In a past life I was a witch. In the recent past I worked in Little Bourke Street as a Rotation Decoy for an Introduction Agency. And today, I recline in a banana lounge reflecting on my newfound serenity and the journey that brought me here.
There I am doing the daily city circuit. On the record, I’m running chores for the office, posting mail and buying supplies – A4 envelopes, a copy of the Truth newspaper, and a bottle of single malt whisky to whet the boss’s whistle. On the B-side, I give the eye to likely looking blokes and slip them a brochure. After a year in this job I’ve really got the hang of it. I catch his eye, pass it, then withdraw into the crowd while glancing over my shoulder. Yeah, I’m a pied piper for men with dormant willies.
The job was advertised as “An opportunity of a lifetime – no experience, no auditions necessary”. The Job Description was less discrete: “Reception duties, office errands, roll playing as generic single women, and general administrative tasks”. I’m curious by nature and enjoy an adventure. How hard could it be playing a seduction game that pays the bills?
I sit in the mall and watch South Yarra Blonde Mums, kids in childcare and voracious for a Myers special; a flock of awkwardly smoking truants with uniforms poking out of school bags; the greasy haired down and outers that I track and trap. The chaos and vulnerability of human flotsam disturbs and bemuses me.
It’s Friday afternoon and I’ve one more hour of client contact back in the office. Malcolm, the boss, gives me the usual “you’re late!” look, with arched eyebrow. I return it with the “do I care?” look, chirp the same old excuse and turn to the adjacent change-room where I slip into ‘the girl next door’ costume; a knee length skirt, V-Neck tee with a glimpse of cleavage, a sandy-blond pony-tail and ‘natural’ make up.
He’s a rugby league player. Josh O’Donnell’s file note reports that he’s “Not smart enough for the girls in his social circles”. His mug shot boasts oversized head, nose, ears and belly. Muttering “No problem too big or too small,” I stride towards the Interview room.
We wenches lived in the forest, farming herbs, fruit-trees and rodents. We chanted to the full moon in our nightslips. When our skills were required we crept through tradesman’s entrances to pull out stuck babies. As a Wiccan I had learned as much about life and death as a homeless person out of sight in a city lane. A nomadic craftsperson from a clan of misfits, I fled persecution aboard a fine tall ship from the Cornwall coast in 1885, as is the colonial way.
Josh is doing the scary on me. He has wet goggle eyes that tell me he is in love with something. It’s not me. It’s his idea that Kylie and Cyndi Lauper are within reach. My skin can’t keep him out, though he’s never going to touch me. I play it cool; head tilted the side, and no eye contact. He asks all the typical questions and my reply is short and sharp. It’s my job to keep him out of reach and wanting.
“Do you like football?” He asks.
“No,” I reply, “I don’t like crowds.”
“I like quiet nights in front of the TV, what about you?” he asks.
“I have an eye disease,” I say.
“What do you like to do?” he asks.
“I make armless cardigans for land-mine victims and I go to a feminist reading group on weekends,” I say.
“I’m really sorry,” he says almost in tears, “You seem like a really nice girl.” I shrug my shoulders and slam the door behind me. I know I’ll see him again. Next time I’ll have short dark hair, glasses and the personality of a shushing library monitor. Again, we’ll have nothing in common. His $200 has bought him 3 introductions, so he can look forward to meeting another classy woman, and next time it might be a perfect match.
It’s six minutes past five and time to bolt. I slam Josh’s file into its pocket in the filing cabinet, turn the lock and start whistling Dixie. I put my dirty coffee cup into the top desk drawer and stand to leave. Malcolm appears from his office. He clears his throat and approaches me, earnest and tipsy. Freeze-frame. What is it this time? What could it be at 5:07 on a Friday? I stop. I turn. I smile.
“Mary-Ann. You’ve done a fab’ job this week. You’ve given meaning and hope to our more desperate customers. You’ve done me proud.” He clears his throat. “I haven’t done this before, but you’ve been here a year and the time has come.” He hands me a lousy fifty.
“Wow,” I say, staring at the cash and wondering what he wants me to do.
“It’s a bonus for a job well done. Have a great weekend.” He shakes my hand and retreats like a man who’s given enough away.
“Wow, fifty bucks,” I say again. Fifty dollars for being a cold bitch, whose only talent is delaying men’s inevitable disappointment. Oh the things I could spend it on – the shoes on lay-by, or a mediocre night out?
Life holds certain things in store for us – it’s written in tealeaves and on the palm of your hand. As I’m walking towards my tram stop the matrix opens. On the footpath, a banana peel, mangled and brown entraps me. My left foot finds it, slurping forward in slow motion. Right foot is out of step and slow to the rescue. Naturally my hand splays out in readiness for a broken arm.
In moments of panic time loses pace. In this instance on Elizabeth Street it halts completely. My shoulders tighten, pull together and lift me up. (There’s always stuff underneath; it bubbles up like sulfur in a mud bath. What’s under must come up). I levitate high enough for my feet to reconvene their partnership. Then I float back to the ground, and recall a dream.
I’m a witch riding a broomstick at 150 metres. I’m giggling like a kid in a three-legged race, butting shoulders with a friend who simulates burnouts and bucking motions on her hotted up model. We’re travelling in tandem to a party-plan for spells.
When I get home I notice signs that my aunt has barricaded herself in the music room again. Charcoal is smoking in the toaster. A bucket of water and a bottle of window cleaner sit by the vacuum cleaner. The curtains are gone, presumably soaking in bleach. Bottles of grout cleaner, Gumption and disinfectant are littered about. The sink is brimming with used rubber gloves.
