Short story by Michael Botur
You tell your wife you’re going out to pick up paint swatches to get the right peach tone for the walls of the conservatory. You got a twenty thousand dollar bonus last year and you don’t have kids and there’s only so many statues you can put in your front yard. May as well spend some more money. You don’t tell your wife that Angel wants to meet in the park and lay under a Norfolk pine and talk about her kundalini. She wants to crumble twigs and whistle with bits of straw and stroke her guitar and twiddle her feet and observe tourists and talk about the Boddhisattva vow and tell you her plans for a line of designer t-shirts she’ll sell for $89 each if she can just find the right supplier for the fabric. She sings silly rhymes and strums clumsy notes and gifts you a daisy chain and all you can think is, I prayed we would become friends, and we did. If I pray harder, we could be something more. Angel wouldn’t fret about paint swatches. Angel would skip down the aisles of the hardware store flinging the Dulux colour swatches like confetti.
Angel gets one $200-paying role out of every 20 auditions she goes to. She prances in front of casting directors, shaves half of her head if she wants to stand out, fills her handbag with club sandwiches from the catering trolley, plays amongst the heavy black curtains, half not giving a shit, half-hoping to impress the casting directors. They don’t give her much work, these so-called talent agencies. No one seems to want Angel but the activist groups that pick her up in vans and take her to government buildings. And you. You’re on good money. You should build a stage for her, a theatre. A museum should be built in her honour. She is everything you want in a wife. She’s not your wife, though.
After the secret occasion in the park, the next session you have with her is on Thank Your Theatre Day. TYTD was a big deal when all of you were Freshies at university, making coffees by day and spilling beer at night, staging wild monologues with no microphone, getting quotes tattooed on your arms. Each year out of university, another actor is lost to advertising and pregnancy and getting married or volunteering in Calcutta, and you meet up once a year and gossip about these people. Calcutta settles down and changes its name, and so do you, and so do your theatre friends. Just not Angel.
TYTD this year is a breakfast celebration. Everyone gathers in the garden shed Angel is renting. Angel is still in bed when you enter, she’s clearly forgotten she invited everyone around. She sits up and stretches, airing her fuzzy armpits, takes a rubber band off a gig poster she was meant to put up and ties her curly brown hair back. Her skin stinks of smoke. Thick, sticky curls escape from the hair tie. She swings her legs out of bed and tells the gathering of former actors and poets and ballet dancers she’s ready to go, still wearing the vintage dress she slept in. There are bottles of paint and canvases underfoot, and three sewing machines and buckets of glitter and glue and beads and gold dust and fragments of obsidian and about 10 white-capped pharmacy bottles. There are no chairs, so people who aren’t performing a soliloquy this morning have to sit on the bed with Angel. The bed sags and creaks. She rummages through an ashtray, breaking open roaches and cigarette butts to see if there’s anything smokeable left in them. You all recite pieces of work from shows you did three years ago, before you all stepped off the stage and went to work in skyscrapers.
Crispin and Inez go outside to smoke and Angel is summoned into the main house to have an argument with her flatmates, who are getting pissed off about your loud dramatic voices. The flatmates have ties on, half-tucked dress shirts, pieces of toast and cellphones. They’re getting ready to go off to their jobs. They’re temps from Switzerland and Germany, all of them, desperate to hold onto their work visas. Angel’s la-la-la lifestyle insults them.
Angel absorbs her telling-off, comes back across the lawn without food or coffee for you or the other guests, scraping her bare toes on the grass sadly. She asks Reina for something to smoke and Reina scampers out to her car to find her rolling papers and never returns. The other couple of actors follow the outgoing tide and get off the bed, which rises, and Angel flops on her back and strokes your hand.
‘I think we’re alone now,’ she says, flipping your hand over. ‘There doesn’t seem to be anyone arou-ound. They came to me, those words, you know. What’s your name again?’
