Cloisters

by Eva Lomski

a fuk a fuk a fuk

She wished she knew the species of tropical bird in the palm tree making that call, because she wanted to pin a medal to its chest. Late afternoon, just as the sun disappeared from the pool, and champagne corks were heard popping all over the resort, a fuk a fuk a fuk it called, tiredly, plaintively, to a potential rival or mate.

She was alone. There was a new man in the ground-floor apartment next door.

He and she seemed to be the only single ones there this September. The resort, once a place of solitude two minutes from the beach, was rampant with exuberant children and their jaunty parents, the beneficiaries of cheap flights and last-minute accommodation specials. A day of sun and water, screaming and surfing, deep fried takeaway, a flurry of night time reading or rocking. And then – she checked her watch – probably very soon now, the parents might partake of a hard drink and, inspired by whatever species of bird that was, perhaps a grateful and exhausted grind.

The only thing she ground was salt for her margarita, which she raised in salute to the miniature glass bear and dancing doll sitting atop her terrace table. Their eyes followed her every move. Always had.

And there now, across her private patch of grass, making the most of the fading light was another bird calling. come-on-ha, come-on-ha. It was in a palm surrounded by flowering bromeliads directly opposite the first. come-on-ha, a fuk

From the clink of the bottles next door, she guessed the new man was a beer drinker. Shame that she couldn’t see the type of beer, because then she could guess the type of man – pale, bitter, stout?

“Hello?” she called out into the growing darkness for the hell of it. The bear looked horrified and the dancing doll slapped her wrist.

The clinking stopped, and she held her breath. Men in other rooms, if they were meant to climb her aging cornices, would come to her. They always did. The clinking resumed. She sighed, sat back, and disappeared down another tequila and lime.

*

The next morning, she read by the edge of the pool, and she saw them, as she always did, anyone under thirty, furtively studying her. Look at her, she saw them thinking, what is wrong with her, why does her mouth curve so under her wide-brimmed hat, why is the skin on her arm strange. They did not see the swimming costume and matching sari, the tanned and pedicured feet, the latest bestseller on her digital reading device, the Botox which prevented her sweating and swearing at an unkind god.

Where Hansel and Gretel fall into the oven, she replied, when one brave tyke ventured to ask her what she was reading. The glass bear was scandalized by that one. Somewhere though, probably from by the surf club, a kookaburra laughed its appreciation. She decided to take it worms.

After a while she made her way over the road and through the coconut palms to Four Mile Beach, which was empty of bird cries. There were not even gulls to be seen. However even the sanctity of this oasis was sullied by yoga classes, kayak lessons and parents doing push-ups alongside their sand-encrusted offspring.

There were far too many like her on the beach; women in matching swimming outfits or knee length white shorts. They searched the sand, the flock of them, in silent invocation, wading through the shallows and the waterline of yellow and red leaves. These leaves, the detritus of the mangroves, lined the bubbling froth like discarded ticker tape. The theory used to be that these leaves saved the mangrove by absorbing the salt of the ocean, changing from green as they sacrificed themselves, until they were finally discarded. Greater love hath no leaf. She collected them, the yellow and red survivors and kept them in plastic bags in the refrigerator. When she returned to the resort the next season, the leaves were always gone.

At the rocks by the mangroves, she climbed barefoot, unmindful of the tiny sand crabs that scuttled out of her way. Usually, she was rewarded with the sight of a crab as big as her hand, before it too disappeared, clattering like a pair of nail clippers. Small fish the color of sand darted in the rippled shallows. She hovered above them, a giant shadow.

“What happened to that lady’s face, Mummy?”

Ah, the delightful blurting of children.

