That laugh

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” ― L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between. For me, the 70’s were not so much another country as another universe,

They officially met in art school, although he’d been admiring her from afar in the college canteen for a while. In his third year of social work, he was allowed to choose an elective subject offered anywhere in the college for a semester. He chose film-making in the art school because it seemed the least worst of the options available. In the first lesson, there she was. Selena. The moon goddess. With long, straight jet-black hair, a crooked smile that hinted she was in on any mystery you could think of, a deep-throated, uninhibited laugh and clothes that instantly said art school, but then again maybe not.

Over the next few weeks, he did his best to engage her without scaring her off, until one day she approached him. ‘I’m doing the sound recording for a friend’s short film on Saturday and I need a boom operator. Are you available?’ I didn’t bother going through the motions of pretending to check my diary. ‘Sure, where and when?’

‘It’s all here, including my phone number’ she said, handing me a note. ‘Just in case you’re under any illusions about film-making, it will be as boring as batshit most of the time’. Then she laughed. That laugh.

She was not wrong. In a freezing corrugated iron shed, a minimal interior set had been constructed. An hour was spent getting the lighting right but when the sole actress did a walk through of the scene, the woman director decided she was casting unaesthetic shadows, so the lighting had to be re-set. The director then took the actress aside for another half an hour to ensure she was ‘centred’ on what needed to be conveyed in the scene, which contained all of three lines. As the only male there, I tried to be inconspicuous but it proved near impossible in that cramped arctic ‘studio’.

Finally, all was set to go, much to my boredom’s relief. I held the boom mike through more takes than even Hitchcock would have dared before the director pronounced herself satisfied and declared lunch. Two hours later, the crew ambled back. Rinse and repeat of the morning’s glacial progress until the director called it a day, with precisely 60 seconds of her five-minute grant-funded masterpiece completed.

It was already winter dark as we exited Siberia and I ventured to Selena ‘Fancy a bite to eat?’ As if surprised, she said ‘OK but it’ll have to be quick because I’m meeting friends for a movie later.’ In the op-shop chic café we talked for the next three hours. I was still none the wiser as to whether I had a chance with her but being in her company was enough for now. We went our separate ways eventually.

Next week I asked if she like to go for a meal and then see the movie she’d missed. Again she looked at me curiously before saying ‘Is it OK if we skip the movie? I’ve heard it’s crap.’ Then she laughed. That laugh.

So the meal happened, inviting me back to her place for coffee happened, drinking red wine happened and then you know what happened next. As the weeks unfolded, we decided we wanted to be seriously together and, after a couple of hilarious weekends house-hunting while pretending to be a fastidiously clean and responsible couple in a long-term relationship, we found a house we could afford on our meagre stipends and settled in.

All went well for a while. We shared the cleaning (yes, including the toilet and shower), the shopping and the cooking. Given  our collective meagre skills in that department, stir-fries with rice became a staple and we ate out whenever we could afford it.

Then came the change. One night she announced that she was changing her name from Selena to Simone. This was not an uncommon phenomenon at the time and, besides, it had the advantage of not having to change her signature.

Then came the announcement that she was now a sculptural artist. Being a Philistine from a working- class suburb (as distinct from Simone who came from a wealthy leafy suburb and had visited art galleries regularly as she grew up) I enthusiastically welcomed this life-changing direction, without a clue as to what it meant.

I found out what it meant when she was invited to exhibit a piece in a group collection at a gallery. Her ‘artistic sculpture’ consisted of ‘found objects’ from the local tip, including a rubbish bin and several burnt out electrical appliances, and a number of pieces of gauze material wafting over them driven by a functioning electric fan. She called it “The Ephemera of the Universe”. I told her I found it deeply moving but elusive and she glowed. Unfortunately a red dot eluded her and one rainy Saturday afternoon she asked me to recycle it to where it had originated.

