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  • Published: 11 June 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761344589
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 304
  • RRP: $34.99

The Little Clothes

Extract

Audrey Mendes caught a bus from the ferry wharf to the first strip of small shops. Candles, homewares and whatnot. She sometimes trudged up the sharp rising hill towards the western sun, past the Victorian terraces that had been renovated in the eighties when it was fashion­able to expose the porous bricks, but mostly she didn’t, and not today, although she worried she should have. She could feel the band of fat from belly to hips when she leaned forward to the cramped space behind the seat in front to stuff her jacket into her gym bag, remembering with some regret the medium pasta salad she’d eaten from a plastic tub while working through lunch. That she carried the heavy bag containing her cosmetics, little-used runners and a lightly edited novel into the city five days a week could surely still be counted as exercise.


At the pub she chose two bottles of white wine from the fridge and waited at the corner counter next to the long bar where people had begun to order beers and settle. The banter had started.

‘Mate, did ya see the game?’

‘Yeah mate, whatta game!’

Another game was playing at full volume on the screen in the next room. Audrey could see people in there drinking with Friday-night abandon. One of the bartenders came near and she waved. A little wave, granted. He didn’t see her. He picked up a phone from the back of the bar and started texting. He picked up a second phone and texted. He picked up a third phone and texted. It was as if he was shuffling cards, such was his sleight. And Audrey waited. She was sure that when he finished fiddling with the phones, he’d serve her. It was gloomy in the pub, she excused him, and it was hard to be seen in the small alcove to the side of the long bar. And she was short, even in her heels, and the bottle-shop cash register blocked her face. The music was loud. A young woman with crimson dreadlocks and deep dimples, also tending the bar, joked with the man who had three phones. Another bartender, sporting a bun on top of his partially shaved head and a tightly plaited beard with a tinkling bell on its point, said something and they all laughed explosively, parted and strutted. Audrey waved larger this time. No one came.

‘Hello!’ she said in a too-loud voice. ‘Hello! Can I please get some service?’

She watched others being served at the long counter. A young man was offered a tasting of craft beer, a new brand from Marrickville. Audrey could hear the bar staff telling the slight but apparently riveting story of Manmaid, a microbrewery startup involving twin brothers Leo and Levi, an abandoned garage and a small loan that might one day lead to imagined riches. The customer screwed up his face in disgust. The beer wasn’t to his liking. It most certainly was not! He turned to his female companion and expressed his thorough disapproval by twisting his lips and sticking out his tongue stiffly. He was affronted. A second tasting of a different brand was poured to test his fine palate. The bar staff huddled, waiting on a verdict.

‘Hello!’

Audrey waved again, this time in half circles almost as wide as a small sedan windscreen. No one turned to her. Still, she waited. She was a polite person but when she had excused them for long enough Audrey became irritated. After another few minutes she put one bottle on top of the jacket in her gym bag and the other in her handbag, and started to walk out of the pub. Past the manager who some­times called her love when she smiled at him in the local supermarket. The manager who, with his wife, was raising his daughter in his place of work. He turned as Audrey left. The pudgy child was trying to press buttons on a solitary poker machine in the entry by standing on her toes and slapping her flat hand high above her head. Here we go, thought Audrey, he’s seen me.

‘See ya, love.’

She smiled tightly at the young father, who was wearing a trucker cap inside and backwards.

One block and a few houses up, Audrey put her bags down on her verandah and walked back to the street to see if she had been followed. The street was empty except for her neighbours, who were tinkering with their car, bonnet up. She had thought of them as the amiable village idiots since they had trick or treated on Halloween among the throng of neighbourhood children. Roy and his son Troy were dressed in party-shop Batman and Robin suits and she’d given them each a mini Mars bar from her generous basket of lollies. Audrey had been dressed up too. A crone in greenface.

