(c) 1998 Veronica McLaughlin
I look back now and realise I ought to have known the day she arrived in Claremont, all flustered and helpless, a woman who appeared to have nothing, not even her wits about her. She was wide as a bus, mounds of soft white flesh cresting over the waistline of her snug fitting blue jeans; all that red hair flying around, falling in her face. I should have just looked at her, taken her for a state house slapper and let it go at that. But she had a secret sort of smile that made you want to do whatever you could for her, a grin that seemed to give away so much. Bugger it all! One really ought to be on the watch for charm and glamour like that because they do come back and get you. There’s nothing free in this world.
She drove into town one Monday afternoon in April, one of those warm nor’westerly days that tease you, remind you summer’s gone, not coming back till after you’ve paid the penalty of darkness and endless mountains of snow. It puts that summer taste back in your mouth just a bit, so you want more, want it so bad, you’d do anything.
Anything. Which is precisely what I was thinking when she pulled into the carpark of May’s Milk Bar in a beat up old Ford wagon stuffed with suitcases and boxes bursting at the seams; two little kids sitting up front beside her and an oversized mutt drooling his shaggy head out the window. I caught the barely contained chaos in the corner of my eye on the way to the kitchen to pick up a tray of meat pies.
There I was, lost in thought, racing around the corner when these two red headed urchins came tearing through the door and crashed into me, sending mince and pastry flying across the floor, plates crushed up against the front of my frock, then falling, smashing to bits of stoneware. I was shocked into that stunned silence when you don’t quite know what’s happened to you, but it’s awful and everyone is staring, waiting for you to do something, only you can’t for the life of you figure out what it is.
Then she walks in and bursts into tears! That’s right. Huge tears came bursting out of those pale blue Maybelline trimmed eyes, and she went chasing food under the tables, groping the customers feet, all the while wailing at those two kids who were already making mischief. One ratbag was at the counter ripping serviettes out of the holder, letting them fly over her head to the floor. The other was flicking the straw dispenser so straws popped out two, three at a time, rolling all around, off the edge of the counter. She was on her knees, peering around, helpless, crying like it was the end of the world.
“There, there, dear. Don’t you cry. It’ll be all right.” I just couldn’t be mad, not when she felt so bad. “These things happen.” She looked up at me, so grateful. “Why don’t you just take that booth over there and I’ll get you a nice cup of tea.”
“Would you mind if it was coffee?” I nodded. “Thank you ever so much,”
The next thing I knew, I was sitting down with her and those kids and she’s drying her eyes, all out of breath, “Goodness, what a day. I just drove in all the way from Twizel and I’ve been trying to find River Road. You see, I rented a house out there and I thought it was in town, but I guess it’s not, and I need to find it and get these kids settled down.” In between words she’s popping chips in her mouth, chewing as she talks, lighting a cigarette and gulping down coffee. The kids were occupied pouring sugar onto spoons and shoveling it into their mouths. “I’m so sorry about all this mess. You know how kids are when they’re cooped up all day.”
It was nearly closing time and I was too dirty to serve anymore customers, so I asked May if I could leave a few minutes early so I could help her find the house before it got dark.
She didn’t have any furniture, just those boxes. “The man I spoke to on the phone told me the place was furnished.” It sounded absolutely true coming from her mouth, but I never heard of anyone letting furnished houses around here. I helped her carry the suitcases and cartons inside.
“Not to worry, love,” I said, “My children have left home. My son is working for Pyne Gould Guinness as a junior accountant. And I’ve got a daughter, Anne. She married a nice boy from Fairlie and just had a baby of her own. A girl, eight pounds three ounces.” Her eyes glazed over. “Anyway, I’ve got beds and dressers you can borrow till you get yourself settled. We can’t have a family living without furniture, not with two children.” Even if they were monsters, I thought.
I drove home feeling good about myself. I’d done my good deed for the day. I was halfway there before I realised I hadn’t asked her what her name was. Aw well, I knew where she lived.