I sit outside the music room. She’s talking to herself.
“It’s alright, I’m safe in here. Nothing can get in.” It is absolutely true. Nothing can ever get into the music room. I haven’t yet figured out how she and fresh air get in. It’s a bubble-wrapped chamber. Six years ago she employed an expert to hermetically seal it, to prevent all life forms from entering, and most importantly the most discrete of microbes.
The room has been bare since my grandparents died thirty years or so ago. In photos of its heyday there are chandeliers, red brocade curtains, French chaise-lounges, and my grandfather smugly ensconced at the grand piano, conjuring a tune for a rigid audience.
“Are you comfortable in there, Auntie Carrie? Would you like to come out and have a cup of tea?” I sit there for an hour saying things like that, though I know she’ll be there as for as long as it takes.
I stand, thinking about witches, twitching for release. I grill a chop and go to bed.
Before sunrise I go to the market and hand the fifty bucks over to a psychic. She’s had a big Friday night – her eyes are puffy and the crystal ball is cloudy. “Mary-Ann”, she says rolling the r. “Mary-Ann, I can see some turbulence. It’s unfinished business and its rupturing the firmament between your lives.”
Something strange is happening. My fingernails feel dry and itchy and my eyeballs prickle and flicker.
My ex-boyfriend, Tony, phones me. “No Tony, I am not up for the occasional root!”
My boss asks if I’m still single and if I’d like to go to his swingers’ club.
I’m 28 with no prospects. I drive my aunt to mass on Sundays, and I’m not in the touching game.
Josh comes in for his third introduction. After this one my boss will suggest he try something different, “Josh, my friend,” he’ll say, “I don’t think we’ve got the match for you this time around. We’ve introduced every woman who shares your interests, and I’m surprised that none of them suit you. You can try us again in six months, but the fee will be higher.”
For the final meeting I’m a prim schoolteacher. Midway through his first question Josh looks confused, hesitates and then continues. For an instant, he doesn’t look so stupid. Has he recognised me? What can see?
Sitting on the tram, after work, I realise that I’m lonely and agitated. I let the shuffling and bumping of the tram carry me into a meditation. I’m wrapped in a bubble of white light, weightless and air-borne, floating above the city. A flock of penguins fly pass in formation. It’s damp and cool up here. I have an urge to look down but a guiding voice says, “No, Mary-ann, look within”. I see nothing but white, moist fluffiness. I snap out of it, knowing that the tram is nearing my stop.
I awake in sweat, with no memory of the dream. I hear the North Melbourne town hall clock chime mid-night, and I instinctively rise and dress. I cloak myself, lace my doc martens, and slip quietly out the front door.
I wander as if sleepwalking along Pin Oak Crescent, and soon find myself at the foot of a housing estate tower on Racecourse Road. I see a cluster of people huddled in the children’s playground. I walk towards them. Now, I can hear them chanting. They’re gathered cross-legged between slides and swings. I take my place in the centre – my bum-cheeks comfortably nestled in the sand. They pass a terracotta mug from hand to hand, sniff its contents and continue to chant. I can’t see faces or body shapes but I know that there are women, children and men in this group. They’re all cloaked, as I am.
The chanting reverberates through my skull and I bow my head. My body churns. A scream forms in my throat, and I hear a voice pierce the night like a spear.
All is quiet.
I’m handed the clay vessel and cup it in both hands. I alternate sipping and inhaling the slippery fluid, savouring its potency. This life giving elixir, this antidote to my malaise – distilled banana – is as familiar to me as my own skin. The group closes in and releases my cloak and suddenly all hands are touching me. They whisper, “Relax Mary-Ann, let yourself go, open yourself up to the every present spirit.” They rub oil into my skin and I know I’m unpeeling, engorging, erupting.
I bow and give thanks to the gathering and according to custom I leave with haste and discretion.
Auntie Carrie has been gushing like a tapped spring ever since the resurgence of my gift, and today she’s skipping about the house sealing the last of the boxes and sweeping up the detritus of our former life. The removal van arrives. We climb into the EH Station-wagon and wind down the windows, saluting the ‘for sale’ sign that’s overshadowed by the old family home. I’m humming like a bee.
While driving, I mentally formulate the recipe for our first batch of Life Tincture – purified banana oil infused with honey essence. Like rap artists and their nursery rhymes I rehearse a spell and cackle with wry jubilation.
A bubble of excitement rises in my chest when the Big Banana comes into view. I prod Auntie Carrie on the shoulder, noticing the outline of evaporated dribble on the upholstery, and she awakes. “We’re here,” we say in unison. There’s the old building, the relics of a perfume distillery, soon to become Humming Bee Apothecary, our potion factory, (Aunt Carrie has insisted on cleaning products as a side business). Neighbours and passers-by – rainbow-patterned, north-coast hippies and nature lovers – have gathered to greet us.
We climb from the car and I throw open the bulging boot. We have a lot of unpacking to do and work to begin before the sun sets and the fun starts. Aunt Carrie proudly hands me her latest prototype for the cleaning ‘accessory’ range – a svelte spotted-gum handle with mungo bush broom, discretely fitted solar panels and a silent motor. I’m no longer a lost and lonely Girl Friday. I’m no longer the pied piper without a flute.
“Lives,” I say to Auntie Carrie, “are a many splendid and varied thing.”