Extract from:

The Taj Mahal of Trundle

by Margaret Sutherland

Part Three

As Nick and Vim left Railway Street, Nora Halpin heard the postman’s motorbike. The arrears notice from Sam was no surprise to her; she didn’t associate mail with pleasant surprises. Filled with contempt, she skimmed the rental agency’s letter and tossed it into the gutter. After a few moments she retrieved it, realising she couldn’t ignore the eviction warning. Slowly she went back up the path and sat on the porch step. She rubbed the scar over her eye and wondered what to do.          

     It always came down to this. No good landing it on Tag. That kick in the head he’d collected playing footy years ago had knocked him off the air for good. He’d changed. His cheek and backchat had gone sour. The booze made him nasty, laying into her and the kids, swearing and carrying on so all the neighbours knew their business.         

     Coming back to her hometown had seemed like a good idea. Trundle was a quiet place. They’d get somewhere, she said to Tag, as she remembered the wide main street, the slow river, the trains rushing through. Why was it all so much smaller and rundown now? Tag had taken one look and grumbled. Another dump. He had his pride.Yes, she’d believed it too.

     She didn’t want much. Somewhere to live and raise the kids. A packet of smokes. Beer. A bit of a laugh. Why was it so hard, so different from what you’d think? Didn’t seem to matter where she went, trouble wouldn’t leave her alone. People didn’t like her. They avoided her or looked away. She could put up with a bit of bashing, so why couldn’t they cop the sight of a bruise?         

     That slimy Sam, for example. Sending her a notice, all official, as if he hadn’t just been a pimply kid no better than she was. Now up himself good and proper, asking for references and a month’s bond as if she was Lady Muck in a Cadillac. She’d had to lay it on with a trowel to get a place out of him. And now this fancy letter. Dear Mrs Halpin. We wish to draw your attention…’ And he signed his name with a doodad instead of proper writing.          

     Mrs Halpin my foot!  She was Nora and no bugger was going to put her and the kids out on the street. She checked the arrears figure and winced. The benefit wouldn’t cut that out. Where did you get money in a hurry? The Sallies were all right for clothes, even food at a pinch, but they didn’t pay the rent for you.                        

     An idea struck her. So novel yet so simple was the answer that she rushed back to the street and grabbed one of the give-away papers that usually lay forlornly until the rain and wind did the housekeeping. Today, there would be a job intended for Nora Halpin and no one else. She found it, too, under Barmaid Wanted.  It couldn’t be hard to pull a schooner and chat up the fellas. She dashed in to old Mother O’Brian’s to beg the use of the phone, got an appointment in town, and rushed home to dress up. Tag was snoring as she ransacked the wardrobe. Nothing looked suitable. She didn’t care. In town there would be the right shop with the right outfit at the right price. It was suddenly one of those days; exciting, fun, like when you were young and you knew life was on your side. Someone out there wanted her, they were going to pay her, stone the crows, she felt proud.         

     She walked along Main Road, visualising herself in various costumes that might do for bar work. She settled on the right image just as she came to Marie’s shop. On the spur of the moment she pushed the door, and a little bell tinkled softly.  She knew the shop kept second-hand clothes, though whoever wore those funny old feathers and furs was a mystery to her. There were piles of junk inside: worn-out bears and dolls, hats, a brass bed, old plates and cups that didn’t even match. The service wasn’t too good. The woman at the counter must have seen her but she took no notice. Maybe she was deaf. Nora couldn’t muck around. The appointment was in half an hour.

     ‘Do you sell outfits here?’

     ‘We have some,’ Marie said politely, though Nora didn’t look to be in line for an old ivory lace wedding gown or debutante’s coming-out dress.

     ‘I’m looking for a cowboy set.’ The server seemed a bit uncertain so Nora explained. ‘The kind with a fringe across here - (she slashed an imaginary line across her breasts) ‘and here - (she sketched a hemline mid-thigh) ‘in suede or leather stuff.’

     ‘I’m sorry,’ Marie said, ‘I have nothing along those lines.’ Nora looked so disappointed she added, ‘Were you going to a fancy dress party?’

Nora cackled. ‘Bloody oath! I’m going after a job or we’re getting chucked out.’       

     ‘That’s terrible!’ Marie sounded as though she genuinely thought it was and Nora found herself pouring out the tale of Tag and the football accident and the way they had to keep moving because people hounded them for money. ‘But I’ve got a job,’ she said positively. ‘I’m going to the interview now.  I want something decent to wear.’

     ‘That always helps, at an interview.’ The poor, desperate woman looked so worn and weary it was hard to tell her age. Perhaps in one of the trunks she could find an outfit. Anything would be better than the stained tracksuit pants and stretched old T-shirt with its manifestly untruthful motto; I’m the greatest!

     ‘Wait a minute. I’ll slip the lock.’ Marie put up the Back in 5 sign and beckoned Nora to follow her to the back room. There she started to search through piles of old clothing while Nora looked around, amazed that anyone could own so much rubbish and have the nerve to call the place a shop.  The owner had apparently never heard of three piece lounges and telly tables. She was a good old stick anyway, trying her best to help. She was holding various bits of clothing up and tossing them aside impatiently.

     ‘Here we are! I thought I remembered this.’ She shook out the red fringed dress, which shed its creases as though being stuffed away in a trunk for years was just a bagatelle in its long and gracious life.

     Nora looked doubtful. It had the fringes. That was all. It was a bit on the baggy side. She felt the fabric, which snagged on her rough fingers.

     ‘It’s soft,’ she said.

     ‘Silk,’ said Marie. ‘Pop it on.’ She took one look at Nora’s underwear and went back to the trunk. Soon they were both confronting the mirror, while Nora asked tentatively, ‘What d’you reckon?’

     ‘I think you wear it well. The colour suits you.’

Nora looked pleased. She would have preferred something with zips and press-studs, in black denim you could wear with high-heeled boots. A thought struck her.

     ‘It looks funny with these.’ She pointed to her dirty jogging shoes.

     ‘They won’t do.’ Marie moved on to another trunk. The shoes she produced had little low heels and a bar across the top. At least they had a bit of a sparkle and the old girl was trying to be nice, running a comb through Nora’s mop of hair, dabbing powder over her scars, even tying a little band of ribbon round her forehead. Nora gazed warily at her image. The reflection made her afraid. She was someone else; one of those rich people you see in shops, buying expensive clothes, parading in front of mirrors. Suddenly she longed fiercely to be one of them. If Marie had taken back the dress, Nora would have clawed her face.

     ‘What’s the damage?’ she asked in her hoarse, smoker’s voice.

     ‘What would you say?’

     Nora was doing a quick count up. This place was a cut above the usual op shops. Still, old was old.

     ‘The Sallies charge $3 for a dress and $2 for shoes.’

     ‘In that case, $5,’ Marie agreed.

     ‘Oh, and there’s the underwear.’

     ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s just old lace.’

Nora scrabbled for coins in her battered handbag.

     ‘Take this.’ Marie handed her a little beaded bag.

     ‘Got anything I can stick me old gear in?’

Marie helped pack up Nora’s discards and was rewarded with a confidential grin.

     ‘Tell you what I’ll do for you some time. We’ll go on the train and I’ll show you where they have real furniture and dress shops. Might be good for business.’

Marie thanked her and wished her all the very best with her interview.


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