Witches’ Froth

“You will have to say you’re single,” the girl on the ferry says. “They won’t employ married women. It’s against the law, or something. And don’t give a false name. It’s the government, don’t forget. They’ll check. They check everyone who works there. Especially the wops.”

Ronnie thinks she’s talking nonsense. If they check everything about her, they’ll know she’s married. And there was nothing in the newspaper advertisement she read on the ferry saying single women only should apply. She changes her mind about signing the employment contract under her maiden name. But she has removed her wedding band and stored it in the little box where she keeps her earrings. You can still see where the ring had been, a band of pale skin around a suntanned finger.

The girl on the ferry has been staying the summer with an aunt in Hobart. She gives Ronnie the name of a rooming house in Port Melbourne, which is cheap and close to the factories, so long as she doesn’t mind the cockroaches and the Greek landlord.

Ronnie likes Melbourne with its trams and bustle, and the girl is right about the rooming house. The Greek is amiable enough, but the room she’s given is grubby, the bedsheets threadbare and discoloured. It’s a twenty-minute walk to the Government Aircraft Factories at Fishermens Bend and the morning she arrives early to sign on there is already a queue waiting. She registers as Veronica Jane Meehan (married), and no one asks if she has her husband’s permission to work.

It’s a Wednesday the day Ronnie starts work, and by the time she knocks off on Friday afternoon she’s so tired she thinks she’ll sleep the whole weekend. It’s not as if the work is hard—filling trays with strange-looking metal components identified from numbers on an order sheet—but she’s not used to being on her feet all day. It doesn’t help that the factory with its iron roof and brick walls and metal shelves is baking hot. She complains to Audrey, her workmate, that she’s sweated enough pounds in a week to fill a sack of potatoes. Audrey, as skinny as a snake, never sweats and gets ticked off regularly for skiving off to have a smoke outside in the shade.

The week after Ronnie starts, Audrey hands in her notice. She’s going to England with her boyfriend, a Yorkshire lad who wants to take her hiking on the moors. Ronnie, who has seen the bleak, windswept terrain of the Tasmanian highlands, doesn’t see the attraction. Audrey has a room she’s vacating, which interests Ronnie who is fed up with stomping on cockroaches and spiders in her grubby little room. “You’d better come home with me,” Audrey tells Ronnie one night when they’re punching their cards in the Bundy. “Mr Riemer will want to meet you if he’s going to let you the room. He’s very particular about his tenants.”

Mr Riemer’s house in Kew is like a square box, with disproportionately high white stuccoed walls, steep gables and tall chimneys. A high stone wall lined with English box fronts the street. Approaching the house, Ronnie imagines it to be the chateau of some fading aristocrat in a remote region of Transylvania. The little room that she is shown at the top of the stairs might have been a nursery once or a sewing room, or more likely a housekeeper’s bedroom. It’s furnished with a single bed, a chair and a dressing table, and the solitary sash window overlooks a garden of shrubs and fruit trees. Everything about the house is strange to Ronnie, who has never been inside such a grand place before. Even the smell, which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but simply unfamiliar.

And then there is Mr Riemer, a small, solemn-looking man with thick unruly hair and dark hooded eyes. “He’s one of them commie reffoes,” Audrey had advised, in case Ronnie should have an opinion on such matters. Mr Riemer, softly spoken and a little elusive behind thick-rimmed spectacles and his poker face, is Hungarian.

Across the hall from the bedroom she is shown is another, slightly larger room, furnished with two easy chairs, a pair of side tables and a bookcase. This is to be her living room. The bathroom is down the hall, and she is allowed free use of the kitchen. Mr Riemer mostly eats out, he confesses, though he has no objection if they share a meal some nights. Regarding Ronnie, he cares only that she has full-time employment and that she’ll not bring men back to her room. If he observes her finger with its pale band, he doesn’t remark on it.