You remind her and she tosses your name in the air, rhymes it, makes a jingle out of it. Her accent is like a child trying language for the first time, rolling each word over her tongue like a lolly. She makes you feel like you’re the first human introducing your civilisation to an alien. She’s not like this when she’s taking her medication. The meds iron her flat until her voice is robotic and her chains of thought are logical.
She opens your fingers and traces your palm and tells you your fortune. Your phone vibrates, interrupting. It’s your manager calling, and you try to text him with one hand while a brief touch of Angel’s nose against your other hand melts through your skin and makes your blood fizz. You can’t concentrate enough to text Jitesh and tell him you’ll be late. This could hurt your career, but it is worth it. God would rate this more highly. He named her Angel for a reason.
You’re the last two left. You have TYTD all to yourselves. You dredge up a monologue you once wrote about logging the rainforests of Borneo for palm oil. She finishes scribbling poetry on her left arm with a biro then says, ‘You done?’ Her monologue is about how many cocks she can fit in her pussy at once. You’re 99 per cent sure she’s being ironic. She’s as much a performance artist as Peaches or Sia or Nicky Minaj. You force yourself to laugh along. One reads, the other lies foetal on the bed. The shed is all yours. You think maybe you’ll kiss, maybe you’ll divorce and quit your job and move to Paris, then Angel stands up, distracted, furiously scratching the back of her head, blinking and moaning, ‘My brain hurts,’ Monty Python-style. Again you force yourself to laugh. She asks you to check the weird lumpy thing buried inside her curls. You memorise the smell of her hair as you peer inside the soft darkness. Looks like a bed bug has bitten the back of her head and you panic and start pulling apart the rolls of fat on your tummy, searching for insect bites. No bed bugs, but about six fleas have bitten you since you sat down here.
You go out onto the lawn. Angel steals a Cuban cigar from her flatmate Elsa’s Travel Memories Box and smokes it. She’s looking to move house, she says, and you almost tell her she doesn’t have to live in a shed, composing a poetry zine letter by letter on a 1940s typewriter. You almost tell her she’d be welcome to crash at your place in The Rivers, if this was another dimension and your wife didn’t exist.
A thousand creative bees buzz around the Black Hole. It’s open mic night. Under the umbrellas, each table has a jam jar with a candle in it, and the walls are made of red bricks covered in ivy, and the smoking area is indistinguishable from the non-smoking area. People step onto the stage to perform spoken word covers of Black Flag protest songs, or to stand silently for 113 seconds to protest 113 journalists murdered in Nicaragua. Three hours into the night, Angel steps up, tries to play violin, although her violin is technically a viola, then she says she’s switching instruments, tripping over cords while she tries to find which guitar case is hers. She needs to earn $19 to pay for beer and wedges. She begged the barman to let her run a tab. You call up to the stage, try to tell her she’s holding her guitar the wrong way round and she giggles and says she’s paying homage to left handed guitarists Johnny Hendrix, Tony Iommi and Kurt… ummm? What’s his name? Her brain hurts, she moans, scratching her bug bite then plunging into a wild song. Her lyrics seem to be impulsive rhymes, the kind of nonsense you’d babble to a baby, it’s hard to tell what her song means. Is it about you? She has to mention you. Her words are not really Dylanesque like they were back in the starving-actor days, they’re just nonsense now. Her voice is light and thin and basic. She sings ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and no one laughs then she climbs down from the stage and she’s immediately replaced by the MC while she tours the tables, rattling the karma hat, hoping for coins. There have been nights here when people couldn’t get enough of her. There was that week when her performance of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ seemed a metaphor for what was happening to black lives in America, and people stuffed the hat with bank notes and she held them up to the light, in disbelief, checking for a watermark. Tonight, no one puts any money in the hat except you. You have to chuck $50 in there to keep her afloat. You stay with her till closing time. She sells her underwear to a hobo for five bucks. She drags her bare feet and painted toenails around the pub, guitar case banging into tables, head down, scanning the ground for dropped coins. She doesn’t need a lift, says she’s going with That Guy, nodding at some guy cloaked in shadow you hadn’t noticed.
