Story

Dancing Around

Evelyn heard a noise out the back, somewhere in the yard, but couldn’t be sure it was their yard. The district nurse had come to shower Ron and she liked to stay in the house when the nurse was here. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her, she did, but Evelyn felt it was really her job, despite knowing that Ron wouldn’t have her shower him and had agreed only to the district nurse because that was her calling. Since his last stroke he had lost a lot of movement down his left side, and it was since then that the nurse had been coming to wash him.
Evelyn heard the noise again and decided to go out and see. Down at the back gate, coming in from the lane, she could see the gate opening. Soon she saw a bloke wearing work clothes and a hat to keep the fierce sun off him. He was carrying a whipper-snipper, so she went on down.
He walked towards her, and neither seemed to know the other. He stopped when he realised she seemed put out.
“John asked me to come and mow your lawns,” he told her. John was Evelyn’s son.
“He didn’t say anything to me about it,” she replied, sounding irritated.
The man seemed awkward, and pushed his hat up off his face. “They look like they could do with mowing,” he offered.
“Of course they could do with mowing. There was three inches of rain a fortnight ago.”
He pulled his hat slightly forward again and moved his weight to the other leg. He did a lot of work for older ladies, but their welcome was never like this. But his own mother was old, and more garrulous than any of the ladies he did work for in this dry Mallee town, and he had decided long ago that they got the first say, and the last say, and any other. There was no other way to play it.
“I’ll give them a mow then, shall I?”
“I appreciate it,” she said. Instead of going back into the house she went around to the side where there was a large old peppercorn tree. It was dark and cool there, and she was hidden, and she burst into tears. The whipper-snipper was keening its deafening wail, and she wept for some three or four minutes. She wouldn’t have been able to say when she had last cried like this. Probably when her favourite sheepdog was run over by a visiting lamb-buyer, just before she went to hospital to give birth to her third child. Evelyn was not the kind of woman to cry. She knew that in life there were not many things that deserved being cried about.
She was cross with John—although she was barely ever cross with him—because he hadn’t told her about the man coming. Suddenly contrite, she felt he may have told her after all. Recently there had been instances of her forgetting such things.
When she had tidied up in the kitchen and squeezed some orange juice for Ron, he was sitting in his recliner and seemed anxious, annoyed. “There’s some bastard in the back yard,” he said.
Evelyn told him John had sent someone to mow the lawns.
“Who is it?” he demanded. She said she didn’t know.
“How could you not know!” Now he was angry. And she was embarrassed, but she was not about to go out to ask him who he was.
It wasn’t only since Ron had been ill that he was aggressive; he had been like that most of his life. His working years had been spent on the farm, and he came indoors only to eat or, in the winter, to watch television. These days he was inside all the time, and it did not sit easily with him.
It was a very pretty day, and Evelyn took a mug of tea out to the chap. He was called Peter and had been living in the town for ten years. He’d retired from the Rural Fire Authority and lived four streets away with his wife Pearl, who had been born in the town. She’d always wanted to come back to live here.
The smell of the freshly cut grass made Evelyn nostalgic and thankful. It was really nice to have someone do it, for she didn’t feel as strong as she used to. That had been the case since she’d turned eighty. She was glad she’d made the batch of Anzac biscuits, and thrilled that Peter ate three. She could see he was a good worker, and the sweet smell of the newly cut grass made her want to go and look at her dresses, to see what she could wear this spring. She always liked to dress up, to look as nice as she could. Years ago she had discovered that young skin was the secret to making a good impression, but she’d also learnt that the emotions were young, and that’s what really counted.
“Do you do many people’s gardens?” Evelyn asked him.
“It varies,” he told her. “By now there’s quite a few. Some gardens are bigger than others, some I just take the rubbish out to the tip. They’re old ladies and they live on their own, and they’re not very strong.” He realised he might have insulted her, but she didn’t seem to have noticed.
