Open For Inspection

Open Short Story.jpg

Elizabeth took a colour flyer from the well-groomed real estate agent.

‘Name and a contact number please?’ the woman asked.

‘Mrs Smith,’ said Elizabeth, then before the woman could ask further, ‘Harriet Smith.’

Well someone had to actually be named Smith, there were pages and pages of them in the
phone book.

It was more a mansionette than a house. Elizabeth passed it every weekday on the bus to work and had often wondered who lived there. Double front doors led into an impressive entrance hall.
It was bare except for a large rubber plant and an enormous framed print, the sort they had in cafés. Retro, Elizabeth thought they called them. The house reminded her of a museum, there were Persian rugs and artwork everywhere.

The living room was smaller than Elizabeth might have expected and there was no sign of a television set. It made Elizabeth somehow uncomfortable, but then she found it hidden inside an armoire—like an incontinent aunt in a nursing home. It was books that took pride of place here, an entire wall full of them. Elizabeth glanced at the titles: The Philosophy of Romantic Love, The Shock of the New, and The Andy Warhol Diaries. She pigeonholed the owners easily: arty farty intellectuals. He was probably a lawyer and she was a teacher. On the side table she stopped to look at a group of frames. If she were selling a home she would be sure to hide such evidence of herself. Seems he had a beard and dark hair, she was blonde, or at least chose to be. Three kids.

   In the kitchen the fridge was covered in children’s drawings. There was also a photocopied enlargement of a birth notice from The Age. ‘Welcome to the world baby Chloe (7lb. 7oz.) from mum Helen, dad Henry and your brother and sisters: Ethan, Samantha and Lily.’ It was dated from the month before. They were probably looking for a larger home.

   To one side of the kitchen was an old style laundry where a clothes horse squatted, burdened with a Hills Hoist’s worth of garments, all small. No nappies, she noticed. They probably used disposables, everyone did these days; apparently. On the washing machine was an empty baby capsule, wool lined. It was the sort that locked into a cradle in the back seat of a car. Well they couldn’t have gone too far, perhaps having a cup of tea with one of the neighbours, she thought. Elizabeth had a quick peek into the dining room, then started for the stairs.

   There was a series of prints along the staircase wall, one atop the other. They were of children’s faces, scribbled lines, messy but nice. Elizabeth looked at the signatures at the bottom of each one. They were all by the same artist, H Johnston. Impulsively she went back down the staircase and into the dining room. In her haste, she almost bumped into a couple coming the other way. The woman was conspicuously pregnant. On the large dark wooden table Elizabeth found the sale documents. The vendors were listed as Henry and Helen Johnston. One of them was an artist. How interesting, she thought, looking at all the artwork more closely, as she resumed her tour of the house.

   The bedrooms were all upstairs. An ensuite came off one side of the master bedroom. There were pictures in here too. A seascape and three box-like frames displaying shells. The walls were painted green and the towels were a darker shade of the same colour. It was spotless, shiny, perfect. A walk-in closet completed the area; her clothes ran along one side, his along the other. The three room configuration was about the same size as Elizabeth’s entire home. Could a bungalow out the back of someone’s block be called a home? she wondered. Well whatever it was called, it was all Elizabeth had.

   More people had arrived by now, and Elizabeth had to squeeze past a gay couple coming into the closet. Soon there may be male clothes on either side of the wardrobe, she thought. Elizabeth hoped there were some genuine buyers in amongst the sticky beaks like herself. Before going downstairs she stopped to imagine a life such as this. If Charles hadn’t been riding that day, on his new aluminium-framed bicycle, would she have had this perfect life? Of course she’d married far too late to have so many children. One would have been nice.

   What on earth did people do before Google? Hire private detectives, Elizabeth supposed as she typed in the names and the word artist. She looked around, suddenly wary of being in a public library. No one was paying her the least bit of attention. There was a Helen Johnston doing a PhD at Sydney University in art history and a Henry someone or other in Perth who ran an artistic floral arrangement business. The person she was after was towards the bottom of the list: Helen Johnston, Melbourne artist. The pictures on the gallery web site were similar to the ones Elizabeth had seen on the stairway wall, scribbled faces. Hurriedly she read the short biography, then wrote down the name and address of the gallery on the back of her bus ticket. They closed at five. If she caught a cab, she just might make it.

