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  • Published: 20 February 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761341069
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

Kind of, Sort of, Maybe, But Probably Not

Extract

It was fair to say that Phoebe Cotton's brain was like a mixing desk where some of the controls were a little bit broken. Some sounds, once she heard them, she couldn’t fade out. In fact, if anything, once she’d picked up on a certain noise, it was like that track became instantly isolated and the volume on everything else dropped away.

Jasmine eating an apple with her mouth open in the library staffroom was a good example. Even though the handyman was using his drill on an industrially loud setting in the next room, the wet crunch of the apple cut through, making Phoebe’s fists clench and her toes curl.

She looked longingly out the rain-streaked window. Usually, she would be eating her lunch outside on her own, but the weather was so bad that she’d had no option but to eat in the library’s small staffroom alongside Jasmine.

And her apple.

‘Have you seen Outbreak yet?’ Jasmine asked her, in between enthusiastic bites. Phoebe could see white bits of apple in her mouth, swilling around like a shirt in a tumble dryer. Phoebe did her best to push past the red mist that was threatening to consume her and shook her head.

‘No, I haven’t,’ she said.

‘Cameron and I saw it last night in the city.’ Phoebe nodded. She didn’t know who Cameron was, but then she had only been in the job – her third maternity leave replacement position in a row – for a few months and she didn’t know much of anything. The only thing she did know was that she needed to start talking so Jasmine could finish her apple and put Phoebe out of her misery, but she had no idea what to say.

She was therefore relieved when Des Rollerson walked into the staffroom. Des Rollerson always had plenty of things to say.

‘Have you seen Outbreak yet?’ Jasmine asked him.

‘No, but I’ll tell you why.’ As he started to list his issues with the American blockbuster format and Jasmine made some real progress towards finishing her apple, Phoebe silently gave thanks. Des had saved the day. But then she realised that, as he was banging on about the ‘cult of mediocrity’, he was heading towards the urn to make himself a cup of tea. The situation was going from bad to worse. Des always drank his tea like he was trying to suck it up without his lips ever touching the liquid. Some days, when it was quiet in the library, Phoebe could hear him slurping his tea in the staffroom all the way from the front desk.

Before she knew it, Des was standing in front of Phoebe and Jasmine, with one leg resting on a chair and his groin on display like an open book, bringing a mug of hot tea to his lips. Meanwhile, Jasmine had finished her apple and produced a carrot from thin air.

‘You look pale,’ Jasmine remarked, her carrot lifted to her mouth like a microphone.

‘Yeah, everything alright?’ Des repeated with a creepy wink. He brought his mug up to his mouth and Phoebe felt the urge to shout. At him. At Jasmine. At a too-loud world.

‘Everything’s fine,’ Phoebe said, her voice small and tight as she packed up her untouched cheese sandwich. ‘I think I’m going to go back to the desk.’

‘But you haven’t eaten your lunch,’ Des lowered his mug and raised one of his eyebrows instead.

‘I’m not hungry.’

Actually, she was starving but she’d have to wait.

After work, Phoebe decided to walk home from Footscray rather than risk the 216 bus. In the morning, there’d been someone on the seat behind her snapping their gum, and even though she’d turned the volume on her Walkman right up, the sound had still seeped through the music and poked at her brain, like a thousand tiny needles.

It wasn’t a long walk and thankfully the rain had stopped. As she walked, she ate her cheese sandwich and listened to the soundtrack from The Piano through her headphones. The music, combined with the grey clouds swirling overhead, filled her with an unnamed melancholy that sat heavily in her chest the entire walk. By the time she got to Salmon Street, she’d decided two things: to change the disk to something more upbeat for the next day; and to immediately cheer herself up with a nice cup of tea and a few chapters of The Convenient Marriage.

She stopped at the front gate of Number 6 and pushed the overgrown hydrangea back to get the mail out of the letterbox. Today’s haul was so large it came with a complimentary elastic band. Phoebe knew that the majority of it would be for her grandmother Dorothy – mostly bills – with a sizeable chance of another letter from Reader’s Digest telling her grandfather Edward that he might have won a million dollars. Many times, she’d thought of writing to them to let them know Edward had passed away, but she kind of liked getting the letters.

