Julia began at Kidsworld on the 3rd of February. It was a new amusement park on the Gold Coast, near Dreamworld and Movieworld. It consisted of amusement park rides and baby farm animals and a couple of movie cinemas and plenty of junk food outlets. Julia was a cleaner, working 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., six days a week. Julia had never worked as a cleaner before, and she had never begun a workday at such an early hour. This was all very new to her.
She needed the job. Particularly seeing her husband, George, hadn’t worked in five weeks and didn’t look like he’d be getting any work for at least another four weeks. The cleaning job had been advertised in the newspaper two Saturdays ago. They needed a dozen cleaners, no experience necessary.
She applied and got the job. The guy doing the hiring wanted to know why a “girl” like her, with a university degree, wanted a job cleaning.
“Money,” she said. He shrugged and told her she could have the job if she wanted it. She said she did.
And here she was, in old jeans, T-shirt, and a pair of joggers. Filling in a personnel form. Details such as date of birth and address and bank account number.
After that it was a quick tour of Kidsworld and what had to be cleaned. She, along with the eleven other new employees, were told that they would work in pairs. Each pair would be given a designated sector which they had to clean in four hours. If they finished before the four hours were up they were to report back to their supervisor, who would then send them out to help in other sectors which might need additional help.
Julia was partnered up with a middle-aged woman called Olga. She spoke very little English. They were given the “cinema” sector. This meant cleaning out the cinemas, the two eateries in the area, the two toilet blocks, and the grounds in that vicinity.
The pair split up and began. They’d been given mops and brooms and cleaning solvents. No instruction in how to use these things. It was assumed you knew.
As Julia mopped out a male toilet she thought about the telephone conversation she’d had with her sister the previous evening. Her younger sister, Rosie. Rosie, who had just come back from two years overseas. Backpacking. Julia had met her at the airport. Her little sister had grown her hair out. She was taller too. She was twenty-one and beautiful. Suntanned. So happy. “But poor,” said Rosie. And she didn’t seem to care.
Last night on the telephone Rosie had asked: “Is everything okay with you, Jules?”
“Yes … fine. Things are good.”
“With you and Georgie?”
She hated the way Rosie referred to her husband as ‘Georgie’ — never to his face, of course. “Yes,” said Julia. “We’re good.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I should know, shouldn’t I?”
“Of course you should. Only …” And she stopped for dramatic effect.
“Only what?” said Julia.
“Only you don’t look happy.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Well let me tell you something, little sister, I am happier than I’ve ever been. Ever.”
“Oh,” said Rosie. “Well that’s good, Jules. That’s really good.”
And that was about it for the telephone conversation. Julia had made her excuses and hung up. And spent half the night wondering if she did look unhappy. And then, when the alarm went off at 3.30 a.m., she got up, looked in the bathroom mirror, and said to herself, “Now I look unhappy. Getting up at this time, in the middle of the night.” And laughed at herself.
“What?” came the sleepy voice of George, from the bedroom.
“Nothing, go back to sleep,” she called out.
But he got out of bed. Came into the bathroom, peed, then put his arms around his wife’s waist. “Love you,” he said.
“Love you too,” she said, kissing him on the forehead. “Look, I’ve got to get ready and go. First day on the job and all that.”
“Sure, hon. I’ll see you later.”
And he went back to bed. And she went to work, taking their second-hand car, driving for twenty-five minutes from their rented home in Woodridge to Kidsworld at Southport.
Julia was surprised how quickly the four hour shift went. The work wasn’t always pleasant, particularly cleaning out the toilets. But there was something satisfying in doing such physical labour where you didn’t have to use your brain.
At twenty-three, Julia had little work experience. She’d gone straight to university at eighteen, doing a four year course in primary school teacher education. While studying she had a part-time job at an after-school care centre, working with children. Then three months after graduation she was offered a full-time teaching position at a school on the Gold Coast, teaching grade four.
