She shouldn’t use such language, not even in her head, but sometimes she can’t help it. A ripple of reluctant amusement swims up from her gut to her throat. Even after ten years, she still feels oddly surprised when he tracks her down, an involuntary thrill that comes after a flash of resentment which usually stems from the fact she still can’t comprehend how they got here, whereas he has never felt there was anything to comprehend. They’ve never agreed on whether it’s a question of faith.
She watches him approach in the side mirror of the car. Objects are closer than they appear. The car is five years old, bought after she moved back to Perth after attending college in the United States, yet she hasn’t removed this harmless sticker. After all, it is the perfect description of the two of them: they are closer than they appear.
She notes his laconic grin as he approaches the driver’s side window, like he’s a policeman who’s pulled her over to issue a half-hearted warning. It’s nearing seven in the evening on a balmy November’s day in Perth.
He taps on the window, the sleeve of his blue business shirt rolled up and showing his Rolex. ‘Licence and registration, ma’am.’
Suppressing her smirk, she turns to the passenger seat where her purchases sit pathetically in a plastic bag. An overpriced jar of cranberry sauce, a celery stick for his mother’s bloody Mary, and pre-prepared garlic bread that will need twenty minutes in the oven. Ashamed, she turns back to him to try to communicate that she feels bad for not taking the afternoon off work to help his mother cook the feast. He blinks blankly at her which is his way of confirming he already knew she felt bad and that she already knew he’d say there is no reason to feel bad, and that his regular joke about her propensity for intense Catholic guilt applies in this situation.
There is no need to try to communicate because it simply happens between them. To his credit, whenever she has these panic attacks about their relationship, he waits until he knows she is ready to see him again.
Knowing it would be ridiculous to continue sitting out here for another minute, a whole block down from her in-laws’ house, she takes a deep breath and opens the car door, the crucifix under her blouse cold against her flushed skin.
Her name is Katharine with an a in the middle, not an e. Her mother used to say ‘like Katharine Hepburn’ but in this day and age, this is as good as telling someone to get out their slide rule for a routine calculation.
The first time she met him, she was checking in for an assessment day at the University of Western Australia. A select group of Year 11s had been shortlisted for the second stage of tryouts for the two-week National Youth Science Forum to be held in Canberra over the summer. On reaching the front of the line, she looked down at the sign-in sheet to see Katherine with an e, upside down and wrong, and immediately told the volunteer behind the trestle table about the error before offering any niceties or introducing herself properly. The pimply volunteer stared at her, annoyed, and Katharine realised she had been blunt, so she apologised and started over, tugging ruefully at the cuffs of her Catholic school blazer as if she had more apologies up her sleeve.
The boy waiting behind her in line, who was taller than Katharine by a foot, said ‘Like Katharine Hepburn.’
She stepped to the side, unconsciously covering her stickered nametag with her hand, and did not look him in the eye when she turned, so distracted was she by the cascade of golden badges on his lapel. Prefect, public speaking, water polo, mock trials, surf lifesaving, cricket and community service. While his blazer was navy like hers, the Templeton Grammar crest was embroidered on his breast pocket. That was cause enough for her to walk away and find other students to talk to.
There was a social hierarchy in the gentrified, old money western suburbs that seemed to look down on her choice of co-educational, middle class education, and the Templeton crowd thought they were gods. She had a God already and wasn’t interested in false idolatry.
For some reason, she remained hyperaware of him during the introductory briefing in the small lecture theatre, during which he sat two rows above on the other side. The intensity of the odd buzzing in her chest was so distracting that at one point she completely forgot where she was and why she was there. It was though a crank was being wound with no known mechanism for release.
The unease continued into the first activity where they were randomly put into groups to build towers out of drinking straws and pins, and it was then, having been assigned to the same group of four, did she face him properly, only to be violently jolted as if both of her shoulders had been popped back in after being dislocated. The shock was visceral and in the moments after, the other two boys in the group, also from Templeton, regarded her with frightened alarm.
The white sticker label on his chest said ‘Cary’. His hair was the colour of wet sand, and he had one blue eye and one brown. Heterochromia, she thought, not knowing how she knew the exact name of this condition. Perhaps she had learnt it in Biology in years past.
He did not appear overly concerned at her strange episode, instead suggesting that they sit down and get started on the activity, with his first idea being to build a strong base for the tower. The other boys recovered and started to assemble a square base, strategically pinning the straws together an inch from the end and repeating layer after layer. Katharine sat kneeling on the floor, eerily still, her heart beating abnormally out of rhythm and her mind searching so hard for an explanation that her skull began to throb.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw an assessor frown, presumably at her non-involvement in the group activity. This was likely a test to judge teamwork, creativity and lateral thinking. Snapping out of it, she grabbed two straws and intervened, shoving it in a small gap the boys had unintentionally left at a juncture where straws intersected to make a corner.