She wondered if Edward had enjoyed getting them too. It had been fifteen years since his heart had quietly stopped beating while he slept in the front room of this house. While everyone had mourned him, nobody had been particularly surprised, considering the amount he drank and smoked. Phoebe and her parents had thought Dorothy, too, would eventually die in that same front room, but not in her sleep. They imagined her sitting upright in bed with her gardening log, closing her eyes after carefully making her daily notes and never opening them again. But then a year ago, at the ripe young age of sixty-eight, she had surprised them all with an announcement. She’d told them she no longer had the lower-back strength to maintain her beloved garden and that she was moving to a retirement village called the Western Retreat.

This left Phoebe’s parents, Phil and Ellen, with the dilemma of what to do with the property. At the time, Phoebe had been living miserably in a share house in Kensington. At any given moment, it had seemed, there was at least one person eating a big bowl of cornflakes in the kitchen. Cereal, with the opportunities it presented its eater for crunching and slurping, was at the top of Phoebe’s ‘Avoid at All Costs’ list. But along with two-minute noodles (no crunch, but all slurp), it seemed to be the only thing that her housemates ever ate.

So, when Phil had suggested she look after the Salmon Street house while they decided what to do with it, she’d jumped at the chance.

Of course, she hadn’t factored in how much work the garden required, nor her complete lack of aptitude or appetite for gardening. Nor had she known how drafty the old weatherboard bungalow was, particularly now that winter was approaching, nor how easily dust gathered on every single surface, making it impossible to keep clean, nor how often she would need to vacuum the floral Axminster carpet. She also hadn’t realised that living by herself would drive her even further into her shell. These days, her life consisted of her latest library job, a weekly dinner with her parents, and bad TV choices. Also, the large collection of Georgette Heyer Regency romance novels that her grandmother had left behind in the spare bedroom.

As Phoebe stepped into the house, the first thing she saw was the light blinking on the answering machine. Her mother had bought the machine for her last Christmas because she didn’t want Phoebe to miss any important job offers or invitations to social events. So far, she’d received neither, and the answering machine sat on the art deco telephone table in the hallway as a constant reminder of her failings.

She pushed the button.

‘Hi, Phoebe,’ a voice said, surprising Phoebe even further. The only messages she ever received were for Dorothy, mostly from the secretary at the Williamstown RSL who a) never managed to update her records with Dorothy’s new number and b) always started the message thinking that she was speaking to an actual person. The voice continued. ‘It’s Sandy. Long time, no talk! Your mum gave me your new number. She said you’re living in your grandmother’s house – I can’t believe it. Are you following all her rules? Listen, I’m coming to Melbourne for a few days at the end of this month and it would be great to catch up.’

For the briefest of moments, Phoebe thought about ringing her back but then she remembered the last time they’d spoken and how it had effectively resulted in a four-year pause in the middle of a sentence.

Unfinished sentences: Phoebe’s life was full of them.

She deleted the message and headed to the small kitchen at the back of the house to make herself that cup of tea.

While she waited for the kettle to boil, she sat down at the square formica table to sift through the mail. There, wedged between a Coles catalogue and the gas bill, she found a postcard of Big Ben in London. She couldn’t imagine any of Dorothy’s RSL friends ever leaving the western suburbs, let alone enduring a twenty-eight-hour flight to England. Perhaps she had underestimated them. But when she turned the postcard over, she found it wasn’t for Dorothy at all. Instead, it was addressed in the most glorious copperplate handwriting – all loops and flourishes – to an Elizabeth Winsome at 6 Salmon Street.

My dear Elizabeth,

We’ve just arrived in London. It’s dirty and grey and crowded. The plane trip lasted forever and ever. I think it will take most of my time in Europe for me to recover. I’m walking around in a dream, seeing faces like yours in the crowd.

Yours, always yours,

T

She flipped the card back over to the picture side and stared at Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster, looking just like the Thames TV logo from the shows she had watched when she was a kid. It even had the same faded colour she always associated with the 1970s, that made it look like the world had been dipped in vinegar. Whoever this Elizabeth Winsome was, she was lucky to have someone like ‘T’ longing for her.

Phoebe sighed as her gaze drifted out the kitchen window towards the mulberry tree in the backyard, stripped of all its fruit and the last of its yellowing leaves clinging to stick-like branches. She hadn’t pruned the tree at the end of its fruiting season like she’d promised Dorothy.

Looking at it now, it was hard not to feel like the tree had somehow become a metaphor for her life.

