Madame Bovary's Haberdashery, page 1
Copyright ©Maurilia Meehan 2013
First Published 2013
Transit Lounge Publishing
This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Inquiries should be made to the publisher.
Cover and book design: Peter Lo
Cover photograph: Kip Scott
Cover illustration: Rebekah Marshall www.rebekahleighmarshall.com
Printed in China by Everbest
This project has been assisted by the Australian government through the Australia
Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Cataloguing-in-publication entry is available from the
National Library of Australia: http://catalogue.nla.gov.au
ISBN: 9781921924446 (e-book edition)
‘Between the window and the hearth,
sat Emma at her needlework …’
‘Logic will get you from point A to point B.
Imagination will take you everywhere.’
‘To ask for whom Miss Marple knits is to miss the point …’
From the start, Zac was aware that there would be Odette’s best friend to manage.
Yes, Cicely loomed.
StilI, it was a record, even for Zac. Running to fat in his early forties, pasty, moon-faced and with a glossy handlebar moustache that he knew did not quite hide his jowl, he had been understandably delighted when Odette had invited him home that very first night.
Odette, hair and skin touched by wind and sun, was so like the woman who, in his recurrent dream at night, he carved from wood into a perfect athletic shape. Her high cheekbones, wild blonde hair and long, muscled limbs embodied the whittled woman of his dream project.
As for Odette, who lived romance in the style of a decadent male artist, flitting from lover to lover, fitting them in around her ceramic creations, Zac was her latest one true love. His eyes were intriguing. They were the exact azure shade that had always eluded her when …
She found herself falling, entranced by the way nature had trumped her art.
In the shadows of the rambling, draughty house the women shared, Cicely, waiting in the dark, pounced on Odette for a whispered confab that excluded Zac, leaving him free to observe.
Cicely’s silhouette was that of a perfect Venus of Willendorf. The shawl of crocheted granny squares, which she had thrown over her gloriously sheer nightdress, did little to conceal her contours. The physical polarity between the two women was so extreme that Zac imagined this best friend to be Odette’s dark-matter counterpart. Aroused, he watched her kiss Odette on the cheek before releasing her. When at last she faded back into the gloom, Cicely’s gait was as heavy and slow as Odette’s was bright and quicksilver. As the intruder turned into the dark hallway, she left behind her a trail of unravelling wool.
Leaving Odette alone with him, Cicely, in turn, felt that it was this newcomer who was doing the looming. Once more, she would have to brace herself for inevitable change. She knew that Odette adopted the world of each new lover – their opinions, their tastes – as easily as Cicely herself started a new wool project. With the same anticipation, the same certainty that she could unravel it easily if it failed to please.
Delighted to find himself so soon in the four-poster brass bed with naked Odette, Zac chose, from the wide repertoire stored in his limbic brain, the silent rhythm – a fusion of O Fortuna and Jai Ho – that he sensed was Odette’s erotic style. They soon set the bed rocking.
In response to his violent tenderness, there were no limits to her own extravagantly instinctive incarnation of eight-armed Shakti, the goddess of love who, all night long, he gratefully worshipped. She was so vocal that she set off the dog next door, and it howled in unison with her wild transports. He wondered, with a certain pride in his mastery, if the neighbours could hear her glorious abandon.
All was perfect. The best of all possible worlds. Except …
Each time her passion mounted, she shut her eyes tightly, excluding him.
For Zac, the idea of breakfast in the share house, after the intimacy of the night, was daunting. But by the time Cicely finally swept into the kitchen in a loose kimono and joined the new lovers at the table, achieved without eye-contact, he was determined to rise to the conversational occasion, telling himself it was all very French.
In order to compliment her, he tried to categorise the scarlet turban over the intruder’s lank hair, the cats-eye spectacles as featured in op-shop windows, but failed.
‘Lovely hands,’ he settled for, as she hacked at the loaf with a blunt bread-knife. Still she did not look at him.
‘Let me sharpen that for you,’ he offered, swiftly producing a small sheathed knife from his pocket.
But Cicely just shuddered, and continued to massacre the bread.
Zac had been living with his pious, teetotaller mother, as he did between girlfriends, but now it seemed only natural that he should install his extensive man-dowry. His cream curtains, turbo vacuum cleaner and flat screen TV/DVD player were upgrades in the women’s shabby chic house. Still, there was resistance.
In the lounge room, Cicely would not allow him to replace her enormous, grubby, chintz armchair. The cat refused to take any food that Zac offered her. But then Mr Mistoffelees permitted no man to touch her.
And when he had opened his velvet-lined cutlery box, displayed his piece de résistance, his exotic dagger collection, blades glinting in the low morning sun, Cicely had shrieked. What was it about her and sharp knives? He pressed his lips together. She would definitely take some handling.
