Pauline and Jon Warbanks strolled through the Queen Victoria market on a rainy, Saturday morning, savoring the aromas wafting from the deli section and sipping large cappuccino’s. It was early Autumn in Melbourne, with the residual warmth of Summer still seeping out of the city, creating a pleasant level of cozy humidity as the lazy rain maintained its steady flow.
The crowd of shoppers and marketeers also moved at a lazy pace, like the scene had been coordinated by a melancholy, dreamy God. Jon had one hand on their trolley as they made their way into the deli section, while Pauline swung her canvas tote in a leisurely fashion. She adored the market and always looked forward to their fortnightly trip, where they stocked up on their produce, meat and the other goodies they had grown accustomed to over the years.
Items such as freshly ground coffee, locally produced raw honey, organic nut butters and fruits and vegetables were already crowding in the trolley. As they entered the deli section, Pauline grew excited and pointed to their favorite patisserie, with her hazel eyes shining.
“Almond croissants – finally!” She announced with a tiny squeal.
At forty years of age, Pauline still behaved like a child when it came to her favorite things. She glanced over at Jon with a mischievous grin, pushing yet another rogue strand of honey brown hair back into her messy bun. He smiled and shook his head in a show of defeat, while pulling his wallet out of his old, leather jacket. His short, black hair was adorned with distinguished streaks of grey, belying his youthful face.
“How could I ever deny you, my love?” He said in his warm voice.
Pauline giggled and bounded over to the patisserie. The irony over his statement wasn’t lost on her, seeing as their sex life was anything but indulgent. Their childless marriage was deliberately so – from both sides – and Pauline had grown increasingly resigned to the fact that their lovemaking was perfunctory and doled out like an arduous duty. Pauline had stopped trying to discuss this issue with Jon, for fear of creating a larger divide in their otherwise happy marriage.
Jon was forty nine and every bit a typical History professor, aside from his love for Pink Floyd and the occasional – although somewhat reserved – flights of fancy. He paid for the croissants and handed one to Pauline, who was giddy with glee. She took a huge bite and groaned like a woman overcome with lust. Then she wagged her finger and the croissant at the storekeeper.
“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for this?!” She admonished with a full mouth.
“Pauline, don’t speak with your mouth full!” Jon chided.
The storekeeper was a large, boisterous Italian man complete with a bushy, black moustache and a shock of curly hair.
“Not my fault, Mrs Warbanks. You can blame my supplier.” He smiled and winked cheekily.
She snorted and turned her back on him, then made her way towards her favorite small-goods vendor. While she waited for the salesgirl to slice the mortadella, she chattered over her shoulder with Jon.
“I’m so excited to go back to work on Monday. The renovations are finally finished and I can go back to being a normal Librarian.”
“Yes, shushing people and stacking books.” Jon teased.
She nearly choked on her croissant, but before she could smack her husband, the salesgirl asked if there was anything else.
“Yes please. We need a tub of plain tahini, a full stick of cabana and three inches of Latvian liverwurst.” Then she turned to face Jon, who was trying to keep a straight face. “And you – you crusty old Professor – you can keep your snarky comments to yourself!”
He smiled and started to walk across to the other side of the aisle.
“Shall I get the sourdough rolls, before you jab me with your sharp knuckles?”
She sighed and looked back at the salesgirl, who was oblivious to their shenanigans. She rang up their packages and remained stone-faced as Pauline paid and stuffed the food into her tote. Jon came over and kissed her on the forehead, then they continued on their way.
Moving through the market, it was obvious to anyone who watched them that they were a secure and happily married couple. They laughed at the loud spruikers trying to out-yell each other about their quality meats and they paused occasionally to point at or taste the various items, such as marinated olives, creamy cheeses and salamis.
When they finished their shopping and were on their way home, Jon drove and listened patiently as Pauline went on about the library.
“You know, Phil promised me that he saved the card catalog unit, but they put it in the back storage area. Can you believe that?” She shook her head and started to rifle through her tote for the cabana.
