Perilous Adventures
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The Other Side

by Theresa Layton

Herbal PosyAdelaide has two points of pride – it was not settled by convicts and it is the driest city in the driest state in the driest continent.  The streets stretch in a grid north-south, east-west between the hills and the sea. In the eastern suburbs where the old money lives, blue-stone cottages are fronted by gardens where Queen Adelaide roses, cooch grass and blue gums fight for water. At dusk, the sea breeze forgives these suburbs. 
But out here, up North, away from the beaches and the old trees, the breeze never arrives.  I grew up here, I'm raising my kids here.  In the front yard front James and Ian are playing cricket.  Fish from next door is fielding. James swings at a tennis ball under the mallee box gum.  Dust rises in small puffs around his calves.  I think of calling them in to clean up for dinner, calm them down.  But this fibro house is too hot, too unforgiving.  Instead, from the kitchen window I watch James get caught one-hand-one-bounce and Fish celebrate using his best Shane Warne impersonation. 

Behind me Joe, my husband, sets the table and drinks a West End Draft from an Adelaide Crows stubby holder. 

"Look what one of the boys has done," he says lifting his beer.

The "r" has been coloured in with a black texta. "Adelaide Cows," he explains and laughs.

He is looking at me. I don't look up. Instead I rip the foil off the take away chicken.

"Those boys," he adds mostly to himself.  He turns back to the table and opens a packet of printed paper serviettes left over from Christmas. The Santas smile from the napkins in their woolly red suits making the room seem hotter.

I wipe greasy steam from my face with the sleeve of my t-shirt. Joe is trying to navigate around the mood that settled over me a week ago.  He does not know that as I pull apart the red rooster chicken and stir the gravox, I am silently grieving the death of my lover.

During dinner the kids behave too well – they think it is their fault, this change in me that I cannot explain to them.  Joe talks too much, shows an interest that makes them suspicious.  James the eldest watches me, searching, trying to understand the new lay of the land.  He gnaws at a chicken wing and finishes his peas. He never finishes his peas. I want to ruffle his messy blonde hair, let him know it's going to be alright, but I am too heavy.

After dinner, dishes, showers and pyjamas I lie awake as the fridge rumbles through the thin fibro walls and a possum thumps on the roof.  I toss and turn, throw off my stained singlet in a fervour of heat.  Next to me Joe sighs.  He knows nothing is right.  My silence, distant stares, the take away meals – it's all off centre. 

Joe turns toward me, puts his arm across my hip – a familiar gesture. He wants sex because he thinks it fixes things, but tonight, with Steve's death scene looping through my thoughts, I cannot. I flinch at Joe's touch.

"Righto," Joe says "you gunna tell me what's wrong?"

"Just not in the mood," I say with my back still turned.

"That's not what I meant." He sighs. The mattress groans as he shifts onto his back. I lie still.  He waits. Asks again.  I reply with silence. Eventually he sighs, rolls away and begins to breathe slowly.

For two years I've been unfaithful.  I've straddled Joe and moved my hips to the rhythm of another man and Joe never noticed - didn't notice my new smell, my new distant smile, the extra glass of wine at night, the dozens of books I've read while Joe falls asleep, how I've stopped complaining about long days alone in the house.  

The first time Steve and I went to bed, I returned home filled with lust, excitement and a sense of power I hadn't felt since I had the boys.  My stomach held butterflies. That first night home, freshly showered but still smelling of lust, I undressed facing Joe trying to catch his eye. I threw my shoulders back, sucked in my stomach, shook my hair down and arrived in the bedroom wearing my only camisole.

"Jeez I'm buggered," he said untying his work boots.

"Not too buggered," I flirted back filled with the headiness of my new sexual power and the thrill of the forbidden.

He looked up.

"You could make a dead man wake up lookin' like that Suz," he said.

And with that I straddled him.  I was still wet from being with Steve. I wondered if this was how prostitutes felt – disembodied.

"Well Heello," Joe said as he grabbed my hips "aren't you lovely."

Underneath me, as he moved to his rhythm and I to Steve's, he felt all wrong. His touch was firm where Steve's was soft, his hands grabbed my hips where Steve's wandered, he went fast where Steve went slow.  I couldn't stay in the fantasy and wished I hadn't started it.

I let Joe finish quickly and noiselessly while I stared at the headboard with an actresses smile.

I rolled off quickly and pulled the sheets up. The room was musty and close.

"Want me to finish you?" he asked. I got up, pretended I needed water.  I stayed in the kitchen, thinking about Steve, until Joe called out "Suz, you coming back?" 