It was one particular lady he was thinking of. June Loyal was eighty-six, and he’d heard that she couldn’t get anyone to take her rubbish away. She was a keen gardener, had been since her forties. June loved roses, her garden was full of them, climbing, right up through the peach tree, a rambling albertine. “There’s the pink blossom of the peach, and then the blooms start—it fills my heart,” she had told him. She would regularly have a trailer-load of prunings for Peter to take to the tip.
June Loyal’s house was on the edge of the town, beside the lake which more often than not did not have water in it. Her husband had been dead for thirty years now. He had been playing bowls one day—he wasn’t particularly skilled at it but he loved the company (he’d been the bank manager in the town for fifteen years), and suddenly he slumped to the ground, and when they went to find his pulse he’d passed away. June had intended to move on, their two children were in the city, and after more than a year trying to figure out where she might go, she went to the city too. Yet after brief stays with them—their complicated, carefully structured lives made her tense—she moved back to the small town. She liked going to church, she was on the guild, she joined the gardening club, and continued with the book club. Last week they had discussed The Tin Drum, and there was some talk of the Germans in the town: how many families had changed their names during the First World War, and how they had left the Lutheran Church and joined the Uniting Church to worship.
June’s generation was not one where a woman went and found a job after her husband died. She had worked briefly as a secretary before they married, but then the family came quickly. She did wonder if there was anything she could do, some kind of work, but even taking a job in such a small community was frowned on because you were keeping a single girl from a position. She had travelled on a variety of gardening trips, to South Australia, Gippsland, the Western District, but it was New Zealand which took her heart. Never before had she seen such beautiful roses, and peonies, and aquilegias and delphiniums and beech trees. But it was a cold place, and she loved the inland dry country.
Peter had come to cut back the plumbago and the brugemaster now that the frosts had passed, or were considered to have passed. “You must know a lot about the ladies in town,” June said to him as she helped load the wheelbarrow.
“I don’t think there’s all that much to know,” he responded.
So you’re not like the priest, she thought, where all the sins are told to you. Or the doctor who knows about people’s health, and their worries. And their truths. The ones you keep in your heart and take to your grave. Not like the other kinds of truth, the ones of wildfire transparency which surge through the town, leaving their own scarring and their own kinds of truth—like the recent ones of the affair between the new principal and the editor of the newspaper, or of the convicted paedophile living three doors down from the police station, in town for two weeks now.
June asked Peter if he’d heard about the paedophile. He answered that his wife might have, just as she might know the date of the next fête, but he really wasn’t interested in such talk. This was something June cherished in him, that he didn’t gossip. There was a quality to gossip which clearly reflected intelligence, the kind of intelligence she didn’t like. An easy source of bad information.
As he tugged out the dead cuttings he knew there was talk she would like to have, and he also knew that he wasn’t going to try because he didn’t want to look foolish. She was wearing gloves, and her very thin pale wrists pulled and held the prunings, and he loved the way she didn’t talk any more, just walked around to the barrow and pushed them in. He envied everything about her—her clear mind, how she was still strong, her keen interest in all things around her. He had tried to imagine her thirty years ago and wondered if she was much changed. Peter thought about Ollie Sanders, another lady down the street: she also lived alone, she was ninety-two, and he’d seen a photo of her at age forty—her son had brought it out into the yard when he was visiting from Melbourne one day. “Look at this!” he said. “Do you think Mum’s much different?” Peter had felt alarmed. Ollie was one of the frailest, most delicate women he had ever encountered; straight though, and thin as a dead bird. And it was true—she looked just like the photo taken all those years ago.
But he didn’t want to imagine June thirty years ago because he was sure she was very beautiful, with a lovely figure and a waist you would want to put both hands on, and he was sure her laugh would have been the same, but probably with more music in it, and after the things she would ask him to do, he was sure she would ask him inside, and he would kiss her, and her lips would be very soft, and it would be dark and cool inside the kitchen. And there was no one else at home, and she would kiss him.
