“Daddy, how did you meet Mummy?”
I looked at the eight year old blonde angel next to me in the coffee shop and smiled. I had asked my mother-in-law if Jenny had looked like this, the photos all seemed so flat and lifeless. She’d told me, “Peter always called her ‘my little angel’ and she seemed to have such life in her when she was tiny. But to me there was always just a little too much of the devil’s gleam in her eye for her to be all angel.” I knew then that Jenny had looked like this. It frightened me, the pictures of Jenny in her teens reminded me that my littlest girl would be breathtakingly good looking and pursued by dozens of pimply faced boys intent on one thing. Cathy, her half sister, was bad enough at 14 to scare me as she started ‘dating.’
My mind went back and I was sitting outside the Women’s Sport’s Association facing the green of the playing fields and the modern cream brick of the Education building. There is a row of plastic outdoor tables and chairs on what is probably meant to be a path, a thin concrete strip between building and playing field that is home to three oval plastic tables and a dozen or so chairs – overflow from the dozen or so tables in the coffee shop.
She walked up to the table, “Can I sit here?” I glanced up and fixed on a pair of large bright dark eyes set in a classic face with a pair of slightly pouting ruby lips and blonde hair falling over a shoulder.
“Sure.” I returned to my book but Roger Penrose’s thoughts on physics didn’t have the sweet sensuous note of the slight scent that reached across the table. My eyes kept flicking glances up from the book to catch more detail.
Flick, she’s loosely twisting the long blonde hair and throwing it over her shoulder.
Flick, her eyes half-lidded as she writes in a notepad.
A small gold circle piercing one ear and a small silver stud in the other.
A somehow serious half smile on full lips.
I start to take longer looks, watching her as she continued to do some work. I watch as she holds the hair back with her left hand and continues writing with the other. Then, as the hair continues to fall she stops writing, head still down to read the textbook beside the notepad, she twists it up into a bun and holds it tight with her left hand. She picks up the pen and I lust after a scrunchie so I could tie back her hair for her. Then a spare pencil gets pushed into it, holding it back.
Paula sat down in the chair next to mine. Paula and I had spent 8 months as part of a group studying English for adult Uni admission. “Hi, Jenny,” she said to the young woman, “where were you this morning? Almost nobody was at the tut.” A surfeit of information in two simple sentences. My silent companion had a name. She was, like me, a first year and also studying English. That made a first guess at her age 19. A pity, too young for me and I had earlier guessed mid 20s, still young but conceivable for a mid 30s mature age student like myself.
How had I missed seeing her in lectures? Well with 700 First Year English students there are hundreds of people in each of the lectures and each lecture is given twice. Such is life at a large University. That was one thing that changed, I started seeing her around the Uni. Coming out of a lecture, going to a tutorial, she was another student I recognised, could put a name to.
“Daddy!!” “Oh, sorry angel. Just thinking back. You’re mummy and I met at Uni. We were both studying English.” “But how did you get together?”
She came back to the same coffee shop for lunch, this time she arrived with Paula and was much more chatty. There were several friends there and the conversation moved along. It transpired she had worked for a while before starting at Uni. To my relief she turned out to be 28 and I once again thought about asking her out.
But I didn’t, even though she was becoming part of the group. One day she asked, “Hey, Stephen. There’s a party at my place on Saturday night. Like to come?” I was lucky, I have my daughter every second weekend and that weekend she was with her mother. “Ahhh, can I bring anything?” “Just a beer or six if you want to drink”, she replied, “and here’s my address” as she pushed a piece of paper across the table. “Jenny 132 Wilson St., Newtown” and below it her phone number. Why the phone number?
I really don’t like parties unless I know lot’s of people. When I walked into this one there was a sea of unfamiliar faces. “Hi, you right” said one of them. “Ahhhh, I think so. Jenny invited me. Is she around and is there somewhere I can put this?” I said, waving a six pack of Cooper’s. “Oh, she’s around. You can put those in the bath” she said, pushing me in the direction of the bathroom. “I’m Kate, Jenny’s housemate.” “Hi. Stephen. Jenny and a friend of mine are in the same English tut.” “Oh, Stephen. Hi.” Strange note in her voice.