For the first few days, Ronnie sees nothing of Mr Riemer. She leaves early to catch the tram into the city and then the bus out to Fishermens Bend. It’s after six when she returns, and the house is quiet. She fries eggs for her tea and helps herself to anything she fancies in the pantry. Saturday morning, she sleeps in. Downstairs in the kitchen, she finds a cereal bowl, a mug and cutlery in the sink, and a note from Mr Riemer apologising for leaving without washing up. She spends the rest of the morning roaming the house, peering into all the rooms and examining the paintings and photographs hanging on the walls. It strikes her that nothing in the house speaks of Mr Riemer; it is as if he is an oddity in his own home. The furnishings are of another time, the paintings mostly dark oils of colonial landscapes. No one smiles out of photographs, which are aged and have neither names nor dates on them. A hawkish, thin-faced woman appears in many. Ronnie notes how she ages from frame to frame, and mostly sits alone.

Audrey had been clueless as to how Mr Riemer made a living. She’d rented the room for about six months, in which time she’d rarely seen him. As long as she left the weekly rent money on the hallstand, he never bothered her. Ronnie wonders how she could have lived in such an exotic house and never be curious about its owner.

For the rest of the afternoon, she explores the suburb, stopping at a milk bar for a shake and a pastry. Audrey has told her that she must go to St Kilda if she wants Melbourne’s best cream cakes. Little Europe, she calls it: a whole street of continental cafes. Ronnie wonders if Mr Riemer has a sweet tooth. He might warm to her if she were to bring him a box of continental pastries as a gift. He might tell her who the hawkish, long-faced woman in the photographs is. On the way back to the house, she’s surprised to see him with a party of boisterous wedding guests spilling out of a synagogue. It’s a Jewish wedding, the men all wearing kippahs. Mr Riemer stands a little apart from the group, jotting in a notebook, a camera slung around his neck. His head too is covered, the kippah sitting a little precariously atop his shaggy thatch.

Ronnie has started night classes to learn to type and take shorthand. Mr Riemer has suggested it, telling her that without a profession she’ll work in factories all her life. Mr Riemer, she has discovered, is the sole proprietor and editor of a small monthly newspaper that he publishes for the Hungarian community. Somehow, it pays its way through subscriptions and advertising, though how Mr Riemer can afford the upkeep on his big house, Ronnie couldn’t guess.

The college where she attends the night classes is in the city, which is convenient as it means she can break her journey home, though it makes a long day even longer. After a fortnight, she is so tired one evening that she falls asleep on the tram and misses her stop. When she finally gets home, she finds Mr Riemer in the kitchen, tapping away on his portable typewriter while a dumpling stew simmers on the stove. His distress at her appearance surprises her. He pours her a glass of red wine, which rejuvenates her briefly though the heavy stew is too much for her. In the morning, she struggles to wake at the alarm and is running too late to stop for breakfast.

Mr Riemer’s solution is that she finish at the factory and work at his office as his dogsbody. There’ll be no wage, but he’ll feed her and pay for her night classes, and he’ll suspend her weekly rent until she can earn her keep. It shames Ronnie to suspect he’ll want more from her, like sex or cleaning duties, but still she demurs. Mr Riemer remains something of a cypher to her, a mystery man who confounds her lazy assumptions about him.

Maybe, if she could talk, the hawkish, thin-faced woman whose photograph appears throughout the house could tell Ronnie a thing or two. When pressed, Mr Riemer murmurs that she is Mrs Babits, the previous owner of the house, but retreats into silence when asked how it became his. He gets a little impatient with her if she becomes too inquisitive, reminding her that she’s studying to be a discreet secretary, not a nosy journalist. His secretiveness merely piques her imagination and sometimes the wildest of fantasies.

One Friday night, after she’s particularly late getting home, he gives her a reefer to smoke. Sometimes he smokes in the bathroom, but mostly in his study at the end of the upstairs passageway. Perhaps, because she has no reason to be down that end of the hall, he thinks she’ll not notice. Tonight, he’s in the kitchen, drinking wine while listening to a Hungarian folk concert on a portable turntable. He puts the reefer to his lips as she comes through the door and gives her a broad wink.

Ronnie has never smoked a reefer before, though she recognises the whiff from hanging out with the boys who gathered in the parks on moonlit nights, listening to British beat music on their transistor radios. Mr Riemer says it’s good for calming the jitters. He says it’ll clear her head of the noise and fog from the jam-packed tram ride home. He doesn’t tell her that it dulls inhibitions, though she surely knows.

