Image courtesy of Pixabay
Alice was lying in her aunt’s claw foot bath in Melbourne, thinking about the formal sitting room back at home in Emerald, 50km away. It only came to life on special occasions – Birthdays, Christmas. Other times it sat there idle and empty, the cushions plumped up by the housekeeper when she did her weekly vacuum and polish; more like a museum than a living space. A separate place from the rest of the house entirely, bearing little evidence of the five energetic children who lived there.
This particular room was a relic from the Victorian era, from her great grandparents’ time, when the house was originally built. A time that seemed a long way from her own existence. That same room was also reserved for the doling out of punishment, which is why, whenever Alice visited places that smelt of furniture polish, she also sensed fear.
The last time that she was summoned to the sitting room she was 16. There her father Hugh slapped her across the face for coming home late. It wasn’t a controlled slap. Everything about him exuded control – from his neat, pressed clothes to his polite table manners. But his wrath behind doors took on a more reactive fashion. It was a hefty swipe, not a slap. Her face was so swollen she couldn’t go to school for a week. Hugh then didn’t look at or speak to her until the swelling subsided, her face too stark a reminder of his violent actions.
That period of silence seemed to stretch forever as they passed each other in the hallway. The rest of the family were quiet too; an invisible cloak had dropped on the household and muffled them. Even the dog Rufus stepped down his boisterous barking.
Small wonder then that when Alice learned they were shipping her off to the lights of the city to live with her Aunt Georgia and attend a girls’ school, she whooped with joy (in the privacy of her bedroom, the door shut).
She knew that her recent friendship with James Templeton had precipitated this rather serious course of action: on Fridays after school he hung out in her room to listen to music. His parents were liberal thinking teachers who didn’t think anything much about leaving the two of them unsupervised while they went out, usually to some teachers meeting. But when James visited Alice’s house, they had to leave her bedroom door open. Her religious parents were afraid of the possibility of intimacy, and God forbid, intercourse before marriage. James was two years older than her, which made matters worse.
Alice loved her Aunt Georgia. She was a lesbian. Alice found out by putting one and one together. There were never any men around when she visited during her school break, usually one other woman. For a few years it was Esther, an artist, who wore bright colours that reminded Alice of tropical birds. Then there was no one for a while, until Gianfranca, as exotic as her name, nut brown and small, from Italy. They were introduced as ‘friends’, but it looked to Alice as if each time, they were moving out so that she could move in.
Fortunately for Alice, Georgia was also liberal thinking and didn’t mind what Alice did or who she was with as long as she reported in. Her aunt didn’t like surprises. Alice loved to cook, a bonus for Georgia, who hated it.
The family never talked about Georgia’s sexual orientation. Alice wasn’t about to bring this subject up! But she surmised that her mother knew this about her only sister and probably didn’t know how to deal with it. Better off not said then; the family’s modus operandi.
On the second weekend of term, Alice asked Georgia:
Can James come to stay next weekend?
A boy I was seeing, before I got shipped off here to be with you.
Oh, I see, she said with a wink over her tortoiseshell glasses.
You can have the place to yourselves. I’ll spend the evening with Gianfranca.
Alice ended up pregnant from that one night with James. How could that be? He had hurt her during sex, a fumbling, urgent kind of activity that didn’t feel very romantic. She could tell he’d done it before but wasn’t very confident; it was her first time. As if she’d had the chance really, under watchful parental eyes. But she’d lied to him about this. She had her pride! He’d forgotten to bring a condom but found one in the bottom of his backpack that looked like it had been through the washing machine a few times.
It’s ok. We’ll take care of it. That’s of course unless you want to keep it? was Georgia’s reaction.
In between sobs Alice vigorously shook her head. She thought of her mum Patrice, a prisoner in her own home, ferrying children to appointments, school. No life of her own or identity outside the house.
This was not the future she had in mind. She wanted to get a job and travel.
