplated the idea. I’d love to but I can’t, she said.
Glad And Bill (I)
Glad isn’t in tight with the St Bonaventure’s Parish Ladies Group. She prefers to inhabit the fringe of this crowd. Sometimes they invite her to a luncheon and she makes an effort to mingle. She gives the tennis days and the fete committee a miss. She doesn’t have school kids so she doesn’t get all caught up in those school events. She appreciates that they do some good work in the parish. The truth is she has never felt at ease talking about other people.
They got her a part time job at the newspaper though. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, she works night shift. After the paper comes off the printing press, they roll them up and put rubber bands around them. There are six of them. The other five are prominent members of St Bonaventure’s Parish Ladies Group. They talk-roll-snap, talk-roll-snap until five in the morning. It hurt her hands at first but then one of the other girls showed her how to put metho on the skin of her palms to toughen them up. Those nights she gets home before sunrise, with blackened fingers, and sleeps until lunchtime. She has enough money to buy fabric.
When she has done all the housework, scrubbed and polished all the surfaces with lavender polish, if she has time before she has to put dinner on, she goes to the river. It’s a long walk really but she doesn’t mind. She slides into the cool water. She puts down her towel on the riverbank and lies there with coconut oil on her skin, taking sun as a tonic for her sadness. Her tan is deep. They say she must be part-Aborigine, but what would They know.
She never really adjusted to the long hours at home while her husband was out at work. She’d had visions of a little more excitement. Bill had wooed her with flowers and chocolates. He took her to the local dances. Then he seemed to have decided all that was obsolete after she agreed to marry him. He turned out to be dull and ill tempered.
Within a few months of the wedding, she asked herself if she hadn’t made a terrible mistake. He found fault with her a lot. When she got carried away swimming down at the river one afternoon and didn’t have his meal ready when he got home, he yelled at Glad and she felt like she was back in school getting in trouble. After that she was careful with dinner, but then there was always something else that he found unsatisfactory.
Bill Douglas is the local schoolmaster. He teaches the sixth grade. They say he’s very strict. They say it like it’s a good thing. He doesn’t feel like talking to her when he comes home from work. During and after dinner, he likes to sit in ‘his’ chair and listen to the radio with no interruptions. He finds solace in a nice glass of sherry and radio comedy. She feels alone.
Sometimes he yells. Sometimes he just goes to his chair without speaking. Sometimes he is merely mean-spirited. For instance the bread roll incident. Every Tuesday morning Glad does the grocery shopping. Every Monday night they have the same dinner: a tin of chunky tomato soup with the left over bread crusts from the week before. They like to use up the rest of the loaf because the next day Glad will be buying fresh bread. One Monday Glad surprised Bill and bought two fancy bread rolls to go with the tin of chunky tomato soup. She said, I bought you a nice treat today Bill. Bill picked up the bread rolls one at a time, examined them and frowned, put them down and went ahead and put the left over crusts in the toaster. He ate them sitting in his chair, listening to his radio, as he did every other Monday.
Just occasionally he can’t constrain his anger. One time Glad dropped a glass and it smashed during his favourite radio program. She was sweeping it up. Perhaps he forgot he wasn’t at school. He told her to lean over the kitchen table and then he hit her, six times, on the back of her legs with the feather duster. She was shocked. She didn’t even know he knew where the feather duster lived.
Glad And The Priest
Early on, in confession, she told Father O’Reilly. She cried as she whispered to him how she wanted to leave. He said that she was married now, that she had made a vow, that marriage was a sacred bond and no man or woman should bring it asunder. He suggested she just do her best not to give Bill any reason to be displeased with her. He said some women had it much worse and she should look on the bright side, which was that he brought home a good week’s pay. He suggested she focus on raising a good Catholic family and try not to bother Bill too much.
Glad And Grace
Glad was twenty when she had a little girl, called Grace. She had sewn her a few pretty dresses. Her favourite one had rosebuds on it, the same colour as the baby’s mouth. After she brought her home from the hospital, and when Bill was at work, she would just sit and watch the baby sleep, watch how peaceful she was. It made her happy.
When she was a few months old, Grace caught whooping cough and died. After that, Glad became what They called a bit nervy. She smokes a lot and gets headaches. Her hands shake. She’s on edge.
