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The Idea of Perfectionby Kate Grenville
IN HIS EX-WIFE'S clever decorating magazines Douglas Cheeseman had seen mattress ticking being amusing. Marjorie had explained that it was amusing to use mattress ticking for curtains the same way it was amusing to use an old treadle Singer as a table for your maidenhair ferns. But he did not think the amusing aspect of mattress ticking being used as a curtain had made it as far as the Royal Hotel in Yuribee, NSW, pop 1374. He could feel the cold dust in the fabric as he held it back to look out the window.
Over the top of the corrugated iron roof next door, he could see nearly all of Karakarook. It looked as if it had just slid down into the bottom of the valley, either side of the river, and stayed there. Where the houses finished straggling up the sides of the hills there were bald curves of paddocks and further up, the hilltops were dark with bush. Above that was the huge pale sky, bleached with the midday heat.
From the window he could see part of Parnassus Road, as wide and empty as an airport runway, lying as if stunned under the sun. Along the strip of shops a few cars had parked diagonally into the gutters like tadpoles nosing up to a rock. A dog lay stretched out lifeless across the doorway of a closed-up shop. The awnings over the shops made jagged blocks of black shadow and the great radiance of the sun pressed down out of the sky.
A ute so dusty he could not tell what colour it was drove slowly in and angled into the gutter. Out of it got a man with a big round belly straining at a blue shirt, who disappeared under the awning of the shops opposite the Caledonian. Douglas could hear the squeak as a door was pushed open, and the thump as it closed again.
After a long period of stillness an old brown car appeared small at the end of the street, came slowly along and pointed itself tentatively in beside the ute. A woman got out and stood looking up and down the street with her hands on her hips. She did not seem to be worried by doing nothing more than standing and looking. She seemed pleased, in a stern way, and interested, as if Parnassus Road, Karakarook, was a diorama in a museum provided especially for her pleasure.
She was a big rawboned plain person, tall and unlikely, with a ragged haircut and a white teeshirt coming unstitched along the shoulder. It was a long time since she been young and it was unlikely that she had ever been lovely. She stood like a man, square-on. Her breasts pushed out the old teeshirt, but it was clear from the way she stood that she'd forgotten about breasts being sexy. Her breasts made bulges in her jumper the same way her knees made bulges in her black track pants, that was all.
She was not accessorised. Her teeshirt hung off her shoulders and came straight up to her neck. There was no collar, no scarf, no beads, no earrings. Her head just came up sternly out of the teeshirt saying, here I am, and who do you think you are?
Douglas stood with the curtain in his hand, watching her across the road as she looked at Parnassus Road exposed under the sky. A salt of the earth type.
Salt of the earth: that was one of Marjorie's expressions. What she meant by that was, badly dressed.
The way the woman stood with her hands on her hips, looking down the street as if she owned it, he could imagine her life, a proper life anchored solid to the ground. There would be a big cheerful husband, uncomplicated children, fat red-cheeked grandchildren calling her Nanna. He could imagine the kitchen out on the farm, with the radio going on top of the fridge, the big bowl of eggs with the chook-poop still on them, the fridge door covered with magnets that said things like Bless this Mess.
A dog came along from somewhere and barked at her, making pigeons puff up in a scatter from the awning. She glanced at it, and he saw a frown darken her face.
He let the curtain fall and stepped back from the window. Then he stood in the dim room wondering why he had done that.
He looked at his watch but it did not tell him anything useful. He sat down on the bed, pulled off his boots. Considered, pulled them on again. He wanted to have another look out the window, but he did not want to be caught looking. It was only a kind of hunger, but it could be misunderstood.
Harley had seen him looking, the man holding back the curtain, with the D of the word CALEDONIAN hanging upside-down from a screw above his head. She had seen him drop the curtain and move back from the window, but she knew he was still there, perhaps still watching her, as this dog was, that had appeared from nowhere.
She had forgotten how empty a country town could be, how closed, how you could feel looked-at and large.
Further down the street past the Caledonian she could see the old picture theatre. You could tell what it had been from its shape, tall at the front and falling away steeply at the back. The brackets were still screwed on down the front of the building where the sign must have been, Odeon or Starlight. Now the whole lot was painted utility grey.
There was a piece of masonite screwed up on the wall, with a sign, hand-lettered, hard to read. She squinted towards it. COBWEBBE CRAFT SHOPPE, she read. OPEN WED & THUR, and beside it another one left over from the previous month, with a corner broken off, MERRY XMAS PEACE ON EAR.
She laughed without meaning to and the dog barked. Then it stopped as if to let her have a turn.
Get lost, she said.
Its tail began to swing from side to side. Opening its mouth it panted with its tongue hanging out, pulsing. It went on watching her closely, as if she was about to perform a magic trick.
It showed no sign of being about to get lost.
The Cobwebbe Crafte Shoppe still had the old ticket window from the picture theatre, and in the window she could see two quilts competing like plants for the light.
Harley glanced back at her car. It was not too late to get back in and drive away. No one would know, except this dog, and someone behind the curtain. As she stood hesitating, a rooster crowed lingeringly from somewhere, and a distant car horn went dah diddidy dah-dah. Then the silence pressed back in over the sounds.
She straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat.
Get lost, she told the dog again.
It sounded very loud in so much quiet.
The dog watched her as she looked right, looked left, looked right again. Nothing at all was moving, anywhere along Parnassus Road. It was just her and her shadow, and the dog and the shadow of the dog, as they crossed the road together. Under the awning of the Caledonian their shadows were swallowed in the larger shadow.
Looking along at the Cobwebbe Crafte Shoppe, not at where she was going, she walked straight into a man coming out of the doorway of the Caledonian. When they collided, he staggered backwards and nearly fell. She grabbed at a handful of his forearm, clutching at the fabric and the arm beneath, and he flailed out to steady himself, hitting her on the shoulder. Then they were both standing in the beer-smelling current of cool air from the doorway, apologising.
The man had a look of hysteria around the corners of his mouth. He wanted to blame himself.
My fault, he kept saying. Completely my fault. Stupid.
She had a feeling it was the man who had watched her from the window, but with his hat on it was hard to be sure.
Totally stupid. Not thinking at all.
So clumsy, Harley said. Me, I mean.
She did not look at him, but at the ground, where their shoes were arranged on the footpath like ballroom- dancing instructions. His were elastic-sided bushman's boots that looked brand~new.
Did I hurt you? Hitting you?
She looked at him, surprised.
He pointed but did not touch.
I hit you, he said, humbly. There.
No, no, she said, although now he had mentioned it, she could feel the place hurting.
She looked at her own hand, large and plain, that had clutched at him, and wondered if she should ask whether she had hurt him.
Well, he said, and laughed a meaningless laugh.
A moment extended itself into awkwardness.
Well, he said again, and she said it too at the same moment.
Their voices sounded loud together under the awning. Harley felt as if the whole of Karakarook, behind its windows, must be watching this event that had burst into their silent afternoon: two bodies hitting together, two people standing apologising.
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