I sit and watch her as she speaks to me just as I’ve been watching her for the last eight years. She’s always been friendly, the touchy-feely type of friendly of close friends, but we’ve never been close. She’s never given me her phone number. We see each other every few months and every time I sit there and wonder what more I know of her this time so I can ask about it.
There’s precious little.
Last time she’d just come back from France. Asking about that filled a couple of hours but I can’t remember what her responses were. It wasn’t her first visit to France and she didn’t do any of the usual touristy things; the things I learn about in my closed-in world of books and internet access.
She’s an artist; the epitome of a bohemian with her jangling bangles, short-cropped purple hair and shiny red lipstick that makes her lips look huge and soft. Her sandals are Italian with disks of silver around the ankle, their bell-like tinkling following her every step. There’s charcoal on her palms today and paint encrusted under her fingernails and her eyes are alive with joy.
Her grubby fingers float around her head as she makes a point. The light glints off the gaudy flower petal rings on two fingers of her right hand as she lays it on my forearm.
“You understand, don’t you Julie? I couldn’t say ‘no’.”
I say ‘of course’ and take a photograph.
Today, I ask her about her work. She has a real job, which has always surprised me. Her art fills her so completely I didn’t think she’d have time for anything else. Not like me. I have too much time. She works with children; small ones who’ve been abused, teaching them to draw and paint as a way of releasing the horrors. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to her. No one taught me how to paint.
The others join us in a rush, coming one after the other almost as if they’d stood outside on the footpath and decided who’d come in first. It’s the same group we always meet and I sit back, my short time alone with her at an end. They’ve known her longer so they all know her better or at least remember what they talked about last time.
They each do the rounds, giving air kisses to everyone, their words like birds’ twitter, falling all over the place, jumbling in my mind.
“Hi Karen. You have such a great place. Thanks for suggesting we come here instead of going out somewhere.”
“I’ve had a horror day. It’s good to have something like this to make it better.”
“Are you and Brian well?”
“Lauren, you and Adam go and play with the others now. The TV’s on in the other room.”
“I know you’re a teenager. You can be in charge of making sure they play safely.”
“Have you finished the renovations you’d started?”
“How did Michael’s tests come out?”
“Hey, Julie. How’s the internet business going?”
I must have mentioned that at one time but I can’t remember doing so. I turn to the one who asked, ready to answer, but she’s already moved onto the next one. They catch each other up on their lives, watching indulgently as their children reintroduce themselves on the other side of the room then disappear through a door. I can’t share that either. I have no children.
The conversation becomes more disjointed in my ears. I’m not sure how much each of them hears; they never stay focused on one person long enough to hear an answer.
I lift my camera in front of my face and take more photographs. Every time I point the camera at a segment of the group, the faces turn, lean in close together and smile until the flash goes off, then they separate and pick up the conversation, often in mid-sentence. I envy their ease.
The music is turned up and food comes out. Finger foods, the plates scattered along low tables, just a few inches out of easy reach. I have to shift, move to the edge of the chair to pick up a canapé, then slide back into the hollow and pick the topping off my blouse. Paper napkins are useless.
I don’t join the conversation. Choosing schools or music teachers means nothing to me. I watch Karen’s animated face for a while longer then get up and move around the room, taking my camera with me. Another one of them finds me at the end of the room.
“You always take lots of photos, Julie. Can I phone you to arrange to get some copies?”
I smile. “I don’t use phones much but I can email some in a few days.” Phones irritate me, the way they interrupt me and demand attention. Someone always asks me for my number but I give them my email address.
“Take some of the children too,” she says. “They grow so quickly it’s hard to keep up with the changes.”
I nod and smile, hoping my impatience at being drawn away from Karen doesn’t show.
She puts an arm around my shoulders and draws me back to the table. I resist shoving her hand away.
The music gets louder and someone turns on a revolving coloured light. I can hear only snippets of conversation.
“The first time I drove the car …”
“… I got a permanent position …”
“… born on Thursday …”
“… the mechanic charged …”
“… the soil was rock hard …”
“… in bed the next day …”
I take another photo.
They drag a few tables aside, clearing a space for dancing. One of them grabs my arm and pulls me with them. I bounce around for a while, hoping I don’t look too foolish. Karen’s beside me and I pretend I can feel the heat of her body, then she moves away again, animated, absorbed in the moment, her dirty fingers flying, her feet tapping, bright hair shining like a rainbow in the moving light. I slip away from the dance floor and take more photos, moving around the edges of the room, staying behind people and furniture, out of the way, unnoticed.
They keep talking while they dance. Some of the children join them.
The soft click of the shutter and whir of the focussing mechanism is possibly just my imagination. The music is so loud now the floor is vibrating to the beat and the room becomes a blur of movement and faces, separate from reality, caught for a fraction of a second in the shutter. The lights flash red, blue and yellow on pallid or rosy cheeks.
I keep moving, keep pressing the shutter button. After a while I notice fewer people dancing. They’re beginning to leave. I go back to our table, settle myself and take more photos.
I’m the last to leave, watching through the view finder between the leaves in the neighbour’s yard as she locks the doors and draws curtains as red as her lips. The night is over.
I drive home slowly then download the photos and edit them. I finish printing and by breakfast the wall is full again. Every photo is of her. I’d taken photos of other people but she was always in the frame, always in focus.
I smile. I’ve done well this time. I’ve managed to capture more of her faces. That one of the tight half-smile, white teeth barely visible between glistening red lips is the condescending bitch; the one of her hand pushing through her hair, smudges of paint around the nails matching the purple of her hair, is the slob bitch. The one of her kneeling over the couch, just her jeans-clad buttocks and backs of her thighs visible, is the slut bitch. It’s my favourite.
I check the calendar. Three months til the next party. I wonder how many photos of her I can take before then.
Will she see me this time?
MORE SHORT READS
Premise: Wizard trapped in an oak/house, waiting for someone with power to release him. Apprentice master baker, rushing to purchase his first permanent stall (his final exam before qualification), becomes trapped by the same spell that caught the wizard (with different impact). The only way he can break the spell is to lure the two goblins who cast the spell back to the scene of the crime. The goblins are masquerading as two children: Hansel and Gretel.