One morning Glad found a picture in a magazine. It was a beach with palm trees and white sand. She cut it out and stuck it up inside the laundry cupboard. Bill would never look there. When she was doing the laundry, she would look at it and imagine she was in that place, sun baking, without Bill. Every time he got mad, or when she felt like her heart would crack open at the thought of her baby, she imagined a little shard of her floated away. She liked to think it floated away to the beach with palm trees and white sand. She thought, one day there won’t be any of me left here.
It’s the sewing, the sun and the idea of that beach with the palm trees that stop her from going mad.
A Man And A bike
A man approaches on his bike, one hand on the handlebar, one hand holding a meat cleaver. If you look closely, you’ll notice that he’s wearing pyjamas and riding in an agitated fashion.
He’s slowly catching up to the woman, although he’s riding a boy’s bike that’s too small for him. She can’t see him yet, because it is still misty and the trees are thick on either side of the road.
The man is cursing.
Glad And The Butcher (II)
I think I’d like that cup of tea now, said Glad a couple of weeks later when they were alone in the shop. Norman showed her up the stairs from the butchery and into his home. He put the kettle on and said, Have a seat. He waved his arm in the direction of the sitting room. Glad sank into an armchair upholstered in large roses.
She looked at a photo on the mantelpiece. It was of his wife. In the kitchen she could hear the whistle of the kettle and then the clatter of cup against saucer. She was beautiful, your wife, Violet, Glad calls to him. He leans in the doorway and nods. She had a warm smile, she says. He’s holding two teacups.
Wouldn’t it be nice Norman, she says, if Violet was up in heaven looking after my Grace. That’s the worst thing you know: thinking of her up there all alone, just a baby. I could feel much better about it if I knew there was someone to take care of her.
Violet loved babies, he said. We meant to have our own. She loved her nieces and nephews. They all went to sleep in her arms. If she found a baby up there, with no mother, and she got to mind it for a while, I think that would make her really happy.
Grace looked so pretty when she slept, said Glad. Her mouth looked like a rosebud.
He brought the tea, sat, and they drank.
They had each slipped off into a daydream of Norman’s wife looking after Glad’s baby. Only in Glad’s dream there were angels. Her baby was asleep in Norman’s wife’s arms. In Norman’s daydream, heaven had a beach. His wife was dipping Glad’s baby’s toes in the smallest waves and laughing. He took Violet to the beach for their honeymoon. He’d never seen her so thrilled. He liked to think of her there.
Thank you for the tea, said Glad and she stood to go. It was nice to have a visitor, he said.
The Priest And A Bike
A priest approaches on a bike. He is wearing white robes. It would seem he was dressed for morning Mass when he ventured on this bike ride. He is passing through the matchstick forest. As he emerges, he sees a couple running through a cow paddock. The man is holding a butcher’s knife and wearing pyjamas. The woman is barefoot and wearing a sundress with yellow roses. He recognises them as two of his parishioners
He drops the bike on the side of the road and runs into the paddock, dodging a black and white cow before he reaches them. Bill and Glad, he calls in his most commanding tone, the same tone he sometimes uses in the middle of sermons for theatrical effect. It’s the tone for discussing fire and brimstone when half the congregation has slipped off to sleep. They look at him quizzically, running through the cow paddock in his robes. Then Bill lunges for Glad with the butcher’s knife and she runs behind a cow.
What, in God’s name, are you doing? asks Father O’Reilly.
Glad And The Butcher (III)
After the first cup of tea, they make a bit of a habit of it. Whenever they drink, there in the room with them is the idea of Norman’s wife minding Glad’s baby. It makes them both happy, or at least less sad. They talk and listen about each other’s lives but that is incidental really. They sit in the rose-upholstered arm chairs, drinking from cups and saucers, letting their shared daydream fill up that hole they each feel inside them.
Bill hears someone in the staff room talking about his wife. They say, She is very friendly with the butcher. They don’t know he is standing in the corridor. He wonders.
Glad And Bill (II)
Glad saves up enough money to buy a potted palm tree from the hardware and plant shop. She plants it in her yard, imagining the single palm tree grown and swaying in the breeze. When she hears the creaking of palm fronds, she’ll pretend she’s on that tropical beach.
