If she hadn’t come home early she wouldn’t have seen it, wouldn’t have pulled it from the letterbox. Usually he collects the mail since most evenings he arrives at their apartment before she does. Sometimes he’s even done a few chores: the dishes, a load of washing, the vacuuming… Groovy young executive, complete with apron and rubber gloves… Best of all he greets her with a drink. They generally have something in the house: vodka, bourbon, something to mix it with: soda, cranberry juice, tonic. She can put her feet up for half an hour, although more often than not, they sit at the table smoking cigarettes and laughing about things that have happened during the day. That’s when she gets started on dinner. It is, after all, what they’ve agreed on.
Oh, and he hands her the mail unopened. Sometimes they joke about it, that with the money she’s saved them by being in charge of things, she could buy herself a solid gold letter-opener. It’d be just the thing for the job!
But what does it matter how she came upon it, this flimsy but startling bank statement? Here it is, on their special day, their anniversary, their very first one-year anniversary. And not for a second did anyone at work mind her heading off to prepare the special meal for the occasion, especially as she’d been planning it for weeks. A surprise. The candlelit dinner – an expensive rack of lamb – the writing-paper and matching envelopes with their names and address printed on them, the music she planned to play from their CD collection. And here she is, sitting with a drink she’s mixed for herself and everything done: the meal prepared and ready to go in the oven, the table set – including the candles in their holders – and the music of Nina Simone crooning soothingly in the background… So how could all this celebration have become so soured after opening just one piece of mail?
She takes a bigger mouthful from the glass than she intends. It dribbles down her chin and she has to catch it with the back of her hand, push it back over her bottom lip. She gets up, goes to the French doors at the front of their place to check if he has driven up. It’s a pointless distraction. She can’t see all the cars in the street anyway. She goes back to the table. She has to think. Mal will be home soon.
You know not everything’s going to be perfect, not all of the time. You’ve heard that so often from older people; hell, from everyone, and you don’t want to be hasty. Even your mother has reiterated how full of compromise her and your dad’s relationship is. ‘Nobody should expect it’s going to be easy,’ she’d said. ‘You have to learn to bend, to be flexible.’
Added to that, you’ve always said people can achieve pretty much anything they put their minds to. And Mal had decided he wanted to do this, to rein things in, to get control of his expenditure. ‘It’s not just for you,’ he’d said without prompting, ‘or us for that matter. No, I’m doing it for myself.’
You dealt with it so well, or, so you thought. Actually you’d congratulated yourself. If only you could be that gentle and encouraging, that pragmatic and problem-solving all the time. ‘It’s something that can be fixed,’ you’d said. ‘We just need some simple rules, a little tightening of the belt. And if we work together!’
You drew up the plan. After all, that’s your area of expertise. While you aren’t really an accountant, your job as an administrator entails that sort of thing. Besides, you’re good at organising budgets. It isn’t just your job to be on top of details, it’s your forte. It would have been silly not to help him. It’s the amount of debt he’d got himself into which was making it impossible for him to get his head clear of things. He just needed a few strategies put in place. The matter would look after itself then. As easy as that!
The phone rings, makes her jerk up from the paper statement.
‘Natalie? It’s Margot from the office. Sorry to ring. Just a quick question in regards to a Mrs Rosa l’Aqualina. I seem to have misplaced the latest set of plans with council’s stamp on them.’
She has to think, reset her brain such is the fugue which has descended on her. Her gaze drifts to the table with its candles. She loves this flat so much. It’s so homely with her second-hand knickknacks and posters, photos she’s stuck in old frames and hung about on the walls.
‘It’s possible they’re filed under A. I noticed George did that once before. Something about the capital letter thing. They did come in. I remember seeing them.’
‘You’re a gem Nat. Thanks. Preparations going well?’
For a moment, caught like this, she can’t think what preparations Margot might be referring to. Her mind churns. Then she remembers and imagines saying, ‘Preparations? Are you kidding? Separation is what’s going on here.’ But she doesn’t say that of course. She says, ‘Yes. Thanks. It’s all… It all looks lovely.’
‘Paper anniversary,’ Margot’s voice slips into sentimentality. ‘If I could go back I’d celebrate each and every anniversary with Greg according to the tradition. You could do that you know? It would be amazing to look back on that one day.’