Some of the girls at her new school were from farms; they boarded there weekly. Others came from the city or the surrounding suburbs. As Alice lived only two blocks from the school and Georgia was out a lot, she invited four of the boarders for a visit after-hours.
Joss the loudest and the funniest, from a dairy farm, asked: where is the alcohol?
It hadn’t occurred to Alice to access the drinks’ cupboard in her aunt’s absence. Georgia would let her have half a glass of wine sometimes, ‘for educational reasons’. A big remove from living under her father’s rule.
Next, Alice and her after-hours visitors were clinking crystal glasses filled with ice cubes and lime wedges, tonic and vodka. She had watched Georgia mix them for Gianfranca and other friends.
Who’s this then? The crystal glass looked out of place in Joss’s clumsy hand as she inspected a photo on the mantelpiece.
Oh, that’s my aunty’s friend. They met in Italy.
Hmm. Looks like a leso to me.
They all giggled.
Quiet, book-loving Rose fingered the coffee table books, the vases and figurines.
She’s got good taste.
No husband then, no kids?
A silence followed.
Joss’s loud cheery voice broke their reverie. Come on I’ll teach you how to play poker.
She produced a stack of cards from her dressing gown pocket.
Alice never heard from James again, apart from when she bumped into his sister, Imogen, at the pool during term break.
Oh, he’s gone to Sydney to find work. Wants to study Law there next year. He’s staying with our cousins at Manly.
She felt relieved at the news. He was moving on, so could she.
Alice loved her time in Melbourne; maybe a bit too much. Her study suffered. Joss started coming to visit on her own. The others were afraid they might get caught, then expelled. One night when Georgia was away and after a few vodkas, they started kissing.
Alice was shocked at first.
But this wasn’t like kissing James; it was more relaxed, slower, with more feeling. She felt disarmed, unself-conscious.
Eventually, Joss said: Come on let’s have a bubble bath.
What about your curfew?
Meg is looking out for me. We’ve put extra pillows under my bedcovers. Looks like I am asleep. When is Georgia coming home?
She’s gone to the theatre. Told me she’ll be home late.
Alice loved her baths. It was always difficult taking one back at home, with four younger siblings clamouring at the door to get in while she was up to her neck in soapy water. She envied her parents’ ensuite but that was hallowed ground, a no-go area. There was no bath either, just a shower, toilet and vanity, plus a huge mirror. She would sneak in there when her parents were out and spray Patrice’s perfumes on her wrists. The scent was heavenly.
Baths gave her thinking time. It was there, too, that she would miss her brothers and sisters – Sebastian, Shaun, Ruby and Lucy. Especially on warm days when she could smell the jasmine and honeysuckle through Georgia’s bathroom window. She remembered them all playing tag under the sprinkler on the front lawn when they were younger, Rufus barking vigorously as he ran around them in circles. At these times she missed them, and Patrice. But never Hugh.
Joss’s nightly visits became weekly, timed with Georgia’s absences. They stopped drinking after a while, the novelty wearing off, happy just to be together, taking a bath, kissing, talking, laughing, touching each other’s bodies under the bubbles.
Joss replaced the vodka before it was noticed; she looked older than her years so she was the perfect candidate for buying the alcohol even though she was still underage. Georgia always had at least three spares in the drinks cabinet, but Alice didn’t want to take any chances. The girls were careful to bury any evidence at the bottom of the recycling bin outside near the laundry.
When Alice got her results at the end of that year she was terrified about what Hugh would do. More terrified than when she found out about her pregnancy. This one wasn’t going to go away so easily.
She shared her fear with Georgia that night over take away Thai.
Hey didn’t you always want to be a chef? Your mum told me about how you are in the kitchen in the holidays, cooking with the younger ones. And you prepare great meals for the two of us. Why don’t you see if you can get an apprenticeship? Then tell them your plans. You won’t need high marks to get in. And you don’t need to finish school. You can start earning straight away. I’m happy for you to keep living here, but I might have to start charging you rent, once you are working.
