Final therapy session
‘I’m a matchmaker, not a murderer,’ I told the police officer. But smoke from the smouldering scout hall turned my words to a cough. And the therapist strapped to the ambulance stretcher lay quiet as a corpse.
Pointedly, the officer glanced at my sock feet. My turpentine-stained shoes had been taken as evidence. ‘You’ll give your statement at the station,’ he said. ‘As will the witnesses to this event. By my count, there are at least fifteen.’
Sixteen witnesses, if the large, limp woman on the stretcher survived. Our whole anger management group had seen me set the fire. A short distance away, shocked and sooty, the fifteen members watched the officer handcuff my wrists.
My friends bunched together at the front of the huddle. Matty glared at me, her arms around Cricket.
Susan stood motionless, black smuts making her silver hair young.
‘Oh my god. Odie’s under arrest.’ Demeter knuckled away tears as I was guided into the wire-enclosed back seat of a police car.
The four of them knew why I’d lost control. Splashed the turpentine. Lit the candle. They’d tried to stop me. In fact, they’d been trying to change my course for months, long before tonight’s group therapy session. Now, their witness statements would be among the many that incriminated me. I didn’t blame them. They would only be telling the truth.
I looked at the stretcher again. My teeth refused to stop chattering. I was so cold, I couldn’t feel my hands. Or any regret. Or any satisfaction. Revenge felt nothing like I’d thought it would.
12 sessions to go
‘Welcome, Odaline,’ the therapist said at the door.
‘Odie,’ I corrected, like I had at the previous meeting. And the meeting before that. All the way back to the first one.
‘No. Odaline.’ Her smile spread wider. Tonight she wore her purple earrings, the acetate ones that cascaded down her neck and clack-clack-clacked when she tilted her bowl-cut head. Her tongue darted out to meet her forefinger. She smoothed my eyebrows with the spit. ‘Come in, my duckling.’
I didn’t dare disobey. I forced myself to walk inside and take a seat with the other members of Miss Wilderness’s Group for Angry Ladies.
‘Don’t sit next to me,’ Cricket growled.
I sighed, and sat. Cricket always said that. Demeter was on my other side, eyes blissfully closed, wires trailing from beneath her dark, crimped waves to her Walkman. Beside Demeter was Susan, her whitely clean, wrinkled hands clasped in her lap as if she were frozen.
The echoing scout hall, with its bare rafters and gabled honour boards, was mostly empty. Fifteen other women shivered with me on a circle of fold-up chairs in front of the stage. To the side of the room was a piano and a table of untouched food.
‘Shut up!’ yelled Cricket at no-one.
I heaved my phonebook-sized Filofax from my tote, and opened it to today’s page. 14 September, 1989. Thursday. Miss Wilderness was occupied in the doorway, smock swirling around her girth, earrings smacking like lips. I shuddered. Surreptitiously, I took my pen and crossed out tonight’s meeting. Twelve more to go. My mandated attendance ended in June. I struck out the meeting again. Then, with sudden energy, I stabbed with the pen point until the words were a hole in the page.
‘And that sort of wanton immoderation is why we are here,’ Miss Wilderness said from behind me.
I dropped my pen.
Demeter whipped out her earphones.
’Very good, Susan. A properly feminine silence.’ Miss Wilderness ran a hand over Susan’s silvery, perfectly tucked-under bob. Then stroked the motionless shoulder as if checking for dust.
Susan’s lips quivered. Slowly, she formed a lipsticked smile.
‘Very good indeed.’ Miss Wilderness cast her gaze over the rest of us. I’d triple-ironed my Laura Ashley dress before I came, and dimmed my orange hair with gel. Cricket’s small, speckled cheeks were soaped raw. Demeter was even wearing a bra.
But the facilitator’s appraisal had found an unwary newcomer. ‘What are my rules about wearing men’s clothes?’ She wagged her head at the offender. Clack-clack-clack. ‘Ladies are always appropriate. Understated. You should never be noticed.’
All of us had worn power suits or cleavage or black mascara when we started in this group. No-one told you the rules until you broke them. That was life, Miss Wilderness said. Ladies should tread carefully. Tiptoe, in fact. Because we should always assume there were rules for us that we didn’t yet know.
