It was an unlikely coupling: John, who gripped the neighbour’s gatepost as he stretched his quads and June, in her speedy wheelchair, testing the patience of pedestrians.
Many thought it a financial arrangement. Sharing the electricity, water and food bills was advantageous to both. Others hypothesised a shared determination to survive the curved balls life had thrown them.
Between them, there was a single difficulty, Evelyn, June’s best friend. John believed the ‘turncoat’, as he called her, did not wish June well.
‘You don’t have to ask her to the house, do you? You know how I feel,’ he said the day after Evelyn and he met.
Yes, she knew how he felt. How could she forget his attack?
‘She’s superficial. Always name-dropping and plays the victim. In one breath she tells you she has no money and in the next she’s leaving for the States to see her daughter.’
‘Give her a break,’ June replied. ‘I told you, she’s struggling. With the decline in retail sales, the income from her two shops has dropped.’
For John, Evelyn represented everything inside the large, Boolean circle he labelled ‘duplicitous behaviour’, including his past-tense wife, Annabelle. Duplicity was the largest facet of Annabelle’s busy psyche which comfortably accommodated her capacity for lying, especially about her off-shore account and the supposedly, post break-up acquisition of her toy-boy. What had she done with the money he had given her for their daughter’s education? Was it in the bank account of that body-perfect trainer? Their body language suggested her finely tuned, worked-out body had been in the younger man’s hands much longer than the few months she claimed.
Duplicity angered him. Consequently, he was not looking forward to sitting opposite Evelyn at the dining table that night.
June had already set the table. She liked the ‘the triangle’ as she called her seating arrangement. Her wheelchair was easier to manage as she moved between the kitchen and dining table if she sat at its head, placed John on her left and their often single guest on her right. June enforced her independence whenever possible. While John respected this he sometimes wished she would just relinquish her determination and let him serve the meal.
He had walked an extra half hour that morning in an effort to bring his energising and kindly endorphins into play. ‘Bring on the Vitamin D,’ he muttered as he strutted into the sunshine without sunscreen or cap. He stretched, walked the length of the street, crossed the road and entered the park bordered by the river and freeway. It was not hard to visualise the politicians who saw the electoral advantages of relieving traffic congestion, but he found it difficult to imagine their mindset as he strode through the resultant desecration of the riverside parkland. He stifled his anger and marched on, moving to the side as the cycling zealots rang their bells.
Within minutes he had stepped off the path and taken the well-trodden track tracing the edge of the billabong. The long, shaded grass, still wet with dew, flipped on and off his bare calves. He didn’t care. He craved the silence and stillness of the flat expanse of water in which the trees and sky were muddily reflected. The water, although still, was not stagnant. A small trickle edged its way from the river through the man-made cluster of rocks at the head of the billabong. At the far end, the water slid slowly down a sludgy fall of land before dropping back into the river below.
John thought it remarkable that the billabong was at once below and above the river, that the smallness of the flow prevented the water from being toxic. He scanned the surface, looking for the tell-tale bubbles of yabbies, before casting a lingering eye on the trees along its bank. That some branches were alive and others dead disturbed him until he realised their ambivalent, clinging-to-life status was no different to his own.
June, who said little as he explained the extra half hour, was irritated. She tried to deny her reliance on him, but her overly ambitious menu depended on his presence. Why walk an extra half hour, today of all days? She had been forced to pull herself out of the wheelchair in his absence and was now tired. Bloody hip. The pain resulting from the replacement of the faulty joint in her left hip was unbearable when standing. Medication to reduce the pain had resulted in a timeless fog of opiate addiction which it had taken months to overcome. The wheelchair provided her with much needed relief and allowed her to use milder painkillers but it was not always a practical solution.
The rush of water in the pipes echoed in the kitchen as John turned on the shower. She should have bought an apple flan for desert. Why was she so stupidly committed to cooking every course? Evelyn, of course. Evelyn always knew the latest food fad and the current destination restaurant. Even now, although June scanned the gourmet cooking magazines at the library, she would never know where to buy pomegranate molasses or be able to discuss the advantages of cooking with verjuice.
In reality, Evelyn wouldn’t care. Once, within their friendship there had festered a rivalry that had led June to cooking classes, but it was an obsolete rivalry, one that collapsed when Evelyn discovered her husband exchanging sexy text messages with his PA. Two years later, as Evelyn was discovering the difficulties of life in the solo lane, June was widowed when Luke died of a heart attack as he cycled up the steep, Studley Park hill.