Alice liked this idea. There’s another thing I need to tell you: I’m sort of going out with Joss. You know, the girl from school with the gravelly voice and the beautiful eyes.
Phew! That’s a lot to take in, and I’m not even your parent. Congratulations. What happened to James?
That was a long time ago now!
They both laughed.
Two months later, in February, Alice was ensconced as an apprentice chef in a trendy restaurant in St Kilda, through a contact of Georgia’s. The work was hard and the hours long but she did enjoy the camaraderie in the kitchen. The other apprentice Joel, in his 3rd year, was her immediate supervisor. Phillipe the kitchenhand, Fiona the second chef and Marcus the head chef rounded out the team. The atmosphere was a lot more relaxed she noticed when Marcus wasn’t around, but she figured that was because he was also the owner of the business. His sister Hilary ran the front of house.
The place attracted attention from city-dwellers mainly because they grew their own vegetables and herbs from the rooftop garden. This was Marcus’s pet project, and if he wasn’t at the fish markets or the flower markets he was up there weeding and digging.
Fiona let it slip that ‘we could do with more of a hand in the kitchen instead of him being absent all the time‘. She was hard working and swore the most out of the team. Alice took an instant liking to her.
In March Alice started attending technical college, one day a week. First thing she noticed was that there were only two females in her class of 16 pupils, her and Zsófia who worked in her parents’ Hungarian restaurant on the other side of the city. The second thing was the fact that the male teacher was a chauvinist.
He took things too far in one class dedicated to trussing chickens. Imagine your girlfriend. You want the breasts to be pert and full when you tie them together.
Sexism is not on the curriculum Sir she blurted with reddening cheeks.
Oooh! Chorused the group of five apprentices who had identified themselves as the surfers early on.
The rest of the class went quiet.
Alice went straight to the head teacher at the conclusion of the lesson and reported his comments, word for word. Zsófia came along as her witness, though she was a bit nervous about it.
What if we get suspended, or expelled from the course? My parents will kill me!
We won’t, silly; we’ve done nothing wrong. He has.
The following week there was a new teacher, a younger man by the name of Hamish. He was very direct, but very level-headed as well.
Joss still kept in touch and was busy with her last year of school. It was difficult to see each other, as Alice worked nights. Every 2nd Sunday was the only opportunity – Joss was expected at her uncle’s on the alternate weekends.
Alice asked if she could come too, Sunday being her regular day off. Joss replied: You don’t want to meet him, he’s a bit of a grump. The only reason I go is to see my cousins and play with the dog. My aunty is good value too.
The restaurant won a national sustainability award that spring. To celebrate, Marcus and Hilary invited all of the staff to a barbecue on a Sunday, when the place was usually closed. They were allowed to bring four people each.
Georga said: What a great opportunity for your parents to meet Joss. I’ll come as your moral support.
Alice’s mouth went dry.
Georgia continued: Believe me, the truth only gets harder as you get older. I know.
They shared an understanding look.
On the day of the lunch, Alice’s stomach wouldn’t settle. She imagined her father slapping her in front of everyone and storming off, once he had put one and one together.
The car parking area was turned into an outdoor dining room for the event. There was suckling pig on a spit roast, baked whole salmon, champagne, delicious cakes from a nearby award-winning patisserie. Two of the part-time waitstaff, Jose and Amanda, helped out.
Alice had reminded Joss of her concerns about her father during her dinner break the night before, on their regular cell phone call when she was at work.
He sounds like a nightmare.
He is. So no touching me or anything like that ok? Let him make up his own mind…
As soon as he saw Alice he gave her a hug. She wasn’t expecting this, or his dishevelled look; he also looked smaller than she remembered.
Her mother took her aside. Sebastian has run away. Been three days now. It’s hit your father hard. We can’t stay for long; wanted to tell you in person.
Hugh said: You must be Joss, Alice’s friend.
Out of nowhere, Alice blurted: Yes, she is my girlfriend. She didn’t care that her cheeks were reddening as she said it.
Welcome to the family.