But his eyes were on Odette now, as she silently picked up one of the jewel-handled knives, and, with exploratory care, caressed the sharp tip, her eyes locked into his. He was stirred. Sure that she was the one he had been looking for.
He would have to humour Cicely. He would store the treasure chest under Odette’s bed.
He set about establishing his value as a housemate.
He loved to cook and clean after a hard day at his desk. He vacuumed to relax at night, he cleaned the bath and defrosted the fridge. He fixed the toaster and the gas heater, which had been languishing before his arrival. The women declined his offer to iron their clothes, as neither of them liked the sharp creases he pressed into his own jeans.
One evening, having repaired the remote for the ancient video player, he was dusting the shelf of vintage movies, arranging them alphabetically, when he came across three different film versions of Madame Bovary.
Astonished at this serendipity, Zac took it as a sign that he could at last reveal the details of his life’s work.
After dinner, they were sitting together in the lounge room, finishing the bottle of rough red that had gone so nicely with the vegetarian lasagne he had whipped up. Cicely was in her chintz chair, purple and orange knitting in hand, cat on her knee, Odette and Zac had their arms around each other on the couch, when he began, with a mixture of pride and nerves, to outline his project, confident that they would understand his passion. Before he had finished, however, Odette interrupted him, a first in itself. She jumped up from the couch, returning a moment later with something in her hands.
Something, it would turn out, that would change his life.
She was pressing a thin, cheaply printed paperback into his instinctively reluctant hands. Her eyes bright, she was babbl
‘Just like your own life’s work,’ she added.
As if he would be thrilled.
Forcing himself to look at the cover, he felt suddenly nauseous. The lights around him seemed to dim and the book fell from his hands. He did not understand what twist of fate had led him to this house.
He was grateful to be able to retreat behind the Japanese screen which he always placed around his desk to define his sacrosanct workspace in whatever bedroom he was currently lodged. Here, he hid Cicely’s little novel in his bottom drawer. He must not allow it to disturb his work routine.
Sitting at his desk once more, blocked from the world by the screen, he felt calmer. Its pale watercolours portrayed his dream avatar, a bare-chested man dressed in red circus tights and sporting a full and drooping moustache, just like Zac’s. He was launching jewelled daggers at a thin blonde woman. They outlined her torso, which arched backwards against a black cloth. She was a dead ringer for Odette.
Zac ran his hand over his seven copies of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, all in English, all by different translators. These framed his own unfinished manuscript, handwritten in purple ink. He began to sharpen his quill, made from a cockatoo feather. To hone its violent point, he used a small brass dagger, its handle studded with fake rubies, which, sheathed in pigskin, he kept close at all times. Its presence soothed him.
As he performed this daily sharpening ritual, he breathed in the seductive scent of the unstoppered ink bottles ranged to his left. If Odette had not interrupted him like that in the lounge room, he would have gone on to explain to the women how these inks formed part of his project.
Old ink bottles retained an intoxicating odour which modern techniques had all but removed. He would have told them too that the word ink derives from the Latin encaustum, which in turn had come from the Greek word for the purple ink used by Greek and Roman officials.
But his search for authenticity did not go so far as the making of his own inks with lampblack, as in the ancient Chinese manner. Purple Quink was his compromise, though he always insisted on the quill.
For over seven years, ever since his thirty-fifth birthday, celebrated alone with his ex-missionary mother, Zac had been cultivating his Flaubertian moustache and working on his brilliant, definitive translation of Madame Bovary. Always either in his mother’s spare room or with a woman, a series of them, tiptoeing around the modest corner of the bedroom allotted to him. His head bent over the manuscript, he laboured behind the Japanese scene of the knife-thrower and his target woman.
This was the way that Flaubert, the monk of literature, had written Madame Bovary, a study of the adulterous heart, in his own mother’s house.
A different female presence, admittedly, from the type that inspired Zac.
Say thank you
It was a charming novelty to him that Odette, his new lover and muse, was not a reader. She bypassed his neocortex completely. She had expressive blue eyes, outlined with dramatic strokes of khol. Her mouth, with its genuine cupid’s bow and full bottom lip, communicated without words. Her smooth, tanned skin spoke volumes.
Zac was tired of well-read, articulate women.
More precisely, he was tired of Odette’s immediate predecessor, Erica.
Odette’s contrasting charms had first caught his eye that winter night when, hunched up against the rain, he had just left Erica’s laundry.
When he told Erica, after the split up, that he’d like to visit her sometimes, just to chat, she told him that she could fit him in on Saturday night around seven. That was when she did her ironing in the outside laundry.
At first he quite liked to sit there, warmed in winter by the heat of the dryer, but that last night had been different. She had just got the promotion which had been the motive, as far as he understood it, for the abortion which had caused their break-up. This exciting new job apparently required a clean white shirt every day. He watched her from his usual camp-stool, as they rehashed, sensibly, the reasons for their separation, the iron steaming away passionately in her right hand. She had always ironed well.
