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Camilla Palmer

It is a Wednesday evening, summer is peaking and a hot wind hangs like a wet blanket, still and heavy even at this late hour. Edie Brunhausen, a small woman in her forties, small like a sparrow with hair wound so tightly into a head scarf that it seems to be giving her a non-surgical facelift,sits in the front room of the home she shares with her husband George. It is a ramshackle house whose value has more than tripled since they bought it twenty-two years ago, the third in a line of Victorian terraces that stretch for the length of the street, one barely distinguishable from the other. She has just finished a phone call with a woman who was a friend at university but who she has not been in contact with for over ten years. There is a reunion, the woman said, would she be coming? Edie is sitting on the end of their L-shaped sofa with her elbows propped on her knees holding herself at the shoulders as though it were cold. She is dressed in a silk apricot coloured camisole that falls beneath the knee, one strap has slid off her shoulder and the weight of her breast reveals its curve. She is staring at a painting above the bureau opposite her, an image of a young girl picking apples from a tree. The apples are hard,red and shiny like the toffee apples she used to buy her children. Sitting on one of the branches is a small bird with blue wings and an emerald breast and Edie is wondering if the girl can see this bird or if the painter has meant it to be obscured from her view. Edie bought the painting when she lived in Paris, in her early twenties, before she and George were married. She is still able to recall clearly the little gallery on rue de Courcelles where it had been hanging in the window and how she had walked in and asked the price. It had taken most of the money she had saved from her teaching job but she had happily, and without thinking, handed over her pile of francs. In those days she kept her money in a biscuit tin which she hid in her oven and she had had to walk back to her apartment to collect the money and return with it later thatafternoon. The man who owned the gallery had laughed at her when she had pulled the biscuit tin out from her bag but wasted no time in checking that the amount was correct. As he flicked the notes through his fingers, counting in lots of a hundred, he told her that the artist would soon be famous, the price of his work would skyrocket, a brilliant investment for a young woman like Edie. Of course he was lying; all art is a lie and she had thought his lie fair enough; everyone has to make a living afterall. Besides she had bought the painting not as an investment but for the girl and the small bird with the emerald breast that she could or could not see. Edie could never make up her mind.
Edie gets up from the sofa and fixes the strap over her shoulder. She opens the door to her husband’s office which is the last room at the end of the hall. The door, having been ajar, does not make a sound and for a moment Edie stands silent and still in the doorway, observing the back of George’s neck and the line of his shoulders slumped forward. He looks tired and defeated, ten years older than his actual fifty three. The hair at the back of his head is unruly and sprouting in all different directions, growing of its own will and in parts it is silver where the glow of the lamp falls on greying patches. Edie thinks it must have been atleast two months since he had it cut, perhaps he is growing it, trying to cover the balding areas. Or maybe he just hasn’t realised how he looks, that is more likely. The computer screen in front of him is a carousel of photos that rotate and pause in designated increments; snapshots of George and Edie at Christmas lunch three years ago, a birthday dinner at Lido’s, a photo of Miles and Clotilde’s new baby, Simone tanned and slim lying on a beach somewhere in Indonesia, a man lying beside her whose name they never knew. “George?” His shoulders tighten and he mumbles something but doesn’t turn to face her. He clicks the mouse and the screen changes, rows of numbers that look like ants start moving up and down the page, sums and amounts that mean nothing to Edie. She is used to this, him changing the screen whenever she enters the room in order to look in the middle of something.She doesn’t know how long he sits there staring at those wilting numbers, at all the money which is filtering out of their bank account like blood escaping out a bullet hole but he must stay like that, she thinks, for hours and hours, contemplating the mess. George doesn’t know that Edie checks the accounts herself when he isn’t there and she knows he prefers the darkness of concealment to the glaring light of a revealed truth. Sometimes she wonders if it isn’t really quicksand that is pulling them in, deeper and deeper.
