“I felt his mouth on my neck”: a love story set in a small town by Leanne Radojkovich
They were as startling as orchids in a paddock, especially for a Waikato farming town 40 years ago. She wore a spotted white fur jacket and he a royal blue overcoat. It was a Sunday, the main street almost deserted. When she spoke to me, her words clouded the sharp air and faded into the growl of a car slowly moving past. Were there any takeaways nearby? They’d just moved to town and weren’t sure what was around. A fish shop, I’d replied, and I showed them the way.
Her name was Toni. She was small and slightly damaged looking; yet her voice was strong, with tall English vowels. Iain was average sized, with very pale eyes and sparse black lashes that made me think of a daddy long-legs. The overcoat looked a size too big as he searched through the pockets to pay.
Dusk gave everything an unreal glow, Toni’s swing-cut jacket was almost phosphoresent. It had once been a snow leopard ranging across the mountains of Nepal, she told me, until her great-uncle shot it in the 1920s.
The streetlights came on as we reached the end of the main street, where it divided into two roads. Theirs was on the left. The river ran along one side, and on the other side were ten or so houses, a park with a band rotunda, then their house in the curve of the cul de sac. A narrow two-storey villa with broken gingerbread trim and a stationwagon in the carport. We waited on the porch for Iain to find the key in those big pockets. The moon gleamed in dashes and curves across the river whose briny-mud smell enveloped us.
Iain pushed open the door and flicked the light switch. We edged down the hallway past boxes oozing clothes, books, bric a brac. Huge gilt-framed pictures were stacked against a closed door, faces turned away. The kitchen had an orange formica table with mismatched wooden chairs. A light bulb dangled above the table on the end of a fly-spotted cord. Toni unwrapped the fish and chips and salty steam sifted up. She turned to me and said, “I hope there are some nicer places to eat, too. Where do you recommend?” I had only been in town a short time, but I’d spent my weekends wandering and had seen a couple of restaurants, a Chinese one at the very edge of town where the few motels petered out into farms, and a steakhouse near the police station.
Later, she instructed Iain to walk me up their unlit road to the main street. While I waited for him to go to the bathroom, I asked if they’d been in the country very long. “Forever,” she groaned. “In three months it’ll be a year.” She dealt in antiques and curios. She said it was amazing the treasures you could find in small rural towns. Iain returned and we went past the rotunda and houses. He wore soft-soled shoes that made no sound against the footpath. If you closed your eyes, you’d think there was only one person tap-tapping along, not two.
Sometimes I go back to that town in dreams, to my flat, to my first night there. I’d woken at dawn not knowing where I was, half-hoping mum was in the next room – even though I knew she was a hundred miles away at her new job. I’d stood at the window and looked out at leafless trees and the frost-glazed lawn. I was about to begin my first job in a new town where everyone including my flatmate was a stranger. A shivery feeling grew – it wasn’t the cold, it was the odd sensation of being alone.
I’d hoped to run into Iain and Toni again. I spent lunchtimes walking the town and again after work. A fortnight passed. I was starting to doubt that I would ever see them. One evening, I was sitting on a bench near the fish shop when I glimpsed a white flash in the gloom – her jacket. Iain was beside her, his blue overcoat buttoned up against the cold. I felt pinned to the bench by a pressure I couldn’t name.
They’d been scouting around, Toni explained later, sitting back at their house. A second-hand dealer had Georgian sterling silver tea caddies. Iain watched Toni with a faraway expression as she described their shapes and sizes, she used strange terms like finials. Eventually, he pushed back his chair and lit a cigarette. I pictured the caddies of my childhood, which my mother had packed and unpacked so many times. I felt a pang. My father had lost and found one sharemilking job after another and we’d travelled with him. He died when I was twelve. Mum and I moved into rooms above the drapery store where she worked. The most stable time of my life, it lasted five years. The caddies had sat on the kitchen sill. They were made from beer-bottle-brown glass with white plastic screw tops, and the words TEA, COFFEE, SUGAR stencilled on the sides.
While I waited in the hallway for Iain to put on his coat, I noticed the framed paintings had gone. The door they’d leant against was still closed, a knife-edge of light shone through the gap where it almost met the floor.
Iain suggested he drive me home. “It’s too bloody cold to walk,” he opened the driver’s door and I got in the passenger’s side.
