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Passing the time
Hazel peered through the window of their flat, watching out for Beth. She'd be easy to spot in her striped yellow dress and pink floppy hat, the one she always wore to protect her very fair skin. Alabaster, she insisted, her only compensation for having curly red hair. But there was nothing to see except masses of cars and hulking trucks clogging up the four-lane highway. There'd been talk of turning it into six — or was it eight? — to accommodate all the commuters, who were not so much attached to their cars as riveted to the metal. More roads would mean even more noise, congestion and toxic fumes: an evil incantation for her hometown city. Perth. It might have more cars per capita than most other cities in the world, but it was a great place to bring up children, according to her mother: lots of sunshine, beautiful beaches, a relatively low crime rate. Which was great if you wanted to bring up children. Hazel turned to face the room, tried to feel grateful for the glossy jarrah floorboards, high ceilings and art deco cornices that almost made up for the dodgy plumbing, peeling paint and cockroach visitations. Tried to give thanks for a landlord who wasn't lordly and had even changed a light bulb at the last inspection.
Hazel remembered the riddle: How many Marxists does it take to change a light bulb?
None. The light bulb contains the seeds of its own revolution.
She checked her watch. Five pm. Beth should have been home by now, her first day of relief teaching at a private boys school. It was hard to imagine Beth in a place like that, trying to look buttoned up and decorous. Hazel had tried to dissuade her — the school's named after a saint, think about that — but it was only a couple of weeks, Beth said, plus she needed the money, and after a month of waiting tables in a café that served a coffee called ristretto and another called doppio and where the barista was even wankier than the coffee, even the smallest stab at teaching would make her feel professional again. Professional? Hazel had held her tongue. What other profession was held in such contempt by the general population — well, apart from politics, the law, journalism, banking and the arts? In what other profession did nearly fifty percent of new recruits leave within five years? No mentoring, unruly classes, the burden of useless bureaucracy, and no time to go to the toilet some days, what with lunch duty, bus duty, playground duty. Not that the students had ever played, as such; more like pushed and elbowed and hung out in gangs and tried not to think of their future.
Hazel padded to the kitchen, poured milk into a saucepan and put it on a hot plate. Milo, her comfort drink since childhood, although you had to stop the milk from coming to the boil so it didn't form that horrible skin on top. Another first-world problem, she knew, like the fact that her favourite shampoo had gone up two dollars and she hadn't had sex for seven months, and the even worse fact that she'd never been in love. But her most pressing problem right now was being out of work. Seventeen months since she'd quit her teaching job, then failed to complete another uni course, failed at serving beef empanadas at corporate conventions, bailed out of an online program about selling real estate. She heaped in three spoons of sugar and stirred. Wasn't there a reason that sugar lifted the spirits? Something about boosting serotonin levels? Or was it an evolutionary thing, how sweet things in the wild could soothe the savage beast? Or was it the savage breast? Probably breast, because savage beast was a tautology. Or was it a redundancy? All these pointless questions, when the only question worth asking, apparently, was to be or not to be. He'd be a gloomy bastard to wake up to in the morning, old Hamlet, moaning that life was weary, stale and flat, then barking get thee to a nunnery. A nunnery also meant a whorehouse, her lit. teacher had explained, insisting that the play, like life as a whole, was full of double meanings. Life was a hole, alright: Hazel knew she'd fallen right into it, after thinking it would be cool to be a teacher, pointing out double meanings to her students, encouraging reflection on being and not being.
She finished making her Milo and trudged to the living room, which had barely enough room for two beanbags and a mini coffee table. She put down her mug, eased her way into the purple beanbag, tried not to think about her latest debacle in the chatting-up routine. Last week, in the pub. I'm Pilar, she'd said, hoping to sound breathily alluring (while forced to shout above the clamour). She'd always loved the sound of Pilar: it conjured a dark-eyed señorita leaning over a balcony, an importunate lover calling from below, violins melting in the background. The guy in the pub had dark brown eyes, a kissable mouth, and not a hint of macho in his voice. So what had she been hoping for? Escape from her humdrum self, a smudge of warmth, a hint of affirmation? Whatever else might be on offer when you took off your clothes, took a deep breath and tried to make yourself known?
He'd asked if Pilar was a wog's name.
The door opened onto an angry face.
'I got the sack,' said Beth. 'After one fucking day.' She stepped inside, slammed the door, put her hands on her hips. 'A mother complained cos I told her year nine brat to pull his head in. I wish I'd told him to shove it up his arse instead.' She made a loud harrumphing noise. 'I did lunch duty today, and all these boys were swaggering round saying the c word, which I really, really hate because it's so degrading to women. So I went over and gave them a serve, didn't I, but all they did was laugh cos I'm only the relief. Which is exactly what that year nine brat said when I told him to stop being so disruptive. And then he gets on his phone and squeals to mummy, the little shit.'