   The woman at the gallery was a clone of the real estate agent from that morning, except she wore a brighter shade of lipstick.

   ‘Can I help you with anything?’ she asked.

   ‘Yes, I’m interested in the work of Helen Johnston.’

   ‘Are you a friend of Helen’s?’

   ‘An acquaintance,’ Elizabeth replied without thinking.

   ‘I don’t know how she does it,’ the woman said. ‘A new baby and still finding time to draw. I believe the etchings are on hold for the time being. Acid and babies, aren’t a good combination.’

Elizabeth laughed nervously. What was she doing here? She couldn’t afford to buy art. She dug her hands deeper into her coat pockets, fingering the frayed edges of the lining. But the gallery woman was already pulling out a number of framed pictures from the storeroom and lining them up against the wall.

   ‘I like these ones best,’ she said. ‘They have an immediacy that is quite compelling.’

   ‘Yes,’ replied Elizabeth. She couldn’t draw a straight line, not without a ruler.

   ‘Quite reasonably priced too. I’ve told Helen she should mark them up. We women undervalue ourselves, don’t we?’

   ‘Yes.’ Before she dared ask, Bright Lips volunteered the information.

   ‘The larger ones are $900, but the small ones are only $500. They’re a steal really.’

   ‘I’ll have to think about it.’ Elizabeth responded.

   The following Saturday, Elizabeth arrived at the house fifteen minutes before it was due to open for inspection. She saw the family leaving on foot, as she’d suspected. The baby was in a double pram, with a sister beside her. Elizabeth couldn’t make out Helen’s face, it was hidden beneath a wide brimmed hat, but no one would have guessed from her figure that she’d just had a baby. A small child of about four walked behind them, tearing at a slice of white bread. Every now and again she stopped to drop a crumb or two onto the pavement, like she were in a fairytale. Father and son followed a short distance behind.

   Elizabeth watched as they turned the corner. She hadn’t moved in a herd like that since school. She saw herself then, long hair, no make up, jeans and oversized jumpers. She fancied herself fat at the time. If she’d known then what she knew now, she would have made the most of being a size ten, worn her clothes tighter and her skirts shorter.

 

Two days before the auction Elizabeth received a small package in the mail. Excitedly she tore open the plastic mail bag. Perhaps I’ve won something, she thought, or it could be a belated birthday present. It was a free faecal test kit from the Cancer Council; almost a birthday present, for she’d received it precisely because she had recently turned fifty. ‘Lucky me,’ she said out loud. It wasn’t something she’d ever thought to test for, but cancer did frighten her. Her father had died of lung cancer, common enough in men of his generation. With her mother it had been emphysema.

   Elizabeth’s bathroom was cold. The slat window let in a lot of air. The strip heater above the bathroom cabinet didn’t stand a chance. It was like trying to warm the ocean with a kettle full of hot water. As she read the instructions, Elizabeth remembered another test she’d done in a different bathroom, and the excitement that had followed.

   If she and Charles were surprised at the results, it was nothing compared to her doctor. Pregnant, for the first time at forty-one: no IVF, no special herbs or diets. ‘Remarkable,’ he’d said.

‘Call me old fashioned,’ Charles had replied ‘but I like to do these things by traditional means.’ Elizabeth recalled the laughter in his voice. He would have made a terrific father.

   Her morning sickness was debilitating. Morning, afternoon and evening Elizabeth felt nauseous. Even the thought of food made her queasy. Charles made dinner for himself and ate alone in the kitchen every night. It was only after the dishes were done, and all food cleared away that he would come to sit with Elizabeth in the living room, holding her hand while they watched television.

   After two months the morning sickness suddenly stopped. Elizabeth and Charles were both relieved and celebrated by ordering pizza. Elizabeth even indulged in a small glass of red wine. But her next visit to the obstetrician brought terrible news. She still carried the guilt of having unknowingly rejoiced at the death of her unborn child.

   ‘Chances are it was an unhealthy foetus,’ the obstetrician said. ‘The body deals with these things as nature intends.’ He didn’t need to tell them that at their age, another pregnancy, a healthy one at least, was unlikely.

