The security door clunked shut. Caged in the porch she looked back through vertical metal bars across the neat suburban garden to her Mazda parked on the nature strip. Vestiges of her former life crammed to its roof: A suitcase and two holdalls stuffed with clothes; bedding, photo albums, all her ID; and the deep-eyed gorilla her boss at the hardware store had gifted her one Christmas.
‘Stay! Think of your beautiful home! You raised it from its footings, turned that cattle paddock into acres of gardens.’ Sonia had urged her. Said he was the one who should be leaving. She could get an AVO.
‘He’s gonna kill me and that bit of paper won’t stop him.’
Neither will her toy gorilla.
Clutching her travelling bag she turned into the porch’s gloom and waited for the lock release.
A buzz and she entered a vestibule. To her right, a grey-looking woman in her fifties beckoned her into the office with an impatient wave of her hand, barely turning in her swivel chair from a desk positioned below a bay window. Stella obeyed and perched on a ladderback chair beside the desk. The woman was ordering a pile of forms; beside her, a weighty bunch of keys.
The woman turned to her and said, ‘I’m Beth,’ in the gravelly voice she’d anticipated.
‘Yep. From interstate. Was he that bad?’
Realising the bruises weren’t showing beneath her makeup she said, ‘you’re the nearest. The others have closed down.’
‘So we get their refugees instead.’ Beth waited as if for a more satisfactory response. Then she said, ‘you’ll be alone here. Will that bother you?’
‘I prefer it,’ she lied. Even outside, walking down the path to that caged-in porch she’d had misgivings. The well-kept garden, the stately-looking house, this place didn’t have the feel of a women’s refuge. She’d expected somewhere dilapidated and swarming with women, their kids, and an abundance of well-meaning staff.
Beth turned back to the form on her desk, wrote some cursory notes, then read through a list of rules.
Stella summarized, ‘No alcohol, no men, and no visitors without prior approval,’ thinking the no-visitors rule seemed harsh.
‘And a curfew at seven.’
Why so early? Why a curfew at all? Was it necessary to lock women-at-risk inside this fine house turned prison? Like hens cooped safe from a marauding fox.
She must have frowned. ‘Is that a problem?’ Beth asked, as if the frown itself was a threat of non-compliance.
Stella was keen to reassure her.
‘A hundred dollars a week for food. Two weeks in advance. Then I’ll do a shop. You can apply to Centrelink for assistance. Sign here.’ Beth shunted the form along the desk, pointed at the bottom of the back page, and proffered a pen.
Stella signed and pushed back the form then waited while Beth re-ordered the paperwork. A wintry sun broke through the clouds, filtering through the security grille and the diamond panes of the casement windows, casting a confused mesh on the eastern wall.
Satisfied at last, Beth heaved her bulky body to its feet and grabbed the keys. ‘Come with me.’
Stella followed her through the vestibule, partitioned from the interior hall by French doors of rippled glass set in ornate wood panelling. The hall, spacious, branched at the foot of wide carpeted stairs. Beth passed the stairs and pointed at a door on her left. ‘The bathrooms are through there.’
She walked straight on into a narrow room with a disproportionately high ceiling. Centred below the window in the opposite wall, a single bed covered in a lurid pink bedspread. Industrial grey carpet, white walls, limp curtains framing the window and the grille beyond, and Stella pictured herself tied to the bed, a body in a strait jacket.
‘Is there another room?’
Beth emitted a closed-mouthed grunt and squeezed past her in the doorway.
She lifted the lock on the child-safety gate at the bottom of the stairs and climbed slowly, wheezing when she reached the final tread. She stopped to open a second gate opening onto a broad landing. ‘That room is for women with children,’ she said, pointing to her right. She crossed the landing and opened the door to a small room with a low ceiling and dormer window. The single bed with its floral bedspread, the cream-painted furniture and the beige carpet, and despite the grille outside the window the room felt homey.
‘I’ll be downstairs.’
Stella placed her bag on the bed and sat beside it. The waistband of her trousers felt uncomfortably tight. The anti-depressants she’d been swallowing for the last year were swelling her belly. The doctor’s antidote to Phillip. She was a trim woman who kept herself well, the excess baggage a source of much concern, but she didn’t think she’d cope without the pills. She unzipped her bag and rummaged inside for a pair of track pants before returning to her car for her valuables.
Later, after lying on her single bed listening to the chittering and scuttling of the birds on the roof, she went downstairs.
The living room was commodious, suitable for large numbers, three club lounges arranged before a television and children’s play area cordoned by a security fence. There was no-one about. Ahead, two doors were recessed in the far wall.
‘Those bedrooms are for families.’ Beth’s voice behind her was so unexpected it sent a tremor through her belly. She made an effort to calm herself. The woman meant her no harm.
‘Before I leave, I’ll show you the kitchen.’
They passed the dining room where rows of chairs were tucked under a refectory table.
Another security gate, between bench and breakfast bar, and Beth opened the fridge, freezer, and walk-in pantry, all well-stocked. So much food and only her here to eat it.
