I’m sorry Dora, I was asleep. I never would have done it to you if I was awake. This is what I told her. When she sleeps she isn’t there. I don't feel a warm presence next to me. She doesn't dream. She barely breathes. I remember pulling her into me when she wasn't so cold to touch.
She buys books she sees advertised on daytime television. They tell her to tell me exactly what she wants.
'I want you to smile at me when you come through the door at night,' she says, as if there's some guidebook that I wasn't read as a child or a list of instructions taped to the fridge that I missed. She twists her fingers as she says it. Being assertive shows on her face like the wrong shade of lipstick.
The books tell her that our courtship is something we should regularly discuss. To remember why we liked each other, she explains.
'Don’t you mean, at first?'
Dora looks at her hands. She would like to coax it out of me. Slowly, painstakingly, the way you work the head off a zit.
The dog is over-excitable. A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, if you can believe it – a pretty posh name for something that drags its crotch across the floor. Dora combs its ears every day and when I'm not home she lets it up on the bed with her. It chews violently at its underbelly, grunting and snorting until the skin is red. The back leg jerks involuntarily and the bed jolts in the rhythm of its biting. I have the pleasure of waking up to it when it forgets I'm in the bed as well.
I've got a son: Tim, 22, wants to be a musician. At the moment he's a professional waste of space. He has the garage, a girlfriend and four guitars. One of them cost us a bloody fortune as a Christmas present a few years back. All that money and you should see the way he slings it across his back and jumps on his bike. I saw him tipping sand out of it once.
Rosie, the girlfriend, has hair everywhere. A cacophony of curls and dreadlocks obscures her head, half contained by a jumble of rubber bands and diamante clips. But the other hair, it shines on her scrawny legs and surprises me at all the wrong moments. She reaches her arm up to get a coffee cup and my words stop.
'Jeez Rosie,' I say. 'What've you got growing under there?'
She doesn't blush. She laughs. She says, 'Do you want a cup of coffee?' and reaches for a second mug.
I find them drooling over some bits of paper, lying barefoot on the floor. Tim taps a rhythm with the nib of a pen and sings in a quiet, girlish voice. Rosie lies on her front in a baggy singlet top and her tits spill half out onto the carpet.
'For Chrissake,' I say. 'You're twenty-two. Get off the floor.'
Tim scrambles up and brushes the lint from the front of his jumper. It has holes in the elbows. He presses his toe to the ground. Rosie pauses a second too long, looking at him then looking at me, as if she thinks I might be kidding.
I remember a lunchbox lined with greaseproof paper and filled with dark chocolate brownies. It was Sports Day at Timmy's school and Dora and I were there to watch him run in a race. We were sitting on a blanket and Timmy was poking in the basket, checking what she’d brought. He was excited about the brownies. They were made with real chocolate and full cream milk and Dora had sprinkled little silver balls over the top. These days all the old-fashioned food in our fridge has been replaced with low-fat alternatives. Things have a thin taste that you can't quite get hold of. Stingy – that’s what it is. There’s no generosity with butter or cream. It sticks to the roof of your mouth.
Timmy didn't get to taste them that day because he came second last. Eight boys ran before him and only one after him, who needed his puffer when he was done. One of the mothers, school colours pinned to her bosom, saw Timmy sulking by himself. I could feel her eyes on me but I wouldn’t look. Her pig-tailed daughters were sitting cross-legged on the rug in front of her, digging sucked fingers into jam tarts. She muttered to a fatter woman beside her and they both looked at Dora.
Timmy, under his hat, was standing at the edge of the oval pushing lumps of grass with his runners. The shadow of his puny body was elongated like another kid standing over him. Dora wanted to go to him, but I put my hand on her arm and told her to wait, that it would all pay off when our kid was the CEO of some big company and their kids were still eating brownies and coming last.
Rosie knocks at the door.
'He's not here,' I say. 'But you can wait.'
'Can I wait inside?' It's a joke. A joke that acknowledges her hairy armpits and my manicured lawn, the tea-cosy arrangement pulled over her hair and the neutral coloured cushions arranged on our armchairs. I am drinking scotch on ice. I pour her a glass and she sits at the bench opposite me, blocking the television.
'What were you watching?' she asks.
'Who drank all the whisky?' Dora frowns, upending the bottle and pointing her eyes at me.
'Probably Tim. Probably used it to clean the chain on his bike.'
She doesn’t smile. Her collarbones are hard. Her hair-sprayed hair is hard. Her cardigan is peach and nurses her cold bones in cashmere.
Her laugh was something I liked about her during our courtship. I worked in a building near her university block. She studied German and Art History. We used the same parking lot and that was how it started. I used to wait round the corner until I saw her blue Renault pull in, then try to get the spot next to her. She figured it out pretty quickly. Her laugh was a clean, surprising sound. It cracked open that well-composed exterior for a few seconds, long enough to see her teeth in a half-moon smile and a flash of something warm in her focussed eyes.
