“Harry said thoughtfully, ‘I never thought I would have a wife as good-looking as you’”: a love story by Wellington writer Norman Bilbrough.
Harry ordered another beer from the bar along the street from the hotel, and returned to his table on the pavement. A young man with the battered baggage of a cut-price traveller sat down nearby and produced a cigarette. A roll of stomach protruded from his clothes, and he slouched: a man who seemed disgruntled with his flesh.
Harry smiled at him, offering the unspoken good-will that sometimes existed between travellers – but the other scowled. Harry was not surprised. The man looked to be alone, and although Harry had not known the discontent engendered by excess flesh, he had known the blight of loneliness.
But he did not want to consider the man’s possible isolation … It was too close to him. He looked into the unperturbed heat of the street, watching the shoppers, mainly women – seemingly at ease with themselves. Excess flesh, and isolation, seemed no part of their lives.
He drank three beers, and gradually realized they were not as mild as he had anticipated. He blinked, and blinked again – and a woman approached from the hotel. Even at a distance he could see she possessed a gawky elegance, as if her head and hands were big, while the rest of her was slender. And she looked uncertain, as if this was her first time in a tropical country, and she wasn’t sure how to tread.
She was attractive – and still in his bubble of unreality, Harry felt concern for her. He would smile at her, offering a small amount of reassurance.
But it was his wife, Louise – and Harry forgot to smile.
“We need a holiday,” Harry had said towards the end of a harsh winter. Somewhere warm.’
“A holiday?” Louise thought holidays were of little use. Irrelevant. She had reached a boring and frustrating plateau in her working life, and she needed a total – and startling – change of direction.
“Like Singapore,” Harry said.
“It would be so expensive!”
Itchy heat, a lack of hygiene, demanding street children … Louise was not attracted to Asia…
“I’ll pay.” They owned their small house, and although they had not accumulated much, Harry had an amount of savings. He could afford a short, even an expensive holiday. “It’s a good place to relax in.”
“Did you relax when you visited previously?”
“I was young, I had different needs.”
Not the needs of a sixty year old man who was discovering that his wife was finding him an increasing source of irritation.
And he had thought this might be an inevitable part of a long marriage; where affections, and tolerance, diminished – without rancour.
But a part of him that contained the memory of real loneliness – did not want to believe this. Apart from escaping the cold, he hoped a holiday might be the time to change the situation.
Louise was silent, but the next day she said, “I’ll go.”
But on the flight from Auckland she felt annoyed with herself, and resentful. She had not wanted such an expensive indulgence; money that could have given her help to launch the new direction in her life – no matter that she did not know what that direction was.
She brooded while Harry dozed. What was her new vocation; a vocation that suited her taste and that was even fulfilling? She was in late middle-age, but she still felt young. She needed to do something she loved, that made a good profit – and where she would remain well-groomed.
She cooked with flair, and intuition, but she did not want to start from scratch in the catering or café world, and she knew that cooking was a temperamental occupation.
Not for her.
She was still fruitlessly scheming when they arrived at a vast terminal. And when they stepped out into the late afternoon, she exclaimed, “Turn off the heating Harry!”
He laughed, reluctantly.
They took a hotel bus along a freeway, past countless high rises, and were deposited in front of a modest looking establishment – that was still expensive.
“It’s got a pool,” Harry justified.
The bed was firm, the sheets clean, but Louise nearly tripped on the low barrier designed to keep the shower water from spilling into the bedroom.
“I could kill myself on that! And the towels are not fluffy.” She had expected towels she could sink her face into.
“Does that matter?” Harry stared out at a mostly industrial view. No sign of green. “Have a shower, use a non-fluffy, and we’ll go out for dinner.”
“I don’t want to get my hair wet twice!” Louise always showered before bed.
“Use a shower cap, there should be one there.”
“You know that shower caps ruin my hair!”
Harry shut his mouth – and Louise showered below her neck, using an under-sized cake of soap.
She slipped into light trousers and a cotton top, and followed Harry down onto the street.
But when the possibly grubby air smothered her clean, fresh skin, she gave an exclamation of disgust.
“We’ll hit the air-conditioning soon,” Harry assured, and a short block on he lead her into a cool mall, then up to a food hall.
He picked a tray of sushi, and Louise chose a Thai curry.
She chewed and chewed. “My chicken’s tough.” It was like chewing twine. Sulkily she ate the rice, and Harry gave her two pieces of his sushi.