It was actually a good party. I found a couple of people I could talk to and recognised a bloke from one of my tutorials and we told some Fred stories. Professor Martin, who’d said “I’m Fred, not Professor Martin” at about the same time as he took off his thongs at the start of the first lecture he gave, was as good entertainment as he was education and I learnt a lot of linguistics from him. Everyone particularly liked the one about him tripping over thin air more than once during the first lecture he gave wearing shoes after the weather turned cold and we spent a good 5 minutes trying to decide exactly what half dead colour his old sloppy joe was. Greyish, dirty fungus green was the considered opinion. The strangest thing was that within a minute or two of starting to talk about Fred we discovered other fellow students from the same lectures. I ended up having a great time chatting. The discussion seemed to shift to English. All of a sudden I realised that this was my first Uni party, and Uni parties would probably be like this for ever more if I didn’t get off my butt and start raging. While Jenny wasn’t always there she seemed to wander in our direction fairly often. “How you going?” I’d hear in one ear. Then when the music got a little louder and a little older I replied with “OK, how about a dance?”
When we had both danced ourselves exhausted and senseless she called a halt. “A drink, a drink, my kingdom for a drink.” “Hardly original, but worth a beer” was my reply as I walked her towards the bathroom. When we both had a Coopers in one hand she pulled me out to the comparative quiet of the backyard, almost frosty in the late May night and we sat together on the back steps drinking our beer.
“Why the party?” I asked. “Oh, it’s my birthday next Saturday.” “Why not have the party then?” “I liked this weekend better.”
The cool quiet night sat with us for a moment. A lighter flicked next to me and rose to a joint. I heard the sharp intake of breath, the delay and fast exhale. A silent question and I take the joint in reply. Harsh, sweet smoke fills my throat then lungs. The bitterness of the beer washed out the taste. We sat there talking as the relaxation and focus of the dope started to flow through. Sitting there and suddenly pressed close.
“Let’s dance”, I said to break my tension.
As I left, certainly not the first but not the last, she kissed me on the cheek, “thanks for coming.” My heart did a quick, samba beat attempt to jump out through my rib cage but was stopped by the firm breasts pushed against me as her lips brushed my cheek.
We met the next Monday with several others at our usual lunch spot and I thanked her for the party. The next Monday, Monday was the usual day for the gang to get together, we were all at Uni and free between 1 and 2, I turned up to find only Jenny. “Hi, how’s it going?” I asked as I sat down. Before I knew it we had bought some lunch and eaten it, talking, chatting comfortably for more than an hour without me realising the others hadn’t arrived. Then she rushed out “I’ve gotta dash, three o’clock History lecture.” “Oh, hell. I’ve got an English one to go to.” See you then she replied as she dashed off in a blur of smile and blonde hair.
Then the next week we all met again. I left with Mary to go to our English lecture. As we walked along Mary pulled me to a halt.
“Are you going to ask her out?” “What? Who?” “God, Stephen! Jenny!” “What, Jenny? Oh. OK, ummm, you reckon?. I could ask her after the lecture.” “She won’t be at the lecture. She’s got History now. Have you got her phone number?” I was being badgered so I gave in gracefully.
So I phoned. I still had the piece of paper with her address and phone number tucked into my wallet.
“Jenny.” “Hi Jenny, Stephen.” “Hi, what’s up.” “Not much, I was wondering if you’d seen ‘Love and Other Catastrophes’ yet?” “No, not yet” she replied. “Do you want to see it on Tuesday? I can’t go in the afternoon, I’ve gota lecture at four but I’m free after that if you want to go to the six o’clock.” “Sure. It starts at quarter to seven, want to meet about six at ‘The Old Fish Shop’.” “Yeah, fine. See you then.”
A strange phone call. Was she expecting that? Probably, but would Mary or Jenny admit it. Not a chance! Was that phone call OK? Did I say ‘umm’ too much? Did she hear how nervous I was? God, I hate this! It went easily though, maybe she was expecting it? How did she know I had Tuesday afternoons off? A lucky guess? No, Tuesdays was half price day, that’s why she mentioned it.
Sitting in the coffee shop, right by the open wall. I can see up the street about 5 metres and I’m trying hard not to watch that stretch of sidewalk or look at my watch. She’s not coming. I’ve been stood up. Damn. Should I order another coffee?
Jenny slips past from behind me and sits down. She came from the other direction.
“I’m not late, am I?” Breathless and run together. “Have we got time for a coffee?”
Sparkling eyes across the table from me. She’s wearing more than the usual amount of make-up and dressed better than the usual uni wear. Ordinarily I see her in various T-shirts and jeans in varying states of decay, almost the same as my Uni clothes (I wear polo shirts, I don’t like things around my neck) and most of the others on campus. Tonight she’s wearing pants that are almost jodphurs, fawn, stretch trousers that hug all the way to her ankles and a black long sleeved top. Now don’t stare, Steven. Just look quietly at that breathtaking face and make with the smalltalk. God, she just asked a question. What was it? Time! “Sure. You’re early. Cappuccino?” I ordered the two coffees and we sat there, almost silent except for a few banal phrases about Uni as we sipped.