You speed home because it’s after midnight and you have to get up for work at six. You pull your dinner out of the microwave and scoff it cold and shower and try watch one of those Lars von Trier films Angel says she adores. You’re trying to school yourself on them so you never run out of conversation. You fall asleep in front of the TV. A courier wakes you at seven, pounding on the door. He needs a hand unloading the Pompeii Deluxe porcelain fountain that puts out violet light and plays Mozart when you walk past. It cost almost $4000. You only ordered it so you and your wife would have something to talk about.
Angel is now homeless because she tried to sublet the shed, inviting some men to live in it and pay her rent directly. The men robbed the house, cleaned out all the Germans’ passports; Angel put in a claim saying they stole her guitar, too, and now the police want to talk to Angel about insurance fraud. She moves to the greyest, most grassless part of the city centre to live in an apartment among Starbuckses and ATMs and homeless people and pubs with puke on the steps and buildings so tall you can’t see the weather. She’s among beggars and sewer grates and paving stones and smokers and nice shirts and people shoving newspapers in your face. In one of her texts, she says she’s got eczema from sleeping on a mattress she found in a dumpster, and you tell her you’ll pay if she needs to see a doctor, and she says she’ll never ever set foot in another clinic, vaccinations cause autism, but thanks for offering the money. Can she spend it on something else, maybe?
I’ll take you shopping, you tell her. Just us two, eh?
You get 42 hours a week at home. Some of those hours, you spend on your new $5200 ride-on lawn mower. What with going out at dinner time to support Angel and the nights without sleep, you don’t have time to push a mower around a thousand square metres of yard and really, $5200 is the best price the ride-on will be for a long time. A man would be stupid not to buy it. It’s a top of the line machine, gets your lawn done in 26 minutes. Sitting atop the vibrating pile of blades and green metal, you sweat and your teeth clatter. Your lawn is over soon enough, and the remaining hours of weekend seem empty and limitless, and you sit there playing with the lumps of doughy fat crowding your belly button, thinking about the years you spent starving, how you swore you’d never work in an air conditioned office for eighty kay a year, how you photocopied cheeseburger coupons and felt like a criminal mastermind, how a hatful of karma coins was better than any salary.
Angel tells you she’s going to run the Bay 2 Bay half marathon and raise a thousand dollars for leukemia research. The event starts in 45 minutes. So proud, you text her. Course Il b there. You tell your wife you don’t have time to look at spa pools today, you’re going to get some exercise. You jiggle a gym bag, and she says without looking up from her Kindle, ‘If you must.’
Angel actually goes through with the half-marathon pledge, surprisingly. You follow in your car, metres from the route of the run. You look out for a little streak of grey smoke. Angel may be the only person in marathon history who’s smoked cigarettes while racing. Actually, she’s not racing. She’s strolling, arms linked with two Japanese tourists, enjoying cigarettes from one of the tourist’s bumbags. When she gets bored of the race after an hour, she crams free protein shakes into her t-shirt-pouch, finds a bed of pansies under an oak tree and lies down in them and sleeps while you sit on a bench, guarding her.
She awakes, claps, sings the national anthem, pulls her shoes off and sprints towards the beach. Years ago, God made her with hard breasts which used to stick out strong and bouncy. Now all she has is dark brown nipples so cold in the wind they’re almost black, nipples and white ribs and dark stripes between each rib. She races across hard, black sand, her weightless body leaving light, shallow footprints. You want to pour plaster into every footprint and take it to your museum. You know her waist measurement and her cup size and her blood type, now you add her shoe size to your file. She throws her Give Peace A Chance t-shirt into the wind. She bellows, ‘INDIGENOUS SOVEREIGNTY FOREVER, WAAAHOOO!’ She whirls around and extends a hand and you go to waltz with her before she tackles you into the surf, straddling you for a second, trapping you in her rib cage, then hurls herself into the waves.