What you lack is a discerning eye. How could you have been taken in so easily? You should have been awake to it at Christmas. All those expensive gifts he bought you: a silk scarf, two pairs of silver earrings, a pearl handled manicure set. It wasn’t necessary. And the two of you had discussed presents, deciding to forego them and save your money, put it towards something substantial: a holiday, the deposit for your own unit. You’d let it go that day but you did tackle it before the new year arrived and he apologised, saying that because you were so beautiful and he’d received such a good bonus he couldn’t resist. He’d even offered to take the presents back, get a refund. You should have let him. But he’d cajoled you and sworn he’d keep to his word in the future, so you’d let it go.
Now you see the items here, listed on this credit card account, an account you’ve never seen before. And it occurs to you there might be others, others you haven’t seen. And you curse because you should have followed things up more thoroughly, because you’ve been kidding yourself. Except it’s him who’s kidding you. You have to remember that. And after everything you talked about! Yes, you’d been calm, but in the year leading up to the wedding you’d also been clear, if he didn’t do something about his finances, well, there was just no way the two of you had a future. Not together. You just didn’t want to live like that.
‘But I will,’ he’d said, his eyes drawn up in a puppy-dog plea. ‘I want to.’
It was you who set up the payment schemes; forty dollars a week to this credit card, forty to that one and so on. You both earn a good wage so the debts would be gone in a matter of two, maybe three years. That didn’t seem so far away and you’d both decided. Then the two of you could plan a future. You haven’t mentioned it, but you would like to have a baby and there’s a lot you’d like to do before that.
You stop yourself. It’s possible you’ve been too prescriptive. You know you have that tendency. Friends have told you. You’re too careful and you like to know exactly what’s ahead. You’ve learnt to hide this to some degree, acknowledging that Mal’s attitude to life – act now, think (and pay) later – has helped you to loosen up, helped to balance the books, so to speak, of your personality. It’s often true, after all, that complimentary relationships last longer.
And on that score, you’ve imagined you’d been good for him too. His hedonistic, carefree ways couldn’t go on endlessly, after all. Skiing trips in Japan, gambling in Las Vegas, well, no one can do that and expect not to have to pay for it all. A lot of holidays that Mal had had, he didn’t even remember; alcohol fuelled, they’d just passed in a blur. And what had he said after your modest honeymoon in Byron Bay? It was the best two weeks he’d ever had and he could see now he’d wasted his money on all those long flights and expensive motels, spending his time with mates who, like him, he admitted, were in a drunken stupor. The thing is, it wasn’t even his money, it belonged to the bank. And now you… YOU… are paying it back. Except that you’re not. Not when he’d agreed there’d be no new accounts, not when he’d sworn he’d shown you everything, so that when you look again – down at these numbers, the zeros and percentage points, the lack of minus signs indicating payments – you know it’s not just the money, it’s the lack of honesty, the disregard, the total dearth of respect. Metaphorically, it’s like one huge finger in the face.
Fury has made it to Natalie’s extremities, her movements becoming large and a little clumsy because of it. She lumbers to the kitchen and, in a series of untidy grabs, pours herself another vodka. She wonders where the rest of the bad-news mail is. He must have hidden it and she walks around the flat for a few minutes opening drawers and looking in behind books on the bookshelves. Then, certain he must have destroyed it, she returns empty-handed to the table telling herself he won’t smooth talk her again, that this tally here, the one right in front of her, is all she needs.
And so she sits calmly, planning what she’s going to say to him. But then she starts crying and soon she’s sobbing, great whoops of upset convulsing through her.
You’d been worried before you met Mal that you might be left on the shelf. You’d had a few boyfriends when you were a teenager but then, in your early twenties, the dates you went on didn’t lead to anything and after a while, even they had stopped.
You first saw Mal at a bar at Docklands. He was buying a round of drinks and offered to pay for yours and your friend’s since he was already spending a small fortune. You’d declined with a smile and a series of giggles but your friend, Anna, had said yes please and that in return, the two of you would help him carry the drinks back to his table. You were struck by his camaraderie with his friends, his ease. Everything about him was attractive and at the end of the night he’d insisted on walking you up the dock, hailing a cab, making sure you and Anna were safely on your way. You thought that might have been it, but the next day a large bunch of flowers had arrived and you realised he must have remembered where you worked and found the address on the internet.