They walked through crowded arcades, and then bought ice-creams from a woman working out of a small, frugal stall. And even though she felt emptied out by air travel, and her stomach struggled with inedible chicken, Louise was curious. The woman seemed grateful for their patronage. Louise felt sorry for her.
The woman would have to wait, and wait for customers. She would need hope. And Louise realized that if she went into retail there would be empty and interminable times of no sales too. She would have to wait.
Would she be able to?
Well she would be determined, and persevering – as a salesperson. But the thought of the empty, and impatient times, was worrying.
Back at the hotel, she noticed the doorman’s uniform was worn along the braid. Did he have to buy the uniform himself? Did he work long hours? She imagined his job to be tiresomely boring. Having to be continually polite, and never being able to sit.
She would need to sit. Except she never saw shop assistants sitting … Sitting was not allowed.
But despite these worries – and Harry’s erratic snores – she slept soundly and was woken at seven by the distant wheeze of the lift. In a better hotel they would not hear such a noise. And the sky was grey, not at all bright and tropical. But she kissed Harry, surprising herself.
He woke, startled – then reached over and kissed her back … An expectant kiss, as if he wanted more.
And for a second Louise nearly complied. But one did not kiss, and kiss one’s husband. She had got out of that habit some time ago.
She threw back the covers. “I’m going for a swim.”
The pool was surrounded by sun loungers and pot plants. Nobody around. The changing room was clean, there was no shower lip, and the towels were nearly fluffy. But the water was chilly. She felt cheated: a hotel in the tropics should provide a pool that was warm and languorous.
She swam vigorously up to the far end – and bruised her shoulder on the concrete surround. A sign, half-obscured by a container of red lilies, warned her not to dive; and another stated, No Life Guards On Duty. She swam six more lengths, then rubbed her face dry.
There was a rustle in the pot plants and a big sleek rat slipped out of the foliage and stared at her. It looked left and right, possibly checking for leftovers by the pool, then disappeared.
Louise did not know whether to scream or not.
It was a disgrace! She showered hastily, fearing that the rat might rustle into the changing room and observe her, then she hastened back to their room.
“How was it Fluffy?”
“Don’t call me that!” She reported the poor signage, but not the rat. Its presence was too abhorrent. “What if I’d dived into the pool and cracked my head? There would have been nobody to administer first aid.”
Harry thought that, generally, lifeguards were not in attendance at hotel pools.
“I hope the breakfast is satisfactory!”
“You won’t go hungry,” Harry said, undressing for the shower.
Louise was certain she heard his toe impacting with the shower lip, but he didn’t complain. In the dinning room they were shown to a table overlooking the street. It was raining. Baked beans, sausages, toast, sliced watermelon, noodles – and more baked beans – seemed the predominant offerings at the buffet.
“You can eat as much as you like”, Harry said, hoping she might relax, and just be greedy.
But Louise was offended by the suggestion, and the mediocre food. “I’d like some muesli and good fruit.”
She searched in vain for muesli, and ended up with toast, a sliced orange and an apple. And a voice said:
“I can’t find the eggs, Pete. No eggs and bacon.”
It was a woman of Louise’s age. She was wearing shorts and an ankle bracelet, and she was with a beefy man.
“The scrambled eggs are over there.” Louise pointed to a corner where a woman in a smock was slipping portions on to guest’s plates. “I don’t know if there is any bacon.”
Harry noticed the woman had a creased forehead, while the rest of her face was smooth. Perhaps she was a worrier too …. But why did he now notice blemishes first? He must have, recently, picked up the practice from Louise.
The couple sat at the table next to them. They were from Adelaide.
“If it’s raining like this at home, all the water tanks will be filling,” the woman said. “Normally I don’t eat eggs, but because I’m on holiday I don’t care.” She looked at Louise’s meagre plate. “You worry about your cholesterol?”
“I keep my eye on it.” They swapped cholesterol levels. The woman laughed, and Louise smiled.
It was the first smile of the holiday, even though it was not directed at Harry. Still, he bit into his toast and marmalade with a small surge of pleasure …
“What line of work are you in?” the woman asked, some mouthfuls later.
Louise didn’t want to be … in a line of work. It sounded menial, and devoid of pride. ‘What sort of business do you manage?’ would have been preferable.
“Childcare.” A worthy occupation, unsuited to somebody with her tastes. “And yourself?”
“Florist …I’m having a break from the blooms.”