‘Let’s start with some fun. A conga line!’ our facilitator announced. ‘Who’ll volunteer to be our leader?’
Life and its unknown rules, I considered, were infuriatingly unfair. So, behind Miss Wilderness’s back, I caught the newcomer’s eye and mimed zipping my lip.
The woman’s broad shoulders were proud in her pink, cufflinked business shirt. She frowned and ignored me. ‘I'll lead.’
Cricket clapped both speckled hands over her speckled mouth. Demeter winced. I almost groaned, but caught myself in time.
Miss Wilderness glared at the newcomer. ‘I can see you’ll need extra meetings. Pay attention.’ She turned to Susan. ‘Why don’t you be our leader, my duckling?’
Susan cleared her throat. ‘I couldn’t possibly.’
Miss Wilderness nodded. ‘Excellent. Ladies know their place. Switch on my cassette player, Susan. Everyone else, form a line and follow me. Ensure your skirt hems don’t swing above the knee.’
The 1970s music was, as usual, musty and corduroy as the decade it came from.
‘Susan’s a suck-up,’ hissed Cricket, clutching my waist from behind.
‘Is this for real?’ the newcomer asked from in front of me.
‘Keep your voice down,’ I puffed, as the line veered through the chairs. Jethro Tull only masked so much conversation. ‘Yes. For real. Why are you here?’
‘Hit a groper with my briefcase. Several times. Should’ve stopped after he was down.’ She sighed. ‘It was my first offence. I’ve been groped a hundred times on the train. Called a dyke. Called a slut. I never fought back before. I’d just had enough.
‘My lawyer said this therapy group had quite a reputation. If I agreed to a course of meetings, it would cut down my community service.’
‘Same thing my lawyer said. I’m Odie.’
‘Matilda, ugh. Call me Matty.’
Up ahead, Miss Wilderness zigged and zagged at a breakneck pace. I half-stumbled on a swivel. Demeter’s long legs took each turn with her usual grace, her eyes half-closed as though she were dancing.
Cricket side-swiped the piano. ‘Fuck you, Susan!’
The next day, I caught my usual 6:30am bus to work. Inbound from the outskirts of Sydney, its serried seats filled quickly.
I never took one. Not any more. Miss Wilderness was clear: the men’s legs that pressed hard and hot against mine from the seat beside me were my responsibility to avoid. And whatever my seat mate’s gender, unexpected touch panicked me.
Swinging from a strap the whole ninety minutes, I kept a little more distance. A thick coat year-round buffered nudges, brushes and grabs. If only it could dull my emotions, too. But I made it to the city centre with only a minor acceleration of breath. ‘Bosoms must not heave, bosoms must not heave,’ I muttered per Miss Wilderness’s therapy, as my stop finally arrived.
I walked sedately across the footpath into the office tower’s lobby. Smiled and held the lift door for several executives who didn’t acknowledge secretaries. Unlocked the tiny suite on the seventh floor.
Ciss Ciss, read the wall behind my reception desk. Beneath the giant, pop art letters was a smaller line. Matchmaker. With a gleam painted on the M. I regularly touched it up with Liquid Paper to keep it bright. In fact, I could see a chip to patch right now. This was why I arrived at work early, and overfilled my Filofax with lists and notes and schedules: to put everything in perfect order. I’d patch the chip as soon as I’d turned on all the lights, dusted the assortment of black and white, geometric furniture, and switched off the answering machine beside my pink Hot Lips novelty desk phone.
Movement arrested me. At one of the tall, paired windows overlooking the street, an iridescent emerald wasp beat itself against the inside of the glass.
It wasn’t the first time a small, flying creature had found itself trapped here. The interwar tower, while beautiful with granite and travertine, flowing piers and fluted spandrels, desperately needed a renovation. The hinged window didn’t quite close.
The poor little thing’s panic caught my breath.
Controlling my bosom, I gave the window a careful push. Nothing. The warped steel casement was wedged into the frame. I regarded the frantic wasp, my smile from the lift stuck on my face. Until explosively, my hand snatched my pump off my foot and jackhammered the window wide open with the heel.