Next morning, I was waiting for my appointment at Annette’s Hair Salon, telling Rita and Doris about meeting this woman and helping her move into the old Rhodes’ farm cottage when she shows up huffing and puffing, all out of breath again. “God, what a morning I’ve had,” she announced in my general direction, but not really to me. “Enrolled the kids at school, rung Telecom, and spent half an hour with the landlord sorting out the hot water in that dump. I had to take a cold shower this morning! That sure woke me up.” She laughed, running her hands over her bosom, shivering suggestively so you knew exactly how she felt standing there with cold water running over her naked body on an April morning. Had us all in stitches. Of course she had no appointment. She begged Annette to please fit her in. “I know this puts you in a jam, but I’m new in town and I’ve got to meet so many people. I just can’t do it with my hair looking like this. I mean, I might need a cold shower, but I’d positively catch my death shampooing in ice water.” She brushed a hank of hair off her face, wild and curly, the colour of the cannas growing wild by the down by the railroad tracks, and winked at Annette.
What could poor Annette do under the circumstances? She turned to me with an apologetic grin. “Honey, would you mind waiting so I can take care of… what was your name, dear?”
“Sheila. Sheila Forthright.” She smiled that million dollar smile at me, teeth so perfect I wondered if they were bought, white and nice and neat, even rows of teeth smiling so sweetly I just melted.
“No, you go ahead.” What else could I say?
She gave me that grateful grin again. “Thanks. You’re just the greatest, and after all you did for me yesterday. Why, we’re going to be best friends, I just know it!” I would have given her six months of my appointments and my car if she had asked.
Annette did her hair so nice, kind of twisted up in the back, caught with a couple of pins, a few loose curls sneaking down around her neck. It made her look soft and warm, casual, like she just whipped in up there in the flick of an eyelid. I glared at Annette. In all the years she’d been doing my hair, she never got it to look anything like that.
“You look so lovely, Sheila. Why don’t you come over for a coffee later? What about two o’clock?” I was being neighbourly, helping her not be lonely.
She grinned, tucked the piece of paper with my address on it in her purse and said, “Sure. I’ll try,” as if she had something better to do. What would she being doing with me anyway?
So, the girls and I were sitting at the dining room table playing three handed euchre, which is what we always do when there’s the three of us, like that Tuesday in April when everything was still normal and expected, exactly like we knew it was going to be for the next three years or the next thirty, as long as were all still living; playing cards, drinking coffee with a little nip of whiskey in it every now and again, and watching soaps on TV.
Except on this particular Tuesday, Sheila Forthright came strolling in without even knocking, looking just as soft and warm as when she walked out of Annette’s that morning, waving and blowing me a kiss. “Hi, love. How’s it going?” She plunked herself down in Bill’s Lazy-Boy and put her feet up. “My God, I’ve been running so hard, it feels great to sit back and take the weight off,” stretching out the way my old cat Tiger does on the back of the sofa. “But I managed to borrow a truck so we can load up the furniture.” Oh. I had almost forgotten my offer.
Rita and Doris were speechless. I introduced Sheila and shuffled off to the kitchen to fetch her a cup of coffee, thinking it was a jolly good thing I’d just made a fresh pot. By the time I returned, they were curled up at her feet laughing and talking. I felt left out in my own lounge. But Sheila’s grin as she took the coffee cup from my hand reassured me, reminded me that I was her best friend. She was telling jokes and stories about the places she’d lived since she got divorced; Christchurch, Hamilton, Nelson, everywhere. She’d decided to return south to home turf.
I knew right away she wasn’t a country girl. But she wasn’t all polished and sophisticated like city people either. Somewhere in between, like maybe she was brought up in the country and then moved to the city. Or maybe the other way around. It didn’t matter. It occurs to me now that even though she told a lot of stories, she never did say exactly where she came from or why she moved to Claremont. She never told us about her family or where she went to school. Nothing. Back then it seemed like she was spilling her life story.
Doris and I brought her to our church meeting on Wednesday night. I could tell she wasn’t exactly a churchgoer, but Wednesday nights weren’t about saving souls. We just got together in the church hall and shared a potluck supper. It would be a good way for her to meet people.
She brought those two brats along, Valerie and Jonathan, nasty little redheads, chasing each other around the tables, poking their fingers in the food, tasting it and putting it back on the buffet table. One of them blew an ashtray up another child’s face. Revolting creatures. They must have taken after their father.
Reverend Crowley’s son, Simon popped in. Such a nice, polite boy. My Anne was smitten by him when they were in fifth form. Sheila eyed that young man like a starved cat after a canary. Eventually he made his way over to our table with a cream horn in his hand. Doris’ only claim to fame is her cream horns, and everyone compliments her on them. “You’ve done it again, Mrs Maywood. You make me want cream horns every day of my life.” He took a small bite from one end.