And, as you got to know him, it couldn’t be denied, Mal had a certain cheeky charm about him, a boyish enthusiasm that suited your young careful quietness. The two of you seemed to fit. You never had to ask Mal for attention, he delivered it without question. There was just this one drawback, his tendency to deal with money with splayed fingers. Cash didn’t just fall through his hands, it rushed.
Natalie finds herself staring – eyes sore, head pounding – at the clock. Any minute now he’ll come through the door and she will tell him it’s over, that she’s very sorry but everything has changed. His cute generosity she now sees as wishy-washy, his promises and undertakings as manipulative. In fact, he has absolutely no backbone. His entire character suddenly appears to be based on how much he can prop it up with non-existent cash. But it’s the depth of his deception that has unalterably tainted things. Inevitably he’ll lumber from one credit card to the other, probably surviving, but not the way she wishes him to. Planning to purchase things, saving for them and then buying them: paying for the things they own. That’s what she wants. Not the other way around.
You should have realised why his mother was always talking about budgets to the two of you when you went there. You’d joked with her about how bad he was at tallying his input with his output, and that’s why you’d taken over the finances for the time being, just until things got back on track. ‘Always a mystery to us,’ she’d said, ‘wasn’t it Alan?’ She’d wanted confirmation from her husband and now you think there’d been something odd about that as well, the way he’d hardly answered her, an uh-huh of agreement, but nothing more. A fobbing off really, and now you wonder about this, whether it was a backhanded way of condoning Mal’s behaviour; a way of saying what does it really matter – that in the end women get what they want, prevail eventually. And perhaps that’s how things are in Mal’s family. The men make messes and the women fix them up, which, probably, certainly at first, the men appreciate. Perhaps even Mal’s father had valued it once just like Mal does now. But, after a while, just like Mal might in the future, he began to resent it so that it produced the kind of offhanded response she’d witnessed, the same kind of offhanded response which will creep into Mal’s repertoire as well, the whole thing become a sticking point and then a sticky membrane between them, keeping them together while driving them apart.
That visit had taken place a couple of weeks before the wedding. You’d been discussing the savings you’d made by making your own place cards and dressing the tables yourself, by choosing to have a simpler affair than other friends’ weddings. ‘What do we need all the trimmings for,’ you’d said to Mal’s mum. ‘In the end, it’s the quality of the union that’s important.’
Her head up, Natalie huffs a substantial exhale from her nostrils. A kind of laugh. Why is she fighting so hard? Struggling everyday to fix something she didn’t break. It isn’t merely hard or difficult, it’s closer to impossible. He doesn’t want to change. The debt! He’s simply gone out and got another credit card to carry it on. She would recognise the number of the account otherwise; the odd triple 6 in the middle – the devil’s number – it stands out after all. And, the grand total that’s here, the deficit of eight thousand dollars spent in less than seven months. He probably has others as well. But it doesn’t matter. This one is enough. Just last week he’d used it again. The last entry was made at a jewellers and she has absolutely no doubt he will be bringing the item – whatever had it cost? …over five hundred dollars – home this evening to give her.
She’s shaking as she gets up from her seat at the table, is hollowed out from the last half hour.
In her bedroom she takes a small backpack from her wardrobe – an old tatty thing with a couple of broken zips. She packs herself a change of clothing, her phone and wallet, her toothbrush from the bathroom. Then, taking the key that opens the back gate she goes out the back door and across the yard, letting herself into the laneway where she can breathe a little easier.
Ahead, at the end of the alley, she can see cars passing. There she’ll hail a cab, get herself to her good friend Anna’s. And as she’s walking, something she almost can’t believe is happening, she feels herself getting lighter. With every step she feels her feet lift a little higher and her head rise just a little further. And she hears the clatter of her shoes, the rhythm they are playing as they strike the bluestones. It sounds like a machine in a factory producing something over and over again, spitting it out, or perhaps it’s the exaggerated noise of her keyboard going full-pelt under her fingertips that she’s reminded of. And, as she listens, she lets the rhythm carry her towards the road, her heart beating with her stride like a metronome methodically keeping pace; but it’s her feet swinging in perfect oscillation that grips her, their clicking and clattering. They sound like a highly ordered operation being completed to its natural and proper end.
Paper Anniversary was runner-up in The Carmel Bird short story competition and was published by Spineless Wonders in Escape Anthology.