She taught for twelve months, for the most part enjoying the company of the children in her class. But at the same time she was full of self doubt about her abilities as a teacher. She knew that her classroom management wasn’t all that it should be. She was too soft, too inconsistent. There were certain children who ran riot in her class. Sometimes she nearly lost it, but whenever this looked like happening she managed to control her urge to scream and shout at them.
Then there was what she was actually teaching. She simply didn’t have the knowledge. She was a general classroom teacher, teaching all subject areas. But university hadn’t equipped her with the knowledge to know everything you were supposed to teach. It was impossible. It was something that only came with experience and lots of work and reading.
Julia read a lot. And she spent hours preparing her lessons. But even so, she felt uncomfortable. She still felt she was, at best, treading water. Particularly on days when her kids would point out mistakes she’d made — usually in maths.
“I’m just not made for this profession,” she told George.
“Sure you are,” he said.
“But it just doesn’t feel right. I don’t think I’m good for my children.”
“Hey, hey,” he said gently, “you’re being too hard on yourself. You’re a great teacher.”
George. Always so bloody sympathetic and encouraging. How would he know whether I’m a good teacher or not? He’s never seen me teach. Jesus. And what’s he doing? Answer: sitting around at home for the last few weeks. Not that he’s lazy. He’s been working on the car and fixing things around the house, and I know a few weeks ago he was working on that building site for ten hours a day, six days a week. It’s not that he doesn’t work hard — he does. When he works. But he doesn’t have a stable job. I do. And one of us needs a regular income, right? And it’s sure not going to be him. So it’s up to me. I have to keep this job.
But in the end she couldn’t. A parent of one of the children in her class made a complaint, saying that her son wasn’t being taught properly.
The principal was really nice about it. He didn’t reprimand her. What he did was examine her work plans and observe her teach. He even buddied her up with a more experienced teacher. All of this just added to Julia’s stress levels.
“Complaints are not unusual,” he told her. “It’s par for the course. You’re a new teacher, and I think you’ll make a very good teacher. It’s just hard, the first few years. Everyone makes mistakes. You learn from them.”
But Julia wasn’t so sure. She considered giving up the job. Quitting. Starting afresh. She mentioned this to George.
“Hon, if that’s what you want to do, then do it,” he said.
Always so considerate. So damn nice. Which was why she had been attracted to him in the first place. He was exactly that: a nice guy. So positive and good-natured. The complete opposite of me. Me and my black dresses, listening to The Cure and reading Sylvia Plath. Hours spent alone in my bedroom brooding. The outcast at high school. Deciding to be a teacher because I thought it would make me a better person. A nicer, more positive person.
She’d met George at university. He too was doing teacher education. He befriended her. They hung out together. They were even sent out to do practicum teaching at the same school. It was after that experience that George told Julia: “I’m not cut out to be a teacher, I just don’t have the brains for it.”
Julia didn’t say it to his face, but she agreed. And immediately felt guilty for thinking this. He may not be the brightest guy she knew — just because he didn’t know how many states there were in Australia and just because he thought the population of Australia was 4 million; this didn’t make him a dunce, surely — but he was a nice guy.
“What are you going to do?” she asked him.
He smiled and shrugged. “I’ll get by.” So confident. Not egotistical, though. Just laid back and so positive.
Positive. “I’ll miss you,” she said.
He smiled, then reached out and touched her face. “Hey, I’ll miss you too.”
Something must have shown in her eyes that he picked up on — so he can’t be that dumb — because he bent forward and kissed her, and she kissed him back.
After that it was romance. Twelve months of it. Then they were engaged. He wanted to get married straight away. She wanted to wait until she graduated and had a job.
They compromised: marriage occurred in her final year at university. They rented a cheap house in Woodridge, and had been there ever since.
“We’ll soon have enough for a deposit on our own place,” he’d said when they first moved in.
But even when she got to working full-time as a teacher they never managed to save for a deposit. George was always investing small amounts of money that he managed to lose. They never got ahead.
