Eloise wakes before me. She walks to the front door and into the yard. I hear the lid of the mailbox open and shut. Outside, the day is bright, a tram is passing on the main road and, sitting on an electrical wire above the house, a magpie is singing.
When Eloise sleeps she ceases to fret. I know the velvety blinds of her eyelids and the rise and fall of her chest beneath its nightshirt, beneath the sheets – three weeks soiled and waiting for me to change them. But Eloise doesn’t notice.
She is in the kitchen now. The kettle boils and she opens a cupboard which pops from its catch.
It’s time for me to get up, to help her with these things, to make her breakfast – which will be toast because it is always toast. Then she will go to her studio and I won’t be able to waylay her a moment. ‘Shouldn’t you have a shower?’
I will say, and she will turn her head towards me then away and say she had one yesterday. ‘What about brushing your teeth?’ But she will already be walking out the back, screen door sighing closed behind her, slippers scuffing the concrete, spanning the distance between the kitchen and the shed.
The corrugated roof casts a shadow over the entrance. Against the steel wall is flotsam junk: a cracked plant pot, a wheel without its tyre, the rusted frame of a golf buggy. But inside the shed a world awaits. From the window I watch the shadow drink her in.
To start with I was paid. I belonged to the Northern Support casual carers bank and went several days a week to homes around Brunswick, caring for those who couldn’t care for themselves. Often it was the elderly, occasionally a young handicapped person, but all with mental health issues. That was the agency’s client pool. I had a few regulars and I liked the work. My aunt suffered from psychosis – or rather we all suffered from my aunt’s psychosis – and she drowned in the Balwyn Rec diving pool when I was thirteen. So it felt important to work with people who still had a chance at survival. Survival is a funny thing, though. When you see a kid upended from his wheelchair on the floor of a commission house, with shit up both arms and his face half gleeful and half terrified and you don’t know how long he’s been there or whether the last carer arrived for their shift eight hours ago, you wonder about the pros and cons of survival.
But Eloise wasn’t like that. It wasn’t that she seemed well – most of the time she was agitated and dishevelled and her small weatherboard house was chaotic. But she was different from any other client I had visited. Was it just that she was beautiful?
She was in her mid-thirties and had dark hair, almost black, which was bunched messily in
a rubber band. The day I met her she wore a loose dress without a bra and a cardigan over the top.
‘I’m Jessica,’ I said. She looked at me quickly then looked away. ‘I’m going to help you a few days a week.’
‘Whatever you need help with,’ I replied. ‘Taking you to appointments, doing the washing, making dinner.’
‘It’s too early for dinner.’
‘Sometimes I help my clients make a big pot of something and then we freeze it.’
‘For tomorrow’s dinner.’
From the kitchen doorway she stared at a point in the corner of the room and her fingers flattened against her sides. Sensing her discomfort, I sat down at the table. It was a decent round one with four matching chairs, the sort you get at IKEA. It seemed at odds with the rest of the furniture and I guessed that someone else had bought it. I wondered who loved this girl and where they were now.
‘What do you usually do at this time of morning?’ I asked her.
‘What do you work on?’
‘Are you a psychologist?’ she asked and I assured her that I wasn’t. ‘They said someone was coming but I didn’t know who.’
‘I’m a carer.’ I changed tack and told her about my kids and how the youngest one left home three years ago for art school. ‘She paints murals.’ I got up to make myself a cup of tea, checking first that that was all right. Eloise nodded absently. The kettle was unplugged and the powerpoint duct-taped.
‘You can plug it in,’ she said from the doorway. ‘Just don’t forget to tape it up again.’
I filled the kettle with water and sat down.
‘Of what?’ Eloise asked.
I realised she meant my daughter’s murals. ‘She designs them with schools or community groups. Usually they are big and bright and have pictures of trees and people laughing on them.’
‘Does everyone paint them or just your daughter?’
‘I think everyone has a go but I’m not really sure. It must get pretty messy with all those kids and paintbrushes.’
‘I paint,’ said Eloise.
‘I’ve never painted a mural. I make homes.’
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ I asked her. The kettle was boiling.
‘I have about eighty,’ she said.
‘That’s a lot.’
‘I know. They all have curtains and doors and telephones. My mother said I should spend more time on my real home and less on these little homes.’
I laughed. ‘Sometimes we mothers don’t quite understand.’
‘This isn’t my real home, though.’ She gestured with a thin hand to the room around her. ‘It’s just a shell. Just where I am right now.’
I took in the yellowy walls and the cheap curtains drawn halfway against the bare Brunswick light. It was mid-morning and the cold sun was bouncing off the concrete in the yard. There were a couple of op-shop prints. Clothes and dirty dishes were strewn about. A blanket was bunched up on the couch, which was turned to face a small, unplugged television sitting on an upturned milk crate.
‘I might have a shower now,’ Eloise said when the tea was made and I sat the mug in front of her. ‘Can you help me?’
I was thrown by the request. I hadn’t been told that the client would require physical assistance.
‘Of course.’ I dusted my hands on my hips and set my mug on the table. ‘These should cool just in time.’
Eloise stood on the bathmat and pulled off her socks by standing on one toe, then the other and stepping out of them. I helped her with her cardigan and turned on the water.
‘Will you get in?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘We don’t do it like that.’
She raised her arms. I thought it was strange but I didn’t want to embarrass her. I took the cue and pulled her dress over her head.
Sometimes it still startles me to see a wild body; the protruding ribs and hips and the loose, empty-looking belly. Dark down lined Eloise’s spine and her bush spread wide and high. There were black hairs snaking out around her nipples. I tested the water and adjusted the cold, then told her it was all right and she stepped in. She put her whole head under and opened her mouth. The water made liquid of her hair and flowed down over her face.
‘What about soap?’ I asked and she looked around for a cake but there was none. I checked in the cupboard beneath the sink. ‘You can use shampoo, on your hands and under your arms. I’ll get you some soap for next time.’
She stood under the shower for a long time. I got the feeling it was not something she did very often. At one point I went to leave but she requested that I stay. I tidied up around the sink and wiped it clean with toilet paper. I shook out the hand towel and a bath towel and hung them on their racks. Eloise turned off the taps and stepped out of the tub. She stood dripping on the mat.
‘That drain wants clearing,’ I said, noting the water still swirling around the plughole.
Eloise didn’t look at it. She was looking at me. I handed her the towel.