Pip Adam is part of WORD Christchurch 2020 Spring Festival
‘How’s Alex?’ Hope said. She and Molly were sitting in a café by the river in early spring drinking tea from the same pot. Molly sighed, looked out the window and said nothing.
‘What?’ Hope said.
Hope was Molly’s friend and Alex was Molly’s brother.
‘How’s Alex?’ Molly said shaking her head and smiling.
‘What?’ Hope said, looking as surprised as she could.
Hope was married the first time she met Alex. He and Molly had been on the street tired from trying to buy a present for a family friend. ‘There’s Hope,’ Molly said, waving, ‘Let’s have a coffee with Hope.’ They were like a house on fire, Molly didn’t miss it, couldn’t miss it. Alex and Hope laughed, they smiled, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, remember that,’ like old friends. Three months after Hope’s husband left, Molly suggested afternoon tea at a café in the gardens. It was a warm day. Hope arrived first. Molly and Alex arrived together. That was a year ago.
‘What?’ Hope asked again.
‘I did everything I could,’ Molly said. ‘This close,’ she pinched her fingers together for effect.
‘He liked the artist,’ said Hope.
‘“He liked the artist”,’ Molly mocked. ‘He liked you.’
Hope felt surprised for real. She looked at Molly and didn’t say anything.
‘Don’t blame me – or the artist. You two did it,’ Molly pointed from Hope to an imaginary Alex then back again a couple of times. ‘We sat in that café and you said, “I’m happy,” and he said, “I’m happy alone, too,” and then you said, just to make sure it was good and dead, “I’m just not ready for a relationship at the moment.”’
Hope tried to remember. That wasn’t the last thing they’d said. They’d talked for another hour after that and gone for a walk and talked some more. She’d thought it went well. Then two weeks later he’d started going out with a woman who was an artist.
‘I just thought he didn’t like me,’ said Hope, only meaning to think it, but saying it out loud.
‘And that,’ said Molly, ‘is what chokes it before it starts. You think he doesn’t like you, then he thinks you don’t like him and neither of you want to look like you like someone who doesn’t like you, then before you know it he’s going out with the artist, who’s as dull as ditch-water, and you’re alone and asking me, “How’s Alex?”, hoping beyond hope he’s single again but if he was it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference because you and Alex would be so wary that eventually one of you would say something and it would all be off again.’
‘He doesn’t like the artist?’ Hope said.
‘He loves the artist,’ Molly said. ‘He’s happy. That’s not my point.’
‘It all worked out fine then,’ Hope offered playing with a teaspoon that was lying on the table.
‘It looks that way,’ said Molly and then she said nothing for a moment, hoping it would sink in – how no one should settle for fine, how they’d both be much happier if they hadn’t said what they’d said; if they’d just said what they felt and not been so worried about things working out fine. Then she asked how work was.
‘Work’s work – you know,’ said Hope.
‘It’s busy,’ Hope added, ‘What about you?’
Molly said the wedding would be in January. She would be baptised in December and Ned would marry her in January.
‘I’ll grow my hair,’ said Molly.
‘Summer wedding,’ said Hope.
The wedding invitation – Hope’s invitation – she returned with ‘and partner’ struck out. Molly counselled bringing someone.
‘Anyone?’ Hope said.
Molly saw her dilemma.
They met for an early dinner and ate hot soup with noodles. As Molly put on her jacket she said she had to meet her fiancé. Hope laughed and said, ‘That sounds flash,’ and Molly laughed too.
Hope walked home along the river, like an actor in an eighties music video for a new wave song about leaving. The sun had no heat in it and the ducks made her cold.
Molly lived by the beach and swam most days. She said dinner would be around seven but Hope could come any time after work. Alex and his artist were coming too – was that all right?
‘Of course,’ Hope said, like Molly couldn’t imagine how all right it was. Like nothing had ever been so all right before.
‘I’ll see you after work,’ Hope said.
At work things went badly. The salon was busy. The manager said, ‘Stop running,’ to anyone who was. She asked if Hope could keep an eye on the running while she went to lunch.
‘It’s supposed to be a relaxing place,’ the manager said.
