Saturday, 6 August 2011

Beans for Troy

A story by Emma Murphy.

Out of habit I reach for the beans. She is not here to tell me why I shouldn’t eat this can of sweetened, processed crap. She is not here to tell me it’s too late to be working, come to bed. So it’s 1:45am and I will eat baked beans.

In fact, I haven’t been working. I haven’t worked since she left. My hands, usually rough and stained, will soon be silky smooth. Like an academic’s hands. Like hers.

True, I have been out in the workshop these past few hours, listening to the late-night jazz show and shining the spotlight on my most recent piece. I have been pacing the floor, checking out angles and perspectives. But I’m not doing a very good job of convincing myself of any normality.

The pliers lie on the floor where I left them six days ago, the twitching wire curls lifelessly between the suspended sculpture and the concrete slab, waiting for some direction from me. Waiting for me to give its existence some new meaning. But for the last six days I’ve had enough trouble understanding the direction my life - our lives - have suddenly taken, and the thought of fiddling with bits of wire and tin has not appealed to me.

The beans have gone cold. I look at them through eyes that suddenly doubt all they see. How is it that our reality can change so quickly? No - not change, actually deny itself, as though it never existed.

It was beans that got me into this mess in the first place.

Oh, Willow. Lecturer in European history, chef extraordinaire. The first night she spent here, she threw out all the cans of baked beans, the macaroni cheese. In an unexpectedly defensive tone, I explained that I didn’t always want to take time out to cook; if I was particularly inspired it was good to be able to bung something in the microwave while still completely focused on what I was doing.

To this she leaned across the bench and said into my neck “you’ll have me to cook for you”. It was then I knew she’d be moving in. And she did.

Back out in the industrial, echoing workshop, be-bop is having a revival on the radio. For four years this was my space: cold, sharp, functional. Within four nights of sharing my bed, she’d brought out a futon sofa and set it up in the corner under the windows, complete with bright orange cushions and a topaz rug. I laughed at her, explaining that I didn’t come out here to recline and rest.

She laughed right back at me, saying that it wasn’t my comfort she was thinking about.n From then on her Saturday mornings were spent out here, catching the sun and preparing lecture notes, sometimes reading to me while I worked, seeking out the silence of the house only when I switched on the circular saw or bashed the bends out of tin with a rubber mallet.

It is on the sofa, in her little corner of comfort and colour, that I now lie. I know that my work overalls will dirty the rug, but it’s always been like that; my sharp, jagged edges working to find a way in to her smooth curves; her aromatic risotto clinging with dignity to my chipped, op shop bowls.

Was that an omen? Should I have ended it back then, when I asked for the hole punch and she passed me the thing she used for papers, wondering why I had a hammer in the other hand?

The truth is she intrigued me. This sofa still smells like her. True to my word, I never sat on it. Ah no- I lie. One morning, sensing my growing frustration with a barbed wire depiction of the national coat of arms, she enticed me over into the sunlight, into her arms, where she made love to me, gently, softening me, until I decided to try something more abstract, less obstreperous.

Obstreperous is one of the many words I learnt from her, taking pleasure in her obvious delight at coming up with a new word for me. She would speak to me in big words, from that sun-drenched corner of the workshop, and some of what she said would come out in my work.

And now here I lie, grubby denim on soft wool, looking at the sculpture I haven’t touched for six days. The last time we were in this workshop together, she told me the story of Troy, and something in the story spoke to me. And I got to work.

And I was halfway through creating my own Troy - a vehicle for my ideas and passions to be smuggled into the world of commercial art - when I decided I needed beans. Hot, on toast with cheese, Heinz baked beans. And - kissing away her offers to whip up some spicy Mexican beans with guacamole, I kick started the bike and left for the 7-11.

And every bit of that 25 minute trip remains with me. The beep beep beep of the indicator as I hung a left into Rathdowne. The handsome looking grill on the Holden EK outside the pub, which I momentarily considered grabbing for some future artwork. The feel of the wind in my face and the temptation to keep riding, contradicting the determination to see this new work through to the end. The $1.15 for the beans, and a whimsical decision to take some plastic flowers back to the woman waiting for me on the topaz rug.

These details, of course, are easier to contemplate. A lot more digestible than what came after, when my heart suddenly became that EK grill, ripped out and taken away for somebody else to use.

I have nothing against men. It was my own uncle who taught me the joys of mechanics, taught me to use the tools that are now prized possessions.