The wasp zoomed out into the blue. I leaned over the sill and heaved air until my lungs were full. Two shirt buttons popped while I breathed the city’s spring scent of wet avenues and cooling sun.
Then I pulled myself together. Fifty minutes remained before my employer arrived. And a familiar figure waited far below for me.
I hurried back to the lift. ‘Jimmy!’ I called as I returned to the footpath.
He leant, grinning, against a silver poplar, yellow-leaved branches arching over his head. His long, dirty coat was too large for his thinness. Under his coal-and-golden beard, his lips looked young.
Jimmy’s voice had its usual rasp. ‘You look happier than when you left here yesterday. Where were you off to with such an expression of dread?’
‘You went to see some friends, maybe?’
Cricket, I recalled, was punished with four extra meetings and the cost of lacquer repairs. Though Miss Wilderness practically threw her at the piano. I crossed my arms to squash my sympathy. ‘No. I don’t have friends. I have my career. My Filofax and my work ethic are the only friends I want.’
It was the truth. Or it had been since last May, when I went to court and was ordered to begin with Miss Wilderness.
Jimmy’s grin had fallen away. His green eyes were soft. ‘Odie? Are you all right?’
I composed myself, and pressed the seventh floor bathroom key into his hand. ‘The kettle’s on, for when you finish.’
‘Thanks.’ His grin appeared again. He hugged himself, shivering as he rubbed his coat sleeves. ‘A hot shower and a cuppa would certainly hit the spot. And a biscuit?’
‘It’s going to be a cold winter,’ Jimmy said.
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
‘Sunil told me. At his news stand this morning.’ Jimmy’s smile wavered. ‘That’s right, isn’t it? Why are you asking me that?’
Oh, no. I’d thrown him off balance.
‘He said it today. This year. Sunil’s really there, isn’t he?’ Jimmy’s gaze raced around as if he trusted nothing he saw.
I grabbed for Jimmy’s arm. I’d no idea whether he’d really spoken with Sunil. But I knew from the other times I’d asked a careless question, I needed to reassure him fast.
Jimmy leapt away. ‘Oh god, oh shit. Don’t tell my father I’m having delusions again.’
‘Of course I won’t. I’ve never met your father. Come back!’
Jimmy had already bolted. There was no point following. In the thick of the city, with its clustered people and rushing traffic, he was elusive as a fae in a forest.
I couldn’t help it. I clenched my fists and jumped up and down on the footpath like I was juicing Jimmy’s father’s head. Whoever that monster was, who made gentle Jimmy so afraid. None of it was fair. Jimmy unwell, living on the street. The night that brought me to court and Miss Wilderness. Sweating in a fucking coat just to catch a bus.
I sent myself back to Ciss Ciss, Matchmaker before I screamed.
At 9am, my boss wobbled into the agency, straight to the open window. ‘Darling, I could fall out! Are you trying to kill me?’
Charon swung the casement into its usual, almost closed position and lit a cigarette.
It was true. She could easily fall out. Interwar building codes weren’t as precautionary as our modern 80s ones. But most of the danger was from her unsteadiness on her feet. At 32, Charon was only a few years older than me, but the pointed, spike heels she wore every day had crossed her toes and squiggled her stick legs with swollen veins. Lightheaded from chain-smoking to stay thin, a coughing fit often knocked her over.
Charon staggered to her desk, where I’d just lined up three freshly washed crystal ashtrays. Her bright blue, blue-mascaraed, blue-lined eyes landed on me as she exhaled. She wagged a finger, scattering ash. ‘You sexy little space cadet.’
I’d forgotten the shirt buttons I popped.
‘You totally think you’re going to get with my clientele, don’t you?’ She’d already sucked the cigarette down to the butt. ‘You’re dreaming, darling.’ Charon pointed to the locked cabinet between the window and her desk, where the clients’ files were kept. The key hung on a necklace under her ropes of faux pearls. ‘My clients aren’t for the likes of you. They’re upper tier people.’
Eleven months with Charon had taught me not to protest.
