Sport 13 Spring 1994
Christine Johnston — Shocking Oliver
Alice who is seventeen stands at the sink, looking out the window. Her hands are busy in the sudless water, wiping plates mechanically, missing the smears of egg yolk and weetbix for her eyes are elsewhere, not focused on anything in particular but simply staring. She has a lazy eye in any case and her gaze is disconcertingly scattered, falling like the sunlight on the yard, the old washhouse crammed full of junk, the bank of elderberry and on one of their skinny cats licking a wound.
Alice’s father is at work and her mother at a meeting. Elspeth Roper is
not highly regarded locally because she espouses various unpopular causes
to do with the environment. After school her children can be seen running
wild in farmers’ paddocks. They are always scavenging for wood and corru-
gated iron to build huts in trees or in the jungle of muehlenbeckia behind
Her father, Angus Roper—‘a doctor of something’—works in the administration of the university. Every day he walks away from the chaos of his home, catches a bus and enters an orderly office where he supervises student files. To some, though not to many, he is known as a minor poet. His slim volume, entitled Children of Oedipus, has never been reprinted. He reads from it in rare moments of domestic tranquillity, chiefly to himself but sometimes to Alice who watches him with her good eye while the lazy one discovers cobweb fly cemeteries in ceiling corners.
Angus Roper made a hasty marriage because Elspeth was expecting his child—Alice. A boy, born two years later, subsequently died of meningitis. He had loved his wife for her small round body and her disregard of conventions. Her rejection of domesticity seemed a virtue in those days for he rejected it too. But after she had borne him five children, and still continued to eschew the tasks of housekeeping (washing dishes even once a day), Angus began half-heartedly to attempt a few domestic chores when he returned home in the evenings.
He had first to find cups and plates which were abandoned all over the house and the section, to soak them in a sink of warm water in order to dislodge encrusted food remnants for his wife would not tolerate detergents. His precious time could have been better spent, and when he said so to Alice page 66 she had to agree. After school and the ordeal of the school bus she tidied the kitchen and washed up, so that her mother might organise a meal for the family before it was completely dark and the younger children, despairing of dinner, fell asleep. School was easy for Alice. Most of what her fellows laboured over she found to be self-evident. Getting there and back was the hardest part of her day for the buses were ancient, smelly and crowded with teenage boys.
The younger children grazed on toast and marmite. A packet of butter sat permanently on the bench and they plunged their knives into its yellow heart, leaving it to sweat or to harden according to the season. Alice would stare long and hard at the mutilated butter, wondering why it seemed so offensive to her and why it depressed her so profoundly. She ran hot water over a dozen buttery knives and watched golden globules dancing around the plughole before disappearing, while blobs of marmite hung tenaciously on.
One hot day when the butter was glistening marigold yellow and had to be returned to the fridge on a fish slice, Alice stood at the sink and saw a young man outside the gate. Visitors were unusual, young male visitors exceptional. Typically the gate did not open or give access to a path, and as he realised this he raised his eyes until they met hers. She indicated the far from obvious route to the front veranda.
Alice walked slowly through the dark rooms, kicking a path through the litter of clothing, newspapers and toys. He was standing, framed in the doorway, with his back to her as she approached. She couldn’t help wishing that she could postpone her arrival, as there was bound to be some mistake and he would leave. He looked too promising a young man to be visiting them.
He was admiring the view—the paddocks which insulated them from the little township, the stretch of dazzling harbour water and the blue hills beyond.
‘Hello,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘My name is Oliver Saxton. Is Angus Roper at home?’
Alice, who was not used to shaking hands, withdrew hers quickly.
‘He’s at work,’ she said. It was four o’clock. ‘He won’t be home till six.’
‘Oh, I didn’t know he worked,’ said Oliver. ‘I mean, as well as being a poet.’
Alice looked at him. Although the sun was in her eyes she could see that page 67 he had a well-muscled body and a beautiful head with a mat of cropped golden-brown fur. She could tell that he had had a number two cut which was growing back like a closely fitting cap. He wore small round glasses behind which his eyes were working overtime. There was something doggy about his enthusiasm and his smell and the way he was sniffing around. He stood too close.
‘It’s perfect here,’ he said.
‘A dead volcano oversees
A pretty paradise,’ he quoted, looking immensely pleased with himself.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
Without waiting for an answer she walked to the kitchen, smiling. How disconcerting to hear him quote her father’s lines. How odd to have this stranger at her shoulder as she filled the jug.
‘I can’t get over this place,’ he admitted.
Did he mean the kitchen, the house, Woody Bay or the whole marvellous peninsula?
They took their cups to the veranda and Alice moved two mouldering pumpkins so they could sit on a bench. Oliver knocked one with his foot and it rolled off the veranda. They both leaned forward to see it break open on the path below.
‘Shit,’ said Oliver, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t worry,’ smiled Alice. ‘It will just lie there and make more pumpkins.’
Something in the way he laughed made her think that her remark must be obscene or more witty than she knew. It was true though. It would decompose there beside the path and she would observe its gradual metamorphosis. Nothing in life was more certain than that.
