SQUINT by Bronwyn Mehan

I’m keeping an eye out for Gerard via the small pane of cross-haired glass. I called him an hour ago. He turns his mobile off while he’s on the course, so I had to leave a message.

Today is normally golf for Gerard and shopping followed by wash and blow-dry for me. If it hadn’t been for Fern Scullen and her stupid boycott, that’s where I’d be right now, at Ana’s, having my hair done.

He should be here any minute now, Gerard Gilbertson, QC, with his unruffled, reassuring face.

‘I’d prefer to wait until my legal adviser is present,’ I’ll say to the two detectives when they come back.

Delay and deferral – the wrench and shifter of the barrister’s toolkit. That’s the sort of thing Gerard says. Not those words exactly. But similar. And he would lean his head and wink, as if winking made that side of his head a little heavier.

When the two detectives left the room just now, I caught a glimpse of white tracksuit. Phoebe. They’ll put her in a room just like this. Her interview wont’ start until legal aid arrives.

The butch detective with the sloppy mouth will see the shaking hands and dirty nails. She’ll see how Phoebe pulls on her sleeves to hide the fishbone scars and puncture marks. Phoebe’s tears won’t move her.

She has cold eyes, the butch one. I must remember when they come back, to sit side on to the young Greek lass. I need to look the butch bitch straight in the eye. She’s the one with all the questions.

I told them that I called into Jay’s Place this morning to talk over the luncheon arrangements with Fern Scullen, the coordinator.

‘But when I got there I heard shouting coming for the Activity Shed.’

‘You know the person Ms Scullen was with?’

‘A tenant called Phoebe.’

‘And how would you describe the state of mind of this tenant, Mrs Gilbertson?’

‘Agitated’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘She took a swing at Fern with a bottle. And as she left, she pushed me out of the way.’

‘Then what happened?’

‘Nothing. I told Fern to call the police. I’m only thinking of the centre, and of you, Fern, I said. But she just shrugged it off and went on with her tidying. That was the last I saw of her.’

I shouldn’t have mentioned the luncheon. I should have said I was there to sign a cheque or something. One of them is bound to pick it up: You say you went there because of the luncheon, Mrs Gilbertson, yet you left without talking about it?

When they come back, I’ll tell them I’m planning a memorial luncheon for Fern. And intend to rename the centre, Fern’s Place.

A tribute,’ I will say, ‘to a woman who paid so dearly for helping ex-prisoners.’

***

All this could have been avoided if only Fern hadn’t opposed the Minister’s luncheon.

The other two thought it was a great idea.

‘Good publicity,’ Alice said.

‘Raises the profile,’ Joy said.

‘We don’t need publicity,’ said Fern, ‘and our profile’s fine.’

‘I’ll liaise with the Minister’s office,’ I said.’And Joy and Alice, you can supervise the setting up. Right, ladies? Oh, yes, and my husband’s firm have offered to pay for catering.’

Fern had breathed in loudly through her nose.

‘I know you think it’s a bit rushed, Fern, but there is an election on.’

‘That’s my point.’

‘A simple buffet, I thought. Canapés and fruit juice on arrival. Coffee and petit fours after the formalities. And Fern, just a little report. Brief history, tenant numbers, budget and so on. Point form will do. Emailed to me by close of business, Thursday. Is that do-able?’

Fern spent the rest of the meeting with her sullen-Scullen face. She preferred the old days, when Jay’s Place was run by a collective and before the Management Committee and public accountability came along.

She waited until Alice and Joy were heading for their cars and turning their mobile phones back on. Then, once Fern and I were alone on the front porch, she started on about the Minister.

‘This is the woman who invented the term Welfare Industry.’ Fern looked haggard under the faulty fluorescent light. Hard to believe we are the same age. ‘Patrice,’ she said, ‘we live in a society, not an economy. Jay’s Place doesn’t have outcomes that can be measured in kpi’s and bottom lines.’

‘Yes, but it is an organisation. And organisations should be organised, don’t you think?’

She stood there, arms crossed, an expanse of belly showing between her faded T-shirt and hipster jeans.

‘I’ll consult with the team tomorrow. But I know they won’t like it.’

Driving back into the city, I thought about what I would say to the Minister at Friday’s luncheon. Whenever I see her on the TV she is perfectly-groomed and unflappable. We are sure to hit it off.