“Can you help me move the fold-out into the guest room?” There had been other secrets before this but they had been younger then and it had felt different somehow or she had felt different, she wasn’t sure. She hadn’t broached the subject then and it was never spoken about after it had ended. The whole thing had taken the shape of a boat, silently coming in to shore where it sat for however many months before silently going back to sea, receding into the horizon. There’d also been babies then and it was easier just to turn a blind eye. She had thought about confronting him; yelling at him would make her feel good she had thought. But it wouldn’t change a thing and if she left, she had told herself, it would then be her that had done wrong. Sometimes she thought about punching him, kicking him in the groin so hard that his physical anguish levelled the insurmountable depth of hers but the anticipated pleasure seemed demented and frightened her and eventually she stopped thinking about it altogether. An affair will dent the protective shield of any marriage, it will cause cracks to appear but if Edie had reacted then the whole thing would have fallen apart and the children would have suffered unnecessarily. She and Miles had been those children and she knew how much they had suffered in the wake of their father’s absence, when he started a whole new family, had children who shared some part of her genealogy but whom she still did not know. The pain dulls but it is always with her; at a bank or in an airport when she sees someone whose nose slopes in the same way as hers, whose gait has the same ambling quality as her father’s and it is easy to imagine that it is her sister or her brother. No-one in life escapes guilt’s wrath but one can decide how it is acquired, what they are able to live with and so she stayed. Eventually the affair ended. One day the boat was there, the next it wasn’t and nobody explained why, questions were not asked. In a way they had grown closer than ever after it ended. Tenderness returned, he paid attention again and they made love every day for months like they had in the beginning. He would wake her at dawn and her body would respond, giving itself to him in her half-sleep. They had spent six weeks travelling through Europe, all four of them and money wasn’t a problem. It was whilst they were staying in Paris, staying with a colleague of George’s who worked at the embassy that Edie had found out she was pregnant. It would have been their third child, a boy that she had wanted to name Pierrot. But the baby died in her womb after six months and there was an emergency operation, the baby was removed and Edie never asked how it had happened or why. It wasn’t so much that she accepted it but that her insides went numb. It didn’t occur to her to ask. On a morning after the operation, when George and the doctor had thought her asleep, George had asked Doctor, why did the baby die but the doctor couldn’t give George an answer except to say sometimes it happens with women of this age, there can be no explanation. George had tried to continue, to ask the doctor again and push him for some explanation,Surely there must be some reason but Edie had stirred beneath the stiff hospital sheets and George knew to stop talking, to respect her right to repress. That was the way she had put it to him when he had asked her why she hadn’t yet cried, that it was her right to repress it. The doctor had come to her bedside the morning after they had removed the boy from her womb and checked that all the machines connected to her were as they should be. He looked over the top of his glasses at the tube hanging from the drip bag and checked the drips were dripping at the right intervals and then he looked down at Edie and his eyeballs loomed like moons over the horizon of his lenses and asked her did she need anything and she answered no and he had left the room.  
“Why do you want it moved now? It’s late.” He turns only his torso to face her and in three quarter profile, with the dim light casting down the lines of his face and the deep furrows beneath his eyes, he looks used and old. In his undershirt the paunch of his belly protrudes, like a captured animal lying dead in a sack and he is wearing his old pair of glasses with the small crack in the left lens. To Edie her husband appears at this moment like a person one might encounter in a halfway house or a hostel for the homeless.
“Don’t you remember, Miles and Clotilde are coming tomorrow? I need you to help me move it into the guest room so the kids have somewhere to sleep.” George sighs but gets up anyway and follows his wife down the hall. George dreads the visits from Miles and Clotilde but never says so to his wife which is not to say that she doesn’t know. The sibling intimacy between Miles and Edie had always been a disquieting threat to George and,Edie assumed, to Clotilde also. George had claimed for years that Clotilde was jealous of Edie. He dreadsClotilde’s futile attempts at forming an alliance with him as though this will reinstate a balance that has been lost. But George is the only child to parents who facilitated hismaterial comforts at the expense of his soul. George describes his father as cold to the touch, his mother as brittle, he can’t remember them ever cuddling him or smothering him with kisses the way Edie had done with Simone and Emmanuelle. Besides he doesn’t speak French and Clotilde’s accent when she does speak English is so thick that he spends most of his time watching her mouthin a vain attempt at deciphering the sounds passing out of it. The worst are the times when Edie, Miles and Clotilde all speak French and George, feeling like theidiot of this four-person village, busies himself by changing a lightbulb, cleaning the barbecue, checking the dogs have enough water in their bowl.