Thump. Hiss. Above me the possum is still looking for a mate. In two years Joe hasn't noticed – is it because women like me, nice girls, with stained t-shirts, frizzy hair, undyed roots and short practical nails don't have affairs -  we pick-up, drop-off, mop and cook.   Or is he just a straight up kind of man who believes in for better or worse,  takes what he gets, works on the line at Holden and rolls into bed too tired to do much else?

In the morning I walk in on Joe masturbating in the shower and I walk out before he sees me.


The kids leave for school in a bustle of backpacks, vegemite sandwiches, cheese sticks, pencil cases, and library books.  Joe pecks me on the top of the head when he leaves. Says nothing.

When the house empty I sit down with a cup of Lipton tea. 

There is no longer anyone in the world to stoke my hair away from my ears, tell me I'm beautiful, listen to my small stories, shave my legs in the bath, kiss me until I'm giddy.  I only stole one afternoon a week.

The vinyl chair bites at the back of my legs as my tea goes cold.  I light one of Joe's Peter Jacksons.  I cough dryly – I haven't smoked since the kids. Big Ball of String sits in the middle of the table, left behind again. The library date stamp reads two days before Steve died.  I run my fingers over the purple ink.

I pick up the telephone and punch Steve's number in a small well rehearsed pattern.

"Ah my beautiful," he'd say softly.

"Hello my handsome," I'd reply.

Then we'd laugh and make plans.

But instead the machine kicks in. "I'm not here.  Or maybe I'm gardening.  Or having a bevy.  Either way, leave me a message".  Beeeep.

I dial again.  And then again.  And then again.  His voice, his beautiful voice. I don't know his daughter is sitting by his answering machine, surrounded by packing boxes, listening the message too.

James needs to be picked up from Salsbury Plains Primary in half an hour. The School Dentist. Walking to the bathroom I pick up a trail of remote control trucks, cricket pads and a discarded muesli bar wrapper.  In the bathroom mirror my eyes are dry, red and puffy. Splash splash.  It doesn't help.  I pull my limp hair into a high ponytail.  That doesn't help either. I pull out my hay-fever tablets and leave them conspicuously on the kitchen table. 


It's Saturday.  Funeral day. I tell Joe I'm going to the supermarket and having my legs waxed.  Black heels and silver earrings hide in my handbag. Still covering bases.

"Keep an eye on the kids."

He looks up from the motor racing, watches me as I hook my bag over my shoulder.


"Yep," I snap.

"Do something nice for yourself eh?"

I look away, blink dryly and pull the door hard behind me.

I pull up in front of Steve's house.  The funeral starts in an hour. Old Jacaranda trees shade the bluestone houses and their well kept lawns. I keep the car running and the air-conditioner going. I wind my window down a little and tap out cigarette ash.  The smell keeps reminding me of Joe but I smoke it anyway.  Betty from number 103 collects her mail and picks dead flower-heads from her red rosebush.  In white van parked a few houses up, a plumber is loading tools into the tray of his Falcon ute.  A sticker on the back tray reads: Your shit is my bread and butter.

Finishing my smoke, I get out of the car, grind the butt under my sandals and walk around the back.  The gravel is crunchy and loud. He'll know I'm coming I think out of habit. 

The house looks asleep, the blinds are drawn.  But his old Alfa Romeo is still in the driveway. Ready.

Around the back, the apricot tree has dropped the last of its fruit.  Cherry tomato bushes are laden and droop from their load.  Paint peels from the shed and I imagine Steve's red secateurs on the workbench.  A watering can sits under the tap. 

The gravel path turns to grass as I approach the leafy edge of a large sycamore and stand at the border of the shade.  My heart pounds. For the last 5 days the words of Steve's death have drummed a morbid march in my head - found, garden, quick, heart attack, 4 days, rats, flies. I tell myself it couldn't have really been him, not really, decomposing alone in the shade of this tree – but I’ve seen those shows, read the books, I know what days of death does.  A fly buzzes past my ear. I wonder if the same fly hovered over his body. I stare into the damp patchy grass under the tree searching for a sign of where he lay.  All I find are shifting shadows. The afternoon heat rustles at the Sycamore. I shiver. As I turn away, thoughts of his body bother at my grief.

I collect a strange posy for the funeral - cherry tomatoes, violets, mint and some wattle that has just finished flowering. I hold my strange little assortment together with a wrap of alfoil. I like how it crunches into place around the stems.

At the funeral I hold a floral handkerchief between my hands and twist it, blow into it, and twist it again.  At my feet is a shopping bag with the posy in it. 

A thin woman squeezes past me into the pew. We sit in silence for a while.

"How did you know him?" she asks.

"I didn't really," I say amazed at how the lie falls out.  "He was a friend of my husband's - he can't make it."

"Lovely you came," she says.

I imagine telling her he was my lover. That he loved my pale skin, named the freckle just above my left breast, stroked my hair for hours while we talked. 