 

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Phoebe had been rostered on for a half-day at the library, so she’d rushed home, hoping to catch the beginning of Donahue on Channel 10. That day’s topic was ‘Nudist Families’. Phoebe liked to hear about other people’s lives, even if they didn’t have any clothes on. At least they were living.

But the arrival of another postcard – this time from Stratfordupon-Avon – made her forget about the naked families and Phoebe found herself reading it before she’d even got to the front door.

My Elizabeth,

Here I am, in the birthplace of Shakespeare. Last night we saw A Comedy of Errors. I kept thinking of that time we went down to Williamstown beach and read each other sonnets. It feels like another lifetime ago, especially now that I’m on the other side of the world without you by my side.

Yours, sans you, sans meaning, sans everything,

T

Phoebe closed her eyes and felt the autumn air against her cheeks and breathed in the scent of the damp earth and fallen leaves.

Sans you, sans meaning, sans everything.

If she were a heroine in one of Dorothy’s Regency romance books, she might have swooned. In any case, she reminded herself that the postcard wasn’t intended for her. She didn’t want to be one of those characters that thwarted true love, even just through inaction. She needed to get the two postcards to Elizabeth Winsome.

She considered the address. Maybe Elizabeth lived at 16 Salmon Street or 9 Salmon Street. Mrs Papathanasiou across the road would know. Phoebe looked at her watch. If she gave up on Donahue, there was just over an hour before Oprah started, giving her enough time to drop by Mrs Pap’s house. Nobody was ever able to ‘drop by’ Mrs Pap’s house for less than forty-five minutes, although legend had it that Phoebe’s father, Phil, once managed to leave after fifteen minutes – but that was only because a neighbour’s car was on fire.

The front yard of Mrs Pap’s two-storey brick house was bursting with carefully tended life. With vines climbing up trellises, baskets of herbs hanging off the walls and raised garden beds creating complex mazes in the front and back yard, not a single inch of land was wasted. Phoebe had long been expecting Mrs Pap to start growing things on her roof.

Mrs Pap must have seen Phoebe coming, because she’d opened the door and was greeting her before Phoebe had even stepped through the front gate.

‘Pheeee-beeee,’ she said, drawing the name out like taffy. ‘You not working? You lost your job?’

Mrs Pap always assumed that anybody seen on the street between the hours of nine and five must be unemployed.

‘Yes, I’m working,’ Phoebe replied, as she followed Mrs Pap inside. ‘I just have the afternoon off.’

‘Afternoon off is not proper job.’

‘I work for the library, which means I work for the council, Mrs Pap. It is a proper job.’

‘Council isn’t proper job. They just send letters about chickens.’

Mrs Pap had been forced to get rid of her chickens when someone had complained to the council about the rooster. It must have been a resident from the next block because, even though the rooster woke half the suburb up before dawn, nobody on Salmon Street would have ever been brave enough to dob Mrs Pap in.

‘How is your yiayia?’ Mrs Pap asked, gesturing to a place on the white leather sofa for Phoebe to sit. Phoebe could still remember a time she’d been considered too young to sit on the white leather sofa. She had really come up in the world.

‘Dorothy’s fine,’ she replied as she sat down.

In truth, it had been a while since she had last visited her grandmother. Her grandmother wasn’t the easiest person to visit. She’d never been a ‘Nanna’ or ‘Granny’ who baked cookies, knitted you scarves and sent you ten dollars in the mail for your birthday. Instead, she was simply ‘Dorothy’, who corrected Phoebe’s posture and endlessly criticised the length of her fingernails and/or her life choices.

Mrs Pap was more the former kind of grandmother. Whenever she saw Phoebe, she fussed over her, plying her with food and insisting that she have a glass of her homemade tsipouro, known privately as ‘liquorice rocket fuel’ by Phoebe and her parents. Today was no exception. Before Phoebe knew it, Mrs Pap was bringing out the usual ancient bottle that had an olive branch and the word ‘Molivo’ embossed on its thick glass. Apparently, Molivo was a brand of olive oil back in Greece and not the Greek word for ‘rat-arsed drunk’ (as Phoebe’s father Phil had once claimed).

Mrs Pap had also laid out a plate of crescent-shaped kourabiedes. Normally someone bringing out a plate of biscuits would make Phoebe very anxious, but because Mrs Pap didn’t touch anything (other than the tsipouro), Phoebe never had to worry about having to listen to her eat them, what with all the

‘Puthhhh!’ noises she would make and the icing sugar going everywhere in little clouds.