“Yes I can, love. Everything’s digital nowadays. Even our library’s digital.”
Pauline snapped off a long piece of cabana and started nibbling on it.
“I understand that, but what about the times we go offline? People rely on our “outdated” catalogs when that happens.”
“Pauline, that cabana’s for the BBQ tomorrow!”
He swiped at her playfully and she pouted in retaliation.
“Too bad. I didn’t want to go anyway.”
Jon sighed and peered out of the windscreen at the sun breaking through the relentless shower.
“Summer rain.” He said quietly.
Pauline looked over at him affectionately. She loved him for a variety of reasons – most of all – his melancholy spells and gentle philosophizing.
“Well, at least I can still refer to the catalogs when the system fails me, as it is want to do!”
Jon laughed and glanced at her through the rear view mirror with a small smile.
“We’re a couple of old fashioned softies.”
Pauline smiled back at his reflection and then stared out of the window, ruminating over the fact that his statement was true, even though she secretly hoped for the fire that had first brought them together, so long ago, when they were in their twenties. Being comfortably settled in their middle aged, middle class life had its perks, but she wondered sadly if her life was already over – before she’d even had a chance to experience the world.
. . .
Pauline was relieved when she woke up late on Sunday morning, after a long night of reading the latest romance novel she’d sneakily confiscated from the library. Jon had mercifully begged off from the BBQ which was being thrown by the faculty and had fallen asleep on the couch while watching documentaries about ancient civilizations on the television.
She toyed with and then decided against masturbating, as she was distracted by the sound of their dog – Roman – scampering into the bedroom and leaping onto the bed. He was a large, two year old, black labrador, who still thought he was a puppy.
“Roman – get off – for the umpteenth time!” She yelled.
Unperturbed, he continued to scamper and sniff around the room, while Pauline dragged herself out of bed. When she padded into the lounge room and saw Jon asleep with his forearm draped over his face, she took the remote and switched the television off. He immediately started stirring while Roman attempted to lick his face.
The phone started ringing and Pauline stomped over to it in a bad temper, while Roman and Jon wrestled in a playful fight on the couch.
“How rude – before twelve on a Sunday!” She grumbled.
When she answered it, she said a begrudging hello, but soon perked up when she realized that it was her best friend and co-worker on the other end of the line.
“June, what’s wrong with you?!” She snapped in a good-natured, mock-matronly way. “It’s not even twelve!”
“So?” June replied childishly.
At thirty eight years of age, June was often the more juvenile of the two.
“So – what do you want? I just got out of bed.” Pauline advised while putting on the coffee and preparing a late breakfast.
“Me too! We didn’t get home until one thirty. Geez it was great – the concert, I mean.”
Pauline groaned as she cradled the phone between her cheek and her shoulder, while whisking the eggs.
“June, when are you going to accept the fact that you’re a grown up and let Zebany have her youth, without you breathing down her neck? She’s the one who’s seventeen – not you!”
Jon came into the kitchen and started slicing the bread for the toaster. Pauline looked over and they shared a knowing look.
“Oh, Pauline – for goodness sake – stop telling me off like you’re my mother. Besides, I was the one who bought the tickets and I do love metal – as you well know!”
Pauline poured the eggs into the pan and started stirring.
“Yes, well – I’m sure your daughter was thrilled to have you along.”
“She was, actually – and you won’t believe what happened. A boy asked me out!”
Pauline stopped stirring. “A boy? Are you mental?!”
Jon raised his eyebrows and closed in to listen.
“Get off your high horse, Pauline! I declined, even though he was gorgeous. You should’ve seen him; long, black hair and muscles til’ Tuesday!”
“I’m hanging up!” Pauline suddenly announced, secretly thrilled but outwardly disgusted for Jon’s benefit.
“No – wait!” June called out while giggling madly. “I called to ask you to pick me up in the morning. I hurt my ankle and can’t get the train.”
Pauline sighed dramatically and turned the stove off.
“Dare I ask how you hurt your ankle?”