“Sweetie,” Sheila said, flashing those perfect teeth, “You make me want a cream horn right now!” She reached over, took his hand and guided that cream horn to her mouth. She slowly ran her tongue around it, collecting up the cream and then took an enormous bite. “Mmmm, so sweet. Honey, I don’t think I could ever get enough.”
Simon turned pale, then red, then backed away from our table unable to close his mouth or take his eyes off Sheila. Doris snapped, “How could you!” as he fled, cheered on by a chorus of disapproving grunts from the rest of the table.
“Why, what did I do? They’re delicious, Doris. Really, must give me your recipe.” She picked the cream horn off my plate and began eating it. I didn’t mind. I hate cream horns, but always take one so I don’t hurt Doris’ feelings. We all laughed, but I thought maybe church wasn’t a good place for her to meet people after all.
By the end of the week, the girls and I were down at Sheila’s house playing cards all night, driving our men crazy. She’d turn up the music; get us laughing and dancing, so we didn’t care about the time. She even had some dirty rap tapes. There we were, one o’clock on a Friday night, dancing like Sheila showed us, wriggling our hips like the sexy girls on the videos, real naughty, giggling like kids.
I expected Bill would be annoyed with Sheila, or that Doris or Rita’s husbands would be ticked off, but no. She danced with them real close, telling them what great dancers they were and how they reminded her of some movie star, making the old fools feel twenty years younger. They couldn’t get mad at us because they couldn’t be mad at her. And all of us were having the time of our lives.
Sheila just lived. I wondered how she paid the bills. But after a few weeks she said her money was running out and her lousy deadbeat ex-husband wasn’t sending his support like he was supposed to. “I’m either gonna have to find a job or go on the DPB. God, I hate being on the DPB. All that paperwork!”
Now it wasn’t that we had anything against the DPB. Rita and her kids have been on and off it for years, depending on how bad her Sam’s been drinking. But it just didn’t seem right that Sheila would be on welfare, not a woman like her. My Bill put a word in for her at the lumberyard, and next thing, they hired her in the office. Who would have guessed that Sheila Forthright knew heaps about computers?
Sheila went to work and life went back to normal, Doris and Rita and me playing cards and watching soaps by ourselves again. We still got together some evenings after tea, after she got her kids in bed, but it wasn’t the same, not when she had to get up early for work in the morning.
Then Sheila found herself a boyfriend so she was busy all the time. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt like she had broken up with me. Goodness, no! I’m not that way. It wasn’t anything like that, but that’s how it felt all the same.
God, it seemed that my life was as boring as a life could be. I’d lived in this do nothing, go nowhere town since the day I was born. I’d had the same meaningless part time job for eighteen years. I wished I could go somewhere, maybe see something of the world, or do something. But I didn’t have anything to do, so I guess I didn’t do anything.
Even Bill took up bowling, driving out to Temuka a couple of nights a week to play on a team from work, leaving me even more alone. I’d think up little reasons to call Sheila, little things I could do for her. Sometimes she let me come over, but usually she was ‘too busy right now’. Doris and Rita said I was different, moody all the time. Must be the change.
Sheila Forthright. What a woman. Oh, I loved her. I wanted to be her. I wanted to be her and have her life, even though she didn’t seem to have anything I didn’t have more of.
And Sheila, well, it turned out Sheila wanted what I had, everything I worked for all my miserable boring life. My husband Bill took off with that Sheila Forthright, that woman with three extra stone, wild red hair, and two snot nosed brats.
It was at Queen’s Birthday Weekend, when there was a thin blanket of crispy white snow laying on the ground, the beginning of those frozen cold miserable nights when you’re grateful you have a man to hold onto even if you haven’t spoken to him about more than the weather in almost twenty years, even if you sometimes think you don’t know who he is at all, but he’s your man. You know you’ve got him and you’re going to be safe and warm all winter, every winter for the rest of your life.
He left me a letter. Not much in it, just said he found the one woman he would always love. A chance like this was once in a lifetime and he wasn’t going to blow it. Sorry. Crap like that.
He cleaned out our savings, but he left the deed to the house, signed over to me, mighty decent of him, the bastard, after twenty four years! She took Bill! Sheila Forthright took my husband, that conniving bitch!
I cried and cried and cried for days and weeks, so I couldn’t even go to work. Oh, bloody hell! I wan’t crying because she took Bill. I was crying because she left me behind.