So Julia wondered how they could possibly survive if she quit teaching. She voiced her concern to George. “We’ll survive,” he said. “We’ll adapt. Hey, you can concentrate on your painting. You’re good, Julia. I reckon within two months you’ll be selling your work.”
She went to the principal of the school and said she was going to resign. He convinced her not to resign, but to take twelve months’ leave. She agreed to this. “Just in case you do want to come back,” he said. Julia told him she doubted that she would.
And henceforth she concentrated on her painting.
Her training consisted of high school art classes and doing a major in art in her teacher education degree. Her teachers had told her she had real talent, but Julia just knew teachers said that all the time. She wasn’t getting her hopes up. She just liked to paint, so paint she did.
She began selling her work at the Saturday and Sunday markets. George framed her paintings. Most weeks she sold a couple for sixty or seventy dollars each. But it wasn’t enough money. Along with George’s sporadic work, they were only just getting by. She knew she needed a regular paying job, so when she saw the job ad for a cleaner, six days a week, she leaped at the opportunity. She figured it was just four hours a day, and because it was so early in the day, she’d work, then come home and paint. It would all work out rather nicely.
The 3rd of February saw Ron travelling to Rockhampton for the last time. In three months’ time he would be retired. Out of a job. No more time spent on the road peddling his wares. Or at least the wares of the art supply company he worked for.
Ron was fifty-five. He’d spent the last thirty-one years as a salesman. The first dozen were spent in an art supply shop, then the rest of the time was spent on the road, selling wholesale to the kind of shop he’d previously worked in. Although in the last few years he was also dealing with newsagents and even toy shops. This was necessary so that his company could turn a profit. They’d gone from just selling paint, brushes, canvases and easels to art supply shops, to selling “painting by numbers” kits and other such crap that could be bought cheaply at the local newsagent. Ron felt it was a sellout, but he didn’t have a say. He worked on commission and he needed every dollar he could get.
It felt strange driving into Rockhampton for the last time. There was one art supply shop there, along with the three newsagents he’d visit and sell the usual to. He’d even try and push a few new products, but doubted they’d go for them. This bunch were conservative. Particularly old Herb, the owner of the art shop. He’d owned the place ever since Ron had been visiting Rockhampton. Of course there was also his wife, Denise. She worked there too, but these days whenever Ron came to town she wouldn’t be in the shop. She hadn’t been for the last twelve years or so. But before then, particularly when Herb was out of the shop, things had been different. Back then Denise had wanted to see Ron. For years she’d flirted with him and for years he’d flirted back. Then one time when he’d been so pissed with his wife for so many things he’d taken it a bit further and next thing you know he and Denise were in the back room making love. Well maybe not love, but having sex. Although Denise must have read it as love because she started telephoning Ron when he was back home, telling him she was going to leave Herb and he should leave Molly, his wife. Ron tried to explain that it had been a one-off encounter, but Denise wouldn’t listen.
Funnily enough, Herb never found out about it. Or if he did he never let on to Ron. But Molly did find out. Because when Ron was on the road Denise would call their home. At first she’d hang up, but when she started thinking that Ron was just trying to avoid her, she talked to Molly. She told of her “affair” with Ron.
“Look, it wasn’t an affair,” he told Molly when she confronted him. “It was a damn silly mistake. If I had my time again I swear it wouldn’t happen.”
Molly didn’t scream and shout at him. That wasn’t her style. She would say very little and quietly stew.
At first it did look like this was the way it would occur. She turned her back on him and walked into the kitchen. She wouldn’t talk to him over dinner. Their kids, Tim and Sally-Anne, knew something was wrong. So they too sat quietly at the table and avoided their father’s eyes.
He had never really been all that close to the children, what with being on the road so much. But he was a father to them. He taught Tim how to play cricket. He went along to his soccer matches when he could, just like he’d try and make it to Sally-Anne’s ballet recitals. But he knew they were closer to Molly.
Ron suspected she even told them what he’d done, because over the next couple of months they grew colder towards him. Or at least that was the way it seemed.