Sitting in the dark picture theatre when she takes my arm in her hands and leans her head on my shoulder. Wow, that feels good. Soft warmth pressed against me. I can’t move, I’m paralysed with fear of doing something wrong.
After the movie we’re walking out and I’m thinking about asking her to go for another coffee when she speaks up. “How about my place for a coffee?” Oh, hell. What does that mean? Damn, there was another question there. “Sure, love too.” Shit, did that sound dumb. Was there like a five hour pause before I answered? Walking across the road and down King Street towards her house. Should I take her hand? No. No way, no how could I take her hand.
We walk into a house that sounds empty. “Where’s Kate?” I asked. “Work. She’s on evening shift till one.” She bustles around for a minute and then walks in with a coffee plunger and two cups, “here, take these while I get some milk.” I get up from the couch to take them and she turns and picks up milk and sugar, walks across and sits in the middle of the couch I’ve just vacated. Oh, heck. Should I sit down next to her? Ahhhh, NO. I’ll just sit here opposite. We drink our coffee and I slink out into the night like the coward I am.
She asked me to the ballet and I was stunned. I didn’t think anyone like her could possibly be a ballet fan. Standing at the bar in the foyer waiting to be served surrounded by well dressed people and wondering if Jenny was late or I was early when I felt a soft pressure at my back and my spine tingled when her voice softly spoke,”White wine, thanks” before the softness disappeared. I got the two glasses of white wine and turned around. I recognised the face but everything else was a complete shock. The young girl in jeans and T-shirt or op-shop dresses, good looking as she was had disappeared and in her place I saw an elegant, beautiful young woman. The blonde hair she was always tossing around was swept back and around onto her head. The face had that look where you can’t see the make-up but you know that a face that perfect must have taken years of practice, an array of expensive cosmetics and an hour or so to just appear so naturally beautiful. Circling the base of an elegant, long throat was a small necklace of baroque pearls. She was wearing what I can only describe as the classic “little black dress” with dark pantihose and a pair of black patent stilettos. They had to be pantihose as the dress was too short for them to be stockings. I could only stand there and mutter “wow.” She smiled at me and the impact got worse. She then said “Do you like the dress?” and twirled around once. As she twirled I noticed a dozen pairs of male eyes lock onto her as if they were radar guided, zap. “You look fantastic, Jenny.”
“It’s mummy’s Chanel. She bought it in Paris on her honeymoon.” “Was it that short when she bought it?” “Well it was back in ’65 and she is four inches shorter than me. Isn’t it lucky we’re both a perfect size 10?” “All I can say is thank god for four inches and you couldn’t let it down, now could you?”
She beamed at me and I swear my knees went wobbly. “No, heaven forbid. It would leave a line where the old hem was and anyway, this is the length it was designed and who are we to disagree.”
After that night we started going out more often, we were officially “dating”. I guess if we’d been fifteen we might have called it “going steady”, we weren’t seeing anyone else and it seemed most weekends we went somewhere and Tuesday afternoons were mostly spent at a cinema. We usually went dutch, it seemed neither of us had much money. Some weeks I’d say I couldn’t afford to go out and the reply would come back “I’m a bit tight too, so how about we skip it?” Once or twice she’d ask me over for “dinner and a video” instead, once or twice I asked her over for the same thing. I was still nervous and it took Jenny taking my hand when we walked together before I started to get comfortable. It was still a shock when one day we were walking out of a lecture and she took it. This wasn’t a date, it was just Uni. I’d seen people walking hand in hand through the campus but never thought I’d be one.
Sitting in a lecture hall waiting for a lecture to start, I was getting out my notebooks as the narratology lecturer had just walked in when Jenny sat down next to me and gave me a kiss. Hang on, that wasn’t my cheek. Did she just miss or did she just choose the start of a lecture to kiss me for the first time? It would have taken a star performance by the lecturer to keep my attention I was so flustered. I glanced over to Jenny and she seemed to be watching me out of the corner of her eye.
After the lecture. “Got a History tut. Gotta run, bye.” And another kiss, a firm pressure of her lips against mine. Aaaaarrrgggghhhh, what does it mean? Could I ever stop thinking so hard. Did I have to worry about everything. Shit, relax Stephen.