But when I came home that night, tacky red flowers in one hand and 250 gram can of beans in the other, there was a man’s voice in my kitchen, and something in me froze. Something else in me said “run!”, but I remembered Willow was in there, and I didn’t run. I walked, stiff and forced, into the kitchen.

How is it that our body can perceive a situation before our mind has interpreted it? She probably has a word for what I’m trying to say, and if she were here I’d ask her.

What I felt wasn’t fear. It was bitterly, heart stoppingly real, but it wasn’t fear. It was like being at an exhibition of art that was wasn’t my own. This suddenly had nothing to do with me. I could observe and interpret, but - apart from that shared moment in time- there was nothing between us.

Two people in my kitchen were playing out their roles, and my presence had no effect on them. Like a very brightly exhibit, I saw things clearly and with detachment. She knew this man. She knew him well. And an unravelling was beginning.

I don’t know how long I’ve been lying on this futon, replaying that night, but I suddenly realise that the sun is rising. Seeing the sunrise is not an unusual occurrence in my nocturnal, sporadic routine. The last sunrise I saw was one of those grey, overcast mornings when- rather than the sun actually appearing- the clouds slowly become lighter and lighter until there is no denying that the day has dawned.

That was a week ago. The morning after the night before. The night I came home to find Will in the kitchen with her husband. Only, I didn’t know that at the time. That she occasionally saw men, yes. That she had seen one particular man for a substantial amount of time, yes.

That in front of church and state she had promised to love and care for this particular man, till death do them part? That she was still his lawful wedded wife? No. Hell, no.

All I knew was her quick, meek smile in my direction, as I placed the beans and the flower on the counter and raised my eyebrows, questioningly.

“April, this is Tony, my…ah…”

Embarrassed? Scared? Suddenly I couldn’t read her, this woman- whose face I’d studied over and over, whose hands I’d held in mine until I had her very palm imprinted on my soul- was a closed book. And she had no words for me. No big ones, no little ones. No love filled playful ones. Just a meek smile and a glance at Tony, her….

“Husband,” said Tony, smiling awkwardly. “Ah, Heinz baked beans,” he smiled patronisingly at me, at Will, and I wondered. Was I meant to stand in my kitchen and discuss the pros and cons of beans with my lover’s husband? I looked at Will, but her face was in shadow and she was not looking at me, deliberately.

Everything was wrong, and- trying to get some grasp upon reality- I took a step in Willow’s direction. But oh so subtly she turned away from me, and for the first time I noticed a suitcase on the floor. Hers.

“Took me a while to find the place,” Tony went on jovially, falsely. “I guess Willow told you I’d be meeting her at the station tomorrow, but I phoned the faculty and found out where she’d been staying. And it seemed easier this way.”

I frowned at Willow as she gathered papers from the table. Hers. Tony wasn’t making sense. At least not to me, and I needed to hear it- anything- from her. She was always so good with words, and I resented her most for leaving me to have this surreal discussion with Tony.

“Yes, easier” I said, because something had to be said. It seemed then that her hands trembled slightly, the rustling of the paper becoming more insistent, and - not really understanding the situation, sensing only the importance of going along with what was said, of not giving too much away- I said “Well, it really has been very nice having you Willow. You know you’re welcome to stay as long as you want. I’ve loved the company.”

In my mind, of course, I was saying- screaming- other things. In my mind the words and emotions were swirling around like dust in a dust storm, but there I stood, calmly placing the beans into a bowl, into the microwave, and the flower into a jar.

Today’s sunrise is a lot more dramatic than a week ago. The sky seems to me to be a blood red, clotted with clouds and spotted with the last of the stars.

My sculpture- a mechanical horselike figure which as yet cannot bear its own weight- hangs from the ceiling and catches the first of the morning light. This is the last piece for my upcoming Adelaide exhibition, and I have the presence of mind to realise that today is my last chance to finish it, that it must be on the truck tomorrow. And also- if I want to be at the opening- my last chance to get cheap flights.

I stretch my body, long and hard, and stand up, wondering what this sudden return to the daily grind of things means.

I don’t know much about asthma, but I know that paints, polishes and dyeing chemicals didn’t affect Will in the least. After all, apart from days at the uni, most of her time over the last month was spent out here, where I spray, scrub and hose my sculptures with all sorts of questionable substances.

But that’s what Tony said, politely but quickly declining my offer on Willow’s behalf.