“What time do they get in?” George’s voice strains as he walks backwards whilst Edie tries to manoeuvre her end of the fold-out through the doorway. She needs him to come back and to the left a little.
“Eight-thirty in the morning but there was a lot of snow at Charles de Gaulle this morning so I imagine they’ll be delayed.” Miles and Clotilde live in Paris where she works as a buyer for an important fashion house whose name means nothing to George but which when mentioned at a dinner party inspires an ooh or an aah from others. Miles is a writer who occasionally writes pieces for the French newspapers, mainly Le Monde. Occasionally something appears inTheNew York Times. Edie buys every newspaper that publishes his work, often waiting weeks for the papers to arrive from overseas, butbecause George can’t read French Edie must translate every line, sometimes getting stuck at a turn of phrase or colloquialism that ‘only makes sense in French but I guess you could say it this way’ before giving her own translation which remains even then a mystery. George regardless nods and smiles and tries to look generally interested; as far as he can tell Miles writes about culture and society but after all these years he still can’t be sure, maybe it’s health and science.
“Let’s put it down under the window there.” They shuffle under the weight and as they bend their knees to lower the fold out on to the floor George lets out a strained groan before standing straight again and pressing his hands in to his lower back.“You should really go and see that physio again. It helped the last time, it couldn’t hurt.” George nods and starts to pull up the cushions so that they can make the bed. She knows he won’t go to the physio but implied compliance hasalways been hismodus operandi.“I’ll call them next week.” Edie leaves the room and goes to their bedroom to get fresh bedlinen from the bottom drawer of a large chest that sits beside a bamboo rack where she hangs her scarves.When she goes back to the spare room the cushions are stacked in a neat pile on the floor beside the fold-out which has been extended so that it is now an unmade bed. Edie begins making the bed, the cotton sheets are so crisp and fresh that domestic bliss wafts briefly about the room, the scent of an attempt not yet thwarted. The smell reminds Edie of life when she was small, four or five, and Miles had gone to school and she would follow her mother about the house as she made the beds and did her morning chores. Her mother would flick the bed sheets so that the cotton clapped and then hovered above the bed like an autumn leaf, long enough for Edie to run and dive under it before it fell upon her and she was smothered and giggling in her own bliss. Edie tucks the last corner in to the underside of the mattress before throwing a duvet over the bed making it look like a small garden of yellow, blue and crimson posies. She arranges the pillows and for a moment surveys the bed, smooths out a crease and re-fluffs a pillow. She lies down on the bed and sinks her turbaned head deep amongst the pillows.
Some hours later she wakesup, her scarf has slid of her head and lies crumpled amongst the pillows. Sitting upright on the bed she rubs her eyes which feel dry and itchy. Something woke her, a noise from outside, something hit the window and she gets up to check but the window is open and the only sound is that of a passing car. She smooths the sheets again and leaves the room, switching the lamp off as she goes. It is that twilight hour, not day and not night but a suspended moment, a pseudo-dimension. The light from George’s study illumines the hallway so that her shadow casts itself across the floor and up the wall. In a few hours there will be the smell of expensive perfume and new calf skin luggage here. She stands in the doorway and sees George slumped forward on the keyboard and she leans against the door frame for a moment watching him sleep. She moves forward to rouse him, to tell him to come to bed. It is like this almost every night now. She walks up behind him and smiles at a photo of Emanuelle on her wedding day hovering in the screen. Now shesees the metal barrel that had been obscured from her view just a moment ago and then George’s finger still on the trigger and blood still moving in a slow procession out of the hole at the side of his head. She notices the way his bottom lip hangs limp and dares not look in to his eyes, instead she attends the row of letters being connected by wells of red and watches as a pool of coagulating blood swells and fills the spacebetween U and Y.


Camilla Palmer writes short fiction and paints portraits. She will complete her BA Arts at UNSW this year, with a major in French and English and will begin her Honours in Creative Writing in 2011. She was the winner of the Best Open Fiction award in the Unsweetened competition. She lives with her husband in Sydney, Australia.
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