Making her laugh now is like trying to force open a rusty steel trap and even when it works it’s a polite sound, only from her lips, with no chest or throat or heart in it. It sounds like something small being rattled in a can.
I know what took the laugh out of her. Tim doesn’t know it, but he might have had two brothers or sisters if the laugh hadn’t been dragged out from her. Twice in three years. The second time she even got to be big and swollen with it. Tim was the lucky one, though Christ, she had to lie down for nine weeks to keep him from falling out. All that luck and all that trouble and he doesn’t even try for a half decent job.
The dog has fleas. Dora holds it at arm’s length and walks outside. She starts stripping the beds – first the guest room and then our room. The covers come off all the cushions. I almost feel sorry for the dog. It scratches and cries at the wire door, stopping occasionally to knaw at itself behind the legs and cock its head at Dora when she tells it to be quiet. She wears rubber gloves up to her elbows and her hair pulled back in a stumpy ponytail.
'I'll strip the bed in Tim's room,' I offer.
Dora looks up from scrubbing. She holds her dripping hands out over the basin.
'Okay,' she says. 'Thanks.'
Tim and Rosie are out somewhere. The garage smells of their unwashed clothes. Rosie stays out here with him. I hear her car clatter into the driveway late most nights. I pull back the doona to get at the under-sheet. There are no condoms in Tim's drawers. In Rosie's zip-up bag there is a pot of moisturiser, four tampons, three pens, hairpins, cigarette papers and some used tissues. The moisturiser smells like roses.
When Dora does the washing, she puts everything from our pockets into a bowl by the laundry sink. I find her frowning over something in her hand, holding my trousers in the other.
'What's wrong with you?' I ask when she sees me at the door.
'Nothing.' She swallows a hard lump of saliva. 'I just can't imagine what you'd need bobby pins for.'
'They're probably yours,' I tell her. 'Nothing to frown about,' and turn go.
'But still,' she says and cocks her head like she's been left outside, 'I can't see how they'd get in your pocket. It just seems strange, that's all.'
My sigh echoes in the small laundry and I lean in the doorframe to wait.
'I just thought maybe…'
She moves to close the door and I'm holding my breath.
'Well… I know they can be used to put on wigs.'
'Dora, what the hell are you talking about?'
'I've found some things,' she continues, cheeks flushed, lips tight around her teeth. 'A hair ribbon in the back of your diary and other things as well.'
Her thin hands are purple. Her nails pick at each other.
'Well you can forget about that as quickly as you thought it up,' I tell her and open the door to get out into the hallway.
I come home and Dora's got the thing up in bed with her. Her nightgown hangs over the chair like the tired body of something. She’s naked and she’s got the dog under the doona, nursing it close to her sleeping body, breathing into its neck. The head is on her arm.
'Dora,' I say and she startles. 'Wake up. The bloody thing's jumping with fleas.'
Before I know it, it’s sleeping in bed with us every night. It gets in between my knees and curls up there, so I can't move or roll onto either of my sides without making a big production out of it. The body of it makes me too warm. I try to kick it out of the way but it just sighs and bites itself and wriggles back to nestle into me.
She's chopping carrots. I sit with my back to the kitchen enclave, dozing off as the six o'clock news begins. She is chopping slowly, distractedly, like a clock ticking too loudly at night. The sound of the knife hitting the board echoes off the tiles, waking me when my chin stoops to my chest. Tim comes in the door and the dog goes berserk for him. He takes a piece of carrot from the bench and chews it with his mouth open.
'Rosie said she saw you at the pub,' he says to me and the clock stops ticking.
I'm at work and I'm scratching. Under my desk I'm tugging at the legs of my trousers, digging my fingernails into my calves and clawing up the front of my shirt. Twenty minutes before a meeting, I can't take it anymore. I leap up from my desk and one of the smart-arses from accounting calls, 'What's the hurry?' as I push past him to the toilets. I burst into a cubicle and tear off my trousers and shirt. The hair on my chest is festering with them. I scratch until I bleed.
The doctor parts my chest hair, lifts my arm and checks underneath my testicles. The skin is scabby and hot. Little pieces of white, scratched flesh hang off my thighs. He is wearing gloves. I make a wisecrack about having to see a vet next time instead of a doctor, but inside my guts are turning over and being eaten hollow by tiny black bugs. I can’t bring myself to tell him about the dog.
'My son's girlfriend,' I say, 'I must have got them from her.'
Winner of the 2013 Viva La Novella Prize
When Jessica, a recently divorced mental-health carer, meets her new patient, Eloise, their lives quickly become entangled. The boundaries of their roles begin to dissolve and questions from the past are uncovered, revealing the fractured histories that brought them together.