Sylvia Petter /
Jean-Pierre tipped my head back in the basin and started the warm
running. "I'm sorry to hear about your husband," he said.
I didn't answer.
"So sudden," he added. "Was it his heart?"
"Yes," I said quietly as he rubbed a cool thick liquid over my hair.
"You don't have to talk about it," he said. "How about a midnight blue tint to cover the odd grey, add a little glamour?"
"For a widow? That wouldn't be right."
"You have to look after yourself. Life goes on," Jean-Pierre said and massaged my head.
Yes, it does, Jean-Pierre. If only you knew. Yes, it was his heart that killed him. He shouldn't have split it in two. A heart attack. He'd always had a weak heart. I think it was because I thought he was simulating. I wasn't of course, so I had to attack and I killed him in bed.
I didn't kill them all in bed, of course. Then, not being married, it wouldn't have been right. Anyway, I was far too young the first time.
I was ten and Wayne Smuthers eleven. It was just when school was about to break up and he'd asked me to go down the bush.
"What for?" I said.
"Show you the gorge."
"I've been there," I said.
"Not the place I know. Scaredy cat!"
"I am not!"
"Come on then."
The bush was thick there and huge rocks littered the creek, as if they'd been thrown down by some angry god who'd lost at a game of jacks. They'd made crevices I'd slip into and sometimes I'd worry I'd get stuck and die a slow starving death. Higher up there were caves, but I was never allowed to climb up to them.
"You going to one of the caves?"
Wayne didn't answer and just held out his hand. No boy had ever held out his hand to me before, well not when he didn't have to, so I took it.
"I'm game," I said and felt a funny shivery feeling.
No one saw us go down the back of the school and then across to where the blue gums start getting thick. They look like tall skinny soldiers and you can hear birds and lizards scuttling, but you hardly see any. When we got to the gorge, Wayne let go of my hand. "It's up there," he said, pointing past the last boulder to a high rock platform in the rock face.
"We'll never make it," I said.
"Yes, we will. Follow me."
Wayne easily slipped through the crevice in the rock face, but I had to hold my breath so I wouldn't get stuck. There were some footholds, but they didn't look natural.
"You make those?" I asked.
"Took ages," he said proudly. He was halfway up the rock face on the inside of the crevice. "Come on. You can't fall. Just lean on the rock as you go up."
I was puffing by the time I hoisted myself on to the ledge in front of the cave. "So?"
"In the cave," he said.
"I don't want to. Looks creepy."
"Scaredy cat," he said again and went in. So I followed.
An earthy smell of yeast came from the dark cave. "Lets go home," I
"Not yet," he said and put his arm out barring my way at the entrance. "Bet you've never been kissed."
I wasn't going to let on. "I have so!" I said.
"Bet you don't even know how," he said.
I wanted to run, but that funny feeling kept coming back. "I do so."
"So prove it," he said and flattened me against the wall. And then his wet mouth clamped on mine like he was almost swallowing me.
"Get out!" I yelled and pushed back as hard as I could, but he just squashed me against the rock. "I'm going to show you. No one else will," he said as he pinned back my arms.
I put my head up and tried to move my mouth away from his. "What do you mean?"
"You're just a fat goggle-eyed catfish. It's your last chance," he said grinning.
The evening sky was bleeding red through the treetops as I shoved him back. I couldn't believe my own strength and he tumbled to the edge of the ledge and rolled off. I was still shaking as I spat out the mouldy taste of him and wiped my glasses on my skirt. He'd just disappeared. Flown away. Gone. And then I heard him screaming.
"I'm stuck. Help! Get me out!"
I crawled to the edge. Wayne was pinned down in the crevice and blood was all over his face and arms. I squinted at him. He looked like a snow gum with his white arms and legs and the sticky red glistening on him like resin. He looked almost beautiful. Just seeing him like that made me feel so calm, happy even. I scrambled down the crevice wall and when I was just out of touching distance I saw there was no way I could get him out.
"Get help!" he whimpered. "Please."
By the time the search party found him three days later he was dead. When I heard all the grownups clucking about how Wayne could never keep out of the gorge, I just remember thinking he'd lost his bet. It was all his own fault, wasn't it?
"Not too hot?" Jean-Pierre asked as he rinsed the shampoo.
I gave a slight shake of my head. "Some nourishment," he said as he spread a cool liquid over my scalp. "I'll leave it five minutes."
My puppy fat melted, I started wearing contact lenses and learnt how to kiss. But it never seemed what my girlfriends made it out to be.
At least not until I met Enzo.
Enzo was the purser on a cruise ship up North and one of his jobs was to organise show time. He'd get all the girls up on deck and make us practise the Can-Can. After practice, he'd take me for a drink in the bar and then back to his cabin. He showed me how to kiss all right and lots of other things, but I always held back. He said he loved me, so I thought he could wait. But I didn't know he'd said the same thing to all the girls on that ten-day cruise.