A woman handed Hope a page ripped from Hustler magazine. Hope folded it so only the head of the woman was showing not the motorcycles or the men or her breasts. The woman wanted to be blonde – Hustler magazine blonde. Hope had three clients waiting all with wet hair. An hour later the person doing the Hustler colour asked Hope to check it and as they walked over whispered something about ‘very hot’ and ‘metallic dye.’ They rinsed the woman’s hair and it came out in Hustler-blonde jelly clumps. The manager came over to ask if anyone had been running and looked in the basin and looked at Hope and Hope looked at the jelly blocking the plug hole in the basin. She asked someone to put a conditioning treatment on the woman’s hair for fifteen minutes.
Hope walked through the mall to the staff toilet and threw up and prayed, ‘God, if you get me out of this one I’ll do anything – anything.’ When she got back to the salon the woman’s boyfriend was there. He was huge and wearing a gang patch.
‘For some reason,’ Hope said, ‘it hasn’t taken. We’ll need to do the colour again. We won’t charge you for it.’ She would get herself out of it.
By six o’clock everyone had left the salon except the woman, her boyfriend and Hope. He swung oversized in a chair reading Woman’s Day to them both. By seven o’clock Hope had put up what was left of the women’s hair like a southern belle and she and her boyfriend left smiling.
Hope saw every side of herself in mirror after mirror after mirror as she cleaned up. She washed her hair leaning over a basin and dried it with the music turned off.
That was why it was late and dark when Hope got to Molly’s house. She walked up the path, overgrown with sea grass and flax. She walked across the lawn in the noise of the coast under a full moon in a clear sky and knocked on the glass of the French doors. Molly shouted, ‘Come in,’ and opened the door.
Alex’s girlfriend was at a yoga retreat and Molly’s fiancé had been called in to work.
‘That sounds flash,’ Hope said.
‘Make yourself at home,’ Molly said.
As Hope entered the lounge, walled with books and art, Alex stood up. She took a seat as far away from him as possible in the small dull-lit room.
‘I’m just finishing dinner,’ Molly said as she walked back to the kitchen.
‘We waited for you,’ Alex said, not in a cruel way, ‘Shall I take your coat?’
‘Oh yes,’ Molly shouted from the kitchen, ‘For God’s sake Sasha, take her coat.’
They stood as in a queue and Alex’s hand touched Hope’s arm as he took her coat.
‘She’ll wear it all night otherwise,’ Molly said passing Alex in the doorway, ‘so she can make a quick get-away.’ She carried fresh bread and shouted for Alex to bring the pasta on his way back.
Molly said grace.
‘Isn’t this dreadful?’ Alex asked Hope, throwing a thumb at Molly to indicate he meant the praying.
Molly hit him playfully, still praying with her eyes closed and head down.
‘Honestly,’ Alex said, ‘don’t you think this is dreadful?’
‘You’re the one breaking bread,’ Hope said.
‘Converted for a man,’ Alex said.
‘Jesus,’ Hope said. Alex didn’t mean Jesus.
‘She won’t watch Almodovar any more,’ he said.
‘Probably for the best,’ Hope said and they all laughed.
‘Dig in,’ Molly said.
Hope told them about the jelly clumps and the gang patch and the pornographic picture and said, ‘I prayed.’
‘No atheists in the trenches,’ Alex said and they all laughed. They laughed like they used to laugh together before the engagement and the afternoon tea. Like the teacher was out of the classroom and the cat was away.
When the meal was finished they drank, still sitting at the dining table, and shouted about politics like someone, other than them, was listening.
‘God will look after it,’ Molly said.
‘You don’t really believe that do you?’ Alex said.
‘God will look after it one way or the other,’ Molly said, ‘and for now I’m acting as if I believe that.’
‘You realise how stupid that sounds?’ Alex said, ‘Hope, tell her how stupid it sounds?’
Hope agreed, perhaps because of the wine, that it did, indeed, sound stupid.
‘No stupider than sitting here shouting about it,’ Molly said and laughed and it was made light of again.
They tip-toed at it all night: the wedding, the conversion for the wedding, what she was wearing to the wedding. Just for the sport of it – an exercise in wit-sharpening, like some contest of the privileged classes. No one was trying to change anyone else’s mind – not really.
The seats at the table got uncomfortable and Alex looked at his watch and something broke a bit in the spirit of it all.