Kate’s boyfriend was at St Paul’s so she was going to the formal. Would Jenny and I like to go? A night with a bunch of drunken college teens? Definitely high on my list of social gatherings. But Jenny had bought the tickets and asked me, so I got Dad’s old dinner jacket dry cleaned. I had hopes of seeing that little black dress again. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
This one was definitely a ball gown. Red and strapless and cut so low you’d think Isaac Newton had never been born and gravity had been revoked, it hugged from her breasts to just below the knee where it flared out into a multitude of layers. Jenny could walk in it, but I did think she wouldn’t want to dance too hard. It looked like a contest to see whether her breasts would pop out the top or the whole thing would split at the seams and fall off. I couldn’t see how she could be wearing either a bra or pants under it, but I would have loved the chance to find out. This time the hair looked like it had been brushed to within an inch of it’s life and fell loose over one shoulder, she had a strand from either side somehow holding it off her face.
“One of your Mum’s old dresses?” “This old thing?” A winsome smile. “Mum and I chose it for my Year 12 formal.”
I was wrong about the dancing. It just folded a little at the waist and across her bottom a bit and she could dance fine, but when she started dancing I had trouble focussing I was staring so hard. As we walked from the College through the Uni grounds towards her house she took my hand and pulled me into the darkness under a tree. Her hands pressed against my chest and her lips against mine, tongues tentatively exploring. We kissed again at her door, but I stayed outside, scared to say something, scared to ask for anything more.
We had kissed again, and again I was nervous until it became part of my day, watching for her arrival so I could feel those lips, that body pressed against mine for a moment as she said hello. I knew from day to day when I would first see her and awaited the moment. On some days it was a brief hello and a quick kiss as I went to one lecture and she to another, on others we would meet, kiss and sit together listening to an English lecture, writing messages to each other on the margins of our pads.
Six weeks later another party. Once again at her house there were large clumps of people scattered through the ground floor and garden. This time a few more faces are familiar and the conversations come easier. I’m a little more relaxed.
Early in the morning dancing together when the music suddenly shifts to some classic R&B. It seems natural to take her hand and after a little box step I started into a jive and Jenny just followed me into it. She knows how to dance! Aretha Franklin’s “Trouble In Mind” slows the rhythm down and gets the steps simple again before the First Lady Of Soul starts in on “Walk On By” and we’re pulled tight together her head nestled into my shoulder and the soft feel of cheek against cheek, still moving together. Some of my favourite music, the soul and black pop of the 50’s and 60’s, is playing and it keeps on coming for a good hour.
We’re sitting together on a cold step looking into a cool dark backyard. Every few moments someone comes past to use the second loo in the backyard and we’re forced a little closer together. I’m sitting with my arms behind me to steady myself and Jenny ends up with her shoulder pressed into my armpit. She comments “if you don’t need that arm to hold yourself up you could put it around me. I moved my hand to her shoulder, “better?” “Almost,” she whispered and pulled my hand down so her neck was in the crook of my elbow and her head was resting on my shoulder. I could smell clean hair and a faint perfume. Once again we’re quiet until both Jenny and I say hi to Kate as she walks back into the house. Moments later Aretha starts singing again and Jenny is softly singing along. I first notice it in the verses of “Say A Little Prayer” and then it’s perfect phrasing and pitch through “A Natural Woman” and once again I’m stunned, entranced. I’ve turned towards her and can’t take my eyes from her as she looks into the darkness and barely above a whisper creates a perfect sound. As she finished she looks around to see me looking back. I probably looked a little like a stunned mullet but she lifts her head and kisses me, her lips staying on mine and this time she means it. Before I know what’s happening our arms are around each other and we’re locked together, hands and lips moving, touching, feeling until after a few moments we reluctantly part.
“Are we going to sleep together tonight?” I said, with perhaps a hint of desperation.
“If you mean, are we going to have sex, I certainly hope so. If you’d given me half a chance I’d have jumped your bones after the film on our first date. As for sleeping, that probably depends on how long it takes till this party dies.”
Bang, another shot across my bow and if there was any rational thought left in a single bone it fled. I was gone, away with the fairies; the alcohol, dope and this woman, this instant had come together to leave me without a hope of thinking past the moment.
This seems to happen to me. I mean, not often. Certainly nowhere near often enough, but I don’t think I’ve ever “put the hard word on” or whatever slang you want for the modern equivalent of attempting to hit a girl over the head with a club and drag her back to my cave. It always seems a woman asks me hey, are you going to hit me over the head and drag me back to your cave or shall we just go quietly? I guess I’m thick, or too insecure or even, more likely, both.
As the party raged on we had a good time but as it started to quieten down there was a tension between us. We touched more often, perhaps just a hand on an arm or thigh or Jenny gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. A couple of times we kissed deeply, long, exploring, but then stopped as if there was an invisible line in behaviour we weren’t ready to break yet. As the last few left the energy level was incredible, I was tired on top of the booze and dope but buzzing with tension. Kate, Jenny and I spent about an hour reducing the post party chaos level to acceptable standards. Then Jenny took my hand and led me up the narrow, steep stairs to her bed.