Bill comes home from work and sees where Glad has planted a palm tree in the middle of the front yard. Don’t be ridiculous, he says. He thinks he’s in charge of the yard and doesn’t know why she would do such a thing without his permission. He pulls it out, breaking it as he does, and throws it beside the garbage bin. Another shard of her floats away.
Glad And The Butcher (IV)
Glad is working at the newspaper. When she is coming back from the bathroom, she hears the word ‘Butcher…’ and then silence as They hear her footsteps. She sits and begins to roll a paper, snapping on a rubber band, before reaching for another cigarette. The shift is almost over.
On the way home, before the sun has risen, Glad remembers it’s Grace’s anniversary. She wants to talk to Norman so she walks to his place and knocks on his back door. Even though it’s early, he smiles. Come in, he says, I’ll make you some tea. She tells him what day it is. He listens while she talks.
Glad, The Butcher And Bill
When Bill wakes up on Wednesdays and Fridays, Glad is always already home. Until this Friday. He wakes up and the house is empty. He checks the clock – it’s an hour after she normally gets home. He wonders. Then a thought occurs to him and he runs up the street in his pyjamas until he comes to the butchery. He bangs on the front of the shop.
Norman and Glad are drinking tea when they hear a racket. Norman looks out the window and says, It’s Bill. He looks angry.
He’ll kill me, she says. You have to get out of here. He takes her hand and pulls her down the steps to the back door. He opens the back storeroom and lifts a bike out onto the back lane. He says, Take Violet’s bike and ride like the wind. He says, Ride out past the matchstick forest, I’ll go for help.
Bill kicks in the front door of the shop. He takes a meat cleaver and heads up the stairs. He runs around the apartment until he realises it’s empty. He looks out the upstairs back window and sees Glad riding west on a bike. He runs after her but she’s had too much of a head start and he can’t keep up. She is off in the distance now. Still running, he sees a kid’s bike in a yard. It’s too small but he gets on and rides off.
Norman thinks, Who can I get to help? He tosses up between the sergeant of police and the priest. He thinks about Bill and reckons he would be more likely to listen to Father O’Reilly. He starts running to the presbytery.
Glad, Bill And The Priest
Father O’Reilly is holding up his robes so they don’t drag in the mud or in cow dung. He says in his best priest voice, now Bill, Glad, listen to me. They are running around a tree. They look at Father O’Reilly as they run. Bill, I want you to put down the meat cleaver. He is running too, to keep up with Bill. The three of them are running around a fig tree in a cow paddock. Put the knife on the ground and we’ll talk this over. Bill looks at the priest and looks at the knife and you can see his mind ticking over. That’s not the way to solve the problem, says the priest. You don’t want to end up in hell do you? He says, Just throw the knife there over there in the mud and we can have a proper conversation.
Glad, Bill, The Priest And The School Bus
Around the corner comes the school bus. One of the kids points at the fig tree in the paddock and says Mr Douglas is going to kill Father O’Reilly and his wife with a big knife. Then they are all looking and pointing. They recognise their schoolmaster and their priest. They start yelling and laughing out the bus windows. The bus driver pulls over to the side of the road, not sure whether to do something to help or just watch.
Bill looks at the knife, at the bus, at the priest and at Glad. He drops the knife. He says, She was at the butcher’s, and starts to weep. The priest takes him by the shoulders and they go sit beneath the tree. His robes are all muddy now. Glad walks up to the road and asks the bus driver if she can have a lift back to town. She’s going to find Norman.
Glad And The Butcher (V)
Norman says, The biscuit factory, when Violet died, they gave me some money. I just put it away in the bank and didn’t think about it again. But now I’ve been wondering. I could take the money and we could get the train to Queensland. He says, my brother lives up there and he’s always asking me to come up. Says there’s plenty of work. I was wondering if you’d come with me. We could just leave this all behind.
I’ve got a postcard from my brother if you want to see what it’s like, he says. He hands it to her and she sees palm trees and a beach. She smiles at him. She thinks, There’s nothing left of me here, I’ve floated off, shard by shard. Then she thinks, Maybe I’ve floated off to Queensland and when I get there I’ll be whole again. She throws her arms around his neck and says, Can you take me to that place?