Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Astrid S. Tiefholz
A modern fairytale, of sorts
Eliza had always been methodical in her daily routine. First thing, she would bring in the papers, and read the news while eating two eggs, poached, on toast, light rye. Her tea was lemony and unsugared, served in a fine bone china cup with a cornflower trim. She would shower for four minutes exactly, doing her part for the water conservation effort, catching the excess in a bucket to tend her gardenias. Then she would dress in a combination of a pressed silk blouse (one of six) and tailored trousers, navy or black. She was reluctant to wear a skirt ever since her fifteen year old self, miniskirted and slender stockinglegged, had been crudely whistled at by a passing carload of noisy young men. The experience had brought her no end of silenced anxiety. Eliza’s mother would have told her she had gotten no less than she deserved. Such a getup was just begging for trouble. She had withheld the event from her fortnightly Confession, knowing that the schoolteacher nuns would never approve. But no-one could ever accuse you of being improper in a pair of navy trousers.
Gary, the driver of the 251 bus, could rely upon Eliza’s straight arm to flag him into stop 22 at 7.21 every morning. She did not read during the journey, as she was prone to travel sickness, but she always took a talking book with her. Recently, her niece had shown her how to transfer a CD to an MP3 player, and Eliza was rather pleased with herself for keeping up with technology.
Her book discussion group was meeting that evening, and Eliza was somewhat behind with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. She pressed play and waited for chapter three to begin. To her immense surprise, she heard the guttural Edinburgh brogue of Irvine Welsh, spewing a stream of invective so thick she could barely understand it, but she was fairly certain it was obscene. Nevertheless, she listened, transfixed, as hardboiled Scottish youth set about their path of self-destruction in their rapacious quest for heroin. With a furtive glance around the bus to make sure no-one saw her reddened cheeks, Eliza soaked up every grotty detail with the rapt fascination of a child who has snuck out a schlock horror DVD. She felt her palms grow sweaty, and wiped them with a cotton handkerchief.
The bus pulled into the station, two blocks from Eliza’s work. 7.52 am, just as usual. Eliza alighted, clutching her handbag to her. She marched purposefully towards the office, but was stopped by a skinny boy in a ratty cardigan, who asked, “You chasin’?”
Eliza now knew what this meant, having heard it in the talking book, although the words were much less melodious delivered in the broad, nasal twang of a bogan from Springvale. A bogan who was offering her heroin. Which was not something she did. She had never even smoked a cigarette as an act of adolescent rebellion. She only ever allowed herself one glass of red wine, 100 millilitres measured in a calibrated cup, at Christmas. Even a strong coffee gave her the jitters.
Which was why she decided to say yes.
The skinny scabby bogan boy ushered her to a corner and offered her a “cap for twenty”. Gathering that this was something requiring a payment of twenty dollars, Eliza took out her purse and handed over the orange bill she had earmarked to buy her weekly bus pass later in the day.
“Need a fit?” spluttered the boy.
Eliza had no idea what he meant. “I’m sorry?”
But the boy, restless and shiftless, took off. Seeing a policeman half a block away, Eliza hastily secreted the small ziploc bag in her coat pocket, and hurried along to her office.
All day long, as she filed reports and took dictation, Eliza was acutely conscious of the powder hidden away in her locker. She wondered exactly how a person took heroin. She knew that it could be injected or smoked, and she had even heard appalling rumours about prostitutes in Hong Kong who, having no other means of administration available to them, would slash their legs with razor blades and rub the powder directly into the vein. Eliza sensibly surmised that as she was not a prostitute, from Hong Kong or anywhere else, that such a course of action was entirely too drastic, especially for a girl from North Balwyn. Although the description of “cooking up” was graphic in Trainspotting, it had been so colloquially rendered that Eliza was no less mysitified, and felt that research was in order.
She was very good at research. If there was one thing her BA (Hons) (Melb Uni, 1990) had taught her, it was the value of a thorough bibliography. During her afternoon teabreak, Eliza googled up “intravenous administration of medication.” She knew full well, of course, that the internet was awash with misinformation and half-truths, but she was nothing if not discerning and methodical. She clicked in and out of the resource lists for nursing and medical students at a number of universities of repute. While the chapters on central venous lines looked rather complex, there were some how-to pages on venipuncture and intravenous cannulation, with clear diagrammatic instructions on locating appropriate veins, as well as the correct needle gauge for each site. In all, it seemed a reasonably straightforward procedure. She doubted that the bogan boy from Springvale had educated himself in this fashion. All that remained was to procure the necessary equipment.
Wary of bloodborne viruses, Eliza made her way to the local chemist, to request a 19 gauge needle and a 3mL syringe for the purpose of injecting insulin, in the management of her fictitious diabetes. The pharmacy salesgirl looked at her askance, and asked if she had been newly diagnosed.
“Why yes,” Eliza replied. “Only just.”
With a great deal of patience, the girl advised her that such a needle and syringe would be terribly inappropriate for the subcutaneous injection of insulin, and was aghast that Eliza’s doctor had not educated her properly in the management of her condition. The assistant, Melissa, was a no-nonsense young thing of twenty. She put Eliza through the paces of injecting saline into an orange. Eliza was relieved she always travelled with a few pieces of fruit, although not generally for this purpose. When Melissa was satisfied with her technique, she sternly advised Eliza to purchase a glucose meter and a multipack of insulin syringes, and to return to her general practitioner for further instruction in managing her blood sugars.
“And don’t eat any more oranges. They’ll send your levels through the roof.”
Too embarrassed to do otherwise, Eliza dutifully paid and left.