As empty-nesters they found solace in each other’s company. Their deep knowledge and acceptance of each other’s histories allowed them to discuss anything. When June’s second operation left her in pain, Evelyn’s regular visits reassured June that she hadn’t been abandoned completely. Her support was generous and sensible, unlike that of her children who seemed unable to cope with the double blow of their father’s death and the reversal of roles that came with her restricted mobility. Their we-can-shop-for-you support was practical but lacking empathy.
Then she met John.
She had joined the local film society – the theatre was wheelchair friendly – and John, as president of the group, had welcomed her. After the film, he had brought her tea and asked, ‘Mud cake? I made it myself.’
‘Thank you,’ she had replied.
He returned with the cake and a chair which he placed in front of her.
‘Now, who brings you here?’
‘I drive myself. Manual controls and reinforced handles on the door allow me use my car. I can walk. The wheelchair helps solve a pain problem but my legs are weak.’
‘Difficult,’ he said, ‘but I actually meant which director. I’m on the selection committee and we like to please newcomers.’
June was surprised. Few people resisted the temptation to probe the cause of her pain.
‘I’m not sure I can name a preferred director. I was hoping you were going to educate me.’
‘So what did you think of the film tonight?’
For a brief moment she thought she would be polite, but the politic façade she had once lived behind with Luke had long crumbled.
‘Violent and disturbing.’
‘Cuppola gets under your skin doesn’t he? Apocalypse Nowis one of my favourites. And Brando?’
‘Again, violent and disturbing. I will have to debrief with a fantasy when I go home.’
‘Ha, and I thought this was the most extraordinary fantasy. But fear becomes real when we enter the dark side.’
‘I hadn’t thought of it like that.’
‘When you decide who you like, give me a call,’ he had said, passing her his card.
A year later she was clearing the shelves of her husband’s cycling trophies to make room for his film collection. Wrapping trophies, unwrapping trophies, arranging trophies, it had been an essential part of her relationship with Luke, the part she now rationalized as ‘his interests were important’. As John was arranging his DVDs alphabetically by title on the shelves she felt the slip-stream of déjà-vu subsume her. Had she chosen another obsessive? A kinder, but equally obsessive man?
June had decided after their initial meeting not to discuss him with Evelyn. Her feelings were so mixed. The possibility of new relationships was something they had both discarded. The shared experience of seeing their full length reflections in a department store window had been a reality-check for both of them. They had moaned and laughed, ‘Is that really us?’ The over-coffee discussion that followed had been frank and disturbing. Their chances of finding a new partner were statistically small and they had consoled themselves with, why bother?
When she called John to tell him she liked Clint Eastwood films he had asked her out. A feeling of betrayal had niggled over the subsequent weeks but two months later, as she and John were sharing lavender scones on a Mornington Peninsular farm, she acknowledged she was in love and Evelyn would have to be told.
Evelyn was shocked.
‘Don’t you have enough to worry about? You can’t possibly look after him and don’t tell me that you think he’s going to look after you. And what about your family? How many children did you say he has? Doesn’t he have enough to do?’
June had soothed her with, ‘It won’t change our friendship,’ but as she mouthed the words she knew she lied.
John didn’t understand the value she placed on their friendship. John’s dependence on his friend Rob was based in their shared interests. June’s needs had taught her that friends like Evelyn had to be cherished. Although sometimes irritating, she understood that every day had to be planned, that it took twice as long to do anything, that a small excursion to the local shopping centre was no longer a fifteen minute interruption to a busy morning, it was a major event. Her loyalty was invaluable.
A number of June’s so-called friends had made it clear that the polished boards of their late-life designer homes could not accommodate her wheelchair. Scratches on polished boards? Out of the question. And there were those who tactlessly teased it was a fraudulent way to acquire the disability sticker she displayed on her windscreen. Knowing they were joking did not stop the hurt. Her remaining friends were very important, regardless of their faults.
June’s arguments about loyalty failed to persuade John. She decided to give up explaining why Evelyn was important but she would not betray her by discontinuing their monthly dinners.
‘John, you know how important these dinners are to me, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ he had replied, but his exasperated tone suggested he was annoyed by her emotional plea.
‘Then why are you being so obstinate?’
‘I don’t like her.’
‘So, you’re telling me that a little discomfort on your part is more important than the huge offence I am going to commit by discontinuing what has become an important part of our friendship. I think you’re being a little selfish. It’s equivalent to me asking you to give up your monthly viewings at the film society. In fact, that might be a fair exchange, you give them up and I’ll give up Evelyn.’
