Pull the weeds, I hear my landlady say. She likes to give strict instructions to her man, so much so that I’ve been inspecting him from my kitchen window to see if I can figure out if he is a submissive. He is no hunk but there seems to be something about their relationship that implies this. To explain, I live below the pair of them, and they have a habit of swarming all over the vast garden that drops away to the street in front of my apartment. Little did I know when I signed the lease which said the grounds would be looked after, that I would have to do a lot of looking at the looking-after. The owner will not be in residence for half the week, the estate agent told me, a rare opportunity like solitude over the tree line.
There was that book about spotting a fake painting, but how do I know that the joy of living with the birds will turn rather sour? One of the benefits of going back to study—Melbourne is getting too expensive to live on Social Security at my advanced age, is that I don’t really have the time to indulge my feelings, except when I stop for a moment. Then again, I hear church bells regularly from two streets up, so it depends on what I choose to tune out.
I know when the landlady returns from wherever they go to when they are not here, her boots on the timber flooring above my head. Palladiums most likely, with strong language strikes on the floor in an I‑am-back-now crescendo that turn dulcet after a few hours.
I’ve been meaning to weed the few large pots I own, where the basil is frost-singed by the oncoming winter, but my enthusiasm remained another note in an astrological diary bought this year, with its sidebar hints to me about when I ought to do this and that, days when to wash hair, clean floors, days when protein intake is best absorbed. I find it comforting to accomplish these minor matters even though I miss the day for scrubbing tiles. Right now, I am eating the pomegranate chocolates I dedicated to the full moon.
Recently, I said to some of my friends that I was being overwhelmed by a whole list of cyclical events, including the way fuel prices fall sharply on a particular day of the month. I say that to my sister as well when she picks up half a bag of coffee, one that is mixed with a super mushroom that I ordered from the Bulletproof crew. I find her delight strange, at the saving on a price of a full bag of funky coffee, her going to so much trouble, the numerous texts of when she could pick this or that up–and would I like the blanket that she bought for my niece that had not been just the right thing. She certainly earns enough to stand still. What’s that, she says pointing to a spot near the basil, ignoring my conversation about human cycles versus civilization imposed cycles. She does not much like this kind of talk.
It could be burdock. I threw some out-of-date seeds into that pot when I was on one of those missions to reduce the things I own, and it gave me great pleasure to toss the seeds in there instead of the bin where so many other items have been discarded.
After the landlady’s storage was flooded in the torrential rains last month, and I heard the sounds of repair, the saw and hammer and shoving and the dragging, I saw two American roaches near the stovetop, smooth beige convertible ovals streaked with dark ochre that were somewhat lifted off their insect feet. I sprayed them with environmental disinfectant and they keeled over in total disregard of the data on google that implied they would survive any nuclear war. The nationality was pointed out to me by a pest controller at the home I owned not so long ago, with added information that this variety was not the pestilential type, and considered somewhat decorative in comparison to our local roaches. In any case, my cleaning skills have been lifted to new levels since I saw the American visitors and I have been throwing all sorts of possessions in the garbage bins that I share with my landlady. I wonder if that is why I got the notice to vacate, something that the agent said I had a right to protest, but which I am not going to do, even though the date is so close to the trimester exams.
After my sister leaves, I open the fridge and stare into it, trying to decide on something and eventually, I take out the canister I am looking for, and the milk as well–it seems to have developed a mango-like hue over the weeks that I have been having mental anguish over giving up dairy. I don’t want to even empty the thing down my sink but what will the landlady think when she sees the full bottle in the recycling rubbish bin? She seems to be the sort of person who will see these things.
I have a tussle with the lid of the canister, and I am ashamed by my irritation at the inanimate thing. Perhaps if it weren’t plastic I would be less annoyed by its temporary recalcitrance.
I stand next to the sink and ponder on dinner–and if I will bother, and if it is safe to leave my car in that particular position on the street below. I reach into the canister for another of my full moon treats. The pomegranate bursts crimson onto my tongue and mixes with the chocolate. Above us, a watercolor sky is being absorbed by the oncoming dusk that sidles crablike onto its ephemeral serenity.
The doorbell sounds twice. It will be the plumber wanting to turn off the gas but I stay in bed. He will figure it out or decide that I have gone shopping after all. My exams are over but this is the first vacation where I’ve had as much to do as during the trimester, reinstalling journal entries of clinic observations that I will need for my upcoming practicum. They had vanished at the beginning of the year when the college revamped their website. I have been experimenting with doing just what I like during study week, propped up in bed and reading novels and listening for the birds past the construction noise on the other side of our tree-lined street, and while I have passed, I believe I am more stressed than not. What happens if we don’t respond as we are supposed to?
The mental health team once called to ask some questions. I thought it was going to be about my brother who had brandished a knife at the instamatic-carrying monster of the topmost unit, for taking pictures of him. The amateur photographer had been trying to prove that my brother was pruning off those lush red roses from the communal lawn.
So what do you think of your mom, the mental health team asked.
I thought they wanted to offer me help to give her one of the career opportunities that Centrelink provides. We could never be sure whether he was taking his medication. Once I got the gist of their conversation, I said, she’s been like that all her life and has managed to teach at high school, bring up children, pay her taxes, as well as doing weird things like walking at night to the house of a family nearby to tutor their daughter–who ended up scoring meticulous results… and my mom even survived the truck that ran her over on her way back to her flat. Really, she is pretty sane, considering.
The knocking does not continue but there is no relief from a deep weighed down sensation. Eventually, I feel my tongue where it is a bit raw as if from being lashed and think about what I might have eaten. This is what I do, try to figure out what I might have done wrong. Last night’s arugula was amazing with the beetroot risotto that my friend from college brought around, especially with the quarter of goat cheese remnant languishing in the fridge. I begin musing about my finances, a habit of mine, worrying if it is going up or down, or getting away.
The plumber leaves a note saying that there is a gas leak and that the gas company will come to fix it pronto. I wonder if that caused my headaches, or if it is all that study, or even if there is a connection between the gas and my raw tongue via the headaches.
I fall asleep and dream about being in a hospital ward that has a very pleasant aroma, like cut strawberries. A gangster-looking man in a Stetson is visiting the old lady in the bed next to mine. He might as well be wearing a holster and a good-looking gun. We exchange hot lusty surreptitious glances. Before he leaves, he whispers in my ear that he will rescue me, and it does happen shortly, in the blink of an eye.
In my new abode, the white tiles of the bathroom complement waterfall sounds from the pipes as they gurgle into the sunken bath. I spend time in the tub, in bed, or wandering naked through the surrounding forest. A friend of mine told me about a friend of hers who used to frolic with a famous painter from Eltham, and how the said friend used to comport in her birthday wear. We decided that it was totally normal to be naked in the seventies.
What are you worried about, mon amour asks.
It’s so nice… that nothing seems real!
He laughs and pinches me, and pinches me some more.
I explain that I did not mean that kind of pain. I mean the sort that one can’t quite put a finger on, like having an old friendship that is not quite right but one can count on.
As time passes, I notice how wide my man is around his girth. He is as big as the universe.
Girija Tropp’s fiction has appeared in several Best Australian Short Stories editions, and recently in New World Writing and Cherry Tree. She has published in The Boston Review, Agni, and has also won or been short-listed for major awards. Her work has been anthologized in Café Irreal and Smokelong Quarterly: The Best of the First Ten Years. She lives in Australia where she studies Traditional Chinese Medicine.