Now she shut her front door, clomped down the hall to the kitchen, twisted the top off a bottle, poured herself a glass and kicked off the bloody high heels she wore to court when she accompanied the men to help keep track of their books, manila folders, trolleys and coffee orders.

After twenty minutes, she started to wonder if there were security cameras in the pub. She didn’t think so. The police had knocked on the door when she first bought her house. There had been a residential break and enter a few doors down, at number 83.

‘Go to the pub,’ she advised the two young uniforms. ‘They’ll have cameras there.’

‘They don’t. We checked there first.’

‘Oh, well, you’d think they would. Being a business. Especially round here.’

‘If you hear of anything or remember any suspicious activity from the last few days, please call this number.’ They handed Audrey a card and pocketed their notebooks.

‘I will. Hope you catch them.’

They left through Audrey’s wonky gate, already alert to lifting rather than swinging it, their hips swaying under the weight of their cumbersome weaponry. Guns, baton, pepper spray, handcuffs.

Yet maybe there were cameras now installed at the pub. The new owners had taken over just five months ago, keeping the managers on but permanently removing the seafood pie from the menu. She’d have to explain her actions to the police who would knock on her door at any minute. She’d be struck off. Who would employ her now? How would she explain her behaviour to her parents, who would be disappointed in their surviving child? Their thirty-eight-year-old single daughter. The lawyer. There was no knock on the door, but she was unsettled and decided to go to the pub to buy another bottle. Perhaps take one bottle back in her handbag. She couldn’t take the already opened bottle, though she briefly considered filling it to the top with water. No. Stupid! But how to pay for three bottles when she’d only have two?

In the pub Audrey chose another bottle and put it on the counter next to the stolen bottle. She waved.

‘Hello!’

She waited. The bar was hectic now and the staff moving with purpose.

‘Hi, can I get some service please?’

Customers streamed in and stood in ragged lines at the long bar. They had all the attention.

‘Hello, can I please get some service?’

No one turned. No one glanced in Audrey’s direction. She considered taking the bottles to the bar but the sign said not to. Purchase all bottle shop items in the bottle shop. NOT in the bar. NOT was underlined three times.

‘Hello! I am now leaving and walking out with two bottles of wine,’ she yelled. ‘I’m leaving!’

And so she did. Back at home Audrey again waited for the knock on the door as she sat at the kitchen table looking at the three stolen bottles. She was discomforted and cranky. Resentful. She felt she’d been forced into an awkward position. By 9.30 she had stopped worrying and was playing Words With Friends with strangers, checking Instagram, and watching Ozark on Netflix.

Audrey wasn’t sure where she was when she woke thirsty in the morning. Her throat was sore. Had she been snoring? She thought for a moment that she was in the office and had worn her owl pyjamas to work. Still clutch­ing at the wisp of a receding dream, she sat up and saw an empty bottle on her coffee table, standing tall above an icecream bucket. She remembered the sketchy details of the previous evening. Maybe there were cameras in the pub and everyone knew what she’d done – but perhaps they thought she was as crazy as one of the unhinged meth addicts from the housing commission blocks around the corner. Just the same. Crimes, she thought, big and small, were a leveller.

Although the bottle shop opened at 10.00 a.m., Audrey decided to wait until it would be more appropriate to buy wine on a Saturday morning. When would that be? She watered the parched succulents, snipped chives from her garden for butter-heavy scrambled eggs, fed Joni a carrot and changed the hay, opened the bills, and read the gossip page in the newspaper.

Audrey had bought the dilapidated worker’s cottage with the inheritance from her brother, Henry. A few years on she’d made some changes. Landscaping at the front and back. A new gate. ‘A lot of money for a lot of white pebbles,’ her mother had said when Rita and Eustace came to dinner and a showing. Recently Audrey had added a sleek custom-built wardrobe to the spare bedroom. Its soft-closing drawers, multi-tiered hanging spaces and pull-out shoe and accessories trays were a salve. This morning she didn’t go into the spare room, but she could smell it. As enticing as a new car or a just-baked cake. Fresh paint, wood and polish.