‘Love the new policy,’ I’ll say. ‘It gives the Big End of Town a chance to help out the Really Little End. Trim the waste from the welfare budget and use it to reward corporate philanthropy. Clever.’

Once I’d left the drab suburbs behind and could see the neon lights and the bridge, my spirits lifted. It seemed a lifetime had passed since I used to stand there in a booth full of exhaust fumes, handing out change. In another two night’s time, I’d be at the Partners and Wives’ dinner. My first. Those women could curl their lips all they liked. Yes, I used to be Gerry’s secretary, so what? How many of them will be having a tête-à-tête with a Federal Minister on Friday? I lowered the windows and let the night air in.

Headlights glimpsed moonflower hedge, fountain and vine-wrapped pergola as I turned into our driveway. While I waited for the roller door I refreshed my lipstick. The unpleasantness hadn’t really gone away.

‘I can’t promise there won’t be a boycott, Patrice.’

Fern’s words had echoed in the street as I walked to the car. She stood there under the flickering streetlight and as I drove off I saw her, in the rear vision mirror, watching and smirking.

***

‘How are the boys, Mrs G?’

Watching myself in the salon mirror yesterday, I couldn’t get Fern Scullen’s stupid boycott out of my head. That woman was going to ruin all that I’d worked for.

Three times a week I see Ana. Twice for my hair and once for my nails. The only other person I see that often, not counting the housemaid and gardener, is Gerard.

‘Good, Ana. Really good.’

‘And Mr G? How’s it all going?’

The first Mrs Gilbertson had been ailing for sometime. And it had been a natural step to go from his most valued secretary to her most regular hospice visitor. Not just a comfort for her, but someone to be there for Gerry, in his twilight years.

‘We did the right thing, you know, Ana. Even when Sheila went into a coma, we waited.’

Acetone sharpened the air as Ana took off last week’s nail polish.

Becoming Gerard’s second wife meant more than just a name change for me. Sheila Gilbertson was famous for her garden party fundraisers. She played bridge with the Partners’ wives. These were big high heels to fill.

Ana began pushing back the cuticles. Her chick-pecks were expert but they still stung a little.

That’s what irked me so much about Fern Scullen. She assumed I had everything handed to me on a plate. She wasn’t interested in women with success stories, only sob stories. Helping women to help themselves. What she was really saying was: Don’t try and stand on your own two feet ladies, just lie around waiting for another welfare cheque.

Ana placed each of my hands in slippery, warm water. Then came my favourite part: hand massage with almond oil, right up to the elbows.

‘Natural Sheen, again, Mrs G?’

‘No, Ana. This week I want a bully-for-me colour.’

***

I couldn’t rid myself of her smirking mouth. This morning, it was there as soon as I woke.

Poor Gerry.

‘Might be too tired later on, Patty,’ he said sliding under the covers. With eleven holes to play and the dinner at Claude’s, he knew he had to pace himself.

When we sat out on the balcony for breakfast I had no appetite for that either.

Fern hadn’t answered my calls or emails from yesterday. If she wasn’t going to play ball, I’d have no choice but to cancel the luncheon. With no luncheon on Friday there would be no name to drop at dinner tonight. It was a sunny spring morning, yet I could have been standing at an open fridge door.

***

I arrived at Jay's Place around eleven this morning. Fern wasn't in her office. The place was empty. On the whiteboard, along the Wednesday morning row, were the words Art Therapy and Metro. The tenants were out, re-learning grocery shopping. How that must thrill the local Woolworths manager.

I walked to rear of the premises. The bedroom doors stood ajar. Four single beds in each with chests of drawers, reading lamps and lockable robes. Dreary, but jail would have been worse.

On past the communal areas - TV room, bathrooms and kitchen, then outside where picnic tables were strewn with full ashtrays and candles sagging in jars.

I heard raised voices from the Activity Shed so I peered through the fly screen door. In the corner, amongst art paper and Masonite squares stood two women having an argument.

‘I'm sorry, Phoebe,’ Fern said, crossing her arms. She looked up when I opened the screen door but only for a second. ‘You know the rules. No drugs on premises.’

Phoebe, an extremely thin woman dressed in a grubby white gym suit, with an even grubbier calico bag hanging past her knees, stood facing Fern, cradling a family-sized Fanta bottle on one hip.