Eliza was at a loss as to how to achieve her extraordinary act of rebellion. Certainly Irvine Welsh didn’t seem to be coming up with any answers. Scots git. Not that she would ordinarily use that kind of language. But this was not an ordinary day. With resignation, she strode into a dim café hung with pale pink paper lamps, and ordered an espresso, triple-strength. Jitters be dashed. If a forty year old woman could not order herself a coffee without self-doubt and flagellation, it was high time she learned to.
Eliza sipped her coffee and tried not to grimace too much at its bitterness. Her mother had told her every morning as a child that frowning should always be avoided, as it hastened wrinkles. While Eliza had given up caring about the lines that were gradually etching their way around her eyes, her mother’s words still echoed like a foghorn in her head with jarring frequency.
Stand up straight.
Tie your hair back.
Lipstick is for tarts.
Keep your elbows off the table.
Never leave the house with bare legs.
Don’t chew gum, it’s trashy.
You should have done a law degree.
When are you going to get married?
You can’t marry a boy from Ballarat.
Your father will be very disappointed with you. Don’t frown. You’ll get wrinkles.
A suited man sat on the stool next to her. Pinstriped, three-pieced, with a hat. Which was odd, really. You never saw men in hats anymore. Angry boys in backwards baseball caps, saying “Yo!” and pretending to be American, certainly, but not men in their thirties. He looked quite old-fashioned, really, as if he had just stepped out of an elegant 1940s comedy. Something with Cary Grant in it, perhaps.
“Excuse me, Miss, I hope I’m not imposing by sitting here,” he said.
“Not at all,” Eliza replied. She was not in the habit of starting conversations with strangers, but the plastic packet in her coat pocket reminded her that she was being bold today. “Have you had a busy day?”
“Indeed,” he replied. “I flew in on the red-eye this morning for endless meetings where everything is discussed, and nothing resolved.”
“That must be tiring,” she said.
“Absolutely,” he agreed. “And the food has been diabolical.”
The waitress approached for his order. He asked for tea, in a fine bone china cup.
Eliza’s eyes grew wide. She did not like to believe in fatalism. Her world was far too structured to allow for such silliness. The whole idea belonged with tooth fairies and gingerbread. When she was fourteen, she and her best friend, Millie, had made a pact that they would each fall in love on midsummer’s night at the age of twenty-one. They would then live lives of blissful love with their husbands, next door to each other. Clearly, Eliza mused, they had been too much under the influence of their charismatic English teacher and her enthusiasm for Shakespeare. When the allotted date arrived, Eliza and Millie were at a music festival. Eliza had lied to her mother and said she was going on Retreat for a few days. Instead, she and Millie had driven to the coast in Millie’s rusted green Toyota. Millie met Simon that night, and had abandoned Eliza as considerately as was possible, under the circumstances. Some time later, Eliza was approached by Paul, who had clearly detected the scent of the lone lamb. Paul had made promises that, Eliza later realised on reflection, he had absolutely no intention of keeping. Eliza was struck with a deep sense of self loathing for a long time thereafter. Millie, on the other hand, had married Simon three years later. Eliza was her bridesmaid. Millie and Simon moved to Daylesford, had three children, some blazing rows with bandied blows, and ultimately divorced. Millie and the kids had shifted up north without so much as a word to anyone, not even Eliza. In fact, Eliza would have been none the wiser had it not been for Simon’s turning up on her doorstep at three in the morning, three sheets to the wind, begging her to give him refuge.
“You were always such a great girl, Liza,” he slurred. “Dunno why we never hooked up.”
Mortified to her fingertips, Eliza had called the police, who had taken Simon away in the divvy van to sober up. That was ten years ago now, and Eliza had completely lost track of Millie, not to mention her girlish notions of the inevitability of fate and love.
But here and now was Cary Grant, ordering tea in a fine bone china cup. Who, aside from Eliza, ordered tea like that anymore? And here she was, shakily clutching her empty cup of ridiculously strong coffee.
“That really is the best way to drink tea,” she ventured.
“I quite agree,” he replied. “Life’s too short for poorly-made Earl Grey.”
Eliza smiled and glanced sideways at him. His profile was crisp, but he looked pale, with marble skin shining under faded freckles. There was a fine mist of perspiration on his face, which he mopped up with a handkerchief. He seemed a little dizzy as he placed his briefcase on the counter before him. His head suddenly slumped forward, and slid from his stool, bumping his head on the floor with a clunk.
The café was instantly abuzz. The waitress dialled for an ambulance, and Eliza knelt beside Cary Grant to check his breathing and pulse. On his wrist was a medicalert bracelet. Walter Evans: Diabetic. Calmly, Eliza took the glucose meter from her handbag, pricked his finger with the stylus, and read the result. 22 mmol/L. Eliza opened his briefcase, and found an insulin pack therein. She dialled up a dose, and gave him a tidy, subcutaneous injection. The paramedics said she had acted very quickly, and with some fluids, rest and a day or two in hospital, he would be fine.
Eliza got home very late that evening. She took off her coat and hung it on its prescribed hook on the wall. Then she changed her mind, and threw it over a chair instead. The ziploc bag fell on the floor. What on earth had she been thinking? What a way to make a rebellion! She flushed the contents down the toilet, and went to bed, where she fell deeply asleep.
The next morning, Eliza got up at 7.30. Nine minutes earlier, Gary had wondered why she wasn’t waiting at the bus stop. He had shrugged, and supposed she must be having a sick day. She fried her eggs, then stood in the shower for twenty minutes. She thought she should probably let her office know she wouldn’t be in today, but decided to wait a bit. She carefully wrapped up a pair of fine bone china cups in a tea towel, then packed a box of looseleaf Earl Grey and a strainer into her handbag. Then she caught the bus to the hospital.