Children’s voices, any child’s voice, put her in mind of all the children’s television programs she produced over the years in perhaps the greatest irony of her life. A single idea spawned during a nightclub brawl led to the evolution of a kids’ program about a bear made from glass, Simon, who was constantly in danger of shattering, and whose friend and comforter was a Mexican dancing doll, Margarita. It was another irony that she named the doll, albeit more exotically, after herself, when in fact she was so much more like Simon – cautious, unsure, a loner. Extroverted Margarita, with a painted toothy smile reminiscent of the grimace of Day of the Dead dolls, guided Simon through their adventures, which inevitably involved recycling factories and furnaces. Before Simon, the Glass Bear became an animated series, and she, a national treasure, children in the audience cried each time a suited-up Simon yelled, “Help me, Margarita, the fire has me. I’m melting!” As the years went on, Margarita became harder and harder of hearing, and Simon’s fate was left more and more to chance. She wrote it that way deliberately, testing how far she could put Simon in the drink. She was finally voted down by the other producers when she wrote a script in which Simon lost an arm to a wine-press. No one wants a cripple, they said, and what are you doing writing about wine in a children’s program? Wine-making, she replied, was a Medieval art.

*

Birds came to visit her in the garden as she ate a late lunch of prawn salad. not-now not-now and wooroo wooroo. They inquired about her health and happiness and she answered back, not now. This year, a short fat black thing the size of a chicken stalked with its partner amongst the foliage and cluck-cluck-whirred. When she tried to photograph them, they stood on embarrassed crimson legs, as if conscious of the camera.

Every other year whilst holidaying here, her eye was caught by a certain type of self-conscious man. In the town, he drank his tea or coffee alone, and ordered fruit toast for breakfast, and only drank European beer. There was a sagging dignity to his contemplative face. He would see her as a certain type of woman, brittle, average, yet available, and they would meet for cocktails across from the beach, or place bets on the racing cane toads at the pub while at the same time decrying cane toad racing. Sometimes, there might be dinner at the inlet, watching the cruise boats as they came back from a day’s tour of the Great Barrier Reef. Those type of men, it was always their place, not hers, where she might be questioned about her face, and Simon and Margarita.

Before she was excommunicated from the television station for a script on Gothic cathedrals (“Gargle with a Gargoyle”), she bought the other producers out and shut them down, and the sudden ousting of the program, despite high consumer demand turned Simon, the Glass Bear into an instant classic. It was bought by a further twenty nations around the world and subject to countless repeats on television. She counted each repeat as a dollar in her pocket and wrote a script, never published, never used,  in which Simon shattered into a million pieces while trying to save Margarita during an earthquake. It measured eight-point-two on the Richter scale.

*

The black chicken birds were building a nest on the ground outside her kitchen window. Here, a buttress. There, a plinth. She spied on them as she stood at the sink. When not building, they were scratching and cavorting and cluck-cluck-whirring at an ever-louder rate. Absolute stillness prompted them to change their call to a choop-choop, only to run away whenever an overly chirpy parent hauled a crying five-year old across the common gallery. She thought, then, about the need for privacy for black chicken birds and about selling this apartment and buying something which attracted a more sedate clientele. But those resorts were further from the beach and the mangroves and the scuttling crabs. Where would she wade?

She heard a cough, a decidedly manly cough from a distance and concluded the man next door was sitting on his terrace. Two chicken birds, they were, a pair of celibates. She stood and walked toward the adjoining screen, idly admiring the bamboo. As she turned, she spied through the slats the blue of a chambray shirt, and approved.

“Hello?” she called out. “Hello, hello, hello.”

She thought she heard a scuttling.

From the balcony directly above her apartment, “Mum, why’s that lady’s shouting?”

Insightful children.

In the evening, she absorbed another salt-rimmed margarita until she was completely cast off.

*

The nest was built, but there were no eggs. The birds circled and circled. For the first time in a long time, she wondered what Simon and Margarita might do in such a situation. Simon would worry that the eggs may have been eaten by snakes, while Margarita would explain in her patient uptight manner, while dancing in time to the rhythm of her words, about the habits of these birds, whatever they were called. They would both imitate the bird’s cry, and Simon would trip over a fallen frond and land face first in the nest. This would segue into a filmed segment on birds and their nests; on the kookaburra’s home in the hollow of a tree, on the seagull’s twig nest on a spit or a boat; and on the a fuk bird’s nest on a raised platform of black satin sheets.