'Come on, Fernie,' Phoebe stepped over the artworks on the floor. She stamped her feet. ‘One more chance. Pul-lease.’

Phoebe’s rubber-thonged feet landed hard enough on some of the masonite squares to crack them into jagged pieces and she began to wail.

Fern extended her arms to her, inviting a hug.

‘You bitch,’ Phoebe screamed, swiping the Fanta bottle close to Fern's face.

Fern ducked the swing. 'Time out!'

Phoebe turned and made for the door. Close up, our bodies almost touched and I looked into the dark, addicted eyes of an old woman in her early twenties.

She bumped my arm.

'So-rry,'

Inside, Fern was dwarfed by the huge mural of Jay, the homeless ex-crim who killed herself.

‘DOCS won’t let Phoebe see her kids.’

‘I can see why.’

She exhaled and licked her lips before speaking. 'They're all she has to live for right now.’

I looked at my wristwatch.

‘I’ve come to talk about the luncheon, Fern.’

Fern, her back to me, stood at the worktable sorting brushes and wooden-handled knives into bundles.

‘I must have a guarantee there’ll be no stunts, Fern.’

She still would not turn around. ‘It’s a peaceful protest. Not a stunt.'

'Peaceful?’ I said, gesturing to the ruined paintings and broken linocuts.

‘What do you want them to do? Curtsey and serve scones while the government rips the roof from their heads.'

‘That’s not true and you know it.’

‘No? What else is this cosy public-private crap about?’

She kneeled on the concrete floor and started picking through the damaged linocuts.

‘You don’t have a monopoly on compassion, you know, Fern. There actually are people in the business world who want to give something back.’

She snorted, then sat back on her heels. ‘You just don’t get it do you, Patrice?’

‘It’s you that …‘ I stopped myself. I needed to calm down.

‘Oh, don’t stop, Patrice. Go on. I’m listening.’ She used her calm-counsellor voice but underneath I could see she was seething. It was the end of an era, surely she could see that.

‘Call it off. Please. I’m only thinking of the centre, and of you, Fern.’

She went on with her cleaning.

The room became strangely silent. I became really hot and all I could hear was heartbeat pounding behind my temples. No way, I thought. Not to the Minister and me out on the footpath, with Fern and her little scrubbers at the window giving us the ‘up yours’ salute. No way to cancelling either. To letting Gerry down and having to watch his eyes sliding away from mine with that sad, forced smile.

Amazing how the heat gave way to quick-thinking. If I had to pinpoint the moment of change, it would be when the body hit the floor. At first there was only fury, hot and fierce, as the lino knife plunged into Fern’s neck. Then time stopped. I stood there. Alert. Waiting for the next thing. But for whole seconds nothing happened. Fern was frozen in position, balanced on her haunches, her arms outstretched, as if the knife had struck her off-switch. Then she toppled forward, hitting the concrete with a grunt.

As Fern's blood spread across the concrete floor, coolness spread through my veins. I looked at my hands - the palms and then the backs. I checked my sleeves and the front of my coat. The skirt, stockings and shoes. All were completely clean.

My first thought was to get away but as I passed back through the main building the idea came to me. There, on the TV room floor, was the calico bag and the Fanta bottle. And inside, on the lounge, a sleeping figure in a white gym suit.

I rushed back out to the workshop and slipped off my high heels. Using my coat sleeve to pull the screen door handle and, sticking to the room's edge in my stockinged feet, I grabbed a paint rag from the bench.

There was not much room on the stubby wooden handle to get a decent grip, especially at that angle. And I had to be ready to spring away, in case pulling out the knife unplugged a geyser of blood. It was the lever action that did it. I simply placed my foot on Fern’s big round back and slowly straightened my leg. The knife slid out and the body rolled away. Like when Gerard is turning in for the night. He puts one slippered foot on the heavy leather pouffe and slides it out of his way.

I placed the knife into Phoebe’s limp hand, let myself out and drove away.

***

His game finished two hours ago, so he should be here by now. Perhaps he’s in having a word with the station commander. They might know each other. Gerard knows so many people.

I’m waiting by the large door with the tiny windowpane. When I squint, the cross hairs in the glass seem to disappear.

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