'They don't know what they're missing,' said Hazel. 'Having you for their teacher.'
She struggled out of the beanbag and gave her friend a wish-I-could-help-you-beat-the-system kind of hug, which was tighter than a normal hug but didn't last very long.
'Well, all is not completely lost,' said Beth, chirpy again. 'The social science teacher asked me to a party on Saturday night. He said to bring as many people as I like.'
'I'm not in the mood for a party,' said Hazel. 'And in any case, I'm busy. I want to keep working on my project.' Because everyone needed a project, and she knew she'd be hopeless at knitting scarves or making jewellery out of beads. 'I'm reading the less famous works of famous writers,' she said. 'I've started with A for Jane Austen.'
'What, her entire oeuvre?'
'It's just oeuvre, Beth. You don't need entire.'
'OK, smart-arse. So why do you want to do that, anyway?'
'Because I've only read Pride and Prejudice.'
'Which always makes the top ten when they do those best-of lists,' said Beth.
'Along with To Kill a Mockingbird,' added Hazel. 'Plus All Quiet on the Western Front and Cloudstreet.'
God, hadn't anyone read anything since they'd left high school? Her friends only read online these days, good stuff admittedly, about the environment and marriage equality and politics in general, but an awful lot of garbage as well. Like the compelling fact that one of the Kardashians had just given birth or was about to give birth or was keen to regain her pre-birth body by working out with a personal trainer for ten hours every day.
'Persuasion is Austen's last completed novel,' said Hazel. 'I think the title's intriguing. And when I've finished that, I'll try Mansfield Park and Emma. I've forgotten the names of the other two. Anyway, it will give me a structure. A goal.'
'So it's not for fun, then?'
Hazel screwed up her face. 'I have to admit, I'm not exactly enraptured by Persuasion.'
'Then come to the party instead. You might get enraptured by a man like Mr Darcy.'
'Who isn't in Persuasion.'
'But remember that scene when Darcy walks out of the lake in those tight, wet breeches? Talk about hot!'
'But that scene's not in the novel.'
'I do. Those wet breeches. The blatant sexual display. It's not in keeping with nineteenth-century sexual morés.'
'Oh, morés, is it?' said Beth, and laughed. 'Do you know how Colin Firth managed to play Mr Darcy all haughty and stiff? He said he kept imagining a poker up his arse.'
'You waste too much time reading celebrity magazines.'
Beth shot her a look. 'It was in a serious article about adapting the novel into a TV series. And you spend way too much time in your room.' Her voice softened. 'Come to the party, hey? It might even be fun. Remember fun?'
Hazel shrugged. 'My novel might pick up,' she said. 'Captain Wentworth's back in town after seven years away and he's meant to be a bit of a charmer. Seductive, in Austen's read-between-the-lines kind of way.'
'So you'll settle for sex in the head, then. That's no fun at all.'
She gave Hazel a pleading look. The girl who'd sidled up to her on their first day of school and told her she looked good. Good? Beth had gone on to explain: You look like you won't hurt anyone. And then she'd asked if they could be friends. Best friends, if I really like you and you really like me. Eighteen years ago, and still they loved each other fiercely.
There were days, sometimes weeks, when Beth was the only person who touched her.
Hazel had been right after all, because according to Beth, the party was a disaster. Not that you should judge a decision by its outcome: Philosophy 101. Still, the only guy who'd talked to Beth was a happy clappy who carried on about resurrection, and the only girl who talked to her thought Taylor Swift was a musical genius. Beth said she was ready to shoot them both and was home by ten o'clock. Would have been home by nine except for all the stupid roadworks.
They managed to survive Easter Sunday by rationing their chocolate eggs. Hazel's mother had given them a gigantic Cadbury's rabbit apiece; Beth's mother had given Beth a lecture about getting a decent job. Then the two friends survived Monday by going to Rikki's flat and watching old DVDs of Seinfeld, whose unspeakably narcissistic characters made them all feel better about themselves. The following morning, after Beth had made pancakes and then mooched back to bed, Hazel took a walk to Bay View Terrace. The street was bristling with gym-fit mothers and their sylph-like daughters in their designer jeans ripped across the knees, silky black tops sliding off tanned shoulders. Hazel felt invisible among these glamorous women, as she walked past the funky boutiques and the trendy hair salon, the restaurant with windows so dark that people on the outside couldn't possibly see in. Talk about symbolic. Next up was an exclusive bed-and-bath shop selling towels big enough to dry the corpulent participants in an ancient Roman orgy. She looked at the entrance to Claremont Quarter, with more high-end clothes shops inside: Alannah Hill, Gorman, Tiger Lily, and a huge glossy sign for Calvin Klein, promising Deep Euphoria. As opposed to shallow euphoria, Hazel thought. All this gloss and style, so different, her mother had told her, from the shop that used to nestle at the bottom of Bay View Terrace. A homely space, run by two sweet old ladies and crammed with cotton reels, buttons, zips, hooks and eyes. A haberdashery, that was the word, devoted to the small things in life, now superseded by obscenely pricey off-the-peg clothes made in third-world sweatshops. And near the corner there'd once been a family-run bakery selling homemade pies and sloppy vanilla slices and doughnuts as big as saucepans. Hazel would have killed for a doughnut right now, especially one dripping with artificial strawberry jam. But this part of town offered only really fancy stuff like iced chai frappes and turmeric lattes, or earnest muffins stuffed with bran and completely devoid of taste.
