“The man I had liked became the man I knew I would detest for a long time”: a short story from the new collection by a master of the form, Vincent O’Sullivan
Cards on the table then, as my former husband used to say, pretty nearly about anything. It’s a straightforward enough deck I have to deal from. I was married for over twenty years, I had one ‘relationship’, as they say, before marrying Edward, and one after he passed on—rather than away. It doesn’t sound so much, does it, one and one, making three like that over a lifetime? But I think I’m a fairly direct and sensuous woman—have been, at any rate—and have never thought a scorecard necessarily told one very much. I’ve liked the men I have been close to and there’s nothing we did together that I wish we hadn’t done. That’s as close as I’ll get to being explicit. I don’t quite know how to put this even, but I’ve thought a few times when reading ‘confessional writers’ as they’re called, that the ‘confession’ part can actually conceal, when of course it claims to tell all. I feel there’s always a ﬁgure behind the curtain, you know what I mean?
My neighbour’s name is Virginia Smith. I have no doubt whatever about the Smith, but the other I suspect may be something she plucked out for herself. I say this because a person knocked on the back door a few years ago and asked did I know Mrs Marty Smith’s “place of abode”. He gave the impression of having seen better times. (“Incorrigible,” Raymond laughed when I told him. He teases me for being a snob. As though anyone born near my end of Parnell Rise could be that, I reminded him. Q. E. D., he said.)
The man’s heels in any case were worn down to the uppers. I told him I knew Mrs Virginia Smith but I had never heard of Marty. “Close enough,” he said. Next thing I could see from the lounge window he was rat-tatting at her door and the moment it opened a cat took off from behind her leg and down the drive. ‘Virginia’ looked a sight but that did not seem to register with either of them. They were hugging as though they mattered to each other. “You’ve got it in for that woman,” Raymond said. He said that ﬁrst when we went to Fiji when the hotel rates were a song after the big dust-up the locals had together. A week in August, which is exactly when you need the sun and the rest of it. He said I should have asked her to keep an eye on the house. ‘Neighbours like to be asked,’ he said.
“There’s neighbours and neighbours,” I reminded him. I said I’d rather pay a woman who was recommended to me at bowls. To take in the mail, move the curtains, switch on different lights on different days. You pay someone you don’t know but can trust. There’s no question then of asking favours.
“She’s a pleasant woman,” he said.
So I told him, “Raymond, don’t take that cheery waving stuff for friendliness. It makes her feel good.” The way she waved if she ever caught us on the drive. Thank God the patio’s on the other side.
“What would you call it, then? He didn’t often have that edge to his voice.
“I’d call it pushy, Raymond, I said.
There must be half a dozen cats. Perhaps more. I don’t mind cats myself although only once, ten years back, I had one for the summer, until it disappeared. Stolen, I’ve always suspected. There were children across the road couldn’t keep their eyes off her. “She doesn’t like being handled,” I told them, although she brought it on herself, running across to them the moment she saw them. So it’s not as though I have anything against cats. But next door makes such a fool of herself with them. “Here, darling. Here Rongo, pet.” That kind of thing, morning and evening. Stuff from the meat counter at the supermarket, too, nothing out of a tin.
“If that’s what she wants to spend it on, Raymond said. As if the same cardigan practically day in day out, as if brown Warehouse trousers summer and winter, isn’t a case for something other than treating cats like royalty?
Raymond enjoys talking with her. He says he likes her turn of phrase”. I tell him anyone who half-made it to a classroom door speaks better than she does. Even her surgery. She tells Raymond about her surgery. “At my age,” she had said, “you don’t go on doctors gawping at you, do you? I don’t like it myself, to tell the truth. Saw myself in the mirror, the stomach like, next thing to a whipped suet pudding.” She laughs and spits into her handkerchief.
“She’s vulgar but she’s colourful,” Raymond defends her. I tell him you could say that about a baboon’s backside.
This is starting to sound as if Raymond’s right, as if I have it in for the woman. That isn’t so. It is just her type, which is not mine. I said to the man who comes every fortnight to do the lawns, “Doesn’t it ever occur to her that a yard like hers lets the whole street down?” He’s been coming for years. ‘Your Grass is Ours’ on the side of the van that carries his mowers. He looks after them religiously. Each time he takes one down the ramp at the back of the van I say to him, so it’s become a regular joke between us, “Not another new mower, is it?” He’s not a talkative man but he smiles at that. A smiling workman is a good workman, that’s one thing I have learned over the years. But he disappointed me when I put that to him, about Virginia Smith, if that is her name, letting the street down. He did not look at me directly I must say, he made out he was tinkering with his machine. But what he said was, “Perhaps she doesn’t think the rest of the street’s worth worrying about.” It was hard to tell whether he was being offensive or not. Well, I’ll be looking in the ad columns under ‘Lawns Cut’ was what I didn’t say to him. I think he knew he’d gone too far.