She admitted that he had been good in bed, and wonderfully domestic. But even without their falling out over the abortion, she had been tired of supporting his set-in-the-future literary career. This was familiar ground, so he felt safe letting his eyes wander around the laundry as she spoke.
He noticed a few changes since he had moved out. He spotted prudently stacked boxes from new appliances, stored in case a refund was needed. A box from an electric blanket, which, in his time, he had banned because of its negative energy. A coffee grinder, banned because he believed that she had an addictive personality. An admittedly cute green and red kettle, but aluminium. Banned because of its Alzheimer’s links. In this at least she had to admit that he was right.
But the boots. That was the biggest change. He stared at them now. They were flat. He had always liked her to wear a bit of heel to make her rather stocky legs look longer. Seeing his point of focus, she stopped mid-sentence and wiggled her foot for him to admire. Telling him how she had found them on a sale table.
‘Perfect, aren’t they?’ she teased.
They were knee high, fur lined, with stylised biker buckles. They had viciously pointed toes and what seemed to be metal caps.
‘They look heavy,’ he ventured.
‘Incredibly light. Made in Italy.’
He had successfully prevented her from wearing anything of that kind while they had been together by telling her that she looked butch. That word was on his lips now, but he held it back. He was there on sufferance, he knew. Silence. Only the sound of the puffing and wheezing of the steam iron, the muted thump of it against the padded fabric. So he told her about the men’s group, Inner Calm, which he had been attending in an effort to improve himself and his ability to relate to women.
‘To be more effective in maintaining a relationship’, he added, pointedly.
She ironed with renewed vigour.
‘As far as I can see, men’s groups are already thick on the ground. The Vatican, international arms dealers, political parties, the Ayatollahs.’
She did not add to her list the case of Zac’s own brother, who was not available to babysit his son weekends because he was attending a men’s group to work out his problems caused by their own absent father. Zac would have been the same kind of absentee father if she had had the baby. In spite of his offer to be the house husband, the stay-at-home daddy, she could not see it as anything more than an application for a job he saw as a bludge. She could not see him neglecting his literary work to change a nappy.
‘Inner Calm is about bonding.’
‘Men always bond. Football. Mafia. Soldiers …’
She was so brutal. Weren’t they trying to be friends? But she went on, timing her words with attacks of the iron on her endless shirts, as if she derived power from the steam. In the hot mist she had never looked sexier. He recalled moving gently over her, coaxing her slow rise, always following the rhythm of the soundtrack in his head. For her, he had chosen Bolero.
‘You know what I’d like to see? A men’s group where the men were tied down to chairs all day and had to listen to women talking at them. At the end of the day, the men would have to answer comprehension questions about what the women had told them, before they were allowed to go home.’
‘Are you saying,’ he said, remembering a few pointers from the group, ‘that men don’t listen to women?’
Too late. She saw from the way he stroked his moustache that she had fallen into a trap. By showing that he had indeed listened to her, he had just proven her wrong.
‘What you need to read,’ he said, ‘is that Mars and Venus book. It says …’
‘Yes that’s a nice book and it would be fine if men just went off to their caves to think about why they are upset instead of picking up machineguns or starting a war.’
His moustache drooped. She could see by the glazing of his focus that he was reading a well-rehearsed text somewhere just past her shoulder.
‘I hear you saying that men are violent. How about …’
It would be peaceful Gandhi and warmongering Thatcher again, she knew. He would always win in the game of lists. She had witnessed his skill at Trivial Pursuit.
‘Look, it’s not all men’s fault,’ she managed. Conciliatory, for old times’ sake. But the effort made her dig the point of the iron so sharply into the double stitching of her expensive shirt that it tore.
‘It’s just the way they are brought up. Out of contact with the softer emotions.’
He shifted uncomfortably. Why was there never anywhere to sit properly when he visited?
‘Well in my experience, I find it is actually women who are out of contact with their emotions. The last five women I have been out with …’
She phrased the next question carefully.
‘So what is it about you that attracts … such blocked women?’
‘It just proves that it’s a fallacy that women are more in touch with their emotions.’
‘So men have now taken over our last remaining acknowledged area of expertise?’
She thumped away at the iron. Her blood pounded at her temples, surging, transferring her into being from Mars. The laundry was her cave. She did not want any more of these laundry chats with her ex.
‘At group,’ he was saying, ‘we cry. Yes, you won’t believe it, but I cry a lot now.’
She had never seen him cry. If he had cried, begged, when they had discussed the abortion in that matter-of-fact way, she may have been swayed. If he had shown, even once, that he was more than just a brain in a bottle … For, in spite of what he seemed to believe, the promotion had not been the cause of her decision to terminate, but merely the consolation prize. Did he cry now about their lost baby, perhaps, as she did? Then why was he smiling?