Now settled in her favourite chair, Mrs Pap started to dole out her usual advice about the garden at Salmon Street (‘You need to spray those roses with baking soda, soap and olive oil’), the apparently deficient weight of Phoebe’s coat (‘You’ll catch a cold in your kidney!’), Phoebe’s love life (‘If a boy breaks your heart, you tell him to go jump to the lake’) and complaining about her son Garry’s wife, Candy (‘She loves money more than family. He should have married a Greek girl’). Eventually, she paused long enough for Phoebe to interject with the whole point of her visit.

‘Um, Mrs Pap,’ Phoebe said, brushing some icing sugar off her top. ‘I’ve been getting postcards from Europe addressed to an Elizabeth Winsome at Dorothy’s house. Is there anyone on the street by that name?’

‘Elizabeth?’ Mrs Pap tilted her head. ‘There’s Sari, Phuong, Janet, Selina, Mrs Chan, Felicity, Susan and Alma on this side. And then there’s Daphne, Brenda, Mrs Fleet, Pha, Fiona and Therese on your side. Frank at number 17 has lady friends but they’re not there long enough to get letters.’

She thought some more, before finally declaring, ‘No Elizabeth.’

‘No Elizabeth,’ Phoebe echoed, picking up her little glass of tsipouro and taking a small sip.

‘Your yiayia is good, yes?’

Phoebe felt they had covered this ground already. ‘Yes, yes. She’s fine.’

‘She’s a sad lady. I was always telling her, “Dorothy, you need to get yourself some more happy.”’

Phoebe had heard Mrs Pap say that a few times about Dorothy, but she’d never quite understood it. The word ‘more’ suggested that there was already a baseline level of happiness, or even a period of her life where Dorothy had actually been happy. As far as Phoebe could remember, her grandmother had always been cranky, stern and grim, but never sad, not even after her husband died. Phoebe, who’d been nine at the time and far more interested in collecting Smurfs than getting to know her grandfather, had cried more than her grandmother at the funeral. ‘Happy’ was far too soft a word for such a formidable human being.

‘She was a great beauty, your yiayia. You look more like your mother.’

. . . who was a great beauty too, right? Phoebe wanted to joke, knowing full well that neither she nor her mother were ever going to win any beauty contests, except maybe in a game of Monopoly. With their brown hair and brown eyes and complete lack of distinctive features, they easily faded into any background, which suited Phoebe just fine.

Phoebe made a point of looking at her watch. It was almost Oprah o’clock. ‘I have to go, Mrs Pap.’

‘But Pheee-beeee, you only ate one kourabiedes. You must take some home.’

She produced foil out of thin air, like a magician pulling scarves from their fist, and covered the plate of biscuits.

‘That’s too many for one person,’ Phoebe protested.

‘You can give some to your mama and papa.’ Mrs Pap thrust the plate into her hands. ‘Candy won’t let Garry eat my biscuits anymore because of his die-beets. They’re only little biscuits, I tell her, but she doesn’t listen.’

Phoebe was fairly certain that medical science was also saying Garry shouldn’t have the biscuits, not just Candy, but she kept that to herself.

‘Thank you.’ Phoebe accepted the plate on behalf of her parents.

‘Would you like some spanakopita for your dinner? I have some in the fridge.’

‘No, no, it’s okay. I have some dinner already,’ Phoebe replied, even though she knew Mrs Pap’s spanakopita would be far more delicious than the spaghetti with Dolmio sauce she had planned. However, she’d learned the hard way that accepting the spanakopita only led to more food. The last time she’d said yes, she ended up returning home with three tins of octopus, a bag of Pizzeti crisps and a whole pumpkin, as well as enough spanakopita to feed a Spartan army.

‘Pheee-beeee! You can make your yiayia happy by cutting back those hydrangeas,’ Mrs Pap sang out after her, as Phoebe crossed the street.

Phoebe turned back to smile and nod, while secretly wondering what she would have to do to buy Mrs Pap’s silence.


Kind of, Sort of, Maybe, But Probably Not Imbi Neeme

A charming, nostalgic, quirky, uplifting novel of people young and old finding their tribe, gaining courage to be themselves and perhaps falling in love, too.

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