John had walked out. June made herself a cup of tea and waited. After an hour, she made an online cinema booking, rang for a taxi and left a note on the table.
‘Cold lamb and chutney in the fridge if you’re hungry. Love, June.’
He was at his laptop when she returned.
‘I hope you’re feeling better,’ she said.
‘I have a proposition. I will be on my best behaviour once every two months, but I won’t linger for coffee when she drops in. I’ll retreat to my computer or jog. On the off month, I’ll go to a film. There are films you don’t want to see, and it’s a good excuse given my role in the film society.’
‘That’s reasonable, but only if you agree not to walk straight out the door when she drops in. A little courtesy of some sort is needed. And don’t forget, this coming Saturday you are expected.’
‘Okay, okay. I’ll make polite conversation and show an interest in whatever she talks about. Trust me.’
Evelyn knew that John didn’t like her. She knew he saw through her bragging banter and beyond the material goods that kept her darker days at bay. She found him possessive, pedantic and precious. All the who-did-what detail that he trotted out whenever he discussed a film served what purpose? He wore it like a badge: ‘I’m an expert,’ it declared.
Occasionally she looked beyond the storyline of a film and thought about the acting. The credits were irrelevant. She knew in her heart her attitude was disrespectful, that film was an art form, but being swept up by the narrative was her way of putting her mind at rest.
She had such a busy mind. Everyday, it scampered about looking for distractions ─ anything to prevent a sinking into her feelings. Even June, who understood her better than most, was unaware of the depths she sank to, those horrid pits where the tentacles of failure pulled her into a relentless morbidity. Her avoidance tactics were many: helping June was one of them. However, John was slowly taking over her role.
The loneliness of her childhood, the long days of watching nothing but the clouds pass over an empty backyard and a timber house haunted by long silences, sombre shadows and the venomous outbursts of her parents resurfaced so quickly. The long, dry grasses of the vacant paddock at the end of the street and a dark copse of pine trees housing a family of magpies had been her haven. In their presence, she could sit and be comforted, her senses soothed by the incessant westerly. In the quietness of her bedroom, she read herself to sleep or listened to the babble of American voices from the television set beyond her bedroom door. They were her lullaby.
After she married, she worked hard to put what she saw as civilized lifestyle in place: orderly suburban house, impeccable furnishings and a manicured self. She knew she had been captured by these exterior trappings as they wrapped themselves around her life. She was a macadamia if she tilted towards the metaphorical, uncrackable. She wondered whether John was secretly hiding an equally painful kernel of despair.
She was looking forward to seeing June who, she knew, would be fretting in the kitchen. Why did she try so hard to be more than what she was, a good homely cook? Why did she refuse to acknowledge the importance of process? Although she followed the recipe, time after time she floundered.
‘The eggs need to be at room temperature if you are making a sponge,’ she had told her. ‘Whipped peaks are never the same when the eggs are cold.’
‘It makes no sense to me,’ June had insisted as she took the eggs from the fridge. ‘By the time you beat them they must be warm.’
Of course the bloody sponge was heavy. She had given up trying to help, except in an emergency. At least today there had been no last minute call. Ah yes! Her knight was there.
John was standing at the bench stoning the peaches that were to accompany the pistachio-crusted pork. June was seriously chopping at the nuts.
‘What on earth does coarse mean?’ June had asked. ‘Is that pea-sized?’
‘That sounds good to me.’
‘The pieces look smaller in the picture.’
‘Okay, chop it a bit more. It can’t hurt.’
John was a quick learner. His key, internal phrase was ‘neutralize the tension’. His children had always responded to a little acquiescence.
He had been surprised to find himself in love, but she was such a warm person. Generous, too. He hadn’t realised how much he missed having company at night and during the weekend. His daughter and son-in-law often asked him for meals and he babysat, but their basketball, Auskick, birthday-party and dance-lesson lives meant that he was squeezed in rather than courted. His son was working in the United States. Their frequent email exchanges were heart-warming but no substitute for his humorous presence.
June finished the chopping and placed the pistachios into a bowl with the carefully measured breadcrumbs, garlic and mustard powder. The asparagus and peaches were ready. Woo your guests with the juicy richness of late summer peaches, was the by-line.
John placed the pork into the oven and lifted down a bowl for the olives. Simple fare ─ at least in that he had been able to persuade her. He had offered to bring his BBQ to the house. Most people were happy with a simple barbeque. Who had time to cook these days?
‘No. I need to cook. I must exercise.’
He couldn’t argue with that.
‘June, all done?’