You get home and your wife asks over the intercom why you’re lurking in the garage in wet clothes, stroking the truck you spent $45,000 on mostly so you don’t have to borrow a trailer when you need to pick up pieces of outdoor furniture. You trudge inside, sit on the couch beside your wife, wait for some snarky comment you can respond to, and she frowns and puts a cushion over her crotch. ‘Hell-ooo?’ she says, pausing the TV, ‘If you want to live in the garage, go live in the garage.’
The Black Hole is fairly low-key until Angel storms in, riled up from today’s protest even though she got let off with a warning for trying to do that citizen’s arrest on that cop. She tells a popular tall guy to get off his bar stool and sits on the stool and crushes a molly in front of a circle of astonished actors with good haircuts. She puts her face on the table and sniffs the crushed tablet and within a minute she’s lecturing these white colonial occupiers about how they need to check their privilege.
Angel is white too, but she wants her people to reject her, and she nudges a busker off stage and demands her REAL people get their land back, and segues into a rant about Ralph Abernathy and Sitting Bull and Trayvon Martin and Ken Saro-Wiwa and her friends try to put a blanket around Angel’s shoulders, then she’s scratching the face of that model she once pashed all night on a dance floor and she’s doing the My Brain Hurts bit again, My brain huuurts, It hurrrts, and holding onto the door frame so the huge ginger bartender with the tattoos on his throat has to come around and spray a can of lubricant on her fingers and nudge her with his belly till she gets sucked out into the chilly black vacuum and it’s all headlights and whooshing buses and broken beer bottles and Angel sees teenagers in a car hassling a hooker and she’s marching across the road, crawling onto the boys’ bonnet, stomping their windscreen with her bleeding feet, holding onto the windscreen wipers, disappearing into the night screaming ‘Wheee.’
You get home at 1am, sit on the breakfast bar while your dinner heats up. In the light of the microwave you proofread the lyrics for the space opera she’s written. She’s handed you 200 pages. You promised you’d give her some feedback by tomorrow. She won’t remember, but you will. It won’t be a long night. There won’t even be a night. You’ll stay awake till dawn then leave for work before your wife gets up.
With a truly memorable art exhibition, Angel will pay off all the overdrafts, all the credit cards, all the debt collectors who forced her to relocate in the middle of the night. Charge enough of an entry fee and that’s all of Angel’s expenses over the next six months paid for, too.
Every one of her 1850 Facebook friends is invited to InsAngel: The Exhibition, held in a former water tower on top of a hill. She sets the admission fee at $8, decides at the last minute that the money’s all going to Women’s Refuge, but no one believes that. You want to tell her that no one carries eight bucks with them, tell her she’s the last one in the world to live off coins, but all you tell her at the door is your name. She says she can never remember it, lol. She itches her scalp viciously and says her brain hurts and you laugh at the secret in-joke only appreciated by you and her. Your intimate thing. Your mating dance.
It bothers you that she has a crowd of friends, or whatever they are – a community of mooches, some rivals, some sycophants, people who have seen her name attached to radical opinions on Facebook and wanted to meet the real person. Sure there are a few celebrities in the room with amazing hair who are worth getting your photo taken with. It’s also satisfying to stroke your chin and talk objectively about Angel’s art, although everyone talks about Angel herself way more than any artwork. People say she’s been breaking into her friends’ flats and writing crazy messages on the walls with mascara and tomato sauce. She’s been stroking the crotches of men then trying to fight their girlfriends. She’s been sitting on the edge of the overpass and writing Goodbye Cruel World on the phone you bought her, and leaving the phone on the ledge with the suicide note open and going to Burger King because she’s more hungry than suicidal.
InsAngel is a BYO event and Angel is swishing a glass of Riesling an admirer gave her. There must be 80 people crammed into this white room. There are those twins from that soap opera set at the fire station; there’s Lorde’s stepsister, and that guy from the Olympics. She’s scrawled INSANEgel insANGEL insANgel on the wall in gold spray paint. You gaze at the black and white photos of Angel standing in a bath tub, cradling her viola in one hand, spreading her labia with the other; you admire some charcoal drawing of a triangular thing. It’s supposed to be the Eiffel Tower, someone whispers. People you once occupied the admin block of the university with, New Black Panthers and Earth Warriors and People of Colour, they ask you what you’re up to these days and you start off talking about your job, then your house, then you’re talking about Tuscany and terracotta then somehow you’re onto the advantages of heat pumps over open fireplaces, even though you own both. The fireplace is mainly ornamental. You had it installed to match the paving stones.