Being a florist sounded attractive and self-sufficient, and Louise wanted to ask, Do you make a good profit? Or …How do you fill in time between customers?
But when they were back in their room, that had been cleaned in their absence, Harry said:
“Women are amazing. They can talk about their cholesterol as soon as they meet!”
“The new towels aren’t fluffy – and I hope we can get Coronation Street tonight,” Louise worried. “Do you think she would have told me what she earned?”
“She would have told you her entire medical history if you’d asked.”
Louise looked at him. “So you think I’m amazing?”
Harry wanted to list the qualities she possessed but which had not been on show, it seemed, for a number of years. But he could not think of them instantly. And he had never known her cholesterol level. “You’re a thing of wonder,” he said.
She hit him.
They planned to walk down Orchard Road. Louise supposed she should examine shops; she should observe businesses, just as she had observed and considered the ice-cream seller. And apparently Orchard Road was a phenomenon.
“But it’s still raining.”
“We’ll buy umbrellas.”
There was a convenience store near the hotel, with a stack of umbrellas near the door; a stack that lessened even while they were choosing. Pink was not a popular colour. Louise bought a dark blue one, and noted the contents of the shop: bottled water, sweet drinks, post cards, sun glasses, umbrellas and ice-creams … A shop for tourists.
The small and gruff woman behind the counter was making steady money. Obviously she knew the customer’s needs.
They walked along Bras Barah Road. Louise was thoughtful.
“What do I need from a shop, Harry? What do I demand?”
Things from a shop? Where was her thinking going?
Then she added, “I’m serious.”
Harry considered. “Things that make you happy. Your own kind of essentials.”
She supposed she could sell fluffy towels, but bathroom linens did not have a great appeal.
“Things that help you have a smooth functioning life, without discomfort.” And despite feeling buoyant from the breakfast smile, his doubt surfaced. Was he, in this time of their marriage, such an essential? Or was he more of an irritation, like a shower lip?
Orchard Road was full of shops and malls, and in a square a group of people were line-dancing. Louise gaped at what seemed the incongruity of the spectacle. Why weren’t they working?
The rain stopped, but the air was soggy and hot, and they browsed in air-conditioned zones. Everything seemed expensive, even towels that were only averagely fluffy.
They ate in a basement food hall, and the small exhausted-looking man who served them tofu and noodles and broccoli, made hissing noises to indicate their pot was hot to the touch. He had an old broken grin, and he charged them only a few dollars for the meal. Louise was concerned; he looked malnourished.
“How do they make a living when everything else is so expensive?”
“They work and work,” Harry said. “Work takes up nearly all their lives.”
“No holidays in, in … Adelaide for them then,” Louise said, then added, “I’m not used to that sort of everlasting work.”
There was a pause, and Harry said. “I was always lazy. When I came here years ago I was a lazy and careless slob.”
Louise looked at him in surprise – and saw, briefly, a man who seemed to be struggling with an old memory of himself.
And the Harry she knew was not lazy.
They caught a taxi back to the hotel where, mindful of the lip, and her hair, Louise had another shower. And in mid-afternoon Harry took her to Raffles hotel for high tea.
But after being greeting loftily by a doorman in a big and seemingly unnecessary turban, and studying the menu at the entrance of the expensive and yet ordinary tea room, she pulled Harry out into the forecourt.
“You’re not paying that silly price for a cup of tea,” she hissed. “I could start a mail order business with that money!”
Harry looked surprised.
What sort of mail order business? Garden seeds? Health supplements?
“It’s a farce. I’d have to drink my Earl Grey with my finger out.”
“You would,” Harry agreed.
Back at the hotel Louise slumped in a chair, conscious of the faint grumble of the air conditioning, the sighing of the lift, the tired paintwork of the walls.
Harry looked at her, sensing a possible complaint, and he thought it sad that he had become attuned to complaints unspoken – as well as voiced.
“You should have seen the place I stayed in back then,” he said. “On Mayo Street.”
“Was it a dive?”
“Four to a room, mattresses like boards – and different kinds of noises at night.”
“What kinds of noises?” She hoped he wouldn’t be too graphic.
“Vomiting, doors slamming … Cockroach noises.” Although Harry could not remember if cockroaches made noises.
“But that’s what young men did. They stayed in those kinds of places. Did you meet any girls?” Really, when Louise thought about it, she knew very little of Harry’s early life.
He laughed. “Girls didn’t look at me.”