Afterwards we did sleep, however briefly, before the sun streaming in over the balcony rail slowly woke us up. I can’t help thinking of John Donne every time I wake like this. “Busy old fool, unruly sun, why dost thou thus, through windows and through curtains call on us? Must to thy motions lovers’ season run.” I hadn’t seen the room the night before except by the light coming in from the road and I woke in a light, cheerful room. The huge wardrobe looked like it had once been a dark op-shop purchase but had been transformed into a bright feature with some white and pale yellow paint. There was a chest of drawers with bright yellow handles and the curtains pulled back from the balcony doors were white with huge yellow sunflowers hand painted onto them. The bed I was lying in was almost entirely white. I was lying on extremely soft white sheets, my head on a pillow equally soft and equally dazzling white and pulled up half over us was a white sheet and a doona in some sort of rough, natural cream cover. Lying next to me was a blonde goddess who, if anything looked better with no make-up, tousled hair and wearing a large white man’s business shirt, sleeves rolled up to above her elbows and open to reveal more of her breasts than she had in that Chanel. Perhaps it was just that I knew the reason for the contented smile and tousled hair. I laid back into the bed and lay there listening to the traffic outside and basking in the sunlight and my inner contentment. I was concentrating on remembering the rest of “The Sun Rising.” “Ask for those kings whom thou saws’t yesterday, and thou shalt hear, all here in one bed lay.” Do you remember the first time we met is breathed, not quite a whisper, into my right ear.
“Jenny, you’re awake” I quietly replied. Do you remember? And I can feel the words on my ear this time.
“Uhh huh, I can remember”, I’m still talking softly, “it was when you sat at my table at the…” “No,” she interrupts me, “we first met when you sat down next to me in the first English tut, before I shifted times. The girl on the other side of you had turned 18 the day before and you were flirting with her.” Jenny, too is speaking with a soft quiet voice. It’s as if neither wants to break the morning’s spell. “Really. I don’t remember you.” “Oh, I remembered you. You spoke a couple of times in that tut too. I was petrified and you seemed so assured.” “Why didn’t you say something when you sat down at the Sports Centre?” “I didn’t want to. I wanted to watch you and the book you were reading looked really heavy. Something about the mind.” “You wanted to watch me? You ignored me. You started studying and playing with your hair. I was engrossed.” “I know. You really liked it when I pulled up my hair and held it in place with my hand.”
“You knew!” It was half a statement and half a question, I was seriously confused here. My volume had turned up a notch or two. “Was that all an act with your hair?”
“Not really, I knew you were watching though. I kept stealing glances at you, you were doing the same thing.” “Jeez, am I that transparent.” Jenny spoke softly and I’m back whispering. “Pretty much, there are several girls in English who know you like watching them and wonder why you never ask any of them out.” “Shit, you’re kidding. Like who!?” “You think I’m going to tell you. All the hassle I went through to get you to ask me out and you think I’m going to tell you who else might say ‘yes’ if you ask.” We’re both now only half whispering. “What do you mean hassle? Did you ask Mary to push me into asking?” “Yeah, and the rest. Hell, didn’t you think it funny that I didn’t have my birthday party on the exact day, but a week later when you could come as you didn’t have Cathy that weekend.” “Fuck, I thought it was just a coincidence. I mean, hell, how do you know what weekends I have Cathy. Oh, shit. Mary.” “Actually, Paula. But yeah, I asked around.”
Ideas, concepts and previously half considered notions shifting and forming in my head.
“Did you pick the music last night?” “Which music? Mostly it was Kate’s party tapes. Oh, except one.” “The soul and R &B that came on while we danced.” “Yeah, it had some of your favourite tracks, didn’t it. It took me a while to figure out, but in a coffee shop one night you started humming to Aretha Franklin and I’d heard you talking about Phil Spector and Atlantic R & B.” “What about the music that came on when we were outside?” “Yeah, that was the other side. Kate put it on when she saw us together on the step.” “How long did you rehearse that song?” She gave a single laugh, almost a snort. “Oh, about a dozen times. You’re starting to catch on.” “Yeah, I think I am.” Then I was stopped from talking, my lips had other duties, my breath was needed for other tasks.
My angel looked at me and I said “Well, it was mostly your mother’s doing. You ask her when we get back home” and went back to my cappuccino. The little girl who sat with her milkshake wondered why Daddy couldn’t stop smiling as we sat in silent togetherness, her with romantic visions and me remembering those months of confusion, uncertainty and chaos before I finally gained some understanding.