She could never get over the loneliness that set in when visiting her friends overseas, as she listened to them discuss future events which would occur in her absence. How could her hosts and hostesses plan a life without her, when she, attending guests, made every effort to act as if life could not go on without them, as if they were her everything and would be until the end of time—or, at least, until the end of the visit?
It is never a bad thing to go to somebody’s house expecting a swell dinner party only to have the hostess and her husband descend into a shouting match whereby one or the other or both end up locked in the bathroom. It instils in the guests a strange sense of normality, a feeling that their own arguments perhaps aren’t so bad after all. The guests depart the party deeply satisfied though for a completely different reason than the hosts intended.
But this is only temporary.
As the guests move further and further from the event they will find themselves waking in the night and wondering if they would have the audacity to make such a scene; wondering how it would feel, just once, to let fly of the situation, to stomp their foot and slam a door in public. Aloud, they denounce it— ‘what a drama’ and ‘how embarrasing’ —and dismiss it from conversation, but privately this curiosity clings to their minds like cobwebs to the unused corners of the room.
It is not pleasant to look back at holiday snaps you thought were excellent only to notice that next to you stands a sunburned old man peeling dried skin from his forearm, a woman scratching an infected mosquito bite, or a young boy picking his nose.
It is enraging, until you consider all the cities you’ve visited and all the times you’ve accidentally stood in somebody else’s photos, fixing your hair or scowling at your spouse.
This thought takes hold of you, and thereafter you find yourself looking upon the strangers hovering in your backgrounds—even the young boy picking his nose—almost fondly, as you remind yourself: I am a tourist, too.
Do you have a pet fish? the leggy lady asked the mermaid.
Yes, I have a smelt whose name is Salty, and a pufferfish called Yoyo.
Like yoyo dieting—one moment he’s skinny, the next he’s fat.
Mermaids use that word too?
O, yes. We gain weight very easily, especially when trading with sailors in the summer months. During winter, when we receive few visitors, we are restricted to fish.
Eating fish… isn’t that like eating your pets? Or even your own kind?
No, fish come to us when they are old and offer themselves as sacrifice.
Like you’re gods!
In a way.
I would love to have a pet pufferfish.
The mermaid shrugged. Seals are better, she said.
They are like your dogs. Dutch sailors have a good name for them: zeehond—literally, seadog. But they are much harder to acquire.
Because they choose you.
You’re so lucky, the lady said as she looked down at her thin, scarred legs.
The mermaid suddenly tossed her hair. I must go, she said. I have to find Grumpy.
Wait—I have one more question.
What about your children?
What about them?
How—I mean—are babies easy to bare?
We don’t have babies—think of our figures! There’s a reason you don’t see pregnant mermaids. We lay eggs, only we call them bubbles, like any sensible fish.
Thousands, though only a finful reach adulthood.
How many children do you have?
The lady lowered her eyes. None, she said.
Pity, said the mermaid, easing back into the water.
Will you visit again?
Maybe, depends on my tides.
My mood, said the mermaid. And with a flick of her fins she vanished beneath the waves.
The lady watched the sea until the sun sunk below the horizon. Then she slowly traced the track back over the dunes.
Moments later, my own feet followed, crushing the prints she had made with her small toes.
I watched as she entered a weatherboard house, gently closing the door behind her. After a minute, steam billowed from an open skylight and I could hear the sound of running bathwater.
She finds couches offensive. The notion that she is to park her ass on a piece of furniture, that it will support her and comfort her throughout the day, is ludicrous.
Her husband tells her to just sit, she is blocking the television.
She erupts, he has no idea what it is like, he cannot imagine the stress she endures at home with the couch, let alone when visiting other people’s houses where they expect to her to sit on their couches like it is not extraordinary.
He yells that perhaps she should not visit other people’s houses, that she should sit at home and bake and sew, like a good wife.
She screams that they are not living in bloody caveman times.
He says, no they are not living in bloody caveman times, because if they were living in bloody caveman times there would be no couches.
Every woman has a small, dilapidated mirror hiding in her bathroom.
It may have a porcelain backing, decorated with flowers.
It may have strange remnants from the larger setting that it once belonged to—perhaps an old compact—still hanging from it.
It may be one of those dreaded dual travel sets that contain one normal mirror, and one mirror that magnifies to magnificent proportions.
It may even be cracked.
Every woman has a mirror like this. A secret mirror, used each night to monitor the size of pores and stray facial hairs, to check the back of heads before events or the peculiar mole in the peculiar place.
To clean it is to admit its existence, and so it is usually caked with grime.
It is the most comprehensive witness in the judgement of women, which is why it is concealed in the backs of cupboards, shoved beneath makeup in vanities, routinely slammed between drawers and rarely shared between family or friends.
This is also why it disappears so quickly when a woman dies, lest another person force secrets from its silvery depths…
When the sisters returned home late on a Saturday night, the mother’s first question was always, ‘Have you been drinking?’
‘No, Mother,’ the eldest would reply.
‘No, Mother,’ the youngest would slur.
The mother would then turn to the spaniel, curled on a stool by the window, and say, ‘Isn’t she silly, she thinks we don’t know, doesn’t she? But we do know, don’t we? Yes we do!’
And the spaniel would rhythmically thump its tail against the carpet, appearing to agree.
This prompted the youngest daughter to add one more item to the list of grievances against her mother: ‘I hate it when she talks about me to the dog.’
He could only wear pants from his homeland; only Dutch pants moulded to his slim, tall frame. But he lived in Australia, so when his parents and sister visited they always brought at least three pairs with them. When he visited Holland, he purchased pants while there, too.
His sister wondered, if they stopped bringing pants would he visit Holland more often? So the next time his family flew over, they brought no pants.
But this only made him angry – how could they come all the way to Australia from Holland without bringing pants?
Offended by the anger, his family stopped visiting Australia, that way they had an excuse for the not-bringing of pants, and he had even more reason to visit them there.
Enraged by the lack of pants and the lack of visits to Australia, he stopped visiting Holland – stopped visiting places altogether – and instead sat at home, alone and pantless; while his family remained in Holland, not alone, wearing pants and with so many more styles to choose from.
She likes to anticipate her inclinations and buy things too trendy even for herself.
She inherited this from her mother, who always bestowed birthday presents that preceded her phases. For example, one year she was given dragonfly earrings which weren’t to her tastes at all, but then, six months later, dragonflies had become her thing, and the earrings were perfect.
This is why she has married a blonde man who snowboards, though she has a penchant for brunette businessmen.
She is sure, given the right amount of time, she will grow into him.
When the wife came downstairs the first morning, the sister-in-law was sitting at the kitchen table in her underwear. The wife was not happy about this and tried not to look, which is never easy, as anyone knows who has passed a bloody road accident.
When the wife came downstairs the second morning, her mother-in-law was in the kitchen in her night shirt which ended at the hips. Again, the wife tried not to look, which is never easy, as anyone knows who has seen a couple canoodling on the beach.
When the wife came downstairs the third morning, her father-in-law was sitting at the kitchen table, chewing toast, clad only in white underpants. Once again she tried not to look, which is never easy, as anyone knows who has witnessed a child throw a tantrum in a grocery store.
When the wife came downstairs the fourth morning, she did so in black silk panties, a matching bra and suspender belt complete with stockings. The family tried not to look, which is never easy, as anyone knows who has passed a prostitute on a street corner at lunchtime.
When the wife came downstairs the fifth morning, the kitchen was empty and the house was quiet. Her in-laws had departed the day before, dismayed by their son’s taste in women.