She still hadn’t said anything, and was now standing beside Tony, looking away from me and clutching her book bag.

“Thanks, April… it’s been great of you to have her. Old school friends, I hear?” My arse, I screamed, silently. And I still didn’t know why, couldn’t put my finger on it. “But, see, the renovators have all finished. The paint’s been dry a good week now, there aren’t any fumes lingering around, so I don’t think her asthma will flare up again.”

He placed his hand on Willow’s shoulder. Tightly, I thought. Authoritatively.

“It’ll be good to have the old girl back,” he smiled. “I’ve missed you, pet.” Sick. Sick in my guts, in my throat and mouth. This was all about to end, badly, and something was very wrong.

As if we were business acquaintances, Will stepped towards me, smiling and reaching out to take my hands.

“It’s been great being able to stay here, April.” I looked into the face of the woman I loved, and that’s when I saw it.

My bottom lip began to quiver, and the sick feeling that had been spreading through me threatened to explode. It would have looked pretty impressive the next day. It was already starting to swell around her eye, across her cheek, and I wondered where else he may have hit her; bruises on parts of her body that I once caressed, that were now covered with her overcoat.

Something of the old Will, and something of the old me, were still present, even then. The beginnings of tears in her eyes, the look that suddenly I could read again, didn’t say what I wanted to hear.

Through the fa├žade she was fighting so desperately to maintain, I saw fear, sorrow. And I saw acceptance, resignation, and a begging for me not to rock the boat.

“Anytime, Willow,” I murmured, rage exploding in my head and my heart. I held my arms wide, wanting to take her in an embrace that would last forever, but she turned, reached into her pocket, and handed me an envelope.

“Please- take something for the phone calls I made, the food I ate,” she said casually. It all hurt too much, and part of me was relieved when Tony took her suitcase, her arm, and led her out the door, and the scream that was in me could finally escape.

In the kitchen, now, I reach for the phone, and see the envelope beside it. I resist the urge to read it one more time, to search for a hidden message, a clue, an explanation, some direction as to what she wants me to do. But it is clear enough in the scrawled note, written God knows when “in case you come home one-day and I’m gone.”

She was right about one thing; I don’t understand. There are reasons why she doesn’t want me to try to find out where she lives, or call the police. And they are hardly bad reasons; distrust in the legal system based on previous experiences; fearing for her life.

It is that last one which gets my blood churning, but when I pick up the phone it is not the police I call, it’s the gallery in Adelaide, telling them the seventh piece will not be making it over, can they change the catalogue?

After lunch, having purchased tickets and arranged accommodation at a friend’s place, I am back out in the workshop. I will not be back here for a while. A friend lives south of Adelaide, and some time in the country, where the horizons are wider and the sunrises bigger, appeals to me.

I have packed up my basic toolkit and thrown some clothes into a pack. Troy is now standing on his own four feet, and I’m sitting on the floor beside him. Tears of anger and frustration roll down my face.

And fear. Because after six days, six nights of not sleeping, of thinking about Willow and wondering whether doing what someone asks is always the best way to help them, I still have nothing. Only me, and the fact that I never knew. She never told me. And I don’t know what that means.

In arrogance, I have gone over what we could have done if only I knew- moved interstate, changed our names… I have thought about women I’ve known, sexual assault counsellors, domestic violence advocates. I’ve wondered what they would do, what they would have me do.

But at the end of this week, the longest week of my life, all I am left with is my confused, broken heart, and Willow’s note: “for safety’s sake, please don’t try to help. I have loved you, and still do, but I need you to let me go.” And now, on the cold concrete floor of my workshop, it is no longer for Willow that I cry, but for myself, for us, and for the whole bitter, cruel and unfair world.

I polish the inside of my Troy. I go to more trouble than I usually would, sanding back the greasy bits. I get it to a standard of cleanliness I think she would be happy with. After all, this one’s for her.

I don’t know where she lives, but I know where she works- if any of what she’s told me is true; if he’s letting her out of his sight. The removalists are coming tomorrow. There is a patch of concrete below her third floor window, and I have given the exact position to the moving company.

Carefully, lovingly, I spread the topaz wool rug across the floor of the little space I have left inside Troy. I arrange the cushions. To one of them, I pin an envelope containing the one-way ticket to Adelaide. And- to remind her of what she’ll be coming home to, should she choose- I leave a can of baked beans.