Helen splays her bare toes on the dashboard. Wind blows onto her face through the open window. A favourite song from the seventies starts playing on the radio, a golden-oldie by Carol King. Enjoying the familiar beat of the opening bars, Helen fills her lungs, ready to sing along to the sultry blend of jazz and blues.
“Smackwater Jack, he bought a shotgun… Cause he-e-e wa-”
‘You’re out of tune,’ says David, his eyes fixed on the road. Carol King continues singing, minus Helen. ‘Off key,’ continues David. ‘And for god’ssake, do we have to listen to this seventies crap?’ He jabs the radio into silence and accelerates into a bend.
Helen grips the edges of her car seat. When David glares at her it is like being lanced with a sword, a thought which makes Helen suspect she has been overdoing Games of Crowns. She watched four episodes of the blood-lust series last night. Kept telling herself to go to bed but David was in a meeting and she wanted to wait up. She had hoped they would make love and set the tone for the weekend; bring them closer.
The tears begin to well. Helen sits up straight before David can accuse her of beingtoo much, like he did the other morning when no amount of product would appease her hair. She had panicked, thinking she would be late for work and for the first time in their history, David snapped. ‘For god’s sake, Helen,’ he’d said. ‘You always turn everything into a drama.’ He seemed to disregard her rollercoaster ride of recent hormone treatments and last week’s crucial implant; not an inch of slack.
Since then Helen has been trying to be less, though she doesn’t quite know what that looks like. In times of stress her default position is to sculpt a smile to her face. This she does now, all the while searching for something to defuse the tension, to steer things back on track.
‘Tapestry was one of the top selling albums,’ she says, her upbeat tone matching her cheery expression. ‘How many albums do you think they sold?’
‘Perhaps you could make that your next little project,’ says David. His knuckles appear large and white around the steering wheel.
Helen’s bowels lunge and twist. This sarcasm comes as a shock. Didn’t he agree that before embarking on IVF they should do the research and learn the score? Isn’t that precisely what she did? Helen scans the last few months for clues of David’s waning interest. At the start he seemed enthusiastic – he championed her through the self-injecting of hormones, the frequent blood tests and scans. He even gave samples of sperm to be put on ice in case he couldn’t deliver on demand. But Helen concedes she began to turn a blind eye to his increasingly hands-off stance.
Panic flutters like a butterfly inside her throat. It descends to her belly where it registers as a dark sinking sense.
Sensitive to her longing her ageing ovaries twist and stab. Helen places her palms across her belly and prays their first implant was successful.
When she slides her hand onto David’s thigh he doesn’t exactly brush it away, nor does he respond. She withdraws her hand. Is he having second thoughts? But they knew IVF would be gruelling – emotionally and financial. Has he been avoiding her – is this why he has been working late? Is her marriage in crisis? Why now when they are so close. Or are they? Even if she is pregnant, odds are with IVF that twenty-five per cent of women aged forty to forty-two will miscarry. Helen is almost forty-one.
Thoughts continue to avalanche; so too the lines from Smackwater Jack. Helen fights the urge to sing out loud: Cause he-e was in the mood… for a little confrontation… He just let it all hang loose… he didn’t think about the noose… She tries to recall when David stopped singing along, when they stopped belting out the words together.
Thinking ahead to the coastal apartment she booked for their get-away. Going by the website photos it suggests an understated kind of luxury so yesterday during her lunch break Helen ducked out and invested a fortune on gorgeous nightwear; anything to rekindle David’s interest. Again she racks her brain for ways to turn things around, her nerves playing havoc with her bowels.
Further along the highway is a road house. ‘Could you pull in please, David?’ asks Helen. ‘I need to use the bathroom.’
David groans and sighs. Nevertheless, he veers into the left lane then swerves into the road house and stops abruptly. Climbing out of the car, Helen’s gut responds with such violence she doubts she will make it to the toilet.
Back and forehead drenched with sweat, Helen sits on the toilet long after the initial purge. She is trying to assess her position but can’t think straight. Instead she focuses on the graffiti, the declarations of love; the lewd comments.
Washing her hands, Helen stares at her reflection in the filthy mirror. Never a beauty, not even close: her equine nose, object of endless teasing. Princess Anne, the kids called her. So when Helen met David in Year 12 he was like fresh air; the first boy who was kind to her despite her nose.
Helen scoops handfuls of water and splashes her face. Five days until D-Day of Round One. Five days to turn things around.
Rather than return directly to the car. Helen veers into the neon-lit shop, so brightly lit it is unnerving. She wishes she had kept on her sun-glasses. She stalks the aisles, willing inspiration to leap from the garish packaging that crams the shelves. The attendant is watching her, a good-looking guy in his twenties, probably bored. Continuing her quest, her mind a labyrinth of congested thought, each thought colliding with the next. Whenever she is stressed Helen can count on two things: her bowels will revolt and at some point she will succumb to fantasy.
True to form, she imagines approaching the check-out clad in a nurse’s outfit. Pictures sliding her fingers inside a pair of surgical gloves, finger by finger, then flicking the elastic around her wrists to elicit a snapping sound. ‘We’re ready to proceed with the examination,’ she imagines telling the attendant while pulling him down to the floor. He obliges by sliding between her open legs.