And then, about three months later, he came back from a trip out to Longreach. Molly greeted him with: “I’ve taken a lover.”
Just like that. No more information.
Ron laughed, thinking it was a joke. He just couldn’t imagine his wife having sex with another man. Hell, they rarely did it these days, and when they did she just lay there waiting for it to finish.
But she stood her ground and looked at him. “I just want you to know,” she said. “I’m being honest.”
So she had a lover. And Ron was powerless to act. He tried to find out who the man was, but she would say nothing. He even tried to listen in on her phone calls. And once he even said he was going out on business, but instead followed her for two days. He didn’t catch her with a man.
Then, maybe six months later, she announced: “It’s over. The affair.” He again tried to find out who the lover was, or if in fact there really was a lover. But Molly gave nothing away and Ron became so frustrated that he hit her. Well, slapped her. That had never happened before.
Molly didn’t scream or even cry out. When he’d finished she said: “The moment our children leave home we are going to split up. Understood?”
And she left the room.
Both the kids had left home. Sally-Anne was the last to go, three years beforehand. Ron had expected his wife to tell him to pack his bags.
Ever since she’d made the proclamation that they would “split” , he’d been hoarding money away. He knew that the divorce would hurt him badly. They’d have to sell the house and he’d be lucky to get half of the proceeds.
They had few investments. So he’d been squirreling away a few dollars every week, which had built up into a nice little nest egg. Molly knew nothing of this.
But he hadn’t had to use it. Because Molly had not mentioned the splitting up since the kids had left.
As Ron drove into Rockhampton he considered the advantages of a split. With his half of the money from the sale of the house he could buy a nice little flat. Plus he’d also have the money that he’d been hoarding. He’d invest that in the stockmarket. Lately he’d been studying it a lot. It didn’t look too tricky. He was sure he could make his money grow. And he could do all of this in peace. Without Molly.
But what about her company? The card games, the backgammon, the scrabble. The watching TV together, making comments together. Hell, they shared the same taste in TV. Watching TV alone wasn’t much fun (except for sport). And then there was the practical stuff like cooking and cleaning. Ron had no experience in these areas. He realised he needed Molly. And wanted Molly.
So maybe he wouldn’t split, not unless she wanted to split. Then, of course, he would respect her wishes and just go.
As Ron went about his business in Rockhampton over the next two days he realised he didn’t want to be alone in his retirement. Being alone in the motel room made him feel lonely. This had never happened before. Previously, he’d enjoyed the solitude, the freedom of being able to eat what he wanted when he wanted. The freedom of sleeping on whichever side of the bed he wanted to sleep on.
But not this trip. This trip he yearned for his wife. He even picked up the telephone and began dialing home.
The 16th of June saw Ron begin work at Kidsworld as a cleaner. He’d retired at the beginning of May from his job as art supply salesman. In his last month he’d been looking forward to the end and planning what he’d do when he was retired.
The first week of retirement was great. He made Molly breakfast. Then she’d head off to work (at least on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, when she worked as a receptionist in a dental surgery). Being alone in the house all day felt good. He started with the daytime TV. He cleaned the house up for her. He even made a casserole or two.
But after the first week time started to move very slowly. So he took to the garden. He decided to start a vegetable patch. He bought seeds and read up on the subject. He fertilised the ground.
That only filled in a couple of hours each day.
“You’re bored, aren’t you?” Molly said at the end of the second week.
“So why not look for some part-time work? We could use the money.”
He looked through the job pages in the Saturday paper. He saw the ad for two cleaners needed at Kidsworld. Kidsworld was only five minutes away. Plus the hours were good. He tended to rise at 3.30 or 4 in the morning. Always had. Probably because his parents had. They’d owned a greengrocer store and had to be up that early to get to the markets. The habit had stayed with him. These days he tended to get up at 3.30 and read. At least if he got the job he could get up and earn a little money at that time.
Ron applied for the job and got it. The personnel manager asked him if he intended to stay long-term. “Sure I do,” he said. “When I start with something I stick with it.”