‘When does she get back?’ said Hope as if to make sure it was good and broken. So no one thought she was trying to fix it.
‘Tomorrow,’ said Alex, ‘later in the afternoon.’
‘Mmm,’ said Molly and began to clear the table.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Alex said.
‘What?’ said Molly.
Hope stood up, took Alex’s plate and said, ‘How close is the retreat?’
‘About an hour’s drive,’ Alex said. ‘She caught a bus. I’ll pick her up, later in the afternoon – tomorrow.’
Hope nodded and looked at her watch so it looked like it didn’t matter to her and she was just making conversation.
Molly came back into the room with a new bottle of wine and said, ‘Wine?’
Hope looked at Alex and Alex looked at Hope like actors in a Mexican stand-off.
Molly said, ‘For fuck’s sake, come and have some more wine. Everything’s not everything – it’s just a glass of wine.’
Alex and Hope laughed.
‘Well, Jesus,’ Molly said walking unsteadily into the lounge, ‘you never do anything – either of you. You always think everything’s everything,’ she struggled with the wine bottle and the cork screw then handed them to Alex, ‘you’re always like “Oh. Oh. What if this is everything? I better sit here in complete stasis until I find out if it’s everything. Oh, there it goes. It wasn’t.’’’
Alex poured the wine. ‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ he said, ‘I’m glad religion is giving you such clarity and articulation.’
Molly threw a cushion at him and they both laughed.
Hope leaned in the doorway and watched them.
‘Stop looking poignant and come and have a drink,’ Molly said to her and she joined them in the lounge.
They drank and talked. Molly said she believed she was doing the right thing. Alex and Hope said they supported her fully. Molly cried a little and Hope hugged her. Alex said he was only joking before. Hope said, slurring a little, ‘If you do this, you can be sure of your afterlife.’ Alex wasn’t sure how saying that helped. Hope said, ‘On the up side.’ Molly nodded and drank more wine. Alex put on some music and they talked some more and laughed some more and forgot about everything.
The wine ran out and the music stopped and they sat in silence for a while. Molly made a snuffling noise curled up beside Alex on the couch.
Hope said ‘Is she faking?’
Alex poked Molly. She repositioned herself and stayed asleep.
‘She’s faking,’ Hope said, ‘Molly. Molly.’
Molly stayed asleep.
‘Don’t wake her up,’ Alex said.
‘She’s not asleep,’ Hope said. ‘She’s faking.’ Hope stood up to shake Molly. Alex caught Hope’s arm and said, ‘Don’t wake her up.’
The house was quiet.
‘We could go somewhere,’ Alex said.
A key turned in the lock and the door opened. Alex let Hope’s arm go. Molly stirred and woke. Ned came into the lounge and said, ‘Hi Alex – Hope.’ He kissed Molly on the head, she stretched.
‘I’m going to get a coffee,’ Ned took off his coat, ‘Does anyone want a coffee?’
‘I’ll help,’ Hope said and followed him into the kitchen where he sat on a stool and she made coffee. She asked how his night had been and he sighed by way of a reply.
‘How about yours?’ he said.
Hope shrugged then nodded and said, ‘Yeah. Good.’
‘Where’s Alba?’ Ned asked.
‘Yoga retreat,’ Hope said. ‘She gets back tomorrow. Alex is picking her up later in the afternoon.’ She straightened the tea towel that was hanging on the oven handle.
When she came back into the lounge Alex was gone. She tried to hide the fourth mug; ashamed of it – of herself. Like she and the mug were the only things in the world. Hope drank her coffee fast and it burned everything in her mouth – tongue, cheek, gums. She looked at her watch. It was the tilt forward that did it. Hope said, ‘I better go,’ looking up to hold the large tears where they were, to stop them from tipping.
Molly said, ‘Oh Hopie – stay.’
‘No,’ Hope said.
Molly saw Hope to the door and they hugged. Hope stood back and wiped her eyes like she was tired and looked at the wall behind Molly.
‘You two,’ Molly said – or ‘You too,’ Hope wasn’t sure.
‘Your coat!’ Molly went to get it.
Hope walked across the lawn in the sound of the night and the moon. As she drove home she thought maybe Molly had said ‘You to…’ like she was telling Hope where to go – to make everything all right – but it was late now and it made no sense – none of it.
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