Helen selects a packet of Fantales. For years Helen and David have sucked the layer of chocolate from the chewy caramel before reading their wrappers to each other, taking it in turns to guess the clues.
She looks outside to where David now leans against the car. Sprawled in a relaxed manner, he talks into his mobile. She sees him mouth words into the air. Notes the smile spreading across his face, the way he tosses back his head, and the laughter. Watches him glance toward the toilet block.
Despite the warm day Helen feels chilled. Bracing herself she heads back to the car, smiling and waving the Fantales.
Once inside the car she passes David a Fantale. He drops it into the console between them.
‘Thanks,’ he says.
Where is that smiling stranger she just witnessed? ‘Would you like me to unwrap it?’ asks Helen.
‘I’m not in the mood for lollies, Helen.’
‘Oh,’ she says. David has never refused a Fantale. ‘Perhaps later.’
She plops one into her mouth and smooths out its wrapper. ‘Intense, dark-eyed actor, born 9th June 1963. After dropping out of high school he…’
‘Helen, stop. I’m glad we’ve got this weekend… away from distractions.’
His tone frightens her. As she winds a lock of hair around her finger, her bowels churn and gurgle. Her breathing seems to have stopped. To prevent an explosion of diarrhoea, Helen clenches her sphincter muscles
‘Johnny Depp,’ she says. Another line from Smackwater Jack intrudes: You can’t talk to a man, with a shotgun in his hand…
David says, ‘It will give us a chance to talk.’ His gaze is straight ahead, his usually weak jaw thrust forward.
Helen thinks David looks ridiculous and the thought scares her. It is the first time she has thought he looked ridiculous. She dries her sweaty palms on her blue cotton skirt. ‘It’s Johnny Depp,’ she says, a bit louder this time
‘Listen to me.’ David clears his throat. ‘I’ve met someone.’ He sneaks a look at Helen as if despite himself
‘What?’ Helen unscrews the cap from the water bottle and presses the lid into her bottom lip until it hurts. ‘What do you mean… someone? Who?’
‘It doesn’t matter, “who”.’ David grips the wheel, steadfast as always. ‘Just someone.’
Helen fits the lid back onto the bottle and twists it tight. ‘It doesn’t matter?’ Her voice is loud and shrill even though she knows David hates raised voices. She tries to block the visions of a twenty-something woman, her pristine ovaries perfect for making babies. ‘How long have you been fucking this someone?’ screams Helen.
‘Helen, listen. I thought we could use this weekend to talk things through… so we can settle things… as friends,’ says David.
‘How convenient for you,’ she says, adrenalin lashing at her ribcage. ‘Have you forgotten I might be pregnant?’ Her fist smashes his muscled arm but his arms are like steel poles that deflect the blows.
‘Be reasonable, Helen.’ David takes prides in being reasonable.
Helen stares ahead in disbelief, wondering when David baled. Another line from the song erupts: He couldn’t take no more abuse… She picks up his mobile and hurls it out the window. Yanking off her wedding ring she tosses it out too. Earrings and watch follow; tainted gifts.
‘Stop!’ David lunges for Helen’s wrist. ‘You’re out of control!’ The car swerves off the road into scrub then straddles an embankment. It comes to a standstill in a shallow dam.
‘You alright?’ asks David. He shakes her arm, roughly.
‘Never better,’ Helen says. She opens her door and water rushes inside. She steps into the dam and lands on all fours. It’s deeper than she expected.
David makes his way toward her, pulls her to her feet, trying to steer her out of the water. Helen shakes him off.
While David ferrets in the suitcase for a change of clothes, Helen bee-lines for the driver’s seat, starts the ignition and hits the accelerator, hard. In the rear-vision mirror she sees David shaking his fists, and dripping from the car’s blast of water.
Back on the highway, Helen adjusts the seat and mirrors to her suit her height, Carol King’s rhythm and lyrics now free-falling: Duh, da, duh, da… duh, da, duh, da… duh, duh, do-oo… so he shot down the congregation. With a tear-stained face she fills her lungs ready for the last line: You can’t talk to a man… when he don’t wanna understand… no, no… no, no, no.
The key is in the metre box as promised. Helen lets herself inside. Immediately she is struck by the ceiling to floor windows and views. For once the website promos haven’t exaggerated. Ocean and sky for as far as the eye can see – just clouds and birds and the odd sail boat. Inside the furnishings are minimalist but tasteful. A sumptuous sofa to stretch out on and endlessly gaze out to sea… in the bedroom, the king-size bed is angled towards a window where soft ferns snuggle amongst the gums. The whole place speaks of stillness – precisely what Helen needs for the next few days. Exhausted, she showers then heads straight for bed.
Underneath the doona Helen stretches her legs and arms in and out like a starfish. She checks her phone; three messages and twelve hang-ups from David. She deletes the lot then curls into a ball, big sobs at first and later, silent tears, like distilled water. She cups her hands across her belly and thinks about the tiny bean that might be there. Her eyelids are heavy and as they close, the faintest of a smile appears.
****About Helen Shoots the Messenger. This story, inspired by and interspersed with lyrics made famous by singer-songer writer Carol King, was short-listed and published in Page Seventeen Issue 10 in 2012, http://www.busybird.com.au/?p=1503