Still, she'd had to come here to check out the dress. Again. The one she'd seen in the window a few weeks back, when she'd dared to slink inside and sneak a look at the price. Two hundred dollars: an absolute steal for Claremont Quarter but roughly one hundred and fifty dollars more than she could spare. And yet here she was, taking another look at the black lacy number with its low-scooped neckline, classy and sexy at the same unaffordable time. Not that she'd have an occasion to wear such a dress, or anyone to wear it for. Still, it couldn't hurt, could it, to saunter into the shop and try it on? Just to feel, for a moment, like the person she imagined she could be.
And then something else came into her head. The angry guy at a party last week, telling some other guy to stop complaining about his brand new majorly disappointing video game. Quit fucking moaning, you dick, the angry guy had railed. Try walking twenty kilometres for a bucket of clean drinking water.
Another invitation arrived from out of the blue, this time from an old friend: Huge announcement for me and Dora my place Saturday at 8. Smart, big-hearted Todd, who told Hazel way back in school about the restorative power of language in William Wordsworth's poetry. Restorative. She'd nearly swooned.
William Wordsworth, Captain Wentworth, Todd Liu. All the good guys were either dead, fictional or taken.
'Do you reckon they're moving in together?' said Beth. 'After all these years?'
'Maybe they're getting engaged,' said Beth. 'Dora's been hinting for ages about putting a big sparkly thing on her finger.' She shook her head. 'Think of what you could buy instead. You could donate to a worthy cause. You know, buy a well for a village. Plus a goat and a pig. And a trip to Paris with what's left over.'
'Still, he's devoted to Dora.'
'Another one of life's great mysteries.'
'She's very sweet, Beth. She never says a bad word about anyone.'
Beth laughed. 'Yawn, yawn,' she said.
'Hazel! It's SO FABULOUS to SEE YOU!!'
Dora was one of those people who, no matter what the subject, always spoke in capital letters and exclamation marks. She would tell you that the weather was MILD!!!! Or the movie was OK!!!! The first time Hazel met her, she thought Dora was INCREDIBLY ENTHUSIASTIC about life, but now she was convinced that she wasn't VERY BRIGHT!!!!, because in five mildly envious years of knowing her, Hazel had never heard her say one vaguely interesting thing.
'Where did you get that DRESS!! And your HAIR!! You look so GLAMOROUS!!!'
The dress was, in truth, killing her. It was not so much nipped in at the waist as digging great chunks into her flesh. Snug when she bought it two years ago and even tighter now, but Beth insisted it looked amazing. She'd insisted on dyeing Hazel's hair as well: the colour on the packet was a subtle golden-brown but had turned out a lurid kind of copper instead. Hazel gave Dora a peck on the cheek and wandered off, spotted the usual crowd of old uni friends, plus a couple of lugubrious teachers. They reminded Hazel why she'd rather not be here, in her tight dress and with her outrageous hair. She'd much rather be invisible.
Beth handed her a glass and filled it to the brim with wine.
'You're going to have fun tonight,' she said, 'whether you like it or not.' Emphatically, like a former teacher. Then she was gone, offering wine, dispensing good cheer. Hazel chatted to some friends who were going camping down south, lying under the stars and getting stoned, and did she want some of it now because they had some really good stuff. She had to say no because the last time she was stoned she'd felt like a lettuce being nibbled by angry rabbits. Next she talked to Gav, who was dropping out of law and switching to music because he liked to sing in the shower. She figured he must be stoned. Then she bumped into Will and James, who'd broken up so many times that no one knew for sure if they were on again or off again. They debated the relative merits of Please Like Me and Arrested Development, until Ed charged up with the latest medical gossip. A really gross story, he said — everyone gathering round now — about some student who got chucked out of the faculty after a female patient lodged a furious complaint. The student thought he'd share a laugh while the woman was lying on the bed, legs wide open, and asked her a simple question. Do you know why they call it a pap smear? No. Because ladies wouldn't have one if they call it a cunt scrape.
Everyone looked horrified, then tried not to laugh.
Excerpted from "The Art of Persuasion"
Copyright © 2018 Susan Midalia.
Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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