The pub was swampy at eleven. Two young men in black T-shirts, black jeans and ivory bum crack were clearing the debris from the night before. There was a large wooden tray of hamburger buns and a box of waxy potatoes on the long counter. A keg was being rolled in and tapped. The drone of a leaf blower could be heard from the cheer­less beer garden – a mossy place that served equally for milestone birthdays and wakes. The television was resting. The bar fly had not yet claimed his stool.

Audrey chose two more bottles of wine from a now sparsely stocked fridge. There was another job neglected, she thought. She went again to the small side counter and cleared her throat. The manager walked behind the main bar.

‘Just these two, love?’

‘Yes, but I was only charged for one of these yesterday instead of four’

‘Don’t worry about it, love.’

‘No, I want to pay.’

‘So, you want me to charge you for four of these and one of those?’

‘Yes please.’

‘Okay.’

Audrey tapped her card with relief.

‘Have a great day, love.’

‘You too.’

The little girl ran to her father as he walked from behind the counter, squealing when he tossed her onto his bulging shoulder and started picking up glasses with his free hand.

‘Bye, love.’

‘She’s growing up.’

‘Yeah, three and a half next week. See ya, love.’

Audrey recalled the muted organic cot blanket and mauve toy elephant she’d chosen and wrapped so carefully in cream tissue with a tea-stain calico ribbon when Shay-Lee was born. The child’s name now indelibly inked: Shay on the father’s left forearm, and Lee on the mother’s right bicep. The father would drape his arms round the mother’s shoul­ders so the tattoos aligned and could be read in the right order by interested customers.

Audrey’s gift had not been acknowledged even though she saw the parents most Tuesdays on Trivia Night, when an assortment of nodding neighbours took a table together. She remembered with irritation how Tom had brought his friend Elspeth with him last week without consulting the group, and how she hadn’t known anything. They’d tried to be inclusive and made her their scribe, but she’d written Ireland as I-land and Audrey’s namesake Tautou as Tattoo. Audrey had barely refrained from grabbing the pen. Elspeth hadn’t eaten because there was nothing vegan on the menu, even in the vegan section.

‘It’s not really vegan, or even vegetarian. They use the same vat of oil for the fish and fries that they use for the mushroom arancini and zucchini flowers,’ she said. Audrey tried to look attentive to the details of the vegetar­ian menu, a page to which she never strayed.

The cross-contamination on the grill, the virtues of canola, avocado and coconut oil and the problems of insuf­ficiently cleaned processing and cooking equipment were all tabled. Every few minutes Audrey nibbled apologetically at her congealing chicken burger and was signalled twice by Marion that she had mayonnaise on her chin. She was relieved when the quiz started. But only after they had suffered Elspeth’s exposition on orange wine, the only drop that would pass her perfect plump lips.

This afternoon there was another baby to celebrate. Audrey didn’t want to attend Erin’s baby shower. She’d said yes, of course, grateful to be invited, and less concerned by what advantage the others in the office might gain from going than how it might appear if she was the only one not to go, and now she really couldn’t think of a polite or credible way out of the obligation this close to the event. Her mother couldn’t be sick again. It would be like cursing Rita. The plumber, mechanic and electrician had been invoked too often. Audrey planned to go back into the pub after the baby shower to check again for possible cameras, but was also keenly aware that the guilty often return to the scene of their crime. Still, it would be much busier later and she knew it was unlikely she would be noticed as she peered at the cornices and corners.

‘Audrey! Come in!’ Heidi, the new assistant in HR, momentarily unrecognisable out of the office and her navy suit, greeted her.

‘You’re just in time for Playdough Baby. Also, grab an ice baby and put it in your glass. Go and get a drink over there. You have to catch up! The first one to melt their ice baby has to yell “My water broke!” Hilarious, right! Ours are almost melted so you might not win that one. We’re all making a baby out of playdough. Just take a ball of dough. Any colour, although I think only white is left. Still, more realistic, right?’