I asked if he was part of Toni’s antiques business. “I help out,” he said. “I smarten up what’s shabby or broken.” His arm had brushed against me when he changed gears. He stopped at a red light and offered me a cigarette. Our foreheads nearly touched when I Ieant towards his lighter.
“Where do you work?” he asked.
“I’m a shorthand-typist at the dairy company.”
“I’ve never seen shorthand,” Iain replied. “Show me some next time.”
Next time – I lingered on those words.
“Second on the left,” I indicated my street. “The block of flats. Mine’s the first up the path.”
I couldn’t help watching him drive away in that huge hearse-like stationwagon. He took the corner so slowly it seemed as if the car were melting into the dark.
A few nights later, Iain knocked on my door. Toni was treasure-hunting out of town, he said. Would I like to go to the movies? She had the car, we’d have to walk, it wasn’t far though and we’d warm up on the way. I don’t remember what we talked about, maybe nothing. I remember the moment his hand found mine and I laced my fingers through his.
The one coffee bar in town was closing by the time we left the cinema so we continued on to his house. This time he invited me into the lounge. Embers glowed like cats eyes in the fireplace. It took little effort to rebuild the fire, shadows soon flickered on the walls.
I sat on the edge of the sofa, in front of a round table with a copper tray on top. Plastic bags packed with dried leaves sat on this. Iain took the tray to another room, returning with one bag. He sat beside me and rolled a joint, held the smoke in for a beat then let it out his nose in a milky stream. He offered the joint. I hesitated, but I was curious, too. I held in the smoke as he had. The joint went back and forth. My head grew heavy. I slipped sideways until I was lying down, my eyes closed. I felt his mouth on my neck, and the heat of the fire reaching us in waves.
I left the house early the next morning. The river had disappeared into fog and frost starched the ground. My footsteps left prints as I crunched along. Slender, silvery tree trunks glimmered around the band rotunda and a duck waddled towards them. I turned up my collar. Everything that had made the night astonishing still clung to me like the fog to the river.
I was walking home that evening when I the stationwagon stopped on the other side of the road. Toni wound down the window and called my name. Did she know? My smile froze. “Hop in,” she said. “I’ve bought champagne.”
Iain didn’t seem surprised when I followed Toni into the house. She told him she’d found something that would bring in a lot of money, and to get the rest of her things from the car. We went into the lounge. The fire cracked, leapt. I returned to the edge of the sofa. Toni’s face was drawn, when she spoke her voice seemed to echo. “I almost fell asleep in the car,” she said. “I’ve been driving for hours, I couldn’t wait to get back.”
Iain came in with glasses, champagne, crackers and camembert. The cork popped, he poured, the bubbles loud as finger-snaps. Toni stirred the fire and sparks shot up the chimney. We clinked glasses and congratulated Toni on the treasure yet to be revealed. She gently put her hand on the box she’d carried in, and stroked the lid. Iain topped up our glasses and lit a cigarette.
I wondered if I’d dreamt what happened the night before? But the pleasure was so close to the surface; the two of us moving as if caught in a storm, then the fire had dimmed and we’d slept pressed together.
“Anything interesting happen while I was gone?” Toni asked.
For a moment, I couldn’t breathe.
Iain shrugged, “I repaired the picture frames.”
Toni touched his cheek tenderly.
“We went to the movies,” I said.
“What did you see?”
I went blank.
“Manhattan,” Iain replied.
Toni took her hand away from his cheek and sliced a triangle of cheese. “Any good?”
“Not really,” he Iain answered calmly. “Lots of whining, not much story.”
“I think I might have had more excitement, then,” she laughed. “Open the other bottle.”
The cork hit the ceiling and a puff of dust floated down. Toni opened the carton and carefully withdrew some kind of vase with a big gold handle. “A mint Royal Worcester ewer,” she announced.
It was so ugly, my mouth dropped.
“You’ve probably never seen anything this beautiful before,” Toni looked at me. “This will pay our way anywhere, at least to Australia.”
Clay-coloured bulls were painted on the ewer, surrounded by a smeary sickly sunset, or perhaps sunrise.
“I don’t think it’s ever been used,” Toni said. “The gilt is perfect and there’s no crazing.” She turned the ewer upside-down so we could admire the factory stamp.
Toni squeezed Iain’s hand.
Suddenly I felt in the way. “I’d better go. My flatmate’s cooking tea and I said I’d be home.”