They sipped their drinks which were herbal infusions.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘A zinger of some sort—they’re all muddled up. It’s a lucky dip.’
‘Like life,’ said Oliver. ‘I’ve written a…’
‘No,’ Alice countered, ‘I believe in Fate.’
‘Do you believe in astrology?’ he asked.
‘But you believe in Fate?’
‘In Destiny. What do you believe in?’page 68
He shrugged. What did he believe in? Just himself, really, his own experience.
There was a man up the power pole opposite. As he descended the ladder he glanced at them.
‘And I believe in … language.’
Alice was silent. She put down her cup.
‘Jesus,’ she breathed. ‘Not again.’
She leapt up and ran down the steps, avoiding the pumpkin on the path. The man was sitting in the cab, starting the engine. She called out to him but he shrugged, shook his head and drove off. Oliver stood up and, leaning on the veranda railing, watched Alice returning. She stomped up the steps and went inside without raising her eyes. She was pale with rage. He followed her into the kitchen, noting the stale odour of the house.
She stood by the bench, raking her fingers through her hair. Her eyes looked demented. She had a fruit knife in her hand.
‘So you believe in electricity, do you, Oliver?’
He nodded and she smiled strangely. She held his gaze with her extraordinary eyes, while she manoeuvred towards the electric socket. Then she turned and plunged the knife into the right hand slit. Oliver shouted ‘Hey!’ and reached forward to grab her arm but just in time he stopped himself, jerking backwards.
She will die, he thought, watching her eyes for signs of extinction, and I will be a witness. But she didn’t. She pulled the knife out, and tossed it into the sink of dead water.
‘I’ve always wanted to do that,’ she said and sat down at the table.
Oliver pulled out a chair roughly and collapsed on it. He rested his forehead on the tabletop, exhaling audibly. After a while he turned his head and looked at her. She was staring out the window, her mouth set in a smile to stop the trembling of her lips.
‘You could have been killed,’ he said at last.
She got up and took a packet of chocolate thins from the cupboard, tearing it open with her teeth.
‘That wanker’s turned the power off. It’s happened before. My parents are so incompetent they forget to pay the bill.’
The chocolate thins skittered like dominoes on the tabletop. Oliver was shaking his head, rearranging his legs. He reached for a fat candle and began page 69 picking off the wax which had dribbled down the side. Alice stood looking at the back of his head. She touched his hair with the palm of her hand. It was springy, thick and very short.
She pushed her fingers through the mat of hair and held his skull in both her hands. He stood up suddenly, knocking over the chair. Her hands dropped to her sides. They stood so close she could smell his sweat. She brought her mouth to his and brushed his lips with hers. He stepped back, kicking the chair.
‘I’m going,’ he said.
‘You can’t go.’
Panic sparked in her wayward eyes.
‘You came to see my father.’
‘I want you to stay.’
Suddenly the room was full of children.
‘Look, Al! Look at us!’
They wore only underpants and had smeared their bodies with mud. They were laughing wildly.
‘Get out!’ she screamed. ‘Get out of here!’
‘Hose us, will you, Al?’
‘Please Al, hose us down.’
‘What time is it?’ Alice asked Oliver.
‘Twenty to five.’
‘Oh shit. I’ll have to ring Angus. Can you hose them? Please. It’s in the yard. They’ll show you.’
She began hunting for the electricity bill, rifling through piles of newspapers, books, laundry.
‘Is this it?’ He had seen it on the table, weighted with the candle. She grabbed it, went to the phone, dialled from memory and asked in a civilised voice for Dr. Roper.
Oliver went out into the yard and turned the hose on the four boys who
danced delightedly. He might have laughed with them under other cirum-
stances, but he just held the hose, grim-faced.
‘Rub it,’ he ordered, ‘rub it off.’
When he came inside Alice was still on the phone.
‘Ring them now, Angus.’
She rolled her eyes at Oliver.page 70
‘You’ll have to take a taxi…No, I don’t know where she is. At a meeting or something … It’s $165.25 … Have you got that? Have you written it down? Well, have you? …Do it now, Angus. Before it closes. Do it, okay?’
When she turned around, she saw that he was gone. She ran out into the yard.
‘Where did he go?’ she asked the boys.
They mocked his name.
‘Dunno,’ they said. ‘Who is he anyway?’
She ran through the house to the veranda and saw her mother unloading placards from the back of the station wagon.
‘Mum, did you see a boy, a man, a young man?’
‘A boy, a man!’ laughed her mother. ‘Have you got the potatoes on, Alice?’
‘No! Because there’s no fucking electricity. Did you see a boy or didn’t you?’
‘Alice, that’s no way to talk. I did see a young man running for the bus.’
‘Did he catch it?’
‘I’ve no idea. Why is there no electricity, Alice?’
‘Why do you think?’
Alice pushed past her mother on the steps. One of the placards slipped from her arms. It said something about water purity.
Alice was running down the hill towards the bus stop. Next time, she thought, I’ll behave differently. Next time I won’t do anything shocking.