Authors: Joanne Horniman
Kate had given Hetty an illustrated book of nursery rhymes for her birthday, a reproduction of an old book.
, it was called. There was one rhyme that stayed with me:
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score and ten.
Can you get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.
I liked the elegiac tone, which spoke of loss and regret. And it must be no accident that the number of miles to Babylon equalled the years of a human life.
ATE'S PLANE LEFT
at six on Monday morning. We went to the airport in a taxi, and passed from charcoal dawn into the artificial glare of the terminal. And it was there that Hetty said her first word. âMoon,' she said distinctly, pointing to one of the hideous overhead lights. âMoon.' We were delighted, though I would have preferred that she'd said it one night as I showed her the real moon. But Kate said that it was good; her naming the light as the moon indicated a metaphorical and poetic cast of mind.
We had a coffee while we waited, and then Kate was gone, swallowed by the plane, which soon afterwards headed off into the sky like a questing bird. Hetty clapped, and Lil wiped away several tears. We went to find a taxi to take us home.
I have never had a genius for friendship. I think this is because I didn't grow up in a family where you had to fight for your position. Lil and Kate always loved me unconditionally, and as a result I lack whatever it is I need to shield myself from disappointment. I am too easily hurt; any rebuff causes me to curl up into a soft, vulnerable heap and not attempt intimacy again. But I told myself that despite my deficiencies, Phoebe had come to Hetty's party, and Tom and his mother, too. And Lawson. I'd been at university only a couple of months and I had friends! Friendship didn't have to be this big deal, this all-or-nothing thing, full of drama and intensity.
So when I encountered Maggie Tulliver in the kitchen early one warm Saturday afternoon and she offered me a beer, I accepted. We went out on the back steps to drink, where the afternoon sun filtered through the trees, and sat on the bottom few steps so Hetty could crawl about on the ground.
We sipped beer and basked. When she put down her bottle and said, âAnother one?' I nodded. Screwing off the cap, I sighed with pleasure: âBeer!'
Hetty pointed to the bottle. âBeer!' she said, as clearly as anything. Her second word. Maggie Tulliver and I laughed.
âHey,' she said, lazily, after a while. âWe're doing a gig next Friday night at the uni bar. Just a few of the people from the course. I'd
you to come.'
She said it so warmly that I felt flattered.
âSure,' I said.
We had a third beer, and then I took Hetty to my room for a feed and a nap. Before she fell asleep, Hetty looked up at me and said again, âBeer.'
We both fell asleep in the sun. I dreamed that she and I were living in a flat-roofed adobe house with a spiral mud-brick staircase going up inside it. In the dream, she could walk, and had blonde hair, not black; despite these differences, she was still Hetty. I took her by the hand and led her up the stairs to the sunny rooftop to take in the washing, and I was very happy.
When I woke, it was still the afternoon and we were still warmed by the sun. I remembered I had to bring the washing in, and while she slept I ran out and did so. And I was still very happy.
Spring was rushing headlong into summer the way it does on the north coast. At the university, everything exuded sex â the flowers, the people, the very air. To merely walk about the campus was to be bombarded with stray sexy pheromones. I watched all the younger, first-year students in my classes and felt impossibly old, as though all that flirting and flaunting was behind me. But not quite.
I went to the doctor for a pap smear. The sample swabbed from my cervix was like the string of an instrument being plucked deep inside me; it was a slight, almost erotic twinge of pain.
I asked the doctor about contraceptives, explaining that I wasn't sexually active at the moment but felt that I might be quite soon (this was pure wishful thinking), and he gave me a prescription for the pill.
Bowling across the road outside with Hetty on my hip and the fold-up pram slung over one arm, I came face to face with Becky Sharp strolling out of the op shop on the other side of the street. I hadn't seen her for a long time. As though she'd been speaking to me only an hour before she said, âI've bought a shirt. For a dollar.' And she showed me a rather boring white shirt with black pinstripes.
We went to the Winsome for a drink, and sat out on the side verandah that had metal bars all the way to the roof, like a jail. Shrubs with red flowers pressed through the bars; beyond them you could see the bridge and the roundabout. I loved it there at once, and knew that it was because I was with her.
âHetty has a new word,' I told her, and Hetty obliged.
âBeer!' she said, echoing me, and showed a keen interest in taking a sip of it as well. I went inside and got her a small glass of orange juice and she drank that, sipping from the glass with cautious solemnity while I held it up for her.
Becky said, âI don't think I've ever heard her say a word before. What are the others she knows?'
âThere's only one other. Moon.'
âMoon?' said Hetty, peering hopefully at the sky. I loved her innocent enthusiasm for things. Every moment of her life was enormously important for her.
Becky leaned forward and took a sip of her beer from where it sat brimming over on the table, licking her lips afterwards. âIf she learns a few more words she might come out with an interesting sentence one day.'
We made up silly sentences containing the words
for a while. Then we speculated on whether this fascination with the word
was a portent for Hetty's future interests. I posited a young adulthood for her spent drinking with friends on the footpath, the way I had done sometimes with Carmen and Raffaella (not outside Samarkand, of course, Lil was stricter than that, but their parents had been hippies).
âI drank on footpaths, too,' said Becky, âuntil I read that writing advice from Jack Kerouac. “Try never get drunk outside yr own house.”'
âSo what did you do?'
âDrank in the back yard.'
I didn't want to leave Becky Sharp that day. After the beer we went and had a coffee at the Dancing Goanna, just down the road, and then we wandered up the lane past her house and into the park. I can't remember what we said. No, I could remember everything, if I tried, but I can't imagine anyone else would find any of it the least interesting.
It started to get dark, and I was hoping she'd invite me in for a while, but she said, âMaybe I'd better give you a lift home.'
âI don't need to rush,' I said. âWe could keep talking.'