Strange how the unlikeliest things come back to you when you’re half-awake. Forty years ago Alex was halfway through his degree and lived in a rundown house ten minutes from Three Lamps, a house frankly that I told him would be the end between us and it was, although today you’d need a cool half million even to think of it. Alex had a cat that was heavy as a child when it jumped on the bed. About as much character to it as a lump of coal. The ﬁrst time it hurled itself up and landed like that it frightened me silly. Either shut the door when we’re in bed, Alex, I told him, or I’m calling it a day. “He likes watching,” Alex said. He thought it amusing to twist things like that. Not that I was a prude or I wouldn’t have been there in the ﬁrst place. But I hadn’t thought of that cat, obese and green-eyed and Lucifer, that was its name if you please, I hadn’t thought of it for years and there was this thud and I could have sworn it was jumping on Alex’s bed.
In fact it was Raymond putting out the bin, and the wheel had caught and the thing banged into the side of the house. But when I woke I could hear a cat and I was forty years back, and happy, that is the odd thing. It was as though the mood I must have had one morning back then still continued now, and everything in between had not taken place. And when it came in on me where I was, and how much later it was, I cried for ﬁve minutes in the bathroom. That kind of thing, it’s completely out of character, I can tell you.
Later, Raymond said, “There’s coffee on the patio, when you’re ready.” I looked from the lounge window before I went out. Virginia Smith was standing in her yard with grass up to her knees. She was laughing as she tried to drag from her the cat that was climbing with its claws at her cardigan. I knew by now the creature was her favourite, its irregular head like a closed ﬁst, an ear half-missing, its body an ugly reddish colour, until a broad dash of pure white ran down its back legs. I thought, this is unreasonable, I know that, but how can one not detest that woman?
“You’re all right, are you?” Raymond asked me, when I joined him in the early September sun, and sat in the canvas chair and raised the coffee pot above my cup. His car keys were beside his own cup.
“I think I might just read today,” I said. “I wouldn’t mind a quiet day.” Mondays we usually drove around the bays, and had lunch looking across the harbour. My friend Linda, who is always hoping to improve me, has given me the life of a writer who ended up killing herself. I don’t quite see how knowing the details of that will improve me. But I have kept the book for a fortnight as it is, and Linda will quiz me as she always does. I don’t like the photograph of the woman on the cover, which is a bad start. She is leaner, mind you, and Caucasian as they come, but there is the same lank stringy hair, that same curious sense of certainty about herself, as Virginia Smith. Who would not, of course, know the ﬁrst thing about the woman whose picture lies on my knee, looking straight through me.
“Those cats,” Raymond said. He is standing in the lounge at the window, watching the carry-on next door.
“Draw the curtains at least,” I tell him. “She’ll know you’re looking.”
It is as though he has not heard me. He says instead, “It’s remarkable, isn’t it? The rapport, or whatever it is she has with them?”
“Give it a rest,” I tell him.
An hour later, by the end of the ﬁrst chapter, I know I will not be going on with the book. Linda can say what she likes. It’s the woman, an American, thinking she is so special, feeling miserable all the time. As if I want to spend another 200 pages on that, to get to the ending I already know.
There is a programme on television on Friday nights about people looking after animals. Pleasant young women in uniforms go round to old people’s houses checking their pets. Sometimes they are telephoned to pick up stray dogs, or take damaged birds to volunteers who nurse them back to again facing storms and skies. I said to Raymond, “I know one address I wouldn’t mind passing on.” It must have been one of the last evenings. He handed me a G and T with the lemon cut too thickly, but I told him, “Thank you, my love.” Raymond was about to go to his daughter in Queensland for a fortnight. The last thing I wanted was to have an awkward moment before he left, so I said nothing when he said, as he leaned across and brushed his lips against my forehead, “I’d look out another window for a while if I were you.”