I remember the day we had the show almost pat and he decided we had to finish the finale with a Catherine wheel. All the other girls managed it first go, but I was scared I'd go over the edge and I balked every time.
"Your rhythm's all wrong," Enzo said. "Haven't you got any soul, any passion?" And he pushed me aside and said to one of the girls, a tall leggy brunette who'd always been giving him the hairy eyeball: "You show her!"
The brunette sprang a perfect wheel. "Now you do it," he said to me.
"I can't," I said. Tears welled in my eyes and I thought my contacts would fall out. So I went over to lean on the railing.
"Watch me, then," he said to my back.
I turned around. He seemed to pull himself in like elastic, then almost bouncing off one foot he careered straight at me. I gripped the railing and, just as he was in flight, even lifting his hands from the deck floor, I felt the railing loosen behind me and I pulled myself to one side.
Enzo went over the edge. He'd done exactly what I'd been scared of doing and landed in the ocean. They tried to save him, but it was a long way down and as he was going head over heels, he must have split his skull on the hull, and then there was the propeller.... A bloody mess. I was shattered of course, but he had come on strong, and he'd betrayed and humiliated me.
After that, all the screws on the boat were checked so that no more could become loose - not even through twiddling.
Jean-Pierre rinsed my head with cool water.
"The tint has to take, just relax," he said as the smell of the colour piqued my nostrils.
I was about to give up on men when I met number three.
He was a nice enough chap, but he had that spiel with all his problems. Of course, he was married, but I only found that out later. So to show him how broad-minded I was, I cooked him a meal - filet mignon with mushroom sauce.
It's really so hard to tell "death cap" mushrooms from the real thing. It was when I saw all the attention his widow got, why, she was coddled and feted, and then her life started, that I decided to find a husband all my own. Stability, that's what I wanted. And marriage did confer a certain respectability.
"Just a few minutes more," Jean-Pierre said as I started to fidget in my chair.
But number four still wasn't Mr Right. He was single all right, but just as I had at last reached full flame he suddenly cooled off.
Unrequited love and a woman's scorn can be such a deadly mixture. As we'd been close I, of course, knew all about his allergy. But was it my fault that I'd forgotten to take the bowl of beer from under the balcony table? Was it my fault that the wasps got angry when he kicked the bowl over? Was it my fault that I couldn't find his injection pack of antidotes soon enough after they'd attacked him?
Jean-Pierre rinsed my head quickly and then covered it in a soft fluffy towel. "Move over in front of the mirror while I put in the rollers," he said.
I watched him intently as he worked, parting and twirling my long jet hair until my head was covered in a crown of glistening black coils. "The infra-red dryer for a few more minutes and then you'll see the new you," he said and smiled at my face in the mirror.
I blew him a kiss and settled back.
Number five was the one. He wined me and dined me and we soon tied the knot. He was very gentle and calm and disliked too much effort, pleading his heart. Nobody's perfect, I thought and so far he'd come closest to my idea of what was right. Why, he loved seeing me trip round the house with my duster, flicking the russet feathers over each fragile figurine. I had to admit as the years came and went that I enjoyed married life.
I can't recall when I first got suspicious. It must have been when he kept talking about his heart, but the medical exams all seemed very normal, normal for him and the state he'd been used to. But one day, it was at the end of February, the florist's bill arrived. The flowers for Valentine's had been delightful, but two bunches? That's when I started snooping around. The two-timing bastard! My husband, a bigamist. No wonder his heart had always been weak.
Jean-Pierre rolled away the dryer and began unravelling my hair from the foam rubber coils. I loved the way he brushed it out and, he was right, it shone and glimmered in the spotlights.
When I decided to kill my husband, I saw it as a charitable gesture. Two for the price of one, with the twist that I'd be helping a sister. And the word "widow" has such a respectable ring to it. But I had to be careful; the last thing I wanted in my nice tidy house was a mess. Of course, it needed a lot of preparation, let's call it a foreplay of sorts at which I had become expert. The diagnosis was heart attack from overexertion. His widow, the other one, came to the funeral and while she paid her condolences, which I had to return, I'm sure I caught a slight nod of approval.
"The style is just wonderful. Out of this world!" I said.
"You really should get out more," Jean-Pierre said. "Do you know how to dance?"
I nodded, admiring how he'd pulled back my hair, how it looked like black silk falling softly to my shoulders, framing my face in a perfect heart shape.
"There's a night club at the Holiday Inn. Lonely men go there to talk and whirl ladies round the floor," he said, spraying Gossamer in the air just above my head. "Younger ones, too," he added with a wink.
I stood and twirled in front of the mirror. Then I kissed Jean- Pierre on the cheek and gave him a generous tip. I knew he was right, there was so much to live for.