He thought of her often, and he didn’t stop the thoughts coming. He might have the trailer loaded with cuttings, and be driving out the few kilometres to the tip, a heat haze holding itself parallel to the runway of the airport, the sky extending forever, and he would think about this lady because he liked the way she lived her life. He liked how she still loved her husband, he had a presence in her life, the memory of something good and sustaining, and she was able to keep that without becoming reduced, spiritually thin. It was like a faith, and as nourishing as that.
If Pearl died he didn’t think he could be like Mrs Loyal. He didn’t think he could be loyal to this life in the way she was. He would like to be, but he thought he’d crawl into his shell for sure. He didn’t like to think about it, but that’s what he thought. He told himself you didn’t know, you just couldn’t know what you’d do. While it was true he avoided gossip, it didn’t mean he was unaware of some of the things that went on in the town. Some things he saw for himself, others Pearl told him about.
Several weeks after New Year the weather had become very hot. And stayed hot. Peter had put off going to Evelyn and Ron Talbot’s—he’d heard that Ron had been in hospital over Christmas—but the grass would be too long by now for Evelyn to bear. He decided to go around at seven; he’d mentioned last time that he might arrive earlier in the day once it got hot. “You can’t beat the sound of a mower,” was what she had said.
Yet it was Peter who heard the sound of a mower when he stopped in the back lane and turned his engine off. The sun had not come into the yard but she wore her wide hat and was mowing the lawn. She wasn’t fast, but it was clear she had already spent many hours doing this.
Evelyn was startled to find Peter standing beside her. She turned the motor off.
“You’ve become independent, have you?” he greeted her warmly. It wasn’t his face that she saw, it was his thighs. She had never seen him in shorts before. He had marvellous legs, strong, the right amount of hair, highlighted by the grey bowyangs he wore to protect his thick socks from the grass seeds. Strong, straight, good legs, standing in front of her. She felt she shouldn’t look. Evelyn felt dazed, knowing she had forgotten he was coming to do the garden, but she was too proud to admit it, and then the legs … She had forgotten about such things, yet she’d spent most of her life in a robust way (such legs!), and other sections were an everyday occurrence. That had been a fortunate part of her marriage to Ron.
“Do you want me to put the lawn clippings in the same place?” she heard the question.
“I … think so.”
The mowing seemed to go on for quite a while. Evelyn went back inside and did some ironing. Ron was still in bed. He’d had a bad night and the hot weather unsettled him. She did watch Peter out through the window, and hoped she had not offended him by starting the mowing herself. Years younger, that’s what she felt, just watching him mow, and there was the fresh smell of the ironing. She felt excited.
Peter had expressed a clear preference for Anzac biscuits, and he always ate three. She didn’t think he was on a diet, she didn’t ask him. He was certainly trim. They sat in the garden, and that was lovely because it smelt so good. They were sitting under the jacaranda tree and he’d taken his hat off as it was shaded there. Evelyn saw the milk-white skin of the top of his forehead, the colour she had seen for years on the farmers, on Ron and her sons—the colour of their shoulders and stomachs, of skin kept from the sun. And then at the swimming pool you would see the contrast, the deep red-brown vee seared at the neck. Yet Peter’s legs were in the sun and the light made the hair on the thighs blond, it was an ageless thing, men from as young as twenty had this. That was its power.
“Did you ever put your biscuits in the Show?” he asked. He’d heard she was a good cook.
“Before I married I did. I won prizes too, for cakes as well. After the children came we entered different things. The dogs, and the grain, and for years Andy rode his pony. I suppose I just got out of the habit. When Ron was fifty he had a terrible accident on the tractor,” she went on, “and it took him a couple of years to recover.” That’s what happened to the legs, she thought.
“Would you like to take some biscuits home to your wife?”
“No thanks, if you don’t mind.” He smiled and looked a little embarrassed. “She doesn’t know I have biscuits when I’m here.”

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