As the church fills to overflowing I see his children.  They are older than the yellowing photos on his dresser; the daughter is in her late 20s and looks like him. The son looks like Steve's ex wife who is sitting quietly in a pew with her new husband.   

Bruce gives the eulogy. I know his name, they went way back.  Bruce is bearded and balding with deep smile lines.  An outdoor life has tanned his face. I imagine the two of them in the corner of a pub, wine in hand, deep in discussion over a strange looking endangered plant. They work together at the Adelaide Royal Botanical Gardens. I correct the tense in my head – they worked together…


When I called days ago, it was Bruce who answered Steve's office phone.

"Who's calling?" he asked.

"Just a friend," I replied quickly, taken aback. Steve always answered.

"Oh God," he'd said with a soft voice "he died."

He tried to gently layout the words of his death. I hung up saying nothing.

As he reads from his notes, I see an image of Steve's corpse; eyes open to the crows, under the Sycamore. I twist and twist my handkerchief and the woman next to me squeezes my arm. I wonder what she thinks.

After the service people gather behind the coffin.  The white ladies pass out flowers and people place them on the lid.  I wait until everyone is done before I place my posy on the large wooden box. The cherry tomatoes shine against the coffin. I whisper 'I love you' into my handkerchief and slip away, out of sight, into my car.  I don't have the right and yet I have every right.  I want to scream and am utterly humiliated.  I rest my head on the steering wheel and catch my breath.  Eventually I light a Peter Jackson and smoke it slowly; then I light another and another until I am numb enough to drive. 

Behind me, the eldest daughter watches me and knows.  She catches my eye. I look away.

I start the engine, put it into gear and head for High Street.  I've got some shopping to do, some legs to wax.


A month later I'm standing behind a man at the bank when his aftershave reaches me and I find myself leaning in wanting to inhale his skin. It is him.  Just for a moment. It's him. I'm lifted.

Late that night, after midnight, I tell Joe I'm going out for period pain pills.

"Now?" he mumbles.  "Can't you just take a panadol?"

I turn on the bedside lamp and enjoy how he flinches under the light.

"Wouldn't kill you to offer," I snap.

He stretches his body as if to get up. He starts to push off the covers.

"Too late to offer now."

I slam the front door behind me and then remember the boys are sleeping.

I drive to Eagle's Nest where there's a 24 hour chemist. I buy the aftershave from a pimply faced kid who serves me while reading a text message. There is no-one else in the car park so I sit inhaling the spicy sweet alcohol until I feel sick.  Opening the door I throw up on the asphalt.  I swill water, spit and light a cigarette to calm me down.

I remember how we tumbled, full and tipsy, into bed where we laughed as he twisted off my wedding ring and placed it in the little silver bowl on his bedside table.  "For safe keeping" he'd say with a smile as he rolled toward me. He'd stroke my skin for hours, call me his angel.

I unzip my jeans and masturbate.  I orgasm looking into an orange street light and feel completely empty. 
When I climb into bed next to Joe he's neatened my side and put a hot water bottle in the bed.  I scrunch the pillow tightly under my head.


Between Wednesdays I collected time in lists written on the inside flap of an old envelope:

What is the colour of the night sky at sunset?


I see the boys of summer in their ruin;

Why aren't there words to describe smell?

First sip of tea;

Saturday's sunset through bushfire smoke

Ian's laugh.

Each week I made these small offerings of my life to Steve.

The last Wednesday we sat on the back porch drinking red wine and shelling peas.  I told him he made me feel visible, that in my other life I was transparent.  He held my hand tight, looked into me and me I turned from glass to solid.  My toes tingled. I was someone.

He devoured my small observations.

"Susie," he said "I am going to find the colour of the night sky and give it to you." 

The other list of omo; pasta; toothpaste; Sard soap; instant coffee; Weetbix; and apples reminded me of what was right. I tucked it back into my handbag.

Joe found my Steve list once. He was adding AA batteries somewhere between the milk and a tin of tomatoes.
"What's this?" he asked opening and closing the flap of the envelope.

"Just a funny thing I do," I said startled.

"Now how do you prepare the young to meet the old?" he read from the list putting on a posh voice, "did you write that?"

"It's a quote from that book I'm reading."

"White Teeth," he said and bared his own teeth as he clacked his jaw together.  He did that every time he saw book on my bedside table.  It got under my skin. He was proud to remember its name. Then he looked inside the envelope as if he were expecting something to crawl out.

"They're nothing," I said "Just funny thoughts." Guilt and panic crept up my neck and onto my cheeks in a red flush.

"Don't be embarrassed Suz. I think it's nice.  Weird…but nice."

"Don't condescend to me," I snapped.