‘I’m just going to set up the recording of Scorsese’s Shutter Island. I want to watch it again. Is there anything you want recorded?’
‘Nothing tonight. Thanks.’
She appreciated the thought but at the same time was irritated. Film, film, film, and such male films. She couldn’t reconcile her peaceful life with the violence she witnessed daily on the screen, both the real and imagined. Why were so many people killing each other? She didn’t understand the dreadful brutality that men inflicted on women, children and themselves. The continual transgression of humane, ethical boundaries was like an open, infected wound that neither politics, religion or negotiation could heal.
She poured herself a glass of Sauvignon blanc, lifted herself out of the chair and walked slowly to the bathroom. A little colour on the lips and mascara was needed. She was nervous. The last meal had been awkward, John sharp and pedantic. She hoped he would be more himself tonight.
Evelyn was early. She parked her car a little up the street and listened to the radio until the news finished, a little past the hour. She saw the porch light go on ─ time to go in. She was anxious about the bottle of wine she had brought. She hoped it wasn’t corked. This last of the pre-divorce had been sitting in the rack for ten years. At least in the matter of wine, there had been justice. Mark had claimed every bottle but had acquiesced when she threatened to take him to court. She rang the bell.
‘Hello. Welcome,’ were John’s words as he opened the door. ‘And what’s this? An aged Coonawarra. That will go well with the pork.’
He was leading her towards the kitchen. ‘Just a few last minute things to do while we have a drink,’ he said.
Evelyn recognised the magazine on the kitchen bench. ‘I loved this edition. Which recipe are you using?’
‘The pork with pistachios and peaches.’
‘Good luck with it.’
‘What do you mean?’
Evelyn knew immediately that she had said the wrong thing. She had tried the recipe out a few weeks ago. The crust had burnt and the peaches had failed to caramelise.
‘No, it’s fine. I used too hot an oven and burnt the crust.’
John watched June’s shoulders lift. Now she would be questioning the heat of the oven.
‘I’ll keep a close watch on it, Evelyn,’ he said, but the word ‘turncoat’ was in his head. ‘Sav blanc? Olive?’ He wanted her mouth filled with anything but words.
‘John would you lift out the roast for me?’
He put on the over mitts, opened the oven, drew out the roasting pan and placed it on the bench. June leant on its marbled surface as she spooned the pistachio mixture over the pork and placed the peaches alongside.
‘It smells delicious, doesn’t it?’ said John.
‘Mmm,’ said Evelyn.
‘Mmmmm, it smells delicious or Mmm it doesn’t?’ snapped John, throwing the mitts on the bench.
June mouthed, ‘Stop it.’
‘Stop what? Can’t you see she undermines everything you do? Enough is enough. Just what sort of friend are you Evelyn? Tell me, do you love or hate your friend, June?’
‘I could well ask you the same,’ Evelyn snapped back. ‘What are you John? A user or loser? Just who is getting what out of this relationship? Free board, free rent, and even the use of the bookshelves. Just what are you putting in?’
‘Stop it,’ June yelled. ‘Stop it before you hurt each other. And me.’
‘She’s not your friend, June.’ John was strident. ‘Choose which of us you want, but you can’t have both. It’s Evelyn or me. I’m not going to stand by and watch her demolish you.’
Evelyn was already gathering up her bag. ‘Call me, June, when you’ve sorted him out, preferably out the door’ she said, as she strode down the passage. The slamming of the front door echoed behind her.
John patted the pistachio crust with the back of the ladling spoon. ‘It will taste much better without her,’ he said.
June felt the mental numbness that came with a death sweep over her. She knew this fight was not about her. It was about their baggage.
‘I want you to leave,’ she said. ‘I asked you not to do that.’
‘She’s not your friend.’
‘You’re right, she’s not, but neither are you.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘Go back to your own house. I don’t want you here.’
John’s eyes welled. ‘I love you,’ he said.
‘Sort of,’ June said, ‘but I want you to leave. Now.’
She turned her back to him, scraped the pistachios off the pork with a knife and tossed the peaches into the sink. Tomorrow, she would be sad. The pall of single loneliness would linger for days, even weeks. She would shed many tears as she dismantled the changes she had made and, on some days, she would be overwhelmed by the walk from the kitchen to the front door, but she would not call John. Nor Evelyn.
She put on the mitts, pulled down the oven door, placed the pork on the third shelf and set the timer for thirty minutes. There were two Granny Smith apples in the fruit bowl. Perfect. She had always preferred pork with a tangy apple sauce.