‘Put the straws in the foundation, rather than attaching them to the exterior or interior. This will be stronger,’ she said. ‘Less pins, too. Re-pin that corner and we’ll build up, add a square tier, add four straw pylons, and so forth.’ She looked over at two of the other groups in view, one of which seemed to be toying with an Eiffel Tower design with a triangulated base. The other group had a very narrow foundation and seemed to be going purely for height, like a needle tower. ‘A scaffold makes sense. What exactly is the point of a tower with a two metre spike, anyway? Doesn’t exactly show any engineering innovation, does it?’
One of the boys sniggered at the other groups’ designs before turning back to her. ‘You’ve got a point, no pun intended. Not bad, Virgin Mary.’
She glared at him until he recoiled in fear. He must’ve heard the nickname from one of her classmates trying out today too. Cary picked up a pin and made a stabbing motion at his classmate. Katharine ignored him.
Their tower was the tallest in the end, as well as being the one most resembling a practical structure. Still, Katharine felt unsettled, unsure as to whether she wanted to run away from Cary or move towards him. In the end, she moved away and headed to the trestle table outside to grab a cream biscuit and a cup of watered down orange cordial. She needed to focus because after the break all students would be interviewed individually by a panel of three academics in different rooms.
She was initially skittish in the interview but answered all questions with well-thought out responses, except for the last one when she had to pause and explain her answer on what she considered to be one of the largest concerns for Western Australia’s regional environment. She had meant to say something related to mine sites, but she’d blurted out ‘salinity’.
‘Dryland salinity is affecting over one million hectares in this state. With land degradation on this scale, it’s a challenge for primary producers and all those involved with agriculture and food.’
After discussing groundwater trends, salinity risk mapping and evaporation basins for several minutes, a sense of bewilderment trapped Katharine in her chair as she realised she had never learnt any of this information and she did not know from where it was coming or why she was so confident it was accurate. One of the assessors, Professor Granville, appeared bewildered, too, at first and then, as if catching on to Katharine’s fraud, regarded her coolly even when the other two panellists nodded with enthusiasm.
When the assessment day was finished, she was so thrown, she deliberately took a bus to the city and walked around for an hour or two amongst the Saturday afternoon shoppers in Hay St and Murray St malls. In one of the more secluded arcades, she came across a small chocolate shop and decided to spend her pocket money on a truffle and hot chocolate, sitting at the window with a view of the adjacent church. The church was not her denomination but she felt better for its presence anyway. Purifying her, somehow.
The strangeness had made her feel possessed. Her American mother had been an Episcopalian minister back in the Carolinas, North and South, before she passed away from cancer when Katharine was five. If she were still alive, she would call it the work of the devil and call on all forms of fire and brimstone to rid Katharine of the ailment, before questioning her on whether she’d been keeping up her prayers and her bible study because how could the devil take hold if she was as faithful and pure as she claimed? Katharine stared at the dregs of hot chocolate in her mug and asked the question of herself. Something unexplained and frightening had occurred and she didn’t know if this Cary boy was the devil or whether she was the devil or whether neither of them were anything.
‘I know. We Templeton boys are devils.’
She was not startled by his appearance in the shop. She must’ve known he would find her, but the confirmation of her hunch was unwelcome. Relaxed, he removed his blazer and draped it on the seat opposite her before sitting down. Inching back, she tried to visualise an escape route but the shop was too pokey and the lone worker was too engrossed in a book to assume the second patron in the shop was anything but benign.
‘You stole my salinity answer,’ he added, smiling. ‘How’d you do it?’
‘I spoke to Professor Granville. He’s a family friend. Told me he had conferred with the interviewers in the other room, and apparently you and I had answers that were almost word-for-word the same for that question. Which is baffling because my family actually has a farm so I know all this stuff firsthand, and according to the lists that were posted, I interviewed at least fifteen minutes before you did. He asked me if you and I knew each other. Seemed like accidental collusion, he said.’
Katharine’s fingers tingled with pins and needles, as if the blood in her extremities was running backward. ‘That’s an oxymoron. You can’t accidentally collude.’
‘Sure you can. You didn’t know you were copying my answer.’
‘How did you find me?’ The edge to her voice made her cringe. Her father always said she was quietly feisty. This was proving the theory true.