So I tried. I spoke to Mrs Smith when we happened to be at our letterboxes at the same time. When she said she was dog-tired, this traipsing backwards and forwards to the hospital a couple of times a week, I offered her the opening I thought she would jump at. I said, “Something they’ll sort out for you pretty soon, I hope?” But she said oh you know what public hospitals are like, ﬁve minutes with a doctor and two hours of waiting. She looked at me so steadily I felt uncomfortable. I can say that now. At the time I thought it simply rude.
I saw her as usual after that, but avoided if I could more than having to nod to her. And of course I heard her calling her cats. Then a week after Raymond had left for Queensland there was a tap one evening on the back door, just after the news had started.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realise the time.” She glanced past me to the television. I told her not to worry, it was not my favourite she interrupted. Irony was not in her repertoire. She stared at me for a long moment and then said, as though there were some effort in ﬁnding the words, “I want you to do something for me.” She said the SPCA people had been that afternoon to collect her cats. I had been across to Linda’s with the book I couldn’t read, so I missed the scene I could easily imagine. Virginia Smith did not say why she had asked the van to come round. “Sergeant,” she said, and paused again. “Sergeant wouldn’t come down from the top of the wardrobe so they had to use a net. You know that big net they use?” It took ten minutes, she explained. She could hear him crying from the van. Then the favour she was asking me was that she didn’t have the heart, not after this long, not with his eyesight going and his always being timid anyway, she couldn’t bring herself to send Rongo off as well.
“Away?” I asked her. For a couple of weeks, that was all. Up north, she said. I could imagine her at her sister’s, some modest house facing a beach. She could just walk across the road and there she would be, close enough to the sea to dip her feet in. Odd, isn’t it, how that came into my mind? I suppose it was from seeing pictures of them on television, those scruffy little settlements that somehow struck you as idyllic. Virginia Smith then picked up the plastic bag she had set down on the porch before I opened the door. It was heavy with cans of cat food. “Not what he really likes,” she said, “but it will do.” Once a day, she told me, on that bit of concrete near the under- house door. I needn’t call him because he probably wouldn’t come anyway, not so long as I was there. “But I don’t think he’d manage by himself, you see. Otherwise I wouldn’t ask.” Then she said—as if I might have designs to keep the thing!— “Just until I come back.” She became insistent. “You will do that, won’t you?” The fatigue drawing her face. It embarrassed me. I promised because I wanted her to go, when I knew I should have asked her more. About herself. About her sister. “Rongo,” she said. “You’ll get to like him all right.”
It was a bad time, the next few weeks. Raymond rang to say his daughter was twisting his arm to stay on. When I repeated that, “Stay on?” I expected him to say, “For a bit longer, love.” But what he said was, “I don’t know if there’s much more mileage in it, do you? In us?” Which brought it home, with rather a thud. That he had known before he left that he would not come back. I then saw how little in fact there was of him that was still in the house. I realised how carefully, over weeks, he had moved so much back to the ﬂat he had not properly lived in for over a year. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed. The only jacket in the wardrobe was a herringbone, old-fashioned and I expect now too small for him, that I had never seen him wear. The trousers on the hanger next to it were a pair he wore when he took the clippers to cut the hedge. A few razors, a few jars of unimportant pills. The only things—the deceptive things—that lay around were books. So long as I saw those, the stack beside the bed, the papers on the window-seat in the lounge, I would think he was on holiday. Between the time I placed the phone down, and three minutes later when I had checked the house and it all came in on me, I had turned him as surely as one might turn a chair to the wall, and the man I had liked, at the very least, became the man I knew I would detest for a long time. It had happened before, and I had tried to joke when I told Raymond about it, how deeply one resents it, the betrayal, the emptiness one sees in oneself. Until one believes, at last, what a trivial thing it was.
Nor did my neighbour come back. She did not go north, and did not have a sister, but died in the local hospital, and only the names of two nieces, in a town two hundred miles away, were in the notice in the paper. And a brother, who I suppose was the man with worn heels. But Virginia was real. That was the name in the notice. And here I am, on a late summer evening, standing in her backyard, the grass stalks rubbing against my legs. And my calling to him—”Rongo. Saying it quietly at ﬁrst. And then louder, too loud, so that other neighbours may even have heard me. “Rongo. Rongo, pet.” Wanting so much for him to come and take the food I have for him. Wanting his torn ugly head, his skinniness and rasping, wiry cry. Wanting him to watch at least from the corner of the house. Wanting him to know it is better here than anywhere else.
Produced from the new collection Selected Stories by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, $40). Next week’s short story is by Grant Smithies.