“See you,” Toni was looking at Iain.
Iain nodded as I walked past.
I turned at the door and saw Toni put her arm around his neck, then she reached up and kissed him.
I quietly closed the front door. I crossed the grass and stood beside the river. It was soothing to watch the water moving, moving, steadily moving while leaves and twigs circled by.
When I reached the flat, I kicked off my boots and lay on the bed. There was no tea, my flatmate, a truckie, was already alseep after a long haul job. I can’t remember what he looked like, now. I can’t remember his name. There’s so much that I’ve forgotten from back then. My father, long gone, occasionally I see his hands in dreams, swollen from labouring and weathered a smoky brass. Only my mother’s face remains, faded like a pressed flower; and theirs, Toni and Iain’s.
Spring arrived and the plane trees filled with bright leaves. We’d walk through the streets when Toni was away, pretending a casual friendship. Breezes washed over us laden with fragrances; wisteria, jasmine, freesias. We meandered along the river bank and sat in the band rotunda, surrounded by a wall of cherry blossoms, looking out at the vivid grass leading to the water. Wild gladioli had sprung up; peach, mauve. I’d rest my head on his shoulder and wish we could stay forever.
When Toni was away, I’d climb the stairs to their bedroom; when she was home, he’d knock on my window in the middle of the night. And then I didn’t hear from him. After a week of lying awake as long as I could, waiting, I went to their house. The stationwagon was gone. I looked in the window and the lounge was empty.
Earlier this year, I was on a plane to Melbourne. I hadn’t been for some time, my mother had eventually settled there, but she’d long passed away and there was little reason to visit after that.
I was sitting in an aisle seat. There was a teenager beside me wearing headphones, asleep. I was drawn to the man next to him in the window seat, who wore a biker-style leather jacket and sunglasses. I glanced over several times until I was sure it was Iain.
I left the plane before him, then lagged back in the arrivals hall until he went past. The same even tread, although he was much thinner. I don’t know why, but I’d dreamt of him recently; the way the past begins to move again – a leaf circling along a river.
I followed him through customs. In the airport, he headed to a bar and ordered spirits.
I sat nearby, wanting to approach, but sure he’d forgotten me.
A younger woman approached him and they embraced.
I followed them to the taxi rank and got into the cab behind theirs. “Just follow them,” I said to the driver. “We’re together but they’re having an argument.”
A grey light filtered through the window as we travelled down the freeway. The city rose in the distance like an oasis. Their cab stopped beside a park while mine was at a red light. I paid and got out.
Iain and the young woman crossed the road and went into an apartment block. The doors closed behind them.
Maybe I’ll come this way again, I thought. Maybe I’ll sit in the park like I sat outside the fish shop, and that day in the rose gardens.
Seventeen years earlier, I’d been in Melbourne visiting mum when she was very ill. I’d left the hospital to walk around the rose gardens. I didn’t know how long mum would live, a day, a month; and my husband and I had separated.
It was a still day and so humid the rows of rose beds shimmered in a heat haze. Their scent was almost overwhelming, bringing back memories of my childhood, the last house we’d lived in before moving above the drapery store. Masses of wild roses had grown across its verandah, the same red as mum’s lipstick that year. The night before we’d left I’d chopped off all the roses and thrown them on the lawn. I could never explain why I’d done that. And here I was at the end of another phase of my life, immersed again in the scent of roses. I knew no-one in the city other than mum. I’d not seen a friend in weeks. A breeze rippled through the blooms and petals floated to the ground. A familiar shivery feeling grew – I would be alone again, answering to no-one. I stood there thinking about Iain, rather than my husband. Why him? Perhaps because he had so simply, devastatingly, disappeared.
A man in a white shirt walked past, his shirt flashed in the heat haze like Toni’s jacket had flashed in winter’s gloom. The way he held his shoulders, the even tread… I began following him. As the seconds ticked by, I became convinced it was Iain. Another man strode up and he stopped. I continued past then turned to him. My heart jumped. At first I thought he didn’t recognise me, then he caught my eye. I sat on the nearest bench. At some point, which felt like forever, he came and sat beside me.
“Kat,” he touched my hand. He offered a cigarette, our foreheads nearly touched as I bent towards his lighter. His arm brushed against me as he slipped the lighter into his pocket.
The next day, when I called his number, no answer. No answer the following day, or the one after that.
Next week’s short story is by Emma Hislop.