Cary shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I just knew where you were. The way you reacted to me before the straw tower task, well, I’m guessing you felt what I felt when I saw you turn around in line.’ He pointed at the crest on his blazer, which hung at an angle as if weighed down by its privilege. ‘I saw you sneer at this by the way. We’re not all bad. Okay, we’re pretty full of ourselves, but sometimes it’s justified.’
‘Oh my God,’ she replied, finally registering the Professor’s suspicion. ‘Collusion. They think I cheated. I mean, I did cheat but I didn’t mean to. If I get selected, I’m going to have to withdraw.’
He waved his hand. ‘No, it’s fine. I said you and I were like this.’ He crossed his fingers, not to wish for something but to signal it was already a done deal.
A chill came over her throat, her vocal chords so icy she was surprised her breath didn’t come out in frost. ‘I don’t know you, and I don’t know why I was in your head or how you found me. Seems like witchcraft or black magic or… I don’t know what.’
‘All right, calm down. So it’s a bit spooky.’ He leaned forward, his excitement seeming genuine to Katharine, which irked her even more. ‘It’s frankly the most interesting thing that has happened to me all year. I’m not really interested in this nerd camp. I just had this feeling I had to try out for selection and, look, I found you.’
She instinctively knew to try and read him, gazing first into his blue eye and then the brown.
She saw too much. Even he realised this, looking down when he felt a vacating feeling in the back of his head, like wind rushing out a back door.
He heard the scraping of her chair, the scraping of the plate as she pushed the half-eaten chocolate at him, and the scraping of his fingernails as he clambered for purchase under his chair.
Cary is buoyant when he steps into his parents’ kitchen, Katharine in tow. Cary Sr greets them each with a bear hug and Liesel hops excitedly, waiting for her turn. Katharine feels even more embarrassed when Liesel takes her hand and shows her to the dining room, where there is a full turkey dinner, complete with hearty sides and a pecan pie for dessert. The room smells of gravy, pumpkin and spice. They’ve brought out the ‘good china’ and the ‘good silver’, two terms Katharine has always been confused about because what exactly is ‘bad china’ and ‘bad silver’?
‘Thank you,’ she manages to say.
Liesel is the what the locals call a ‘Claremont mum’. She doesn’t work, with her main focal points being keeping her husband happy, chasing after her kids, dressing in Lululemon active wear even when not being active, going to pilates when she does feel like being active and spending an inordinate amount of time brunching and shopping at the local mall, Claremont Quarter, before starting on the drinks early. Katharine has wanted to resent her for some time because her life is so much easier than others, yet she can’t bring herself to because she is so pleasant. Like in this case where she has thrown her a Thanksgiving dinner, and actually cooked some of these dishes herself, to make up for Katharine’s father not being around to celebrate this year because of his Catholic missionary work in Africa.
Cary Sr brings in the cranberry sauce. ‘Good work, Katharine. We forgot to pick this up from the Boatshed when we picked up the turkey. Thanks for fetching it after work.’
There’s a pause, much like the delay on a satellite call. She forgets sometimes that she needs to respond verbally to people. ‘Not a problem. Sorry it took me a while. Stirling Highway was a nightmare.’
She doesn’t say she also had a panic attack for five minutes outside because she is sure Cary wants to try for a baby now that she has a secure positon in academia at the Catholic university in Fremantle. She just knows this is what he feels his life purpose happens to be, which makes sense because he honestly cannot find any type of work that he can envisage himself doing long-term and even though she wants to say it’s because he has grown up with everything being handed to him, including her, she knows it’s not that at all. She intimately knows the anxiety he gets from trying so hard but still not being able to find his path. He took six years to finish his business degree. After that, he had work experience in marketing, property management, and management consulting before undertaking his teaching diploma and getting a part-time job at Templeton. The only part of his day where his mind stops whirring is when he is with her, so by extension, a child would ground him in the best way possible.
She knows he has been trying to quieten his anxiety by exercising daily and flooding his brain with endorphins. Out of the two of them, she has been able to exist for longer periods of time without him being physically around. He, however, suffers.
She remembers those four years where she chose to study Theology at Notre Dame in Indiana, leaving behind the boy she hardly knew but knew better than anyone else. Perhaps she knew it was fine for her to do as she pleased, having seen flashes of his future in his blue eye and flashes of his past in his brown. The fixed points in time were dots that would be connected. There was no need to rush.
Often, she doesn’t feel the wedding ring on her finger. She still harbours nerves about calling him her husband in case one day they wake up and the otherworldly connection has snapped and they realise it really was a spell or a fugue or the work of Satan.
Cary enters the dining room from the opposite end, sporting a pilgrim’s hat made out of paper. Grinning, he bounds over to Katharine, the hat flying off from his exuberance and landing in the mashed yams, the gold buckle glinting at her like a square ring.