‘Not for everyone.’

‘Oh god, Audrey, that’s hilarious. Everyone’s told me how funny you are. I’ve heard so many stories. When you’re finished, put the baby in a cupcake holder. Make sure you put your name under the cupcake case first so we know whose is whose. The cutest one wins. Alec’s going to judge them when he gets back from golf! Put your present on the table out there.’

Heidi, Audrey thought, should have been in hi-vis, holding airport runway paddles or AFL umpire flags. So many rules and instructions.

There was a ziggurat of gifts balanced on the table in the entrance like a late-stage game of Jenga. This was Erin’s second baby shower since the wedding and before that there’d been the engagement party when the affair with Alec – a senior partner and married father of five mostly grown-up children – had finally been unveiled. They’d all suspected after the Law Society Ball, of course. Then came the unequivocal and bitter email sent to the whole company from Alec’s wife, Vivienne, who didn’t hold back. She had outed the new couple to a point where even sympathetic recipients found some of the details unnec­essary. Audrey waited a hellish two months for a second salvo from Vivienne that never came. Perhaps she had no inkling about Audrey. Perhaps she didn’t care. Vivienne was a remote figure. The elegant wife who didn’t make her husband happy. Whenever Vivienne called Alec, Psycho Killer started to play. In the first flush of her own entangle­ment with Alec, Audrey found the laddish joke very funny.

The engagement had been closely followed by a hens’ night in a city club, where all the support crew wore tiaras that identified them, in cut-out plastic letters, as friend of bride. The stripper had been an embarrassment. Most of the women shimmied with Andre. Audrey did not shimmy and unfortunately found herself the centre of attention, urged on by a chorus of cries to step up and join in. She sat in her chair, resolute, even as Andre straddled her lap to every­one’s amusement.

Erin held a spectacular first birthday party for Carter that Audrey managed to dodge because of the clash with her own birthday dinner arranged by her parents. Erin’s bespoke invitations arrived with alarming regularity. There had even been a hastily planned wake for Boxy, allocated to Alec in the divorce. The yellowing dog lay in an open cardboard container in front of an arrangement of candles and incense suggestive of a spirituality that Audrey silently questioned.

Gifts were bought. Tickets and hotels booked. Clothes decided upon. Themed thank-you cards without personal messages followed. Did they like the pewter ice bucket? Well of course they did, Audrey reassured herself, they’d put it on their list. But did they know it was from her?

The destination wedding in Tahiti over three days had practically drained Audrey’s savings along with a week of annual leave. She spent too much time in her bungalow in a panic. It was difficult walking alone into a room of partying couples. The worst moment was being the last to arrive after the four-hour photo-furlough between wedding and recep­tion, and teetering in new block-heeled sandals in front of the other guests, who were all barefoot and loose. Audrey hid in her room after the beach ceremony, occasionally peeping out into the walkways to see what was happen­ing and if the other guests were also in their bungalows. It was so quiet she was nervous. Had she missed some of the instructions? Later she found out most of the guests had gone to a spontaneous party in the resort bar where friend­ships had been formed. Alec’s mother, the grand dame, sat on a high-backed rattan chair at the reception and received those who dared go near. Audrey did not dare. Her tropi­cal-patterned clothes, chosen with such care, were now in unfortunate contrast with the subtle linens and pastels worn by Erin’s younger friends and those of her newly minted mother-in-law.

‘Wow, Audrey, you look very bright, very Tahitian!’

‘Audrey, darling, come in. You’re late!’

Now Erin was propped in the corner of the denim couch with her legs crossed, her slightly protruding belly nestled neatly in her lap. She reached one arm above her head and hooked it like a coat hanger around Audrey’s neck. Audrey leaned down and obediently pecked Erin on the head.