This made her laugh out loud.

No, Simon and Margarita would do the right thing and actually care about life outside their window, and look up the birds in an encyclopedia, or at least on Wikipedia, and find out their proper names. They would consider the birds as individual species and not some morphed feathered ‘one’ inhabiting the breathing space. Margarita would guide Simon through the joy of bird watching as probably the only truly safe hobby for a bear in his condition.

*

The next afternoon Mr Chambray had scaled the bromeliads and was on her lawn, which was surprising but not indictable. Around his neck was a camera with a long lens. He was not as she imagined. For a start, he was much younger. He could have been no more than forty, with a riff of longish hair and surprisingly pale legs in shorts. From her position near the television, she watched as he ducked between bamboo trees and skirted through bushes. There was a beer wobble to his step. There were no sleek abs under that belt, she thought, just a soft vulnerable centre. That was perfectly fine, as far as she was concerned. His eyes were down and fixed. He sought the birds.

The black chicken birds, for their part, were no fools. They knew there was an intruder afoot. She moved to the kitchen window to watch the action. He raised the camera. When he took a step forward, they ran a few steps forward, too. She heard the snap snap snap of his camera. Again, another step from him, and a few timid steps forward for the birds, as if unsure, yet not quite frightened. This way, the three of them made their way across the grass and down the side toward the nest.

It was then he looked up and saw her at the open window. Now, she thought, now, she would know for sure if her sanctuary would be breached any time soon.

An upswing of the camera toward her face. snap snap snap

“Thought it was you,” he said. snap snap snap “What ever happened to Margaret Sinclair?” snap snap snap “Christ, what a story!”

She couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, but Margarita slapped Simon so hard, his head nearly fractured.

“Get out,” she screamed. “Out, out, out.”

And so the kitchen blind came crashing down.

*

Even at twilight the ocean sparkled like a glass bear. When she reached the mangroves at water’s edge, she ignored the rocks with their crabs and instead waded, ankle deep in water, further and further amongst their roots into the trees. There, in a square of mangroves, she pulled together fallen twigs so she could comfortably sit. She listened for other bird calls as the sun slipped.

hi-hi-hi, she called out. hi-hi-hi. see-me see-me see-me

ah fuck

Simon was scandalized, whipping a glass paw over his glass mouth, and Margarita smacked her firmly on the shoulder. After a minute of silent condemnation, they asked where she had hidden her eggs.

Dear Simon and Margarita. They had been with her such a long time. They were with her at the nightclub when, as a young woman, she was scarred by a glass hurled and ground by a stranger who decided he did not like her comments on the caged dancing girls. With her, during the many operations after that; then, later, during the operations on other organs that couldn’t be fixed. With her, through nights lonely and over-full. Simon and Margarita were there even earlier than that, when she was a child, too nervous to venture away from her mother in a swimming pool full of happy children, or to shake the hand of Mickey at Disney on Ice. They were with her when she bought this refuge, nodding yes, yes, yes to its isolation and split-cycle air conditioning. They helped her cross rocks barefoot, pacify her family’s hopes of offspring, and write scripts that were racy and bold.

She lay with Simon on one side and Margarita on the other, and listened for  approaching nail-clippers. She thought, then, she might resurrect these characters. Surely there was still room in the world for a delicate nervous personality, and a doll with the face of the dead.

One by one, she pulled the red and yellow leaves from her pockets and waited for the ocean to rise.

 

 

Eva Lomski’s work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Glimmer Train, The Best Australian Stories, Cleaver Magazine, Sleepers Almanac, Lost Boy and Other Stories, Island, and Australia’s national Australian newspaper. She’s placed third in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, been shortlisted several times for the UK Fish Publishing Short Story Prize and been a finalist in several Glimmer Train competitions. She has been awarded a Publisher Introduction Program Fellowship by Varuna Australia and the Grace Marion Wilson Mentorship from Writers Victoria.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction

One response to “Cloisters

  1. I love this Eva. The bird calls, lol, the interplay with fiction and reality, and the ending.

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