Jon wandered off to butter the toast and said cheekily over his shoulder, “Probably banging her head and tripping over the moshers!”
“I won’t give you the satisfaction. Should I be ready at seven?”
“Okay. Elevate your feet and stay out of trouble!”
Pauline hung up and plated the scrambled eggs. Jon looked over her shoulder.
“They’re in the garden, if you want to fetch them and chop them.” She answered dryly.
He shook his head and plopped down at the table.
“When is June going to grow up?” He asked.
Pauline sat opposite him and it dawned on her that she was about to defend her friend.
“Oh, well. At least she’s having fun.”
“Yes, quite. Hungover and sore ankle. One day she’ll wake up and realize that she’s adrift among the grown-ups. Sad – really.”
Pauline watched him tuck into his eggs and fought the desire to call him an old man before his time.
. . .
The next morning was cooler than it had been, but the sun still shone on the wet streets of Northcote as Pauline drove under the poplar trees which lined the road on the way to June’s house. When she pulled up and saw June’s tall frame leaning against her letterbox, smoking and readjusting her necklaces and bangles, she looked at her own reflection in the rear view mirror and wondered if she was really as dumpy as she thought of herself.
While they drove to the Dunhill Library, June regaled Pauline with her wild stories about the concert and how awesome the band was. Pauline was polite and laughed and smiled where appropriate, but again felt the stabbing in her gut over how old she felt in comparison to her lively friend.
Once they arrived and let themselves in, they wandered around the Library and commented on how clean and new it was. June was excited while Pauline felt the mixed feelings of sadness over having lost the charm and annoyance over clinging to outmoded and old fashioned ways as they fought it out inside her.
They broke apart to prepare for their day. June started setting up the reception area while Pauline switched on the computers and sneaked out to the back storage area. She wandered over to the catalog unit, which was crammed into the corner of the long, dark room. She was relieved to at least have one part of the building that hadn’t been blasted, scraped and lacquered with the renovations.
The catalog unit was so old that everyone had marveled about the fact that it was still standing. Pauline swept her delicate hands over the old oak woodwork and traced her fingers over the steel, scooped handles and label holders. One small, rectangular window above her was letting the morning sun in, which trained a shard of light across the face of the cabinet.
She saw the light focused on the drawer in the section for literary history and absent-mindedly opened it up. She wondered why she had such strong sensations of awe and respect for the sagely cards, as she ran her nails up and down their tops and draped her fingertips over the tabs. When she reached the tab for the Beat Generation, she felt a small electric shock run up her forearm.
For some reason, she kept her finger on the tab and laughed at herself for being silly, even though she wasn’t sure why it was silly in the first place. She pulled the tab towards her and started lifting it up. Nothing could have prepared her for what happened next.
Thinking that she was fainting, she wrapped her arms around herself and prepared to hit the floor. It suddenly occurred to her that there was no floor. She kicked her feet around frantically to find a footing, but then she realized that there was no catalog unit, window or ceiling. When she looked around in a daze, she saw a swirling vortex around her, like the inside of what appeared to be a black tornado.
She instinctively shot her arms out and scrambled to find something to hold on to. All she could feel were rushing winds and short sparks of electricity. Wondering if she was dreaming and had indeed fainted and fallen to the floor, she began to scream when her ears started to pop and the sick feeling in her stomach increased to the point of nearly vomiting.
When she finished screaming and opened her eyes, she was aware that her feet were once again on solid ground. The vortex was gone and she was standing in the middle of a cafe. It was night time and the interior was dark and smoky. She saw a jazz band on the stage and several women dressed in black catsuits or tight skirts and old fashioned shirts and sweaters. With her arms wrapped around herself she shook her head as though doing so would bring her back to reality.
She nearly fainted for real when she saw a sea of faces in the audience laughing and jeering at her. One of the men got up from his booth and sauntered over to her – looking every bit a Beatnik from the fifties. She was shocked when she heard him speak in an American accent.
“Holy cow, Baby. Why did ya stop groovin’?!”