Beth jingled the keys in her hand. Stella followed her to the front door. The muted slap of the deadlock, a metallic grind of the lock on the security door, and an off-key whistle receding as Beth went on her way.
Alone, she closed the French doors on the vestibule. The hall was lit dimly by the neon glow of a fire exit sign. She turned and glanced past the stairs. The door to the bedroom was ajar. Keen to shut in whatever lingered in there, she closed the door firmly and went to the kitchen.
Solitude she craved, space to exorcise his voice inside her head still pounding like a jackhammer. But the silence enveloped her. She was aware of the whole house, the empty rooms. She had to resist an urge to flick on every light and check in wardrobes, under beds. Yet no-one could get into this place. If they did they’d be fast finding a way to get out.
She switched on the radio to a brash voice shouting. She turned the dial, searching for music, but the signal was weak. Moving about the room her body interfered and notes became crackles. She turned off the radio and opened the fridge, grabbing cheese, milk, and broccoli. In the freezer, tucked under rissoles and frozen chips, a small bag of peas. Comfort food, simple to cook, unlike that last supper.
Goulash and Phillip had been in a tetchy mood since a guitar string had snapped on his strum.
The Maton had taken up residence on his lap from the day he came home clutching its case and grinning with adolescent relish. His passion, founded on nostalgic references to a lost youth and an intolerant mother, grew like the kikuyu in their garden, tenacious and outcompeting all other pursuits, gaining supremacy the day he found his voice and went about calling himself a singer-songwriter, a regular attendee at the open mic held in the local hotel.
Last year he’d turned the spare bedroom into a makeshift studio. It was a clutter of computer gear, speakers, mixing desk, and mike stands. The carcass of a wardrobe lined with egg cartons serving as a vocal booth; black baize covering the window. A dusty, stale-smelling space and she only entered when summoned.
Upon such an order she was sitting on the ottoman with her back against the wall, Phillip had taken up the swivel chair at his desk. While he tuned the strings she fixed her eyes on the varnished plywood body of the guitar in his lap, her mind wandering to the goulash she’d left simmering on the stove. He squinted at the tuner clipped to the head stock and twiddled the E string then on down, returning to the low E and running through the procedure again, twice. Then he played the song he wrote for her. The song he wrote for his first love. And the song he wrote for Eric Clapton. She had never listened to any of his songs and she wasn’t hearing them now.
Occupying her attention was the smell of burning goulash. But she couldn’t leave until he was done. The fingers of his right hand picked and strummed, his left sliding and squeezing along the fret board. He was slight of build, wiry, his face a little impish, a physique and appearance that belied a gargantuan will. The moment he strummed the final chord she jumped from the ottoman and went to the door.
‘What did you think?’
‘It’s the goulash.’ She smiled.
His face darkened. ‘Come back,’ he said. ‘I want to run through them again.’
The goulash had a bitter twang. The potato dumplings were doughy, the braised cabbage soggy. What was meant to be homage to her mother-in-law’s cuisine an altogether unappetising repast the result of numerous interruptions. Do you think this riff works here? Do you prefer this intro? I’ve changed the lyrics to the chorus – What do you think? When at last they sat down to dinner she had lost her appetite, coursing the tines of her fork back and forth drawing cabbage strands through burnished meat. Phillip ate without praise or complaint. The meal was eaten in concord, a mutual acceptance of the inevitable ruin of her culinary effort, the silence broken only by the chinks of his fork.
She pushed her plate aside and cast her eye about the room, taking in the stir of the curtains drawn across the window on the far wall. Upon his last mouthful he placed together his knife and fork with a polite, ‘thank you.’ She stood and went to close the window, clipping his chair as she passed.
How did they get from an accidental nudge to bruises larger than his fists on her arms, her chest, her face? Her one false move and she was beaten like a bass drum. Afterwards, as he stood panting over her crumpled on the floor, he told her it was that smile of hers that set him off. She should know not to give him that smile.
She opened her eyes to the skitter of bird’s feet on the roof. Then stillness. The dusky light of dawn filtered through the curtains. She felt calm until a door slammed downstairs.
She sat up, hugged her gorilla to her chest, sinking fingers into plush fur. Footsteps, for a moment pronounced, soon became muffled. She slipped on a dressing gown, opened her door, crept across the landing and paused. Hearing female voices she lifted the latch on the gate at the top of the stairs.
Beth was leaning against the kitchen sink, keys jangling in her hand. A woman, no more than twenty-five, stood beside the breakfast bar, erect and motionless in a tight black jacket and pants. Raven eyes stared fixedly at the stove. The skin on her face had a taut look, stretched over recently acquired flesh. Another bloated stomach.
‘Maisie, you’ll be fine here.’ Beth turned to Stella with a surprisingly enthusiastic, ‘you’ve got company,’ that left her feeling wary. Then she bade them both a good weekend with the same false enthusiasm and left. Stella’s suspicions confirmed when Maisie said without preface, ‘I see gas.’