 

It rained on auction day. Elizabeth huddled in the carport of the house with all the other would-be buyers. The well-groomed real estate agent was playing handmaiden to the auctioneer, who was clearly the one in charge. He wore a loud tie and a ridiculous red-faced grin. Elizabeth wondered where Helen and the rest of the family were.

   ‘Since you’re all shy I’ll start the bidding at $900,000,’ the auctioneer boomed, when things were slow to start. Do I hear nine-fifty?’

   Elizabeth had not intended to bid, but when no one else was forthcoming she raised her hand.       ‘Thank you madam, I have $950,000, do I hear one million?’

   He did not.

   It seemed Elizabeth wasn’t the only sticky beak in the neighbourhood. The well-groomed real estate agent sidled up to the other people from her list, encouraging them to bid. Elizabeth watched as one after the other they shook their heads; then before she knew what was happening, she found herself being taken inside the house to meet the vendors.

   ‘Your bid is well below the reserve,’ said the auctioneer ‘but you’re first in line to negotiate with the owners. They’re a terrific couple. She’s an artist.’

   ‘Is that so?’ Elizabeth responded. Her heart was pounding. Surely they could tell she was a fake. But no, she was introduced to Henry and Helen and they shook hands politely. Helen asked if she’d like a cup of tea and Elizabeth said she would, thank you very much. Then she felt something move beside her.

   ‘Hello,’ said a small voice, ‘friend of Mummy.’ It was the little girl she’d last seen dropping breadcrumbs. At the time Elizabeth hadn’t noticed the child’s distinctive features, the eyes slanted upwards, the flat face and the wispy hair.

   ‘Hello, I’m Elizabeth. What’s your name Sweetie?’

   ‘My name is Samantha, I’m six. How old are you Liz-beth?’

   ‘Samantha, come and help Mummy in the kitchen,’ Helen said.

   ‘Bye-bye, I have to go now Liz-beth.’

   ‘Good-bye Samantha, it was nice to meet you.’

   The auctioneer began to speak even before the child had left the room. He told Elizabeth the house was worth one point two at least.

   ‘I couldn’t possibly go over a million,’ she said. ‘Most of my money is tied up in shares.’ She stood up to leave, ‘I don’t want to waste your time.’

   ‘Nonsense,’ said the auctioneer, ‘not if you come to the party and make a reasonable offer.’    Elizabeth didn’t like this talk of parties and she didn’t like him, he was a bully. He reminded her of Charles’s work mate who’d dropped off a box of her husband’s belongings after the accident and then tried to sell her life insurance.

   ‘Charles didn’t have any and look how it’s left you,’ he’d said. ‘You don’t want to run the risk, now you know better.’

   She wanted to say something about gates and horses bolting, but was struck dumb by his insensitivity. It wasn’t long before the house was repossessed. Elizabeth missed the bathroom the most: the Italian tiles, the ducted heating and the fluffy towels. She still had the towels but they were faded and scratchy now.

 

In bed and in the dark, Elizabeth thought about her day. What an adventure it had been. She still couldn’t believe she’d bid for the house, and met Helen herself and that sweet child. Then on the Monday, on her way home from work she noticed a sold sign on the board out front of the Johnston’s home. Someone from the well-groomed real estate agent’s list must have come to the party. She pictured the red-faced auctioneer dancing with his handmaiden and smiled to herself.

Elizabeth cooked a proper dinner that evening, meat and vegetables. Afterwards she hung a towel over the rattley slat window and ran a deep bath. She found the stub of a dusty candle under the kitchen sink and secured it to a floral saucer with a dribble of hot wax. Elizabeth sat in the bath, warm and relaxed, watching the flickering light on the ceiling. Next weekend she would go back to the gallery that sold Helen’s work, and buy a small etching of Samantha, if they had one. She’d reshuffle her budget. She could easily put off buying a new winter coat for another year or two. The holes in the lining weren’t such a bother. She only remembered they were there when she found the tissues she’d put in the pockets, small and crumpled, following her like breadcrumbs.

This story was first published in All Windows Open & Other Stories.

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