A COLLECTION of ten stories, all variations on the same theme: hiding from the truth.
The matron who interprets her sexual desire as physical pain, obsessed with one of her nurses to the point of stalking (‘Dirty Nurse’); the father who has liaisons with men at public toilets, and the kid who works out he knows the bloke (‘Last Job of the Day’).
The painter who is out but not too proud, and the Auschwitz survivor she must care for in her day job (‘All the Worst Jobs’). The mother who tries to find ‘the right girl’ for her son, only to come face-to-face with his male partner (‘Hilda’s Dance’).
The daughter who finds her gay uncle on Facebook and confronts her christian father about his homophobia in one insightful email (‘A Quick Fix’) …
Captured at the crossroads of their lives, these people face choices between extraordinary heroism and cowardice.
An extract of ‘Dirty Nurse’ from Closet His, Closet Hers.
“Something entirely different, which, structured like a long email from a girl to her parents, analyses prejudice with the biting logic of an unprejudiced teenager” – David Berger on Michael Burge’s award-winning short story ‘A Quick Fix’
BY the time Marilyn had her own office, it was much like her bedroom – isolated at the end of a verandah and damp, since Maintenance never finished the guttering.
The office was a reward for attaining the position of Night Supervisor by the age of thirty, the youngest promotion of its kind in the hospital’s history.
There was no new uniform to expand into, only a chrome-plated badge which Marilyn ordered from the town jeweller and collected on her day off.
She was unprepared for the grizzly smile of the young man she’d been a year ahead of in school, who looked at her through the smoky glass of a recent refurbishment.
It was an unusual look which Marilyn did not recognise, and and read as a slight retardation.
He fetched her badge, which had been sent away for engraving, and proudly held it up for Marilyn in his gloved hand. She checked the spelling, retrieved her purse, and curtly said: “Yes please” to the plush velvet drawstring bag he proffered with his other hand.
‘You’ve done well,’ he said, ‘out of everyone we went to school with, you’ve done the best,’ he added, sniffing at the last minute, signalling that he didn’t much like taking on the family business that had been in town for sixty years.
Marilyn thought of something to say, but stifled it, then another thought popped into her head, and she left that alone too, game show-type retorts which she’d never used anywhere other than the hospital. All she could get out was: ‘Thank you, Brian Ward,’ as though naming him would thwart his unwelcome familiarity.
As she walked away he wondered how much arse any woman had a right to. Still, he thought, she’s more of a looker than Leanne. Leanne was his now ex-wife and the mother of their two children, who’d left for the city last weekend.
Mum had told Marilyn all about it, and she’d had it from Merle at the Bowling Club. Merle was Brian Ward’s godmother.
Driving home, Marilyn remembered what Brian’s look reminded her of. She put it right out of her mind, until at five past eight that evening it came back to her: the face of Pam Cooper, maybe ten years before, in the storeroom where they kept the cylinders of laughing gas.
While running her bath, Marilyn revived the tinny smell of the tanks as Pam handed them to her, only Pam was always slightly careless and had dropped one. It had fallen against a shelf, which twisted the tap and shot a spray of laughing gas over both of them.
“Marilyn had nearly slapped Mum for taking away that chance to hug Pam. Her hands had been so close to both women, but nobody wanted them.”
Pam broke into giggles first, in disbelief more than anything. She’d fallen to her knees, knew to turn the tap off, but hadn’t quite managed. Marilyn had tutted, put her tanks down, and went to help. By the time she turned to Pam the other woman was collapsed over a pile of sterile linen, gripped with silent mirth.
Marilyn hadn’t meant to giggle too, but the gas dragged it out of her. She shook her head, trying to be free of it, but Pam slapped both hands onto Marilyn’s leg in an innocent, jaunty motion which Marilyn recalled like a bolt of lightning running through a feather.
The two women fell about for only a minute, but in that minute Marilyn was touched more than she’d ever been in her entire childhood.
As Pam gathered her wits and stood, Marilyn saw her breasts in the shadow of her collar, right through the join of her bra to the top of her stomach.
The sight haunted her now, as she slid into the bath.
Pam had three kids to a real estate agent. They’d visited because Mum had it from Coral at cards that Pam was ‘going to leave That Man’, and Marilyn had told Mum to tell Coral to tell Pam she was ‘welcome anytime with the kiddies’.
Marilyn had to stop the kids dipping their bikkies in their tea. She’d told them it was ‘bad for their toothie-pegs’, but they still did it. She’d held the little girl and Dad and Mum had a boy each on their knees, but the little lady didn’t like Marilyn’s broad, hard lap.
Pam hadn’t worked since leaving the ward. She’d swapped starched uniforms for an array of stylish polyester outfits purchased during the abundant early years of her marriage.
Marilyn couldn’t get to the wedding because she’d made sure she was rostered on for a double shift to avoid seeing Pam walking down the aisle with That Man.
Around their dinner table, Marilyn waited for news of when Pam was leaving him, but the slightest mention of ‘things’ brought a tear to Pam’s eye, and before Marilyn could go for a hug Mum jumped up with one of her ‘don’t you worry now love’ consolations and Dad had taken the boys out the back to the shed. Marilyn was left to watch the little girl, who insisted on pulling at Marilyn’s shoelaces, the way Maggie had when she was a puppy.
Only Maggie was long dead. Mum hadn’t even given a cuddle or a kiss when they put the little dog in the ground inside an old floral pillowslip.
Marilyn had nearly slapped Mum for taking away that chance to hug Pam. Her hands had been so close to both women, but nobody wanted them. Not even the little girl had wanted them.
That was years ago now. Pam hadn’t left That Man. Marilyn sometimes saw the station wagon parked at the supermarket, and caught glimpses of Pam between the aisles, but her jealousy over that stolen hug always prevented her from saying hello.
So Marilyn slid her head into the searing heat of the bathwater, peeling off the memories she was sure would dissipate in the chilled air long before she surfaced.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.