First he whips egg whites until they’re stiff. He has her mother’s dexterity with the fork, Ronnie notes, though he owes his culinary skills to Mrs Babits, who was a patient teacher. Apple puree, sugar and lemon rind are folded in carefully until he has a dish as seductive as rich, silky ice-cream. All that’s wanting, he says, is a scattering of grated chocolate. A half hour in the fridge to chill and a spoonful is as light as fairy floss. He gives it a name, unpronounceable to her in his native tongue. “Witches’ froth,” he hisses, and she giggles like a schoolgirl.

Later, as the clock in the hall chimes the late hour, they dance around the kitchen table. Ronnie is so high she thinks she’s dancing on air. They crash into cupboards, stumble over chairs. A new record is dropped on the turntable. The music has changed to a slow, sultry movement. Ronnie kicks off her shoes and climbs on the table.

“Look at me,” she coaxes.

Mr Riemer watches as if entranced. The music is alien to her, yet the tempo is not so different from the tunes she shimmied to at the Saturday night dances. Suddenly, he leaps towards her, crashing into the table and wrapping his arms around her legs, his nose pressed into her belly. Grabbing his hair, she pulls his head back. Such a face, she sees; wide-eyed, mouth gaping: the expression of a yearning fourteen-year-old virgin.

Margit Babits likes brightly coloured felt hats with floppy wide brims. She’s wearing one in most of the pictures of her hanging on the walls of Mr Riemer’s house, though as all but one of the photographs is black and white it’s a matter of conjecture which shade of grey represents which particular colour. Mr Riemer would recognise a shawl or jacket she’s wearing and say, “Ah, that was taupe, I think …” or it might be aquamarine, and then he’d look for a hat that has the same depth of greyness. He’s done this numerous times for Ronnie’s entertainment, and she’s noted how the shawl that was taupe in one telling might become auburn in another. The entertainment, Ronnie thinks, is mostly Mr Riemer’s.

Margit Babits is Mr Riemer’s benefactress. If Mr Riemer doesn’t appear in any of the photographs it’s because he arrived at the house after most of them were taken and hung. He shows Ronnie photographs of his own that tell a different story, one of a young news reporter who slipped out of Hungary before his country entered the war and the Jews of Budapest were herded into the ghetto. His small collection of family photographs is kept in a cigar box on a shelf in his study. He flips through them carelessly, as if he’s looked at them too often. Or maybe not often enough, Ronnie thinks, wondering if they are all photographs of the dead. Before closing the lid, he pulls one aside for special mention. “My father,” he says, introducing Ronnie to a gruff-looking bespectacled man sitting at a desk in a gloomy office. Mr Riemer’s father was a property conveyancer and land surveyor. He had a cousin in Chicago, a furniture seller who had written to offer the younger Riemer lodging and work in his store. “Unhappy years,” Mr Riemer murmurs to Ronnie without elaborating. He would have returned to Hungary when the war was over, but he had nothing to go back to, and other emigres he met had their eyes on Australia. He was given names and contacts, one of which was the Babits of Kew.

The Babits, dull Hugo and earnest Margit, arrived in Australia as young emigrants from an earlier, less troubled Hungary. Oddly matched, they somehow complement each other as dill sauce complements fish. They come with a little family money with which they establish a laundry business that makes them moderately wealthy. There is a son who dies in infancy, a daughter drowned swimming in the Yarra when she is eleven. When Margit Babits conceives again she miscarries. She thinks this is for the best as she has no wish to be a mother mistaken for a child’s nana. Hugo Babits is interned during the war, but Margit, who has Russian ancestry, is somehow overlooked. For almost four years she keeps house alone while the laundry business ticks over. After the war, the Babits sponsor migrants from the old country, see them settled into suitable jobs. Some stay for a while in the house in Kew before finding their own way in the new country. Michael Riemer comes and stays and never leaves.

“Were you lovers?” Ronnie asks pointedly while Mr Riemer changes the ribbon in his typewriter.

She opens the window to his study to let in some fresh air. The room pongs of marijuana and Ronnie is a little sick of it. She likes it that it loosens Mr Riemer’s tongue even as it mortifies her to recall how she danced on his kitchen table while under its influence. Mr Riemer would seem to have forgotten, though he smokes now freely in her presence and is unperturbed by her dogged refusal to share another joint with him.