‘Leaking from handbags.’
Stella gave her a cautious smile and went to flick on the kettle.
Maisie sat down on a stool at the breakfast bar, her stare, eyes never leaving Stella, disconcerting. ‘He hit you,’ she said and Stella gave a quick nod in reply. ‘I see through veils too. Is your room upstairs?’ and Stella saw the fittingness of that asylum room she’d foregone.
Sunlight comes and goes. Stella flicks on every light she passes. In the twilight she cooks for two, drawn to this staring-eyed creature seated on the stool. A kindred soul. Through the course of the day Maisie had confided she was a gangster’s moll, a wild girl in cahoots with a bad boy twice her age. Casino man flashing his wealth, driving his gold-ringed fists into her face. How did she end up with him? As daddy’s girl she was mother’s reject, a waif as gorgeous as they come until Max took her in and drugged her up. ‘Trauma rewires you,’ she’d said in a voice beyond her years, ‘and if it goes on long enough the wiring gets fixed.’
Foregoing the dining room, Stella joins Maisie at the kitchen bench and they eat the rissoles and oven chips that Maisie had requested. Little conversation passes between them. Maisie watchful, Stella accommodating her stare, their strange domesticity, the two of them trapped in circumstances neither of them made. As she’s clearing away the plates she’s thinking it would be nice to slump on couches and watch telly when Maisie stands up abruptly.
‘What was that?’
‘I didn’t hear anything.’
Stella strains to hear.
‘You’re imagining things.’
‘Sound isn’t gas. My hearing is faultless. You must be deaf.’
Stella goes to the sink to wash the dishes.
‘It’s the timbers contracting.’
‘This house is brick.’
Her eyes, saucer wide, are fixed on the back door. Never mind she’s terrified. She’s terrifying. ‘Come on.’ She makes for the door.
‘Wait.’ Stella hands Maisie a broom and grabs a carving knife.
The door creaks open with all the foreboding of a nightmare.
Slow steps down to the lawn and in the dim luminescence of a street light they look back at the house. On the roof above the back door, crouched beside the guttering, a furry hulk.
‘It’s a possum.’
‘It’s a cat.’
Ears flat, eyes like lamps.
They both laugh.
‘Let’s go inside.’ Although outside suddenly seems safer.
They spend the evening slumped on couches watching telly, Maisie nursing a bag of salt and vinegar chips and a bottle of Coke. Hours pass and Stella yawns. ‘I’m going to bed. What about you?’
‘I don’t sleep at night.’
The thought of Maisie awake downstairs and she closes the door to her room. There is no lock. She uses her travelling bag as a barrage. Teeth brushed and pyjamas on, she curls up with her gorilla in her single bed. Sleep comes hard.
Sunlight came and Maisie went. The police arrived at noon and she was relocated back to the psychiatric ward in the city. It was a relief to be rid of her, yet as she was being herded out the door Stella raced up the stairs, grappling with the child-safety gates bottom and top, and snatched her gorilla from her bed.
In the vestibule she pressed the toy into Maisie’s hand. Maisie stared down and the gorilla stared back. They had the same sort of eyes.
Sunset and through the kitchen window in the fading light shadows creep and unease rippled through her belly. The cat, stealthy, went by. She turned away and went through the house flicking on all the lights.
Later, with the telly off the house was quiet. Passing the stairs on her way to the bathroom she was sure she heard footsteps on the landing. She froze where she stood and held her breath. The rhythmic creaks of a heavy tread heading to the top of the stairs. She tiptoed back, out of the prowler’s line of sight. How did he get in here? More creaks. Back the way they had come. Then the dull thud of a door closing. Ignoring her full bladder, her furry teeth, she inched her way to Maisie’s room and closed the door behind her. There was again no lock so she dragged the bed, quiet as she could, and rammed it against the door.
She huddled under the lurid pink bedspread, her hearing sharpened to every sound. She heard the cat on the roof again but no footsteps in reply. Then silence.
She didn’t sleep. Fear ingrained its black ink into every thread of her. Little wonder the kitchen cupboards were stuffed full of food. Every woman who stayed here must have left well before her time. This house wasn’t a refuge. It was a deterrent, cautioning against any woman planning to leave her home.
Sunlight came and with it Beth. Stella heard her off-key whistle as she opened the vestibule door. She eased the bed back and left the room, sneaking up the stairs to pack. No terror Phillip could invoke in her was worth staying here. She’d go back, back to her home. Take up Sonia’s advice and swing by the police station. She packed, leaving the anti-depressants on the bedside table.
She left before noon, pulling into the petrol station on the corner of the main road. Nozzle in tank, she eyed around the forecourt. A pile of tyres on special, ice, and a stack of firewood.
On her way to pay, the black lump atop the firewood stack took shape. She snatched the gorilla on her way back to her car and strapped it in beside her.
Entering the main road she hesitated. Home meant turning left. Maisie would have gone right, to the psych ward in the city.
‘…and if it goes on long enough the wiring gets fixed.’