‘Look at me! I’m enormous!’

‘Not really. You’ll never be enormous. If I didn’t know you are pregnant, I wouldn’t know. If you know what I mean.’

Audrey was trained early in reassuring others about their weight.

‘You are so sweet, Aud.’

‘Not really.’

‘God, you’re funny. Have you got a drink? I wish I could have one.’

Audrey clinked her ice-baby caipiroska against Erin’s mineral water.

The bridesmaids were hovering and shrilling, and Erin’s mother, coolly elegant in Akira, was reading to Carter, instructing him in a slightly raised voice, ‘Tell Granny Sue how many flamingos. Let’s count them together.’

Alec arrived well after four and held court, as he did in the office. Audrey retreated to the bathroom. The tiled sanctuary was decorated like a spa, with the only light from a bank of votives. Who had the time to light forty votives? Well, Erin, obviously. Elegant dark-bottled toiletries and stacked linen-look paper handtowels lined the limestone bench. Gardenias cut from the garden were haphazardly bunched in vintage lead crystal vases. Audrey looked at herself in the mirror with anticipated disappointment. Must get to the gym more often, she thought. She washed her hands with Erin’s fragrant pump soap. Cucumber and patch­ouli, oils of Africa, fungi from ancient forest floors. Paraben free. She dropped the handtowel into the woven Ikea wastebas­ket beneath the bench and then scrunched up three more clean handtowels and threw them in too.

When Audrey walked back into the party, Alec was judging the playdough babies. Had he put a rinse through his hair? All the women were attentive. Laughing osten­tatiously. He wasn’t saying anything that clever. Nothing to warrant the congregated fawning. Audrey thought Erin was the clever one. She had left the office and her work as a junior administrative assistant when she married Alec and started her own curated boutique line of sandals. Erin had given the female wedding guests a pair of her beaded slides, Shore Print, in diaphanous bags that had been placed on their beds in Tahiti. Audrey’s navy raffia with silver beads were too small, yet she was thrilled to receive them and didn’t want to upset Erin by asking for a different size. There were other goodies in a canvas welcome bag that was printed with a sepia photo of Alec and Erin. Miniature bottles of Krug Grande Cuvée, Panadol, palm-shaped chocolates, sunscreen, and a leather luggage tag stamped with the dates of the nuptial extravaganza. Who wouldn’t want to be reminded of this event every time they went on a lesser holiday? And a lavish brochure outlining the three days of activities bookend­ing the wedding, illustrated with more photos of Erin and Alec. The welcome cocktails, a tour of the pearl farm, the culinary adventure at the local market, the drinks party on a yacht at dusk, the recovery barbecue on the long, wide jetty, an open-top classic Land Rover circumference of the island, an eco-tour of the mangroves, and guided reef snorkelling, all enthusiastically described and encouraged above a discreet small-print mention of the extra costs for private and personal choices.

Alec and Erin arrived at their wedding on palanquins and were greeted as if they were rock stars, royalty, or Instagram influencers.

At the recovery party, almost everyone was tossed into the turquoise waters. Audrey was not. She did not want to be tossed, but she wondered why she wasn’t.

Alec chartered a plane to take the wedding guests back to Sydney at the end of the celebrations. Audrey commented that Erin and Alec would lose all their friends and family in one fell swoop if the plane went down.

‘They’d have to go to so many funerals.’

‘Audrey, that is the most tasteless comment I’ve ever heard,’ said HR Nadine from across the aisle. ‘You have no filter.’

‘I thought the same thing as her. It seems silly to put all your eggs in one basket,’ said an uncle standing in the aisle, waiting for the toilet to be vacated.

Later, Erin agreed. ‘I did think about it. I was going to drown myself in the resort swimming pool if the plane crashed.’


The Little Clothes Deborah Callaghan

When you are heading towards 40 and people start to notice you a little bit less, what do you do with your new powers of invisibility?

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