“But I looked at you.” And she had liked what she saw. But did she look at him like that now? Scrutinize him with her emotions? “I thought you had a good time here?”
“If you can call smoking and boozing and being raucous, having a good time … Maybe I was pretending to have a good time.”
Again Louise was surprised, and she nearly asked more about that man who was, apparently, quite different from the one she now knew.
Harry stretched out on the bed.
Louise considered another swim, then hastily rejected the idea. No more rat encounters.
She went down in the lift and walked a block up Victoria Street, not caring now about the clinging heat. And when she returned Harry was asleep … no residue of the raucous discontented youth in his face. He even looked handsome.
She had not thought that for years.
Presently he roused himself, and said, “There’s a bird park worth seeing. We could go tomorrow.”
“I don’t want to see birds … rats,” Louise said adamantly.
“Rats? There’ll be none of those.”
“But birds, rats – they look at you, don’t they! They’re odious.”
“Let’s avoid creatures,” Louise said. “I’d like two sherries.”
They drank them in an over-priced bar, and after three (the cost of which would have contributed to a business selling high-class stationery and gifts), Louise was tipsy – and the bird park where rats ate birdseed, and (possibly) flew, became a reality.
She had been wise to avoid the place.
The following day they took a bus to a resort on an island where the swimming was marvelous.
But the water was dead; an old bit of sea that seemed not to have been refreshed by tides. And signs warned bathers to beware of oil slicks – creeping in from the shipping lanes beyond.
Louise swam tentatively, worried that a slick might seep unobserved into her. Her pores would clog up and she would smell like a car engine.
She clambered out hastily.
She did not sit on the sand, but waited restlessly under a palm while Harry wallowed, seemingly oblivious to the threat.
On the bus Louise wondered what new horror would appear next. Or would the lip finally catch her and throw her into the shower? She would bruise badly; she might even damage her nose …
And although the tepid sea was a balm, Harry was not soothed. Louise was sitting stiffly, her hands tight bundles – like a child expecting the worst.
He sighed inwardly. Did she dislike Singapore that much? Or, more significantly, was it his presence – even his concern – that she found aggravating?
The holiday was not a success. She had simply dug herself further into worry and paranoia. And the renewal of their relationship?
He gave a silent – doleful – laugh.
“You’ll be pleased to get back to work, back to the kids.”
There was a pause, then … “I don’t like the kids. I don’t want to go back to that job.”
“You never said that before, about kids!”
“They hurt my nerves.”
Harry was silent.
“What will you do?” he said.
She hesitated. “I want a small business selling quality china. And bone-handled cutlery.” She had never thought of the last item before, but it was very appealing. “Spode cups and saucers.” The list was suddenly lengthening in her head, and she felt her tension lift.
“But where would we get the money from?”
Louise was grateful he had said we.
“Borrow, save…” Now she felt elated. No more kids throwing tantrums, no more kids being simply unlovable. “And no more holidays in Singapore.”
“Whew!” Harry stared out at the city he might never see again. “This is a surprise. It will take some thought.”
And he had intended to let the beer relax him so he could think better – about money to start this business or, indeed, whether it was sensible to consider it in the first place.
He knew nothing about elegant cutlery or expensive cups and saucers.
But he had only got mildly tipsy, and had not recognized his wife.
Still, when Louise sat down, he pushed the uncharacteristic feelings aside. “You look really attractive.”
Louise looked startled. “You think?”
And Harry said thoughtfully, “I never thought I would have a wife as good-looking as you.”
“When I came here with my mates, we looked at girls all the time. But I scared them off. I spent a lot of time drinking.” And Harry glanced at the young man – who was checking his guide book in a surly manner, as if to discover the best place to find girls.
Probably not at the bird park, but maybe at the island resort.
But the guy’s life and his hopes – as Harry imagined them – were depressing.
He caught Louise’s eye.
“You weren’t like that Harry,” she said softly. “You might have felt like a slob, but underneath you weren’t. You had feelings, generous feelings.” It was her turn to speak slowly, as if she was discovering facts, or the truth, that she had ignored. “You’ve always been a loving man, there was just nobody to show your love to – then.”
She paused as if she was embarrassed; as if she was going soft and talking out of character. But then she had felt suddenly grateful that she had received his feelings, quietly – and without her really knowing it – all these years. And she smiled at him.
The second smile of the holiday.
Next week’s story is by Claire Gray.