So he began on Monday morning the 16th of June. He and another person. They were told they would be teamed up with experienced cleaners.
Ron was teamed up with Julia. He looked at her and immediately thought of Sally-Anne, his daughter. They were about the same age. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
“You too,” said Julia. “We’re this way.” And she showed him the cinema area and what had to be done. “My last partner liked to split up,” she said. “I’m easy. We can split up or work together, whatever you like.”
“I don’t mind,” said Ron. “Although today it would be good to work together. You know, just so I can see how you do things. If we don’t get along so well, then tomorrow we can split up. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Julia.
They began with litter, picking it up and bagging it.
“So what happened to the person you’re usually teamed up with?” asked Ron.
“I don’t know,” said Julia. “She was here three days ago, then the next day she wasn’t.”
Ron nodded and picked up a popsicle stick. “So how long have you worked here?”
“You like it?”
“What’s not to like?” she said. “This was always my life ambition, cleaning an amusement park.”
Ron laughed. “Yes, it’s not exactly world shattering.”
“How about you?”
“I just retired. But we need the money, so here I am.”
“That’s a good reason.”
“So what is your life ambition?” he asked.
“My life ambition? I wish I knew.”
“You don’t know?”
“What was yours?”
“Was? I’m not dead yet, young lady.” Smiling as he said this.
“Sorry,” she said, grinning. “What is your life ambition?”
“Painting,” he said. “Or at least it was.”
She stopped picking up rubbish. “Really?”
“Really,” he said. “Only that was a long time ago. I lost sight of that one. Or more to the point, I realised painting wasn’t for me.”
“So what happened?”
“I became a salesman. Art supplies. It was a regular weekly pay check.”
“You know, I paint to. I guess if I do have an ambition, it’s to paint.”
“Yeah, I guess. I tried for six months last year, but I couldn’t make any money at it. I mean I sold a few paintings, but not enough to live off.”
“But you’re still painting now?”
“Sure. Well, when I can. When I first took this job I figured I’d come to work, then go home and paint. Only it didn’t quite work out that way. I’d get home and there’d be the house to clean up and then I’d take a nap. Then there’s the problem of finding a quiet place to paint. We’ve got a tiny house and George, my husband, is usually home and he makes so much noise. He makes things. Furniture and stuff.”
“What do you paint? People? Landscapes?”
“Neither. Or both. I paint weird stuff. From in here I guess.” She pointed to her head.
“I’d like to see your work.”
“No you wouldn’t,” said Julia, laughing.
“I would,” Ron said. “Really.”
Throughout the rest of the shift they talked mainly about painting. What they each painted, and what brushes and paints they preferred. They talked about painters they liked. They even talked a little about technique. Ron particularly talked about techniques in painting portraits, which was what he used to paint. Towards the end of the shift Julia said, “Do you still have any of your paintings?”
“They’re under the house gathering dust.”
“I’d like to see them. Particularly seeing you’ve told me all this stuff about how you painted them.”
“They’re not very good,” he said. “That’s why I stopped. I had the technique, but not that … that thing which separates the true artists from everyone else who can use a brush.”
“I bet your stuff is great. I’d really like to see it.”
“What about after the shift? I’m only five minutes away.”
“Well …” began Julia.
“I can drive you.”
“I’ve got a car.”
“Then follow me.”
“I don’t know …”
“Hey, it’s okay,” said Ron. “I’m not a serial killer or a rapist.”
Julia thought about it: “Okay then.”
And so they went back to Ron’s house. Being a Monday, Molly was out at work. They went under the house and Ron showed Julia his paintings.
She sifted through the portraits. Ron pointed out who each person was. Most were relatives and friends. Julia could see they were good. But like Ron had said, they weren’t great. Except for one — a self-portrait. Ron had captured something in his own eyes that really got to Julia. She liked this one. She liked it a lot, and said so to Ron.
He smiled. “Yes, it’s the best. I caught myself on a day when all the defences were down.”