Replacing the ribbon, he leans back in his chair and regards her stonily.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Ronnie says.

She can see that he’s going to leave her guessing. She does know that Margit Babits was a widow for almost ten years before dying just a few years ago. She looks weary in the last photographs taken of her. It’s a face of resignation, of giving up. Mr Riemer says she grew reclusive as she aged, withdrew from her friends and the associations she had championed. She became more observant in her faith and depended on him for the little company she desired. Ronnie thinks that, with no family to remember, Margit Babits would naturally leave her house to one who came temporarily to stay and never left.

The strain is beginning to tell on her, travelling to and from Fishermens Bend each day and then night classes three times a week. She takes up Mr Riemer’s offer to assist in his office, though she insists on a small wage as well as the perks he offered earlier. A girl needs a little money of her own, she tells him.

She fears at first she will disappoint him, as she’d disappointed Davo when he’d put her to work in his shop. But Mr Riemer’s business is not like the saddler’s, solitary and repetitious—at least, insofar as it had involved Ronnie. Now she types and takes notes, putting to use her night-class training; she reads the daily newspapers that arrive at the office each morning, noting articles that might interest Mr Riemer’s readers; she accompanies him on his round of interviews, is shown how to use his expensive Leica camera.

One night he takes her to a play, a modern telling of a Greek tragedy, which she finds utterly confounding. His review, which he translates aloud to her from his write-up for the newspaper, illuminates for her the general plot, if little else. But who gets to go to the theatre and get paid for it? she thinks, accepting her first meagre pay packet.

A rare letter comes from her mother. She’s still angry with Ronnie for leaving the island, for leaving a husband who provided for her. He’s pining for you, she writes. He says he won’t do it again. But Ronnie knows he will do it again, not because he can’t handle his drink, but because he takes after his father who was a wife-basher too until a stroke made a weakling of him. She’s revealed a little of her unhappy marriage in late night conversations with Mr Riemer, who worries that the brute will come looking for her. He shows her a revolver that he keeps in a drawer in his study, a defence, he says, against intruders. How he came by it he doesn’t say, and she thinks it better not to ask. One night she dreams that Davo is calling her from below her window before a gunshot wakes her with a start. It takes her a moment to realise that the gunshot is in her dream and that it’s not Mr Riemer letting fly at shadows in the dark.

The longer she lives with Mr Riemer the less she feels she knows him. He’s like the quiet, unassuming neighbour who once spied for the Russians or moonlighted as a gigolo. He keeps secrets. The only one who truly knew him, she believes, was Margit Babits. A colour photograph of her taken the year she died hangs in a little alcove about halfway along the passageway between the top of the stairs and Mr Riemer’s study. It’s a studio photograph, the colours muted to give the sitter an ethereal appearance. Coming in from the flicks late one Saturday afternoon, Ronnie finds Mr Riemer sitting before it in a tub chair brought from his study for the purpose. The smoke from his joint hangs lazily in the air. In the photograph Margit Babits wears a red fedora, the brim pulled low over her age-lined face. Despite the weary expression, she has about her a regal air, a haughtiness that Ronnie likes to think is associated with her Russian ancestry. She often stops to look at the photograph, though she has never taken the trouble to pull up a chair to examine it at leisure as Mr Riemer is doing. It’s not something she has known him do before. She thinks that perhaps it’s an effect of the marijuana, or maybe, now that she’s comfortable with him smoking reefers around the house, he’s simply returned to a previous habit.

Acknowledging her presence with a slight turn of the head, he returns his attention to the photograph. Ronnie thinks that it’s the eyes that have him entranced. Margit Babits has a steely gaze that belies her weary appearance. Death beckons, yet she sits in splendid indifference to it. Is it a long life, well lived, she thinks of, waiting for the camera’s shutter to open and close? Is she remembering the old country, friends and lovers past, parents long gone? Is it beloved dead children she calls to mind? A good husband, once interned as an enemy alien? Ronnie thinks there’s another, standing behind the photographer, a late lover captivated by an old woman’s eyes that burn still with life. Whether they burn for the old world or the new, or a world to come, only Mr Riemer can possibly say.

Ian Kennedy Williams lives in Launceston. He is the author of three novels and four collections of short stories, and has also written stage plays and screenplays.


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