Shortly afterwards, we attended a party held by one of her artist friends, who had several of her works on display in her home. Pride of place was given to a fabric covered stuffing representing a stylised vagina, complete with pubic hair fashioned from steel wool. All male guests were encouraged to insert their fingers in the ‘vagina’ to demonstrate their lack of fear of it. I dutifully did so, then yelped in pain as my hand made contact with its barbed wire interior. Every woman, including Simone, laughed. Not that laugh. A different one. Underneath the ‘sculpture’ was a hall stand with disinfectant and Band-aids. I began to reach for them and Simone whispered fiercely in my ear that these were ironic inclusions in the piece and pointed me to the bathroom.

Nothing prepared me for the next development. As we slipped between the covers one night and I started making some preliminary connubial moves, she not so much said as exploded ‘I’m pregnant’. Her anger was visceral and palpable. She threw off the arm I had draped across her belly and said ‘The idea of sleeping with you just makes me want to vomit’ and stormed off to sleep on the couch.

I lay awake all night, wondering about what I had just experienced and what I should do next. I had an early class the next day, where I had to make a presentation, so I sidled out the back door, without breakfast. When I returned in the afternoon, she announced that the lounge room was now her bedroom. A glance through the door suggested what I can only imagine was her idea of an artist’s studio. The wafting flimsy fabric had returned. She stood up, slammed the door shut, turned and said ‘You need to give me $300.’ To my quizzical face she said ‘For your half of the abortion.’ I could feel my face had gone grey and clammy and my heart was racing.

I regained enough composure to venture ‘Can’t we at least talk about this? I think the idea of us having a baby is wonderful and I…’ She cut me off savagely and spat out ‘It’s my body and it’s my decision. Just get the money!’

And I did. On the day of the deed, she came into the kitchen to say the friends who were going to take her to the clinic had let her down and I was going to have to drive her. We’d barely pulled up when she dove from the car without a backward glance. Some hours later she returned, pale and distressed. That night she returned to our bedroom for the last time, seemingly to ensure that I experienced the full agonies of her pain and her regular vomiting over the side of the bed.

The next day, I packed up my modest possessions and went to sleep on the floor of the spare room at my brother’s place. The entire extent of his curiosity consisted of ‘What happened?’ We split’. ‘Bummer’.

But what do you say to people that doesn’t re-live the pain of losing what you imagined was the love that had eluded you thus far, of losing your first child when its existence had barely began, of telling the basics of the story and hearing ‘Well, she has a point’ from women and ‘Ah, better off out of it, mate’ from men? So I learned to say nothing. Besides, the grapevine of mutual friends told me that she was telling anyone that would listen that I was an oppressor of women.

Some years later, the same grapevine told me that she was now married to a business executive and was a doting stay-at-home mother in a leafy well-heeled suburb.

I was living with a schoolteacher at the time and one Sunday afternoon she suggested we get out of the house and check out the fete that had been organised by a nearby posh school. We’d barely entered the grounds when I heard the laugh. That laugh.

She was seated behind a table under a marquee, selling raffle tickets to fund-raise for a sculpture for the kindergarten playground. A couple of blonde moppets interrupted her briefly for more spending money and then she was joined by someone I presumed to be her husband. He had the full imaginary country landowner kit, including the Akubra hat, the blue-checked shirt, the moleskins and the RM Williams boots. Some would have called him stocky but it was apparent that he was already running to fat. He went to kiss her and she turned her face aside and seemingly good-naturedly shooed him away.

And then she looked up and saw me. Her gaze froze. Her husband seemingly asked what was wrong and she must have told him because he followed her gaze to me. We looked into each other’s eyes for a few moments. He blinked first and sidled away, while Serena pretended to take great care to ensure her name badge was perfectly straight.

18 thoughts on “That laugh

  1. Great story; how often do we hear the chap’s side of things? I love the brother’s reaction and then the general reaction of others. Women do some terrible things – some women – but no one dares to say that!


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