“It’s … beautiful. Not ‘beautiful’ beautiful, but just … great.”
“Thank you,” said Ron.
They went upstairs and had a cup of coffee. Ron said that now it was her turn to show him her work. He made her promise that she’d bring some of her paintings to work tomorrow. She agreed.
The following day, after the shift, they went out into the parking lot and she showed him three of her paintings. They were the three she was most proud of.
“Gee,” said Ron. He stared, taking in what he was looking at. “This is incredible. So original. So … dark.”
“Yes,” said Julia.
“You should be showing these. In a gallery.”
“I don’t think so,” said Julia.
“If you’ve got another twenty or so paintings as good as these, then you’ve got yourself an exhibition.”
“These are my best,” she said. “The others are okay, but they’re almost like drafts of these three. I’ve got ideas, lots of ideas, but it’s a matter of getting them onto the canvas.”
“Hey,” said Ron. “You’ve got to get those ideas down. I want to see them.”
“You do?” said Julia.
“Yes, I do. Look, if finding a place to work is a problem, I’ve got a studio out the back of my house.”
“I saw that.”
“It’s where I used to paint. There’s plenty of light, and it’s quiet. I wouldn’t disturb you.”
“I don’t know …” said Julia. But the idea appealed. She’d liked Ron’s house. It was in a quiet street, backing onto a park. She could picture herself working there. Painting.
“It’d be great,” said Ron. “Really. I’d consider it an … honour. Yes, an honour. You have a lot of talent. You shouldn’t waste it.”
“You’re really nice saying those things, but I’m not talented, really.”
“Yes, you are,” he insisted.
“But what about your wife? What would she think? A young woman taking over her studio.”
“It was always my studio, not hers. And besides, she doesn’t have to know. Just come and paint on those days when she’s at work.”
Julia thought about it a little more. “Okay,” she said. “Why not?”
“All right,” said Ron. “You can bring your things over on Thursday after work. Spend the day and just paint.”
Which is exactly what Julia did. The moment she entered the studio she felt inspired. She put up her easel, started sketching, then a couple of hours later began with the paint.
Meanwhile Ron sat in the lounge, in the house, trying to read. The studio was at the back of the yard. It was twenty metres from the rest of the house. Yet the whole time Ron kept half listening for signs of what Julia might be doing.
At lunch time he waited to hear the sound of the studio door opening, expecting her to come into the house to use the toilet or to get some food. He’d prepared sandwiches.
But she didn’t come in. She didn’t leave the studio until just before 4 p.m. That’s when he heard the door open, but he pretended he didn’t. He pretended he was still reading when she knocked on the back door and came in.
“Well,” she said. “I guess I’m done. I’m exhausted.”
“How did you go?”
She smiled. “You know I think I did more today than I’ve done in the last month. It’s such a great place to paint. So serene. And all that light, it’s wonderful.”
“Well come again next Monday.”
“I think I will. But only if it’s convenient.”
“It’s convenient,” said Ron.
Julia nodded. “Do you mind if I leave my things here?”
“Sure,” said Ron. “No worries.”
“Your wife won’t mind?”
“No, she never goes in there.”
“Okay,” said Julia. “I’ll do that.” Pause. “Well, I guess I’ll be heading off then.”
Ron stood up and walked her to the front door.
“Listen, thanks again,” she said. “I really mean that.”
He smiled. “It’s a pleasure.”
She nodded. They walked to her car. “Can I ask you one thing though? And I know this might seem rude or even arrogant, particularly considering I’m using your studio … but would you mind not looking at the painting? It’s not finished yet and I guess I feel kind of funny about someone looking at it before it’s done.”
Ron smiled. “Of course,” he said. He crossed his heart and said: “ Promise. I won’t go in there.”
“Thanks, Ron,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek.
Then she was in her car and driving away.
Ron waited a long time before going back indoors. He just stood there, looking at where she’d been standing and where her car had been.
When he finally walked back inside he decided that he’d keep his promise. It wouldn’t be easy, but he definitely would keep it.