"Never!" replied Joe still smiling. "Honestly Suz, I think it's a good thing for you to do. You've always had that other side."

I tucked the envelope back under the old peanut butter jar of pens.

He smiled and tapped me on the bottom as he yelled out "Boys! Pyjamas and teeth.  Teeeeeth. Teeth!
"Teeth Teeth" he whispered at me, snapping his jaw and heading down the hall grinning.

I stood in the kitchen, eyes closed and propped up only by the bench.

A few nights later, as Joe and the boys chewed open mouthed on hotdogs drowned in tomato sauce, Joe suggested we all start keeping a list.

"Things we notice each day," he explained "to talk about at dinner," he added resolutely. He looked at me expecting approval.

"I bet you didn't know your Mum kept a list like that," he said.

"Great," said Ian sarcastically "Parent homework," and rolled his eyes.

I looked down, fingered my hot dog.

Outside the neighbour's bull mastiff started barking. "Bloody thing," said Joe and took a bite of his hotdog.  The idea was buried.


Ian and James are playing in the Northern District's under 13s cricket tournament.  It's the end of the season.  The weather has changed but we still wait for the rain.  The smell of grass, dust, lemon cordial and eucalyptus drifts across the oval. I'm thinking about Steve.  I'm always thinking about Steve.  I'm tired of thinking about Steve.

James and Ian are in boundary positions.  They look bored.  Long smudged grass stains colour their white trousers. They chew gum. 

When my mobile rings I don't recognise the number.


"Hello.  This is Sophie.  Steve's daughter."

My head spins.  I feel like a fox caught in headlights. Stunned, I move away from the other parents.

"How did you get my number?"

"I found it in Dad's address book.  And his organiser."

"I'm watching my son's play cricket," I sound wooden.

I sit on the edge of a bench seat and look out across the oval.  The cricket ball clacks and a little white figure runs after it. 

"You're the woman from the funeral," she says. It is more of a statement than a question.

"Yes. I had to leave early."

"I knew Dad was seeing someone," she says

I wonder what else she knows.

"How is the cricket going?" she asks. I like her for holding up the conversation.

"Your Dad would have put more players in slips," I reply

"That was always his solution." She laughs.

Tentatively we began to paint a collage of him - his bad taste in furniture, the terrible puns he made, his delicious apricot jam, his obsession with Buddy Holly, how he loved test cricket, his obsession with endangered plans that looked like weeds.  She begins to deal memory after memory – like playing cards slapped on a table. How they played French cricket until there was no light left, how she used to twirl under his arm to "shake, rattle and roll".  I don't tell her how I miss the sunspots on the back of his hands, the hairs across his chest, his smell.

"I'd do anything for one more conversation with him," she says.

"I know. I know," I say.

My head still overflows with small pieces of chatter, strange collections of ideas that no longer have a place in the world.  Weeks have turned into months but I keep collecting these words for Steve – envelope after envelope.  They are piled up in the darkness of an old drawer – a graveyard of dead letters.

"I'm married," I say.  Once blurted, it feels ugly.

I pick at the peeling paint on the bench seat while I wait.  I half expect her to hang up.

"Jesus," she says quietly "this must have been impossible."

And with that my grief overflows.  I put my head in my hands and sob.  I forget to breathe.  My hands sweat, my chest aches.  And this young woman, who I do not know, stays with me on the phone. "I'm sorry," I say "I'm so sorry."

Neither of us knows who I'm apologising to.

Driving home from the cricket, the boys give each other dead arms in the back.  There is a lightness in my chest that I haven't felt in months. "I'm sorry" plays over in my head.  I am apologising to Steve, to Joe, to my boys, to myself.

James finds an empty cigarette packet under the seat.  "Muuum" he says jiggling the packet, smiling like the cat that got the cream.  I give him my best "don't try me" look and then smile at him in my rear view mirror. He smiles back and goes back to hitting Ian. 

When I get home, the boys sprint outside to play match highlights.  They argue about best wickets. At the sink I find myself smiling.

Joe walks up beside me and says nothing.  We watch Ian swing at a ball and spin himself around in a circle. He falls on the grounds in a laughing heap, James piles on top of him and they begin to wrestle. Joe squeezes my hand but I don't squeeze it back; I don't pull away either. 



Theresa LaytonTheresa Layton's writing reflects her fascination with people's dark places and the grey world between right and wrong.

She began her creative writing journey six years ago with Kathy Kituai, an Australian poet and author, and has twice attended the Taos Writer's Conference where she studied with writers including Sean Murphy, Daniel Mueller and Jesse Lee Kercheval.

She is a compulsive observer of people who constantly scribbles conversations and gestures on scraps of paper.

The Other Side is the first piece Theresa has submitted for either publication or a competition.


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