She tossed her teased hair, shaking all the frills on her shirt. Today, she wore a red suit skirt with sheer, spotted stockings and a matching red mouth. She liked to stand out, I thought, as did Miss Wilderness. And like Miss Wilderness, she wanted the rest of us muted as Susan.
Charon snapped her fingers in my face. ‘No need for the mood, darling. You don’t have to be a westie forever. Anyone can make herself over.’ She tapped her long nail to her lips. ‘You should change your name! To Codie!’
My gaze twitched to the painted agency name. Charon’s idea of creativity was to put a ‘C’ at the start of everything. If she’d renamed herself from Bunty instead of Sharon, I might’ve agreed with her.
I bit down on my lip. ‘Odie’s fine.’
‘Odie’s the dog’s name in Garfield,’ Charon complained.
Yet she hadn’t noticed she’d named herself after the ferryman of dead souls to Hades.
The red mouth pursed. ‘I don’t pay you to stare at me. You’ll be Codie. Unless you’ve got another way to afford rent? Any savings? A generous family?’
I never knew my dad. I’d been on my own since I was 16, and my mother left me behind with my stepfather. He gave me two weeks to find another place. I didn’t blame him. I wasn’t his: he didn’t owe me anything, and all he owed my runaway mother was rage. So I found a factory job to pay for a bed in a share house. Somehow, I finished Year 11. I wasn’t smart enough for Year 12, especially working night shift packing poultry. My school principal helped me enrol in a secretarial course over summer. The next year, I started my first job that didn’t leave me coughing feather dust and picking bone splinters from my hands. Then eventually, this job, here in the clean and quiet, here in the elegant, orderly centre of the city. Charon notwithstanding, I was never going back.
‘Is there anyone else who’d hire you? I thought not. Codie it is.’ She cut off my reply. ‘Time for your call to Dicky! Persistence pays off, darling. I need you to promote my celebrity until I am a celebrity.’
My lip bled saltily into my mouth as I went to my desk. I punched the handset buttons on my novelty phone. Every week Charon forced me to make this call. Every week it went badly.
‘Gloria “The Glow” de Gracia’s office, manager to the stars,’ the line answered.
‘Uh. Hello. This is Codie Tennant from Ciss Ciss.’ The yelling from the line was still audible when I moved the receiver away. ‘You’re right, it’s me again, Odie. My name got a makeover.’
Charon was pretending to work, unlocking her filing cabinet and pulling out the bottom drawer. But she pointedly blew smoke in my direction.
I had no choice except to shout Charon’s script over the yelling. ‘Our founder, Ms Charon Spillane invites beloved Australian TV favourite Richard Wilkins to interview her about being a high-powered woman executive at her matchmaking agency.’
The line dropped with the crunch of a slammed receiver.
As I replaced my novelty phone’s top lip, the fax machine behind me began rolling out its thin, thermal paper. A glance showed a scrawled Texta message below Gloria The Glow’s letterhead. STOP CALLING OR ELSE. With increasing dread, I watched pages and pages of the same message curl onto the floor.
The fax machine beeped. The paper had run out. The final message read, We are sending lawyers to your premises RIGHT NOW.
‘Right now’ would be within minutes. Gloria The Glow’s office was in the next tower.
I hurried the page to Charon. If my pay cheques’ lateness were any indication, Charon couldn’t afford to be sued. And I couldn’t afford for Charon not to be able to afford me.
At the sight of the message, she sprang up, nearly teetering over. ‘Brill! I’ve got their attention now.’
Words slipped through my teeth. ‘Not in a good way.’
Charon giggled. ‘I shouldn’t think I have anything to worry about, darling. I’m not the one who keeps calling them.’
She tottered to the window beside her filing cabinet. After my assault this morning, it easily swung open at her push. She leaned out sideways facing Gloria’s tower, her back to me.
My muscles tensed. I stepped closer, like my legs had a will of their own.
Ooh. Juicy characters
What a cracking story. So much to draw the reader in and great characterisation. I like it's quirkiness. Well done!
Many thanks for your thoughts, Nikki
In reply to Ooh. Juicy characters by Nikki Vallance
It's encouraging to read what you enjoyed about my opening. I always aim for cracking! Wait until the revenge dates begin!