She looked past me, her face expressionless. âI'll get the car keys,' she said.
I don't know why I go to pubs and parties because I almost always dislike them. There's too much mingling with people involved, too many occasions to be left out on a limb with no one to talk to, too many opportunities to compare myself unfavourably with others. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca said, you never come away from a crowd a better person. But knowing all this, I went along to Maggie Tulliver's gig, because I'd been flattered that she said she'd
love me to come
Whenever I went out I always took a book for company; at the very least I could pretend to be engrossed with that. And it turned out that night that I needed a book (it was
Novel on Yellow Paper
, by Stevie Smith).
I asked Lil to look after Hetty, and arrived not too early, not too late. And I may as well say this straight off: Maggie Tulliver ignored me!
She didn't even acknowledge I was there, though I was sure she'd seen me. I was on the verge of going forward to say hello to her at one stage, but she veered away and spoke to someone else. So I bought a glass of wine and began to read.
Novel on Yellow Paper
has a rather loquacious heroine with the unlikely name of Pompey Casmilus.
I am typing this book on yellow paper. It is very yellow paper, and it is very yellow paper because often sometimes I am typing it in my room at my officeâ¦
The live music hadn't started yet and I felt very conspicuous, and wished I was reading at home in my bed.
â¦And that is why I type yellow typing for my own pleasureâ¦
I ploughed on, pretending to be absorbed, and not wanting to leave, as I knew Maggie Tulliver would see me go, and I wanted to hold onto some kind of stubborn pride.
At last the music started, and she sang some sort of scatting jazz thing, and then, no doubt to show how versatile she was, she sang a folksong from hundreds of years ago, which she explained came from the âcruel mother' series of ballads. It was about a woman sitting near a stream with her baby and taking out her snow-white breast to feed it, and then later slitting its throat with a little knife. I think there were images of blood splashing into the water or perhaps I imagined it.
As she sang I watched people come and go. Becky Sharp came in, with a girl I'd never seen before, a red-haired girl with pale skin and pink cheeks, plump and pretty, but Becky Sharp didn't see me, even though I tried to wave. She and the girl sat at a table and drank beer and looked rather annoyed with each other, and didn't speak much. And then Lawson came in, dressed in an overcoat, even though the night was rather warm, and I waved to him too, but he also didn't see me. Perhaps I was invisible that night.
He looked around and went across to Becky, who spoke to him without smiling, and he wandered away from her again. Then I saw him leave a bit later, looking rather distressed, and Becky got up to follow him without saying a word to the girl she was with, who waited a moment or two before going out herself.
And I sat there all the time with Pompey Casmilus, who was fairly entertaining, after all, though perhaps not as entertaining as all this coming and going, which was rather distracting.
I am a forward-looking girl and don't stay where I am. âLeft right, Be bright,' as I said in my poem. That's on days when I am one big bounce, and have to go careful then not to be a nuisance.
I looked up from Pompey Casmilus to find that I wasn't invisible after all. The boy I'd met at Lawson's party, the one named Jack Savage, had spotted me, and was coming towards me with an expression on his face that said he was an attractive, irresistible man and that he'd chosen me to give his attention to. The trouble was, in many ways he
an attractive, irresistible man, and I was pleased that it looked as though I would have a man and not just a novel on yellow paper to keep me company that night.
âWhat are you drinking?' he said, noticing my empty glass.
âWine,' I said promptly, because after all, I am a struggling single mother and not averse to people buying me drinks.
He got us both a drink and sat down and had a squint at my book. â
Novel on Yellow Paper
,' he said. Why do people always read the title of books out loud as though I didn't know what I was reading? â but at least he didn't ask me what it was like, or about. He just sat and tapped his feet and listened to the music.
I didn't feel I could keep on reading Pompey since he was sitting there and I was downing a wine he'd bought for me, so we just looked at each other. After a little while he leaned over to me and said, above the music, âHey, are you tired of this? Want to go somewhere else?'
I was, and I did, and we drained our glasses and got to our feet. At the door I turned round and saw with satisfaction that Maggie Tulliver
seen me after all. I gave her a dismissive glance, and took Jack Savage's arm.
ended up being his place, which was an old industrial shed divided up by partitions, which he shared with several others. I'd not even known what Jack Savage did, but that night I assumed he was a painter (or at least, a visual arts student), as several dreadful canvases in various stages of being painted on were propped about the place. But he may also have been a guitarist, because a guitar sat on a stand in a corner. In another corner was the bed; it was unmade, and occupied by two long-haired cats who looked at us wild-eyed as we entered, and ran off. The bedside table had some make-up on it, which could have meant
, or it may have been his. On the floor was a plate with some dried-out lentils and rice.
But he was fastidious in some ways; an old ironing-board and iron stood ready for use, and a rail had many rather attractive shirts hung on it. The jeans he wore, I guessed, were the only pair he owned. They were obviously very expensive, but filthy, which is the only way to wear ridiculously overpriced jeans. I don't go in for that kind of thing myself.
I put my bag and book on the ironing board. Jack Savage went out to some shared kitchen or other and came back with two stubbies of beer. âMmm,
!' I said. I couldn't help wishing I was with Becky Sharp so we could share the joke.
We strolled about the large room sipping beer, and I looked at all his paintings and wasn't at all truthful about what I thought of them. I was aware that I was being flirtatious. We didn't touch each other, but there was an atmosphere in the room that said something was about to happen. The paintings against the walls knew it, and the guitar knew it; so did his rack of shirts. Pompey Casmilus knew it, safe inside the pages of the book sitting there on the ironing board, which also knew it. I knew it too, and it was as if the something had somehow been already decided upon. And that thing was that Jack Savage and I would end up having sex, probably quite soon, there on his unmade bed, which also knew it.