It’s not all that long until you turn 40, you realise, watching the room fill up with wrinkled people dressed like teenagers. Something sours in the air then Angel is standing on a champagne crate. She’s rolled a $500 cardboard print into a megaphone and is ordering everyone out of the gallery. She’s cut off a hunk of her hair with a cheese knife and is demanding to know who put the implant in her head. Angel has a scratch on her nose that she doesn’t seem to realise is leaking blood. ‘OUT, YOU ARSEHOLES,’ she’s screaming, ‘OUT.’ Everyone thanks Angel as they exit single-file and promise to catch up again soon. Her whole raging poet thing is a just a shtick, if a person’s artistic enough to recognise it.
You linger in the parking lot, spying on her with the binoculars app on your phone. You zoom in and watch her packing a few wine bottles into her guitar case then stuffing prints into what looks like a rubbish bin and holding her lighter against the cardboard until it smokes then flares orange. Angel packs her guitar case full of booze and marches toward the motorway. She’s left her viola behind. Sirens come over the trees.
She moves to a converted shipping container on a lot covered in gravel and weeds, far inland, but gets told to move out when she misses her first rent payment. She won’t leave the container so the landlord calls the cops and Angel barricades the door and says she’s going to kill herself. The cops don’t try and force the door open. A gently-spoken African woman from Community Wellbeing arrives. The woman kneels at the thick steel door of the container. She talks to Angel for 146 minutes till finally Angel opens the door a crack and says she’s desperate to pee. The cops emerge with a chain and a padlock and seal the door of the container. Angel, caught, runs at them. They are ready with their little pen-sized canisters of pepper spray.
As they guide her into an ordinary-looking white sedan, Angel sees you standing by your car, useless, afraid to confront the authorities. ‘WHO CALLED THE PIGS?’ Angel roars. There is no recognition in her eyes. ‘IT BETTER NOT’VE BEEN YOU.’
In Blossom House, not long after visiting hours commence, she shows you a sketched plan for a huge beat poetry festival she’ll put on which will unite all races. Then she pulls her pyjama pants down and away from her tummy and prises her red, sore-looking vagina open with her fingers. It’s taken years to get to view what you’re viewing. You deserve a look.
She puts two forefingers inside herself and pulls out the blister pack she’s hidden. She doesn’t blink as she cups the back of your head and tells you sternly that she will not ever in a million years take medication. She’s not insane, she promises you.
You tell her you believe her. You don’t tell her what you have discovered on WebMD about the effects on mood caused by tumours pressing on the brain.
You hand your visitor badge back, climb back into your huge, empty Nissan Qashqai. There’s an eyelash on the dashboard. Your wife has a separate car, the bumper covered in dents, so the eyelash has to be Angel’s. You reach into the glovebox, tear off a piece of Sellotape, dab the eyelash, drive five kilometres, feel filthy, screw up the tape and the eyelash and toss it out the window. No point cloning her. A cloned Angel would develop a brain tumour too, presumably. A pointless plan. Ridiculous, really. The counsellor says whenever you have obsessive thoughts, you need to label them as such, tuck them inside the drawer within your brain and let them sit a while. The counsellor says your wife has a drawer of thoughts she needs to tuck away, too. It’s not just you.
You drive for a long chunk of your day, type the code to make your gate let you in, you and your huge, clean vehicle. Your wife greets you at the door. She orders you to stop on the doormat. Do not go any further, she says. ‘So I finished that list of things I want to apologise for,’ she says. ‘I felt real silly doing it but…’ She shrugs. ‘Y’know.’
‘At $200 a session, you’d think it would work,’ you offer with a smile. ‘I wrote mine too.’
She smiles back. ‘How is she, anyway?’