It was just after Thanksgiving in her sophomore year of college when Cary got onto a plane and tracked her down in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she’d travelled to spend the holiday with her mother’s family. This was the time when Facebook was a new invention and smartphones had only just come onto the market. It’s easy to stalk someone these days. Not so much back then.
She had avoided the Black Friday sales but was now ready to venture out and scavenge for any leftover bargains at the local mall. In some stores, sorting through items was like picking at a turkey carcass. Merchandise was thrown over hangers and railings, left untouched by weary sales assistants. Undeterred, she persisted and figured she’d give Macy’s a go. Her style was more conservative than other women her age anyway, so perhaps there were still items in her size.
As she meandered in the department store, rifling through racks and tables, an inward pulling sensation began to hurt her side. Rather than fright, she was overcome with anger. What on earth was he doing, flying from halfway across the globe?
Determined, she strode down to meet him before he could ‘find’ her, except all her anger dissipated when the sheer force of his oncoming sadness made it difficult for her to breathe. Her lungs felt like they were being crushed and twisted. She waited, breathless, in the designer handbags area, unable to go further into the perfume department.
They stood a foot apart and said nothing. His face was grey, his eyes sunken, and he was dressed in a short sleeved polo shirt and creased chinos as if he woke up two mornings ago in Australia and headed to the airport without a plan and without much more than a backpack, and had proceeded to take four flights over thirty-seven hours to reach her.
Oh, she thought. That is exactly what he had done. What an idiot. He readily agreed with this assessment, but in his defence, he had not been in contact, just like she had specifically requested in a fraught phone call two months ago.
The last time she was in Perth, during the American summer, she had let him into her house and, in tiredness and curiosity and undeniable attraction, let him into her bedroom as well.
Thinking of that day, he thought about asking whether she was still pissed off about not having saved herself for marriage, but he understood she wasn’t angry about it anymore, just ashamed that the lustful memories returned to her in church. One of the university’s chaplains had told her to stop confessing the same sin every week. It was done. No need for more Hail Marys. This amused Cary.
Witchcraft, she thought. This whole thing is witchcraft. She had actually tried to research love spells, even visiting wiccan conventions and mystical stores to try and find answers. Last month, she’d quizzed an Indonesian student in her history class who firmly believed in black magic, and he had taken her to his visiting shaman friend in Chicago who could, amongst other things, sense when magic had been used.
All the shaman had done was say Katharine had some form of ‘sight’, which was a ‘fact’ completely incongruent with her faith and beliefs system.
Cary whimpered, his tired body swaying from the effort of staying upright. In the harsh yellow lighting of a nearby neon display, his skin appeared jaundiced. He wasn’t going to last much longer without sleep, especially not if the adrenalin was tapering off.
You’re the devil, she thought to herself. You do this to him.
His relief at being reunited with her radiated in her bones, a dull ache to which she would eventually become accustomed. He couldn’t seem to function without her. Perhaps she was a parasite, sucking out all his life force. Or maybe she was more grounded because she had her faith, which would be ironic in the circumstances.
She hauled him out of Macy’s and told him to concoct a plausible story for her extended family, only for him to say he couldn’t think because all he could hear were her prayers for forgiveness.
After dinner, Cary’s parents retire to the deck to share a bottle of red wine, leaving the younger couple to retire upstairs to Cary’s childhood bedroom. The Templeton blazer hangs on a hook on the wall, both lapels adorned with achievements, shouting words he can no longer sustain. Katharine stares up at a poster of a test cricketer before obliging Cary and sitting next to him on the bed, letting him hold onto her tightly, pressing his lips into her hair.
He is murmuring ‘encyclopedia’. There is a Microsoft Encarta 97 CD-ROM sitting on the shelf next to his water polo trophies. The annual digital encyclopedia their generation relied on before the internet existed.
‘What do you mean?’ she asks out loud.
What he means is that she knows all about him, is omniscient, an encyclopedia. Growing up, he did not know whether it was spelt encyclopedia or encyclopaedia, and he soon learned that there was an intermediate vowel in between a and e: æ, an old English runic letter named ash. She is Katharine with an ash because there is something hidden, conjoined and unable to be pronounced, and in his opinion – an opinion she has discounted before – it’s possible their connection was a gift from her God, meaning all along she has been uncorrupted, the salt of his earth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Belinda Hermawan works in Digital Communications for writingWA, Western Australia’s peak body for literature. She sits on the committee for the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival and is a former president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers WA. Her short fiction has appeared in Australian literary journals ‘Westerly’ and ‘Going Down Swinging’.